Nine Inch Nails, "The Great Below"

>> Saturday, December 31, 2011

I can't think of anything less appetizing than writing a year-in-review post. "Best Of", "Worst Of", whatever. It was a good year for me, personally, and I can't deny that; I went to SXSW and I fell in love. A few other nice things happened, and inevitably a few not-nice things that could have happened to anyone and didn't cancel anything out. I know some people had a shitty year and so I don't want to seem like I'm rubbing it anyone's face. It just is what it is.

Anyway. Moving along.

I don't necessarily work well in silence; I usually need some kind of tuneage going on while I'm writing, which I know is a controversial subject for some folks. There are people who can't comprehend having background music on or see it as somehow being some kind of moral failure. I've known people who suggested I'd work better if I didn't have anything on in the background; what I think they don't get is that I have this tendency, if there's no music on in the background, to start playing music in my head, which is actually more distracting if I'm trying to get my head to do something else. Worse yet, sometimes the music going on in my head is original, which doesn't mean it's any good but does mean that creative cycles are being stolen from a more important process. Better to have something on.

Except that it can't be just anything. If you're a fellow background-music-er, you probably know that. There are some things that are just distracting for whatever reason. It has nothing to do with quality, there might be a good artist who works really well as background and a shitty artist who doesn't. And something that works as background music might still be something you'd immerse yourself in if you were sitting in a dark room with headphones on or cranking it in the car or whatever.

I don't know why, but Nine Inch Nails has been working really well as work music, lately. Could be that quite a lot of what Reznor writes is, in fact, instrumental music, though even the songs tend to work pretty well for my purposes. Ghosts I-IV, the band's all-instrumental album from 2008, is excellent work music, though. (At least a portion of it is still available for free download if you poke around the official website at the previous link.) Earlier this week, The Slip was the perfect thing to get a few words done to (it's another one Reznor's giving away, bless the magnanimous S.O.B., and I truly mean that with respect and affection--I love that this is an artist who's trying to figure out how to work in the new commercial environment technology's created). And then, the next day, it was The Fragile.

Good stuff. What works changes year-to-year, but Mr. Reznor's been helping me knock out the words this week, bless him.


Camper Van Beethoeven, "Tusk":

>> Friday, December 30, 2011

Just something about a weird band doing a cover of a weird song, y'know? You wouldn't necessarily reckon on Camper covering Fleetwood Mac--the latter being a million miles from Camper's usual Americana-rooted skachedelia or whatever you'd like to call it--but "Tusk" is simply a fucked-up song and right up their alley.

Only, as you might suss out from the cover-image in the embedded clip (which isn't exactly the Fleetwood Mac cover: the original cover featured exactly one less jackalope than the Camper version), CVB didn't just cover "Tusk"; they covered the entire album, track-for-track. I'm afraid I haven't heard the whole thing, couldn't tell you if it was any good. One suspects fidelity to the Buckingham numbers and snark towards the McVie tracks, but one could well be wrong.

Meanwhile, the year and my vacation are drawing to a close. It's the 30th of December already, and I have no idea how that happened. A turkey purchased during the post-Thanksgiving poultry markdown has been thawing in my fridge this week and shall be roasted this afternoon/evening. I'll need to run out to the supermarket and get one or two things to make this happen the way I'd like to, and then it's back home to write a bit. Not sure how much posting there will be this weekend with New Year's Eve partying and such. Tuesday, it's back to the office--it seems, happily, like forever since I was there and I can't say I'm eager to get back to the grind, but it pays the mortgage.


Dumb quote of the day--"Nobody is really this dumb, are they?" edition

>> Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Every barrel of oil that comes out of those sands in Canada is a barrel of oil that we don’t have to buy from a foreign source," Mr. [Rick] Perry said in Clarinda, earning a loud round of enthusiastic applause.
-Michael D. Shear, "What Moves Republican Crowds in Iowa",
New York Times, December 28th, 2011

It's not just that Governor Perry's remark is outrageously stupid from the "Guess-Who-Flunked-7th-Grade-Geography" perspective, it's that you really just have to assume it's actually a classic Freudian slip: that, as David Atkins says over at Hullabaloo,

In Republican land, "foreign" doesn't mean what it does to you and me. It means "vaguely brown, Mooslim countries with names likes Ooz-beki-beki-beki-stan."

A lot of people have compared Perry to George W. Bush, a comparison that I think is actually pretty unfair to the former President; my own views on Bush's intelligence are that, for all his ludicrous malapropisms, he isn't "dumb" so much as he's a broad, shallow thinker who is intelligent in his way but has a stereotypical CEO's monomaniacal focus on a chimeric "The Big Picture", expecting depth, details and execution to be the provinces of his delegates and advisors; give him shitty advisors--and George W. Bush had some of history's shittiest--and you could have predicted the awful results. For all the books Bush supposedly reads (and I'm sure he understands what he reads), I suspect his brain isn't the sort that makes leaps of insight, that links seemingly unrelated and independent facts into a kind of cognitive gestalt, that is comfortable with reasoning by analogy. (Parenthetically, one can't help adding that these are the kinds of thought processes and the sort of information intake encouraged and nurtured in traditional law school curricula, e.g. the kind of legal education one might get at, say, Harvard Law, just saying.)

Rick Perry, on the other hand, strikes one as simply dumb. This is the kind of glad-handing Southern pol who does just fine at barbecues so long as he doesn't have to talk about substantive policy. It's a bit baffling anyone would think this man was presidential material, and one has to assume his primary appeal to the Republicans who goaded him into the race was that Mitt Romney is too nuanced and Mormon to ever be his party's ideal man, which continues to be more than a little pathetic and can't possibly bode well for their party in the long term. (Oh, and by the way: if the sarcastic part of the last sentence didn't quite come off, please feel free to go back and put little finger air-quotes around "nuanced".)

It doesn't bode well for the country. First, because (I've said it before and I'll say it again), you want principled, intelligent opposition and hope that out of the conflict between you and your ideological opponents, some better solution will emerge (or at least that a little friction will encourage methodical progress). And, second, because it is possible one of the idiots the Republicans seem intent on nominating will actually be elected President, and I don't think it's really worth the gamble to hope the GOP nominates somebody like Perry or Newt Gingrich who President Obama ought to be able to bitch-slap into oblivion in public debate. If nothing else, Democrats have had something of a history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory since the Johnson presidency. If not that, there's a stagnant economy of the sort that brings down Presidencies. And if not that, of course there are all the accidents and odd turns of history--i.e. bad shit could happen no matter how we hope it doesn't, and we could find ourselves stuck with the results. In short, you want both sides to put up somebody who, even if you don't agree with them and regardless of whether or not you like them, you wouldn't fear for the whole country if they got elected, somehow. You don't want one party to put up a total nonce just because you think the guy you like more could whip him.

Hell, at the very least, you want both parties to put up a guy who knows what Canada is.


Adventures in purgatory

>> Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ah, the joys of modern bureaucracy. I'm writing this up at the Division of Motor Vehicles offices, here to renew my driver's license. First, I was in a line outside. Then, I was in a line inside. That was so I could get a number. Now I'm sitting in a chair waiting for my number to be called. It is 2:49 P.M.; I got here before 12:30.

This isn't really a complaint, per se. For one thing, this is my own damn fault: I could have and possibly should have called ahead and made an appointment; they let you do that now. Instead, I decided I'd rather bloc-out a day to spend queuing. (I also have to confess: I underestimated the wait.)

For another thing, the real point is that there is something simultaneously depressing and weirdly... invigorating about what is a universal, alienating, social experience. We are all meat in the chute, we are all anonymous numbers waiting to be called for, but we are all a worthless horde stripped of basic dignity and waiting for processing together. Drones, yes, but drones bound in common solidarity.

Of course, that could just be the Stockholm Syndrome talking....

I find the process of getting my license renewed to be faintly terrifying. We only do it every eight years in North Carolina, but that just seems to mean I have almost a decade to forget how all this is supposed to work. I find myself irrationally fearing that some complication will be discovered: someone else fraudulently using my license number is wanted for DWI in another county, somehow the insurance company has reported my policy as being revoked. I've seen Brazil, I know all it takes is a dead fly in a teletype to get the Men In Black Hoods trundling you off for questioning. I also start worrying I'll somehow forget all the signs when they give me the visual quiz ("Um... UFO landing strip?").

Ah, thank you. You've helped me through a time of stress, yet again.

Even as I was typing the above, my number was called and I went up as a humble penitent to the desk of a woman who proved to be kind and efficient. This, in a way, makes me feel bad for hacking on the whole "drones in a sea of bureaucracy" kind of way, but there you go. These are the hazards of being a writer, I suspect, or rather the hazard: at the bottom of everything, you really are a colossal dick, because if you weren't you'd keep it all to yourself and/or wouldn't actually have anything to write about. Heck, even if you write fiction. you kind of have to be a dick, although possibly just to imaginary people, which sounds better but isn't, really, because it means you're just bottling up all your dickishness all day long and saving it up for your passive-aggressive, dysfunctional inner life.

Anyway, they're going to keep letting me drive, which is a wonderful boon. For the nonce, I get a piece of paper telling me this and then in several weeks I should receive a piece of plastic with a picture of (I assure you) a complete and total stranger who looks nothing like me, possibly familiar from a mug shot displayed on an Unsolved Mysteries episode twenty years ago. It will also have my name, address, age on it, and will inform everybody that my organs can be harvested if they can be pried from out between a mess of twisted metal where a Volkswagen Beetle and an 18-wheeler have tried to occupy the same space at the same time in violation of the laws of physics as they're usually understood (but not for want of trying).


Dropping in at my own place, bringing nothing to the table

>> Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I was proud of myself for having a Boxing Day post in the chute before I went down to see my mom and sister this weekend; I'm much less proud to discover that I have nothing to write about the day after Boxing Day. I was assuming--wrongly, apparently--that something would show up and save me, some topic of conversation or significant incident that would be worth writing about.


Christmas with the family was excellent. Gifts were exchanged and seemed appreciated; I can say I liked the things I received, though I can only hope the things I gave were/are/will be enjoyed. And now I've exhausted this as a writing topic for the nonce.

Ditto for hanging out with friends online playing The Old Republic: excellent, appreciated, and now I've exhausted it as a writing topic, just about. It's a heck of a fun game so far; I've never played an MMORPG before, or at least not a subscriber one with the fighting and shooting and people running around on dozens of quests. This is all new to me, but it's Star Wars and it's Bioware, one of the best game companies out there, and a bunch of my friends were doing it, so how could I not? Okay, now I've exhausted it.

All-in-all, what we have here is an uninteresting filler post. My apologies. I will try to have something this week.

How are you, today?


Warren Zevon, "Boom Boom Mancini"

>> Monday, December 26, 2011

Or, to readers in Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere in The Commonwealth, Happy Boxing Day!

I figured I'd commemorate the occasion by finding some kind of endearing or entertaining song about Boxing Day on YouTube (being unable to remember any off the top of my head); but either because I'm too lazy to think through the right search phrase or simply because nobody has ever written an endearing or entertaining song about Boxing Day, I simply couldn't find one.

So, here's a song about boxing.

I would have to confess, I'm not a fan of boxing and really find the whole activity a little barbaric. Men get into a roped-off area and hit each other until one of them almost dies or the match gets called for a winner based on what seems like a suspiciously subjective scoring system. I'm not saying I don't get the appeal at all: there's something viscerally appealing about violence, and strategically inflicted violence manages to appeal to the lizardy parts of the lower brain that enjoy a really good punch to the face and the forebrainy parts that appreciate cause-and-effect. There's a certain skill and grace a talented boxer possesses until too many shots to the head turn him into a somewhat mobile pudding, a grace that satisfies both aesthetic and primal sensibilities. That doesn't mean I approve.

Consequent to the above, I confess I knew nothing about Ray Mancini prior to Warren Zevon releasing a slamming song about him, indeed, I can't even say for sure if I'd heard of him, or if I had it must have only been in a passing way. And enjoying the Zevon song as much as I do--that's really just an excellent beat driving it, and the way Warren spits out the syncopated lyrics is just perfect--always seems a little sleazy and poseur-ey: everything I know about Boom Boom Mancini I learned from Warren Zevon and eventually looking the guy up on Wikipedia when I got tired of wondering what the Duk Koo Kim reference was all about. That's probably irrational on my part: a song is a song, the subject is the subject, and there are lots of songs about places I've never been, things I've never done, people I haven't heard of, etc. Still. There's just something about the specificity in this instance that bothers me a little when I crank this one up. And you have to crank it up.


Happy Holidays!

>> Sunday, December 25, 2011


Frank Sinatra, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"

>> Saturday, December 24, 2011

I will be sparse the next few days, what with the usual seasonal commitments to friends and family in the meat-world and all that. Actually, physically speaking, I'm unlikely to be any more spare than usual, and with all the Christmas snackage that seems to flow like toys from a gigantic sack--well, I'm likely to be much less spare than usual.

"Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" comes off as a little treacly, but is still one of those songs that a number of talented people have visited and invested with more power than it might seem to deserve. What surprises me is that the song was a bit less slight as originally written, with lyrics suggesting it might be your last Christmas so you might as well enjoy it. (Thinking about Sinatra's alleged mob ties, those lyrics might have had added significance if he'd used them in his version, thinking about it.) Anyway, I love Sinatra bringing the world-weariness he sold so well in the '50s and '60s to this particular rendition, giving it a kind of cocktail-soaked happy melancholy; you can practically hear the snow rustling on the window as he stands next to the fireplace with a glass in his hand.

On a completely different note, if you really want to veer away from the usual Christmastime fare and like listening to someone reading you a scary story, Pseudopod's December 16th Christmas-themed offering, D.K. Thompson's "Saint Nicholas’ Helper" is a great, nasty little number. These days, many of us forget that among the many, many, many versions of Santa lore, there are several in which Santa doesn't do anything as dull as leaving coal in a naughty child's stocking, but rather leaves those terrible children to his henchman, Krampus, a demonic little imp known for stuffing wicked tykes into his sack and abducting them. As with so many fairy tales we've cleaned up in our gleaming modern age, at least some versions of Santa had teeth, or at least his sidekick did (which, as Thompson's protagonist comes to learn in "Helper", is much the same thing). Thompson's story, I'll warn again, is frightening; I also have to add that it's a bit sad, too. I wouldn't be recommending it if it wasn't good and if Marie Brennan's reading wasn't fine; I merely feel obligated to paste the recommendations with many warnings, as a lot of people understandably don't consider Christmas a time of year for stories about monsters attacking little kids. But if you like a little blood in your 'nog, well... consider the download.

Talking about Krampus and alternate versions of Santa, it would be remiss of me not to mention David Sedaris' classic side-splitting breakdown of Holland's version of Santa's sidekicks, "Six To Eight Black Men". It was originally a written piece in Esquire that can be read here, but the truly priceless rendition is Sedaris' reading of the essay at Carnegie Hall, which you can listen to on YouTube. Sedaris' description is utterly hysterical, though I think his wide-eyed-innocent-traveler fixation on how the Dutch Santa differs from the American version sort of inadvertently glosses over the ugly racist aspects of the Dutch Santa and Zwarte Piet, recently featured in an article-worth-reading over at Slate.

Oh, and Happy Christmas Eve!


The Pogues (featuring Katie Melua), "Fairytale Of New York"

>> Friday, December 23, 2011

She's no Kirsty MacColl, but nobody is; MacColl not only had a swell set of pipes, but she had this amazing cadence and sense of harmony. That woman could sing and the world lost a rare treasure when we lost her. But it's to Melua's credit that she doesn't really try to fill those shoes, and she's a swell singer. I don't mean to disparage her when I go and state the obvious, it's just that it's inevitably the first thing you have to say.

And then, poor Shane.

Is it somehow parasitic to observe that the way everything has caught up with Shane MacGowan, and finally collapsed on top of him gives performances like this one a kind of painful power? He sways, puffed and dissipated, little left to his voice beyond a dry husk that sounds like a desert wind blowing sand over the paper skin of a dessicated insect (all shell and no bone). But isn't that a perfect voice and manner for a song from the point of view of a man who has had his ship come in after many dissolute years, only to find himself on the verge of losing the only thing that ever mattered to him in the first place? He could have been someone; well, so could anyone.

MacGowan came to Chapel Hill with The Popes (his post-Pogues band) when I was in law school there. I had never seen anybody that publicly drunk and still conscious before, I don't think; I think that's probably still true. It was tragic and comic at the same time, a horrifying spectacle you couldn't help laughing at and pitying all at once. He unsuccessfully tried to pick a fight with the audience (he seemed to think a bunch of college students in North Carolina's most liberal town, in attendance to see a a songwriter known for celebrating causes generally associated with the American left--immigration, labor, opposition to war, sticking it to the religious and political orthodoxy, etc.--would take offense at being reminded of the region's embarrassing history of racial violence because we were all in The South). And then he picked up his mic stand, presumably to perform some kind of Daltreyesque maneuver, instead to clumsily and narrowly miss knocking out at least one of his bassist's eyes with it. I remember the show more than I remember anything he might have played. The Popes, anyway, were troupers to put up with it.

He deserves better, of course. That might not mean anything: so could anyone. And the drugs and cigarettes and alcohol were part of the persona behind those songs of hope, despair and anger. I don't know if those songs could have existed without a Shane MacGowan who was slowly murdering himself. And was that worth it? We--the world--got great music; he got himself all-but-killed. It might be that wasn't worth the trade. I hope he's better now, I hope he's doing reasonably well; I hope the organs he destroyed are recovering as well as they might.

I inevitably choke up towards the end of "Fairytale". I imagine there are some people who think it might be strange that so many of us nominate a song about two Irish addicts squabbling on Christmas as the best song of the season. I don't think it's cynicism or contrariness (nor do I think it's merely the power of that lilting melody). I think it's that last bit of it, the one that always breaks my heart; the part where he regrets how he's wasted his life and she throws it back in his face along with her own mourned-for past--and he replies that her hopes aren't lost, they're the foundation of all he has left. Frankly, I'm getting a little verklempt typing this. The point I wanted to get to, though, is that all of this is sort of what the season is about (aside from the whole birth-of-Jesus-thing if you're a Christian, that is): i.e. that this is a time when the year is drawing itself up into a closing knot and we look back at ourselves and remind ourselves that it's those we love who actually sustain us and give us the reasons we need to stagger through the next day and the day after that. If there's any point to exchanging gifts beyond crass consumerism (and that, to be perfectly honest, is also part of what this season has come to be all about, an all-but-inevitable accident or side-effect of living in a consumer capitalist society), it's the expression of thanks to others for providing us with frames to hang our own hopes and dreams on.


John Common and Blinding Flashes Of Light, "Go To Hell (With Me)"

>> Thursday, December 22, 2011

The ScatterKat and I realized that we were going to be separated Christmas Day, spending it with our respective families, so we went ahead and did unwrapping days early. I'm afraid this was partly selfishness on my part: I really wanted to go ahead and give her my present, (1) because it seemed like such an obvious thing to give her that I wanted to make sure I beat anybody else to the punch and (2) because there had been a couple of times over the past weeks when I wanted to tell her what an awful experience I'd had at Best Buy and couldn't, because that whole experience involved buying her present.

A brief outbreak of kerfuffle occurred earlier this month because ran a promotion where you could get a discount for using their smartphone app that allows you to take a picture of a bar code in a store and comparison shop it on their website. Lots of people (more than just the New York Times in the previous link) went frothy over the threat this posed to booksellers even though books apparently weren't part of the promotion. But the relevant part is that at least one author attempted to tie the Amazon deal to Best Buy's recent disappointing third-quarter profits report even though the Amazon deal happened, like, weeks and weeks after Best Buy's Q3.

What I'd submit to you, and the reason I went into all that, is that Best Buy's lousy profit reports might have something to do with the shitty and incompetent service I got a couple of weeks ago. The ScatterKat needed a new car stereo and I'm a gallant white knight who wants his baby to have good tunes to shake to while she's driving, so I went down to the nearest Best Buy; there, I stood in car audio for about ten minutes waiting for someone to notice me, until I finally asked someone at customer service if they could find someone to help me, which prompted another fifteen minutes of waiting until someone helpfully came over and told me she didn't know anything about the department but would see if she could "bullshit an answer for you" (seriously, my hand on a stack of Silmarillions, that's an honest-to-Ilúvatar direct quote). Her honesty was of dubious merit, since while it was appreciated, I also had done a little homework before going to the store and actually had specific questions that I hadn't been able to answer online and expected an actual car audio person to be able to answer; nonetheless, I let her waste my time until she and a co-worker more-or-less lied to me, probably not out of malice so much as they hadn't actually read their own website and I had.

At this point, I vowed never to spend a dime at the store again. Only to discover I couldn't get a better price anywhere else, whereupon I was forced by my bank account to swallow my pride and dignity and buy the thing from Best Buy after all, though I at least did myself the honor of ordering it online and scheduling an in-store pickup, and of choosing a device I might (from the online documentation) be able to install myself. (If I can't, I may have to return to the accursed place. At least ScatterKat will be able to ease my suffering by sharing it now.)

The bottom line being that the one thing brick-and-mortars still have on online vendors is that you supposedly can get help from an actual honest-to-goodness meat creature. But if these companies--whether we're talking about your friendly local mom'n'pop biz or evil megacongloms like Best Buy and Walmart--aren't going to pay their employees enough to make it worth the employees' while to know what the fuck they're talking about and be legitimately helpful, what's the point? I mean, I don't want to defend Amazon, here: I'm trying to resolve my own qualms about being addicted to the easy-to-use services offered by a company that runs sweatshops and doesn't collect sales tax1 and sucks money out of the local community. However, on the other hand, I'm one of these neurotics who starts feeling anxiety in most stores (ironic, considering time I've spent working retail in my lifetime), and if I can just type some things into a search bar, get a summary of three hundred user reviews of a couple of items, make a final decision with a mouse-click and then the thing arrives as if by magic on my doorstep--I can't even begin to express how well that works for me on a visceral, non-anxious, I would totally buy my groceries like this if we had one of those online supermarket things around here like they have in New York, level. What I'm getting at, here, is that what actually may make the difference between whether I go to an intimidating store full of things or whether I just go clickity-click and do a happy dance while I wait for the mailman are (a) liberal guilt and (b) the need for real-time Q&A with a knowledgeable and physically-present fellow-mammal; and if you're going to deny me the latter, I don't know if even I am guilty enough to go down and suffer and spend just to assuage my need to "put back into the community", especially if my fellow mammal is going to leave me full of frustration and rage and a possibly unfair sense that it would be nothing more than just desserts if her workplace went belly-up in the midnight hour and had to be demolished by the city to make way for another parking lot.

The ScatterKat, being a woman of sweet disposition and good taste, apparently had a much better holiday shopping experience and gave me a couple of things (some of which haven't arrived yet--it's like early Christmas plus late Chanukkah!) including an album by John Common and Blinding Flashes Of Light, 2011's Beautiful Empty, which includes the delicious number performed acoustically (and for some reason in a conference room) above. I am pleased. Actually, she did have one issue finding a DVD for someone else, involving a moron who should be strapped to a chair and made to watch Turner Classic Movies for days at a time; I won't go into further detail but to say that it sadly reaffirms what I was saying a moment ago about businesses not paying their employees enough to care about knowing what they're selling. Oh well.

1Though, to be fair, is this really an issue? There's actually a bit of a con going on here, and while I don't think Amazon comes away clean, I don't think they're wholly at fault, either.

See, Amazon doesn't collect sales tax, and Amazon has a history of making arguments (many of them kinda dubious) about why they shouldn't have to (though they may be changing their tune about that), and Amazon leverages that as a kind of implicit promotion for their wares (a good price made better because there won't be a tax surcharge added at checkout!).

But here's the thing: most states, if not all, require taxpayers to pay sales tax even if a retailer doesn't collect it. There's almost certainly a box on your state tax forms for a consumption or use tax, where you're obligated to report how much you spent that you didn't pay state sales tax on, and you're supposed to accurately report it or make a good-faith estimate and then pay the appropriate tax as part of your state tax filing. Which most people don't do, and is why so many states are irate at Amazon for not collecting. The rub being that while states have some right to complain that Amazon is helping their customers cheat on their taxes, those mostly-cheating, tax-evading consumers really don't have quite the same moral legs to stand on. Even if you're one of the few who do accurately report your online and mail-order expenditures, shouldn't you really be blaming your no-goodnik tax-dodging neighbor at least as much as the megacorp?

Municipal sales taxes (where applicable), on the other hand, are certainly another issue, however.


"The Count Censored"

>> Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My sister shared this on my Facebook wall. I have not stopped laughing since. This is wrong, wrong, wrong, but who wants to be right?


The Grandfathers, "It Works For Me"

>> Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nothing spectacular to see here, but a helluva lot of fun if you can catch them live, or they were back when I was in law school. Back then they were The Grandsons Of The Pioneers, but The Sons Of The Pioneers have no sense of humor; there were litigious letters signed by actual lawyers, apparently, and now a witty band name that reflected a band's hip willingness to do alt-country covers of really old-school mid-century country-and-western tunes is reduced to, well, meh is what it's reduced to. I'd have gone to see a band called "The Grandsons Of The Pioneers" at least once even if a friend hadn't dragged everybody she knew to a show every time they were in town; "The Grandsons", eh, not so much.

The town in question was Chapel Hill (well--technically Carrboro, actually), but The Grandsons were from Virginia or D.C.; their press kit describes them as a Washington band, but why does it seem like they were from Arlington back then?

And I have no idea how many of the current members were in the band I saw a ridiculous number of years ago and have a couple of CDs by. What is a band, exactly? A brand name, a particular set of guys. Why is Genesis a band fronted by Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins but not one fronted by Ray Wilson? (Who?) The ScatterKat and I agreed to disagree this weekend over one of the most divisive points of rock and roll history: I happen to be a member of the small but feisty minority that thinks Van Halen was vastly better with Sammy Hagar at the mic than David Lee Roth; on this score, ScatterKat is an originalist. (Nobody, it must be noted in this context, thinks Van Halen was better with Gary "Who The Hell Is This Guy?" Cherone.) There are still people, indeed, walking the Earth, who think Pink Floyd should have quit when their creative mastermind and lyricist left--I mean Syd Barrett in 1968, not Roger Waters in the mid-1980s; this notwithstanding the fact that, for all of Barrett's charm and mad genius, Pink Floyd did a lot better commercially (and ultimately artistically) without a paranoid schizophrenic Mandies burnout at the wheel.

Meanwhile, King Crimson is any project Robert Fripp decides to call King Crimson, The Kinks are Ray and Dave Davies with some other guys, and the guy with the flute isn't named Jethro Tull (though Ian Anderson might save a few twits some confusion if he just started calling himself that).

There's some weird chemistry--no, alchemy--by which the fans really decide who's in a band, no matter what the people who are actually in the band might think about it. I'm not sure R.E.M. wouldn't have done better to change names after Bill Berry left, because even though Berry was "just" the drummer and maybe the most enigmatic figure in the band (it's a rock drummer's special privilege to be the -est member of a band: the zaniest, or the weirdest, or the wildest, or the quietest, or any other superlative with-or-without an actual "-est" you might think of). R.E.M. was never really R.E.M. again after Buck retired. Everybody knew it except the remaining guys in the band, apparently. Or maybe not: Peter Green leaves Fleetwood Mac and is replaced by a spacey eccentric from California whose condition for joining the band is they have to take his weird girlfriend, too, and history is made while millions of people forget who Green is.

Pondering this sometimes gets me to thinking about alternate histories where The Beatles tried to keep going. In my brain, it's Paul McCartney who always tries to keep the wheel rolling, even though in real life, he's the one who filed the lawsuit that formally dissolved the band. You can try to imagine Lennon telling McCartney he could stay or go, but The Beatles would be continuing with or without him, except it's just damn nigh impossible to imagine John Lennon wanting to have anything to do with the brand name at that point (hell, he even wrote whole songs about how done he was with The Beatles). What about a Harrison-led Beatles? John and Paul taking George and Ringo to court while the latter two book shows across Europe and the U.S. with a couple of surrogates standing in? Yeah, I guess that one's hard on the suspension of disbelief, too.

And yet it just seems apt for the Rolling Stones to keep... ah, well, rolling. Or, if the Stones should quit, it's less because of turnover than it is that they've been orbiting some kind of existential drainhole for decades. (Since they flirted with disco ca. 1978, I would contend, though I think The ScatterKat disagrees; I know she's fond of "Emotional Rescue" (1980).)

Is there a magical rule I'm missing? How much turnover does there have to be in a band before, say, they stop calling themselves The New Yardbirds and go with something dumb and in-jokey like Led Zeppelin? Anyone have any thoughts? Better yet, figures and charts?


An open letter to Lukas Willson and/or Gabrielle Walcott and/or Augustin Maranatha and/or other persons unknown

>> Monday, December 19, 2011

(Click to embiggen)

Dear Miss Trinidad and Lukas Willson from Tobago,

First, I have to confess: I don't know who I'm responding to. The current Miss Trinidad and Tobago Universe, per Wikipedia, is Ms. Gabrielle Walcott, and there has never, so far as I can tell, been a "Miss Trinidad" named "Lukas Willson". Or maybe this is a letter from Ms. Walcott and Lukas Willson, in which case I'm very sad to hear you're both in the hospital together and am not sure why you speak of yourselves in the singular; the only suggestion that Ms. Walcott might be one half of a conjoined pair is this photograph:

...but the text of this article makes no mention if this seemingly salient fact (on the other hand, it might explain why you introduce yourself as "Miss Trinidad" when the proper name of the country would be The Republic Of Trinidad And Tobago: it would be fair and reasonable, I think, if you were Miss Trinidad and your twin was Miss Tobago--poetic, even).

Or I may be horribly misreading your missive and, in fact, you just happen to have the last name "Trinidad", in which case I apologize for overthinking things a bit.

Still, it's that tendency to think too much that has me wondering why you're using your dwindling time on this planet to send an e-mail to me instead of to some great detective or to the police. Or, for that matter, to your stepmother. ("Dear bitch," I would write, "fuck you for poisoning me and I'm giving my money to a complete stranger whose name I randomly picked. Suck that.")

Speaking of your (perhaps murderous) stepmother: first, I don't know why it matters she's from Côte d'Ivoire. You write "she Is An Ivorian by Nationality" as if this signifies much, but as I don't know any Ivorians, I have no idea what that's supposed to mean. If you're signaling that she is particularly ruthless by way of her upbringing (which frankly seems a bit xenophobic and bigoted to me, but what do I know?) it raises the question of why I'd want to get involved in the battle over your inheritance. Is your stepmother the kind of person who might come after me? Would she try to poison me as well? Would she poison me and some other person, as that appears to be her modus operandi, unless she only does that to conjoined twins? This seems a bit hairy and involved to me, and I'm not sure I want to get involved in that kind of kerfuffle. I am under the strong impression I have only the one liver and would prefer poisoning it myself, if you know what I mean.

Things get more confused from there. I know some athletes give nicknames to special and distinct plays and strategies they've come up with, but calling your tennis serve "Augustin Maranatha" and hiring a lawyer for it seems a bit much. Are you sure your poisoning didn't cause some kind of brain damage? Oh, wait--it must have been a typo, as later on you clarify that "Augustin Maranatha" is your servant, and that I should... bring him to America and "esterblish [sic] HIM as [my] sound"?!


I regret not playing guitar nearly as much as I used to; not at all, really. I should do something about that, I know. But, to the extent that I ever had my own sound, it wasn't really so much my own sound as it was a sound I kind of copped from The Edge: lots of saturated reverb and brittle jangle, mostly, though sometimes smoothed-out with a bit of chorus or flange. Part of the reason I don't play much anymore, however, is that I'm trying (with mixed success) to spend more time writing. What I'm getting at, is forming a band with Mr. Maranatha, or learning to play like him, or whatever it is you're trying to get me to do, sounds like a time commitment I'm not prepared to make, even less when I haven't heard the man play and have no idea whether his "sound" is that of a flatulent tuba or what.

One last thing, in the spirit of helpful advice (for I'm afraid that's all I can offer you, really). The idea of using a code word or phrase in messages to authenticate them is a good one, but I'm obligated to point out "Hospital" is a terrible choice. You are in a hospital, anybody who describes what's happening to you or where you are must use the word, etc. If I were to get a message from your stepmother that read, "What did my stupid dying stepdaughter who is in the hospital ask you to do? Did she mention the money?" I have no way of telling whether or not it's a coded message from your musician butler or not (aside from the obvious clues, I mean). I would suggest you incorporate a more subtle codephrase than that, something that would sound natural but not come up in an ordinary exchange, e.g. "Have the pomegranates hatched yet?" (though, on re-reading that, it's just terrible: pomegranates don't usually hatch, I don't think). You get the idea, though.

Good luck, Mr. Willson (

R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets


Leonard Cohen, "Tower Of Song"

>> Sunday, December 18, 2011

"I ache in the places where I used to play." Could be a kind of motto for me, it's one of my favorite Leonard Cohen lines and the kind of thing you increasingly understand, I fear, as your odometer advances. You awake in the morning and their are parts of your body you're pretty sure you weren't born with--their sole purpose, and reason for spawning within you while you slept is just so they can hurt in the morning when you wake up. Oddly, some of these incongruous body parts return to the unknown regions they originally emigrated from during the daytime hours, only to return the next morning when you're getting out of bed again, as if vampires returning to entomb themselves in your joints with the next sunrise.

I think I would like to blame aliens, now that I consider it: they abduct me while I'm asleep and implant me with incompatible parts. There's probably some kind of grisly experiment associated with it, or maybe it's just that they're aliens, motivated by some exotic, extraterrestrial, inhuman logic incomprehensible to beings from our world. It can't possibly be that we're all getting older.

Nick Cave, one of my favorite artists, did an absolutely terrible cover of "Tower Of Song" for some reason--I mean, I think there was a television program or something that paid him for it and/or asked him to do it; he had the sense not to release it more generally until he put together the B-Sides And Rarities boxed set, which makes sense (somewhat regrettably in this instance) because that's the kind of thing you put on a rarities album that's obviously targeted for the completists and devotees. Cave's grand concept was to take Cohen's fairly simple and straightforward (though lyrically elegant) song and turn it into a sort of actual tower of song, stylistically bouncing from verse to verse through different musical styles and genres like jazz and roadhouse country; this is the kind of idea that sounds sort of cool when you're bouncing it around but turns out to be a bit of a disaster when you actually try to implement it. One problem being the fact that "Tower Of Song", specifically, is to wiry and elegant a frame to load with that (if "Tower Of Song" were an actual tower, it would be the one Gustave Eiffel is famous for, spindly, classic and tapering to a fine point). Another problem being that few artists, if any, actually have the versatility to make such extreme transitions between genres work without sounding like they're either trying to hard or not trying hard enough (sometimes simultaneously); there are credibility issues. Cave may be a fucking genius, but when he tries to do a country riff, he ends up sounding like somebody who had Nashville described to him by a friend who knew someone who visited the place for a few days.


Uncle Tupelo, "I Wanna Be Your Dog"

>> Saturday, December 17, 2011

It never fails to astonish me how well Uncle Tupelo's No Depression take on the Iggy song works--you wouldn't think a protopunk tune would work as a hoedown, but there you are.

I came to Uncle Tupelo, I'm afraid to confess, via the backdoor of becoming a Wilco fan after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That led to Wilco's back catalogue and eventually to Uncle Tupelo; for those unfamiliar with the territory, when UT acrimoniously split up, Jay Farrar went off to form Son Volt while Tweedy and the rest of Tupelo's then-lineup started going by Wilco.

I'd have to confess I've never quite been sold on Son Volt. Maybe I'm missing something, I dunno. Every now and then a track surfaces that I kind of like, but nothing I've had to run out and buy. I suppose that possibly makes me a Tweedy partisan by default, which I suspect is somehow supposed to be unglamorous as such things go; the sense that I've always gotten from the old-school Uncle Tupelo fans is that Farrar was supposed to be more authentic somehow, or something. It's not something I actually care about, just one of those things I noticed somewhere along the line, or thought I did.


Soul Coughing, "Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago"

>> Friday, December 16, 2011

While they usually got labeled as an alt-rock band, the best description anyone ever gave of Soul Coughing was that they were a jazz band. Which about sizes it up, funkified grooves or not.

There was also a strange paranoid vibe in so much of their stuff that was sort of inescapable and buried at the same time. The same sort of claustrophobic trapped-in-your-basement funk that Talking Heads and Gary Numan had pioneered once upon a time. Soul Coughing contributed songs to both of the X-Files companion albums and were possibly the artist or band best-suited to that whole reactionary cutting-edge setting, that futuristic teetering on the millennial, phone back to the Birchers and science fiction cults (e.g. Dianetics, the Atheriusians) of the 1950s cocktail Chris Carter mixed so damn well for a few seasons in the '90s. You may have tinfoil over all the windows but at least you're shaking your booty in the safe room. Good stuff, yes.


The Muppets (feat. The Swedish Chef), "Pöpcørn"

>> Thursday, December 15, 2011

The ScatterKat has been pleased with my cooking so far, insofar as I've actually cooked much for her; I've made a few things, mostly pretty simple, though there's also been a good bit of frozen vegetables you steam in the microwave or prepared-cook-to-eat meals from the supermarket. (I try to avoid frozen prepared meals for the most part because the ingredients lists just look too much like a stock order for a high school chem lab or something.) I really suspect she's just a very easily-pleased audience, though the nice thing about that is how much she enjoys a bite of food.

The thing is, I tend to be a neurotic cook. This probably doesn't surprise anyone who knows me or is a regular reader. I like recipes to be explicit: tell me exactly what a "dash" is or exactly how many minutes something should be in the oven; giving me subjective instructions like, "until it is thoroughly browned" will have me all nervy. Which is absurd, of course, because there's no way for some of these directions to be any more explicit than they are--e.g. there isn't really a way to say that a roast should be in the slow cooker exactly so many hours and minutes because it depends on the size of the roast and personal preferences about how rare or tender the thing ought to be when it's "done" and vagaries of starting temperature and of cooking equipment and so on. And the truth is, I haven't done too badly (if I'm allowed to say so) by winging (no pun intended) things like just improvising how I want to prepare a duck before I put it in the oven. I did alright with my last roast with some improvisation; and here the neurotic thing comes back into play because that puts the pressure on--now I want to make the roast exactly as I did last time, because it was successful, but because there was some improvisation involved, I can't actually repeat the precise steps necessary to replicate the results, so now I have another roast in the fridge but I'm almost scared to cook it.

Cooking is art, not science, which is unfortunate for me. I have control issues, I have to admit. Personal control issues, I mean, not that I like controlling others: i.e. I like to know exactly when and how something is going to happen or I get all angsty and high-wired about it. Spontaneity is not my strong suit.

I have to sort of admire The Swedish Chef, you know. He's all id in the kitchen. Okay, so he usually blows something up, and gods know, "popcorn shrimp" is not shrimp served with popcorn. (Not just the gods, I mean: we all know that, right?) He's got that little-kid-bravery in the kitchen, that critical inexperience that allows small children the liberty to invent anything because they don't know you're not supposed to. So it makes him a force of comedic chaos and usually results in singed eyebrows and besooted clothing; I still have to respect and admire the gleeful panache.

It's an obvious short step--to me, at least, and perhaps to some of my readers but maybe not to others--from The Swedish Chef's mad creativity in the kitchen to mad creativity just everywhere. I hate that I've lost that innocence if I ever had it. The curse of age to an arty type, I think, is that you usually have this horrible tradeoff between the spontaneous creativity that youthful ignorance allows and the skills and experience that age permits. That is, I think we've all wondered why some musician, director, novelist, painter or other artist was so much "better" (and often more prolific, too) in their early days even though they're very obviously objectively more-skilled at their craft now. I fear the answer may be that the fact they didn't know what they were doing back then was what allowed them to be so bold and inventive while what they know now constrains them even as they're so much better, now, at what they're actually doing within that smaller perimeter. And what really scares me, personally (because I like being creative and have a self-image of myself as a creating person), is the probability that there isn't much of a sweet spot where one is simultaneously good and fecund; I'm pretty sure I'm a better writer than I was yesterday, and will be a better writer tomorrow than I am now, but I'm very much aware that I seemed to have more to say when I was thirty and more than that when I was twenty (and, honestly, was imagining shit all the time when I was ten) than I do approaching forty. (It's not hard, inevitably and irrationally extrapolating from there, to fear the springs will be bone-dry by fifty.)

If I may conclude with a toast: here's to The Swedish Chef, and who would've thought of him as an aspirational figure? We can only hope we never lose the knack for accidentally destroying our kitchens while our meals continue to taunt us.


Tori Amos, "God"

>> Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Apropos of conversation in another place, here's some classic Tori:


You don't pull on Superman's boots

>> Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Facebook friends may be aware that the other night I commented on a realization that shattered my fragile sanity. To wit:

I just noticed something for the first time in forty years. Superman wears his uniform under his Clark Kent clothes, right? We all know that. INCLUDING HIS BOOTS. That's the part I never noticed before. HOW THE FUCK DOES HE WEAR HIS BOOTS UNDERNEATH HIS LOAFERS? Or does he just carry them around somewhere, WHICH SOMEHOW MAKES EVEN LESS SENSE. What the fuck? Solar-powered humanoid super-alien who can fly and shoot heat rays out of his eyes? Okay, you haven't lost me. I can roll with that. WHERE THE FUCK DOES HE KEEP HIS BOOTS WHEN HE'S DRESSED LIKE CLARK KENT? Suddenly, all suspension of disbelief is lost.

This is totally going to keep me awake all night from now on.

This provoked a surprising amount of discussion. A surprisingly common theme was that several people didn't really have a big problem with the boots, but they did want to know what the hell he does with his cape when he isn't wearing it. James came up with this:

...maybe he rolls it up and wraps it around his waist and gives himself a belly? "No, Clark can't be Superman. Clark had a beer gut, and a very wrinkly one at that."

The only thing wrong with this solution, actually, is that it fills me with a sort of regret or bitterness at the thought of seven decades of missed opportunity: of course this has to be it, doesn't it? Clark Kent ought to be a paunchy guy who uses a fake belly to (a) carry his cape and boots and (b) further disguise his identity. This would have been perfect. One of the biggest plotholes in Superman's long run has been the fact that Clark Kent looks like Superman wearing glasses; if he was a fat dude, nobody would make that mistake. And it solves that old cape problem.

What got me onto this was that I was watching some of the old Fleischer Superman cartoons the other night. They're beautiful pieces of animation, especially the first several in the series, just gorgeous stuff. I covered a lot of this in a post three years ago, so I'm not going to belabor the point. But, anyway, I noticed the boots. Those big, heavy, red boots. They're not socks, they're not floopy or foldable: they are big-ass shitstompers, is what they are, and there's no way they fit under Clark Kent's loafers like socks. I can sort of see how most of the rest of the skintight Superman underwear might fit beneath the suit like long underwear (d'ya think Superman is a space-Mormon, like everybody on the original Battlestar Galactica?), but those clodhoppers?

This is the first and in many ways the best of the Fleischer Supermans, presented mostly for your enjoyment and also so you can get a good look at Superman's boots:

Of course, you may have noticed the cape and boots thing isn't much of a problem in this one: Clark goes into a stockroom to change, so maybe he has some or all of his Superman duds stowed away in there behind the staples or something. Granted, it might be a little awkward if someone went in there looking for paperclips and stumbled onto the costume, but at least Clark could point the finger at a coworker or maybe tell Lois she needs to start searching the skies for a naked Superman.

Speaking of which, Naked Superman is another awesome concept DC Comics has been missing out on for seven decades. Okay, maybe not. But it's not as bad an idea as you might think: I mean, Marvel Comics has lots of naked and semi-naked superheroes; The Silver Surfer, I'm pretty sure, is naked, and The Incredible Hulk is almost naked; and, actually, tons and tons of superheroines from lots of different comics publishers might as well be naked--in fact, I have to imagine that some of those superheroines would be more comfortable if they just shed the criss-cross spaghetti straps, thongs and thigh-high boots and flew around in a pair of comfy cotton panties and a sports bra, but I guess that's not really the point of a superheroine's quasi-fetish-wear.

Which mentally segues, I'm afraid, into asking the question, "What if male superhumans in comic books had to wear costumes similar to what the female characters end up wearing?" And the answer of course, is Superman dressed as Sean Connery in Zardoz:

Oh dear. I'm sorry, I really didn't need to see that again.

By the way, I've never actually seen Zardoz. Heard a lot about it, yes, and I've seen... that. And I have to assume or at least hope that there's some reason Sean Connery's costume makes sense within the context of the movie. He isn't, in other words, playing James Bond in that picture, though I'll concede that would be kind of awesome. Goldfinger would have been really uncomfortable spread-eagling James Bond on a laser table if Bond had been wearing that outfit, let's just put it that way. Most evil geniuses would have, really. "Do you expect me to talk?" "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to put on a pair of pants and a shirt, for God's sake."

Hrm. What was this post about again? Ah, yes: Superman's boots. Would not fit under Clark Kent's shoes. Just thought I'd point that out.


Baby bust

>> Monday, December 12, 2011

One of the most unsettling moments of 2008 campaign came when Barack Obama told an interviewer, "I come from a new generation of Americans; I don't want to fight the battles of the '60s." What an oddly cavalier thing to say. Obama's presidential campaign, in fact, most of his career, would not have been possible without the battles of the '60s. I wasn't sure what was worse, that he believed what he said, that he thought we'd reached some kind of post-racial, post-ideological promised land, that we’d won the battles of the '60s? Or that he didn't, but he thought it was a politically winning message, putting all that muss and fuss behind us. I have to think it's the latter. He's a smart man.

Obama's comments about the '60s shouldn't have been surprising. He’d already gone on in the same vein in his second book, "The Audacity of Hope." There he confided that "in the back and forth between [Bill] Clinton and [Newt] Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation--a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago--played out on the national stage."

The vicious GOP crusade against Clinton had been like an old college feud? Gingrich had proposed putting the children of welfare recipients in orphanages, and blamed Democrats for Susan Smith drowning her little boys. He personally wrote the GOP playbook for demonizing Democrats, advising other Republicans to call them "sick," "corrupt," "destructive," "traitors" and about 50 other words for depravity. And Obama likened his differences with Clinton to the rumbling of rival frat boys? Obama did nod to "the victories that the 60s brought about" in the book, but he also blamed the Clinton-Gingrich gridlock on a case of "arrested development" among Americans raised in postwar affluence. So maybe there’s some kind of karma in the unlikely but growing possibility that the president himself will have to face Gingrich head to head in 2012. It’s becoming clear we’re still fighting "the battles of the '60s."
-Joan Walsh, "When Obama underestimated Newt",
Salon, December 11th, 2011

I wasn't impressed with Obama's analysis at the time. It was hard to know if he was just posturing for electoral purposes but it sounded to me like it could be a harbinger of things to come--an unwillingness to come to terms with the very real faultlines in American politics.
Digby, "Newtie in Nixonland",
Hullabaloo, December 11th, 2011

A funny thing about President Obama, I think, is his age: he was born in August, 1961, so he's almost exactly halfway between my parents' ages and my age; too young to be a Boomer like them and too young, really, to comfortably be a Gen Xer like myself. But in a lot of ways, his attitudes do seem, at times at least, to track more closely to an Xer's than to a Boomer's; at any rate, he's young enough to be my older brother and no way he could be my dad.1

I mention this because when I read Walsh's piece over the weekend, I just sort of assumed she was old. Sorry. Not old, I mean, my parents aren't that old or anything. (Why do I suddenly foresee irate calls from the 'rents this week?) But I figured Walsh, who I really do love, just didn't grok it because she was a Boomer and hung up on her own generation the same way so many Boomers are--sorry to paint with a broad brush and hastily generalize and so on, I know it's terrible of me, etc., but there it is and if that's going to be a showstopper for you, maybe you should go ahead and stop reading because that's kind of what this piece is about. Anyway, that's the conclusion I leapt to, but I shouldn't have, because then I looked it up on Wikipedia and Ms. Walsh is only three years older than the President, which seems like it shouldn't make a difference but maybe it does. Then I read the Digby piece today, and--well, I have no idea how old Digby is, to be honest.

All of this probably sounds overly personal, I realize. Somebody is probably already asking themselves, "Why does it matter how old Joan Walsh, or Digby, or Barack Obama, or Eric VanNewkirk (whoever the hell he thinks he is) are?" Age might be a suspect class, like gender or ethnicity or orientation.

But the thing is, I understood exactly what the President was saying in the quotes Walsh cited, I immediately got it and agreed with it, and I didn't find it distressing so much as I found it perceptive and agreeable. And I suspect--I don't know, maybe I'm way-off-base--but I suspect I'm not the only person in my generational cohort who read or heard those lines from the President and nodded their heads, not because of some kind of post-partisan fantasy but because, really, we are just so disappointed in and burned-out on our parents' generation.

There, I said it. Goodness knows, I'm not saying, necessarily, that we're disappointed in our parents, specifically; I love mine to death. (Oh gods, I think the phone might already be ringing.) But the Boomers as a generation--to the extent that there can be anything like collective guilt for being a collective letdown.... When I put it like that, of course, it sounds silly and irrational, and maybe it is silly and irrational. And yet.

There's a certain irony in the fact that the sense of fatigue with the Boomers was summed up as well as anybody could do it by a Baby Boomer in 1976; a disillusioned, defeated-sounding Jackson Browne asked his listeners to "say a prayer for the pretender, who started out so young and strong only to surrender." The generation that was in college during the late '60s, fighting those battles Walsh alluded to, aged out of the draft while the Vietnam war wound down, and what did most of them do except cut their hair, get straight jobs and, when the economy went to shit in the late '70s, vote for Ronald Reagan? I know that's harsh and plenty of people really did keep a flame guttering in the candle holder, but it's hard not to feel "the changes [they] waited for love to bring", to paraphrase Browne, were less than "fitful dreams of some greater awakening".

It's only a matter of time until one generation starts replacing preceding generations in places that matter. They inherit the political positions and boardroom offices, and you judge them against the people they replaced. And when the political Boomers began filling Congress in the late '80s and early '90s, it was hard not to see them quickly turning out to be a letdown. I should probably go back and clarify something, which is that we all know, perhaps contra Browne, that not every Boomer was a longhaired hippie peacenik, that some of the guys who started taking the reins in those late/post-Reagan years weren't any more hypocritical or sold-out than they had been when they were in the Young Republicans. But it was hard not to see any of these people as anything but a letdown as compared to some of their elders; I mean that whether you agreed or disagreed with Bob Dole or Ted Kennedy, whether you even liked either of those guys, there was something historic, for want of a better word, stuck to their like. You could hate everything Bob Dole stood for and think he was a sanctimonious prick, and he was still a guy who lost the use of his arm defeating Hitler. Kennedy was a little younger and avoided being deployed to Korea while he was in the army, but you might still dislike his politics and personal foibles while seeing him as a last vestige of Camelot for all the good and bad that might entail. But as for the guys coming into power behind them: it just seems sort of obvious to me that there was something entitled and unprincipled about so many of them, I don't think it's just me.

So I think a lot of us saw what the President describes, yes: that the fight between Clinton and the House Republicans looked just like a bunch of Young Republicans alumni who had supported Nixon way back in the day trying to even the score by bringing down a kind of smarmy sellout of the sort Jackson Browne had described. Joan Walsh tries to dismiss that with the rhetorical, "The vicious GOP crusade against Clinton had been like an old college feud?" Well, yeah, yeah it was. And again, with, "And Obama likened his differences with Clinton to the rumbling of rival frat boys?" Well, no: not like frat boys, but like a bunch of Young Repubs and Federalist Society members who really don't care about the issues or the country nearly as much as they care about their team "winning". It's not that they don't have an ideology as such, they do; it's that the ideology really ultimately takes a back seat to an Untouchables-approach of "they send one of yours to the hospital, we send one of theirs to the morgue", and of course the guy the Democrats had hospitalized was Richard Milhous Nixon so Clinton was the one the Republicans decided to bag and bury, addressing a grudge these punks had held since they were eighteen.

President Obama seems to get that, I get that, I suspect a lot of people in my generation get that. And to comment on it, I think, wasn't so much an expression of some kind of post-partisan naïveté so much as a sort of STFUA that a lot of us wish would register with Boomer Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist and, to a lesser extent, with Boomer Democrats like the Clintons. We get that some of you are angry because dirty smelly hippies got laid more often than you did and your guy Nixon got treated like the schmuck he was instead of getting a pass like the Kennedys always seemed to get. We get that some of you are smug because you went to a couple of concerts and then the Vietnam War ended without your draft number getting pulled, and it was almost like one of those had something to do with the other, so I guess you ended the war, didn't you? We get that when the smoke cleared and your deferments and National Guard stints and sham postings ended, you all went and got nice jobs and haircuts and put away your Indian jewelry and ran political campaigns for your parents and your parents' friends and were mentored by these guys who, really, had actually done something with their lives other than go to college, smoke pot, and get jobs after graduation, and now you feel groomed, you feel entitled, you feel like the sons and natural heirs, the inevitable end product of the system that produced you and now you have some personal issues to resolve, scores to settle, scales to balance, you have agendas and contracts that are really just window dressing for trying to buttress your personal inadequacies and lack of accomplishing anything more than winning a popularity contest in your district, your state, your nation.

We get it. Now STFUA.

Walsh points at the poisonousness of Newt Gingrich's '90s rhetoric as if it were evidence that this was something more than a college grudge being played out while the whole country was held hostage to it. Actually, Gingrich's rhetoric--e.g. blaming Susan Smith's murders on Democrats--was sophomoric; it was also the kind of nonsense trash-talk you'd expect from someone who doesn't know what he's talking about and really doesn't care what he's talking about so long as it sounds like it might obscurely score points on the other team. The truth is that while such language was undeniably a nadir of discourse, it could only really be described as "vile" if you took it infinitely more seriously than such facially-ludicrous statements could possibly be taken. The rhetoric of Gingrich and other House Republicans against the Clintons in the '90s was too idiotic to justify taking offense over, possessing all the intellectual coherence and perspicacity of Bluto's rallying speech in Animal House (albeit with none of John Belushi's charm; but, really, how much of Republican political grandstanding of the past several decades is even better summed up in Otter's follow-through to Bluto's rant: "I think this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part and we're just the guys to do it"?). It was always the kind of inane rhetoric you heard in college from campus conservatives who didn't really know what the hell they were talking about, but that didn't matter so much as whether they won races.

I really think, unfortunately, that what the President thought when he took office was that he didn't have a dog in the fight, so maybe the chowderheads wouldn't still be pursuing their stupid vendettas against their old college rivals. I can't really fault him for that: he's a reasonable man, and it would be unreasonable and asinine for somebody to transfer their old grudges--which were really pretty stupid things to be hung up on at this point, anyway--to the new meat. There's a battle between Republicans who are around Newt Gingrich's age and the left that nobody younger or older than a Baby Boomer ought to have even the least bit of interest in (assuming, arguendo, a Boomer ought to care, which is frankly a dubious and pathetic proposition). I would call this a cultural battle, except that tends to confuse it with legitimate cultural battles such as the proper role (if any) of religion in politics, how to handle class differences, and acceptance of differing others; legitimate battles that are parallel to and sometimes intertwined with a more personal battle between people who were in school together forty years ago and still feel a personal contempt for one another that is rooted not just in ideologies and lifestyles but in ancient tribal affiliations that may well transcend ideology; Clinton, after all, repudiated much of the left's ambitions, goals and past successes in order to score "wins" for his party, while Newt Gingrich is a huckster and hypocrite who has bounced from position to position not because of a personal evolution (it's no sin to change one's mind; it may even be virtuous) but solely to score "wins" for his party; "wins" being defined to these people as Congressional districts won, Senate seats held, offices filled, money raised. It would be nicer not to care about those old animosities and rivalries, not in a "post-partisan" way but in the sense of thinking one's own ideology is a good path for the country but being willing to have a meeting of the minds with another ideology and perhaps one side might be swayed or a compromise forged; the Vietnam War ended when I was three (Obama was fourteen) and hippies are an endangered species to be raised in captivity, I don't think I care all that much about the campus cliques of 1968 and it doesn't sound like the President does either. I'm tired and I'd like a jobs bill and bank regulation, but I guess that's too much to ask for.

But it hasn't worked out that way, of course. This is a problem with the Boomer generation, that not too many of them have proven worthy of inheriting their parents' mantles but all of these are nonetheless too young to step out of everyone else's way any time soon. I suppose I should add that I have no idea whether GenX is particularly worthy of anything, either (I think we're pretty good at sarcasm and feigned indifference, for whatever that could be worth), and I'm not about to add some dubious complaint along the lines of having been denied some imaginary opportunity to step in because of our elders' refusal to gracefully withdraw. (Besides which, the truth is that no generation ever has the sense to gracefully withdraw, not even the Greatest.) I just would say that at least some of us would be prepared to deal with the kernels of the issues arising from of the social and economic transformations of the last several decades without much interest in the chaff. I think some of us would be ready to say our elders had a shot at doing well and ended up not-so-young and not-so-strong, who ended up, one might say, striving to be "happy idiots".

So I get what the President was saying, but Joan Walsh doesn't and Digby doesn't, and I have to wonder: do a few years make such a big difference as that? Or are these writers being willfully obtuse to make a different point? Or have they gotten so wound up in the nonsensical Dodgsonian realm American politics have devolved into that they can't see what an eye-blistering mess it's become. (An aside about the previous descriptor: Lewis Carroll's works are typified by absurdity and a love for math, and how could that be any better as a description for a political system in which madmen say ridiculous things in a surreal environment in which the overarching motives are increasingly decontextualized numbers: how many seats have we won (it doesn't matter who's sitting in them, the letter following the name we don't care about is sufficient)? how much money have we raised (and it doesn't matter where we got it from or what they want for it)?)

Digby concludes that it's good news that the President might be debating Newt Gingrich, if Gingrich wins his party's primary. Walsh isn't so sure because, really, Gingrich shouldn't be allowed into the debates at all because he's a big fat lying liar. I'm going to see Walsh on that one and raise with the fact that Gingrich, more than many others in his party, is emblematic of the political culture the President derided as (I'll paraphrase) a collegiate pissing contest. In that regard, Gingrich is a political Boomer relic, a ghost of the '90s and it really would be great if we could just attribute his reemergence to a blot of mustard (I'm afraid, however, he is indeed rattling the chains he forged in life at us, all Marleylike and incontestable in his presence). The really bad news is that whether Gingrich is nominated or not, and whether he wins or not, he is too old to be put up with any more and too young to retire, and we shall have years of suffering ahead of us.

We shan't be moving past the sixties at all.

1Digby claims Obama as a Boomer like herself, and I will give her this: the Census Bureau agrees with her. The problem is that by at least two definitions of the generational cohort--Landon Jones, who coined the term, and that of Strauss and Howe (see previous link)--Obama was born a year after the boom ended in 1960 (the President was born in August, 1961); indeed, the President would perhaps more aptly be described as a member of Generation Jones if that term had any currency at all.

Generation X, meanwhile, has sometimes been defined as beginning in 1961.

On the one hand, this is possibly a sign of Obama's charisma even to people who maybe are a little frustrated with his job performance as President: we're fighting over including him in our respective cohorts, Digby and I both trying to say he belongs to ourselves. On the other hand, what this is really demonstrating is just how wiggly generational labels can really be; the President may be a Baby Boomer insofar as an arbitrary bright line might be drawn at the end of 1964 by the Census Bureau, but it still seems a bit ludicrous to say that he was more impacted by John Kennedy's assassination (a milestone event in most Boomers' lives) right after he turned two years old than he was by Star Wars (a milestone event in most members of my generation's lives; and yes, I realize there may be something pathetic in comparing a seminal national tragedy to a seminal pop film) when he was fifteen (Star Wars was released in May 1977; the President would turn 16 three months later).

So much for easy labels.


The Raveonettes, "Let Me On Out"

>> Sunday, December 11, 2011

I think we'll share some Raveonettes today, just because they're awesome. Any questions?


Nils Lofgren, "Old School"

>> Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nils Lofgren is one of those artists whose work I adore as a session player (especially his long stint with the E Street Band) but often can't cope with as a solo performer. He is an utterly phenomenal guitar player, just monster talented, but his efforts as a songwriter usually leave me cold and his singing voice is one that can be gorgeous as a backing or harmony vocal somewhere in a mix but I generally find it too thin and reedy to carry a whole song. (I'll cap to some inconsistency on the latter point: I have no problem with vocal performances from Lofgren's former-frequent-associate Neil Young, a singer who can make Lofgren sound like a baritone.)

But I really liked "Old School" when I heard it the other day. I don't know that I've heard another song where Lofgren snarls his way through the lyrics quite like that--I'm not saying he should try that all the time (it probably wouldn't work with a ballad, f'r'instance)--but it's a sound that works, and of course the ferocious dancing of his fingers on the guitar strings is ever wonderful. Not sure this track is enough for me to dare the whole album, but it's a strong cut and if you've listened to the whole record, you'll have to let me know how you feel about it.


R.E.M., "Can't Get There From Here"

>> Friday, December 09, 2011

I know some people have been saying Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore are the tragic and gut-punching unexpected alt-rock divorce of 2011, but I think we all know it was really Michael Stipe and Mike Mills. Well, that's my opinion, anyway.


Mitch McConnell flunks College

>> Thursday, December 08, 2011

Addressing what he called "the most important issue in America that nobody is talking about," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell warned Wednesday that the National Popular Vote movement is "getting dangerously close to achieving their goal of eliminating the Electoral College without actually amending the Constitution--without anybody even noticing, unfortunately, what they’re up to."

The National Popular Vote is a compact among state legislatures under which they pledge that they’ll award their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes nationwide, even if that candidate was not the majority choice of their state’s voters.

Oh, well--then by all means, let's talk about the issue, then: why does Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, hate the Constitution, federalism, and states' rights so much whenever it suits him and bangs his little fists about how important they are whenever that suits him?

It happens that the Constitution doesn't specify how states allocate their electoral votes aside from the requirement that the electors have to choose at least one of whom isn't from their home state and the 1804 amendment requiring them to assign their electoral votes to a unified ticket. That's it. Hell, the title "Electoral College" itself is a statutory and cultural term, not a strictly Constitutional one; what McConnell is dishonestly and incorrectly claiming is threatened doesn't, from a certain point-of-view, actually exist, being essentially a statutory term of venery as opposed to a single formal body constructed along the lines of The College Of Cardinals, say.

In many respects, the framers of the Constitution of the United States conceived of the country they were creating as an elitist, anti-democratic republic. That's a bit of an extreme statement and in some ways inaccurate, but no more inaccurate than most folks' apparent idea of what kind of country the founding fathers invented. The founders didn't trust mobs, didn't trust the ordinary rabble, wanted to put in stopgaps, speedbumps and obstacles between the people and the rods and levers of governance. First, they created a representative democracy, obviously, and not a direct democracy. Moreover, secondly, they deliberately set things up so the executive branch and the superior house of the legislative branch would be chosen by the states, with the representative house chosen for the people being the inferior house. It has even been contended that the system devised to select the President and Vice-President was intentionally broken by design so as to require Congress to select the executive, the state electors serving essentially as nominating bodies.

There's nothing illegal or unconstitutional about The National Popular Vote (NPV) compact. Indeed, constitutionally speaking, it would be perfectly within the power of a state to dispense with a popular vote for the presidency altogether. The only restrictions are those set forth in state constitutions. There's no reason, assuming their state constitution permitted it, a legislature couldn't pass a law giving themselves appointment of the state's electors, or delegating the selection of electors to the governor, or appointing electors in some other fashion (e.g. by picking electors at random from the lists of licensed drivers, or by auctioning off electoral seats to the highest bidders).

Similarly, it's entirely a matter of state law as to whether or not an elector has to cast his vote for anyone in particular. I.e. most states have a winner-take-all system in which all of the electors are expected to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state election, but only slightly less than half of the states have laws that punish an elector if he or she actually fails to do so. I'm not sure there's any particular reason, for instance, that any or all of Texas' electors couldn't go rogue in the next Presidential election and cast their votes for Chuck Norris despite the likelihood he won't actually be on the state's ballots in the election, and if there is a reason, it's a matter of Texas law and has nothing to do with the Constitution of the United States.

So what is Mitch McConnell on about? Does he not know his Constitution? Is he merely pandering to the crowd he was addressing? Is he driven by a practical concern that population growth in blue states increases the likelihood of more elections like 2000, in which the Republican candidate loses the popular vote but wins the electoral vote because a narrow (or even questionable) margin in a state throws all of that state's electoral votes to him? (If Florida had been part of some kind of NPV compact in 2000, its electoral votes would have gone to Al Gore no matter how many chads were hanging.)

The more salient point, naturally, is that whatever inspires McConnell's comments, his commitment to the Constitution is a matter of personal convenience. This goes beyond broad or narrow constructions of ambiguous provisions, beyond originalism and strict constructionism versus a living Constitution and penumbras surrounding the Bill Of Rights and XIVth Amendment. The Constitution simply flat-out says states can choose presidential electors pretty much however the hell they want to and doesn't require them to base their decision on any popular vote at all. In sum, McConnell's position is part of a prevailing hypocrisy seen in so many of our leaders these days, especially among the supposed "conservatives" who fervently profess to cling to reactionary ideals while in fact they cherry-pick to suit whichever members of their queued-up coalition of theological primitives, libertarian anarchists and imperialistic cryptofascists have just had their number called. It ought to be embarrassing to them, but hardly anybody knows a damn thing anymore, and so they don't suffer much chance of being called out on it.


The Secretary's 'stache

>> Wednesday, December 07, 2011

I know, I like to bag on Newt Gingrich a lot. I mean, it's like shooting fish in a barrel--with a stick of dynamite. He's dumb, sleazy, corrupt, and just an awful person, the kind of guy who'd shut down the Federal government because he had to use the back door on Air Force One that one time.

But I like to think of myself as fair and balanced, right? So when Gingrich, improbably enough, has a great idea, it's only appropriate for me to say something nice about the man and acknowledge he's on to something.

So it's in the news today that Gingrich is promising to offer the job of Secretary Of State to former United Nations ambassador John Bolton in the unlikely event Gingrich is elected President. Damn. Wish I'd thought of that--that's a damn good idea.

My saying that might surprise you. First of all, long-time readers with some kind of obsessive-compulsive memory disorder might remember I've been known to bag on John Bolton, too. Also, you know, there's the fact Bolton has picked up a reputation in some circles of being something of a loose cannon; that many consider him aggressive, vindictive and hard to work with; that he's surprisingly undiplomatic for someone with a career in diplomacy; that his honesty has been publicly questioned on at least one occasion; that he's also been accused of supporting terrorist organizations; and, basically he pretty much comes off as a total dick every time he says or does just about anything.

To all of these more-or-less valid criticisms, I have only one response:

Look at it! Look at it and quail!

Feel the power of John Bolton's Moustache Of Authority1, and tremble.

John Bolton is an asshole--I don't think I need to go into it yet again, I feel like I've covered that part already. But have you ever wondered how an asshole like that rises to a position of power he's uniquely and specifically unqualified for? He's a tactless and abrasive man who has repeatedly expressed his opinion that the United Nations ought to be destroyed, so what kind of job is he famous for formerly holding? Ambassador to the United Nations. How is that even possible?

I submit to you, it's his moustache. He--no, I'm sorry--it must be obeyed. Bolton sans moustache is nothing, nobody. With the moustache, he has direct power over the minds, hearts and souls of men and women. His 'stache is like Dracula's eyeballs, irresistible, terrible, haunting, compelling.

Which is why Gingrich's idea to deploy Bolton--or Bolton's moustache, at least, which is attached to Bolton and probably can't exist independently for any notable length of time (though it might be a worthy scientific project to see if Bolton's power 'stache can be transplanted onto somebody likeable)--as America's chief diplomat is amazingly good. No recalcitrant emir or intractable prime minister would be able to outlast that moustache at the bargaining table. Rounds of negotiations that would be interminable left to a Henry Kissinger would end in quick capitulation to Secretary Bolton's Moustache Of Authority.

Fronted by that moustache, Bolton's obvious and otherwise crippling weaknesses as a human being become strengths. E.g. Bolton's willingness to go off reservation and act on his own as a wildly-shooting rogue agent becomes a relentless force which brooks no compromise. Kind of like the madman theory with mighty facial hair replacing the sweaty upper lip; imagine Secretary Of State Bolton sitting down with Premier Wen Jiabao of China over a currency dispute, and before the legion of interpreters can even finish translating the formalities, Secretary Bolton ends the proceeding by saying, "Fuck this, fuck you, I don't care, do whatever the fuck you want, I'm leaving, my moustache and I will be out by the pool," and he walks out. Just stands up, pushes through the crowd of photographers and the next time he's seen he's sitting in a lounge chair watering his 'stache with 160-proof vodka and mumbling about how someone ought to nuke the shit out of Iran. Wen Jiabao is a rational man--which means he isn't going to want to be in the same hotel or even the same city as John Bolton, plus he's probably mildly disturbed by the way the feral eroticism of Bolton's facial hair stirs deep feelings he's not entirely comfortable with; so he does the only reasonable thing possible, which is to pass a note written on the back of a cocktail napkin to Bolton's latest assistant, reading (in neat, precisely-written English capitals): "PLEASE RELAY TO YOUR INSANE MASTER THAT WE CAPITULATE TO ALL HIS DEMANDS". And then he checks out and flies back to China, brimming with a disturbing mix of relief, dread and longing, and informs the Party that he will be taking a very long vacation and should not be disturbed under any circumstances whatsoever. Meanwhile, back at the hotel, John Bolton trashes a hotel room while demanding someone bring him a manatee, or at least a quart of its blood and the organs from its endocrine system.

Brilliant. Just brilliant. America will be an empire. After the first year of a Gingrich presidency, we won't even have to use Bolton's moustache, we can just threaten our enemies with it. "Perhaps we could have an international summit, Secretary Bolton would be pleased to meet with the Chancellor." "Ah. Yeah. Um. No thanks, um, we're good." "But Secretary Bolt--" "Look, how about you just annex our country and we'll call everything even, okay? Please? Please?"

I think Gingrich is onto something, but it's really just a start. May I humbly propose a candidate for Secretary Of Commerce:

Hell yes. He may not be smart, but that's a damn fine 'stache he's sporting. Here's to hairy governance.

1I am aching to give Chris Hastings and Kent Archer the credit they so richly deserve: if they didn't coin "M(o)ustache Of Authority", they at least made it a phrase of beauty.


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