Sunday, December 13, 2009

A feaverishly Productive Weekend!

It's mid-December. And every year around this time, two very inter-related things happen to me.

First (if I'm a student, as I am this year), I start getting all schmaltzy for my hometown, as one of my by-annual visits starts to approach. Second, I start procrastinating.

A lot.

I look for any excuse not to study for exams. Don't act like you didn't/don't do it.

Aaaaannnnnnnnnyway. If you breathe air and have ears, as I do, then you've probably heard Jay-Z's new jam, Empire State of Mind about every third time you walk into a deli in New York. And if you don't live in New York, maybe the same can be said, I don't know.

Hearing this song all the time has pumped me full a kind of strange, two-years-ago nostalgia. And as an unabashed lover both of my current city and of my hometown, I can't help wondering whether it is intended in some way as a response to Kanye West's uplifting and enchanting Homecoming (y'know, maybe one of those silly regional rivalry things that seem to go on a lot in rap... and in sports and lots of other cultural arenas, for that matter).

If you're working feverishly to be unproductive like I am, I'll leave you with some questions to fill up your mind and your time:

1)Which is the better video, and why?
2)Which is the better rapper, and why?
3)Which is the better city, and why?


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Disturbingly of the Moment

A version of this review will be printed in the December 9th edition of The Envoy.

On November 17th of this year, the final appeal in the case of Lynne Stewart was denied, and she now sits in jail. Stewart is a New York City defense attorney who has represented the downtrodden and the unpopular for decades. She is now serving a 28-month jail term for a conviction that was made possible because the U.S. Government, using the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, undermined attorney-client privilege, one of the cornerstones of the rule of law, in order to allege that she provided material aid to her client, who was charged in a terrorism-related offense.

What a moment in history to see the release of William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe, a new documentary by Emily and Sarah Kuntsler.

William Kuntsler was a radical lawyer and at times a political firebrand outside the courtroom. He represented scores of defendants who, he really believed, had right on their side in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His most famous case came in 1970, when he represented the “Chicago Seven,” the defendants accused of starting riots which were in fact started by police, outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He served a jail sentence for Contempt of Court in that case, and emerged more radical than ever. He represented members of the American Indian Movement when they occupied the town of Wounded Knee, SD and the National Guard descended on them. He went to Attica State Prison in 1971 to act as a negotiator for inmates who’d taken over part of the prison in protest of their conditions, and was cruelly forced to watch as troops opened fire and indiscriminately murdered 39 people, including ten prison guards.

Kuntsler’s daughters, Emily and Sarah, made the film in part to tell his story, and in part, it seems, as a way to come to grips with who he was. It walks us through his personal history from serving as a Major in the Army in World War II, to settling down as a lawyer in the white picket fence world of Westchester County, to abandoning that life to fight for what he knew was right, even when that meant providing counsel for people who’d been accused of awful things.

Told in voiceover narration by Sarah, the Kuntsler sisters’ point of view helps give this story a warm, personal touch. We get a multi-dimensional picture of a man of tremendous moral and intellectual weight, but we also get a sense his many flaws. Though at times it takes on the feel of a group therapy session, hearing the story as told through the eyes of Emily and Sarah gives a personal, accurate and complete sense not just of William Kunstler the historical figure, but of Bill Kunstler the man.

Growing up in the West Village in the 1980’s, Emily and Sarah disapproved of many of their dad’s choices about whom to represent, and lived in fear of the havoc those choices might wreak on their lives. After the upheaval of the 1960’s early 1970’s had fully ebbed, they saw their father move away from his role as a stalwart champion of the oppressed, and toward what they saw as a series of attempts to garner publicity by representing the most reviled clients he could find.

Maybe it was an expression of a lofty principle the Kuntsler sisters look back on their father once articulating to them: “everybody deserves a lawyer.” Maybe it was partly that, and partly an attempt to hold onto the fading spotlight that had shone so brightly on him for so long. But in any case, the work would go on.

Kuntsler represented a man accused of murdering a fundamentalist Rabbi in Brooklyn. The political fallout from that case sent angry conservative Jewish protesters to the sidewalk in front of the Kuntsler family’s townhouse for months. In 1990, he represented Yusef Salam and four other Black teenagers who were accused of the brutal rape and beating of a young woman in “the Central Park Jogger Case.” The brutality of the crime sent much of New York City and the country into a frenzy of retaliatory rage, and it prompted Donald Trump to take out full-page newspaper ads demanding the death penalty for the culprits.

But in 2003, eight years after Kuntsler’s death, another man confessed to the crime. That confession, combined with DNA evidence, led to Yusef Salam’s exoneration. He was released from prison after 13 years. Those kids really didn’t do it.

We all have moments in our lives that we look back on as turning points. At one point in the film, we hear Sarah recount her father’s reaction the first time he saw Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. He looked up at the hulking marble statue that depicts a young biblical king calmly pausing as he prepares to slay a giant, and immediately knew that injustice would be his Goliath, and that from that point onward, he would fight to become a David who could help slay it.

Well Bill, wherever you are, sorry to be the one to have to tell you this: Goliath’s still out there. But you know what? Yusef Salam is alive and free. And that’s gotta count for something.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Uptown is a Neighborhood, Not a Direction!

A version of this review will run in the November 23 issue of The Envoy.

It’s rare that a play can make a person homesick. You see, I grew up just outside Chicago, and Uptown, an eclectic neighborhood not far from Wrigley Field and a hop-skip-and-a-jump from the glistening shores of Lake Michigan, is where I rented my first-ever apartment. It’s also the setting of “Superior Donuts,” the newest play by Tracy Letts. It’s a gritty place, its pothole-laden streets lined with homeless shelters and seedy bars. But it’s got a tender charm and a resilient spirit that always reminds you that even when it’s down, it’s a long way from out.

Kind of like Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a young, witty Black student and aspiring novelist who saunters into a donut shop owned by Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean), a 50-something Polish-American one-time Vietnam War draft-dodger. Franco is cocky and forthright, bursting with humor and a fiery intellect. He challenges the quiet, reserved Arthur to name ten Black poets to prove he’s not racist. Not five minutes after walking in, Franco’s acting like he owns the place!

But as the play’s well-crafted plot reveals, he doesn’t own much—other than a penchant for gambling and a chin-high heap of debt because of it.

Like “Superior Donuts,” Letts’ masterpiece “August: Osage County” first opened at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre to a Midwestern tornado of critical and popular praise, before making the move from the City of Big Shoulders, to the city of big, um, egos.

But whatever Tracy Letts thinks of himself, the theater world is catching on to his mastery of playwriting. “August” boasts both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for best play in 2008, and Broadway greeted the opening of “Superior Donuts” this October with a barrage of anticipatory buzz from critics and theatergoers.

Letts has described the play as an homage to his adopted hometown of the last twenty years or so, and under the direction of Tina Landau, it abounds with those little slices of life that scream “Chicago” without slipping into caricatured overstatement. One salient example is the way Kate Buddeke, as Officer Randy O’steen, a love interest of Arthur’s, nails the nasal accent and puffed-up swagger of an Irish-American patrolwoman from the South Side.

But hers is a role that avoids any simplistic vulgarization of the tension we might expect when a ‘60s liberal and a big-city cop wander into each other’s lives. The budding romance between Randy and Arthur is but one soft-spoken, roundabout front in Arthur’s larger internal battle to break out of his emotional comfort zone, ditch the lingering demons of his past, and live a truly principled life.

In exposition throughout the play and in a series of intimate monologues, we learn of Arthur’s rocky relationship with his immigrant father, his failed marriage and his estrangement from his only daughter. We also learn that he’s willing to cling to the stale comfort of the solitary life he’s known with a ferocity you might think a peacenik incapable of. But the bond between Arthur and the ever-hopeful Franco is what finally starts to erode that comfort enough to allow Arthur to see beyond the narrow horizon of a lonely life as Everybody’s Favorite Donut Maker, and at last dream of something more.

Maybe more than anything else, “Superior Donuts” is a play about dreaming, and how essential (and potentially dangerous) it is for us to dream in a world that will jump at the chance crush our dreams, or be just as happy to let them die a slow, suffocating death. The young Arthur dreamt of a better world. The older one daydreams in wistful “what-if’s.” Franco dreams of writing the Great American Novel. Kiril (Michael Garvey), the owner of the electronics store next door to Superior Donuts, dreams of owning a bigger store and his own home some day.

But these dreams are not treated with the unmoored optimism of that worn-out narrative found in the lore of the “American Dream.” That’s because, at root, what these characters dream of is something a lot harder to attain than a house or a career or a couple of cars in the driveway. They dream of a world where we can come from disparate corners of the globe and the ideological spectrum, yet live side-by-side, helping each other rise to the challenge of being the best people we can be. And Letts’ script embraces that most lofty of dreams, but doesn’t shy from making the point that it’s an awfully tall order to fill.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Halloween is Over; You Know What That Means...

I've been pretty busy lately and blogging has been low on the priority list. So the first post in a while is an occasion to take note of. I wrote a poem (trust me: I use the term loosely) to celebrate.

Winter Solstice

Stop the presses, it's happened again. Mountain of candy still digesting. I always buy too much and can't give it all away. Give me a break. Break me off a piece of that steak sandwich, will ya. Funny, I don't recall being asked if I wanted an image of Santa Claus on my Coca Cola can. It's official: The annual Red And Green Stampede. The Running Of The Bullshit. Run with the herd or get swept down the street. Swipe your card, please. Would you like cash back. We offer gift wrapping downstairs. Downtown. Midtown. Middle of the road. In the middle of 34th Street, watch carefully as the Empire State Building sheds that lovely orange and again dons a clashing color palette. Exactly ten minutes after sundown and you can see them go on. Check your cellphone clocks. The race is about to begin. On your mark. Get Set. Go to the mall with me this weekend. I don't envy the guy who has to unlock those doors. Up to fifty percent off. Up to here with this nonsense. Nice hat. Nice try. This wallet stays in the front pocket. This wallet stays put as mister sidewalk purse salesman cuts deals. Are you kidding me. That leather is so fake. How many animals would you say that coat is made of. How many hours would you say it took them to put up that tree. Let's go ice skating. Let's not do gifts this year. Let's go home, it's freezing out here. Freeze on the dotted white lane marker. This matador leaves the red fabric at home and opts for shopping bags with half-nude male models. They heed not. Hey asshole, I'm walking here. Some people. Some city. Somehow I knew you'd end up here.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

It’s An Album! It’s A Movie!

A version of this review will run in the October 28th edition of The Envoy.

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway snakes menacingly across 11.7 miles of Brooklyn and Queens, mangling neighborhoods and hubcaps as few roads can. The brainchild of infamous urban planner/neighborhood-destroyer Robert Moses and completed in 1960, it is, in ways literal and metaphorical, one of the ugliest things in New York City.

All the more reason to write a concept album devoted it—right?


Sufjan Stevens, the prolific, 34 year-old Brooklyn-based musician is at his weirdest--and somehow, also his most straightforward--with BQE (Asthmatic Kitty Records).

Stevens has carved out quite a niche for himself in early 21st Century American indie music. The sheer ambition of his projects has demanded the attention of music critics and a mushrooming constituency of fans for several years now. His is a musical style—not unlike New York City, come to think of it--that insists on doing things on an almost laughably large scale. He composes all the music, and sings and performs every instrument on all his albums. And he plans to record an album of songs thematically tied to each one of the fifty states (he’s already done Michigan and Illinois).

He is an artist with a range that is truly rare, making use of lavish arrangements that can haunt us, tickle us, or beckon us toward a quiet state of somber contemplation—and that’s just the melodies. Stevens’ meticulously-researched and heartfelt lyrics have touched on everything from the personal life of a Chicago serial killer to the rise and fall of industrial production in Detroit to a sorrowful ode to a lost friend.

BQE was originally commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2007, and was performed with a 36-person orchestra as part of its Next Wave Festival. The songs on BQE, like much of Stevens’ work, are lyricless and extravagantly composed. Piano, flute, trumpet, violin and clarinet can be heard over rising and falling tempos. But to talk about individual songs would almost be to negate the point of this album. That’s because it’s just as much a film as an album. Shot on a combination of super 8mm and 16mm film, BQE uses a triptych visual structure (three side-by-side frames playing simultaneously) with Stevens’ original score creating a mood that takes the viewer on a head-spinning journey up, down and around one of America’s most notorious roadways.

And as a nerd who collected maps of cities instead of baseball cards as a kid, it’s right up my alley (or… right up my six-lane, shoulderless, pot hole-laden behemoth).

But my enthusiasm is born of a very specific agglomeration of quirky proclivities. I’d have a hard time seeing Joe Schmoe (or even, frankly, Joe Educated Hipster) being able to sink his teeth very far into this one.

It opens with a credit sequence that introduces us to three hula-hooping, superhero-costume-clad young women: Botanica (Latin for “pertaining to plants”); Quantus (Latin for “how much”); and Electress (a term that was used to refer to the wife or widow of a politician in the Holy Roman Empire). Botanica’s costume is emblazoned with a “B” across the front, Quantus’ with a “Q,” and Electress’ with an “E.”

Is Stevens likening the rat race of the present-day U.S. to the militarism and exploitation of the Late Roman Empire? Or is he just taking us on a manic joyride through his adopted hometown?

It may be a little of both. But I’m not sure if it matters either way. Stevens’ concerns seem to lay with representing urban space with a frenetic whimsy that mirrors, yet accelerates, the way it really is.

Speaking of mirrors, the side-by-side, triple split-screen format of the film is exploited to interesting (if overdone) effect in stylized editing that presents what looks like an endlessly-reproducing wall of moving cars. This effect and others are employed in a way that tries to augment the musical score; the more frenzied and unwieldy the visuals, the more complex and climactic the music. In this way, what we see onscreen resembles a narrative.

But that leads this superhighway of musical and urban exploration straight toward one of its biggest weaknesses: the outlines of a coherent story that we are able to discern, are pretty meaningless. If, for example, the visuals of the film had included archival footage that could help tell the whole story of the evolution of the BQE and its affect on the neighborhoods it winds so rudely through, the sum total would have been a more satisfying (if less avant guard) visual and auditory experience.

The world is a complicated place. And Sufjan Stevens, it seems, doesn’t want to make anything feel simple. None of his music does, that’s for sure. That idea—that life is just… complex--might have been at the heart of his thinking in doing this project. Which is why it’s oddly incongruous that BQE ends on an image of a throng of cyclists lazily reclaiming the northbound lanes of the expressway, in no particular hurry as they ride under a string of overpasses. We’re left wondering: was that the point of this whole thing? That cars are bad?

Maybe that was part of it. But somehow, I bet there’s more to the story--even though there isn’t really much of a story at all.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Confessions Of A Recovering New York City Bike Messenger, Entry #2

6th Avenue at 34th Street.

I had somewhere I was trying to be. I had a little bit of a tailwind. And I might as well come right out and say it: I was enjoying myself, jutting inches in front of cars and people, rendering lane markers and crosswalks meaningless.

To a bloated throng of West-of-the-Hudson-ers, clogging the crosswalk like a weeks-old clump of congealed pubic hair:


I didn't even have to slow down.

Hey, I'm ridin' here.

I'm not an asshole in real life, I just play one on two wheels.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sneezing Our Way Into The 21st Century

It really warms my heart when people don't capitalize “god.” Cause, like, why should something whose mere existence has been a centerpiece of one of the great ideological debates of the last hundred years, be treated as a real, actual thing—why should it be given a name, like Francis or Rebecca, or... I dunno... Marvin—when, really, no one can even prove it's fucking real?

You don't capitalize stuff like “boogie man,” do you?

Okay, maybe you do. But if you do, that's dumb. I don't.

In light of this, it's interesting to think of a new way to sneeze that I've deivsed. That's right. A new way to fucking sneeze. Or, a new way to be in the presence of someone who sneezes. You know how people say shit like “[G] (sic) od bless you,” whenever anybody sneezes? You know what I'm talkin' 'bout!

That whole thing started back in the days when, like, dudes with rotten-ass teeth and wheelbarrows would walk the streets of every town, piles of dead bodies in tow, calling out “bring outcha dead!” The received wisdom of the day dictated that surely, if a bunch of gross bodily mist is rapidly ejected from a person's nose, this must be their soul, leaving their body. Of course! Makes perfect sense!

Yeah, well, maybe it did a couple hundred years before the Enlightenment. But for reasons I'm having a rough time figuring out, people still do it. Sure, there's been some evolution of exactly how this medieval ignorance is shoved into everyday life (“salud,” etc.), but the notion that condolences are somehow in order whenever anyone spews thousands of tiny mucus particles through their nostrils, remains an intransigent fixture of cultures the world over.

Well, maybe we can't subvert the dominant paradigm just yet. But we are the generation of Vice Magazine and the ironic mustache--so surely we can at least mock it.

My answer to centuries of ignorance? “YOU SNEEZED!” Uh-huh. I just remind people that they've in fact sneezed, since, y'know, you gotta say something.

I guess it'll have to do, since there ain't no way I'm about to take social cues that hark back to days when life expectancy ran somewhere around the age of your average Williamsburger who's soured on two years of post-college bartending and just figured out what their long-lost career should be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Michael Moore Steps Into The Ring (One Last Time?)

This piece will run in the September 30th edition of The Envoy.

Michael Moore is at it again. His latest foray into the depths of Americana, Capitalism: A Love Story, is an ever-more shrewd attempt to transcend the single-issue banality of his more recent efforts (Bowling For Columbine, 2002; Fahrenheit 911, 2004; and Sicko, 2007) in favor of a return to something closer to the innocent appeal to humanity of his break-out documentary, Roger & Me (1989).

The trouble is, Capitalism is just not as good a film as Roger & Me. Which is a let-down of Flint, Michigan proportions--especially considering recent suggestions by Moore himself that it could constitute a magnum opus, a culmination of his 20-year streak as America’s most headline-grabbing documentarian. In a September 16th New York Times article by Bruce Headlam, and in his own voiceover narration at the end of the film, Moore alludes to the possibility of “this” being his final documentary. Time (and box office receipts) will tell.

Let me qualify the forthcoming barrage of critiques with the following: the persistent presence and high profile of someone like Moore, with his undeniable every-man charisma and ability to draw formidable audiences and controversy, spells good things for vigorous debate about issues that matter in an age of O’Rielly’s, Beck’s and Hannity’s. He’s a polarizing figure. And his films sometimes manage to pour cinematic salt on the too-quick-to-heal wounds of a well-organized right-wing movement that seems locked in bitter combat with the truth.

Capitalism (the film… but, come to think of it, the system, too) bites off more than it can chew. Maybe that’s because Moore is so used to tackling one relatively easy-to-sum-up societal dilemma, that he can’t come up with a very compelling way to explore the underlying system that gives rise to all the other ills we’ve heard him rail about.

Or maybe it’s because he’s not really against capitalism. A wistful harking back to the blue-skied days of his youth in Michigan is the only time we hear Moore mention the affect of American free enterprise on the rest of the world. Working people had healthcare and owned their own homes back in the 1950s, we hear the ubiquitous voiceover tell us, partly because there was basically no industrial competition from World War II-ravaged Europe or Japan. Bingo! A global system has an affect on the whole rest of the world. It’s a simple idea, but it’s one that’s basically dodged wholesale in this movie. And that’s part of what makes it flop as an examination of exploitation in today’s world. If the objective is to show the worthlessness of something as broad as greed in a compelling, true-to-life way, Roger & Me, or Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) do it far better, and without the risk of choking.

Moore lazily recycles the narrative template used in his more recent films (interludes of personal stories; semi-staged scenes confronting adversaries; voiceover narration by Moore laced with sarcastic ruminations; plenty of largely irrelevant archival footage; a deliberately overwrought plot aiming for an ultimately impossible resolution). For the most part, it’s all visually engaging and at least somewhat intellectually satisfying; issues are touched upon and real people who confront them are introduced, both in the present era and in past ones. But that’s part of what gives this film a feel more akin to a sloppy collage than a masterwork of big-budget political documentary storytelling. Like a mid-September day of trading at the New York Stock Exchange, it may hold your attention with its wild spectacle, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make much sense of it.

Capitalism shows both a potent visual sense and a keen propagandist’s eye at those moments when its screaming artifice is at its least intense. There is a scene in which a man who has lost his home has to throw his furniture into a bonfire. There’s another that reveals an army of volunteers tossing bags of donated food toward striking workers. These images say a lot. But their rhetorical power is weakened, not strengthened, by cheap attempts to tug at our collective heartstrings with long-held close-ups of crying victims we’ve barely been introduced to, or glimpses into the empty eyes of unapologetic and un-dynamic real-world villains. We don’t need that stuff to get the point, and I’m not sure why a filmmaker as smart as Moore seems to think we do.

What we’re left with by the end of 120 minutes is a rather exhausting jaunt that bounces manically between recent times and various historical junctures spread out over 80-some-odd years of dog-eat-dog American capitalism, with particular (and somewhat out-of-place) focus on the rise to power of Barak Obama. If that sentence took a lot of work to follow, don’t expect the film to be much easier. As per usual, what Moore lacks in coherency and finesse, he (almost) makes up for with witty mockery of his greedy foes and a fearless speak-truth-to-power zeal. In this new post-Bush context, I’m already staking out my ringside seat for the political heavyweight match that promises to ensnare Moore once his new film bursts all the way onto the scene. Despite the trouble I have with his style and some of his conclusions, rest assured: I’ll be rooting for him.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Confessions Of A Recovering New York City Bike Messenger, Entry #1

62nd and 1st Avenue.

60-something guy on adult-size kick-scooter, crossing in crosswalk on green (in gruff voice):


Me, on track bike, weaving through traffic and crossing against red, passing 4-6 feet in front of above (in chirpy, sing-songy voice):

"I'm a really nice guy, actually!"

Monday, September 7, 2009

Some Band You've Never Heard of Made Me Who I Am

This piece will run in the Envoy issue due out September 16.

Take one middle-class, ADHD-diagnosed fourteen year-old boy who never quite fit in. Add a pinch of disdain for oppression and inequality. Slowly pour in two cups of defiance. Add a dash of intellectual curiosity. Throw contents into a bowl of late-nineties teen angst. Stir vigorously.

These ingredients came together in November of 1997 in a way I'll never forget. I was fourteen and in my first couple months of high school. Some kids I had met about a week before invited me to go with them to see some bands play at a church about a mile down the road from my house. That night, I had no plans, no expectations, and no idea what I was in for.

I don't even think The Broadways headlined the show. I don't really even remember their set. That's one of the strange things about those rare life-altering moments; more often than not, you can't see them coming long enough in advance to really take notice and commit every precious detail to memory. Especially when you're a clueless, hopelessly naive freshman in high school.

But I did buy their CD, Broken Star. It was one of only two full-length albums the band would put out in their brief time together. The other, Broken Van, is a compilation of miscellaneous tracks, mostly taken from various splits and EP's, and was released after they broke up. It's not as good. But hey, “Album That That Made Me Who I Am” is setting the bar pretty high.


Broken Star's melodic, yet grimy-sounding compositions listen like the musical embodiment of growing up as a rebel. It stays true throughout to the jagged punk rock aesthetic, but the band's two guitars and three singers help it break out of the well-worn three-chord rut and provide the space for some brilliant topical and musical exploration. Songs tend to last longer than the standard two to three minutes, and often indulge us with long intro's or outro's and meandering solo's rife with visceral emotional impact (I still get goosebumps just from some of Broken Star's yearning riffs wandering into my head). Each song stands entirely on its own two feet, and few attempts are made—very consciously, I suspect--to create an experience that flows smoothly between tracks.

That this band had a unique, yet accomplished sound is illuminated by a look at who was in it. Some high school kids from in and around Elgin, IL formed a ska-punk band called Slapstick in the mid-nineties. Fronted by the sandpapery-voiced Brendan Kelly, Slapstick was signed by the San Francisco Bay Area-based Asian Man Records when most of the band was still in high school. They developed a relatively large and loyal fan base, primarily in the Chicago-area punk scene, but not only there.

Slapstick, it turned out, was like a punk rock boot-camp for some of the most influential and talented musicians to come out of the Chicago area in a generation. The history looks a bit like a family genealogy chart, with a continually dividing lineage. On one side of the divide, Slapstick members went on to form the “emo” bands Alkaline Trio and a short-lived band called Tuesday. On the more straight-up punk side, we got The Broadways, whose members would later go on to form The Honor System and The Lawrence Arms. These bands have had (and in the case of The Lawrence Arms and Alkaline Trio, continue to have) a lasting impact not only on me, but on underground music throughout this country and the world.

Much of the irreverent flare and shrill-voiced contempt of Kelly's songwriting and singing with Slapstick seeped into his work with The Broadways. Those songs on Broken Star that were sung by him tended to have a more didactic, whiny quality to their lyrics and delivery (don't get me wrong: that was, and is, fine with me). They often dealt explicitly, as in “Everything I Ever Wanted To Know About Genocide I Learned In The Third Grade,” with specific political topics like the historical white-washing of the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. As I recall, owing pretty much solely to this song, I made a big deal about refusing to eat turkey at my family Thanksgiving dinner in 1997. Aunt Molly was horrified. I was coming (clumsily) into my own.

Even songs that I couldn't personally relate to, like “The Kitchen Floor,” a self-aware diatribe about its author's alcoholism, had a capacity to pull me into their emotional vortex and got me searching for aspects of my own life that the lyrics could apply to just as much what they were really about.

What had the most lasting and profound impact on me were the songs sung in part or entirely by Chris McCaughan or Dan Hanaway (who would later found and sing for The Honor System, another band I deeply love). The best of these songs were longer, and boasted a more intricate musical style and heartfelt songwriting. Like all Broadways songs, they eschewed the standard verse/chorus/verse lyrical structure in favor of something closer to a stream-of-consciousness rant. But in these songs especially, that formula helps to strike that illusive balance found in raw personal anguish born of a genuine largeness of mind about the beleaguered state of our world. The song “We'll Have A Party” offers a good example: “Motivation sometimes sinks deep in these couch cushions/sometimes sleep is my best friend/and it hurt me when my friends transformed into my parents/they don't call here anymore.”


It's not hyperbole to say that I would be a different person without this album. Seriously. Think back to when you were fourteen. I'd wager that like me, you hadn't heard a whole lot of music whose sound not only spoke to you, but whose lyrics and ethos dared you to rebel (and used swear words!). Well, I know I hadn't. And this album opened up doors of exploration that would lead to the discovery of countless other beloved albums and a whole world of questioning everything any teacher, politician, TV news anchorman or parent ever told me. And I'm proud to say, that impulse hasn't faded much over the years.

There's a way that the stars aligned with Broken Star. As tends to be the case with music that ends up shaping who people will become, the musicians were older than my friends and I, but not by that much. They had their fingers on the pulse of what it was like to be young and to hate the world you saw out your bedroom window in the suburbs. With a kind of magic that's hard for words to convey, two guitars, a bass, a drumset and some mic's became a conduit for all the all the rage, all the impotence, all the revelry of coming of age in a world you knew was no good, yet didn't know what could be done about it. Maybe that's part of the reason I fell so hard for it; I bet if I heard Broken Star for the first time now, it would get a tepid reception from my 26-year-old ears. But because it was so formative for me, it's locked-in. I'll never be able to not love it, even if I try.

I remember it like it was yesterday (maybe that's because I know I'll do the same thing for many tomorrow's to come): after midnight, driving back with a friend from some distant corner of the vast suburban labyrinth. Windows down, volume at “ten,” Broken Star on “repeat,” and our throats on the verge of bleeding from screaming every... single... word at the top of our lungs.

Whoops, we missed our exit. Fuck it.


There's a certain dark cynicism and a macabre sense of humor that came through in a lot of The Broadways' work (“and the only dream I have is for an H-bomb to come, and blow us fucking up so you won't have to hear me bitch anymore”). And while that side of them was real, it's not what defined the spirit of what I believe they were trying to do. I think it's fitting that the last tracks on the only two full-length records they ever put out have a much more uplifting, downright inspiring message. These were four guys who I think must have had a lot of faith in humanity, even if they spent a lot of time fixating on how badly it had screwed things up. The last lines from the song “The Nautical Mile” give eloquent expression to this faith: “And if it comes down to just you and I/standing on the last corner of the last town of the last city in the burning world/you'll still have someone on your side/life is bigger, so much bigger than all this.” That's the side of this band and of this record that I've tried to pick up and run through life with, stopping occasionally to scream out to the heavens for something better than this ugly, beautiful world I've inherited.

Food for Thought on "Working Within the System"

Van Jones, who until Sunday was an Obama Administration adviser, got chewed up and spit out. Jones apparently said some outrageous things in years past, like daring to question whether the United States Government, which seems to have no qualms whatsoever about blowing things up in other parts of the world, could have had any prior knowledge of plans for the 9/11 attacks. Jones also once had the audacity to voice support for Mumia Abu Jamal, a man who has been incarcerated for nearly 30 years--most of it on Pennsylvania's Death Row--on baseless charges of killing a cop. Another man has since confessed to the crime.

All of this was years ago. It's entirely possible that Jones doesn't even feel the same way about these things anymore. But that's of no concern to the rabid dogs of the right-wing noise machine. They went on their blogs, on the media mouthpieces that many of them have close financial ties to, and they pounced.

The whole thing smells a lot like the Ward Churchill affair of a few years ago. Churchill was a prominent Native American Studies scholar at the University of Colorado. He was Chair of his department. In 2004 calls from Bill O'Reilly and for his resignation began to be echoed by right-wingers from coast to coast. It had come to the surface that Churchill had, years earlier, published a little-known essay in which he compared the technicians of global capitalism who worked in the World Trade Center Towers to NAZI officials. Not the most apt comparison ever, but in the context of the essay, which also documents U.S. war crimes around the world, it's not that much of a stretch. Well, Churchill was stripped of his post, fired from his job and all but literally tarred, feathered and run out of Boulder on a rail. All for some stuff he'd said years earlier.

With this Van Jones thing, the method of attack used by people who I think we should get used to calling fascists, is about the same. But in a Summer, 2009 context, it should be taken as a sign that the skeletons of the Bush Years don't plan on removing themselves from Barack Obama's closet.

If the Obama Administration is really free to govern in a progressive way, why are they letting these wolves tear up one of their own? Maybe it's because, for their own reasons, they want to throw Jones under the bus as much as anyone else.

The Churchill thing was a terrible sign of the times in Bushian America. But it was a sign of the times; in a certain sense, in that context, it made sense to be going after academics who questioned the established narrative on anything considered important by the powers-that-be.

These days, too many people are infected with the erroneous (and dangerous) notion that their man Barack won't let things like that happen. Well, folks, it doesn't work that way. The infrastructure of a kind of fascism embodied by Fox News and the rise of what we've come to call "the religious right" have latched onto this society like a giant leech, and they aren't going anywhere without some kind of fight.

And even in "normal" times, there are things you can say when you've got the ear of the President of the United States, and there are things you can't say. Which is to say, you can say anything you want--you just don't get to keep your influential policy job if you don't tow the line. This has always been true. Remember Cynthia McKinney, the Congresswoman from Georgia? She was one of the most stridently progressive members of Congress in decades. She even introduced a bill to impeach Bush. Where's she been, lately? Not in the halls of Congress, that's for sure.

The take-home message from this whole thing with Van Jones should this: the system has no place for you if you are going to insist on standing firmly for anything that fundamentally challenges any official narratives or insists that what's needed is truly sweeping change. Either you'll acquiesce (read: sell out), or you'll try to subtly alter what you say to conform to what you think those in power want to hear, which leads to changing what you think. Which leads to changing what you do. And if you manage to get anywhere inside the political establishment as a lefty, guess what: don't bother to unpack your suitcase, 'cause you won't last there long. If you're really progressive, really radical and you plan on staying that way, trying to work for The Man is like trying to plant palm trees in Maryland. Nobody's lofty principles can withstand the harsh climate along the Potomac. Do something with your life that will really matter. Washington doesn't want you, and trust me: you don't want it, either.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Beer Commerical Worthy of My Respect

I like this. I like it because rather than the unnaturally-tanned flesh of bikini-clad young women who--wittingly or unwittingly--project an impossible-to-attain image of physical perfection, it showcases something of true beauty: my hometown.

The music's a little lame. The contrived pageantry more than a little overwrought... but, c'mon, guys, it's a beer commerical. Much worse has been (and damn near always is) done. And there's something here that you gotta like. Especially if you're smitten for Chicago the way I am.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tortured Logic (or, reason #127 why Barack Obama is not your friend)

In a December, 2007 essay in The Atlantic, the outspoken conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan did an interesting thing. In a long, polemical essay that ranged widely as primary season was heating up, he articulated a viewpoint for why Barack Obama should become the next President of the United States. Sullivan's chief argument for Obama was that his leadership would constitute what he termed a “re-branding of America” more than any substantive shift in its politics or specific policies. Sullivan argued that Obama's international upbringing, his post-baby-boomer age bracket, his relatively unassuming roots, his unique ability to straddle many cultural and political divides, and—the trump card—his nationality, added up to rare opportunity to project a new kind of American power in a volatile world situation that, in Sullivan's view, demanded precisely that.

There was both a domestic and an international edge to Sullivan's argument. But at a time when the war in Iraq was by all accounts going badly and when the rest of the world was still holding its nose to keep out the lingering stench of George W. Bush's reign, it may well have been the international dimension that had Sullivan most concerned. And, from his point of view as a commentator striving for (and often getting) the ears of the most powerful figures inside the Beltway, though I don't agree with him (far from it!), I can't say I blame him. The essay is worth quoting at some length:

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

As the onset of an economic meltdown grew eminent in the months preceding the election, I think it's safe to say that the appeal of Sullivan's analysis only widened among those in the halls of power. “This,” it must have seemed to a growing number of them at the time, “is our guy.” He was able to simultaneously project calm and vigilance, worldliness and humbleness. And the best part: he was Black. Any mistakes he made in ruling over an outstretched empire or enforcing a necessarily less bellicose system of exploitation in his home country, would have to be measured against that one, irrefutable fact.

That one fact about Obama has led many to argue that he knows something about oppression—“he must!”—and that on this basis he would be a drastically different kind of leader with drastically different aims and motivations than his hated predecessor.

To be fair, he is quite different in many ways from George W. Bush. To take just one example, I recently read somewhere that until the royalties from his first book deal started coming in, he was still paying off loans on his Ivy League education. And he was one of only a small handful of Senators who voiced opposition to the Iraq War before it started.

But here's another irrefutable fact: Obama's job is Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful economic and military machine on Earth, not the community organizing job he came to Chicago for in the early 80s. The personal experience of growing up (largely) in America and being Black isn't going to change this.

And let's be real for a moment: the Oval Office is not a place where high-minded principles go to die; it's a place where an elite few who have learned to skillfully pay lip service to them go to bury them once and for all. And you don't get there without some clear proof, well in advance, that you're willing to do terrible things in the service of the larger cause you've signed on the dotted line to serve.

So in light of all this, as disgusting as it is, the announcement earlier this week of what amounts to a new way to torture people in U.S. custody, should come as no big shock. There will be a new White House-supervised unit called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which will shift chief responsibility for overseeing the interrogations of prisoners who have been “rendered” to various countries, from the CIA to the National Security Council. This time, we are told there will be more oversight by the administration.

Right about now, if we're being honest with ourselves, we should be asking some questions about all this.

First off: oversight? They want us to think that more oversight, by a President who has refused to release photos of torture by the previous administration, is going to make us feel better?

Moving right along, here's a basic one: if you guys don't plan on overseeing torture, why the hell are you shipping people overseas to be interrogated? Huh?! Isn't that the whole reason the U.S. government does that?

Obama was pretty unambiguous during his years in the Senate and throughout his campaign, that torture wasn't something he was going to let happen under his watch. Did he mean that in the we'll-just-continually-re-define-what-it-means-and-then-say-we-don't-do-it sense, or did he actually mean it? Or, was he just saying what he thought the right people would want to hear?

Finally, doesn't this all seem to fit pretty well with Sullivan's point?

Basically, what we're looking at with much of what's happening under Obama is a re-branding, and not something fundamentally different than what the world has known America to be. It's not that it's all about Obama, per se. But the perceived need on the part of the U.S. to do things like torture people to get information has not suddenly abated. And the presence of a man whom the world seems to adore at the helm of a machine that does these things can change the equation in dramatic ways. It can let that machine do a lot of awful things, with a whole lot less scrutiny. If we're talking about principals, there really isn't anything more basic than the unconditional prohibition of torture. So if “change we can believe in” means things like a change in who oversees the savage treatment of human beings held in secret dungeons, then we'd better turn our eyes away from Obama's handsome face and look to where real change comes from (hint: it's not the top).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Funny People: Dick Jokes With Some Depth

This review was originally written for publication in the Evnoy, and due to that paper's absence of a policy on its writers having blogs, you're seeing it here. If you're dying to see it in print, you have two options: 1) come to the Hunter College campus in New York City some time after the first week of September and pick up a copy out of a lovely, hidden-from-view, falling apart display box; and, 2) send me some money (lots of it) and maybe I'll send you a copy of the free college paper I write for. Either way, it's a bargain.

Funny People: Dick Jokes With Some Depth

As the first decade of the 21st Century enters its twilight months, Judd Apatow is emerging as an iconic comedic director for a generation. Well, Like a rosy-faced 15-year-old boy copping to the ultimate semi-pubescent sin, I'll admit it: before seeing his latest offering, Funny People, I was an Apatow Virgin.

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a rich, famous stand-up-comic-turned-movie-star who finds out he has a rare form of leukemia and will probably die, so he goes on a quest to find what he loves most in life. Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is a struggling stand-up comic with a penchant for lewd humor whose act impresses Simmons so much that he takes the young buck under his wing. The two end up navigating some rather heavy emotional terrain as a partners-in-slime, telling gross-out jokes through thick and thin.

Funny People is a bit like an inversion of the typical dude-humor comedy we're getting used to dropping our twelve bucks on. Dick jokes? Yeah, there's no shortage of 'em. But this movie brings something to the table that few comedies try to these days: nuance.

Contemporary comedies often look something like this: you have a funny or ridiculous basis for a story that's held together by an ill-wrought dramatic premise, and the real point isn't whatever it is that the characters are striving to accomplish in the story, nor the ideas or themes the film calls to mind. It's the various gags, jokes, cringe-inducing awkward moments, or encounters with scantily clad young women that litter the path to the closing credits (think of a movie like The Hangover and you know what I mean).

Funny People--dare I say it--is more sophisticated than that, even as it relies disproportionately on reminders of the quirks of our own anatomies for laughs--and even, speaking of body parts, if the fits of laughter it sends us into aren't so potent they could count as the week's ab workout. You're more likely to chuckle than you are to wheeze and convulse.

But that's okay. Because Funny People has some things to say about friendship, love, fame and happiness that resonate louder than the peppering of (rather good, if often pretty tasteless) interludes of standup by Sandler and Rogen. There is some complexity to the relationship between George and Ira. One is rich and famous, but jaded and cynical and leads a life drenched in wistful regret. The other is star-struck and naïve, and wants what his new friend has, even as he begins to unpeel the layers of rot that should tell him to run the other way. Their relationship is fraught with reminders of what fame does to a person, and of what real friends are--and aren't.

When Ira makes the ailing George an iPod playlist with a bunch of cheesy songs and then we hear that he's included Warren Zevon's “Keep me in Your Heart,” (a devastating song written by a man who knew he was dying of cancer), it's actually a touching moment. And the fact that he put Bill Medley's 80's cornball love ballad “Time of my Life” on the playlist isn't any less funny coming in a scene with some emotional gravity. It's one of the things that's making me begin to appreciate the Apatow touch, because scenes like this one seamlessly traverse so much of our humanity without losing their comedic zing.

Adam Sandler once again shows us that there's more to him than met our eyes during his much-celebrated early 90's Saturday Night Live run. It's not that he lights up the screen as a washed-up comedian staring death in the face. But you do get the feeling—and maybe this is because there's surely some Sandler in the Simmons character—that the melancholy, aging face that a few times manages to burst through the funny-man facade, is that of a complete human being. That said, the parts of our old friend Adam that are both most memorable and most satisfying, come to us when he is precisely that funny man he's shown us he knows how not to be. In particular, he gives us a sequence of old-granny-voice prank calls that were easily the closest thing in the movie to having me on the floor, and were, by any measure, 100% Sandler.

One major disappointment of Funny People is the way it descends into a third act whirlpool of plot-twisting contrivance. I'd bet money that some frantic producer got a hold of the final revision of the script and concluded that it needed another 30 minutes of length and the full development and resolution of what should have been a minor subplot. If you see it—which I still recommend—this'll stick out like a sore thumb.

In this movie, the specter of death isn't funny, per se. It's as tragic as it is in the saddest melodrama, or in the real world, for that matter. But the transcendent power of humor is revealed as a tool to help us pull through (and even as a mask to hide behind in ways we shouldn't). It's ambiguous. It's not neat or clean. And I know we're talking about Hollywood here, but still, that's the way real life is: messy.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Remembering John Hughes: Don't You Forget About Me (or the confused mess I was ten years ago)

This piece was originally written for the Envoy. A version of it will appear in that paper's upcoming issue.

In some ways, it was the impossibly rainy summer of 2009 that drove the final stake through the heart of my childhood. And by my childhood, I mean the 1980's (and you could stretch that a bit into the early 90's, too, if you really want).

From that blissfully uneasy perch, that nexus of still-novel independence and turbo-charged vitality—my mid-20's--I watched it happen. And you watched it, too. We couldn't ignore the headline-dominating passing of Michael Jackson, or the subsequent blasting of “Billie Jean” at every party, bar, club and out the open windows of every low-slung, neon-light-adorned, souped-up cruising import car in the city for two months.

Some of us cheered, and some of us cringed as Kobe Bryant lead the Lakers to their fourth NBA championship—more than Michael Jordan had won at his age—and just like that, the path to a “New Jordan” may have reached a point of no return.

But back in the years when sports fantasies began to give way to smoke-filled rooms full of kids with mohawks and studded jackets, in days when bonds forged in meandering discussions during Saturday detention meant way more than who your prom date would be, another icon of the 80's pried his way into my life. I'm talking about John Hughes.

I've bounced around from passion to passion a lot in my day. I spent most of high school screwing around doing tricks on BMX bikes, but never fully found my niche in a crowd that measured achievement in scars. Although they did seem better than any of the warring social factions at school: you know--the jocks, the “preppy” kids, the stoners, the my-parents-will-kill-me-if-I-get-a-”B” types, etc. I spent some time on the periphery of the local punk rock scene, but found a lot of the same vain struggle to conform, yet be yourself there, too. Looking for the place be “me” only led smack up against the realization that the only “place” to do that is when you're older... if you're lucky.

I grew up amid the very tree-lined images of picture-perfect suburban Americana to which Hughes's most iconic films pay cinematic homage. I went to New Trier High School, just outside Chicago (said to be the real-world inspiration for the fictional Shermer High). Until I left for New York on a quest to change the world at 22, I lived in a nice, two-story house that had a basement “rec room” and a basketball hoop lovingly affixed to the roof of a 1.5 car garage. My parents rarely fought, never once threatened to ruin my social life if I didn't get good grades (maybe that's part of the reason I never did!), and are still happily married—so far as I can tell.

So why did it feel like such a hellhole?

Really, it wasn't. At least not entirely. But adolescence, wherever you grow up, is an alienating place. And John Hughes, decades into his adulthood, held fast to that understanding and projected it onto movie screens and right into our hearts. If there's one overarching theme to be taken from Hughes' films—or at least the best, and most memorable of them—it's the idea that, for all I'm-in-with-the-in-crowd galavanting and all the the I've-got-it-all-figured-out-at-16 bravado, none of us really fit in. And none of us had much at all figured out.

As a BMX bike-riding, Marx-reading, punk rock-listening juvenile delinquent, I never quite fit any of the archetypes The Breakfast Club helped etch into our collective consciousness. But maybe that was the whole point of throwing a jock, a bad-ass, a popular girl, a nerd and a misfit into a room together: you might never guess it, but growing up is rough for everybody, and everybody's got a different mask to hide behind to try to make it look like they never cry themselves to sleep. So whatever you're into, however you fashion your identity, and, as the enduring popularity of Hughes' repertoire has shown us, whichever era you look back on and call your heyday—youthful insecurities are universal.

It's in this light that I prefer to cherish the memories of Friday nights in my parents' basement, crowded around an L-shaped couch with a bunch of friends, blurting out a chorus of lines from Ferris Beuller's Day Off like we were stealing each word out of Matthew Brodrick's mouth.

You know, it's not like there's nothing to it when people say Hughes' character studies in affluent suburbia painted a one-sided, deliberately misleading picture of the experience of growing up. That his best films were made during the Reagan years, at a time when everything that had been learned by the “60s” generation was being buried in a million ways, does—and can't help but—have bearing on how history judges the work of an artist who featured white faces in a white-picket-fence world.

But we'd be a pack of narrow-minded philistines to deny that there is a richness and a universality to Hughes's treatment of subjects like budding sexuality and the need to assert an individual identity in a world that seems one-dimensional. The themes, if not the literal experiences, mark all of our lives. And the observant, gentle hand of a man who could immortalize those sometimes mundane, sometimes life-affirming, sometimes bitter moments that now seem hard-wired into our cultural DNA, deserves some fond remembrance. Who among us can't relate to some aspect of the bashful Claire Standish or the hopelessly belligerent John Bender? Who among us can say they've never shown the world a confident human being when inside they were a mess?

As this summer starts to fizzle out and attention turns to what lies in wait on my next tour of duty in the trenches of academia, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the fading memory of bygone days. And in that process, it's come just a little clearer into focus, that whatever identity I, or anyone else showed the world back in high school, really, none us of was anything more or less than a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.

Here Goes Nothin'!

Welcome. So I've been doing a lot of writing lately. Mostly for classes I'm taking at Hunter College, and for the school newspaper there, the Envoy. It's been good. And one of the reasons it's been good is that it's made me realize writing is something I ought to do even more of. Wherever it leads, for better or worse, it's something I have no business not making a prominent part of my life.

This blog is where that realization has led. For now.

I'm calling it "The Scenic Route" for a few reasons, all of which have an autobiographical element to them. I'm 26. And I'm an undergraduate in college. A lot of my peers had their degrees by 22. I'm on my way somewhere, but I've taken longer to get there than I could have. And, I'd argue, I've seen a lot more than I could have along the way. So that's one part of it. I've also been a nerd about all things spatial and geographic my whole life; I collected maps instead of baseball cards as a kid, if that tells you anything. I like to navigate, and I like to travel. These little nuggets are where the name came from, and they tell you some things about this (relatively) young blogger. But I'd like to range pretty wide in what I talk about here.

The plan, as it stands, is to publish content ranging from ruminations on whatever I'm thinking about, to film reviews that originally run in the Envoy, to political rants or more well-developed political writings, to possibly even some short stories or other fiction.

I have a lot to say (or, in any case, I'm fond of thinking I do). So this'll be the place to say it. At least for a while. We'll see how it works. Check in every so often. And give me your feedback, your suggestions, your rotten tomatoes, a little bit of your time. I'll try to make it worth your while.

See you on the interwebs,

Scott Klocksin