Saturday, March 24, 2012

Anorak Without Portfolio

We're off!

After wrapping up this recent American football season, I reflected a bit on all those storied sports-team names, many of which have been around for decades. Couldn't we use a few new names in the mix? We've got the Chiefs, Braves, Warriors and so forth...what about the Hunter-Gatherers? Everyone loves the robust ring of the Spartans, but I'd love to see the Athenians...maybe their helmet logo would be a flowing white robe! The Rebels (usually depicted as wide-eyed marauders with unspecified, gleeful rage) are a big hit, but how about someone cheering on the Union?
The Giants and Titans have a natural foil in the Mighty Mites, while such phenomena of the physical world (Heat, Blaze, Storm) could be joined by the formidable Indian Summer. The fierce animal representations among these teams still have plenty of room, and I'd like to propose - in the wake of the Eagles, Seahawks etc. - the Cattle Egrets.
Slow, stealthy, but they'll take the cautious road and prevail in the end...

Apocalypse And-How

Construction workers, seen in Charles Ebbetts' 1932 photo
 Seems like 2012 is flying by: here we are about to embark upon summer. Amazing. Of course, we'll soon get to see if everyone's calendar is the real deal, eh? Gloom, doom, and a cast of thousands - er, billions. Oh boy. I don't know, though...sunspots or aliens or whatever other malicious agency may take a backseat to humankind's own innate ability to self-oppress.
I declared myself apolitical back in post #2, so I'm not going to cheerlead for either side of the field in this upcoming U.S. election. I do notice it tangentially, though, and hear of this primary or that crop of delegates...everywhere pronouncements and nostrums and forecasts. It's a bloodless business this time around, though. It's as if we're all numbed from promises and hype that invariably come saddled with chicanery, compromise and nasty surprises. So we see a cluster of stuffed shirts get up and speechify and attempt to make all the right noises, but it all seems so hollow. Maybe we're just sick of the photoplay and all its attendant concerns - concerns which, in the end, probably won't be addressed.
I'm guessing that a lot of the numbness and rote falls to our dulled consumerist hamster-wheel lives. We've no more frontiers, no more great challenges. Sure, the more well-meaning may point to such abstractions as "inequality" and "justice" and "the war on x" with great fervor, but here's a sad truth: great chunks of the world aren't fixable, even with the best intentions. With our numbers growing, we'd sure better see to some sustainable initiatives, although I'm now in the aforementioned idealist camp even by typing that thought...Red- and blue-state rhetoric aside, we are become more fragmented by the day.
Apparently, the "sovereign citizen" movement is alive and well and growing rapidly. It essentially rebels against any tax collection, but also such instruments as drivers' licenses and so forth. And out in the sprawling reaches of food movements may be found stauch vegans, anti-GM ("genetically modified" seeds and foods, aka "Frankenfood" to use Jello Biafra's term), groups, as well as relative newcomers like the "paleo-diet" advocates, who reject government guidelines in toto and most foods not available or not comsumed during the Paleolithic Era (not making that up). Then there are Birthers, Truthers, advocacy groups for everything under the sun, all ready to march and fight for their piece of the awareness pie. Hell, who needs cataclysms when we could just snuff our own selves out?

Looking around again, I see that our numbers, our leading economic indicators are all on the uptick. That can be read as good or bad or genius or dumb luck (x is just riding the coattails of y's policies, etc), depending on which way you're grinding your axe. When I go to work every morning, though, I see the streets full of people. Streets full of cars, of commerce, of people with places to be and work to be done. Local places, national retail or food chains...everyone is busy.
My town (Shreveport, Louisiana) has had a number of new industries locate here in the last several years, and each new site means people working - bringing home money - seeding that money ever outward and oiling the local economy. The Port of Caddo-Bossier has moved 70,000 tons of materiel this year, a new record, comprised of a great conglomeration of every sort of commodity, supplies and equipment. Every sign points upward for our area, and we're only one medium-sized city among so many in this country.
So: which direction do we move in? Growth or dissolution? Catastrophe or continuity? Again, I don't want to repeat myself on this page, but I will reprise a comment I made a while back. We've got to live, to find and create meaning, and to be appreciative and industrious with the gift of life. If we can't find ways to develop our ongoing lives in some coherent, rewarding manner, maybe we're headed for the scrapheap after all.

But I hope not.

Barbara Tuchman
A Cold-War Heavy Hitter
Ah, the American literary world at midcentury. Yes, I did review Al Silverman's The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors a few posts back, and that fine book does concern itself with the milieu of the Postwar era. I've finally read a key product of those times, however, and would like to heartily plump for its continued appreciation.
I yearningly (again) note that the age was one of a national reading habit that was quite broad and deep, so that books and their writers stood atop every other means of cultural expression (except, some would argue, film) in their appreciation, consideration and discussion. John F. Kennedy was noted for his tastes, among them an enjoyment of Ian Fleming's James Bond yarns. He was struck by another writer as well, and his lauding of Barbara Tuchman and her landmark 1962 study of the First World War's beginning days helped propel that book to the dead center of our literary conversation, even earning her a Pulitzer Prize.

Tuchman was a bright, studious young woman who graduated Radcliffe in 1933 and struck out into the world as a traveling journalist. She found she enjoyed the labors and rewards of the writing life, and her third book, 1958's The Zimmerman Telegram set up research for her following effort, the one that so influenced Kennedy that he had copies shipped out to key leaders worldwide - The Guns of August.
She chooses for a starting point the twilight of the old European order, as the crowned heads of the Continent gather in England for the funeral of Edward VII in May 1910. Thus begins an immersion into a world of empires, monarchies and all their attendant jealousies and rivalries. The assemblage is one of "scabbards, plumage and silks," and the increasingly simmering tensions are made no better by the fact that these monarchs in large part share the same blood.
Part of Tuchman's groundwork is a survey of the countries' intellectual ferment of the times, and we thus review little-remembered texts such as Norman Angell's The Great Illusion (1910), which argued that the "modern" Europe enjoyed an equilibrium and prosperous stasis that would make war not only unwinnable but unthinkable. Angell's thoughts were at odds with those of a German General Staff writer named Friedrich von Bernhardi, whose Germany and the Next War of the following year made a bold case for auspicious, preemptive action that would secure Germany's place as iron-fisted master of Europe.
That book and others like it dovetailed wonderfully with the growing idea of Kultur, a Pan-Germanic ideology that contained a mystical aspect involving blood, conquest and fate. Such publications were met with concern by men such as H.G. Wells, who cast a critical eye over German behavior and foresaw "...the permanent enshrinement of the war god over all human affairs." The warlike attitude seemed to dictate that battle was a vital, cleansing, even regenerative act that brought all that was best and noblest to the combatants' hearts. Such a mentality is reflected in the early-war poetry of men like Rupert Brooke and Thomas Mann, years from "In Flanders Fields." Even though Germany had prevailed at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War and hobbled France, she saw her neighbor as a bit of unfinished business, a proud peacock thwarting Imperial aims. If England and France were enjoying expansion and empire-building in the first decade of the new century, Germany was restless and cagey.
The Kaiser had a template to affix his boredom to in the Schlieffen Plan, named for the former Chief of German General Staff. The plan said simply to sweep upward through Belgium (neutrality be damned) and land a smashing blow into Paris, then turn about and take on Russia (the precise plan Hitler tried to employ later). Every refinement of the plan involved Belgium, and the little country was destined for horror. It's fascinating to read of the genteel nature of that initial sweep through Belgium, with its notices of occupation posted by the invader, with a tone almost begging compliance. Perhaps the first indicator of what lay ahead could be glimpsed during the Battle of the Frontiers, across the endlessly disputed Alsace and Lorraine lands, where sabers and lances faced rifles and machine guns. All 12 of the garrison forts around Liege were in rubble by mid August, thus providing "...a cause and an example." Wilhelm had - a few years earlier - expressed a wish that his troops present themselves like the "Hun" of old, and this label and image soon came to be a shorthand for growing barbarity.
England, hewing to the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, dispatched the British Expeditionary Force to Rouen. That a "kindred" nation would do such a thing was greeted with disbelief by Germany, and this seething sentiment raced across the land. The landing added to a feeling of persecution among the Germans. "What chance have we, attacked on every side?" mourned a German official. Such went the thinking: the Germans were angered and confused that England would horn in, that Belgium would fight back. In a fine passage, Tuchman dissects this thinking - that the people would never rise up, no, it must be the instigation from on high - hence the horrid death toll among local officials. A deadline for Germany to rethink its assault came and went, and England was thrown into an emergency consideration of its options. It was only through Tuchman's toil through hundreds of primary sources, papers and memoirs that she was able to knit together this big-picture narrative.
Turkey, for example, has her hand forced by the seizure of two warships then under construction by British contractors (ships seized with little regard for Turkey's reaction). They could not longer remain on the fence after the vessels entered the Dardanelles in order to shell several Russian cities, an act which unsurprisingly earned them a declaration of war, as well as set the stage for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. She offers many interesting portraits, such as the glowering Lord Kitchener (he of the famous recruiting poster later redone with Uncle Sam), and the two admirals who played cat and mouse throughout the Med and the Aegean while their leaders wrung their hands, Wilhelm Souchon and Archibald Milne, and even Tirpitz (architect of the German Navy), frozen out finally by the Kaiser. The BEF commander Sir John French is ably drawn, as is a veteran of 1870, summoned back from retirement with a new honorary "von" to add to his name - Paul Hindenburg.

On August 20th Brussells was occupied, and here the book sheds further light on events. After a sequence of logistical movements (tracking the troops can be tough sledding, and the book does presume at least a passing familiarity with the belligerents) we re-enter the human sphere. The Belgians, far from simply throwing up their hands in defeat, fought back not only with their meager armed forces, but also at the civilian level, and we begin to see the depravity of reprisals. These roundings-up and outright executions, to say nothing of the looting, razing and burning of entire towns was not just happenstance, not just a growing wave borne of fear and desperation, but official German policy.
If the world was stunned by the rapid development of hostilities, it reeled in revulsion before the news of the burning of Louvain and its ancient, venerable library. The carnage carried through to the march through France as well, and is at such odds with the leaders' experience and expectations. France, for example, still clung to her pantalons rouge (red uniform trousers), white gloves for officers, and movement by field drill and classroom example. Her soldiers received no entrenchment training, as this would soil their uniforms! Sadly - direly - she employed drums and bugles when possible to aid her headlong, impossible attacks.
In the chapter "Blue Water, Blockade and the Great Neutral" Tuchman looks back at the naval picture of the last several years, with the concept of "freedom of the seas" fully plumbed for all its historical and political import. The last part of the chapter's title refers to America, who'd had a course of neutrality set and argued for by Wilson. Perhaps the U.S. could avoid all the entanglements and broker a peace, thus raising her profile and influence? So went the hope. By the third week of August we find the French - if not in full rout - then retreating steadily, moving through towns and villages they know will be occupied by the mounted "Uhlans" (another evocative name retrieved from the past) by the following nightfall.
All eyes are on Paris, where defending commander orders the unthinkable: destruction of whatever may be of aid to the invader, even an historical bridge like that at Pont Neuf. So the stage is set for the Battle of the Marne, and more importantly the construction of the trench system that locked a generation of young men into slow, mud-caked death. Although the optimistic German projection of a four-week campaign is soon dashed, the outcome is not yet a foregone conclusion, and such is Tuchman's skill at placing us amid the chaos, fatigue, stubborn pride and slaughter.

She elects to omit Franz Ferdinand's assassination almost completely, as that event would necessitate a quagmire of explanations. Her portraiture of the principals is striking in its stead - this world where a daydreaming Kaiser addresses his cousin, Czar Nicholas II, as "Nicky" before signing his correspondence as "Willy." We receive a record of war-by-caprice, of attack based not on shortage or necessity but of perception: desire, jealousy, greed and martial ambition. The sad thing is, nothing was learned from August 1914 nor the years that followed its dusty heat. Indeed, in the words of D.H. Lawrence, "All the great words were cancelled out for that generation." Mania, fear, and elaborate revenge fantasies fueled the subsequent war, and fuel conflict yet today.

Barbara Tuchman left behind an enviably substantial body of work, and even netted a second Pulitzer for her 1972 life of Joe Stilwell. Over a ten-book writing career she prevailed, and never flagged in her insights (as evidenced by, for example, 1984's The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam).
It was that one book that put her name on everyone's lips, though - that chronicle of a world so long vanished, and the cauldron of fear that swept it away.

One Strange Day, One Strange Tale
McHattie and Houle, trapped and desperate
Once in a great while I come across a movie that's solid and engaging in every aspect, one that leaves me with a deep impression. Perhaps rarer still is the one that really impresses me, while managing to be unlike anything I've ever seen.
Such is the case with a 2009 film I recently stumbled upon called Pontypool. It's a darkly clever story, delivered with impeccable pacing and fine ensemble performances. It's a Canadian film, which means that its arrival here in the U.S. probably entailed distribution issues of some sort (I found it on Netflix myself, and I'd like to interject that I appreciate that company's willingness to act as a conduit for films from a great many countries). So, being a Canadian product, there's a lot of that country's talent involved, with Ontario Province being the flick's birthplace.
Director Bruce McDonald is from Vancouver, but ended up eastward and at the helm of a number of acclaimed movies, including Dance Me Outside (1994), Hard Core Logo (1996) and Picture Claire (2001) before undertaking Pontypool in 2008.
Here's a brief partial synopsis: Fiery but haggard radio host Grant Mazzy (the very prolific Canadian character actor Stephen McHattie) is enroute to the station in an early morning snowstorm, when a woman appears at his car door, hammering the vehicle in desperation - before vanishing. He arrives at the station, pours a mugful of whiskey and settles in for another acerbic shift. McHattie is joined by the fine Lisa Houle as his put-upon producer Sydney Briar, while Brit Georgina Reilly is Laurel-Ann Drummond, a young intern. One news item takes things away from the ordinary, as a station reporter begins to relay descriptions of a strange gathering at a local doctor's office, a gathering that soon turns violent. There's something afoot, and Provincial officials are concerned - Mazzy is even contacted by the BBC for comment, a development that seems absurd given the fact that Mazzy and Briar can't even get a true picture of the bizarre, rapidly developing situation right across town.

The film was adapted by Tony Burgess, from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything, a book that's postmodern perhaps in its refusal to hew to "proper" plot resolution. Burgess's interest in semiotics - a dense branch of linguistics dealing with the significance of signs and symbols - plus a love of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, a novel dealing with linguistics and technology in a bleak future America, led him to write the book.
McDonald saw it as a natural for film, an intuition that proved right on the mark. The film was shot digitally, and there was a bit of an outcry from those preservers of the 35mm production process, but the final result, from the opening sequence of Mazzy's voice as a blue waveform against a black field, captivates. The plot does turn on language, on speech, and its chilling use of the Canadian National Anthem is a provocative moment that led me to believe that there might be some intra-country political commentary woven into the tale underneath the stark, rapidly escalating tension.
In any case, it's a gripping fable, ultimately larger than the church-cellar radio station and the air staff that inhabit it. See it if you're at all able.


Donovan, in his magic '60s
 Donovan's Sprightly Masterpiece
Some performers are so evocative in their work that they leave footprints of an age, of a spirit in their wake. Such is the case with Donovan, and in some sense he does seem tethered to a very distant cultural past. Far from fading away, he's engineered (such a dour, mechanistic term) a relative resurgence for himself over the past couple of decades.
After an uneven stretch in the '70s and '80s, 1992 saw the release of Troubador: The Definitive Collection 1964-1976. He then collaborated with fan Rick Rubin for 1996's Sutras album. He's released new music, played everywhere from the Kennedy Center to Austin's SXSW, and shows no sign of slowing - he's got ongoing 2012 tour dates. Among his body of work, however, I'll steer the casual fan or new listener to a wondrous 1968 release, with its subject, like Donovan himself, "...singing songs of love."

Donovan Philips Leitch was born in Glasgow on May 10th, 1946, and although scorned by some as a UK Dylan knock-off as he performed for ever-larger crowds 18 years later, he had in fact been playing guitar since the age of 14, and had a strong affinity for both the folk traditions of the British Isles and the Pop boom then at its early peak. In 1964 London's PYE Records arranged his first forays into the studio, but it was the following year when he met producer Mickie Most (born Michael Peter Hayes, a man who'd already tasted huge success both as a performer and producer of acts such as The Animals and Herman's Hermits), and then became the first act signed to Clive Davis's new CBS imprint, a label called Epic.
Several May '66 sessions resulted in a US #1 hit in "Sunshine Superman" - the album attained #11 US as well. That LP signaled his influences and intent, featuring as it did sitar, harpsichord and strings among its instrumentation. The folk approach now seemed beside the point. The young man, known simply by his pleasing first name, was developing a true and original voice.
He followed these successes with "Mellow Yellow" in October, a #2 smash and gold record besides (the subsequent LP saw no release in the UK: indeed, the Sunshine Superman album had been a delayed, bastardized pastiche). In mid-'66 he beat various Beatles and Stones to the punch with a marijuana bust. Regardless, he kept writing and his contribution to the Summer of Love was A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, a two-record set comprised of "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" and "For Little Ones," the latter disc recorded especially for children.
His moment was certainly flowering, and he was featured in Karl Ferris's short 1967 film Wear Your Love Like Heaven, shot at England's 14th-century Bodiam Castle. The film contained visual imagery to accompany four songs, and also featured a young woman named Jennifer Boyd, more about which momentarily. Another first came as he provided an interview for the inaugural issue of Rolling Stone, in which he advised youth against drug use, the result of some recent changes of heart: he'd used some drugs, but now felt them to be unnecessary in the production of his art. Jennifer Boyd, Patti's sister as it turns out, ran a shop in London called Juniper, and so provided the songer with another infectious single, released in late '67.
Boyd then accompanied Donovan as he joined the Beatles' contingent on a visit to the Maharishi's ashram in Rishikesh, India in February '68. While there he traded licks with Lennon and McCartney, even teaching them a new picking technique that resulted in such numbers as "Dear Prudence" (Donovan and McCartney later jammed at Abbey Road during some of the 1969 slow-down that almost saw the group disintegrate). It was now that the singer was preparing what would be the capstone to this fantastic period of creative production.

There was a song that - while he'd written it and felt it was strong - he'd considered giving away to everyone from Jimi Hendrix to an old mentor, Max McLeod, who'd had a band called Hurdy Gurdy. He kept the song for himself on the advice of Mickie Most, and was delighted with a #5 single in both the US and UK. The song was "Hurdy Gurdy Man," and the album that was built up around it was as fine as anything from that era of brilliance.
In between the two sessions for the album (November '67 and April '68 at London's Olympic Studios), Donovan was a guest on John Peel's Top Gear program, and made the trip to India, where those impromptu jams at the ashram set up the later sessions with McCartney.
For the title track, John Paul Jones provided bass and acted as arranger and musical director. There's a gentle acoustic intro with a lilting, dream-state vocal, before the music expands insistently upward and outward. The lyric searches "...down through all eternity," hears "the crying of humanity," then this tonic for an ailing and wounded world is bolstered by a buttery, acidic guitar solo courtesy of session ace Alan Parker. It's a fine, atmospheric start to things, and as it turns out, George Harrison even provided a final verse for it - creating a version of the song that didn't even see the light of day until years later on stage.
Donovan picks up the harmonium for the next song, and creates a warm Indian drone for "Peregrine," a meditation (literally) on peace and transcendence. It's a deftly sculpted sonic reveire, asks only peace, and who can critique him for it? It's hard to fault such a beautiful sentiment or song. With "The Entertaining of a Shy Girl," Donovan muses that very proposition, and his light conversation is joined by a nimble arrangement highlighted by Harold McNair's flute. Trad (traditional) jazz was big in the UK right before the Beat Boom, and he seems to access that jaunty approach for "As I Recall It," where he's joined by some music-hall piano and swinging tumpet. The "sun was high," good times were there, good times are recalled anew. Yet then he returns to another plea for simplicity, for working things out, in a tune called "Get Thy Bearings." Jazzy sax from McNair and some mellow, loping upright bass from Danny Thompson settle us in, as the deceptively simple lyric offers "All the world knows what I'm saying - the world knows quite well," as the music finds a groove, stays for a moment, then fades.
Next, "Hi It's Been a Long Time" begins with finding an old friend, but then turns darker: she's been beaten down, apparently by life in the counterculture - "...dragged as any hippie should be," - and the song's strings add much to this bittersweet moment.
Inspired by a print on his bedroom wall during the India trip, "West Indian Lady" uses multi-tracked vocals and flute to paint a brief portrait of someone drinking "from the cup of joy," and so ends Side One. That magic tune called "Jennifer Juniper" kicks off the second side, and this song, with Donovan pronouncing the Js as "zh," is, again, more than a mere trifle. In this sweet, perfect Pop nugget he wistfully daydreams of a charming young girl, in a delivery to fly straight into the face of the day's growing negativity.
The lass "rides a dappled mare," and "Is she pretty? Yes, ever so..." Longtime friend David "Gypsy Dave" Mills co-wrote another meditation called "The River Song," and its distant bongos call while a simple but hypnotic acoustic figure underpins the lyric. Mills also co-wrote the next two songs, and the bongos and harmonium reappear for "Tangier."
Marrying poetry to evocations of grit and even squalor is no mean feat, especially regarding so popular a topic as the shimmery, stoned streets of ancient Morocco. The musicians pull it off, in an unfolding raga tapestry sprawl of expanse, flight and release. He then devotes a few moments to a thing very dear to English hearts: "A Sunny Day." In so doing, he joined acts like the Hollies, Kinks, Small Faces (and later, Blur) in a little celebration, one that is continued with "The Sun Is a Very Magic Fellow," co-written by Beatles road manager Mal Evans (while on that same fruitful India trip!). The sun, wind, rain, sea and moon all pass in review to offer their secrets and gifts before a girl appears, to "sing all my cares away."
He concludes with "Teas," about the loss at the bottom of a "cup of rich brown memory," and the trumpet sounds softly over thoughts of a half-remembered friend or lover.

The record showcases the singer at the absolute peak of his lyrical might. The selections amaze in their arrangement and diversity, execution and organic flow, and are still accessible and pleasurable as free-standing moments of pop artistry, That he was able to produce an album of such assurance and grace is remarkable. That is should succeed as a vibrant musical statement and endure over 40 years later is incredible.
Donovan joined a select group of his era who set the trends rather than followed them, and so he shares - with groups such as the Hollies - the blessing of generational popularity, influence and appeal. Accordingly, this album is for not just fans of  '60s pop, but for anyone who enjoys finely wrought, persuasive music from any time or place.

Much to say, many ways to say it
Into the Wild Blue with Wired
The year 1993 was only 20 years ago - not a long time, unless you're talking about technology. Personal computers (to say nothing of mobile phones) were bulky, limited in their capabilities and really little more than curiosities. People weren't yet simply "meat bodies," housing and nursing their pitiable data and direly needing upgrades. The whole world was yet to be wired, then un-wired.
It was then that a group of journalists, entrepreneurs and techies, led by forward-looking editor Louis Rossetto and heavily influenced by ex Merry Prankster and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, founded a new magazine they called Wired. It was to examine not only the explosion of tech - though it's done that at the leading edge of the discussion - but also the effects all this cascade on us on the receiving end.

I really hadn't read it until I borrowed a few issues back around '04, and was pleasantly surprised. It wasn't just some nerdy rag, it genuinely seemed to want to discuss all aspects of the developing world. Tied into the content was critique, insight, and a willingness to largely suspend the gee-whiz angle for sober, real-time pieces on everything from cyber-crime and espionage to practical applications of basic, developmental inroads and simple human behaviors.
I picked up the April issue, and wasn't disappointed.
A number of digest-format sections get things underway, and offer lots of variety. Clive Thompson has a piece on the value of introversion, and in TEST we get a look at GPS-based athletic performance watches and new-gen electric motorcycles. PLAY has a look at the animations for the growing Game of Thrones book phenom, a profile of mixed-media artist and photographer Alex Hartley, a poke at horror movie tropes and a discussion of Lena Dunham's new HBO project, Girls.
We meet two Stanford profs who've introduced Udacity, a bold, free online course program, and then Mary H.K. Choi has a bit of advice to avoid drowning in a sea of memes. There are the ongoing fun features "Jargon Watch," "What's Inside" (weird origins of everyday items) and back-page treat "Found," wherein the mag imagines common tech sights of the future.
The features are a diverse bag as well: Jason Fagone profiles Iowa software writer James Erwin, a man who went from a lunchtime, on-the-fly Reddit response to turning that response into a hot-optioned screenplay, while Felix Salmon looks at the problems tech companies face in staying afloat and profitable amid potential snares like IPOs. Michael Chorost examines new refinements in prosthetics development (sadly, a need that's grown much), and David Rowan intrigues with his article about Reid Hoffman, who, after several startup misfires, introduced LinkedIn, and who has a lot to say about personal vision and reinvention.

The cover story is a chilling look inside the NSA facility in Bluffdale, Utah that's now under construction and expected to be operational by September 2013 - a facility that will do nothing less than track everything electronic...from everywhere on Earth. Yet it's another story that packs the heaviest punch here.
Carl Zimmer has a report on the ongoing search that'll hopefully be to viruses what the introduction of Penicillin was to bacteria. He examines the struggle against a foe that constantly changes, replicates and simply adapts to anything we throw at it, and looks at the waepons in this fight, but also the thinking: what about adapting our own molecular structure to resist viral threats? A comprehensive timeline and visual breakdown accompany this article (not for nothing has the magazine won design awards), and then it hit me. Yes, Wired has positioned itself as a leading tech publication, and has survived two failed IPOs, the tech bubble and even sticky wickets such as an iPad download glitch. It's more than that though. The best magazines are those that - while they might look like a niche title - have quality writing across a broad spectrum of topics and interests...they speak to many concerns and developments, and the sum of their pages is more than the whole of their parts. They are, literally, the general-interest magazines of our time, and provide what we used to get from Life and other such informative publications.
The title has persevered, and I think it's going to remain a leader.
Check it out - you'll definitely find interesting reading.

A New Take: Key & Peele
Let me say, before I get into all the whys and wherefores, that these guys are funny.

Key, (left) and Peele: chemistry to burn
I don't need any qualifiers - "laugh-out-loud," "insidiously," "effortlessly" or so forth. The two are simply funny, with a chemistry that's rare and rewarding.
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are both alumni of MadTV, where they showed up in the show's latter seasons and left a big imprint on its quality. The pair's gifts for not just dead-on impressions but their flawless comic instincts fit the program's sensibilities like a glove. New Yorker Peele got further screen time in Reno 911 and Chocolate News, while Detroit native Key logged a four-year stint as host of Animal Planet's The Planet's Funniest Animals. Furthermore, both had exposure with Second City troupes, Peele in Chicago and Key in Detroit.
The two were ready for a star vehicle, and it arrived with the January 2012 debut of a new show, scheduled following the new season debut of Tosh.0.
It's a simple arrangement. The two appear onstage before a studio audience and do a little riffing to warm things up, and so set the stage for a collection of filmed segments - and here the impressions and original characters flow like wine. As both are bi-racial, they've got endless opportunities for commentary, and lampoon not only white and black culture but the societal results of the mixture of the two, and the results are almost invariably hilarious.
Live bits include reactions to a person who hasn't seen certain "essential" movies, white guys fighting at a bar (complete with girlfriend anxiety), and the burden of being the lone black guy at a white party. Peele reportedly let an SNL gig as Obama go, but boy, is it live here. We see the President stopping his limo to show up a street rapper, teaching daughter Malia about living out in the real world, and giving an address accompanied by Key as Luther, his "anger translator."
Celebrities provide much fuel, and sketches include L'il Wayne (faring poorly at Riker's), a smackdown between Bobby McFerrin and Michael Winslow, and a community address co-hosted by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, each vying for audience sympathies. Kimmy and Megan are two semi-recurring airheads, and reality TV provides parody opportunities such as the inscrutable head chef of Gideon's Kitchen.
Like In Living Color and the (sadly short-lived) Chocolate News, the show catches some heat because of the two's racial makeup: indeed, in an NPR interview they revealed that they've done stuff just like spoofs they saw on the Wayans Brothers' brilliant show, and are a little nonplussed at the barbs.

There's no backing off: they tackle black "authenticity" in a soul food bit, portray a couple of peeved soon-to-be-slaves, pose as entertainers who've carved out a niche in the bar/bat mitzvah market, and - as a gay couple named LaShawn and Samuel - give two very different reactions to the announcement of the legalization of gay marriage. They seek out absurdity in such situations, really, and there is zero malice, or even critique, in these sketches.
While there won't be any new episodes until autumn, you can still pull up the ubiquitous YouTube to catch up on clips, and here is where the two take things to the next level. Alongside the segment selections are also options to view "response" videos by a pair of buddies - loquacious, hyper Vandaveon and reserved Mike - who provide commenetary on various K&P sketches, along with tips to make them better. It takes a minute to realize that they're actually Key and Peele, who've adopted mannerisms so different from themselves that they've once again disappeared into a character completely. It needs to be seen to be believed.
There, then, is one of my new favorite sketch shows ever. Hopefully these guys will be around for awhile (and not, say, spirited away by the dangling promises of feature-length movies). We need their laughs.

So ends Volume I - twelve posts. Wow, it's been lots of work, but a blast as well. My continued thanks for your interest, and best wishes across our huge world.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Davey's Holiday Camp

Welcome back, friends, and may I say, with some amazement - 337 views from Russia on December 8th? Whatever the reason, Da Zvidanya!! Hope everyone will get warm and cozy and enjoy this new installment...

Champagne and Sleeping Bags
After the initial surge of confronting Wall Street, the Occupy movement has now caused similar demonstrations in over 1000 cities. Now it's...well, it's hard to say what's happening with the movement. Its makeup, its vibe, its environment has done some shifting, and - depressingly - the criticism of it has had time to solidify into a seemingly universal sneer.
It should come as no surprise that with such large groups of people, there will invariably be all sorts of irregularities, up to and including crime. The opportunists will be there, the deranged, and those who have no great conviction about the matter at hand but who have nothing better to do. And yes, the message will vary, and encompass not just the original grievance but an array of complaints and critiques across a range of topics. It would be bad, though, if that original voice of rebellion were drowned in all the attendant hoopla. What does that voice say?
It says that our system is bought and paid for, and its theft is all the worse because of our lofty national rhetoric about "striving" and "achievement" and so forth. The apologists for the system continue to trumpet the line about hard work and effort paying off, and yes, it still does in many cases. But in the last 30 years, there have been ever more people who've been adversely affected, if not ruined, by the sweet setup enjoyed between their so-called "representatives" and the deeply entrenched world of high finance.
The narrative from the Far Right (perhaps "narrative" isn't the right word for their bombast: it's too coherent and connotes rational thought) is simple: These occupiers are packs of unwashed slackers and whiners who delight in leaving their Marxist lecture halls to assemble in great throngs, the better to vilify capitalism and demand everyone's assets be put into a big pile for equitable distribution while, presumably, "The Internationale" blares away in the background. It pains me to have to repeat the fact - right there for anyone who wishes to see it - that these groups are made up of people from literally all walks of life. Like it or not, they are the American People. Why is it that those two words are up for grabs and applicable only when they suit a speaker's need? No. These people are the country.
For god's sake, is anyone surprised that people would finally hear that magic statistic one time too many and snap? Yes, it's not up for debate - 1% of this vast country controls 40% of its wealth. For comparison, during the Reagan years, the numbers were 12% controlling 25%. Doesn't take a math whiz to see where it's heading.
So...if you're talking about 1%, then what does that leave? I'm a product of public schools, but to me it leaves, yes, 99% - hence the signs - the signs carried by the people who are mocked every hour of every day by the Far Right (the only Right we have any more, apparently) screamers. And oh, the passionate pronouncements the screamers do make! It's not enough to rip the occupiers, no - now comes the defense of the 1%. I couldn't believe it the first time I heard it, but it's a drumbeat now. "The poor 1%." Why, they got there through "merit, achievement and excellence," according to the profoundly delusional Sean Hannity. They're the "job creators," the "wealth creators," and how dare we hold these benevolent deities up for examination?! One pair of b-list drive-time jocks from Houston even read a portion of one of Margaret Thatcher's darwinist rants the other morning.
It all makes sense.
When money is the god and bedrock of your country, as is the case with America, then bankers and corporate heads are the de facto priests, and are afforded our deference, if not reverence. (Along those lines, I'd posit that if the "mainstream media," aka those poor three tired-assed network news stations are truly the house organs for the diabolical government, then Fox & its ilk are the mouthpiece for our proud, true corporatocracy).
I use the word "deference," and by that I mean corporate welfare, selective application of environmental and labor standards, bailouts, tax loopholes and shelters and the newest sweet perk: the debauched Supreme Court ruling that corporations have the status of individuals and thus may shower the political machine with ever-greater truckloads of money. (It's not enough, perhaps, that there are five lobbyists from the financial world for every U.S. congressperson). That is why the people in the streets are there. It's not for the reasons mentioned earlier. But when you've got a fixer like Rush Limbaugh speaking in not just sweeping generalities but also of fearsome extremes - a tactic he long ago honed to perfection - then everyone else presumes the right, no, the duty to bitch and vilify as well.
Did those young anointed on the Wall Street balcony, swilling champagne and laughing about the poor dupes below think their balloon will go on forever? They need to realize that it probably won't, and that they shouldn't be so cavalier in their flaunting. The cops are wound up and tense in all this, as they're realing this isn't Chicago '68 or Seattle '99...this thing has legs, and it's worldwide to boot. The critics fume that it should be a protest, not an encampment...go home! Go back to work, you creeps! Fine. File the movement under civil disobedience, then, or peaceful resistance, or just plain-old resistance (something with a fine tradition in this great land).

Just don't expect it to go away.

Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke
I have to relate the following with some chagrin.
As I considered the book options for this post I had several to choose from. I'd picked up a copy of Tree of Smoke a while back because of the critical love heaped on it, and I was dying to crack it open. It's a hefty one, not just some airy little confection meant to be consumed over a few evenings. This book was an event, dammit, meant to turn heads and creep into psyches and I knew that. Some part of me said that getting this post done in any reasonable time frame would be compromised by starting the book, yet I did it anyway. I don't regret it. I'll give you a taste then send you out to read it for yourself, and try not to do this to you again.

The jacket.
We open in the innocent days of 1963, although that innocence has received a blow: JFK has just been shot. A small garrison village in the Philippines is abuzz with the news, yet it's not enough to interrupt the rhythms of a pretty easy lifestyle for those there. We move forward into 1964, where a Vietminh named Trung shepherds together local mountain boys into some sort of suitable recruit for the coming struggle. "Do they claim victories?" he asks rhetorically of the American advisors and their endless coterie of colleagues, ex-pats and hangers-on. "Let them. The invaders are fighting the ocean. No matter how many waves they beat down, the ocean of our resolve is always there." One more year further on and we meet zealous young CIA operative William "Skip" Sands, who's posted temporarily with the Philippine Army and is acclimating to the Asian climate and the threads which are slowly knitting themselves together.
He's been entrusted with a cache of file cards that are covered with great amounts of information, collected over years and covering great swaths of people and countryside...a "tree of smoke." He's been given this trove by his uncle, Colonel Francis Sands, a man known simply by his rank and his capacities for alcohol and theatrical, florid pronouncements. The Colonel's preoccupations are the nature of beauty, the duties of every red-blooded American in increasingly perilous times, and a looming crisis he envisions: "It's a covert World War Three. It's Armageddon by proxy," he says. "It's a contest between good and evil, and its true ground is the heart of every human...sometimes I wonder if it isn't the goddamn Alamo." His feverish riffs arc outward into the infinite, then back down into the teeming streets of Manila and Saigon, and he's inwardly proud that Skip wants to take ownership of his trunks of file cards, his collection of minutiae assembled toward whatever purpose. "So what's the point?" he asks, wondering where his and Skip's Alamo will be. 'The point is Vietnam. The point is Vietnam. The point is Vietnam."

We're into 1966 by now, and meet a young seaman named Bill Houston who likes to call his brother James back in the States, the better to lord his worldly status over his family. He's in a Honolulu bar, drinking away an afternoon when the War intrudes in the form of a fried recent vet, a man fresh from a tour with the Third Marines. Mentally and physically dishevelled, he spins tales from the bush that curl the hair of Houston's small group, and  a later drunken stroll by the group occasions this comment from a passing admiral who hopes they're having a "...hell of a time," because "hard times are coming for assholes like you."
It's testament to Johnson's craft that the reader realizes, from time to time, that Vietnam has still not blown up into the nightmare it's due to become: we're there with these characters as they see the picture assemble in the jungles and hills, in the increasing tension in the cities and the helicopter-swarmed rice paddies.
James Houston, now enlisted in the Army, sits in the chow hall questioning his choice and makes the acquaintance of a black sergeant who's back from a tour, a Congressional Medal of Honor ribbon on his class-B shirt. "Nothing to worry about," he tells James. "By the time The Thing eats you, you all emptied up, you ain't thinking. Nothing but jazz happening." Such is an example of Johnson's pitch-perfect dialogue. The colonel erupts in the wonderful jargon of the intel community, the priests and the recruits and the villagers have it. It flows like water.
Trung reappears, now having to sneak furtively into the South to see friends and comrades, and creeps amid "...blossom and rot, smoldering charcoal, frying food...the distant roar of jets and the drumming of helicopter gunships - " this place "where theories burned to cinders, where questions of morality became matters of fact."

James reaches his unit and discovers the perils and pleasures of the Ville, where the music, women and beer share the same cheapness, while Skip is intrigued by a proposal of the Colonel's...a little disinformation campaign, and why not? Skip hearkens back to a thing he'd heard some time before - "We're on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream."
What better way to describe our 10-year adventure in Southeast Asia? Johnson writes with the magnetic pull, the clarity of focus, the gentle lilt of pacing and the instinctive feel of a true character like few writers working today in English.
For my money, only Don DeLillo is better at such  rich unfoldings, and now that I've produced a few words about this book I can relax, soak in it, and absorb its spellbinding (re) creation...

Birth of an Icon
In 1971 Clint Eastwood was a fairly accomplished actor, with a television series (Rawhide), clutch of Italian-made Westerns and a few Hollywood feature films to his credit.
His profile changed almost overnight with the release of Dirty Harry, a film that introduced a sardonic new cop, a bitter loner almost swallowed up in cynicism, if not despair. It was the beginning of the second phase of his career, and his status as a superstar.

The film opens, literally, staring down the barrel of a high-powered rifle held by a man atop a roof. He's focused in on a girl who's swimming in a rooftop pool several buildings over, and with one shot she's dead, a body in a spreading stain of red. Detective Harry Callahan appears on the scene, eyes coldly impassive behind shades. The city's (San Francisco) police chief and mayor inspect the note Callahan finds at the scene from the killer, who calls himself Scorpio. The mayor wants Harry's report, and advises caution, as opposed to a previous encounter where the inspector addressed a perp with a bullet.
He gets attitude instead, and a zinger: "When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with nothing but a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he's not out collecting for the Red Cross." We're definitely out of the cop movie bush league, and this is reinforced by a fanastically original moment, up next. Harry sits in a diner, and over his shoulder we see a bank robbery in progress. After requesting that the counterman call the police dispatch, he raises a hot dog to his mouth, at which point the alarm and screams can be heard. A peeved Harry walks over, extracts a cannon from a body holster (chewing the while) and disables the getaway vehicle with a thunderclap round. He walks though the ensuing chaos, past the spray of a fire hydrant, then over to one of the wounded robbers who lies bleeding on the sidewalk, and delivers an iconic query: "I know what you're thinking..." he teases out, "...did he fire six shots, or only five?" before ending with the question the man must ask himself - "Do I feel lucky?"
Harry's most recent partner is out of the picture, so he's given a "college-boy" replacement, a young Reni Santoni as Chico Gonzales. "Why 'Dirty Harry'?" he asks one of the fellows at the station, and is told "'Cause he hates everyone," to which Callahan adds "...especially Spics." The department tries to buy time to meet Scorpio's demands, but the killer doesn't want to wait.
Andy Robinson is fantastic as the shaggy-maned Scorpio, a maniac with possibly no precedent in mainstream film. Maybe Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter comes close, but that character was merely cold - calculating, cruel even. Scorpio has the coldness, but also a glint of joyful madness in his eyes and feral smile - he's truly nuts, and by extension, his crimes will have a smooth gloss of the amoral about them.

Siegel continues to upend the traditional cop narrative, first as Harry peeps in on an amorous couple (and loses Scorpio's trail in the process), then contemptfully badgers a potential suicide to either jump or quit wasting everyone's time. Scorpio delights in this cat-and-mouse game, yet after a sequence where Callahan manages to wound the killer, the tables are turned when the detective tracks him to his hovel in the city's Kezar Stadium and there, extract a most painful confession. As if to distance himself completely from protocol, Harry is livid when told that the rifle collected during the search of Scorpio's place is inadmissable, and declares "...the law's crazy!"

At the dawn of the '70s, Americans, rocked by the upheaval of the previous decade, were becoming used to the idea of crumbling, dangerous inner cities and an attendant rise in crime. Nothern California had even seen someone calling themselves the Zodiac Killer terrorize the region with a string of unassociated killings beginning in 1968.
The idea of a "serial" killer was being born, including such elements as teasing letters to the press and the random, brutal nature of the killings. The movie is very much of its time, and ends as Callahan corners Scorpio after thwarting his abduction of a school bus full of children. There, at the edge of a lake, he repeats his query of earlier, but as a wide-eyed Scorpio goes for his gun, Harry kills him with one booming round. As he opens his wallet to remove his SFPD badge and throw it into the lake, an antihero is born, and cinema will never be the same.
The movie was the seventh film under the aegis of Eastwood's production company Malpaso, and it shares a few elements with that company's first film, 1968's Coogan's Bluff, which served as a template of sorts for Dirty Harry. Siegel produced and directed it as well, and it also features music by Lalo Schifrin and even a close-up squint/glower as Eastwood's Coogan stares down a pack of thugs.
Coogan is a maverick who's sent to the big city to extradite a violent criminal, and he runs afoul of the department repeatedly as he pursues his quarry. Yet Bluff was also a movie of its time, and it compels Eastwood's horny character to zero in on a female social worker, and wade through a discotheque and swarms of jubilant hippies. "He's not an animal," it's said of the young criminal Ringerman, something Harry Callahan would definitely take issue with.
Although it became a series with each installment further diluting the dank inner mystery of Eastwood's character, there's no denying the dizzying power of this appearance, his first.

Stabbed Through the Heart: Black Flag's Aural Assault

l. to r. - Rollins, Ginn, Roessler, Stevenson
 In Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach sits between El Segundo and Hermosa Beach. The town's Mira Costa High School was - in the mid '70s - home to a group of kids that included Keith Morris, Greg and Raymond Ginn, Bill Stevenson, Ron Reyes and Milo Aukerman. In Hermosa Beach were Dez Cadena (his dad and Stevenson's were friends) and Gary McDaniel. From this group emerged one of the most bracingly energetic, confrontational and influential bands in the history of American hardcore.

In the summer of '76, while the country was preparing a massive bicentennial party for itself, Morris and the Ginn Brothers began to get together and rehearse as a small combo. Keith took the role of vocalist, while Greg picked up guitar and Raymond, who'd taken to using "Pettibon" as a surname, contributed some rudimentary bass. The guys called themselves Panic, and as Raymond began moving more toward an interest in graphic design they went though a couple more tentative bassists before landing Gary McDaniel, who adopted the name Chuck Dukowski, a handle that seemed to have an appealing Everyman quality.
He, Morris, Ginn and drummer Brian Migdol then entered a startup recording outfit called Media Art Studios in January 1978. They pressed 300 copies of a four-song, 7" EP named for its lead track, "Nervous Breakdown," but more importantly, changed the band's name to avoid conflict with an existing act. The new name held mystery, tension and even menace, and seemed perfect: Black Flag.
The record's first two songs, the raw and cathartic "Nervous Breakdown" and "Fix Me" came easily enough, dealing as they do with pressure and anger, then the stakes are upped with "I've Had It," as Morris sums up his situation with "I'm--going--to explode, I've had it!!--" before wrapping up with the brief nugget "Wasted," itself as much an itemization of the partiers' creed as Morris's taste for kicks.

In keeping subject matter personal (as opposed to addressing politics, religion, the environment or corporate America - targets of much of '80s hardcore), the band were able to give full vent to feelings of alienation and general ennui, yet they set themselves up as a lightning rod for their equally disaffected audience, a situation that over time led to a cycle of often explosive negativity, and even violence.
Gigging around town, Black Flag were part of a growing underground scene that included acts as disparate as X, the Germs, the Weirdos, Channel 3, the Dickies and even Hispanic bands the Plugz and the Zeros. Their ranks were soon swelled by Saccharine Trust, Oingo Boingo, TSOL, Red Cross (later Redd Kross), a pre-Bangles Bangs and - critically - the Descendents, with Mira Costa alums Milo Aukerman and Bill Stevenson.
In a scene that encompassed Greater L.A., Ventura County's Oxnard, Orange County and even spilled over southward into San Diego, there were bound to be factions, alliances and rivalries, and these scenes often clashed. The bands stood out strongly, regardless of their followers' activities, and gave ferocious performances.
A new drummer was recruited to replace Migdol. Roberto Valverde was Colombian, and his precision and focus soon led to his nickname, "Robo." Another change was in store as rehearsals began for the next record. Keith Morris was tiring of the pace Ginn set for the band, and was increasingly (by his own admission) unable to perform because of drugs and alcohol. He was out, not without acrimony, and Ron Reyes stepped in as replacement.
It's him that goes back to Media Arts in November '79 and April '80 with Ginn, Dukowski and Valverde to record a follow-up. Ginn had gone to Greg Shaw's Bomp! Records to release the first EP, but delays caused him to locate a pressing plant and begin a label of his own. Named for a business he'd started for himself and which now provided a little seed money, SST Records was born.
After "Nervous Breakdown" appeared as SST 001, an EP by San Pedro's superb Minutemen, "Paranoid Time" appeared as SST 002, and this new Black Flag collection, "Jealous Again," was to be SST 003. The boys had honed their sound to a concise, coiled strike, as shown right out of the gate with the title track, a snarling howl against an oppressive girlfriend. Short, sharp "Revenge" is followed by the wakeup call "White Minority." Reyes's savage delivery (once he overcame a fear of the studio) replicates his onstage attack, as an extremely physical, prowling stage-diving maniac, and is on full display on "No Values" and especially the last track, "You Bet We've Got Something Personal Against You," a broadside aimed directly at the departed Morris (who'd been using some Flag material in his new band the Circle Jerks). The 12" sleeve features Pettibon art, and gets at a strange, disquieting psychic tension.
In the break between the two recording dates the band appears in Penelope Spheeris's fascinating documentary of the L.A. punk/hardcore scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, a film that's definitely worth seeing for its interviews, insights and amazing period footage. The band got heavier yet with Dez Cadena's arrival in June 1980 as vocalist. Ginn took this opportunity to have the band do a one-off single for Hollywood indie Posh Boy. The result was a bared-teeth version of "Louie Louie," which featured Cadena offering "...the pain that's in my heart - just shows I'm not very smart - who needs love, when you've got a gun? - who needs love, to have any fun?" The flip was an early essaying of a new track called "Damaged I" The single gave Ginn the opportunity to record a proper guitar freakout, and he'd now increasingly let the bass/drums provide rhythm while he laid on jagged, vamping, atonal riffs as they came to him. The band's sound was being forged.
After playing out with the new lineup and recording SST 004, the Minutemen LP The Punch Line, it was back to the studio for what was planned as the first full-length LP. Cadena screams himself hoarse on "Machine," then spits out the anti-work "Clocked In," and bilious "Six Pack." He winds to a howl then, and after bellowing "Authority...bullshit..." declares "...I know what I'm doing - it may be wrong, but I've gotta get it done," in the flailing "Heard it Before." He widens his crosshairs on "American Waste," a lashing out at a society seemingly going nowhere. Frustratingly, only the "Six Pack" EP resulted, after which Cadena left. Finally, however, after three vocalists, each building on the intensity of his predecessor, the stage was set for the fourth and final vocalist, the one who'd cement their reputation at the time, and for the ages.

Henry Garfield was the 20 year-old manager of the Georgetown Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop in Washington, D.C.
He'd cut an EP with his band State of Alert on Ian Mackaye's fledgling Dischord label, and he was a huge fan of Black Flag. He'd met them as they trekked eastward in 1980, and when they returned the following year he met up with them again, flush with admiration after a correspondence begun during their previous D.C appearance. In short order he joined the band, and by the end of the tour he'd learned their stage rhythms, sold his stuff and moved west. Ginn had a handle on a willing label (MCA subsidiary Unicorn) who also had a recording setup available. The band entered that facility in August 1981, armed with a number of new songs. Some were already in demo form, and had been cut by all three former singers (indeed, "Gimme Gimme Gimme" stretched all the way back to Keith Morris's tenure).
For the sessions, Cadena contributed rhythm guitar, thus giving the band a two-pronged guitar attack. The record itself instantly hit a nerve for its unblinking reach. Opening blast "Rise Above" is followed by "Spray Paint," a song that's very appropriate given the willingness of fans to festoon area walls with the groups four-bars logo. A new take of "Six Pack" is faster, feral. A Dukowski/Robo intro anchors the anguish and despair of "What I See." After Henry punches up "TV Party," we get the howl, complete with blistering Ginn solo, of "Thirsty and Miserable." Dez piece "Police Story" is foursquare anti-police, for increasingly good reason. "Gimme Gimme Gimme," with its whipcrack snare intro is perfect period hardcore, and it sets up a deep(er) turn in the record.
Henry's ensnared on "Depression," pleading "...keep - me alive" on "Room 13." Next, "Damaged II" is a companion piece to the earlier Dez workout. Slow, ponderous, yet quickening bass opens "No More," once again highlighting the rhythm section. Rollins provides a glimpse of a post-mayhem "Padded Cell," and "Life of Pain" offers a preview of the band's developing style...pulsing, tempo-shifting, relentless, dissonant, hypnotic in its delivery. "Nobody gets close," snarls Rollins, " one dares." This he seals with album closer "Damaged I," and he's got the number by the throat. "My name's Henry, and you're in here with me now," he plays out in a merciless, animalistic declaration. And where Cadena simply seemed to have gone a bit unhinged through his reading, muttering "fuck damage..:" Rollins barks "No one comes in. Stay out."
The net effect was a surfeit of naked power, doled out over a forceful sonic palette, yet in the aftermath of its completion - when the band should've been touring and shoring up their hard-won gains - Unicorn pulled the rug from under their feet. In the midst of the band's self-distribution of the initial run of 25,000 copies, Unicorn began spluttering forth a story about content and suitability, and slapping an "anti-family" label on the record jacket. After a further step which enjoined the band from making any further recordings as Black Flag, Unicorn entered a two-year period wherein they effectively tied Ginn's hands (even while issuing several releases as Unicorn product, including an interview disc and a "Thirsty and Miserable"/"Life of Pain" 7"). Ginn responded with two releases of his own. First was Everything Went Black, a collection of demos and outtakes from the pre-Rollins years, followed by The First Four Years, which assembled the EPs to date and added the "Louie Louie" single, as well as a couple of superb Cadena session tracks.
It's not really appropriate to call these "stopgaps," especially as they provided a vigorous summing up of the band's work to date, and were a way to have all the energy in one place. There's be one last EP to clear the decks while waiting for Unicorn to fold up and implode under its own ineptitude: "TV Party," released in July '82. The title track has no agenda, makes no judgement or statement, and is simply a brief recounting of a night spent soaking up television and beer - until the TV breaks down. Brief, dumb and done. By December '83 Rollins, Ginn and a newly available (from the Descendents) Bill Stevenson were ready to get back to recording. Dukowski and Cadena were gone as was Robo, who'd been nabbed for an immigration violation, so the next thing would feature just the three.

By March 1984 hardcore had branched away from its primal scenescape of nothern and southern California, Chicago, D.C., New York and Boston. The second SoCal wave included bands like D.I., Fear, Social Distortion and the Adolescents. Ginn's label was recording Saccharine Trust, Meat Puppets, the Stains and the Dicks. Black Flag, and other bands like labelmates the Minutemen, Bay Area commandos Dead Kennedys and Minneapolis's Husker Du were building grassroots fan bases for themselves, as well as giving great impetus to a growing phenomenon - the DIY (do it yourself) movement, which simply held that no one need wait around to start a band, or 'zine (another growing trend) or label. Therein lay the truest gift, the truest legacy of punk/hardcore, a music increasingly labeled as "indie."
Pettibon launched the first classic of several with the LP jacket illustration for My War, released in March '84. Over a stark blue field with the band's name in black block letters, he depicts a boxing glove, knife clutched in its grip, behind which laughs a seeming cartoon Hitler. If the cover's jarring, its only a taste of the shock awaiting a first listen.
Rollins unlimbers a vicious blast with the title track, a superheated cry of paranoia and rage. He's no less distraught on "Can't Decide" and "Beat My Head Against the Wall," wherein he declares "Living in the's - such a lame dream..." Caustic and concentrated, "I Love You" and "Forever Time" introduce "The Swinging Man," a song veiled pitilessly in the imagery of the hanged. This side is merely is a petit-four compared to the three room-clearing dirges of Side Two, all of which clock in at over six minutes, each of them delivered at a funereal pace with a cumulative aim of, one supposes, separating the true Flag fan from the dilettante. This is war on their subgenre, war on those fans, the lot. Truly, as one SST magazine ad had it, "ugly music for ugly times."
In June the band got a new bassist (Ginn had performed bass duties on My War under the name Dale Nixon) in the person of Kira Roessler, a UCLA student who's also played a bit with Cadena's DC3. She came on in time for an interesting experiment: an LP comprised of spoken-word and instrumental tracks. At the time, there hadn't been much in the way of spoken-word recording from the underground...maybe only Lenny Bruce, perhaps some of the Kerouac/Steve Allen TV stuff. The subgenre's influence, especially as Jello Biafra turned it into an album-length manifesto, lay ahead, so it's interesting that Rollins was able to get some of his writings onto the recording called Family Man. The record opens with the brutal title track, a spoken piece envisioning a tidy suburban world turned upside down. One of his readings was recorded for "Salt on a Slug," and we get "Shed Reading (Rattus Norvegicus)" from a four-legged point of view. "Armageddon Man" is 9'13" of jazz-fusion, ably helped along by Bill Stevenson, who'd soon be making such explorations again with the Descendents. A suite of such jams closes Side Two of this fairly engaging platter. Onward, then, to a long-player that got back to the heart of the matter, the first from the arguably classic lineup of Ginn, Rollins, Stevenson and Roessler.
Recorded during the same sessions as Family ManSlip It In was another provocation intended to further thin the herd. Rollins gleefully trades off lines with, apparently, Roessler, who answers his taunts with "slip it in..." before the whole scorching track ends in an ambiguous, apparently post-coital gasp of exultation. After the paean "Black Coffee" The band serves up an anxious "Wound Up" ("I get so wound up - I feel so let down...") before another nod to "Rat's Eyes." Six-minute "Obliteration" offers another complex Ginn composition on the way to the maelstrom "My Ghetto."
It's an uneven recording perhaps, but contains some fantastic moments nevertheless. An August show recorded in San Francisco found the band in fine form and reaching back across the years into their deep catalogue. It was released as Live '84. (No recording could do justice to the actual live show, however, which was punishingly loud).
In March '85 both Black Flag and the Minutemen had an available moment together, so the two bands - including the latter's D. Boon, Mike Watt and George Hurley - converged in the studio. Bill Stevenson co-produced with Ginn, and the results are the "Minuteflag" EP and Black Flag's purest distillation of their energetic peak, Loose Nut, released in May.

The title track comes out of the speakers in a thundering stomp - overlaid with some complementary Ginn dissonance over the top - and his (again, ambiguous) fever dream of a rampaging cock. There's a blinding solo, and except for the tempo the number is textbook heavy metal. Ginn penned the next two songs as well, starting with an impressionistic examination of betrayal, loss and psychic damage called "Bastard in Love" ("punish - your future, to spite - your heart sinks further with each of your lies). He solos again, and it's a raw-edged wonder of controlled fury.
The chugging "Annihilate This Week" returns again to the theme (if a later piece of artwork is any indication) to the blotting out of the world through absorption of drugs and sex. It's past exhortation, past condemnation, and by now the band have blurred all boundaries in the particular emotional spectrum they're increasingly bound by. Again, a solo squalls and bucks through the mix. Kira and Bill power the driving "Best One Yet," followed by the lament "Sinking." By now, Rollins had taken to living in a finished outbuilding on the Ginn family property (which he referred to as "the shed," much to Ginn's later derision), and so here offers up this bit of unsparing torment: " hurts to be alone...dead quiet...and I'm sinking all the while." A solo winds up the track and seals the wound tightly.
Stevenson wrote closer "Now She's Black," again with a searing intro, again dispelling any thoughts of metal's surface concerns the second Rollins opens his mouth - "She's black...everything I see, takes me back - she's black..." after which follows a definitely Sabbath-flavored conclusion. It's an exhausting, exhilirating ride, not to be equalled.
There was one other batch of tunes from the March sessions, a group of four instrumentals that Ginn packaged as The Process of Weeding Out, and which included a scathing screed from him on the back jacket. Where Rollins's provocation had largely been directed at indifferent or hostile audiences, Ginn's words were more directly and defiantly anti-authority, anti-cop, anti-hassle. Touring Loose Nut provided material for another live album, drawn from an August '85 Portland show and entitled Who's Got the 10 1/2?.  

The last album proper contains tracks from three different sessions spread over October '84 - March '85. After the high-water mark of Loose NutIn My Head can be seen as Flag Baroque, more mood than conviction. It's even more metallic than its predecessor, opening with the gargantuan riff of "Paralyzed." Rollins twists himself further into knots with "The Crazy Girl" ("my target - is your eyes" he repeats) and "Black Love." He ladles out general animosity with "Drinking and Driving," "Retired at 21" and "Society's Tease" before apparently handing off the baton with "It's All Up to You." (The "I Can See You" EP, unreleased 'til '89, also dates from these sessions).
By 1986 Greg Ginn had been pouring himself into the band for ten years, and it had all gotten to be too much. Rollins had long since been the visual focal point of the act, and the two were quickly becoming unable to stand each other. Raymond Pettibon, who'd perhaps believed (rightfully so) that his work could provide for him a breakout, felt like little more than an imagery mill, especially given such affronts as the chopping up of an old flyer to provide the jacket artwork for Loose Nut. Hardcore itself was ending its first glorious era, so maybe it was time to pack it in.
Rollins's diaries abruptly stop at this point, and one further release, another comp entitled Wasted...Again seems like little more than a cash-in. Brighter days did lay ahead for all involved, most notably Rollins, who parlayed his visibility into a durable multimedia brand.
Obviously, also, the music remains - a record of one band as it evolves from excitable kids to powerhouse punk leviathan to jagged, frayed commentators, and it will never be forgotten.

In a Changing World, One Constant
Venerable weekly The Economist was founded in 1843 by Scottish businessman James Wilson, and its aim was laid down at the outset: to enjoin "a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress." Fair enough. Its 13-point prospectus itemized the magazine's interests as free trade, other political and fiscal issues, markets, issues of legal interest and other topics, which have expanded over time to incorporate cultural and arts themes.
A recent sample issue serves up the magazine's typical far-ranging selection of stories, and begins with The World This Week, a sampling of hot current concerns in capsule form. The Leaders segment examines Greece and its relationship with the euro (one of several Greece pieces this issue), an argument for the temporary nationalization of Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, Brazil as a comer in petroleum exploration, and a profile of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 
The U.S. comes up for discussion next, in a piece called "America's Missing Middle," which finds gridlock and partisan intransigence and wonders at the post-2012 power structure in D.C. The GOP is held under a harsh light and found to pack of foot self-shooters (not really news to U.S. readers) in danger of being co-opted wholesale by the Tea Party. The conclusion is that barring a solution to inter-party shoving, four more years of Obama may be the result. Speaking of the President, his newest executive order is examined, with its sharp prod toward addressing the medication shortage no gripping the States. At the state level, the talk is of embattled Arizona representative Russell Pearce and the challenger to that recently recalled official, Jerry Lewis, while Herman Cain (who'd still not dropped out) faced the storm of his scandal. American culture is examined by way of the true depths of the housing bust, yet the magazine seems shocked that a murderer - in this case Telly Hankton, behind bars for a string of killings - could influence events even from inside prison walls.
There's a neat story on the economic impact of artists and other creative types on the regions they live in. Looking outward, the International section has an extremely interesting piece about the ever-growing Wikipedia and the challenges it currently faces, the environmental danger to pilgrimage sits like Mecca and the Ganges, and even Julian Assange's ongoing travails. Furthermore, each region of the world is examined in turn, and we're provided stories as diverse as the plight of the Bedouin (over 240K in Greater Israel and the West Bank alone, with millions scattered elsewhere), the increasing controversy surrounding Daniel Ortega, and the popularity of a bitingly satirical Iranian progam called Parazit (Static), carried over the Voice of America network, of all things.
Business, Finance and Economy and Science and Technology all contain interesting segments, such as the Vikings' use of a mineral called Iceland spar for its refractive properties, as an aid to navigation called "sunstones." In the magazine's home country we read of controversies surrounding match-fixing in the near-sacred commonwealth sport cricket, and the UK's dominance in not the marketing of reality shows, but the marketing of the format of those shows (Who knew there were 44 national versions of Britain's Got Talent, 22 of Wife Swap, or 32 of Master Chef ?).

A roundup of books includes a new van Gogh biography, the current Joan Didion memoir, and a new popular-science book, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw's The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen. 
A telling detail may be found at the issue's end, in obituaries for Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy, two pioneers in programming language whose work still impacts the IT realm. The magazine (half owned by The Financial Times, a bedrock UK newspaper) espouses a progressive bent, and decries corruption and ill-advised national adventurism, yet it's no slave to dogma, and has in the past supported political figures or movements which would seem to be at odds with its core sensibilities.
Having said all this, The Economist has come under fire for its editorial anonymity, its emphasis on analysis (as opposed to real-time or investigative journalism) and the homogeneity of its staff. While these criticisms are perhaps legitimate to some extent, the title still furnishes the reader with an indepth overview of the week past, and of the world beyong that reader's particular corner.
We need such information if we truly wish to be well-informed, and I speak here especially for my homeland, America, which as recently as November 2010 saw the last regular print issue of the standby U.S. News and World Report. Regards, then, to The Economist for its longevity and its mission.
Long may it run.

Cable-era Comfort Food
The age of video - once it got well and truly underway by the early '80s - was particularly well-suited to attractive packaging, and especially box sets. Those box sets weren't limited to movie trilogies and the like, either: series like I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone were offered as sets, as were documentary collections like World at War and the That's Entertainment films.

Japery for the ages.
These days there's a good chance that you'll find at least one of your favorites available as a DVD box set. It's become expected, and now people can load up on Seinfeld, Six Feet Under and Friends for anytime viewing. Video, coming as it does from physical media or a NetFlix account or a Hulu stop or simply from over the television, has made filmed content ubiquitous, omnipresent, and ever-ready. The go-to stop for old episodes of favorites is largely TV Land, source of the familiar, the tried-and-true.

It was launched on April 29th, 1996 and originally affiliated with Nick at Nite, appearing as a blast from the past with shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. The station broke off as an independent in 2006, and continues to maintain a mix of vintage shows, albeit one that's skewing ever younger, containing as it does shows like The Nanny and Everybody Loves Raymond. In any event, it's simply carrying on what cable TV has does from the start, and that's make old shows available in number and all day, every day.
Therein lies my critique, and I hope I won't come off like a putz for spelling out the obvious.
Television was once a fairly special thing, and it punctuated our days with anticipation for a new episode of a favorite program. There was that half-hour, or hour (or sporting event or holiday special). The show gave us a bit of excitement, of seasoning to our routine, then we went about our business until next time. If all those episodes are instantly within reach, though, what's the effect of that availability?
I've sat though portions of various marathons, poured myself onto a couch for several successive helpings of a box set, and sometimes that can be fun, but what can you really say about ingesting five straight hours of The Andy Griffith Show? It seems like the promise, the potential thrill of a box set or a day of Bonanza just doesn't deliver in the end.
Television has always consumed frightful amounts of its audience's time, and back-to-back portions of the stuff just amplify that loss. Maybe I'm a dork or a fretful wuss for giving this too much thought, but it just seems that we've sucked out a little of the magic of all those old shows.
Who knows.

On last comment: some august organ or other - was it Us magazine? - sorry, I didn't get it for sure - has come to the conclusion that the (mildly diverting) Jennifer Aniston is, yes, The Hottest Woman of All Time. Amazing. This chicklet couldn't shine Ava Gardner's shoes. Or Marilyn Monroe's. Or Audrey Hepburn's, or Sophia Loren's...but you get the point.

As ever, my thanks for your interest!!!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Que Sharia Sharia

Here we are for post # 10.
It's been a hectic year, but if you're enjoying the pieces, hey, we'll keep on with it! Welcome, all, and let's get started.

Remembering When

A young and determined JFK.
 As people we mark time and events, but we also go back to revisit those events. It seems to me, though, that we've been doing this revisiting for quite some time - decades, now, if we stop to consider it - which leads one to suppose that this is the pattern we've set for ourselves...endless revisitation.
It's not really fair to say that this is a recent phenomenon. Americans have always looked backward in recollection, from our wars to such eras as the jazz age and Depression, and certainly mileposts like our Centennial, and so forth. It's just that now we've locked ourselves into these mileposts, and we've got the entire vibrant, turbulent latter half of the 20th Century as fuel for our tributes.

With the debut of TV's Happy Days on January 15th, 1974, nostalgia was entrenched, codified and bathed in a warm, comforting glow. There had previously been nods to the '50s such as the popularity of the vocal group Sha Na Na and a very successful LP series of artists of the era called Oldies But Goodies, but nothing had the broad, durable appeal of Happy Days (and at least one of its spin-offs, Laverne and Shirley).
In the '80s, landlocked in pinstriped yuppiedom where an energized neo-conservative political base and ascendent evangelical movement held growing sway, we discovered a yen for the counterculture and its restless worldview, and so lovingly donned tie-dye and festooned ourselves and our stuff with peace symbols, then it was on to the flared-leg '70s revival of the '90s...
The Aughts perhaps trawled the '80s and found them too awful to contemplate, but here in 2011 we're back in the groove, with a misty-eyed deluxe reissue of Nirvana's Nevermind. As we perhaps have nothing else to say, maybe we'll just continue to look backward.
Think about where we are - 2011 - and subtract that magic number of years, 50, and what do you get? Only the beginnings of our modern, anxious, fractured, crazy-quilt world. Let's take a look at early 1961.
On January 3rd, President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, and two weeks later gave his final State of the Union Address, wherein he gravely warned of a growing "military-industrial complex." Three days later JFK was sworn in, and one of his first acts was the establishment of the Peace Corps.
In one six-day period in April we witnessed the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Yuri Gagarin's entry in space, and the launch of the Bay of Pigs operation! In May, the first Freedom Riders assembled to prepare to head southward, and while Alan Shepherd became the first American in space courtesy of the Mercury program, Kennedy told a joint session of Congress "...we choose to go to the moon."
We round out this glance with the beginnings, in August, of the Berlin Wall. Now there's some grist for the commemorations, specials and the like, eh? Much hay is made about the Boomers' obsessively fixating on these events, but I think we've all picked up the habit.
I recently chanced upon a review of Simon Reynolds' prescient Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past, and agree in large part with him, that Pop does recycle, sometimes as synthesis yet often as a shopping-cart grab of styles, textures and images. One thing's for sure: ever-greater chunks of the past are being digitized and disseminated with every passing second, and their availability is increasing dramatically. Soon, perhaps, we won't speak of "anniversaries" or timelines, because we'll be neck-deep in them, each passage or date somehow registered before another takes its place (Pearl Harbor turns 70 this year. Don't forget to send a card).

Nostalgia, or whatever it is, is a cottage industry, an easy puff piece for the nightly news, and for better or worse it's where we find ourselves.


Lustig in later years.
 A Stilled Voice, A Powerful Book
A young Czech named Arnost Lustig had survived three concentration camps, including Auschwitz, when he slipped from Nazi clutches during transport to Dachau. Amazingly, he returned to Prague to participate in the final Czech push against the Nazis.
He remained in Prague, writing, until the upheavals of 1968 led to a search for a home abroad. He arrived in the US in 1970 and remained there teaching and writing until his return to Prague in 2003. His February 2011 death, while broadly mourned, released him from a five-year struggle with lung cancer, though his books survive, and still bear eloquent witness to what he saw. The last of these, Lovely Green Eyes (2004) is a story that recounts one 21-day period in the Third Reich's latter days, when the shadow of death hung over Eastern Europe and the terrible sounds of Soviet fire punctuated the bitter, frozen cold.

Hanka Kaudersova is a girl of 15 who finds herself in Auschwitz, and being neither too young nor too old has some chance at survival. She toils at the Frauenkonzentrationslager as both laborer and assistant to a doctor there, yet when a recruiter comes to assemble a new group of prostitutes for a facility known simply as Feldbordell 232 Ost she volunteers for the inspection, and despite being Jewish is able to bluff her way into the ranks of the selected. 
Hanka's tale apparently won't be one of easy decisions or proud virtue, or sniffy judgements pronounced in hindsight over the mantle of the ensuing years. The guards at this new facility pass their time by organizing brutal dogfights (with the winner escorted out the gates to be savaged in turn by wolves), and the regression and debauchery of the camps is mirrored in this capricious bloodlust. Lustig will introduce several characters as studies in inward blackness, of souls so given over to naked might that they're no longer soldiers, men with qualms or convictions. These men, appearing at the facility like frozen animals, have had ample time to reflect upon such Nazi ideologies as blood purity and Lebensraum (expansion, particularly through conquest) and, with no equalizing or civilizing influences anywhere nearby, give these ideas and impulses brutal free rein.
The women fall into nicknames, and Hanka becomes "Skinny." She is subdued and muted amongst her companions, and even more so when in the company of a soldier. She and the others are "...a bottle into which they emptied themselves," and ever subject to being tripped up by the sly question of a bored visitor. Her family, dead or dying, are present at each act, in remembrance yet also in judgement, and Lustig periodically inserts the daily roster of visiting soldiers' names into the narrative as reminder of the horror of Hanka's days.

Lustig creates his first study of a visitor though Hauptmann Hentschel, and incredibly he gives us a living, breathing German, a man of distinction and breeding who's seen murderous frozen chaos yet who sinks, once sated, into reveries of nature's beauty, of the world's startling moments of tranquility. What's begun for him as a brothel visit, a businesslike operation dappled with bemusement, a trace of condescension and the fading assurance of his station becomes something else: stirrings, remembrances and a clutch of elusive longings that are prodded from him by this withdrawn, yet somehow fascinating girl.
She is no longer "Skinny"...she has been re-christened "Lovely Green Eyes."
We then move forward in time to a peacetime Prague, where Hanka is settling a bit into a new life, then it's back to the snow and a new customer, a member of a mobile group tasked with hunting down partisans. Sarazin chills the blood, as he himself has gone so far beyond the pale and come out as something decidely inhuman. "While I hate, I am," he observes while casually cracking open a window to sight in a wolf. He is an agent of death, and furthermore, death dispensed often with no reason. He relates to Hanka the particular mass killing that, in the midst of even his revulsion, completed his transformation. He's swept away, rapturous, proclaiming his comrades as "...wild beasts with unclouded conscience, monsters filled with jubilation." For him beauty arrives most cleanly as violent death, and is "...beyond morality," a great and lustful conflagration.

Back in Prague again she makes the acquaintance of a young rabbi, to whom she puts the question Is it a sin to want to survive? This question takes on a new complexity as the rabbi feverishly contemplates it. He's dazed, numbed, a hairsbreadth away from losing sight of any trace of God. Hanka senses the rabbi's crisis, yet their conversations continue, with "Aushwitz-Birkenau" cropping up in a verbal jolt. The rabbi, glazed with near-madness, can soon only repeat the name. He "...was [perhaps] praying. He had to pray for 15 year-olds who claimed to be 18. For a God who kept silent. He conceived a prayer which as yet had no text." Could he and Hanka be only part of "...a soul in a dead body, a shipwreck with a few scattered survivors [?]"
We proceed through Part Four as with the previous three, with passages of exposition passing by like the peacetime daydreams of the yet-living (which is exactly what they are), and studded with brief snippets of matter-of-fact horror. The effect is one, appropriately, of displacement. In this sense perhaps the narrative is perhaps somewhat disjointed, but we're not here for narrative, for something ordered or hewing to reason. Reason, of course, has long since fled these survivors.
One last look back into the facility remains, and Sarazin is back as well, and it's into his flask that Hanka secretes a small amount of furtively obtained Zyklon-B. Then there are no more soldiers, and she and those of her companions who remain - Long-Legs, Smartie, Maria from Posnan and a few others -  face an evacuation fraught with risks. In the end Hanka is able to move forward with the needs and daily preoccupations of the next chunk of life she's been give, yet her innermost being remains a labyrinth, an insoluble forest of energy and emptiness, of simple happiness and guilt, of the pleasure of a new day and the blunted dreams of her youngest years.

The Shoah created not just a vast body of non-fiction accounts and analyses, but a substantial number of literary works as well, including Elie Wiesel's Night, Edward Lewis Wallant's The Pawnbroker, Art Spiegelman's Maus, and another book about a young girl thrown into madness, Livia E. Batton Jackson's Elli: Coming of Age in the Holocaust (1980), to name just a very few.
These books aren't easy reading, nor should they be. They help us remember, though, and give us the beauty of prose even in the midst of stories of grief and atrocity.

Your Daughter is One
Alvarado and Johnson as Pamela and Nicky.
There's a lot to be said for a movie that's made with little money but that manages - through a strong screenplay and gifted cast - to produce an end result that's something special. One such film, from the days when story meant everything, is 1980's Times Square.
City Commissioner David Pearl (Peter Coffield) is on a crusade to clean up the storied, though squalid intersection. He's a well-meaning pubic servant and a well-meaning dad, but his daughter (a charismatic Trini Alvarado) is chafing under his attitudes. After a letter to DJ Johnny LaGuardia (the absurdly prolific Tim Curry) in which she complains of her stifling situation, LaGuardia responds on-air that she must "...learn to nurture that seed" which is her unique nature. This won't do, and daddy soon bundles the girl off to a neurological hospital for "tests," where she's placed with a feisty roommate - a girl who's been written off as incorrigible - Nicky Merotta (a dead-on-the-mark Robin Johnson).
Meanwhile, Johnny's taken to criticizing Pearl's campaign as simple hostility, and as Pamela is more and more taken with her new pal, Nicky engineers a dizzying breakout for the two in a stolen ambulance. Pamela considers her new home, a squat near the docks. It's dirty and cold, but it's freedom. Nicky seals the deal with a blood pact, and swears Pammy to one thing: if she's ever desperate, backed into a corner, lost...simply "...scream my name!..." The two trade screams, echoing over the cavernous warehouse, and something is born in both of them.
Johnny's getting their story in bits and pieces, and reaches out. "Tune in to me," he says, "because I'm tuning in to you." There follows a critique of the hospital and the forces that so sought to clamp down on the girls, and the jock caps this by spinning Suzi Quatro's blistering "Rock Hard."
The song is a great tune on a great soundtrack, one that impeccably captures a pre-gentrification NYC in all its funky glory. It was 1980, and all this brash young music hadn't yet been pinned down - hadn't had its power diluted. We hear the Ramones, XTC, Patti Smith, and Roxy Music, as well as forgotten gems like David Johansen's "Flowers in the City." Nicky dreams of being a musician, and performs the hooky "Damn Dog," co-written by Jacob Brackman (who did the film's screenplay with Alan Moyle) and Billy Mernit. Mernit plays one of the Blondells, a small-time group playing a bar where Pamela works, and he and Brackman also wrote "Your Daughter is One," a shot across the bow that the runaways perform when they finally show up at the WJAD studios.
Yet the soundtrack album that appeared was a double, in part so that producer Robert Stigwood could insert numbers like a Robin Gibb/Marcy Levy duet, the better to maybe land a hit record like Saturday Night Fever had generated. Stigwood's involvement is one reason that the movie's been criticized as being choppy, with some continuity and cohesion issues. Nevertheless, the film's music does augment the story wonderfully, and have held up well in the bargain.

The characters are drawn ever closer, with Pearl frantic about his daughter's disappearance, for which he holds LaGuardia greatly responsible. For the girls' part, cleaning windows at stoplights and Nicky's three-card monte hustle have given way to dropping televisions for rooftops, a stunt which "Pammy" soon tires of. And even as Johnny watches with glee, uttering things like "Let it be passionate, or not at all," she feels her needs diverging from Nicky's. Things won't end that easily, though...the two have established a bond, and nothing will be emotionally messy or risky enough to sever it.

Robin Johnson was a 15 year-old Brooklynite when she was approached for a part in the film, an approach she initially blew off. Trini Alvarado was just 13, the daughter of Flamenco artists Sylvia and Domingo Alvarado. Director Moyle, with cinematographer James A. Contner was still largely an unknown quantity, yet he got through the red tape and usual hassles and got the movie made (it's unthinkable that it could get made today, with shooting culminating as it did in a live musical performance with Nicky and the Blondells playing from atop two Times Square theatre marquees).
I watched the movie again on my old VHS copy (it came out on DVD in 2000), and the image quality, sound and general feel were all pretty bad. I was pleased, though, and the story still held its magnetic appeal. Watching it on a 31 year-old tape was the best way to see the brash New York of old.

It felt pure, perfect. It was right.

Aerosmith in Transition

Crespo and Tyler grace the cover of Hit Parader while touring Rock.
 In 1982 Aerosmith were teetering at the brink of dissolution.
After over a decade of building a name and a reputation as a ferocious, gifted and prolific unit their darker side had made things unmanageable, the fights nearly irreconcilable. Everything from copious recreational habits (limited not only to "Toxic Twins" Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, as band bio "Walk This Way" clearly relates) to spousal bickering was pointing to a breakdown.

The story of this rift goes back to Summer '79, as the band were working on their sixth album, Night in the Ruts. Joe Perry had had enough and left, thereafter to form The Joe Perry Project (where he'd produce "Let the Music Do the Talking," a song brought into the Aerosmith fold years later), and a session gutiarist named Jimmy Crespo was brought in as a replacement. Crespo (and a couple of other fellows) contributed to the recording, yet a search still went out for a marquee name to come in as new lead guitarist. 
Crespo had two weeks to finish work on Ruts and learn the band's catalogue before a tour was to commence. The tour was a travesty, made impossible by Tyler's out-of-control behavior, and by January 1980 was all but over.
This brings us to '82, and a new album being written and arranged. One of the early tracks was "Lightning Strikes," written by Richie Supa (who'd been one of the uncredited musicians on Ruts), and it's notable for being laid down by Brad Whitford before Whitford, like Perry, left the band (to go solo with Ted Nugent bassist Derek St. Holmes). This left Tyler, Kramer, Hamilton and Crespo in need of a rhythm guitarist, and solo artist Rick Dufay was hastily recruited.

What's this thing sound lke, then?
Opener "Jailbait" comes out of the gate, guns blazing. If there's any doubt about this lineup, the goal is clearly to dispel it immediately. Tyler's vocals are a surgical airstrike, and Kramer's drums emerge from the mix with his usual authoritative presence and power. Next up, a slow synth opening yields to the barnstorming rhythmic groove of "Lightning Strikes." The boys play this one out bit by bit, escalating the tension until thr track settles into its hook again and again, propelled relentlessly by Kramer and supplemented by a hot Crespo solo. (The rhythm guitar was Whitford's lone contribution to the record, and he's ignominiously listed among the "additional musicians").
A gargantuan riff anchors "Bitch's Brew," a midtempo workout with seamless ensemble playing. Again, the band's instincts and sense of dynamics come to the fore: the arrangement is solid, with an effortless bridge before heading back to the main theme. "Bolivian Ragamuffin" is a trifle, with Tyler tossing off doggerel lyrics, but still features loads of tempo-shifting bombast. In the Flawless Instincts Dept., few bands at this time could match Aerosmith, and here we sample their tastes courtesy of "Cry Me a River." While not quite a standard, the song was a #9 hit for the sultry Julie London in 1956. Tyler gives the song its plaintive due, then cranes raw-throatedly upward and the number becomes something else entirely. In a career that saw the band make several impeccable choices of songs to cover, this one is brilliant.
Next, the portmanteau "Prelude to Joanie"/"Joanie's Butterfly" is a surprise in an album of surprises. Tyler reads a small bit of fantasy poetry through a vocal treatment (it's a very atmospheric intro, to be sure) before the song's bright intro, moving nimbly from acoustic to electric. It's a piece marked by a complexity of lyric, arrangement and execution, and is as strong a recording as the band ever made. The title track, "Rock in a Hard Place (Cheshire Cat)" is a steamroller wall of sound, one more barrage of guitars hammering home. Whitford and Perry aside, "Jig is Up" demonstrates that the core of Tyler, Kramer and Hamilton can apparently dash off riffs at will, and pretenders be warned.
A little harp opens up closer "Push Comes to Shove," one last dose of Tyler's keening wail. We hear a barroom piano at fade, and the bluesy, boozy tune sidles on home.

This wasn't just a formidable rock record, it's made the better by the quality across its entire length. Dufay, and especially Crespo made contributions of energy and arrangement (with Crespo holding a co-writing credit for six of the tracks), and broke loose - if only for one record - the logjam that might've shut down Aerosmith for good. The pair's work, in the studio then on the road in '83 and '84 apparently couldn't shake the original nucleus of the band, because upon Perry and Whitford's reppearance in 1984, setting the stage for the "comeback" album Done With Mirrors, the two were shown the door.
Even though it's been perceived as a stopgap, a time-marker until the "real" band got itself back together, Rock in a Hard Place stands up to anything in the band's catalogue, and is a substantial capstone to the early years. As such, it still holds a special mystique, and deserves a place in any serious collection.


Salad days.
 The American Car Magazine
Yes, we have arrived at the 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor, but here's another entry for the year 1941: the arrival of the first magazine for auto enthusiasts.
As Pat Ganahl related in a 2010 piece for HOT ROD Deluxe, a man named Jack Peters first published Throttle in January, 1941. Peters was a member of the Western Timing Association, one of several such groups that sprung up in southern California in the late '30s. The most prominent of these was the Southern California Timing Association, and the WTA and SCTA organized the many groups in the region and provided impetus toward the continuation of hobby rodding, racing and the beginning and growth of car-related magazines. Ganahl notes that while stapled programs and bulletins and so forth, most with ads for local dealers, existed back in the '20s and '30s, it was Throttle that really got the ball rolling, which is all the more striking when we learn that the shock of December 7th quickly killed the magazine. There'd be no energy or precious resources expended for something so frivolous as auto racing.

Robert E. Petersen was a 22 year-old who loved the growing hobby, and his pasteup efforts resulted in the debut of HOT ROD in January, 1948. He built his title quickly, and debuted Motor Trend in 1949. These he followed with Honk! in 1953 (renamed Car Craft the following year). The latter was a smaller size magazine, about 6" x 8", and was created in response to Quinn Publications' smaller title, Hop Up.
Not to be outdone, Quinn debuted Rod & Custom, and soon both it and Car Craft were full-size offerings. Many other titles followed, and publishers in the midwest and northeast got in on the action, producing cash-ins like Motorsport, Best Hot Rods, Rodding and Re-Styling and Rods Illustrated, with varying degrees of quality and coverage.
More thoughtful brands joined the pack, including Hearst Publications' Car & Driver in 1955, and AutoWeek in 1958, from Crain Communications in Detroit. (In a lightning bolt of inspiration, Robert Petersen launched Guns & Ammo in 1958, and realized that branching out meant nothing but gold).

The 1970s onward saw continued sales with a wide range of magazines, covering everything from factory stock to chrome-rimmed customs, and there was never a shortage of daily drivers and restored classics to fill glossy pages. The idle daydreams and fevered plans of car lovers were stroked by a steady stream of appealing sheet metal.
Petersen died in 2007 at 80, yet the industry he largely helped create lives on. In the mid-'90s, D. Claeys Bahrenburg won a bididng war to take over the Petersen holdings, and he approached the task with gusto. (The group, after a few more transactions, now resides under the Source Interlink umbrella, joined by such things as Lowrider, Stereophile, Popular Hot Rodding, Military Modelling and Soap Opera Digest).

Car publishing happened during a wonderful window of opportunity, with several factors falling into place. During the Postwar era, production was back up on Detroit's assembly lines. Americans had increased purchasing power, and sought out these new cars fervently. This in turn left plenty of stock for the used-car lots, or to be given as hand-me-downs. Where the earliest gearheads had little more that Model Ts to chop, power up and customize, suddenly there was a seemingly endless supply of coupes, sedans and wagons to modify and fill with cheap, powerful gasoline. This, in combination with a widening larger culture, such as the group of WWII bomber crews who formed the initial cadre of Hells' Angels, allowed for a great expansion in personal expression and gave rise to a truly American pastime.
Indeed, these were the years of the further popularity of lake-bed racing, but also of the birth of quarter-mile and NASCAR racing as well.
The magazines are a great window into trends in the automotive world, and a few examples from the last 20 years include the rebirth of great interest in '60s musclecars, the "factory stock" movement, which did away with buyer add-ons such as custom parts in favor of clean lines, and the advent of the "rat rod," a stripped-down project car, sometimes appearing in primer, that's not afraid of rust or imperfections and only measured in performance.
As far as trends go, then '90s ushered in a post-feminist age (to all appearances) that's given us a revival of roller derby, burlesque, and greatly stylized takes on rockabilly, pin-up and tattoo culture.
Pretty young things were always a staple of car mags, either appearing at shows or events, giving out trophies or simply being on hand to add a bit of crumpet to the shoot. Accordingly, for the 60th Anniversary of HOT ROD we got the aforementioned HOT ROD Deluxe, launched in 2008.
The title is a feast of all things past, and in the sections "Roddin' at Random," "Lost & Found," "Then & Now" the reader can load up on all sorts of interesting stuff. Cars are rescued, projects begun, and there's plenty of pics of old car shows, meets, drags, etc. The best aspect may be the vintage tech material, with hands-on info about old parts and building. Yes, the girls are there as well, resplendent in minis and heels and throwback hairstyles.

These magazines aren't going anywhere: they are prime examples that in this day and age, niche marketing is not only exploding, but hasn't even really reached the sales numbers it's capable of.
Nick Licata publishes Rodder's Journal out in Orange Grove, California, a title that's so lovingly shot and painstakingly produced that it's damn near the Dupont Registry for gearheads. So a salute is in order here, to the confluence of two industries geared toward commodities that are first and foremost meant to be consumed and replaced.
As the one has chronicled the other, we've been left with a lasting record of speed, of endeavor...of dreams.

Riley in action.
Life and Times: The Boondocks
Aaron McGruder was a student at the University of Maryland when he created a bitingly satirical comic strip called "The Boondocks" in 1996. He was able to interest The Source in the strip, placing it there the following year, then it was on to syndication (and controversy) in '99.
It wasn't until November, 2005 that it was able to be adapted for television, though, and it took the wise-ass upstart Adult Swim to provide a slot for the TV version.
McGruder has no interest in sugar-coating his storytelling or subject matter, preferring instead to let his characters lead their lives, and this approach has led to criticism from not only the culture at large but the black community and leadership as well. Calling things as you see them ruffles feathers, and doing it with satire simply stirs the pot. All of this is to say that the show (now in production for its fourth season) is bracingly original, and often delivers the unusual and the unexpected, while still telling the story of one extended family.

The family centers around Huey Freeman, the wise-beyond-his-years boy who, with younger brother Riley are taken from inner-city Chicago to live with Robert Freeman, "Granddad," in the suburbs...effectively placing them away from city life and out into the hinterlands, the "boondocks." The city meant proximity to strong black-power resources and energy to the scowling Huey, but to Riley it meant the glamor and cred of hip-hop life. Now, the brothers must search for those elements in their new milieu, if they're to be found there at all. The stage is thus set for misadventure and mischief, but also for a consideration of themes and attitudes among the black experience in modern-day America, and here McGruder shines.
The supporting cast offers up plenty of story possibilities, and includes Tom and Sara DuBois, a mixed couple whose daughter Jazmine has many thoughtful conversations with Huey under a spreading oak, and Uncle Ruckus, a character that McGruder uses to explore the extremely complex aspects of black self-image, color consciousness and inner conflict. He's an elderly man given to spouting great platitudes about the wisdom, cleverness and general superiority of the white man, and is in his element when dressing down someone for their failings or aspirations.
Granddad offers a guiding hand, yet is all too prone to the lure of everything from dating services to the possibility of a quick lawsuit. Riley is given to dreams of grandeur and "hardness," and gets into plenty of scrapes, and even Huey makes the occasional misstep, even though he's easily the most grounded of the lot. The point here isn't easily pigeonholed characterization.
The show has addressed several events of recent years, always with a point of view and a delivery marked by intuitive wit. In Season 1, "The Trial of R. Kelly" found DuBois in the position of defending the singer, a position met with approval by many of the show's residents, including Riley. Huey's coutroom protests go unheeded, and the episode ends with Kelly jubilantly freed. In Season 2, Thomas's cousin Jericho shows up, family in tow, to effectively take over the Freeman abode in "Invasion of the Katrinians." The newcomers soon wear out their welcome, and their complete lack of interest in contributing to the family till are depicted, as is Granddad and the boys' growing anger.
In Season 3, both the 2009 flu epidemic and the ill-fated free-chicken promotion at KFC are lampooned to great effect in "The Fried Chicken Flu" (originally "Kentucky Fried Flu").
Perhaps the most stinging episode arrived in Season 1, with "The Return of the King," in which Huey muses that MLK was indeed shot in 1968 but survived, falling into a coma which he remains in for 32 years. What might happen upon his awakening? His sensibilities are held up to scorn in the modern age, and at a near-vacant book signing (no one wants to hear about forgiveness in the post-9/11 landscape, so he's become almost irrelevent), he meets Huey and Robert, who he knows from the old days of the struggle.
Yet as he and Huey grow as friends, King is left to look around at the current state of black popular culture, and his disgust explodes during an address he's giving, where he's surrounded by good-timing young blacks who have no use for the old man.
McGruder also transforms Robert's story of a supposed ancestor, "Catcher" Freeman, as Granddad once again relates the tale, more than likely with embellishment, and yet again to the fact-checking scowl of Huey and bored stupor of Riley. Yet in "Wingmen," Robert returns to Chicago with the boys for the funeral of his rival Moe, and we get a look at a younger man, a black WWII pilot with stories and daring feats.
Rappers come in for extremely nuanced treatment, in the persons of Thugnificent and Gangstalicious. The two serve as platforms for storylines dealing with the hip-hop lifestyle, from its influence to its charged atmosphere and even homophobia.
The show has been a critical success despite its periodic brushes with controversy, and received an NAACP Image Award and a Peabody. McGruder's work is proof that satire is possibly the best vehicle for critique, and his characters continue to resonate.

So there it is. Be good. Get out in the snow, if you have any. Have a drink. I'll see you soon.