Thursday, December 8, 2016

Are America's Brezhnev Years Over?

Leonid Brezhnev's many medals couldn't hide the rot of the Soviet system

As I have written on this blog before, sometime during the Dubya years I started proffering the theory that America had entered its Brezhnev years. Here's how I described it:

"Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, presiding over its long decline.  While he enjoyed giving himself medals and flexing Soviet power, the system began to rot and most people, even in the party itself, stopped believing in the party ideology.  Similarly, our political class profess to love freedom and democracy, all while democratic institutions crumble.  Elections are bought and sold, and voters can't be bothered to show up at the polls.  Gridlock and acrimony have led to a do-nothing government no longer even able to pass the most basic legislation.  Social institutions are hardly faring better. Our universities, once the pride of the world, have become money-grubbing enterprises whose high cost make debtors out of their students.  Roads crack and bridges fall due to lack of funds. As labor unions have been crushed, workers are seeing their wages shrink while the wealthy see unprecedented gains.  Abroad America's failed War On Terror has, like the USSR's ill-advised invasion of Afghanistan, exposed a once mighty empire's clay feet.  Belief in institutions has been broken, and the fact the military and police routinely come out on top when Americans are polled about institutions that they trust shows an authoritarian longing that belies all of the democracy talk."

The Brezhnev years, despite surface appearances of stability, were a time of massive structural rot. I feel that the same thing has happened in America in the past three decades. "Democracy" has become a buzzword with about as much meaning as "outside the box" or "excellence" or "grit." I think that in many respects, Trump's election is the culmination of America's Brezhnev years. While Trump is a very different man than Mikhail Gorbachev, both represent leaders willing to break down the very political structure of their own countries, as well as change the state of world diplomacy.

Gorbachev wanted to maintain communism and save it from itself. Trump, on the other hand, wants to break the old system down to get more power for himself. Don't believe me? He actually once discussed on Fox News the need for social chaos before "we can be great again." Decades of the rot that has robbed the country of a belief in democracy will enable him. Hence all those marginal Trump voters who said that they wanted someone to "shake things up," despite doubting his fitness for office. This kind of political nihilism is too a product of America's Brezhnev years, the product of endless gridlock and cynicism.

America's Brezhnev years may now be over, but what comes next is the collapse. Trump has appointed several generals to positions usually held by civilians, most notably to head the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Never mind the tradition that the civilians should oversee the military and the military should not be in charge of internal affairs. Trump knows full well that when a tyrant takes power in a modern state, he needs the military to be on his side, since they are the one institution capable of stopping him. He got a large amount of the military vote, and is now heavily associating himself with it in ways that are unprecedented for a president. Beyond that, he knows that the police and military are the most trusted institutions in America (a truly deleterious effect of America's Brehznev years.) Their support will insulate him, and make his abrogations of democracy seem acceptable to a majority of the country.

Trump has used his Twitter megaphone this week to personally attack anyone who dares to criticize him. This ought to scare us, but after twenty years of rot, the reaction is as much amused as it is outraged. Trump lost the popular vote by almost three million votes, got support from a foreign government, and benefitted from voter suppression, but the vast majority of this country is willing to just let all of that slide. Decades of rot have made it difficult to care for so many. Trump is refusing to divest his business holdings, release his tax returns, and had to pay $25 million for a fraud lawsuit, but none of these issues has inspired outrage outside of a minority. Why? Because the rot has set in, and like the KGB agents who fought to get postings in the West so that they could buy blue jeans and Marlboros, people in this country no longer believe in the ideology of their political system anymore.

For years I've been telling people we've been living in the American Brezhnev years, now it looks like we are primed to experience something a whole lot worse.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Classic Albums: Neil Young, On The Beach

Winter has come. The leaves as gone, and the morning air has a hardness in it. It is not the best backdrop for contemplating the horrors that the next four years are about to bring us. As always, I turn to music during times of seasonal change, both political and climatological.

I have found comfort in Neil Young's "ditch trilogy" of albums from the mid-1970s. (After going to the middle of the road with Harvest, he steered things into rougher territory for a bit.) 1974's On The Beach in particular stands out. For a long time this album was out of print due to Young's insistence, which has always baffled me, since it's so good, and copies of the likes of Landing On Water and This Note's For You were always easy to find when On The Beach was languishing in the vaults. Perhaps it's because this album is a too raw reminder of a tough time in his life, but then again, the more harrowing Tonight's The Night was never swept under the rug.

The ditch trilogy began with the live album Time Fades Away, from 1973, a chronicle of Young's difficult tour that year. It started right after Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten was kicked out of his band, after which he soon died of a drug overdose. That came on the eve of the tour, and really set the tone. After hitting it big with mellow songs like "Heart Of Gold," Young was playing to stadium audiences of new fans expecting a laid back 70s folkie vibe, not the blast of chaotic noise on songs he hadn't yet released. After that he recorded the aforementioned Tonight's the Night, a supremely dark album that he shelved until 1975.

On The Beach was recorded last, but was released in the middle. In a lot of ways, it is an album of recovery. After two years of personal turmoil, Young was beginning to find perspective. In the past I have listened to this album in times of personal crisis, since it seems to show that even the worst storms can be braved, even if you take some permanent damage from them. I've recently been listening to it again as I contemplate our nation's own crisis.

It starts with "Walk On." If they ever make a biopic of my life I'd want this song playing over the opening credits. It's bouncy and sunny, like no other song on the album, which is why it's weird to hear it first. It's a song about going through a bad patch and coming out alive, and being a lot less concerned about what people think of you. I know in my own personal crisis in my mid-30s I came out of it stronger, but also far less trusting of others and their opinions of me. "Sooner or later/ It all gets real." No kidding.

Next up comes "See The Sky About To Rain," what I think of as the weakest song on the album, mostly due to the lyrics. As much as I love Young, his overindulgence in the hippie weed leads to some over-baked words. The first lines of the song are "See the sky about to rain/ Broken clouds and rain." He rhymes rain with rain, for crying out loud! I do have to say that it has a nice little vibe, and imparts the feeling of a dreary rainy day, especially the great Ben Keith's weeping steel guitar. His work on songs like "Old Man" was one of the best things about Harvest, and he's definitely the highlight on this track. This song is a leftover from that period, and it shows.

The mood changes on "Revolution Blues," where we are plunged into a deep dark canyon for the rest of the album. It's obviously inspired by Charles Manson, and is sung from the perspective of him or someone a lot like him. The groove is sinister but it swings, too, which makes sense because Band stalwarts Rick Danko and Levon Helm are on bass and drums. The former's melodic tones and the latter's back on the beat funk perfectly compliment the wails Neil gets from Old Black. One theme of On The Beach, named for an apocalyptic film, is the death of the sixties, which Manson so perfectly symbolized. The narrator of the song talks of killing "famous stars" in Laurel Canyon, home of so many of the singer-songwriter troubadors that emerged from the previous decade, including much of Young' circle. In that respect it's a kind of death wish.

The bleakness continues on the fourth track, "For The Turnstiles." The electricity and funk of the last song is suddenly gone, with only the darkness left. There's a plucking banjo, and Young singing so high that his voice breaks, the kind of raw embellishment that would show up a lot on the ditch trilogy records. This song is very countrified, with the banjo joined later by dobro in something that sounds like a hootenany in the middle of a Samuel Beckett play. The first side ends with a sloppy blues number, "Vampire Blues." It's about oil companies, and the only political song on the album. The clumsiness of its directness (so typical of Young) works because the loose feel works as a bit of comic relief amidst some harrowing stuff. Plus it's always good to have something wacky closing out side one.

Side two, however, takes absolutely no prisoners. "On The Beach" kicks things off with a long, spare, repetitive dirge that is the sound of dread personified. "Though my problems are meaningless/ That don't make them go away" pretty much sums up depression in a nutshell. He talks about needing a crowd but not "day to day" and radio interviews, referring to the drudgery of touring. This is the sound of someone who is just about at the end of their tether.

"Motion Pictures" has a twangier and more hopeful feel to it. It is a song of longing and love, and wanting to come home. (It's dedicated to "Carrie," which I assume refers to his wife at the time, Carrie Snodgrass.) It's a tour song, but one where the comforts of home feel like they are almost within sight. The whole album has a feeling of homesickness to it, less for a place than for a feeling of emotional comfort. That kind of spiritual homesickness is also pretty familiar to depressives.

Side two is pretty spare, and it ends with "Ambulance Blues," the sound of someone who after reaching the end of their rope has found a way to go on. I almost feel like "Walk On" should be played twice on the album, at both the beginning and the end, because this song is the prequel to "Walk On." Long, sparse, and meandering with an ominous title, you can hear Young working out the emotional wreckage of the previous year of his life. It's folkie at the start, and Young immediately starts recalling his folk singing youth, as if it is a time of innocence beyond all comprehension. The country fiddle that comes in has a mournful, elegiac quality to it. Like the other songs on side two, there's no drums, only understated bongos. He suddenly opines that "it's easy to get buried in the past" with the tone of voice of a man who is desperate to put a bad past behind him but also carrying around the crushing weight of memories of simpler times, of people and places that are gone and are never coming back. Perhaps that's why the album was left in the vaults for too long, it's far too personal.

In any case, his admonition that "you're all just pissin' in the wind" seems aimed at the whole hippie thing. What started as peace, love, and art in the "folkie days" had curdled into addiction and bullshit. He says that it's a good friend who tells you you're pissing in the wind, implying that Young knows that he needs to take a new direction in life. That's the kind of crisis I was in five and a half years ago, one that I wouldn't wish on anyone. But if you find yourself there, give On The Beach a listen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Clarence Carter, "Back Door Santa"

In my continuing quest to find good Christmas music, I recently discovered Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa," which I never knew was the song sampled on Run DMC's classic "Christmas in Hollis." I've always loved Carter and the school of funky, rough and tumble of Southern soul he subscribed to. (Let's just say I'm the kind of guy who bought the nine disc Stax singles collection despite being poor as dirt in grad school at the time.) As always Carter has just the right amount of grunt, and you can practically hear the sweat.  Considering the fact that this man had his biggest hit with a song about stroking, the title "Back Door Santa" is not surprisingly a single entendre.

In recent years I have rekindled the excitement I used to have about Christmas. Having children of my own has allowed me to experience the holidays vicariously through them, and get enjoyment from their enjoyment. This year, with the world seemingly gone insane, I am also milking the comfortable repetitions and rituals of the holidays. I've been doing that with a lot of things, not just the holidays. Old favorites are coming back. I'm rereading books and digging up good music that I've let slip from my life. Southern soul music, like a big holiday glass of mulled wine, has never failed to warm me up. With the things being the way they are, I'll need it.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The New Age of Nationalism

“They’re painting the passports brown.” Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”

I had a sinking suspicion this summer that we were indeed entering into a new global age of nationalism. Brexit seemed to confirm this, and Trump’s election has cemented it. The walls are going up around the world, and the gates are crashing down. In China Xi Jinping has used nationalist rhetoric to bolster his role, and to claim more power. Putin’s brand of nationalism has been the basis of his autocracy.  This week comes the news from India that the supreme court has decreed the national anthem to be played before all movies. I am reminded of Sir Edward Grey's line in 1914 as World War I began and young men were sent to war: “The lamps are going out all across Europe. We won’t see them lit again in our lifetime.”

All of this reminded me too of my first trip outside of North America at the age of 18. My senior German class spent a month with students from our sister school in June of 1994. The school was the Yuri Gargarin Schule (named for the Soviet cosmonaut) in Schwerin. We were well behind what five years before had been the Iron Curtain. The students had already come to visit us in the preceding autumn, and we were fast friends. Of course, we had all grown up thinking the others were our enemy. Had the Iron Curtain remained and World War III broken out in the 1990s, we would have been shooting at each other. Well, that’s being optimistic. It’s more likely that missiles launched from my Great Plains stomping grounds would have been vaporizing the wonderful, generous people I met.

My visit to the former East was one of the most important experiences of my life. It made me realize the folly of national borders and the absolute ridiculousness of national hatreds. In the mid-1990s, befriending the former enemy in the forbidden zone, I had the feeling that the world was changing. We were entering into a more connected world, one where we would find understanding, not conflict. The Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation were over. Going to see Checkpoint Charlie, now a museum piece, felt exhilarating. The bad old days were over!

Of course, I was being hopelessly naïve. Now the borders are being tightened. Fewer people reach out to others for understanding, and instead retreat inside of their own borders. We are entering a time of closed borders, closed minds, and closed hearts. We see it in the chants of “Build the Wall!” and in the indifference to the suffering of Syrian refugees, whose need is met with fear rather than understanding. And so we learn to fear and hate once again, and to forget that our counterparts out there are just as kind and noble as we are. It is their leaders, and ours, who we have to watch out for, as well as the fear that can eat our souls and rob us of our humanity.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What If?...Trump's America in 2018

Washington DC
July 4, 2018

For the fifth straight day President Trump has not appeared in public. The president was absent from all July 4th celebrations today, including public floggings of those accused of flag burning, a popular event for tourists on the National Mall and an event where Trump usually gets the crowd fired up in advance. Today those flogged had already been stripped of their citizenship by the National Tribunal, and are slated to be sent to the newly expanded prison at Guantanamo Bay. This time around the crowd was treated to a speech by Sean Hannity, the Director of National Morale.

There are a variety of theories as to the president’s situation, none of them confirmed as of yet. Because the White House press office was dissolved in 2017, it is very difficult for the BBC to get any clear word on what is happening. The president is still tweeting, but his recent tweets have been notably articulate and even-tempered, stoking speculation that one of his handlers is speaking in his name.

Rumors have abounded over the past week in Washington. Some speculate that the president was secretly taken to the Presidential Tower (formerly Trump Tower) in the dead of night. Others speculate that he has had a stroke or heart attack, and the president’s haggard appearance when he presided over the new National Beauty Contest last month has only fueled those rumors. Up to this point in his presidency Trump has been notably absent from public, usually only seen out of his residences when attending beauty pageants, his many rallies, or public floggings and executions. His presence has mostly been through Twitter and television, where his reality show about his cabinet has been a roaring success. Ratings were highest when he told Elaine Chao last week "You're fired."

Press secretary Laura Ingraham has refused to speak to reporters on the issue, only adding to the sense of confusion. Some speculate that Ivanka Trump will address the nation early next week on her father’s behalf.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Free Design, "Close Your Mouth (It's Christmas)"

From now until Christmas I am making all of my tracks of the week holiday songs. For many years I could've taken or left Christmas, but since getting married and having kids I've been enjoying it a lot more. Seeing the joy in my children's faces has rekindled my love of Christmas. This year, with all of the impending doom in the air, I need the distraction of the holidays more than ever.

In recent years I have also been searching out holiday music that doesn't suck. It is probably the most wretched genre of music, where even great artists like Paul McCartney and the Beach Boys produce atrocities like "Wonderful Christmastime" and "Little Saint Nick." Most of the time I stick to jazz interpretations of holiday standards, old school country Christmas songs, and the Christmas songs of James Brown and Bessie Smith. Last year through a podcast I discovered a totally different song by The Free Design, an obscure vocal pop group of the late 1960s-1970s.

"Close Your Mouth (It's Christmas)" is jazzy with the same subtle bongo drums that underlay the original Star Trek theme. This is the kind of thing that 90s neo-lounge groups like Saint Etienne drew inspiration from. The mood is relaxing, and not stereotypically "Christmasy." There's no bells or glockenspiels or overly earnest lyrics. Nope, it's a nice little chill tune about putting away the "bank book" and enjoying Christmas as a time for connection and family, not for consumption. I appreciate how this message gets delivered without the usual treacly sentiment or over the top bombast so common to Christmas music.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Brother Bear's Black Friday Sermon

[Editor's Note: From time to time I let my shadowy friends and relatives post on my blog. You've heard a lot from Cranky Bear, but my old pal Brother Bear has yet to have his voice heard. Here's a transcript of the sermon he  gave outside of a shopping mall today.]

Sisters and Brothers!

I am talking to you today on this most unholy of days, the so-called "Black Friday." And no, this is not the Friday when our Lord and savior gave his life on the cross, no sir. This is that awful day when so many of our brethren give in to their lust for consumer goods and the mad desire to shop and shop and shop. As the esteemed Reverend Billy has testified, this unholy day is one whose devilish call we must resist! It is a day that shows the sinfulness of our society, its slide into selfishness and materialism.

And yet, sisters and brothers, if we all stopped shopping today my heart would still be heavy with sadness. Because in less than two months the Golden Calf will be ambling his way into Washington DC in the form of Donald J Trump, a supremely wicked man with foul intentions. He spins webs of lies that would make Beelzebub blush. He brags and boasts of sexually assaulting women. He has preached hate against so many good people in this country, and his devilish minions are afoot spewing that hate forth on the vulnerable and marginalized. If there was a man in this world who represented the opposite of the example of Jesus, it would be him. In him I see the face of the devil when he tempted our Lord in the desert with money and power. In him I see Babylon.

It is easy to find people to blame for this state of affairs. We can blame the Russian government, our byzantine electoral process, our servile, shallow media, or those unholy men trying to prevent our sisters and brothers from voting. They are all to blame to be sure, and will hopefully someday face God's judgement. But we too are to blame, brothers and sisters.

Trump is a wicked man, but he is a mirror of our wicked society where we worship wealth, celebrity, and status over virtue and goodness. Where we trash Mother Earth so that we can buy another trunkload of useless pieces of plastic. Where we have children going to gleaming schools with all the best amenities within a handful of miles from schools that are literally falling apart. As the gleaming spires of New York City grow more and more, there are more and more of those left homeless in their opulent shadows, left to beg for their daily bread. Jesus must weep every day at how much want we have amidst so much plenty.

But much worse is the fact that so many who walk the streets refuse to see what is staring them straight in the face, or perhaps just don't even care. They care about themselves, and care not a thought for the lives of others. They spend their time fantasizing about having more. Having more stuff, more money, more power. Are we to be surprised that a man with money, power, and fame who preaches contempt for others has become the leader of this country? We worship the famous, we pamper the powerful and we bow to the wealthy. Our souls are so empty and bereft that we listen to the voices of those who we think wise because of the number of Twitter followers they have.

And on this most unholy of unholy days, we see the elevation of the Golden Calf, and then go worship it in the malls and megastores. Awaken your souls! Open your ears to the message of the Lord! Jesus commanded us to do for others as we would have them do unto us, how then can we be comfortable with such a constant violator of that rule at the throne of power of the mightiest nature on earth? Get out of the mall and onto the street! Get off of your phones and into the streets! Turn off your televisions and get into the streets! There, amidst your brothers and sisters thirsting for justice, there you will find the Lord!