a new low in topical enlightenment

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Issue #8 (August 26, 2009)

North of Centennial Valley, Wyoming
Photo by Joe Carducci

Sovietnam and Afghaniscram: According to the NYT
by Joe Carducci

The New York Times is edited as if to steer debate by devising the terms of debate. Their columnists are hired for their skill in Belling the Cat – said cat forever after sounding the Times’ editorial board’s ventriloquist-created voice. And so we get weak soup like Sunday’s “L.B.J. All the Way?” (title changed online to: "Could Afghanistan Become Obama's Vietnam?") by Peter Baker. Certainly Jr.’s steely masthead-minds do not mean to harm President Obama’s chances in Afghanistan, they are mostly looking out for their own reputation. Although the piece has so many qualifiers that it disqualifies its own point, they will tout it as a prediction should there be some meltdown – they saw first that Obama = Johnson. “To be sure, such historical analogies are overly simplistic, and fatally flawed…” And I have just identified the weak force in the cosmology of New York Times analysis. (I didn’t catch what the hope-heads at NPR made of this but let’s assume they’re rightly very concerned.)

But as in Vietnam the Democrats have cornered themselves. Their commitments in both theaters were mere campaign promises. JFK may have meant it but his brothers led LBJ on, and then turned on him in order to return a Kennedy to the White House at all costs. It never happened but had it, such a brother, Bobby or Teddy, would’ve pursued policies the opposite of John.

This is all down the memory hole. So one must ask, What Vietnam is Peter Baker talking about: the actual country fought over in the cold war with real blood, sweat and tears? Or the flashing sign-meme “Vietnam” of the Times’ and others’ rhetorical investment?

JFK had run to the right of then-Vice President Nixon and in Vietnam he initiated an attempt to bring the war to the North. This story is told in a book called The Secret War Against Hanoi, by Richard H. Shultz, Jr. (Harper Collins). Shultz tells how the Kennedy White House tried to foment resistance inside North Vietnam a la Hungary ’56. The CIA had learned from Hungary that Communist states were essentially “denied territory” and resisted involvement and once Kennedy was assassinated Johnson suspended the program in some strange kind of useless theater, tho even then it managed to trigger some amount of paranoid self-abuse on the part of the North.

JFK had settled for a bogus U.N.-brokered neutralization of Laos, which our military observed but North Vietnam used as cover to initiate the supply lines down Laos into Cambodia that came to be called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The story of this strategic blunder is told in The Key to Failure – Laos & the Vietnam War, by Norman B. Hannah (Madison). He writes:
It could be said that the neutralization of Laos… was the major strategic decision we made with respect to Indochina from 1961 until we departed in 1973. All else was either geared to it or was incremental, barnacled encrustation. That so little attention is devoted to Laos in studies of the Vietnam war and to the role of the 1962 Geneva Accords is more than an intellectual curiosity. It is a profound enigma….
Well, it could be the boomers’ then juvenile hormonal political investment in the many canards that live on in our hearts about the fifties and sixties, the Kennedys and Nixon, require the averting of eyes – entire politicultural identities have been built on them. Hannah, then Deputy Chief of the American embassy in Afghanistan, writes earnestly, “We had to stop the aggression through Laos or we had to stop defending South Vietnam.” (his italics) In his book, published in 1987, Hannah recounts his comparison of Afghanistan to Laos in a 1962 meeting with Kennedy’s “special representative” Averell Harriman. Hannah has Harriman concerned only about slipping a fast one by his own country’s Congress to please international opinion and boot Laos down the road.

I have a lot of Vietnam history on my shelves yet to read but of what I have I’d also recommend as correctives to the prevailing fantasy Vietnam:
  1. Michael Lind’s Vietnam – The Necessary War (Free Press), which dissects the contending strategies and theories quite clearly and thoroughly and concludes that the Cold War was fought in Vietnam and Korea, Africa and Latin America, because another European war was inconceivable all around,
  2. Lewis Sorley’s A Better War (Harcourt Brace), which the author explains was triggered by the odd fact that Neil Sheehan, author of the standard popular history of the war, A Bright Shining Lie (Vantage), “devotes 725 pages to events through Tet 1968 and only 65 pages to the rest of the war, even though John Paul Vann, the nominal subject of his book, lived and served in Vietnam for four years after the Tet Offensive.”
  3. Nayan Chanda’s Brother Enemy – The War After The War (HBJ), for the story of what happened next to the peoples o’er there, and
  4. B.G. Burkett & Glenna Whitley’s Stolen Valor (Verity), for the stories of what happened and didn’t happen next to men over here – those who served and those who didn’t but said they had.

Another suspicious void in the discourse has been the lack of any discussion of the Korean War’s bearing on any Vietnam metaphor. South Korea after all, was even at its roughest military dictatorship, a far less rough place than North Korea and once it became a democracy and a first world economic power there should have been a revised look back at Vietnam – we now know by the example of Vietnamese-Americans that the Republic of South Vietnam would have made it as well. Only Lind makes much of South Korea’s success as possibly analogous.

One more book key to lifting the veil on all this is James Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution (Encounter), which makes the case that it was John F. Kennedy’s assassination itself that “shattered American liberalism.” In his reading, Jackie and the keepers of the Kennedy flame would immediately begin to bend the story away from the truth, “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little communist. It even robs his death of any meaning.” (quoted from Jackie After Jack by Christopher Andersen) Piereson writes about the New York Times’ coverage:

The fact that the assassin was actually a communist did not enter into the equation or alter Reston’s judgments as to who was ultimately responsible for the crime, even though an extensive report on Oswald and his communist affiliations appeared in Reston’s own newspaper adjacent to his article. He seems to have reached an instinctive conclusion about the cause of the event without any reference to the actual identity of the assassin.

He also notes that Arthur Schlesinger’s thousand-page history of the Kennedy administration does not mention Oswald by name though he “allocated several paragraphs to a description of Dallas’s hate-filled atmosphere.”

As for Afghanistan, whether it is the promising-but-besieged democracy it seems or not, we were told by the Democrats that it was the good war, and further, that the Clinton Administration should have intervened in Rwanda. President Clinton has apologized for not having done so. Whether the U.S. should or shouldn’t is debatable; I’m agnostic on these questions. However, we should not throw away American lives on moralistic gestures; America should profit from these costly actions, whether that profit be defensive as in Cold War calculus in Vietnam or the War-on-Terror calculus in Afghanistan. These are all wars of choice for America; so too WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, et. al. That’s our special providence, luck and perhaps burden. We do not live under jeopardy as, say Poland does. Perhaps we owe something to Poland therefore. I don’t know; I can’t do the math.

What I do know is that the Democrats have supported wars in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, and then had schizophrenic meltdowns. Their crime against the Republic of South Vietnam was not repeated elsewhere because the baby boomers’ generation-wide teen tantrum occurred only once. We can be thankful for small things. President Obama is sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan…

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

Chips from the woodshed:

A comic book which glories in its untruth to life

Blogger Steve Sailer recently characterized Woody Allen as coming out of the "pre-1960s American highbrow/middlebrow culture," when people associated "'soul' with Russian writers rather than with Motown singers." In the 90s, our generalized pop culture evolved past interest in any form of soul in favor of a style-hopping Warholian cool best exemplified by... the messiah of trash formalism and Hubert Humphrey lookalike, Mr. Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino seems to have been raised in isolation from the natural world while being fed volumes of commercial electronic media. His cinematic flash-and-bang skills occasionally turn out an edible pastiche from these ingredients. For those who don't intend to find it out about his latest, here are two stodgy pre-post-literate scolds to tell us what we're missing: David Denby and James Bowman.

Extra: The film design team discusses the various films and film-related things which are referenced in the film


Miki Dora was one of a cadre of L.A. beach bums who surfed Malibu while avoiding the draft and productive labor in 1950s. A girl from that circle had a father who turned their adventures into a novel called Gidget. It became a hit movie in 1959, thereupon transforming this odd Hawaiian beach sport into a mass media fad.

Dora was distinguished by the easy grace of his longboard style, and his matinee idol looks and charm helped him in slinking along the fringes of Hollywood. He apparently also lived from one scam to the next, ripping off every other person who crossed his path. After years spent in Europe on the run from the authorities he returned to the US to serve time for fraud in the early 80s. He was released, and died of cancer in California in '02.

Sheila Weller wrote a detailed account of Dora and some rich kids who fell in with him at the height of his fame: Malibu's Lost Boys

Here's original footage of Dora surfing Venice in '74


Addendum to Joe Carducci's piece on San Francisco punk in Issue #5:

Jon Savage writes a history of the Sleepers.

On his blog Savage also links to this vintage film of the Saints playing two songs, including their epic "Nights In Venice.": "This is one of the few clips that capture what punk felt and sounded like in 1977: a relentless aural assault that leaves the group and the audience exhausted."

(Chris Collins)

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Issue #7 (August 19, 2009)

At the end of Santa Monica Pier, on the western rim of the Americas

Photo by Chris Collins

Read ‘em and Weep – Two Books on Film
by Joe Carducci

Warren Oates – A Wild Life, by Susan Compo (2009, Kentucky)

Lately I’ve taken to explaining to young-uns that if they want to get a fix on the golden age of 1970s Hollywood they should forget about Scorsese and Altman and Coppola and just get a look at every film made by two actors, Warren Oates and Jeff Bridges. It’s that simple.

When I was last in L.A. and going through Book Soup, I was amazed to see a stack of a new hardcover biography of Warren Oates at the checkout counter. Who on today’s earth was smart enough to produce that book?! Oates was from Kentucky and the University published this nice tracing of the kind of acting career which doesn’t happen anymore. The author is a USC professor and though it’s always got the information, it’s written rather awkwardly on Oates’ early years until he’s in the swing of his film career when the telling improves.

That career included small parts in notable films like Yellowstone Kelly (1959), The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), Ride the High Country (1962), The Rounders (1965), and Major Dundee (1965). Then there are some mysterious independent productions directed by Leslie Stevens that I’ll have to track down, Private Property (1960), and Hero’s Island (1962). But it’s the Roger Corman production, The Shooting (1967) that sets Oates on his distinctive path. Still he followed that with a string of awkward studio productions before his seventies really begin in 1969 with The Wild Bunch.

Not everything that followed was excellent but these are the markers that chart the career from 1971 to 1978: The Hired Hand, Two-Lane Blacktop, Kid Blue, Dillinger, Badlands, The White Dawn, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Cockfighter, Race With the Devil, 92 In the Shade, and China 9, Liberty 37. What’s striking about Susan Compo’s narrative of this period is that Warren Oates basically, simply accepted what he was asked to do. His agent is mentioned in the sixties period when he’s just migrated from New York and his stage and live television beginnings, but come the 1970s he seems to be asked to do parts in the most interesting films by people who know him personally. He was forty-two in 1970 and had become something of a psychedelic redneck, a lover not a fighter, a conservative anarchist, a prude in some ways who measured manhood first, before his career, by William Boyd and later by Ben Johnson who he came to know and did his best to hide his pot-smoking from.

Oates didn’t see himself as the western man but he’d stumbled onto what he called “hip country” in his character on Stoney Burke (1962-63), the TV rodeo drama, where he was third-billed after Jack Lord and Bruce Dern. He played heavies and leads and curious combinations well-grounded in a reality that he kept in touch with moving around the country in an RV. Millie Perkins says, “Warren would have been great in silent films. There’s something in him that was longing.” Monte Hellman, “He pretended not to be an intellectual, he pretended to be just a very simple person. He was a very complex person and approached his role from thought and then as it became him, as he became the character, the emotions would take over. He would forget about all the thought.” Oates said, “Actors aren’t citizens, they’re observers, the freest people in the world because of that. They’re above politics.”

He loved working with non-professionals whether they were Georgia crackers in Cockfighter or James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in Two-Lane Blacktop. On that road movie director Hellman moved the production down highways from Arizona to Tennessee, doling out just the scene to be shot that day so the actors didn’t know where they were heading. Compo quotes a crewmember, “If it wasn’t for Warren, we’d wonder if we were really making a movie.”

She quotes Oates on his confidence in young directors, “You need a scorecard, but it’s more exciting to work with the rising generation. At a time when major studios are afraid, young filmmakers are breaking old rules, making new ones. Which is why, I suppose, I throw in my lot with the Peter Fondas and the Mike Laughlins.” He described himself, Jack Nicholson and Monte Hellman as “the tail end of the Beat Generation” characterized by “an enormous tenacity and individualism.” It is interesting that the hippie era’s leading men were slightly older 1950s characters. After Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson “arrived” their presence warped the films they appeared in, whereas the less imposing Warren Oates played along within his films, which allowed their odd, subversive air to fill the movie theaters. These films are the best Hollywood representations of the counter-culture as it was in its true unfashioned adult sense.

That makes this book pretty important.

Sergei Eisenstein – A Life in Conflict, by Ronald Bergan (1999, Overlook)

I’ve seen his films but didn’t know much about him. Bergan tells Eisenstein’s personal and professional stories well. Turns out his father Mikhail was a well known art nouveau architect and his work gives much of Riga, Latvia its turn-of-the-century character; he is better known there than his son. Hardly the bourgeois philistine his son made of him. Bergan guesses “his anger towards him was, in part, fuelled by his inability to express his anger towards that other ‘fearsome and strict’ father who was to control his life from then on.” In 1918 Sergei joined the Red Army as an engineer while his father joined the Whites as an engineer, winding up exiled in Berlin two years later. Reason enough to rail against him soon enough.

Many anti-human currents ran through that era and so it isn’t a simple matter of Eisenstein’s style as “a cold-blooded montage maniac” as Bergan puts the stereotype he wants to dispel. Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Ivan Pavlov, Sigmund Freud and others were all contributing schema to be abused politically and contribute to the twentieth century’s all-time record body-count. Lenin’s contribution was to use and abuse the newly established bourgeois institutions (just beginning to tread on the Tsar’s prerogative) to weaken them from within. This end of the culture, foretold by Dostoevsky, was then released in the cultural revolution that followed the political one.

Suddenly Russia like Italy – another laggard in the industrial revolution – was in love with machines, and speed, and drunk on the future. The resulting art was abstract, inhuman, and formalist. There was much contempt for the old regimes across the continent and art experiments were often cold and formal but for the glee with which they tore at earlier forms and foundations.

Bergan writes that Eisenstein as a boy hid his enthusiasm for the Circus’ clowns to echo his father’s study of the equestrians on display. In Russian the word for ‘clown’ is ‘eccentric,’ and the influential FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) founded by the filmmakers Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg brought certain formal concerns directly into a new political mainstream. Eisenstein explained that his first film, The Strike (1925) “brought collective and mass action onto the screen, in contrast to individualism and the ‘triangle’ drama of the bourgeois cinema.” His professor had been Vsevolod Meyerhold whose theory of ‘bio-mechanics’ involved “translating dramatic emotion into archetypal gestures, the abolition of individual characterizations, and the emphasis on the ‘class kernel’ of the dramatic presentation.” And though Eisenstein himself was highly cultured, including popular film currents from Italy, France, Germany and Hollywood, he was also of German Jewish derivation and a homosexual, and his nature fought to be circumspect. Maxim Gorky, the poet of rural Russia was now a commissar formulating what would be socialist-realism; in 1934 he’d declare, “Destroy homosexuality, and Fascism will disappear.”

Bergan is rightly quick to remind his reader that much of what Eisenstein said and wrote, even in his diaries, may have been for show to Stalin’s KGB, or for use in vicious careerist battles within the All-Union of Cinematographic Workers for the red Commissar’s green light. Meyerhold’s slogan was “October in the theatre!” In the mid-twenties the campaign was for “the Proletarianisation of the Screen!” Dziga Vertov’s Kultkino studio’s slogan was, “Only documentary facts! No illusions! Down with the actor and scenery! Long live the film of actuality!” Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Pudovkin denounced the realistic use of sound in film in 1928. Then in March 1928 the All-Union Party Conference on Cinema lowered the socialist-realism boom on the revolutionary aesthetics-era.

Eisenstein now spun from the commemorative, October (1928), to his The General Line (1929) by exclaiming in the declarative mode now suddenly turned reactionary, “The time has come to make films directly from a slogan.” Unfortunately he began the film under one agricultural policy and on finishing Stalin ordered the Party to “liquidate the Kulaks as a class,” and the film had to be re-written and partially re-shot and Eisenstein left reality even further for theory, though even that was not safe.

Eisenstein left for Europe and Hollywood where more films were started, none finished, and his return to the Soviet Union was as a penitent. He wrote insane, groveling celebrations of what Stalin had done to the arts for Pravda and then got to work on what were, perversely, his greatest films, Alexander Nevsky (1938), and Ivan the Terrible Pts I & II (1944-45). In the forced classicism of these historical bio-epics, the most turgid of genres, scored by Sergei Prokofiev, another prodigal radical now tamed and returned, Eisenstein ate his old critique of Kuleshev’s Hollywoodism and used montage to build monumental narratives that moved their lead characters through a dramatic procession of striking tableau, subtly informed by all his own formal experimentalism had taught him about putting pieces of film together. Eisenstein intended to be a theory-based free-associating genius-comedian, but his was another Russian tragedian’s tragedy.

Illustrations of Oates and Eisenstein by James Fotopoulos. Film stills from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Ivan the Terrible.

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

Thoughts on Record Collecting
By Spot

Rare, valuable and highly collectible vinyl items (and assorted paraphernalia) from the "collection" were sold on eBay in a series of auctions starting in late October 2002. I've never been a record collector and have never really cared about it. Most folks are wrongly convinced otherwise. But whatever the case is, anything that I may have had is now gone. It had become a usual thing to get calls and emails from people seeking certain heady punk rock vinyl items from "that period." No, I either never had them, or if I did have them, they're gone now. I made the damn records and that's all I cared about and, naturally, I ended up with a lot of test pressings, etc. That was par for the course but touché! You had your chance to own some of them but it's too late now.

Y'see, at this point in my life any pleasure I could have derived from owning such a collection was marginal at best. I didn't listen to 'em, didn't show 'em off, they were stuck away in boxes that just gathered dust. Hell, I COULDN'T listen to 'em! Haven't owned a turntable since about 1972! The pleasure was THEN in the NOW of recording the music and creating the product. There has never been glory in drooling over artifacts from the past.

And punk rock? Shit! At best it's some latter day version of a Pet Rock? And the Beach Boys had a Pet Rock long before Iggy did! Don't forget that some digital kid is now playing Dennis the Menace to Brian's Mr. Wilson. Ha! And maybe it's what inspired Beck in the first place... Anyway, record collections just lead us farther from the truth.


Well, Virginia, the major failing of history is the fact that it is a reconstruction at best. The blues wasn't played by a buncha "deep and meaningful" men as some joker at a party tried to convince me one night. He was decrying the fact that contemporary country-blues picker Steve James had the audacity to inject a fair amount of humor into his performances. This, he felt, was an affront to dem bluesmen who back in the day sang about dat big leg woman. But hmmmm... it seems to me that dem ol' bluesmen were as likely to be pretty hen-pecked jokers as they were to be macho bohunks. Think about it. Songs are what you make up to chronicle as well as to escape reality. And dat big leg woman was likely to use dat leg to kick dem men in de balls if dey gets uppity. I can hear the Minnesota Lutherans quietly nodding, "yes, yes."

It's the same with record collecting and music criticism. There are only so many archives and archivable objects to go around. Beyond these are reissues and bootlegs; poetically, they become archivable themselves. Beyond these are unauthorized copies; at best, they become archivable to educated listeners caught up in the act of listening. Beyond these, however, are the rudimentary copies made by the great unwashed and uneducated who simply want something to conveniently listen to; nothing archivable here. Yet beyond these, in an ultimate declaration of use, is the free/soft/music-ware files that eliminate the need to "search and copy"; archivable? — therein lies the rub.

To wit: Jason Enright, the owner of Jupiter Records* (yes, Records!) in Austin, TX, one evening passed along a realization about the CDs he sells. In a nutshell, the actual music disc as well as the plastic case in which it is packaged are made of the same basic material, via the same basic chemical process, and they both cost exactly the same amount of money per unit. Are we talking about values here? Are we remembering that vinyl records were made from a material that underwent a process that was unique to the product thus manufactured? And perhaps one can argue the same about the jackets in which they were packaged? For historical reasons, yes, we can pursue that argument. For practical reasons, however — no, we're letting that discussion lie. This is not, after all, a "vinyl vs CD" diatribe.


If we thought the record collector/music critic mentality was bad now... wait til all the downloadable musicware and its potential archives gives rise to the "new critic" — an old, wrinkly, tattooed geek with sagging pierce-holes whose knowledge is so tedious, so detailed, so mind-numbingly reprehensible... we'll WANT to hear the worst of Eric Clapton and George Harrison if only for the relief of knowing that no one has to tell us how bad it is. And how many more Misfits outtakes will it take to keep granny awake? So consider — those deep musicware (holy shit!) archives may actually come to be the best friend of the concept of Copyright as Law. Those archives will have to be considered property since the collector/critic bases his knowledge, thereby his worth, on the rarity of the information/object he possesses. In this case, ironically, he will have acquired that information/object for free and at no risk to either his life or livelihood. Hence, once again the immutable rise of a system of values that must be regulated not by the possessor of the information/object but by the origin of its creation.

Although..... since most music creators of any worth never sell shit til after they're dead, what the hell does any of this matter? The only difference is that nowadays the graves can be robbed before the artist is in them.

*Jupiter Records ceased to exist sometime in 2003.

Spot, Centennial, Wyoming 2006, by Lindsay Olson

Spot can be heard here. Also, through myspace.

Photo of Black Flag with Spot at KUCR studio, 1981, by Jim Acomb; Photos of records by Mike Safran

Restaurant Review

Cafe Mingala
1393B Second Avenue, Upper East Side, New York, NY

Tea leaf salad: refreshing, crunchy with textures and tastes that complement each other with an intriguing sesame high-note to flavors. Trivia: although you can get chopsticks, it is recommended to use knife and fork since Burma was a British colony. Delicious but not as cheap as it used to be.

(Jane Schuman)

(Photos by Tan Nguyen)

For a free quizzical look, tell 'em the Vulgate sent you!

Saratoga, Wyom. is in its second year of its Wyoming Film Festival. It's on the other side of the peaks from Centennial. The opening night screens "Sky High" (1922), written & directed by Lynn Reynolds, starring Tom Mix bouncing around the Grand Canyon undercover to break up a crime-ring smuggling Chinese across the Mex border. Presented with live musical accompaniment by the Starting and Stalling Orchestra.


A friend thought my last piece crossed paths with this one by L.E. Ikenga, a Nigerian-American woman, from a couple months ago. Her African Colonial construction is an interesting one. Marxists were initially quite pitiless in their regard for time-honored folk cultural patterns, though Karl himself thought capitalism would do the job on them, and socialism would pick up the pieces from there.

(Joe Carducci)

South of Lake Marie, in the Snowy Range of Wyoming

Photo by Joe Carducci

Issue #7 has been brought to you by:

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Issue #6 (August 12, 2009)

In the Snowy Range of Wyoming

Photo by Joe Carducci

Mike Seeger, 1933-2009

by David Lightbourne

Mike Seeger passed last Friday, Aug. 7, a Leo just shy his 76th birthday. Last year had marked his 50th year as an important performer and recording artist. And an equal number as recording engineer and producer of numerous important anthologies of vernacular American music culled from his own archive of field recordings. From early banjo to late Jew’s-harp or mouth-bow, from mandolin and fiddle to guitar, harmonica, and particularly the autoharp, Seeger over time mastered every conceivable technique and musical nuance he unearthed through exhaustive research in traditional American genres.

Handsome, youthfully charismatic, with a strong flexible alto and informal stage manner (jokes failed), Seeger sang and played like a demon when required, while equally superb presenting soft, low-key children’s songs and slow, lovely, archaic ballads. Vast knowledge informed his incredibly versatile performances. He would introduce unusual, little-known instruments like a banjo made from a large gourd, and genuine Pan-pipes, home-made quills or musical reeds.

Seeger’s mastery of the autoharp, a mechanical zither, placed him so far beyond his peers in a small skilled community -- the instrument virtually his own creation -- that his virtuosity may never be equaled.

One of four children -- with Penny, Peggy, and Barbara -- from the second marriage of folklorist Charles Edward Seeger (Pete being an older half-brother), Mike spent much of his childhood hearing and then playing aluminum discs, using cactus needles -- recordings from his father’s work in the Library of Congress for Roosevelt’s WPA in the 1930s. Music that was captured in remote, rural locales by non-professionals (pros only inadvertently) and spanned a breadth of expression far beyond mainstream popular forms.

Then, in his late teens he discovered the mother-lode. Already an early collector of southern, small-label 78s that preserved the grassroots sounds of seminal bluegrass groups -- singles rare the day of release -- Seeger fell upon the 1920s. Records on major labels of what those companies in the twenties called “race” or “hillbilly” music, included performances of such uncommon quality they would eventually gain the status of masterworks.

Charles Seeger’s wife, American 20th century composer and pianist Ruth Crawford, also worked in the family business, transcribing recordings into books of piano sheet music approximating the source, and this expertise around him as a child discouraged Mike from learning any instrument himself; he happily failed early on piano. Long before his adult debut in 1958 at 25, he did appear on a Seeger family album, parents and four children, offering well-known, homogenized material in an entirely urban, contrived manner.

By 1956 Mike had left the family’s musical culture behind, blossoming late but in a striking fashion: a cameo appearance that year at a Pete Seeger Hootenanny, voice with autoharp doing “I Never Will Marry”. By the summer of 1960, at Newport, again with autoharp, he sang his adaptation of the 1950 Stanley Brothers’ “Man of Constant Sorrow,” in a performance that remains a masterpiece (Tom Paley on the big Martin 000-45).

By the winter and spring of 1961, Bob Dylan’s first-hand exposure to Seeger performances on two occasions convinced him to stop interpreting traditional material. Frankly, he had to sing songs Mike Seeger could not sing, unless Mike broke in and stole them from Bobby’s freezer. In a parting salvo to Mike’s fine old repertoire, he reworked “Constant Sorrow” on his first album -- a brilliant, respectful tip of his ‘Huck Finn’ hat to Mike.

From the time Mike joined the nascent New Lost City Ramblers in 1958, through years of albums with the NLCR, solo, and in impromptu groups, on over a half-dozen labels, Seeger’s discography of titles runs in the dozens. He performed as a solo artist or otherwise over that span and he always found admirers and fans -- an audience who considered him more beloved than Pete himself. By the 1990s it became clear, if it had not been generally accepted earlier, that as Dylan said later, there would never be another like him. No-one could think of even a single earlier parallel or model. Mike Seeger had become the single finest interpreter of regional musics and vernacular styles in our country’s history.

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

From the external hard-drive of Joe Carducci…

Brave New Class

Most Americans regret the intractable contest of politics. As a young and idealistic nation we like to imagine there’s a way beyond it. But the third ways – Thurmond, Wallace, Anderson, Larouche, Jackson, Weicker, Perot, Buchanan – have failed to attract and represent that discontent. The American political equilibrium is pretty sturdy; it involves the two parties, each a product of its own shotgun marriage. These then trade lead as they spin through their lop-sided waltz. No-one is going to applaud such an unsightly dance…

Before the founding of the United States there was actually less politics. In Kingdoms of yore politics amounted to subjects petitioning King, or noblemen positioning themselves within the Court. For peasants, politics amounted to certain local questions resolved by force, by marriage, or by deferring to an elder. The King’s Court was too small to be considered a class, but new classes formed between the peasantry and the Court. Bankers, traders, innkeepers, landlords and merchants thrived as towns grew and transportation by river and sea expanded markets.

The Romans had executed Jesus Christ, but their empire was taken from within by His followers within three centuries. Thereafter the Kings of Christendom ruled by a sanctioning power vested in the Pope. The Divine Right of Kings was now observable, rather than merely asserted by some ambitious Duke or Baron. The Pope’s embassies knit the now Holy Roman Empire together on a grand new level of politics. A few centuries more and this church-state power was ebbing to new centers of economic power. The theo-political doctrine of the King’s two bodies was delineated as his body politic interacted with new, non-royal institutions, while his body natural had to sustain the appearance of the paragon of Christian virtue. The King’s regional representatives evolved from royal figures to purely administrative appointees and then to appointed members of consultative bodies. It was not yet democracy but the more wise the Royal House, the more successful its reign, the more its subjects commanded a voice in governance. As their nations weaned themselves from absolute rule the Holy Roman Empire dissolved and the Pope power began a slow retreat from the political realm.

The push toward democracy was not quite from the People themselves, though. The People have more often been spoken for by a new class. A rhetorical and political bait-and-switch evolved from the classical Greek and Roman worlds, through the American, French, Mexican, and Russian Revolutions to here and now where this deception remains the principal discord in representational politics in these now democratic republics. At times it can appear the bait-and-switch be politics itself, which might explain the people’s distaste for it.

The failure of Communism demonstrated how easily the political party inspired by Marx turned his fundamental insight that economics drives history on its head as the Party once in power repressed economic forces. It also demonstrated that those market forces cannot be tamed by the political class without sending that economy into a regime-breaking death spiral.

At times a culture might prefer political tyranny to roiling economic growth – late Tsarist Russia’s economy had the highest growth rate in Europe until WWI. And the Chinese in the early 20th Century may have felt that their commercial culture was so corrosive of national structure that it had led to colonization by European powers. Certainly the once innovative, dynamic Middle Kingdom was closed down long before, according to the needs of its administrative class – a neo-Confucian new class then coming into its own after 1433 when the last of its exploratory trade missions sailed. (Christopher Columbus was born in 1451.) By 1500, according to Kaoru Sugihara, China was on a labor intensive path while Europe was beginning on a capital-intensive path. China was then left behind beginning in 1750 according to Kenneth Pomeranz (The Great Divergence, Princeton), and that would bring the British around the world to China’s doorstep rather than the reverse.

The late Tom Butler, ex-lower east sider, ex-Santa Monica Synanon, ex-Trotskyite, one-time Laramie coffee-shop bon vivant, thought that the Khmer Rouge had finally proved Marxism-Leninism fraudulent, for once Pol Pot got through with Cambodia no frustrated Com-symp anywhere in the world could ever say of yet another failed revolution, “They just didn’t go far enough.” Philip Short writes that the years Pol Pot and his comrades spent studying in Paris meant that “the foreign intellectual legacy which would underpin the Cambodian revolution was first and foremost French.” (Pol Pot, Henry Holt) Though he does allow that Pol Pot was influenced by the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, whose study, The Great Revolution, counts its failings as 1.) Robespierre was a moderate, and 2.) it didn’t go far enough. So it was the good serf-loving Prince -- author of Mutual Aid, an attempted counter to the theory of natural selection -- who put it in young Saloth Sâr’s mind that the only revolutionary crime was to not go far enough.

My friend Tom was an optimist though, because right after the Cambodian cataclysm revolutionary parties in Central America and Africa were cheered on. For the least fussy each Communist revolution is a virgin birth, and the blood excused by an all-purpose black legend about Kings or strongmen or “so-called democracies.”

Marx had thought economic forces would yield communism. But almost immediately after the Russian Revolution, the invisible hand forced Lenin into his New Economic Policy semi-privatization because even the full expropriation of the wealth of entire classes of royalty, manufacturers, merchants, speculators and land-owners bought only a one-time cash infusion which was quickly spent and then unreplenished by the new socialist economic structures that replaced them. The command economy quickly devolves into the game described by Russians decades later as “They pretend to pay us; we pretend to work.”

The new class that Milovan Djilas discusses in his 1957 classic of Communist disillusionment was the political bureaucracy, which he counter-posed to the political party. “The party makes the class, but the class grows as a result and uses the party as a basis. The class grows stronger, while the party grows weaker.” (The New Class, Praeger) Djilas was not simply bemoaning the loss of the Party’s idealism and initiative; he was an ex-Communist tracing what fundamental flaws had wrought under the guise of its idealism. He had been the Vice-President of Yugoslavia, then was expelled from the Communist Party and jailed in 1956.

Socialism weighed far more heavily on the people than had the royal families. Was there ever a King as universally invasive as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, Kim Il-Sung, Pol Pot, Mugabe? As Djilas put it, “The monarchy did not think quite as highly of itself as the Communists do of themselves, nor was it as absolute as they are.” We assume otherwise today due to lingering propaganda from the revolutions driven home by the new class. The very idea of royalty, even as mere non-governing cultural institution as in Britain or Spain, is a mote in the eye of the new class. Even now the new class – these made-members of the meritocracy -- gives evidence through its media of being deeply insulted by the demos, for they must submit their grand social-engineering plans for the approval of this rabble. It’s human nature, of course, but it’s exacerbated by this new class’s clambering into the less productive sectors: the arts, media, academia, and most expensively, law and government. Their products are not worthless, but they exist at the sufferance of the wealth-creating hard economy. The new class senses this and denies it.

Contempt for the people in the name of the people is acted out again and again: in the ongoing formation of the EU in Brussels, in the last attempt to nationalize healthcare and this one, and in the bathetic brinksmanship over global warming where any doubts expressed over causality or the wisdom of loading costs onto the productive sectors become a new kind of treason akin to holocaust-denial. Such political behavior reveals this new class believes they on merit should have inherited the divine right of Kings.

Our world here is a product of the FDR presidency. The news media talks of the Obama era following the Bush era, the Clinton era… but we still live in the FDR era. And the new class still dreams a thirties dream of corporatist fascism. Only Eisenhower had the standing to roll back the government involvement in the economy and culture that occurred over the course of Roosevelt’s four terms. But he did not, and then Johnson and Nixon expanded from there, thinking to buy time for their efforts in Vietnam and the Cold War generally. It was thought that social security had bought the Democrats a generation of voters and that of course bore repeating. The Clinton’s healthcare initiative failed because it looked too much like it was – a coup on a weakened profession, Medicine, by a fallen profession, Law. At most, there’s two or three doctors in Congress; there are on the contrary, hundreds of lawyers, and in appointed positions and staffers, thousands…

What Hillary did pull off in her unwild youth was delineated best in the David Brock book, The Seduction of Hillary Rodham (Free Press). He had his crisis of conscience and gonads while researching it, but the book is no simple hatchet job and his narrative about Hillary Clinton’s tenure at the Legal Services Corporation in the chapter “Alinsky’s Daughter” is one of the best portraits of these corporatist combines that once authorized take on a life of their own as planned:

The question of whether the federal government should provide free legal services to the poor has been bitterly contested since the government first began spending $1million a year on the program during the heyday of LBJ’s Great Society in 1965. The LSC became an independent corporation by an act of Congress in 1974 and was given an annual budget of $90 million. By the end of Hillary’s tenure, that budget had ballooned to over $300 million a year.

In the view of Roger Cramton, the Cornell law professor and chairman of the LSC board under President Gerald Ford, the original Great Society legal services program set forth objectives far beyond the goals of traditional legal aid. Previously, legal aid had been thought of as helping low-income people apply for government benefits, deal with landlords, or fight for child support. The LBJ program was run by professional activists whose idea of social justice meant litigating and lobbying to change laws, and extending the welfare state, as well as Alinsky-style organizing of the poor into political pressure groups. (
The Seduction of Hillary Rodham)

Of course it was still the seventies and the radicalism of many involved was yet unreconstructed, but the turning of a legal aid program for individual poor people into a vehicle for radical lawyers to fund class action lawsuits in all directions was theft in any decade. Theft that corporate America had to accept and consider as another tax to be passed along to their customers.

And Brock’s tale is one of the few exhumations of the too-often invisible ulterior motives of the new class. Mass higher education has yielded more pretension than wisdom. This might not be so dangerous, but it does saddle the left with a higher burden of proof. When they are not trusted implicitly by the object of their affection – the People – they get angry because they aren’t smart enough to be able to explain themselves. They cannot be trusted for they no longer believe in the Left’s endgame, nor have most of them accepted the short-term role of reforming and administering and checking the Republicans within constitutional bounds. This leaves them operating with no philosophical basis, but rather on a cynical political level with only a hollow etiquette to cover what may drive them. Unfortunately for the left, the right generally believes in the American tradition and free market capitalism.

Musician and itinerant intellectual David Lightbourne explains the idiocy one finds in academia and elsewhere as resulting from mass higher education on top of compulsory schooling which he believes educates people beyond their intelligence. When this occurs large numbers of nominally smart folks think in manias like global warming. These manias come of the Left project having given ground on economics and materialism. Rather than think openly they prefer to simply adopt useful ideas; these are more easily thrown in a fight. The earth’s climate is never really stable; it is always cycling through its variables. And the sun’s intensity runs on its cycle. Beyond all the cooked evidence of the deeply invested, warming causes cooling and cooling triggers warming or we would not be here arguing over Darwin.

Another product of mass higher education is a new class consciousness wherein these lawyers, sociologists, bureaucrats, teachers, artists, welfare apparats, AmeriCorps hirelings, etc., know to favor any aggrandizement of state power (except military) even if they personally will not directly benefit. This self-interest is difficult to see. It disappears when viewed through the enlightenment bias of the last five hundred years of western history.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s book, Three New Deals (Metropolitan), is about thirties responses to the Depression in Italy, Germany and America. It begins by describing their stimulus programs of public works construction. Each country rejected architectural modernism for “Baroque monumentality” in its new government buildings. Schivelbusch quotes architectural historian John W. Reps calling it a “supreme irony” to have Washington, D.C., capitol of the foundational democracy import the style designed to sing praise to national socialist despots. I think it’s a somewhat smaller irony, because the reason our democratic republic has a constitution is that the founders understood well that this new state would exhibit the same straining toward tyranny as any other.

Favorite images of members of our new class in their rage to serve include Vice President Gore in his Navigator, his manse, his jet, multitasking his way to a superhuman carbon imprint, or Governor John Corzine being driven at ninety miles an hour through New Jersey traffic without wearing his seatbelt and barely surviving the wreck (NJ’s first impulse was to prosecute the citizen obeying the speed limit that the Governor’s SUV ran up on). They’d like to clear American roads of the American people so they could speed through unobstructed on the people’s business, just like the members of the Soviet politburo did through the once empty streets of Moscow. Victor Davis Hanson recently noted that Gore and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, both environmental scolds, live like “grandees of the 18th-century English countryside.”

In politics there are certain near term priorities that have nothing to do with political philosophy. But political philosophy provides a cover for anything and so most nations other than Britain count on a constitution as a kind of guardrail against public servants acting like sovereigns on one hand, or mob-fueled passions on the other. The American constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court stopped FDR from taking his ad hoc ideas even further when it ruled the NRA unconstitutional. After his 1936 reelection an attempt to pack the court by adding seven new justices to the Supreme Court failed, but did reveal the scale of the administration’s desperation to revive the economy that the state now had in its grip.

One suspects that above and beyond Roosevelt’s determination to come to Britain’s defense and vice president Wallace’s to help the Soviet Union survive, the rationale for America’s entry into WWII was at base economic. A war-time command economy is the logical end of socialism because once nationalized, overtly or by taxes and regulation, the productive and wealth-building sectors lose their competitive edge and begin to seek state favor instead. All become rent-seekers and focus on lobbying the powers that be. This was the American Left’s contribution to our military-industrial complex. It also explains Wal-Mart’s recent signing on to the health-care initiative. They know that raising the cost of doing business serves a mature company by precluding the arrival of new competitors. Once the private sector shelters under government protection only a threat from outside, real or imagined, can supply motivation enough to make productivity happen.

Our new class wanted to stride the world stage with the European powers soon after the Civil War and Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson delivered it walk-on roles in the Spanish-American War and WWI. FDR ran for his third term on a peace platform in 1940 and soon ordered a halt to the sale of oil to Japan, which it took as an act of war. The Anglophile Roosevelt thought so little of the Japanese race that he imagined they’d only sink a ship or two in the South China Sea. But in the end, foreign affairs, the threats America faced in its first century and its burdens and adventures in the second, have always worked against the prime domestic agendas of both parties.

The issues of slavery and state sovereignty were settled in the Civil War, but the continued disenfranchisement of the new Black citizen did not immediately trigger a federal power grab. The Great Depression did. Earlier Panics and Depressions had occurred in a less integrated world. By the early thirties the major trading nations exhibited greater international consciousness and they all made the wrong moves. Hoover was a progressive Republican who had supported Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose run, and he signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act into law and raised the income tax close to forty points – Franklin Roosevelt was able to campaign against Hoover’s socialism!

The various New Deal programs initiated then for the poor, the elderly, artists, veterans, farmers, etc., were bestowed at first on Americans whose expectations had been formed in earlier decades. But these programs re-engineered the expectations of those born into a citizenship now largely based on these ongoing programs. These programs bought votes in their day, but votes don’t stay bought because the programs stoke expectation. Human nature quickly adapts to gifts, charity, welfare payments, etc. It’s a wonder there is still any traditional American impulses left. The Democrats repeatedly fret that we are the only industrialized state without national healthcare as if it’s a problem that the United States isn’t like Europe. Well we wouldn’t be here if we wanted to be like Europe; we’d have stayed over there!

The state keeps hitting its budgetary head on the ceiling. There will never be enough revenue. The states with the highest tax rates are running the highest deficits currently. According to the WSJ, the Center for Responsive Politics reports that 1,000 municipal, county and state governments paid over $20 million this spring to lobby the federal government for stimulus spending.

Massachusetts and California have tried to initiate universal health-care coverage at the state level and are finding that it doesn’t save money, it costs more. Now they hope to offload their programs onto some new federal plan. And further, writes Thomas Donlan:

A state commission last week recommended that Massachusetts end fee-for-service payments for health care. The new payment system… would mandate flat-rate per-capita payments to networks of doctors, hospitals and other providers. The networks would receive a payment for each member each month, regardless of the services performed. (July 27, 2009, Barron’s)

If doctors are to become wage labor they will unionize and join that other fallen profession, Teachers, and seek to avoid as much of their work as possible. (Teachers unionized in 1969.) As the baby boomers are entering old-age and beginning to depend heavily on their doctors this all seems foolhardy. There is balking within the Democratic caucus. Some fear the true-believers in their leadership and the White House could create a wholly-owned political nightmare. And they fear a bridge too far as well – one that might even trigger a roll-back of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, all of which are unsustainable in their present forms. (In the current issue of Fortune Allan Sloan compares what’s coming as Social Security begins to borrow in five years to make its pay-outs as one, two, many AIGs every year out.) Democrats might soon wish they’d settled for Bush’s Social Security reform, as they wish they’d settled for Nixon’s health care initiative.

The new class talks often of greed and sustainability. Greed explains all behavior but their own, and they think of public monies as clean and private monies as filthy. The sustainability question gives state policymakers a new veto over all private sector activity. Power is their game, though they often find substantial salaries and grant money to go with their positions. They behave as if sure that greed is powerful enough to survive their best attempts to eradicate it. Therefore they take it for granted and cease to worry about what might be necessary policy for optimum wealth creation. Even what might be necessary to, by taxation, fund their own social plans.

Politicians cannot raise taxes without losing revenue. Can they cut benefits and get re-elected? When the federal income tax rates came down in the early 1980s, the revenues that were collected by the lower rates went up due to increased economic activity. The Democrats in congress seemed to ramp up spending so they could hide these increased collections under the resulting deficits. Perhaps the principle-of-the-thing – the state’s claim to its citizens’ earnings – outweighs even the state’s most profitable tax philosophy if it be lower and flatter.

Politics in Washington is now quite often this kind of shadow play. Clive Crook in the Financial Times recently reminded his readers that the shape of healthcare in America is already the product of state control. There is just a vestigial fee-for-service option. Yet the failings of this level of state involvement will be used to rationalize further state takeover. The new class cannot lose. Ban drilling and then claim oil is running out. Attack a company or person and then claim their defensive actions are proof of guilt. Regulate perverse incentives into a sector and then blame capitalism. The auto industry was warped by its experience during WWII and the cold war, especially GM. Now it appears American carmakers will have to surrender the trucks, vans and SUVs where they lead, to compete on smaller vehicles where the Japanese and Koreans lead. And the state’s rescue of GM and Chrysler punishes Ford by propping up their weak competitors; Ford has been denied the reward the marketplace might have delivered it. And the purchase of GM will make the decades long process of opening up world markets in the WTO even more tortuous as protectionist regimes point to this action in defense of their own.

Rube Goldberg is their patron saint as they overlay new laws on old, new regulations on old; not to worry if they conflict, all will be adjudicated. Douglas McCollam describes what elite law-firms have been up to in the Wall Street Journal:

When times were good, lawyers earned enormous fees engineering mergers and takeovers. When things were bad, they earned enormous fees fending off angry shareholders and breaking up the conglomerates that they had helped put together. When things turned really ugly, they made a fortune carving up the bankrupt carcasses of their former clients and toiling to keep top management out of federal prison. And when questioned whether they bore some measure of responsibility for the malfeasance that felled their erstwhile patrons, lawyers typically answered with a “hey, we just work here” shrug.” (July 30, 2009, WSJ)

When they begin to talk about lawyers’ fees and liability caps like they talk about doctor’s fees and treatment caps then we’ll know that an even newer class has been born. Don’t hold your breath. Law is now the language of social interaction; everything is a federal case, and repeatedly. It’s a tax worse than the VAT about to be proposed.

Youth culture is in for a big surprise, because once health-care is government-issued, then everyone’s health is the state’s business. Big Brother knows you want to smoke a little, drink a little, and he would like to allow it, because he likes to think he’s pretty hip himself, left of center and all that, but you simply have to understand… it’s no longer your choice to make. In June, California added marijuana smoke to its official list of known carcinogens. How does this square with the continuing drift toward legalization of pot? And how does that square with the drift toward criminalization of tobacco? Well, I guess it’ll all be adjudicated.

The last “big idea” book influential in Democratic Party circles was Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007), which claimed to reveal the American right’s m.o. of using catastrophes as opportunities for tearing down state safeguards and leaving Americans defenseless before capitalism unbound. It sounded to me like the left’s m.o. she was describing in some sort of projected guilt formation considering FDR’s behavior during the Depression, and sure enough her book is now never spoken of at all; rather its now officially the Rahm Emmanuel doctrine. Elections have consequences.

In truth, the American economy has been subordinated to the federal government since WWII and the New Deal. Our allegedly savage jungle capitalism is nowhere near savage enough to pay for social security, nevermind what’s to come. Some smart mathematician will someday crunch the economic growth numbers and chart them over the years with the amount of deaths by violence and disease. This will be the Blood Index and it will underline the importance of enterprise and growth. India and China understand this because their leaders, democrats and Communists, understand that they ride a tiger and a dragon, and if they fail to maintain growth the social dangers are grave on a truly awesome scale. Neither will indulge their thankfully microscopic new classes’ wish to shut down smokestack industries and stop highway and automobile construction. And they must look at our new class’s environmental embassies cross-eyed when they blithely demand that they quit burning coal and oil.

Here in Wyoming we have our own microscopic new class:

The Equality State Policy Center (ESPC) is encouraging lawmakers to reassess Wyoming’s mineral severance taxes, which make up to 20 percent of the state’s general fund along with another 12 percent in interest from the savings account.

Sarah Gorin, an ESPC researcher, told the Wyoming News Service on Monday that the interest stream is unlikely to sustain the state if mining production declines and tax revenues disappear.

“We’ve felt for a long time that we’re not saving enough against the future when these resources will be gone, or no longer marketable,” she said. (August 4, 2009,
Laramie Boomerang)

Our new class is not world class; they claim they just want for Wyoming what Alaska has, but its cover for their principle-of-the-thing – a state income tax. They cannot abide that our state does not have its hand in our pockets, though they’ve learned to never mention this. So it’s more shadow play, even here in the wide-open high plains – look there goes Shane now. I like her phrase “or no longer marketable.” They sure dream big about their brave new world.

[Artwork: Constantine's battle standard; King Arthur tapestry; merchants; "Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne" (1806) by Ingres; Clinton, Clinton & Obama]


Fearless Predictions:

President Obama attends a fall 2010 tickertape parade for troops returning from Iraq. We won the wrong war. Depending on the polls it will be held before the mid-term elections without Bush administration attendees, or after the election with them in attendance.

Violence in the Muslim world will slowly subside in the next decade and then following the Chinese example, conversions to Christianity will begin.

36,000 Dow! (Just kidding on that one.)

Disgraced ex-CBS Anchorman Dan Rather laments journalism's rapid decline since he was fired... Calls for President Obama to intervene.


Here's how AmeriCorps cleans up its act in anticipation of a large government contract to enforce provisions of the Health Care progrum.


It's official: Punk Archaeology


Reading the NYT's media-guy David Carr's characterization of Murdoch's paid-web thrust, you'd hardly guess the NYT was leading this collusion.

This crime-in-progress went unreported in the New York Times and Washington Post and those happen to be the papers the FTC investigators read.


"Shovel-Ready Health Care" for the title alone!

This is my favorite contemporary portrait of the new class.

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Issue #5 (August 5, 2009)

In the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles

Photo by cheshirebat

Will Shatter and Bruce Lose of Flipper, 1981; photo by Vincent Anton.

Radio Programmer Tip #1:
(3 Tunes, 2 Segues, 1 Story)

by Joe Carducci

Negative Trend – “Black & Red”
Flipper – “I Saw You Shine”
Toiling Midgets – “Preludes”

Negative Trend was of the first generation of San Francisco punk bands. These bands were mostly inspired by the then final Stooges album, “Raw Power,” mainly because it was the best record you could buy for 50 cents in 1975, and was also the best musical style you could attempt to pull off, having just copped your first ten dollar guitar on that very 50 cent inspiration. The market for underground rock had shrunk overnight to the point that the Stooges’ label Elektra dropped them after “Fun House.” (Dropped after Fun House!!!) David Bowie’s management company moved them to England where soon enough MainMan had second thoughts. Eventually, Columbia released “Raw Power” in the U.S. and then quickly remaindered the album. These cut-out copies were snatched up and anyone looking for “Raw Power” after 1976 had to pay import prices. The market for underground sounds had in fact shrunk to the young musicians just beginning to form their own bands knowing nothing of any collapse except maybe radio’s, and certain that they and the noise they’d make would wake the dead.

These were not college boys. Unlike today, the mid-seventies music scene was one of drop-outs inhabiting city neighborhoods bereft of hope and pretension as the late hippie/radical scene either bottomed out in drug use or retired to college town arcadias. The drugs these players were taking they were taking without pretension. Mind expansion? Yeah right. Initial drug pretenses were folk scene clean and had been laid low by the motor-head impulses of Grand Funk youth. Revolution? Yeah right. The draft had ended, then the protests ended, then Nixon resigned, then Ford became president, then the hip young dry-look congressional class of ‘74 cut off aid to South Vietnam, then it fell, then a bloodbath in Vietnam, then Carter, then a bigger bloodbath in Cambodia, then a war between Vietnam and Cambodia, then a war between China and Vietnam, then the Mullahs took Iran, then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. . .

No, this music generation’s excitement was about a lean mean music that looked to the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, and then suddenly the Ramones as models. They disparaged the just collapsed hippie pretense while making stylistic gestures in the directions of pre-hippie fifties/sixties rockabilly/garage approaches.

Negative Trend was formed out of the ashes of one ground zero nexus of early San Francisco punk, Grand Mal, which in 1977 birthed Trend plus the Offs. I never saw Negative Trend though I did know their first singer, Rozz, as he bounced between SF and Portland, where I was doing punk radio on KBOO and turning an import record store called Renaissance into what we thought of as the first modern independent record distributor, Systematic Record Distribution. Negative Trend released one four song seven inch which was quickly out of print with nary a copy leaving the west coast. They played the bay area, toured the Northwest once, went to LA to play and record with a new singer, Rik L. Rik (formerly vocalist for LA band, F-Word). He replaced Mikal Waters as singer. F-Word had been on the Posh-Boy label. Negative Trend recorded for Posh-Boy and then owner Robbie goes and has the Simpletones re-record the music and releases it under the Rik L. Rik name. They just didn’t know about that kind of shit in SF. Robbie must have thought this was pop music and was going to sell.

Flipper was formed by Trend’s rhythm section, Will Shatter and Steve DePace, plus guitarist Ted Falconi, formerly of a band called SST and Ricky Williams who had floated away from the Sleepers for a moment (Rozz filled in for him). While in Portland I met a kid from SF named Bruce Calderwood who showed up with his girlfriend, Diane, who was one of the early Portland punks and moved back and forth between the cities. Bruce put the locals on edge slightly as he was a big city punk and Portland was definitely a backwater. He talked about this band he had back in SF called Flipper. He lolled around Portland for a month or more so I didn’t figure the band was much of a full time career move for him. He had replaced Ricky who then floated back to the Sleepers.

Systematic moved to Berkeley at the end of 1979 and I caught up with Bruce quickly as he worked at the folk label, Kicking Mule, just up the street. I saw Flipper gigs at Dew Drop Inn in Berkeley, and the Sound of Music in SF before they began to get onto bigger hall gigs. I bought a small Aiwa cassette recorder to tape their gigs because they were pretty abstract in those days and very flexible in their treatment of their tunes; it was tough to recall just what had been so great about them and they as yet had no records out. Subterranean Records and Target Video recorded Flipper and three other new SF bands live at Target in February 1980 and Subterranean put out an album which included three tunes by Flipper.

Systematic had a label but my partner was not easily interested in this or that band so I kicked a few hundred dollars to Steve Tupper and we called the first Flipper 45 a Subterranean-Thermidor co-release. At the recording session at Hyde Street in late October 1980 they did five tunes, “Ha Ha,” “Love Canal” (both released as the 45), plus “I Saw You Shine,” “No Tears Wasted,” and “Boom Boom.” It was great to see the live tunes finally go to tape. I’d only been in a recording studio once before in Portland (Neo-Boys), though I had recorded my brother’s band in early seventies at junior high dances on his four-track Dokorder if that counts. So I just watched and listened. I remember being sure that they would go back and clean up that hellacious amp-noise of Ted’s before the tracking began. Boy was I dumb.

The session was great and it was an honor to be there. “Boom Boom” was not then released (another version of it was recorded but unreleased by a post-Flipper band of Will’s called Any Three Initials). All five tunes were recorded one day, and mixed on another day. “Shine,” and “Tears” were later re-recorded for the first album, “Generic Flipper.” At the mix session I remember Bruce laughing with Will and Steve (the ex-Trends) as he told them of calling Craig Gray (ex-Grand Mal, Negative Trend guitarist, and just then turning the final Trend line-up into the Toiling Midgets with ex-members of the Sleepers) after Flipper had recorded to inform him that he had been ripped off. Bruce meant that “Shine” was “Black & Red” reworked, so to speak.

Flipper, live at Berkeley Square, joined by Ricky Williams; photo by Vincent Anton.

I first saw the Toiling Midgets on a Saturday when I walked up to Telegraph Avenue to check the record stores and do some writing at a coffee shop. I heard a band playing from the campus at the end of the street. It was a three-piece grinding out instrumentals in a mid-tempo Stooges style. They had set up on Sproul Plaza and though a lot of students were milling around the campus walkways and the Telegraph Avenue sidewalks were jammed, just about no-one was checking them out. (The late Tim Yohannon was there.) And the Midgets weren’t checking the kids out either. They played with heads down and Craig and bassist Jonathan Henrickson even turned in toward the drummer, Tim Mooney. They were playing outdoors on a sunny day in the middle of UC Berkeley for themselves, as if practicing. That’s as good a picture of the new rock underground’s relationship to youth culture as represented by college students at an elite and allegedly hip California University. It took me a few tunes to guess that they had to be the Toiling Midgets, a new band I had heard about. In essence they were the final line-up of Negative Trend after Will and Steve had left for Flipper and been replaced; then Rik had returned to LA and the band became the Toiling Midgets.

I talked to Craig a bit after they played, and saw them play elsewhere as they added members but I never got to work closely with them. However, Thermidor did release their second album, “Dead Beats,” though that was worked out more by Jon Boshard, an MFA from UCB who started Thermidor with me. The first Midgets album, “Sea of Unrest,” was to have been the first release by the US branch of Rough Trade, which had opened in Berkeley in 1980 in collaboration with Systematic. The London honchos vetoed it on the grounds that it was too damn good. It was then merely manufactured and distributed by RT under the label name, Instant. “Sea of Unrest” features Ricky Williams (Sleepers) on vocals, but by the second album they were essentially an instrumental band (Ricky sings only one new one and a cover of his own Sleepers tune “She’s Fun” on the “Dead Beats” album). Ricky was in the Sleepers, Flipper, and the Toiling Midgets and few today know his name. He died years ago from the toll taken by chemicals on top of his own faulty body chemistry. His death was noted in Rolling Stone; his life hadn’t been. The Midgets are still occasionally together and have recorded great stuff with Mark Eitzel (of American Music Club) on vocals for the Matador label, a Thermidor knockoff.

But returning to the theme of this piece: the “Dead Beats” album closes with an instrumental called “Preludes.” It may be called “Preludes” because “Black & Red” was likely the first tune Craig Gray wrote back in his Grand Mal/Negative Trend days, and “Preludes” though at first quiet and sketchy builds into that same damn riff, here opened up to a simpler progression and more abstractly resounding crescendo. It is Craig returning the song to his own band from Flipper. It is unknown to me whether he called up Bruce to inform him the song had been repossessed.

Will died of an overdose and his death was noted in Rolling Stone; his life hadn’t been. Flipper did an album for Rick Rubin (who had been in a NYC Flipper tribute band, Hose, whose 45 was Def Jam’s first release). The “Generic” album got reissued with major label distribution through the deal; Steve Tupper considered he got hosed on the deal. More recently Flipper recorded a new album with Chris Novoselic of Nirvana on bass. Jack Endino produced and said he had a great time. The Negative Trend EP was reissued by Subterranean as a 12” EP. A great 1978 9-song demo with Rozz on vocals was released as Rozz & Negative Trend by the old White Noize label. Meanwhile, the Sleepers discography was compiled for CD by Tim/Kerr Records. Not much conceded by the marketplace for music of such quality, but then, foolish youngsters that they were, they began their rock and roll ventures from the very point at which the Stooges’ wheels fell off.

Oh yeah, and in ’97 Sony/Columbia’s Legacy CD re-issues of classics out of their vaults suddenly decided they were gonna re-mix “Raw Power” before putting it out. Iggy had declined to mess with it when Henry Rollins offered to set it up after his sound engineer found the album’s multi-track sub-master tapes in Europe. But faced with Sony’s decision he jumped into the project and it finally got the re-mix it deserved (Bass!), along with colorful but diplomatic Iggy liner notes on the convoluted story of the production of the record in 1972-3.

[Inset image: Capture from Negative Trend video "Black & Red"]

Thanks to photographer Vincent Anton for letting us use some very rare shots of Flipper. Check out more of his contemporary work. His biography, his prints, and his battered Leica M2 can be found here.

Harry Belafonte and Utopian Fantasies

by David Lightbourne

The unholy alliance between Broadway entertainment and Folk music dates to the 1930s. Sonny Terry, legendary blind Carolina harmonica player and shout-singer, made his New York debut in a theatrical production, a leftist depiction of the thirties South. Opera concert giant, Paul Robeson, a black political hero, readily found an audience alongside Pete Seeger at Hootenany-style concerts in the forties.

Both Harry Belafonte and Odetta emerged in the 1950s from stage backgrounds. His “Broadway” Calypso album sold millions in the Mitch Miller-era, when any trace of raw emotion got smothered in mass-culture sucrose, and Broadway musicals reigned as high-end Pop. Odetta’s interpretation of Sea Shanties definitely rocked, she had powerful pipes. And I can see the film: she’s the beloved cook on a whaler, and likes to join in with the concertinas on her big acoustic guitar. But neither Belafonte nor Odetta had any satisfactory understanding of style, relying instead on magnetic stage presence and personal charm. The same with the once ubiquitous Burl Ives, who can best be seen today in the early Audie Murphy western, Sierra (1950), where his character Lonesome is a balladeer-narrator.

Odetta’s recent death prompted obits calling her a civil-rights figure! You can probably hear her fifties releases on whatever Sirius-XM channel plays The Limelighters and The Kingston Trio. The obits offered no guidance as to her music itself. They couldn’t. Meanwhile, Harry Belafonte now expounds exclusively on public issues.

In the land of fifties Pop, Folk musics readily lent themselves to the Man’s game, going down the gullet smooth as syrup. Nobody asked if the melody had legs. New copyrights carpeted the studio floor like silver certificates. The originality, eccentricity, technical brilliance, idiosyncratic style and direct emotion of sources disappeared completely. Go figure. Who knew? It was the Eisenhower era.

From Minneapolis at the end of the 1950s, the political loyalties and utopian fantasies of Eastern Folk audiences looked almost grotesque. In the North Country, you could hear Southern radio at night from Nashville to Helena. And “avant-garde” enclaves of old-music players had begun heroic end-runs around the Pop-Folk and Political-Folk monoliths -- with some success. From Mike Seeger to Koerner, Ray and Glover, suburban America finally got to hear wonderful music that would never -- could not possibly ever -- hit the Great White Way.

After Dylan’s first studio gig, harp back-up for Harry B, he famously bitched about the ridiculous recording process, the endless re-takes, the utter dearth of spontaneity. His focus on theatrical art, thanks to Susie, would soon turn to Brecht.

David Lightbourne at the Beartree Tavern, Centennial, Wyoming, 2004; photo by Joe Carducci

Additional Lightbourne, from his Introduction to Wyoming Stories

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

From the desk of Joe Carducci:

This is the sentiment, but probably not the piece, that Britney Spears deserves. Pop critics would have to be conversant with engineers, writers, producers, and studios to even do as poor a job as they do with rock bands. Lightbourne considers any product of Disney's music school to be fully and utterly scrubbed, but I tell him that it's still possible for these L.A. technicians to come out of these miniature (no high-ceilinged live room) digital-era studios with a gem as often as Nashville's machinery does.


Oh ye of little faithlessness: Marx tossed from the Enlightenment!


Speaking of Marx, here's a timecapsule Minutemen interview conducted by David McDuff on January 3, 1985 in the basement of the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. It's nice to know they were forced to explain who I was in connection with various SST stunts. The Minutemen were the band most fun to work with at SST.


Mike Watt looks back

From the desk of Chris Collins:

Finland's Secret Hitler Tape [Attn. WWII Otaku]

Germany's intrusion onto the "dark unconquered steppe" of Russia in summer 1941 had its domestic critics. Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Third Reich's foreign minister, was visibly shaken upon hearing the invasion had begun. "Tell them in Moscow that I was against this attack," he said to a Soviet diplomat storming out of his office. (Stalingrad, Antony Beevor, Penguin) Another German official or officer recalled nearly falling down in the shower when he heard someone shouting the news. He knew it was madness.

The Führer, a year into the Russian war without victory in sight, was not blind to the peril. Thanks to the efforts of Finnish intelligence, we have the only known audio of Hitler recorded unawares, as he calmly and long-windedly details his army's woes in the East to his ostensible ally Mannerheim of Finland while on a flying visit to that country to celebrate the leader's birthday. The date was June 4, 1942.

We did not ourselves understand - just how strong this state [the USSR] was armed... [T]hey had the most immense armaments that, uh, people could imagine... We have destroyed - right now - more than 34,000 tanks... If one of my generals had stated that any nation had 35,000 tanks, I'd have said: "You, my good sir, you see everything twice, or ten times. You are crazy; you see ghosts." (Hitler)

The English transcription is here. Hitler frequently stressed to his generals the economic and political pressures he was under and in the recording speaks of his concerns about the vulnerable Ploesti oil fields of Romania, Germany's critical source of fuel. Romania bordered the Soviet Ukraine and Ploesti was at the war's start within range of Russian airfields in the Crimea.

Germany's Army Group Center had the previous winter been repulsed at the outskirts of Moscow. And the 6th Army, as part of Army Group South, was at that moment preparing to embark on Operation Blue, a drive along the River Don toward the Caucasus which would carry it to its doom on the banks of the Volga.

Here is further background on the occasion. (This link plus audio and transcript are from the website of British historian David Irving.)

German newsreel of the visit

[Inset photo: Hitler and Mannerheim, June 4, 1942]

The novelist creates... an imaginative structure that says to the reader: "This is what life is like. This need never have happened. It doesn't have to happen. ... This is how it could have happened. And the way in which it could have happened will tell us more about the relations between human beings and their lives than trying to find out what the facts are."

-The late Norman Mailer, interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS, 2007.

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer