Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: THE LAST DAYS OF CALIFORNIA

The Last Days of California is a quirky and interesting little novel by Mary Miller about something we usually don't think much about. What's often overlooked when one of these messianic movements gives out a date for the Rapture or the end of the world is the effect on the children of the adults that follow the leader. These novel takes place in the three days before one of these prophecies is supposed to come to pass, told from the viewpoint of the 15YO daughter of the man that leads the family. The first forty pages establish the general ignorance and cupidity of the parents, from the teen's eyes, but the remainder of the book is a nice little surprise. As the journey continues, the teen starts to come out of her self-imposed shell experiencing some things in life for the first time, begins to more fully live-- and her perspective about her parents and her sister softens as the awful reality hits that the world is not going to end. And at the end of the book, it appears that while the Rapture may not have come, a new world is dawning for the narrator and the family, too. It's a neat tale, perhaps a little too neat, but a nice one to read, especially with what is going on in the world at this time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

THE 50: #37, PRECIOUS, The Pretenders

The Pretenders are perhaps the most intriguing "might have been" in the history of rock. Their first album was amazing, and their second was almost as good--the only way it could possibly be labeled "disappointing" was by comparison to the debut. They could play different types of songs, different beats, slow and fast, wry and mean, wistful and painful--all magnificently. Chrissie Hynde was the best front woman in punk/New Wave--mostly because she wrote some true masterpieces, but also because her steel guitar work allowed James Honeyman-Scott to work magic on the lead. Martin Chambers was, and is, an excellent drummer, and Pete Farndon was one of the best bassists of all time, right at the top of the list during the Golden Age of bass players (others included John McVie of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Hook of Joy Division, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, Benjamin Orr of The Cars, and Bruce Foxton of The Jam). Before the death of Scott following two days after the band kicked Farndon out for a nasty heroin habit he could not shake (and he died soon after, too), this band had the potential to be not only the best of their time and place--which they might have been already--but the best of any time and place.
The song that announced their arrival to the world was the first song on the debut album, Precious. It had all the elements of what was to become the band's signature sound--the driving bass, Scott's alternating between keeping the rhythm and ringing solo riffs, Chambers' pounding drums, and Hynde's steel guitar both complementing and contrasting with Scott's licks. Few people heard the song because in 1979--hell, in 2014--you cannot play a song with an sign-off lyric of "Fuck off." But the curse was the icing on the cake of one of the best attitudinal songs ever recorded. Hynde's lyrics are the words of a bitch proudly celebrating how horny she can get, and this was something that was just not given voice in song at that time.
And you have to love a song that managed to work in a reference to Howard the Duck. This song came out some years before the awful movie, so it is a reference to the comic books the movie was based on, which were a cult classic at the time. Howard was trapped on Earth in the comic books, and the song uses the reference in that context--which I only discovered two decades after first hearing the song. When I first found out what the lyrics were, I was totally puzzled by the reference, because it was years before the movie was made.
Anyway, this might be the best first song on a first album that has ever been produced. Everything that the band was about and had to offer is present in this song--and since they were so good, so is the song.
I like the way you cross the street 'cause your precious
Moving through the cleveland heat how precious
Taking rides and all the kicks was so precious
But you know I was shittin' bricks 'cause I'm precious

Made me wanna, made me wanna, you made me make it
Oh, you're so mean

East 55th and euclid avenue was real precious
Hotel sterling coming into view how precious
It's a pity that you bruised my hip 'cause I'm precious
You shouldn't let your manners slip you're too precious

Made me wanna, made me wanna, you made me make it
Oh, you're so mean

We went around and round and round and round and round the
Shoreway
We was a duet duet duet duet do it on the pavement
Oh maybe maybe I'm gonna have a baby
We was a duet oh we do it all night

I was feeling kind of ethereal 'cause I'm precious
I had my eye on your imperial you're so precious
Now howard the duck and mr stress both stayed
Trapped in a world that they never made
But not me baby I'm too precious I had to fuck off

Made me wanna, made me wanna, you made me make it
Oh, you're so mean


Another Travesty of Justice

We're getting a pretty good collection of them now. These official sanctions of injustice; of judicial authority excusing the misdeeds of armed authority, up to and including the killing of unarmed people. It's five in the morning here and I don't really know what's going on in Ferguson right now, but do I really have to?
It's bad enough that the rich and powerful can get away with looting billions and billions of dollars with impunity in today's America. But for substantial portions of our population, their very lives are so cheap as to not warrant arrests when they are willfully ended. I'm white and I'm, if not affluent, not yet completely poor, and so I don't live with day-to-day risk of harassment, arrest, or possible death at the hands of authority. But that does not mean that I don't see it when it happens, and that I don't think it's wrong.
If I lived in Ferguson, you're damn right I would have been on the streets last night. I would not have been burning buildings or firing guns, but damn right I would have been out there, and if anything like that happens in Binghamton--and chances are it will someday--I will be on my own streets. This is bullshit, and it's progressed far enough so that meaningful change short of full-scale revolution isn't going to happen. But I'm at the point in my life where I'm not going to take it quietly anymore. I'm not going to be afraid of officially-sanctioned reprisals, or what people might think of me. I'm not on the front lines, but there's as much of a battle for the hearts and minds of the majority of us as there is on the front lines.
And I think that I am more disgusted by the fifth column, the apologists, the latent and blatant racists willing to excuse even murder because it happened to one of "them," those that cry "law and order" like that phrase actually has some meaning and relevance. Those responsible for "law and order" are the ones that are committing murders, harassing citizens in revenue-gathering operations, and disregarding the very laws they are sworn to uphold as part and parcel of their standard operating procedure, I don't want to hear excuses, and I don't hear "yeah, but...", and I don't want to hear detailed explanations of why blah people are somehow responsible for their own executions because they wear certain clothes, talk in a certain dialect, or are walking around in neighborhoods of their own city than they don't live in.
Wrong is wrong. And murder is murder. And letting someone get away with it without even having to be arrested for it is a travesty of justice. There are no excuses, and there are no justifications. I have (a very little) tolerance for those that claim they are only upset about the violence of some of the protesters, but even those people are often merely disguising less savory motivations and beliefs. But if you are going to be defending Darren Wilson, the grand jury, and otherwise defend the indefensible, I'm telling you now: don't do it where I can hear you. Because as far as I am concerned, you are putting yourself on the side of a boundary that I am never going to be on, and there isn't going to be anything you can ever do to get back on this side of it. There are some lines you don't cross, some things you don't justify, some times where you have to be on the side of what's right. 
There comes a time to where the excuses have to end, and you reveal yourself for who and what you are. This is one of those times.

Monday, November 24, 2014

THE 50: #38, TIE YOUR MOTHER DOWN, Queen

There are two songs by Queen that everybody knows, Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You. Both of these date from the mid-1970's, when Queen was one of the biggest acts in the business. This was back in the day when bands and artists came out with an album a year, made a 6-month tour in support of it, then returned home and started working on the next album, to be released the next year and start the cycle over again. Queen was no exception, and the two songs listed above were from albums that came out in 1975 and 1977, respectively.
But they put one out in 1976, too, and while it didn't have the commercial success of the two that bookended it, "A Day At The Races" was a quality work, too. The big hit off it was Somebody To Love, but as good and memorable as the song was, it was not the best song on the album. One of the best things about Queen was that everyone in the band wrote material and usually was represented on their albums. And Tie Your Mother Down was guitarist Brian May's masterpiece.
There was not a kid in the world that ever tried to or did play guitar that heard this song in the late 1970's that did not try to play the opening salvo. The aggressive rhythm riffs dominate the song (made better by the awesome production values that Queen always insisted upon in their studio work), but every instrument, including the voice of Freddie Mercury, is heard loud and clear and gives its own energy to the tune. The backing vocals (mostly May, in this song) are, again typically of Queen songs, simply magnificent. And May's guitar solo was only great.
The lyrics are not quite up to the best efforts Mercury managed, but they are tongue-in-cheek, cleverly constructed, and given a life of their own by Mercury's exhilarating, almost bacchanalian singing. The subject matter isn't anything special--trying to get into a lover's pants--but the song is fun to listen to, and all the band members have said it was fun to play, as well. Every tour Queen embarked on from the one supporting to this album to Mercury's death featured this song prominently.
It's on my list because at this time of my life, Queen was my favorite band, and I absolutely could not believe that this wasn't the biggest radio hit of its time. This song and Fleetwood Mac got me through the two week period in the eighth grade when school was closed because it was too expensive to heat the building in a month where the temperature never once ventured north of freezing (yes, this really happened, in January and February of 1977). It has stood the test of time rather well, all things considered, as has most of Queen's '70's output (the less said about "Hot Space" and what came after it, the better). There isn't a rock band today that put together a song like this, much less play it.
Get your party gown
Get your pigtail down
Get your heart beatin' baby
Got my timin' right
Got my act all tight
It's gotta be tonight my little
Schoolbabe

Your momma says you don't
And your Daddy says you won't
And I'm boilin' up inside
Ain't no way I'm gonna lose out this time

Tie your Mother down
Tie your Mother down
Lock your Daddy out of doors
I don't need him nosing around
Tie your Mother down
Tie your Mother down
Give me all your love tonight

You're such a dirty louse
Go get outta my house
That's all I ever get from your
Family ties, in fact I don't think I ever heard
A single little civil word
from those guys
But you know I don't give a light
I'm gonna make out all right
I've got a sweetheart hand
To put a stop to all that
Grousin' an' snipin'

Tie your Mother down
Tie your Mother down
Take your little brother swimmin'
With a brick (that's all right)
Tie your Mother down,
Tie your Mother down
Or you ain't no friend of mine

Your momma and your Daddy gonna
Plague me til I die
Why can't they understand I'm just a
Peace lovin' guy
Tie your Mother down
Tie your Mother down.



Book Review: TRAITOR'S STORM

Traitor's Storm, by British mystery writer MJ Trow, was an easy read. I picked the book up out of the library because it centers on Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe as its hero. Marlowe wore many hats in his day, and Trow is basing an entire series on Marlowe's work for Sir Francis Walshingham as essentially a domestic spy. This book focuses on the Spanish Armada invasion attempt of 1588 and what was happening on the Isle of Wight, in the English Channel, as the fleet approached. Marlowe discovers that there is a traitor on the island, and also discovers a series of murders that may or may not be related to the traitorous activities going on around him. The eventual unmasking of the traitor is rather easy to see coming, but the solving of the murders isn't, and there is enough going on in a shortish book to keep the reader interested for a weekend. I didn't much care for the implication at the end of the book that it was actually Marlowe that gave Shakespeare the idea for The Tempest, which was written over twenty years later and was almost certainly inspired by the discovery of Bermuda, which did not happen until 1603, but other than that, this was a nice little diversion of a mystery.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

THE 50: #39, PERSONALITY CRISIS, New York Dolls

It's kind of hard to explain the New York Dolls to anyone, even many that were around at the time they were playing. You can tell people that they were the real roots of what become the American punk scene, and had quite a bit of influence on what happened in Great Britain, too. You can also tell people that the glam/gay playacting that David Bowie kind of toyed with was taken to the full hilt by the Dolls. It's hard, though, to reconcile both of those in the same band--"punk rock icons in dresses? Yeah, right." Then add in that they were some of the biggest party animals/drug addicts on earth, in their own and later times, and you have a band that seems to be a fictional creation, something that someone could only make up.
In some sense, they were a fictional creation. Malcolm McLaren became famous as the impressario behind the Sex Pistols--but this was the first band he was involved with, which explains much. And like the Pistols, he had an eye for talent. Lead singer David Johansen went on to a fair solo career, before reinventing himself yet again as lounge lizard Buster Poindexter and surviving almost to the turn of the century. Lead guitarist Johnny Thunders was, for other guitar players, the pro's pro, the one that could really make it cry or sing--if you could get him onto the stage; he battled heroin addiction for over twenty years before losing the fight in 1991. But Thunders, too, had a pretty fair solo career, and his work survives in bootlegs and on You Tube; the guy could play. Other members were fixtures in the New York punk/New Wave/rock scene for many years. None of them were gay; none of them were transvestites; none of them wore makeup in later incarnations. The get-ups were designed to shock (and to skewer people like Bowie, whom they regarded as a poseur; it was ironic that the Dolls themselves were memorably skewered by the Pistols in New York, one of the most vitriolic, meanest songs ever recorded).
The Dolls, not surprisingly given the copious amounts of drugs they ingested, only lasted for two albums. It's hard to hear them from this distance and think of them as classic "punk," though. They would definitely be considered alternative today, but they were most of all a real good rock band that wrote great songs incorporated the four basic instruments as well as anyone in their time and place did. With Thunders as the lead guitarist, lead guitar riffs weave in and out of their best songs like sutures, and the results could be magical.
Personality Crisis is the quintessential Dolls song. It is full of frenetic energy, the piano and Thunders' guitar work meshing wonderfully, Johansen's vocals working like another instrument, the backing vocals an integral part of the song, and the lyrics subtly subversive with some memorable images ("Your mirror's getting jammed up with all your friends"). I've read conflicting versions of who and what the song was about, and I've come to realize it probably doesn't matter--after my own experiences as an active drug addict, the idea of a "personality crisis" became my reality for a time, and again, with what was going on in the band at this time, The world of the Dolls was one of drugs, and this was what they knew. It all came together best on this song, but a number of other Dolls songs--Subway Train, Chatterbox, Chinese Rocks--were out of the same mold and same material. And sounded pretty damn good. I remember one of my cousins talking about this band when I was about twelve; he said, "This is what the Stones what sound like if they still cared." That was an exaggeration, but not by much.
There are two live videos posted on You Tube of the Dolls playing this song. On both of them, Johansen's voice is totally shot. The one I put up is the studio version of the song; it's just not much of a video.

Well, we can't take it this week
And her friends don't want another speech
Hoping for a better day to hear what she's got to say
All about that, personality crisis, you got it while it was hot
But now frustration and heartache is what you got
That's why they talk about personality
But now your tryin' to be some, now you got to do some
Wanna be someone who cow wow wows
But you thinkin' about the times you did, they took every ounce
When it sure got to be a shame when you start to scream and shout
You got to contradict all those times you were butterflyin' about
You was butterflyin'
About that personality crisis, you got it while it was hot
It's always hard to know when frustration and heartache what you got
I'm sorta talkin' 'bout personality, yeah, yeah, yeah, oh
And you're a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon
Change on into the wolfman howlin' at the moon, ooh
Got a personality crisis, you got it while it was hot
It's always hard to know when frustration and heartache what you got
[Incomprehensible]
Now with all the crossin' fingers Mother Nature says
Your mirror's gettin' jammed up with all your friends
That personality everything starts to blend, [Incomprehensible]
Personality when your mind starts to blend, talk about
Personality impression of a friend
Of a friend, of a friend, of a friend, of a friend
Personality wonderin' how celebrities ever met
Look and find out on television
Personality crisis, you got it while it was hot
It's always hard to know when frustration, heartache is all you've got
Oh, don't you worry, personality crisis, please don't cry
It's just a personality crisis, please don't stop
Because you walk a personality, talk a personality

The Cosby Mess, As A Tiger Roars In The Background

There has been some weird noise around Bill Cosby for a long time. I'm not sure when the allegations of predatory sexual behavior started--well, let's do this right: I Googled it and discovered it was in 2005 when the first person went public with complaints about him. I remember what I thought at the time--that it had probably happened, but as the charges were eventually dropped, I assumed it was one of those he said/she said bits and who really knew? But at the same time, I also was coming to terms with something I had long suspected about Cosby. Everyone knows that actors are extremely good at projecting personas and manipulating their audience into believing that they are whom the actor wants them to think they are; it's an essential part of their trade. But as Cosby aged, it become clear, even before the sexual assault allegations started coming out fast and furious, that he was not the avuncular, jovial type of man that his image would have us believe. I remember incidents like him ripping some Temple football player to shreds at a commencement address because the player had a 2.5 GPA; I thought to myself at the time, "Who the hell does this sort of stuff?" Cosby was extremely vocal for decades about pointing out the shortcomings of other black men, celebrities and not, which as time passed seemed more mean-spirited than helpful or even condescending.
What I actually believed for some time was that something inside Cosby died when his son was murdered in 1997. I don't know if losing a child to death is every parent's nightmare, but it sure is mine, and I was prepared to forgive Cosby's curmudgeon tendencies because of it. The lawsuit filed against him shortly after his son's death by someone claiming he was his illegitimate daughter I didn't pay as much attention to as I should have; I thought the woman was trying to take advantage of a grieving man, a take that was reinforced by the woman going to jail for extortion. But again, the background noise never really went away; every so often something Cosby said or did would make the news, and it was rarely positive. 
And it began to dawn on people, even before this latest deluge of allegations, that Cosby actually was not the pleasant, wise, successful Dr. Huxtable type of man. He was, and is, a dick. And in the light of this insight, all of a sudden a lot of his old comedy routines didn't seem so funny anymore. He made a magnificent living talking about his children and his home life, but it was often at the expense of his kids, dating clear back to the beginning of their lives. I remember hearing a comedy album made when he only had two daughters, who couldn't have been more than a couple of years old, and while I laughed like hell about the way he talked about the personality of the second one, I also had an uneasy feeling, wondering how that kid was going to feel about it as she aged, that I certainly didn't want the whole world laughing at my childhood. For all the image as a devoted dad, he sure didn't seem to be terribly involved in the day-to-day lives of his kids--and maybe this was unfair and colored by what happened on the TV show, but it sure seemed like he cared more about his son than any of his daughters, even in his comedy routines. My uneasy feeling regarding him hardened into certainty after I got clean and I realized how much resentment I had toward my father for the way he presented me to other people--the constant teasing at best and verbal savagery at worst. It didn't matter how much money he threw at me at other times, or how much he protested privately he said he really didn't mean it; that shit hurt. I eventually came to realize that my father's motives were complex and not necessarily evil, but more an expression of his own control issues than anything else. It was psychological bullying, and I forget exactly when I made the connection, but sometime around the Temple commencement incident, I realized that Cosby could be seen in the light of bullying as well. Cosby always had the last word, the final say, and used the public prominence he had and the pulpit it gave him as a way to browbeat, embarrass, and inflict his views upon a whole lot of people that weren't going to be able to respond, given his still-largely benevolent public image. And his ego inflated to colossal proportions along the way--after he was given an honorary doctorate by one of the Philadelphia universities, he insisted on being referred to as Dr. Cosby for a few years, and got quite huffy when he wasn't.
So who is going to believe you when you go public with accusing Dr. Huxtable, Mr. Jello salesman, of rape?
And sexual assault is about nothing more than it is about power and control, bullying taken four levels higher, if you will. And unfortunately, all these allegations fit very well into the way I had come to see Cosby; I have no doubt at all that the women are telling the truth. Even Cosby's responses fit the pattern; it's more like a "I can't believe that they're saying this about me" than any genuine outrage or protestations of innocence. The man is nearly 80 years old, and his career is absolutely finished and his legacy tarnished beyond repair, and maybe, when emotions die down, that will seem something more than a woefully inadequate price to pay for what he has done. But there is a part of me that wants him in jail for the rest of his life, too. This story is just beginning, and it may well have repercussions we won't see coming. 
And I thought of the furor surrounding Cosby now as another famous African-American entertainer of sorts hit the news again. Tiger Woods, in contrast to Cosby, has already taken a public fall from grace, but his reputation has somewhat recovered for two reasons: 1) While his serial philandering was repulsive, there was, at least, no hint or allegation that the sex was anything but consensual among the many women he cheated on his wife with, and 2) there is a substantial minority of people in the United States that will forgive any celebrity for any behavior, and especially if they excel in their field. Woods is still one of the best golfers in the world, and that fact carries more weight for a disgusting number of people than the fact that he is one of the most unpleasant and deeply miserable human beings on the planet. Woods has been an absolute asshole since he was a teenager. We in this area discovered this long before the rest of America by the way he conducted himself way back in 1996, when he played in the now-defunct BC Open, the one and only time he deigned to hit us off with his presence; he made sure we all knew how much he despised our provincial asses here. Yet among the media fellatio, there has been a dogged, substantial riptide underneath the generally adulatory press Woods has gotten over two decades that not only shows the warts, but shows that there is nothing but warts to him. It was more muted before the Escalade incident, but it was there all along.
One of those that has never been shy to express his dislike of the true Woods has been Dan Jenkins, the venerable sportswriter for Sports Illustrated and other publications,and, unfortunately for Woods, the world's most influential golf journalist. Jenkins in his mid-eighties now, and doesn't command his profession like he once did--but he is an icon in the writing community, both because of his skill at his craft but also because he has never, ever participated in hero worship (well, maybe Ben Hogan excepted). I haven't always agreed with everything Jenkins has written or his views on some subjects, but Jenkins is unquestionably a man with integrity that has no tolerance for bullshit or bullshitters--and he sniffed out Woods nearly twenty years ago as a bullying misanthrope who was a dismal failure as a human being. Jenkins wrote an article in this month's Golf Digest that was a mock interview with Woods (who has refused to be interviewed on a straight level for Jenkins for nearly twenty years, mostly because Jenkins refuses to follow a scripted set of questions as a prerequisite for doing so), full of one-liners and references to aspects of Woods that the public is only dimly aware of but that show what a miserable man he is (to take one example, the fact that Woods leaves minuscule tips when he eats out and almost always berates waitresses and servers for not going about their jobs with enough obsequiousness and reverence for the fact that they are waiting on Tiger Fucking Woods). 
And Woods lost his shit. There is no other way to say it; he totally freaked out, to the point of writing a rebuttal column in the magazine, claiming that all Jenkins wrote wasn't true, and that Jenkins was a dick for doing it, And by doing so, he proved the point Jenkins was making--that he is, talent aside, a pompous jackass that has lived his life by trying to control everything and everyone around him, and that his image matters more to him than the reality. 
And I am not the only one, I am sure, that saw this and thought, "Why does this matter so much to him? He's made billions of dollars; he's survived a firestorm of negative publicity with, rightly or wrongly, a substantially intact fan base. Why does he care what an 84YO sportswriter thinks about him?" 
And I don't like the answers I get. This is a dangerous level of control-freak tendencies that is only going to get worse as Woods ages. He is already notably more cantankerous and temperamental on the golf course, as his ability to win consistently at tournaments that matter to him has evaporated in recent years. I can't really confirm it, but I have a feeling that one reason why his physical maladies are cropping up as much as they have in recent years is that he has lost the desire he once had to play, and the desire has gone south because no one is intimidated by him anymore. All of a sudden, his back hurts and his knee hurts and his whatever hurts; it can't be that someone else or someone elses are just better than he is now. It's the grown-up equivalent of taking his ball and going home, of flipping the game board over when it becomes clear that he isn't going to win. 
And Woods is only 38 years old. This is not going to be pretty as he gets older. 
I am not saying that Woods is going to accumulate a sordid history in the fashion that Cosby has. But I would absolutely not be surprised to see it, either. It is clear that sexual activity fulfills a deep psychological need in him, and I am sure that it has much to do with power and control. I also know that because he's Tiger Fucking Woods, he probably has not had to resort to force and subterfuge to engage in sexual activity to this point in his life. But when he's no longer Tiger Fucking Woods and just another has-been, former star--is he going to be able to check those impulses? 
Stay tuned. But I'm going to predict that, a few decades from now, Woods is going to be involved in some sex scandal that will dwarf his own previous history, and likely be more repulsive than Cosby's.