Monday, December 23, 2013

The New Old-Fashioned Way: Holiday Classics 1963-2013

Recently Slate critic Chris Klimek lamented the absence of all but a few contemporary compositions from the canon of holiday favorites. In the chart at left (a cool interactive version accompanies the article), Time's Chris Wilson explains why that is: older songs are in the public domain, hence more lucrative to record.

And "number of recordings" is the way the music biz measures the popularity of Christmas songs. By those lights, the chart of recordings made since 1978 contains only one song written after 1978. It's the same one Klimek identified as the sole recent entry into the canon: Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You." It's not a bad song (I particularly like Ellie Goulding's cover version), but it's not the "last great original Christmas song" either, fergawdsake.  It's been joined in the songwriter-royalty sweepstakes by a select few others from the past half-century, notably George Michael's "Last Christmas" and Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas."

But I've been collecting Christmas songs ever since my DJ days back in the mid-80s, and there are plenty of contemporary classics that get big airplay at our house every December, some of which never see the light of day on the Xmas-station radio playlists. They live in our hearts, not on the charts.

If we use 50 years ago as the cutoff date, we exclude "Do You Hear What I Hear," written in 1962, but opt in for "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," written by Andy Williams in '63 (sorry, Mom, not one of my favorites). That year also featured great Xmas albums from the Beach Boys and Phil Spector, as well as the first of the annual Xmas singles from the Beatles. Spector's still-cool LP featured just one original composition, the certifiable classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." The Beach Boys, though, sounded better on the old standards than on Brian's just-okay new tunes (including "Little Saint Nick" and "The Man With All the Toys"). Meanwhile, the Beatles have never commercially released their Xmas recordings, so most people are unaware of their goofy originals like "Christmastime is Here Again" and "Everywhere It's Christmas."

1968 brought the first of a series of Motown Christmas albums, mostly a compilation of predictably excellent covers of the old standards, done Motown style. It wasn't until 1999 that the label saw fit to include Marvin Gaye's original composition "I Want to Come Home for Christmas." One must also bow in the direction of James Brown's annual series of endlessly funky Xmas jams. Attention must likewise be paid to the late, great Buck Owens and his "Christmastime's A-Comin'."

The most enduring 1960s songs come from a trio of TV Christmas specials: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch;" "Holly Jolly Christmas;" and "Christmastime is Here," from Vince Guaraldi's beloved soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

But one of my favorites is this blast of proto-punk Xmas angst from the Sonics:

The 1970s brought Hathaway's aforementioned neo-standard, along with Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad." There were also now-ubiquitous Xmas singles from ex-Beatles John and Paul. Squeeze, The Band, the Kinks, and Elton John all made durable, if less lucrative, contributions. Albert King kicked in with "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'," and Tom Waits gave us his "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis," unlikely to be enshrined in any Time-Life box set. And in 1973, John Prine contributed "Christmas in Prison," easily one of the best of the past five decades:

The late-20th-century tunes tend to situate more towards the secular end of the Jesus-to-Santa continuum. But the 1970s also included Jackson Browne's "Rebel Jesus" and Big Star's "Jesus Christ." These sit nicely alongside U2's 1988 cover of Woody Guthrie's "Jesus Christ," a mainstay of our holiday playlists.
Speaking of the 80s, that decade gave us what turns out to be another near-standard that might stand sturdier on its own two feet if royalties were not an issue: "Christmas Wrapping" by the Waitresses.

Songwriter Cris Butler explains how the tune was written as "a toss-off, a favor to our label," how surprising its success was, and how "blissed out" he is when he hears it on the radio today.
Two of the finest Christmas songs of the past 50 years came from the 1980s: "2000 Miles" by the Pretenders and "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues. No disrespect to Mariah Carey or Jose Feliciano, but those are stone classics. 

Also not to be forgotten is "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" by the Ramones - written by Joey, naturally. George Michael's aforementioned "Last Christmas" was released as a Wham! single in 1984, and has repaid its author with scores of cover versions to date. 

The first (and best) of the dozen A Very Special Christmas albums, a benefit for the Special Olympics, was released in 1987. Nearly all the tracks are covers (some of them quite splendid), but Vol. 1 contains what may be the first (and best) great Xmas rap, "Christmas in Hollis," by Run-D.M.C.

In 1985, the criminally underrated NRBQ released their Xmas album, featuring the criminally underrated "Christmas Wish."  This song deserves to be a classic as much as any other from the past half-century. There have been a few covers, notably the 2011 version from She and Him. Here it is performed by its composer, ace bassist Joey Spampinato:

There are, sadly (but unsurprisingly) no Christmas songs from most of my favorite 90s bands, like Pavement, Pixies, Sonic Youth or Nirvana. Radiohead did a passable version of "Winter Wonderland," while Björk has a 15-minute video called "The Jesus Prayer," which is, however, not very Christmassy.
But Tom Petty wrote "Christmas All Over Again" in 1992, and Steve Earle gave us "Christmas in Washington" in 1997. Japanese power-punk trio Shonen Knife released the charming "Space Christmas" in 1991. Each of these is worthy of wider coverage. And to my mind, the hands-down finest Christmas song of the past fifty years was gifted to us in 1994.

I speak to you of Robert Earl Keen's superb "Merry Christmas From the Family." It may be the funniest Xmas tune ever, but it's not a novelty song (for the purposes of this essay, we are ignoring such amusing but seldom-covered efforts from Bob & Doug Mackenzie, Elmo and Patsy, Martin Mull and Spinal Tap). Keen's family evokes universal feelings of bemused nostalgia for the Christmasses of our youth and the quirky people we grew up with. As funny as it is, it tugs at the heartstrings for me like no Christmas song since 1944's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Here's a live version before an adoring crowd who know every word:

So far the 13 years of the 21st century have given us many new Xmas songs to enjoy. Just last month we got an instant classic when Nick Lowe released "Christmas at the Airport." Paul Simon's "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" is a keeper, as is "Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree," from Great American Songwriter Stephen Merritt's band the Magnetic Fields. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a charming entry, "All I Want for Christmas" (not to be confused with Ms. Carey's cash cow). Many are partial to "The Season's Upon Us" by the Dropkick Murphys, and I can't really argue with that. I'm quite fond of Mary Gauthier's "Christmas in Paradise," as well. Jonathan Edwards has eloquently made the case for "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" as a modern standard, and it certainly is in our household. In fact, the folks at Saturday Night Live have been livening up our holidays ever since Garrett Morris and friends unveiled their rollicking "Winter Wonderland" in 1975. Adam Sandler's "Channukah Song" is always welcome, and Darlene Love did us all a favor by belting out Robert Smigel's "Christmastime for the Jews." But no account of contemporary Christmas songwriting would be complete without a bow to the prolific Sufjan Stevens. He's released ten volumes of Christmas music, filled with both charming covers and dozens of originals, and tours regularly with his Christmas revue. Many of his songs may well stand the test of time, but who's got time to sort through them all?  My daughter, though, is partial to this one, which ends with an unlikely mash-up into a Joy Division classic:
The economics of Christmas songs being what they are, we may have to wait for these modern classics to fall out of copyright before the stars of the late 21st century start recording them in earnest. On the other hand, this cynic explains the paucity of modern Xmas standards as a function of the hegemony of Boomer nostalgia. And to that I say Pshaw, sir! My generation has no monopoly on sentiment, and we didn't ask to be born into a demographic bulge. I sympathize with the protest though, because in my book, they don't stop making good music just because you stop being young.

Friday, November 22, 2013

He Died in Vain

The bad guys won. They got away with it, covered their tracks and consolidated their power within the US government.

Was John F. Kennedy a threat to that power structure? You bet he was.

Was he a power-grubbing politician and a dangerous Cold Warrior himself? Of course he was, but one of the salient facts in the Crime of the Century is how rapidly he was changing towards the end of his short life.

His sins were mighty, and like all our presidents, his public image was a myth. But the JFK who the world saw in the fall of 1963 was very different from the one who took office in 1961.

Both Khruschev and Kennedy were profoundly shaken by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and both men had to defy their military advisers to pull back from the brink. Let us remember the message Bobby Kennedy brought to Anatoly Dobrynin, in an effort to find a way out: "If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power."

His enemies were not feckless losers, as defenders of the "double lone nut coincidence theory" would have you believe. The means, motive and opportunity belonged to well-dressed sociopaths in the halls of power, who had experience toppling governments and did not shrink from the use of lethal violence. 

Lee Oswald did not have the power to change the president's motorcade route so it would wend its way past his window. Jack Ruby did not have the power to delay the prisoner's scheduled transfer until he was ready and in place. And whatever else you can say about magic bullets, grassy knolls and autopsy reports, the coincidence theorists have a high bar to clear when it comes to their extraordinary claims. 

That would concern the details of Oswald's trip to Mexico City, where he was quite obviously impersonated by someone seeking to tie him to the KGB's assassination bureau – a few short months before the guns of November were sounded. If you don't know the details of this, you simply haven't done your homework. And if you can't explain that away, you shouldn't try to mock anyone who speaks of conspiracy theories. 

But the mockery is not in short supply. Critics of the absurd Warren Commission hypothesis are routinely conflated with those who believe the moon landing was faked, Elvis is alive somewhere, and a race of grey-skinned alien lizard people secretly rule the earth. The reasoning is that since wacky people believe wacky stuff, that means no powerful groups have ever conspired to seize or maintain power. 

I expected a torrent of lone-nutter bullshit around this anniversary, as previous milestone years treated us to portentous "debunkings" of the deluded conspiracists. Well-publicized tomes like Posner's and Bugliosi's were treated to hosannahs in the mainstream media, while their lapses and calculated omissions were ignored. Anniversary specials on TV routinely advance the daring claim that the Warren Commissioners actually got it right after all. Meanwhile, serious scholars and researchers are simply ignored, when they're not being compared to a cargo cult. 

The most common twist this year is a kind of smug armchair psychoanalysis of the "conspiratorial mindset." Such folks just have a deep need to explain away complex historical events with a simplistic "good vs. evil" explanation, unable to face up to the truth that coincidences sometimes happen. 

I think there is a good deal of projection involved here. The research community is fully cognizant of the complexity of the hall of mirrors that constitutes the historical record of the greatest murder mystery of all time. It's the coincidence theorists who seem to yearn for closure. Perhaps they simply have a psychological need not to question the self-serving confabulations of the cover-up. 

Or maybe they just like being on the side of the winners.

The most disheartening line comes from those who urge us to put this all behind us, because there's nothing more we can learn about it, and it wouldn't matter even if we could. But we're talking about one of the major pivot points of our history – and just like WWII and the Civil War, we live with its effects every day. 

The murder of JFK ratified the worldview of his killers. It was the paradigm Ike tried to warn us against. It was what Harry Truman recoiled from, when he cautioned, shortly after the events in Dallas, of the possibility of an American Gestapo, and the rise of a "right wing totalitarian country."

And now? We're marinating in it. The Global Corporate Empire pretty much gets its way, and no president will ever challenge it – the way JFK challenged the bankers, the oil companies, the steel magnates, or the military. Now, presidents look over their shoulders, knowing there are lines they will not cross – if it even occurs to them to cross them in the first place. 

Now we live in a permanent wartime economy, and Wall Street screws us all with impunity. The war on poverty has been replaced by a war on the poor. John Mitchell warned us that this country would be going so far to the right, we wouldn't recognize it anymore. And he was right. I don't recognize the country I was born into. 

Jack Kennedy died in vain. The ideals he stood for, the lessons he learned, were all for naught. That is, unless the rest of us learn them, too. However flawed a person he was, however hyped his myth, he really did inspire millions to work for a better world. What's most important about his life is just this: He evolved, and that's his real legacy. So maybe we can, too.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Daniels Rant

So I awake this morning to find that a Facebook friend has posted a 20-paragraph Charlie Daniels rant to my timeline, mostly about Obamacare. (not linking to it, but you can find it on Charlie’s FB page, where the most recent comment reads “Daniels/Nugent 2016!”) Since he took the trouble to do this (instead of posting it to his own timeline and hoping I'd read it), I have to assume he’s interested in my reply. So let's have a respectful exchange of views. Oh, and since Daniels took 20 paragraphs, this may take some time.

The first paragraph is actually one long formidable sentence. Aside from the violent imagery at the end, it boils down to the monstrosity of the less-than-sterling rollout of Obamacare. So yes, the right wing gets some bragging rights here: It's a slow website. If the website gets fixed, people will quickly forget about it, and if not, not. Moreover, the latest estimates show that roughly 3% of the public will end up paying higher premiums, though they will also be getting better coverage. When the president said people who liked their insurance could keep it, it appears he underestimated how many people really like crappy health insurance. Another point to the critics.
But the part I like best is the speculation that “even the most arrogant administration in history would be embarrassed by such a thing.” We already have a test case on this: the Bush Administration's rollout of its health care reform, Medicare Part D, complete with major website glitches. They may have been embarrassed, but they simply rolled up their sleeves and got back to trying to make it work. The interesting part is this: most Democrats passionately opposed the scheme (because it featured huge handouts to pharmaceutical companies, increased costs for seniors in the "donut hole," and, unlike Obamacare, was not paid for). But instead of having a hissy fit and shutting down the government, the Democrats in Congress decided that Medicare D was the law, and worked with the White House to help implement it.
Oh and by the way: Obamacare rolls back Bush's subsidies to Big Pharma and closes the donut hole.
So, Mr Daniels goes on to complain about the "fiscal monster" that gnaws at the vitals of future generations. This is pretty rich. Not only did President Bush put Medicare D on the credit card, he also passed along the costs of two major wars. Then he crashed the global economy, which, among other things, jacked up the price of the government safety net for the millions of newly unemployed. And meanwhile, Obama has cut in half the size of the deficit he inherited from W - and Obamacare is not only paid for, it reduces the deficit.
Paragraphs 3 and 4 write off 40% of the American public, down a bit from Mitt Romney's very successful "piss off 47% of the voters" strategy. Mr. Daniels is of the opinion that "entitlement checks" are about to stop being issued. Well, they would have if the GOP has forced a default last month, but that's a different story. Social Security is solvent through the 2030s and can be fixed with minor tweaks. Medicare spending is the main driver of future costs, but if the Republicans have a better idea than Obamacare for reining in those costs, they're keeping it a pretty big secret.
Paragraph 5 is a complaint about government bureaucrats. Previously we had health insurance company bureaucrats telling people that could not have any insurance if they had pre-existing conditions, and that if they got really sick they'd either be kicked off insurance or have caps imposed so that their costs would go through the roof. Now the government bureaucrats say that's not allowed. Apparently this is tyranny.
Paragraphs 6 through 11 constitute a potpourri of complaints unrelated to Obamacare, including the IRS, Solyndra and Benghazi scandals that worked so well in the last election. Other than to say I'd be happy to compare Obama's record on embassy attacks to George Bush's, I think we can move on.
Paragraphs 12 through 14 express the writer's disenchantment with both political parties. I think I speak for everyone on the left when I say that if Tea Party sympathizers want to break the Republican Party in two and start their own, they are more than welcome to do so.
Mr. Daniels concludes by yearning for a God-fearing person (who does not hail from a coastal community) to wield a sword and helmet and cleanse our nation. Let us assume for the moment that this is not a call for violent insurrection. All I can say is that if you can name a single such person, acceptable to the Tea Party, who has the remotest chance of coming anywhere near 270 electoral votes in the 2016 presidential election, I am all ears.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ten Worst Things George W. Bush Did

Because on April 25 this smug, self-serving man had a smug, self-serving library dedicated to his memory, he's been in the news of late. Friends and foes alike have struggled, sometimes with awkward results, to find nice things to say about him. Others have made it clear that, given the immense damage he inflicted on our body politic, they will have none of it.

You can find attempts to describe the wreckage from Alternet and ThinkProgress.  You can find some indignant snark from Mother Jones and Daily Kos. One blogger produced a commentary-free list of both positive and negative accomplishments that turned out to be pretty damning in its dispassionate way.

I wanted to take some time to do what I did with Bill Clinton: write up Top Ten lists for the Best Things and the Worst Things he did. This difference here is that while Clinton had plenty of contenders for both lists, with W it's a challenge to pad the former and winnow down for the latter. In order to get a grip on the dystopic torrent of catastrophe that was the Bush presidency, I've combined several of the nastiest offenses into more general categories. This list isn't ranked; you can choose for yourself what you think hurt the most. But I have to start with this one:

1. It's the Sociopathy, Stupid
I'm not just glibly tossing around pejorative rhetoric when I suggest that Bush may be a sociopath. It's an idea that Kurt Vonnegut explained coherently, based on clinical studies of this particular personality disorder - the notion that many of our leaders simply lack a normal conscience. One study shows that as much as 4% of the population may have the disorder, and many of them have attained positions of great power and responsibility: "Because sociopaths are ruthless and will squash their rivals and burn institutions to the ground in order to reach their goals – but great at pretending that they care about people – they are incredibly destructive." That fits our fratboy president to a T. But more than most, he pulled the curtain aside to reveal his abhorrent moral character with remarks that illustrate his sadistic sense of humor. I'm thinking here of moments like the mocking of a death-row prisoner pleading for her life. Or the fist-pump he gave as a kiss-off to fellow world leaders at his final G8 summit, as he celebrated his achievements in quashing action to combat climate change, announcing "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter." Or how, one year before the invasion of Iraq, while his aides were ostensibly discussing a peaceful resolution to the non-existent problem of WMDs, Bush poked his head in the door and quipped "Fuck Saddam! We're taking him out!" Which is much cuter than the WMD "comedy" video he showed at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, long after the falsehoods of his casus belli had led to needless death and destruction. And even though it wasn't meant as a joke, it's just as instructive to recall the infamous push poll question he used against John McCain: "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?"Whether such despicable behavior makes Bush a sociopath or not is beside the point: in every case, the cruelty of his remarks prefigures the cruelty of his policies.

2. Invading Iraq: "I'm going to have a successful presidency."
The title here is a reference to the revelation that Bush was planning to invade Iraq even before being elected, and that his principal motivation, as he described it, was to bolster his political popularity as a way of enacting his preferred agenda. Bush's fans will inevitably cite his "taking out" Saddam as one of his greatest achievements, but keep in mind the cynicism underpinning the whole sordid debacle. Bush and his administration relentlessly pursued the war they wanted through an endless litany of lies and distortions, seizing on the 9/11 attacks to exploit the nation's fear and rage. Though he had long since decided to start a war there, Bush had to have the difference between Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites explained to him just two weeks before the invasion. While he assured Pat Robertson that our side would suffer no casualties, Bush's aides were making ridiculously low-ball estimates of the war's financial costs - no surprise, since anyone who didn't was fired. So while regime change was carried out swiftly due to the massive asymmetry in force capabilities, the occupation was bungled in every imaginable way. From lack of planning, understaffing, failure to secure explosives and munitions, indisriminate roundups of Iraqis into Saddam's reopened gulags, delegation of authority to inexperienced GOP operatives, and the infuriating looting of the entire capital (save for the oil ministry), it seems like Bush couldn't have done a better job of inspiring an insurgency if he'd tried to. So the war turned into a prolonged stalemate and Bush's presidency into the opposite of "successful." Apologists will point to the supposedly successful "surge" policy, which served, like Nixon's "peace plan" in Vietnam, to delay the inevitable withdrawal of our troops in order to save face and foist the blame for any continuing messiness onto his successor. And neither Bush nor Obama can claim any credit for bringing our occupation to a conclusion; essentially, the Iraqis kicked us out

3. The 9/11 Attacks: "You've Covered Your Ass." 
There are any number of legitimate unanswered questions about the backgrounds of the 9/11 hijackers, the forces behind them, and the events of that day. You could set the all aside and still look at the Bush Administration's handling of 9/11 as one of the biggest disasters in our history. Before, during and after the attacks, Bush and his aides displayed the familiar combination of hubris, arrogance and incompetence that marked so many other of their policies. As has been amply documented, Bush and his key advisers repeatedly downplayed and ignored the threat of terrorism in general and al-Qaeda in particular, up to the point of threatening a veto if FBI funding were diverted to counterterrorism efforts. In the weeks leading up to the attacks, a series of warnings came from multiple intelligence sources, culminating in the infamous August 6 memo "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." The president responded to his briefer with the quotation above, and then went fishing. In the aftermath of the attacks, Bush, as previously noted, was quick to capitalize on them to advance his political agenda, as he and his allies painted anyone who dared to disagree with him as traitors. History might be kinder if he had also presided over an appropriate response, but history shows he spectacularly botched the capture of Bin Laden and quickly diverted our resources to his long-planned Iraq war. While, to be fair, counterterrorism efforts have improved markedly since that point, it's a stretch to assert, as his defenders inevitably do, that "he kept us safe." Claiming "no terrorist attacks on US soil after 9/11" conveniently ignores the unsolved anthrax attacks, the DC sniper case, and the LAX shooter. But the weasel words "US soil"obscure the rising rate of terror attacks killing US citizens across the globe during his watch. 

Stay tuned for:

4. Afghanistan: Our Longest War
5. Civil Liberties: You're Killing Me
6. Kyoto and Beyond: Trashing the Planet 
7. The CEO President: Bush's Worst Hires
8. Katrina: Abandoning New Orleans
9. Assaulting Democracy, from Forida Onward
10. And, Oh Yes, Crashing the Global Economy 

Monday, April 8, 2013