Obama At The Century Mark

Aquarian Weekly 5/6/09 REALITY CHECK

THE CENTURY MARK Joe Cool’s Honeymoon Epilogue

We have ten fingers and ten toes, therefore we make its denominations our benchmark; a decade, a century, a millennium, etc. But it wasn’t until FDR that we are now expected to judge the honeymoon period of a new president by his first 100 days. Okay, but when you consider that the last guy’s entire two terms hung on the events of 9/11/01, which happened long after the first 100 days, it tends to dilute its significance. However, in my lifetime alone the first 100 days have proven noteworthy. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had lousy first 100 days; the former never recovered, but the latter learned valuable lessons, rallied, and hung around to be re-elected. Hard to argue with either Lyndon Johnson’s or Ronald Reagan’s success in their first 100 days, then you remember Viet Nam and the economic collapse of 1982 and it dilutes them. So, in the interest of proper pundit decorum, where does Joe Cool stand after his century mark?

New Sheriff In TownBy any count, Barack Hussein Obama has been virtually unstoppable. He has already engineered the largest federal stimulus package in the nation’s history and in the process completely neutered the opposing party, while managing to balance his approval ratings in the sixties — not to mention his personal meter, which remains in the stratosphere. People love this guy. They love his youth, exuberance, his wife and family, his dog and the near butler-like penchant to please. They like that he isn’t like the last guy, or really any guy who has held the office. He even apologizes for dumb shit and humbly passes the credit for popular moves to his subordinates.

But he has not apologized for being liberal. No, sir. He promised it during the election and has come hard on nearly fifty years of post-war liberal agenda from healthcare to energy reform to government oversight. Change is flying all over the place. I recalled last week what a Republican insider told me after Captain Shoo-In finally wrested the presidency away from his opponent; “In six months, you won’t recognize this place.” He was right, and here’s something he may also agree with: It is getting harder each day to believe there ever was a President George W. Bush.

Oh, things haven’t been all that politically sunny. There were major screw-ups in cabinet appointments and several embarrassing kick-starts to the crack economic team, not to mention weird things abroad, but the air around Washington has gone from lockdown paranoia to a drunken spending spree of love and hope, and whether it all amounts to gangbusters or plain bust does not erase the 100-Day Sprint, which has come up gold for the new guy.

Unfortunately for his detractors, feces-hitting-fan won’t happen for sometime. But fear not, it will happen. It has to. No deficit can be this bloated and not sink something somewhere. Mass foreclosures are coming. Nasty doings in Pakistan are on the way. The auto industry is weeks from completely imploding. More partisan ugliness and party in fighting is definitely afoot. But for now it is wine & roses. Feds say the economy is beginning to show signs, and unless there is a major attack on this nation, then these first 100 days, whether fairly or not, will be determined by its health.

He has come to play with an odd combination of grace and muscle; the dexterity of a ballet dancer and the brutal force of a steroid-addled wrestler. It has been a tough act to impede, and it shows no signs of slowing.

There are those, and they are in the minority presently, that believe it less risky to wage war all over the place on Chinese loans than raising the tax rate three percent to prop up the banking system. They have had their say and if things continue to go badly or come up for air and then tank again, they will have their day once more. But for now, they are in the wilderness.

Case in point: One Arlen Specter, the 29-year senator from Pennsylvania, knows a good escape hatch when he sees it. He has decided to ceremoniously hitch his wagon to the winning team, knowing that local squeakers in state primaries pale in comparison to steamrollers in the national headquarters. Specter came in with The Gipper. He knows good Mojo. So he jumps the sinker for a shot at The Win. He wants to stay a senator and he doesn’t care who knows it. He doesn’t lie about his sexuality to stay around or give big speeches about morality. He wants a clear road to victory and cannot see it as a Republican anymore. Fair enough. Joe Lieberman had a similar revelation two years ago, went all independent, and then decided to sharpen his hawk talons. But he was sent back to the Democrats with a whipped tail between his legs never to be heard from again.

Soon the Democrats will have a filibuster-proof 60 strong in the Senate and continue to stranglehold the congress. The man at the top, for all the talk about his inability to lead from day one has hit the ground in a full-flail, throwing everything everywhere, and making it look like an evening stroll. He has come to play with an odd combination of grace and muscle; the dexterity of a ballet dancer and the brutal force of a steroid-addled wrestler. It has been a tough act to impede, and it shows no signs of slowing.

History tells us the storm clouds are coming. They always do. Things are tough now, but most of the bad stuff was cobbled together by someone else over a long stretch. Right now the “Not My Doing” chant works. Soon the bad smell will end up on him, as it does with all the guys in the Big Chair, and that is usually when the mettle is tested and the pudding bares proof.

I agree with conservative columnist, David Brooks when he said the other day that Obama has bitten off more than anyone could chew and that always leads to choking. But after 100 days with the majority of the public and the legislative branch of the federal government in his back pocket and a crippling economic crisis filling his sails, he’s come up aces. It is the pinnacle of civic chest-thumping — a political juggernaut whose shit has yet to stink.

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Last Words On U.S. Torture

Aquarian Weekly 4/29/09 REALITY CHECK


As usual, everyone has this torture thing wrong. The Right conveniently paints it as “special tactics to ensure security” and The Left predictably sees it as “indefensible war crimes”. GitmoThese simple designations have not changed in the nearly eight years that have passed since The Jihad came home to Lower Manhattan. All the denials by the Bush Administration to last week’s release of “classified memos” dealing with a host of rough-and-tumble action on the coastline of Cuba has added up to a spectacular load of shit. As is the subsequent shock, outrage, and surprise we express when faced with the inevitable truths of existence. But we’re all entitled to our opinions and our perspectives, but not so much entitled to our own facts.

Let’s get at least one of these inconvenient facts settled; this idea that the United States is above anything nasty and underhanded in the realm of warfare or just about all else one can conjure up is living a wondrous fantasy someone, maybe your school teachers, your church, your parents, or a radio talk show host has led you to believe.

No worries. This is why I’m here.

Time to curb your flag-waving Pollyanna for July 4, and leave the rest to the people who made the revolution possible. It helps take the edge off.

You know how hard it is to maintain Power status when you’ve been hit in the kisser by the Little Guy and then spend all your time and energy avenging it, only to come up broke and weakened by the terrible truth that you ain’t all that Big and you’re days may indeed be numbered? I have seen it from the playgrounds to the halls of governance. It is not pretty. And it never produces anything close to good feelings or sober responses. Humans who have felt the smooth brilliance of the Brass Ring slip off a digit tend to practice the art of crazy.

The whole notion of torturing human beings for information or a deterrent to future terrorist activities are dime-store rationalizations for the insatiable need to inflict a pound of flesh for one surrendered. It is brutally feral and a unique insight into our more bitter demons, something we have nourished like our yearning to breathe free lo these two-plus centuries. It is no more a tactic as it is for the bully in class to take your own fist and punch you repeatedly in the face, reciting the beloved query; “Why are you hitting yourself?”

Moreover, this is a nation built on the primacy of the human spirit to make one’s decisions free from the judgment of someone else’s parameters; Live & Let Live, Power To The People, Let Freedom Ring. This is a country like none other in the annals of civilization in that the rugged individualist can pursue the dreams and aspirations of what he/she strives to accomplish on his/her own merits, damned be the naysayers and full speed ahead.

We are the world’s drug; the true opiate of the masses. We’re the dangerously mercurial lover that is untrustworthy and vindictive, but so goddamned fun.

This brings me to the second and most vitally undeniable fact: Anyone signing onto a Holy War as a martyr deluxe does so with the understanding that they are not only expected to be tortured, but hopefully die in the process. That is the very definition of religious martyr. This is their sole and divine purpose. Everyone needs a Pontius Pilate to help nudge along the destiny. It is a simple Yin/Yang equation. The world at large, certainly the United States, didn’t demand that these people choose this route. It is not our place as a society or its government to deny them their goals, especially if they are doing so under their own free will, a marvelous concept protected and heralded by our forefathers and branded in word and deed for 233 glorious years.

This, of course, includes freedom to worship without hindrance. Spirituality is a funny thing; it cannot be and should not be defined. The mysteries are deep and we as an evolved and rational people need to accept this. Some go a-churchin’, some fast, some get out rugs and pray, others run around with signs or pump fists, and then there are those who go in for the hardcore theology, The Jihad. Strict Freudians call this Playing For Keeps.

Understandably, it is hard for an occasional weekend worshiper to comprehend the expanding soul of the religious extremist, no matter what the faith. These are the True Believers who use this life to attain the mystical Part II, because somewhere along the line Part I has either failed them or someone possessing enough charm has convinced them of this. It is the ticket they purchase to be part of the international mischief making. Suicide is like chocolate ice cream to these people. They have no sense of what else exists beyond The Mission. These types of creatures have given up anything resembling our empathy and certainly given up the scant refuge of The Law or what you and me dabbling in the real world might call Rights.

This is the trade off for the Holy Freedom Fighter. They want to bleed, suffer and die. Their dreams are something akin to Mel Gibson’s: Gore = Salvation. This doesn’t change when they’re busted and out of options. Religious conviction is above The Law. It is beyond our notion of Rights. It is The Truth and it will set one free, or so it goes.

So let’s stop thinking that there is anything we can do to “help” those who sign on to mass murder in a blaze of self-mutilation for a place in heaven. They don’t need to be saved. That is condescending patronization of the most elitist order.

If anything, the idea that we’re still talking about these people in the present tense is remarkable. I made the tidy suggestion seven years or so ago that we should have led them into the desert and have them dig their own graves and then shoot them. We have denied them their place in the Great Hall of Lunatics, and there is no telling what price we shall pay to The Lord God when the final screed is read, but enough about existential madness.

The very notion that we hide from enacting vengeance and mayhem on mutants is sad and unnecessary. Whom are we trying to impress? The UN? Amnesty International? Green Peace? Bono?

Look, I have belonged to, given cash to, and worked for Amnesty International for decades. I support the freeing of artists, writers, spiritual leaders, and all other oppressed peoples across this miserable globe, but not one of these individuals have overtly positioned themselves as terrorists, despite whatever despotic regime dubs them so.

The rest are up for grabs; torture, death, you name it.

If I were a card-carrying Jihadist, I’d expect nothing less.

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What Is News?

Aquarian Weekly 4/22/09 REALITY CHECK


Okay, this is rarely a subject I write about, but talk about incessantly with friends, colleagues and family: What is news? In other words, what should be something we know about nationally or as we used to say in bullpen sessions in bare-bones weeklies, what is newsworthy? Should there be a national litmus for defining news, as opposed to a random happening that might be interesting if examined ad nauseam. Local news is exempt from this discussion. It is always going to be loaded with stuff like brush fires and community drives, the odd burglary and the always-popular weather anomalies. Then there is the obligatory cute story about kittens or a guy breaking the state record for sitting in a tree. Because it’s extremely difficult to fill print and air space anywhere, especially in say Omaha, Nebraska, local news doesn’t count. Neither does morning television or radio count, which are both chockfull of banal absurdity. But national news needs to have some standards of coverage, which I argue it has abused beyond repair.

Tea Party '09I was reminded of all this when a debate began over the coverage of the so-called TEA Party protests, which were dubious in their construct for several salient reasons, not the least of which was that tea was not literally involved and of course its falling short as an homage to the original Boston Tea Party since it was not over “taxation without representation” but just taxation. I get people don’t like taxes or the government to spend money, even if they ironically love entitlements, a large military, infrastructure, air travel, and the entirety of the monetary system. But really, who is in favor of taxes? This is what I call a slam-dunk issue and thus no need for heralding the protest, like anti-war rallies. War is bad. We get it. Give me something I can work with like the fight against cat juggling or Mother’s Against Kicking Babies.

But nevertheless a protest is definitely news, even if it is cringingly promoted by a major news organization and as a result almost completely ignored by others. This usually reeks of a staged event, like something out of Citizen Kane, so then how much of it was an actual story as opposed to another in a random string of barely interesting human endeavors kick-starting another news cycle?

News Cycle, which means a 24-72 hour period when one story becomes the most important thing in the civilized universe and then disappears completely, is also a major culprit for jamming odd events or arbitrary tragedies into a form of celebratory voyeurism. There are too many of these babies to recount, but you know what I mean. One is going on right now. Pay attention to see if it lasts the week. I doubt it.

To put to bed current events and get to the universal argument of what is news and what isn’t, we go to the Pirate/U.S. Navy story, which absolutely is news. In fact, it is big time news. When an impoverished nation bores outlaws of the high seas and holds up the greatest navy in the history of human kind, it is a cranking story. It has international intrigue, national security interests, life and death outcomes, and may ultimately affect the nation’s health and well being. This compared to say a kidnapping of a ten year-old in Bucks County, Pennsylvania is not newsworthy outside of Bucks County. Maybe if the kid was the offspring of an inaugural transcontinental flight pilot or perhaps if the ten-year old were the kidnapper, then we’d have something, otherwise, if Mr. And Mrs. Smith loses their kid to a crazed neighbor for a few weeks, I don’t need to know about it.

We are the world’s drug; the true opiate of the masses. We’re the dangerously mercurial lover that is untrustworthy and vindictive, but so goddamned fun.

This kind of thing has been a problem since the 1980s in broadcast/network news. It is a terrible epidemic of what I call the “Kid Down The Well Syndrome” – my own spiteful homage to the Depression Era penchant for struggling radio news outlets to bring the drama of small town fire departments’ attempted rescue of stupid, unsupervised children after they were stuck somewhere.

Today the advent of 24-hour news has taken KDWS to another level of minutia. This does not include dime-a-dozen opinion scream-fests hosted by pasty middle-aged men in desperate need of blowjobs and access to history books, but does include marginal stories that have been dragged out for literally weeks. Good examples of this is the death of Princess Diana, which has since taken on this queer Elvis revisionist disease or the JFK Junior airplane crash, or even the demise of someone who was on a constant deathwatch like Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford. The reason I forgive talk-hosts from this breakdown is that I believe it important that pre-teens learning civics to see that even grown men have a difficult time understanding the stark differences between socialism and fascism. I include the marking of dead major celebrities or political figures as marginal for it is not an on-going event. They are dead. Tell us, and move on.

Everyone knows it was the OJ. Trial that put cable networks on this course. The ratings were nuts, the national furor over the rainbow, and the opportunity for career-building and book deals too good to pass up. Shit, the only reason Greta Van Sustren could afford to reconstruct her face and muck up the airwaves with endless pabulum on desperate boyfriends who prostitute their missing sisters or deadbeat dads smuggling dope from Indonesia to sate a gambling jones or the latest KDWS was Orenthal James Simpson, another reason The Juice should get the juice.

All right, sorry about the bad pun, but this is a particularly galling subject, these missing kids in hotels and abused animal stories do not compare in the newsworthy department to a lunatic Asian guy in Binghamton shooting up the neighborhood because a black guy is president or something fairly wacky like that. That’s news, because lone gunman with a shoulder chip is America’s news bread-and-butter. It’s tradition, so it gets precedence.

I shan’t belabor the point another sentence, but to leave you with a short list of what is news and not news, so if you see it, you can quickly identify it and either be well-informed or turn the station/page. If you stay with the story, you’re going to have to admit that even though you do not buy the National Enquirer and do not consider yourself a nosey rubbernecker, you’re either completely bored with the concept of your own existence or simply too lazy to turn away from Headline News and the ear-piercing claptrap coming out of the angry woman with the retro haircut.

News/Not News Top Ten

1. The president’s choice of pet is not news. Dog rips out president’s jugular is news.

2. Anyone saying something really dumb like “Hitler was a fair diplomat” or “So-and-so likes to hump squirrels” is not news. Government either spying on its citizens or its officials voting on bills they have not read or understood is news.

3. Any law broken on a cell phone camera is not news. A law broken that costs you money like banks being run like casinos is news.

4. Internet scams on the elderly and kids are not news. Internet viruses that infiltrate our international spy network are news.

5. Any domestic squabble, violence or general bad behavior, unless it becomes serial and spreads throughout a fairly large region of the country is not news. Raul Castro poisoning his brother’s cigars is news.

6. Someone famous announcing any new revelations about their sexuality is not news. The homosexual community gaining their civil rights is news.

7. In fact, anything about someone famous, unless they are running for major office, saving the Third World (not talking about it, actually saving it) or firebombing a village – this includes sports celebrities, who are dumber than dirt and even less important, is not news. Fuck celebrities. This is never news.

8. Nothing a former civil servant has to say, especially those who will be dead much sooner than later and thus have no stake in the issues being decided is not news. An Al Gore vs. Dick Chaney pheasant shoot at the equator is news.

9. Dumb ass boyfriends of defeated candidates dumping their pregnant teenaged girlfriends are not news. If dumb boyfriend takes on almost future mother-in-law for Alaskan governor’s office, then it’s news.

10. Any jackass mauled by bears at the zoo is not news. Same bears being awarded custody to jackass’s children is news.

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Dawn Of The Ice Age

Aquarian Weekly 4/15/09 REALITY CHECK


When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained. – Mark Twain

High & MightyThere is currently a heated debate on the direction of U.S. foreign policy following our president’s whirlwind European/Middle East tour; much of it regurgitated miasma from ideological handbook recital. The ultra-right wing yelps about appeasement and weakness while calling for reactionary aggressiveness, the super-left wants open forums, troop withdrawals, and a denouncing of anything approaching a tough tactic, and the poor moderates can’t decide if we have ourselves a polished statesman or a half-assed apologist. No matter. This is the fact: The United States of America is a bankrupt nation under a mountain of debt decaying from a dying economy with a weakened military and little to no credibility on the world stage. We make nothing and we can’t fight wars anymore, our two most lasting attributes for most of the last century. Our options are few and most of them are not pleasant.

It’s nice of everyone to chime in as it was for Joe Cool to glide effortlessly between diplomacy, as he did when discussing opening relations with Iran, and displaying stiff rhetoric after North Korea played their every-three-years-please-look-at-us card. But let’s face it; what do we really have to offer the rest of the world right now? Our dollar stinks, our property is under-valued and we’re on the dole. We’re into the better part of a decade fighting god-knows-what in third world countries and the guy who actually hit us is still at large, although as stated here since late 2001 is probably stone dead.

It’s not the best hand to play during international summits.

This is why nobody digs our global stimulus chicanery nor is too keen on buying into another big troop build-up on the Pakistan border. Sure, this is a new guy, but it’s the same brand; loud and proud with nothing to back it up — no money, no balls, and a track record of shitty intelligence and even shittier battle execution. We’re like a once unbeatable heavyweight champ whose time in the ring ran too long; slow punches and even slower reflexes, a ghostly image of greatness staggering through the final sad exhibition.

It is time to rebuild, not go around demanding this and reprimanding that. And part of the rebuilding comes and goes with what’s happening abroad. It’s a global economy now. Pulling in the oars and ignoring everyone else is no longer an option. And in almost every way fathomable we are in no position to advise military restraint or fiscal responsibility, and we cannot with a straight face make anymore veiled attempts at engaging in another in an agonizing series of “evil axis” rants when we’re into a tyrannical communist regime for $500 billion.

We are the world’s drug; the true opiate of the masses. We’re the dangerously mercurial lover that is untrustworthy and vindictive, but so goddamned fun.

But this is also bad news for the rest of the planet, which we have propped up like straw man for a long time, some say too long — purchasing too much crap and visiting too many miserable places and sending our best scientists and technological engineers all over the place to run things. We send a fuselage of cash and provisions nearly every time some starving nation is on the brink and lord knows we offer up our fighting forces every time some crackpot pisses off the U.N.

The party’s over folks, or it should be, but you know it isn’t. We can’t stand not being bold and the rest of the spinning sphere wouldn’t know what to do without leaning on us or hating us. They need it. We are the world’s drug; the true opiate of the masses. We’re the dangerously mercurial lover that is untrustworthy and vindictive, but so goddamned fun.

But enough of the hackneyed metaphors, we’re more than happy to play along and pretend to still have the moves, send our brand-new young and hip president to thrash together the odd syllable and appear as if we’re still in the game. Shit, all he’s done is bow to the Saudi King, he didn’t hold hands and tip toe through the tulips like the last guy or send Americans to die blowing up countries like his daddy. But we will shut down the torture chambers, sort of, and make inroads to treat the Iranian menace with something approaching respect. We’ll even get off the high horse and begin to take stock of our decades of silly transcontinental chess matches and put our own house in order.

How this will happen is anyone’s guess. Maybe outlaw investment banking or sell the rest of our bonds to Euro-trash skinheads. We could stop this ridiculous embargo against Cuba and legalize drugs so we can partner up with the Taliban. Watch how fast we have allies when they see our insatiable gorging of recreational pharmaceuticals. War on Terror, over and out.

But alas, we’re not in the solving business here. We proudly hail from the Part Of The Problem wing. We point out how things went awry and how best to run from it. This is why we welcome the new voices of the “unpatriotic” like the former vice president and whatever bleating troll is speaking for Newt Gingrich these days. And we’d also like to welcome to the other side a new member of the dissidence team, Karl Rove, who after decades of trying to silence our hobbies is now ejaculating his barely coherent twaddle for buck or two. Good for you, Karl. Good for all of you.

Our tent is large in Radical Avenue. Pull up a stool, gentlemen, there’s plenty of room. Let’s just lay off all this “we must handle ” and “we must fight” goofiness. Those days are over, or not — like the purported slicing of the military budget that bloats four percent. We’re also tightening our belts here at The Desk, cutting our energy budget by raising our beer consumption ten percent.

See you in hell.

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G-20 Summit Protest Riots Reviewed

Aquarian Weekly 4/8/09 REALITY CHECK

ANARCHY IN THE U.K. G-20 Summit Sends The Euro-Masses A-Riotin’

Nothing jacks my adrenaline like a good old-fashioned protest riot. Some of my favorite moments in TV viewing had to be the near orgasmic Rodney King mayhem of 1992, where police brutality met economic inequities in a king-hell blowout worthy of slick ’round the clock coverage. Dancin' In The StreetsIt made the Watts riots a generation earlier look like the Easter Parade. But ’92 turned out to be a weak year for anarchic spectacles when compared to the wild century-closing festivities of 1999, which managed to produce two absolute doosies; the spastically delightful eruption of teen angst at Woodstock III, where an exploited youth culture invented by TV and cola later described as “the crass commercialization of music and nudity” sparked an arson’s paradise, and who could forget the weirdly cross-ideological WTO street theater that made a war zone of Seattle.

I wrote about all three of those “happenings”, two of them in this space. Mostly, the pieces mocked the entire idea of getting that angry over outrageously-priced bottled water or finding enough armed solidarity to topple international free-trade agreements, but I must admit against the better judgment I have left that I get teary when I see kids heaving objects through windows or yanking people from their cars and beating them with baseball bats. There is a certain type of romanticism to the grouping of irate misanthropes taking on “the establishment” that gets to me, like Jesus riding the crazies from the Galilee into Jerusalem to “bring a sword, not peace” or Che Guevara telling the UN the seeds of revolution grow like weeds upon imperial corruption.

So, I get horny when I hear “The whole world is watching!” from the 1968 savage assault upon college kids by Chicago cops at the Democratic Convention? Sue me.

This week, the G-20 Summit, aka the planet’s industrial masters of naked power and pecuniary foot stomping met to decide our fate. The usual transpired; Russia acted as if it still mattered, Saudi Arabia toed the tricky line between atavistic war lording and the 21st century glad hand. China complained, Japan winced, and the German/French annoy-alliance pitched minor fits. Joe Cool and his wife pissed off the royals, made with the tight-lipped diplomacy and tried to extricate the United States from the cowboy thumb-nose mantra of the past eight years. But the real story was happening on the streets of London where every lunatic from Prague to Belfast rolled up their collective sleeve for a time-honored fuselage of wig-out.

More times than not firings have a greater affect than actual fire.

It’s just not as much fun.

As stated in last week’s ramble, there is little else in the realm of human fury that rankles the masses quite like the rich and powerful getting all pomp in their finery deciding if they’ll allow us to still have a civilization. This becomes especially galling after a good year and a half of rapacious drunken regurgitation of whatever may be left of free market capitalism. It’s the kind of thing that sometimes ends in Tea Parties or powdered heads filling Guillotines, but never without at least a little torch wielding and fist pumping chants by a motivated mob made up of the had-it-with-everything set.

Normally any meeting of powerbrokers brings the pain for the gaudy numbers of have-nots that can attract a march or two. This comes in handy during wartime, which is always going on somewhere, and specifically when grossly abundant nations have to hear about starvation in India and AIDS in Africa, atrocities aplenty in half of the third world, and whatever nonsense the Iranians or Venezuelans are cooking up. However, when the world economy is crumbling beneath an avalanche of fraud and greed and those who have sunk us are lighting their cigars with taxpayer sweat, anything called the Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors is going to rile up even the most apathetic bystander.

By the time of this writing the property damage is rising and the arrests pour in. There has been one mysterious death, but that could happen at a Manchester football match, so whose counting? The pictures and video are good, though. Most of the really hardcore mania has made its way via cell phone jorunalists onto YouTube. There is even a poll to see if the damage rivals the French labor uprising of April, 2006. But it has to be rigged, because no one takes to the streets to make bloody rumble like the French.

But mass hysteria, while it has its place in the arena of entertainment, really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the world of big nation building and high finance. The beautiful people shan’t see the goofiness, and even if they happen to catch a few seconds on the BBC, they can switch it off like the rest of us. “It’s nice that people want to be involved,” they will snicker, “but the really important decisions have to be made in a vaccum.”

This is why our president was not screwing around when he whacked the CEO of GM before boarding Air Force One to leap the pond. He had to show muscle, become the voice of the people, show the rest of the world that although we are a country of gambling addicts forced to bring everyone down with us, this is no bottomless pit. The end is coming one way or the other, a fact made much clearer by the returning of $353 million in federal bailout funds by eight American banks late in the week.

More times than not firings have a greater affect than actual fire.

It’s just not as much fun.

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Populist Outrage Oh-Nine

Aquarian Weekly 4/1/09 REALITY CHECK

OUTRAGE SQUARED Pitch Forks & Torches, La Spring Chic

Anger is not an argument. -Daniel Webster

A.I.G.Outrage is cheap currency these days. Cheaper still then in late 2004 when it appeared as if all critical decisions at the State Department were being made by lab chimps and the Pentagon was leaking lysergamides. Now it’s a full-out poll-to-poll pogrom on both the rich and powerful and the poor and disenfranchised. Bankers to welfare moms, stockbrokers to inside traders are all on the block. This president, the last president, this congress and the last one, the Treasury secretary to the chairman of the Federal Reserve are all suspects. We’re pissed; pissed at ourselves, at capitalism and socialism, at do-nothing politicians and do-to-much politicians. We want stuff fixed but we don’t want to pay for it, all the while demanding a strange mutation of regulatory freedom. But most of all we don’t know whom to skewer first and why.

This is the American trip. We’ve been here before in too many incidents with too many origins to mention. I would say it’s less an American thing than a human trip – to want everything and for someone else to make it happen – but since I’m an American, I will be glad to represent.

I hear outrages every day from every corner of colleague to friend to passerby. I hear it on the radio and on TV and read it in the newspapers and online. Some of it is well founded and should be expressed, as it was in the 2008 elections. Almost anyone paying attention understood that the overwhelming reason for Barack Obama’s victory as well as the Republican trouncing on Capitol Hill, although not the only one, was the tanking economy. Elected officials were hardly the only guilty parties. Huge lending institutions, Wall St., greedy insurance firms, disingenuous mortgage companies, pie-eyed consumers and insatiable borrowers are all to blame for what can now be pretty accurately described as the deepest economic downturn most of us have ever seen.

But outrage is a fickle bitch goddess. It’s like the morning dew. It settles on roses as it settles on dog shit. As is our wont here at the Reality Check News & Information Desk, we concentrate on the dog shit.

Let’s begin with almost all of the punditry outrage, which is an interesting hodgepodge of the uninformed, the half-baked and the plain idiotic, ie; former Clinton advisor and present mudslinger, Dick Morris asserting there is a conspiracy within the present administration to nationalize the banks by having the toxic-asset plan fail so the need for the teat of government kindness will be in vogue. Then there is The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel calling for the disgraced criminal ex-governor, Eliot Spitzer to take over the Treasury Department. Fuck it. If we’re going in the Ann Coulter bin for crazy grandstanding, why not pardon Bernie Madoff, yank him out of maximum security and have him run the U.S. Treasury. In these troubled times, who’s made more money than Madoff?

Democracy? What a sham that is. You know what fuels democracy? Money. Know why we even live in a so-called democracy? Money. You know why we won the Cold War over a decaying concept of 19th century communism? Not moral fortitude or guts or American know-how, and certainly not any doddering fossil like Ronald Reagan. It was money. We had it, the Soviet Union didn’t. Game. Set. Match.

And really, that’s what most of this outrage is about. Money. And why not? What’s more important than currency, property and assets? Nothing – not religion, family, love, sex, drugs, mom, apple pie or goddamned baseball. This is why for six long years I argued against every goody-two-shoes on both sides of the ideological aisle that wiping out half the Middle East and sending people to die for oil was far more a salient purpose than spreading democracy. Democracy? What a sham that is. You know what fuels democracy? Money. Know why we even live in a so-called democracy? Money. You know why we won the Cold War over a decaying concept of 19th century communism? Not moral fortitude or guts or American know-how, and certainly not any doddering fossil like Ronald Reagan. It was money. We had it, the Soviet Union didn’t. Game. Set. Match.

I get correspondence to this space daily on the usual falderal that angers people, not the least of which is all the psychopathic abandon this country has enacted all over the globe for a century. And not one of these atrocities, mistakes or even triumphs happen without money – solvent, liquid, hard capital.

This is why your federal government is taking your tax dollars, which is the bedrock of this fancy democracy, and throwing it around like a soused sailor on leave. Without all of this money, there is no government representing the people, who are then out on their asses, left to pitch dime store Christianity and social injustice overboard for a burka and a Qur’an.

Why do you think the president has gone on what can only be described by the sane among us as a Brangelina-level media junket. The Tonight Show, 60 Minutes, ESPN, town hall tours, special hit-and-run prime-time press conferences, a friggin’ op-ed in 30 major newspapers across the globe, Joe Cool has gotten in front of this thing, putting a likable face to a mass fiduciary tourniquet, something the congress not only lacks but willfully destroys.

What has Nancy Pelosi done that has not circumvented the White House at every turn? Churning populace fodder out of daily angst, like dragging the CEO of A.I.G. into the chamber for a Roger Clemens time-wasting lynching or heading this unconstitutional wrist-slapping 90% taxation on further corporate bonuses, which literally had the president, a constitutional lawyer, laughing like a school girl on national television more than once. Not to mention the shameless fan dance House members – led by poster boy for bad loan central, Barney Frank – unfurled in the face of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the former of whom makes less sense than a shock-treatment outpatient and the latter of whom continues to illustrate his spectacular lack of reasoning by telling the American public he wished to sue A.I.G. for disgraceful bonuses when the company had every right to proffer them.

Lord knows I do not begrudge outrage. I’d skip like a giddy schoolgirl if some proactive miscreant were to extricate the CEO of Cablevision from his post with a butterfly net and a polo mallet, but where would that get us? It’s just not constructive.

Our best bet right now is to bury our remaining funds in the backyard, barricade the environs, and wait for the carnivorous fiends who put us here to clear out the mire. They always do, and we always pay, and there’s always another buck down the line.

Reality Check | Pop Culture | Politics | Sports | Music


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Stewart vs. Cramer

Aquarian Weekly 3/18/09 REALITY CHECK

SEND IN THE CLOWNS Satire & Bluster Tap Into Nation’s Anger

Jon StewartFor two consecutive weeks, the shenanigans of a radio talk show commentator and a Comedy Central satirist infused their will on the vox populi. What is business as usual in the world of fringe insights primped up in mockery became at first fascinating oddities, then frantic topics of debate, and finally the exposing of some pretty serious ills.

During the first days of March, right wing radio master showman, Rush Limbaugh made an appearance at the CPAC convention in Washington D.C. A rabid gathering of disenfranchised hardliners, the Conservative Political Action Conference has welcomed heads of state, former and future presidents, old-world brainiacs, influence peddlers, religious loons, and corporate land rapers, all movers and shakers inside what until recently has been the rock solid base of the nation’s conservative movement. Ostensibly, Limbaugh was to rally the troops and continue to defend his assertion that any conservative and/or Republican worth his salt should root for the current president to fail. However, the black-clad jock spent most of his lengthy address bashing the current environment in the Republican Party as weak and its leadership misguided, making a final stand against what is at best a designer buffet of worn-out ideologies, the origin and authenticity of which he claims to hold dear.

Love him or hate him, deny his influence or bask in his megalomania, one thing is certain, Limbaugh’s hard-ass assault on the sinking vessel of conservatism is warranted and perhaps needed more than ever. And this became patently obvious in the days following the liberal fallout, media backlash, moderate recoiling of Limbaugh’s diatribe.

Many Republican members of congress, holdovers from the spend-thrift days of George W. Bush, who’d enjoyed years casting anti-war sentiments as un-American, began immediately denouncing the notion of “wanting the president to fail” as defeatist. Having spent the previous weeks appearing either fiscally responsible or politically petty, they were in the throes of stridently defending unanimous votes against any and all versions of the federal government’s massive stimulus bill. It was not the time to appear as merely spoilers or a blockade to the mad attempts of the Democrats to enact what has been for over a year now the will of the people to do SOMETHING/ANYTHING.

Then for reasons only known to he and his shrink, RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who fancies himself something between Kanye West and Henny Youngman, while appearing on yet another in a seemingly endless array of variety shows, demeaned Limbaugh’s influence on his party and called his act “incendiary” and “ugly”. When Limbaugh excoriated him the next day as an empty shirt and a myopic vaudevillian, Steele curled into a fetal position, meekly apologized and disappeared into the ether. This pathetic performance by the “de facto” head of the GOP was on the heels of Georgia congressman Phil Gingrey making an appearance on Limbaugh’s show to kiss his sizable but formidable posterior.

This is how the system, screwed as it is, works best.

Limbaugh proved, albeit in an inimitably fractious and juvenile way, that there is a voice in the Republican Party that has been lost; the fiscal straightjacket wing; the wing that had been, and in many recent cases by Limbaugh himself, hijacked by misogynistic social marauder homophobes from the God Police. In a few well-placed tirades and verbal jousts Limbaugh vividly exposed the gaping maw in the Republicans’ damaged flanks, something the timidly inarticulate car salesman approach of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wildly failed to accomplish after Barack Obama’s wiz bang address to congress last month.

Filling the vacuum of Rush Week in the news cycle, Daily Show host, Jon Stewart all-but dominated the pop culture wing of the news this past week with a scathing rip-job of the dog and pony shtick known as CNBC. After Stewart brilliantly deconstructed the now infamous Howard Beale wig-out by Rick Santelli, in which the network’s exchange floor reporter derided “deadbeats” who bought homes above their means as the true culprits in the nation’s housing meltdown, CNBC’s most visible voice, Jim Cramer crisscrossed the media circuit belittling Stewart and his “funny little show”.

Stewart’s “funny little show” is Comedy Central’s golden nugget, a mostly progressive satirical look at the day’s news that has been trumped into must-see college stoner television, and a damned hilarious pounding of all-things hypocrisy. Stewart, a once journeyman comedian cum actor, cum host de jour, has helmed the Daily Show’s gaggle of fiendishly intelligent goofiness for over a decade, during which time he’s given birth to the equally witty Colbert Report and more than once playfully taken on other over-hyped cable pundits like Bill O’Rielly, but never to this much fanfare and spitefulness.

Before long the Daily Show began gleefully hammering Cramer in a game of old-fashioned dozens, playing clips of the maniacal prognosticator demonstratively unfurling one monumentally wrong prediction after the other for months. This brought the high and mighty NBC family into the war of words, which continued to make the once proud news organization look defensive and amateurish, engaging morning show hosts, nightly anchors and commentators into the fray. All the while providing delicious fodder for Stewart and his band of cut-up savants and the facility over each and every show to pull out what Stewart finally exclaimed were “inept at best and criminal at worst” flippantly proffered suggestions for investors to entrust their hard-earned money.

The story ended later in the week when Cramer, fresh from an ironic appearance on the Martha Stewart show, visited the Daily Show, where he stammered like a guilty school kid in the principle’s office as Stewart and crew played streamed online video of Cramer admitting to an embarrassing series of insider trading malfeasances.

Stewart’s smolderingly vicious and brutally honest surgery of the nonsense that passes for sober reviews and previews of the volatile nature of stock market play was both frightening and illuminating. Cramer, for his part, perfectly played the exposed Wizard of Oz as the stuttering, befuddled man behind the curtain. Cramer, Stewart most assuredly pointed out, is the unfortunate but indisputable face of an unfathomable monster known as speculative market trading which could no more bring vast riches to the lazy dreamers of our nation than it can be a thermometer of our economic solvency or strategic governance.

The Republican Party is still mired in ridiculous mud slinging over culture wars and fiscal mishaps, and the world of financial journalism is still blank stares sold as unblinking certitude, but for two straight weeks a pair of clowns – one from the Right and one from the Left – took the best our American free speech and blessed dissent could offer, wrapped it up in an entertaining brand of fisticuffs, and ultimately brought to light that which must be illuminated.

This is how the system, screwed as it is, works best.

Reality Check | Pop Culture | Politics | Sports | Music


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The Great Leap Of Faith

Aquarian Weekly 3/4/09 REALITY CHECK

THE GREAT LEAP OF FAITHGovernment For The People And By The People Buys The People Economics

The social science concerned chiefly with description and analysis of the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. – Webster’s Dictionary

Economics is the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses. – Lionel Robbins

I think I coulda landed on a dime. I really do. – Evel Knievel

No KiddingAfter a mere 35 days in office, the president of the United States placed his nearly two-year, almost robotically orchestrated rise to power on the slimmest of reeds. There Barack Obama stood, defiantly confident in front of a joint session of congress, scaling the most ambitious mountain of far-reaching, nut-crunching populace agenda this nation has seen in close to a century. With the dexterous oratorical skills that put him there, he stomped the terra with the unflinching audacity of a man backed by a 70% approval rating facing down the seemingly unstoppable implosion of the free market system. In the malleable parlance of political analysis, this was a Whiz-Bang rousing yawp, part ego-stroking patriotic nonsense artfully mixed with a parental-like scolding, topped off with the obligatory schmaltz needed to bring it all home. Indeed, this is the rise-to-the-occasion candidate nearly 60% of the country voted for, hitting the high notes, working the room, kicking the ass.

But no one, least of all Barack Obama, can argue that financially manipulating a crisis, stopping the bleeding, and halving the deficit simultaneously is anything more than a gamble; it is more likely the political equivalent of Evel Knievel, a rocket, and Snake River Canyon.

Forget the economic future, near or far, it is bad and about to get worse, and when it returns to something approaching normalcy it will forever deconstruct the way we do business, buy stuff, sell stuff, make stuff, and cheat the tax man for decades to come. All of this has nothing to do with speeches and bills and congress or the president. It never has and it never will. It is about biting off more than one can chew, and even a child will tell you this leads more times than not to choking.

Money problems, be they debt, investment, purchasing or selling of goods, has two ways to roll, throwing more money at it, or ignoring it and letting it do what money does. The latter theory has brought us here, to the brink.

Doing nothing can sometime be as serious a crime as doing too much in the realm of governance. Two of the worst presidents in our history live in infamy for lack of action; James Buchanan, who floundered around as a bumbling caretaker while the country plunged towards Civil War and Herbert Hoover, who managed to deftly rephrase “Let them eat cake” all the way into the Great Depression.

However, history is also littered with examples of governments doing something working in the adverse. Take the recently doomed Bush Doctrine of restructuring the Middle East in the form of faux democracy, an outsourcing of ideology that has tanked in every century since the keeping of records. It turned out, as predicted by anyone using a fair portion of their brain, to be a spectacular bust and sucked the president and his band of cronies into a political quagmire in which they were never again able to emerge.

Even if civilization evolves by government intervention as in our aforementioned Civil War, there is likely a mass of blood, destruction of property, plundering of fortune, and decades of fallout in which to deal.

It is important to point out that although this current economic meltdown is without refute a crisis more threatening than any terrorist attack, nowhere in the annals of objective descriptions regarding the concepts of economics does the word “government” appear; to find this anomaly one most head to political manifestos. Yet, in the checkered history of the civilized world, there are countless examples of governments mucking around in “the social science of production, distribution and consumption”. This is tantamount to governments jamming its business into all “the human behavior” as well, be it personal, sexual, racial, familial, etc. In almost all cases, okay, let’s be honest, in all cases things go badly. Even if civilization evolves by government intervention as in our aforementioned Civil War, there is likely a mass of blood, destruction of property, plundering of fortune, and decades of fallout in which to deal.

But these are queer times. This is a president and a congress, Democrats-all, that have overwhelmingly taken power on the strains of an anti-rich, anti-deregulation, anti-greed, and anti-stupidity revolt. They have been given a blank check, a collective open-hand of goodwill from the majority of a republic desperate for The Turn-Around. This is their time, as it was for the Republicans after 9/11. In fact, it was the sum of the Republican reaction to 9/11 that put these people where they are. They know this. The American people have told them as much.

This is the same electorate which spoke clearly after 9/11, as Bush rightly pointed out in his last press conference; “Does anyone remember what things were like right after it happened? I do.” Vengeance and Jingoism ruled the day. It was not some kind of master plan by the commander-in-chief, as has been the sloppy history of revision. It was a clamor, loud and long, from every corner of this nation; to get the bastards, make them pay, show our pride and force and renew our sense of security. Why do you think a refined hippy like Hillary Clinton voted for all-out war, which doomed her run for the presidency eight years later? It was all the rage, that’s why.

And Recovery is all the rage now; the American people are screaming for these people who made all the speeches about saving our ass for over a year to DO SOMETHING! These will likely be the same people, and you can already hear them, that will be whining and crying when the whole thing goes belly-up. And it will go belly-up, because that’s what history tells us, even recent history that continues to perpetuate the myths that the New Deal saved the nation and that Ronald Reagan never raised taxes or ceased the bloating of the national budget any of the years he was in charge.

Maybe then the Republicans won’t look as silly as they do now, former spend-fiends thumbing their noses at every turn to appear a the genuine loyal opposition and sending a goober car-salesmen like Bobby Jindal before the public stammering on about “people” over “government” as if two-thirds of these “people” he speaks to aren’t already begging for a hand-out. Jindal, a political butter knife sent into in a mortar exchange, represents the very disconnect the Republicans have with the zeitgeist; “Let’s send the young, brown guy in to regurgitate the same tired falderal and we’re golden!”

But the Republicans no longer have a say. They are window-dressing. They fart into the gale and call it ideals. But their sad wander into the wilderness has just begun. This is all on the Democrats and Joe Cool now, and if it works, great, if not, it’s the shit house for the whole lot.

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Lucinda Williams Interview

Lucinda Williams Interview Unedited TranscriptConducted over the phone lines from New Orleans, Louisiana and The Desk at The Clemens Estate, NJ – 2/22/09

From the Bayou to Bakersfield, Austin to Boston, from the high plains ballad to the raunchiest riffs and the echoing twang of an all-night hootenanny, Lucinda Williams has covered every geographical/musical base available to her. In a remarkable 31-year career that has defied label, her songs have traversed every emotional barrier with the steadiest of musical compasses. Her voice, graveled, strained and dripping of warm honey, strips bare the pretenses of performance at every turn. She is an American original, a country rocker with the soul Lucinda Williamsof a poet rising from backstreet city grit. Her intimately crafted records from Car Wheels On A Gravel Road to Essence to her latest, Little Honey (released within a year of her last effort, West) never disappoint while also skillfully chopping through the roughest lyrical terrain, making fertile otherwise barren territory. Williams, like all great authors, painters, photographers, and composers, acts as our constant guide, the world-weary traveler seeking a home, and we are always privileged for having come along for the ride.

The ten-time Grammy winner and her band, Buick 6 are rolling into Montclair New Jersey this week, and on the way, I had a chance to chat with her about the making of Little Honey, its subsequent tour, and her magnificently original and always inspiring songwriting.

James Campion: Hi Lucinda, How are you?

Lucinda Williams: Hi!

Thanks for giving me a few minutes on your Sunday.

That’s okay.

How’s the tour going?

Great. We just did three nights in a row in Dallas, Austin and Houston and it’s going great. Houston was really good, the best attendance we’ve had there in years and years. So that was really encouraging. Are you in New Orleans now? I see that’s on your next stop. Yeah, we’re here today and we’re playing tomorrow night at the House of Blues. I hadn’t realized it’s the night before Mardi Gras day.

That’s right.

That should be pretty crazy. (laughs) The House of Blues is always pretty wild anyway and now it’s going to be Mardi Gras week and it’s going to be like…(laughs) But we’re looking forward to it.

I’d like to talk about the new record. We’re really enjoying it over here. It’s wonderful. Thank you. It’s odd for any artist to release new material in back-to-back years, and I was just getting into West, dissecting the songs and living with them, and then Bang! here comes Little Honey. Is it simply a case of an overspill of creativity or was there something particular that inspired you to write so much new material right away?

Yeah, a lot of the songs that are on Little Honey were ready when West came out, and we were actually going to put out a double CD thing for West, because we had enough material for two, but we weren’t able to do that, so we just kind of divided the songs up. So Little Honey is kind of like West Volume Two…(laughs) with the addition of a few new songs. But the majority of the songs I already had for West, so that’s why that happened.

The record has a very first-take, loose, almost in-studio figuring it out vibe, in the Bob Dylan vein of here are the chords, one-two-three…go! Yeah. Is that an accurate description of the recording process for Little Honey?

“I like to leave things open for discovery, whether it’s in the studio or on the stage.”

Yeah, well it just kind of happened that way. I think it’s just a combination of the time between West and Little Honey I formed a new band, and we’ve been out on the road playing together. So I was recording in the studio with the road band, and any time you go into the studio with your road band there’s going to be more of that feel, more spontaneity and everybody’s comfortable with each other and so you’re going to have more of that “Yee Ha! Let’s have a good time!” sort of thing. So there was a level of comfort on this record that I probably haven’t experienced as much as any other record, partly because of that, but also it’s the same studio I recorded West in with the same engineer, Eric Liljestrand. So a lot of stuff was familiar territory, and I think everybody was a little more relaxed in general, and we gave ourselves permission to take chances and be real spontaneous. We wanted to have that feel end up on the record, like the false start on Real Love. I mean, nobody sits and plans that out. It just happens when the band is playing and we left it on. A lot of that stuff happens in the studio, it’s just a matter of deciding if you want it on the record. (laughs)

Does that level of comfort and familiarity translate to the live performances? In other words, when you go into the studio and its more of a live feel, I might assume that when you take the songs out they have an open-ended feeling of being able to continue to evolve with each performance.

Yeah, sometimes. There are certain instances, like now, Doug Pettibone is gone from the band and we have a new guitar player who’s replaced him, Eric Schermerhorn, who has just joined the band, so of course he’s going to be putting his own stamp on things. I mean, you know, for the most part, once the songs have been recorded and we have rehearsals and we go out on the road, I don’t tell any of the band members really what to play for the most part. I just kind of allow the band members to do their thing. There’s a certain guideline; you have to follow the song, but there’s always going to be some little neat surprises. They’re usually kind of small ones, like some nights we’ll reach a certain thing on a song and all sort of look at each other and say, “Wow that was really cool!” (laughs) I like to leave things open for discovery, whether it’s in the studio or on the stage. We’re always learning new songs, like just the other day during sound check before the show in Austin we worked up a Guitar Slim song called The Things That I Used To Do, this classic old R & B song, and I sang it that night and then we did it again last night in Houston, and of course it was better because it was the second night I’d done it. So we’re pretty spontaneous as far as working up material and trying new things.

Getting back to the record, two of my favorite songwriters are on it, Elvis Costello in the duet for Jailhouse Tears and Matthew Sweet added background vocals on a few tracks. I want to talk about Matthew Sweet first. I consider Sweet one of the most underrated pop and rock and roll songwriters working today.

Oh, I agree. Totally. I was completely taken with him. I knew who he was, but I’d never worked with him or spent any time with him, but I’ve decided he was the Brian Wilson of today. He arranged all the vocal harmonies, particularly on Little Rock Star, which are pretty complex. We sent him the tapes of the songs that he sang on with Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles), and he wrote out all these harmonies and all these lush, beautiful vocal arrangements and showed up at the studio with all this stuff already written out and arranged. I was blown away. I’ve never had anyone go to such lengths and be so involved in a technical way before. I was really impressed with how he worked.

How did your duet with Elvis Costello on Jailhouse Tears come about?

Little HoneyWell, he was one of the people we were thinking of and we had a list of people and we weren’t sure we were going to get Elvis because of his schedule and everything, but it just so happened that he was in town working on something for his own record, so we were able to grab him. We had to hook up with him around eleven o’clock on a Saturday night. This was after Tom (Overby – Husband/Manager) and I had been at a Grammy party, ’cause it was the week of the Grammys last year. So we literally just…we had the track cut already… and we just ran in and hooked up with Elvis and Elvis and I did the vocals together. It was real…(chuckles) very spontaneous.

It’s a wonderful duet. It reminds me so much of say a classic country duet like Johnny Cash and June Carter on Jackson.

Yeah. That’s kind of what it’s supposed to be, yeah.

I was turned onto Elvis like most people who love him in the late Seventies, but my favorite record of his is King Of America from 1986, which has this carefree, country, Americana feel that I always thought was reflected in your best work. I’m not sure if you’re a fan of that record and that’s what brought you to Elvis for this duet, but it’s weird how that came together in the song.

No, I was…I am! That’s funny you said that, because Elvis asked me several years ago to do one of those Crossroads shows (CMT Network) together. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those, they’ve quit doing them, but they would have two different artists on, and they’d have them sing songs together and talk and they asked me to do it with Elvis. So I had to learn a couple of his songs, and the song I did as a duet with him on the show was Poisoned Rose.

Oh, gorgeous song. I would have loved to see that.

I know. I love that, and I hadn’t even…Of course I was armed with all of his albums when I was getting ready to do that thing (chuckles) and I was listening to all of them, and that was the album that there were some songs on there that I thought were a little bit different than some of his other ones. That was the one song that really stood out. I hadn’t heard him do it before. I thought it was really unusual.

That makes perfect sense. I could absolutely see you singing that song.

Yeah. Yeah.

Your dad being a poet must have influenced your view of the written word as a powerful tool of emoting, so I have to ask about your literary heroes or influences and if they weave their way into your lyrical ideas.

“All of my songs, I mean…I’m in there too. (laughs) You know?”

The main one would be Flannery O’Connor. I read all of her stuff when I was a teenager, fifteen, sixteen years old. I just really grabbed onto it. She was very influential in my writing. In fact, the last couple nights we performed a version my song, Atonement and I talked to the audience about Flannery O’Connor and that Southern gothic and particularly her book Wise Blood, which really influenced that song.

Eudora Welty was another one, just that whole genre, the local color; it dealt with the South and that sort of dark side of life.

Flannery O’Connor to me is what Diane Arbus is to photography. (laughs)

Right. (laughs)

You know what I mean?

Yes, beautifully said. Excellent analogy. You can’t turn away, despite its shocking nature. There’s beauty to the darkness.

Yeah. That’s true.

I was thinking about the literary aspect to your songwriting career lately, even your performing career; for instance you performed your albums in their entirety in New York and Los Angeles a few years back, right?

Yeah, starting with the Ramblin’ album going straight through.

That kind of pulls the veil away from those records being anything other than almost novels unto themselves, as if hearing those songs in that order matter more than simply throwing your latest and best work together to release, promote and tour. Or is that thinking it out too much? (laughs)

No, not at all. It was great. I realized the whole idea of revisiting the songs the way they were done on the records, for one reason a lot of times I don’t get to perform every single song…there are a lot of songs that get left out of most of the shows I do. So it was an excuse to go back and do a lot of those songs that I don’t get to perform very often. You know, I got to revisit my early songs and see if they still held up. (laughs)

There are a three particular songs on Little Honey that denote the idea of celebrity or stardom or artists struggling through or with the creative process, for instance Little Rock Star, a touching conversational ballad, Rarity, a beautiful track with a wonderful horn arrangement, and It’s a Long Way To The Top If You Want To Rock & Roll, the old AC/DC song.

Yeah, well, Rarity was actually written during the West period and was supposed to be on West and was carried over. Little Rock Star was one of the newer songs that I wrote while I was recording Little Honey; but I’d been working on the idea for it. A lot of times I’ll start a song and take a while to finished it – but there’s a connection, certainly those two; although they really deal with the different things. And then the AC/DC song was actually Tom’s idea (laughs). He suggested it towards the end of the album. We were looking for a good old rock and roll song. He thought it would be cool to do a cover. We had a lot of possibilities and that was one of ’em. So we worked it up and it was just kind of one of those after-the-fact coincidences for the most part that we saw that there was a thread running between Rarity, Rock Star and Long Way To The Top. None of it was thought out ahead of time…

Sure. But it’s a nice trilogy. It works.

It is. It is. It really does. Yeah.

I’m thinking specifically now of Rarity, who is the subject behind that one?

Lucinda WilliamsThere was this singer/songwriter by the name of Mia Doi Todd. A friend of mine introduced me to her music several years ago. She was out on a little independent label and I was really taken by her writing, particularly her lyrics. She’s just really, really brilliant. I like her voice too. It’s very kind of Suzanne Vegaish, sort of a non-singer kind of voice. And her songs are like poems. I’m not often that taken by contemporary songwriters. So a couple of years later I came across one of her records and noticed that she’d been apparently signed by a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group and I thought, “Oh, this is great. The world needs to hear this person.” You know how when you discover a person like that and you want to champion them? So I was really glad to see she was going to get more well known and everything and then the next thing I know she’d been dropped from that label and was back on another unknown independent label, so I thought well…there you go, another brilliant artist falls through the cracks, under appreciated, underrated and so on and so forth. And that’s what the song is about. I was thinking about her, but I was also thinking about myself when I was back trying to get a record deal and trying to get signed and going through the whole thing with the major labels and all that kind of stuff. So I kind of just put it all together. All of my songs, I mean…I’m in there too. (laughs) You know?


Even when I’m talking about…if there is another subject that inspires a song like Little Rock Star I think the writer has to always been empathetic with the subject. I think that’s true of any art form. To get back to photography, I mean the photographer has to be empathetic with whoever he’s shooting or whatever…you know, you have to put part of yourself in it in order for there to be an honesty there. I think that’s why the audience connects so well with my songs.

I’m reminded of Randy Newman when I think of putting empathy into characters, no matter how dark, no matter how deranged or off the tracks his characters are, when he is singing, you can feel he gets them and you are suddenly inside them as well.


Speaking of Randy Newman, is there a songwriter you admire now or have always admired, because you mentioned not ordinarily being blown away by any contemporary songwriters. How about ones from the past that influenced you the most and maybe still do?

“I’ve never been just a folksinger.”

Well, before when I said contemporary songwriters, I meant new, younger songwriters. There aren’t that many that I find myself saying, “Wow, this is really great!” But certainly one of the main ones would have been Bob Dylan. I started with him at twelve years old and I was immediately taken with the way he used language. Traditional music and contemporary writing blended together made a lot of sense to me. With my dad being a poet and growing up around contemporary Southern writers, but I was also greatly influenced by the traditional folk songs and all of that. I had the John and Alan Lomax Folk Songs U.S.A. that every kid had back in the mid-sixties and I’d sit around and sing all those songs out of there like Banks of The Ohio and listen to Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and at the same time I was influenced by the contemporary Southern literature that I was soaking up, that was around me, and so when I first heard Highway 61 Revisited, that was the first Dylan I heard, I just went, “Wow, he’s taken these two worlds and blended them together!” It’s like Allen Ginsberg meets Woody Guthrie or something, you know? (laughs) And it totally made sense to me. When I was twelve years old I didn’t understand every single song on that record, ’cause it was pretty complex, but I certainly got it. I got something. And I said, “This is what I want to do.” It had a profound impact on me. You know…?

I do know.


It shows in your work in a great way. I have one personal final question, as a fan; my favorite song of yours is Steal Your Love. I absolutely love that song.

Oh, thanks, thanks.

I think it’s a superb piece of irony, the rhythm and the direct sparseness of its performance is contagious. Can you recall anything particular about the writing or recording of that song for me? If I say Steal Your Love, what do you think of first?

Uh, well, when I was doing that record, the record itself, and even when I was writing that song, it was very liberating for me to be able to write a song like that and just let it go and let it be, without feeling like I had to fill it up with so many words and everything. Essence was the first record that I did following Car Wheels, and I just wasn’t sure what I was going to do. At the same time, again, to make the Dylan connection, his Time Out Of Mind album had come out right about that same time, and I was thinking, “Wow this is such an interesting parallel with his career and his different albums – his earlier ones were more narrative and kind of complex and everything – and now he’s doing this more stark album that Daniel Lanois produced and I just loved it. So there was this kind of thread going on; I was sitting there trying to figure out what I was going to do next after Car Wheels, because everyone kind of identified me with the more narrative songs, the country/rock, country/folk thing. I also was working with Bo Ramsey at the time and he really influenced a lot of the songs on that record. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but he’s worked over the years mainly with singer/songwriter Gregg Brown. Bo has a couple of his own albums out too. His stuff is blues influenced, but it goes beyond that. It’s just this kind of swampy thing, you know? So when I was writing, and not just Steal Your Love, but Are You Down? I was thinking at first, “Am I going to be able to get away with this kind of writing?” where the music just takes over and I just kind of…And I would never had done that before. Working with Bo, his whole approach is simplicity. Aquarian CoverHe’s the master of simplicity. Graceful simplicity, the less notes the better, the less you play the better; and then hearing Time Out Of Mind and seeing that same approach…I remember reading reviews where Time Out Of Mind got dissed because, and I think it was the Nashville paper, ’cause that’s where I was living at the time, said something like, “This isn’t Bob Dylan at his best!” and “What kind of lyrics are these?” And I remember thinking, “Let him go, let him have fun, let him breathe. Let the songs be what they are. Every song doesn’t have to be That’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” and I applied that to what I was doing. I saw a parallel there and also Bo’s music influencing me; his whole take on things, the sparseness, as you said. So I just gave myself permission; it is what it is. At first I thought, “God, what are my fans gonna think?” And I did get some criticism after Essence came out, cause it was so different from Car Wheels. But I’ve always been into different styles of music, it wasn’t that one day I just decided, “Hey, I’m gonna do this other thing.” I’ve always listened to different kinds of stuff. Like now I listen to Santo Gold and Thievery Corporation. I’ve never been just a folksinger.

Oh, yes. Obviously; country, folk, rock and roll, blues, all that’s in there.

It’s all connected, I think.

Car Wheels is brilliant, but Essence is my favorite record of yours.

Thank you. I appreciate that. A lot of people say that now. When it first came out people were kind of, well, some people were kind of like “Uhhhh”, but then I think it took awhile and it kind of grew on people and now it’s a lot of people’s favorite record of mine.

It’s like Exile On Main St. Hardly anyone liked the thing, they couldn’t “figure” it out, but now everyone not only loves it, but it routinely makes the top two or three rock and roll records ever made. (laughs)

Right. Yeah. (laughs)

Well, thanks for the time. I truly appreciate the opportunity to chat.

Oh, you’re welcome.

The wife and I are looking forward to coming out and seeing you in Montclair, New Jersey next month.

Good. It’s been a long time since I’ve been over there.

Well, thanks again for all the great records and songs and keep up the fine work.

Thank you.

You be good and safe out there on the road.

Okay, bye.


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Phelps/A-Rod Railroaded

Aquarian Weekly 2/18/09 REALITY CHECK


Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. – Aldous Huxley

A-Rod shamed the game. – Bud Selig, Commissioner of Baseball and architect of the shutting down of the entire sport and eventual cancellation of the World Series in 1994

Breakfast of ChampionsWhenever the shit hits the fan in the arena of sport, I miss Muhammad Ali. I miss his defiance, elegance and grit. Mostly, I miss his balls, those massive steel things he would wave in the face of opponents, the press, Howard Cosell, or the United States government, as in 1966 when Ali refused what was likely to be a pathetic dog-and-pony sideshow for the Pentagon in South East Asia, tantamount to an Elvis tour of American celebrity. That’s how Ali saw his 1960 Gold Medal. It was how he shed his Christian moniker for queer religious fervor. Ali told the U.S. Army and its soon-to-be disastrous Viet Nam campaign to walk. It cost him his title, four years of his prime, and what all ego-mad jocks crave, mass love and admiration.

What do you think Ali would think now of the vilification of Alex Rodriquez and Michael Phelps in the shadow of so much corruption, greed and hyperbole? These incoherent rambling apologies for drug use; one to enhance performance in a sport drenched in chemical experimentation for more than thirty years, the other to get high like nearly every other twenty-something kid. You think maybe Ali would have pointed out the hypocrisy of it all, more than half a century of drug use in every professional and amateur sport both diminishing and enhancing performances. You think Ali may have pointed out that the drug laws in this country are wrong-headed and atavistic? Or you think maybe he might have shed light on the millions of dollars earned on the blood and sweat of young men, many of whom never asked to be gods?

My guess is yes to all of the above. Ali would not have gone down quietly, like a docile performing seal bowing to the disingenuous moral outrage from a braying fan base, which cares only about winning no matter how it gets done. He certainly wouldn’t take it from those who clamor for Herculean athletic achievement even when its fabrications are patently obvious. And then there is the predictably brain numbing sports media that loves to shake the collective head and wag an accusing finger while enticing us with images of savage violence, self-promoting theatrics and juvenile behavior over and over and over and over again. And of course there is, as always, the sometimes faceless but always bottom line bankrollers of these fiascos who dare to engender sympathy for being “duped”.

I think Ali would have found the ironical humor in words like “cheat”, “fraud”, “behavior”, and “besmirching” tumbling forth from the holier-than-thou keepers of high-tech showbiz that has long been tarnished by decades of illegal and unconscionable activities. How in the world does the Olympic Committee, one of the most corrupt and disastrously run institutions in the world, get off suspending a kid for smoking pot? Where does anyone from Major League Baseball, proud abusers of civil rights and openly celebrated indentured servitude for half a century, get off judging its players for steroid use?

You would think these guys raped puppies or planned the overthrow of the free world.

Ali would have been thrilled to tell you that the ones who cry the loudest are the guiltiest. They are all too willing to cast shame as far as they can to avoid the collateral damage. This is how things go in the American sport landscape, where boys become millionaires playing a goofy sport we’re all supposed to worship as religion, hand over our money and attention to as if robots so we can claim dominion over its history and ownership of its participants.

You would think these guys raped puppies or planned the overthrow of the free world. It’s goddamned jocks doing jockey things like bending rules to get an edge or blowing off steam: Gaylord Perry spit-balling his way into the Hall of Fame or the 1951 N.Y. Giants using telescopes to spy on opposing team’s signs or Doc Gooden and Lawrence Taylor jacked up on mountains of blow. Many wonder what a keg of beer and a pound of bratwurst could have done to assist the Bambino’s home run orgy in 1927 or if Doc Ellis’ famous acid-drenched no-hitter would add to the annals of baseball lore.

You know if Ali had been any of those guys, let alone Michael Phelps, he would have said, “Shit yeah, I smoke dope, and guess what? I have more gold medals than any human. Fuck Weaties, get a hold of some Master Afghani Kush and you too can achieve greatness!”

Lord knows Ali would not have let the powers that be trample all over his civil rights, leaking anonymous tests used by the most powerful union in the nation to keep the richest sport on the planet from its lab rats. He may have been inclined to look one of those locker room groupies with a pen and pad right in the eye and ask them, “What would you do without me and the New York fucking Yankees sad sack? My guess is you’d be bagging groceries in a beer fog wishing your parents would add a separate heat zone to the basement.”

People always ask me why I name Ali and Joe Namath as my lasting sports heroes. Ali is well documented, and Namath will forever have a place in my heart for all he accomplished on and off the field evolving the landscape of pro sport, its celebrity and its transcendence in pop culture, but also because he refused to eat shit. After almost single-handedly achieving the merger of two gigantic money-printing leagues by his sheer greatness and unmatched star power, the newly forged conglomerate demanded he sell his bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan because known mobsters allegedly frequented it. Namath told the National Football League to go fuck itself and retired at the pinnacle of his career. Of course the league came begging for his return, because like A-Rod, it was nothing but a bunch of slobbering brutes ramming themselves together in Neanderthal scrums without him.

I guess it is too much to ask for titans like Ali and Namath to be around when the next round of petty bullshit is blown up to symbolize the end of civilization, but the saddest part of it all is this slave-like mentality to trade truth for the almighty buck and another fifteen minutes of fame.

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