Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Bob Seger, "Heavy Music"

I'd heard for years that before he was a purveyor of nostalgic Dad Rock that Bob Seger was a rootin' tootin' rock and rolling legend in Detroit, where he toiled in obscurity before "Night Moves" made him a star. It's hard to discover this, since Seger has not made his music available on Spotify, and most of it is not available on iTunes. You won't see his early vinyl for less than a pretty penny at the record store considering its rarity and sought-after nature. However, I managed to get my mitts on Smokin' O.P.'s, an early 70s album of his that just happens to be on CD. (I believe he cut it at a different label than Capitol.)

I put that baby on in my car (the perfect place for it), and holy moly, I almost blew the bloody doors off. Everything they said was true. Early Seger rocked HARD, but through the prism of rhythm and blues, a tradition that the rock world had mostly abandoned in the 1970s. This is some ass-shaking, gut-busting good time music, but with a rough, diamond-hard edge. You would never believe that this wild man would ever write something like "Against the Wind" or "Like A Rock."

I'd like to highlight the song "Heavy Music," which is not the best song of his early years, but probably the wildest. It was evidently a huge hit on local Detroit radio (remember when local radio hits existed?) The beat is big and brutal, almost caveman like. The lyrics devolve into the kind of grunting and screaming that speaks to something heavy other than music going on. (Very much in the tradition of Ray Charles' "What I'd Say.") The whole loud, messy, sweaty whirlwind sounds like the missing link between Wilson Pickett and Iggy Pop. It's only appropriate, considering that Detroit was home to both Motown soul and Stooges/MC5 protopunk. Seger manages to put them together brilliantly. Now I guess I know why all his hits are all reminiscing about the old times, since back then he was a goddamn genius.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Keep The Civil War In Memorial Day

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument is rotting while Jefferson Davis' statues gleam across the South

Memorial Day is the one national holiday this country has connected to its most consequential event, the Civil War. You wouldn't know that, however, since it has been turned into a day to kick off summer, or has been co-opted as a day to express loyalty to veterans and the military. I don't want to be the pedant who has to say this, but I will: Memorial Day has NOTHING to do with veterans or people currently serving in the armed forces. It is a day to honor the dead of America's wars.

The Civil War, which took the lives of 2% of the entire country's population, required some kind of way to make sense of such immense loss. Already right after the war in May of 1865 freedmen and freedwomen in Charleston, South Carolina, honored the Union dead as a way to acknowledge the sacrifice that they had made for their freedom. While Memorial Day would not exist in an official capacity until 1868, the early, unofficial celebrations like the one in Charlestown demonstrated the desire to commemorate the dead.

It is time that we do more to acknowledge the memory of the Civil War from the viewpoint of the Union. While I whole-heartedly support the removal of Confederate monuments, that necessary work does not build up a positive counter-narrative. The Civil War monuments in the North have languished. Just go check out the graffitied and decrepit Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the Upper West Side of New York. That needs to change.

We need to remember the immense sacrifice necessary to end slavery and reunite the country. We need to remember the heroic deeds of slaves, who were the primary actors in the story of their emancipation. We need to stop seeing the Civil War through the frame of "brother against brother" and (even worse) "tragedy." And I think we should also use this day also to remember Reconstruction, and those who perished trying to improve the lives of African Americans. We need to remember that much struggle still needs to happen.

I think Lincoln's words in Gettysburg are still unequaled, and should be the basis of our commemorations on Memorial Day.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Another Late Night Of Fear And Loathing

Here I am, another night when everyone in the house (including the dog) is asleep, and I'm alone with my thoughts. As a harried dad I usually cherish this alone time, but over the past couple of years I've spent these late nights full of worry and anxiety.  

Hunter S Thompson coined the phrase "fear and loathing" to describe his own emotions about the state of the nation during the political backlash of the Nixon years. I find it awfully applicable today. There has never been a week since his death that I have more wished that Hunter S Thompson were alive to be writing about current events. I feel like he is maybe the only person who could have made any sense of this insanity.

Last night I couldn't sleep because I have a loved one in Portland who is the kind of person who would stand up to a bigot. I hadn't heard back from him and feared the worst. I then told myself to stop being so self-centered about it, then broke down thinking of the stabbing victims and their families. 

After hearing their names and seeing their faces, I am thinking about them tonight, but also about the utter hopelessness I feel. Yes, it's fun to fantasize about Jared Kushner wearing hipster-cut prison uniforms, but the news of the massive implosion in the White House arouses more dread than gloating in me. 

The most powerful position in the world belongs to a man who is a craven, bigoted, narcissistic, sociopathic, demented ignoramus. He stays in power because he is protected by Paul Ryan and his minions, right wing Bolsheviks who will stop at nothing to make their inhumane, extremist ideology a reality. Despite their awful behavior, they will remain in power due to a combination of voter suppression, dark money, gerrymandering, and the complete incompetence of their opponents.

I hate to tell you this folks, but things are not about to get better, they are about to get worse. I get the feeling that a man as horrible and irresponsible as Trump will do some pretty terrible things once he gets backed into a corner, which is likely soon to happen. I am honestly not sure if our democracy is going to survive the next three years, it barely exists anymore anyway.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stars Wars As 70s Cinema

Check out those sideburns!

[Editor's Note: Today is the 40th anniversary of the initial release of Star Wars, and keeping with tradition on this blog, I'm writing about it.]

For years there's been a narrative in film criticism that Star Wars was the death knell for the flowering of personal, edgy American cinema in the 1970s. After that point Hollywood would prize blockbusters more than small films by auteurs, seeing them as the key to big bucks after Star Wars' unprecedented success. This is all mostly true, of course, but it ignores one crucial factor: Star Wars itself was a product of the 70s cinema culture that it helped to destroy. Its roots in the auteur-driven, realist cinema of the polyester decade are in fact what made it so good and has helped it endure.

Let's first take the fact that 20th Century Fox was willing to give George Lucas millions of dollars to make a kind a movie with a plot and setting more commonly associated with B movies and 1940s serials. The freedom given to directors by studios is what enabled Lucas to even make this film in the first place. In today's environment there's no way a studio would allow a director the level of creative control Lucas had on Star Wars.

On the surface, the setting of Star Wars seems antithetical to the realist currents of 70s cinema. Watch a Robert Altman film of the era, for example, and you will go into people's cluttered living rooms in a way Hollywood films today never do. In Star Wars, we are sent off into a fantastical galaxy far, far away. But it still has the values of 70s cinema. As many before me have discussed, this is a "lived in" universe in ways that prior sci-fi and space fantasy never were. People usually talk about the beat up spaceships and dirty taverns, but there are even deeper examples. For example, when we go into the Lars homestead and see that bottle of blue milk and hear the hum of cooking machines, it reminds me of Elliot Gould's apartment in The Long Goodbye. The "lived in" world of Star Wars makes it so much more human and accessible than all of the space movies that came before and after. Luke Skywalker feels like a small town kid aching to get out, as much as Richard Dreyfus in American Graffiti.

Then, of course, there's Lucas himself. Like most of the other directors of New Hollywood, Lucas was of a generation that went to film school and was deeply influenced by foreign film. His first film, THX 1138, is both small and challenging, much like the films of other auteurs of his generation like Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, and others. American Graffiti was a crowd-pleaser, but it really just shows a slice of life on one night in a small town. Star Wars was more ambitious, but was grounded heavily in his foreign film influences. As Lucas himself has been quick to point out, Star Wars owes a huge debt to Akira Kurosawa. The plot resembles that of Hidden Fortress, and R2D2 and C-3PO were directly inspired by characters in that film. That's only the beginning, obviously. You can add the samurai sword nature of lightsaber fights and the long shots of the droids traversing the Tatooine desert.

But hey, don't take my word for it. If you can, get your mitts on a despecialized edition of the film and see it was originally made without all the embellishments. What you will see is a gloriously shaggy 70s movie, from the sideburns all over the rebel pilots and imperial officers to the ratty cantina to the matte paintings to Luke's haircut. And yes, Lucas did a lot of things new, such as his much more rapid pace of editing and his pulpy subject matter. But as much as Star Wars heralded the changes to come in filmdom, it only got there because it incorporated so well the milieu it would ironically destroy.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tom Waits, "San Diego Serenade"

I'm currently planning my road trip out to Nebraska to see my family this summer. I am getting excited by all of the possibilities of travel open to us, but also by spending a few days in the slower, less hectic world under the big Great Plains sky. While driving my kids around the suburban streets of northern New Jersey (my current home) this evening, I had a semi-official bootleg of a 1974 Tom Waits radio program on the stereo, and was struck deep by "San Diego Serenade."

It's a song Waits wrote about his hometown after having moved to and fully embraced Los Angeles. Like a lot of people (including yours truly) who leave where they're from to make their way in the world, he had long looked down on his hometown. The song is about that feeling when your teen angst fades and you can see the place where you grew up with more sympathetic eyes. The line "I never saw my hometown/ Until I stayed away too long" pretty much sums it up. My hometown is not as comely as San Diego, but it too deserves a serenade from me.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Nixon Ad That Was Roger Ailes' Ur-Text

I hadn't talked about Roger Ailes' death because his body wasn't in the ground until yesterday, and there's no point in spitting on an empty grave. 

Well now I can have at it. Plenty of people have been writing his obituary, and if you want a really good one, read Matt Taibbi's. No, I am just going to play historian here, and discuss an artifact of Ailes' that embodied his worldview and tactics. In 1968 he had his big chance when Nixon made him the head of his campaign's television operation. Ailes responded by making inflammatory commercials intended to excite the resentments of white middle and working class voters who might otherwise be inclined to vote for Democrats. 

They are not subtle. While the completely insane "Convention" ad might be the most egregious example, it was so far beyond the pale that networks wouldn't run it. "The First Civil Right," on the other hand, used similar techniques in subtler ways. It used a sinister-sounding soundtrack, which accentuated the pictures of violent and even bloody protests shown in rapid succession. Nixon starts to intone about the need to address "the problem of order." We never see his face, only these images, which get increasingly heavy handed. For instance, it ends with what looks like the wreckage from a riot, and a coin machine reading "CHANGE" on it. The message is clear: protest groups calling for change are merely violent anarchists, and the iron hand of law and order must be brought to bear against them. As Nixon says, "Peace is the first civil right," implying order trumps any calls for social justice.

This ad does so much. The images and music are designed to turn off the brain and feel threatened. It treats "law and order" as a positive civil rights issue in the language, while using the music and pictures to jar the viewer into responded to their fear reflex in their lizard brains. It so expertly combines a well-cloaked lie in subliminal messages, the kind of thing Ailes brought to bear on Fox News. I still remember coming back to my apartment on 9/11, and my roommate (who at the time was politically naive) watching the coverage on Fox News. It just showed the towers getting hit and collapsing, over and over and over again, but interspersed with images of Palestinians celebrating the attack. The message was clear: go out and kill those people. In less than two years, we'd invaded Iraq.

I have witnessed the human effects of this strategy first hand. People who were once merely conservative in their viewpoints start spouting insane conspiracy theories once they become regular Fox viewers. Ailes mastered Nixon's message of the "silent majority" ie "real America" versus "them," the anti-America. Not only did that message twice win Nixon the presidency, Ailes then used it to preach to an audience in our current day and age frightened by change and resentful of others. Nixon is long gone and Ailes is in the grave, but their political style is never going away. Almost fifty years on, Ailes' ads for Nixon are still remarkably and sadly relevant. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Episode 11 of the Old Dad's Records Podcast

On the eleventh episode of my podcast I discuss the Pearl Jam song "Better Man." I was inspired to do this after a night spent with some friends where we listened to an endless string of songs from the 1990s. I also dug out The Kinks' Low Budget album from my pile of old records. It's yet another representative artifact from "Reagan Dawn" culture. After that I recommend Courtney Barnett, one of my favorite new artists.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Message Democrats Need To Send

In the midst of the political chaos this week, I have been thinking long and hard about the 2018 election. Why? Because it should be blindingly obvious by now that Republicans will not turn against Trump. And why should they? They know with him in power they will get to build prisons, slash social spending, and cut taxes for the wealthy. Basically, they will get their whole program passed, and that's all these ideologues care about.

Trump's opponents need to stop wasting time trying to cajole these conservative true believers and concentrate on how to vote them out of office, the only permanent remedy available. Doing this is harder than it may seem, because while Trump may be unpopular, gerrymandering and voter suppression and low voter turnout in midterms make this a difficult proposition.

There's also the difficulty of messaging. The scandals play well with Democratic voters, obviously, but you won't get independents with promises of impeachment. The health care bill is massively unpopular, making it a much more fertile ground to plow in the election. However, this did not mean giving up on Russiagate.

The two can be melded very effectively. Democrats simply need to tell the voters that "The Republicans are not going after Trump on Russia because they want to take away your health care and give the money to the rich." That needs to be the mantra. Voters must be told again and again that they are going to lose health insurance or pay a lot more for it so that the wealthiest people get even more money. And adding that this is the priority, not investigating Russia, keeps that issue around in the minds of voters who care about it more.

If the Democrats really want to be daring, they should offer Medicare For All. That will free them from having to defend the status quo, and also offer something tangible that would greatly benefit the majority of Americans.

Contrary to what some might say, Russia and economic critique are not mutually exclusive issues. They can, and should be combined, and if they are the Democrats will have a potent message.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Blood and Soil" Is The Story The Media Missed In Charlottesville

The German-American Bund filled Madison Square Garden in 1939. Nazis like Richard Spencer are nothing new in America.

The neo-fascist (don’t call it alt-right) movement made some waves this weekend with their torch-lit rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was ostensibly in response to the removal of Confederate monuments in public spaces, but was obviously intended as a kind of neo-fascist show of strength. I have found the reporting of this rally rather curious, though. I’ve been hearing a lot about the crowd chanting “Russia is our friend,” but little about chants of “blood and soil.”

The latter is much more alarming and significant, and needs greater attention. In case you don’t know, “blood and soil” is translated from the original German phrase “Blut und Boden.” That phrase is a kind of bumper sticker slogan for Nazism. At its base Nazism contained a very particular idea of what constituted German identity and belonging, summed up in that phrase. Only those of German blood could ever be German, and those not of German blood needed to be expelled from German soil. Hence German Jews, who had strongly identified with and assimilated to German culture after their emancipation, found themselves murdered and exiled.

“Blut und Boden” is farcical concept, of course, because there is no such thing as “German blood,” and what constituted “German soil” was historically widely variant. That concept is equally, if not more farcical in the American context. The only reason to invoke “blood and soil” is if you are the kind of person who admires Hitler and wants to incorporate his ideas into American politics. Those people chanting it in Charlottesville are basically Nazis if they buy into it, and ought to be labeled as such. Richard Spencer, the leader of this rally, is himself essentially a Nazi as well.

So why are news outlets calling this a “protest” about Confederate monuments? This might be mostly due to not understanding what these monuments actually mean. They were erected after the violent death of Reconstruction, and are thus monuments to the glory of white supremacy. Many of the monuments themselves are direct enough to even say so. Some try to defend their continued presence as evidence of the past, but we certainly never had that feeling about the statues of Lenin that were toppled in the Communist bloc after 1989. We understood that toppling to be a symbolic blow against a repressive regime, and the removal of Confederate statues ought to be seen in the same light.

The neo-fascists following Spencer understand this meaning, too. They too perceive the statues as monuments to white supremacy, hence why they would be chanting “blood and soil” rather than singing “Dixie.” They are using the opposition to the removal of these statues to recruit garden variety racists and resentful white people to be full fledged fascists. (I am sure that they are also aware that in Germany, where Nazi symbols like the swastika are banned, white supremacists fly the Confederate flag.)

The media doesn’t know what to do with this, because, as Kelly Baker so rightfully pointed out, they have a misbegotten notion that racists and Klansters look like the characters in Deliverance, not well-dressed, well-educated people like Spencer. They also seem to be under the misconception that Nazis are fictional beings or somehow not part of America’s social history.

Sadly, out and out Nazis have been present in this country practically ever since Nazism existed. There was the German-American Bund back in the 1930s, which dressed up in brownshirts and swastikas and managed to fill Madison Square Garden. Openly declared Nazis also fought to keep Atlanta and Los Angeles segregated after World War II and threatened to attack the March on Washington in 1963. Gerald Carlson, an ex-Nazi, managed to get the Republican nomination in Michigan's 4th District in the early 1980s. (I only just discovered this insane fact.) David Duke (who sported a swastika in the 1970s) almost won the governorship of Louisiana in 1991.

There’s a crucial difference today, however, that ought to make us more, not less concerned. Namely, the president of the United States has people affiliated with the circles that Nazis travel in as his close advisors. Steve Bannon, a man openly inspired by fascist intellectuals, still has the president's ear. The president also came to power with the support of Nazis like Spencer, who the president has been unwilling to disavow. These fascists have always been on the fringe, now they are actually getting traction in the political mainstream.

Seen in this light, pro-Russia chants are meaningless compared to the open embrace of Nazi “blood and soil” language. We are in a very dangerous moment, and anyone who urges “dialogue” with these people or laughs them off or gives them a public platform is sorely misguided. Combat and only combat is the sole response necessary.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Why Comey's Firing Is The Third "Constitutional Crisis" In A Year

After Donald Trump fired James Comey, and then had the temerity to admit in an interview that it was, as everyone suspected, to end the Russia inquiry, there's been a lot of talk of a "constitutional crisis. I laugh a bit at this, not because I deny the seriousness of of Trump's action, but because we have been in crisis mode for quite some time.

The first such crisis came last spring when the Republican Senate refused to even consider president Obama's pick for Supreme Court justice, effectively treating him as illegitimate. The second crisis came after the election, when the candidate who lost by millions of votes was allowed to become president. The Supreme Court battle was a case of the Constitution being ignored, the election was a case where the Constitution appeared to be at odds with its intended purposes. And now, of course, we have a crisis where the chief executive is behaving like an autocrat, but his Republican allies are unwilling to provide a check on his power.

At base in all of these cases the issue is that one of our political parties is merely the vehicle for an extremist ideology that will stop at nothing to grab political power by any means necessary. This ideology is also not supported by a majority of Americans, which is why this party suppresses the vote, gerrymanders, harnesses gushers of dark money, and puts its support behind a nationalist demagogue who promises "jobs" while passing all the cuts to taxes and health care that they want.

Anyone who fails to understand the true nature of the Republican party fails to understand the current political reality. Those "objective" journalists who portray it as just another center-right political party are wrong, as are the radicals on the Left who treat them as one side of the neoliberal coin, with the Democrats on the other. It is not fear mongering to say that the Republican party as currently constituted poses a threat to the existence of constitutional democracy in this country, it's the truth. Democrats, radicals, and journalists all need to be acting under this assumption. Our three constitutional crises in the past year ought to be proof enough.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Kinks, "Celluloid Heroes"

I've noticed that the Kinks are disproportionately represented in my tracks of the week. Reflecting on that fact, I think the reason why is that Ray Davies lyrics and themes leave a lot more room for discussion than the music of most others. I am also a sucker for culture as social observation, and the Kinks did that better than anyone in rock history.

They started off as exuberant British invaders with songs like "You Really Got Me" that bashed and burned harder than anything that'd ever hit the charts. Then, in their 1966 to 1971 golden age, they got more wistful, less rocking, and more concerned with documenting life in postwar Britain than making music for a rave up.  After Muswell Hillbillies, however, they took a strange slide into a run of ill-conceived and poorly received concept albums. (They eventually righted the ship in the late 1970s with a string of hard rock albums returning to their early roots but with the commentary intact.) I am not a fan of these albums (few are), but the first one, 1972's Everybody's In Show Biz, has some standout songs.

Tops has got to be "Celluloid Heroes," which has the line that gives the album its name. In a rarity for The Kinks, the location is Los Angeles, not England, in particular Hollywood Boulevard. It talks about the Walk of Fame, but with a kind of Davies-ian melancholy as he discusses stars of yore. There's Greta Garbo, who later shunned the spotlight, and Rudolph Valentino, who died young, and those "some that you've hardly ever heard of." Their fame is framed as a struggle, one that took something away from them that they never got back. The goddess of fame is fickle, too: "Success walks hand in hand with failure/ On Hollywood Boulevard."

And it's at that point that the song turns. After reminding the listener of the price of fame, Davies pines longingly to be a "celluloid hero" himself, because "they never feel any pain" and "never die."The music lifts up to become even more anthemic, the longing palpable. By "celluloid heroes" he does not mean Errol Flynn or Marilyn Monroe, but "Errol Flynn" and "Marilyn Monroe," the screen personas that enamor us so. Deep down we know that fame does not bring eternal life and deliverance from personal hardship, but we also want to dream that it can, our modern, secular version of sainthood. I can't think of another song that says it so well.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

My Letter To Senator Ben Sasse

Dear Senator Sasse,

I was born and raised in Nebraska, and am very proud of my roots in the Cornhusker State. As in your career, my professional life has moved me far away, to New Jersey in my case. Despite this, I still feel a very special connection to my home state and feel that I have enough invested in it that its representatives in Congress should listen to what I have to say.

When it comes to politics there is not a lot that we agree about. For example, I am a social democrat, you are proponent of unfettered capitalism. That being said, you strike me as an intelligent person with a sense of public responsibility.

I also know that during the presidential primary last year that you were pointedly critical of Donald Trump. I assume then that his recent action firing James Comey alarmed you as it did me. This was a naked attempt by the president to stop an investigation of his administration. This is an obvious obstruction of justice, and must not be allowed to stand.

At the very least, we need to have an independent prosecutor investigating the president. If President Trump is allowed to fire Comey without consequence, then we are not really living in a constitutional system anymore.

Democrats alone do not have the votes to get an independent prosecutor. It is now time for Republicans such as yourself to put country over party. The people of this country and the people of Nebraska deserve nothing less.


Jason Tebbe

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Republican Blood Pact With Trump

Trump and Ryan have gone from adversaries to being as close as Blade and Striker

I have been saying for awhile, but today's Senate hearings confirmed it yet again: the Republicans have signed a blood pact with Donald Trump.

If you remember at this time last year, there was a great feeling of trepidation by the party leadership towards the Tangerine Terror. Few were willing to endorse him, many seemed to think him a threat to the party. At the Republican Convention last summer, however, the blood pact was signed. The Republicans realized that their philosophy of rapacious capitalism was not going to win them the White House, and that Trump's nationalism (don't you dare call it populism) would be their ticket to ride.

So we had the insane scenes of Ted Cruz, a man whose father and wife Trump had grievously insulted, carrying water for the Donald. In fact, when faced by evidence of Trump's wrongdoing in regards to Russia and Michael Flynn today, he preferred to grill Sally Yates about her unwillingness to enforce the Muslim ban. Trump insulted Lindsey Graham, and even gave out his private phone number, so people would harass him. He attacked John McCain over his years in a POW camp. While McCain has sometimes been critical of Trump, he still consistently votes with him. Reince Priebus went from having a testy relationship with Trump to being one of his biggest toadies. For the most part the conflict between Paul Ryan and Trump has disappeared.

Both Trump and the Republican leadership cannot survive without each other. Look at France and Le Pen and see what happens to a nationalist authoritarian when they don't have the support of a conservative party. Look at the 2012 election and see what happens when a Republican runs on supply-side economics. Their current relationship is one of mutual dependency. The Republicans need Trump to rubber stamp their horrible agenda, from destroying health care to ripping apart environmental legislation. Trump needs the Republicans to cover for this grifting.

He has not divested from his businesses. He takes many trips to his properties where the government essentially pays him for protecting him. He has brought his awful family in to feed at the trough. He has extremely troubling connections to the Russian government. While Trump is there to be the front man for conservatives, they in turn are honor-bound by their blood pact to defend him. They did their job today, and will continue to do so. Anyone who thinks that there's a smoking gun that will someone get Republicans to go along with impeachment is out of their minds. Without a win in 2018 for the Democrats, Trump could indeed shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without consequence.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Old Dad's Records 10 (Nighthawks At The Diner)

For my most recent podcast I picked a record that was actually pricey: Tom Waits' Nighthawks At The Diner. It convinced me to like Tom Waits, who I hadn't to that point, and it's been a source of comfort in hard times.


Thursday, May 4, 2017

Report From A Small Protest

Donald Trump is going to be right here in New Jersey this weekend at his golf course in sleepy Bedminster. That also happens to be just down the road on I-78, the closest interstate to where I live. I heard from my neighbor about a protest this evening where people would stand on the walkways above the interstate holding signs as the motorcade went by. Full of zeal and angered by today's health care vote, I decided to go.

Things were not glorious. My neighbor had to beg off due to child care responsibilities, and since Trump delayed his arrival in New York to engage in his frat boy smoker/signing party, the motorcade was not going to come down the interstate during the 7-8 bloc where the protest was occurring. I still went to the overpass closest to my house, off of Burnet Avenue, feeling an obligation to bear witness on this dark, dark day. After getting my kids fed I quickly grabbed some poster board and made a sign reading "Health Care Is A Human Right" with red and blue Sharpies.

When I got to the overpass, it was empty. I sat in my car for a minute, then realized I had nothing better to do. I've also never been the type to be afraid to be alone. During my single days I would go to movies alone, go to bars alone, and even travel alone. So I stood there by the chain link fence, the wind blowing hard an unseasonably cold. Below me the massive river of traffic moved, small cars buzzing and big trucks rumbling. A handful of people honked, mostly those driving over the overpass. At one point a Union Police cruiser stopped by me and I feared the worst. He asked me if my sign was a marriage proposal (obviously he hadn't read it since he saw it from behind.) I said no, and showed it to him. For a brief second I could tell he contemplated hassling me about it, but thought better and drove off.

After about ten minutes another person joined me on the overpass, friendly and sheepish (like me.) We talked a bit about the protest opportunities this weekend in Bedminster, but she did not seem that interested in small talk. Being a woman alone with a strange man, I totally understood.

So I stood quietly with the wind knifing me, somewhat hypnotized for the cars and trucks rushing beneath. I wondered if people could actually see my sign quavering in the breeze. I wondered if it mattered. And I wondered if I was just tilting at a windmill this evening. I knew I was right to bear witness, but on this dark day I was reminded yet again that fighting the good fight does not ensure a victory.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Billboard Top Ten May 3 1986

I tend to think of 1986 as peak 80s. It's the year that Top Gun game out, the most 80s movie of the 80s. It's before the stock market fall of 1987 and the ensuing savings and loan crisis and Iran-Contra Affair threw some cold water on the triumphalism of Reaganism. It also saw some songs that we still hear today. And now, on with the countdown!

10. The Bangles, "Manic Monday"

Written by Prince, and it sounds like it. (That's a good thing.) The Bangles keep his patented bounce, but add a bit of their own flavor to it. From this song to Garfield, we really liked to complain about Mondays in the 80s, didn't we? There's just enough of an edge of melancholy to keep this song from being kitsch.

9. Phil Collins, "Take Me Home"

I'll admit it, I really like this song. I've talked at length about Phil Collins on this blog, because he is such an odd artifact of his time. A short, aging drummer with a receeding hairline who someone managed to make it big in the music video era. His best music, like this song, contains a surprising emotional heft. My understanding is that this is a song about someone in a mental hospital who is desperate to go home again. Collins is pretty good at bringing that tragic longing across.

8. The Outfield, "Your Love"
By this time in the 80s the rock music that made it this high on the charts was by fossils like the Stones (more on them later) or pop metal or, as in this case, a kind of sleek, corporate rock. It's actually a gross song about a guy who is going to cheat on his lady with someone much younger. "You know I like my girls just a little bit older/ I just want to use your love tonight." It's catchy and those chiming guitars sound great, but it's all background for maximum skeeviness.

7. Whitney Houston, "The Greatest Love Of All"
This was originally recorded by George Benson in the late 1970s. Here it gets the fully 80s pop R&B treatment, but with strings rather than synths. It's a shame that a singer as gifted as Whitney Houston was always singing songs with such insipid lyrics and treacly backing.

6. Janet Jackson, "What Have You Done For Me Lately"
Surprisingly, this is the first song on the countdown with that classic, in your face mid-80s production anchored by a gated snare sound and metronomic beats. This song introduced the new, tough Janet Jackson that would reach her apotheosis on her next single, "Nasty." It's a mode that really suited her, and the songs from it hold up pretty well despite the production.

5. Rolling Stones, "Harlem Shuffle"
At this point the Stones were completely adrift and almost broke apart. The production is ridiculously 80s, and Jagger's clowning is even more garish. The song is a classic R&B cover, the type of thing they used to do a lot on their early records, except those songs were actually good.

4. Van Halen, "Why Can't This Be Love"
This once great band, which had given hard rock a necessary shot in the arm when they burst forth in the late 1970s, and made of the great mainstream rock albums of the 80s with 1984 are now fully ensconced in their tepid Van Haggar mode. The Red Rocker lacks David Lee Roth's impishness, and Eddie Van Halen's guitar seems almost completely tamed.

3. Prince and the Revolution, "Kiss"
This song was a staple at the grad student parties I went to in the early 2000s. Much funkier than the other stuff on the charts, you just can't help shaking it when this song comes on. Prince's falsetto is also an interesting choice, giving his lyrics less of a leering connotation. As usual, when viewed in context of the other songs on the charts his hits sound that much more fresh and innovative.

2. Pet Shop Boys, "West End Girls"
I loved this song when it came out and I still love it. The sound is so wonderfully moody, I want to live inside of it. It's one of the few examples of the edgier music of the day actually hitting the mainstream. I will still put this on my headphones and strut languidly up Broadway on my way to work.

1. Robert Palmer, "Addicted To Love"
Hoo boy, this is the mid-80s personified, from the sleek as sleek production to the arty misogyny of the video to the love as cocaine metaphor of the lyrics. The riff is simple and repetitive, but former soulster Palmer gives it just enough grunt and sweat to make it acceptably down and dirty, the top 40 equivalent of 50 Shades of Grey, if you will.