29 July 2008

Glass Houses

Yesterday's PPMB "earning a living from your music" discussion has died down a bit, but bits of outrage and hurt feelings are still flaring up, most frequently in the form of "What makes you think I wanted to make a living from my music anyway?"

Fair enough, and given that it's not unheard of these days for pop punk musicians to have second (or first, depending how you're counting) careers as lawyers, teachers, real estate appraisers and God knows what else, why indeed would we expect someone to trade a secure and comfortable job - especially if it's one for which they're still paying off the student loans - for the considerably riskier prospect of traveling around the country in an old van and quite literally singing for one's supper?

Some of the musicians I worked with in the 80s and 90s ended up as lawyers and professors - MTX's Aaron Rubin and Sweet Baby's Dallas Denery come to mind - but that usually came after, not during or before their musical careers. The great majority were young, barely if at all employed, and with few if any prospects. As Billie Joe Armstrong put it when I interviewed him in 2001:

At that point I'd been playing music my whole life anyway. I knew that I would end up playing music regardless...I just didn't want to be one of those guys driving around in a car with a bumper sticker that said "Real Musicians Have Day Jobs."
But being that committed to playing music had its price: for Green Day it meant years of living wherever the rent was cheap or nonexistent, long rides in vans to play shows where there might or might not be an audience or a paycheck, and complete, utter uncertainty about what, if anything, the future might hold for them.

And they had it relatively easy compared with many bands; by the time they'd been around three or four years, at least some money was coming in from record sales. By contrast, the Offspring's "overnight" success took a full 11 years, and many of us know someone or several someones who are prodigiously talented and should be internationally famous and rich beyond their wildest dreams from playing music, yet never made it beyond the coffeehouse or bar band circuit.

So it's a crap shoot, though perhaps not as much of a crap shoot as some would have you believe. When I hear people say, "Oh, Green Day were lucky, they just happened to be in the right place at the right time," it kind of makes my blood boil, because they were pure and simply a great band who were totally committed to their music and getting that music heard by the world. They would have been successful in whatever time or place they found themselves.

But that's not actually what I meant to talk about today: what I realized from the reaction to some of the comments I made here and on the PPMB is that musicians can get very touchy indeed if someone suggests that they're not doing as much as they could to advance their music or their careers, and on further reflection, I don't blame them at all for being mad at me. Not just because everyone has to make his or her own decision about how much of their life they can stake on the dream of playing music full time, but even more because my self-righteous pronouncements masked a considerable degree of hypocrisy on my own part.

It's not that I'm not personally pursuing a career as a musician, and never seriously did, even when I was in bands. My audiences, or lack thereof, made it clear that my ultimate destiny lay elsewhere. True, being in a band and playing to people who enjoyed our music (it really did happen sometimes!) was one of the best and most exciting things I've ever done, and would still qualify as my idea of a dream job, even today.

My talents apparently lay elsewhere, though, and for a while that elsewhere involved helping other bands to get their music heard by the public. It wasn't quite as exciting as being a pop star myself, but it was what I seemed to know how to do, at least until I walked away from it for reasons that aren't completely clear to me even now. But when I left the music business, my motives, muddled as they might have been, were largely about wanting to do something creative myself instead of facilitating other people's creativity, and the thing I most envisioned doing was writing.

Of course I'd been writing for many years already; Lookout Records itself was an outgrowth of Lookout magazine, which I'd started publishing in 1984. Ironically, as things turned out, I ended up writing less once I'd "retired" from the record company than I did during those years when I was supposedly too busy to do so.

During that time at least a dozen friends have written and published books; I've helped out with proofreading or editing on some of them, but haven't come close to producing one of my own. Well, I've written one, a rather lengthy memoir, but after two agents passed on it - and in retrospect, I can see why - I gave up, threw the manuscript in a box under the bed and forgot about it.

Well, mostly forgot about it; occasionally I'd dredge it up in my memory and brood about it for a while. Meanwhile, I've come up with at least two other ideas for books and apart from drawing up a partial outline for one, done absolutely nothing about them. As it stands, I can barely muster up the initiative to write more than a small fraction of the blog posts that occur to me.

I don't have that many demands on my time. I don't have a job, and don't have to have a job, although given the extraordinary cost of living in New York City, I could certainly use some extra income, the sort of income that could be generated by writing a few magazine articles or the like. Instead, I find myself mulling over the idea of moving to some small town in the South or Midwest where I could live for a half or a quarter of what it costs me here.

How is that different from a musician sticking with a lousy dead-end day job instead of throwing himself wholeheartedly into his music? Well, for one thing, the musician could end up homeless if the music doesn't start paying off fairly quickly, whereas I could spend the next ten years collecting rejection slips and still be reasonably certain of where my next meal is coming from and where I'm going to lay my head that night.

So while we both might have a certain degree of cowardice in common, my own would seem to be far more egregious. What, after all, do I have to fear, apart from rejection, and any collateral damage that might wreak on my ego? It's not like my ego has ever done me any great favors anyway; on the contrary, it's been directly responsible for most of the misfortunes and misadventures that have assailed me thus far in life.

Maybe I'm just lazy? I have no trouble whiling away whole days reading message boards or newspapers from half a dozen countries, all the while seated at the very same computer I could be using to write my own stuff. Whole days can go by without my having produced anything of substance apart, perhaps, from a rather substantial grudge against myself for being so useless.

But laziness, procrastination, whatever you want to call it, is just another form of fear, the way I see things. The same goes for self-defeating attitudes, the kind that have you telling yourself, "Well, nobody really wants or needs to know what I have to say anyway."

It may very well be true that I've got nothing important to say, or lack the skills to say it in a sufficiently interesting way. So what? I'm not forcing anybody to read my writing, and at least so far, am not even making an effort to convince anybody they should. It might be worth wondering why I still feel the need to write at all, but on second thought I've been doing that all my life.

The crux of the matter, though: until I put my own ass on the line by trying to make a go of my own long dreamed of writing career, I'm on pretty shaky ground when it comes to hectoring young musicians to show more commitment to theirs. So I apologize, and at the same time invite you to turn things around and nag me about when I'm going to finish that book/article/memoir/blog post. It's no less than I deserve, and hell, as much of a pain as it might be at times, you'd be doing me a favor.

28 July 2008

Oh Man, It Was Easier In The Old Days b/w The Usual Collection Of Whiners

There's a rather lively (and lengthy) discussion going on over at the PPMB about how easy it is or isn't these days for bands to make a living from their music.

The first few pages consist of the usual bitching and arguing over the morality of illegally downloading music, and unless that subject particularly interests you, you can safely skip past them and start here. But it's when the topic shifts to "illegal downloading is killing the music industry" (how many of you are old enough to remember when it was "home taping"?) that things get interesting.

We regularly hear from bands (and labels as well) that it's next to impossible to make a living from music these days, unlike the putative golden era of the mid to late 90s, when, apparently, a band needed only to move to Berkeley, play Gilman a couple times, get signed to Lookout, and start raking in the loot.

Oddly enough, during my early years at Lookout I had to listen to much the same kind of naysaying: "Nobody ever makes money from punk rock;" "We'll always be playing basements and garages;" "Five years from now nobody will even remember our dumb little band;" "Real musicians have day jobs." (Okay, that last was a particularly annoying bumper sticker, but the sentiment, specious and dishonest as it might be, always lurked just beneath the surface of musicians' self-deprecation.

What made these discussions truly odd, given the hindsight of history, is that many of the musicians I was having them with have since become millionaires (multimillionaires, even) from playing that silly punk rock music that nobody would ever want to hear, and their dumb little bands are not only forgotten, but are the stuff of legend and have gone on - in the case of Operation Ivy, for example - continue to sell far more records now, almost 20 years after breaking up, than in their heyday.

Young people who came of age in (or were born in) the 90s seem to labor under the impression that a massive, accepting audience for pop punk or punk rock was part of the natural order of things in those days, and have the hardest time grasping that in the mid to late 80s, when the whole Gilman/Lookout/East Bay nexus was taking shape, things looked far grimmer for DIY musicians than they possibly could today. That vast network of touring venues and independent distros that seemed to make everything easy in the 90s didn't magically appear out of nowhere; it grew up organically from the painstaking (and often painful) efforts people made in the 80s, at a time when it genuinely did appear as though punk rock remained relevant to only a dwindling handful of diehards. The idea that a newly formed band who might have a single 7" out could hop in a van and make a coast to coast tour seemed wildly ludicrous when Operation Ivy rolled out of Berkeley in 1988; today hundreds if not thousands of bands follow in their well-worn footsteps.

Of course there's the other side of the equation: where are the young bands of today who compare in quality to Op Ivy, Green Day or Screeching Weasel, to name a few? Do they even exist? Tough question, because with so many more bands around today, it's harder for any one band to stand out. Also, with today's bands trying so hard to ape the stylings of their forbears, it's less likely that they're going to come up with something new and distinctive than in the days when there were hardly any bands around worth copying.

What's my take on this? The same as it was in 1987: despite all obstacles, despite constantly changing conditions, a band with something to say, the skill to say it, and the tenacity and perseverance to keep saying it will find its audience sooner or later, and bands that would rather feel sorry for themselves will always find excuses for giving up on their dreams. I suspect it's always been that way, and I have no reason to think it's likely to change now.

27 July 2008

Smoking It To The Man

From time to time I grow nostalgic about various places I've lived, and few, apart from London, more so than the wilds of Mendocino County. I've all but forgotten the backbreaking labor, the 40 day and night deluges, the washed out roads, the blizzards, the mind-numbing, soul-killing heat and desperate droughts of midsummer, the plagues of insects, the provincialism and parochialism, the suspicious and/or shifty neighbors, in favor of reminiscing over the crystalline skies emblazoned with 40 billion stars and the intoxicating scent of the first autumn rains as they rolled off the manzanita and madrone leaves to reinvigorate the ubiquitous dust of summer.

Not to mention the sounds of fiddles echoing up and down the hillside like so many silvery gazelles as I worked late in the garden under a rising full moon while listening to Hot Potatoes, KMUD's Celtic music program, and watched the Yolla Bollys turn red and gold in the last light of the disappearing sun, or the warm, wide-open window nights when every sound, from that of the deafening crickets to the slightest stirring of a breeze somehow managed to fill the house. And there were the (mostly) amazing neighbors, their cooperation and eagerness to help, their good (if slightly askew) humor, the mountain parties that seemed to belong more to the 19th century than the late 20th, the slightly bizarre and thoroughly insular but still, once you got to know them, downright homey hamlets of Laytonville and Garberville and Willits, the almost unsullied air and the water you could drink straight from the ground... I could go on and on, but thankfully I don't have to because the New Yorker has just published an article on the quasi-legal marijuana trade that thoroughly disabuses me of the notion that I could ever go home again.

Marijuana was as big a part of the local economy then as now, but that economy itself was so much smaller than it is today. There were the occasional aspiring millionaires, but for most growers, marijuana cultivation growing was a form of subsistence agriculture, whatever you might feel about its effects on its ultimate consumers, whose impact on the North Coast/Emerald Triangle was probably more benign than malevolent.
Of course I saw marijuana in a different light myself in those days. Although I didn't smoke nearly as much or as often as many locals, I still saw it as basically a Good Thing, whereas today... not so much. In fact, were I ever to move back to the mountains, my unstinting and frequently shared view that marijuana makes people stupid, lazy and a drain on society would no doubt make for uneasy relationships with many if not most of the neighbors.
Nearly all the friends and neighbors I cherished so much when I lived there are gone now, in many cases driven off by the commercialization and institutionalization of the marijuana industry, and if that wasn't enough, there's always:
“It’s fuuun! It’s super-fun,” she said the next morning, lazily sunning herself on top of the mountain and smoking a spliff. “We’re gonna smoke it to the Man, you know?”
Those are the views of just one of the colorful dingbats portrayed (albeit with more sympathy than I could muster, but then the author appears to be a stoner himself) in the New Yorker article.
Northern California marijuana growing has been a multi-billion dollar industry for at least a couple decades now, but the "medical marijuana" ruse foisted upon the state by disingenuous growers and dealers appears to have permanently altered both the business and the culture, in my opinion, for the worse. As long as dope was at least semi-underground, people needed to maintain some wits about them to survive; now any slack-jawed yuppie moron with a calculator and a good patter in Hindu gobbledygook can transform himself into a "healer" or "caregiver," two of the euphemisms most commonly used for "big time dope dealer."

Not that there was ever as much accomplished politically or socially as Emerald Triangle denizens liked to imagine themselves responsible for, but any "movement" that ever was associated with marijuana has long since degenerated into the smarmy and self-satisfied hedonism one encounters in the frat rats and lager louts who consider a tour of Amsterdam's coffee houses the apex of cultural sophistication. Even if I were to soften my view on marijuana use - and lately I've been considering doing just that, if only because it wears one out to constantly be passing judgment on people who appear unable to help themselves - I'd still be faced with the dilemma of how to stomach people who persist in turning the use of an intoxicant into a moral crusade.

Do you see beer drinkers doing this? They get drunk, they shout loudly, sing stupid songs, occasionally fall down or drive their pickup trucks into telephone poles, but apart from a few country and western singers, don't attempt to attribute any special virtue to themselves for doing so. Not so with marijuana smokers, who brag about their own intoxication in the same terms that a particularly self-righteous Christian might use to describe his frequent attendance at church.
Emily nodded, and took another puff. “The forest is still getting cut down or whatever,” she said, watching the fragrant smoke swirl in the breeze. “But you’re still working out here. You’re still subverting the Man. And you’re getting people high.”
Subverting the Man? You are the Man. Subtract all the phony baloney hippie rhetoric and you might as well be driving a Budweiser truck for a living.

20 July 2008

Cousin Elroy

It's been a few weeks and I still haven't finished my account of the Mom-and-me Ontario pilgrimage. The last couple days were spent in Kitchener, which is a mid-sized town tucked away amid a welter of other mid-sized towns like Guelph, Waterloo and Cambridge, along with some rivers and woods and a generally pleasing countryside.

Despite the headline you see above, Elroy is not literally my cousin. He's actually married to my mom's cousin, which makes him not a blood relative at all, but he's cool enough that I'm pleased as can be to have him in my family on whatever basis that works.

The first time I met Elroy was in 1958, and even if I'd never seen him again, he would have lived forever in my memory as the guy who bought me my first malt. I'd had milkshakes before, although not often, considering that they were priced at the dizzying price of one whole quarter, which was two weeks' worth of allowance money. I'd never even considered spending the extra nickel to make it a malt, assuming that such luxuries were for the rich kids from the other side of the expressway.

That alone ensured Elroy a permanent place in my affections, but add to that the fact that he was just about the coolest kid I had ever met. Well, as it turned out, he wasn't a kid at all - he was 22 at the time, to my 10, and in Detroit to pick up a wedding ring for his fiancée - but for some reason, I assumed he was a teenager, no more than 15 or 16, and not just any teenager, either, but a super-cool, rockin'n'rollin' 1950s teenager with a slicked back pompadour and the latest rockabilly/drugstore cowboy clothes that completely belied his small North Ontario farm town origins.

When I was still living at home I generally saw Elroy and his wife whenever the family went up to Hamilton and Toronto, but once I was on my own there was about a 30 year hiatus during which I only heard about him occasionally from my mother. The news was not good: while still in his 30s or 40s, his kidneys failed, and only a transplant saved him. Then in his 60s the transplanted kidney failed, and that, combined with other complications, very nearly killed him. Somehow he pulled through, got another kidney which at least so far - and thanks to the Canadian medical system, which not only paid for the operation, but also provides him with the $1,000+ monthly in anti-rejection drugs he needs - is keeping him, at age 72, in reasonably good health.

How good? Well, on my second day staying with him, we started out with a visit to the gym at the local Y, where he went through a workout not unlike what I do at my own gym back home, followed by a 10 mile cross-country bike ride, involving some fairly serious hills, some dirt trails, and - kudos to the province of Ontario here - some awfully beautiful scenery. About half the ride followed a well-maintained trail along the Grand River, and eventually we wound up in the town of Galt, which reminded me uncannily of England, with its (albeit cleaner) Victorian factories and warehouses, where we sat at an outdoor cafe admiring the view and wondering if we were going to beat the fearsome-looking thunderclouds back home (we did, more or less; although it rained off and on, we managed to slip between most of the raindrops).

Elroy had borrowed a bike for me from one of the neighbors, by far the nicest (and obviously most expensive) bike I had ever laid hands on. It was like a Rolls-Royce compared to anything I'd ever ridden before. All these years I've wondered how those bikers I see peddling up the sides of mountains can possibly do it; now I know: at times it felt like I barely needed to pedal at all, so favorable were the gear ratios or whatever it is they do to make those bikes easy to ride. Of course I'd be completely insane to try and keep a bike like that in New York City, but if some day I ever live in a small town again...

And it wasn't just the bike making me envious, but the countryside and the general quality of life. When I was young, going to Canada used to feel as though we were traveling back in time to a quainter but decidedly poorer and shabbier era. No more; if anything, the situation has reversed, and now I felt as though we Americans were the poor country cousins, an impression powerfully reinforced the next day when we crossed back into the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Detroit.

Like a lot of Americans, I've occasionally made sneering gibes at Canada's touchy-feely quasi-socialism, but I think the time has come to admit that in many ways they got it right and we got it wrong. Hell, if it weren't for the weather, I think I might be lining up at the immigration office already.

Oh, one more thing about Elroy: like his wife, he's a more or less fundamentalist Christian. But not a judgmental one, not a humorless one - in fact, he rarely stops cracking jokes - and certainly not a right wing or illiberal one. In fact, when I mentioned some intemperate and unkind things I'd heard other Christians say, Elroy responded, "Well, I don't care what they call themselves; if they think like that, they're probably not Christians." So we had some good talks about God and faith and the purpose of life, not at all the sort of thing I would have anticipated discussing with that rockabilly kid I met and idolized 50 years ago. So Cousin Elroy, "real" cousin or not, I sure am glad you're part of my family.

¿Quien Es El Mas Estúpido?

From the SF Chronicle:

(07-20) 05:19 PDT LYNWOOD, Ill. (AP) --

Be careful if you have saggy pants in the south Chicago suburb of Lynwood. Village leaders have passed an ordinance that would levy $25 fines against anyone showing three inches or more of their underwear in public.

Eugene Williams is the mayor of Lynwood. He says young men walk around town half-dressed, keeping major retailers and economic development away. He calls the new law a hot topic.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the ordinance targets young men of color.

Young adults in the village, like 21-year-old Joe Klomes, say the new law infringes on their personal style. He says leaders should instead spend money on making the area look nicer.
I know we're coming up on the slow news silly season that usually descends on the world in late July/early August, and I know this is not the first time that municipalities have attempted to outlaw the gangsta/prison-inspired fashion for letting the greater part of one's ass hang out of one's pants. But this story seems to do a better job than usual of exhibiting a panoply of human idiocies. Whether we're talking about the city fathers' attempt to star in a Footloose-style drama about dorky adults trying to impose standards of "decency" on the feckless young, or the feckless young themselves, who in claiming that the city should "spend money on making the area look nicer" seem to have missed the point that that is exactly what the city is doing (how could a downtown devoid of half-clad wannabe gangsters sporting fashions from five years ago not look nicer?), it seems we've descended into a real slough of cluelessness here.

But as usual, the ACLU takes the biscuit. The law "targets young men of color"? Oh? If it were a law that banned very curly hair, or restricted access to public facilities based on melanin content, I could see their point, but in what scientific document is it demonstrated that a distinguishing characteristic of dark-skinned (presumably what they mean by "of color") people is an inability to wear belts or keep one's pants fastened at or above the waist?

Once again the overwhelmingly white dingbats of the ACLU have conflated "black" with "moronic, gangbanging thugs" and "fashion-challenged clowns" and as usual don't even seem to have the slightest idea of just how racist they're being. I mean, you could use the same logic - and some extreme "civil libertarians" have - to argue that enforcing laws against robbery or murder also "targets young men of color."

Anyway, the whole fashion for falling-down pants is on the wane anyway, even it's still a big, shocking deal in small town America. The fact that another set of retrograde brain surgeons (aided and abetted by the Village Voice's own terminal love affair with minstrelsy) finds it necessary to launch campaigns against tight (i.e., not falling down) clothes should prove that the writing's on the wall and the underwear-clad moon on the wane.

18 July 2008


If there were any justice in this world Spoonboy and I would star in our own sitcom. It would be predictable but heartwarming, the underlying premise being that we constantly disagreed about stuff but were still buddies, and every episode would start off something along the lines of:

Spoonboy: Well, see you later, Larry, I've got to go save the world.
Larry: What makes you think the world even needs saving? Or that whatever you do won't make it even worse?
Spoonboy: (Does trademark eye-roll, then picks up his guitar and goes into a song about how I'm an unwitting tool of the patriarchy.)
Larry: Aw, ya big lug, you may be wrong about everything, but dammit, ya got a heart of gold.

Or something like that. Obviously I'm not ready to make the big switch into sitcom-writing just yet, but with a little fine-tuning and a laugh track, I think it could work. Anyway, Spoonboy came through town the other night as part of his save-the-world solo tour that culminates with his attempts to shut down the American electoral system, or at least the Democratic and Republican conventions, and as flippant as I might sound about it (I'm still in sitcom mode, see), he put on an awesome, stunning show that you'd be well advised to see regardless of where you're situated on the political or cultural spectrum.

It might (probably) will entail peddling down to your local anarchist collective or info-shop, but provided you don't try to hand out John McCain (or, for that matter, Obama) pamphlets or question the natives about their bathing practices, you should come through the experience not only unscathed, but also with a greater appreciation for the diversity of opinion and expression that bubbles just under the surface of a seemingly placid (if not downright catatonic) society.

Try as I might, I haven't been able to get Spoonboy to explain how he got his somewhat curious nickname, saying only that it dates back to his days as a teenage ska fan, but I suspect the photo at left, posted by a fan on the PPMB, tells at least part of the story. While it might also portray the Spoonboy in a somewhat more frivolous light than you might expect given his current commitment to activism, it's worth noting that one of the things I like best about him is his sense of humor, which hasn't been dimmed by his intensely earnest views on everything from global capitalism to neighborhood community centers. And something which sets him distinctly apart from the majority of activists I've known.

"I go back and forth with him," says longtime friend Thomas, who's driving the tour car and in general acting as Sancho Panza to Spoonboy's Quixote. "I really love lots of his ideas and the passion he brings to them, but then I'm like, 'Wait a minute, how exactly would that work?'"

Which is pretty much exactly where I stand, with the minor difference of having had quite a few years to become disillusioned with the rather large gulf that generally emerges between anarchist theory and practice. Like Thomas, I really want Spoonboy's vision (well, at least the part where everyone lives in a more cooperative and healthier, happier environment) to come true, but am not quite sure how we get from here to there using the methods he seems to be endorsing.

But there's enough of a spark - and maybe more than just a spark - of genius about this young man that I wouldn't want to ignore the possibility - or even the hope - that he just might be right about some of these things. That, coupled with great reservoirs of idealism and compassion - qualities often in short supply these days - mark him out as someone worth watching not only for his prodigious musical talent, but as a real man among men, and someone who makes you feel a little bit better about just being alive.

10 July 2008

Say Goodnight, Jesse

In light of the print and air time already given to Jesse Jackson's intemperate outburst against Barack Obama, what more could I possibly add? Not much, probably, except to say good riddance to the Rev. Jackson, who not only lost any remaining credibility as a spokesperson for the African-American community (credibility which in retrospect he probably never should have had in the first place), but also, with any luck, may finally cease being a millstone around the neck of black America.

It's been pointed out repeatedly that Jackson's fit of pique no doubt stemmed from the realization that he is finished as a serious political force, completely and utterly eclipsed by Obama's cool rationality and unforced eloquence. By contrast, Jackson is and has long been an embarrassment, a fast-talking hustler who frequently reinforced some of the most negative stereotypes about black men playing fast and loose with the truth. Those of you old enough to remember the outcry that saw Amos'n'Andy banished not only from the airwaves but from the collective American memory for its allegedly racist caricatures might also notice an uncanny resemblance between the Rev. Jackson and that show's gobbeledygook-spouting ambulance chaser, Algonquin J. Calhoun.

Even Al Sharpton, who normally makes JJ look downright statesmanlike, has been speaking up for Obama and putting the diss on Brother Jesse, but as much as I'd like to believe this marks a tentative first step into reputability for New York's own clown prince of race baiting, it's more likely that Rev. Al has seen the graffiti on the wall: for all his promises of greater economic opportunity and justice, Barack Obama may have signed the death warrant for one well-established profession, that of the perennially and professionally aggrieved black man.

Because frankly, when you've got an articulate, eloquent, educated and apparently upright and decent presidential candidate who happens to be black, what need is there, really, for one-note shuck and jive artists of the Jackson-Sharpton ilk? "The white man is holding me down" just won't play when you've got tens of millions of white men happily voting to be governed by a black man; it just just makes it all the more obvious that the cult of victimology so profitably mined by Jackson, Sharpton has done more harm to black America in recent years than the white man ever could.

As for Obama, he continues to grow in my estimation: his soft-pedaling or jettisoning some of his more loony-left positions makes me far more enthusiastic about the possibility of voting for him, and his willingness to speak straightforwardly and honestly about some of the social dysfunctions rife within the black community - the sort of stuff Jesse Jackson needs you to believe is entirely the fault of the government, structural racism, and whitey - marks him as the kind of leader Americans of all colors have been crying out for.

Yes, I know it could be mere political posturing, but as of now I'm inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. He seems to have reawakened a sense of possibility and idealism that 20 years of Bushes and Clintons had all but killed off. When Spike Lee - who I've previously never had much time for - and I start singing from the same Obama hymn sheet, it's hard not to believe something's afoot.

"Here's the thing," Lee says, "I don't know why people are questioning whether Barack Obama is black enough. For me, that's an ignorant statement. There are middle-class, educated black people who speak the way he does. ... We have to try to move away from this so-called image of what black is, which is largely influenced by rap and that type of stuff."

And I join in saying hallelujah: I've been arguing for years against the notion, largely promulgated by an unholy coalition of guilt-ridden, clueless whites and then Jackson-Sharpton poverty pimp/race hustler crowd, that the only way for someone to be authentically "black" is to come across like an angry, loud-mouthed ignoramus. Obama, on the other hand, gives people of every race something they can both identify with and aspire to.

"I'm for Mr. Obama," says Spike Lee. "I think he's gonna win. And it's going to be a better day not only for the United States but for the world." As of July 10, 2008, that's pretty much exactly how I see it.

05 July 2008

Spinning Counterclockwise

Although it may not be too easy to tell from the above photo, what is pictured is my beloved bicycle with its handlebars twisted into a pretzel. I have no idea what force, human or otherwise, is responsible for this, but it's how I found my bike early Friday morning when I came out to ride it to the park and the gym.

Whether I will ever be able to ride it again remains to be seen, probably at least till Monday, when the bike shop reopens. As it stands, I can't even move it except by carrying it (and it's rather heavy) because the brake cables were pulled taut when the handlebars were bent. Why this happened, I have no clue. It wasn't a case of anyone trying to steal the bike or parts from it, I'm pretty sure; not only are there much better bikes all over the neighborhood, and in more accessible places (mine, as you can see, was locked inside the fence that surrounds my building), but the same person or persons also attacked another bike nearby, and left the broken parts lying on the sidewalk. So apparently it was somebody who just wanted to destroy bikes for reasons known only to himself.

Of course there's always the possibility, slim as it might be, that someone was deliberately targeting my bike because of a real or imagined grudge. The only suspects I can think of in that regard are the gang that hangs around in front of the house next door (and, by extension, because there are so many of them, our building as well). But I've never had a run-in with them, and have never seen or heard them doing anything more obnoxious than talking and shouting very loudly late at night. In fact, many of the neighbors seem to think they keep the block safer by being out there. But if by chance it is them, what's going to happen if I get the handlebars replaced or get a new bike?

I'll have to admit it's kind of depressing. I paid $75 for that bike in 1993, and got ten or a hundred times that much service out of it over the years. It may be starting to rust out from being left outside through a New York City winter, but I'm still very fond of it. In fact, I'd unhesitatingly say that with the possible exception of the bike I had when I was 12 and about which I remember very little now except for the effortless smoothness with which I rolled around suburban Detroit, this is my favorite bike ever.

But what also hit me was how much more immobilized I felt as a result of its loss. I'm in the habit most mornings of riding it to the park where I do t'ai chi and/or run around the track, and often from there I'll go to the nearby gym. On my bike I can be either place in five minutes; on foot it's more like 20. The morning I discovered the vandalism, I decided I wasn't going to be put off exercising, so instead I ran to the park, which took about 12 minutes, and impressed me mightily, since it's not all that long ago that I couldn't have run anywhere near that far without stopping to catch my breath.

But this morning, the prospect of either running or walking seemed too dispiriting, especially when combined with the on-again, off-again rain, and I stayed in the house to brood. Which in turn led me to think about the time, which will inevitably come one day, when I'll no longer be able to ride a bike at all, and then in turn to question why it's so all-fired important to get as much exercise as I do. Last night at a party Crystal was razzing me about my exercise and diet choices, saying, "I thought the whole point of being your age is that you get to let yourself go, eat whatever you want, do or not do whatever you want."

I don't know how serious she was, but the idea made my flesh crawl. What kind of way to live would that be, I wondered to myself? Plopped in front of the TV, getting fat, stuffing my face with pizza and donuts... Well, actually, I've been there, done that, and while there's a certain momentary satisfaction to it, it's actually quite lonely and miserable, and that's even before the diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and morbid obesity start kicking in.

People often do make that point, though: you're going to die anyway, so why make yourself miserable trying to prolong your life an extra couple years? I guess to me it's not about prolonging my life at all, but having the best possible quality of life for whatever number of years I am alive. And while I feel as though I'm in as good as or better shape than I've ever been in, the (hopefully temporary) loss of my bike is having an effect on me not unlike what I've heard older people describe following a fall that shatters one or more of their bones and makes it emphatically clear that whether or not they're ready, nature has called time on their youthful gallivanting.

I'm currently reading Exit Ghost, Philip Roth's most recent book (at least I think it is; the man, even in his mid-70s, seems to spin out novels as profligately as I do blog posts), in which he chastises himself over an awkward attempt to recapture a bit of the joys and challenges of youth "as though spinning a lifetime counterclockwise were an act as natural and ordinary as resetting the timer on the kitchen stove."

In the novel, Roth portrays himself (or at least his protagonist, who seems scarcely removed from his own persona) as having filled his days, at least from the time he was my age to where the novel begins 11 years later) with virtually nothing but writing, and I couldn't help wondering what could be his motivation. Not money, obviously, since both the fictional writer and Roth have plenty of that, nor for accolades or adulation, of which the same is true. Out of a sense of service, whether to humanity or one's artistic muse? Possibly, perhaps even likely, because the only other alternative that suggests itself would be simply to pass the time, the same way someone might do crossword puzzles or play video games.

But if that were the case, why keep publishing? A private journal would accomplish the same trick, wouldn't it? I ask because I have similar questions. Gone is the fiery, almost violent youthful certainty that insists one has something of utmost importance to say to the world regardless of whether or not the world deigns to listen. While I don't doubt that I still have the less than universal ability to string words together in a coherent and sometimes interesting fashion, I'm no longer so sure it's going to make a substantial amount of difference whether said words whether rise beyond the inchoate swamp of fevered musings that I seem to increasingly rely upon (or mistake) for inspiration.

I guess I write because I don't know how to do anything else, and perhaps it wouldn't be too presumptuous of me to suppose that Roth is in much the same boat (plus or minus a few Pulitzers, National Book Awards and millions of dollars, of course). But I've got fairly well-developed ideas for both a novel and a nonfiction book that have both been sitting there fermenting in my mind for years in one case and months in the other without having taken any concrete action to bring them to fruition. Honestly, it's a struggle even to complete a third or a quarter of the potential blog entries that occur to me, and if it weren't for goofy message board postings, I might go many weeks without writing anything at all.

All this somber introspection arising from a vandalized bike? Perhaps if all the good things that have happened to me don't suffice to kick me out of my lethargy, a few misfortunes will be necessary? Let's hope not. In the meantime, I'm meeting some friends and we're off to Hoboken.

04 July 2008

Dumber And Dumbest

I'm sure the Village Voice thinks it's doing its level best - albeit from its rather clueless and über-white ivory tower - to put forth the viewpoints of "people of color" and the "hip hop community," frequently bending over backward to gloss over or even glorify the most glaring faults to be found in said communities (kneejerk "anti-racists" will no doubt bristle at the suggestion that any such faults exist, at least any that are not directly traceable to structural inequities imposed by the white patriarchy, but indulge me a moment here).

The Voice always seems to find a reason to justify bigheaded rappers carrying guns and shooting each other in midtown Manhattan because somebody "disrespected" somebody, and plenty of reasons to excoriate the police for having the nerve to try and interfere with this bizarre cultural practice, but assuming this article is not a parody (it certainly wouldn't be out of place in the Onion), the Voice has - presumably, hopefully, without intending to - handed a bucketload of ammo to racists and bigots who would like you to believe that rappers - and perhaps black people in general - are some of the dumbest fools around.

Heaven knows there's a host of issues and problems facing the black community, and the larger society as well, of course. So what's the issue du jour for the clowns profiled in this piece? Tight clothes. Why? Well, that make you gay, of course. "That's what I have a problem with—not the homosexualism. You're a front artist, and you're promoting homosexuality with your actions and dress code, but you're promoting gangster lifestyle with your lyrics. The two don't match up," insists one Bianco the Don. "If you are homosexual, you are not gangsta. There's nothing gangster about being homosexual."

No explanation given as to why "gangster" is seen as a nobler aspiration for black youth than "homosexual," but hey, it would probably be racist of me to ask. It certainly didn't seem to occur to the Voice.

Zatopeks Over America

For me one of the high points of the Baltimore Fest was seeing the Zatopeks on stage in America for the very first time. As I've written elsewhere, and possibly here as well, I've known Will DeNiro, the Zatopeks' singer, since sometime in the late 90s, before the band even started, and during the years I lived in London had the privilege of seeing them many times as they grew into one of the best bands in the world.

There's a lot to like about the Zatopeks, including the way they manage to meld the best of 50s rock and roll and doowop with the most up to date and urgent punk rock, bu there's an exasperating aspect, too: how do they manage to be so good and so tight when they rarely practice (three members live in Berlin, the other two on opposite sides of the UK) and often go months without playing or touring? I was pondering this while watching them do an after-Fest gig in the basement of New York City's Cake Shop, a pleasant enough venue, but considerably down the scale from the big stage and state of the art sound system they'd benefited from two days earlier in Baltimore.

I quickly realize that they're simply one of those bands who have that rare chemistry - you see this sometimes, though also rarely, in romantic couples who somehow mesh perfectly while all around them are fighting, stressing, breaking up and tumultuously reuniting - that kicks in the minute they're together and pick up their instruments. No doubt they've had plenty of practice - either together or individually - at some point in their lives, but somehow they seem to have transcended that need. The magic kicks in of its own accord, despite Will and Co.'s best efforts at modesty and self-deprecation.

The Zatopeks' first "tour" of America was pretty low-key, apart from their absolute triumph at the Fest. Two more basement shows, in Philadelphia and New York, and some hanging around and sightseeing. Last night two of them watched the 4th of July fireworks from a Brooklyn rooftop, two others were at a Village jazz club, and one was already back home on the other side of the Atlantic. But given the reception they've gotten thus far, and the rave reviews, it's a pretty safe bet they'll be back to see and be seen by a lot more of America.

In the meantime, it's been pretty cool to have them mostly to ourselves these past couple days. A year or two from now we'll probably need some sort of all-access pass even to get near them. Anyway, Will, Sammy, Sebby, Pete and Spider, it's an honor to know you and thanks for gracing the good old USA with your presence!

Photo by Jim Testa/jerseybeat.com

A Screw Loose

Remember when I was telling you about getting that expensive titanium screw put into my jawbone a few weeks back? Well, just after I got back from the Fest, I was alarmed to see a piece of steel, looking remarkably like the head of a nail or screw, poking through my gums. As far as I knew, that wasn't supposed to be happening, but for the next couple of days, more and more of metal became visible, and finally yesterday it just popped out into the palm of my hand (I considered myself lucky that it didn't happen when I was sleeping, as I could have very easily swallowed it then).

Admittedly it doesn't look that big in the picture at left, but believe me, it's a lot bigger than anything you'd want popping out of your mouth, especially if you'd spent a couple grand having it put in there. But apparently - if I can trust the dentist, who looked at this same picture via email - it's not the actual implant, just a screw meant to hold it in there while it bonds with the bone. So I'm still on course for getting a new tooth in a few months, barring any more hardware coming loose.

01 July 2008

The Upside Of High Gas Prices

Longtime readers will no doubt have heard me grouse that gasoline prices couldn't possibly be too high if commercial truck drivers can still afford to leave their engines idling for half an hour outside my window while they sip a coffee across the street, or while teenagers can still find the fuel to cruise and/or race around town aimlessly and recklessly.

Well, if this NY Times article is to be believed, at least the latter group is finally having a crimp put in its style. And before you retort that I'm a grumpy old killjoy who wants to deprive today's kids of the pastimes I enjoyed a youth, let it be known that while I did indeed do a fair bit of driving aimlessly and recklessly around as a teenager, it was never something I particularly enjoyed. In fact, I was never happier (not that I was ever happy at all; after all, I was a teenager) than when there were no cars available to us and the gang spent the night hanging out on the street corner or in front of the candy store. But once kids started getting their licenses, those carefree days and the generalized camaraderie were over, replaced by much more fragmented groups and the divisive politics of who was going to ride with whom.

Maybe other kids were/are different, but riding ten or fifteen or twenty times up and down the same street with a stop or a drive-through at a hamburger joint at each end felt soul-crushingly tedious by comparison. And the other main use we made of a car, which was to go on beer-obtaining and drinking missions, sometimes as far away as the Ohio state line over 50 miles away, were not exactly wholesome adolescent activities, either. In fact, it's a miracle we didn't kill ourselves or some one else, and by we I mean only my immediate friends; there were plenty of others who did die in the cause of profligate alcohol and gasoline consumption.

So long live $4 or even $5 gas, as far as I'm concerned. Yes, people will have to adjust, and so will society, but it's an adjustment that should have been made long ago, before we started tearing up all the public transit systems and scattering housing across the countryside as though gas were always going to be 25 cents a gallon. It's painful now, but it will be far, far more painful to put off that transition even longer.

In fact, I've recently read several proposals to the effect that Congress should legislate a $4 minimum price for a gallon of gas, so that even when the current speculative bubble bursts, which it almost certainly will, people won't go back to their gas-guzzling SUV ways, as happened after the first oil price shocks of the 1970s. All tax money raised in this way would be used to massively upgrade, expand and modernize our public transit infrastructure.

Which can't happen soon enough, as I discovered during my weekend trip to Baltimore via Amtrak. This used to be an excellent, albeit overpriced way to travel up and down the Northeast Corridor; often the trains were so uncrowded that I'd practically have a car to myself. No more, however; my trains there and back were packed full, sold out in advance so that anyone showing up at the station hoping to buy a ticket for a journey between New York and Washington would probably have been out of luck. It was still the best way to travel, despite a broken down train that delayed our arrival back into New York by half an hour; friends who made the same trip were stuck in traffic (oh, wait, I thought no one could afford those high gas prices) for up to seven hours, more than twice the time it took me, and even though an airplane could have made the trip in less than an hour, the journey to and from the airports and the lineup at security would have stretched it out to at least three hours and added a great deal of stress to the equation.

Given current demand, Amtrak should be running a train at least every half hour between New York and Washington, but of course we're dealing with a government-run bureaucracy here, one which the government has until recently been trying to starve to death. And without the sort of steady revenue stream that could be provided by higher gasoline taxes, Amtrak's prospects are still somewhat bleak.

So what about suburban and rural drivers who have no choice but to use cars? Wouldn't this policy impact unfairly upon them? Yes, it would, but by the same token, they've made a choice to live in auto-dependent situations and shouldn't expect the rest of us to subsidize their lifestyle choices any more than I can expect them to subsidize the higher rents I have to pay to live in a city where cars aren't necessary. And I don't think it would be out of order to offer some sort of tax credit for those who simply can't get to work without driving, though this should be done a limited and temporary basis while society is making the transformation to a more sane transit policy.