Friday, February 28, 2014

Dreams of Baseball to Beat the Winter Cold

This has been a pretty wretched winter, made worse by yet another cold snap today.  It is the kind of cold where I can feel the air freezer-burning my lungs as I breathe it in, the molecules moving so slow as to be inert.  There are faint glimpses, however, of something better.

I got a glimpse today after work, drinking an end of the week pint at a local Irish pub with some co-workers.  The bright sun, which gave such cold comfort in the frigid air outside, actually warmed my face as it shot through the windows.  On the television I saw the Mets playing their first spring training game in the bright, warm air of Florida.  When I closed my eyes I could hear the sound of the ballpark in my ears and feel the warmth of the sun on my face.  I immediately dreamed of having a seat down the third base line on an immaculate June day.

The older I get, the more I anticipate the coming of baseball season.  It's little to do with my appreciation of the game itself or the prospects of my teams, and mostly about what the game symbolizes.  It means rebirth and warm weather, and a constant friend who is part of my life for six months.  One of the things I love most about baseball is its dailiness; during the season there are games every day.  Sometimes I intensely watch them, other times I don't, but I am constantly comforted by the knowledge that baseball will be there for me if I want it. It is a soothing certainty in a world where little seems dependable anymore.

As I pour such anticipation into the upcoming season, I'll share some links and things that have helped tide me over this off season.

Lucas Mann, Class A
Just finished reading this book, which is about the a season with the minor league Lumber Kings of Clifton, Iowa.  It is the smallest city with a class A team, and one that has been ravaged by deindustrialization.  Mann does a great job of describing both minor league baseball and what its like to live in a small town whose best days are behind it.

Lee Elia's Rant
Early in the 1983 season things weren't going to well for the Chicago Cubs.  Manager Lee Elia responded to the situation and criticism in the media and blowing his gasket with what must be the greatest rant by a coach ever.  It is a masterpiece of profanity and anger.

Doc Ellis' No Hitter
Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Doc Ellis pitched a no hitter in 1970 while he was on acid.  This video made with his narration is well worth watching.

Vin Scully on the Mic
Because there are 162 games in a season, the quality of baseball broadcasters means more than in other sports.  The best announcers are like a good friend or beloved relative, and nobody is better at calling baseball games than Vin Scully.  I can pretty much listen to him all day.

The White Sox Winning the Series in '05
The MLB seems to have finally come to its senses and allowed its content to be put online.  Much to my happy surprise, I found that they put the complete game 4 of the 2005 World Series on YouTube, meaning that I can watch my White Sox in their greatest moment, and forget about the frustration that this season will surely bring.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Stop Telling Young People to "Follow Your Dream"

Being an educator, I have sat through my fair share of graduation speeches and presentations.  The phrase I have heard the most often in them is one that sticks on my tongue like a burnt piece of popcorn "follow your dream."  I heard it plenty growing up myself, and I kept listening to it despite what the pursuit of my dream was costing me.  That phrase is one of the great propaganda slogans of American society, akin to the maxims taught to the little babies in A Brave New World.  It's a slogan, not a cliche, because it makes an implicit statement about American life: if you pursue your dream and put in enough work, you will eventually achieve it.

I have a crown on one of my molars, and I occasionally feel it with my tongue and get wistful.  That molar is a my constant reminder of what it really means to follow your dream.  I cracked that molar at the end of my time in grad school, but did not have the money to get it fixed.  When I left grad school for a job on the contingent track I still didn't have dental insurance, and had to opt for a temporary fix that lasted me until I was out of academia and had a dental plan that actually did its job.  (I used to get blinding toothaches when I was in the latter days of my tenure-track gig, but knew that my crummy dental plan wouldn't really cover anything.)

The dream meant more to me than my health or financial security back then.  I remember lean end of the month weeks in grad school where I feared spending any money lest I bring on an overdraft.  I remember driving cars that were practically falling apart, including one whose automatic seatbelt was busted, which wasn't exactly safe.  I remember the 80 hour weeks and sleepless nights.

I followed that dream to a contingent position in Michigan, then to a tenure-track gig in the pine forests of east Texas.  It meant being separated from my wife and living in place where I felt like a lonely outcast, lost and unable to find my way home.  I endured a toxic work environment and bullying that nearly broke my spirit.  By the time I left academia for a private school gig in New York my confidence was so shattered that I wondered if I was capable of trying anything without failing at it.  I had put so much of myself into my identity as a professor that I felt like I had been expelled into exile.

Luckily, I managed to land in a great job.  Unfortunately, the emotional investment I had made in my old career did not immediately go away.  For about a year and a half I mourned the death of my academic dream, as if I was mourning the death of a loved one.  Or more accurately, mourning the death of part of my soul.  I am only finally getting over it, but occasionally a memory of my past life will trigger a stinging emotional pain.

At least I met a lot of great people along the way and cultivated my mind in the bargain.  It wasn't a total loss, but I now know that I can never tell a young person to "follow your dream" and leave it at that.  It's pretty easy to follow that dream right into the abyss.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ailes, Murdoch, and The Real House of Cards

I've been reading Gabriel Sherman's Loudest Voice in the Room, a new biography of Fox News impresario Roger Ailes.  It makes for fascinating reading, in the way that I find reading about Richard Nixon to be fascinating.  Ailes has much of his former boss's paranoia, resentment, bigotry, and unscrupulous Realpolitik.  It also got me thinking about the real nature of political power in our world today.

We are much too inclined to ascribe political power to government officials, when they are mostly beholden to much more powerful people who do not hold office but pull the strings.  The revelations about Tony Blair this week are a case in point.  When News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks was in hot water over phone hacking, the former PM quickly came to her rescue, trying to find ways to mitigate damage to her and her boss, Rupert Murdoch.  (Until recently Blair and Murdoch were chums.)  For three decades now it has been impossible for anyone to get elected prime minister without Murdoch's backing, so powerful is his media voice in Britain.  The recent information reveals without a doubt that it is Murdoch, not Blair, who holds the real power in their relationship.  After all, Murdoch owns a massive chunk of the global media, and has used this power in the past to destroy his enemies and promote those he has anointed.

This brings me back to Roger Ailes, who as head of Fox News is one of Murdoch's most prominent employees.  For the first time in America's television history, there is a popular network that acts primarily as a propaganda arm for a political movement.  As Sherman's book reveals, Ailes is a die-hard Nixonian conservative who thinks that liberals are out to destroy America, and this fundamental belief drives the content on Fox's shows.  Fox has played a large role in thwarting president Obama's ambitions by putting fringe conspiracy theories into mainstream political discourse, and essentially creating the Tea Party movement out of whole cloth.  (Let's not forget where Rick Santilli's rant was broadcast, or who he was working for at the time.)  Beyond that, the Republicans are now beholden to Ailes.  No GOP candidate for president can possibly get the nomination without Fox's endorsement.   In the larger scheme of things, Ailes has remade political media into a highly partisan game where reportage is meaningless and ideology triumphant.

In light of the media's power to shape narratives and build up and tear down whomever it pleases, I am rather surprised that anyone watches a show like House of Cards thinking it reflects political reality.  Politicians are not evil geniuses, that would require intelligence.  No, they are venal, petty, and incompetent, ready to kiss the butt of whatever corporate sponsor or media mogul can help keep them in office.  In the grand scheme of things, the politicians themselves are usually weak, and almost always serving others.  For example, the media turned a two-bit bullying jackass of the kind who has often held the governor's seat in New Jersey, and turned him into a celebrity before his craven behavior showed the real Chris Christie.  The GWB shutdown is not a work of masterful political manipulation, but a stupid act reflecting the aforementioned venality, pettiness, and incompetence.  Christie was able to ride out his string a lot further than he should have because he had the backing of Ailes and Murdoch.  Now they have taken a step back, and MSNBC has turned him into a nightly punching bag.

With that knowledge, isn't it about time we transferred some of our paranoia from the government to media conglomerates?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Track of the Week: The Chocolate Watch Band "Dark Side of the Mushroom"

Sometime early in the year 2000 I picked up a used copy of the first volume of the original Nuggets compilation, mostly out of curiosity.  I was quickly blown away, and bought the four disc Rhino box set and started tracking down albums by The Standells and The Electric Prunes.  In case you don't know, the Nuggets series compiles "garage rock" 45s from the period between 1965 and 1968, an era when thousands of young men inspired by the Beatles and Stones picked up guitars and did their best imitations with fuzzy guitars and brash organs.  They were usually less adept, but louder and full of energy.  While they couldn't necessarily put out an album's worth of quality stuff (except for maybe The Sonics), almost all of these groups had a great 45 in them.  Nobody really remembers Mouse and the Traps, but "Maid of Sugar, Maid of Spice" is one helluva barn burner.

Around that same time I really started getting into classic soul music, another genre where great singles are prized more than albums.  I began to think that as I much as I liked albums, that they were overrated  and focusing too much on album artists had caused me to miss the embarrassment of riches that was sixties garage rock.

The Chocolate Watch Band from California derived their name from a joke referencing the The Strawberry Alarm Clock, whose "Incense and Peppermints" was one of the breakout psychedelic hits.  The CWB had a brutal sound, and lead singer Dave Aguilar sounded like a more menacing version of Mick Jagger.  (Take a listen to "Are You Gonna Be There At The Love In?" for proof.)  He doesn't sing on "Dark Side of the Mushroom," a gloomy instrumental that sounds like a hangover after the love in, and one I like to listen to on the train into work on days when I am feeling particularly tired.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Still Waiting For That National Conversation About White Masculinity

The death of Jordan Davis has rightly and obviously triggered discussion of racism, "stand your ground" laws, and our broken justice system.  In addition, it should also be prompting a discussion of white masculinity and its dysfunction.  Michael Dunn appeared to have been inflamed by some sort of slight to his masculine honor by black men, who also supposedly posed some kind of threat to him deserving of death.  I am having a hard time separating his easy readiness to dispatch violence in this manner from his sense of offended white masculine honor, but few out there have been commenting on this.

White American masculinity is seriously messed up.  It is based around fantasies of control, subjugating others, and using violence to solve problems.  I said as much in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook horrors, since white men disproportionately account for the perpetration of mass shootings.  These shooters are often failures who can't reconcile their inability to measure up to the expectations that white masculinity has laid out for them.

The case of Richie Incognito and his racist bullying has got me thinking about this, too.  White boys are  taught that they are the masters of the universe, and implicitly understand that they have the power and right to do violence to others to maintain their positions.  The justice system and institutionalized racism have had a lot to do with Michael Dunn's acquittal on murder charges, but the patterns of thought and lived behavior that allowed him to pull the trigger and then go about his business as if nothing happened ought to be critically examined, too.  Until we have that needed national conversation and start acting upon it, more will die.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Songs For Winter

The winter here in New Jersey has been particularly awful.  Snow keeps accumulating and the temperatures are stubbornly frigid.  My complicated commute to work has become a daily ordeal of canceled trains, two mile walks in the snow, and general awfulness.  As it does in just about every facet of my life, music has helped me cope.  A good winter song provides a warming glow, like taking a nip of bourbon after shoveling the snow off the walk.  Here are some of my favorite songs for winter time, add your own in the comments if you'd like.

Rod Stewart, "Mandolin Wind"
I've said it before despite some protests, and I will keep saying it: Rod Stewart's body of work from 1968 to 1973, be it solo or with Jeff Beck or the Faces, is among the best created by anyone, ever.  (All in all, ten great albums are worth listening to in the space of five years.)  Yes, he has spent four decades squandering his talent, but the man could sing and when his voice was paired with the right material he really hit the jackpot.  This song references winter, but its steel guitar and mandolin (natch) create a languid, warm vibe.  Put this on while wearing a cardigan and drinking some hot coffee and you'll forget about the draft coming through your window for awhile.

Richard and Linda Thompson, "Withered and Died"
During my first winter in Michigan I became a huge fan of Richard and Linda Thompson's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.  I still listen to it often this time of year, but I have specific memories of this song, which get at the despair I felt that winter over a failed attempt on the academic job market while working on the contingent track.

Wilco, "War on War"
During the winter of 2003 I fell into an intense blue period, which coincided with my obsession with Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album.  This song's grimly optimistic lines "You've got to lose/ you've got to learn how to die/ if you want to be alive" stuck with me in that dark time.  This song also has some of Jay Bennett's best synthesizer work.

Otis Redding, "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)"
No singer's voice warms my soul like Otis Redding's does, except maybe Sam Cooke (who I prefer to listen to in the summer.)  This is the best of his "sad Otis" songs, where he takes on the persona of a man wounded by love.  It's one I used to always put on the jukebox in the dead of winter in grad school while hoisting a pint at the local pub to escape the cold.

Velvet Underground, "All Tomorrow's Parties"
The droning sounds of the early Velvet Underground have always seemed suited for winter for me, their hazy guitars and viola hanging like my breath in the frigid air.  I get that feeling the most on this song, where the restrained guitar sounds like the faded winter sun, the portentous drums the chill in the air, and the repetitive piano line like the endlessly falling snow.

My Bloody Valentine, "Only Shallow"
Some winter days it is paradoxically bitter cold while the sun shines painfully bright in a cloudless sky, the light blasting off of the piles of snow, making my eyes ache.  On those days I crank this grungy classic, which sounds like how my eyes feel.

Yo La Tengo, "Sudden Organ"
Droning, feedbacky music makes my mind warm, and apart from the Velvet Underground, nobody does it better than Yo La Tengo.  I also love songs that get their names from musical aspects of the song, such as the dominating organ on this track.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

State Level Reactionary Radicals And The Needed Response

The inability of a Florida jury to convict Jordan Davis' killer of murder is mostly a reflection of the white supremacy that holds the lives of young black men in low esteem.  (Others, such as friend of the blog Chauncey DeVega, have articulated this fact well.)  However, that verdict was abetted and given legal cover by the "Stand Your Ground" doctrine in Florida.  That law is the result of a fearsome change going on in state governments around the country.

Radical reactionaries and their monied paymasters have realized that their ideology has become so noxious to the majority of the population that they cannot get one of their number in the White House, and their preferred candidates often have a hard time getting elected to national office.  (Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are the exceptions that prove the rule established by Todd Akin, Christine O'Donnell, and Sharron Angle.)  Instead they have leveled their sights on statehouses, where off-year elections for many state offices mean low-turnouts.  With fewer voters at the polls, the voice of an extreme faction can be amplified by a concerted get out the vote campaign.  Billionaires like the Koch brothers can get a Scott Walker or Rick Snyder in office at discount rates, then sit back while labor laws are gutted, knee capping their most powerful opponents in the process.

America's antiquated federalist system gives state governments a surprising amount of power, even over issues that touch on fundamental rights.  States decide who gets to vote and how, which has led to several laws banning felons from voting, requiring ID, and reducing early voting opportunities.  The intent behind these laws is pretty obvious.  These actions have now been given legal sanction by the Supreme Court striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act, driven by the "states rights" orientation of chief justice Roberts.  States also have a great deal of control over education, which allows the Bobby Jindals of the world to privatize public education and give state money to religious institutions.

In recent weeks the power that state-level reactionaries hold has become sickeningly apparent.  The Kansas House has passed a horrible bill that would make it legal for businesses to discriminate against gays and to give legal cover for employers who fire workers based on their orientation.  The Jordan Davis case has shown yet again how Stand Your Ground can be used to let killers get away with murder.  The state of Arkansas is moving to end its "private option" Medicaid expansion and deprive hundreds of thousands of its own citizens of health care.  The state legislature in Arizona has voted to nullify the EPA and make federal officials answer to local sheriffs.  In Florida polling places have eliminated in areas with large populations of people of color.

The hold that radical reactionaries have on so many state houses does not look like it will change anytime soon.  As the state-level attacks on Obamacare have proven, federalism can be manipulated to blunt and frustrate reform, just as the Senate can be filibustered.  The reactionaries also have a massive propaganda machine on their side, in terms of Fox News and talk radio.  The political culture in places like my Nebraska hometown has been completely altered from conservative yet still public-minded (I grew up with well funded schools, libraries, and parks) to batshit-crazy radical reactionary.

I am at least heartened by the fact that bona fide progressives like Bill de Blasio have been elected to important local offices, and are pushing unabashedly progressive agendas.  If national change is impossible in the capital and whatever does happen gets shredded by state-level reactionaries, progressives need to organize locally and start building from the bottom up.  They also need to stop being ashamed of themselves.  DeBlasio's election prompted all kinds of hand-wringing about a progressive mayor of New York City, one of the most liberal cities in the country.  Wouldn't that just be natural?  We take the fact that Texas barfs up the likes of Perry and Cruz at face value, but somehow a liberal from a liberal place is an extremist.

In the aftermath of Citizens United and the ability of wealthy puppet masters to buy local elections, I don't hold out much hope for a reaction against the reactionaries in places like Kansas, despite its more moderate political past.  (Perhaps things can change in Wisconsin and Michigan, but the damage may already be done.)  However, states like New York, Massachusetts, and California can offer models that include more rights for workers, more educational opportunity, and a more humane way of life.  My heart goes out to my marginalized friends in Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Nebraska.  I hope that their fight to roll back the reactionaries succeeds, but in the meantime lets give them a better alternative to point to.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Track of the Week: Bob Dylan, "Gotta Serve Somebody"

Bob Dylan has made a career confounding critics and frustrating his fans.  In recent days he has done so by figuring prominently in a Chrysler commercial that aired during the Super Bowl.  A couple of years ago he put out a perversely old-fashioned Christmas album, which while not quite on par with him going electric in '65 or country in '69, occasioned plenty of exasperation.

His most surprising and divisive change, however, probably came in the late 1970s, when he started putting out albums full of Christian music, beginning with 1978's Slow Train Coming and ending with .  The music reflected his involvement with the Vineyard Church, which was part of the explosion in the size and influence of non-traditional evangelical Christianity during the 1970s.

The single "Gotta Serve Somebody" boldly announced Dylan's new perspective, wrapping it in a pop package for maximum impact.  Dylan's fans, of course, were not amused.  To this day most view his music from this time as anathema, and voted "Gotta Serve Somebody" his second worst song in an online poll.  For the poet of the sixties counterculture to trade in the apocalyptic imagery and scripture-quoting of a revival preacher was just too much for a lot of people.

Looking back, Dylan's religious period was just a more intense expression of aspects of his art that had been there since the beginning.  Back in his earliest folky days his songs were packed with Biblical references.  "When the Ship Comes In" is the story of the Second Coming, complete with lyrics referencing the drowning of Pharaoh's army and conquest of Goliath.  "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" comes across like a piece of Old Testament prophecy.  Later songs in his career, like "Ring Them Bells," brim over with religious imagery.

Seen in this light, "Gotta Serve Somebody" is another "finger-pointing" Dylan song with heavy religious overtones, already common in his work, more pronounced.  What strikes me when I listen to it is the sound, which is as slick as slick can be.  It's got groovy funk and polished production and reminds me powerfully of the blockbuster work of Fleetwood Mac in this same era.  It is a far cry from the more off-the-cuff, thrown together sound you hear on most Dylan recordings.  (For him the song has been much more important than its mechanical reproduction.)  While some of the other material on the album might suffer from this approach, "Gotta Serve Somebody" still sounds great.

The lyrics point to a fundamental truth that exists for all of us, whether we be religious or not.  None of us is the master of our own destiny, and to think otherwise is a delusion.  We spend most of our lives serving somebody or something else, and ought to think long and hard about what it is that we are actually serving.  In this song Dylan proclaims his desire to serve the Lord instead of material things.  I read this as a statement about what really matters in life, and what doesn't, and what it means to live a good, meaningful live.  Even if you're turned off by Dylan's religious overtones, it's still a topic well worth contemplating.

Friday, February 14, 2014

I Wanted To Be George Brett, Turns Out I'm Tom Brookens

The sport of baseball has provided many useful metaphors over the years. Some people have two strikes against them, some throw you a curve ball, others hit a home run in their career, or strike out, if they're unlucky. Unprofessional behavior is "bush league." High school boys still grade their sexual encounters by what base they happen to reach, or at least claim to have reached. (Stand-up doubles very easily get stretched into triples or homers in the retelling.) Baseball is so entrenched in our metaphorical language that some folks find it cliched to talk about baseball as a metaphor for life. You might say that, but cliches are cliches for a reason.

I was reminded of this today in an email conversation with a close friend. Like me, he's been buying old wax boxes of baseball cards from the 1980s (they are surprisingly cheap), and has been noticing the career trajectories of the various players. He saw a parallel with his academic career, likening himself to Steve Balboni and perceiving a similar career decline.  (I think he is being too hard on himself, and also forgets that Balboni hit clean-up for the 1985 World Series-winning Royals.)

During my brief academic career, I never managed to stick as a big league starter. I was a solid journeyman who never played for the right team, and now I am out of the game as a player. Working as a "visitor" for a regional state U was like riding the bench on a fifth place team. Moving from there to my job as a tenure-track professor, where I was not allowed to teach in my specialty most of the time, was like hitting seventh and being switched from a left fielder to a third baseman. My current job teaching high school is almost like becoming a minor-league manager. The best player metaphor for myself that I could come up with was Tom Brookens (he managed the West Michigan Whitecaps, one of Detroit's class A teams, when I was living in the area. He also wore glasses as a player.) Then again, maybe I never played in the majors at all. My old institution was the very definition of bush league.

Baseball stings hard because like life itself it is so dominated by fear of failure. One line in the movie Moneyball has really stuck with me: "at some point, we all realize that we can no longer play the boy's game." As I crack open my packs of baseball cards, I see names that I had forgotten about, and players whose accomplishments have all but disappeared into oblivion: Calvin Schiraldi, Ken Phelps, Chet Lemon, Kirk McCaskell, Atlee Hammaker, Sid Bream, Oddibe McDowell, Mark Wasinger, Floyd Youmans, and on and on and on. Some were pretty damn good for awhile, others only managed a season or two in the majors. Then again, they did make it to the bigs, their names are in the Baseball Encyclopedia and they've been immortalized on very own bubblegum cards, something that can never be taken away from them. Baseball greatness, like greatness in any walk of life, is pretty goddamned hard to achieve.  Perhaps its pursuit, rather than its attainment, ought to be emphasized in this cruel, failure-laden world. After all, we all can't be George Brett.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Christie's Scandals Expose NJ Democrats' Weakness

With each passing day come new revelation in L'Affaire Christie.  I must admit, they make me positively giddy, because I deeply dislike a man who has attacked my family's livelihood (in the form of his attacks on teachers) and has gutted state aid to Newark, my old town and a place still close to my heart.  However, each new revelation also makes me equally mad at the Democratic party.

Now that the governor is in hot water, all kinds of Democrats are popping up their heads to call him a bully, but these same people did the bare minimum, if anything, support Barbara Buono in her attempt to unseat Christie last year.  Some of the most prominent state Democrats, like Cory Booker, wanted to keep cozy with Christie by staying out of it, while others actually went so far to endorse him, the representative of another part.  They did this despite the fact that the Christie administration has taken a giant dump on Democratic constituencies like teachers, urbanites (who are mostly people of color), and union members.  When the state legislature approved a gay marriage bill, he rejected it.

The fact is, the state Democratic party is completely useless.  Booker is a glamour boy who used Newark to advance his political career, period.  He's more interested in hanging out with his friends on Wall Street that fighting a man who has slashed social spending to the state's poorest residents.  Others, like bosses Joe DiVincenzo in north Jersey and George Norcross in south Jersey are worse, since they do not give a shit about people in this state, only maintaining power.  They were the first to sign a deal with Christie, since it meant being at the table when the patronage pie was divided.  These two men are machine bosses of the old school, and "represent" disadvantaged communities in the state who have suffered the most under Christie.  That fact has not deterred them from cutting deals with him for their benefit, or from defending him from scandal.

Now that I have lived in New Jersey for a few years, I've been amazed at how the state's politics are basically run by a group of self-appointed players, and Christie has succeeded as a Republican in a blue state because he has the business players in his pocket, and the Democratic bosses happy with giveaways.  He ran for governor, however, as a tough-minded prosecutor who would be incorruptible.  Now it looks like he used his former position as US Attorney to eliminate his future competition, proving his ruthless political street smarts.  Christie's paranoia may well prove to be his undoing, but Democrats in the state have done little to nothing to bring about his downfall.

If Christie were to leave office, I honestly doubt that things would be that much better.  The same power brokers who don't really care about the people who vote for them will still hold the fulcrum of power.  Perhaps that's why grassroots Democrats from around the country don't seem all that motivated in this key midterm election.

Monday, February 10, 2014

80s Soundtrack Music

When I first started listening to popular music in a serious way (around 1983) I was drawn to movie soundtracks, which were hitting the apex of their popularity during that era.  Perhaps inspired by the runaway success of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, studios and record labels collaborated to create some real blockbuster soundtracks in the 1980s.  Much of it likely had to do with the fact that young pop music listeners were, have been, and always will be less interested in albums than in hit singles.  ( I know I was in that camp.  Why buy an album with one good song and a bunch of filler when you could get a soundtrack full of wall-to-wall hits?)  There's a reason why young listeners download by song rather than by album, and it's not just the new digital medium.  They want the hits, dammit, and in the 1980s, the hits were lurking in the grooves of movie soundtracks rather than iTunes.  Here is a list of the 80s movie soundtrack music that I find to be most most representative.

This is the one that really started it all and managed to combine two disparate trends of the 1980s: shoulder-baring sweaters and deindustrialization.  The title song, "Flashdance (What a Feeling)" by Irene Cara, warmed us against the cold of a world built of steel, built of stone and "Maniac" by Michael Sembello took a song intended for a slasher movie and converted it into a dance floor classic.

Eddie and the Cruisers
For some reason there was a whole genre of movies about small-time rock n' roll bands trying to make it good, like Light of Day and Satisfaction.  The best music came from one such film that did not star a member of the Family Ties cast (like the other two): Eddie and the Cruisers"On the Dark Side" still holds up as far as I'm concerned.

I go this one on cassette for my ninth birthday in 1984, and I couldn't have been happier.  Most of the tracks are pure second-rate 80s rock, but Ray Parker Jr.'s title track is one of the best distillations of 80s processed cheese catchy pop that decade managed to produce.

Top Gun
Nothing sold in the 1980s like empty nationalism.  Trying to forget the embarrassment of Vietnam and not yet disillusioned by the coming "war on terror," America avidly consumed images of triumph and victory over the commies, whether it be Rambo or Maverick.  Like any propaganda film, Top Gun needed inspiring music.  "Danger Zone" by Kenny Loggins adequately set the scene with its taut rhythms and pounding electro-bass drums, while "Take My Breath Away" by Berlin wrapped it all in gauzily irresistible synths.  This soundtrack also happens to be the first thing I ever bought at a Wal-Mart.

Kenny Loggins really was the king of 80s soundtracks, wasn't he?  Even his song from the Sly Stallone truck driving/arm wrestling movie Over the Top, "Meet Me Half Way."  It all started with "Footloose," a silly, stupid yet fun hit single that burned up the charts in the summer of '84.  But that's not all.  There's Jim Steinman at his mock operatic best producing and writing the frantic, "Holding Out For a Hero" sung by Bonnie Tyler.  "Let's Hear It For the Boy" by Deniece Williams is a nice sugary pop-soul soufflĂ©, and rockers  Mike Reno (of Loverboy) and Ann Wilson (of Heart) combined for the ballad "Almost Paradise," which might have set a record at the time for the song most often used as the background of a backseat teenaged heavy petting session.

Various Madonna soundtrack tracks
Desperately Seeking Susan was one of many failed attempts to turn Madonna into a movie star, but it did give us "Into the Groove," showing off her club-music roots.  (I liked her best when she was doing nouveau disco instead of getting all pretentious.)  The video also made young me very, very happy.  "Crazy For You" from Vision Quest was perhaps her best ballad of the time, and "Who's That Girl" from the forgettable film of the same name had a cool, minor-key vibe.

Purple Rain
I know this is sort of cheating because the album well overshadowed the film, but I would be remiss to exclude it.  Purple Rain turned Prince from a star to a super-duper star, and deservedly so.  As a kid "Let's Go Crazy" was one of my favorite songs to run around the basement to, not least because of the Hendrix-esque guitar freakout at the end, which was probably the edgiest thing they allowed on Top 40 radio in 1984.  "When Doves Cry" dominated the charts the same year, amazing for a song with such Oedipal overtones and darkness.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Track of the Week: Sonic Youth, "Teenage Riot"

Recently I have been having some rather powerful memories of my life three years ago, a time that may very well have been the nadir of my existence as a human being on this earth.  I had just crapped out on the academic job market, not getting a single interview despite adding a book contract to my CV.  My father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, my family's cat of 20 years died, and my wife was living 1,500 miles away from me and dealing with immensely stressful situations and I couldn't be there for her.  We lived apart for the sake of my tenure-track job.  Taking that job was supposed to be a fulfillment of years of toil and struggle, it ended up being the biggest mistake of my life.  I was living in a rural Texas town where my type wasn't welcome, working in a toxic department at a dysfunctional university.  Many mornings were spent in despair, wondering what I had done to my life.

During my day to day life in Texas, three things kept me sane: phone conversations with my wife, hanging out with a truly wonderful cast of friends, and teaching high school students.  My department had a partnership with the local high school where a prof would teach one section of the American history survey there each semester.  I volunteered to do so after having some high school students in my summer courses who really blew me away with their enthusiasm and smarts.  Going to the high school to teach at 8AM three times a week quickly became something to look forward to.  Since I wasn't used to teaching at that hour, I needed some musical inspiration.  Right around that time I finally purchased Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, and realized that "Teenage Riot" was the perfect song to get me revved up to educate a bunch of teenagers.

The drive to school wasn't long, so short, in fact, that I often didn't make it to the end of the song.  No matter, since it got my blood pumping and my head in the right place.  It starts softly, when a beautifully discordant, snaking guitar line and Kim Gordon's breathy chanting, then kicks into gear with a killer riff that sounds like the Ventures by way of Schoenberg, and we're off to the races.  It's also the shortest seven-minute song ever made, in that its propulsion and energy are so massive that you barely notice the time pass.  American indie rock in the 1980s lived, in the words of Paul Westerberg and the Replacements, "left of the dial."  So much amazing music was made in that world, but it could not find listeners in the Reaganite, MTV-dominated, homogenized musical landscape of the 1980s.  When I hear "Teenage Riot" I hear an attempt by Sonic Youth to get beyond their underground audience while staying true to their roots, to evangelize the gospel of indie rock in an irresistable musical sermon.  Hardly anyone heard it at the time, but just about everyone I know who did never forgot it.

When I was in my car early in the morning driving to school with the sun just coming up, so many of the cares, worries, and pains I had just seemed to melt away.  Those seven minutes of bliss helped make the hours of wretchedness ahead of me bearable.  There aren't many songs that can do that.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Jay Leno and the Triumph of Mediocrity

Jay Leno is leaving the Tonight Show again, this time it appears for good.  The Tonight Show has been cursed by its success, meaning that Jimmy Fallon will be under the tremendous and unmeetable expectations set by Johnny Carson, the undisputed king of late night.

Jay Leno never bothered to exceed Carson or to bring anything new to the table.  Instead, he found the sweet spot of mass media mediocrity that will get you showered in dollars if you can find it.  No one in the comedy community or anywhere else, for that matter, seems upset by his ride into the sunset, in sharp contrast to the outpourings of emotion when Carson retired.  Even people who like Leno have nothing invested in him.  His ratings quash those of his rivals, but when Jon Stewart or David Letterman retire, I can guarantee you that the encomiums will flow from the comedy community and their fans.

On my old blog, this is what my guest-columnist Cranky Bear had to say about Leno when he decided to go back to the Tonight Show and push Conan O'Brien out:

"His borderline sexism, constant harping on cheap and east targets (Slick Willie and OJ), unnervingly stale "Headlines" bit and the kinds of jokes I normally hear middle-aged golfers tell over their Tom Collins have been repeated to the point of nausea. Worse still, he has used his televisual power for evil, giving Arnold Schwarzenegger an opportunity to make his case for the governorship in what amounted to a right-wing coup against Gray Davis stoked by Enron's intentional ass-fucking of the state's energy markets.
Leno's return to the Tonight Show represents the ultimate triumph of mediocrity. The same people who like Mitch Albom books and eat at Appleby's like Leno. The same people who "wear" Snuggies and put ribbon magnets on their cars like Leno. The same people who listen to Three Doors Down and wear crocs like Jay Leno. He is the ultimate avatar of the ubiquitous tastelessness and braindead consumerama that passes for culture in our corporatized shitscape of a society."

While Cranky's words may be impolitic, as usual, I agree with the gist of them.  I don't know anyone who LOVES Leno, but he gets millions of people to watch him every night.  Like the Doritos he used to hawk, Leno is selling a cheap, easily edible product lacking in substance, originality, or sustenance.  I can't blame him too much, since he's only giving a large chunk of the people what they want, or at least what they'll settle for when they don't want to look too hard for something else.  It's perhaps the same reason why Two and a Half Men has been on the air so long, that KFC's "famous bowl" has been a success despite its manifest grossness, that the sanctimoniously boring Joe Buck still gets to call the biggest games, and why voters keep pulling the lever for the same shitty incumbents, election after election.  Make no mistake, mediocrity holds sway in America.  How else could George W. Bush been elected to two terms, and the likes of Jay Leno dominate late night?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Classic Albums: Uncle Tupelo, "Anodyne"

I owe my love of Uncle Tupelo to the long-gone Request magazine, which I used to get free with a purchase at Musicland.  I relied on magazines like this, because I lived in an isolated Nebraska town before the internet.  Sure, I could see videos of underground acts on MTV's 120 Minutes, but one interesting video could often get me to buy an album that turned out to be a disappointment (I'm looking at you, Catherine Wheel.)  I craved the opinions of critics, and Request had Jim DeRogatis, who is still worth listening to.

One issue had a big feature article on Uncle Tupelo, a band I'd never heard of before, mostly because their brand of alt-country was not the kind of thing that 120 Minutes' grunge-centric programmers would play.  Not having heard a lick of their music, I wanted to buy their latest album because the article showed the band to be small-town Midwestern working and middle class guys with progressive politics.  On the cusp of graduating from high school I was dogged by the dilemma of how to move beyond my upbringing while staying true to the best of my roots, and these guys seemed to have figured it out.  I had spent my high school years cultivating an outsider persona in my small town, listening to The Clash and reading Kerouac and Burroughs while proclaiming myself to be a socialist.  This article was the first time that I ever knew there were other people like me in other Midwestern towns, still sticking around despite their iconoclasm.

I bought Anodyne without having heard a solitary note, but was immediately entranced within ten seconds of "Slate."  Its high, mournful fiddle took Hank Williams and filtered it through the moodiness of The Smiths.  It was a complete revelation that country music, a style I had spent years trying to escape from, could reach the melancholy places in my soul the same way that Morrissey and Marr had done to console my teen angst.  Things get more up-tempo on the bluegrassy "Acuff-Rose," a celebration of old time country music and one of the best expressions of the joy of song I know.

After these two fiddle-heavy tunes, the record shifts into thrashy, punky territory on "Long Cut," as it also does two songs later on the angst-ridden "Chickamauga."  I never been absolutely sure what the latter song was about, but the way Jay Farrar sings "I don't ever want to taste these tears again" has made it a go-to for me over the years to crank up whenever I'm feeling beaten down by life.  These rocking songs, just like more traditional "Slate" and "Acuff-Rose," display the split songwriting duties in the band between Jeff Tweedy ("Acuff-Rose" and "Long Cut") and Jay Farrar ("Slate" and "Chickamauga").  The band eventually would not be able to accommodate both of them, and Uncle Tupelo split up into Tweedy's Wilco and Farrar's Son Volt.

With the benefit of hindsight, Tweedy obviously went on to greater acclaim, even if Son Volt's first record was superior to Wilco's (a story for another time.)  Wilco might be the most critically-admired band of the last fifteen years, and Son Volt is an afterthought (though they've released some great stuff.)    Up until this album, however, Tweedy was obviously the junior partner in the relationship, but on Anodyne, his contributions are at least as good as Farrar's.  "New Madrid" is a catchy and amusing song about false predictions of new earthquake on the Missouri fault line that brought the national media spotlight on a rural town.  "We've Been Had" is a poppy rocker prophesy of the type of songs on Wilco's breakthrough Being There album.  ("There's no call waiting on my head phones" is just one of many great lyrical bon mots in this song.)  "No Sense in Loving" recalls old timey country songs about heartbreak but has a jauntiness that belies its lyrics.  In general, Tweedy's songs are a little more light-hearted and poppy, something that's surprising considering that this man will later be known for pain-fests like "She's A Jar" and arty, Can-influenced songs like "Spiders (Kidsmoke)."

Farrar has always been something more of an Eeore figure, with a keening voice to match his world-weary lyrics.  I must say, being the junior depressive I was at the time, I preferred his songs when I first bought the record.  "Anodyne" uses steel guitar to maximum mournful effect in the strongest ballad on the album, a sound replicated on the quiet "High Water."  These two songs always make me think of those sitting at my parents' kitchen table, looking out at the impossibly huge sky of my homeland, and feeling suffocated beneath its weight.  The more up-tempo "Fifteen Keys" speaks to the feeling of being out of place, and "Steal The Crumbs" closes the album out on a wistful note using the traditional country sounds of "Slate" that opened the album.  In-between all this Farrar and Tweedy join the great Doug Sahm, pioneer of the alt-country sound, on a stomping, carefree cover of his "Give Back The Key to My Heart." 

Little did I know back in 1993 that I was witnessing the last time that Farrar and Tweedy would create together. Anodyne is a special album for that reason alone, and one that to this day has yet to be topped by the alt-country bands it helped inspire.  I also cherish it as a relic of a secret rural Midwest, one populated by rebels against Reagan's America who loved Johnny Cash and Johnny Rotten with equal measure.  Since leaving my hometown I've been lucky enough to know other folks from this secret Midwest, to learn that I was not alone.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Re-Post: Cranky Bear Takes On The Super Bowl

This week is killing me.  In lieu of something new, I'd thought I'd post something that my good friend and beloved guest commentator Cranky Bear wrote about the Super Bowl last year, seeing how it's relevant and all.


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.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Track of the Week: Soul Asylum, "Somebody to Shove"

Now that I teach high school and am immersed daily in the fevered adolescent world, I find myself getting strange flashbacks to my own high school days and things I haven't thought about in years come bubbling up in my memory.  It is not an altogether pleasant experience, since I spent those years in a state of perpetual loneliness.  I had grown apart from my best friends from early childhood, and the nerd crowd I had been part of in seventh grade decided in the eighth grade that I was way too uncool to hang with.  (Yep, I was rejected by the rejects.)  Of course, that didn't stop them from stealing all of my friends in the grade ahead of me.

In high school I basically had one true friend, but he had controlling parents, so we never did a lot together.  To cope, I put a whole lot of my energy into extra-curricular events, especially marching band and debate.  This meant that from September through March I did not have to face the sadness of a Saturday night by myself playing Nintendo and watching USA Up All Night.  Once debate season ended, I usually fell into a sharp depression once I realized that my loser-hood was confirmed yet again.

I usually turned to music, my other great coping mechanism.  On those lonely nights I would sometimes really want to wallow in my state by putting on the Smiths, but if I truly needed to feel sorry for myself, I would blast "Somebody to Shove" by Soul Asylum.

Soul Asylum is one of the great forgotten bands of the 90s alt-rock explosion.  Unlike the likes of Silverchair and Candlebox, these guys paid their dues punk rock style, playing the bars in podunk towns and honing their craft along the way.  By the time their breakout Grave Dancer's Union album came out in 1992, they had been around the block a few times more than many of the other bands that followed in Nirvana's wake.  "Somebody to Shove" grabbed me with its combination of punky up-tempo thrash and soaring melodies, but most of all with its lyrics.  The plea "I'm waiting by the phone/ Waiting for someone to call me/ And tell me I'm not alone" spoke to me.  I desperately needed somebody to shove me out of the house and into the world.  My insecurities and awkwardness, which were painfully evident in my social interactions, needed a good shoving out of the way.  Most of all, I needed a shove to be able to talk to girls I liked without having a panic attack.

Of course, I figured it all out in due time, which is why this song no longer stirs my soul to action.  But hey, I'm happier and better off, so that it makes me wistful instead of sick with regret.  I wish I could go back in time and relay that message to my 17-year old self.