Friday, March 17, 2017

Happy 50th birthday to Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins!

As I turn 36, I'm thinking of someone else born on St. Patrick's Day: Billy Corgan, who turns 50 today.

It's hard to know what to say about Billy Corgan. Any words would seem inadequate to describe someone whose music has loomed so large in my life. The idea of growing up and being in the 1990s without the Smashing Pumpkins is inconceivable; to think of myself in an alternate universe in which I had never heard their music is virtually impossible, because the word "myself" would no longer seem to apply. Billy Corgan, and especially his inimitable way with melody, has colored so much of my life that if you asked what it feels like to be me, I don't know that I could come up with words more accurate than listening to a Smashing Pumpkins song. To paraphrase Mendelssohn, it is not that the music is too indefinite or hazy to be put into words, but that any words would be too vague to express music so precisely definite.

As a singer/songwriter/guitarist, Billy Corgan is not just great. He's life-changing.

I shall be free!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Whitney Houston died 5 years ago today.

Whitney Houston died 5 years ago, in 2012, at the tragic age of 48.

I'm not really a big fan of hers, but I love this song. I love how everything about it is just a little too much: the song is a bit too exciting, her voice is slightly too expressive and sensuous, the video is excessively colorful, and the whole thing is just too perfect an encapsulation of '80s pop. It would all be a little embarrassing, if it weren't so undeniably joyous and uplifting.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Green Day's Kerplunk turns 25

25 years ago today, on January 17, 1992, an obscure band called Green Day released their second album, Kerplunk (or at least the version we're familiar with — a shorter version was released a month earlier).

The production of Kerplunk, which was released by the indie label Lookout! Records, was weak. But the songwriting had already reached the level of excellence that would be exposed to the world two years later on their commercial breakthrough, Dookie.

This becomes especially clear if you listen to the versions of "Welcome to Paradise" on both albums. Unsurprisingly, the Kerplunk version lacks the polish of the Dookie version. But the fact that one of the best songs from Dookie had already appeared on Kerplunk shows that this band was pretty great from early on.

"Christie Road" is a nice break from the band's usual fare: introspective and mid-tempo — at least for a little while . . .

"2,000 Light Years Away" is an energetic but poignant pop-punk love song:

Monday, January 16, 2017

James Baldwin on race in America, 1965

James Baldwin, debating William F. Buckley, Jr., in 1965:

40 years ago, when I was born, the question of having to deal with what is unspoken by the subjugated, what is never said to the master — of ever having to deal with this reality, was a very remote possibility. It was in no one’s mind. When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history, and neither did I — that I was a savage, about whom the less said the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. Those were the only books there were. Everyone else seemed to agree.
If you walk out of Harlem, ride out of Harlem, downtown, the world agrees: what you see is much bigger, cleaner, whiter, richer, safer than where you are. . . . Their children look happy, safe. You’re not. And you go back home, and it would seem that, of course, that it’s an act of God, that this is true: that you belong where white people have put you. . . .

One of the great things that the white world does not know, but that I think I do know, is that black people are just like everybody else. One has used the myth of Negro and the myth of color to pretend and to assume that you were dealing . . . with something exotic, bizarre, and . . . unknown. Alas, it is not true. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars — we are human too. . . .

What is dangerous here is the turning away from . . . anything any white American says. The reason for the political hesitation, in spite of the Johnson landslide, is that one has been betrayed by American politicians for so long. Of course, I am a grown man, and perhaps I can be reasoned with. I certainly hope I can be. But I don’t know, and neither does Martin Luther King, none of us know how to deal with those other people whom the white world has so long ignored, who don’t believe anything the white world says, and don’t entirely believe anything I or Martin is saying.
And one can’t blame them. You watch what has happened to them in less than 20 years. It seems to me that the City of New York, for example . . . [is] able . . . to reconstruct itself, tear down buildings and raise great new ones downtown . . . and has done nothing whatever except build housing projects in the ghetto for the Negroes. . . .

Until the moment comes when . . . we the American people are able to accept the fact . . . that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country — until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it. And if that happens, it is a very grave moment for the West.

That excerpt starts at 30:14 in this video:

Friday, January 6, 2017

Tori Amos's Little Earthquakes turns 25

(Photo by Rob Verhost/Redferns via Rolling Stone.)

Tori Amos released her first solo album, Little Earthquakes, on January 6, 1992 — 25 years ago today.

Although she's an American, the album was released only in the UK at first; the US version was delayed until late February. Apparently the thinking was that she might not be as appealing to Americans. The concern was unnecessary.

It's hard to express what a brilliant artist Tori Amos is. She does three things and is stellar at each one: songwriting (alternating between frankly confessional and slyly cryptic), singing (at its most mellifluous on this album but capable of being much more raw) and piano playing (classically trained but with pop and jazz sensibilities).

Whether or not Little Earthquakes is her best album, it's at least the essential starting point for approaching her sprawling 25-year body of work.

Rolling Stone's "track-by-track guide to Little Earthquakes" includes extensive quotes from her on the long process of self-realization that led to creating her solo debut after leaving an unsuccessful band.

"Coming out of beating myself up about the choices I had made, I just rolled up my sleeves and grasped at all of the poetry that had ever meant anything to me," Amos says. "From Rimbaud to Baudelaire, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, and also the visual artists. I surrounded myself with the stories and the thinkers that formed me, not what those that had the power to push the button wanted me to be formed with."

"Silent All These Years" is quintessential early Tori Amos — the rare songwriter who can pull off rhyming a whole phrase with itself:
So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts
What's so amazing about really deep thoughts?
The sudden feeling of uplift and release in the bridge ("years go by...") is exhilarating.

(Live solo.)

In "Precious Things," she delves into themes of Christianity, gender, beauty, sexuality, and humiliation, over a relentlessly driving rhythm.

(Live solo.)

In "Crucify," Tori, whose father was a minister, again addresses Christianity ("Got enough guilt to start my own religion"):

(Very different live version.)

"Winter" is the emotional centerpiece of the album — an almost startlingly intimate ballad.

(Live solo.)

Near the end of Little Earthquakes, in "Me and a Gun" (the least musically interesting but most lyrically arresting song on the album), Tori leaves her piano aside and recounts her harrowing experience of being raped. She explained in an interview:
In the song I say it was "Me and a Gun," but it wasn't a gun. It was a knife he had. And the idea was to take me to his friends and cut me up, and he kept telling me that, for hours. And if he hadn't needed more drugs, I would have been just one more news report where you see the parents grieving for their daughter.

And I was singing hymns, as I say in the song, because he told me to. I sang to stay alive. Yet I survived that torture, which left me urinating all over myself and left me paralyzed for years. That's what that night was all about, mutilation, more than violation through sex.

I really do feel as though I was psychologically mutilated that night, and that now I'm trying to put the pieces back together again. Through love, not hatred. And through my music. My strength has been to open again, to life, and my victory is the fact that, despite it all, I kept alive my vulnerability.

Continuing the theme of "vulnerability," she sings in "China":
Sometimes, I think you want me to touch you
How can I, when you build the great wall around you?
Few albums keep vulnerability alive as beautifully and daringly as Little Earthquakes.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Remembering those who died in 2016

Here are most of the 2016 obituaries I posted to Facebook, grouped into categories but otherwise in no particular order.

They’re almost all from the New York Times, whose obituaries are excellent and life-affirming.

Some of the people on this list I love and care about; one I worked for; some I have mixed feelings about; some I’m not that interested in but respect how much they meant to their fans; a couple I hate; and many I simply hadn’t heard of before reading their obituaries. But I took away something meaningful from just about all of these posts, and I hope you do too.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

November 2016: The New Normal

On Wednesday, the day after Election Day, in New York City (where both candidates gave their post-election speeches), the sky was cloudy and dark. The next day, it was sunny and warm for a November day.

As I watched the results come in on Tuesday night and gradually realized that it was not just a close election that would take a while before we saw the seemingly inevitable win for Hillary Clinton, but that Donald Trump had won decisively, I felt physically ill. I couldn't process the news. Calling the election an "upset" seemed to have a cruel double meaning. How could my country have elected a leader so odious and unqualified?

Encountering people on the street on Wednesday felt awkward, all of us aware of our national embarrassment. We heard reports of hate crimes committed by Trump supporters (some of which turned out to be hoaxes) and fears that America would descend into an authoritarian dystopia where overt bigotry runs rampant. Democrats and Republicans who had opposed Trump started thinking of charities to donate to and volunteer work to do, as if to offset the election results.

On the same day, we heard Hillary Clinton and President Obama speak about the news in an optimistic, level-headed way. The next day, the current and future presidents met for the first time and started working on the transition to the Trump administration. This is the new normal.

Accepting this will not mean acquiescing to everything, or even most things, that President Trump says or does. We should subject him to merciless scrutiny and criticism, just as we should with any other president. In fact, that will be possible only if we accept that he is legitimately the 45th President of the United States, and the time for protesting Trump's holding this office has passed. If you drown out any discussion of the specifics of his presidency with the familiar refrains that he's abnormal, racist, sexist, etc., you'll remove yourself from the realm of productive debates about the president.

Amid all the national squabbling about Trump that's been going on since June 16, 2015, a few indisputable facts stand out:

Trump said he'd run for president, and it was widely derided as something that would never happen, or, once he officially announced, as a short-lived publicity stunt.

Trump was right.

Trump said he'd win the Republican nomination, and virtually everyone said that wouldn't happen: he had a "hard ceiling" of support far below 50%, and eventually the rest of the field would narrow down to one main challenger who'd emerge as a consensus nominee.

Trump was right.

Trump said he'd win the presidency, and virtually every pundit said this was highly unlikely for any number of reasons: Clinton was ahead in the polls; she was the only one with a serious ground game; Trump had generally bombed the debates; his unfavorable rating was the highest of any presidential candidate in American history and especially bad with women and Hispanics; and it simply seemed implausible that such a person could ever be elected president.

Trump was right.

And he didn't win the election by just one state, as the most recent Republican president did twice. Trump apparently won Michigan, which was considered a blue state, and he won Pennsylvania, which was considered technically a swing state but with the footnote that no Republican candidate had won it since the '80s.

Trump has been wrong about many things. But on his ability to achieve his presidential goals, he's been more right than just about anyone else.

Of course, you might not want him to achieve his goals for his presidency.

But look at his long list of plans for his first 100 days in office. Some I disagree with, like tax cuts. Some are reiterations of unrealistic campaign themes, like getting Mexico to pay for a wall. Some I can't judge yet, like a vague promise to reduce corruption in Washington.

But some . . . actually seem like they just might be good ideas, like more school choice and streamlining the FDA's approval of medications.

And none of them involve turning America into a fascist dictatorship, forcibly removing citizens from the country, systematically violating due process, instituting apartheid, or squelching free speech.

It would be naive to expect any president to succeed in implementing all the best-sounding parts of their agenda. But if Trump is claiming he'll accomplish a number of things that sound like decent ideas, he might turn out to be right.

Let's wait and see. Let's give him a chance. And let's react to the particular things he does or doesn't do when he's in office, instead of unproductively agonizing over the general notion of him as president . . . as strange and troubling as that might be.

How should Democrats respond to Gary Johnson and Jill Stein supporters?

People say Hillary Clinton is such a good listener, and she may well be. But did she ever listen to Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or their supporters? I'm sure she'd agree that she had to work hard for every single vote. She wasn't entitled to anyone's vote. The fact that people like me voted for Gary Johnson (after voting for Gore, Kerry, and Obama) is meaningful. Instead of lashing out at us for how we cast our votes, listen to us and try to absorb what we were saying when we looked at "Clinton" and "Trump" on the ballot and said: "Neither, thanks."

Think about this: a candidate as bumbling as Johnson, who was ignored by the mainstream media except when there was a story that allowed the media to ridicule him for supposedly not knowing about the world, did far better than any other Libertarian candidate in history. That should send a message.

If you're a Democratic candidate or working for one, try to do better next time. You may think you tried as hard as possible this time. But the Democratic party didn't bother to oppose the worst excesses of the Obama administration — the Libya war, the drone war which could inspire more terrorists, the erosion of Americans' privacy, the expansive theories of executive power. Stop and think about the efficiency of markets and the appropriate limits of government, instead of seeing every problem as one to be solved by government.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The popular vote doesn't matter

It doesn't matter that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, just as it didn't matter that Al Gore won the popular vote.

In both cases, I would have preferred the Democrat over the Republican. But I lost, and I can only accept the results of the election — just as so many people were urging Donald Trump to do if he lost. The same people would have been outraged if Trump had refused to accept the results after winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College.

If you want to switch from the Electoral College to a popular-vote system, put your money where your mouth is. Do the hard work of lobbying for a constitutional amendment. This would take a long time, and you'd have no assurance that it would end up favoring candidates you happen to like. But it would be more effective than ad hoc complaints about the results of a particular election.

There is no such thing as "winning" the popular vote, because you can only "win" under existing rules. If we play chess and you capture my king, you win the whole game — end of story. If I capture more of your pieces in total, I don't "win" the plurality of pieces; I don't win anything. If I had wanted to be able to claim that as a win, I would have needed to reach an agreement with you before starting the game that our goal would be capturing as many pieces as possible — in which case, it's anyone's guess who would have won.

If we had switched to a popular-vote system right before this presidential race started, Trump and Clinton could have changed their get-out-the-vote strategies; Trump could have appealed to large numbers of conservatives and independents in places like California and New York; and Clinton could have appealed to liberals and independents in places like Austin and New Orleans. The candidates might have taken different positions on the issues, or emphasized different issues. And the unpredictability goes beyond that: we don't even know who would have been nominated if primary voters had been trying to choose a candidate who'd receive a plurality of individual votes. For that matter, we don't know if Trump and Clinton would have run for president, or if additional candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden would have resisted the outpouring of pleas for them to run.

Any discussion of a candidate receiving a "win" or "victory" in the 2016 popular vote exists only in the realm of hypothetical alternative history, and has no bearing on the rightful winner in the real world. The only thing the candidates were trying to do was to win the Electoral College, so that's the only fair basis for judging their results.