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When Elvis Died

Named after an essay by Lester Bangs, a rock journalist and one of the my favorite authors, this blog is my scratch pad for ideas, commentaries, and links.

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Tuesday
Feb162010

T-shirts of the past--pt 3 Henry Rollins

"Won't sleep, won't shut up"...words to live by.    

I bought it on a Washington High School Orchestra Trip to Kansas City.  We used to do these crazy trips with High School choirs, bands, and orchestras, where we would travel, and play some music, and then get set loose on wherever we ended up.   On this particular occasion, we decided to visit scenic Kansas city.  I'm pretty sure DHP was there, but I definitely remember Michael Busha, and Dylan McCort (Rest In Peace).  We were wandering around some mall, and I found this shirt in a Spencer gifts-type shop.  I was astonished, as I had just discovered Henry Rollins spoken word stuff, thanks to the Minister of Intrigue, I believe.  

If anyone could be said to have been in the right place at the right time, it's Henry Rollins.

Click to read more ...

Sunday
Jan312010

T-shirts of the past pt 2--Tastee Inn and Out

 

My dad grew up in Sioux City, Iowa.  Sioux City is an interesting place, and it's a pleasure to listen to him talk about its folklore.  He has a whole map in his head with all of the town's hidden mysteries, and I've been priveleged to take that tour more than once. 

One of the points of reference in Sioux City is the Tastee Inn and Out.

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Jan272010

T-Shirts of the past Pt 1--Intro and Amadeus

I have many, many t-shirts.  I've always liked T-shirts--they're one of the most referential forms of clothing you can buy, and for an obsessive nerd like me, a t-shirt with a logo, a band, a phrase, or something else was a way of distinguishing myself.  In some ways, it was kind of like a hyperlink--an object that points to an entirely separate series of information.  The irony of distinguishing myself through a commodity is not lost on my faux-marxist brain....

But of course, like all artifacts, T-shirts (or any clothing for that matter) carry emotions, memories, and associations independent of their production.  It's one of the great ironies of capitalist life--we're always subverting and reconfiguring the things we buy toward new ends, undreamed of by people who made them and sold them to us.  For clothes, this is especially salient, I think, because clothes are so embodied--we carry them next to our skin, and they are with us in almost all of our daily interactions with other people.  

Thus, I always have a hard time when I'm cleaning out my closet.  I have T-shirts that I love, and would never want to part with, but simply can't wear, for any number of reasons.  But, I hit upon a solution, and I figured that I would get started enacting that solution today.  

I've taken pictures of T-shirts that I'm discarding, and using them as an excuse to write about the memories and feelings they inspire.  It's maybe a little self-indulgent, but it's also a means for me to get rid of some old clothes, and exorcise/exercise the memories that I have attached to them.  I've created a Flickr set of my t-shirts, which you can see here, and I'll do a post on each shirt in the series over the coming weeks.  

When I was 14, my High School drama department held auditions for "Amadeus", and I tried out on a lark.  I had always liked theater, and had done some smaller plays and other skit-type things when I was a little kid.  Plus, I loved the movie, and F. Murray Abraham's searing portrait of Salieri, a man pulled in two by his own jealousy and his love for music, inspired me to want to play the same character.  Of course, I had never acted before in my High School, and I totally expected to not get a part, or to get a background role. 

I wandered into school the day after auditions to find the roles list posted on the door of the drama office.  I scanned the list, starting at the bottom, and as I moved upward, I didn't see my name, and assumed that I simply hadn't been cast.  It was only when I got to the top that I found my name, next to the part of Mozart.  At first, I didn't believe it.  There is a role in the play for a "Mozart Double" and I assumed that I had been given that role.  But after a minute, I realized that I was playing the real deal.  As Emperor Joseph II says:  "Well. There it is"

I really threw myself into the part, working on my high-pitched giggle, learning to play the piano part that Mozart uses to show up Salieri in front of the Emperor by rote, and teaching myself to breathe slowly and slightly when Mozart died.  Somehow, during the dress rehearsal in the dark of the back-stage, I managed to walk into an old water pipe, and cut my head open enough to get six stitches. Fortunately, we had wigs that covered our foreheads and my injury remained hidden through the performance.  

It was a wonderful experience, and I'll never forget it.  I kept up with Theater all through High School, playing Shakespeare, musicals, Greek comedies, farce, high drama, and more.  In college, I was involved with a great group called "Theater for Engineers" and spent a few more fleeting moments onstage with some amazing people.  Since I've come to grad school, time and interest for acting have faded from my life, but many of the skills I learned have come in handy in teaching--poise, clear speaking, and comfort at talking in front of a crowd among them.

So here's to acting, and to a time in my life when nothing seemed more natural than putting on a costume and talking with someone else's voice. 

Tuesday
Sep292009

Thanks a lot

The senate finance committee voted against the "public option" today.  I call it like I see it. 

Tuesday
Sep082009

One Track Mind: Good Feeling by Violent Femmes

Violent Femmes self-titled first record has stayed in rotation in my playlist since I heard it at age 15, and "Good Feeling" is one of the reasons why. People talk a lot about opening tracks on records--I'm reminded of the "Side 1, track 1" scene in High Fidelity--but sometimes the closing track of a record reveals a context to the previous songs that might not be apparent.  Violent Femmes is a artistic monument to self-worship, most it revelling in anthems to feeling alienated and isolated, and the strength that you can find when you face the world alone.  "Kiss Off" and "Add it up" perhaps best exemplify this, but it's clear on songs like "Blister in the Sun"--surely one of the greatest anthems to self-love--or "Promise" where singer Gordon Gano gets so caught up with his internal struggle between his "logic" and his "defenses" that he ends up pleading his paramour for "some sign to pursue, a promise" because "your unhappy--this only a guess."  Even the vocal arrangements exemplify this.  Gano and his bandmates sing together on many of the songs, but it's almost always call-and-response--someone is invariably singing alone. 

"Good Feeling" is the last track on the original record (newly pressed versions have bonus tracks), and it represents perhaps one of the most violent (ho ho ho) right turns in all of popular music.  The previous songs had been snarls and frantic spasms of music and words, but "Good Feeling" is slow and sad--the sigh at the end of the argument.  Gano's nasal voice trades in its anger for longing, longing that the good feelings would stay, "just a little longer". Bandmates Brian Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo (and Martin Hecke) provide the perfect backdrop of piano, bass, and softly played drums, and Gano plays a simple, yet achingly beautiful violin solo about half-way through.  The first note of that solo is still one of my favorite sounds on any album, ever. 

Eventually, we discover the source of the good feelings, when Gano sings "Oh Dear lady, won't you stay with me, just a little longer".  It's a cry for companionship at the end of an album stubbornly devoted to isolation, and suddenly Gano's previous urgency and snarky rejection of those around him feels weak and defensive.  As if to bring that point home, the song ends with the band, for the first time, singing in harmonies together.  It's an outro worthy to be included with the likes of "Hey Jude", and the seemingly meaningless final words say more than meaningful lyrics ever could.

 "Good Feeling" transforms Violent Femmes  from a collection of singles into a cohesive and timeless album.  There is a lot on this record about frustrtation, alienation, and anger--emotions often associated with being a teenager--but "Good Feeling" reminds me that all emotions come in cycles, and continue to, long after we grow out of our adolescence.   We may get caught up in them from time to time, but what brings us out is other people.  The connections we make, the love we share, the friendship we hold--these are the things that give context to those darker emotions, and the small strength we often need need to find as we stare inward gives way to the peace we can find when we reach out our hands to someone else.   

Thursday
Sep032009

Review: Frightened Rabbit @ The Iron Horse,  7-25-09

 

I came away from seeing Frightened Rabbit feeling happier and more full of joy than I had from seeing a band in a long time.  As I wrote earlier this year, I was a huge fan of their 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight.  Unfortunately, all of the things I loved about the record--the almost-humiliating honesty, the exuberance of emotion, and the wild-eyed desperation--seemed like prime candidates for touring fatigue, where the intensity and forthrightness of the recorded sound would gradually dissipate with the necessity of playing the same songs night after night. Some of my favorite bands disappoint for that very reason. 

Thankfully, Frightened Rabbit did not disappoint.  In many ways, the album's spastic emotional bursts exploded even more on stage, with brothers Scott and Grant Hutchinson as the focal points of that energy.  Scott (singer, guitar player, and songwriter) seemed ready to burst at any moment, his voice pushing its own limits, the guitar clasped in his hands like the last rung of a rope ladder above the ocean. 

But the real surprise for me was Grant Hutchinson.  His meticulous drumming on the album provided a rhythmic complexity that the songs, played on their own, might not have suggested.  But with the first few beats of "Modern Leper", once you hear those drums, you can't imagine the songs without them.  Hearing the songs live, I realized how necessary and powerful the drums were, as powerful as Scott Hutchinson's pleading voice--the drums were an emotional counterpoint to the lyrics. And on top of that, Grant's singing would rise out of the speakers, its source not immediately determinable until Scott would thrash away, and you would seem him straining against the mic, his eyes closed and his arms a blur as he pounded out rhythms on the drums.

Between songs they were funny, self-depreciating, and engaged, laughing and joking with each other, and with us.  They invited the audience to sing along on "Poke", which Scott played sans-microphone or amplification, which somehow made the embarrassingly intimate song even more intimate and less embarrassing. 

If you don't have the record, buy it .  If you haven't seen them live yet, find a way to do it. 

 

 

Tuesday
Aug182009

Some thoughts on Ideology

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Healther Skelter - Obama Death Panel Debate
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Healthcare Protests

 

I love this clip--it encompasses everything the Daily Show does best, and brings into stark relief why the health care debate (if you want to call name-calling and screaming matches a debate) is a great example of capitalist ideology in action. 

"Ideology" is an interesting concept.  Historically, it came out of the contradictions of the French revolution, as the late anthropologist Eric Wolf pointed out.  In practical terms, it is often used as an epithet, to polemically charge an opponent with what Wolf termed "interested error".  Thus, conservatives see a "liberal ideology", liberals a "conservative ideology", al qaeda terrorists "ideologies of hate", this or that public figure has a "radical ideological agenda", etc..... If you can prove your opponent is "ideological", they lose, and you win. You don't even have to justify whether your own position is also "ideological". This, of course, pre-supposes that there is a purely un-ideological way of looking at the world, and that ideology is deviation from that. And of course, it also supposes that "I" am looking clearly, without warping effects of ideology.

But whenever you try to carry the term beyond whatever shouting match you happen to be in, this version of ideology loses coherence.  This kind of political ideology has no necessary conditions in race, class, gender, age, or geography.  There are some correlations (African Americans tend to identify as liberal, for example), but there are also enough counter examples to make ascribing political ideology to social factors a thorny prospect. 

And if the alternative is that we simply choose our ideologies based on preferences, then which ideology is right? Right now at least, the seems to be something called a "moderate" or "independent". Agreement is reached that both ideologies are extreme, and the goal is common ground. Which is why I reject the idea that ideology comes down to "interested error". If that's true, it means that all the fights, and all the bluster about who's right ultimately in politics comes down to making both people right. Difference, so important polemically, disappears in the face of comprimise.

A broader notion of ideology instead sees it as a way of explaining and justifying the world as it exists, and of maintaining that world.  For us, that means that ideology is ultimately about sustaining and reproducing capitalism.  Under this reading, ideology is not about difference, but about same-ness; about keeping the world, and the people in it, in the same patterns.  Liberalism and conservatism may have disagreements on how to do this, but they ultimately agree that it should be done.  Or, to get back to the clip above--we can disagree on what the death panels should do, but we all know that we need them. The problem of ideology then is not which one you choose, but of the circumstances that make those choices the only ones available. 

If that's a little too  satirical for you, consider this.  The Democrats Health Care bill, H.R. 3200 is called the "America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009".  Despite all the talk about socialized medicine, the two salient words in that title are "affordable" and "choice", both of which point toward markets and consumption.  The bill does very little to attack market forces in the health industry--the whole concern about a public option is ultimately about setting up another consumer "choice", in the interests of "keeping costs down".  These are important ideas, but as ideologies, they ultimately tie us to the world as it is, rather than as it could be, or should be.   

Wednesday
May132009

Jared Diamond and Papua New Guinea

With anthropology (my chosen field of study) being distant from the levers of power these days, it's rare that a controversy within the discipline spills up over the tall walls that surround the ivory tower, and into public discourse.  But recently, a scandal has erupted that has broken down those walls, and shined a light on the proverbial (and literal) skeletons in anthropology's closet.

Jared Diamond, author of the Pullitzer prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel , as well as Collapse , and The Third Chimpanzee , and lessor known, but academically influential articles like "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race" (agriculture, by the way) wrote an article last year in the New Yorker Magazine called "Vengeance is ours:  What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?" (registration required).  In this article, he profiles a guy named Daniel Wemp, an indigenous resident of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and uses his life, and quests for revenge, to tell a story about the tragedy of violence in human society.  When it came out, I got into an e-argument with some folks over at Boing Boing because I said that Diamond wasn't an anthropologist, had no formal training in anthropology, and wasn't in an anthropology department (he's trained as an ornithologist, and has a position in the geography program at UCLA). Alongside that argument was a general critique I have of Diamond's work, which basically boils down to him being an ecological-determinist--someone who views human history and social progress as a product of the environmental variation, rather than of human action and inequality. 

Within the last month, it has come to light that Daniel Wemp, the PNG man that Diamond had quoted in his article, is suing Diamond and the New Yorker for $10 million dollars, for slander--Wemp claims that Diamond fabricated huge sections of their conversations, including stories of murder and sexual assault supposedly perpetrated by Wemp in his "primitive" need for revenge.  You can read about Wemp's claims against Diamond at here, at the Website stinkyjournalism.org, run by Rhonda Shearer, the widow of one of my science heroes, Dr. Stephen Jay Gould.  (As an aside, Gould was a brilliant and groundbreaking evolutionary biologist, a tireless crusader against all forms of shoddy science, including racist socio-biology, to which Diamond's eco-determinism is a not-so-distant cousin, and creationism, as well as being a rabid baseball fan.)

At its heart, this lawsuit is tied to anthropology's deeply colonialist legacy.  Anthropology got its start as the science of cataloging people that Western nations had conquered and exploited in other parts of the world.  In America, Anthropology springs from two large roots--the cataloguing and documenting of indigenous people, as well as the exhuming of them and their ancestors remains , and the quest to determine the biological fixity of race, in order to perpuate slavery and white supremacy (no links, but see Chapter 2 of Gould's book The Mismeasure of Man .)  Diamond's books are anthropological, even if he isn't an anthropologist per se, and he is consciously or not, continuing a tradition of exploitation and marginalization of non-white indigenous people across the world. 

What is so ironic to me is that Daniel Wemp is from Papua New Guinea, and Diamond begins "Guns, Germs, Steel" with a conversation he had with another Papua New Guinean--a man named Yali.  The book starts with Yali and Diamond walking on a beach in PNG, and Yali asks Diamond "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo, and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"  The title of the book is Diamond's answer to that question, and he spends the next few hundred pages articulating why geography, environment, and resources led to Europe expansion to places like PNG. 

But Diamond glosses over the historical context of the question.  For more on this, you can can read Gewertz and Errington's book "Yali's Question: Sugar, Culture, and History" .  Diamond describes Yali as a "local politican" who had a "role in getting local people to prepare for self government".  This is a gross over-simplification of Yali's place in Papua New Guinean society.  Yali had been a religious and political leader since after WWII, when he had served, with commendation in the Australian Army.  After returning to PNG and attempting to utilize what he had learned in Australia to modernize the country, and re-inspire indigenous religious traditions (the most famous of which is the so-called Cargo Cult, and see also Lawrence's Road Belong Cargo ), he was deemed a threat by the Australian colonial authority, and put in prison.  While in prison, and afterward, he organized strikes and other protests against the government and capitalist plantation interests whom he felt had turned on him and his people (can't find any web citations, but I think it's documented in Marvin Harris's Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches   He was one of the central figures in the drive toward New Guinean independence.  In 1972, when Diamond met him, he had become disillusioned with politics, and even though PNG would soon become independent of Australia, he was still concerned with the inequality that the cash-crop system and its capitalist exploitation had wrought in his country.  His question to Diamond was not about why his people didn't have more "things", but why colonialists had more than their fair share, and his people had so much less.  In short, Yali's question was about inequality, not about environment.

Okay, here's a summary of some great pieces providing extensive context on this controversy:

1.)Diamond's original New Yorker article, which unfortunately is by Subscription only, and may have been taken down by the New Yorker after the controversy ensued.

2.)The Summary of Wemp's lawsuit and claims against Diamond's article, written by Shearer and her colleagues.  To my understanding, this is a summary of a much larger report that they have put together, but not yet released.  They also have a good list of articles on this controversy as well, that, I'm happy to say, parallels mine.

3.)Articles on Diamond at Savageminds.org, an anthropology group blog.  These articles, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, have documented the problems and pitfalls of Diamond's article, and are pretty interesting reading on the cultural context of war in New Guinea (itself a long-studied anthropological topic), anthropological ethics, and more.  I don't agree with everything they've written, but there is a lot there, if you're interested in delving.  The comments section is pretty hot right now, and well worth reading for why this is so controversial.

4.)Articles on Diamond by Louis Proyect:  The Unrepentant Marxist.  Proyect is one of my favorite bloggers, and writes with equal skill and verve about socialist party politics, indigenous rights issues, and the latest in cinema.  His articles have contextualized Diamond's work in the larger social history of anthropology, particularly as it relates to state and capitalist exploitation.

 

Tuesday
Apr282009

Playing for Change: Stand By Me

As most people who know me will tell you, I'm a skeptic about the emancipatory power of technology, particularly information technology.  I am enough of a student of history to know that any time someone heralds the equalizing power of some communication revolution, it's usually a cover for its benefits being unevenly distributed, because society is unevenly distributed.  Thus, the more and more we proclaim the Internet as the new democracy, the more and more I fear that it may become a tool of our own domination. 

And of course, the contradiction for me is that I'm a huge geek, and love all these technologies in a totally un-selfconscious way.  I recognize the power they have, even the power they have over me, but I'm so enthralled with their power and potential that I sometimes lose sight of their social context.  When I saw this, from the Concord Music Group's Playing for Change series, I first got excited from the technological end--here were people all across the world, playing the same song!  But then I listened to the song, and watched the faces of the people playing it, and my geeky excitement faded, into rhythm and melody and joy.

 


 

Nothing changes, the world is still as dangerous and deluded as ever.  But for me, for a few minutes, light appeared in a shadowy crevice under my heart...hope it does something for you.

Monday
Apr132009

My favorite Screams: Rage Against the Machine

When I heard, a dozen years ago, that Rage Against the Machine was going to be on Saturday Night Live, I was ecstatic--I was a huge fan of the band, and had been ever since I had heard their eponymous debut in 1993.  When I heard that they were going to be sharing the bill with (thankfully) former Republican presidential candidate Steve "Flat Tax" Forbes, I originally thought it was quite a coup.  At a time when it seemed like politics was all keeping away from people you disagree with, here was a show that was willing to present two very starkly different sides of the political spectrum.

Saturday arrived, and I stayed up late and sat through Forbes' awful monologue, and some terrible sketches where he incessantly promoted his viciously anti-poor policies, and too many commercials to count.

Then Rage came out, and played this:

 

 

It was one of the most electrifying performances I have ever witnessed--even watching it again, 12 years later, almost to the day, I still get goosebumps by how powerful this band was.  Tim Bob and Brad Wilk were in the pocket the whole time, Tom Morello was the image of the avant-garde guitar virtuoso until the end when he lost his shit and thrashed around the stage, and Zach De La Rocha stalked the space between them all like a panther, waiting to strike, then screamed out the final words as the song reached its climax.

I was so excited by this performance--I couldn't wait to see what they would play for their second song.  And then it didn't arrive.  There were more crappy sketches in the dumping ground second half of the show, and then Steve Forbes and the cast came out and thanked everyone (sans Rage) and the credits rolled. I was disappointed, but promptly forgot about it in the haze of Sunday morning.

It was only later that I found out what happened--SNL had kicked Rage Against the Machine out of the building after their song because the band had dared to unfurl upside-down american flags over their amps.  This from a show that had courted controversy since its inception, a show that was legendary for fighting off network censorship, a show that had always tried to be dangerous. 

Looking back on it, I think this is a good lesson in why "balance" in the abstract always means, in practice, the ceding of the discussion to the powerful.  SNL's producers probably thought it would be a great idea to have an arch-conservative and a radical leftist band on the same bill.  They probably thought that this was the ultimate expression of democracy, and the free exchange of oppositional ideas.  What they forgot (or didn't want to admit) was that, in a stratified society, with unimaginable extremes of wealth and poverty, and unequal power, somebody gets to decide whose ideas are worth exchanging and whose aren't. 

Let that be a warning to all who argue that expanded communication alone will save us from the ails of the world.