Saturday, April 20, 2019

Impeachment Is A Kobayashi Maru (and we should still do it)


The day that the fuller version of the Mueller report dropped, I realized that the impeachment situation is a Kobayashi Maru scenario for opponents of Donald Trump. For those who don't know, Kobayashi Maru was a training exercise for Starfleet in the Star Trek universe where prospective captains were put into an impossible situation. They could try to rescue the civilians aboard the namesake ship, but would be destroyed by the enemy. The point of the simulation was not to guess the correct course of action, but to show how officers would react in bad circumstances.

Impeachment is a Kobayashi Maru because there are two options: to allow a brazen criminal to continue to occupy the presidency, or to exhaust political capital in what will be an inevitable failure to unseat that president. As has been obvious from day one, Republicans will follow Trump to the gates of Hell. They happily defended his breaking up of migrant families and tossing their kids into cages. They signed their deal with the devil, and now there's no going back. In any case, he is the key to their wildest dreams of unfettered capitalism and Christian dominionism. Even if ten Republican Senators defect (which will never happen), the Senate still would not be able to unseat Trump.

A lot of folks, including in the Democratic Party leadership, have made this calculation. They are concerned that this inevitable failure would boost Trump, allowing him an easy path to reelection in 2020. They are more rightly concerned with how focusing on Trump takes air away from appeals on issues like health care that are the party's winning advantage.

I've been thinking long and hard about this, but impeachment needs to be done. If failure is guaranteed either way (which it is), then doing the right thing actually becomes a lot easier. The pragmatic option doesn't exist. The question becomes simply this: are we going to give a proven criminal president a pass, or not? I do not see how we can live with ourselves if we refuse to carry out the Constitutionally mandated remedy for this situation.

It can also be carried out in a way that does not backfire, or where the consequences are at least mitigated. The message on impeachment can be intertwined with the "bread and butter" issues. Investigating the Trump finances (which aren't even part of the Mueller probe but are by far where most of the crime goes on) will dredge up all kinds of stuff. The message gets pretty easy: "Your tax return went down last year, but Donald Trump set up a system where people like him don't have to pay taxes." Any serious look into his business empire is going to turn up all kinds of stuff (just listen to the Trump Inc podcast), revelations that can be capitalized on, so long as Democrats run an economically populist campaign. This will be crucial, because with the economy growing they need to not just talk about "jobs," but about compensation, health care, child care, etc.

Ever since Trump's election, the country's politically apathetic soft middle has yearned for a "return to normal." This I think is secretly one of the Democratic party's biggest advantages in the 2020 election. If you spend time talking to so-called independent moderates, they tend to frame things in maddeningly imprecise generalizations. Last time around it was "I don't like either candidate" and people who deep down didn't like Trump ended up casting their vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, which in key states was effectively a vote for Trump. One of those garden variety suburban dipshit opinions could easily turn out to be "I'm just tired of Trump. I just don't want to have to care about politics." In that case, impeachment might actually be able to help Democrats.

And speaking of the soft middle, political corruption is something that most voters dislike. It's the reason Trump kept talking about "draining the swamp." It turns out, of course, that this was not about ending corruption, but invoking the kinds of metaphors for the opposition beloved by fascists. Impeachment hearings will dredge up things that are public but which have been allowed to leave the headlines, as well as brand new stories.

The danger, of course, is that the soft middle white suburban dipshit opinion after the Senate clears Trump could easily turn into "I guess Trump did nothing wrong and those Democrats ruined my life by putting all this stuff in the news that I didn't want to think about." That won't end so well.

Be that as it may, impeachment has to be attempted. Not just because the president has been proven to abuse his power (the basic litmus test of impeachment), but because if we take our political ideals seriously we MUST take action. And though failure may be inevitable in the short term, in the long term the Republicans will never be able to shake the stigma of their support of this criminal. Future generations will look back and know who was in the right.

I am reminded of another time in American history when a political faction held the country hostage against the demands of justice. In 1860 Lincoln gave his famous speech at Cooper Union in New York City, where the prairie politician moved his skeptical east coast audience by reminding them that slavery was wrong and nothing could ever change that. He ended his speech thus: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

We know we are right. We know our duty compels us. Time to act.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Teacher's Due


This week ends the fourth term of the school year, with just one more to go. This has been an especially tough term, mostly because I am teaching an overload with four different preps. I am back in the frenzied mode I occupied as a beginning teacher, working from before dawn to after dusk, all only to just stay afloat. It's something I could handle back when I was 31 and single, but now that I am 43 with a family (and a long commute) it's taken me to the breaking point.

It hasn't helped that members of my extended family have been stirring up drama and cruelty, or that the political situation seems so bleak. Over spring break, for the first time that I can remember, I asked myself if teaching was even what I was meant to do on this earth. As always in times of great stress, I started hating on myself, thinking that I had lost my mojo.

Students of course do not know the internal struggles that we teachers have, nor should they. Today that was my saving grace. One of my senior electives ended today, and my students gave me a round of applause and thanked me for the class. I don't think they have any way of knowing just how much that has uplifted me today.

So now I am kicking myself for having been so down on myself. (The self-flagellation never ends with me, folks.) Despite my exhaustion, what mattered was that I still put the effort in, even on days when my nerves were shredded and my patience was shot. Teaching is a job where the reward never comes in the form of money or social status. Day after day I see articles about teacher shortages. and of teachers leaving the profession.

It's a hard job that demands both intellectual and emotional labor, the latter being the most draining. When I tell people I teach, there's a good chance that they will say something completely idiotic, like "it must be good to have your summers off." (If teaching were so easy we would not be seeing such turnover, but I digress.) This reflects the dominant American idea that work is measured in the numbers of hours of labor, not its intensity. That's a fundamentally flawed metric. As we all know, and hour of combat is not the same as a quiet hour spent on base. Being in the classroom is like being at the battle front for half the year. Without break time we would go berserk.

As tough as the job is, it is hard to top a moment like I had today. Every morning I wake up thankful that I spend my days doing work that MEANS SOMETHING. I am not just pushing papers or acting as a gear in the corporate machine. It's probably the only reason that turnover isn't higher in the profession. I'm just glad that I teach students so willing to give me thanks. I wish every teacher were so lucky.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Burning Rust (New Podcast Episode)


The newest episode of Old Dad's Records in number 39, "Burning Rust." As always, I go "live on the nines" and discuss two live albums I picked up on Record Store Day. One is Iggy Pop, the other Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. It's proof, if needed, that I contain multitudes. I start by talking about Neil Young's "My My Hey Hey" and how burning out rather than fading away is really about burning your artistic lamp, not dying young. I end by talking about the new Jenny Lewis album, where I think she burned her lamp quite well.

Friday, April 12, 2019

A Gift From The Baseball Gods


As loyal readers have probably noticed by the decreased pace of my posting, I've been in a state of exhaustion lately. At the my job I've been teaching an overloaded schedule since November, and it has finally caught up with me. Teaching four different preps this marking period has ended up being more than I can handle. This isn't the last time I have found myself in a position where no matter how much work I do I never feel like it's enough, but this is the first time I have felt that way since I was a professor. Every day this week I have not fallen asleep in bed, but passed out in my armchair on the couch. And by passed out I mean not drifting off to sleep, but losing consciousness with a quick, fearsome violence.

My spring break ended only two weeks ago but it feels like it never even happened. At times like this I am especially irritated at the people who act like teaching is a cushy gig for the numbers of days "off" it has compared to others. They don't realize that it requires being both "on" and hyper-patient with (in my case) rooms full of hormonal teenagers in thrall to spring's awakening. I'd like to make everyone who isn't a teacher do the job for a week or even a day. I get the feeling our pay and respect would shoot up.

In the middle of all this soul-crushing stress I've had a couple of moments of bliss that I must credit to the gods of baseball. I have been trying to expose my six year old daughters to baseball for years, and this season one of them really seems to have gotten the bug. We went to the Mets game last Sunday, and she did not complain about wanting to leave early. In fact, she kept wanting to know more about the game and the players. Every night this week she has begged to stay up and watch the Mets on TV. Tonight being a Friday she got her wish, and she fell asleep in my arms as the Mets took on the Braves. I didn't notice she had even fallen asleep, I was kind of in that wonderfully empty state of being one can fall into when exhausted with a baseball game on. Before conking out she borrowed my phone and read off the entire team's roster, especially interested in their uniform numbers.

In times of stress and fatigue I appreciate baseball because it is like a daily friend, always there when I need it. Right now, when I barely have the energy to do anything apart from work, that friend has been a real helper. My mind gets freed, and when the Mets screw up my simmering frustrations have a relatively harmless outlet. To know that my daughter will perhaps have that friend in her life too is just sublime.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Get Your Marching Shoes Back On



Today brought the news that Nielsen's ouster at DHS was just part of a larger purge of officials in the domestic security state apparatus. She and many others were proteges of John Kelly, the former Chief of State. This purge was not merely done to maintain slavish loyalty in the DHS, it appears to be part of a broader strategy to "get tough." That I assume means that he wants to separate families and ignore laws about asylum seekers.

Nielsen and Kelly are absolutely atrocious people, but now it looks like Trump will be surrounded only by sycophants like his son in law and daughter, and extremist ideologues like Stephen Miller and Mick Mulvaney. He appears to have decided that the Mueller Report is behind him, and so nothing can stop him. Considering that the Democrats refuse to talk impeachment (and that the Senate would never vote to convict), he's onto something.

Since the midterm election so many people who should be in the streets have been staying at home. This has been a grave mistake. I am not sure where this complacency is coming from, since the Democrats in the House do not really have the power to do all that much. Perhaps this is also down to the misbegotten and naive faith in Robert Mueller's investigation. Opponents of Trump have allowed themselves to become passive observers, rather than active participants. That has to stop.

If you look at the Trump years so far, you will notice that the greatest victories against this administration have come through mass mobilization. The first Women's March, coming the day after inauguration, was absolutely crucial in shifting the narrative and putting the Trump White House on the defensive. The mass actions at airports in the aftermath of the first Muslim ban forced the courts to intervene. Last year mass action in the streets forced the government to back down from family separation. The most powerful force to counter Trump has not been elected officials, it has been what West German activists in the 1960s called the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. Mueller won't save us. The Democrats won't save us. Our institutions won't save us. We have to save ourselves. The other side is readying for a fight. Time to get our marching shoes back on.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Rolling Stones, "Salt Of The Earth"

In an alternative universe Mick Jagger was a sensitive folky

There was a lot of news recently about the Rolling Stones postponing their American tour because Mick Jagger had to get treatment for a heart issue. Despite the man's age, something about it took me aback. Way back in 1989 wags called the Stones' Steel Wheels Tour the Steel Wheelchairs Tour and that was 30 years ago! A friend who saw them back in the 2000s said he was shocked by Jagger's physical exertion and how much he ran about the stage at his age. Even though plenty of elderly rockers have been dying in recent years of old age ailments, rather than heroin overdoses and choking on vomit and the like, in my mind Mick Jagger was still ageless.

I was also struck by my lack of emotion at the news. By contrast, when Johnny Cash died I went into deep mourning. The Stones were such an important component to my musical education, even moreso than Cash, but I just didn't feel anything. In fact, I was kinda put off by the expressions of concern people were putting out there. It felt wrong to be giving well wishes to Mick Jagger, despite his condition.

I think that's down to the image he has crafted of himself over the past 56 years. Like a certain Robert Zimmerman, I suspect that Michael Jagger of Dartford has been completely subsumed by his persona. That persona was of a aristocratic satyr who sought pleasure above all else and seemed to look down with mockery on all social conventions. "Mick Jagger" has for a long time represented a kind of secret wish-fulfillment of less elevated (let's face it) men who can fantasize about a life of decadence. The Mick Jagger persona has no room for sentiment, and hearing people express heartfelt sentiment for him was strikingly off-key.

That got me thinking about the times that the Jagger mask has dropped a bit and some dribs and drabs of humanity have come out. "Salt Of The Earth," which closes out 1968's Beggar's Banquet, is a direct ode to the working class. There really isn't any guile here at all, any sneers or smirks. Perhaps that's why the vocals are so low in the mix. Jagger might have been a little embarrassed to be associated with such pure sentiment.

I'm sure he will be back soon, fronting the band on tour and charging the salt of the earth a king's ransom for tickets. After all these years, I find that thought quite comforting. Realizing that the Stones have little time left means that soon my generation will be in the front ranks when the scythe comes down.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

An Update on America's Brezhnev Years

Watching the Soviet gerontocracy applaud itself while their empire dies feels pretty relevant these days.

As loyal readers of this blog know, I have long hypothesized that America is in its Brezhnev period, and has been for some time. Not only is the material basis of the American empire declining and standards of living falling, most people no longer believe in the ideology that the entire edifice is built upon. (More on that here.

The essay I wrote for Tropics of Meta summing up my theories about this is now two years old. I wrote it as the Trump era was dawning, and I tried to end it on an optimistic note:

The millions who have taken to the streets in the past three months are hopefully a sign that enough people are ready to arrest the decline in democracy. In that respect, America’s Brezhnev years may be over in a much more positive way. We can only hope so."

I was thinking of the time about the airport protests against Trump's Muslim ban. I was hoping that they would be the precursor to more direct action. Sadly, their success has not been replicated. In fact, the air really seems to have gone out of mass resistance movements.

In 2018 that energy was directed towards gun control after the Parkland shootings. After massive school walkouts and huge protests, no new gun laws came on the national level, and few on the local level. In fact, this was used as an opportunity in many states to pass laws allowing teachers to carry guns in school. 

Political engagement in liberal and progressive circles quickly switched to the 2018 Congressional election, which did indeed bring many important victories but did not capture both houses of congress. Now that that's over there seems to be little to no mass action from the kind of people who had been taking it up after years on the sidelines. Most of the political heat I have been feeling from the left has been related to the 2020 primary election. That's a year away, and it has tended to lead to infighting and inwardness rather than unified action against a regime that still puts migrants in camps and is dead set on stripping the country of assets and selling the rest for scrap. 

So maybe we have passed the threshold into the Gorbachev years, but a crazy, Spock's beard version of Gorbachev intent on destroying institutions in order to kill democracy. In any case, I feel like the last two years have been a test, and that we have definitely failed it. The ramifications of this failure will likely still be here until the day I die. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Baseball on the Radio


Now that baseball season has begun, my daily friend is back. Following baseball provides me with that little bit of distraction that makes getting through the day just a little easier. I don't need it every day, but it's good to know that it's always there for me.

One of the best ways this manifests is when I get into my car in the evening, and there's a baseball game on the radio. I might be driving to the gym or going to the grocery store, and in that time can transport my mind to another place. After a long day of working and commuting it's a small comfort in life that I cherish.

Baseball is the sport most suited to radio, a fact that I think is universally acknowledged at this point. It's much easier to visualize than basketball or football, and the pace of action fits the medium perfectly. A baseball game is something you can have on in the background, letting it fade in and out of your consciousness. After all, there are 162 games in a season, so trying to hang onto every pitch with total intensity is a path to psychosis.

My daughters got a taste of this tonight. While I was in the bathroom helping them get showered I had the Mets game audio streaming on my phone. I yelled with excitement when pitcher Jacob deGrom smacked a home run. One of my daughters picked up my phone, expecting to see something. When I told her it was the radio, she put the phone to her ear, as if it were a conch found on the seashore.

My only problem with listening to games streaming is that the sound is too clear. There no sound quite like AM radio. On the AM radio in my car I get to hear that wonderful low buzz that sometimes intensifies and alters the voices of the announcers. At times it sounds like the game is being broadcast from another world or a parallel universe. It's an uncanny feeling that I find as oddly comforting as the rhythm of the broadcaster's litany after every inning "no runs one hit no errors."

As podcasting has risen in popularity I think we are gaining a new appreciation of audio-only media. A good radio broadcaster makes the game more vivid to me than seeing it on television. On TV it's a thing happening on the screen, on the radio it feels like the game is going on inside of my own head. That intimacy is why so many baseball radio announcers are so cherished by their fans. Someone I know from Michigan once described the Tigers' announcer Ernie Harwell as the narrator of his childhood summers. Spring will soon become summer, but that too will fade. I'll be taking every opportunity to hear baseball on the radio while it lasts.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Sleeper, "Inbetweener"


Because of an episode on one of my favorite music podcasts, I found myself revisiting 90s Britpop this week for the first time in awhile. From about 1995 to 1998 it was the genre of music I listened to the most. By the mid-90s the grunge explosion in America had devolved into corporate radio stations playing hour after hour of the likes of 311, Bush, and Silverchair. While I liked some of the more underground American bands of the time like Pavement, I found that whole scene to be exclusionary and too hip for me to fit in. For that reason even though I was going to college in Omaha at the time I totally missed out on the beginning of a great music scene. I was still a rural dork who wore sweatshirts and baggy light wash jeans.

Instead I gravitated to Britpop, something that only got more powerful after a trip to Ireland for a college debate tournament (told you I was a dork.) I heard the music in all of the pubs, and I picked up a bunch of British music mags. It was here that I learned about groups like Pulp and a pre-"Bittersweet Symphony" Verve. That same year Trainspotting came out and only cemented my obsession with the British Isles. (I'll admit, it's still one of my favorite movies.) I had also been primed for this by having been a huge Smiths fan in high school.

While Britpop's sound owed a lot to Johnny Marr's guitar playing, the songs were usually much more upbeat than what Morrissey and co. had put out. It's easy to understand how Britpop managed to cross over from the margins to the Top of the Pops. It melded catchy hooks with the indie sensibility, and so could appeal to serious rock fans as well as the kind of run of the mill people who care little about music but make the hits once their toes start tapping. However, apart from Oasis none of these groups had hits in America, despite the fact that Blur was a million times cooler than the godawful likes of Seven Mary Three and Toadies.

While some of the Britpop bands were at least known widely among American alternative rock fans, such as Radiohead, Blur, The Verve, Elastica, Pulp, etc., some are almost forgotten. One of these is Sleeper, whom I discovered with the free tape that came with the copy of Q magazine I bought in the Manchester airport on my way home from Ireland. The tape collected a bunch of live TV performances from various groups (including Oasis), but "Inbetweener" by Sleeper was among my favorites (along with a duet on "Waterloo Sunset" with Ray Davies and Damon Albarn.)

It's a tight, bouncy song with a bit of social commentary about bourgeois affectations. Songs about social class tensions are catnip to UK audiences (like Pulp's "Common People"), but that kind of thing is poison in America, where we pretend social class doesn't exist. None of Sleeper's albums are classics, but now that we live in the streaming, post-iTunes world where the single is king once again, their standout songs should be netting Sleeper some recognition. (Check out "Statuesque" and "Nice Guy Eddie" as well.) It's also kind of funny today in the midst of the Brexit fiasco to remember a time when such a phenomenon as "Cool Britannia" was a thing. Time's passage is cruel indeed.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Notes On A Trip To Pelham Bay Park

I am still on spring break, but unable to travel because my wife and kids are still in school. I have been recharging myself by taking a "staycation" of sorts in between getting the house organized and a head start on my school work. This usually involves taking the train from New Jersey to New York City and spending a day wandering around.

Yesterday I took a path I'd never taken before, in search of World War I monuments. I am going to be teaching a short spring session course on World War I and cultural memory, and I thought it would be great to take students to see some of their city's memorials. These monuments are so obscure that I realized that I'd never actually seen many of them. I started the morning by taking the 1 train from Penn Station to 66th Street. I sought out and found a couple of monuments in Central Park, one a memorial grove whose trees have not survived the ravages of time, the other a pretty standard bronze sculpture of soldiers charging.

The small scale of these monuments reflected that they were regimental in nature. I'd heard the biggest local Great War memorial was up in the Bronx, and so I grabbed the 6 train at 68th and Lexington. I deliberately stayed on the local, kicking back and reading a book and watching the people on the train and the Bronx pass by my window once the train crossed the Harlem River. I find reading a book on an empty local subway train to be remarkably soothing, it was about the most relaxed I've felt in awhile. I was traveling in that 9:30-10:30 sweet spot where the last rearguards of rush hour have faded away and there is a blissful stillness for those unchained by jobs to enjoy.


I got out at the end of the line, right by an interstate highway. Due to the decisions of Robert Moses and other planners to build highways along most of New York's coast line, it is a city oddly cut off from the water, despite being built on islands. I had to take a pedestrian bridge over the freeway to get to Pelham Bay Park. I was there to see the Bronx Victory Column, maybe the most substantial World War I monument in the city. It was easy to find, its gold statue shined bright, facing the highway.


The monument is in remarkably good shape compared to other forgotten artifacts in the city like the crumbling Soldiers and Sailors Monument and the aforementioned grove without its trees. Perhaps that's because the monument is borough specific to the Bronx, and thus something the locals can take pride in. It also might be just because it's located in such an isolated place, and so is not a target for vandals. I certainly didn't see anyone else around while I was there, despite the many inviting places to sit.


I was struck by the emptiness of the monument and the park. In the nation's most densely populated city, there was hardly a person to be found. I wandered until I found a path to the bay itself, since there was no signage to point the way. While sitting on a rock gazing absent-mindedly at the water somebody came walking by and I was completely startled, since I thought I was the only person around. On the way back I noticed an old brick wall, whose purpose I could not ascertain. There was a gate at one spot, but what had once been a path was overgrown.


I thought this made sense in light of the monument. World War I is an almost completely forgotten event in American history, but the people who experienced it thought at that time that it was the most important thing that had happened in the world during their lives. As we all know, a much bigger war was on the horizon, and one that provided an easier narrative of triumph for Americans. World War I killed millions worldwide and over 100,000 in this country, but it got lost in the shuffle. It's fitting that one of the more substantial monuments to that war is located in a place that few people ever go.

I took another lesson as well, that most of what we care about is pretty ephemeral. Some days that thought is a sad one, but yesterday under gray Bronx skies it felt comforting.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Nebraska Conservatives Voted Against Disaster Relief For Others

One of the more brilliant acts of political resistance in my home state of Nebraska

The flood waters in my home state of Nebraska are receding, at long last. Federal aid has been coming in, and I hope the rebuilding process starts soon. While I am glad to see this, I also feel like this should be an opportunity to remind the politicians of my home state to not be so stingy when other people are getting drowned. One time when I struck up a random conversation with someone in my hometown soon after Sandy that person had the gall to tell my wife and I that hurricane relief for New Jersey was a waste of money. This was not an isolated opinion. So without further ado, let's review the facts, and let's hope the people involved are called out for their hypocrisy.

Ben Sasse (current Senator)
The Senate's biggest prat of course voted against hurricane relief for Puerto Rico. He also voted against Hurricane Harvey relief. In both cases he demanded cuts for government spending before apportioning the money. This man who will stand on principle to deny help to hurricane victims also just recently voted against the resolution condemning Trump's abuse of emergency powers to fund the border wall. At the same time, he tries to position himself as a principled critic of Trump. This pretty much tells you all you need to know about Ben Sasse.

Deb Fischer (current Senator)
Fischer, who has a lower profile but is just as awful, also voted against Harvey relief funding. Back in 2013 she voted against Hurricane Sandy relief as well.

Mike Johanns (former Senator and Governor)
Johanns was in the Senate with Fischer in 2013, and he too voted against Sandy relief.

Jeff Fortenberry (Representative for the first district)
Fortenberry is known outside of the Cornhusker state as the dolt who tried to get a University of Nebraska professor fired. Why? That professor "liked" a picture on Facebook of a Fortenberry billboard that had been hilariously vandalized to give him big googly eyes. Surprise, surprise, this asshole voted against relief funding for Hurricane Sandy.

Lee Terry (former Representative for the second district)
When Terry first ran for office in the district that encompasses Omaha, he ran TV ads bragging that he had helped pass a local ordinance to ban young people from cruising in their cars. Somehow that unappealing, priggish message got him sent to Washington. Later on he ran an ad linking his milquetoast moderate Democrat opponent to terrorist beheadings. Terry too voted against Sandy funding.

Adrian Smith (Representative for the third district)
Adrian Smith is the representative from the district I grew up in. As a former student of Liberty University and a disciple of the Club For Growth, he votes like you would expect him to. He also voted against Sandy relief.

******

I lived through Hurricane Sandy in Newark. A man in my neighborhood died, as we were right on the Passaic River and the storm surge washed him and his car away. Those were some difficult days, and we had it pretty easy compared to a lot of other places in the state. But I have to say it hurt me a great to know that representatives in my home state would not vote to help us, and that total randos would feel like they could tell me that was the right thing to do. I am a bigger person than that, so I am not going to call for aid to be revoked from Nebraska. Instead, I'd like the people responsible for this bullshit to stop denying aid in the future from people who need it. And oh, by the way, they still haven't passed wildfire relief funding for California!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Old Dad's Records Tackles Spring Break


Episode #38 of the Old Dad's Records podcast is up! This time I talk about spring break songs. I departed from my format and picked five songs that I associate with this time, either because of their feel or because they remind me of spring breaks past. After that I discuss Solange's new album, the best of which sounds like an amazing cross between 70s Stevie Wonder and Brian Eno.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Take The 2020 Presidential Primary Pledge

Up until now I have been treating all of the 2020 presidential primary hype as an irritating annoyance. I've been muting the words "Beto," "Bernie," and "Kamala" among others for months on Twitter. It's the only way to make the site usable because lots of people have lots of bad opinions on the topic. I have come around to thinking that all the presidential primary hype is not merely annoying, it's actually extremely harmful.

One thing that killed the Democrats in the Obama era was the party faithful's focus on winning the White House while neglecting Congress and state-level offices. This meant that the Obama administration got precious little done, and that once blue states like Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Michigan suffered through the leadership of the worst kind of conservative governorships. Just think about the impact that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has had on the discourse, and she's merely one representative in Congress. Imagine the legislative agenda if there were a hundred more people like her in Congress from the the kinds of safe Democratic districts that she won. Getting a more social democratic system will only happen if things change in that way, the most lefty president will founder with an unsympathetic Congress.

This is a long way of saying that at this stage I do not give a single shit about the Democratic presidential primary. There are a lot of candidates I like, and some I am lukewarm about. Whoever they nominate I will be voting and getting out the vote for because to do otherwise would be insanity. Since I live in Jersey and we vote last, there really isn't any reason for me to even pay attention to all of this until well after the early primaries are over and my choices have been limited. What I want to do is to make sure more candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, Andrew Gillum, and Stacey Abrams get nominated by the party in the lower tier races. I want to make sure that we are fighting voter suppression on every level so we do not have more stolen elections. The groundwork for that fight needs to be laid RIGHT NOW. The Democrats may nominate your preferred candidate, but what does it matter if voters are kept from voting for them next November?

Let's stop wasting our time and resources. As the old saying goes, don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes. There is a time and a season for presidential politics, but that's a ways off still. In that spirit, here is a pledge I have concocted for liberal, progressive, and Left voters that I will take and I hope others take too.

I pledge:


  • To give campaign contributions to progressive Democrats in tight primaries in lower-tier races
  • To call my representatives (especially my Democratic ones) and pressure them to push progressive policies
  • To not blog, Tweet or post on Facebook about the 2020 primary until the Iowa caucus, and maybe not even then
  • To not get into pointless arguments on social media with partisans of other primary candidates
  • To not give any campaign contributions in the presidential primary, but so save them for the general election
  • To go to protests against the current administration instead of primary rallies and to generally prioritize political action against the current regime over pushing my favored candidate
  • To contribute and work for campaigns intended to combat voter suppression
  • To vote and campaign for the Democratic nominee in the general election and to bury any leftover grudges from the primary process

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Billboard Top Ten Mainstream Rock Songs, 3-13-1982

I'm tired and run down from this week but still in a mood to do some writing. I haven't done a top ten of mainstream rock songs, and so I thought I'd give it a whirl. It's also interesting to go to 1982, when what we think of as "classic rock" was entering its death spasms. MTV was a New Wave enterprise, and hair metal was just over the horizon. In the film Spinal Tap this was the year the band embarked on its disastrous tour, suddenly a relic. I can't resist narratives of decline, hence my side-interest in late antiquity and my need to observe my home country's current slide into oblivion. Now, on with the countdown!

10. Le Roux, "Addicted"

This band is totally unknown to me. The beginning of the song actually slaps, reminding me of "Shakin'" by Eddie Money. After that it doesn't seem to go anywhere, though. Like a lot of mainstream rock music of the time, it lacks the aspirations of 70s rock music, and just kind of sits there. It has elements of power pop, but not enough.

9. Peter Cetera, "Living In The Limelight"

I had never heard this song before. The drums are 80stastic and the guitar riff has overtones of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. I half expected Dio's voice to come in after the intro. This is a million miles away from the processed cheese that Cetera would take to the top of the charts later in the 80s, and also divorced from his band Chicago's jazzy sound. Very strange.

8. J. Geils Band, "Freeze Frame"


Unlike some other folks on the countdown, the J. Geils Band managed to retool their sound for the 80s. The bouncy beat and cheery keyboards are steeped in New Wave. The song's use at sporting events has ensured comfortable retirements for the band members.

7. McKenzie Brothers, "Take Off"

There's a lot of Canadian artists on this countdown, but none more Canadian than the McKenzie Brothers. I am HUGE SCTV fan and so it made me so happy to see this gem on the countdown. And yes, I own the album on LP. I love that Geddy Lee lets his maple leaf flag fly, speaking in local dialect and being totally self-effacing. Musically this is just silly butt rock but I guess that's the point. SCTV's humor was usually pretty subtle and required knowledge to get the references. The whole Great White North bit was much less cerebral, and of course was the part of the shame to be the most famous.

6. Bryan Adams, "Lonely Nights"

Well folks, the smell of back bacon is still in the room for Bryan Adams. This song predates his mid-80s chart breakthrough. It does not have the hooks of a song like "Run To You" or "Summer of '69." The power-poppy sound is trying to establish relevance, but it just doesn't quite get off of the ground.

5. Aldo Nova, "Fantasy"


Believe it or not, Canada just bowled a turkey on this countdown. This would go down as Aldo Nova's biggest hit, and it translates some of the sound of early 80s metal through the filter of Toto-esque hard rock. The organ triplets behind the verses are very reminiscent of "Hold The Line." It's a trick producers of the time were keen to use, from Bon Jovi's "Runaway" to Starship's "Jane." I have to admit I am kind of a sucker for that sound. Also, this dude can shred.

4. Sammy Hagar, "I'll Fall In Love Again"

The man who would go on to ruin Van Halen and become a tequila impresario made a lot of mediocre rock music in the early 80s. This song is part of a pattern in this early 80s mainstream music with its tepid approach and boring tone. Who actually went to record stores and bought this crap back in '82?

3. Prism, "Don't Let Him Know"

One could ask the same question of Prism. I am more interested in the fact that they hail from, you guessed it, Canada! This record is produced within an inch of its life and sounds like something you'd hear in a Toyota commercial. The guitars and drums borrow just enough from metal to not make this completely unlistenable.

2. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, "I Love Rock and Roll"



Finally we hit a true classic. I remember hearing this song for the first time as a kid and the HEAVYNESS of the guitar just smacked me upside the head. Combine that with Jett's perfect sneer, a handclappy beat and a singalong chorus and you've got yourself a helluva song. It still makes me stomp my feet all these years later.

1. Van Halen, "Oh Pretty Woman"

Most of the "mainstream rock" acts of this era are pretty forgettable, but not Van Halen. I remember seeing an interview with bassist Michael Anthony, who described their sound as "Big Rock," drawing a contrast with both hard rock and heavy metal. What made early Van Halen great was that their sound was in fact pretty unique. They did not sound like the tired old bands imitating New Wave to be relevant, nor were they stuck in the boring hard rock rut. Their covers were always great because they could take that sound and wrap it around old songs and give them new life. This was a solid choice, since you could just picture David Lee Roth in real life pleading for attention from a pretty woman. Van Halen would crest in 1984, about the time that this kind of music was getting completely crowded out by the new pop.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Wilco, "Shot In The Arm"


I heard today is the 20th anniversary of the release of Wilco's Summerteeth. This news, of course, has me feeling like I am getting too damn old. It came out when I was living in Chicago and Wilco was playing local shows all the time. I still like to think of my Chicago days as my recent past, but they are actually now a long, long time ago.

That album shocked me when I first heard it because I had been there for Wilco's beginning when it was the lesser of the offshoots of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo. The band's second album, the masterful Being There, rocked out more and showed greater maturity, but it was still grounded in roots music. None of that could prepare me for Summerteeth, which completely eschewed any country vibes, as well as the easy-going humor of songs like "Casino Queen" and "Monday." Songs like "She's a Jar" and "Via Chicago" are some real dark night of the soul stuff.

It took a little bit for this album to sink its teeth into me, but "Shot In The Arm" was the song that did the trick. It has one of the great first lines of all time, "The ashtray says you were up all night." That one line tells a story, and it isn't a pleasant one.

It references lost love, depression, feelings of failure, and drug addiction ("Something in my veins/bloodier than blood.") Despite those themes it is uptempo and driving, like the manic side of a bipolar episode. It's song of someone who feels shot up and beaten down by life trying to maintain a sliver of hope about the future. "Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm"is an attempt at optimism in the face of crushing depression. I listened to this song a lot during a two-year period in graduate school where I frequently had bouts of severe depression. (Which I stupidly let go untreated.) I found the song reassuring, because there was someone out there feeling what I was feeling.

The song is also a little meta, with the repeated line "What you were once isn't what you want to be any more." This seems to be a comment on Wilco itself and the new music it was making. There is a kind of desperation on this song that perhaps speaks to Jeff Tweedy's need to break free from the limited musical palate he had found himself using. The band's next album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, would complete the process.

Above all, Summerteeth was Jay Bennett's showcase, more than any other Wilco album. "Shot in the Arm" is driven by keyboards and has the eerie synth and mellotron sounds that Bennett added to these tracks like a studio mad scientist. They make this rather catchy song considerably weirder, while adding to the emotional feeling of coming unhinged imparted by the song's lyrics.

Bennett was the friend of a friend, and I even got to have dinner with him once at my friend's house. I could tell from our meeting that Jay might have been the kind of person who was hard to work with, but he was also friendly, funny, generous, and full of creative energy. I can't listen to this song or the album it comes from without thinking about his untimely death, or that short time I got to spend in his presence. Wilco might be synonymous with Tweedy, but it would never have been able to reach its highest creative heights without the shot in the arm it got from Jay Bennett.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Requiem For A Small Town Book Store


This week I got the sad news that Prairie Books, a mainstay of my hometown of Hastings, Nebraska, would be closing. I had known this day was coming ever since one of the owners died back in 2015. His wife kept it going for four more years, but whenever I visited home I noticed that the store's hours had been cut back, never a good sign.

The store has been around in Hastings for over 40 years, there isn't a time that I can remember it not existing. It moved from downtown to the mall in the early 80s, in a sign of the economic times. It moved back downtown in the late 90s as Walmart and other box stores were killing the mall and the downtown was getting an injection of investment. The downtown now has some cafes, restaurants, and even a microbrewery, but retail is practically dead. Allen's, the local department store, closed everything but its grocery store this year, and Herberger's, the last general clothing store, also shut its doors. Walmart now competes with dollar stores, which have sprung up around town like poisonous mushrooms.

My hometown, like so many other small towns in the Great Plains, gets more and more hollowed out with each passing year. It's not just that businesses are closing, it's that these are businesses with real meaning to the community. Prairie Books has a "Nebraska Room" in the back full of books about the state, including a wealth of books on Native American history. Every time I have visited in recent years I have gone to the store to get a book, usually from that room. Places that have meaning for the local community are disappearing, replaced by outposts of corporate behemoths Hoovering up the money from Hastings and depositing it in the pockets of far-away stockholders.

Part of the reason I care about this is that I am cursed as an exile to be more invested in my homeland's uniqueness than the people who live there. But beyond that, I am legitimately sad at the loss of a place that meant so much to me. In my pre-internet childhood having a good bookstore in my small, isolated town was absolutely crucial. It was there when I was in the fourth grade and obsessed with Choose Your Own Adventure books. When I became a fantasy RPG nut it's where I bought copies of Dragon magazine, as well as way too many Dragonlance novels. (Once I developed some taste I bought my Tolkien books there, too.) Later it's where I fed my Stephen King obsession in middle school, as well as my growing interests in history and science fiction. In high school it's where I started exploring heavier literature, from Conrad to Dostoevsky. I still remember the day I came in as a 17 year old and asked the store to order me a copy of Kerouac's On The Road. The owner of the store gave me a little smile at my request. While my teenaged love of that book embarrasses me a little today, that smile was probably my first clue that I would think of that book differently in adulthood.

When I was growing up the Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska's biggest newspaper, compiled a list of best-sellers each week in the state to run alongside the Times' bestseller list. The only bookstore in the rural part of the state they used to compile the list was Prairie Books. It made me feel like my town mattered, that we were more cultured than those other cow towns out on the plains. A lot things over the past three decades have shown my town to be just another rural burg getting hollowed out by global capitalism. Of all those things none stings harder than losing Prairie Books.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Bush-Era Prophecy For Our Times

One of the many bad things happening in America under Trump is a collective amnesia about the Dubya years. This country has a hard time keeping a grasp on the past even in the best of times, and now in our post-Trump social media world more and more is shoved down the memory hole.

One artifact worth resurrecting is a Ron Suskind article in the New York Times Magazine from 2004. The article is about Bush's "faith based" approach to governing. Back then Republicans still tried to portray governing from their worst gut instincts as piety. Trump of course, doesn't even bother, and his voters enjoy being liberated of the pretense of having moral principles. The article contained the following passage, one infamous in its time that has been mostly forgotten:

"In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.""

The aide, long rumored to be Karl Rove, baldly asserted that reality no longer mattered, and that the Bush administration simply created what was real and what was not. This article shook me when it was published, because it reminded me of O'Brien's interrogation of Winston Smith in 1984. This article was published a year and a half after the disastrous invasion of Iraq, which was sold to the public with lies and faked evidence. Now here was one of the architects of the Bush administration laughing about how reality was an outdated principle while people needlessly died for a lie. 

Despite the failure of the invasion and the lies that propelled it, Bush would be reelected a month after that article came out. Like much else, Trump has taken this central insight of the conservative political dark arts and has taken it to the extreme. His tweets and rants brim with easily disproven lies that he doesn't even bother to justify. And why should he? There is a gigantic conservative media apparatus ready to repeat his lies and millions of loyal followers online to spread memes forged out of those lies. 

Talk to someone who consumes conservative media on a regular basis and you will find the experience disconcerting. They might tell you that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to ban hamburgers, that there's Islamist terrorists pouring across the southern border, or president Obama was born in Kenya. These people live in a new reality constructed in the ways that Karl Rove described. Fifteen years later the tools to make this reality have never been more potent, and the president is a man who made a career of turning his time as a failed businessman into an image of success.

Another thing sticks out to me too, though. Suskind talks about "enlightenment principles and empiricism" as if they are any match for potent political myths. Liberals gladly called themselves "members of the reality based community" after this article, but failed to contemplate whether other people would actually be impressed by that. The solution is not to lie, obviously, but to build alternative narratives with mass appeal. Failure to do so will make 2020 a repeat of 2004.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Classic MTV Videos (Jackson Browne "Lawyers In Love")


I've recently had 1983 on the brain. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the dread I feel about the state of the world hasn't been this intense for me since I was an eight year old and learned of the possibility of nuclear war. We are also a year away from an election that the incumbent president could use to cement his harmful hold on the government. Back in 1983 I am sure a lot of folks thought Reagan was vulnerable, especially as his popularity tanked in the years of recession that marked his early reign. Lots of folks feel like defeating Trump in 2020 will be a cakewalk, but the lessons of the past should be on our minds.

In that similar early 80s time of dread and political backlash, Jackson Browne put out an album curiously titled Lawyers In Love with a cover that suggested a post-apocalyptic scene. It simultaneously spoke to the fears of nuclear war and the rise of yuppie culture in the 1980s. The video for the title track is in the low-rent style of early MTV, with obvious back projection, high school AV club special effects, and that grainy overripe glow of early video film stock. The images are surreal, from children space aliens to a besuited yuppie trying to row his Mercedes through water to stock footage of Soviet tourism films.

The whole time the main character, played by Browne, stays glued to the television. Like the rest of us, he is at the mercy of forces well beyond his control, numbed into passivity. There is an oddball melancholy to both the song and the video that seems pretty appropriate for our times. The music has high pitched organ and reverb guitar noises reminiscent of surf music with a kind of chugging 80s beat below it and the occasional yodel coming over the top. It's on a playlist I have been listening to a lot at night, when my worried thoughts get the best of me sometimes. It also makes me wonder if I too have become numb to how awful the current situation is. At least the video gives me a laugh.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

New Piece on Ben Sasse

I have another piece on the great Tropics of Meta. This time I wrote about Ben Sasse, the most prominent politician from my home state in many years. Here's a taste:

"Sasse’s take-away from his grueling summer jobs is the need for teenagers to “grow up” and build character. Mine, especially my time in the factory, taught me something very different. I learned that a lot of people work way too hard for too little money. I learned not to look down on people because they did jobs that did not require a degree. I learned that there’s no such thing as “unskilled labor.” That experience only increased my sense that all workers should be treated with dignity and respect. 
Sasse, on the other hand, sees this all in Reaganite terms. The youth of today, according to him, are to be seen with a sort of patronizing contempt. People who struggle need to work harder and learn the right values. The wealthy who violate moral precepts on a constant basis in their business and personal lives are mysteriously unmentioned.
People who work their fingers to the bone but stay stuck on the low-wage treadmill simply don’t exist for him. Hard labor is instead a proving ground for well-off children to build the virtues they need to climb the ladder, not a thing that millions of people must do to keep themselves and their families alive. If they do, they must be losers. Let them eat school vouchers. The saga of huckster JD Vance selling his contempt for the working class at every Barnes and Noble across the country and masking it as concern shows that this kind of attitude brings success and accolades from Very Serious People."

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Old Dad's Records No. 37, "Philadelphia"


My newest episode of the Old Dad's Records is up. This time I was inspired by my trip to Philadelphia. I talk about the beauty of Philly soul, but also Todd Rundgren, 70s kung fu movies, and Ben Franklin. Please give it a listen.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Cranky Bear On Why The Mueller Fetish Needs To End

[Editor's Note: I am tired and in need of rest, so I decided to let my impolitic friend Cranky Bear take the reigns for a bit.]

Cranky Bear here, with a bug up my ass and a beer in my hand. I am going to keep this short and sweet so I can talk some sense into you thick skulled folks out there.

Today came the news that the Mueller probe will likely be wrapping up soon. I am hardly surprised, since with Barr in as Attorney General the writing was on the wall. The report will be released to the Justice Department, then it will be buried, since it does not have to be released publicly. Since Mueller is looking for indictments, rather than abuses of power, and since he has not had enough time to clear those high legal hurdles, the report will likely find that lots of people lied, but there will be no smoking gun. This will be used by the right wing to claim the whole this was a sham. In fact, the report will likely end up bolstering Trump's position because he and his flying monkeys on Fox News will just say "See, SEE! They found nothing!"

You better get prepared for this.

You need to be, because too much false hope has been dumped into this investigation. Why? Because even after all that has happened, even after the rigged elections, after conspiracy with the world's foremost exporter of fascism, after children were stolen from their parents, after trans people's rights were taken, after the president of the United States became a promoter of stochastic right wing terror, after all of this, the majority of people who oppose Trump are still too goddamned lazy to get off of their asses and actually DO SOMETHING!

They prefer to believe in a deus ex machina. A lot of them are so detached from reality and have watched so much West Wing that they think deep down that the system actually works. The brain worms from their civics lesson indoctrination back in school have finally eaten away at everything. Mueller allows them to sit on the couch, watch Maddow every night, and cheer along like they are watching their favorite baseball team.

This is bullshit and needs to stop. We all know that Trump has already committed crimes, he's been a criminal all of his damn life. We know he is corrupt, we know he is using his office to enrich himself, we know he is selling out the country to foreign powers. We fucking watched him do it on live television in Helsinki last summer! You don't need some Republican lawyer to tell you this, or to validate what you can see with your own two fucking eyes.

I just hope these people can stop hitting the crack pipe of American exceptionalism long enough to realize that unless we get out into the streets and onto the picket lines none of this is going to change. If you can't put your body on the life, be prepared to kiss your ass goodbye. Cranky out!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Billboard Top Ten February 22, 1964

Beatlemania was hitting America 55 years ago this month. It's been on my brain because my daughters are suddenly digging the Beatles, and I have been revisiting their early stuff for the first time in awhile. I thought it would be interesting to listen to that music in the context of what it emerged into. There are competing narratives about this. One is that pop music was super lame, then the Beatles came in and added a lot of excitement and pushed things in a totally new direction. The other, more recent revisionist take is that Beatlemania killed older ways of making music that were more heterodox than what came after. I am not sure where I stand on this, other than to say that I really love early 60s R&B (so did the Beatles), to the point where I don't buy the narrative about the Beatles filling a vacuum. Anyway, let's get on with the countdown!

10. Diane Renay, "Navy Blue"

This song is the kind of thing people think of when they consider the early 60s to be a musical wasteland. This is basically bargain-basement Lesley Gore, lacking her pathos with a far too cheery arrangement. I do like the weird organ sound, at least.

9. The Tams, "What Kind Of Fool Do You Think I Am"

This is a fairly typical early 60s doo-wop style song, but it's got that weird flute behind it, which gives it a little something extra. There's also a member of the group jumping in with a deep bass voice on the chorus, which is something I loved about those records. The thing is, by the standards of the time I think this one is kind of weak and lacking in the punch of other doo-wop records. It has a kind of vague "beach" feel to it, which was certainly all the rage in those pre-Beatles years.

8. The Rivieras, "California Sun"

Speaking of beach music, here's a classic example of the genre. According to my dad this was one of the few 45s he and his brothers had growing up. It speaks of the glorification of California in 60s music and 60s culture more generally. The pull of that kind of music, which I heard a lot at home and on oldies radio as a kid, made my first visit to the Golden State truly special. The song itself has a great little organ line, but the vocals are tepid. This song would be properly covered by The Ramones, who gave it needed bite.

7. The Rip Chords, "Hey Little Cobra"

Man, this is just a straight-up ripoff of the Beach Boys. It's also an example of the car song, directly adjacent to surf music. When future societies look back on our catastrophic dependence on fossil fuels they will make songs like this the subjects of their cultural histories.

6. Major Lance, "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um"

Like the Tams, here's another local soul music artist. The beat has a cool mambo flavor and the "um um um" chorus is pretty catchy. As much as I like music like this, it sounds pretty dry compared to what Motown was about to unleash.

5. Al Hirt, "Java"

In 1964 instrumentals still went high on the charts. This jazzy number is the kind of thing made to swing a beehive hairdo to.

4. Lesley Gore, "You Don't Own Me"

Now this right here is a million miles from stuff like "It's My Party And I Can Cry If I Want To." An early pop music feminist message that Gore delivers with utter confidence. The strings and her voice are a perfect trebly combo for coming out of an AM radio on an old car. Just compare this to the Diane Renay song at number 10 for an example of how disposable teen music at the time could actually be interesting.

3. The 4 Seasons, "Dawn (Go Away)"

Again, near the top of the countdown we are in serious territory, and this time it's social class, not gender. This is a song sung by working class Jersey Italian guys aware that no matter what they say, love is not blind. It's particularly sad, since the singer is telling Dawn to leave him because their infatuation can't break down social barriers. It gets at something that has long saddened me, namely that growing up working class means internalizing the idea that you do not deserve to have what you want and that you need to learn to resign yourself to it. It's a survival strategy, obviously, but it eats at the soul. Maybe Dawn wanted to cross the tracks! The singer can't let her because he doesn't think he's worth it.

2. The Beatles, "She Loves You"

There is no song that better embodies Beatlemania than this one, which is the first Beatles song I can remember hearing. Is it cheesy? Yes. Is the "yeah yeah yeah" too simple? Yes. Is it pure pop sugar rush? You bet. And listening to the other songs on the countdown, I agree a little with the old narrative about the Beatles reviving a moribund popular music world. This song MOVES and PUSHES like the others on the countdown don't. Ringo's drums never sounded more powerful, the harmonies more chiming. Resistance is futile.

1. The Beatles, "I Want To Hold Your Hand"

This is the song that broke the Beatles in America, and like "She Loves You" it has a kind of giddy abandon to it. It puts in song form that indescribable rush of young love, that feeling that some folks spend the rest of their life chasing. As a kid I thought they were saying "I get high" instead of "I can't hide," and so evidently too did Bob Dylan. It works better musically, because the song is describing that love high when you hold a crush's hand for the first time. Listening to this you can hear the harmonies that I think really put the Beatles over the top. When a group has great harmonies it is a kind of magic, and the Beatles paired those harmonies with some all-time melodies. The secret to their success is pretty simple.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

"A Republic, If You Can Keep It"


I am heading out tomorrow for an overnight trip to Philadelphia with my family. Next to New York City, Philly is my favorite city on the east coast. I like to think of it as New York's drunken screwup younger brother, less successful but also fun to hang out with.

By all rights it should have been the nation's permanent capital. I often think of how much better off this nation would have been had the Federal District mandated by the Constitution had been placed outside Philadelphia instead of on the Potomac. Alas, political horse trading necessitated this, and in return for assuming the debts of the states as Hamilton preferred, the capital had to be located further south to placate the gang of Virginian slaveholders. So instead of having an organic capital city, America has an artificial simulacra of a capital, a place whose unrealness creeps me out every time I visit.

Philly, on the other hand, feels warm and all too human. The city having its status stolen from it seems to have resulted in a permanent state of anger and resentment. When Eagles fans boo Santa Claus that is the cry of a people who instead of living in the capital of the world's most powerful nation live in a grimy, declining city with far more people than economic opportunities.

You can still visit Independence Hall, of course. One great thing about Philly is how close all the relevant historical sites are to one another. I am not one to indulge in a Foundersgasm, but I will say I have always had a soft spot for Benjamin Franklin. How could I not? He was a traveller, thinker, writer, and lover of the grape. He left the straightjacket of his hometown to go make it on his own. Unlike the likes of Washington and Jefferson, he did not have wealth handed down to him, he had to make his own way in the world. Unlike Hamilton, he does not appear to have been turned into an asshole once he ascended the social ladder. (There, I said it.) Like Hamilton, he publicly turned against slavery.

One of my favorite Franklin anecdotes is that he was asked after the Constitutional Convention, which had been held under a cloak of secrecy, if America was to have a republic or a monarchy. Franklin replied "A republic, if you can keep it."

This speaks to the fragility of the new government formed in Philadelphia. Historically democracy is the exception, not the norm. In American history the form of democracy where every person gets more exceptional still, extending back to 1965 at the very earliest.

I firmly believe that our democracy is facing a unique crisis. Even before the current despot ascended to the White House voter suppression made a striking comeback, validated by the courts. Yesterday brought news of a phony state of emergency, called to circumvent Congress's Constitutional role as the holder of the purse strings. The lack of direct action by the people of this country in response has been disheartening. Too many are so complacent or comfortable, unaware that the republic must be actively kept, not merely passively counted on.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Classic Music Videos: Joe Jackson, "Steppin' Out"


February is the worst month of the year by far. Winter has dragged on, and refuses to leave. The only holidays are either lame (President's Day) exploitative (Valentine's Day) or just plain awful (Super Bowl.) It means worrying about doing taxes and whether the furnace boiler will hold out.

In this most awful of months I retreat to my comforts. This means eating meatloaf and rice and beans, drinking bourbon (as I am doing as I write), and listening to 80s pop music. I especially like looking at old music videos, which conjure up my youth like little else.

Joe Jackson's vid for "Steppin' Out" certainly does the trick. The bouncy, fruity Casio synth line anchoring the song tells us that we have landed in unmistakably in 1982. In the video we see the strange 1980s obsession with the 1940s, as Jackson's wardrobe consists of a vintage tie and suspenders, only to change to a tux with a white tie. He plays a kind of narrator, playing the piano as a maid imagines the night she could have on the town with her boss's dress.

The setting is New York City, about to emerge from its 70s malaise to becoming the capital of World Money in the new neoliberal dawn. In that way the video is a very subtle kind of social critique, showing the intensification of class disparities as the Reagan-Thatcher revolution sets its teeth in. Jackson himself would soon announce that he was done making music videos, which was a real statement of rebellion at the time when they were becoming the preeminent art form.

"Steppin' Out" is a pretty little song, encapsulating that feeling of what it's like to move to the big city and going out on the town, feeling both quietly hopeful yet out of place. It certainly fits February, a month of quiet hope if there ever was one.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Avoiding the Middle Age Bitterness Trap

I'm getting through middle age by tapping into my inner Peter Falk

Hitting 40 did not seem like much of a milestone, but age 43 has suddenly brought all the middle-aged thoughts I thought were coming three years ago. They aren't all necessarily bad. I think all the time about how I've done a lot in my life, and that what I do for a living has had a positive impact on the world. I'm okay not being young anymore. The bad thoughts are the morbid ones, of course. At this point it's very likely that I have more yesterdays than tomorrows. The problem with having gained a renewed will to live in the past eight years is that death scares me a lot more than it used to. In my younger days I was pretty ambivalent about living. I have learned to enjoy life more fully and now I desperately don't want to have to give it up. Sometimes on my morning commute I hope that when I eventually go I'm more prepared for it.

At the same time, watching other middle-aged people around me has made me hyper-aware of the traps of middle age. The two big ones are bitterness and resentment, which usually come together. Middle age is when you have the harrowing realization that you have become what you are. In youth you tend to think of yourself becoming something, there is still room for self-invention, and still room to think that your faults will eventually fade. If you don't "make it" in your chosen field by your 40s, well, you're never going to make it. That can be a spur for bitterness and resentment.

For the vast the majority of us never achieve the things we dream, and our consumerist society is constantly pushing us to "dream big," which usually means a big disappointment. In that respect I am glad that I left academia at the age of 35, when I was still young enough to reinvent myself and recover from the mental blow that transition made. If I did so at 40 I wonder if I would feel so good about myself right now.

I have seen so many people succumb to bitterness and resentment in middle age, their souls wilted and withered. This form of self hate always ends up getting projected onto other people. It closes minds and closes hearts and deafens ears to the sufferings of others. Those who are frustrated at their position and feel let down by life inevitably derive satisfaction from seeing other people brought down to their level. If the people around them are not as miserable as they are, they will make it so. These are the poisonous gossips at work, the family members who engage in belittling behaviors, the tyrannical boss who goes out of their way to always make you feel small. 

What's especially frightening to me is that this form of middle aged dysfunction has been weaponized for political use. White men in their 50s were Trump's most loyal bloc, the group most likely to be resentful about their lives. Those emotions can be easily turned against the "other" who is then blamed for their situation. I was just talking to a friend who said a bunch of his formerly apolitical friends (also middle aged) suddenly became vocal Trump supporters. It makes sense to me, considering the appeals he makes to resentment and those most receptive to it.

So every day I tell myself not to succumb, and to try to throw a lifeline to the people I see drowning in an all-consuming bitterness. Sure I never became a tenured professor or published a book, but there are things in life a lot more important than that. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Old Dad's Records Podcast 36, Substitute Beatles


After a long hiatus brought on by an insane workload, illness, travel and a death in the family the Old Dad's Records Podcast is back! My inspiration came from a recent episode of the podcast The Projection Booth on The Rutles, the wonderful late 70s spoof on the Beatles. I'd already had Beatles on the brain due to talk around Peter Jackson restoring the old Let It Be documentary. On the pod I start with "Pleasant Valley Sunday" by the Monkees, the original Beatles imitators. After that I pull a vinyl copy of The Rutles soundtrack off my stack of old records. I end with a discussion of the new Guided By Voices album, showing that band has managed to stay interesting after all these years.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Billboard Top Ten Albums February 6, 1982)

It's been awhile since I've done a top ten, and I realized that I've never done an albums countdown. I chose 1982 because I tend to think of the winter of 1982 and the moment when the transition out of the 70s was being completed, especially in music. I think the albums on this list bear out my thesis. And now, on with the countdown!

10. The Cars, Shake It Up


The Cars are really the emblematic band for this moment in music history. They bridged the divide between the arena rock world and new wave, getting played both on the local rawk station and on MTV. The beat is all new wave nerves and the synths sound like they would be at home on a Human League record. This is not one of their stronger albums, it sort of sits between their early rocking high points and their pop takeover on Heartbeat City.

9. The Police, Ghost In The Machine



I've always loved the cover to this album, which speaks to a time when digital technology was new and cutting edge. My dad got a digital watch in 1982 that made all kinds of bleeps and bloops. I really thought we were living in the future. The album seems to reflect a certain fear of this new frontier, especially songs like "Spirits in the Material World" and Invisible Sun." The dark noises give way to a slight break in the clouds on "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," perhaps the best pure pop song the Police ever released.

8. Hall and Oates, Private Eyes



One shocking thing about this countdown is the lack of soul music. Hall and Oates are really the only vaguely soul music act in this top ten. In recent years Hall and Oates have had their reputations justifiably revived. Their music is long on craft with all kinds of subtle touches. "Private Eyes" might be one of their most straight-ahead hits, but "I Can't Go For That" has a sultry slink to it that sounded great coming out of the speakers of my parents' Chevy Malibu.

7. AC/DC, For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)



This album has got to rank among rock history's biggest disappointments. When AC/DC frontman Bon Scott died in the late 70s it seemed like the band was doomed. Then, in 1980, they dropped Back in Black, one of the top-selling albums of all time and a stone cold killer from top to bottom. As far as I am concerned, it's the only really good album the band was able to release after Scott's demise. This may have been a case of AC/DC's formula only yielding so much before the well ran dry. Where they were once supple, they are now flabby. Where they were once sly, they are now overblown.

6. Stevie Nicks, Bella Donna



Fleetwood Mac were THE definitive band of the late 1970s decadent cocaine malaise. It was only fitting that Stevie Nicks would go off on her own and have bigger hits outside of the band in a new decade with a New Objectivity driving culture, rather than the hair shaggy 70s aesthetic. In that respect it was perfect for her to team up with Tom Petty, who was a forward-looking rocker more in tune with the new wave than others. "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" is one of the great male-female duets of the decade. "Edge of Seventeen" has a high energy intensity lacking from her Fleetwood Mac tunes that's better suited to the new, go go decade.

5. Rolling Stones, Tattoo You


The last classic Stones record? Strange to say for an album made up of outtakes. It's kind of sad that the Stones have not managed to top it in the 37 years since. Their freshest stuff could not longer measure up to what they had tossed off in the 70s. There are some great songs on this album, and not just the hits. Of course, everyone mostly remembers "Start Me Up," one of their best all time songs and a real hip shaker. That kind of rhythm had all but disappeared from mainstream rock music by this point, and its absence has been a true loss. "Waiting On A Friend" is among their best ballads.


4. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Hooked On Classics



OK, this one totally flummoxed me. I had no clue that an orchestral album hit the top ten in the 1980s. This is not a Mantovani record like the ones that charted back in the day, it's got an uptempo disco beat behind it. Strings had always been big in pop music, including in the aforementioned disco genre. The 80s would bring an end to that trend with the almighty synthesizer. While there's a touch of disco to this music, it sounds ideal for aerobics class, and thus very much of the new cultural turn.

3. Foreigner, 4



I have often thought of 1981-1982 as the last gasp of classic rock. Was MTV the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? I am not sure, but cock rockers like Foreigner sounded increasingly out of step with the times. However, on this record Foreigner managed to hold onto relevance by incorporating the harder, straighter, less shaggy sounds of the new decade. "Urgent" has an eletro-groove, as well as an all-time sax solo by the great Junior Walker. In this era the saxophone was ubiquitous and even the arena acts couldn't exist. Thomas Dolby, who had yet to blind anyone with science, was on the synths.

2. Journey, Escape



Journey's Escape album might be the magnum opus of classic rock's early 80s swan song. (It's either that or Rush's Moving Pictures.) Journey maintained the bard rock bedrock of the late 70s with the slick pop sheen necessary for the Reagan years. The power ballad had announced its world conquering presence with REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You," and Journey made it sweeter with "Open Arms." Add to that the beautifully moody "Who's Crying Now" and the hit "Still They Ride" and you've got a good record. When you factor in "Don't Stop Believing," one of the most blissful songs you can still hear on a classic rock station, you've got a stone cold classic. Play that song at midnight in a crowded bar and the punters will still belt it out.

1. J. Geils Band, Freeze Frame



Okay, now THIS makes me feel sentimental. "Centerfold" is the first pop song I remember hearing on the radio and loving. As a wee kindergartener I had no clue of its naughty nature. I could not get enough of the bouncy beat and catchy riff. The J Geils Band were a fun rock and roll band (as opposed to rock band), and so ideal for kids who liked to run around the basement with too much energy to spare. Like the other rock bands on the countdown, the group had adapted their sound in a more new wave direction, putting the keyboards front and center and the nervy beats beneath. While the sound (and album cover) is unmistakably of its time, put "Centerfold" or "Freeze Frame" on at a wedding and people will be on the dance floor.