Asshole of the Century

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Revolt of the Middle Class

The Ukraine. Venezuela. Thailand. Egypt. Turkey. The list seems to grow by the day. The world is afire with revolt, but a new kind of revolt, befitting our young century: The revolt of the middle class.

While their complaints are all different, the specifics only magnify what they have in common: All of these protests and rebellions are being led by comparatively well educated, affluent citizens upset about their government’s violation of liberal principles and the rule of law. In all these countries, the nascent revolutionaries either lost or probably would lose a free election, as they don’t represent a clear majority of their societies.

Their protests underscore the first requirement of a successful, stable democracy: A modern nation must find accommodation for the concerns of the minorities in their midst, be they ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic. And, as we are seeing in places like the Ukraine, Thailand, and Venezuela, there is no more dangerous minority to offend than the aspiring middle class.

I understand at least a little of what it must be like to live in a nation state with little regard for the rule of law. After all, I live in Chicagoland, which is about as close as you can get to living in a banana republic or under the heel of a Eurasian potentate without using your passport.

The corruption of Chicago pols is legendary, of course. But the hijinks of Rod Blagojevich and Jesse Jackson Jr. only scratch at the surface. I live in a small town of around 20,000 citizens in eastern DuPage County, about 10 miles from the Chicago border. There is a guy who lives in an unremarkable house on the north side of town. His name is Joseph C., but he goes by the name of Joey Chicago. He takes several trips a year down to unnamed Caribbean islands, purportedly as part of the local mafia’s money laundering operation. That may or may not be true, but what is a fact is that Joey Chicago has bankrolled a number of corrupt local politicians and crooked cops. Bribes, shakedowns, racially and politically motivated beatdowns: It all goes on within our little town.

Or take my stint in the Chicago Public School system, where I witnessed our principal skim money from the vendors, stack the local school council with personal cronies, and cajole sexual favors from the school’s career staffers. The assistant principal was also a real piece of work, a neurotic neat freak who brushed his teeth obsessively in the faculty washroom and had direct connections with the Gangster Disciples. Our football coach was a young man from the community, well liked by his players but who dealt crack on the side and was found dead one night in a back alley.

Multiply this by the hundreds of other government organizations and taxing bodies scattered across northeast Illinois, and you get an idea of the scale of corruption. This is a city where it is considered a civic virtue to protect your parking spot on a public street after a snowstorm with a chair and then slash the tires of your neighbor if he dares try parking in your spot. Dibs is what they call it. In any other place, it could be called criminal destruction of property.

So I know the face of the enemy. It is the public official who hands out favors to friends and favored constituencies. It is the fat dude down the block driving the Escalade with special state license plates. It is the politician who has his own security detail and puts his kids through private school. It is the demagogue who uses class and race to disguise his own power grab. It is the police captain or union boss who uses muscle to shut folks up.  

Let’s not get starry eyed. The Ukrainian rebels do not want economic democracy; they want free trade with the West and an end to their government’s cronyism. The Venezuelan students protesting on the streets have been on the losing side of several elections. The secular protesters in Turkey do not represent that nation’s Muslim majority.  But that doesn’t make their demands for free speech and a free press any less valid, nor can it dim their dreams for personal freedom.

The world has learned that the desires of the middle class are universal, transcending cultural and religious norms. Bring people up from ignorance and poverty, and they demand the same three things from their government: freedom of expression, access to a quality education, and the rule of law. And I stand with them in all three regards.

It is interesting to note which revolutions survive, and which are crushed. In the darkest moments of the protests in Kiev, when special forces were targeting their front line with high-powered rifles, the protesters responded by running toward the guys with the guns who were shooting them down. The protesters refused to be cowed. Contrast their response with the demonstrations against the Iranian ayatollahs or the student protesters at Tiananmen Square, as both movements withered when confronted with the violence of the state and its henchmen.

The fate of the 20th Century was largely dictated by blood and iron, as Bismarck famously predicted. We imagine that we live in a new, more enlightened era, but our fate will be decided by similar means, except this time it will be blood and silicon chips that hold the day. Peace is overrated. It may be true that the meek will inherit the earth, but in the meantime, the world is being made by those willing to get their hands a little dirty in the struggle. If there is one thing that living with the petty tyrants of Chicagoland over the past 25 years has taught me, it’s that you won’t get a seat at the table if you can’t bloody a nose.

So I stand with my brothers and sisters protesting the brutality of the tyrant, whether it be in Venezuela, in Turkey, or the Ukraine. These protesters may not represent all the people, and the consequences of their victory may not be clear.  But, whatever its periodic regressions, history bends toward freedom and the rule of law. In the digital age, our willingness to defend these freedoms may be the highest calling of all.   

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Friday, December 13, 2013

The Banality of Evil

We are in a mess. Sure, after almost falling off the cliff a few years ago, the U.S. economy has stabilized. But the lives of most Americans have not improved. Looking at our society as a whole, it seems just the opposite, that more and more Americans are dejected about the direction our country is heading. Wealth and power have become increasingly centralized into the hands of a few, our schools have been hijacked by a bunch of number-crunching bureaucrats, and most folks don’t see things improving, either for themselves, their children, or their communities. Meanwhile, the people who run this country view the average American as good for three things: As votes that can be bought, as consumers who can be sold to, and as soldiers to go fight and die in their wars. Welcome to the American Empire.

How did we go from a nation of neighborhoods, where rich and poor lived in relatively close proximity, where everyone watched out for one another, where there was a comparatively small difference between rich and poor, to one where the economically and culturally advantaged have segregated themselves into a handful of elite communities?

To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, true evil is more often than not a mundane affair, hiding its impact in well-intentioned orderliness and pedestrian execution. In looking for culprits to tar and feather, I find no Stalins or Pol Pots, those agents of evil who, like Brazilian soccer stars, need only a single name to evoke their posterity. My list of indicted are a comparatively dull lot. But that’s the sad thing about evil: It often doesn’t even have the good grace to be interesting. In this light, here are the three figures I find most to blame for the erosion of the American dream:

Bill Gates
There are many sins upon which I could accuse him, but there is one that cuts me close, and that is how Bill Gates has elected to use his astronomic wealth to have an out-sized influence on how we teach our children.

Gates is an advocate of national standards. Specifically, the kind of standards that his button-down brain can understand, the kind that can only be measured through an ongoing battery of standardized tests.  The bureaucrats in Washington D.C. have decided that national education policy only works if they can be in control of the outcome, and that they can only be in charge of the outcome if they have a way to measure what is being learned. And Gates has the perfect tool to assure this centralized control. He calls it the Common Core curriculum. Every teacher, in every community in every state, is expected to teach to this Common Core. And there are standardized tests that judge how well each student, each teacher, each school, each district meets these standards. As 45 states have signed on to this Common Core curriculum and its incumbent testing, it means pretty much every public school in the country is teaching towards having their children master these tests.     

Last week, I attended my first meeting of parents at my son’s school. Most of the other parents had absorbed the language of their oppressor. They were focused on how they wanted more computer skills taught in the classroom. I felt compelled to declare that I wanted less emphasis on computers, that I’d rather have them learning how to deal with their fellow human beings. They were worried about how to effectively implement all the new state and national requirements. I argued for the importance of art and music, of critical thinking, of spending less time learning how to take a test and more on how to live creative, productive, well-balanced lives. I felt pretty alone that night, and a little sad for the state of public education.

Just like in the business world and in our government, Bill Gates and his ilk are winning the battle over the nation’s educational policy, convincing the general public to accept the regimentation of the American mind, as the public schools churn out millions of mid-level white collar drudges to fill their cubicles and buy their products. Meanwhile, the kids of the ruling class get an entirely different kind of education, one that fosters creativity and independent thinking as well as personal discipline and an abiding respect for others, as the rich are wise enough to know these are the skills that will get you ahead in this world. But Bill Gates doesn’t want my child or yours to get ahead. He wants the nation to get ahead. And, to Gates, that can best be achieved if our masses become even more efficient drudges than the ones in China.

I hate Gates for how he transformed the software industry into his own image, making it a dull yet cut-throat endeavor where everyone watches out for the bottom line. I hate him for being such a soulless nerd. I hate him for a dozen petty things. But when Gates and company start fucking with the mind of my kid, that’s when it gets serious.

Ayn Rand
Like Gates, Ayn Rand is guilty of a multitude of sins. But I only hold her responsible for one: Having lured a good percentage of the financial overachievers in our society into believing that they would be better off without all of us riff-raff around, and through this perpetuating and extending the move of those with wealth and power into boutique communities, where they don’t have to deal with their fellow citizens, other than of course when they need someone to plump their pillows and service their needs.  

I’ll start with what I don’t accuse Rand: She is no idiot. There is this tendency within academia to make Rand somehow intellectually inferior to their conceits, but there is nothing de facto illogical in her approach.

My problem with Rand comes not from her mind but from her soul. She is a cold heart, one that beats fast at innovation and the ideas of the chosen ones but that has little use for the foibles of human nature. When the millions of thoughtful, industrious young people who have been reading Atlas Shrugged over the past fifty years are attracted to her ideas, they are unlikely to be dissuaded by academic ridicule, because logically there is really nothing to ridicule. It’s no wonder she remains so popular. To paraphrase Swift, you figure that a genius must have entered the world when all the dunces have aligned themselves against her.   

Perhaps because of this, Rand’s peculiar brand of individualism, one without God or virtue, has weaved its way into the fabric of American conservatism. Ever since the early 1970’s, the titans of commerce have been captivated with the idea that they aren’t really responsible for anything but their own vision and the pocketbooks of their shareholders. Much like the “creators” in Atlas Shrugged, the creative minds of America have now gathered in their shiny burgs, peppered across the continent but generally someplace soft and comfortable, within shouting range of a major body of water, out of sight of the lives of most of America, free to redefine themselves as they see fit. Meanwhile, the country is drained.

There was a time not that long ago when an owner of a factory in Cleveland probably lived somewhere in town. No more. More likely, he lives on the Florida coast or maybe in the concrete canyons of Manhattan. He has no real connection to the factory, the town where it is located, or its people. It is all just numbers on a balance sheet. So when the numbers so dictate, it is an easy decision to do what is right for the balance sheet and not for the people and the town.

During the last age of the robber barons, at least the great industrialists and philanthropists gave back to their local communities, helping to build our libraries, fund our charities, found our schools. But when your community is an island in the Caribbean accessible only by private jet, it is easy to forget about the folks back home. And the view is not much different from your private dude ranch in the California hills.

In Rand’s master work, Atlas metaphorically shrugged, shaking off the burden of the planet and thus relieving himself of the responsibility to aid the worthless sacks of flesh otherwise known as his fellow man. It is a vision much of today’s meritocracy has taken to heart.
Woodrow Wilson
Like Gates and Rand, Woodrow Wilson is guilty of a series of crimes. Here is a short list: He got us into World War I, possibly the most inexcusable war in the history of the West, despite running as a candidate of peace and neutrality just months before; after the war, he helped slice up the planet in such a way as to virtually guarantee a century of war and conflagration; with his extended detentions of hundreds of anti-war advocates, some of whom were guilty of nothing greater than writing an opinion piece in the local newspaper, and whose detentions extended well past the end of the war, he is probably America’s most egregious violator of civil and individual rights.

But also much like Gates and Rand, there is one crime that I blame Wilson for most of all, as it still impacts the daily lives of many Americans: Wilson developed the doctrine of Moral Diplomacy, providing the ideological justification for a century of global interventionism.

The American Empire begins with Woodrow Wilson. He popularized the idea that we had a moral obligation to perpetuate and extend democracy around the globe.  Sure there were plenty of generals and politicians who had dreams of American glory before Wilson became President, but it was Woodrow Wilson who gave this ambition a global directive. Wilson gave imperialism its raison d’etre: Making the world safe for democracy.

All the while, President Wilson was sick. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919 while in the process of campaigning to have Congress ratify the Treaty of Versailles. But medical records indicate that Wilson also suffered smaller strokes in 1896, 1906, and possibly 1915, and it has been speculated that his sometimes erratic behavior at Versailles stemmed from another bout of hemorrhaging in his brain.

The Disease of the Righteous

Wilson’s physical and mental trials bring me to the moral of my story: Righteousness, even when it is couched in the dry terminology of the businessman or the theories of a philosopher, is often observationally indistinguishable from a disease, and should be treated as such. Of all the weaknesses and failings of the human psyche, the most insidious of all may be the hubris of the righteous, convinced in the justness of their cause.  It is at the root of the failings of all three protagonists in my tale of devolution. And when the cocksure idealists take over, confident they know how to make a better world, it is usually the common man who pays the price.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

In Praise of the Tall Boys

A lot of people have personal places of transcendence, spots on the planet where they claim to reach some kind of a higher existence, where time seems to stand still and they have what in a less cynical age would be known as “a religious experience.” I do, too. But for me, that place tends not to be some far off mountain or meditative retreat. I tend to find my epiphanies among the unwashed, in some odd corner of the city, someplace not hip at all, even in an ironic way, someplace untouched by the moral pronouncements of the well-intentioned classes or the magnetism of the young and beautiful ones. Perhaps my favorite place is located under a small shade tree next to the tennis courts in Riis Park, off Wrightwood Avenue, a block east of Narragansett, on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

I had one of those little epiphanies this Sunday. Andy, my doubles partner for the year, and I had just lost a tightly fought Tall Boys match, 7-5 in the 3rd set, against Stash, bowlegged and hunchbacked but with cat-like reactions and a bag full of wicked spin, and Ralph, middle aged with a greying flattop, who has a pretty good forehand for a doorman at the Drake Hotel. I was a little grumpy about our loss and almost went directly home. But I was tired. So I sat long enough in the sun in my portable camping chair for the beer to come out.

For the past six summers, I have played tennis with the Tall Boys, who themselves have been playing competitive tennis at Riis Park every summer since 1975. The Tall Boys are a ragged collection of Italian cops and Greek real estate brokers, Mexican tennis bums and Polish day laborers, united in their rejection of the typical 9-to-5 and in their love of tennis and beer. Cursing is the norm. And not generally in a fun way, but in an “I’m about to step over the net and punch your face in” kind of way. A couple of weeks ago, a butch-looking Hispanic girl stomped across one of the nearby courts and began throwing F-bombs at a gangster on the other side of the fence. She stormed back to her car, and at one point I thought it might devolve into gun play. But as distracting as they got, we never interrupted our game.

The Tall Boys are a tough lot. City tough, in a way where you never know when their crazy gene will show itself. For instance, everyone might be winding down, sipping a beer in the shade, and then Lou, a 70-year old Italian dude and one of the patriarchs of our crew, might suddenly lose it, yelling at a 10-year old Puerto Rican girl at the other end of the courts, accusing her of being a fucking cunt over and over again, not once or twice but like a dozen times in rapid succession, all because she was leaning on one of the nets.

But the Tall Boys are getting old, and a lot of them have come down with illnesses, most generally some form of debilitating but operable cancer. All but the Filipinos (or “The Flips” as they are somewhat affectionately known on the Riis Park courts), who seem unfazed by their advancing age, other than to complain of nagging foot ailments and the occasional fungus. I worry that one day the only folks out there playing will be me and a couple of Filipino dudes with bad feet.   

Last year at our annual, end-of-season picnic, Angelo, one of the Filipinos, a guy in his mid-40’s who has faced his share of adversity, from the ongoing effects of an old eye injury that derailed a promising tennis career to the travails of raising a severely autistic child, grabbed my arm. He told me to shut up for a minute.

“Just stop,” he repeated, “and take in this moment.”

I looked around. Milo, my 4 year old, was playing the dozens with Ari, a middle-aged Greek who brings homemade wine and a functioning cannon to our barbeques. Roscoe, my infant son, was rolling around on a blanket. My wife Melissa sat next to him, eating homemade blueberry buckle, courtesy of one of the Traub brothers, and sipping some of Ari’s wine. Angelo’s kid was playing with a small pile of leaves by the tree, content for the moment in his dysfunctional reverie. The rest of the Tall Boys spread across the grass, engaged in conversation. The sun dappled our faces as the wind rustled the leaves on our shade tree.

“It’s perfect,” Angelo declared. “Take a snapshot of this moment. Because it makes all the bullshit worth it.” By this, I assume he meant all our daily frustrations and unrealized dreams.

Sipping a Pilsner Urquell last Sunday, listening to Lou Visconti rave on about how you can’t find another place like this, I came to the conclusion that both he and Angelo were right.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Naming Roscoe

My son turned one on Saturday. His full name is Roscoe Stuart Barnett. Both my wife, Melissa, and I have graced him with names from a family legacy. Roscoe was my grandfather’s first name. Stuart is my wife’s middle name, a name passed down for five generations, to both male and female descendants, in recognition of a line of Stuarts who left no male heirs.  

Roscoe Lloyd Babcock, my grandfather, was born in Thayer, Kansas, in 1897. He was my mother’s father. Roscoe dropped out of school at 14 and left home to become a cowboy. In his own way, he was a learned man, but he had an aversion to formal education, although he did take classes at the Colorado School of Mines and was later an understudy to the noted landscape painter William Galen Doss.  Roscoe was a cowboy and a chemist; a jock and, most famously, a painter of the American West. He worked for many years at the Post Office and was known as “the painting postman” by the local townsfolk. He was always eager to explore that further valley in search of the next adventure. It is a value that my family passed on to me, and something I hope to bequeath to my sons.     

Several of Roscoe Babcock’s paintings hang in our home, inherited from my parents. When we adopted our second child, it was Melissa’s idea to name him after my grandfather, inspired in part by the name on those paintings.

The crazy thing is that, in real life, I really didn’t like my grandfather that much, and I suspect that he really didn’t care that much for me, either. My grandfather could be a nasty piece of work, a man of action, a taciturn misanthrope who really didn’t care for the talkers of this world. And if there is one thing that I’ve been over my 51-years on this earth, it’s a talker.

“Can’t you get him to be quiet?” Grandpa grumbled to my grandmother during one of their child sitting sessions. I must have been about nine at the time. It was during the college football game of the year, as the #1 Nebraska Cornhuskers faced off against the #2 Oklahoma Sooners, and I had made the critical mistake of not just being too loud, but of rooting for the wrong team.

“He’s just having fun,” my grandmother said in my defense.

“That kid acts like he’s spastic. Besides, what’s he doing rooting for a bunch of Oakies?”

I could never seem to make my grandfather happy. He’d sit there, flexing those strong hands of his, and stare at me. I admit that I could be a bit tightly wound at times. But what the hell, I was just a kid.

But looking back at it, Roscoe Babcock was a fitting patriarch of our Scotch-Irish clan. We were (and are) a bunch of Oakies, despite my grandfather’s protestations that we actually hailed from southeast Kansas, and there are two things that you need to know about the Scotch-Irish descendants of greater North America if you want to understand us: 1) We’ve been here a long time; and 2) A rabid defiance lies deep in our DNA.

My grandmother could trace our family back two hundred years, but she couldn’t name anyone who actually immigrated to this country. She knew of family who fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War; who crossed the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone; who fought on both sides of the Civil War; who walked the Trail of Tears (like most of the state of Oklahoma at the time, my Grandma Hazel had a bit of Cherokee blood - 1/8 to be exact) and hung with Jesse James. Roscoe and Hazel crossed the Great Western Desert shortly after World War I for California, where Roscoe took a job as a chemist at the Holly Sugar refinery. He lost that job during the Depression and had to scramble. My mom would tell a story about how Grandpa traded his cow for a neighbor’s dory fishing boat, and the family’s only protein for the next 18 months, breakfast, lunch and dinner, consisted of the fish that he and Grandma caught off the Balboa Peninsula (which at the time was an uninhabited sandbar mostly submerged at high tide), and my mom grew so sick of fish that, some 20 years later, it still made her retch whenever it touched her plate. My point is that we were working class folks, yet we knew nothing of the immigrant experience. We knew nothing about whatever hardscrabble croft of Scottish dirt and stone our ancestors hailed from (although that didn’t stop Grandma from proudly wearing her Gordin tartan scarf on those rare cold California mornings). As far as I know, none of us, other than myself, ever lived in a city. In brief, my Scotch-Irish forebears are as tied to the American landscape as my great-great-great grandmother, the Cherokee whose parents walked the Trail of Tears.

We are an ornery lot. My grandfather really liked football, both as player and fan. But he liked the old school notion of the game, of bloody mouths and broken fingers, a game of collective brutality rather than speed. He seemed to think the modern version of the sport was a kind of betrayal, as cock-of-the-walk quarterbacks tossed delicate passes to lithe, gazelle-like receivers, almost entirely bypassing the slow-motion brutality that he considered the essence of the game.

Until my generation, our family history dovetailed with that of America’s wars. Stubborn redneck farmers and hillbillies have always borne the brunt of our fight, forming an outsized percentage of those who have defended our country and killed our enemies. One of these was my uncle, Lloyd Richard, in whose memory I received my middle name, who earned a distinguished service cross and seven oak leaf clusters killing Japs and Nazis while flying his P-47 during World War II. He died a few years after the war, testing jet aircraft for the military.

A final story: My grandfather had a devious side and liked quietly stirring the pot in uncomfortable ways. One day, he loaned me two Time-Life books, one on evolution and another on the origins of man. Like I’m sure he knew I would, I read these books at my neighbor’s, an evangelical Christian who took care of me and my sister until our Mom got home from work. At one point when I was being a particular brat, my neighbor grabbed one of the books, threw it against the wall, and declared, “Why don’t you just take yourself and your monkey book and get out of my kitchen.” This led to a lengthy discussion between the two of us on the validity of evolution. The next time I saw my grandfather, I gave him back his books and let him know that I didn’t believe in any of this evolution mumbo-jumbo. Grandpa just kind of smiled, asked me a couple of pointed questions, and let me go on my way. Factually, he was on the right side of this argument, of course, but he taught me a valuable lesson that day, albeit one that I didn’t realize at the moment and one that I would be wise to heed more often, even today: It is generally a waste of time to argue with someone if they want to remain trapped in their private sandcastles, and sometimes silence is the better option. This is how most of my family handles most things. We don’t like to talk about our feelings, and we really don’t care if the dolts hold the floor; being on the side of truth is its own reward.

Like my two sons, I was adopted into the Barnett/Babcock clan. Of all the gifts that my family bequeathed me: Love, an education, a sense of decency, or even the more mundane gift of a house I could sell, I regard our independent streak as perhaps the most valuable. Sure, there are a lot of things we expect from our society, from dependable roads and rails to clean food and water and a good school for our children to attend. There are a lot of countries that fail to deliver these supposedly basic services for their citizens, so I don’t take them for granted. But the essence of America is that imbued by my hillbilly ancestors, which is our compulsion to escape the security of this organized Babylon. In naming my son Roscoe, I reassert our family’s destiny. 

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Monday, March 04, 2013

My Craving, Material, Transcendent Soul

I went to the neighborhood Portillo’s this weekend. It was a busy Saturday afternoon. Almost all the parking spaces were taken. The line of cars waiting at the drive-through wrapped around the building. Inside, the tables were teeming with hungry folks, and there was a ravenous yet convivial energy. While waiting for my order, I had a couple of minutes to look around. There had to be at least 20 people working, of just about every age, size, and ethnic group you could imagine. Each employee was busy at his or her own task, and the place was humming. Watching them make all these meals, the clockwork yet polite efficiency with which they went about feeding and pleasing literally hundreds of customers, filled me with the kind of spontaneous joy that I imagine some people get when they stumble upon a beautiful vista while hiking in the mountains.

John Gray famously opined: “Work on the world is useless; work on the self is not.” Call me the Anti-John Gray. Work in the world is the one thing that is not useless. Now, by work I don’t necessarily mean what we are employed to do. By work, I mean any activity where you are using your energy to accomplish something. But most of the time, for most of us, that work is something that we do while we are on the job. Even if that job is something as seemingly mundane as flipping a burger.

Back in grad school, I spent a long weekend in a cabin up near Sleeping Bear Dunes, on the coast of Lake Michigan, with a bunch of friends from the college radio station where I DJ’d. Some hippy chick from California had come along with us. Besides being pretentious and dull, she suffered from the unpardonable sin of being not at all hot. After a while, she got frustrated with our company. We ate tons of red meat. None of us wanted to sit around the fire and have late-night bull sessions where we bared our deepest secrets. And not one of us played the acoustic guitar. Towards the end of the weekend, she blurted out: “I’ve never been with a less spiritual bunch of people in my life.” I consider it one of the greatest, unsolicited compliments that I’ve ever received, even if I was sharing this honor with a dozen others.

I know that, despite their rejection of organized religion, there is this urge to be “spiritual” among many of my peers, this belief that standing outside on a starry night and feeling close to the vast universe around us is a meaningful act. And, on a superficial level, maybe it is, at least to the person who is feeling it. But this thought, on its own, has no resonance. Without some observable action in the physical world, it is meaningless, its only function being to reassure that individual mind it has value, a suicide prevention device preprogrammed into the neural networks of our brains that keeps the organism alive but otherwise serves little purpose.

While we may not be only our outward interactions with the world, it is a good way to judge ourselves. You want to “know” what you are like? Don’t look “deep inside yourself.” That will tell you nothing, at least nothing relevant to the question at hand. Look outside yourself, at what you have accomplished, at how you make others act and feel. That will tell you what you need to know.

There is a flipside to this idea, one that gives it context, and that is that the person with a job, no matter how menial, is almost assuredly doing more to benefit the universe than the most enlightened hippy living out in some teepee, shitting in the woods and thinking his deep thoughts. The modern world is a beautiful thing. If one of our hunter-gathering forebears stumbled into our lives, they would think we were gods. We can fly. We can tell time. We can communicate complex ideas to one another, and these thoughts can be shared across the globe in the blink of an eye. At least compared with the stunted existence of our ancestors, we seemingly live forever.

Modern life is a miracle. Sure, people still suffer. But as a whole, we suffer a lot less than our ancestors did, particularly from the elemental plagues, such as starvation and disease. And for most of us, at least in the developed world, there are such transcendent joys, be they musical, narrative, intellectual, culinary, or personal, and most of our lives extend so close to their natural limits (which a futurist once told me is 85 +/- 7 on a bell curve) that we are within shouting range of that heaven on earth promised to us in the Bible.

Even if life does not progress, if the human race is never fully enlightened, assuming some great calamity befalls us, and we crawl back into the primordial ooze from which we sprang, this particular life, here and now, is a pretty brilliant one. So either our civilization is but a precursor to an enlightened age, one where the wolf lays down with the lamb, and we all eat milk and honey, or it is not, and things eventually collapse, which means that we, right now, are the glorious apex of a tortured but noble species, one that will be praised and lamented amongst the spheres. In either case, work hard my friends, and enjoy this life. Because we are something special.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

8 Bands That Changed My Life

If there was a motto that has carried me throughout my adult life, if might be something along the lines of: “What would Joe Strummer do?” Growing up, music was the only contemporary creative art that I really cared about. And looking back over the past 35 years, I think all us music geeks have been justified, because, at least as popular culture, it is about the only one its fans can look back on and feel good about. Take movies. Name the coolest movie stars over the past 30 years: John Cusack, Johnny Depp, Robert DeNiro... oh fuck it. Why do I even bother? They all end up being just a bunch of vacant assholes with a schtick. But we have been fortunate to grow up and old in a musical golden age.  

I’ve been reading James Fearnley’s excellent “Here Comes Everyone: The Story of the Pogues.” It has me thinking about those handful of bands that took my life by storm. And, as much as I like folks such as Tom Waits or Brian Eno, this list does not extend to individual singers, songwriters, or studio producers. I come from the culture of the band, where musicians bring their skills into a common space and create a unique sound, a sonic portrait of their world, where a collaboration is greater than its parts. It is a melding of the individual creativity of jazz within the structured melody of the song. I believe in this idea, heart and soul, even if it may no longer hold the cultural hegemony that it did 30 years ago.  

So I made a list of these bands. Or at least the ones that I still feel good about today. For instance, I left out the torrid love I once held for the Exploited, along with my transitory teen obsession with Led Zeppelin, and my 5th grade fascination with all things Wings. Here they are, in chronological order:  

Cheap Trick: I still remember the first time that I heard Cheap Trick. I had just moved into a room that my parents had built on the other end of the garage. It gave me the space to stay up late listening to music and doing other untoward things, making up for the fact that the room was repeatedly inundated by spiders. As a 16-year old boy, my two great musical obsessions were early 70’s heavy metal and mid-70’s funk. Late one Friday night, I had tuned into Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, excited to catch the Ohio Players, one of my favorite groups at the time. They shared the bill with Cheap Trick, who were still relative unknowns. It was an odd pairing, but an awesome one. Cheap Trick were in classic form, leaping, sweating, tossing guitar picks, belting out tunes from their first two albums, in particular the criminally underrated “In Color.” As good as the Ohio Players were that night, Cheap Trick were better. I became a huge fan. When “Heaven Tonight” came out later that year, I could usually get party DJs to play “California Man” even though it was the middle of the disco era. I would dance and dance to that song. I have loved this band ever since. 

Thin Lizzy: My first rock concert was to see Thin Lizzy at the Long Beach Arena. They were opening for Journey. It was my senior year of high school, and I went with five other friends from the marching band, all of whom were there to see Journey. It goes without saying that Thin Lizzy blew them away. They were awesome, even if most of the 12,000 folks that I shared the room with that night didn’t share my opinion. I love those dueling harmonic guitars. Phil Lynott could sing random names out of the phone book and somehow make it compelling. If I could have anyone sing a song that I wrote, it would have been Phil Lynott. But to the best of my knowledge, Thin Lizzy never covered “Life Like Yogi.”

The Clash: The Clash were my first punk band. They changed how I listened to music, as I chanted along to their songs: Garageland, Complete Control, Hate and War, etc. “I have the will to survive, I’ll cheat if I can’t win. If someone locks me out, I kick my way back in. And if I get aggression, I give it two times back. I don’t dream of a holiday, With hate and war on my back.” Their music was a poke in the eye to striving prep and self-satisfied hippy alike, and that made me happy. In October 1979, having recently left home for a dorm room in Sproul Hall, I caught the Clash concert at the Hollywood Palladium. I became part of the sweaty mob, chanting choruses, swinging elbows, sometimes lifted off the ground in mid-pogo by the undulating crowd. I went home that night a changed kid, the scales having fallen from my eyes. I felt reborn, like anything was possible, if only we had the courage to will it into life.    

X: I bought the first, self-titled X album the week it came out. I played that record to death. One night, I took the bus to West Hollywood to see X live at the Starwood. The Go Go’s opened. Both bands were great. And the fact that I could stand there, just feet from Exene, her eyes rolling back behind their lids as she sung the chorus to “When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch,” made their music that much more intimate and real to me. X was the first of my favorite bands from the L.A. scene. They were locals. Billy Zoom’s rockabilly riffs would be great from any stage, from the Anti-Club to the Rose Bowl. But the fact that I could practically touch his guitar, that I could almost taste John Doe’s sweat, made my fandom that much more sweet.

The Pogues: The first place that I saw the Pogues was in Paris, late in the summer of 1985. “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” had just been released, and I loved it. But Paris was a terrible place to attend your first Pogues concert. I was a drunken, chanting mess of a human being, and the Parisians at the concert hall gave me a wide berth. But hey, what’s the point in being a drunken mess if you can’t share this gift with others? That Pogues album became the soundtrack of my wandering trip through Europe. This was capped by seeing them again, this time at the Barrowlands Ballroom in Glasgow just before Christmas, where a couple thousand chanting Celtic fans swelled against the stage, and kids I’d never met before were coming up to me, shaking my hand, and telling me to “find Big Rick before you leave,” as apparently wearing a green-and-white Pogues beanie is not a safe thing to do when you leave a gig in a Rangers neighborhood, at least not unless you are paired up with Big Rick on your way out. I also saw the Pogues at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago on a hot June day back in 1988. I had just moved to town that spring, and the concert served as a christening of sorts, cementing my relationship with my new home. I went there with Patty, my Chicago Irish girlfriend, and her brother Billy. We drank Guinness in the back alley behind the Riv, in the heart of Uptown, sharing our beer with one of the local drunks. Then Spider Stacy got out of a cab and said hello to us on his way towards the backdoor of the club. I thought that anyplace where I can have moments like this is an alright place to live.

The Pixies: I will never forget the first time I heard “Gigantic.” I was working as a delivery driver while living at home with my parents, trying to save up enough cash to move out of town. I was listening to KUCI, the local college radio station, on my car stereo, driving into a multilevel parking lot to make my next delivery, when it came on the radio. I sat in the bowels of the cement parking structure with the radio blasting, mesmerized. I soon bought the first two Pixies records, first “Surfer Rosa” on cassette, and then their debut, “Come On Pilgrim,” on vinyl. Not long after that, I moved to Chicago. I saw the Pixies first at the Cubby Bear, then the following year at Metro, and then the following year at the Riviera, as they moved up the food chain. I also saw them twice in 2004 during their sold-out, five-night stint at the Aragon. Each concert was a gem in its own right. But if I had to pick one memory, it would be their show at Metro in the summer of 1989, during the “Doolittle” tour. I was tripping on mushrooms at the time, and the opening band, the Happy Mondays, were such a psychic monstrosity that I had gone into the corner of a back hallway and was pounding my head against the wall. Luckily, I stuck around for the Pixies, because they were in peak form. And where was my mind that night? Way out on the water, see it swimming?   

Joy Division: Whatever the revelations and enthusiasms of my proto-Gen X youth, our cultural zeitgeist stalled around 1990. Music, which for over a decade had seemed like the world to me, all of sudden looked like a cul-de-sac, a cultural dead end. For a while I thought that loud yet melodic walls of trippy guitar, bands such as Lush and My Bloody Valentine, heralded the sound of the future. But grunge and rave, hip hop and speed metal soon took most of the oxygen out of the room. And dance beats were replacing guitars as a vehicle for the musicians of the coming generation. So all that “music of the future,” which still used guitars and featured mostly angsty white folks with obscure complaints, started sounding more like the music of the past. I began listening to a lot of bands from around the planet, stuff that would soon be marketed as “world music.” But mostly I retrenched, immersing myself in the thousands of bands in the wave that came on the heels of punk. And slowly, Joy Division became the music of my interregnum. From their spare melody lines, carried by the bass, to the atmospheric guitar counterpoint, to Ian Curtis’s singing, vulnerable yet defiant, the band was a revelation, just one that took me about 20 years to realize.  

Sigur Ros: I had been waiting for contemporary classical music to come to pop. I saw no reason that Henryk Goreki or Arvo Part couldn’t break through into the mainstream, filling in the space that Brian Eno created with all of his ambient dreams. Actually, Phillip Glass did briefly fill that role, but it was a poor fit, as Glass’s music often seems like a forest of notes, devoid of emotion, providing little incentive for any stray pop fan who stumbled on one of his compositions from taking that next step into the classical world at large. Rather than bring contemporary classical music into the realm of pop, Sigur Ros came from the opposite direction, giving pop the tonal resonance of a classical performance. For the past six years, my wife and I have celebrated the new year by settling down with a bottle of champagne to watch “Heima,” or home, a documentary about a series of free shows that Sigur Ros gave as they toured the back roads of Iceland in 2005 with Anima, a string quartet. The film is a fine portrait of their music and a reflection of a particular place and time. The songs are gorgeous, and this is only enhanced by the idiosyncrasies of the people and the places where the band performs. I feel close to this music. Among other things, it is an expression of the four seasons, in particular the emotional wrestling that each of us face in these northern climes, and those moments of sublime reflection that result. As a voluntary migrant to the upper Midwest, Sigur Ros repeatedly reminds me why I am here.

Addendum: I returned to the world of contemporary music around 2005, feeling like the old guy coming from a different place and time. As an outside observer, it seems to me that most of the music scene these days is free from the shallow ideologies and tenancies of my day. For instance, there is little worry that you will get beat up for having the wrong haircut. Nowadays, kids don’t seem to care much about your label, and that is liberating. Musicians can use sound and melody for their own purposes, without worrying about whose camp they are in or if they will be accused of selling out. And I’ve really enjoyed a lot of contemporary music, from Silversun Pickups to the National. But a lot of it seems too clever by half, even the really good stuff. Music has become a useful accessory for active young lives, but it rarely comes across as urgent or necessary, like the Clash felt for me that night at the Palladium. Now, have the times changed, or is it me? I don’t know, but I cling to music as the voice of my time, the mathematical factoring of our essence, delivered to millions through the vibrations of the molecules in the air.      

Friday, August 17, 2012

All Hail Pussy Riot!

So the verdict has come down: Two years in the clink for the three band members of Pussy Riot, convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for singing their punk prayer, “Mother of God, Cast Putin Out” in an Orthodox cathedral. But of course, in another sense, Pussy Riot have already won, attracting more attention and sympathy from around the globe than all the other thousands of Russians who have been protesting the policies of Vladimir Putin combined.

Pussy Riot also demonstrate the ongoing vitality of punk rock, both as social statement and musical style. The current brouhaha over the band is part of a global phenomenon, the latest in a series of headlines where autocratic societies have attempted to squelch the musical voices of their youth. Last December, the Guardian reported on a drive by the police in Aceh,Indonesia to arrest local punk kids and have them undergo rehabilitation, which involves forcing them to have their hair cut, bathe in a lake, and pray to Allah. In March, the Huffington Post reported that at least 58 emo kids in Iraq had been murdered by Islamic militants, who perceived their lifestyle as “debauched” and potentially gay.  

As depressing as these headlines seem, they are also exhilarating, as they demonstrate that the enthusiasms of the young remain as unquenchable as ever. Green shoots continue to pop up in surprising places. And, some 35-years after its initial wave first took England, New York, and Los Angeles by storm, punk rock remains a potent voice for the voiceless.

I lamented the first great American heavy metal revival in the mid-1980’s, as it was a signal that the early wave of punk had run its course, that the angry young kids coming up behind us had chosen a different soundtrack for their rebellion. But, all these years down the road, it is now clear that contemporary youth cultures are accretive, that almost all of them get recycled, with a new one joining the mix every decade or so. Hippy, punk, rapper, rude boy, you name the subculture and the musical style, they will all return, often with a vengeance, in good time.

Unfortunately, right now, America seems to be recycling 1974. Everyone, even in the supposed “underground,” are grooving to overwrought ballads about the travails of love. It’s ubiquitous. I would point to The Airborne Toxic Event as exhibit number one, encapsulating the highhanded pretentiousness of the current age. I had hoped that long, self-important songs about the tortured relationship between sexual romance and one’s ego had gone out of style with Joni Mitchell. But add a loud guitar and some keyboards to the mix, along with a violin player or two, and you’ve got what amounts to probably 20% of the bands at this year’s Lollapalooza.

Pussy Riot give me faith that today’s kids, at least in some parts of our planet, still have the urgency to shout their yawp to the world, that they have more interesting things to sing about than perceived romantic slights and tawdry love affairs. So all hail Pussy Riot who, at least for the moment, might hold the Clash’s old title as “The Only Band That Matters.”   

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