Thursday, April 19, 2018

Track of the Week: Tears for Fears, "Mad World"

Right before my parents came to visit I suffered from a pretty intense attack of the black dog. The seasons have a big effect on my mental state, and this endless winter we are experiencing had me down, plus work stress and some bad news about the health of someone very close to me.

In times like these I tend to turn to the music I listened to in my youth when I wanted to wallow in sadness. (Sometimes the wallowing makes it better.) This meant Depeche Mode and New Order, since the cold synthy sound of those bands fits the purgatory of the late winter. While assembling a queue of songs in that vein I added Tears for Fears' "Mad World."

I soon became obsessed with it, playing it every day during my commute. Even though I am a child of the 80s, I still knew the song best in the form of Gary Jules' excellent cover, which has eclipsed the original in the collective pop cultural memory. Whereas his song is a quiet lament on a dark night of the soul, Tears for Fears give us a thumping 80s synth pop song. The synths are deep and dark however, more John Carpenter soundtrack than Duran Duran.

It's an incredibly bracing song for one that hit the top ten in the UK, where there seems to be more of a market for sad sack anthems. A line like "The dreams in which I'm dying/ Are the best I've ever had" which is a powerful yet oblique reference to being dogged by suicidal thoughts. It's generally a lament for the treadmill of life, and expresses the nagging doubt (which I often have) that nothing in this world will ever get better. It will be the eternal return of the same, forever and forever and forever. We will all just be stuck desperately plugging away until the day we die while greedheads lord their money over us.

In case you don't know, Depeche Mode is on tour and making serious bank. My fellow dark British 80s pop loving Gen Xers are in middle age, when songs like this have translated our teen angst into fortysomething sadness and fear. It's music that isn't talked about much in the rock or pop canons, but it has more than stood the test of time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Back From My Hiatus With Some Reflections

I’ve been away from the blog for the longest time in years, maybe ever. (I haven’t checked.) First off, I spent my writing energy on a piece for publication, something I had resolved to do more often. (So far, no bite.) Soon after my parents came to visit, and I see them so rarely that I resolved to give them the full measure of my time and attention.

My time away, as well as my parents’ visit, has given me some time for reflection. Some of it has been good, some has been hard. On the good side on Sunday I returned to Frank Pepe’s, the justly famous brick oven pizza place in New Haven. We were on a road trip back from Rhode Island with my parents, and made time to get some awesome pizza. It had been seven years since I had been there, and the last time was pretty significant.

I had been in New Haven for a conference. I was not totally excited by said conference, but this was back when I was still an assistant professor in East Texas. Going to New Haven gave me a chance to see my wife, who drove up from New Jersey. I’d also been encouraged to attend by a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile, who was good to see again.

That weekend was a crucial one in my life, since it was on those days that I made the definitive decision to get out of academia at any cost. I knew right then and there that I was not staying in East Texas and nothing was going to stop me. The delicious meal at Frank Pepe’s capped off a weekend where I had suddenly attained clarity.

This came after months of severe anxiety and depression brought on by my career woes, illnesses in my family, living far from my wife, and being bullied and belittled at my job. Coming back to Frank Pepe’s with my wife, my parents, and my children made me realize just how much better my life is than it was seven years ago. That realization helped cut through some of the intense stress I’ve been feeling as of late.

As great as that reflection was, it came during a week of less happy thoughts about myself and my life. When I am with my parents I inevitably think about how I’ve changed since my youth. Seven years on, it’s apparent that my years as a low-level academic, first as an exploited “visitor” and then as a put-upon and bullied assistant professor, had a permanent effect on my personality.

On the positive side, that experience made me tougher. I am more of a fighter than I used to be, more confident and much more able to spot climbers, back-stabbers, and assholes before they have a chance to come at me. At the same time, I am not as nice a person as I used to be. I am much more cynical, and far, far less trusting. I am constantly thinking that someone somewhere is out to fuck me over at all times. I have no patience for other people’s bullshit, which I realize has made me an unpleasant person on things like local town Facebook group where yuppies run amok. I am as patient as I can be with my students, but that sometimes means that my patience is used up before I get home where I need to have some in reserve for my family.

I love Bernand Malamud’s The Natural because (unlike the film) it makes the point that suffering is not redemptive. I survived the worst low of my adult life, but it did not leave me unscathed. I learned some lessons, but also developed some bad habits. I can't ever be the person I used to be, but I am going to be trying hard to be a better person.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Conspiracy Theories Kill

I have long deplored conspiracy theories. It used to be it was because I thought that they misspent political energy. After all, the biggest "conspiracies" was there for all to see: the wealthy use their power to keep the state in their pocket and to do their bidding. White people use their power to perpetuate their position and to maintain a racist criminal justice system. They don't even bother to hide it!

However, that annoyance (rather than outright opposition) was back in times of more benign conspiracy theories. Now I am seeing their potential to kill, as they have often done in the past. Conspiracy theories take hate and fear and turn it into outright violence. The examples are legion. During the French Revolution, rumors of plotting by reactionaries led to the September Massacres in 1792, where thousands of prisoners were killed because they were supposedly going to be joining the nobility in an uprising against the Revolution. Most of those killed were regular criminals, not anti-Revolutionaries. In Germany the Nazi conspiracy theory that Jews and socialists had stabbed Germany in the back, leading to its loss in World War I became one of Hitler's most effective tools. Generally the history of anti-Semitism is full of conspiracy theories that lead to mob or state violence against Jews. In fact, I would say that the association between conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism is so strong that even conspiracy theories not directly connected to Jews bear marks of it. (Most JFK theories, for example, finger a dark, shadowy cabal pulling the strings.) In America conspiracy thinking has also been unleashed. In the mid-1800s "Know-Nothings" burned Catholic churches and convents to supposedly thwart a popish plot. In the present day mosques have been bombed in reaction to a supposed Muslim plot to subject America to "sharia law."

Conspiracy theories can justify state violence as well as mob violence. Just witness the ways that the current Russian autocracy has used media-circulated conspiracy theories to attack the political opposition and LGBTQ people. The kind of conspiracy theories that kill are on the rise in this country. People like Alex Jones, who treat gun violence victims as actors in a plot to take his listeners' guns. No one less that the president of the United States listens to him. The only people who listen to him on the left do it as a fun kind of joke, the deadly potential of what is pushing is usually ignored. The Pizzagate conspiracy almost led to a mass shooting.

But now people do not even have to seek out hateful conspiracy theories to be exposed to them. YouTube's autoplay feature shoves them in front of unsuspecting eyes. On Facebook conspiracy theories gain credence because if one of your trusted friends endorses something, you are much less likely to discount it. Racist billionaires like Robert Mercer not only finance Breitbart, they have used Cambridge Analytica to inflame the hatred of potential Trump supporters on social media. Many people, young as well as old, lack the capacity or experience to divine true from fake. If something confirms their preconceived notions, they will usually just buy into it, no matter how ridiculous.

We are entering darker and darker times. Things will continue to get worse before they get better, I fear. The spread of hateful conspiracy theories and those who push them has become normalized. Just witness how Roseanne Barr, someone who has disseminated conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, was feted by the media after the successful return of her eponymous show. The use of faked propaganda on social media was shocking back in late 2016, now we are used to it. The president of the United States attacking journalists has now become just another political weather event.

I used to wonder why Julius Streicher, the most egregious Nazi purveyor of anti-Semitic publications, got the death penalty at Nuremberg. After all, he had not committed war crimes and genocide like the others. (And Albert Speer SHOULD have been put to death for his own, but that's another story.) Now I understand. His efforts had made it possible for millions to be murdered.

In countering the anti-Semitic attacks on Alfred Dreyfus, Emile Zola rallied the troops by calling out "truth is on the march!" To win a victory like Zola and Dreyfus' against bigotry, we too must go on the march. We will not change the minds of those addicted to Breitbart, Fox and InfoWars, we can only marginalize and neutralized them by stripping them of their power. Time to get marching.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

REM's Life's Rich Pageant And The First Shadows Of The Reagan Dusk

We often tend to mistakenly think of the 1980s in ways that paint it as uniformly conforming to certain trends consistently throughout the decade. If you look into the cultural and political history of the 1980s, however, you will see something in the late 1980s I call "Reagan Dusk." During this period criticism of unequal social conditions became more prominent in popular culture, and there was a growing negative reaction to what neoliberalism had wrought. This coincided both with the thawing of the Cold War and the Iran-Contra Scandal, which undermined the Reaganite view of global conflict as well as trust in the Gipper, respectively. The president himself was sundowning, growing senile and more prone to health problems. Public memory of the 1980s has mish-mashed it into a big neon spandex blur, the so-called "Greed Decade" for many progressives, or a golden age overseen by Ronald the Great by conservatives.

Both interpretations are wrong. Dissent coincided with greed. Reagan's popularity waxed and waned, and his so-called "revolution" started running into its own limits.

1986 was the crucial transitional year for all of this. That was the year the Iran Contra scandal broke, hampering Reagan's popularity and bringing on talk of a second Watergate. 1986 was also saw a summit in Iceland between Gorbachev and Reagan that heralded a great lessening of tensions between the superpowers. Earlier that year the Chernobyl disaster forced the hand of glasnost in the Soviet Union. In America Reagan signed a massive tax bill that included tax increases on the wealthy from the extremely low levels he had set in 1981 and a tacit admission that supply side economics were not magic beans that could lower the deficit by cutting taxes. (Of course, that idea would soon be back.) All the while, AIDS raged, the horrible toll unacknowledged by the president. In a nation where thousands were dying of disease, there was no "Morning in America."

Popular culture, however, took longer to catch up. The ultimate expression of Reagan-era ideology on film, Top Gun, was the highest-grossing film of the year. The same year also saw Cobra, Sylvester Stallone's bluntest 80s statement on violence as will to power. (His catchphrase, "you're the disease, I'm the cure" sounds chilling post Trump.) Popular music was as big as the shoulder pads and hair so common at the time and as loud as the patterns on the shorts and dresses of Americans that summer.

At the fringes, however, the Reagan Dusk was just barely visible. It could be heard on Life's Rich Pageant, the fourth album from REM, the rock band poised to bring the sound of the underground to the mainstream. REM's first three albums are masterpieces of jangly guitar and mysteriously mumbled lyrics with an overlay of Southern Gothic on top. Your average indie rock fan today still pays homage to them. They are less likely to do so for Life's Rich Pageant, where the band took a turn that in retrospect ought to be lauded rather than disdained.

The change is obvious immediately, as "Begin the Begin" starts with a hard-edged rock riff and loud feedback beneath Stipe's voice, which is suddenly much clearer, the lyrics more legible and now, for the first time, topical. The loud snare drum reflects the times and the production of Don Gehman, who had worked on heartland rocker John Cougar Mellencamp's albums. This song is a call to arms amidst the wreckage of the Reagan Era, but the lyrics are cryptic enough not to make it a traditional "protest song." There is dark talk of "The powers/ the only vote that matters" but a cautiously optimistic cry "let's begin again" as well.

Before the listener can catch their breath, the song transitions immediately without pause into "These Days," with a fast, loud, blistering riff by Buck over muscular Berry drums. (This is the album where Bill Berry's beginnings as a metal-head are most evident.) It might be the only REM song that encourages head banging. The words are fiery too, "We are old despite the times" and "I'll rearrange your scales." The one-two punch of "Begin the Begin" and "These Days" is an announcement that REM has abandoned its Southern Gothic Folk Mystery thing and is grabbing for the crown of Band That Matters.

These days, when Bono has become kind of a joke and social media has made political activism more accessible, the significance of this move has been diluted. In the middle of the Reagan Era, when nuclear war threatened, cities rotted, and AIDS ravaged the country while the media and political figures barely seemed to care, music stepped into the breach. For someone like me, who grew up in a very rural, conservative area, it was not just a lifeline, it paved a way for my embrace of a more progressive politics. Hip hop (and especially Public Enemy) provided me with the most radical musical critiques, but REM was important too. After all, they hailed from Athens, Georgia, and were a sign that resistance to the dominant politics of the time could exist in places like the one where I lived.

The political themes continue on the first side of the album, but songs ease back into folkier territory, such as in the ringing, beautiful "Fall On Me." "Buy the sky/ And sell the sky/ And lift your arms up to the sky/ And ask the sky and ask the sky/ Don't fall on me." I remember Stipe saying it was about acid rain, but for obvious reasons it calls to mind other environmental dangers we face today. The beautiful Mike Mills background harmonies truly make this song, though. While REM might be headed in traditionally more "rawk" directions here, they are doing it their way with their own unique sound.

"Cuyahoga" continues discussion of the environment, referencing the Cleveland river that was once so polluted that it caught fire. It also discusses Native American history, and how this nation's wealth was built on the theft of others' land. Such critical re-evaluations of American history would be more commonplace during the Reagan Dusk, leading to the inevitable anti-PC backlash of the early 1990s. The sound is folkier than the album's start, but the lyrical message is unmistakable.

After those first four songs, the political elements are more subdued once the band has laid down the gauntlet. With different, less big production, "Hyena" could belong on Reckoning. Of course, lines like "The greater the weapon, the bigger the fear" seem to reference geopolitics just a little. The jaunty Latin dance-y song "Underneath The Bunker" with Stipe's unintelligibly filtered voice might be a nuclear war reference, but that's easy to ignore. It closes out side one, cheekily called the "Dinner Side."

Side two, the "Supper Side," goes into more explicitly political territory with "The Flowers of Guatemala." (On CD the transition from "Underneath the Bunker" to this more serious song is quite jarring.) The song references, of course, America's support for brutal military regimes in Guatemala, but does so in a mournful rather than rage-filled way. Stipe sings mournfully of the flowers on the graves of those murdered by the state. It is one of the most moving and powerful songs in REM's canon, and highlights issue that most people in this country, even those who are political progressives, choose to ignore. Amid the justified anger over Russian meddling in American elections, folks in America might want to take a minute and ponder what their own country has done elsewhere.

It's hard to top a side-opener like that, and REM really doesn't. A trio of solid but less evocative songs follows: "I Believe," "What If We Give It Away," and "Just A Touch." The latter is my favorite for its up-tempo punkiness and the story behind it. Evidently as a teenager Stipe witnessed an Elvis impersonator being mobbed on the day of the King's death by a group of distraught female Elvis fans, one of them saying "C'mon love, just a touch." The whole thing is just a fun rave-up and an unlikely segue into "Swan Swan H."

This acoustic song puts us back into REM's Southern Gothic mode big time. The lyrics reference the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Emancipation ("Hurrah we're all free now.") For such a politically important time in America's history, there does not seem to be much politics here, more setting a mood. That said, it's catchy as hell and in my youth I would listen to it over and over again. The album ends on an unlikely note, with a cover of an obscure 1960s song, "Superman" by The Clique. It puts on full display the band's love of psychedelic garage rock (which is all over the rest of the album), but also mirrors another aspect of the coming Reagan Dusk: 60s nostalgia. One could argue it was kicked off in 1986 when MTV ran a bunch of Monkees episodes one weekend. Nostalgia for that decade, of course, was a kind of a political statement in itself in the midst of the conservative backlash.

Life's Rich Pageant is a classic "tweener" album. REM abandoned the formula that the Pitchfork crowd still idolizes, but its new, rock oriented sound did not yet yield any hits. That would soon come with 1987's Document, once the Reagan Dusk had truly started to fall. Life's Rich Pageant is a document of the other 1980s, the 80s of dissent and protest and resistance, of ACT-UP and anti-Apartheid. In our own fraught times when we need to begin again, it is well worth another listen.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

What I Saw At The March For Our Lives In Newark

Yesterday I was one of the millions who turned out for March for Our Lives events in the United States and the world. I attended the one in Newark, partly because it was the closest one, but also because I'm a former resident of Brick City, a place I hold close to my heart. (I made sure to go back to my old neighborhood afterward and get a giant plate of Portuguese food and a big bag of stuff from one of the bakeries.)

I was not anticipating a huge turnout, mostly because people around here tend to go to marches like this in New York City to be a part of the bigger, more noteworthy event. I was happily surprised to see a very large crowd at Military Park in downtown Newark when I arrived, and by the time things got kicked off, it doubled in size. The event started with a half hour of speeches and performances, then we marched over to Washington Park and snaked around it to go back to Military Park to hear speeches by the big shots in attendance. I knew we were a big congregation because I was near the front, and once we got around Washington Park we had to stop because the people in the back third were blocking our way because they were still coming.

One thing I was very glad to see that while this event drew a lot of people from suburban New Jersey, it still put a lot of focus on Newark. Students from Newark schools performed music and dance, and they gave speeches that talked about gun violence more broadly. They spoke not just about school shootings, but also of the day to day gun violence in the streets of Newark, domestic violence, and police shootings like the recent tragedy in Sacramento. I came away from the event thinking that many of the white, suburban attendees might also see the issue of gun violence with a broader lens. That's necessary, and also an important rebuttal to naysayers who refuse to participate in this movement because they think it doesn't check all of their woke checkboxes.

While the students may have stumbled a little over their speeches or not have been completely polished, those things only served to highlight their courage. I did speech and debate in high school, but I could not have imagined giving a speech in front of thousands of people with the governor and my Congressman sitting in the wings. The politicians in attendance did a good job motivating the crowd and keeping things brief, at least. My representative in the House, Donald Payne Jr, has actually been out front on this issue and has crafted a bill for gun buybacks. He kept things fiery, and connected the march with the need to vote in the upcoming election. (A lot of the people there hail from purple districts currently represented by Republicans.) New governor Phil Murphy gave a very short, to the point speech emphasizing efforts on the state level. I even cut state senator (and charter school supporter) Teresa Ruiz some slack because her comments were pretty effective.

This event gave me hope because the main reason gun control has failed to be passed at the national level has less to do with the NRA itself and more to do with the extreme pro-gun minority. These people have always cared a LOT more about guns than the people who wanted to limit them. Guns for them are closely tied to their deepest identities, and so like Prohibition gun control is really an argument over what kind of country this is. Opponents of gun control have been acting desperate and attacking teenage survivors of mass shootings because they know they have been in the minority for years and have been getting by on complacency. Will this actually lead to meaningful change? I do not know, but I get the feeling that outside of deep red areas politicians who are highly rated by the NRA are going to be forced to answer for that.

On an unrelated sidenote, I briefly talked yesterday with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo yesterday, but only realized it after he walked away. "Joe D" is one of the big political fixers in the state, with rumors of corruption swirling about him. Despite that, Chris Christie never prosecuted him during his stint as state's attorney, when he went after several corrupt politicians. Joe D paid him back by supporting Christie's re-election, despite the fact that he was a conservative Republican and DiVincenzo is a Democrat in a a county that is deep blue.Yesterday, as we were stopped on the march route, a distinguished gentleman struck up a conversation with me, and his face looked strangely familiar. I made a little friendly small talk, and when the march ended he squeezed my arm and thanked me for showing up. At that moment I realized it was indeed Joe D, but it was too late. I was going to ask him why if he cared about gun control so much he supported a governor who vetoed new gun legislation.

My hope is that Democrats like Joe D saw what was happening yesterday and got a little scared for themselves. Machines like his rely on political complacency, a complacency which has made it possible for a blue state like New Jersey has been living under austerity for the past eight years. Even if gun control does not get passed in the short term, we are perhaps seeing a political awakening from the left that will not only get Republicans tossed out of office. Just as importantly, it could also give us better Democrats. One can only hope.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The "Ground Zero Mosque" Controversy Was A Harbinger Of Our Times

Hey folks, I've got a new piece over at Tropics of Meta, "The Ground Zero Mosque Was A Harbinger Of Our Times." It was inspired by an off-hand comment by Tropics editor Alex Sayf Cummings about that particular event. I happened to be present at the protest against the Cordoba House (which was not within site of the WTC, by the way) by accident. The hate-filled mob I witnessed on a  summer day in 2010 scared me. Back then they were called the Tea Party, now we call them "Trump supporters."

Read the piece, and tell me what you think.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Old Dad's Records Podcast #25

Well, I've managed to get the podcast back on track again. Episode 25 is all about country music, which has been a comfort to me in recent days. I look specifically at how 70s artists embraced other genres in interesting ways. In this case I talk Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, and Terry Allen.