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Not a Political Blog

As large swathes of our global population seem set on following populist trail guides along paths toward nationalist stupor, I find myself vacillating between fits of arrogant condescension, bouts of resigned despair, and sessions of gleeful mockery.  None of it satisfies.  In the end, I neither participate in nor hinder the gloomy march.  That passivity breeds discomfort in my soul because I know that inaction enables.  An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an external force.

I ought to do something.  We ought to do something.  And the first thing is to go talk to people outside of our own bubbles who experience the world differently in order to seek some deeper understanding into what the hell is happening. But, this is not a political blog and I’m not sure I’m much of a political thinker.  So my only action in these pages will be to reprint the below post from March 2013.  I’ll leave it to any readers who might accidentally wander by to figure out why I thought of it now.

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Saying Goodbye to Comandante Chavez

While working in Caracas from 2006-2009, I would regularly tune in whenever Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would address the nation, which he did constantly and usually for hours on end.  I seldom paid close attention for more than 30 minutes or so as the actual content of his comments often either bored me to death with minutia or simply pissed me off.  But even after drifting into other activities, I would leave the television on and let the voice of President Chavez serve as my background music; and I do mean music.  I loved his voice and grew to find his cadence and tone soothing.  His voice relaxed me.

Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci

One Saturday in early June of 2007, I was semi-listening to Chavez address a huge crowd of followers that had been called into the streets in demonstration of support for something that I no longer recall.  My half-hearted awareness became rapt attention when I realized he was extensively quoting Antonio Gramsci, the early 20th century Italian writer, philosopher, and Marxist thinker.  Chavez spent a full 40 minutes explaining Gramsci’s theory of revolutionary change in great detail to his flag-waving devotees.  I kept wondering who other than breathless undergraduates even read Gramsci anymore, let alone attempted to impart to tens of thousands of gyrating sycophants the particulars of Gramsci’s missives on the growth of popular power via the establishment of a working class cultural hegemony.

As Chavez went on and on, the mass of red-shirted supporters in front of him jumped from cheer to cheer, seemingly oblivious to the lesson in political development theory they were receiving.  They waved banners with pictures of Chavez, Simon Bolivar, Salvador Allende, and others and held their breath for each time the Comandante referred to himself in the third person so they could burst into a mass orgasm of applause and roars.  I was engrossed.

Back in my college days when I was buying my own personal copies of Das Kapital and Mao’s Little Red Book and arriving early to hear visiting Sandinista ministers rail against imperialism, I had played at study of Gramsci.  I learned enough to be impressed with my own efforts and even cited Gramsci in a paper I wrote which attempted to objectively and unemotionally describe the ideology of Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas separate from their bloodthirsty actions:

“Antonio Gramsci has also written about the need for a proletarian attitude.  He stresses the importance of a revolutionary proletariat developing its own ‘superstructure’ prior to taking power.  He argues that understanding of proletarian ideology does not appear from ‘haphazard and sporadic germination’ but through experience.  Shining Path agrees with these arguments and sees the long period of democratic revolution as a time when the peasants and petty bourgeoisie will come to recognize Maoism as the ‘correct’ ideology.”

And now here was Chavez matter-of-factly offering up Gramsci’s complicated ideas to his generally lower economic strata and relatively less educated followers, literally Venezuela’s proletariat and peasant classes.  Most remarkable was his seeming sincere belief that his masses deserved to be treated as being fully capable of comprehending the ideas he was illuminating.

Now that he’s gone, I’ll remember Hugo Chavez’s willingness to lie and cheat and divert blame to accomplish his goals.  I’ll remember his anti-democratic actions and his systematic centralization of political power in his hands alone.  I’ll remember his readiness to cynically manipulate people and information whenever it suited his political and ideological ends.

I’ll also remember him as a tireless advocate for the right of the poor, ignored, and uneducated to be heard and to exercise influence over those who govern them.  Even more, I’ll remember his success in convincing those same marginalized folk to enthusiastically buy into his vision and to learn to act on it.  As Venezuelans rightly begin to cast off the excesses and drastic inefficiencies of Chavismo in the course of these coming post-Chavez years, I hope they nonetheless retain the newly politicized underclass that Chavez engendered, an underclass capable of effectively asserting its weight and demanding the attention of political leaders.

I’m sorry to see you go this way, Comandante.  You should have lost power through an eventual electoral defeat resulting from your own increasing missteps and political overreach, not due to this merciless disease.  Your mistakes and conceit should have done you in, leaving you to bluster away into revolutionary oblivion while those who followed you in power selectively picked up and ran with your few, but substantial, achievements in political empowerment.  Mostly, I’ll miss the calming effect of your voice in the background.

Farewell, Comandante

 

Like a Sheep to the Flame (Influencers, Part 1)

To a great extent, when it comes to my music listening habits, I am a product of the influence of various persons who leveraged my respect, love or admiration towards them to foist upon me their own likes and dislikes.  Sometimes this was a purposeful effort to preach their truth and bring me to their light.  Other times, the role of these influencers was passive; I shared some connection or looked up to them and therefore was drawn to their predilections.  Going all the way back to childhood, there is also the pure nostalgia effect of relating good feelings or happy times to specific music.  For example, Mom gave me hours spinning and memorizing Chuck Berry, while Dad gave me fishing for trout to the songs of Johnny Cash (as described here).

Sure, I like to think I also discovered a lot of the music I listen to on my own.  But even then, my influencers certainly have played a large role in determining how I set my sails as I cast off on my journeys of exploration.  I’ve written quite a bit on this site about individual bands and albums and the people who steered me toward them. The truth is, however, I haven’t even scratched the surface of what is my long-standing, and ongoing, followership.

In what is clearly a moment of delusion given my less-than-prolific posting schedule, I’ve resolved to start an occasional series specifically acknowledging the various Jim Joneses that have served me my musical kool-aid.  I’ve also decided to honor my blogging-as-social-interaction fantasy by beginning with a look at a few of the most blatantly manipulative of all my influencers, my fellow bloggers.  What follows are just a few examples of the many successful efforts by determined blog-evangelists to wrestle funds from my wallet.  In each case below, I had been completely oblivious to the existence of the musical drug on offer before finding myself targeted, only to become hopelessly hooked afterward.

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The Bevis Frond - White NumbersLetting loose phrases like “psychedelic-infused, guitar-driven” and “two solos multi-tracked so that they interweave and dance,” Vinyl Connection (VC) was clearly on the offensive when he aimed his review of the album White Numbers by the previously-unknown to-me band The Bevis Frond right between my eyes.  His unabashed, premeditated attack on my proclivities was further evidenced by his “casual” mention in the review’s very last line of the fact that Bevis Frond leader and guitarist extraordinaire Nick Saloman had at one point auditioned “for Procol Harum.”  VC knew damn well that my adoration of former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower meant I would be defenseless against any volleyed connection no matter how tenuous.  Sure enough, I bought White Numbers almost immediately and have since added two more Frond albums to my collection.  Listening to the 42-minute “Homemade Traditional Electric Jam” as I type this, I cannot imagine how I ever survived without having Mr. Saloman’s smoothly jagged six-string vulnerability in my life.  Well played, VC, well played.

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Tinariwen - Aman ImanWhere some would choose full frontal assault, 1537 instead opted for long-term siege interspersed with sporadic barrage in his ultimately successful effort to force me into expanding my musical map to include the troubled sub-Saharan nation of Mali.  He started way back in May 2013 with what seemed initially to be just another in his steady stream of well-written, humor-filled reviews of his eclectic LP holdings.  As he described the album Amam Iman by Malian band Tinariwen he knew what he was doing however, injecting lines about “sorrow, regret, anger and hope” delivered via “intertwining traditional instruments and guitars; lots of beautifully played guitars” that were crafted just so as to ensure their being forever carved into the tissues of my mind.  I mean, just look at his skill with a semicolon, for God’s sake.

After allowing yours truly to stew in those juices for a while – Over three years!  What magnificent patience! – 1537 let loose a fresh bombardment in September 2016 via a review of a separate Tinariwen EP, this time combining the prose artillery with a precision-guided video of a Tinariwen-soundtracked melancholy road trip through Joshua Tree National Park.  I was obviously powerless to stand against the onslaught any longer and out came the checkbook.  As Aman Iman plays now and I marvel at the unique guitar, drum, and vocal stylings of bandleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and his Touareg collective, I can only joyfully embrace my inner desert nomad and offer kudos to 1537 for his relentless mission focus.

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Ulver - KveldssangerHeavy Metal Overload (HMO) proved himself a master of misdirection and the subliminal in his subtle, nuanced and impressively effective quest to get me to lay out for – and subsequently be entranced by – the album Kveldssanger by Norwegian black metallers Ulver.  Knowing well my knee-jerk aversion to black metal’s guttural growls and/or puked vocals, HMO invested years into wearing me down by regularly featuring hell-spawned Scandinavian extremist Beelzebub-fronted bands in between ingratiatingly adorable internet-spanning commentary in defense of KISS’s atrocious Unmasked album.  I couldn’t help but pine for each new post.  So, when he finally launched his review of Ulver’s 1995 debut, Bergtatt, in May 2016, I was putty in his endearingly Satanic, Glaswegian hands.

Realizing I’d be wary of any direct hard-sell, HMO adroitly avoided any mention of Kveldssanger in the Bergtatt post itself.  Instead, he carefully employed phrases such as “seductive, alluring, and magical” while emphasizing the debut album’s “dreamy acoustic guitars.”  Embedding a song from Bergtatt without scary vocals was his masterstroke.  Still cautious but also intrigued, I inquired via a comment into the representativeness of the soothing embedded song, at which point HMO deftly pulled the trigger via a seemingly cast-off aside about Ulver’s second album Kveldssanger in which “they went full-on folk” with “No gruff vocals at all!”  Just as HMO had foreseen when crafting his diabolical plan, I was immediately onto the Spotify whereupon Kveldssanger’s spell was cast and my credit card number lept into the ether.  Even now from the first gorgeously-plucked notes of album opener “Østenfor sol og vestenfor maane” I have to physically restrain myself from taking a hammer to the piggy bank.

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The above are only a tiny sliver of the vast mass of taste tampering effected upon me by multiple musical mentors, both physical and virtual, over the course of my susceptible life’s journey.  I hope to add many more like stories via this occasional series in the future.  You know me though, so don’t hold your breath.  At minimum I’ll hopefully manage to post at least a few more before my homeland implodes.  (Smile)

Repo Man: And Yet, I Blame Society

At the height of the Reagan era, the 1984 movie Repo Man offered a character, Otto (played by a young Emilio Estevez), that embodied all the anger-fueled angst of the period’s idiot youth, a term I use not in insult but rather in honor of the confused, narcissistic life phase I think most all of us pass through.  During that phase – which it appears from recent events not all of us outgrow unfortunately – everybody outside our narrow clique is viewed as de facto stupid and either owing us something or needing to get the fuck out of our way.  It is dire stuff… and it is easily one of the funniest films made in my lifetime.  It was one of the first DVDs I ever bought and I still consider it a must-own.

Repo Man (movie poster)

The movie makes little attempt to follow a cogent plot – something about dangerous decaying alien bodies smuggled off of a secret government base in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu – and instead simply proceeds to put Otto and his fellow oddballs into a series of one-off scenes in which they spout magnificently-crafted odes to cynicism, pessimism, and human foible.  An internet search will show that almost every line of dialogue in the film has been deemed quotable out of context.  Harry Dean Stanton especially, as Otto’s mentor and keeper of the Repo Man code, utters golden nugget after golden nugget.  It is one of my never-to-be-acted-upon fantasies to be insolent, boorish, and brave enough to speak like Harry Dean does in this movie.

But this isn’t a movie review, it’s a soundtrack review, and the Repo Man soundtrack is as wonderfully foul, crude, and filled with unfocused energy as is the movie.  It was my introduction to the West Coast punk scene of the early 1980s, a scene dedicated to finding, isolating and surgically removing the hidden “cerebralism” from the late-70s punk of the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys, and the Slits in order to focus more intently on the nihilism and the bile.  As you can imagine, it’s gloriously jaunty stuff.  Let’s dive in:

Repo Man (soundtrack)

Iggy Pop: “Repo Man” – By no means a great Iggy Pop song, I’d nonetheless deem it a good one.  The movie uses it twice, once without lyrics during the opening credits and again at the end, this time with Iggy’s inimitable voice.  Only the version with vocals is included on the soundtrack album, but I think the instrumental is actually more important to the film itself.  Its wholesale usurpation of the “Peter Gunn” riff sets the tone for the movie, evoking urban decay surrounded by vast empty desert.  I most like this song for one lyric however, a line I always remember but seldom can place until I hear it and am again reminded where it comes from:  “I’m looking for the joke with a microscope.”  In context, the song implies the search is doomed to fail.  The sentiment fit the Reagan era well, and it fits again now, 30-plus years later.

Circle Jerks: “Coup d’Etat” – In the movie, this song soundtracks a street mosh made up of angry suburban kids.  Its relentless energy, driving rhythm and shouted vocals are perfect for the scene.  The naiveté of the lyrics, seemingly jumping back and forth between describing a right-wing military takeover and a leftist anarchic people power uprising, is priceless.  The anti-idealism of the song’s non-politics deftly encapsulates the nihilism of the early 80’s punk movement… and the breakneck riff is freaking awesome!  “Attack their embassy” indeed …

Circle Jerks – Coup d’Etat (1983):

Suicidal Tendencies: “Institutionalized” – This is probably the most widely known song on the soundtrack and its evocation of young white alienation certainly captures the film’s mood.  That said, the song barely registers during the actual movie.  As such, I’m going to set aside review of the song itself to share a related personal story:  Back in the mid-1980s, even we Utah-bred youngsters who recognized our ignorance of the broader world always took solace in the idea that we were way less sheltered than our neighbors to the north, the backwards Idahoans.  Even so, I duly embraced for years a story told me in 1984 in Peru by a fellow missionary who hailed from Boise.  Elder Rick wowed me with the tale of a band called Joy Division whose vocalist had killed himself, leaving his remaining bandmates to reform under the “Suicidal Tendencies” moniker.  The story was perfect, with a twist of the sardonic that really appealed.  It would be near 20 years before the intrusion of the internet would steal that fantastic musical anecdote from me.

Black Flag: “TV Party” – First, this song rocks.  The listener has no choice but to get pumped.  In the movie, protagonist Otto has just lost his job and girlfriend and is sitting on the curb feeling put upon, but once he begins to sing this song to himself he has no choice but to get up, punch the air, and invite the universe to “suck my ass.” Beautiful.  I like to think Henry Rollins and Black Flag penned this masterpiece as simultaneously a biting criticism and a euphoric celebration of the clueless aimlessness of their angry white suburban fan base.  I’d argue that, even three decades later, this on-its-face jokey tune still perfectly captures the uninformed anxiety of those majority middle-America youth who inhabit the hundreds of in-between non-rural, non-urban midsize towns speckling the U.S. map.  Judge for yourself:

Black Flag – TV Party (1981)

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We’re gonna have a TV party, all right, tonight!

We’ve got nothing better to do, than watch TV and have a couple of brews.

We sit glued to the TV set all night, and every night / Why go into the outside world at all, it’s such a fright

TV news shows what it’s like out there, it’s a scare / You can go out if you want, we wouldn’t dare

I wouldn’t be without my TV for a day, or even a minute / I don’t even bother to use my brain any more, there’s nothing left in it

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Circle Jerks: “When the Shit Hits the Fan” – The “lounge” version of this song on the soundtrack pales in comparison to the original angry version on the Jerks’ 1983 album Golden Shower of Hits, but it allows for the best inside joke of the whole film as Otto reacts to the band’s live rendition during one scene with the mumbled, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys.”  As an economics major and son of an economics professor, this song really spoke to me with its invocation of unemployment lines, a sluggish economy, and waning social security.  There’s a huge nostalgia pull for me too as I clearly remember my grandmother standing in line to bring home those government giveaway “five pound blocks of cheese” about which the CJs croon.

A few final notes:

— The version of “Pablo Picasso” here by something called Burning Sensations is colossally lame in comparison to the original by The Modern Lovers.  That said, it was here that I first heard the song and I cannot deny my then youthful pleasure at its bold leveraging of the word “asshole.”

— The songs by LA-based Latino punk band The Plugz are excellent, and it was a thrill to me personally, being just back from Peru and exercising my newly-acquired bilingual skills, to hear good-time rock and roll sung in Spanish.

— Beyond that novelty however, the Plugz’ original instrumental background music written and recorded for Repo Man, and which is only sampled as the song “Reel Ten” on the soundtrack album, is brilliant.  Unmistakably influenced by Ennio Morricone, the Plugz evoke a vast parched desert with just enough shiny suburban pop sheen on top to relocate the arid featurelessness to the western Anytown in which the movie is set.  I would go in big-time for an entire album offering up that atmosphere.  I wonder where the Plugz are now …

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film-soundtrack-festival

This post is part of the Film (Soundtrack) Festivalthe big-hearted brainchild of Bruce at Vinyl Connection.  You are cordially invited to check out all the entries here.

Not Much to Say Today

 

(if the video doesn’t work):

The Real World Fades to Black

Last night I dreamed of waking up.  I awoke calmly, responding to external stimuli rather than internal volition.  It was the sound of a hyper-agitated dog, actually more wolf than dog, clawing spastically from the other side of the wall behind my headboard that had stirred me from sleep.  I felt comfortable and safe in my ground-floor bedroom, with its dark wood-paneled walls and dull red color scheme.  I inherently grasped an atmosphere of danger in the sparse surrounding rural landscape and knew that I would not open the curtains to look.  The wolf-dog trying to scratch its way in was one of many and I had an awareness of the predatory canines routinely and viciously tearing into some species of rodent that inhabited the “out there.”  It was too early to get up so I briefly considered putting on the headphones that lay next to my pillow and listening to some music to ease my way back into needed sleep.  Even as the thought came though, I knew it was unnecessary as I would easily fall deep asleep as soon as I closed my eyes.

The closing of my dream eyes and tranquil drift back into figment sleep was exactly and oppositely matched by the opening of my flesh eyes and a gentle, genuine wakening.  I felt comfortable and safe in my sixth-floor bedroom, with its plaster walls and off-white color scheme, but I was nonetheless deeply confused.  My mind could not reconcile the sparse, rodent-filled plains and middle-eastern urban landscape I knew to dually exist on the other side of the curtain-covered window.  I wondered why I could no longer hear the wolf-dog’s clawing even as I questioned why I was thinking about wolf-dogs at all.  It was too early to rise so I briefly considered putting on the headphones that lay next to my pillow and listening to some music to ease my way back into needed sleep.  Just as my thoughts coalesced on a specific album but before I could act, my eyes closed and sleep returned.

This morning, I awoke with a strong desire to hear the latest album by Bloody Hammers, Lovely Sort of Death, which I had just received in the mail yesterday.  I read of the gothic rock / doom metal band only recently and have quite enjoyed some of their earlier recordings I’ve been background streaming at work.  I fixed some French toast and watched last evening’s PBS Newshour online while I ate, but the album kept infiltrating my thoughts.  So, comfortably fed and updated on ongoing catastrophes both natural and political back home, I grabbed the iPod and headphones and headed for the elliptical.

Lovely Sort of Death

As first track “Bloodletting on the Kiss” begins, I get an immediate Type O Negative feel — a vibe that carries through the entire album — but also find the mid-80s new wave of Simple Minds repeatedly coming to mind.  The Simple Minds free association continues with “Lights Come Alive,” but third track “The Reaper Comes” conjures instead thoughts of Gary Numan’s dystopian coldness, a sense that proves to permeate the subsequent tracks as well.  While the pace of the album is generally slow, even verging on sluggish early on, things pick up as you go deeper into the tracklist.  In fact, “Infinite Gaze to the Sun” and “Astral Traveler” offer legitimate headbanging opportunities.

This is not warm music.  It is cold and calculated, giving off no feel of having been played by a collaborating set of musicians.  The sense of separate recording of each instrument and vocal is stark, although the impression of an expert hand in the careful, deliberate layering of the individual parts to engender the whole is also clear.  The stratified notes and beats that bind together to form each song give the album a potent, doom-laden heft.  Accomplished in composition but simple in the playing, this music seems crafted in black and white.  Any addition of color would sound out of place, so look for no guitar solos or drum breaks as the songscapes unfold.

I rate this LP highly but imagine it being more for the recoiling rodents out there than for the stirred-up wolf-dogs.  It evokes dim bars sparsely inhabited by moody locals rather than neon-lit clubs filled with enthusiastic partyers.  I’d confidently recommend it to anyone who stoically hopes for happier times to come but doesn’t truly expect them in their heart of hearts.  If you strive to keep hidden a deep sense of cosmic aloneness and regularly find yourself irrationally mired in your own dispiriting thoughts, I think you’d like this one.  On the other hand, if you are generally content with your life and its path, I suspect you may find Lovely Sort of Death somewhat plodding and hard to connect with.

Despite the old-timey horror show look of Bloody Hammers’ Anders Manga and Devallia (above), the mood of their music is less the demented carney violence of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and more the alone-in-the woods anxious dread of The Blair Witch Project.

Despite the old-timey horror show look of Bloody Hammers’ Anders Manga and Devallia (above), the mood of their music is less the demented carney violence of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and more the alone-in-the woods anxious dread of The Blair Witch Project.