25 September 2009

Moving On

This site will remain active for the foreseeable future, but most if not all of the action will be migrating over to the new and hopefully improved larrylivermore.com. Please feel free to stop by and check it out!

22 September 2009

You Don't Miss The Water...

Sean Hannity, that crusading champion of the poor but honest workingman, was at it again last night, using an hour of prime time on the Fair and Balanced network to slam the pointy-headed bureaucrats and malicious tree-huggers for turning off the water to California's Central Valley for the sake of "a few fish" and thus throwing thousands of tomato pickers onto the tender mercies of the Food Bank.

Yes, it's true that the Valley is in danger of turning into a desert, not that it was ever far removed from one until the California Aqueduct, one of the 20th century's greater feats of engineering, brought billions of gallons of fresh water cascading down from the North and turned an arid valley into America's Salad Bowl. At one point - and it may still be true - 50% of the country's fresh produce came from a few counties in Central and Southern California.

The story Hannity is peddling is a good one, a touching one, and one that people can and should get angry about, except that it, like most of what Hannity peddles, is a noxious admixture of exaggeration, distortion, and plain old fashioned lies. There is a conflict over how much water should be allowed to flow to the sea in Northern California for the sake of enabling the fish population to survive and how much should be diverted to the Southland for agricultural irrigation and to fill the swimming pools of Greater Los Angeles.

Water, as anyone familiar with California history will know, has been a contentious issue for nearly as long as the state has been in existence. There's no surer way to get a Northern and Southern Californian snarling at each other than to mention some of the machinations that enabled the Southland to get its thirsty tentacles into the North's once-plentiful water supply, and if I betray some bias there, it's understandable; I lived in the North for some 30 years. However, I'm not rigidly ideological about it; I accept that both Los Angeles and Central Valley agriculture are not only established facts, but also that they are fundamental components of the nation's socio-economic structure. The fantasies of some Northern Unabomber types notwithstanding, we can't, nor should we, pull the plug on Southern California's water supply.

But by the same token, even if all the fish were to be left gasping their last in the sort of arid streambed that the Los Angeles "River" has become, it's not simply a matter of opening the taps and delivering all the water needed or wanted by the Southland. It's not simple at all, in fact, which is why Hannity's simplistic demagoguery is so offensive - and so dishonest.

People have been warning that California's water supplies are not limitless - a point which should be obvious to anyone who's lived through one of the state's not infrequent droughts - for decades already. I myself was writing about the coming water crisis in Lookout magazine almost 25 years ago, and I was far from being the first to raise the alarm. When the California State Water Project got underway, the state's population was only slightly more than 10 million and it was probably hard to imagine that the torrents of water cascading through the northern mountains - and often flooding whole towns when too much rain came at once - could ever be insufficient to California's needs.

But now there are 38 million Californians, and the majority of them live in areas of the state that would, if it were not for the importation of water from the North, be straight-up desert. You'd think this would make them conservation-minded, but it's turned out quite the opposite: largely oblivious to where their water comes from or how it's delivered from hundreds of miles away, they tend to take a rather cavalier attitude toward water use, namely, as long as it keeps coming out of the tap, we'll use it.

In addition to the North-South component of the water wars, there's also an urban-rural divide. The farmers feel the city folk are hogging it all for their landscaped gardens, their swimming pools, and now, for those damned fish. The metropolitan types, if they think about it at all, suspect the farmers of wasting vast quantities of the precious resource by emptying it out on the parched and baking Valley.

There's some truth to both views, and room for a great deal more conservation in both camps, but Sean Hannity's fulminations notwithstanding, there isn't enough water - not nearly enough - to sustain present levels of consumption, let alone those that will be demanded by future development. This doesn't mean that agriculture has to come to a halt, or that Los Angelenos need to start showering with a friend, but it does mean that both urban and rural users will have to start using water more sanely and reasonably if California is to avoid becoming a 21st century dust bowl.

Is there enough water to continue producing fruits and vegetables in the Central Valley? Absolutely. But only if big agriculture stops treating water as a limitless resource and squandering it on crops that are completely unsuitable for California's climate. I'm talking mainly about cotton and rice: both require the sort of water supplies you would find in a tropical or semi-tropical region. Yes, you can grow them, and grow them very well in California, as long as the water keeps flowing. By the same token, you could build and maintain an igloo village in Death Valley, provided you're willing to pay astronomical sums for the electricity needed to run a giant freezer compartment in the hottest place on earth.

Cotton also requires massive use of pesticides, which combined with the buildup of selenium and other salts as a result of irrigation, are gradually turning once-fertile Valley soils into a toxic soup. On so many levels, growing cotton in the Central Valley is insane, and yet it's also very profitable. Not, however, because it's meeting the demands of the market, but because the federal government - i.e., our tax dollars - subsidize it. If there were a free market in cotton, there would be little or no cotton grown in California, and it would instead be produced in more suitable climates, Africa being a prime example. However, because big agribusiness and its lobbyists have steamrollered Congress into granting these subsidies, African farmers are being forced out of business and California's - and America's - prime agricultural region is being slowly but surely turned into wasteland.

So there you have the real story: Sean Hannity was not there in "The Valley That Hope Forgot" because of his deep, abiding concern for the hard-pressed tomato pickers of the world; quite the contrary, with his "Drill baby drill" approach to water consumption, he's (as always) shilling for big business and for policies that, if followed to their logical conclusion, will ultimately dispossess those tomato pickers of their land and their livelihood.

Water is like oil in some respects: the world is in danger of running out of both. And just as with oil, the Hannitys and Palins of the world are responding to the looming shortage by urging us to use more of the stuff. But while science will eventually find new sources of energy to replace oil, it's a bit harder to come up with a substitute for water. We can - and ultimately will - learn to live without oil, but insufficient supplies of fresh water have spelled death for past civilizations and will no doubt do the same for ours if we don't change our wasteful ways. "They have made a desert and called it peace," Tacitus famously said; Hannity's Corollary could -should - read, "They have made a desert and called it highly profitable."

20 September 2009

The Nerve Of Some People

The classic illustration of chutzpah is of course the guy who murders his parents and then begs the court for mercy on the grounds that, "I'm an orphan, your honor."

But not far behind in the "have they no shame?" department is the cavalcade of Republicans denouncing Obama's health care proposals (and pretty much anything else the President has tried to do) on the grounds that it will increase the deficit. Particularly odious are the ones who claim, "Well, it would be nice to do something about health care, but we just can't afford it. The country is broke."

They do have a point; by conventional standards, we are broke, or very nearly so. But thanks for noticing now, Republicans; a shame it escaped your notice when you - that's right, YOU - were busily bankrupting us.

Not everybody has such a short attention as to have forgotten that President Clinton handed the federal government over to George Bush with not just a balanced budget, but a surplus that stretched as far into the future as prognosticators could prognosticate. Within two years Republican policies had turned those surpluses into not just a deficit, but, by the time the Republicans had been turned out of office, the biggest deficit in history.

Where was all this talk of fiscal responsibility when the Bush administration pushed through the tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the richest Americans and saddled all Americans with generations of debt? When a lying and/or delusional President led us into a mostly pointless and - even considering the merits of removing Saddam Hussein - an incredibly mismanaged and wasteful war? We can't afford to provide even the most basic health insurance for all Americans? Oh, but you had no problem passing that colossal unfunded liability masquerading as a prescription drug program for seniors but which in reality functions as a means of funneling hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate welfare to our poor, struggling pharmaceutical companies.

Now we've even got the teabaggers, rabble rousers and hatemongers attacking Obama for spending or at least lending jaw-dropping amounts of federal money on trying to stabilize the economy, bail out the financial system, and ameliorate the pain of millions of Americans who've been thrown out of work. Never mind that at least half the money involved was committed before Obama even took office, and that it was the loony-tunes wackonomics of a couple generations of right-wing "thinkers" that landed us in the soup in the first place.

I'll be the first to admit that the deficits we're currently running up are making me nervous, not least because it won't be that long before I myself will be at least partially dependent on the fiscal soundness of the Medicare and Social Security programs. But the way I see it, we don't have much of a choice other than to commit the resources, even if they're only borrowed against years of future earnings, to put the country back on a sound footing. Roosevelt had to do it in the 1930s to combat the Great Depression (which the Republicans, just as now, said we couldn't "afford" to do anything about). In the 1940s, virtually nobody questioned the necessity of going massively into debt (even greater debt than today when expressed as a percentage of GDP) because they recognized that having a balanced budget wouldn't do us much good if we lost the Second World War.

We're in a similar situation today. The economy isn't quite as bad as it was in the Depression - yet - and the threat posed to global civilization by a total financial collapse isn't as serious - yet - as that posed by the Nazis, but things could get a whole lot worse in a hurry if those in power miscalculate. I don't have total faith in Obama, and I have considerably less than that in many Congressional Democrats, but considering what the Republicans have done to our economy and what they continue to do to our body politic - i.e., tear it to bits for short-term political gain - I'm far more inclined to trust a rational and idealistic young President over the jabbering idiots and slavering jackals who were running this place before he took office.

And in answer to your next question: yes, even if my taxes have to go up. It's a bit galling, no, strike that, it's very galling indeed to accept that those of us with moderate incomes will almost certainly have to pay more to repair the damage done by those who got incredibly wealthy in the course of looting the American banking and securities systems, but we're the ones who - whether through apathy or insufficient resistance or, in some cases, voting for Ralph Nader - who let the foxes into the henhouse, and whether it seems fair or not, we're going to be paying - probably for quite a long time - to clean up their carnage.

19 September 2009

Life, And The Value Thereof

I was cutting up a pineapple this morning when I suddenly found myself reflecting on the life cycle of said fruit, and the various twists and turns of fate that had brought it to rest on my kitchen counter under the relentless onslaught of my carving knife.

When the pineapple tree first gave birth to her little fruitlet (let's assume for the sake of discussion that the tree was female or at least mother-like), did she envision him journeying across the ocean to be hacked up and devoured by a man she'd never met? As our little pineapple friend ripened and grew under the warm tropical sun, did he have visions for the future, of what destiny life might hold in store? Being brutally ripped from his mother's sheltering arms, thrown into cold storage, and delivered into the hands of someone only interested in the flavor he might contain can't have been foremost among such visions.

Of course when you get down to it, what is the destiny or purpose of a pineapple? No points for those of you who answered "a tasty treat." As with any form of life, the ultimate purpose of a pineapple is preserve its DNA and pass it on to future generations. Being a food source for other species is entirely incidental, and, in the event that pineapples are capable of sentient thought, almost certainly not something any self-respecting pineapple would aspire to.

Of course people, and vegans and vegetarians in particular, prefer not to think in terms of fruits and vegetables having thoughts or feelings, because that would negate one of the major premises of their refusal to eat meat. So they come up with cutesy formulas like "I don't eat anything with a face," completely overlooking the fact that you can discern some fairly complex expressions emanating from a head of broccoli or cauliflower. If you're stoned enough, anyway.

But ok, you can't get too worked up about the widespread slaughter of the planet's fruits, vegetables, roots, seeds, etc. (to tell the truth, neither can I), try this one: I'm about to get in the shower when I notice a smallish spider struggling frantically to escape from the growing pool of water that's gathering on the floor of the stall. Every time he starts to climb up the wall and out of the deathtrap my shower has become, a new ripple of water rolls over him and drags him back down into the maelstrom. I figure it's only a matter of time before he's swept down the drain and into The Great Cobweb In The Sky, but I wait because I don't particularly want to share the shower with him, and I especially don't want him using my leg as an escape route.

Then, against all odds, he makes one last superhuman, er, superarachnid lunge and breaks free of the rising tide. He stops to rest on the rim of the shower stall for a moment, before trundling off in search of a new home somewhere else in my bathroom, and I, still filled with admiration for the little bugger's struggle, suddenly realize that I don't really want him living somewhere else in my bathroom. When I was a hippie, I used to be more tolerant of spiders, until one bit me in my sleep, causing my arm to become so badly infected that I nearly had to have it amputated. I give a quick flick with my fingernail and little Mr. Spider is back in the drink and off into oblivion.

I feel pretty bad about this, though not as bad as I would feel if I were shaving or using the toilet a couple days from now and discovered Mr. Spider crawling on me. I also feel more guilty than I might otherwise because just the other day I watched a friend, confronted with a similar situation, pick up a spider by a strand of his web and gently carry him outside and set him free. Free to get eaten by a bigger predator or to freeze to death in the oncoming winter, the cynic in me argues, but nonetheless, my friend did go to considerable effort to give that spider another chance, whereas I would have been more inclined to swat it with a newspaper or a shoe.

What's that, you say? It's "just" a spider? Very true, but we have no way of knowing what kind of spider he might have gone on to be, what sort of spider destiny might have been cut short. What if, for example, it was this spider who was about to make a breakthrough in webweaving technology that would have revolutionized life and insect catching for his entire species? What if he was the missing link in the next stage of spider evolution? (I will have to note here that if the next stage of spider evolution looks anything like those eight-foot high monstrosities that confronted the hobbits in the last of the Rings trilogy, I'm very glad to have done what I did.)

Or one last example: I was sitting at my computer trying to write, and suddenly a mosquito is buzzing around my face. With Obama-like precision my hands snap out and crush him. I'm completely elated, because in my book, mosquitoes are the embodiment of pure evil in physical form, and killing them is always a Good Thing. This is especially true around here, where the little bastards frequently carry the West Nile virus. Nonetheless, there are those who would condemn me for taking it upon myself to kill any living thing. There are people so devoted to the cause of doing no harm that they breathe through a cloth so as not to inadvertently inhale any small insects, who sweep the path ahead of themselves so as not to step on any such creatures.

But most of humankind unhesitatingly kills for food, for pleasure, for convenience, or just for the hell of it, and as long as none of the creatures being killed are human, little notice is taken of it (apart from PETA and its ilk, of course). Which leads me to wonder: if it is so patently clear to most rational beings that it's impossible to live on this earth without a significant amount of death and destruction, why do the rules undergo an immediate and drastic turnabout for the every-fetus-is-sacred (or the even more fanatical every-sperm-is-sacred Catholics, who would condemn the use of any sort of birth control apart from abstinence.

This is not a pro-abortion argument; I think abortion is violent and ugly and to be avoided if at all possible. Still, only a complete fanatic would argue that it was feasible, let alone desirable, that every zygote should grow to maturity. Were it not for birth control, abortion, disease, war, etc., and in the absence of any effective predators, humans would long since have been crowded every other species off the planet before proceeding to eat themselves out of house and home.

And hey, it still could happen, but this isn't an environmental argument, either, or even an argument at all. I'm just curious as to how we arrived at a world view where every other form of life is disposable while human life is meant to be inviolate. It can't just be the Book of Genesis, with its grant of "dominion over every living thing," because human chauvinism cuts across all cultures and belief systems. And it's not just the normal self-preservation instinct; all species possess that, and will presumably kill and/or eat anything that gets in the way of survival, yet it seems to be only humans who have elevated themselves to the level of the sacrosanct.

At the same time, you've got humans raising money to save the polar bears or the sharks, i.e., animals that prey upon humans, and what other species takes up collections to benefit its natural predators? It's never happened yet - at least not to my knowledge - but I honestly don't think I'll be surprised if one day someone knocks on my door with a pamphlet explaining why we've got to Save The Mosquito. In other words, I don't have any idea how it gets decided which forms of life are sacred and worthy of preservation and which are wholly disposable, and I'm not sure I ever will. I just know that I hate mosquitoes with a passion, spiders are not welcome in my house, I will probably go on eating pineapples, and any polar bears that come prowling around Brooklyn can expect no mercy from me.

13 September 2009

That Damned Exclamation Point

Got my advance copy of Gimme Something Better by Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor. It's a magnificent compendium of information and opinions, delivered in oral history form, covering 30+ years of the San Francisco Bay Area punk rock scene.

I'll have to admit that I preferred the original title, which was to have been Journey To The End Of The East Bay, but the project expanded beyond the authors' original imaginings to include the history of the West Bay scene as well.

Being the crazed egomaniac that I am, I immediately flipped to the pages featuring myself and my friends, and almost as quickly got caught up in the predictable cavils of "Oh no, he didn't say that about me, did he?" and "She's crazy; I was right there when that happened and it was nothing like the way she's describing it." The old saw about the committee of blind men attempting to describe an elephant comes to mind.

But once I took Aaron Cometbus's advice and tried reading the book from the beginning, it became far more compelling and fascinating. I'm only about a quarter of the way through, provided you don't count (and you probably shouldn't) the fairly intense skimming I gave to to the latter chapters covering the Gilman and Lookout scenes.

But speaking of Lookout, there is one glaring error that makes me very sad, and though it will probably seem like a minor detail to most of you, it bothers me every time I see it. And because this book will almost certainly become the definitive guide to Bay Area punk rock history, the error will - hell, it already pretty much is - become the accepted version, despite any and all efforts on my part to correct it.

I'm talking about - how would you say it? the misspelling? the mispunctuation? how about the misrepresentation? - the way Lookout Records, the company I co-founded and ran for ten years, is wrongly rendered as "Lookout! Records." There are not sufficient words to express how much I hate the sight of that usage. It looks really, really stupid, true, but more importantly, to me at least, is that it's just plain wrong.

Think I'm making a big deal about nothing? Suppose you started a magazine, or a business, or, for that matter, gave a name to your firstborn son. And then, despite all your protests to the contrary, people kept insisting on misspelling it. Would Aaron appreciate it if he kept reading about Cometbus! magazine? Although in their current circumstances they might be able to use the extra pizazz, I rather doubt GM would appreciate being renamed General! Motors. And neither you nor your son Jason! would likely be too fond of strangers inserting an exclamation point into the middle of his name.

But that's what's happened to Lookout Records. I'm not blaming Gimme Something Better for starting this trend; they're just following what has increasingly become established usage. If there's a real villain here, it might be Wikipedia. For about a year I fought a hopeless battle with them, going in regularly to edit their entry on Lookout Records by removing the offending punctuation mark, but each time, within days if not hours, it would be changed back, and finally they attached a note stating that "The exclamation point is part of the name and should not be changed."

Oh, really? I tried arguing back that I was the one who NAMED THE COMPANY IN THE FIRST PLACE, but to no avail. I suppose I could have forwarded them copies of our incorporation papers, our tax returns, hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, all with the correct spelling, but at that point I gave up.

Which was probably a mistake, as I suspect that whoever did copy editing on Gimme Something Better used Wikipedia as a corroborating source, since they also let slide another Wikipedia-perpetrated error, the misspelling of Tre Cool's name as Tré (although I'm generally credited with naming him as well as Lookout Records, he actually was already nicknamed Tre from early childhood; I just added the Cool).

It's true that we often used an exclamation point in some of our logos, so perhaps the misunderstanding is, er, understandable. Also, the new owners of the label were apparently very keen on the exclamation point, and went to some lengths - apparently successful - to get it established in the public mind. To me, unfortunately, it tarnishes the legacy of a once great label almost as much as some of the crappy bands they signed (sorry if that sounds - is - intemperate; they signed some really good bands, too). Ah well, if I'd wanted things to stay the same, I guess I should have stayed there and run the label myself.

Ok, that's my bit of venting for today. If you're a copy editor or a journalist, please, PLEASE, at least consider dropping that hateful exclamation point next time you write about Lookout Records. For all the rest of you, please don't let my fit of dyspepsia discourage you from checking out Gimme Something Better. And while the book isn't officially out for a couple weeks yet, you can go to their website to read (and comment upon) excerpts, including some that had to be left out of the book because of space constraints. Lots of great photos, too.

I'll be back with more opinions once I've read the whole thing. In the meantime, bear in mind that despite what Jeff Ott says on page 329, I did not get caught "pouring gasoline all over" my school. It was my college, and seriously, there was no gasoline involved; otherwise it might actually have burned down.

15 August 2009


Aaron Cometbus writes to say, "After coveting your copy of Woodstock Nation for two decades (!), I finally found my own at a sale a few weeks back. Also, at a different sale, an original copy of Guitar Army, which I've also always wanted."

Really? Two decades? I remember him remarking on it - and yes, that would have been somewhere around 1989 - at my house up on Spy Rock, where I enjoyed the luxury of an entire room devoted to books, though it sounds a bit grandiose to call it a library (grandiosity was not, however, a quality I lacked in those days). And I remember him making mention of it occasionally - very occasionally - over the ensuing twenty years.

But I don't recall ever getting the sense that he was truly covetous of it, because most likely there are several points at which I'm sure I would have just given it to him. To be quite honest, I'm not even sure, having disposed of large numbers of my personal possessions as I downsized from a six-room house in the mountains to a modest apartment in Brooklyn.

And to be even more honest, although I will, the first chance I get, rummage through my remaining books to see if the hardbound original printing of Abbie Hoffman's acid-drenched (in more than one sense) memoir of the biggest countercultural event of modern times, I'm unlikely to read it again anytime soon. I'll be more motivated by the awareness that if Aaron, an avid and devoted book collector, has had to search that long and hard for it, it's probably worth a fair bit of money.

Oh, I know, that sounds terrible, especially on this 40th anniversary, where every doddering old hippie with half a functioning brain left (actually, I think the bar has been set considerably lower) is joining with youthful romantics who weren't even born in 1969 to weigh in on What It All Means.

Not a heck of a lot, I'd venture to say, and before you accuse me of being one of those doddering old hippies myself (oh, what the heck; go ahead), allow me to point out that I at least have the advantage of having been there. Well, for a little while, anyway. Less than 24 hours, actually, since I'd apparently I'd already formed my lifelong habit of arriving late and leaving early when it comes to rock and roll shows, but enough, I think, to get in the proper spirit of things.

The San Francisco Chronicle (of course) hosted this charming discussion, hosted by The Worst Rock Critic in the History of Rock Criticism (that would be the ever-vapid and unctuous Joel Selvin) among three old-timers who had not just attended Woodstock, but performed there, and while much of it sounded like three cranky old men (it was actually just two cranky old men; the guy from Santana, still in his early 60s, sounded reasonably coherent) whiling away yet another afternoon in the arts and crafts lounge at the retirement home), it did bring up the interesting point that it's very difficult to establish agreement on exactly what happened and when.

In the age of cell phones, blogging, Youtube and ubiquitous handheld videocams, that may sound like a strange notion, but for the Woodstock story we're largely reliant on the pre-modern oral tradition. Oh, there's the movie, of course, which I haven't seen since the 70s and could probably not sit through ever again without the aid of powerful drugs, but that was constructed more as a commercial ("Come Visit Hippieland!") than a documentary, and bears about as much resemblance to reality as the musical Hair.

And with both age and - in many though certainly not all cases - a lifetime of drug use diminishing and distorting the recollections of those Woodstock veterans who remain among us, it's likely that the festival will eventually pass into the realm of pure legend. If it hasn't already. Which it probably has.

I've caught myself being scornful of those who endowed the story of a few hundred thousand people standing in a muddy field with more significance than it merited, as well as those whose memories of it have gone slip sliding away into la-la-la-we-all-loved-each-other-land, only to discover that my own grasp on matters was by no means as firm as I would have liked to imagine.

In connection with this Guardian article by a lady who presumably wasn't there and thus bemoans how modern rock festivals don't have the same "spirit" (perhaps, but they certainly have better bands, better sound, better facilities, etc.), there's a link to an alleged (hey, it's on Wikipedia) schedule of the bands who played at Woodstock. The first shock was at how many crappy bands were allowed on the bill (Quill? Who the hell were they? Sha Na Fucking Na??), but the real bitchslap to yours truly's grip on reality came in discovering that either I saw a bunch of bands that I don't even remotely remember, or that my recollections of how and when I arrived at the festival are questionable at best.

For years now I believed that the first band I saw on arriving Saturday afternoon (more about that in a minute) was the Grateful Dead. According to the schedule, however, they didn't play until 10 o'clock that night. There should have been four of five bands before that I did see, including a couple that I quite liked and a couple others that I don't think I would have liked at all. Don't remember any of it.

Bear in mind that I hadn't had much if any sleep since the previous Wednesday; on Thursday my friend Jim and I had finished our shifts as University of Michigan janitors at 11 pm, loaded up the VW (naturally) van, and left Ann Arbor at about midnight. With us were Leslie, Jim's long time girlfriend, and Mo, a girl I'd met a week earlier and in a moment of late-night amphetamine-fueled madness, invited to go with us. Jim's van being incapable of more than 50 mph, and that on level surfaces only, we figured the trip would take about 14 hours, providing we didn't waste any precious time sleeping or eating.

There may or may not have been stimulants involved in this cockamamie plan - this being the summer of Nixon's Operation Intercept, marijuana had become almost completely unavailable, with various kinds of speed rushing in to fill the gap - but we did have a glove box full of LSD and what was allegedly mescaline, but could have been anything, including the aforementioned amphetamines. We also had a giant American flag, large enough to cover everything and everybody in the van twice over, which Jim and I had "liberated" from the University flagpole back in Ann Arbor.

I don't recall having packed any other essentials, or perhaps nothing else seemed essential; at any rate, things went smoothly until somewhere in western New York we were pulled over by a state trooper who first threatened to shoot Jim's obstreperous German Shepherd (in retrospect, it's hard to blame him; that dog was truly obnoxious), then accused us of stealing our flag from the University of Michigan (I was truly astounded at his detective skills, which seemed to border on the psychic, until, many years later, it occurred to me that in a university town, there weren't many other places one would be likely to come up with a flag that size), and then announced that he was going to search our van for contraband.

Well, we were ready for that, just about. As designated shotgun-rider, and therefore the one with quickest access to the glove box, it had fallen to me to begin devouring our entire drug supply the minute the red lights had come on behind us. I still had a mouthful of gelatin caps when he knocked on our window, but through subtle but assiduous chewing I was able to get them all down before he asked me to say anything for myself.

How many pills? My guess is about 25, maybe 30. I wasn't that bothered, figuring that I'd just be extra high when we arrived at Woodstock later that day. The cop, having found nothing to arrest us for, then advised us that all roads leading to the festival were backed up "at least 20 miles," that no further traffic was being allowed into the area, and that we'd be best advised to turn around and go back to Michigan.

You can imagine how likely we were to take that advice, and in case you can't, not very. We plowed on, the journey becoming increasingly colorful for me, probably less so for the others, as we hit the mountains and the van's top speed fell precipitously, to the vicinity of 25 mph, which didn't make us too popular on whatever expressway we were traversing. It was already dark, and I think we'd been on the road 19 or 20 hours ("But as near as I can tell, we're no more than 50 or 100 miles away," Jim cheerily declared), when the van's engine gave up the ghost and we drifted over to the shoulder where we sat marooned for the night.

We tried sleeping on the side of the road, but unfortunately it was a little steep for that and I'd no sooner get relaxed than I'd start rolling downhill. Not that there was any way, considering the chemicals coursing through my system, that I was going to sleep anyway. Around midnight it started raining, which meant the four of us, five, counting the German Shepherd, who was nearly as big as I was, spent the rest of the night in the van.

Morning dawned bright and sunny, and we started hitchhiking. I reiterate: four full-grown hippies and an outsized dog. What were our chances? A VW bug pulled over, driven by two college boys. Despite the gravity of our predicament, we laughed. Yeah, sure, that was gonna happen. I recalled that once in high school we'd managed to cram sixteen (maybe it was 13, a lot, anyway) kids into my friend Mike's VW for a stunt that wound up on the front page of the school paper, and the college boys said, "Well, then six people and a dog shouldn't be any problem at all!"

I still have a hard time believing this actually happened, but I don't have any other explanation for how it happened, and by that I'm referring not only to how we all crammed into the car, but also how we managed to thread our way through the epic traffic backups and highway closures that had many attendees abandoning their cars and walking the last 10 or 20 miles (performers had to be brought in by helicopter).

But here's how it seems to have worked: arriving at a little crossroads village, we went into the general store to ask directions. Ever since I've pondered whether the proprietor, fed up with a seemingly unending procession of hippies all wanting the same thing, provided us a with a completely nonsensical route to follow in hopes that we'd drive off a cliff somewhere, or whether he for some reason took pity on us and clued us in on a genuine shortcut.

In any event, after a couple hours of attempting to follow his rather complex and confusing directions, we found ourselves on the side of a mountain, in a field, following two tire tracks that might have qualified as a cowpath but probably not as a road, unable to go any way but forward, since to attempt to turn around would have almost certainly sent us plunging to our doom several hundred feet below.

"Haven't we already driven all the way around this stupid mountain?" someone said, just as we rounded one more bend and saw, splayed across the hills and valleys just below, the festival in all its sodden glory. The "road" widened and turned downhill, and ten minutes later we pulled into the main parking lot immediately adjacent to the stage.

So, we were there, we walked around being awestruck for a bit, discovered there was no food - I was able to buy an orange for what then seemed like the outrageous price of 25 cents; apparently that same fruit stand was later wrecked in a mini-riot provoked by what festival-goers saw as price-gouging - and settled down on a hillside to watch the show.

The ground was muddy from the previous night's rain, but not unmanageably so, and the weather a bit chilly for August, especially once the sun went down. The falling temperature made sitting in mud a lot less pleasant, especially when our blankets began to disappear into it. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I had an unpleasant vision of myself and my erstwhile girlfriend as two pigs rolling in slop, a vision made more vivid by her having one of those unfortunate pug noses that do tend to make one look, well, a little porcine.

I jumped up, mumbled something about going for a walk, and disappeared into the night. I spent the rest of my Woodstock experience on my own, wandering through the crowds, stopping to marvel at the Who's show-stopping hymn to dawn (that one about "Looking at you, I see the glory, etc."), not to mention the rather picturesque sight of Abbie Hoffman getting knocked cold by Pete Townshend's viciously swung guitar, which elicited wild cheering from the peace-and-love hippie crowd.

It was full daylight, maybe 8 or 9 on Sunday morning, by the time the Jefferson Airplane, then one of my favorite bands, took the stage, and after watching them for about 20 minutes, I realized I was completely exhausted, and, like the kid who's just eaten an entire chocolate cake and a gallon of ice cream, just couldn't take anymore. I started walking, in no particular direction at first, but gradually I realized I was wandering further and further away from the music, until I could barely hear it anymore, past dozens, then hundreds of hippie encampments, little and large. Many people slept, others sat glassy-eyed, like displaced persons after a great war, watching their fellow refugees stream past with great resolve but little visible purpose.

Eventually - it must have been midday - I found myself on the side of a four-lane highway and stuck out my thumb. That's the last thing I have any clear memory of. I woke up in my bed back in Ann Arbor sometime Monday afternoon, with no recollection of how I'd got there, though by going through my pockets I was able to piece together some fragmentary idea. I had a receipt for a youth fare ticket from New York to Detroit, a New York City subway token, and a couple other bits of paper that made it pretty evident I'd managed to hitchhike into New York and find my way onto a plane back to Michigan. I even had a very vague, but fairly certain memory, of standing in front of the building on E. 2nd Street near Avenue B where I'd briefly lived the year before which had now been taken over by a new band of squatters.

My brother showed up at the end of the week; although I hadn't even known he'd been there, he'd stuck around not only till the end of the festival, but for a few days more to help clean up. Like many others who'd stuck it out to the end, he was raving about Jimi Hendrix, who'd wound things up on Monday morning, and for a number of years I felt regretful, even resentful, that I'd missed out on the whole third day (not to mention the first day). But while I'd have liked to see Hendrix (as things would turn out, I never would), a quick look at the aforementioned schedule assures me that I didn't miss much else. Okay, maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash would have been interesting, but I couldn't stand their records, so I don't know why I would have liked seeing them live. And a couple others, but oh, what the heck. I'm sure I also needed my sleep.

And what about now? What do I think, forty years on? Woodstock falls neatly under the heading of things that I'm glad I've done but would never want to do again, sort of like my trip through Poland shortly after the fall of Communism. I think there are much better bands around these days, I'm glad that I don't have to take drugs to enjoy them (or to take drugs at all, which just by itself makes our present time greatly superior to the 1960s), and frankly, despite some moments of great excitement that I'll always treasure (as much because they happened to me in my apocalyptic and hyperdramatic youth as because of it being "the 60s"), that whole period, both culturally and musically, strikes me as being a bit boring and overrated.

Every generation has festivals, social movements, wild and wacky fashions; the 60s generation seems to have got a disproportionate amount of attention because a) there were, thanks to the postwar baby boom, so many of us; and b) because its own self-important commentaries have so completely dominated the culture and media for so long that they seem to have taken on the aura of self-evident truth.

So yeah, it was interesting to be there, interesting to be part of, but hey, kids of today: don't let the parents or grandparents fool you into thinking that your own lives can never possibly be imbued with such Importance and Meaning as theirs were. Ultimately it was half a million mostly middle class kids gathering together in a field to take drugs, have sex, and listen to music. Happens dozens of times every summer, all over the world, every year, and probably always will as long as there are kids, fields, drugs, sex and music.

31 July 2009

Green Day At The Garden

It's been a couple days now and I'm still buzzing from the two Green Day shows earlier this week. I feel more like a teenager than I did when I actually was one. Back in May I said that Green Day's Webster Hall show was possibly the best I'd ever seen, but I must admit that it paled into near-insignificance compared with the spectacle I witnessed at Madison Square Garden.

I've never been a big arena rock kind of guy; most of my MSG-type shows were in the 60s and 70s and involved the likes of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, etc., and as I think I've noted, I'd only been to Madison Square Garden itself once before, on July 28, 1973, the night Led Zeppelin were being filmed for The Song Remains The Same (and, incidentally - though I still maintain I had nothing to do with it - the night they were robbed of their share of the box office receipts, some $300,000, which, believe it or not, was quite a bit of money in those days).

In the 90s I saw Green Day play at Wembley and Oakland Arena, but both experiences left me, if not cold, at best slightly lukewarm. Maybe it was because on both those occasions I was up in the seats looking down on the arena floor, whereas this time I was on the floor, only a few feet from the stage. But to be fair, the floor itself was a very different affair for these shows; in Green Day's early arena-rock days, nearly anyone who wanted to be on the floor could get there, and the result was a seething, swirling maelstrom of flying bodies and - sometimes - flailing fists as thousands of people struggled to cram themselves into a space that could comfortably fit no more than a few hundred.

This time, the standing room near the stage was tightly controlled, accommodating, I would guess, about 500 people and leaving plenty of room to wander around or stand quietly if you weren't among those who simply had to be face-to-face with the band. When I say tightly controlled, put it this way: our way was barred by a snarling MSG security guard even though we were wearing passes that allowed us to go pretty much anywhere backstage. We had to spend the first part of the show a few hundred feet back, until the wonderful Carly intervened. Carly was there to look after the several children who were traveling with the band, and for purposes of getting to where we wanted to be, we became, essentially, three more of her charges. She escorted us up to the front, patiently explained to the security guard that she was responsible for us, and turned us loose into what might have been the ultimate punk rock playpen.

I don't say that disparagingly, either. Oddly enough, it felt a bit like being at Gilman (which also was described as a playpen or "punk rock Romper Room" by those who felt it wasn't truly punk if limbs, teeth and blood weren't at risk). There were almost none of the boneheads whose idea of a fun show involves beating up those smaller than themselves, and almost everyone right up front knew and loved the band's entire catalog, from 1988 to the present, well enough to sing along all the way through, and to cheer ecstatically when some of the long-neglected songs from the first two albums were resurrected.

It wasn't until I got home, till the next day, actually, that it occurred to me that those sitting up in the seats, especially in the upper balconies, would have had a very different experience, and that the almost intimate little concert we enjoyed at the very front was only possible because the vast majority of the audience was barred from being there.

But it really did feel intimate. At times, like when Billie was out at the end of the catwalk that protruded into the crowd, we were actually behind him, looking out at the audience from a very similar perspective to what he was seeing. And I found myself thinking, "This place isn't that big, in fact it feels almost kind of cozy." Of course, a great deal of this is probably down to Billie's ability - whether he's bellowing AY-O and insisting that people put their hands in the air, or singing a heartfelt ballad accompanied only by an acoustic guitar - to connect with people throughout the amphitheater, those marooned far up in the nosebleed sector as much as those standing awestruck at his feet.

I've often spoken and written about how, when I first saw Green Day (then known as Sweet Children) playing for five kids in a candlelit cabin in the Mendocino mountains, Billie performed like "the Beatles at Shea Stadium." Even though he was just 16, and the band was playing only its third or fourth show ever, I could, I thought, easily envision them displaying the same commanding presence on the biggest stages in the world. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, and most people I told about it laughed at me and/or told their friends that I was losing my mind.

Well, I may not have been right about many things in my life, but I think I nailed this one. I've seen Green Day in bigger venues - headlining the 2004 Reading Festival, for example - but I've never seen them or any other band so thoroughly command a stage and an audience. The Rolling Stones at the LA Forum in 1973 might have come close, and Alice Cooper at Cobo Arena in 1971 made a good stab at it, but... ah, I can think of one performance that might have given Green Day a run for their money: the Who at Woodstock in 1969. But while that performance might have contained moments of grandeur and majesty that surpassed what Green Day produced at the Garden this week, it was also diminished by lulls, longeurs, and the simultaneously satisfying and upsetting spectacle of Abbie Hoffman getting knocked cold by Pete Townshend's guitar.

There have been times in my life when I was enough of an unbearably punk purist to turn my nose up at the elaborately produced and tightly choreographed sort of rock show that Green Day have now honed to a fine art, but that's just one of many ways in which I've succumbed to the prevailing idiocy rather than think and judge for myself. When I went to see La Traviata at the Sydney Opera House, I didn't complain that the production was too ornate or expensive, or that the sound was too slick and clean; instead I marveled at how the talents of the set and costume designers combined with those of the composer, the performers, the sound and lighting engineers, even the ushers and ticket takers, to create a living monument to what was bright and glorious about not just art and civilization, but to the very essence of what it is to be a human being: the desire, no, the need, to constantly transcend oneself.

Okay, before I risk climbing any further into the heights of grandiloquence, let me point out that, yeah, dude, this show also totally rocked and they played (almost) all my favorite songs, etc. I was especially ecstatic to, early on, hear the opening chords of "Holiday", which was noticeably missing from their New York shows in May. In fact, that's exactly when the feeling kicked in, the one that let me know I was in for one of those shows that I would remember and treasure all my life. What more could I have asked for? Well, "Christie Road" would have been a thrill (he did sing a couple bars of it during his "Shout" breakdown near the end, and on Monday night Nate Doyle and I were screaming like crazy for "Dry Ice", a song I've been (mostly unsuccessfully begging them to play ever since they dropped it from their repertoire sometime in the early 90s.

Someone also threw an outsized pair of men's briefs at Billie, on the back of which was emblazoned "No One Knows". It was going to happen, of course, but it was a sentiment I heartily endorsed; for many years I cited it as my favorite Green Day song ever.

But between the two nights we did get to hear "Going To Pasalacqua" (aka "Here We Go Again"), "Who Wrote Holden Caulfield", "2000 Light Years Away", "Welcome To Paradise", "Disappearing Boy", and a not nearly so old, but equally unexpected treat, "Macy's Day Parade", enough to satisfy all the most curmudgeonly old school Green Day fans (there are still some who bristle any time the band plays anything newer than Dookie, but since American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown are my favorite Green Day albums of all, I had no problem at all with hearing much of the former and most of the latter.

The band played two hours and forty-five minutes on Monday, which cost them quite a bit of money, since they were heavily fined for going past the Garden's curfew. So I halfway expected them to cut things a bit short on Tuesday. Instead, they played almost three full hours. There are not many bands - in fact, of the bands active today, I can't think of any - who could pull this off. I usually get impatient when a band goes over 30 minutes, unless it's one with a lot of history and hits behind it, in which case I can stretch to 45 or 50 minutes. But not since my days of watching the Grateful Dead on seven hits of acid have I voluntarily subjected myself to multiple hours of of one band's music, and yet I could easily have watched at leat another half hour of Green Day. More that that if they'd dug up some of the more obscure gems from 39/Smooth, Slappy, 1,000 Hours and Kerplunk.

I've already commented on the inspiration provided by Stephanie's guitar playing on "Jesus Of Suburbia" (and was totally stoked when she responded to my blog entry!), but her star turn shouldn't obscure the fact that nearly a dozen other kids were invited up on stage over the course of the two nights, and all - all but one, I should say - acquitted themselves magnificently. So much so that many people have expressed suspicion that these little guest spots are planned in advance, but it's just not true: Billie indeed does pick people right out of the audience. His wife was telling me how he's developed a real sense for who is up to the task and won't succumb to crippling stage fright. The boy who looked to be about 12 or so and played bass on "Longview" showed no such tendencies; before he was halfway through the song he was tearing around the stage as if he'd been born on one, and at the end jumped up to the mike and shouted, "Thanks, Madison Square!" He also walked off stage with a brand new bass, courtesy of Mr. Dirnt.
On Tuesday night, my friend Jim Kim was standing more or less behind me for the entire show, and he's posted this portfolio of photos that should give you an idea of what things looked like from where we were. However, the photo above was taken by my 13 year old nephew, Jackson, who, despite it being his first attempt ever at photographing a big rock concert (and using my new camera for the first time ever), produced a number of pictures that totally eclipsed any of my efforts. To be fair, on Monday night, when I had the camera, I wasn't quite close enough to get any really good shots, and on Tuesday night, when I was, Jackson had the camera, but was farther back engaging in kid-type shenanigans with the Armstrong boys and other members of Emily's Army. I never saw any kind of show until I was 16, so I can't even imagine what it was like for him, but as far I was concerned, if there was anything greater than seeing Green Day at the height of their glory, it was being able to share that experience with my completely awesome nephew.

And, late-breaking development: almost as if he'd been reading my blog, Billie busts out his acoustic guitar and delivers a partial (all but the final majestic bridge and chorus) rendition of one of the greatest Green Day songs ever, "Christie Road". It's got to be only a matter of time before the full electric version once again becomes a concert staple. To all of you out there in lands where this Green Day tour hasn't yet arrived, I beseech you: put aside any prejudices you may have against "big" or "commercial" or "arena" type rock shows and do whatever is necessary to witness this one. Miss this and I can virtually guarantee that a couple decades from now your kids will be hitting you with the mid-21st century equivalent of, "Mom/Dad, how could you have been so unbelievably lame?"

29 July 2009

The Jersey Beat

I didn't think I liked the Screaming Females, but it turns out I may have been wrong (yes, imagine that; it does happen from time to time!). Check out this video, directed by Don Giovanni Records' Joe Steinhardt:

Reminds me a bit of the late 70s/early 80s, but in a good way.

Stephanie Rocks Out With Green Day

Much has been said and written on the subject of empowering young girls to take their rightful place in the traditionally male-dominated rock and roll world. My friend Jessica Hopper has recently published The Girl's Guide To Rocking, which appears to be getting a great reception, and deservedly so.

But Monday night at Madison Square Garden, I saw Green Day and - more importantly - a girl called Stephanie do more for the cause of girls rocking out than all the riot grrrl bands in history laid end to end, and sorry if that sounds like a poor choice of words, but I honestly didn't mean anything salacious by it.

Those of you who follow Green Day will be aware that it's a long-standing tradition to invite audience members up on stage to sing or play instruments on some of the songs. Back in the 90s, most of the invitees would be boys, but nowadays the gender balance tends to be pretty equal. What people may not know is that those invited up are not chosen in advance; Billie picks them out of the audience based on his gut feeling as to whether they'll be up to the task.

Monday night he was looking for someone to play guitar on "Jesus Of Suburbia," a nine-minute rock epic with multiple chord and tempo changes. Much as I - like, no doubt, a million other fans - have occasionally harbored fantasies of jumping on stage with the band (I've actually played guitar with Billie in the studio once, back in the Neolithic era, but never on stage), I found myself ducking behind somebody else when he was recruiting a JOS guitarist, because there's no way I could play that song sitting alone in my room, let alone in front of 20,000 people.

But Stephanie swore she was up to the task, and boy, was she. She was so at ease with her guitar that before long she was wandering the stage just as the Green Day guys do, and singing along with Billie on the lead vocals. At the end, Billie got down on his hands and knees in front of her and did the "I am not worthy" bow, before leading all of Madison Square Garden in a "Steph-a-nie" chant.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for Stephanie, who, with her torn Misfits shirt and matter-of-fact attitude, didn't look like the kind of girl accustomed to being on the receiving end of wild adulation, but she took it in such stride that I'm inclined to think of it as a life-changing experience. Look it this way: from now on, any boy unwise enough to taunt her to the effect that "chicks can't rock as hard as guys" or somesuch similar foolishness can quickly be put in his place with a well-timed, "I had Madison Square Garden in the palm of my hand; what the hell have you done, sucker?"

Here are a couple videos of Stepanie's performance (Green Day were no slouches either):

There's also a nice little blurb about it in today's Times.

26 July 2009

Acting Stupidly

I wasn't there, so I have no way of knowing if, as President Obama claimed, the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, but I feel pretty safe in saying that Obama spoke stupidly in making this apparently off-the-cuff comment. It's the first time I've seen the Prez seriously blow it in terms of both leadership and public relations, and while George Bush could and frequently did manage half a dozen bigger gaffes in the course of a 10 minute press briefing, Obama's shoot-from-the-lip not only gave his opponents a valid talking point with which to lambaste him; it diverted precious time and attention from the far more vital matter of health care reform.

To his credit, the President apologized - well, almost - for speaking out of turn, and will probably, with his invitation to the police officer and the professor involved to meet him at the White House for a beer, end up turning the whole business to his and the nation's advantage. Nonetheless, if I were Obama, I'd have apologized even more forthrightly, or, better yet, not made the remark in the first place. When asked about the controversy at his press conference, an appropriate answer would have been, "I honestly don't know enough about the matter, and what's more, Professor Gates is a friend of mine, so anything I did say would probably be biased." He managed the second part all right, but totally blew it on the first.

I don't personally know much about Professor Gates, either, but from what I've read, his behavior was a throwback to another time, almost another era, and while he may not have created the unhappy situation, his hostility and hauteur (that's a fancy word for "Do you know who I am?" syndrome) almost certainly exacerbated it. Trying to turn a case of mistaken identity into a racial incident (or evidence that we are living "in a police state," as one of the lefter-that-left whiteys on the Counterpunch site had it) would of course come naturally to someone whose entire career revolves around uncovering ubiquitous examples of structural racism, but it's too bad the President had to buy into this 20th century sort of thinking.

Put it simply: anybody, even the most uneducated street bumpkin, should have enough common sense not to hurl verbal abuse at armed police officers, especially when they are there looking after your interests (stopping people from breaking into your home presumably being one such interest). When a Harvard professor, who leads a life far more privileged and comfortable than that of most Americans, regardless of race, behaves like such a bombastic blowhard, it's not necessarily an arrestable offense - okay, not an arrestable offense at all - but it's hard not to sympathize with the police officers, who lay their lives on the line for a fraction of the pay and benefits enjoyed by Professor Gates if they lost their patience with his foolishness.

Well, everyone involved now seems to be saying that this is a "learning opportunity," a "teachable moment," and I'd like to believe that, too. I'm not naive enough to think that racism has entirely vanished from our society just because we have a black President, but neither do we need to continue searching for racism under every rock the way a previous generation did with Communism. For Gates to try and turn his ill-tempered reaction and the police's overreaction into a racial incident (for crying out loud, at least one of the "racist" officers was black) was both dishonest and counter-productive. I'm sorry the President bought into it, glad that he saw and corrected his error, and now can we move on and fix this accursed health care system?

24 July 2009

Aaron Cometbus: The Spirit Of St. Louis

You've probably heard me tell this story before, but it bears repeating: how I encountered my first issue of Cometbus. It was sometime in the winter of 1985-86, and I had been walking and riding buses around San Francisco distributing issues of Lookout magazine to the various stores and hangouts where they were welcomed or at least tolerated.

I had one last stop to make, at Bound Together, the anarchist bookshop over in the Haight, and rather than walk over Buena Vista Hill on what was turning out to be an unpleasantly cold and windy night, I hopped on the bus at 14th and Market, the one that goes straight up 14th and over the hill. Nowadays it's the 37, but I keep thinking it was a different route number back then. Not that it matters in the slightest, but still...

The bus was nearly empty, so I took my time walking down the aisle, deciding which seat I wanted to sit in. The ride only took five or ten minutes, so it was kind of ridiculous making a big production of it, but that's the way I was in those days. About two thirds of the way to the back of the bus, I saw a little xeroxed magazine lying on one of the seats, and immediately knew that that was the seat I had been looking for.

That was my introduction to Cometbus, and it was only a matter of weeks, if that, before I met its creator, also known as Cometbus, first name Aaron, at Violent Coercion/Youth of Today show at the New Method warehouse in Emeryville. I asked him how his magazine might have ended up on a bus seat in San Francisco and he told me, "Oh, I sometimes leave copies lying around in hopes that somebody interesting will find them." This didn't sound at all crazy to me, since I had been doing the same thing with Lookout.

By then Aaron had already been publishing Cometbus for something like five years (he was fond of pointing out that it predated Maximum Rocknroll; if my calculations are correct, it's now only a year or two shy of marking its 30th year in print. In recent years, some issues have taken the form of short novels, and that is the case with the newest one, #52, "The Spirit Of St. Louis".

Having read almost every issue Aaron has published, I can unhesitatingly say that this is one of the best. He returns to the subject matter he's best known and loved for, the trial and travails of a bunch of marginal punks struggling to eke out an existence or an identity or at least a place to hang out and put on shows. While many of Aaron's past efforts in this vein have come across as thinly veiled romans à clef (those of us who knew him could usually pick out who was supposed to be who within the first few pages), this newest one is more clearly fictional and - ironically - more realistic because of it. I'm pretty sure Aaron never spent enough time in St. Louis to have created the world portrayed here out of anything other than his vividly creative imagination. And he'll probably call me tomorrow and say, "What, you didn't know about my St. Louis years?" And I'll have to say, no, Aaron, I really didn't.

Enough of that, however; if you're any kind of Cometbus fan, you'll be wanting to read this straightaway, and if you're not familiar with the Cometbus oeuvre, this would be an excellent place to start. You can order it through No Idea or any number of other distributors; if you're insistent on doing it the old-fashioned way and don't mind waiting a while, you can always write to the official Cometbus address, PO Box 4726, Berkeley CA 94704. Price? It says $3 on the cover, and I'd throw in at least another dollar for postage. It's been a while since I've done mail order, so don't quote me on these prices. But Cometbus #52: it's a winner. Get it.

01 July 2009

Sink With California

The unsurprising news that once again California can't agree on a budget and/or come up with enough money to pay even its most essential bills has Time Magazine wondering if the federal government needs to step in, i.e., if the nation's biggest state is, like AIG and Citibank, "too big to fail."

The article sketches out two grim scenarios: if the feds let the fruit, nut and flake state go its merry way to perdition, i.e., bankruptcy, the failure of the world's eighth largest economy could and probably would endanger the entire global financial system. If, on the other hand, the US does as the wingnuts allegedly governing California are asking and acts as co-signer on the state's outstanding loans, the credit of the entire US could be undermined and possibly wiped out.

California, once one of the most progressive and best-run states in the nation, is largely the author of its own misfortunes; the current troubles had their origins back in the Me Decade, when voters, befuddled by too much dope smoking and/or naked self-interest, used the referendum process to give themselves a big and poorly thought out tax cut.

Actually, it wasn't so much poorly thought out as it was maliciously; Proposition 13, which limited property taxes to 1% of assessed value (not necessarily a bad idea in itself) was the brainchild of right-wing "government is the problem, not the solution" forces, and it did its real damage by a) preventing property values from being reassessed until such time as the property is sold, creating the ludicrous (if it weren't so tragic) situation where billionaires can be paying a couple hundred bucks a year tax on a multi-million dollar property just because they happened to buy it before California's real estate boom. Secondly, Prop 13 required that any significant change to the tax code had to be approved by two thirds of either the Legislature or the voting public, with the result that the anti-government crowd, a perennially strong minority in California politics, can short-circuit just about any kind of tax hike or reform.

But just as it took a coalition of right-wing ideologues, apolitical greedheads, and left wing space cadets to pass Proposition 13 in the first place, a similar logjam of conflicting but mutually oblivious interests has produced the impasse which may soon force California to slash some of its most fundamental services and start issuing IOUs in lieu of cash payments. The Republican dingbat faction has its fingers in its ears while it chants "La la la, no new taxes" and their Democratic counterparts can only respond with, "But you can't cut THAT program, think of the children/illegal immigrants/endangered lemonthroated warblesuckers...etc."

In short, California is burdened, and has been for some time, with a wholly dysfunctional body politic which, if not beyond redemption, is nonetheless unlikely to respond to any conventional remedies. The only way the federal government should even consider becoming involved in this mess is if it effectively nationalizes the state and starts running it direct from Washington. The people of California have demonstrated conclusively and definitively that they're incapable of governing themselves; handing them more money and/or credit would be like furnishing a wild-eyed drunk with another quart of whiskey and a loaded gun.

29 June 2009

Fest: Winners And Winners

Nephew Jackson and I are holed up in a quiet corner of Washington DC after three incredible days in Baltimore, during half of which I was too sick to move but did anyway, albeit with considerably less alacrity than I'm usually known for. Also missed, due to illness, about half the bands I really wanted to see, and half the people I really wanted to talk to, but it still added up to - and I know this refrain, repeated year after year, must get tiresome to you non-believers - Best Fest Ever.

I'll admit I had my doubts, and that they persisted well into the second, maybe even the third day. No real drop-dead headliners, half a dozen competing fests around the country, the absence of some notable Festers from years past, all seemed to conspire to create more of a low-key vibe for this year's event. Or maybe it was just a case of lowered expectations, but at some point it occurred to me that the first Fest, which some still insist was the very best of all, had virtually no expectations at all. It was just a couple hundred (if that) friends getting together in a corner bar in a desolate backstreet in Baltimore to watch each others' bands, most of which were completely unknown to about 99.99% of the American population.

The magic kicked in that time when - maybe it was during Delay, or the Copyrights, or the Steinways - it became obvious to all in attendance that unknown or not, our obscure little bands were at that moment making some of the best music in the world. Three years later the size of the audience, the number of bands, the venues, the stages, all have tripled, quadrupled, even quintupled. Delay, the Copyrights and the Steinways are now old standbys, and might only be unknown to 99.95% of the American public, but otherwise, not much has really changed. Each of those bands, not to mention a dozen or more new arrivals, is still capable of standing the Fest on its collective ear, and that's exactly what happened, again and again again, until any remaining doubts or fears or hesitations were, in the words of old Mr. Dylan, driven deep beneath the waves, until we could forget about today until tomorrow.

There's also those bits about dancing beneath the diamond sky, one hand waving free, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow, etc. etc., but even if we are talking about the pop-punk Woodstock, I'll spare you any more hippie blather (but man, that young Dylan could write a song; how in the hell did he turn into a gnarly tuneless old pseudo-blues grump?): now tomorrow's here and the full magnitude, the full excellence of yesterday's today begins to dawn on us.

Ironically - tragically, even, though not perhaps for those of us wishing to do something else with the next 72 or so hours of our lives - the PPMB, where the Fest would normally be being hashed and rehashed until readers' eyes bled, has crashed, possibly in response to everyone's simultaneous attempts to post their favorite photos, videos and recollections, along with the annual fevered debate over who "won" the Fest. So although I don't have much in the way of photos or videos, I'll have to settle that question for you here.

The answer, of course, is that we all won, the only losers being those who couldn't, due to obligations or financial hardship, or wouldn't, due to sheer oblivious bloody-mindedness, make it to Baltimore. But I said no more hippie blather, and I almost meant it, so here's a few of the high points; apart from my illness, I don't think there were any lows, though some of the walking wounded I saw staggering away late Saturday night may feel differently.

Thursday night undeniably belonged to The Max Levine Ensemble, whose Weasel-skewering antics won over even that portion of the crowd that was completely unaware of the band's feud with/vendetta against the Godfather of Pop-Punk himself. The background is that sometime last year, Mr. Weasel, apparently in response to hearing me praise TMLE so highly, checked them out and found them, shall we say, not to his liking. Among his more colorful remarks, delivered on his popular Weasel Radio broadcast, was, "If this band was a horse, I'd take it out and shoot it."

Most of us working in the genre would be, at the least, crestfallen at being so definitively damned by one of our idols, but the Max Levine boys managed to recover sufficiently from their depression to kick off their appearance on the Ottobar stage with a deadly medley of Screeching Weasel classics ("Hey Suburbia", "Cool Kids", and "I Wanna Be A Homosexual") that, despite the TMLE's being only a three-piece (OG Weasel had four members), managed to capture almost perfectly the sound and spirit of the Weasels' late-80s/early 90s heyday. They followed that up with the announcement of their "split single" with Ben Weasel, the cover of which featured a cartoon rendition of the Weaselmeister himself sporting an "I heart Max Levine" t-shirt. "Are we gonna get sued?" they wondered privately, but considering that the net worth of the band would barely pay for pressing up 300 copies of the limited edition 7", probably not.

TMLE were followed immediately by their brother band Delay, and at the close of Delay's set came back to join them for a finale that, even though both bands are firmly rooted in the 21st century stripped-down DIY punk rock mode, could teach a thing or three to the 1970s Dinosaurs of Rock generation about how to put on an arena show. If the Fest had ended Thursday night, it would have been Max Delay FTW hands down and no questions asked.

But technically speaking, that was only the "pre-show," and about 25 hours and 75 bands still lay ahead. Friday belonged to the Steinways and the Copyrights from what I saw, but an awful lot of people whose opinions I trust swear it was the Dopamines who ruled the day, if not the entire Fest (this was one of the many moments I missed due to my tragic illness). I had to drag myself back from my deathbed just before the Steinways to do my own turn on stage with SUCIDIE, during which Matt Lame's eyes bulged out further than ever before seen in public (see the photographic evidence here) and I managed to sing an old Lookouts song without falling over, dropping my guitar, or having a nervous breakdown, all of which could be expected to happen when I actually was in the Lookouts.

By Saturday I was mostly recovered, thankfully, because this was the day that really delivered the goods. I mean, nothing, really nothing could be said to have gone wrong with that day, the bands kept getting better and better, and I witnessed some performances that I'm pretty sure will be emblazoned on my memory till the day I die. Dear Landlord set the bar pretty high early on, but then came the Leftovers, four-Fest veterans who spanned at least four generations in their 60s-meet-the-2000s rock and roll sweatfest-cum-tent-show-revival. I first saw these kids when they were skipping school to come down and play house shows in New York and marveling at the wonders of Ikea ("We don't have anything like that up in Maine"); now, at 21 or 22 frontman Kurt Baker can work a room with the likes of James Brown up in heaven. I went crazy. Everybody did.

That should have been it, with the rest of the Fest being anticlimax, but then I walked in on the Kepi show. This longtime Ghoulie, now solo and/or with-whatever-band happens-to-turn-up act has been getting better and better these past couple years, but Saturday night was just completely sublime and transcendent, closing with about half a dozen (maybe it was a whole dozen) guest artists joining in for a finale that collapsed time and broke down all the barriers. I was laughing, I was crying, I was dancing like crazy: these are the moments when you not only want to live forever, but see no plausible reason why you can't. Kepi FTW. I don't think any further discussion is necessary or possible.

Not that there wouldn't be hours more of brilliance to come, and if I had hours more to write about it, I'd say tons more. But we're here visiting in Washington for the day, and Jackson and I want to get out and see stuff, so let me just quickly mention a few other highlights, like Squirtgun's cover of "The Science of Myth" featuring several former Weasels and at least one present-day one, Pansy Division doing a straight-up rock set that completely won over the pop-punkers, the Methadones doing one of their best sets ever, Lost Locker Combo with pushbrooms cleaning up their own mess before the club could even notice it was there, Sick Sick Burgers, my nephew and Tre Uncool (both at their first Fest ever) attacking and thrashing Matt Lame, the parking lot congregation that seems to be one of the best parts of every Fest, and one of my personal favorites: Paddy from Dillinger 4, with whom I've exchanged a few less than flattering words, seeking me out after the Fest to mend fences, bury the hatchet, and in general comport himself like the gentleman I should never have doubted he was. Prince of a fellow. Okay, that's it for now; I'm off to see the nation's capital. If you want to see DeutschMarc's incredible gallery of FestFotos, look here. Have a great day!

28 June 2009

27 June 2009

The Last Fest?

Admittedly it wasn't the best of planning, but my nephew really wanted to go to England, and the only time available was right before the Fest. Time was still so tight that I arranged for us to have only a few hours between arriving back in New York and setting off for Baltimore. No great strain for a 13 year old, apparently, but a little more hectic than I might have liked.

Still, it shouldn't have been a problem - there were at least a few hours available for rest in between Fest activities - except that I seemed to have picked up some sort of bug in England - well, Wales, to be specific - that followed me home. Or perhaps it was food poisoning, which I'd prefer, since I'd hate to think I infected any of the hundreds of people I've come in contact with these past two days with some version of Limey Flu.

But whatever the cause, the result was that I was unable to keep any food down or get much in the way of sleep for three days, and when I took my first steps out into the blast furnace heat of midsummer Baltimore, I might as well have asked the powers that be to take a cosmic sledge hammer to my midsection.

Thankfully, most of this town is air conditioned, the Fest venues included, so I was able to maintain some equilibrium - if only just. And if I were here to quietly spectate from a comfortable bench at the back of the room, I should have been fine.

But the Fest, more than being one of the biggest pop punk/punk rock/rock and roll shows of the year, is also kind of like an annual convention for the fans, musicians, scenesters, makers and shakers of the genre, and it's virtually impossible to shake the proverbial stick, let alone walk 20 feet in downtown Baltimore without banging into someone or several someones who need to be met and gret (?!) with an appropriate degree of enthusiasm.

And let's face it: as much as I love these people, it required a real effort on my part to show any evidence of it. Usually at these events I'm jumping around like a hyperactive monkey, shouting encouraging if sometimes nonsensical words at everyone I encounter, but for the first two days it was all I could do to manage a weak, "Good to see you! Me? Oh, I'm all right."

Even that wouldn't have been unmanageable, but greater duties loomed: in a fit of madness I'd accepted the responsibilities as second guitarist and vocalist for the hardcore combo SUCIDIE, scheduled to play a fast and furious eight minute set on the main stage in what was arguably the primest of prime time Friday night slots, just before Fest favorites, the Steinways.

Thanks to SUCIDIE's leader and resident genius MATT FAME living in another state, we were only able to practice his intricate musical compositions twice in advance of the show, once in May and once in early June. Of course we could also practice on our own, but I wasn't able - okay, wasn't willing - to haul a guitar around England and Wales with me, so during the last couple weeks before the show, I hadn't had a chance even to run quickly through the set list.

I figured I could make up for that by practicing by myself the night before leaving for Baltimore, and then with the band on Friday morning, but neither proved feasible, and I found myself, as showtime approached, feeling much like the student who has recurring dreams of showing up for an exam only to realize that he's totally forgotten to read the book the exam is based on. Oh, and that he's also managed to come to school completely naked.

I was even having trouble with the one song that I'd written myself, albeit some 21 years ago. My illness had left me not just physically weak, but mentally deficient, to the point where, even if I could remember what the chords were and where they were located, my brain couldn't get a message to my fingers fast enough to find them. It was a little like what I've always imagined senility would be.

I ended up having to miss most of the afternoon's bands in an effort to get some rest (I'd barely slept at all the night before), and when I showed up back at the venue with my borrowed black and gold GPC Weaselrite guitar in tow, I was far from ready to take the stage. In fact, what little brain activity I was capable of was mainly directed at figuring a way out of this. For instance, when Pansy Division broke the kick drum and a 10-minute delay was announced, I volunteered that by giving up our slot, we could put the show back on schedule.

No such luck, however, and anyway, by that point I'd become a little charged up, both from the Copyrights' exceedingly powerful set and from being repeatedly attacked by a youth coalition consisting of my nephew and (almost) 10 year old Tre Uncool teaming up to try and knock me to the floor (they never succeeded). So I did my duty, jumped on stage, bounced around, grinned probably a bit too much, at least for a hardcore band, and only made two or three flagrant mistakes (actually, it might have been someone else making some of them). It was, after all, as people kept pointing out, "only eight minutes."

We didn't get a resounding ovation, but neither did we get booed off stage. The only blatantly acerbic reaction came from Jon Pansy Division, who greeted me with, "Whose idea was THAT?" I refrained from pointing out that we had headlined over his band.

Then it was into the pit for the Steinways' Last Show Ever, and it was here that it all caught up with me. The adrenaline was still coursing through my system, and being further amped up by the band and the crowd, but by the time the set was halfway through, I had to retreat to the sidelines. I genuinely felt in danger of collapsing, and though my heart ached as I saw all my friends still thrashing like mad to the final strains of "Carrie Goldberg", I wasn't about to try to make my way back into the frenzied throng.

It was then that I thought, "Maybe I finally am getting a bit too old for all this." I mean, in principle, sure, I could keep coming to this for quite a few years to come, even if only in a diminished capacity, but wouldn't I rather go out in a blaze of glory (by which, no, I don't mean dying of a heart attack in the middle of the pit)? The chances of getting asked again to play on the main stage are at best minimal, and I've already been dubbed "Mr. Fest" and "the mayor of Fest-town," so maybe now would be the time to bow out gracefully, to retreat to my rocking chair and internet message boards.

Well, maybe. Today I feel considerably better; I've been able to eat two meals, one late last night and one this morning, without unfortunate results, and a whole day of Festing still lies ahead. I'm sitting here in my shorts and my classic sleeveless Crimpshrine shirt, getting ready to rock out to, let's count them, 42 (?!?!) bands between now and sometime after midnight, and I don't feel that overly daunted by the prospect. Maybe I've got another Fest or three in me after all!

What Else Was He Going To Do For An Encore?

Though I was never a huge fan of the man or his music, there's no denying that Michael Jackson was prodigiously talented, and if I didn't enjoy his classic work as much as a few hundred million others did, that's probably more a matter of my having spent the 80s rather monomaniacally wrapped up in punk rock than with any shortcoming on his part.

Still, by the time he passed away this week, even the most charitable apologist would have to acknowledge that his best days as a performer and/or recording artist were far behind him. That's sad in itself, since under the right circumstances - the right circumstances being his not turning into a circus freak - he could have carried on for many more years. A bit of the spring might have gone out of his dance steps, but it could have been more than made up for by the experience and wisdom gained from a life well lived.

That didn't seem to happen, either, though it's also dangerous to make assumptions about people whose only presence in our lives is via the media. But in this case, one could make an exception, because, based on all available evidence, there doesn't seem to have been much to Michael Jackson beyond a media image.

That's an unhappy thing to say about someone recently deceased, and I'm not even sure why I felt compelled to say it, except that his life and death seems like such a valuable object lesson into not just the cult of modern American celebrity, but also the dangers of choosing an insular and self-absorbed existence just because you're able to. You don't have to be famous or fabulously successful to do this, either, but if the unfortunate death and even more unfortunate life of Michael Jackson teaches us anything, it's that no matter how rich you are, you can't afford it.

I've been on TV a couple times and had some stuff written about me in magazines and newspapers; even that minimal level of "fame" made it evident how quickly one's view of oneself and objective reality can be distended and distorted by the looking glass eye of a voyeuristic world. When I was a young hippie on acid, I would sometimes spend hours staring into a mirror watching myself morph into unrecognizable shapes and personas at the rate of millions per millisecond, simultaneously believing myself to be in possession of infinite creative power and wondering why, with the entire universe seemingly at my feet, I still felt so terribly, ineluctably lonely.

Is that anything what Michael Jackson might have felt like in his declining years? If, in the face of what may have been chronic drug abuse, he felt much at all, I'm guessing yes. One report has him being regularly injected with the powerful synthetic narcotic Demerol. I was given that stuff once, in a hospital emergency room, and it was just awful. Yes, it's effective at temporarily taking away the pain, but it takes everything else with it. If you're familiar with the Harry Potter books, think of the Dementors, who suck all the hope and joy out of life. Yeah, it's like that. If I were having my leg amputated, I could see where something like Demerol could come in handy. But to live like that on a daily basis? You could forgive somebody for asking, "Why bother?"

That, ultimately, may well be what happened to Michael Jackson. 20 years ago he was the most famous and possibly one of the richest performers in the history of show business; everything since then has involved a sometimes slow, sometimes precipitous decline. Some people, especially those who've had to struggle with the conventional vicissitudes of life, can adjust and even thrive in the face of diminished circumstances, but to others it's a fate worse than death itself.

Face it, the man was never going to recapture more than a modicum of the brilliance he once possessed as a performer, and if he was as doped up as current rumor has it, his attempt at a comeback would have more likely become a study in unrivaled bathos. What else was he supposed to do? Someone possessing normal social skills and moral perspective might have downsized, given up the trappings (and isolation) of megastardom in favor of the simple joys of family and friends. But Michael Jackson, whether through his own poor choices or - more likely - the misguidance of the sycophants and leeches who inevitably attempt to attach themselves to any star, no longer seemed to have that choice. That being the case, his death, even at the relatively premature age of 50, probably comes as a blessing, not only for the man himself, but for his children, who might still be young enough to have a chance at a normal life.

Harsh words? Perhaps, but they needed to be said. I've made - perhaps most of us have - some of the same mistakes, albeit on a far smaller scale, and I've also known the kind of loneliness and depression where my only desire was to die. Thankfully life is not like that for me anymore, and hasn't been for quite a while. Michael Jackson, it seems, was not so fortunate.

I don't rejoice in his death, but neither is there much to mourn in this passing. He was, in Claude Brown's phrase, a manchild in the promised land, perpetually hamstrung between youth and senescence, capable of manifesting all and touching or enjoying none of it. May his soul finally find some rest, and those he has left behind, some joy and some peace.

22 May 2009

Green Day And Wal-mart: "There's Nothing Dirty About Our Record"

News that Wal-mart has been using its immense commercial power in an attempt to influence or control popular culture shouldn't come as a shock; the giant retail chain has been doing that all along. Nor should it come as a surprise that Green Day feel confident enough in their ability to move copies of their new album that they can afford to tell Wal-mart to go do something unprintable with themselves.

While I commend Green Day for sticking to their guns and insisting that their album be sold as it was intended to be heard, I don't go along with the notion that Wal-mart has some sort of obligation to sell records that deviate from their company policy. No matter how big and powerful they are, after all, they're still a private business, and as such, it's their privilege to sell or not sell whatever products they want. It's a shame that many people who live in the American hinterlands where Wal-mart is often the only record shopping option will have greater difficulty obtaining the new record, but hey, that's why God invented the internet.

No, what really bugs me about this brouhaha is the notion that somehow there is something wrong or obscene about Green Day's record whereas Wal-mart is, while perhaps a little old-fashioned, merely acting as the guardian of "decent" American values. Singer Billie Joe Armstrong put it best: "There's nothing dirty about our record," despite Wal-mart's attempts to brand it as such.

What exactly is wrong with 21st Century Breakdown in Wal-mart's view? Presumably, it's that it uses vulgar language, i.e., swear words, i.e., the exact same language that practically every American - no, wait, every human being - including, most likely, Wal-mart executives, uses from time to time. Swearing may not always be the most elegant or effective use of language, but it's nearly universal and sometimes the most powerful if not the only way to get a certain point of view across. To pretend otherwise is either blinkered or hypocritical.

America has a funny relationship with language: while most modern countries have little problem television programs or movies that portray people talking and acting as they normally talk and act, in this country a broadcaster can be removed from the airwaves or forced out of business by enormous fines for letting an errant expletive or nipple be heard or seen by the public. Yet most of those same countries would never dream of routinely executing criminals or allowing poor people to die for want of health insurance. Different strokes, you might say, but which, if any, is the greater obscenity?

I might be a bit more sympathetic to Wal-mart if their lyrical oversight were limited to those records - and there are quite a few - that promote or glorify violence or sexism or rape - but Green Day records don't even remotely fit that description. The sole objection to their content is that they use real language to talk about real feelings and situations. Some of their punk rock fans might bristle at the description, but it's art, just as surely as anything that hangs on the walls of a museum, and any attempt to bowdlerize the lyrical content is just as stupid as those religious fanatics who at one time insisted on fig leaves being placed over the "dirty" bits of classic paintings.

No, if anyone involved in this controversy is obscene - and I use that word in its true sense (from the dictionary: "disgusting to the senses, abhorrent to morality or virtue"), it's Wal-mart itself. This is a company that has laid waste to the economies and cultures of hundreds, if not thousands of American towns, forcing long-established local businesses into bankruptcy, turning downtowns into dead zones and promoting a suburban-sprawl, automobile-based design model that has littered the landscape surrounding nearly every town with mile upon mile of garish neon strip malls and fast food franchises.

No, of course Wal-mart is not solely responsible for this development, but its entire business model is one that promotes its continued spread. If, instead of its big box stores surrounded by hundreds of acres of parking, Wal-mart would locate new stores in the heart of town, accessible on foot and by public transit, it could single-handedly revitalize many moribund cities, but because that might slightly diminish profit margins, executives continue to insist on gobbling up farmland, creating endless traffic nightmares, and perpetuating the way of life that virtually guarantees continued oil shortages (and the wars that they provoke), destruction of the environment, and disastrous climate change. Compare that to a punk rocker saying a naughty word on a record and then tell me who's the real dirty bastard here.

I don't even need to get into the devastating effect Wal-mart's horribly hypocritical and phony "Buy American" policies have had on our economy; suffice it to say that by "Buy American," Wal-mart means, "Spend your money in our stores." They certainly don't mean it to apply to themselves, since even a cursory examination will reveal that almost everything Wal-mart sells is made in China or some other developing country. Yes, it produces cheap prices for the American consumer, but simultaneously destroys the industries that used to employ those consumers. Obscene, disgusting, or just not very nice? Do you think the guy who has been outsourced out of a job and can't earn a living wage or provide health insurance for his family is more upset about that, or the fact that Billie Joe said a "bad" word on a record album?

Perspective, people, perspective! We got the same crap that Wal-mart is dishing out all through the Bush years: obsessive concern with private morality, riling up the rubes over stem cells or birth control, while at the same time destroying our economy, waging idiotic and mindlessly destructive wars, and giving bankers and corporate executives carte blanche to loot our wealth and resources on a scale probably unprecedented in history. Oh, but at least our precious little children didn't hear anybody say "shit" on TV. No, for that they'd have to walk into the next room where Daddy is looking at his unpaid credit card bills, reading his pink slip, or just watching the home team blow another lead. As Yakov Smirnoff used to say, what a country!