Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Things new, things old...

No time for a lot of chit-chat. Let's get to it, shall we?


Electile Dysfunction
I'd intended to wait until after the election results were in to post these thoughts, but then I realized how pointless that would be. As I'll hopefully show, the election will change nothing. I could post today, tomorrow, two years ago or three years hence. No difference. No change.

I could watch, fervently biting my nails, while young millionaires duke it out with old millionaires for a chance at the trough. I mean, look at the stakes here - we're talking nothing less than The Future Of Indignant Rhetoric!
What...you expected something else? Substantial debate? Any sort of tangible reform? Accountability among our elected saviors? Whoa - slow down there, Woodrow Wilson! That's not the way we do it around here!
We do a shell game that fleeces the rubes while preserving a noxious and cynical status quo. That's it.
One of the most absurd aspects of this campaigning back and forth is surely the dark, looming bogey of "Obamacare." Here's a President who's done what many Democrats have openly espoused, and it's like it's a shock. It's a crisis - something to be overturned, to be reversed, a horrible affront. The GOP had a majority most recently from 2000-2006, but was anything done to truly address healthcare? Hell no. It was business as usual, let it ride, never any real change. Now, because the hated other side has done something (no matter that it's a divisive, bureaucratic leviathan), it's a clarion call. "Let us overturn Obamacare," cry the Boehners and the Roves and other such NeoCon rockstars..."we'll do something that works!"

Play another 18 holes, liars.

And what of Obama? He became utter poison to many dems on the campaign trail. I don't recall anyone ever telling a president, sitting or otherwise, to "shove" his endorsement, as did Rhode Island's Frank Caprio. It's hard to rebut the ire, perhaps, given the bailouts, stimulus and coddling of everyone from BP to Hamid Karzai to Wall Street, as well as tossing out stupid speech points such as references to "shovel-ready" jobs.
Conferences and speeches do nothing but generate acres of paper to fill presidential libraries.

What of the 11th-hour infusion of cash into GOP war chests? Now maybe we can stop hearing endless yapping about George Soros. Ezra Klein of The Washington Post nailed it when he noted that campaign finance reform has stayed the same over time: it started broken, is so now, and will only get worse in the future. We've seen PACs beget SuperPACs, and it's amazing. What do these trainloads of money buy? More yard signs? More TV time? More print? What does it matter? Unless the money imbues the candidate with a special, luminous presence - a personal magnetism - then yes, it only buys yard signs. Looking deeper, however, what it does buy is indeed no mystery.
It buys influence, persuasion, the assurance that candidate x will go a certain way when this bill or that initiative comes up. How can anyone pretend otherwise? The words "campaign," "finance" and "reform" should never appear in a sentence together. It's a funny concept, a sick, funny fantasy that cynical, flag pin-wearing fixers bandy about endlessly, abetted by media flacks who treat it as something that might one day happen. Rubbish.
Money is the lubricant of the process, and it leaves a sticky green smudge on the pins and their wearers alike.
Why don't we just cut to the chase and have the boards of Citi and J.P. Morgan occupy Congress? In an age where GM is partially owned by the government, let's pull away all the screens fully and become a plutocracy. The bottom line with PACs and lobbyists (and both parties have scores of them, let no one tell you otherwise), is that they're entrenched firmly. They're going nowhere.

In addition to locust-swarms of lobbyists, two more pernicious elements serve to muddy the waters.
Activist judges (at the extremes of both poles) can easily turn any issue or ruling into a pinball - endlessly shuttling, endlessly in play - a pinball that will create commentary and outrage, sometimes over generations. Recently the Supremes gave the finger to both the IRS and the Federal Election Commission with their ruling that corporations no longer had limits on contributions. This was done, naturally, under the auspices of "free speech."
The other element - unelected and hungry for revenue and ratings - are talk-show hosts. They're largely onetime DJs (a rare exception is Mark Levin, who's actually a true scholar), who've discovered that they can string together bluster and bile with strings of factoids laid in their laps by research assistants. These kingmakers (cf the 1994 "Limbaugh" Congress) can drum up (or "gin up" as Limbaugh and his vocabulary CDs would say) a spiel to address any event, any development. Their admiring throngs are poised for the next breathy defense of the mystical, sacred workings of the Market or announcement of further tour stops, and have largely forsworn any voice that veers from their AM or cable (or both) oracle.
It was only today (Election Day) that El Rushbo dispensed again the Limbaugh Rule: if it's got a "D" by its name, don't vote for it. If it's got an "R" by its name, vote for it. Classic schtick, but his listeners don't get the joke.

Much hay is made over the ideological "differences" between the parties. Any half-bright schoolchild can distinguish Dem bullet points from GOP, but if you look one inch beyond the fiery catalogue of iniquities that each pol accuses the other of, you'd see that there's no quantifiable difference between the two. One thing remains ironclad - you've got to move to the center to budge the tar pit one slight bit. It's about power. The getting, the keeping, the consolidation. Nothing more.
As far as "independent" candidates go, they've once again shown up the true nature of the Game. Rand Paul has one gaping flaw: he's no Ron Paul. Has he appeared mainly to display a temperament that's apparently shrill and thin-skinned? It seems so. He can join the quirky queue of his predecessors - the Naders, Kuciniches, Andersons, Perots - lamentable, pitiable sideshow attractions, footnotes. Yes, indie candidates are unusual, even weird, but no more so than "mainstream" office seekers (pity the poor voters of Alaska, Nevada and Delaware). Sometimes a mainstream candidate will even take the extra step or two out into Whack-Land, as evidenced by the current fetish for lambasting anything to do with the words FEDERAL and GOVERNMENT. Apparently, these sages have realized that legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a monstrous overstepping that smote our Founding Fathers in their noble breasts.
Sometimes their chatter makes sense, as with the call to end such useless organs as the Department of Education, or Energy, but crying bitterly over the fact that Blacks have escaped Jim Crow?
Indefensible, stupid, misguided folly.

What more can be said about the negativity surrounding this circus? Memo to candidates: avoiding mudslinging and concentrating instead on empty boasts containing focus panel-pleasing keywords like "jobs" means nothing. It's smoke - mist - hot air - just more talk. Just once I'd like to see someone run on a platform of


It'd be a refreshing change.

Lastly, although there's no movement the Machine can't co-opt (see you on the flipside, Tea Party), and no individual it can't sway, there have been a few concrete things to emerge from the muck, such as the Civil Rights Act, maybe FMLA or the AWDA. Decent men and women have held office, and will do so in the future. I would never suggest otherwise. When confronted with the harsh realities of our political system, though, the obvious conclusion is that their benevolent energies would best be expended elsewhere.

I've extracted myself from the process. I'll leave the hand-wringing, offense-taking and denunciations to others.
It's a liberating feeling, truly.


The Seer of Tamworth: A Pop Shaman is Born

Julian Cope Head-On/Repossessed. Thorsons Press (London: 1999), 408 pp., paper.

In early 1989 Julian Cope was at a crossroads. Behind him lay a past as leader of Liverpool's ballyhooed The Teardrop Explodes - a place in the scruffy legend of Postpunk. Ahead was investiture as the patron saint of brilliant, drug-addled, visionary Popdom. At odds with his label's management, he sat down and poured out his story. That bout of writing, remarkable in both its detail and ferocious humor, became a book called Head-On.
He was born October 21st, 1957 in Wales, and raised in an English Midlands town called Tamworth. A literary bent was augmented by an eclectic thirst for music which took in German prog, singer/songwriters Tim Buckley and Scott Walker, and the verbal New York City slap of Patti Smith and Television. College life, in a town near Liverpool, burst the doors wide. Cope recalls hours spent gazing over display cases in record shops, and fretting over a controversial physical image that steered him increasingly toward troublw with campus "real-ale rugby types," and fending off starvation on a diet of tea and toast.
The early days of outsider club Eric's is well documented, as packs of youth show up to gauge each others' appearance, see bands, spread rumors of bands yet to be seen, and cobble together endless sputtering attempts at collaboration. It's a fantastic evocation of a subculture trying to define itself - to live in the moment, yet be mindful enough to leave behind some artistic artifact as well.
Punk, by 1980, had become a cartoon, largely banished south to London where the New Romantics, Oi! and Antmusic waited in the wings to supplant it. Cope and his extended circle of friends in Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds kept to a stripped-down sensibility, cultivating a deadly serious pose even amid raucous times and sharp, engaging music. These were the days of Joy Division, The Fall, Gang of Four, Buzzcocks/Magazine, and the intial efforts of fellow Liverpudlian antagonists Echo and The Bunnymen.
The fledgling Teardrops returned from a quick trip to New York and were completing their first LP, Kilimanjaro. The rest of the band had indulged in drugs during the trip as a matter of course. A joint was now handed to Cope, who continually expressed dismay and scorn for such hippie indulgence. ("I was so anti-drugs. I though the Clash had sold out when they'd got on their spliff and reggae trip. Now I was the bass player in bloody Hawkwind."). He smoked, felt knots of tension and the psychic flotsam of a lifetime collect at the top of his head and wisp away into irrelevance.
A subsequent ingestion of acid sealed the deal. This was indeed a significant moment. The young Julian, supping up a new and totally alien psychoactive diet (in ever-greater quantities) reacted as if he'd been reborn, as if he now had access to a personal creative spirit, and the courage to forge something uniquely his. Everything changed, almost overnight.
The reader is led through this new life of wonder. It's creativity by default, art out of stupor one moment and breathtaking, hilarious risk the next. Whichever way his young life had gone until then, whatever music he might have made, Cope shows exactly how something completely new rose in and from him, and how that detached, impudent (yet ever-clever) persona led him more and more toward an angular, strange, amplified life.
Pleased with the results of the first book, he later penned memories of the years between the Winter '82 breakup of the Teardrops and his transitional, late-'80s frustrations. Those memories became Repossessed: Shamanic Depressions in London and Tamworth (1983-89). The two books were republished in 1999 as a single complete chronicle.

Cope's recollections point up an aspect of British Pop that is distinctly the island's own: a snide, almost jeering arrogance that most plainly manifests itself in a periodic disregard for such niceties of the biz as recording, promotion, and the opinion of beleaguered fans, and an indifference to making shows on time (or indeed, making them at all). To that end the group joined such notorious acts as the Smiths, Happy Mondays and later Oasis and the Stone Roses as practitioners of a musical expression that found release and popularity despite the musicians' efforts otherwise.
That kind of attitude can only be born on a small island where sport, drink and music are often the only outlets for the young. To a British kid Pop is suspect on its face: crap until proven otherwise, and even then it's a pitched, subjective battle to defend. Julian and his friends, enemies, rivals and female dalliances knew this in their hearts. It informed their entire lives. The stakes are higher, the music held closer to oneself.
Cope, unconsciously, weaves "types" into his story that draw specific demarcations as to class, occupation, taste and so on. For a boy born into a world of Teds, Mods, Hippies, Ferry and Bowie knockoffs and finally bondage-trousered poseurs, he ultimately abandons the clothes-and-hair stakes and directs his energy into his art.
Even though musician and band biographies have been around almost since the beginning of rock 'n' roll (largely as cash-ins), in the last 20 years there have been an avalanche of them. This seems natural, as we digest what's come before. Cope's memoir takes us back to one of the last few genuine upsurges in Pop's fecund, turbulent history. He blazed his own trail, and in so doing became one for the most underrated lyricists to emerge from the UK. This book captures the cultural, musical and personal madness that started that journey.


Dark Horse
In Postwar America the Soviet Union and Red China were so vast, so sprawling that they were almost an abstraction. Most people heard them mentioned daily, lived with the pronouncements of their leaders, and internalized a steady disquiet about those countries' aims, real or imagined. There weren't, however, many artistic treatments of their supposed intentions. One of the first was Richard Condon's 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate.
Director John Frankenheimer had an interest in adapting it for film, and enlisted the aid of screenwriter George Axelrod. The two obtained the rights cheaply, and although no studio would touch the proposed project, the pair - with the enthusiastic backing of Frank Sinatra - eventually gained the green light to film.
The story concerns itself with a soldier who, on patrol in Korea, is betrayed and captured alongside his men. Through brainwashing he's conditioned to be a blank slate, a killing machine, a weapon to be deployed in a shocking manner when sent back to the States. It's this premise that drew in a stellar group of actors for its film adaptation. The cast includes Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw (the young soldier in question), Frank Sinatra (as his C.O., Bennett Marco), Janet Leigh (as Marco's paramour, Rosie), and James Gregory and Angela Lansbury (as Shaw's parents, the McCarthyesque John Iselin and his vicious wife).
Released on October 24th, 1962 as Americans huddled under the very specific threat of a nuclear exchange, moviegoers were placed directly into the action as Shaw's patrol is overrun and captured. The stark titles appear over David Amram's coldly beautiful score, and the story is underway. A jump-cut trades Amram's strings for a Sousa march, played on an airstrip for Shaw's homecoming, at which point we also meet the oily Senator Iselin. Shaw, filled with disgust for his stepfather, declines to appear as a stooge for the latter's campaign - a position that will muddle the very specific plans set up around his return from combat.

Sinatra's enthusiasm resulted in a compelling turn as Major Marco, and his recurring nightmare sets up the first of many brilliant sequences. The patrol, brainwashed and conditioned, believes itself to be waiting out a storm in the lobby of a hotel. They slouch, smoke, and think nothing of the garden party speaker in their midst. As the camera begins a slow, 360-degree arc, the attendees are revealed to actually be ranking Chinese and Soviet scholars - the "speaker" a Chinese conditioning expert. Pieced together from six separate filmed combinations of "garden club" ladies and communist officials, it's a brilliant segment.
Time and again, Frankenheimer's camera crew and his and Axelrod's judicious, economical editing create powerful set pieces that move the story forward seamlessly. And though it states the obvious that shooting in black-and-white provides a lush, moody tone that's simply superior to color, that is utterly the case here. The interiors (amazingly, mostly created from whole cloth on a soundstage) are vivid, solid and smoky chambers which envelop their characters and absorb their tension. The characters themselves benefit as well, especially Harvey's contemptuous Shaw and Lansbury's softly wicked Mrs. Iselin. Their finely calibrated performances are immutably captured in Frankenheimer's lens, each barely containing the turmoil within.
To say that the story moves almost unbearably toward a truly shocking ending betrays nothing, as Axelrod's adaptation, including several extemporaneous moments, plays its cards out very shrewdly. Watching the movie again reveals just how much we've lost over the years, not only with basic content but with the basic mechanics of film, the skills that once elevated this medium to the level, above mere entertainment, of Craft.
There was, around the time of the movie's 1988 theatrical re-release, a story that claimed the film had been pulled shortly after JFK's assassination. This was later shown to be false, as the movie completed its initial run and was even shown on television a couple of times over the years. Whatever the case, it proved a very popular film, inspiring subsequent efforts such as Frankenheimer's own Seven Days in May in 1964, The Parallax View (1974) and the Charles Bronson vehicle Telefon (1977).
Its 1994 entry into the National Film Registry properly enshrined this magnificent tale, and bestowed upon it rightful status as a true classic.


Letting the sunshine in...
The truest, most vivid reflection of '60s counterculture didn't come from a book, a movie or a high-profile Rock band.
It came from two shaggy young New York writers who joined forces with a clean-cut composer to create a resonant, lasting meditation on youth and its restlessness and questing spirit.
James Rado and Gerome Ragni's friendship began in 1964. The two realized something was going on among not just the bohemians of the Village but in society at large, and influenced by alternative theatre pieces like Megan Terry's Viet Rock, they set out to put together a show of their own. Partnership with family man Galt MacDermot gave sound to their emergent lyrics - a pastiche of ideas about rebellion and celebration that they named Hair.
The show opened off-Broadway in 1967, and was staged on a simple set using found objects and castoff clothing, really whatever the cast appropriated and deemed visually interesting. American Indian and religious motifs were woven into the tableau to lend a spiritual yet funky air. In January 1968 the show closed at the Cheetah, then re-opened three months later on Broadway proper with some dramatic changes. Tom O'Horgan was brought in as Creative Director, there were 13 new songs and the show now packed a serious dramatic wallop.

It tells the story of a young man named Claude, who encounters a group of drop-outs intent on shedding the expectations and pressures of modern life. Within that rejection is the germ of a new way, a new approach to life that emphasizes joy and temporal pleasure as the truly desirable path toward happiness.
The success of the play took its three creators by surprise, as did its spread. It ran on Broadway for 1,750 performances over four years, and in London for almost 2,000 performances. Rado & Ragni played various parts in both the New York and Los Angeles productions, and watched as their work spread to Europe, Asia and South America as well. Interestingly, the play changed, evolved and took on a life of its own. Wherever the piece went it incorporated local references and themes. Musical numbers were changed, expanded, traded. It was the antithesis of the rigidly scripted, traditional theatrical approach, and its free-wheeling nature and content drew the wrath of some.
The play's celebration of all things hirsute (wonderfully summoned forth in the bittersweet title song) is a shot across the bow, but other songs charge the ramparts. The kids itemize their chemical options in "Hashish," then catalog various sexual variations in "Sodomy." One of the Tribe, a militant Black character named Hud, rattles off a laundry list of slurs in "I'm Black/Colored Spade."
These confrontations are needed, but it's the several core songs which give Hair its dynamic impact and staying power. From declarations such as "I Got Life" and "Easy To Be Hard" to "Where Do I Go?" the songs create a yearning for something which may or may not be attainable. Of course, "Aquarius" and "Good Morning Starshine" are linchpins of the show, and have since been re-recorded and re-interpreted endlessly. One example of the material's easy adaptation was the Fifth Dimension's "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" which the group took to #1 in 1969.
The Original Cast Recording was released in 1968, garnered a Best Original Score Grammy and sold 3 million copies. It was followed by a recording of the London cast, and even a Version Originale Francais. Of note is RCA's follow-up release, 1970's DisinHAIRited, which collected various numbers which fell in and out of the performance, some of which never appeared on stage. This addendum moved to its own brassy propulsion and contained acid-dipped mountain folk, lysergic Vaudeville, and breezy Hippie whimsy of every stripe.

Revivals of the stage show sprang up in 1977, 1985 and 1988. There was even a 1979 film adaptation with Beverly D'Angelo and Treat Williams. In 2009 it reappeared on Broadway, and it's been a fixture in some venue or other ever since.
The sages of the era inhabited a spectrum that spanned heightened awareness and exploration (Kesey, Leary et al) all the way through disruption and unrest (Eldridge Cleaver, the Yippies). The Hair Tribe embody both in a swirling, ecstatic rush, and thus the play and its music will always offer a spectacle of life, love and joy.


Warhol's world...and Beyond
A pretty, throwaway bauble--now in its fourth decade and growing ever more complex? That's Interview magazine.
The magazine was begun by Andy Warhol and British journalist John Wilcock.
The premise centered on celebrity and its shiny trappings, and served to document the frenzy of New York's last shabby-chic, coke-fueled heyday. Stars spoke candidly with other stars, and a format was born. Maybe it was meant to last, maybe not, but it captured the beautiful people and their doings. Having Newton, Mapplethorpe, LaChapelle, and Avedon around can't have hurt on the visual end, either. The magazine has persevered, though, and come into its own. The beautiful people remain, but readers may also avail themselves of an indepth look into our increasingly fertile, interdependent cultural life.

In addition to capsule reviews such as Agenda (everything from books and theatre to art showings, furniture, and various odds and ends) to Capture (trends and passing notes of interest), each issue features hot figures of the moment, such as Kristen Stewart and James Franco, but also young comers like Augustus Prew and Felicity Jones. Music is well-covered and eclectic, introducing such widely varied performers as M.I.A., Danish Pop sensation Nanna Fabricus, Brooklyn-based Jay Electronica, and Capetown's frenzied, confrontational duo Die Antwoord. Then there are the pieces on artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Larry Clark and Romain Gavras.
The publication's best profiles help us sort out the onslaught of images and input we're now asked to process, as with a fine piece on Los Angeles artist Shepard Fairey. Fairey is the man responsible for the instantly iconic Obama "Hope" poster, but also for the "Obey Giant" campaign which featured a stencil-sprayed Andre the Giant hovering above a series of cryptic slogans. The interview contemplates the creative process, but also the snares and distractions the lifestyle creates.
Most strikingly, Interview occasionally forces the reader to confront biases and presuppositions, as with its story on Brian Donnelly, who began as a graffitist, then moved on to guerilla modification of existing signage before producing his own work, which includes sculpture, toys and other unexpected creative choices as well. Donnelly, grounded in the arts and artists of the past, proves to be no cheap vandal. Current Nike CEO Mark Parker confounds as well, having put together a traveling art project called Stages that at once ponders the Tour de France and the altogether different battle of cancer.

Part of the magazine's scope does indeed involve the fashion world, and as New York City is one of the three or four crucial fashion cities in the world, this is to be expected. It must be remembered that a) it's not going to cover the happenings in Des Moines and b) even if there were radical goings-on there, they still wouldn't receive the mag's attention. It is what it is. Come to the City, it says, and there are a large percent of creative types who will, who do, and that's the point.
My greater point is that when a designer is profiled, it's invariably within the context of his or her inspirations and collaborations. Almost everything here is a study in collaboration on some level or other, and the resultant picture is a thriving artistic milieu. Most people will never drop in on the Missoni family while they're being painstakingly shot by radical film auteur Kenneth Anger, but through these pages, they can be there if only vicariously.


Good times with Good Eats
On February 11th, 1963, a lively, matronly woman named Julia Child debuted a new program called The French Chef on WGBH Boston. Her surprise smash 1961 book Mastering the Art of French Cooking and an engaging personal style made her a natural for television, and she became a household name in the popularization of cooking as well as the expansion of American palates.
Brit Graham Kerr followed in her footsteps. Grounded in cooking and catering from a young age, he enjoyed early success with his first book, Entertaining with Kerr. This he followed with The Galloping Gourmets, a name which he used (in the singular) for a hit show which aired from 1969-71 and is remembered fondly today.
A fellow named Alton Brown took in these influences (as well as an avowed affection for shows such as Watch Mr. Wizard) and created a show which first aired on Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW in July 1998. The show, simply titled Good Eats, was picked up a year later by Food Network.

Brown doesn't simply discuss food and its preparation, nor just the proper tools, implements and tips to optimize one's results. He provides the history of his subject, be it a sauce, beverage, dessert, side dish or centerpiece of a hearty meal. He works in the physical properties of his subjects as well, presented in laymen's terms, and so creates a fascinating whole as he explores the episode's theme. This exposition is discussed throughout his prep, with an array of visual aids from basic (Tinkertoys, blackboards) to elaborate (custom props to illustrate specific concepts).
A recent airing of the episode "All Hallows' Eats" was a great reason to explore the properties of sucrose, in this case its differing aspects when used in candy corn, candy apples and popcorn balls - all deftly whipped up by Brown in the course of just one taping.
The program turns on its infectious, playful energy and is clearly a vehicle for imagination. Brown dispenses lightning-fast cultural in-jokes and references, and the episode titles are a reflection of this: "Crepe Expectations," "The Dough Also Rises," Cuckoo for Coq au Vin" and so forth. Cast and even family augment his presentations, either as themselves or as a number of recurring characters, and he's quick to feature guest chefs, writers and dietitians.
In a medium that's long felt compelled to dumb itself down to hold viewer interest, Brown is having none of it. He's carved out a niche to amuse and teach about a subject that's so much more than stuffing something in our mouths, and we're the luckier for it.

So ends number two.
It was fun!
If you like it, hey, subscribe.
We'll see where it all goes.

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