Friday, January 31, 2014

Hippies vs. Punks: Life at the Millennium, Pt. 2, Neko Case

Last week I went to see a "Living Room Show" by Richard Buckner. The last time prior to that (other than seeing some bands perform at Westlake Mall during Occupy Seattle) I had seen some live music was when Neko Case performed at the Paramount Theater in support of her Middle Cyclone (2009) album.

What I remember about that show is that Neko Case's drummer used brushes a lot; that, and there were a lot of women in attendance; all kinds, shapes and sizes. But it was apparent that the one thing that the women had in common was that they wore the pants. There were a lot of dykes, but straight couples were the majority. The male of the pair, I noted, seemed to fill what has in the past been termed the "traditional"  (but which is now considered anachronistic) feminine role -- soft, demure and second-in-command. Somehow the observer managed to exclude himself from his observation. I probably should not have.

This is life at the millennium. As the Western world has de-industrialized according to its neoliberal orthodoxy service work has become the main engine of employment. Women are more heavily represented than men in this sector of the economy. While it is still a man's world at the top of the pyramid, at the pyramid's base it most definitely is not; here, it is a woman's world.

Like Richard Buckner, Neko Case released a new album last September, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. It is a strong record, just as good and maybe better than the commercially successful Middle Cyclone. There are several dynamite tracks. At the top of the post I have included two of them, "Night Still Comes" and "Ragtime."

Neko Case is a product of the Pacific Northwest. She spent her formative years in Tacoma and Vancouver, B.C., where she earned a BFA at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. Case is tattooed with the title of the Emily Carr painting Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky:

Being motherless and fatherless is a big theme in Case's work. She left home at 15 and apparently remained estranged from her parents until they passed away recently.

Case is at root a Punk. She got her start in music drumming in Punk bands. Now she comes off more as a Hippie, which is fine by me. Her songs muse about animals and Mother Earth. Case is an example of how a current avatar of the avant-garde is a Hippie-Punk hybrid. You get the hard-edge of the Punk without the clownish ostentation; you get the superior metaphysics of the Hippie without the starry-eyed phoniness.

My favorite Neko Case records are the ones she made before she started to realize some commercial success with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006), and those are Furnace Room Lullaby (2000) and Blacklisted (2002). Here one can listen to what was the breeding ground of Neko Case's current mature Hippie-Punk hybridization -- the rockabilly ferment of the Bush v. Gore millennium.

By the middle to late 1990s and into "the aughts" the rockabilly guy -- steel-toed boots and motorcycle wallet chain -- with his Bettie Page gal are the new Hippies, the new Punks. Constituents of an urban bohemia, these are our artists, our craftsmen, our chefs and waitresses. People who work and suffer and try to find time to pursue creative endeavors, to do something that means something. This is what Neko Case's Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted are all about.

At the millennium, we have no future other than the future of more war and less material security. We are forlorn and disposable. We have to find the hope -- hope is the anchor -- and the focus to keep struggling to do better and be better.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

NFL Week 22: Super Bowl XLVIII

The official wisdom as conveyed by Bleacher Report has Denver beating Seattle in this Sunday's Super Bowl by a score of 31 to 23. The betting line is Denver minus three, which means that the line has moved a half-point away from Seattle since it was first announced following the dramatic Seahawks victory over the 49ers in the NFC Championship.

The thinking is that in a contest that features the best defense (Seahawks) against the best offense (Broncos) the game will come down to how well the Seattle offense does against the Denver defense. I think this is the right way to look at it. But where the analysts at Bleacher Report think that the Broncos defensive line led by Terrance Knighton will be up to the task of shutting down Marshawn Lynch, I foresee that the Golden Bear running back who got his NFL start playing in frigid Buffalo will find some holes and crack off some good runs. Lynch will have a pair of fresh, powerful legs from two weeks between games. As a fellow working man who I spoke with in the Starbucks queue this morning said, "If Marshawn Lynch gets 100 yards, we win." I agree.

The argument against this is that Denver has already in the playoffs shut down prodigious ground games of San Diego and New England. But I would argue that the Chargers were without the services of their premiere tailback Ryan Mathews (he ran the ball only a few times in the first half before going to the sidelines with a bad ankle), while the Patriots gave up on using LeGarrette Blount before the second quarter was finished. This will not be the case in East Rutherford on Sunday. The additional wrinkle that the Denver defense will have to account for is a quarterback, Russell Wilson, who can run. Darell Bevell will undoubtedly script some quarterback runs in his offensive game plan. Percy Harvin  is another X-factor in Seattle's favor.

Finally, there is the ultimate X-factor that favors Seattle: Turnovers. The Seahawks defense, whether through strip-sacks or picks, consistently generates turnovers. Peyton Manning throws a lot of balls. Seattle will force turnovers and their defense very well may even put points on the board. This, combined with a Seahawks offense potent enough to keep Manning on the sidelines for clock-chewing chunks of time, leads me to advise you to take the Seahawks as the next Super Bowl Champions!

Geneva II Propaganda Campaign

If you are a reader of the New York Times and you are interested in the war being waged in Syria the reporter you have been hearing from is Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard. At almost all times in the stories she writes Barnard sticks to the same cartoon-simple theme as peddled by the U.S. State Department: the war in Syria is entirely the fault of President Bashar al-Assad; he brutally repressed a peaceful democratic uprising, which then morphed into a sectarian region-wide war. Throughout her reporting any role played by the foreign-funded salafi groups -- the main military force fighting the Syrian Arab Army -- is consistently downplayed to the status of a footnote while Lebanon's Hezbollah is played up.

In other words, it is difficult to detect a difference between what Anne Barnard says and what the U.S. State Department says. Is she an employee of the USG? She might as well be.

One place where Barnard did stray off the reservation was in her evolving contempt for the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army. Around the time of the aborted U.S. missile strike following the Ghouta sarin attack, Barnard washed her hands, so to speak, of the opposition in exile.

But no more. If you've been reading Barnard's dispatches from Switzerland, you know that the Syrian rebel group is back in her good graces. Barnard has regularly feted opposition coalition members who are participating in the Geneva II peace talks for their disciplined calm and focused message. At the same time, Barnard mocks the representatives of the Syrian government for their brittleness, mendacity, anger, etc.

Reading Barnard's stories of the last few days, such as "At Neutral Site, Syrians Feel Free to Confront the Other Side" or "After Shaky Beginning, Sides Report Progress at Syria Peace Talks," one sees a skillful propagandist at work.

Take today's offering, "Syrian Opposition’s Calm at Talks Surprises as Officials Falter."

The best that could be achieved coming out of Geneva II from the perspective of the West and its Sheikhdoms is some form of rehabilitation for its proxies in the Syrian National Coalition. The last six months have been rough on the rebels. Public opinion in the West is totally against any involvement. And that is the entire reason that the Syrian National Coalition exists -- to justify Western military intervention a la Libya.

But the public impression in Syria and abroad is that the Western-backed opposition is a group of hired clowns. According to Barnard,
A more immediate goal for the coalition is to increase support within the broader opposition. Some longtime critics of the group say that with Geneva it has begun, in small ways, to repair its image inside Syria as a hapless, hotel-hopping “five-star opposition” that does not represent the people fighting or suffering on the ground. 
“The coalition was able to counter that perception because of their strong stance opposite the weak and sometimes incoherent regime delegation,” said Amal Hanano, a Syrian-American writer who uses a pseudonym to protect family members in Aleppo. “The regime delegation seems unorganized and fractured when that was what people expected from the coalition.”
Barnard dutifully puffs up the coalition. That was the positive part of the propaganda. The negative part was to sow dissension between the Syrian and Russian governments by stating that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was displeased with the conduct of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during his opening statement (Moallem's opening statement is the only thing that seems to be discussed in the Western media):
Numerous Western diplomats and opposition delegates said that during the opening speeches last week in Montreux, Switzerland, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, sat with a pained expression and even tapped his watch as Syria’s foreign minister spoke and sparred with the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. 
“We were embarrassed,” said a Russian Foreign Ministry representative who was there. But she played down the significance of the watch tap, saying that perhaps all the Syrians should have had more time to speak.
Barnard also sought to sow dissension in the ranks of Syrian officials by highlighting splits between the Syrian Foreign Ministry and Assad:
Foreign Ministry delegates pledged to discuss a transitional government, only to be contradicted by Mr. Assad’s advisers. Some of the officials’ statements — claiming no knowledge of thousands of prisoners on an opposition list, saying that “terrorists” had carried out all the destruction in Homs, a city that has been bombarded by government airstrikes for two years — were, as Western diplomats put it, more “North Korea” than had been expected at a peace conference, even a largely notional one. 
The reason, diplomats speculated, was that officials were under scrutiny from hard-liners in Damascus and feared retribution should a too-conciliatory phrase slip. It is also possible they assumed the conference would never happen, the Western diplomat said, counting on the opposition to boycott.
Publish rumor and innuendo whispered by a "Western diplomat" and your propaganda mission is complete.

Barnard, thankfully, is like any employee: she chafes at being on the clock and will usually find a way to mention what is really going on. So toward the end of today's piece you will find this gem:
The [Syrian] government also gained some support for its argument that its opponents are Western puppets; opposition delegates met daily with Western diplomats and, Mr. Zoubi said, submitted documents in English, not Arabic. 
But those meetings, where diplomats and a new team of British and American public relations consultants coached opposition members not to rise to the government’s bait, seemed fruitful. 
Louay Safi, an opposition spokesman, was tested when a representative of the state-run SANA news agency asserted that in a government-blockaded area “there are no civilians, only terrorists,” and asked if efforts to get food there aimed to “save the terrorists.” 
“Two good questions, and I thank you for them,” Mr. Safi said, before calmly answering.
In other words, Geneva II is a farce.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Edsall on Piketty: Inequality to Grow Ever Larger

Apropos Obama's State of the Union address last night where he vowed to tackle rising inequality, today the indispensable Thomas Edsall writes about Thomas Piketty's new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, and his colleague from U.C. Berkeley, Emmanuel Saez, have been pumping out topnotch research the last several years that takes head on the idea that neoliberalism -- the central tenet of which is minimal market regulation -- produces abundant growth and shared prosperity. In a nutshell, Piketty and Saez have consistently argued that since the dawn of the neoliberal age in the 1970s the economy has worsened for working people.

In today's post, "Capitalism vs. Democracy," Edsall positions Piketty's new book as one that might well have historic impact. Capital in the Twenty-First Century argues that the high-growth, 60-year period beginning with World War I and ending in 1973 was an anomaly. The normal state of capitalism is one which produces ever greater inequality. Unless we address the problem through a global progressive wealth tax, increasing inequality is inevitable. Here is how Edsall summarizes it:
“If the rate of return on capital remains permanently above the rate of growth of the economy – this is Piketty’s key inequality relationship,” Milanovic writes in his review, this “generates a changing functional distribution of income in favor of capital and, if capital incomes are more concentrated than incomes from labor (a rather uncontroversial fact), personal income distribution will also get more unequal—which indeed is what we have witnessed in the past 30 years.” 
Piketty has produced the chart . . . to illustrate his larger point. 
The only way to halt this process, he argues, is to impose a global progressive tax on wealth – global in order to prevent (among other things) the transfer of assets to countries without such levies. A global tax, in this scheme, would restrict the concentration of wealth and limit the income flowing to capital.
Since a global wealth tax is an unlikely prospect in the current political environment (absent a revolutionary mass movement), we are likely headed for some sort of rupture or system failure. Yesterday I argued that this is already on view in Egypt, Thailand and Ukraine. Democracy is being scrapped and will continue to be scrapped in favor of either a formally representative but hallowed out government entirely captured by capital and saturated with surveillance (like in the West) or an overtly old-fashioned authoritarianism, also saturated with surveillance, and also ruling at the behest of neoliberal market fundamentalism (currently on display in Cairo). This is what is in store for us: rising inequality, receding democracy. Hopefully, people will come together and fight back.

But the super-rich will not yield a single dollar without a vicious struggle -- a fight they will pay a pittance to the growing global army of unemployed to wage for them. The future is shaping up to be very brutal.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Next Ten Years: Neoliberalism vs. Democracy, or, the Sisi Trend

Neoliberalism and democracy are not compatible for the simple reason that citizens will eventually find a way clear to vote for what is in their best interest. Neoliberalism's goal is to distribute as much wealth as possible to the capitalist elite atop the social pyramid. We have had three decades of this upward shunting of wealth, and, finally, voters are beginning to show signs of dissatisfaction. Congressional approval ratings are at an all-time low; confidence in the American duopoly is plummeting.

That is why I see action over the next ten years to roll back democracy, what I have called elsewhere "The Sisi Trend." It is on display in Thailand, and also in Ukraine, where a pro-Western rump is collapsing the state. In all three cases -- Egypt, Thailand, Ukraine -- a formal display of street activism popular democracy is used to upend the official democratic process of voter registration and elections.

Yesterday, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi declared, as was widely anticipated, his candidacy for the Egyptian presidency. David Kirkpatrick has the story, "Egypt’s Ruler Eyes Riskier Role: The Presidency."
Then on Monday, Field Marshal Sisi — he added the title the same day — took the first formal step to become Egypt’s next president, insisting he was yielding once again to “the free choice of the masses” and “the call of duty.” With that, he paved the way for Egypt to return to the kind of military-backed governance that was supposed to end with the Arab Spring of 2011. 
In his two years in public life as defense minister and then de facto ruler, Field Marshal Sisi has combined the cunning of a spymaster with the touch of a born politician to develop an extraordinary combination of power and popularity not seen here since Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser ended the British-backed monarchy six decades ago.
I have a lot of respect for David Kirkpatrick. It can't be easy representing the Gray Lady, "the paper of record" of the American imperium, in the flagship state of the Arab world. On the one hand, you have the fact that the Gray Lady is a stalwart advocate for Israel, and Israel is foursquare behind Sisi. Hence, Kirkpatrick's glowing comparison of Sisi to Nasser. While on the other hand, you have Kirkpatrick's years of excellent pro-democracy reporting from Cairo, as well as the Gray Lady's nominal -- and at this point, rapidly waning -- commitment to the expansion of representative democracy in the Middle East. Hence, Kirkpatrick's conclusion to his Sisi story where he explodes the Nasser comparison:
As president, Field Marshal Sisi would have to manage a set of demands that are far more complicated than those he faced as the commanding officer in a period of crisis, and than those previous presidents encountered. The tumult of the revolt has highlighted the failings of a system in which each institution of government operates quasi-independently with a self-interest all its own. Then there is post-revolutionary public. 
“It is a society in complete mobilization mode, totally restive,” said Mona El-Ghobashy, a political scientist at Barnard. 
“It is not the monarchical presidency that Nasser created and Sadat and Mubarak inherited,” she said, making a reference to President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011. “Sisi faces an entirely different setup than the autopilot Mubarak was on.”
If you recall the days immediately following the coup of Morsi, Saudi Arabia stepped up with pledges of over $10 billion for the Egyptian state. This provided Sisi a buffer from the global marketplace while he pursued his bloody crackdown of the Muslin Brotherhood. But what continues to be problematic for Field Marshal Sisi and the reconstituted Mubarak state going forward is the Egyptian economy. As Kirkpatrick deftly points out,
“I think the economy eventually will be the undoing of anyone in that position, because all the same issues that led to the 2011 uprising are still there — the youth unemployment, their marginalization from politics, the overly bloated Civil Service, the unsustainable food and energy subsidies,” said Samer S. Shehata, a University of Oklahoma political scientist. 
Now the continuing protests and violence have squashed any hope of a swift recovery of the crucial tourism sector, he said, and “no one has the will required to take the necessary and painful steps required to move the country forward.”
Egypt is looking at a Sinai-based insurgency that is not only not going away but is actively spreading to other parts of the state. Without tourism, Sisi will be dependent on a steady stream of Saudi handouts. To be sure, the Saudis will keep paying, but they will expect results in the form of bloodier, more expansive crackdowns.

The next decade figures to be very bloody.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Greater Cooperation Between Uncle Sam and Al Qaeda Signaled

Yesterday in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times Ben Hubbard had a piece, "The Franchising of Al Qaeda," about the supposedly changing nature of the group led by Ayman al-Zawahri. Al Qaeda, according to Hubbard, is splintering, becoming more defuse, less centralized.

This is nothing new. We've been hearing this for the last decade. What is new here is the necessity to create distinctions among various Al Qaeda groups so that the United States can work with those that it wishes to in contravention of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed after 9/11.

This move is underway largely because of the war in Syria. The United States is already cooperating with Al Qaeda there in coordination with the Saudis and the Turks. ISIS and Nusra are the main fighting forces trying to defeat the Syrian Arab Army. Going forward, this is going to be the new normal as the Saudis and Israelis insist on war with Iran. The foot soldiers will come from the salafi groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.

The United States needs to get its voters used to cooperating with Al Qaeda. Hence, you get the line like the following one:
Beyond its open affiliation with Al Qaeda, little separates the Nusra Front from other Islamist battalions fighting in Syria. One of them, Ahrar al-Sham, even has a Qaeda member in its leadership. While these groups’ Islamic vision for the future of Syria may disturb many Americans (and Syrians), they have not attacked Western targets. “There are a lot of militant groups out there that are supporting either Islamist, salafist or jihadi doctrine, but they are not all wrapped up about the U.S., so do you call them all Al Qaeda?” said Clint Watts, a former F.B.I. agent now with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
It is going to be a tough sell because there has been an enormous amount of  indoctrination going back to the 1990s telling us that Al Qaeda is our existential enemy. But this won't stop the elites who construct policy from moving full steam ahead.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Colt 45 Chronicle #52

Basking in the windfall of the first Sunday free of football in many months, I am returning to the collection of letters I wrote when I first encountered the metropolis of New York City once I had been eructed from Academus' Groves, what I am calling "The Colt 45 Chronicle" after my word-processing beverage of choice. I retrieved this collection out of storage last year during halftime of the Seahawks playoff elimination in Atlanta. It is fitting that next week the Seahawks compete in the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos.

The only Vince Lombardy Trophy to be had here is one for stubbornness. To keep posting these letters when it is unclear what purpose they serve other than to document the voice of a young man -- submerged in alcohol, confronted by the insanity of the rat race for the first time, struggling with a flawed marriage -- seems to be an exercise in nothing more than will power.

This is a letter of appreciation to my friend Mark, who I mentioned before was living in Madrid teaching English. He lived with some Brits, who were also teachers, and they all drank and partied a lot. Mark would write these vivid letters about the night life and social scene in Madrid.

What strikes me about these drunken letters of mine written when I was in my early twenties is how right on they are. For instance, my assessment below of sexual entanglement with women is totally on the money. My problem is that I couldn't, like Diogenes the Cynic, learn my lesson quickly and take a short cut to virtue. It took decades more suffering and numerous failed relationships to make the message stick.

In any event, after I finish reading Stanley Rosen's Nihilism (1969), which I am currently working my way through, I should read William Desmond's Cynics (2008).
Autumn 1988
Someone who can write. Someone who can write a story, with a plot, about life not squaring up; a story, about crying over spilled milk, which is a story about love. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Nobody, nobody but you, Mark. Thank God. How wonderful a story can be. What a pair of evenings! I read along as a person who had once lived what you were now living but who has since become a toadie on the sideline -- all ash and, maybe, if I'm lucky, a little ember. Do it, man. Suffer a little for me. I'd quit my job for some of that action.
But you know my story. Majesty is an elusive thing; you secretly know it when you're in it, though it never seems like it; but you definitely know when you're out of it. I got drunk on Johnny's Red Label but had read your letter right before and I wanted to write you all evening, to tell you to keep fighting the good fight because most people don't even get into the ring. But there were people around and I couldn't. So I got drunk and then drunker and got into a fight with Colum and then puked. The big mystery I figured out that last year I was in Berkeley was that women can wash away everything, all worry. The problem is that it doesn't solve any of your problems, it just puts them off and replaces them with more immediate ones. But if you can learn your lesson from those immediate ones -- in other words, what Diogenes, the great Cynic, tried to do, namely, take a short cut to virtue -- you're years ahead of the intellectual game. More power to you.

Thor: God of Thunder #11

Our ability to capture in writing what occurs in consciousness is extremely limited. Even the humblest bit of writing takes a great deal of energy to produce. I had large ambitions for my Friday post on Richard Buckner. From my week at work where there is an insane fellow employee to my pre-show meal at the food court at Uwajimaya, none of it made it from the brain pan to the written word fryer. Oh, well. C'est la vie.

I had ambitions on New Year's Day to read a book that my father gave me a while back, Ninety-Nine Names of Allah (1978) by Shems Friedlander. Instead I ended up reading a photocopy of the forward to Joseph Epes Brown's The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux that my father had inserted inside the Ninety-Names of Allah.

The Sioux believed in Wakan-Tanka. According to Brown,
Wakan-Tanka as Grandfather is Great Spirit independent of manifestation, unqualified, unlimited, identical to the Christian Godhead, or to the Hindu Brahma-Nirguna. Wakan-Tanka as Father is the Great Spirit considered in relation to His manifestation, either as Creator, Preserver, or Destroyer, identical to the Christian God, or to the Hindu Brahma-Saguna.
I finally got around to finishing the Jason Aaron-Esad Ribic story arc of Gorr the God Butcher and his Godbomb, which concludes in Thor: God of Thunder #11. To catch you up, here is the synopsis from the splash page of issue #11:
Gorr the God Butcher made it his life's purpose to kill all of divinity. And so he created a bomb that would explode through all of time and space to kill every God who ever was or will be. The Thors of the past, present and future, alongside the surviving deities that Gorr enslaved, made their last glorious stand against Gorr, fighting to the very end. 
With the last drop of God's blood he required, Gorr triggered the Godbomb. Thor the Avenger faced the bomb head-on, using the combined might of both his and his future self's Mjolnirs in a last desperate bid to halt its detonation. 
But there was no salvation to be had. The Godbomb exploded in a furious black swirl . . . and all was darkness.
This is a beautiful comic book. If you can, pick up Thor: God of Thunder, Vol. 1: The God Butcher and Thor: God of Thunder, Godbomb for the complete Gorr storyline.

Aaron does some important work here. The self is situated in proper Kantian fashion as the source of all creation/destruction. 

It is an emanation of Gorr's self, his fictive son, that proves his undoing. He rescues Thor, and Thor ends up absorbing the blast of the Godbomb and all the power of Gorr's Black Beserkers, which he then directs back at Gorr, defeating him.

A broken, one-eyed, one-armed Gorr pitifully pleads with his son:
GORR: Son, please, no . . . I can't lose you too . . . They did this. You have to see that. It's the Gods who've ruined creation. We'll all be better off without them. 
SON: You can't blame the Gods anymore, Gorr. It wasn't a God who betrayed you. It was only ever . . . yourself. 
GORR: No, please . . . Please don't leave me . . . Alone . . .

Captain Phillips + J. Edgar

I've been suffering from a a splitting headache since Friday. It has something to do with our recent weather here. Some sort of odd pressure system. The mornings begin packed with fog, which then burns off by afternoon, leaving us with bright sunshine. While I have experienced sunny January days in the past during my 20 years in the Emerald City, what is unusual is the fog. Our fall was also unusual in that there were two straight weeks of  these foggy mornings followed by sunny afternoons. Puget Sound area autumns after October are normally just wet and dark.

In any event, waking up with a splitting headache each morning for the last three days does not lend itself to sitting in front of a monitor typing at a keyboard. Today, the cabeza feeling a little better, I'll attempt to get caught up with some posts.

First, some quick-hitters on movies I have seen recently. After viewing all seasons of Breaking Bad in order and then polishing off Luther (Series 3), I decided to watch some feature-length Hollywood film. It is always helpful in terms of ascertaining the spirit of an age to see what is being extruded by the dream machine. I used to have this as a regular feature of the blog, a Sunday-morning comment on whatever recently-released-to-DVD Hollywood film that I had streamed from Amazon the night before. But then Amazon raised its prices and its offerings shrank. So I stopped watching movies and stuck with streaming cable television series like Spartacus and Homeland.

Last night I watched Captain Phillips (2013), starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass. Greengrass catapulted to stardom based on his directorial work on The Bourne Supremacy (2004), the second installment in the Bourne film franchise. Captain Phillips follows the docudrama format of the film Greengrass completed after The Bourne Supremacy, United 93 (2006).

United 93 was a good film, though it buffed up the national security machinery to look like an expensive car commercial. Captain Phillips is not so good. The performances of the Somali pirates are superb (Barkhad Abdi has been nominated for an Academy Ward for his portrayal of Muse the pirate captain).

While there are vague references as to the reasons why the Somali youth are pirates -- they are cogs in a larger criminal enterprise; their waters have been fished out by corporate factory trawlers -- this film in the end is nothing more than an advertisement for the U.S. Navy.

An elite G.I. Joe team of Navy Seals (they're clean cut this time; no beards and keffiyeh as in Zero Dark Thirty) parachute in and mop up the mess with their cutting-edge technology and their deadly sniper rifles. The darkies are made to go bye-bye in a spray of blood, and the traumatized Tom Hanks/Captain Phillips ends the film being ministered to by a beautiful, strong, angelic, milk-fed Navy medic in an immaculate emergency room aboard the destroyer USS Bainbridge. You see, all is right in the world. American military might bestrides the globe.

If you want to see a better Greengrass film, see Bloody Sunday (2002).

Friday night I suffered through the first half of J. Edgar (2011) -- the dark, torpid Hoover bio-drama directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio -- before throwing in the towel because of my headache. I resumed the following morning in the dark. The movie hopscotches back and forth in time from the Palmer Raids to JFK's assassination to the Lindbergh kidnapping to Hoover's campaign against MLK, Jr. to his gangster wars campaign of the 1930s  The movie is bloodless with no coherent statement about Hoover's FBI and the role it played in America.

Hoover's COINTELPRO; his role in sculpting the Warren Commission Report; his close association with organized crime bigwigs and right-wing captains of industry -- all go completely unmentioned or are alluded to only in passing.

Mostly this movie is a gay love story. The lovers are J. Edgar and his abused companion, Associate Director of FBI Clyde Tolson. It is as if Eastwood shelves good storytelling in order to out the paranoid, megalomaniac, top lawman commie fighter as nothing but a poor queer.

Don't see this movie.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Hippies vs. Punks: Life at the Millennium, Pt.1, Richard Buckner

A departure for Hippies vs. Punks: I actually went to see a live performance of an artist who will be the subject of today's post.

Richard Buckner is conducting a tour of what he is calling his "Living Room Shows." Last night was his first, and I was there, seated on a sofa with a couple other graybeards; an attractive, mature couple sipping red wine at my feet; facing us ten-feet away, Richard Buckner, a big guy with long hair in a brown sports coat, looking not unlike a more attractive, virile Tiny Tim. He sat in a wooden chair at the front of the staircase and played acoustic guitar and sang and spoke for 90 minutes. He ended the performance with the a capella "Fater," from his seminal Devotion + Doubt (1997) major-label debut, delivered from the bathroom, which provided just enough distance and echo. Wonderful!

Before proceeding any further, I want to say that there a lot of ways I can approach this. I am dealing with a more liberal time constraint since I used a vacation day today knowing that I would get home late and not want to go into work with four-hours sleep. I could do a straight review of Buckner's performance and what it felt like to see an artist in a private residence among other fans who learned about the show via the Internet; I could describe the heft of Buckner's catalog; I could discourse on what I mean by "Life at the Millennium." But mostly I just want to make a purely adulatory statement: I think Richard Buckner is one of our most important contemporary artists. His recordings are close to my heart. As I mentioned in a previous Hippies vs. Punks post, his Impasse (2002) helped get me through a difficult stretch. In this age of digitally distracted time constriction, Richard Buckner's music taps into a fundamental honeyed current that must exist in order for life to flow forward.

The "Living Room Shows" support Surrounded, Buckner's latest record which was released at the end of last summer. It is an excellent album, consistent with the high quality we have come to expect from our bard of the millennium, and well worth picking up:

Buckner appeared yesterday morning on KEXP during Cheryl Waters' "The Midday Show" and performed some songs off Surrounded. It was on KEXP over 15 years ago, when it was KCMU, that I first heard Richard Buckner. Then he was promoting Devotion + Doubt on Amanda Wilde's show. What I remember is how hilarious the two were together, so much so that I got out a cassette tape and started recording their repartee. (Somewhere in a storage facility in Southern Oregon I still have that cassette.) Last night Buckner performed quite a few songs, in addition to the above-mentioned "Fater," from Devotion + Doubt:

One of the things that I remember about Amanda Wilde's electrifying interview of Richard Buckner from those days preceding the millennium is that it was a beautiful sunny afternoon. You see, we still had the sun -- sunniness -- back in the 1990s. Now, the sun still shines, but, paraphrasing Dylan from "Highlands," it is not the same sun. The sun that shines now heralds not a Golden Age, but a period of cataclysm and destruction and evil spirits. We cleared the Y2K hurdle, but we haven't made it to "the millennium" yet.

Time after time during the winter of 2002-2003 I would listen to Impasse. I was breaking up with my girlfriend of 11 years. I was fracturing, splitting in two. But I still had to go to work and earn a living, etc. The nation, post 9/11, was on its way to war with Iraq. At the office we were allowed to listen to music while we sat and toiled at our desks. I had a Sony Walkman. Once I made it through the first 11 songs of Impasse, I would cross a dividing line when I got to track 12, "Were You Tried & Not as Tough."

"Impasse:," "I Know What I Knew," and "Stutterstep" would follow, concluding the album and  locating me in a blank, airy heaven realm.

Each time I completed listening to Impasse I participated in some sort of magical, healing dramaturgy, and I was stronger for it. What else can art aspire to? Once "Stutterstep" finished I would hit play and start the process over again.

So I'm going to cut it short with that. No disquisition of how alt-country grows out of cowpunk; no thumbnail sketch of American political history since Clintontime. Just pick up any Richard Buckner record and have a listen. Better yet, go hear him sing in someone's living room.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Richard Sherman-Inspired Family Feud

I thought it would be illuminating to include an email exchange with my father having to do with the Richard Sherman affair. I am sure this kind of back and forth is going on throughout the country. My father, who ran the half-mile for San Jose State in its track-&-field heyday, is a longtime 49ers fan who had been drifting towards the Seahawks because of my being a Seattleite and a big fan of this Pete Carroll team. (Also, check today's column by the Gray Lady's William Rhoden, "Seahawks’ Richard Sherman, Like Cornerbacks Before Him, Plays Man-to-Man and Goes Toe to Toe".)
Father: Just returned home from S.C. Watched game. You were right. Palesa's emotional body is even more sensitive than my own. We tuned in at the end of the second half, but it was too much for her, so we decided to wait until the end on the fourth quarter to resume watching. It was quite the dramatic ending. Fine! As I said, "May the best team win". We turned off the Sherman thing. Palesa was offended, as was I. No Postmodern rationalization can excuse it. This is perhaps a reaction to my exposure to English education -- Sport, the games of Gentlemen, the refinement of the code of Knight/Kinghood. I'll not wear my Seahawks cap again. Thug, Hitler, Bush, Ghetto talk, gangsterap all go together, ugly. Dredlocks (Rastaman/Higher Man), his sham. Caught on the stage, an arena, Hernandez, bully Dolphins, now this NFL gutter. Forgive me. Not for me! I'm leaving the area. One last gesture, Go Denver! It pains me to say so, Elway, Manning. I hope Seattle eats it. All my love, dad. . . see how the ugly lingers, Aesthetic=beauty. Remember Marley, "College and University graduating thieves and murderers"? Just goes to show our most prestigious (Sherman & Stanford?) educational institutions fail to pass on the importance of Character, and in this case, that Sport is the arena of Gentlemen. All my love, dad 
PS He regrets it even now I bet. If he needs ablution send him down here. I could work it out.
Son: White privilege, Dad, that's what I hear coming from you.
How come you're so offended? Of all the things to be outraged by? All Sherman said was he was the best. And guess what? He is the best cornerback in the league. No question.

I suppose you would have preferred to have the usual bromide of God and country and "Aw, shucks, the 49ers played like champions" served in loving spoonfuls to you in your televisual habitat. If you think Michael Crabtree somehow personifies the English Christian gentleman, you should scan the Internet more often. Fiat lux, baby,
Father: No. Its not about that. Its about ugly. Nobility in victory, not false modesty, but yeah it was a hard played game -- period? So Crabtree got to his football ego. He is still a man. But what is a Man, each, individual man, answerable to no one but himself -- and his God, Perfection, which he will and must answer to some day. He offended two innocent bystanders (Palesa & me) by his vomit of glorified, self exaltation on the NFL stage. I like a good sporting event, well played, hard played. I have no time for that self indulgent trash talk. Its not about Crabtee. Its about Sherman. Its about Sports. Its about Nobility of each and all. As Marley would say, The Rastaman, the Higher Man. And I would add the Buddha Land. Don't give me that gangster talk thing. Noble is Noble. Beauty is beauty. But beautiful body, athleticism, where is it without the spirit of nobility? Where is the beauty in the victory just so difficulty achieved? Silence and victory is sufficient for those who aspire to true victory. To show a dispirited, ugly heart is embarrassing, so two innocent spectators pulled the plug on him. No time for that in our world -- too offensive, in an offensive age. No more NFL for me, no more Seattle Seahawks. I've got to part ways with you on this one. Ugly is ugly, and he was the face of the ugly. What can the internet teach a man in his heart. dad
Son: All I'm asking is that you be a good Buddhist and inquire why it is this so offended you -- don't the Buddhists have a thing about reacting? -- and possibly it offended you -- entertain the possibility, Dad, read your first message -- is that it has to do with racial stereotypes. Tom Brady can chase an official off the field after a game, cursing him for a non-call that would have helped the Patriots beat the Panthers, and no one calls him "classless" or a "thug." This just happened a month or two back. Jim Harbaugh can harangue and grimace and wail and act like a toddler on the sideline -- a one man Greek chorus -- and no one calls him classless and makes demands for "Nobility."
Yet you stick a mic in Sherman's face down on the field adrenalin rushing right after he wins a championship game and despite the fact that he doesn't curse or really say anything offensive people are outraged and can talk of nothing else.
My position is that it struck a nerve in a supine, pacified, televisually hypnotized populace and that nerve was white privilege. We don't want an angry black man on our sacred screens. Gandhi, MLK Jr., Bob Marley, Mandela only, please.

I wish you luck in finding your "Higher Man" in the English Premier League. Adios, king.

Huffington Post put up audio this morning corroborating Richard Sherman's version of events that all he said to Michael Crabtree was "Good game." Also, here's a good story from yesterday's Huffington Post.

The Silver Lining so Far at Montreaux

Based on the reporting from "the paper of record" one of the most noteworthy things that happened at yesterday's peace conference in Montreaux was that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem spoke for longer than he should have in making his opening statements. The gist of the story by Michael Gordon and Anne Barnard is don't expect much from the ongoing negotiations:
By the end of the day, the sense that the new peace talks were headed for trouble was compounded when the proceedings ended without any hint of progress toward imposing local cease-fires or opening humanitarian corridors for the delivery of food and medicine to besieged towns and cities.
The role of the Western media in the Syrian conflict is to make sure the script stays focused on the brutality of the Assad regime as well as the fiction that the opposition actually represents Syrians inside Syria (rather than foreign intelligence agencies).

On the first point, there is another big story today about the Qatari-funded dossier of alleged Assad regime murder and torture, pictures of which were smuggled out of the country by an anonymous policeman, code named Caesar. Two things about this piece by Mark Landler and Ben Hubbard, "State Dept. Learned in November of Photos Said to Show Torture in Syria": 1) Even while promoting the report, significant questions about its reliability are raised:
The report on the photos, though led by three experts with experience in international war crimes trials, also raised some questions. While saying that the full archive consists of about 55,000 photographs, indicating the execution of around 11,000 people, the investigators acknowledged they had examined only 5,500 photos showing 835 individuals. 
The timing of the report’s release also suggested that it had been timed to undermine Mr. Assad’s government as talks began. The report says investigators interviewed the photographer, Caesar, on Jan. 12, 13, and 18, meaning the report was prepared within days of the last interview. 
One of the investigators said the timing of the report’s release had no bearing on the credibility of its findings. 
“Whether it was a month ago or a month from now, this is clear and convincing evidence of an industrial killing machine that is indicative of what Assad is doing in this civil war,” said David M. Crane, who previously indicted President Charles G. Taylor of Liberia. 
Much also remains unclear about how the photos made it out of Syria and what will be done with them now. Mr. Rashid, whose group helped smuggle them out, said it had worked for months with contacts in Syria and in unnamed “neighboring countries” to get the defector and his photos out of Syria. 
Mr. Crane played down the role of Qatar, which commissioned the report, and denied that the release of the report before the conference was political. 
“That report is to serve the rights of the victims, but we see this as a legal, humanitarian document,” he said. “It is not political at all.”
And 2), as can be seen in the passage above, the main advocate for the code name Caesar report is David Crane, who is always described as being someone who prosecuted Charles Taylor at The Hague. But what is never mentioned is his long service in the United States Government in prestigious positions such as Director of the Office of Intelligence Review and assistant general counsel of the Defense Intelligence Agency. It is hard to believe that this omission is just lazy journalism.

But a silver lining for the Syrian government in the last 48 hours is the success it has had in asking the question that concludes the report from Montreaux by Gordon and Barnard:
In an interview, Fayssal Mekdad, the Syrian deputy foreign minister, said he welcomed sitting face to face with the government’s opponents. “We look forward to looking them in the eye,” he said, “and asking them, ‘Who do you represent?’ ”
This question -- "Who does the opposition really represent?" -- was also raised, and I think quite effectively, by al-Assad himself in his interview with Agence France Presse:
AFP: The opposition that will participate in Geneva is divided and many factions on the ground don't believe it represents them. If an agreement is reached, how can it be implemented on the ground? 
President Assad: This is the same question that we are asking as a government: when I negotiate, who am I negotiating with? There are expected to be many sides at Geneva, we don't know yet who will come, but there will be various parties, including the Syrian government. It is clear to everyone that some of the groups, which might attend the conference, didn't exist until very recently; in fact they were created during the crisis by foreign intelligence agencies whether in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States or other countries. So when we sit down with these groups, we are in fact negotiating with those countries. So, is it logical that France should be a part of the Syrian solution? Or Qatar, or America, or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey? This doesn't make any sense. Therefore, when we negotiate with these parties, we're in fact negotiating with the countries that are behind them and that support terrorism in Syria. There are other opposition forces in Syria that have a national agenda; these are parties that we can negotiate with. On the issue of the vision for Syria's future, we are open for these parties to participate in governing the Syrian state, in the government and in other institutions. But as I mentioned earlier, anything that is agreed with any party, whether in Geneva or in Syria, must be subject to people's endorsement, through a referendum put to Syrian citizens.
AFP: Are you prepared to have a prime minister from the opposition in a future government? 
President Assad: That depends on who this opposition represents. When it represents a majority, let’s say in parliament, naturally it should lead the government. But to appoint a prime minister from the opposition without having a majority doesn’t make any political sense in any country in the world. In your country, for example, or in Britain or elsewhere, you can’t have a prime minister from a parliamentary minority. This will all depend on the next elections, which we discussed in the Syrian initiative; they will reveal the real size of support for the various opposition forces. As to participation as a principle, we support it, of course it is a good thing.
AFP: Are you prepared to have, for example, Ahmed Jarba or Moaz Khatib, be your next prime minister? 
President Assad: This takes us back to the previous question. Do any of these people represent the Syrian people, or even a portion of the Syrian people? Do they even represent themselves, or are they just representatives of the states that created them? This brings us back to what I mentioned earlier: every one of these groups represents the country that created them. The participation of each of these individuals means the participation of each of those states in the Syrian government! This is the first point. Second, let’s assume that we agreed to the participation of these individuals in the government. Do you think that they would dare to come to Syria to take part in the government? Of course they wouldn’t. Last year, they claimed that they had control of 70% of Syria, yet they didn’t even dare to come to the areas that they had supposed control of. They did come to the border for a 30-minute photo opportunity and then they fled. How can they be ministers in the government? Can a foreigner become a Syrian minister? That’s why these propositions are totally unrealistic, but they do make a good joke!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Code Name Caesar

The timing of a report released by a team of lawyers paid for by the government of Qatar, an early backer of the jihadi pipeline into Syria, accusing the Syrian government of widespread use of torture is highly suspect coming as it does at the beginning of the Geneva II round of talks.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in his opening remarks today reiterated the Western / Sheikhdom position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step down before the violence can stop, saying “The right to lead a country does not come from torture." Thus, the Qatari-commissioned report was put to use right away.

The origin of the photographic documentation that forms the basis of the report is described in a story today by Ben Hubbard (a reporter who I thought did decent work in Cairo in the run up to the Sisi coup before he was sent to Lebanon to help Anne Barnard hew to the anti-Assad / pro-Saudi line) and the great David Kirkpatrick, "Photo Archive Is Said to Show Widespread Torture in Syria":
The photos were made public by an anonymous military policeman who had a grim role in the bureaucracy of the Syrian security apparatus, according to the lawyers’ report assessing the photos’ veracity. 
The photos were used to provide death certificates to the families of the victims without turning over the bodies, and were archived as a record that the men had been killed. 
After “psychological suffering” caused by his job, Caesar saved the photos on a portable disk drive, and he and the disk were smuggled out of the country by antigovernment activists, the report said. The activists contacted the Qatari government, Qatar hired a London law firm, and it commissioned a team of legal and forensics experts to assess the credibility of Caesar and his photos.
Two of the Qatari hired-gun lawyers, David Crane and Geoffrey Nice, are no stranger to high-profile, empire-approved political investigations. Nice prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic; Crane is a spook-lawyer (he worked as assistant general counsel of the Defense Intelligence Agency) who helped prosecute Charles Taylor. Crane provides the obligatory quote comparing Assad's Syria to Nazi Germany: “It is very rare to have this kind of government-backed, industrial, machinelike, systematic torture and killing of human beings, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Nuremberg.”

No doubt horrible things are happening in Syria today. But if you look at what is happening in prisons in any country horrific things will jump out at you. One can only wonder what kind of brutality and perversion is sanctioned in Saudi jails. The important thing to remember is that the United States had no problem with the Syrian "torture factories" when we needed a post-9/11 location for our rendition of terror suspects.

The timing of the report's appearance by an anonymous defector with code name Caesar (can you say, "Curveball"?) allows Kerry to assume the high ground the West has lost since Al Qaeda assumed the leading role in the Syrian "rebellion."

It is a pathetic attempt, a thin sheet meant to obscure the monstrous U.S. policy of fomenting jihad only to have its citizens surrender life and liberty to fight it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Geneva II Farce

If you were away celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day yesterday, maybe participating in a march, and did not have an opportunity to scan the headlines, you would have missed the embarrassing news of United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon inviting Iran to participate in the Geneva II round of peace talks (to begin tomorrow) and then some hours later rescinding that invitation at the behest of the United States. 

The day quickly descended into "he said"/"she said" imbroglio. Ban said that Iran had agreed to accept Geneva I, meaning that al-Assad would be ushered out and a transitional government with opposition representatives sharing power with certain Western-approved Baathists from the Syrian government would be installed. Iran denied agreeing to any preconditions to attend. The United States expressed shock -- Secretary of State Kerry was said to be apoplectic with rage -- that Ban would step out on his own and invite Iran; Ban said that the U.S. knew what he was up to.

In any event, the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition cobbled together by the West, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies, said it would not attend if Iran participated. The United States instructed Moon to disinvite the Iranians. Moon complied. And there you have it. That is where we are at with one day to go before Geneva II opens in Montreaux.

Meanwhile the Shiite district of Haret Hreik in south Beirut sustained another terror bombing. Sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shiite has started again in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. The attempt to resolve the ISIS occupation of Falluja in Iraq's Al Anbar Governorate collapsed. Al-Maliki will now have to go in heavy. Death and destruction is sure to follow with a good possibility that Iraq will permanently fracture.

And all the while the region burns the United States fiddles. To get a sense of what the U.S. and its Syrian opposition hope to achieve in Geneva II, here is the takeaway passage from today's story by Michael Gordon, Anne Barnard and Alan Cowell, "U.N.’s Reversal on Iran Prompts Outcry From Syrian Allies":
Despite the enormous obstacles, the State Department asserts that the talks are worth holding because the push to establish a transitional body to govern Syria, a main goal of the conference, might encourage defections among Mr. Assad’s traditional supporters, including the Alawite sect, of which he is a member. 
“There are elements inside the regime itself, among its supporters, that are anxious to find a peaceful solution, and we’ve gotten plenty of messages from people inside; they want a way out,” the State Department official said. 
“That’s the whole point of their going to Geneva,” the official added, referring to officials of the Syrian opposition. “To promote the alternative, the alternative vision.”
Yes, you read it right. The goal of Geneva II isn't to end the fighting, even if to secure a temporary ceasefire; the goal of Geneva II according to the U.S. State Department is to encourage Baathist defections.

It is hard to properly frame just how unhinged this strategy is. The Syrian Arab Army is superior in the field. Without a display of air power, the rebels, now composed entirely of jihadists, have done nothing but cede territory as they fight among themselves. The response to this weakness by the sheikhdoms who manage the jihadi armies is to direct them to soft targets in Iraq and Lebanon. Now those two nations are on the brink of civil war from which they might not ever return. Yet all the U.S. cares about is peeling away a few defectors from al-Assad's government. It is insanity.

The one silver lining is that it is becoming harder for the U.S. to feign concern for the humanity crisis created by the Syrian war and pretend that it is acting in the best interests of the Middle East to end the fighting. It is now abundantly clear that the U.S. is acting to expand the war both in length of time and breadth of geography in the deluded hope that the sovereign government of Syria will surrender.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Best

Briefly, a few words on the dust-up created by Richard Sherman's post-game interview with Fox Sports Erin Andrews.

Sherman won the game for the Seahawks with less than a minute to play when he batted Kaepernick's pass away from Crabtree in the end zone and into the awaiting arms of Malcolm Smith. It was an amazing, athletic play. (I anticipated that Sherman would have a large role in beating San Francisco.)

For people to be outraged at Sherman, adrenalin rushing after sewing up the NFC Championship Game, calling out Crabtree as a punk and then proclaiming in full throat that he is the best reminds us of something that most of us are already well aware -- shallow, idiotic, race-based snobbery is alive and kicking in "The Greatest Nation on Earth."™

Read Tommy Tomlinson's "22 Thoughts About That Richard Sherman Interview." He's on the money. And then, for a more culturally nuanced critique, check out Dave Zirin's "Richard Sherman, Racial Coding and Bombastic Brainiacs," which appeared on his Edge of Sports blog for The Nation.

One commentator, Javier, on Zirin's blog hit it when he said, 
I’ve never seen the word thug be used to describe Brady’s behavior. In this season, he literally chased down league officials, yelled and cursed calling their decision BS, imagine if at this moment Erin Andrews seeks the interview? Brady is allowed to intimidate the officials, but his character isn’t questioned.
White privilege, baby. The big American bugaboo. That's why I love the Seahawks so much. In this lily white corporate nirvana -- Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon -- that is the Emerald City, Seattle's transcendent professional football team is young and overwhelmingly black.

There is nothing but love for Richard Sherman in this town. We know who is he. We know he is smart, honest, tough -- sensitive, too; a great competitor. He is the personification of what makes the Seahawks new, different.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Encounter with a Past Self

As we approach halftime in Denver, it definitely looks like it is going to be tough for the Patriots to score. But the game looks closer than the Sunday night game back in November, and Brady brought his team back in that one.

What I want to relate was a brief exchange I had with a young man Friday morning at the SeaTac bus stop. He approached me and asked if I had change for a five-dollar bill; he said that he did not want to pay $5 for a bus ride. I told him that I thought I did.

The young man asked, "How much is a ride, two-fiddy?"

"Yep, two-fiddy."

I went into my shoulder bag and pulled out my wallet and counted out some crisp singles.

"I have quarters, too; if that helps."

"Really? I need quarters. I have laundry to do tomorrow."

I gave him six singles, and he gave me a five-dollar bill and four quarters. He thanked me and went back to stand near the bus shelter, a decent young man alone in the world in his construction-worker clothes bound for some destination unknown armed with a large drab duffel bag. A vision of a past self? I felt compassion for him. A long, suffering road awaits. Fiat lux, bro!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

NFL Week 20: Conference Championship Round

We've arrived at that point in the season which is really the last Sunday for the regular football fan. After the NFC and AFC Championships are decided this weekend, the National Football League enters its High Holy Days, culminating in the most sacred day on the American calendar, Super Bowl Sunday. At which point it is something other than a NFL game. It is more a celebration of excess and hyperbole -- the partying fans who can afford the thousands of dollars to travel and lodge at the Super Bowl host city; the reverential video biographies of key players; the ad buys and TV commercial premieres and corporate executive luxury suites -- all presented in that peculiarly American vernacular that the world has come to know and loathe: bombast cloaking an infantile narcissism engaged in profligate consumption.

But tomorrow the athletes will still be visible through the mass of machinery that it is American capitalism. The Championship games are most of the time far better than the Super Bowl itself. This was certainly true when I was growing up; less so in the last ten years. The NFL has managed to refine its product.

Action begins tomorrow at noon in Denver. The line on the AFC Championship Game is Broncos -5, and that is probably charitable to the Patriots. My only bad pick last week was the Chargers. I went with San Diego because I was so taken with how the Chargers ran the ball in Cincinnati. Granted, Ryan Mathews was sidelined most of the Denver game because of an ankle injury, but Danny Woodhead, who did a lot of damage to the Bengals, couldn't get anything going against the Broncos defense, and neither could Ronnie Brown. To make a long story short, I am impressed with Denver's defensive line. In order for the Patriots to win they have to run the ball with great success. Ridley and Blount and Vereen all need to have big games. Why? Because Brady doesn't have a dominant receiving corps. I don't see New England's rushing attack keeping them in the game. Take Denver. (Oddly, I will be cheering for the baleful Belichik, my go-to bete noire. For me, Peyton Manning personifies corporate America even more so than Tiger Beat Tom Brady.)

The big match-up is the NFC Championship Game where the Seahawks and 49ers meet for the third time this season. I woke up this morning thinking how evenly matched these teams are. Seattle has a superior defensive secondary; San Francisco, better linebackers. The respective defensive lines are about even with Seattle possessing more depth. On offense, San Francisco's line is superior, as are the 49ers tight end and receivers. But Seattle has the edge at running back, though San Francisco has greater depth at the position. This brings us to the quarterbacks. Colin Kaepernick is playing lights out. The last month-plus he has been the X-factor for the 49ers. For Russell Wilson it has been just the opposite. He struggled through the end of the season and looked off in the win against the Saints. The edge here goes to San Francisco.

So on paper -- because of a more potent offense -- one should go with the 49ers. Why then have the Seahawks stayed at -3.5 throughout the week? The 12th Man! Seattle's home field is like no other. You saw that in the second half against New Orleans. Drew Brees had to burn his timeouts because of the noise; he didn't have any left in the final minute of the game, which cost him a trip to the championship round.

Kaepernick has not been able to master the 12th Man. It could be argued that with a difficult road win at Lambeau Field in single-degree weather under his belt, he is primed to silence the mob at CenturyLink. Of one thing I feel certain: Kaepernick will throw an interception or two. He did in both the Green Bay and Carolina playoff games. In the past, when he did this at Seattle, he was unable to recover. Yes, Kaepernick is a different player now. But I trust Richard Sherman and the rest of the Seahawk defense. And I trust the 12th Man. Russell Wilson will right himself -- he has always had solid games against San Fran -- and Marshawn Lynch will run with strength and purpose. The survey of opinion provided by the Sporting News favors the Seahawks because of Seattle's home-field advantage and the wear and tear of three road playoff games beginning to take its toll on San Francisco. I'm taking Seattle. Onward to the Super Bowl!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hippies vs. Punks: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pt. 2, the McGeoch Albums

Following Siouxsie and the BansheesJoin Hands (1979) album, guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris are replaced by Magazine co-founder and guitarist John McGeoch and Budgie, the drummer on the Slits' debut album, Cut (1979). With this lineup -- Sioux, Severin, McGeoch, and Budgie -- Siouxsie and the Banshees would record their most influential albums by far -- Kaleidoscope (1980); their masterpiece, Juju (1981); and the proto-House music, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse (1981) -- before McGeoch is purged following what is termed a "nervous breakdown" due to alcohol and exhaustion.

McGeoch is called "the Jimmy Page of New Wave." His work with Howard Devoto on Magazine's Real Life (1978) defines Post-Punk and, as I proffered in a previous Hippies vs. Punks, presciently captures the sound of the 1980s. McGeoch's 2004 obituary in The Independent describes his joining the Banshees:
In 1980, the "guitarist for hire" came to the attention of Siouxsie and the Banshees, then a trio of the singer Siouxsie Sioux, the bassist Steve Severin and the drummer Budgie, with occasional help from the Cure's Robert Smith. "I was surprised to get the call," said McGeoch. "Steve Strange told me to wear black and we met up in a pub in Notting Hill. They invited me along to their rehearsal studio in Camden and, within two days, we'd routined 'Happy House.' They really liked that guitar line, that was the clincher. I was going through a picky phase, as opposed to strumming. 'Happy House' was lighter and had more musicality in it. They invited me to join. I was sad leaving Magazine but the Banshees were so interesting and it felt like a good move."

I had both Kaleidoscope and Juju back in the day in the early 1980s. I remember being home, skipping class in order to finish papers that were due at the end of the week. I remember sitting in the kitchen at the kitchen table in front of the television which also doubled as a computer monitor. My live-in girlfriend had a Texas Instruments TI-99, one of the first personal computers; it hooked up to the TV. We used it mostly as a word processor on which we composed our college papers. It was balky, and if you jostled the software cartridges that fit into the keyboard you could lose everything you were working on.

Like I say, I have memories of being home alone on dark overcast afternoons, probably in 1984, and sitting in the kitchen in front of the television / Texas Instruments TI-99 monitor and listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees records I had playing on the stereo in the living room. "Spellbound" was my favorite track. It seemed at the time to have more testosterone than anything else around.

Immersing myself this week in the three McGeoch Siouxsie and the Banshees albums, it is clear that these are great records. Kaleidoscope is fantastic. I particularly like "Trophy" and "Clockface."

Kaleidoscope is more like Join Hands in that the individual cuts cohere to form a whole whose sum is far greater and more different than its parts. But with Juju you have an album that is loaded with songs that rock and rock hard repeatedly throughout the album. "Sin in My Heart" and "Monitor" are two fine examples, but really every track has ass-kicking quality. McGeoch's guitar playing and Budgie's drumming drive the album.

I never owned A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, McGeoch's last album with the band. At first I was put off by the Flashdance (1983) vibe of the first track, "Cascade":

The drums have that flat, bottom-heavy, slightly echoey sound that becomes prevalent in the 1980s. This is not noticeable in the video clip above. Budgie's drums sound warm here. (But look at the size of the audience, and the size of Budgie's kit; he's a veritable Post-Punk Carl Palmer!)

In any event, after listening to A Kiss in the Dreamhouse several times, I got over my aversion to its Flashdance aspects. It is a complex, rich album that was ahead of its time; it forecasts the urban dance hall revival of the 1980s. But at the same time it also is the end of the line for Post-Punk.