Sunday, July 26, 2009

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Accept Hipster Nation

"I'm a romantic; a sentimental person thinks things will last; a romantic person hopes against hope that they won't."
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

In a recent article for Popmatters entitled "Hipster Hatred Knows No Bounds," Michael Brett laments the current state of music as opposed to his heyday in the '90's:

Last weekend, I made my journey to Hipster Nation’s annual convention, the Pitchfork Music Festival. I arrived with a fifth of gin, my bag chair, and an immediate distaste for many of my fellow attendees. I knew they would need to share the space with me. But I wanted to let them know without any misunderstanding that their presence was nothing but a distraction.

How had things come to this point? Aren’t rock festivals built on a foundation of one nation under a groove? Why didn’t I arrive with anticipation for that singular moment, that show moment when you look out all around at that giant sea of bliss in which you swim?

The first reason has to do with me. I’m aging. And I don’t like it.

The second reason has to do with them. They’re not angry enough. In fact, they’re a bunch of wimps.

American ‘alternative’ music prided itself on being the angriest music around. Bands like Husker Du, Jesus Lizard, Mudhoney, and Nirvana cut their teeth on ‘70s arena rock. Their guitarists knew Thin Lizzy licks. They just played ‘em faster and louder, chewed up with feedback. When I began to go to shows in the early ‘90s, I was scared shitless. There were a mess of big dudes with tattoos (when they were still cool) and Melvins shirts who lived for the moment when a scrub like me would try to sneak around their mosh pit.

In regards to Brett's first reason, I can relate - I'm aging too, but I don't mind. I'm the cranky, old guy off to the side who doesn't really fit in at these shows and I'm thankful for that. But age is important in this debate. You first encounter "alternative" music when you are in your teens or early 20's and it is a fresh, new world that you embrace uncorrupted. Musicians seem larger than life and they are expressing things that seem to speak directly to you. As you get older, however, myths fade, and while you can still enjoy music no matter how old you are, the way in which it is viewed between generations is vastly different. If this "hipster" decade was Brett's initiation into the world of music instead of the 90's, he would probably embrace it in ways he can't possibly fathom now.

In regards to reason number two, I would say that Brett is right - this generation is not angry enough, but I think that all stems from what influenced this decade to begin with...

...rap metal, fires, rapes, and the general hooliganism that was Woodstock '99.

But this trend is nothing new. The punks were angry and railed against the hippies. When the crowds at punk shows became too angry and overcrowded with jocks, many punks left it behind to form a more cerebral-type music, i.e., Johnny Rotten forming Public Image Limited out of the Sex Pistols; Fugazi emerging from Minor Threat; etc., etc.

Every scene eventually becomes stale and the next decade will find kids distancing themselves from the current decade while borrowing from it as well to form something new. And someday, someone will be at a concert in the year 2015 feeling out of place as they deplore the state of music around them wondering why it all couldn't be like that Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert in '03 that blew their mind.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why I Don't Care

Last Thursday, a woman called police to report a break-in at a house saying that she saw "two black males with backpacks on the porch," with one "wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry. One of the "black males" was Yale professor and distinguished historian, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who happened to own the house. The police allege that Gates was being belligerent as well as initially refusing to present proper identification, while Gates contends that it's a simple case of racial profiling.

Does racism still exist? Of course. Does racial profiling exist? Yes. But We ALL engage in profiling. Anyone who says otherwise is either a liar or lives in a bubble. And, while I wasn't there witnessing the Gates situation, I'm going to speculate anyway. When cops are alerted to a potential break-in, it is their job to respond and they should ask for I.D. as they have no idea who this guy is. And, yes, Gates has every right to be upset after just arriving back from a long trip to China to be accused of breaking into his own home BUT, however much of an inconvenience this is to Gates, if an officer asks you for I.D., show it to him. Anything less is asking for trouble.

Secondly, injustices happen to white people everyday. Is it any less of an injustice simply because the person handing out the injustice happens to be white as well? Had the parents of Jon Benet Ramsey been black, you can be assured that the injustices that they endured for years would have been viewed through a racial lens. Injustice is injustice is injustice. Several years ago, a black guy jumped in my truck and told me to drive. The destination was a dead-end in the ghetto where he proceeded to rob me and, luckily, not kill me which I had already convinced myself was on his to-do list. As I frantically drove away, I came across a white police officer only two blocks away. When I told him what had happened, he told me, "well, you shouldn't have been buying crack, you little motherfucker." White guy in the ghetto? Must be up to no good. I was profiled. That cop had fire in his eyes and I assure you, had I protested, he would have beat me silly and/or arrested me. As a white student at a black college, I was often profiled as smart and wealthy. Ironically, the reason I ended up at a black college in the first place was because I lacked both.

Just because injustices statistically happen more to one group than the other, doesn't mean that one should be ignored over the other. And every incident between whites and blacks should not be automatically labeled a racist incident. It's overkill and it makes it incredibly difficult to separate real racism from racial paranoia. The Gates story is not worthy of front-page headlines and I say this as someone who truly admires the guy.
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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rise Above

"The public is usually slow to catch on to new things, and it's important that musicians stick to their guns and not look for that instant gratification."
-Greg Ginn

In 2007, Dirty Projectors, a band out of Brooklyn, New York, released Rise Above, a cover of Black Flag's Damaged, except that the songs were reimagined exclusively from the memory of head Projector, Dave Longstreth. While I appreciated the respect that Longstreth had for Black Flag, I was never able to wrap my brain around Longstreth's interpretation of a punk classic.

On Wednesday night, Dirty Projectors played Red 7 and brought Black Flag leader, Greg Ginn, on stage to jam with them on a couple of songs. I wondered to myself, as I scanned over the crowd, how many kids in the audience actually understood the importance of the older gentleman on stage who was the most influential architect of the 80's underground music scene.

Ginn formed Black Flag in 1977 in southern California, as well as the record label, SST Records, in order to release Black Flag albums. SST, however, would go on to be so much more - releasing some of the most influential albums of the 80's by bands such as: Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, The Descendants, Bad Brains, etc. And, yet, the crown jewel in the SST discography is Black Flag's first full-length LP, Damaged, which was dripping with angst, rage, alienation, and humor.

Black Flag, driven by its thrashing guitarist and primary songwriter - Ginn, would become the hardest working band in the business, touring relentlessly from city to city to even the most remote areas while establishing an extremely dedicated fanbase along the way, as well as the ire of the Los Angeles police department which constantly kept tabs on the band and harassed them because of their raucous live shows that sometimes ended in riots. It was quite the contrast to see Ginn playing his slow jams on the guitar while Dirty Projectors played loudly along side of him to a serene crowd. The dichotomy, however, was thrilling all the same.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Strange Case Against Judicial Activism

In New Haven, Connecticut, eighteen firefighters(17 of whom were white and one hispanic) alleged that the city discriminated against them by failing to promote them, despite the fact that they had all passed written tests for promotions. The city invalidated the tests because none of the black firefighters who took the same tests were able to pass them, which resulted in the eighteen firefighters bringing a lawsuit upon the city of New Haven. Sonia Sotomayor, as a member of the 2008 Second Circuit panel, ruled that the city of New Haven had a right to throw out the tests as it had a "disparate impact" on minority firefighters. Sotomayor is now President Obama's Supreme Court nominee and this particular ruling has become a rallying cry by conservative opponents who have accused her of "judicial activisim."

Judicial activism occurs when a judge or justice decides a case based on their personal or political ideology as opposed to a strict adherence to the Constitution. Minority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said Sotomayor's federal appeals court ruling last year against white firefighters alleging reverse discrimination leaves the impression that she allows her agenda to affect her judgment and that she favors certain groups. "It's a troubling philosophy for any judge - let alone one nominated to our highest court - to convert empathy into favortism for particular groups," McConnell said.

If judicial activism is such a concern when nominating Supreme Court judges, then why do Republican Presidents nominate conservative judges while Democratic Presidents nominate liberal judges? In the case of the white firefighter discrimination case, Ricci v. DeStefano, the Supreme Court held 5-4 that New Haven's decision to ignore the test results were in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The five members delivering the opinion were all conservative(Alito, Thomas, Scalia, and Roberts) with the exception of Justice Kennedy who is considered a moderate or "swing" voter. The dissenting opinions were all liberal(Ginsburg, Breyer, Stevens, and Souter). In Bush v. Gore, in which voter fraud was alleged in the 2000 presidential elections, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 vote to uphold Bush's victory over Gore. Need I say how those votes were split? Whether you agree with any of the Supreme Court's decisions or not, the fact remains that many votes are split along ideological lines and everyone on the Supreme Court, past and present, seems to be guilty of judicial activism.

Monday, July 6, 2009


When I first saw Stanley Kubrick's dark, comedy classic, Dr. Strangelove, about a mentally unstable general who orders a nuclear strike on Russia, I never really gave a second thought to military generals having world-destroying powers at their fingertips because comedy often relies on the absurd. It took some time after seeing Dr. Strangelove to realize that this "absurd" scenario was completely plausible before JFK's Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, who died today at the age of 93, closed that loophole.

Yet, what history will most remember about McNamara is that he was the anti-communist hawk who helped escalate the Vietnam War during his tenure as Secretary of Defense which made him an enemy of the anti-war movement, to say the least. Toward the end of his term, however, the doubts about the war began to set in, but it wouldn't be until later in life that he began to publicly address the situation and admit that the escalation of the war in Vietnam was wrong, which, justifiably, didn't win him much praise from Vietnam veterans and their families. A New York Times editorial would declare, "His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books of our dead soldiers."

Initially, McNamara declined the post of Secretary of Defense, telling President Kennedy that he was not qualified, which led Kennedy to reply, "I don't believe there's any school for Presidents, either." And it's true - there are no schools for Presidents or Secretaries of Defense. But there is history and cultural understanding. And the lessons of Robert McNamara, which was brilliantly documented by Errol Morris in The Fog of War, should be a prerequisite for anyone involved in planning or inheriting a war.

"Nobody gets to do over his mistakes, least of all Robert McNamara. But perhaps the memory of this brilliant and tragic man will keep us from being too certain of our own judgment -- and encourage us to consider, even when we feel most confident, the possibility that we could be wrong."
- David Ignatius(Washington Post)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Grace Around The World

Last Sunday, I attended the cd/dvd release party of Jeff Buckley's Grace Around The World under the sweltering half moon on the outside deck of Mother Egan's Pub. Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert, was in attendance and I wondered, as she watched her son's live performances on the screen, if it brought her sadness, pride, or a mixture of both. Buckley drowned in May of 1997 in Memphis after having released only one album, but oh what an album it is. Grace was released on August 23, 1994, but wasn't well received commercially, peaking at #149 on the Billboard charts in the U.S. But, while sales of Buckley's debut album were sluggish, worldwide critical acclaim for Grace was off the charts.

Grace continues to be one of my top ten favorite albums of all-time, but for awhile I suspected that Jeff Buckley's amazing voice that I heard on Grace could only be possible through slick studio production...until I saw the dvd, Live in Chicago. His voice is something rare and it pulls you in whether you're a fan of his or not. Led Zeppelin guitarist, Jimmy Page, said of Buckley's voice - "Technically, he was the best singer that had appeared probably in - I'm not being too liberal about this - if I say, in two decades."

The problem with Grace Around The World is that Buckley has been dead for quite a while now and there is nothing in this live cd/dvd release that hasn't already been covered. If you want to see Jeff Buckley's performance live, get your hands on the dvd, Live in Chicago. If you want to hear Buckley's live recordings, you need to pick up the cd, Live at Sin-e. Whatever you decide to do, do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in the sounds of the late, great Jeff Buckley whenever you get the chance. You won't be disappointed.