Tuesday, December 30, 2008


New Year's Eve is a drinking holiday, let's face it. We drink and look back at the year and succumb to weepy sentimentality or forced hilarity--sometimes in the middle of the same sentence. The trouble is, every bar in town is packed with amateurs. People who have no business drinking feel obligated to celebrate the passing of the year with copious amounts of booze. You can see them a mile away. Twenty-two year olds clutching their IDs, ordering sucker drinks with naughty names, getting all lizard-eyed and nauseous, calling each other "dude!"

Hey, is that you? Stay home. Keep the roads clear. It's even cheaper drinking at home, and you can mix your own Screaming Orgasms, Fuzzy Navels, and Flaming Velvet Buttcheeks. Stay home and drink and dial. It's easy. Drink and feel sorry for yourself and call up old friends. Drink and dial, you pathetic loser. Or better yet, drink and email. Take the cowardly path, the walk of shame. Better yet, drink and pass out in front of the TV while watching Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve. That is just too sad. Dick Clark is as old as Methuselah and he looks exactly the same as he ever did so he probably made a deal with the devil or he has a portrait of himself growing old in the cellar. Anyway, pass out pondering such heavy thoughts while watching Dick Clark and some shitty eighties band of fat guys in skinny neckties but be sure you place the bucket near your head before you nod off.

"Drunk History" is a video that has worked it's way around the web. This poor drunk has a story to tell, and he does pretty well with the help of Michael Cera, the star of Juno and practically every other movie this year. Watch and learn something.



Sigur Rós can be excused for joyous nudity because they're Icelandic. Their music is ambient, ethereal, post-rock, dream pop, and not for everyone, and neither is this video which is either from the pagan past when Dionysus ruled, or from some distant utopian future where hang-ups have been discarded like, well, clothes.

Perhaps the point is made too easily that we watch hundreds of murders a day but rarely see someone's bum on TV. Sure, it's trite. Sex is ever present, of course, grabbing our attention and diverting it toward beer and pretzels and deodorant, and flirting meretriciously in so-called "reality TV" shows and all those cheesy double entendres in adult soaps like "Sex and the City." Wink, wink, nudge. Sex is everywhere. Still, you don't see this sort of prancing about. Why not? Sex is as prevalent as plastic, but maybe we haven't come all that far from the Victorian Era when people put pants on piano legs. We're still a bunch of prudes. Maybe if we'd grown up like these Icelanders we'd drop our guns and charge cards once in a while and not be so damn neurotic. Just a thought.

Until then, I give you Sigur Rós.

The life of the party: Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy, dancing with friends in Ancient Greece

The band: Sigur Rós is jón þor (jónsi) birgisson (vocals, guitars), kjartan (kjarri) sveinsson (keyboards), orri páll dýrason (drums) and georg (goggi) holm (bass). The band were formed by jónsi, georg and original drummer ágúst in 1994.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


oh I'm still living
at the old address
and I'm waiting on the weather
that i know will pass
i know that its true-its gonna be a good year
outta the darkness-and into the fire
ill tell ya i love ya
and my hearts in the strangest place
thats how it started
and thats how it ends

The Walkmen, "In the New Year."


Up until very recently, Richard Milhous Nixon was probably the worst president in U.S. history. Before Nixon, you could have argued that Indian killer Jackson was our worst, but then Tricky Dick came waltzing up with a sweating upper lip and a brain squirming with Cold War paranoia and red-baiting anti-communist fear, with secret wiretappings and enemies' lists, with an escalation of the Vietnam war and the secret Christmas bombings of Cambodia, with the crimes of Watergate and the Kent State killings, with the CIA overthrow of Chile's elected government...and plenty more.

This ambitious, vindictive, petty crook from Yorba Linda went far--to the very top--and he nearly took the country down with him when he fell. Later, Republicans canonized him, rewriting history with a zeal that would have made Soviet revisionists seem like slackers. Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but Fitzgerald was wrong in this case. In later years, after memory of his crimes had receded, Nixon playing the role of a respected elder statesman, bringing to mind the line from "Chinatown" spoken by the incestuous tycoon Noah Cross:

"'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."

Two years after his resignation, Nixon was interviewed by British television journalist David Frost. These historic interviews are the subject of a recent film, "Frost/Nixon" (2008). Here are the original interviews.

Old school politics: Richard Nixon and Prescott Bush--two bastards in better days

For extra credit, click button to hear "Richard Nixon Died Today" by Negativland:

Friday, December 26, 2008


Cross your fingers, but I think we've survived the great snowstorm of 2008. After a couple weeks in the deep freeze, things are starting to thaw. Slowly. Everyone is sick of being snowbound, but we've been lucky to be safe and warm. I don't know what happened at Nickelsville, the tent city for the homeless down the road.

The clip is from 1976. Some people complain that they don't recognize Dylan's songs anymore; he changes them in concert. They've been saying this since he first pulled out of Hibbing one stormy winter. The man changes like the weather. He's never been an obedient jukebox. Listen to this outtake of "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," and compare it to the more familiar version from "Blood on the Tracks."


Goodbye, Harold Pinter.

Nobel Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, actor and activist, Harold Pinter died Christmas Eve. In his plays people clash and search for meaning, as well as territorial dominance over one another, themes that carry through The Birthday Party (1957), The Caretaker (1959), The Homecoming (1965), and Betrayal (1978).

Although Pinter disliked the term "political theatre" he began writing overtly political plays in the 1980s. Like many highly intelligent people, he disliked Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair (whom he called "a deluded idiot") and characterized Blair's Great Britain as "pathetic and supine," a "bleating little lamb tagging behind [the United States] on a lead." He called the Bush Administration "a bunch of criminal lunatics" and compared them with Nazi Germany.

Anything else, Mr. Pinter?

“It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable.”

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Here are some vintage Christmas cards and some Christmas songs from the Nine Pound Hammer holiday jukebox. No need for a nickle, just push the tiny buttons by the titles and drift down memory lane. If you're tired of the same old Christmas carols these might surprise you.

"Everywhere it's Christmas!" by the Beatles. Ever year, the Fab Four sent a holiday flexi-disc to fan club members, and this one comes from 1966. It was a magical time. The lads had just settled down for a long winter nap between "Revolver" and "Sgt. Peppers." In this flexi there are songs, sketches, and a little musique concrete that was not quite as crazy as "Revolution #9," still two years down the road, but heading in that direction. The boys sound a little nutty, but we can hardly blame them. Visions of sugarplums were dancing in their heads.

"Merry Christmas, Baby" by Otis Redding. A rocking soulful holiday song that reached number 9 on the pop charts in 1968, a year after he died in a plane crash. Otis was the Soulful Santa. Too bad he didn't stick around a few more holidays. His voice was amazing, as sweet and grainy as a Christmas pear. Gotta love Otis.

"Kung Fu Christmas" by Del Griffith and the 9 LB Hammer Singers. Long-rumored to exist, but missing for years, this holy grail of holiday blaxploitation soundtracks sparkles like a chop-socky Christmas across 110th Street, where Trouble Man meets the Magic Rat for an egg nog between choreographed fight scenes. They say this cat Santa is a bad mother--shut your mouth! But I'm talking 'bout Santa!

"Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas" by Okkervil River. This indie rock band from Austin, Texas, takes its name from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya. These cats have opened for plenty of big names, and performed as the backing band for psychedelic pioneer Roky Erikson at the Austin Music Awards. They, too, dig Otis. Got to.

"Candy Cane Children (Merry Christmas from the White Stripes)." Jack White and his ex-wife Meg give a bluesy peppermint shout-out to all the children in the world. They've been wearing Christmas colors every day of their lives, and they play like they mean it.

"Silent Night/Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" by Tom Waits. What can you say about Thomas Alan Waits that hasn't already been said about a million drifters and hobos who have won Grammys? He's a ramshackle growler with a heart of gold, and a brilliant songwriter to boot, though you might miss it if you judge books by their covers. Not your typical Christmas card.

"Linus and Lucy" from Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi. Childhood memories. Guaraldi wrote the soundtrack and performed it with his trio, which included bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli. The Peanuts gang dances to this jaunty number--and that includes Snoopy. I had a mean crush on that little dancing girl, you know the one dancing by Pig Pen. This song makes me want to learn to play the piano.

"Christmas Eve Can Kill You" by the Everly Brothers. The most mournful, tragic, dark, and melancholy Christmas song I can think of, Don and Phil pulled out all the stops in this holiday weeper. Pour a tumbler of Scotch and watch your winter wonderland melt like cheap ice cream.


Francis Albert Sinatra and Bing Crosby enjoy a leisurely Christmas special in an imaginary cabin in the woods. Sinatra and der Bingle are forever associated with the so-called "Greatest Generation," and rightly so, but they remind me of my folks--especially Sinatra--even though my parents are younger than that generation. Sinatra was a tough Italian American from Jersey--my dad is the same, but from Brooklyn--and my mother grew up Italian American in Aberdeen, Washington. Sinatra was the first big Italian American pop star who refused to "Americanize" his name. "You want the Voice?" he famously told a producer, "You keep the name!" This was unheard of at the time.

Mom (second from left) and her sisters Gloria, Anita, Pearl, and Angelina

These old clips also remind me of Mom's family--especially her brothers, my uncles Vic, Joe, and Father Tony--who were older than Mom, and would gather for Christmas at Grandma's house. They were old guys with big pants and firm handshakes. The lights were twinkling, the tree was up, and sometimes they'd tease us, and tell us they heard Santa Claus on the roof, and we'd run outside. Mom was from a big family, and she also had four sisters, shown above.

Mom also had another brother, Albert, a fighter pilot who flew a P-38 and was shot down by the Germans in late November of 1943. Grandma didn't want to celebrate Christmas that year, but Mom and a friend went out looking for a tree to raise the family spirits. They searched for a Christmas tree but didn't have enough money to buy one. They were ready to turn back, but a soldier recognized them. "That's Albert's sister," he said. He knew Albert had been killed, so he bought a Christmas tree and helped the girls bring it home. Mom still gets choked up when she tells the story.

Of course, this post barely scratches the surface--the story deserves a much bigger telling. Still, this is one of my favorite Christmas stories.

Monday, December 22, 2008


And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? It's probably a "turducken."

You may have heard of turducken, an unholy bastard mutation bred on the Island of Dr. Moreau and now gaining popularity as the centerpiece of the Christmas dinner. Setting aside tradition and Mother Nature, more and more harried cooks are turning toward animal husbandry and black magic to satisfy this unnatural craving and to save time in the kitchen this holiday season.

Paul Prudhomme: playing God?

Reports that Cajun-creole fusion chef Paul Prudhomme first created this mutant beast in a cellar in the Deep South are only partly true. Actually, his sous chef shot the creature as it lunged for his throat during a hike in the bayou. The sous chef died, but the creature was nursed back to health and fed table scraps in a cellar until it was strong enough to breed a legion of turducken. Since then, turducken have spread from the Deep South like nutria. Maybe one will cross your path this Christmas.

If so, here's the Dean of Southern Chefs, Paula Deen, tackling the unnatural beast:

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Elvis Arron Presley, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, or simply "Elvis," is the legendary and mythical figure who brings the gift of rock 'n' roll to good children on Christmas Eve, December 24th. In olden times he wore rockabilly robes, and later on was fat and jolly and wore a white jumpsuit with a huge white cape. Skeptical kids wondered how the late period, Vegas Elvis ever made it down the chimney, but Elvis was magical. He certainly was in this clip from the 1968 Comeback Special.

After years of making Hollywood movies (and being outshined by British longhairs) Elvis surprised everyone by showing up lean and mean, dipped in black leather, and rocking the house. He sang a couple Christmas songs for kids who still believed.

"Santa Claus is Back in Town/ Blue Christmas"
Elvis Presley, 1968 Comeback Special

"Santa, Bring My Baby Back To Me" by Elvis Presley. Click button:

"Merry Christmas Baby" (alternate take) by Elvis. Click button:

Saturday, December 20, 2008


A snow storm--the worst in years--covers the entire Northwest with ice and snow. The buses are running on "snow schedule," which means they are erratic and infrequent and don't climb the hills (dress warmly, warns the travel advisory). Tonight, after work, the bus dropped me off a couple miles from home and I had to trudge through the snowstorm up those hills. The temperature was in the teens. Snowflakes tumbled down. The path was icy and tricky. Once I left the main road the snow stopped falling and it was quiet except for the crunch and squeak of my boots. It was eerily beautiful. It was Dr. Zhivago all over again. At one point, I thought I saw Julie Christie in a fur ushanka cap but then I realized I was only freezing to death so I picked up my pace.

It had started snowing again. I watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for me to climb the steep hill where I live. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over the Northwest. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the lakes, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon Ballard, and Fremont, and Queen Anne, and the University District, and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous hills where I lived. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where the old robber barons lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. My soul swooned slowly as I heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

with apologies to jams jarce

Friday, December 19, 2008


"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is a classic, and this documentary narrated by Phil Hartman sheds some light on it's creation.

If you're a certain age you probably remember watching the Grinch on TV over the holidays (We're talking the original Dr. Seuss cartoon, not the ugly, ill-advised horror show starring Jim Carrey). Everyone loved the Grinch. The animation was great, the story was fun, and Boris Karloff narrated. There was even a cute, overworked little dog. It was brilliant.

the original book

Where did it all begin? The Grinch is nearly as old as Christmas itself. Well, not quite. The wonderfully weird Christmas tale was first published in 1957, and the television cartoon came out in 1966. Since then, children of all ages have pulled up hassocks and throw pillows and watched this wicked cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small." He may have been a bad banana with a greasy black peel, but he came around in the end. See, there was a message hidden in the tale like a little green citron in a fruitcake. It was a message we snot-nosed kids may have missed or chose to ignore but ingested nonetheless, and I'd like to think that we were somehow affected by that weird little citron and moved toward greater understanding, growth, truth, beauty, and the possibility of change--at least for the duration of the cartoon. Then we started kicking and screaming again like the brats that we were.

Thanks, Dr. Seuss.


This worldwide version of "Stand By Me" comes from the award-winning documentary, "Playing For Change: Peace Through Music." The Ben E. King classic was sung by musicians around the world, each adding their part to the song as it traveled the globe. Very cool.

The concept driving the project is obvious: Music is a common factor uniting different cultures, ethnicities and regions. Working and playing together is a step toward recognizing one another as human beings. No one is suggesting that all our problems will be solved by a simple singalong, but as poverty and injustice and nationalism continue to divide us, and battles rage worldwide, we must applaud this effort to bring people together with a song. Besides, bullets, guns and bombs don't seem to be working all that well.

Playing for Change is not just about making and distributing music. The PFC foundation is building and sustaining a music school in the township of Gugulethu, and an arts center in Johannesburg, South Africa, as a way to provide opportunities for growth and education for youth in the community. PFC is also maintaining a Tibetan refugee center in India and Nepal.

Here is an extended trailer of the documentary:

The film and music will be available in 2009. More information on the project can be found at the Playing for Change website.

Tip sent in from Vic Rini (thanks, Dad!)

Thursday, December 18, 2008


This chimp saw snow for the first time last Saturday, December 13th. The chimp lives in Cle Elum, Washington, at the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest (CSNW).

Keith LaChapelle built CSNW to provide lifetime quality care for formerly abused or exploited chimpanzees. The sanctuary also advocates for great apes through education and collaboration. The seven chimps LaChapelle took in--nicknamed "The Cle Elum Seven"--had spent their lives undergoing liver bioposies for a hepatitis vaccine and were forced to breed heavily. Now the chimps are recovering in a safe home.

Keith La Chapelle spent a fortune of his own money building the sanctuary, and is now actively fundraising to keep the place afloat. I first heard about the project through my girlfriend Wendy. She met with CSNW staff and worked on their strategic plan as a graduate student, and she was inspired, to put it mildly.

Watch the ABC News story about the chimp sanctuary here.

Meet Foxie, one of the Cle Elum Seven: "Prior to her sanctuary life, Foxie was used in Hepatitis vaccine research and as a breeder for the biomedical research industry. Foxie had five babies during her years in biomedical research, including a set of twins. All of her children were taken away from her when they were very young - sometimes just days old. Foxie adopted a doll to care for at the sanctuary - a Troll doll with bright pink hair."

Meet the other chimps here.


Visit the CSNW website, where you can meet the chimps and learn their story, or sponsor a chimpanzee through the Chimpanzee Pal program. It’s not too late to make a gift donation to the chimps for Christmas. If you give your gift by Monday, CSNW can get a card out to your gift recipient before the 25th!

Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest


This is what you've been waiting for: the official White House Christmas video--the very last video starring Barney the dog. Who says Bush hasn't been busy lately? The man is a dynamo. And not a half bad actor. (In fact, I suggest he quit his day job immediately).

So pull up a chair, and enjoy the holiday with the Bush Family. I suspect Barney's dream sequence has been doctored by subversives, but the film would be unwatchable without a little tampering. Even so, the warmth and blandness of the First Family shines through, and I guarantee your Christmas spirit will flare up like treacle in a cavity.

Can we go now?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008



What really happened on George Bush's last trip abroad? The arrested man, Curly Howard, is being held at the headquarters of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said one official who wished to remain anonymous.

Curly was immediately subdued, and remains in Iraqi custody.

Gif courtesy of the great blog Automatic Daddy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


warning: this is humor. As you may know, Proposition 8 was a California ballot measure that amended the state Constitution to restrict the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman and eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Come on, people! Get over it. Let 'em marry.

As expected, O'Reilly and the Fox News cretins are outraged--not with the limitation of civil rights, of course, but with the musical. Certain evangelical churches and branches of the American Taliban are warning people not to watch this "video virus." God forbid, you think for yourself! And God forbid you actually see it--you will have to pluck your eyes out, per the Bible.

Just kidding!

Keith Olbermann has the story.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Here are two very different Christmas songs--in fact, they probably couldn't be more different. The first is a traditional English Christmas carol, The Holly and the Ivy. This old Yuletide carol is lightly Christianized paganism--holly and ivy being familiar Druidic ceremonial plants, though they have been used as Christmas decoration since at least the fifteenth century. This carol has been sung by choirs since the end of the medieval era, and it sounds like it. The beautiful harmonies of "The Holly and the Ivy" never fail to put me in the holiday spirits. How about you? Let's raise a flagon of mead to these sonorous lads.

The holly and the ivy when they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown
Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir

Bruce Springsteen goes in and out of style but he and the E Streeters are always guaranteed to raise a smile. Here, Bruce and the band (and about seventy-five best friends) rock a tune from the Phil Spector Christmas Album originally recorded by the great Darlene Love, "Christmas! (Baby Please Come Home)," one of the very best Christmas tunes anywhere. Here, the sacred and the profane don't just mingle, they make out under the mistletoe. About halfway through the song, the wheels come off and the whole thing veers toward the snowy ditch but the Boss grabs the wheel and saves everyone from disaster.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


And if the snow buries my,
my neighborhood.
And if my parents are crying
then I'll dig a tunnel
from my window to yours...

"Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" performed at the Lowlands Festival in the Netherlands.

Snow this morning! The neighborhood was completely covered with snow when I woke up, a surprise after the weatherman tried faking us out last night. They called off the warning, and sure enough the cold front hit--which they say will be the longest frigid stretch since the 1980s. I opened the blinds and made hot coffee and kept singing this song about digging tunnels through the snow.

Arcade Fire are perfect for a bright, wintry day. The band is from Montreal, so they know snow. Led by Texan Win Butler and Québécoise Régine Chassagne, this indie rag-tag multi-instrumental troupe powers through joyous and heartbreaking anthems guaranteed to roust the coldest, moribund soul. They bring an axe for the frozen sea within us.

Fun couple: Win Butler and Régine Chassagne

They remember that childhood wasn't all cake and ice cream, and they soar and dive and capture that midnight terror reserved for little ones still wearing feet in their jammies. In their songs, we see a world where sleep is giving in, where an older brother is bitten by a vampire, and the entire neighborhood dances to flashing police lights. It's weird stuff, sure, more art than entertainment, and not for everyone, but if you wake up snowblind and vulnerable this band will blend seamlessly with the illogic of your dreams. Listen to them work their magic.

Somethin’ filled up
my heart with nothin’,
someone told me not to cry.

But now that I’m older,
my heart’s colder,
and I can see that it’s a lie.

Children wake up!

"Wake Up" performed live at Glastonbury

People say that your dreams
are the only things that save ya.
Come on baby in our dreams,
we can live our misbehavior.

Every time you close your eyes
Lies, Lies!

"Rebellion (lies)" performed live at Coachella festival


Willie Nelson is a wise man--maybe not one of the original three, but wise nonetheless--and here he sings of bringing a special gift to the Magi, a gift that smokes more sweetly than either frankincense or myrrh. This is a sneak preview from "A Colbert Christmas."

Saturday, December 13, 2008


I always liked Karen Carpenter, and not in an ironic, post-modern, cheesy, tongue-in-cheek way. I really liked her. There, I've said it. Not everything she did, of course, not the super corny "Top of the World," and not the silly "Close to Me" ("Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?") and generally not the big hits, but I'll risk losing my hard-earned hipster credentials (yes, I have an actual card) to confess that I like some of her ballads and I might even turn up the car radio when they play a couple. "Superstar," for example. Call it a guilty pleasure.

Karen Carpenter may have been square as a box of Apple Jacks, but she was the girl next door who played the drums and could sing. She was never Wendy O. of the Plasmatics and didn't try to be. Go ahead and laugh. That's what they did last night at the office Christmas party when I sang "Superstar" on the karaoke. I picked the song because it would be funny and yes, I got my cheap laugh, but underneath I always liked that song and maybe that came through because by the end there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Sure, it was from laughing, but even so, for one magical moment if you closed your eyes you could have believed Karen was there.

And maybe she was.

Evidently, some other tragically hip cave-dwellers liked Karen Carpenter, too. Here Sonic Youth performs "Tunic (song for Karen)." These experimental noise rockers give Karen a strange and beautiful tribute.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Retro pin-up queen Bettie Page died in Los Angeles at the age of 85. Bettie was the quintessential 1950s stripper elevated to icon status, the scantily clad babe who dominated (snap!) nudie magazines and 8 mm bondage reels and inspired biographies, fan clubs, and countless retro hairdos on hipster chicks who may not even know where those ubiquitous bangs originated. A full-scale Hollywood biopic was released in 2006, "The Notorious Bettie Page," starring Gretchen Moll as naughty Bettie.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


This 1939 MGM cartoon directed by Academy Award-winner Hugh Harman was released at the dawn of the second world war. In this animated reel, the war is over and mankind has been wiped out.

According to Harmon's obituary in the New York Times, the film was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, though it is not listed in the official Nobel database. Either way, it is a classic cartoon from the golden age of animation and worth your time.

All that, and singing squirrels.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Johnny Rotten's Country Life commercial. Punk is still dead. Somebody please kill me.

"Your future dream is a shopping scheme


Last night, in the East Room, while awarding the Kennedy Center Honors to this year's artists--president George Bush fearlessly kissed Barbara Streisand. And while the lion and the lamb didn't actually lie down together, we can't help wondering if this smooch signaled endtimes, a shift in the zeitgeist, or the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Probably not. Most likely it was just an impulsive mistake, an awkward moment in the ceremonial duties of an unpopular, outgoing president. Still, we'd like to think that for one brief sparkling moment there was love among the ruins.

Now that he expected nothing, the incident of the kiss, his impatience, his vague hopes and disappointment, presented themselves in a clear light. It no longer seemed to him strange that he had not seen the General's messenger, and that he would never see the girl who had accidentally kissed him instead of some one else; on the contrary, it would have been strange if he had seen her. . . .

The water was running, he knew not where or why, just as it did in May. In May it had flowed into the great river, from the great river into the sea; then it had risen in vapour, turned into rain, and perhaps the very same water was running now before Ryabovitch's eyes again. . . . What for? Why?

And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovitch an unintelligible, aimless jest. . . . And turning his eyes from the water and looking at the sky, he remembered again how fate in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed him, he remembered his summer dreams and fancies, and his life struck him as extraordinarily meagre, poverty-stricken, and colourless. . . .

--from "The Kiss" by Anton Chekhov

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Who needs Art? We're in a recession, right? During tough economic times we've always slashed health care, education, environmental protection, and programs designed to help the hungry and the homeless--critical social services--so why worry about something as ephemeral as "the arts?" Surely, we can jettison a few poems and paintings in favor of more pressing concerns...right? After all, who really needs painting, music, and literature?

The novelist
E. L. Doctorow gave this speech before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in the fall of 1981. It remains a timely statement on the value of art to the human spirit.

For the Artist's Sake

I have always disliked the phrase "the arts." It connotes to me furs and black ties and cocktail receptions, the patronage by the wealthy of work that is tangential to their lives, or that fills them not with dread or awe or visionary joy but with self-satisfaction.

"The arts" have nothing to do with the loneliness of writers or painters working in their rooms year after year, or with actors putting together plays in lofts, or with dancers tearing up their bodies to make spatial descriptions of the hope of beauty or transcendent myth.

So as a working writer I distinguish myself from the arts community. I am confirmed in this when I look at the National Endowment for the Arts' board and program structure. In the past, a very small percentage of the arts budget has been given over to literature, to the grants made to young writers or dramatists or poets of promise. In all the time since its founding, the N.E.A. has found only four writers worthy to sit on its immense board. Instead, the heavy emphasis has been on museums, opera companies, symphony orchestras: just those entities that happen to cater to patrons of "the arts."

I suppose I would have to confess, if asked, that I feel about opera, for instance, that it is not a living art in this country, that we do not naturally write and produce operas from ourselves as a matter of course as, for example, Italy did in the nineteenth century, and that, therefore, as wonderful and exciting as opera production may be, it is essentially the work of conservation of European culture; opera companies are conservators of the past, like museums, and their support by the National Endowment reflects this strong bias or belief in the arts as something from the past rather than the present.

The National Endowment programs I value most are just those likely to be proscribed: first, the programs of individual grants to individual artists in whatever medium — the programs endowing directly the work of living artists; and, second, those programs that do not separate the arts from life, from our own life and times but emphasize the connection — the artists-in-education program, the poets who go into schools, for example, and help children to light the spark in themselves. I cannot imagine anything more responsible than the work persuading a schoolchild to express his or her anguished or joyful observations — and to be self-rewarded with a poem or a painting. Whole lives ride on moments like that.

Or the inter-arts programs, the folk arts, the expansion arts — all bureaucratic terms for encouraging experiment and risk-taking on the part of artists, and for bringing artists in contact with people everywhere in the country, connecting people with the impulses inside themselves. Programs that encourage participation rather than the passive receipt of official art of the past are the ones I think most important: all the programs that suggest to people that they have their own voices, that they can sing and write of their own past — people in their churches, students in their classes or prisoners in their cells. These programs — just the ones branded so vilely by the Heritage Foundation Report as instruments of social policy or public therapy and slated for extinction by our new budgeteers — are the ones I value. And not from any vague idealistic sentiment either: I know as an artist where art comes from. I know there is a ground-song from which every writer lifts his voice, that literature comes out of a common chorus and that our recognition of the genius of a writer — Mark Twain, for example — cannot exclude the people he speaks for.

Art will rise where it is least expected and usually not wanted. You can't generate it with gala entertainments and $200-a-plate dinners. You can, if you're an enlightened legislative body, see to it that you don't ipso facto create an official state art by concentrating your funding on arts establishments. Other people may talk of how many billions of dollars of business is produced from the arts, but to me that is beside the point.

But saying even this, I cannot avoid the feeling that it is senseless for me to testify here today. People everywhere have been put in the position of fighting piecemeal for this or that social program while the assault against all of them proceeds across a broad front. The truth is, if you're going to take away the lunches of schoolchildren, the pensions of miners who've contracted black lung, the storefront legal services of the poor who are otherwise stunned into insensibility by the magnitude of their troubles, you might as well get rid of poets, artists and musicians. If you're planning to scrap medical care for the indigent, scholarships for students, day-care centers for the children of working mothers, transportation for the elderly and handicapped — if you're going to eliminate people's public service training jobs and then reduce their unemployment benefits after you've put them on the unemployment rolls, taking away their food stamps in the bargain, then I say the loss of a few poems and arias cannot matter. If you're going to close down the mental therapy centers for the veterans of Vietnam, what does it matter if the theaters go dark or our libraries close their doors?

And so in my testimony for this small social program I am aware of the larger picture and, really, it stuns me. What I see in this picture is a kind of sovietizing of American life, guns before butter, the plating of this nation with armaments, the sacrifice of everything in our search for ultimate security. We shall become an immense armory. But inside the armory there will be nothing, not a people but an emptiness; we shall be an armory around nothingness, and our true strength and security and envy of the world — the passion and independent striving of a busy working and dreaming population committed to fair play and the struggle for some sort of real justice and community — will be no more. If this happens, maybe in the vast repository of bombs, deep in the subterranean chambers of our missile fields, someone in that cavernous silence will remember a poem and recite it. Maybe some young soldier will hum a tune, maybe another will be able to speak the language well enough to tell a story, maybe two people will get up and dance to the rhythm of the doomsday clock ticking us all to extinction.

--E. L. Doctorow

"For the Artist's Sake." E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations. Ed. Richard Trenner. Princeton, NJ: Ontario Review P, 1983: 13-15.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


"Work it!" This classic clip from Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott is dedicated to my hardworking girlfriend Wendy on her last day of grad school. She gives her final presentation in a couple hours, and turns in her last paper, the culmination of sixteen months earning a Master's Degree WHILE working a full-time job. She worked it, all right! Only a couple more hours of a long, long hard trip. Respect, pride, and love to Wendy.

Thursday, December 4, 2008



Vampire Weekend team up with a Julliard-trained string trio to perform three songs from their self-titled debut in the room where they played their first shows: Columbia University's ADP Literary Society.


One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-that’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh will release a four hour epic about the life of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The 257-minute biopic will be released in two parts in January. In a stroke of inspired casting, Benicio del Toro plays the Argentine revolutionary, for which he won top honors at Cannes. This preview trailer is for a special screening later this month in New York and LA.

The real Che

Ernesto "Che" Guevara
was a hero to some, a villain to others, and just a T-shirt design to many Americans. Che was a doctor, an asthmatic, a fervent bike rider, and a revolutionary who fought in Cuba, Africa, and finally South America, where he was killed by Bolivian Rangers under the direction of the CIA. This isn't lefty propaganda--nobody denies it; in fact, those involved took special pride in hunting down the rebel. They took turns posing around his corpse. I'm sure their intention was to demystify Che as a mere mortal, but the pictures provided a haunting pietà to the fallen guerrilla fighter.

After his capture and execution. Bolivia, 1967.

A declassified CIA document, an "Intelligence Information Cable" dated Oct. 9, 1967, is the first intelligence report on Che's capture. The cable states that the Bolivian army is dispatching an interrogator to confirm Che’s identity. The CIA also dispatched its own operative, Félix Rodríguez, who interrogated Guevara, gathered intelligence on his operation, and took photos of his documents and supervised his execution. To read the declassified document, click HERE for the pdf file.

The young Ernesto took a year off medical school and traveled the backroads of South America on a 1939 Norton 500 cc motorcycle

Che's dramatic life has inspired several films, ranging from the good to the terrible. One of the best is "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004) based on Che's journals. The film (and his journal) reveals a thoughtful young man gradually radicalized by the people he meets and the poverty he encounters traveling throughout South America.

A scene from "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004) in which Che (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) and his best friend Alberto (Rodrigo De la Cerna) meet Peruvian peasants struggling to survive.

The worst film has to be "Che!" (1969) starring--believe it or not--Omar Sharif. Jack Palance plays Fidel Castro, I swear. Skip that one.

Read A. O. Scott's review of Soderbergh's "Che" in The New York Times HERE. For more on the life of Che, click HERE. Or HERE. Or HERE.

The rebel at rest: a candid shot after the revolution

"The laws of capitalism, blind and invisible to the majority, act upon the individual without his thinking about it. He sees only the vastness of a seemingly infinite horizon before him. That is how it is painted by capitalist propagandists, who purport to draw a lesson from the example of Rockefeller — whether or not it is true — about the possibilities of success. The amount of poverty and suffering required for the emergence of a Rockefeller, and the amount of depravity that the accumulation of a fortune of such magnitude entails, are left out of the picture, and it is not always possible to make the people in general see this."

--Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928-1967)