"What does not change / is the will to change"
--Charles Olson, "The Kingfishers"

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A poem by Alan Dugan

Such a New York poem. Such a New York voice.

Alan Dugan should be a much greater part of the American consciousness. His poems capture something essential about urban life in the latter half of the 20th Century.

Send me an e-mail.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Baseball time capsule

The Huffington Post ran a story on a recently discovered footage of the Washington Senators and New York Giants in the 1924 World Series. The clip shows little the game has changed, in terms of its broad strokes -- including the unexpected image of a player sliding head first into first base. The Senators won the game and series 4-3.

What is interesting is that the series was played on seven-straight days, starting on Oct. 4 (today's playoffs have just started) and ending Oct. 10 (the league championships are unlikely to have even started by Oct. 10 this year).

Maybe a Giants-Washington NLCS is in the cards (apologies to St. Louis for the pun). CORRECTION -- This is impossible, given that they are playing each other in the LDS.

Send me an e-mail.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How to dismantle a reputation:
Reviewing the new U2 release

I think it's safe to say that the U2-Apple merger has no winners. By invading its customers' iCloud accounts and giving them what many didn't want -- a free album by U2 -- Apple reinforced its image as the prototypical NSA-age super-corporation (yes, I have an iPhone, iPad, Mac and Cloud account), while also managing to remind its customers (and SNL) of the recent and very public "breach" (my word) of its iTunes security. (This Wired piece is typical of the response.)

U2, for its part, reminded the world that it is more than a rock band. It is, like Apple, a massive corporation and only functions as a musical act within this context. This is both a realization of Bono and the boys' long-term goal and a disavowal of the narrative that Bono sometimes likes to tell -- the one about being nothing more than a group of Irish lads who formed a small punk-rock outfit back in the day, and one that had a decidedly radical political view -- a narrative he explicitly and inexplicably linked to the free album release.

Consider this piece from Nico Lang on Salon and The Daily Dot. Lang traces the band's ups and downs -- the pompousness(and good music) of Rattle and Hum; the undeniable greatness of Achtung Baby; the interesting, if failed, experiments of Zooropa and Pop; and the move back to the mainstream with a series of solid (my take) albums during the 2000s.

Through out all of this, as Lang points out, the band was gaining a growing and deserved reputation for pretentiousness (all artists are pretentious on some level, though U2's level may never have been ascended to before). At the same time, Bono moved from sly and ironic Fly character to real-life Fly -- a man who seemed to enjoy trading on his fame, even if he often did so for what he believed were good causes. The character, of course, was meant as a send up of the smarmy celebrity -- though, unfortunately, that sense of daring and humor appears long gone, replaced with an earnestness that is off-putting. Bono now hangs with world leaders, including some very bad men, and the titans of new industry and pushes his tepid version of left capitalism and mushy political reforms while still talking of the band as though it is a quartet of rebels -- which is a bit of I intended irony, I guess.

The band has become, in a word as I said, a corporation.

This would be acceptable if the music matched the personal/band ambition. But what's become clear, as Lang says, is that U2's " recent output" -- its last (now) four albums -- is of a piece. There is a deadening sameness to them, a sense that the band was working from a template or formula. I am like Lang in that I am "someone who likes many U2 records" -- I probably like more of them than Lang, however. That said, I also agree that the band appears to have made a branding decision -- just as Toyota or GE might -- "to be a certain type of band."
If you liked the kind of music they were making with “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” you might like No Line on the Horizon, a 2009 album filled with middle-brow jams. This was a time when even their politics seemed repackaged to fit their new global mindset. Instead of their signature songs about Irish pride, Bono wrote hippy-dippy lyrics about world peace that could play while you browse the aisles at Hobby Lobby.
The new disc, Songs of Innocence, is part of this branding, an album indistinguishable from the previous three but lacking the couple of stellar tunes that kept the U2 fans returning. There is no "Dirty Boots" here and, as the critics at Sound Opinions point out, no lyrical depth. (Favorite line from the podcast: "This is what a dinosaur does in its last days.") In fact, this is easily Bono's weakest set of lyrics -- they are not even worth quoting. Sound Opinions gave the record a vehement and effusive pair of "trash its" and I can only disagree with the vehemence. This is not so much an awful record as an uninspired one. It is background music that becomes less interesting with each listen. (How Rolling Stone -- the music writer Jim Testa alerted me to this -- gave it four stars is beyond me, though Rolling Stone is the U2 of music magazines.)

Is the often vituperative criticism just part of the backlash against the Apple stunt or maybe against Bono? Some do it is, to be sure. But one way of trying to judge this record is to remove the U2 baggage from the equation -- not an easy task. In this case, I asked myself what I'd think of Songs of Innocence were it the product of an unknown band. The answer? Not much. I'd probably not buy it, not recommend it or the band, would feel it to be derivative (Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot address this in their Sound Opinions take down when they describe the record rightly as a band imitating the bands that have imitated U2),

Ultimately, it is not a terrible record so much as a banal and inconsequential piece of radio fodder and would be forgotten were it not for the historic public relations blunder that accompanied its release. One can only hope that the massive scale of the Apple debacle does not obscure the power of the group's best work. If you want to know what I'm talking about listen to Boy, October, War, Under a Blood Red SkyUnforgettable Fire, Wide Awake in America, The Joshua Tree, its masterpiece Achtung Baby or the two greatest hits compilations.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Artistic License: The art of James Arthur

James Arthur, the author of Charms Against Lightning, is reading in Lambertville tomorrow. Here's my column on his appearance.

I'll be reading earlier in the day at the luncheon benefit for the ACME Screening Room in Lambertville. Afterward, there will be a showing of Jack Ballo's documentary Destiny's Bridge and an exhibit of photos by Sherry Rubel. The event is fold out.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Two peas in a gubernatorial pod

Charles Stile at The Record uses his column today to analyze the under-reported "bromance" between Govs. Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo. As Stile points out, the two have engaged in what he calls "a political non-aggression pact that has been in force behind the scenes for several years and has benefited the careers of both men." Cuomo, for instance, has opted not to "hammer Christie throughout the furor" over the George Washington Bridge or to use his notoriety and name to help other Democrats -- whether in New York or New Jersey. Christie has done the same, in return, staying above last year's legislative races for the most part and staying out of the current New York gubernatorial race -- despite being president of the Republican Governors Association.

Stile says there are "practical and strategic reasons why both men have collaborated rather than clashed."
Both pitch themselves to the public as pragmatists who put the greater good ahead of partisan obligations. Attacking each other would only undermine that image.
Stile's focus is on Christie (he does write for a New Jersey audience), in particular, Christie's ability to co-opt Democrats by cutting deals that offer short-term gain to those Democrats while burnishing his image as a pragmatist.

What Stile doesn't discuss -- mostly due to space, I would argue -- is the transactional nature of the relationships crafted by both Christie and Cuomo (this has been written about in a number of places, but this offers a good overview of what I mean). Nor does he get into the ideological commonalities, which are striking once you remove social issues from the table. Both have placed the health of the corporate sector above other constituencies; both have made budget cutting their mantra; both have targeted public-employee unions; both have attacked public pensions; and both back the expansion of charter schools and school choice.

These commonalities -- and the apparent truce (of not alliance) between the two governors -- actually says a lot more about Cuomo than Christie. At least the New Jersey governor is being consistent. He's a conservative and he has attempted to govern as one, with the occasional bone tossed to his liberals (this is New Jersey, after all).

Cuomo, however, is a Democrat and the son of one of the leading liberals of the last quarter of the 20th Century. But he has never been a progressive -- he is from the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, meaning he is more in tune with corporate interests than workers' interests. And while he has won some important victories on same-sex marriage and gun control, he has reversed course on campaign finance and ethics reform.

All of this is well-known -- and it is why he faced a spirited primary challenge from Zephyr Teachout. He is going to breeze to re-election (just like Christie) and his name will remain in play as a presidential contender, though his national reputation (again, like Christie's and also like Hillary Clinton's) is based mostly on a press-constructed image and not on what he actually stands for.

The social-issue efforts, of course, will make Cuomo palatable to Democrats, or palatable enough to excuse the rest of his agenda -- should the field clear (i.e., should Hillary opt out) and he toss his hat into the ring.

Send me an e-mail.