Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Some Alabama Election Takes

It's been a long time since I've done straight up "take" blogging in regards to politics. I guess Twitter sates my appetite for that. Anyway, I'm just as qualified as any of the pundits out there, so why the hell not?  Here are some takes.

1. Jones was a good candidate who has an obvious knowledge of and affection towards Alabama. He seemed to really understand how to appeal to the voters of that state. Dems have been able to win "red" and "purple" states with these kinds of candidates. See also Jon Tester in Montana and the recent race in Virginia.

2. Jones won by appealing to the base of the party, especially African American voters. He did not try to run from Democratic positions on issues like abortion and trans rights, something other Dems running in "red" areas have tried. The Democrats may hopefully learn a little from the Republicans, who understand that off-year elections are all about that base.

3. Trumpism does not work without Trump. Moore was the Trumpiest of candidates, and had the Orange One's support (and even robocalls), but to no avail. The governor's election in Virginia also showed this. The luster of strongmen never gets transferred to others. (Back in the 30s Germans would profess love for Hitler and dislike for "the Nazis.")

4. The Republican Party really made themselves look bad. They dropped support for Moore, then brought it back, and still lost. This means they lost in terms of the election as well as any moral high ground that they could have claimed.

5. BUT: let's be honest, a candidate like Strange would have probably beat Jones pretty handily.

6. That last point shows the Republican Party has a continuing problem of letting its base choose candidates in the primary who are repulsive to the general electorate. See Todd Aiken, Joe Miller, etc.

7. Which gets to my last point, which is that the Republican Party is in many respects a vehicle for an extreme ideology. They still get more moderate people to vote for them, thinking that it is merely a center-right party and a viable alternative to the Democrats. Yesterday's election is a sign that that benefit of the doubt by voters in the middle might be eroding. By supporting the lunatic fringe pedophile elected by their whacko primary voters even after the worst was revealed about him they made a large step towards killing what's left of their reputation as the "serious party."

8. Steve Bannon is a charlatan. He is like the pathetic addicted gambler who hit the trifecta once and spends the next twenty years chasing that one hit into bankruptcy.

9. The Republicans who rejected Jones and never went back on it will benefit greatly. I sense an attempt soon by some Republicans of the Romney persuasion to get control of the party. I think they know their party is about to get hammered in the next election and want to be there to fill the power vacuum.

10. This election showed Democrats the importance of getting out the vote and combatting voter suppression efforts, which have been aimed primary at African American voters. This needs to be a nation-wide, grassroots effort. Democrats need to provide the money and resources to get people registered. More importantly, they need to run on the promise to pass a new voting rights act to ensure that everyone's right to vote is protected.

Monday, December 11, 2017

West From Omaha

Yesterday my plane arrived in Omaha from New Jersey just as the sun was setting. Once I settled into the seat of my rental for the two and a half hour drive west to my hometown, I realized that this was the first time I was making this trip alone in almost ten years.

The road from Omaha to Hastings is a well-worn one for me. It was the path home after countless debate and band competitions in high school, to college and back, and then the last leg of my long sojourns home from Chicago, Champaign, and Grand Rapids. I know every road sign, every gas station, every distant grain elevator. The names of the towns are a familiar litany: Gretna, Ashland, Waverly, Seward, Friend, Beaver Crossing (one of my favorites), Aurora, Giltner, Doniphan and many more. In the last decade I've had my wife with me on this leg, and I tell her the same stories about every spot in the road and she patiently waits until about York or so to remind me that I've told all these stories before.

By myself, with no one to tell my stories to, I was struck by the forbidding nature of the drive. Once you get west of Omaha, the sky opens up, a massive sky that feels like it could crush you without a thought. In the dark it is that much more powerful. The real moment of shock, however, comes in a little bend in the road just on the west side of Lincoln. The fifty miles between Lincoln and Omaha have become ever more crowded as these sprawling and growing cities seem destined to join in one giant blob of subdivisions and strip malls. However, once you pass the last exit for Lincoln, the one for Northwest 48th Street, the interstate makes a little curve, you go over a hill, and suddenly all the lights are out. The darkness is darker than any other I've known, a darkness that makes you feel like the other cars on the road represent the only other living people left in the world.

Driving on the sparsely traveled roads of Nebraska at night can be a kind of spiritual experience, but one I took for granted as a child. I never knew that getting from here to there was not a reminder of human mortality in other parts of the country. Last night I even took a little detour, taking a two-lane road for about ten miles, a route where I did not see a single sign of another person until I hit Doniphan. It was like a trip to a distant, empty planet. Under that limitless, inky black sky I never could have imagined that I take a train to the beating heart of Manhattan's human ant swarm every work day. It's been a good respite to be west of Omaha.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Ruminations on Internal Exile

A sight from my homeland that never fails to stir my heart (or my stomach)

We tend to think of exile in terms of national boundaries, but in an America that is increasingly divided, exile can be internal, too. I live 1500 miles from my hometown in rural Nebraska, and when I am in New York City every day for work, I might as well be on a different planet. I never planned it this way, it just kind of happened.

I am going to be returning to my homeland with a heavy heart in a couple of days to attend the funeral of my aunt. I say the word "homeland" in the German sense, an analog of the German word "Heimat." This means a kind of regional home, as opposed to a national one. The region I come from certainly has its own distinct culture and ways as notable as a peasant's lederhosen or dirndl.

My relationship to it is complicated. I cannot abide its bad politics of its bad food, but when I look around the supposedly sophisticated East Coast I find it wanting. People in this part of the country are high on their own bullshit. They are much more status and wealth obsessed, and much more likely to think "rules are for suckers." Of course, I don't dare say that out loud here, where people use the term "Midwestern" as an implied insult. For that reason I can find my homeland irritating but my adopted home exasperating.

My aunt exemplified many of the aspects of my homeland that I miss. She was a gentle, kind person uninterested in material things. Her life was humble, but she was okay with that. That's a quality I find admirable when in the snake pit of Manhattan and all of its neuroses, resentments, and social hierarchy. I will admit, I get sick and tired of Manhattan's bullshit quite a lot.

I know at the same time that my homeland's knee-jerk conservatism, nativist tendencies, and fear of anything new helped drive me out of there in the first place. It is an almost impossible place to be a thoughtful young person. I enjoy visiting, but never feel much like staying. Yet when I come back to the Northeast, I feel something missing. For better or for worse, my homeland is something I still carry around in my heart, and it has placed an indelible stamp on me, even if I have broken with some of its values.

Some internal exiles I've met in these parts seem embarrassed of their origins, constantly running down the homeland of their births in order to get approval of the Northeasterners who see everything between the Hudson and the Pacific as easily dismissed "flyover country." Others seem to cling to their regional chauvinism as much as possible, constantly finding their new surroundings wanting. Despite my frustrations with not feeling comfortable in either the homeland of my birth or my adopted one, I am at least glad that I can see the good in both.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Grim Reality of Our World-Historical Moment

A lot has changed since 1989

I am at home sick today, and I am feeling energetic enough after some hours of rest to do some writing. Getting sick is something that clears my mind, mostly because it gives me a break from my commute, job, and parenting responsibilities. This has allowed me to think about our current era as it relates to larger world-historical trends, and the thoughts aren't good.

The revolutions of 1989 and the international community's response to the genocide in Bosnia made me feel for a time in the 1990s that though we had certainly not reached an "end of history" that the future of the globe was going to contain plenty of conflict, but generally be more peaceful and democratic than it had been in the past. After 9/11, it seemed that I had been very much wrong. The international policing imperative that had been used to save the people of Bosnia and Kosovo from mass murder was used to justify the disastrous war in Iraq. Likewise, I once saw anti-globalism as an important corrective from the left against the ravages of capitalism. The 1999 Seattle protests were, to me, a sign that the excesses of the post Fall of the Wall neoliberalism were about to be pushed back. Now anti-globalization is the currency of a resurgent, international neo-fascism which has captured the presidency of the United States. The 1990s held out the prospect of international agreements arresting the advance of global warming, now they seem doomed.

I have been feeling whiplash about the world historical moment since the Brexit vote last year. As I said at the time, it appears that the whole post-World War II order, which the leaders of the West tried to extend after the of the Cold War, is falling apart. International institutions of that order like the EU are shaking. The United States is abdicating its global leadership role, leaving a massive power vacuum that states like China and Russia (and now perhaps Germany) are yearning to fill. Similarly, the Middle East looks to be breaking down into a general conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nationalism and chauvinism are on the rise everywhere, bringing with them authoritarianism. On top of all of this, climate will bring greater misery and cause for conflict in a world where the possibilities of international mediation are shrinking.

Looking at the dire state of things, I am becoming more and more convinced that only revolutionary changes will be sufficient to solve the current crisis, especially in regards to climate change. However, the means for revolutionary change in many places have been broken. Take the United States, where labor unions have been broken and communal life generally is practically non-existent. Consumer capaitalism, as long as it keeps the gadgets flowing and credit available, will keep most people complacent. Independent media is being swallowed up, and ethnic and racial divisions have been doing their traditional work. Most white people still prefer "the wages of whiteness" to solidarity with people of color. Social media only reinforces these boundaries.

As much as I detest Donald Trump, he is the product of his times. After he is gone, the forces that produced him will still be here. I don't have all the answers, but I do know that any path to a more peaceful and democratic future means radically changing the fundamentals of our political-economy. I just don't see that happening, and that realization is one that fills me with dread.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Moral Rot of "Fetuses Uber Alles"

It looks as if the election in Alabama is shifting back to Roy Moore. The Republicans who had condemned him have now embraced him, with Donald Trump giving him an endorsement today. They have made their usual Leninist calculation, as with Trump's nefarious tape, that they can win the election and face zero consequences for supporting sex abusers.

In Alabama this has to do with the fact that the state is a very conservative place where a Democrat winning is seen as an impossibility. An article in the Times today discusses this, as one Democratic operative even admits "I don't think the Lord Jesus could win as a Democrat in Alabama."One of the reasons cited in this article, and one I have seen in many articles about Moore, is abortion. Many Republican voters claim they will never support a pro-choice candidate.

I have always wondered about the limits of this, since I know a lot of people who hold similar views. For them abortion is the ultimate issue, and even when they do not like the Republicans on offer (like Donald Trump), they tell themselves "at least they don't support abortion." This is the absolution that forgives all sins. A vain, bigoted, misogynist, greedy, mean-spirited, thrice divorced man like Trump, who would seem to be the opposite of Christ's example, suddenly becomes God's anointed once he appoints an anti-abortion justice to the Supreme Court.

I have long disagreed with the Fetuses Uber Alles position, but I once did give it some respect as an expression of moral righteousness. I do not accept the premise that a zygote is the equivalent to a human being, but those I know who subscribe to this position take it very seriously, contrary to the stereotypes that many pro-choice people have. (The argument that pro-lifers are merely about controlling women's bodies is a self-serving interpretation that does not tell the whole story, and part of the reason that advocates for abortion rights keep losing, since they so fundamentally misunderstand their opponents.)

Well, those days are over. Fetuses Uber Alles is nothing but a dirty cop-out. It is an easy way for religious conservatives to deny their complicity in the horrible immorality of the policies pushed by the people they vote for. After Trump and Moore I am convinced that this crowd simply likes voting for conservatives and approves of their policies, and saying they are doing it for the fetuses gives them moral cover to be immoral. "Fetuses Uber Alles" does a lot of work in our current political discourse in this regard, which is why I am skeptical the anti-abortion Democrats can somehow get votes that would normally go Republican.

Those folks will still vote Republican, and will maybe feel a little bad when their neighbors are deported, but will always be able to console themselves by saying that they are still saving the fetuses. I honestly don't know what is to be done about Fetuses Uber Alles, because no one I know who subscribes to that outlook seems capable of being shaken from their position. As Alabama shows, it is an extremely powerful wall to break down. The only real solution is to make sure that we are more organized than they are, and I fear the necessary work in that regard isn't getting done.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Right Wing Leninism Strikes Again

The vote for the tax overhaul bill in the wee hours of this morning was part of something I have been trying to say for years on this site. The Republican Party is not a party in the traditional sense, but merely a vehicle for a radical ideology. The Republicans are not conservatives, they are revolutionaries who intend to roll back the 20th century.

In this regard they have a lot in common with the Bolshevik party, which in 1917 did everything with one goal in mind: to gain power. Other revolutionary parties had moral limits on their behavior, they Bolsheviks didn't, and they won. They would do any deed and tell any lie if if helped them reach their goal. The ends justified the means if it meant getting their revolution.

The Republican Party has signed a blood pact with a lunatic, supporting his presidency as long as he he supports its revolutionary agenda. He may have collaborated with an enemy power, he may be bilking the government for personal gain, and he may even be an unhinged wacko, but the Republicans don't care as long as they get tax cuts. In the same spirit, they passed a bill that consisted largely of scribbles in the margins without any kind of public hearings, or even the ability for legislators to read it. They know the majority of the country is opposed to it, and they just don't care.

They have no qualms about using undemocratic means to hold power. They suppress the vote, they pack the courts with unqualified 36 year olds, they gerrymander, and they willingly accept assistance from a foreign dictator. They have their own television network, web sites, and radio stations to feed their lies and bullshit to their followers. The truth, the Constitution, and the law are useful only in so much as it serves their agenda.

There are no "good ones." The sentimental attachment to the likes of McCain, Murkowski, Flake, and Collins among liberals needs to stop. These supposed paragons of virtue showed their true colors at 2AM this morning. The one and only response is to drive them out, and to fight fire with fire.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

New Piece At Liberal Currents

The good folks at Liberal Currents were good enough to publish another piece of mine. In fact, the editor requested it after seeing me talk about the Gettysburg Address on my Twitter feed. Please read and share my piece, but also give Liberal Currents some love. It's pushing against some of the lazy stereotypes on the left about liberalism, and showing instead a vibrant exchange of ideas.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Old Dad's Records #22

My newest episode of my podcast, Old Dad's Records, is up. I recorded it right before Thanksgiving, and talk a lot about that holiday. I start with "Country Roads" by John Denver, a song with a lot of importance for my childhood. After that I break with the format for an episode by putting a playlist on shuffle and talking about the songs that come up. In this case, keeping with the childhood theme, it's all guilty pleasure pop music from the 1980s. I hope you have as much fun listening to it as I did recording it.

Friday, November 24, 2017

My Letter To Ajit Pai

As I am sure you know, net neutrality is currently under threat. Here's the letter I wrote to Ajit Pai, the Chairman of the FCC's board. I know that he is probably not going to change his mind, but I will also be writing a separate letter to the other board members, including Michael O'Rielly and Brendan Carr, the two other board members likely to vote for it. There will also be protests at Verizon stores soon, please make sure to get your bodies out there and tell your family, friends and neighbors to do something. The stakes are too high for apathy or being too cool for school, folks.


I am writing to you as a concerned citizen regarding your recent moves to undermine the rules for Internet service providers known as “net neutrality.” I am sure that you have heard from plenty of other people on this issue, and I would hope that my voice, added to theirs, could convince you to change your mind.

The internet is not a product, it is a national resource. It is currently where most of this nation’s public sphere plays out. As I would hope you know, the public sphere is the lifeblood of any functioning democracy. This is why in years past that the FCC has regulated radio, television, and the internet in ways that prevent distortions in the public sphere. Without those regulations the public sphere simply becomes an object to be sold to the highest bidder. The current presidential administration has been hostile to the fourth estate and seems quite comfortable with letting those with the most money have the most say. That is an assault on democracy, I would hope that you would not want to be complicit in such behavior.

Net neutrality is crucial to having a functioning public sphere in America. It prevents internet service providers, who have practical monopolies in many places, from imposing their political agendas. It allows those on the margins of society to have their voices heard without having to pay extra for it. Beyond protecting the public sphere, it prevents internet service providers from forcing their customers to pay more money to access certain parts of the internet. After all, the internet is a national resource that originated with the Department of Defense. Why should private corporations be allowed to squeeze the last dollar out of a vital institution that was built with public money? As always, it seems that corporations are the biggest “welfare queens” of them all.

I would also like to add that your former employment by Verizon concerns me. Any notion that you are totally objective on this issue, or that your primary interests lie with the American public, strain credulity. As a Verizon customer I can attest that their main concern is squeezing their customers, who are held captive because of their monopoly power, for as much money as possible. I am sure you earned a healthy salary from people like me being chiseled, but please look at the big picture. Ending net neutrality will not unleash “innovation” but will simply enable Verizon and the other wealthy telecommunications giants to engage in rent-seeking behavior.

Perhaps as a former lawyer for that corporation you are fine with that, but I would hope that you would look deeper into yourself and think long and hard about doing the right thing. We are in a moment of great historical importance, and our democracy is standing on a precipice. If I were you I would not want my name to go down in infamy as one of the enablers of the destruction of the American public sphere, and by extension, American democracy itself.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Sing Me Back Home

Play this one at my funeral

How did it get to be late November, already? Last week winter hit New Jersey after a temperate autumn so fast I've got whiplash. It's getting dark before I get home, and I feel the drafts creeping through the windows at night. Now all of a sudden it's Thanksgiving this week.

Riding the train home from work today while almost passing out from exhaustion, I realized that I have not been home for Thanksgiving since 2008. I haven't seen my parents on Thanksgiving since 2010. While I am glad to have new traditions with my wife and her family, I am feeling homesick this week. Last year I was so disgusted by the election that I did not want to go home, my anger was so great at the place that raised me to despise the kind of man it embraced. After a year of insanity, my anger has been mixed with a healthy dose of despair.

The problem with holidays is that we replicate the rituals year after year, so that we maintain a kind of uniform memory of "Thanksgiving," rather than individual memories of specific Thanksgivings. When we can no longer replicate the old rituals, due to distance from family or many of the participants passing on to death, a feeling of great loss creeps in. My grandmother died four years ago this month, and she was the central figure in my mother's family's Thanksgivings. Now that she is gone that side of my family has broken apart on the rocks of resentment. Today I would not be allowed to visit my grandparents' old farm house due to these conflicts, which is my own personal banishment from the Garden of Eden. In any case, so many of my cousins and aunts and uncles I would love to see have also scattered, just like me, from Oregon to Colorado to Missouri to Alabama.

But even so, I miss Nebraska at Thanksgiving time. The landscape is awash in almost painted colors of golds and browns, and the flat stubble fields, now bereft of corn, allow one to see from horizon to horizon under a heavy, limitless sky. It is a place where you feel in thrall to nature, where Thanksgiving time often brings fearsome ice storms, surprise blizzards, and blasting winds. It is a reminder of our smallness in our universe.

Instead I spend my days working in New York City, its stone and steel having driven nature beneath the pavement, its existence a rumor. The natural world is present in Central Park of course, but that's more of a theme park, neat and tidy. I come home to New Jersey, and the dead television gray of its November sky over endless subdivisions and strip malls. Here the work of humans feels impenetrable, everlasting, and all encompassing. In Nebraska it feels transitory and frail. Beneath the skyscrapers, it is indeed frail, and we all could use a reminder of that, New Yorkers especially.

Last year I directed anger at my home state, finding its support for Trump irredeemable. This year, seeing the pathetically inadequate response in the areas where he is not popular, I've come to the correct conclusion that our entire country is at fault for this mess, either actively or passively. With that in mind, I long to be home this Thanksgiving, but I know in my heart of hearts the things I seek to find, and many of the people I associate with it, are lost and gone forever. So I will enjoy my time with my new family of my own, and make traditions for my own children to cherish.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Cranky Bear Says You Don't Need To Fight With Your Conservative Family This Thanksgiving (Or Find Common Ground, Either)

[Editor's note: my friend Cranky Bear hasn't written here in awhile. His last piece was pretty controversial, and ruffled a few feathers. Anyway, I'm too exhausted to write, so I let him say his piece.]

Cranky Bear here folks, coming at you while having some coffee and chocolate to keep my mind strong.

In the last few years I've kept seeing all these takes on the internet telling liberals and progressives who come from conservative families that they are supposed to fight with their family members at holiday gatherings, or else they are somehow cowards unworthy of the cause. The argument goes like this: if you can't challenge your conservative family members, who can you challenge? And it also goes like this: you're in their family, so you're the kind of person who can change their mind.

These takes are invariably written by people who are not the progressive minority in a conservative family. If they were, they'd know just how ridiculous their arguments are. I know, because I have been pretty openly opposed to the politics of most of my family for the past twenty-five years, and shockingly, I haven't changed anyone's mind by disagreeing with them. A lot of folks don't seem to get that we HAVE BEEN FIGHTING against long odds for a long time. Usually political "conversations" in these contexts involve getting ganged up on by everybody else in the room. Those folks also tend to blend their arguments with a healthy dose of elder condescension. It turns out that a younger family member who perhaps does not live in the same region anymore is the last kind of person able to change their mind. The discussions end with them feeling confirmed in their beliefs, rather than questioning them. In these circumstances avoiding political discussion is a perfectly fine thing to do. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Of course, I do draw the line at openly expressed racism and bigotry, I just won't let that shit slide, and neither should you.

The way I see it, my energy is best spent not getting red-faced and angry while stuffing turkey in my mouth with my beloved family members. I am not interested in "winning" arguments at the dinner table. (Or even having them in the first place. I want to enjoy their presence and be happy!) My efforts are aimed at my neighbors in my own community, and getting them to get out there and vote for the right things and the right people. I save my energy for the streets and for letters and phone calls to politicians. My objection to their malfeasance matters a lot more than getting apoplectic over a relative arguing that tax cuts for the wealthy will bring prosperity for all. In fact, our emphasis on Thanksgiving political fracases and not on the work of everyday political engagement is having a negative effect on us. I don't want to beat my family members in verbal arguments, I want to defeat the politicians and the ideas that they support.

While you should not feel any kind of obligation to fight with your conservative family members, neither should you listen to the takes that say that you need to find "common ground" or "understand where they are coming from." Yet again, the people with those takes don't actually understand the dynamics of how being progressive in a conservative family works. We have been hearing their side of things for our entire lives. In fact, we were raised in their politics, meaning that once upon a time we bought into it to a greater or lesser extent. I "understand where they are coming from" because they used to be me. I know enough to know I can love them and still absolutely despise the people they vote for.

I know that they think their way and I think mine and we aren't going to convince each other otherwise. What I can do is fight hard for the things I believe in, in a variety of contexts. I can teach my students this country's real history. I can organize my neighbors. I can knock on doors for candidates. I can call and put pressure on elected officials. I can get my body in the street and protest. I don't want you to "call out" your reactionary uncle. I want to you to join the general strike when the shit goes down. Because trust me folks, that's the call we are going to be asked to answer pretty soon.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Comeback Elvis Is The Best Elvis

A couple of years ago one of my daughters was sick and I had to stay home from work to take care of her. She was three at the time, and she liked it when I would show her old clips of musical performances. I was exhausted and a little sick myself, so I decided to cue up a video of the complete center stage performances from Elvis’ comeback special. These performances, where he is clad head to toe in black leather, have more than outshined the big productions numbers from his 1968 special. My daughter was enraptured. I also tried to show her Elvis’ Aloha From Hawaii concert film, when he was in his 70s sequined jumpsuit period. My daughter would have none of it, exclaiming “I want rock and roll Elvis!”

She was channeling a feeling that I am sure was common in 1968. The rock and roll Elvis was back, snarling and sassy, ripping it up on songs like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” The years and years of stupid movies and worse soundtracks were over. This was not the smiling lug in a blow-dried haircut romancing a generic starlet with wholesome woo, but a dangerous, sexy molten hot hunk of burning love. Of course, by 1970 he was in Vegas and the fiery spark of the comeback had faded into the ochre tint of black velvet.

This gives his comeback music an elegiac quality, which is perhaps why I find myself listening to it in November, the month when all around is dying. The fall colors are nature’s most beautiful burst before going dormant, much like the comeback years were Elvis’ greatest music period, but came right before stasis and the end. So with that in mind, here are five songs that are not so much a top five but five reasons why comeback Elvis is the best Elvis.

"Don’t Cry Daddy"

“In The Ghetto” is probably Elvis’ most maudlin song, and it is positively cringe-worthy in 2017. Elvis makes the maudlin work better on “Don’t Cry Daddy,” a song sung from the perspective of a man who has lost his wife. (Both songs are written by Mac Davis, which is not a coincidence.) He wakes up in the morning, his son coming to him and giving him strength, telling him not to cry. Elvis was famously close with his own mother Gladys, who died soon after his rise to fame. I don’t think there’s another song where that lingering pain comes out stronger. The hiccups in his voice would be corny coming from someone else, but Elvis makes me believe this song.

"Suspicious Minds"

OK, this one is kinda obvious, but it’s obvious for a reason. Elvis really sank his teeth into this song about a collapsing relation, perhaps because it mirrored his own disintegrating marriage. It still sounds great. I mean, what kind of love song starts with “We’re caught in a trap”? It is a thoroughly adult song, a million miles away from the “That’s Alright Mama” abandon of the Sun years or the aw shucks romance of the movie years. One of the things I like best about his comeback music is that it is indeed so mature in its themes. As I get older it just gets better for that reason.

"Trouble-Guitar Man"

This is the song that started his comeback special. "If you're looking for trouble/You've come to the right place." BAM! Elvis snarls into the camera, blowing away the insipid image he had built in his movies in a matter of seconds. And sure, the jazzy, splashy arrangement of "Guitar Man" and the accompanying production number are very Hollywood, but Elvis is giving the song a rough layer of grunt and sweat. It has the vitality of his youthful music, but also the toughness of experience, a sense of the quiet confidence of an older man. I love it.

This comes from Back In Memphis, the lesser successor to From Elvis in Memphis, which is by far my favorite Elvis album. Nevertheless, it's really good. There's a real groove here and a toughness in his voice and an obvious connection to his own life. He had left Hollywood behind, but obviously felt ambivalent about his hometown of Memphis. It is one of the few times that Elvis really seemed to let his inner life come out in his music. You can hear it in other comeback era songs. 

"One Night With You"

The best part of the comeback special are the songs Elvis plays with his old bandmates, sitting on chairs. It's loose and fun and raw and he is having a hell of of a time, especially on this number. I will never ever forgive Colonel Tom Parker for hiding the lamp of his talent under the bushel basket of godawful movies and their insipid soundtracks.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Old Dad's Records Podcast Is Back, Baby!

After a month-long hiatus, I recorded another episode of my podcast. This episode was framed by the fact that an old professor and friend passed away on Friday. This prompted thoughts on death, autumn, war, and what it means to leave friends behind. You know, cheerful stuff!  I discuss folk music, specifically Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and a greatest hits record by Ian and Sylvia. November and winter generally have always been perfect for folk music, as far as I am concerned.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Take Action On Grad Student Tuition Waivers

This post is not one where I am going to analyze politics or riff on pop culture, no sir. I know most of my readers are academics or former academics, and so y'all know that the new tax bill would tax graduate student tuition waivers. This would have prevented most of us, including yours truly, from going to grad school. I know that they are whipping votes for this tax bill in the House next week, and I think we need to flood our representatives with letters and calls about this. I know my rep in New Jersey has my back, so I wrote the representative for the district where I went to grad school, who happens to be a Republican. I will share that letter below. However, I also plan on contacting my alma mater to demand they get off their asses and lobby said rep to do the right thing by his district. I recommend that the rest of you do the same. Kvetching about it on social media alone doesn't solve a damn thing.

Anyway, here's the letter:

I am a proud graduate of the University of Illinois, where I earned my PhD in history. My six years in Champaign-Urbana were some of the best and most fruitful of my life. My graduate degree allowed me to become a university professor and a now teacher at a private high school. The knowledge I learned at Illinois is something that makes in impact on young people every day I go into the classroom, and it is one of the things that I am most grateful for.

It is thus with great trepidation and sadness that I have learned that the current tax overhaul proposal in Congress would start taxing tuition waivers granted by universities to graduate students. Without my tuition waiver there is no way that I would have been able to complete my studies. During my graduate education I worked as a teaching assistant, earning less than $20,000 a year and barely scraping by. Having to pay taxes on a much larger amount of money than I was actually earning would have ended my graduate career.

There are literally thousands of graduate students at the University of Illinois in this situation. The U of I, as I am sure you are aware, is one of the biggest economic assets that the 13th district possesses. It draws in people from around the country and around the world, many who fall in love with central Illinois and become great assets to its economy and communities. The so-called “Silicon Prairie” would not exist without a fresh group of graduate students in the computer sciences.

What does the government actually gain by taxing poor graduate students? The revenue will be slight, but the negative impact will be tremendous. It is also morally outrageous for a tax plan to do this to graduate students while simultaneously making it so wealthy children can inherit more of their parents’ money or for massive corporations to pay the same tax rate that I, the teacher and spouse of a teacher, will be paying under the new plan.

While it might be a lost cause to persuade you to reject such giveaways to the richest Americans, I at least hope that you can see that the tax on graduate student tuition waivers will have a horrible impact on thousands of your constituents and be extremely bad for the district whose interests you have promised to represent. If you cannot reject the current tax bill wholesale, at least work to eliminate the tax on tuition waivers. If you refuse, I must assume you serve masters other than the people of central Illinois.

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Code Red" And Crying At My Dinner Table

Tonight at dinner I witnessed one of the biggest mood reversals in my life. Sometimes I play jaunty music at dinner, and tonight it was uptempo fifties doo-wop. My daughters were loving it, getting up from their plates to dance manically to "Blue Moon." It was one of those too perfect moments, like something out of a movie about a carefree, happy family. A minute later I was crying.

They were telling us about their day, and started to tell us about how they did a "code red" drill at school today. With the same wide-eyed manic energy they were demonstrating how to hide under a table if a shooter was in the room, and I lost it.

It was something I already knew theoretically, but now the harsh, disgusting reality set in: my little five year olds live in a country where mass shootings are so common that they have to prepare for them at school like they are tornadoes or fires.

We have become so accustomed to this, so resigned, that rather than doing anything to actually stop these things, we have just accepted them as a fact of life. Our schools and our communities have gotten used to seeing little children as targets of carnage. We have collectively decided that we would rather sacrifice a few children now and then than do anything that would require taking away anyone's guns.

After Sandy Hook the die was cast. We will keep sacrificing our children to the Moloch of our moral corruption and indifference. It has to stop. If this bothers you, go beyond posting anti-gun memes the day after an attack. Vote and get out the vote for people trying to stop this. Get out into the street and put pressure on the politicians who condone it or who are too cowardly to fight against it. After looking into my children's eyes as they told me how they would hide if a shooter was in their school I know that there is nothing else that I can do and still be capable of living with myself.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Classic Music Videos: "West End Girls"

Growing up in rural Nebraska in the 1980s and early 1990s, MTV was absolutely essential. In those pre-internet days, it was my main conduit to the hip world. (That and the magazine rack at the library and Walgreen's were it.) When I was older I would sit enraptured on Sunday night to 120 Minutes, taking notes on songs that I liked and then hoping the albums were available at the local Musicland.

Before that point, MTV still mattered in the ways it presented the pop music I liked on the radio. A great example is the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls." I knew the song, I thought it was super cool (mostly because my older cousin who had good taste liked it), but the video was like a trip into another world. Even though I've been there, when I think of London, I think of this video. At first it doesn't show the London of Big Ben or Buckingham Palace, but the London of boxy modernist buildings, cluttered streets, and turned up collars. Later, when we see some of the monuments they look washed out, faded.

The song itself is about the feeling of disconnection and quiet alienation that one can feel in the city, perfectly embodied by the gorgeous synths and Neil Tennant's wonderfully arch, emotionally detached delivery like Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. In the video he strides in a determined fashion, his long overcoat flowing with Chris Lowe in a tough black leather jacket, quietly half scowling.

At the time I did not know anything about Tennant and Lowe's sexuality, but I definitely put them in the context of other British New Wave/synth acts of the time, who did not project the over the top masculinity of hair metal, the dominant musical genre in my hometown. These men were less testosteronal, and being a nerdy kid who tended to fail to conform to masculine ideals at school, I found that attractive. (It should come as no surprise that the second CD I bought was Depeche Mode's Violator.) I could watch this video and imagine myself in a big city, striding down the street in an overcoat. That's perhaps why when I finish my morning commute by walking up Broadway from 72nd street, I pop this song in my headphones and feel like my life took me in the right direction.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mueller Won't Save You

Donald Trump put hard times on us, but we gotta fight

I wrote last week about the difference between nice liberals and fighting liberals. In the days since the nice liberals have been having a field day. The nice liberals really really want to believe that our institutions work, that the real world is like The West Wing or Mr Smith Goes To Washington. So when George W Bush and Jeff Flake and Bob Corker criticize Trump these people swoon despite the horrible damage they have done and the reactionary nature of their politics. And when the Mueller indictments came down, my oh my these folks creamed their pants. They think they are seeing their faith in the system confirmed, and that they will not have to have their hands sullied by actually doing hard political work.

I have some bad news for the nice liberals: Mueller won't save you. Anti-Trump Republicans won't save you. Hilary won't save you. Bernie won't save you. Chuck and Nancy won't save you. The FBI won't save you. The courts won't save you. The military sure as shit won't save you. Only concerted, mass action has any chance of stopping this. As someone who is on the fighting side of the left, I implore all the nice liberals to put down their copies of What Happened and get out into the streets. And more than that, be prepared to join a general strike, or a bank boycott, or any other kind of collective action that demands something more.

If the Republicans control Congress after 2018, Trump's agenda will continue without a check. If the states stay Republican, we will see even worse gerrymandering after 2020, even worse voter suppression, even worse union busting. The Republicans know that their ideology is inherently unpopular. Most people don't want tax cuts for the rich and broad entitlements like Social Security and Medicare to be slashed. Yet that is conservative orthodoxy. Even using xenophobia and racism Trump still lost by three million votes. They need to rig the system permanently to maintain control, and in two years, I think that they will have it. If that happens all the indictments in the world won't mean shit.

Just look at what happened last year. All the nice liberals kept refreshing the page for 538's election prediction while others on the left went to Twitter to accuse Clinton of being a neoliberal. Look at what that got us. If the nice liberals as well as the socialist left refuse to unite against fascism and actually fight it, I guarantee you that fascism will triumph, indictments of not. So get out there and fight.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

"Gettysburg Address" At Tropics of Meta

The kind folks at Tropics of Meta have yet again given me a platform for my stuff. It's a new and improved version of the piece I did imaging Trump giving the Gettysburg Address. Check it out here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Nice Liberals Versus Fighting Liberals

The most harmful TV show in American history

In the past year much has been made of rift between the left and liberals. This is mostly due to folks on the left proclaiming said rift. The word "liberal" is of course notoriously fuzzy and porous, and can mean all things to all people. Looking at the current political world, I think the rather random use of the word "liberal" has blinded us to a deep conflict within the ranks of liberalism.

This rift is between those I would call "nice liberals" and those I deem "fighting liberals." The main thing that distinguishes them is that nice liberals have conflated morality with politics, while fighting liberals better understand that politics is a power play, not a war of virtues. Nice liberals have watched too much West Wing, and think that our system's institutions will somehow save us because they are manned by good people with our interests at heart. Fighting liberals are more likely to identify with Veep, with all that implies. Nice liberals are more interested in maintaining institutions and norms, fighting liberals are more interested in winning. This division also has little to do with Bernie versus Hillary. Though Sanders had a social democratic message, the vast majority of his supporters, like Clinton's, were liberals.

My realization of the nice versus fighting rift came while attending many protests this year. At the those I've been to, the vast majority of attendees have been liberals, not leftists. However, they are most definitely of the fighting variety. The first protest I went to was organized by labor unions to call to protect health care, all the way back in January. It was a liberal crowd, but of fighters. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez even got raked over the coals for failing to support a bill to lower drug prices.

If you want a clear distinction between nice liberals and fighting liberals, just look at the response today to Jeff Flake's speech. The nice liberals were falling over themselves to give praise. This speech is catnip to their West Wing sensibilities. They want to believe that there is some kind of basic decency shared on both sides of the aisle. Fighting liberals responded differently. They tended to point out that Flake still votes for Trump's agenda, and that his dropping out of his Senate race was more a reflection of his unwillingness to face a primary challenge than anything else.

If the Democrats are to be successful going forward, they need more of the fighting spirit and less of the "nice." That nice was "when they go low, we go high." That nice was expecting the Trump campaign to collapse on its own accord. The fighting spirit has been awakened since last November, it needs to be the dominant mindset among liberals if they are going to have any hope for change.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Tax Cut Shell Game

Well folks, it looks like the Republicans are going to play the tax cut shell game yet again. It's rather ingenious, and for some reason they still keep getting away with it. This is how it works: they tell everyone that if taxes for the wealthy are cut, libertarian magic powder will fall from the heavens and the economy will grow. Not only that, the increased economic output will increase revenue. The tax cuts will pay for themselves!

This is, of course, a bunch of carny bullshit. What astounds me is that we have now had 36 years of proof going back to Reagan's 1981 tax cuts that this simply does not work. What actually happens is that the deficits balloon and debt piles up. For years critics of the GOP tax cut theology have failed to see, however, that the deficits are a feature, not a bug.

Conservatives know in their heart of hearts that the Laffer Curve is horseshit. They also know that so many in the media take their deficit hawk malarkey seriously, which allows them to be portrayed as Very Serious People instead of irresponsible servants of the wealthy. This gives them cover, since what the deficits do is force unpopular cuts in social spending down the road. Once they kick in, conservative politicians claim that austerity is The Only Option. (Just witness what happened when Republicans got back Congress during the Obama years.) Raising taxes is rarely popular, so the deficits tend to force Democrats to either acquiesce to austerity or to risk political suicide -a la Mondale in '84- by telling people they will have to go back to paying more taxes. Over time this means massive cuts to the social state, as we have seen in the last three decades.

Anyone with half a brain can see this dynamic once it's presented to them. Why then does our media persist in playing along as if this is not the clear, long-term intent of tax cuts?  Why is someone like Paul Ryan, the chief instigator of the shell game, always shown as a Very Serious Person? Is the media that afraid of calling things what they are, lest they be accused of lacking objectivity?

And we wonder how we got into this awful mess.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trump at Gettysburg

[Editor's Note: something imagined in response to the president's recent call to a military widow.]

Four score and seven years ago…I invented the word “score” to mean 20 years by the way… our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation…very true, very true… conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…but people are saying, I won’t say who the are, but people are saying that might be fake news…Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…but we will endure, because we are the best, we are the strongest…We are met on a great battle-field of that war…very great, the biggest, the best…We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives…even though they knew what they were getting into…that that nation might live…very true, very true…It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this…Trump always does the fitting and proper thing, but those dopes in the fake news media won’t report it…But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground…but we can have the greatest celebration, the best…The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…but I am sure there are some very good people on the Confederate side, too…The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…just kidding, everything I do is the biggest and most important… but it can never forget what they did here…very true…It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…even if they knew what they were getting into…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…even if they knew what they were getting into, it’s still a shame…that this nation, under God…that’s right, I said God, the Democrats won’t say it but I will…shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth…but the fake news media needs to be stopped from ending it first, people. And those NFL players who won’t salute the flag, I say fire them! And wasn’t this a great speech people? It will get the highest ratings, believe me.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Billboard Top Ten: October 19, 1985

I've been spending a lot of late nights looking up old 80s music videos, and have found peak 80s to be in the 1984-1986 sweet spot. At this point the funk of the 70s had been completely erased, and Reagan's "morning in America" schtick was at its most popular. The top ten chart from this week in 1985 is just about as 80s as it gets.  On with the countdown!

10. Tears for Fears, "Head Over Heels"

By 1985 the post-punk British explosion and all that new wave jazz had evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) into a group like Tears for Fears. Their music was very poppy, but still personal and lyrically more deep than the average top 40 fare. (That's probably the reason it made it onto the Donnie Darko soundtrack.) At the time I really liked it.

9. Sting, "Fortress Around Your Heart"

This is another song I really dug back in '85. People forget what a big deal Sting was at this point, his name iconic as the other one-name-wonders Madonna and Prince. His solo music was not even as close to being as good as The Police, but this song had a little magic in it. The grayscale video and vibe of the song reflected the renewed 80s Cold War situation. It's better than anything else Sting would manage in his solo career.

8. Mick Jagger and David Bowie, "Dancing In The Street"

Ohhhhhh boy. This song and video has now become shorthand for lameness. It was a song put together for charity, so I can't be too critical, but man, this is a classic case of being too big to be told no. The 80s butt rock behind this track is as obviously tacky as the color of Mick's shirt and the print of whatever the hell Bowie is wearing. At this point Bowie's momentum from "Let's Dance" had crashed and Jagger was inexplicably feuding with Keef and trying to pass himself off as a solo artist. If you ever want to show anyone how bad the 80s could be, just show them this.

7. Dire Straits, "Money For Nothing"

Here's a song in that genre new to the 80s: songs that became megahits due to their videos. Gather 'round, kiddos, and I will tell you of a time when the sub-screen saver animation of this video was a revelation to us oldsters. The song and video were so meta because they were also commentaries on the ubiquity of MTV. The use of the awful word "faggot" in this song, even in a satirical context makes it difficult to listen to these days. That word was still flung around with ubiquity back then, so much so that on the playground I had no clue that it was a very specific slur. As bad as shit is nowadays, I would never want to go back to 1985.

6. John Mellencamp, "Lonely Ol' Night"

Back in my rural Nebraska homeland growing up there was a holy trinity of contemporary rock music: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and John Mellencamp. The latter's rural Midwestern origins oozed through his music and really resonated with me. Even his minor hits got saturation airplay on local radio. This was one of my favorites, since it captured the feeling of being in a small town with no action and trying to find that spark of human connection.

5. Jan Hammer, "Miami Vice Theme"

Oh God did I love this song and this show. It was on Saturday night, so I could stay up late enough and watch it. It just made me feel so mature and cool just to be associated with it. The show also had one of the great all time opening credits sequences, which makes Miami look like the hippest place on earth, at least in 1985. The show and synthesizers were so cool in 1985 that its theme could make the top ten. Funny how what we thought was the future is now such an obvious relic of the past.

4. Ready For The World, "Oh Sheila"

I had totally forgotten about this song. The drum and synth sound is pure Prince. I even had to look up if this group was produced by him, but nope. It's a pretty clear version of "drive it like you stole it," but I think it still works.

3. Stevie Wonder, "Part-Time Lover"

This one is sultry and bouncy like a Hall and Oates song. It's a weird kind of thing where the man who originated the sound is imitating the people who imitated him. It's a decent pop song, but pretty lame compared to what Wonder was doing in the 70s. At least he's not embarrassing himself a la Jagger and Bowie.

2. Whitney Houston, "Saving All My Love For You"

I know it's not popular to say this, but Whitney Houston was one of the great wasted talents in musical history. She had an amazing voice, and would often use it in thrillingly creative and surprising ways. It was a shame that her voice was paired with consistently boring, insipid songs and arrangements. If only she had come up in the 60s and 70s, and not in the 80s, which was a dark decade for the poppier side of soul music.

1. a-ha, "Take On Me"

Oh boy, here it is. This right here just might be the most 80sed thing that ever 80sed. The keyboard hook alone makes this a true relic of its time. How in the hell did a Norwegian synth pop band hit the top of the charts? By making perhaps the most bitchin' emotional roller coaster of a video yet seen. Once MTV could take a band like a-ha to the top of the charts the mighty M was truly king. How long did that reign last? It's hard to say, but it as long as it did, it never captured the zeitgeist quite like in did in 1985.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Old Dad's Records 20 (Tom Petty)

This week I hit episode 20 on the Old Dad's Records Podcast. As I do with every fifth episode, I discussed a record of mine that's actually highly regarded and well-known. The choice this week was pretty obvious: Tom Petty. As I discuss in episode, I was a fan of his from around the time I was listening to popular music seriously. As I got older, I also realized what a great band the Heartbreakers were, and talk a lot about that, too.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

America's Year Of Living Dangerously

Events in the past year in the United States have helped me understand events in other countries I used to have a hard time wrapping my mind around. Having grown up in a stable democracy that had maintained the same Constitution for two centuries, it took effort to understand how people reacted to events in less stable countries.

Now, there are a lot of things I get. When there was a military coup in Egypt during Arab Spring, I was shocked at the popular support for it. How could the military taking over possibly be a happy event for people who wanted more of a voice? Now I realize that when it is a choice between an authoritarian trainwreck and a military takeover that many people might prefer the latter. This is the first time in my lifetime in America that I've thought this was a possibility. Hearing what I am hearing about Mattis and Kelly's responses to working with Trump I wonder if the praetorian guard scenario will play out.

Another thing that makes sense to me now is election boycotting. In many countries supporters of the candidate opposing the leader boycott the election when they feel that it isn't fair. I've usually wondered about this, since it seems like giving up before the battle is fought. Now I get it. If an election is rigged, boycotting it undercuts the legitimacy of the government. This action also helps rally and solidify the opposition. With gerrymandering and voter suppression rigging our system, a boycott in the worst hit areas does not sound like a far-fetched idea.

I am having these thoughts, of course, because I can feel America's democratic stability crumbling. Our president is threatening to shut down critical news outlets. In many states the vote is suppressed and districts drawn to ensure a Republican victory. The president is using his pardon power to forgive political cronies. Meanwhile little to nothing of substance is being done to stop this. Before long I predict we will see the kinds of events we normally associate with "troubled" nations. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Life During Wartime

I got today off from work, but my wife did not, and my kids are in school. Because our dog passed away recently, this meant I was going to be home totally alone today, something that I had not yet experienced in this house.

Initially, I barely noticed. I spent the early morning grading papers and banging out letters of recommendation, but after awhile I needed to take a break. At that moment I started to think long and hard about the state of the world. Nowadays when there is nothing to distract me (which is rare with my hectic schedule) I am paralyzed with despair over the state of this country.

At that point I realized I needed to get to the gym. I exercise only enough to avoid a heart attack and to balance out my love of bad food, but the endorphins are a nice side benefit. While I tried to listen to my favorite podcast while I was on the cardio machine, my eyes could not help looking up to the bank of TVs hanging from the ceiling. Since the advent of streaming I've pretty much stopped watching anything live on TV that isn't sports or TCM or Maddow or Rockford Files re-runs on MeTV. I had forgotten about the awful, disgusting horror of daytime television. There were insipid talk shows, dumb game shows, infotainment local news, lamebrain cable news, and worst of all, sports opinion shows. All I kept thinking about is how our country is being run by a homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist, poor-hating, administration headed by an ignorant, lazy, traitorous, kleptocrat.

My mind kept going back to the DREAMers who are being used as hostages by Trump to extract his stupid fucking wall. I kept going back to the fact that each day brings evidence of how Russian intelligence manipulated our soulless internet companies to help put this horrible person in power. I kept thinking about the invisible people in Puerto Rico fighting for survival. I thought most of all about how our president is treating threats of nuclear war as a reality TV show.

Looking at that bank of atrocious television, it was clear to me more than ever that Trump is the perfect byproduct of this nation's worst tendencies. In other nations when autocrats try to grab power the people take over the main square. Here in America we have immersed ourselves so thoroughly in the cesspool of our empty, soulless consumerist nightmare that we are actually comfortable with a man like Trump in office. This goes even for those who don't like him, who chew their popcorn as they watch yet another episode of the Trump Show on Twitter, shouting their objections into the void but sitting on the couch rather than doing anything real.

Things are bad. They are getting worse. I have zero confidence that we are prepared for that. I feel like yelling out, like a GI from a Hollywood film from 1944, "Hey, don't you know there's a war on?!?"

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Nostalgia Rock And The Reagan Dusk

I've talked a lot on here about what I call the "Reagan Dawn," that cultural period from 1979-1982 where the transvaluation of values in favor of neoliberalism took place. I have also begun to theorize what I call the Reagan Dusk, which I date roughly from 1987 to 1991. This was a time when the promises of the Reagan Era appeared to have been false, and when the end of the Cold War forced a reckoning with the consequences of valuing missiles over people. There were contradictory forces to this self-reflection, such as the Gulf War and the peaceful collapse of communism. While these events seemed to say that America had triumphed, the social problems of the time appeared to expose them as Pyrrhic victories. (Neil Young's searing "Keep On Rocking In The Free World" and Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" both hit in 1989 and were calls to action after years of neoliberal regression.)

Culturally, this was a time when the day-glo of the 80s had muted into earth tones, primary colors, and baggy sweaters. (Watch the original Twin Peaks and look at the clothes and you'll know what I am talking about.) Rap music was confronting the realities of American life under Reagan, but the only acts to get played on the radio were the likes of MC Hammer, Young MC, and (yikes) Vanilla Ice. There was too a growing underground rock scene, but it was far left of the dial. Culturally the nineties started in late 1991, once "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped and NWA's second album went to number one.

During the Reagan Dusk, things in the rock music world were more confused. Hair metal was the most popular genre, but was despised by anyone over the age of fourteen with five working brain cells to rub together. The rest of us, searching for "authenticity" fed on a diet of what I would call "Nostalgia Rock." This was music rooted in the 60s, often by musicians from that era, which consciously or not opposed the values of that era to the ones of the late Reagan years. Some of this music was purely nostalgic (like George Harrison's "When We Was Fab"). Sometimes the artist simply played original songs in the mode of older forms (like Chris Isaak.)

The curtain-raiser on this phenomenon was the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup formed out of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers touring with Bob Dylan. Jeff Lynne had produced friend George Harrison's hit Cloud Nine, and Roy Orbison somehow got roped in, too. Petty was the only artist of the now, the others were long in the tooth. This band of geezers cut some hits on their first record in 1988, including "Handle With Care," which still holds up. (I love the contrast between Dylan's late period quack and Orbison's soaring opera tenor.) It also happened to be the beginning of a Bob Dylan renaissance, as evidenced by 1989's Oh Mercy. This Wilburys supergroup album, which might have been dismissed in a time less starved for authenticity, went multiplatinum and won a Grammy.

Soon the deluge followed. In 1989 a bunch of sixties artists hit the road, including bands that had broken up, like the Who. The Rolling Stones toured behind Steel Wheels, inevitably prompting "steel wheelchairs jokes." (The joke's on us, since it's almost thirty years later and the Stones are still rolling.) There was a lot of Boomer nostalgia involved, but also a lot of curiosity by younger people (like myself) who rightly thought "Paint It, Black" far superior to "Cherry Pie." The Stones' current music was mediocre at best, but Steel Wheels was showered with accolades and sold very well.

Other legends managed to find their way back into the charts in this late 80s era, like George Harrison, Roy Orbison with "You Got It", and the aforementioned Neil Young.  Hell, even the damn Grateful Dead had a big hit with "Touch of Grey." Younger artists who borrowed from older styles also broke through. REM became the sole band of the pre-"Nevermind" underground to surface into mainstream MTV and radio play with a Byrds-y sound rooted in the sixties. Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever spawned several hits also with a very retro Byrds-y sound that departed from the more electronic, progressive music on songs like "Don't Come Around Here No More" and "You Got Lucky." Chris Isaak's pompadour, reverby guitar, and Orbison-esque vocals made him look and sound like a lost rock and roller who had fallen asleep in 1962 and woken up in 1990. The Black Crowes emerged big time in 1990 with a sound deeply rooted in early 70s southern rock and had a hit with a cover of Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle."

By 1990-1991 things got meta, and songs like "Black Velvet" and "Walking In Memphis" began to comment on the music of the past and its authenticity. Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet" was about Elvis while never saying his name. The song itself was a sultry blues, rather than Elvis' rockabilly, but recalled a music that could change the world. In 1990, that felt like a long time ago. Marc Cohn's "Walking In Memphis" made all kinds of references to American soul, gospel, blues, and rock n' roll but the song itself was built around a catchy piano hook that was very 1991. Cohn's love for this music is pretty obvious in the lyrics and his passionate reading of them.

But living in this time the years and years of nostalgia for a past music that mattered wore thin on youngsters like myself. I wanted my own music, and had been digging to find it. Public Enemy, Ice Cube, NWA, and Eric B and Rakim all energized me far more than what I was hearing on the radio. The music that mattered to me and felt important was not rock music. That changed in the autumn of 1991, when Metallica's black album and Nirvana's Nevermind dropped. Suddenly punk and metal were going from the losers and glue sniffers to the mall. Even the excesses of Guns n Roses' Use Your Illusion albums (released in late 1991) felt like a jolt to a rock scene desperately in need of one. Pretty much from that point forward the aping of the 60s lost its charm, and the new music made by the legends was immediately cordoned off into the geezer rock pastures. (Except for Neil Young and Tom Petty, who put out great stuff in this era.) For a teenager desperate for HIS generation to have its own musical heroes, it was a kind of deliverance, and marked the end of the Reagan Dusk and the dawn of the nineties.