Saturday, June 30, 2012

Classic Albums: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps

Every now and again I rediscover an old favorite album that I'd let get way too dusty.  About this time last year, just as I was preparing to leave Texas for New Jersey, Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps was a constant companion through the emotional ups of leaving a wretched work situation and the downs of saying good-bye to some truly wonderful friends. Rust Never Sleeps is tailor made for such conflicting emotions, in that it has a contemplative acoustic side, and one hard-rocking electric side. In fact, it's really the only Neil Young album to properly combine his two main modes: high-voiced introspective folkie and Jimi Hendrix by way of Kurt Cobain electric guitar wizard.

Strangely enough, I used to associate RNS with working in a factory. I bought it on cassette (yep, I'm that old) the summer after my first year of college, which I spent toiling in a rubber parts factory. I'd been inspired to buy it in the first place after hearing "My My Hey Hey" (this is the Live Rust version) on the classic rock station at work. As a 19-year old I was attracted to that song's seeming defiance in the lines "Rock and roll will never die" and "it's better to burn out than to fade away." I was also aware that the latter line had sadly been part of the aforementioned Cobain's suicide note.

Now that I am in my mid-30s, Young's age when he wrote the song, I hear the defiance differently. It is a defiance against the inevitable ravages of age, which I am now coming to grips with. My mind isn't as sharp, my energy wanes, gray hairs appear above my temples, and the confidence I once had that I could beat the odds has pretty well been beaten out of me by life. Young is taking Dylan Thomas' "rage against the dying of the light" and giving it a rock and roll twist. It still resonates with me, but in a much deeper way.

The second song, "Thrasher," (the link is to a slightly different version) has similarly revealed its deeper meaning to me with my advancing age. It's a very poetic story of taking a road trip early in the morning and seeing thrashers going out to take in the harvest. I used to think of the words as mysterious and abstract, but now that I'm older, I see that it's about the changes that come with the passage of time, including the biggest change of all: death. It's also obliquely about the passing of friendships, and leaving people behind on the road of life. The latter concern has been bugged me a lot last year as I prepared to get out of Dodge, which was sweet in its escape from a horrible work environment, but sad in that it tore me away from people I love. The song itself is more about the bitterness of abandoning false friends, but I think I'm within my rights to twist the song to my own purposes.

When I popped the tape into the cassette player of my car on the way to work at the factory in the morning, it always took me through the third song, "Ride my Llama," which has an admittedly stupid-sounding title. However, it has a certain foreboding, minor key feel, which suited my lack of ethusiasm over spending nine hours in devastating summer heat working on machines with plates heated to over 400 degrees. The next song, "Pocahontas," is an absolutely stunning meditation on the genocide of Native Americas and the hollowness of material progress. The last acoustic song, "Sail Away," is a bit of a folkie soft-rock throwaway in the best seventies style, but it is a much better than average example of the genre.

Flip the record over, and Neil hits the listener with, in my opinion, the all-time king #1 blockbuster showcase for his distinctive electric guitar playing: "Powderfinger." It sounds pretty glorious for a song about dying young from a misfiring rifle. The soaring breaks are reminiscent of a hawk being struck by lightning.

The next song, "Welfare Mothers," basically a bad joke encased in a killer riff, and probably the weakest song on the record. That being said, there are plenty of pyrotechnics.

Following "Welfare Mothers" is the more oblique, time-signature shifting "Sedan Delivery," which has lyrics about the sordid underbelly of life befitting a Tom Waits composition. It took a long time for this song to sink in, but now I must admit it has a kind of dirty beauty.

Young ends it all with "Hey Hey My My," an electric reprise of the opener. Instead of the mourful acoustic guitar, there's a absolutely brutal electric riff that practically stabs the listener's ear. This song pretty much explains why Sonic Youth would open for Young in the early 90s, despite differences of age and temperment. The cry to burn out rather than fade away is more powerful here, but also a little more desperate, too.

Like almost all albums except for a precious few, Rust Never Sleeps is not perfect, but it is much more than the sum of its parts. There are few albums that still contain a capacity to inspire and resonate thirty years later, and Rust Never Sleeps belongs in that rarified space, at least as far as I'm concerned.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Progressives Need to Stop Celebrating and Start Organizing

A note to my progressive brethren: I know you are happy about today's SCOTUS decision, but this is no time for gloating or complacency.  Remember back in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected?  You guys showed up in unprecedented numbers to his inauguration, declared an end to thirty years of Reaganomics, and generally behaved as if the other side would somehow concede defeat and acknowledge the popular mandate behind the new president.

If you remember, conservatives responded by letting loose the dogs of political war.  Glenn Beck was on television every day comparing Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, Republicans in Congress began filibustering and obstructing just about every progressive initiative, and the moneymen on the right astroturfed a pitchfork-wielding army of angry resentful White people, otherwise known as the Tea Party.  The complacency and lack of fight in the progressive ranks gave us the current wingnut House and governors like Scott Walker who are hell-bent on destroying collective bargaining rights.  The ass whupping the Democrats received in 2010 happened largely because the other side dropped any pretensions of civility or centrism and got their hordes to the polls in big numbers while many Obama voters stayed home.

Progressives seem to forget that the opposing political party is not a rational institution, but that it has become a batshit-crazy vehicle for an extremist Christo-libertarian ideology.  You don't have to go far to find evidence of this.  In the aftermath of the SCOTUS ruling today, the former spokesman for the Michigan GOP called for armed rebellion against the provisions of the healthcare law.  Indiana Republican Mike Pence compared the ruling to 9/11.  You cannot let your guard down around these types of people for even a second.

The other side will gnash their teeth and wail about today's Supreme Court decision, but they have plenty of loaded guns waiting to be fired.  Today they censured the attorney general in an unprecedented move that now appears to be based on utter falsehoods.  They are currently doing their best to restrict voting under the guise of limiting "voter fraud" in ways that are both racist and nakedly intended to win the election in swing states.  Speaking of disenfranchisement and racism, the Republican Party of Texas in its official platform has called for the repeal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the piece of legislation that has made the 15th Amendment a reality.  (I would even hazard a conspiratorial guess that the attacks on Holder are intended to stop the Justice Department from interfering in the disenfranchisement campaign.)  The conservative movement has marshaled unprecedented financial power, and is manipulating the law to set up massive piles of untraceable cash to be used in all kinds of negative propaganda against the president.

President Obama will be outspent by his opposition in this campaign, thousands of people who will want to vote for him will be turned away from the polls, and the nation's most popular cable news network acts effectively as the propaganda arm of his opponents.  So please, fellow progressives, stop gloating on Facebook about today's decision.  Now is the time to help explain the benefits of the health care law to those who are still fuzzy about it (and with good reason.)  Now is the time to get out the vote and to fight to make sure all of the votes get counted.  Don't make the same mistake you made in 2009-2010, because the people who are against you will stop at nothing, including fanning the flames of white racial resentment, misogyny, and homophobia, disenfranchising voters, and spreading scurrilous lies to put their extremist ideas into practice.  This is not a time to celebrate, but a time to organize, mobilize, and to fight.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Parenting Dilemma: When and How Do I Introduce My Children to Star Wars?

Sometime in the next month, my wife will be giving birth to twin girls.  This event has forced us to consider all kinds of questions, from where we want to settle down to what kind of food we feed them.  Last evening my wife and I discussed a less pressing, but very difficult question: when and how will we introduce them to Star Wars?

I must say that I am amazed at the staying power of Star Wars amongst children born decades after its initial release.  I lived much of my early childhood totally immersed in the Star Wars universe, playing with the toys and acting out scenarios with my friends for hours on end.  Once we got a VCR in 1985 and they started showing the films on television, I managed to tape and watch them over and over again.  One of my sisters always recounted her favorite dream ever, which involved Han Solo landing the Millennium Falcon in our backyard and whisking her away with him.  I spent much of the summer of 1983 wearing two t-shirts: a black one that read "Beat It!" in large red letters, and a kind of powdery blue shirt with Luke Skywalker wielding a lightsaber.  The next year I gladly choked down the vile concoction that was C-3PO breakfast serial and jumped for joy when I got the Ewok village toy set for Christmas.

 I never would have thought that Star Wars toys would be just as common a quarter of a century later.  This weekend my in-laws had a backyard party at their house, and I was amazed to see one little tyke wearing shoes with C-3PO and R2-D2 on them, and another with a t-shirt depicting Yoda wearing sunglasses.  These boys seemed to love Star Wars just as much as I did when I was younger.  I once worried that my kids would think of the things I love as outdated or lame, but it looks like Star Wars is something that we could share together.  However, I am not sure how to bring it into their lives.

The question of when and how to introduce Star Wars came up after we watched Revenge of the Sith (the third prequel, for the uninitiated) last night, which my wife hadn't ever seen, despite (or perhaps because) her love of the original trilogy.  It seems she stopped watching Attack of the Clones after about fifteen minutes, thinking it to be a steaming pile of crap (can't say I disagree) and gave up on the prequels.  Conversely, both she and I like Revenge of the Sith, which I consider to be at least the equal of Return of the Jedi (perhaps that is damning with faint praise.)  I asked her whether we would introduce the prequels to our twin daughters, start with the original trilogy, or simply pretend that the prequels never existed.

From a chronological, story-arc perspective, it makes sense to start with prequel number one, The Phantom Menace.  It's not just the well-documented lameness of this flick that bugs me; however, but the knowledge that kids love Jar Jar.  I am so afraid that if I start with this film, my girls will think Jar Jar is the coolest and funniest, with his slapstick antics and muppet-like voice.  If that happens I just might have to put myself in exile in Dagobah.

My wife and I have agreed to start them with the original Star Wars (I refuse on general principle to call it A New Hope.)  It's an obvious choice, considering it's the first made, etc., but we are also especially keen on starting here because Princess Leia is such a badass in this flick.  I am already having to contend with the fact that social norms are molding my daughters into objectified beauty objects, at least based on the fact that we've been gifted all kinds of frilly pink baby clothes.  They'll need some role models, and in this movie Leia will provide a good example.  It is she who leads the rebel forces and manages to keep the Death Star plans safe.  She manages to withstand torture without betraying her people.  She refuses to play the damsel in distress, shooting storm troopers and repeatedly telling off her would be captors.  ("Into the garbage shoot flyboy," "Will someone please get this walking carpet out of my way," and "Aren't you a little short for a storm trooper?" are particular favorite lines in this regard.)  You can easily contrast Leia's toughness with the simpering antics of Padme/Amidalla from the prequels.  In the third installment she seems to spend most of her time doing her hair.

At this point I figure I will introduce Star Wars around age four (I really can't wait for this moment), and pretend the prequels don't exist until they ask questions or their friends say something about it.  I like the third enough to maybe make an exception.  The other thing to consider, of course, is which version of the original trilogy to show my daughters.  I only have the "special editions" version on DVD (I've got the remastered originals from the 1990s on VHS), so I should probably go out and get the non-gussied up versions on DVD, which you have to buy separately, at a premium, and which come with the special edition discs that I already had to pay for.  I rented the DVD version of the unaltered Star Wars a couple of years ago, and was blown away at how much it looked like the mid-budget 1970s film that it was.  It was liberating and glorious, and it made what Lucas accomplished in 1977 with mostly unknown actors and little studio support that much more of a creative triumph.  Of course, my daughters probably will find the CGI Jabba the Hutt more interesting.  But damn it, there are sacred things in this world, and my daughters should not live in a world where Greedo shot first.  

Children are unpredictable, and my two girls might not care about the differences between the originals and special editions, or even have any interest in watching Star Wars at all.  I'll be happiest if they can explore their own interests, whether or not I share them.  That said, I will feel a little secret sorrow if they don't like Star Wars, akin to the anguish I felt when I first saw Han Solo frozen in carbonate as a five year old.  After all, I first saw Attack of the Clones with my pops, and it was a great emotional moment for us to return to very same theater where he'd taken me to see The Empire Strikes Back those many years ago. The new film might've been shitty, but walking out of the theater with such warm memories rekindled, I don't think we really cared.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Completing the Circle: Lincoln's Tomb and My Love Affair with History

One day about a year ago while I was sitting at my desk in the midst of a hectic day, I experienced one of those rare memory recalls that are just as vivid as they are unexpected. It didn’t wash over me so much as stab my heart with a realization almost thirty years in the making. I was finishing up writing my last lecture on the Civil War with some material about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Looking for visual material, I chanced upon a photo of Lincoln’s tomb, and was suddenly, unwillingly transported back to the summer of 1980.

It was sunny that day when my family, on vacation, visited the Lincoln-related sites in and around Illinois’ capital, including New Salem, which I particularly enjoyed. Having spent the whole day learning about Abraham Lincoln, we finished it all off, appropriately enough, with a visit to his tomb. At that time it had fallen into severe disrepair, and I distinctly remember the many cracks in stone steps where I sat despondently.

I had just been inside the unnaturally cold marble crypt, its eerie silence oppressive as I gazed upon the sarcophagus holding Lincoln’s dead body. My mother, bless her, never sugarcoated the reality of death for me when I was young, something that I am eternally grateful for. Right there she matter-of-factly related to me the details of Lincoln’s murder in Ford’s Theater at the hands of the scoundrel John Wilkes Booth.

This may sound implausible, but I think at that very moment the inherent unfairness of life first impressed itself upon my mind. It just didn’t make sense to me that such a great person could be shot down in cold blood. According to my parents, as I sat inconsolable on the decaying monument’s steps, I asked them if Abraham Lincoln still had his beard in heaven. (My mother never gets tired of that story.)

And so, over thirty years later, now teaching others about Lincoln’s death, it felt as if some great, mysterious circle to my life had finally been completed. For the first time I truly know the exact moment that ignited my lifelong fascination with history, an obsession that goes back to my earliest memories and which will define me until the day I die.   So many things I once cared about intensely matter little to me today, but history has stuck hard, and it will never go away.  After years of study and multiple diplomas my understanding of the past has certainly become more sophisticated, but the past retains its power to prick my heart and rend my soul as much as it did those many years ago.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Songs About the Suburbs

Although a majority of Americans live in suburban areas, apart from three months of my life spent crashing on the suburban couch of two of my college friends, I have lived either in urban neighborhoods, college towns, or rural outposts.  For that reason, they've always seemed a little exotic and strange to me, but despite that fascination with suburbia I have no desire to live there.  I like having either access to the culture, walkability, and excitement that urban concentrations bring or the quiet and nearness to nature of small towns.  I do like to visit, mostly since my wife's folks live in the suburbs, and when we spend a Sunday afternoon there we get to enjoy easy access to convenient shopping and tree-lined curvy streets made for bicycle riding.  I say this at the start just to let y'all know that I do not possess any knee-jerk snobbishness about suburbia, it's just not the type of place where I'd prefer to hang my hat each night.  I think we as a society make our mole-hills of personal preference into mountains of perceived elemental differences and should just let everyone like what they like.

Now that I'm spending more time in the suburbs, songs about suburbia keep popping in my head.  These tunes tend to be pretty critical of suburban life, mostly as a protest against the shallow consumerism of the postwar American Dream.  With the current housing crisis and growing environmental consciousness, the suburbs have lost much of the allure that the songs I am about to discuss were protesting against.  Perhaps this sub-sub-genre is about to come to an end.  Anyway, here are some of the more interesting songs about suburbia as I see it.


The Monkees, "Pleasant Valley Sunday"

This is the first song about the suburbs I ever really got into, although it's meaning was a little unclear what it was all about.  Back in 1986-87 I religiously watched reruns of the Monkees' TV show and via my cousin listened to all of their classic albums.  This song confused me a little since I was used to pop songs about love and romance rather than wry bits of social commentary.  As I got I got older, I started hearing lines like "rows of houses that are all the same/ and no one seems to care" in a different light.  Of course, by that time I had gotten pretty tired of my monocultural home town, and even though it was rural rather than suburban, when Mickey Dolenz croons "I need a change of scenery" I could hear him loud and clear.

Rush, "Subdivisions"

I used to hate Rush in large part due to Neil Peart's rather daft lyrics, but now I love his drumming and the band's musicianship so much that I just tune out the words.  This is one case where his emotive, teen-angst riven "nobody understands me" standpoint actually works.  Instead of building up some kind of Ayn Randian superman battling anti-individualism as the center of his song, the criticism of conformity hits a less ephemeral and more tangible target: modern suburban life.  In fact, the line about the subdivisions' "geometric order" creating an "insulated border" against the city is actually quite artful.  The main irony here, of course, is that the suburbs that Peart and co. depict as a soul-sucking wasteland also produce about 90% of their fan base.  (The video pretty much lets the cat out of the bag on this point.)

The Kinks, "Shangri-La"

Ray Davies of the Kinks is probably rock music's greatest poet of daily life, and someone who has written songs about the perils of moving to the city ("The Big Black Smoke") and idealizing traditional life in English villages ("Village Green.")  He also penned one of the greatest songs about postwar suburban life, since it gets at the illusory nature of its promises.  At the start Davies terms the suburban home a "paradise" and "kingdom to command" so much more comfortable than the "lavatories in back yard" of the old working-class neighborhood, but soon all is not well, since there's nothing else to aspire to.  In the key words in the song's opener, "You've reached your top and you just can't get any higher/ you're in your place and you know where you are."  It's a place with creature comforts like a TV set, car, and radio, that increasingly begins to feel like a trap where "you're too scared to admit how insecure you are" and everyone gossips about you.  If this is all there is to look forward to, life is pretty damn bleak, a point that Davies makes just as effectively as literary critics of suburbia like John Updike, Richard Yates, and John Cheever.

Weezer, "In the Garage"

Of course, not all songs about suburban life are necessarily so heavy-handed and didactic.  Sometimes they just give the listener a nice little slice of daily life, and "In the Garage" is a great example.  The narrator of the song, who appears to be a disaffected nerdy kid with few friends, talks about the garage as his suburban refuge where he can look at his KISS posters and read his Dungeon Master's Guide without being mocked.  I bought this album right when it came out in the summer of 1994, right before I left home for college, and when my first roommate loved it too (and understood what it meant) I knew we'd get along really well.  Much of my adult life has been spent making friends who, like me, spent their adolescence sheltered in their geeky cocoons.

Arcade Fire, "Sprawl II"

It seems to have become a sport in the indie-rock world these days to attack Arcade Fire, the reason being something I call "Malkmusitis" in honor of Stephen Malkmus, former lead singer of indie greats Pavement.  There is no greater sin in indie music than unironic earnestness and emotion.  If your songs are anthemic without being satirical (like the Arcade Fire's), they are deemed cheesy or uncool.  I for one love their last album, appropriately titled The Suburbs.  (On it they get a little revenge on their too-cool-for school hipster detractors with "Rococo.")  My absolute favorite song on the record is "Sprawl II," a sweeping number that combines New Wave and disco with an emotional evocation of suburban sprawl as an endless, suffocating Moloch-like beast eating its children alive.  As a child of rural Nebraska, I do have to say that when I first went to sprawled-out cities like Denver as a kid, the sight of sprawling "shopping malls like mountains beyond mountains" made me queasy in its endlessly repetitive artificiality.

Parliament, "Chocolate City"

I know this song is about cities and not suburbs, but it's a pretty sly and powerful riposte to the white flight to the suburbs.  Clinton refers to cities with a black majority (like my own city of Newark) in the beginning, before building up to the revelation that the nation's capital is "Chocolate City."  He imagines a black president and cabinet in what was once the White House, and the chorus proclaims "we're gaining on you!"  It's a very different American Dream than the one being propagated in the "vanilla suburbs."  Although it's not one of George Clinton's better songs from a groove perspective, the musicianship is great as always, and the political message ought to let folks know that George Clinton wasn't just about laying down party jams.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cranky Bear on the Sinking Ship of Public Higher Education

Editor's note: for those of you unfamiliar with this blog, I have a guest blogger friend by the name of Cranky Bear whose missives I occasionally publish in these pages.  CB is much more profane and unrestrained than I, and out of fear of attracting lawsuits or protest I often edit or refuse to publish much of his material.  In this case I agree so much with his message (though perhaps not with some of his more impolitic words) that I will publish it unadulterated.  You have been warned.


This is Cranky Bear here with a fire my belly and righteous indignation in my soul.  As some of you know, ole CB once cracked the boards of the academic stage before leaving behind one of those rare tenure-track jobs to live in the Cranky cave with Mrs. Cranky teaching cubs rather than bears the ways of history.  When I left the academic world I got a little misty-eyed about giving up the life of the mind and whatnot, but nowadays I feel that decision was the case of one smart-ass rat fleeing a desperately fucked-up sinking ship.

I worked in public higher education for five long years, at non-flagship universities at that.  For thirty years these institutions have been getting slowly starved of state funds while having to pay for non-academic expenses like gilded gyms with rock-climbing walls, flat screen TVs in the library, and a whole panoply of assorted deanlets with cushy salaries.  Tuition skyrocketed, as did the ranks of the "contingent faculty," who labor without security, benefits, or adequate pay.  I was one of these poor souls for two years, and saw how my university's survival depended upon laborers who had no voice in university affairs and were treated like human garbage.

Since the onset of the current economic depression, things have only gotten worse.  Public universities around the nation are cutting departments wholesale, with Latin, Greek, German, and philosophy especially gutted.  Most of these universities still retain their football teams, of course, and I would love to see a law stating that no institution that lacks philosophy but retains a football team ought to call itself a "university."  Few people seem to care, mostly since these institutions -SUNY-Albany, Louisiana-Lafayette, etc.- largely service working and lower-middle class students at a time when papers like the Times focus their higher education coverage on how to get their readers' bourgeois children into big-name universities.  The young people at less rarified "directional" state unis having their education trashed were already stabbed in the back and left for dead by a system that simply does not give a flying fuck about their future.

That silence might change now that the elite flagship state universities are undergoing a similar process of "streamlining" whereby higher education becomes strictly vocational and programs are funded or cut on the basis of the money they generate.  The news trickling out of the University of Virginia seems to indicate that its popular president was fired for failing to do the bidding of the corporate interests that now finance the university in the aforementioned absence of state support.  It seems that the same people who wrecked our economy weren't just satisfied with that, and now they want to throttle quality public education to death while spouting the useless, pernicious bullshitting cant of "innovation."

To them "innovation" means maximizing profit at all costs, damn the consequences or any other value apart from the cash nexus.  In my three years on the tenure track at a horribly mismanaged state uni, I got to learn all that this entails.  It means moving courses online even when there is no demand for it.  It means eliminating whole departments and fields of study that do not advance the cause of training students to be corporate drones unable to question the economic system fucking them up the ass on a daily basis.  It means turning the professoriate into just another bunch of replaceable, expendable "employees" doing the intellectual version of working the counter at McDonald's.  It reduces teaching to "customer service" and scholarship to an afterthought.

After decades of state negligence, our corporate overlords have been stepping into the financial breech, and now get the to call the tune, which is a ditty that calls for a demented neo-liberal St. Vitus' Dance whereby contingent faculty are worked to death for low pay and all that is not intended to make money gets thrown on the dung pile to rot.  Now that they provide the funding, the corporate hyenas feeding on the corpse of higher ed can even get universities to generate research findings that benefit them.  Many public universities are public in name only, since they get so little of their funding from either state or federal government sources, and this has had disastrous consequences.

It's taken a good three decades of rot to set in to get to the current state of affairs where whole academic disciplines are being destroyed and the average faculty member is a low-wage drone paid by the course rather than a tenure-track professor.  I hate to burst your bubble, boys and girls, but this type of decline cannot be reversed.  We are now witnessing something truly disgusting: a society standing by and watching while one of its greatest and most storied institutions -something so key to the enlarging of its middle class and economic prowess- bleeds to death in the gutter while hyenas and vultures rips its flesh and grab its wallet.

As is the case with so much of our American life today, the elites won't bother to do anything because they left public higher ed for dead long ago.  The elite will continue sending their kids to well-funded elite universities where their administrators have endowments so large that they can swim in them a la Scrooge McDuck.  The rest of the poor plebeians will be fed on a thin gruel of glorified vocational training, and true public universities will go the way of the Model T.  It's a sick and disgusting state of affairs, and in those in charge will get what they want: a compliant, semi-moronic populace educated well enough to do their stultifying cubicle jobs, but not knowledgable enough to question their own enslavement.  God knows we're more than halfway there already.

I for one got sick and fucking tired of trying to resist change as inevitable as the tides.  Teaching in low-level public higher education began to feel like collaborating in a disgusting and vile lie, one I could no longer tell without prostituting my soul.  For those of you still in that world, enjoy it while it lasts, cuz it sure won't be around too much longer.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

80s Metal: Heavy Metal Parking Lot versus Rock of Ages

Evidently there's a Hollywood adaptation of the 80s metal jukebox musical Rock of Ages that's hitting the theaters.  Apart from seeing Tom Cruise channel his couch-jumping energy into playing an Axl Rose manqué, I have no interest in seeing it.  In these types of musicals the original songs get pasteurized and homogenized worse than Velveeta, and in this case, the source material (hair metal) ain't all that great to begin with.

It all looks to be a pretty unrealistic, air-brushed, and sanitized version of the whole 80s metal scene.  I should know, because metal ruled my small Nebraska town growing up.  This was not the music of glamor, but of dirtbag burnouts slamming back big-mouth hand grenade bottles of Mickey's Malt Liquor while blasting Motley Crue from their Camaro car stereos.

Listen up kiddos, if you want a glimpse of the real thing, check out the guerrilla documentary/anthropological field report known as Heavy Metal Parking Lot.  It is what it says: a bunch of footage shot in 1986 in the parking lot of an arena before a Judas Priest concert.  (Notice that these are the true metal fans out for a true metal band, not suburban teeny-boppers with mall hair hoping to see Jon Bon Jovi shake his be-spandexed little ass.)  The makers of the film have provided us with a one-of-a-kind document of a bygone age, and entertainment that's much more fun (and disturbing) than anything Hollywood can conjure.  These sixteen minutes are also a powerful reminder of the dangers of nostalgia.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

How the President's "Kill List" Exposes Our Current Political Dysfunction

I have only been around this earth for 36 years, but at least in that time I have never lived in a period when our nation's politics have been so divided, crazy, and downright dysfunctional.  Things have become so surreal and disheartening that I have pretty much stopped writing about politics for this blog.    Every now and again, however, there is a moment in our political life that actually lends itself to analysis, rather than pulling out my hair or plugging my ears and screaming in agony.  (The "private sector is doing fine" misrepresentation and its aftermath is one of these wretched kerfuffles that seem to pop up on a weekly basis.)

Two weeks ago the New York Times revealed leaked information about the president's secret anti-terror policies, including a "kill list" of suspected terrorists used to determine targets of what amount to assassinations.  Even more disturbing, the government's claims to have minimized civilian casualties in these drone strikes were undercut by the newly revealed fact that all men of military age in the vicinity of these strikes were labeled terrorists.  (This is an eerie parallel of America's war in the Philippines in the early 20th century, when all Filipino men over the age of ten were labeled insurrectionists.)  It is apparent that president Obama has been overseeing a secret war on al-Qaeda, one with far-ranging implications using highly questionable methods.

I am not going to debate the merits of the policy in this post, but instead point to what it reveals about our current political life.  In the first place, the president's enemies, who normally attack whatever he does, found themselves in a quandary, since they had whole-heartedly supported the Bush administration's extra-legal tactics of torture, extraordinary rendition, and secret prisons.  Instead of going after the president for having a kill list and engaging in targeted assassinations, they accused his administration of deliberately leaking the information in order to make him look good!  On the other hand, many folks on the Left, like myself, are disturbed and outraged by the president's policy, but that outrage seems to have little to no impact on the public discourse.  Much of this has to do with the fact that progressives are mortified of criticizing the president, even when he does things they greatly disapprove of, out of fear of giving ammunition to his rabid enemies.  Essentially, our country's principles have become so debased by the decade-long War on Terror that the president can be exposed in the act of ordering targeted assassinations (including an American citizen) in nations where the US is not officially at war, and few people seem to care, much less object.

The Republican response has been surreal, and fitting with the ideological death-trip that party has been on since Obama's election.  They have accused the president of leaking the information to make himself look like a "strong leader," without a single shred of evidence to back up their point.  In truth, they are mortified because they have beating the drum of Democratic "weakness" in foreign policy ever since the days of Jimmy Carter.  That narrative is what helped put George W. Bush over the top in 2004, but now it's been undercut by the death of bin Laden and these recent revelations.  Of course, reality is no inhibitor to the conservative movement, and since people on the Right can't assimilate the facts of the Obama presidency's terrorism policy with their belief that he is "weak," they are just lashing out and throwing a tantrum.  Their hatred of the president is palpable, and even when he enacts policies that they actually approve of, it just makes conservatives that much crazier, because it calls their rhetoric of the president being "anti-American" into question.

We have a president who has engaged in policies that are anathema to many in his base, and yet he is getting most of the flak from the people who actually support those policies.   Those who object most to the president's actions have been largely mute out of fear of his enemies.  Journalists have revealed to the American people a secret and dirty war fought in their name, and they don't seem to care.  Our nation should be having a serious discussion about the "War on Terror" and where its limits ought to be, instead the same useless mud pie fight continues.  I am having an increasingly difficult time mustering the urge to care about it anymore.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Second Anti-New Deal

The United States has faced three major economic downturns in the last century that have also had a profound effect on our politics: the Great Depression, the Stagflation of 1973-1982, and our current mess. We all know that the Depression led to the New Deal, when millions of Americans demanded and received greater protection from the worst of capitalism. Workers organized unions now better protected under the law, Social Security provided help for the elderly and unemployed, and FDR's alphabet soup programs put Americans back to work. It was by no means perfect, but it helped pave the way for a broadened and more secure middle class. Unfortunately, we today are living in the Second Anti-New Deal.

The New Deal established a consensus over the proper form of political-economy: a free-enterprise system with a social safety net, respect for collective bargaining, and regulation of corporate power. Until the Reagan, there was not a single president who truly disputed this idea. Even Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, and created OSHA. The collapse of the Fordist industrial economy, which is almost complete today, first accelerated with a vengeance in the 1970s. Economic uncertainty (along with nationalism, a poor opponent, and a host of other factors) led to Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980.

Despite his supposed "fiscal conservatism," Reagan was a kind of quasi-Keynsian. By cutting taxes and building up defense, he injected a great deal of money into the economy via deficit spending. Unlike Roosevelt, however, aid to those suffering the worst of hard times was cut, not extended. The breaking of the PATCO strike was part of a general attack on the labor movement. While the New Deal helped broaden the middle class and reduce wealth disparities, the Reagan Revolution has helped bring us back to income distribution reminiscent of the 1920s. Whereas the 1930s saw increased regulations on the financial industry that prevented speculative bubbles, the 1980s set the banks off their leashes, leading to wonderful things like the S&L crisis and our current debacle.

Despite the fact that a Democrat holds the White House, we are living now through a Second Anti-New Deal, one that is largely being committed on the state level. All around America, and not just in Wisconsin, corporately paid Republicans are destroying bargaining rights, and cutting both taxes for the wealthy and basic state services like schools and hospitals.  All that is public is being privatized, from the prison system to charter schools.  Instead of funding public works projects, governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Scott of Florida have refused federal money for needed additions to the transportation infrastructure.  In Louisiana, Bobby Jindal has sponsored an education "reform" that seems aimed at destroying the system of public education altogether.  I fear that that the defeat of the recall campaign against Scott Walker will only embolden the state level erosion of the New Deal.  Public institutions take a long time to build and nurture, but they can be destroyed pretty quickly, something the Jindals of the world seem to understand well.

The New Deal looked to the future, the anti-New Deals look to a mythical American past of pulling bootstraps, pioneer spirit, etc. (This despite the fact that many of the foot soldiers of the anti-New Deal benefit from Social Security, Medicare, and the Interstate Highway System.)  In reality, they are taking us to an actual American past that we spent the twentieth century trying to escape from: the Gilded Age.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sympathy for the (New Jersey) Devil(s)

Last night I experienced the moment that every sports fan dreads: watching their team lose the championship in humiliating fashion.  Luckily I had a work commitment in the evening, and missed the first period of last night's Stanley Cup game, when the New Jersey Devils got tagged for a five minute major penalty, which the LA Kings used to score three goals and end the Devils' two-month playoff battle for the Stanley Cup.  Unfortunately, I did not miss the Kings scoring three more, including an empty net goal at the end that felt like a punch to the stomach.  LA's goalie Jonathan Quick deservedly won the Conn-Smythe playoff MVP trophy for being a living, breathing brick wall, taunting the Devils and their fans with his superhuman ability to negate power plays and swallow up the hardest and truest of shots.  I have to give the Kings respect for playing some amazing hockey, but it doesn't take the sting from the loss.

The road to the Stanley Cup might be the most grueling of any major sports title, both for the teams and for the fans.  The Devils had to win twelve playoff games and defeat three different teams just for the right to play the red-hot Kings for the Cup.  This included an emotional conference championship series against their local rivals, the Rangers, who had been the best team during the regular season.  Many of my students are Rangers fans, and getting to talk hockey and smack in equal measure with them the day after the games was a real privilege.  It also raised the stakes of the results, because I didn't want a bunch of teenagers mocking me.

Hockey wracks a fan's nerves like nothing else because its constant speed and unpredictability mean that no lead is ever safe and that your team can be broken to pieces in the time it takes to go to the fridge to grab a beer.  I've watched hockey on and off since childhood, and it's the game's sheer dynamism (not its brutality, which I don't much care for) that keeps bringing me back.  During all those years of casual fandom it was hard for me to stick to the sport because I did not have a rooting interest in any particular team.  Now that I live in Newark, that's changed.  I only live a short walk from the Prudential Center, and after my wife (then girlfriend) and I attended a game there three years ago I offered her the undying loyalty of my heart and soul.  (Who knew hockey could be so romantic?)  Now that the Nets have flown the coop for Brooklyn, the Devils are the last team that New Jersey has.  (Yes, I know that the Red Bulls, Jets, and Giants play their games in the Garden State, but they do not take the state's name as their standard and so they don't really count.)  Not only that, the Devils have moved from playing at the Meadowlands to a new stadium in my adopted city of Newark.  It made me proud to see my city and my own neighborhood (including the street I live on) being broadcast on national television during the breaks.

I had hoped against hope for a victory parade in these streets.  Past Devils cup winners had to resort to parading around the parking lot of the Meadowlands, which confirms a lot of Jersey stereotypes.  As someone who has chosen to settle in the Garden State, I must say I get tired of the stereotypes and cheap jokes.  This state has the highest percentage of its high school graduates who go on to attend college.  It has the second-highest per capita income of any state in America.  My mayor ran into a burning building to save an old woman's life, what does your mayor do?  For every tax dollar that New Jerseyans give the federal government, they only get back sixty-one cents in return, the lowest ratio of any state.  Effectively, we have to subsidize the nimrods in the rest of the country who mock us with every chance they get.  This state has several top public high schools, beautiful beaches and gorgeous lakes, along with great pizza and a quality diner in almost every town.  You'd never know that from the state's public image as a haven of brain-dead, overtanned louts frequenting shopping malls and nail salons.

Like the state they call home, the Devils have rarely been given their due.  Since 1995, they have been to five Stanley Cup finals, winning three times.  They have missed qualifying for the playoffs only twice since 1987.  By any objective measure, they are one of the most successful teams of the past quarter century in any sport.  Yet when the Devils played the Rangers in the conference championship this year, everyone in the New York media talked about how the Devils needed to "redeem" their loss to the Rangers in the championship round in 1994, as if the three Devils titles since the Rangers last won the Cup in '94 never happened.

Through their quiet, consistent, and unrecognized excellence, the Devils mirror New Jersey itself, which is why I am sticking with them, just like I'm sticking with the Garden State.  Here's hoping they can bring the Cup to the streets of Brick City next year.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Top Five "Dick Lit" Novels of All Time

Awhile back I was browsing a used bookstore, where I happened to see that it had a separate section dubbed "Chick Lit." I've heard the term used many a time to describe works like Eat Pray Love and Prep, but thought that ghetto-izing these books within a bookstore was a little silly. After all, the patriarchy being what it is, there are many "classics" of literature that speak almost exclusively to men. There's nothing wrong with books that explore the male psyche, but they ought to have their own label, too. That then got me thinking about the best Dick Lit tomes, and since I just love top five lists, here they are.

1. Frederick Exley, A Fan's Notes.
It's hard to put my thought about this book into words, since it shook me like no other. The main character, essentially a stand-in for the author, is a creative yet fucked-up alcoholic obsessed with women and the New York Giants. This book is a rumination on failure, perhaps the thing that men dread more than any other (and probably why it shook me so much.) Exley lives with the knowledge that he is not the great player on the field, but a mere fan, a schlemiel, a loser whose life is of little import or significance. That's the realization that a majority of men are forced to confront at some point in their lives, and Exley does it with brutal honesty.

2. Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye.
Although Exley wrote the ultimate Dick Lit tract, Bukowski is without a doubt the king of Dick Lit authors. His ouvre routinely celebrates the kind of boozy, unfettered, fornicating lifestyle that many men who have given up their rough and rowdy ways fantasize of returning to. Ham on Rye makes the Dick Lit list because it articulates the raw realities and unpleasantness of adolescent masculinity in its unrestrained lust, constant confusion, and ever-present violence. On top of all that, it deals with the dickiest of Dick Lit subjects, a son's hatred for his father.

3. John Updike, The Rabbit Series.
This is cheating a bit, but the Rabbit books need to be dealt with as a whole. No matter what anyone says, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is not a "typical" person; his infant child drowns in a bathtub (partly due to his negligence), he lucks into a lucrative business career, his teenage girlfriend is burnt alive in a fire, and he even has sex with his own daughter in law. That's not the point, really. Even if he's an outlier, Updike uses Rabbit to explore the destructive nature of male lust, male jealousy at its ugliest, the difficulties of fathers in relating to their sons, and what passes for "success" in the eyes of postwar white suburban American males. There is no character in literature who I have despised and loved so fervently in equal measure, mostly since his mind is rendered so vividly real and believable, misogyny and all.

4. Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint.
Roth is another king of the Dick Lit genre, and there are a whole gaggle of novels that could have made the list. I choose Portnoy's Complaint because it deals so frankly and at times disturbingly with the sexual fantasy lives of men and a taboo topic related closely to it: masturbation.
5. Nick Hornby, High Fidelity.

Unlike the American, middle-aged male angst voiced by the above authors, Hornby takes a gentler yet no less accurate approach to the modern man and his foibles. Protagonist Rob Fleming runs a record store in north London, but is still heir to the male pathologies of Rabbit and Portnoy, although to a less icky extent. He obsesses over his former loves, always makes himself out to be a victim, and engages in the ur-masculine pursuit of record collecting. The novel even more than the film embodies the perspective of the thirtysomething hipsterish man trying to figure out how to commit himself to a woman he loves without losing the freedom he prizes. Gee, I wonder why this book appealed to me so much when I first read it....

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Why Slap Shot is My Favorite Sports Movie

The sports film might be the most cliched cinematic genre of them all, one where a one typically sees a rag-tag underdog team or unlikely athlete find a way to win against improbable odds, eventually triumphing in the big game that ends the film.  Several great films have been made within this straight-jacket, but I really appreciate those that play with the formula, or junk it altogether.  My favorite baseball movie, Bull Durham, rises above the rest by not following this convention at all, since the film ends with a romance rather than a championship.

As much as I love that movie, it pales in comparison to that other great film about minor league sports: Slap Shot.  There are many reasons to love it, from the great cast (especially Paul Newman and Strother Martin), hilarious jokes, realistic on-ice action, and a generally high level of profane irreverence.  The plot is fairly basic.  A minor-league hockey team in a dying steel town tries to distinguish itself in the hopes of being bought and relocated so the players can keep their jobs.  An old and younger player clash with each other, but eventually the team comes together and wins the big game.  On the surface, it sounds like just another sports flick, but in reality it is so much more.

Unlike many other sports films, there's a constant sense of realism and utter lack of fantasy.  The players are concerned about their livelihoods after their sporting careers are over, their spouses are bored and desperate, the Charlestown Chiefs have to promote blood-thirstiness to get fans in the seats, their announcer wears a garish toupee, and the team is to be folded because the Rust Belt economy of its city can no longer support it.  In their off hours the players drink beers in dive bars and have to perform humiliating promotions for the team.  The players are less golden gods of athletic prowess than working stiffs worried about their ability to make it in tough times.

It's easy to miss that social realism in the game scenes, which are probably the funniest ever committed to celluloid.  Much of the comic relief comes from the Hanson brothers, three bespectacled goons who make up in sheer terror what they lack in the fundamentals of hockey.  The scene when they first hit the ice is physical comedy at its best.

What I love most, however, is that Slap Shot comments very critically on masculinity and violence in between the funny moments.  The player-manager of the team, Reg Dunlop, decides to follow the Hanson brothers' lead and build a team based on fighting and violence.  The formerly mild-mannered Dave Carlson gets in on the act, getting the nickname "killer" and wearing a Dracula cape.  This disgusts the young star of the team, Ned Braden, who gets benched for his refusal to fight.  This resistance to Dunlop's brand of hockey (along with his apparent disinterest in his wife) leads his teammates to question his masculinity (and even sexuality).  Braden is constantly told that he is not a "real man" because he does not fight.  Throughout the film, the players engage in homophobic insults and seem constantly anxious about their masculinity.

The implied critique of macho culture and the way it saturates the locker room gets full blown at the very end, when the Charlestown Chiefs do indeed make it to "the big game."  Their opponents respond to the Chief's violent ways by creating an entire line-up of infamous goons, and the championship game soon devolves into an ugly brawl, which Braden refuses to participate in.  He then goes out onto the ice and performs a strip-tease amidst the fighting, an action that the announcer finds to be disgusting, rather than the bloodshed on the ice, which he praises.  Once Braden strips down, the ref ends the game and gives the title to the Chiefs, in what has to be the most unconventional "big game" ending in sports movie history.

The whole thing is pretty damn funny, but it also asks tough questions about what kind of society associates manhood with violence and brutality.  In the thirty-five years since this film came out, despite all the complaints about sensitivity training and political correctness, I think that the masculine ideal that most young men are raised to emulate is just as ugly and harmful as it was back then.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sheepish Music Pleasures: Porter Wagoner, "Rubber Room"

There are only a small select number of musical artists that I adore that my wife prefers that I do not play in her presence.  Porter Wagoner is perhaps the one she loathes the most, which has been unfortunate for her, since I went on a record-buying binge of wax from the Wagonmaster's late sixties-early seventies glory days.  (When I lived in Texas finding these albums was a lot easier than in New Jersey, so she's gotten a reprieve as of late.)  If I recall, it was "Waldo the Weirdo" that put her over the edge, since it features his signature talking style of singing, religious moralizing, and oddball sensibility.  It's perfectly normal to find such a song to be completely unappealing.  I for one love all of these things, mostly since Wagoner, unlike so many artists today, is willing to go completely over the top without even the slightest hint of irony.  This is a true act of artistic bravery, and I applaud him for it though others may mock him.

Most people think of Porter Wagoner as a cheesy, cornpone, country-fried showman encased in gaudy, rhinestone encrusted Nudie suits, a sort of Nashville Wayne Newton.  However, beneath that glittery, showbiz exterior lives the dark mind of a man who has found the magic formula of Southern gothic story-telling crossed with preacher parables and gut-bucket honky tonk twanging.  Among his darkest songs is "Rubber Room," the tale of a man committed to an insane asylum.  Wagoner knew of what he spoke, since he spent some time in the sixties at a Nashville mental hospital.

What makes this song even more brilliant than other Wagoner noir classics like "The Carroll County Accident" and "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" is that he uses psychedelic sound effects one normally associates with acid rock bands.  This type of thing simply isn't done in country music, but it takes an unconventional guy like Wagoner to cross a line traditionalists would not dare to tread.

This song might sound kitschy, but if you listen closer, Porter ain't joking.  Last year, when my job turned nightmarish and I was living 1500 miles from my wife in an isolated crud hole town, I used to put this record on the turntable in the morning as a grim joke before going to work.  For about a month or so there it did really feel like I was going to crack up; it was good to get those thoughts out of my system by singing along to "Rubber Room."  I can't think of another song that would have done the trick.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Let's End the Fiction of "Big Government" versus "Small Government"

I am going to keep this short and sweet.

Talking to my folks this weekend, we discussed Mayor Bloomberg's ban on big sodas, and my father framed it as "a loss of our liberties."  I also know that he and my mother are vehemently in favor of criminalizing abortion, keeping marijuana illegal, and preventing gay people from getting married.  However, they would think of themselves as "small government conservatives."  I also know of people on the left who are fine with a robust social safety net, but who also want to see an end to the war on drugs and restrictions on marriage.  What motivates both of these groups is not a belief in "big government" versus "small government," since they both want government in certain places and out of others.  Their differences boil down to broader philosophical divergences, such as the role of society in legislating morality and the extent to which capitalism needs to be restrained.  These things are the real issues in American political life today, and we could have a much more mature debate about them if we dropped the "small government vs. big government" cant from our discourse.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Top Ten Rock Music Reinventions

It's been a long time since I've hit y'all with a top ten list, and I thought I'd go with the top ten rock music reinventions. Some acts, like AC/DC, are famously consistent, sticking with an established formula for decades. (In their case it's mid-tempo blues riffing, no-fills drums, women and "rocking" as the main lyrical subjects, and a screaming lead singer.) Others have managed to undergo stunning reinventions. Today I'd like to consider the ten reinventions I consider the most effective and/or influential.

1. Dylan Goes Electric. Yeah, I know, pretty obvious. But who can deny how important it was for his lyrical sophistication, which leaped from folk song topicality to a poetic voice along the lines of Whitman? (It's a long way from "The Times They Are a Changin'" to "Visions of Johanna.") His songs were becoming less political and more personal on Another Side of Bob Dylan, but adopting the "thin wild mercury sound" seemed to do even more to open up his muse. Without going electric Dylan would have remained King of the Folkies, by revolutionizing his sound he became the most crucial single figure in American rock music.

2. The Bee Gees Go Disco. I'll admit it, I love the Bee Gees, who have suffered so much undeserved ire over the past 30 years due to the overexposure in the late 70s afforded by their disco-propelled rocket ride to the top of the charts. On their early records the brothers Gibb crafted beautifully baroque pop songs steeped with winsome vocals and weeping strings. Then, for some blessed reason, they decided to get super funky in the mid-70s and sing in a distinctive falsetto style. Their first R&B infused songs like "Nights on Broadway" and "Jive Talkin'" were great, but then they shot into the pop music stratosphere with the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. "You Should Be Dancing" and "Night Fever" are two classic slices of propulsive disco, and "Staying Alive" stands as THE definitive pop hit of its era.

3. Wilco Goes Indie. Assembled from the wreckage of Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy's Wilco put out two great alt-country albums before entering more avant-garde waters with Summerteeth. Things only got better with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, perhaps the best album of the last decade.  For the past decade, they have been the definitive independent rock band, and one of my favorites.  While Jay Bennett got kicked out of the band and is sadly no longer with us, he should at least get credit for helping this transition along.

4. The Hawks Become The Band. Alternatively, The Band hit their stride by delving into country and roots music after years of rocking hard as The Hawks. The former's blazing version of "Who Do You Love?" with Ronnie Hawkins may be definitive, but it can't hold a candle to "The Weight."  In the process, The Band practically invented the Americana genre of music and provided a needed, rootier antidote to the excesses of psychedelia.  

5. Bowie Hooks Up With Eno. David Bowie has been rightly famous over the years for his ability to switch personaes. He started as a mod, became a folkie, went glam, tried out Philly soul, and then morphed into The Thin White Duke. His most interesting and enduring music came only after spending some time in Berlin and teaming up with maestro producer Brian Eno for Low and Heroes, albums that sound fresh and innovative even today. Too bad he switched out of this phase for Let's Dance and sold out to the Top 40. Despite attempts to be avant-garde again (Tin Machine, anyone?) he's never managed to totally get the magic back.

6. John Lydon Goes Post-Punk. When he was Johnny Rotten, Lydon embodied the gob spitting ranting of the first wave of punk more than anyone else could possibly hope to. Yet somehow this blowtorch-voiced prophet of doom became an anxious-sounding wailer backed by PiL's unsettling wall of Jah Wobble bass and Keith Levene sculptured feedback. The more I listen to Metal Box the more brilliant it sounds.

7. The Byrds Go Country. Line-up changes can precipitate unexpected musical alterations, and the Byrds are hardly an exception. Adding the god of country rock, Gram Parsons, to their line-up turned these purveyors of electrified folk into a Nashville act by way of the California counterculture. I don't care if their cover of the Louvin Brothers' "The Christian Life" is playing it straight or not, I just know that I love it more than all their prior work combined (and that's saying a lot.)

8. Marc Bolan's T-rextasy. Marc Bolan's early music with Tyrannsaurus Rex is the kind of saucer-eyed Tolkein steeped stuff that gives folk music a bad name. Somehow he managed to break out of the land of unicorns to form T. Rex and blast out the best and most enduring glam rock ever recorded. Rock on!

9. Jimi Hendrix Jettisons the Experience. Although Jimi didn't completely reinvent himself when he formed Band of Gypsies, he certainly got a lot funkier and less wedded to the traditional pop song format. This comes off best with Machine Gun, a song that expresses the horror of war more viscerally and believably than any other I know.

10. Fleetwood Mac Adds Buckingham and Nicks. As much as I try to deny it, I have a growing spot in my heart for Fleetwood Mac. Sure, they were a soft rock band, but they rocked mellow in better and more interesting ways than anyone else. What makes it all the stranger is that they did it after starting off as a heavy blues band led by the blockbuster guitar playing of Peter Green. Drop him, add California kids Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, stir in a mountain of cocaine and a dollop of studio magic, and you get gems like "Gold Dust Woman."

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Strange Brew: A Random Beer List

Last weekend I had the pleasure to visit the New York Historical Society's exhibit on the history of brewing in the Big Apple.  This visit coincided with my recent discovery of some local microbrews, all of which has my second favorite beverage (coffee is first only because I am a hopeless addict) on my mind these days.  Here's a semi-organized list of beers that have a particular meaning for me.

Beer that reminds me of childhood: original Coors.
Because I grew up in Nebraska, Coors was the de facto local brew, and the one preferred by my father (who is only an occassional beer drinker.) Original Coors (or "banquet beer" as its new commercials stress) especially takes me back because Coors stopped promoting and selling it in large numbers by the time I became a teen, which meant that its distinctive gold can reminds me instantly of the early 1980s. (It doesn't hurt that in Smokey and the Bandit that Burt Reynolds is sherpharding a truckload of Coors to Georgia, which was illegal at the time.) For some reason Coors suppressed its relatively good tasting flagship brew (better than Bud or Miller at least) and replaced it with the fizzy, watery cans of piss otherwise known as "the Silver Bullet."  It is a sign of sanity and progress in this nation that Coors has started promoting their "banquet beer" again, complete with the intonations of Sam Elliot.  

Best beer for the money: Pabst Blue Ribbon.
As all seasoned beer drinkers know, there is cheap beer, and then there is bargain beer. Buying bargain beer is a dangerous game; even at a few bucks a case of Milwaukee's Best (what a fucking misnomer!) is a waste of money. For a long time I drank Miller High Life whenever I got short on dough, but in the last three years my bargain beer of choice has become PBR. The cans themselves are a work of art, and a reminder that Pabst beer cleaned up at the 1893 World's Fair (where it won its ribbon.) Although PBR, like all mass-produced American brews, is overly sweet, it still carries a lot more flavor and less of a metallic aftertaste than low priced swill like Old Milwaukee, Natural Light, Schlitz, and Old Style.  I am aware that this beer's affiliation with the hipsters who consume it semi-ironically might have damaged its luster in the non-Portlandia crowd, but you can't argue with the goodness inside of those cans.

Beer that reminds me of drinking underage: Mickey's Malt Liquor.
Mickey's isn't technically beer under the law, but it counts for the purpose of this list. I didn't drink in high school, seeing myself as a rebel against a high school culture where drunkeness dominated. However, when I arrived in college after a summer trip to Germany (which involved the drinking of many tasty beers) I decided to let go of my straight-edge pretentions. Not being able to purchase alcohol legally, I relied on the occassional beneficance of a friend, who invariably bought me and my roommate 40s of Mickey's in order to give us the most bang for our buck. Once I turned 21 I pretty much stopped drinking it, but I do indulge myself in the occassional hand grenade (the little barrell bottles of Mickey's) and remember nights drunkenly spent playing football on SuperNintendo in the dorm. Good times.

Beer that reminds me most of Ireland: Murphy's Irish Stout.
During my one and only trip to Ireland I had gone to the Emerald Isle for a college debate tournament (dorky, I know.) We spent all our time in Cork, a city where Murphy's, not Guinness, flowed from the taps. I've rarely drank it since, and when I do each sip contains happy memories of stumbling down rain slicked streets or staying up late and playing cards in damp hotel rooms.

Beer that reminds me most of grad school: Leinenkugel.
While studying for my PhD I lived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, an area blessed with cheap rents and even cheaper bars, a veritable paradise for someone making only $16,000 a year. Although I would often go to fancy bars like Crane Alley and the Blind Pig and drink a wide assortment of fine beers, the rest of the time I was content to get $1.75 pints of Leinie's at local joints like the Embassy, Esquire, and Iron Post. I also remember countless Sundays spent watching football with a brown bottle of Leinenkugel attached to my hand. In fact, after rent and food, beer was probably my third largest expense as a graduate student.

Best beer for baseball: Old Style.
I love drinking Old Style at Chicago baseball games, but in any other context I avoid it like the plague. For some reason it tastes like fermented goat piss out of a bottle, but like the nectar of the gods at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park. It's either that the kegs in these ballparks have some kind of special magic, or that the heart-lifting experience of going to a ballgame makes me forget that I'm imbibing a beer that has all the appeal of a bucket of lukewarm moose drool.

The beer that can make me cry: Founder's.
I spent two years of my life in Grand Rapids, Michigan, working as a "visiting assistant professor" aka "academic pack mule."  My job wasn't all that great, but I learned to love living in GR, where I made two of the best and truest friends that I could ever hope for.  Michigan has a lot going for it, from the beauty of its landscape to low real estate prices to the unassuming fatalism of its inhabitants.  One of its secret weapons, however, is fantastically tasty micro-brewed beer.  I was lucky to live a short distance from the Founder's brewery, and have many fond memories of hoisting a pint, especially on Monday's two dollar pint night.  The discounted price went into effect after 9, about the time me and a buddy rolled in after teaching our night classes.  Those two hours each week we spent sipping delicious pints and gabbing about our jobs and life were perhaps the most cherished of the week.  When me and my friends got together for a big game, we always made sure to fill up a couple of growlers of Founder's beer.  Occasionally I can get ahold of it out here, but one taste can make my eyes well with tears thinking of the times I had and the people I miss.