Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Nod Is As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse

[Editor's Note: I submitted a proposal to write a book for the 33 1/3 series.  I found out today that it didn't get short-listed, which only 15% of the submissions did.  In lieu of ever seeing it in print, here's the introductory chapter.]

Introduction: Every Picture Tells a Story

When picking up any album, especially one from the LP era when each record came with its own cardboard canvas, the cover is key to its contents, no more so than with the Faces’ A Nod Is As Good As A Wink…To A Blind Horse.

There’s a photo on the cover set in a brown border of a peculiar shade not seen much after the mid-1970s.  A band on stage stands in the middle distance, their backs to the camera, the red velvet-suited, rooster-haired lead singer leans in to share the mic, but from this angle it looks like he is trying to hear something that the bassist is whispering in his ear.  In front of them a sea of shaggy 70s rock fans, bathed in a kind of orange light.  We are the midst of the rock show in 1971, at perhaps its cultural apex as the music moved from theaters to arenas where bands increasingly resembled the corporations that sponsored their tours.  We also appear to be in a strange caught moment in that experience, with the photograph making the rock stars on stage look pretty small in front of the massive, crowded audience, not posed toweringly like modern gods.

It’s perhaps the perfect picture for the Faces, a band know by most mainstream rock fans (if at all) as “that group Rod Stewart was in.”  This was a group whose music was suited for a big party.  This was not music to drop Quaaludes to while laying on a 70s shag carpet.  This was not sensitive songwriter music a la James Taylor to emote to.  This was not a rock show where you were going to hear a twenty minute drum solo or see someone apply a violin bow to a guitar.  This music was not going to throw in multiple time signature changes or involve lyrics about hobbits, flying saucers, or add up to anything like a concept album.  There is not going to be any glitter or grand theatricality. And this music was sure as shit not going to get played on AM radio next to Bread and the Carpenters.  No, ladies and gentlemen, this was rock and roll in its feral state.  Music to shake your ass to. Music for making bad decisions for the hell of it.  Music for the good times.

Every picture tells a story, indeed.  Every Picture Tells A Story also happens to be the name of Rod Stewart’s 1971 solo album, the one that put him on the road to international stardom and released a few months before this one.  The tension between Rod the singer for the Faces, and Rod the megastar would lead to the destruction of the band.  A big time star can’t stay just one of the guys on the stage, his face not even visible on his band’s album cover.  This album, the Faces’ best, was fated from birth to be a sideshow.  What a shame, and how typical for the Faces.

Now if you’re reading this, I can pretty safely assume you have more than a passing interest in a long gone rock band.  You are likely one of the initiates, someone who understands the power of the Faces.  We are a small fraternity, since they are one of those groups, like the Yardbirds, who have become more famous for what their members did outside of it.  Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan, and Kenny Jones all had prior success in the Small Faces, one of those bands that was huge in Britain and relatively unknown in the United States.  McLagen would go on to play keyboards with the Rolling Stones on tour and in the studio and Jones would later join The Who as Keith Moon’s replacement.  Ron Wood and Rod Stewart were both in The Jeff Beck Group first, and Wood would go on to a forty year and counting tenure in the Rolling Stones, while Stewart would get so big that they’d make one of those wretched jukebox musicals out of his solo hits in the early 21st century.

If you ask your average Rock Snob (i.e. the target audience of the book) who the three best bands in the early 1970s were, chances are they’d tell you Big Star, Badfinger, and the Faces.  Such fans are well aware of the fact that these bands did not reach mega levels of success, unlike their peers, who still get their songs played wall to wall on classic rock radio to this day.  All three were bands out of time, making them difficult to gain popularity in their day, but easy to love years later when the music can be appreciated on its own terms.  Both Badfinger and Big Star made gorgeous pop-inflected rock songs with bite to them well before the power pop movement emerged from New Wave, and in the midst of the early 70s obsession with loud blues-oriented boogie rock.  Sounding like the Beatles in that time was actually detrimental.

The Faces, on the other hand, stood out of time in a different way.  Like the great number of British Invasion bands that sprouted along the banks of the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne, their music had a strong R&B component to it, as opposed to Chicago blues.  Of course, Ronnie Wood’s slide guitar still carried in it the spirit of Elmore James, but Ronnie Lane and Kenny Jones had a funky, rhythmic feel that was much more Muscle Shoals and much less Ten Years After.  By the early 70s those R&B influences had been pulled out of rock music root and branch, and those British bands not playing the stomping, obvious glitter rock beats had gravitated to blues boogie.  Rock and roll had started as dance music, but who in the world could dance to Deep Purple?

In this sense it is useful to compare the Faces to Humble Pie, the band founded by former Small Faces front man and lead guitar player Steve Marriott.  Although they did not sell records like Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie established a huge live following playing very straight-ahead, heavy riffing boogie rock.  The rhythm was more for head banging than dancing, and the whole approach was ruthlessly riff-oriented, bass guitar and drums simultaneously bashing out an electrified Morse code.  Their breakthrough record was that now clichéd staple of 70s hard rock: the double live album (Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore.)  Marriott had struck on a formula for success in the new decade, one later perfected and mellowed on a different double live album by former Humble Pie guitarist Peter Frampton.

When the remaining Small Faces brought in Rod Stewart and Ron Wood and became Faces, they opted for a much less straight-ahead and much more shambolic approach evident on their first two records.  Their debut, 1970’s First Step, even got their name wrong on the cover stateside, which shows the band members sitting down beneath the words “Small Faces.”  The album title implied amateurism, of not yet being ready to actually be a band.  It’s a good record, but rough and ragged from its misnomered cover to the appropriately titled “Three Button Hand Me Down” that closes things out.  There’s a riff here, but it’s a bouncy shuffle anchored by some funky bass with some organ flourishes thrown over it.  The song practically rattles like an old car with broken struts on a gravel road, but it’s a damn fun run ride, like the rest of the record.

The ragged fun just got more joyous and sloppier on 1971’s Long Player, which is either a brilliant or phenomenally lazy title, depending on your perspective.  It kicks off with the most Faces title for a song ever, “Bad ‘N’ Ruin,” which wanders around like a farm boy lost in the big city.  It segues unexpectedly into a live cover of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” that’s absolutely gorgeous.  This was a band that seemed willing to try just about anything.  This even meant failing pretty obviously from time to time, such as on the live rambling wreck version of “I Feel So Good.”  Even in this rough state you can’t not shake your butt and dance a little to the music.

The Faces’ live show also betrayed their willingness to stand out and away from many of the mainstream trends of the time.  In an era where rock was taking over arenas and stadiums, with massive spectacles of pyrotechnics and lights, their innovation was to put a bar on the stage.  Members could order drinks while they played, as if they were doing a two set a night gig in some dingy barroom.  When they played the Top of the Pops in 1973, they played soccer –the working man’s game- on stage.  Larger than life rock stardom and counter-cultural affectation this was not.

One can only keep swimming against the tides for so long before going under, for the Faces and everyone else who strains hard to fight the currents of the cultural mainstream.  When A Nod Is As Good As a Wink…To A Blind Horse came out, “Maggie May” had already hit the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, essentially sealing the fate of the Faces right before they managed to put out their best album, one where their ragged sloppiness would be reigned in but still come out in endearing ways.  They would even get their one hit single, “Stay With Me,” out of it, but it was too little, too late.  Over forty years later I am grateful we can still drop the needle on that relic of a doomed band, and hear some of the most joyously raucous music put to wax, along with some stunning ballads that might just sneak up on you. 

Life is short and often painful.  Most of us harbor big dreams that never really amount to much, and we get so stuck in the gears and levers of just getting by that we stop remembering that we even ever had a dream in the first place.  Oftentimes we don’t pursue that dream because the specter of failure haunts our minds, or we know deep down that we are flawed and doubt we’ll ever being able to pursue it.  For those of us who have dreamed hard but seen that dream crumble or falter in the pursuit of it, the Faces are our patron saints.  They didn’t quite make it to the top, but they had a helluva good time trying to climb up there.  They might have dropped some notes or blown some leads, but their listeners were having too much fun to notice.  Music can be so many things, but sometimes it’s just the medicine we need to get by.  The Faces may not have reached superstardom, but they knew music’s healing power, and that’s what really matters.  A Nod Is As Good As A Wink…To A Blind Horse is no one’s idea of perfection and musical virtuosity, but it is definitely my idea of joy.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Classic Albums: Wire, Pink Flag

[Editor's Note: time revive an old series that's been dormant too long]

Every now and again I hear something that sounds like nothing I've ever heard before, but it entrances me before I even have a chance to feel the surprise.  No band ever did this to me like Wire, which I got interested in through my teenage obsession with 70s punk rock.  In those pre-Internet days, I didn't hear their music until I picked up the album, apart from one song, "12XU," which was on one of those glorious early-90s Rhino punk compilations.  Little did I know that "12XU" was by far the most conventional song on the album, by punk rock standards.  It's very ahead of its time, with the loud-quiet-loud structure imitated by the grunge bands I also liked at the time.

On their first album, Wire relegates that song to last on an album of 21 songs, most of them well under two minutes long.  It seemed as if they put their one potential hit at the end as an afterthought, which is a punk move if there ever was one.  The record begins on a very different note, with the slower paced "Reuters."  The title refers to the wire news service, and the lyrics are like a report from a war zone, the music building behind, getting progressively more dissonant until chaos ensues as the dogs of war have been let loose.  This is less punk than art rock with a punk sensibility.  It's loud, simple, and raw, unlike say Yes or Genesis, but it plays around and subverts the rock form, making the songs into cubist paintings for your ears.

Case in point is the next song, "Field Day For The Sundays," which is rousing and catchy and only lasts 28 seconds.  It then goes into the longer and slower "Three Girl Rhumba," a song lifted by the band Elastica in the mid-90s.  Wire give the listener whiplash by alternating between fast songs stuck in overdrive like "Ex Lion Tamer" and merciless grinders like "Lowdown."  That sense of disorientation extends to the lyrics, which are often obscure and wry.  The whole experience is a kind of immersive foray into the quotidian confusion of modern life with a postmodern viewpoint.  Just as the 70s were the germination point for philosophical postmodernism, Wire and the best of English punk were musical postmodernists, defying the rules of rock and the expectations of the audience.  Wire went one step beyond, and defied the expectations of the punk audience itself by refusing to be obviously topical in its lyrics or "rebellious" in he usual gob-spitting fashion.  That's probably one of the big reasons why they're still around today.

One thing I love about Pink Flag is that just when you think you've got a handle on the world Wire is building, they throw you a curve.  The title song closing out the front side is so vicious that it makes "Reuters" sound like the Carpenters.  "Surgeon's Girl" is accelerated to the point of being non-sensical.  By contrast "Fragile" almost sounds mellow, at least in Wire's musical universe.  Colin Greenwood even gives it some vocal flourishes.  Punk's biggest demerit is its strict formula, but Wire never let themselves be straight-jacketed by it.  By the time you finish the record with the aforementioned "12XU" it's almost as if Wire are saying "yeah, we can do that hard riffing, cymbal crashing thing to perfection if we want to, but we'd rather do other stuff."

That right there is pretty much the reason that Wire is remembered, while the much more stereotypically "punk" acts like Generation X and Sham 69 are footnotes to musical history.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Happy Mondays "Step On"

Last night as I was having a little Old Crow and reading some brain candy (a book about the mafia's involvement in Cuba), which is about as wild as my Saturday nights get these days, and decided to put together an impromptu playlist of "Madchester" songs from the late 80s-early 90s.  I forgot just how much this stuff had grabbed me when I first heard it at a time when Nirvana was still on Sub-Pop records and REM was pretty much the only band from the American underground to get their songs played on the radio.  Back then, when I thought of "alternative" music, I thought of either Madchester or shoegaze bands from across the pond.

Of course, in England the rock mixed with dance sound of Manchester was not something confined to college radio or late night MTV, it was in the mainstream and massively popular.  Listening to a song like "Step On" by the Happy Mondays, the emblematic Madchester band, it's easy to hear why.  Rock had begun as dance music, but had lost its funk, then defined itself against disco.  Disco was the musical antecedent of house and electronic dance music, which bands like the Mondays gladly welded to the rock band format.  "Step On" is not a truly great song, mostly because Shaun Ryder's lyrics are typically non-sensical and tossed off.  But it's got the two elements that worked best with the style: a great loping dance groove and psychedelic guitar.

In my mind I often wonder what the 90s in American rock music would've been like had the Mondays and Stone Roses been a second British Invasion breaking a new version of music born in America (as house was), then spawning a raft of imitators stateside a year before the release of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."  I don't know if the music would have been better (I still love Nirvana) but it would've been a lot more fun to dance to.

Friday, September 25, 2015


After a rough patch, it looks like the New York Mets will soon be clinching their division, perhaps this weekend.  My Mets fandom is new, but it is intense.  I could not count the number of games I have at least partially watched or listened to on the radio this year, but the end appears to be in sight.  This is reminding me of one unique thing about about baseball that I love, the clinching moment.  With 162 games, the baseball season is twice as long as that of the NBA and NHL, and has ten times more games as the NFL.  It stretches from when the frost is first thawing to when the leaves fall, with games almost every day.  And unlike in those sports, truly making the playoffs requires winning one's division.  The wild card teams have to survive a play-in game.

While some franchises can expect to win their divisions, for others clinching is a truly special moment.  For instance, the Kansas City Royals clinched their division yesterday for the first time in thirty years.  When the Mets clinch it will be their first division title since 2006, and only their fifth in franchise history.  The release after such a grueling slog to greatness is always fun to watch as players douse each other in champagne and beer.  After months of soreness, fatigue, and sleeping in hotel rooms, a wild party is more than warranted after the cherished prize is won.

As I look back on my life from middle age I can see some clinching moments, which also come about as often as Mets division titles.   Leaving home for college, getting my PhD, getting married, and the birth of my children were all euphoric, clinching moments.  When the Mets clinch I want to see it happen live, because the clinching moments are few and far between, for both the Mets and for me.  In baseball as in life, as a wise man once said, even the losers get lucky sometimes.  It's always heartening to be reminded of that.

Great Moments in Clinching

1989: "Cubs Win The Division!"

I was never an actual Cubs fan, but because I could see all their games on WGN growing up, I became a Cubs sympathizer.  I did and still do fervently hope that they can finally break their streak of bad luck.  In any case, I remember watching their clinching game against Montreal in 1989, putting the Cubs in the postseason for only the second time since 1945.  The great Harry Caray seemed to channel the fervent, delirious hopes of Cubs fandom with his almost hysterical, repeated bellowing of "Cubs win the division!"

1973: You Gotta Believe!

The 1973 Mets have got to be one of the more improbable World Series teams of all time. They were spurred forward by the slogan of oddball reliever Tug McGraw: "you gotta believe!"  One of my favorite baseball photos of all time is an older than dirt Willie Mays getting joyously doused with champagne.

1987: Will Clark Acting Nuts

For some reason I always liked Will the Thrill as a kid, and for some reason I can still remember him acting completely off his nut when the Giants won the division in 1987.

1959: The Air Raid Sirens Blow in Chicago

After forty years in the wilderness after the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal, the White Sox finally won the American League again. Chicago mayor Richard J Daley was so elated that he ordered the air raid sirens to be blown when the team clinched, which caused quite a lot of confusion in that Cold War environment.

1976: Chris Chambliss' Homer

This is cheating because it clinched the ALCS rather than the division, but the moment's too good.  Chris Chambliss' homer against the Royals sent the Yankees to the World Series for the first time in a dozen years, and was accompanied by the kind of massive invasion of the field that you just don't see anymore.  It was emblematic of New York in the 70s, a roiling, lawless place.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Twilight of the Governors

It's been interesting to see Perry and Walker be the first GOP candidates to bite the dust, months and months before the first actual primary.  Arguably, their bona fides trump those of all of their opponents (pun intended.)  Walker has won election three times in a state that has voted twice for Barack Obama, and survived a recall drive in the bargain.  He broke the public unions in Wisconsin and in the process emboldened other governors to do the same in other states.  Perry was the longest serving governor in the history of Texas, currently the second most populous state in the nation.  He claimed to have effected a "Texas miracle" whereby that state's economy grew in the face of strong national headwinds.  Perry swaggered as he went to other states to poach their jobs.

Now both are effectively on the ash heap of history.  Of course, Perry's fate was sealed four years ago with his infamous "oops" comment.  Walker is out for similar reasons, namely that he is a friggin' idiot.  His inability to answer basic policy questions was pretty embarrassing, and during the last debate he was sweating like Gil from the Simpsons.  This has been a vindication for people who have lived in those states who have tried to warn others that their governors are, indeed, goddamned morons.  (My time in Texas made that apparent to me pretty fast.)

This has got me thinking, and I see what looks to be a larger trend when in comes to governors running for president.  Time was when conventional wisdom held that governors made strong candidates.  They were de facto Washington "outsiders" and had executive experience.  This was only reinforced by the electoral success of Reagan, Clinton, and Dubya, the only presidential candidates to get elected twice between Eisenhower and Obama.  In this election, however, the governors are doing poorly, with perhaps the exception of Jeb(!).  Walker and Perry are out, Huckabee is a fringe candidate, Jindal is in asterisk territory and Christie will likely join him there.  Jeb! is the only relevant governor in the race, and he is in fourth place in the newest CNN poll.

How to explain this?  I think a lot it has to do with the changing nature of state-level politics in this country.  The massive wave of money has had a bigger effect there, where it can buy a lot more.  The Kochs buoyed Walker in Wisconsin, for instance.  With groups like ALEC set up, the right wing moneymen can put out the money to get a patsy in office and have an organization there to write up all the legislation for them.  On top of that, local newspapers and tv stations have been cutting back on reporting staff, meaning that the new wave of governors is getting a lot less scrutiny and are less practiced in dealing with a hostile press.  The Republicans have been pleased with taking over statehouses and governors mansions in places like New Jersey, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but it's really all about the structure and not about the people in it, in most places.  That structure is set up to get a particular ideological agenda advanced, no matter who holds the position.  It should hardly surprise us that the talking heads assigned by their financiers as their political functionaries wilt before the bright national spotlight.

This is at least the case for me as far as Perry, Jindal, and Walker are concerned.  Christie is a little different, in that he seems like a more forceful, independent personality.  However, he presents another problem for governors wanting to be the presidential nominee of the Republican party: the need to compromise.  When Sandy wrecked New Jersey, it would have been too craven for even Chris Christie to attack the president rather than embrace him in order to get national Republican support at the expense of his constituents.  Those Republicans in Congress have had it easy on this score.  They just sit back and oppose each and every thing that Barack Obama does, never having to sully their ideological purity.  While this behavior is horrible for the nation, it is great for maintaining the good graces of hardcore conservatives.

Jeb! was governor at a different time, so this stuff does not quite apply to him.  But based on what I'm seeing, at this point I would be willing to be that Rubio is more likely to be the nominee than him.  What all of this shows us, yet again, is that the Republican Party has long ceased to be a broad-based center-right party, but is now merely the vehicle for an extreme right wing ideology.  It does not care about governing or putting people forward who can govern, but only about advancing its agenda, whatever the cost.  A lot of regular people's frustration with the failures and gridlock in our system boils down to this basic fact, one you'll never hear mainstream news organizations name.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Francis and the Future of American Catholicism

Pope Francis is coming to the states this week, and I might even come close to crossing paths with his entourage during my commutes at the end of the week.  At the very least I will be sharing my commuter train with pilgrims in New York City for his various appearances.  Although he will not be holding a stadium-sized mass at Yankee Stadium, he will be doing a more humble, more Francis-like mass at Madison Square Garden, which sits above the rat trap otherwise known as Penn Station.  We might both be in the building at the same time.

Although I have mostly cut my ties with the Catholic Church, an institution that was a central part of my upbringing (five years of altar boy service, etc), I do feel invigorated by Francis.  He espouses the kind of Catholicism that drew me so much as a child.  (It's also no mistake I prized a religious comic book about the life of St. Francis, the pope's inspiration and namesake.)  For instance, my interest in social justice and my basic political orientation was first inspired by reading things like the Sermon on the Mount.  People say that Francis is really just changing symbols and practices, and not doctrine, but in Catholicism symbols and practices are just as, if not more important than the doctrine.  When I go to attend mass with my parents, those rituals and symbols still pull on something very deep inside of me.  Francis has not changed doctrine, but he has made the church a more welcoming place, and has put his moral foot down on issues of income inequality and the effects of global capitalism, rather than sexuality and reproduction.  He has been much more open to ecumenical approaches and much less judgmental towards other faiths.  Of course, this hasn't trickled down to all levels of the institution.

The biggest misconception about Catholicism is that it is monolithic in nature, a perception partially stoked by the doctrine of papal infallibility, and by years of Protestant paranoia.  It is in actuality a very diverse and broad church (small "c" catholic, so to speak), with all kinds of variations and orientations.  This was brought home to me this summer while attending mass in my home church with my parents, right after the Supreme Court had put down its decision legalizing gay marriage.  The priest, just out of the seminary, noted that he had been tasked by the bishop to speak out against the decision, which he did, with both gusto and some amount of sheepishness.  It's a sermon I can't imagine being preached at the Catholic church nearest me, where the priest is of the kind of came up during Vatican II, and who has consistently threaded social justice issues into his sermons.  As tolerant and welcoming as Francis wants to be, there are some bishops and priests happy to receive that message, but also many who want to stick to the old school blood and thunder.

That attitude certainly hasn't help maintain the hold of the church on its members.  If "ex-Catholic" were a Christian denomination, it would be the second largest in America.  According to a very recent Pew Research article, half of American Catholics have left the church at some point.  This reflects some major failures on the church's part, from the unconscionable protection of abusive priests to a intense obsession with reproduction and sexuality.  Catholics actually don't adhere closely to the church's teachings in these areas, so emphasizing them hardly keeps members in the fold.

It is still unknown whether Francis' reorientation towards issues of social justice will stick, and whether it will penetrate far into the "deep church," especially in America.  He does have a unique opportunity, in that the church has finally been handling the abuse scandals and Francis has dramatically changed the papacy's tone.  At the same time, the hard core of Catholics, those who go to mass every week, have been hewing closer to the hard doctrinal line laid out by John Paul and Benedict.  The same goes for the bishops of the kind that demanded I sit through a screed denouncing gay marriage.  Those weekly-mass Catholics also tend to be more politically conservative, and thus less open to hearing Francis' critiques of capitalism, which is a sacred cow in conservative America.

 Francis just might alienate the most loyal American Catholics, and fail to win back the large numbers who have left.  That isn't necessarily even within his control.  77% of former Catholics say they can't envision coming back.  Those numbers reflect a fast-growing number of Americans who do not identify with any religion, almost 23%.  That number has risen sharply in recent years.  The American Catholic Church, like many of its Protestant counterparts, fought the culture wars of the last forty years with gusto, and is now paying the price with youth alienated from an institution that spent their youth assailing them with increasingly antiquated bromides.  On top of that, just as American society becomes less communal and more atomized, religion is no exception.  Francis just may staunch some of the bleeding, but the larger social factors in America do not favor a revival for the church as an institution.

That being said, it is heartening to see a pope who cares so much about inequality and who has tried hard to make the church more accepting.  If anything, I hope that Francis' orientation will make the hardline revanchism of the church post-Vatican II look like a blip in a larger story of reform and positive reckoning with the modern world.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Fall "Hey! Luciani"

Pope Francis is due to arrive in the United States this week, and it's made me think of maybe the one great rock song written about a pope, The Fall's "Hey! Luciani."  It's about Pope John Paul I, known as Albino Luciani before taking St. Peter's chair for only a month before dying in one of the shortest papal reigns in history.  Mark E Smith of The Fall wrote this song as part of a larger play of the same name about John Paul I/Luciani in 1986, the time when The Fall popped up their sound a bit and toned down their dissonant garage punk approach.  (Much of this had to do with band newcomer Brix Smith, also Mark E Smith's spouse.)

As with most Fall songs, "Hey! Luciani"'s lyrical content is hard to decipher but crucially important.  It theorizes that John Paul/Luciani had not just died of a heart attack, but had been killed by members of the curia (the papal bureaucracy) for his anti-capitalist proclivities, which would have included going after the then and now scandal-ridden Vatican bank.  I don't put a lot of stock into those theories (mostly due to lack of evidence, even if the motive clearly existed), but I have often wondered if any reformist pope, including Francis, has the ability to truly overcome the inertia and corruption within the institution.  So far I have to say I am glad that Francis has had a lot more than the miniscule 33 days that John Paul had.

The song itself is wonderfully propulsive, starting with a catchy harpsichord hook, a sign that The Fall are up to more than their usual distorted guitars bread and butter.  Then come the booming, gated snare drums, so beloved of mid-1980s studio producers.  In this song, used sparingly, they actually work, and don't sound like clunky relics, as they do on REM's record of 1986, Life's Great Pageant.  Smith snarls the lyrics perfectly, especially the sinister "all the cowls of black/ on the Inquisition rack," and that snarl has a great counterpoint in Brix Smith's "ba ba bad da dah dahs" in the background.  The mid-to-late 80s are a musical quagmire of overproduction and overwrought songs as far as the rock scene is concerned, it amazes me sometimes that this song could have so many markers of the era but transcend them so well.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

What Last Night's Debate Says About The GOP

In a feat of stupidity, boredom, or perhaps fun making quips with my beloved wife, I watched almost all of the Republican debate last night.  As I wrote in my last debate post mortem, I am much less interested in the horse race aspect than in the larger, deeper things the debate illuminates.

At the very least, it revealed, yet again, the negative orientation of the conservative movement.  The candidates were practically frothing at the mouth over things they were against and wanted to destroy: Barack Obama, Planned Parenthood, the Iran nuclear deal, the Affordable Care Act, etc. They were all pilloried mercilessly, and there were many repeated promises to attack these things on "the first day in office."  Ted Cruz in particular seemed obsessed with "forcing" the president to bend to his will in a way that speaks to some really deep seated hatred on his part.  Cruz also outdid everyone by going after John Roberts, a conservative who orchestrated the destruction of the Voting Rights Act, which apparently wasn't good enough for old Teddy boy.  Perhaps he would prefer to resurrect the corpse of Roger Taney so the court could once again have a "true conservative" as chief justice.

Speaking of resurrecting corpses, the debate further illuminated the transformation of Reagan into the Lenin of the Right, a secular god or saint who must constantly be praised and bowed down to.  Every candidate tried to associate themselves with the Gipper, which was ironic considering that: 1. They gnashed their teeth over amnesty, which god Reagan himself had granted, 2. Many proclaimed the War on Drugs to be a failure, a war Saint Ronnie had prosecuted to the utmost 3. They talked about Social Security as something in need of replacement when Reagan had raised taxes (treason!) to keep it solvent.  Reagan's actual historical record has now become completely meaningless.

I may have said this before, but the debates have shown that the current Republican party has maintained its neocon footing when it comes to foreign policy, with Rand Paul the rule-proving exception.  The others were enthusiastic about going to war in Syria, antagonizing Iran, escalating with Russia, building up the military, and "projecting strength."  Of course, the assorted chickenhawks were too chickenshit to actually come out and say they wanted war, even if that would be the inevitable result of their policies.  I do really wonder what all this bluster is for.  When a bully like Chris Christie snorts and declares with such passion in his voice about being a "strong leader" I get the fear.  If there is a new Republican presidency expect the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz agenda to be back in full force, even if its authors are too disgraced to hold any of the cabinet positions.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, last night revealed why neophytes and demagogues like Carson, Fiorina, and Trump are doing so well in the polls.  This has less to do with voters being "fed up" than with the fact that their options within the ranks of established politicians are a bunch of uninspired dolts.  They seem incapable of saying anything that doesn't come out as some kind of garbled talking point.  Paul is a haughty pedant, Christie hated in his own state, Bush looks like his mommy made him be there, Ted Cruz is the guy you walk across the street to avoid in real life, Rubio often has deer in headlights moments, Kasich is about as exciting as tapioca pudding, Huckabee a Bible thumping bigot, and Walker is both disliked in his own state and comes across as a feckin' idiot.  The reason Carly Fiorina, a failed CEO with zero political experience, looked so good is that despite her complete lack of time in office she is actually a smart person and not a goddamned moron.  (The same goes for Trump and Carson.  They are pretty ignorant, but they are not dumb, which in Carson's case goes without saying.)

Sure, Trump appeals to certain issues that matter to the base like immigration while exploiting some economic populism.  However, I think his main appeal (like that of Fiorina and Carson) is that he seems like someone who is not either a dolt or a failure, and is capable of speaking like a human being, as awful and hateful a human being he is.  I wish I could have laughed at last night's clown show, but the knowledge that one of those people could very easily be the next president makes me choke on my laughter.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Simple Way To Make The Academic Job Market Less Horrible

I haven't been blogging much about academia recently, since I feel so removed from it now that whatever I have to say about it probably isn't worth listening to.  That said, I'd like to tug on your coat about something today.  Talking to a friend this weekend about the academic job market gave me some bone-chilling flashbacks to the period between fall 2005 and spring 2011, which was spent looking to get an academic job or to get a different one.  Beautiful fall weather is here now, and for the first time in years I don't have a fear-laden Pavlovian response.

Those who have endured it know that the academic job market is especially ridiculous and soul-crushing, combining slim chances with months of waiting and a painful amount of rejection.  It also happens to be a lot of work.  When I was on the market during September, October, and November I felt like I had a second job that mainly entailed retooling job letters and making a lot of trips to the post office.  It wasn't enough for the application process to fill me with insane levels of anxiety, it also had to suck up all of my free time, too.

While we can't make a bunch of tenure track jobs appear out of thin air, we can at least reduce the workload drastically and easily.  When I applied for jobs at private high schools, I was amazed at the ease of the process.  It was simple, I just uploaded the necessary application documents to a centralized website where the schools would post their ads.  (This is the NAIS careers site, for those interested.)  I had to upload my CV a grand total of one time.  I did not have to pay to have it mailed to 20 different schools by a service or print and mail it that number of times myself.  When I wrote my specific job letters to the schools I was applying to, I just had to upload them via an online application.  It saved me both a lot of time and a lot of money.

If departments at different universities or an organization like the AHA would cooperate to set something like this up it would drastically reduce stress levels for already over-stressed junior scholars getting chewed up by this awful process.  It could also be tweaked in ways to help with other parts of the process.  Rejections could be sent en masse electronically, making it faster for the candidates to know, or to even know at all.  They don't need a form letter in the mail, this is not 1962.  They do, however, ought to have the courtesy of a reply, which all too often is not granted.  Schools could also standardize their requirements, and not expect more than a letter or CV at the start of the process.  Expecting all 120 applicants to submit a letter, CV, recommendations, teaching portfolio, and writing sample is completely ridiculous.  Save that for the second round.  At least under this system system applicants could simply upload those bigger docs at the start and not have to pay for the expense of mailing a massive portfolio to a hiring committee that won't even look at it.

And here's the deal: universities do this already with undergraduate applications.  Many have agreed to use the Common App, which also cuts down on busy work.  They allow recommenders to just simply upload their letters.  (I know this because I am now using this system to write recs for my high school system.)  It is obviously a way more efficient system than I went through at age 18.  If universities are already making it easier on their student applicants, why not their job applicants?  They might reply that they want to reduce the number of applications to save them the time of sifting through, but in that case just learn to write better, more specific job ads.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Ian and Sylvia "Four Strong Winds"

[Editor's Note: my "track of the week" series is continuing this week, but I'm no longer including the name of the series in the title, since it makes the article titles rather cumbersome for social media purposes.]

I turned 40 last week.  While it was great to have a night out on the town with my wife, it prompted some bittersweet thoughts, and not all of them about aging.  When my parents had their 40th birthdays, they hosted big blowout parties at our house with casino games, play money, and an auction at the end of the night.  All of their friends came over in a great show of good cheer.  (I was 14 when my mom turned 40 and got to deal some blackjack for the occasion.)  I'd always thought my 40th would be like that, but my friends are far too scattered to the four corners of the country and even the world to be around for such a thing.  They are as far flung as Pretoria, South Africa, and Amarillo, Texas.

I guess this is the nature of making your strongest friendships in graduate school, where you are basically ensured to end up somewhere you never expected once you get out.  (I am lucky to have a couple of my grad school compatriots working in the Big Apple, though.)  Seeing many of my friends during my travels this summer was a harsh reminder that I have had to say way too many good-byes over the last decade, from leaving grad school in Illinois to leaving Michigan to leaving Texas.  It was great to meet so many wonderful people in all of those places, but it's hard knowing that the people I'd most like to have a beer with or shoot the shit with live thousands of miles away from me.

When I am feeling like a Sad Sack Dad after I put my daughters to sleep on a night like this, feeling the cool autumn air on my screened-in back porch, I like to listen to "Four Strong Winds" by Ian and Sylvia.  I am a sucker for 60s folk music, especially by Canadians and even more especially by male-female duos.  This song is among the very few that will bring me to tears each time that I hear it, since it evokes the feeling of saying goodbye to good people more than any other.  These ending lines just say it all: "But our good times are all gone/ and I'm bound for moving on/ I'll look for you if I'm ever back this way."

Songwriter Ian Tyson was a bonafide cowboy and rodeo rider from British Columbia before becoming a singer, and being a scholar, like being a cowboy (or a folk singer, for that matter), is an itinerant existence in this day and age.  I for one am glad that my rambling days are over and that I now spend days with my wife and daughers and that I even have a back porch for resting on.  Be that as it may, there is not a single day that goes by that I don't think about many amazing people that I've had to say good-bye to along the way.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Behold The Cheesy Horror Of Sports Team Music Videos

I am a child of the 1980s, a time that feels more and more alien to me with each passing day.  I used to think that the distance between my childhood past and my middle-aged present could best be marked by looking at old TV commercials.  However, I have found a new cultural marker: 80s sports team music videos.  They are almost uniformly godawful, but in ways that are so ridiculous as to make them enjoyable.  Here are some of my favorites.

Chicago Bears, "The Superbowl Shuffle"

This here is the original, the pop cultural sensation that set the ball rolling for all the videos that would follow.  It came before the season, and the 1985 Bears backed up their boasts with one the best seasons by a pro football team ever and a crushing Super Bowl victory over the Patriots.  Sadly, their musical talent was inversely proportional to their football greatness.  Despite that fact, other teams imitated the Bears, and as awful as this song is, it actually might be the best of the lot.  I still get a chuckle at the awkward dancing and godawful rap that flows about as well as a backed up toilet.

New York Giants, "We're The New York Giants"

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the 1986 champion New York Giants had their own electro-funk rap song.  Remember how it goes?  Didn't think so.

New York Mets, "Let's Go Mets"

The 1986 Mets mercifully decided to leave their music-making to the professionals.  You would think this would generate a better song than the "Super Bowl Shuffle," but this is 80s butt rock of the more overwrought variety.  The first words, sung by a guy who sounds like he is trying to parody a parody of Steve Perry, are "We've got the team work/ to make a dream work."  On top of that, it's got Joe Piscopo in a mullet.  This video is peak 80s.

LA Dodgers, "Baseball Boogie"

Not to be outdone, the 1986 Dodgers gave us "Baseball Boogie," which combines bad rapping athletes with satin jackets and generally giving everything a healthy dose of LA glitz.  You really haven't lived until you've seen Orel Hersheiser pelvic thrusting in tight white pants.

Juan Berenguer, "Berenguer Boogie"

I know it's not a team video, but nothing makes me bust a gut like the "Berenguer Boogie."  A middle reliever for the Twins in 1987, he got some of the local Paisley Park guys to write this song, which is bad 80s R&B at its most soulless.  It also seems to forget what sport it's referencing, considering that it starts with a whistle, which isn't used in baseball.  My friend Justin, who hails from the Twin Cities and introduced this to me, has termed it "bad even by 1987 standards" which is about as damning as it gets, since I still believe that the late 80s were America's pop cultural nadir.

English National Soccer Team, "World In Motion"

The team music video apparently went across the pond.  In 1990 the technorock band New Order brought their dance beats to the table for the English national team, making this the most musically adroit of all of these songs.  That said, it still manages to be probably the worst New Order song ever.  The lyrics are completely silly, and when Bernard Sumner lip syncs them he looks embarrassed.  And just when it looked like this song would avoid the trap of having players rap, John Barnes takes the mic.  Yes his skills are superior to William "the Refrigerator" Perry, but that's not saying much.

Calgary Flames, "Red Hot"

Oh, but what of hockey, so full of mullets and goofy Alberta farmboys?  You can bet it's go bad music videos, too.  My friend Jim pointed this one out to me, and I forever in his debt.  It's got 80s hockey players in garish moustaches lip syncing to godawful butt rock while making sincere faces to the most treacly, greeting card statements you could possibly imagine.  This would be the perfect parody of this kind of thing, except that it's playing it completely straight.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On The Persistence Of Quit Lit

Yesterday a friend from my crummy old "visiting professor" days posted a link to a new piece of academic quit lit on his Facebook page.  Unlike many others, this was not on a blog or the Chronicle, but published in Vox.  It's a piece I've described as neoliberal hot garbage mixed with an insane level of self-regard, basically the author saying "I am too cool and great for academia."  I won't get too much into why I didn't like it, since the reasons seem pretty obvious if you read it.

What sort of surprised me was that on Twitter today a lot of folks were expressing their dislike of and fatigue with the whole genre of quit lit in response to this one piece.  As you would expect, this sentiment almost always comes from people who have good academic jobs, and almost never from anyone who actually quit academia.  A lot of people have written a lot of poignant stuff about the experience of leaving the profession.  While it might be easy to dismiss and say "hey man, it's just a job, and there isn't a deluge of quit lit by lawyers and stock brokers," I think that sentiment is mistaken, even if there is a grain of truth in it.

Being a prof is in fact just another job.  I tell this to friends who are thinking of quitting the life, and I think one of the great things about quit lit is that it helps others realize that quitting can be done successfully, and that the water's fine.  Because while being a prof is just another job, academia is not just another profession.  My father had studied to be a priest and quit after several years in the seminary, and quitting academia, while not on the same level, feels closer to quitting the priesthood, rather than quitting being an accountant.  It's supposed to be a calling, and not a career, basically.  Like the clergy it demands poverty, lack of choice over where one lives, years and years of study, and often sacrificing a stable family life, or a family life at all.  (This was my primary reason for getting out.) Quit lit helps demystify the transition out of academia, at the very least.

On top of that, the reason for so much of the quit lit is that working in academia is getting massively, demonstrably worse, meaning that a lot more people are quitting.  From adjunctification to constant cutbacks for tenure track faculty, the pay is lower or stagnant, the course workload and research expectations higher (even at teaching schools with 4/4 loads), security undermined or non-existent, academic freedom restricted, control from above by administrators increased, and so on and so forth.  Bad quit lit, like the aforementioned Vox article, can be irritatingly narcissistic, but the good stuff is moving and helpful. It also feels good to vent spleen at a system that's let you down and exploited your labor.  (Trust me, I know.)  It feels especially good when you're told that the system is a meritocracy and you only have yourself to blame for your failure.  Living in that world gets pretty lonely sometime.

I mused on Twitter today that quit lit might go away when when being a prof becomes just another job.  We aren't there yet, and for that reason quit lit performs an important function, especially for those of us moving on with our lives.  If you are in academia and aren't quitting because you like what you've got (and hey, I was like you once), but seem inordinately upset by the existence of the quit lit genre, you might want to do a little self-examination, or at least develop a little more empathy.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Post-Watergate Democratic Party Has Eaten Itself

Some buttons from more prominent members of the class of '74

I was reading a book about Nixon this week, which got me thinking about a related topic, the realignment of the Democratic party post-Watergate.  It's an especially important topic to consider on Labor Day, since labor had been the backbone of the New Deal Democratic Party, which began to fade in the 1970s.  Labor's role in the party changed along with the loss of industrial jobs and weakening of union membership and power that came with it.  Even before that reality had fully set in, a new wave of Democrats after Nixon took a decidedly more technocratic direction.

Jimmy Carter, for instance, was no great friend to labor and did not support the full-employment plan pushed by the Democrats' old guard in the late 70s.  The wave of Democrats brought into Congress post Watergate, exemplified by the likes of Gary Hart, emphasized their independence from the old guard.  This was understandable in many respects, since that old guard was associated with the likes of Richard J. Daley.  That old guard (which was literally dying off, in Daley's case) had often been unresponsive to the needs of people of color and women of all races and tended to be socially conservative.

The new class of Democrats emphasized their competence and know-how, as if they were above the demands of any particular constituency, labor included.  In the 80s and 90s this impulse dove-tailed with agenda of DNC types, who were willing to accept a lot of the new neoliberal economic thinking.  The next Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed NAFTA, drastically cut welfare, increased prisons, and declared the era of "big government" to be over.  Since this agenda did not exactly excite the Democratic base (keep in mind that Clinton did not get a solid majority of the popular vote in either election), Democrats relied more on raising big money than getting their base to the polls, as if that was some kind of dirty machine tactic.

For the past thirty years Democrats have expected to get their base to the polls by pointing out how awful the alternative would be.  The Republicans have obliged them by putting forward reactionary troglodytes at every opportunity.  This, of course, has absolved the Democrats of doing anything positive for their supporters.  To wit: African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, but the party is just as guilty as their opponents of supporting prison industrial complex, which is institutional racism at its worst.  Teachers unions reliably go to bat for Democrats, but in Chicago Rahm Emmanuel is attacking teachers, and the Obama administration supports education policy opposed by teachers' organizations.

The Democrats, flailing hopelessly along since 1994 as conservatism lite, got extremely lucky with Barack Obama, a candidate who could excite the base and bring a ton of charisma to the table.  Further down the ladder, however, the rot was setting in.  The Democrats have lost governorships in "blue" states like New Jersey and Wisconsin, and have failed to gain traction in red states like Texas despite favorable changes to demographics.  This has drastically depleted the ranks of possible successors at the top.  Just look at their presidential field, which is thin, and in which Martin O"Malley is the only candidate not eligible for Social Security.  That post-Watergate generation still dominates the party because they were never able to sustain one afterward.  (This is also a stinging comment on the effects of Baby Boomer narcissism and inability to share the spotlight with Gen X.)

It should hardly be a surprise that Bernie Sanders, a socialist in his 70s with a distinct lack of smoothness, is doing so well right now.  Rank and file Democrats have grown tired of decades of not having their voices heard.  The fact that the party does not have younger leaders at the start of their ascent (or even in the middle of their careers, for that matter) is a damning indictment of the party's failure to build for the future.  Despite lauded demographic changes and the apparent clown show that is the Republican Party, don't expect the Democrats to make any major gains, or even to hold what they've got.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Confessions Of A Former College Football Fan

There was a time when watching this video was food for my soul

Today the Nebraska Cornhuskers played the first game of their football season.  In my youth this day was a minor holiday, as were all Husker gamedays.  While I maintained various sports allegiances, Cornhusker football was more like a religious obligation requiring adherence to rituals and worship.  Going to Memorial Stadium to see a game (which I have only done half a dozen times) was like a major pilgrimage.  In the days before expanded cable I spent many a Saturday afternoon listening to games on the radio while raking leaves or on the road to my grandparents' house, not wanting to miss a single play.  I still remember being somewhere on interstate 80 and hearing the call when fullback Bryan Carpenter ripped off a 47 yard touchdown run to turn the tide of a tough game against Missouri, and feeling total elation.  When Nebraska won the national championship after the 1995 Orange Bowl, I probably felt happier than I ever had up to that point in my life.  I had also felt horribly down in the preceding year, when the team came within a field goal of beating Florida State to get the glory.  In the early days of video on the internet (pre YouTube) I would watch Johnny Rodgers' famous punt return against Oklahoma over and over and over again, feeling the goosebumps each time.

These days things have changed.  I haven't watched a down of today's game, even though it's on TV.  In fact, I haven't even bothered to check the score.  It just doesn't matter a whole lot to me, and I say this as someone who obsessively checks his phone during Mets games, so it's not like I've given up on sports.  I don't really hate college football or won't watch any games this season, it's just that I don't care about it all that much anymore.

It's happened gradually over time, and I have been asking myself why.  I think some of the first seeds were sewn in 1995, the year that the Huskers went undefeated and demolished their opponents in fearsome fashion on the way to a second straight championship.  That year two star players made headlines through horrible acts committed against women, and both were allowed to play in the Fiesta Bowl and celebrate on the field.  Running back Lawrence Phillips went to the apartment of his ex girlfriend and assaulted her, dragging her down the stairs by her hair.  Defensive lineman Christian Peter raped a student who now is a public advocate calling for abusive athletes to be brought to account.  Coach Tom Osborne, a man I had always respected for his integrity, sheltered both of these players.  Unfortunately, I was too weak and ignorant back then to do more than feel uncomfortable and not ask deeper questions.

Over the years these stories kept multiplying, and they still do.  My real skepticism came when I was a grad student and heard a talk by Murray Sperber, a professor at Indiana University who wrote the indispensable Beer and Circus.  He demolishes many of the myths about college sports bringing in revenue to universities.  There a handful that do make money, but it typically goes right to the athletics department.  At the vast majority of schools, sports cost a lot of money.  As a grad student I also knew TAs who'd been brought into the basketball coach's office to be leaned on to give a better grade to an athlete, and athletes who should've been academically ineligible allowed to play.  (Of course, I also had plenty of athletes who were fine students.  The problem isn't them, it's the system.)

I also noticed, both in grad school and as a professor, that the waves of austerity wreaking havoc on academic departments didn't seem to faze the athletics wing of the university.  At one school the faculty were informed of cuts to research, travel, and library money while in the same speech the president proudly crowed about new beacons to be installed on the newest dorm, which would alert everyone when the piss-poor football team won a game.  (And yes, this was in Texas.)  At another faculty were told to excuse their students from night classes on a Thursday if they were attending the game that night, which was nationally televised.  The school's priorities could not have been clearer.  Add to that the knowledge that football itself can cause catastrophic brain damage.  Also add that on the college level players are completely exploited, not getting paid while their coaches are often the highest paid employees of their respective states.  The players make a lot of money for a lot of people, except themselves.  The vast, vast majority don't go pro, and while they get scholarships, their schedules make it hard to study and at many programs the graduation rates for players in the big money sports are abyssmal.

The only foreseeable solution from my point of view is the abolition of the NCAA and college sports in their present form, but that will never happen.  There are too many people out there who are just like I used to be, fanatically devoted to their teams to the point that that devotion is a key element to their identity as human beings.  For that reason, the juggernaut will live on, I just know that I won't be around anymore to watch it.

Postscript: my good friend Brian Ingrassia wrote an award-winning history of how college football's structures came to be.  Talking with him while he was doing his research gave me a lot of insight.  Please buy/read it.