Monday, October 27, 2008

A Bay Area acquaintance of mine called Scott Pinkmountain recently penned a piece on the election which I thought was quite good. It goes a little something like this:

Present V. Absent, or Reduxio ad Absurdum ad Infinitum

The highly publicized issue of Barack Obama casting "present" votes versus John McCain's under-publicized practice of simply not showing up to vote is central to the current political landscape. Obama's vote of "present" is a common voicing of a soft negative for contentious legislation such as the redundant Illinois abortion bill, BAIPA, which contained wording that would have undermined Roe V. Wade and came up in the final presidential debate. McCain had eight no-shows in the past year alone (presumably for similar motivation?) for a vote to extend tax breaks for renewable energy development, which he claims to support.

On the one hand, Sen. Obama has built a campaign around acknowledging complexity and contradiction in controversial issues such as gun control and abortion (often to the frustration of the far left) and on the claim that we will need to find comprise and reconciliation in order to move forward as a country. On the other hand, McCain has steered his campaign further and further from the subtlety he has shown at points throughout his career, into what has become an all out assault on nuanced discourse. These are not just the empty gestures and poses of a presidential campaign, but fundamentally different mind frames being expressed under the extreme conditions of a lengthy, taxing endurance test requiring all the same advice-taking, policy analysis, decision-making, staff deployment and populace-mobilizing skills necessary to run the White House.

After lauding Barack Obama's deep calm and reassuring presence in a recent OpEd in the New York Times (Oct 17, 2008), David Brooks questioned whether this quietude would make him a pushover among his more experienced cabinet. Month after month Obama has maintained a clear, singular vision and a nearly impossibly focused, unflappable campaign. This is the result of a highly disciplined candidate acting from strong core beliefs, not the random acts of someone chasing votes, motivated by whatever voice is loudest in his immediate proximity. This distinction explains the formerly scrupulous McCain's behavior as he fires off shot after shot into the dark: a reckless and unqualified VP pick whose track sheet of vendetta politics, secrecy, intimidation, cronyism, lack of interest in the rest of the world (until a month ago) and prideful ignorance of Washington rings devastatingly close to George Bush; an outwardly unbalanced, attention-grabbing approach to the financial crisis; and his recent descent into fear-mongering, jingoism and anti-intellectualism.

The real danger in McCain's move away from a nuanced and textured world view is not the immediate effect of lowering the level of discourse in the election, but what a presidency with such an approach would bestow. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we do not have to work too hard to imagine. We have seen its corrosive, divisive and ultimately destructive effects over the last eight years under a president who, genuinely or not, played ignorant on crucial national security issues (including sending us to war) and frequently invoked "bad guys" and "evil" in a world that is far too complex and interconnected to reduce to such childlike perspective.

We are seeing it again in John McCain. The incessant hammering at Obama's relationship with William Ayers demonstrates McCain's reluctance to show up and be "present" for the kind of subtle discourse we so desperately need now in this country. Ayers, now a highly regarded citizen by people with ties to both parties, was once part of a resistance movement against the most unpopular war this country has ever fought, (a war responsible for more than 58,000 American deaths), at a time when the U.S. government was responding with violence against protesters that we can scarcely imagine in this day and age, including the killings of unarmed protesters at Kent State. Governments are labeled "regimes" and appropriately criticized when they behave as such in the world today. This does not excuse the actions of the Weathermen, but it does cast them in a context which undermines McCain's attack and his attempt to essentially equivocate Ayers with the likes of Timothy McVeigh - a dangerous and false equivocation but a distinction far too nuanced for a smear campaign with robo-calls.

Then there's the issue of socialism. Playing on the assumption of people's political ignorance, xenophobia and greed, McCain has taken up the button-pushing claim that Obama is a socialist due to his suggestion to Joe Wurzelbacher that were Joe to make over a quarter of a million dollars a year, he ought to consider shouldering a 3-4% tax increase to support his great nation. That McCain has labeled the paying of income taxes socialism, (income taxes being the primary source of revenue for our country so that it may continue providing military, education, roads, entitlements, veteran benefits, etc..), is yet another assault on the nation's presence of mind. Never mind the fact that by "socialist" standards McCain has established, his $300 billion dollar mortgage purchase plan and capital gains tax advocacy are aimed at "sharing the wealth" upward. Then of course there is the histrionic and inflammatory depiction of ACORN as "maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." How low do we need to drop the bar of conversation until we can meet McCain's disembodied rhetoric? Will it stop at questioning which parts of the country are "pro" or "anti" American? Apparently not. This is what McCain is offering to the country? A no-show vote on depth and realistic perspective. A view of the world that is so compromised, so diminished as to cast it in with us or against us terms. This is what we had with Bush and it has cost us dearly.

All this in stark contrast to the measured presence of Obama. He is a realist who will openly consider options such as expanded drilling for oil and increased forces in Afghanistan even if they are unpopular with his supposed leftist base. Obama has repeatedly sacrificed sound bite oratorio in order to elaborately acknowledge the complexity of challenges he may face in office, as opposed to offhandedly dismissing and oversimplifying these challenges as McCain has done with social security, nuclear waste, and "winning" the war in Iraq (whatever that yet unexplained qualifier might mean). In Obama, we have a candidate who seems willing to absorb multiple perspectives and seek a nuanced path through charged issues to find a solution. A balanced negotiator with an intellect broad enough to allow contradictions to exist alongside one another, just as they always will in the real world. This should come as no surprise from America's first presidential candidate who is a true citizen of the world. Someone raised with multiple perspectives from different geographic, socioeconomic, cultural and religious influences. This overwhelmingly positive attribute - one which can easily be argued is the single most important quality an American president in today's utterly intertwined global community must embody - has somehow been twisted into a negative by the inwardly-turned, antagonistic, nearly alienationist McCain. One candidate is present on a global level, and the other is aggressively absent. This is not a coincidence or a metaphor. This is a very real, very important distinction.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Midnight Trolling

It's worth watching this the whole way through.

This too. Pat and Lolly in the zone.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

It’s hard enough

To find an open door
It’s hard enough to see

It’s hard enough
To sit and wait your turn
It’s hard enough to be

You are my only love
You are my safe
You are my one aside
Why don’t you stay?

It’s hard enough
To plow a frozen field
It’s hard enough to try

It’s hard enough
To drain an ocean filled
It’s hard enough to try

You are my lone love
You are my safe
You are my one aside
Why won’t you stay?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Souled American lately. It’s the way the light is strumming through the trees ringing the meadow; the way the days are changing timbre, etched as they are now in long gold and copper; the way the crickets and tree frogs weep and gnash their teeth mad in the moonlight for warm summer gone. It’s the way—maybe—we peep naked over the sash onto the holy dawn field and feel (in light of a recent West Coast sojourn) homeless and a little bewildered (sometimes). Home is where you make it. Is that a saying? In this season I have to remember to make it here where I am. Souled American carries all that burnished loneliness and quiet madness and also wry humor and frustrated, perfect rhythm; this is why I’ve been thinking of them, I suppose. They are good music for the season.

I met Chris Grigoroff and Joe Adducci in 1999 or so when my band opened for them in San Francisco. They were the first true musical stars I had ever met; their reputations preceded them (Camden Joy’s book was already out, and their music was on the streets), and when they arrived disheveled and stoned and impossibly old in a rental sedan (having driven from Chicago to play two shows on the West Coast), we were all in awe. Watching them stumble onstage, looking for all the world like post-apocalyptic scarecrows in wraparound sunglasses and tattered jeans and running shoes, wreathed in dope smoke, none of us had any idea what to expect; they hassled the harried soundperson for a bit, smoked a joint, demanded beer “without fruit in it” (code for Budweiser or Pabst, anything but the microbrew on offer), and launched into one of the most alarming, psyche-altering sets of music my young self had ever seen. I was also stoned that night, having smoked some of the pot they had proffered upon arrival (they were nothing if not giving), and had to walk around the block several times during the course of their performance to quiet my soul. I know now that this had less to do with the quality of their weed than the profound conjuration they were involved in. They were damaged and baffling, maddening and gorgeous, grievous, hilarious, and, in their way, rhythmically perfect. Everything flanged and flammed and strobed in glacial, prescient unison; Chris hung back from the microphone and shook his head from side to side, sobbing in a cracked windowpane tremolo. Joe played a homemade fretless bass; upon the headstock he had scrawled, in permanent marker, “Lee Skalar.” They were ramshackle and dark and wild and singular, and there was a distinct possibility that the whole thing was a put on; that’s how in control they were. They were involved with us all (and there were many people there that night; San Francisco was a Souled American town at that time) deeply and inextricably; they also did not seem to give an everloving fuck. They were incredibly smart dudes. Gris gris men.

Over time, I became better friends with them. We were never close, but I hung out and played with them whenever they came to town, and I would see them when we traveled through Chicago. I was always a little starstruck. I recall walking into The Uptown on 17th and Capp (back when we still had to dodge hookers and the occasional fired gun to get in the joint) with Joe once; he smiled and said, “I used to play in a reggae band called The Uptown Rulers.” This made perfect sense. They were roots.

The last time I was in contact with Souled American was in 2004. I had just returned from Europe when I received a frantic call from the owner of a club in San Francisco I had set them up with. Apparently, their show hadn’t gone so well. There were few people in attendance (by this point, San Francisco was not so much of a Souled American town; it had been almost ten years since their previous album was released) and almost no dough at the end of the night. They threatened the employees of the club and were eventually pushed out the front door, which was promptly locked. They spent several hours beating on the door and haranguing the bar staff before the cops were called. It was uncomfortable for everyone at the time (except maybe them), but it’s hilarious to think about now. The only rules they played by were their own; nobody else even knew what game they were playing.

Listening to meisterwerks like Sonny, Frozen, and Notes Campfire today, I still think it’s some of the most complex, challenging, beautiful music I’ve ever heard. “Make Me Laugh Make Me Cry” (from Fe) continues to makes me pump my fist in grief and glory; the rambling melody of “One Note” (a song that is supposed to be on their next record) still runs through my head at weird times.

They're so tuff. Souled American—where are you?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Robeson County, Where Ya At?

I recently tripped down to Robeson County with Amy (refugee of the Brooklyn Boroughs), where we met up with head Lumbee magik man Jefferson Currie. He travelled us down some back roads and introduced us to the sights and culinary delights of that fecund, oft-maligned land of enchantment. It ain't where ya from, it's where ya at.

Where was the Baldhead Growler? He would have done the shimmy shake on some of this food.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Free To The People

I no more expected anyone else on earth to have read a book I had read than I expected someone else to have twirled the same blade of grass. I would never meet those Homewood people who were borrowing The Field Book of Ponds and Streams; the people who read my favorite books were invisible or in hiding, underground. Father occasionally raised his big eyebrows at the title of some volume I was hurrying off with, quite as if he knew what it contained- but I thought he must know of it by hearsay, for none of it seemed to make much difference to him. Books swept me away, one after the other, this way and that; I made endless vows according to their lights, for I believed in them.

Parents have no idea what the children are up to in their bedrooms: They are reading the same paragraphs over and over in a stupor of violent bloodshed. Their legs are limp with horror. They are reading the same paragraphs over and over, dizzy with gratification as the young lovers find each other in the French fort, as the boy avenges his father, as the sound of muskets in the woods signals the end of the siege. They could not move if the house caught fire. They hate the actual world. The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame.

-Annie Dillard, 1987

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Most of the songs are composed by young people who are seeking supernatural powers, and have gone off wandering in solitary places for hours and days, their flute at their lips; thus one has to take into consideration the influence that the musical scale peculiar to such and such a flute will exercise on the tunes that are made up. When a young man wishes to acquire supernatural power, be it for hunting, for gambling, or for shamanism, etc...,he runs away from everyone, he wanders aimlessly through wild lonely places, where he lets himself fall into endless daydreams, more or less accompanied by hallucinations. Finally he sets himself to composing a song which will be for him the total expression of that particular experience. This song "belongs" to him; that is to say that everyone calls it his song, the song of so-and-so. But he never keeps it to himself along, like a secret; he will sing it openly in front of others. And if it pleases them musically, they'll learn it and it can even become very popular and go through quite a few variations. But its supernatural effectiveness is limited only to him who found it, whose voice and special way of singing the spirits will of course know how to recognize.

-Jaime de Angulo