Monday, August 31, 2009

Voodoo Today Here Now 5

Four years ago this week I was sitting at a cottage in Narragansett, Rhode Island, where I was emceeing at the Rhythm and Roots Festival, and I was on the phone trying to figure out how to get a video crew into Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana after Katrina had ripped apart the Gulf coast. I was on assignment for a local insurance company which wanted to document their handling of claims during the crisis.

I managed to get an advanced team into Mississippi a few days after Katrina. A week later I was in New Orleans the day it was first opened to insurance adjusters, contractors and some business owners.

We landed in Alabama, and drove to Louisiana. The towering commercial signs advertising fast food and gasoline were all absent their messages, and treetops along the highway were shorn. We gassed up in Mandeville, unsure that we'd find fuel in New Orleans, and filled the back seat with water, candy bars, jerky and peanut butter.

That first trip over the Lake Pontchartrain causeway was eerie, and the damage to the city was apparent immediately. I had contracted with a crew from the city to take me around. The camera operator had already spent days with network producers scouring New Orleans when it was still flooded. With his NBC credentials, he got me into Lakeview and the Ninth Ward to see the extent of the hurricane damage.

That night, we stayed in a chain hotel on St. Peters with TV crews, security personnel, National Guard members and Fats Domino. We grilled hot dogs on the sidewalk, because the hotel restaurant was not open for business, and traded the frankfurters for National Guard MRE's (ready-to-eat meals).

I love New Orleans, but was only able to walk after the sun rose, and before it set. The city was closed otherwise, and since I worked all day, these morning and evening walks allowed me to see a major American city empty, and on the skids.

A major memory, beyond the damage, were the refrigerators, duct-taped shut, lining the sidewalks and stinking to high heavens. Many marked with a mysterious graffiti message "Voodoo Today Here Now 5." I don't know if anyone has ever figured that one out.

While New Orleans has made significant strides back, it's still not, and may never be, the city it was. A lot of the anniversary reports dwell on the work still remaining to be done.

But native New Orleanians have not given up on the city, and after four years, that's the best one can say about this one-of-a-kind, exotic non-american, American city.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

More helpful hints for fighting fascism

It's been a puzzle to me how the major AM radio station in the state has given itself over completely to right-wing blather (and the Red Sox and UCONN Huskies) when it neither reflects the feelings or attitudes of a majority of the population, nor any relation to the truth.

Yet, WTIC-AM becomes more strident with every passing day, and from it's morning drive-time jock, a right-winger who declares himself a libertarian, to the show which follows, in which a shallow, vacuous, feeble-minded host parrots the day's wingnut talking points for his tiny, but dedicated audience, to the national feeds of hate-mongering bloviators, the station panders to the fears of the uninformed to define a focused audience for advertisers. Some would say it all comes down to money. But is there something more?

Is the corporate-owned radio giant a megaphone for conservative corporate talking points aimed at perpetuating a free-market, small-government myth. One has to begin to think so, otherwise this boil on the bum of broadcasting wouldn't make sense in a state which is largely liberal and Democratic.

And because WTIC neither owns the airwaves over which it broadcasts, nor is any longer peforming a service to the public, it's up to us to begin to ask why it should retain its license.

This is something we can do locally to fight a surge in fascist thought that's flooding America. Sara Robinson has written thoughtfully on the topic, and now she has more to say.

Back to our local conservative radio station which has failed in its mission to serve the public. It calls itself "new talk" radio, but "news" is a gathering of fact, and fact no longer is the basis for the "talk" on the station. Time to listen carefully, take notes, and report to the FCC anytime you feel the station is promoting hate, racism, homophobia and particularly incitement to treason.

Friday, August 28, 2009

First the good news

Colin McEnroe will be back on the air, Monday at WNPR, otherwise known as Connecticut Public Radio, and his sidekick will be Chion Wolf, whose inbetweenies, have held weekends at WNPR together for these past many months.

According to all reports, McEnroe's show will be a pastiche of cultural, topical and philosophical issues, all of which he is capable of handling with his hyperdrive wit, and his almost unbelievable grasp of the issues.

We're all hoping for the best as McEnroe settles into an otherwise staid (with the exception of the weekend's Car Talk and Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me) format with his fully-automatic fire humor.

The other bit of good news is that the announcement declares that McEnroe won't be taking calls from the usual cast of shut-ins, a real drag on his former AM show, and that he apparently won't be talking sports, an event which unfortunately coincided with my drive home, and led me to tune to All Things Considered.

The bad news is that McEnroe plans to eschew politics, which is where he is always the most brilliant, and on point. Sure, he is no longer in the thrall of an evil AM giant which broadcasts nothing but right-wing blather, which left him to be the white knight who leaned left on his charging steed, but he is still broadcasting in a state where that AM station is a peculiar power, which needs the balance of good-sense talk from somewhere.

Let's hope the months ahead lead to the abandonment of silly debate sequences about the likes of the Archie-Veronica wedding, for the adoption of sequences on the foibles and failures of politics.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

How to boil blood while on vacation

Read the New York Times and find out that one of your Senatorial representatives, Creepy Joe™ Lieberman, has decided to come out against health care reform.

Lieberman says
reform will have to wait until the recession ends.

His critics are already refuting his flimsy argument.

I wonder if Barack Obama, also on vacation, read the NY Times yesterday, and had a similar blood boiling reaction after reading about the Senator whose fat he pulled out of the fire.

Friday, August 21, 2009

How to skin an eel

It's difficult to believe that our week at Shobac is nearly over.

The rugged beauty of this spit of land which pokes out into the Atlantic is breathtaking, particularly the way in which the view changes with the tide, and the angle of the sun, and the shift of the wind which will envelope us with a fog bank one moment, and sweep it over the drumlin hills the next.

This morning, the owner of Shobac, Brian MacKay-Lyons, sat with his wife in a circle of Adirondack chairs talking to Myles, the local lumber operator who is clearing a field so that it can be planted with grass for the cows which graze the hillside. MacKay-Lyons is an internationally-acclaimed architect, but you wouldn't know it by his friendly humility. He sat with Myles, a native of the area who is part Micmac Indian, sipping coffee and grape juice. And for this meeting, MacKay-Lyons was dressed in green bathrobe and baseball cap. We talked about the beauty of the land, and he laughed at my description of the hills as "mountains." I told him that in Connecticut, these were considered to be mountains. He told me about his childhood days when, on the way to school, he put out a fishing line attached to a stake so that he'd have fish for supper after school.

Myles told us about fishing for eels when the tide pushed the eels upstream where they swam below the gravel in the stream bed, trapped by reeds Myles would push into the bed. He and his friends wore gloves when eel fishing, "because they are so slimy, you can't get a hold of them."

I told him that's why they didn't seem so appetizing for that very reason.

"I love them," he confessed. "To skin them, we'd stick a nail on a wall, hook the head of the eel, and make a slice around his neck, then just pull the skin down, like a snake."

While it didn't make the thought of eating eel any more appetizing, the image will remain indelible.

And you thought Americans loved their cars

We took the last remaining cable ferry across the LeHave River, had lunch at the funky LeHave bakery, and then headed for the unspoiled beauty of Crescent Beach in Dublin, but then...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Funny, I coulda sworn you were Bobby Zimmerman

In a case of mistaken identity, Bob Dylan finally owns up to who he is.

Posting intermittent, vacation imminent

I'm sitting in the sitting area of one of the amazing amazing, spare, beautiful and functional cottages architect Bryan MacKay-Lyons has built on the site of an ancient village, and working farm in Upper Kingsburgh, Nova Scotia, awed by the spectacular view of the LeHave estuary, and the Atlantic, dotted with islands.

MacKay-Lyons greeted us upon arrival, and pointed to the nearest salt pond for a welcoming dip, and then told us about the features of the property - a newly restored "round" barn (actually octagonal) rescued from destruction and shipped here for reconstruction, wilderness pathways, a stocked trout pond, and a variety of ocean-front beaches.

I'm closing the laptop to enjoy the view.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fighting fascism one a-hole at a time

Those of you who fell into despair after reading Sara Robinson's essay on fascism, as I did, can take heart that the same author has responded to the many people who responded to her original essay with some commonsense advice about fighting the fascist threat.

Interestingly, one of her ideas is to think nationally but act locally.

It's been on my mind that the people of central Connecticut need to confront the owners and managers of WTIC-AM about the irresponsible broadcasting that's been going on there. By listening carefully, and cataloguing incitment, racism, threats, we may be able to back the bully down.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sharks rising to the chum spread on the airwaves

It's impossible for me to feel anything but contempt for the people in this video. I have not the power to excuse or forgive their stupidity, their boorishness or their misplaced piety. The video speaks for itself.

Monday, August 10, 2009

And the cotton is high

Summertime finally arrived in CT today, as the thermometers hit 90 degrees for the first time.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Freedom of speech, goon squads and fascism

I've been troubled this week by the denouncements by liberal commentators and the Democratic party of the troublemakers who have shown up at town meetings to disrupt the work of politicians pushing a national health plan.

The First Amendment guarantees free speech, and so it bothers me when any progressive makes the argument that free speech is okay for me when I want to denounce George Bush, but it's not okay for my fellow American who wants to denounce Barack Obama and the Democrats.

The First Amendment does not legislate decorum or politeness. It consecrates free speech, and sometimes free speech has to be shouted. And sometimes it's shouted by people we don't like, and don't agree with.

That means we might not always like what we hear, whether its an obscene word, a homophobic slur, a blasphemy or a racist remark. The First Amendment doesn't guarantee that we won't hear from assholes. We will hear free speech from assholes, and we must tolerate the speech.

But we don't have to stand by idly and tolerate the ideas. That's what free speech is about too. Standing up against racists, homophobes, idealogues, hatemongers, anti-intellectuals, demagogues and bullies of any stripe. They shout. We shout louder.

(A slight digression. One of the first Supreme Court cases newly-sworn-in Judge Sotomayor will hear is a free speech case. In this case, Citizens United vs. FEC, was a narrow argument, that has broadened and will be argued before the SCOTUS as an argument to allow corporations to provide unfettered donations to political candidates as an act of free speech. Here's what one conservative commentator argues, in, ahem, Capitalist Magazine, where they seem to conflate free speech with free market. The DNC has filed a briefing against corporate interests - and union interests, interestingly enough, and Sotomayor, an elections reform proponent, is expected to side with the FEC. But treating a corporation as an "individual" with the rights of the individual, and assigning free speech rights to campaign dollars is far more ridiculous than defending a lap dance as free speech. And I can assure you that there are thousands of conservative Republicans who would fight for lap dances - though probably not publicly.)

The Democrats, and the Obama administration have to own up to a bit of this mess. The health care plan they offer is so watered-down by compromises to corporate interests, and so complex, that it is nearly impossible to sell to anyone as a good thing. And Democratic legislators are doing a horrible job of selling the weak-kneed plan. The strategy is to pass something-anything as a national health plan as a first step to get something on the books and to demonstrate Obama's effectiveness. I say, President Obama, step backwards and remember your campaign of hope and progress and give us a brave and effective plan, and not this mess.

So, Obama and the Democrats gifted something to the conservative commentators to latch onto. A thousand-page plan with give-backs to pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, hospitals and established health-care providers, while stripping it of a public option, and a universal payer. And hanging on it a scary, and probably inevitable, price tag.

Now, a good, simple, universal plan could be sold on its advantages. This Rube Goldberg bill has to be sold, really sold, as if it were a Hummer with spinning rims, gold-plated bumpers and a hybrid gasoline-gin engine.

And so we have the Glenn Becks, the Rush Limbaughs and locally the Jim Vicevich's denouncing the plan and urging the blockheads who listen to them to attend meetings and scream. These teabaggers, most of whom don't have an independent thought in their heads, follow the scripts of guys trying to make ratings, and lobbyists who are working against the plan. Ladle on top of that Republican political leaders who are searching for support and a new base, and you get meetings where ineffectual Democratic leaders are drowned out by the shrill talking points of talk-radio and C Street zealots coming out of the mouths of conspiracy theorists, flat-earthers, birthers and racists.

And we can dismiss them all as "wing-nuts," but I'm afraid my suspicion that something darker is happening has just been confirmed by Sara Robinon's insightful analysis of Robert Paxton's essay, The Five Stages of Fascism. Both Paxton's original essay, and Robinson's update are essential reading.

Robinson's thesis is this: we are at the point where a disenfranchised conservative movement is grasping at the last straws of racism, purity and patriotism, to engage a core base, who in their fear is willing to rise up to destroy what they see as threats to their country, their religion, their morality and their way of life. Intellectually, of course, these screaming idiots are easy to dismiss, but what's impossible to dismiss is the fact that a movement is afoot, and its being abetted by the demagoguery of ratings-hungry broadcasters, desperate politicians, and corporations willing to do anything to preserve their bottom line. And it is, Paxton's third stage of the rise of the tide of fascism, a tide he sees as nearly impossible to turn back.

So, it's time to stand up and call out the birthers and the racists, and the liars and the homophobes and the sanctimonious and the charlatans and the broadcasters and politicians who would destroy democracy to consolidate money and power. It's no time to be timid.

Tears of Rage

Rare footage of The Band at Woodstock.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mike Seeger, RIP

When Ramblin' Jack Elliot sent dedicated a song to an ailing Mike Seeger at the recent Newport Folk Festival, it was the first that I heard that he was sick. Mike Seeger, Pete Seeger's half-brother, was profoundly influential in the preservation of folk music, particularly in saving the traditional music of the South from obscurity. He was a well-loved performer and co-founder of the New Lost City Ramblers. I met Seeger once, at a tribute concert I co-produced to honor the late Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa, who himself was close to death at the time. Seeger came to Eunice Louisiana to honor Balfa, and to assist his friend, and fellow member of the New Lost City Ramblers, Tracy Schwarz, in a final tribute to a great musician. Seeger died Friday, at age 75, of cancer.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Billy Lee Riley, RIP

The most underrated Sun Records artist died Sunday. I heard it on the CBC.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Iron and Wine: huh?

I was anticipating the performance of Sam Beam (Iron and Wine) perhaps more than any other at Saturday's Folk Festival 50 (Newport Folk Festival). The glowing reviews, the profile in the New York Times Magazine, the adulation of his followers.

So immediately after Mavis Staples and her marvelous band had the entire audience at the Harbor Tent standing and grooving to I'll Take You There, Lucy and I grabbed a few seats from some sweating advocates of old-fashioned soul. And it was lucky we did. Because the Iron and Wine fans descended on the tent, and empty seats disappeared quickly. We looked around to see the tent filled with mostly young people, and the crowd outside the tent appeared impenetrable (we would find out so, soon).

Sam Beam came out to a thunderous ovation, and after complaining about having to follow Mavis Staples (a legitimate gripe), he set into a sedate cover of Such Great Heights, which was made famous and made Iron and Wine famous, when it was used on the soundtrack for the much-overpraised indy film Garden State. It has since been co-opted for TV and movie theater commercials. The gathered young people sang along, quietly and reverently, and Lucy whispered "I feel like I'm in the middle of a cult."

Another thunderous ovation followed. I raised an eyebrow to Lucy, and she winced back. I was completely underwhelmed by the performance (though I will admit, the playback on NPR sounds, somehow less grating). Beam is a slightly pudgy, hirsute, average looking soul, with absolutely no charisma, that I could detect. He sings with a rather mundane, sometimes whispered, occasionally falsettoed bleat. And his lyrics are charmless and banal and way too precious. All the more mysterious that the gathered crowd hung on every word, cheered his rather souless guitar work, and cheered lustily when he made his way through one of his meandering songs.

Lucy and I gave up after three songs. I wondered, as I struggled to wend my way through the huge crowd (there must have been 3000 young, wide-eyed people crammed around the Harborside Stage), with all the talent I had witnessed at the festival, how it was that this particular mediocre talent had cultivated and captivated this fervent and worshipful mass. Beam has been compared to Nick Drake, Paul Simon and Elliott Smith, all particularly unfair comparisons, unless those comparisons mention how his talent pales in comparison. I wondered further if it is proof that bland, unchallenging music, propped up by commercial marketing, will always find its way to success when the real talent of say, a Nick Drake or Elliot Smith, goes unrecognized until the musician is long in the grave.

Good on Sam Beam. He's figured a way to make a living on music. Good for the adoring masses, they've found someone on whom to project their search for individuality. Good on me, I got out while the getting was good.

One note on the young crowd at the festival. The most frequent reaction to a good song played by any of the favored acts was not for they young fans to stand and cheer, but to pick up their phones and text or twitter a friend. I saw it happen fifty times, if I saw it once.

And to forestall the comments which are sure to question my judgment. Yes, I'm old. But I've been to hundreds of concerts. I've seen Dylan, and Paul Simon, and Elliot Smith. I saw, and loved the Avett Brothers six years ago. I've witnessed Jimi, and the Kinks, Townes van Zandt and Andrew Bird, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash. I have a sense of what's good, and what's not, and I'm afraid I don't get Iron and Wine at all.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Gillian Welch at Newport

My favorite set from the festival, made available by NPR (in fact you can hear most of the festival performances at this site). Be sure to listen all the way to her version of the Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit (though the reverb on the recorded version does not do justice to the massive reverb we experienced at Fort Adams).

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Brilliant booking at Newport

Saturday at Newport was a wonderful day. The most wonderful thing for me was the number of young people at the festival.

Whoever was responsible should be lauded for creating a lineup that appealed to a very broad demographic.

With veterans like Ramblin Jack Elliott, Mavis Staples and Pete Seeger (not to mention festival hosts Bob Jones and Jim Rooney), holding down the legacy spots, and Billy Bragg and Gillian Welch representing my generation, the lineup was filled with young, talented musicians pushing out the boundaries of "folk" music.

There were 9200 in attendance, and that doesn't surprise me, because it was one of the nicest days of the summer, and one of the best festival line-ups I've seen in years. The side tents, which usually feature a number of empty seats, were brimming with people, who spilled into the aisles, and out the back and sides for performances by Brett Dennen, Langhorne Slim, the Low Anthem and Blood and Wine (more on that in a future post).

On the main stage The Avett Brothers portrayed a punk attitude embracing a traditional heart, the Fleet Foxes flew the freak flag and the Decemberists' Colin Melloy demonstrated that at the heart of his theatrical pop songs lay a tribute to folk traditions.