a new low in topical enlightenment

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Issue #150 (March 8, 2017)

   Photo by Joe Carducci

The Ramones 1976 - Photo by Danny Fields

Joe Carducci

   My facebook friends are a thousand-strong – the number alone proof they’ve likely never met me. Someone I actually do know from my years at SST, Kara Nicks (who wrote about the label for us here), convinced me years ago that I had to do a myspace page and she put one together for Redoubt Press and my books. When it seemed I needed a facebook page I just used my name and a passive approach that collects readers of my books, fans of SST Records, and unwary fb pickups from the sharing of good tunes via youtube clips, which is how a lot of us use the site.

   As someone who got involved in the music business during the punk era maybe it isn’t surprising that I’ve found music doesn’t bring people together. Rather it is used by small groups of young people to define themselves socially against other groups in their environments of school hallways and city streets. They prefer narratives of heroic minorities beleaguered by greater straighter majorities of Van Halen or Bruce Springsteen fans. This helps explain the sociological imperative behind what’s called pop criticism and the consequent ignoring of great music qua music for the hunt for pop artists who seem might reprise high-low mass phenomena: The Beatles or Elvis, primarily. But for veterans of the independent record label business in the punk era (say, 1976-1986) and the younger obsessives who followed us playing, collecting, studying, releasing, promoting music, the filling out of our sense of what happened over the course of our lives and before (music often left outside of radio-playlists, distribution patterns, and histories) explains our now more ecumenical interest in sharing and listening to song-files and video-clips that date back to the beginnings of most styles of American vernacular music and the feedback loop completed by the British Invasion and other slap-back responses.

   But last year the politics of the election pushed against our music-determined posts and sharing; there were manias for Warren and Sanders, occasional Green Party or Libertarian Party jousts, resigned Clinton rationales, and even a few conservative, anarchist, or Trump parries. I do very little on fb but share individual song-clips – usually just the best songs my friends post. But I gather that with all the relentlessly earnest politicking there was much un-friending all around. Some began prefacing their political posts with warnings that dissenters would be purged; this to amplify their seriousness as if the election hung on the balance of this or that unequivocal comment thread. Others tried to push back at politics by calling for more intensive music sharing.
Several things struck me about the social media crossfire as I saw it:
       1, Aging punks aren’t so distinguishable from old hippies.
         2, Sharing obituaries of musicians has become a religious observance.
         3, People expect a punk rock revival under President Trump.
   The first is largely explained by the old punks’ health concerns and their poverty, though it does slight the true hippies actual politics which were more properly considered metaphysical or philosophical. In this sense I would say there were more student radicals and fellow travelers than there were actual hippies in that era (1967-1974). But regarding the punks who followed, a depressingly common feature of facebook lately has been fundraising pleas for musicians in need of expensive medical care. The independent record label economy yielded very little monetary prospects and of course the worst of those fake hippies kept punk music off the media and major labels where some coin might’ve been made.

   The second is a testament to how each decade of the 20th century can be considered its own golden age as the obits in the news media can still range back to 1930s performers and though punk rockers like others began by drawing a line against most music then contemporary, they have widened their respect for all sorts of music. In addition, many notable musicians of the past only debut in the national media, whether Rolling Stone or New York Times, as obituaries. Personally I never share or post anything from Rolling Stone on principle, including all these listicles of great guitarists or albums no matter how many SST artists now get included.

   But the third seems based on a conventional misunderstanding of history because punk rock coalesced in the mid-1970s during the Ford and Carter administrations, not under Ronald Reagan. Punk may have been a new cool but it was an anxious response to the pretensions of the hippie-style youth culture triumphant, both culturally (the mellow ideal, white blues, blue-eyed soul…) and politically (ending the draft, the Nixon resignation, losing South Vietnam…). Musically, punk used earlier stripped-down working class rock and roll styles (garage, frat, rockabilly) to attack hippie and progressive pretensions. The Carter administration here, and the Labour government of James Callaghan in the U.K. illustrated the sudden haplessness of the postwar center-left consensus and perverse kids who hung around record stores and the rare, often gay live music dives had a field day deflating “hippie” pretense. The new documentary-and-book, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, about National Lampoon magazine, underlines that punk as working class cultural phenomenon pre-dates middle class hippie. The National Lampoon’s counter-cultural incorrectness knew no bounds and demonstrates how much punk could survive hippie as comedy, a typically reactionary culture. The doc, though not the book, includes coverage of the magazine’s gleeful ripping into Woodstock with its musical theater-piece, Lemmings, where John Belushi had debuted his Joe Cocker parody.

   The anxiety brewing underneath a bohemia rising, aging and selling-out was quite productive, especially in rock and roll. However, the now hippie-determined media businesses resolutely denied airplay to a couple generations of worthy, now classic punk-era bands. That fifteen-year blockade of punk in America (1976-1991) by sixties-era moguls like Bill Graham, Jan Wenner, Lee Abrams, and Lorne Michaels is the actual cause of our current cultural malaise. No-airplay oxygen-deprivation lead to cultural brain-damage and the slowing of the great American musical train to a stop. And the media of course now fully dominates the message today. These social media behemoths, though they are dissolving the old mass media, make of the smart-phone the true end-point delivery of Marshall McLuhan’s foresight that the medium is the message – the phone presumably just a clumsy way-station on the way to a jack-chip installed in the brain at age seven, probably, the old age of discretion. Radio stations no longer rush the stuff local kids are crazy about into the air, and television no longer beats the bushes for some hick genius and flies him to their coastal soundstages. And I and my thousand-plus fb friends are just so many archeologists using the web to study ancient rock and roll runes, and to find out which few aged mastodons might yet trod the earth’s tour circuit.

   But now, what? Its “Donald Trump-ass motherfucker” memes and links all day long from those predicting new punk rock glories. What they forget is what I wish I could forget. How the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan allowed that productive bohemian anxiety to relax suddenly into a thick certainty of a cool gone cold. The British culturati after 1979 considered Thatcher a contemptible throwback, and the American culturati believed Reagan a dangerous simpleton. Thatcher reminded me of how women of a certain age used to carry themselves before feminism, and Reagan reminded me of my grandmother’s generation in his manner of speaking and habits of etiquette. I wasn’t into either of them; I considered myself an anarchist though day-to-day I was in business. But I couldn’t quite see either of them blowing up the world as was the common claimed bohemian belief around me.

   Being from Hollywood, Reagan understood media far better than his fellow Republicans, the Democrats, or the news media itself. In this sense Donald Trump is like Reagan; he too understands media better than the media itself or his political foes. That he is underestimated just compounds his advantage. Trump seems to be treated as Reagan reprised as farce or Nixon as recurring nightmare or even Hitler before the Reichstag fire. And yet its Trump’s moves away from free-trade/small-government Republicanism and toward once time-honored Democratic Party positions on trade, employment, infrastructure, immigration… that has set off the left and made liberals look like they’ve learned to love the military-industrial complex! Democrats and their reporter allies are seemingly trapped in their rehearsed reaction-shot long faces as they defend the national security state status quo. Just try to stop them from finally enlisting in the Cold War! I recall that on early 1970s talk shows all the dashing and perverse intellectuals were touted as controversial. It tells who the Man is today when the word no longer has positive connotations. Now it is Donald Trump, a typical New Yorker says this ex-Chicagoan, who is controversial.

   In any case, the best early 1980s punk rock (usually called “postpunk” in the U.K. and “hardcore” in the U.S.) had to avoid politics as best it could, because otherwise one risked performing a lobotomy on one’s own artistic sensibility. Before Reagan’s election the Dead Kennedys (one of the many bands I had the honor of working with) famously ripped on the original and enduring hippie politician Jerry Brown in their now classic song – even Rolling Stone touts it – “California Über Alles.” The first album by X, “Los Angeles,” had a cover that featured a stark, mediated, burning “X” which old-line hippie record shop clerks duly took to be racist. They didn’t even need to hear the great, raw language of the title track to come to their misconclusion. They hated it on sight because they knew its attack was in large part aimed at them. (Not that The Ramones’ more genial, comic approach did them any better with such clerks.)

   The Adverts, one of the smarter, less pretentious of the early London punk bands didn’t last to 1980 but did comment sharply in the moment. Unlike here, in London the first flush of punk swamped that city’s hot-house media; bands were on major labels, media and the charts. The Adverts third 45, “Safety In Numbers,” released in October 1977 included lines by T.V. Smith such as:
       Here we all are in the latest craze. / Stick with the crowd,
         Hope it’s not a passing phase. / It’s the latest thing to be nowhere.
         You can turn into the wallpaper / But you know you were always there anyway
         Without the new wave. / What about the new wave?
         Did you think it would change things? / It’s just safety in numbers.

         When it's tricky, when it gets tough,
         When you need to feel that you’re good enough,
         All you pretty people who’ve been taken over,
         Had better start looking for your own answers,
         ’cause there’s no safety in numbers anyway,
         Or in a new wave….
         (c) 1977 Anchor / Adverse Noise
   The band/commune Crass were quintessential politicos using art as a hammer. Pseudo-hippies but they seemed to conceive their band and label around the outrage that followed The Clash’s signing to CBS Records thereby contradicting that band’s own revolutionary cant. I haven’t listened to any of the Crass records since working on my rock book in the late 1980s, but I can still hear the various vocalists screaming out their Prime Minister’s name “That-chahhh!” in lyric after lyric as if they might accomplish something well outside the purview of musical art. They counted themselves anarchist but I still have an Aunt Polly-ish postcard they sent to Black Flag seeking to shame them out of regressive tendencies. The Crass label (they were in business too) sold plenty of records including those by Chumbawamba who finally signed to EMI and had a worldwide Top-10 novelty hit in 1997.

   That sort of pseudo-anarchist control-freak politick was most apparent in the U.S. at Maximum RocknRoll, a Pacifica Radio program that became a fanzine whose taste and judgments were soon narrowed to a pure form of artless political hardcore. The editor, the late Tim Yohannan, was a nice guy when I knew him; he laughed at my impolitic jokes and he had had great taste in 1960s garage rock (he was a bit older – born 1945). But once he smelled a youth-based hardcore world revolution he sold all those records and filled the mag with revolution and scene reports from Andorra to Zambia. Judgments all around, but none for art. I remember how Hüsker Dü was first adopted by the San Francisco scene around Maximum RocknRoll which they were grateful for, but soon got the heebie-jeebies over. The boys were skilled songwriters just coming into their own and weren’t going to put some artless yoke on their music for anybody. The band’s first planned SST album, “Metal Circus,” was cut down to an EP as they found that voice. They dropped a few hardcore-ish tunes and they made Bob Mould’s “Real World” the lead tune-as-explication:
       People talk about anarchy / And taking up a fight
         Well I'm afraid of things like that / I lock my doors at night
         I don't rape, and I don't pillage / Other peoples' lives
         I don't practice what you preach / And I won't see through your eyes.
         (c) 1983 Reflex Music
   Don’t remember if they too got a postcard from Crass but I remember thinking when Spot played us the tunes that they would fit right into SST so I talked to Greg, Chuck, and Mugger and made sure the band knew we’d like to release it. SST bands pretty much reflexively battled against the many politico-aesthetic paradigms that had been pushed on art by industry and audience since those pseudo-hippie moguls took control of things in the years after Jimi Hendrix died. A later SST band, the San Francisco band Angst, appeared on the 1982 MRR compilation album, “Not So Quiet on the Western Front”. But as Joseph Pope the band’s bassist-singer (also co-editor of this blog) describes it in an email:
“Tim had seen us live, loved us and we got the ok to be on the comp – whatever song we wanted to use. When I gave him the tape (produced by Klaus Flouride of the DKs), he freaked: ‘It sounds like the Go-Gos!’ For maximum irritation factor I replied, ‘They have lots of money, don't they?’ – That nearly killed the deal right there! I got my hearing in which I was asked to justify why the song was punk. I convinced him it was by telling him I go back to the original days of punk and what it's about is individual expression, pushing against conventions, no constraints on creativity, etc.”
   Joseph explains that Tim bought it but he doesn’t think “his stridency” ever waned. I think the magazine did begin to improve by the late 1980s – it had to as political hardcore disappeared after new trends like metal-crossover, emo, gearhead, rockabilly….
We, by which I mean any SST band from Black Flag to Saint Vitus from Saccharine Trust to Meat Puppets, were making music and trying to reach listeners despite the hardcore scene that was in the music’s way! As Curt Kirkwood told Melody Maker in 1985, “We’re playing music and if you take it any further than that, you’re guessing wrong about us.” There were other great bands out there fighting their own battles against a purely political understanding of punk but SST itself helped our bands be mutually reinforcing even as they each went their own way artistically.

   That misremembered anti-Reagan fuzz-polka muzak from back then could only be comfort food because even rock critics – also pushers of social relevance – could understand that. But punk’s signal anxiety was thereby routed away from time-honored fertile songwriting themes such as girls, bragging, and self-loathing, and channeled into the inert dead-end of topical political relevance – a criteria that any four leather-jacketed burr-heads from Finland could replicate. American bands and American culture should never kowtow to the Eurocentric political comfort zone; that’s not what anyone important from Edgar Poe to Elvis Presley, from Mark Twain to Ernest Tubb, ever did. Even the Minutemen, the most political band I worked with at SST used a beatnik, absurdist word-jazz approach ruthlessly edited to keep that politick subordinate to the art.

   Drudge recently linked to another bogus proposition, namely “Is Trumpism the new punk rock?” Though it proved essentially click-bait it does link to a better 1996 essay, Was Punk Rock Right-wing? from the Weekly Standard magazine and asked that author, Daniel Wattenberg, whether he thinks today’s Alt-Right is the new punk rock – he says no.

   This expected anti-Trump punk rock bonanza could only be less inspired than what might have been: another Clinton presidency, one that could have sent anxious millennials into more aesthetically fertile directions. However, the dog that didn’t bark reminds us that no such anxious reflux occurred under Obama, a far less problematic dream-president for the left. An actual parallel today of that strange mid-1970s victorious counter-culture/second-thoughts hangover would have to start with the forcing out of the vice president and his replacement by a Gerald Ford analog (the Democratic majority’s choice of a Republican) and only then the president impeached. Howard Baker had said that the Senate back in 1974 would not have voted to convict Richard Nixon so he had to resign out of some combination of shame, health concerns, family concerns, and concern for the country itself for that counter-culture scalp-taking “silent coup” to occur. Had Nixon been as shameless as the Clintons he would have just served out his term. Donald Trump as a president is safe-to-say further evolved on the scale of political shamelessness. In any case Obama and Clinton have left the Democratic Party in steep Washington minorities. Perhaps this confirms that there is no possible present day analog to what was punk. Kids are not going to free themselves from their phone-leashes long enough to build a drop-out bohemia of their own. The culture is lucky if they buy an occasional record or fanzine. They are too busy buying into something rather indistinct up ahead of us all, but that something surely promises to be one hell of a noxious fruit of the tree of knowledge.

(Illustrations: National Lampoon Lemmings album cover art 1973; Joe Strummer in Crass shirt - photographer unknown; Maximum Rock n Roll flyer 1981; LA's Wasted Youth flyer 1981 - art by Pushead Lamort)

Photo by Joe Carducci

Elvis Presley Up North
David Lightbourne
(The late David Lightbourne attended show number one on Elvis’ first tour of the North sixty years ago this March 28. I first met Dave in Portland in 1977. The New Vulgate was in part my attempt to force Dave to write. He had shelved his journalistic ambitions to master country blues fingerpicking which he did – see his album, “Monkey Junk” (Upland). One correction and a minor clarification: 1) Elvis used the twin-mic stand David describes in an appearance for “The Milton Berle Show” not at this show, and 2) Presley’s performing career began in mid-1954 in Memphis and Louisiana, then adding Arkansas, Texas, the Southwest and Southeast; in 1955 he played up through Ohio and by 1956 up to Detroit and through St. Louis to Wisconsin and Minnesota, but he’d avoided Chicago and the big east coast cities. Indeed, other than the television tapings Elvis didn’t play New York City until 1972. This essay was originally posted in No. 10, Sept. 9, 2009)
   Elvis made his Chicago debut on Thursday March 28 1957, kicking off a 10-date North American tour -- his first outside short runs down south.

   The whole previous year I had witnessed a string of his national television triumphs, first curious, then with real interest, finally pure excitement. The exotic figure with the indelible name began appearing in mainstream print beyond monthly music pulps. Explosive 1956 – the one true “Year of Elvis” – saw him move like a cat from the Dorsey Stage Show to Milton Berle to Steve Allen to powerful Ed Sullivan, the mere threat of an incendiary performance delivering ratings skyrockets.
“Hound Dog” confirmed everything. Elvis Presley ruled America.

   Between trips from Memphis to New York and L.A. for the very lucrative television gigs, Elvis sandwiched short, regional southern tours, plus a bad week in stone-age Vegas. Press appearances found him declaring, assuring, pledging, that fame, celebrity, and northern acceptance would never compromise, corrupt, or turn him into anything but the modest, religious, good old boy his first audiences identified with, adored, and emulated. Meanwhile, his singles and albums would not stop selling.

   To accommodate this astonishing arc of success, Chicago chose the huge, old, International Amphitheatre, the city’s largest indoor venue, its strategic location the entrance to mammoth Union Stockyards, meat-slaughterer for the nation. Stone, steel, concrete, and brick, the cavernous innards usually saw all its action on its vast floor. Boat shows, fall model auto previews, similar trade conclaves, took dates with no cattle-congress scheduled. The Amphitheatre also hosted both parties’ presidential nominating conventions regularly, right up to the 1968 Chicago “Police Riots.”
The cops came out for Elvis in force, as did twelve thousand shrieking girls of all ages. From our folding metal seats, six rows back stage left, all the hall looked like a sea of young women. A high, box-like, unpainted temporary stage projected out from the wall at our end, maybe seven feet above the floor and fifteen-feet squared. A cordon of police, arms locked, ringed the three exposed sides, hats well below stage level, with very little to worry about, on generous overtime.

   As our family entourage of six waited for the hall to totally fill and house lights go down, I scanned the stage and had a true shock of recognition. The microphone stand at center stage, a pro Atlas with the large, heavy base, rose only chest-high, where a horizontal extension rod held, side by side, a pair of large microphones, one at each end on stubs, about four feet apart.

   I knew those mikes well. Five years earlier an identical one had occupied the center of the table during our family’s daily breakfast radio show. A prized possession actually resting in my socks drawer, those big Altec omni-directional ribbon mikes, the size of a small melon, weighed a ton and had unbelievable sensitivity at any gain at all. Elvis not only had the best, but with unbelievable style and total class, a freaking pair of Altecs where only one had ever gone before.

   This unprecedented, downright radical arrangement made nothing but simply brilliant sense. During the entire second half of 1956, television camera had famously, notoriously, avoided any shots showing Elvis the Pelvis below the waist. The hyper-efficient Altecs guaranteed that Elvis would not move off-mike no matter what manner of extreme sports his performance explored. Wild hair on the tiny tube only went so far. Tonight the main man came on a mission to move, shake, rock, roll, wiggle, gyrate, cavort, and do the funky monkey, with every lateral lurch in perfect technical proximity.

   Dimming house lights brought the loud, expectant crowd to a hush, followed by a tide of excited screaming as the show’s master of ceremonies took the stage. Waiting for his disproportionate welcome to subside -- it did quickly -- he welcomed the throng, then introduced an unexpected surprise opening act, emphasizing that the unknown comic was a close personal friend of the King and Elvis wanted us to welcome him with open arms. The poor fellow needed more help than anyone’s endorsement could possibly offer: semi-professional, if that, dressed for amateur night in a small Ozark bar, corny beyond all expectations, with even the lame slapstick failing him, he had enough sense to bail before the voluble crowd actually lost patience with this surreal blend of courage and suicide.

   Elvis and the three Blue Moon Boys took the stage within the first minutes of a ten minute-long mass tonsillectomy, with bits of young tissue flying like projectiles. The collective power of that many young, healthy adolescent American lungs gained sufficient synergy to dislodge trachea and inflict permanent internal damage on every fourth female esophagus, merely temporary pathologies otherwise. My younger brother and I, now standing in his royal presence, tried our best to mount complimentary obligatory screams, but with instantly pathetic results, utterly insufficient in volume, hopelessly low-pitched. Later accounts would record that this Chicago show saw the first appearance of the spectacular completely singular, all-gold suit, a tuxedo-length coat and matching trousers, yards of shining gold-lamé from über-tailor-to-showbiz, Nudie of Hollywood. The gold material, glittering brightly under the stage spots, gained almost blinding brilliance as every available flashbulb in Chicago detonated as one. A money shot for the ages, his Highness in the flesh, this stunning fashion-statement overdue acknowledgement – also the penultimate touch for an immediately iconic, definitive portrait – of dazzling superstardom.

   The suit signaled unparalleled apotheosis; a private reminder of his childhood Hollywood dreams; and a butterfly-like transformation from his former attire and very appearance. Until Nudie concocted this statuesque, gold God, Elvis had improvised an inspired, idiosyncratic mix of country music, biker, and ghetto street threads, eclectic parts juxtaposed in a fertile, marvelously resonant personal style. All traces of this Elvis had vanished.

   He looked cleaner. Hollywood had given him a makeup makeover, echoes of Little Richard mascara and androgynous eye-treatments banished. A California super-barber had sculpted a sleeker cut, streamlined by expert thinning, especially along the sides. The hair lay near the core of the E.P. mystique. Big magazine spreads found him in a local Memphis barber’s chair, his hair so thick that, combed back in a ducktail, it formed rich, curving fenders above the ears. Formerly, when the pompadour flipped forward across his face, only both hands could collect it back up into place. No longer, and it made him look younger, fresher, and kind of perfect.

   Indeed, Elvis looked great, in a clear line-of-sight just yards away: healthy, athletic – maybe into touch football – brimming with energy, eager to rock. Moving with easy confidence, with the surfeit of ego-magic crucial to managing and proceeding along this existential cusp, he started acknowledging widely scattered sections of the vast seating, causing full thirds of the place to go either nuclear, postal, or plain apeshit. Small females now began the sporadic business of hurling themselves at officers and stage, one girl managing to cling by her fingers seven feet up. The cops now got busy as this mandatory ritual accelerated. Emotional little girls, burning pure adrenaline, in a variety of delusional states, kept needing sorting out.

   With Scotty, Bill, and D.J. wearing white shirts and blazers, well-settled behind their instruments, Elvis began his familiar initial, disingenuous gestures, shaking his head in wonder, appealing for a reduction of the bedlam to ordinary mass hysteria. He flashed his shy grin, a broad smile, hands up briefly now and then for quiet, his body language conveying only half-hearted impatience. His overall demeanor spoke a silent, genuinely deferential, expression of pure gratitude.

   When, finally, Elvis spoke – probably something like “Thank you very much,” – still further eruptions. Inevitably, the need to cling to every word gained a marginal edge over the cacophony of countless one-on-one intense personal conversations, oblivious in the urgency of opportunity. Sporadic meltdowns still sounded from far regions, according to some school of chaos theory – suddenly joined by every throat when the gist of a brief remark sank in for everyone.

   With his smallest gesture a pretext for whole cohorts to go bananas, Elvis began indulging along an irresistible detour, teasing these reactions, milking them, both with apparent good humor and an oddly amoral, gratuitous self-satisfaction. Nobody minded and nobody could get enough.

   Elvis had enough first. Smoothly steering this stage business around a broad curve, he began the pitcher’s windup and abrupt, bellow-like first links of “Heartbreak Hotel.” The song, his first national hit, had given him real cred as a singer before most of America knew who he was, what he looked like – or cared. A widespread belief that rock vocalists could never realize the professional skills of crooning ballad-singers took time to discredit. Naysayers, older music buffs confronted with this early Presley performance, grudgingly accepted the quality in his voice, usually weaseling-out with, “But I still don’t like his movements.”

   Until its reprise in the lead-off slot, “Heartbreak Hotel” was all but ancient history, Plymouth Rock on the way to the Gold Rush. Only a year after its release, I remember feeling startled that night by its familiar quality. Elvis sang the lyric with real strength, power when required, with a richness in his voice a listener could not ignore. Probably the musical high-point of the night, I still wondered why he chose it to open with under these wild, Dionysian circumstances.

   A recording of the 45-minute set – sixteen songs according to the Tribune’s next edition – would reveal other moments when the music rose to the truly inspired. D.J. Fontana no doubt rocked out on drums; Bill Black’s upright-bass playing had to have served Elvis well, and Scotty’s Gibson electric – the only amplified instrument on stage – must have reflected confidence and license-to-play that record sales alone now granted him/them. Proud parents – Scotty and Bill had invented this experimental sound for Elvis in 1953.

   I only remember the medley-like blur of hits flying by – each one forgettable as quickly as the next release took its place – the set-list distinguished only by the introduction (in release Monday) of his next gold single (a million already pre-sold). An Otis Blackwell composition with a feeling back to the R&B lexicon, “All Shook Up” noticeably rocked to a superior beat and Elvis danced his way through it. On first hearing, “I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree,” the second line sounded odd and gross. It sounded better later without the bright lights and the all-gold victim of distress.

   The descending pattern of fluff over the previous six months – owing largely to Col. Parker’s resentment of Elvis jamming with Leiber and Stoller – almost defined the creative vacuum forever plaguing disposable music. “(Won’t You Be My) Teddy Bear”, “Wear My Ring (Around Your Neck)” and the like would soon portend even bleaker prospects for a man of such huge talent and unknown potential. I don’t remember “Hound Dog” or “Don’t Be Cruel” in any detail, but they were the ones I wanted to hear. Both could have gone far past the three-minute-plus template in a less stopwatch-driven situation. Songs like “Love Me Tender” gave Elvis a chance to catch his breath if, indeed, he ever needed to.

   As for Scotty, Bill, and D.J., a decade later they'd stage a jam session with Elvis on his big 1968 NBC Come-Back Special trying to recapture the sound (already past) when Scotty and Bill taught Elvis his first guitar chords in Scotty's house. No sound since truly recaptured the low-rent grace and slap-back echo of the old Sun Studio, or their cobbled scrabble of country & western, country blues, rhythm & blues, and forties jazz. Already out of their Memphis depth here in Chicago, riding a rocket moving too fast to hold onto, the trio played with the Hillbilly Cat outside the studio for their final year. With Elvis Army-bound, by mid-1958 the three would all be on their own. For the moment, though, a key part in the sound of elemental rock and roll still held the stage.
They actually said it. A disembodied voice in a tone of authority and knowledge heard through ranks of stranded fans suddenly left in the lurch, their eyes blinking under the now somehow brighter house lights, announced “Elvis has left the building.”

   They believed it.

   No need to storm the dressing room. No use setting fires to smoke him out. No hope he’ll wander out the wrong door or get in a limo and have the engine stall. Elvis had left the building. We believed it if we believed he’d ever been in the building in the first place. Anticipation had consumed 95% of the experience, the 45 minutes of rock and roll all a blur. We alone seemed to avoid the stampede out of the building to the car lot. As I stood under the big work-lights surveying a now-empty battlefield, I understood in my still innocent but expanding grasp of affairs that Elvis was over. He was Elvis 2.0 now.

   The next day my classmates barely shrugged when I confessed where I had been the night before. Mid-1950s 8th graders lived in a pre-adolescent space far younger than epicenters of serious – older – Elvis freaks. But the Colonel, RCA, Hal Wallis, and the best industry hustlers with expense accounts would see to it that my classmates got their Elvis soon enough.

[images: Presley with two Altec mics at Chicago’s International Amphitheatre - Tribune photo; WTAQ advertisement for the Lightbourne family radio program, 1951-52; Poster for the March 28 1957 gig; Chicago Tribune coverage.]

Photo by Mike Watt

Decline and Fall of Alternative Civilization (novel excerpt)
G.S. Oldman

   At one of his band rehearsals, she picked up an idle electric bass and examined it. Heavy and huge, through the big amplifier it sounded so formidable and when her fingers remembered a small, clumsy Juneism, this time in tune, the fat strings barked like a fatigued piano and… omigod. It sounded like music. Real music. The air pushing out of the speakers besieged her and made her heart jump (Music) and something made a flash of sense (Real Music) that settled down to an indrawn horizon of breath.
“Oooh, Magnolia Blossom, maybe you can play dat ding,” he said.
   June sat with her hand on the neck, her other hand fidgeting at the strings, the windings against the skin of her thumb. She fumbled a two-note riff on the smallest string; tried the same on one of the bigger, deeper ones; then she felt silly. “I…I…I don’t know.”

   That night at the restaurant was a preoccupied haze of botched orders and pitiful tips. She gabbed endlessly about the instrument in bed that night. “Shuddup, willya,” he groaned from under the pillow. “A million girls in this city and I have to find one who thinks she wants to be a musician? Gross!”

   She strutted in the door one day holding a $50 “junkie fix” bass. A cheap Korean job that thought it was a Fender, it basically played in tune. When she was late on the rent, George scolded and wrestled her into a spanking, declaring, “There will be consequences, y’know.” Two weeks later she was forced to get on stage with him to accompany the stupidest song he ever concocted. Never had sucking sounded so deep.

   He gathered up his drums and his old Gibson after six months and moved to New York on an opportunity to play serious jazz. A quiet breakup, she took over his efficiency and promised to send money for his well-worn Toyota hatchback. That first night alone she laid in a darkness that reached from the apartment and touched a sky that passengers on nodding night flights gazed back upon. Imagining their destinations, many thoughts about men and women made having a bass to sleep with very satisfying. “Improper” thumb-plucking technique gave her an odd credibility among the grungies and, especially, the garagies.

   Some day she’d have a doggone amplifier!

   In the mean optimism of time, guys (and grrrls) were all too eager to “…get together and jam!” Stumblings that left much to be desired. And the one guy: the ooky tattoo-and-flannel specimen who somehow moved in for a week that never ended…ick. An eviction notice got him out of her life, and the Toyota moved her meagerness to a nervous, speed freak household, a tenancy that only lasted one double-ooky month.

   But nothing could match the ooky-ness of Wendell.

   Wendell joined the girls’ current attempt at a band some months ago. June met him at the coffeehouse and they’d run into each other at shows, and when the band needed to fill the guit-position he was enthusiastic. Another flannel-funker-red-hot-frusciante reject, there was a chemistry that moved them in a reasonably forward direction until the chemistry got him into June’s pants. Most of the blame being on the moon or on hormonal imbalances, her knickers fell down and she rubbed flesh against an assortment of garden-variety tattoos that yearned for some kind of metal to puncture them.

   There was no need to blame her vulnerability on the spoon.

   In the modern world it’s hard to take stock when clever heroin participants and utilitarian drug dealers tend to rule the roost. For the sake of the band, she gave him the benefit of a stupid doubt and rehearsals got strange, stranger, were becoming nonexistent, and were worse than the flaky, ineffective events they had become. This was how bands ended—not with anger and shouting, but with indifference and forgotten syringes.

   Lying on the kitchen floor, beneath the dinge on the ceiling, the chill breeze that blew through the front door kept her from sticking her head back into the bean pot. There was too much water under too many bridges and too much rain flowing rivers like swollen arteries. Too much blood already mixed with the water, and she was the cosmic babysitter standing over cauldrons abubble with lethal formulas. Babies would cry and complain if babies didn’t get their bottles. For this life would stop, the rivers cease to flow, and she would have to test the formula, shaking drops onto the exposed veins of her inner forearm?

   No. Hell no.

   She’d been exposed to needle culture at an early enough age, having never indulged in any of it thanks to dear Uncle Kevin. He saw her through the big lies about ROCK & ROLL! and DRUGS! and also the lies of parents and politicians whose dialectics dissuaded their youth from partaking of either, whilst failing to acknowledge that:

   1) in a world of civilized uncertainty, drugs worked. And
  2) it was one of the few things that guaranteed a result you could count on.


   Churches always railed against SEX! and the realities of EXPERIENCE! They, along with parents and politicians, had only been concerned with IDEALS! It was the great failing of the Anti-Sex/Drugs/Rock&Roll War and this holy choir persisted in a sweaty tent show revival in their condemnation of it all, forever preaching uninformed gospels of saying anything but YES!—and not noticing how, since the beginning of civilization, righteous fundamentalists of all persuasions have been busy wiping the ooze from their hands after the last botched attempt to wrestle Pandora back into her box.

   Ms. McClunaghan was fifteen—1978, a full year since hearing the song on The Velvet Underground’s first album—when her initial encounter with heroin was at a hoodlum party where several drugs were sampled and washed down with liberal dosages of beer and hard liquor. Stumbling into the back bedroom and the needle being offered her, she slurred, “No. I’ll jus’ wadch you,” and rebellious brain cells leaned her against the wall and slid down its surface to inspect the fine blur from a stuporous heap on the floor. A movie in which she was the only collection of focused grains in the emulsion, anchoring the frames between sprocket holes that were being mis-threaded by a stoned projectionist.

   If she had put her mind to it she could have followed in the alcoholic footsteps of her mother, but experience made her set her own rules and not have vain ditherings about it. Life goes on. She had tolerated enough loud, simple, stupidly literate tunes and enough earaches, headaches, and heartaches to know the values of Music and Rock & Roll. And Sex. They all worked. More and more, they worked best when not trying to be articulate about it. It could be the singer or the sideman or it could be the song—and in the early evening, after two beers, she didn’t worry about epistemology, justice or depression.

Author’s page.

Photo by Joe Carducci

From the Wyoming desk of Joe Carducci…

Liz Spayd of NYT, A Hard Look at Times Editing in the Digital Era.
Its editing architecture, originally constructed in the bountiful days of print, allows for multiple layers of editing that help keep copy clean and errors to a minimum. Except for breaking news, most stories are reviewed by three editors, with up to six or more if the article is headed for home page prominence or A1. Soon this conveyor will be replaced by a bespoke editing system built primarily around digital. The specifics of how it will work are not final, but it is aimed at answering questions like: What is the maximum speed at which a story should travel from a reporter to the website? What is the minimum number of editors who should see it? What role should reporters play in taking ownership of their story and its presentation to readers, including photos, video and embedded tweets? And how can these changes be made to maximize the power and presence of visuals throughout The Times’s report? This shift will be among the most significant the newsroom undergoes this year. Not only is the leadership overhauling the critical infrastructure that welds together the journalism, it is also likely to make sizable cuts in the editing ranks.


Jonathan Taplin in NYT, Who Runs The Media? Not Us.
Google and Facebook can achieve huge net profit margins because they dominate the content made available on the web while making very little of it themselves. Instead, they both have built their advertising businesses as “free riders” on content made by others, some of it from Time Warner. The rise of these digital giants is directly connected to the fall of the creative industries of our country. Every pirated music video or song posted on YouTube or Facebook robs the creators of income, and YouTube in particular is dominated by unlicensed content. Google’s YouTube has an over 55 percent market share in the streaming audio business and yet provides less than 11 percent of the streaming audio revenues to the content owners and creators. But Facebook, which refuses to enter into any licensing agreement on music or video, is challenging YouTube in the free online video and music world.


Sydney Ember in NYT, Wall Street Journal Editor Defends Coverage of Trump.
Mr. Baker offered a different interpretation, according to two participants in the session: The administration wants to engage the news media in a battle, he said, and The Journal should not become part of it. “We can’t allow ourselves to be dragged into the political process, to be a protagonist in the political fight,” he said, according to one of the people. He said that Americans already distrusted the news media, and that if The Journal covered Mr. Trump in an overly confrontational way, that distrust might increase.


William Lee in CT, Even for Reporters, Sad Tales Too Much to Bear.
Recently, I could both see and feel a neighbor’s happy energy leave her body as I gave her the particulars of a quadruple homicide I covered on the Far South Side in December. It’s quite easy to forget that most people aren’t prepared for the very real details of carnage that comes with reporting on crime, no matter how many “Law & Order” marathons they watch…. Even for those of us covering the madness, it can be difficult to avoid being pulled into the same bubbling tar of despair that traps many city dwellers. As a result, my home is a news-free zone on my off days; I’ll only scan a newspaper, allow for short visits to chicagotribune.com and avoid TV news broadcasts altogether. I’m not alone, knowing plenty of other journalists who cover crime and some cops who avoid news on their own time. This is an abrupt about-face from my days as a young reporter, when I delved into crime statistics, keeping track of new crime trends and noting heated gang rivalries. Back then, my zest for work was as much about a kid who grew up on cop shows and action movies wanting a front seat to the violence my family had kept me sheltered from.


WSJ Weekend Interview: Jim Brown.
The responsibility of self-determination is a very important phrase because most people who are poor and don’t have an education are looking to be delivered. When we sit down with gang members and they want to talk about what somebody else did to them, what somebody owes them, they lost a father, somebody killed their friend a year ago. All of that’s fine, but don’t blame all of these issues [for] where you are now, because if you apply yourself, you can come out of that, especially as an American.


Jelani Cobb in NEW YORKER, Prodigy of Hate.
She speaks with a pronounced Charleston accent, and when Richardson asked her if she was married she looked at her husband, sitting in the front row, and answered “Yes” so wearily that the courtroom erupted into laughter. Then Richardson asked her about Roof’s behavior in the church. “Most of the time, he hung his head down just the way he’s doing right now,” she said. Tywanza was an avid social-media user, and he uploaded a video of himself at the church to Snapchat. Roof can be seen in the background, sitting in the Bible circle. “He was there for forty-five minutes to an hour,” Sanders continued. “We stood up and shut our eyes to say a prayer.” When she heard the first shots, she assumed that the noise stemmed from a problem with a new elevator that was being installed, but then she looked at the defendant. “I screamed, ‘He has a gun!’” she said. “By then, he had already shot Reverend Pinckney.” Roof began firing randomly. At one point, he paused to ask Polly Sheppard, a seventy-two-year-old retired nurse, if he had shot her yet. “My son rised up to get the attention off Miss Polly, even though he had already got shot,” Sanders told the jury. “He stood up and said, ‘Why are you doing this?’” She continued, “The defendant, over there with his head hanging down, refusing to look at me right now, told my son, ‘I have to do this, because you’re raping our women and y’all taking over the world.’” She added, “That’s when he put about five bullets in my son.” Sanders lay on the floor, shielding her eleven-year-old granddaughter, holding the girl so tightly that she worried that she might smother her. She went on, “I said, ‘Tywanza, please lay down.’ He said, ‘I gotta get to Aunt Susie.’ ” Susie Jackson, who was eighty-seven, was the family matriarch, Tywanza’s great-aunt on his father’s side. She had been shot, but Tywanza managed to crawl over to her, and reached out to touch her hair, before he died. Sanders began to sob as she recalled her son’s final moments. She’d had a difficult pregnancy with him—the doctors warned that she might miscarry—and she had always thought of his birth as a testament to faith. She had come to think of his death in similar terms. Sanders told the court, “I watched my son come into this world and I watched my son leave this world.” The family members sat quietly throughout most of the trial, but Sanders’s words left several of them weeping. The sign-language interpreters who relayed the proceedings to Gary Washington, whose mother, Ethel Lance, was among the dead, were crying. The courtroom sketch artist and many of the journalists present paused to wipe away tears. Judge Gergel called a short recess. When the court reconvened, Bruck, during his cross-examination of Sanders, asked if Roof had said anything as he left the church. “Yes,” she re-plied. “He said he was going to kill himself, and I was counting on that. He’s evil. There’s no place on earth for him except the pit of Hell.”


Fergus Bordewich in WSJ on Matthew Karp’s book, This Vast Southern Empire.
Men from the future Confederate states dominated the State Department for decades, as well as the War and Navy departments. Southern-born diplomats and policy makers furthered the interests of slavery, Mr. Karp writes, “not simply to guard their property rights or to solidify their social order, but because they understood slavery as a vital element of global progress.”


Nicholas Gallagher in WSJ on Susan Carruthers’ book, The Good Occupation.
“Peace is hell,” Harry Truman told the Gridiron Club in December 1945, riffing off William Tecumseh Sherman. Only three months after V-J Day, Truman was under fire from all sides. Progressives thought the U.S. was needlessly antagonizing the Soviet Union by keeping vast standing armies in Europe and Asia – perhaps, they suspected, with an eye towards empire. Remnants of the old isolationist right also felt the country had no business maintaining a mighty presence abroad. Liberal internationalists embraced a transformative vision for a post-war order under the aegis of the United Nations, but there weren’t enough of them to govern. The president’s biggest headache came from average Americans who had fought their way across France and the Pacific but were severely divided over whether to stay and wage peace. Today the occupations of Germany and Japan are remembered as triumphs. But as Susan L. Carruthers argues in her well-researched new book… the reality was much more complicated – and darker – than the legend.


Rosa Brooks in WSJ on John Ferejohn & Frances Rosenbluth’s book, Forged Through Fire.
The authors walk the reader through 2,500 bloody years of Western history, from the Peloponnesian wars to the war in Vietnam, highlighting, again and again, a brutal trade-off: The emergence and consolidation of democracy depends on warfare, and a particular kind of warfare, at that. Here’s the logic: The rich and powerful prefer to remain that way, and are, as a general rule, disinclined to share either wealth or political power with the poor. Only when elites are faced with external military threats do the poor become valuable to the rich. This is so because armies have traditionally required bodies – and plenty of them.


David Barash in WSJ on Robin Dunbar’s book, Human Evolution.
As group size increases, Mr. Dunbar argues, primates increasingly have a hard time finding both the time and the opportunity to establish and nourish the requisite social relationships. So they developed social approaches, he suggests: pro-social bonding mechanisms such as laughter, singing and dancing, eating together, and – to a lesser extent – religious observances. He notes that these activities correlate closely with endorphin release in the brain, thus they make sense in terms of what evolutionary biologists label “proximate mechanisms” (immediate causative factors) as well as “ultimate mechanisms” (the traits or behaviors that enhance fitness and adaptability). An intriguing observation made by Mr. Dunbar – one of those things that seem obvious only after they are pointed out – is that music in general and dancing in particular are far more likely to take place in the evening than in the daytime. The author connects this fact with the hypothesis that fire served not only to facilitate cooking but also to extend our daily activity cycle so as to accommodate increased, socializing – with music especially prominent in this regard.


Rupert Shortt in TLS, How Christianity Invented Modernity.
First, is secularism really robust enough to carry the freight once shouldered by the Church in Europe? Ask politicians or NGOs about the functional aspect of human rights, say, and you’re likely to get an assured answer. Ask about the source of those rights, or about deeper questions of truth and purpose, and the replies are coy. Second and more significantly, is Moran’s apparent assumption that we are simply dancing a minuet around the void actually true? Armchair philosophers – many of them far less acute than James or Moran – regularly announce that the centre cannot hold. As Terry Eagleton among others has emphasized, such people can purchase their unbelief on the cheap, usually by setting up a straw man version of religion no thoughtful believer could accept, before felling it with a single puff. To counter that things do not fall apart may take courage, or insight of another sort – or maybe just the innocence of a child.


Stuart Jeffries in GUARDIAN on Stefan Muller-Doohm’s book, Habermas.
In 2005, this one-time Marxist rebel met a fellow Hitler Youth, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. It was a meeting, incredibly, of the like-minded, as both struggled to work out how multicultural societies could be held together without an overarching conception of the good (a thought that preoccupied not just Habermas but his US counterpart, the philosopher John Rawls). In this binding, Habermas wrote, religion was necessary: “Among the modern societies only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.”


Daniel Oppenheimer in WASHINGTON MONTHLY on Mark Lilla’s book, The Shipwrecked Mind – On Political Reaction.
“We want comfort,” Lilla writes. “So from time immemorial we have fabricated myths to convince ourselves that we understand the underlying processes by which the world took on its present shape. Such myths begin with some remote historical Big Bang, after which life unfolds in a meaningful, if not precisely predictable, direction. It is a revealing psychological fact that the most common historical myths with which early civilizations comforted themselves were stories of fated decline, which give temporal reasons for why life is so hard. We suffer because we live in the Age of Iron, far removed from our origins in the Age of Gold. If we are good perhaps one day the gods will smile down and return us to the world we have lost.” Lilla thinks these are false myths, and often dangerous ones. Make America Great Again, to give just most the recent example, is a pernicious myth on many levels. But Lilla also believes they speak to something true in the human experience of modernity, and we ignore them at our peril. More than that, Modern secular liberal society, of the sort Lilla prefers, will survive and flourish only if it’s able to reckon with the insights of those who critique and reject its premises. In fact it’s one of the necessary virtues of liberal society, for Lilla, that it’s capable of reckoning and sometimes even reconciling with its critics and haters. It’s also one of the responsibilities of liberal intellectuals to act as facilitators of this process.


Patrick Wood in RANGE, Technocracy.
All physical resources would be carefully and efficiently managed by the technocrat rules, for the good of all the people. Your suitable education and employment would be determined by the scientific analysis of your capabilities and potential. Not unsurprisingly, early technocrats hated politicians, whom they blamed for the inept mismanagement of society. In 1933, one prominent technocrat even urged President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt to simply declare himself dictator in order to dump Congress and summarily set up technocracy in North America. The definition of technocracy appeared in The Technocrat in 1938: “Technocracy is the science of social engineering, the scientific operation of the entire social mechanism to produce and distribute goods and services to the entire population.”


Gregory Clark in WSJ on Walter Scheidel’s book, The Great Leveler – Violence and the History of Inequality.
The tale Mr. Scheidel tells is of a 2,000-year process of disequalization that was halted, in his account, only by the violence, misery and disruption unleashed upon the world in the 20th century – by two world wars and the great Communist revolutions in Russia and China. For him, 1914 appears to have been the peak of all inequality in world history, with the top 1% wealth share in the U.S. and Europe averaging 50% of all wealth, compared with ony 35% in 1800.


Judith Matloff in WSJ, High Altitudes, Violent Lands.
To get a sense of their discontent, listen to the World Mountain People Association. This network of highlanders from some 70 countries convenes on scenic ascents every year to pursue “the continuity of mountain identity.” The group was born out of a global forum organized by Unesco in 2000. Its gatherings call to mind the pointed multiculturalism of a Benetton ad – turbaned Tuaregs communing with Sherpas – except that the diversity here is genuine. The group’s leader is Jean Lassalle, a 6-foot-7-inch French parliamentarian from a family of sheep farmers in the Pyrenees. That isn’t exactly life in, say, Chechnya or Kashmir, but his tussles with Paris over grazing lands have, he says, taught him that the challenges highlanders face are all too often invisible to their countries’ leadership. Mr. Lassalle affirms what behavioral geographers and anthropologists have long said: Mountain topography not only yields similar concerns, it breeds similar characteristics. “Mountain people instantly understand each other,” he told me near his high-altitude hamlet. “We don’t view things like those from the plains.” An Ecuadorian indigenous leader in a long braid sitting next to him nodded in vigorous assent.


James Bartholomew in SPECTATOR, What Explains the Idiocy of the Liberal Elite? It’s Their Education.
That word ‘educated’. What does ‘educated’ mean today? It doesn’t mean they know a lot about the world. It means they have been injected with the views and assumptions of their teachers. They have been taught by people who themselves have little experience of the real world. They have been indoctrinated with certain ideas. Here are some key ones. They have been taught that capitalism is inherently bad. It is something to be controlled at every turn by an altruistic government or else reduced to a minimum. Meanwhile the pursuit of equality is good. These are truly astonishing things for educated people to believe when the past 100 years have been a brutal lesson instructing us that the opposite is the case. The pursuit of equality brought the world terror and tens of millions of deaths along with terrible economic failure. In the past 30 years, by contrast, since China and India adopted more pro-capitalist policies, capitalism has caused the biggest reduction in poverty the world has ever known. You may know that, but it is not taught in schools. Schools actually teach that Stalin’s five-year plans were a qualified success! The academic world is overwhelmingly left-wing and the textbooks spin to the left. They distort the facts or omit them. What the elite have been led to believe is that governments make things better. ‘Market failure’ is taught; ‘public-sector failure’ is not. In my own area, they are taught that everything was awful in 19th-century Britain until governments came along to save the day with an ever-bigger welfare state. The importance of friendly societies, voluntary hospitals and so on is omitted. It is rubbish — left-wing propaganda. But misleading education of this and other kinds rubs off even on those who are not studying history or politics. It comes through in the Times, the Guardian or, in America, the Washington Post or New York Times. In Britain, BBC Radio 4 is the continuation of university propaganda by other means.


Elizabeth Kolbert in NEW YORKER, That’s What You Think.
Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own. A recent experiment performed by Mercier and some European colleagues neatly demonstrates this asymmetry. Participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems. They were then asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them if they identified mistakes. The majority were satisfied with their original choices; fewer than fifteen per cent changed their minds in step two. In step three, participants were shown one of the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant, who’d come to a different conclusion. Once again, they were given the chance to change their responses. But a trick had been played: the answers presented to them as someone else’s were actually their own, and vice versa. About half the participants realized what was going on. Among the other half, suddenly people became a lot more critical. Nearly sixty per cent now rejected the responses that they’d earlier been satisfied with.


Matthew Rees in WSJ on Tyler Cowen’s book, The Complacent Class.
That’s the fear of Tyler Cowen… that America is increasingly defined by an aversion to risk as well as to anything that is unfamiliar or different. He sees a broad swath of the American population losing “the capacity to imagine or embrace a world where things do change rapidly for most if not all people.” This mind-set, he says, has “sapped us of the pioneer spirit that made American the world’s most productive and innovative economy.” Many data points underscore the diminished dynamism of the U.S. economy. Mr. Cowen notes that the entrepreneurship rate has plunged, with start-ups accounting for only 7%-8% of all U.S. companies today, down from 12%-13% in the 1980s. The percentage of workers who switch jobs each year – suggesting the enticement of better prospects more than the forced shifts triggered by layoffs – has declined by nearly 50% in the past 15 years. And innovation is slowing, reflected in everything from falling productivity (for the past eight years, about half the postwar average) to a 25% decline, since 1999, in U.S. patents that are also filed in Europe and Japan (signaling the rigor of such patents).


Richard Fausset in NYT, One of Atlanta’s Last Stores on Wheels Navigates a World of Change.
They look like penitents at confession. Mr. Palmer, half obscured in the truck’s interior, calls each of them sir or ma’am. He teaches respect by respecting them first. A teenage boy asks for blunts. “No, sir,” the proprietor said. Mr. Palmer’s truck is among the last of a small and dying tradition in this section of black Atlanta, just west and northwest of downtown. In the 1970s and ’80s, there were rolling stores all over neighborhoods like English Avenue and Vine City, stocked with all of the fixings for a real supper, recalled Greg Morgan, the owner of a brick-and-mortar convenience store in a notoriously rough area called the Bluff. “Fatback, hog maw, pig knuckles,” he said. “It was a thriving thing, and it was a moneymaking thing.” Mr. Morgan has a number of theories as to why the rolling stores are disappearing, including stepped-up regulation from city officials and a hunch that home cooking is yet another dying tradition around here. More broadly, the disappearance of the rolling stores may simply be a result of the relentless and multifarious pace of change in Atlanta, one of those American cities that move and morph at the pace of the nation itself.


Jason Zinoman in NYT, The Last Act for the Ringling Circus.
In response to the criticism, Ringling stopped using elephants last year, sidelining perhaps their most famous stars. (The word “jumbo” derives from the African elephant P. T. Barnum brought to America and showcased in his circus.) Perhaps it’s for the best. The world moves on, even when a link to the past is broken. When I took my young daughter to see Ringling a few years ago, just as my parents had done with me, it was the elephant that captivated her the most. On the way out, I bought a doll of one for her, with the red sign promoting “Greatest Show on Earth” over its trunk. That stuffed toy sat near her bed for years, long after she had lost interest in dolls. When I threw it out to make room for less childish things, I didn’t expect how furious she would get with me. She says she still misses it.


Jessica Nutik Zitter in NYT, First, Sex Ed. Then Death Ed.
I am a passionate advocate for educating teenagers to be responsible about their sexuality. And I believe it is past time for us to educate them also about death, an equally important stage of life, and one for which the consequences of poor preparedness are as bad, arguably worse. Ideally this education would come early, well before it’s likely to be needed. I propose that we teach death ed in all of our high schools. I see this curriculum as a civic responsibility. I understand that might sound radical, but bear with me. Why should death be considered more taboo than sex? Both are a natural part of life. We may think death is too scary for kids to talk about, but I believe the consequences of a bad death are far scarier. A death ed program would aim to normalize this passage of life and encourage students to prepare for it, whenever it might come — for them, or for their families.


Anemona Hartocollis in NYT, Universities Face Pressure To Hold the Line on Title IX.
Colleges and universities are in a delicate position, reluctant to dismantle the current system for addressing sexual assault, while viewing the new administration as potentially making it less fraught for them. “Schools must and will continue to support survivors and to be fair to both parties, we are required to do that, but federal guidance can be a straitjacket that forces schools to act in a way that may not further those goals,” said Terry Hartle, the senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a higher education trade group. Mr. Hartle acknowledged that colleges and universities chafe at the public scrutiny that comes with being put on a list of institutions under investigation, even before findings have been made. That list now numbers 309 cases at 227 colleges and universities, including Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, M.I.T., and Stanford. He said the criteria for such federal investigations were “vague” and “ambiguous,” and that colleges would like clarification. “How do we avoid getting sued by the government?” he said.


Leonore Tiefer in WSJ on Nancy Malkiel’s book, Keep the Damned Women Out.
The author was a Princeton history professor for more than forty years. She is steeped in Ivy League culture and conducted scores of interviews with movers and shakers she doubtless knew personally. She also seems to have footnoted every scrap of paper she found in the archives. She walks us through committee reports, administrative minutes, campus news coverage and contentious correspondence from all the stakeholders. She describes how various alternative arrangements were considered (such as moving Vassar to New Haven and Sarah Lawrence to Princeton!) and discarded. At each school, the administration worked to develop plans to satisfy the interests of students, faculty and alumni. But getting the buy-in of the last group was difficult because the deep-pocketed alumni were, as Ms. Malkiel gently puts it, “grounded in sentiment and history.” By and large they were outraged – and weren’t hesitant to say so in the bluntest terms. “What is all this nonsense about admitting women to Princeton? A good old-fashioned whore-house would be considerably more efficient and much, much cheaper,” wrote one anonymous alumnus to the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1968.


Jennifer Braceras in WSJ on KC Johnson & Stuart Taylor Jr’s book, The Campus Rape Frenzy.
Messrs. Johnson and Taylor trace the intellectual roots of today’s “crisis” to feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon, who fundamentally redefined the meaning of the word rape. “Politically,” Ms. MacKinnon wrote in 1981, “I call it rape whenever a woman has sex and feels violated,” regardless of whether she consented beforehand. Ms. MacKinnon’s view – that regretted sex constitutes rape – was radical in its time. Today it is enshrined in campus disciplinary codes that define “sexual assault” in an almost limitless fashion.


Alex Beam in NYT on Laurel Ulrich’s book, A House Full of Females - Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870.
How do we know that Smith offered women the coveted priesthood status? Because the church revised its own history about a dozen years later, when Brigham Young censored the official records of Joseph’s Nauvoo pronouncements…. The swashbuckling Young, dubbed “the Lion of the Lord” by his followers, cared less for women’s right than Smith, who was killed by a mob in 1844. Just a year after Smith’s death, Young disbanded the Relief Society as he battled Emma for influence within the leaderless church. “I don’t [want] the advice or counsel of any woman – they would lead us down to hell,” he declared.


Nancy Segal & Satoshi Kanazawa in NYT, Does Breast Milk Have a Sex Bias?
There is also some evidence of sex-biased milk production among human mothers. A group of women studied in Massachusetts, for example, produced higher-quality milk, with greater energy, lipids and other constituents, for their sons than for their daughters. Economically sufficient Kenyan mothers, according to another study, produced milk with higher fat concentration for their sons than for their daughters, whereas the reverse was true for poorer mothers.


Pam Belluck in NYT, Pregnancy Changes the Brain in Ways That May Help Mothering.
In the study, researchers scanned the brains of women who had never conceived before, and again after they gave birth for the first time. The results were remarkable: loss of gray matter in several brain areas involved in a process called social cognition or “theory of mind,” the ability to register and consider how other people perceive things. What might the loss mean? There are three possibilities, said Paul Thompson, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California who was not involved in the study. “The most intuitive is that losing gray matter is not beneficial, that later on there may be negative consequences.” Or, he said, it could be just a “neutral” reflection of pregnancy-related “stress, diet, lack of sleep.” A third possibility is that the loss is “part of the brain’s program for dealing with the future,” he said. Hormone surges in pregnancy might cause “pruning or cellular adaptation that is helpful,” he said, streamlining certain brain areas to be more efficient at mothering skills “from nurturing to extra vigilance to teaching.” The study strongly leans toward the third possibility.


Pam Belluck in NYT, Abortion Is Found to Have Little Effect on Women’s Mental Health.
The study, published on Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, found psychological symptoms increased only in women who sought abortions but were not allowed to have the procedure because their pregnancies were further along than the cutoff time at the clinic they visited. But their distress was short-lived, whether they went elsewhere for an abortion or delivered the baby. About six months after being turned away from the first abortion clinic, their mental health resembled that of women who were not turned away and had abortions. “What I think is incredibly interesting is how everyone kind of evens out together at six months to a year,” said Katie Watson, a bioethicist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. “What this study tells us about is resilience and people making the best of their circumstances and moving on,” she said. “What’s sort of a revelation is the ordinariness of it.”


Thomas Fuller in NYT, San Francisco Asks: Where Have All the Children Gone?
As an urban renaissance has swept through major American cities in recent decades, San Francisco’s population has risen to historical highs and a forest of skyscraping condominiums has replaced tumbledown warehouses and abandoned wharves. At the same time, the share of children in San Francisco fell to 13 percent, low even compared with another expensive city, New York, with 21 percent. In Chicago, 23 percent of the population is under 18 years old, which is also the overall average across the United States. California, which has one of the world’s 10 largest economies, recently released data showing the lowest birthrate since the Great Depression. As San Francisco moves toward a one-industry town with soaring costs, the dearth of children is one more change that raises questions about its character. Are fewer children making San Francisco more one-dimensional and less vibrant? The answer is subjective and part of an impassioned debate over whether a new, wealthier San Francisco can retain the allure of the city it is replacing.


Bryant Rousseau in NYT, In Bali, Babies Are Believed Too Holy to Touch the Earth.
Babies on the Indonesian island of Bali don’t start off life on the right foot — or on the left. That is because a prevalent and ancient custom there says an infant’s feet should not touch the ground for the first 105 days after birth. The practice derives from a belief that newborns are still close to the sacred realm from which they came and therefore deserve to be treated with veneration. Belief in reincarnation is widespread in Bali, where most people practice a local form of Hinduism. A child’s birth is seen as the rebirth of a deceased relative, with ancestors returning as their own descendants.


John Kaag & Clancy Martin at aeon.co, Dreadful Dads.
Parenting authentically also involves coming to terms with what children are really like. They are not angels or hellions, sweethearts or monsters: they are little people who, as Kierkegaard suggests, are both angelic and beastly. This banal platitude expresses a deep truth about the human condition, namely that we are the sorts of creatures, perhaps the only ones, who possess radical freedom. Most of adult life is geared to ignoring this aspect of human nature, and modernity sets artificial constraints on behaviour, pretending that these constraints are God-given. Of course, for an existentialist, as for a child, all of this is nonsense – nothing is God-given. The boundaries that define civilised life are, more often than not, self-imposed, which is to say radically contingent. A child knows, in a way that most parents intentionally forget, that the range of life’s possibilities is always profoundly open. And the difficulty of life is to choose for oneself which possibilities should become actual.


Amy Harmon in NYT, Human Gene Editing Receives Science Panel’s Support.
A more pragmatic concern driving the committee was the likelihood that the new technology would be adopted in countries like China, where some pioneering research on editing human embryos — without the intent to gestate them — has already occurred. “If we have an absolute prohibition in the United States with this technology advancing, it’s not like it won’t happen,” Ms. Charo said. But opponents of human germ line editing say that is not a reason to take a big step toward what they fear will be an inevitable push to engineer traits like strength, beauty and intelligence, perhaps eventually creating a dystopian social divide between those who can afford enhancements and those who cannot.


NEW CRITERION, Cultural Backwash.
On January 19, Mary Katherine Ham reported in The Federalist on a cultural hall of mirrors. Back in 2014, Ivanka Trump, now the new First Daughter, had posted on Instagram a picture of herself getting ready for an event. She sits in a white robe, iPhone in hand, in front of a mirror while a stylist does her hair. Enter Richard Prince, an Artist™ whose medium is “appropriation art,” i.e., other people make the stuff, he “appropriates” it, exhibits it, and gets paid for it. An exhibition of work (it would not be quite accurate to say “his work”) in 2014 consisted mostly of enlarged versions of other people’s Instagram pictures. If you are wondering how appropriation—Communist regimes call it “expropriation”—differs from simple theft, you are not alone. As Ms. Ham notes, Prince, a certified “Controversial Artist,” has been sued by artists whose work he has stolen, er, appropriated. But if Prince displays an imperfect appreciation for the distinction between meum and tuum, he seems to have a lively appetite for lucrum. For a fee of $36,000, Ivanka Trump commissioned Prince to make an enlarged version of her own Instagram selfie. She then posed in front of the picture and posted it on Instagram. “There’s post-modern and poster-modern,” Ms. Ham observes, “and then there’s postest-modern.”


Jack Nicas in WSJ, YouTube Notches Global Video Milestone.
YouTube viewers world-wide are now watching more than 1 billion hours of videos a day, threatening to eclipse U.S. television viewership, a milestone fueled by the Google unit’s aggressive embrace of artificial intelligence to recommend videos…. It represents a 10-fold increase since 2012, YouTube said, when it started building algorithms that tap user data to give each user personalized video lineups designed to keep them watching longer. Feeding those recommendations is an unmatched collection of content: 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube each minute, or 65 years of video a day.


Ryan Adams in NYT, The First Time I Was Rattled by a Heckler.
By the time I got there, I was so angry. I felt humiliated, but what else could be done? Either way I had lost something. Unlike a more seasoned comic or musician, I didn’t have the experience to ignore a situation like this, or to use wit to turn it around. I felt a kind of disappointment and disillusionment that I had never known — and it was in front of a thousand-plus people. As I approached the heckler’s wooden pew, I was shocked. He was only a few years older than me. Unshaven, bleary-eyed. He had on a baseball hat and seemed so drunk that his limbs hung from his sides like a broken doll. His eyes were like two poached eggs waiting to break. The anger left me, and I instantly felt bad. No one was there for this man. No one stopped him. I said, “Hey man, if you were trying to ruin the show you succeeded, but I need to try and finish this — it’s my job.” I pulled out two $20 bills and said: “Here is your money, please take a taxi and leave here. Go home and take an aspirin. Please. Leave.” I walked back to the stage. People applauded. The fourth wall was destroyed in the worst possible way.


Dominic Green in WSJ on Martin Torgoff’s book, Bop Apocalypse.
In Young, Kerouac saw a modern American counterpart to Baudelaire’s poet maudit, the “cursed poet,” doomed by bad luck and a lack of recognition. “You can hear Lester blow and he is the greatness of America in a single Negro musician,” he wrote in the first draft of On the Road. …But Kerouac was a white writer, trying to create a “New Vision” that adapted a European art tradition to modern America. Young was a black musician trying to make a living in night clubs. A few months after Kerouac met Young, the U.S. Army conscripted Young. Diagnosed with epilepsy, syphilis and “chronic alcoholism and nomadism,” he was imprisoned at Fort Gordon, Ga., then dishonorably discharged. He never recovered. Kerouac did not write about Young’s persecution and decline. Instead, he idealized the pre-Army Young.


Sarah Boxer in WSJ on Michael Tisserand’s book, Krazy.
Starting at age 10, George Herriman became a white guy born in California. He never looked back. His parents enrolled him in an all-white school, where he studied “grammar, elocution, ancient and modern history, natural philosophy, mathematics… astronomy, metaphysics, Latin, and Greek” – subjects that he would draw on liberally for “Krazy Kat.” …Mr. Tisserand relays this story largely by documenting Herriman’s dozens of failed comics and recalling the picaresque tales of his newspaper friends, who “celebrated a hard-brawling immigrant America” and were known as the “Sports.” Herriman, a self-effacing cut-up, never revealed his roots to anyone. His friends called him “George the Greek,” and he took to wearing a hat to conceal his kinky hair.


Jonny Whiteside in LA WEEKLY, 50 Years Ago, the Wah-Wah Pedal Was Born in a Hollywood Hills Garage.
“I had a nice garage studio at my place in the Hollywood Hills,” Casher recalls. “One day, Frank Zappa knocks on my door and says, ‘I hear you have a good studio.’ I’m looking at him, with the beard and the hair, wondering who he was.” Zappa was on assignment to do a song for Roger Corman’s 1966 sci-fi flick Queen of Blood, and he needed an out-of-this-world sound. “Frank brought [actor] Florence Marly in, she’s singing these really wild lyrics, ‘Space Boy, Space Boy, sex without soul,’ and I thought it’d go nowhere fast. “I started overdubbing my parts, and Frank says, ‘Make it as spacey and weird as you can.’ So I got my oscillator out, and soon the sounds were whizzing by, really weird and wild. And then Zappa says, ‘Can I overdub the drums now?’ And I thought this wacko is going to screw up everything I just did. In one take, he did it, it was perfect. We hit it off, and he invited me to join his band.” Soon Casher was leading a double life, doing morning sessions for the squares who watched Autry’s Melody Ranch and at night sitting in with Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at the Whisky a Go-Go. “So I was doing the Hollywood music business from A to Z,” Casher quips.


Maria Bakkalapulo interviewed at Qantara.de, Stage-diving from Mecca’s Verandah.
It all began in Jakarta, where I would go to insane punk gigs where people from all economic levels would thrash and stage dive to their heart′s content. What really inspired me about punks in Indonesia was how it allowed the marginalised to find a community, a purpose and identity. On the rough streets of Jakarta, it gave them protection and friendship. At the end of 2004, I went to Banda Aceh to cover the devastating effects of the tsunami. I followed events there for years after, travelling back from time to time to work on stories. Then the 65 punks were arrested in December 2011, had their mohawks shaved and were forced to bathe in a lake because they were seen as unclean. Our film ″Street Punk! Banda Aceh″ talks about the evolution of this community and where they are now.


Karen Crouse & Seth Berkman in NYT, South Korea, Next Olympics Host, Went Shopping in North America to Build Its Hockey Teams.
Tyler Brickler, a Chicago native whose mother is from South Korea, is in the process of acquiring his citizenship. Brickler, 26, was invited to a national training camp in South Korea during his senior year at SUNY Geneseo and signed out of college with the Asia League, his interest whetted by the possibility of an Olympic berth. “It is a very weird situation for me, for sure,” Brickler said before a home game in February in the northern Seoul suburb of Goyang. “Playing in North America, I was sometimes considered the Asian player on the team, but when I came out here I’m considered the American.” He added, “I might not look it fully or speak it, but no one can take away the fact that I have Korean blood from my mother.” Marissa Brandt, who played at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., will be a defenseman on the women’s team, whose roster is about 20 percent North American. She was born in South Korea and adopted by an American family. “When I was in the States, I didn’t want to be Korean, I wanted to be like everyone else,” she said. In the summer of 2015, she traveled to Korea for the first time since her adoption to attend a hockey camp and was transformed. “It was definitely an eye-opener,” said Brandt, who now wears her Korean name, Yoon Jung Park, on her jersey. “Coming back, I am Korean.” ...The sport still operates largely in a vacuum in a country that is crazy for speed skating and figure skating. At a coffee house two blocks from Anyang Halla’s rink, a longtime resident, huddled at a table with two friends, looked up from his hot drink with a confused expression when asked about the local hockey team. What hockey team? he asked.


Ira Stoll in LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL, Major League Baseball’s Extra-Inning Experiment is Ridiculous.
Is there anything that better symbolizes everything that is wrong with America today than the proposal by Major League Baseball to change the rules so that extra innings start with a runner on second base? The idea undercuts just about every virtue extolled by parents, teachers, philosophers, religious leaders — patience, industry, hard work, earned success, delayed gratification, respect for tradition. It is, instead, a monument to character flaws such as impatience and laziness. It’s a kind of welfare giveaway for baseball players. They can now wind up on second base not by earning it — by, say, hitting a double, or getting a walk and then stealing second — but simply by being placed there by a baseball commissioner inexplicably eager for games to end as soon as possible after the ninth inning.


Jason Gay in WSJ, This Column Is Too Long.
We’ve all read about the NFL’s scramble to cut down on unnecessary delays, and using advertising split-screens and other tricks to try to maintain its position as TV’s top-rated entertainment. The NBA’s looking at similar measures, especially for the final few minutes of its contests, which can drag on like a bad office party speech. Even fuddy-duddy baseball is in. Just the other day, a Major League Baseball general manager, Ross Atkins of Toronto, told MLB.com he’d be interested in exploring 7-inning games. Seven-inning games! Holy Honus Wagner. Don’t tell those baseball traditionalists, or they’ll come chase you in their potato-sack wool uniforms…. Time is a luxury which should be well-spent. Maybe a sport could be that luxury. But you already knew that. You stopped reading this stupid column long, long ago.


Raymond Pettibon interview by Paul Laster at timeout.com.
Q: You depict America as a pretty grim place. Do you think of yourself as a political artist? A: That’s not for me to say, but I aspire to show that side. I started as a political cartoonist when I was 12 years old, but I grew out of it.


Joe Carducci interview by Ian Henderson at sadwave.com.
Q: «Stone Male» есть глава, посвященная советскому кино. Насколько органично этот раздел вписался в повествование о ярких мужчинах в кино?

A: Советское кино сильно отличалось от Голливуда тем, что кинематографисты в СССР снимали фильмы для рабочих, а не в угоду рынку. Образ таких персонажей должен был укладываться в рамки соцреализма, но получившиеся герои часто оказывались «дефектными», более сложными. Процесс превращения российского кино в советское настолько увлекателен, что я думал, мне удастся проследить всю его историю (благо надо мной не довлел ни агент, ни редактор). В итоге я смог сконцентрироваться только на самых известных фильмах, чего, на мой взгляд, недостаточно, потратив на это еще 5 лет и 130 страниц текста!


Obituary of the Issue David Shepard (1940-2017)
David's involvement with silent film extends to Louise Brooks, who's now lost 1927 film, The City Gone Wild, he almost saved. In his 1990 book, Behind the Mask of Innocence, Kevin Brownlow wrote about an incident in the 1970s. “David Shepard, then with the American Film Institute’s archive program, had a list of 35mm nitrate prints held in a vault Paramount had forgotten it had. He asked me which title I would select, out of all of them, to look at right away. I said The City Gone Wild. He called Paramount to bring it out of the vaults for our collection that afternoon. The projectionist went to pick it up. ‘O, there was some powder on that,’ said the vault keeper ‘We threw it away.’ … He tried to rescue it, even from its watery grave, but a salvage company had carted it off by the time he got there.” A few years ago, I spoke with David about this incident, and he confirmed its details and expressed his frustration…. Born in 1940, David had a lifelong love of film, having devoted most of his life to film preservation. Through teaching and scholarship, through his company, Film Preservation Associates, through his ownership of the Blackhawk Films library, and through his film and video restoration efforts, David had long worked behind the scenes helping save early films. Just as importantly, David made these films available to the home video market, first through laserdisc and VHS formats, and more recently through high-quality DVD releases "where the clarity and beauty of these early motion pictures can really be fully appreciated."


Thanks to Chris Woods, Andy Schwartz, Roger Trilling, Mark Carducci, Steve Beeho...


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