October 30, 2008

The Death of Meaning Pt. 1

I feel sorry for John McCain. I'm not just saying that; I really do. In the past, he has lived up to the way he bills himself for this campaign: for instance, he was the only person to have the balls to go into Michigan during the primary and tell the voters that those auto jobs are gone and never coming back. He came out against the Bush tax cuts. He has demonstrated more compassion for economic refugees (a.k.a. illegal immigrants - see, I can play this word game too!) than most anybody on either side of the aisle. He has fought for real campaign finance reform, though the bills that bear his name are always watered down beyond all recognition. Before he decided to run for President as the Republican lowest common denominator (John the Senator?), he was a stand up guy. Not a shining beacon of intellect, and not someone whom I would have ever voted for, but a stand up guy.

Now, he is completely surrounded by idiots. This is easily the worst campaign I have ever seen, and even if he finds a way to win this thing, I won't change my mind about that. He makes John Kerry's people seem like Nobel laureates. One is left to wonder: what would this election have been like if John McCain ran as John McCain? And maybe chosen someone like Condi Rice or Christine Todd Whitman for his running mate instead of that silly Alaskan woman? Not that I'm a big fan of either of those folks, but at least they have demonstrated a capacity for the job.

But anyway, this isn't a commentary on the campaign. Well, actually it is, but it's so much more . . . This is

the death of meaning, part one.

In our culture's slaughterhouse of meaning, politics is the killing floor (sing with me now, in your best Howlin' Wolf: "I should have quit you, a long time ago"). It is not coincidence that Harry Frankfurt cites primarily examples of political speech in On Bullshit. Traditionally, politicians resorted to mantra-esque sloganeering ("I like Ike!") and simple corruption to bulldoze rational thought and win elections. These days, the game keeps getting more convoluted and ridiculous, starting with Lee Atwater's truth-optional campaigning for Bush Sr., through the Clinton campaign's . . . uh, let's say rhetorical flexibility, to Bush Jr.'s acceleration of the Clinton method to a fine art. Obama practiced the art of rhetorical impenetrability during the primaries, waiting until he was in the driver's seat before choosing a direction (by the way, if McCain is running the worst campaign in recent memory, Obama has the best - and once again, I won't change my mind if he loses). McCain's operatives are trying to work in the best Karl Rove tradition, but they are all silly hacks who, if Sarah Palin's recent rhetoric about "the REAL AMERICA" is any evidence, have the wannabe Timothy McVeighs of the country as their target audience.

But mostly, they're just silly. Yesterday on NPR's All Things Considered, Michele Norris interviewed senior McCain advisor Nicolle Wallace (listen to the whole interview here). In it, she was trying to pin Wallace down on the McCain campaign's claim that Obama is a socialist, a claim that McCain himself backed off of in an interview with Larry King. In a three-and-a-half minute interview, she actually gave the correct answer, which is "John McCain believes that 'spreading the wealth' is something that Barack Obama's tax policies have in common with socialism." A reasonable person in a longer interview might add that there are several functions of the US Government that reflect the influence of socialism, but that Obama wants to move closer to socialism, while McCain wants to retreat from it. Neither McCain nor Obama advocates a move all the way to either end of the spectrum. A reasonable person might also add that the McCain campaign's assertion that Obama is a socialist is common election year hyperbole, and most Americans are sophisticated enough to understand that.

But, unfortunately for McCain, this senior advisor is not a reasonable person. She starts out reasonably enough, talking about how the polls are narrowing in key battleground states, and hitting her talking points about Obama "spreading the wealth". Norris then plays the clip from Larry King and asks Wallace a direct question: "So tell me something: if John McCain does not think Barack Obama is a socialist, why is that message a centerpiece of his recent campaign?" Now, let me reiterate - I don't think this is a "gotcha" question. There is a perfectly reasonable answer to the question that doesn't entail any sort of backpedaling . . . but Wallace proceeded to head toward the stratosphere with her answer. She started by vomiting up her talking points quickly, stumbling over them, and then saying "Joe the Plumber was the first one to use the word 'socialism' to describe Barack Obama's plan and vision in his own words, which was to 'spread the wealth".

Oh please, dear God, not Joe the Plumber . . .

Norris tried to steer the interview back on track by pointing out that Joe the Plumber is not running for president, but John McCain is, and that it seems that the campaign is repeating a charge that the candidate himself does not believe. Wallace starts to get back to the question, but is distracted: "Well, John McCain is saying that the idea of 'spreading the wealth' . . . Oh, Joe the Plumber just got on the Straight Talk Express, speaking of his words and his wisdom and his economic ideas . . . you know, he is someone who shares John McCain's belief that, as a small business owner, and this election is about . . . "


What the hell???!!! The economic ideas of Joe the fucking Plumber???!!!

This is ridiculous on so many levels it's difficult to know where to start. First of all, I would bet you one month's pre-market crash income that Joe the Plumber DID NOT WALK ON THE BUS AT THAT VERY MOMENT . . . which means that, as ridiculous as it is to be distracted in the middle of a presumably rather important national radio interview, this was a planned rhetorical dodge, which is even more . . . hell, I can't even find the words. It is indescribably, amazingly, mind-bogglingly ridiculous and strange.

Secondly, this whole Joe the Plumber thing is completely surreal. I mean, this guy stumps for McCain! This guy is so off base that even Shepard Smith (Fox News) called a foul on him for saying (in his role as McCain spokesman) that if Obama is elected, Israel would "cease to exist". Now, if you've got Fox News anchors calling you out on behalf of Obama, you're way off the reservation. It's not unusual for a candidate to have various mascots for a campaign, but you don't let the idiots talk, and especially not with your explicit backing. I mean, we get it, he's a normal guy, a REAL AMERICAN (in Palin parlance), and he's voting for McCain. If I need my toilet fixed, I'll call him. I mean, he must be a damn good plumber, since he makes more than $250,000 a year, which would put him right in line with Obama's tax hike. On second thought, never mind, I can't afford him. Oh, wait, when Obama redistributes the wealth, I'll get my lazy welfare-Cadillac-driving hands on some extra lucre, & then I'll be able to afford him! Oh, Joe the Plumber, is there anything you can't do?

Okay, a bit of a tangent there. Difference is, I'm writing a blog. Nicolle Wallace is a senior campaign advisor (senior!) for a guy who theoretically knows how to surround himself with people capable of running the most powerful country in the world, and she's doing an important radio interview less than a week before the election that will determine the fate of her boss. Is it any wonder that conservatives are depressed that this goat rodeo of a campaign represents their interests? Is McCain losing this election on purpose?

Norris finally managed to get Wallace back on track, and she gave the reasonable answer: "John McCain believes that 'spreading the wealth' is something that Barack Obama's tax policies have in common with socialism." But, she couldn't stay on track for long: "Listen, you go into a restaurant, and instead of leaving a tip, you stiff the waitress and give it to the homeless person outside. It is a noble thing to do, it is spreading money earned by that waitress and giving it to someone outside . . . "


Stiffing a waitress to give money to a homeless person is socialism? That's not redistribution of wealth, that's assholery. Anybody who would do that to a waitress (who, without that tip, would be earning sub-minimum wage) isn't a Marxist, they're a douche bag. I understand exactly why this tower of intellect that is John McCain's senior advisor spent so much time to come up with this off-the-cuff analogy: they want all us broke-assed people to think that it's our income that's going to get cut by all this wealth redistribution that Obama plans to do. Wallace's ridiculous little allegory doesn't map, though. It's just stupid. Obama-as-socialist would make sure the diner tips the waitress and tosses some coin to the homeless guy outside. McCain-as-capitalist would argue that, as noble as this may be, the added expense to a night out would actually cause the diner to stay home, thereby putting the restaurant out of business, and in turn putting both the waitress and the homeless person out in the street. See, I can do this, why can't a senior campaign advisor for John McCain?

It's not unfair to call Obama a socialist - certainly hyperbolic, but not unfair. He is talking about making taxation more progressive, which is an idea that has its roots in socialism. Of course, America already has a progressive income tax, thanks to that bastard Bill Clinton*, and in spite of the best efforts of George W. Bush. And, if Obama were really a socialist, he wouldn't have such a lame health care plan. It's just that, post-Clinton, post-Rove/Cheney/Bush, you expect a little more elegance in the manipulation of language. These McCain people are rank amateurs. I never thought an administration could be worse than Bush's, but I'm beginning to see a road map to that particular hell.

Obama made it through the primaries with smoke and mirrors. He relied on nebulous concepts to make himself everything to everybody, leaving the real work (hacking away at the Republicans) to left-wing kamikazes like Dennis Kucinich. I don't like it, but I understand why he did it, and it obviously paid off: I never thought I would see the day someone would out-campaign a Clinton. McCain made his deal with the devil, but this particular devil was out of tricks (and really, he'd been pushing that pacemaker to the red line for over eight years now . . . it's time he rested). Their butchering of truth is visible to most anyone who wants to see. One can disagree with his fellow citizens on philosophy, economics, morals, etc., and still be civil . . . but anyone who falls for this crap is worthy of our derision.

Meaning is dead & buried in an unmarked grave. Pity the fools who still believe it alive.

This has been a bulletin from a Real America that thinks Sarah Palin is a joke. I'm Bill the Appliance Salesman/Bill the hopelessly obscure experimental musician/Bill the grouchy middle-aged white guy who actually thinks people read his silly shit, and I approve this message.

* Before you all write me, I know it wasn't Bill Clinton who instituted the progressive income tax. That was a joke . . . 'cause, you see, the right-wing media machine blames everything on Clinton . . . get it? Pretty funny, huh? Actually, progressive income tax was instituted by notorious left wing wackjob Teddy Roosevelt. Or at least that's what it says on the internet, so it must be true.

I'm Sorry

I don't get TV On The Radio. And it's not like I haven't tried.

October 25, 2008

Nocturne for a Synth Band

Bart Galloway did a set with some electronics/synth guys at Derby City Thursday. It seemed new ground for him, being a free jazz - free improv type of guy. He is more comfortable with people like the Sick City crew (he is now, according to the Sick City MySpace page, a member of the group) who find their roots in sixties free jazz-style improvising. The synth guys were definitely working from a more textural place, devoid of the kind of rapid change and aggression that a drummer like Bart thrives on. During the set break, he stepped outside to chat with Heather, Dan, and I about the set (Heather Floyd and Dan Willems being the aforementioned Sick City people), and he didn't seem to be sure about what was going on, or how his response to it was working. I assured him that all was going well. The synth guys were working on some interesting textures, and his drumming was actively engaging those textures. I think it is a tribute to Bart's musicianship that he was so readily able to work outside of his comfort zone.

Discussing the set with Bart, I talked about the difference between how the synth guys worked and how we (Dan, Heather, Chris, Bart, and I, for starters) tended to work. I talked about the long scope of their changes, and how their textural decisions amounted to a sort of musical wallpaper. Now, calling music "wallpaper" in my circles is usually a pretty serious dis, but I think that the synth guys wouldn't necessarily take it that way, and I certainly didn't mean it that way. There were some very interesting textures going on, and, at the end of the day, I think the collaboration worked pretty well.

After I got home, I realised that I actually do work (at times) in the same modes that the synth guys do. My ideas of texture are different, but I do work with texture quite a bit . . . it just tends to happen in different ranges than the synth guys. Black Kaspar, for instance, works for texture at a very high volume, though those textures are usually built from string instruments (guitars) and feedback, so the attack is slightly different. Also, in my Hoosier Pete mode, I have Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground" as one of my primary touchpoints, and that is all about texture as well . . . hell, one of the continuing compositional gambits I have is "Blues for Morton Feldman", and that's all about reckoning music with the plasticity of painting and sculpture. What is wallpaper other than the liberation of painting from the frame?

Anyway, here's a song I recorded that night. I think it illustrates what I'm talking about.

October 16, 2008

Plugged In Straight and Rocked It

Rory Gallagher has been one of my musical detours lately. Huge in Europe, Rory is known here primarily to blues/rock guitar freaks. He was part of the British (Isles) Invasion, first coming up with the Irish band Taste in the late '60's. He went solo early in the '70's, releasing Rory Gallagher and Deuce in 1971. During the '70's, he was a road warrior (again, primarily in Europe), but his health began to decline steadily toward the end of the '80's from touring rock disease (primarily alcohol in Rory's case, but also drugs prescribed to him to alleviate anxiety). He died in '95 from an infection he developed after the liver transplant that was to save his life.

Gallagher first came to my attention in the middle '70's when he was on the cover of the first issue of Guitar Player I ever bought (long before I ever played guitar myself). Not long after that, I found an album called Sinner . . . and Saint, which culled songs from his first two solo albums. He has always been the very image of a straight ahead, "no bullshit" type of rocker, a guy who could play to stadiums with none of the rock star attitude . . . the Irishman of Welsh descent with a deep reverence for the blues and humility in the face of the great wonder of music, a guy who would talk at great length to any one at all who shared his love for music. He was known for his trademark beat-to-hell '61 Strat which he plugged directly into mid-size combo amps (a Vox AC30 is in evidence in a couple of the clips below, and he was also fond of '50's vintage Bassmans). Though he would use effects on rare occasions (such as a treble booster . . . on a Strat???!!!), his image will always be that of the flannel-clad blues purist who plugged in straight and rocked it.

Later in the '70's, he would stick closer to the blues/rock genre a la Stevie Ray Vaughn, but on his first two albums he followed the lead of other blues rockers at the time by making pop music from an expanded blues-based vocabulary. And while I think he is a completely legit blues guitarist, it's the other stuff that really attracts me. To me, Rory is at his best when he recontextualizes his blues guitar, when he stretches for different dynamics and textures. Mind you, his forms are never radical (he seems almost too humble to do any real violence to the genre he loves), but it's here that he really separates himself from the Eric Clapton wannabes of the world.

And of course he is, above all, a guitar player. In spite of his serious chops, Rory has an economy of style that, while not exactly minimal, is always directly to the point, even when it is strutting a certain level of virtuosity. While he is never really outside of his blues guitar box, he reaches to the very corners to find fresh uses of a common language. This stuff isn't exactly Captain Beefheart smashing up the blues, but it is almost always riveting.

Well, what would a blog be without a couple Internet nuggets? Above is a picture of Rory's '61 Stratocaster. If you really get into this and sit through a bunch of YouTube clips, you can see the guitar deteriorate over the years. I get a kick out of the guys who comment on Rory's "professionalism", which they say is indicated by his frequent re-tuning of his guitar on live television "just to make sure it's perfect". One look at that guitar will tell you that the reason he re-tunes all the time is that guitar, which is beat to shit, allegedly spent a couple nights in a mud puddle (shades of my Silvertone, which years ago Gabe Saavedra found in a puddle not far from where I loaded in some gear and left the guitar on the roof of my truck), and doesn't even have matching tuners. What a beautiful guitar.

Here come the YouTube clips. This first one, "Bullfrog Blues", is from a show in France in 1980. I love the sheer anarchy and aggression of this clip, with the crowd spilling all over the stage, swarming around Rory, and even coming right up in front of the drum kit at the back of the stage to give the drummer some. The slide guitar here is great, and apparently someone gave Rory a wireless, and he's having way too much fun. Knowing the way he drank, I got pretty scared when I saw him climb up on top of the bass stack. There is a better color version of this clip on YouTube, but I prefer the grainy video and compressed sound of this one.

Here are a couple French TV show clips from '71, apparently the first live show with the trio he recorded the first two albums with. The sound isn't bad, all things considered, but that Vox doesn't quite cut it a lot of the time. Would have been nice to hear Rory through a hot-rodded Super Reverb during this set. These are a couple of my favorite songs from his early period, though I like the studio versions better because the guitar sound is better.

And here's "Moonchild", from the same 1980 show as "Bullfrog Blues" above, only this time with a slightly better color video. Just listen to him rip through this:

There's plenty of rockism here, replete with guitarface and bad boy strut. There are '70's rock staples here that will jab uncomfortably at the postpunk aesthetic. But, now that the kids are trying to rock again (this time without the irony), this is an essential lesson on how it's done.

Finally, a small Rory Gallagher playlist. These are my favorites, all from the first two albums:

"Used to Be"
"I'm Not Awake Yet"
"Don't Know Where I'm Going"
"Maybe I Will"
"Whole Lot of People"
"There's a Light"
"Out of my Mind"
"Crest of a Wave"
"I Fall Apart"
"Just the Smile"
"Hands Up"
"Sinner Boy"
"For the Last Time"

Well, actually, that's pretty much all the first two albums, so just get both of them.

October 6, 2008

Classic Rock Reconsidered

Hello friends. How about a playlist? I call this one "Classic Rock Reconsidered". This is how "classic rock radio" should sound.

Lou Reed - "Kicks"
MC5 - "Borderline"
The Stooges - "1970"
Johnny Thunders - "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" (live acoustic)
Tim Buckley - "Anonymous Proposition"
Television - "Venus" (live in San Francisco 1978)
Patti Smith - "Pissing in a River"
Rush - "By-Tor and the Snow Dog"
Blue Oyster Cult - "Career of Evil"
Thin Lizzy - "Emerald"
Amboy Dukes - "Journey to the Center of Your Mind"
Todd Rundgren - "The Last Ride"
Pere Ubu - "Dub Housing"
Henry Cow - "Teenbeat (reprise)"
Captain Beafheart - "When Big Joan Sets Up" (instrumental version)
Little Feat - "Brides of Jesus"
The J. Geils Band - "Give It To Me"
John Cale - "Ghost Story"
Velvet Underground - "What Goes On"
Small Faces - "All or Nothing"
A. M. M. - "What Is There in Uselessness to Cause You Distress?"
Pink Floyd - "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun"
Love - "A House is not a Motel"
Jimi Hendrix - "Freedom"
Jefferson Airplane - "Volunteers"
Neil Young - "Revolution Blues"
Cream - "Badge"
The Rolling Stones - "19th Nervous Breakdown"
The Who - "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere"
Cheap Trick - "Oh, Candy"
Big Star - "Mod Lang"
Badfinger - "No Matter What"
Motorhead - "Ace of Spades"
Alice Cooper - "I'm Eighteen"
Deep Purple - "Highway Star"
Tangerine Dream - "Sunrise in the Third System"
Swell Maps - "Midget Submarines"
Wire - "Lowdown"
The Buzzcocks - "Ever Fallen in Love"
Magazine - "Shot by Both Sides"
Brian Eno - "Baby's On Fire"
The James Gang - "Bomber"
Creedence Clearwater Revival - "Green River"
The Yardbirds - "Stroll On"
David Bowie - "Rock -n- Roll Suicide"

. . . and so on. Anyway, this is my re-imagining.

October 4, 2008

Posse Comitatus

William Faulkner, from Intruder in the Dust:

- a connection of brawlers and farmers and foxhunters and stock- and timber-traders who would not even be the last anywhere to let one of its number be killed by anyone but only among the last since it in its turn was integrated and interlocked and intermarried with other brawlers and foxhunters and whiskymakers not even into a simple clan or tribe but a race a species which before now had made their hill stronghold good against the county and the federal government too, which did not even simply inhabit nor had merely corrupted but had translated and transmogrified that whole region of lonely pine hills dotted meagerly with small titled farms and peripatetic sawmills and contraband whisky-kettles where peace officers from town didn’t even go unless they were sent for and strange white men didn’t wander far from the highway after dark and no Negro at any time - where as a local wit said once the only stranger ever to enter with impunity was God and He only by daylight and on Sunday - into a synonym for independence and violence: an idea with physical boundaries like a quarantine for plague so that solitary unique and alone out of all the county it was known to the rest of the county by the number of its survey coordinate - Beat Four - as in the middle twenties people knew where Cicero Illinois was and who lived there and what they did who neither knew nor cared what state Chicago was in

October 2, 2008

The Banality of Greed

I recently read an atrocious little volume called Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo. It reminded me of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, another novel I hate. At the same time I was reading Cosmopolis, I was reading Wall Street Versus America, Gary Weiss's book on Wall Street greed, corruption, and incompetence. And then, shoes started dropping on Wall Street. Ah, synchronicity . . .

There's a lot of anger associated with all the bank and brokerage failures, even before the government started dumping chunks of the treasury into these private clusterfucks. Apropos DeLillo and Wolfe, we imagine the villains to be the so-called "masters of the universe" (a coinage of Wolfe's from BotV) that run Wall Street. While the stink of deep soul corruption hangs like a dank fog over the centers of money and power, the roots of the greed that bore this toxic fruit are sunk deep into the everyday soil that we ourselves tread. Contrary to the sexy elitist makeover that DeLillo and Wolfe (among many, many others) foist upon it, greed is, in fact, banal & pervasive.

A few years back, there was an exodus of salesman from my workplace into the mortgage industry. It was where the money was. As far as I know, it was all kinds of high-risk paper: re-fi, no money down mortgages, etc. A few of them came back because they weren't comfortable with the business. The idea was to pistol whip as much of this paper through as possible, any way possible. As an agent, you are not allowed to make judgements concerning a customer's ability to pay. Now, that sounds reasonable, except sometimes the customer just doesn't know what the hell is going on. You can sit there knowing damn well the customer isn't going to be able to make the payments, but as long as your bosses keep stamping it and sending it up one more level . . . well, not your problem. It's your job to pump paper into the pipeline, it's someone else's job to kick it back out. The more paper you pump, the better off you are.

This isn't Glengarry Glen Ross stuff here, this is just a bunch of kids trying to get themselves enough extra cash to get a new car, or a big screen TV. They want to impress their bosses, they want to make a reputation, so racking up big numbers is the way to do that. To get the numbers, you push limits as far as possible. A client may have put down that he makes $50,000 a year as a Burger King shift manager, but is it the agent's job to question that? Well, no, however unlikely, it is possible. Or there's that guy with his own "lawn service" who makes $70,000 - once again, it is possible, even if that broke-down 10 year old F-150 with a push mower and a couple weedeaters in back says otherwise. It's not the agent's job to be detective. Thought about a transaction can never be "is this the right thing to do, for the client and for the company?"; rather, all attention has to be focused into "what is the best way to maximize this deal for me?". The real face of the mortgage crisis isn't Cosmopolis's Eric Packer betting huge mountains of cash against the rise of the yen, it's a kid working far too many hours, going out and getting drunk after work, coming in again with just a couple hours of sleep, and having to borrow $10 to eat lunch the day before payday. The face of the mortgage crisis isn't one of Wolfe's "masters of the universe", it's a harried father trying to push a little extra paper so he can afford a babysitter and a rare night out for his wife on payday. This isn't the outscale greed that splices itself to hubris, this is the greed that puts the simple desire for a little self-gratification above everything else.

Of course, the outscale greed and hubris of Wall Street "power brokers" is involved in this as well: the actual crash is linked largely to a crisis with derivatives, bizarre creations whose only function appears to be generating cash with no extra collateral. And, as much as we feel for the homeowners who were duped into these shitty loans, as a certain point they have to be held responsible for their own decisions (it's rare that a prospective mortgage client actually gets lied to - they just don't get the full truth unless they ask). Even here, though, the banality of greed permeates: the Wall Street guys creating "financial products" were just doing their jobs, like the mortgage guys whipping bad paper at the wall to see what sticks. The homeowners jumping into risky mortgages with one eye open and their noses plugged were just grasping for what has been defined as the American Dream. Broken down to an individual level, greed doesn't seem much different than the inability to avoid that bag of chips in the vending machine when you have change in your pocket.

Wolfe and DeLillo want to make Greek tragedy out of greed. In so doing, they glorify greed even if, as in Greek tragedy, the greedy hero gets it in the end. Ultimately, DeLillo wants us to admire Eric Packer, even if we don't necessarily love him. The implication is clear: greed is something grand and desirable. They are wrong: greed is banal, pervasive, and menial. And it is destroying our culture.

The Marketplace of Ideas

“Far from the marketplace and from fame
happens all that is great:
Far from the marketplace and from fame
the inventors of new values
have always dwelt.” - Zarathustra

The stink of excuse
rises from every pore –
paper and metal excuse,
system of death deferred,
life on the installment plan.
These things that serve themselves,
these golden calves,
cast and worshipped
above the hand that cast it:
how can that be –
we worship creators, no?

Corrupt surface,
a sheet of ice, everything slides
down to an inevitable –
wait, inevitable, really?
Why is the death coded in?
Why is the death coded in?
These, your talismans,
like chickens of proverb,
have come home to roost.
They are idea.
They are value.
They are world.

There is no room left
for what has become
beneath, even, contempt.

That dollar is a crumple of paper.
The blood in my eyes has nothing to do with paper.
That gold is no more than flavored lead.
The tremor in my voice
has nothing to do with sullen metal.
The voice that tears from deep within
speaks not of gold, silver, or paper.