Thursday, May 19, 2022

Julian Cope "Sunspots" (Track of the Week)

Streaming music is a luxury I take for granted all of the time. It's really amazing just to be able to call up whatever I want to hear at a particular moment. At the same time, it can't do what radio does. A really good radio station will introduce you to something you never knew existed, and it will become your new favorite.

Every morning I listen to WFMU in the car on my drive to the train station. It's only about a six minute trip, but in a given week I will hear at least one song that gets added to one of my playlists. Last week that song was "Sunspots" by Julian Cope.

I always associated him with what I thought of as "alternative" music in that very specific period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I would stay up late on Sunday night and watch 120 minutes, and instead of loud guitars I mostly heard Madchester beats and catchy melodies from the likes of the Sugarcubes and The Sundays. (At that time it seemed like all the alternative music came from the British Isles.) That's when I first heard Julian Cope, who I didn't dislike, but also didn't rate that much.

However, hearing "Sunspots" on my car radio on a gorgeous spring morning electrified me. I've been singing it to myself since. I also can't get over how its guitar sound seems to be lifted from one of my favorite Stones psychedelic songs ("Citadel") while the two note synth riff seems to come from one of my all time favorite songs (Gary Numan's "Are Friends Electric.") Evidently mister Cope and I share the same tastes.

As I mentioned last week, the month of May is made for psychedelia. Life comes bursting out of the ground and walking around will get you high on flowers, pollen, and sunshine. The beat of this song is perfect for a spring walk, which I have taken many of these past two weeks. If you're taking your own spring walk, give this song a spin. 


Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Stakes of California's Surplus

Like Springfield, California is faced with a high stakes surplus

Yesterday brought the news that California has an almost $100 billion budget surplus this year, almost half of which can be spent on pretty much anything. This presents an amazing opportunity, one not just for California, but for the country at large.

In my lifetime state-level budgets and politics have been geared towards neoliberal austerity, and California has been no exception. A state where local public university students did not have to pay tuition now charges tens of thousands of dollars, for instance. Conservatives abhor budget surpluses because it does not allow them to proclaim that services must be cut and new programs avoided because "where is the money going to come from?" When I lived in Texas during the recession the state actually had a "rainy day fund" and didn't spend it during the downturn, using that as an excuse to slash the budgets of state universities. 

California has an opportunity right now to show the country what can be done with public money. In a state where housing costs are driving people out, it can fund new social housing. In a state where students are having to crowd into existing universities, it could build new campuses. In a state where the automobile rules, it could build more public transportation. In a state where schools crumble due to being starved by Proposition 13, it could rebuild them. In short, California can provide an example of how government can be used to benefit regular people.

It is hard for voters to think of social democracy as beneficial to them unless they see results. Otherwise, they will just be told by the other side that "wouldn't you rather have your tax money back in your pocket?" Texas likes to tout itself as an alternative to California in this regard. (Never mind that its regressive tax structure means that regular people there really don't pay lower taxes than in California.) Cheaper housing, modern schools, low tuition, efficient transportation, these are all things that would make an immediate impact.

I fear that the opportunity will be lost, that this money will be used to give gas tax rebates, build bigger highways, and give tanks and helicopters to police. The neoliberal state is okay with lavishing money, but only if it's car infrastructure and the carceral state. California has a tremendous opportunity to show another way forward. I hope they don't blow it. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

May Is for Psychedelia (A Playlist of Favoritel Nuggets)

I've always enjoyed psychedelic music despite never having dropped a tab of acid in my life. It combines mind-bending sounds with a special kind of brightness, even in its darkest moments. It's a kind of music that just makes me feel alive. For that reason May is the best time to listen to my old psych records. It's the month when spring is in full bloom, where on a rainy night you can actually hear the grass and trees gulping down the water and in the sunshine that follows the sound of life bursting forth. 

It was this time of year in 1999 when I purchased the great four disc Rhino Nuggets box set, chock full of psych garage of the most obscure vintage. In that spirit here's a playlist of my favorite psychedelic songs you might not know about. 

Rolling Stones, "Citadel"

Conventional wisdom says that Their Satanic Majesties Request was a wrongheaded, self-indulgent failure to copy Sgt Pepper, finally corrected when the Stones went back to the blues. While I must acknowledge that their 1968-1972 run after this album is maybe the best in rock history, Majesties is weird in a fun way. This song has amazingly gonzo guitar and a mind-bending bass sound like a bad trip come to life. It's psychedelic, but with the hardest edge the Stones are capable of. Flower power this is not. 

The Move, "I Can Hear the Grass Grow"


Hey, check it out, I'm not the only person who can hear the grass grow, The Move can too! They might be the best band whose catalog is not fully available on Spotify. I firmly believe this song was the inspiration for Spinal Tap's "Listen to the Flower People."

Small Faces, "Ogden's Nut Gone Flake"


I am a sucker for bands that were big in Britain that never made it in the States. That applies to The Move, but also to the Small Faces. This is the title track to the album, which has many a banger on it, but I find it's this instrumental intro track that gets me in a relaxed mood.

Chocolate Watch Band, "Dark Side of the Mushroom"


Speaking of instrumentals, this one sounds like a smoggy LA sunset over Hollywood Boulevard. It's also a perfect example of how the darkest psych songs still sound bright. 

Brian Jonestown Massacre, "Vacuum Boots"


The Brian Jonestown Massacre only modern band who has mastered the dark brightness of vintage psychedelia. This is less moody than some of their classics, but is a stone cold banger. The fuzzy riff is an all-timer. Rave on.

The Human Society, "Knock Knock"


I mentioned the Nuggets comp off the top, and this is one of the many gems it contains. The riff is so damn powerful and the singer's anguish and alienation just bleed right through the grooves. I swear to God I heard this is a beer commercial once. Some ad exec is a person after my own heart. 

Pink Floyd, "Matilda Mother"


Pink Floyd is probably the most successful psychedelic band ever, managing to bridge the gap between hippie happenings and arena rock. I remember in high school, in those pre-streaming days, asking someone what their Syd Barrett-era stuff sounded like, since I had never heard it. They told me "the music doesn't play, it sort of sounds." Well reader, I was awfully intrigued. I still love their first record, especially this song, which sounds more like a trip to Middle Earth than any of their songs that are more explicitly Tolkein-y. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

How the SCOTUS Leak Exposed the Games Being Played With Abortion


Abortion has been a massively contentious political issue for my whole entire lifetime (and I ain't young). It was probably the first political issue I really learned about, growing up as a devout Catholic with ardently anti-abortion family members. As part of my youth group at church I even attended a couple of local anti-abortion protests, the first time I ever protested anything.

Of course, I later ended up in grad school in the humanities, where the feelings about abortion are pretty much the polar opposite. This experience (which I like to call "bubble jumping") has maybe given me some special insight into the current reactions to the leaked SCOTUS opinion on Roe and Casey.

Pro-choice folks have been justifiably enraged over the theft of rights by the hands of a court put in place by presidents who didn't win the popular vote and whose draft decision reads like something out of the late 1800s. Much of this rage has been vented at the Democratic Party for failing to stop this, and prominent Democrats have been having to play catchup with the mood of their base. The reaction by anti-abortion types has been far more muted. Most of what I see is more about the leak itself than the prospect of their dream of killing Roe coming true after five decades of grinding battle. 

I think an explanation for all of these reactions is that the political games that have been played with abortion for my entire life have been exposed. Alito et al have flung the gaming table over, chips flying. I want to start with the games played by Democratic politicians, then the more significant ones played by Republicans.

A lot of the commentary I've seen on Twitter focuses on how Democrats failed to codify Roe into law despite having some opportunities. While this claim over-simplifies the ease of these opportunities, there is something to it. Namely, Democrats know that while they are in the majority on abortion, they are a diverse coalition of groups that can't afford to alienate too many people, lest they defect. There are plenty of Republicans, for instance, who are pro-choice in their private views, but they maintain party discipline when it comes to voting. Instead of being a coalition of groups, Republicans are an ideological bloc, and thus have an in-built advantage despite that bloc's minoritarian nature. 

The game the Democrats kept playing with their base was proclaiming that Roe was settled, a kind of bulwark or firewall, so it did not need to be codified. That game allowed Democrats to get the votes of pro-choicers while trying not to alienate swing voters. They never believed that the Right's onslaught on the courts, especially pronounced in Trump's administration, could actually overturn Roe. 

This is related to another game, that the Republicans' thwarting of the will of the people via undemocratic means or breaking established norms (the stolen 2000 election, Garland's nomination being crushed, Barrett's being rammed through, gerrymandering, Senate filibuster) did not necessitate an escalation. Instead their response was to tell people to keep voting. And while that is a necessary component of a strategy to preserve Roe, it is obvious now that it is hardly sufficient. The Court's leaked decision has exposed the Democrats' failed gamble at the political gaming table.

This exposure has enraged the Democratic base, but it has also quieted the Republican one. The Republican Party's biggest game on abortion was to constantly use it as a way to rile up their base and get support (especially for judges who would gut regulation on behalf of their corporate backers). It worked, even though the anti-Roe position is very unpopular. They knew, however, that the average anti-abortion person is several degrees more passionate about this topic than the average person who supports Roe, mostly passively. In this way they were able to pull off the political magic trick of having a very unpopular opinion that actually GAINED them votes. 

Unfortunately for Republicans, the leak has exposed the true stakes at the gaming table, and the momentum of outrage has completely shifted. This is especially the case for younger voters, the kinds of people most likely to get into the streets. Republicans and anti-abortion types have not been rejoicing about winning a victory because the coming backlash is easy to see. 

Also, the anti-abortion movement (less so the Republican party itself) has talked to its membership as if THEY are the majority, and lot of people in this movement actually believe it. The public reaction is proof positive that they most certainly are not, and many of them I think are genuinely shocked. 

Additionally, there's a big game that's been exposed as a cheat. The anti-abortion movement treats ending a pregnancy as tantamount to murder and a fetus as a full-fledged human being, but this decision does nothing of the kind. It does not ban abortion nationwide, it only allows states to do so. It also does not establish fetal personhood. This Court is as friendly as anti-abortion folks could ever hope to have, and even now they are not getting a decision that fully coincides with their ideology. They were promised something that could never actually be delivered, and now they are being forced to defend a suboptimal outcome from getting rolled back. 

GOP politicians are desperate to scream about leaks because they don't want to have to defend the SCOTUS decision, either to the public or their opponents. Democrats are scrambling to appease their enraged base while fully knowing the time to stop this would have been in 2015 when they stood by while Obama was not allowed to nominate a justice. Both have been playing games on abortion, and now the bill is coming due. I don't know where things are heading, all I know is that the old rules of the abortion game, in place my whole life, are gone forever. 

Sunday, May 1, 2022

A Teacher Calls For The End of Teacher Appreciation Week

The thing that keeps me going as a teacher more than anything else is the genuine appreciation I get. For example, the seniors at my school just had their last day of regular classes and some of them said some really kind and complimentary things to me. The emotions in these moments can be overwhelming. After all, one of the hardest things about being a teacher is getting to know and mentor some amazing people then have to say goodbye to them year after year after year. I'm no good at good-byes.

Every year at my school the parents' association holds a tea for the faculty, which I also take joy from, especially when individual parents pay me compliments. It feels good to do work that makes a positive impact on people.

None of this genuine appreciation has to do with the thing we call Teacher Appreciation Week. The people who are kind enough to appreciate me would do so with or without some kind of official occasion. Teacher Appreciation Week is not about students and parents appreciating teachers, it is a time for lip service intended to keep teachers satisfied with scraps from the table.

Before the pandemic our pay sucked and our burdens kept increasing. Since the pandemic things have reached the breaking point and teachers are quitting in huge numbers. 

Over the past two years teachers have had to completely overhaul their entire practice from top to bottom to deal with the pandemic, some times more than once. In my case I had to convert everything to remote learning, and then to hybrid, and then to face to face, but a face to face accommodating for students missing due to individual quarantines and students suffering from the mental consequences of what they had endured. Most other white collar workers got to stay home (and complain online that teachers are lazy.) We have had to switch to doing things entirely differently more than once, and for the most part, we did it well.

During the pandemic my school, my wife's school, and my children's school had totally different protocols. This meant having to go to work in person when my kids could not physically attend school, a juggling act that almost broke me. Even when we were all home I would run out of a Zoom class, quickly prepare them a lunch, frantically respond to student messages while cramming ramen down my mouth, and jump back into a Zoom class. 10-12 work days were the norm, and then I had to start commuting again on top of that.

When I told it was time to go back in person every day last April I was given less than a week's notice. At that time my wife was already back full time, but my kids' school was still fully remote. Like I said, it almost broke me.

But I am still one of the fortunate ones. My school has taken COVID safety very seriously. We are a progressive private school and so I have not been flogged in the current wave of cultural combat singling out teachers and trying to destroy them for teaching the actual history of this country. These attacks are our compensation for all the work we did on the front lines keeping children educated during an unprecedented emergency. Our Herculean labors have been paid with scorn, derision, and hate. Thankfully it's a hot labor market and more teachers can escape this awful situation and find something to do with their time that pays more money and costs less stress. 

After all of this all teachers are going to get from their political leaders and administrators is a pile of canting flattery. If Teacher Appreciation Week doesn't come with smaller classes, more autonomy, better pay, and more respect the people who trot out the same bullshit platitudes this every year can just keep their big mouths shut. Just one of the heartfelt letters I got this year from a student thanking me for their college letter of recommendation is equivalent to a thousand of the bland emails from school boards and political leaders. At least I knew the student actually meant it. Unless Teacher Appreciation Week comes with actual material improvements for teachers I will keep assuming it is worse than meaningless.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Dear Liberals, The Rules Won't Save You

On Friday Twitter was all aflutter with a legal hearing regarding Marjorie Taylor Greene's eligibility to run in this year's election. Plenty of liberals and progressives were electrified by the idea that she would be disqualified for having encouraged an insurrection, a violation of the 14th Amendment. I was shocked that anyone could actually think such a thing would happen.

The past six years should have been a massive wakeup call to liberals that invoking rules and process against a rising fascist movement is a futile strategy. The Mueller Report showed that Trump's campaign got help from Russian intelligence, and nothing happened. His followers tried to overthrow the government with his coordination and Trump wasn't even removed from office. The January 6th committee keeps uncovering more and more evidence of Trump's involvement with the attempt to steal the election, and that has also resulted in, you guessed it, nothing. In the meantime, the courts so many liberals think are their friends have been stocked with Trump loyalists and conservative ideologues. 

The underlying problem is that so many affluent white liberals are naturally inclined to see The Law and Institutions in a positive light because those things have always worked on their behalf. They are constitutionally incapable of seeing them as malign forces. And so they watch while red states obliterate trans rights and go McCarthy on public schools and put their hands on their hips and ask indignantly "How can they DO that?"

Well they can because that's how power operates. There is no moral arc to this universe, which is completely indifferent to good and evil. Dr King's famous lines were meant to give hope in a difficult time but so many today interpret them to mean they don't actually have to do the work because progress will somehow magically keep happening without them having to do a damn thing to bring it about.

It is a poisonous mentality, especially when democracy is under direct threat. The solution is not to "go high" but to organize and fight. This is about power, taking it and using it for good ends. When the wrong people get power The Rules become whatever they want them to be. This is a lesson more liberals need to heed. Stop wondering "how can they do this" and go out and create a new political reality before it's too late. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

American Weimar and the Soft Middle

I just finished reading my advisor Peter Fritsche's recent history of the first 100 days of the Nazi regime, which has me feeling both optimistic and shaken. He argues that after the Reichstag Fire the Nazis had the 52% of people who voted for them and their allies in the German National People's Party on their side, and it the ensuing 100 days through both coercion and mostly consent grabbed a significant chunk of the remaining 48%. 

As he has for a long time, Fritzsche argues that the nationalist desires and resentments from World War I gave the Nazis a great appeal to the political middle, who were aching to embrace a new national community even if it meant the death of democracy. This made me somewhat optimistic about the current political situation in the US, because there is no similar galvanizing issue that the crypto-fascists in the Republican Party have on their side. The crisis that killed Weimar lasted about three years, the current American crisis has been going on for at least twice as long. The fact that democracy has not fallen despite it might have to do with the lack of a fascist appeal to the middle.

However, I got more depressed when I realized that in the US facsists don't need a majority to attain power. The electoral college, Senate, and gerrymandering gave us Donald Trump and states like Wisconsin where conservatives have large majorities in the state legislature that do not reflect the vote. Add blatant voter suppression and now perhaps voter nullification, and the attainment of power becomes far easier. 

We've seen this before in the United States, of course, during the reign of Jim Crow. That's a more apt historical comparison to be made than to Germany. As I have said before, it's looking a lot like 1877, not 1933.

But I do think Fritzsche's book keys in on something relevant for the current moment in the US. Fascists cannot attain a majority on their own, but they can if they find ways to win over the mushy political middle, and that middle is extremely persuadable right now. Panics over crime and children's education are potent and exploitable. Look at Youngkin's win in Virginia, and Adams' win in New York City. Also take into account the media's coverage of politics, which is at great pains to "both sides" every single issue, making the existence of anti-democratic party literally something they can't report on, lest it be "biased." The voters in the soft middle hear about crime, inflation, and CRT and think the Republicans are merely a center-right alternative to the party in power, and give it their vote. 

For more proof, just look at how the attempt to overthrow the government on January 6 has played out. None of the politicians who backed Trump's coup have been punished; in fact, they have grown their profiles. MTG, Lauren Boebert, and Madison Cawthorn are all celebrities now. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are even more powerful. Trump has not faced any consequences beyond a Twitter ban. Back on January 6, QAnon's extremism finally crossed the radar of normie America. Fifteen months later the logic of QAnon and its conspiracies of child abuse are at the heart of the Republican message after being laundered into attacks on LGBT people and public schools. 

Come November the party of these fascistic forces will control even more states and likely Congress as well. Up against them is a weak, gerontocratic party trying so hard to appeal to the soft middle that they are losing their base of support in the process. Many will stay home, others will say "time for something new." In the meantime democracy will be eroded and lives ruined. I am more and more convinced that there was enough opposition to weather the crisis of Trump, which culminated in 1/6. That opposition has spent itself, while the fascists have regrouped. If the soft middle still sees this as just another partisan split, get ready for 1877 all over again.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Beatles, "Paperback Writer" (Track of the Week)

Can't I just be obvious for once?

Yes just about everyone loves the Beatles, but it's easy to take them for granted. The brilliant Get Back documentary was a necessary reminder of their greatness and how their songs should not be reduced to mere musical wallpaper.

In that vein, I was talking with a friend about the Beatles recently, and we both started gushing about "Paperback Writer." I had first heard the song as an eleven-year old when I got my first Beatles album, The Beatles 20 Greatest Hits, on cassette for Christmas. It's not the best compilation even by the standards of 80s Beatles comps, mostly because by hitting the biggest hits it omits a lot of psychedelic stuff. I didn't hear that stuff until much later.

However, "Paperback Writer" gave me a taste with its phased background vocals. Back in '66 the Beatles laid down several gauntlets on Revolver, but before they dropped that bomb in August, "Paperback Writer" backed with "Rain" (their best non-album B-side by a country mile) made a bold declaration. "Rain" gets really strange with some parts played backwards while "Paperback Writer" serves up the hooks. 

Those hooks allowed the Beatles to sneak something much more interesting than "I want to hold your hand" love sentiments into the Top 40. Hearing it on that Beatles comp I was fascinated by the song's narrative. It's just a guy begging a publisher to take on his book. He seems kind of desperate to escape the obvious drudgery of his daily life. It's a strange slice of life image that bands not as big as the Beatles would have been allowed to get on the radio. 

Beyond the lyrics, the song rocks harder than anything the Beatles had recorded up to that point. It's almost as if they heard all the great garage punk bands in America playing a harder version of the British Beat originated by the Fab Four and decided to show them how it REALLY ought to be done. The guitar riff just cuts like a buzzsaw. The song moves fast, clocking in at only two minutes and 18 seconds but it's so intense you don't even notice it. On top of all that, McCartney's bass is placed up front. He plays complex lines untethered from the main riff, freeing his instrument from its usual background role. It's a revolution in the use of bass in rock and roll years ahead of its time yet easy to miss because he never overwhelms the song. 

It's a song I've heard performed on their last tour, and those performances made their need to retreat to the studio pretty clear. The music was getting too complex to be played on a stage where they couldn't really hear each other. People like to mark that transition with "Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane' but I do it with "Paperback Writer/Rain."

Monday, April 4, 2022

Nirvana, "Aneurysm" (Track of the Week)

Even though I grew up in the 90s if I decide to listen to old music I will dig up stuff from the 60s and 70s as opposed to the decade of my youth. It's not because I don't like the music, it's because it has such intense emotional connections for me. The memories can get a bit overwhelming. 

For some reason, I have been able to overcome that recently, and have been incessantly listening to the OG grunge that came out of Seattle in the early 90s, before the Silverchairs and Bush-es of the world turned the genre into lamesville. 

Back in 1991 I was trying to explore more challenging, less mainstream music with the resources available to me in a small town in the middle of Nebraska before the internet. In the fall of 1991 this meant a lot of REM, The Clash, Depeche Mode and *gulp* The Doors. That was my main listening diet when I got hit upside the head by "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It was love at first feedback. 

After a year of listening to Nevermind on repeat and going back to pick up Bleach I was desperate for more of my favorite band, and so I bought the B-sides and rarities comp Incesticide the day it came out. I wasn't sure what to make of it, but some of the songs put their hooks in me, including "Aneurysm." (I find it best heard in the live version at Reading.) At their best Nirvana sounded like an explosion, but here their fireworks do the loud-quiet-loud thing they lifted from The Pixies for their biggest hit. (It's fitting that this was the B-side to "Smells Like Teen Spirit.") The loud parts are truly fearsome, the most savage attack they mounted in any of their songs. For me it's a song that belongs in the B-side hall of fame.

Nirvana reminds me of my angsty teen years like nothing else, when I would blast this music in my car and blow away all of anxiety and feelings of inadequacy in a hurricane of feedback and drums. It can feel weird and a bit embarrassing to go back to that state of mind as an adult, but the music is a reminder that I've come a long way. I only wish Kurt had been able to make his own journey. 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

You Know the Frankfurt School, Here's the Frankfort School!

For April Fool's yesterday I did a thing at the Tropics of Meta inspired by their illustrious editor Alex Sayf Cummings' joke that reactionaries should start something called the Frankfort School since they are always on about the evils of the Frankfurt School. I think it's pretty hilarious, please check it out.

Friday, March 25, 2022

"The Supreme Ecstasy of the Modern World"

Last week my parents came for a visit, and I decided to take them into New York City for a day. Before hitting Broadway, I decided to take them to Top of the Rock, the observation deck on the 68th-70th floors of Rockefeller Center. It's the kind of touristy thing I never do since I live here, but get to indulge in with visitors. 

I was not expecting much from the experience, considering I'd been on top of plenty of tall buildings before. This time, however, I was overcome. It may have been geography. I had been to the top of the World Trade Center while it still stood, but that meant looking at the urban canyons from a distance. Rockefeller Center sits amidst the skyscrapers, and I felt like I could reach out and touch them on that clear day. 

On the ground in midtown Manhattan it is also just easy to miss its grandiosity. Down on the street it's such an unappealing place, crowded, dirty, loud, and corporatized within an inch of its life. Up in the clouds I felt a sublime connection to something higher. It reminded me of how in the 1920s when foreigners steamed into New York Harbor they gawked at Manhattan's skyline, something monumental and totally unprecedented. This was the skyline that inspired the futuristic city of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a place embodying new possibilities and new fears all at once. 

I got to thinking specifically of Of Time and the River, a Thomas Wolfe novel ending with the arrival by ship in Manhattan in the 1930s, the narrator gushing over the sight of the tall buildings from the decks of the wondrous ocean liner, calling it "the supreme ecstasy of the modern world." We have become so used to this sight that it does not register in the same way anymore.

I've been thinking a lot about the impoverishment of our politics being rooted in a lack of belief in the future. The fascistic strain embodied by Putin and Trump prefers an eternal present when it is not trying harken back to an imagined past. Progressives, belying their name, lack any imagination. Faced simultaneously with high gas prices and global warming they are ignoring an opportunity to move us beyond fossil fuels and advocating for cuts to the gas tax instead. Across the political spectrum there does not seem to be any interest in building anything, merely maintaining power. 

Staring at the New York skyline from the Top of the Rock is a reminder that things can be built, that the world can be re-imagined. If we want to make the world a better place we need to start thinking as big as the New York skyline. 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy During a Hot War

As I continue along my life path of being an aging dad I have picked up various aging dad habits. I give over too much effort to yard work and try to deliberately embarrass my children. Most of all, I have become addiction to spy novels and history, some of the daddest dad lit of all time.

This addiction has grown so powerful that I am re-reading spy novels I have already read. This is strange considering that I pretty much stopped re-reading books once I got to grad school and realized there were too many damn books out there that needed reading. Re-reading was a luxury I could no longer afford.

Yet here I am, having just completed a second read of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on my way to a re-read of the whole Karla Trilogy. (I also admit to viewing the film version at least a dozen times.) The current war has had me thinking about the legacy of the Cold War and diving back into it. This book in particular speaks to the current moment in unexpected ways.

One of my other obsessions is the 1970s, and TTSP came out in 1974, during the brutal mid-decade malaise. The "Circus" spies have gone from Bond allure to begging a cash-strapped government for funding. In the period of Detente the Cold War continues on a lower boil, but outside of the "secret world" few seem to care all that much. The UK is no longer a world power, its spies must wonder what the point is, anyway.

(BEWARE, SPOILERS BE HERE)

A lot goes on in the novel, but something I noticed this time is how the hunt for the mole in the Circus (as Le Carre called MI6) reinvigorated the aging and prematurely retired George Smiley. Just when he and the service he worked for seemed completely cooked, the mole was found and Karla and his Soviet agents put on the back foot. At the same time, when the mole is finally caught, George Smiley's victory is bittersweet. When he interviews the traitor Bill Haydon he finds himself agreeing with much of the substance of his critique of the West and particularly of the United States. However, Smiley notes that while he enjoys the "music" he cannot abide the "tone." Deep down, despite his reservations about America and the Cold War, Smiley knows the USSR represents something even worse. 

This got me thinking about the war in Ukraine. For the past few years the West has appeared to be as decadent and crumbling as Bill Haydon claimed. Brexit and the election of Trump were omens of a new age of decline, or at least that's what we fought. When faced with the Ukraine crisis, the West is suddenly showing cohesion and backbone again. Beneath the ratty, disorganized surface the West still persisted, it just needed a cause to rally behind. Despite this country's manifest failures and injustices, Vladimir Putin has come along to remind us all of how there are far worse things that can exist in this world. If anything I hope this moment provides some missing clarity in the public discourse. 

Like Smiley however, I hope in our fever to support Ukraine in the current war, we don't lose sight of our own manifest flaws. If not we will be back in crisis mode sooner or later.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Seven Year Spiral

The older I get, the faster time seems to pass. When I worked for two years in Michigan after getting my PhD those years seemed to last forever. I cane remember them today incredibly distinctively. Since I've aged and especially since I have had kids, the years just seem to rush by in an indistinct mass. Say "2007" or "2003" to me and I will have immediate associations. Say "2013" or "2018" and well, I got nothin'. 

It suddenly hit me today that I've been living through a constant spiral of negative change for seven years now. World War II only lasted six! I have become used to a constant crisis. I am sure you have, too.

I date it to Trump's announcement that he was running for president. He immediately sucked up all of the politics media coverage, and became the central problem of American politics and public life from the day he came down the escalator in June of 2015 to January 6, 2021, and beyond. His election in 2016 with a minority of the vote was an indictment of a failed political system and an American society dominated by fear and hate. 

If his misrule and undermining of democracy were not enough, we then experienced the worst pandemic in a century, a fascist backlash against movements for racial equality, and finally a war unleashed by Vladimir Putin. This war has generated so much uncertainty about the future of the world order on top of America's dire domestic situation. Sometimes it feels like I have experienced thirty years of history in just these seven years. 

The spiral ought to be forcing us to realize that there is no going back to "normal." That ship sailed long ago. The past is a dead weight on us right now, pushing us lower into the quicksand of crisis. It turns out that history did not end in 1991, and instead of seeing the status quo as an inevitability that cannot be changed we desperately need to imagine a different future. If we are not capable of imagining a new future I can guarantee you the facsists will. 

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Year Three of the Pandemic Begins With a Whimper

My resigned pandemic sadness theme song

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of 3/11/2020, the day the pandemic became truly "real" in the United States. I had long hoped that we would turn this anniversary into a day of reflection and remembrance, but yesterday hardly anyone seemed to notice. Sure there were op-eds in the major papers, but that was about it.

Much of this has to do with fatigue, certainly, but there's a more willful denialism at play here. Reflecting on the past and remembering the dead would just be an embarrassment to so many. Our authorities, who have completely failed to adequately respond to the moment, certainly don't want that discussed. The third of Americans who have elected to not even bother readjusting their lives of course have no interest in taking an anniversary like this seriously. Why start now? Republicans of all kinds don't want Trump's obvious malfeasance in this discussed, nor are Democrats willing to acknowledge how the Biden administration has not made good on its COVID promises (or its glaring failure to prepare for Omicron.)

Meanwhile, people keep dying. Cases are dropping and I myself am allowing myself more freedom, but well over a thousand people a day keep dying. The seven day daily average of deaths has not dipped below one thousand since early December, which was a few day blip of average deaths over a thousand going back to August 21st. For well over six months that daily average has been in the four figures the whole time apart from one week. 

I brought this up to one of my students this week, who had no idea. They were not particularly ignorant by any means, just reflecting how normalized this has all been. I am definitely glad that cases are so low. I am excited that my parents are visiting this week and that I am able to go out and do more things. However, I also know that nothing will be learned from this pandemic. Not one little thing. From gun violence to infant mortality to lead pipes to our broken health care system to the pandemic, life is cheap in America. I knew this before the pandemic, I just never knew the true enormity of it. 

Monday, March 7, 2022

Depeche Mode, "Two Minute Warning" (Track of Week)

Like a lot of other people my age, I have been revisiting the nuclear-themed music of my 80s childhood. Current events have brought back the familiar feelings of fear and helplessness in the face of world events that could lead to the red button. The music helps me deal with these familiar emotions. It only goes so far, of course, because even without the bomb being dropped Ukraine is being brutalized. That's got me thinking back to the evening news back in the early 80s, with a nightly report from Beirut or Belfast with blood on the streets.

I also remember a nightly news report after the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the reporter talking to a radio DJ about what music they would be playing now. Depeche Mode's Music for the Masses was one record the DJ showed the reporter, to the reporter's evident bewilderment. (American radio was so basic at the time that even Depeche Mode was out of bounds.) My host brother from the former East Germany, who came for his visit in 1993, also adored the band. This was a great moment of bonding between the two of us since Violater had been in constant rotation in my CD player. At the time it seemed like they were the Beatles in Europe. 

I'd missed "Two Minute Warning," which came out in 1983 when I was still only listening to Top 40. I've discovered it in middle age as a particularly good atomic war song. David Gahan's singing on the chorus is wonderfully eerie. The title is a reference to the Doomsday Clock, something I paid attention to quite a bit back in those days. Maybe it's time to bring it back. In the meantime, I will listen to Depeche Mode. 


Monday, February 28, 2022

Why U2's War Makes a Good Listen in 2022

In recent years no musical artist has been knocked off their pedestal harder than U2. It began with the backlash against their album being added by Apple to people's iTunes libraries, and then just spilled over into general hatred. Slagging U2 has now become a way for too-online people to show how cool they are. The whole thing has reached truly annoying proportions. And while I will acknowledge U2's output since 2000 has been pretty lame, their prime stuff still holds up, in my opinion.

39 years ago today the band put out their first great album, War. It came out in 1983, at the height of Cold War tensions, a year when Soviet air defense shot down a Korean airliner and NATO's Able Arch 83 exercises prompted the Soviets to ready their nuclear arsenal. It was the closest we came to nuclear war in my lifetime, at least until this week. Beyond the Cold War, the Troubles raged in Northern Ireland, civil war and invasion ravaged Lebanon, and the dust had just settled from the misbegotten Falkand Islands conflict. Central America too was aflame. 

In our current unsettled times this album could not be more relevant. If you are ready to put down the smug hipster bashing of U2 and enjoy them again, here is the place to start.

The cover itself let's you know what's up. The boy from the cover of their first album Boy now has a split lip and a fierce look on his face. It's a startling image of lost innocence, how conflict makes too many people grow up too soon. 

U2's first two albums are good but in a more spiritual, and less topical mode. This one begins with "Sunday Bloody Sunday," an unmistakable reference to the Troubles. Larry Mullen's drums strike a martial beat, the first words are "I can't believe the news today/ I can't close my eyes and make it go away." How many times have you had that sensation in recent years? Bono coming out and waving a white flag chanting "no war!" when performing this song in concert back then might strike us as cheesy nowadays, but it meant something profound to me in that moment. Reagan's America was full of Cold War nationalist propaganda, talk of the "evil empire" and revenge fantasies about Vietnam from Rambo to Missing in Action to Uncommon Valor. His was one of the few voices with a big platform in that pre-internet age to say it was all inhuman bullshit. 

After that comes the haunting "Seconds," one of my all time favorite U2 deep cuts. Again, Mullen's drums are insistent and martial. (This album might be his most dominant.) "It takes seconds to say goodbye" references the nuclear button. The bass and vocals make it sound like a lost track from Remain in Light. Despite the themes the song is a bit of an interlude between "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," the first U2 song I remember hearing on the radio. The latter song blends political concerns (evidently about Poland's Solidarity movement) with what sounds like a love song. The lyrics might be indistinct, but the sound is amazing still today. This is the The Edge's song, his searing guitar solo among his very best. His guitar really came alive on the last album, October, but here it's finally wedded to a superior song. The echoey piano paired with Clayton's overdriving bass give it a perfectly ominous sound.

"Like a Song..." follows, another stellar deep cut, at least from a musical standpoint. Lyrically we start getting the taste of the kind of overwrought Bono preaching that would get him mocked mercilessly in the Rattle and Hum era as well as the present day. If you can overlook that it has the rest of U2's strengths on full display. Mullen's drumming has never sounded better, driving the song forward with true urgency. As usual Clayton's bass adds to the drive while Edge's reverb washes over everything. 

Side one ends with "Drowning Man." Like all well-sequenced LPs the listener gets a come down before needing to flip the record over. "Like a Song..." is so driving that it's impossible to keep that pace up, anyway. We also get a break from politics to a song about longing for one's love when separated by distance. The sound is still gorgeously haunting, a reminder that U2 got its start in the post-punk world. Those post-punk elements would be scrubbed out pretty soon.

Side two starts with the more up tempo "The Refugee" to kick things off. It doesn't quite sound like anything else on the record, either. It sounds more like an outtake from Bowie's Let's Dance, something for the clubs instead of protest marches. Like a lot of U2 records over the years side one is for the hits and side two is for the experiments. (Just listen to The Joshua Tree). Although the next song "Two Hearts Beat as One" would be a single, it still has the post-punk sound instead of the nouveau arena rock sound of "New Year's Day." Like early New Order, the bass is carrying the melody.

Like a lot of classic albums, the penultimate tracks are not standouts. "Red Light" is hardly bad, but doesn't distinguish itself that much. It does rock hard, at least. "Surrender" has the haunting sound of "Drowning Man" at the start but heads to poppier territory. Again, not bad but not great.

Everything ends with ""40"" (a reference to Psalm 40.) My longstanding theory about U2 is that they are the greatest Christian rock band of all time. The last album, October, overflows with religiosity. Heck, one song is even called "Gloria"! Politics with a religious tint of prophecy replace outright religion on War, but here God makes a comeback. This is a beautiful, languid track recorded at the end of the sessions when Clayton had already split. You can definitely tell this is a band that is about to mesh well with Brian Eno on their forthcoming albums. Edge's bass has a more melodic cast than Clayton's galloping horse, and Bono croons more than shouts for a change. It's a perfect ending to a great record.

It might not be cool to like U2 these days, but their own response to a world gone wrong in the early 80s sure makes a lot of sense today. 

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Americans See in Ukrainians What They Wish They Saw In Themselves

Russia's invasion of Ukraine this week has set off a wave of interest and sympathy in the United States. It has been a very long time since I have seen Americans so invested in a conflict where American troops were not fighting. Some of this has to do with Eurocentrism, some of it has to do with pre-existing dislike of Putin, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that an unprovoked invasion makes it harder to see moral gray areas. The Irish Troubles and the Syrian civil war, for example, did not present such a clear black and white scenario for most Americans. It's harder to choose a side in an internal conflict, easier when the man who helped get Trump elected invades another country after giving an unhinged speech denying the right of former Soviet republics to exist. 

In the past few days my students have not only been following the conflict, but have been discussing stories of Ukrainian bravery, like the defenders of Snake Island. My social media is on fire with stories like the Ukrainian woman telling a Russian soldier to put a sunflower seed in his pocket so that his corpse would provide fertilizer for the national flower. President Zelensky has received more praise than I have seen for a foreign leader since the days of Gorbachev. Images of anti-war protests in Russia have circulated too, adding more evidence to the idea that Ukraine is without doubt or reservation on the side of righteousness. 

I feel like there is also something deeper at play here. The election of 2016 and the pandemic have blatantly exposed America's deep problems for all to see. Even in the face of an unprecedented threat to everyone in society the United States was unable to find a shred of unity. As the pandemic dawned and people here in Jersey were dying in droves red state conservatives openly showed a lack of sympathy. Trump made my governor grovel in order to get aid. We have been fighting non stop over even the most basic mitigation policies. The vaccines miraculously developed to put a stop to this have been politicized to the point that the anti-vaccination movement has actually gained strength from the pandemic. After our last election a fascist mob took over the Capitol and tried to overturn the results to keep a deranged despot in power. Since that election any hopes for positive political change and escape from dysfunction have been smothered. 

Americans are sharing stories of Ukrainian bravery because so they desperately want to be capable of laying claim to such glory. Putin manipulated the 2016 election but conservative broadcasters like Tucker Carlson openly kiss his ass on national television. We can't even get people to wear a mask and ordinary Ukrainians are grabbing rifles and making Molotov cocktails and putting their lives on the line. Our leaders seem to only care about themselves and maintaining power, President Zelensky has stayed in harm's way and seems prepared to die if he has to. The past few years have proven the United States to be an ungovernable mess, a polity so broken that any notion of collective sacrifice is impossible, even in the worst emergency. The Ukrainian response to invasion puts this country to shame.

Seeing this dynamic play out I am also concerned about Americans, safe here from falling bombs and flying bullets, treating Ukrainians as their mascots. The bravery of the Snake Island defenders was tremendous, but their story mostly just makes me sad. Thirteen lives lost because of a cruel tyrant's whim. Instead of cheering from the sidelines, we need to think about what we can materially do to help. Not just sanctions, but taking in refugees. Not just shouting encouragement to Ukrainians fighting for their lives, but also doing the hard work of fixing this broken democracy. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

Putin and the New Age of Nationalism

Today brought the alarming news of Vladimir Putin's moves towards Ukraine. He is recognizing and occupying the two breakaway republics essentially established by Russian invasion. He justified this aggression with a speech laying out a historical narrative essentially claiming that Russia has a right to reconstitute its empire no matter what the people in former Soviet republics think about it. Hopefully, anyone stupid enough to think this was merely about NATO has been thoroughly disabused of that notion. Putin in so many words said that Ukraine has no right to exist. 

The older I get the more I stress the continuities of history over the changes. The Tsars, General Secretaries and now Putin might wild diverge in ideology but all of them sought to preserve a sprawling Russian empire.

I am feeling similar in regards to other continuities. When I was in grad school back in the oughts many people -especially in British Empire studies- found it fashionable to say that nations did not matter anymore. This conceit coincided with the so-called "end of history" and growth of globalization in the 1990s. While global capitalism has been drawing the world together, the result has been to bolster rather than eat away at nationalism. It is the continuous thread that refuses to go away.

Putin's nationalism has been particularly imperialistic, but it is but one manifestation of a larger phenomenon. From "make American great again" to Xi's appeals to Chinese nationalism to Modi's attacks on Muslims to Boris Johnson and Brexit we are living in the new dawn of nationalism. 

While Putin is not alone, his brand of nationalism points to that ideology's most dangerous manifestations: expansionism and war. For the first time since World War II Europe is under threat of general conflict. Lives hang in the balance. Ukranians are being threatened both with death and with imperial subjugation. The international systems built to keep this at bay are faltering in the face of nationalist strongmen. I fear a new age not only of nationalism, but of wars fought over borders and refugees trapped when no one offers them asylum. 

History did not end thirty years ago, and what history is to come certainly looks grim. 


Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Lemonheads, "It's a Shame About Ray" (Track of the Week)

I've had the 1990s on my brain as of late. This is partially because I am reading Chuck Klosterman's book about the era, but mostly because I am finally able to listen to music of that era again without being emotionally overwhelmed. It's the decade where I truly came of age, going from 14 to 24, from child to adult. Every song contains a memory, which can make for unbearable listening. The thing is, I was a complete schmuck from the age of 14 to 24, and I don't like to be reminded of it. The traumas of the past six years have been so intense that those memories don't sting so much anymore. One silver lining of the river of shit we are currently wading through.

The Lemonheads were one of the minor bands of the 90s alt-rock explosion, one that did not get their full due because they were established before grunge and did not just ape the Seattle sound. I've been revisiting them, especially "It's a Shame About Ray." The album cover made me think it was a song about someone being run over by a car, but the song itself is more ambiguous than that. It certainly seems to be about a dead acquaintance (rather than a friend.) This is someone you might know but not intensely grieve over the way one does with close friends and family. Those of us still living and breathing can be a little callous in these situations, only capable of sighing and saying "that's a shame" before moving on with our fleeting lives. This is the arrogance of us the living, so disinclined to contemplate our mortality or for whom the bell truly tolls.

For that reason this has become one of my favorite songs to listen to when I brood about COVID. Two thousand people a day still die in a pandemic so many are anxious to declare "over." There doesn't seem to be anything I can do to stop the onslaught. New days bring new stories, like someone I know losing his cousin to the virus last week. Our society seems to have learned nothing from this experience. It's a shame. 


Tuesday, February 15, 2022

That New Album Smell

 Music streaming services really are one of the wonders of the 21st century. At any time I can access 70s prog, 80s house music, or old sea shanties if I want to. It has allowed me to explore all kinds of new musical horizons without having to worry about blowing money on an album I might end up not liking.

At the same time, streaming has robbed me of certain musical listening practices that I miss. One of the biggest is that feeling of brining home a new, hotly anticipated album from the record store. I used to love that moment when I finally freed such CDs from their cellophane fetters, pealed off that stupid sticker on top, and could finally hear what I had been waiting months to listen to. 

Last week I saw that Big Thief was putting out a new album, and while I streamed it, I listened to it front to back in one sitting, absorbing the music with intention. It was a reminder that even doing this over streaming is a worthwhile endeavor. In honor of that experience, here's five times I got taken in by the new album smell.

REM, Automatic for the People


Out of Time
was my first REM album, and I listened to it incessantly back in '91. I then spent the next year buying up the band's entire back catalog. When Automatic came out I bought it on CD as fast as I could. "Drive" had already been released as a single, and its dark tone intrigued me. This was not "Shiny Happy People." "Drive" started the album off, so that was familiar enough. After that came "Try Not To Breathe," and I knew at that very moment that this would be a great album. (It's still one of my fave REM deep cuts.) I had been skeptical that the band could follow up their hit record only a year later, and finding out they could surpass it was one of the great surprises of my life.

Nirvana, In Utero


Like a lot of people my age, Nirvana's Nevermind had been a touchstone. Not only a great record, it was a symbol of a changing world where the fatuous jock bullshit of hair metal would be destroyed in favor of edgy music by the ugly people. My people. The recording of In Utero got all kinds of press, so I was not sure what to expect. Like REM, it ended up being better in my eyes than what came before. Right from the beginning "Serve the Servants" just blasted things off. Nevermind had been produced in a way that made it glossy, this album would be gritty and I loved it for that. 

U2, Pop

I know it's super uncool to admit this these days, but back in the 90s I adored U2. It didn't hurt that a woman I was in love with in college did too. In 1997 they put out their first album in four years, so anticipated that record stores had midnight sales of it. I was one of those people who queued up in the dead of night to buy it on CD. This instantly became an album disliked by U2 fans. Within a year you'd see it in the racks at all the used CD stores. This is a record I will actually defend to my dying day. It uses the au courrant electronica sounds of the day (which I was digging) while mining deep emotional themes. It's also the last time Edge really got wild on the guitar. Don't believe me? Listen to "Gone."

Radiohead, Kid A


OK Computer
dominated my life for a year after its release. I began every day with the somber sounds of "Airbag." There just didn't seem to be any other album capable of articulating what Tricky called the "pre-millennial tension." I was in grad school by the time of Kid A, and on the day of release marched into the sadly departed Record Service in Champaign, Illinois, to buy it. The title and cover puzzled me, but when the first organ notes of "Everything in its Right Place" hit I realized I was heading somewhere special. My love of OK Computer instantly evaporated. Something new and far more unsettling had been created. 

Wilco, A Ghost Is Born

You think you outgrow the idea of a band mattering to your identity, but that didn't happen to me. As a man in my late twenties I was still capable of wrapping up my personality with my favorite musicians. Back then the only band that mattered to me was Wilco. Living in Champaign-Urbana I got many chances to see them live. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had blown me away and I did not know if the band could top it. A Ghost is Born doesn't, really, but it had plenty of songs that felt completely valid to me. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Thinking About March 11

In a month it will be March 11th, the second anniversary of the day that the COVID-19 pandemic became "real" to a majority of Americans. President Trump declared a travel ban from Europe, the WHO pronounced we were in a global pandemic, and the NBA called off games. Oh yeah, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had COVID. For that reason I think March 11th should have special meaning going forward in the United States, especially this year.

It appears that we are nearing a spiritual end of the pandemic, with the Omicron wave's crash marking a convenient time for politicians in an election year to lift mask mandates. Another variant could certainly come around, but it's likely we won't see an uptick in cases for several months. Pandemics don't end because of stats, they end when people have spiritually moved on. I think we are getting close to that point, even if the death toll will remain persistently high. Other pandemics point to this dynamic.

It's imperative that in the desire to "move on" we do not forget to learn some lessons. The pandemic has shown the woeful performance of so many people in authority. For instance, Donald Trump's malevolence gave cover to the CDC's incompetence. Now that he's not actively shitting the national bed it's easy to see how badly the CDC failed. Our federal system of government looks like a disaster too, preventing any kind of unified response to a national pandemic. Protocols and rules varied so much they got confusing. Red state troglodyte governors and wingnut judges basically torpedoed any chance at universal or near universal vaccination. The widespread opposition to mitigating the virus and the way that it became a partisan issue rather than an issue of life and death ought to give us pause.

Beyond remembering the dead and ruminating on our failures, I think March 11th would be a good time to do a reset on some things. After two years maybe the CDC and the national government can orient themselves around clarity and consistency. Now that vaccination is lagging but crucial to the death toll not getting out of hand more effort can be made to get people vaxxed. That can be with a stick (mandates) or with a carrot (going into communities and proactively vaxxing and boosting people.) The whacko courts have limited national mandates but having schools add COVID vaccines to their current requirements would probably go a long way. 

In general we need days like March 11th to remind us that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not. We don't really have a choice! With the news dominated by anti-vaxxer truckers shutting down Canada it's time for the silent majority of people who want to make necessary sacrifices to hold the virus at bay to stand up and be counted. Our meakness in the face of anti-vax insanity has been one our biggest failures, and one we would do well to reflect on. 

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Dying Empire Blues

"You're all the just pissin' in the wind"

There's little that depresses me more than thinking back to a year ago. I got my first COVID shot the night before Biden's inauguration. Back then you had to show credentials to get a vaccination and the lines were staggering. At the end of it I was sitting in the auditorium of a public school in uptown Manhattan waiting to be released, crying tears of happiness. The next day, when I was teaching remotely (I was on a hybrid schedule), I cried much harder during the inauguration. Despite Trump, despite the insurrection, the republic had survived. The new president was pushing an ambitiously progressive agenda, and the Republican antagonism towards democracy was so toxic that baseball players (not the most radical bunch) forced the All-Star Game to be moved from Georgia over voter suppression. 

So where are we a year later?

The Republican Party yesterday basically declared their approval of the January 6 insurrection, and attacked their party members who have pushed to bring the perpetrators to justice. Trump is able to speak publicly and threaten his opponents and promise pardons for those who smeared their shit on the walls of the Capitol. Biden's agenda has floundered. Not only have the courts blocked needed vaccination mandates, red states have done everything they can to thwart mitigation of the virus. Hundreds of thousands of people died of COVID last year AFTER the vaccines were available, leaving the US with the highest death rate among its peer nations. Needed legislation has been torpedoed by the filibuster as well as conservative Democrats like Manchin and Sinema. The Trump years demanded a new birth of freedom to set the nation right, we aren't getting that, and we never will.

Worse that that, the Right has been emboldened. They are burning and banning books. They are putting bounties on the heads of teachers who dare to tell their students about this nation's racial history. They are firing local health officials who want to stop the virus via masking and vaccination. The media still, after all this, treats the Republicans like a normal political party, not as a vehicle for an extremist movement that will toss democracy aside to maintain power. The average dipshit swing voter will follow suit and vote against the incumbent party like they always do in off year elections. 

In the early weeks after January 6, we had an opportunity to put things on the right track. We missed it, and that opportunity is never going to come back. The United States has settled back into its familiar rut of imperial collapse, where it's been for most of my life. Our system's overweaning legalism and neoliberal orientation mean there's little to no collective action on COVID, and any that has been attempted has been destroyed by our asymmetric polarization. Conservatives have proven the literal truth of an old adage of mine, which is that a conservative is someone who would rather die than admit a liberal was right about something. 

Others have contributed to this as well. The feckless and aged Democratic party leadership still thinks it's 1988 or something and have completely failed to get their shit together. The Biden administration completely lacks the energy and urgency required right now. The centrist punditocracy has spent far more time attacking Biden's ending of our foreverwar in Afghanistan than in sounding the alarm about rising fascism. Leftists just ineffectually light their hair on fire on Twitter without bothering to do any organizing. Nobody in power who needs to stand up to the fascist wave is capable of rising to this moment. Everyone just wants to go back to their comfortable ruts and not have to bother with fighting anymore. I spent so much time getting involved in elections over the past five years and all that effort seems to have been wasted on people incapable of doing their jobs.

This is a dying empire, and the final blow may come sooner than we expect. In 1988 people living in the USSR and Yugoslavia never would have thought that their countries would cease to exist in four years' time. I was thinking about this watching the Olympic opening ceremonies last night. It was quite a display of China's power, and even though I know it's just propaganda, I did not fail to be impressed. It is also a sign of the confidence of the authoritarians. If the United States is the supposed lighthouse of democracy then democracy looks pretty undesirable in the eyes of the world. Putin and Xi can rattle their sabres because they know if this version of the US is challenged to a war we are so divided it would probably bring about our collapse. 

At this point it's not a matter of if, but when. And when it happens the Right will easily smash their divided, feckless opposition, despite the fact that the Right represent a minority of Americans. The problem is, not enough people believe in the foundational ideology of this country to defend it. Much like the people of the Soviet Union stopped believing in the promises of Marxism well before that empire ceased to exist. All I can think is that I am too old to emigrate but too young to spend the rest of my life trapped in the horror the American Right wants us to live in.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Neil Young, Time Fades Away (Classic Albums)

Neil Young is in the news this week with his stand against Spotify's propagation of anti-vaccine propaganda in the form of Joe Rogan. Young's willingness to cut against the grain of expectations has always been one of his defining features and one of my favorite things about him. After all, this is a man who was sued by his own label in the 80s for not making "representative" albums!

His first major bucking of expectations is one of my favorite albums of his: Time Fades Away. It came right after Young hit the big time with Harvest, his 1972 record full of catchy hits like "Heart of Gold" that embodied the spirit of the whole Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter thing. According to a famous statement of his, Young decided to move from the middle of the road into "the ditch." His ditch albums of the seventies began with Time Fades Away, a strange live album without the hits documenting a difficult tour. It was out of print for decades, embargoed by Young himself. I got my copy on LP, purchased by my wife off of eBay before Young finally released it from the vault. 

The Time Fades Away tour came after both original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry died of drug overdoses. Whitten was supposed to be on the tour but was let go because his substance abuse left him in no condition to play. He died soon after, on the cusp of the tour, which had to have weighed heavy on Young. If Harvest represented the mellowing of the hippie dream into relaxing folk-pop music, Time Fades Away was an angry obituary for the failed counterculture, a running theme in the "Ditch Trilogy" that also included On the Beach and Tonight's the Night.

The album's cover implies this elegiac tone with its sepia-colored photograph of a rock show audience. The children of the Aquarian Age are there to commune and be groovy, but that looks like an artifact of the distant past even in 1973. The kid flashing the peace sign in front has no clue what's about to hit him when an angry and grieving Young hits the stage. There will be no good vibes to be had. 

Being a live album, Young's disenchantment hits the listener with more immediacy on Time Fades Away. It starts with the title song, a rocking ragged number that sounds like a bad hangover come to life. The feel and title set the tone for what's to follow. The hippie world of being forever young and carefree was a lie. Time comes for us all, even the dreamers. When it does, it's ugly. 

After that comes the tender piano ballad of "Journey Through the Past." Here the passage of time brings nostalgia rather than despair. It's a song of going home to a place you've left long ago and it's always resonated with me. Like Young, I grew up in a small town and moved far away but always kept it in my heart even though it seems like a strange place whenever I return. We all need these memory palaces to make life bearable. Arthur Schopenhauer, a ridiculously pessimistic philosopher, felt that our few chances at happiness depended on our being able to reflect on the good times we do manage to wrest out of this difficult existence. 

Young does not let the listener stay in this reverie, however. Next up comes "Yonder Stands the Sinner." We are back to the desperate hangover sound of the title track, complete with cracking voice and junk-sick blue notes. It sounds positively happy compared to "L.A.," an able entry in the Los Angeles as Hell genre. I myself fancy Southern California, but it seems in the 70s many rock musicians who came there left a bit worse for wear. (I think here of David Bowie going into cocaine psychosis and weighing a hundred pounds and The Stooges' seven minute cry for help "LA Blues.") Ben Keith's steel guitar, which made Harvest so mellow, pierces here. We aren't in rural Ontario anymore. 

Side one ends deceptively with "Love in Mind," a song recorded two years early in 1971 before Young migrated over to the Ditch. It has the same sad wistfulness of "Journey Through the Past" but feels a lot less tired. Knowing that fact helps you hear the desperation in the rest of the album. 

Like all good albums, side one has a soft landing and side two begins with a shift in tone. "Don't Be Denied" is a song of youth and memory, but looking back in anger. The small town of "Journey Through the Past" has become a trap, a place to be escaped. I too understand the dialectic of leaving the small town. The memories of the intimacy and simplicity of childhood in such a place clash with the memories of the small-mindedness and narrow horizons that arise from the same circumstances. It's a loud dirge, vocals straining and guitars screeching. Easy so see from this how Young was a grunge godfather.

"The Bridge" follows, swinging the pendulum back to ballad territory. At first it seems to be building a simple metaphor for love, but Young sings about the bridge falling under "lies" and trying to build it again. The plea for love and understanding here lies on a bed of pain. "Heart of Gold" had that kind of longing in it, but it's much harder to ignore here.

Things end with the hard rocking and appropriately named "Last Dance." It's a song about waking up on Monday morning facing yet another soul-sucking week of work. The riff stabs, Keith's steel guitar pierces again. This is the sound of our daily malaise personified, but the words promise the possibility of escape. Young's chant of "no no no" is a stirring rage against the dying of the light. By the end of the album we have gone full circle from the emotional wreckage of the failed hippie dream to a cry of resistance against giving into the daily malaise of modern life. 

This is not pretty-sounding music, but like a truly great live album it lets in a couple of bum notes and strained vocals so that a deeper, ecstatic truth emerges. It was too true for Young's taste, which is why he left it in the vault for so long. Who wants to be reminded of their darkest days? As we live through our own dark times this seeming curio of a legacy artist's career can be a balm for the soul. Neil Young may not be on Spotify anymore, but most of the time I was spinning this LP it was never meant to be heard, anyway. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, "Some Velvet Morning" (Track of the Week)

There's probably no more depressing time of year than late January. It's as cold as it will get, the days are still too short, the holidays are long past and the end of winter is still a long way off. In the time of COVID January also means sickness and death. 

This January is not as deadly as the last but the embers of hope stirring then are almost burned out. January 6th was a horrible shock, but the 20th brought an end to the Trump presidency. A year later the hopes I had on that day are pretty much dead. Republicans have not paid any political price for trying to overthrow democracy. Democrats are unable to pass legislation because two of their own Senators refuse to suspend the filibuster. This year will likely bring Republican control of Congress, and an end to any possible hope for the new birth of freedom this country desperately needs. 

I walk about my days this January with premonitions of doom and rumors of war in Eastern Europe. This country's death spiral has not been averted in any perceptible way. I don't really think there's much of a future for America. 

Apart from going to work every day and spending time with family and friends, I am not sure what else to do. I try to find solace as always in music. I have found that lush 1960s baroque pop soothes me like little else. I got introduced to this genre through the early Bee Gees, and last winter listened to Scott Walker non-stop. This year it's Lee Hazlewood. 

"Some Velvet Morning" with Nancy Sinatra has the doomy, ethereal sound of my soul at this particular moment in its grooves. Hazlewood doesn't really sing. He sort of intones in a deep voice while Nancy does ghostly background vocals. I am not sure what this song is even supposed to be about, but in it I hear the sounds of the crisis of the soul. God knows it's a resonant feeling with me right now. 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Reading War and Peace in the Time of COVID

This Charlie Brown special was how I first learned of Tolstoy

When quarantine began in the middle of March, 2020, I decided to order a couple of long nineteenth century novels I had been meaning to read for years. I love those old classic doorstops, which considering their serialized nature are like literary versions of a Netflix series. The more characters, the more side plots, the more philosophizing, the better. The two novels in question were Middlemarch and War and Peace. I started on the former and got over two hundred pages in, mostly because the start of quarantine coincided with my spring break. Then came the transition to fully remote teaching, which was so taxing and brutal that I could not spare the mental capacity for Middlemarch.

Months later, in the summer of 2020, I dug out War and Peace from my bedside book stack, and couldn't get into it. The same thing happened the next summer. It begins in the world of noble salons and drawing rooms, not exactly the most engrossing thing for me.

Fast forward to last week. My wife gave me a bunch of great books for Christmas, including Ruth Scurr's recent book about Napoleon telling his life through his experience with gardens (trust me, it really works!) I got into a serious Napoleonic mood after reading it, and the only relevant book readily available to me was Tolstoy's tome. 

This time it clicked with me, and after three days I am 150 pages in, despite my tired old eyes straining to read the small print of the footnotes whenever the French dialogue is being translated. This was partly because my mind was in the right Napoleonic frame to appreciate the world Tolstoy was recreating. However, it was mostly because I saw a connection between that once foreign salon world and myself.

As the two year anniversary of quarantine approaches, I have been getting extremely vivid flashbacks to the earlier days of the pandemic. I am especially remembering its strange mesh of emotions. I was scared and mentally dislocated, but I was also optimistic and energized by the challenge ahead. I had no clue, of course, what really laid in store for me. I had no conception that the pandemic would still be affecting my life two years later, one year post vaccine. 

That's what Tolstoy is showing us with the salons and all their partying and gossip as war with Napoleon commences. The characters are preparing themselves for something they think is important, but they have no way of understanding just how momentous and life-altering the coming changes will be. They can only talk about it in the abstract before the brutal reality smacks them in the face. It feels good to dip into the past and find people like me being tossed on the waves of history desperately looking for a lifeboat. 

It's a shame that the epic social novel is a relic of the nineteenth century. I sometimes feel like the United States of the past six years would be great fodder for such a thing. While I know the present will always soon be the past, the recent years have felt more like living through history than any time in my life, including during the end of the Cold War and the years of the War on Terror. All that is solid melts into air nowadays, as a wise man of the nineteenth century once said. I increasingly feel like my individual will has zero bearing on my fate in a world being shaken by forces well beyond my control. Reading a masterful epic novel of the past makes those feelings more bearable. Maybe I will get to Middlemarch, too.


Monday, January 17, 2022

Read More Novels

I was lucky to get a whole bunch of great books from my wife for Christmas this year, including the novel The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. Now I might be partial to it considering that a lot of the early parts take place in the corner of Nebraska where I grew up, and a lot of the rest of it takes place in the city where I work (New York), and in between there's life on the road, which is one of my favorite places to be. Even taking away those ingrained advantages, the book completely entranced me. I loved the multiple perspectives, the characters, and how it held me in suspense. Reading the book on the way to and from work on the train became a highlight of my day. Now that I am done with it, I feel an actual loss in my life, a hole in need of filling.

During the week and a half when I was reading the book I tried and failed to watch American prestige television. A really good novel truly CONSUMES me like nothing else, it dominates my thoughts in the day's idle moments. By comparison prestige TV felt far less vital, far less interesting, and far more formulaic. I tended to know which way things were going on the TV when The Lincoln Highway surprised me in every chapter. The characters felt two-dimensional, and I could never truly put myself in their heads. The beats and formulas of prestige television in the US are pretty well established. The thing is, if I want formula I would much rather read a spy novel or watch an old episode of The Rockford Files

Neither of those things pretend to be something that they aren't. They also do far less to waste my time. After an hour of The Rockford Files everything has been nicely resolved. The prestige TV format typically includes episodes that fill time and do little to drive the plot forward or even develop the characters. I have so little time in my day, and hearing someone say "you have to watch the first few episodes before it gets good" is the surest way to never get me to watch something. 

I should also add that this is a problem with American TV in particular. While I was reading the novel my wife and I watched the Swedish show Anxious People on Netflix, and I really enjoyed it. It was only six episodes and the first one left such a strong impact I definitely wanted more. It's also a show about LIFE, a topic one tends to find much more in literature than in American prestige television, which relies on some kind of high concept, even for the good shows. A mob boss who goes to therapy. A serial killer hunting serial killers. A chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin. And so on and so on and so on. Yawn.

Not that I won't pick up a new show to watch. We just started Station Eleven, for example, and I like it a lot. It has even forced me to reckon with the losses of the pandemic in ways I tend to place out of my mind. At the same time, the story is taking forever to unfold and a lot of the beats feel overly familiar. 

There's another thing too: The Discourse. The Discourse has warped viewership of prestige TV to the point that I can't watch anything without feeling like it's been talked to death already. My expectations are too fully formed by the time I put on the first episode. Novel reading is not something beloved by the people participating in The Discourse, thank God. I can read a novel without thinking that reaction to it is taking some kind of side. Even better, it's something I don't talk about online with strangers, it's something I share with my friends. And let me tell you, they are far more fruitful conversations to be had with the latter group.  

So while I am enjoying Station Eleven, what I really want is a new novel, one as good as the last few that I've read. Something to consume me. Goodness knows I need it right now. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

New Order, "Procession" (Track of the Week)

Up until this week we have not had much of a winter here in New Jersey. The unseasonable warmth did not lift my spirits much because it only reminded me of climate change's harsh reality. This week's ice and freezing cold are thus ironically comforting.

As I often to admit on this blog, my music listening habits are extremely seasonal in nature. Just as the holidays give us comfort in their regularity and ritual, my soul demands that I listen to New Order in the dead of winter, especially their early singles and albums. The frosty synths, whispy melodica, and strangely melodic bass seem perfect for these bitter weeks of cold darkness. December is the bearable winter month because of all the holiday fun. Then comes January, with nothing to look forward to that isn't a long way away, with weeks of freezing purgatory to cross to get there.

"Procession" sets the tone right away with its layered synthesizers before Stephen Morris' famously spare drumming kicks things into gear. The first words are "There is no end to this," which is how winter can feel at this time of the year. The music's vibe reminds me of driving the back roads of Nebraska during a snowstorm, the flakes like the notes swirling about reflecting light and beauty. But like trying to drive in the snow on a rural road, there's a note of danger beneath it all. One wrong move and things can go off of the road and into the ditch. I must admit I have careened off of the road this time of year a few times in my life, both metaphorically and literally. 

In the midst of our second COVID winter my fight is gone. Instead of worrying I am just trying to embrace the things that give me comfort. This song is one of them.