28 May 2008

Integrate The Prisons? What Year Is This, Anyway?

Apparently I'm pretty naive, because I had no idea that in 2008, California prisons were still racially segregated. Oh, I'd heard about the gangs, and the way that the prisoners stuck to themselves and punished one another if they talked to or hung out with members of another race. But I never dreamed that the State of California enforced systematic segregation by race. I mean, isn't that, like, illegal? And hasn't it been illegal for the past half century or more?

Now there's some controversy because the State is finally getting around to integrating its prisons. Some predict that forcing prisoners of different races to share cells will lead to a bloodbath. Always possible, I suppose, but isn't it equally possible that prisoners will acquire a perhaps uncomfortable but nonetheless necessary lesson about what it's like to live in the real world, where coming into contact with people you don't necessarily know or like is a routine part of everyday life?

And isn't is also possible that for every unreconstructed racist inmate, there's another who would like to get to know people from other ethnic groups but is prevented from doing so under pain of violence or death, thanks to restrictions laid down by racially aligned prison gangs? State-sanctioned and enabled prison gangs, as it turns out.

I was particularly intrigued by the Department of Corrections official who said that prisoners who "refuse" to participate in the program of integration "will face discipline ranging from loss of privileges to solitary confinement." Color me naive once more, but I was under the impression that once you get sentenced to prison, you lose most if not all your options when it comes to where and how you will be housed.

But such is not the case, apparently; at the weekend I had a long conversation with an Indiana state prison guard who painted such a bleak picture of life inside that I found myself wondering whether there's a viable method - short of mass executions or eliminating half the laws under which people are currently sentenced - of reforming America's vastly overcrowded and apparently hopelessly ineffectual penal system.

He told me many stories illustrating the pointless brutality and callous lack of concern on the part of inmates for anything other than their own interests, but for me the clincher was hearing how one of the more tedious aspects of being a prison guard was being called to cells with complaints like, "My cable's not working."

I'm not in favor of instituting gulags or concentration camps, but something seemed terribly wrong here. Half my friends in New York City can't afford or can barely afford cable; why on earth is the state furnishing it to inmates who are supposedly being punished? Isn't taking away TV privileges one of the first resorts of parents faced with recalcitrant children? Isn't it possible that better results might be achieved by locking a prisoner up with only a good book for company? Sure, it might piss him off at first, but society's purpose in locking him up was not, as far as I can tell, to cater to his preferences in entertainment or companionship.

Of course maybe I'm being too harsh, and would change my tune if I were the one being sentenced to prison. Having come fairly close on a couple of occasions to doing hard time, the prospect doesn't seem as farfetched to me as it might to others; in fact, I still experience moments of paranoia where I'm convinced that it's only a matter of time before "they" catch up to me and haul me away, even though my lawbreaking for the past few decades has largely been confined to the jaywalking and running stop signs on my bike department.

But I do know that if by some bizarre concatenation of circumstances I were to wind up in prison, I'd want to be able to associate freely with people regardless of race, and not be pressured into associating with the sort of yobbos who form prison gangs just because they happen to be the same color as me. And while it would be tempting to while away my years of confinement by watching endless reruns of Law And Order and Seinfeld, I suspect I'd be far better off with some good books and lots of time for reflection on how and why I happened to be there. As I say, I might change my tune if I were the one inside, but as a general rule, people don't get to sent to prison for making sensible life choices, so I'm not sure how much - if any - attention needs to be paid to what the average prisoner *thinks* he or she would like.

Weaselfest '08: Back Where He Belongs

It must have been around 1987 when people first started talking about the smartassed and hilarious Maximum Rocknroll scene reports emanating from Chicago and authored by a kid calling himself Ben Weasel. He combined a passionate belief in the music that he and his friends were making with a mercilessly skewering of Chicago punk rock's sacred cows, and before long it would be a rare copy of MRR that didn't contain at least one or two letters praising or (more often) denouncing the irascible Mr. Weasel.

I first met Ben in 1988 when he brought his band Screeching Weasel to Berkeley to play with Operation Ivy at Gilman Street. He was staying at Matt and Lint's house, and I'd barely walked in the door when he baited me into an argument, something which admittedly didn't take much effort in those days. It was probably something to do with the relative superiority of California vs. Chicago and/or his opinion that despite my punk rock trappings, I was too much of a mushbrained, sproutheaded hippie at heart, and it was an argument that would continue in one form or another over much of the following decade.

Screeching Weasel were not yet in their prime, but there was something special enough about them that I immediately wanted to put out records by them. But as it happened, their latest record was already set to come out on another label, and though we talked about it when they came back to California the following year, the band broke up before anything could come of it.

By now I'd become a huge Screeching Weasel fan, but between the breakup and the fact that despite their album selling quite well, he had very little to show it, Ben was pretty discouraged with the band. During the next couple years, we kept in touch by phone and talked a lot about what he might do next. I urged him to reunite Screeching Weasel in some form or another; Ben was of the opinion that it would be better to start fresh with a whole new band called the Gore Gore Girls.

Finally in 1991 Screeching Weasel was reborn and came to San Francisco to record My Brain Hurts. It wouldn't be their biggest-selling album, not by a long shot, but it was an absolutely seminal moment, not just for the band and for Lookout Records, but also for a whole generation (or two) of pop-punk bands. People argue to this day whether My Brain Hurts is the best Weasel album (Anthem For A New Tomorrow is the most frequently cited alternative), but few would deny how vital it was. Sales exceeded any expectations either the label or the band had had, and Ben, who'd written or co-written virtually everything the band had done, and who ran the S.S. Screeching Weasel as a very tight ship indeed, was for the first time faced with the semi-plausible prospect of making a decent career out of music.

For the next few years it was onward and upward. Each successive Screeching Weasel album met with instant success - at least by the pre-Dookie standards of what was still a relatively underground scene, the shows were getting bigger and bigger, and apart from the band, Ben was gaining a reputation as a powerful and incisive writer through his columns in MRR and other magazines.

And this is where I'd like to be able to say that everyone lived happily after, but it wasn't going to be quite that simple. As he began to reveal in his columns, Ben was suffering from increasing anxiety about playing shows and the pressures of being, at least within the relatively insular punk scene, more or less a superstar. At times, he said, it was difficult enough just to leave his house to journey to the corner store, let alone appear on stage before hundreds or thousands of maniacal fans.

It was during that same time that Ben and I began to fall out, our long-running but mostly good-natured arguments finally escalating into a vicious feud that lasted ten years and during which we never spoke directly to each other, though we did occasionally trade insults and accusations via the media. Although I didn't keep up as closely as I once had with his music and writing, I never stopped being a fan and never stopped listening to my Weasel records during those years.

When we finally met again at last year's Insubordination Fest in Baltimore, where Ben was giving a rare performance and resurrecting a number of Screeching Weasel classics, it was almost as though the bad years had never happened. Almost, I say, because Ben still felt conflicted about the whole idea of playing music for people. Actually, it wasn't so much the playing music part that bothered him - backed up by two of today's most exciting pop-punk bands, the Guts and the Steinways, and welcomed back by an adoring and rapturous crowd, Ben thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But within days the backbiting and criticism, often from people who weren't even there, started bubbling up through the internet, and on at least a couple occasions, Ben told me that he was pretty sure he was finished with playing music and was ready to move on to some other way of life.

Fast forward to May 25, 2008, and Ben strode confidently - and, from all appearances, happily - onto the stage in front of a sold-out crowd at Reggie's Rock Club on Chicago's South Side. The audience was going mental before he could say a word, and after thanking them for coming and explaining a little about the set he was going to play, he launched into "Acknowledge," the declaration and cri de coeur that had heralded Ben's turn toward the personal and introspective on the Weasel album Emo: "I am alive, I am here, I am now, I acknowledge the fact of my life."

Almost 20 years to the day after I first saw Screeching Weasel in California, I felt like I was watching Ben's triumphant homecoming. It had to be especially poignant for him, looking out at a fanatical crowd, members of which had come from a dozen or more states and a couple other countries to witness this moment, and knowing that he was doing so in the town where it had all started and where, face it, he hadn't always received such unanimous approbation. "When's the last time you saw Screeching Weasel?" I asked Patrick Hynes, my longstanding friend and partner in Lookout Records, who'd come out from California for the show.

"1993 at Gilman Street," he unhesitatingly told me, and I knew instantly which show he was talking about, because I'd been there too. Before we could say another word, Ben and the band tore into "Dingbat," the opening song from 1988's Boogada Boogada Boogada, the years fell away, and we along with everybody in the house were going crazy. There was barely a pause for breath before "Cindy's On Methadone" from My Brain Hurts, and there was no longer any doubt that this was going to be a truly magical experience.

Not surprisingly, the classics from the early 90s got the biggest response, and it would have been easy for Ben to put together a set of nothing but "greatest hits" (though perhaps at the risk of a few cardiac arrests among the no-longer-quite-so-young segment of the audience). But he seemed determined to provide an overview of his entire career, including tracks from last year's well-received solo effort These Ones Are Bitter and some Riverdales songs from the upcoming re-release of Phase 3. It all flowed together beautifully, and the pacing made it all the more effective when he unleashed some of my (and, I suspect, quite a few other people's) all time favorites like "What We Hate," "Teenage Freakshow," and, in one of the very few times I've actually seen it performed live (I was fortunate enough to be there when it was first recorded), "The Science Of Myth."

I've always been a My Brain Hurts man myself, but Anthem is a close second, and there was an ample helping of songs from it as well: "Peter Brady," "I'm Gonna Strangle You," and one of my personal favorites, "Falling Apart." After a brief interlude in which Mamma Weasel, Erika Crumbly, Weasel Radio's Owen Murphy, Matt Lame and several others took over the stage to hurl 500 donuts at the audience (don't ask; like many of the things being shouted back and forth and even the backdrop of a wizened old sailor on the USS Intrepid, it's a bit of a PPMB in-joke), Ben wrapped up what he later acknowledged as "the longest show I've ever played in my life" with a blinding five-song encore that finished with "Cool Kids" and had everyone in the room feeling like they were one.

I'm a big fan of redemption narratives, and for me that was exactly what I was privileged to witness. It felt as though Ben's years in the wilderness were over, that at last he was at peace with his gifts as a singer, writer and performer, and was able to share in the joy that they've brought to so many people over the years. It often seems that the longest and hardest, but ultimately most rewarding road is the one that takes us back home to where we've belonged all along. It would be presumptuous of me to suggest that I know - or indeed have any idea - what the future holds for Ben in terms of his career, but I will note that he's already talking about doing a couple - maybe even three or four - more shows later this summer. Based on what I saw Sunday night, he'll never be short of an audience. Nor should he be. The man is a genius and a treasure. Long may he run.

25 May 2008

Report From The Front

The pop punk traveling circus has moved on to Chicago, though presently we (Carla Monoxide, Matt Lame, Ryan Coldfeet, JA and yours t.) are holed up at the lovely townhouse of Pete and Simple Repellent in semi-rural (as in there's a semblance of a cornfield across the road from one of the mini-malls we visited) Indiana.

The occasion is a weekend of shows at Reggies Rock Club, an excellent, relatively new entertainment complex (two stages, restaurant and bar, record store) near Chinatown. Last night saw Kepi Ghoulie, Andrew Jackson Jihad, Bomb The Music Industry, Lemuria and the Queers, all part of an Asian Man Records tour that's currently rolling around the Midwest, and tonight the club will be taken over by Ben Weasel, the Guts, the Leftovers and Shot Baker. Yesterday afternoon Reggie's also played host to a two hour version of Weasel Radio, the sports-talk-punk rock show hosted by Ben and Owen and normally emanating from Madison, WI.

I was one of the guests; we talked about crucial issues like visiting the Vancouver Hooters with the Donnas and, oh, probably not much else. The other guests were much more interesting. Carla Monoxide also claimed that my face was flaming red the whole time I was on the radio, allegedly because I was embarrassed. I don't know if that's true (many photos were taken, so I'll probably find out eventually), but if it is, it makes me wonder if the same was the case during the two or three years I was co-hosting my own show on KMUD back in Garberville. We were late for the show anyway because somebody (nobody will admit ownership) had the idea that we needed to drive over to the far side of Chicago to wait in line at some trendy hamburger joint and then wait another hour for our food to actually arrive. Actually, calm soul that I am, I didn't mind that much except for the truly awful hesher music that served as backdrop to the tattoo convention that passed for a clientele.

Speaking of awful music, I will say that one flaw at Reggie's (which tends to be true of the majority of places these days) is that in the bar-restaurant, there is nonstop music, mostly of the cheese-rock variety, that makes all but the most perfunctory or trivial conversation impossible. When the overhead stereo wasn't blaring 35 year old Who records, a particularly bad rock band set up the stage ten feet away, inducing several people at our table to put in earplugs. Okay, so I'm old, but Sebby Zatopek (one of the earplug people) is less than half my age. I realize that in every bar or restaurant there is a certain number of people who indeed have absolutely nothing of interest to say, but it does seem unfair that most clubs choose to cater to that crowd at the expense of people who genuinely enjoy and benefit from talking with each other.

Some of the pop punk purists were offended by the Andrew Jackson Jihad, a two piece (acoustic guitar and standup bass), but I thought they were awesome, combining a folk/hillbilly/old timey esthetic with the kind of raw, unbridled punk energy I've come to associate with the Delay/Max Levine Ensemble/Spoonboy/basement/bike punk ethos. Bomb The Music Industry had a more conventional instrumental lineup, but a similarly frantic and uproarious energy that had their crowd (which seemed distinctly different from the Queers crowd and more, as C Monoxide pointed out, like a Gainesville crowd) going utterly mental. I loved both bands.

It was my first time really seeing Lemuria (I looked in on them briefly on a couple of previous occasions) and I think I could grow to really like them, though they didn't grab me as instantaneously as the previous two. Kepi, well, the man is unstoppable. The dissolution of his long-running Groovie Ghoulies barely slowed him down, and he's back with two new albums and a dual-pronged acoustic and electric, duo and full band attack. Wherever I see him - and where I see him tends to be practically anywhere music is played - he inspires with his nonstop devotion to the cause of rock and roll fun.

The Queers, well, the Queers did what they've been doing for longer than some of their fans have been alive, and without varying the set list much, either. God knows I love Joe King and whatever incarnation his band takes, but I really feel he's letting himself (and his audiences) down by sticking so fanatically to 80s bonehead anthems and, even when he does perform a few of his far superior pop tunes (the man is one of the best writers of pop songs working in the business today), speeding them up to the point where they're barely distinguishable from said bonehead anthems. The old school approach is tried and true, always guaranteed to get a response, even if that response tends to be dominated by the lowest common denominator, testosterone overload segment of the punk scene, but he could be playing to and for so many more people if he only was willing to take the risk of showing his more sensitive and talented side. We're being promised a pure pop version of the Queers, augmented by Cub's Lisa Marr and MTX/Plus Ones/Pansy Division guitarist Joel Reader, at this year's Baltimore Fest. It will be amazing if it happens, but I remain fearful that at the first sign of a less than frantic audience reaction, Joe will slip back into default This Place Sucks/Want Cunt/We'd Have A Riot Doing Heroin mode.

Ah well, enough carping. Great show nonetheless, lots of friendly and fascinating faces, and more people than there possibly could have been time to talk to. Today there's a barbecue, something I don't get to a lot of in Brooklyn, and then back to Reggie's for the Ben Weasel Experience (provided he didn't blow his voice out of the water by taking the lead vocals on the Queers' "Love Love Love" last night). Should be great, and Chicago is great, but I'm also enthusiastic about getting back to Brooklyn tomorrow. Traveling's a blast, but when you really love the place you live, coming home can be the best part of all.

22 May 2008

Little Al And Jello B

I thought for sure I'd told this story here before, but a quick search turns up no evidence of it, so here goes. If you've heard it already, sorry. Maybe you shouldn't pay such close attention to what I say; that way it'll still sound semi-fresh when I repeat myself.

I first met Little Al near the end of the summer of '69 (laugh all you want; I've actually never heard more than a brief snippet of the song), just after I got back from Woodstock. He, his girlfriend Val, and about 32 other hippies, one of whom was my younger brother, lived in a ramshackle two bedroom house just up the street from me in Ann Arbor. They called themselves the Congolian Maulers, and were meant to be Ann Arbor's "other" revolutionary commune, the White Panthers/Trans Love Energies house being of course the first.

Despite their fierce-sounding name, I never knew the Maulers to do any mauling or much of anything else apart from get stoned and talk a lot, i.e., just like pretty much all the hippies I knew, myself included. Little Al, who'd been one of my brother's best friends since high school, was particularly disdainful of the revolutionary rhetoric floating around, and was far more interested in music. Shortly afterward I took off for California and didn't see Little Al again till I came back for a visit in the summer of 1970. Walking up Oakland Street in search of the most recent address I had for my brother, I heard a deafening cacophony emerging from the tower room of an old rambling house. It sounded like half a dozen chimpanzees were committing mayhem on a kid's drum set, but Little Al stuck his head out the window and shouted, "Hey Larry! I'm learning to play the drums!"

The learning process was slow and painful, especially for those of us living downstairs, but eventually Little Al got good enough to play in bands, and eventually he hooked up with a semi-professional (as in they apparently made some money at times) outfit in Colorado called the Ravers. I never saw them, but I knew they toured a lot, and even had a roadie, so I reckoned that made them bigger time than most bands I knew.

That was in the mid-70s; by 1977 or 78 Al had turned up in San Francisco, where he joined an excellent new wave/power pop band called the Pushups, who came very close to making it big before they broke up over the usual issues of conflicting ambitions/egos/drugs type issues. But I think the Pushups were still together that fateful day when my brother, who was crashing at Al's apartment in the Mission District, answered the door and found the Ravers' old roadie from Colorado, a skinny kid named Eric. He'd just dropped out of college, he informed my brother, and hitchhiked up to San Francisco with the intention of starting a punk rock band.

Within a few months Eric had morphed into Jello Biafra, lead singer of the Dead Kennedys. I saw them play a few times in 1978 and 79, but never actually met him until the autumn of 1980, when Little Al asked me to drive him and his drums down to a warehouse in Hunters Point, where he was going to try out as the Dead Kennedys' new drummer. I'd been up on a three or four day coke binge, so I immediately fell asleep behind Klaus Fluoride's bass amp while they ran through a few songs. Maybe not totally asleep, but I remember it being very restful.

Then they brought in the other contender for the job, Darren Peligro, who'd been turning up at a lot of the same shows and parties my girlfriend and I were at. I later came to realize that this was no coincidence, but that's neither here nor there: the relevant point is that it was instantly obvious that Little Al was not going to get this gig. He was a good solid drummer, albeit a bit pedestrian - but in a good way; he often reminded me of Ringo Starr - but Darren was a raging powerhouse and a perfect fit for the DKs. Afterwards I talked to Biafra for a while, and was surprised to find that despite all the screaming and ranting I'd seen him do on stage, he was pleasant, personable, witty, and an all-around nice guy to shoot the shit with.

The 80s weren't kind to Little Al. He never got another solid musical gig, and drugs, which had always been around, started to play a bigger and bigger role in his life. I wasn't exactly a poster boy for clean living myself, but I remember being shocked and a little frightened the first time I saw him cooking up free base in a dingy little flat on Waller Street. I only saw him a few times after that. He put on a lot of weight, spent much of his time hanging out drinking in bars, and finally dropped dead of a heart attack.

Meanwhile I was getting more involved in the music scene myself, first with my band and then with a record label as well, which meant crossing paths with Biafra more frequently. His label, mine, and Maximum Rocknroll magazine were all distributed through Mordam Records, and this produced some, shall we say, lively discussions, often with Biafra and myself on one side and MRR's Tim Yohannan in vociferous opposition. Once I left the record business and California, I no longer saw much of Biafra; the last lengthy conversation I had with him must have been sometime in the late 90s when Trust magazine's Dolf Hermannstädter and I ran into him on Valencia Street right about the time that whole lawsuit business with the other three Dead Kennedys was erupting.

Biafra seemed saddened and outraged in equal measure. He wasn't even going to consider compromising with his old bandmates; when I (and, I think, Dolf) pointed out that there was a fair chance he might lose the lawsuit if it went to court, he said, "Well, then I'll write an article for the local papers exposing them for what they really are." I didn't want to point out that this wasn't the old days, where an indignant letter or column in MRR could play havoc with a band's career, so I wished him luck, and apart from brief hellos at a couple of shows, I haven't really seen him since.

The lawsuit did end badly, and my impression was that Biafra was pretty upset over it, but he seems to have recovered pretty well, and has kept busy with a host of projects in addition to his long-running record label, Alternative Tentacles. And now I see, thanks to the Bay Guardian, that he's about to turn 50, and will be celebrating with a couple of shows at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall.

And it may not come under the heading of best birthday surprise ever, but today's Chronicle brings the news that talk show host Michael Savage (né Michael Weiner) is apparently a closet DKs fan. Savage/Weiner, who's about as far right wing as Biafra is left, plays the Dead Kennedys track "California Über Alles" and enthusiastically recites all the lyrics. The point, apparently, was to mock Senator Ted Kennedy's most likely fatal brain tumor, but Savage got in a few kicks at the "Zen fascists" as well. Which just goes to show... Well, I'm sure it shows something, but I'm too sleepy to think of what it might be just now. Happy half century, Jello B!!!

21 May 2008

Most Annoying Hipster Affectation

Jim Jersey Beat started a thread by this same name over at the PPMB, and soon had everyone and his irate mama chiming in to enumerate what they most disliked about those pesky hipsters.

If there's anyone more judgmental than hipsters, it's got to be the punks, but alas, the punks are not always as keenly attuned to the shifting vagaries of fashion as they might be, so a great deal of hot air was expended in denouncing things like trucker hats, white belts and "girl pants," all very 2-5 years ago, if not downright last century. But considerable vitriol was also unleashed toward "ironic" beards and mustaches, phony jihad scarves (well, apparently the scarves are the real deal; the people wearing them, not so much), not to mention "ascots and neckerchiefs" ("Who are we," demands one poster, "Fred from Scooby Doo?").

As someone who's done his fair share of fulminating, especially about the scruffy beards and clothes that have been giving me horrific flashbacks to the 70s, I was surprised, pleasantly surprised, in fact, to discover that most of these things no longer bothered me. I've made my peace with the hipsters, apparently, not that any of them ever showed any indication whatsoever of caring what I thought. But even the beards, which for a year or two had been my bête noire, have become so much white noise to me as I wend my way through the Williamsburg streets.

Well, perhaps not completely... Last night as I was coming home I walked past the Metropolitan, reputed to be our neighborhood gay bar, but which I had always suspected of being merely another hipster hangout for boys and girls of tenuous or conflicted sexuality. I was quite surprised to see a couple guys rather passionately making out just outside the front door. Surprised, I say, because it's the first overtly gay activity I've ever noticed emanating from the place; previously I'd only ever seen the usual hipster suspects standing around smoking cigarettes and looking angst-ridden.

As it happened, one of the making-out dudes was smooth-cheeked or at least closely shaven, and actually kind of cute, whereas his osculatory partner was a standard-issue beardo. And some of the old revulsion came rushing back: how, I heard myself demanding, could you rub your face up against that?

But I digress. For the most part I no longer find myself thinking badly of hipsters based on facial hair or clothes or even that jaundiced view of the non-hipster world they wear along with their carefully sculpted Weltschmerz and anomie. Live and let live, I say, and as long as I'm living here in the heart of postgraduate sleepaway camp, it's about all I can say, if I want to keep my sanity.

Then Jenna Alive weighed in with one hipster affectation I truly can not abide: smoking. True, not all hipsters smoke, but a wildly disproportionate number do, and when you consider that these are not exactly unsophisticated or ignorant people, but have come from mostly well-to-do families and colleges that the vast majority of Americans could neither afford nor be accepted to, you have to believe that the conspicuous - and highly mannered - consumption of tobacco is indeed a fashion statement. A particularly stupid one, granted, but fashion nonetheless.

Even then, I could stretch my tolerance to include 20-somethings frantically smoking because they're hoping for an early death (and need to cling to something) were it not for the fact that they're inflicting their stink on everyone else around them. Ah, but you've heard me railing in that vein before, so I'll stop right there and reveal that while thinking about smoking, it dawned me that the one thing that really annoys me about hipsters is when they deny being hipsters.

Which they pretty much all do. In fact, serious hipsters actually get outraged and indignant if you so much as hint at the H-word in their presence. "What's a hipster?" they'll snarl, "just some ridiculous stereotype that means nothing at all in the real world."

"So it's just a complete and utter coincidence that you wear the same clothes and have the same facial fair and see the same movies and read the same books as every other 20-something in the neighborhood?"

"People can have common values and ideas without being lumped into stupid media characterizations. Calling someone a hipster, well, that's abusive, it's practically like a form of racism."

I have actually had several conversations with self-denying hipsters than ran along almost exactly those lines, and none ended satisfactorily. After the first or second, I learned that there was no point in pursuing this line of questioning, so I'd just nod my head sagely and let them go on disclaiming their hipsterness. But quietly I'd think to myself, "Other subcultures don't seem to have such a problem saying who they are - punk, hippies, hiphoppers, even emo kids wear their status almost like a badge of honor - so what is the hipsters' problem?

You know what, though? I actually don't care anymore. Or maybe I do, but I'm sleepy and want to go to bed. Tomorrow perhaps I'll find a hipster on the street and ask him to explain this to me, but more likely I'll stay in and watch the Champions League final between Man United and Chelsea. Maybe I'll even start growing a scruffy beard and claim that it's not a beard at all, just the result of my being so preoccupied with vital artistic concerns that I forgot to shave. As Chris Grivet would say, "Ha. No."

20 May 2008

Guilt Tripped By The G Train

"The Ghost Train" is one of the less unkind epithets applied to the G train by Williamsburgers and Greenpointers (the latter, in particular, since it's the only subway "service" at all in their neighborhood. It's also called the Ghetto train, the Good-For-Nothing or the Goes Nowhere train, and no doubt a few others that slip my mind at the moment.

There's no denying that it's the unwanted stepchild of the New York subway system, ranking only slightly above the Staten Island Railway in the gets no respect sweepstakes. There are frequently rumors that the MTA is deliberately making the G train as useless, inconvenient and unreliable as possible so that people won't notice or complain when they finally shut it down altogether.

I have a hard time believing that to be true, as a smoothly functioning G train would be invaluable for the many people who have to travel between Brooklyn and Queens and would prefer not going by way of Manhattan to do so. And one doesn't really want to think that the MTA isn't trying to make public transit as convenient and user-friendly as possible, despite copious evidence to the contrary.

But for one reason or another, the G runs "normally" (i.e., from Forest Hills to downtown Brooklyn) so seldom that soon a whole generation may soon have grown up believing that it always came to a dead end just two stops into Queens and two (or more) short of its destination in Brooklyn. Or that there's really no reason to expect a train more often than every 20 minutes, or that one would ever have a reasonable expectation of what track it will be on.

It was with this in mind that I trepidatiously boarded the G Sunday evening for a return trip to Queens (second in one weekend!). The reason I say trepidatiously is that I was on my way to Astoria to record a demo of a song I'd written for my friends' band Short Attention (they specialize in - nay, they only do songs of 20 seconds or less in length). When Short Attention first burst onto the scene, I wrote somewhere (probably here, actually) that they were "clever, maddening and annoying." Not only did the band not hold a grudge against me (not a visible one, anyway), but they used my words as the title for the first EP of, oh, I don't know, about 127 songs. And now they've asked me to contribute to their next EP, which is actually a concept EP, the concept being that all the songs will have been written by friends of the band.

I didn't really see the need to make a professional quality recording of the demo, but that's what we were being offered, including the services of part time recording engineer, full time record magnate Jonnie Whoa Oh of Whoa Oh Records, whose studio is located way out near the end of the N line in exotic Astoria. And the most direct route to the N, albeit with an intermittent flying one-stop visit to the 7, is the much maligned G train. And the reason I was nervous about using the route...

Well, let me backtrack (speaking of the G, hardy har har) a bit: you see, I have this, I don't know if you'd call it anthropomorphic or animistic tendency to believe that everything is not only alive, but also thinks something like I do. In other words, the G train has thoughts and feelings, too, and if it should be aware that the name of the song I was on my way to record was "What The Fuck Is The Point Of The G Train?" well, heaven only knows what might happen.

But lo and behold, the G showed up after no more than a two or three minute wait. This must be a trap, I thought, any minute now there's going to be an announcement that we're being diverted to South Ozone Park. Not the case, however; my trip went smoothly as could be, as did the recording session. No thanks to me; having not been in a studio for quite a few years, I managed all sorts of false starts, cracking voices, and general befuddlement before the ever-efficient Jonnie got a decent version down on tape. Then after a brief visit and a spirited discussion of world issues - Jonnie is one of the few people who has even more opinions than I do, and is even surer that he is always right - I reversed course and was ferried quickly and safely back to Brooklyn, once again via the N, the 7 and the G.

All the way there, the chorus of my song - which is the same as the title - echoed in my head, and I felt ever more regretful that I'd said such unkind things about the G train, which, as the only subway line that doesn't go to Manhattan, is no doubt already suffering serious self-esteem issues. I wondered if there was any way I could change the lyrics to something along the lines of, "The G train's really not all that bad, you know," but it didn't have the same ring to it. I was walking home when it suddenly hit me: the G train was guilt tripping me. It knew all along that its performance typically wasn't up to snuff, but rather than mend its ways, it decided to give me really good service just that once, guaranteeing that I'd feel bad every time I heard Short Attention sing that rather hostile (to the G train, that is) song of mine.

Well, the hell with it, I finally said, and decided to offer the G train a deal: you start running on the right track, going to the places you're supposed to go, and showing up at least every ten minutes or so, and I'll personally record a public recantation of my song. Chances of that happening = slim to none, I'd say, which is just as well, since I have not a clue how I'd go about writing a positive, upbeat song about New York City's most unwanted subway line.

But I was also kind of excited to have written a song again, however short (it actually clocked in over 20 seconds, a virtual rock opera by Short Attention standards), for the first time in at least seven years. And I've got a couple more in the works, just melodies so far, no words. I was beginning to think that would never happen again.

19 May 2008

Crossing The Border

Yesterday I helped a friend move from Astoria to Jackson Heights (sorry, I can't hear the latter name without thinking of the line from the Car 54, Where Are You? theme that goes, "There's a traffic jam in Harlem that's backed up to Jackson Heights," and if anything shows my age, that should be it). My job entailed picking up a rental truck near my house and navigating it onto the BQE and across Newtown Creek via the mighty Kosciuszko Bridge, the concrete and steel span that leads us out of all that is safe and familiar here in Brooklyn and into the trackless wilds of Queens.

"Queens," my friend Dan opines, and he should know, having spent much of his life there, "is New York City's junk drawer." Not in any disparaging sense, i.e., he's not implying that people, place and things in Queens are actually, you know, junk, just that Queens is the kind of place where you put everything that's too good to throw away but that you don't know what else to do with.

My trip over went pretty smoothly, no thanks to the dilapidated terror ride that is the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (I think someone is having an especially ironic chuckle over including the word "express" in the name of this crumbling edifice). New York City is looking mighty spiffy in many quarters these days, what with all the building and rebuilding that's been going on, but the BQE, despite being a perennial construction site, appears to be the Winchester Mystery House of highway projects, always in upheaval, never completed. That plus the way lanes tend to appear and disappear (or suddenly dwindle in size to half the width of your vehicle) keeps travel on it a constantly invigorating and entertaining experience.

Soon after entering Astoria, I found myself driving down a street lined with hundreds - and I don't think this is even slightly an exaggeration - of Central and South American men who began whistling and gesturing wildly at me. I found this bewildering until I realized they were under the impression that I, being the driver of a truck that looked like it meant serious business, would be in the market for some bargain basement employees to load and unload it.

They all - well, except for the handful who tried the opposite strategy of looking cool and disinterested - seemed so eager and even desperate that I felt truly sorry I didn't have any work to offer them, there already being a full complement of PPMBers waiting at my destination to do the heavy lifting. I found myself searching my mind for any kind of work I could offer them, only to be brought up short by the realization that I have enough trouble finding work for myself to do.

And besides, there were so many of them. What if, I couldn't help wondering, the economy really did get as bad as the alarmists are predicting - or even as bad as it apparently already is in some parts of the country? What would become of these men then? Which in turn led me to wonder, while feeling no less sympathetic toward their plight, if this is any kind of way to run an economy or a country. I suppose similar things must have gone on during the last great wave of immigration around the turn of the 20th century, but it seems so backward and, yes, even a little barbaric today. On the bright side, by the time I made my second pass through the illegal immigrant zone (having taken a wrong turn the first time around), I was pleased to see that at least some of them were actually picking up work, as quite a few trucks and cars were pulling up to negotiate with them. I still felt compelled to put up my hands in a gesture of helplessness while mouthing the words, "No, gracias," especially to those who, having seen me come around the block twice, assumed that I had to be looking for some good workers.

The move itself went swiftly and smoothly, despite it being down three flights and up four others. At the new place, the fourth floor one, there was an elevator, but it being Saturday morning and this being a very large building, there were a few dozen other residents who felt they ought to have a right to use the elevator, too. After waiting about ten minutes for it to show up, we were quickly cramming it with as much stuff as would fit when a, shall we say, rather stout lady emerged puffing and panting from the staircase and immediately launched into a denunciation of yours truly.

"Thanks for holding up the elevator, buddy!" she barked. "You made me miss my ride, now who's gonna pay me $7 for my cab fare?" There was a time when I might have been cowed by this outburst of fury, but apparently New York has begun to rub off on me, because without even waiting for her to finish, I was already firing back: "Whattaya talking about, the elevator just got here this minute, we're waiting here forever for it to show up while somebody screwed around with it up on the fifth floor, you got a problem, go talk to your neighbors up there!"

She nodded her head as though we'd just greeted each other with a matter-of-fact "How are you, lovely day today, isn't it?" and heaved her way out on to the sidewalk to yell at some young people who happened to be standing there and looked as though they could have recently been riding in an elevator. We finished our moving in near-record time - the less stuff was left to carry, the more people showed up to help - and while everyone else set out to celebrate a morning's successful work with lunch at a local Indian restaurant, I turned the truck around and headed back to Brooklyn. Nothing against Indian food, which I quite enjoy, nor the company, which I enjoy even more, but there were no legal parking spots for the truck anywhere in sight (at least we'd only been blocking a crosswalk while unloading, not double parking and tying up traffic for blocks as any number of other trucks were doing), and I had, you know, important stuff that needed doing. Stuff whose importance or even nature seems to elude me at the moment, but serious stuff nonetheless.

Thanks to yet more construction work, I had a meandering journey through the backstreets of Queens before finding my way onto the BQE again, during the course of which I stopped to replace the gas we'd used, all 1.9 gallons worth. I know I've generally expressed enthusiasm for higher gasoline prices on the grounds that they'll discourage people from so much needless driving about, but I must admit that paying $4.15 a gallon dampened my ardor just a bit. Then it was down some rathole and up some decrepit roller coaster of a ramp and there I was flying high in the sky with all of Manhattan spread out before me in the dazzling late spring sunshine.

The reason this particular stretch of the highway offers such a spectacular view of the skyline is that the immediate foreground is occupied by a vast cemetery, containing nothing higher than the occasionally overreaching mausoleum. I remembered riding on this same route sometime back in the 1970s, when New York wasn't quite the bejeweled Emerald City we see it as today, and in my yearning-for-the-apocalypse drug-fucked hippie mind seeing the city's spires and towers as extensions of the graveyard, hollow-eyed Brobdingnagian tombstones crowding to the ends of the horizon.

But New York never looked more alive than it did this morning, and $4.15 a gallon gas had done nothing to dissuade everybody and his mother-in-law from piling into the car and onto the upper reaches of the BQE, making my trip a bit stop-and-start, or, on the bright side, affording me greater opportunity to savor the view of what has been called "the most polluted waterway in America."

Midway across Newtown Creek, as at every border crossing, there's a sign, placed by the irrepressible Borough President Marty Markowitz, welcoming you to Brooklyn. Each has a different slogan; the one on the Kosciuszko Bridge reads, "Welcome To Brooklyn: Believe the Hype." Some others include: "Brooklyn: Like No Other Place In The World," "Name It... We Got It," "How Sweet It Is!" and "Brooklyn's In The House!" A little over-the-top, you say? Well, yeah, but basically, it's all true. I'd genuinely enjoyed my trip into Queens - it kind of reminded me of when, as a boy in Detroit, we'd cross the bridge over into Canada for a little bit of foreign adventure and maybe to smuggle back some illegal fireworks - but gee, it was good to be back home.

16 May 2008

Berkeley In Black And White

Apparently they're having a heat wave now, but during the three and a half days I spent in California recently, it was downright cold most of the time. It finally warmed up on Monday, though, enabling me to take a leisurely walk through South Berkeley, Telegraph, and downtown, all of which looked rather tranquil in the morning sun. I might have been less sanguine about my wanderings in light of this or this or this or this, but I figured most criminals couldn't be bothered to get up that early in the morning.

It's obvious that Berkeley is suffering from the same surge in violent street crime that San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond are, though it must be said that at least Berkeley cops have been known to arrest their murderers and robbers, unlike Oakland and Frisco, where the authorities seem to have instituted a catch-and-release program. Street robberies are very common, especially the sort where a carload of thugs rolls up on you as you're blithely strolling down what looks like a quiet and peaceful suburban street. Aaron Cometbus and I witnessed one of these a few years ago when we were walking near my old house just west of downtown Berkeley, but apparently they've become much more prevalent lately.

What's equally obvious, though largely unmentionable in Berkeley's highly charged PC climate, is that the overwhelming majority of street crime is the work of African-American offenders. There was a glaring exception the other week in the case of what has been dubbed the "Fraternity Row Murder," in which both victim and assailant were white (though it's hard in this case to ascertain who exactly was the victim, since both parties, the murdered frat boy and the West Berkeley arrestee who stabbed him seem to have been acting like or at least posing as ghetto thugs), but it's the proverbial exception proving the rule.

In theory, this shouldn't be happening, not in what is arguably the most liberal and "progressive" city in the USA. Berkeley was always ahead of the curve when it came to integrating its schools, using busing programs when demographics wouldn't cooperate, instituting affirmative action programs at all levels of government and education, naming schools after people like Malcom X, abolishing Columbus Day in favor of "Indigenous People's Day, and in general focusing with laser-like intensity on the eradication of racism and injustice.

Granted, there are limits to what one small city, particularly one run by hippies still befogged from the drugs and politics of the 60s, can accomplish in addressing such systemic and society-wide challenges. But you'd think that by now they would have managed something. If they have, however, it's hard to say what; Berkeley's ghettos on the South and West sides are if anything far meaner, and poverty and crime far more entrenched than they were nearly 40 years ago when I lived on a nearly all-black block west of San Pablo.

It was definitely poorer, and no doubt a bit rougher than the rest of Berkeley (which at that time was a very safe city overall), but I never had any hesitation about walking the streets,even late at night, something I wouldn't recommend in most parts of Berkeley nowadays. The whole time I lived there I heard one gunshot, which turned out to have been fired by a night watchman who'd surprised a burglar; friends who've lived in West Berkeley more recently tell me it's not unusual to hear gunfire on a near-daily basis.

Are race relations worse in Berkeley than elsewhere in America? Probably not, but nor are they any better, which is the disappointing part. Berkeley has certainly been far from flawless in both its vision and the execution thereof (see the aforementioned drug-befogged hippies), but I don't think anyone could deny that its intentions were good. I don't know of another city that applied itself so assiduously to the cause of redressing racial injustice, and yet 40, even 50 years on, you've got a two-tier educational system that puts whites and Asians into the nation's best universities and funnels blacks and Hispanics straight into the maw of Santa Rita and San Quentin. I'm not sure I know what the answer is, but it should be pretty obvious by now that the people in charge don't have much of a clue either.

Barack Hussein Obama Is A Long-Legged Pimp

With several months to go before the campaign *really* gets going in earnest, I think it's already safe to say that 2008 will provide us with some of the liveliest and zaniest bits of invective since "Maw, maw, where's my Paw? Gone to the White House, haw haw haw!"

Here we see the Rev. Manning, who is apparently Rev. Wright's doppelgänger from Opposite Land, laying down the truth about the unholy trinity of Oprah Winfrey, the long-legged pimp Barack Obama, and the Rev. Wright, homosexuals all, apparently, and given yesterday's developments in California, perhaps headed for a state-sanctioned ménage-à-trois in the White House.

15 May 2008

White Minority

Grath McGrath, lead singer/guitarist for the Steinways and author of such deathless lines as "You're so pretty, you're so Asian, kiss me baby, I'm Caucasian," is a prolific songwriter as it is, but the mind boggles at how much more inspired he might have been had he attended UC Berkeley instead of the considerably whiter Vassar. A stroll through the campus earlier this week had me feeling very much in the minority.

Not in a bad way, I hasten to add; in fact things seemed especially tranquil and pleasant that day, though the beautiful (for the first time in weeks) weather probably contributed to that effect. And even when I was a Berkeley student, Asians made up a disproportionately high percentage of the student body. But now they visibly as well as statistically outnumber white students, by about 42% to 31% by last year's figures.

African-American students? Not doing so well. I believe they're down to about 3% of the student body, and on this particular day, I walked from Sproul Plaza at Bancroft down to the western exit from campus at Oxford and University without seeing a single black student except for those pictured on a series of posters meant to illustrate Berkeley's commitment to "diversity."

So in a sense the hysterics were right when they predicted devastating effects for minority enrollment at the University after California voters put an end to affirmative action programs. But only in a sense, because after all, Asians are also a minority in terms of the general population, and yet they massively outnumber both whites and Latinos in representation at the state's best public university.

So is this a problem, or the result of a true meritocracy? A bit of a problem, perhaps, but also a fair result for people who obviously work harder and/or are blessed with greater intelligence, and I say that as someone who very likely would no longer be able to gain admission to UC Berkeley, whereas I was easily able to do so in the 1970s.

Yes, it's tragic that so few African-Americans are able to attend Berkeley (and a disappointingly small number of Latinos as well), but the role of an elite university is not to redress historical imbalances by lowering its standards for certain ethnic groups (and, by logical extension, refusing admission to students of other ethnic groups who have earned the right to be there). But clearly there's something wrong, not only with the primary and secondary educational systems, but also with cultures that don't sufficiently value education or the work required to obtain it.

Is racism a factor? Undoubtedly it is, though to nowhere near the extent it once was, and to nowhere near the extent race-obsessed ideologues and demagogues would have us believe. If it were, you wouldn't have Asians, another racial minority who have also endured enormous discrimination in the not so distant past, so massively outperforming every other racial group, INCLUDING the non-Hispanic whites who are supposedly running the show.

07 May 2008

Britain To Potheads: You're Reclassified

After several years experimenting with quasi-legalization of marijuana (it was still against the law, but you'd have to try really hard to get arrested for it), the UK has decided to reclassify cannabis again, making it more illegal, but, in that characteristically British way, signaling that nothing in particular is going to be done about it (in other words, the police have already said that they're not going to change their mostly hands-off policy).

The Guardian, one of Britain's two principal pothead papers (the other being the Independent, whose editor, Rosie Boycott, used to keep a potted pot plant in her office), writes about this in hurt-child tones ("But... but... all the experts say marijuana is good for you!") while acknowledging some of the data motivating the government's pseudo-crackdown on the devil weed, specifically some rather evidence linking cannabis use, especially among the young with schizophrenia and other forms of mental breakdown.

I myself have mixed feelings. As I've said for some time now, I'm in favor of any approach, legal, educational or otherwise, that reduces the amount of marijuana being smoked and decreases the likelihood of children and teenagers taking up the habit. It's just that there doesn't seem to be much evidence that stricter law enforcement accomplishes that purpose while it does seem to do considerable harm to many young people who might otherwise never enter the criminal justice system.

At the same time, I don't think it can any longer be disputed that marijuana does serve as an entry-level drug, not just for harder drugs, but also for other forms of more serious criminal activity. The bien pensant liberal left laughs solipsistically at such a notion, damning it as a throwback to the Reefer Madness era of drug education on the grounds that all their friends react to marijuana with nothing more than an increased interest in hobbits or fudge brownies or cod philosophy. They can't seem to get it through their heads that smoking blunts has a rather different effect on young gangbangers, dulling if not eliminating any inclination toward education or work while simultaneously extirpating any remaining vestiges of moral inhibition. Many a bong-sucking hippie has gotten it into his head that he's some form of god; these cats can get similar ideas, but more along the Old Testament avenging angel, drowning whole cities in blood fire sort of line.

But what are you gonna do? Locking as many of them up as possible doesn't seem to have accomplished any more than the "Let the people smoke all the herb they want, man, it's medicine" line. Personally, what I'd like to see (or at least what I think might be most effective) is for marijuana to be treated like cigarettes, i.e., legal for adults, but with strict limitations on where it can be used, with copious amounts of social opprobrium attached to the sad losers who can't seem to kick the habit. It seems to be working with tobacco: whereas at one time half of all adults smoked, it's now down below 20%, especially in those areas which strictly enforce public smoking bans and heavily tax tobacco sales with at least part of the money being used for education and programs to help people quit.

Under the present system, there's still a certain amount of glamor and raciness attached to marijuana use. The pothead has managed to get himself portrayed as a sort of adventurer or rebel rather than as a drug addict and retro-hippie burnout, and as long as this remains the case, kids will inevitably find it necessary to demonstrate their individuality and independence by going along with the pot-smoking herd. When we stop treating potheads as criminals and turn them into laughingstocks instead, we might finally make some progress.

Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em

Regardless of how one might feel about the writing of Michel Houellebecq, I think most people would agree that he's not the cuddliest of characters. He's been accused of everything from gratuitous misogyny to generic and pedestrian attempts at shocking the bourgeoisie (actually, he sounds - and reads - rather like a Gallic Howard Stern), but there is a certain morbid fascination to his emotional trainwreck prose, and now that his mother has gotten in on the act by publishing her own equally scathing memoir, we can see a lot more clearly why.

She damns her famous offspring as an "evil, stupid little bastard," not to mention a "liar, an imposter, a parasite and above all - above all - a petit arriviste ready to do absolutely anything for money and fame," before telling an interviewer she'll "cane him round the face, that'll knock his teeth out, that's for sure. And [his publishers] won't stop me." When not hurling invective at his literary output, she's complaining about the quality of his baby poo. Still, having read (and partially enjoyed a couple of Houellebecq's books, I can't help thinking how thoroughly these two would appear to deserve each other.

05 May 2008

I'm Not Angry

I'm not much of a fan anymore, but I'll always remember the first time I saw Elvis Costello. It was in 1978, I think, and he was still in his full-on new wave phase, skinny tie, narrow-lapel suit and all, basically as though he'd just stepped off the cover of My Aim Is True.

In keeping with the new wave theme, the lighting was stark and featured all those ugly colors so in vogue at the time, like lime green, hot pink, chartreuse, etc., and when he sang "I'm Not Angry," the lights changed color in time with the music so that every time he spat out another repetition of the title phrase, his face would turn a different color. They were not happy colors, either, so that in combination with the sneer on his lip and the snarl in his voice set up a direct contradiction every time he protested that no, he wasn't angry at all. No sir, not in the least bit, in fact, I've never been so not angry in my life, he insisted, all the while looking as though every blood vessel in his face was about to erupt into a gusher of Vesuvian rage.

I thought of that when I noticed that Peter of Quincy Mass, responding to last week's half-hearted diatribe about pandering politicians and their idiotic gas tax "holiday", had said, "Finally some sense of outrage with the status quo in your writing!! Come back Larry as a voice of dissent. Your voice is needed and has been absent far too long."

Peter, my good man, I would love to accommodate you, not just for your own satisfaction, but my own as well. And I suspect many of my readers from the old days feel much the same way. One thing you could pretty much count on when you picked up a copy of Lookout or Maximum Rocknroll magazines was that I would be angry, outraged, indignant and infuriated about something. Probably several somethings, and if I wasn't trumpeting some cause or other I'd just dreamed up, I was viciously refuting any reader who'd had the temerity to question my anger, outrage, etc., from the previous issue.

Most of the time it didn't even matter whether I was right or (as more often than I'd like to admit was the case) wrong: if I'd had accused the government or the power structure or the local bourgeoisie of some crime that proved to be little more than bad research on my part or a figment of my imagination, I'd change the subject or point out that even if they weren't technically guilty this time, it was more important to remember that they were guilty of far more serious things that hadn't been uncovered yet.

Yes, I was quite an angry fellow, although if you'd identified me as such, I would have vehemently denied it, claiming instead to be a lover of all humankind (except, of course, for Republicans, Christians, capitalists, hippies, stupid people, people who didn't listen to the right kind of music, people who wore the wrong kind of clothes and a few thousand other exceptions) whose sole purpose in writing was to bring enlightenment and salvation to the suffering masses.

Did I mention that I smoked a lot of pot in those days? Well, not as much as some of my neighbors, true, but enough nonetheless to furnish me with a more or less permanent bad attitude cloaked in a passive-aggressive messiah complex. Like most potheads, I had come to believe that the world not only revolved around me, but was actually an extension of my needs, desires and prejudices. If I was infuriated by preachers and religious people (and I was), it was because I figured they were drumming up business for the competition.

If I had a God-complex, you might ask, how could I get so outraged at the state of the world? Shouldn't I have seen it as merely a reflection or extension of my own creative energies? If I were being logical, sure, but remember, I was a pothead. And as such, I thought that my world was just fine. Peachy, in fact. It was just that all those damn people insisted on screwing it up by doing things their way instead of mine. And even after I'd gone to great trouble and effort to explain to them exactly how things really were.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and my perspective on the world has rather radically altered. When things aren't going the way I'd like them to, oddly enough the first place I look for a problem is in myself. And most of the time, that's exactly where I find it. I'm not saying nobody else ever does dumb or destructive things, but that's a given as long as you're dealing with human beings. I don't have a lot of power over what the president or the guy sitting next to me on the subway does, but I do have considerable power over how I choose to react to it.

And most of the time, maybe even always, I find that not being angry works a lot better for me. It's often been said that nursing a resentment toward someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I don't avoid anger because I think my enemies deserve a break, but because I do.

But aren't there times when things are simply so wrong that they have to be pointed out, where we'd be doing a disservice to ourselves and our fellows if we didn't? Undoubtedly, but even then, I think it's better to do so without giving vent to undue amounts of anger. I used to rationalize that by getting people mad at me, I was forcing them to think about the issues I was raising, but eventually it dawned on me that just the opposite was happening: they were so wrapped up in being mad at me that there wouldn't have been room in their hearts for a rational examination of the idea even if one were knocking at the door and begging to be let in.

And, of course, there's also the fact that, contrary to some opinions, I'm no longer the know-it-all that I was in my younger days. It's a shame, George Burns once observed, that the only people who know how to run the country are all driving cabs and cutting hair, but made those cabbies and barbers look like rank amateurs when it came to telling the people in charge how they ought to be running things. You say you're President of the United States? CEO of IBM? Chancellor of the university with a string of Ph.Ds to your name? Never mind that, listen to Livermore if you want to know how to do your job the way it should be done!

I've often thought, and suggested, that one reason the right wing has been so successful in recent years is that they've completely outsmarted the lefties who, as we all know (at least according to what it says in the Times and the New Yorker and on NPR and all those other bastions of sophistication and learning) are supposed to be the smart ones. But it worked with Reagan and it's working again with Bush: put up a candidate who the educated lefties can sneer at and feel superior to, and said lefties will while away the decades sneering and feeling superior while "dumb" Ronald Reagan and George Bush are happily dismantling every cherished social structure and disemboweling every cherished sacred cow of liberalism.

But we don't want to start down that road, do we? Somebody might get peeved. A little bit cross, perhaps, or even slightly annoyed. So I'll just point out before signing off that I've been as guilty of this as any pointy-headed liberal ever was: looking down on the people who were running things (and running away with things), dismissing them with sarcastic comments and patronizing disdain was little more than an admission of complete and utter defeat. No matter how clever the putdowns I could come up with, they were in charge and all I could do was snipe from the sidelines.

Well, they're still in charge and I'm still not, but now that I've come to accept that while George Bush and Co. may not be geniuses, chances are that I'm not one either, and when it comes down to it, I'm not so sure I could do a better job then they could. Okay, I'd like to think I could, and the bar is set fairly low (not being snide, just an observation!), but honestly, I just don't know, and for maybe the first time in my life, I'm able to admit it. And that, my friends, while humbling, also comes as an enormous relief.

04 May 2008

A Walk In The Sun

Today was as beautiful as yesterday was ugly, the only drawback being that after the foul weather that's been hurled at us all this past week, I didn't have sufficient trust in the "sunny and warmer" forecast. So when I left the house this morning I took, in addition to my usual bag of books, papers, etc., a jacket, a hoodie and an umbrella. It still wouldn't have been enough to keep me warm yesterday, but by midday the hoodie was in the bag, followed shortly afterward by the jacket.

It was around this time that I decided to walk to Greenpoint from the West Village, which as the crow flies is no more than a mile or so, but on foot across the Williamsburg Bridge is considerably further. Hopstop claims it's only 2.61 miles, but it also tells you to turn left on Kent off the Williamsburg Bridge, which from the side I was walking on, you can't do without a parachute.

My reasons for walking instead of training it partly involved it being a warm, sunny day, but were more about teaching the MTA a lesson For two consecutive weekends the L train from Brooklyn to Manhattan has been an utter nightmare, as they're only running a shuttle between Union Square and Bedford Avenue every 16 minutes. Any more than 6 or 8 minutes between trains and the platforms begin to fill up with dangerous numbers of people, which is bad enough, but what's really annoying is the MTA's spurious claim that they're using the shutdown to "make track improvements."

Now I'm no engineer or railroad man, but even my untutored ass knows that by now (this is either the third or fourth weekend they've done this) they could easily have replaced every bit of track from Union Square to Eighth Avenue. Anyway, sick of waiting in the subterranean equivalent of a cattle pen while sadistic MTA employees bellowed the obvious ("There are no trains etc.") at us through megaphones, I figured it made more sense to walk. Granted it took me twice as long and I got a blister on one foot, but I console myself by thinking of the president of the MTA losing sleep in his mansion tonight over my absence from his trains. "That Larry Livermore, why, he's one of our most devoted customers, and now he's deserted the L train. I think we'd better have a serious re-think about our customer service strategy." Or something like that.

It's been a couple months since I've been in South Williamsburg (well, it's really Central Williamsburg, but I confess that I don't give a lot of thought to what goes on south of Broadway), and quite longer since I've been there in daylight, so I had the opportunity to see some of the new glass condo boxes that have erupted in the vicinity since then. As you may know, I don't share the violent antipathy many of my fellow Williamsburgers exhibit toward all new construction higher than two stories or more modern than the earlier 20th century (or in some cases, toward any new construction at all). I actually like some of the glass boxes, others not so much, and there are even a handful that I would consider living in. In fact I saw one advertised today, a three-story, four-bedroom, six-car garage affair (I have absolutely no plans to acquire a car, but I do own two bicycles, total value approximately $125) just a couple blocks over from where I'm living now. Price? Why, a mere $1,250,000, which may sound a lot, but when you consider that it's only 10,000 times the value of my bicycle collection, it begins to sound a bit more manageable.

Anyway, one of the old timers on my block told me that one of the neighbors recently tried to sell his three-story house, which was not nearly as nice - is actually kind of tacky, if you must know, and had several feet of water in the basement apartment during last summer's floods - for $1.4 million. Didn't get it, though, and has installed several new sets of hipsters in the various apartments as a fallback strategy, but so the neighborhood goes. A friend turned up tonight wearing a t-shirt featuring a line drawing of an archetypal glass condo box with the legend: "My parents went to Brooklyn and all they got me was this lousy condo."

Speaking of hipsters and class resentment, my journey to Greenpoint took me through the Bedford Avenue side of McCarren Park, the section which, if the 30-something artsy type showing his parents around is to be believed, is known as "the hipster beach." Apart from the absence of sand and swim suits, it certainly looked the part, as the lawn was virtually carpeted with lounging hipster bodies in various states of disarray and déshabillée (yes, I know how much it annoys them to be called hipsters; why do you think I say it so much?).

I also saw, and you may find this hard to believe of someone who's lived in Brooklyn for going on two years now, my first kickball game (hey, I've never seen anyone taking cocaine, either). Several kickball games, in fact, being conducted simultaneously on every square foot of grass and field that wasn't already being lounged upon. The Ausländer among you may be unfamiliar with this sport, which is often spoken of (usually in derisory terms) as the ultimate stereotype of Hipster Brooklyn, but it actually looked like good fun, and certainly a lot less challenging and far more rewarding than yesterday's PPMB softball tourney played on the sub-Arctic tundras of North Central Park.

And in another touch that was notably missing from PPMB softball, the hipsters had brought in a club-sized set of PA speakers and a DJ to entertain the assembled kickballers with music that was - well, how about I avoid employing the H-word yet again and just acknowledge that it was no doubt very cutting edge and not entirely unpleasant. Oh, and the kickballers even had spiffy uniforms, indicating that they might take this business rather seriously, even if almost no one else does. Seriously, I support it, and find it infinitely less annoying than the clutch of hipsters who have taken up bocce ball to the point of pretty much driving the last of the old Italian men clear out of the park.

No shortage of old Polish men and women at the north end of the park, though, and they seemed to be having a great old time holding up a metaphorical "Welcome To Greenpoint" sign for me as my journey neared its end. I probably should have moved to Greenpoint a couple years ago when it was still "cheap" and "undiscovered;" now it looks better every time I wander over that way (which, truth be told, is several times a week, far more often than I set foot on the Hipster Strip over on Bedford).

But it's too late for that now, I fear, and the travails of the L notwithstanding, I'm not prepared to subject myself to the far less tender ministrations of the G train. But it's a great place for a walk, as was just about every nook and cranny of New York City on this stunningly beautiful day. It's still too early to say summer's finally here without jinxing the whole affair, but it's getting close, I tell you. And like a great yet gentle beast awaking languorously and luxuriously from a long winter's nap, the city stretches out in the sun and waits.

"I Guess They Have A Problem With People Who Go Out And Free Ourselves With Our Music"

Quite a few of my younger friends live in Astoria, and one of the surest ways to get their collective goat is to suggest that their neighborhood is becoming "the new Williamsburg." It's not, really; Greenpoint has already definitively and irrefutably claimed that title, with Bushwick and Bed-Stuy are much likelier candidates to be the new new Williamsburg.

It's true that young people are flocking to Astoria, which isn't surprising, as it's one of the few neighborhoods that offers somewhat reasonable rents while still being both safe and relatively convenient to Manhattan. Wrong end of Manhattan, true, and the N train, which incidentally just derailed this afternoon, is a rather tenuous lifeline, but that's also one of the reasons why Astoria is unlikely to be the next Hipsterville. Not only do bona fide hipsters not like to travel to inconvenient places, they also prefer to move into neighborhoods that appear to be somewhat down at the heels and which can confer a little street cred, at least in the eyes of friends and family back in Westchester or wherever.

Astoria, on the other hand, is just so darn wholesome, replete with families, clean streets, "normal" businesses, and a relative dearth of vegan tofu coffee bars. I'm willing to bet that if you took measurements, you'd find that the sun shines substantially more often there as well.

That's why this Daily News article about saving Astoria from the hipsters seems so ludicrous, like something you'd be more likely to run across in the Onion than in New York's second largest daily. In fact, upon noting that the group who supposedly launched this campaign are all Fordham students or alumni, I immediately thought of one P Smith, Astorian, devout Onion reader, and graduate of that very university.

I'm also curious how Jonnie Whoa Oh, native Astorian, (relatively) young person, and huge booster of guitar-based pop punk music feels about this. Granted that "Whoa Oh" may not sound like the Greekest surname around, but trust me, the man knows his choriatiki salata from his kolokithikia vrasta. Well, don't trust me, because I can barely pronounce them, but in addition to being Greek through and through, Jonnie is a borderline hipster (even had a beard last year) and has been seen in various locales around town banging away at a guitar.

I once seriously considered moving to Astoria myself, but I think that moment has passed, especially if the neighborhood is going to be riven by cultural conflict and, for all we know, ethnic cleansing. I think I'll just stay over here in my corner of Williamsburg and see if I can organize a movement to protect the Italians from the influx of people like, um, me.

Like Some Ravening Hyrcanian Tiger...

A taste of what London may be in for under its new mayor, Boris Johnson: this Daily Mail story also tells how Boris had his first drink in three months and promptly promised to have any Livingstone loyalists who threaten to gum up the works "humanely euthanized."

NYC Bike City? Not Quite

In theory New York City should be one of the best places in America to be a bike rider. No unduly severe hills, because of the population density things tend to be close enough together to make bike commuting realistic for most people, there are bridges with dedicated bike paths connecting most of the boroughs, and you can take your bike on trains and ferries when there aren't.

There are two big factors mitigating against the city being a biker's paradise, however, the first being the weather, which makes bicycling downright unpleasant if not completely impractical for several months of the year, and the second being the ungodly car traffic, bad enough in its own right, but even worse when frustrated drivers react to the constant snarl-ups by bending, breaking and shattering not only the highway code but the basic premises of civilized decorum.

Despite New York's much-vaunted and mostly merited reputation as one of the most pleasant and polite cities of its size, most of this civility goes straight out the window when people get behind the wheels of their cars and try to navigate them through streets that were already overcrowded back in the days of horses and buggies. It's always puzzled me why Giuliani's zero-tolerance campaign was never extended to include automobile drivers, who are among the most anti-social and dangerous offenders still at large in this city.

But it wasn't, and while a culture of tolerance and patience has in large measure replaced the culture of aggression and hostility that used to characterize pedestrian and public transit life, the culture of the horn-honking, corner-cutting, red light-ignoring motorist seems as strong as ever. True, cars usually will wait for pedestrians if they have the right of way - albeit grudgingly and IF they see them - whereas they used to aim for them, but even that measure of patience vanishes when it comes to bicyclists.

It's sometimes hard to have sympathy for bicyclists, since their own arrogant disregard for traffic laws or even common sense often makes them as big a threat to pedestrians as cars are, but based on the few times I've ridden in Manhattan and the many times in Brooklyn, I understand why bicyclists might have a mindset so defensive that it threatens to spill over into the offensive at times. This NY Times article illustrates just one of the problems; another, that keeps me constantly in terror when riding busy streets, is that of parked drivers obliviously opening car doors, leaving me the choice of crashing headlong into them or veering wildly into the traffic lane without having had the opportunity to check whether it's already occupied.

The ideal solution would of course be dedicated bicycle lanes all over the city, separated Dutch-style by barriers that keep cars from impinging on them. And given my feelings about cars in the city, I wouldn't mind closing off all sorts of streets to cars altogether and putting in a round-the-clock congestion charge that would REALLY discourage suburbanite/outer borough people from needlessly driving into town.

But the unfortunate reality is that because of the weather, bike lanes, no matter how well and safely constructed, would be woefully under-utilized during the winter months, and I could hardly blame car drivers for being angry and frustrated at the sight of so much concrete going to waste while they sit in horrendous traffic. I suppose the only equitable solution would involve removable barriers that could allow cars to use the bike lanes during the winter or a dome over the city that would provide us with perfect bike-riding weather all year round. Personally, I'd vote for the latter, and if any of you have the ear of the Mayor, I'd appreciate you giving this plan a mention.

Fulham On The Brink

I know that the majority of my readers are American and barely if at all interested in the goings-on of English football, so I've tried to limit my posts on that subject to the occasional piss and moan about the travails of being a Fulham supporter.

And indeed it's been a dismal season, more dismal than even I had realized until today when I heard a BBC commentator note that Fulham had just won back-to-back victories for the first time since September 2006. But note the operative word: "won." Fulham has, after a stomach-churning freefall toward oblivion that has been in effect since before Christmas, have suddenly come to life. All but the most rosy-spectacled fans had already mentally prepared themselves for life in the First Division (which in the bizarre argot of the Football Association is now called the "Championship" but is actually the Second Division), and suddenly Fulham is winning on a regular basis. In fact, if they win just one more - next Sunday's season finale - they're guaranteed to stay in the Premiership (which is actually the First Division).

Unfortunately, that game is against Portsmouth, who are always tough, and away at Fratton Park, making things even tougher. But after Fulham came back from 2-0 down at the City of Manchester Stadium to win 3-2 in the final minute of stoppage time, following it up with today's 2-0 dismantling of Birmingham, almost anything seems possible. Still, it's almost painful to have hope which had all but vanished suddenly resurrected with, however, the knowledge that it could still be cruelly snatched away again. Worse, come next Sunday I'll be in Frisco with, as far as I know, no access to a television to keep track of the proceedings. Which might be for the better: I'm not sure I have the stomach to watch, considering the stakes, and besides, every one of Fulham's recent victories have come on a day when I was unable to watch, whereas nearly every time I have watched, they've lost, often ignominiously so.

So perhaps I'm a jinx, even though all this time, I'd thought Fulham's misfortunes stemmed from their being brokenhearted over my leaving England and no longer being a season ticket-holding regular in the Riverside Stand. Jinx or not, though, my nephew and I will be there come late August to see the mighty (okay, perhaps that's stretching a point) Whites roll out a new season, regardless of what division they're in. But maybe, just maybe, against all odds, it's going to be the Premiership after all.

03 May 2008

Frisco Weather

For almost a month now I've been telling myself I needed to get up to Central Park one of these days and witness spring in all its carefully groomed glory, but somehow the time, as it's wont to do, kept slipping away, and it was only as I disembarked from the subway at 96th Street today, en route to the 5th Annual PPMB Softball Tournament that I realized I was in fact going to set foot in Central Park at least once before full-fledged summer had arrived.

It was immediately evident, however, that I'd missed spring in its prime: while many trees were still in bloom, the majority of their blossoms had already fallen to earth, carpeting the ground with what looked uncannily like pink snow. And while leaves on most of the shrubs and trees weren't fully formed yet, they'd already gone well past that ethereal, delicate shade that you only see in the first week or two, when everything looks as though it had been lightly dipped in a lemon-lime Italian ice.

The Park was still exquisitely beautiful, as ever, and as I approached the reservoir, the sun, after several days' absence, suddenly burst into unexpected (they'd been predicted clouds and showers for the whole weekend) sight, prompting the myriad joggers, runners, strollers, and loungers to, almost as one, throw off their coats and sweaters and smile as though it were the first day of summer.

But it was not. Even in full sun, a vicious northeast wind quickly whipped away any such delusions, and also made it difficult to make myself heard on the phone when I started calling people to ask why, for the second (or third?) year in a row, I was completely unable to find the ballfield where they were playing.

I'd taken a wrong turn at the reservoir, it turned out, giving me the opportunity to savor the sights for about an hour and visit approximately 15 other ballfields before finally rolling up to the correct one, where about 40 or 45 PPMB fanatics were already embarked on their second game of the day. Well, not all of them at once; I think they limited it to 10 or 12 to a side, but there seemed to be a great deal of beer drinking and candy bar eating taking place on the sidelines, so everyone had some part to play.

Except for yours truly; as a non-ball playing, non-beer drinking, non-candy bar eating bystander I truly was a bit left out. There were plenty of conversations to be had, but unfortunately, the weather didn't create the best atmosphere for plopping oneself down behind home plate and whiling away the hours. In fact, most people stayed on their feet and kept shuffling around in what I presume was an attempt to keep their circulation going, especially once the sky clouded over and the cold set in in earnest. People lucky enough to have them pulled their hoods up; I personally was wearing two jackets and a hoodie and was still cold.

It was about that time that Frank Unlovable sidled up to me and said, "I can't deal with this Frisco weather," and while I hadn't thought of it up till then (I was thinking more along of the lines of some grim days out in London), Frank had nailed it. This was exactly the kind of San Francisco weather I'd been bitching about for years: not completely frigid, just cold, damp and miserable, with a wind that cuts right through to the bone. I thought back to numerous times I'd been abroad in Golden Gate Park in almost identical conditions, but at the time still being brainwashed by the hippie contention that "It's always beautiful here, man," I'd accepted it as the way things were supposed to be, even standing out in for hours to watch terrible bands playing terrible free concerts and thinking how lucky I was to be there.

Well, at least some element of sanity has been introduced into my life since moving to the East Coast: while accepting that sometimes New York has lousy weather, too (actually, it has lousy weather quite often), at least I now have sense enough to know when it's lousy, and concomitantly, to truly appreciate it when it's great. Which, I'm trusting, it will be just about all of the time in only a couple (few?) more weeks.

Weather gripes aside, Punk Rock Softball V was of course a smashing success. Lots of home runs were hit - I witnessed two notable ones, by Bill Moon, who had nine month old baby Ella in tow, and Rich Grech, who's expecting *triplets*, lots of spectacular catches and equally spectacular errors were made, and the mighty Chris Grivet demonstrated a skill few of us knew he had, that of JUGGLING. He also appeared to get beaned by a throw from center, but it turned out he had blocked it with his hand in the nick of time. From a distance, though, it looked as though it had landed smack in the middle of his forehead, which would have qualified it for any highlight reel of PPMB bloopers.

In past years, the softball has continued well into the evening until the last diehards and stragglers had their fill, but this year another team had reserved the field for 5 on the dot, so things ended relatively early with, no doubt again due to the weather, few complaints from the peanut gallery. Most of the "athletes" then adjourned to the Lost and Found tavern over in Greenpoint for further celebratory sessions, but I had business (and more shivering in the very un-Maylike weather) downtown. Next time I see many of them will be at the Fest in Baltimore on the last weekend of June, and if it's not blazing hot by then, somebody (most likely you) is going to hear about it.

02 May 2008

LSD Then And Now

327 Dave gives us this slightly sentimental take on the death (at age 102!) of LSD pioneer/discoverer Albert Hoffman. The hippies used to make a big deal about LSD entering the world at the same time the atom was first split, the implication being that the two events were similarly momentous, but on opposite sides of the moral and ethical spectrum.

Being as impressionable a hippie as any, I parroted this line myself for years, only to learn more recently that the atom was not first split in 1943 as per hippie dogma, nor even in 1942, as was more commonly supposed, but in 1938, putting it on a parallel timeline with Hitler's Austrian Anschluss and the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, whereas LSD's appearance on the world stage shares equal billing with the Warsaw ghetto rising and the Russian victory at Stalingrad.

Enough with the glib and tenuous analogies, then; apparently LSD must rise or fall on its own merits, which seem to be more apparent to Dave than yours truly. It's not for lack of trying: between 1967 and 1980 I took LSD approximately a thousand times, though I'm beginning to suspect that figure of being inflated by the hippie hyperbole in which I regularly trafficked during those years. A quick calculation reveals that I would have had to drop acid almost 77 times annually to reach that total, and while I certainly managed that feat some years, particularly in the late 60s/early 70s, it's highly doubtful that I kept up the pace in the later 70s, once I'd discovered punk rock and harder drugs.

Nonetheless, my experience with LSD is substantial, not only in terms of how many times I took it, but also with regard to the size of some doses I consumed. Once the initial shock of the new drug wore off - around 1969, as I recall - I took to gobbling 10 or 20 tablets in one sitting, and my most intense trips, including my last, terrifying one on the night Darby Crash and John Lennon died, involved more like 30-5- hits.

And my conclusion, now that I've had a quarter century or so to reflect: it ain't all that. Granted, its effects are dramatic, not only on the mind of the person ingesting it, but also, as we saw in the 60s and 70s, on the larger society. Music, art, public morals, all underwent some dramatic transformations as an outgrowth of rampant acid consumption, but did LSD deliver in the area which its champions held up as its strongest suit, that of consciousness expansion and heightened spiritual awareness?

I think not. At its best, the acid trip provided a tawdry simulation or simulacrum of a true spiritual experience; at its not so best, it fueled the homicidal and megalomaniacal fantasies of the Manson family and the Weather Underground. Of course, you might justly ask, who am I to judge what is or isn't a "real" spiritual experience? Well, nobody, I guess, but considering where chemically induced "spirituality" left me, I'm inclined to stick with the natural variety.

My criticism of LSD-based spirituality is the same that I have of marijuana: both drugs can produce a sort of God-consciousness, but unfortunately the "God" in question tends to bear an uncanny resemblance to the person imagining him/her/it. Annoying but not necessarily harmful if the tripper/smoker in question is a typically befuddled hippie; potentially quite dangerous if he or she is ambitious, aggressive, or in possession of heavy weaponry.

By all accounts Albert Hoffman himself was a very nice man who had nothing but the best hopes and intentions for what he called his "problem child," but he may have been like many parents who mean well but still manage to inflict some seriously awful children on the world. Perhaps that sounds like too harsh a judgment; surely Dr. Hoffman never dreamed his accidental invention would lead to jam bands, tie-dyes, and convocations of smelly self-obsessed anarchists. And for that reason, I pass no judgment on Hoffman himself and find it pleasing and comforting to think that he enjoyed such a long and fruitful life.

But LSD itself? It's yet another modern genie that can't be put back in the bottle, but knowing what we do today, mightn't it be a good idea if it could? Even if the hippie parallel between LSD and nuclear energy proved to be spurious, would the world be better or worse off today if scientists had never discovered how to make atomic bombs? If LSD, as some of my hippie compatriots used to gleefully proclaim, is "the atomic bomb of the mind," wouldn't much the same be true?