Sunday, November 30, 2008


Here's a sneak peek at Stephen Colbert's upcoming Christmas special. Andy Williams, eat your heart out. In this clip, Stephen and a friendly bear ask the musical question, "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?"

Isn't that nice? The man in the bear suit,
Elvis Costello, originally tossed off the song as a B-side, but it became a hit so he hastily slapped it onto the U.S. edition of Armed Forces. People think he wrote it, but the song was actually written by Nick Lowe, the British pub-rocker, New Waver, and all around nice guy. Good job, guys.

And what a good question!

Declan McManus, otherwise known as Elvis Costello, the man in the bear suit

Here Elvis Costello plays guest host and sings a rocking "Peace, Love and Understanding" for a whole new generation.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Roberto Bolaño wrote "2666," which was named Time Magazine's Best Book of 2008. Difficult, cranky, opinionated--and dead--he is finally catching on in the English-speaking world. It's about time. For more on Bolaño, click here.
Read the NYRB review of "2666" is
here. Read an insightful piece on "2666" by Marcela Valdes in the Nation here.

Christmas shopping for books?

This year, my favorites were "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," by Junot Diaz; "Tree of Smoke," by Denis Johnson; "The Midnight Disease," by Alice Flaherty, "How Fiction Works," by James Wood, "The Savage Detectives," by Roberto Bolaño, "Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein, and "Lush Life," by Richard Price. (I just started the last book, and I can already tell you it will make my list.) That's four fiction, and two non-fiction, if anyone is counting.

For more Best Books of 2008, check out these lists:

New York Times Best Books of 2008

Michiko Kakutani, NYTimes

Janet Maslin, NYTimes

Publisher's Weekly

2008 National Book Award Winners--listen to them read HERE.

Since we started this blog, a good deal of space has been devoted to writers and writing. The list below will help you look up past stories and interviews.

Jorge Luis Borges is HERE

Thomas Pynchon is HERE

Cormac McCarthy, Ken Kesey, Jonathan Lethem, & Jonathan Franzen are HERE.

Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace are HERE

Colson Whitehead, & Tin House Writers Conference is HERE

David Foster Wallace is HERE

Roberto Bolano is HERE

Tim O'Brien and Amy Hempel are HERE

Tim O'Brien on War Stories are HERE

Junot Diaz is HERE

Henry Miller is HERE

Charles d'Ambrosio is HERE

Norman Mailer chats with Martin Amis HERE

Norman Mailer's obituary is HERE

Ray Bradbury is HERE

"Great Short Stories" are HERE

"Reading Books" is HERE

Michael Chabon and Oakley Hall are HERE

"Every Day I Write the Book" is HERE

Friday, November 28, 2008


I read the news today, oh boy...

Trouble, man. You wake up the day after Thanksgiving with a food and drink hangover. You can't make a fist, but you somehow manage to make coffee. Everything's too bright, too loud. You stagger to your chair with a cup of joe, and your head feels like a blimp from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that has torn loose from its guy-lines and bashed into a few skyscrapers.

You sit down and open the morning newpaper. Shit oh dear! The world is going to hell in a gravy boat. The headlines scream bloody murder. Maybe this is just a bad dream. Maybe Scrooge was right--the senses are cheats; a slight disorder of the stomach affects them. You pray these headlines are just an undigested bit of turkey, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of pecan pie.


Members of the Indian security forces taking up firing positions between fire trucks and ambulances on the grounds of the Taj Hotel on Friday. (Ruth Fremson/ The New York Times )

I know you've been following the news from Mumbai. More than 150 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks Wednesday. By Friday, nine gunmen had been killed by Indian commandos. Hostages were found dead. The fighting continues, and they say it's down to one luxury hotel, the Oberoi Trident.

In this clip, a CNN anchor Sara Sidner is threatened by an angry mob outside the Taj Mahal.

So far, only three people were killed in shopping accidents: A Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death by eager shoppers in Valley Stream, New York, and two people were shot to death in a crowded Toy 'R' Us in Palm Desert, California.

Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

According to the LA Times, "the [Toys 'R' Us] shooting, apparently sparked by a personal dispute between two groups of shoppers, occurred on Black Friday, traditionally one of the year's busiest shopping days, and when the store was crowded with families and children."

To hear "Black Friday" by Steely Dan, please click button:

When Black Friday comes
I'm gonna dig myself a hole
Gonna lay down in it 'til
I satisfy my soul


A shout out to the rabble-rousers in the TDA who occupied the Trojan nuclear plant 31 years ago in an act of peaceful civil disobedience. Read a "trespasser's notebook" here.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


When the stone is grown too cold to kneel
In crystal waters I'll be bound
Cold as stone, weary to the sounds upon the wheel

Now be thankful for good things below
Now be thankful to your maker
For the rose, the red rose blooms for all to know

"Now Be Thankful" performed by Fairport Convention, 1970

Fairport Convention, motley troubadours and the best of the British folk-rock scene of the 60s, played beautiful and dark Olde English folk music, jigs, and reels. Teenage guitar genius Richard Thompson stands at top right.

The King sits in Dunfirmline town, drinking of the blood-red wine

"Where can I get a steely skipper to sail this mighty boat of mine?"

So begins "Sir Patrick Spens," a popular Child Ballad (#58), probably of Scottish origin, sung for centuries. The King calls for the greatest sailor to run a royal errand--though it's the middle of winter and the sea is treacherous. Sir Patrick is named, and he comes forth, for he cannot refuse his King, though he knows it will mean his death. At sea, a "mermaiden" warns Sir Patrick of his fate.

Forty miles off Aberdeen, the waters fifty fathoms deep
There lies good Sir Patrick Spens with the Scots lords at his feet

Fairport singer Sandy Denny died in 1978

"Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" by Fairport Convention, written and sung by Sandy Denny. Please click button to listen:

No longer the teenage guitar genius from Fairport (and missing the ringlets) guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson still plays and writes the most amazing songs. Here he plays an original ballad,"1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Although the song is about a motorcycle--and a biker and redheaded girl--it clearly reflects traditional English balladry. In olden times, the motorcycle might have been a beloved steed. The love story would remain the same. Listen, and watch the fingers.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Wild Indians and the Guests Who Wouldn't Leave

Since the first Thanksgiving, Americans have celebrated with turkey and stuffing and goodhearted bickering. And booze. Traditionally, women and indentured servants prepared the bird while men drank like fish and watched football on television. Occasionally, a vegan was burned at the stake, usually after bringing a tofurkey, something that looks like a turkey and tastes like a football thereby combining both major elements of Thanksgiving.

Ideally, Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday--but as Plato told us wisely, the Ideal exists only in the mind. Expectations run high, and quarreling often bubbles just below the surface like the ptomaine in Aunt Anita's oyster stuffing that year everyone became so violently ill. When she slammed that terrified blancmange on the table, a long line of stomachs turned in unison. Just as you would avoid such poisonous stuffing, ignore the holiday boors who talk only of themselves and don't give a fig for others. Remember, some people may act strangely because they feel uncomfortable in a group, or because they lack basic social skills. Then again, they could simply hate you.

Surviving Thanksgiving, especially with the family, requires special skills. The pressure is on. You drive for hours in bumper to bumper traffic, and then--exhausted and irritable--you accidentally trip a half dozen landmines entering the parents' house. The dogs seethe with resentment. You drink to relax, and that helps up to a point, and then you flip on the game because it's Thanksgiving and you feel obligated to join the rest of your nation, but you quickly discover that football is just as boring as you remember it. You try. Giants on anabolic steroids collide in slow-mo, then again in instant replay, and you suddenly need another drink. Guests start arriving. Dogs are barking. Children are crying. The brothers-in-law are itching for trouble. Take a deep breath.

Perhaps you don't recognize yourself in these vignettes. Surely these are worst case scenarios. Then again, you may be in denial. Remember when all the relatives came over, the cousins and their significant others, who apparently hadn't eaten in weeks--how they ate you out of house and home, ransacked the liquor cabinet and the medicine chest, and then left with the pies? Remember when the kids gave each other black eyes, and their parents did the same? Remember when one brother-in-law said turkeys are the smartest animal on earth? When the other brother-in-law insisted you praise his new camera, and car, and selection of wine...that lyrical but not sarcastic Brunello di Montalcino? Remember when the drapes caught fire, and Dad ran off into the stormy night? Ah, Thanksgiving! It was like King Lear with leftovers.

Have a nice Thanksgiving! Good luck, too!

Monday, November 24, 2008


Thanksgiving is the perfect time to bring out The Band. In spite of being 4/5ths Canadian, these brilliant musicians created a unique take on Americana, blending old time country, blues, gospel, and rock 'n' roll into a sound that was both timeless and resonant, a Memphis jukebox one moment, a tentshow revival the next, a killer bar band Saturday night, and when the smoke cleared Sunday morning, a motley crew of Civil War deserters playing tunes around a campfire. They told stories. They tended the still. They made great records, back when there was such a thing. They didn't warm to strangers right off, but once you got to know them they were right friendly folks. Now some of them are dead, and the rest are in rocking chairs. Drop by and say hello. Those rocking chairs won't go nowhere.

These clips are from The Last Waltz, a film of their final concert, Thanksgiving Day, 1976.

Starting out as the Hawks with Ronnie Hawkins, and later backing up Bob Dylan to jeering crowds on the 1966 tour (where the folkies were shocked by all the electricity), these scroungy old codgers holed up in Woodstock, New York, like the Dalton Gang. They licked their wounds and smoked their rope and practiced in the basement of a house in West Saugerties they called Big Pink, which would also be the title of their first album. These "basement tapes" were bootlegged, circulated, and discussed into the wee hours. Only a fraction were ever officially released (a double album in 1975) but the word was out; the rest of the rock world may have been plugging in to psychedelic paisley, but these boys were channeling the musical past--mining the ore of what rock critic Greil Marcus would call the "old, weird America."

Appropriately enough, their last official concert was Thanksgiving Day of the bicentennial year, 1976. As these clips show, The Band played their hearts out. Old friends showed up and played, too, including Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, The Staple Singers, Ringo and many others. Martin Scorsese filmed the night and turned it into a documentary called The Last Waltz. As I said, it was Thanksgiving, so along with brilliant musical performances guests were treated to a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Dylan brought a ton of salmon. Nobody left hungry.

The Band in "old, weird America"

Here's an added holiday treat--"All You Have to Do is Dream" (take 2), an unreleased "basement tape" with Dylan and the Band at Big Pink, 1967 (just click button):

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Thanksgiving leftovers from the past:

In the 1920s, Thanksgiving was spare for Charlie Chaplin in this classic scene from "The Gold Rush." The film was first released as a silent film in 1925, and re-released with sound in 1942. The narrator is Chaplin himself.

In the 1950s, Thanksgiving dinner was a tad more festive, especially if your guests included Dinah Shore, Louis Prima, Keely Smith, Ernie Kovacs, Edie Adams and her husband George Montgomery. I always suspected Louis Prima was a left winger. Good for him.

In the 1940s, zany cartoonist Tex Avery brought us "Jerky Turkey" for Thanksgiving during WWII. Food rationing and a black market turkey (who looks an awful lot like Jimmy Durante) all played important roles in this wacky wartime cartoon. Buy war bonds.

Friday, November 21, 2008


News from outer space. NASA has done it again. This is one of the first visible pictures of a planet circling a distant star, and in honor of the accomplishment we dedicate "Moon River" to Formalhaut B, our new distant cousin in outer space. (Actually, I have other distant cousins in outer space, but that's another story.) Formalhaut B is only twenty five light years away, and we hope it sustains life and we hope that that life is not giant, insectoid, and ravenous.

To planet Formalhaut B: here's a song based on a universal theme (we hope) of love:

Moon River first appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany's, a 1961 film loosely based on a story by Truman Capote. The song was written by Johnny Mercer (words) and Henry Mancini (music). In this clip, an elfin Audrey Hepburn tugs at guitar strings and heartstrings and shows one of myriad distractions a writer must face.

Andy Williams sang the popular version that still plays on easy listening stations. After a couple tumblers of Scotch, Uncle Ed sang it at the wedding. He nearly burst a cummerbund. Don't let that experience sway you. No less a songwriter than Bob Dylan once called this a perfect song.

In this clip from the British television show "The Old Grey Whistle Test," an early REM plays Moon River and then jumps into Pretty Persuasion. Since the new planet is twenty five light years away, 1980s television is finally just getting there. Sorry, Formalhautians. We apologize for that decade. Still, we think you'll enjoy this clip.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and here are two old men as different as night and day saying their Thanksgiving prayers. Like good and evil, it might be hard to decide between the two, but you make up your own mind.

Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, sings a Thanksgiving prayer as warm as a bellyful of whiskey and a bowl of candied yams.

Williams S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, offers a frozen Thanksgiving prayer on the end of a cold fork.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Everyday I write the book. Some days are better than others. It's been said that Balzac could knock off a novel by noon. I assume that was only the first draft. Even so, it was quite an accomplishment. Some write novels in their sleep, with one hand tied behind their back, or on the head of a pin. It takes me much longer than those circus freaks. I sweat over every word, and then rewrite what I've written. Maybe I'm a perfectionist. I can dash off emails or blog posts as if they were Post-it Notes, which I can dash off like Balzac, but send me anywhere near "important" writing and I have to use an axe to break through the ice. Sometimes it's easier and the story carries me along, but I think people who brag that "the story wrote itself" are either bald-faced liars or aren't writing deep enough, and the last thing the world needs is more formulaic crap.

What's going on in my brain? One person who might know is neurologist Alice W. Flaherty, the author of Midnight Disease: the Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain. What a wonderful, mind-boggling read. (She's on a panel discussion linked below.)

Another person who might have a clue about writing--and the creative process-- is author Francine Prose, who has written a number of novels and a book on writing, Reading Like a Writer.

Writer David Foster Wallace suffered from depression and eventually took his own life, but was extremely creative, prolific, and successful. Was his pathology somehow linked to his prodigious creative output, or was that purely circumstantial? In this interview with Le Conversazioni in 2006 he seems like a mollusk without a shell. Here he discusses failure:

The Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination is devoted to exploring creativity and the imaginative process. Not long ago, they hosted Hypergraphia and Hypographia, a roundtable discussion featuring Jonathan Lethem, Alice W. Flaherty, Pedro Reyes, Francis Levy, Alan Jacobs, and Lois Oppenheim. The panel examined the neurological and psychodynamic basis for writer's block and the opposite affliction, hypergraphia, which compels the artist to write, write, write uncontrollably.

It's a fascinating discussion, and to watch it click HERE and select video.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


The first time I heard this song was on shitty headphones in Nicaragua, in 1985. The cassette player belonged to the legendary Steve Krekel, a journalist out of Chico, CA, who was in the tropics making a documentary on the Sandinista revolution. Songs hook themselves to associations and live forever joined in our minds, and for me this song is welded to wise-cracking Steve in his baseball cap as well as corrugated tin roofs, ratty palm trees, soldiers in dark green, the Barrio Martha Quesada, gallo pinto, the sound of anti-aircraft guns mixing with fireworks, a wild parrot that wanted to kill me, a humorless german, a one-eyed blind man, and a bad case of amoebic dysentery contracted in Matagalpa.

I don't mean to trivialize the struggle and gravity of the situation--there was a war going on and people died and some became heroes and some became martyrs. My discomforts were trivial and I was out of harm's way--but there was a war going on and Reagan was sending guns and money and the CIA to undermine this tiny country that had the balls to overthrow a US-supported dictator. People had come from all over the world to help the Nicas rebuild, to show solidarity, to work for the revolution. Coming home that time, after six months in Latin America, I experienced a surreal sense of alienation when I discovered that the battle that captivated most Americans--North Americans, that is--was the war between New Coke and Classic Coke. It was like getting kicked in the head!

Strange how the mind works. Time, memory. Who would figure this song--and reaching across a wobbly card table to take a pair of headphones--would stick with me so long, and come to stand in for so many things? There's really no sense to it.

To truly appreciate this song you must experience it under similar conditions--or at the very least with a low grade fever. The first version is played by Pete Townshend, formerly of the Who, and the second is the original version by the English Beat, the song I heard a few lifetimes ago. Save it for later, like a memory.

Krekel, if you're out there and see this, drop me a note.


That's the headline of the New York Times, anyway. It turns out thousands of remarkable facsimiles of the newspaper were delivered this morning--nationwide--stunning readers with the news that the war was over. The paper also reported that Bush had been indicted for treason, and that columnist Thomas Friedman had confessed: "I have no business holding a pen, at least with intent to write."

The Yes Men: high concept anti-corporate pranksters

As far as we can tell, the parody is the work of brilliant satirists and pro-consumer pranksters, The Yes Men. You may have seen the 2003 film of the same name documenting their exploits (if not, I highly recommend it). These guys frequently pose as corporate or government spokesmen and lobby for shocking anti-consumer projects--and get the full support of the unwitting profit-seekers of the private sector. It's best to see for yourself. These guys have elevated guerrilla theater to an art form.

Jonathan Swift: don't believe him either

Original Yes Man Jonathan Swift punked the entire English-speaking world with his book--pamphlet, really--A Modest Proposal. In the essay, Swift eloquently, reasonably, suggested that Ireland's poor escape their poverty by selling their children as food to the rich:

"I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food...”

The Yes Men documentary trailer

Watch these clips of their exploits. It's amazing how far they get! Like the secret agents in Mission Impossible (the television series) a suit and an official-looking letterhead seems to grant them complete access.

BBC: You've been punked!

The Yes Men proposing slavery...well, sort of

YES MEN links:

-Read their answers to "frequently asked questions" here.
-Follow their latest hijinks here.
-Get the fake New York Times at the fake Times website here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


The Association were never the hippest band around, more like a clean-cut glee club that happened to find a lid under the couch cushions, and, well...wrote this tune about it. The song was so joyously poppy nobody noticed what they were getting at. As my cousin Duane would say, you probably had to be stoned to understand it. All I can say, for sure, is that some overzealous fed analyzed the lyrics and discovered "possible drug content" and put the song on a kill list that was sent to radio stations to discourage disc jockeys from playing it on the air.

Come on, guys. What's was so bad about Mary?

The Association: their hair is getting good now

If you listen closely, you'll notice the words are silly, ornate hophead juvenelia, something you might find scribbled in an adolescent's PeeChee, but the music is good bouncy fun. It's a nice, well-crafted pop song. Dig the metronomic intro, a premonition of DEVO still a good decade to come. This clip is from the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, the night Otis Redding sang his soul out, the Who destroyed their instruments, and Jimi Hendrix made his monumental American debut--and lit his guitar on fire. They were completely overshadowed by the heavies. Even so, their empty cup tasted sweet as the punch.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


It's Veterans Day, so we're telling war stories. Everyone loves war stories. Life, death, courage, you know the drill. We grew up playing war games. Some went off to actual wars to kill or be killed. Here are some war stories interwoven with the words of Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran and author of The Things They Carried, and Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award in 1979. I was fortunate to study with O'Brien at the Sewanee Writers Conference in Tennessee, where he meticulously line-edited 75 pages of my novel-in-progress. I can assure you, the man is obsessed with "getting it right," and his work reflects a precision of emotion and truth one rarely encounters in writing of any kind. O'Brien has written extensively about his experiences in Vietnam, the moral dimension as well as the combat, and he often speaks about the difference between "story-truth" and "truth-truth."

"A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done." -Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

"You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, 'Is it true?' and if the answer matters, you've got your answer.

For example, we've all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters."

"You'd feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it's just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen - and maybe it did, anything's possible even then you know it can't be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, 'The fuck you do that for?' and the jumper says, 'Story of my life, man,' and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead. That's a true story that never happened."

"Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until, say, twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife’s breathing. The war’s over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what’s the point?"

Read Tim O'Brien's books. Buy them here and here.

Monday, November 10, 2008


The Smiths. Obsessive compulsive music freaks--the type Nick Hornby immortalized in the book High Fidelity--consider these guys the quintessential British indie band of the 1980s. So how did I miss them? Are they any good? I didn't pay much attention the first time through, as I was busy nursing a 1970s hangover that decade, and if I happened to cast a jaundiced eye in their direction I'm sure they would have seemed fey and lightweight compared to the leaden warhorses I was familiar with; this was mere danceable pop, and easily dismissed. Wendy, our resident 1980s expert, discourages such a snap judgment. She grew up with the Smiths, and this music is the soundtrack of her college years (in fact, I think she chose her school thinking the band had something to do with the place) and yes, it may not be my usual esoteric, avant-garde, weirdo, trainspotting sort of music, but it's definitely worth a listen. Point taken.

Ok, once I get past the "eighties-ness" of the sound, I hear a definite British Invasion influence--these are pop songs, after all. Morrissey is a melancholy crooner, completely over the top, but somehow his voice works well with the music of guitar player Johnny Marr. There is something hypnotic about these tunes. And danceable. And darker than I'd expected--I hear a little Joy Division? And the lyrics are clever, I'll grant you that, even if they would make sorrowful Young Werther seem happy-go-lucky. Okay, okay. But they're good. I can't just dismiss them as wounded romantics lost in a wash of synths.

He's strange, this he having a laugh? The hair and campy vibe--what's that all about? Fans are obsessed, and they tell me he just had a big comeback tour. Who knew?

Okay, I like it. I'll give them a couple spins and see if they stick to my besotted brain. It's nice to be turned on to something new--even if it's old. Who knows? Once the spotlight hits the mirror ball maybe we can dance to it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


What a week, America! Thank God the weekend is here! This should give you a chance to clear the adrenaline and alcohol out of your system and soothe your jangled nerves. You will never forget this week as long as you live--and not just for the record number of mini-tacos you consumed while screaming at the television. This is history, babe. Now take a breather.

In this short film from 1945, Frank Sinatra teaches a gang of street kids a lesson about tolerance, and sings "The House I Live In (That's America to Me)." This film might puzzle you now that racism no longer exists. Just kidding. The short was made to combat prejudice and antisemitism at the end of World War II, when soldiers came home from fighting Hitler's "racial superiority" overseas to find a segregated, racist America just the way they'd left it.

The film is dated, for sure, and it might make you wince in spots--the crack about "the Japs" is unfortunate--but judged in the context of its time, when it was first screened in theaters in 1945, it can be seen as an honest attempt to teach tolerance. It seems corny now, but this recent presidential election made it clear that such a message isn't completely irrelevant in some backwards corners of the country. I'm just saying...

"The House I Live In" was written in 1943, with lyrics by Abel Meeropol and music by Earl Robinson. Meeropol wrote under the pen name Lewis Allan, and had very liberal views and mixed feelings about America. He loved the constitutional rights and freedoms of America, but was sickened by its racism, antisemitism, and mistreatment of people with unpopular political views. America was at war with Nazi Germany, where those attitudes ruled, when Meeropol wrote these lyrics to explain what was right about America.

Abel Meeropol (1903-1986), poet, songwriter, high school teacher from the Bronx

It should come as no surprise that Meeropol was hounded by the US government for his liberal (some would say communist) views. Earl Robinson was also blacklisted. Like many progressives, Meeropol took an interest in the controversial case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a married couple executed as spies in 1953. Meeropol felt they were wrongly accused, and he and his wife adopted their orphaned sons, Michael and Robert. The boys took Meeropol's last name (it was easier to be a Meeropol than a Rosenberg at the time), and have spent their adult lives trying to clear their birth parents' names.

Meeropol also wrote "Strange Fruit," a haunting poem about the horrors of lynching which became the signature song of jazz singer Billie Holiday.

-information from songfacts

Friday, November 7, 2008


See? This post isn't even Obama-related. With the release of a great new album by a cleaned-up Ryan Adams, "Cardinalogy," it's worth digging back to his old band, Whiskeytown. They were a rough and tumble band that played Americana,, no depression music--or whatever you want to call it--music built with equal parts old school country and indie rock, a continuation of the country rock lineage of Gram Parsons (the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers) and Neil Young & Crazy Horse.

These sweethearts of the rodeo occasionally ventured out from their gilded palace of sin to play for adoring fans, and I saw them one time, years back, and they were on fire. They say bad boy Adams has cleaned up his act, and that's good. In the clip above they play "Dancing with the Women at the Bar" on Austin City Limits.

Ryan Adams wakes up under a tree with his hair full of leaves: booze, drugs, and temper tantrums have plagued a career that zig-zags like a drunken sailor on a unicycle, but now he's clean and sober and the new album is great.

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals perform "Fix it" on the Letterman Show.

Read the Rolling Stone review of the "Cardinalogy" here.
For a Ryan Adams piece in the NYTimes, click here.
For a story from Paste Magazine click here.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


We're still celebrating Obama's win, and, in the spirit of Barack's magnanimous victory speech, we're trying to avoid taking cheap potshots at Sarah Palin. We're trying hard. Really. After all the attention and ballyhoo of the presidential race, Palin will be returning empty-handed to the frozen tundra, and no, we won't miss her shrill, ill informed musings, but on a human level it's kind of sad. On the other hand, we're not getting carried away with grief since we know this won't be the last we'll see of this neo-con Barbie. This ambitious politician will probably get retooled and freshly-painted for another big run (64% of Republicans polled want Palin to run again in 2012) but until then...we'll say buh-bye, Sarah. This song is for you. I think you'd better go now...

Sorry, we can't stop! There are a number of reports surfacing about tension between Palin and the McCain camp. Aides are coming forward with all the gory details. They describe her as a difficult diva behind the scenes, and many say they were concerned she simply didn't know enough to be Vice President. We agree, of course, but this is coming from inside the McCain camp!

We knew she wasn't exactly brilliant, and certainly no cartographer, but it turns out she thought Africa was a single country and not a continent. Even worse, and closer to home, she couldn't name the countries in North America. (Palin-supporters, take note: the countries are Canada, Mexico, and the USA.) Oh, and the $150,000 worth of expensive clothes? It's turned out to be much more--with $40,000 for husband Todd alone--it's expensive to have the common touch and look like a real hockey mom. According to this story, a GOP lawyer was dispatched to Alaska to retrieve some of the clothing (story here).

This news report details the backstage rift at McCain headquarters. Watch Bill O'Reilly trying to put a good spin on it, but this is hopeless.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Barack Obama wins the presidential election with 349 electoral votes to John McCain's 147. Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States of America in the largest voter turnout in 90 years--since women got the vote.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert announce the historic news.

Juan Williams describes the road leading to the first black president in America's history, and gets a little choked up.

President-elect Obama's victory speech

Monday, November 3, 2008


It's no surprise these Republican assholes sneer at "community organizers." After all, community organizers were key to the civil rights movement, the anti-war movements, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, and movements for affordable housing and healthcare. In other words, movements the Republicans violently opposed every step of the way.

Community organizers work on the grassroots level organizing communities for the common good, often working against powerful interests. No wonder the Republicans don't get it.

Martin Luther King, Jr., community organizer

When Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School, where he edited the prestigious law review, he could've easily joined some white shoe law firm and really raked in the bucks, but instead he went to Chicago to organize workers who had been stranded after the steel mills shut down. Call me naive, but I find this commendable. In fact, I believe this sense of service and sacrifice--along with a cool, formidable intelligence--will serve him well as President of the United States.

Cesar Chavez, community organizer

Sarah Palin can smirk and wink and say being mayor of Wasilla was like being a community organizer, only with responsibilities--but anyone who's ever worked as an organizer can tell you that's a load of horseshit. Organizers have plenty of responsibilities, and few resources, and they do everything from scratch. In the 1980s, I worked as a community organizer on Central America issues--fighting against Reagan's contra war (remember trading arms for hostages? Ollie North?)-- and my fellow community organizers worked harder than Palin ever did, I can assure you. I've never seen a more tireless, intelligent, and resourceful group of people in my life. And they never got a $150,000 clothing allowance, either.

Obama on community organizing, and the Republican comments:

Saul Alinsky is considered the father of modern community organizing. In the 1930s, Alinsky organized the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago (made infamous by Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle about horrific working conditions in the stockyards). He coined the term "Think Globally, Act Locally."

Saul Alinsky, 1909-1972, community organizer

Alinsky influenced several generations of activists working for social change with his pragmatic primers Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1972). In the opening paragraph of Rules, Alinsky wrote:

"What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."

Here's the Daily Show take on the community organizers:



Sunday, November 2, 2008


In case you're just tuning in, this is the final day of the 2008 presidential campaign. Here's a wonderful one minute recap:

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Tomorrow is election day. Everyone I know is filled with election anxiety. What can you do? Drink too much, eat unwisely, scream at the television, lose sleep. These coping skills have always worked for me, but I'm sure there are better ways to deal with stress. Yoga, for example, or taking a walk, or talking to your plants. (My plants seem to be responding well to sarcasm and hurled invectives) Tomorrow night I'll be watching the election returns with some close friends, and I don't just mean Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels. Real friends. That will be a good way to weather the storm. A roller-coaster is always more fun with a group of people.

Larry David, neurotic creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, is also having trouble coping:

"I can't take much more of this...I'm at the end of my rope. I can't work. I can eat, but mostly standing up...Five times a day I'll still say to someone, 'I don't know what I'm going to do if McCain wins.'"
--For more of David's election anxiety, click here.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, poll workers could say you're not on the rolls. Your eligibility could be challenged. The voting equipment itself could malfunction. The lines could be long.

According to the Huffington Post, already over 80,000 people have complained about voting problems. "Barbara Anwine of the Election Protection Coalition (1-866-OUR-VOTE), a nonpartisan group, told MSNBC about voter suppression tactics they have witnessed around the country."

If you experience any election day mishaps, click here. Or call the US Department of Justice (800-253-3931).

Make sure your vote counts--read this article in the Daily Journal here.


If you're like me, you love musicals. The footlights and the greasepaint, the synchronized high-kicking, people breaking into song for no apparent reason! My girlfriend Wendy and I often entertain dinner guests while dressed as characters from "Cats!" and we bring down the house singing "Memory" while tossing Almond Roca from a fake litter box. We also do a killer "Les Miserables," and when I leap over the couch waving the red banner for "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" there's not a dry eye in the house.

Okay, that's not true. Not a word. But we do like musicals. Some, however, are better than others.

The musical above is from John McCain. It's definitely not "Les Mis," which I'm sure Sarah Palin would call communistic with its peasants and revolution and subversive talk of spreading the wealth. You betcha. And french, besides! Thanks but no thanks.

Palling around with terrorists

Only two more days, and I'm a nervous wreck. The poll numbers look good for Obama, and the McCain/Palin propaganda doesn't seem to be working...and yet I'm anxious about last minute dirty tricks and possible election fraud or "mistakes" with ballots.

It's been quite a battle--not just the past twenty-one months, but years, decades. With a good voter turnout and no outright election chicanery (see posting on election theft here), Tuesday could bring us closer to economic justice, affordable housing, universal health care, genuine environmental protection, and ending the war. I'm not naive, just hopeful. I realize the enemy is entrenched, the institutions are self-perpetuating, and the powerful have a vested interest in resisting meaningful change.

But I'm hopeful. Keep your fingers crossed. And vote.

A scene from "Les Miserables," a musical Sarah Palin would call socialistic for its message of class war and spreading the wealth. Viva la revolution!