Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Two Perfect Songs for New Year's Eve

The ride in on the bus this morning of New Year's Eve I was treated to "Head-And-Feet-Only-Man" which shuffled on my iPod. "Head-And-Feet-Only-Man" is off Mike Watt's 2011 album Hyphenated-Man, an homage to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.

"Head-And-Feet-Only-Man" is the perfect way to begin one's workday, any workday but particularly the last one of the year. "What a fucked up thing it is!" I don't think Hyphenated-Man has received the attention it deserves. It is a true Punk record.

Then after a suitably shitty day, a day where low spirits began to compress into anger, which gradually dissipated on the train ride home, another selection off Hyphenated-Man shuffled on my iPod as I strode up the escalator out of the station on my way into the night air, "Man-Shitting-Man":

Happy New Year.

House of Saud Destabilizes Lebanon

While taking in the final Sunday of regular season NFL action I finally got around to reading Dahr Jamail's devastating summary piece on the current predictions of some climate scientists who see a massive dying coming our way in the not-to-distant future because of huge releases of trapped methane and carbon as the Arctic permafrost thaws.

The dystopia presented by Jamail is a world where the places food is now grown will no longer be able to support crops. Most people will die and those remaining will migrate north and south to the Arctic and Antarctica. It is a dire forecast but one that is grounded in science. The only way to avoid further warming is to have a reduction in growth, something antithetical to the global capitalist order. So get ready for dystopia.

What is being peddled by the capitalists is "technology will save us." A book that has been recommended to me, one which I recently checked out at the library and plan to get started on this weekend, is Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think (2012) by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. It seems manifestly like snake oil to me, this idea that we can come up with a quick and dirty tech solution to global system failure brought on by a couple of centuries of industrial capitalism; but I'll report back once I read the book.

In any event, the Jamail piece has an impact on the way one looks at the world; it makes it hard to not look at the world as a Manichean. There are forces of dark and there are forces of light. The purveyors of darkness want to maintain the current corrupt capitalist world order with its extraction of wealth and plenty for the 1%. They are arrayed against the rest of us, who while currently benighted at least have a yearning (in various stages of consciousness) for a little peace and calm.

The United States as principal architect of our current doomed paradigm is the demiurge. But the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is stepping up its devilish activities to fill the void the shrinking hyperpower leaves as it pivots to Asia to confront China.

The latest installments in bloody Saudi skullduggery are in Lebanon. Anne Barnard, the Gray Lady's Beirut bureau chief, has a useful summary today, "Lebanon, Worried About Border, Fires on Syrian Helicopters in Its Airspace," of some of the recent spillover effects from the war in Syria. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently announced that it has made a $3 billion purchase of the Lebanese Army:
On Sunday, the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, said the government had accepted a $3 billion aid package for the army from Saudi Arabia, an amount believed to be larger than the country’s defense budget. 
The move was welcomed by some as a way to strengthen the army, which is facing a growing array of threats from militants inside Lebanon. But it was viewed as provocative by supporters of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group, who saw it as a bid to reduce the group’s influence over the army. Hezbollah, backed by Iran, supports the Syrian government, while Saudi Arabia is one of the main financiers of the Syrian insurgency. 
Speculation arose Monday that the army’s new assertiveness against the Syrian airspace violation was at Saudi Arabia’s bidding in response to the aid package. Security officials said it was policy to respond to any violation of Lebanese territory. The army has also pursued and killed Syrian insurgents on Lebanese territory in recent weeks, according to the official National News Agency.
Couple this with a rocket fired Sunday, likely by Al Qaeda, into Israel from Lebanon (not to mention the series of terror bombings in Beirut) and the prodigious shadows of the sheikhs become visible. Isabel Kershner reporting from Jerusalem yesterday had the story, "Rocket Fire From Lebanon Prompts Shelling by Israel":
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack on Sunday, though those in recent years generally appear to have been the work of small militant groups in Lebanon rather than of Hezbollah. 
In August, four rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel for the first time in two years. A militant group called the Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility. Israel responded to that attack by bombing what military officials here described as a “terrorist site” between the Lebanese cities of Beirut and Sidon. 
The Israeli defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, said Sunday that Israel would not tolerate fire from Lebanese territory and would use more force if necessary. “I do not recommend that anyone test our patience and our determination to preserve the security of Israeli citizens,” he said in a statement. 
Notwithstanding the heightened tensions and harsh talk, an Israeli expert said that neither Israel nor Hezbollah, which is embroiled in the civil war in Syria, had an interest now in a full-blown confrontation on the Israeli-Lebanese front. 
Aviv Oreg, a former head of the Al Qaeda and Global Jihad desk in Israel’s military intelligence department, told reporters that some kind of radical Islamic “global jihad” organization was probably behind the rocket fire on Sunday and that the attackers might have been trying to provoke Israel into retaliating against Hezbollah, since jihadist groups and Hezbollah are fighting on opposite sides of the conflict in Syria.
Nonetheless Netanyahu, working seamlessly per usual with his Saudi allies, blamed Hezbollah of war crimes.

As the planet pitches toward a methane burp of "great dying," the Saudis are moving full speed ahead with a "smash and grab" of the Middle East.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Where Monsters Dwell #19: The Insect Man

"The Insect Man" originally appeared in the Tales of Suspense #24 (December 1961). It is classic Silver Age science fiction by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kirby's art is beautiful, much stronger than Lee's story, which includes elements Lee uses elsewhere: a subterranean capsule and a "It must have all just been a dream" ending.

Where Monsters Dwell #19 (January 1973) is noteworthy because it features original cover art by the great Gil Kane, Marvel's go-to cover artist in the early Bronze Age.

In "The Insect Man" a U.S. Army sergeant is sent far underground in a space capsule as part of a preparedness program for a flight to the moon. The brass is worried about man's ability to survive long stretches alone. Putting a man in a capsule and dropping the capsule far below the surface of the earth is a way to gauge his suitability for space flight.

Once underground the sergeant is captured by a giant race of insects. He becomes a plaything for an adolescent giant insect. Right when the sergeant is about to be vivisected by the curious giant insects he makes his getaway. Back on the surface the military brass assure him that the giant insects must have been a hallucination brought about by his isolation.

These Lee-Kirby scifi stories from the early 1960s all seem very quaint now with their preoccupation with monsters from outer space or from deep underground. Nowadays science is far more scary than any fiction we could dream up. Take for example Dahr Jamail's "Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice," an article that appeared on TomDispatch.com earlier this month and that generated some interest. In it Jamail assesses the current predictions of some well-established climate scientists who are a little more pessimistic than their colleagues.

Jamail mostly focuses on what happens to the planet when the methane and carbon that is trapped in the Arctic are released into the atmosphere as the permafrost thaws, as it is now. Here is a sample:
How serious is the potential global methane build-up? Not all scientists think it’s an immediate threat or even the major threat we face, but Ira Leifer, an atmospheric and marine scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of the authors of the recent Arctic Methane study pointed out to me that “the Permian mass extinction that occurred 250 million years ago is related to methane and thought to be the key to what caused the extinction of most species on the planet.” In that extinction episode, it is estimated that 95% of all species were wiped out. 
Also known as “The Great Dying,” it was triggered by a massive lava flow in an area of Siberia that led to an increase in global temperatures of six degrees Celsius. That, in turn, caused the melting of frozen methane deposits under the seas. Released into the atmosphere, it caused temperatures to skyrocket further. All of this occurred over a period of approximately 80,000 years. 
We are currently in the midst of what scientists consider the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with between 150 and 200 species going extinct daily, a pace 1,000 times greater than the “natural” or “background” extinction rate. This event may already be comparable to, or even exceed, both the speed and intensity of the Permian mass extinction. The difference being that ours is human caused, isn’t going to take 80,000 years, has so far lasted just a few centuries, and is now gaining speed in a non-linear fashion. 
It is possible that, on top of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels that continue to enter the atmosphere in record amounts yearly, an increased release of methane could signal the beginning of the sort of process that led to the Great Dying. Some scientists fear that the situation is already so serious and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Worse yet, some are convinced that it could happen far more quickly than generally believed possible -- even in the course of just the next few decades.

Read Jamail's article. It is a clear-eyed appraisal of approaching system failure. Capitalism is of course killing us. We're not even listening to our scientists anymore. Here is how Jamail puts it:
Not surprisingly, scientists with such views are often not the most popular guys in the global room. McPherson [Guy McPherson, professor emeritus of evolutionary biology, natural resources, and ecology at the University of Arizona and a climate change expert of 25 years], for instance, has often been labeled “Guy McStinction” -- to which he responds, “I’m just reporting the results from other scientists. Nearly all of these results are published in established, esteemed literature. I don’t think anybody is taking issue with NASA, or Nature, or Science, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Those] and the others I report are reasonably well known and come from legitimate sources, like NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], for example. I’m not making this information up, I’m just connecting a couple of dots, and it’s something many people have difficulty with.” 
McPherson does not hold out much hope for the future, nor for a governmental willingness to make anything close to the radical changes that would be necessary to quickly ease the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; nor does he expect the mainstream media to put much effort into reporting on all of this because, as he says, “There’s not much money in the end of civilization, and even less to be made in human extinction.” The destruction of the planet, on the other hand, is a good bet, he believes, “because there is money in this, and as long as that’s the case, it is going to continue.”

Saturday, December 28, 2013

NFL Week 17: "Who is Going to Cure the Heart of a Man in Need?"

Another regular season draws to a close tomorrow. Once again we have traveled from September summer sunshine to the dark mornings of late December, and once again I am left wondering about the wisdom of planting myself hour after Sunday hour in front of the idiot box indulging in all the stress and bliss and passivity of being a fan of the National Football League.

I go through this every year, and every year I end up coming back -- to the TV, to my mattress on the floor, to my Hugg-a-Mars pillow propped beneath my head. I am a vision of the bachelor alone. But I keep coming back not because of the elixir of solitude that the NFL on television offers. I keep coming back because of community. Everyone watches the National Football League; or, if not everybody, a lot of people. There are even a number of women at work who watch the Seahawks. It is a way to attach oneself to his community -- to analyze the games on Monday morning with coworkers; to chat with a fellow competitor during a 5K race about an upcoming game; to compliment a young man on his beautiful knit dark-blue Seahawks cap (as I did on a run this morning). This is why every year I renew my commitment to watching all the games.

Right now on the NFL's web site, Seattle is shown as the top seed in the NFC. This of course is assuming a lot; it's prioritizing the numbers over the trend lines. The trend is that Seattle is faltering. Last week the Seahawks lost their first game at home with Russell Wilson starting at quarterback, and they have lost two out their last three. We could also mention that the Rams have won their last two, and that last year they came very close to beating a Seahawks team (that was much more potent offensively) in their home park. As for the 49ers, they are on a roll, peaking at just the right time. I don't see them losing to the Cardinals even if Arizona has the home-field advantage. I think Carson Palmer will toss some interceptions, and, unlike the Seahawks last week, Kaepernick will capitalize. Take the 49ers.

But back to the Rams-Seahawks game. I spoke with my uncle on Christmas Day. He was a high school quarterback in the San Jose area in the 1960s. He played at the same time and in the same league as Jim Plunkett and Dan Pastorini. He lives in Santa Cruz now and is of course a San Francisco fan. And while he thinks that Seattle has a dirty defense that relies on the black magic of the 12th Man (he also hypothesizes that the fan noise at CenturyLink Field is augmented electronically), he nonetheless feels that Russell Wilson is an incredible quarterback and a winner and that the Seahawks can win if they just leave Wilson enough time on the clock at the end of the game, something the defense was unable to do against both San Francisco and Arizona. Pete Carroll needs to keep his time-outs for the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.

This made me feel encouraged; that, and my uncle's assessment that Kellen Clemens is not a threat. The line on the Rams-Seahawks game is Seattle by ten. I don't know if the Seahawks cover, but I think they win the game, hopefully in a blowout. Take the Seahawks. They have a lot to prove after their performance against the Cardinals. I think they rise to the occasion.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Hippies vs. Punks: Richard & Linda Thompson's "Light(s)" Albums, Pt. 2, First Light

Hippie music, Hippie bliss. But not from a source one would expect. There's no Pacific Coast Highway Malibu to San Francisco coked-out, boozed-out self-indulgence to be found here (for that, see the Hippies vs. Punks post devoted to Rick Danko's solo debut). This is solid sonic strength from the young Sufi husband-&-wife team of Richard & Linda Thompson.

Produced at a time, 1978, when most Hippies had already given up fighting the Man and started to settle down and when the Punks, post-Pistols, were creating Post-Punk, First Light is an amazing record of the small but vibrant late 1970s Hippie vanguard.

To get a sense of what that anomaly looked like -- a Hippie vanguard as late as 1978-1979 -- consult Werner Herzog's films from this period, particularly Woyzeck (1979), but also Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979):

Those of you who have seen the DVD of Grizzly Man (2005) or enjoyed its soundtrack know that the Herzog-Thompson connection is not me merely being fanciful:

But back to First Light. It was the first album for Richard & Linda Thompson after a three-year recording hiatus. They had left behind Sufi-commune living but not Sufism. First Light is suffused with a spirituality of the type I was familiar with growing up as a Hippie kid.

I truly love this album. The back cover photo of the couple radiates power and beauty:

All ten album tracks soar, like "Strange Affair":

I even enjoy "Pavanne" now, which I didn't for a long time:

It reminds me of living in Ashland, Oregon in the late 1970s. My mother was a professional astrologer. I was just starting high school. My oldest sister, a teenage Hippie, lived nearby in the Applegate doing organic gardening. I didn't listen to the album at the time. I was listening to Mozart and Brahms and Bach. It took me another ten years to get to First Light. Then I was dealing with work and marriage and life in the Big Apple. Whenever I hear "Don't Let a Thief Steal Into Your Heart" I think about high-rise living/high-rise working and skyscraper sunshine, and of course my wife who was becoming a stranger.

But I'm pretty sure my sister listened to Richard & Linda Thompson back in the day. My Hippie sister who smelled always of garlic and patchouli oil, who wore rings on her toes and bells on her ankles, who went everywhere barefoot dressed in baggy sheer cotton pants and a brassiere-less blouse. I got to talk to her on Christmas Day. I asked her if she had enrolled in Obamacare. She runs a daycare out of her home now. She explained that she had not enrolled yet but will. Due to some tax payments owed to the state, she has to hold off until the new year. It was good to hear her voice. It has been a while.

Another film that captures the look and feel of the Hippie at the end of the 1970s is John Boorman's Excalibur (1981). In high school my best friend and I drove to Medford on a school night to see a late show thinking that it would be the best chance we had of making it into the 'R'-rated movie without being carded. We made it in.

I saw Excalibur again not too long ago. It had probably been 25 years since I saw it last. I found myself crying throughout the film, particularly the scene where Arthur goes to the convent to see Guenevere one last time and from beneath her tiny bed Guenevere pulls Excalibur -- the sword that the young Arthur had yanked out of the stone -- hands it to Arthur and says, "I've been keeping this for you."

I don't why this movie and that scene in particular reduces me to tears. I get weepy just thinking about it. But I suspect it has something to do with the disappearance of the Hippies. Very soon after the release of Excalibur the remnants of the Hippies vanish into New Ageism, and Richard & Linda Thompson record their last album together as a duo, Shoot Out the Lights (1982). Next week we will conclude with Shoot Out the Lights.

But in the meantime do yourself a favor. Find a copy of First Light and listen to it. What you will be hearing is the sound of the last Hippie vanguard.

The Colt 45 Chronicle #49

When I lived in Manhattan I always lived on the West Side and never more than a couple blocks from the tracks of the 'A' train. When I first arrived in New York City, my wife and I lived in married student housing on the campus of Columbia Presbyterian. After an aborted initial foray at a career-track position with the Foundation Center I made do with a series of temporary assignments secured by an employment agency. The agency's office was on 42nd Street and Madison Avenue. I would take the 'A' train from 168th Street, the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital stop, down to the Port Authority Bus Terminal stop at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue. Then I would head east by foot on 42nd Street through Times Square until I got to Madison Avenue.

At that time, the late 1980s, 42nd Street, from the bus terminal until you got to the theater ticket kiosk near the corner of  6th Avenue, was filled with street hustlers, peep show pornography shops, junkies and old steak houses. The strip of 42nd Street on either side of Times Square was the quintessence of urban blight. Like the last post of The Colt 45 Chronicle, this epistle narrates an episode having to do with criminal violence that I witnessed on 42nd Street.
Summer 1989
New York -- she is a big woman made out of subway track. She has a lot of pop, a lot of voltage, but it's only now and then. Most of the time she's just grating -- breaking you down, busting you up -- like Cracker Jacks spilled on concrete steps. She is especially mean in the morning; she makes you wear a noose around your neck. She makes you shave and paste and brush your teeth and comb and shower and ingest coffee. Oh, She is nasty alright. I was walking down 42nd Street the other day. I had got off the subway and was heading east to drop off a time slip at my employment agency on Madison Avenue when I sensed some of her electricity bristling the air.
I looked over to the other side of the street, and I saw a skinny black guy run up behind a fat black guy in an Adidas sweat suit. The skinny guy had a Coke can in his hand, and he poured it on top of the fat guy's head; except Coca-Cola didn't come out, fire did. -- The skinny guy had gasoline in the Coke can, gasoline he lit with a lighter, and he was pouring it down on top of the fat guy. The fat guy was all fire head to tail; he looked like a lion in the desert. He took off running -- sprinting -- due east. He shook off his sweat top. Lucky for him, that polyester really burns; it sat there like a cow pie on the sidewalk and burned and burned, and he just kept on running. He made a quick right into a 25-cent peep show house. He disappeared and everything became quiet.
After not too long a bunch of guys came jumping and elbowing out of the doorway. They stopped and looked back inside when they were out on the street. A black guy came up to me and asked, "Did you see that?" He had seen it too; he was just looking for someone to exchange comments with. I told him, "Yeah. That was cold."
Later, continuing my walk, I thought to myself, "Bad choice of terms. That was actually very hot." Everybody on the street was a-tingle. A real feeling of upness and openness and aliveness shot through everything. I felt it, but I could tell that the junkies and homeless and loveless and depraved on that block felt it much more because that stretch on 42nd Street between 7th Avenue and 8th Avenue is their living room; it was a feeling that what happened to the fat guy in the Adidas sweat suit could have happened to anybody on the block at anytime.
I waited and looked around, and sure enough out of the 25-cent peep house walked the fat guy. The fire was out and he looked okay. People gathered around, running from all directions. The Coke can was still burning, but you couldn't tell it was a Coke can any more; it might as well have been a generic beer can: it was all black and gray and white, burned to the color of a cinder (but it was still a cylinder). A junkie walked up and tapped it with his foot. That made him feel good. I started walking east again.
I'm shifting away from the Coors and moving to the Colt 45. I buy quart bottles here in New York (that's the best value). Colt 45 is brewed in Wisconsin. So I don't feel so bad about refusing Golden, CO. Sunday and Monday nights are my sobriety nights, and from there on out I try to keep it going. It's tough. When I get home from work I say to yourself, "There's no way I'm drinking tonight." But then I watch the last half of the 6 o'clock news and give myself a little time to think, dinner resting under belt, and I manage somehow. By the time 9 o'clock has rolled around I've already been down to the deli and three or four quarts are cooling in the fridge. I tell you, it's the only thing good and interesting in my life. Ashley doesn't think so. As for work, that's a big joke. You can proofread better hungover than well slept. 
Greg, needless to say, I miss you. You know now, if you're ever out on the East Coast here you really got to pay us a visit. We'd put you up majestically. You'd get your own futon, and for as long as you wanted. All the above goes for Tresca too. Ashley and I are carrying on very nicely these days, and I know the city satisfactorily.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Gray Lady's "Pussy" Hypocrisy

These days reading newspaper coverage of Russia, particularly of Russian President Vladimir Putin, one could easily think that somehow the Cold War, minus communism and the Red Army, has returned.

The two remaining members, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, of the Punk performance group Pussy Riot were released yesterday after the Duma approved an amnesty bill. This provided another golden opportunity for the Western media to congratulate itself on its superior values: its purported championing of homosexuality and iconoclastic forms of artistic expression in opposition to the atavistic, traditionalist, authoritarian Putin.

This is of course a lie. Elites in the West could give a rat's ass about Pussy Riot's right to express themselves. If the Russian Punk collective had been in the United States during Occupy performing at any of the encampments spread throughout the country they would have been the subject of surveillance and security sweeps like everyone else. But as exemplars of Putin's gulag they are indispensable.

No better example of the West's rank hypocrisy can be found than Ben Ratliff's review of a Hardcore Punk show at NYU earlier this month. The Gray Lady cannot even bring herself to print the word "pussy" when it comes to describing the set performed by up and coming band Perfect Pussy from Syracuse:
The Internet has also been central to the quick rise of that band with the unprintable name, led by the singer Meredith Graves, and not just because of what that name, a good gender-studies provocation, turns up online. In less than a year — and with the release of only a four-song cassette, “I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling” — it has become identified as the next crucial punk band to know about, a distinction that Ceremony and White Lung have already passed through.
It is permissible to plaster "Pussy Riot" all over the frontpage of the paper of record, but it is not permissible to print "Perfect Pussy" in a small Saturday Arts section review of a college campus Hardcore show. It is so bizarre it is laughable.

The Gray Lady champions artistic expression in Russia but it can't seem to utter its name here in the homeland.

Monday, December 23, 2013

You Don't Want to Say It, but . . .

Yesterday the dream died at CenturyLink Field when Arizona administered a 17-10 drubbing of Seattle, its first home loss in two years. To be sure, the Cardinals are an excellent team. They have ten wins. But who loses at home, let alone the home of the ballyhooed 12th Man, after picking off the visiting quarterback four times? I'll tell you who. A team with a weak offense. And it was on display yesterday. No speed -- at running back, at the wideouts -- and a quarterback who has trouble seeing downfield. Seattle hasn't been able to move the ball consistently since the first half of the game against the 49ers at Candlestick. And really you would have to look to the game prior to that one, the Monday night demolition of the New Orleans, to find a game where Russell Wilson was in command.

It is not as if there haven't been warning signs. Though Seattle shares the best record in the NFL at 12-3 with Denver, the Seahawks have been the recipients of an amazing amount of good luck this season. Going through their schedule, five games jump out, starting with the season opener road win at Carolina, that easily could have gone the other way. Wins against Carolina, Houston, Tennessee, St. Louis, Tampa were gifts. Turn it around and chalk them up as losses and you're looking at a team that is struggling to end the season at .500.

But Seattle didn't lose those games. The Seahawks kept winning even when they should not have. This created an aura of invincibility locally. You had people coming out of the woodwork to hop aboard the band wagon.

I got off the train downtown after work one Friday night. There was some sort of high school Christmas caroling competition. Pine Street was blocked off to vehicle traffic. Everyone was sporting Seahawk gear. Parents, children, shoppers. It was noteworthy.

At first I was skeptical about Seattle's good fortune, telling a coworker, "You don't want to rely on luck to win games because luck usually runs out by the time you get to the playoffs." But it is hard not to sample the Kool-Aid when your team has the best record in the NFL and your quarterback has never lost at home and it looks certain that the road to the Super Bowl is going to have to travel through Seattle.

And that's what came crashing down yesterday afternoon. The logic that has driven Seahawks fans this season -- as long as we keep winning, we'll secure home field for the playoffs; we secure home field for the playoffs, we're going to the Super Bowl -- was shown to be faulty. The Seahawks led by Russell Wilson can be beat at home. Arizona proved it. The Cardinals did it with a gimpy cast-off quarterback who threw four interceptions.

Arizona did it with defense. The Cardinals stacked the line of scrimmage but also dropped some linebackers into coverage. Seattle receivers were not able to win the one-on-one battles and Russell Wilson was not able to make the throws.

Now, as I see it, a team very similar to the Cardinals, the St. Louis Rams, comes to town on Sunday and, once again, we'll most likely need luck to beat them. The St. Louis defensive line is even better than the Cardinals' and Zac Stacy is a running back who hurt Seattle last time the teams played.

Even if the Seahawks win and get the first-round bye and home-field advantage, Toto in the form of Calais Campbell has pulled the curtain back and exposed Oz. There is nothing at the end of the rainbow. For those of us in the Emerald City who have been assuring each other that "It is our year," Sunday offered a night of fitful sleep.

And herein is the silver lining. Better to be unencumbered of fantasy with one game to go in the regular season. Better to acknowledge that the Seahawks have talons of clay prior to the playoffs. Now, after yesterday, one cannot be blindsided.

This Seattle team is not the juggernaut that at the end of last year racked up multiple 50-point wins on its way to the playoffs. This Seattle team is not nearly as good as the Holmgren team, the 2005 Seahawks, that lost to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. This Seattle team, truth be told, is merely a better-than-average team that has found a way to win with an aging power running game, a small quarterback, and no number one wideout. There is some peace in accepting one's limitations.

In a way a loss to St. Louis, another loss at home, which would force Seattle on the road in the playoffs as a wild card, assuming San Francisco wins its final two games, would be a fitting way to enter the playoffs. It would likely entail a trip to Green Bay or Chicago, one that would atone for all the lucky bounces that benefited the team in the regular season. It would mean a long, suffering road to New Jersey. But after the dark, despondent Sunday this bachelor -- a victim once more of emotional transference to the home team -- just went through, I don't think there can be any other way.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Where Monsters Dwell #20: Klagg! Whirlwind of Destruction in the Name of Peace

I started these Where Monsters Dwell posts on a lark. I grabbed a handful of comics from out of a box in the closet where I keep an old comic collection to see how well aged and yellowing newsprint that comics used to be printed on scanned. The title I happened to grab was Where Monsters Dwell, a Bronze Age reprint series of Silver Age Marvel science fiction and horror primarily featuring the work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby from the early 1960s.

I began with Where Monster Dwell #21 -- the issue that reprinted from Strange Tales #89 (October 1961) Marvel's most famous pre-superhero Silver Age monster, Fin Fang Foom! -- and worked my way up to Where Monsters Dwell #29. I took a break last weekend because I didn't have Where Monsters Dwell #30 and was unable to locate it online at Atomic Avenue. I was able to purchase several issues that preceded Where Monsters Dwell #21. So let's start working backwards from #21.

Where Monsters Dwell #20 (March 1973) is special because it features original cover art from the superhistoric Jim Starlin: rejuvenator of Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock; creator of Thanos, Drax the Destroyer and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu:

Starlin took some liberties. The cover depicts a monstrous robot named Klagg delivering a beat-down on some GIs at the behest of an evil alien. In the Lee-Kirby story -- "Klagg! His Mission: Destroy Mankind!" originally appearing in Tales of Suspense #21 (September 1961) -- Klagg is the egg-headed alien who travels in a high-tech, clean-powered, wind-generated, robot-looking spaceship. Starlin for purposes of a suitably alluring Bronze Age cover turns the spaceship into a killer robot named Klagg!

"Klagg! His Mission: Destroy Mankind!" is another Lee-Kirby Cold War yarn. A highly-evolved alien lost in space lands on earth to get his bearings. Immediately there is competition among adversarial nations to acquire the amazing technology that powers Klagg's spaceship. When Klagg discovers that the people of Earth still believe in war he sets out to annihilate the planet so its bellicose contamination can't spread to the rest of the galaxy. A wealthy ne'er-do-well and his girlfriend elicit a reconciliation of Cold War foes by pretending to have stolen the blueprints of Klagg's futuristic, powerful spaceship and the secret to its propulsion. The combined military might of all nations face Klagg in a united naval force. Klagg is impressed by humanity's ability to cooperate and exits Earth.

Most of these Silver Age Lee-Kirby Cold War stories are the same. An alien, a monster of some sort, arrives from outer space and threatens the good, law-abiding folk with destruction. Somehow, like the loafing one-percenter in "Klagg!" who miraculously discovers his own maturity and saves the day, doom is averted in the last few panels.

People in the early 1960s were terrified that the Cold War was going to turn hot and incinerate the planet. Then you had the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 followed by the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty a year later and there was a bit of a thaw.

When you have that kind of tension, an inside and an outside are clear. Aliens -- outsiders -- are bad. Social cohesion is a must. Cultural conservatives would love to return to the days of the Cold War when it was widely understood who was on the inside and who -- "subversives" -- needed to be kept out. But those days aren't coming back. Bush tried following 9/11. "You're either with us or against us." But the enemy this time, Al Qaeda, not only doesn't stack up to the Soviet Union, it is actively maintained by our historic ally and owner of the largest petroleum reserves on the planet, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless the national security state has grown and without a political renaissance of huge scale will continue to grow out of all proportion.

We need Klagg and his wind-powered spaceship to pay us a visit.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Moved by Kid Creole and the Coconuts

I finally made it on a jog a little before noon this first day of winter. Usually I am out before 8 AM on Saturday, but today I woke late and got started on entering into Quicken a backlog of monthly statements from my brokerage accounts in anticipation of the approaching end of year.

On my iPod I have loaded the soundtrack from Downtown 81, the underground film starring Jean-Michel Basquiat wandering around hipster Post-Punk Lower Manhattan. (I have posted one other time on Downtown 81.)

While starting up the backstretch in a light mist, feeling much better than I anticipated since I have significantly reduced the amount of running I do during the week, I listened to "Mr. Softee" by Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

I have heard the song several times and took note of it before, but today I was particularly struck by its edginess and funkiness, sort of a Punk discotheque sheet-of-flame on the pitfalls of "hooking up." Kid Creole and the Coconuts' heyday was the early 1980s, as the clip from Saturday Night Live proves.

After Physics

When one lives alone, as well as enjoys a life unencumbered by the dynamics of a romantic relationship, it is very easy to see the animality that undergirds all our actions. We are creatures ruled by appetite. This simple truth is somehow obscured when in the company of others. It must have something to do with projection, how our ability to communicate and cooperate provides an ideational curtain on the id; hence, metaphysics, not in the traditional Aristotelian sense of a study of the ultimate nature of reality, but metaphysics in the literal sense of "after physics."

Today is the the first day of winter. Last Saturday I woke up with the worried thought that my waning testosterone is being depleted all the more rapidly due to the environment at work. The overwhelming majority of my coworkers are post-menopausal women. There are only two young women. Haven't there been studies done that show that men frequently around children have lower testosterone levels? Well, I'm throwing it out there that for a guy to be around a bevy of non-fertile females his testosterone is going to take a hit. Which all in all shouldn't be a big deal, it is just that I'm pushing 50, an age when the loss of muscle mass and stamina becomes apparent.

This worry from last weekend was coupled with a workweek epiphany that went something like this:
We are just animals. And you know what happens to animals? They die.
We mistake consciousness, which is collective, with our individual identity, which we cannot imagine life without. 
But it will disappear. Not to worry though. Identity is not identical to consciousness. 
When we die and lose our identity this does not necessarily entail a lose of consciousness.
It should be interesting.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hippies vs. Punks: Richard & Linda Thompson's "Light(s)" Albums, Pt. 1, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

"The way up and the way down is one and the same."
Heraclitus, Fragment 60, Diels: Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker

Each week on Friday I have a Hippies vs. Punks post. The idea is to take a band, usually an album from that band, immerse myself in it during the work week, and then report back at week's end. I have chosen the period from 1975 to 1979, the time the Hippies, the main motor of the '60s cultural revolution in the West, give up the ghost and slink off the center stage and the Punks take over. ("The king is gone but he's not forgotten/This is the story of Johnny Rotten.") Nineteen-seventy-five to 1979 is the main focus -- particularly the years 1977 and 1978 -- but I allow myself to roam free both before and after. For instance, a number of posts have dealt with 1970 -- bombing of Cambodia, Kent State nationwide campus riots, the Cincinnati Pop Festival.

In any Present Age there is more than one avant-garde, perhaps a counter avant-garde or contra-garde. As the Punks assumed the cultural vanguard in the middle 1970s and the Hippies split into miscellaneous camps -- hard rock, glam, prog rock, etc. -- some Hippies kept fighting the good fight. Richard Thompson, a co-founding member and lead guitarist for folk rock giants Fairport Convention, and his wife Linda were two of those Hippies.

No truer statement of the facts of life can be found than Richard & Linda Thompson's debut album, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. It is a rich sonic narcotic, easily one of the greatest albums of all time (though it only squeaks in at number 471 on Rollings Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list).

Recorded quickly and on the cheap in the spring of 1973, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight went unreleased until the following spring owing partly to Island Records executives' discomfort with the Thompsons' bleak existentialism and aversion to celebrity, but also due to a vinyl shortage resulting from the Arab oil embargo.

Thompson had become reacquainted with Linda Peters, a session singer, while the two worked on his solo debut, the fantastic and underappreciated Henry the Human Fly (1972). That album took a brutal and undeserved hazing from the music press which no doubt instilled some bitterness and self-doubt in Thompson, a guy who was already shy. After Thompson marries Linda (October of 1972) and the two become a duo, she becomes the frontman. Her beauty is electric.

While I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight received some decent reviews, mostly it was ignored when finally released by Island in 1974. By then Richard and Linda had become Sufis, the esoteric branch of Islam that is the polar opposite of the Salafi movement that is having such a violent, transformative effect on the Middle East today. Their next two albums, Hokey Pokey (1975) and Pour Down Like Silver (1975), are both recorded while the Thompsons are living in a Sufi commune in East Anglia; following Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver, they retire from the music industry for several years; they return with First Light (1978), which will be the subject of next week's Hippies vs. Punks post.

So I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight really stands by itself. Even though Hokey Pokey shares some similarities and is a great album, it doesn't hang together, it doesn't resonate as an organic unity like Bright Lights. Bright Lights is a masterpiece, plain and simple. It is a profound Hippie assessment of the world after the last rays of light from the Summer of Love have disappeared. It is a winter's album. Cold, dark, harrowing. It is a tribute to secularism and existentialism. The stories are of work and suffering. No greater tandem of songs to end an album can be found than "The End of the Rainbow," which Thompson wrote for his newborn daughter! and "The Great Valerio":

I embraced this album when I left the university and moved to New York City with my wife so she could attend medical school (a period I regularly explore with the "The Colt 45 Chronicle" posts). We played Bright Lights a lot, introduced it to friends who went out and got copies for themselves. It spoke to all of us because we were about the same age as the Thompsons -- early to mid-twenties -- when they recorded it, and we were confronting the same bleak themes. The reality of what life looks like in your middle twenties when you're just starting to travel the long road of work, marriage, survival is crushing. It says something that a beautiful young Hippie couple could create an aural document more devastating and stark than anything the Punks ever came up with.

Do yourself a favor. Get the album. "The Calvary Cross" is one of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs of all time. And if you get a chance, check out the compact documentary the BBC did on Richard Thompson, Solitary Life:

Yesterday morning at work sitting at my desk I came across this video of Thompson performing "The Calvary Cross" with a young band, Dawes, about whom I know little. Looking up from where I sit, through one of the windows, I can see the Comfort Inn next door. In the window of the Comfort Inn I saw, barely, the form of a cleaning lady making a bed, and I wondered if it was the pretty young Latina who I ride the bus with in the morning and who works at the Comfort Inn and who I suspect is undocumented since she will never cross against the light even if there is no traffic for as far as the eye can see. Then I thought about the time when I worked in the north tower of the World Trade Center, a time when I survived on a steady diet of Richard and Linda Thompson, a time when I broke up with my wife. I thought about the brilliant blue sky and looking up at the towers of the World Trade Center from the courtyard below and how I entered the building and began my shift.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

NFL Week 16: Go with the Home Teams in the Big Match-Ups

I have to apologize for the generally low quality of my NFL posts. Last year I seemed to have a little bit more mojo working. This year because I sneak them in right before starting work at 9 AM they've been pro forma "picks" of what I deem to be important upcoming games. At least that is what I have been doing for the last couple of months. Prior to that I was providing a rundown of what I thought was the significant action from the prior week.

In any event, apologies, and here comes another rushed set of picks.

There are a lot of big games this Sunday and none is bigger than New Orleans at Carolina with the division on the line. The Saints plastered the Panthers in the Superdome a couple weeks back, exposing the profound weakness in the Carolina offense: Cam Newton has no serious downfield, long-bomb catching receiving threat. With New Orleans on the road the outcome should be reversed. Look for the Panthers offense to dominate the game with its rushing attack. Pick the Panthers.

Other big games include Indianapolis at Kansas City, Arizona at Seattle, Chicago at Philadelphia and New England at Baltimore. I'm going with the home team in each of these match-ups.

The Seahawks pass rush seems a little speedier on home turf. Carson Palmer's immobility will hurt the Cardinals; that, and Rashard Mendenhall is not the type of young, speedy tailback that usually hurts the Seahawks. Assuming there is not some sort of first-ever catastrophic meltdown by Russell Wilson, I am confident that Seattle wins this game and thereby sews up the division not to mention home field throughout the playoffs.

A Message from the Saudi Ambassador

His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud wrote an opinion piece, "Saudi Arabia Will Go It Alone," that apparently appeared yesterday in the New York Times (I get the national edition of the paper delivered to my home and I didn't see it on the Op-Ed Page) that is being highly cited on the Internet. In it Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, a Georgetown and Harvard educated Saudi ambassador to England, indulges in a ham-handed, dated, tone-deaf attack on the West's reluctance to militarily topple the Syrian government.

The Saudi prince's argument goes something like this: Evil Iranian forces are coursing through the country of Syria raping and pillaging its innocent civilians while the evil head of state Bashar al-Assad gleefully chortles and grunts in a pool of his people's blood; the indecisive Western colossus cravenly looks on, citing the threat of Al Qaeda as a reason for its inaction; therefore, the world can expect the heroic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to rise to the occasion and restore peace, tranquility and order to the Middle East.

The whole editorial is laughable if it wasn't so mendaciously perverse -- a dark, warped pre-school cartoon version of reality. It is the Saudis and their generous funding of Wahhabi and Salafi fighters in Iraq and Syria who are destabilizing the region.

Who does the prince think he will persuade? The American people? No, your average American in all his or her benighted smart phone confusion is not a friend of the House of Saud; he/she never got past the fact that the overwhelming composition of the 9/11 hijack team was Saudi. Nor did your average American ever forgive and forget that while all flights were grounded in the United States following the attacks select Saudi nationals were allowed to jet out of country. Then there is also the unpleasant fact that Saudi Arabia is a despotic monarchical kleptarchy where public floggings are still common and driving while female is a dangerous subversion of the state. No, for your average American a visage like that of Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud conjures up evil spirits.

The Saudis know all this. Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud's opinion piece is aimed at an audience whose attention the Kingdom commands, the governmental elites in Western capitals dependent in one form or another on the largesse of the Gulf sheikhdoms. The message will be loud and clear: The jihad in Iraq and Syria will continue; the region will continue to be destabilized; a caliphate will be erected.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Vlad Trumps the West Once Again

Yesterday at the Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a financial aid agreement between their two nations. Russia will purchase $15 billion in Ukrainian bonds and provide a 33% discount on natural gas exports. The Putin deal is better than anything the EU and IMF can offer. The EU and IMF, before abandoning negotiations with Yanukovich, were pushing for Ukraine to raise the price of natural gas and cut the salaries of public workers. The muted response from protesters occupying Kiev's Independence Square is proof once again of Putin's political skill. Andrew Kramer and David Herszenhorn have the story, "Ukraine’s Prime Minister Hails Deal With Russia":
It was a bold but risky move by Russia, given the political chaos in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where thousands of demonstrators remain encamped on Independence Square, protesting their government’s failure to sign political and free trade accords with Europe, which had been seen as an alternative to the Russian deal. 
The protest continued on Wednesday much as it has in previous days, but seemed in a state of drift. Fires in drums burned in the central streets and square and protesters occupied three large buildings, including City Hall. Protest leaders, speaking on Tuesday evening, announced no new actions on the street to counter the government’s defiance of their demands.
The Putin deal eviscerates the opposition, who are now threatening to block the agreement in the Ukrainian Parliament, because protesters will be unable to avoid the unfavorable spotlight of protesting for austerity, something that makes no sense other than as a form of quasi-religious public self-flagellation. And make no mistake, this is what Europe has to offer. The Gray Lady's anti-Putin Kramer and Herszenhorn can barely conceal their resentment:
While Mr. Putin portrayed Russia’s assistance as a gallant move, requiring Ukraine neither to commit to the customs union nor to put in place any of the austerity measures demanded by the I.M.F., the rescue plan carries serious long-term economic and political risks. Experts say that unless Ukraine carries out overhauls, including increases in household utility rates, limits on government spending and pension increases, and improvements in the business climate, the country’s economic problems will continue, raising the likelihood that the aid will be wasted.
For an idea of what is in store for Ukraine should Yanukovich accept a deal with the IMF and sign an association agreement with the European Union all one has to do is scan the coverage surrounding Irish premier Enda Kenny's Sunday night announcement that Ireland was exiting after three years its IMF-EU engineered bailout. A particularly good story was in the New York Times itself. Written by Liz Alderman and appearing last week, "Hardships Linger for a Mending Ireland" is chock full of statistics regarding austerity's impact on Ireland's economy, but it also contains vivid accounts of the everyday travails of a guy like John Donovan who lost his hardware business, got retraining, but still has to shoot pigeons and grill them on an outdoor barbecue to get by. According to Alderman:
As the austerity measures have played out, the number of people in need has jumped. Homelessness is up nearly 20 percent since 2010. A study by Growing Up in Ireland tracking 11,000 families with young children found 67 percent could not afford basic necessities, and were behind on utility bills, rent and the mortgage. 
Consumer spending has been flat. Through the end of the third quarter this year, 18.5 percent of homeowners had missed a mortgage payment and 12.5 percent were three months or more behind on their repayments, according to the central bank. Half of all loans to small- and medium-size business are also in arrears. 
More than 200,000 of Ireland’s population of 4.6 million have emigrated since 2008. Youth unemployment is 28 percent. Over 60 percent of job seekers have been out of work for a year or more. And 20 percent of children now live in households where neither parent works, the highest rate in the European Union.
This is what signing an association agreement with Europe entails, something you won't find in the "think" pieces written by Gray Lady apparatchiks like Bill Keller who Monday penned a lengthy tirade, "Russia vs. Europe," against a Stalinist, homophobic, atavistic Putin bent on dominating Ukraine. Keller treats the pitfalls of joining Europe in the following two sentences: "It is true that during the recent years of recession and austerity Europe has lost some of its dazzle. But it is still more alluring than Ukraine’s threadbare economy, presided over by an ineffectual and corrupt governing class."

Keller should read his own paper.