Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sometime in the ‘80s, I read that the infant mortality rate on the South Side of Chicago rivaled that of 3rd World countries. With Reagan’s drive to cut spending promoting the social good, I quipped to my late, beloved Republican dad, “Reagan wants to turn America into a 3rd World country.”

In 1996, when Clinton was starting to build a budget surplus, and Dole was campaigning on the theme of cutting taxes, I said to my dad, “A fiscal conservative would vote for the Democrats.”

In 2000, when Bush was campaigning on tax cuts tax cuts tax cuts, and Nader was running around wooing progressives away from the centrist Gore, I went around raving, “Bush wants to trash the economy.” The Clinton budget surplus had made repairing the social safety net a plausible possibility, the idea of which clearly drove Republicans bananas; the Clinton-era prosperity had also seen an increase in real wages and union participation, both ideas also driving Republicans bananas.

In the 2004 campaign, Bush made his link to 3rd World oligarchic ideology explicit: He campaigned on the elimination of taxes on interest, capital gains, dividends, and inheritance; in other words, only work would be taxed, while income from ownership would not. As I said at the time, that’s neo-feudalism, baby. Fortunately, Bush didn’t get this part of his agenda enacted.

Bush’s new proposed no-strings, no-oversight, blank-check, $700,000,000,000 bail-out for failed investment and banking firms is another attempt at the continued neo-feudal 3rd-World-ization of the U.S. Let’s tax the 98% to bail out the 2%. Let’s let the 2% get off scot-free.

Of course, Katrina laid the 3rd-World conditions, which pertain to significant sectors of the U.S., bare already.

* * *

The Republican Party bought a $10 million dollar insurance policy for the St. Paul police, protecting them against brutality lawsuits resulting from their actions during the Republican Convention. They bought this policy shortly after New York City lost lawsuits brought be people who were brutalized by the police during the 2004 Republican Convention.

Suppressing dissent is illegal.

But the Republicans had to have it done.

And they were willing to pay for it.

I was in San Francisco during the Democratic Convention in 1984. A peace-activist group led tours of the financial district during the days of the convention. The tour consisted of a man or a woman leading a group of 2 or 3 dozen people, repeating this formula as they passed different offices:

“This is building A; corporation B has offices here; they build weapons system C; they give D amount of money to the Republican Party and E amount of money to the Democratic Party.”

As I recall, in every case they gave more money to the Republican Party, but lots to the Democrats too.

One day in a parking lot across from the convention, half a dozen punk bands gave a free concert. I don’t remember all of the bands, but MDC and the Dead Kennedys played two of the best sets I have ever seen in my life.

MDC’s singer was a cheerful man built like a football player with a mohawk. At one point a skinny mohawked teenager climbed onstage and grabbed the microphone in the middle of a song, taking over the lead vocals -- he had the lyrics down. The singer put his arm around the lad, and mouthed the words off-mike, acting the words out with his free hand, happy as could be. At another time a middle-aged drunk climbed onstage, grabbed the mike, and started bellowing blues. As the band kicked a groove behind him, the frontman led a bunch of skinny teenage lads onstage, and they paraded around in a circle, dancing around the impromptu singer. It was beautiful, memorable, inspiring.

The three white members of Dead Kennedys came out in Ku Klux Klan hoods, with smiley faces painted at the tops of the cones, with crosses for eyes. Sometime through the set lead singer Jello Biafra tour off his hood to reveal a stage-blood-streaked Reagan mask; and as he leapt around the stage like a man possessed, rage-spitting his lyrics, it was sight to behold. During one song stage divers pushed Biafra offstage -- perhaps inadvertently but probably not -- and Biafra disappeared from view, never missing a syllable as he continued his spew, until the crowd lifted him back onto the stage. When the song was over, Biafra was pissed. A great show.

Between sets, while bands were unplugging to make room for the next, a rabble rouser would try to rile up the crowd.

“The SFPD illegally arrested the peace tour of the Financial District today! After the Dead Kennedys” -- they were the headliners, playing last -- “After the Dead Kennedys, we’re all going to march to the Hall of Justice and demand that they be set free!”

And so that’s what happened -- but not exactly. A few thousand people marched after the Dead Kennedys, but instead of the 75 or so people who had been arrested being set free, another 260 or so people got arrested. Most of the new arrestees got sprung that night, but the original 75 didn’t get out until the next day.

As in St. Paul, no charges were brought.

When I got back home to Michigan a week later, I expected there to be a buzz about 335 people being arrested in one day for no reason. Nope. No buzz. Nobody had heard a thing about it. The news organizations had failed to report it. Suppressed themselves.

Because of the internet, this is no longer possible, so when Amy Goodman got arrested in St. Paul for no reason, people around the world heard about it that night.

The Republican Party put up the money for the St. Paul Police to clamp down.

In a real 3rd World country, I suppose, the brutalized and suppressed would have no recourse in the courts to their illegal arrests, and taking out insurance against the likelihood of police brutality would not be necessary.

-- photo from the Boston Globe.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Singer-songwriter John Shaw headlined Friday's lunch hour in
Columbia City at one of 31 sites around the city where parking
spaces were converted to temporary, tiny parks.
Photo by Paul Joseph Brown / Seattle P-I

It's not exactly fame, but I’m on the front page of the Seattle P-I today. An acquaintance was putting together an outdoor arts event 2 blocks from my office and asked me to play (she'd never heard me), so I went down there at lunch and shouted into the traffic for a half hour. Got a free lunch out of it too, because it was outside a hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint -- Roy’s Barbecue -- where I'm a regular, and I made up a jingle for the owner, who's a really nice guy, on the spot. (The jingle needs work.) Such a low-key, last-minute gig that I didn't even tell close friends and family members that I spoke with
yesterday on the phone about it.

Random, silly; but what the heck.

Also note well: The rapt attention of my audience!

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Mike Love

Music can open up an abyss of longing. A hanging phrase can conjure any sweet moment you’ve experienced, and recall its absence, tantalize you with its seeming closeness and unbridgeable far-ness. And hearing that abyss open you up in the music doesn’t hurt -- it feels good. The abyss is usually -- some would say always; I’d say usually -- here with us, and the work of ignoring it is necessary for daily functioning, but tiring. When the music embraces us in our abysses, the labor of repression instantly eases. It feels good to feel bad -- far, far better than not feeling at all.

The Beach Boys at Safeco Field Tuesday night knew those abysses. One of the few moments where they departed significantly from the original records’ arrangements came near the close of their honeypot marriage fantasy, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” that sweet teen song where the singer serenades his beloved about how being older will be nice because then they won’t have to wait so long --

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And after having spent the day together
Hold each other close the whole night long

-- because, of course, this is 1960s pop culture teen representationalism, where spending the night together doesn’t happen until marriage.

They protracted the song’s close, slowing down the already-slow arrangement, and layering on even thicker Four Freshmen-style harmonies than on the original, singing slowly, thickly, syruply sweetly --

You know it seems the more we talk about it
It only makes it worse to live without it
But let’s talk about it
Wouldn’t it be nice?

Yes yes yes, my beloved, embrace that abyss of longing. It’s the human condition.

Mike Love has visibly aged since I last saw him two years ago, and his voice is weaker, but his jokes are funnier, and he’s just as mincing and ridiculous, making a constant mockery of his advanced age and of rock presentation style in general. The Beach Boys touring band -- only Mike and Bruce Johnston from the golden age are still in the band -- is fine, and people like it when the lead guitarist makes rockface minstrel faces during his guitar solos, but Love is always there, making a mockery.

Good for him.

Nobody can really pull off Brian Wilson’s lead vocals -- or Dennis or Carl’s, for that matter; and not even Mike does his young self justice any more -- but that band sings those lush harmonies beautifully.

The songs are old. One of the “latter” classic songs -- by which Beach Boys students generally mean any song after 1966 -- one that looks back nostalgically at the earlier, more golden period, is now 40 years old. And hearing the old men singing a nostalgic song about their early adulthood, written in their slightly later but still young adulthood, the poignance riveted me.

Well I’ve been thinking ‘bout
all the places
we’ve surfed and danced and
all the faces
we’ve missed so let’s get
back together and Do It Again!

Mike was an avatar of the nonchalant doo-wop style of lead singing, giving the impression of tossing off his vocal, too cool to care much about your reaction; the complexity and truth of the nonchalant persona with the passionate accompaniment and undercurrent, the accompaniment raging with desire and the persona feigning indifference -- its a staple of rock and roll and subsequent styles without much vocal precedence, though it has some instrumental precedence in jazz. Love’s lead vocals were a key ingredient on a huge percentage of their early-period classic numbers , and he wrote or co-wrote lyrics on lots of them too.

His voice is thinner now, and sometimes he doesn’t even try to hit his rhythms right, making like an artist, in a weird ambivalence of love and devotion to the music and the listeners blended with the constant undercutting of making mock. The band was better when I saw them two years ago, but nothing then touched me as much as the abyss of longing that opened up in me when the falsetto man sang Brian’s vocalise part after the first verse of “Do It Again” -- a tear came to my eye as I realized that I do want to do it all again, I want the past to eternally recur, I embrace it all, even my failures and wincing cowardices, I embrace it all, as does Mike Love, as did Nietzsche. The paradox of memory, the past clinging to us as time flows swiftly forward; the past, with its sweetness and pain, its time-obliterating loves and its terrible absences. How I wish we could get back together and do it again! (The last time I played bridge with my grandpa’s cousins, one of whom died suddenly a couple of months later, the other of whom died a couple years after that . . . )

Love introduced “Be True to Your School” as “one of the most patriotic songs ever written and recorded.” My own “school” loyalty buzzed me, as I mused that it’s the only Beach Boys song I’ve covered, and only once, when my high school band had a reunion 8 years ago, at my brother’s house, and my brother sang lead; that was a time, that was a time.

Love is 67 now and still singing the poignant song of transition and insecurity, “When I Grow Up To Be a Man.” I know many grown men and women who still feel in transition, who still hope to accomplish something “when they grow up.”

We didn’t stay for much of the show, because we went on last-minute free tickets, and my son fell asleep hard in my lap very early in the concert and then squirmed uncomfortably about the time we would have left to get him to bed on a school night anyway; when he cried out with a bad dream it was time to go. Glad to have been there. Hope to do it again some day, but if it doesn’t come to pass, the memory shall linger pleasantly, until, perhaps, it becomes its own abyss of longing.

-- Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Thursday, September 04, 2008

UPDATED, FRIDAY NIGHT, with the mystery of the mansion-backdrop resolved, below.
[I cut the picture of the Oscar statue that originally headed this post and replaced it with a still from McCain's speech with the confusing backdrop.]

The first several minutes of McCain’s speech felt like an Oscar winner’s.

Probably because: This is his peak, his apex, his high watermark. He ain’t going any higher than this.

He had some stumbles over his line readings, but on the whole the speech worked, if you discount the misrepresentations, which you probably should, because, even if he gets called to account for them, the vast majority of listeners will never hear the corrections. It was brave of him to criticize his own party, but he is no outsider, and Palin is no reformer.

I missed part of the speech before the end, but his talk of his experiences as a POW was moving, and his call to service and to not give up was stirring. I missed Cindy McCain’s speech, but she’s attractive in the reaction shots, as are both of the Palins -- they all remind me of my relatives. I come from a Republican family; neither the Bidens nor the Obamas reminded me of my relatives, except, come to think of it, Barack’s sudden outbursts into a joyous grin when talking to or about his family, and of course his daughters were adorable Every Children.

The video backdrop for the opening of McCain’s speech puzzled me -- a vast green lawn in front of a mansion on a sunny day -- was it one of his mansions? I don’t know. Didn’t get it. Seemed like a bad idea. The cornfield later was better, and then the blue sky with an American flag flying was good too.

But the end, with the two couples pacing the stage waving to the crowd -- McCain looked old. He moves like an old man. He has undoubtedly shrunk, and his younger wife looks taller than him. That was interesting -- he isn’t nearly as tall as and doesn’t come of as nearly as vigorous as Reagan was at a similar age.

Congratulations on your Oscar, Senator McCain. I do not know for certain, but I think the majority of voters will prefer a newer direction than you can offer. I hope so.

* * *


Talking Points Memo reports that the building projected on the video backdrop for the opening of McCain’s Thursday night speech was Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood, California. Apparently Team McCain considerably whitened the building for their show.

It seems that McCain’s team intended a backdrop of Walter Reed Army Medical Center but goofed on the Google.

(And by the way, that was footage, not a still shot, of the high school -- at one point the TV network I watched showed someone walking into the high school behind McCain.)

TPM followed up with a statement from Walter Reed Middle School principal Donna Tobin:

“It has been brought to the school's attention that a picture of the front of our school, Walter Reed Middle School, was used as a backdrop at the Republican National Convention. Permission to use the front of our school for the Republican National Convention was not given by our school nor is the use of our school's picture an endorsement of any political party or view.”

When I first saw this cover of Us magazine, I thought it was a parody, but it’s the real deal. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner also publishes Us, which, if I ever knew, I had forgotten. I’ve often poked fun at RS, but it publishes good investigative journalism from a liberal, humanist perspective, so it’s no surprise that Wenner has decided to let his political instincts coincide with his gossip-mag-mogul instincts with this cover. Good for him. If such treatment is good enough for the sister of a pop star, it’s good enough for a Vice Presidential candidate.

I’ve been enjoying the Palin train wreck. Good luck to us all, when the Vice Presidential candidate of a major party believes in teaching Creationism in the schools and doesn’t believe that global warming has human causes. As others have pointed out, in a sane polity, those positions would be automatically disqualifying.

For months, I have been reading of how Republicans don’t trust John McCain. Now I understand why. He’s rash, he’s a gambler. After the masterly stage-crafty Democratic convention, with powerful, persuasive speeches galore, McCain panicked and picked somebody about which he knew very little.

Meanwhile, Dem Veep candidate Joe Biden has said that an Obama administration would not shy away from pursuing criminal charges against the Bush administration if evidence showed the need. Sounds good, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

An Obama presidency will eliminate neither the horrors of the Bush years nor the Democratic Party’s culpability in them, but it will be a huge step in the right direction. And, it really has been moving to see an African American man nominated for President by a major party, as it would have been to see a woman (though I would prefer someone who wasn’t a legacy candidate, as Hillary, sharp and energetic as she is and appealing as she can be, clearly was).

Go Obama.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A robin hatching on the circuit breaker box on our back porch, earlier this summer.

First day of kindergarten today. The usual bundle of nerves, pride, and excitement among parents and child, and accompanied with the usual parental wistfulness. My beloved spouse and I both got close to getting misty, and I might have, except that I have a wicked cold and my eye was dripping already. The kid was in “serious” mode, which accompanies a Big Deal that’s also a New Experience. We have two friends in the same class, and those parents were feeling it all too. Whew!

When I picked him up at the end of the day, he liked it, he’s excited -- and I hope he doesn’t get too bored. He shouldn’t -- it’s a Mandarin immersion program, so half the day will be doing that, which, although he’s been doing it for two years in pre-school, should still present fresh challenges.

He’s more than ready. He’s reading English better all the time, stumbling over fewer multi-syllabic words, and his math is pretty well along. Haven’t made it to division, but he’s doing some multiplication, and some percentages. In his head.

“If the bill is $50, and there’s nine and a half percent tax, what will the total be?”

He thinks for a moment. He needs to break it down. 10% of 50 is 5, so 9.5% would be four and a half. Four and a half added to the original $50 . . .

“Fifty-four and a half.”

Not quite, but close. Fifty-four and three quarters. His mother and I are both good at math, and we work on problems together, but we weren’t this good at 5.

We’re still making our way through The Hobbit, more slowly now that we’re not all on vacation. The kid knows there are 305 pages. The other night I told him we had stopped on page 189.

“That means there are.” he paused for a moment. “116 pages to go.”

I know a lot of adults who couldn’t subtract 189 from 305 in their heads. I don’t tell the kid this, but I do give him a high five. I was somewhat startled.

We’re all still enjoying The Hobbit, but I think he likes the Bugs Bunny DVD collection that our neighbor lent him even more.

First day of school!

Bigger deal for parents, probably.

And that’s fine fine fine.

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