Thursday, July 27, 2017

Merle the Branded Man: Letter to the Editor

In response to David Cantwell's piece in the New Yorker on the musical legacy of Merle Haggard, available here:

I am always pleased to see growing recognition of Merle Haggard, but was disappointed to read David Cantwell's conclusion that the continuation of Merle's legacy rests in the hands of "mainstream radio stars" who will transform his songs into "twenty-first century styles."

At a recent Sturgill Simpson concert, Sturgill announced that there would be no encore because he didn't think it was an authentic experience if everyone expected it. Instead, he walked off stage, and Haggard's "Living with the Shades Pulled Down" came on the speakers. Hearing that album version (horn section included!) perked up my already-ringing ears more than a cover of his song or an encore would have. I left the concert appreciating how country music had evolved from the lonesome blues of Jimmy Rodgers to the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and finally to the rocking thrum of Sturgill Simpson.

There is a growing category of older country singers who become more relevant either after death or in the fading years of their career. Shoehorning Haggard into this or any other category of country stars does a disservice to the breadth of his recordings and his talent as a musician. Live recordings of Haggard demonstrate his own inimitable talent (although imitations of other country stars were one of his own talents) and the obvious joy he took in sharing a stage with other musicians. The mentioned covers of Jimmy Rodgers, Lefty Frizell and Bob Wills seem to place Haggard in the rich tapestry of American traditional and folk singers, while his famous "Okie from Muskogee" and "Big City" recordings apparently drop him squarely in the middle of the straight-laced conservative country singer category. I believe it would be a mistake that to think that those songs are more representative of his views than "Irma Jackson," a song from the perspective of a black man who can't be with the white woman he loves. Untangling Haggard's views solely by interpreting individual songs is doomed to failure.

One of the keys I have found to unlocking Haggard's music and appeal to his fans is that his songwriting is often from the perspective of one of his own fictional characters. Haggard's voice is not limited to his own experiences, but he retains a vibrant authenticity. That authenticity stems from the fact that Haggard encountered these sorts of people in his own rough and rowdy life while bouncing between prisons or hopping trains. Haggard's legacy should be based on his powerful songwriting, his musicianship, and the influence he has had on those who follow, not on the commercial recording industry's willingness to rebrand his songs for modern audiences. After all - Haggard is already a Branded Man.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The NFL's Safe Spaces Need to Go

I'm taking some time out of my busy life as a grad student to jump on a new bandwagon. Criticizing safe spaces at universities has been a fun hobby for anyone who is looking for extra things to be angry at, and I've got some anger to spare these days, so I want to criticize them too.

I'm vaguely familiar with safe spaces. I recently played tag with a friend's 5 year old, and I was reminded that when playing tag, you NEED to set up a base where tag doesn't count. 5 year olds are really arbitrary about where and when bases exist, but let me tell you this - she put them everywhere, and playing with her was annoying. Losing at tag to a kid who makes the rules was humiliating. A place where you are "safe" has no place in tag or in life.

Which brings me to the most offensive secret safe-spaces in American culture, and I'm honestly shocked this has not been discussed more.

The NFL is absolutely chock full of safe spaces, and it is downright un-American.

The other team's end zone is an absurd place to have a safe-space, but there it is.  Defenders are allowed to clobber whoever is holding the ball until that slippery eel touches the safe zone and is totally off limits.
Image result for nfl end zone celebration
Take a look at this pansy taking advantage of a safe space. 
At the very least, defenders are allowed to try to stop the other team from getting into the end zone. What's worse are the sidelines. It only looks like football is an anything-goes sort of game, but it's not. Sissy safe-spaces pervade. In fact, most of the world is an unfair safe space - as soon as a player steps 'out of bounds,' he can't be hit, which frustrates defenders to no end. Imagine trying to slam someone's face into.the grass only to find out you can't touch him because he's in a giant safe space with all of his friends standing in a line sticking their tongues out at you.
Do you think they can fire me if I'm in a safe space?
No wonder Rex Ryan tries to stay on the sidelines

Compare that to a real sport like professional wrestling, where once you knock your opponent out of the ring, you do whatever it takes to finish him because that's how life works. Don't like it? Tough. Eat a steel ladder.
"But this is the only way I know how to show affection!"
Real men have no use for boundaries
Football isn't immune to the politically correct trend, either. Some players are somehow "different" and hitting them is a foul. Touch a kicker the wrong way and a defender gets flagged, even when the kicker is in the middle of the playing field.
He shouldn't have a leg to stand on anyway
Quit acting like the rules should be different for the vulnerable among us  
These rules insisting that kickers, exposed receivers, or throwing quarterbacks somehow deserve different treatment destroys the integrity of the game. The nerve of Cam Newton appealing to referees because defenders aren't respecting his safe space on the field! 
Tom Brady reserves all the quarterback safe-spaces before the season even starts.
Don't think of it as brain damage, think of it as a quaterback's rite of passage
I firmly believe that everyone should have a place where they make the rules and feel like they are in control.  For me, like many American males, that is my home. I should not feel like anyone else is imposing their arbitrary and oppressive power structures when I just want to relax and not deal with other people making me feel crappy. My safe space is the football season, so please get your safe spaces out of it.

ed. note - the opinions above do not represent the actual opinions of the author. He is simply grumpy about recent events and decided sarcasm was an ok coping mechanism. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

That Mamapalooza Not Be Forgotten

I write this post because I think it is important that there exist an accurate description of the Mamapalooza event that took place in New York on May 15, 2016 . Ah, yes; the Ides of May. No wonder. In the future, having a record of his event may be deemed relevent (to what, I do not know). As Herodotus said (paraphrased), things that seem small in the present may seem important in the future, and vice versa. Let this serve as an honest record of an eyewitness accound. All of these things are true as I have seen them.

I should have you know I was attending Mamapalooza as a vendor. Without incriminating my (now former) employer, just understand that I was essentially trapped there. "What is Mamapalooza?" you might be asking yourself. I asked myself that as well before I left in the morning, but I didn't care enough to read the description I had received. I just assumed it would have lots of people discussing how wonderful mothers are. Some of those people would probably be interested in the eco-friendly product I would be there to sell. I didn't think I would need to know more. While observing, I managed to pick up some of the history surrounding Mamapalooza. There have been Mamapaloozas in the past; someone might have said it was the 15th annual Mamapalooza. I overheard someone else saying that it had rained torrentially for all but one of the last 6 Mamapaloozas.

I arrived by bike to a pier on the Hudson River. A cold southwesterly wind blew over the temporary bandstand in the center of the pier while some cold, fellow vendors stood off to the side. I unpacked and set up my table to the tune of an upbeat children's version of "You are my sunshine" performed by a singer-songwriter on the stage by herself. There weren't many people there, so I started listening to the music more closely. When the song ended, she  told the audience that she was a mother herself, and that her son was learning so many new words, and she was going to perform a song about that process.

The song that followed was a collection of words such as "banana," "hello," "sorry" and other things you frequently hear coming out of two year olds' mouths. I definitely heard some of the words more than once, but I can't remember them, because there weren't any actual thoughts expressed. Periodically, she would encourage everyone to sing along, and then launch into a new string of unbroken and unpredictable words. "Perhaps I'm too old to understand," I thought to myself. Her next spoken introduction talked about how sometimes it can be difficult to be a parent. To be honest, at this point, the rest of her set blurred into one large advertisement against ever having children, because she touched on themes like how difficult it was to make any time for her husband (and how when she does she's always tired), what good manners look like ("we ask please, please, please"), and in another song she addresses a newborn and attempts to convince it that it should sleep 7 hours straight and everyone might be happier. Any fears I had of fatherhood in the distant future were intensified, and I feel fairly certain that Mamapalooza has added a matter of months to the time before which I will be mentally prepared to have offspring.

When she left the stage, a rock band set up. The MC stood up and enthusiastically introduced the vendors to the audience, and really gave a great pitch about what each of us did. Unfortunately, at the time she gave it, there were maybe 15 people milling around the pier so most of the vendors just ended up waving at each other as they were called. The rock band performed afterwards, and they played some crowd pleasing rock. I didn't really listen to it to closely; mostly, I just noticed that it was pretty loud. The speakers were really cranking now, and with the cold wind and loud music, it was hard to have a conversation with anyone who approached my table. Most of the vendors were just tapping their feet to the rockband. One guy had a bunch of small beach balls which he was giving out; kids loved them. Occassionally a beach ball would get carried off by the wind, and a toddler would chase it down. This was probably around 2 pm now, and the weather wasn't getting any warmer. The band played a song by Prince to close out (I forget which).

The next band at Mamapalooza was a hip-hop duo. I think they sounded fine, but they also were singing songs accusing bitches of being gold diggers. Another vendor heard lyrics with different curses. There was almost no one in the audience, but I was rapidly losing track of the theme of the afternoon in the performances. Things were getting really bleak; throughout the day, performers and announcers were grabbing hold of every ray of sunlight and insisting that it was going to stay if not get better. It never did. I hadn't sold anything. I talked to two people. Off on the side, some soccer coaches attempted to keep toddlers interested in the soccer station they had set up to advertise their soccer camp. The toddlers weren't buying it. Some dude with a video camera was walking around fillming everything, so  I tried to look busy. The music stayed loud, then a pause, and the next band introduced themselves.

I sincerely recommend trying to find the official Mamapalooza website and finding out who the fourth performer was, because  my description will never do them justice. In brief, they were a Brooklyn based heavy metal band. The lead singer had red hair, a matching sequined tank top and fishnet stockings; she also played a flute for melodic interludes The drummer was wearing a tank top (my legs were cold; my legs never get cold). The lead singer was running around the stage singing energetically. I think some of her friends showed up, because I can't otherwise explain why there were a handful of twenty-somethings hanging out on the pier that day for this set. The music was deafening. I saw one four year old girl in the audience in a bike helmet looking confused and lost. I felt bad for her. The lead singer had jumped up onto a chair and was thrusting her pelvis at the face of someone in the next row. It might have been a dad, I don't know. I turned around, and looked again to see her flat on the ground, thrusting her hips up in the air to the beat of the music. It was terrifying. I took a picture discreetly; I worried that if she saw me taking a picture, she might mistake me for a fan and come sing at me. At some point she announced that she had time for 2, no, 3 more songs, and the audience let out a terrified gasp.

The metal act. I wasn't comfortable getting any closer to the stage without drawing her attention. Note the empty chairs. Not pictured are her face-humps of audience members. 
I cannot remember the rest of the afternoon clearly. The weather got worse. Vendors started packing up. The final band got on the stage; they were an Ecuadorian fusion band, the MC announced. They started soundchecking. The rain started falling. All the vendors made a beeline for the shelter of the elevated highway while the band announced that maybe it was over. We froze for a few minutes. I overheard the soccer coaches talking about how they had been told there were going to be 3,000 people at the event, and we had maybe seen 80. The sun came out, and the band went on. The lead singer was a mother, and they played stuff that sounded like a good Santana cover band. Not that I could actually appreciate any music at this point - I had been too overwhelmed by the previous acts of Mamapalooza to appreciate the closing act. But when it ended, all the vendors disappeared. Immediately. And the park staff was helpful, and they ferried heavy equipment up to the street.

The MC was apparently satisfied. The person working for the parks announced that Mamapalooza was one of over 200 events that would be a part of something called "Summer on the Hudson." That was it - Mamapalooza 2016 ended. If you have more information, please, please, please, comment below.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Why "John Henry" is Still Important

Do you recognize the name John Henry? I do. I remember his story from when I was younger. I knew he was a black man who worked on the railroad driving spikes, and he died proving that he could beat a machine at his job. I haven't heard him mentioned on the news recently, but I have listened to his story many times over the past few months, and if you haven't, you should. Here's a good clip of Bruce performing it after he recorded it for the Seeger sessions.

This song is an artful lecture on traditional American values, and it belongs in the current political debate now more than ever. Here's why. Fate, human dignity, capitalism, feminism - all discussed in this song. John Henry, the baby who claims "This Hammer's gonna be the death of me" isn't any different from Joe the Plumber. We identify him not by his family, or where he comes from, but by his profession as a hammer-swinger.  If there is a villain, it is the nameless captain who brings a steam drill to do a man's job. John Henry deals with the questions that arise when profit comes before respecting each human and their role in society. Fortunately, American society has long determined that protecting workers' rights over the right of large companies to cut costs is the correct thing to ... wait, we haven't? Ok, then this song is still relevent.

There are countless versions of this song floating through America; some emphasize different aspects of the story, but the arc is the same. Burl Ives has some wonderful records of this song, as does Woody Guthrie, among others.All of them center on the work ethic, grit and strong spirit of John Henry. Also noteworthy is John Henry's wife, Polly, who "drove steel like a man" when John Henry is sick in bed.  The American folk tradition affords the same respect to women and men based on their willingness to work hard. I reccomend finding a few versions and comparing. Find a version that speaks to you, and hum it while you're in the shower.

This isn't meant to be a history of the song, but to draw attention to how stories like this shape our cultural identity. In this election year, before we attempt to make America great again, it's worth reflecting on what qualities make us great, who displays those values, and what we can learn from John Henry.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Modest Proposal: The future of Drones

Drones are here to stay, so I've been told, so it's high time I became part of the process in determining what our drone-filled future will look like. It seems foolish to me to imagine that they will not be used for violence - law enforcement springs to mind - so I've also accepted that. But I think if they are going to be used for violence, there should be  noble final goal in mind, and I don't trust the police to do this consistently.

I would like to propose a way to use weaponized drones to curb noise pollution in cities. Picture this - explosive drones hovering 10 meters above city streets, patrolling randomly. As someone honks their horn, the drone triangulates the location of the horn and approaches it at a constant rate. When the horn stops honking, the drone returns to its hovering altitude. Perhaps it takes 5 seconds of constant honking for it to reach street level, at which point it latches onto and detonates the honking car in such a way as to only harm the driver. As a side benefit, these drones would need to be regularly serviced, and occasionally replaced, so I do believe this would have a net positive effect on job creation.

Honking to express your disapproval of another driver's actions would still be allowed, but prolonged honking long past its utility would be swifltly eradicated. Traffic jams in which everyone attempts to solve the issue by honking would become deadly games of chance in which the risk of honking far outweighs the potential benefit of... actually, there's no benefit of honking in traffic jams. Everyone hates you when you do that, and it solves nothing, so it really becomes a more exciting game of hot potato.

Perhaps this seems like an over-reaction, but I guarantee that unnecessary honking would decrease rapidly within days of this programs implementation. Of course, the drones would need to learn to recognize car alarms and sirens so that it does not hit unintended consequences, but that could be easily programmed.

Better still, as surveillance technologies such as microphones, high definition cameras, and AI that can monitor and react to situations without human oversight improve, this technology could rapidly be expanded to other behaviors that need curbing, such as smoking in public, clipping your fingernails on public transportation, or talking during movies. So please, write your mayors now, and inform them that you think this is a great idea, and with luck, our own government will implement it soon. If not, don't worry - this technology may soon be available at your local Walmart!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Split Laundry Personalities

Because of my own limited experiences and my exposure to fictional characters such as Two-Face and Jekly and Hyde, I always thought of split personality disorder as a largely fictional disease. Even then, I imagined that if were real, it would have dramatic symptoms. Alter egos were evil beings who love destruction, who revel in chaos and who fiddle while Rome burns.

I've begun to suspect that split personalities are not so rare, nor so dramatic; I even worry that I might have one. I realized this just this evening after returning from the laundromat. I placed my clean clothes on the floor and grabbed my towel off of the door hook only to find a used undershirt hiding there. "I have no idea how that got there" was the first thing I thought, but, deep down, I knew that I myself placed it there.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. In my experience as a (pretend) grown up who does his own laundry, it's a rare occassion that I return to my room not to find an extra sock or pair of boxers hiding in a dusty nook, waiting desperately to be found and reunited with their generation of dirty clothes.

And that bugs the crap out of me. Laundry is already a sysiphean task; it's as if Sysiphus realized reached the crest he had been aiming for only to find it was was actually only a plateau, and the hill continued! So I find it strange that my natural aversion to doing laundry hasn't trained me to clean every possible under(shirt/wear) and sock so that I can get every last day out of that laundry load.

With that in mind, what if I do have an alter-ego who loves destruction, who hates order and efficiency, and whose ultimate goal is to hasten the entropy of the universe? And what if the way that he manifests that is to hide my laundry from me? That would explain the socks tucked inside pillowcases, the shirts hidden in instruments and the underwear disguised in a stack of magazines. This would also explain why my split personality is so well hidden from everyone else, and even myself.  His mission is so discrete and precise that he can afford to snooze most of the time, only awakening at key moments. But then, in an instant, he can appear to tug open the doors under the sink and flick an undershirt in before he disappears without me noticing.

I tell you, it's a scary thing once you realize what your alter ego might be up to. I fear I may be trapped in a battle of wits with him till the end of my days.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

One Sentence Review: Die Hard

You can watch it before July though.

That's how I want to die, too.