Sunday, November 30, 2014

Track of the Week: New Order "Everything's Gone Green"

Winter has hit hard these last few days.  The drafts are seeping into the house and walking the dog in the morning has lost its charm.  The awful weather has coincided with the rotten news from Missouri and a growing sense of despair I have been feeling about the future.  The combination of lack of sunlight and lack of justice has been a killer one.

Changes in the seasons tend to have a profound impact on me, and over the years I've developed an informal soundtrack of music that acts like a warm blanket when I'm not feeling all that great.  Over the years I've found that very early New Order, circa 1981-1982, really suits the onset of winter.  It has a kind of cold, distant feel to it and sense of mourning after the death of Ian Curtis, who had lead the band's earlier incarnation, Joy Division.

"Everything's Gone Green" is not one of the band's more famous singles, they still hadn't quite developed their sound just yet.  I still love it, not least for Peter Hook's typically hook-y, melodic bass and the way that it combines hard, metallic drum loops with floating guitar and synthesizer textures.  It's appropriate that the first words are "Help me, somebody help me."  The repeated line "It seems like I've been here before" is poignant in a song I listen to with each returning winter.  I don't know how many times during my two frigid winters in Michigan I sat listening to this song swathed in a heavy cardigan in my cold apartment with a cup of tea in my hand, looking out the window at the deep snow and wondering how the hell I was going to make it to springtime.

Friday, November 28, 2014

On My Love Of Roadshow Movies

Yesterday was a whirlwind of activity, with my wife and I making Thanksgiving dinner, wrangling our toddlers, getting the house acceptably non-slatternly for her family, hosting her family and then cleaning the whole thing up.  When it was all done, we all sort of collapsed on the coach, with our daughters thankfully exhausted after so much fun time with their grandparents and auntie.  I noticed then that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was on Turner Classic Movies, which my wife revealed to me was one of her absolute favorite childhood movies.  It was a good way to wind down with our kids after a long day.

While I am not a huge fan of late 1960s musicals, I got a kick out of enjoying a type of film that is a true relic of a bygone time: a movie in the roadshow format.  In case you aren't aware, roadshow pictures were very common in the 1950s and 1960s, getting their name from the way they were released, first in major cities, then taken "on the road" to other markets.  They were a different kind of cinematic experience intended to compete with the rise of television.  Roadshow formatted films were shown with reserved seating only, often on only three nights a week, and very often in special widescreen formats intended to emphasize the majesty of cinema as compared to TV (especially in a pre-HD era when the rabbit ears had to be adjusted for static on a constant basis.)  They began with an overture, back at a time when the movie theaters had curtains that would be drawn beforehand.  Formatted to be longer, road show films also had intermissions.  After the movie ended, there was exit music, presumably so people could linger and talk a little.

A lot of the great films of the era were shown this way, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bridge on the River KwaiSpartacus,  Lawrence of Arabia, and Ben-Hur among my favorites.  Of course, plenty of duds were too, like The Happiest Millionaire and Paint Your Wagon.  I first saw roadshow films as a child on cable television, and noticed that the TV screen was wholly inadequate to present them.  Whenever they showed Ben-Hur, the screen would shift to a heavily letterboxed format when the famous chariot race began, a sequence that can not possibly make sense in fullscreen.  The sublime scale of these films first sparked my love of cinema as cinema, and whenever I see them again, I get a little twinge of excitement.

Their demise in the early 1970s also represents the growing slobbification of American life.  Don't get me wrong, the greater informality in our social life has mostly been a good thing, and has certainly helped me do a better job of reaching my students.  On the other hand, I find that many aspects of our lives have become so informal as to be degraded.  My dad's father was a humble man who drove a truck and pumped gas for a living, but always dressed well in his off hours.  Now we live in a world where people go out in public, even at places like weddings, funerals, school, and airports, looking like absolute slobs.  No occasion is safe from cell phones, even the most grave.  (I was at a funeral of a loved one last year and could not believe the guy wearing a wrinkled, untucked golf shirt and sporting three days worth of unshaved stubble.)

Going to the movies might be the most debased social activity of them all.  As a very young child there were two movie theaters in my hometown, both located downtown and built many decades before.  They had gorgeous shining marquees, big balconies, and the feel of grandeur about them.  There were ushers to roust the idiots talking through the movie, and general sense that you were doing something special.  At the age of 7, a multiplex moved in next to the mall, and things changed.  The multiplex was clean, new, shiny and entirely without character, perfectly suited for the vapid 1980s.  (I saw a LOT of movies there but I have zero sentimental attachment to it, while every time I drive past the office building that The Strand became, I get wistful.)  Both old theaters soon closed (though one has thankfully reopened.)  In the decades that followed, multiplexes went from being inoffensively sterile to openly awful.  I don't know how many times I've had to watch a scratched print, endure a half hour of commercials, watch a film shown in the wrong aspect ratio or with the bulb on the projector turned down too low, had to go to the lobby to get someone to focus the projector, or endure loud obnoxious assholes free to carry on without anyone to shut them up.  The multiplex near my wife's house has even stopped updating its marquee, which now sports a message telling you to look up what's showing online.  Movie-going, like flying, has been made awful so that big conglomerates can wring every last dollar out of their customers.

Some days I dream of going to an old theater to see frivolous eye-candy epic like Cleopatra, sitting with anticipation in a mohair-covered seat during the overture, then drinking it in for four hours, transported into another world.  The march of time is fine, but sometimes good things get lost in the process.  Tonight I might sit down and watch something cheesy and roadshowy like The Robe, just to catch a glimpse of a lost world.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson And Why We Need History

There's not much original or insightful I can say about the lack of an indictment yesterday.  I knew it was coming, but still felt horrible last night, similar to the horror I felt the night of George Zimmerman's acquittal.  I came to school today and thought about the young men of color in my classroom and despaired over their safety in a world where a man like Darren Wilson can kill without punishment.  Like a lot of people, I am feeling a whole welter of emotions that I am having a hard time expressing.

Instead of doing the impossible, I'd rather make an observation.  Ferguson, more than anything else in recent years, has convinced me of the importance of history.  Michael Brown's death, Darren Wilson's acquittal, and even the very residential space of Ferguson only make sense when viewed in historical context.  There is a very long, very bloody, and absolutely horrific history of men of color being killed in public by white men without punishment.  That awful history is tied to another history of turning black men into superhuman creatures in need of destruction, or "demons" in the words of Wilson.  There is a similar history, specifically, of police brutality and police violence and a jury rigged to prevent African Americans from getting justice.  There is another history, of redlining, white flight, and disenfranchisement.  There is also a history of urban unrest protesting injustice and brutality. If you try to understand Ferguson as an isolated event, detached from these histories, you will be woefully misled.

But that's what our news media and conventional wisdom does.  That fits the general tenor of white American life, which refuses to grapple with the past unless it is the usual patriotic narrative of freedom triumphant.  The main paradigm of American society sees individuals as the complete masters of their fate, never beholden to larger social and historical structures.  It is a paradigm born out of our vulgar consumer society, where we are constantly reminded of our choices.  That consumerism does political work too, in that encourages colorblind racism, and the inability for so many white people to understand where inequality comes from, among other blindnesses.  Most white Americans look at the nation's urban landscape and seem to think that the black and brown ghettoes, white subdivisions, and gentrified chic neighborhoods are somehow natural occurrences, like the hills and the rivers.

A lot of the ignorance and foolishness I have seen and heard by those unable to comprehend the reaction to Wilson's acquittal is based around seeing the events in Ferguson outside of any historical context.  "Why are "they" so angry?" is what I keep hearing.  Michael Brown's death and Darren Wilson's apparent profiting from that death with contributions and TV interviews ought to be reason enough, but context also really matters.

My fellow historians, your society needs you.  We need to go out and set things straight.  We need to go out in public and interpret the wonderful if obscure academic histories for the masses, who need to know the context of what they are seeing.  We need to do it because no one else will do it.  The price of inaction is too high.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Track of the Week: Johnny Cash "Country Trash"

This year will be yet another Thanksgiving spent away from my family back in Nebraska.  It's been a year since I've been out there (sadly, for my grandmother's funeral), and I don't know when my next trip will be.  Now that my daughters are two years old, that means two more plane tickets to pay for that I can't afford.  I will certainly enjoy myself here in New Jersey with my wife's family, but I'm still feeling a little homesick.

November is a fearsome month in Nebraska.  On the Great Plains the weather in all times of year is unpredictable and extreme, but in November it's especially so.  The ground freezes, the constant wind starts to get a barbed-wire edge, the corn fields have all been reduced to stubble, and the colors drain from the prairie, now transformed into eerie dull browns and jaundiced yellows.  Harvest has come and gone, and fearsome winter is about to strike.  Growing up it always seemed like the bitter cold and first heavy snow came right after Thanksgiving.  If not that, you could at least count on freezing rain coating everything in ice.

To live on this land, especially if you make a living from it as a farmer, you have to have a certain fatalistic streak to survive.  While I grew up in the town, my mom grew up on a farm, and my dad in a tiny village of 250 people.  They still had the hardy country attitude when confronting life's problems, and it's one I've tried to emulate, even though I live far, far away from home.  Thanksgiving is a perfect holiday for Nebraska's country folk, in that their mental outlook tends to focus on what they have, rather than on what they don't.  While this way of seeing the world can be maddeningly conservative and lacking in ambition, it does make people a lot more satisfied with their lives, no matter how simple.

That attitude really comes out in Johnny Cash's "Country Trash."  The narrator talks about his modest farm and what he's got laid up for the winter.  It isn't much, but "let the thunder roll and the lightning flash/ I'm doin' all right for country trash."  As far as resenting his place in the world, or that others have more than him, he simply remarks, "But we'll all be equal under the grass/ And God's got a heaven for country trash."  I can really hear my grandmother, who farmed almost her whole life, in those words.

I work each day in New York City, a place of constant ambition where no one is satisfied with what they have, and find themselves miserable amidst the lucre piled up by being at the heart of the world economy.  It's very easy to fall into that mentality.  That's why it's good, from time to time, to remind myself that I'm doin' alright for country trash.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

On Losing Interest In Football

This year was the year that I half-consciously made the decision to not care about football anymore.  This turn of events was not insignificant, considering that I grew up in Nebraska as a die-hard Cornhuskers fan.  At a young age I could recite the starting lineups, and the depth chart down to at least the third string for positions like running back and quarterback.  When the team had a string of embarrassing bowl losses in the late 80s and early 90s, I would depressed each January 1st, wondering if the humiliations would ever end.  When I saw the then #1 ranked Huskers lose at home to Oklahoma in 1987, it was the most devastating event in my life up to that point, besides the death of my grandfather.  When the Huskers won three championships in the 1990s, I was on cloud nine, and even the White Sox winning the World Series in 2005 couldn't match the feeling I had after the 1994 season when Tom Osborne finally had a national championship.

My love of football went beyond the Huskers, though.  I played innumerable backyard touch football games during recess at school and with my friends in their backyards.  (My one disastrous season playing tackle football didn't go so well, though.  I was a meek kid and kind of spacey, so I shied away from hitting and wasn't good at knowing the playbook.)  During study hall in middle and high school I would diagram plays, and I had a real obsession with the technical, Xs and Os behind the game.  I loved computer football games where I was the coach, and couldn't control the players.  The strategic stuff interested me more than the athletic execution.

Once I left college and moved to Chicago, I became much more interested in the NFL, and became a committed Bears fan to boot.  In grad school in downstate Illinois it became a weekly ritual among some of my friends to gather on Sunday afternoon (after having spent the morning working) to pot luck some food, drink some beers, and watch NFL football.  The couple who hosted each week had NFL Sunday Ticket, so we could watch any game we wanted.  It was a nice break from the grueling grad student work schedule, and I still have many fond memories of those Sunday afternoons.

Now that I no longer have that fellowship, or the cultural ties to my home state (where football is religion), my interest in football has waned.  Much of it has to do with my years in higher education, which taught me that big time college sports are a cancer on universities and drive their leaders into decisions that harm the academic mission of their institutions.  The recent revelations in North Carolina are only the most outlandish in a long litany of such abuses.  Big time college sports do active harm, from shielding rapists to robbing athletes of a meaningful education to stealing money from classrooms. It got to the point that I felt like I was violating my moral code by maintaining any interest in college football.

The NFL is a slightly different matter.  There were moral qualms extending from the brain damage of its players, of course, but that wasn't all.  NFL football has become a crummy product.  The games take three and a half hours long, are full of interminable commercials, and are carried on by technocratic coaches and mostly faceless players.  Apart from a few players like Peyton Manning (who I can't stand, by the way), the game has overshadowed individual achievement.  That takes away one of the basic reasons to care about a sport in the first place.  I also agree with my friend Cranky Bear, when he said this:

"Last but not least, football as a sport isn't all that great.  It is a game suited for television and rather underwhelming in person, but on television there are more commercial breaks than interesting plays in a given game.  The NFL in particular has become a dry, technocratic exercise about as inspiring as an annual earnings report.  Give me basketball's free-flowing poetry, baseball's cerebral contemplation, or soccer's athletic beauty any day.  Fuck football and every inch of its turgid violence, you can have it."

So what's life like been without as much football in it?  In the first place, it's saved me the aggravation of enduring recent Bears hidings at the hands of their opponents, or of my once beloved Huskers getting shellacked by Wisconsin.  I've had the TV on a let less on the weekend, which has meant fewer hours spent watching commercials and listening to the kind of bloviating bores who are hired to announce and analyze the game.  During game time I've been out and about or doing yard work.  If I need a sports fix I watch English Premier League soccer early in the morning before my family is out the door.

I'm not judgmental or negative towards football fans, I of all people get the sport's appeal.  Perhaps I would still be following the sport, but the circumstances of my life have made me abandon many things I once cared deeply about (the Catholic Church, the historical profession, etc.), and that's made it easier to change my mind about football.  It's still America's number one spectator sport, so maybe I'm a total outlier, but I still wonder how long that will continue to be the case.

Friday, November 21, 2014

All Hail Bon Scott Era AC/DC

For years I resisted AC/DC, mostly because I grew up in a small town on the Great Plains where they were the preferred band of every dirtbag burnout cruising the main drag every Friday night in what passed for teenage culture that place.  As time went by, I soon learned the error of my ways.  In my Chicago days my dearly departed friend David cranked up Back in Black one Friday happy hour over beer and darts, and it was the perfect musical accompaniment.

That album was my gateway drug, since I soon discovered that while it was a great record, I much preferred the more raw stuff the band put out with Bon Scott, their original front man.  To this day I hold that Scott is among rock's greatest front men, in a class with Mick Jagger, Johnny Rotten, and Robert Plant.  While he was not a great singer, he was a fantastic yelper whose high-pitched calls to wanton good times perfectly complimented the band's powerful blues riffs and brutal, fill-free drums.  His leering, playful stage presence was perfect for letting the good times roll.  Only The Faces could challenge Bon Scott's AC/DC for the title of greatest bar band of all time.  Hell, the song "TNT" is basically a big brag about barroom fighting ability.  Here are some other songs that belong in the Bon Scott pantheon:

"It's A Long Way To The Top If You Want To Rock and Roll"

Scott had spent years paying his dues, which accounts for his worldly-wise, knowing pose.  Every word of this song was earned.  It also has maybe the coolest use of bagpipes in a rock song, only appropriate considering that the frontman was born in Scotland.


When he takes the persona of a jailbird, you actually believe it.  The slow, ominous build is perfect, as is Scott's delivery of the line "He made it out…with a bullet in his BACK!"

"Let There Be Rock"

Angus Young just absolutely shreds on this one, proving that AC/DC can put things up tempo if they want to.  Scott's taking the preacher personae is great fun to boot.

"Sin City"

This song isn't as well, but I think it has the best riff that AC/DC ever crafted, and that's saying something.  It sounds pretty good on the studio version, but it really shows its power live.

"Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap"

This song might now have some new resonance considering drummer Phil Rudd was recently arrested for trying to arrange a contract murder.  It's a testament to the band's verisimilitude that I was not totally surprised by that revelation.  This song is Scott at his salacious, satyr-like best.


Gutbucket, shot and a pint down and dirty rock music just doesn't get any better than this.  At a time when rock is either tepid (but often interesting) indie rock or godawful Nickelback-like corporate rock processed cheese, we need a dose of Bon Scott.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Ordinary Beauty of Seventies Film

I make no bones about my love of 1970s American film.  It was a short, blessed era (really over by the late 1970s, actually) where challenging, "small" films made by directors reared on world cinema got Hollywood backing. So many of these films were about regular people living in everyday, non-glamorous environments.  You can compare this to modern film, where everyone is attractive and no one is poor.  Most people's homes look spacious, stylish, and way too clean.  The exceptions, like the cluttered interiors in Nebraska, are notable for how much they stand out.  Although so many of them place in such everyday environments, seventies films are not a grim immersion in reality, but a kind of enhancement of it.  It's sad to say we live today in a world where we are afraid to have the world of our daily lives reflected back to us.  Here are some of my favorite examples of regular interiors in seventies film:

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

This crime flick featuring an aging but perfect Robert Mitchum spends a lot of time in antiquated working class kitchens with outmoded appliances, dusty dive bars, and low end diners.  That last is beautifully pictured in this clip.

The King of Marvin Gardens

This great overlooked classic mostly takes place in a down at heels Atlantic City, and director Bob Rafelson wrings maximum seediness out of the scenes shot in once grand hotels.

California Split

Robert Altman's unflinching look at gambling addiction is so much more real because it goes inside of smokey, divey Reno casinos and sticky-floored racetrack bathrooms full of desperate characters in cheap clothes.

The Long Good-Bye

Here's another Altman classic, which shows us our hero in a crummy, messy apartment, then going out to a flourescent-lighted, run of the mill supermarket for cat food.

Slap Shot

This is my favorite sports movie ever, partially because it recreates the atmosphere and broken-down daily landscape of the Rust Belt, all the way from dive bars to once beautiful train stations to streets full of brick rowhouses in the first light of dawn.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The War On Thanksgiving

For years now conservative media figures like Bill O'Reilly have been driving up ratings and getting their gray haired followers agitated over a supposed "War on Christmas."  These assertions have come at a time when the Christmas shopping season creeps closer and closer to October.  The day after Halloween this year I was already having my ears assaulted by treacly holiday music.  (Of course, O'Reilly and crew are really pining for a time when Christians could dominate the public sphere with school Christmas pageants and the like, non-Christians be damned.)

There is a holiday that is having war committed upon it, and that holiday is Thanksgiving.  It is, in my opinion, our nation's greatest holiday tradition.  It is a day for family, for feasting, for reflection, and to combat the coming of fearsome winter with joy and good feeling.  It is perhaps our most bullshit-free and welcoming holiday.  While "thanksgiving" has religious roots, the holiday itself is not affiliated with a particular religion, or even theism.  All can fully take part, unlike with Christmas, Easter, Passover, Eid, etc.  There is no Thanksgiving shopping season, no twenty somethings dressed in "sexy" costumes, no people puking green beer or engaging in jingoistic nationalism.

But the war on Thanksgiving is plain to see, and that war is being waged by Black Friday, capitalism's Walpurgisnacht.  That orgy of consumerist frenzy has now invaded Thanksgiving, with several retailers opening their door and turning a day for family and reflection into a disgusting exercise of our country's least attractive values.  It is a war in that Black Friday is not only taking hours from Thanksgiving, it is undermining its very value system.  Our capitalist Moloch does not profit from family time, does not profit from a quiet day of contemplation, does not profit from the cherished stillness of that blessed day. (As a child it seemed that there was no other day of the year so peaceful as Thanksgiving.)  It profits from people trampling each other to buy Xboxes.

But where are the prophets who toss their jeremiads against the dishonor done to Christmas?  Where are these paragons of "traditional values" when the holiday that most embodies traditional values is being eviscerated?  They are nowhere to be seen, because these charlatans are actually in league with capital, the greatest enemy and destroyer of traditional society, that bloody force that seeks to turn every human interaction into a vulgar cash transaction.

I am a man of the Left, but I believe some traditions like Thanksgiving are important because they help preserve our humanity.  There is a war being fought against Thanksgiving, as there is against any human activity that is not a form of buying and selling, and it is time to realize it, and also what's really behind it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Track of the Week: The Smiths "William It Was Really Nothing"

I got really sick this week, so sick that I actually went to the doctor.  The last time I'd done that was five years ago, so this was a serious problem.  When I get sick I feel vulnerable, and I often return to the music I loved during my adolescence, during that most vulnerable period in a person's life.  As I sat in my chair tired from coughing and waiting for the meds to take effect, I put on The Smiths, the band I went to for wallowing in my emotions as a young man.  I listened to the grab bag collection Hatful of Hollow, whose eclectic nature makes it a good, basic Smiths album to listen to.

So many of the songs have resonated with me over the years, but it was "William It Was Really Nothing" that first hooked me as a sixteen year old.  I was just a smidge too young to have heard them in their 80s heyday (I didn't get into interesting music until 1990 or so), but an older kid on my high school debate team was obsessed with the Smiths and evangelized them so forthrightly that I gave them a shot.  I bought a compilation, and the second song was "William It Was Really Nothing."  The first lines hit me like laser beam "The rain falls hard on a humdrum town/ This town has dragged you down."  Living at the time in a humdrum town that had been dragging me down, I felt instant kinship with Morrissey and the Smiths.

It's not one of their greatest songs, just a short little fast-paced vignette that's gone before it starts.  Nevertheless, the music and words perfectly evoke the quotidian experience of living yet another mundanely dissatisfying day in a dreary place you want to leave but can't.  There's no one horrible thing that's happened to you here, it's just that each and every passing day chisels away part of your soul.  I am sad to say that I have lived in more than one place that did this to me, but am glad to say I broke out twice.  This song provided me a lot of comfort in both humdrum towns.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Casino-zation of America

This week New Jersey governor Chris Christie went down toAtlantic City for a closed door meeting to discuss that city’s current crisis.  Four of its twelve casinos have closed this year, victimized by the expansion of gambling in New York and Pennsylvania.  Atlantic City is going into severe decline as the casino closings seem to be building on each other with startling regularity, with no end in sight. 

Gambling was once Atlantic City’s salvation.  Many Jersey Shore communities went into decline in the sixties and seventies, as greater alternatives for long distance travel drew vacationers to farther-flung locations.  Atlantic City was no exception.  I recently watched the film The King of Marvin Gardens, released in 1972 and shot in Atlantic City and its environs.  It is an emotionally brutal rumination on the false promises of the American Dream, and the run-down hotels and empty boardwalk make an ideal landscape to tell such a tale.  After all, Atlantic City is the town where the streets in Monopoly get their names from, and it’s also where Miss America is crowned each year.

The empty desolation chronicled by the film would disappear by the end of the seventies with the advent of casinos in Atlantic City.  Back then it was really the only place to gamble in America outside of Nevada, and the money rolled in.  Nowadays gambling is extremely common across the Unites States, and Atlantic City has lost its competitive advantage.  Basically, they bet the house, and lost.

That is less surprising than the fact that so many cities and states have decided to mimic Atlantic City by making casinos their economic foundation.  In a quarter century America has gone from a country where legalized gambling was extremely rare to it being ubiquitous.  I remember a time when this expansion of gambling was controversial, but now it's just accepted.  Even Republicans, supposedly the party of "family values" have been boosting the casinoization of America.  

That phenomenon attests to the neoliberal system that has been erected in the last three decades in this country.  State-level politicians try to do everything they can to spare the rich form any sort of tax burden, so cigarettes and gambling become an easy target for revenue, even though they are highly regressive in who they take money from.  It's also interesting that the paragon poster-child of capitalist bad taste is Donald Trump, who rose to prominence with his casinos in Atlantic City.  In the same decades that casino gambling has grown and grown, so has the biggest casino of them all: Wall Street.

Today Atlantic City crumbles, victim of its own realization at the beginning of the great neoliberal transformation in the late 1970s that America would become a nation of gamblers.  With so much uncertainty and a shredded social contract, why not throw some money away on the spin of the wheel or a lottery ticket?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dark Thoughts On Armistice Day

World War I was the historical event that first drew me to the past, and one that I have never ceased to be interested in.  Once I learned that my Dad's grandfather had emigrated from Germany, but ended up getting shell shock fighting in the American army, my interest was only more deepened.  Once I was a grad student I wanted to do a dissertation project related to its cultural history, but realized that I had nothing new to add, and that I would be happier having it as an amateur fixation.

Ever since I was a child, I have thought of this day as Armistice Day, not Veterans Day (partially because it's never been a day off for me at any of my jobs.)  When I first learned of the Armistice going into effect on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month of the year (an oddly meaningful alliteration), I tried to imagine how the soldiers would have felt coming out of their trenches and confronting a fundamentally altered world.  As my studies in history deepened, I began to see the war as a kind of germinating catastrophe for the 20th century.  I realize this is a rather mundane observation, but it struck me pretty hard when I was a teenager.  The horrors of the Great War only served to spawn another, worse conflict.  Beyond World War II, the war's redrawing of borders led to ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe and have contributed to current instability in Iraq, Syria and Palestine.  It legitimized authoritarian, extremist governments and gave nationalism, that scourge of humanity, a big shot of steroids.

When I meditate on Armistice Day, I tend to meditate on the catastrophes of the 20th century writ large.  This Armistice Day, I am beginning to think that the catastrophes of the 21st century may rival those of the bloody century just passed.  The news about the environment is extremely disheartening, we are truly living on borrowed time.  The scarcity provoked by our dying earth will only stoke conflict around the world.  While I am no fan of American imperial hyperpower, we seem to be transitioning from a global Pax Americana to a renewal of the kind of multipolar system that led to the First World War.  All the while unfettered, all-consuming global capitalism has never been more powerful.  The wealthy are piling up unprecedented caches of lucre, profiting from the earth's destruction and unwilling to change their ways.

Perhaps I'm thinking this way in light of the recent anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall.  I was 14 at the time in 1989, and overjoyed that the Cold War nuclear standoff was finally broken.  I felt such optimism about the future, and as I came of age in the 1990s, there were awful events like Rwanda and Bosnia, but also the sense that global conflict was on the wane.  A quarter of a century later, things have changed.  America has waged perpetual war since 2001 with no end in sight.  Politics in this country has been divisive to the point of complete dysfunction.  In this environment where our political institutions have been discredited, Americans trust the police and military most.  That will not end well, especially with the world set to inflict turmoil.

On this Armistice Day I am thinking forward, not back.  We like to think that the trenches are a historical artifact, that the horrors of the 20th century are behind us.  I am afraid that in another century our descendants will have different events to mourn.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Track of the Week: Mates of State "Along For The Ride"

There is nothing quite like the random grace of hearing the right song at the right time come on the radio.  I've had the pleasure of living in a few places with great radio stations where DJs are allowed to spin records rather obscure in nature.  Here in Jersey my radio dial is almost permanently on WFMU, the great community radio station.  The college town where I lived in my grad school days was also blessed with a community radio station, along with an alternative bluegrass/country/folk station in a local small town and the college radio station.  When I first started as a grad student I didn't care much for the college station, mostly because it was aping corporate stations, both in style and playlist.  In the early 2000s it was calling itself "alternative," but the playlist was wall to wall Sum 41 and Linkin Park.

Then, in a glorious change, it switched formats and became an old school, bonafide college radio station with lots of underground music and DJs driving the playlist.  It seemed that each trip in my car held the possibility for hearing something I loved already or something new that became an immediate favorite.  One of the latter songs was "Along For The Ride" by Mates of State, which seemed to get played every time I turned on the radio.  Its synthesizer sound cut against the guitar rock grain and male-female vocal leads against the rock cult of the charismatic front man.  I can still listen to it over and over again and not get tired of it.

I first heard it after getting back from Germany after my doctoral research.  That year, when I was able to write my dissertation without the impending anxiety of the job market, was probably my happiest in grad school.  I hear this song and I remember so many great people who now live so far away, and the dream of being a scholar before the harsh realities of academic life nearly broke me.  I managed to find the All Day EP on vinyl a couple of years ago in the bargain bin, and whenever I want to relive memories of of a life that once was, I pop it on the turntable.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Pros and Cons of Roger Waters Period Pink Floyd

I am a regular listener to the Sound Opinions podcast, which recently did a thing about the 35th anniversary of Pink Floyd's Wall album.  That inspired me to listen to it again, something I hadn't done in quite a long while.  For a three month stretch when I was seventeen I must have listened to it practically every day, trying to glean meaning from what was locked in the cassette tape.  Soon afterward I picked up Dark Side of the Moon, and decided that I much preferred the psychedelic, prog-rock Floyd to their hard rocking dystopic Roger Waters-centric period.  I would occasionally pick up The Wall, but much preferred spinning Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Meddle, Relics, and Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  (In college I discovered and quickly embraced their early, Syd Barrett incarnation.)  A friend in grad school convinced me to pick up Animals, but it was too straight ahead for my tastes.

Around that time I picked up a history of the Floyd and learned the reasons for the change in sound and theme.  Roger Waters had become the dominant force in the band, with songs and concepts exploring the anomie of modern life written in a much less textural, progressive mode than what the band had done before.  The spikiness of the sound also reflected increasing tensions in the band.  1975's Wish You Were Here was a kind of transition, as it contained both the extended, textured "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and the hard rock sound and cynical attitude of "Have a Cigar."  That song, with its acid take on the music industry, would be a harbinger of things to come.

Waters' albums as the Floyd's impressario form a sort of trilogy: Animals in 1977, The Wall in 1979, and The Final Cut in 1983.  On the latter Waters took sole credit for the music and lyrics, and sang on almost all of the tracks, effectively making it a Waters solo album with the other band members as side men.  Like his official solo work, it's not very good, evidence that Waters needed David Gilmour and Rick Wright's touch and sense of tone to properly translate his ideas.  (On the other end, the material the band has put out since Waters' departure has been decidedly mediocre, since it lacks Waters' animating ideas.)

Re-listening to Animals and The Wall, however, has shown me these albums' unique power in ways I hadn't quite realized when I was younger.  In the first place, they dig really deep into the everyday inhumanity of lives lived with fear and loathing.  The epic "Dogs" on the first record delves into the minds of the servile brown-nosers that shake your hand while they jab the dagger in your back, and "Pigs" the mentality of the kind of authoritarian prig I once had the misfortune to work under.  This is really adult music for adults, despite the facade of flying pigs on the cover.  The Wall turns this theme of modern inhumanity to rock operatic lengths, and while the story doesn't quite hold together, it does not flinch at delving into deeply painful territory.  It's good to know that Pink Floyd for a time used their power and ability to make what they wanted to touch on mature subjects and not the usual rock and roll clatter, cock rock strutting (looking at you, Mick Jagger) or silly demons and castles storytelling a la Led Zeppelin.

The other thing I've noticed is David Gilmour's guitar playing, which has gone from psychedelic and atmospheric to thrillingly searing.  This is especially the case on songs like "Run Like Hell," "Young Lust," and the soaring solo on the otherwise quiet "Mother."  On "Comfortably Numb" Gilmour gives us the last dose of that old psychedelic magic, which has made it a classic rock radio staple for over three decades.  If not for his contributions this rock opera would have been much too stark and lacking in beauty for its own good, much like The Final Cut.

On Animals and The Wall Waters proved that he may have had the most astute conceptual mind in rock, but still needed Gilmour to make those visions sublime, rather than just angry and narcissistic.  It's a pity they never managed to do it again.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The "Didn't Vote" Party Wins Again

I almost never watch cable news, but I did last night in order to catch the election returns.  As the pundits' jaws flapped I kept noticing how they were trying to parse the "public mood" with this vote.  These pundits have one big problem: they're focusing on the voters.

What about the people who didn't vote?  Not only do they outnumber the number of Republican and Democratic voters, they outnumbered all voters period.  This means that yet again, the Didn't Vote Party swept the midterms.  It amazes me that elections which will determine all kinds of policy and will have a profound effect (especially on the state level) on so many people saw much fewer than half the voters show up.

This is what the commentariat ought to be discussing.  These are the people, not the voters, who ought to be polled, since they are the dominant group.  Why don't they vote?  It should be a simple answer, but I am willing to bet that it's actually multi-faceted in nature.  Do they just not care?  Is disillusionment part of that?  Is politics so nasty and godawful that so few want to take part?  Are they just apathetic numbskulls who can't be pulled away from cat videos and reality TV?

We ought to know, since our nation's voter turnout numbers are an embarrassment.  We lag behind dozens of other nations, so here is a case where America is truly an exceptional nation.  If we were a real democracy, and not a sham one, the last election would have been invalid because so few people bothered to vote.

I must say, it took a lot of effort to get to the polls, since my enthusiasm for the election was so low.  It's hard to blame people for not showing up, except for the fact that their apathy keeps our broken, corrupt, crappy system in power.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Empty Election

There's an election tomorrow, and for the first time since I've been able to vote, I've thought long and hard about skipping it.  I won't, mostly because there's a movement afoot to deny the vote and to make politics so wretched that nobody votes.  I certainly don't want to let thebastards win.  The big question is, of course, who the hell am I actually going to vote for?

The sample ballot I got in the mail was rather uninspiring.  Here in New Jersey we don't vote for state level elections in even-numbered years (which insures low turnout for those elections, but that's another piece for another time), so I don't get to vote on anything related to state politics.  When it comes to the senate I can vote for right wing Republican (no chance) or Cory Booker, a Democrat who never met a banker he didn't like.  I read the League of Women Voters guide for my local House race, where I discovered that the incumbent Democrat didn't bother to send in a response, and his Republican challenger had multiple typos and grammatical mistakes in hers.  There's a mysterious third party candidate called "Dark Angel" (no joke) on the ballot who actually has some good positions on student loan debt (his big issue), so he'll get my protest vote.  Donald Payne, Jr is the incumbent.  He got his seat as a replacement after his dad died in office, so I will also make it a vote against nepotism as well.  In one election, that of Essex County Executive, I might actually vote for a conservative Republican to deny my vote to incumbent Joe DiVincenzo, a machine boss who despite his party affiliation has been a major Christie ally.

The choices in this corner of New Jersey seem to mirror those in the nation at large.  Voters can go for radical conservative ideologues, or for milquetoast Democrats who still do the bidding of corporate interests.  The outcome of the Congressional elections isn't really that meaningful to begin with.  If the Democrats hold the Senate, Republicans will continue to keep it from working.  If they win, the president will just have to get his veto pen ready.  Apart from the insane yet feasible attempt at impeachment that a Republican Senate might try, I don't see much changing here either way.

Despite the seemingly low stakes involved, millions and millions of dollars are pouring into these races, and in many states Republicans are doing their best to manipulate the outcome by limiting voter access.  You can't put a price on power, I guess.

The national news media, in their usual stupidity, has latched onto the easiest and shallowest explanation for a strong Republican election: that Barack Obama is unpopular.  Never mentioned in this is that Republicans are even less popular, but the moderates who voted for Obama will probably be sitting this election out.  In any case, it's not just Obama who's unpopular, it's the whole stinking, rotten, corrupt system.  I don't know anyone, conservative or progressive, who has any real faith in it.  We are going through the motions of democracy, but have long ago left it behind.  As I've said before, America is in its Brezhnev period where the empire limps on, zombie-like, even though nobody really believes in it or its ideology anymore.  This empty election, so full of sound and fury signifying nothing, is as much proof of that as anything.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Track of the Week: Gordon Lightfoot, "The Way I Feel"

As if by clockwork, when November hit yesterday the temperature dropped and a cold, bitter rain fell.  November is less autumn than it is pre-winter when the trees lose their last leaves and harvest has come and gone.  It is a time when I turn to the warmth of folk music, its simplicity and tradition as comforting as a plate of shepherd's pie on a cold day.  I first established this tradition during my first, brutal winter in Michigan, which seemed to last forever and brought no sunshine or solace.  Right around that time I started listening to Gordon Lightfoot, and first heard his sixties folkie stuff.  I'd known his 70s hits, but was intrigued by the mood of these more spare, less poppy songs.

"The Way I Feel" is among the best of them, and certainly evokes this time of year well with its talk of empty nests, tall oak trees, and loss.  While he later electrified it, I really liked this earlier, moodier acoustic version.  The guitar is dark and ethereal, his voice low and brooding.  It is the sound of a cold whispering wind rattling the dead leaves on a dark November night.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why Soccer Is The Sport Of The Future

I am a big fan of the soccer podcasting (and now broadcasting) team Men in Blazers, and especially their bold (and somewhat ironic) declaration that "soccer is the sport of the future!" in America.  Their perspective as British immigrants who have embraced living in America makes it easier to believe them, since they have an outsider's perspective on American soccer without the usual disdain one normally gets from British soccer followers.  (The fact that I am using the word "soccer" instead of "football" would be enough alone to set them off.)

Recent experiences have made me inclined to believe them.  I have been following soccer for about twenty years, ever since I spent the 1994 World Cup on a school exchange trip to Germany, where I was drawn into the intensity of soccer culture.  The only other sport in America with that kind of party atmosphere and communal festival feeling around it is college football, which is regional in its popularity.  Back in '94, when America hosted the World Cup, soccer was on the fringiest fringe of sports culture in America, and it took a trip abroad for me to really have any contact with it.  There was no major professional soccer league in the United States, even though so many children played the sport.  That changed with the MLS's first season in 1996, when I was able to see a game in Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium.  There maybe only 20,000 fans present, but they made a lot of noise, and the atmosphere was fun and exciting.  Fans chanted throughout the game and the crowd exploded after each KC goal.  I went to another game three years later in Chicago, where it was obvious that soccer had become an entrenched sporting subculture in America, but nothing more than that.

Suddenly things have changed.  As many have noted, America's World Cup match this year against Portugal drew twenty-five million viewers.  Those numbers were just barely exceeded by game 7 of this year's World Series, but are much more than most recent World Series games.   Compare that to the NBA finals this year, which averaged 15.5 million viewers per game.  Of course, a World Cup comes only every four years, and has the added advantage of having nationalism to draw people in.  You could argue that soccer will be like Olympic sports: wildly popular for one month every four years.

I don't think so, though.  One really important change in American soccer culture is that games from the European leagues are readily available on cable television.  Americans are not crazy about the MLS because they know it is not the best version of the sport, which they will see when they watch MLB, the NBA, the NFL, or the NHL.  Those leagues are by far the top for their sports worldwide.  Being able to see the best in the world compete makes that sport much more attractive.  I have no doubt that there are more American soccer fans with loyalties to English teams than to MLS teams.

I would also argue that soccer has some advantages as a televisual sport.  While the NFL rose to dominance because it is perfectly suited for television, its televisual imperatives are starting to strangle the sport.  The average football game has only eleven minutes of action with the ball in play, but around one hour of commercial breaks.  In soccer there are no breaks during the halves for commercials, the ball is constantly in play, and regular season games never last longer than two hours.  Compare this to baseball, whose pace has slowed dangerously, and which is a game best experienced in person, because the TV cameras can only show a little of all of the things happening on the field.

And when it comes to seeing games in person, nothing beats soccer.  I went to a Red Bulls game for the first time two months ago, which was also my first MLS game at a soccer-specific stadium.  The atmosphere was amazing, the cheering and chanting loud, and our seats put us right on top of the action.  It was the most engaging sporting event I had been to in years, and although my friend and I had been gifted the tickets, the price was much lower than most other sports.  Compare this to the NFL, which is not a great product in person, and whose games are beginning to get a reputation for drunken hooliganism (ironically the smear used to attack soccer fans by soccer-phobic Americans for years.)

Hockey is great in person, but the sport is a regional one, and its culture of fighting and extreme violence looks increasingly barbaric.  The NBA is great in person, too, but ticket prices keep going up, and regular season games are relatively meaningless, making them rather low-intensity affairs compared to your average soccer match.  Watch your average NBA regular season game, then watch an average Premiership match, and you'll know what I mean.

The NFL has grown to be the leviathan of American sport, but like all empires about to fall, it has overextended itself and is being undermined by its hubris.  Concussions, scandals related to player violence, teams blackmailing cities for new stadiums, and adding football to Thursday night have all become problems for the league, and it hasn't handled them well.  For sports fans looking for an alternative or something new, soccer is now a potential alternative.  Like the other professional sports, the NFL has become bloated and removed from its fans, something soccer, which still feels like a community, could benefit from.  The NFL also has been selling the "shield" and the game itself rather than star players.  The men who sacrifice their bodies on the gridiron have become anonymous.  Compare this to soccer, which has so many well-known individual players that you can't keep track of them.

The change in soccer's popularity has been slow in coming, but it's picking up steam.  This year's World Cup excitement was a sign of things to come.  There are young kids in America today who are finding more excitement in Robin van Persie's flying header than in yet another Peyton Manning quick slant pass.  Their numbers will only keep growing at a time when the rest of the sports landscape is losing the plot.