November 2004 Notebook
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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Music: Initial count 9915 [9895] rated (+20), 1013 [1023] unrated (-10). Jazz Consumer Guide essentially done, but needs to be cut down to size before I hand it in. Again, I have 50% of the next one done too. Should move back to Recycled Goods as well, which will be easier work.

  • Antibalas: Who Is This America? (2004, Ropeadope). Afrobeat, straight out of Fela, but only three of seven songs top 10 minutes (longest 19:14). Didn't catch all of the details of "Indictment" -- curiously, the booklet omits lyrics to this one and "Pay Back Africa" while printing most of the others -- but the spirit is right. The long one, the closer, is "Sister," which is the most formally Fela-esque, with groove, beat, keyb, horns vamping out ad infinitum. Not as great as I'd like, but Fela's dead, and the beat must go on. A-
  • Bebo & Cigala: Lágrimas Negras (2002 [2003], Calle 54). Bebo Valdés is one of those old Cuban pianists (b. 1918) that have been popping up ever since anybody bothered to look -- in his case easy to find, because he's the father of Chucho Valdés. Cigala is Dieguito "El Cigala," a Spaniard well known for his deep, rootsy flamenco singing. (At least I've heard of him: he is the vocalist who at first mars then ultimately salvages Jerry Gonzales' Piratas del Flamenco album.) He has a voice which at first seems hoarse, tied down toward a whisper, but that just provides the resistance that gives him such emotional force. Pianist and singer start out sufficiently, but other musicians chime in from time to time. Paquito D'Rivera's alto sax on the title cut is especially lovely, and Israel Porrina "Pirańa" (another Gonzales veteran) adds his cajón. Elsewhere El Nińo Josele (another Gonzales veteran) adds some guitar, and there is a bit of fiddle. A-
  • The Uri Caine Ensemble: Gustav Mahler in Toblach: I Went Out This Morning Over the Countryside (1998 [1999], Winter & Winter, 2CD). Needless to say, I don't know Mahler from the man in the moon. Despite some odd spots, this is actually pretty amazing music. The trumpet (Ralph Alessi), alto sax (David Binney), and piano (Caine) keep is mostly within the jazz sphere, although Mark Feldman's violin can (and often does) go either way. Aaron Bensoussan sings on the second disc, in kind of an operatic/cantorial mode -- not my thing, but he gets away with it. B+
  • Michel Camilo: Live at the Blue Note (2002 [2003], Telarc, 2CD). A pianist from the Dominican Republic, Camilo has recorded extensively since 1985, but this is the first I've heard by him. At 2 hours 15 minutes, this is an awful lot for a piano trio, but he's a powerful performer, and gets excellent support from Charles Flores and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez. B+
  • Eminem: Encore (2004, Aftermath). I saw him play "Just Lose It" on TV a couple weeks ago and thought it was pretty lousy, but it stands out here. Of course, "Mosh" also stands out. "Puke" could do with fewer sound effects. "Ass Like That" is hilarious. "Mockingbird" is a daddy/daughter song that doesn't try to kill mommy -- personal growth if not necessarily artistic. "One Shot 2 Shot" is welfare for his boyz, and Dre gets the "Encore" -- both are OK, neither exemplary, and the gun shots at the end are superfluous. After his first two albums went conceptual in such a big way, the last two just seem like random pages from his notebooks. He has uncanny sense at fleshing out the music -- much of it is sampled, and some of it is pretty obvious, but it works. It roots his music in white pop/rock, which is probably not his ideal, but he's not one to stand on principles -- he can, after all, pass. And his raps are full of wit even when purpose escapes him. Still a remarkable talent. Don't think he'll ever top his first two albums, but that's probably more because he's turned into a corporate entity (cf. D-12 and Dre) and this is how such entities produce profits than because he doesn't have the concepts left. When he needs a comeback, chances are he'll come up with one. A-
  • Indigo Girls (1989, Epic). The favorite band of several people I know, coincidentally (I suppose) lesbians. Robert Christgau panned this with a C- grade, but I doubt that I can listen intently enough to develop that degree of dislike. Two female singer/songwriters, with acoustic guitars to reinforce the folkie aesthetic, but a little thicker sound. For me, two, maybe three, songs rise above the others musically. As for the lyrics, I didn't notice any, for better or worse. B-
  • Mecca Normal: The First LP (1986 [1995], K). Not sure when this was recorded, but evidently it was originally released in 1986 by Smarten Up! Records, in Vancouver. Not sure of much else either. Band evidently consists of David Lester, a guitarist who favors minimal punk riffs, and Jean Smith, a vocalist (also, I've heard, poet, novelist, painter) who can't sing -- articulation is a basic problem, some of which can be blamed on sound quality. Short, perhaps of interest to their close friends. The likelihood that they got better later is pretty high: Lester's licks have some interest, and Smith's got guts. C+
  • Ikue Mori: Painted Desert (1994 [1995], Tzadik). Mori programs drum machines, which is neither here nor there. What makes this record so exceptional is that she is joined by two superb guitarists, Robert Quine and Marc Ribot. When they work out, as on "Desperado," you get some of the finest electric guitar music ever made. Slower, more atmospheric pieces like "Cheyenne" are more balanced between drums and guitars. The avant-sounding "Gundown" is a synthesized piece of old west terrorism, lasting a scant 1:43. Only the finale, "Painted Desert," gets weepy, presumably the tired sunset of a long day. A-
  • Sonny Sharrock: Black Woman / The Freedom Sounds featuring Wayne Henderson: People Get Ready (1967-69 [2000], Collectables). Two very different bands/albums, smashed together on the same disc -- maybe on the theory that they're both things that some hypothetical customer obsessed with the avant-garde/black power juncture of the era will want to hear at least once but not all that often. Sharrock's album is real avant-garde, although the black woman in question, wife Linda Sharrock, wallpapers most of the affair with shrieks and screams, so intense and invariant that they might have been meant to be funny. But strip them away and you get to Sharrock's intense electric guitar, riffing with the Aylerian intensity. Moreover, Dave Burrell on piano and Milford Graves on drums keep up and occasionally trump him. Henderson's album is trombone-led heavy funk. It's loud, with a ringing from virtually nonstop trombone, the dissonance more due to the recording quality than any other factor. Feels dated, but so precisely of its time that its very genericness is its distinction. Interesting shit. B+
  • Uptown Lounge ([1999], The Right Stuff). Don't have the dates on these, but clearly they go back to the '50s and don't go much beyond the '70s. The singers with a couple of exceptions (Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Esther Phillips -- none of which are given prime material) make up the rear guard of the post-WWII jazz crooner roster -- no Sinatra, no Clooney, but they would have been welcome; no Anita O'Day, no June Christy, no chance for Betty Carter. Still, this is brilliantly selected: how can a singer as bad as Sammy Davis Jr. acquit himself so well on a song as bad (for singers, anyway) as "Lush Life"? For my money the standout track is Della Reese doing "The Lady Is a Tramp." Imagine that! No, you can't. A-

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Movie: Alexander. One searches in vain for some sign of contemporary relevance here, but when you think you've hit on some morsel, it is probably just contemporary contamination. At face value the reason this was made was that Oliver Stone wanted to make a lavish costume drama set in antiquity, and in Alexander Stone found an ego to match his own. As Stone explained on Charlie Rose, the big problem was how to reduce a five-act, five-hour script to a commercially feasible three-act, three-hour movie. What made this a problem was pinning the history down, and a big part of why that was a problem was that Stone wanted to cover it all. But the other source of the problem was that much time went into the battles and the post-battle carousing -- the latter was responsible for such turning points as the murder of Clitus and, less clearly, Alexander's own death. Still, I didn't find that the three hours dragged at all, and I wouldn't have minded an extra two hours (with a break, of course). The filmmaking was impressive, as were the special effects spectacle of Babylon and the natural scenery that passed for Afghanistan. The acting, aside from a powerful turn by Val Kilmer, was barely adequate: Colin Farrell more interesting at the start of his campaign than toward the end, Jared Leto hardly plausible on either end. And while Angelina Jolie aged plausibly, her one-note role took quite a toll. The other characters, although well known names (at least prominently mentioned by historians) make only brief appearances -- two of the most prominent, Clitus and Parmenion, are explained a bit in retrospect after they are murdered (the latter in a scene reminiscent of The Godfather, a concept that isn't further developed). The jump from boyhood to the battle of Gaugamela opens up the largest gap, especially as it skips over Alexander's most vicious victories (Thebes, Halicarnasus, Tyre, Gaza), but it also skips over the conquest/liberation of Egypt. As it is, his entry into Babylon provides as literal a depiction of the Wolfowitz dream -- the conquering/liberating soldiers showered with flowers -- as we'll ever get. Although most of the film follows other accounts I've read somewhat accurately, the second major battle in the film, in India, has evidently been restructured to provide a tidier story. The battle probably represents one with Porus, which used elephants. The scene of Alexander's famed horse rising up against the elephant only to be slain is contrary to reports that the horse had died of old age somewhat earlier. Alexander's own arrow wound came in a subsequent battle, with the Mallians. The battle is depicted as a defeat of Alexander, whereas the Porus were routed by Alexander. The mutiny by Macedonian troops was shown as having taken place somewhat before the battle; the actual mutiny, which put an end to the campaign in India, took place later -- although it may be that there were several such mutinies. The effect of the alterations was to contrive a story where Alexander turns back after overreaching. In many ways that's the essence of the story, but the details are something else. There are other liberties in the story -- the Persian harem, for instance, was captured early in Damascus, not in Babylon. Babylon was not the capitol of the Persian Empire -- Persepolis was. Hephaestion did not die in Babylon; he died in Ectabana. None of these things make much difference to the story. The period after the wars in India is given very short shrift here -- Alexander muttering on about plans to conquer Arabia and Carthage, then the deaths, then a bit about the civil war and partition that followed. A brief case is made for Alexander's modernization of the near east, but doubts are voiced as well, then taken back. While Alexander brought elements of Greek culture to the Persians, he wasn't really Greek, and he wasn't all that cultured. He grew up in a warrior culture, and distinguished himself at war in his teens, fighting for his father. Upon his father's death he took command of the Macedonian war machine, which became invincible. Alexander's mobile command was the size of a small city -- imagine something like a portable version of Topeka KS (pop. 120000), armed to the teeth. Alexander not only destroyed all who opposed him, he set up a relatively stable occupation almost everywhere he went. (The exception was India.) He did this both through co-opting local satraps and creating his own colonial cities -- as many as 70 Alexandrias. As he moved east, Persia became more Greek, but Alexander became more Persian, as did his empire -- in a sense, Alexander succeeded in delivering Greece to Persia where Xerxes and Darius (I, "the Great," not III, the ill-fated character of this movie) had failed. But with his death Alexander's empire crumbled. The dynasties of Ptolemy in Egypt and Seleucus in Babylon managed to survive for several centuries, until the Romans and Parthians took them out. Macedonia itself was worn out by the wars, falling almost immediately to Greek revolts, then to the Romans -- although 1600 years later Macedonia was to give birth to another great empire, formed and managed along much the same lines, run by the Ottoman Turks. They lasted some 500 years before being chewed up by European Imperialism and their internal contradictions. The problem with Alexander today is much the same as the problem with the Ottomans today, or the Mongols today -- is there anything other than racism that saves us from similar movies about Tamerlane and Genghis Khan? When those warriors roamed the land, wars were fought for pillage, and pillage passed for honest work. Today wars are fought for ideas, and there is nothing honest about them. But the blood and horror is much the same. B+

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Yesterday a school in Wichita KS was blown up. From the looks of it, it could have been caused by a nearby car bomb -- the whole side of one building was blown out, with nothing but broken beams and rubble visible -- but it wasn't terrorism. It was just good old-fashioned American incompetence: a gas leak, probably from a science lab that was under construction. Fortunately, school wasn't in session. The death toll was zero, the injuries in the single digits. Houses across the street were showered with debris. As tragedies go it was small potatoes, but it dominated the news here.

A few months back I attended an event where a panel of speakers were faced with the question, "are we safer now?" I had declined an invitation to speak, but after I heard what the panel had to say -- all lefties, all resoundingly negative -- I decided that my answer would have been different. Sure, I'd say, sure, we're safer from acts of terrorism, at least we here inside the U.S. (and you can hardly be deeper inside than in Wichita). But whether we're safer in our everyday lives is a very different question. One part of the question is how much danger are we really in due to terrorism? The answer, I suspect, is not much. Even if you buy the argument that the U.S., especially in its post-9/11 vendetta, has made the world more dangerous, there has been no measurable blowback here, and it's possible that there won't be any.

But the other part of the question is how much danger are we in from everything else? And has the policies of the Bush regime made this danger worse? I'm not sure how to measure these things, but there are some things worth pondering. For instance, aside from 9/11, take a look at a list of calamities that have befell the U.S. in the last few years: massive forest fires, a major regional blackout, SARS, hoof-and-mouth disease, a prescription drug that may have contributed to 55000 deaths. Then there was the weather: record drought in the southwest, record number of tornadoes in Kansas, record number of hurricanes in Florida. None of those things were caused by terrorism. But all of them are things that we habitually look to government to solve. Whether we are safer now depends to some extent on whether government is more capable of defending us from real threats. Even if you grant that vigorous political response has made us safer from terrorism, that doesn't mean that we are safer in general.

The list of calamities above doesn't begin to exhaust the list of things that can go wrong. The terrorism that we've thus far avoided, presumably by fighting abroad instead of having to fight at home, is still a threat. Vast resources go both to fighting terrorism and to turning the U.S. into a fortress. Meanwhile, our two great strengths -- government and the private sector economy -- are becoming emaciated for political purposes. Both accumulate massive debt, and perhaps more dangerously both have been repurposed to serve narrow special interests. Government increasingly belongs to a political class that trades favors in order to perpetuate its own rule. (The Republicans are better at this than the Democrats, but Clinton was especially competitive in this regard. The Defense Establishment is the best example of self-perpetuating government immune from partisan politics, but much of what government does is conceived of as reinforcing the political blocks that elect it.) The effect of this is to reverse the long trend of U.S. politics, which was to make the government more servile to the public.

The private sector has also seen its priorities shift. The idea that made the private sector grow so strongly in the U.S. was that by providing genuinely useful and valuable goods and services the capitalists would be rewarded with profit. The new logic of business is that it exists solely in order to make profit, and any production of useful and valuable goods and services is merely tactical -- one of several viable ways to make profit. Other ways include reducing costs, avoiding competition, and plain old scamming. Moreover, the private sector uses government to pursue its narrow objectives. Among the losers in this equation are the workers -- the people who actually produce those goods and services -- and one of the big effects of this is that the quality of work goes down. When the quality of work slips to the point where things break we call that incompetence. And when incompetence happens, schools blow up. The difference between blowing a school up by incompetence or by the malevolence of terrorism doesn't amount to much: both are side-effects of the misguided way we run the world (or let those in power try to run the world).

All this might not matter much if the world were a well balanced static system, but it isn't. We live in a world where resources are shrinking while demand expands. We live in a world where expertise is becoming rarefied, putting us at the mercy of experts who may or may not have our interests at heart. We live in a world where a clever few can exploit the ignorant many, but even the clever few have to compete so ruthlessly that they lose their grip -- they've constructed a world of hair triggers that surrender control and amplify panic. We live in a world where the "movers and shakers" move and shake so fast that they've become incapable of recognizing the unexpected. We live in a world which continues to cling to the ideology that the pursuit of private advantages serves the common good, even though there are few if any cases where this is true. And we live in a nation that has promoted its misconceptions to such staggering heights that some sort of horrible crash seems inevitable.

A few years back Robert D. Kaplan wrote a book called An Empire Wilderness, where he traveled around the U.S. One of his observations was made crossing the border between Mexico and the U.S., which he described as the starkest, most radical shift in the world. His prime example was based on two motels, a new one on the Mexican side that had already fallen into disrepair, and an older one on the U.S. side which was still immaculately maintained. The lesson there is that what made America so much a richer and more pleasant place than Mexico was the care and dilligence that American workers took in their work. However, that care and dilligence is a passing concern, one that gets little encouragement and much discouragement from the public and private sector powers in the U.S. today. Once it's gone the border between the U.S. and Mexico will cease to matter.


I saw an opinion piece in the Wichita Eagle recently (sorry I don't have the citation) that was written by an economist at a "labor think tank." The subject was the decline of the value of the dollar, and the author was in favor of it. In fact, he looked forward to further declines -- a subject that people have started to talk about now that Bush is safely ensconced for four more wars (uh, years). The reason is that a lower dollar favors exports of U.S. manufactures. The importance he attributes to the manufacturing sector in the U.S. is undoubted, but he runs into one big problem: U.S. manufacturing contributes next to nothing to the U.S. balance of trade. A cheaper dollar cannot improve the viability of an export industry that doesn't exist. At best it might stimulate some investment to create one, but as long as labor and other factors can be purchased cheaper outside of the U.S. it is more likely that U.S. capital will invest elsewhere. What the cheaper dollar does do is to make imports more expensive, which reduces our standard of living.

It is no accident that the only time real wages rose in the U.S. during the last 35 years was when the dollar was itself gaining strength -- in the late '90s. The keys to this were a technology boom (specifically the internet), which was led by the U.S. and stimulated a lot of business investment, and the reduction of federal deficits. The former burned out for a lot of reasons; the latter was squandered by George W. Bush. The only new export industry Bush has grown has been war, where we've shipped $150-200 billion to Iraq and Afghanistan and turned it into smoke and rubble, but this hardly counts as an export: the money goes the wrong way.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Music: Initial count 9895 [9874] rated (+21), 1023 [1036] unrated (-13). Narrowing in on Jazz CG, but I've spent a lot of time there working through a couple of big box sets, which slows me down. Lots of good stuff to write about, but I'm beginning to discern an Anna Karenina effect: there isn't much to say about the good records, which enjoy all those characteristics that you expect from good records, whereas the bad ones are bad in many different ways -- much easier for a critic to get a grip on. Anyhow, I have a stack of eight rated-but-unwritten jazz albums standing between me and finishing the column, so this promises to be another poor week for rating counts.

New to the website this week are the long awaited drafts and notes for my parts of [The New] Rolling Stone Album Guide, finally published. Most of these were written in Spring 2003, with minor updates from April 2004. A lot of work went into them.

  • The Leaders Trio: Heaven Dance (1988, Sunnyside). The Leaders was an impressive group assembled in 1986 with Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman, and Lester Bowie on the front line. This was a peak period for Blythe, and he had spent much of the '80s working closely with Freeman. The rhythm section was also superb: Kirk Lightsey, Cecil McBee, and Famadou Don Moye, with Lightsey switching to flute on the last song -- where his Pied Piper bit is a lot more inspired than most of the slumming saxophonists I can think of. Still, this mostly boils down to a Lightsey piano trio, which is fine as always. B+
  • Charles Lloyd: Journey Within/In Europe (1966-67 [1998], Collectables). Two more early albums crammed onto a single CD. Not a lot of coherency here, with Lloyd switching between tenor sax and flute, but he has a lot more on the flute than most of the saxophonists who so indulged. The pianist doesn't play a lot, but when he does he sounds like Keith Jarrett, a clear indication of a major stylist in the making. Drummer sounds like Jack DeJohnette, too. Bass player on the first album is Ron McClure; Cecil McBee takes over for the second. B+
  • Buddy Miller: Universal United House of Prayer (2004, New West). Three of the first four songs are covers, as if he's looking for a context for the originals. The originals are more interesting. I'd be surprised if that's happened in an ostensibly Christian record since Tom Dorsey sang his own. Not that Miller doesn't get help; he does, from Jim Lauderdale, Victoria Williams, and wife Julie Miller, in various combos. The one where he talks about how you can't worship God and money at the same time sounds like he hasn't heard of George W. Bush, or maybe he just doesn't buy his act. If more of the Christians I grew up with believed like this I might too. On the other hand, it's hard to fall on the rock when the rock's done fallen on you. A-
  • Steelwool Trio: International Front (1994 [1998], Okka Disk). Ken Vandermark with his Boston drummer (Curt Newton) and his Chicago bassist (Kent Kessler). That is, similar to Tripleplay but more avant -- McBride is partial to funk beats, Kessler is more likely to work the bow. Which makes it mostly a blowing session, mostly a referendum on Vandermark's improv moves. He sounds pretty sharp here. A-
  • Territory Band-1: Transatlantic Bridge (2000 [2001], Okka Disk). The idea, I think, is to build a modern day band based on the model of the blues-based swing bands that worked from Texas to Kansas City in the '30s, eventually emerging most emphatically in Count Basie's orchestra. Ken Vandermark might update that formula by indulging his rock backbone, but he'd rather go avant, which runs the risk of making this just another large scale squealfest. Actually, the group size is in between the Vandermark Five and something like the Brötzmann Tentet (Plus N), leaving just Vandermark and Dave Rempis on reeds, Jeb Bishop and Axel Dörner on brass. The first and last cuts show how this might work. Both are loud, urgent, fierce, but they power their way forward with the sort of energy you'd expect. The other two pieces are harder to figure: quiet sequences with lots of abstract noodling. B+
  • James Zollar: Soaring With Bird (1997, Naxos Jazz). He's a trumpet player from Kansas City. This is the only album under his name. I can't find out much about him, other than that he was in the Altman film Kansas City and has a list of sideman credits including: David Murray, Ed Jackson, Don Byron, Hamiet Bluiett, Bob Stewart, Cecil McBee, Nancie Banks, Sam Rivers, Tom Harrell, Hugh Ragin (Trumpet Ensemble), and Marty Ehrlich. The idea here is Charlie Parker songs (11 Parker originals, 2 covers). The core band is a quartet with Bill Cunliffe (piano), John Clayton (bass), Paul Kreibich (drums), plus guests on a few tracks: Pete Christlieb (tenor sax), Andy Martin (trombone), Ron Eschete (guitar). So it's not a big reach, but the same idea has been exploited by the likes of Roy Hargrove, and this is a lot more fun. "My Little Suede Shoes" is an especially delightful romp. A-

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Movie: Ray. Everybody raves about how Jamie Foxx nails down Ray Charles' mannerisms, which at skin level he does, but I find the character to be rather hollow. The movie psychodramatizes this through lurid imaginary scenes, mostly of Ray being sucked into water that fills up rooms. The imaginary scenes are in turn explained by flashback scenes to his north Florida childhood, shot in bright colors not least of which is red mud. There we see Ray's childhood, his proud and beleaguered mother, his brother who drowned in front of him, him losing his eyesight and discovering even deeper hearing. The main narrative takes Ray from 1948 to somewhere in the mid-'60s, a chronicle of his struggles to control his business, his philandering, and in great detail his heroin habit. These are all good themes for melodrama, but they detract us from much of what really matters about the man, which is his music. That's not to say that the music is underplayed. Rather, his music emerges as fully formed magic, a miraculous deus ex machina. There's more to the music than can be gleaned by characterizing something like "I Got a Woman" as gospel-gone-to-the-devil, and the movie never delivers on what that is. Rather, it just repeats the miracle over and over again. For all I know about Charles' music, I never knew much about his life, so much of this is new to me, and I'm glad to know it now. But questions still remain. For one thing, no music comes after Charles kicks heroin. I don't think that one caused the other, but without more insight into how he put his music together it's hard to tell. One thing the movie does suggest is that his detox took a lot out of him. Another is that his business control obsession divorced him from musicians who inspired him more than his genius rep admitted. B+

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Tracks "Top 20 Albums of 2004": first such list I've seen, and way premature, of course:

  1. U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope)
  2. Wilco: A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch): Christgau Dud of the Month
  3. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (Interscope): Jack White-produced novelty album; I like the joke, for what little it's worth. A-
  4. Rilo Kiley: More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute): smart, sexy, soaring, resplendent pop album. A
  5. Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts Now (E Squared/Artemis): hit and miss, political wisdom and foibles. A-
  6. Björk: Medúlla (Elektra)
  7. Prince: Musicology (NPG/Sony): trash funk redux. A-
  8. Norah Jones: Feels Like Home (Blue Note): feels warmed over. B-
  9. Elvis Costello and the Imposters: The Delivery Man (Lost Highway)
  10. R.E.M.: Around the Sun (Warner Bros.)
  11. Kanye West: The College Dropout (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam): those who can, do; those who can't, take classes. A-
  12. Tom Waits: Real Gone (Anti-/Epitaph)
  13. Youssou N'Dour: Egypt (Nonesuch): the healing power of peace-loving Islam. A-
  14. Patty Griffin: Impossible Dream (ATO)
  15. Don Byron: Ivey-Divey (Blue Note): still working on this one. [B+/A-]
  16. Joss Stone: Mind, Body & Soul (S-Curve)
  17. Jesse Malin: The Heat (Artemis)
  18. Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (Domino/Sony)
  19. Nellie McKay: Get Away From Me (Columbia): smart aleck songwriter. B+
  20. J.J. Cale: Tulsa and Back (Sanctuary)

Heard 9 of 20. Good records, but none of the others strike me as real promising, even though a good Tom Waits album isn't unheard of. Is the U2 even out? This is a pretty good reviews-oriented magazine, with Will Hermes editing and a lot of friends/acquaintances writing (albeit nothing from me -- you listening?). But it seems like their aim is more for Rolling Stone orthodoxy than anything smarter.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Colin Powell's resignation as Secretary of State is good riddance, even if his successor is likely to be even less principled and even more inept. My home town paper's editorial page toasted Powell today under the heading "Moderate": "His moderate, multinational, pragmatic views were routinely rejected in the Bush team's squabbles on nuclear nonproliferation, Iraq, the Middle East and other major challenges abroad." If this was Powell's strategy, the editorial writer (Randy Scholfield) would have been right to conclude that "his tenure can only be described as a failure." Yes, it's been a failure, maybe even in Powell's own limited terms. But it hasn't been a failure because Powell's moderation was rejected by hotter heads; it's been a failure because of Powell's willingness to support the hawks. And there's damn little evidence that Powell isn't one of the hawks. His disagreements have at most been tactical.

Theodore Roosevelt's used to say "speak softly and carry a big stick." Powell alone among Bush's War Cabinet seems to have taken that as a maxim. But Roosevelt's intent was to camouflage a whole administration. If only Powell speaks softly, he loses his voice. The bigger question is why did the others speak so loudly. And the evident answer is that Bush's foreign policy has first and foremost been a matter of domestic politics. Bush's bully tactics are meant to show his base that he's their strong leader; and the world be damned -- it's not like their votes count. Powell's most famous self-description was as the "bully on the block," so how much space does that leave between Bush and Powell? Damn little, at least in the realm of intentions. I don't discount that Powell has a stronger grip on reality and the limits of American power, but let's face it: for Bush that's off-message. Powell did nothing effective to bring such concerns to bear on administration policy. Maybe this too is just an act.

Certainly, Powell's famous U.N. speech on Iraq's WMD was an act. The case he made has been totally discredited. What seems to have escaped most observers' attention is that the case was never meant to affect the U.N., as it didn't address any of the fears that most other nations sensibly had about opening up war there. No, it was meant to persuade the only hearts and minds that ever mattered to this administration: the U.S. Congress and American voters. Among the immediate responses to Powell's speech was that it was the signal for the Republicans in Kansas' sorry congressional delegation to declare for the war. It may seem like a sick joke now, but Powell was the single most effective proponent of the Iraq war. As such, he deserves as much opprobrium as his more fanciful collaborators; to the extent that he knew better, maybe he deserves more.

As far as his successor, Condoleezza Rice, is concerned, this is what America gets for granting Bush a second term. Had Kerry won the likelihood is that Rice would never work in Washington again. On her watch as National Security Director, the "intelligence" organizations split into factions rewarded for political utility. As far as we've been able to tell, none of the "intelligence" that trickled up to the White House has been valid, and she has been completely inept at challenging it. Rather, she was too busy on the PR front -- remember "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud"? Some years ago there was a business management theory called the Peter Principle, which asserts that managers rise to the level of their incompetence, then stay there. As Bush himself has proven, incompetence in the White House extends all the way to the top.

As the second term cabinet turns over, the most notable trend is that the new cabinet members are almost all current White House staff (e.g., Alberto Gonzalez for John Ashcroft). This bespeaks an administration that will be even more closeted and close-minded than the last one. You voted for it, America. This is just Bush's way of saying: fuck you.


Also in the paper today was an item titled: "Now you know: Top Ten 'Economic Freedom' State." This reported findings of the Pacific Research Institute, "a San Francisco economic think tank," which ranked states according to "the most 'economic freedom' for businesses and individuals."

The top ten (most economic freedom) states were: Kansas, Colorado, Virginia, Idaho, Utah, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, Delaware, Wyoming, Missouri.

The bottom ten (least economic freedom) were (from the bottom): New York, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts.

Note that eight of the top ten voted for Bush (New Hampshire and Delaware were the exceptions); nine of the bottom ten voted for Kerry (Ohio was the exception). Also note that per capita income is strongly correlated inversely against "economic freedom." At least on the "least" side; the poorest states in the country are mostly southern states which didn't show up on either list.

Monday, November 15, 2004

This from the Wichita Eagle, althought he real credit is to Hannah Allam and Jonathan Landay of Knight-Ridder. The headline is "Doubts remain on Iraq's election":

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's deicision to dismantle [Fallujah]'s terrorist fiefdom ahead of January parliamentary elections may have backfired, observers in Washington and Baghdad said. Instead of paving the way for polls, the American-led assault in Fallujah strained military resources, enraged prominent Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and unleashed fresh violence throughout the country.

As every student of military history knows, there is no purely military solution to an insurgency.

Well, no shit! Few things were more obviously predictable.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Music: Initial count 9874 [9839] rated (+35), 1036 [1049] unrated (-13). First week over 30 in a while, although that only happened because I was tied up writing and ran late in updating. Still have more stuff to hack out, but maybe we'll hold them off until next week.

  • Burnt Sugar, Butch Morris, Pete Cosey, Melvin Gibbs: The Rites: Conductions Inspired by Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (2003, Trugroid/Avantgroid). Burnt Sugar is Greg Tate's merry band of avant jazz-rockers, heavy on guitar, notably including pianist Vijay Iyer. Cosey plays guitar. Gibbs bass. Not sure why they were singled out, other than that the sound is dominated by their instruments. Butch Morris is the conduction-master, the essential person here. I don't know Stravinsky well enough to pick out his contribution, but that's presumably the text that everyone else improvises against, following Morris' direction. The net effect is a long, loud, roiling thing. I don't pretend to understand it, but I'm impressed by the energy. B+
  • A Cricket in Times Square (2003 [2004], High Two). Pretty interesting alt-rock group, released on a jazz label named for Dave Burrell's first album. I can't follow the songs, but like the sound, and note that when they just rock out they keep their shit together. B+
  • D.D. Jackson: Rhythm Dance (1996, Justin Time). Piano trio. Jackson is one of the few pianists who has made a serious study of Don Pullen, and most of this is very reminiscent of Pullen -- above all the explosive arpeggios, a crashing of knuckles to keyboard that nobody else tried let alone made music with. Not all of this is in that vein, but enough to get your attention, and the sweeter stuff is just icing. A-
  • School Days: In Our Times (2001 [2002], Okka Disk). The initial surprise is that the quartet -- Ken Vandermark and Jeb Bishop up front, Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love in the engine room -- has been expanded to include Kjell Nordeson on vibes. Nordeson mostly just adds a tinkling background, odd but not of much consequence. But Bishop, Vandermark, and Nilssen-Love were feeling especially muscular when this was cut -- check out Vandermark's solo on the second cut, "Off the Top." A-
  • Talking Heads: The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads: 2CD Set (1977-81 [2004], Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino, 2CD). The original release of live tapes from 1977, 1979, and 1980-81 was one of those filler products that successful rock bands inevitably throw out when the touring saps the creative juices: the repertoire recycled, the sound diminished, the huck the usual exploitation. Sure, they weren't done: Little Creatures, the first time David Byrne actually appeared to be comfortable in his own skin, was still a few years in the future. But with Remain in Light they had peaked. Through four see-saw albums they grew from a tiny sounding trio of paranoids to a richly textured, rhythmically adventurous quartet, which grew to ten pieces for their 1980-81 concert tour. This release nearly doubles the amount of music on the original LPs, and more is more. The sound is adequate, too; the thinness common in live rock albums turns into a narrowing focus on Byrne, whose pain focuses the music powerfully. Two decades of subsequent history, most with nothing notable from Byrne or Tom Tom Club, make the profit taking seem much more charitable. Like Stop Making Sense, this is an alternate way of focusing on an amazing band that fused punk and new wave disco into something unique. A-
  • The Best of Talking Heads (1977-88 [2004], Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino). I know their albums better than the lines on my hand; even the non-album bait single, "Love -> Building on Fire," which leads this off. For whatever it's worth, the even-numbered albums (ignoring the live ones) were always more accomplished than their odd-numbered predecessors, but until True Stories fell flat and Naked didn't rebound strongly enough the regimen was to experiment then to consolidate. This compilation works harder at redeeming the odds than exploiting the evens, which gives it some marginal utility in an age when you no longer need to follow their every move. A
  • Jack Walrath & the Masters of Suspense: Invasion of the Booty Shakers (2001 [2002], Savant). This is a real mess, mostly due to Miles Griffith's hysterical vocals. He turns "Freedom" (Charles Mingus) into a horror movie, and the one with the subtitle "I Want to Be Your Pig" into a cannibalist fantasy. The opening funk in "Rats and Moles" doesn't exactly engage, but there's lots of bright, spunky trumpet, as you'd expect. B-

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Movie: I [Heart] Huckabees. Critics complain about the convoluted otherworldly plot-if-there-is-any-such-thing, but I just saw The Matrix Reloaded on TV last night, and compared to it this is completely lucid plus feels like flesh-and-blood life. The existential torment of the four principals here is all stuff that we can relate to, if not personally then in people we know. What's unreal are the existential investigators, who somehow manage to sort of work things out even though the clues that they do have seem no more securely grounded than their clients. But isn't the very idea that there should be experts out there, who know enough and are wise enough to guide us into some well-adjusted happily-ever-after-land just a projection of our irrational expectations of a world that could care less? With Lily Tomlin and Isabelle Huppert, who show their age and still get all the best sex. A-


I'm reading Karen Armstrong's book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, and in its discussion of John Nelson Darby's (1800-82) theory of premillennialism I ran across the following description of the end (p. 138):

Darby divided the whole of salvation history into seven epochs or "dispensations," a scheme derived from a careful reading of scripture. Each dispensation, he explained, had been brought to an end when human beings became so wicked that God was forced to punish them. The previous dispensations had ended with such catastrophes as the Fall, the Flood, and the crucifixion of Christ. Human beings were currently living in the sixth, or penultimate, dispensation, which God would shortly bring to an end in an unprecedentedly terrible disaster. Antichrist, the false redeemer whose coming before the End had been predicted by St. Paul, would deceive the world with his false allure, take everybody in, and then inflict a period of Tribulation upon humanity. For seven years, Antichrist would wage war, massacre untold numbers of people, and persecute all opposition, but eventually Christ would descend to earth, defeat Antichrist, engage in a final battle with Satan and the forces of evil on the plain of Armageddon outside Jerusalem, and inaugurate the Seventh Dispensation. He would rule for a thousand years, before the Last Judgment brought history to a close. This was a religious version of the future-war fantasy of Europe. It saw true progress as inseparable from conflict and near-total destruction. Despite its dream of divine redemption and millennial bliss, it was a nihilistic vision expressive of the modern death wish. Christians imagined the final extinction of modern society in obsessive detail, yearning morbidly toward it.

There are many levels to this paragraph, but the most obvious is the concrete description of Antichrist, which with three years down and four more on tap sounds an awful lot like George W. Bush. Aside from the deeds (plenty bad and likely to get much worse), he sure has that "false allure," even if he hasn't completely managed to "take everybody in." Not that I think there's any future in calling him Antichrist. Most of us instinctively resist any such argument, but you have to wonder whether those few who do buy into this get the full irony here -- that Antichrist is necessary to effect the return of Christ, hence Bush is a good bet regardless of whether he's good or evil.

I expect to come back to this after I've digested more of the book. I will note now, however, that the study of Revelations and the "end of times" was my grandfather's sole intellectual interest. He died when I was 15, but I remember him talking about Israel and how the return of the Jews was a prophecy signalling the coming end. I always thought of him as a farmer. When I was young he had a 160-acre farm northwest of McPherson KS, and we used to go there frequently. He had an old farmhouse with a hand pump from the well in the kitchen, the only running water. (Yes, there was an outhouse.) There was a windmill attached to the well, a watering tank and a stable (don't remember horses, but there were some cows), a pond with some bullheads, a pear tree, and lots of bare, undulating land, OK for growing wheat. When I was 10 he retired and bought a big, decrepit house in Marquette KS, the nearest town northeast of the farm. He had farmed off and on all his life, starting out north of Dodge City KS. (My father's birth certificate says he was born in Spearville KS, a small town about half way between Dodge and Kinsley. A cemetery north of town has markers for several generations of Hulls, going back to the ones who homesteaded in the 1870s, moving out from Pennsylvania.) One thing I didn't know then was that my grandfather had spent some years teaching school, probably in those one room school houses that dotted the prairie back then. So in a sense he was an intellectual. In any case, his preoccupation with Revelations was typical of a certain sort of prairie intellectual, certainly his sort. He was a firm believer in the Bible as the source of all necessary knowledge. Ask my brother about him and he'll tell you that grandfather used to say that according to the Bible a man will live three score and ten years, so he expected to die at age 70, and did. (My mother's parents died before I was born, so I never had to distinguish between sets of grandparents.)

My father was also heavily invested in Revelations. I avoided the topic, but my siblings tell me that my father's theories were markedly different from his father's. I suspect that my father's theories were a good deal more humorous: he had a sly, absurdist sense of humor, whereas to the best of my recollection my grandfather had none at all. (I cannot ever recall him so much as smiling, much less anything as gauche as laughing.) This is just one side note in the often bizarre relationship of Israel and the premillennialist goal of apocalypse. My grandfather, dead before the 1967 war, had nothing whatsoever to do with making any such propecies come true. But David Lloyd George is another story: he propounded the Balfour Declaration, and he was a devout believer in such nonsense. Today many fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. not only believe this nonsense, they support politicians who act like they mean to make it come true.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

In recent years Yassir Arafat has most commonly been described as the Symbol of the Palestinian People. That may in fact be the one thing most Palestinians, most Israelis, and most others agree on. What they don't agree on, and may never have agreed on, is what his symbolhood stood for. For most Israelis in most times Arafat was a symbol of an implacable Palestine that would always be the sworn enemy of Israel. For most Palestinians in most times, Arafat was the symbol of resistance against Israel and the stubborn search for justice. The exception was the period when Arafat moved entered into the Oslo Peace Process, revealing himself to be a pliable and fallible politician with more hope than cunning. Unfortunately, the Israeli leaders who faced off with Arafat from 1993-2000 were men of great cunning and little hope. They expected Arafat to sell the Palestinians on a deal that evolved from vague to cynical, and when he couldn't deliver, the slandered him, then attempted to bury him alive. Arafat's defense, in turn, was to revert to being the Symbol of the Palestinians, a people who knew all too well his suffering.

As the pundits look back on Arafat's career, you will hear much about his failings, especially two myths: that he rejected Barak's generous final status proposal, and that he responded by launching the violence of the second ("Al-Aqsa") intifada. He did neither. With Barak he always wanted to negotiate further, but Barak issued his take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, then pulled his offers and threw his election to Sharon. The intifada started with demonstrations against Sharon's provocative march to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount), which were met with violent repression by Shaul Moffaz's Israeli armed forces, although the Barak's political message in breaking off the Peace Process and Sharon's subsequent election was what really convinced so many Palestinians that the only thing Israel respects is violence. This is not to say that Arafat did no wrong as these events developed. He didn't commit these acts, but his errors of omission let them get out of hand, and let Barak, Sharon, and their allies (including Bill Clinton) put the blame on him. And his symbolhood let him accept the blame, because he understood that it was the will of the Palestinian people to reject Barak and to challenge Sharon and Moffaz. The one thing that Israel couldn't, and wouldn't, deny was that he was the Symbol.

Arafat's errors of omission may reflect some deficiencies in his skillset, but they mostly derive from the intrinsic weakness of his people. The real reason there is no peace in Palestine is that the people in power, the Israelis, don't want peace. If they did, they would have made Arafat look like a genius, but instead they made him look like a chump. Arafat himself didn't have much choice there. He took a leap of faith in signing Oslo, but then he had been maneuvered into a dead end and had no leverage to get a better deal. Once he returned, he was obligated to do Israel's dirty work in the Occupied Territories, and Israel had complete control of his purse strings, his borders, everything short of his dreams. Had Israel cut him a fair and just deal, he might have made a go of it, but Israel fulfilled few of the meager promises made, while its noisy and vengeful democracy demanded more and more -- more security, more settlements, everything. Arafat was wedged between Israel's escalating demands and the frustration of his own people and their simmering belief that Israel's peace process would come to naught, that they would be left with less than ever and no recourse except violence. Given this squeeze, Arafat did what any two-bit politician would do: he greased a few palms, and bided his time. The net effect was that nobody trusted him. The problem was not that he had no principles; the problem was that he didn't know how to put them into practice.

Arafat was remarkably successful at controlling the dialogues within the Palestinian political community, but he was an abject failure at determining how the rest of the world would view the Palestinians and their cause. The latter would have been a very tall order even if he had complete autonomy: for starters, he was up against Israel's propaganda machine, and he would have had to overcome some deep prejudices held by many (perhaps most) Americans. But he didn't have complete autonomy: internal political rhetoric tends to favor the most militant -- there are many examples of this, most relevantly in Israel and the United States -- so he could never afford to be seen by his own people as weak. Plus he had another disadvantage in that his political base was the Palestinian refugees (the war of 1948), not the Occupied Territories (the war of 1967), even though from 1993 on he officially represented only the latter. This is important because Israel is somewhat flexible on 1967 but not at all flexible on 1948: many (perhaps most) Israelis would willingly cede the Occupied Territories for demonstrable assurances of peace, but virtually no Israelis would support the return of the 1948 refugees. One big problem that Arafat had was that he was never able to distinguish the deal he could make from the deal he couldn't.

Arafat's great failure is that he was unable to achieve justice for his people without the threat of violence. But that is not just Arafat's failure: it is the failure of mankind in the 20th century -- and what we've seen of the 21st century thus far doesn't look any better. But perhaps that is too much to have asked. When Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he stood up with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, whose credentials as warriors match or exceed Arafat's. Peres spent much of his career building the IDF, especially its atom bomb program. Rabin was the field commander who emptied Ramleh and Lydda of Palestinians, rounding them up and trucking them to Jordan's lines in 1948. And Rabin was Chief of Staff during the 1967 war, when Israel conquered Gaza and the West Bank. And Rabin was Minister of Defense during the first intifada, when he famously urged Israeli troops to "break the bones" of Palestinian children throwing rocks. Oslo was a "peace of warriors": the reason it failed had nothing to do with the moral perfidy of the principals. It was because Arafat was too weak to keep the Israelis honest -- too weak even to keep his own side honest. And because the Israelis still believe that it is their might that makes anything they want to do right.

Arafat's death solves nothing, but it puts his symbolhood to rest. (Or should. I understand now that he will be buried in his prison in Ramallah.) The Palestinians now have a fresh chance to make their case to the world, without having it corrupted by all the baggage Arafat picked up over the years. But nothing that the Palestinians can do by themselves will work -- not violence and not nonviolence -- until the people of Israel have a change of heart. Arafat's death removes the illusion that he was the problem; but it is left to Israel to do what they should have done all along, which is to open their eyes and make right what they have done.


I saw Shibley Telhami and two others (Bernard Haykel and Louise Richardson) on Charlie Rose last night, discussing the mess in Iraq. All three ultimately believe that the situation is hopeless, and they were at pains to remind us that this is pretty much the mess they foresaw when they opposed the invasion in the first place. Nonetheless, they were remarkably dense about their further prognostications, and lame in their analysis. Richardson recited a long litany of steps to hand the U.S. occupation over to international organizations, as if she was reading a John Kerry press release (not that Kerry actually ever said he'd go that far). Haykel seems to buy the idea that the Sunni insurrection is some sort of defensive reaction against the loss of the Saddamist patronage system, and that it is directed more against the Shia than the Americans. Afterwards I dashed off the following letter to Telhami using his Brookings Institute address:

Shibley Telhami,

Just saw you on Charlie Rose tonight, and I have to ask why neither you nor any of the other guests simply came out and said that the election of GW Bush in itself has fatally crippled any prospect of the US rehabilitating its reputation among the Iraqi people? Had Kerry won that would have: (a) given the US an opportunity to get past Bush's responsibility for the invasion, occupation, and all of its attendant tragedy (mostly by blaming it all on Bush); and (b) offered the Iraqis concrete evidence that elections can make a difference (e.g., as opposed to the last Iraqi election, which something like unanimously confirmed Saddam Hussein). Right now it is impossible for you or anyone else who tries to be sensible to affect US policy in Iraq or elsewhere, because Bush is totally committed to his US-force-will-prevail policy. Given that, the most important thing people like you can do is to make as clear as possible to the American people what their election choice has meant, and to do that you have to call Bush out by name.

FWIW, my own theory is that the purpose of the assault on Falluja isn't to criple the resistance; it's to drive the Sunnis out of the election process, a goal it has to a large extent already attained. The biggest problem that the neocons face in Iraq isn't insurgency (at least they don't think so); it's that a Shia-dominated democratic government will send them packing. The more we talk about future civil war in Iraq, the more we play into the neocon hand, because that's what they want the Kurds and Shia to fear -- otherwise why would they need the protection of the US? That the Falluja campaign increases the risk of civil war isn't blowback; it's policy. Guys like Bush don't fear war; otherwise they wouldn't yell "bring it on!"

You are, of course, right that the Falluja assault undermines the credibility of January elections, and that that credibility is essential to achieving peace in Iraq. You're also right to point out that the illegitimacy of the Allawi government is a big part of the problem with Falluja. But you need to go one step further and point out that Bush is doing this on purpose.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

John Kerry campaigned using the slogan, "help is on the way." George W. Bush's first act now that he's got his mandate was to launch a major ground assault on Falluja in Iraq, following a few months of intensive aerial bombardment. This has evidently been planned quite a while, but they delayed launching it until the votes had been counted and the voters safely put back to sleep. A more revealing campaign slogan for Bush would be, "hell is on the way."

I'm not aware of Kerry commenting on the siege of Fallujah, although I have to admit that I haven't been paying a lot of attention to him, including his concession speech. Had Kerry won the election he presumably would have something to say, as the assault on Falluja would have made his task of coming up with a somewhat positive resolution even harder than it is. But all I know about Kerry's concession speech is that it was lauded as gracious, which probably means he didn't take the opportunity to scold the electorate by pointing out that "help is not on the way." That is, of course, the difference between a politician trying to make nice and a leader who realizes how much was at stake, and now how much has been lost, in this election. Kerry may be a dedicated public servant, and he may have laudable personal principles, but he's not a guy who's going to fight for once you're down.

What's going on in Falluja right now is that the U.S. is destroying a city that before the war was home to some 300,000 people. Presumably by now most of those people have done what most sane people do when besieged by overwhelming firepower: they've abandoned their homes and become refugees. Those refugees may escape with their lives, but you can't argue that they aren't victims. Even the few whose houses won't be damaged and whose possessions won't be looted will have been scarred by this assault. Of course, many will suffer extensive property damage, and thousands will die; thousands and thousands more will be wounded. Some of the dead will have actually fought the Americans, which would qualify them as what we now call "anti-Iraqi forces" -- enemies of the friendly Iraqis we brought freedom to by wrecking their country. And a few may even be foreign jihadists.

The obvious question nobody asks is what possible good could come out of an American military victory here. In particular, how does it help to legitimize U.N.-sponsored elections if we destroy a city, driving out or killing its residents, and leaving what's left under military occupation? Iraq's Sunni Arab minority already had plenty of reason to think that the U.S. was intent on trampling on their rights. Shouldn't we be working at bringing them into the electoral process? Such an effort seems to have worked with Muqtada al-Sadr, who disbanded his militia in order to take part in the elections. The resistance and those pesky foreign jihadists aren't likely to sign off so easily, but what about a cease fire, which would let the resistance continue to occupy cities like Falluja but would allow the U.N. access to run the elections? That the U.S. has never offered any such thing suggests that the resistance is right about the elections: that their purpose is to not to reflect the desires of the Iraqi people but to continue the American occupation. One thing that makes it hard to dispel this suspicion is that George W. Bush's own idea of an election doesn't involve any more lofty idea that that it's something Karl Rove can win for him. Also that the U.S. made no attempt to set up elections at any time in the first 18 months of the occupation. The siege and future occupation of Falluja drives not only the active resistance but also most of the Sunni population out of the potential electorate, thereby even further delegitimizing the results. In other words, it ensures that whoever wins the elections will be faced, as we are now, with a recalcitrant resistance movement and a growing civil war.

But isn't that the purpose? If Iraq is a free democracy, what do they need us for? The obvious answer is to help them fight the foreign jihadists out to destroy their democracy. What we're doing in Falluja is stoking the fire that drives civil war, in the hope that our Iraqis will buy the idea that they need us to stave off a return of Saddamist tyranny -- that regardless of how much they resent us they recognize that we're the only hope they have. It's a gamble, but by cranking up the violence our man in Baghdad, Iyad Allawi, has an excuse to impose martial law -- all the better to stuff your ballot box, my dear. Of course, other interpretations may come into play. A big part of last spring's siege of Falluja was base revenge, and that hasn't been forgotten. This may also be viewed as an object lesson: both that the withdrawal last time was a compromise that won't be repeated, and that the cost of resistance is overwhelming destruction. It is also likely that the latter point is meant as much to impress Syria and Iran as the Iraqi resistance.

Which leads us to one more big question, which is why is George W. Bush willing to pay so much just to hold onto an increasingly impoverished and dilapidated Iraq? Presumably we're talking about the control of the Middle East and its critical oil supplies. I don't understand how that works, but then virtually everything that Bush does seems destined to fail. Thus far he's managed to screw up everything he's touched and still get away scot free. Chalk him up for yet another war crime in Falluja, and pray he has to pay the piper soon.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Music: Initial count 9839 [9818] rated (+21), 1049 [1064] unrated (-15). Bad week. Bad mutherfucking week. Real bad mutherfucking week. Didn't even get shit in the mail. Goddamn awful mutherfucking week.

  • Chet Atkins: Early Chet Atkins (1949-50 [2004], Country Routes). Scattered radio tracks, mostly from 1949-50, with another baker's dozen listed as "early-to-mid 1950s"; about half are Atkins guitar solos, the other half with vocalists including the Carter Sisters (4 as a trio, 12 individually), Jimmie Dean (2 tracks), and Faron Young (1 track). I've never bought Atkins' reputation as a guitar wizard, but the bad jokes and applause, the odd guest singers and many takes of "Country Gentleman" and "Poor People of Paris" cut the antiseptic sheen of his overated studio work. This is as good a spot as any to get a sense of how he established the reputation that let him ruin country music. B+
  • The Essential Chet Atkins: The Columbia Years (1983-97 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). Like the newly clothed emperor, Atkins' guitar virtuosity depended on the eagerness of the listeners. Nobody else tried to make his way with such slight lines. The word for his style is tidy, and few artists have ever kept their art so meticulously tidy. In his early work he managed to get some resonance, adding a pleasing harmony. After nearly 40 years with RCA, where he was a more famous producer than guitarist, he moved on to Columbia, where he cut this material. Most of it is trite, starting with a thing by J.S. Bach, continuing through various originals, getting help here and there from Mark Knopfler, but his lovingly delicate treatment of John Lennon's "Imagine" is exceptionaly gorgeous. B-
  • Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003, Rough Trade). More pop, more punch than I remember with them, which is not necessarily a good thing; not necessarily bad either. Pushing their work into a higher energy level means they have to deliver at that level, which they do on "You Don't Send Me." I've never been a semioticist, which may be why I don't rate their breakthrough albums particularly high. But I fell for their even simpler debut, Tigermilk. This one is easier, for better and worse. B+
  • Beyoncé: Dangerously in Love (2003, Columbia). "Be With You" is ripped from Bootsy Collins. He gets one of the seven credits, as do funkateers George Clinton and Gary Cooper, but what's Shuggie Otis doing here? They try to convert a cartoon into a hymn, but can't stamp the fun out of it, and can't laugh at it either. That's only one of the low points here. Her own artistry is typified by "Me Myself & I" -- not to mention the depths of her consciousness. Then come the guest stars: Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Sean Paul, Big Boi, even Luther Vandross. She needs all the help she can get. Includes a booklet of bronzed skin shots. She needs all the help she can get. C
  • Michael Brecker: Nearness of You: The Ballad Book (2001, Verve). A famous band (Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette). A guest vocalist on two cuts that I wouldn't touch in a million years (James Taylor). And Brecker: what can you make of him? He has a reputation as cold and clinical, which isn't the usual thing you look for in a ballad. And he usually gets by on technique, which doesn't get a lot of play here. Nonetheless, much of this is surpassingly lovely, and while Metheny and Haden have something to do with that, it's Brecker's tone that you walk away with. B
  • John Fahey: The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965 [1997], Takoma). The most famous of Fahey's early albums. His ability to reinvent traditional folk melodies is unique, as is the sharp resonance he evokes with his guitar. I still prefer his Reprise albums where he has an orchestra to work with, both fleshing out his sound and spelling him, but this solo work earns its reputation. A-
  • Stan Getz: Award Winner (1957 [2000], Verve). One of Getz' superb "west coast sessions," with Lou Levy, Leroy Vinnegar and Stan Levey. Redundant if you already have East of the Sun, otherwise this is a superb stretch for Getz. One minor annoyance is all the false starts padding it out at the end. A-
  • The Best of Eddy Howard: The Mercury Years (1946-54 [1996], Mercury). A big star in the '40s, Howard crooned ballads as gorgeous as "For Sentimental Reasons" -- a #2 hit in 1946, and a standout track here. This skips his early work with Dick Jurgens' band and some presumably interesting sides he cut for John Hammond at Columbia, with Charlie Christian and Teddy Wilson in the band. Actually, the uncredited bands here support him ably -- although the music is a lot less interesting later on, and the surfeit of background singers doesn't help. B
  • The Best of Chuck Mangione (1973-88 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). All but two cuts come from Mangione's spell with Columbia from 1982-88, comprising five albums which the usually generous AMG rates from one to two stars. The other two come from a 1973 Mercury album and a 1977 A&M single. The 1973 cut is the 12:24 "Land of Make Believe," with an Esther Satterfield vocal and a sizable orchestra. The 1977 cut is "Feel So Good," his trademark pop hit. Don't know how much more there is to his many Mercury and A&M albums, but the Columbia cuts are thick and dull even with his horn, which has no dimension beyond bright. C
  • Shirim: Oy! It's Good: The Art of Yiddish Song (1997 [1999], Newport Classic). They're a very competent but rather conventional klezmer band. This is an album of standards: the more instrumental pieces let the band shine, and Betty Silberman does a bang-up job on "Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn" ("Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen"), including a scat vocal and a final rendition in English. B+
  • Wadada Leo Smith: Red Sulphur Sky (2001, Tzadik). Smith is one of the major trumpet players of our era, yet he remains exceptionally difficult to get a grip on. Part of that may be that he defies expectations, playing slower than most others, his tone a bit duller, more focus on space and logic. As such, he doesn't repay inattention. You need to concentrate to follow him, and that's all the more so on this solo trumpet album. The upside is that you get a better idea why he's indeed a major player. The only other solo trumpet albums I know are two by Natsuki Tamura. It's tougher to do, for reasons you can easily imagine. B+

Saturday, November 06, 2004

The post-debacle analyses have fingered many possible problems with the Democrats presidential campaign, one of which was John Kerry himself. I don't think there's a lot of value picking over Kerry's bones here, but this reminds me of a basic question, which is how the hell did he get the nomination in the first place? Basically, he won tough races in Iowa, with their rather odd caucus system, and again in his neighbor state of New Hampshire, after which he was the front-runner, coasting with decreasing opposition, losing only South Carolina and Oklahoma. As such, he's one more example of a pretty firm rule, which is that after Iowa and New Hampshire, the candidate with the most money left wins the nomination. George W. Bush, as you should remember, actually lost New Hampshire in 2000, but had so much money left over that McCain couldn't compete in the rapid-fire following primaries. (New Hampshire actually rarely picks the nominees, but it weeds out a lot of wannabes.)

On the surface of it this is a really stupid way to select a party nominee. New Hampshire is less representative of America as a whole than any other state (possibly excepting Alaska, Hawaii, and maybe Wyoming): it is basically a tax haven which runs its pathetic state government by selling discount hootch to its neighbors. Iowa is a bit less skewed, but it's a very WASPish, New England-settled farm state, not all that much of a contrast. Candidates spend a year or more microcompeting in those two forums, after which the primaries come so fast and furious, and all you get at that point is a count of money for TV advertising and anticipatory piling-on by the local politicos: everyone wants to get in good with the winner early. In other words, we spend a year or so with no votes (nothing but PR), then get a rush of votes that decides the nomination in a few weeks, then we wait 3-5 months for the convention, then 2-3 months for the election.

What I want to propose here is a complete revamping of the primary system. We want more people to vote. We want to compress the campaign season so it's worth following. And we want to limit the decisive effect (and expense) of individual money-raising. I'll get back to the latter point after we go through the proposed structure. What I propose here is to have three rounds of primaries, each separated by three weeks. Each primary round takes place in 1/3 of the states (plus the District of Columbia, so 17 each round). The first round covers the 17 smallest states (so New Hampshire still gets first crack, but not uniquely). The second round is in the middle 17 states, and the third round is in the 17 largest states. The first round is tiny percentage wise (7%) but diverse geographically, and straddles the red/blue divide (10 red, 7 blue). The first round has intrinsic interest as the first primaries. It starts to weed out the failures, but the broad distribution offers a lot of niches for candidates. The middle round, with 23% of the population, is also diverse but introduces most of the South, another niche (or two). But the third round, with 70% of the population, remains decisive. The three-week period between the rounds allows for adjustments without dragging on too long. Regional splits in the first two rounds seem very likely. If this continues in the third round you actually get a convention that decides the nominee, where people can look back at data from the whole nation.

The schedule looks like this:

  • Round 1 (E - 15 weeks): Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming; total population 18,785,867 (6.7%).
  • Round 2 (E - 12 weeks): Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Wisconsin; total population 65,624,977 (23.3%).
  • Round 3 (E - 9 weeks): California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington; total population 197,011,062 (70.0%).
  • Convention (E - 6 weeks): Have both conventions the same week, in different cities. Don't give either party a bounce advantage, and make them compete for air time.

One more change is that voters should be able to vote for more than one candidate. This does two things: it keeps equivalent candidates from splitting the vote and canceling each other out, and it lets fringe candidates register support without voters throwing their votes away or practicing lesser-evilism. Same thing should happen in the general election, which would encourage third parties without the sort of recriminations we've seen viz. Ralph Nader.

The way I see the money working is that a high percentage of the money raised goes into a common pool. Individual candidates can raise up to a fixed budget to cover their operating expenses, but not TV advertising, "ground game," stuff like that. Campaigning is basically done through common forums: debates, joint rallies, chunks of TV and radio time (e.g., a 30-minute chunk where each candidate gets a slice to make a presentation), and publications (e.g., a pamphlet where each candidate gets a few pages, there's some side-by-side comps, and maybe some generally agreed up background info; the whole thing is then broadly distributed by the party). The party manages these things and ensures fair representation for all candidates. The idea here is to get a lot of information out to voters, to get a lot of exposure for the candidates, to organize volunteer help and resources in a way that carries the party through past the convention, and to not waste a lot of money doing all this.

I think you get three main things out of this: a lot more people participating in the selection of the nominee; a much more battle-tested nominee; an advantage for campaign skills over moneyraising skills. I'm generally leery of structural solutions, which are often what bad managers do to make the same things merely look different, but the current structure is skewed to the point of ridiculousness.

One thing I wonder about is whether the Democrats could do something like this on their own. If they did, I think that setting an example of how campaigns can be waged with minimal money would be a good lesson for all of us, even if the final stretch against the Republicans is a spend-a-thon. I also think that putting more information out much more broadly is essential to inoculate us against the next round of Rove lies and distortions and innuendos. Getting better candidates is important; getting better voters is essential.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Cooked, comfort food for comrades: trout with ginger, dry-seared green beans, dry-fried eggplant, ham/egg fried rice. Also made a fall spice cake. We didn't resolve anything, but ate plenty.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

From the moment George W. Bush became President of the United States I was convinced that he'd be dispensed with after one term. He had lucked out as the relatively unknown and tragically misunderstood beneficiary of Al Gore's lacklustre campaign, but as President he was in deep over his head and his backers were battling against the major trends of recent history. None of his polls convinced me otherwise. Even on top he was rotten to the core, and I clung to a residual faith that the American people would never deliberately do something so foolish as to re-elect him. Cloaked by my beliefs, I took the polls indicating that he still had a chance to be illusions. I followed the race closely, and learned to like if not love John Kerry. I was impressed by his debates, and fortified by his growing aggressiveness, which to my mind scored more often than not. Late in the campaign, I reassured myself by noting that "we want this one more than they do." Of course, I knew that to be a fallacy: regardless of whether it was true or not, the idea that one can make something real by willing it is patently false.

But today we know that Bush won and Kerry lost, and that an already pliable Congress has moved very slightly toward Bush. Today we know that instead of turning a new page with an administration that might work to heal some of the serious problems we face, we will have to suffer through four more years of Bush shit. At this point it's impossible to project how bad those years will be, but it is certain that this election has cost us four years of opportunity to work on problems that are bad and getting worse. And the potential downside of Bush's agenda, abetted by even more power and the ever-complacent media, is very grim indeed. But the time for ennumerating those horrors was last week, when I wrote a letter urging everyone to vote for Kerry.

One interesting thing about the election is how closely it tracked the 2000 election. This was an artifact of the electoral college, which effectively carves the U.S. up into "safe" and "battleground" boxes. Kerry won one Bush 2000 state (New Hampshire), while losing two Gore 2000 states (Iowa, New Mexico), and all three shifts were extremely close. The only other states that came close to moving were were Ohio and Nevada (to Kerry) and Wisconsin (to Bush). What makes this stasis so remarkable is that the popular vote margin shifted by four million toward Bush. The most obvious effect of this boxing is that Kerry ran his campaign inside the battleground boxes, with much of his effort put into the so-called "ground game" -- getting out favorable voters on a local level rather than pushing a message. Bush, with more money and maybe more volunteers, matched Kerry in the same boxes, even to the point of making Kerry spend to defend Pennsylvania and Michigan. But Bush was also more effective at running a nationwide message -- it certainly helped that the message was simpler and that he had the presidential pulpit to campaign from. Ohio and Florida, in particular, turned into vast bonfires of campaign cash that had little if any effect on the outcome.

So one effect that boxing has is to burn money in a few select states. Another is to prevent any sort of message from breaking out on a national scale. Conversely, boxing regionalizes issues. Bush gained votes this time was in the lower Mississippi River valley, where Kerry fell off substantially from Gore -- but then Gore didn't win any of those states either, so arguably the real loss was zero. But one effect of this was that Kerry never had any reason to address rural poverty as an issue -- even if he picked up voters in Kentucky or Tennessee he couldn't convert them into electoral votes, so why bother? (He might have had a chance in West Virginia, but put his money into Nevada and Colorado instead, which were better fits for his regional biases.) Consequently, boxing means that people in different states see the campaigns very differently. In a handful of states, voters get bombarded with advertisements. Elsewhere, the only info comes from news soundbites and the local media, which tend to follow or lead their constituents. One effect this time is to make the national popular vote suspect. (Had the New Yorkers who flocked to volunteer in Ohio done similar work in their own safe state, they would likely have produced more votes.)

Kerry's strategic choices were limited by money -- much of the Democratic-leaning money was outside of his control, while Bush had a huge edge no matter how you slice it -- and being the challenger. Within these limits, I think he actually ran a forceful and effective campaign. But he lost, and I think we need to figure out why. I'm not very good at understanding why people voted for Bush -- I try to look at politics through reasoned interests, including a strong appreciation for peace, justice, fair play, and opportunity, none of which are of interest to Bush. But I'll make a few hypotheses about Bush voters. First, Bush gets a lot of support on moralist grounds, and the Republicans were very effective at exploiting the "gay marriage" issue in their favor. Second, militarist culture is deeply embedded, especially in the South, and this favors retaining the Commander in Chief, even through adversity. Third, Bush was able to avoid any appearance of division within Republican ranks -- he kept prominent "moderate" Republicans in the spotlight, got almost all of the usual media backers, and enjoyed relentless cheerleading from the party's pundits -- which comforted his supporters against doubts while making opposing views sound shrill. The latter is the remarkable insider story of the Bush administration, a competency which stands in stark contrast to almost all of their actual policy implementation.

None of these reasons show much grounding in the facts, although it's worth noting that the economy hit different people differently: if you didn't lose your job and/or your insurance, you probably did fine with the low interest rates, housing appreciation, tax cuts, and maybe a small portfolio in guns and pharmaceuticals, and chances are that's all the economy you cared about. There no doubt are people who voted for Bush because that's where their bread is buttered, but that cannot explain more than a small percentage of his 59 million tallies. The overwhelming majority of people who voted for Bush did so on faith: not necessarily their own religion, which might be good for half the total, but out of a conviction that he's the right guy for the times -- regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. The question is how can Kerry or any Democrat break through that sort of conviction? Really concerted efforts at education would be helpful, but I don't think they go far enough. Obviously, a lot of people vote without knowing much about the candidates and issues, and the issues are getting more complex and trickier all the time, while attention spans are thinning out. I believe that the real key is to try to articulate a competing vision of morality. I can give you lots of reasons why Bush is a terrible President, but deep down I believe that the real problem with George W. Bush is that he is a profoundly immoral human being. I'd go so far as to say that he's downright evil, in exactly the same sense that he's proclaimed Saddam Hussein to be evil.

There are several problems with this. Liberals and/or secularists tend to be uncomfortable talking about the morality of other people, and would rather stick to reasoning. (Conservatives have no such compunction, and as such their verbal warfare against liberals and secularists is asymmetrical, for the most part deadly effective.) But reasoning takes time, requires mutual consent, and may in itself be distrusted by people with strong convictions. Politicians have problems too, as they tend to get caught up in each other's messes. If Iraq is symptomatic of Bush's immorality, where does Kerry fit in? It's tempting to say, as many have done, that he's the lesser evil, but if what we seek to do is the replace the bonds of conviction for one candidate with another candidate, we really need something more convincing than a mere lesser evil. I have trouble with this too, both being very committed to reasoning and having often noted that people of strong moral conviction have been responsible for no small amount of murder and mayhem throughout history. But I don't see how we can stop someone like Bush if we don't challenge his morality.

John Kerry was at pains to demonstrate his integrity, his personal morality, his devotion to religion as well as reason. But when he critiqued Bush, it was only on results. By giving Bush a free pass on intents he never challenged Bush's morality. Kerry argued that Bush was incompetent, that he was ignorant, arrogant, foolish, but he never suggested that Bush was any of those things on purpose. Kerry in turn argued that he himself was competent, knowledgeable, earnest, dedicated, etc., but he didn't give us a simple compelling reason to trust him with the job, which is that he is morally right. I think that part of the reason why is that Kerry is himself rather dodgy on key moral issues, like war. Kerry spent much of his campaign trying to convince us that he'd be a more effective warrior than Bush, and this left no opening for questioning why Bush is so fond of war in the first place.

I'm not saying that Kerry would have won had he been more clearly antiwar in the first place, or that a more pristine antiwar candidate would have done better. Bush's militarism is so close to the heart of this country, and so much in favor at this particular moment, that a real antiwar candidate most likely would have fared far worse. But that will remain the case until we discredit that militarism, and that will ultimately turn on differing moral visions. It's not going to be easy to articulate that and put it into play -- most of what we have now is rooted in religion, and the clergy mean to keep it that way, which makes it especially awkward for us atheists. But the world is changing -- becoming more complex and uncontrollable by the day -- and we need some firm vision of morality and politics that works. And we need to be able to convey that to people who don't have much time for the details, the why and wherefores, because most people don't.

Of course, there are other scenarios for surviving and overcoming Bush. The most likely is that Bush will make such a mess of his second term that his now-blind followers will give up in disgust. But that's been given a pretty severe trial by his first term, and he's emerged stronger than ever. Historically mid-term congressional elections (the next one is in 2006) have ran against the President's party, but the Republicans managed to escape that effect in 2002, mostly by treating each race as a separate forum (mostly not on Bush). The Democrats do have the experience of massive volunteer efforts this year, which if duplicated could make an impact in 2006. The current Republican ascendancy really started with Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" in 1994. Something like that might focus strongly on countering Bush, but to do so one needs moral principles -- clearly and succinctly articulated, closely bound where possible to accepted morality.

Still, the problem with electoral efforts is that they tend to be played close to the vest, with carefully calibrated soundbite-sized chunks of information. Running a candidate is a fine opportunity to practice education, but winning usually depends on tapping into currents that are already present. There are huge cognitive gaps among the electorate -- people don't understand, for instance, how greater poverty undermines middle class security, or how military might subverts international law, or how defensive wars inevitably produce atrocities, or even how cheap gasoline consumption affects the worldwide environment. Candidates need help even to broach such issues, and that needs to come from a network of think tanks, special interest organizations, and an information architecture, much like the right wing already has working. We need news, analysis, speakers, talking points, skills development, candidate recruitment, resources of all sorts. Much of this is much easier given the Internet and open source principles. We have seen over the past decades the development of a huge right-wing propaganda machine, which has done much to foster politicians like Gingrich and Bush, and we need to counter that, within our principles. The right wing is supported by donors and businesses, and we need a counter to that as well. One can think of many more ways to make our political presence felt: Kerry did, after all, get over 55 million votes, and their interests and concerns should never be forgotten. But one lesson is clear from this election: there is no huge body of non-voting masses out there merely waiting to turn the tide out way.

But redoubling efforts is only something that can be done once we get up off the floor from this defeat. In my pro-Kerry letter I quoted Jack Germond: "We get about what we deserve. So I guess we deserve George W. Bush." I added, "We have one more chance to show that we deserve better." The shock of this election is that a majority of the American people have failed to live up to our most basic hopes. This has become a vain and vindictive country, and politicians like George W. Bush feed on that, then come back and flatter us with talk about how we have enemies who hate our freedom and wealth. And they assert that only their strength and moral clarity can keep us safe, and too many of us believe them, because they like us are vain and vindictive. This in a nutshell is the cycle of the neverending war on terrorism. America's failure is that not enough of its people see through this scam. Those who did will be in no hurry to forgive those who didn't. Bush is still in power, and Bush is still evil. But with enemies like him we will be need friends, and we will need to stick together.


By the way, the Ralph Nader vote was, predictably, totally inconsequential to the result. Someone might try to argue that had Nader appeared on the Ohio ballot he might have taken more votes from Bush than from Kerry. It would be fun to rerun that, but there's still no way to make it compute.


Oct 2004 Dec 2004