Saturday, January 19, 2019

Death, Memory, and Internal Exile

This morning I got the sad news that my aunt Kathleen had died. She had been ailing for a couple of months. I last saw her at Christmas time while she was in the hospital and there was still hope for recovery. I am glad that I got to see her one last time at least.

Today I found myself engaging in what is now becoming too familiar a ritual. I called the airline, asked for a bereavement discount, was denied, and used my frequent flyer miles to get a ticket that wouldn't cost my eye teeth. I was a thousand miles short, so I had to spend $80 to get myself over the top. This comes with the territory when you're an internal exile. It doesn't help that my hometown lies 150 west of the nearest airport that I can get a direct flight to, so I will also be having to shell out for a rental car as well.

Despite these headaches I don't have any second thoughts about going. I spent more time with my aunt and her husband and daughter growing up than anyone else in my extended family. They were the only members of that large group (five siblings on each side) to live so close. Tightening the bond my aunt, who was my mom's sister, was married to my dad's brother. (Yes, my family is country. Got a problem with that?)

Many of the Nebraska Cornhuskers' most important 1980s football games were viewed in their living room accompanied by my aunt's delicious chili. I liked visiting her house because they had HBO and unlike my parents, were not opposed to getting takeout for dinner. I have fond memories of going to YMCA basketball practice across the street, then going to their place after before my dad picked me up. My aunt always had a snack to offer or a slice of pizza or taco leftover from the takeout dinner. Regardless of the reason, there was hardly a week that went by when I didn't see her.

I have been thinking about these memories all day today. Their power has been exacerbated by my feelings of exile. Here in New Jersey I live in a town full of Brooklyn refugees talking about gluten free options. I work at a private school in Manhattan that costs more money to attend in a year than I made until I was 33 years old. It's a million miles away from the cheap working class pleasures I used to enjoy so much with my aunt and uncle. I might as well be living in a different country.

This is the feeling I always get when I go back to Nebraska, where it's more and more common for people to treat me as an outsider when I tell them where I live and what I do. Around here in the Northeast my upbringing is a curiosity or an opportunity for someone to say something insulting to me about my background.

That bullshit always prompts me to take more pride in where I came from and cherish the people who raised me there. While I am grieving, I am least looking forward to seeing my family members again in one place. A lot of my cousins like me have left Nebraska and scattered to the four corners of the country. (Quite literally. I've got a cousin in Seattle and one on the Gulf Coast.) I know they'll at least get where I am coming from. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Classic Albums: Teenage Fanclub, Bandwagonesque

"This is a concept song called "The Concept""

[Editor's Note: I haven't done one of these posts in a bit, and I thought it was about time.]

1991 was a pretty amazing year for music, a year when new genres and approaches were coming into being that really swept the 1980s away. Nirvana's Nevermind sent hair metal to the dustbin of history a few months after REM's Out of Time brought alternative rock to the top of the charts. Guns N Roses' Use Your Illusion albums and U2's Achtung Baby saw big 80s bands totally reimagining their sounds in fascinating ways. Metallica brought hardcore metal into the mainstream with their eponymous album. It was an amazingly fertile period for hip-hop as well. De La Soul put out their wonderful second album and A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory. Of all that great music that year, Spin magazine chose Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque as their album of the year, and I heartily concurred.

This is one of those albums I keep going back to over and over again and just never get tired of. In my world it's in the exalted territory of Abbey Road or Who's Next, but today it is mostly forgotten. This was a paradox that puzzled me at the time. The songs on this album were so damn catchy and beautiful. Why hadn't the world listened? The only other band that makes me think this way is Big Star, who also made perfect pop-rock music that is mostly listened to by cultists. As a 16 year old first hearing it I was made to realize that what's truly great and what the public likes rarely intersect.

Bandwagonesque starts with "The Concept," melding grungy guitars, strings, strong hooks, and wistful lyrics. As a young lad I didn't understand that the line "She's gonna get some records by the Status Quo" that it was a reference to the band, rather than a concept. At the time I thought that was a killer turn of phrase for someone just consuming middle of the road music. The song, misunderstood lyrics or not, is a kind of manifesto for the album. All of the dominant elements are present here.

In true slacker fashion, of course, track two is a jokey noise exercise called "Satan," meant to mock the then current moral panics around devil worship and hard rock. It is an important reminder that as poppy as this album gets, there's a noisy basement punk anarchy here too. Gears then perversely switch into "December," a gorgeous folk-rock testament of love. As a lovelorn 16 year old ugly duckling this song meant a lot to me. I was aching to have a connection with someone of the opposite sex. The lines "She don't even care/ But I would die for her love" were on my lips while I thought about my crush. (I came dangerously close to being a creep back then.)

As if the pure pop rush couldn't get any more intense comes "What You Do To Me," which would have been a number one hit in a just universe. It's the most Big Star song not written by Big Star. "I Don't Know" follows, with a little taste of Madchester rhythm and more emphasis on the rock over the pop. It's still catchy as hell, though. At this point in the album the hooks pile on top of hooks. When I listened to it as a teenager I would just kind of zone out and feel a little hit of bliss. How many albums can do that?

"Star Sign" breaks things up a little bit with a long, hazy musical introduction. This is a good time to mention that Gumball leader Don Fleming gave this album an impeccable production that managed to be both grungy and clear without being slick. "Star Sign" was the first song I head from this album, via MTV's 120 Minutes. That's what motivated me to actually go out and buy the album, and it ended up being a college rock hit stateside. On a bus trip to a band competition I tried playing it to another kid to get him interested and I got mocked. I very likely may have been the only student in my rural Nebraska high school who was a teenage fan of Teenage Fanclub.

"Star Sign" combines the hooks with a faster tempo, but "Metal Baby" slows it down with a funny song about an indie dude falling in love with a heavy metal chick. The whole album projects the slacker vibe of early 1990s indie rock pretty powerfully, and no song more than this one. I find the tone comforting now that I am a sad, defeated middle-aged man.

"Pet Rock" switches things up to more confident riffing, similar to "I Don't Know." That doesn't stop the feeling of resignation, as it starts with "I'll never pass this way again." There's also that bouncy, Madchester undertone that lets us know that we are definitely in 1991. "Sidewinder" switches back again to romantic yearning territory, another song that made my heart ache for a classmate I was desperately in love with. What's funny is that when I was a senior she showed some signs of interest, but I was too wrapped up in my whole lonely Young Werther schtick that I didn't actually act on it. Nowadays this song makes me laugh at myself pretty hard, but also appreciate the fuzzy guitars.

It's followed by the brilliantly titled "Alcoholiday." The romance of the previous songs drops away in favor of an absolutely brilliant breakup song. "There are things I want to do/ But I don't know if they will be with you" pretty much nails that pre-breakup thought process. Little lovelorn 16 year old me didn't quite understand that yet. 

The last two songs on the album break from the formula established from the start with "The Concept." "Guiding Star" is mostly strings and harpsichord, like a long lost pop track from the 1960s, Pet Sounds with a dash of grunge. After that things close out with an instrumental, "Is This Music." I find that move kind of brilliant. I cannot remember how many times I sat in my room, basking in the afterglow of a near perfect album, the wordless final song's bright guitars capping off forty minutes of pure happiness. In the awful hormonal confusion of teendom Bandwagonesque was a life raft on more than one occasion.

Listening to it now in middle age it takes me back to what my mind was like back then more than anything else. The songs have not be redefined in my head by radio play or showing up in commercials. This album will always be that bit of audio medicine that I needed, and for me, even though it's now 28 years old, it's as current as if it came out yesterday.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Slacking As Refusal? (A Gen Xer Reflects)

In my head this is still current and nothing you say will convince me otherwise

Generational analysis has become a popular pastime among the chattering and twittering classes. This has brought the sad conjunction of the words "aging" and "Gen X." While I have been fine dealing with my own aging, it's been tough realizing that my generation's cultural touchstones and values are being met with derision by those younger than me. For example, I recently heard something criticized as being made for "Gen X ironists" and that smarted a little. I was reared by the culture of the nineties to deride selling out and think most pop music was shit, but now people younger than me think that's politically regressive or something because the masses are always right, even when they like mass produced shit. 

But hey, that's just part of getting old and I should learn to deal with it. I do not want to be like the boomers who act as if the sixties were the paragon of human experience and will tell you about it at every single opportunity. If I am honest with myself I know how angry and irritated I got at my own generation when it was in its youth. At my college there was pretty much zero political activity. My third year I started a club with some of my friends to push for progressive causes on campus. We weren't very big.

My friends and I were complete exceptions to the rule of apathy that reigned among white middle class young people like ourselves. (When doing any generational analysis these kinds of qualifiers are absolutely necessary.) Reagan was elected when we were in preschool, and by the time we had graduated from high school the neoliberal onslaught was pretty much complete. When I was in college a Democrat was president who exulted that the "era of big government is over" while he went after welfare recipients with the same gusto as the Gipper. There was, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, No Alternative. 

For people from my background, there were basically two alternatives. Alternative number one was to embrace the new order and take it to the hilt. When I see people like Paul Ryan and Scott Walker my skin crawls because I knew a lot of guys of their exact type in college. They had absolute faith that their position in society was all due to their hard work, and were completely uninterested in expressing any kind of empathy for those who had it worse than them. These were the people who aspired to live in the McMansions sprouting in 1990s suburbia like mushrooms. I met these guys again a couple of years ago when I was at a birthday party for one of my daughter's friends in a much more suburban town than the one I live in. A couple of the dads at this event were practically spitting with anger about Colin Kaepernick. 

The other option was to refuse to take part in the new culture of greed and consumerism. When reading my Twitter buddy Jon Malesic's piece "Millennials Don't Have A Monopoly On Burnout" I suddenly realized that the "slacking" that a lot of folks were doing back in the 90s wasn't laziness, it was refusal. Modern American capitalism is built to suck its workers dry, chew them up, and spit them out. It's perfectly sensible to sit that shit out. Of course, that kind of thinking doesn't lead to much social change, and it may even be self-defeating.

At the same time, I have to remind myself to take pride in having opted in my twenties not to join the Paul Ryans of the world. I (stupidly?) decided to go to grad school and pursue the life of the mind. Little did I know that the neoliberal tide would soon submerge higher education, too. But you know what? I was broke in my 20s, but I had a blast. I worked like a madman in grad school, but it was work that MEANT SOMETHING to me. When I left academia I became a teacher, a job that is hard but fills me with joy on a regular basis. To get that job I had to quit being a professor, the much higher status job. I'd been lucky enough to learn that refusal can be liberating.

Whenever I think about how much less money I have because of these life decisions and get a little sad about it, I remind myself that I've spent my adult life doing work meant to do something positive in this awful, broken, capitalist hellscape. I am glad I came of age at a time when I got the validation to take that path. My generation maybe isn't much to write home about, but maybe we can pass along the wisdom that opting out of our contemporary world of "personal branding" and endless self-promotion isn't such a terrible idea.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Ocasio-Cortez's Non-Ideological Appeal

I spend way too much time on Twitter, which makes me see way too many bad opinions on a daily basis. It also immerses me too much in a mindset based more around groupthink than in observable reality. Leftist folks on Twitter commonly make the mistake of thinking that other people view the world through the lens of ideology because they do. Most people in the world, however, spend a lot less time thinking about politics than people on Twitter. They also tend not to ground every one of their political beliefs in a rigid worldview. People on the political left are constantly asking themselves "is this the leftist stance?" whenever they have a political thought. That's pretty alien to how most folks view the world.

Hence a lot of People on Twitter have been surprised at how quickly Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has gained a following among Democrats. People of Twitter use their ideological lens to classify rank and file Democrats as "centrists," usually as a way to distinguish themselves as more sophisticated. In their minds it doesn't make sense that "centrists" would flock to a self-described democratic socialist.

I'm not all that surprised, and if these people had properly understood the Bernie phenomenon they wouldn't be either. If you took the time and get off Twitter and talk to real people you'd realize that a lot of Bernie supporters were drawn to him as an alternative to the "establishment" and less for his policy proposals. His charisma also mattered a great deal, and it matters even more with Ocasio-Cortez.

She is a political natural, a truly generational talent. Ocasio-Cortez's social media presence is uniquely powerful, and wherever she goes she has an ability to distill leftist ideas in relatable and easy to understand ways. This talent has been sorely lacking among other Democratic politicians in recent years. It's not that she is "converting centrists," but that rank and file Democrats were always open to these ideas and just needed someone to articulate them and advocate for them.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the political left could gain a lot by focusing on how it talks to others. I still remember a leftist friend of mine actually attacking Ocasio-Cortez last year for not being a "real socialist." That kind of thinking is worse than useless. (It's also why I won't join the DSA even though I am in agreement with their program. I just can't stand all the posturing and holier than thou crap. I left the church for a reason.) It's a big reason why there are few people in this country who self-identify as leftists without having gone to grad school.

And while the left has a lot to learn from her example, the Democrats should also be paying attention. Their future is a return to social democracy as a core principle. It is a message that resonates with a party base that is tired of compromises and being afraid of fighting for what they actually want. Most of what is happening in the political world just makes me depressed, but the possibilities Ocasio-Cortez has opened are giving me hope.

Monday, January 7, 2019

State Of Emergency

Tomorrow the Leader is going to the border and make a speech during primetime. The same loathing, lies and deceptions are sure to pour forth again. There's a question over whether he will declare a state of emergency to get his wall built. It's impossible to predict what the addled dotard will do, and I will not engage in that fruitless game.

It wouldn't surprise me, since declaring phony states of emergency is a favorite tactic of despots. They especially like doing this if they are the ones to manufacture the crisis, as Trump is doing on the border. I do know that we are already in an undeclared state of emergency.

The president has put a gun to the head of the government and is threatening the country to shoot the hostage if he doesn't get his stupid wall. He decided to do this not after public outcry, but after he got roasted by conservative media for backing down.

Like many of his low-information, elderly, resentful voters, Trump hits the crack pipe of conservative media on a daily basis. He probably spends more time watching Fox than he does in meetings. Our current state of emergency is a hostage crisis brought on a TV network trying to keep the eyeballs of garden variety old white ignoramuses on their channel. The larger emergency stems from the president's racist hate for brown skinned immigrants, a hate and fear embodied in the wall. Like other fascists he is obsessed with turning people into tides and erecting barriers to their flows.

The election did not solve this problem, nor could it. In response to the current state of emergency we have a tepid response. Opposition leaders try to grab headlines but can't change the underlying reality. Most liberals and progressives retain too much faith in the system to actually take to the streets and force Republican politicians to put a stop to this. And so 2019 will drag on, the alarm bells clanging and no one there to put out the fire. You better start getting used to it.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

REO Speedwagon, "157 Riverside Avenue"

I recently had the good fortune to hang out with two of my friends from graduate school. Like the middle-aged men that we are, we talked about the old times, and how much we miss them. I was broke in grad school, often stressed, and prone to depression, but those were the best days of my life up to that point. It was the only time in my stint in the academy where I was able to "live the life of the mind." The quest for knowledge consumed a plurality of my waking hours. That said, I spent plenty of time with my friends, from playing backyard bocce ball to going to concerts to just drinking and laughing until the wee hours.

We did all of this in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, one of the great overlooked places to be in this country. It was cheap, easy to get around, but always full of events and culture. It is a place that gave birth to and nurtured writers, scientists, and thinkers. It also gave us REO Speedwagon.

While I lived there I chuckled a bit when one of the streets in downtown Champaign was renamed REO Speedwagon Way. After all, weren't they sort of the standard bearers of a kind of forgotten, lowest common denominator arena rock? A couple of my friends in Chambana who had grown up in downstate Illinois managed to persuade me otherwise. Before REO was an arena rock behemoth in the early 1980s, they were a hard working hard driving hard rocking band that didn't have any hits but did have a devoted following in the midwest. It wasn't until their eighth album in 1978 (the tragically named You Can Tune A Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish) that they even had a long player in the top 40. It's kind of amazing that Epic, their label, hadn't dropped them by that point.

Perhaps they heard something that others hadn't. My friends certainly had, and with their help I heard it, too. I can't help thinking it's some kind of metaphor. People tell me I'm not supposed to like going to graduate school, listening to REO Speedwagon, and living in the corn belt, but I ended up loving all of those things. I guess I was extremely lucky to be around like-minded people for so many years. It's certainly a blessing to see them again.

That's a roundabout way of introducing my song for this week, "157 Riverside Avenue." It's off of REO's first album, but has been a staple of their live shows even after there were hits for the audience to expect. For that reason I chose the live version from their 1977 double-live You Get What You Play For. (They really have a thing for tragically named albums) It makes the most sense, since pre-fame REO played show after show after show searching for that big break while building a loyal audience.

The double-live album was obligatory for rock bands in the 1970s, and one even catapulted Peter Frampton to fame after a similarly long time in the woodshed as REO. The sound is pure early 70s boogie rock but by 1977 the once shaggy band had made itself a fine-tuned arena-rocking machine. The boogie bounce is still there but the solos are blistering, courtesy of the incomparable Gary Richrath, perhaps the most underrated rock guitarist of the classic rock era. Kevin Cronon still throws in a silly bit of banter and scat singing in the middle, but it sounds pretty tight.

Not only does this music remind me of my spiritual home of Champaign-Urbana circa 2000-2006, I try to take some hope from it. As far as my writing goes, I'm still striving and trying after many years to get a hit. I've managed to hone my skills, and even build up a (small) audience. I guess I can hope that something bigger and better is still possible.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

1983 On My Mind

"Seconds" is one of U2's best obscure songs, about the very real fear of nuclear war in 1983

When people these days recall the year 1983 their main associations are probably kitschy nostalgia for things like "Come On Eileen" and Cabbage Patch Kids. In reality, they ought to recall that year with sheer terror.

1983 may well have been the closest the world came to nuclear war during the Cold War, closer than maybe even the Cuban Missile Crisis. At least that crisis had roots in an actual conflict, the nuclear war that almost came in '83 was the result of rhetoric and shadow-boxing. Ronald Reagan's aggressive posture towards the Soviet Union, the "Star Wars" missile defense program, as well as his "evil empire" rhetoric prompted Soviet leaders to suspect that Reagan was willing to launch a preemptive strike.

Reagan's rhetoric was a big show, of course, but he didn't know that the Soviets didn't know that. Events that year exacerbated the tensions, such as the attack on US marines in Beirut, the US invasion of Grenada, the Soviet shooting down of a South Korean airliner, and NATO military exercises codenamed "Able Archer" that the Soviets interpreted as cover for preparing an attack. The West did not know that at that moment the button could well have been pushed, all over a misinterpretation of events by the Soviets that America was unknowingly contributing to. In the autumn of 1983 this possibility finally got through to Reagan. A KGB double agent cultivated by British intelligence let the US and UK know about just how paranoid Andropov and the Soviet leadership had become. Furthermore, Reagan watched the TV movie The Day After, which scared the shit out of 8 year old me and millions of others. The former Hollywood actor, so prone to living in a fantasy world of signs and symbols, finally seemed to understand the stakes of his recklessness.

I've been thinking a lot about this moment because I feel that the world today is similarly dangling above an abyss. Since 9/11 Americans have conditioned themselves to fear terror attacks, but I am more concerned by what having an unstable, brain-addled amoral black hole in charge of America's military and foreign policy means for us. I get the feeling from what we keep hearing from people who have left the Trump administration that his aides have held him back from even worse and more destructive acts than he has already committed.

In 1983 the world hung in the balance as president with his head in the clouds behaved recklessly and the paranoid secret police operative on the other side wildly overreacted. At the end of the day Reagan and Andropov were both irresponsible, but also capable of seeing their mistakes. Trump is a man with zero capacity for self-reflection. His aides are departing him, and he is backed into a corner.

One of the scariest things about the state of the world in 1983 is that so much of it was kept from the public. Very very few people knew in November of that year that the Able Archer exercises brought the world close to annihilation. While I was on the playground at recess in the second grade the mushroom clouds could very well have come. Every day I wonder about plots that are hatched out of public view, and the paranoid fantasies much more likely to be brought to fruition by a man with zero sense of restraint. As the song at the top says, it takes only seconds to say goodbye.