Sunday, July 31, 2016

Billboard Top Ten August 2, 1969

I've had the sixties on my brain a lot this summer. I think there's finally been enough distance from that turbulent decade for us to get a little perspective, and to get beyond the nostalgia that has infected our understanding of that time. Boomer nostalgia makes us see the summer of '69 through Woodstock. What did it really look like? On with the countdown.

10. The Beatles, "The Ballad of John and Yoko"

What a perfect song to start with. It was basically recorded with just Paul and John, in one of the last times that they had an amicable recording session. In August of 1969 the Beatles were all but broken up, but other people didn't know that. This song couldn't be further from either their teenybopper beginnings or their flower power image circa Sgt Pepper. The great drums and bass show off Paul's growth as a musician, and John's lyrics are directly autobiographical. The whole thing flips the critics of John and Yoko's activism the bird, especially the lines "The ways things are going/ They're going to crucify me." Two years after getting attacked for his "we're bigger than Jesus" quip, he playfully reminds the listener of it. I love this song less for its musical qualities and more for knowing that when I hear it I am hearing two old friends who've had their conflicts getting together for a bit of fun.

9. Andy Kim, "Baby I Love You"

I never knew Andy Kim had a big hit apart from the wonderful "Rock Me Gently." The yearning and rising, swelling progress of the song here appear to be a way to jump on the trail blazed by Neil Diamond. Not a bad song, but probably the weakest in this top ten.

8. The Rolling Stones, "Honky Tonk Women"

This song was climbing the charts at this point, soon it would spend several weeks at number one. There's no mystery as to why. It is supremely funky, ass shaking music from a time when rock bands could still swing. The local hits station in my hometown was still throwing it onto the air in the 80s and early 90s, and why not? The "she blew my nose and then she blew my mind" must be one of the dirtiest lines to sneak its way into the top of the charts. Also without a doubt Charlie's finest moment on the drums.

7. Neil Diamond, "Sweet Caroline"

I have an appreciation for Neil Diamond, who could write good pop songs and sing them with gusto. Before he got completely glitzed out later in his career, his sixties persona was of the "solitary man" of the title of one of his early hits. We all know the song for the stirring chorus, which is probably why the Red Sox play it at their games. However,  I love the way he starts with such quiet emotion in his voice, lowly intoning "Where it began/ I can't begin to knowin'." That lonesome start makes the ecstatic chorus that much more exciting.

6. Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, "Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town"

Before he cut some of the best countrypolitan sides of the late 70s and early 80s and starred in The Gambler TV movies, Kenny Rogers was known as the lead singer for the folk-rock band The First Edition. This song is incredibly dark, and its high place on the charts reflects how mainstream opposition to the war in Vietnam had become. Rogers sings from the point of view of a vet who lost his legs in Vietnam whose wife is going to go cheat on him. He then threatens to kill her if she does so, and reminds her "it wasn't me who started this crazy Asian war." This is not exactly normal fodder for a hit song, but it's a good one. Rogers uses his patented low croon to convey the hurt and despair of the song's narrator so well, but without descending into cheese.

5. Jr Walker and the All Stars, "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)"

1966's "Shotgun" by Junior Walker is maybe the hottest, most intense track Motown ever cut. This song is much more laid back, Walker's saxophone going from rocking blaring to smooth texture. This song is a million miles from the gut bucket sound he used to have, and sound like a precursor of the smooth soul put out by Philadelphia International in the decade to come. More than any of the other songs on the countdown it sounds like the 70s, instead of the 60s.

4. Stevie Wonder "My Cherie Amour"

Now this right here is just one of the sweetest pop soul ballads ever recorded. I will sing along with gusto when I hear it on the radio, since it is right within my rather limited vocal range. Wonder is the perfect person to sing this song of an unrequited crush, since he makes it yearning and not creepy. It's one of his many great songs in the traditional Motown pocket symphony mode he made before he went on his amazing run in the 70s of groundbreaking, personal albums. While that stuff is what he's known for, I always will have a place for the pop hits he churned out in this period.

3. Blood, Sweat, and Tears "Spinning Wheel"

In 1969 rock bands were still getting inspiration from soul music (as well they should have been.) Blood, Sweat, and Tears had a strange combination of jazz, soul, rock, and even a little dash of prog that was very much of its time. Horn sections were really a thing for poppy rock in this era, also including The Ides of March's "Vehicle" and the first hits by Chicago. It's a sound that I don't seek out, but I do enjoy hearing it from time to time.

2. Tommy James and the Shondells "Crystal Blue Persuasion"

Tommy James put out a lot of great pop songs with bubblegum hooks, but it was long lasting Bazooka Joe bubblegum, not that cheap crap. (If you want to chew on that, listen to "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies.) The wind-chimey hippie vibes in this song definitely reflect the time when the counterculture started cascading into the mainstream.

1. Zager & Evans "In The Year 2525"

Believe it or not, this was the song of the summer in 1969, sitting at number one for six straight weeks. It coincided with the moon landing, which might explain how a song with such a futuristic theme gained such popularity in that moment. Zager & Evans are quintessential one hit wonders, hailing from my home state of Nebraska. Their tale of humanity's possible extinction is a rather dystopian one in the midst of the moon landing's technological innovations, but perhaps it reflected some ambivalence about the changes sweeping the globe. That theme is hardly alien to today, but the modern day charts don't have any room for topical music, even topical songs as cheesy and apolitical as this one.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Vote (And Run) Local

While listening to president Obama's stirring speech on Wednesday, I could also not help thinking of how much more his eight years in office could have been. I am not talking here at all of things he could have done, but rather what his party and its supporters could have done. Obama's biggest legislative accomplishments, health care and the stimulus, came when Democrats controlled Congress. They controlled Congress because of the massive backlash to the failure and ineptitude of the Bush administration, not because of a great progressive movement. In 2010 conservatives astroturfed the Tea Party into existence, and used to win the midterm elections, and destroy much chance Obama had of advancing new legislative initiatives.

Because of that failure, each mass shooting is met with indifference by a Congress in the pay of the NRA. Because of that failure, Obamacare has to be constantly defended against challenges, rather than expanded and improved. As I have discussed before, and as the recent email revelations have shown, the Democratic party is ineptly run and far too beholden to corporate interests.

I would like to see that changed, but that change has to start from the ground up. Many American progressives buy into a facile cult of personality, whereby they put all their hopes into a particular politician who will become president and magically fix everything. I've seen that messianism among Bernie supporters, but there was also a hefty dose of it back in 2008, too. 

Seeing the Bernie hard liners boo at the convention initially irritated me, then just made me sad. It reminded me of when one of my students asked if Mets fans should boo Chase Utley hard after his first game back in New York this season after having taking a Mets player out in the playoffs last year with a dirty slide. No, I told him. Booing and clinging to past slights are what losers do. Winners go out and win. If they don't win, they try to figure out how to win next time.

I do not want to be a Bernie booer, but I do want to be part of a movement to build up much stronger local political power on the left, power that can then be used to push up higher on the chain. The right is decades ahead on this. We keep hearing about right wing nuts getting on school boards in elections where a few ideologically-charged voters can decide things. Why doesn't the left take the same opportunities? Furthermore, in areas where only Republicans run, why aren't we challenging them? I used to live in Louie Gohmert's old district in Texas, and in some elections he runs unopposed, even though a sizable number of people there are embarrassed by him. If I had stayed there I would've seriously tried to get involved in local Democratic Party politics.

Here in New Jersey it would be harder to make an impact in local politics, but something needs to happen. The Democratic Party here in Essex County is run by a machine that helps its friends and unlike Tammany Hall, very little trickles down. Its boss, Joe DiVincenzo, actually supported Christie in the last election. Party affiliation mattered not, Christie was the boss of bosses. Meanwhile Christie advocates policies that seriously screw over Essex County, which contains Newark. Thus the Democratic Party in this area effectively supports actions harmful to the people it's supposed to represent. That has to stop. I am not sure how I can participate in that change, but I desperately want to.

The issue of racist law enforcement is one that can be especially altered by local action. Mayors have a great deal of control over police forces. In Newark, for example, recently elected Ras Baraka has aided the federal government in its probes into brutality, rather than hindering them. County sheriff is an elected post. Voters can get county prosecutors elected who will bring killer cops to justice. 

Getting involved only every four years in the presidential election is clearly not enough, and the Democratic Party itself seems unable or unwilling to do much else. It's time for activists, progressives, and leftists to get organized, and to vote (and run) local. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Grand Funk Railroad "We're An American Band"

[Editor's note: just a reminder that tracks of the week are jumping off points for discussion, and not always a statement of a particular song's worth. That said, this song is a bit of a guilty pleasure.]

I have an admitted fascination with the hard arena rock of the early to mid-1970s. I own REO Speedwagon's second album on vinyl and have been known to crank "I Don't Need No Doctor" by Humble Pie from time to time. I am not proud of this, this music is often dumb, macho, and is used quite often by the Trump campaign. See for instance his use of "All Right Now" by Free, a 1969 song that basically set the template for the hard arena rock of the decade to come. It was the first song he played after his nomination speech.

One of my favorite Simpsons episodes is the one where Homer joins the Lollapalooza tour as a circus freak getting shot in the belly by a cannon. He shows up to the famous alternative rock festival as a way to prove his coolness to his kids. In an eternally hilarious scene Homer earlier tries playing the classic rock station for his kids, and he is shocked, SHOCKED that they have never heard of Grand Funk Railroad, including "the competent drum work of Don Brewer." Homer's love of Grand Funk signaled his absolute lack of current musical knowledge and being stuck in the past.

Homer was actually on to something. There is no song that better exemplifies the spirit and meaning of the hard arena rock of 1969-1976 than Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American Band." It's a song about the arena rock culture of the time, the band singing about being on a rock tour as if they are conquering heroes. This was before the rituals of the rock show were completely ossified, when the tickets weren't outrageously priced, and when you could still slam a sixer and blaze a doobie in the parking lot without the authorities or venue getting too uptight about it. The rock show was one of the newest and most exciting cultural happenings in the youth culture of the time, part of the reason so many arena rock bands replicated it on innumerable double live albums.

The beginning has all the necessary elements of hard arena rock, and more. There's a big drum fill and some guitar that moves into a tight riff backed up by thundering bass and, you guessed it, cowbell. In the first verse of "We're An American Band" the aforementioned Don Brewer, as opposed to lead singer and guitarist Mark Farner, brags about playing poker all night with bluesman Freddie King and that "Booze and ladies keep me right/ Just as long as we make it to the show tonight."Then we hear the anthemic chorus, which combines nationalism and partying. I can never get over the repetitive organ part on the chorus, which makes it sound like John Cale or Philip Glass sneaked into the session. (The fact that this record was produced by Todd Rundgren might have something to do with that.)

The second verse starts with Brewer leering at "Four young chiquitas in Omaha/ Waiting for the band to return from the show." Part of the key to this song is that the places mentioned are Omaha and Arkansas, spots off the beaten track that nevertheless are drawn into the new national rock concert culture. Living in an out of the way dullsville place? Well just come on down to the local sports arena and let Grand Funk help you party down! As lame as you might think this song is, I love Brewer's delivery of the line "Feelin' good feelin' right it's Saturday night." It just perfectly captures that feeling of being young in some podunk place on a hot summer night off of work looking for some action. More bragging ensues, as the band parties with the "chiquitas" and proceeds to tear the hotel apart, the ultimate sign of 70s rock star immaturity.

This song feels like an artifact from a long lost civilization, and hence why the writers on the Simpsons chose Grand Funk to be Homer's favorite band. It's not only from a different time, but also from a different place. A very large percentage of American arena rock bands of the 70s came from the industrial midwest right at the point that it was getting smashed on the rocks of recession and deindustrialization. Grand Funk hailed from the auto city of Flint, Michigan. Glenn Frey (the hardest rocking guy in the Eagles before Wichita-born Joe Walsh) and Ted Nugent (barf) were Detroiters. Illinois was especially fertile: Styx from the South Side of Chicago, Head East and REO Speedwagon from  central Illinois and Cheap Trick from Rockford. Forty years of getting hit by an economic hurricane have changed those places into something almost unrecognizable, without many American bands to come to town to help anybody party down. At least not with the out and out unironic gusto of Grand Funk.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Stakes Are Too Damn High

I watched Donald Trump's acceptance speech last week, and it was my Paul on the road to Damascus moment. His campaign has been filling me with dread and fear, but that speech put no doubt in my mind that the stakes in this election are higher than any in my life and perhaps any other that will ever take place in my life. It wasn't just the constant fear mongering and racist targeting of marginalized groups, I'd heard that before from him. It wasn't just the talk of NATO being obsolete, even though I am sure that if he were elected that Putin would invade the Baltic States within minutes of the oath of office. It wasn't his red-faced calls for "law and order," despite the implications of that statement. All of those things have been worrying me for months. The moment that truly, truly frightened me was his statement of "I alone" am the solution. That, friends, is the purely unadulterated language of authoritarianism.

One thing authoritarians do not respect in any way is the rule of law. People have been asking questions about how Trump could possibly ban Muslims from entering the country or deport 11 million people. Well, here's your answer: through dictatorial means. This is a shameless man who has never shown one iota of respect for anyone except himself. After the convention, he even had a video made touting how long the applause was for him! Anyone who has studied current or historical dictatorial regimes saw this as a major red flag.

As I sat watching the prospective tyrant rant to a baying convention hall, I became sick at heart with the knowledge that many people I love and respect will be voting for this man. This despite the fact that his behavior contradicts completely the values that they raised me with. Tens of millions will be voting for Trump simply because he is the Republican candidate. By securing the nomination he and his noxious hate will now be in the political mainstream, even if he loses the election. So many of the Republicans who did not vote for Trump in the primaries but will in the general election seem blind to how high stakes of a Trump presidency are.

The same goes for a lot of folks on the left. The release of the DNC hack, timed for maximum chaos, has only inflamed the passions of the "Never Hillary" crowd. Plenty of my lefty friends are flooding Facebook with their hatred of Clinton and proclamation that they will vote for Jill Stein. This too makes me sick at heart. I am no fan of the DNC and have been plenty critical of the Democratic Party for the same reasons my friends have been. It is too beholden to corporate interests and it does not listen to its base on issues from education to policing.

You know what will never change that? Voting for Jill fucking Stein. That changes NOTHING in the left's favor. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nichts. If Clinton wins the election with a bunch on the left defecting, then she can safely ignore them. If she loses because of large Stein votes in key states, that means these moralistic types will have handed the presidency to Donald Trump, a catastrophe of historic proportions. You know what will change things? Organizing. Run candidates in local elections. Get involved in local party politics. Spread your message outside of college campuses. There are people already doing this, support them. And when Clinton gets elected president, push her administration. Let it be known that your vote is conditional. Ever wonder how the conservative movement got control of the GOP? There's your answer.

But in November, you better sure as shit show up to the ballot box and mark one down for Hillary Clinton. I don't care if you cross your fingers, close your eyes, or curse as you do it. The stakes are too damn high for you to worry about your ideological purity or your (well-founded) reservations about Clinton.  I voted Green in 1996 and 2000, but right now (as 2000 should illustrate) stakes are too damn high for that shit.

I take this a little personally, because when Trump starts attacking undocumented immigrants I think of my old neighborhood in Newark (which this blog gets its name from.) It is an immigrant neighborhood, with plenty of folks who are not here legally. It is full of the kind of people that Republicans claim they stand for: hard working, religious, and family-oriented. I have never in my life lived in a place where people were friendlier and more generous with each other. These are the families that Donald Trump wants to break apart. These are the people that his baying broods of bigots want to evict from the country. I have nightmare visions of jack-booted troops dragging people out of buildings on Ferry Street and Adams Street and Jackson Street in dead of night, their children abandoned or sent to live in a country they've never been to.

The stakes are too damn high. They're too damn high for you to vote for a man simply because he's a Republican. They're too damn high for you to wallow in apathy and stay home. They're too damn high for you to lodge a protest vote. The stakes are so high that your decision will be discussed for generations to come, especially if you make the wrong decision. Your descendants will wonder how people could be so petty and short-sighted in the face of such an obvious threat. They will know what you somehow refuse to see: the stakes are too damn high.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Track of the Week: Kate Bush "Wuthering Heights"

I have a history of ignoring a particularly important or notable artist for years, then hearing them one day and getting obsessed and buying all of their albums. That's basically what happened after with me when it came to Tom Waits and Gram Parsons. At least in the streaming age it doesn't set me back as much, like it has this week.

I am currently reading the novel Beatlebone by Irish author Kevin Barry, which is set in 1978. The main character (who happens to be John Lennon taking a trip to a remote Irish island he bought years before) keeps talking about hearing the song "Wuthering Heights" by Kate Bush on the radio. Evidently it was a big hit across the pond, but like a lot of great British music, wasn't big in America. I wanted to listen to it so I could better understand its meaning in the book.

I put it on, through the modern magic of Spotify, and was immediately blown away. Kate Bush has a singular voice in pop music, one that is most definitely weird in an off putting way. I used to think the same of Tom Waits, but in both cases once I got over that I realized that these were voices much more compelling than most others. For the past five days now I've been warbling "out on the wiley, windy moors"to myself, even though I am living through the dog days of a New Jersey summer, and not in some foggy bog in the isles. With Bush it just took that hook of the opening lines to keep me coming back to the song until something just clicked and all I could think to myself was that I had been wasting so many years of my life not listening to Kate Bush.

At forty years of age I thought that these moments of intense enthusiasm were over for me, but dang if they still don't happen. I hope they still do in my future, greying years, because having this enthusiasm has reminded me of what it was like when I was 21 and Bowie finally clicked, or when I was 26 and The Band became the only thing I listened to for two months. It just makes me happy to have a love of music as one of my lifetime companions.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Four Words Hillary Clinton Needs To Say Next Week

I am not planning on saying much about the RNC, because to compare it to a dumpster fire is an insult to dumpster fires. Plus, plenty of other people are lending their two cents about it.

No, I want to look forward to next week's DNC. Clinton and the Democrats have been handed a tremendous opportunity to make their case after four days of Republican disaster in Cleveland. The own goals scored this week by Trump will likely tempt the Clinton camp to elect to poach Republican voters rather than energize their base. Considering the levels of dislike within her own party, such a move would only make divisions within the Democrats much worse. Failing to cultivate the base of her own party is the surest way for Clinton to lose the election.

There are four simple words she needs to say to the supporters of Bernie Sanders at the convention: "I have heard you." She must acknowledge the issues that matter to them and the others in the base (like me) who voted for her but want action on progressive issues like economic inequality, financial regulation, college affordability, and racist policing. If the Democrats get out the vote, they will win this election handily. I will go to the polls if only to stop Trump, but many on the left require more motivation than that. Jill Stein is currently polling at five percent, those voters could decide the election.

I fear however that Clinton, like an old boxer in a tough fight, will fall back on her old style and training. In the 90s Bill Clinton maintained power after getting crushed in the 1994 midterm by employing a triangulation strategy. He sat in the political center, stealing some ideas from the right like welfare reform, then using it to show voters that he was not beholden to the left. That bullshit is why I voted third party in 1996. Why would I vote for a candidate who didn't seem to give a shit about what his base wanted?

The election of 2000 shocked me out of protest voting, but I can't say I don't understand where it comes from. I think the Bernie or Bust crowd needs to swallow their pride in the face of a horrific and unprecedented threat like Trump, as difficult as that might be. However, there is no way that Clinton can expect those voters to do that without offering a way for them to save face or to ensure that she will actually represent their interests. So she too needs to swallow her pride in the face of an unprecedented threat. Beyond that, she needs to run a campaign that actually incorporates the ideas that animated the Sanders movement, and not just to pay lip service. Failure to do so could invite disaster.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Lies That Bind

I didn't watch much of the Republican convention last night live, just clips and tweets until I had a long phone conversation with an old friend while sitting in my recliner while sipping a bourbon. That was a lot more pleasurable than watching the shitshow in Cleveland.

I woke up this morning to my social media blowing up over the plagiarized section of Melania Trump's speech last night. I'm much less outraged than amused. Having been a professor and a teacher for years now, I have busted my fair share of plagiarists. Usually the root cause is a combination of laziness and stress. Knowing how sloppy and last-minute the Trump campaign has been, I am sure that the person responsible for the speech had little time to do it, was not all that qualified, and needed to cut a few corners.

I am much, much more concerned with the dishonesty from the Trump campaign that comes not out of laziness, but out of malice and manipulation. Trump's entire campaign is built on lies of the most odious variety. He started it by claiming that undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit violent crime, a lie intended to stir up anti-immigrant hatred on his behalf. He lied about there being "thousands" of Muslims cheering the fall of the twin towers across the river in Jersey City, a lie intended to spread hate against Muslims, who he was calling to be banned from entering the country. He recently topped himself with the lie that Black Lives Matter activists were holding moments of silence for the murderer in Dallas. This was obviously intended to inflame white paranoia and build up the narrative that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization.

Of course, Trump's malicious lies raised his political profile well before his run for the presidency. He first made a big splash in national politics by claiming that president Obama was born outside of the United States. This lie, also based in bigoted paranoia, had long been percolating on the Right. The fact that he was so publicly proven wrong, but still allowed to have a place in the media firmament, made it obvious to Trump that he could build a political career on telling big, racist whoppers to the drooling Fox News watching troglodytes.

Trump perhaps understood something that others in the more august corners of our media have failed to see: the modern conservative movement is built on lies that are endlessly reinforced through the propaganda arms of Fox News and talk radio. I'll name a few. The lie that cutting taxes on the wealthy leads to prosperity for all. The lie that people are poor due solely to their own laziness and other shortcomings. The lie that America is an exceptional nation that is the greatest country that ever existed. The lie that American history is an uninterrupted march of freedom. The lie that institutional racism does not exist. The lie that global warming does not exist. The lie that evolution is merely a controversial theory. The lie that there is a war on Christmas. The lie that gender is not a social construction. The lie that fetuses feel pain in the first trimester. The lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The lie that all Muslims are predisposed towards terrorism. And on and on and on and on and on...

Trump is merely the dead weasel-haired avatar of a morally bankrupt movement that has maintained its base of support through mendacity of the foulest nature. The country club Republicans may clutch their pearls and turn up the collars on their Izod shirts, but they used those lies to manipulate a mass of angry people who have spurned them for the real deal. Cleveland is the apotheosis of decades of lies.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Fear

Time to get a little personal today, because I am not made of stone. I have spent every day since July 6th in a perpetual state of anxiety over the fate of the world. I have been getting what the great Hunter S Thompson referred to as "the fear." It started on the 6th when I watched the video of Alton Sterling's killing at the hands of the Baton Rouge police. Two years ago after watching Tamir Rice get killed by the Cleveland police I resolved never to watch one of those videos again, because the images from Rice's death have been haunting my idle thoughts ever since. In Alton Sterling's case I suddenly felt some kind of duty to bear witness, and it was much more horrifying than I could have imagined. I soon learned of Philando Castile's murder, which was just as horrifying. I spent a good half hour that day sobbing in front of my computer, feeling helpless. Every day since has been full of some kind of horror.

Having the summer off, I am stewing in the misery. I am on Twitter all day, and if an hour goes by when I am not, I wonder what new horror awaits me. On Thursday I checked in on the news before leaving for an evening session at the gym. Once I got there the slaughter in Nice was plastered all over the televisions. That night I finally cracked a bit. The recent events were already building on things that had been shaking me, from the mass murder in Orlando to Brexit to the continuing prospect of a Trump presidency. I am fairly skeptical about the power of prayer; I tend to think that the unseen force that animates the universe cares little or not at all for the fate of humanity. (If it did it would have a lot to answer for.) But Thursday night I walked out of the gym slathered in sweat, walked across a baking parking lot, got into my car, and fervently prayed. In that moment I again felt completely helpless.

Of course, things only got worse. That night the president's televised roundtable on police violence was terribly framed, and only served to make everyone mad at him and to confirm them in their opinions. I knew watching it that nothing was going to change. The next day the attempted coup in Turkey led to hundreds of dead and the possibility of an authoritarian crackdown by Erdogan. Today after an hour away from Twitter I learned of the murder of three police officers in Baton Rouge.

It is not just that horror seems to pile on top of horror, it is that there is no end in sight. Every terror attack gives more and more power to the forces of bigotry. In Europe and America the reactionaries are using the violence for their own ends, just as much as the radicals are. The likes of Le Pen, Fortyn, Gingrich, Boris Johnson, and Trump exult in the blood of the innocents, calling for eradication, deportation, and "law and order." All the while restricting access to firearms is off of America's political table, making more mass shootings an inevitability. The murder of police officers is making attempts to hold police accountable even more difficult. That will mean more killings by edgy police, and then probably more killings in return. Even if Trump loses, the politics in this country are so divided that nothing will change for better. Nothing. Things will only get worse. Trump has introduced white supremacist nationalism into the American mainstream, and as whites get more resentful in a nation that's less white, their anger will only get more powerful. Calls to deport or strip basic rights from Muslims have also been normalized by Trump. And if Trump wins...well, my mind cannot bear to contemplate such a catastrophe.

American politics will only get more uglier and more violent. Europe will only get more xenophobic. Erdogan will only get more authoritarian. Russia and China will only get more nationalistic. The mass shootings will only get bigger and more common. The center will not hold. Time for a beer.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Track of the Week: Yardbirds "I'm A Man"

I am almost done reading Jon Savage's 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, an impressionistic look at the pop culture of that year in America and England. I've really enjoyed the book, which has had me going back and listening to lots of Motown and the sounds of Swinging London. He makes the point early on that 1966 was the last point where singles mattered more than albums in music. (Well, at least up to that point, since these days albums have been eclipsed, though just as much by streaming as by singles.) For instance, I know the Stones' singles by heart from 1964-1967, but I have little knowledge of their album tracks in that era. Pet Sounds in 1966 and Sgt Pepper in 1967 would really begin to change things, and the acts that had relied on killer singles would take a hit.

The Yardbirds were one of those bands, churning out barn-burners influenced heavily by Chicago blues, but with a youthful spirit and some original touches. (Just listen to the minor-key dirge "Still I'm Sad" for proof.) While Eric Clapton's name is much more well known than Jeff Beck's, Beck's entrance into the band and Clapton's departure coincided with a great leap forward in sound. The Yardbirds would push the bounds of the pop single to its limits, and explore new ground that other rock bands would soon grab for themselves.

"I'm A Man" is the fountainhead of something entirely new, even though it's a cover. The Bo Diddley original is one of his best, a slow-burner with a classic, much copied blues riff underneath it. He was much covered by British beat bands and for the very good reason that his songs have irresistible grooves that even rudimentary musicians can copy. The Yardbirds took it in a different direction, drastically increasing the tempo, giving it a straight, headlong crazy drive, like a train speeding down a mountainside. This version is all untamed youth and amphetamine, and that's before it gets really nuts.

A minute and a half into the song comes one of the most important moments in rock history, the minute-long instrumental break that finishes the song. The guitars get louder and louder and the song gets faster and faster and faster until it comes crashing into a "whomp whomp wha-BAM!" blues ending. It is an exhilarating experience, and it's all over in less than three minutes. Later rock bands would go all the way, extending the breaks and the solos and the jams and making longer songs not meant to be played on the radio. The Yardbirds, recording this in 1965, had not broken that barrier yet, but they had shown the way.

Fittingly enough, in 1966 that band took in hotshot guitarist Jimmy Page, and after one failed album without the departed Beck morphed in "The New Yardbirds." Instead of that derivative name, they ended up going with "Led Zeppelin," and the rest was history. Zeppelin famously did not put out singles, and their magnum opus "Stairway To Heaven" was over seven minutes long (and never released as a single.) Nevertheless, it was the most requested song on 70s FM radio stations. It still gets overplayed on classic rock radio today, decades after mediocre stand-up comics mocked its ubiquity. You won't hear "I'm A Man" on any radio format, but it's the song I'd rather listen to.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

1968 And Using Historical Metaphors

Like it or not, we're still in his world

There's been a lot of talk comparing the current election year to 1968, which has me thinking about the right and wrong ways to use historical metaphors. They can be put to deadly effect, after all. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the ghosts of the Munich Conference of 1938 were constantly being invoked. The "lesson" to learn was that the dictator Hussein had to be stopped. Of course, the comparison was ridiculous, since Hussein did not have designs on expansion, as Hitler did in 1938. Nevertheless, it worked.

Comparisons of 2016 to 1968 are more valid, but also overstate things. We are seeing a great amount of social upheaval this year, but not like 1968's assassinations, burning of cities, and the raging of the Vietnam War. This does not mean that we can't learn anything from looking at 1968, but just to be aware that we are living in different times. The mass shootings of today were little known in 1968, apart from Charles Whitman's infamous actions in 1966. While Trump's campaign resembles that of George Wallace's that year, he has been running mostly on immigration, which was not a big political issue in 1968. While Trump has been borrowing Nixon's "law and order" rhetoric (which Wallace first pioneered), he does not have Nixon's ability to appeal to a new constituency, since Trump's main appeals are to constituencies that Nixon won over to the Republicans in '68 (white Southerners and white working class more broadly.) The Democrats, despite recent events, are much much more unified now compared to 1968, as yesterday's endorsement of Clinton by Sanders shows.

We are in very different times, but there are themes we can see both in 1968 and 2016: mass uprisings against racism, populist white nationalist backlash, major political party realignments, and a feeling that violence has become uncontrollable. What we are seeing in some respects is less a repeat of 1968 and more the consequences of its unresolved aftermath. As a recent book by Elizabeth Hinton shows, the urban uprisings and increased crime rates led to a massively increased police presence in black neighborhoods, and a feeling among white politicians that attempts to improve the economic prospects of inner city residents, as pioneered by the Great Society, ought to be scrapped because the dysfunction of their targets was too deep to correct. The current mass incarceration, militarized police, and death tolls from killer cops are the legacy of the failed and inhuman response to the urban uprisings of 1968.

Our politics also bear the scars of the late 1960s. As Rick Perlstein points out in his brilliant work Nixonland, Nixon gained power by exploiting the cleavages in American society brought on by the 1960s. By villainizing one side of the divide he knew he could unite the other side, and knew at that time his side was going to be bigger. That redefined our politics in a society where those cleavages over race, religion, and culture have become deeper and more intense with each year. "Liberals" came to stand in for everything wrong and evil and America, and they and their agenda had to be destroyed. This, not supply side economics, is the true heart of modern conservatism, and explains why Congress has taken the unprecedented step of refusing to vote on the president's nominee to the Supreme Court. Thwarting liberals has become the sum total of their political program. It's the same reason why so many rank and file Republicans who seem to really dislike Trump and even find him dangerous are still rallying around him.

2016 is not 1968, but we are very much living in the world that the upheavals of 1968 created. Time will tell if 2016 will be the year that takes a new direction, or keeps progressing toward the breaking point.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Dr Sillylovesongs, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Paul McCartney

Contrary to stereotype, Paul McCartney can make dark, introspective lo-fi music

Anyone who gets into the Beatles at a young age decides which Beatle is their favorite. This choice is not merely an aesthetic one, but also is meant to reflect the personality and values of the fan. In my teens, John was far and away my favorite. To me he was the rebel Beatle, the one who stood up for peace and was not afraid to speak his mind. I also valued his musical contributions more, seeing him as the true artist in the group. The Revolver album, my fave Beatles record, seemed to make the choice pretty clear.  The John songs on that record are searing and full of all kinds of spiritual angst, perfect fodder for an adolescent. What teen hasn't just wanted to not get out of bed, as in "I'm Only Sleeping"? The real kicker, however, was "Tomorrow Never Knows," which still sounds amazing and different fifty years later. It was almost impossible to think that the band responsible for "Love Me Do" had created it. Paul had some fine songs on that record ("Yellow Submarine," "Good Day Sunshine," Got To Get You Into My Life," Eleanor Rigby" etc.) but they tended to be less rockish and more poppy.

As my twenties progressed, I started gravitating towards George, rather than John. Much of this had to do with my friends Debbie and Brian, who were big George fans. I had also loved his wry perspective in the Beatles Anthology interviews. The more I read about the Beatles, the more I liked George and felt less of a connection to John. While John finally seemed to be getting it sorted out at the end of his tragically short life, he could be a mean drunk who neglected his first child and treated his first wife, Cynthia, poorly. I empathized with his bouts of depression, but he began to strike me as a rather unpleasant person. On the positive side, I finally heard Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and I still believe that it's by far the best Beatles solo album.

Ringo was never a candidate for favorite Beatle for me, but I've always loved him. I think his drumming is very underrated, and it pisses me off when people put his musical ability down. (Harrison and Lennon could have had anyone drum on their first solo records, but they chose Ringo.) Paul, of course, was the one I had the most mixed feelings about. The more I learned about the breakup of the Beatles, the more I realized that those who blamed Yoko Ono were completely wrong.  Of course, the four men growing up and developing their own separate personalities and interests was the root cause of the break up, which I now take to be a good thing, since it saved us from terrible reunion tours and the kind of mediocre music we've been getting from the Stones in the last thirty years. The Beatles break-up had its immediate origins in the death of manager Brian Epstein, which left a huge vacuum. Paul tried to step in and be the leader of the band, and to have his brother in law manage. I attributed this to Paul being a control freak, something I saw first hand in his unbearable antics in the studio in Let It Be. I'd also heard the story that he had forced the band to record eighty takes of the mediocre "Ob La Di Ob La Da," which is enough to make anyone quit any band, including the Beatles.

I also generally thought of Paul as "the cute one" who made, in his own words, "silly love songs." Could I really rate the guy responsible for "Honey Pie" above the man who wrote "Tomorrow Never Knows"? Plus, as a child of the 80s and 90s, I thought of Paul as a guy with a terrible mullet wearing fashion-victim vests touring the world playing his hits. This to me, in my punk rock phase, was the height of uncool.

In recent years, however, my attitude has been changing. Paul is most definitely a control freak, of course. In the Wingspan documentary his own daughter seems a bit exasperated at all of the lineup changes in Wings brought on by that tendency. At the same time, aren't a lot of great artists control freaks? Paul isn't someone I'd want to work with, but his exacting standards are probably responsible for the timeless nature of his best songs. I also came to realize that while his attempt to take a controlling interest in the Beatles after Epstein's death backfired, it might have been the right way to go. They ended up hiring the infamous Allen Klein over Paul's objections, who, as he often did with the artists he represented, ripped them off. At that point in the late 60s John, who had been the leader of the group early on, was beginning to check out and act more erratically. Somebody had to step in and do something. Paul did it maladroitly, but he intentions were in the right place.

Paul's iron will to keep things together is also what gave us Abbey Road, which next to Revolver is my fave Beatles record. Even though the band was falling apart, they managed to end on an extremely high note. Paul was chiefly responsible for the second side's pastiche of song fragments. I think that medley might be my favorite thing that the Beatles ever did. (George also has some fantastic songs on that record. John's are good, but not at the same level.)

Over the years I also came to realize that while John got the credit for being experimental and George for bringing in Indian music, Paul was not just the guy who wrote silly love songs. Imagine my surprise when I learned that "Helter Skelter" was a Paul song, since that totally went against narrative. While may have penned some schmaltzy numbers, he had a well-documented interest in experimental music, as well as decidedly non-schmaltzy sleaze like "Why Don't We Do It In The Road." On top of all of that, he was definitely the best musician in the Beatles. His melodic bass lines are really miles ahead of what most rock bassists were doing at the time. What really put me over the top musically with Paul were his first two solo albums, which I didn't hear until a few years ago, mostly due to my old prejudices. He recorded the first one completely by himself, and the second with only some background vocals from Linda. They are idiosyncratic albums with a great amount of looseness to them. Hearing them now, they sound like the earliest antecedents of lo-fi indie rock. They also happen to be really good, and daring in their own way. The fan reaction was not greatly positive, and McCartney would find great solo success after creating Wings and going for a big 70s pop-rock sound.

Beyond the music, I really started empathizing with Paul after reading the book Man on the Run, about his career in the 70s. He fell into a deep depression after the breakup of the Beatles (which he had worked hard to avoid), complete with overconsumption of alcohol. His relationship with Linda and the loose experimentation of those early records are what helped him cope and recover.  (I myself could certainly understand the difficulties that come with having to make a major career change in your thirties against your will.) I always get irritated when people mock Linda and her presence in Wings. Paul brought her and their children on tour as a way of keeping the family together, rather than indulging in the rock and roll party lifestyle. Learning this now that I am a parent made me respect him even more. (Not to be petty, but compare this to John's treatment of Julian.)

I am not sure who my favorite Beatle is anymore, probably because I'm no longer young enough for that to be meaningful. I can say that time and wisdom have made me appreciate Paul McCartney much more than before. And hey, if some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, what's wrong with that? I'd like to know.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Right Wing Media Wants To Turn Dallas Into A New Haymarket

This wildly inaccurate rendering of the Haymarket Affair nonetheless shaped America's perception of it back in 1886

As I feared, the horrible murder of five police officers in Dallas is being exploited by Fox News and the right wing media to delegitimize and tear down the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a golden oldie from the reactionary playbook, whereby an incident of violence by a lone extremist is used as justification to crush movements for social change.

One example from the past is quite constructive in this regard. In 1886 workers were pushing for an 8 hour day, in the United States through the fast-growing Knights of Labor. They chose May 1 as their day of action, the reason why that day honors labor around the world (though not officially in the United States.) In Chicago striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works clashed with strike-breakers, and the Chicago started shooting, killing some of the workers. In response to this police brutality, a protest was organized at the Haymarket in downtown Chicago on May 4th. As that protest was breaking up, someone threw a bomb at the police, who then started firing wildly. After the smoke cleared, seven police officers and a handful of protestors were dead (some from the bomb, some from the bullets.)

The so-called "social question" had been a burning issue in Gilded Age America, with many clashes between workers and the authorities. The bombing presented the reactionary elements with the perfect opportunity. Immediately local governments started cracking down on and harassing the Knights of Labor, pretty much breaking an organization that had grown to over half a million members. The nation's first national labor organization was now in ruins, and not just because of government action. The press fanned the flames, painting the entire movement for workers' rights as merely a vehicle for radical anarchists.  The picture at the top of this post is a good example of the propaganda that misrepresented the event in order to stir up fear.

Soon enough too the police rounded up eight Chicago anarchists and they were charged and convicted for the bombing with scant evidence. Four were put to death, one killed himself in jail. Governor John Altgeld, in an act of true political bravery, pardoned the last three due to the shoddy nature of their conviction, and in the process knowingly doomed his chances at re-election. That would not bring the five dead back, of course. In the hysteria after the bombing, anyone with a leftist political bent was considered guilty.

Flash forward to today, and similar things are afoot. A bloody attack on police at a political protest is being used to damn the entire protest movement itself by reactionaries who are just waiting to find an excuse to ignore the problem of racist policing and crush the movement against it. Dan Patrick, the radical conservative lieutenant governor of Texas, went so far as to say that the protestors themselves were to blame for the shooting, and that they were "hypocrites" for running from the bullets. (I guess he thought they should have died.) Those sentiments were all over the media yesterday, and not just on right wing outlets. On supposedly liberal MSNBC, Rudy Guiliani blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for the shooting in Dallas. On Fox, as expected, this message was being relayed over and over again yesterday. Hannity even tried to get his reporter on the scene to troll a Black Lives Matter protest. On Fox several shows linked the Black Lives Matter movement to president Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Loretta Lynch, hoping to smear their political opponents. On talk radio things have been turned up a notch, with Limbaugh calling Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization.

This same work has been done more subtly by less partisan outlets. For example, media keeps bringing up 9/11, saying this event is the worst attack on police since 9/11, etc, when the scale is obviously so different. Also, we didn't hear 9/11 comparisons after Charleston or Orlando, which is telling about their use in this case. Implicitly, the notion would be that those supposedly responsible for Dallas must be treated like those responsible for 9/11. The witch hunters have their torches ready.

It took years for the labor movement to recover from the Haymarket Affair. We cannot afford a similar hit to the movement against racist policing, because lives will be lost. It's time to sound the alarm and get out there and combat the false narrative of Dallas before it's too late.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Classic Music Videos: Motley Crue, "Looks That Kill"

I spent all day yesterday in a state of anger and sadness over the recent police killings, and needed something to distract me in the evening. I opted for watching The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years. In case you don't know, the original Penelope Spheeris doc was about the early 80s punk scene in LA. The sequel concerns the heavy metal scene on the Sunset Strip in the late 80s, but feels a few centuries rather than a few years away. The film really is a kind of real-life Spinal Tap, and made me laugh at the pretensions of some of the mediocre unsigned bands and cringe at the general air of misogyny. There was also the grim humor in seeing all of that sprayed hair on people who thought they were oh so cool when in four years that look and the music that came with it would be dumped into the dustbin of rock history by grunge.

After an hour and a half of glam metal types crowing about their sexual exploits and drug intakes, it ends with a performance by Megadeth, whose pure thrash metal acts as kind of a rebuke to what we've just seen. While the arc of LA metal bent towards Poison, it was not always thus. The first band from that scene to hit was Motley Crue, and some of their early material had some real bite and menace.

"Looks That Kill" is not one of their big hits, but it was the song that put them on the map, in large part because of the video and the image projected through it. It starts in what looks like the set for The Cave Dwellers or any other MST3K-ready 80s B-movie attempt to cash in on Conan the Barbarian. There are metal babes, but dressed like a D&D playing nerd-boy's wet dream rather than in frilly, lacy 80s lingerie.  The boys in the band are dressed like the New York Dolls meets Escape from New York, and are holding menacing torches, chasing the ladies and literally penning them up before rocking out on stage. There's no misogyny like 80s metal video misogyny.

The guy we see least in the video is Mick Mars, the lead guitarist. Most casual music fans may know the names of Tommy Lee (he of the illicit Pam Anderson tape and his own reality show), Vince Neil (the lead singer and star of his own less glamorous sex tape), and Nikki Sixx (the coolest looking one and perhaps the best interview ever on Behind the Music), but not Mick Mars. Mars was not nearly as telegenic, but his musicianship is by far the most crucial element to the song. Sixx and Lee are an okay rhythm section, and Neil has about as much vocal range as Elvis had acting range. The riff on this song, however, is an absolute monster. It is a beautifully trashy hook that would make Johnny Thunders tip his cap. I friggin' hate Motley Crue, but I like this song because the riff is just that rocking.

The video though, oof. Caged women, flying pentagrams, spinning drumsticks, flaming torches and any number of other excesses. The band's success would allow them to go more over the top, but the fly by night, chintzy nature of this video does redeem it somewhat. Here the excess of the LA hair metal scene is just kind of funny and silly. By the late 80s it would be overbearing and devoid of any silly fun. When I watched The Decline Of Western Civilization II, it was a reminder of why a genre of music that seemed to dominate rock died so suddenly. The difference between "Looks That Kill" in 1983 and "Unskinny Bop" (a future entry in this series) in 1990 helps explain why.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Other Gun Violence

If I were to say "America has a gun violence problem" you might instinctively think of mass shootings like the tragedy in Orlando. That frame is what drove the sit-in of House Democrats to force a vote on gun control legislation aimed at increasing background checks and barring those on the terror watch list from getting guns. That frame has issues, since mass shootings account for a small number of the tens of thousands of Americans killed by guns every year. 

The murder of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge at the hands of the police should also be prompting a different conversation about gun violence, one that will not be solved with gun control measures. This is the gun violence perpetrated at the hands of the police. There have been too many prominent instances to count, and they have been outnumbered by the victims whose names did not become hashtags or who did not have cameras present at the scenes of their deaths.

As awful as mass shootings are, we cannot forget that police shot and killed almost a thousand people last year. There's a big difference in how the two are received, however. Nobody defends mass shooters, but huge amounts of political capital are expended to defend killer cops. Prominent publications even write sympathetic articles about them. The blood is barely dry on the ground before stupid memes like "BlueLivesMatter" are all over the place. In Louisiana, the state where Alton Sterling was murdered by the police, the legislature just passed a law covering police as a category of victim in hate crimes. When police are faced with protests over their violence, they blame any street crime on protests, as if the blood on their hands can be transferred onto the hands of others. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, consistently defends the police after they kill, and has proposed a mandatory death penalty for those who kill police officers.

And here's the deal: a very substantial portion of the white American population cares more about assuaging their own fears of supposed black criminality than they do about the lives of black people. In their minds the police are holding the line against what Victorians called "a criminal class," and will support any level of force used against them. If the police are criticized they go nuts because they think the whole dam is about to break. It's in moments like this that I feel absolutely sick, and not just because of the horror and injustice of the killings. I get ill thinking about how this mentality is so common among the people who raised me and surround me. The police are allowed to kill not just because of a political system or legal system, but because of the everyday fear, hate, and contempt nestled deep in the soul of white America. As long as that remains, I fear that the other gun violence will never end.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Breaking Point Or Crossroads?

British soldiers during WWI in Ypres, Belgium

Looking at events in the world today I can feel the tectonic plates of history shifting beneath my feet in ways I have rarely felt. What is happening does not seem to be the usual tumult of world affairs, but something different and deeper.

As I mentioned on the eve of the Brexit vote, we appear to be heading to the end of the post post-Cold War world. Plenty of folks, including yours truly, have mocked Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis over the years, but now we seem truly to be at the definitive end of a world where someone could think that global capitalist democracy was the only ideological game in town. Nationalism and Islamism (and nationalist Islamism) are driving world events, and the Left has been reawakened in countries dominated by neoliberalism in recent decades.

The old political consensus in the West simply is not holding. Brexit may very well lead to the end of the UK, and the vote has shaken the major political parties there to their core. The EU's validity as an institution is in serious doubt. In Germany nationalism has crept back into the political mainstream for the first time since 1945. A far right candidate may very well achieve the presidency in Austria, and nationalists with an undemocratic bent have taken over in Hungary and Poland. In America a nationalist television personality gained the Republican nomination, and a socialist (well, at least he calls himself that) came close to getting the Democratic nomination. Congress has refused to even consider the president's nominee to the Supreme Court, an unprecedented act that would have spurred a constitutional crisis in less tumultuous times.

I look at all of this, and wonder if we are at a historical crossroads, or a breaking point. It is definitely one of the other. In terms of a crossroads, perhaps we are seeing something similar to the early 20th century, when the strains of laissez-faire capitalism and fear of worker uprising led to reform. In America this is referred to as the Progressive Era, but similar changes occurred in Europe as well, when voting rights and worker protections were expanded. We seem to be at a similar point, where forty years of neoliberalism and globalization have drained resources from the masses and funneled them to the wealthy. If you look at the income gap in the United States, it currently resembles that of the Gilded Age more than it does the postwar period. I doubt that the political status quo can be maintained under such economic conditions. There's a chance that in fifty years the Occupy movement of 2011 will be seen as the harbinger of a new era.

Unfortunately, the forces for political change in the West on the right are currently much more powerful than those on the left, as Brexit, Trumpism, and recent elections in Eastern Europe have shown. These forces also seem to have little use for the current world order. The lack of credibility possessed by the elite maintaining the global order only gives more fuel to the fire of the likes of UKIP, Trump, and Victor Orban. I can very well see a breaking point on the horizon, a world of closed borders, diminished or shredded international institutions, and perpetual war. The film Children of Men may turn out to be quite prophetic.

That might sound alarmist, but historically people have not been aware of the changes building up around them, until they explode. Few predicted the collapse of Communism in 1989. Few if any foresaw a world-altering revolution when the Estates General were called in 1789. When the guns of August of 1914 sounded, most did not anticipate a political and cultural earthquake that would level empires and engender revolutions.

I have been avidly reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, her memoir describing her experiences in World War I as a nurse. She talked about how the news of the coming war barely registered with her in the summer of 1914. By the time it was over, she lost her fiancee, brother, and two of her closest friends, and everything seemed to have been changed forever. Obviously no war on the scale of the Great War is currently raging, but I do wonder if we are indeed stepping into a new political world. Are we too sleepwalking into the abyss? Time will tell, I guess.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Billboard Top Ten June 26, 1965

For this edition of the top ten I decided to go back a little further in time, inspired by a recent rewatch of The Wrecking Crew, about the LA studio musicians who played on so many of the hits of the mid-60s. They, like the Funk Brothers at Motown, were sophisticated jazz musicians slumming it in the pop music world for a paycheck. In the process they made some amazing songs, and they appear a few times on this list. And now, on with the countdown!

10. Johnny Rivers "Seventh Son"

Johnny Rivers is one of the great forgotten chart toppers of the 1960s. He's known for "Secret Agent Man" today if he's known for anything, but he had a whole load of big hits. He was known as the "King of the Covers." In this case he's doing a song by the Chicago blues great Willie Dixon. This is some raw stuff with a classic Memphis backbeat behind it. In the mid-60s, when Elvis was making godawful movies, one could even think that Rivers would be his successor.

9. Beach Boys "Help Me, Rhonda"

A year before the epochal Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson was subtly making the Beach Boys' sound more complex and interesting, and less imitative of their influences. It helped that the Wrecking Crew, including Hal Blaine on drums and Glen Campbell on guitar, were now laying down tracks. Campbell's bouncy, playful guitar line is especially memorable. During the recording the Wilson brothers' abusive father Murry's controlling ways led to a fight with Brian that is recorded for posterity. Murry stormed out, meaning that this song might be the true beginning of the Beach Boys as a more artistic enterprise.

8. Patti Page "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte"

In 1965 the schmaltz had yet to be fully banished from the pop charts. This kind of string-drenched pop vocal music would soon go the way of the Charleston and spats. That said, it's not bad for what it is.

7. The Yardbirds "For Your Love"

This song is supposedly what drove Eric Clapton out of the Yardbirds in disgust over his bandmates giving up the blues religion to cut a song worshipping at the golden calf of the pop charts. It is true, this sounds nothing like the rip-roaring music the Yardbirds had been creating. They combined an imitation of the Chicago blues with a great deal of youthful spunk and energy. This song barely has guitar, it's poppy, and a harpsichord is the dominant melodic instrument. That said, it's still a damn good song, sounding cool with its minor key notes and bongo drum beat. Now don't get me wrong, when I listen to the Yardbirds I go for barn burners like "I'm a Man" and "I Ain't Done Wrong." But here's a little secret: those are played by Jeff Beck. Clapton leaving may just have been the best thing for the Yardbirds.

6. Elvis Presley "Crying In The Chapel"

At this stage in his career Elvis was making some awful movies with even more dire music to go with them. There is perhaps no better example of how Hollywood can take a free-spirited talent and turn it into cultural Velveeta. "Crying In The Chapel" is an exception, perhaps because it was recorded five years earlier before Elvis' degradation had been complete. Elvis was always into singing ballads, much more so than up-tempo rockers. This is not a great song, but he gives it that tender feel he could provide on his good days.

5. Herman's Hermits "Wonderful World"

Herman's Hermits took the propulsive beat sound of the British Invasion and tamed it to the point that it could be acceptable to the grandmothers. The original song by Sam Cooke benefits from the pure joy in his voice and his incomparable feel. This cover is B-grade Beatles, and the weakest British Invasion track in this week's top ten.

4. Rolling Stones "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"

What can I say about this song that hasn't been said? It still sounds great, and Mick Jagger is still singing it onstage around the world. This was the point when the Stones really made their great leap forward. Instead of covering or closely imitating American blues songs, they came up with something of their own inspired by the blues but also full of teenage energy and a more unique viewpoint. This could be a song about an existential crisis, the fatuousness of consumer society, or just a horny guy tryin' to get laid. No matter how you want to interpret it, it's the song that launched a thousand garage bands.

3. Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs "Wooly Bully"

While some groups on this countdown were beginning to branch out from the rock and roll pioneered in the fifties, "Wooly Bully" emphatically sticks to the old time religion, keeping plenty of roll with the rock. It was an approach that was strong in Texas, especially among Mexican-American rockers like Sam "the Sham" Samudio. (That torch would be carried forward by Doug Sahm, both in the Sir Douglas Quintet and solo.) It sounds like a nonsense song, but man is it catchy and fun. This was a style of music that would all but be dead on the charts in two years. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk indeed.

2. Four Tops "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)"

People have long compared the records put out by Motown to the cars being produced in the label's native Detroit: products of an assembly line process. If the Temptations were Motown's Cadillac, the Four Tops were its Buick. High quality, not flashy, dependable with a smooth ride. The Tops were a study in contrasts, with Levi Stubbs' gruff, emotional voice juxtaposed with absolutely beautiful background harmonies. On this song he is not as anguished as on classics like "Bernadette" and "Baby I Need Your Loving." At the same time he still brings that patented sweat, taking rather boring love song lyrics and imbuing them with vital soulfulness. Without those qualities this would be just another silly love song.

1. The Byrds "Mr Tambourine Man"

For years I've frowned on romanticizing the 60s and everything else that smacks of Boomer nostalgia. However, I have to feel that there had to be something great about a time when a song like this was allowed to go number one. The Dylan lyrics are trippy and poetic, but I mostly notice Roger McGuinn's gorgeous 12 string guitar, ringing like the chimes of freedom. I have a theory that in terms of rock music, 1965 was the crucial year when it branched out and began to be something more than teenage dance music. This song might be the best evidence.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

What I Saw On The Long Island Railroad

Imagine what happens when these drunk assholes get politicized

Last night I went to the Mets-Cubs game with my dad and an old friend I've known since my grad school days. The game was a lot of fun (well, at least for the Mets fans in attendance), and we were seated around reasonably polite people. The mood drastically changed when we got onto the Long Island Railroad train to take us to Penn Station. The car ahead of us was full of some insanely loud preppies evidently having a full on party on the LIRR. If this was the subway and these kids weren't white they'd probably be cuffed by the NYPD.

As bad as they were, a group in our car was worse. At first they looked like the usual drunken louts who show up to sporting events, and who I've had the displeasure to share trains home from Citi Field before. However, I noticed one of them wearing a red Trump cap and one of those camo baseball jerseys. Next to him were a much more obnoxious group, chanting "USA USA USA" for no reason. Whenever I hear that chant something inside of me tenses, since I know I am in the presence of a mob. Soon enough, while staggering about openly drinking beers and screaming obscenities in front of kids who'd gone to the game with their parents, chants of "Let's Go Mets!" and "USA" faded into "Build the wall! Build the wall!" I so badly wanted to say something, but this brand of Long Island shithead would've used it as an opportunity for a beatdown. With zero police or conductor presence, I wasn't about to risk it.

I did, however, get to thinking about the Trump phenomenon. These white men from the notoriously segregated Long Island (wearing Jose Reyes jerseys in two cases*) were asserting their dominance and privilege on the train. These were the same kind of assholes I had encountered after Mets games before. However, Trumpism had politicized them. I felt like I was watching American brown shirts in their natural habitat.

This incident is evidence of the larger effect that Trump's candidacy is having. Even if he goes down in flames in the general election, he has brought white supremacist nationalism into the political mainstream. He has enabled the forces of bigotry and intolerance in ways I have never seen in my lifetime. The only solution is to go out into the open where these people have emerged from their caves and sewers, and destroy them. It is not enough to defeat Trump; Trumpism must be ripped out root and branch. If not, new demagogues will come and more hate will flow.

*Reyes brutally battered his wife last year, but despite that was just re-acquired by the Mets. Anyone wearing his jersey has some soul-searching to do.