Lee Harvey’s in Dallas

My band No Show Ponies will be performing tonight at Lee Harvey’s in Dallas.  The show starts at 9pm.  Come out and say hello.

Check out our new album at http://www.noshowponies.bandcamp.com

It a bit of related self promotion an old friend posted a reivew of our new record A Manual for Defeat.  Read it here: http://www.mojolists.com/wordpress/320/

Repbulican Governors Take Health Care From the Poor


I think the above story is worth glancing over.  It’s about how the Supreme Court and some Republican politicians have made Obamacare less effective.  In short the Supreme Court let states opt out of the Affordable Care Act.  Now the states that opted out, states with Republican govenors like Rick Scott of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas, have gaps in coverage for people with certain income levels.  It’s disgusting really, but no surprise.  

The Strange Theater of the State of the Union

I’ve been thinking more about the State of the Union today.  What I’m about to say has nothing to do with rating what Obama actually said in terms of how good his speech was given the event.   I am just struck by what a strange piece of theater the entire event is.  It’s almost an unreality where everyone is trapped playing rolls that adhere to not only whatever their party is supposed to believe, but also as to what Americans are supposed to believe.

Any president must touch upon fundamental American principles, or if not they will surely be tarred and feathered.  They must make clear that they are not an enemy of business, that they support the military, that God will bless America, etc.  But often these things are brought up in a way that is devoid of substance.  They are often just things to touch upon to communicate some kind of vague patriotism that in and of itself has no meaning.  It’s not really even the president’s fault.  Take Obama for instance.  Remember how much flak he caught because he didn’t wear an American flag pin?  He sure had his flag pin on last night.  He learned the hard way that you have to make certain basic gestures, however meaningless, or the rest of what you say will probably be ignored because of some fake controversy.  A president could go to church every day and if they forgot to say God bless America at the end there would probably be a shit storm.  There is so much emphasis put on the appearance of everything that often substance and reality are ignored.

The whole applause thing is also pretty bizarre.  If the military or the hard working American is brought up in any context, again even one devoid of any kind of deeper meaning, all spectators must applaud for fear of looking Un-American if they don’t.  My point is not any kind of subversive one, that someone that works hard, or that someone that puts there life on the line shouldn’t be acknowledged in some way, but that a lot of this applause by politicians is nothing more than cheap lip service to these people.

Let’s examine the applause for the injured serviceman last night.  I completely sympathize with what happened to him.  That would be a horrible thing to go through.  It was also great to see someone that struggled get some kind of acknowledgment for that struggle.  On the other hand, the people that were applauding him were the very ones that sent him out on his tenth deployment and into a senseless war that lead to his injury.  I’m glad he got applause, but it would have even better if they had pulled him out of that war earlier as it has been a war without an objective for a long time.

You may think I’m being cynical or that I’m nitpicking.  But the problem as I see it as that all of the theater actually does a disservice to us.  It actually takes time and focus away from having a substantive discussion as to what is really going on.  It takes our eye off of the ball.  I think speeches are important.  I believe in words or I would not be writing this blog.  I’m also aware that behind any words in a political speech there needs to be action.  A speech is a good way to motivate people and get the ball rolling, but it is only a beginning.  All in all, given the historical context of the State of the Union, I thought Obama actually did a decent job.  But within that context there are senseless rituals and empty inbuilt rhetoric that do their part in making the truth just a little harder to find.  Everyone always says that they want politicians that are honest, but then we make them take the stage with a script that is part myth.

Bruce Springsteen and Flannery O’Connor

In the fields of the lord
Stood Abel and Cain
Cain slew Abel ‘neath the black rain
At night he couldn’t stand the guilt or the blame

So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name

Billy got drunk, angry at his wife
He hit her once, he hit her twice
At night he’d lie in bed, he couldn’t stand the shame

So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name

Pa told me “son, one thing I know is true
Poison snake bites you, you’re poison too”
At night I can feel that poison runnin’ ’round my veins

Gave it a Name by Bruce Springsteen.  As those of you that have been reading along know, I have been diving back into Springsteen’s catalogue.  This is a lesser known song off of his Tracks box set.  Ever since I was a teenager this song has moved me for reasons that I can’t quite articulate.  I have never been a religious person, but the haunted Biblical language in this song has always appealed to me.  It’s poetic and yet simple at the same time.  It’s as if this song is carved from stone. 

I love the writing of Flannery O’Connor and I know Springsteen read her as well.  Wise Blood is one of my favorite novels and her short stories are simply some of the best American short stories ever.  I’ve read the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find numerous times, always taken in by it at every reading.  (Springsteen would later go on to steal that title for a song.)  A lot of people call her writing southern grotesque, which is a term she never liked.  Her writing is truly unique.  It is infused with a good deal of the same kind of Old Testament poetry which gives it a timeless power. 

I also like the way Springsteen lets the last verse hang.  In the lyrics as well as the song there is no third chorus.  It leaves the song unresolved and mysterious.  Art is often at its best when it is not tied up in a neat little package for you at the end.  It allows the imagination to fill in the blanks.  

State of the Union and Hunter Thompson’s Disease

I watched the State of the Union speech and some of the coverage surrounding it tonight.  My mind kept ping ponging back and forth between taking it seriously and feeling that it was all some large piece of absurd theater.   I watched it on the ABC live stream.  That was probably my first mistake as that put me in a dark mood as the talking heads there pumped out gibberish of the highest order.  A couple of semi intelligent Americans picked at random could have provided better insight into the speech.  They spoke in large swaths of meaningless language, clearly trying to hide the fact that they didn’t know any more than the viewers did.  That was just before the speech.  After the speech they provided all important facts like how many times people applauded and laughed.  During the speech they had some kind of side scroll that highlighted what the president was talking about and what he would be talking about as if we couldn’t hear him.  It was like some kind of bizarre game show.  There is a reason that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert never run out of material when it comes to the news media. 

Ok, I could easily drift off into a small book of things that drive me nuts about such events.  In any State of the Union Speech by any president there is always going to be a certain amount of clichéd passages that are meant to reassure the hoopleheads in the crowd: God bless America, children are our future, etc.  Obama also glided over several things that would have been sticky had they been dealt with in any truthful way: Our current drone policy being number one.  He said that he was going to reform it, but that in no way acknowledges what evil has been done in our names because of the current policy, and exactly how it he was going to reform it. 

Maybe it was reading about Pete Seeger earlier, but tonight I don’t want to just spread negativity throughout the land.  I was extremely happy that he made such a strong stand that climate change is a settled fact.  I mean that should be obvious to most people at this point, but there has been such a large disinformation campaign that I was glad he said what he did.  I was also happy to hear the President say that this country needed to stop being involved in continuous warfare.  That is easier said than done, and it remains to be seen what he is going to do about that, but again it is important that he acknowledged the fact that we have been.  I am glad that he is willing to use executive order to raise the minimum wage.  I have lived on ten dollars an hour and it is hard to survive, I can’t imagine trying to live in this country making less than that.  The current economic inequality is one of this countries biggest shames.  It’s easy to see it as a smart political move, but I was happy to hear him come out strongly in favor of women getting equal pay for equal work.  How a society treats their women is a sign of how good of a society it is.  Those were just a couple of the highpoints in the speech for me. 

Even though I can often be completely cynical about our politics at times I still often have what Kurt Vonnegut called Hunter Thompson’s disease.  That is that, “All those who feel Americans can be as easily led to beauty as to ugliness, to truth as to public relations, to joy as to bitterness, be said to be suffering from Hunter Thompson’s disease.”  I still have hope for the future of this country as much as certain signs point towards our decline.  If I criticize it often it is only because I still have hope that it can get better. When hope is gone I will simply cease to write anything at all.  

Pete Seeger Vs. War and Winter

Although I am a music fan as well as a musician, and spend a great deal of free time hunting down music of all kinds, I know more about Pete Seeger the man than the actual musician.  I have heard his songs in documentaries and seen him play on TV at various points, but I don’t have any deep knowledge of his material other than his most popular songs.   I’d be lying if I said anything differently.  I am more aware of the courageous stances he took on issues of peace and social justice.  He stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee and for that alone he should be honored.  He lived to be 94 and remained relevant until the end, and that is about as much as any human can hope for in this world. 

Coming right after the Grammys, an event that usually makes me feel as if my soul has been sucked out with a straw by a demon sitting on my chest, his death should remind us that music can be important and contribute to social change more than it does now. 

I’d like to include one story that was relayed to me by my brother who read a book on Pete Seeger.  Sometime in the last decade, during the Iraq War, when Seeger was in his 80’s he was seen standing alone on the side of the road in the middle of winter on a freezing rainy day.  He was holding up a sign that simply said “Peace”.  

The Manipulation of Entertainment and News

While on tour I finished reading John DiEugenio’s Reclaiming Parkland and started to finish Tim Weiner’s Enemies: The History of the FBI.  Part of DiEugenio’s book was about how the CIA and the military have been able to manipulate Hollywood.  I would like to go more into depth on this at some point, but I would like to talk about just one of the ways in which this is done. 

Many films that depict war in some way need to get military uniforms and equipment.  The only place that they can rent these “props” in large quantities is from the American military.  Before the film is shot the military looks over the script.  If they approve they will lend their equipment. In the case like John Wayne’s The Green Berets, a movie which depicted our efforts in Vietnam favorably, they will often provide services for free or at a fraction of what they will normally cost.  Meanwhile in the Kevin Costner film Thirteen Days, about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the military objected to the way that Curtis LeMay was portrayed.  They asked the filmmakers to change the portrayal, but because the way he was portrayed was factually accurate, the filmmakers would not budge.  They were denied access to the equipment that they needed.  They still were able to make the film, but had to go a more expensive route. 

In Enemies, different political forces would leak certain things to the press that would help their political cause.  This is common knowledge that people in power know how to manipulate the press to their advantage.  Sometimes they don’t even need to manipulate the press as the press is often willing to carry water for those that they share ideological ideas with.  Nixon tried to destroy enemies through the press and was eventually destroyed by leaks his enemies let out about Watergate.  

I’m not advocating for people to be cynical.  The fact that powerful forces are manipulating what we see and hear is no small surprise.  But when you turn on your TV at night it is good to keep these things in mind.   Ask questions, always ask questions.  

The Act of Killing

I just watched a movie of incredible power.  It is a documentary called The Act of Killing.  Although I will attempt to tell you what this movie is about and why you should see it, my words will fall short.  A true work of art, it reflects the world back at us in all of its complexity and mystery.  This is a work that largely dwells upon the horrors of the world, but there are also moments of strange beauty and absurd comedy.  It manages to look back upon a political event and yet step outside the space and time of those politics.  At its core it is about human beings.

In 1965 and 1966 there was a communist purge in Indonesia.  It is roughly estimated that 500,000 people were executed in mass genocide.  The movie focuses largely on two people, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, whom led one of the death squads.  Anwar Congo is reported to have killed 1,000 people.  Because their side won they have never been punished for their actions.  In fact there is now a right-wing paramilitary organization called the Pemuda Pancasila that rose to power out of those death squads.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews Congo and other people surrounding the massacre.  However, this is no simple work of nonfiction as Oppenheimer gets the participants of the original massacres to recreate what they have done in a movie.  They get actors, extras, and sets, and film these men recreating what they did in the past.

In the beginning of the film these men are bragging about their pasts.  They think of themselves as gangsters that have come right out of American cinema.  However, through the recreations and the in depth interviews, without spoiling anything, their feelings become more complex.

There have been plenty of movies about the horrors of war, mass murderers, sociopaths, genocide, and the darker side of human history.  This movie is unlike anything that I have seen before.  Although there is no real onscreen violence depicted in the film, it is often hard to watch.  Given the movie’s subject matter, this should come as no surprise.  However, the men in this movie aren’t so much judged as observed in all of their complexity.  If anything this makes the acts that they have committed all the more chilling.  One realizes in watching this film that they are watching people, and not some monster that has no ties to our species.

It is important to note what a strong role the imagery of this film plays.  This film conveys an ecstatic truth and not just the truth of accountants, to paraphrase Werner Herzog who is also one of the producers.  The lush beauty of Indonesia is often captured, conveying the folly of man at the forefront all the more stark.  I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.  There were also several dream like sequences that give the film a meditative quality about mystery of the world.  In what kind of world do we inhabit that acts such as these exist?

The director also has a subtle eye for capturing the absurd.  There is one scene where someone is describing the atrocities that they committed while their family goes shopping in a posh western style shopping mall.  The garish colors and ridiculousness of political campaigns are also captured.  While watching the film I couldn’t help but think about the political campaigns in our country and if seeing these less refined versions was akin to seeing the emperor with his clothes off.

Although a certain amount of information is upfront in this movie, and I think that most people would find something gripping in it, it definitely is an interpretive documentary.  By that I mean that aside from telling an engrossing story, this movie also touches upon many deeper questions just because of where the director chooses to focus his lens.  It has more questions in it than answers.  As hard as this movie can be to watch, it will expand the way you see the world.  Yes, it really is that good.