Thursday, December 27, 2012

20 Best Albums of 2012

I’m not interested in diversity, balance, hipness or range of genres.  Without apology, here are my top 20 albums of 2012:

20.  Craig Finn  –  Clear Heart Full Eyes

Finn’s first solo album isn’t as good as his work with the Hold Steady, but it’s good.  The song-writing, vulnerability and quirkiness are all there and the steel guitar is a nice touch.

19.  Kathleen Edwards  -  Voyageur

One of alt-country music's finest singer-songwriters, Edward’s delivers beautiful songs about…would you believe?…heartbreak.

18.   Maximo Park  – The National Health

If you enjoy the snarl and go-for-the-throat energy of some those other bands from Northern England (Arctic Monkeys, Kaiser Chiefs etc.), you’ll find a lot to like in Maximo Park.   

17.   Graham Parker and the Rumour  –  Three Chords Good

Speaking of snarl, Graham Parker is back with the Rumour.   This is probably his best album in 20 years.

16.  Van Morrison  –  Born to Sing:  No Plan B

You’re not going to believe it.  This is probably his best album in 20 years.   

15.  The Raveonettes – The Observator

Girl-group pop harmonies, layers of hazy guitars and catchy songs about self-destruction.   Count me in.  

14.  The Walkmen  –  Heaven

The gloomy indie rockers from Brooklyn have put together a fine record. Singer Hamilton Leithauser has a beautiful, gut-wrenching, alcohol-soaked voice that recalls Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs.  Standout track:  “Hearbreaker.”  

13.  Bob Dylan  –  The Tempest

Yeah, I admit it.  Bob Dylan could put out an album of grunts and hisses and I’d probably include it in my top album lists.  Fortunately, The Tempest is considerably better than that.  While it’s not Blonde on Blonde, it’s timeless, interesting and uniquely Dylan.  

12.  The Mountain Goats –  Transcendental Youth

There's something beautifully captivating about John Darnielle's tortured poetry and evocative songs. 

11.   Heartless Bastards  –  Arrow

Earnest gut-bucket, roadhouse rock & roll and a vocalist (Erika Wennerstrom) who can really belt it out. 

10.  Green Day   -  ¡Uno!

No rock opera pretensions here.  Just a healthy dose of high octane melodic punk. 

9.  Beach House  -  Bloom

Some Indie bands that experiment with sound to create ethereal pop are completely overrated.  Not Beach House.  This duo delivers the goods.  

8.  Japanroids  –  Celebration Rock

A short and aptly titled album of infectious and exuberant punk anthems.  

7.  Allo Darlin’  –  Europe

Convincing bubble-gum pop from London-based group fronted by Aussie chanteuse, Elizabeth Morris.

6.  Alabama Shakes  –  Boys & Girls

There’s nothing subtle or original about the Shakes' devotion to old school soul and grit.  But when it’s good, who really cares?

5.  Jimmy Cliff  –  Rebirth

Yes, it’s Jimmy Cliff’s best album in at least 20 years, but Rebirth is more than that.  Cliff sounds amazing and with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong as producer, he’s made a reggae/rock gem, even covering songs by Rancid and The Clash.

4.  Alejandro Escovedo  –  Big Station

A rock and roots treasure, Escovedo is simply incapable of making a less-than-excellent album.  Standout track:  "Man of the World."

3.  M. Ward  –  A Wasteland Companion

There’s something very unique in M. Ward’s voice and guitar playing.  Even when drawing on simple pop  and folk melodies, his songs are beautiful and engaging.  

2.   Bruce Springsteen  –  Wrecking Ball

A much better album than some grouchy critics say, Wrecking Ball fuses Springsteen’s sense of social discontent, the Celtic folk marches of the Seeger Sessions and the anthemic power of the E Street Band.    

1.  The Menzingers  – On the Impossible Past

Scranton PA’s finest export since Dunder Mifflin.  I couldn't stop listening to this album.  It's got melody, urgency and fine story-telling - everything that is great about power-pop and punk.   

Happy New Year!  See you in 2013 (Take that Mayans). 

*UPDATE:  Man, this is embarrassing.  I completely forgot about The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten, which belongs in the Top 10 at least.  Terrific album.  They seem like tough guys - hopefully they'll get over the snub.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Barack Obama and Israel's Perilous Times

      “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.”

                               -- 2 Timothy 3:1

In the 2008 Presidential election, 78% of American Jews cast their vote for Barack Obama.  This should have surprised no one.   For the past 80 years, Jews have overwhelmingly backed the Democratic candidate for President. (Reagan and Eisenhower were the only Republicans to win more than 35% of the Jewish vote).

But for Jewish Republicans, this is an agonizing source of frustration. 

They will tell you that their liberal brethren are stuck in a time warp and are responding not to present-day reality, but to the feel-good righteous causes of the past, such as FDR’s New Deal and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  Yes, they say, Jews were once outsiders who struggled to make inroads against the bigotry of a conservative establishment. But it’s 2012 now.  Time to get with the program.  Jewish Republicans also realize that a major reason Jews vote Democrat is because of social issues.  When it comes to women’s rights, abortion rights, same-sex marriage etc., Jews (with the exception of the religious orthodox) remain overwhelmingly liberal.  Jewish Republicans tend to downplay the influence of social conservatives within the Republican Party.  “Never mind the crazy Michele Bachmann types” they insist, “Republicans aren’t really going to outlaw abortion or teach creationism in schools, that’s just a bit of pandering.  Now never mind that - let’s talk instead about taxes…”  Finally, there’s the question of Israel.   According to many Jewish Republicans, Jews who support the Democratic Party – and support Barack Obama – are the kind of Jews who don’t care about Israel.  

Do they really believe that?  Or is it a political scare tactic? Either way, this idea that Obama is bad news for Israel is a focal point in the latest attempt to convert Jews to the GOP.  Of course most American Jews do care deeply about Israel.  And while I suspect that very few are single-issue voters, it's probably fair to say that the existence and security of Israel is something that resonates with just about anyone who identifies as a Jew – whether they are secular or religious, liberal or conservative.  It's a complex relationship, but it's real. 

The latest attempt to scare Jewish voters came in the form of a propaganda video produced by the Republican Jewish Coalition, a lobbying group funded by casino magnate and Romney backer, Sheldon Adelson.   The video is a 9 minute “mini-documentary” entitled “Perilous Times.” (Is the title a coincidence?  “Perilous Times,” comes from Paul’s second Epistle to Timothy and refers to the End of Days.  Google the words "Perilous Times" and you’ll see that the phrase has special meaning to right-wing Christian evangelicals – the very ones who claim to support Israel while praying for the cleansing fire of Armageddon).

The video is a slickly produced.  Over a bed of foreboding background music, it features comments by various Israeli political activists (mostly conservatives and members of Netanyahu’s Likud party) who voice their distrust of Obama.  The video also selects sound-bites of criticism from pro-Israel Democrats like Charles Schumer and Ed Koch (who nevertheless support Obama).  Significantly, it contains none of the hysterical conspiracy ranting about Jeremiah Wright, Kenya or birth certificates. In that sense it is a great improvement over the standard anti-Obama propaganda.  But the video is also short on facts and is full of innuendo and half-truth. Consider:

  •  The video criticizes Obama for reaching out to the Arab world (as if this is somehow damaging to Israel).  After mentioning Obama’s celebrated visit to Egypt, it notes, by way of comparison, that he “declined to set foot in Israel.”  The insinuation is obvious.  And yet no Republican President has ever visited Israel during his first term.  Ronald Reagan never visited Israel ever.

  • The video then suggests that Obama has departed from the policies of prior U.S. administrations and wants to force Israel to adopt a peace settlement with the Palestinians based on pre-1967 borders.  But of course that is not what Obama said.  He said that the starting point for negotiations should be “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”  Since when does this represent a new U.S. policy toward Israel?   Abe Foxman of the ADL doesn't think it does. “I don’t see this as the president throwing Israel under the bus,” Foxman said of Obama’s statement. “He’s saying with `swaps.’ It’s not 1967 borders in the abstract. It’s not an edict. It’s a recommendation of a structure for negotiations.”  As, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic explainedThis has been the basic idea for at least 12 years. This is what Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat were talking about at Camp David, and later, at Taba. This is is what George W. Bush was talking about with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. So what's the huge deal here? Is there any non-delusional Israeli who doesn't think that the 1967 border won't serve as the rough outline of the new Palestinian state?"

  • As further “evidence” of Obama’s disregard of Israel, the video charges Obama with backpedaling on recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  But of course Obama’s position is no different from every single U.S. administration which has kept its embassy in Tel-Aviv while giving qualified lip service to Jerusalem as capital, always adding that the final status of Jerusalem must be arrived at through negotiation. Yes, it’s a dance. But it’s the same dance that every U.S. President, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, has performed.

  • Curiously, the video says very little about Iran.  It simply asks the viewer to “think about whether a nuclear Iran can be tolerated”  The implication is that a nuclear Iran would be tolerated by Obama.  Yet even AIPAC’s Director Howard Kohrs while asking for still stronger measures, said: "President Obama and his administration are to be commended.  They have - more than any other administration, more than any other country - brought unprecedented pressure to bear on Tehran through the use of biting economic sanctions."
Here’s are some facts, the video neglects to mention:
  • Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has provided Israel with unprecedented levels of military aid.
  • Under Obama, the U.S. voted with Israel at the United Nations 100% of the time and vetoed a Security Council resolution that sought to condemn Israeli settlements.  (The prior administration, under Bush, did not).
  • According to the pro-Israel Dennis Ross, a former Clinton official and State Department insider who has some experience with U.S.- Israel relations, Obama’s strong support for Israel is “without precedent."
  • According to the Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister, when it comes to Israel's security, the Obama administration is doing "more than anything I can remember in the past." Any number of Israeli generals and intelligence officials, including Meir Dagan, the former Mossad Director, have said  virtually the same thing.
Perhaps most telling of all, is that the video, produced by Romney’s Republican supporters, fails to offer a single point of difference in favor of Romney.  Romney talks tough when it comes to Iran.  He speaks of "Red Lines" the way that Netanyahu does but considering that Netanyahu's sabre-rattling approach is rejected by many high ranking Israeli intelligence officials, that may not exactly be a point in his favor.  

Some liberal Jews think it’s the Jewish Republicans who are deluding themselves.  According to Jay Michaelson, who writes for the Jewish Daily Forward,  the Republican Party has been hijacked by the Christian Right who use the Jewish Romney supporters to advance their own extreme theocratic agenda.  Michaelson may be exaggerating the influence of the Christian Right (or maybe not) but he’s not wrong in calling out the cynical way the subject of Israel is exploited by Romney’s backers:

"Here’s the challenge: Find me one hair of difference between the Obama administration’s policy on Israel and any of the last Republican administrations’. This has been the most pro-Israel four years in American history: Funding the Iron Dome defense system, not opposing Israel’s settlement policy (unlike Bush I), taking a hard line on Iran (unlike Reagan, who condemned Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear site). Don’t trust me — trust Israel’s generals, who said the same thing."

I've yet to hear a convincing response to this challenge.

Instead they parse through portions of various statements and speeches looking for some new phrasing with which they can take offense.  In the end, the whole case typically comes down to: “Well, Obama was rude to snub Netanyahu.”  About half of the “Perilous Times” video is devoted to that one complaint.  Considering how serious the issue of Israeli security really is, the video makes a remarkably unserious case.  I don't blame any Israeli or American Jew for skepticism, for thinking that U.S. Presidents will only "support" Israel to the degree that it's politically expedient or for arguing about what kind of support is meaningful and which candidate will provide more support given the dangers of the Middle East. But one can hope that this debate could take place with real honesty and without such disappointing pandering to fear.

Why does all of this talk about the "Jewish vote" even matter?   Jews represent less than 2% of the U.S. population.  Aren't there more important issues and more important demographics?

Probably so.  But American Jews do vote and in Florida, they represent nearly 4% of the population. Florida looks like a dead heat and Romney has to win there to prevail.  Republicans surely know that they're not going to make significant progress in securing Jewish voters.  But modest inroads in Florida might be all they need.  If they can move the needle just enough to make a difference with Florida voters, the "Perilous Times" tactic just might pay off. 


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Top 10 First Basemen not in Cooperstown

Now that the World Series is over (ending in October no less!) I’ve been thinking about the Baseball Hall of Fame – who is in and who isn't and who deserves to be. 

The Internet is full of lively discussion and lists of the best players who are not currently in the Hall of Fame.  Of course much of the debate concerns what to do about steroid use (and more problematically, accusations of steroid use). That debate is only going to heat up in 2013 as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens will appear on the ballot for the first time.  But it’s not just the performance enhancers.  Other great players have been kept out because of gambling (Joe Jackson, Pete Rose) and others hurt by the taint of drug use (Tim Raines).  Still others have been neglected (arguably) for no apparent reason at all (Ken Boyer, Dwight Evans, Dale Murphy).  But in looking over the lists of the players who haven’t made it to Cooperstown, what struck me was how many of them are first basemen.  This surprised me because First Base is a position for sluggers and glamorous, eye-popping statistics.  I would have thought that the players who played more demanding positions defensively (shortstop, catcher etc.) would be the ones neglected.  But check it out. 

Here are my top 10 Hall of Fame eligible first basemen who haven’t been elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame:
10.       Will Clark

Because of a decline in home runs, the second half of his career wasn’t as noteworthy as his early years, when he finished in the top five in the MVP voting four times. But with a career .303 batting average, 2,000 hits and 1200 RBIs, he was a very productive player.

9.         Steve Garvey

Of course his squeaky clean image has suffered a major hit but so what?  The guy had over 2500 hits, 1300 RBIs, was a 10-time all star, an excellent fielder and a clutch hitter in the post season. 

8.         Keith Hernandez

Probably the best defensive first baseman of all time.  Hernandez was an MVP (1979), a World Series winner with the 1982 Cardinals and 1986 Mets and a terrific two-strike hitter with men on base.  It’s a shame his career wasn’t longer.

7.         Gil Hodges

When he retired in 1963 his 370 career home runs were 4th best among all first basemen.  He had seven consecutive seasons of 100 RBIs, played in seven World Series and was the best fielding first basemen of his day.  He further enhanced his resume by managing the Mets to the World Series title in 1969.

6.         Don Mattingly

If you restrict the analysis to the various Sabermetrics formulas – WAR Win Shares, VORP etc. – Mattingly doesn't rate very high.  Injuries robbed him of power and cut his career far too short.  But the "Ken Keltner List" devised by Bill James, also suggests asking the questions like:  "Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball?" For Mattingly, the answer  was probably “yes” for a solid 3 years. Also a terrific fielder, Mattingly holds the distinction of being the greatest Yankee to never win a championship.   

5.         Fred McGriff

It would be hard to hit 493 home runs and drive in 1550 runs with less fanfare.  The Crime Dog was a rock of consistency.

4.         Rafael Palmeiro

It used to be that if you hit 500 home runs, you were an automatic lock for Cooperstown.   And if you had 3,000 hits, you were also an automatic lock for Cooperstown.  Palmeiro is just one of four players with both (joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray).   But he’s not in and he's unlikely to get in. Welcome to the age of steroids. 

3.         Dick Allen

Allen is criminally underrated for several reasons.  He was a difficult guy, unpopular with teammates, fans and the press (though at least some of his unpopularity stemmed from speaking out against racism). And he was a great hitter in the golden age of pitching so his 351 home runs and .292 batting average don’t stand out as much as they should. What did stand out was his tape measure home runs.  When he retired his OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) was 19th best of all time.  I remember him as the guy who wore his batting helmet in the field like John Olerud (also underrated) later did.  But Olerud wore it because he once suffered a brain anuerysm.  Allen did it because Philadelphia fans used to pelt him with flashlight batteries.   

2.         Mark McGwire

He was a pretty one-dimensional player, but 583 home runs is one heckuva dimension.  But what do you do about the admitted steroid use?

1.         Jeff Bagwell

He’s never been accused of juicing but because he was a power hitter in the steroid era, steroids have nevertheless hurt his Hall of Fame candidacy.  As it happens, he’s ahead of Mark McGwire in every hitting category except home runs.  He hit “only” 449.  But consider that Bagwell was a five-tool player (with over 200 stolen bases) who played most his career in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome.  You can probably make a Hall of Fame argument for anyone on this list.  But Bagwell’s argument is the strongest.

Honorable Mention:  Norm Cash, Boog Powell, Cecil Cooper and John Olerud


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Jerusalem: Risks and Asterisks

“Jerusalem – that birthplace of all our dreams and graveyard of all our hopes” 
                                                                                - Christopher Hitchens

My uncle is one of those Jewish conservatives who is firmly convinced that Barack Obama is an anti-Semite who has it in for Israel. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, this unshakable article of faith – Obama is a Jew hater – is a favorite hobbyhorse of the Right. They have somehow managed to convince themselves that more Jews would vote Republican (and for Mitt Romney) if only they removed their blinders and recognized Obama’s obvious antipathy toward Israel.  It’s so obvious to them that it requires no evidence or explanation.  But they try anyway.  Four years ago, they insisted that President Obama was secret Muslim who was born in Kenya and was taught to hate Jews by militant leftists in places like Columbia University and Trinity Church in Chicago. That didn't work so well.  In the 2008 Presidential election, 78% of Jewish Americans voted for Obama. This time around, those same conservatives are still looking for something…anything, to back up Romney’s assertion that Obama has thrown Israel “under the bus.”   Seek and ye shall find.

For many Jewish Americans - religious or secular, republican or democrat - the security and plight of Israel is deeply important. Has the Obama administration been a strong supporter of Israel?  By any reasonable measure, it has. Since his election, Obama has provided Israel with unprecedented military aid and his administration has voted with Israel in the United Nations 100% of the time.  What about the threat of Iran, the nation posing the greatest threat to Israeli, security?  According to AIPAC Director Howard Kohrs, Obama has done more than any U.S. administration in history to pressure Tehran and keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.  But these facts don’t impress people like my uncle.  As far as they are concerned, Obama revealed his true anti-Semitic colors last Tuesday when the Democratic Party issued their official 2012 Platform on Foreign Policy.

According to one conservative commentator, the Platform was “the most radically unsupportive statement of policy on Israel by any major party since the founding of the state of Israel.”  Strong stuff!  Let’s have a look:

“President Obama and the Democratic Party maintain an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security. A strong and secure Israel is vital to the United States not simply because we share strategic interests, but also because we share common values. For this reason, despite budgetary constraints, the President has worked with Congress to increase security assistance to Israel every single year since taking office, providing nearly $10 billion in the past three years. The administration has also worked to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. And we have deepened defense cooperation — including funding the Iron Dome system — to help Israel address its most pressing threats, including the growing danger posed by rockets and missiles emanating from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. The President’s consistent support for Israel’s right to defend itself and his steadfast opposition to any attempt to delegitimize Israel on the world stage are further evidence of our enduring commitment to Israel’s security.

It is precisely because of this commitment that President Obama and the Democratic Party seek peace between Israelis and Palestinians. A just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, producing two states for two peoples, would contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. At the same time, the President has made clear that there will be no lasting peace unless Israel’s security concerns are met. President Obama will continue to press Arab states to reach out to Israel. We will continue to support Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which have been pillars of peace and stability in the region for many years. And even as the President and the Democratic Party continue to encourage all parties to be resolute in the pursuit of peace, we will insist that any Palestinian partner must recognize Israel’s right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to existing agreements.”

Did you catch the “radically unsupportive” parts?  Me neither
But the game is a subtle one. To find the evidence of Obama’s contempt for the Jewish State, you have to read between the lines and focus on what’s NOT in theplatform.  In 2008, the Democratic Platform specifically recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital:

Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths

The 2012 statement, however, included no mention of Jerusalem as capital.  The Republicans pounced and their outrage machine went into overdrive.  Romney found the omission “shameful.”  Paul Ryan called it “tragic.”

Why is this omission a big deal?  Well the status of Jerusalem is certainly a big deal for Israelis. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel but is not recognized as such by the International community.  This issue has also been one of the major stumbling blocks in negotiations with Palestinians, who also claim Jerusalem as their capital.

But the show of outrage on the part of Romney and Ryan is both hypocritical and absurd for several reasons:

  • As a matter of official policy, the United States does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  The language contained in party platforms has never made an iota of difference.  Every U.S. administration since Truman has reiterated the same position:   The final status of Jerusalem must be arrived at through negotiation.

  •  Although U.S. candidates for President frequently pledge to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by moving its embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, no U.S. president has ever taken steps to do so.  (Despite his own promises, President Bush signed waivers 16 times to avoid moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem)

  • In 2008, the GOP platform stated:  “We support Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and moving the American embassy to that undivided capital of Israel.”  But in 2012, the  GOP abandoned this language.   Now there nothing about Jerusalem being “undivided.”   The pledge to move the embassy to Jerusalem is gone.   By weakening the language, aren’t the Republicans distancing themselves from supporting Israel?  Aren’t they undercutting Israel’s bargaining power?  Where is the outrage?    

And never missing an opportunity to overplay their hand, Republicans also complained that the 2012 Platform omitted a 2008 provision stating that Palestinian refugees should be compensated (rather than returned to Israel).  Apparently, they were unaware that in 2012, the GOP Platform also dropped this provision.

But it's not only Republicans who were upset by the Jerusalem omission. The changes to the party platform also made pro-Israel Democrats uncomfortable.  Harvard Law Professor, Alan Dershowitz, a strong supporter of both Israel and Barack Obama, found the changes to the Democratic Platform “deeply troubling.”  Significantly, what Dershowitz found troubling was not the Platform itself or anything to do with foreign policy or Obama’s support for Israel. It was the fact that omission would be exploited for partisan purposes.  In other words, it’s all about perception. Not reality.  But in the game of political theater, perception is reality.

And so, the Democrats back-pedaled.  They owned up to the faux pas and, reportedly at President Obama’s insistence, quickly restored the provision recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  Everyone happy now? Hardly
The Republicans now have even more ammunition.  They will charge the Democrats with flip-flopping.  They will say that the omission and subsequent inclusion show Obama’s support for Israel is tentative and mere pandering.  They will point out that there were democrats booing at the convention when the language was reinstated. And they will ask the question. “Why was the Jerusalem recognition taken out in the first place?”  Finally, a fair question.

But I also think there’s an easy answer.  And the answer is not that Obama is a crypto-Muslim who is out to compromise the security of Israel.  It’s the fact that the previous language, while perhaps satisfying to U.S. voters, was contradictory and incoherent.  Essentially, the position was:  “We recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital for eternity but… not really since that’s an issue to be decided by final negotiations.”   It’s nonsensical.  Since Obama is not moving the embassy to Jerusalem anytime soon (nor would Romney if elected) he may well have found repeating the same false promises to be a bad idea.  Perhaps some fool drafting the 2012 platform got the crazy idea that the platform ought to make sense for a change.   Never mind that there haven’t been any meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians for years anyway.  Palestinian militants continue to fire rockets from Gaza into Israel.  The Israelis will justifiably retaliate. Israelis and Palestinians will continue to suffer. 

But here at political conventions, we fight over the wording of promises that no one means to keep.  It's silliness.  But this is political theater and the show must go on.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sticking up for the Boss

If you’re a cultural critic who writes for a major magazine, it helps to be cranky.  After all, the critic is a moralist who must ceaselessly war against cliché and vulgarity in order to to bring light to the darkness and to impart wisdom and understanding from works of literature and art. It's been that way since Plato.  One cannot hope to fight these battles without some measure of belligerence and peevishness.  Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, possesses crankiness by the boatload.  And in his recent piece excoriating Bruce Springsteen and his witless fans, he practically chokes on it.

Sure, Springsteen worship is excessive and suspect.  Wieseltier isn’t wrong about that.  But he is so put off by the hagiography he sees all around him that he swings wildly in the opposite direction and misses badly.  His first target is David Remnick, whose 75,000 word profile in The New Yorker, is dismissed as fandom that “could have been written by the record company.”  I wonder what he was reading.  What makes Remnick’s article such an excellent piece of journalism is that he both investigates and offers new insights (Wieseltier does neither).  Remnick’s article provides a  surprisingly fresh perspective  for the kind of reader who picks up the magazine thinking they already know all there is to know about their subject.  For instance, Remnick has Steve Van Zandt recalling how scary Springsteen’s  Dad was.  Remnick shares the resentments and regrets of former drummer, now golf caddy, Vini Lopez who was fired just before the band made it big.   He takes us deeper into the relationship between Springsteen and his manager (and art collector), Jon Landau.  And he asks Patti Scialfa, the wife, holder of the unique position of part-time band member and full-time mother, about the conflict between isolation and human connection, the tension that informs so many of Springsteen’s best songs.

But this “derecho of detail” is uninteresting to Wieseltier.  For him, it is Springsteen’s inauthentic “Everyman”  that is so grating.   As if the measure of Springsteen’s artistry is his capacity for delivering a populist political message.   (One can almost imagine a bearded Wieseltier  backstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, trying to shut down the power on Bob Dylan’s amplifiers  to preserve the purity of the protest tradition by protecting the masses from the vulgarities of the rock star.)  Wieseltier is hardly the first to criticize Springsteen’s “cornball sincerity” or insufficient radicalism. These criticisms are the very ones detailed in Remnick’s piece.  Springsteen is not a revolutionary in either his politics or his art.  He is not threatening.  Remnick quotes Tom Carson, who observed in 1985 that for Springsteen, “rock and roll was basically wholesome.  It was an alternative, an escape—but not a rebellion, either as a route to forbidden sexual or social fruit, or, by extension, as a rejection of conventional society. To him, rock redeemed conventional society.”
Springsteen is in many respects an artist who plays it safe.  But “Johnny 99” is as radical a song as you’ll ever hear played in an arena.  And there’s little that’s safe or sexless in “Highway 29,” “Reno” or the libido-driven “You’ve Got it” from his most recent album, Wrecking Ball.  But it’s not the safeness of Bruce Springsteen that so offends Wieseltier.   It’s his popularity.  It clearly galls him that conservatives like Chris Christie and David Brooks dance in the aisles at Springsteen’s big tent carnival-atmosphere concerts.
But that’s Springsteen the showman, the shaman, the cultural icon.  What about the music?  Here too, Wieseltier misses the mark.  He clearly prefers the older Springsteen catalog (his “once-magnificent music”) to the more recent material, but so what?  So do nearly all of his fans.   Wieseltier takes aim at the social consciousness expressed in Springsteen’s recent work and complains that the workers are stock characters lifted from Steinbeck and Guthrie and that the songs lack the “authenticity of acquaintance.”   But it is not “acquaintance” that makes for good songwriting.  It is empathy.   Does Wieseltier really suppose that because Springsteen is a multi-millionaire, he’s never known a factory worker?  That he’s forgotten his own father?  His hometown?  The experiences we have in childhood provide more than enough material to write for a lifetime.

Wieseltier targets Springsteen’s clumsier lyrics.  Fair enough.  But then he gets nutty:

"His anger that 'the banker man grows fat' is too holy: 'if I had a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight' is not a 'liberal insistence.' I prefer Dodd-Frank." 

From songwriters?  Dodd-Frank?  Woody Guthrie didn’t sing about the Farm Relief Bill and Johnny Cash didn’t sing about Medicaid.  We should be glad they didn’t.  Springsteen’s “Matamoras Banks” is beautiful and haunting song because it’s not about immigration reform.  It’s a singular story about a single immigrant.  Springsteen may not fit the classic model of a protest singer, but “Death to My Hometown,” his Celtic rebel-rouser is as powerful an expression of what ails us as anything you’ll hear from Occupy Wall Street.
But forget it.  Wieseltier  is rolling now:

"The joy is programmatic; it is mere uplift, another expression of social responsibility, a further statement of an idealism that borders on illusion. The rising? Not quite yet. We take care of our own? No, we do not."

Right.  We do not. But that’s precisely the point.  If Wieseltier can’t discern that, then he’s misreading Springsteen as badly as George Will and Ronald Reagan ever did.
Full disclosure here.  I’m a Springsteen fan. Not a worshiper.  Not an acolyte.  A fan. To be sure, being a fan means that I’m not objective.  But this is music. When it comes to music, of what use is objectivity?  Still, any fair-minded observer (or listener) ought to see what Wieseltier does not.  Springsteen has not decided to become a “Spokesman for America." He’s a songwriter who has been writing about the same subject for the past 35 years:  The margins between the American Dream and the reality he sees around him.  Sure, some songs work better than others.  But what the fans understand is that it’s the journey that makes it all worthwhile.  Don’t need no baggage.  Just get on board.
The real source of Wieseltier’s crankiness is probably revealed in his final paragraph:

“It is one of the duties of rock n roll to create nostalgia. There is a bliss that only the sounds of one’s youth can provide. (For me, it’s been downhill since Dion.)”

Downhill since Dion?  So there it is.  No wonder then that for him, rock and roll can deliver only illusion.

Before he became Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau was himself a music critic armed with the usual tools of wit and sanctimony.  In May of 1974, he saw a concert at Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge and penned a review that is now the stuff of legends:

“I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.   On a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time"

Now this one WAS used by the record company.  But the experience of feeling like you are hearing music for the very first time is precisely what the greatest music does.  It rejuvenates you in way that the mere nostalgia cannot.  It’s what all great art does.  One gets the sense that Wieseltier has never had this kind of experience.  It makes me feel bad for him.

Or maybe it's just the Kool-Aid talking. 


Friday, July 27, 2012

On the Road with Aaron Burr

The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr by H.W. Brands is not a classic work of history or a definitive biography but it does more to humanize America’s most notorious founding father than any book I’ve read.  (save perhaps for fiction)   It’s a slender volume, 173 pages in paperback, based primarily on the surviving letters between Aaron Burr and his daughter, Theodosia.   Burr’s relationship with his daughter is at the center of the story.  And while Burr is remembered by history for audacious things – the killing of Alexander Hamilton in a duel, his naked political ambition, his bold schemes to annex Western territory – it is Burr, the loving father who emerges in this book.  By focusing on Burr’s private correspondence rather than his public notoriety, we see Burr in a surprisingly sympathetic light.   Brands’ narrative focuses on Burr’s many disappointments, the defeat of his political aspirations, the loss of his fortune, but most poignantly, the loss of his family culminating in his daughter’s disappearance at sea.   But there’s also a sense of excitement in these pages.  Brands reminds us of how unique and remarkably thrilling Burr’s life was.
Among the founding fathers, Burr is regarded as a dark angel.  But he has a resume unlike any other:  He was the grandson of colonial America’s most famous pastor (Jonathan Edwards), a patriot and hero in the Revolutionary War, New York’s first Attorney General, a Senator to Congress, a leading attorney in New York City, Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President, a duelist who killed his political rival (Hamilton), a leading advocate for education and women’s rights, and an adventurer who was charged with treason for a plan to annex Spanish territory and establish an independent nation.   And we’ve only scratched the surface.   But in reading Brand’s account, one is struck by yet another side of Aaron Burr:  Burr the traveler. Aaron Burr might have been the most widely traveled American in the early years of the republic. 

As a soldier in the Continental Army, Burr serves throughout the Northern colonies and takes part in an expedition through the Maine wilderness in a failed attack on Quebec.  In the 1790s, he makes his residence at Richmond Hill (roughly three blocks north of the Holland Tunnel entrance in Manhattan) and over the next decade, politics and law take him from Albany to Washington DC.  But it is not until his middle age years that the adventure truly begins.  After killing Hamilton in 1804, Burr has to flee.   Dueling is illegal in New York and New Jersey and Burr has many political enemies who wish to see that law enforced.  He wants to visit his daughter in South Carolina but he’s a political pariah and doesn’t wish to expose her.  He journeys further south to Saint Simons Island where he stays at the plantation of Senator Pierce Butler.   Eventually, he returns to Washington where he resumes his duties as Vice President and presides over the Senate.
But soon his term will be up and he will flee again.  This time from creditors.   He goes where Americans go when they want to escape their past.  He goes west, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and then a houseboat down the Ohio River. He sees frontier towns – Wheeling, West Virginia, Marietta, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky.  He visits Andrew Jackson in Tennessee before continuing down the Mississippi River to Natchez and New Orleans, the great port of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory.  President Jefferson has sent Lewis and Clark to explore this territory and the land further west but they haven’t been heard from in over year. Meanwhile Burr seems to be everywhere.  He meets Henry Clay in Kentucky and General James Wilkinson in St. Louis. He sizes up the land and the people of these western territories and he dreams of great things.

In 1806, Burr is reunited with his daughter and again goes west to the Ohio River.   A plan is hatched to gather an expeditionary force and seize Spanish territory in the south and west.  As far as President Thomas Jefferson is concerned, this is treasonous.  Federal agents chase Burr and apprehend him in Pensacola.  He is brought to Richmond, Virginia and tried for treason.  But whatever it was that Burr was planning, there was no evidence that he was levying war against the United States or aiding their enemies.   Burr is acquitted.  But his prospects in New York are limited and his creditors are growing in number.  He again takes refuge in flight.
This time, he sails for London where he visits with the famous writer and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham.  From across the sea, he still dreams up plans for Spanish Florida, the territory between St. Augustine and Baton Rouge. He longs to see his daughter, Theodosia.  But it’s a tough time for an American to be in England.  The two nations are on the verge of war.  Burr travels to Scotland and then to Sweden, where he marvels at the beauty of the women of Stockholm.  He travels to Germany and meets the famous poet, Johann Goethe (an episode curiously omitted from Banks’ book).  In 1810, he travels to Paris. But the journey is no longer a grand tour of romance and adventure.  Burr is now a man of modest means and the Paris of Napoleon is not friendly to him.  He wants to return to the United States, but is unable to secure a passport.  He is cold and must sell books in order to eat.   Eventually, he is able to sail but only back to England.  He finally lands in Boston and then sails under a fake name to New York City.

Like Odysseus, the wily Burr finally returns home. There, he learns that his only grandson has died of illness.  And the reunion with his daughter never comes to pass.  From South Carolina, Theodosia boards a schooner bound for New York but the ship never arrives.  There was a bad storm off of Cape Hatteras which may have been responsible.  There are also suspicions of piracy.  No trace of the ship is found.  Burr lives long enough to see his western schemes realized by Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston.  But they are remembered as heroes.  Burr will forever be a villain.  Burr’s life has all the makings of Greek tragedy.  But it also contains something else, a quintessentially American experience.  A great road story.