Sunday, January 30, 2011

1994: The Haiti Intervention

While our focus rightly continues to be on the people of Egypt, our neighbors in Haiti continue to suffer under the combination of Mother Nature's wrath and the legacy of US domination. Here's a piece from the December 1994 Tucson Comic News, written as US troops were once again dispatched to Port-au-Prince. For more background on Haiti, see chapter 41 of The CIA's Greatest Hits.

It used to be a truism of American politics that the Democrats (Wilson, FDR, Truman, LBJ) would get us into wars, while the Republicans (Hoover, Ike, Nixon) would get us into recessions and depressions. Well, twelve years of Reaganbush, with three wars, capped by a recession, pretty much shot down that cliche. But these days, the Democrats can't seem to run a war to save their lives.

Now, if the Republicans wanted to invade Haiti (not that they would, but bear with me) they would have leaked Forrest Gump-styled digital footage of General Cedras buggering dogs in the street, and whipped this whole country into a blood frenzy before moving any troops. The delicious ambivalence on the part of hawks in both parties towards our latest "adventure" shows what happens when they find they've taken their lip service toward democracy and human rights a bit too far.

It may just be that we've come to the point in the New World Order in which homicidal kleptocracies like Somoza's Nicaragua, or Pinochet's Chile, are just too downright embarrassing to be client states of the good old USA - though I wouldn't bet the farm on it just yet. Perhaps, though, a better-packaged neocolonialism is what is now being sought.

After expending American blood and treasure to put the Emir of Kuwait and Guillermo Endara into power-ostensibly to uphold international law-the US had a tough time explaining to its allies exactly why we would tolerate a junta of machete-wielding maniacs right in our "backyard." Fact is, as FDR said about Somoza, "he may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." And make no mistake about it, those are our machete-wielding maniacs down there. The Haitian military was trained and financed by the US, with many of its top leaders, including General Cedras, on the CIA payroll. Most of them learned their craft at the infamous "School of Assassins" now located at Fort Bening, Georgia.

The US has been kicking the shit out of Haiti at least since 1801, when President Jefferson cut a deal with Napoleon to help suppress a slave revolt on that tortured island. Since then, we have invaded Haiti five times (well, six, now), including, as neo-pacifists like Bob Dole and Phil Gramm like to point out, an occupation that lasted from 1915 to 1935.

The way they tell it, though, we were just a bunch of well-meaning blunderers trying to plant the seeds of democracy, just like hapless Bill Clinton is today. I'm getting a little tired of having to repeat this: Wars have never been fought for altruistic reasons. Never have been, never will be.

What is even more galling is the frankly racist blather on the Sunday chat shows about how our latest expedition is doomed to failure because these Haitians just don't understand Democracy and Human Rights like our glorious selves, and besides, their "culture of violence" is just too deeply embedded. I have simply got to stop watching so much television.

As usual, the only reason this intervention is taking place is to clamp down on democracy, not to "plant its seeds." If we had any commitment to democracy, George Bush could have ended the Cedras coup with a few well-placed phone calls. Fact is, they were only too delighted to have Father Aristide tossed out on his ear after eight months. The slightest possibility of his return sent the CIA into a frenzy of leaks regarding his psychopathic character-based on information provided by the junta itself.

With or without Father Aristide, there's entirely too damn much democracy in Haiti to suit our ruling elites, and the only way to put a lid on it is with another US occupation.

Aristide has now been sufficiently handcuffed to inhibit his freedom to reform Haiti, and whether or not the Tonton Macoutes will be reined in remains to be seen. The US embassy has been maintaining databases of dissidents, just as they did in Indonesia before the 1965 coup that killed between a half million and a million leftists.

It was certainly a dramatic bit of television to send Jimmy, Colin and Sam down for the eleventh-hour save that-surprise!-left Cedras pretty much free to do as he pleases. Whether or not it produces any lasting bulge in Clinton's approval ratings, the Cedras summit was certainly in character.

Sam Nunn had, just the day before, taken to the floor of the Senate to urge that, somehow, the opposition to Aristide, "both legitimate and illegitimate," must be allowed to take part in Haitian political life. It doesn't take a Fellini to figure out the symbolism behind that little gem. Sam just wanted to make sure that the folks who gun down Haitian leftists in the streets can keep on doing what they do best. And with the help of Colin Powell, butcher of Desert Storm and admitted Iran-contra perjurer, and Jimmy Carter, whose much-vaunted dedication to human rights somehow never extended to the people of El Salvador, Senator Sam did just that. I guess I should be grateful he's not Secretary of Defense.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

1987: Big Audio Dynamite

I just received notification, via my Facebook page, that BAD has reunited - so I dug up this concert review from the late Reagan Era. They're currently touring the UK, and will be playing Coachella this spring. Welcome news! Their FB fan page is right here.

British rockers Big Audio Dynamite lived up to their billing Saturday night at the Catalyst. Led by Clash co-founder Mick Jones, BAD delighted a packed dancefloor with their high decibel blend of contemporary funk and visceral punk.

Three years ago, the Clash, minus Jones, played the Santa Cruz Civic, and something was definitely missing. Joe Strummer, who formed the Clash with Jones in 1976, had just sacked his partner over the proverbial "artistic differences". Apparently, Strummer wanted the emphasis on his politically conscious lyrics, which helped the Clash break out of the underground in the late 70's.

Jones, meanwhile, derived his inspiration from Jamaican reggae and American funk and rap. His fusion of these styles with British new wave had critics hailing the Clash for their eclecticism.

After firing Jones, Strummer returned to his hardcore punk roots, taking a revamped Clash on the road to a generally lukewarm response. Jones, ignoring Strummer's public abuse of him, lay low for a year or so, then started BAD.

If the Clash's motto was "the only band that matters", BAD's must be "find a groove and fill it". By the third song - their signature tune "Bad" - they had found that groove, and it only deepened as the night went on.

While Jones enumerated "the things that drive me crazy", his bandmates set up a rhythmic and percussive attack. Drummer Greg Roberts and bassist Leo Williams kept the crowd moving, while Dan Donovan provided texture on keyboards.

Vocalist Don Letts, who let loose with a few inspired raps, handled BAD's trademark tape effects. The little snippets of film and radio dialogue during instrumental breaks lent a touch of surrealism to the mix.

Mick Jones hasn't lost his sense of politics - he dedicated one tune to "Mr. Reagan, the memory man" - he just doesn't beat you over the head it. He's dealing with other tried-and-true rock themes, like the mating game ("Wind Me Up") or the music itself ("C'mon Every Beatbox").

When BAD encored with "Beatbox" and "E = MC2", perhaps their two biggest hits, the dancers were just this side of frenzy. Called back a second time, they offered Prince's "1999" and sent everyone home with smiles on their faces.

While Strummer, hat in hand, co-wrote a few tracks on the latest BAD album, Jones has been quick to downplay any talk of a Clash reunion. To underscore that, he played no Clash songs on Saturday. While songs like "London Calling" and "Rock the Casbah" would undoubtedly have strengthened the set, Jones chose to keep the emphasis on his new band, and he's got a point there. With his varied influences and spirited mates, Jones has established BAD as a band to watch - and nobody watching was standing still.

UPDATE: Please check out these great cover versions of Clash tunes by Rachid Taha and some other guys you might recognize.

1999: McGarrigles and Wainwrights

Sadly, the great Kate passed away last year at the age of 63. Their last disc together was the delightful McGarrigle Christmas Hour. Since this review was written, Kate's daughter Martha Wainwright has also joined the family business, with three distinguished releases to her name so far. Meanwhile, Rufus and Loudon continue to add their respective oeuvres. Anna McGarrigle has not announced any new projects, but the official Kate and Anna website contains heartfelt tributes to her late sister, and links to a new rarities disc. You can sample videos of the sisters over here.

One of the overlooked gems of 1998 was a new disc from the good old McGarrigle sisters, Kate and Anna. The two have been recording wonderful folk-rock albums since the early 1970s. As songwriters, their compositions have been covered by, among others, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, both of whom appear on the new album, The McGarrigle Hour.

The Rykodisc recording is a family affair, which includes their sister Jane, Anna’s husband Dane Lanken, Kate’s ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III, and their two children Martha and Rufus Wainwright, as well as assorted other family and friends.

This delightfully homespun album has the feel of a fireside singalong, and contains works by all the principal songwriters in the family, as well as classics from Irving Berlin, Stephen Foster and Cole Porter. This old-fashioned style of songwriting is also much in evidence on the whimsical and romantic debut album by Rufus Wainwright (eponymously titled, on DreamWorks records). Rufus was recently chosen Best New Artist by critics from Rolling Stone magazine, and his album came in 10th place in the prestigious Village Voice Pazz’n’Jop critics’ poll.

Like his parents, young Wainwright harkens back to pre-rock sensibilities, but his lyrics have a biting contemporary edge to them. That bite may have come from his father’s side. It’s been said of him “He could’ve been as big as Springsteen or Dylan if he wasn’t endowed with a sense of humour.” Those interested in the elder Wainwright’s long and distinguished career are urged to check out the compilation One Man Guy: The Best of Loudon Wainwright III 1982-1986, on Music Club records. Unfortunately, this barely scratches the surface of his 30-year discography. His comprehensive website contains links to both Rufus’ and Kate & Anna’s home pages.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Egypt Chapter

It looks as though a new chapter in Egyptian history is about to begin. Events on the ground are moving very quickly. I thought it might be helpful to post the chapter on Egypt from my 2003 book, Boomerang!, or How Our Covert Wars Have Created Enemies Across the Middle East and Brought Terror to America. Like the title of the book, this is kind of long, but if you're interested, here you go:

In 1952 CIA officers in Cairo held a series of meetings with coup plotters in the Egyptian army, including Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser. The officers hoped to overthrow King Farouk, the corrupt and buffoonish puppet monarch backed by the British, while the US hoped to replace Britain as the dominant foreign power in the region. These overlapping interests insured that the coup took place in July of that year. Nasser, only 34, remained behind the scenes initially, with a General Neguib as the titular head of the new government. The younger man became prime minister in 1954 and assumed the presidency of Egypt in 1956 following a referendum.

Nasser's first priority, which dovetailed nicely with Washington's interests, was to get British troops removed from the Suez Canal, where they had been stationed since 1882. As the canal no longer held much strategic value to Britain (after the loss of India), an agreement was reached in October of 1954. For the first time in two and a half thousand years, Egypt was no longer under foreign occupation of any kind. This was a great catalyst for Nasser's growing reputation as a hero to Arab nationalists, fanned by his marathon radio broadcasts in colloquial Arabic.

Israel, however, viewed the presence of 80,000 British troops on the canal as a welcome buffer with Egypt. The Israeli secret service, the Mossad, sent agents to sabotage British installations and plant bombs in public buildings, hoping to scuttle the negotiations by blaming the terrorism on Egyptian nationalists. This scheme was derailed when the agents were caught and exposed. France was also upset when, shortly after the British departure from Egypt, Algerian nationalists launched a revolt against French colonial rule; Paris was convinced (with help from the Mossad) that Nasser had encouraged them. To counter Egyptian influence, France then began selling arms to Israel in defiance of a regional arms embargo. In February of 1955 Israel, citing cross-border harassment by Palestinian refugees, attacked an Egyptian army outpost in Gaza, killing 40 soldiers and a number of civilians. Yet an Israeli historian has cited documentary evidence that Egypt was making a serious effort to keep the Gaza border calm.

In fact, Israel had been planning an invasion of the Sinai Peninsula since at least 1953, according to the diaries of Prime Minister Moshe Sharett. The Gaza attack precluded any hope of a peace agreement. At that point, as General Moshe Dayan put it, "one of these days a situation will be created which makes military action possible."

Egypt's relations with Washington had begun to sour as Nasser refused to be bribed. US antagonism was further aroused when he balked at buying arms with strings attached, and so turned to East Bloc sources. This in turn led Nasser to rely further on Soviet financing, and so the fear of a pro-Russian tilt became a self-fulfilling prophecy - the 1950s version of "If you ain't with us you're against us."

In July of 1956, Secretary of State Dulles reneged on a previous commitment to help Egypt build the Aswan Dam, and blocked international funding as well. In response, Nasser exercised his right to re-establish Egyptian sovereignty over the British-built Suez Canal - which was then closed to Israeli shipping. And in response to that, the British and the French made a secret deal with Israel to invade Egypt and seize back the canal. But this deal was made behind the backs of the Americans, and Israeli agents lied to their CIA counterparts about the impending invasion.

On October 29, 1956, the Israelis used their French-supplied arsenal to launch a surprise attack on Egypt, seizing the Sinai. The plan was to falsely announce that Egypt had attacked Israel, after which Israeli troops would occupy the Sinai Peninsula all the way to the east bank of the Suez Canal. Then British and French troops would intervene to prevent a wider war, and hopefully, the whole thing would be so humiliating to Nasser that his people would rise up against him. Britain and France bombed Egyptian territory, and then sent troops to back up the Israelis.

The Eisenhower Administration was outraged, not only by Israeli duplicity, but also by the Europeans' attempt to re-establish their influence in a region where the US now wished to call the shots. In order to counter that influence, the US was even willing to cooperate briefly with the Soviets in condemning the Suez attacks in the UN. Stymied by a US threat to withdraw aid, the Israelis reluctantly withdrew from the Sinai and Gaza, with UN monitors placed on the Egyptian border. Egypt regained control of the canal, subject to international guarantees of Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba.

Nasser emerged an even bigger hero than before, and began to talk of uniting the Arab world into one big federation. This set off alarm bells in Washington. Nasser's pan-Arabian dreams were short-lived, and amounted only to a brief federation with Syria, (which lasted until the next coup in that country undid the deal). The US countered this alarming spurt of Arab unity by encouraging Jordan and Iraq to band together against the new United Arab Republic, rather than joining it. And no less than eight separate assassination plots were soon launched against Nasser, involving, at various times, America, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. These involved at least one CIA assassination plot in 1957. According to the memoirs of former CIA officer Wilbur Crane Eveland, the story goes that Eisenhower had mused that he wished the "Nasser problem" could be "eliminated" - which the CIA chief, Allen Dulles, took as an order to kill. The plot never came to fruition, as Dulles ostensibly realized he had misinterpreted his boss. However, this account bears a marked similarity to other cover stories explaining away known CIA death plots, so it should perhaps not be taken at face value. Britain's secret service MI6 also plotted with the Mossad to kill Nasser on several occasions.

The Nasser problem continued, however, and in June 1967, 11 years after the Suez crisis, Israel tried the same trick again, this time successfully. The Israelis also had territorial designs on the West Bank and the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights, in order to secure control over the headwaters of the River Jordan and the aquifers of its basin. General Moshe Dayan later recounted how Israel had deliberately provoked firefights with Syrian forces. Israeli troops probed the Syrian frontier with tractors, then claimed that the inevitable Syrian reprisals constituted attacks on "peaceful farmers." This cat-and-mouse game intensified in the year leading up to the Six-Day War.

As tensions increased, the Soviets informed the Syrians that Israel was massing troops on its border, though a tank division had been sent several months before, following an earlier skirmish. But for its part, the Israeli government had threatened to invade Damascus if the Syrians did not suppress Palestinian raids. Nasser also called on the Syrians to do so, aware that neither he nor they had the power to prosecute a war with Israel. But as the putative leader of Arab nationalists, he was being goaded by the Syrians, Jordanians and Palestinians to do something about Israeli provocations, and to stop "hiding behind" UN troops.

Eventually Nasser requested that UN forces depart from Gaza; instead the UN withdrew all its troops from the Sinai region. Egypt then moved two token divisions into the Sinai, far from adequate for any offensive action. In solidarity with Syria, Nasser then announced a blockade of ships bringing weapons to Israel through the Gulf of Aqaba. This was the pretext the Israelis required. Though only 5% of their imports came through Aqaba, Israelis told the world that Egypt's "economic stranglehold" threatened their very existence.

Israel also announced at the time that the Arabs had struck first, though that claim too was later abandoned for the more credible formulation that the IDF had launched a "pre-emptive strike", with the ostensible motivation being a massing of Egyptian troops. But as Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin admitted a year later, "I don't believe Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent into Sinai May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel and we knew it." Or as one Israeli cabinet member put it, the "pre-emptive strike" story was "invented of whole cloth and exaggerated after the fact to justify the annexation of new Arab territories."

Most of the Egyptian air force was destroyed on the ground and Israel seized the Sinai and Gaza, as well as the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. The latter three territories are occupied to this day. Many in the Israeli government had interpreted certain US statements as giving a "green light" to their invasion plans; at the very least, they found "an absence of any exhortation to us to stay our hand." But US support for the Israeli invasions went further than that; US warplanes, painted with Israeli markings, helped with reconnaissance photography of Arab targets. President Johnson also moved the Sixth Fleet into the eastern Mediterranean, and secretly authorized shipments of spare parts to the Israeli military, while publicly calling for a regional arms embargo. After the war the US also vetoed a UN resolution calling for Israel to return to its previous borders.

The Johnson Administration was so happy to see Israel strike a decisive blow at perceived "Soviet proxies" in the region that it was even willing to overlook an Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in the middle of the Six Day War. For years the attack on the US ship, which killed 34 sailors, has been a mystery, the details covered up by both the US and Israel. A recent book by author James Bamford posits that the American spy vessel had evidence that Israel had massacred Egyptian prisoners of war, and that the IDF destroyed the ship in order to cover up evidence of this war crime.

The Six Day War ended in a cease-fire, which Nasser abrogated the following year, beginning intermittent skirmishes with Israel over the Sinai. The war significantly escalated tensions in the Middle East, leading to an accelerated arms race. As Nasser put it, "The problem now is that while the United States' objective is to pressure us to minimize our dealings with the Soviet Union, it will drive us in the opposite direction altogether. The US leaves us no choice." And indeed, though Israel had decisively defeated the Arabs, US military assistance to Tel Aviv increased dramatically, as did East Bloc arms sales to Egypt. Nasser did show some interest in a land-for-peace swap - indeed, he had begun peace negotiations with Israel in the 1950s before the attack on Gaza - but he died suddenly of a heart attack in September 1970.

He was succeeded by Anwar el-Sadat, who had been on the CIA payroll since 1960. Despite this, the Nixon administration was slow to work with Sadat, viewing Egypt through a Cold War prism. Sadat made a formal peace offer to Israel in February 1971, but Israel responded by expanding settlements in the occupied Sinai. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger preferred to keep Egyptian-Israeli relations in a stalemate, hoping that the Russians would pressure Sadat into further compromise. Even after Sadat purged pro-Soviet elements from the Egyptian government, Kissinger couldn't be bothered. Sadat's intention, later realized, was to convert Egypt to a US client state. He sent Soviet advisors home and intervened to prevent a communist takeover of Sudan. But frustrated by Washington's indifference to his lost sovereignty over the Sinai, Sadat launched a new war on Israel in 1973 with Syrian support.

Both Jordan's King Hussein and Saudi King Fahd warned the Israelis in advance of the coming attack, but Tel Aviv refused to believe the Arab states were strong enough to pull it off. This easily preventable war led to serious losses on the Israeli side, as Egypt regained control of the Suez Canal. At this point the US suddenly became amenable to a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, though Kissinger's ineffectual shuttle diplomacy produced few results for the remainder of his tenure. This eventually led to Sadat's famous trip to Jerusalem and the Camp David Accords, sponsored by the Carter administration.

Egyptian peace with Israel was bought with billions of dollars of US taxpayer funds. Egypt became the second largest recipient of US aid (after Israel), now totaling some $4 billion annually. Sadat bought peace by agreeing to vague promises that the Israelis would later negotiate peace with the Palestinians. In fact, the Israeli Knesset voted on "policy guidelines" stating that Israel had no intention of honoring these promises. The resolution stated that after a "transition period" agreed to at Camp David, Israel would "act to fulfill its rights to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria [their names for the West Bank] and the Gaza district." These "rights" were indeed fulfilled with increased repression and settlements in the West Bank. Israel also broke Camp David pledges regarding water rights, all of which engendered only weak protests from Sadat.

For its part, Israel bought peace by returning (almost) all of the Sinai and removing Jewish settlements from those lands. Prime Minister Begin then exploited peace with Egypt (and later with Jordan) by using his freed-up forces to launch new strikes against Palestinian positions in Lebanon. And for its part, the US used the Camp David talks to derail the international consensus in favor of a multilateral peace conference including Europe, the East Bloc and the Arab states. In this way Washington alone remained in charge of any "peace process."

The Camp David Accords were deeply unpopular both in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Sadat also alienated his citizens through his economic policies, privatizing many state holdings and cutting food subsidies and other services in accord with World Bank and IMF advice. A hero in the West, he was widely despised at home. There was little public mourning when he was assassinated in 1982, in contrast to the millions who thronged the streets for Nasser's funeral. Sadat was killed by Islamic militants within his own elite guard units while he reviewed a military parade. According to author Douglas Valentine, the guards had been trained by CIA agent William Buckley. Buckley himself sat in the stands during the assassination; also sitting nearby was Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, who had the presence of mind to duck.

Mubarak has ruled with the proverbial iron fist ever since. Egypt had been a police state under Nasser and Sadat, but human rights abuses reached new heights during the Mubarak regime. Mindful of Sadat's fate, he has cracked down on Islamists, moderates as well as radicals. This of course has had the effect of making the Islamic movement in Egypt ever more militant, in marked contrast to states like Yemen and Jordan where they are allowed to compete for parliamentary seats. Many of Egypt's most radical Muslim fighters were trained by Western intelligence services for use in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. The Egyptian arm of the Islamic Jihad has forged ties with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, staging terror attacks against foreign tourists, as well as operating in the US.

Egypt under Mubarak uses its billions in US military aid to detain, beat and torture dissenters, opposition politicians and journalists; many have died in custody. Thousands of political prisoners and pro-democracy activists are held in overcrowded, disease-ridden prisons, without charges or trials. Press restrictions, including newspaper shutdowns, are widespread. Arab nationalists view Egypt as a well-bribed client state of the US and an obstacle to self-determination for its own people as well as its Palestinian neighbors. Nevertheless, the "Lion of Egypt" was re-elected to a fourth term in 1999 with just under 94 percent of the vote; his party holds 97 percent of the legislative seats. He has never named a vice-president.

2002: Yet Another Dylan Show

It was a pretty good show. The folksinger did some interesting covers, one by Neil Young and one by the Stones and one by the soon-to-be-late Warren Zevon (who lies dying with good humor in his beloved Los Angeles). But mostly he did a lot of Bob Dylan songs, and they were tastefully chosen, not just the obvious ones but great little obscure gems like the opening combo of "Seeing the Real You at Last" and I Remember You." Later he did one of my very favorite Dylan songs, "Watching the River Flow," and my jaw dropped open and I said omigawd and when it was over I screamed like a banshee along with 20,000 other Dylan fans because it was in fact the man himself.

He was in fine form, with a crack band, and he gave us sixteen great songs, including his slightly mangled take on "Brown Sugar" which very nearly turned into a train wreck as the second verse collided with the third. But as the saying goes, it was like a dog playing chess: just the fact that he does it at all renders it moot how well it is done. And to be fair, the band was crackling with energy and Bob's vocal had a wonderfully lascivious mumble to it, a tribute perhaps to his African-American second wife.

Since he was in Arizona, he also pulled out "Tombstone Blues," another rarity (I took the liberty of checking out his recent setlists online, which robbed me of a few surprises but allowed me to do some homework researching the lyrics of a few songs not well known to me). Tombstone was dark and ominous and River was bright and rollicking and then he did "Just Like a Woman" with his latest vocal affectation, which is to end every line with a question mark, like this:

Feels any pain?
Tonight as I stand inside the rain?
Everybody knows?
That baby's got new clothes?

It was not the most appealing technique I have heard him employ, and it would have been irritating if it wasn't so amusing and I guess he has to do something to keep it interesting for himself. And while it did recur sporadically throughout the night, for the next number, "It's Alright Ma I'm Only Bleeding," he switched into his parody-of-myself voice, kinda of like his famous version of "Masters of War" at the 1991 Grammys. If you didn't know the words it was just one long sneering nasal whine punctuated by odd shouted phrases like "stand naked!" Personally, I loved it.

As always, he tinkered with the arrangements and key signatures and lyrics and vocals of all his songs, just to keep it interesting for himself. And the whiny voice or the question mark voice were no more consistent than the wizened croak employed on his latest effort Love and Theft. That voice is no more his true one than the Hassidic cowboy of Nashville Skyline or the sequined crooner of Dylan at Budokon. And just to prove the point, he enunciated every word of "Masters of War" (which for obvious reasons he has performed nearly every night this year) in a clear understated tone that could have come from the Bob half his age. And just to underscore that, he followed up with Neil's "Old Man."

To close the set the band kicked the hell out of his new rockabilly raveup "Summer Days," and every time you thought they couldn't possibly rock any harder, well, they did. The encores were predictible if you couldn't resist the urge to go over all his setlists beforehand. Every single night he closes with "Like a Rolling Stone" and/or "All Along the Watchtower," with either "Blowing in the Wind" or "Knocking on Heaven's Door" in between. For the past few weeks it's been Wind/Watchtower every night, so I was pleased when he came out with LARS first and then the other two. Even more pleased when he dropped the question marks halfway through and started biting off the key lines with enthusiasm. And then Wind had a lovely new vocal arrangement and then Watchtower howled appropriately, with the first verse repeated at the end, and we were left with a maelstrom amid a final shout of "what any of it is WORRRRTH!"

Thursday, January 27, 2011

1998: Bye Newt!

Word is that, for the fifth presidential election in a row, Newt Gingrich is "thinking about" running for president. I'm pretty sure God doesn't love me that much, but, just in case... I rustled through the archives and found an account of the last time he held public office, which came to a rather abrupt end, twelve years ago, right in the middle of the Clinton impeachment debacle. Read on:

That chubby, white-haired, perjuring, philandering, draft-dodging, pot-smoking, ethically challenged politician has been bounced out of just wasn't the one we expected.

The reason I can take so much schadenfreude in the humiliation of Newton Leroy Gingrich boils down to two words: hubris and hypocrisy.

Newt's comeuppance was long overdue, and the polarizing partisanship with which he approached his duties makes it all the sweeter. Newt made it clear that he regarded people like me as the enemy, so it should be no surprise that we returned the compliment. He was full of hubris from day one - despite his fine speech when first he grabbed the gavel, expressing his admiration for FDR. If he had governed in that spirit, he might still be in power. But he never tried to live up to that lofty rhetoric. He never ran the Congress as if it represented all the American people - only the "right" ones.

Partisanship has its place, but Newt and his troops swept into town like an occupying army, and his hubris knew no bounds. He declared himself an arbiter of Western Civilization. He compared himself to Churchill and Lincoln. And he saw himself leading a conservative "revolution" that would realign American politics for a generation. What he didn't see was that the 1994 elections represented a reaction against Clinton, not an endorsement of Gingrich.

There's nothing "conservative" about dispensing corporate welfare to military contractors and gutting regulations for polluters. But there's nothing all that unusual about it either - just look at the new Speaker. What made Gingrich unusual is that even his allies grew to distrust him. It became clear to many of them that his cause wasn't a conservative revolution, it was a Gingrich revolution. That revolution has been stymied, and we can all applaud that.

His ultimate hubris was to disregard ten months of evidence that a majority of Americans don't want the President to be impeached. In the face of that, Gingrich tried to turn this election into a referendum on Clinton - and instead turned it into a referendum on himself. It's not so much that Americans admire Clinton - a majority do not - but that the rank hypocrisy of the Republicans irritated them enough to want to support the President.

Ever since Clinton took office, the right - led by the thrice-married draft-dodger Limbaugh - have denounced him as a pot-smoking, draft-dodging womanizer. And who do they hold up as the alternative but the pot-smoking, draft-dodging womanizer Gingrich? This is the man who served divorce papers on his wife while she was recovering from cancer surgery. Some arbiter of Western Civilization.

The commentator Jimmy Tingle has compared the public's reaction on Clinton/Lewinsky scandal to the Rodney King case. Most Americans believe that what Rodney King did was wrong. But when they saw the LA police on videotape, kicking the stuffing out of him, it wasn't Rodney they wanted to see punished. The GOP broadcast their own videotape of Clinton's wrongdoing, but in exposing his most intimate moments to millions of people, they made themselves look like a pack of out-of-control LA cops.

You can say that Clinton/Lewinsky is really about perjury and obstruction of justice, but so too were Gingrich's numerous cases before the House Ethics Committee. Because the chair of that committee owed her seat to Newt, he got charges dismissed and a tap on the wrist. Just the week before the election, another set of charges against Newt was dismissed. The committee, though, admitted the charges were true - it's just that they happened so long ago, that it just didn't make sense to take them any further. These violations took place in 1991 - the same year Bill allegedly wagged his weenie at Paula.

You can say that it's an outrage that Clinton expects us to believe that oral sex isn't sex - but that's exactly the same rationale Newt uses in his extramarital affairs. No, it's really too late. I might have gone along with the Republicans if they had approached Clinton's wrongdoing with the same bipartisanship with which both parties approached Richard Nixon's crimes.

But like everything else Newt Gingrich touches, it was suffused with hubris and hypocrisy. For all the above reasons, I find poetic justice in the fact that Newt is suffering the fate he was preparing for Clinton - humiliation and removal from office. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

But what I don't take cheer from is the obvious fact that without Newt, the Republican Party is stronger, not weaker. Presumably his fundraising acumen is still at their disposal, but he is no longer a lightning rod for voter discontent. And speaking on behalf of the nation's political cartoonists, I can only say, we're going to miss you, Newt.

1989: Chet Baker, the Movie

This review appeared in the Santa Cruz Sun in October 1989. An unofficial tribute site for Baker can be found here. The film is not currently available in a US-formatted DVD, and Amazon wants 200 bucks for a VHS copy. But if you can find it for less - a lot less - it's more than worthwhile.

"I must have lived several lifetimes," sighs the great doomed jazzman Chet Baker toward the end of Let's Get Lost, a nonfiction feature film that covers most of them. Chet Baker lived the life of a highly acclaimed young trumpeter and vocalist, an international cult figure and sex symbol, a hounded junkie pursued by paparazzi and police, a toothless has-been pumping gas in San Francisco, and a frail genius resurrected by friends and admirers. Among the admirers was filmmaker Bruce Weber, who spent a lifetime with Baker recording scenes from his last year on earth.

Let's Get Lost tells the story of Baker's lives as a loose, impressionistic collage, anchored by the one constant in his chaotic existence: the ghostly beauty of his music. The films' style was dictated by necessity, due not only to the miniscule (by Hollywood standards) budget, but also to the physical elusiveness of the subject, who would disappear for weeks without a trace.

It works splendidly, though, as Weber ties together his gorgeous black-and-white footage of the ravaged Baker at work and at play, bitter ex-lovers and children, vintage clips of the angelically handsome young trumpeter and disquieting interviews with his final incarnation. Baker's wounded-animal eyes, sunk into his deeply crevassed face, speak more eloquently than his evasive, whispered replies to Weber's queries.

Like any addict, Chet Baker left a trail of emotional wreckage behind him. The portrait that emerges is that of a slick and manipulative con man, occasionally prone to violence, who hurt anyone who ever cared about him. To a person, though, they all suggest a willingness to take him back, forgiving him his trespasses, such is the power of his charisma. In the end, the filmmakers have fallen in love with him, as has the audience, in spite of the coldness of his addiction. Baker's inner warmth and tenderness emerge, not only in the love he inspires, but most movingly in the purity of his singing and playing.

Weber is to be commended, not only for the lyrical quality of his cinematography, but for focusing so unswervingly on the myth of the self-destructive hipster. Despite his work as a fashion photographer, Weber's look at the tragedy of Baker's lifetimes drains the considerable glamour surrounding its subject, revealing the dark flipside of his magnetic attraction.

Besides providing a balanced and heartfelt biography, Weber served his subject well by documenting his still-potent artistry during the last months of his life. Like Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock and Elvis Costello, Weber gave the man work when he needed it, giving him much-needed exposure and dignity.

Even in his youth, Baker's voice was never strong, but he could bring even the most banal lyric to life with his quaverly emotional timbre. What a revelation, then, when Let's Get Lost closes with Chet wrapping his aching vocals around Costello's "Almost Blue." With its images of "flirting with disaster," or women's eyes "red from crying," it seemed to be written just for that moment. "Almost blue/it's almost touching/it will almost do," he whispers, "there's a part of me that's always true."

Weber's clear-eyed look at his hero, Chet Baker, which never flinches when confronted with the broken manchild he had become, never forgets the part of him that was always true.

1994: Conspiracy Theory

You might have noticed that I tend to go on about assassination plots and such. This little rant grew out of my interactions online in the early days of the Web (well, early to me). It appeared in the January, 1994 issue of the Tucson Comic News. Note to scoffers: try googling "Operation Northwoods."

Now, if I had suggested, a couple of generations ago, that the federal government was injecting plutonium into helpless retarded children, just to see what would happen, I would have been called a number of interesting things. Perhaps the nicest of them would have been 'conspiracy theorist.' Actually, I get called that quite a bit in any case....

These days, the words "conspiracy theory" have become a single buzzword, conspiracytheory, which, roughly translated, means, "I don't want to think about that." The pejorative use of the term is used to mean "you are a paranoid wacko." But I use the term proudly, since a lot of what I do is read up on various criminal conspiracies, and try to consider which theories meet the available facts.

After all, the alternative to conspiracy theory is often coincidence theory. For example, if I were to assert, based on a wealth of documented sources, that Lee Harvey Oswald spent an inordinate amount of time hanging out with known CIA agents, extreme rightwingers, wealthy oil industry tycoons, and violently anti-Castro Cuban exiles, there would be two of several ways of looking at these facts. The conspiracy theory would be "perhaps these associations of Oswald's had something to do with the events of November 22, 1963." The coincidence theory would be, "despite these known associates, I believe that Oswald, acting alone, killed JFK." However, only one of these theories is subject to widespread ridicule.

Much of what is put down as conspiracy theory is simply little-known historical fact. The July 1933 plot by fascist US businessmen to stage a coup against FDR, for instance, is simply too well-documented to be refuted. Yet most Americans have never heard of it. Still other conspiracy theorists will take established facts (a significant portion of the money looted during the S&L crisis went to the CIA) and come up with a theory that, while plausible, cannot be proven (the CIA must have planned it that way). There is nothing wrong with theorizing on that basis, as long as the documented facts are identified, and speculation is clearly labeled as such. As long as such guidelines are followed, crying "conspiracy theory!" simply serves to obfuscate the issues involved.

Another buzzword used to trivialize discussions of conspiracy is "revisionist history." This means, of course, "the previous version of history better reflected my belief system." Whether we like it or not, blatant falsehoods pass into history, and if new facts or evidence come to light, history (never a settled, unchallengeable canon of universally accepted facts to begin with) must be revised. Thus the one million "Communists" massacred in 1965 by the Indonesian government become part of revisionist history when interviews with US State Department officials reveal that hit lists were provided to the Indonesian military. Thus the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, which the Wall Street Journal denounced at the time as, you guessed it, conspiracy theory, now must be redefined as revisionist history. No doubt the Journal would have preferred to have left it unrevised.

Another branch of conspiracy theory, more thoroughly stigmatized, concerns secret societies, which by their very nature invite conspiratorial speculation. Taken to extremes, this leads to Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory, in which the whole of human history is to be explained by the devious machinations of the Freemasons, or the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Jews, or the International Communist Conspiracy, or pick your favorite. This sort of thing gives conspiracy theory a bad name.

But looked at more rationally, secret societies are fertile ground for researchers. There is no denying that certain groups of wealthy and powerful men, meeting in secret, have had considerable influence on the course of history - and continue to do so. A branch of rightwing theory, which has also been embraced by many on the left, concerns the workings of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and, more obscurely, the Bilderberg Group. The fact is that these groups do exist, they do maintain secrecy over some of their activities, and that they wield considerable power and influence. Whether you choose to believe that the Trilateral Commission is, as they claim to be, simply a group of concerned businessmen, or perhaps something more sinister, probably depends on your preconceived notions. Adherents to either view would do well to offer some evidence to back up their claims.

To take a more pedestrian example, consider such institutions as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. These very wealthy, mostly white men sit in secret deliberation on how to impose their economic philosophies on Third World countries in exchange for credit, mostly to pay off debts incurred by some bloodthirsty dictator, previously supported by these same men and now, oftentimes, living off deposits kept in their banks. As a direct result of the "austerity" enforced by these agencies, people starve to death.

Is this just "networking," or is this a conspiracy? It certainly meets the dictionary definition (an agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful or subversive act). It also resonates with the Latin roots (literally, to breathe together). If you want to believe that the Trilateral Commission, who have been breathing together with these institutions since their inception, are engaged in purely innocuous activities, you are certainly free to do so. But I must say, doing so seems to me to require a certain naive faith that our leaders never lie, and that the world is run pretty much the way our newspapers and high-school textbooks say it is.

The best way to look at many conspiracy theories is to consider them as worst-case scenarios. And since much of our history in the postwar era has turned out to be much worse than even the wildest conspiracy theorists dreamed of at the time, it would behoove us to come up with as many conspiracy theories as possible. Now that we're left having to pay compensation to thousands of radiation victims, as well as literally trillions of dollars to clean up the nation's leaking radioactive waste dumps, who is to say what theories are too outlandish to consider? Understanding and theorizing about such conspiracies is not irrelevant or trivial. It is vital to concentrating on the challenges of the future.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1998: The Lennon Box

In conjunction with John Lennon's 70th birthday last October, his estate has re-anthologized his work yet again, and re-re-issued his solo discs. Information on those releases are at his official website. This review of what was - at the time - mostly new material, appeared in the September 1998 Tucson Comic News.

Even before the release of the Beatles’ six-disc Anthology (mercifully sold two discs at a time), the estate of John Lennon had been working on a boxed set of his unreleased recordings. The material they had to work with was voluminous. Lennon left behind hundreds of hours of home recordings, demos, studio outtakes and live material. Much of this was showcased in the radio series “The Lost Lennon Tapes” back in the early nineties, but the estate had also been working towards a more formal release.

Work on the project was set aside due to Yoko Ono’s involvement in the Anthology project, representing her late husband’s interests (though some will still argue that Paul McCartney got his way a bit too much in terms of the track selection). With all of that behind her, Ono once again set to work on the Lennon box, a process that was emotionally agonizing for her.

Now we have the results of those years of labor, both on her part and his, and based on the highlights disc Wonsaponatime, it has been well worth the wait. Lennon fans are finally treated to his scabrous and foulmouthed parody of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Lennon’s version is titled “Serve Yourself,” and features large helpings of the razor-sharp wit missing from much of his solo work: “Well you may believe in devils/and you may believe in laws/But Christ you’re gonna have to serve yourself/It’s in the bloody fridge.”

Other highlights include “Grow Old With Me,” one of John’s sweetest ballads, with a new string/flute arrangement by Beatles producer Sir George Martin (recently named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Another standout track is a tight studio version of "Baby Please Don’t Go,” recorded as a birthday present for Yoko but later discarded (a looser live version, with Frank Zappa, is available on the Some Time In New York City album).

As for the box set, each of the four discs represents a distinct phase of Lennon’s solo career. “Ascot” covers the years after the Beatles broke up but before John left England, when Plastic Ono Band and Imagine were recorded. “New York City” covers the years 1972-74, and “The Lost Weekend” features material from his drunken 18-month separation from Yoko, recorded in LA with Phil Spector, Harry Nillsson, Keith Moon and other alcoholic layabouts. Even through all of that Lennon’s craftsmanship never deserted him, though his senses often did.

The final disc “Dakota” covers the years from 1975 until his assassination in 1980, a period during which Lennon had professed to be retired, but nonetheless continued to write and record at home. Outtakes from the Double Fantasy sessions are included here, along with what was said to be the last song Lennon ever wrote, “Dear John.”

SOTU $.02

I don't think his heart was in it. He didn't have any fire in the belly, not like he did in Tucson. He's been giving great speeches since he was a teenager, and it was like homework to him. So it was, yawn, I've gotta give another great Barack Obama speech. But is was a dispirited affair. And of course, what's really disappointing isn't the vague, centrist agenda he offered, but last November's election, which precludes him from offering anything more ambitious.

My nine-year-old daughter wanted to hear something about global warming. I wanted to hear how he expected to create any more jobs, given the GOP stranglehold on Congress. Both of us were disappointed.

But we weren't the target audience. Obama was trying in vain to recapture that air of "I've got this." He was speaking to swing voters, the ones who swung towards him in 2008 and swung away in 2010. Aside from how maddening it is that the direction of our country's policy agenda is in the hands of people who can't make up their fucking minds ...sorry, gotta stay civil. In any case, that's why we were all reduced to hearing a laundry list of previously tossed bones like tort reform and spending freezes.

The president's core message, once again, was that he could be trusted to be a bipartisan conciliator, which is presumably what swing voters liked about him in the first place. The problem is, he's also given the impression that he's a weak negotiator who can be easily rolled - possibly one reason so many swung back. And that's why the meaningless, arbitrary discretionary spending freeze sent the wrong message in the first place - and he just doubled down on it! Thank you for the umpteenth example of unilateral, unrewarded preemptive concessions.

There was a way the president could have fired up himself and his audience, helped to emphasize the more admirable parts of his speech, and come across as both someone willing to work with the opposition and someone who will fight for his core values. And that would have been to talk about global warming, and talk about our jobs crisis.

Why does it matter that the Chinese have lapped us in green tech and infrastructure development? Because global warming is a threat to our civilization! Why should we end wasteful subsidies to oil and coal companies? Because they're heating up our damn planet! Why should we save money by eliminating redundant agencies and obsolete weapons systems? So we can spend it creating jobs in green tech and infrastructure - and help save the damn planet!

See, I'm getting fired up already. And as someone who got pink-slipped out of a public sector job, and with two kids who are going to inherit a seriously warmed-up world, I can't understand why the president isn't fired up about this, too. With fifteen million people out of work, he should be running around with his hair on fire every day.

He really missed the opportunity to make a distinction between cutting the deficit in the long term - which we obviously need to do - and cutting spending right now, at the local, state, and federal level, which is an, excuse me, "job-killing" anti-stimulus, right in the middle of our fragile recovery.

So yeah, obviously, the 112th Congress isn't going to do jack about global warming or creating jobs, and they're going to cut as much spending as they can negotiate away from the White House. But bringing up these things would not only have provided some passion, it would have shown his audience what he would fight for, and fight against. It might even have imposed some political costs on his adversaries. But I guess it wouldn't have been very conciliatory.

2003: Steve Earle in Tucson

Word is that Mr. Earle is at work on a collaboration with T-Bone Burnett for his next album. When he tours behind it, you want to make sure to check that out. And to learn more, go thither and yon.

A few years back, Mr. Earle was going through a kind of a quiet period. He did a wonderful bluegrass album, The Mountain, with the Del McCoury Band, and took some time off to write a play and a book of short stories. After a time he decided it was time to break out the electric guitar and rock out again. His new girlfriend, who'd only known the quiet Steve, asked him why he wanted to do a thing like that. Because, he said, it makes my dick hard.

Well, he must have had a hell of a boner last night. The wife and I made one of our too-infrequent pilgrimages to the church of the electric guitar, and Pastor Steve delivered one hell of a sermon. He promised that he would play "a lot of songs" and he kept that promise, departing at midnight after a good two or three dozen selections from his songbook. It's not that he didn't play any quiet songs; there were a few, and he played every single track off of the new album, loud or not. But by the time he left for the pre-encore break, he had just fired off seven or eight blistering white-hot, uptempo numbers in a row, any one of which was enough to get the crowd on their feet.

Song after brilliant song, his roadies kept handing him an endless supply of acoustic, solid body and hollow body guitars, plus mandolins, banjos, ukeleles, and the occasional harmonica. His young hotshot guitarist spat out blazing leads and the nimble bass player took full advantage of the tall Marshall stacks. Steve had his baby brother on the drums and his oldest son on keyboards and damned if we all didn't feel right at home.

He dropped off little political diatribes every once in a while, predicting that if we thought 2002 was a weird year, we ain't seen nothing yet. He referred to a history book he'd been reading about the period just before the Civil War, and then urged us to remember that no mater what side we end up on, we shouldn't let anybody tell us "that it's unpatriotic or un-American to question fuckin' anything." Loud roar.

Many long, sustained roars brought him back for two sets of encores, culminating with the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" (which he recorded with Ani diFranco for the Steal This Movie soundtrack) and finally, the Youngbloods' "Get Together," "a song I've been doing as long as I've had a guitar, and it's never made more sense to me than today."

He left, vowing to return to Tucson, a city he'd visited but never gigged in. Tucson rarely sees the likes of him, so we hope he'll keep the promise. Maybe we'll all end up in the same internment camp.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2004: Getting Reagan Wrong

With the centennial of Reagan's birth coming up next month, I thought I'd dust off my obituary of the old boy. It appeared in the Santa Cruz Comic News and was also posted over at CounterPunch, where it generated some interesting hate mail.

Ronald Reagan himself wouldn't recognize the Ronald Reagan today's conservatives are peddling. Back in the day, he could vex the right as well as the left. As we rewrite the late Gipper into our history books, the pundits claim Dubya to be Reagan's political heir.

But they're only half right. Bush the Lesser emulates Reagan's weaknesses, while discarding his virtues. Reagan's chief virtue is that he was never as naive or as stubborn as George W. Bush.

Today's GOP is the party of all tax cuts, all the time. The current administration has cut taxes every year since they came to power, promising more of the same. According to Dick Cheney, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter." But Reagan himself might beg to differ.

As bad as Reagan's deficits were, they'd have been much worse if he hadn't had the sense to realize when he'd made a mistake. Government revenues fell sharply following his 1981 tax cut--exactly the opposite of what "supply-side economists" had predicted. So Dutch signed a bill that repealed fully a third of the original cut.

Reagan, in fact, raised taxes four times in his first term alone. That includes the largest tax increase in history. Republicans like to claim that title for Bill Clinton's 1993 tax bill, but if you use constant dollars, Ron's 1983 package comes out ahead. Of course, Clinton raised taxes for the wealthy and then later cut taxes on working folks, while Reagan did just the opposite.

After his initial tax cuts heavily favored the wealthy, Reagan signed off on a regressive payroll tax increase that plugged the actuarial hole in the Social Security program. As a result, the trust fund is solvent until the year 2042, but 80% of the population pays more in payroll taxes than in income taxes. The Reagan administration was then able to mask the true size of their deficits by borrowing from the Baby Boomers' retirement funds--just as Bush is doing today.

Of course, Bush's pilfering is more dangerous, because the Boomers will start retiring soon. Some future president will have to pay that IOU, just as Bush the Elder and Bill Clinton did to wind down Reagan's borrowing binge.

But Reagan also championed the EITC and Head Start, two anti-poverty programs the Bushies seem intent on diluting. Meanwhile, they won't reverse course no matter how deep a fiscal hole they dig for future taxpayers to fill. In fact, Bush is determined to make all of his tax cuts permanent. That should top Reagan's achievement in adding two trillion to our national debt. Reagan at least expressed some remorse over this; his "heirs" simply claim it makes no difference. Likewise they consider themselves Reaganesque in deposing Saddam, just as Ron supposedly won the Cold War. But Reagan didn't march on Moscow; he had forty years of containment policy to back him up. And the Soviets dismantled their own empire, recognizing its futility. As Mikhail Gorbachev told Reagan, "We are going to take away your enemy."

Since Saddam was obviously no threat to us or his neighbors, Iraqis might well have overthrown him themselves had we simply continued our successful containment policy. But more to the point, the neocons who urged Reagan to shun Gorby are now building an evil empire of their own, complete with gulags.

Bush emulates the Reagan who cozied up to the Khmer Rouge, armed the death squads of Latin America, and enabled the mercenaries of apartheid. Today we pat ourselves on the back for deposing the Taliban, but wink at the dictators of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and throw money at murderous regimes in Uzbekistan and Columbia.

Absent from neocon mythology is the Reagan who avidly pursued disarmament. For obvious reasons, they'd rather not talk about how Reagan ignored the fevered advice of Cheney and Richard Perle, choosing to pursue negotiation rather than confrontation with Gorbachev.

Alarmed by Reagan's saber-rattling, a million Americans marched to demand a nuclear freeze. In his second term, Reagan nearly went them one better, negotiating a mutual nuclear purge with Gorbachev in Reykjavik. Good Reagan wanted to get rid of all our nukes, but bad Reagan couldn't let go of his absurd Star Wars fantasy, and the deal foundered.

Bush considers disarmament treaties a useless irritant. He's bent on deploying Star Wars whether it works or not. He hires Iran-contra felons that Reagan saw fit to fire. He blunders into Baghdad, thinking it would be as easy as knocking over Grenada. Instead he's reprised the intervention in Lebanon. Hey, at least Reagan had the sense to know when we're not welcome.

Bush's handlers love to spin him as the second coming of the Gipper. But to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I lived through the Reagan years, and believe me, Dubya is no Ronald Reagan.

1988: NRBQ in Santa Cruz

If that acronym means nothing to you, I'm pleased to introduce you to one of my very favorite bands, celebrating their 45th anniversary next week. The Original Q is no longer active, but you can still catch live dates by the Terry Adams Rock and Roll Quartet, which is not known as TARRQ. Here, try some videos or some albums.

The world's most underrated band blew into town again last Saturday night - four monster talents known collectively as the New Rhythm & Blues Quartet. Those in the know were out in force at the Catalyst, gamely wagging their butts in time to the patented quirky rhythms. The rest of you didn't know what you were missing.

Virtuoso musicianship aside, this may be the funniest band you'll ever see. Just watching their faces can crack you up, never mind some of the goofball songs they play. This is a band that can cover virtually any style of American popular music. They can play jazz straight ahead, sideways or backwards. They can play country ballads or rockabilly, R&B or soul, straight rock 'n' roll or '40s-style swing. And yet, as often as not, they'll follow up a Thelonious Monk tune with something by Alvin and the Chipmunks.

NRBQ's deceptively simple, melodically infectious original tunes define their point of view. Happily devoid of Great Meanings, they have titles like "That's Neat, That's Nice" or "I Feel So Good I Want You to Feel Good Too." The wistful "Ridin' in My Car" and the happy-go-lucky "Me and the Boys" are good-natured slices of life, while ditties like "Down at the Zoo" or "Rats in My Room" would not be out of place on the next Raffi album.

Keyboardist Terry Adams epitomizes the band's manic spirit. "Let's have a good time right now!" he shrieks, pounding out the unrecognizable opening chords to some song until his mates fall in behind him. Adams is like a man possessed. He plays with his fists, his elbows, his feet. He plays two, three keyboards at once. He growls something incomprehensible into the mike. He plays the same note a hundred and forty times in a row. He flails away at dissonant clusters of chords that somehow mesh perfectly with the rest of the band chugging away in the background. Adams, who has toured with jazz artist Carla Bley, plays piano like a cross between Cecil Taylor and Jerry Lee Lewis. And he acts like Pee-Wee Herman on acid. A lot of acid.

Now, even though there's a microphone right in front of him, Adams lurches across the stage to grab the bass player's mike. It's time, once again, for him to poke fun at the rotund, perpetually scowling guitarist, Al Anderson. "Look at him, ladies and gentlemen, I love this man, three hundred pounds of joy, Al Anderson!!!!" With a wan smile, Anderson launches into the old blues classic and more than does it justice. He has a remarkably broad vocal range, employing the upper reaches on old Motown ballads, and digging into the lower end for an authentic rendition of George Jones's "White Lightnin'," complete with belches. While Anderson never shows up in any guitarist's polls, he is a world-class fretboard master. Several times a night, he will lay out a frenetic solo that grabs you by the collar, stares you down and wins.

"All right Joey Spampinato, I saw you in that Chuck Berry movie!!!" bellows Adams as the band swings into "Johnny B. Goode." It is indeed the diminutive bassist's claim to fame (who ever heard of NRBQ, after all?) that Keith Richards selected him for the all-star pickup band that accompanied the maestro for his 60th birthday spectacular. You can never hear the bass in a movie theater though--you've got to see Spampinato up close and personal. Listening to his robust basslines while he shouts out Berry's classic lyrics leaves no doubt what caught Richards's ear. Along with drummer Tom Ardolino, he forms the solid underpinning for NRBQ's maddeningly unique sound.

Believe it or not, these boys were relatively subdued at this gig. Ensconced at the Catalyst after years of dropping into OT's once or twice annually, they appeared to be on their best behavior. For instance, Adams did not wear his hideous red-white-and-blue buckskin jacket, nor did he sing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" until booed off the stage. And, unfortunately, Ardolino did not emerge from his drum kit to croon a medley of Herman's Hermits hits. Nevertheless, they more than made up for this by bringing along the Whole Wheat Horns, two gentlemen named Jim Bob and Clem who blew some furious charts and arresting solos. Together, the six of them brought down the house with a show-stopping "Me and the Boys" "Get Rhythm" combination. If this isn't one of the best damn bands in the country, you tell me who is.

The Nazi Analogy Nazis

This morning in my local daily, I see that Kathleen Parker invokes Godwin's Law without actually mentioning it:

For my two cents, anyone who invokes Hitler or Nazis should be disqualified from public debate for muddled thinking and lack of originality.

This is in response to Rep. Steve Cohen's rhetorical, er, overkill, which may or may not be a case of overreach, depending on what side of the aisle your guys have to cross over from to show some civility tonight.

And for my tuppence, Cohen could have left Mr. Goebbels out of it and still made his point. Whether he's disqualified from public discourse is another question, but even he probably has noticed that the Nazi analogy attracted more attention than his actual point. Still, it also seems to me that accusing people - in this case, not without foundation - of employing the "Big Lie Technique" is not exactly the same as calling someone a Nazi.

It's hard to get too outraged at Tea Party placards of Obama with a toothbrush moustache, since all our recent GOP presidents routinely received the same treatment (except maybe Jerry Ford, who just didn't fit the part). At the same time, it's a bit amusing to hear such objections from the party that used actual Nazis as campaign aides.

The last word on this topic should come from our national treasure, Jon Stewart, who reduces right-wingers' credibility on this topic to confetti. I was going to say "takes the only leg they have to stand on here and roasts it on a spit," but I think you could make the case that that's somewhat disturbing imagery.

1999: Timor and Kosovo

Right in the middle of President Clinton's Kosovo War came a reminder that not all humanitarian interventions are created equally. This one appeared in the September 1999 issue of the Tucson Comic News.

Now that Indonesia has finally decided to allow UN peacekeeping forces into East Timor, we can hope that at long last, the carnage on that tragic island - the largest per capita genocide since Hitler - may finally come to an end. But those cynics among us who had their doubts about our humanitarian motivations for intervention in Yugoslavia can certainly raise an eyebrow at the comparatively milder response to Indonesia’s vastly more brutal crimes. Apologists for our terror bombing of Belgrade will protest that these are two completely different situations. And indeed they are.

For the two examples to be equal, we would first have to imagine that, instead of being elected into power, the current regime in Yugoslavia took over in a coup that was at least tacitly supported by the CIA. And that once in power, that regime proceeded to exterminate between a half million and a million of its political opponents, with the enthusiastic cheerleading of the New York Times, and working off of lists of “known subversives” provided by the US State Department.

Then imagine that Kosovo was never an historic province of Serbia, but that Yugoslavia just up and grabbed it one day - which happened to be the day after Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger came to visit. And then let us imagine that instead of killing 2000 Kosovars, as the Serbs did last year, that they killed a hundred times that many, and that these 200,000 amounted to fully a third of the population. And suppose that this killing continued for several years, until Yugoslavia had to slow down because they were running out of supplies. Luckily, though, Jimmy Carter and Richard Holbrooke would then have sent them an emergency military aid package.

And then, let us imagine - I know this is far-fetched, but just bear with me - that our UN Ambassador at the time, the well-respected intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan, casually remarked about those 200,000 dead bodies: “The US wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring them about.”

But wait, there’s more. Imagine then that Slobodan Milosevic, with all that blood on his hands, was not indicted by an International War Crimes Tribunal, but became a respected statesman and one of the richest men in the world. In fact, imagine that instead of holding on to quaint socialist notions like state control of natural resources and worker management of factories, that Yugoslavia under Milosevic had become a playground for multinational mining, timber and oil companies.

Imagine that Bill Clinton had warmly toasted the living genocide champ as “our kind of guy.” But suppose that after supporting him for more than 30 years, we found that he had made his country such a miserable place to live that he had begun to outlive his usefulness to us. And now, you need to imagine that we simply told Slobo that it was time for him to go. And under this improbable scenario, Slobo would dutifully step down, just a couple hours after he was asked to by Madeline Albright. Then he would shuffle off into comfortable retirement with his vast fortune, but only after being allowed to hand-pick his successor. Let us call him... Mini-Milosevic.

So now. Let us then imagine that Mini-Milosevic had agreed to allow the Kosovars to vote on independence but that his paramilitary forces continued to kill, rape, loot and pillage in order to intimidate the Kosovars (and any other provinces that had any ideas about seceding) into settling instead for “autonomy” under Yugoslavia’s benevolent administration. That part isn’t too hard to imagine, now is it? But suppose that, instead of issuing ultimatums and then bombing the country for 78 days, effectively destroying the most vital civilian infrastructure, we just kind of wrung our hands and fretted that this was an internal concern for the Yugoslavians, and that Kosovo was after all still part of Serbia, and that we certainly weren’t going to send in any peacekeeping forces without their permission.

No, this is even better, because remember, back in the real world, the Yugoslavians actually did agree to UN peacekeeping forces before we started bombing, but balked at a NATO-led force occupying the whole country, rather than just Kosovo. But imagine instead that they had simply flipped off the international community and said, we can handle this ourselves. And imagine that we said, oh, okay fine, let us know if you need any help. And then of course the Yugoslavian Army would have imposed martial law on Kosovo and proceeded to help the death squads do their work.

Okay, and while you’re imagining all of this, you also need to imagine that the corporate media- you know, the Times and the Post, the networks, CNN, Newsweek and Time, and your hometown daily - all basically ignored the massive bloodbath in Kosovo until it had gone on for nearly 25 years. But then the killing machine revs up one last time and it can’t really be ignored anymore because we had just finished bombing the bejeezus out of some other little country in the name of preventing a humantarian catastrophe.

So finally we tap Mini-Milosevic on the shoulder and say, you know what old pal, this is getting a bit embarrassing. We’re forced to distance ourselves from you, and now we’ve had to temporarily suspend arms sales, and we’re under a bit of pressure to hold back economic aid. It’s, you know, getting in the way of business. And finally, to our great relief, he says oh, all right, if you insist. We’ve done all we can here, why don’t you chaps take over. And we say, thanks old boy, see you at the next summit.

But of course, you don’t need to imagine this story, because it’s the story of East Timor. And now you know why there was never any talk of bombing Jakarta. Except from the occasional smart-ass.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Fifteen Favorite Guitarists

A few weeks back, a friend posted a query on Facebook, along with his own list of 15 favorites. One thing I liked was that he put a 15-minute time limit on it, so I wouldn't end up overthinking my list. So I jotted down a couple dozen candidates, winnowed them down, and called it a list. Then I packed up and left town, burying the list in a pile of stuff on my desk.

Today I found it, and now I have time to do some overthinking. The thing about lists like this is that it's not so much who you put on as who you leave off. When you're talking about instrumentalists of this caliber, there's no "best;" there are a bunch of people who are equally great in different ways.

So the first half of the list are genuine monsters I just couldn't leave off, whereas the second half contains some more idiosyncratic voices who have always been personal favorites. It goes like this:

1. Jerry Garcia
2. Eric Clapton
3. Jimi Hendrix
4. Buddy Guy
5. Keith Richards
6. David Gilmour
7. Frank Zappa
8. Jeff Beck
9. Ry Cooder
10. Adrian Belew
11. Richard Thompson
12. Diblo Dibala
13. David Lindley
14. Kaki King
15. Merle Travis

Fifteen is a nice, comfortable number for a list like this; ten is just too crowded. Of course, my friend fudged it by including his "Honorable Mentions," and my leftovers list included Robbie Robertson, Chet Atkins, Freddie King, Bonnie Raitt, Franco, Ralph Towner, Leo Kottke and Django Reinhardt.

Today it occurs to me that I left out Thurston Moore, Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock, Santo & Johnny, etc, etc.

(No time for links right now; do your own googling.)

So who are your faves?

1988: Liberty Under Siege

This book review was written just after the 1988 elections, but the book itself remains all too timely. I fact, I can't recommend the work of the late Mr. Karp highly enough. All his studies of American history help to shed light on our current situation. See especially Indispensible Enemies and/or The Politics of War, or try a package deal.

LIBERTY UNDER SIEGE American Politics: 1976-1988
By Walter Karp, 1988; Henry Holt & Co., $19.95, 255 pages

Now that George Bush is left holding the tab for Reaganomics, we all need an antidote to the maddening banalities of this election year. This slim volume of polemics may do the trick. In it, one Walter Karp, a contributing editor to Harper's, lays out an inspired 250-page rant against the forces of Oligarchy and Reaction (always capitalized) that have dominated our politics in the last dozen years. He describes, with an almost ferocious indignation, how the powers that be determined to reverse the reforms that grew out of the civil rights and anti-war movements.

In the second half of the book, "The Rule of the Right," Karp details the sorry litany of their successes thus far: the unenforced enviornmental laws, the erosion of civil liverties, the renewed influence of big money on elections, rising official secrecy and censorship, the waning progressiveness of our tax code, and the massive transfers of wealth represented by the deficits. There has even been some degree of success in combating the dreaded "Vietnam Syndrome," the elite term for the perplexing unwillingness of the populace to support interventions abroad.

None of this is unfamiliar terrain. It is in the first half of the book, "Destruction of a President," that Karp argues that the above-mentioned goals - crucial though they were to the forces of Reaction - paled in importance next to the task that really got their backs up: regaining control of the nominating process of the Democratic party.

Events slipped out of the party leaders' control after the debacle of Chicago in 1968. At war with their rank and file both inside and outside the convention hall, they annointed a nominee who had not won a single primary. After Humphrey's defeat, they were confronted with an inexorable clamor for reform. Instead of opting for open defiance, writes Karp, the party leaders decided that "timely concessions to the democratic spirit could always be taken back once that spirit had abated." The first nominee under the reformed party rules, George McGovern, was simply hung out to dry. The second (and last), the self-professed "outsider" who actually captured the Presidency, had a more exacting fate in store for him.

For the sake of his argument, Karp must take Carter's outsider persona and populist rhetoric at face value, without examining his background, which, arguably, offers some evidence to the contrary. Still, he makes a convincing case that Carter, like McGovern, was nomininated by the voters, and not by the party bosses, who gleefully set about sabotaging him from day one.

Karp describes, in some detail, the meticulous dismemberment of Carter's legislative program while his own party controlled both houses of Congress: the SALT II and Panama Canal treaties, the Sorensen and Warnke nominations, the much-ballyhooed National Energy Program, and a slew of proposed reforms. In the case of the Consumer Protection Agency, the Congress reversed itself to kill a bill it had passed earlier over a Republican President's opposition. Of Carter's renowned ineptitude in dealing with Congress, a large measure must be ascribed to underestimating the depth of their rancor for him.

While cheerfully decimating the interloper, the Legislative branch set to work constructing their laughable post-Watergate campaign financing reforms. The bills contained loopholes large enough to fly a B-1 bomber through, and resulted in unprecedented infusions of corporate funds into Congressional campaigns. Thus armed, both policitical parties continued to kick the supine Carter into submission, in order to prove, retroactively, that the selection of Presidents is best left to the professionals. If we are to believe Karp, even the election of Ronald Reagan was not too steep a price to pay for the leading Democrats to regain control of their recalcitrant flock. Witness, after all, the spectacle of the conservative wing of the party backing Ted Kennedy, of all people, against the hapless Jimmy.

Karp does not raise the possibility, explored by others, that the Reagan/Bush campaign - aided by moles in the Carter White House - may have cut a deal with the Iranians to prolong the hostage crisis past Election Day. Nor is the failed Desert One mission, whose participants included Oliver North and Richard Secord, examined at length. Incredibly, it almost doesn't matter. There is scandal enough in the Reagan years, and Karp is less concerned with conspiracy than with collusion.

In any case, a second Carter term would have differed from Reagan's first, mainly in scale and tone. A massive military buildup was planned, the groundwork laid by years of lies about Soviet "superiority" and American "weakness" from the Committee on the Present Danger. Foreign policy under Brzezinski (whose treachery is amply delineated here) could have been only marginally more humane than under Schultz, if that. And the Democratic Congress had already paved the way to huge deficits with tax breaks for the wealthy - however miniscule compared to Reagan's. A victorious Carter would still have been a beaten man.

Still, the Reaganauts were set loose to pillage the body politic, and differences in scale and tone turned out to be more surreal than any of us could have imagined. Karp enumerates their high crimes, misdemeanors and their failure to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." He makes his argument with such vehemence that even the mose jaded amoung us will be left wondering afresh at their audacity.

The author's focus throughout is on the common interests of both party's leadership, and in particular on the perfidy of the Democrats. His account of the implementation of Reagan's contradictory campaign promises- what Karp calls the "Crime of '81" - is exemplary. It is clear that the twin pillars of Reaganism - grotesque tax cuts for the wealthy (including negative taxes for major corporations) and the impossible $2 trillion military package - could not have been achieved without the acquiescence of the Democrats. It is also clear that the resultant tripling of our national debt was not only foreseen but intentional. Stockman and Watt have admitted as much, and Reagan unwittingly corroborated them in a recent Time Magazine interview, saying they knew the numbers wouldn't add up, but "we wanted to see what would happen." Here, too, the complicity of the Democrats was crucial. Karp accuses them by name: O'Neill, Wright, Rostenkowski, Byrd, Nunn (and though unmentioned, the name Bentsen comes to mind). Throughout the second half of the the book, their service to Reagan's agenda matches their hostility to Carter's in the first.

This sad tale is told in dozens of books, from Stern's The Best Congress Money Can Buy, and Brenner's The Lesser Evil, to Gervasi's Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy, and Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee. It is augmented, albeit unintentionally, by the various self-serving memoirs of the Reaganauts. What makes this tome unique is its urgent morality and biting wit.

Karp may well be preaching to the converted here. Though his thesis is unlikely to convince, say, Jeanne Kirkpatrick of the error of her ways, chapter fifteen alone would give a twinge to anyone with a semblance of conscience left. Karp tends to cap off a well-argued paragraph with exclamations like "What loathing of democracy lurks in these hearts!" or "From these lips does anything issue save lies?" The air of derision for the politicians he describes, coupled with a fervent tone that gives new meaning to that abused word "patriotism," makes this book a delight to read.

Liberty Under Seige is likely to be ignored or reviled in the mainstream press, but it has the capacity to fire up even the most apathetic among us with righteous rage. It certainly deserves wider attention in the wake of this pathetic campaign. As Noam Chomsky has noted, "even small differences translate into large effects for our victims, and judgements have to be made accordingly within the political system." Therefore, as Bush presides over economic decline and the Democrats lunge for each other's throats, the informed citizenry have got their work cut out for them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

2001: Sir Paul Looks Back

I have to say that Sir Paul's batting average has only improved in the decade since I wrote this, thanks to the very satisfying Electric Arguments and a number of highlights from Memory Almost Full and Chaos and Creation.

If the Beatles were quite obviously greater than the sum of their parts, on their own they were just as clearly, er, those parts. As a Lennon partisan, I always argue that he had the best batting average among the ex-Fabs. That is, out of the total number of tracks issued, he had the fewest percentage that were absolute embarrassments to the Beatles legacy.

But it can also be argued that McCartney's prolific nature dragged down his own average. Without any peers around to rein in his excesses (or inspire self-censorship), Sir Paul continued to fill album after album (twenty studio discs to date) with bushels of chaff and a few kernels of wheat. Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, every Macca disc can be counted on to have at least one overlooked gem. But who's got the patience to sort through them all?

It's a situation that calls out for a smart compilation, but unfortunately, Wingspan is not that anthology. Consumer alert: the first disc (Hits) has seventeen tracks in common with his 1987 best-of (All the Best!), which itself duplicated 75% of his 1978 best-of (Wings Greatest). But nearly all of them are the same overplayed radio fluff that's emblematic of his solo career: flashes of brilliance surrounded by awesome banality. What the Cute One really needs is a compilation of his greatest non-hits.

Unfortunately, the second disc (History) isn't exactly that. Which is not to say it doesn't have a lot of worthy material, but much of it is shoulda-been hits like "Too Many People" and "Helen Wheels" or almost-hits like "Maybe I'm Amazed" and the great "Every Night." See, chart position is how Paul knows we love him. Always thin-skinned to criticism, he repeatedly points to his sales figures as evidence of his continued worth.

But if Sir Paul or his label had decided that everybody who wants to endlessly replay "Silly Love Songs" or "Jet" on their home stereo already owned one of the other anthologies, there might have been room for less commercial highlights like "Picasso's Last Words" or "Little Lamb Dragonfly." More to the point, there could have been more material post-dating Lennon's demise, which is when Paul's batting average mysteriously began to improve. My theory is that his old mate has been haunting him ever since, mercilessly ridiculing his more "fruity" efforts, and demanding more consistent and less frequent releases.

Before John left the planet, McCartney's undeniable talents as a melodist and arranger were reflected in ear-candy hits and charming obscurities alike. But after 1980, Macca concentrated more on the quality of his lyrics, built on his legacy as one of rock's all-time greatest bassists, and began to seek out collaborators more worthy of him - notably Elvis Costello, but also including Stevie Wonder, Stanley Clarke, David Gilmour and Dave Edmunds. Unfortunately, none of that material finds its way onto Wingspan. Neither does any of the experimental work, often issued pseudonymously, which culminated in last year's Liverpool Sound Collage, in which Sir Paul makes like a middle-aged Beck.

I guess all of that will have to wait for the inevitable Paul McCartney boxed set. But for his sake, I hope England's richest rocker lets the ghost of John Lennon pick the tracks.

UPDATE: I don't think I made myself perfectly clear in this review. The fact is, I get a kick of of most of McCartney's fluffy pop hits (though the fluffiest among them tend to wear out their welcome). It's just that I didn't think that the anthology in question fully reflected the breadth of his talent. Though it was issued in 2001, the most recent track was then 15 years old, and thus it skipped over what is arguably some of Paul's most vital solo work. Here's hoping for a new compilation oriented more to the last 25 years.