Wednesday, June 30, 2010


We love war movies because we feel the thrill of battle, the life or death consequences of every move, the exhilaration of violence. It's a trick played by actors and directors and cinematographers. For a few moments, with their help, we can forget the exigencies of the day, the worries of the workplace, the horrors of the daily news--storms and floods and oil spills and actual wars--and vicariously struggle with the warrior. The DVD plays, and we take a hero's journey. The best war films, from Casablanca to Apocalypse Now, Platoon to African Queen, give us people we care about. The best war movies keep the mystery and confusion of war, and don't ennoble violence or glorify it. That jingoistic John Wayne crap may stir the blood and increase enlistment, but it's not great film as much as propaganda.

Tim O'Brien on war movies. "I’ve often thought what a cool movie, for example, if you go to a war movie and out of the screen came real bullets."

The best war movie we've seen in ages is Ken Burns' seven part World War II documentary, "The War." This riveting series follows a handful of common people from four American towns, sent from Main Street to all corners of the globe.

"Above all, we wanted to honor the experiences of those who lived through the greatest cataclysm in human history by providing the opportunity for them to bear witness to their own history. Our film is therefore an attempt to describe, through their eyewitness testimony, what the war was actually like for those who served on the front lines, in the places where the killing and the dying took place, and equally what it was like for their loved ones back home. We have done our best not to sentimentalize, glorify or aestheticize the war, but instead have tried simply to tell the stories of those who did the fighting -- and of their families. In so doing, we have tried to illuminate the intimate, human dimensions of a global catastrophe that took the lives of between 50 and 60 million people -- of whom more than 400,000 were Americans." - Ken Burns and Linn Novick

For more about the series, click here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


General McChristal

General Stanley McChristal is out of a job--as you know. Obama fired him. His remarks in Rolling Stone magazine derailed his powerful position and he'll be checking Craig's List for Jobs for Generals. Well, not really. He'll be shuffled somewhere else, no doubt. Maybe he'll retire. Old generals never die, after all, they just find a nice place to play golf.

In case you don't read the glossy rock magazine, you can read the original article that got the man bounced here.

Lara Logan

CBS News Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan thought the article went too far. On CNN's Reliable Sources show Sunday, she accused Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings of violating an unspoken agreement and printing offhand remarks that should have been kept from the public.

Matt Taibbi disagrees. Taibbi, an outspoken journalist who often writes for RS among other publications, jumped on Logan.

"Here's CBS's chief foreign correspondent saying out loud on TV that when the man running a war that's killing thousands of young men and women every year steps on his own dick in front of a journalist, that journalist is supposed to eat the story so as not to embarrass the flag. And the part that really gets me is Logan bitching about how Hastings was dishonest to use human warmth and charm to build up enough of a rapport with his sources that they felt comfortable running their mouths off in front of him...."

Read the rest of Taibbi remarks here.

Matt Taibbi

Monday, June 28, 2010


Chester Arthur Burnett, better known to blues fans as Howlin' Wolf, was born June 10th, 1910, in White Station, Mississippi. He would've turned a hundred this month. He stood as tall as a live oak and weighed nearly a ton. Some say he had power of a runaway locomotive, maybe the locomotive in this song.

Howlin' Wolf ran away from home quite young. After soaking up all the mystery and pain of the Mississippi Delta, he drove to Chicago and became one of the premier bluesmen in the 1950s. His voice was unique. While others were busy crooning, he howled with a voice that was a force of nature, a voice someone once compared to "the sound of heavy machinery operating on a gravel road." His only true rival was Muddy Waters, who also electrified the Delta sound and brought it north, and together they became the twin towers of Chicago blues.

Listen. The music is raw and unadorned, terrifying even, but there is a powerful groove that makes you move and tap your feet. Can you feel that? Here he's playing with Hubert Sumlin and Willie Dixon, one of the greatest blues songwriters of all time. Give a listen. This is the real deal.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Some kids race around a Utah speedway. They dream of getting away someday, but the cards are stacked against them.

You can hardly blame them. Utah is a terrible place full of scorpions and uppity polygamists. My grandfather mined coal there in Carbon County back in the 1920s. I was thrown in jail there for hitchhiking in the 1970s. Other than some beautiful canyons and rugged mountains, and a lake that is too salty, there is nothing to recommend this godforsaken scrubland.

Bruce Springsteen is a master storyteller. He maps the hidden world, the working world, and makes heroes out of unlikely scrappers. He tells this story without the sentimental Hollywood crap and the false morality. His stories are rough and meaningful without the sappy strings, and because of that they ring true.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


How are you? Fine. That's the standard response. Could you be any happier?

Sure you could.

Tal Ben-Shahar, Psychology Lecturer at Harvard, has spent his career studying very specific things people can do each day that are proven to increase happiness. Unless you're too happy already, you should listen to this.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Artie Shaw gives a music lesson in swing in 1939, just seventy-one years ago. Like any recipe, the magic is more than the sum of the ingredients--it's adding a little heart and soul to the mix. Shaw has fun breaking it all down for us--and yes, that's Buddy Rich beating on the skins. In addition to hiring Rich, Shaw hired Billie Holiday as his band's vocalist in 1938. Not only did Shaw make a good choice, he became the first white bandleader to hire a full-time black female singer to tour the segregated South.

Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, music requires a listener to experience it--and all listeners are different. Some dig swing, some don't. Some like Chinese food, some like Thai. Do you like this?

Here's another musical recipe full of heart and definitely soul, from another era altogether--Sly and the Family Stone in 1968 (just forty-two years ago). After singing "Everyday People" ("different strokes for different folks...") the band launches into "Dance to the Music" and breaks it down like Artie Shaw, naming the various ingredients of the tune. The outfits and attitudes may seem dated (just like in the Artie Shaw clip) but the truth behind the lesson remains the same. This is an upbeat dance tune--how does it make you feel?

Friday, June 18, 2010


We just came across this great clip of Eric Burdon, formerly of the Animals, performing Bob Dylan's classic, "One More Cup of Coffee for the Road." Burdon is famous for his rough bluesy voice on such sixties working class anthems as "We Gotta Get Out of this Place" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," as well as a traditional blues song Dylan covered on his first album, "House of the Rising Sun." A few years later, Burdon made it a huge hit.

Here is Eric Burdon, performing live in Germany in 1976, the same year the song came out on Dylan's album, Desire.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Sure, jaywalking is a serious crime. We don't condone it. Nor do we condone full grown men punching teenage girls in the face. Especially not cops, who should be trained to handle tough situations. That's what happened, though. Here's how the Associated Press reported it:

"Officer Ian P. Walsh, 39, was trying to arrest 19-year-old Marilyn Levias for jaywalking on Monday when her 17-year-old friend pushed him. He then punched the young woman in the face. Walsh and Levias had been struggling before her friend pushed him. The entire incident was caught on video, where bystanders can be heard saying 'Are you serious?'”

Good question. Policemen are given the power to carry lethal weapons and trained to handle the most extreme situations. Generally, their word is good, but this cop says he was justified. I'm glad a citizen caught it all on tape.

Blue sticks together. The head of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild said the policeman was justified. "He did nothing wrong," said Rich O'Neill. “I think he was trying to defuse the situation and calm people down.”

So was anyone reprimanded or arrested? You bet. The 17-year old girl was charged with assaulting a police officer. Nice job, guys.

According to the AP, "Several community groups feel that the punch was too severe, and mirrored a video taken in April of two Seattle officers kicking a Hispanic suspect."

So it goes.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Just so you don't think we're humorless anti-social lefties who stay at home nights perusing Chomsky with a hi-liter pen, here's some fun advice for socializing. (Socializing, not socialism, in case you were worried). As any frosty-haired, trust-fund socialite will tell you, you're going to need drinks and snacks. Your stockbroker calls, and says you dropped millions with all that creative sub-prime lending jazz--you need drinks and snacks. You get laid off, or have your hours cut back. Drinks and snacks. You discover Tiger Woods is on your girlfriend's speed-dial. Drinks and snacks. You feel like a shrimp cocktail, a few nice fat gulf shrimp in hot sauce, but the BP oil spill is already EIGHT times worse than the Exxon Valdez and shrimp are extinct. Drinks and snacks. Virtually any news item about Sarah Palin? Drinks and snacks. Whether you're a networking yuppie or a community organizer, a worker bee or a retiree or a slacker watching TV, sooner or later you'll hear that voice--sometimes faint, but getting stronger--calling for drinks and snacks. Listen to the voice.

This is the classic martini. Get to know it. Skip the silly sorority girl drinks--Sex on the Beach, Fuzzy Navel, all those sweet cocktails with parasols and gimmicky names--and skip those terrible mega-lagers, the Lite Beers and anything that comes out of a keg pulled by Clydesdales--and have a classic dry martini. Nope, it doesn't taste like soda pop. That's gin, if you have the classic, or vodka. And not the Appletini, the Peachtini, or any other sad bastardization of the drink. Get real.

Here are some tips on martinis and hors d'oeuvres from Lefty. Martha Stewart ain't got nothin' on him. See you at the barricades.



Don Delillo, one of our greatest living novelists, reads a memo prepared by the CIA for the Justice Department concerning the agency's detention, interrogation, and rendition programs, as part of the 2009 PEN event Reckoning with Torture: Memos and Testimonies from the "War on Terror."

Delillo rarely makes a public appearance. This is exceptional. Not quite as reclusive as Pynchon or Salinger, but nearly so, most know Delillo only through his writing--masterful, labyrinthine explorations of the American psyche, totalitarianism, baseball, the JFK assassination, the effects of technology, the national security state. His best work includes Libra, White Noise (which won the National Book Award), Americana and Underworld, which contains the brilliant prologue "Pafko at the Wall," which was later released as a stand-alone novella.

"Pafko at the Wall" is the story of the New York Giants beating the Brooklyn Dodgers in a race for the pennant on October 3, 1951 at the Polo Grounds in New York City. The story centers on the crowd--the celebrities and swells, the kids playing hooky, the ticket takers, the howling fans--at the moment Bobby Thompson hits the game winning home run. This was baseball history, the shot heard 'round the world. With absolutely masterful storytelling, Delillo takes you out to the ballgame, takes you out to the crowd. You hear the crack of the bat, Pafko looks up, kids scuffle for the ball--and in fact the book will follow the ball through the hands of various owners over the years. The story’s title comes from this photograph of Dodger’s fielder Andy Pafko standing at the left field wall watching the ball sail into the stands.

Born November 20, 1936, the child of Italian immigrants from the village of Montagano (Campobasso), Delillo was raised in an Italian American neighborhood of the Bronx. He always felt like an outsider, but an insider, too--and this seemingly contradictory vantage point of the second generation American--not quite in, not quite out--served him well as a novelist. He has the critical eye of the outsider who happens to know the inside story, and he captures the idiom and dialects of America like no other. With pitch perfect dialogue and a natural authority, he chronicles the uneasiness of modern American life, the breath of conspiracy and paranoia lurking behind our politics and our gleaming new technologies, and the gradual creep toward a brave new, friendly-faced totalitarianism. Don't be afraid, he might say. Or be afraid, it doesn't matter, this will happen anyway. Delillo's work will be studied seriously--and read with pleasure--for many years to come.

"He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful."

So begins "Pafko at the Wall," the first section of Underworld. In this interview with Terri Gross, the author discusses the book.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Donald Crowhurst was an amateur sailor who foolishly entered an around-the-world yacht race. His ill-fated voyage is a riveting story, and Film Four has made it into an excellent documentary utilizing Crowhurst's films and audio tapes.

Donald Crowhurst

The Crowhurst voyage has inspired a number of writers, the most notable being Robert Stone, whose fictionalized account, Outerbridge Reach, explores the story's moral and psychological dimensions with harrowing precision. Stone is a master of the dark psyche, and he captures all the agonizing details of Crowhurst's battle with his own doubts and demons as well as the pitiless sea. A masterful literary thriller.

(For an interesting analysis of a scene from Outerbridge Reach, click here. )

Saturday, June 5, 2010


Performed by Los Lobos. Post inspired by an article concerning Arizona, and how the dark faces on a public school mural will be lightened to please local racists. Read the article here.

What's wrong with these people?

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Don't follow leaders--Watch parking meters

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.

Solitude and Leadership--a brilliant lecture delivered by William Deresiewicz to the plebes at West Point in October of last year. Read it in The American Scholar.

Paris in the fifties?

Oh it was terrific because the cafés were such great places to hang out, they were so open, you could smoke hash at the tables, if you were fairly discreet. There was the expatriate crowd, which was more or less comprised of interesting people, creatively inclined. So we would fall out there at one of the cafés, about four in the afternoon, sip Pernod until dinner, then afterwards go to a jazz club. Bird and Diz, and Miles and Bud Powell, and Monk were all there, and if not, someone else. Lester Young and Don Byas. It was a period when the Village and St.-Germain-des-Pres were sort of interchangeable, just going back and forth.

--From an interview with Terry Southern at the Paris Review.

Making a list, and checking it twice

It is no secret that publishing these kinds of lists can be tricky. Whatever the intention, they sometimes resemble a publicity stunt. The age cutoff, whether 25 or 35 or 40, can feel capricious. After a list is made public, there is the inevitable sniping that some writers on it were too famous to have been included and that others were unfairly excluded.

The New Yorker
just selected the best writers under the age of forty. See who made the list in this post from Bookfox and this article in the New York Times.

You don't know Dick

He died in 1982, broke, decrepit, most probably mentally ill. He had been manhandled by publishers, agents, studios. He loved to quote William Burroughs’s definition of the paranoid, applicable to himself then as well as to reams of his characters: “He’s the one with all the information.”

-from Brains, Bats, and Implanted Thoughts: The Perpetual Life of Philip K. Dick at Bookslut

Ranking Colleges

We rate schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).

See this year's ranking of liberal arts colleges in the nation in The Washington Monthly.

The Greatest Records of All Time?

There were many brilliant songs that were overlooked, and many that ended up in used record stores and apple crates in Mom and Dad's garage, but Rolling Stone tried to pick their top 500. Agree or not, check out their list at Rolling Stone. They make it difficult to see the entire list without the patience of Job, but you can see the list more easily at Metrolyrics.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


In an extremely rare photograph, Robert Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and JFK celebrate the president's 45th birthday at a private party in Manhattan. Earlier that day, Monroe sung her famously sexy "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" at Madison Square Garden. It was May 19th, 1962. Marilyn would be dead in a few months, and JFK would follow the next year.

The secret service had instructions to destroy any photograph that showed Kennedy with Marilyn Monroe together, but the negatives were in a dryer when the rest of the film was confiscated. This rare shot is on display at an LA gallery, and the list price is $23,000. Cecil Stoughton, white house photographer, took the picture.

Marilyn Monroe was born June 1st, 1926--and died August 5th, 1962. Happy birthday, Marilyn.