The Smiths

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on August 12, 2010

When it comes to music, whether I like or dislike any band usually hinges on my ability to become obsessive about at least one song.

In general, any amount of like or respect I have for a musician is irrelevant. I like and respect Gang of Four as a whole–but I’ve never connected with any particular song in such a way that has compelled me to hit “rewind” five times in a row (to the ever-loving delight of my long suffering wife.) As a result, I have a lot more love for Polyrock, as crappily pretentious of a New Wave band as you’re going to find–despite, our because, they were produced by Phillip Glass–simply because I heard a catchy but semi-retarded song on the radio one beautiful September evening and, for whatever reason, it just sounded so damn good.

The same applies with X and (I mention this because it came up today) Tom Waits. Neither have ever recorded a song that made me fumble for auto-repeat.

I have always had a kind of learning disability about The Smiths, not really loving Morrisey’s voice and fey songwriting, a defect that has caused me shame and confusion. For so many people, The Smiths were the quintessence of the 1980s–at least in that alternative shadow-1980s that existed in the minds of sensitive English majors with asymmetrical hair. (In my mind, the only good thing about the 80s were the valiant attempts of a very small minority to make the whole rotten sociopathic time not completely suck. Want to become nostalgic for the 80s? Think about Andrew Dice Clay.)

But I think I’ve found my portal to The Smiths: “Half a Person.” I’m sure I’ve heard this song a thousand times (at least the first fiften seconds of it) but for some reason it come up on my Ipod at a moment when I was unusually receptive. Walking the dog, bopping along, smelling the fresh post-rain air, headphones jammed in my ears–all of the elements must have been right because suddenly this sounded so good.

Like the Christians say, sometimes your heart must first ready before it can accept the light.

I’m ready, Jesus.


The Metro DC bestseller’s list

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on July 2, 2010

Books that I have spotted more than one time recently on the DC Metro:

1. Blink – Malcolm Gladwell
2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson
3. Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson – Robert Caro

Dick Cheney reviews Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on July 2, 2010

Darkness at Noon is everything I want in a book. And by that I mean that a whole lot of commies die, including the story’s main character, Nicolas Rubashov, who had once been a leader in a communist revolution in a country that looks a whole like the Soviet Union. Rubashov was imprisoned and forced to confess to bogus crimes as part of a communist purge.

As a freedom-loving American, I defy you not to stand up from in recliner and cheer when this communist-intellectual-liberal meets his demise. Hey, comrade, you brought it all on yourself when you decided to overthrow the rightful government of the Tsar.

Darkness at Noon is a book about a loss of freedoms. Late in the book, Rubashov is subjected to perfectly reasonable enhanced interrogation techniques (a bit of a whitewash, if you ask me—the commies did a lot more than prevent people from sleeping and turn the lamps up high) by a commie-goon apparatchik named Gletkin. Gletkin is a man of few words. He is efficient and to the point. His head is shaved and marked with a scar. I rather liked him actually. Gets things done, you know? Had his mind not been poisoned by revolutionary nonsense– that is, had he been American–he could have gone far in my party, the Republican party.

Anyway, the big commies are trying to frame the little commie, Rubashov, who had once been a hero of of the Revolution, because of “political divergencies.” Gletkin accuses Rubashov of seven “crimes against the people,” including poorly managing an aluminum trust and creating defective aluminum. This is exactly the kind of crap the libs tried to pull with me because I once ran Halliburton! I can hear those smug little liberals whining about “war profiteering” and “no bid contracts.” This book did a great job showing that all those complaints were basically commie-type stuff.

But back to Gletkin. Most reviewers–the so-called intelligentsia, naturally–consider Rubashov the book’s main character just because he’s on every damn page. But it’s Gletkin who really steals the show! He shows that, beneath the commie brain washing, he is basically a man of common sense. For instance, these are Gletkin’s wise words about how to get information out of terrorists:

…the [terrorist peasant woman] had been kept waiting on her feet the whole night was due to the carelessness of my sergeant; from then onwards I encouraged carelessness of that kind; stubborn cases and to stand upright on one spot for as long as forty-eight hours…”

Had we had a few more Gletkin’s on our side in Iraq (not to mention Congress and the media) the war would have been won quickly and painlessly, just like I predicted.

How much money do you need? Exactly $60,000/year.

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on June 24, 2010 reports on a recent TED conference featuring Nobel laureate economist Daniel Kahneman remarks on personal happiness. Kahneman traces a great deal of our unhappiness to the difference between how we experience life and how we remember it. Among the infinite ways people have to make themselves unhappy, our human penchant for discovering false perfection in past moments is certainly among them.

But a simpler way to make yourself unhappy is by thinking about money. Because money can be exchanged for so many things, it can become the mother of all needs–replacing romantic neurosis as the number one crazy-maker as you get older and more loving of security. The near universal fungability of money makes it insidious. Though it is true that money can’t buy happiness or love, a nice was of cash can certainly distract from those needs temporarily.

What I found more interesting–and affirming–was Kahneman’s Q&A remarks after his presentation about money. His message is that money’s potential to bring happiness is both limited and fairly easily attainable. I’ll let mr. Kahneman speak for himself:

Below 60,000 dollars a year, people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I’ve rarely seen lines so flat.

“Clearly, he adds, “money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery.”

As we (or, um, I) make ourselves anxious about money, it’s worth remembering that it’s potential to bring joy and contentment pales in comparison to a good marriage or friends you enjoy spending time with. Of course, this little nugget of old-fashioned wisdom couldn’t be more facile. Does anyone ever come out and say that money trumps everything? Even good old fashioned yuppies are apt to pay lip service to the relative worthlessness of money, usually while driving their Jaguar to the Hamptons.

Nonetheless, it’s good to know there’s an actual number at which money stops buying happiness: $60,000.

Old, Weird America

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on June 24, 2010

Last week I finally picked up Greil Marcus’ The Old, Weird America, anticipating an informative stroll through the mystifying and dark underbelly of American history. I have long loved the phrase “old, weird America.” It evokes a lost subculture within American life of marginal people who made strange and alien art without even realizing it. The phrase exists as a counterpoint to the Official History of this country, which seems to unspool as the glaringly uninspiring story of acquisition and accumulation.

What I wanted from the book was a reconstruction of the strangeness that has always lurked just below the surface of American history. I knew the book was centered on Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, but I had read Lipstick Traces and I expected a similar feat: rather than regurgitating the entire history of the idea of radical freedom through the lens of the Sex Pistols, The Old, Weird America would trace a certain line of folk expression through our history. I also fully expected that some coherence would be sacrificed for a certain poeticism. When Marcus doesn’t know where to go next, his answer usually seems to be to just keep on piling up the words.

I ended up finding the book long on poetry and short on meaning. The Harry Smith Anthology is duly noted as source material, a handful of incidents that seemed to adduce a certain American penchant for sociopathic violence were dredged up (in Lipstick Traces, Marcus quoted political scientist Walter Dean Burnham as saying, “The great American substitute for social revolution is murder”) and great waves of not especially controlled metaphor were unleashed upon the reader. But mostly Marcus just wrote about the unfathomable greatness of The Basement Tapes, how this album seemed to tap into the unselfconsciously strange aura of traditional American folk music. I like The Basement Tapes (though I rank it in the second tier of Dylan’s ouevre) but to me the greatness of The Basement Tapes is most definitely fathomable.

The book left me with a taste for the question that Marcus brings up and fails to answer: just how weird is this country? I am once again curious about this body of sometimes alienating Ameircan folk music. I know from past listening that some of this stuff is ethereal in its murkiness and jaggedness. On the other hand, there is plenty that is downright unlistenable for the same reasons.

The essential problem with The Old, Weird America is it wants to conjure up old ghosts–and then seems surprised to find the subject matter slippery and hard to pin down.

Are men ugly?

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on May 19, 2010

A recent statistic cited in the Harper’s Index proves something I’ve always suspected: men are ugly.

According to Harper’s, a recent study asked men to rate the attractiveness of a random sampling of women. The study found that men rate a stastically plausible two out of every five women as “below average” in attractiveness.

And how do men stack up? The numbers aren’t pretty: women rate four out of every five men as below average in looks. It’s like a perversion of Garrison Keillor’s line about Lake Wobegone, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Thankfully women are also nowhere near as superficial as men, or else the human race would have died out a long time ago.

Lady Blabla

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on March 12, 2010

I just watched the video of Lady Gaga for a song called “Telephone.” The video certainly has some razzle dazzle. It’s one of those high budget movie-like spectaculars worthy of the memory of Michael Jackson and Madonna. It’s Siegfried Follies with girl-on-girl action.

The video tells a classic story: Fashionista girl finds herself in a lesbian prison, makes out with butch fellow prisoner. Fashionista escapes and meets Beyonce. They exchange wise-cracks that don’t really make sense. Fashionista then strips to her skivvies and dances around a lot. Other things most assuredly happen, but by then I had gotten the gist of it and moved on.

I am fairly certain that this video is going to help catapault Lady Gaga to Madonna-like dominance over Top 40. In a sense it’s fair. Popular music has been in a rut for quite some time and Lady Gaga at brings with her a modicum of imagination. She’s probably the best thing to happen to Top 40 in five years. She also leaves me entirely cold. The reaction is almost visceral.

I am fairly certain I know the cause of my irritation. With Lady Gaga it’s like the 1980s had been desperately missing autotuner without realizing it–and now, with her, the decade is finally whole. Lady Gaga completes the 80s sound. She is cold, synthesized, disposible. She brings me back to a time when I cursed my luck to be spending my high school years with Reagan, hair metal, lots of synthesizers, and Rambo movies.

Maybe I’ve Bob Segered myself. Maybe I’ve deluded myself into a sense of rock nostalgia. But I have to admit that I am waiting for a rock’n’roll Messiah. Somewhere out there is a skinny white boy with a guitar whose going to reclaim the radio for rock’n’roll–only he won’t sound like that douchebag from Bush.

In the meantime, I’ve really been enjoying–after not getting it for years– the Mountain Goats. Smart songwriting didn’t die when Randy Newman went soft!

Seduce me, DC

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on March 7, 2010

By the time I was 36 had visited all but eight American states—yet I had never been to Washington, DC. 

The truth is that this town held all of the romance for me of a stack of manila folders.  The good things DC seemed to evoke for everyone else—glistening monuments, free museums, the aura of power—were swamped in my imagination by images of an army of ambitious bureaucrats swarming the K Street hive.

It is not that I avoided Washington. I simply wasn’t particularly attracted to it. Like a lot of company towns, DC promised the kind of single-minded dullness that makes talking about cars in Detroit and Mickey Mouse in Orlando unbearable after a year or two. It promised the drone of politics. I think Las Vegas is less obsessed about gambling than DC is about politics.

For me there are two types of romantic places. The first form of romantic spot are places of such pressing beauty that all human activity pales in comparison. The second are places where humanity presses together in a way that is unpredictable and stimulating—places of infectious energy where even the cabbies and the waiters have a story and everyone aspires to their own form of art. Washington doesn’t necessarily seem to fit into either mold.

By a strange quirk of fate, I now find myself in DC.  The short version of how I got here: my wife was offered a shiny new job and I was stuck in a dreadful one. The decision was actually pretty easy.

I have been here long enough to see signs of life beneath the swirl of political gossip. But is it a city of art? Is it a city of literature? Are art and literature produced here, or are they merely curated in well polished marble monuments to art? I can think of no better way of spending my time in my new hometown than answering the question. With the possible exception of getting a job so I can stop living parasitically off my wife.

Washington, I never thought I’d fall for your transparent shtick, but here I am—suddenly locked in your embrace and ready to be beguiled.

Feel free to charm my figurative pants off.

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