Monday, June 30, 2008
It is almost sad hearing these broadcasts, filled with interesting banter and a blend of obscure and slightly less obscure tunes from all genres, knowing that throughout my entire life all radio has been comprised of about 14 songs. And because he happens to be Bob Dylan, he has access to pretty much everyone on earth to discuss the weekly theme with, some of whom stop by the show, a list of performers that span plenty of genres from Simpsons creator Matt Groening to fellow crooner Tom Waits. And he'll occasionally deadpan a line like this:
“Hope all you listeners won’t accuse me of cronyism just because I occasionally play records by people I know.”
I always heard about radio station whose playlists weren't hindered by the obligation to play Fortunate Son every third song, but I thought they were a myth, like bigfoot or the wolfman. Wait, Wolfman Jack is real? There are plenty of great songs about the radio glory days, Elvis Costello's Radio Radio and ZZ Top's I heard it on the X, and even more songs that reference the good old radio. Those of us too young to have witnessed any sort of good radio can finally relate to what everyone was talking about. Dylan simply has an enormous wealth of musical knowledge, exhibited by his side note on Charles Aznavour:
“The Frank Sinatra of France…sings in six languages – French, English, Italian. He’s written over a thousand songs…I only know about half of them.”
So there is the pleasure of hearing the music, but that is not it. In between songs there are history lessons and jokes, the thoughts of a man who is unquestionably the greatest songwriter of all time. The dry wit of comments like, “The Harmonica is the world’s best-selling musical instrument. You’re welcome.” harks back to the hilarious Talkin World War III Blues. It says a lot that the biggest problem with the show is that he doesn't play enough Dylan. Hard to imagine a New York themed episode without Talkin New York and Hard Times in New York Town or a shoes themed episode without Boots of Spanish Leather? At least during the coffee episode he'd play One More Cup of Coffee? Nope.
So while I will enjoy this program, I have to assume it will not last long. All good things come to an end, most unfortunately too soon and for the wrong reasons. Some executive will do some objective analytical study and show that this time slot would be better filled with an hour long panel discussion of why radio is failing, the irony slipping past him like water off a ducks back. I'm not sure how exactly we should be supporting this and encouraging it as a new theme in radio rather than the exception that proves the rule (Radio is terrible), so I guess I'll just keep listening and praying that maybe, just maybe, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
So far there have been 2 seasons of Theme Time Radio hour, the first lasted 50 episodes and the second 25, lets hope that trend doesn't continue with the third season, supposed to begin on September 19, 2008. He has already covered such classic themes as cars, mama, Texas, trains, weather, jail, and drinking. Or in other words, the last verse of David Allan Coe's, though written by noted Cubs fan Steve Goodman, You Never Called Me By My Name.
Well I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in a pickup truck
She got run'd over by a damned old train
So with 75 episodes under his belt, what themes remain for next year? War? Food? Tricked out rims? The next time I go on a road trip, I will be taking with me this radio show. The one problem is that satellite radio is not available on demand. I don't know what I'm doing on Wednesday at 9 in the morning, but I'm guessing most people are at work. Luckily, the shows are, for the moment, available on the internet.
“Some radio programs play just one type of thing. But here we’re like New England weather– if you don’t like what you’re hearing stick around, it’ll change in a minute.”
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Last night I saw Jeremy Scahill (The Nation, Democracy Now) speak at St. Paul's Methodist Church in Houston, and it lived up to all of my lofty expectations. I had already read his book (just released in paperback revised and updated to include recent transgressions), Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, one of the best non-fiction books I have read on the Iraq occupation. The story is incredible and shines an entirely new light on the war and government, though the event last night was a discouraging look at who the progressives in Houston are. We don't get a plethora of important speakers here, so it is interesting that when we did finally get one, the crowd consisted mainly of baby boomers who listen to KPFT (the event was sponsored by KPFT). I have nothing against the boomers, but it is embarrassing that we can't get any young people out to progressive events. He spoke for a while about the last two years of Blackwater since the book was published (turns out they're still dicks!) and then opened things up for an intelligent discussion of current events pertaining to the media and the privatization of the government.
The book takes the approach of chronicling the history of Blackwater as an example of all military privatization. The story starts with Erik Prince's childhood in a very influential Michigan evangelical conservative family. It moves on to his college and army days toward his founding of Blackwater in the surprisingly recent 1997. In just 10 years, this small North Carolina company has built itself into the state department's largest contractor, and is one of the world's largest armies. They have accomplished this impressive feat through lobbying, recruiting directly from our government (CIA, FBI, State Department) and the world's armies (including regimes such as Pinochet's), and a very effective PR department (he spoke of the Orwellian renaming of divisions, including my personal favorite: the IPOA, and the PMCs, or mercenaries). Maybe the most impressive aspect of Blackwater is that you would never have heard of them if it wasn't for Scahill or the brutal slaying of innocent civilians abroad.
*Scahill told the story of how this incident started last night. Apparently a mother and son, nurse and med student respectively, were driving down a street to work when a Blackwater convoy, traveling the wrong way down a one way street in the middle of a crowded district, saw them and opened fire, shooting the son in the head. Blackwater kept firing into a crowd of people trying to help the felled mother and son in the car, reportedly firing until the car exploded, killing 17 civilians. This is the finding of the Iraqi investigation as well as that of the United States Military, who conducted an immediate investigation. Unfortunately, Blackwater is immune to any court of law in any country in the world, and got to send in their own investigation team (this is a common theme) a few weeks later who decided everything was okay. Their punishment: their activities in Iraq were suspended for three days then reinstated. A high military official stated that if they had been part of the 'official' military, they would have been Court Marshalled.
It seems like each chapter of the book describes a horrible event in which Blackwater plays the lead role, the hiring of an important government player by Blackwater, and the refusal of the United States government to regulate or oversee them, often choosing to completely immunize the company from questions and hearings into their shadowy activities. Other interesting sections of the book describe dangerous cost cutting measures that put peoples lives in danger, a greater evangelical mission that sounds suspiciously like a crusade, and our governments complicity in all of it.
There is no question they are a shoot first ask questions later firm. That ongoing wars, conflicts, occupations, natural disasters, and terrorism benefit them is a fact. This book leads you to the next logical question. Our army has a vested interest in seeing the war end. Blackwater has the exact opposite interest. Yet they are so entangled with the government that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. So how can two entities at cross purposes survive and fight the same battle?
Standing next to every United States government worker is a private contractor making triple the money and subject to none of the laws. Why is recruitment down? By renting a mercenary army, our government avoids a lot of bad press: they don't include them in casualties and fatalities, there is no draft, there are no public human rights abuses. This doesn't even get into the corruption, war profiteering, and cronyism that has flooded the system. Or the long term damage done to our central government agencies (army, intelligence, police) by Blackwater poaching our best people. Or the long term damage done to our countries reputation by having armed ungoverned thrill-seekers running around the world, as well as inside America, using lethal force without compunction under our name.
My favorite Blackwater people:
Joseph Schmitz: The son of John Schmitz, a former hyper-conservative congressman who ran for president in 1972. It was discovered that although he was the family values (anti-gay and abortion) candidate, he had been having extramarital affairs and had 2 two children out of wedlock. John's daughter and Joseph's sister, Mary, was the 34 year old schoolteacher famous for sleeping with her 13 year old student and then divorcing her husband from prison to marry him, after having a few of his children. Joseph, though, is famous for being the Inspector General appointed by Bush to police the war in Iraq, including the private corporations paid to fight there. Needless to say, he allowed them to literally get away with murder. He announced, during his tenure, that he was resigning to work for Blackwater. No conflict of interest there.
Cofer Black: A long time CIA operative who earned his reputation in the early 90's by capturing terrorist Carlos the Jackal, arming the anti communists in Angola, and working in Sudan during a period of time when they were harboring Bin Laden. He eventually became the CIA director of counter terrorism in 1999, where his main charge was tracking Osama Bin Laden (Good Job!). In 2002 he became the Department of State Coordinator of counter terrorism until just after the start of Bush's second term, when he left office to be the vice chairman of Blackwater, as well as launch Total Intelligence Solutions, a Blackwater subsidiary focusing on private intelligence (their version of the CIA) for Fortune 1000 companies. Absolutely nothing scary about that.
Paul Bremer: Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Post-War Iraq. He famously disbanded the Iraqi army, effectively sending 400,000 armed and trained soldiers into the streets with no jobs and no money. His tenure of governor of Iraq only lasted for the first year of the occupation, but during that time he gave Blackwater their first of many contracts in Iraq (guarding him) and managed to pass a thank you law on his way out of the country immunizing them to any prosecution for wrongdoing. Also impressive was that he was able to repair every aspect of the oil industry except the meters that count how much oil is being shipped, leaving quite a bit of room for corruption. After shutting down an Iraqi newspaper he drew the attention of some that didn't understand why the stemming of free information was essential to building a democratic Iraq. Even with all that, his lasting legacy in Iraq will probably be defined by his 100 orders, passed as he was fleeing the country early to avoid protests, and imposing an economic shock therapy on the country.
100 orders: These included the privatization of Iraq's 200 state owned companies, allowing foreigners to own 100% of Iraqi businesses, 40 year ownership licenses, a corporate flat tax of 15%, income tax cap at 15%, full immunity from Iraqi laws to foreign contractors, no import or export taxes, and changing the banking system from being state run to market driven by allowing foreign banks to enter and buy 50 percent of Iraqi banks. To put this in perspective, no other country in the world has economic policies like these. They are Milton Friedman's wet dream, essentially allowing wealthy foreign companies and individuals to enter Iraq and buy their profitable enterprises while paying minimal taxes and facing no legal issues. They can then take their money out of the country and face no consequences. For more, I highly suggest Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine.
John Negroponte: Succeeded Paul Bremer in Iraq, the first ambassador to post-war Iraq. Negroponte cut his teeth as the ambassador to Honduras when we were supporting death squads in an effort to overthrow leftist governments under Reagan. Bush appointed him to be the ambassador to the UN in 2001, where he served until his reign as the ambassador to Iraq after Bremer, from 2004 until leaving in 2005 as the Director of National Intelligence, where he privatized the previously CIA function of preparing the classified daily intelligence brief to the President. It is widely thought that sectarian violence greatly increased during his time in Iraq.
During Katrina, Blackwater was the first to respond, "volunteering" a peacekeeping force, which quickly turned into a government contracted private police force. There have been plenty of scandals, but Scahill believes Katrina offered us a glimpse of the future, where private mercenaries, many just home from Iraq, will descend on any disaster zone in an effort to capitalize on the confusion. Making it easier is the lack of government workers (the Louisiana national guard happened to be in Iraq) available due to conflict abroad. These companies have a very different agenda than our government should. Continuing conflicts mean more contracts and thus more profits. This is a conflict of interest that cannot be ignored.
Obama and private contractors video. Obama v Clinton. It will be largely ignored this election.
Monday, June 23, 2008
*Spoiler: This man can do no wrong in my eyes.
Last night I saw the spectacle that is Tom Waits for the second time, the first being in Chicago two years ago. It is rare that I will pay 20 dollars to see a show much less 100, but Tom Waits, in my hometown, on my birthday, 4th row! This show was set up for disappointment. I had shakes and jitters for weeks leading up to this night as well as text messages and e-mails every other day: Waits in 2 weeks or You remember when we bought those Waits tickets? It took a steady stream of whiskey to calm my pre-show nerves, but once the show started with Lucinda I sat back and watched events unfold, entranced along with the rest of the Jones Hall crowd.
The whole day was a strange experience, downtown completely empty save the Tom Waits fans that packed every open bar, giving life to what it would be like to live in a town populated entirely by Waits fans, but built by over-gentrifying urban planners. Inside the theater an eclectic crowd lingered in the lobby, the lines for the many bars only bested by the lines for the t-shirts (photos of oil stains that Waits took) and posters (Glitter and Doom). There were punks, hipsters, and executives, young and old, rich and poor. On one walk through the crowd, I ran into Honus Honus of Man Man fame as well as Michael Zilkha of Zilkha Hall fame.
Once the show began, the crowd was silent. He stamped his way through a few of his newer tunes before getting to a very stark guitar performance of The Day After Tomorrow, the same song that really blew me away at the Chicago show a couple of years ago. It is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, as well as being atop my list of favorite antiwar songs. He alternated between a couple of guitars, maracas, and that incredible voice during most of the show, staying close to his recent career (90s and 00s, from Bone Machine on). At one point he sent the band away and kept the bass player for a short piano lounge act that was simply incredible, reaching all the way back to Tom Traubert's Blues and a spartan House Where Nobody Lives before the band slowly joined him during, and this was amazing, Innocent When You Dream.
He then stomped out a few more 'brawlers' with such ferocity that it would have been difficult to imagine it was the same guy that had just tearfully manned the piano had I not been sitting so close. There was a long version of The Eyeball Kid which led to him changing out of his gray bowler hat that matched his three piece suit, drenched in sweat by this point, into a bowler hat covered in a mosaic of broken mirrors. The lights dimmed except a spotlight on his head as he spun like a human disco ball reflecting onto the walls and ceiling, presumably, the constellation hydra that helped him to plan his tour.
There was a jazzed up Murder in the Red Barn, a steady Get Behind the Mule, and a self-admittedly rare Dirt in the Ground. The highlights for me were Jesus Gonna Be Here Soon, Innocent When You Dream, and Come on up to the House. If you have not ever seen Mr. Waits, and enjoy music, this tour is not to be missed.
The set list:
Down in the Hole
Dead and Lovely
Lie to Me
Day After Tomorrow
Hoist that Rag
Get Behind the Mule
Jesus Gonna Be Here
Tom Traubert’s Blues
House Where Nobody Lives
Innocent when you dream
Make it Rain
Murder in the Red Barn
Come on up to the House
Dirt in the Ground
Goin’ Out West
All the World is Green
*The links to songs are all from the show except Chocolate Jesus, which is from Letterman.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Bitter Bierce seems a fitting nickname for a man primarily known to us as a curmudgeonly old journalist. His oeuvre is made up of short stories, fables, journalism (mainly political), and a strange satirical dictionary which lists this as an entry:
- DICTIONARY, n.
- A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.
The railroad tycoons had borrowed 130 million dollars to build a transcontinental railroad, which they planned to not pay back by lobbying a particularly untoward congressman into passing a bill to forgive the debt. Bierce went after the congressman with his usual ferocity, writing article after article, pushing to the forefront an issue that congress and the railroad tycoons tried to sweep under the rug. It all led to one fantastic encounter on the steps of the capitol where Collis Huntington, a railroad tycoon, so annoyed at the press Bierce was bringing to the issue, told him to name his price. A crowd gathered as Bierce gave his reply:
"My price is one hundred thirty million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States"
- DISTANCE, n.
- The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep.
On a side note, the Bohemian Club is a legendary organization that has fallen into disrepair (or maybe always been that way). It is reported that Oscar Wilde went one year, well before Bierce, only to be abused the by the members. After he outdrank the lot of them, in great Oscar Wilde fashion, uttered: “I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed business-looking Bohemians in my life."
- Future, n.
- That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.
"Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!"
Friday, June 13, 2008
The Fall is one of a very few movies that as I walked out, everyone with whom I went to see it had the exact opposite opinion of mine. I stayed through the credits in order to see where they filmed this impossibly lavish movie. It turns out, in 18 countries scattered around the planet, but mostly in India. I should have known when one of my friends left halfway through, presumably to smoke a cigarette, and I never saw him again. Upon exiting the theater and much to my indignation, both of my friends told me that I was fired, and that I will no longer be allowed to pick movies. All that being said, the movie is gorgeous and compelling and even after rethinking my viewing, I still recommend it wholeheartedly.
I've heard lots of comparisons: The Princess Bride, Amelie, Pan's Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, but none fit so well as Singh's first movie The Cell or the beautifully shot Baraka. The back story is that in a 1920's Los Angeles hospital a young Romanian girl is convalescing from a broken arm when she meets a twenty-something stunt double who broke his legs and is now paralyzed. He sets about telling her an elaborate tale, the plot of which changes according to her fractured command of English and his fragile state. Reality intrudes into the fantasy and vice versa as the story goes on, affecting itself. But the story is really secondary to the lush imagery.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
My knowledge of Gilbert Adair before reading this was limited to his translation of George Perec's A Void, which I really liked. After reading this, I don't believe I will have the courage to read another. Many of his books sound interesting (the opposite of my John Updike theory), but this one fell flat. It is a Hitchcockian tale of an old blind writer who hires and amanuensis to help write his autobiography, but things aren't as they seem. The blind writer is based upon such curmudgeonly British eccentrics as Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh, but without the wit or the charm. The book serves as a manual for nannying a blind man until the inevitable twist, much less shocking or even bearable than Adair must imagine it to be. The entire thing is impacted negatively by its own sense of self-importance, not to mention boredom. A Closed Book is a noir without the style, a mystery with no crime, and most of all a great bore to read.
Death of an Author
It was about 10 pages into this book when I realized I don't like Gilbert Adair's work. He is the anti-Borges, a man who takes what should last 2 pages and stretches it into 100. Every sentence has an awkward pause, an unneeded interruption. Just as in A Closed Book, Death of an Author is a noir-ish book peppered with all the usual clues, Nazis, secrecy, and gimmicky murder. He even takes his time expounding upon literary criticism, trying to draw it into the plot with all the subtlety of an elephant tip toeing through a field of delicate flowers. By the end, you deserve what you get for sticking around, which brings up the point: By explaining that the joke is on you, does that make it funny if the whole thing was a miserable experience? Not exactly true, as the second half of the book way outpaced the first half, but I will think twice before picking up another Adair novel.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Possibly the greatest title in recent years, this book presages the impending barrage of anti-religion films and books we are about to see, which in turn will, I'm sure, spur a new renaissance of pro-god films and books, creating a never-ending war of ideologies. And while this isn't the first by a long shot, it is very interesting, as are most of Hitchens' articles, books, rants, polemics, and general effronteries. It is a history of religion focusing on the bad rather than the good (which Hitchens would probably say was ambiguous and non-existent). He does take a few random potshots at innocent bystanders (the one that really sticks out in my memory is Its a Wonderful Life. Was that really necessary?) but stays convincing, keeping a tight reign on his title of: Man I would least like to debate in a public forum.
Most informed people will know about many of the sins, but to see them all compiled into a couple hundred pages is a brutal condemnation of religion, primarily Catholicism, but he overextends his reach by going after some of the others. Regular readers of Hitchens will recognize a few old targets: the Pope, Mother Theresa, and Dictators, as well as the main hot button issues that are impossible to ignore (though we seem to be doing a pretty good job of it): child rape, the support of fascism and genocide, and the preventable proliferation of disease and poverty. "The sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons" becomes a very scary prospect as the book goes on, for those sins are terrible indeed.
This is a collection of short, shorter, and even shorter stories, aphorisms, and parables that was recently translated into English from German. Famous for his plays, Brecht wrote these paragraph long lessons on the dangers of bureaucracy and the ludicrous nature of things over the course of a life wherein he encountered too much of both. His keen wit shines through much as Ambrose Bierce's and Mark Twain's did. He is not one to mince words, the longest story being a few pages, and the shortest clocking in at one sentence. A few examples:
WHAT'S WISE ABOUT THE WISE MAN IS HIS STANCE
A philosophy professor came to see Mr. K. and told him about his wisdom. After a while Mr. K. said to him: “You sit uncomfortably, you talk uncomfortably, you think uncomfortably.” The philosophy professor became angry and said: “I didn’t want to hear anything about myself but about the substance of what I was talking about.” “It has no substance,” said Mr. K. “I see you walking clumsily and, as far as I can see, you’re not getting anywhere. You talk obscurely, and you create no light with your talking. Seeing your stance, I’m not interested in what you’re getting at.”
THE QUESTION OVER WHETHER THERE IS A GOD
A man asked Mr. K. whether there is a God. Mr. K. said: “I advise you to consider whether, depending on the answer, your behavior would change. If it would not change, then we can drop the question. If it would change, then I can at least be of help to the extent that I can say, you have already decided: you need a God.”
And my all time favorite:
“We can’t go on talking to each other,” said Mr. K. to a man. “Why not?” asked the latter, taken aback. “In your presence I am incapable of saying anything intelligent,” complained Mr. K. “But I really don’t mind,” the other comforted him. “That I can believe,” said Mr. K. angrily, “but I mind.”
Hands down my favorite travel book. I highly recommend it for anyone who finds Paul Theroux boring and can't stand the travel section of the New York Times. Where else will you read about the true goal of an Amsterdam visit (take mushrooms and try and keep your pants on straight) or the idea of going to ruins you know almost nothing about. Anyone who travels recognizes Dyer, the man writing religiously while everyone else at the hostel naps, then is ready to go out and explore as soon as the time comes. He is able to insult terrible food in a fresh way, describe bad service like it has never happened before, and convey the sheer bliss of travel while writing about the truly awful events that occur as well as the beautiful beaches and sunsets. I've traveled to many of the same places, had completely different experiences, yet the central message is the same.
The most amazing things about travel are sometimes the hardest to explain, but not for Dyer. The odd feeling you get by being the last man standing in the sunburned wake left by the evacuation of a Mediterranean city in August, to be the only camera-less tourist at a picture-worthy site and the scorn it can cause, to meet a beautiful girl in an idyllic setting and instantly understand everything about one another; this is the stuff dreams are made of. This is why I travel, and this is why I read Geoff Dyer.
One day, the patrons of the Delayed Reaction Bar notice the thermometer hit 92 degrees Fahrenheit (the temperature at which the most crimes are committed). This drives the entire town ballistic, and they proceed to self-fulfill the prophecy by starting what has to be the most violent gun battle in the history of literature. The temperature changes, and everyone saunters back to the pub, leaving the city in ruins.