Friday, April 30, 2010


The Stones just unearthed something new from the "Exile on Main Street" sessions. The "new" song, "Plundered My Soul," would fit right in with the rest of that murky, soul-and-blues-drenched double album recorded nearly forty years ago. In spite of a little overdubbing (They say Jagger added new vocals to the track, and Mick Taylor was called back to play leads) the song sounds like pure vintage Stones. This is one of ten previously unreleased tracks to be released on the newly remastered "Exile" box set due May 18th in three versions: as a CD with the original 18 tracks; a deluxe box set with the bonus tracks; and a super deluxe package including a vinyl LP, a documentary DVD and a collector's book.

"Exile on Main Street" is now considered a classic, and tops many polls for greatest album of all time, but it didn't sell well when it was released back in 1972. The record was murky and dark and hard to get into for most people, and there was stiff competition: That was the year that saw the release of "Harvest" by Neil Young, "Eat a Peach" by the Allman Brothers, "Sail Away" by Randy Newman, "Can't Buy a Thrill" by Steely Dan, "Ziggy Stardust" by David Bowie, "Never a Dull Moment" by Rod Stewart, "St. Dominic's Preview" by Van Morrison, "Close to the Edge" by Yes, "Europe '72" by the Grateful Dead, "Transformer" by Lou Reed, Paul Simon's first solo album, and great soundtracks from the movies "Superfly" and "The Harder They Come." (Yes, music was better back then).

"Exile" gave us great songs like "Let it Loose," "Happy" and "Sweet Virginia," but the only real hit on the album was "Tumbling Dice," a barrelhouse rave-up about love and gambling with a choir of back-up singers that remains among the Stones' finest recordings. The sound matched the seedy, black and white photography of Robert Frank that graced the covers. Tales of rampant drug use and drinking are part of the lore of these recording sessions, and there is a wasted beauty to these bluesy tunes which present a smokey world of criminals, shiny chrome jukeboxes and all night chicken shacks where the dice might be loaded and the whiskey might be poisoned. There was fever in the funkhouse, the barrooms and smelly bordellos, and a lone crapshooter trying to turn his luck around. You can feel the heat and desperation, and moments of ragged glory. Like the man says, "I need a shot of salvation, baby, once in a while." This might be it.

Elegantly wasted exiles recording a classic American album in the Deep South of France


Patti Smith, American artist and punk poet emeritus, talks about her life, her music and the importance of speaking out. Young rock and rollers may not know about Patti, or dismiss her as some old granny who doesn't have a clue, but she invented many of their tricks and they should respect their elders. Once a firebrand rocking CBGB's proto-punk scene on the Bowery with a feral rock band, writing incendiary poems and hanging with Robert Mappelthorpe and Sam Shepard on the Lower East Side, Patti is now recognized as one of the founders of punk rock. She's practically respectable. Has she lost her edge? What do you think?

“I do things that make people upset. My political views or my humanist views have caused me a lot of censorship, but I don’t have a problem with that,” Smith says. “What I would have more of a problem with is, if I had to look back on my life and say, ‘Yeah I compromised here’ and ‘yeah I did this so I could get that’–once you start doing that it’s like a house of cards, it all falls apart.”

Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe back in the day

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


"Born Free," the new song by M.I.A. is accompanied by a shocking, violent video. The short film, directed by Romain Gavras (son of Contantinos Costa-Gavras, director of "Z" and "Missing"), delivers a nightmarish dystopian future where the U.S. Army rounds up redheads and executes them point blank. In this age of racial profiling and ethnic cleansing, the video makes an obvious statement about the absurdity of racism and genocide, but many think M.I.A. has gone too far.

The video has been removed from YouTube. Some people are shocked and enraged. M.I.A. comes from war-torn Sri Lanka, and her in-your-face attitude upsets people looking for escapist entertainment. She doesn't care. She's on a mission.

What's the role of the artist? To make good art, you say. What is good art? Should the artist address social and political issues, or always work in a purely aesthetic realm producing works of beauty and decoration? The cop-out answer is: it depends. We're rightly suspicious of heavy-handed art pushing a secret agenda, but when art is overt and obvious we also shrink away. The underlying attitude from the "art establishment" seems to be that art should rise above politics, and dwell in a clean white space beyond sectarian concerns, and somehow remain pure from the gritty troubles of the real world. Political art is okay, at times, but--like novels or film--better if it comes from another country (where another system is being critiqued) and doesn't hit too close to home. Political art from China is one thing, or political novels from Latin America, but if one believes everything is basically all right, political art is unnecessary at best and empty posturing at worst, and one might as well make art for arts sake. The old chestnut seems to apply: You want to send a message? Try Western Union.

In an outright police state, of course, it takes special courage to speak up. With Nazis at the door, and real risk involved (and not just to ones career) it would be easier for an artist to paint abstracts, say, or vases of flowers. Speaking up, even disguised in artifice and metaphor, takes guts. In the modern world, where totalitarianism can be subtle and stage-managed by ad agencies, it's harder to see any political boundaries worth violating.

Maybe M.I.A.'s video isn't great "art," but the wholesale military machine and cultural genocide--not to mention the plight of the Gingers--shouldn't be off limits to the artist. Maybe it's obvious (it is to us) that artists shouldn't be restricted from making any art they desire--or compelled to make a certain kind of art (think Soviet realism, etc)--regardless of politics, peer pressure or the demands of the marketplace.

Camus spoke extensively about being an "engaged artist"--and he didn't mean being a hack who cranked out agit-prop, but someone who made powerful, moving, complex, challenging art that reflected the reality of his/her world. In his case, that happened to be Nazi-occupied France, and he wrote powerful books that addressed his reality. He was also active in the French Resistance, so art alone is sometimes not enough.

Albert Camus in 1944

"Art advances between two chasms, which are frivolity and propaganda. On the ridge where the great artist moves forward, every step is an adventure, an extreme risk. In that risk, however, and only there, lies the freedom of art."


"Across the Borderline" is a song about people escaping poverty and seeking a better life across the border. We've posted it now because of the new racist immigration law signed by the governor of Arizona. Arizona, the state that fought against celebrating Martin Luther King Day, has done it again. By claiming to protect America, they may have violated America's highest law, the foundation of the country itself and the basis of our freedoms, the U.S. Constitution.

There's a place where I've been told
Every street is paved with gold
And it's just across the borderline
And when it's time to take your turn
Here's one lesson that you must learn
You could lose more than you'll ever hope to find

When you reach the broken promised land
And every dream slips through your hands
Then you'll know that it's too late to change your mind
'Cause you've paid the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
And you're still just across the borderline.

The song was written by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, and Jim Dickinson, and it's been performed by Freddie Fender, Willy DeVille and Willie Nelson, among others. Here, Mr. Dylan sings a heartfelt version, with guitar help from Richard Thompson.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


We should strive to be even-handed and objective, to keep an open mind, and to consider other viewpoints and the possibility--believe it or not--that we may be wrong. We value these characteristics of critical thinking, and while we may rarely, if ever, attain these lofty goals at least we're trying.

This dolt isn't even trying. Fueled by fear and hatred, not to mention deliberate misinformation spewed by Palin and Fox News and the Tea Party mob, he hasn't the slightest interest in critical thinking. Mention it, and he'd probably hit you with a baseball bat. God is on his side (in his mind, anyway) and so is patriotism and capitalism and the glorious march of history. We can laugh at his histrionics, but his rage is scary and something about him reeks of sulfur. He's a part of the march of history, all right, but one shod in jackboots. Maybe he's just a nut who should stop and take a deep breath, you say, and he should switch to decaf, but it's not just a psychological condition. He speaks--or rants and raves--for a good many angry people out there. That's the scary part.

He puts our critical thinking to a test. In all fairness, striving to be objective, we have to say we might think the same things if we were in his shoes--if we had his narrow frame of reference and his lack of education and his basic life experiences. And if our head happened to be filled with wood shavings. Hey, I tried.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


In the old days, a songwriter wrote the songs and a singer performed them--but then a generation of singer/songwriters changed all that. The singer wrote the song and was expected to express a personal vision. Sure, there are still music factories, but the days of Tin Pan Alley are long gone. People still cover songs, but for the most part the definitive version belongs to the songwriter.

While most covers are unnecessary, some are downright brilliant. For some singers, it's a chance to pay respects to a song they love, while for others the joy is discovering forgotten old tunes in the jukebox junkheap, pounding out the dents, spraying on some paint, and rolling it onto the road, street legal. Here are some of our favorite covers these days:

Jimi Hendrix, always a huge Dylan fan, performs "Like a Rolling Stone" at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. This was his first major appearance in America...and the rest is history. It wasn't the last time he covered Dylan, of course--his version of "All Along the Watchtower" is an absolutely essential classic of the 1960s; even Dylan himself performs the Hendrix version these days.

Patti Smith, always looking for trouble, covers TWO songs in this classic: "Gloria" by Van Morrison (Them) and "Gloria in Excelsis Deo," adding her own tough girl musings and combining visionary poetry and rock and roll, and coming on like Arthur Rimbaud meets the Shirelles. Go, go go!

Neko Case

"Thanks a Lot," an old school country tune by Ernest Tubb, gets a rousing cover by astounding indie siren Neko Case:

Can you believe this strange little clip? Joni Mitchell, Mama Cass and Mary Travers look like they're dressed up for a birthday party. Filmed for Cass Elliot's short-lived variety show in 1969, a year after she quit the Mamas and the Papas, the three dutifully sing Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." Not the way you remember it? That's the thing about covers.

"Friday on My Mind," a 60s pop song by the Easybeats, covered by the inimitable guitar genius Richard Thompson who gives the pop trifle gravitas and darkness and mad intensity:

"I Drink," a song by Mary Gauthier, covered by Bill Chambers. This ought to make you crack open that fifth and drift down whiskey river:

Chan Marshall (AKA Cat Power) performs a sultry, slinky version of the bombastic Sinatra showstopper "New York, New York" and causes a French sensation. With a snap of the fingers, Chan turns a Boilermaker into an ice cold martini.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Bruce Springsteen won the Ellis Island Family Heritage Award, an honor "presented to immigrants or their descendants 'who have made a major contribution to the American experience.'" Springsteen attended the ceremony with his proud mother Adele, 85, and his aunts Dora, 90, and Ida, 87.

Bruce back in high school, Freehold, New Jersey

"Springsteen has been honored in recognition of his career achievements as a rocker with Italian immigrant roots," says the Associated Press.

"The Boss' maternal great-grandmother, Raffaela Zerilli, travelled to New Jersey's Ellis Island from Vico Equense, Italy, in 1900, accompanied by her five children. They joined her husband, Raffaele, in Manhattan's West Village. One of those kids, Antonio, grew up and married Adela Sorrentino. Their youngest daughter, Adele, went on to marry Irish-American Douglas Springsteen"

Accepting the award, Springsteen said, "You can't really know who you are and where you're going unless you know where you came from."

Like many immigrants, this Italian family entered America at Ellis Island. Then, as now, newcomers faced a life of hard work--not to mention anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia and outright discrimination. (How far have we come? Just look at the latest anti-immigration bill in Arizona)

Some history: "The federal immigration station opened on January 1, 1892 and was closed on November 12, 1954, with 12 million immigrants processed there by the US Bureau of Immigration. After the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, which greatly restricted immigration and allowed processing at overseas embassies, the only immigrants to pass through the station were displaced persons or war refugees. Today, over 100 million Americans - one third of the population - can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who first arrived in America at Ellis Island before dispersing to points all over the country."

Springsteen performs "American Land," a song about the immigrant experience

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Bernie Goldberg Fires Back
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

We haven't enjoyed gospel this much since Sam Cooke left the Soul Stirrers. Jon Stewart, responding to criticism from Bernie Goldberg of Fox News, gave Fox a big F*** You! Initially, Stewart had pointed out the hypocrisy of Fox News coverage, so this time Stewart enlisted a gospel choir to make his point loud and clear so that even dunderheads like Goldberg would get the message. Hallelujah!

"Comedians do social commentary through comedy," said Stewart. "That's how it's worked for thousands of years. I have not moved out of the comedian's box into the news box. The news box is moving towards me."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Outlaw country: Willie Nelson celebrates 4/20

It's 4/20. For years, "four-twenty" has been a code word for marijuana. There will be 4/20 celebrations worldwide today, along with rallies and teach-ins and political actions aimed at raising consciousness about grass and repealing the pot prohibition. Some, like Willie Nelson (pictured above), will be celebrating in private.

The editor of "High Times" magazine explains the story behind 420.

Attitudes are changing. Antiquated laws are being challenged. People are questioning authority. Currently, there is a ballot measure in California to legalize marijuana, and Governor Schwarzenegger says he thinks cannabis--the state's largest cash crop--might help save the state's anemic economy. Medical marijuana laws have passed in many states, and cannabis dispensaries are popping up like weeds. In many cities and towns, police have been instructed to make busting potheads a low priority--a big change from the jail-filling sweeps during the height of the "drug war" not long ago.

Obviously, we're faced with more pressing concerns in the grand scheme of things--war, poverty, health care, hunger, jobs, race, sex, the economy--and weed is hardly that important, but maybe that's the point. Maybe that's why it will finally be seen in perspective as a relative non-problem, science will trump superstition, and cannabis will be regulated for adults like our beloved (and undoubtedly more dangerous) drugs of choice, booze and cigarettes. Maybe money--as the Governator suggests--will be the key that finally turns the lock.

As usual, the status quo will be hard to budge. Powerful reactionaries and vested interests will fight to stop any progressive change in the body politic, casting pot as a moral issue. The Forces of Inertia seem to be losing ground, however, and they may lose the battle to retain our antiquated pot laws. Who knows? We may see the end of pot prohibition yet. Even the mainstream media is getting into the act; longtime willing dispensers of anti-marijuana propaganda, nowadays they don't want to get left behind the curve and there have been a number of "special reports" on the subject lately (check out CNBC's here). People are talking. If you'll pardon the expression, there's a buzz out there.

So let's see what happens. In the meantime, have a happy 4/20.

An interesting history of marijuana dispels some myths about the "killer weed."

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Hit the road, Jack. Don't you come back no more. These days, Kerouac is out of fashion, but back in the fifties and sixties he inspired a generation to hit the road and find themselves on the Great American Highway. Times have changed. His beat classic, "On The Road," is met with befuddlement in college classrooms. Why follow the trail of these bums, these hobos high on wine and pot and jazz and Eastern philosophical hoo-ha?

These sensible moderns have a point. Why leave town "looking for yourself" when the world is at your fingertips on the Internet and cable TV, in the comfy confines of your home? The world is a scary place. Home is cozy. If we must leave it, let's leave in home-like SUVS, comfy couches on wheels replete with phones and drink holders. And if we leave town, let's sip drinks poolside--no romance with the rough and rowdy road. Why sleep under a filthy bridge when you can play video games or cruise Facebook in relative safety under a booming sun and behind a high wall?

West Point cadets reading "Howl." Will this be on the test, sir?

Maybe Jack Kerouac doesn't matter anymore. He's hopelessly dated, an anachronism, a punchline. Beyond baby boomer nostalgia, can the modern reader get anything from Jack's old book?

New York Times reporter John Leland thinks so. Leland, author of "Hip: The History," an analysis of the American anti-establishment position known as "hip," discusses the Beat classic "On The Road." His new book, "Why Kerouac Matters," has been released for the 50th anniversary of the novel.

"I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was — I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds."
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road,

"Mexico City Blues-Charlie Parker," read by Jack Kerouac, Steve Allen on piano. Click play button:

Friday, April 16, 2010


Today is Friday, hooray! After a week of plague, pestilence, mining disasters, war, civil unrest (not to mention lack of restful sleep) and a certain crypto-fascist former governor of Alaska, it's time for a comedy break. More than time! Lest you think we're humorless old sods, drug-addled beatniks, doctrinaire politicos, or merely self-aggrandizing bloggers, we cleverly turn the tables on you in this segment, dear reader, and pull the rhetorical rug out from under you by presenting the classic comedy of Monty Python. Why not American comedy, you say, with a mouthful of oatmeal and vitriol. Why outsource our comedy to foreigners, you say, ready to dash off an angry letter or hoist a sadly misspelled sign at the local tea party gathering of hatemongers. Why these cheeky Brits?

It's simple, really. Because they're hilarious.

Two favorites from the Python oeuvre are "The Parrot Sketch" and "The Lumberjack Song." This sort of thing pioneered the absurdist branch of the humor tree that later developed into Saturday Night Live and a number of terrible imitations. Who can we blame for all this?

The culprits are John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam, an exceedingly clever and innovative troupe of actors and writers who had their beginnings in the august environs of Oxford and Cambridge and went on to become The Beatles of Comedy. They first caught our attention with the strange BBC television series "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (1969-74), a godsend to insomniacs, surly teenagers and hopheads everywhere. I'm kidding, of course--their biggest fans were always the brightest and the best-dressed, people who recognized one another by the twinkle in their eyes and the ability to recite the funny bits, such as this nasty insult from the French soldier:

"I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries."

In 1975, they released a feature film, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," an hilarious send-up of Arthurian legend, and in 1979 applied their subversive talents to biblical times in "The Life of Brian," the story of an infant born in the neighboring stable to Christ and the case of his mistaken identity, a near-Messiah, if you will. Brilliant stuff that was immediately attacked by religious simpletons who hadn't actually seen the film. Bloody typical, eh?

The Pythons continued to make wonderful comedy, of course, and Gilliam--the lone American in the group (USA!USA!)--went on to become a well-known filmmaker in his own right, directing "Brazil" (1985), "The Fisher King" (1991) and "Fear and Loathing in Last Vegas" (1998) among others. That's enough background for now--for more of the story we suggest you check out the excellent documentary, "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (the Lawyer's Cut)" (2009), a six part film we just watched. Anyway, here are some more funny bits.

The Sermon on the Mount as it might have been, from "The Life of Brian."

Spoiler alert: The brilliant ending of "The Life of Brian" finds Brian, the man mistaken for the Messiah, learning a lesson about Life at the last moment. The scene was typically Pythonesque, and while it may have infuriated dunderheads who shouted sacrilege it was actually quite respectful of Christ throughout, and only poked fun at his followers and their interpretation of his teachings. Basically, it poked fun at those very people who saw blasphemy under every bed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


California State University, Stanislaus students Alicia Lewis and Ashli Briggs found documents and shredded papers in a campus dumpster that included parts of a speaking contract for former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. What did the half-term Alaska governor and current FOX News entertainer demand in her contract?

Well, for starters, how about first-class commercial air travel for two or a private jet -- "must be a Lear 60 or larger" -- from Alaska to California and back, and a one-bedroom suite and two single rooms in a deluxe hotel "registered under an alias." And two unopened bottles of still water with "bendable straws." The document did not state Palin's fee, but she has reportedly been getting as much as $100,000 per speaking gig.

"We just want to hold people accountable. This is our campus ... and unfortunately there is no way to know right now if ethical things are happening or unethical things are happening," said Ashli Briggs, a 23-year-old junior studying political science. "What we seek is transparency. We want to know what's going on."

California Attorney General Edmund Brown said Tuesday his office will look into accusations that officials at a state university violated public records laws. A state senator, San Francisco Democrat Leland Yee, asked the university to justify the expense at a time when the state is struggling financially. University officials said they had not been informed of the investigation, but claim they acted correctly and promised they will cooperate fully.

Sure, we're in a depression, and yes, college tuition has skyrocketed, but Sarah Palin says she doesn't travel this great nation for the money and Lear jets and rockstar perks--she does it because she cares about America. Or something like that. Her credibility may be at an all-time low, but it's a look that seems to work for her. According to ABC News, Palin has earned an estimated $12 million since July when she resigned as governor in mid-term.

Shame on you, Sarah, you greedy little cow.

Read the Palin contract HERE.

California State students Alicia Lewis, left, and Ashli Briggs with the documents.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Steve Almond deconstructing Toto at Tin House Magazine's 10th Anniversary celebration.

Steve Almond is a subversively funny fiction writer. He is the author of "Candyfreak, A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America," and some stunning short stories in various collections, including "My Life in Heavy Metal." Almond is also a wonderful writing teacher and will be heading a fiction workshop at the Tin House writing conference this July at Reed College. His new book, "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life," is available April 13th, 2010.

Here is a tasty excerpt from "Candyfreak."

Here is one of his short stories, "The Problem with Human Consumption,"

Almond is interviewed by Kevin Sampsell

Steve Almond's blog is HERE.

Monday, April 12, 2010


"Who By Fire"

Leonard Cohen has a new live album and you probably won't like it. Nothing personal, most people won't. His voice sounds like a rusty gate, his lyrics are dark, his humor is rye, and he won't be winning American Idol anytime soon. He's hardly photogenic, and looks more like an old man in a bus station than a pop star. In his fedora and black suit, he looks all his seventy-four years, but he's finally stepping out after living like a hermit. He spent some time in a Zen Buddhist monastery and his songs reflect a thoughtfulness rare in modern pop music. Cohen is a poet and a songwriter, and he's written some amazing songs over the years. He gave this concert last year in London's O2 arena, backed by a crack band and some angelic background singers. Listen to the words.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve stood on the stage in London,” Cohen says between songs, “It was about 14 or 15 years ago, I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream.”

"I'm Your Man"

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Tina Fey, the funniest woman on television, hosted Saturday Night Live last night and reprised her role as Sarah Palin. It was the funniest SNL in a long, long time. One the show, "Palin" announced her latest career move since "winning the silver" in the presidential election, and that is running her own television network. The Palin Network will air such shows as "Todd!", "Are You Smarter than a Half-Term Governor?", "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and my favorite,"Hey Journalist, I Gotcha," in which Palin will re-edit past interviews to make it look like her interviewers -- CBS' Katie Couric, for instance -- were "woefully unprepared."

An angry conservative wrote into Facebook this morning, whining about the SNL treatment, "Whatever would liberals do without Sarah Palin?"

Let's turn that question on it's head. Whatever would conservatives do without Sarah Palin? They'd be stuck with some other easy target for humorists-- weeping Glenn Beck or cranky McCain or Newt Gingrich--or that angry mob of farmers with pitchforks and misspelled signs. SNL could do them all. Those "clever New York liberals" are just too dang funny!

Women We Love: Tina Fey, creator and star of the best show on TV, "30 Rock," and a wicked Sarah Palin impersonator

Saturday, April 10, 2010


In the Age of Oprah, everyone is writing lurid memoirs, picking old emotional wounds and brimming with enough self-absorption to make the pre-socratic Solipsists look like an army of Mother Teresas. Maybe Andy Warhol was right when he quipped we would all be famous for fifteen minutes. Reality TV makes us believe we can all be stars, no matter how meager and trivial our lives may be. Hemingway, one of the great egos of the twentieth century, and not without some justification, commented that everyone has a book inside of them--and that's where most of them should stay. Perhaps as a result of a previous generations' stoicism and sense of decorum (or pretense of such) many sorry souls are getting on soapboxes to make confessions, soak up attention, and sell their innermost secrets on the check-out stand between the tabloids and the TV Guides.

Memoirs are all the rage, each one more lurid than the next. Once in a while a good one comes along. Beating the rest by a mile (and beating the current flood of memoirs by a decade and a half), Mary Karr wrote the brilliant "The Liars' Club" (1995) and told the story of her troubled childhood and crazy family in the hardscrabble industrial wastes of Southeast Texas. It was amazing writing, pure and simple, beautifully written without any of that falsely ornate prose many are convinced makes for "literature." Mordantly witty, dark and savage and true, Karr was whipsmart and void of self-pity, and she told her story with a sense of humor, a story a lesser writer might have ruined with sentimentality. If you read books--seriously read books--you've already read this one, so you know what I mean.

Mary Karr

Mart Karr has a new book. "Lit: A Memoir" (2009), is part three of her story ("Cherry" came out in 2002) and covers her "journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic." Alcohol and drugs and self-deception are par for the course, and fighting and depression and sickness, but what she does with these common ingredients is the trick. She elevates them to "lit."

“The normally crisp film of my memory has, in this period, more blanks than the Nixon tapes,” she writes of her divorce. “Maybe the agony of our demise was too harrowing for my head to hold on to, or my maternal psyche is shielding my son from the ugly bits. . . . Whatever the case, those years only filter back through the self I had at the time, when I was most certainly — even by my yardstick then — a certain species of crazy.”

Karr is a certain species of crazy, the rarest sort that can turn the common lead of experience into the finest gold--well, brass at least. And she's funny as hell.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Don Blankenship is the chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, Appalachia's biggest coal company, and owner of the mine where 29 miners were killed Monday. Massey made $2.7 billion last year. Blankenship is a very powerful man in West Virginia, and a political powerbroker right out of a Thomas Nast cartoon who has thrown his weight around in local elections and supported right-wing tea party Republican causes. His cavalier attitude about mine safety precautions has forced him to answer tough questions since Monday's tragic explosion.

According to the Washington Post, "The Upper Big Branch coal mine, the site of Monday's explosion, has been cited 1,342 times for safety violations since the beginning of 2005. (Days since the beginning of 2005: 1,922.)"

The Upper Branch mine was cited for 53 safety violations in March alone, on top of 458 in 2009. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with oversight for mining operations, sought $900,000 in penalties against the facility last year.

Here are some great Don Blankenship moments, courtesy of "Crooks and Liars," a blog that covers the worst corporate criminals.

  • It's fine for elementary school-age children to inhale coal dust while playing at school because Massey Coal "already pays millions of dollars in taxes each year".
  • Blankenship truly believes that government regulation means "we all better learn to speak Chinese."
  • He has absolutely no problem paying $3 million to elect state Supreme Court justice Brent Benjamin just ahead of a scheduled hearing of his appeal to overturn a large damage award for driving competitor Harman Mining Corporation into bankruptcy.
  • Blankenship will spend millions to keep the Massey Energy's workforce non-union, is perfectly happy to discriminate against union workers even if it means being sued and losing, and might hate unions as much as he hates 'greeniacs'.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) took Massey to task for its "disregard for human life and safety." “Such arrogance suggests a blatant disregard for the impact of their mining practices on our communities, residents and particularly our children,” Byrd said in a statement. “These are children’s lives we are talking about.

According to "Crooks and Liars," Blankenship spent over a million dollars along with other US Chamber buddies like Verizon to sponsor last year's Labor Day Tea Party, also known as the 'Friends of America Rally.' Guest speakers included right wingers Sean Hannity and Ted Nugent, and the event focused on "President Obama, Democrats, and any one who doesn't salute God, coal, and apple pie."

Here's Massey's pitch.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Two songs for the coal miners and their families.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Yesterday, this devastating video was leaked by several whistleblowers inside the military. It was never intended for public viewing. Shot from a helicopter gunship in a suburb of Baghdad, the video shows the killing of several people, including two Reuter's reporters, and the serious wounding of two children. At a time when Iraq news is on the back burner, and we're "lucky" to get a few sound bytes from embedded reporters or military spokespeople, it's critical to see the raw reality of the war and the consequences of our actions, regardless of our political points of view. In that spirit, we've decided to post this video.

"Overview: 5th April 2010 10:44 EST WikiLeaks has released a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad -- including two Reuters news staff.

"Reuters has been trying to obtain the video through the Freedom of Information Act, without success since the time of the attack. The video, shot from an Apache helicopter gun-site, clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers. Two young children involved in the rescue were also seriously wounded."

"After demands by Reuters, the incident was investigated and the U.S. military concluded that the actions of the soldiers were in accordance with the law of armed conflict and its own 'Rules of Engagement'."

Norman Solomon, writer and media critic, calls this film "a powerful refutation of illusions about US military operations in in Iraq, Afghanista, Pakistan and elsewhere."

For more information, and the complete leaked video (this is an 18 minute clip of the 40 minute video) please check Collateral Murder.


Beyond the endless churn of crapola about Tiger Woods' sexploits, Sandra Bullock's husband's sexploits, "news-vertisements" for the new iPad, Sarah Palin's latest press release, and the standard march of celebrities, there are some interesting stories out there. I swear!

While we're "living in the future" with our wonderful new high tech toys some people still eke out a living like serfs in medieval times. Not in Africa or Asia, but right here in our own Third World called West Virginia where the worst mining disaster since 1984 has left 25 miners dead and four more missing. (Maybe some deep-digging investigative journalist will mention George Bush's deregulation of mining laws? Probably not.) Read the AP story HERE.

"Who Killed the Miners? Profits Over Safety," by Jeff Biggers. Biggers, the author of "The United States of Appalachia," and a coalminer's grandson, reminds us that all mining safety laws are written in blood. Read the full story HERE.

"Can "Neuro Lit Crit" Save the Humanities?" An intelligent debate over the increasingly common (con)fusion of Literature and Psychology. Is it a smart move, a desperate dive for cash, an unholy alliance of disciplines at cross-purposes, or the academic equivalent of "folk mass" to bring the formerly faithful back into the fold? Read the NYTimes debate HERE.

The Telegraph in the UK reports that Chinese authorities denied Bob Dylan a permit to perform his music in their country. Dylan had been scheduled to tour Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. "China's Ministry of Culture did not give us permission to stage concerts in Beijing and Shanghai, so we had no alternative to scrap plans for a South East Asian tour,' said Jeffrey Wu, the promoter's head of operations. Wu added that Chinese authorities may have been worried about Dylan's past as a counterculture hero. Read the full story HERE.

Matt Taibbi has written another wonderful article, "Looting Main Street: How the nation's biggest banks are ripping off American cities with the same predatory deals that brought down Greece." The title says it all. Read it HERE.

Monday, April 5, 2010


This is the final segment of an excellent three part documentary about folks music that aired on the BBC. If that sounds dull, think again.

"In the 1960s a new generation, spearheaded by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, took folk to the top of the charts and made it the voice of youthful protest. Whilst the northern folk revivalists helped bring civil rights to the south, the Newport Folk Festival brought the old music of the south to the college kids in the north. However, when Dylan turned up at Newport in 1965 with an electric guitar things would never be the same again. With Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Robbie Robertson, Stephen Stills, Country Joe McDonald, Roger McGuinn, Odetta and Tom Paxton."

To watch the entire documentary, please check out Paul Castle's Preposterous.


These two short films are a riot. The first is a friendly propaganda film introducing John Q. Public to the suburbs. The film hasn't aged well, and not only promotes a dull conventional life it ignores what is really going on in society. (Where, for example, are "Negroes?")

The second clip signals a sea change. What happened?

Historians note that "the sixties" didn't actually begin until about 1964--after the previous era ended with the Kennedy assassination. You can witness the split in this newsreel that begins with the brassy flatulence of military introductory music and a narrator from the past guiding Middle America through a strange new phenomena. What was this joyous NOISE? Believers would say it was just rock 'n' roll, but fussy profs might call it the clarion call of a new Dionysian Age celebrating wild music and carefree abandon--not to mention the wretched excess of casual sex and drugs and long hair. The grim post-war, cold war, cookie cutter suburban conformist lifestyle was on wobbly legs--and not only because of all the martinis and tranquilizers. The oldsters figured this was a fad like hula hoops and coonskin caps, and maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't. Either way, there was no turning back to I Like Ike, golfing, and Ozzie and Harriet. Yeats might have seen it coming. I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Hold On

Tom Waits | MySpace Music Videos

Something about this sepia-toned, sheet metal, dustbowl, fever dream and these ramshackle words of encouragement from a gravel-throated hobo ghost that makes me say "Amen!" this Easter morning. It's not just an obvious weakness for blondes and Cadillacs, or film noir, or even Marilyn Monroe, who died for our sins, or even a damn fine melody--but something past all that, something harder to pin down, something like the distressed beauty you might find in a paint-peeling gas station or an old rusted water pump, or a set of worn-out Burma Shave signs in the high dessert, or a beat-up steel string guitar, a thousand yard stare, taillights fading on the hitcher's highway at dusk, that hollow metallic feel of a bus station after midnight, or an all-night diner, boilermakers and ashtrays and old magazines and Easter eggs in your lunch sack, more like the cold comfort of looking a little deeper, past all that hard plastic American razzle dazzle to find a dog-eared leaf of poetry blowing down an empty alley. They threw the poet off the roof, you know, and you can hear the sirens growing louder. Better we get out of here, sweetheart.

Friday, April 2, 2010


It's Easter weekend. No better time to host an intelligent discussion about God. Some would argue that you can no more prove or disprove the existence of God than you can prove or disprove the supposition that this chocolate rabbit is the creative force behind the universe. It's a matter of faith, believers will tell you. Others won't dismiss the rabbit entirely but may quibble over whether it is hollow or solid chocolate, milk or bittersweet. Not to be sacrilegious (or sacrelicious) some might scoff at the existence of the chocolate rabbit even if it appeared to them Easter morning in a brightly colored basket.

Whatever you may think, you are welcome to your opinion--as long as you respect mine, and respect the divide between Church and State. If my belief in the rabbit compels me to kill you because you believe in the divinity of a Cadbury egg, say, or a chocolate Santa, then I've overstepped my rights. Rabbits and eggs, by the way, are pagan symbols of spring and rebirth and predate Easter by a longshot; the Christian holiday was conveniently superimposed on a pagan celebration. Check your history books. All in all, I mean no disrespect to whatever you may choose to believe, but I dare anyone to disprove my assertion that God is a chocolate rabbit. Solid, of course, and like the Truth, bittersweet.

In the meantime, here are some spiritual thinkers to discuss the matter.

"Atheist Spirituality," a talk by Alan Watts.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell, "Why I am not a Christian."

Christopher Hitchens, author of "God is Not Great," debates Jay Richards of the Creationist Discovery Institute.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


"Better a witty fool than a foolish wit," Shakespeare once said. Mark Twain puffed on his cigar and quipped, "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." Hunter S. Thompson took a swig of Wild Turkey and a hit of Nitrous Oxide and exclaimed, "No man is so foolish but he may sometimes give another good counsel, and no man so wise that he may not easily err if he takes no other counsel than his own. He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master."

It's April Fools Day, and every jack-a-napes will be pranking and joking with you, so I figured we'd start with some witty quotes from the masters. What kind of fool are you? There are unwitting fools, sly fools, educated fools, simple fools, lovestruck fools, fools in motley, jesters and Republicans. The holy fool conceals truth under the mask of foolishness, and wisdom in the disguise of folly.

At one time or another, everybody plays the fool. The Main Ingredient had a sappy pop song about it that is nonetheless catchy as hell. Sing it in the shower sometime. Alexander Pope, writing "An Essay on Criticism" in 1711, said "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread," which was put to music in the 1940s and covered by Sinatra and a host of others. Ricky Nelson had a huge hit with it a decade later, and released it on his celebrated album, "Ricky Nelson Sings Alexander Pope." There are some great songs about fools, and you'd be a fool to miss them. Enjoy!