Monday, January 15, 2018

MLK Day Thoughts

Martin Luther King Jr died fifty years ago this year at the age of 39. I can't get over the fact that I am three years older than he was when he was murdered. This was a man with so much potential, so much ahead of him, and on the cusp of a movement that was aimed at bringing the strands of race and class together into a powerful force for change.

I was born in 1975, and my entire life has been a story of backlash against the changes wrought by Dr. King and others. As Ibram X Kendi pointed out in his recent and superlative work Stamped From The Beginning, racial progress has been met in American history by racist progress. The forces of racism may face occasional defeat, but they keep coming back and recalibrating their mission and appeal.

While so many well-meaning but deluded white people thought that racism had been consigned to the dustbin of history by MLK and the election of Barack Obama, the first Klan president was elected in the form of Donald Trump. In 1924 the Democratic Party, dominated by segregationist Southerners, actually managed to prevent the Klan from getting their preferred candidate the nomination. The Republican Party in 2016 gladly and proudly managed to give the nomination to the Klan candidate. Just eight years before the fatuous voices of our media were telling us that America was a "post-racial" nation.

For things to get better we have to abandon our narrative of progress and face things truthfully. People like to quote Dr. King's lines about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice, but when he was analyzing the situation rather than rallying the troops, he very much questioned the narrative of progress. His "other America" speech at Stanford in 1967 expressed this very well. Here he addressed very directly the backlash against the changes wrought by the movement and the difficulties remaining. In doing so he recalled how the changes wrought be Reconstruction met a similar response.

 My entire lifetime has been a litany of racist backlash, from mass incarceration to murderous policing to "welfare queens" to Willie Horton to Trump. The complacency that so many white people in the middle have on racism is partly due to their misbegotten understanding that the problem was solved back in the 1960s. As a teacher of American history I am reminding myself on this day to fight that horrendously damaging myth in the classroom at every opportunity.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Billboard Top Ten, January 14, 1989

As I have said before, I have a very powerful seasonal memory when it comes to music. When the weather turns a certain why I will remember times in the past just like it, and often the music I was listening to then. Today for some reason reminds me of the winter of 1989, when I was a seventh grader. In that spirit, I thought I would look at what was on the charts then. Now, on with the countdown!

10. Karyn White, "The Way You Love Me"

I had totally forgotten about this song. That's probably because its New Jack Swing groove sounds like a lot of hit songs from the era. I remember the music of the late 80s being a kind of nadir, but here is a taste of the decade to come, when R&B especially got a lot better. At the time I really liked this sound, I have to say.

9. Annie Lennox and Al Green, "Put A Little Love In Your Heart"

I remember liking this song a lot, but I was young and ignorant and had no clue 1. Who Annie Lennox and Al Green were and 2. That this was a cover version. At this time I was really digging sixties soul music because of a copy of the Big Chill soundtrack a friend had dubbed for me onto a blank cassette. While the sound of this song is totally 80s-ified with shimmering synths and gated snares, enough of its classic sixties melody survived for me to glom on to.

8. Boys Club, "I Remember Holding You"

Here's a song that has NOT stood the test of time. It's a George Michael rip filtered through an 80s production machine with maybe the last appearance of Sultry Sax at the top of the charts. The backing sounds like something out of the Muzak they used to play at the dentist. Awful.

7. Michael Jackson, "Smooth Criminal"

This song in some ways marks the end of the King of Pop's dominance of the 80s. It's also so obviously superior to everything else on the chart so far. It's a tough, hard-edged groove with a slightly sinister minor-key feel. It's in the same mode as "Bille Jean," in that last respect. Believe it or not, this is where the song peaked on the charts. Unfortunately it also has drums that are over-amplified and wooden, which seemed to be a requirement in late 80s pop.

6. The Bangles, "In Your Room"

Oh my God, a song with an actual backbeat! This song has a kind of New Wave bounce to it that sounds much more appropriate for 1982 than 1989, although the same awful production techniques are slathered over everything. It's not a great song by any means, but I'll take a well-crafted, bouncy rocker any time.

5. Def Leppard, "Armageddon It"

I didn't like Def Leppard then, I don't like them now. Speaking of 80s production techniques, their music on their Hysteria album, which was EVERYWHERE in my hometown sounded like heavy metal Kraftwerk without the human charm. We needed grunge so bad in 1989.

4. Taylor Dayne, "Don't Rush Me"

Taylor Dayne is an artist who had a ton of hit records in the weird interzone of the Reagan Dusk and the early days of the 90s. She was never a star like Madonna or Whitney Houston, but kept churning out chart toppers. The musical backing is very standard and unadventurous, but her voice has this tough, husky quality that I have always liked.

3. Poison, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"

God I hate this band so much. Is there a band that represents the cultural bankruptcy of the late 80s better than Poison? They were the kings of processed cheese metal, but then expected us to take them seriously on this ballad. At the time I guess I liked the melody, though. I have a very clear memory of this song from the time. It's a dark, cold winter morning in shop class, and the teacher would let us listen to Sunny 108, which played mostly "softer" hits, and this was pretty much the only song that came on that morning that kids my age actually liked. When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped I thought this garbage had been consigned to the dustbin of history, but all the people I grew up with who had terrible musical taste now turn out to get a nostalgia high by paying to see Bret Michaels in concert.

2. Phil Collins, "Two Hearts"

Nostalgia for sixties soul wasn't just about covers like "Put A Little Love In Your Heart." Phil Collins, the most inexplicable idol of the 80s, penned the lyrics, but the music was courtesy of Motown super-producers Holland-Dozier-Holland. Here they employ the same formula they used with the Supremes and Four Tops. The 80s production washes it clean of any grit, and Collins is far too reverential in his approach. He, like a lot of other people on this chart, was approaching the end of his relevance, and he didn't even know it.

1. Bobby Brown, "My Prerogative"

Here's the song that taught me the meaning of the word prerogative. It's got that New Jack Swing, but touches of early 80s Rick James electrofunk. It's a groover, built on a totally insistent riff that carried it to the tippy top of the charts. I am not sure who exactly is keeping Bobby Brown down that he has to insist on his prerogative, but it's still a banger nonetheless. Brown would also be a victim of the changing musical landscape of the nineties, and his last hit records would come a mere three years later, in 1992.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Winter Dream Of The Jersey Shore

We are now in what is indisputably the worst time of the year. The holidays are over, it is ass-cold, and the days are still short. When it gets cold, New Jersey Transit trains start breaking down. Two days this week I have had to stand the whole way to New York because of shortened trains and having to take on passengers from other broken trains. Stepping into that hell after waiting on a freezing platform is a wretched way to start the day. Today it was packed to the gills on a broken down old train short two cars on my way back home from the city. That's a rotten way to end a day. (Also was pleasant to brown bag a beer standing up. It's been that kind of week.)

Some winter days, to dispel the tired and angry thoughts in my head, I dream a dream of the boardwalk on the Jersey Shore in the summer time. I sit (or stand) on the train, imagining I can smell the salt air, that I can feel that combination of warm sun and cool breeze, and hear the gulls calling out. 

In fact, that's what I am doing tonight, in the midst of my fatigue and seasonal depression. Last night I was feeling so angry about so many things that I worried that I was in danger of just not giving a damn anymore as a defense mechanism. Today that level of anger went off the charts. I found out that one of my sister's former students, who came here from El Salvador as a toddler, is now in danger of deportation. I read the president's "shithole countries" comment. I was once again overwhelmed with nausea thinking about all the people I know who voted for this.

To keep my thoughts from killing my will to resist, I dream again of the Jersey Shore to soothe and distract me. Here's some Shore artifacts that can help you do the same.

Here's a video of Bruce Springsteen performing "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" from about ten years ago. To me it is the greatest poem ever written to the Shore, the place where the Boss first launched his career. The accordion makes it, played by Danny Federici, the E Street Band's organist. This was actually his last performance, and evidently the song he chose to go out on. Listen, and you will understand why. The longing is almost unbearable, much like my current longing for spring.

I am a fan of Shore towns that are hip (like Asbury Park) or quiet and quaint (like Ocean Grove and Cape May.) However, when I want to have the true Shore Experience of deep fried oreos and t-shirts with vulgar slogans, I go to Wildwood. I also love the town for its beautifully tacky mid-century commercial architecture.

Philly teen idol rocker Bobby Rydell was one of the many musical artists who played the Wildwood region of the Shore, and this song, "Wildwood Days," is a fun ode to the town.

The King of Marvin Gardens is one of my favorite obscure 1970s movies. It shows Atlantic City, the land of Monopoly, in all its brokedown glory before the casinos came. It also explores the Shore as a site of the death of the American dream.

1980's Atlantic City looked at that town after the casinos came. It is a great portrait of America as it entered the Reagan years, with its casinoization of the American economy. Desperate dreamers always seem to find a way to the Shore, one thing that makes it irresistible to me.

Asbury Park has a beautiful carousel house, but the carousel itself got sold off to someone in South Carolina when the town hit hard times. Not sure what exactly the metaphor is, but it perfectly matches the faded glory that is Asbury Park.

Here's another Springsteen song, "Tunnel of Love," which uses a cheap boardwalk ride as a metaphor for a troubled relationship. His music on the album of the same way was an interesting left turn from the arena sound he had embraced in the mid-80s. It is more personal and introspective, like the Shore-based music of his first two albums. There are also some great shots in the video of the Shore in 80s, when it was rougher than it is now. The song has a kind of melancholy edge to it, which makes it the right place to end.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Old Dad's Records Podcast Is Back!

After about a month I am finally back on the podcast track. This was due mostly to me getting horribly sick and not recovering until the holidays, when I was too busy to do any podcasting. I decided to come back on episode 23 with my favorite David Bowie song, "Life on Mars?" It's a song about escaping this world, a tempting feeling in the last two years. After that I pull a T Rex record from my pile of old records and revel in its wonderfully entertaining cheese. I finish things out with a song by new band called Omni that I'm digging. If you read the blog, please check out the podcast.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Why Comic Book Stores Matter

One of my happy places

As I have discussed in this blog, I made the seemingly strange decision to get back into comic books at the ripe age of 39. It was a day during my spring break, when I traditionally take a day when my wife is an work and my daughters are in school to go to The Strand bookstore. After I left, laden with new books, I decided out of curiosity to stop a couple of doors down at Forbidden Planet. I'd walked past it a million times, and was intrigued by what this famous comic book store had to offer. I browsed the wall of new comic books and decided to take a plunge on the new Star Wars series, then I got hooked again.

We all need our distractions, and I find comic books to be the one that suits me the most. Reality television makes me even madder at the world than regular television, I care a lot less about sports than I used to, and my children make it hard to go to the movies. I can, however, find a way to cram in 20 minutes for a comic book. (Or even read one to my children at bedtime, which they often request.) There are a lot of creative people doing a lot of cool things in the world of comics these days, and the good stories are so much more interesting than what Hollywood tried to pass off as escapist entertainment.

I have found in the last two years, however, that one of the biggest draws to comics for me are comic book stores. Because of these stores I consume comics in their physical form. I own an iPad, so it would make more sense for me to buy my comics electronically, so that my cluttered house is spared even more crap. However, I could never do so, since that would mean cutting myself off from the centering experience of going to the comic book store.

More and more in this country, we are eliminating public spaces, and we are interacting in cyberspace. As small book stores and record stores have been eliminated, comic books remain as the one medium sold primarily in locally-own specialty stores. Each comics shop has its own character, and the people who run them do so out of a labor of love. (Since the comics bust of the mid-1990s there's no way anyone is doing it for the money.) In these shops I can still have spontaneous conversations with like-minded strangers, which is one of my favorite small pleasures in this world. It's why I hung out in diners and neighborhood bars when I lived by myself in Michigan.

There are lots of great things about the online world, but as social animals we need public, physical spaces where we can interact and have chance encounters. We need culture to not be in the exclusive hands of multinational corporations. DC and Marvel may be owned by massive conglomerates, and they make movies costing the budget of a small nation, but the humble comics themselves are sold in small, cramped stores off the beaten track. Those stores are also an ideal way for independent comics publishers to find an audience.

My local place is called Amazing Heroes, and it's located one town over in Union, New Jersey. It is a small space, but the owner has arranged it so that it holds an insane number of comics and graphic novels. He's a friendly guy, and when my wife, a total comics neophyte, asked for advice on what to read, he was helpful, rather than condescending. I bring my daughters with me all the time, and they love it and he's always welcoming to them.

I also frequent the much more storied Midtown Comics in Manhattan, since it is on my commute home. Even in that large and much more famous place there's still a feeling of having stepped into an alternate world. Sometimes I'll hear dudes trying to be King Fanboy pontificate, and it won't even bother me, because I am glad strangers can still have these kinds of conversations in public.

It is a strange irony that as Hollywood films become more homogenized, with comic book movies leading the way, comic books themselves are a medium that resists the forces of cultural homogenization. Comic book stores are the key element in that resistance, and I salute them.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Listen To The Bubble Jumpers

Tropics of Meta was kind enough to publish another essay of mine, one that I am proud of and was the result of a lot of thinking on this blog. In the essay I talk about the concept of "bubble jumpers," those people like me who have moved from conservative to liberal "bubbles." Within it is a critique of all those bad articles where a coastal journalist parachutes into the Rust Belt or a farm town and let's us know that conservatives in those places still like Trump.

So please, read the piece and share it if you can. Also read and support what Tropics of Meta does, they put out great stuff on a regular basis.