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July 26, 2005

History Lesson, Part 3

Happy 1,000th Post, PuddingTime! -mph

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen is screening in San Francisco this week--and coming to a theater (or, more likely, a DVD retailer) near you soon.

I saw the Minutemen open for R.E.M. on their Fables tour in October or November of '85. We had 3-Way Tie (for Last) and were aware of their reputation as a "legendary hardcore band," but we weren't big fans yet. We were way late for the show (partly because we stopped to watch a barn burn down), and I remember being bemused by their covering "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" but mighty impressed by the energy and passion of D. Boon and Mike Watt. Boon changed the way I thought about rock singers. No polite way to say it: I'd never seen a fat man move like that. Fantastic. R.E.M. were great that night, too--and never that great again.

A month or so later, driving alone in the band's van, D. Boon fell asleep, crashed, and died. No drugs or alcohol were found in his system. The Minutemen were finished and Mike Watt was shattered, but a year or so later, a musician from Ohio named Ed Crawford sought him out on the mistaken premise that Watt was auditioning players for a new band. They formed fIREHOSE with drummer George Hurley, Ed became Ed fROMOHIO, and they released a string of strong albums well into the '90s. Ed had a sweeter voice and fIREHOSE a more melodic sensibility, but they weren't the Minutemen.

The Minutemen weren't ever really a "hardcore" band, and if they hadn't ended when they did, 3-Way Tie probably would have been what you call a "transitional" album. With covers of Blue Oyster Cult and Creedence Clearwater Revival, it was certainly a departure in sound and scope from their previous output. It wasn't until after the band's demise that I heard Double Nickels on the Dime or anything earlier--the records where their raw, brittle, and totally unique jazz-funk sound coalesced, the ones that are their monument.

In a way, the Minutemen were the last of the first punk bands--genuine freaks in the Pere Ubu vein who never subscribed to the three-chord-buzzsaw orthodoxy. It took awhile for my "attitude" to soften towards the jazz and classic rock they emulated and covered, and 20 years later, my appreciation for their musical sophistication and complexity is still growing. Their lyrics could be direct, poetic, conceptual, absurd, or a note from the landlady about not keeping the tub caulked. As musicians, each one of them should be revered by the kind of connoisseurs who think Rush are the shit. (For the record, as a drummer, I am required to think Rush are the shit.)

I think what made the Minutemen so beloved and lovable was their goofy, hippie, folkie, family vibe. They were not at all what "punk" was thought to be by the mid-'80s (i.e., Henry Rollins chewing through the stage or [your favorite jokey punk band] being snotty and sarcastic). Once you fall for the Minutemen, you almost feel protective of them, because they were so human and organic, and cared so little about being tough or cool--although, of course, they were as profane and bad-assed as they come, and saw every angle of society's con. All they were about was empowering the kids. I saw fIREHOSE two or three times in small clubs, and Watt is like your wise, dorky uncle who always wants to give you a sweaty bear hug, and you let him, because you love your Uncle Mike, the big spazz. (Follow the link and sniff out his tour journals for some funny, thoughtful reading.)

In some ways, they were a throwback all the way to the Weavers, and the Minutemen's era feels almost as lost and gone in today's musical and political America. (Hard to believe that Double Nickels, Husker Du's Zen Arcade, and the Replacements' Let It Be all came out in the same month.) The flowering of the small-"i" indie-rock circuit in the early '80s was grand on a human scale, a community that even kids at a small college in rural Indiana could feel like an active part of. The warmth and generosity of the Minutemen was a big part of that. That's why somebody made a movie about them. They belong in a hall of fame somewhere.

Posted by pk at 1:42 PM

July 21, 2005

Cover versions

Paul Anka's Rock Swings coincidentally arrived at both Mike's and my houses yesterday. (In my case, Cindy brought it home, which has made for a nice addendum to a dispute we've been having about Bobby Darin, my criticism of whom is between the lines here.)

Once upon a time, I would have disliked Anka's album for the obvious reason, but now, for some or all of the reasons Mike mentions, I actually like jazz, swing, and classic pop. Like Mr. Burns said, "I don't know about art, but I know what I hate," and while I don't hate this, don't have an argument with Mike's take on it, and even enjoyed it at points, I've got some ideological beefs with it.

I think there's an antiquated (or maybe just non-transferable) attitude to it that isn't in Anka's style so much as the show-business notion that any era's "great songs" become "standards" that all "singers" ought to do. That was true in the era of professional songwriters who excelled at crafting evocations of emotions everybody has, and it's true of some of the more pure-pop or show-biz tunes ("The Love Cats," "Jump") on Anka's record.

But the personal nature of rock music is what often makes efforts like this alternately ridiculous or maudlin. After Dylan and the Beatles, more and more performers (in rock, anyway) wrote their own songs, but jazz/pop performers went right on covering them just like they'd always done, trying to get hit songs with songs that were already hits. It was what you did! But you and I know that something had changed, which is why there are so many unintentional gag records from the '60s and '70s of sad old has-beens trying to sing rock songs. Songs didn't become "standards" anymore, and swapping them around outside their genre didn't work. The problem wasn't simply that the singers weren't down with the style (although there was that), but that they didn't have any business covering them at all.

Every singer ought to take a crack at "All of Me," but "Eleanor Rigby" loses its stark pathos if anyone else sings it--unless it's another artist who understands its home idiom and either makes an equal commitment to the emotion, or reinvents it--thus turning it into another personal statement (even if that's a sarcastic joke). But some cat who just digs that bittersweet melody...no. He should stick to "Send in the Clowns."

Or some other Beatles song, because it's not true of all of them, or of all rock music, but when it doesn't translate, it's because it's dead serious and personal in a way that only adolescents who have no objectivity and no perspective can be. Which is why "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Paul Anka can only ever be an unintentionally schmaltzy joke, and it's why he really didn't oughta cover "Tears in Heaven" or "Everybody Hurts," either. I don't even like those songs, but those are personal statements, not merely "great tunes," and what makes a great rock song isn't only in the melody or the lyrics (which are often meaningless) but in the timbre of the voice of the person whose emotional message it is.

"Wonderwall" might be the best example of a bullshit song with nonsense lyrics (by an asshole band) that will forever resist earnest attempts to cover it in any other idiom, because it's serious, teenage nonsense. I don't like that song, either, but when Liam (or is it Noel?) Gallagher's voice strains, "I don't be-LIEVE that ANY-body FEELS the way I do...," he's conveying something--several things, in fact--that Paul Anka, singing just the notes, never will. Which is why his record, for me, mostly fails to be sublime in any of the overlapping and sometimes contradictory ways that Mike notes so-called lounge music, whether truly old or merely retro, can be.

Maybe it's that there's more to choosing what songs to cover than people of the pre-rock generation seem to grasp, with their more superficial analysis of melody and lyric, and their failure to understand, let alone make, the kind of emotional commitment rock music requires. Ironic post-boomer performers (as perhaps on Prozak for Lovers) will seldom make a misstep similar to Anka's, because they get it. They'll either pick the right song, or do the wrong song the right way. (I once wanted to do a ska version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and have Mike play a trombone solo.) And if Paul Anka wanted to come out struttin' like some show-biz ham and sing more songs like "Jump" or let the mockery rip on some joke covers, he could knock himself out. But, no, he takes himself seriously, with his serious photos and serious musical statements, which makes him every bit the anachronism he's trying not to be.

Paul Anka let Sid Vicious cover "My Way," and he got that the guitars sure were different, but he didn't understand why it worked. Sid wasn't saying, "I did it my way," he was saying, "FUCK YOUR WAY!" In his blindered hubris, Paul Anka just thought Sid was complimenting him on the great tune.

Posted by pk at 10:55 AM

July 18, 2005


I'd say we can stand down from the Karl Rove death watch, because I've never thought there was enough smoke to warrant an indictment, and now, barring that, the White House/GOP seem to think they have wiggle room (they never need much) with their arguments that Rove didn't reveal her actual name, and she wasn't a covert agent anyway, or at least not an important one in a dangerous position in a foreign country where she wore a trenchcoat and had a leg holster--you know, what you and I think of when we think of secret agents.

I mean, she was a covert agent, because the CIA wouldn't have referred the case to the Justice Dept. if she wasn't, and they did, but whatever. Who cares about the CIA? Except for George Tenet, who got the Medal of Freedom and left, they're a bunch of incompetent hacks! Look how they misled the president in his march to war!

Anyway, the jig's up. Orrin Hatch put on his parson face yesterday on "Meet the Press" and talked dismissively about Valerie Plame's status and lovingly about what a straight-shootin', "ebullient" guy Karl is. You see, he's so full of joy and life, he just can't hide his light under a bushel, and that really riles those Washington sourpusses.

Joe Biden wasn't buying it, or taking any of it seriously. Karl Rove certainly puts the "bully" in "ebullient," but it's not his pink-cheeked enthusiasm that made him the most powerful partisan operative in America. Karl Rove does three things meaner than outing Valerie Plame before he eats breakfast every morning, so the idea that he's a swell guy who's "innocent" of compromising someone's career (and American intelligence) for the sake of a political attack is absurd--as absurd as the notion that Bush would fire him. Bush is about as likely to resign and join the ballet as fire Karl Rove.

I don't even know why I'm posting on this, except that I thought if I went on the record, maybe I'd get pleasantly surprised by being wrong, and I was tired of thinking of bombs whenever I looked at the home page. Not that this doesn't make me think of bombs.

What still truly puzzles me is why the White House didn't seem to know Rove and Libby were the leakers (or thought it would never come out), and why Bush and McClellan went so far in declaring that no one in the administration was involved--definitely not Karl Rove--and that if anyone in the administration was involved, you'd better believe their ass was gonna be fired yesterday. They were vehement about it, however disingenuously, which to me is hard to square with their willingness to dismiss it now. I mean, the president seemed very upset.

Now, pathetic as it seems, the only trouble Bush is in is rhetorical, because he said he'd fire anyone who leaked, and now, not so much so. This is trouble the White House could've easily avoided by not protesting so much in the first place, but maybe stonewalling back then would've been a tacit admission of guilt, so they played it like they had to at the time. By lying, I mean.

But, a little egg on Bush's face and, fiddle-dee-dee, tomorrow's another day in the war on terror. To save Rove's ass, he'd eat shit and call it ice cream.

In the meantime, Frank Rich focuses on the only issue that matters. For what that's worth. As Josh Marshall puts it,

This is about a president who knowingly took his country to war on the basis of lies, and the war on the homefront against anyone and everyone who's tried to peel back the lies and expose the truth.

Posted by pk at 10:48 AM

July 7, 2005

London's burning

This is going to be inchoate, redundant, and probably not very necessary. Just saying.

I'll be honest. Part of me wants to tell the Muslim world, "These terrorists are your problem. We're coming to kill them. Get them in line, or you will all pay." Which is as immoral as their terrorists attacking our civilians, and obviously only increases their hatred and enmity.

However (7/8):

[I]t is essential that the Muslim world wake up to the fact that it has a jihadist death cult in its midst [that] is going to infect Muslim-Western relations everywhere. Only the Muslim world can root out that death cult. [...] The greatest restraint on human behavior is what a culture and a religion deem shameful.


When Salman Rushdie wrote a controversial novel involving the prophet Muhammad, he was sentenced to death by the leader of Iran. To this day--to this day--no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden.

Although I have many grievances with the things we do and don't do for our own narrow motives, I certainly want to see the Western ideals of freedom and democracy prevail. (For one thing, I like music.) My criticisms of our nation and our leaders begin and end with our failures to live up to our own principles. I firmly believe that if we adhered to them instead of compromising them when it doesn't suit some short-term goal, we would drain away the hatred that produces terrorists.

We're never going to defeat terrorism militarily. I'm certain that the course Bush has been on is absolutely wrong. He has given the terrorists exactly what they want: a battleground; American boots on Arab land; Muslims dead by American weapons. In Bush's last speech, he quoted bin Laden to the effect that Iraq is the battleground of jihad. How can Bush think it's good strategy to agree with bin Laden? If bin Laden is pleased to have this battleground, doesn't that mean something's wrong?

If bin Laden announces that the war is in Iraq, it is because he sees political benefits in it. Because this is not a military war. Bin Laden obviously doesn't want to or intend to defeat us militarily. He can't! He knows it! Those roadside bombs don't do any "damage" to our military effort, but they can defeat us politically. And today has shown, again, that the terrorists can turn anyplace they like into a battlefield, no matter where President Bush says the battle is. London is as prepared to defend itself against terrorism as any city you can name, so if it can happen there....

We have to defeat terrorism politically. We have to defeat it gradually, painstakingly, with generosity and respect. I realize how that sounds. It sounds soft. It doesn't sound like decisive action. It sounds like I want to give the terrorists therapy. I don't. But I want to give people who aren't terrorists no reasons for joining them.

We need to consider all the ways we fail to live up to our ideals, at home and abroad. Our disrespect for the environment. Our devotion to tax breaks for the wealthy while the government is in deficit. The inability of working people to afford health insurance, even secure housing. Our crumbling public education system. This is how we care for our own people.

As for the rest of the world, despite President Bush's strong, pious words this morning, we exaggerate our good works. In return for Tony Blair's support for our war in Iraq, President Bush is likely to refuse his request that all nations pledge 0.7 percent of their GDP to assistance for developing nations. Zero-point-seven percent. Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, among others, have made this commitment. President Bush declared today that America would "spread an ideology of hope and compassion"--but 0.7 percent is too rich for his blood. After all, that's five times what we give now.

It should be obvious now that this struggle with Islamic terrorists isn't going to be won with quick military actions and the miraculous creation of free republics in Afghanistan, Iraq, and wherever else. It's a permanent conflict. It's never going away, it's never going to be won.

However, it can be controlled, it can be managed. A better analogy than "war" is "crime." The human tendencies to physically dominate, to steal, to destroy, can never be eradicated. All societies deal with crime, because some people are bad. But in a society that is just, most people resist the impulse to be bad. Most people don't even shoplift or run red lights. People in the Muslim world are no different. If we honor our obligations to a just world, the incidents of terrorist crime will be reduced to a level we can live with, as we live with our burglary and murder rates. (I won't broaden the scope of this post by exploring American tolerance for crime rates that are absurdly high compared to the rest of the civilized world.)

A decisive defeat and punishment for the evildoers would be very satisfying, but it's not going to happen. We have to rise above that impulse, because it is not the way to safety, peace, and security.

Posted by pk at 2:29 PM