August 2004 Notebook
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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Much of what I wrote about Iraq last week is speculative. Over the course of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, I've made a number of such speculations, often contrary to the lines reported in the U.S. news media, and by and large I've been more right than not. On Sunday, Dexter Filkins wrote a piece in the New York Times ("After 3 Weeks of Fighting in Najaf, 1 Riddle: Who Won?") which vacillated between contradicting what makes sense to me and scratching his head about how he can't make sense out of what he knows. This seems typical: I've seen Filkins on PBS many times, where he predictably recounts the line given to him, looking like the proverbial deer caught in headlights.

Some quotes:

It was Mr. Sadr, after all, whose Mahdi Army began the current round of bloodletting by attacking a police station earlier this month after the Iraqi police arrested one of his aides. It was Mr. Sadr who had turned the Imam Ali Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, into a fortress from which he dared the government and the Americans to expel him. And it was Mr. Sadr, facing an indictment for the murder of a rival cleric, who had mocked the Iraqi government's efforts to arrest him.

Yet for all of that, the burden of announcing the tentative peace accord had fallen to Ayatollah Sistani, the country's most revered religious figure. Mr. Sadr was allowed to dash out the front door.

The kid-glove treatment of Mr. Sadr here, after days of fighting that left hundreds of Iraqis dead, points up the dilemma faced by American commanders and Iraq's new leaders. As much as both groups would like to capture or kill Mr. Sadr -- and there is no doubt that they would -- neither the American military nor Iraq's American-appointed government feels politically strong enough to get away with it.

Note the logic here: the U.S. and its quisling government want to "capture or kill" Sadr and attacked his organization by arresting his aides, but it was Sadr's fault.

Filkins then quotes a Najaf businessman who says, "Moktada al-Sadr is the enemy. . . . I am happy that the Americans pushed him out of my neighborhood." But the Americans didn't push Sadr out: they pushed him into Najaf by harrassing and provoking him, and it was Sistani who got him out, after the Americans had destroyed much of the old city.

Indeed, the relentless military assault that unfolded here last week could not possibly have been carried out if Mr. Sadr were as large and popular a figure as he sometimes seems to be. In all likelihood, the American operation to expel the Mahdi Army from the shrine could never have gone forward without the sanction of some very powerful Iraqi leaders -- including Ayatollah Sistani himself.

The destruction caused by the fighting certainly approached the level of damage wrought during the American assault on Falluja last April . . . In Falluja, amid reports that hundreds of Iraqis had been killed, an outcry among Iraqi political leaders caused the Americans to halt. But here in Najaf, where dozens and perhaps hundreds of Mahdi Army fighters were killed and much of the old city was reduced to ruins, no similar outcry came forth.

This both ignores the fact that there were Iraqi political leaders who sharply criticized Allawi and the Americans for the siege of Najaf. It also imputes that Sistani supported the U.S. operation, and goes on to weave a web of innuendo:

With Ayatollah Sistani's men now in control of the shrine, it seems clear that he played a central role in getting Mr. Sadr's men out. The timing of Ayatollah Sistani's comings and goings are fascinating on their own. On Aug. 6, the day after the fighting started in Najaf, he departed for London, with the expressed purpose of getting heart surgery. On Thursday, nearly three weeks later and after receiving coronary care, he returned at the decisive moment: after the Americans had done the hard fighting, and just as Mr. Sadr's fighters had begun to falter.

On the same day, Ayatollah Sistani met with representatives of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, and agreed with them to seek a 24-hour cease-fire, according to senior American military officials. Then came the crucial decision: If Mr. Sadr did not back down, American officials said, Ayatollah Sistani assured them that he would support a storming of the shrine by Iraqi troops.

"There was a lot of thought that he had left the country originally to give us a chance to take control of the situation," an American military officer said of Ayatollah Sistani. "Now he is coming back to help us find a solution, possibly a peaceful result. But the end result is, he wants us to help disband the Mahdi Army."

One problem with this theory is: if Sistani was using the Americans to destroy Sadr and the Mahdi Army, why did he return to Iraq just when the U.S. was on the verge of storming the shrine? Why not just wait a few more days, let the Americans take out Sadr, and keep his hands relatively clean? Or if Sistani was doing the Americans bidding in coming back, why did the Americans keep shooting and bombing until Sistani arrived? Maybe Sistani had a change of heart. Or maybe his absence was the medical emergency he claimed it to be, and it was the U.S. who took advantage to try to settle their own score with Sadr -- destroying a big chunk of Najaf along the way.

Throughout the entire crisis we have been fed lines like the above, claiming that the people of Najaf hate Sadr, that Sistani hates Sadr, and that the Americans are only doing everyone a favor in moving in to put down the insurrection that Sadr started. It seems much more likely to me that Sistani is on his own side, and that his deference to the U.S. is every bit as tactical as was his deference to Saddam Hussein. Sistani's gamble is that the ballot, not the bullet, will set Iraq free. It also seems likely that Sadr knows that he's winning politically as long as he don't get destroyed militarily, which makes for a marriage of convenience with Sistani. But then American journalists don't seem to be able to get their minds around the most basic fact in Iraq, which is that the Americans are the problem, and not the solution to anything.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Music: Initial count 9555 rated (+25), 1109 unrated (+10). Turned in a Recycled Goods, pending edit. Jazz CG has been in over a week, still pending edit. Spent some time writing Notes on Everyday Life this week, after negelcting it. Also took an initial shot at some 2004 records, which actually seem to be accumulating nicely (at last), although my own list is inevitably skewed toward jazz. It's hard to get started on new columns until the old ones are edited. I have about 80% of the next Recycled Goods already done, and about 40% of the next Jazz Consumer Guide, but both have huge backlogs, and the old old backlog almost never gets touched.

  • Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (1998, Coolsville/Capitol). AMG sez file this under rock, but it sounds like jazz, and like it's supposed to sound like jazz, even if one has doubts about the process. Pop jazz, of course, goes back to the early days of jazz, but retro only becomes possible once the past is past. BS&T and Chicago weren't really far enough removed from their referents to be retro, but these guys, Royal Crown Revue, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, etc., are. But it's a tricky thing to do, especially with the race traps not fully buried in the past. Kid Creole is smart about that; so is Sex Mob, but I have some doubts about these guys, especially when they slum out "Minnie the Moocher." On the other hand, "Mambo Swing" is pretty enjoyable. "So Long Farewell Goodbye" is a slight concept, corny in its execution, but the touches of N.O. polyphony and boogie piano liven it up. The whole album is over the top, so maybe irony lurks somewhere. Hard to say. B
  • Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Mosaic (1961 [1987], Blue Note). One of the most classic Messengers lineups, with Freddie Hubbard replacing Lee Morgan opposite Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller added on trombone, and Cedar Walton on piano. A-
  • The Carla Bley Band: Musique Mechanique (1978 [1979], Watt). The title piece here is broken into three movements, each marked by a striking mechanicalism in the movement: the rhythm lurches in small, sharp locksteps, while there is much huffing and puffing -- notably from the lower reaches of the bass section, especially Bob Stewart's tuba. Roswell Rudd sings during the middle movement, with a similar mechanical thrust. And Karen Mantler's glockenspiel adds something to the final movement. The two other pieces are less distinctive, and less obviously humorous, and for that matter less obviously interesting. B
  • Blondie: The Curse of Blondie (2003 [2004], Sanctuary). The second album of their regrouped career, not rushed after 1999's No Exit. Most of the songs are engaging, clever, substantial; however, in a pop band what one looks for are hits, pristine gems, and maybe the occasional novelty. Don't hear any of those here. B
  • Don Cherry: "Mu" First Part/"Mu" Second Part (1969 [2001], Fuel 2000). Duets with Ed Blackwell, varied as Cherry switches from pocket trumpet to piano and various flutes. A-
  • June Christy: Something Cool (1953-55 [1991], Capitol Jazz). She was one of the main jazz singers of the '50s. She started with Stan Kenton's huge band, and did notable work for Pete Rugolo (collected here). She had a well-rounded voice which makes a strong impression without bowling you over or seeming particularly coy or sexy or whatever -- she suggets seriousness and skillfulness and maturity. The original Something Cool album has subsequently been reissued in a "Complete Mono and Stereo" package, garnering a crown from the Penguin Guide. This is an earlier reissue, which adds stray singles to the original 1953 album. A-
  • John Coltrane: Stellar Regions (1967 [1995], Impulse). One of Coltrane's last recordings, with Alice Coltrane (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Rashied Ali (drums). I've never been much of a fan of late Coltrane -- roughly everything from Ascension (1965) on, although I suspect that were I to go back and give it all a careful listen some worthwhile things would emerge. In particular, my opinion of Rashied Ali is now much higher than when I only knew him through his work with Coltrane. The Penguin Guide calls Interstellar Space, a duo with Ali, "the final masterpiece," then goes on to pan this. But it starts promisingly enough, with Coltrane and Ali practically in duet. It does wear a little thin along the way, and Alice Coltrane isn't a lot of help on piano. The Coltrane-Ali interplay is reportedly better elsewhere, so it's prudent not to credit it too highly here. B
  • Lou Donaldson: Midnight Creeper (1968 [2000], Blue Note). Donaldson has a reputation as one of Charlie Parker's copycats, but all I've ever heard from him is blues-based boogaloo. This short one (five cuts, only one over 7:44, no bonuses) is delightful, the best I've heard, no doubt because the group -- Blue Mitchell (trumpet), George Benson (guitar), Lonnie Smith (organ), Idris Muhammad (drums) -- stands up even when Donaldson lays back. Benson would be a revelation for anyone who hasn't heard him before he started aping Stevie Wonder. B+
  • Joe Ely: Down on the Drag (1979, MCA). Leads off with a great Butch Hancock song called "Fools Fall in Love," and fills out with a few more good ones, but not enough of them. B+
  • Joe Ely: Streets of Sin (2003, Rounder). He's been coming up with an album ever 3-4 years since 1992's Love and Danger. Haven't heard Twistin' in the Wind, but Letter to Laredo and this one sound real good. The key here is sound: he's running looser and leaner than he was in the '70s, but at least he's not trying to keep up the intensity of Honky Tonk Masquerade w/o the songs, as he was in its aftermath. Not that the songs are anything to gripe about. Still a major talent. A-
  • The Flatlanders: Wheels of Fortune (2004, New West). Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore have recorded brilliant alt-country albums since the mid-'70s. Ely is a very good singer, and Gilmore is a truly great one. Butch Hancock isn't much of a singer, but he wrote many of key songs on the other two's early albums. Back in 1972 they recorded an album together as the Flatlanders (they all hail from Lubbock, q.v.), which was rediscovered in 1990 and was pretty damn good. In 2002 they got back together and cut a second Flatlanders album, Now Again. This is the follow-up. (Ely has continued to record under his own name; haven't seen anything from Gilmore since a lovely covers album in 2000, One Endless Night.) Both albums sound good in small doses, but are ultimately pretty frustrating. You notice things like an old Gilmore song now sung by Ely in one of his standard tex-mex arrangements, while one of Ely's is sung by Gilmore. Hancock hasn't written great songs in ages, and he's pretty much a third wheel here; makes you wish they'd hung out more with Terry Allen. Play me something you like here, and I'll play you two things from their catalog that are a lot better. B
  • Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II (1937 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). How many ways can you slice up his slim output? He only recorded two days in 1937, and there's just not enough great songs there to sustain a Volume II. Put "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and "Love in Vain" and maybe "I'm a Steady Rollin' Man" and "Sweet Home Chicago" onto the already short Volume I and be done with it. That's sort of what happened with King of the Delta Blues Singers ([1997], Columbia/Legacy), which at 16 cuts is a tad short, but really none of the Johnson comps are very satisfactory -- especially not The Complete Recordings, which fixed the alternate takes right after the masters, even though there was virtually no variation. But bad as the packaging has been, the real problem is that Johnson was kind of one-dimensional. He had a high voice which grabbed your attention, he had a signature guitar trick that's been used a million times since, and he had a handful of songs that fed the legend -- "Cross Road Blues," "Terraplane Blues," "Hellhound on My Trail" -- but that's about it. He didn't have much rhythm, nor anything that you could call wit. He didn't come early enough to be a founder, and he didn't record enough to be a mainstay. If he hadn't been murdered while John Hammond was trying to line him up for that Carnegie Hall concert, would we really be so fixated on him? I'm not certain that the answer is no, but I have my doubts about yes. B+
  • Joachim Kühn/Mark Nauseef/Tony Newton/Miroslav Tadic: Let's Be Generous (1990, CMP). Fusion album, or at least that's the inevitable diagnosis given Tadic's electric guitar, Benton's electric bass, and Kühn's electric keyboards. Dense, probing, but a little on the thick side. Not a good place to get a feel for what Kühn can do on an acoustic piano. B+
  • Joachim Kühn/Daniel Humair/J.F. Jenny-Clark: Easy to Read (1985, Owl). Exceptionally fresh and exciting piano trio, with real contributions from bass and drums, as well as some of the most astute piano I've heard lately. All in an old record, on a defunct label. A-
  • The L.A. Carnival: Pose a Question (1969-71 [2003], Now-Again). From Omaha, not L.A.; formerly known as the Lester Smith Soul Band, led by drummer Lester, uh, Abrams, although some of these cuts had a singer named Leslie Smith. Yet another worthwhile excavation into the funk underground. B+
  • The Best of Ronnie Laws (1975-80 [1992], Blue Note). Laws mostly plays tenor sax. He has a nice tone and seems to know his shit, but he rarely plays in contexts -- most of what I've heard is crossover and/or latin -- that put his talents to good use. This is pulled from several early albums, and it's certainly not his best -- not even very good. He returned to Blue Note in 1996 for a tribute to Eddie Harris (seems like a good idea) and followed that up with something called Portrait of the Isley Brothers (harder to imagine that working out, but he's played with them). C+
  • Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians: The Band Played On (1927-50 [2001], ASV). One of the most famous big bands of the swing era, although only rarely considered to be a jazz band at all -- note, though, that Duke Ellington called him out on Recollections of the Big Band Era. While swing is in short supply here, this genteel pop is not without its charms. This comp claims "25 Number One Hits," but it came out after a previous ASV comp which is noted here to contain two more Number One hits. No idea who's counting, or how. The one song most identified with him, "Auld Lang Syne," is elsewhere. Typical here are pieces like "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "Harbour Lights" -- songs too good to carp about. B
  • Madvillain: Madvillainy (2004, Stones Throw). MC: Doom; Beats: Madlib. Some of these rhymes have an old school charm, particularly one about skinny legs and Joe Tex. The villains are harder to nail down, ambiguous figures, both victims and monsters. A couplet about suicide terrorists seems pretty matter of fact, like that's all there is to say, which may well be. Music flows. A-
  • Jim McNeely at Maybeck (Maybeck Recital Hall Series, Volume Twenty) (1992, Concord). Two originals, seven standards -- "Body and Soul," "All the Things You Are," Jobim, Powell, two Monks, Harry Warren -- each given immensely satisfying readings. Mostly strong in rhythm, two hands making full use of the keyboard. I usually find solo piano thin, arch, underdressed; no such complaints here. A-
  • Queen: A Night at the Opera (1975 [1991], Hollywood). Shortly after I wrote my "ELP Moves Up From Fascism" piece, Dave Marsh wrote a piece to argue that Queen were the real fascists. I never listened to a whole Queen album before I found this one in the local library, but based on their singles I always figured Marsh's reaction just confirmed (a) that he never understood the finer points that distinguish fascists from assholes, and (b) that he never had any sense of humor. Admittedly, I never laughed at "Bohemian Rhapsody" until I saw it featured in Wayne's World, but the humor in their singles has often been less subtle. This album just adds to the evidence: ELP would never have done a folk song like "'39," nor a stupid rave-up rockers like "Sweet Lady" (which sounds like a drunken Aerosmith parody, not that the world needs one). On the other hand, "The Prophet's Song" is some of the worst prog crap I've ever heard, and at 8:17 the longest thing here. "Bohemian Rhapsody" sucks, as usual. Closes with a decent remix of "You're My Best Friend." C+
  • The Roots: The Tipping Point (2004, Geffen). The opener based on a Sly sample seems a bit obvious, and the closing piece of scat threw me for a loop (although I'm not sure I won't get into it eventually), but everything else here seems sharp as can be. A-

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Movie: De-Lovely. A look back through Cole Porter's life, set up as a musical built around his songs, fleshed out with flashbacks. Has the look and feel of something originally set up for the stage. The life was good for a love story with Ashley Judd and a lot of affairs with various pretty boys. A telling moment comes when he dismisses being blackmailed over his homosexuality as "a luxury tax." While the life was interesting enough, such projects rise and fall over the songs. Longer on his love songs than a fair assessment of his oeuvre would suggest, most (but not all) staged in the context of musicals (which fits the staging of this as yet another musical revue), the presentations are surprisingly unattractive -- cf. Elvis Costello, who comes off even gawkier than he is. Lovely, wonderful even. A

Friday, August 27, 2004

The siege of Najaf has been one of the strangest episodes in the whole U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Now that Iraq has their "sovereign" government it is less clear than ever who is responsible for which policies, leaving us totally in the dark as to how and why such decisions are taken. In the early days of the siege I guessed that U.S. appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was working to muscle out his Shia opposition. However, the siege itself has clearly been under U.S. military control, and there are indications that regional U.S. Marine commanders, perhaps on their own, ignited the confrontation with Muqtada al-Sadr that led to the siege. Even if that was the case, the siege could not have been sustained -- three weeks now, which was as long as it took the U.S. to conquer the whole country a little over a year ago -- without the support of Allawi and the U.S. chain of command leading all the way up to the Commander in Chief. But why?

My best guess is that the U.S. chain of command is confused by the their own mischaracterization of Muqtada and, indeed, virtually everyone else in Iraq. The most distinctive thing about Muqtada is that he is the only visible political leader in Iraq who has militarily resisted the U.S. occupation, which in many U.S. minds makes him a symbol of the whole resistance. To military minds this makes him an irresistible target: kill him and decapitate the resistance; slaughter his militia and the resistance will lose its will to fight. So when Sistani departed for London, the U.S. saw its opportunity to smash Muqtada, and lunged for it. And when Muqtada's militia fought back, the U.S. labeled it an insurrection and felt obligated to put it down. And in attempting to put it down the U.S. employed staggering firepower, doing immense damage to the city of Najaf if not necessarily to the Imam Ali shrine.

Even now PR is trying to spin this into some sort of victory: that the U.S. welcomes Sistani's negotiation of the end of the insurrection and the return of the shrine and Najaf to "sovereign" Iraqi control. But one could spin it the other way and make at least as much sense out of the conflict: that Muqtada defended the shrine and the Holy City in Sistani's absence, and that the deal that Sistani cut on his return -- that Najaf and Kufa are to be demilitarized zones -- means that henceforth they are liberated Iraqi territory, free of American occupation. Which interpretation is right depends mostly on who the new Iraqi police in Najaf ultimately owe their allegiance to: Allawi or Sistani?

Presumably the truth will out, sooner or later. Meanwhile, the tally is roughly as follows: The U.S. has once again shown itself to be utterly contemptuous of Iraqi life. Allawi has shown himself to be a U.S. puppet. The Mahdi Army took a beating, but managed to hold on to the shrine until it could be returned not to the U.S. but to its proper religious authorities. Muqtada has enhanced his stature both by defying the U.S. and by aligning himself with Sistani. And Sistani gains most of all from having flexed a power that hitherto had been mostly speculative: he presented Allawi and the U.S. with a challenge that they couldn't refuse, and he demonstrated to the Iraqis that he backed the U.S. down without recourse to violence.

The U.S. has left itself no wiggle room if democratic elections install a government that insists on the U.S. removing its occupying forces. The U.S. has managed thus far to forestall elections, both by procrastination and by provoking violence and chaos. But first in Fallujah and now in Najaf we see that the key to reducing violence is to cordon American forces away from Iraqi cities and let Iraqis manage for themselves. Faced with insurrection, the U.S. has only two losing choices: to slaughter Iraqis or to cede ground. In the long run the only way that the U.S. can save face is to permit the elections that they had cynically proposed in the first place, and that more than ever they are certain to lose. Sistani's triumph puts those elections more securely on course, and by doing so he offers a peaceful alternative both to the U.S. (who should be grateful for any sort of opportunity to exit gracefully) and to Iraqis (whose future begins only when the U.S. loses power).

When George W. Bush led the U.S. into Iraq, he offered a number of reasons which made little sense and have since been shown to be utterly falacious. There seems to be little doubt that Bush et al. had some other agenda in mind for Iraq. (Those agenda have mostly gone unstated, although there is some evidence for: permanent bases, especially directed at Iran and Syria; a mostly privatized economy dominated by multinational corporations; political control over a large chunk of the world's oil resources; effective demonstration that unilateral U.S. force works where international law doesn't.) The fortunate thing about leaving unworkable agendas unstated is that a future (i.e., Kerry) administration need not feel any obligation to pursue them, especially when face-saving peace through democracy is offered by Sistani.

One net effect of this is that U.S. provocation against Muqtada al-Sadr and the consequent siege of Najaf has virtually assured that Iraq will wind up under predominantly Islamist control -- as for that matter has Afghanistan, to the extent it can be said to be under any sort of control at all. This outcome will disappoint the small but vocal cadre of new liberal imperialists who heralded the Bush wars, but the fact is that their goals were bound to fail from the start. Bush has proven himself singularly incapable of promoting stability, democracy, peace and prosperity inside the U.S. It was folly if not downright disingenuousness for anyone to think that his administration could do so in Iraq or Afghanistan. The only things that Bush et al. seem to have any appreciation for are lies and the brute application of force. Their very use of force drives the people they attack to seek shelter in religion, because religion is the only organization deeply rooted enough that the U.S. dare not attack it directly.

It remains to be learned why the people who launched the siege did so. This is one of those classic "what could they have been thinking?" episodes, since there was never any real prospect that it could have worked -- the alternative scenarios are almost all worse than what did in fact happen. Recklessness of this sort has characterized U.S. foreign policy going back to the 1979 decision to fund anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan and to back Israel in Ariel Sharon's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Many problems, and much of the ill will that the U.S. faces throughout the world today, can be directly attributed to such wreckless acts.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

A remarkable letter appeared in the Wichita Eagle today, written by a Republican precinct committeewoman here in Wichita, someone named Elizabeth Rowe. This is a worthy addition to the whole Thomas Frank, What's the Matter With Kansas? debate. I quote in full:

The non-Republican lineup of speakers at the upcoming Republican National Convention is interesting considerng last week's Sedgwick County Republican Party leadership elections, where any precinct people not sworn to oppose all abortions were labeled "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only).

According to those local Republicans in charge of the campaign for the newly elected slate of officers, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Gov. George Pataki are not only RINOs but also unfit to serve in any office. The mindless, one-issue right-to-life robots come and vote as told, but are then quickly discarded and shoved aside as not suitable for mass public consumption.

The White House and President Bush, among others, pander to so-called "middle America," bashing Hollywood, the media elite, gays, pretty much anything in or from New York, abortion, any Kennedy, violent entertainment, former President Bill Clinton's sex life and whatever else they deem as not "pro-family." Meanwhile, the important, mundane bread-and-butter economic issues that really matter go ignored. Also ignored is the fact that Arnold, Hollywood's violent movie king, as a Kennedy wife and checkered past, though not as unseemly as Giuliani's, which could rival Clinton's and should be nobody's business.

What do our Sedgwick County Republican leaders say about these stars being trotted out so the real "middle" American voters -- independent voters, that is -- don't realize they're coming on board with far-right religious crusaders?

One thing is sure: They're 100 percent behind pro-life Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who supports Bush, and 100 percent against all of us Republicans who don't support their litmus test here in Wichita.

Evidently the Bush-wing Republicans are planning on putting on a big show about how moderate, sensible, and sensitive they really are, much like they did four years ago. Back then one could excuse a certain amount of naïveté, but the Bush administration's record-to-date leaves no room for doubt that this is a wrecklessly ideological group which has no qualms about using any lever of power it can handle to pursue policies which do tremendous damage to almost everyone in the nation (not to mention citizens of other nations unfortunate enough to get in our way). Moreover, they have shown themselves not just to be inveterate liars but to be absolutely shameless about it. So the real question we have to ask is why do honest Republicans -- some of whom actually do care a whit about the national welfare, personal liberties, and even world peace -- still support people like Bush.

The cynical answer is that they don't care a whit. They just do what they're told, and someone else pulls the strings. The story goes that way back in 1946 a bunch of young lawyers fresh back from WWII were recruited by local Republican organizers to run for congress -- at least that was the story with guys like Richard Nixon and Robert Dole, who came from modest background, sold their souls, and were set up for life. Since then the Republicans have been superb at recruiting POWs, astronauts, ballplayers, anyone with a celebrity edge. I don't know who does that or why, but the Republicans ability to systematically float viable candidates -- to find them and finance them and help them through the hoops and indemnify them against the risk of losing -- has been astonishing. Just look at the Republicans ability to field winning candidates in such unfavorable regions as the governorships of New York, California and Massachusetts, or Senators from Rhode Island and Maine, or the mayor of New York City. Admittedly, none of those people are Bush Republicans, yet here they are supporting Bush. What gives?

But then Kansas is so heavily Republican that the political muscle doesn't need to pull any punches: here the Republicans can insist on an anti-abortion litmus test that they don't bother with in CA or NY or MA. The effect of that kind of brutality should be that it ultimately drives reasonable people, like Ms. Rowe, out of the party. We've already seen examples of that in Kansas (like the Lt. Governor), but still the Democrats have so much trouble fielding candidates that extremist Bush wingers like Sam Brownback are certain to be re-elected, and that feeds the frenzy against Republicans like Ms. Rowe.

The most interesting thing about the whole recent swift boats flap was how none of the Bush-identified talking heads broke ranks over such a transparently cheap fabrication. The Republican "noise machine" is unflappable: faced with disaster after disaster, they never flinch. Similarly, the political machinery remains monolithically in place behind Bush -- even Sen. McCain has spent most of the last month washing Bush's feet. Whatever leash these people are on is snug tight, and Bush's people (whoever they really are) are in complete control. The last time I can think of where a party was run with such discipline was Stalin's Communist Party.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Book: Robert LeBow, M.D.: Health Care Meltdown: Confronting the Myths and Fixing Our Failing System (Alan C. Hood). That something is terribly wrong with the health care system in the U.S. should be obvious to anyone who lives here. Americans spend 50% more per capita for health care than those in the second most expensive country (Switzerland), yet the U.S. ranks near the bottom of any list of "first world" nations in many basic indices of performance. The most basic reason for the poor performance is that the health care system does a poor job of servicing the needs of the poor -- in fact the U.S. does a poor job of helping the poor in every respect.

One thing few recognize is that the high cost is a consequence of excluding the poor: by making good health care something that one has to pay more for, as opposed to something everyone expects as a right of citizenship, we have set up a system that business can scam. After all, basic pricing theory tells us that the optimum price for something (at least from the seller's point of view) is a price which excludes some number of buyers. In other words, until people start to walk away from a deal, you haven't priced it high enough. And since the cost of walking away from better health care is one's health, that price can go pretty high.

LeBow does a good job in this book of illustrating the human costs of having so many Americans uninsured or underinsured. That's not surprising, given that he has spent his whole professional career working for health clinics that cater to those least able to pay. He has plenty of stories and examples, and they form the core of this book. He also has the essential core of an idea about how to fix the problem: provide universal health care as a basic right, treating all Americans as "one risk pool"; i.e., a "single payer" health insurance plan, underwritten by taxes. LeBow spend much of the rest of the book going over "myths" -- mostly propaganda put out by the corporations and associations which make money off the present system, myths that are widely accepted and propagated.

The biggest problem with the book is that it doesn't go deep enough. While the crisis clearly hurts the uninsured and threatens even those who do have insurance with increasing deductibles and limits on service, I would like to have seen more systematic (and more quantitative) analysis. What are the resources? How many patients and how much demand do they pose? What is the cost of procedures, capital, etc., and how does that break down? While there is no doubt that private insurance companies are inefficient across the whole economy, it seems likely that the dimensions of the crisis are far greater than the possible savings from a switch to single payer. If so, it's important to know that. I don't doubt that the payer question is critical, but it isn't the only obstacle, and we need to understand the rest of the dimensions of the problem, and not just the crisis.

Secondly, I'd like to see an effort to flesh out the transition from the current system to something more viable. Hardly anybody who's pushing for "single payer" is also looking to deprivatize the provider network -- even though it's clear that companies have had a field day in scamming Medicare. But even if you leave the providers untouched (which is not to say unaffected), the simple transition from limited employer-based private insurance to tax-based universal coverage involves some non-trivial economic dislocations. We need to have some idea how to make that transition happen, without damaging the viability that still does exist in the health care system.

As I've said many times before, the key to changing the health care system isn't cost reduction: it's improvement. The remarkable growth of health care as a slice of GDP points out that, given a substantial degree of market opportunity, Americans have a hugely expansive appetite for medical services. We don't see anything comparable in other countries for the simple reason that they don't have the competitive opportunities for expanding the field of medical services that we have. In the U.S. that has driven us to tremendously expensive technology and procedures; while one may be able to nitpick here and there, the lesson is that there is a powerful underlying desire for more. Any effort to change how health care services are paid for and delivered must come to grips with this demand. And any effort to undercut the top end of the market demand -- the one segment where there is some truth to the claim that the U.S. has the "best" health care system in the world -- will be resisted. This is where LeBow's arguments run into trouble: too many Americans think like their rich, even though there's plenty of evidence to the contrary, and they are especially unconvinced by arguments about iniquities to the poor.

Of course they're living in a fantasy world: the fact is, and the Republicans aren't the sole cause of this but they're the worst, that virtually everyone in America is becoming poorer -- not just personally but also in terms of their share of an increasingly bankrupt government. The latter is immediately important for the poor, who depend on government for whatever safety net there is, but the trend is both to rend the safety net while throwing more people at it. But that's only the simplest, most obvious point. A full survey of the health care crisis will point out many more, and a full survey of the shift of power from public to private sector, and from poor to rich within the private sector, will show us much more. In this context, what LeBow sees and argues for is just the most obvious beginning.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Music: Initial count 9530 rated (+33), 1099 unrated (-5). Jazz CG has been filed but not edited. Working on Recycled Goods. The backlogs on both are huge, and I'm starting to go stir-crazy over it. Rated counts for last four weeks were {33, 44, 34, 33}, which is too much. Unrated count dropped 41 during that period, but at that rate I'm still looking at 26 month of the same to catch up.

  • The Essential Louis Armstrong (1925-67 [2004], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). Scott Yanow panned Legacy's previous Armstrong compilation, the 4CD Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, arguing that anyone who inadvertently purchased the box would be throwing their money away, because they'd wind up wanting to buy all of the source discs that it was selected from. That's a pretty hardcore argument. Even if one were to concede that there's nothing that should be missed on Columbia's 7CD early Armstrong series -- which is truer than you can imagine -- the box did a brilliant job sorting out Armstrong's more marginal period work with King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and scads of blues singers (collected on 6CD by Affinity). However, limiting Armstrong to two CDs, covering the same early period plus another thirty-some years, will definitely leave you wanting more. We can argue about omissions, but it's hard to begrudge anything that was selected. Notably, Legacy reached out to UMG for the 1936 "Shadrack" and the 1967 "What a Wonderful World," and to BMG for the 1947 "Rockin' Chair," filling in holes in Columbia's own catalog. A nice gift for the young person you know who don't know squat. Get The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (4CD, on Columbia/Legacy, or cheaper on JSP) and The California Concerts (4CD, on Decca) for yourself. And don't expect to be satiated. Yanow was being foolish, but not stupid. A
  • Black Power: Music of a Revolution (1968-79 [2004], Shout Factory, 2CD). The success and failure of the civil rights revolution in the '60s -- the one where civil rights came inexorably after long struggle while the failure of revolution left one with an empty pro forma feeling of plus ça change, plus c'est le même chose -- jolted black music from the timeless verities to face the challenges of an uncertain future. Black pride was in, but black power was harder to quantify -- at least outside of "Chocolate City" (where "the last percentage count is 80"). Jonathan Fine frames this trawl through the post-'68 decade with snatches of political speech -- Malcolm X, Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Kathleen Cleaver -- imparting a thematic unity that isn't quite born out by the music. Violence may still be as American as cherry pie, but that doesn't make it an effective tool for challenging American injustice. But the music did mark a new and distinct chapter in the struggle to survive. Unfortunately it seems more relevant than ever, and not just for blacks. A
  • Shave 'Em Dry: The Best of Lucille Bogan (1933-35 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). The "classic female blues" singers of the '20s were a tough bunch, but none more so than Lucille Bogan. Nor more brazen: her double entendres rarely got slier than an invitation to shop at her Piggly Wiggly, and there was no double at all to the jaw droppingly explicit porn on the the unissued versions of "Shave 'Em Dry" and "Till the Cows Come Home." A-
  • Chicago Soul (1963-69 [2004], Soul Jazz). The heyday of Chess Records was in the late '50s, when Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley added rock and roll to Chess' dominant position in Chicago blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, many lesser artists). In the '60s they differentiate into soul, funk, and jazz, with mixed results. Credit Soul Jazz with compiling a fascinating, utterly listenable compilation from a period when they were flying apart: although there are "names" here, the only cuts you're likely to have heard are two Etta James blasts. Still, this is just one slice of Chicago soul in the '60s, and hardly the most important one. For that, cf. Curtis Mayfield. A-
  • The Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South (2004, New West). An even better political tirade than anything on Steve Earle's album is "Puttin' People on the Moon." But damn near every song here is as strong. Don't have time to sort them all out, but if I did I'd expect this to be graded up a notch. They're probably the best band working in America today, working at roughly the same level as Pavement or Sonic Youth or Husker Du were at their peaks, and they may be better than that -- I shit you not. A-
  • Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts . . . Now (2004, E-Squared/Artemis). He works too quick to make great albums, and this one is short even compared to its predecessors. But "Rich Man's War" is true, even if "Condi Condi" is a stretch, and "F to CC" is inspirational Bronx Cheer that cuts right through the media mindfog. The revolution's gotta start somewhere. A-
  • Extra Yard: The Bouncement Revolution (2002, Big Dada). UK label comp. I have it listed under techno, but it's more hip hop than anything else, albeit Brit (Jamaican) hip hop. Big name: Roots Manuva. Pretty reliable straight through -- the raps are clipped dub-style, of course, but the beats are too straight for ragga. A-
  • The Best of John Fahey 1959-1977 ([2002], Takoma). I remember having this on LP, which must have been shorter than the CD reissue. This adds three cuts, the long "America" (7:40), the much longer "Fare Forward Voyagers" (23:35), and "Desperate Man Blues (3:59). I'm not sure that the extra cuts add a lot -- the longest piece does amble around a bit, although "Desperate Man Blues" does belong. The short pieces I find clean, coherent, irresistible: he doesn't fit any mold or genre. Note that 8 of 17 cuts are also on Rhino's 2CD, Return of the Repressed. A-
  • The Best of John Fahey, Vol. 2 1964-1983 ([2004], Takoma). Three of 15 cuts here are also on Rhino's 2CD Return of the Repressed. More solo guitar, as riveting as the first volume -- maybe more so. These two compilations also sent me back to the Rhino, which I had underrated at B+, and wound up keeping that way. When the Rhino compilation came out it was a pretty good general overview of Fahey's work, but now that the Reprise albums are back in print they stand so well on their own that Rhino's few cuts are redundant, while Takoma's best-ofs do a better job of selecting from Fahey's solo work. Don't know about his work on Vanguard, or the scraps that have been showing up on Table of the Elements and Revenant (his newer label after having sold Takoma to Fantasy). A-
  • John Fahey and His Orchestra: Of Rivers and Religion (1972 [2001], Collectors' Choice). Fahey was an antiquarian but hardly a folk artist. He spent most of his life recording solo guitar albums on his own Takoma label -- that singularity seemed to suit him. He liked the sharp metallic sound of Charley Patton but he was less interested in Patton's intensity. Much of Fahey's work has a laconic dolefulness that he could snap with a single stinging note. He was intriguing enough that bigger labels flirted with him -- Vanguard in the late '60s, Reprise in 1972-73. This is the first of two Reprise albums, both recorded with "his orchestra": a second guitar, banjo, mandolin, some horns which give "Lord Have Mercy" a dixieland feel. But topically this is the lighter, more pleasing alternative to his Blind Joe Death schtick: rivers and religion seems like his thing, and he fits his originals seamlessly with the tradition. A
  • John Fahey and His Orchestra: After the Ball (1973 [2001], Collectors' Choice). The second of two Reprise albums, with more role for the orchestra, who sound more dixieland than before; especially striking for the way his guitar weaves in and stands out in the trad jazz setting. A
  • Tom Herman: Wait for It (2004, Return to Sender). A first solo album by the veteran Pere Ubu guitarist. Aside from an affecting vocal on Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Jesus" to close, most of the interest here is in the guitar. With few exceptions, Herman played everything here, so much of the instrumentation is unexplained. The most impressive pieces juxtapose horns (saxophone?) against rhythm guitar lines ("Your Street," "It's Not the Way It Seems," the latter to a somewhat Ubu-like effect). B+
  • The Essential Isley Brothers (1959-96 [2004], Epic/Legacy, 2CD). Only four cuts here predate T-Neck: "Shout" (1959, big hit), "Twist and Shout" (1962, another hit), "Move Over and Let Me Dance" (1965, Jimi Hendrix plays on this one), "This Old Heart of Mine" (1966, great Motown hit). Only two came out after their last great hit, 1985's "Caravan of Love," and you can keep 'em. There's no doubting that the '70s were their heyday, but the concentration also reflects what's most cost-effective for Legacy to license. Still, Buddah's old 1976 best-of framed their minor work better, and Rhino's early comp redeemed what was outstanding before they launched T-Neck. This one depends more on groove -- eleven songs here are labeled "Parts 1 & 2," and none go on too long. But that's just one facet of their work; what's missing here are the idiosyncrasies which make their inconsistent albums memorable. Two previous 3CD comps hold up at least as well, with Rhino's probably the better. A-
  • The Isley Brothers: Shout: The RCA Sessions (1959-60 [1966], RCA). Their great early hit was "Shout," and the best of their early work is nearly identical: "Tell Me Who," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "Respectable." So they pump that riff for all it's worth, but they're so full of energy that they can shake the earth with songs so improbable as "St. Louis Blues" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." B+
  • Keith Jarrett: The Melody at Night, With You (1999, ECM). Solo piano, worked through at deliberate speed -- unlike, e.g., his most famous solo work, The Köln Concert. Delicate, lovely, fascinating. B+
  • Antonio Carlos Jobim and the New Band: Passarim (1986-87, Verve). The genial Brazilian melodies go down easy enough, but the strings and voluminous backing vocals make this more complex than seems necessary or appropriate. I'm just poking around in his catalog as opportunity presents. B
  • Nellie McKay: Get Away From Me (2004, Columbia, 2CD). What marks these as show songs -- admittedly to a show that I can't imagine, and would rather not even try -- is that they provide voices for characters other than the auteur. But they're also show songs because they don't work out of any particular tradition other than convenience -- they loot and plunder any any musical strain which seems likely to work. There's the anti-feminist "I Wanna Get Married" and the feminist (or more technically, anti-masculinist) "It's a Pose"; there's a reference to bombing Iraq in "Toto Dies"; there's one where she decries the horrors of everyday news and proclaims that all she wants is "Inner Peace"; there's the one where her cat dies, and the one where all she wants to do is walk her dog. I don't understand any of them, and I'm not sure that I want to. Comparisons to Randy Newman fall down because you can usually figure out when Newman's pulling your leg. She's not old enough to drink legally, but she's already got a "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content" sticker; I don't know why, but I bet she's proud of it. B+
  • Isaiah Owens: You Without Sin Cast the First Stone (1998-2001 [2004], CaseQuarter). Gospel sung so raw it hurts, accompanied by electric guitar so dissonant it hurts, all meant to save your sorry ass from hell? I say, hell can wait till you die. C+
  • Courtney Pine: Journey to the Urge Within (1986, Antilles). Black English saxophonist, has a background in reggae and funk bands, digs John Coltrane, and seems to straddle the great divide between crossover jazz and more purist mainstream approaches. This has some conventionally modern blowing, but also includes something like "Children of the Ghetto," a vocal featuring Susaye Greene backed by not-too-slick urban funk -- a respectable effort at what jazz-soul fusion can sound like and stay interesting. Another vocal is a scat matching up against rather minimal bass clarinet -- less successful. Some interesting experiments. B
  • The Postal Service: Give Up (2003, Sub Pop). Light touch. Some pretty good songs. The guest women help. A-
  • Come See Me: The Very Best of the Pretty Things (1964-74 [2004], Shout Factory). Remembered mostly as the scuzzier alternative to the Rolling Stones, but the more you listen to their later psychedelia the more obvious it becomes that they were just the less talented forebears of the Who. Not that they really were all that scuzzy: their early singles on Fontana were perfectly respectable rock and roll. But when the Beatles and Stones went prog, they felt the obligation to follow, creating aural collages like "Defecting Grey" and the preposterous concept album S.F. Sorrow -- four cuts are included here. This skips their Motown Parachute, returning with a cut from Freeway Madness and two from Silk Torpedo. B
  • The Rolling Stones: Singles 1965-1967 ([2004], Abkco, 11 CD). Back in 1989 Abkco released Singles Collection: The London Years, 3CD which covered back and front of every Stones single from 1963 to 1969. This year's (projected) three box sets cover the same ground with very minor adjustments, the big difference being packaging and price. The problem with Singles Collection was that it didn't flow except through the prism of history. These boxes fix that by making flow impossible: each two-sided single makes for a 5-6 minute CD. What you get for the extra money is packaging: sleeves matching the original 45s, a nice booklet with more pictures of memorabilia. As for the music, it starts with their breakthrough hit "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," where they finally broke out of the British Invasion pack, and works through Their Satanic Majesties Request -- the dead end of the Brian Jones era, or the cusp of their legitimate claim to be "the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band." Single by single (and the mid-'60s were still an era of singles), they moved to tackle more complex subjects with more sophisticated song forms and production, paralleling while still laughing at their great rivals -- the Beach Boys as well as the Beatles. The see-sawing from A- to B-side reminds you that their hits were rarefied accomplishments. Still, the B-sides hold up fine, which they should, given that every one of the seven albums they released from 1965-67 is worth owning whole. A-
  • Roots Manuva: Run Come Save Me (2001, Big Dada). British rapper, at his best on Extra Yard. Half of this makes me think he deserves a higher evaluation; the other half doesn't. B+
  • Byther Smith: Hold That Train (1981 [2004], Delmark). Born in Mississippi in 1933, made the trip to Chicago in the mid-'50s, following his cousin J.B. Lenoir. According to AMG, his album releases didn't begin until 1983, but this one was cut in 1981. He plays guitar and sings. His "300 Pounds of Joy" seems perfectly squared: done fast and taut, none of Hubert Sumlin's fancy blues-soaked guitar, none of Howlin' Wolf's vocal authority (Willie Dixon wrote the song, but Wolf made you think it was his). "So Unhappy" is a slower blues, but Smith takes it like a pro, not stretching it out like a ham. Everything here he plays like a pro: tight, no stretching out, no wah wah, no crying in his beer. B+
  • Roosevelt Sykes: Chicago Boogie (1950-63 [2004], Delmark). Three sessions: a) with drums, from 1950; b) with tenor sax (J.T. Brown), bass and drums, from 1951; c) solo or with St. Louis Jimmy singing, from 1963. Old-time piano blues guy -- his recordings go back to 1929. He moved from St. Louis to Chicago in the late '40s, finding a home for his upbeat boogie. Here he walks his fingers through a passel of boogie and blues, then hops on his "Kickin' Motor Scooter." The latter is a hilarious takeoff on "The Dirty Dozens" or whatever the source of all that is. B+
  • Matt Wilson: Going Once, Going Twice (1998, Palmetto). Quartet with two saxophonists (Andrew D'Angelo, Joel Frahm), bass and drums. Lee Konitz joins in on two cuts, which of course is a treat. Title song includes some auctioneer chat from Ned Sublette, plus Pete McCann on banjo. There are a lot of nifty things here. The opener, "Searchlight," gets an almost oriental thing out of the two reeds. D'Angelo's "Andrew's Ditty" is a bright, energetic, rocking showcase for the two saxophones. "Schoolboy Thug" rocks even harder, and rams the point home with a rap. A short, closing "Turn Turn Turn" is lovely and refreshing. A-

Thursday, August 19, 2004

The news tonight was dominated by allegations that Kerry had faked his Vietnam War record -- that he didn't deserve his Bronze and Silver Stars, and that his Purple Heart wounds were self-inflicted. The people who made those allegations have evidently been bought and paid for by the usual Vast Rightwing Conspiracy donors. It is typical of the news media that they trumpet such charges and only ask questions later. When they figure it out, of course, it will be buried deep where only their lawyers can find it.

It's tempting to argue that this is at least partly Kerry's fault for making his Vietnam sojourn out to be some kind of heroism, but two mitigating points need to be made. The first is that the same Rightwing made Vietnam service out to be some sort of character test in their persecution of that famous draft dodger, Bill Clinton, and if they hadn't gotten away with that the Democrats would have been far less tempted to select a bulletproof candidate this time. The second is that if it weren't this it'd be something else. We seem to have hit the point where Bush's backers are trotting out all the lies that money can buy -- and they sure got a shitload of money.

It looks like the Bush campaign from here on out is going to be nothing but lies and slander and terrorism. They're trying to work their own base into a frenzy of paranoia, and they're trying to swamp the media with ruses to crowd out any serious evaluation of Bush, his record, and the real issues. Already we've seen a series of terrorism alerts where they try to spook us with little more than leaks and innuendos. We've even seen a flare-up in Iraq hard on the heels of the latest economic debacle -- is this an indication of how desperate they are to change the subject?

The election is still more than two months away. I seriously doubt that anything much is going to change between now and then, but as their policies continue to sink in their own quicksand, we can expect the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy to become ever shriller and ever more desperate. All a straight-thinking person can do from here on out is to batten down the hatches and stay the course.


A side point here: While the Vietnam War was going on, it was much commented on how profligate the U.S. military was with medals. I don't know what the raw statistics are, but it was a commonplace that medals were given out as morale boosters, and there was a lot of morale that needed boosting. Until these attacks on Kerry, nobody has ever gone back and nitpicked at those medals. One possible effect of the attacks on Kerry is that they threatens to impugn everyone's medals. And beyond the medals there is the whole notion of heroism -- a notion that is bandied about so freely these days that it hardly means anything.

One of the evening news shows has a daily segment called "Fallen Heroes" -- all someone has to do to get into that show is be a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. By that logic I've known several Vietnam War heroes: my nextdoor neighbor, drafted, marched through the jungle, where he sat down on a mine; a cousin, killed inside a tank when his own gun accidentally discharged (the official story; some people suspect he was fragged). It is said that these people made the supreme sacrifice for their country, but the plain fact is that the country wasted their lives for no good purpose. So I couldn't care less if Kerry did or didn't do anything conventionally heroic in Vietnam. The real heroes from that war were the ones who opposed it, as Kerry himself dramatized when he threw away his medals or ribbons or whatever they were.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Music: Initial count 9497 rated (+34), 1104 unrated (-4). Didn't quite get the Jazz CG turned in last week, but close now, should definitely get it in this week. After which, back to Recycled Goods.

  • The Ray Anderson Quartet: Bonemeal (2000, Raybone). Subtitle: Live at Paula Jean's Supper Club. It doesn't seem like we've heard much from Anderson lately, so this little bon bon thrown out on his own label is welcome. He remains the great trombone player of our age -- like Roswell Rudd, he understands that the instrument was meant to have fun with, and like J.J. Johnson he can play anything he wants on it. Steve Salerno adds some nice guitar fills. Mark Helias and Matt Wilson are pros. And Anderson sings: his "Microwave Woman," with its exaggerated blues jive, is almost a caricature of his own expansive style. B+
  • The Animals: Retrospective (1964-70 [2004], Abkco). The Beatles and the Rolling Stones turned out smart covers of American R&B in their early years, but England's great cover band was the Animals. For proof you'll have to dig up The Complete Animals (EMI import, 2CD), one of the rare cases where completism drives home the genius of the hits. Keyboardist Alan Price and guitarist Hilton Valentine often found ways to add something to classic material -- cf. their breakthrough hit, "House of the Rising Sun" -- and Eric Burdon brought a dark, dank, surliness to everything he sung. However, this comp has other priorities: to survey their hits, following Burdon into his not-quite-solo career, through "When I Was Young" and "San Franciscan Nights" and "Sky Pilot" -- more effect than substance, but still worth having. When I was young no song meant more to me than "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." A-
  • Whiskey Is My Habit, Cool Women Is All I Crave: The Best of Leroy Carr (1928-35 [2004], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). Dead of acute alcoholism (nephritis) at age 30, Carr's "I'd rather be sloppy drunk" songs aren't much more fun than the one where he swears he'll kill his cheatin' wife then throw himself at the mercy of the judge, hoping he'll just do time with his misery rather than fry in the electric chair. But since when were the blues meant to be fun? In his brief limelight, Carr recorded over 100 songs -- mostly with virtuoso guitarist Scrapper Blackwell. Carr played fine barrelhouse piano, sang in a voice midway between hokum songsters like Tampa Red who fit his style and darker delta bluesmen like Kokomo Arnold who were closer to his soul. Most of these songs have noticeable surface noise, which also dogs the few European comps of his work. A-
  • Stan Getz: West Coast Jazz (1955 [1999], Verve). Nothing new here, although the ordering of the extra tracks is a bit more attractive than on East of the Sun: The West Coast Sessions -- a 3CD set that came out a couple of years before this repackaging. Getz cut four LPs from 1955-57 with Lou Levy (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (bass), Shelly Manne (drums), most with Conte Candioli (trumpet), and the music throughout is superb -- not really cool, more like what bebop might be once bebop turns into real music. And this is as real as it ever got. A
  • Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho: Capoeira Angola From Salvador, Brazil (1996, Smithsonian/Folkways). Primitivist African music from Brazil: hand drums, chants. Musically this seems to have less in common with contemporary Brazilian or African music than it does with similar African relicts in the Caribbean, like Nyahbinghi and Lukumi. Like those, this has a strong religious bearing. Long with 39 separate pieces, although they do tend to run together. The Grupo goes back to 1980. Presumably this was newly recorded for this album, but the music feels and sounds ancient. B+
  • Herman's Hermits: Retrospective (1964-69 [2004], Abkco). They scored six top-ten U.S. hits in 1965, second best among British Invasion bands after the Beatles, but they get little respect and it's not hard to see why. They were fronted by a child actor, still 16 when he sang their first hit, a Goffin-King song. They never wrote their own songs and they rarely played their own instruments, which left them without much claim to their own sound or persona. Their two #1 hits were recorded as jokes and came off as novelties -- "I'm Henry VIII, I Am" was an old music hall ditty penned in 1911. They faded fast as similarly contrived bands like the Byrds and the Monkees restored the balance of trade, and played out their string as sort of a second-rate Hollies -- which on "This Door Swings Both Ways" (wish it was a double entendre, but I doubt it) was still pretty good. A tighter compilation would be better listening, but only the last two cuts really fall off. Wish they had known more about skiffle, in which case they would have anticipated the Lovin' Spoonful. But producer Mickie Most seems to have specialized in soul music and money, and the former was wasted here. A-
  • The Essential Mahalia Jackson (1955-67 [2004], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). With a booming voice that commanded attention, she was the prototype, the very idea of a great gospel singer; but couldn't the Lord, or at least John Hammond, have provided her with better songs? This runs heavy with live performances, tackles the unsingable "Lord's Prayer," goes secular (I guess) for "There Is a Balm in Gilead," slogs through "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Calvary," etc. I can't complain about "Down by the Riverside," but that's here too. B+
  • Antonio Carlos Jobim: Wave (1967, A&M). Jobim was perhaps the key songwriter behind Brazil's bossa nova assault on the US market, but this was one of the first major efforts to introduce him as a performer. Produced by Creed Taylor, with a big string section and battery of flutes and piccolo arranged by Claus Ogerman, the record is nonetheless distinguished by its simplicity and elegance. Jobim's own guitar is featured strongly, and that's what sticks with you, as the masses and multitudes fade into the woodwork. One might fault it for being too polite, and I might reshuffle my evaluation when/if I become more familiar with his enormous (and thus far by me unsampled) oeuvre. But for now this seems to be a fine introduction. A-
  • George Jones: Jones by George! (1965-71 [2003], Proper, 2CD). Two CDs, 40 cuts total, few longer than 2:30, so this isn't what you'd call packed. The booklet provides a good biographical survey, but no discographical details. So the first task her is to figure out where these songs come from. 18 of the 40 show up on George Jones' singles list, ranging from 1959 ("White Lightning" on Mercury) to 1972 ("White Lightning" on RCA). However, he recut his hits several times, so there's no guarantee that these are the originals. The breakdown by labels (counting "White Lightning" and "Tender Years" twice) is: United Artists 7, Musicor 7, Mercury 4, RCA 3. The United Artists period was 1962-66; the Musicor period was 1965-71. Both United Artists and Musicor released lots of Jones albums (20 United Artists, 41 Musicor). I think we can eliminate Mercury and RCA, and I'm tempted to pass on UA as well: fine print in the booklet notes that everything here was licensed from Henry Hadaway Organisation Ltd., so that's presumably just one source, and in the 280 cuts that Pappy Daily had Jones record for musicor there's plenty of material to pick from. Also, many of the song credits go to Leon Payne, whose songbook was a staple of Jones' at Musicor. Problem is that much of it isn't very good. A more honest compilation would have started from the facts of the period: this was by far the weakest period in Jones' discography, but it's not like he didn't do anything worthwhile, and in any case he's such a great figure in country music that even his worst holds some interest. I don't doubt that a Bear Family treatment would be painful (not to mention that it would cost $300 for the experience), but 40 songs out of 280 should be worthwhile. I'm not sure that these 40 are the ones, but then I'm not sure that they're not, either. B
  • Tom Jones: Reloaded: Greatest Hits (1965-2003 [2003], Decca/UTV). The pantie panderer tackles hits by Eddie Fisher, Paul Anka, Porter Wagoner, Randy Newman, Prince, and Talking Heads. He collaborates with Van Morrison, Art of Noise, Portishead and Wyclef Jean, and more than holds his own -- he even makes Van work. He takes his two big 1965 hits, the brilliant big band "It's Not Unusual" and the silly David-Bacharach "What's New Pussycat?" and sandwiches them around one from 1999 called "Sexbomb." He's never met a hit that was beneath him, and he's never found a song he couldn't oversing, but how could he possibly string a career-spanning comp together without it separating into so many novelties? Well, for one thing this is a testament to the all-encompassing breadth of hip hop. But the main reason is probably the same one he would have offered in 1965: balls. A-
  • David Krakauer: A Hot New One (2000 [2001], Label Bleu). This is red hot klezmer, with few exceptions the most sustained up I've heard in the genre. Krakauer plays clarinet -- the sole horn here along with guitar, accordion, bass, and drums -- and he's almost constantly on mike. And the "trad." pieces are the hottest. I'm thrilled, except for "Love Song for Lemberg/Lvov," which oscillates between a ballad that could have proven a worthy exception and a nasty piece of noise -- very annoying. B+
  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Raise Your Spirit Higher (Wenyukela) (2003 [2004], Heads Up). Thirty-plus years, who knows how many albums? They all sound alike, yet each one surprises you with the delicacy and intricacy of their vocal interplay. The English songs toward the end hold up pretty well, too. B+
  • Andy Laster's Lessness: Window Silver Bright (2002, New World). This is a rather abstract piece of low-key avantism, built around paradoxes and puzzles that don't offer much in the way of easy explication. Cuong Vu's trumpet and Bryan Carrott's vibes sound especially bright against Laster's baritone sax, and Erik Friedlander's cello is an interesting alternative to bass. B+
  • The Essential Johnny Mathis (1956-2000 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). He was as pure a crooner as anyone ever, but only his early hits -- "Fly Me to the Moon," "It's Not for Me to Say," "Wonderful! Wonderful!," "Chances Are," "The Twelfth of Never," "Wild Is the Wind," "Misty," "What Will Mary Says" -- were beyond category. From 1960 on he was nothing but category, a sublime voice for a vainglorious but tired genre. Shorter comps, focused on 1956-58, are better, but none are short and focused enough. This is, after all, for fans who love his voice, which never failed him, even though few of his later songs were worthy of it -- "Unbreak My Heart" (1998) is a marvelous exception. B
  • Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath: Travelling Somewhere (1973 [2001], Cuneiform). Recorded in Bremen with a large group -- twelve musicians, mostly South Africans but with exceptions like Evan Parker (tenor sax) and Mike Osborne (alto sax). A-
  • Hal Russell's Chemical Feast: Elixir (1979 [2001], Atavistic). Russell was the odd man out of Chicago's avant-garde. He was already 53 when this live tape was recorded, and this is evidently the earlier item in his discography. He started recording albums as the NRG Ensemble in 1981. After his death in 1992 the group carried on for a couple of albums, replacing Russell with Ken Vandermark. Russell's sidekick during this period was Mars Williams, who's dabbled in rock groups (Psychedelic Furs) and acid jazz (Liquid Soul) as well as more avant concerns (NRG, the Vandermark Five, Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet). Two things worth noting here: one is the sound is crystal clear and right in your face; the other is the extreme nastiness of the sax right from the start (not knowing anything else about Spider Middleman, I'm guessing Williams is responsible). The first piece is by far the best, based on a classic Ornette Coleman tune, which they actually reprise recognizably in the last minute. Russell mostly drums, and George Southgate plays some very striking vibes. The saxes (including Russell on one cut) are loud and nasty, and the NRG is surging throughout. B+
  • Oumou Sangare: Oumou (1989-2000 [2004], World Circuit/Nonesuch). Robert Christgau called her first album "a Sahel version of early Dolly Parton--with a deeper groove." Good groove is often reason enough to listen to African music, but the most striking thing about Sangare was her natural feminism. Indeed, the booklet to this comp -- six recent songs from a Mali-only cassette mixed with thick slices from her three U.S. albums to sum up her career-to-date -- is worth reading for her explanations of her songs. But the music holds up fine without explication: groove, grit, soul. A
  • Oumou Sangare: Worotan (1996, World Circuit). Her third record, 27 years old at the time, "something of a national heroine [in Mali]." I've had this sitting on the shelf for a long time, so I'm listening to it after having surrendered to Oumou, which recycles five of ten songs here. Had I spent the time when this first came out there's no telling what subtle pleasure I might have divined, but good as this is it doesn't quite have the flow of the comp. B+
  • Sonic Liberation Front: Water and Stone (2000, Eye Dog). Hearing this after their second album, Ashé a Go-Go, both detracts from the novelty of this Afro-cuban/free jazz fusion and undercuts its accomplishment by showing that it can be done more expansively. In other words, this is a much smaller album, but the rudiments are clear: bata drums, Lukumi chants, coarse Ayleresque sax. More reliance here on tape loops, too. And it's worth pointing out that Kevin Diehl is a damn good free jazz drummer even without recourse to exotica. But also that he knows his exotica, and is making something new out of it. Most fusion fizzles because the artists can't see both sides clearly enough to be sure that what they beget is new. A-
  • Sonic Youth: Sonic Nurse (2004, Geffen). Sounds like a perfectly good Sonic Youth album. I think that's three straight -- didn't like Washing Machine much -- and this may be the best of the string, but isn't Dirty either. A-
  • The Lew Tabackin Quartet: I'll Be Seeing You (1992, Concord). Obviously, I like his tenor sax better than his flute -- I always like tenor sax better than flute -- but he gets more mileage than most out of the flute. For one thing, with no other horns he uses it to lead rather than for filligree. On the other hand, what is the fascination? Benny Green, Peter Washington, and Lewis Nash make for a superb rhythm section, and Tabackin's tenor has wonderful range and personality. His take on "Isfahan" makes you wonder why it isn't done more often, and he closes with a rousing "In Walked Bud." A-

Monday, August 09, 2004

I see that Dennis Ross has a memoir of his role in the Israel-Palestine fiasco: The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). At 840 pages, I don't anticipate reading it any time soon. However, I'll cheat by pulling out a few quotes from Ethan Bronner's review in The New York Times Book Review. It starts like this:

In December 1999, as Israel and Syria seemed suddenly to be making real progress toward a peace agreement, President Bill Clinton called President Hafez al-Assad with a request. Israel, he said, had rock-solid information on the location in a Damascus cemetery of the remains of three Israeli soldiers who had gone missing in action during the Lebanon war of the 1980's. Would Assad permit an American forensic team to extract the remains? Such a gesture, Clinton noted, would go a long way toward persuading the wary Israeli public that Syria was serious about opening a new era of peaceful relations. Assad, who historically had rejected all steps designed to reach the Israeli public, said yes. The team flew to Damascus, received full Syrian cooperation and dug up the remains. They were not, however, those of the missing Israelis.

This story is presented (presumably by Ross) as evidence of Syria's willingness to settle with Israel, but several other things strike me about the story. First, there's "rock solid information" that turns out to be dead wrong. If we were talking about American Intelligence that would be par for the course, but note that Israeli Intelligence is just as bad. Second, this is just one of many examples where Clinton went out of his way to appease alleged concerns about Israeli public opinion and wound up looking like an Israeli shill rather than an honest broker. Third, the whole request is bizzarre -- one of those non-issues that negotiators who don't want to face up to an agreement drag up to procrastinate. (Japan's preoccupation with its citizens who were kidnapped by North Korea is a similar thing thrown up to avoid talking about the much more serious problem, which is that the two nations and their allies are posed for war.)

To the question of what went wrong, Ross offers two answers, one simple and one messy but no less true or important. The simple answer is that in the end Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was the principal cause of the failure. Ross illustrates this in numerous ways. The most important and dramatic is an account of late December 2000, when, with only a few weeks left in his administration, President Clinton suggested a set of guidelines to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli cabinet accepted the framework with several reservations that were within the guidelines laid out by the president. Arafat did not. Ross recounts watching Clinton tell Arafat that by not responding to the American ideas, "he was killing Barak and the peace camp in Israel." Arafat did not budge. As Ross puts it: "A comprehensive deal was not possible with Arafat. . . . He could live with a process, but not with a conclusion."

Ross has some insight at the end, which makes me wonder when he figured it out, and what (if anything) he tried to do about it. A somewhat more disinterested observer might point out that Arafat was never offered a conclusion that he could live with. The point where Arafat seems to be most culpable is that he never made a real counteroffer to anything Barak and/or Clinton proposed. I figure that was because he made such lousy deals at the start of the Oslo Peace Process that he was terrified of making another one at the end. On the other hand, you have to wonder why Ross and Clinton never went to Arafat to find out what he needed in a settlement, and why Ross and Clinton never leaned on Barak to accommodate his needs. The best guess is that Clinton, in particular, so identified with Barak that he never considered Arafat's needs -- or for that matter that the Palestinians' grievances were rooted in an injustice that had to be recognized before it could be compromised.

As for the late December 2000 Clinton plan, the claim that Barak accepted it and Arafat rejected it isn't clearly supported from other accounts. The Taba negotiations were based on the Clinton plan, which was itself based on the Beilin-Abu Mazen understandings from 1995, and they were broken off by Barak. The Geneva Accords, in turn, came about as an unofficial extension from Taba, supported by Arafat and negotiated by Israelis in opposition to Ariel Sharon. The biggest problem with the Clinton plan is that it came in December 2000, when Clinton's presidency was at its end, Barak's government was on its way out, and Arafat was being torn both ways in the Intifada. Barak had been elected two years earlier with a strong peace mandate, but didn't start negotiating with Arafat until he had screwed up the Syrian peace treaty and found his government unraveling. And when Barak did start to negotiate, he wanted to restart from scratch rather than from the previously agreed understandings, and Clinton backed Barak up rather than try to broker a compromise.

The second explanation, the messier one, is that neither side had taken sufficient steps to grasp the needs and neuroses of the other. Ross says "the Israelis acted as if all decisions should be informed by their needs, not by possible Palestinian needs or reactions." Regarding the Arabs, he writes, "The kind of transformation that would make it possible for the Arab world to acknowledge that Israel has needs has yet to take place." As for the American role, Ross puts it this way: "Our great failing was not in misreading Arafat. Our great failing was in not creating the earlier tests that would have either exposed Arafat's inability to ultimately make peace or forced him to prepare his people for compromise."

Ross cuts himself a lot of slack here. The last sentence reminds one of something Barak said many times, which is that he wanted to put Arafat into a position where he would prove once and for all whether he is a "partner for peace" -- something Barak said with obvious indifference to the outcome. But try recasting the last sentence with the whole series of Israeli leaders: Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak. The U.S. failed to insist on any tests to prove whether the Israelis had any intention of a peaceful solution: the most obvious such failure was in allowing the settlements to be expanded.

The messy explanation is, of course, much closer to reality than the easy Arafat one. The fact is that all three nations had complex problems in internal politics which interfered with every effort to secure peace. In a recent review of Clinton's book, Gary Wills tried to tie the failure of the Camp David peace talks to Clinton's Monica Lewinsky scandal. In doing so he muffed most of the details and timing, but it seems likely that if Clinton had not had to deal with that scandal in 1998 he might have gotten a leg up on bringing Oslo to a reasonable close. That was the time to lean on Barak, and Clinton wasn't able or willing to do it. But even if Clinton had been willing to do what needed to be done, Israel's peculiar political alliance with the U.S. limited his options. Clinton did manage to lean on Netanyahu hard enough to get Wye River signed, but he never put similar pressure on Barak, and Barak was, at best, schizophrenic on peace. Israel's own political dynamics were working against him, and Barak's instincts were uncannily self-destructive. Otherwise, what would have served Barak best would have been for the U.S. to shove a solution down Israel's throat -- since in the end Barak didn't have the guts to do what needed to be done himself. To some extent Clinton did manage to appreciate Barak's dilemma, which is no doubt why he sided so pointedly with Barak. But what neither in any way understood was the internal politics of the other nation, the Palestinians. Arafat never enjoyed the political clout of Sadat or Assad, which meant you could never deal with just him. Arafat was really just the middleman: his job was to sell a peace deal to the Palestinians, and his ability to do that depended desperately on how well the peace deal met his public's needs. Israel gave him a bum deal to start out with, with the promise of something better later, then never delivered. He screwed up too, erring on the side of saving his own hide which at times made him defy Israel. Stricter tests might have helped, but ultimately the deal he sold to his people had to be delivered. Israel never delivered that deal, and the U.S. never twisted an arm to make it happen. Ross was in the middle of this when it most mattered. I think he wanted to make it work, but he didn't, and in that he deserves some measure of blame himself.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

The Olga Document is another worthwhile effort to make some progress toward peace in/between Israel and Palestine. The point here is the need for Israel to recognize the right of Palestinians who went into exile, especially in 1948, to return to Israel. Implicitly this is a critique of the "two state solution," which is often seen by Zionists as necessary in order to keep Israel Jewish by cutting off predominantly Palestinian territories, thereby expelling unwanted Palestinians.

My own efforts to sketch out a peace plan for Israel-Palestine have started from the assumption that Israel cannot be forced to accept the return of Palestinian refugees and will not do so willingly. My further assumption is that political discourse in Israel makes it possible for Israeli politicians to initiate even the simplest and most obvious steps toward peace, so some form of external force is necessary in order to get Israel to abandon the occupation of overwhelmingly Palestinian territories. In other words, I assume that Israel is hostile to peace and hostile to the Palestinians, and limit the efforts at securing Israeli cooperation to the bare but critical minimum: Israeli withdrawal from the lands seized in the 1967 war. That minimum still leaves the unfinished business of 1948 -- the resettlement and/or compensation of the Palestinian refugees -- and given Israel's default that winds up requiring a broadly international solution.

The significance of the Olga Document is that it shows us that at least some Israelis recognize not just Israel's responsibility for the 1948 refugee crisis but the need to resolve that crisis by accepting the return of the refugees and re-integrating them into Israel and/or Palestine. Any successes that they have are more than outsiders like myself can realistically hope for, but in the long run they are key not just to peace but to a world committed to equal rights and justice.


Music: Initial count 9463 rated (+44), 1108 unrated (-17). Working furiously, insanely on Jazz Consumer Guide, so most of the action is being done in the notes files there. Hope to get done this week -- if not sorting through the backlog, at least to have a draft of the second column handed in. At start of week, I still need to finish a couple of very tentative reviews -- David Murray, Sonic Liberation Front, Chicago Underground Trio. Need to settle on Pick Hits (most likely SLF will get one slot; Ted Sirota has an edge for the other). Need to settle on a Dud of the Month. Need to clean up some mediocre writing. But even at this point I have enough bulk to spill over for next time. Once that's done, need to finish another Recycled Goods.

  • Ballin' the Jack: Jungle (1999, Knitting Factory). Downtown types play Ellington, with a couple of ringers by Charlie Shavers and Herschel Evans, and they have a ball doing it. A-
  • Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet Plus Two: Broken English (2000 [2002], Okka Disk). The four saxophonists can make a huge din, as they do for short blasts on the long (42:48) first piece, but individually they are a talented lot, and that first piece particularly benefits from Roy Campbell (one of the "plus two"). It also starts with Hamid Drake chanting a vocal and working exotic drums. The second piece, a Vandermark composition for Franz Kline, is uglier overall -- or more intensely ugly. I doubt that there is much to choose from in this series -- a few folks will be turned on by the stimulation, many more will be turned off -- but this has a slight edge among those I've heard thus far. B+
  • Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet Plus Two: Short Visit to Nowhere (2000 [2002], Okka Disk). The first piece, Mars Williams' "Hold That Thought," is the most readily enjoyable thing the Tentet has done -- in large part because it sets up and works with a relatively steady groove. It would be interesting to hear a whole album in that vein. Brötzmann's title piece wanders quite a bit, but at least has the redeeming merit of keeping on the quiet side. Quiet, of course, is a relative term here. The other two pieces are less quiet, but at any point it's possible for one or more of the saxophonists to break loose with something genuinely ugly. On average, perhaps the best of the bunch, but all are so variable, so voluble, so intense that such distinctions may be meaningless. B+
  • Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet: Stone/Water (1999 [2000], Okka Disk). The first meeting of this group in 1997 netted three CDs in what seemed like a one-shot effort. However, after Ken Vandermark won the MacArthur Prize, he invested a good chunk of change in getting the group back together and taking them on the road. This CD, with one untitled piece that is either short or long at 38:44, was the first result. Two more came out in 2002, and two more in 2004. This seques through several movements, punctuated with blasts of the sax section. Fred Lonborg-Holm's violin figures large in the early going, and there's some fine interplay between clarinet and bass, but most of the action centers around the saxes, and the energy level is palpable. I don't mind the shortness. This is stimulation enough. B+
  • Gallianissimo! The Best of Richard Galliano (1985-2001, Dreyfus). Easily the premier accordion player in jazz. Mostly upbeat material, only some of which is tango influenced. A-
  • Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Red, White and Blue (1928-2002 [2003], Hip-O). In many ways Mike Figgis' video was the most interesting in this series. It dealt with two levels of reflections: the first being Britain's reaction to American blues and jazz (the Brits, as usual, not making distinctions that Americans presumed); the second being the present's look back into Britain's own blues/jazz legacy, starting with trad jazzers like Humphrey Lyttelton and skifflers like Lonnie Donegan, and carrying through to John Mayall, Spencer Davis, Fleetwood Mac, and Cream. A couple of ringers sneak in -- Louis Armstrong, Big Bill Broonzy, and Ray Charles were famous for their UK tours, although the cuts in question were recorded here. There's also new material from the improbable trio of Jeff Beck, Lulu, and Tom Jones -- all pretty good. Like most soundtracks the choices seem somewhat arbitrary, and the story line seems somewhat shallow. B+
  • Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: The Soul of a Man (1930-2002 [2003], Columbia/Legacy). Wim Wenders video was the most ambitious of the series, perhaps the most personal, and for that matter the most idiosyncratic. Sections on Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James were recreated and shot beautifully in mock documentary style. A third section on J.B. Lenoir was built around interviews with and video shot by a Swedish couple, which provided a garish contrast to the previous elegance. Wenders also cut in a variety of new performances of old blues pieces, and they make up the bulk of this soundtrack. (The exceptions are four old songs, one from each of the principals and John Mayall's "The Death of J.B. Lenoir.") The new stuff is mixed, with pieces by Lucinda Williams, Bonnie Raitt, and Garland Jeffreys predictably good; Nick Cave, Beck, and Jon Spencer predictably awful; Lou Reed interesting; Cassandra Wilson and Shemekia Copeland not; etc., etc. B-

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Movie: The Bourne Supremacy. Marketed mostly for pure thrills, but smart enough that folks with some measure of intelligence can watch without gagging. It probably says something about the place the CIA holds in our less-than-consciousness: it imputes powers (the ability to kill, anyhow) to them that are very probably far beyond their true capabilities, while suggesting that those very powers are debilitating and corrupting, especially under the veil of secrecy. Reminds me of the lyric, "killers in America work seven days a week," from the Clash song "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A." Contrary to every review I've read, I found this installment less satisfying than the previous one -- for one thing the former was an interesting twist on the buddy movie, and the girl provided a continuing reality check. B+


My brother was laid off from the new job he got after having been laid off from Boeing, after having worked there 23 years. There was a lot of talk about the "disappointing" monthly jobs report this week, but all of those statistics ultimately resolve into actual people if anyone bothers to look. He has a wife who doesn't have a job but has gone back to college recently and is a year or so away from a degree. He has a teenage daughter, and two grown kids. And he is a 51-year-old diabetic, so this disruption on top of the Boeing disruption in his health insurance coverage is especially ominous.


I just heard that Paul Piccone died last month. I fished out the following announcement (a classified in the New York Times):

Published: July 15, 2004, Thursday

PICCONE--Paul. Political philosopher and founder and editor of the influential journal Telos, died on Monday, July 12 after a courageous struggle with cancer. Born in L'Aquila, Italy, Dr. Piccone immigrated to Rochester, NY at the age of 14. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from SUNY Buffalo in 1970. Dr. Piccone is survived by his wife, Maria, and his brothers, John, Jim, Angelo, Maurizio and Wally. A funeral mass will be held on Thursday, July 15 at 9:30 AM at Mary Help of Christians Church, 440 East 12th Street, New York City.

I was a student of Piccone's at Washington University in the early '70s, and did quite a bit of work for Telos during my two years there. I haven't been in contact with him since that time -- we had a spat over something that I can't remember anymore, but more generally my ability to stomach academic philosophy (Marxist or otherwise) waned sharply after that point. I will say that he had some remarkably original insights that I don't think he was ever able to properly articulate in print, and those are likely lost now. He was very argumentative, a forceful (even explosive) lecturer, refreshingly vulgar; his ability to cut through bullshit is probably the most important thing I learned from him. I caught him on the ascent of an academic career that evidently derailed when he was denied tenure at Washington University, and hardly knew what he did since then -- I do know that he continued to publish Telos long after that (the last one I can find reference to was #118, Winter 2000), but also that the young Marxist scholars who he built the early issues around had all split by the end (except, evidently, Robert D'Amico, still listed on the editorial board). Having known him only from the start of his career, the end seems sudden, premature, unfinished. (My comments too. I'll write more later.)

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

This is just a little thing, but it seems to indicative of the times. Last night one of the news networks was doing a piece on presidential election polls, and they brought up the canard that some ridiculous percentage of the electorate doesn't know where Kerry stands on any issues or what he stands for. Then to illustrate this, they go out and interview a couple of people who have nothing to say but "I don't know." What's remarkable about this isn't that the news media can't find real news; it's that the news media doesn't find this widespread level of ignorance embarrassing. If anyone went the least bit out of their way, they'd discover that Kerry has tons of positions: some good, some bad, some convenient, some evasive, but there's no shortage of them. That people don't know about them is a testament to television's unwillingness to educate the very people who unfortunately depend almost exclusively on the television for their info.

This may seem innocuous, but by making voters' ignorance of Kerry's positions a news story, the television media are echoing and reinforcing Republican talking points. The naive view of this is that the media view all talking points as legitimate, even though much of what the R's are pushing is sheer bunk. The cynical view is that the media, which is owned lock, stock and barrell by ultrarich private interests for the most part closely allied to the R's, and they're doing what they can for Bush without compromising their "objectivity" as much as Fox. It is, after all, certainly the case that the R's fare better in the war of propaganda than in the realm of reality.

I'm not personally inclined to take the paranoid view here. For one thing, I think that there is more of a split in the ruling class here than meets the eye -- that while Bush is still able to tap extraordinary finances to pepetuate his regime, there are others among the ultrarich who recognize that this administration has been a disaster even for them. Still, it is worth noting that the Kerry campaign has pretty much bought the most paranoid line on the media. Kerry is not just tacking his campaign toward the middle of the electorate, as Clinton and Gore did; he's committed himself to taking positions on war and counterterrorism firmly to the right of Bush. Those positions do little to make him more palatable to the middle, and do much to estrange him from the staunchest opponents of his opponent. In particular, Kerry's steadfast refusal to condemn the decision to invade Iraq goes against a clear majority of the American people, who think that invading Iraq was the stupidest thing the U.S. has done since Prohibition. So why doesn't Kerry take more sensible positions? I suspect that it's because he's afraid that any sign of reasonable doubts on Bush's War on Terror will be spun by the media into evidence of his weakness, which could collapse his campaign. And the reason he's afraid is that he knows how completely the media plays into the R's hands, and how unscrupulous the R's are at exploiting their advantage.

Still, Kerry's counterterrorism positions are somewhat reminiscent of Kennedy's missile gap allegation in 1960. Richard Nixon attempted to respond reasonably to Kennedy and looked weak as a consequence. While there's little likelihood that Bush will take Kerry's bait and defend the sufficiency of antiterrorism efforts that clearly aren't working, at least Kerry has taken stands that make it impossible for the R's to attack him for being soft on terrorism. Unable to argue the positions, the R's only recourse is to confuse the public into thinking that Kerry doesn't have positions and that those Kerry does claim are invalidated by his flip-flopping. And the media are doing their bit to trumpet the R's line.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Movie: The Manchurian Candidate. I only saw the 1962 original long after the fact, by which time the tale of Korean brainwashing and electoral politics had been eclipsed by George Romney's brainwashing over Vietnam. Hollywood plots rarely come so threadbare as when they try to wrap politicians up in thriller plots -- for one thing, the banality of real politicians seems to be an infinite sponge that sops up any hint of life, let alone intrigue, from the subject. That didn't ruin the original, just distanced it far from reality. The same problem reappears here: even though the story has been updated for changes in the times it remains equivalently far-fetched. Indeed, the quaintest thing here is the notion that getting the probed and programmed war hero turned politician into the White House is a step up for Manchuria Global. Still, the movie is entertaining in its own fantasy world. But two things do ring subtly but disconcertingly true: the trivial way politicians wrap themselves in the flag, and the seemingly random news flashes from the farflung reaches of the empire, mostly bearing bad news. B


Music: Initial count 9419 rated (+33), 1125 unrated (-15).

  • Chicago Underground Trio: Flamethrower (2000, Delmark). Actually a quartet at this stage: Rob Mazurek (cornet) and Chad Taylor (drums) are constants in the lineup; Jeff Parker (guitar) joined them on an earlier trio and stays here; Noel Kupersmith (bass) is here and in a later trio. So I'm not sure who between Parker and Kuppersmith is the guest or whatever. A lot of interesting things going on here, especially Jeff Parker's guitar. The electronics strikes me as less ready for prime time than the later Slon, and Mazurek is much less prominent. Still, interesting stuff. B+
  • Marilyn Crispell, Gary Peacock, Paul Motian: Amaryllis (2000 [2001], ECM). Crispell's second ECM album, following her essay on Annette Peacock. The direction here was to play slow and free, which puts a high premium on logic while downplaying her chops. It's not an especially easy album to get a handle on -- much less so than with the follow-up, The Storyteller, where the logic is undeniable. B+
  • The Electrocarpathians: Umpires of Straw (2001, Global Village). Subtitle: Slavic Music Collected in the Midwest performed by California Surfer Gypsy Punk Rockers. Despite coming from San Diego, I started to file them under "europe," then remembered that I have a file called "world" for stuff that don't fit anywhere -- mostly comps that span world genres, but it's also the repository for the Afro-Celt Sound System and Baka Beyond, and now this group. (Dumped 3 Mustaphas 3 into there, too.) Actually, it sounds pretty staunchly slavic, although the notes point to Yiddish and Ladino songs, Turkish melodies, and an Armenian dance. But those are outnumbered by the polkas and czardas. Wouldn't know authentic if I heard it, but this strikes me as close enough. B+
  • Cesaria Evora: Voz D'Amor (2003, Bluebird). I'm finding this quite lovely -- much of the charm of Brazilian music (the Portuguese influence), but more substantial (i.e., African). B+
  • Hello Central: The Best of Lightnin' Hopkins (1950-51 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). Actually, just a fairly narrow slice of Hopkins' long career. Cut for Mainstream in 1950-51, following his breakthrough tenure at Aladdin, before his best ever work collected on Jake Head Boogie (Ace) and/or Blues Kingpins (Virgin/The Right Stuff; which also goes back into the Alladin sessions). Compared to those, this is pretty laid back, countryish. He's pictured here with acoustic guitar, which certainly dominates here, but most of his 1946-54 sessions were electric. Later, when the market changed he turned back toward folk blues, but he was mostly pursuing the jukeboxes at this point. So these cuts are slightly anomalous -- neither as pointed as his electric work, nor as weathered as his later acoustic work, but not by a big margin in either case. B+
  • Junior Senior: D-D-Don't Don't Stop the Beat (2003, Crunchy Frog/Atlantic). Upbeat dance rush, although the music and possibly the aesthetic is as rooted in '60s bublegum as in post-'70s disco. Sounds like KC & the Sunshine Band? Only on the title cut. Otherwise they have a knack for irritation. B-
  • Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Down: The Best of the Mississippi Sheiks (1930-31 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). Early black string band, although most of these recordings are just guitar and violin. The guitarist and singer was Walter Vinson; the violinist was Lonnie Chatman, although others show up from time to time, particularly Bo Chatman (Lonnie's brother, aka Bo Carter). Document covered them in four CDs running from 1930-35. This is limited to the first part, roughly the first two CDs. Yazoo covered the whole 1930-35 period with Stop and Listen, which is probably the better choice. But not by much. B+
  • Evan Parker: Chicago Solo (1995 [1997], Okka Disk). Fourteen short (1:44) to medium (8:34) sized pieces, only four over 5:00. It probably helps that Parker played tenor sax for this one -- both less likely to screech and less likely to show off his circular breathing (although there is some). Like many solo sax records, this has a bit of the feel of practice: it mostly breaks down to technique, deployed in all sorts of permutations. Impressive in principle, utility marginal, not a lot of fun (when is Parker ever fun?). B+
  • The Best of Peter, Paul and Mary: 10 Years Together (1962-69 [1970], Warner Bros.). Early '60s folk group, hit big with "Puff" in 1963, a song that I was young enough to love at the time. But their memory hasn't worn well, and fresh inspection confirms that their "Blowin' in the Wind" is the world's all-time lamest. "Stewball" is pretty pathetic as well, and "I Dig Rock and Roll Music," with its risk-taking affirmation of the Mamas and Papas, bespeaks more cloistered times. But "Too Much of Nothing" still has something to say; "500 Miles" still has a poignant air; and, what the hell, "Puff" and "If I Had a Hammer" are still fun. B
  • Tomasz Stanko: Rarum XVII: Selected Recordings (1975-98 [2004], ECM). One of the great trumpet players of our era comes from Poland. Back in the bad old days of Communism he cut his teeth working with Roman Polanski's favorite composer, Kryzystof Komeda; even before the Cold War melted, he could slip into the free world, perhaps becuase his jazz was already free. His ECM records run slower, darker, more atmospheric than the records he recorded in Poland, but that's par for the course with ECM. The sampler, like the rest of the "rarum" series, jumps around, losing the continuity of masterpieces like Leosia and Litania, in order to bring in a wider range of experiences. One thing to look out for is the contrast in the drummers, especially between Tony Oxley (a dazzlingly swift improviser with a light touch) and Edward Vesala (a guy who plays heavy and moves the world with him). A-
  • Natsuki Tamura/Satoko Fujii: Clouds (2001, Libra). Trumpet/piano duos: I feel like with each record of theirs (solo, duo, group) I'm glimpsing another tiny facet of a much bigger and still largely uncharted whole. These studies are on the quiet side, but not without sharp edges. B+


Jul 2004 Sep 2004