Saturday, November 26, 2022

Tangerine Dream, "Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares" (Track of the Week)

Middle-aged music fans like myself have a tendency to get weird with it at this stage in our lives. I have listened to the usual verse-chorus-verse songs for years, which don't excite me enough anymore. This has led down the road to jazz and (gulp) Frank Zappa, but also Tangerine Dream. Just yesterday I fanboyed out at Record Store Day Black Friday because they had an Edgar Froese solo album. 

Their music, in case you don't know it, is sort of Brian Eno on mushrooms with even less song structure. Tangerine Dream created soundscapes, ones they converted into some truly great film scores in the 70s and 80s. I also like how their music, played with old Moog synthesizers, sounds both like the past and the future at the same time. Like their countrymen Kraftwerk, they made groundbreaking electronic music best heard by playing it on an old-fashioned, analog record. I love early electronic music because the rules have not been written yet, and the experimenting required literally dial and knob twisting to get it to work. 

I love so much of Tangerine Dream's work, but my fave deep cut is "Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares." Despite its title, I listen to it often at bedtime to soothe myself. In those eerie moments before sleep, when I can feel consciousness slipping away, the effect is sublime, like floating in space. It's music I embraced in the depths of the pandemic, giving me the inner calm I so urgently needed. Hopefully it can serve you, too. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Existential Dread on Thanksgiving Eve

Thanksgiving is usually one of my favorite holidays. I like its theme (thankfulness and reflection) and simplicity (get friends and family together for a giant feast of comfort food.) My emotions about it have never been that complicated.

This year is different, for some reason. Yesterday, riding home on the commuter train, I had a moment of existential horror. The holidays can comfort us in their regularity and rituals, but I suddenly felt overwhelmed by it all. Here I am, another year later, repeating the same old cycle until I'm dead. Once the holiday is over, there will be another round of miserable winter months, and after I endure them, I will have to suffer again in less than a year, and repeat that year after year after year after year. 

These are the kinds of emotions that come with middle age, that moment when you realize the future you spent your youth planning is happening now and that the rest of your life is going to look a lot like the present, with a door to a new possibility slamming shut every single day until there aren't any left. I was kind of shocked by my horror and Thanksgiving because I have pretty much made peace with the life I have built and am happy to live it. 

I suddenly realized that my emotions were actually coming from the missing chairs at the proverbial Thanksgiving table. In the last decade, I have lost many friends and family members. Some to death, and some to permanent falling out, which can feel like a kind of death. The deaths almost all took place in the late fall and early winter, so the sudden cold in the air was hitting the face of my memories, reminding me of funerals under the dismal November and December Nebraska skies. I also thought about the dark days of the pandemic, watching my Aunt Sue's funeral in Texas over a live stream, bawling my eyes out on my back porch between teaching Zoom classes. 

It makes me think some of my dread comes also from the collective trauma of the past two and half years. This is our first post-pandemic Thanksgiving, and it's as if a million people didn't die and our lives weren't upended. For understandable but deeply unhealthy reasons, we are all going on as if nothing happened. All the sacrifices I made in those dark days have added up to nothing. Heck, considering how much teachers have been villainized nowadays, my sacrifices have added up to less than nothing. I guess I should have taken the day of my Aunt Sue's funeral off. 

I had my moment of profound dread and sadness yesterday, so as a form of therapy common in my family today I threw myself into useful physical activity. I raked the leaves, got our malfunctioning toilet replaced, cleaned the house, baked a pie, and went for a long walk. I feel a lot better now. My time in Hot Stoic Summer reading Marcus Aurelius has paid off. I am following his advice and focusing on the thing before me and doing it. Most of the time that's all we can really do in this unyielding world. 

Many of the people who made me who I am have died or become estranged from me, but I've got my own Thanksgiving traditions to maintain. Tomorrow my wife's family will be coming over, we will be preparing a feast, and I'll by watching the Macy's Parade with my kids. Instead of dreading having to repeat the cycle, I am relishing the break I am getting from the drudgery of daily life, a far worse repetitive cycle. You could even say I am thankful for it. I hope you too find your moments of comfort this holiday. 

What Twitter Gave and What It Took Away

My latest Substack has to do with Elon Musk''s purchase of Twitter and the ensuing chaos. I take a look back at the site, why I have used it so much but also its deeper issues. An agora owned by a corporation is not an agora. We need to think bigger and to build a true, publicly managed online public sphere. 

Friday, November 18, 2022

Trump's Campaign Announcement Represents America's Failures

A week after the midterm elections, Donald Trump announced his run for president, an event that encapsulates so many of America's failures. Here is a man who attempted to overturn a democratic election and spurred his followers to assault the US Capitol, leading to multiple deaths. We spent all summer seeing testimony from the January 6 committee to that effect. And yet this demagogue, who openly seeks an end to American democracy, is not only walking freely on the streets, he is being allowed to run for president. 

That represents a failure of our justice system to bring a criminal leader to justice. Recent moves by the Justice Department make any kind of justice impossible to see happening. Attorney General Merrick Garland has just appointed a special prosecutor, which means that we will see legal action taken against him sometime around 2045. In the meantime, he will be free to try to regain power. 

Trump running again is also a failure of our democracy to even defend itself. In a healthy republic, Trump would not be allowed to run again, even if he was not confined to jail. He was impeached twice, and both times his own party shielded him from punishment. It is hilarious to me that so many Republicans have turned on him after their poor election showing. Trying to overthrow the government was not a deal-breaker for them, but hindering their single-minded quest for power certainly is. 

Trump's return also shows our media's complete and abject failure as well. Even after this man tried to overthrow the government, they give him the benefit of the doubt. They seem to assume that their readers have been lobotomized and thus can understand the most bland, "objective" take on Trump. For example, lots of pundits have been scratching their heads and asking "why is he running so early?" The answer, to avoid prosecution for his crimes, is pretty obvious. The media is so wedded to a false "objectivity" that they refuse to even say that. 

Our system is simply not equipped to handle a criminal demagogue like Trump. The United States is a nation incapable of punishing high-ranked criminals, as Trump himself surely knows. Perhaps he will suffer in the backlash and not come close to the White House this time. Even if that is the case, he has already won by forcing the country to once again pay attention to every one of his private actions. We might be done with him, but he is not done with us. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Public Image Ltd, "Swan Lake" (Track of the Week)

Guitarist Keith Levene died this week. He's one of those musicians unknown by most but legendary among true heads. I did not get initiated until I was in grad school and picked up Simon Reynolds' incomparable post-punk tome, Rip It Up And Start Again. British punk's creation myth starts with the Sex Pistols, and Reynolds appropriately located post-punk's origins in Public Image Ltd, the band formed when Johnny Rotten became plain old John Lydon again. I had thought of PiL in terms of their pretty tepid 90s output, not knowing how amazing their early stuff could be. Levene's arty, fractured guitar playing was key to the band's sound, and made the three chords and a cloud of dust riffing on punk seem pretty lame and pedestrian by comparison. 

Their self-titled first album still had some fierce riffing, but their next, Second Edition/Metal Box (US and UK versions, respectively) sounded like nothing else that came before. Lydon's voice sounds forcibly restrained, no longer sneering and spitting but a half-scream caught in his throat. Jah Wobble's bass is a kind of wall of dread, dub as played by the devil if he'd never picked up an instrument before. Levene's guitar, angular, caustic, meandering, was like a punk rocker had been locked in a room for a year with only free jazz and prog records to listen to. 

It sounds best to me on "Swan Lake" off of Second Edition, originally given the evocative title "Death Disco." It's about the death of Lydon's beloved mother, an anguished cry of despair about the finality dying. The line "the silence in your eyes" so aptly describes the feeling of looking at someone you've always known but suddenly they are not there anymore, just their body. The song perversely incorporates a disco beat and the melody from Tschaikovsky's "Swan Lake," but it's Levene's curtains of jangly feedback that make it all work. I guess it's appropriate to remember him with a song about death. 

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Why The Trump Era is Not Over

 I've written a couple of Substacks since my last post here. The most recent is an appraisal of the 2022 election, and the emerging "Trump is over" narrative. I find that to be wishful thinking, for reasons that are becoming obvious. 

My prior one I forgot to post here! It was a pre-election post so your mileage may vary. I wondered if the 2022 election would be like the 1874 election, which helped bring Reconstruction to an end. So far I am glad that nightmare scenario has not played out. 

Saturday, November 5, 2022

The Long Road to Our Ppst-Truth Moment

 I wrote a Substack this week reacting to the Right's lies in response to the attack on the Pelosi residence. What we are seeing is the culmination of decades of conspiratorial thinking. As I write about, the difference is not social media, it's that Republican politicians are now willing to endorse it, effectively speaking in public in the voice their supporters use in private. That was Trump's major innovation and it's one that is not going away, because the media still treats it in a "both sides" frame.