Wednesday, July 30, 2014

1860 All Over Again

As loyal readers of the blog know, for the past few years I've been obsessed with the political and social history of the Civil War.  Out of that interest I recently read Year of Meteors by Douglas Egerton, a lively and incisive account of the election of 1860 and its aftermath.  That's the presidential election, of course, that put Abraham Lincoln in the White House and led to the secession of the Deep South.  Since I knew a lot about Lincoln and Douglas' actions during that election, I was most interested to read about the Southern "fire eaters," since I knew little specific about them.

They were a crazy lot who intentionally broke the Democratic party apart in order to hasten secession.  This reckless strategy was based in the belief that seceding would be the only long-term way to preserve the South's slavery-based economic structure.  While most white Southerners weren't as radical, once Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, secession began.  Politicians in the Deep South simply refused to accept the legitimacy of the Lincoln administration to the point of leaving the country.  As far as they were concerned, any president who wanted to restrict the expansion of slavery (Lincoln only went that far in 1860, he was no abolitionist) was de facto illegitimate, since they felt that the Constitution defended their right to human property, the key to the Southern elite's wealth.

Obviously, if a large number of elected officials refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the president, the country either falls apart or becomes ungovernable.  Although we aren't in any real danger of civil war today, we are back in a place where the legitimacy of the president has been rejected, leading to strife and a dysfunctional government.  As I've said before, the Republican Party has ceased to be a party in the traditional sense.  It is merely the vehicle for an extremist conservative movement that values its ideology above all else.  It has been this way since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, when hotheaded modern fire-eaters started calling for Clinton's impeachment years before Monica's blue dress.

People scratch their heads today, wondering how in the hell the president of the United States got impeached over some sexual shenanigans.  It does sound ridiculous, doesn't it?  The main reason was not Clinton's behavior, but the fact that Republicans had been trying hard to find ways to get Clinton removed, and their fishing expedition turned up something to work with.  Of course, getting a hummer from an intern in Oval Office is cruddy behavior and reflective of Clinton's lack of self-control, but hardly qualifies as a high crime.  (Did anyone take the perjury angle seriously?)  The fact of the matter is, Republicans did not accept the legitimacy of the Clinton administration.

The current conservative opposition to Obama makes the anti-Clinton stuff tame by comparison.  Not only has the conservative movement and its media propaganda arm become more brazen in the last decade, the racial resentment against Obama has made the attacks on his legitimacy uglier and more intense.  For Exhibit A, look at Birtherism.  Obama has been much less mistake-prone than Clinton, which enrages conservatives even more, since they have to work that much harder to find grounds for impeachment.  Even more than under Clinton, Republicans have engaged in an obstructionist strategy, one unprecedented in this nation's history.  They are so unwilling to acknowledge the president's legitimacy that simply have refused to govern until he is out of office.  Recent Congresses have set records with their indolence, despite the many problems our country faces.

That indolence sometimes awakens into obnoxious actions that harm the country's health.  Conservative radicals have used the debt ceiling as a hostage on multiple occasions, threatening to kill the economy if they don't get their way, much as fire-eaters used to threaten secession to get what they wanted.  In my thirty-eight years I've never seen anything like it.  We aren't to the point of 1860-levels of discord, but we are seeing a certain kind of history repeat itself.  Although the current legitimacy protest is not purely regional in nature, the South and West are where most of the current fire-eaters are located, and I hardly find that to be a mistake, since both regions have historically assumed that they get some kind of mythical veto power over national legislation that they don't like.

As stupid and comical John Boehner's lawsuit against the president may seem, we shouldn't be laughing. It is an escalation in the ongoing legitimacy crisis manufactured by conservative ideologues who feel that the end justifies the means.  Our political system is practically ungovernable, and as the United States navigates economic inequality, the loss of its imperial power, and recovery from the financial crisis, the refusal of Republicans to ever accept the legitimacy of a Democratic president has been and will continue to seriously hamper our society's ability to respond to its most pressing problems.  Or as somebody more famous than I once said, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Classic Albums: The Band, Music From Big Pink

I am not a fan of fandom.  Too many fans identify themselves too closely with their popular culture obsessions, to the point that they get angry at George RR Martin that he doesn't write books fast enough, or take the mediocrity of the Star Wars prequels as a personal affront.  I love the stuff I love, but I try to keep my relationship with it healthy.

I try, but don't always succeed.  Back in 2011, right after I moved from Texas to New Jersey, my wife and I took an anniversary trip to the Hudson River valley.  I insisted that we go on a mission to find Big Pink, the house where members of The Band developed their sound while collaborating with Bob Dylan, who was recovering from a motorcycle accident and general burnout.  For me, The Band is the greatest North American rock group of all time, and the famed "basement tapes" recorded in Big Pink some of the deepest, richest music made by Bob Dylan, and certainly the most unique.  That house is like a holy site for me, and as we drove through the winding rural roads and into the long driveway, past all of the "No Trespassing" signs, my wife began to (rightly) question what the hell I was doing.  I am typically a rule-abider to a fault, but I didn't care, the shrine was too tantalizingly close to turn back. I gazed upon it, snapped a picture, and felt a rush having occupied the same space where something I adored had been created, an experience that every fan craves.

I managed to score a vinyl copy of Big Pink this weekend, and am still amazed at how it just doesn't sound like anything else, including the rest of The Band's output.  For a group borrowing heavily from the roots of American music, they refuse to simply recreate that sound.  Take their cover of the old school country ballad "Long Black Veil."  There's no steel guitar or banjo, but some spooky Garth Hudson organ driving the song.  "We Can Talk" features Richard Manuel's great R&B vocal stylings, but the music doesn't really seem to fit any particular genre.  Manuel's voice could break your heart, with no better examples than the stunning album opener "Tears of Rage" and on the album closer, "I Shall Be Released."  The latter song, with Manuel's haunting falsetto, might be my very favorite interpretation of a Bob Dylan song.

Of course, with The Band it's very difficult to talk about any particular vocalist, since Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm all sang lead, and on some songs even traded the spotlight.  The most famous instance, of course, is "The Weight."  That song also showcases The Band's wonderful harmonies, harmonies born out of years of singing together.  Unlike most prominent rock bands of the era, The Band had been playing together for years before cutting their first album (under the name The Hawks), first as rockabilly barnburner Ronnie Hawkins' backup band, and later more famously for Bob Dylan when he went electric in 1966.  All that familiarity comes out in their music.  It is not just evident in the harmonies, but in the interplay between the musicians.  Take "Chest Fever" for example, which kicks off with a truly jaw-dropping organ intro from Garth Hudson.  Instead of devolving into a prog-rock wank fest, the solo is complimented by Levon Helm's slowly building drums, which have a sublime lightness to them missing from the work of most rock drummers, who just prefer to bash the shit out of the skins.

You could argue (maybe) that The Velvet Underground and Nico is the only album of the late 1960s more influential than Music From Big Pink.  Neither album was a commercial hit, but both blew apart the existing rock conventions and spawned many rivers of imitators.  In the case of The Band, it imagined music based in the many older forms of American music (jazz, classical, blues, folk, country), but molding them into something completely new and original.  As the story goes, Eric Clapton decided to break up his hard blues rock band Cream after hearing Big Pink, thinking Cream's bombastic psychedelia to be played out.  That same year, in 1968, the Rolling Stones put their harpsichords and hippie lyrics away and went back to playing gut bucket blues with a big side of nasty.  Groups like Fairport Convention toned down the psychedelia and amped up the British folk on records like Liege And Lief.

We live today in a time when creators are pushed to keep churning out new material, to stay on top of ever-shifting trends, and to engage in endless self-promotion.  Against this tendency of haste and shallowness, there is no better antidote than Music From Big Pink.  It was crafted in an isolated house in the woods by five men who had spent years and years playing in a glorified bar band, perfecting their ability.  They were so humble and non-descript that they took for their name The Band, and when they released the album, nobody really knew who they were.  Despite all that, they made something that forced other to listen, and even to abandon their old ways.  For that reason, and many others, I'm a fan.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Track of the Week: My Morning Jacket "Gideon"

Now that I have two kids and am getting older and the music scene is more fractured than ever, I've had a hard time finding new music.  That wasn't so in grad school, when I had many friends with highly developed tastes, could go see rock shows at multiple clubs, and could play the latest indie record rather than showing a new episode of Sesame Street to placate screaming toddlers.

For that reason, I find myself constructing a lot of Spotify playlists full of music released during the second Bush administration.  A lot of the stuff I first heard in grad school has really stuck with me, and it has the dual purpose of reminding myself of people and a place that I miss.  At that time (2000-2006) it seemed that there was a real renaissance in independent rock music, with all kinds of great bands.  My Morning Jacket is one I discovered then that I continue to follow, but no album of theirs will likely ever top 2005's Z.

That autumn I was finishing up my dissertation and looking to hit the academic job market for the first time.  I had no clue what was in store for me, but felt both cautiously optimistic and scared to death.  Back in those relatively carefree days I would go to a downtown coffee house with my laptop after lunch and work laboriously over my dissertation.  As an award, I'd often walk down to the local record store (which is still open) and browse around.  Sometimes I'd buy something, sometimes I'd shoot the bull with the owner and play a couple games of Joust on the old arcade machine in the corner.

Sometimes I browsed for awhile before finding a good record, sometimes I'd ask the owner for a rec and he might play a couple of tracks for me.  Z was one I bought right away, anxious to hear it.  Having expected to the rootier sound of their last record, I was blown away by the first track, "Wordless Chorus," which had keyboards and angular rhythms that sounded less Neil Young and more New Wave.  I quickly latched onto "Gideon," which combines the album's eerie, echoey atmosphere with an inspired Jim James vocal and a swelling power that's never failed to lift my spirit when the song gets to the rousing finale.

I listened to it a lot during the stresses of that first shot at the job market, when my spirit needed some lifting.  Nowadays I hear it as a relic of those last happy days of grad school naivete, before the realities of my mistaken career choice became all too apparent.  Now that my bitterness about my failed career has subsided, it helps to remember the good times in grad school, the last time I was actually allowed to be a scholar.  It was a nice dream while it lasted.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Having Fun With Audio Outtakes

One thing I love about the internet is that it has made things available that once had to be acquired via difficult means, and often in the form of a bootleg copy of a bootleg copy.  I speak here less of music than audio outtakes.  There is little that I find more enjoyable than hearing prominent figures and entertainers being caught by a live mic, when their veneer has been dropped and the real person beneath is there in all its revealing glory.  John Kerry's live mic this week, which revealed that his private thoughts about Israel are much more critical than his public ones is a good case in point.  Even better is Mitt Romney's "47%" outtake, which helped cost him the election.  Without further ado, here are my favorite audio outtakes for your enjoyment.

Orson Welles

This is the king granddaddy of all audio outtakes, so legendary that it has spawned plenty of parodies and homages.  It starts inauspiciously enough, with Orson Welles reading advertising copy for that most  mundane of products, frozen peas.  He starts to dispute the copy, and in his voice you can hear the frustration of a man who went from being a great figure of stage, radio, and film to being reduced to shilling grocery products.  His deep, famous voice never sounded better than uttering deathless phrases like "you people are pests," "what is it that you want, in the depths of your ignorance," and my personal favorite, "no money is worth this."  The latter I think is probably the best thing to say when you're walking out the door of a crappy job.

Casey Kasem

The late Casey Kasem was a fixture in my popular cultural life as a child, when I listened to his Top 40 broadcast and heard him voice Shaggy on Scooby Doo.  Little did I know that America's favorite DJ cursed like a drunken sailor in Marseilles.  While this outtake compilation has his most famous blow up, over a depressing dedication he had to read after a peppy song, my favorite clips are him cursing out local stations with stupid promo copy.  Despite his stream of profanity, these clips do show Kasem to be a dedicated pro trying hard to get things done the right way.

Lee Elia

There are plenty of famous coaching meltdowns out there, but for the most part they were during televised press conferences, and thus immediately available to the public.  Not so with Cubs manager Lee Elia's infamous tirade in 1983, which was caught on audio tape by a reporter who deserves some kind of award.  This rant is a true masterpiece of profanity, the Night Watch of cursing.  As a White Sox fan I've always enjoyed Elia's special words for the "bleacher bum" style of Cubs fans.

LBJ pants

This is probably the most surreal of all the outtakes I've ever heard: LBJ, president of the United States, ordering specially made pants over the phone with someone who was obviously not expecting the call. He utters the word "bunghole" right after belching into the phone.  It doesn't get much better than that, but I also love his description of wearing pants without enough inseam: "it's like riding a wire fence." Can't really argue with that.

Paul Stanley

Okay, I know this doesn't quite qualify, but there is little that cracks me up/horrifies me more than this compilation of KISS front man Paul Stanley's stage banter.  His band are the ultimate example of style over substance, and Stanley's screams to rile up the crowd have a kind of insanely asserted soullessness to them.  This is the sound of the void at the heart of our culture, folks.  Listen at your own peril.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Return of Nationalism and A Multi-Polar World

The past weeks have been pretty dramatic when it comes to world affairs: ISIS threatening the Iraqi government, increased bloodshed in Afghanistan, Germany catching an American spy, Ukrainian separatists shooting down a Malaysian airliner, and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.  Beyond the surface headlines, there are bigger trends afoot.

One of those trends is the obvious loss of American hegemony.  Iraq and Afghanistan are American imperial adventures that have completely backfired, and there is little that can be done about it.  Despite Russia's erratic and violent behavior, the US is having a hard time convincing Europe to take action against Putin.

In fact, for the first time since the end of World War II, we are seeing the emergence of a multi-polar world.  Russia is reasserting its power, and rising China has been flexing its muscles with its southern Vietnamese neighbor and traditional rival Japan.  Ironically, this process was abetted by the administration of George W. Bush, which claimed to be making America stronger than ever before.  The failed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed America's weaknesses, damaged its credibility, and have reduced the American public's support for aggressive foreign policy.  One of the great "what ifs" that will be discussed by future historians will be "what if Al Gore had not been cheated out of the presidency," not least because he likely would have continued the safer, multilateral foreign policy of George HW Bush and Bill Clinton.

While I am not a cheerleader for American hegemony, I do not look optimistically at the emerging multi-polar system either.  A multi-polar world lends itself to conflict, a fact scary to contemplate one hundred years to the month after the "July Crisis" of 1914 that led to worldwide war.  Nationalism provides the fuel for such fires, and gives the masses reason to cheer their troops on the road to the slaughterhouse.  After years of talk of globalization many observers have been acting as if nations are a thing of the past.  Russia and China put lie to that belief, as the Chinese government has whipped up anti-Japanese sentiment, and Putin is pursuing an ultra-nationalist foreign policy that calls for all Russians to be united, regardless of borders.

That kind of nationalism might seem paradoxical in a world of greater and greater global economic convergence, but it shouldn't.  After all, in 1913, on the edge of World War I, global trade reached new heights despite the rabid nationalism that would send the world into conflict.  Nationalism is an incredibly potent force, since it gives legitimacy to autocratic and undemocratic regimes, by riling up the masses and giving them a feeling of having a stake in the state.  While it is not the only game in town (just look at ISIS and its idea of Sunni state), it's still really, really important, and has been fatally ignored for too long.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Re-post in Honor of James Garner: Why I Love The Rockford Files

Editor's Note: This weekend brought the sad news of James Garner's death.  He's an actor I'd always liked, but in the last few years the magic of Netflix streaming had made me a big fan of The Rockford Files.  I even went as far to read his recent memoir, which showed him to be a remarkably grounded person.  In honor of his passing, here's something I wrote awhile back about him and his signature show.

Unlike a lot of people, I can't just sit down and burn through whole seasons of television in a day.  The repetition gets to me, plus I'd rather be reading.  However, there are some shows that I have slowly been working my way through over a matter of years, enjoying them like a fine aged whiskey rather than a case of Busch Light.  One of these shows is The Rockford Files, one I am a little embarrassed to love so much.  My requests to put an episode on usually results in a groan of pain from my wife, and my effusive praise of the show to friends and colleagues is normally met with a kind of exasperated silence.  I don't care what they say, I love it.

In case you don't know the show, it stars James Garner as Jim Rockford, a wrongly convicted ex-con who works as a private eye.  He lives in a trailer on the beach with his disapproving father Rocky, and usually ends up getting roughed up and not getting the girl or a big payday.  The supporting characters include Dennis, a grumpy cop who sometimes helps Rockford, Angel, a friend from prison with a knack for weaseling out of situations Rockford has to clean up, and Beth, his liberated woman lawyer and sometimes paramour.

As a fan of all things seventies, I love how the show (which ran from 1974 to 1980) epitomizes so much about the polyester decade.  Although Garner has a ruggedly handsome face, he is no traditional tough guy PI, and reflects the less orthodox masculinity of the time.  He keeps his revolver in the cookie jar, and rarely uses it.  He often gets beat up by roughnecks, harassed by the police, and harried by his dad.  Rockford is more likely to use his mouth and wits to get what he needs, rather than his fists or his gun.  Instead of working out of a fancy office, he takes calls in his trailer, and when he's not around, an answering machine, not a secretary, takes his calls.  The latter device is also used in the opening of every episode, where there's a different message on the machine each time, usually from a bill collector or Angel with a problem or wacky scheme.  Originally released in the midst of the mid-1970s stagflation, Rockford is a hard luck hero for people living through hard times.  Reflecting the Watergate era and general distrust in authority and elites, the villains are usually wealthy, connected types whom the police have been unable or unwilling to bust.

All in all, Rockford is just a much more human hero than we're ever allowed to see.  The shots inside his trailer home show the faded wood paneling and the stains on his pot holders.  He inhabits a very unglamorous, low budget Los Angeles, full of strip malls and industrial parks.  The opening montage shows him fishing and buying groceries, fer Chrissakes!  Unlike with modern day shows, he's not laden down with all kinds of psychological or supernatural bullshit.  He is not a serial killer, does not suffer from a mental disorder, does not have a secret family, is not involved in organized crime, etc.  He's a likable guy, what's wrong with that?  Watching all these shows where I am supposed to have ambivalent feelings about the protagonist is just getting old.  It was an interesting twist back when Tony Soprano and Don Draper first went on the air, but enough already!  Can't I just watch someone I want to root for?

Beyond all that The Rockford Files gets all the small touches right.  Rockford drives a gloriously gold Pontiac Firebird, wears open collar shirts with sports jackets (my preferred professional look), and it's got an endlessly catchy theme song.  What's not to like?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Track of the Week: Joy Division, "Day of the Lords"

This week has brought no end to heartbreaking news.  A bomb killed scores of people at an Afghani market.  A man was choked to death by the NYPD during an arrest.  Israel bombed then invaded Gaza.  Russian separatists in the Ukraine downed a passenger airliner (and the bodies have been looted).

It has been hard not to get emotionally involved in it all.  In times like these I often turn to music for solace and contemplation, and this week has been no different.  Over the past few days I've kept going back to "Day of the Lords" by Joy Division, a dark song even by their standards.  It's the second song on their first album, and one that grabbed me the very first time I listened to it.  Bernard Sumner's distorted guitar sounds absolutely sinister, and Ian Curtis' vocal more foreboding and troubled than usual, growling traumatized about "the bodies obtained."  The drums sound less played than dropped, staggering like a person stabbed in the gut.  In an oblique way, the song seems to be about wartime atrocities, and Curtis screams out in horror "where will it end?"  My thoughts exactly.

Friday, July 18, 2014

"Making Of The Video" Music Videos

Since it's summertime and I'm off from school I find myself watching snatches of VH1 Classic in the mornings between playtime with the kids and episodes of Sesame Street.  I get easily transfixed by those 80s videos, which today look like strange news from another galaxy.  The look, music, and filming style appear so antiquated nowadays, along with the thought that the youth of America once used to spend hours at a time watching videos on MTV.  (I know I did.)

Rewatching these videos has reminded me of the various video genres that once dominated the airwaves.  You've got your live performance videos (like AC/DC's for "Thunderstruck"), your story videos (like A-Ha's sublime "Take On Me"), and your "life on the road is tough" videos (like Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive.")  Today I'd like to focus on that most meta video genre, the video about the making of the video.  We were so obsessed with music videos back then that we would gladly watch videos about videos getting made.  Bigger stars tended to go this route, since it tended to present them in a more humble or humorous circumstance.  (Usually these videos had farcical elements to them.)  Here are some of the most representative videos in the genre:

"Easy Lover" Philip Bailey and Phil Collins

The meeting of the two Phils is one of my favorite 80s pop guilty pleasures, as it combines for Earth, Wind and Fire member Phil Bailey's great falsetto with Phil Collins' warm, radio-friendly tenor and some kicking' guitar.  Like a wild stallion trapped in a stable, that guitar is just itching to burst out of this Top 40 number and shred.  The video shows the Phils hanging out, riding in a helicopter, and taping the video.  All in a day's work for a pop singer.

"The Flame" by Cheap Trick

This video belongs to the "earnest making of" sub-genre.  Perhaps that's because the normally raucous and funny Trick needed something a little more Serious for their power ballad aimed at the pop charts.  It's mostly a collage of shots of the band in candid moments on the set of the video, smoking aimless cigarettes, getting their hair done, etc.  It gives the song (admittedly one of the less shitty power ballads of the era) a certain vulnerability, which you need to accompany lyrics like "wherever I go I'll be with you" backed by airy synthesizers.

"Oh Sherrie" by Steve Perry

This is a fairly unique entry in the genre, in that it creates a story around the video making process, rather than being an actual, behind the scenes look at the video.  Perry storms off of the ornate, medieval castle set of his video, and starts lip-syncing to his lady love with that level of emotion we've come to expect from the King of the Power Ballad.  (Evidently his desire to leave the overblown set shows that he's down to earth and not pretentious.)  His director is pretentious (and British, of course) who pairs a New Wave skinny tie with a black leather jacket (making him suspiciously stylish.)  Perry, in classic video about making videos fashion, shows that even though he's a star, he's just a regular, nice guy.

"Where The Streets Have No Name" by U2

Leave it to Bono, of course, to make a video about making a video and turn it into mythology.  It details the band's concert on an LA rooftop for which they didn't have a permit, and which the cops eventually shut down.  Bono and the boys look charismatic and rebellious as all hell, even if they are copying from the Beatles' playbook.  It doesn't hurt that the song is one of U2's greatest, its relentless, irresistible drive still thrilling all these years later.  That's the secret of U2: their grandiosity begs to be deflated, but somehow they always make a believer out of me.

"Don't Lose My Number" by Phil Collins

Yes, it's another appearance by Phil Collins, who was the king of the making of the video music video. Part of his appeal came from his rather ordinary look.  Collins was short, a little stocky, balding, and wore pleated pants and tastefully modern patterned shirts.  He was like a regular bloke, but with a warm voice with some power to it with the perfect timbre for accompanying 80s synths and drum machines.  That trope is repeated here, with Collins having to deal with the media and comically ambitious video directors and special effects experts.  I loved this video as a kid even though I didn't care for the song, since I found it funny.  Then again, my favorite contemporary artist at the time was Weird Al Yankovic.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Return of the Know-Nothings

The recent refugee crisis of children fleeing unrest in Central America to cross the Rio Grande has occasioned the most vehement outburst of nativism I have yet witnessed, with screaming mobs of protestors hurling abuse at young immigrants.  Congress has reacted to the influx thousands of vulnerable children who have endured things that most adults in this country will never experience with a push to get those children deported as fast as possible.  This coming from a body that has repeatedly failed to pass any meaningful immigration reform policy because the House's reigning Republican Party is scared to death of alienating the nativist base of their party.

Put in historical context, these events are both predictable and surprising.  I'll start with the surprising side of the issue.  Back in 2000, George W. Bush ran as a candidate explicitly sympathetic to Hispanics and supportive of immigration reform.  When he was president he was unable to get said reform passed due to intransigence within his own party, but the GOP's leadership seemed to be embarrassed by that turn of events and maintained an interest in courting the votes of Hispanics.  Those voters rejected Mitt Romney by a historic margin, which got many pundits asking whether the Republicans would finally get behind immigration reform in order to stem the loss of votes.

Despite what the pundits predicted, the Republicans have embraced nativism whole hog.  That should have been predictable, since xenophobia has long been a potent political force in American life, along with its brother, nationalism.  Americans, of course, like to speak of "patriotism" when referring to themselves, with nationalism being a "bad" thing that "other" countries engage in.

When I hear the screaming mobs spewing hatred clothed in the fig leaf of "protecting the border" I hear the echoes of the 1850s and the Know-Nothings, the first major anti-immigrant group in American history.  It formed in response to the massive waves of migrants from Germany and Ireland, and mostly directed its ire against Irish Catholics.  It was a movement powerful enough to have its own political party (the American Party, known colloquially as "Know-Nothing" for its members' early devotion to secrecy.)  Nativists of that era burned Catholic churches and engaged in other acts of mob violence.  American nativism survived the death of the Know-Nothing Party in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1924 (which set strict quotas on immigrants from outside northern Europe), and the massacre and ethnic cleansing of Chinese immigrants in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885.  If those children in Murrieta today did not have protection I fear that the blood would flow.

Just as the Know-Nothings of yesteryear hatched theories of Catholic immigrants being part of a papal conspiracy, modern nativists claim that the president is somehow encouraging their arrival to get more voters.  They claim refugees will bring disease and will rape the women of America.  That may sound like the ravings of a street-corner railer, but they are in the Congressional record, coming from the mouth of Representative Louie Gohmert.  Granted, he is batshit crazy, but his party is not denouncing him.  In fact, Republicans have decided that they need their Tea Party base more than they need the votes of Hispanics, who they have been busy trying to disenfranchise.  While the most important GOP leaders would never use such inflammatory rhetoric, they are willing to let others do it for them, and reap the reward at the polls.

They aren't stupid.  Like I said, nationalism is a secret and very powerful force in American politics, and Republicans have benefitted by being the de facto nationalist party.  Appeals to nationalism can supersede class interests and class identity, something the modern GOP needs for its success.  Reagan used nationalism masterfully, getting many of the very people he was actively screwing over to vote for him because he had "made America strong again."  The Tea Party gets voters to the poll with the call to "take our country back."  (The "our" in that slogan is telling.)  It was probably sadly inevitable, based on our nation's history, that an influx of immigrants would be met with hatred by extreme nationalists.  However, it was not inevitable that one of our major parties would join that extremist chorus for its own greedy gain.  When and if the party decides to go back to the Bush-era policy of moderation, they cannot and should not be allowed to live down their shameless opportunism in reaping a harvest of hate at the polls.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Re-post: Suggestions For Improving the All-Star Game

Editor's Note: Here's something I wrote two years ago that seems newly relevant considering the talk of how baseball's All-Star Game, happening tonight, is much less important and interesting than it used to be.  Some of my suggestions aren't as relevant (Tim McCarver has finally retired, thank God) but I still stand by the rest.

Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, and Reggie Jackson after the epic 1971 Midsummer Classic

For a long time, major league baseball had the best all-star game of any of the professional sports.  Much of this had to do with the distinctiveness of the American and National Leagues, and the fact that apart from the World Series, players from these leagues never got to play each other.  As a young baseball game in the 1980s, I lived to see the likes of Dwight Gooden pitching to Don Mattingley, and rooted hard for the National League.  (Although I was then a Royals fan and am now a White Sox fan, I feel that the National League plays a subtler and more sophisticated version of the game.)  The coming of inter-league play in the 1990s blunted the excitement of the All-Star Game, since fans got to see the best players from each league play each other on a regular basis.  Those games were pretty exciting back then, but today even the Cubs-Sox inter-league matches have become just another set of games.  And that's one of the more compelling match ups; are baseball fans really itching to see the Mariners take on the Padres or the Astros play the Blue Jays?

Just as the enchantment of a game bringing the leagues together has faded, players seem to take the All-Star Game less seriously.  In recent years there have been many high-profile cases of players who aren't even really injured sitting the game (and the home run derby) out.  This is quite a turn of events.  As a child I never could have imagined the "Midsummer Classic" turn into the baseball equivalent of an unpopular boss's wedding shower.

As the father of two newly born children, I want them to grow up in a better world.  As part of that, wouldn't it be nice if the baseball all-star game was great again?  In that spirit, here are a few suggestions that I know will never be undertaken because baseball is run by the kind of hidebound squareheads who make the Catholic church's hierarchy look positively forward-looking.  At least I can dream.

End practice of including a player from each team
The whole point of an "all star" team is that all of its players ought to be, for lack of a better word, "stars."  Major league baseball, however, has mandated that each team be represented, which often means that many of the players are not stars, but merely above average, if that.  I guess the rationale for this policy is to attract viewers from all of the teams' fan bases, but the results are often patently ridiculous, and make a mockery of the game as an "all star" game.  Back in 2003, the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates sent their closer Mike Williams, who up to that point in the season had compiled a 6.44 ERA, which was not just below average, but abysmal.  Were Pirates fans really not going to tune in if Williams didn't play?  I also feel that players would take the game more seriously and see it as more of an honor if it was harder to get in.  To wit:

Limit the rosters to 27 players
This will make the all-star teams more exclusive and more "star" like, and will also make them more like real baseball teams playing a real baseball game.  The current rosters have ballooned to 33 players, which is just ridiculous.  I do like the recent innovation that the fans get to choose the last player in an online poll, and I would recommend letting them choose the 27th player on the roster.  However, I think it would be great for the players to have a voice in all-star selection, and they should get to vote on the 26th player.

Let the managers manage
There has been a recent tendency in the All-Star Game to give every player on both teams a chance to enter the game, which makes the games feel especially artificial and ridiculous, and the managers responsible less for winning and more for making sure everyone gets their turn.  This tendency led to the infamous 2002 game that ended in a tie when the teams ran out of players in extra innings.  Managers should not feel the need to put all the players in, but manage like a real manager and use the players accordingly.  Would a manager in a real game send in Billy Butler to bat for Prince Fielder?  (No offense to Butler, who's having a solid season for both the Royals and one of my fantasy teams.)  Do fans want to see that?  They want to see the best players in the game in a true competition with each other.  Making the all-star game for like a real game will make it more exciting for all involved.

Stop using the all-star game result to determine home field advantage in the World Series
Recently, in an effort to draw more fan attention, the MLB tried to make the all-star game "count" by using the winner to determine which league's representative gets home field advantage in the World Series.  (In previous years, it had just rotated back and forth.)  This move insultingly suggested that the game did not "count" before, and still makes home field advantage just as arbitrary as it was before.  (The all-star game used to count for a lot. Back in the 1950s and 1960s the American League was slower to integrate than the National League, the black NL players gunned to embarrass the American League, which they did on multiple occasions.  In 1970, Peter Rose risked injury by crashing hard into Ray Fosse at the plate.)   Based on the number of players bowing out of the game recently, the new "making the game count" wrinkle does not appear to have made it more competitive.  Scrap the whole thing, and shift home field advantage to the league whose teams performed best in inter-league play.  That will better reflect the strength of each league, make them more competitive against each other, and perhaps even add a little drama to those dreadful Mariners-Astros games.

Change the all-star break
A lot can be done to sculpt the days around the All-Star Game to make it more interesting and meaningful.  The NBA has done a great job of creating a whole weekend around their game, which is often the least meaningful component.  The MLB should add some things, and cut some others.  In the first place, the home run derby the day before ought to be eliminated, as many players already decline to participate, and it celebrates the narrow, power-focused version of baseball that reigned in the Steroid Era that must finally be consigned to the past.  Instead, the first round of the baseball draft should be held during the All Star break, which would generate more buzz around both the draft and the game.  I think there should also be an extra day added onto the break, giving participants an extra day of rest, which will encourage pitchers to participate more fully.  For that reason, the free day should come after the game.

Make the TV coverage more appealing
The All-Star Game ought to be a showcase for baseball, but it often takes so much time getting to the game that many at home switch channels rather than stick with it.  The pre-game hoopla seems to last forever, and extends the game past the bedtimes of younger viewers, baseball's future fan base.  Having smaller roster sizes with fewer players to announce will help with this, at least.  The first pitch must be thrown before 8Pm Eastern Time at the very latest.  Another issue is the fact that the game is on Fox, and is thus called by Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, perhaps the most excruciating announcing team in all of sports.  McCarver has become even crustier and crankier over the years, and Buck's nonchalance can drain the excitement out of any major sporting event.  I watch a lot of games on, and I have been happily surprised at the high quality of local baseball announcers across the board.  Any random team's hometown crew would be better than Buck and McCarver, but I would nominate a crew of Vin Scully and Steve Stone to handle the All-Star Game.

Monday, July 14, 2014

"I had a rough night, and I hate the f$*#ing Eagles"

I think the Dude said it best: "I had a rough night, and I hate the fucking Eagles."  Of the many baffling facts in the world, perhaps the most baffling is that the biggest-selling album in American musical history is The Eagles' Greatest Hits, 1971-1975.  In recent years it has edged out Michael Jackson's Thriller, once thought to be the undisputed champ forevermore.  That album is by no means perfect ("The Girl Is Mine" anyone?), but it is really damn good.  If you ever needed more proof of America's love of mediocrity, look no further than Jay Leno's two decade run at the Tonight Show, the success of Two and a Half Men, or an Eagles compilation outselling Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin.

Over the years my once monastic rigidity when it comes to music appreciation has softened, and I have learned to love artists I used to despise, like Steely Dan, ABBA, and Fleetwood Mac.  The Eagles have not, and never will, undergo such a revision in my eyes.  It is not that they are flat-out bad, it's just that they are pretty average, and yet have achieved the absolute pinnacle of success, as clear an indictment of this nation's culture as anything.  "The Long Run" is kind of catchy, but is this a song that ever changed anyone's life?  For that matter, have any of their songs ever changed anyone's life?  "Hotel California" sets a good mood and has some great Joe Walsh guitar, but also contains some of the most ridiculous lyrics ever uttered on the radio.  For the most part the Eagles made music that inspires no one, but also is pleasant and mellow enough that it very easily becomes a kind of soothing wallpaper.

Above all, their music is completely lacking in any kind of soul or feeling.  It embodies the death of the 60s by the time of the band's mid-1970s heyday.  The Eagles epitomize how peace, love and revolution devolved into doing lines of coke backstage followed by meaningless sex with Quaaluded groupies.  The social revolution just becomes a license to "take it easy" with a "peaceful easy feeling."  The lack of inspiration can best be seen in the fact that the early, countryfied Eagles claimed to be following in the footsteps of Gram Parsons, when there is more depth of feeling and emotion in "Return of the Grievous Angel"alone than in all of The Eagles' songs put together.  Or you can take their cover of Tom Waits' "Ol' 55," which in their rendering is turned into easy listening.

Again, they're not bad, but the Eagles are not good, and in no conceivable way good enough to warrant their popularity.  It might seem strange for me to be getting uptight about a long-vanished rock band from the 1970s, but this nation's warm embrace of mediocrity needs to be unsettled from time to time.  The Eagles' popularity is once instance that particularly bugs me.  Anybody else have their own?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Track of the Week: The Ramones, "Rockaway Beach"

This week brought the sad news of the death of Tommy Erdelyi, the original drummer of the Ramones who had been the last surviving member of the group's first lineup.  (He also happened to be a producer, and helmed one of my favorite albums, The Replacements' Tim.)  Watching the The Ramones documentary The End of the Century, I was struck at how grounded, unaffected, and just plain normal Erdelyi seemed in contrast to the other members of the group.  I'm sad to see him go.

Despite their denim and leather wardrobe, arguments on stage, and aggressive approach, The Ramones were one the most fun bands around, mixing goofy humor with the buoyancy of sixties pop music, even if it was filtered through distorted riffs.  For a group of urban punks, they had a great appreciation of 1960s surf music (see their covers of "Surfin' Bird"and "California Sun.")  They made their own great addition to the surf canon with "Rockaway Beach," a perfect song for fun in the sun.  It also happens to be about a beach in Queens that you can take the subway to, so not exactly the kind of place where you'd expect Jan and Dean to be hanging out.  The incongruousness of the beach music theme with the urban setting and punky music exemplifies the cultivated silliness that made The Ramones great.  RIP Tommy Ramone.

Friday, July 11, 2014

What I Learned By Taking My Dad To A Baseball Game

In July of 1984 my father took me to my first major league baseball game, the second half of a day-night double-header between the Royals and As in Kansas City.  That was also, until yesterday, the last time he'd been to a baseball game.  With my parents in town this week, I decided it would be fun for us to venture to Citi Field and watch the Mets, partly out of my own selfish desire to get back to the ballpark, but also out of his interest in seeing a game again.

The Mets lost 3-1 and stranded nine men on base in a game that lacked home runs and dazzlingly defensive play.  However, it was a deeply enjoyable experience, and not just because I got to spend some time with my father.  Last night my dad showed me, in a very subtle way, how to better experience and appreciate baseball.

This came as a bit of a surprise, since he has not followed the sport for decades.  He can reel off all of the great players of the 1950s and 1960s, and has very strong memories of important moments, like the Braves winning the World Series in 1957 and Willie Mays' catch in 1954.  However, he did not know the name of a single player in the game last night, knows nothing of sabremetrics, and is pretty much unaware of what teams are good and bad nowadays.  These are all things we expect baseball fans to know, and he is definitely not a fan of professional baseball.  He is something else: an appreciator of the game of baseball itself, divorced from the big leagues.

Instead of discussing the Mets' winning streak or who they called up from the minors, he noticed the deeper facets of the game of baseball on the diamond in front of us.  He noted the ways the defense shifted, the bad angles taken by outfielders, the opposing hurler's pitch selection, the batting stances of the hitters, and the quirks of the pitchers' wind-ups.  It reminded me that while he never taught me to root for a particular team or watch baseball on TV with me, he enjoyed teaching me how to swing a bat and catch fly balls.  Raised on sandlot ball in a home too poor for television, baseball was and still is for him a living, breathing sport, not an entertainment spectacle to be dissected on blogs and talk radio.

As the game went on I ignored the scoreboard more and more, resisted the temptations of my smart-phone, and jabbered less, all so I could appreciate the deeper game being played before my eyes.  They say that baseball is a "thinking man's game," but that's only if you give yourself over to it when you watch it.  I am just as prone as anyone else in our current cultural moment to live in a state of endless distraction and rush, it was great (and a little sad) for one night to realize what I've lost, and now hope to get back.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Playlist: Early 70s Boogie Piano Rock

Listening to pop music today, it seems more and more divorced from the roots of American music, with hardly a trace to be found of soul, blues, jazz, or country.  This isn't necessarily a diss, I can enjoy a good Top 40 song in the current computerized mode as much as the next person.  However, when recently listening to some Allman Brothers Band records, I looked up their charting positions, and was amazed to find music so rooted in traditional modes to have charted so high.  I also got to thinking about how one particular roots music tool, the boogie piano, enjoyed a crazy kind of popularity in the early 1970s.  Without further ado, here are some fine (and some merely representative) examples of piano boogie rock.

Allman Brothers Band, "Ramblin' Man"
I mentioned the Allmans in my intro, a band that managed to combine jazz, blues, and rock into a really enjoyable combination.  Sadly, the tragic deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley cut that project short.  The band could not help to have a different sound, and that sound produced their biggest hit, "Ramblin' Man," which climbed all the way to #2.  I am not sure they even allow musicianship in the Top 40 anymore, and certainly not the boogie piano at the base of this song.  It's ironic that "Ramblin' Man" is not representative of the Allmans' usual sound, but it's a song that never fails to bring a smile to  my face.

Bachman Turner Overdrive, "Takin' Care of Business"
Regular commenter Brian I. told me the back-story to this song, one of my favorite rock and roll recording stories ever.  Due to the "husky" size of its members, wags often referred to BTO as "Bachman Turner Overweight."  As the story goes, they were cutting "Takin' Care of Business" in the studio when they got some pizzas delivered (natch, although my internet research tells me they were being delivered to the Steve Miller Band.)  The pizza guy heard the playback, and told them they could use some boogie piano on it, which he provided, being that he was an accomplished musician.  Not only that, he did it in one take.  This song is one of those lame warhorses of classic rock radio that needs to be put out to pasture or put out of its mercy, but that killer piano still stands out.

Led Zeppelin, "Boogie With Stu"
Ian Stewart is one of my favorite figures in rock history.  He was an original member of the Rolling Stones and an absolute beast of a boogie piano player.  Unfortunately he was a square-jawed Scot who did not fit the Stones' hip, bad-boy image.  That led to Stu being dropped from the band, although he did become their road manager and played on many Stones tracks.  However, I would like to highlight his cameo on Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti album.  When I first heard it I thought of it as a minor track on a double album that contained the likes of "Kashmir" and "Ten Years Gone."  Nowadays it's one of my favorites, mostly due to Stu's relentlessly driving, rollicking piano, which gives the sometimes portentous Zeppelin a fun break from hobbits and demons.

The Faces, "You're So Rude"
The Faces were the kings of 70s boogie rock, and keyboardist Ian McLagen could lay it down like few others.  On a rare Ronnie Lane vocal (as opposed to Rod Stewart), McLagen's gutbucket piano perfectly compliments Lane's raunchy story of interrupted love on a rainy Sunday.

Elvis Presley, "Burning Love"
Hey, even Elvis got in on the early 70s boogie wave with his last great single, "Burning Love."  It's got a great Presley vocal, but the chugging piano pretty much makes the song.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Civil Rights Act And The Birth Of The Modern GOP

I just finished reading Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm, a riveting account of Barry Goldwater, the rise of the conservative movement, and the election of 1964.  It was oddly coincidental that I read this book fifty years to the week after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, an event that played a key role in the political realignment that Perlstein discusses.  One thing that amazed me about the book was that for a group calling itself "the party of ideas," the Republicans haven't come up with any new ones in a half century.  It's all there in '64: reduced regulation, privatization of Social Security, tax cuts for the wealthy, aggressive foreign policy, high defense spending, "law and order," blaming the "liberal media," comparing all government initiatives to Nazism, and last, but not least, white racial resentment.

I'd always thought of 1968, and Nixon's Southern Strategy, as the crucial moment in the Republican Party's turn toward its current racial politics, and assumed that Goldwater picked up the deep South in 1964 based on his opposition to the Civil Rights Act on gnomish libertarian grounds (he had supported civil rights legislation on the state level in Arizona), rather than his active courting of the white South.  Reading Perlstein's book shows just how wrong I was.  Goldwater's campaign destroyed the old Republican party structure in the South, where African Americans had often played a prominent role, and Goldwater's supports trotted out the noxious rebel flag at their events.  Just like Nixon four years later, Goldwater used the "law and order" issue to exploit white racial fears while giving himself plausible deniability.

Of course, the Democrats weren't blameless.  They had been more than happy to caucus with the segregationist likes of James Eastland, and did not kick George Wallace out of their party.  Johnson did not seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the convention  in 1964.  However, the Republicans made a craven attempt to win over white votes in the South and elsewhere by mining racial animus, and gladly welcomed the Strom Thurmonds of the world into their ranks.  As late as 1960 Nixon had tried to court the votes of African Americans, after 1964 those attempts at courtship would be mere cover intended to distract from the party's real racial politics and to avoid the stigma of racism.  (It was especially gut-wrenching to read about Rockefeller Republican and national hero Jackie Robinson being insulted at the 1964 GOP convention.)  Nixon's personal beliefs didn't factor into any of this; he changed course because the growing backlash would get him more power than the votes of blacks.

The GOP's capture of the South, which of course did not just happen overnight, has been the biggest reason for its success in the last forty years.  After forty years of being a minority in the House, the GOP has had a pretty solid lock on it since 1994.  Between 1932 and 1968, a Democrat was in the White House for 32 of those 36 years.  Since then, from 1969 to 2014, 28 of those years have seen a Republican president.

To be clear, the racial backlash was not just a Southern phenomenon, and it has also continued to this day.  Look no further than the attacks on the president, which have a much more vile and abjectly disrespectful tone than in years past.  (For example, a 4th of July parade in my home state of Nebraska featured a float showing the Obama Presidential Library to be an outhouse.) Think of Reagan's words about "welfare queens" and "young bucks," and his hardly accidental appeal to "states rights" in Neshoba County, Mississippi, site of the murder of Goodman, Schwerner, and Cheney in 1964.  Think of the birther conspiracies, Sarah Palin's talk of "real Americans," and the mobs showing up in Murietta, California, to assail immigrant children.  Think of the "war on drugs" and the prison industrial complex.  Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act we are seeing the latest, craven assault on voting rights.

Americans are alarming in their historical amnesia, and the legacy of the 1960s is no exception.  Many last week fondly remembered the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but acted as if the backlash it engendered, and that still fuels our politics, never happened.  Then again, one major political party still has a vested interest in keeping that history secret.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Track of the Week: Gordon Lightfoot, "Canadian Railroad Trilogy"

America's Independence Day was this last week, but so too was the commemoration of another nation's birth: Canada Day.  I have an unabashed and genuine love of our neighbor to the north.  I have enjoyed her beautiful landscapes, explored her cities, laughed at her many accomplished comedians, loved her many great musical artists (Neil Young, Joanie Mitchell, most of The Band, to name a few), and have had the pleasure to know many of her sons and daughters.  Americans have many stereotypes about Canadian politeness, and while I have run into rude and mean-spirited Canadians, Canada does have a national culture much more humble and muted compared to America's bombasticity.  I still remember being in Montreal with my wife during our honeymoon, which just happened to coincide with Canada Day.  There were lots of people out and about, and fireworks in the evening, but no in your face nationalism.  Even as an outsider and foreigner, I still felt welcome on Canada's national day.

A good example of the contrast between American and Canadian nationalism is Gordon Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy."  He wrote it for Canada's centennial in 1967, and it tells the story of the construction of the trans-Canada railway in folk song fashion.  It begins describing the landscape before the railroad, then like a train leaving the station, shifts into a high gear describing the hopes and boosterism behind the railway.  So far, the song could be mistaken for an American anthem, in that it fails to mention the native people living in the railroad's path, and sees it all as a great triumph.  However, the song suddenly shifts into low gear, and a mournful harmonica enters in.  Lightfoot sings from the perspective of the navvies who built the railroad with low pay in tough conditions.  The song goes from being a triumphal ode to Canadian ingenuity to a reflection on the human cost of such endeavors.  This song written for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company, for you in the States) and its celebration of the Canadian centennial.

It is hard to imagine an American television network broadcasting a song this ambiguous for a major national commemoration.  The American disease of historical amnesia seems far less common up north, perhaps it's something we can learn a thing or two from.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Quick Independence Day Thought

Another Independence Day is upon us, and yet again the fireworks and celebrations are in the air.  It also happens to be my twin daughters' birthday, so it is easy for me to focus on the personal meaning of this day and to forget about it being a national holiday.

Apart from the World Cup, I tend to absolutely detest nationalism.  Is there anything more pathetic than thumping your chest about the country you happened to be born in?  That feeling is exacerbated this week by news that the American flag is yet again being used as a weapon, this time by howling nativist mobs assailing unaccompanied immigrant children fleeing strife and poverty in Central America.  We are the richest nation that has ever existed, but react to the desperation of others with hatred rather than empathy.  That fact calls to mind the greatest July 4th speech ever given, Frederick Douglass' jeremiad "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"  Here is a relevant passage, sadly still relevant in this day and age, even if chattel slavery no longer exists:

"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour."

We congratulate ourselves on our freedom in a nation that incarcerates its own people at a higher rate than any other in the world.  We celebrate our victory over a great empire in the 18th century when America today is the world's greatest empire, one that rains death from the sky on a regular basis without a declaration of war.  We call ourselves a "nation of immigrants" while treating the most vulnerable of newcomers like beasts.  I frankly don't see much to celebrate this July 4th.

A Nebraska Boy Falls In Love With The Jersey Shore (the place, not the TV show)

I have written for a few days since I was on a short vacation with my family down to Cape May, on the southern tip of the Jersey Shore.  It was a great time, and has only enhanced my growing love affair with the Jersey Shore.  I say improbably because I grew up in Nebraska, about as far away from the ocean as you can get.  I also happen to be a redhead with the attendant problem that the sun makes my skin cry with pain if I am exposed to it for any length of time.  You can couple that with some body image problems on my part, and the fact that most beaches are crammed with backwards cap-wearing douchebags blasting stoopid music as a mating call to braindead woohoo girls.  The beach is not my natural habitat.

All that being the case, there is little more I love than being in the presence of the ocean, in all of its massive, surging, limitless glory.  Coming from the Plains, I grew up in a landscape where the flat, empty land stretched out horizon to horizon underneath an impossibly huge sky.  I miss that feeling of open-ness, of being able to sense the curve to the earth.  I only get that nowadays when I go to the ocean.

The great thing about the Shore is that it easily accommodates my need to walk by the ocean while avoiding the beach with its greatest feature: the boardwalk.  My favorite is probably Asbury Park's, a faded jewel with honest to goodness ruins but some hardy new businesses sprouting up, including a pinball arcade full of vintage machines.  It is a broken place, but full of poetry and ghosts, a great muse to those willing to listen.  Bruce Springsteen got his start there, as the title of his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey, attests.  The bands no longer play in front of the gutted Casino referenced in his song "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," but you can hear their faint echoes if you listen hard enough.

Of course, most people go to the Shore for fun in the sun, not to meditate on mortality.  If you want the living spirit of the shoreline boardwalk, then go to Wildwood, a boardwalk so wide and long that tram cars take people up and down it, since walking the whole distance is not advised in the summer heat.  When Springsteen sings of Asbury Park, it is wistful and full of longing.  Those emotions are practically banned in Wildwood, where the representative song is the exuberant, poppy "Wildwood Days" by Bobby Rydell.  Here, as in other spots, like Point Pleasant or Seaside Heights, there are innumerable arcades, tattoo parlors, cheap t-shirt shops, and sideshow attractions.  Of course, there's also the amusement park rides on the pier, rising above the water in the crisp ocean air.  It's no mistake that the submerged roller coaster in Seaside Heights after Sandy brought it crashing into the briny deep became the iconic symbol in this state of what the storm hath wrought.

Wildwood is the place to be for cheap, tacky entertainment and fun, and in that respect mirrors New Jersey's ability to maintain some of life's smaller pleasures that have faded away elsewhere.  The Garden State has a bad reputation, stemming mostly from its proximity to a major media capital whose residents are some of the most smugly self-satisfied folks on the planet earth.  Of course New Jersey is not Manhattan, but what is?  In any case, Manhattan is quickly becoming a giant strip of Duane Reade stores, Starbucks, Bank of America outlets, and prohibitively expensive apartments.  New Jersey has managed to maintain a culture of small-time enterprises, despite corporate America's best efforts.  The highways are dotted with local diners, like they used to be in the Nebraska of my youth.  Only idiots order pizza from one of the chains, rather than one of the panoply of amazing local places.  That spirit is visible in Wildwood, from the rinky-dink arcades with skee balls as old as your grandparents to the famous range of small, mid-century hotels in all their neon-encrusted glory.

While I like cheap thrills as much as the next person, when we went to the shore this time we visited Wildwood while staying at a hotel in the much statelier Cape May, which had its origins first in whaling, and next as a seaside retreat for the Victorian bourgeoisie.  Here the ghosts are of a different sort than in Asbury Park, donning corsets and tweed rather than leather jackets and engineer boots.  The restored, lushly decorated homes from the 1880s sure are nice, but nothing beats my favorite part of being there: sitting on a hotel balcony, feeling the full, cool force of a nighttime sea breeze after a long hot day of family fun.  Maybe it's because I grew up feeling the prairie winds blast down the Rockies across the arid Plains, but that ocean breeze puts my mind at ease like nothing else, and I can't wait to get back.