Sunday, August 31, 2014

Track of the Week: Wire "Map Ref. 41 N 93 W"

I love living in New Jersey and working in New York City, which has become by far my favorite city in America.  That said, I am a child of the Midwest who lived there until the ripe age of 32, apart from a year in Germany.  I haven't had the chance to visit my homeland this summer as I usually do, and some conversations with old grad school pals online have conjured up memories of fields and fields of Illinois corn ready for harvest.  On Friday I watched the Cubs-Cardinals game on TV, on Saturday I caught some Prairie Home Companion on the car radio while running errands.  Needless to say, I am missing the region of my birth and young adulthood.

I tried to think of songs about the Midwest to talk about this week, and realized that one of the most unique songs about its landscape came not from John Mellencamp or Jeff Tweedy, but from Wire, a postpunk band from Britain.  As outsiders to this country they wrote about something that people see but don't think much about when flying cross-country.  Looking down over the Midwest the fields are laid out like checkerboards in a sort of breathtaking symmetry.  Many Easterners criticize that view, thinking it speaks to Midwestern dullness or colorlessness or whatever stereotype they want to foist on the place.  I see a kind of beauty, and Wire did too.

This is one of those "should've been a hit" songs.  It didn't help that it had such an unwieldy, but oh so fitting title.  Only a band like Wire would name one of their catchiest songs after a global positioning point, emphasizing the symmetrical nature of the land below them.  The song itself comes from their third album, 1979's 154, which showed quite a mature progression from the flat-out speed punk of their debut, Pink Flag.  Scratchy guitars and whispy synths create the same air of foreboding mixed with wonder that I always get on an airplane.  The band's punk roots are evident with the off-putting and angular sounds and how singer Colin Greenwood self-consciously intones "chorus" right before the background vocals for the chorus come in and give the song a poppier feel.  There really isn't much out there in the world like this, and though the sound is not what most people associate with the Midwest, it evokes the feelings I get looking out of the window of an airplane as it's descending into Omaha.

Friday, August 29, 2014

We're Living In America's Brezhnev Years

About a decade ago in the midst of the worst of the Bush administration, I quipped to a friend that America was entering its Brezhnev years.  Despite a change in the White House and a lot of other events in the interim, I think that my offhand comment might have been more truthful than I ever could have realized.

For those of you who don't know, Leonid Brezhnev lead the the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982.  While its military might grew to unprecedented levels and its oil resources better exploited, beneath the images of tanks parading down Red Square on May Day sat a vast festering reservoir of economic and cultural stagnation.  The situation, where a massive military machine had to be supported by hobbled economy, led to Gorbachev's reforms and eventually to the Soviet system's collapse.  A world power, one of the two superpowers, was brought low in an astoundingly short period of time.  One notable thing about this period was not only the economic stagnation, but the basic loss of faith in the Soviet system and communist ideology.  Laconic workers in this period used to quip "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."  This is hardly the spirit of the "shock workers" who helped build steel mills in the Ural wilderness in the 1930s.  In the 1980s, when Gorbachev's glasnost policies carried the day, few people bothered to defend the principles of Marxism-Leninism.  According to recent article about Vladimir Putin in The New Yorker, even members of the secret police "laughed at Soviet ideology" and "thought it was a joke."

I see plenty of parallels to America's present and its recent history.  While American military power has never been bigger, its weakness has been exposed.  Just the Soviets had their misguided invasion of Afghanistan, we have had ours, along with the war in Iraq, whose unintended consequences have come back to haunt the United States in recent days.  America's ability to assert its role abroad has been called into question in ways the world hasn't seen since before World War II.

On the domestic front long term problems are simply being allowed to fester like a gangrenous infection.  Our infrastructure is crumbling, the immigration system cries out for reform, higher education is being defunded, and poor communities and their children have been left to wither.  Economic inequality is returning to Gilded Age levels.  The political will to overcome the obstacles to solving these problems appears to be completely absent.  In the midst of the urgency to do something, our current Congress has been one of the least productive in history.

Above all, just as the Soviet state lumbered on even though most of its people did not believe in the regime's ideology anymore, in the United States our leaders seem to have stopped believing in basic democratic principles.  Both parties are bought and sold by corporate interests and spend all their time on symbolic gestures intended to get their partisans' support at the polls without actually doing something about anything the people care about.  The public too seems to have largely lost interest in holding their leaders accountable, or to bother caring or paying attention to the state of things.  Voters certainly aren't flocking to the polls.  After the president's press conference yesterday, all of the commentary I saw on Twitter, even by intelligent people I respect, focused on Obama's tan suit and not on the possibility of being entangled in conflicts in Iraq and the Ukraine.  The protests in Ferguson give me hope that there are people willing to press for real change, but most people in this country are content to be fixed to their iPhone screens and ignore the stench of decline that surrounds them.

In the Soviet bloc, humor often subversively commented on popular discontent with an unresponsive system.  Much the same is evident today.  When future historians want to understand the mentality of America's Brezhnev years, I am sure they will be watching episodes of Veep.  The politicians and their handlers spend their time obsessed with superficial image making, and only deal with regular people when using them as props for photo opportunities.  They feel contempt for the public, but it is a light-hearted, off-hand contempt, the basic mode of our ruling class.  That ruling class might want to look back at the gerontocracy of the Brezhnev regime, and start thinking that their end might be closer at hand than they think.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New York's Cultural Memory of Crime And Its Current Abuses

Growing up out on the Nebraska plains in the 1980s, I always thought of New York City as a singularly lawless and dangerous place.  I still remember seeing a commercial for the Friday the 13th sequel Jason Takes Manhattan, which shows a character running scared into a convenience store screaming about how a madman is trying to kill her, and the jaded clerk just huffs and says "welcome to New York."  That image was also reinforced by more benign entertainment like Barney Miller, where the crime-ridden streets of New York were played for laughs.  I remember news stories about the Central Park jogger and the panic over "wilding," the racist attacks in Bensonhurst, and Bernard Goetz blowing away muggers on the subway.

Of course, the raw numbers show that violent crime was indeed a lot higher in the Big Apple back then.  There were 2245 murders in the city in 1990, compared with 332 in 2013.  It is arguably the safest big city in America.  It is curious then, that today brought news that the NYPD's police sergeants union had written a letter to the Democratic National Convention telling them not to have the party's 2016 convention in Brooklyn because it was getting too dangerous.  This brazen action, which is appalling in that it goes so much against the city's economic interests, was intended to spite new mayor Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio has not been a zealot when it comes to putting a leash on the police, and he has even endorsed the controversial "broken windows" strategy.  However, he did campaign against stop and frisk, and has been critical following the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the police.  This force, so used to acting with impunity in the last two administrations, would rather harm the city's quest for an economically beneficial convention than be held accountable in any way for its actions.  (Today also brought news that the NYPD's internal review board is throwing out an increasing number of citizen complaints of wrong doing.)

Critics of de Blasio have a very powerful cultural memory on their side: the jump in crime that affected New York from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s.  Essentially, the cops are telling people "unless you give us free reign to do anything we want, we'll be headed straight back to the bad old days."  It also hurts de Blasio that periods of high crime are associated with other liberal mayors, like David Dinkins and John Lindsay, despite the fact that crime was already going down in the Dinkins years before Giuliani showed up.

There's another element at work here, one that those pushing back against police oversight are well aware they are using: racial fear.  Lindsay, Dinkins, and de Blasio all came to power with the overwhelming support of black voters, and all came into office promising to heed the voice of that constituency, the one historically worst protected and served by the police.  What the police sergeants union is really saying is "don't put the leash on us, because "those people" will run wild given half a chance."

Time will tell if this strategy works, but the fact that many supposedly "liberal" people in NYC voted for Bloomberg, a staunch defender of stop and frisk, is a sign that it just may be successful.  The murder rate is actually down this year, but the lenses of racial fear can very easily obscure reality.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Track of the Week: Linton Kwesi Johnson, "Sonny's Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)"

The death of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson have got me thinking about songs that deal with police brutality and injustice.  One of the more powerful comes from Linton Kwesi Johnson, a Jamaican-British poet and singer who more people ought to know.  His song "Sonny's Lettah" takes the point of view of a young black man writing a letter to his mother from prison.  He had seen his brother being beaten by the police in a random stop on "suspicion" of possessing marijuana, the British equivalent of "stop and frisk," which this song is condemning.  Under the "sus law" the police could arrest anyone they felt might be possibly committing or about to commit a crime, and it was predictably applied in a racist fashion.  Sonny steps in to help his brother and in attacking one of the cops, kills him.

The rhythm to the song is supremely groovy and insistent without burying the words.  Johnson reads them off in the sad and world weary voice of a young person who has experienced too much life too soon.  It is a harrowing song and avoids the maudlin preachiness of so much protest music in favor of bringing to life the story of someone trapped by an unjust system.  It's not just an effective approach from an aesthetic viewpoint, since the sus law was repealed in 1981 in response to outcry against it.  It gives me hope that despite all of the horrible miscarriages of justice we see on the streets year after year, that something can be done about it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Star Bands, Cheap Videos

Late at night I often find myself on YouTube watching either old commercials or old music videos from the 1980s.  These are the two cultural artifacts guaranteed to stir up memories of my youth, since both tend to be extremely dated.  I didn't really watch MTV until 1984-1985, by which point it had become such an important channel that record labels and artists were spending large sums of money to make them.

It wasn't always so, and it can be rather informative and funny to look at the earliest music videos from prominent artists.  They were often made for next to nothing, and look totally tossed off.  (David Bowie's video for "Ashes to Ashes" was the most expensive yet when it was made, and it looks like something a film student did on the weekend.)  I love them because the featured artists do not look larger than life, but all too human.  Here's a list of some cheap videos made by star artists:

The Rolling Stones, "She's So Cold"
Endless mugging from Jagger on a plain set whose cheapness is revealed when the camera accidentally moves too far out of frame.  Ron and Keith are game but Bill looks bored and Charlie is smirking the whole time at the silliness of it all.  You would be hard-pressed to see this in 1980 and think you were witnessing the world's most famous rock and roll band at work.  It's still more interesting than most other music videos, which are just trying too damn hard.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "Pump It Up"
"Hey Elvis, could you stomp around a plain white backing like a spastic duck with a broken foot?  Okay?  Thanks!"

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "The Waiting"
Tom Petty and co are in front of the same white background, this time with some risers and primary-colored triangles behind them.  Video directors in this era had a fetish for putting electrifying rock bands in the dullest environment they could possibly find.  "Remember boys, lip sync directly into the camera."

David Bowie, "Space Oddity"
The song came out in 1969, but this video is from Bowie's Ziggy period in 1972.  He strums a guitar, there are red filters, and a camera swoops over a recording studio soundboard whenever "ground control" is mentioned.  Cheap and amateurish, but somehow effective.

Genesis, "That's All"
"Let's give Phil Collins a hobo coat and some fingerless gloves and have him grimace while he sings to the camera.  Can't go wrong with that."  The fake hobo colony set at least has some furniture.

Journey, "Separate Ways"
This right here is the holy grail of cheap videos by big bands in the 80s, one that has inspired well-deserved homages.  It starts with the band playing air instruments, then *poof* they get real ones!  The power of their rocking is magical!  I just love it when the director cuts Steve Perry emoting to the camera at three different angles in quick succession.  I also love how that they don't even have a set, and appear to be playing on a wharf.  At least they could afford a tracking shot.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cinematic Subgenres: Star Wars Cash-Ins

I've had Star Wars on the brain a lot this summer.  I recently babysat a friend's son who happens to be a Star Wars fanatic, and we watched the original film together while he played with my old Star Wars toys, which I had dug out of the basement.  I also just saw Guardians of the Galaxy, which some have compared favorably to Star Wars (not I will not call it Episode IV: A New Hope, thank you very much.)  I've also written about it as part of my book project (which relates to the cultural history of the 1970s), and in doing so read some reviews of the film when it came out, as well as articles from the time about the growing Star Wars phenomenon.

It is interesting to view the 1977 film in its historical context, since it is very easy to forget just how new and revolutionary it felt at the time.  If you doubt me, compare it to other sci-fi films that came right before it, like Logan's Run, which looks positively cheap and antiquated by comparison.  (I still get a kick out of it, though.)   It also made a ton of money, and as critics and film historians have noted for decades, helped change the basic structure of how Hollywood works and what kinds of films it makes. A visit to the multiplex today, with its effects-driven and superhero/fantasy/adventure films dominating should make that pretty clear.

Looking back at the late 70s, the first attempts to recreate Star Wars' magic at the box office didn't exactly hit their marks.  Last night I was flipping channels and happened to come across The Black Hole, Disney's 1979 attempt to cash-in on the new interest in space movies sparked by Star Wars.  Watching I realized that I had spent the summer inadvertently watching other attempts to milk that cash cow in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  They were often maladroit, but make for interesting viewing, mostly because they were wild stabs in the dark before the blockbuster formula was established. Here are some essential cash-ins of varying quality:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

I am not trolling Trekkers with this one (bless their hearts) but stating facts.  The old Star Trek series had maintained its cult following in the 1970s, and with the success of Star Wars, Paramount was ready to get in on the action with a proven property.  Unfortunately, STMP was long, slow, and turgid, even if it had some interesting elements.  It felt like the pilot to a TV show stretched too long but with better effects.  It does have Bones initially showing up with a hipster beard sporting a space age disco jumpsuit, so at least there's that.  Luckily for the franchise it would return in 1982 with Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, a much superior film and one I still love to watch.

Alien (1979)

The post-Star Wars boom gave birth to another film franchise with Alien, one of the great all time horror movies.  It benefitted from having a stellar cast and following Star Wars' lead in showing a futuristic world that was battered, dusty, and lived in.  This is by far the best of the sci-fi films that followed Star Wars.

Battlestar Galactica (1978-9)

Some of the sci-fi boom came to TV, too.  Yes, kiddos, once upon a time, in the dark mysterious world known as the 1970s, there was an original Battlestar Galactica, not the one you've seen.  The effects budgets made it the most expensive thing on TV, perhaps why it only lasted one season.  George Lucas, showing early shades of his later control-freak tendencies, even sued the creators, accusing them of copying him.  That's a bit ridiculous, and even though the show is dated, it was a lot more interesting than the most of the rest of television at the time.  (And certainly better than the other TV cash-in, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.)

Flash Gordon (1980)

Words cannot express how much I love this movie.  It is insanely cheesy in ways other films can only dream of approaching, and combines the lavish, over the top look of a Dino DeLaurentis production (which it is) with the cardboard cutout characters and silliness of the old film serials that birthed Flash on screen in the first place.  Where else do you get to see acclaimed actors like Max von Snydow ham it up with full force?  I remember seeing the trailer for this when I saw The Empire Strikes Back in the theater, and was fully aware (despite my young age) that it was a knock-off.  But oh what a knock-off!

The Black Hole (1979)

Watching this last night, I was amazed at how odd this movie is.  In many respects it is incredibly anachronistic Disney fare, with dialogue and characters who seemed ripped out of 1950s Saturday matinee flicks.  At the same time, it's also very dark for a Disney film, with one of the robots looking trashed within an inch of the scrap heap before it dies and a self-destructive captain (played by Maximilian Schell) whose robot straight up murders Anthony Perkins (leading to the first PG rating for a Disney movie.)  The actors, like Schell, Perkins, and Ernest Borgnine, seem to belong to a different time, as do the silly moving camera effects. There are some surprising elements, though, from an overall dark tone to a surging, swirling score that I just found out was composed by the great John Barry.  In many respects, The Black Hole is old Hollywood trying to get hip to the new reality and failing.  That said, I liked it as a kid, mostly for the melancholy robots and the aforementioned score.

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

For some reason in the 1980s one of my local TV stations would run this one a lot on Saturday nights.  Unlike many of these other films here it does not pretend to be anything other than pure exploitation, since it comes from Roger Corman's New World Pictures.  It borrows the plot from The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, as Richard Thomas plays a very Skywalker-esque young man who assembles a rag-tag gang of seven to defend his home planet from destruction.  As a kid I loved the fact that one of the said seven was named Cowboy and played by George Peppard, who also played Hannibal on the A-Team at the time.  I also liked that Thomas' space ship was named Nell and talked with a sassy attitude.  Lame, cheap and cheesy, it'll give you plenty of silly entertainment, which is what I love about Corman films.  No Jedi knights or midochlorians here, just cheap thrills, and written by future auteur John Sayles to boot.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Eliminate Tenure For New York Times Columnists

Former restaurant critic Frank Bruni used his platform as a New York Times columnist today to attack teacher tenure. The whole thing was basically him just repeating stuff that some ex-TFA guy now administrator was saying. It was, I must say, rather lazy journalism in that respect. That seems kind of odd, considering that Bruni thinks that teachers are somehow not hired or retained for "talent" and are encouraged by tenure to be a bunch of lazy layabouts. Now I'm not going to directly refute his arguments right here, partly because they are effing weak, and partly because others have already done it so well.

No, instead I would like to deflate his assumption, oft repeated by anti-tenure ranters, that teaching is the only profession in the world where incompetent people keep their jobs. Here's what Bruni had to say: "There’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about."

So I guess other professionals, like say journalists, are totally accountable and always get fired for poor work, and are never allowed to coast on their past accomplishments. Does that sound like bullshit to you? It sure does to me. I figured I would turn the tables, and be an evaluator of the job performance of Bruni and his colleagues, assigning them grades with commentary.

Charles Blow: A
Blow has gone from a statistics-bound column to a more traditional style, and he writes with passion and intelligence. Unlike many other columnists, he is willing to talk insightfully about racism, poverty, parenthood, and rural life. His column is the only absolute must-read in the bunch.

Gail Collins: A-
Collins is by far the funniest of the columnists, and is often able to translate that wit into hard-nosed critique of Washington. However, she seems to be coasting recently, and has become more bemused than critical of the shenanigans of our political class. She never fails to make me laugh, which is why I always read her.

Timothy Egan: A-
A good writer who wrote a great popular history of the Dust Bowl, Egan often brings in interesting historical backing as well as knowledge gleaned from actually rubbing shoulders with and talking to regular people. He could be more consistent, but his better columns are really worth reading.

Roger Cohen: B
He writes solid and insightful stuff on world affairs. His grade is harmed by a tendency to engage in apologist behavior on behalf of Israel.

Paul Krugman: B
Krugman was once a must-read columnist full of wit and insight on numerous topics, but since the beginning of the recession he has been sounding the same note over and over again. Each of his columns is a repeated argument against austerity economics and for Keynesian stimulus. It is an important thing to be saying, but to properly fulfill his job he needs to be presenting new material.

Joe Nocera: B
Nocera has a maddening tendency to uncritically endorse education "reform" initiatives. However, his quest to call the NCAA to account for exploiting its players is very admirable, as are his columns about regulating the financial system. He's mediocre when talks about what he doesn't know, but great on the stuff that he does.

Frank Bruni: C
Former restaurant critic Bruni is alright with his slice of life columns, but when he writes about broader issues it can be a little embarrassing. His aforementioned piece on tenure just repeats talking points from corporate reformers. Anyone who has a platform like his should be expected to do a lot better.

Nicholas Kristof: C-
Kristof's column has become a regular soapbox for colonial white saviorism.

Ross Douthat: D
Douthat's columns are full of sophistry and scolding. He presumes to critique America's moral failings while supporting free market capitalism, a system whose only value is money. Avoids a failing grade by actually have an occasional original thought, such as his columns on classism in college.

Maureen Dowd: F
She has a tart pen but usually deploys it in a quest to be the queen bee mean girl of Washington. Anything she writes about Obama is meant to emasculate him, and she has a never-ending vendetta against Hilary Clinton. In the midst of the turmoil in Ferguson and Iraq, she still insisted on making an attack on Hillz her biggest priority.

Thomas Friedman: F
Friedman is heroin for middle-aged corporate drones who want to appear educated without actually being so. There is more cant and sophistry per column inch in his work than anything else published these days.

David Brooks: F
Brooks' columns are almost always based on some kind of false dichotomy he uses to oversimplify complex issues. He is a tireless purveyor of Conservatism Lite, completely unaware of the fact that he is a self-parody. If you printed his columns in the Onion, people would think they were a satire on neo-conservatives.

Overall, I would say that except for Krugman, Collins, Nocera, Cohen, Blow, and Egan there are literally hundreds of bloggers who could do just as good or better a job as the other columnists. I don't think the Times has a tenure policy, but it sure as hell isn't "talent" that's keeping these people in their jobs.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Track of the Week: Mudhoney "Overblown"

I am currently reading Mark Yarm's excellent oral history of the late 80s-early 90s Seattle music scene, which has had me revisiting much of the music that came out of it.  The music dubbed "grunge," a deceptive title that dubiously threw together the prog-metal Soundgarden and arena rocking Pearl Jam with the punkier likes of Nirvana, was a life-giving breath of fresh air when I first heard it as a 16 year old.  For the first time I felt like there was rock music being made in my own time that was just as interesting and vital as the Clash or Ramones.  When any of those Seattle bands ever appeared in Rolling Stone or Spin I would buy a copy, and I read some of those articles over and over again.  I tore off the cover of Nirvana on Rolling Stone where Kurt Cobain wears a t-shirt reading "Corporate Rock Magazines Still Suck" and proudly taped it to my bedroom closet door.

One of my favorite albums of the time was the soundtrack to Singles, a Cameron Crowe movie filmed and set in Seattle just right before grunge went global.  I didn't actually see the movie until years later (it's alright.)  My favorite song was by Mudhoney, a band who I'd heard about in all of those magazine articles, and who I learned actually predated Nirvana.  Their contribution to the soundtrack is "Overblown," which I loved both for its sound and for its audacity.  The song is one giant pin deflating the balloon of Seattle rock scene hype, right at the moment that grunge moved out of the indie scene into the mainstream.  Singer Mark Arm, his scream-yelp dripping with maximum snot, starts the song by saying "Everybody loves us/ Everybody loves our town/ Been thinking lately/ Don't believe in it now."  The song itself gallops along dementedly with some typically twisted-sounding guitar and pounding drums from the band and a catchy "hey hey hey HEY!" chorus.  Other lyrics call out an unnamed lead singer as a "macho creep," and all signs point to Soundgarden's Chris Cornell.  ("They gave you your own spotlight/ Just like some real rock and roll star" is particularly cutting.)  It ends with the most audacious line one could utter in the midst of the Great Seattle Record Label Feeding Frenzy of 1992: "It's all over and done."

Back then I had to respect a band that would use their biggest platform to date on a soundtrack for a film romanticizing their city to rip its music scene to shreds.  At the time it just seemed very punk rock contrarian, but in many ways Mudhoney prophesied the long, sad devolution of "grunge" from Candlebox to Silverchair to Creed to Nickelback.  It's been good to go back and listen to the really early Seattle stuff and remember that golden little moment of discovery I had in 1991-1992, since they come along so rarely.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Putting Ferguson In Historical Context

Events in Ferguson have really opened up a public discourse in the mainstream that has usually been left on the margins.  Concerns about the militarization of the police, institutional racism, the violence used by the police against unarmed black men, and restrictions on First Amendment rights are all getting a lot of deserved attention.  It's been particularly interesting for me as a historian to see a lot of talk about historical analogies with the 1960s.

In the more popular discourse, you might see people comparing images of Ferguson in 2014 with those of Birmingham in 1963 and Selma in 1965.  The smarter marks, however, have been thinking about the urban uprisings by African Americans in northern cities during that time, and have returned to the Kerner Commission's report about them.  Northern whites have a tendency to want to blame their Southern counterparts for racism, and thus absolve themselves in the bargain.  One way to dispel this convenient hypocrisy is to make people confront their own history, not just what happened in Alabama, as awful as that was.

If you look at uprisings and riots in northern cities in the 1960s, you'll find more than your share of police brutality a la Bull Connor.  In the first place, as the Kerner Commission report demonstrates, most disturbances came in reaction to incidents of police brutality.  The response to protest and anger over such actions resembles the violent tactics used by police in Ferguson.  In the example of Newark in1967, the brunt of the violence came after state police and the National Guard were called in, who then promptly shot up the place and even targeted black-owned businesses for destruction.  In 1968 during unrest in Chicago after Martin Luther King's assassination, mayor Daley said that police ought to "shoot to kill" potential arsonists and "shoot to maim" looters.

Americans might be the world's foremost historical amnesiacs.  They like to pretend that each person is the master of their own destiny, and thus free from the weight of the past.  That's simply not so, as the events in Ferguson show.  It's good that there are louder discussions of the history of racism, residential segregation, and violent policing in our public discourse.  Until that history is learned, I don't see much hope for those problems to be fixed.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Contemplating Bud Selig's Legacy

As followers of baseball know, longtime commissioner Bud Selig is due to retire after this season.  This has prompted speculation about his successor, as well as a surprising push by former Selig buddy and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to reject Selig's hand-picked choice of Rob Manfred.  Instead of speculating on who will win the job, I'd like to think about Selig's legacy as the man who has overseen baseball for 22 years.  I am also doing that now, instead of in October, since this week is twenty years since the strike that helped define his commissionership.

On a fundamental level, above all else, Selig has been a lucky, lucky man.  He can easily tout his accomplishments by showing the high profit levels for major league baseball these days.  Of course, much of that has little to do with him, but with cable providers coveting live sports, one of the few kinds of entertainment that people watch almost exclusively on television rather than streaming.  (You can stream on, but not your local game, that's only on cable.)  The TV money has helped keep the owners and players peaceful with each other and reduced the former friction.  It's also filled Selig's pockets, since he's reportedly paid between $22 million and $30 million a year.  This is the second time that Selig has made a pile of money from dumb luck, the first being his purchase of the Seattle Pilots in 1970 for $10.8 million, which he moved to Milwaukee and named the Brewers.  That team is now valued at $565 million.  While Selig did have some success as an owner, bringing the Brewers to the World Series in 1982, the change in value has more to do with the big money revolution in sports that took place soon after he bought the team.

His luck has not only been financial, since events in the late 90s helped put the strife of the strike behind the game.  It is easy to forget today just how badly the strike of 1994 damaged baseball.  Many fans were disgusted, not only for being robbed of a World Series, but of a chance of seeing Tony Gwynn potentially hit .400 and Matt Williams break Maris' home run record.  Teams like the Indians, Expos, and White Sox, all having waited decades for a title, were all in strong contention when the strike hit.  Once spring training came in 1995, owners tried to fob off replacement players on the public, an insulting gesture.  While the players certainly share some blame for the strike, they were rightfully unwilling to trust owners after teams colluded with each other to not sign free agents, which froze salaries.  (This is not a matter of dispute, and the owners later lost badly in court and paid hundreds of millions in damages.)  Selig shared a tremendous amount of blame in all of this.  He was involved in the collusion of the 1980s, and he pushed a hard line when it came to contract negotiations.  It is hard to understate just how despised he was by the average fan when the season finally started in 1995.

But he was saved.  Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak in 1995 brought a lot of good will, but the home run race between McGwire and Sosa in 1998 made most people forget about the strike pretty quick.  Baseball suddenly mattered in a way it never had in my life.  I remember going to a Nebraska football game early in September, an event that is akin to a religious pilgrimage in my home state, and during the game the PA announcer told the crowd that McGwire had hit another homer.  A massive roar arose from the crowd usually reserved for a Husker touchdown.  In 1998 so many fans alienated in 1994 came back, and many others got drawn into the ballpark to see the longball circus.  Of course, it was all enabled by syringes and injections, but that would not be revealed until years later.  (Expansion and smaller ball parks were also significant factors, with two rounds of expansion coming during Selig's tenure.)  Selig was not the only person who looked away when the steroids problem raged, but his decision to benefit from the homers blasted by those inflated biceps should always be remembered.  Baseball also sat front and center after the tragedy of 9/11.  The singing of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch became one of the most potent nationalist rituals in the aftermath of the event.  When the 21st century arrived, baseball mattered more than it had in years, but little of that had to do with the actions of Bud Selig, apart from him ignoring steroid abuse.

Beyond benefitting from circumstance, Selig also managed to throw in a few wrinkles that seemed fresh at the time, and only went stale later on.  Interleague play is so blase and meaningless today that it is hard to remember a time when inter-league games, especially intracity games, carried the intensity of post-season matches.  Selig also introduced the wild card and the extra round of the playoffs, which have mostly been successful, but which have also meant fewer live-or-die pennant races.  I do have to give him some credit for being creative and willing to change some things to keep the game fresh.  You certainly can't accuse him of complacency, in fact, he has probably brought more significant changes than any other commissioner in history.  (Integration was the most significant change, obviously, but Happy Chandler was not the prime mover in that case.)

Okay, enough of the things that went well under Selig.  Here's a grab-bag of less laudable things he will likely be remembered for:

Above all, he will be remembered as the commissioner that ended any sense that the commissioner's office had any sort of independent existence from the owners.  While the commissioner is indeed picked by the owners, there has always been a notion of sorts that he is supposed to be an independent force primarily concerned about the best interests of baseball, not working directly on behalf of the owners or players.  Bart Giamatti (may he rest in peace) and Fay Vincent, who was ousted by the owners in favor of Selig, certainly acted independently, to the owners' ire.  Selig, a former owner who participated in collusion and helped push Vincent out in a palace coup, has never been credibly seen as an independent force.  He was brought in by the owners to ensure that they would have total control over the sport, and Selig has been more than happy to oblige.  How else do you think he's been able to hold the position for so long?  One of the top candidates under consideration for Selig's job is his right hand man, the other another former owner.  I doubt the next commissioner will be anything else but a shill for the owners.  That might be Selig's ultimate legacy.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Track of the Week: Randy Newman "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)"

The past month or so has brought blow after harsh blow from the news.  An airliner shot down by a missile.  War raging again in Iraq.  Schools full of children bombed and shelled in Gaza.  Unarmed men murdered by the police.  And tonight the death of Robin Williams, the first comedian I ever really loved.  We live in a corrupted world where violent people will slay the innocent and governments will abet or even encourage the slaughter.

At times like these I often listen to Randy Newman's "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)."  In this song the people of the world, from all different faiths, plead with God, telling him that they are suffering and need help.  God scoffs at them, telling them that he does his worst to the people of the world, but they go on praising and adoring him anyway.  Yet he loves mankind all the same, only because "you really need me."  This is a Bergman film in song form, and a devastating one at that, since it speaks to God's maddening silence in this broken world.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

U2 Albums Explained Through Their First Tracks

I have been on something of a major U2 kick for the past week.  They are a band I first appreciated in the 1980s, and along with REM were the creators of the first contemporary rock music that I actually liked.  (I grew up when Poison and Whitesnake bestrode the earth like giants.)  After my college years they've meant less to me, but every now and then I go back to them in a big way.  Listening to the podcast U Talkin' U2 To Me has also enhanced this rediscovery, and it got me thinking about U2's approach to recording albums.

Unlike a lot of other bands, their records are not collections of songs, but works in themselves held together by common themes and unique sounds.  While some U2 albums aren't great, none of them really sound alike.  They are also recorded and sequenced with great care.  The band has chosen very distinctive producers from the beginning, including Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Flood, and that's no mistake.  Neither is the track listing on U2 albums, where the first track is almost always a defining track for the album as a whole, not necessarily the lead single.  Listen to the first track of any U2 record, and you will know exactly the tone, theme, and sound of that album.  To prove my thesis, here's an annotated playlist of all the U2 side one track ones.

"I Will Follow" from Boy
U2 were very young when they cut their first record, indicative in the title and the first track.  "I Will Follow" was indeed their first big single, but it also established the theme of growing up that permeated the album.  At this stage they were very much a post-punk band, and this is a real post-punky song, with its echoing drums, simple riff, and telegraph operator bass.  Their first album is not the most adroit, but full of a sense of adolescent discover in all its pimply messiness, so this song is perfect as an opener.

"Gloria" from October
For years I've been saying that October is an underrated album, mostly because Edge's fiery guitar playing is really fantastic, even if the songwriting isn't totally up to par.  Few U2 fans dispute, however, that "Gloria" is a great song.  It sets the tone immediately in terms of Edge's guitar, which at the end the of the song sounds like a blast of light from the parted heavens.  That's appropriate, since this album is marked by deep Christian spiritualism, to the point that it may be the best Christian rock album ever made.  (Not all songs conform to this theme, but many do.)  Bono shouts his "Gloria" fervently and drops in some Latin, so you know this album is going in a spiritual direction.

"Sunday Bloody Sunday" from War
War announced its intentions before you even broke the cellophane on the packaging.  The cover features the boy from the first album, this time with a split lip and a look of hate on his face.  The cover and title are no mistake, this is a record about the violence and conflict in the world.  That theme is made abundantly clear on "Sunday Bloody Sunday," about the Troubles in the band's native Ireland.  It starts with martial drums of war, and the first words are, appropriately "I can't believe the news today."  You know right away that this is a topical album with a critical take on the world condition.

"A Sort of Homecoming" from The Unforgettable Fire
After taking a "ripped from the headlines" approach on War, U2 cut a new record with master atmospherists Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno with a decidedly more poetic bent.  The new, moodier sound is announced right away with a driving, liquid bass, African drum rhythms and wall of swirling guitars.  The album has some real clunkers ("Elvis Presley In America" and "Indian Summer Sky," anyone?) but this song shows off the best aspects of the band's new direction.  I've listened to it like ten times in the past three days.

"Where the Streets Have No Name" from The Joshua Tree
For my money, this is the best U2 album opener, a really amazing song.  It starts with a quiet, stately organ, almost as if in a church, and then the gorgeous, crystalline Edge guitar comes in building slowly before the throbbing Clayton bass and thumping Mullen drums get it revved up to full speed like a motorcycle on the highway.  Despite being a huge hit, this is an album with some serious themes of loss and escape.  "Where the Streets Have No Name" sounds like an anthem, but it's got lines like "Our love turns to rust."  That's only appropriate for an album with songs about heroin addiction, deindustrialization, and mothers of the "disappeared" in South America.  This is a monster hit album with anthems but without happy pop songs.

"Helter Skelter" from Rattle and Hum
Uh oh, we're in trouble here.  Bono's pretensions get the best of him on this record, which is overblown and full of rock star narcissism.  When an album starts with him saying, without a hint of irony, "Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles, we're stealing it back," and then segues into a middling cover of a great Beatles song, you know you're in trouble.  There are some really good songs on Rattle and Hum, but it's a major step down from the last three records, and the first song tells you that right away.

"Zoo Station" from Achtung Baby
Right here U2 makes a statement as bold as the one that opened The Unforgettable Fire.  The jagged, distorted guitar and and mechanical-sounding drums let you know right away that the group's obsession with American society and music is over, and that this album is really going to be something new under the sun.  Over twenty years later it still sounds fresh to me.

"Zooropa" from Zooropa
For some reason people aren't as big on this album, which I find to be absolutely brilliant.  It comes out of the band's innovative Zoo TV tour, and more than any other cultural artifact of the time, comments on the spiritual emptiness at the heart of modern society while still delighting in the decadence.  To make the theme clear the album's first sounds are a mishmash of broadcast signals before Edge's guitar hovers over like an alien spaceship, taking it all in.  Bono deftly and humorously incorporates corporate ad copy like "Fortschritt durch Technik"and "you've got the right shoes to get you through the night."  This sets the tone pretty well for what's to come and lays the theme out as directly as any first track on a U2 album.

"Discotheque" from Pop
If most U2 fans are lukewarm about Zooropa, they positively despise Pop.  I am in the small minority that really likes this album, partly because it is such a daring departure, and partly because it combines the spirituality of their early songs with the decadence of their later work.  (It doesn't hurt that at the time I was going to clubs and digging electronic dance music.)  Of course, most U2 fans are not going to warm up to a song about going to the disco.  In terms of theme, it's the least dark song on a dark album, but musically is the most "techno" and tells the listener right away that they are going to be in a world that is more Chemical Brothers and less "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

"Beautiful Day" from All That You Can't Leave Behind
The message of this song is basically, "sorry for challenging you too much U2 fans, here's some of that old Lanois magic attached to a catchy pop song."  I will admit that "Beautiful Day" is a gorgeous song, but is ominously by far the best on the album.  U2 repudiated their electronic, challenging ways of the 90s and replaced that stance with solid yet fairly pedestrian music.  This song, as pretty as that is, makes that retreat clear.

"Vertigo" from How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb
Hard rocking without a whole lot of inspiration.

"No Line On The Horizon" from No Line On the Horizon
Hard rocking with a little more innovation, but the inspiration's still not there.  U2's next album will pretty much decide whether they are still an original musical force or are a rock heritage band like the Stones have been since "Start Me Up."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Piketty, Perlstein, and Coates, Oh My!

This year has been fortunate enough to see three epic pieces of criticism from the Left enter into popular political discourse.  All three of these works deeply challenge conservative assumptions so ingrained in our politics that they have practically become part of the price of admission: that racism's effects are negligible in the present, that capitalism's prosperity is a rising tide that lifts all boats, and that Ronald Reagan was a great president who saved America from ruin.  Anyone with any sort of critical mind already knew these things were bullshit, but now those critiques have gone viral, and the purveyors of such cant are finally on the discursive defense.

I am speaking here of Ta-Nehisi Coates' tour de force piece on reparations in the Atlantic, economist Thomas Piketty's impressive tome Capital in the 21st Century, and historians Rick Perlstein's newest work, The Invisible Bridge.  All three have engendered fierce, almost apoplectic opposition from the political Right in ways I have never witnessed before, since all three are so well-written and researched, and threaten assumptions conservatives have managed to make conventional wisdom.  My personal favorite response has been the one of a conservative biographer of Reagan, he is suing for $25 million and wants all the copies of Invisible Bridge to be pulped.

That very response should hearten the forces of the Left, who have always had theorists and thinkers on their side, but haven't necessarily translated those ideas into coherent, digestible narratives.  For example, I have heard some people complain that Piketty's arguments about how capitalism inevitably leads to inequality are hardly new, but what is new is that he is leveling this accusation from within the economics profession, and has amassed a great amount of data and evidence to support his case.  He also writes extremely well, and deftly uses literature to illustrate his salient points about how wealth works in a rentier society, one his data and analysis shows we are about to return to.  With the concerns about wealth inequality growing among the masses in the wake of the Occupy movement, Piketty has given crucial ammunition to those

Similarly, Coates has a tremendous knowledge of history and has brought that into the journalistic world.  In doing so, he has taken the many great works of historians about the history of race (and especially housing) and molded them into a potent argument.  He later wrote a narrative bibliography giving credit to those works that had informed his article, bringing those scholars a much broader audience than they have ever had before.  I think academic historians everywhere should take notice of what Coates has done, and strive to make their ideas more accessible to the masses.  In their translator, Coates has utterly transformed the discourse on reparations and foregrounded (for those who couldn't see it) the ridiculousness of the claims that America is "post-racial society."

Rick Perstein is one historian in the academy who understands how to reach a broad audience with challenging interpretations while still basing his work in meticulous research.  (So much popular history is dross from a research perspective.)  I am still waiting to dig into Invisible Bridge, but having read his other books (especially Nixonland) and the reviews, I know that it is riling up conservatives because of its killer combination of depth and accessibility.  The cult of Reagan is perhaps the most hallowed of all modern conservative articles of faith, and any book with a popular audience that could call it into question represents a major threat.

I know I am sounding a lot more gushy and effusive than usual, but it's because I am feeling genuine happiness that works of scholarship are capable of altering our political discourse in the right direction. At least many of those people espousing the "post-racial society," Saint Reagan, and capitalism's benevolence won't just be given the benefit of the doubt anymore.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On Rooting For a Losing Baseball Team

I have a contrarian streak a mile wide, which helps explain why my two baseball teams are the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets, both the less popular teams in their respective cities.  I've only adopted the Mets since moving to Jersey, so I wasn't around for their World Series win in 1986 and reappearance in 2000.  The Sox winning the title in 2005 was great, but after years of good but not great teams they've suddenly hit the skids.

Rooting for a losing baseball team is different than rooting for a loser in other sports.  On the plus side, even the worst teams in all of baseball will win sixty games in a season, giving the fan sixty reasons to celebrate.  60 out of 100 isn't so bad when compared to the NFL, where bad teams regularly go 1-15 and 2-14.  On the negative side however, since baseball is a daily game, each day gives your crappy team a chance to frustrate you and let you down.  For instance, the Mets blew a ninth inning lead yesterday after getting crushed in embarrassing fashion the day before.  When you root for a bad baseball team, or even for a good one, you can't allow yourself to get too caught up in each game, since there are 162 of them, too many to live and die over.  The key is to not let the constant losing and blown leads get to you, and to take heart in the wins, which will happen.  Losing with the occasional sweet victory has pretty much been the story of my life, so rooting for a losing team comes naturally to me.

Fans of losing teams are much more invested in the future than fans of winning teams, who often have little clue about their squad's farm system, and never speculate about what the team will be like years in advance.  Fans of losing teams do this all the time, "Hey, if we get a couple of bats in the off-season and the young pitchers keep developing, we might be able to contend for the playoffs in 2016."  (This is basically the gist of a conversation I had with a Mets fan friend the other day.)  This is not something that As and Tigers fans are thinking about right now, the only future on their minds is the upcoming October.  All of this means that life is pretty miserable for young prospects on losing teams, since they are expected to somehow turn everything around, despite being green and untested.  As with Jose Abreu with the White Sox this year, sometimes those players exceed expectations and the team still sucks.

Those unlucky enough to root for perennial losers usually have to make a decision over whether to take a glass half empty or half full attitude towards their hometown nine.  The optimists latch onto every unexpected win and maintain hope that the kids coming up out of the minors will pan out.  To think that it will all add up to another season of futility is such a depressing thought that the optimists would just prefer to ignore it and find the silver lining in everything.  Although I am a pessimist when it comes to most things in life, I am usually a half-full kind of guy when it comes to baseball, something I can't quite explain.  "Maybe next year will be better" is a mantra I can live with, since it's pretty applicable to life, too.

Of course, many fans take the half-empty approach, taking an attitude of loathing towards the team they ostensibly root for.  I know Mets fans who treat their attachment to the team as some kind of curse as they gnash their teeth at the ownership and tear their hair out over the lack of good bats in the lineup.  The hate of these fans is a fearsome thing, since they refuse to leave their abusive relationship with their  team, no matter how much pain it brings them.  Talk to these folks and you'd be hard-pressed to think of sports as a leisure activity intended to relieve stress.

As a more optimistic fan, I try to stay interested in the season long after my teams are out of contention by creating what I call "secret pennant races."  If my teams can't make the playoffs, at least they can shoot for some more modest goals, like finishing in third place or with a .500 record.  That's a rather humble goal, since winning as many games as you lose only amounts to mediocrity.  If your team is bad enough, mediocrity looks pretty damn good, though.  It looks like the White Sox are in a position to achieve that less than exalted position, which makes me happy.  As far as the Mets go, I am hoping to see them finish with a better record than the Yankees this year, not as big a goal as in years past.  Nevertheless, if they do it will be a victory for contrarians everywhere.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Track of the Week: Deep Purple "Hush"

This week I rewatched two of my favorite movies and found an unexpected bit of overlap.  The first was the classic mock rock doc This Is Spinal Tap, the second the greatest soccer movie ever made, The Damned United.  In the latter there is a great montage that shows manager (and main character) Brian Clough's underdog Derby County team crushing their opposition and moving up the tables.  It was scored to "Hush" by Deep Purple, just the kind of British hard rock band that Spinal Tap was parodying.  The killer montage works because of the music, which got me to listen to "Hush" again and realize, to my surprise, how much I love the song.

Like Tap, Deep Purple had been one of "England's loudest bands" in the 1970s, and underwent many lineup changes.  Along with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, they were one of the antecedents of heavy metal, and "Smoke on the Water" launched a thousand imitators.  However, I never rated them much, finding them much inferior to Sabb and Zepp.  Their music always sounded plodding and Tap-esque when it came to songs with titles like "Space Truckin'."

"Hush," which came out in 1968, is a different matter.  Instead of plodding it rushes along to a torrid beat backed up by an absolutely amazing organ accompaniment by Jon Lord and a catchy "na-na-na-na-na-na" hook.  The guitar riff doesn't hammer away like in future Deep Purple songs, it drives irresistibly forward, and for that reason is a great song to listen to when driving on the open road.  Again though, Jon Lord makes this song.  I have an unnatural love of the organ, perhaps due to all those Sundays spent singing hymns growing up, and hearing the epic solos on this track just pushes all of my happy buttons.  Unlike later prog-rock organists a la Rick Emerson, Lord tones down the wanking and makes his virtuosity serve the song.  Too bad more bands didn't follow that rule in the aftermath of the late 60s.  Then again, we wouldn't have had Spinal Tap if not for the overblown silliness of so much prog and hard rock in the decade that followed "Hush."

Friday, August 1, 2014

Sometimes I Miss My Nebraska Heimat

Tuesday I received a letter in the mail from my parents that contained an ariel photograph of my grandparents' old farm.  That picture pricked something inside of me, reminding me of my distance from the land of my childhood.  There's also the fact that my grandmother passed away last November, and now the farm is in the possession of a family member who has been feuding with my parents.  I wonder if I will ever get to set foot on the old farm ever again.  Little did I know that when my cousin and I took a short trip to walk around there last November that it would be my last time in a place so full of such happy memories.

That thought perhaps drove me to take my girls out to a local farm this week where we picked our own sweet corn and peaches.  The peach picking was a lot more fun for my daughters, who scrambled for fallen peaches, grinning the whole time.  I much more enjoyed picking sweet corn, since it was something I had done a lot growing up.  We would drop in at a farmer friend of the family's place or my uncle's farm and walk into the rows with my mother, looking for good ears to break off.  I later spent my teenage Julys in the corn fields as a detasseler, sweating it out under the hot sun to have dough for books, CDs, and games of NBA Jam at the arcade.  (If you don't know what detasseling is, read this.)

Standing this week in tall rows of corn on a cloudless July morning brought me back to the land of my youth, a place that I rarely get to see anymore.  There's nothing quite like being in the middle of corn field on a beautiful morning, you feel surrounded by teeming, boundless life with a neverending sky above.  Driving down the highway the corn fields by the side of the road may seem boring or monotonous, but if you see them up close they can be awe-inspiring.  During the week every summer that I spent at my grandparents' farm, I swear that I could hear the corn growing at night as I lay in bed.  The fields themselves seemed to have a life of their own, as if they were their own singular organism.

Due to my odd career trajectory, I've lived in many different places, which has revealed to me the great regional variation in this country.  Smug snobby jerks do violence to regional diversity and its treasures whenever they use the hateful phrase "flyover country," as if everything between New York and LA is the same.  I'd like to suggest a more meaningful word to add to our lexicon when describing America's provinces.  English has borrowed German words (Zeigeist, Schadenfreude, etc.) but I would suggest that it could use another: Heimat.  This German word could be loosely translated as "home region," with the understanding that our connections to particular regions and their local cultures are an important part of our identities.

My Heimat is central Nebraska.  It is a unique place with strange folkways, like "salads" made up mostly of mayonnaise and a religious devotion to the University of Nebraska's football team.  I was desperate to leave there as a teenager, and wouldn't want to go back and live there full time, but there are days that I miss it intensely.  I have embraced New Jersey with a fervor that many of my friends and family find amusing or incomprehensible, but be that as it may, there are times when I really do miss the old Heimat.  I miss its plain-spokeness, the relative lack of shallow materialism, and its wide-open skies.  I miss the people, especially my family.  It's good to know that there are corn fields in the Garden State where I can stand and let the soul of my Heimat speak to me again.