Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Religious Moderates of the World, Unite!

It's inherently difficult to get moderates and even-tempered folks to get riled up, hence their being moderates.  America's religious landscape has become increasingly polarized and extremist, both in terms of increased zeal of fundamentalists and conservative Catholics, but also in the increasingly strident, intolerant tone of the new unbelief embodied by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

The most intelligent voices are completely written out of our religious discussions, which usually ends up being a red-faced yelling match between Bible-thumping ignoramuses and smug, insufferable atheists of the Bill Maher stamp. Everyone in the middle, from agnostics to Prebyterians to lapsed Catholics, is sidelined, even though those who are not fundamentalists for the Bible or soldiers for human reason make up the vast majority of people in this country. Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists are especially disadvantaged by this dualistic construction of our public debate (where only Christians like Pat Robertson get to talk), and Muslims are only allowed in to be attacked or to defend their basic right to practice their faith, whether it be in rural Tennessee or lower Manhattan. Religion is not simple, it is startingly complex, mysterious, and multifaceted. Those who present questions of faith and religion in simplistic terms are stupid at best, malevolent at worst.

(This is why I enjoyed Hal Crowther's piece in the Oxford American where he castigates the fundies but defends a more tolerant practice of religion, rather than just dumping it all out, Richard Dawkins style.)

Neither side speaks to me, mostly because I've been in both of their camps, and became disillusioned.  I grew up in a very devoutly Catholic family living in a rural diocese often considered the most conservative in the nation.  I was an altar boy for five years, briefly considered joining the priesthood, and took part in a couple of anti-abortion protests.  For a long time this ironclad Catholic belief fulfilled me, until I started learning the church's history and reading philosophy.  I then very quickly found the church and its faith demands to be ridiculous, mendacious, and incapable of being followed.  These thoughts were already in my head in high school, and once I went to college (ironically at a Jesuit university) I quickly stopped going to church, and soon declared myself to be an agnostic, then an atheist.  I enjoyed entering theological debates with my more devout fellow students, drunk with the powerful arrogance of my new way of thinking.

I'm not sure how, but over time, my views moderated.  I spent a long time thinking of myself as a "culturally-Catholic agnostic."  Much of this had to do with the fact that I knew plenty of people from a variety of faiths and denominations whose belief seemed to bring out the good in them.  I am still frightened at what horrible acts zealotry can spawn, but I am equally convinced that many great people, such as Gandhi, MLK, and Sarah Grimke, were strengthened, nurtured, and driven by their faith, and contra the new atheists, would not have done what they did without it.

Nowadays I'd call myself an Agnostic Episcopalian.  After going to an episcopal church with a friend a couple of years ago, I have been attending services off and on.  The ritual still speaks to my soul, and the hour I spend in church is positively therapeutic, even though I don't fully believe the words I say and hymns I sing.  It feels good to be part of a loving, accepting community, and to listen to a pastor who is just as much a humanist as he is a Christian.  Of course, to the fundies (and the clergy of my former church) I am an unbelieving apostate who is breaking bread with sodomites and their allies, members of a denomination that has strayed from the true path of Christ.  To the atheists, I am an idiot and a weakling seduced by the blandishments of unreason and emotion.  Whatever they all may say, I don't really think of myself as wither an apostate or a mental weakling, but as a spiritual seeker who has finally found a home.

Perhaps it is time for a new ecumenical movement that embraces ambivalence, mystery, and uncertainty rather than castigates it. According to our public discourse, there are only two choices: zealotry and apostasy. Both are thin spiritual gruel. Instead, why not a lavish feast of different faiths grounded in mutual respect and humanity? It's time for the fundamentalists and the apostates to spend time on the sidelines for a change. I have a feeling that the rest of us would be a lot happier.

Footnote: One relatively recent, great book on the effects of Biblical literalism by James Simpson (Burning to Read), really got me thinking about all this. He argues that the Reformation did not lay the groundwork for the emergence of liberalism (as the Whiggish view goes), but in fact was marked by fundamental intolerance grounded in the doctrine of Biblical authority. Reading his account of the early English Reformation has a lot to tell us about America's current religious culture.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Track of the Week: David Bowie, "Warszawa"

I'm sick this week.  It happens every February, the most wretched month on the calendar.  When I take ill, I like to have music for soothing and healing, and I've developed some go-to songs over the years.  Back when I was a senior in college, I got massively ill after making the poorly considered decision to dig my car out of a snow drift without boots on.  It was spring break, and the snowstorm combined with my sickness meant I had to stay in my apartment.

I was in the midst of my David Bowie phase, and had just bought copies of Low and Station to Station, which I listened to constantly over the next few days.  These were appropriate choices, since Bowie recorded them when he was in a period of illness and recovery, and I think that context shows up in the grooves.

On Low, the first side is all relatively conventional art-rock songs, with verses and choruses, and the like.  The second side is made up of experiments and sound collages, which I didn't appreciate so much at the time.  Nowadays, I like "Warszawa" best.  It's based off of Bowie's impressions of Warsaw under communist rule, gathered during a train layover there.  It is the sound of a grey, listless day without hope of sunshine.  To me it paints a picture of a ghostly city, full of people who are less living and more just waiting to die.

What I hate most about being sick is having the feeling that just living and breathing are an ordeal, that most I can hope for in the day is to survive it.  That's exactly what I hear in this song.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Junk Food, The Real Opiate of America's Masses

A few months ago I wrote a post about my favorite kinds of junk food, and I said this:

"If Karl Marx were alive and amongst us today, he would say that cheap junk food, not religion, is the opiate of the masses.  People are willing to passively accept warrantless spying by their government, drug tests from their employers, and surveillance cameras on any corner, but will get up in arms if you dare restrict their right to giant containers of sugary soda."

The recent article in the New York Times Magazine about the science behind addictive junk food got me thinking about this fact again.  Until recently, overconsumption of junk food was a cheap vice that was completely socially acceptable.  Folks might frown at smoking or judge someone for drinking to excess, but chomping through a whole bag of Doritos and washing it down with a liter of Mountain Dew would hardly draw much notice.  Not only that, this was something that I did as a child all the time while having parents who would have taken me to the woodshed if I drank or smoked.  A friend of mine who grew up in a very religious, evangelical environment always likes to talk about how overeating, i.e. gluttony, is the one acceptable vice among devout Christians.

Growing up as I did in a lower-middle class household governed by cheap parents, junk food was one of the few things we were allowed to indulge in.  My mom would bring home bulging bags of Brachs Pick-a-Mix candy from the grocery store every week, along with crates of soda.  (Since it was cheaper, many varieties of Shasta were always on hand.)  My father loved pretzels and Fritos, and cracked open endless cartons of Whoppers.  Once I was old enough to be drawing an allowance, I would go to the drug store across from my junior high and buy a handful of peppermint patties and mini-Reese's cups just about every day, without a shred of parental disapproval.  My family is not alone in this.  Junk food in this country is cheap, plentiful, and always at hand.  As I mentioned before, our whole agricultural policy is centered around the proposition that a bag of Cheetos ought to cost as much as a bunch of spinach.

In the past thirty years, those of us who are not in the upper-strata in the taxpayers have been getting squeezed.  College now means decades of debt, medical bills cause bankruptcy, and wages are stagnant.  However, potato chips, candy bars, and Big Macs are still as cheap as ever.  Having another frustrating day working your no security, shit-pay job where you have no voice?  Just crack open a soda and chomp down on some chips and candy until your body warms up to the sugar and carbs and your troubles are forgotten.

We should be doing more to understand this country's consumption of junk food as a class-based phenomenon, and not of the "the proles are so dumb and uneducated and stupid they're eating themselves to death" variety I keep hearing from affluent urban liberals.  I've changed my eating habits, but I understand why someone might be upset over losing the Big Gulp.  What right does a billionaire like Bloomberg have to deny a simple, if unhealthy, pleasure to a regular person who has so little in life that they can afford to indulge in?  Instead of just berating consumers of junk food, we ought to hold the people who make and market it more accountable, and to question the cruel, unequal economic system that has made the masses seek an opiate in junk food in the first place.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

What JJ Abrams Should Retain, and Jettison, for the Star Wars Sequels

I am alternately elated and frightened regarding the announcement of upcoming Star Wars sequels directed by JJ Abrams.  The elation is easy to explain, of course.  I am a huge fan of the Star Wars films, and ever since I was a child I have been craving to know what happens to the galaxy once the emperor has been defeated.  Back in the early 1990s, I intently devoured the Timothy Zahn-authored sequel novels, and even constructed my own imagined plot for a sequel trilogy.

My trepidations, in light of the letdown occasioned by the Lucas-helmed prequels, should be equally easy to understand.  Of the three, only Revenge of the Sith was really worthy, with Phantom Menace lame and most of The Clone Wars all but unwatchable.  The mediocrity of these films damages the bright luster of the originals, and cheapens them to an extent.  (The fact that Lucas then put changes into the originals to make their plots more consistent with the prequels is even more galling.)

I do have some hope that JJ Abrams will do a good job.  Everyone wants to see harbingers of his approach to the new trilogy in his reboot of Star Trek, but I think the excellent Super 8 provides more clues.  I thought Super 8 was a highly underrated film, and that it combined art, pathos, adventure and comedy together in a masterful way.  That same combination of factors is what made the original Star Wars trilogy so great.  Here are some things from the prior Star Wars films that are kept, and some that ought to be let go.

Ambiguous Characters
People want to think of the Star Wars saga as a battle between good and evil, but many of the best characters are actually quite ambiguous, and they tend to keep proceedings from getting too moralistic and dour.  For instance, Han Solo is a cut-throat smuggler who initially refuses to assist the Rebel Alliance in their Death Star assault, and on Hoth decides to abandon the cause simply because he's welched on a bet.  Lando is extremely ambiguous, and the audience's trust and sympathy for him as a character swing wildly during his time in Empire.  Even Obi Wan is not to be trusted, since he intentionally hides the truth from Luke for his own purposes.  The new films need characters like these if they are to be interesting.

Non-Forced Comic Relief
Despite all the seriousness of The Force and Jedi training, many of the best moments in Star Wars films are the humoross kind, like Han being unfrozen at Jabba's palace, asking Luke how things are going, and Luke telling him just like the old times, and Han snarkily huffing, "that bad?"  Han and the Droids tended to provide the best comic moments, but Luke and Leia had their share as well.  The prequels suffered so much because the main characters had little sense of humor, and the comic relief was outsourced to the execrably unfunny Jar Jar Binks, whose brand of prat-falling physical humor went out with the Keystone Kops.

The droids added so much to the original sequel, and not just in terms of humor.  They often commented on the actions of the human characters, and allowed the audience to see things from multiple perspectives.  Much of the Ewok stuff in Jedi is completely tedious, but the elements involving C3PO are funny and endearing, especially in how his behavior does not always match wishes of his supposed human masters.

The Star Wars universe, as presented in the original sequel, grabs the viewer right away.  I feel this is the case in large part because unlike other science-fiction universes, it is a gritty place where things are dented, stained and used up.  It feels lived-in, and surprisingly organic.  Very early on in Star Wars, the viewers are taken inside the Jawa trawler, which is a kind of rolling junk shop full of second-hand droids.  The prequels, which I guess were supposed to reflect the galaxy before the destructive effects of war, showed a world that was glittery, gauzy, sparkly, and relatively clean.  It was not inviting or homey, it was sterile and lifeless, despite the color.  For the new sequels to work, they need the dirt, grit, dents, and wear and tear of the originals.

Dump Politics
I still don't understand the political plot of the prequels, beyond the fact that Palpatine takes power.  I do not give a damn about the Trade Federation, or understand the machinations of the Senate.  The original sequel contains just enough politics to drive the plot forward (Leia is on a "diplomatic mission" and the Senate's been dissolved) and that's it.  I'd say that's all you need, even if there is potential for a political plot based on the need for the heroes of the originals to establish a new government in the wake of the Empire's collapse.  The thing is, we go to Star Wars films for their epic mythos, not to contemplate the rigors of state building.

Dump Midochlorians
Making the Force a matter of biology enables an insidious, Social Darwinian view of society.  Perhaps Abrams can have a little aside where the viewers learn that the "science" surrounding midochlorians was actually proven to be false.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Track of the Week: The Strokes, "Reptilia"

Sit down, kiddos, and old uncle Werner take you back to a distant time called the early 2000s.  Y'see, in the late 1990s, American rock music hit its biggest trough since the days of shoulder pads and hairspray.  The pioneers of grunge had shuffled off of the stage, and all we were left with were the likes of Creed, Sum 41, and Puddle of Mudd.  Yeah sure, there were some good indie acts out there, and Radiohead put out some amazing records, but they were not the types to plug in the axe, crank up the amp and ROCK.

'Round November of 2001, when pretty much everyone was feeling rotten after the 9/11 attacks, your uncle Werner got at least a little satisfaction from the rise of what we called then the "the bands."  Y'know, The Hives, The White Stripes, The Libertines, and The Strokes.  These guys brought back the rock, and not the turgid, self-pitying grunge-lite that had been polluting the airwaves for years.  The Strokes really kicked the whole thing off, and I must have listened to Is This It on a daily basis for awhile there.  As much as I loved that record ("Someday" in particular), it wore out fast.  The Strokes had a pretty set formula: shuffling up-tempo beat, basic post-punk riffs, and the singer opining decadent lyrics while laconically over-drawing his vocals.  I also discovered that they were a bunch of trustafarian New York pretty boys, which made the hipsterized, blase attitude of the music hard to swallow.

Having given them up for The White Stripes, I happened to miss out on their best song, "Reptilia," which came out on their second record.  It's got the same ole formula, but the beat's more insistent, the guitar lines more searing, and the vocals more vital.  The part 2/3's of the way through, when the song just gallops off like an untamed stallion, still gets me every time.  It's the closest anyone has come to matching New York punk greats Television on their own sonic turf, and for that the Strokes deserve a tip of an aging man's hat.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What's the Matter With Nebraska?

As regulars of this blog know, I grew up in south-central Nebraska.  Over the last fifteen years of my life, I have resided outside of my home state, and have been viewing political developments there with increasing worry.  Thomas Frank's flawed masterpiece, What's the Matter with Kansas? tried to explain conservatism's appeal to working-class whites in areas that were once politically progressive.  To understand what has changed within political conservatism, I think my home state provides the perfect case study.

Nebraska has long been a bastion of conservatism, both politically and socially.  When the Cornhuskers won their national titles, they did it with a running offense that was a throwback to the olden days of football.  Growing up, the most subtle dig you could make at something or someone was that it/he/she was "different."  My love of indie rock in high school didn't make me cool, it made me the subject of mockery.  In terms of politics, Nebraska has gone for Republicans in every single presidential election since LBJ's landslide in 1964.

Despite the Cornhusker state's conservative ethos, it has not been, until recently, dominated by radical conservative ideology.  It has been a state with a robust public sphere, including well-funded schools, low tuition at state universities, plentiful state parks, and the best damn interstate rest areas in the nation.  (No joke!)  Democrats used to be elected to major offices, including Ben Nelson as both governor and senator, Bob Kerry as governor and senator, Jim Exon as senator for almost twenty years, and Ed Zorinsky for two terms, all within my lifetime.  The state's conservatism was based in more traditional sources, not in free-market worship or anti-tax hysteria.

That has changed.  Last year, the state's Republicans nominated a Tea Party-backed candidate, Deb Fischer, who is now in Washington.  The other current senator, Mike Johanns, a popular former governor and relatively moderate conservative, has just announced that he won't run in 2014.  He has been willing to compromise with the Democrats, and has been critical of the far-Right fringe, who now has the power to prevent his reelection.  I would not be surprised if another Tea Party-style Republican ends up with the nomination.

As far as the governor's mansion is concerned, the race to succeed Dave Heineman was thrown open when the current lieutenant governor was caught using his state-issued cell phone to have sexy time with multiple mistresses.  The first new candidate to step forward, Charlie Janssen, is the author of a voter ID bill and has pushed for Arizona-style racial profiling laws.  He spouts off terms like "individual liberty" in his campaign pronouncements despite his desire to suppress the vote and use the police to harass Latinos.  The man is so zealous in his hatreds that he wants a law to ban unborn children of undocumented immigrants from getting pre-natal care.  ("Pro-life" indeed.)  My state hardly has a sterling record when it comes to racism, but I never knew of Nebraska politicians who so nakedly used racist resentment to appeal to white voters.  In sum, Janssen represents the kind of hard-Right conservatism Nebraskans used to let places like Texas and Mississippi practice.

Heineman, the current governor, has hardly been less zealous.  In fact, he was so furious over the state legislature's override of his vetoing a bill restoring the aforementioned prenatal care that he campaigned against giving the low-paid unicameral reps a pay raise.  He also recently proposed eliminating Nebraska's income tax while expanding its sales tax (including extending it to food), an insanely regressive move.  Evidently that move has foundered, but in doing so, Heineman is attempting a full frontal assault on the state's traditional social contract in favor of the type of brutally regressive schemes favored in states like Texas and Florida.

My home state was always conservative, now it is becoming radical.  I guess decades of Fox News, talk radio, and massive bales of money from outside organizations have worked.  Every time I come home I am more and more shocked that the fundamental generosity and public-mindedness of my homeland has been replaced with hatred, resentment, fundamentalist religiosity, and laissez-faire orthodoxy.  Nebraska's fate has been shared by large swaths of this country, and the fact that radicals now control so much of the country makes it that much harder for positive change to happen in this country.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Real Reasons Behind the Roadblock of Chuck Hagel

As usual, our nation's fatuous news media is covering a major war over an important issue without actually talking about it.  Republicans in the Senate are blocking the nomination of Chuck Hagel, who as a former conservative Republican senator from my home state of Nebraska, is hardly some kind of Leftist pacifist.  Having served on the front lines in Vietnam and taken shrapnel for his troubles, he has a much more intimate relationship with war and the military than most other Secretaries of Defense.  So why all the opposition, to the point of an unprecedented filibuster?

Most media sources either take the Republicans at face value, and see legitimate concerns over Hagel's past in their attacks, or portray this all as some kind of personal revenge for Hagel's criticisms of the way George W. Bush conducted the war in Iraq.  Neither one of these interpretations is true.

They want to stop Hagel because the Republican party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the military industrial complex.  The War on Terror has boosted military spending to old Cold War levels, and the big contractors have made out like bandits.  Hagel is publicly in favor of president Obama's long-term plan to draw down the size of the military, and that's why he is considered such a danger.

For all of their talk about "small government" and cutting "waste," conservatives love dumping trillions of dollars into our war machine.  They're even known for funding stuff that the military doesn't even want (but that those contractors do.)  They attack welfare recipients as lazy, but are more than happy to give sweetheart, no-bid contracts worth billions to the likes of KBR, no matter how bad their performance.

For over the past decade, we really haven't had a debate in this country over whether our metastasized military ought to be maintained at its current, megasized level.  Now that military cuts are in the offing after years of wild spending, Republicans want to do anything they can, including throwing themselves on the wheels of the democratic process, to stop any change from happening.  That's what's really going on here, and it's a sign of their success in manipulating national media narratives that hardly anyone is talking about it.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Looking for a Home, Literally and Figuratively

My spouse and I recently made the decision to move out of our apartment, which is getting much too small for two adults, two children, a cat and a dog.  We've also pretty much decided to buy a house or condo, and it's more than likely that we won't be buying here in Newark.  However, we haven't really been moving too fast towards this goal.

We've both managed to get this far in our lives without buying a home, and that's certainly no mistake.  During my years as a wandering scholar, I either didn't have the money or the long-term job prospects to be buying a home.  I'm also deeply suspicious of the American cult of home ownership.  There's also the fact that homes in this area are insanely expensive, and I when I see substandard houses being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, I think I'm a sucker to pay these kinds of prices.  Having grown up in the rural Midwest, where you can buy amazing houses for 150K, this is especially hard to swallow.  It's just that I feel I'm an even bigger sucker to not have my monthly rent payments building up equity.

Beyond all of these practical roadblocks, I have been stymied by the choice of where to live.  Since we reside in northeastern New Jersey, there are innumerable communities to choose from, as they are all relatively small and shmushed up against each other.  If I had my druthers, we'd move to Brooklyn, but the commute would be so difficult for my spouse (who works in suburban New Jersey) that there's no way we can do that.  I like living in the Ironbound a lot, but the property taxes here are nuts, and the quality of public schools are low.

At the bottom of all of this, I don't know where it is that I could feel comfortable living for what will likely be the rest of my life.  I've rarely ever lived in places where I fit in.  Growing up in my isolated hometown, I was a bullied misfit, and was extremely happy to break away from it.  I found some community in college, but it was a school dominated by frat culture and Catholicism, those of us who weren't praying or doing kegstands on a constant basis had some camaraderie, but we were vastly outnumbered.  Once I got into academia I was much more likely to feel comfortable, surrounded as I was by fellow nerds.  However, once I was expelled from the warm cocoon of grad school, I spent three years on the tenure track in East Texas, at a school and in a town where my outsider status was practically branded on my forehead.  If I had stay there for the rest of my life (shudder) I would never have fit in or been accepted.

One great thing about the Ironbound is that I stand out so much here that I have no pressure to fit in, since there's no way that could ever happen.  If we move to a different community, things get more complicated.  There are towns I like, both because of their proximity to the commuter train line and quality books stores, as well as their atmosphere and diversity, but these places tend to be quite expensive for all those reasons.  The more affordable places so resemble the lower-middle class enclaves my wife and I grew up in that they make me feel like running for the hills, screaming in fear.  I have zero desire to go back to such places, which is why I live in the Ironbound in the first place.

Complicating matters is that I like being in the Ironbound so much.  Even thought we've decided to leave, this place has got more life for a lower price than just about anywhere.  Perhaps this neighborhood's centrifugal force will pull us in for good.  I may not fit in here, but I do find it awfully comfortable.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Track of the Week: Ted Nugent, "Stranglehold"

I was shocked and surprised as anyone else over Ted Nugent being invited to the State of the Union address.  I wasn't at all surprised that it was a Texas Republican who invited him, since Texas Republicans are so brazen that they will go out of their way to bring a man to hear the president speak who has threatened his life on multiple occasions.  As much as the "you lie" travesty, it represented to me the complete lack of respect for the president to the point of insane hatred common on the hard Right.

Then I got to thinking.  When did Ted Nugent go from being a hard rock guitar hero to a Right-wing whack job?  I had no inkling of the man's politics when I was first exposed to him through the Damn Yankees power-ballad "High Enough."  In the video, the long-haired Nuge played the guitar-god to the hilt (Patton Oswalt has hilarious commentary on this) and his searing solo was the only thing that kept the song from being completely mundane crap.

Soon after I got into the rock music of the 60s and 70s, and spent many a night listening to the local classic rock station, where I was exposed to Nugent chestnuts like "Cat Scratch Fever."  I always thought he was third tier at best, making the kind of unsubtle, riff-heavy cock rock that Bad Company at least managed to pull off with some panache.  (And I thought they still sucked.)  However, I made an exception for "Stranglehold," whose first three minutes are a kind of Platonic form of a genre I call Trans-Am Rock.  There's the churning bass line, crackling drums, and inescapable riff that hold things together until the second half of the song becomes the type of overdone, overindulgent Edgar Winter-style jam that Spinal Tap was created to parody.

The more I think about it, this song actually gives us some clues regarding Nugent's future as a conservative fanatic.  The "stranglehold" of the title might be metaphorical, but it sounds like the boastful abuse of a woman.  I was curious about his personal life, and found out that he has openly admitted to having sex with underage groupies.  I find it curious that this fact hasn't had more airplay, considering Nugent's prominent position on the Right.  Then again, if the abuse scandal in the church taught us anything, it's that this crowd will rend their garments over the "holocaust" of fetuses, but turn a blind eye to sexual abusers of living, breathing children.

Other telling contributions abound.  "Stranglehold" sounds to me like the perfect accompaniment for drifting off into a weed-smoke filled haze, which I am sure many a young man did to this song back in the mid-1970s when it was released.  Despite this fact, Nugent is vocally anti-drugs and anti-drinking.  I take this as another confirmation of my steadfast policy never to trust a teetotaler.  A man who doesn't drink but diddles teenagers has got some issues.  And yet he still has an audience, and the audacity to threaten the president, then show up at the State of the Union, which is why I can't enjoy this song anymore, despite the hardcore rocking.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Benedict's Retirement: A Crossroads for the Church?

This morning was a reminder that world events move at their own pace, and still have the capacity to surprise us.  After all, a pope hasn't resigned in almost six centuries, and that was to end a crisis in the church when more than one man claimed the throne of St. Peter.  There is all manner of speculation about Benedict's motives, but won't indulge in that exercise, since divining the internals of the Vatican is a hardy task for even the most dogged pope-watcher.

I'd rather speculate about the church's future.  Joseph Ratzinger, whether as pope or cardinal, has been a dominant -if not THE dominant- figure in the Roman Catholic church's turn back towards doctrinal conservatism.  He has been the Metternich of the clerical counter-revolution against the changes brought by Vatican II, striving to turn back the clock at every turn.  Under him the church has forced an inelegant and literalist liturgy on its lay parishioners, has revived the Tridentine Latin mass, has waged war on nuns for their lack of ideological fervor, has cracked down on theology departments at Catholic institutions, and has generally favored the enforcement of narrow church teachings over emphasizing the diversity and catholicity (in the literal sense) that has long been the church's great strength.

This has all happened at a time when membership is dropping, even in former strongholds like Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Latin America.  Benedict has also been in power at a time when the full reality of abuse by clerics has come to light.  Benedict is an organization man, and I think he understands that the church's current crisis is so great that it needs a leader with the energy and confidence to confront it.  The fact that he plans on retiring to a cloister within the Vatican itself indicates that Benedict might be planning on having influence over his successor.  This is all unprecedented, since the other popes who retired did so for explicitly political reasons, not health, and got out of the way.  (Although, who knows, this resignation might be political in that it's a response to the abuse scandal.)

I see one of two directions for the church, which is obviously at a crossroads.  It could keep moving in its current direction, but to do so would mean having a more charismatic conservative at the helm who could gain the trust and affection of the faithful.  John Paul II was such a man, but I do not think we will see the likes of him again in our lifetimes.  If another strict doctrinal conservative takes the papal crown, he, like Benedict, will have his work cut out for him.  On the other hand, I could also see a little surprise, and the possibility of a quiet, careful reformer becoming pope.  With any luck, the church could get another John XXIII, and get itself back on the modern track it had been on after Vatican II and before the current counter-revolution.  Don't hold your breath, though.

I don't see that happening, mostly because the church has already alienated and lost the Catholics who would be receptive to major reforms or who would push for them in the first place.  For example, ex-Catholic is now the second-largest denomination in this country (and one I belong to), and I doubt that will change much.  It is an institution that is becoming more and more focused on doctrinal rigidity and ideological purity, driving out adherents and making those that have stayed more rigid than ever before.   (I have witnessed this change of events with members of my family and their circle, who went from being devout Catholics to religious fanatics.)  Perhaps the next will merely confirm this new reality, or even embrace it, rather than follow John XXIII's sage advice to "throw open the windows of the church."  Joseph Ratzinger has done a good job in the last decades to make sure they stay shut, which will be his ultimate legacy.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The GOP's Devil's Bargain With the Tea Party Has Come Due

Four years ago the Republican Party had just been thumped hard in the 2008 elections.  They lost the White House and Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress.  The voters had roundly rejected George W. Bush's policies and the party that maintained them.  Republicans were in desperate need of a makeover, and os something to rally a conservative base that also felt let down by the former president.  That's when the GOP began their dual strategy: to complicate, block, and frustrate the new president by any means necessary on Capitol Hill and in state governments, and to whip up their hard core followers by Astro-turfing the Tea Party.

The latter arm of their strategy was a devil's bargain, because they were openly stoking extremism of the kind that had once threatened to derail the conservative movement after World War II.  More pragmatic conservatives like William F. Buckley expelled the whacko Birchers in the 1960s, and the charismatic and appealing Ronald Reagan became the face of the movement.  Ironically, in light of today's developments, it was the Left that proceeded to tear itself apart over ideological differences.  The Right became a disciplined machine well-oiled by corporate money and assisted by the decline of the old Fordist economic model.

After the 2008 election, lots of pundits wondered whether conservatism's thirty-year hegemony over American politics was finally coming to an end.  I must admit, I was one of them.  To prevent such an outcome, the Republican leadership resorted to the nuclear option of unleashing the formerly hidden whacko wing of the part, now rebranded the "Tea Party" and supposedly reflective of broad popular outrage.  Stoked by open racial resentment, its lips dripping with the word "nullification," and dominated by a paranoid, extremist mindset, the new radicals may .  These were the types of people that the conservative movement had kept in the closet, so as not to freak out moderate voters, but now they were the Republicans' biggest asset.

While the Tea Party strategy worked in the short term, getting Republicans back into power and giving the party faithful a sense of purpose and momentum, it was not a strategy meant to last forever.  Unfortunately for the party leadership, the Tea Partiers, emboldened by their apparent show of force, do not want to go back to the shadows.  In 2012, the Tea Party quickly became a liability, with the likes of Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert making the Republicans look like the "stupid party," in the words of Bobby Jindal.  It could even be argued that Tea Party candidates like Todd Akin kept the party from regaining the Senate, something that Karl Rove now appears to agree with.  His attempt to organize support for establishment candidates has led to brutal internal warfare in the conservative ranks, with the establishment now being threatened by a permanent insurgency.

Of all people, Karl Rove ought to know what happens when you sign a deal with the devil: he always gets his due.  Rove's more intelligent and less reckless forbears like Buckley understood that you can't keep political extremists under control.  Fanatics of all stripes will stop at nothing to get what they want, which is why they are to be kept from the levers of power.  It would be easy for me to gloat at the Right's problems, but by enabling fanaticism, the conservative establishment has been like the sorcerer's apprentice, unleashing dangerous forces beyond its control.  For a short-sighted bit of cynical strategy, we all now must suffer.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

America is an Empire, No Matter Who is President

This week it's deja vu all over again, as that sage Yogi Berra once said.  During the Bush administration it seemed like not a week went by without some hair-raising revelation about the laws defied and rules broken in The War on Terror.  Back then, that war was much more in the public eye, with our cowboy-in-chief promising to "smoke 'em out of their caves" and to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive."  We heard about "extraordinary rendition," secret prisons, mysterious flights, and illegal wiretapping.  The current president has taken a much less macho stance, and has avoided invading other countries, but it is becoming more and more clear that he too prefers to operate in a legal gray area.

Our nation has been sending drones around the world to commit targeted assassinations, including against American citizens.  This week we are now learning of the Obama team's rather fuzzy definition of what an "imminent threat" means, and what justifies these deadly strikes to begin with.

This is not how it was supposed to happen.  When campaigning for the presidency, Obama promised transparency, an end to Guantanamo, and for America to behave like a responsible world citizen.  He does deserve credit for putting an end to the Bush torture policies, but by and large, he has continued to prosecute the War on Terror with methods reminiscent of the Bush years.  Our government has been ruthlessly violent with members of terror groups, engaging in a direct strategy of killing off anyone who might potentially be a threat.  This approach has the advantage of flying under the radar (unlike the invasion of Iraq), which means that most people in this country don't seem to know or care much about it.  The hit on bin Laden, one of the few operations to get some attention, might be the most popular decision of Obama's presidency.

It should not surprise us that this former constitutional law professor who won a Nobel peace prize soon after being elected president would be using drones to rain death and destruction around the globe.  There are forces in the world that control all of us, including the president.  Even the most conscientious president must grapple with the unavoidable fact that America is an empire.  Empires, by their nature, seek to maintain their power, influence and reach, and will do all kinds of nasty things to make sure that happens, often in secret.  (This scene from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold pretty much sums up that hard reality.)

I do not think that even a president is able to change that basic fact of political life, and that shift would only occur if the public definitively decided that they were tired of the complications arising from America's imperial obligations.  I don't see that happening.  Like other former hegemons, America won't cease being an empire until after some kind of calamity forces the issue.  As much as I hate the crimes that America's imperial status demands, I fear the cataclysm that would end that status even more.  My only hope is that this nation can find some way to hang up its imperial crown in a new and more peaceful fashion, but I doubt that's possible.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Top Ten Reasons Baseball is Better Than Football

The Super Bowl is over, and the 2012 NFL season is finally finished.  Good riddance.  Pitchers and catchers report in less than a week, a fact that gets my blood racing and brings a smile to my face.  Despite the cold weather here in New Jersey, I am getting in the mood for baseball.  I am about to pre-order the Baseball Prospectus guide to the 2013 season, a now yearly ritual for me.  I am also about to tear into two other baseball books I've been saving for this occasion.

Why the NFL continues to be America's most popular spectator sport is beyond me, I'd much rather watch basketball (pro or college), college football (which is much more interesting), soccer (especially the international variety), hockey, and of course, baseball.  America's past-time gets put down all the time for its supposed boring and slow nature -most famously by George Carlin- but I can come with several reasons for baseball's superiority, of which I will only list ten.

1. The Ballpark. Going to the ballpark is a total experience and much more fulfilling than going to the gridiron for a football match. In the first place, the weather is better, warmer, and certainly more condusive to sitting outside. (Baseball's seasonal arc is certainly more compelling: it begins in Spring when life returns, continues through the hot summer, and ends in October when the leaves fall and nature goes dormant. It's the one sport whose season mimics the human life cycle which might be why it produces so much good literature.) The food is invariably better, and you don't have to try eating your hotdog with gloves on. I can't quantify it, but the atmosphere at the ballpark always seems more relaxed, more welcoming. Perhaps it's the rhythms of the players warming up and throwing the ball to each other, or the satisfying crack of the bat during BP that creates such a vibe. And yet this experience is considerably more affordable than going to an NFL game and watching a bunch of genetic (and pharmacological) freaks beat the living crap out of each other. Also, unless you're in the press box, it's impossible to see all the action on the field at a football game.

2. Artistic Inspiration. Baseball has fired the imaginations of great and lesser artists, whereas football seems to deaden them. It would be impossible to list all the great books, films, and songs that have been inspired by baseball, but here's just a few: Field of Dreams, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, Bull Durham, The Natural, Eight Men Out, The Bad News Bears, The Bad Guys Won, Major League (very funny and under-rated), Ball Four (the best first hand account ever written by an athlete), Moneyball, "Centerfield," "Casey at the Bat," Cheers (Sam Malone was a former pitcher, after all) and  Eastbound and Down, I have an anthology of baseball writing from the American Library that also has great passages inspired by baseball from top-flight authors such as Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Nelson Algren, James T. Ferrell, John Updike, and Amiri Baraka. On his radio show, Bob Dylan managed to get a whole hour out of songs with baseball themes. Could you fill a literary anthology or a theme-time radio hour with artistry inspired by football? No way. Only boxing comes close in this regard.

3. History. Baseball has a sense of history irresistable to yours truly. Its history is inextricably tied to that of the nation's, whether that history be honorable or shameful: the 1919 Black Sox with the corrupt Harding administration, Jackie Robinson with the civil rights movement (which his efforts helped inspire), the "Gentleman's Agreement" and turn of the century racism, American imperialism and the spread of the game, Curt Flood and sixties rebellion, the Dodgers, Athletics, Braves, and Giants moving south and west with the postwar Rust Belt etc. Its rich history is also just a pleasure to delve into and explore, perhaps why it generates much more interesting books than any other American sport.

4. Player Treatment. Yes, it is ridiculous that left handed middle relief pitchers can get paid millions of dollars, but less of a travesty than the NFL players who have been debilitated and physically wrecked by their playing experience are told "let them eat cake" by their OWN UNION! These players risk life and limb without even guaranteed contracts, get sent out to play after suffering multiple concussions, and on top of it, their average career lasts about four years. All the while that it pleads poverty in paying better pensions to physically mutilated veterans, the NFL has mastered the art of funneling massive sums of money into the pockets of its owners.

5. The World Series. Let's face it, the Super Bowl sucks ass. The most exciting thing to happen at a Super Bowl in the last ten years was Janet Jackson's boob coming loose during the half-time show. Is there any other sport where the championship is such a consistent let down? And yet is there any other championship so cravenly hyped and laden with media overload? The World Series, on the other hand, occurs right after the playoffs and goes on for two weeks of high tension and high-stakes competition. Even a seven game series is over in less the time it takes for the NFL to stage its bloated event after the conference championship games. On top of all that, the games are just more exciting. I can probably think of five "classic" Super Bowls in my lifetime, there were at least as many classic games within the 1986 or 1991 World Series alone. No Super Bowl moment even touches things like Carlton Fisk's homer, Bill Buckner's error, Joe Carter's homer, Jack Morris' 1991 game 7 pitching performance, Paul Konerko's 2005 grand slam, or (especially) Kirk Gibson's homer in game one of the 1988 series.

6. The Seventh Inning Stretch. Speaking of halftime shows, they are ALWAYS lame, and halftime itself is just the longest of several breaks in the action in a typical NFL game.  It's yet another opportunity for advertisers to make their pitch, and for fans to keep gorging themselves on junk food.   There's no halftime in baseball, and the lack of a clock might also contribute to the more relaxed vibe at the ballpark, a place where the people of the world can forget about the demands of time for awhile. Instead, baseball has the seventh inning stretch, perfectly placed about the time fans' asses are getting sore. The communal ritual of singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" never fails to lift my spirit, instead of passively watching "entertainers" on the field, the fans themselves participate and sing a song that celebrates the fun they're having at the ballpark.

7. Umpiring. Though the NFL sits atop the American sporting hierarchy it chooses a bunch of near-sighted geriatrics to referee its games, and then constantly throws their authority into question with interminable instant replay judgements. (Based on these frequent stops in action how can anyone say baseball moves slowly in comparison to the NFL?) The majors, on the other hand, have a highly professionalized cadre that it recently has done much to improve by purging bad umps a few years ago and using computer technology to enforce a more consistent strike zone. I also like that the umps are a real presence in the game: they prepare the balls and hand them out in the game, they let the managers engage in arguments with them, they are more likely to throw someone out of a game etc. This is only tangentially related, but the cumbersome and multifarious NFL rulebook (which must be about as thick as the tax code) doesn't help things either. It creates a legalistic environment and constant useless arguments over things like the "tuck rule."  The NFL's lockout of the refs this year also showed how little the league values quality officiating.

8. International Players. Baseball has profited greatly from its international appeal, many of the league's best and most beloved players hail from Japan, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, and many other nations. This means that the general talent pool in baseball is much stronger, and it gives the game a more cosmopolitan character utterly lacking in football. (It should come as no surprise that Chevy used to run its ridiculously nationalistic "This is Our Country" ads primarily during football games.) It also makes it much more representative of the society that America is becoming.

9. Fantasy Baseball. Yes, this marks me as a bit of a sports dork, but I much prefer fantasy baseball over fantasy football. For one, I get to follow fantasy baseball each and every day of the season, it literally gets me out of bed in the morning so I can see how my team is doing. (hey, whatever it takes to get me moving!) Fantasy football infuriates me to boot, mostly becuase of the NFL's arcane injury rating system ("probable," "doubtful," "questionable") which often makes it impossible to know which players will start. On top of that, touchdowns determine the fate of fantasy football teams which rewards players who happen to be lucky. Finally, fantasy baseball requires better skill; it takes more than just one Adrian Peterson to win, and I've seen teams with players in the Top Five finish low in the standings because a fantasy baseball owner needs to build a complete team to compete.

10. Violence and its Consequences.  Football is a violent sport, and the awful toll of that violence is becoming much more vivd these days.  Football has always caused the kinds of horrific injuries that ruin lives at a rate far surpassing baseball, or any other sport aside from boxing and UFC. Many of the players suffering permanent brain damage don't even make the pros, they have their futures ruined playing for college teams that make plenty of money but only have a marginal interest in those who generate it for them. The concussion issue is much, much, more serious than steroids; we should stop holding football to a lower standard than baseball because of our misbegotten notions about the "purity" of the latter sport.  Plenty of other players, who do not suffer the suicidal depression of Junior Seau after getting their brains turned to mush, end up barely able to walk, or with their lives cut short.  Should we really expect other people to endure these things for our amusement?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Track of the Week: John Barry, "Midnight Cowboy"

If there was ever a song made for my lonely trudge today in the pre-dawn darkness down Ferry Street to Newark Penn Station on a bitter cold February Monday morning, this is it.

Soundtrack scores used to be a lot more interesting, if you ask me.  Some others from this era ("Get Carter," "Fistful of Dollars" etc.) will stick in your head like glue.  I like "Midnight Cowboy" best, since it evocatively embodies the title character of the film, a naive Texan who comes to make his way in New York, only to find disappointment and humiliation.  The harmonica part at the beginning is so slow and droning that it sounds like a melodica on a dub reggae record, but more dirge-like.  The chunky dum-dee-dum rhythm comes from countless old Western scores, but here sounds laden with doom, a parody of the freedom of the wide-open plains.  You can just picture Jon Voigt's out of place cowboy, walking down the mean streets of the big city with the loping gate of a country boy, who might as well by an alien from another planet.

I guess I like the song so much because I often feel out of place myself, a child of the rural Midwest making my way in the concrete canyons that give no solace.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Cranky Bear Takes on the Super Bowl

[Editor's Note: I'm enjoying some family time this weekend, so I thought I'd turn the reins over to my friend Cranky Bear, who has been chomping at the bit to get one of his missives published.  As usual, I claim no responsibility for what follows.]

Hello y'all, Cranky Bear here with a glass of smooth Portugese table wine and a plate of pasta puttanesca to warm my belly on a cold February night.  Tomorrow is our nation's most popular unofficial holiday, the Super Bowl.  It is a holiday that represents much that is rotten and awful in American society, and I am here to deliver a sermon on this theme.

We live in a society debilitated by consumerism, marred by violence, stupefied by mass media, made flabby by gluttony, and politically stunted by mindless, jingoistic nationalism.  The Super Bowl puts all of these things in a big, bombastic package.  It all seems to have very little to do with its ostensible purpose, which is to decide the champion of the National Football League.  There are masses of people who don't give a flying fuck about who's actually playing, and are waiting to see what commercials are airing.  (Yes, we are so consumerist in our outlook that advertisements have become entertainment.)  Others are just amped for a Sunday of eating seven layer bean dips and bacon-wrapped little smokies washed down with large quantities of beer.

Super Sunday itself only comes after two full weeks of unremitting hype.  "Media week," the extra week off between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, is an inescapable torrent of inane story lines, stupid questions, and idiotic speculation.  Even more so that presidential elections, the run-up to the Super Bowl exposes the complete utter fucking vapidity of national press.  It is such a ridiculous spectacle that there is even media coverage of media week itself as its own phenomenon.  It's America's uselessly shallow post-modernism at its most empty and soul-sucking.

As true sports fans know, the Super Bowl has long been a let-down when it comes to on-field excitement, especially after two weeks of media saturation.  Growing up, it seemed that every year brought a new blow-out.  Yes, there have been exceptions, like the 1991 Giants-Bills game that ended with Scott Norwood's wide right field goal try, or the Giants-Patriots in 2008 tilt that turned on David Tyree's famous "helmet catch."  However, more typical is the Stan Humphries-led Chargers getting vivisected by Steve Young's 49ers 49-26 in 1995.  Many of the games that look close on paper were actually snoozers.  Other sports have a lot more excitement in their championships.  Nothing in the Super Bowl has ever come close to matching Magic Johnson's last second mini-skyhook at the old Boston Garden in game four of the 1987 NBA finals or Kirk Gibson's home run to win game one of the 1988 World Series.  I doubt anything ever will.  In both of those games I felt giddily stunned, as if the world had fallen off of its axis.  Nothing in the Super Bowl, not even the Tyree catch, has made me feel.

The Super Bowl is hardly worthy of a sport that is America's most popular, but that popularity increasingly perplexes me.  The NFL is a carnival of technocratic violence, of men with impossibly large bodies smashing into each other again and again and again.  It is becoming increasingly obvious that the physical and mental toll of the game destroys the lives of players and their families.  The game has become so specialized and strategized that individual excellence is increasingly hard to find, apart from a small number of players who are endlessly touted in the mass media.  And to a greater extent than other professional sports, NFL players like to spout off about how God enabled them to win the big game.  There is perhaps no more prominent platform for the spewing of the narcissistic "by this sign you shall conquer" brand of idiot American religiosity.

Worst of all is the Super Bowl's (and NFL's) exploitation of jingoistic nationalism.  The NFL was just as complicit in turning Pat Tillman from a doubting soldier killed by friendly fire into a larger than life he-man used to gin up support for our misbegotten adventure in Afghanistan.  Once the real circumstances of his death emerged, the league was more than happy to play up its associations with the military while letting Tillman's name drop from the conversation.  Each year seems to bring plenty of flag-waving and tributes to the military, complete with jet flyovers and bombastic renditions of the national anthem.  At home the people stuffing their fat fucking faces full of buffalo wings can feel like they've taken a moment to "think about the troops" without doing a goddamned thing to contemplate the misery and death that our nation's wars have caused and still do.

It's only appropriate, I guess, that this year's display of empty-headed national pride will be taking place in the New Orleans Superdome, site of one of this country's greatest shames, the treatment of victims of Hurricane Katrina.  I wonder if anyone will bother to think much about that, beyond some maudlin sentiments to wash down the guacamole and bean dip.  How soon we forget such things, and fuck the Super Bowl for perpetuating our nation's moronic, soulless way of being.

Friday, February 1, 2013

An Appreciation of REM

Last year REM very quietly broke up, something that left me with some mixed emotions, certainly not what my teenage self would have expected.  REM was without a doubt my favorite band from the moment in 1991 when I saved up some lawn mowing money and plopped it down on the barrellhead at the local Musicland to buy Out of Time. By the time a year and a half had passed I had bought their complete back catalog (mostly on cassette) and spent hours in my room plumbing the depths of each album. At a time when "alternative" music had not yet gone mainstream, REM fandom was a badge of honor, a sign of sophistication in the face of a wave of hair metal and homogenized pop. During my senior year of high school I became a disciple of punk rock, and for awhile that was about the only music I listened to.  While REM still held a place in my heart, their music no longer seemed quite so revelatory to me. That feeling grew in college, and when the band soldiered on after drummer Bill Berry retired, they began to look more like rock dinosaurs than innovators.  When they finally called it quits, I felt like the decision was ten years too late.

Although the last fifteen years of their career did not produce much of value, REM's classic-era music really holds up.  Today I listened to "Life and How to Live It" as my express subway train rollicked down the tracks, a sublime and exhilarating experience.  Now that I'm older I understand that REM's greatness lay in their collective nature, much like The Band and The Beatles. Most rock bands are one or two charismatic people surrounded by side musicians who usually hog too much of the spotlight. Not so with REM, all their songs had the byline "Berry Buck Mills Stipe," an acknowledgement that the band created the music, not some enigmatic genius. For that reason I think it's hardly a surprise that the group was lost in the wilderness after Bill Berry's departure. Each one of its members made unique and irreplacable contributions.  Let's break it down:

Bill Berry. At first glance, former drummer Bill Berry might not seem all that important, but the group just wasn't the same after he left in 1997. Berry's drumming was not flashy, but that was the point. Instead of distracting from the songs, his steadiness and subtlety allowed them room to breathe, much like Ringo Starr's unjustly maligned drumming. His backing vocals also contributed to the wonderful harmonies that set REM off from clumsier acts. Last, I think his laid back attitude and humor kept the group grounded during their rise to stardom.

Peter Buck. Re-listening to REM's early records I am blown away by the beauty of Peter Buck's jangly guitar parts, which sound like a post-punk reinvention of the Byrds. (My favorite Buck guitar part? The opening to "Pretty Persuasion.") Buck is definitely the musical center of the band, and growing up he was the one I idolized. He seemed like the supercool, laid back guy with a quick sense of humor that I wanted to be, not the shy dork that I really was.

Mike Mills. Bass player Mills is like the guy on a basketball team who can come off the bench and bring everyone else up, the Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson of alternative rock. Not only do his melodic bass lines fill out the band's sound, his wistful backing vocals often provide great counterpoints to Stipe's leads. On the occassional tracks where they let him take the spotlight ("Texarkana," "Superman") he shines. He's also the guy who's undergone the biggest physical transformation, going from a nerdy look to growing out his hair and wearing Nudie suits. (Hey, if I had the money I would too.)

Michael Stipe. Stipe was probably the most compelling front man in alternative rock, and that genre's sensitive, poetic answer to the preening Mick Jagger. They have plenty in common despite the contrast between Stipe's earnest social conscience and Jagger's decadent satyr personae. They share an androgynous edge, both Jagger and Stipe have uniquely spastic dancing styles, and they even share similar vocal sensibilities. Though Stipe is a better singer, he and Jagger both borrow heavily from, and slightly parody roots music traditions. Jagger's affected drawl imitates the blues with a knowing leer by way of the East End, whereas Stipe's twang sounds like country in drag. For proof, check out this vintage rendition of "Don't Go Back to Rockville," where he amps up the hillbilly factor.

Ages of You: A Guide REM's Eras and their Albums
[This is nerdy and obsessive, but I feel like doing it. There, I said it.  Ed.]

The Early Years of Mystery, 1982-1985 (Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, Reconstruction of the Fables)
Coming out of the gate with songs like "Wolves, Lower," on their debut EP Chronic Town, early REM combined cryptic, mumbled lyrics with fierce jangly guitars and melodic bass over basic drums. Murmur, their first proper album, is one of my favorites to listen to at night, its mysterious nature seems ill suited to the daytime. Off of this "Perfect Circle" and "Moral Kiosk" are particular faves. Reckoning offers up a slightly less mysterious but still strong set of tunes with Mike Mills' bass getting more attention on tracks like "7 Chinese Bros." I used to think that Reconstruction of the Fables was the weakest of the early albums, but now I love its explorations of rural weirdness and rainy-day feeling.  The band, however, always said this one was their least favorite, which is perhaps why they decided to change up their sound afterward. Signs of the future can be found in the funky "Can't Get There From Here" and the less opaque lyrics of "Driver 8."  The music from this period was like nothing else at the time, and its many imitators have failed to match it.  Despite all the great stuff that came after, the first EP and three albums will probably be what REM is known for decades from now.

The Rocking Out Years, 1986-1990 (Life's Rich Pagaent, Document, Green)
With 1986's Life's Rich Pagaent the group switched gears and took on a much more straightahead rock approach which some die hard fans still bemoan. Considering that they had pretty much played out their old approach, I'm happy that tracks like "These Days" rock hard. Another change came in the lyrics, which became a lot less mumbly and a lot more political. "Fall on Me" had an environmental message, "The Flowers of Guatamuala" addressed conflict in Central America, and "Cuyahoga" decried the genocide of Native Americans. 1987's Document perfected the band's new formula under the guidance of producer Scott Litt (who went on the produce most of the following albums), and even yielded its first hits in the form of "The One I Love" (the song that first got me interested in the group) and "It's the End of the World As We Know It." The follow up, Green, was their first on a major label, but mined the same shaft as Document to lesser effect (except for the awesome "World Leader Pretend.")

The Mandolin Years, 1991-1993 (Out of Time, Automatic for the People)
With 1991 the group had their biggest hit, "Losing My Religion," but did so after taking a step away from their rawk sound of the late 1980s. The lyrics are cryptic, but the topic isn't the United Fruit Company or nuclear weapons, it's matters of the heart and perhaps, *gasp* the previously verboten subject of love. Perhaps most momentously, Peter Buck's mandolin part drove the song, signalling a shift towards a more folk rock vibe. Out of Time still had some very pop, Byrdsy guitar moments like "Shiny Happy People," a much attacked song that I will defend to the death. It's a fun homage to sixties psychedelic pop and comes complete with a soaring Kate Pearson vocal and shining Buck riff. What's not to like? The follow-up, Automatic for the People, took things in a darker direction with a similar folky sensibility, and is easily their best album after the early years (or perhaps the best bar none.) "Drive" is an appropriate elegy for rock music, and tracks like "Sweetness Follows" address death head on. "Nightswimming" is perhaps their best ballad, "Man on the Moon" a pop classic, and "Find the River" a sublime way to close things out.  The album?  A masterpiece.

The Return of Rock Years, 1994-1997 (Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
At the height of their fame and artistic ability, REM decided to go back into rock mode, perhaps influenced by the contemporary grunge explosion. In 1994 they unleashed Monster, the most feedback-laden record of their career, and one that die hards (but not me) love to trash. With the first single, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" they seemed to announce their relevance to all the flannel clad youngsters out there and claim their status as Godfathers. While touring off of Monster they recorded a lot of 1996's New Adventures in Hi Fi on the road during soundchecks (evidently the recording of Monster had almost broken up the band.) It's got a lot of rock and roll on it, but also a cutting sense of dread on songs like "E Bow the Letter" and "Bittersweet Me." Despite an overlong playing time and some needless filler, it's their last great album.

The Post-Bill Berry Era, 1998 to 2012 (Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate, Crash Into Now)
Berry left after having a scary brain aneurysm, and even though REM has produced some good music since then, it's been pretty patchy in quality. Up and Reveal brought in some of the pop feel of the early nineties and a lot more keyboard textures, and even a handful of solid tunes ("All the Way to Reno," "Imitation of Life," "Lotus," "At My Most Beautiful" ) but nothing out of this world. Truth be told, I have yet to listen to their last three records, the only REM albums I don't own. Perhaps now that I have Spotify I can at least see if I was missing anything.  On the bright side, I've enjoyed Peter Buck's contributions to the Minus Five and The Baseball Project, and it's pretty amazing that REM managed to keep updating their style without ever really sounding derivative.