NICK HOWARD & THE STRANGE BUT REWARDING JOURNEY OF SONG

4/8/15

Aquarian Weekly 

Buzz Piece

 

NICK HOWARD & THE STRANGE BUT REWARDING  JOURNEY OF SONG

 

By James Campion

For the past hour I have listened to Nick Howard tell his story, and it is whiz bang of a tale; coming to New York City as a cheeky 22 year-old musician from Brighton, England with literally nothing but a song and a dream. Settled in a back booth at Pete’s Tavern, the 32 year-old  /songwriter relives a decade filled with playing clubs and pick-up gigs here and there around town, waiting tables after long days in some dead-end office dirge, recalling his trips back across the pond to swing around Europe making a name for himself. Releasing EP’s and eventually three albums of original material ranging from folk to soft rock to stabs at pop, getting some of his songs on TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210, before an uber-weird turn of events in 2010 landed him on a German version of The Voice (to which he had six weeks to sort of kind of learn the language). And, don’t you know, he goes and wins the damn thing. It earns him a record deal and a car (which he sells to make another record), he blows up with a #1 single that he wrote about Hurricane Sandy called “Unbreakable”, and things start moving for him in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Then…well, he comes back here and goes back to opening for other acts.

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“After winning The Voice, I felt a bit ridiculous,” quips Howard, fully embracing the bizarre details of his recent past. “You’re playing little clubs in downtown New York for like six years and then you’re suddenly making appearances in shopping malls and headlining a tour with all the other contestants. But I’ll tell you, I was playing to a couple hundred people a show before The Voice, and then over a thousand afterwards.”

He laughs at the memory, sipping tea in that disarmingly cordial, British kind of Paul McCartney way. But then he suddenly grows quiet. After a moment of contemplation, he says with some measure of seriousness, “I wouldn’t say this year is my last chance to make a mark in the U.S., but it’s definitely my best chance.” It is almost as if everything Howard has told me leads up to what he describes as the next crucial step to his incredible story; an upcoming American tour.

And maybe “almost” is understating it a little.

“Most people that have seen me play in the last year would have seen me play solo, so the biggest difference is I am going to have my band. I only have 25 to 30 minutes as an opener to showcase Nick Howard, and now I’ll have an hour. Hopefully those people that are coming have listened to my music and can connect with the songs. It’s definitely going to be another side of me in a more dynamic, musical experience. Now people are finally going to get to hear and see what I’m about.”

This is Nick Howard on the precipice of something big. All that stuff about sleeping on sofas and busing tables and winning German cars, all of it leads to this tour. It is the culmination of our blithely tossing around ten years of his life, learning to work as a composer and plying his trade with and without bands. It all comes down to April 9 when he will, of course, kick the whole thing off at the Rockwood Music Hall in his adopted town.

“The Rockwood is a critical songwriter spot,” Howard effuses, beginning to percolate with excitement over the prospect of kicking off the tour of his life in this little Lower East Side room of maybe 150 people; all eyes upon him, all of them knowing this is an audition of sorts, a precursor for what is to come; an auspicious milieu for someone clutching at the next rung of success.

“I look at the states like I looked at Europe in 2010, 2011,” says Howard. “For me, it’s a blank canvas and I want to build something the way I built it in Europe, pre-Voice, and that is this tour. It’s building blocks; maybe do some radio campaigning and all the rest of it, but for me its touring and live performing, that’s the biggest thing, because without the fans you really have nothing going on, you know? I don’t care who you are, if you don’t have fans you go away very, very quickly. Having toured with Eric (Hutchinson) and Tyrone (Wells) last year, tickets are selling pretty well. So we are off to a good start and it’s going to be about padding that.”

“I’m all about just going for it with love songs. Just tell it how it is.”

I decided to meet up with Howard after seeing his solo performance opening for the aforementioned pop songsmith, Eric Hutchinson last October at the Highline Ballroom. It was easy to hear right away how these infectious songs could be bound for bigger productions, as a more than distracting sign pronouncing NICK in lights hung above him. It was an interesting dichotomy of humble opening act trying to win hearts and minds playing his songs in the most direct way possible while unabashedly being heralded by this bombastic exclamation.

One particular number stood out, a shamelessly transparent love song with a rousing refrain called “Super Love” from his latest album, Living In Stereo. The room seemed to come alive when he hit the chorus and belted to the rafters as open an expression of raw emotion as one could hope to hear in those environs. But the crowd ate it up, proving that Howard is indeed beginning to reach his core audience; those who ignore the shackles of cool irony for the naked joy of song for song’s sake.

“The love song is the one thing that everyone in the world understands and you don’t even need to understand the language,” says Howard, proudly. “I was singing in European countries where people have broken English and they still know what I am singing about because love is beyond words. ‘Super Love’ is just that. It wrote itself. I wrote it with a friend of mine in L.A. (Justin Gray, whose resume includes working with Mariah Carey, John Legend, David Bisbal, Luis Fonsi, Joss Stone, and Amy Winehouse), and it didn’t take us very long. You just go for it, you write a love song. I am not one who is fazed by lyrics being cheesy. I don’t care about that.”

When pressed about toeing the invisible musical line of being openly expressive and professionally manipulative, Howard is defiant. “I mean the song is called ‘Super Love’,” he laughs. “I remember when we made it obvious that this song is not going to be like Megadeth, and I loved that and I embraced it. I think people want to hear that stuff. I’ve had people who have emailed me having heard that song and they have played it as their first dance at their wedding or walking down the aisle and that justifies it, ya know? If someone can’t express how they feel about someone, at least through a song they might be able to. I’m all about just going for it with love songs. Just tell it how it is.”

And telling it ‘how it is’ translates to how Howard prefers to connect to this growing audience.

“I like presenting my songs both ways,” he says, ordering up another tea. “I really like the intimacy of the solo show where you can talk about what you are singing about in the lyrics and you really have people’s attention, but I also love rocking out with a full band. You can do so many more things with a full band that you can’t do solo and vice versa, so I think a nice healthy balance of the two is the best and that’s kind of what I try to do.”

“I really like the intimacy of the solo show where you can talk about what you are singing about in the lyrics and you really have people’s attention, but I also love rocking out with a full band.

Howard gets fidgety when he talks about performing. It is painfully obvious this has been his sanctuary through good times and bad; the stage – his comfort zone, where he can do what he loves, what he has always loved, sharing his talents with people.

“I was really, really young when I got a video of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and I just watched it until the VHS ran out,” recalls Howard, as if it was happening for the first time. “It was the entertainment thing that really struck me, the effect you can have on other people just from singing and dancing. Then I started playing guitar at seven when I heard The Beatles and then when I was a teenager I was lucky enough to be in the UK when Brit Pop came about, Oasis and Blur, these great bands. That’s when I started writing and never stopped.”

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Howard embraces songwriting as much as the showmanship bug he encountered at age seven. He composes on guitar and what he derisively calls “songwriter piano”, and his methods vary from working off clever titles that pop into his head or the gathering of random melodies that he snatches from the either and blathers into a mobile recorder. He’s recently picked up the discipline of co-writing, which he admits allows him to get out of his head and share experiences that bring to light more universal themes.

“I find it easier if someone says, ‘Write a song about this today.’  Okay, so now I have something I have to focus on; it has to be about this subject,” explains Howard. “So I try and do that to myself sometimes. I’ll say, ‘Nick, write a song about this today.’ If I just sit there and try to see what the song is than that can work…but it can take a long time. You might spend two years writing a song to see what it’s about. I heard Chris Martin say he has no idea what ‘Yellow’ is about and it’s Coldplay’s biggest hit! Yet he has no idea what the meaning of it is. Sometimes songs are just a reflection of your subconscious or whatever it is.”

Howard’s anxious enthusiasm to bust out in the U.S. is amplified by the fact that he is an independent artist, as are so many of the new and quite frankly established ones nowadays; the record label route becoming less and less an imperative and more and more hampering. “I went through a year on a big label and I played maybe 150 concerts and they didn’t come to one of them,” he sighs. “How can you sell a product that you have never seen?”

And there is the always-enticing creative control allowed by technology and democratized distribution channels. “I think if you can create something by yourself you are in such a better space than just signing to a major label, then it’s always yours,” Howard says with vigor. “With a major label, you’re giving away a lot for a small chance at success. At that point it doesn’t really belong to you anyway. If I want to go play a show tomorrow in Germany, then I can book that in a second. If I want to record a song on ITunes, I can do that in a day. The goal for me for so long was to get on a label, on Sony or Warner. I got there and I was like; ‘Are you listening to me?’ They didn’t even know me.”

Howard has since incorporated (Satellite Music) and runs his own label, which he describes as fully functional, from hiring studio musicians, choosing touring bands, public relations, you name it. And it all culminates – performance, business and music – on his first U.S. headlining tour.

For all intents and purposes these career-defining concerts will feature music from 2014’s Living In Stereo, by his own admission his first collection of pure pop songs that range from hummable ditties, go-for-it ballads, and genre-shifting dancables, all of it acting as a playground for his impeccably emotive vocals. Although deep down Howard considers himself a singer/songwriter in the traditional sense, and his previous work reflects this, the new material is a concerted effort to combine his love of performance with the music. “I was actually thinking about the live show when I wrote and recorded these songs,” he says. “I was trying to make an album that can be a show.”

This makes sense, since Living In Stereo unfurls as if a Nick Howard concert libretto, moving listeners around his many affections for different genres, from his obvious comfortable zone in the romantic ballad “No Ordinary Angel”, the new single, to the upbeat showstopper “Dancing As One” or the playful, “Life Is Great (& I Love Everyone)”and the oddly funk-laden “Laser Beam”, and the aforementioned crowd-boosting “Super Love”.  It also effectively reveals Howard’s penchant to take somber themes with stinging lyrics and place them in a toe-tapping whistler like “You Can’t Break A Broken Heart”.

“I like writing like that because I always think that songwriting is often trying to make something good out of something bad; trying to turn a bad situation into something good,” says Howard. “I think by doing that you can actually deal with something easier by putting a positive spin or flair. So yeah, ‘Can’t Be Friends’ is about having to un-friend your ex on Facebook and stop them from stalking, but it’s got this fun little cowboy, Nashville thing going on behind it. It’s so silly that you kind of have to address that with music. So it’s got this sort of whistling melody in it, which again is a sad idea that your heart’s broken, but by putting a little whistle in there and just making it kind of funny it makes the whole idea of it easier to deal with. I think that is what song writing is, therapy.  So you can achieve the role of therapy with music, even if the lyrics are really dark.”

Howard gives you the whole package, musically and lyrically. Watching him play his unapologetically effusive songs, it’s obvious he cannot hold back, and his appreciation for what the audience expects from him, his relentless pursuit of song as a connecting lifeline between artist and listener, is palpable in the performance. The release of Live in Stereo, a strong representation of his recent European swing, is a fine example of what you can expect when you see him play. Less live album than celebration of fan and performer, it underlines a man and his music perfectly.

But trust me, if you catch Nick Howard on this tour, and you surely should, leave the ironic cool at home and bring the whistling, sing-song, silly part of yourself and just let it go.

After all, this is how he’s completed the journey from that 22 year-old wide-eyed dreamer to the cusp of international stardom; one song at a time.

 

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INDIANA DREAMIN’‏

Aquarian Weekly
4/8/15

REALITY CHECK

James Campion

INDIANA DREAMIN’
Theocracy Hoosier Style Goes Belly Up

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
– Matthew 16:6

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the freedom to “hate” and the monumental difference between some college dink singing racist songs and the institutionalization of discrimination. And there could be no better example of the latter than what went down this week in Indiana with its fancy “religious freedom” law.Religious-Freedom-Law

What we are talking about here is the state protecting the right for any business to deny service to a certain segment of people based on religious beliefs without the threat of being sued. Seeing how most of America, specifically a significant portion of the business community, including large corporations like Wal-Mart, along with the political and media contingent, has gone ballistic over this goofy thing, we have to try to see the point, before carrying on our own fun-sized bashing.

Those who drafted and signed it into law, most notably Republican Governor Michael Spence, argue that it is patently unconstitutional for anyone to be forced to serve someone if their customer’s lifestyle is antithetical to their religious belief. And while religion has no bearing on the business world – some purported founders like, say, Jesus or Mohammad might argue the entire fiduciary concept is antithetical to religion itself, but let’s not approach that easy conclusion – it does prevent frivolous lawsuits from mucking up the court.

Sure, who wants the right to fight discrimination in court?

The other argument for the law is that it is religious freedom that is being discriminated against. Shouldn’t people be able to do anything they want based on their religious beliefs, including ignoring civil right laws?

Nope.

That kind of nonsense is called theology, or to use the Islamic term, Sharia Law. This is just the Christian version.

This is no law that protects religious freedom. It is a cleverly spiteful rejection of the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality that is being fought vehemently by atavistic bigots all over this great nation. And yes, if you think another taxpaying citizen does not deserve the same right as you based on the difference in their skin color, gender, sexual orientation or whatever, you are indeed a bigot. It’s fine, live with it. I too am a proud bigot. I think people who base legal precedent on religious beliefs are idiots and should get over themselves and their half-baked illusions and stop pestering the intellectual and cultural evolution of the rest of us.

Feels good to admit it. Embrace your bigotry.

However, take that bigotry and make it law, we’ve got problems.

Fun pertinent fact: Indiana is the birthplace of the Klu Klux Klan, but I digress

First of all, religious freedom is already protected by the First Amendment. It is clear and no one has ever argued this. When marriage equality is the law of the land, and it will be, so please stop being the horse-and-buggy set trying to stop the advent of the automobile, no church, synagogue, mosque or Scientology hall will be expected to, or more to the point, be forced to conduct gay ceremonies.

The government or the shift in cultural winds can and will never intersect with religion. That is sacrosanct and it should be. Since embracing the beauty and majesty of the Rastafari, I am glad local officials are allowing me to smoke my faith’s requisite copious amounts of ganja unimpeded.

The previous notion of fantasy was brought to you by hypocritical discrimination against certain religions that don’t fit in with the fascist evangelical narrative. We now return to our screed already in progress

Let me be clear, even though I think religion is an insipid and dangerous tool of the oppressed, I am not mocking its use. Feel free to be a snake charmer for all I care. It’s just that when you speak in theological terms it is impossible to balance the morality of your customers. You see, if you are truly a Christian insulted and disgusted by the homosexual lifestyle and you feel it condemned by your God, then you must also be careful not to do business with anyone who is divorced or has coveted anything at anytime in their lives or failed to honor their parents or killed anyone, and by the way, good luck with that. We have all killed; you and me. We give money to the government and that government drops bombs on people, thus according to scripture and the Ten Commandments, we are murders, period. You want to be true to the letter of the almighty God? Face it, our bigotry is the least of our issues.

What I have described above is cultish behavior. America is not a cult. It is a republic based on laws, one of those very important laws defends your right to believe and worship to your heart’s content, but it is not an easy-pass to heap those beliefs on the rest of us and it sure as hell doesn’t provide the avenue to make a law that enforces an individual’s religious belief over another’s civil right. That is what political scientists call coo-coo.

Also, do we now have to pass a litmus test to see if someone will take our money? This is where we’re going? If I gamble, I can’t get a milkshake? What about my choice of hair style or code of dress or if my type of music is questionable? And, by the way, who decides this? God?

Which God?

And once you pick the God, I assume it will undoubtedly be the Christian God, which is a Trinity God and is adhered to the existence and teachings of Jesus Christ, who said, and I paraphrase, to not judge lest you be judged and who was absolutely without question an anti-religious revolutionary who surrounded himself with “sinners” and pissed on the Temple and its leaders with unflinching glee. That God? Yeah, okay. Nice try.

That kind of nonsense is called theology, or to use the Islamic term, Sharia Law. This is just the Christian version.

But, alas, stupidity has its advantages. This thing was so off-the-charts dumb it has scared the shit out of people who couldn’t care any less if gays marry or not, but are not so sure they want some religious nut-job deciding whether they can get a cup of coffee.

There is a pretty good chance that Indiana will be this generation’s Stonewall. It could and should place the final rung on the ladder to marriage equality and eradicate once and for all this latest in a long line of discriminatory laws and battles to keep our citizens from equal rights.

Go Hoosiers!

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MIDDLE EAST BLOOD JUGGLE

Aquarian Weekly
4/1/15

REALITY CHECK

James Campion

MIDDLE EAST BLOOD JUGGLE
or How To Hold Onto A Fistful of Rain & Not Have Too Many People Killed

Now that the bloody coup in Yemen has finally transpired and anarchy is the rule of the day, things have become extremely grim to the greater hopes this country harbors for a manageable Middle East. This has been our red herring since before World War II. It is our addiction; the junky U.S. Hell, this finger-in-the-dam illusion had its moments, but it also has an expiration date, and it has come due. blood_juggle2

Untenable is a kind word to describe our current events there, another more accurate has a military slant, FUBAR. And while the United States, in all its completely delusional might, believes it has a hand in this – beyond the hand that helped usher this inevitable madness along – there is little that can be done beyond containment. And the containment option did not work well for the British or any previous empire, so good luck with that.

Yemen certainly complicates things on the Iranian front. All this talk about Benjamin Netanyahu’s grandstand in front of congress a couple of weeks ago and his shameless flip-flop-a-go-go re-election being some kind of influence on all this is laughable. The United States is influenced by Israel the way a jackhammer is curtailed by the sidewalk. Israel is America’s bitch. It will do what we tell it and shut up when it needs to shut up. If this was up for debate then the U.S. would have let Israel retaliate during the first Gulf War instead of sucking it up. Israel exists to put fear into OPEC, nothing more. Netanyahu may be fooled by his influence, but we should not be.

No, Iran wants chaos in Yemen and the U.S. does not, or let me rephrase that, Saudi Arabia does not. And while there are strong indications that at least something can be resolved in slowing down its proposed nuclear ambitions through a multi-nation deal and its role in fighting the suddenly uber-important spread of ISIS, Iran cannot be allowed to mess with the Saudis. The U.S. is Saudi Arabia’s bitch and therefore we must put our cards in another cultural civil war that no one will win, but we will somehow be responsible to clean up.

Before we continue our review of FUBAR 2015, let’s get a few things straight: Every time the United States has conducted any military operation in the Middle East it ends in disaster, including the first Gulf War that appeared gangbusters until it lead to the emboldening of Saddam Hussein and its left-overs convincing congress to invade the nation and turn it into a tinderbox. Not to mention that we suck at war now. It is so bad that no one, not even the hawks in Washington, take this option seriously anymore. I have heard moans and laughter at events connected to early presidential campaign stops by Scott Walker and Ted Cruz when they start talking about military solutions in Iraq or Iran. No one with half a brain thinks the U.S Army can do anything but further inflame the Middle East, so believe me when I tell you that anyone who makes this point in congress or running for president is patently insane and should be shunned and humiliated.

This mess in Yemen also uncovers another marching line in our parade of delusions, Syria. The gory quagmire that is left of this country has been yanked into the ruin of Iraq and the Iranian issue due to the fact that since ISIS has become the enemy du jour both the Syrian regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad, who the U.S. has called a tyrant and worked with the Russians to curtail his use of chemical weapons on his citizens, has been an invaluable ally, along with, you guessed it; Iran. The Russians, embroiled in its own international quagmire in the Ukraine, has stood with the U.S on both fronts; supporting Syria’s fight against the push of ISIS and putting the screws to Iran over its nuclear program.

By the way, Russia scares the shit out of Netanyahu, and it should. One of the reasons, among many self-serving and some arguable, that he has gone ballistic to scuttle any deal with Iran. Something the IDF will not admit, but knows could be a problem, is Russia’s meddling in the Middle East, since OPEC has imploded its paper thin, oil-based economy in the last four months. Suddenly the pivot for Russian President Vladimir Putin to arms deals and ISIS killing could be a tricky problem for Israel, who spends all of its defense policy propaganda on Arabs.

Here’s a fun kicker; as recently as this week Iran, in a Netanyahu/Putin type photo-op maneuver to try and not seem too cushy with the U.S. and appear to not sell-out its country’s myopia decided to cease the defense of Iraq’ city of Tikrit against ISIS in protest to the United States’ continuing bombing campaigns there. This proves that once again while the military might of the U.S. resonates with the UN and the “we have to do something” crowd, it only mucks up the works.

This brings us to the final bit of juggling, and that is something we have covered here for sometime; the Sunni versus Shiite undercurrent, which is not so much an undercurrent as the primary reason for these weird alliances and bizarre massacres. There is and will be nothing 21st century diplomacy or military action can do to put a fancy ribbon on this nightmare. It ends in annihilation. And while it seems defeatist and nihilistic to suggest such a thing, it really makes no sense to try and put the proverbial square peg into the round hole either. No amount of money, negotiations, fast talk or tough talk or more to the point bombing or dead Americans is going to change this fact. It is the worst of civil wars, a religious/cultural one. And to be involved, which we definitely are, folks, whoever is president or controls congress or what year it is or who stands on what side of the ideological fence, will lead to bloody ruin.

Untenable is a kind word to describe our current events there, another more accurate has a military slant, FUBAR.

However, I think it is important for the smaller voices – mine being one of them – to at least point out the futility of trying to get this thing under some semblance of control. It was that kind of hubris that pretty much put this stuff in motion. Whether it’s the Shah of Iran creating the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or the bolstering of Saddam Hussein to combat Khomeini or the ousting of Hussein to protect OPEC or the Mujahideen to combat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or the second Iraq war to combat Hussein or whatever it is you call what is going on now, it is not a means to a positive end. Never has been, so what should make a difference now?

Okay, so maybe you say at the end of this, what is the United States supposed to do, nothing?

I ask: Has the United States tried doing nothing before?

If nothing is the alternative to our fingerprints being all over this horror show, I say, yes, nothing.

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THE EQUALITY OF HATE‏

Aquarian Weekly
3/18/15
REALITY CHECK

James Campion

THE EQUALITY OF HATE
Or The Delicate Balance of Us

Here’s one thing we know; bigotry, in any way, shape or form is never going away. Okay, so maybe if a meteor hits the earth or it floods over like 98 percent of scientists claim or if a mass virus kills the human race. Otherwise, failing that kind of calamity, bigotry is a keeper. Whether racist, misogynist, homophobic, jingoistic, cultural, religious, anti-rich, anti-poor, anti-government, idiosyncratic celebrity loathing, the idea of arguing that this is somehow rare and abhorrent behavior is silly. Everyone has negative thoughts about some people or some things, just as we have positive thoughts and opinions about other things. This is called humanity. It is what we are and it never fails to astound me that it surprises anyone, much less engenders the kind of sudden outrage in us. It’s as if people are slapping their cheeks in amazement that the sun is there every morning.thomas_jefferson_portrait

Humans – all humans, everywhere for the entire time they have been around – judge; harshly. Sometimes we do so with reason (a familial or cultural guidance, or an experience, both personal and general) and often for no good reason at all. Not everyone can know everything, and many of us refuse to enlighten ourselves to the basic panoply of humanity anyway – and even if we did actually know everything, the enlightenment would likely lead to a myopic conclusion that would only serve to feed the existing ignorance we cling to like a lifeline. Humans casually find something troubling about whatever it is that is different or whatever it is that makes them feel uncomfortable. It’s our thing. Anthropologists have pretty much concluded that it’s our main thing.

I think we see these notions as pretty much fundamental truths of being able to use our senses and our sense-memory and our nature-v-nurture to form completely reasoned or irrational fears and hatreds for some other group of people. It is patently wrong to consider this a deviation of the norm or a form of monstrosity. Hatred is a pure emotion, like love. It is a waste of intellect and energy to fight this. It just is. Our nature can no more change than our basic DNA. We have hair and fingernails and brains that immediately differentiate one thing from another, and this allows us to group people and construct generalities about them that eventually evolve into either worship and inspiration or devolve into bigotry and revulsion.

Most behavior, even acceptable social types of behavior, is engrained. It comes from a primal place; like people believing in angels or being afraid of spiders or feeling more comfortable in cities as opposed to the woods or vice versa. It stands to reason that if you are more adapted to one thing then the other thing would appear to be something you do not like. It’s not only ignorance or the fear of the unknown; you just don’t like it. Period.

I get the feeling sometimes, like this week when that video of the frat kids from Oklahoma were singing some frat song about “niggers”, that we see this as a shocking occurrence because it reflects in each of us what our own set of bigotries rears. It really doesn’t matter what these kids were singing; could have been “faggots” or “cunts” or “kikes” or “crackers” or “towel-heads” or “fascist right-wingers” or “liberal weenies”. Because when I hear any of these terms I lump them all together into a coagulation of our basic impulse. This is not unlike people trying to figure out why a man would arm himself to the teeth and go out one sunny morning and kill kindergarten children or why people plan for years to hijack planes to ram into giant buildings or what the hell the Nazis were thinking. There is no actual, reasonable explanation for these actions (admittedly and thankfully, all of these are outliers to normal bigotry), but rest assured these reactions are purely based on the natural us-v-them mentality that is made manifest in the core of our humanity.

I have no idea why these kids found it joyful to sing songs with hateful lyrics about a race of people anymore than school pride giving them a sense of self-worth. If someone wants to whittle these reasons down to youth or booze or peer pressure or a cultural miasma, or even if they wish to see it as endemic of the Southern culture rich with anti-everything-but-white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant rhetoric, actions and traditions, they certainly can. But as much as we cringe to accept it, these are humans doing human things, just like the celebration of the Selma March last week was our society celebrating humans displaying human things, like rationality, bravery, passion, solidarity and defiance against institutional oppression.

This is why Thomas Jefferson could very well be the American avatar, and precisely why he was chosen to pen what would become our Declaration of Independence; a man who aimed for the highest honor of humanity in demanding our engendered equality while at the same time owning humans. He is our yin and yang. He fills both our base nature and our highest aspirations. Jefferson is our collective id and super ego, our ethos and pathos; a vain, racist, dreamer, poet statesman; the shining symbol of our schizophrenia.

This is precisely why you should ignore talk about our society being post-racist. This is like saying Americans are post-human.

Sure, I was stunned, and still am, that this nation elected an African-American president and considers a woman the frontrunner to succeed him. Stunned. Not because we have not come a long way from slavery and lynching and denying basic civil rights to taxpaying citizens or allowing women the right to vote and kind of coming close to earning what a man earns in the workplace and no longer finding it charming to being treated as if not deserving a crack at dignity, and we are kind of sort of coming to terms with the idea that anyone regardless of sexual orientation can play in our social sandbox. Nope. It’s because it was done in the face of our deepest desires, to judge something not the “norm”, or whatever it is that our traditions allow, as unacceptable.

Okay, so that brings me to the second racial story of the week, the shocking (being facetious for a moment) revelation that the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department has been working under a racist construct. This is where, as Jefferson rightly saw it, human nature must be curtailed. Of course cops are humans and therefore have prejudices as stated in the previous paragraphs, but when it erodes the systemic nature of law and order then it needs to be changed. This is how the Civil Rights Act gets done. This is how suffrage succeeded and how marriage equality will rightfully soon be the law of the land. In other words, people can continue treating each other as if some are better or worse than others, but the system shall do all it can to never reflect it.

Hatred is a pure emotion, like love. It is a waste of intellect and energy to fight this.

This is the difference between some asshole screaming racial epitaphs during a sporting event and a racist owning an NBA team. This is the difference between some goon from the neighborhood telling you that women who are raped cannot conceive a child and a senator espousing it. This is the difference between people being afraid of Muslims and an Alabama law that curtails their religion. This is the difference between people protesting against Planned Parenthood Clinics and states systemically reducing them. And this is the difference between a dickless frat boy singing songs and a police department targeting African Americans.

You see, the concept of America, at its best, really, is when we take human nature and put it on systemic trial. We accept through free speech and a free press and a democratic open system of government that we would eventually make sure that none of it is corrupted by our baser instincts. Freedom is at once being able to hate and not let it discriminate who gets to hate more.

We shall all hate equally.

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WHERE THERE IS NO THERE…THERE

Aquarian Weekly
3/11/15
REALITY CHECK

James Campion

WHERE THERE IS NO THERE…THERE
The Perfect Political Storm Rolls In and Out of Washington

The dubious but utterly entertaining Washington news this week centered on a speech Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered to the United States Congress. Sold as some kind of diplomatic mission of great import between unwavering allies with undertones of disrespect for normal international and domestic protocol, the event was entirely political in every way, shape and form. It is anything but rare to have pure political theater transpire in D.C. – that’s pretty much the point of it – but for those of us enamored with such shameless showboating this one had a singular quality. It was the Hope Diamond of political theater, an aurora borealis moment, a political junkie’s Woodstock, if you’ll allow.obama-netanyahu

In a nutshell this baby was Shakespeare’s yummy “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In this case we had three idiots; heads of state butting over diplomatic policies starring a lame-duck president reconfiguring a foreign policy legacy, a lesser party of power using the legislative branch of the U.S. government as a backdrop for another country’s national election, and a prime minister desperately trying to use this unabashedly staged affair as a campaign cudgel.

Classic shit.

But remember, this is all political melodrama that means less than nothing beyond the massive egos involved. Like most playacting, whether by children on a sugar jag or dogs rolling on their backs soliciting belly rubs, this is pure grandstanding for grandstanding sake.

Let’s dissect:

What Netanyahu claimed to be accomplishing with this maneuver was to stress his county’s concerns over an ongoing diplomatic deal being hammered out by the Obama Administration and Iran to halt its alleged nuclear weapons development. On the shiny surface, considering the madness that is Iran, this seems like a reasonable gesture if one ignores the history of Netanyahu as a fervent veteran of the Israel Defense Force during Israel’s most triumphant military moment, 1968’s Six Day War, and serving fanatically in the special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal during its most aggressive period of raids in the late 60s, early 70s.

Simply put, Netanyahu, the first ever state-born secularist Israeli to become prime minster, is, has been, and will always be embarrassingly unaware of anything approaching the concept of diplomacy. He is a military man and has made no bones about it since he emerged on Israel’s political scene in the 1990s. I was in Jerusalem in the spring of 1996 the day he was handed the gig, standing within a stone’s throw of the Western Wall amongst a weirdly agitated and euphoric crowd bellowing erratically in both Arabic and Hebrew. His election was immediately divisive and he served his first term with unapologetic intransigence rarely seen in his position, which is the power arm of America’s interest in the Middle East.

Granted, the argument for Netanyahu’s heralded trip here among those who are not the Israeli prime minster is that Iran has spent decades shouting this and that about obliterating the Satan that is Israel. Yes, and the sun comes up tomorrow. Netanyahu, whose only plan is military force, was already laughed out of the United Nations for telling the world Iran was weeks from having a nuclear weapon in 2012. Nothing new here, except that it includes one key factor; the prime minster is up for a heavily challenged re-election two weeks to the day he delivers said speech. His country is mired in economic and housing crises due to his apparently abysmal domestic policies and he’s being investigated for some kind of tax fraud.

Shit, it was never hard to figure Netanyahu out, which is an enviable trait. He is as transparent as they come, unwaveringly patriotic and fervently paranoid, a dangerous combination in the region in which he plies his trade. But he is also a pathetic megalomaniac with no compunction about using any method available to him in order to increase his bloated sense of personal destiny; in other words, excellent D.C. material.

I remember lying in bed in my hotel room at the Galei Kinneret on the banks of the Sea of Galilee watching Netanyahu during the first prime minister debate ever to be internationally broadcast and conducted entirely in English, and this is what I wrote in Trailing Jesus, the book I was researching in May of ’96: “I am enamored by the slick movements and sharp quips of a tanned and silver-maned Bibi (his nickname), tossing aside notions that he will ignore all but Jewish Israelis if elected. He is articulate and funny, and does not hesitate to confront any issue with aplomb. The more calculated and efficient (Shimon) Peres is insightful and poignant, thinking out his answers before replying, but he barely talks above a whisper and does not possess a single dramatic hand movement to accentuate his points. Peres, I decide before drifting off to sleep, is doomed.”

So you have a bold, Teddy Roosevelt character working out a deal with the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives when he was denied access to the Capital by the White House due, according to the Obama Administration, to an unwritten bullshit rule that heads of state not interact when one is embroiled in an election season. The rule is bullshit because it happens all the time, too many to note here. Simply, both the president and the prime minster were engaging in competing political grandstands. The former teetering on the final stages of either a triumphant, groundbreaking deal with one of the great enemies of the Middle East to cease its supposed march to nuclear capabilities or a disastrous appeasement of a rogue nation, and the latter strategically using its most powerful and influential ally to appear vaingloriously imperial.

For his part, House Speaker John Boehner used this opportunity to stick it to the president. Once again, on the shiny surface, Boehner, and his place as the national face of the Republican Party, appears to side with the tough-talking Netanyahu and his dire-speak of siding with terrorists being the bane of the free world. The move, proffering this unprecedented invitation to a prime minister during an election campaign against the will of a sitting president, gains him much needed political points with the core of his party, who has recently made him once again look like a feckless tool of obstruction. After spending days condescendingly assuring the national press that he had a deal in place to fund Homeland Security, his constituency jobbed him by voting it down. He is weak and ineffectual and needs this bad.

Like most playacting, whether by children on a sugar jag or dogs rolling on their backs soliciting belly rubs, this is pure grandstanding for grandstanding sake.

Of course, for his part in this passion play, the president could have avoided all this by ignoring the unwritten bullshit rule to quickly and quietly meet with Netanyahu and send him on his way. However, in another calculated maneuver, Obama’s snubbing of a prime minister had less to do with avoiding the influencing of an election and more to do with Netanyahu screwing around with his precious Iranian deal by yammering jingoistic nonsense in his nation’s capital building.

For all intents and purposed, a foreign primes minister suckered the United States Congress into hosting his campaign shenanigans, a U.S. president looks completely inconsequential on the world stage, and Benjamin Netanyahu continues his unchecked public buffoonery. This was the political equivalent of a perfect storm, something you might find once or twice in a lifetime outside an outlandish Hollywood script. But none of it, none, was news. Showbiz rarely is.

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MISE EN DREAD

Aquarian Weekly
2/25/15
REALITY CHECK

James Campion

MISE EN DREAD
In Praise of Cabaret

Je suis enchanté

When preparing to write about a musical this week, I noticed something interesting; outside of politics and social issues, the occasional – almost never serious – foray into sport and pop culture, and the odd, completely sideways satirical stuff to entertain myself, I have dedicated a noticeable number of columns to plays. And it curiously finds its way into Reality Check. Now, this means next to nothing to readers of this space, especially those on my mailing list and where this thing ends up in syndication or on the Huffington Post and blogged all over the Internet. This is mainly because many of those readers have no idea I write about music, review shows and interview performers in the guise of my Contributing Editor position at the Aquarian Weekly. I usually separate my intrigue with the arts and mostly pop culture to another side of my readership. All that stuff is on my web site, if anyone’s really interested, which I am almost sure you are not.24cabaret-blog480

Yet plays find their way here, and sometimes television or a smattering of films too. I may have written about five to ten films in the 18 years I’ve penned this column, and that’s pushing it and probably includes documentaries. But the plays, the live theater experience, and how it fits into what I guess I deem as the audience for this column, appear to have been my choice to share. And this will be one of those times.

The theater experience of seeing the 1966 musical, Cabaret (which I only knew previously from stills and the ultra-campy 1972 film of the same name) that is currently staged at the Roundabout Theater in the original location of the notorious Studio 54 (best known for its 1970s ultra-decadence of overt sexuality and drug frenzy set to disco music) is stunning. The entire place, echoing the ghosts of Manhattan glitterati, is decked out as an early 1930s’ German cabaret with scantily clad waiters and waitresses gliding beneath seductive red lights amidst a generally gory atmosphere of mischief. Alcohol flows and music is forever peppered throughout the place.

And that is cool and I highly recommend going to the thing for that alone, however one aspect of the experience in particular struck me about the play; its wonderfully conflated hyper-sense of mystery and dread. It is akin to a kid’s ride at Disney wherein every part of the outer senses of reality is jettisoned to reprogram you. And then the music starts and the play begins and the dancers and emcee are in your face and you are partly entertained, but mostly stricken by something deeper.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Cabaret, I will leave you to check Wikipedia, but the overall theme is simply a glimpse of a damaged society submerged in the insatiable craving of the human id, shedding the terrible notion of a collective for the pure, unadulterated joys (or numbing) of hedonism, which is bitch-slapped into the stark reality that they are suddenly expected to be fascists. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

The characters caught in this swirling epic are not unlike those in the 1997 film, Titanic; there is a Somerset Maugham type romance between a mostly lazy and probably delusional American novelist visiting Berlin to “be inspired” (yuk! yuk!) and a freeloading young English girl, who misinterprets her slutty existence for stardom (a Paris Hilton who can carry a tune). There is another middle-aged romance between a patrician flophouse owner and a Jewish fruit salesman, who she falls in love with and then kicks out to avoid Nazi persecution.

The backdrop for all of this is, of course, a cabaret, wherein performers (including the band, which plays Kurt Weil style music live on the stage) in all manner of suggestive undress, sexual orientation, and frighteningly Goth stage make-up, cavort to playful drinking tunes with lyrics that celebrate screwing, substance abuse and money. Their ringleader, the emcee, patrols over the activity, at first leading its mayhem, and then observing its fallout – constantly hovering over its inevitable disintegration like Poe’s raven, and, then, in a moment of brilliant satire, joins its destruction at the hands of monsters.

What was memorable for me and the wife, who incidentally hates musicals, but loved this and counts it as one of the two to three finest things she has seen on Broadway, is that the horror of its subtext, which is toyed with in the film from what I recall, is laid bare and put up as if Kristallnacht set to oom-pah music. It is that amazing sense of disjointed dichotomy that you are tapping your foot to racist-induced murder, and not in that playful Sweeney Todd, bawdy English way, but the subversive German balls-to-the-wall-not-interested-in subtlety-it’s-time-to-get-real-Nietzschean way. You know that way? No? You need to see this play.

This version is directed by Sam Mendez, who made the last great American film of the 20th century, American Beauty, which I am pretty certain is one of the five-to-ten films I wrote about here, and is wonderfully performed by its two stars, Emma Stone (who will have been done with her run by the time you read this, but from what I hear is ably replaced by Sienna Miller) and Alan Cumming, who is so terrifyingly hilarious and erotically threatening, his visage and voice do not easily fade from your consciousness long after the music wanes and your wandering down 7th avenue in a slight snow shower and you settle into the Monkey Bar on East 54th and wonder what the fuck just happened? Was I supposed to be entertained by this or transformed?

I know I’m getting into Dorothy Parker territory here; “disorientation is the font of transformative theater”, but there is something about art that punches you in the gut. Maybe it was the four Hendricks’s and tonics I swilled during it, but there is a lasting affect to Cabaret that hits from all angles.

It is that amazing sense of disjointed dichotomy that you are tapping your foot to racist-induced murder

Okay, I am sure there are people reading this right now wondering if this is even an endorsement for something they would want to endure, like when someone gets off a insane rollercoaster, falls flat on his face, gets up, and begs you to go next. But for me there is hardly anything better in musical theater than the “If You Could See Her” number sung teasingly by Cummings, twirling an extra in a gorilla suit, and pulling the audience in the front row into the performance and garnishing laughs, beseeching, “Why can’ they leave us alone?” and then hitting them with the final, concussive lines; “I understand your objection/I grant you the problem’s not small/But if you could see her through my eyes/She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

Then the entire theater goes silent. I mean scary silent, as if all of our respiratory systems shut off.

And the lights go dark.

And you can see and hear dread.

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THE SCOURGE OF BRIAN WILLIAMS & OTHER THINGS

Aquarian Weekly
2/18/15
REALITY CHECK

James Campion

THE SCOURGE OF BRIAN WILLIAMS & OTHER THINGS

It is important to reiterate an obvious dictum: What is done here weekly hardly represents even the slightest hint of journalism. Yet, somehow I consider myself a journalist. I was trained as such by some of the finest minds I have met in my time shuffling around the mortal coil. Yet, my idiosyncratic playfulness in the face of actual journalism (whatever that may be) is a mockery and therefore holds little to no credibility here.Brian-williams-burt

I also need to state that I find that most of the history of journalism in this country – a microcosm of the world at large – has been a heinous goof. I can randomly choose a story from any decade through each century of this democratic experiment and you would, depending on your sensibilities, either be laughing hysterically or horrified. If your sensibilities fall in the category of the overreaction to Brian Williams’ embellishing on and then fabricating a war story from 2006 then you would lean toward the latter.

However, presenting all of that as a preface, I must say, for the record, Brian Williams can no longer seriously continue as the managing editor of the National Broadcasting Company’s news division anymore than he can sit with a straight face and read us the news every evening. He may come back from his suspension (without pay, which is significant when you consider the man rakes in $11 million a year to read aloud in front of a camera; great work if you can get, it, but you can’t because you suck at it), but it really doesn’t matter. We think he is most likely full of shit and that is a detriment to trustworthiness.

It’s like the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl despite cheating their way there. No one with a real sense of facts and decorum think the Patriots title legitimate, but they still won and have a trophy and no one is going to care now, because there is a lot of money and the integrity of the sport at stake and everyone needs to remain silent to this grand deception, so we all feel better about ourselves for watching it happen. We will do the same for Brian Williams on the surface, but not really. We will know he lied about something for little reason but to be interesting, like all of us might lie about stuff to appear interesting or cheat to win a sporting event, but we don’t represent a vocation or a network or a conglomerate trying to perpetuate the idea of being trustworthy.

And let’s face it, trustworthy is such a thorny concept that it’s hard to fathom. There was a time when Walter Cronkite could go on television and tell the American people that the war in Viet Nam is lost and that it was an abject waste of human life and treasure and we kind of accepted it. It cost Lyndon Johnson a second (or third term, depending on what you think those months after JFK was slaughtered counts) and it certainly fueled the campus uprisings that pretty much pulled the wool from the eyes of an entire suckered generation.

But, be that as it may, Williams has some lineage to Uncle Walty, “the most trusted (there’s that word again) man in America”. And for that he cannot be trusted and therefore needs to find something else to do with his time. Maybe he can move into the one place he feels most comfortable, entertainment; the man has appeared on more comedy shows doing bits and/or sitcom appearances than anyone who has ever attempted his job. There are pretty good sources that insist he lobbied to take over for Jay Leno when he boogied from the Tonight Show and maybe that would have been best. No one gives half a fart if Jimmy Fallon makes stuff up; they half expect he will – for laughs.

But before we go, we do need to point out that Williams also comes from this latest generation of network-climbers, both on real television or basic cable (where the real lying hits the highest or lowest bar). This was glaringly palpable during the ramp up and execution of those first crucial months of the terribly bungled fabrication that was the Iraq War, arguably the worst abuse of our government since Watergate, and the national press not only slept on it, but galvanized its ascent, as in giving it a fancy name – Shock & Awe, and embedding its most cherished personnel into the Pentagon’s shenanigans. The most disgusting of all, anchors wearing flag pins covering the action as if it were the World Cup.

My favorite NBC News moment was when in 2002, as the case for war was being pitched by the Bush Administration, the vice president’s office leaked a bogus story to the NY Times about Iraq possessing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons – known today in journalistic circles as the “aluminum tubes ruse”, and then sent Dick Cheney on Meet The Press to quote the article as fact. It is one of the great pieces of underhanded criminal activity ever perpetuated by a sitting vice president, and he used the most trusted forms of the American press to pull it off. Great stuff for Cheney, not so much for the press.

Brian Williams? Well, he is the symptom, my friends. The disease may be harder to “suspend without pay”.

But we covered all of that gory nonsense here as it happened, but now it is ancient history and we ignore it or accept it, because it makes us feel better to do so. In fact, those that backed George W. Bush now claim that President Obama enjoys the same snoozing national press corps, and can you blame them for whining?

Take John King, who still culls a paycheck from CNN despite having told an international audience in the wake of the Boston Marathon terrorist attack that suspects had been apprehended, describing what turned out to be the bogus suspects for nearly an hour. The NY Post even piggybacked this blatant error and splashed on its front page for two straight days these erroneous figures, both of whom turned out to be innocent, with headlines like “Monsters”. Hell, CNN also wrongly reported the Affordable Care Act had been overturned by the Supreme Court and aligned itself with the networks to call Al Gore president of the United States in November of 2000.

And then there is the clown show that is MSNBC and FOX NEWS. Whew, where do you start there?

Brian Williams? Well, he is the symptom, my friends. The disease may be harder to “suspend without pay”.

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THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE MIDDLE CLASS‏

Aquarian Weekly
2/11/15
REALITY CHECK

James Campion

THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE MIDDLE CLASS
A Disjointed Primer from the Front

Here’s the deal: There are too many humans on this planet. Way too many. Before we get into this little dissection of the failing middle class in this country, it is important to get that major flaw out of the way. There are way too many people for almost everything; resources, economy, peaceful living conditions, etc. Sure, we have far too many ideologies and idiosyncrasies and certainly way too many theologies to coexist, and while this is nothing new and has been bemoaned by every civilization since the Incas, when you get right down to it, there’s just too many high-functioning mammals sucking air to make stuff work.mid-class

Now, let’s get down to the American middle class, or whatever is left of it.

Recently, the president of the United States gave his sixth State of the Union address. It was arguably from an aesthetic standpoint his finest speech since his race-relations one back before he was even president. For the most part, Barack Obama has spent the first six years of his presidency either completely bungling general communications or failing to even begin trying; all this despite his talent for speechifying. For my money, it has been his greatest flaw as president, whether you agree with any of his policies or not. He just has no ability to clearly define his position on things.

But during this latest address he pulled no punches. Pointedly, it is coming from a lame-duck echo of his presidency, this “fuck it” stance he has taken since about four months into his second term, which becomes ever more flaccid in the final two years with the legislative branch out of his hands. Nevertheless, the address went full-boar populist and hammered home an interesting little nugget to keep in our kit bags for the 2016 political season; income inequality and the middle class.

In one of the stranger turns in recent years, Republicans like Rand Paul and Paul Ryan, and in a brief mental lapse during his insane flirtation with running for president a third time, Mitt Romney, have been throwing around the notion (not entirely untrue) that Obama’s economy, while turning the corner in many positive ways, has been more beneficial to the top percentile of the nation; the Wall Street crowd mostly, further shedding light on what used to be a Democratic Party trope; the widening gap between top wage earners and the growing poverty line. And while this plays into the “Food Stamp President” narrative, it also belies six years of Republican carping about how Obama is a closet socialist who is going to take your money and give it to lazy-ass crack mothers.

And while there is some truth-telling in this ramp-up to political babble-on (I would like to officially mark that I believe I am the first person to equate the Biblical Mesopotamian stronghold with useless political rhetoric) it misses the point of the middle class entirely. The middle class has never been an organic concept, it wasn’t in Rome and it never was here. It is man-made, or more to the point, federal government made, and since we have no World War or bloody Police Action to help thin the herds and thrust this country into a fabricated economic boom, then we’re going to need to create it out of thin air. And this is not going to be easy.

In order to get perspective on this, let’s revisit the period when perhaps the greatest middle class in modern times (and by modern times I mean like 2,000 years) was created after the human abomination known as World War II.

After a war that finally pulled America out of its Great Depression, following a dozen agonizing years of fits-and-starts, there was a jolt to an economy once hampered by isolationist speculation of doomed proportions that literally created an international juggernaut. This is better known in our history as the G.I. Bill (and to the wonks among us, The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act); and never has there been a more singular marriage of socialism and capitalism ever concocted by a governing body anywhere. It was quite simply in economic terms a perfect storm, manipulated wholly by a fat-and-happy federal government to fashion a middle class – a consumer-based, freewheeling machine worthy of victors.

The United States government used the haunt of patriotism and the always effective “support the troops” play to impose an implausible tax burden on the wealthy of between 70 to 91 percent to provide returning soldiers low-cost mortgages and low-interest loans (in most cases zero interest) to start businesses and purchase homes. The sweeping bi-partisan bill signed by FDR included cash payments of full tuition and living expenses to attend universities, high schools or pay for specific vocational training, as well as a full year of unemployment compensation. This combined with private entrepreneurs like William Levitt, who built his eponymously-named town in Long Island, NY for G.I.s following the war with the help of both the state and federal governments – which assisted in fighting local unions to allow a free-work environment along with eventually building the Long Island Railroad and the expansive Long Island Expressway to allow these new workers access to the most industrialized city on earth.

By the mid-50s, some dozen years after WWII and two-dozen after Black Tuesday plunged the nation into an economic disaster, nearly eight million veterans had used the G.I. Bill to create the middle class, which by the end of that decade was the predominant class in the nation and would help give the United States the economic muscle it needed to build roads (the interstate highway system – another federal government creation), invest in technological development (a combined interstate and private banking system manipulated by the federal government) and fill public education facilities with an explosive Baby Boomer generation that, of course, would assist in this idea that there are too many people on this planet.

Eventually, this all-for-one shit got old. This is especially true of the aforementioned Baby Boomers who spent their formative years pissing up the rope of the economic groundswell they enjoyed, which tumbled into the predictable slow collapse of the federal-government-run economy in the 1970s. Unions got bloated. The onset of the Cold War helped erect the ridiculously massive and uncontrollable Military Industrial Complex. The rich elected people to bust up high-tax rates in the 1980s and, well, except for the Internet boom in the 1990s, things began its slow dirge.

The middle class has never been an organic concept, it wasn’t in Rome and it never was here.

It is not a question anymore about the failing middle class, but whether this kind of immense manipulation can happen again? I say no. War is different now. Do you realize we ran two of these things for thirteen or so years with no positive effect on the economy? In fact, the large majority of us sacrificed nothing. And the battle over the role of the federal government in the private sector, which was all the rage until the Second World War, found new voices as a result of the fallacy that a governing body can perpetually prop up an economy.

Forget the fact that the world is a completely different place than in 1945 in every possible way; most significantly our outlook on collective responsibility for the future. Fuck the future. That is our motto. And it may be a good one, a natural thinning of the herd, as opposed to some systemic one based on war and economic machinations. But without that or a massive bloody uprising – not really our thing with all the Internet porn, Netflix, celebrity worship and slack-jawed consumerism of tons of shit we don’t really need, we find ourselves with a dying middle class.

And worst of all, there are too many of us.

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SURPRISE, IT’S GINA ROYALE!

SURPRISE, IT’S GINA ROYALE!
Teenage Singer/Songwriter Sneaks Up on 2015

Gina Royale is recording her first EP of original material. All of 17, the petite, soft-spoken budding singer-songwriter moves about the studio as if it is her bedroom; petting a lazy dog, giggling at the occasional quip, and half-listening as the producer adjusts the levels on what will soon be a drum track for “Tightrope”, a highly stylized mid-tempo slice of pop/rock. You would never guess this is the composer of a track everyone, including her dad, is working hard to realize. And that’s the way Royale likes it.

“I want to surprise people,” she whispers to me later, a wry grin creasing her alabaster, be-freckled face.

gina_bwSurprise people” is exactly what she did a few weeks before I stopped in to see her record at Boonton, New Jersey’s Audio Pilot Studio. She surprised me, for sure. I was asked to emcee an event for a close friend, who had survived cancer – a party/benefit in West Milford boasting a line-up of local bands, food and fun. It was a lazy late-summer day, and the music thus far had been entertaining if not mostly forgettable. Royale’s dad, Andy Rajeckas, a pianist, was set to play instrumentals as the guests partook of the catering.

“My daughter’s going to sing a couple of her songs,” Rajeckas leaned over to inform me seconds before I was supposed to announce him. “Her name is Gina Royale.”

And so I did, condescendingly prompting the audience to give it up for the young, adorably quiet girl for which her daddy ceded his modest stage time. She sat at the keyboard, mumbled something into the microphone, and began to softly play. I probably made it four to five feet off the stage when the voice hit me; bluesy, honest, arrestingly emotive. I turned; half expecting to see if someone else had wrested the mic from this kid. Nope. Royale was kicking ass.

Her set was maybe five songs, all of her own material, save for a very moving rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, which in her hands appeared far more meaningful than I’d heard since the ex-Beatle was gunned down in NYC 34 years ago. Throughout, I could not take my eyes from her, not for dynamic or seductive reasons; it was the voice, and the flow of the songs that seemed achingly mature for someone you might cast in High School Musical.

She received applause, but nothing like what I experienced while working my way through the crowd, such as it was. People were stunned that what they had heard wasn’t a CD or wondered how we suckered an obvious recording artist to play at this thing.

My effusive praise made it to Royale’s dad, who for all intents and purposes is her acting manager. And why not? Wouldn’t a manager make sure his client got on a bill wherein she would debut free of expectation and…well…surprise people? And, of course, her manager/dad told me all about her upcoming recording date and here we are.

I am sitting in a typically ragged studio-type couch watching intently as Royale runs down another number that will appear on the EP, “T-Shirt”, a song she describes as an experiment in taking an innocuous item and placing undo import, as in the t-shirt of a boy possessed by a smitten girl; a charming metaphor for an adolescent heart. “I usually start with the title of the song,” Royale explains, as if describing the building an engine. “I find a unique title and then work out the chorus and find a rhythm to go along with that, work out some lyrics, build a chorus, build whatever comes right before the chorus, and then the rest of the song…in that order.”

Royale’s drummer, Josh Grigsby, on loan from a local band called the Karma Killers, the dad, who added keyboards to the tracks, and producer/studio proprietor, Rob Freeman, who also plays guitars and bass on the project, surround her. I can just about make out that innocently proportioned face, those piercing green eyes, and the obligatory wisp of blonde locks, as she begins to unveil the song – half heartbreak, part defiance, all playfulness. It is already, even without accompaniment, a stellar pop vehicle. Doubtless, anyone would be happy having this as a potential hit. It’s quick to the hook, turns around with panache, and is fueled by the voice that turned a few benefit-goers heads only weeks before.

“I want to hear my songs on the radio,” Royale says later. And although it is an obvious statement millions of dreamers might utter in their spare time, this is a young lady who truly means it. “I want people to enjoy my music. It’s not that I am straying away from my own style just so more people will like it, I love pop music.”

“I want people to enjoy my music. It’s not that I am straying away from my own style just so more people will like it, I love pop music.”

Royale began absorbing music at an early age, beginning on flute and saxophone, then enduring the inevitable piano lessons any daughter of a musician would be expected to, but it was hearing Taylor Swift’s Red at age 14 that made her think in terms of composing. “When that record first came out, I thought the lyrics were so amazing and beautiful and deep and I wanted to write songs like that,” she says. Studying vocals from a classically trained perspective provided her a foundation, but it was one that she fought, as more and more classic pop music began to enter her transom; The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, John Mayer would all work as undercurrents to her craft.

And it is indeed a craft for Royale, whose approach to songwriting echoes the Brill Building era of hit song assembly lines, ala Carol King, Irving Mills, Neil Sadaka, et al. To better underscore this workman like demeanor, she attended a songwriting camp last year at William Paterson University and literally worked at developing her technique of playing with chord progressions, honing melodies, and finding the elusive bridge. “It’s a strategy,” she smiles.

And that strategy will lead her this coming autumn or perhaps even January of 2016 to a college with a heavy emphasis on music. “I want to study contemporary vocals in college, but it’s hard to find a major like that,” says Royale. “Thirty schools in the country have it. The majority of them are in California, but I’m looking at Berklee College of Music in Boston. They are specifically a contemporary music school in general, so their vocal program is only contemporary. I’m also looking at the New School for Jazz Contemporary Music in New York City, The University of the Arts in Philly, and William Paterson University here in New Jersey, which also happens to have that major.”

Even in the quest for high education, Royale remains pragmatic to the core: “My reach school is Berklee, but being more realistic, it would be William Paterson, which is affordable. It’s easier to get into and it’s a university, so I can still have something to back me up if music falls through.”

And one wonders with all this strategy, schooling and purpose, if perhaps something of spontaneous combustion might be missing from all this songwriting equation. Yet, Royale is not totally unaware of this. “If I didn’t have that influence, I would probably do a long emotional rant on the piano,” she answers matter-of-factly. “I am not a depressing person, but I like to write depressing songs or like songs about heartbreak. I can always draw more emotion from that, and although not that many sad things have happened to me, I feel like I can describe more emotions that way. Every time I try to write a happy song it ends up being dumb and cheesy. My goal is I want to have a radio-appeal song, but I don’t want it to be cheesy. I still want it to be unique on its own.”gina_color

Lyrically, Royale combines universal pop tropes of love and loss and yearning with honest experiences from her own teenage life, as in the betrayal of a friend and the infinite coming-of-age battle between integrity and popularity. This is evident in “I Don’t Need You”, the third song on the EP Royale is calling Heir, a clever play on the double-meaning between her moniker and being the offspring of a musician: “I don’t wanna take your calls/I don’t wanna hear your voice/And I don’t wanna kiss your lips/I don’t need you boy” is something of a feminine call to arms for all young girls caught in a bad-boy grip.

This sense of renewed independence, whether autobiographical or melodramatic, is a theme Royale feels comfortable with, as in another original composition she brings up during our conversation that is not included on Heir, “Courage”, fueled with the kind of righteous indignation that could only be roused by growing up.

“Last year I was supposed to sing ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin as part of this Memorial Day Veterans tribute,” recalls Royale about the origin of the song. “I was so excited; I knew my part and everything, and the day before the show I was kicked out by this girl who was in charge of it, all because her best friend wanted my part. The next day the girl wouldn’t even talk to me, because she felt so terrible. One of my favorite lyrics from that song, and I always hope she’ll hear them, is when I mention her going to James Madison University in Virginia; ‘Your sly tongue won’t take you very far/Take it out to Virginia and see where you are.’”

Perhaps Heir’s most infectious song is “Hello Heartbreak”, wherein Royale defiantly sings a torrid verse of impenetrable fury: “You had all the traits of a crook/Wanted more than what you could have/You have no idea what you took/And I don’t know, I don’t know if I’ll steal it back,” the final line is repeated three times to drive the rancor deeper. It attacks from the opening verse and refuses to let up. It may also be Royale’s most effective Taylor Swift homage, using a bouncy melody to express torment, which is only part of its allure, which hits home when you could swear you’ve been singing the thing your whole life.

Not to say that Royale is overtly derivative, but the arrangement of the songs on Heir reflect a modernity that you would expect from youth, and, quite frankly, what you need to hear from youth, as if heralding a new order or at least reminding you that being young is still as much a weirdly explosive amalgam of exhilaration, confusion and angst as you remember it to be.

But to hear Royale say it, and as she performs it, she is happy sneaking up on everyone.

“I want to be that kid, who, you know, most people don’t expect that I can even sing,” she says smiling, as if it is all transpired in her head already. “In school, I am a hermit. I don’t talk to anyone. I have like three friends. It’s not that I’m shy. I just don’t like anyone in my school. People never assume I sing, and then when I do, I’m this short, tiny girl and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you can actually really sing! You can really hit high notes!’ I want to surprise people.”

 

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SUPER TAINT

Aquarian Weekly
1/28/15
REALITY CHECK

James Campion

SUPER TAINT
Cheating New England Patriots Befoul Super Bowl Again

Author’ Note: As a friendly disclaimer, the below is the rantings of an always-disgruntled NY Jets fan, whose disdain for the New England Patriots is profound, but, mind you, one that has always maintained that Tom Brady, while being a whiny fop, is the finest quarterback of his generation. Just saying.

So the NFL’s New England Patriots, 2014 AFC champions, are cheating again. What a surprise. One week from the sport’s biggest day and one of the teams appearing in its biggest game is tainted. Again. The Pats, who won three Super Bowls by spying on the teams they beat, which led to the league fining the organization a record half-million dollars in 2007, were busted this time for deflating footballs below league standards. This, according to players, especially quarterbacks, gives unfair advantage of accuracy and grip to the team using them. Or, more to the point, cheating. Again.Deflated-NFL-Football

These shenanigans, referred to now as Deflate-gate, allegedly came at the behest of its star quarterback, Tom Brady, who has been on record declaring his preference for slightly deflated footballs and who may or may not have demanded before several games this year, including the championship contest, that game balls be illegally doctored. This allowed Brady to drag what by all measures was a mediocre team with a lousy defense and no running game into yet another Super Bowl.

As a matter of deconstruction, while it may seem completely insane to anyone familiar with “fair play” that each NFL team gets to choose the balls they use on offense, it is true. Apparently, and I was unaware of this (despite the ridiculous amount of my life wasted watching pro football), quarterbacks today can slightly (within reason) doctor balls to match their grips and have them ready for Sunday’s game. Another argument for why it is beyond stupid to ever compare today’s QBs to anyone who played when this was a completely different sport.

Be that as it may, the Patriots, and more to the point, Tom Brady, and by a buck-stops-here kind of justice, the head coach, Bill Belichick, took this rule-bending wackiness to another level, or, put more directly, cheated. Again. And it appears that no matter what happens in the way of a league investigation or fines or a suspension or more likely nothing considering the money and public relations involved here, this incident, still open-ended by the time of this writing, will officially put a stain on the big game and its multi-billion dollar sport.

To say this has not been a great year for the National Football League is a gross understatement. First, it bungled the lightly-suspended Ray Rice for beating his wife unconscious and then conducted its own a cooked investigation that shockingly cleared it from covering up. This was followed by the Adrian Peterson’s non-suspension for whipping his child black-and-blue with a stick until people were so appalled the league decided to arbitrarily ban him indefinitely. Then we have this year’s play-offs, which have displayed some of the most curiously abysmal officiating that anyone could remember, unleashing even the most impotent NFL media suck-ups to call into question the game’s legitimacy.

Now the almighty Super Bowl has been tainted by another underhanded ploy by Belicheat (a nickname that is so popular that when you begin typing “Beli…” into the Iphone, it finishes it for you) and his somehow clueless QB, Brady.

There is no getting away from this one: A team playing in America’s biggest sports showcase cheated its way there. And according to the latest reports, the championship game may have been the culmination not the origination of this cheating. The Baltimore Ravens, the team New England beat by a mere four points to get to that game, reported this behavior to the NFL, prompting the league to twice check balls two hours prior to the championship game (a once over is already standard procedure). However, once in the hands of the Patriots’ sidelines, 11 of the allotted 12 game balls checked at halftime of a game they were winning handily against the Indianapolis Colts, were somehow magically deflated to the requisite Tom Brady liking. The 12 Indianapolis Colts balls? Not.

The league is in a quandary on this one. The Pats, Brady, and their coach are the golden boys. This is not unlike Major League Baseball’s initial cashing in on the steroid-addled Mark McGuire vs. Sammy Sosa homerun chase that galvanized a dying sport in 1998 and then years later acting as if they had been conned and forced to treat juiced players as if pariahs.

It is also tough to see this being resolved with idiot league commissioner, Roger Goodell, who while having bungled everything in his path this year, is chummy with Pats owner and renowned Satanist, Robert Kraft, a man so patently hypocritical that while his team is pretty much known for having cheated in some form or other for over a decade possesses the gall to have the league conduct a tampering investigate for an off-the-cuff comment by the NY Jets owner regarding one of their former players, who now plays for New England. This would be like a man riddled with cancer upset that someone sneezed on him.

Of course everyone is denying everything. The coach, normally a monosyllabic mumble-machine, spent press conferences this week sounding as if he took a crash course in PR 101. Tom Brady, when asked if he is a cheater, responded with “I don’t believe so”, which is the kind of thing guilty people say in lieu of an answer. Innocent people get pissed at such an accusation and say, “Absolutely not!” But at least for those of us who wondered how Brady was so much better than everyone else, it has become obvious that it is merely because he plays by his own rules. Or, if you will, he cheats. Again. And this kind of revelation makes more sense to me, like when a guy dressed up in a gorilla suit debunked the famous Big Foot footage.

Put all your money on New England for the Super Bowl. Why? Because they are really good at cheating. And cheaters win.

You see, in the end, what gets observers of such a stunt so ginned up is the arrogance; the idea that it is not good enough to be on the top of the world – ala Richard Nixon, Barry Bonds, etc. – you have to slant the playing field just a little bit in your favor. Gamesmanship? Sure. Necessary? Probably not. I guess maybe if we found out our lovable underdog 1980 Olympic hockey team had doctored their sticks or spied on the unbeatable Russians, we might be less pissed. David pulling a fast one seems less egregious than if Goliath had loaded rocks in his tunic.

So what does all this mean? Well, it means that if the Patriots win, they lose. Everyone now knows they didn’t actually earn this Super Bowl appearance. So there’s that. And it certainly puts into deeper question many of the previous football deeds Brady and Belichick accomplished as legitimate. But mostly it means you need to put all your money on New England for the Super Bowl. Why? Because they are really good at cheating. And cheaters win.

This is the NFL brand for 2015: Beating women and children, fixing refs, the governor of NJ humping Jerry Jones after Dallas Cowboys wins, and stealing championships.

Rah! Rah!

Again.

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