Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Classic Music Videos: Olivia Newton-John "Physical"

This was the first music video that I ever saw, which is a scary thing to contemplate, since I was six years old.  The context was memorable, since my mom had dropped me off at a friend's place to be babysat, and I am not sure exactly of the reason why, but I think it had to do with my infant little sister being ill and my mom needing to be able to give her total attention.  Anyway, this friend had a new invention I'd never seen before: a VCR.  (This was circa 1981-1982.)  She put on the original Superman film from 1978, taped off of NBC, so the video for "Physical" must have been put on the tape after the movie.  I thought it was amusing, totally unaware of the video's sexual content.

I don't think I ever saw it again until I was in college in the 1990s and was spending some lazy time watching Vh1's Pop-Up Video.  By that time I was easily able to see the over-the-top homoeroticism of the muscular men in speedos at the beginning and end, and the shots of overweight men trying to exercise as grotesque and demeaning rather than funny.  I also realized that the song was not about working out in the gym, but in the bedroom.

I watch it now and see a perfect document of the early 1980s.  Newton-John's leotard and sweatbands practically defined the era, where the crunchier aesthetic of the seventies gave way to the idealization hard bodies and hard business practices.  The narcissism of 70s self-actualization thus gave way to the 80s narcissism of pure pleasure and profit.  The sex described in the song seems as robotic and lifeless as a Bowflex machine.  The music contains a similar feeling, seemingly bereft of any distinctive sound.  The instruments sound muted and mechanical beneath the singer's jaded, bored come-ons.  It has a vaguely funky groove, like disco with all the joy and fun drained out leaving a non-descript musical husk.  These days I wonder if the song and video were meant to be a parody of the culture of narcissism reigning at the time.  Whether intended or not, that's how I look at this odd artifact today.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Democrats' Cycle of Failure

I'm hearing predictions from Nate Silver types of the Republican Party taking the Senate.  According to today's edition of the Times, not only will Republicans maintain the House, its members will likely be even more conservative than they are now.  Evidently shutting down the government to push tax cuts was too moderate for them.  All of this is predicted despite extremely low approval ratings for the same inactive Congress crippled by Republican obstructionism.


There's the usual difficulties of the president's party in a second term midterm election, of course, but that's not all.  With low turnout in the midterms, each party needs to turn out its base to win.  The Democrats do okay in presidential elections because moderate voters are more in play, and they are less likely to vote for a party that has become the captive pawn of the radical conservative movement.  In midterms the Republicans ride their base to victory, with the "shellacking" of 2010 after the mobilization of the Tea Party a case in point.  The GOP is aware enough of the power of the base that they do whatever they can to drive Democratic turnout down, from ending early voting to voter ID laws.

The Democrats have responded to this Republican strategy by trying to appease moderates (who are rare in the midterms) by shitting all over their base, instead of courting it. Take immigration reform, which the president decided to delay until after the election so as to not alienate bigots in redder states.  In doing so he broke an implicit promise with a group (Latinos) who helped put him in the White House.  After that do you think anyone who cares about immigration reform is going to rush to the polls to vote Democrat?  Or take the Kentucky election for Senate, where the Democratic candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes has spent as much time as she can bashing president Obama.  This despite the fact that Obamacare has been a huge success story in the state.  Essentially the Democratic candidate for the Senate is trashing the person responsible for improving the lives of millions of her constituents, and he's in her own party.  If your choice is between Republican and Republican Lite, why would you vote for the watered-down version?  Better yet, why would you vote for a party that doesn't even stand by its own policies, no matter how successful?

There's plenty more examples of Democrats shitting on their base, then coming around with the begging bowl and pleas to go to the polls.  Plenty of Democrats have jumped on the "education reform" bandwagon, which is really a ploy to destroy teachers unions, a group that has historically been an important and loyal supporter of the Democrats.  African Americans vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers, yet the president was slow to discuss Ferguson, and has been called out for engaging in a kind of respectability politics that skirts structural poverty.  Obama ran twice against fighting 'stupid wars," but now has decided that getting involved in a brand new stupid war is just fine.

And after all this, the Democrats expect their base to meekly fall in line, and that somewhere, somehow down the road their demands will be listened to, rather than ignored.  Honestly, as far as this voter is concerned, why bother?  Until the Democrats actually do the bidding of their supporters, there's no reason to vote for them.  If enough of us withhold our votes, these thickheaded, mendacious cowards might just do the right thing, even if it's out of fear of losing power.  Whatever works, because the status quo is untenable.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Track of the Week: U2 "Bad"

Recently U2 engaged in a blunder of colossal proportions, giving away its album to millions of iPhone users who didn't want it.  One wag compared their new record to the CDs of free internet minutes that America Online used to bombard us with a decade ago.  This hubris and marketing behind this decision, as well as the not bad but not good music on Songs of Innocence, are indicative of a band that has been in a holding pattern since the start of the new century.  Once a great band, they've now been reduced to a punchline.

However, we should not led U2's current irrelevance overshadow the accomplishments of its glory days.  When they put everything together, their songs had a kind of magic to them, capable of hitting on deep emotions in ways other pop music artists could only dream of.  That ability became much sharper on The Unforgettable Fire, when Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois became the band's house producers and de facto silent members.  Their added sense of atmosphere and ambience gave U2's songs a new, deeper resonance.

That impact is best heard on "Bad," which starts with a minimalist figure, just Edge's ringing guitar and a starkly postpunk tamborine before Bono's voice comes in.  He's never been a traditionally great singer, but on this song he shows off his unique emotional belting, which just keeps building and building to the scream of "I'm wide awake!"  After this spookily spare beginning, the rhythm section comes in with the signature pounding thrum of Mullen and Clayton.  My God it is a beautiful thing to hear, slowly building in intensity before the dam breaks and Bono throws all he's got into the mic before dropping to the low "I'm not dreaming" after the unhinged shout of "I'm wide awake!"

I dare you to listen to this song and not be affected. "Bad" hits a kind of frequency in my soul where I MUST listen to it.  It can never be musical wallpaper, the emotional intensity simply can't be ignored.  It's a far cry from a band that now literally can't give away its newest album.  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

An Ode To Paul Konerko

There's been a crazy level of hype and discussion this season about the impending retirement of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.  (I am pretty much in agreement with Keith Olbermann on the need to tone it down.)  I'm more interested in the retirement of a very good but less well-known player: Paul Konerko.

Paulie (as he's known to my fellow White Sox fans) has been the team's offensive rock for over a decade,  a steady influence in the clubhouse, and the kind of player who people already assume will be a manager.  Unlike Jeter, however, Konerko will not be going to the Hall of Fame.  He is one of those stellar players good enough to hit 400 home runs and go to six All-Star games, but never lead the league in anything.  As far as the non-ChiSox baseball world is concerned, Konerko is an easy inductee into the Hall of Very Good a la Tommy John and Tony Oliva, and they leave it at that.

It's different for us White Sox fans.  Other mainstays like Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, and Mark Buehrle left through trade and free agency, but Paulie has been on the team since 1999.  His grand slam  in game 2 of the 2005 World Series might be the greatest moment in team history since the days of straw boaters and spats.  He is in top three all time for the White Sox in hits, home runs, and RBI.  I can't think of another player on the team more loved and respected by the fans.

That Konerko is taking his bow in the shadow Jeter is about the most White Sox thing he could have done.  The team has built its identity around being overlooked and contrarian.  They play in a newer yet plain ballpark that is neither the multipurpose ashtray of the past, nor the retrofied amusement park of the present. White Sox fans are constantly aware that their team is second fiddle in the Windy City to the Cubs, even though the Sox have won a recent World Series and have generally been the better team over the last three decades.  When the Sox won their title in 2005, it was their first since 1917, and their first World Series appearance since 1959.  However, the magic of breaking that losing streak did not become a national story and obsession, since the Red Sox had broken their curse the season before.  In any case, the White Sox did not have some kind of colorful "Curse of the Bambino" schtick.  Whereas the 2004 Red Sox win was treated like a historical event, the 2005 White Sox victory was just another World Series win like all the rest.

In the end, that suited the perennially overlooked White Sox team and their fans' mentality to a tee.  Maybe more than any other fan base, White Sox fans are level-headed and realistic.  They knew the reasons their team sucked for so long were pretty mundane, and not supernatural.  When their team stinks, they don't blow their money on tickets, they want to force the ownership to do better.  They can often be very demanding of their managers and star players; even during the championship run in 2005 manager Ozzie Guillen spent plenty of time on the hot seat.

In many respects, Konerko is the perfect fit for the White Sox.  He has steadily put up good numbers over the years, plugging away and able to turn in one of his best seasons while he was in his middle thirties.  Konerko has done this, and lead the team, with quiet consistency.  I first made the fateful decision to be a White Sox fan in 1999, having moved to Chicago (the first major league city I'd ever resided in) in the fall of 1998.  The Cubs seemed like more fun, and Sosa was in the midst of his glory years, but being a bit of a crank and contrarian (and living on the South Side at the time), I realized that the White Sox were really more my style.  That year also happened to be Paulie's first for the team, when I looked at him skeptically, wondering if his impressive AAA numbers would translate to the bigs.  Sixteen years later, it is hard to imagine what it will be like to see my favorite team take the field in the spring without him.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

War Without End

I first started blogging back in 2004, motivated by the apparent political insanity of the Bush administration.  Its ability to start a disastrous war based on lies without facing political consequences depressed me to no end.  When Barack Obama was elected, I figured that the neo-conservative obsession with "pre-emptive war" would be over.  Turns out that the joke was on me the whole time.

As the war drums beat in 2003, I attended anti-war protests.  I remember talking to a woman who figured that war in Syria would follow one in Iraq, all part of the Bush administration's crusade to remake the Middle East in the American image.  Turns out that war with Syria actually was on the horizon, but under a Democratic president.  Back then Obama was a local politician in the state where I lived (Illinois), and I appreciated him speaking out against the war.  So it goes.

We are hearing the familiar bromides while the bombs are falling this time.  America is supporting "moderates" in Syria, who will somehow magically defeat both ISIS and the Assad regime with a little know-how and  military support.  Considering how a similarly America-molded government in Iraq had totally failed against ISIS attacks, I doubt that the moderates in Syria will gain any more legitimacy than the Diem regime did in Vietnam, the Contras in Nicaragua, Hamid Karzai in Aghanistan or Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq.  The dangerous illusion that America can intervene in complex civil conflicts abroad and control the political process there by remote control just refuses to die.

By my reckoning, America has been engaged in war and occupation in the Middle East almost continuously since 1987, when the navy was sent to the Persian Gulf to escort Kuwaiti tankers during the Iran-Iraq War.  During this now forgotten action lasting into 1988, the US accidentally shot down an Iranian air liner (similar to the sad fate of the Malaysian flight over the Ukraine this summer.)  Less than two years later the American army flooded into Saudi Arabia after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.  Since then we've seen the Gulf War, the enforcement of No-Fly Zones, sanctions, the second invasion in 2003, a resulting guerrilla war, and now an intervention in the uprising by ISIS.  You could maybe even argue that America has been on a war footing in the region since 1983, when Reagan sent the marines to Beirut.  Although he sent them home after a horrific attack, he also simultaneously supported Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, and supplied missiles to Iran in return for hostages.

Basically, the American government has been heavily involved in the Middle East for thirty years, with several interventions by ground troops and many more bombings and drone strikes.  After all of this, what's been accomplished?  ISIS taking down Iraq's government is the worst case scenario, and it looks like that just might happen.  I wonder why our foreign policy mavens haven't figured out after three decades of intervention in the Middle East that they simply aren't capable of bending the region to their will.  When will they stop?  Until there is a truly final moment, like the fall of Saigon, which capped off another thirty year failed American intervention, it will be war without end.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Track of the Week: Danger Doom featuring Talib Kweli "Old School"

Nowadays almost all the television I watch (apart from sports, news and the programming my kids demand) is viewed via streaming services.  I'm not complaining, since any time I spend in front of the tube is spent watching stuff I like instead of flipping channels in despair.  That said, I sometimes get sentimental for how I experienced TV as a child.  Back then I had to make time for my favorite shows, or else not see them.  It's a little embarrassing to admit, but I hated the fact that my martial arts classes as a kid conflicted with Alf.

In the kid world, no television time mattered more than Saturday morning.  It was given over to cartoons, and all three major networks (that's all we had back then, and we liked it, goddammit!) were, for a few glorious hours, taken over by the kingdom of kid-dom.  I would often wake up so early that I was greeted by a test pattern (I'll explain what that is some other time, children), but it was worth a little boredom to see all the cartoons and shows from beginning to end.

This experience gets a proper musical tribute on the track "Old School" on The Mouse and the Mask, a collaboration between genius producer Danger Mouse and avant garde rapper MF Doom that involved appearances by several Cartoon Network stars, including Space Ghost, who I used to watch on Saturday morning in his more serious incarnation.  Things got real meta on "Old School," which references watching Saturday morning cartoons, along with some prescient observations about rap music's power before gangsta.  The song mirrors the lyrics, incorporating the appropriately 70s-tastic "funky fanfare." Nostalgia never sounded this good.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Thoughts on Jodorowsky's Dune

Last week I finally saw Jodorowsky's Dune, a documentary I had desperately wanted to see when it hit the art house theaters before the demands of parenting interceded.  It was everything I had hoped it to be, a rare experience these days.

In case you don't know, it is a film about a failed film.  In the mid-1970s, Mexican surrealist/psychedelic/totally whacko director Alessandro Jodorowski decided to adapt Frank Herbert's iconic novel Dune for the silver screen.  (This was a decade before David Lynch's ill-fated version.)  He did not merely want to make a film, he wanted to produce a spiritual experience that would raise the consciousness of the world.  He managed to assemble a world-beating team of design and effects mavens, including HR Giger and Dan O'Bannon, who would later go on to work together on Alien.  Jodorowsky also got commitments from Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali to appear in it.  He needed to get some additional funding to get it made, but none of the Hollywood studios bit, and the film never got made.

In order to better solicit funds from the studios, Jodorowsky's team of what he termed "spiritual warriors" storyboarded the entire film, and put the results in book form.  The images from that book are breath-taking and intriguing, and inevitably inspire deep thoughts about what might could have been.  The vision behind the film is so vast and impossible for the time that it's hard to believe such a film had any chance of getting made.  If it had, the course of cinematic history would have been vastly altered.

Dune would have appeared in 1975, two years before Star Wars rewrote the rules for science fiction and space adventure.  As much as I truly love Star Wars, it is hard to love its unintended consequences.  For one, "hard" science fiction rarely appears on film (the recent Snowpiercer is an exception.)  Sci-fi tends to be of the action-adventure variety, such as the (nevertheless) stellar Guardians of the Galaxy.  It became the ultimate crowd-pleasing genre, one where the complex ideas and social critique so common to literary sci-fi were conspicuously absent.  Jodorowsky's film may have given birth to a science fiction tradition in film of a more intellectual bent.  As insane and detached from reality as Jodorowsky often seems, at least he was really trying to do something revolutionary.  Most of what lands in the multiplexes these days bearing the title of "science fiction" is bereft of any traces of artistic or intellectual depth.

It is also obvious that while Jodorowsky's magnum opus never saw the light of day, his concepts and those storyboards did not go unnoticed.  StarWars had its own spiritual addition to science fiction, in the form of The Force.  The creative team he put together did manage to make a film together, on 1979's Alien, but without Jodorowsky.  That fact is a little depressing, since it seems that pathbreaking ideas in cinema only reach the public after they have been mediated and made safe by popularizers.  Truly original cinematic visions are awful hard to come by, and Jodorowsky's Dune is an irresistable look at one of the last great attempts to make something truly new under the sun.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Breaking Down The Kinks' Run of Greatness: 1966-1971

Spotify has a lot of great music, but if you rely solely on their volumnious database you will still miss out on one of the greatest runs by a band in rock history, and I'm not talking about the Beatles.  It's generally acknowledged that groups like the Fab Four, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Doors put together great runs of albums in the period roughly between 1966 and 1972.  The group with the longest winning streak in that era, however, was The Kinks, and many of their crucial albums are missing from the streaming database.

In America they're known mostly for their early, proto-metal rockers "All Day And All Of The Night," and you really got me, along with their early 80s nostalgia exercise "Come Dancing."  During their 1966 to 1971 winning streak, the Kinks stopped touring America due to a dispute with the musicians' union, and made music so indelibly English that it did not play well to Yankee tastes.  It also happened to be odd enough that the band did not retain their popularity in their home country, either.  Apart from weirdos and afficianados like myself, this music has mostly been forgotten, a real crime.  In the interests of spreading the Gospel of the Kinks and my own obsessive tendencies, here's a breakdown of the albumsof the era, all of which deserve your attention.

Face to Face 1966

This 1966 album begins the run, full of songs commenting on life and the class system in Britain.  "Sunny Afternoon," taking the point of view of a drunk aristocrat's ennui was the hit, and the last one the Kinks would have for awhile.  On this album Ray Davies' jaundiced eye towards modern life comes forth, satirizing tourism in "Holiday in Waikiki" and poking fun at the Carnaby Street fashions of "swinging London" on "Dandy."  "Session Man" is a great sleeper track that mocks the pretensions of session musicians, and was likely inspired by experiences the band had when the label put session men on their records.  It's derision of musical virtuosity is punk as punk can be, a whole decade early.

Something Else 1967

On Something Else the Kinks perfected the formula they started on their previous record.  There are many snapshots of daily life, the mundane world that most rock bands just completely ignore.  Daily rituals like "Afternoon Tea" get a song, and the album ends with "Waterloo Sunset," the most beautiful ballad about a train station, or perhaps anything else, ever recorded.  In between there are tales of schoolboy envy ("David Watts") family conflict ("Two Sisters"), and the "Lazy Old Sun."  Dave Davies also offers two of his best songs on this album, the darkly humorous "Death of a Clown" and the gutbucket rock of "Love My 'Til The Sun Shines."

The Village Green Preservation Society 1968

This concept album may have been the band's best yet, but it sank faster than a cinder block.  Perhaps this was because its evocation of small town life and its nostalgia for the old days was wildly out of touch with the spirit of revolt and progress in 1968 when it came out.  The harpsichords and psychedelic touches of the last two albums dropped out in favor of a folk-pop sound that bands like Belle and Sebastian have been very heavily influenced by.  It's hard to choose individual songs to highlight, since the album holds together really well as a cohesive whole.  The best moments deal with memory, and how we are constantly trying to preserve what the passage of time is continually wrenching from us.  "Picture Book," "Do You Remember Walter" and "People Take Pictures of Each Other" all hit this theme really well.

Arthur 1969

Arthur might very well be the best of The Kinks' albums, strange since it was written for a TV special that never actually materialized.  It is a concept album unlike any other, telling the story of the decline of the British Empire through the experience of one ordinary person.  The rollicking "Victoria" is a fun little send-up of naive patriotism, but things get pretty serious pretty quickly on "Yes Sir" and "Some Mother's Son," unsparing looks at trench warfare during World War I.  In the first song a bewildered private is constantly being ordered around by callous bourgeois officers who laugh about sending the cannon fodder off to die.  The second is one that always brings a tear to my eye, telling the tale of an anonymous soldier dying in a trench, and the hole that will be left in his family's life.  The album tells the tale of Arthur's achievement of a middle class life in Australia, but on "Shangri-La" Ray Davies wrote perhaps the best critique of postwar suburbanization to find its way onto a rock album.

Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround 1970
The Kinks had their first hit in awhile stateside with "Lola," a rollicking song about gender-bending romance.  Ironically, the song came on an album revolving around the vagaries of the music business.  Ray Davies details the ways bands are parted from their hard earned money on the humorously bitter "Moneygoround" once they are lucky enough to hit the "Top of the Pops."  The album also contains the affecting "Back In The Line," a wrenching song about having your livelihood in the hands of careless jerks whose butts you have to kiss to survive.  This acid take on the music business ended up being the Kinks' comeback, and helped launch them to a new label.

Muswell Hillbillies 1971
For a large part of the 70s the Kinks wandered in a wilderness of half-baked concept albums and rock operas that could not equal what they had accomplished on Arthur, before playing things safe and settling into hard rock in the later part of the decade.  Before that strange journey, they put out a truly stellar record with a heavy folk and country influence.  It begins with "20th Century Man," the best summation of Ray Davies' critique of modern society's inhumanity.  Other highlights include the country-ish "Muswell Hillbillies" and musical hall-inflected "Alcohol."

The Kink Kronikles 1972
The Kinks' old label neatly summed up the band's golden era on this double LP compilation, one of the few able to combine well-known songs like "Lola" and rarities like "Willesden Green" in a seamless fashion.  Even if you own all the other albums, it's a must have for the presence of great stand-alone singles like the wistful "Days," the jaunty "Autumn Almanac" and bouncy "Wonderboy."  My favorite has got to be "Big Black Smoke," a dark tale of a young country girl corrupted by London's bright lights.  It's the kind of social realism that we get so little from pop music, and something the Kinks provided in admirable abundance.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Putting The Salaita Case In Proper Context

I have been following the case of Steve Salaita in large part because I have a personal connection to the University of Illinois.  It hurts me to see an institution that I deeply care about in the news for essentially firing a professor over his political beliefs.  You can talk "civility" or "pre-fired" as much as you want, it doesn't change that fundamental truth.

As distressing as the university's behavior is, I can't say I'm surprised by it.  Salaita's case is one of many that point to the growing authoritarianism of university administration and the fast dwindling power and privilege of university faculty.  His case is well known due to his prominence and the unusual nature of his firing, but it is hardly unique.  He had the unfortunate experience to be without tenure protection, the same boat that contingent faculty, now the majority, find themselves in.  I can tell you that I know of multiple people who have lost contingent positions essentially for "getting above their station."  These folks were great teachers who took pride in their work, but exhibited far too much independence.  They, unfortunately, did not have a public campaign at their back, nor were their institutions held up to ridicule for their capricious behavior.  I can guarantee you that every large college or university every year is firing a contingent faculty member for such political (internal or external) or personality reasons.

There is speculation in the Salaita case that the chancellor and board were moved to go after him by wealthy donors to the university called for his ouster.  If true, it illustrates the fact that today's universities, even publicly supported ones, are now controlled by monied interests.  Universities have become just another business, and their faculty, mere employees.  Adjuntification is part of the same casualization and temporization of labor crushing the prospects of workers across America.  As far as tenured faculty go, their privileges and freedom to speak are being curtailed, so that they may become just as vulnerable as any other corporate employee.  At most universities they are given a feeble faculty senate where they can air their grievances, which administration will politely, but pointedly ignore.  Salaita had support at the departmental, college, and even university level, but if the donors and board have a problem with him, that's simply not good enough.

I am glad to see a lot of anger and protest about this case, but I would like to see it go broader and deeper.  We are not dealing with one university that has fired one scholar for political reasons, we are dealing with a whole system that has brutally casualized labor and made even tenured faculty into mere employees to be forced to toe the company line.  This didn't happen overnight, but is the result of decades of corruption, rot, and neglect.  Until something is done to challenge the new order at its roots, there will be more Steve Salaitas, both the famous ones on the tenure-track, and the nameless ones on the contingent track.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Track of the Week: Big Star "What's Going Ahn"

Whenever the weather changes my mind gets flung into the realms of memory, whether I want to or not.  This breezy, overcast day feels like the start of fall, and for some reason I was reminded of the fact that I was just starting college twenty years ago.  Like a lot of freshmen, it took a long time for me to find a niche, which eventually took the form of the college's debate team.  (I wasn't partying on the weekends in college, I was going hundreds of miles in a van to argue with other people while wearing a suit.)

I never really fit in back in my hometown, and had all kinds of crazy expectations that in college my days of loneliness would be over.  At least I was going to college near the center of a good-sized city, so on days that I had to myself early in my college career, I would walk downtown from campus and go to an amazing independent record store that alas no longer stands.  After years of living in an isolated town I finally had access to just about any album I could have wanted.  The first I bought there happened to be the Big Star CD that combined their first two albums: #1 Record and Radio City.  I bought it because I'd read interviews where two of my musical heroes, REM guitarist Peter Buck and Replacements front man Paul Westerberg had spoken so enthusiastically about Big Star's influence on them.

I was not disappointed, and began playing the album every day and even got my roommate hooked.  This is music that still resonates with me like little else, and seeing the recent documentary outlining the band's well-known difficulties brought me to tears.  I've listened to the music so many times that it's been divorced from the context when I first heard it except, for some reason, "What's Going Ahn."  It first appeared on their second album, and I've never really heard it cited as one of their most crucial tracks.  Nevertheless, it is a beautiful jewel of a song expressing a kind of world-weariness well beyond Alex Chilton's young years.  While it's about a lost love, the wistful tone seemed to speak to my feelings of loneliness at the time.

Luckily I found my tribe pretty quickly afterward.  For that reason, I hear the wistfulness in the song much differently nowadays.  One of those friends I met in those early college days stayed close to me, and we even roomed together when we both lived in Chicago.  He died almost two years ago, and this song is just one of many things that I seem to come across practically every day that reminds me of him.  As autumn's chill comes and the leaves fall, I am reminded of life's transitory nature, and that's what's always been going on.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

13 Years Later, Still Imprisoned By 9/11

Yesterday brought news that the president wants to start bombing ISIS in Syria as well as Iraq.  While I don't care much for violent religious fanatics, there does not seem to be much evidence that this group is determined to strike the United States.  It was fitting that the news came a day before the anniversary of 9/11, since Obama's new war is entirely consistent with what people used to call "the post-9/11 world" before it just became "the world."

Like most, I remember that horrible morning very vividly, especially my immediate thoughts when I realized the scale of the attacks (I was listening on radio.)  I knew, right then and there, that this attack would bring years of war and bloodshed, which was the first time that day that I broke down into tears.  The thought that the deaths of that day would end of being just the tip of the iceberg was almost too horrific for me to bear.  Even over a dozen years later the cycle continues, with the vague "War on Terror" apparently never-ending.  (Hunter S. Thompson pretty much predicted this on 9/12.)

Despite the changeover from the neo-con Dubya to the most liberal president since LBJ, the war persists and even strengthens.  We still have Guantanamo Bay.  Despite bin Laden's death, the occupation of Afghanistan continues.  The mess made in Iraq has led to yet another military intervention.  Our government treats its citizens with suspicion, and spies on the people in an unprecedented fashion.  The teenagers I teach have never known a time when their country was not at war.

Thirteen years later, it's time to finally break the spell.  The bodies have piled up, but nobody is any safer.  Come home, America.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Cranky Bear Asks America To End Its Football Addiction

[Editor's note: It has been a long while since I have received a missive from my friend Cranky Bear, who appears content to live the quiet life in his compound and to stay above the fray of world affairs.  Cranky has also been sneering at my more domesticated lifestyle, calling me "soft" and a "sell-out."  However, after such a long silence I have received a message in a small microfilm canister via carrier pigeon, and would like to share it with you.]

Hello folks, Cranky Bear here with a cup of strong coffee in my hand and an axe to grind.  Last week marked the beginning of football season, and the sport seems to be a bigger part of our culture with each passing year.  College football coaches are often the highest-paid public employees in their respective states, and even the least nerdy among us participate in fantasy football.  NFL games have become reliable TV ratings bonanzas, and the Super Bowl is the most watched event in a given year.

I do not see this as a good thing.

All sports work within a social context, and football's context has changed to an extent that it is a national bloodsport that embodies so much of what is wrong with American society.  In the first place, playing the game has been shown to cause catastrophic brain trauma and all kinds of ill effects stemming from it.  Other players lucky to have their brains intact end up unable to walk, and are at a higher risk for ALS.  New rules adopted by the NFL will likely only make a dent in the problem, and even under these rules fans and players complain that the game isn't being played the way it ought to be.  Fans want the big collisions, and defensive players want to make the hardest hits that they can.  It would be easy to dismiss these feelings and say that the game must be reformed.  However, I take them at face value as proof that the game can only be played "right" when it is dangerous, and is therefore incapable of reform.  We will all be better off if it just goes away.

In our tight economic times, football is also a major economic drag.  High schools pour money into practice fields and expensive equipment, money better spent on actually educating students.  Our universities are struggling and slashing departments left and right, but they still build new athletic complexes, luxury boxes in the stadium, and pay coaches millions of dollars.  Several cities have been held hostage by their NFL franchises and extorted money to build new stadiums where perfectly good ones already stood.  The NFL is a "non-profit" organization that makes $9.5 billion in revenue, pays its wretched commissioner tens of millions of dollars, but does not pay a single red cent of federal income taxes.

Speaking of Goodell and the NFL, football is run by the biggest pack of shysters and liars that you'll ever see.  The NFL denied the facts on concussion when they knew they were true, it held back on punishing Ray Rice for spousal abuse, and has fought to stiff players whose bodies were broken in the service of amassing wealth for the owners and their cronies in the league office.  The case of Ray Rice demonstrates a disturbing tendency by the powers in college and professional football to protect the perpetrators of violence and sexual assault.

The NCAA, which manages college football, is even worse than the NFL.  They still peddle the stinking lie that big-time football players are "student athletes" who shouldn't be paid, all while rolling in the dough that they generate.  Have you ever seen the type of colored blazer wearing philistine who regularly occupies positions on bowl committees, events that rake in dollars made by the unpaid workers on the field that the people are paying money to see?  These well-fed respectable men about town act as if those young athletes owe them a living.  College football is nothing more than a giant wage-theft racket dressed in the romantic garb of "tradition."

Even worse, football is a vehicle for militarist propaganda.  The NFL colluded with the military to turn Pat Tillman from a skeptical soldier killed by friendly fire into a super-warrior martyr to recruit more cannon fodder.  The NFL takes every opportunity to associate itself with the military and praise its every action.  There has probably never been a more effective use of propaganda since World War II than Whitney Houston's rendition of the national anthem at the Super Bowl during the Gulf War, complete with military jet flyover.  Football's very language and ethos self-consciously recalls war, from the "trenches" on the front "lines" to the "field general" behind center and on the sideline.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, it encourages the people of this country to be obedient to their military leaders and to keep from asking questions until the body bags have come home and reality has set in.

Last but not least, football as a sport isn't all that great.  It is a game suited for television and rather underwhelming in person, but on television there are more commercial breaks than interesting plays in a given game.  The NFL in particular has become a dry, technocratic exercise about as inspiring as an annual earnings report.  Give me basketball's free-flowing poetry, baseball's cerebral contemplation, or soccer's athletic beauty any day.  Fuck football and every inch of its turgid violence, you can have it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Track of the Week: The Charlatans "The Only One I Know"

Sometime around 1989-1990 I started gaining a more sophisticated understanding of pop music.  Instead of listening to top 40 radio and the oldies station, I started buying tapes (then CDs) and hearing things through word of mouth or from less mainstream sources.  120 Minutes and Yo! MTV Raps were my conduits to something more interesting than Whitesnake and Poison.  In those days before grunge there was a lot of challenging stuff happening in the underground of independent rock music, but it was so far underground that I was not hearing it.  Instead, I was pretty open to the sounds coming out of the UK at the time.

There is a long history of great British bands with followings and hits in the home isles that for inexplicable reasons don't seem able to break into the charts stateside.  The cool older kids at my high school that I knew through band and debate were into this stuff, as was my friend's hip older sister.  That's how I learned about Depeche Mode, The Sundays, The Smiths, Teenage Fanclub, etc.  One particular sub genre of British rock music of the time especially intrigued me: Madchester.

This was the term for a style of rock music out of Manchester (natch) influenced by electronic dance rhythms and hip-hop beats, and for a brief, blessed time brought a little danceability to a genre sorely lacking in that essential quality.  Until I saw the film 24 Hour Party People based on the Manchester scene of the 1970s and 80s, I had no clue just what a huge cultural phenomenon this had been in Britain.   Since this music was underground in America, my young mind had assumed that it was out of the mainstream in Britain, too.

As innovative and popular has Madchester was in its moment, it was a short moment, partially due to the implosion of its two biggest bands: The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays.  There was another fine group less heralded than them, The Charlatans, who somehow managed to adapt their music over years and survive into the next decade.  They have never produced a great album, but they did put together something more important: a great pop single.

"The Only One I Know" still gets me today, almost a quarter century later.  Hearing it recently in the movie The World's End had me calling it up on Spotify during my morning commute each day this week.  It has a unique element I am very partial to: lead organ.  While the beginning guitar figure sets a suitably funky course, the swirling organ gets in your head and never leaves.  It gives the song a spooky, moody feel despite the propulsive dance rhythm.  It's as if the Charlatans decided to distill the elements that were actually good about the Rolling Stones' psychedelic phase, then jack up the tempo and modernize the beat in a Madchester blender.  It's striking some times how fast music trends can come and go, but some, like Madchester, are worth returning to.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The White Male Pathology Files: Sports Hooliganism

This is the second installment in my series, The White Pathology Files.  The series is prompted by the false narrative that the pathologies of black people are what's to blame for their economic and social inequality in American life, not systemic racism.  There are plenty of pathologies out there that are overwhelmingly associated with white males, and sports hooliganism is one of them.

In many European countries soccer matches are marred by violence between fans and racist and homophobic chanting.  The whiteness of the participants in hooligan culture is rarely discussed, whereas I would bet that if black sports fans were involved en masse in such behavior that race would very quickly become a part of the discourse.

Of course, Americans like to point to the embarrassing violence and hate they see among European soccer fans and feel smug, as if that kind of thing doesn't happen in this country.  It does, but in a much more random and less organized fashion.  Just take a look at our college campuses.  Michigan State University is infamous for its post-game rioting, where students have a tradition of lighting couches on fire in the street after big games.  Earlier this year a student mob at the University of Arizona had to be dispersed by riot police after their team lost a basketball game.  When Penn State fired Joe Paterno for having protected serial abuser and rapist Jerry Sandusky, students rioted, tearing down lamp posts and throwing rocks at police.  (Guess what?  The police did not bring in military vehicles, point rifles at the students, or use tear gas.  Gee, I wonder why?)  If it were young black men and not white men doing this you can bet that couch burning would be turned into an epidemic by Fox News along the lines of the bogus "knockout game."

Or take the NFL.  Each year the indispensable sports site Deadspin does their hilarious "Why Your Team Sucks" series where one of their writers disses each NFL team and readers submit their own reasons.  If you read the comments section (which on Deadspin, is actually quite good) you will see story after story about violent, drunk, and racist fans attending NFL games.  I can't count the number of instances when fans of opposing teams were physically assaulted without any repercussions.  Those responsible are almost exclusively white men.

When Michael Brown was killed, the police did everything they could to paint him as a hooligan, including deliberately misrepresenting video of him at a convenience store.  The implication was that if he was a "thug" he must have done something to deserve being shot six times while unarmed.  Young white men, however, are free to commit hooliganism without getting gunned down by the law.  Yes, they may have to go to court and face punishment, but never the ultimate punishment.  When it comes to sports, white men have a space where they can be drunk, violent, and out of control, and seem to feel entitled to it.  As always, the pathologies of white men are linked to their inborn superiority complex, which entitles them to things others don't get.  It's time to call it out when it comes to sports hooliganism, and to stop pretending that it isn't intrinsically linked to whiteness and masculinity.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Geezer Rock of the 1980s

I just finished reading Peter Dogget's exhaustive analysis of David Bowie's work from 1969 to 1980, a period he calls "the long Seventies."  Ending in 1980 is obvious in Bowie's case, since he output since Scary Monsters has a few bright spots, but none of it is as good or as innovative as what he did in his prime.  That reminded me that in the 80s there were a lot of artists from the sixties and seventies that kept right on making music well past their expiration date.  The audience goodwill they had amassed in their primes remained, and people would buy the records and go to the concerts to remember their own glory days.  Since I grew up in the 80s I was unaware of their pasts, and didn't get why their videos were on MTV.  I remember seeing the one for "We Are the World" and when Dylan sang I wondered who the hell that old weirdo with the awful voice was.  (My opinions on the Bobfather have changed, obviously.)

It's strange to think that the forgettable stuff they produced in the 80s is now longer ago than the glory days these artists were still cashing in on back then.  Here's some of the good, bad, and plain ugly of 1980s geezer rock.

The Rolling Stones

In the early 1980s the Rolling Stones had one last flash of brilliance, mostly because the Tattoo You album was made up of songs first essayed during the 70s.  "Start Me Up" is one of their greatest grooves, and "Waiting On a Friend" perhaps their best ballad.  After that, things went downhill fast.  "Undercover of Night" tried to sound relevant with its New Wavey guitar and failed.  That song's album of the same name and Dirty Work were are awful as the pastel suits worn by the band on the cover.  When Steel Wheels came out at the end of the decade everyone acted like it was a return to form when it was in fact a boring piece of crap.  That record was positively brilliant compared to Jagger's self-parodic solo work of the time.

Neil Young

Young put together an amazing run during the sixties and seventies with his solo work, as well as with CSNY and Buffalo Springfield.  Then came the 80s.  He made albums so odd and trading in so many styles (electronica on Trans, rockabilly on Everybody's Rocking, and country on Old Ways) that his record company sued him for not making Neil Young albums.  Somehow Young broke out of his funk and managed to release the all-time great "Keep On Rockin' In the Free World" in 1989 and go on to put out some quality records in the early and mid-1990s.

Bob Dylan

Oh boy did Dylan fall off in the 80s.  The album titles themselves betrayed a lack of vision: Knocked Out Loaded, Down In The Groove, Empire Burlesque, etc.  He began the decade still in his evangelical Christian phase before being mired in a holding pattern in the mid-80s.  He famously did not release the best songs he recorded in the era, like "Foot of Pride" and "Blind Willie McTell," as if he didn't want people to hear what he could really do.  Finally, in 1989, he put out Oh Mercy, an inspired album that he says in his own memoir saved his interest in making music.  "Ring Them Bells" never gets old.

David Bowie

As I mentioned above, Bowie started the decade with a bang, and then suddenly decided that he'd rather be a pop star than an art rocker.  While "Let's Dance" is a great slice of 80s dance pop, his approach led to much diminishing returns, to the point that Never Let Me Down was the album I saw most often in used CD stores in the 1990s.  On the Glass Spider Tour for that album he began each show by being lowered, you guessed it, out of a giant glass spider, which is as tacky as things got in the 1980s.

Rod Stewart

Rod the Mod has been the punchline to a joke for more most people my age, but his early 70s solo output and work with the Faces was truly fantastic, and if you don't agree I'll fight you.  By the late seventies, however, he was cashing in with the endlessly silly "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy."  His 80s output continued that trend, with utter dreck like "Love Touch."  However, in the early 80s Stewart did manage to do a little good with the edgy pop of "Young Turks," which borrowed the New Wave sound without being derivative.  It was the exception to prove the rule.

The Kinks

Of all the geezer bands, The Kinks probably produced the best music in the hairspray decade.  They began in the mid-1960s with some rip-roaring proto-hard rock, and then from Face to Face in 1966 to Muswell Hillbillies in 1972, the Kinks had an amazing run of albums that did not fit any of the prevailing styles of the time.  After that they got lost in a wilderness of lame concept albums before returning with some decent hard rock albums in the late 70s.  In the early 80s they scored their biggest American hit with the fun nostalgia of "Come Dancing."  "Don't Forget to Dance" and "Living on a Thin Line" are great songs.  They ran out of gas afterwards, but it's always good to see a great band squeeze out one last hurrah.

Paul McCartney

Macca's solo work is easy to malign as treacly and silly, but he put out a lot of good tunes in the seventies amidst the dross.  In the 80s, however, he became a complete and utter cheeseball.  The only misstep on Michael Jackson's Thriller album is his duet with McCartney on the ridiculously frivolous "The Girl Is Mine."  With Give My Regards to Broad Street he managed to produce a film even less inspired than The Magical Mystery Tour.  The soundtrack album contained "No More Lonely Nights," one of the eightiesist songs that ever eightesed.  That's not a compliment.  Through much of the decade he was sporting perhaps the most ridiculous mullet of the era, and that's saying something.

Monday, September 1, 2014

September Baseball

The month of September has come, a momentous one for baseball fans like myself.  It is a sad irony that right as baseball's pennant races are being decided that the sporting public shifts its gaze from the diamond to the gridiron.  For a big chunk of summer, from the NBA finals to preseason NFL games, baseball holds sway, and that's usually the time I find myself most likely to be at a ballgame, during what I call the "high summer."

Since I root for two losing teams, the White Sox and Mets, my baseball focus shifts a bit in September from my teams to the larger game.  I have not used my MLB TV subscription much this season, mostly because I see Mets games locally and I get WGN in my cable, meaning I get to watch lots of White Sox games.  Now that it's September and the pennant races are heating up, I've got the Royals game on the TV and plenty of hope that the team I rooted for in Nebraska childhood can make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1985.  The last time the Royals made the post-season was so long ago that Reagan was in the White House and Gorbachev in the Kremlin.  I am sure that over the next month I will spend my evenings watching key games in the various playoff hunts, but I will be giving special attention to the Royals.

Since the advent of the wild card format, September baseball has been a little less exciting.  With more playoff spots and smaller divisions, pennant races have lost a lot of their tension.  For instance, Oakland looked like a sure thing to win the American League West, but they've been overtaken by the Angels, even though they have the second best record in all of baseball.  Back in the old days before 1995, Oakland would have been shit out of luck come season's end, but now they know they can coast into a wild card spot.  The knowledge that it was win or go home gave September baseball an intensity that is not quite as strong today.  Of course, there are exceptions.  The last day of the season in 2011 was one of my favorite days ever as a baseball fan.  The new streaming technology allowed me to flip between games and see Boston crash is spectacular fashion.

If you root for a successful team, September brings the joyous, cathartic moment of clinching the pennant.  No other sport has these champagne-soaked celebrations before the playoffs, the reason being baseball's long and grueling schedule.  As a White Sox fan, I've only been able to experience three clinchings since adopting them as my team, but each was memorable.  A clinching is especially sweet for long-suffering fans of crummy teams who finally get their moment of glory.  I am sure that if Kansas City wins the division that there will be great scenes of jubilation.  Growing up I saw most of my baseball on WGN, and even though I was not a Cubs fan per se, I wanted them to do well.  I still remember watching them clinch in 1989, and Harry Caray's frantic call of "Cubs win the division!  Cubs win the division! Cubs win the division!"  He sounded like a boozed up street preacher singing hallelujah.  If you stick with a team and follow them each and every day over baseball's grinding six month season, it is easy to feel this way. (At :54 you can hear the call.)

If you do not root for a contender, September baseball gets more complex.  Some fans just stop paying attention, and pour their sports allegiance into their favorite football squad.  Others find things to still care about, like hoping their team makes .500 or manages to claw their way out of the cellar.  Since rooting for a losing team means taking a "wait 'til next year" attitude, such fans can take heart in all of the prospects who get called up late in the season when teams are allowed to expand their rosters.  Still others, like myself, take the opportunity to get interested in baseball more generally.  I tend to pick a couple of contending teams that I'd like to see win it all, and pull for them all the way through.  This September it's the Royals, due to my childhood connection to the team, and the Oakland As due to my respect for their ownership and affinity towards rust belt cities.  (For that reason I would be happy with Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Baltimore in the World Series.)

September baseball is also a good reminder of how the game mirrors the seasons.  It begins in spring, as new life blooms, and ends in the autumn, when the leaves die nature goes dormant.  I am a sucker for elegaic moments, including the season of autumn itself, so I never tire of September baseball's charms.