Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How Anti-Government Rhetoric Became The Tool Of Despotism

Remember when the press stood up to despotism in America?

I have been thinking a lot about Watergate lately, partly because I just finished the Slow Burn podcast about it, and partly because we are mired in a similar presidential scandal. In retrospect, Watergate ended up being a case where conservatives lost the battle, but won the war.

Sure, Richard Nixon was removed from office, but that was done with the cooperation of other Republicans, who could then wash their hands of his crimes.Watergate added to the thinking after Vietnam and the actions of police and law enforcement in the 1960s that "the government can't be trusted." Conservatives then used this impulse to attack liberalism, which used the government as an instrument to enact social legislation. For those in the middle, who rarely think very deeply about politics, it was easy to translate Watergate into being pro-tax cuts and deregulation. (Of course, using cloaked racism a la Lee Atwater was also crucial to this.)

Soon in popular culture the government became a force of evil, even in family films like E.T.. Who's the biggest human villain in Ghostbusters? An EPA regulator. Later years saw much more explicit connections, such as in films as Enemy of the State and Absolute Power. This all perhaps culminated in the execrable House of Cards, which feeds every mediocre Beltway apparatchik's fantasy that they are genius, behind the scenes masterminds.

Folks on the left and the right distrust different parts of the government, from the left's skepticism of the military and CIA to the right's constant calls to end the Department of Education. Again, for the vast American middle of political ignorance (you know, the kinda people who say "I'm socially liberal and fiscally conservative), all they hear is "don't trust the government." After forty years, that message might be the one general political statement with broad support in America.

Republicans and Donald Trump are currently using it to their advantage. The whole Nunes memo and rhetoric about the "deep state" keys into this notion that government institutions simply can't be trusted. While the left is right to be skeptical of the FBI (hell, I am for sure) that skepticism has also been manipulated into a Glenn Greenwald-ian obtuse moral stance that says "As bad as Trump is, I refuse to defend the FBI." (Greenwald is not a good influence. Go ahead, fight me.)

This is why the White House's cynical strategy to undermine the investigation will work. A lot of folks on the left won't fight it, conservatives will believe a conspiracy if Fox says it's so, and those in the middle will default to their usual "well, you can't trust the government."

One fact that has been chilling me for years is that the military and police are our most trusted government institutions. We now have a wannabe despot in charge of the military and federal police power who has been rhetorically attacking other government and public institutions. In typical despotic language, he is fond of saying "I alone" can solve the problems that face the country. This means we are heading into some dangerous territory, folks. We've been sleepwalking through history, unaware that our post-Watergate path has been leading us to this point all along.

Monday, January 29, 2018

A Few Thoughts On The Most Depressing Day Of The Year

It may not be official, but I am now calling the last Monday in January "The Most Depressing Day Of The Year." Well, at least in the northern hemisphere.

On this day I am feeling very tired and sick at heart. Some of this is personal, some of it is political, and some of it is the intersection of the personal and political, like my shitty New Jersey Transit commute. Sometimes when I get down I try to cheer myself up by watching old music videos and favorite sit-coms from my youth. Other days I steer into the depression and let it ride, and today is one of those days.

As I sat in my grimy New Jersey Transit train today I was reading a book about the memory of the World War I in Great Britain. The author talked about how some of the battlefield monuments eschewed Christian imagery, mirroring how the war had shattered the faith of so many of its participants. While some may have sought a comforting narrative of redemption and heaven's reward, others could never believe in a God that would allow such senseless slaughter to occur.

For some reason, at the very moment I was reading that passage, a memory popped into my head. I remembered a road trip I took to from Omaha to Chicago during my senior year of high school. We left on a golden Saturday morning, and after my friend got into the car, I read aloud Carl Sandburg's poem "Chicago" to inaugurate our journey.

That memory suddenly made me extremely sad. The kind of person who did dorky, romantic, spontaneous things like that is dead. Life has made me harder, more cynical, and far less trusting. It's not a matter of wanting to restore that person, there really is no way to go back.

Then I remembered that there are places when the spirit of that person lives on, even though he is dead. In the classroom I am willing to put myself out there and be vulnerable and dorky, but not outside of the walls of that classroom when I am out of my house. I also remembered my children brought that out of me too. When my daughters got home today, about ten minutes after I arrived, I swept them up and smiled. I talked with them about their day and had one of my daughters read a book to me. She also insisted on talking in a robot voice. I played along, she laughed. On days like this such silly games are therapy.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Guided By Voices, "Motor Away"

[Editor's Note: I am so tired and burnt out right now that I am going to be aiming small for awhile here. It's high time I brought back The Track of the Week, which gives me great pleasure.]

There is some music I love that I don't listen to enough. 1990s indie rock definitely falls into that category for me. Why? Well that's the music I associate with being "my" music in my formative years in the 1990s, years when I thought my generation was unique and was going to make a difference. Instead, we turned into an afterthought between the Boomers and Millennials. I am now fairly certain that there will never be a Gen X president. Listening to 90s indie rock is always a reminder of the stupidity and short-sightedness of my youth.

And yet, it is so good, and reaches me so deep. One of those songs is "Motor Away" by Guided By Voices, a group that specialized in songlets rather than songs. At two minutes and seven seconds, it is the fourth longest out of 28 (!) songs on the Alien Lanes album. They are all about feel, and "Motor Away" has such a great feel to it, it perfectly describes the small elation I get driving down the streets in winter time, longing for any kind of escape, no matter how small. The song drives forward clankily, like the hail-damaged 1990 Honda Accord I drove way too far into this century. It's a life-affirming song, one I often turn to in these dark days of winter.

Two days ago I was bringing my daughters home from aftercare, and this song came on. One of my daughters got excited and asked me what it was, since she really liked it. "My music," the music of my generation and my youthful hopes was being embraced by my own daughter without me even trying to push it on her. This music, so reminiscent to me of a bygone time, was fresh and fun in my daughter's ears. In a tough and grueling week, her enthusiasm was exactly what I needed.

Monday, January 22, 2018

New Series (The Age of Restoration, 1976-2001)

I've decided to start a new series on this blog: The Age of Restoration, 1976-2001. I have spent a lot of time thinking about contemporary history, and I want to put some of my thoughts down on cyberpaper.

I have long thought of the mid-1970s as a secret turning point in American history, but enough time has passed now that I am more certain of what changed and our current relationship to those changes. To start with, I think I should explain my periodization, as well as why I am using the phrase Restoration.

In the first place, the term is meant to be somewhat ironic. Political conservatives started their ascent in the late 1970s, and they promised to bring back an America defeated by Vietnam, divided by the 60s, and enduring economic crisis. The military, shaken by its failures, would be rehabilitated to the point that the public would willingly acquiesce to endless war. The culture wars and backlash against the 1960s would first be exploited in the 1970s, and would give a crucial advantage to conservatives into the 21st century. The mass incarceration that began in the mid-1970s kept growing and growing in power and legitimacy. That mass incarceration was part and parcel of a racist backlash against the changes wrought by the civil rights and black power movements. During that whole period, no progressive Democrat would ever be president. It appeared that conservatives had won.

That "Restoration" was ironic because the election of 2000 exposed the deep political divisions that had supposedly been solved. The bust of 2001 put lie to the promises of endless economic expansion. The 9/11 attacks caused a massive rupture that actually gave the rising restoration of faith in the American military a massive boost, but also showed the dreams of international stability that the Restoration promised were meaningless.

The neoliberal economic model fully took over in this period, and in that respect too it was a restoration of a pre-New Deal mindset. In the late 1990s, as the economy truly boomed in a way that seemed to lift all boats for the first time since the golden age of 1947-1974, this model seemed to have succeeded. The stagnant economy from 2001-2008 ended with an outright crash. The signs were pretty obvious in 2001.

So I guess it's obvious why I end in 2001, but why start in 1976? I see it as the start of Restoration after a period of extreme upheaval in the mid 1970s. 1973 saw an oil crisis that plunged the nation into recession. 1974 brought the resignation of Richard Nixon. In 1975 came the fall of Saigon. 1976 however brought the Bicentennial, which I will argue was an important point in creating the Restoration narrative. That year also put Jimmy Carter in office while showing the rise of Reagan. Both would establish the template for their respective political parties for the next 25 years.

I hope you can come along with me on this journey, and who knows, perhaps it will turn into something bigger.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Wintertime Baseball Musings

This winter I thought I had managed to avoid my usual off-season baseball withdrawal. I have been watching more basketball and hockey again, and am remembering why I enjoy those sports. The NFL playoffs have also been more compelling that usual this year.

And yet...

It hit me this week as hard as it always does in January. Why isn't there any baseball to watch? And so, yet again, I try to dig up some old baseball artifacts and start thinking about the larger metaphors of baseball. For example, the way the New York Mets have conducted themselves this off season is a like a middle-aged person whose life has gone into a holding pattern. The Mets didn't make any major moves, didn't shake things up, and are certainly not going to be challenging for the World Series. They made enough small moves, like claiming Adrian Gonzalez off of the scrap pile, to keep anyone from accusing them to have given up. And so the Mets, who so recently looked ready to be a contender for many years, will once again settle for mediocrity. As I have entered middle age, I know this temptation all too well.

So this middle-aged mediocrity will distract himself from contemplating his loss of passion by digging up some artifacts.

Hard to believe it's been almost thirty years since Fleer and Billy Ripkin accidentally took part in a baseball card with an obscenity. Ripkin had written "Fuck Face" on his bat, and didn't realize he had grabbed that particular bat for the photo shoot. Sadly, I was only able to find the censored version of the card. I think about this card today, and how once our society took obscenity more seriously. Now a human obscenity is our president and 1989 feels like a million years ago.

Buck O'Neil, player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs and later path-breaking major league baseball scout, ought to be in the Hall of Fame. If not for his managerial and scouting career, at least for his abilities as an ambassador of baseball. He is the star of Ken Burns' series, and I love this scene, where the old scout talks about how only a few very special players could make such a fearsome sound with the crack of their bat. Here he is talking of Bo Jackson, one of my childhood baseball heroes.

When Chris Chambliss hit his walk-off homer in the 1976, it finally put the Yankees back in the World Series after a very un-Yankee drought. The fans rushing the field, not allowing him to hit home plate, is such a great scene from the scary, anarchic chaos that was New York City in the 1970s.

Chicago folkie Steve Goodman wrote the Cubs anthem "Go Cubs Go," but he also write "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request." It's sad that he died at the young age of 36, but perhaps more profoundly sad that he died without ever seeing them in the World Series, like a lot of other Cubs fans. Fandom is a kind of faith, and like a lot of faiths, it can be cruel in how it refuses to answer prayers.

One thing that sets baseball apart from other sports is the role of the manager. (Notice, they are not called coaches, that title is for lower members on the manager's staff.) Unlike in other sports, the manager wears the uniform of the team. Baseball also allows a level of argument between the manager and officials that you don't just see in other sports. Some managers, like Earl Weaver, were masters of the art.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Why The Sweeney Is Still My Favorite Cop Show

Last night I watched an episode of The Sweeney for the first time in a bit, and remembered how much I love it. I have a strange obsession with the grimy, broke-down, grey world of 1970s Britain. It's a society in decline, like ours, but it's got more panache. Dingy pubs choked with tobacco smoke, boxy cars, and flared trousers paired with wide lapeled blazers and loud ties. It's a shitty world I like to spend time in to escape from the shitty world I live in now, which is a lot worse with a lot less character. As I was thinking about the show, I remembered that I had written a thing about it a few years back. So here's a goodie from the archive.

As those who read this blog should know by now, my pop culture interests are heavily Anglophilic and 1970s obsessed.  These two loves of mine come together quite nicely in one of my favorite television shows ever: The Sweeney.  A Brit former colleague of mine turned me on to it after I had discussed my affection for the UK version of Life on Mars, a show set in the 70s that often made implicit reference to the characters and style of The Sweeney, from two-fisted cops to Ford Grenadas driven with reckless abandon.  Imagine the Beastie Boys' video for Sabotage brought to life and transported to Blighty, and you pretty much get the picture.

It's a breath of fresh air today in a television world populated by incredibly lame and predictable police procedurals.  The only American cop show worth a damn in our time has been The Wire, and that's a show that's really more about Baltimore as a city than it is about police and crime fighting.  I know the current crop of crime shows well because my wife watches them obsessively.  I jokingly call her favorite programs "dead body shows," since they usually revolve around the solving of murder through the use of forensic evidence found on a corpse.  I find these shows -the various Law and Orders, Criminal Minds, the CSIs, etc- to be dreadfully boring and full of totally uninteresting characters.  It's hard to feel any emotional connection to the police figures, mostly because they so are so two-dimensional that they make Mitt Romney look human.   The criminals are very likely to be mentally deranged; they commit their crimes because they are psychopathic rather than opportunistic.  I find this convention, which is especially pronounced on Criminal Minds, to be incredibly tiresome.  If the criminals are just monsters and demons, they can never be interesting as characters, since their warped nature is their only motivation for their crimes.  I've noticed a strange phenomenon whereby the lovers of these shows are able to sit down and watch one after the other for hours, as if in some kind of trance.  The monochromatic and formulaic nature of these shows are what makes such marathon viewing possible.

The Sweeney is something else entirely.  The two main characters, detective Jack Regan and sergeant George Carter, are fully-fleshed out people with quirks, personal demons, and an ambiguous relationship with the audience.  This is especially the case with Regan, played outstandingly by John Thaw, who often comes across as crass and thuggish.  (Just watch him action, uttering the immortal line "Get your trousers on, you're nicked!")  He seethes with working class resentment, clashing with his superior Haskins in ways that betray his anger at having to be told what to do by one of his social betters.  Carter is less volatile, but after losing his wife in the second season, he begins to act more and more Regan-like.  He is a man caught in a tug of war between the better angels of his nature and Regan's willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

One thing that contributes to the show's greatness is that dead bodies are few and far between.  Carter and Regan are members of the eponymous Sweeney, which is a Cockney rhyming slang term for the Flying Squad, the London police's armed robbery unit.  The criminals (called "villains" by the cops) are not obsessed with their mothers or looking to jizz on a corpse, but are practical-minded careerists who commit robberies to make money, and for their own personal enjoyment.  Among my favorite characters in the second season are Colin and Ray, two flamboyant Australians who enjoy living the high life and making fools out of the poms.  For the most part, the criminals on the show come from the same working class roots as Carter and Regan, and tend to take a practical, hard-nosed approach to their careers in crime.  The lines between their world and profession, and that of the police, blur considerably.  The cops know the world of the criminals well, and even consort with them to get information.  Sometimes you get the feeling that the roles of cops and criminals could be reversed, and that Regan could just as easily used his wits and fists to steal and thieve as to catch the crooks.

That ambiguity reflects a general realist feel to the whole enterprise.  The people on the show look and dress like regular people, right down to the flared trousers, brown color palette, and explosion of corduroy that one would expect to find among the less sartorially sophisticated gents of the polyester decade.  The grit of the streets coats the film, and you can practically smell the stale reek of ashtrays in the police office scenes.  Characters sport thick accents, bad haircuts, and look old for their age, ground down by life.  While there is the occasional bank hold-up hostage plot and take-down of terrorists episode, the ongoing struggle between professional criminals looking to make some quid and professional police trying to lock them up feels much more real to me than any serial killer plot.

Furthermore, like few other shows of its ilk, The Sweeney excels in the ancient and lost art of car chase scenes.  The modern cop shows betray their lack of excitement when an hour goes by without a single screeching tire or bent fender.  The beginning of the episode "Stoppo Driver" might be my favorite tv cop show car chase scene ever, not least because it looks like the chase is on real streets, and the action isn't hacked to bits by overactive editing, as is so often the case today.

Last but not least, The Sweeney has perhaps the best closing credits ever.  Whereas the opening theme pulsates with energy and a skanky beat, the closing is meditative, showing the detectives putting their coats on at the end of the working day, conscious that many more days of work lie ahead.  It's a world-weary close, and it never allows the show to end with cheap triumphalism or a totally happy ending.  Carter and Regan may have nicked some villains today, but more await tomorrow.  That sense of life as never-ending toil reflects the show's working class ethos, a voice sorely lacking in American popular culture these days.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My Letter To Phil Murphy

Today was Chris Christie's last day in office, a true cause for celebration. I was going to write an angry, schadenfreude-laden epitaph for that bastard, but I think I will leave that for later this week. Instead, I decided to keep it positive, and to write a letter to the new governor, Phil Murphy. Here's what I sent him:


Dear Governor Murphy:

Just writing the phrase “Governor Murphy” after the last eight years brings me a tremendous amount of happiness. I am a daily commuter to New York City, and my wife is a public school teacher. Needless to say, my family has not fared well under the leadership of the last eight years.

I was glad to vote for you in the election, and your sign was the first one I ever put on my lawn for a state-level race. You have promised a great deal, and I now ask that you do everything possible to come through on those promises. I especially want to see my wife’s pension protected, improved mass transit, less test-driven education for my children, and access to reasonably priced state university tuition when they graduate high school. I’d like those things for all children in New Jersey, which has some amazing public schools but also horrific levels of racial and economic segregation. I hope you can address that, too.

My parents’ stories are very much like your own. They were both the first people in their families to go to college, and they came of age at a time when our society offered working people a hand up instead of cutting them down at the knees. I look at my two daughters and fear that they are entering a world where opportunities are more and more scarce. I often wonder if my own family’s journey into the middle class will be a temporary blip in a longer history of emiseration. You have the power to do so much to keep opportunities open, I ask you please to follow up on these promises.

Like you, I made the choice to live in New Jersey. I grew up in Nebraska, and bounced around the country, from Chicago to Texas and points in-between. Lucky for me, I fell in love with a Jersey girl and have finally put down my roots in the Garden State. For that reason it is a very important place to me, because I am here to stay.  I am well aware from my years here of the difficulties of New Jersey’s politics.

For that reason, I ask you to be bold. It is obvious to me at least that if we want to provide high quality public services while not adding too much to the tax burden that New Jersey needs consolidation. Our state’s patchwork of tiny clusters of towns is the result of a bad policy from the 1890s. Consolidating school systems, fire departments, police, and other public services has the potential to ease the tax burden without punishing the poor or the rank and file public workers. We should also, as you have proposed, increase taxation on the wealthy.

You will also need to do your best to fight the machine. Little has disheartened me more than seeing bosses like Norcross and DiVincenzo put their support behind Christie in a corrupt bargain. Their graft has been bad for the state and only helped their cronies. Instead of making deals with them I would like to be part of a movement to get them voted out and their power broken so that our state works for the people and not for the machine. Make deals with them if you must in the short term, but in the long term please do not accept the status quo.

I also ask you to be bold in promoting New Jersey. The ridiculous rent prices in New York City ought to be a boon to our state. Yet, as you know, our transit infrastructure hampers our ability to exploit the desire by so many in New York to find a better place to live. New Jersey has so much to offer, and instead of having an inferiority complex (as so many in this state sadly do) you should project what is great about this state. We have high performing schools, wonderful diversity, amazing food resulting from that diversity, mountains and the glittering sea shore. I truly feel that this state is one of America’s best-kept secrets, and we ought to be proud of what we have here.  You can be this state’s ambassador and cheerleader, and hopefully project a far more positive image than the last occupant of the governor’s mansion.

Of course, I am well aware of how the recent tax legislation in Washington will make it hard to fulfill the promises you have made. At the same time, if we are to defeat the president and his Republican minions, we have to show the people a better alternative. The best way to do that is to make positive changes in people’s lives, and the only way to do that is to be bold. As you have said, I think that we need to get down to work on that right here in New Jersey. If you do your part, I pledge to do mine.


Dr. Werner Herzog's Bear

Monday, January 15, 2018

MLK Day Thoughts

Martin Luther King Jr died fifty years ago this year at the age of 39. I can't get over the fact that I am three years older than he was when he was murdered. This was a man with so much potential, so much ahead of him, and on the cusp of a movement that was aimed at bringing the strands of race and class together into a powerful force for change.

I was born in 1975, and my entire life has been a story of backlash against the changes wrought by Dr. King and others. As Ibram X Kendi pointed out in his recent and superlative work Stamped From The Beginning, racial progress has been met in American history by racist progress. The forces of racism may face occasional defeat, but they keep coming back and recalibrating their mission and appeal.

While so many well-meaning but deluded white people thought that racism had been consigned to the dustbin of history by MLK and the election of Barack Obama, the first Klan president was elected in the form of Donald Trump. In 1924 the Democratic Party, dominated by segregationist Southerners, actually managed to prevent the Klan from getting their preferred candidate the nomination. The Republican Party in 2016 gladly and proudly managed to give the nomination to the Klan candidate. Just eight years before the fatuous voices of our media were telling us that America was a "post-racial" nation.

For things to get better we have to abandon our narrative of progress and face things truthfully. People like to quote Dr. King's lines about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice, but when he was analyzing the situation rather than rallying the troops, he very much questioned the narrative of progress. His "other America" speech at Stanford in 1967 expressed this very well. Here he addressed very directly the backlash against the changes wrought by the movement and the difficulties remaining. In doing so he recalled how the changes wrought be Reconstruction met a similar response.

 My entire lifetime has been a litany of racist backlash, from mass incarceration to murderous policing to "welfare queens" to Willie Horton to Trump. The complacency that so many white people in the middle have on racism is partly due to their misbegotten understanding that the problem was solved back in the 1960s. As a teacher of American history I am reminding myself on this day to fight that horrendously damaging myth in the classroom at every opportunity.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Billboard Top Ten, January 14, 1989

As I have said before, I have a very powerful seasonal memory when it comes to music. When the weather turns a certain why I will remember times in the past just like it, and often the music I was listening to then. Today for some reason reminds me of the winter of 1989, when I was a seventh grader. In that spirit, I thought I would look at what was on the charts then. Now, on with the countdown!

10. Karyn White, "The Way You Love Me"

I had totally forgotten about this song. That's probably because its New Jack Swing groove sounds like a lot of hit songs from the era. I remember the music of the late 80s being a kind of nadir, but here is a taste of the decade to come, when R&B especially got a lot better. At the time I really liked this sound, I have to say.

9. Annie Lennox and Al Green, "Put A Little Love In Your Heart"

I remember liking this song a lot, but I was young and ignorant and had no clue 1. Who Annie Lennox and Al Green were and 2. That this was a cover version. At this time I was really digging sixties soul music because of a copy of the Big Chill soundtrack a friend had dubbed for me onto a blank cassette. While the sound of this song is totally 80s-ified with shimmering synths and gated snares, enough of its classic sixties melody survived for me to glom on to.

8. Boys Club, "I Remember Holding You"

Here's a song that has NOT stood the test of time. It's a George Michael rip filtered through an 80s production machine with maybe the last appearance of Sultry Sax at the top of the charts. The backing sounds like something out of the Muzak they used to play at the dentist. Awful.

7. Michael Jackson, "Smooth Criminal"

This song in some ways marks the end of the King of Pop's dominance of the 80s. It's also so obviously superior to everything else on the chart so far. It's a tough, hard-edged groove with a slightly sinister minor-key feel. It's in the same mode as "Bille Jean," in that last respect. Believe it or not, this is where the song peaked on the charts. Unfortunately it also has drums that are over-amplified and wooden, which seemed to be a requirement in late 80s pop.

6. The Bangles, "In Your Room"

Oh my God, a song with an actual backbeat! This song has a kind of New Wave bounce to it that sounds much more appropriate for 1982 than 1989, although the same awful production techniques are slathered over everything. It's not a great song by any means, but I'll take a well-crafted, bouncy rocker any time.

5. Def Leppard, "Armageddon It"

I didn't like Def Leppard then, I don't like them now. Speaking of 80s production techniques, their music on their Hysteria album, which was EVERYWHERE in my hometown sounded like heavy metal Kraftwerk without the human charm. We needed grunge so bad in 1989.

4. Taylor Dayne, "Don't Rush Me"

Taylor Dayne is an artist who had a ton of hit records in the weird interzone of the Reagan Dusk and the early days of the 90s. She was never a star like Madonna or Whitney Houston, but kept churning out chart toppers. The musical backing is very standard and unadventurous, but her voice has this tough, husky quality that I have always liked.

3. Poison, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"

God I hate this band so much. Is there a band that represents the cultural bankruptcy of the late 80s better than Poison? They were the kings of processed cheese metal, but then expected us to take them seriously on this ballad. At the time I guess I liked the melody, though. I have a very clear memory of this song from the time. It's a dark, cold winter morning in shop class, and the teacher would let us listen to Sunny 108, which played mostly "softer" hits, and this was pretty much the only song that came on that morning that kids my age actually liked. When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped I thought this garbage had been consigned to the dustbin of history, but all the people I grew up with who had terrible musical taste now turn out to get a nostalgia high by paying to see Bret Michaels in concert.

2. Phil Collins, "Two Hearts"

Nostalgia for sixties soul wasn't just about covers like "Put A Little Love In Your Heart." Phil Collins, the most inexplicable idol of the 80s, penned the lyrics, but the music was courtesy of Motown super-producers Holland-Dozier-Holland. Here they employ the same formula they used with the Supremes and Four Tops. The 80s production washes it clean of any grit, and Collins is far too reverential in his approach. He, like a lot of other people on this chart, was approaching the end of his relevance, and he didn't even know it.

1. Bobby Brown, "My Prerogative"

Here's the song that taught me the meaning of the word prerogative. It's got that New Jack Swing, but touches of early 80s Rick James electrofunk. It's a groover, built on a totally insistent riff that carried it to the tippy top of the charts. I am not sure who exactly is keeping Bobby Brown down that he has to insist on his prerogative, but it's still a banger nonetheless. Brown would also be a victim of the changing musical landscape of the nineties, and his last hit records would come a mere three years later, in 1992.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Winter Dream Of The Jersey Shore

We are now in what is indisputably the worst time of the year. The holidays are over, it is ass-cold, and the days are still short. When it gets cold, New Jersey Transit trains start breaking down. Two days this week I have had to stand the whole way to New York because of shortened trains and having to take on passengers from other broken trains. Stepping into that hell after waiting on a freezing platform is a wretched way to start the day. Today it was packed to the gills on a broken down old train short two cars on my way back home from the city. That's a rotten way to end a day. (Also was pleasant to brown bag a beer standing up. It's been that kind of week.)

Some winter days, to dispel the tired and angry thoughts in my head, I dream a dream of the boardwalk on the Jersey Shore in the summer time. I sit (or stand) on the train, imagining I can smell the salt air, that I can feel that combination of warm sun and cool breeze, and hear the gulls calling out. 

In fact, that's what I am doing tonight, in the midst of my fatigue and seasonal depression. Last night I was feeling so angry about so many things that I worried that I was in danger of just not giving a damn anymore as a defense mechanism. Today that level of anger went off the charts. I found out that one of my sister's former students, who came here from El Salvador as a toddler, is now in danger of deportation. I read the president's "shithole countries" comment. I was once again overwhelmed with nausea thinking about all the people I know who voted for this.

To keep my thoughts from killing my will to resist, I dream again of the Jersey Shore to soothe and distract me. Here's some Shore artifacts that can help you do the same.

Here's a video of Bruce Springsteen performing "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" from about ten years ago. To me it is the greatest poem ever written to the Shore, the place where the Boss first launched his career. The accordion makes it, played by Danny Federici, the E Street Band's organist. This was actually his last performance, and evidently the song he chose to go out on. Listen, and you will understand why. The longing is almost unbearable, much like my current longing for spring.

I am a fan of Shore towns that are hip (like Asbury Park) or quiet and quaint (like Ocean Grove and Cape May.) However, when I want to have the true Shore Experience of deep fried oreos and t-shirts with vulgar slogans, I go to Wildwood. I also love the town for its beautifully tacky mid-century commercial architecture.

Philly teen idol rocker Bobby Rydell was one of the many musical artists who played the Wildwood region of the Shore, and this song, "Wildwood Days," is a fun ode to the town.

The King of Marvin Gardens is one of my favorite obscure 1970s movies. It shows Atlantic City, the land of Monopoly, in all its brokedown glory before the casinos came. It also explores the Shore as a site of the death of the American dream.

1980's Atlantic City looked at that town after the casinos came. It is a great portrait of America as it entered the Reagan years, with its casinoization of the American economy. Desperate dreamers always seem to find a way to the Shore, one thing that makes it irresistible to me.

Asbury Park has a beautiful carousel house, but the carousel itself got sold off to someone in South Carolina when the town hit hard times. Not sure what exactly the metaphor is, but it perfectly matches the faded glory that is Asbury Park.

Here's another Springsteen song, "Tunnel of Love," which uses a cheap boardwalk ride as a metaphor for a troubled relationship. His music on the album of the same way was an interesting left turn from the arena sound he had embraced in the mid-80s. It is more personal and introspective, like the Shore-based music of his first two albums. There are also some great shots in the video of the Shore in 80s, when it was rougher than it is now. The song has a kind of melancholy edge to it, which makes it the right place to end.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Old Dad's Records Podcast Is Back!

After about a month I am finally back on the podcast track. This was due mostly to me getting horribly sick and not recovering until the holidays, when I was too busy to do any podcasting. I decided to come back on episode 23 with my favorite David Bowie song, "Life on Mars?" It's a song about escaping this world, a tempting feeling in the last two years. After that I pull a T Rex record from my pile of old records and revel in its wonderfully entertaining cheese. I finish things out with a song by new band called Omni that I'm digging. If you read the blog, please check out the podcast.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Why Comic Book Stores Matter

One of my happy places

As I have discussed in this blog, I made the seemingly strange decision to get back into comic books at the ripe age of 39. It was a day during my spring break, when I traditionally take a day when my wife is an work and my daughters are in school to go to The Strand bookstore. After I left, laden with new books, I decided out of curiosity to stop a couple of doors down at Forbidden Planet. I'd walked past it a million times, and was intrigued by what this famous comic book store had to offer. I browsed the wall of new comic books and decided to take a plunge on the new Star Wars series, then I got hooked again.

We all need our distractions, and I find comic books to be the one that suits me the most. Reality television makes me even madder at the world than regular television, I care a lot less about sports than I used to, and my children make it hard to go to the movies. I can, however, find a way to cram in 20 minutes for a comic book. (Or even read one to my children at bedtime, which they often request.) There are a lot of creative people doing a lot of cool things in the world of comics these days, and the good stories are so much more interesting than what Hollywood tried to pass off as escapist entertainment.

I have found in the last two years, however, that one of the biggest draws to comics for me are comic book stores. Because of these stores I consume comics in their physical form. I own an iPad, so it would make more sense for me to buy my comics electronically, so that my cluttered house is spared even more crap. However, I could never do so, since that would mean cutting myself off from the centering experience of going to the comic book store.

More and more in this country, we are eliminating public spaces, and we are interacting in cyberspace. As small book stores and record stores have been eliminated, comic books remain as the one medium sold primarily in locally-own specialty stores. Each comics shop has its own character, and the people who run them do so out of a labor of love. (Since the comics bust of the mid-1990s there's no way anyone is doing it for the money.) In these shops I can still have spontaneous conversations with like-minded strangers, which is one of my favorite small pleasures in this world. It's why I hung out in diners and neighborhood bars when I lived by myself in Michigan.

There are lots of great things about the online world, but as social animals we need public, physical spaces where we can interact and have chance encounters. We need culture to not be in the exclusive hands of multinational corporations. DC and Marvel may be owned by massive conglomerates, and they make movies costing the budget of a small nation, but the humble comics themselves are sold in small, cramped stores off the beaten track. Those stores are also an ideal way for independent comics publishers to find an audience.

My local place is called Amazing Heroes, and it's located one town over in Union, New Jersey. It is a small space, but the owner has arranged it so that it holds an insane number of comics and graphic novels. He's a friendly guy, and when my wife, a total comics neophyte, asked for advice on what to read, he was helpful, rather than condescending. I bring my daughters with me all the time, and they love it and he's always welcoming to them.

I also frequent the much more storied Midtown Comics in Manhattan, since it is on my commute home. Even in that large and much more famous place there's still a feeling of having stepped into an alternate world. Sometimes I'll hear dudes trying to be King Fanboy pontificate, and it won't even bother me, because I am glad strangers can still have these kinds of conversations in public.

It is a strange irony that as Hollywood films become more homogenized, with comic book movies leading the way, comic books themselves are a medium that resists the forces of cultural homogenization. Comic book stores are the key element in that resistance, and I salute them.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Listen To The Bubble Jumpers

Tropics of Meta was kind enough to publish another essay of mine, one that I am proud of and was the result of a lot of thinking on this blog. In the essay I talk about the concept of "bubble jumpers," those people like me who have moved from conservative to liberal "bubbles." Within it is a critique of all those bad articles where a coastal journalist parachutes into the Rust Belt or a farm town and let's us know that conservatives in those places still like Trump.

So please, read the piece and share it if you can. Also read and support what Tropics of Meta does, they put out great stuff on a regular basis.