Friday, May 29, 2020

A True "New Normal"

Modern American life is full of corporate bullshit-speak, and one of the worst phrases barfed up by that cursed genre is "new normal." This is a phrase bosses pull out when they make you work harder for less money. "Sorry underlings, this state of affairs represents the new normal! There is no alternative."

I think it's time for that phrase to be reclaimed into something positive. A lot of talk around the virus concerns some people's desperate need to "get back to normal." Of course, that is impossible. The world simply will not go back to what it was on March 1, 2020. That would be like a person in November of 1918 expecting to turn back the clock to the "normal" of June 27, 1914, the day before Franz Ferdinand's assassination.

As a friend is fond of saying, "you can't unfry things."

In any case, we should not want to go back to normal even if we could. Normal sucked! The protests and riots against police brutality erupting across America should be living proof of this. Our "normal" was a nation where the life expectancy was going DOWN due to overdoses and suicide. "Normal" was police murdering unarmed black people and getting away with it. "Normal" was workers completely under the thumb of bosses. "Normal" was poison water in Flint. "Normal" was immigrant families being broken apart at the border. "Normal" was people going bankrupt due to healthcare emergencies.

We owe it to ourselves to make something far better than the feeble "normal" of the pre-covid world. As I have said before, the only way forward is to have what Abraham Lincoln called "a new birth of freedom." This time of crisis, as scary and uncertain as it is, presents a true opportunity to make a "new normal." We cannot waste it, because without such fundamental change we will be stuck on the same treadmill of failure and injustice.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Let's Have a Different Memorial Day This Year

Growing up in my family we often visited the graves of our relatives and ancestors on Memorial Day weekend. The holiday was just as much about our personal need to pay respect to the dead we knew as it was a time to remember fallen soldiers from America's wars. I still can remember looking at the German inscriptions on the grave of my great-great-grandmother, coming face to face with a heritage that had been drained from my family's life through assimilation by the time I was born. This practice by my family is certainly not the norm.

In America's public life the holiday is either the unofficial start of the summer, or in recent years has become Veterans Day II and Armed Forces Day II rolled together, the remembrance of death forgotten in favor of jingoism. This year, in the midst of 100,000 covid deaths, I think we should celebrate the holiday differently.

There's been a lot of talk, especially from the president, about how fighting the disease is some kind of "war." However, the dead have gone unmourned, including health care workers sent out to face the disease without proper supplies. The president and so many others have failed to mourn these dead, as many as fell in all of America's wars since World War II, because they would rather dodge responsibility and pretend that this isn't a big deal.

Because of the restrictions forced by the virus, these dead died mostly alone without proper funerals. For those reasons, it is especially important that the dead be properly remembered. I propose that Memorial Day this year be a national day of mourning and remembrance for the dead of this virus. The dead soldiers of America's wars are certainly in no danger of being forgotten. 

The vast majority of people in this country are in favor of social distancing, but the ingrates who break it get all of the press coverage. Our national leadership directly undermines any sense of shared civic responsibility, even though it is something that we are all living out on a daily basis when we elect to stay quarantined. The president won't do anything to mourn the dead, but WE can.

So tomorrow on Memorial Day I plan to wear all black and to set time aside to mourn and remember the dead. I will give myself a moment of silence at 3:11, since it was on March 11th that the enormity of the situation sank in for me. I'll listen to Barber's Adagio and Albinoni's Adagio and cry for awhile. 

You might think this is silly, that my lone action is pretty meaningless. Well to quote one of my favorite lines from the Dada art movement, it is meaningless, just like everything else. In this cruel world ruled by capricious fate we can only make it bearable by being in solidarity with our fellow human beings. This Memorial Day, let's not forget to do that. 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

What Quarantine Has Taught Me

Every now and then I stop and think about how I have been living in quarantine for over two months. It's been such a long time, but at the same time, as recently as early March my life was going on in its usual fashion. In terms of the number of days, it hasn't been that long, really. But the basic contours of my life have been radically altered.

I spend a lot of time in despair contemplating the deaths, the uncertainty, and the knowledge that years of economic hardship await. I am dying to see my parents and have no idea when that will be a possibility. All that being said, my hour by hour existence in quarantine is far happier than what came before.

The challenge of having to teach online has been an invigorating one to rise to. I have a real sense of accomplishment over having done it. Before quarantine I was afraid that my teaching was getting stale, but now I feel like I have managed to stay fresh.

This transition has meant a lot of work on my part. I work many more hours in the week than I did before. However, I don't mind the tradeoff because I no longer have endure my awful commute. Not only have two and a half hours returned to my life, the stress of making trains, dealing with transit delays, and the overall grind are gone. This experience has taught me what a horrible burden my commute has become on my soul.

During the school year before quarantine I felt like I was about to crack under the strain. What made it worse was seeing my children so little. I would get back at the end of the day feeling completely wiped, spending the two hours before my children's bedtime frantically getting dinner on the table then collapsing on the couch. On those days I felt to tired to actually spend time with my kids. Now I get to see them all day. Despite the annoyance of having to get them to do their school work, I really treasure all of this time with them.

I have learned that my life before quarantine was less than ideal. After that knowledge I really don't know if I can go back to facing Penn Station on a daily basis again. I also don't really know what I can even do with this knowledge, since now is not really a good time to leave a steady job. This is a paradox I am sure a lot of other people are feeling right now.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Billboard Top Ten May 24, 1980

It's been too long since I've done a top ten. I was just talking to a friend last week about my Reagan Dawn theory and we both agreed 1980 was a strange time in American popular culture. The 70s were dying but not dead, the dominant cultural forms of the 80s were still gestating. It's something that this top ten, coming amidst a time of economic turmoil, bears out. Now, on with the countdown.

10. Gary Numan, "Cars"

This here is the harbinger of what is to come. "Cars" still sounds great today, its New Wave synthy weirdness must have been pretty mind-blowing forty years ago. Early synth-pop still didn't sound so slick and automated. Numan used a live drummer instead of a drum machine, and fed his keyboards through guitar effects pedals. I miss that grody bleep-blorp sound.

9. Christopher Cross, "Ride Like The Wind" 

Cross is often cited as one of the main casualties of the MTV New Wave invasion. As the story goes, a plain looking chubby guy could still be a hit maker in the days before image ruled pop music. Once videos were essential, that wouldn't fly anymore. I am not sure if I buy that, but I do know that his brand of smooth music was very much in vogue in the Reagan Dawn. Not for nothing, the backing vocals were courtesy of Michael McDonald, as parodied in this amazing SCTV sketch.

8. Linda Ronstadt, "Hurt So Bad" 

Linda Ronstadt understood that the mellow, mid-tempo California cocaine rock that ruled the second half of seventies was not built for the go-go eighties. This song has a tougher edge with a bigger beat, a sound that Quarterflash would soon perfect with the immortal "Harden My Heart."

7. The Brothers Johnson, "Stomp!"

It makes me so sad to know that this supremely funky style of music was about to go by the wayside in the 80s. Latin rhythms and funky string sections were going to go the way of polyester flared trousers.

6. Ambrosia, "Biggest Part of Me"

This top ten shows that soft rock ruled the charts in 1980. And why not? The economy was crashing, gas was scarce, inflation was shooting up, and Americans were held hostage in Iran. Might as well unplug and sit back and listen to some smooth music by a band with the same name as a dessert.

5. Dr. Hook, "Sexy Eyes"

I honestly had no clue that Dr Hook managed to score a hit in the 80s. This knowledge has shaken me. Like KISS with "I Was Made For Loving You" they were a rock band using disco to cash in and unwittingly making far better music than they did when they were playing it straight. This song is living proof that the seventies were not yet over in 1980.

4. Kenny Rogers with Kim Carnes, "Don't Fall In Love With a Dreamer"

Kim Carnes would conquer the charts the next year with "Bette Davis Eyes," the song I see as truly starting the 80s radio sound. At this stage she was known for collaborating with the late and dearly departed Kenny Rogers. Her cigarette-scarred voice was the perfect counterpoint to Rogers' baritone honey.

3. Air Supply, "Lost in Love"

Was there ever a more appropriate name for a soft rock group than Air Supply? This is also the beginning of the 1980 pop culture invasion from the Antipodes.

2. Lipps, Inc, "Funktown"

If Numan was the prophet of the future, this is the sound of a rapidly disappearing past. Disco was NOT dead yet. This disco sound is more electronic and metronomic though. It would get made over as a synch song in 1987, by which time the pop culture world of 1980 was already unintelligible.

1. Blondie, "Call Me"

I recently finally saw American Gigolo, the film this song from. It plays over the opening credits of Richard Gere driving in Southern California and in that context the song sounded even better. It's the tale of a sex worker, a "call girl," yet I first heard it on the Chipmunks' Chipmunk Punk album. (I was just a little too young for pop music in 1980.) It has the thumping disco backbeat and a tempo made for cutting the rug, but also the herky-jerky New Wave nerves. No wonder this song was such a big hit in 1980. In a time of transition, it combined the pop music forms that were cresting along with those about to take over. It still sounds great today.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Why Now's A Good Time To Watch Noir

Assisted by my Criterion Channel subscription, I have been on a big noir binge recently. It's a genre of film I have always had an appreciation for, but I have started to think the times we are living in have a lot to do with my current obsession. It's a good time to be watching noir.

The best noir is about the cruelty of fate. Someone goes through life, minding their own business, then gets sucked into a web of circumstances and decisions leading down the road to doom. The best executed in this sense are two Billy Wilder films, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. In the first an insurance agent pays a house call to a client when he meets his wife, who incites in him a wild, deadly, passion. In the second a down on his luck screenwriter ducks into the driveway of a washed up silent movie queen. He gets entangled and eventually dies in her swimming pool.

The original wave of noir was the product of World War II, a time when death stalked the earth in an unpredictable fashion. While our current world is a different place, the deadly potential of fate has never been more apparent in my lifetime.

Noir also exists in a universe where the authorities are often corrupt and capricious. Chinatown and LA Confidential are probably the starkest examples, but there are plenty of others. The noir universe is one without justice or moral order, where the good suffer and the bad prosper. In the current environment, where the president brags about his success while tens of thousands die, it's ridiculous to watch films where the "good guys" win. How can that even be believed?

The best noirs are set in Southern California, which is a place that I love and am also somewhat repulsed by. Its certainly the least rooted place I've been to. The feeling of transience there can be exciting, since it makes one feel as if all possibilities are open. However, that feeling carries with it a certain horror. There is also perhaps no place that more viscerally expresses the contradictions of the American Dream.

I've mentioned some of the most famous noirs, but here are a few I've been enjoying recently.

In A Lonely Place

This was the film that started by recent noir binge. I was amazed I hadn't seen it already. Bogart started his career as a heavy, became a leading man, and in this film he becomes a leading man as heavy. It was really something to see a star of his caliber play someone so dislikable.

The Limey

I loved this one back when I first saw it in 1999. Usually revenge plots in noir are lame, but here the protagonist is complex and his claims to moral righteousness both are justified and illegitimate. This film is also an effective takedown of the bullshit Boomer narratives of the late 60s. Peter Fonda, quite appropriately, plays a sleazo who even admits in one key scene that it was all hype.

The Grifters

This was a movie I'd been meaning to watch for almost thirty years and it did not disappoint. It's great for a lot of reasons, but it earns maximum noir points for its portrayal of workaday LA and for one of those cruelty of fate endings that has to be seen to be believed. Bonus noir points for making the kindly Pat Hingle into a menacing heavy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Sex Pistols, "God Save the Queen"

The English monarchy might be more revered than ever before. Meghan and Harry's wedding drew a massive audience. The Queen's coronavirus message to the people was watched by millions not living in the UK or even the Commonwealth. The Crown is (forgive the pun) one of the crown jewels of prestige television.

In a weird way, the Sex Pistols predicted that forty-three years ago. "God Save the Queen" was a message that England had to future, and was instead condemned to cling to its glorious and faded past. No one represents that more than Her Majesty. In a country that elects someone like Boris Johnson to be Prime Minister, who wouldn't want to praise a steadfast monarch and remember how things used to be?

When I first listened to the Sex Pistols in my teen years, this was the song I loved the most. Johnny Rotten's mad prophet sneer never sounded better, and the drum and guitar assault of Steve Jones and Paul Cook was never more pounding. As a Gen Xer living in a pretty turgid and listless 1990s, I certainly got a thrill out of such daring music so critical of a complacent society.

This song has become even more relevant in the past two months. When I look at how America has failed to formulate a proper response to the virus, how it is incapable of collective action, and of how it has such a complete and utter malicious fool at the top refusing to do anything about it, I realize that there is no future in America's dreaming, either.

Our response to this has mostly been just to give up, so that people can get haircuts and tattoos. If a bunch of people die, so what? That is a stance far more nihilist than the most shocking punk rock band.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Little Richard, "Keep A Knockin'"

Today brought the sad news of the death of Little Richard. If there was one single artist I could point to as the true avatar of 1950s rock and roll, it's him. He performed with more reckless abandon than his peers, and his showmanship and gender bending set the stage for so many others. Some of the influences are pretty direct. For example, on "She Saw Me Standing There," the first Beatles song on the first Beatles album, Paul McCartney imitates Little Richard's famous high "woo." Other influences have more to do with his attitude and way of attacking the music. Listening to his short, stripped down songs today I thought a lot about punk rock. It's amazing to think that he recorded his influential songs in only a couple of years before having a conversion experience and rejecting the rock and roll devil for the salvation of gospel music. (Of course, he'd come back, but never as a hit-maker.)

One of my favorites of his is "Keep A Knockin'," a truly raucous rave-up that's more an assault than a song. A friend of mine in college had a tape of 50s rock and roll he liked to play in his car, and this song was by far the best on that compilation. It just seemed miles ahead of everything else when put in the context of its time. Others would play fast, Little Richard played faster. Others would get crazy, Little Richard was always crazier. When Pat Boone infamously covered "Tutti Frutti," Little Richard answered with "Long Tall Sally," getting even more far gone and challenging Boone to try and do it again.

Growing up the oldies station was on a lot in my parents' car. I could appreciate a lot of it, but nothing got my blood pumping like Little Richard. There is a spirit in his early songs that the ravages of time still have not dulled. RIP

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Kraftwerk, Prophets of the 21st Century

Today brought the sad news of the death of Florian Schneider, co-founder of Kraftwerk. It is safe to say that there are only a handful of musical artists who were truly revolutionary, and Kraftwerk fits the bill. They pioneered electronic music, but also permanently changed pop music's beat. There's a reason they were sampled on early hip-hop milestones like "Planet Rock." I have all their classic albums on vinyl, it is a delightfully strange thing to listen to this computerized music in an analog format.

It's fitting, after all, since the band's theme was how humans were increasingly combined with machines in the modern world, the biological and synthetic merging together. Autobahn was about cars, Radioactivity about radio and nuclear energy (this was the loosest one), Trans Europe Express about trains, Man-Machine the metacommentary on humans being more robotic, and Computer World, about the technology that has come to dominate life in this century. The Tour de France EP was about bicycles, perhaps the most literal symbiosis of flesh and machine. 

As we have become more and more connected to our smartphones, and we use those devices more and more to define ourselves to the world via social media, the more Kraftwerk seem like prophets of the 21st century. In case you think Kraftwerk is corny or old fashioned as I once did, I ask you to listen to these tracks and remember a musical innovator now passed.


Like the prog rock band that they were, Kraftwerk used a whole album side for this opus, an ode to driving the highway of the kind the Beach Boys never could have imagined.

"Ohm Sweet Ohm"

There's a very strange yet compelling 1979 British art film called Radio On, and this song plays over the end of the film, and it's kind of perfect. It's a little piece of joy in a dark time for me.

"Europe Endless"

This is my favorite Kraftwerk song. It makes me sentimental for my year living in Germany where I could jump on a train and so much of Europe just seemed open to me. 

"Computer World"

This song came out in 1981, but seems to perfectly predict the connected, global world we live in today. At a time when the walls are coming up and disease stalks the earth I can almost feel sentimental for a time when a "computer world" would have been something to look forward to.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Heart of the Matter

[Note: I have been wanting to write an angry, profanity-laced rant on Facebook and have managed to hold myself back. Now that I have calmed down, this is what I'm posting to my feed.]

I have been wanting to post an angry, profanity-filled rant, but that's not good for anybody. So here's what I hope is a more measured way of saying how I am feeling about all of this.

The virus didn't start in this country, but America's decades of rot have made the virus far deadlier than it has to be. Look abroad to countries like South Korea and Germany to see how it could have been handled. Instead, our flim-flam man president tried to deny its lethality, and once he could no longer do that, he took to the airwaves to rant every day without providing relief to the worst hit areas.

I live in one of those areas. New Jersey has almost lost eight thousand people. Essex County, where I live, has lost well over a thousand. Maplewood, the town where I live, has lost over 20.

On the national level, those deaths have gone unmourned. I am sad to say that this fits a pattern. This is a nation where suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses have actually brought life expectancy DOWN in recent years, without very little public comment or political action. Americans kill themselves and each other with guns at a fearsome rate but calls to limit gun proliferation lead to armed mobs descending on state capitols and a lack of action. The police commit murder, especially against African Americans, at a fearsome rate, but a sizeable portion of the country responds with Blue Lives Matter bumper stickers. Our country illegally invaded Iraq and established torture prisons there and most people in this country have basically forgotten that ever happened, or that they enthusiastically backed that invasion.

It's hardly a mistake that the virus has been most lethal in assisted living facilites, prisons, and meat packing plants. Our lack of a social safety net means that millions get thrown on the scrap heap or are forced to work under horrendous conditions. The nation's biggest mental health facilities are in prisons. The undocumented workers villified by the president who make the coutnry's meat are now being told they have to risk death at work without any choice in the matter.

On the national level we have not flattened the curve, and in the intervening weeks the national government has failed to increase testing and tracing, blunting the effect of our sacrifices. This weekend has nevertheless seen quarantine restrictions lifted across the country. This despite a majority of public support for these measures across political lines. Why is this?

It's because the Republican Party has ceased to be a political party, and has become a vehicle for an extremist ideology of corporate capitalism and Herrenvolk nationalism. So many Republican officials have made it plain that they see the sacrifice of thousands of lives to pad the stock portfolios of their wealthy donors to be entirely acceptable. After all, they were more than happy to send soliders to die for a lie and to deny health care to poor Americans, so this should hardly be a surprise. The mobs who have come out to demand "re-opening" are in thrall to a dime-store libertarianism that sees any kind of sacrifice for the common good as oppression. Furthermore, there is nothing a conservative hates more than thought of having to do a thing a liberal wants them to do. They have an entire conservative media landscape that defines its own reality and confirms their worst tendencies. Basic public health measures are not polticized like this in other countries that have managed to actually handle this problem.

But I do not want to let other people off the hook, either. The opposition to the Trump regime's malicious neglect has been an ineffectual joke. (Bill de Blasio for one ought to resign in disgrace and Andrew Cuomo getting praise after he failed to act is a sick joke.) This crisis has shown the necessity for universal health care, and that STILL seems to be an impossible ask for the Democratic party's leadership, including its presumptive presidential nominee. So many rank and file opponents of this regime spend all their time getting mad at whatever idiotic thing Trump has said that day without actually DOING anything about it. ( I will admit some guilt here.) Part of that reason is that the party leadership has offered absolutely nothing and completely lacks any kind of alternative vision. The self-styled "left" has perhaps been even more ineffectual. This supposed movement of the masses mostly attracts people with graduate educations, and is inexplicably committed to returning to the ideologies of the failed revolutions of the 20th century. Meanwhile they spend all their time tearing down Democrats because they are so irrelevent that that's the only real power they can exercise.

Beyond all that, too many people in this country refuse to make any kind of collective sacrifice, and the man who embodies the absolute worst of the selfish, greedy invidualism that has infected this country's culture in the last forty years occupies the White House. Once this crew realized that the virus was disproportianately killing the elderly and poor people of color they decided it was time for others to sacrifice, but with their lives.

Honestly, how does a country like this even have a future? I certainly don't really think it does. Living in a dying empire really sucks, doesn't it? If this pandemic can't unite the nation behind common cause, then absolutely nothing ever will.