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.