Saturday, July 30, 2022
Wednesday, July 27, 2022
Monday, July 25, 2022
Wednesday, July 20, 2022
Loyal readers of the blog know I have used the Soviet Union's decline in the Brezhnev years as a metaphor for recent American history. I decided to write about that for this week's Substack, which you can access here.
And in case you missed the news, I have started a Substack. Fear not, I will post all the links here and will still be blogging original essays and observations on this site. The Substack is called I Used to Be Disgusted, Now I Try to Be Amused, and I would appreciate if you subscribed.
Friday, July 15, 2022
Wednesday, July 13, 2022
Monday, July 11, 2022
Once you're over the age of 25 or so your favorite band isn't supposed to be a part of your identity anymore. It may have been the extended adolescence granted by grad school or the fact that I was living in Illinois when I turned 25, but Wilco was very much part of my identity in my late 20s.
Part of it was that Jeff Tweedy was a fellow small-town Midwestern boy who moved to Chicago. Part of it was that my group of grad school friends were fans too, and we went to multiple shows together. They were sort of the mascot for our gang, the way Mods embraced The Who and Small Faces. That period of time happened to coincide with their best records, as well their fight against their record company. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wasn't just an album, it was an act of defiance against the corporate machine. Being a Gen X white dude I probably freighted this episode with more meaning than it deserved.
I had been a fan of Wilco from their first albums due to my love of Uncle Tupelo. That first record is still in the alt-country mode, and while Being There breaks from it, it still feels rooted in more traditional approaches. While I think their next three albums, which incorporated electronics and Krautrock, are their best, I kinda missed the old rootsy Wilco. Their last few records have been alright, but their sound has been feeling as staid to me as the alt-country thing felt to Tweedy in the late 90s.
When I heard that their new album, Cruel Country, was returning to their roots, I got excited. The album far exceeded my expectations, as the songwriting did not lose the sophistication that Tweedy has managed to hone in the last 20 years.
I have been most struck by the title track, a sad lament for America that I listened to more than once this fourth of July. The first lines set the tone: "I love my country like a little bot/ Red white and blue/ I love my country, stupid and cruel/ Red white and blue." Despite my best judgement, I still love this country intensely despite how upset it makes me. If you criticize this nation but don't love it, that criticism comes a lot easier. It's a lot harder to feel like you are losing something you love.
I am tired of the flag-waving nationalists getting to define what love of country means. It feels good to know I am not alone in mixing my love of country with a certain horror. I am a few years older than 25, but I am glad Wilco is still able to reach right into the heart of me.
Friday, July 8, 2022
Driving to Florida and back last week gave me an opportunity to see America's continued public discourse through car stickers, flags, and decals. A lot of what I see on a daily basis in New Jersey was replicated elsewhere, so this appears to be a national, rather than regional thing.
I didn't see many bumper stickers, but I did see a lot of decals in the back windows of large pickup trucks. In North Carolina as well as in New Jersey I noticed an interesting and common combo; a blue line flag decal paired with some version of the "don't tread on me" Gadsden flag. (In one case it was in the form of the Punisher skull.)
On the surface, these symbols completely contradict each other. The blue line flag expresses unwavering loyalty to the violent agents of the state, even after (or especially after) they have been criticized for killing unarmed Black people. The Gadsden snake symbol, on the other hand, is an admonition against an oppressive government, like the kind of government whose agents commit murder with impunity.
We rarely notice the contradiction when we see these symbols put together because both are exclusively used by the exact same people. When we dig deeper, however, we should see the use of these symbols as a clear expression of the folk fascism adhered to by millions in this country. The blue line plus "don't tread on me" really means "I should be allowed to do whatever the hell I want by the government, which should be spending its resources beating down the people I don't like so my privilege is maintained." It's a harsher-edged expression of the dictum that right-wingers think there are people the law protects and does not bind, and people the law binds but does not protect.
It's important to understand this daily, folk fascism because our political media's framings make it impossible to do so. They still talk in terms of conservatives wanting "less government" as if giving more power by the police to kill and jail is in any way "less government." (Or making it illegal for women to cross state lines to get an abortion, for that matter.) It's really about conflicting ideas of what the government exists to do. The fascistic notion that the government exists to protect the Herrenvolk and to destroy its enemies is being openly expressed everyday on America's streets and highways.
Thursday, July 7, 2022
I've changed my mind about a lot of things in my life, like academia, my favorite baseball team, and 70s Elvis. I didn't really dig Elvis until my mid-20s, and when I did it was either his early Sun stuff or his stellar 1968-1969 "comeback" material. To me Elvis in the 70s constituted one of the biggest missed musical opportunities of all time. 1969's From Elvis in Memphis is just an amazing record, his best in my opinion. But then after that, he went right to Vegas, which in my mind meant cheap, crappy, and middle of the road. In my mind, I thought of 70s Elvis as Elvis at the very end: a bloated, be-jumpsuited self-parody too stoned to remember his song lyrics.
A few years later, out of morbid curiosity I decided to watch the last special he filmed in 1977, documenting this sad version of Elvis on his last tour. It's a rough watch seeing him in such decline, but he was also still capable of blowing the doors off of the arena, as in his rendition of "My Way." This version still moves me, it's a man near the end raging against the dying of the light and refusing to be defeated.
While that spirit isn't always there in Elvis' 70s music, I have come to realize that he retained more of the spirit of his "comeback" than I had given him credit for. I have also come to understand that Elvis was always a singer first, and a rock and roller second. Before recording his rocking sides with Sam Phillips he had wanted to sing smooth ballads. In the early 60s he started to move more towards the singer direction but got side-tracked by years of horrible movie soundtracks. The comeback allowed Elvis to pursue more of what interested him musically. While your mileage may vary on a lot of his 70s stuff, there's no doubting the gusto he puts into it.
I also just appreciate the total, over the top kitschy fantasia of it all. Elvis in the 50s was cool, his 60s movies were lame, but his 70s were delightfully camp. I also appreciate that he was not really an "oldies" act because he performed his old songs in entirely new ways. In fact, in concert he seems bored with his old hits and often deliberately clowns as he sings them. (It's one of the most punk rock things ever, the kind of thing you'd expect from Johnny Rotten.) When he sings a newer song, however, you can watch Elvis really attack it. Promised Land is a fine album and it came out when Elvis was 40. How many rock and rollers of the 60s generation were still putting out good stuff at that age? Not many.
To be honest, a lot of his albums of that era can be spotty, or were thrown together through the Colonel's never-ending carny nature to make a buck by pulling a fast one on the pigeons. I had a hard time entering this era until a friend recommended Walk a Mile in My Shoes, the comp of selected RCA masters from the decade. The compilers do a great job of selecting the material. Even with a lot cut out, there's still five CDs worth of goodies. If you need some nuggets to tantalize you, here it goes:
"See See Rider"
"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"
Beautiful version of the haunting Gordon Lightfoot song.
"For the Good Times"
Elvis really puts his stamp on his covers of this era, and this is one of my faves.
Monday, July 4, 2022
Due to the stresses at the end of the school year and my resolution to NOT do any writing on my vacation I think this blog has had its longest ever hiatus (not that anyone noticed.) Appropriately enough, I caught COVID on that vacation (still worth it) and am sitting on my screened-in back porch, my children remarkably sanguine about our 4th plans being canceled.
In the past two weeks I have felt intense, literal physical vertigo on multiple occasions, an unsettling sensation that applies to my mental state whenever I contemplate the state of the nation. For example, my school's end of year teacher gathering was held on a boat docked in the Hudson. I was on it for five minutes before getting puking sick and having to go home (I suffer pretty badly from motion sickness.) At Disney with my family I made the mistake of taking "non-drowsy" Dramamine, which should be called "non-working." I managed to recover and get back on the rides but I spent a couple of hours feeling like absolute garbage.
I got spiritual vertigo from the Supreme Court's decisions destroying reproductive rights, erasing church/state boundaries, and promoting gun proliferation, along with the revelations of the 1/6 hearings. The "non-drowsy" medication failing to fix this vertigo happened to be the tepid response from the gerontocratic Democratic Party leadership and general apathy in the population apart from those already politically committed.
I'm sitting here now in COVID quarantine, anxious and tired and without anything to distract me from contemplating the reality of what faces the nation on this July 4th. Reading about a mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, only makes my anxiety worse. For the past seven years of my life I feel like I have been watching the chickens of the past four decades coming home to roost. Ever since I was able to consume and understand the news in the 80s I have been hearing about increasing econommic inequality, racist policing, Christian nationalists forcing their vision on the country, mass shootings, and a general loss of faith in the future. Back in the 80s one could look back 20 years to the 60s to contemplate the possibilities of radical change, but for people of my generation, we never experienced such a time our lives. For younger people the rot was already obvious decades before they were born. My entire life we have been confronted by the same same structural problems and nothing has been done to fix them.
I have been contemplating the collapse of the American Empire for just as long, but I always assumed it would be like Britain's: a long, managed deflation. Now I forsee something like the Soviet Union's fate. I am sure the average Soviet citizen in 1988, even in the midst of perestroika and glasnost, had no thought that the USSR would cease to exist at all in three years' time. January 6th proved that the Right is willing to use force to seize power. The rigging of the Supreme Court and the rigging of state elections through gerrymandering and suppression mean that minoritarian rule is already here. We are basically seeing a return to the post-Reconstruction American political order, complete with white supremacist militias.
Driving South to Florida I could not help but notice the gun store billboard with an assault weapon proclaiming one could but "Guns Ammo Freedom" there. I could not fail to notice the trucks that had both blue line flag decals and "don't tread on me" logos. Their drivers see no contradiction between praising the state's wielders of violence while proclaiming their independence. Freedom is for them, state violence is for other people. That is the folk fascism that dominates large swathes of this country, including much of the military and law enforcement. If push comes to shove I have no doubt which side those institutions will take, and how eagerly they will deputize those truck owners.
And even without the horrific prospect of open civil conflict, I still live in a country where in many areas ten year old rape victims are forced to carry their pregnancies to term and where Black suspects are shot 50 times by the police and their corpses handcuffed. (Both of these incidents took place in Ohio last week.) Mass bloodshed still takes place even if there aren't battle flags in places like Buffalo, Highland Park, and Uvalde. So many progressive minded people, including myself, don't really see a way forward. If we maintain a democracy in this country I imagine it will be by dumb luck. I'm planning on taking some mental Dramanine in quaratine this week so I can shake this vertigo and figure out what the hell needs doing.