Thursday, March 31, 2011

Friends Like Those

In case you hadn't heard, Elvis Costello sat in with Furthur (the Lesh/Weir remnants of the Grateful Dead) three nights ago in New York City. Elvis reposted the Rolling Stone review on his website:

Costello and the Dead may sound like a weird pairing, but they have some history; Costello and Jerry Garcia sang country songs together at a 1989 show in Mill Valley, California. Last night, Costello easily adapted to the band's loose sensibilities. He delivered an uplifting "Friend of the Devil" and then turned into a balladeer on a 13-minute jam of 1973’s "Ship of Fools," which shifted into the boozy sing-along "It Must Have Been the Roses," with Larry Campbell adding soaring fiddle – and then seamlessly moved back to "Ship of Fools." Costello covered the two songs acoustically on 2000’s Stolen Roses tribute disc, but hearing him belt over Lesh and Weir’s wall of-sound sounded otherworldly. Costello capped the set duetting with wife Diana Krall on a gorgeous "Ripple."

Doubtless the Deadhead Nation will have tapes available, but if you can't wait, Costello included a 12-minute video excerpt. But this does raise the question. Is there anyone left who Elvis Costello hasn't played with?

Incidentally, if you've never read the joint interview with Costello and Garcia, now's as good a time as any.

Libya: Friends Like These

Our story so far:

The Libya Chapter
The Libya Ambivalence
Toward a Shallower Ambivalence
Libya: He's a Rebel
Libya: Qadaffy's Defenders
Libya: Place Your Bets

One of the lessons of the Egyptian uprising was supposed to be that the US has a lot more leverage in urging reform on our client states than in imposing it by force on our adversaries. When Barack Obama told the Egyptian military that they would lose legitimacy if they fired on their own people, they took the hint, greasing the skids for Mubarak, and placing their bets on being able to manage the transition as best they can.

It was a triumph of speak-softly diplomacy, and stood in marked contrast to George W's big-stick ethos. This month, the contrast is a bit less glaring. Where, for instance, were our concerns for human rights and democratic yearnings when Defense Secretary Robert Gates broke bread with Bahrain's inbred kleptocracy on the eve of their brutal crackdown? If he told them that violence would lead to a loss of legitimacy, they don't seem to have gotten the message.

1996: Bob Dole's Nomination

Lately both Drum and BooMan have been having a bit of sport with the feckless GOP field for the '12 nomination. Just to prove that life imitates art, the Reagan Library has announced that the first GOP debate has been postponed until September for lack of interest. You couldn't make something like that up.

In order to show anyone exasperated with Obama that it could always be worse, here's a look back at Bill Clinton's hapless 1996 challenger, Bob Dole. Of course the current crop of GOP hopefuls make Dole look like Dennis Kucinich, but it bears repeating: it could always be worse.

For the past three years, this space has been critical of Bill Clinton more often than not. Since I never supported him in the first place, I can't say I'm disillusioned by his performance, but I can say it's even worse than I expected. From the anti-labor and anti-environmental NAFTA and GATT treaties, to the odious crime bill, the "anti-terrorism" legislation that suspends the right of habeas corpus, and the profoundly misguided telecommunications bill, Clinton's record has been a sorry litany of disasters for working Americans, and victories for plutocrats and oligarchs.

Having said that, it's time to point out that the Republican Party has managed to nominate someone even worse. Last night I watched Bob Dole give "the most important speech of his career." Like most political speeches, it was full of lies. One of my favorites was his characterization of Clinton's 1993 tax increase as the "biggest in history." This was red meat for the GOP delegates, but conveniently overlooked the 1982 tax increase pushed through the Senate by Majority Leader Bob Dole. Both in constant dollars and as a percentage of GDP, Dole's tax increase was bigger than Clinton's. And, as noted previously in this space, the 1983 Social Security tax increase-also shepherded by Dole-is the all-time champ.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

2006: Moral Calculus

Yet another iteration of the Law of Unintended Consequences. When it comes to the application of force, the neocons managed to combine an unseemly eagerness with an alarming incompetence and an approach to diplomacy that managed to dismay allies and embolden adversaries. Here's another look at how it was done when the "grownups" were in charge:

The destruction of Lebanon can be added to the list of blunders and tragedies made possible by the Bush administration’s dangerous incompetence. It seems like just a few months ago that Lebanon was Exhibit A in the neocons’ argument that democracy was sweeping the Middle East because Our Policy Is Working and the troops will be coming home to tickertape parades any day now. So, again –how’s that going?

Hoof, Hunter and Tick

This is another installment of an occasional ZepBlog feature that helps with confusion over similar band names.

Today we have three wonderful bands, each of whom is deserving of wider recognition. Now if you like one, you won't necessarily enjoy the other two. But I love 'em all, and it's unfortunate that they'd be so easy to get mixed up that people will just turn in exasperation to something less ambiguously named, like the Black Eyed Peas, instead.

So, how to tell 'em apart? Easier than you think. Deer Tick has an, Americana feel, so the mnemonic device is to think of the tick as a mainly rural phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Deerhunter and Deerhoof have some overlap in terms of their general indie-rock sensibilities, but with at least one notable difference: Deerhunter is led by Bradford Cox, possessor of a Y chromosome, while Deerhoof is fronted by Satomi Matsuzaki, who has a pair of X chromosomes.

Libya: Place Your Bets

Our story so far:

The Libya Chapter
The Libya Ambivalence
Toward a Shallower Ambivalence
Libya: He's a Rebel
Libya: Qadaffy's Defenders

When President Obama spoke the words "we have stopped Gadhafi's deadly advance," on Monday night, it had the ring of truth. By Tuesday morning it was a cruel joke. By Tuesday evening headlines told of "unimaginable carnage," of the sort our intervention was supposed to prevent.

Whether you support or oppose this "kinetic activity," or your views swing back and forth like the battlefield advantage, it's impossible to predict how long it will last. Unpredictability is built right into the nature of warfare – which is one reason any nation should be exceedingly cautious before embarking down that path.

In journalism, you can generally find an expert to argue any point you want to make. Here's what the experts say about Libya:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

2007: Dick Cheney's Strategy

As I mentioned, pacifists (and near-pacifists) are often put in the position of noting there are a few things we could have done differently in the years leading up to the latest inevitable breakout of hostilities. In the case of Libya, the list of things we could have done stretches back to before the Qadaffy years. But we don't need to look that far back to find a record of hideous, counter-productive screw-ups....

Like a regular geyser of that Beltway euphemism, “hogwash,” Dick Cheney can be counted on to spew invective at those who dare to point out the disaster he’s created. Most recently (at this writing), he accuses Speaker Pelosi of “validating al-Qaeda’s strategy” by trying to find ways to extricate our troops from the Iraqi quagmire.

This is the only argument they have, which is why they can’t stop using it. It’s really the only thing the gets their approval ratings from the low 30s to the high 30s (that is, the approval ratings of Regent Cheney’s sock puppet the “Decider”). A certain number of Republican voters will salivate like Pavlov’s dogs when they hear this sort of thing, then eventually sink back into sullen contempt of what they have wrought.

Kyaw Kyaw Naing!

Just because I felt like it, here's some music from Kyaw Kyaw Naing, the ambassador of Burmese music to the world. I first heard his music on our great local station KXCI and had one of those "what the hell was that!" moments. The song that totally kicked my ass, "Sein Chew Kyar Nyaung," is on the CD linked at left.

This is the only video I could find of him. That's Mr. Naing in the middle, playing the pat waing, the "magic drum circle." Enjoy!

Libya: Qadaffy's Defenders

Our story so far:

The Libya Chapter
The Libya Ambivalence
Toward a Shallower Ambivalence
Libya: He's a Rebel

The president spoke last night and flatly asserted that this would be a better world without Qadaffy running Libya. And one of my principal misgivings is that there's no guarantee that that's true. Given the charges of racism, extremism and atrocities on the rebel side – let alone the number of rebel leaders who recently defected opportunistically from Qadaffy's government – the eventual outcome is a crapshoot by any measure.

Professor Juan Cole recently dismissed concerns about the rebel alliance with a wave of his hand, calling it a libel against the people of Misrata and Benghazi. Cole's "Open Letter to the Left" has been countered by BooMan and by Steve Clemens – the latter in the context of grudging support for the intervention, the former in ambivalent opposition.

For my part, I know that Cole knows more about the Middle East than I ever will, but I'm not entirely convinced by his characterization of extremist elements as "a handful" of those fighting for regime change. And even if so, what we saw in Kosovo was that war criminals make better fighters than pacifists, tend to get the backing of intervening powers, and are better equipped to police the outcome and dictate terms.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday Random Ten #2

Here are the first ten songs to pop up on my iPod; Artist/Song/Album:

1. Yol Aralong/Jeas Cyclo/Cambodia Rocks
2. Esther Phillips/Just Say Goodbye/And I Love Him
3. Joan Armatrading/There Ain't a Girl Alive/Into the Blues
4. The Free Design/Now Is the Time/The Best of the Free Design
6. Roxy Music/In Every Dream Home a Heartache/For Your Pleasure
6. Doug Sahm/Wallflower/The Best of Doug Sahm
7. The Kinks/David Watts/Something Else by the Kinks
8. Tonya Donelly/Long, Long, Long/This Hungry Life
9. Fountains of Wayne/'92 Subaru/Traffic and Weather
10. Louis Armstrong/Savoy Blues/Hot Fives and Sevens Vol. III

Good News/Bad News

A couple weeks ago I linked to a short interview with the venerable Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute. Mr. Brown had some disturbing forecasts about global food supplies – and he still does. But if you'd like your pessimism and your optimism mashed together into a palatable meal, head on over to AlterNet for a longer interview that explores the interconnectedness of our looming crises, and hence, the interconnectedness of any solutions. This is by way of publicizing a documentary airing on PBS this week, entitled Plan B:

That's because the acclaimed environmentalist has deeply studied the variety of environmental and geopolitical tipping points we are fast approaching, and found that we're headed for a seriously dark dystopia if we don't turn civilization as we know it around, and fast. A catastrophic confluence of food and water shortages, overpopulation and pollution, collapsed governments and communities and more natural disasters than Roland Emmerich can dream up await us on the other side of Plan A, which Brown calls "business of usual."

We have to fully understand the depth of our collective predicament if we're going to work together to address it. There are, of course, a lot of people whose paychecks depend on not understanding it, but my grandchildren's paychecks depend on figuratively knocking those people upside the head. See if you can get one of them to watch the film with you. One step at a time.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rockin' in the Barrio

Tucson hosted a great street party yesterday, just east of Simpson and Meyer. The second annual Fiesta en el Barrio Viejo was, as I overheard Peter Buck mentioning to his friends, a great deal - ten bands for about twenty bucks. Not to mention a chance to support one of the country's best public radio stations, KXCI.

I had to miss some of the best parts due to family obligations  - the opening set by the great Al Perry (sorry, Al) and most of the headlining set by Tucson's gift to the world, Calexico. But aside from the great food, I got a kick out of the whimsical tunes of the Baseball Project and the ad hoc supergroup that backed up Robyn Hitchcockat sunset.

Libya: He's a Rebel

The Libya Ambivalence
Toward a Shallower Ambivalence

Like I said, if you're ambivalent about the Libya intervention, you're not alone. Among those who share your ambivalence is, reportedly, Barack Obama. Almost tautologically, being president puts you in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't environment. But that's why you get your own library for a retirement present.

I'll tell you one thing, though: if these guys are for it, I'm taking another look.

Comestibles for Cogitation

I've been reading Libya articles all morning until my head hurts from wandering around this house of mirrors. The first casualty of war now lies a-mouldering in its grave, and I'm hard-pressed to find which particular cemetery plot to exhume.

However, this morning's money quote comes from the redoubtable war correspondant Robert Fisk, who sums things up thusly:

It is all wearingly familiar. And now we are back at it again, banging our desks in spiritual unity. We don't have many options, do we, unless we want to see another Srebrenica? But hold on. Didn't that happen long after we had imposed our "no-fly" zone over Bosnia?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

And a Troop of Cebus Capucinus May Emerge From my Gluteus Maximus and Volitiate

A Tea Party Defense Budget

Ah HAHAHAhahahahahahhahaha (cough cough choke) WHAhahhahahhahhahahha. Huh huh huh.

Mister Cabbage Tool

Over at FDL this morning, Phoenix Woman bats around the minions of Pete Peterson like a kittypet with a fledgling sparrow. Peterson is like the Koch Brothers of fiscal policy, showering grant money and cocktail-weenie buffets on those who opine that the greatest threat facing our nation is the potential shortfall in Social Security funding in 2037. As a result, this is been one of the great bugaboos of serious people and hack pundits for a couple of decades now, despite scant evidence and, ahem, more pressing matters.

Now, there may be more odious pundits in America than Charles Krauthammer, but the list is a short one (Hm...not as short as I thought). Anyway, Mr. Cabbage Tool has coughed up not one, but two hairballs of late, contributing to the national discourse on this matter. Others have had their fun with him, but it galls me to see such nonsense   in my local legacy media before breakfast.

Friday, March 25, 2011

As Promised

The Kinks, Waterloo Sunset, 1973

1967 version (lipsynched)?

Ray duo with piano, 2009

Ray with choir

Eduwonkery for Non-Wonks

If you're confused by current controversies in education policy, want to be able to talk ed policy at cocktail parties (always a hot topic) and reading this blog hasn't helped, you could do worse than to click over to the Mother Jones blogateria. There, Titania Kumeh gives a basic primer on standardized testing, and how we evolved into a "punish the schools" paradigm:

Why are some people unhappy with this system?
Schools are cutting back on teaching science, social studies, and art to become proficient in math and reading tests by NCLB's 2014 deadline, The New York Times' Sam Dillon reports. This is the reason the US lags so far behind other countries when it comes to science proficiency, researchers told The Hechinger Report. Also to make the goal, more than half of states have lowered their standards to redefine "proficient."
In a few weeks, my kids and yours will be taking these tests, and as mentioned, more and more schools will be falling off a cliff into "corrective action." This is why you don't let the Bush brothers design your school system.

Are there any questions?

Toward a Shallower Ambivalence

I confessed yesterday to a deep ambivalence about the Libya intervention, despite my knee-jerk near-pacifism. If this is the war that ends up causing more good than harm, it'll be the exception that proves the rule. But the more I read about it, what grows deeper is not my ambivalence, but my skepticism.

My current bottom line – and I haven't reached bottom yet – is that while I have a bad feeling about this, I'm not out protesting in the streets. Yet.

I'd like to be wrong about this, and see a quick ouster of the dictator and a transition to democracy. But there's no shame in urging caution in the face of carnage.

But to argue, as I did yesterday, that this time we have more justification than Bush in Iraq, or Clinton in Kosovo is, as Matty points out, setting the bar pretty low. And I set the bar pretty high when it comes to justifying the use of military force. "They haven't lied to us this time" makes a poor battle cry – and I'm not sure it's an accurate one, either.

The principle objections raised so far include:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Libya Ambivalence

The intervention in Libya has evoked deep ambivalence from many quarters. Bedfellows are hogging the covers, leaving to sleep in the other room, and generally snuggling up with strangers. Anti-war partisans are seeing justification for intervention in Qadaffy's brutal crackdown, while warmongers are finding reason for caution, this time.

I come at this with a knee-jerk anti-interventionist stance that is nevertheless not 100% pacifist in all situations. But I have not supported any of my government's military interventions abroad, major or minor, during my lifetime (which extends back to the Eisenhower Administration – I protested the Lebanese deployment from my crib).

Pacifists, as the parable goes, are like the doctor with a recalcitrant patient, who against medical advice, keeps drinking, smoking, and consuming too much red meat, When his body is riddled with tumors, he asks the doctor "What are you going to do about this?"

Pacifists today will rightly insist that we could have prevented having to fight three wars at once if we had addressed our addictions to oil and militarism and worked to correct dangerous global imbalances in wealth and poverty. But every time, they get asked "What are you going to do about this nasty dictator shooting people?"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pinetop Perkins, 1913-2011

1999: "Peace" in Kosovo

The persistent belief that Kosovo was a "good war" seems to have informed a lot of thinking about the possibility of intervening in Libya. My good friend David Gibbs has addressed this paradigm, in book-length, article-length and op-ed formats. I think the entire episode is worth revisiting in detail, with an eye to challenging one's own assumptions, wherever one stood at the time.

As this issue hits the streets, NATO troops are hitting the ground in Kosovo, having finally ended their massive bombardment of Yugoslavia. The President and much of the corporate media will no doubt be portraying this as a wonderful victory for our side. But it comes at a terrible price, and as with our much longer war against Vietnam, the terms agreed to at the end are not much different from what we could have got in the first place.

1999: Kosovo (During)

From May of 1999 comes further ranting on the topic of the Kosovo War. As a "liberal" intervention, it was subject to a great deal of support from people who normally oppose that sort of thing, and vice versa – kind of like right now. It also engendered some fairly bitter arguments, certainly on the former side. Certainly as Mark Twain said (whoops, apocryphal), history does not repeat itself – but sometimes it rhymes:

Now, last month I allowed as how I was somewhat suspicious of Uncle Sam's professed motives for his latest intervention. What I know now that I didn't know then is that the Rambouillet accords were a complete farce. The text was kept secret until well after the bombing began, and now we can see why. Rambouillet wasn't about negotiation; it was an ultimatum: sign here or we bomb you. But the document that we were asking Yugoslavia to sign would have been rejected by any sovereign nation on earth. It called for NATO troops to occupy not only Kosovo but all of Yugoslavia. It gave NATO the right to use all Yugoslavian roads, bridges, airports and seaports free of charge, not to mention the entire electromagnetic spectrum. And it stipulated that Kosovo would convert to a "free-market" economy, under the supervision of the NATO commander.

1999: Kosovo Quagmire

In preparation to comment on our five-day-old war in Libya, let me first issue a couple of re-runs pertaining to the Kosovo intervention, the one to which our current police action is most often compared. First, from April of 1999, the prelude. As usual, many of my direst predictions failed to materialize. But some of these observations appear pertinent to the current situation:

Pardon me if I'm just a little bit suspicious of our professed motives for yet another in a series of US military interventions. Seems like every time we roll out the warplanes these days, we claim to be doing it for humanitarian reasons. My absolute guideline in these situations is that wars are never fought for altruistic reasons; never have been, never will be. So far I haven't seen anything to make me change my mind about that.

The corollary to that is that if you're going to go around waging wars for non-altruistic reasons, whatever they be, it is first necessary to propagandize your population into supporting (or at least not actively opposing) your efforts. The second most efficacious, time-tested method of doing that is to to try and convince said population that you are going to war for altruistic reasons. The best method, of course, is to convince them that you're going to war out of self-defense.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Parade of Wolves

This is the first installment of an occasional feature in which I try to clear up confusion between similar band names. There are a lot of bands out there, and if you haven't heard them - or have only heard them fleetingly, it's easy to get them mixed up.

The Screen Actors Guild has a rule that you have to change your name if it's the same as another actor's - hence Bill Macy became William H. Macy so as not to get confused with the sitcom husband on Maude. In the music world, this has led to formulations like the Charlatans UK, the English Beat and the London Suede.

But even without coincidences like that, a lot of artists end up with same-sounding monikers. Before I got to know them, I would mix up Elvin Bishop and Elton John, or U2, UB40 and UFO.

So a couple of posts down, I mentioned Wolfmother and Wolf Parade. But it's worse than I thought. Even if you don't count Los Lobos, there are a lot of "Wolf" bands out there:

1998: Electoral Reforms

Here's another trip back to the Nonchalant Nineties, a time when we could afford to spend a year and a half obsessing over the president's sex life. The electoral follies of the decade inspired a lot of people to start thinking about systemic reforms, exactly none of which have come to pass...

I'm sure you're as tired of reading about the whole Clinton thing as I am of writing about it. I go back and forth on this stuff, and since I said last issue that I'd reluctantly support him, I figured it was time for me to attack him some more. But I just don't have the stomach for it this morning; not enough caffeine. Sometimes I think there's not enough caffeine in the world to make me care about his fate, but like I said, it's my job.

What makes me angriest is the degree to which he's given so much ammunition to his enemies, most of whom are also my enemies, and yours. Actually, more ours than his, but - say, is that coffee ready yet? So, yeah, he's put the Lizard majority in Congress on life support for another two years. But for God's sake, could we have designed a more insane process for electing a legislature if we had tried to?

Teacher Layoff Season Kicks Off

It's spring at last, which means school boards across the nation are preparing for yet another round of teacher layoffs. In Texas alone, 100,000 teachers could be losing their jobs. Mayor Bloomberg is pink-slipping 45,000 in New York City. 30,000 layoff notices have been sent out across California. And here in Arizona, with another quarter billion dollars set to be slashed from the state's education budget, we're just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Susan Straight calls this what it is, a national disgrace:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday Random Ten #1

Here are the first ten songs to pop up on my iPod; Artist/Song/Album:

 1.  Panda Bear/I'm Not/Person Pitch
 2. Echo and the Bunnymen/All My Life/Echo and the Bunnymen
3,  Wussy/Airborne/Funeral Dress
4.   The Drifters/Ruby Baby/Atlantic Rhythm and Blues
5.   Wolf Parade/I'll Believe In Anything/Apologies to the Queen Mary
6.   Leonard Cohen/The Land of Plenty/Ten New Songs
7.   Gus Cannon/Hollywood Rag/'Unknown Album'
8.   That Petrol Emotion/Hot Head/Fast 'n' Bulbous: A Tribute to Captain Beefheart
9.   The Kinks/Where Have All the Good Times Gone/Singles Collection
10.    Horace Silver/Song for My Father/The Best Blue Note Album

Gus Cannon was a jug band musician, born in 1883, who lived to be 96.

Wussy is a cool indie band from Ohio, born from the remnants of the late, lamented Ass Ponys.

That Petrol Emotion were from Belfast, Northern Ireland, born from the remnants of the late, lamented Undertones.

Remind me to explain the difference between Wolf Parade and Wolfmother sometime.

The rest should need no explanation, but that's what Google is for.....

Sunday, March 20, 2011

1997: The MAI Treaty

Fortunately, the odious MAI treaty never came to pass: our friends the French evidently decided it was a bridge too far and blocked consensus in the OECD. But the whole "free trade" agenda continues unabated, right up to this week in Brazil. Recalibrating a "new deal on trade" is something candidate Obama once promised, and while the jury is still out, it's not looking good. Any kind of labor agreement with the bloodstained government of Columbia, in particular, is a cruel joke. It was popular outrage that helped kill MAI and Fast Track and Bush's dream of a hemispheric agreement. Concerted pressure needs to continue, though there are an awful lot of things to be outraged about these days.....

If you liked GATT and NAFTA, you're going to love the MAI. What's that? You haven't heard of the MAI? Well, to put it in a nutshell, MAI is a power grab so blatant that it makes GATTFTA look like a worker's cooperative in the Spanish Republic. And to paraphrase Tom Tomorrow, isn't it a shame you have to find out about it from a cartoon newspaper?

The Multinationals Asskissing Initiative, er, sorry, the Multilateral Agreement on Investments, is currently being negotiated under the kind of secrecy usually reserved for nuclear disarmament talks. Of course, it helps that the mainstream media won't even mention MAI until it's too late to do anything about it. Apparently we ordinary citizens raised too much of a fuss over GATT and NAFTA. Gets in the way.

Dueling Headlines

Here's some good news for pessimists and some bad news for optimists:

Japan's efforts to ease nuke crisis hit setback
Japan makes limited progress in nuclear crisis

Who to believe? I don't think you'd lose money betting with the pessimists. Something tells me we're not getting the full story.

Which reminds me, why isn't this a big deal?

For the Mill

I don't stop by the Grist webzine often enough, but it's always worthwhile when I do.

I was diverted there to hear sensible centrist Dave Roberts explain why sensible centrists are wrong when they say both renewables and nuclear have to be part of the climate change solution.

And then, thanks to Web serendipity. I found myself reading about how bananas may be going the way of the frog. And about the world's greatest toilet, Japan's bad-ass wind farms, a rundown on America's greenest commuters, and how P2P isn't just for MP3.

The title of this piece is the best part, so I won't spoil it for you. Also, if you missed the comic book version of how the climate bill died in the Senate, it's still there.

Finally, there's a video of cows dancing with joy at a fresh meadow of spring grass, after getting out of their barn following a long winter of munching hay. What's not to like?

Of course, you could have found all those links on their front page, too. Point being: they do good work, so boost their traffic stats when you can.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ferlin Husky, 1925-2011

Last Friday's video got such a good response (from my mom, at least) that I decided to make it a regular Friday night feature. I was gonna go with the Kinks this week, but Ferlin Husky passed yesterday, so there you go...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

1989: And the Bookshop Came Tumbling Down

This is the last of four articles looking back at the Loma Prieta Earthquake and its aftermath; it appeared in the Santa Cruz Comic News of December 9, 1989:

Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Neal Coonerty was just leaving a doctor's appointment in San Jose when the Loma Prieta quake shook him out of business. As the shaking began, Lois Mayer vaulted the store's front desk and dashed outside. Kelsey Ramage and Allen White, working in the basement, made their way up the back stairwell to the ground floor, where they encountered a co-worker who had just been tossed downstairs from the upper level. As Ramage helped evacuate the 20 or so customers out the back door, Seana Graham grabbed a flashlight and led a policeman downstairs, where another employee was huddled in shock beneath her desk in the darkened, glass-strewn basement office. At the same time, building owner Ron Lau was en route from Hawaii when his flight was turned around.

As I stumbled out of the offices of The Sun, just across Cedar Streeet, I saw clouds of dust rising from the Pacific Garden Mall. Gazing over at the Bookshop, where I had worked until the previous month, I prayed that the north wall had held. Even in small quakes, I had seen dust from the ancient mortar powdering the workstation at the back desk. Fellow employees recalled seeing waves of motion rolling through the bricks. Like most Californians, we regarded the prospect of the Big One with a certain fatalism, but whenever it hit, we hoped we were nowhere near that wall.

1995: The Budget Impasse

Some of of the story below seems oddly familiar. Instead of Bill Clinton negotiating with himself, we have Barack Obama, and intstead of Newt threatening to shut the government down, we have Boehner. However, we already know how that one turned out, which puts Boehner in a bit of a bind. Matt Yglesias points out that Boehner is stuck in a trap of his own making, while Kevin Drum wonders, when does he cave in: now or later?

As this issue goes to press, the budget impasse between the executive and legislative branches remains unresolved. Unless a deal is cut by December 15, the government will run out of money again, and only another stopgap measure or a final agreement will prevent another shutdown.

Both sides will have to grapple with the contradictions within their ranks. The GOP will have to split the difference between the slash-and-burn firebrands in the House and the more cautious approach in the Senate, while Bill Clinton will have to come to terms with himself.

I'm glad the President finally found a point at which he'll draw the line. The odious GOP budget plans ought to have been countered more aggressively from the start. I'm especially gratified that the President is so resolutely against the elimination of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. Taking away this break for the working class while handing out tax cuts to the wealthy is typical GOP, and the President would have little claim to his party's base if he went along.

1995: What Is To Be Done?

The Internet of 1995 offered far fewer tools for the socially conscious shopper. These days, Shopping for a Better World or the Fair Trade Federation are good places to consult in order to reduce your overall level of liberal guilt. There's also an iPhone app named CauseWorld that allows you to feel better about using a device assembled by exploited workers. The point is, it's impossible to live and spend without having a negative impact somewhere, but awareness of where your money goes gives you some leverage. The more informed you are about your impact, the better able you are to make the right choices.

Occasionally I'm asked to speak to small groups or appear on the radio. I talk about the Comic News and its motto ("dedicated to saving the planet from the power-addicted greedheads before it's too late"), and about the burning issues of the day, as well as the topics of my first two books, Richard Nixon and the CIA.

Usually these talks tend to get kind of bleak, touching as they do on the corruption of our major institutions and the uncertain outlook for the planet. Invariably I'm asked the question, "What is to be done?", as if I had any idea. In order to have something to say, I generally recommend three types of action.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

1989: Aftershock

Three weeks after the Loma Prieta Earthquake of October 17, 1989, this piece appeared in a supplement to the Santa Cruz Comic News, called The Epicenter:

In the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake, it is becoming increasingly clear that not all of the aftershocks can be measured by the Richter scale. Perhaps inevitably, many downtown merchants have become frustrated by the pace of the re-entry program allowing them access to their damaged - or not-so-damaged - buildings.

As with so many other issues, where you stand on this depends largely on where you sit. Owners or tenants of red-tagged structures have an interest in delaying demolition as long as possible, in order to retrieve inventories. Green- or yellow-tagged businesses, on the other hand, want the mall reopened as swiftly as possible, so that they can reopen their stores or relocate in more stable locations.

Monday, March 14, 2011

2000: Ten Worst Things Bill Clinton Did

This is the second half of the post directly beneath, from the September 2000 issue of the Tucson Comic News:

1. Kosovo 
 You can argue that Clinton inherited a mess in the former Yugoslavia from the Bush Administration. But in the case of Kosovo, the Clinton Administration made things far worse, turning a disaster into a catastrophe. They did this first by arming, funding and training the KLA, the most violent, corrupt and extreme faction in Kosovo, while turning their backs on the pacifist movement of Ibrahim Rugova, which had far more popular support. Then there were the negotiations at Rambouillet, which as one State Department official put it at the time, "deliberately set the bar too high." The Clintonistas hoped that a week or so of airstrikes would force Yugoslavia to comply with our demands for a NATO occupation force. Instead, the week turned into 78 days of increasingly brutal bombing of Yugoslavia's civilian infrastructure, along with far more refugees and casualties than before we got involved. Once we got our way and our troops occupied Kosovo, the KLA ran off virtually the entire Serb population, along with Jews, Gypsies, Turks, Bulgarians, and anyone else, including any Albanians who objected to their thuggish kleptocracy. Kosovo is now overrun with drug traffickers and forced prostitution, while the countryside is littered with unexploded cluster bombs and radioactive uranium shells. And still the killing continues.

2000: Ten Best Things Bill Clinton Did

For better or worse, the life of the Tucson Comic News coincided almost exactly with Bill Clinton's two terms in office. For the last issue, I compiled top ten lists of the best and worst things Clinton did as president. First, the good news; then for the Ten Worst Things, click here.

1. Suspending the Gag Rule 
On his very first day in office, Clinton affirmed his pro-choice credentials by issuing an executive order overturning the odious gag order maintained by the Reagan and Bush Administrations, This prohibited any medical facility receiving federal funds from even mentioning the possibility of abortion with their patients. Despite its questionable constitutionality, the Gag Rule survived until Clinton made killing it his first priority.

2. Family Leave
 While he still had a Democratic majority in the Congress, Clinton managed to take one small step towards the kinds of benefits enjoyed by workers in other industrial democracies. Because of this bill, workers are allowed unpaid leave to care for their sick parents or children without fear of losing their jobs. Continuing attempts to allow paid family leave have of course met with a GOP stonewall.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

1989: Culture After the Quake, part two

This was my last article for the doomed  Santa Cruz Sun, a casualty of the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. This was just a lighthearted concert review that seemed to have some resonance at the time. Subsequently I reported on the quake and its aftermath for Thom Zajac's Santa Cruz Comic News, and I'll be re-posting some of those articles in days to come. Please remember that you can donate here and here and here and here to help out the victims of one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history. 

Like everyone else, I was in desperate need of some diversion last weekend; I wanted to hear some loud rock 'n' roll, preferably in a huge crowd of people. Luckily, I had purchased tickets, weeks before the quake, for a show at the Shoreline Amphitheater, featuring my old favorites NRBQ and my new favorites REM.

I never miss a chance to see NRBQ, who l have repeatedly praised in these pages before. The world's greatest bar hand lost none of their impact playing to the half-filled outdoor facility. Allotted a mere half hour as the warmup act, they burned through a half-dozen tunes, all from their new album, at frighteningly rapid tempos. Al Anderson in particular performed guitar heroics above and beyond the call of duty, while we drunken partisans shrieked encouragement. "Who the hell are those guys?" asked a stunned REM fan. NRBQ, we told him, NRBQ.

1989: Culture After the Quake, part one

Even as a survivor of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, I find it nearly impossible to fathom the apocalyptic devastation unfolding in Japan. The quake of October 17, 1989 was 7.1 on the Richter scale, which makes Friday's disaster nearly one hundred times worse. There are tens of thousands dead in Japan; in the Bay Area there were 63. And though the epicenter was in Santa Cruz County, only seven souls were lost. 

As I look back on the articles I wrote at the time, it seems almost quaint how big a deal it was in so many of our lives. And yet disasters have some aspects in common, whatever the scale. They can leave deep emotional scars on both community and individual and, conversely, can serve to bring people together. I have no doubt that the brave and resilient people of Japan will rebuild their shattered communities to be better than ever. And if you want to help, here and here and here and here are some options. 

When the quake hit, I was working in the offices of the Santa Cruz Sun, where we were just about ready to put that paper to bed. That edition was never published. Ten days later, The Sun published its final edition. About a third of our advertisers had gone out of business, and so, consequently, did we. I was asked to survey the quake's impact on the local arts scene:

Santa Cruz is dead; long live Santa Cruz. As all life feeds on death, the death of our downtown gives us the chance to build a new one, like Troy, on the ruins of the old. The gaping holes in our commercial district represent blank canvases, or unwritten musical scores. If we Santa Cruzans could agree on anything, we would find the wealth of possibilities presented here almost intoxicating. As it is, we'll have to balance the various competing interests and settle for as much of a loaf as we can summon up.

I wish we had the nerve, or the wherewithal to grab the great mad architect Hundertwasser and set him loose here, designing the Garden Mall to end all garden malls. Maybe we could summon Claes Oldenberg to create an appropriate local landmark; perhaps a giant banana slug climbing some otherwise undistinguished edifice. How about a few Bucky Fuller domes tossed in here and there, like tomatoes in a salad?

2006: Pot Kettle Black

The title to this post comes from a song by the Great American Rock Band, Wilco. Meanwhile, the end to GOP majorities in the legislative branch, to put it mildly, didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped. One could argue that, under Nancy Pelosi, the Dems did a better job of policing their own side's ethical violations. One could also argue that, under Barack Obama, the White House has ended up perpetuating some of the Bush Administration's worst policies on civil liberties. What one can't argue is that the GOP has covered itself in glory since returning to power, but one is welcome to try....

Pot kettle black. It seems to be the last arrow in their quiver. As indictments fly within the beltway, as investigations mount and trials commence, as the president publicly admits he broke the law and defies anyone to do a thing about it, GOP apologists have nothing left to say but “Pot kettle black!”

It would be absurd, of course, to argue that one political party has a monopoly on malfeasance and corruption. This writer and this publication have criticized the Democrats on these grounds for decades now. And one needs to be careful when tossing around words like “unprecedented” when it comes to the crimes of politicians. But “pot kettle black,” as a response to the current situation is so inadequate, it’s pathetic.

Really, it’s put up or shut up time. We have a constitutional crisis on our hands. The president is claiming he has the power to overrule any congressional statute, to ignore any court ruling. The question now for Republicans is whether they put their loyalty to the party over their loyalty to the Constitution. And for far too many, the answer is, “sure, why not!”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Old Block, Chip Off

My boy's first grade teacher was presenting a brain teaser that went:

1 4 $
2 4 show
3 2 get E
go (cat) go

And she gave them a hint: this song was written by Elvis.

So my boy raises his hand and says "I'm sorry, but 'Blue Suede Shoes' was written by Carl Perkins, not Elvis Presley.

Search for Carl Perkins

1998: Sprawl and the Growth Lobby

This morning's paper brings the news that Tucson's urban core has continued to lose out to suburban growth over the past decade - just like in the previous few decades. This is a trend that can't continue forever, but it could get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Obviously, the "viable growth management plan" referred to below did not pass. It appeared on the 2000 ballot as Proposition 202 and received less than 30% yes votes in the face of strong industry pushback. Pima County subsequently developed a Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, and Tucson voters evertually passed a watered-down light rail plan after rejecting a more comprehensive version. But the momentum of sprawl will continue... until it doesn't. Seems like more overdue homework to me.

(Illustration by the great Andy Singer)

There's been a lot of talk about growth and sprawl lately, not just here in Arizona, but nationwide. The Sierra Club has started a national campaign against sprawl, recognizing that without such an effort, achievements in environmental reform will be incremental at best. We're losing too much of Mother Earth as the six-billion-and-counting of us spread out for more elbow room.

And here in the Grand Canyon State, we have a chance to put a viable growth management plan on the November ballot. Citizens for Growth Management is behind the effort, and they need 112,000 signatures by June 2nd, which is not impossible, especially if you help them.

Not only does reckless and haphazard sprawl rip up our precious Sonoran Desert and endanger native flora and fauna, but it's being subsidized by your tax dollars. For too long Tucson residents have been paying for new infrastructure to help developers raid the desert and make a buck. Too many of our politicians have been happy to help them, but maybe those days are coming to a close.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Just Because I Love You

Howlin' Wolf, "Smokestack Lightning," live in England 1964, with Hubert Sumlin and Willie Dixon.

2001: The Covert War Against Rock

Speaking of crackpot conspiracy theories, I got a million of them. While it's certainly valid that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, it's also the case that the Official Story from the government is often a most extraordinary claim without a great deal of supporting evidence. Which, of course, requires us to theorize about what really happened.....

From the beginning, rock music has been about rebellion, sexuality and racial intermingling. And right from the beginning, there have been powerful forces utterly freaked out by that agenda. It's the premise of Alex Constantine's book The Covert War Against Rock (Feral House, 2000) that those folks didn't exactly shrink from the occasional use of lethal force.

Doubtless for some of you that thesis is relatively near-fetched. But we do live in a culture where information conglomerates still try to convince us that powerful political figures of the sixties were taken out by a series of Lone Nuts. Corporate media pundits invoke the magic words "conspiracy theory" to settle any argument. But Constantine marshals an impressive range of evidence in chronicling the suspicious circumstances regarding some famous exits. The wordy subtitle reads "What You Don't Know About the Deaths of Jim Morrison, Tupac Shakur, Michael Hutchence, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Phil Ochs, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, John Lennon and The Notorious B.I.G."

Covert War starts by looking at the overlapping worlds of government intelligence agencies, organized crime, and virulent right-wing wackos - noting helpfully that each group has had a hand in the music business from time to time. They've worked together in the past to take out common enemies, both foreign and domestic; many such cases are discussed in my own book The CIA's Greatest Hits (Odonian, 1994). The Agency is particularly adept at terminating inconvenient humans using coroner-baffling methods that mimic natural causes. And if they can apply such skills to politicians (and, erm, journalists), well, hey, what's a rock star or two for good measure?

1995: Dittohead Hate Mail

From the September 1995 Tucson Comic News:

I have been a loyal, and paying customer of the Tucson Comic News, for three (3) whole months! I really enjoy the publication. My main reason for writing pertains to the style of your writing. In the first place, are there good and bad power-addicted greedheads? If there are, this is only further proof that you and your lot are completely off kilter.

People view conspiracy theorists like yourself as pot-smokin' crackpots. If you are familiar with political philosophy then you know who Adam Smith was. He wrote the "invisible hand" theory. This stated that rational, free thinking societies would produce that which society needed. Western capitalism as it evolved in the United States has produced more good than bad. The Anasazi wandered around for 20,000 years and got nothing done. We have the greatest society in the world. We did it in 200 years... You seem to take great pride in attacking conservatives. We as Americans shun the thought of a socialist society. You in your rant, set the stage for government domination. Only by the limitation of governmental intrusion can we truly be free. This is the platform of the Republicans. What liberals advocate is the exact opposite. These are the true power-addicted greedheads.

If you think that America is so "corrupt", go over to Russia and tell 'em to clean up Lake Baikal. If you did your Russian would be fluent by the time you got out of corrective labor.

Nobody Could Have Predicted

This is a complete and utter surprise:

The number of schools labeled as "failing" under the nation's No Child Left Behind Act could skyrocket dramatically this year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday.

The Department of Education estimates the percentage of schools not meeting yearly targets for their students' proficiency in in math and reading could jump from 37 to 82 percent as states raise standards in attempts to satisfy the law's mandates.

The 2002 law requires states to set targets aimed at having all students proficient in math and reading by 2014, a standard now viewed as wildly unrealistic.

"No Child Left Behind is broken and we need to fix it now," Duncan said in a statement. "This law has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed."
So the policy of punishing "failing" schools chugged merrily along as long as it mostly affected poor schools and districts. But who knew that "all students" meant 100% of all students in every school in America? If only somebody could have warned us that achieving this by 2014 was an unworkable goal.

Next thing you know people will be claiming there's waste and fraud in the Pentagon budget.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

1991: Pulling Back the Cover-Ups

This book review appeared in the San Jose Metro:

Conspiracies, Cover-ups and Crimes
by Jonathan Vankin
Paragon House, $24.95, 319 pages

I wish every American could read this book, because if even a fraction of it is true, we are in serious trouble. Listen: this is the shit they don’t want you to know. And if you want to know who “they” are, this is the place to look.

Conspiracy theory, writes Jonathan Vankin, is “the last real political heresy.” Drawn to such unauthorized thinking, he spent two years immersed in the topic, and emerged, sanity intact, with the definitive, certainly the most serious, and possibly the only comprehensive look at American conspiracy theory. I cannot reccomend this vital work highly enough (conflict-of-interest check: while Vankin is the News Editor of this publication, I have never met the man. No conspiracy here).

Conspiracies, Cover-ups and Crimes is a triumph, not only of research and interviewing skill, but of condensation. How Vankin managed to fit virtually every notable scandal of the postwar era into such a slender volume is beyond me. While additional detail might have left some treatments slightly less arcane for the lay reader, the book’s briskness is one of its major assets. Scarcely does one grasp the horrible implications of one theory, before Vankin has gallumphed off in another direction, trumpeting yet another heretical interpretation of recent history. This is a quick and easy read, but it synopsizes some of the most crucial and poorly-understood information of our time.

1998: NRBQ Again

This review was written a decade after my previous NRBQ article, by which time the great Al Anderson had left the band. Though the Q have broken up, they do reunite from time to time, sometimes with Big Al on board. There is an NRBQ tribute album, with tracks by Steve Earle, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos and many others. And hey, I got your NRBQ videos right here.

First of all, what needs to be said, with considerable respect due for new guitarist Johnny Spampinato, is that the loss of Al Anderson was a grievous one. I had a wonderful time, but Big Al was sorely missed. Nobody should have to stand in his sizeable shadow, but still. Johnny might be a crack guitarist in anyone else's band, but it was halfway through the show before he ripped off a solo that really made me sit up and take notice. The songs Johnny sang did not have any particular sheen to them, and both his ax and his voice were mixed low, as if even the sound man wasn't quite sure about him, four years on.

During Al's 23 years with NRBQ, he would tear into a killer solo nearly every song, and not only expertly, but with a distinctive style that you could recognize as his even if he recorded with some other band. It wasn't just his disarmingly sweet falsetto renditions of Motown tunes, either, but the way he could howl out a raver like George Jones' "White Lightning." And when Al left to go solo, he took his catalog of originals with him as well, many of them NRBQ classics.