Friday, November 13, 2020

Book Review - This Isn't Happening

Usually, music meets the moment. The Beatles released All You Need Is Love as the hippie movement swelled worldwide. Disco music perfectly captured the mindless nihilism of the 1970s as surely as punk rock eviscerated it. So it is not surprising that when Radiohead released Kid A in October 2000, it was not met with universal acclaim. This was 2000, folks - we had survived Y2K, the economy was humming, the stock market was at a record high, and the world was (mostly) at peace. What could an album that leaned heavily on electronica, was littered with nonsense lyrics, and contained a hidden track that included literal silence, say about a world that seemed so … stable? 


As it turned out, quite a bit. A week after Kid A’s release, Al Qaeda terrorists killed 19 sailors on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Yemen, foreshadowing a far more devastating attack less than a year later. And as Kid A was going gold, the world watched as the U.S. presidential election was litigated all the way to the Supreme Court. Thom Yorke screaming “JUST HOLDING ON” on Kid A’s third track, The National Anthem, went from “huh?” to prescient awfully quick. In the succeeding years, 9/11, the Iraq War, and the 2008 economic collapse would cascade one after the other, leaving America, and the world, on the mat reaching for its collective mouthpiece. And all of this happened as technology fully consumed our lives. It would take some years for the moment to meet the music, but when it did, this album that toggled between ambient and chaotic noise would come to be seen not only as a foresighted prediction of our world in the 21st century, but its most profound musical statement. In Steven Hyden’s This Isn’t Happening we not only get the inside scoop on the creation of this modern masterpiece, but Hyden’s unique talent for connecting disparate elements of our culture into an intelligible whole. 


In 2000, technology generally and the internet specifically were seen as net goods. E-commerce was still in its infancy and the idea you could “chat” with someone anywhere in the world and connect with people who shared your interests was still novel and new. Facebook did not yet exist. Algorithms that slice and dice our preferences based on our past behavior were not a thing. It is unsurprising that Kid A was met with skepticism. An album that anticipated how these things would be turned on their heads and isolate us instead of bring us together would have been considered naive and unrealistic. The critics were unsparing. In Radiohead’s home country, one review called the album “self-congratulatory, look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish.” Ouch. None other than Nick Hornby, he of High Fidelity fame where Jon Cusack and Jack Black debated such important topics as the “top five side ones, track ones” dismissed the whole effort, whining that “the music critics who love Kid A, one suspects, love it because their job forces them to consume music as a 16-year-old would” before tut-tutting ~ the youth ~ with a lecturing tone that “Kid A demands the patience of the devoted; both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck.” 


Including Hornby’s kiss off review is fitting because This Isn’t Happening is, in the main, a record store fan boy’s book-length meditation on beloved music. And I do not say that as an insult but rather as a compliment. As Hyden points out, music matters precisely as much to us as we deem appropriate. As someone who literally has Radiohead symbols tattooed on his body, I get the obsession and welcomed it (for the most part). If you’re a die-hard fan, Hyden has a CVS-length receipt. Do you want to know the signature live version of True Love Waits? You’re in luck, it happened on December 5, 1995 in Berlin, Germany. How about the location of On A Friday’s (the precursor to Radiohead) first ever gig in 1987? That would be the Jericho Tavern in Oxford, England. From the obscure instrument Jonny Greenwood whipped out for Kid A (ondes Martenot) to Ed O’Brien’s dairy of the album’s making, no stone is left unturned in tracing the band’s history. 


But what elevates This Isn’t Happening from a compilation of random trivia into a deeper meditation on how much music influences our lives is Hyden’s ability to place Radiohead within the broader sweep of popular culture, sprinkling in call outs to everything from long-forgotten 90s Brit pop like Suede to the early aughts last gasp of guitar rock from The Strokes. He traces the band’s evolution not just against its contemporaries (and how its predecessors influenced them) but Radiohead’s own progression from a band of baby-faced outcasts who performed Creep on MTV’s Beach House in 1993 to the fully realized musical gods who had the balls to perform a fully freaked out version of The National Anthem on Saturday Night Live eight years later. The cultural currency Radiohead collected is also impressive. From Paul Thomas Anderson’s collaborations with Jonny Greenwood to Brad Pitt and Ed Norton reminiscing about how they listened to OK Computer on repeat as the filming of Fight Club came to an end, the band’s reach extended well past its manifest influence on music in the 2000s. 


But in the spirit of record store debating, a few omissions bear noting. While Hyden touches any number of bases connecting Kid A to the broader culture, the one he skips past entirely is The Matrix, which is surprising considering the DNA the album and movie share. Both speculate about a sterile, near future that devalues individualism. At the time, The Matrix was wildly popular and critically acclaimed, whereas reviewers were more ambivalent about Kid A, but it is possible the dystopian view of the former was deemed too out there to be taken seriously, whereas the latter was not dystopian enough, written off as gloomy navel gazing instead. Ironically, that the matrix was fed through the human mind would end up being a spot on description of what social media platforms would ultimately do while Kid A now looks like it undersold how unnerving the future would be. 


The other elephant in the room is Hyden’s passing treatment of what some of us consider Radiohead’s true masterpiece - OK Computer. It would be like writing a book about Picasso’s Cubist period but tossing off Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as a nice, but unimportant work in the milieu. To understand Kid A a full accounting of OK Computer is required but the most we get from Hyden is a dismissive insult of Fitter. Happier. as a too-on-the-nose criticism of consumer culture. But that song, and the album more generally, is precisely about the pressure society places on people to conform. The through line between stripping people of their autonomy and the yearning expressed in songs like How To Disappear Completely and The Morning Bell could not be more direct. To be sure, Hyden goes on at length about the song writing process and more particularly Yorke’s fear of having his lyrics be seen as too ham-handed or obvious (dating to criticism he received early in his career) but it is impossible not to see Kid A as building on the themes initially explored in OK even though one relied on click tracks and synthesizers and the other used guitars. 


I always looked at Kid A as part of a three album continuum from OK Computer to Amnesiac that bore the closest resemblance to Pink Floyd’s mid-70s run of Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. The themes of alienation and isolation, of corporate influence and individualism, of rebellion and conformity just ooze out of both sets of music but instead of seeing these parallels (you won’t find a single reference to Pink Floyd in the entire book) we get a pages-long digression about Linkin Park (because, reasons?) and a bit of filler in the form of an imagined Kid Amnesiac that blends the best of both albums. And this is not to be overly critical. Part of what makes fandom fun is swapping opinions and interpretations of shared canon. Hyden thinks “There There” is the best song on Hail to the Thief when everyone knows it is “Where I End And You Begin.” 


I also liked how Hyden ends the book. After tracing the band’s post-Kid A (and really, post-Amnesiac) work there is a meditation on aging and loss. Of whether, as Neil Young once wrote, it is better to burnout than fade away. When we think of iconic albums, invariably, we are thinking about music produced when the artists were in their 20s and early 30s. When the hunger to succeed, the single-minded focus on creating, and the possibilities of the world are greatest. The inevitable pull of ~ adulthood ~ be it marriage or parenting, the material comfort that comes with success or the validation from sold-out arenas, critical acclaim, and chart-topping albums comes for every successful musical act. Nostalgia, Don Draper famously said, is a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. What Kid A represents to Hyden, and to many of us who love that album and the band that created it, is not just a time machine to a moment that has already passed (yeah, it’s gone … I’m not here, this isn’t happening) but a reminder that it is possible to feel emotion in a modern world stripped of it. 


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Sunday, October 11, 2020

Book Review - Reaganland

As we round the bend toward the culmination of the 2020 election, the publication of Rick Perlstein’s outstanding new book Reaganland could not be more timely. In Reaganland, Perlstein, who has devoted the last 20 years of his life to tracing the creation of the modern conservative movement, closes the chapter on what remained of the New Deal era that heralded an era that may end in three weeks.

The timing of the book’s release is also portentous. Jimmy Carter, still puttering around just past his 96th birthday, is getting, what for him, is as close to a historical reevaluation as he is ever likely to get. Two books, one, by his former chief domestic policy aide (“President Carter: The White House Years”) and the other, by the journalist Jonathan Alter (“His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life”) try to reframe his four years in office in a more positive light, emphasizing his decency, humility, and yes, the successes he can legitimately call his own. At the same time, his successor’s place among the ten best presidents in American history is starting to congeal into accepted fact. 


To tackle this terrain - and even at 914 pages - the sweep of history Perlstein collects is so vast that certain events that garnered their own books - the Camp David accords (“Thirteen Days in September”), Carter’s “malaise” speech (“What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”), Kennedy’s primary challenge (“Camelot’s End”), only get passing mention because there is so much ground to cover. And that is part of what makes Reaganland such addictive reading. To call a book this length a page turner would seem counter intuitive, but the propulsive nature of Perlstein’s storytelling makes the chapters fly by. 


And this is at least in part because the first two-thirds of the book are really two stories running on parallel tracks. One story is about Carter’s floundering presidency. Here, Perlstein is more in line with the historical narrative that a combination of Carter’s imperiousness, sanctimony, and refusal to play the “Washington” game conspired to cripple his presidency so badly that he was challenged for his party’s nomination in 1980. And it is easy to see why this conventional wisdom has taken hold. There are the familiar stories of Carter micromanaging the schedule for the White House tennis court, his aides’ snubbing of Tip O’Neill by burying the House Speaker in the cheap seats at Carter’s inaugural gala, and Carter’s unwillingness to appoint a Chief of Staff, believing the job unnecessary to the proper functioning of the West Wing. But these unforced errors might have been avoided (or overcome) by a better politician. 


Therein lies one of the contradictions of Carter’s time in office. To win the presidency, one has to have a certain amount of political skill (especially if you were a one-term Georgia governor who began the 1976 campaign as a literal asterisk in polling), but being President requires an entirely different set of skills that Carter lacked. As Perlstein relates, Carter’s view of things was that the people had elected him and therefore, the typical push and pull of D.C. politics was precisely what he should push back against. It is why Carter continued going back to the well of presidential addresses in hopes of rallying public opinion to his side. After all, the voters had put him in the White House, surely they would support the belt tightening he asked of them, be it where they set their thermostats or how fast they drove on the highway. 


But as Mario Cuomo would later observe, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, and Carter’s unwillingness to compromise and negotiate with leaders in his own party in Congress - and the enmity he generated with his high-handedness - left him with few friends (or allies) when small imbroglios flared up and became raging fires. Indeed, in an era when reporters were highly attuned to even the whiff of scandal, that Carter was blind to the impact investigations of his brother Billy and one of his closest aides (Bert Lance) would have on him, particularly when his political “brand” had been to move the country past the Watergate years, beggars belief.


And these minor contretemps paled in comparison to the real challenges of the day. Perlstein rattles off a litany of stories of the day that painted a bleak and unremittingly dark picture of our nation in the late 1970s. To start off, there was of course, the economy. Increases in the cost of goods caused by inflation eroded what were already stagnating wages while borrowing costs skyrocketed to close to 20 percent. Gas shortages resulted in long lines at the pump (and sometimes fisticuffs or worse). In New York City, a brush with municipal bankruptcy was followed by a power outage that resulted in a night of chaos and a lurking serial killer who unloosed mayhem on an unsuspecting populace. To top it all off, when U.S. embassy personnel were kidnapped and held hostage by Iranian students in 1979 and Carter frittered away months negotiating for their release only to have a rescue attempt go horribly wrong in the Iranian desert, the picture of the United States as an impotent world power brought to its knees was cemented.


All of this is fertile ground for the other part of Perlstein’s story and one he has traced through four books and nearly four thousand pages. You see, the Carter years were when disparate political movements - the religious right, defense hawks, and small government advocates - who, on their own, may have never made it past historical curios, were alchemized through Reagan’s candidacy to become the three-legged stool of modern day conservatism that guided the Republican party for the next four decades. 


It is impossible to understate the importance of this development. Evangelical voters who supported Carter in 1976 quickly turned on him and surfaced a political agenda that was openly discriminatory towards gays and lesbians and the Equal Rights Amendment and in favor of what would become a favored buzzword well into the 1990s - “family values” - which was code for heterosexual marriage and nothing else. Meanwhile, a segment of Democratic thinkers and politicians joined Republicans who saw the way past the humiliation of Vietnam through a build up in our military. At the same time, a small band of economists were advocating for massive tax cuts they said would unleash so much economic growth government would collect more revenue, not less. These fantasists were joined by deep pockets in corporate America who had grown accustomed to tolerating Democratic rule (what Perlstein refers to as the “boardroom Jacobins”) but realized they could advance a deregulatory agenda instead of simply accepting the administrative state’s dictates by funneling its political money not equally between the parties, but overwhelmingly, if not exclusively to, Republicans. 


Perlstein drives home these points in ways both great and small. From the local politicking done to seed delegates to the 1977 National Women’s Conference with Phyllis Schlafly-approved delegates, to the moment-in-the-sun for Anita Bryant as a crusader against gay rights in Florida, Arthur Laffer’s famous cocktail-napkin explanation of supply side economics, to the growing power of the anti-abortion movement, the power of direct mail fundraising, and the centerpiece of his storytelling, a chapter-length dissection of how religious and financial resources were brought to bear to kneecap an IRS regulation regarding the tax exempt status of religious schools. 


But these small victories would have been of less consequence were it not for Reagan’s unique talents as a politician to coalesce these groups together into a winning coalition. Here, Perlstein’s years of research with his subject shine through. You have to imagine the difficulty Perlstein, a progressive and public supporter of Bernie Sanders, had in acknowledging Reagan’s skills, but he does. As Perlstein discusses, time and again, reporters and political foes alike dismissed Reagan as an aging, intellectual lightweight who played fast and loose with the facts. What they missed was Reagan’s touch feel for reading his audience, hitting his marks, and performing best under the bright lights. Reagan turned his primary race around in New Hampshire by grabbing a microphone out of a reporter’s hand at a debate and cemented his general election win by filleting Carter at their lone debate with a shake of the head and a “there you go again” dismissal of a Carter attack line. 


Reagan also had a campaign team ahead of their time in what would become foundational aspects of campaigning - the stage crafting of events for television, the micro-level targeting of voters, and constant message refinement. Indeed, Reagan likely would have won in 1980 just on the support of his new coalition, but what took his victory from that to a Republican rout just six years after Nixon’s resignation, was the realization that there was a slice of Democratic voters who could be brought into the fold by voting against their economic interests. This cultural messaging turned these voters into vaunted Reagan Democrats who would rear their heads as white working class voters who helped Donald Trump narrowly claim the White House 36 years later. 


It is easy to see this tide forming in retrospect, but as Perlstein brings these two narratives together as the 1980 campaign starts, Carter and a lot of Democrats realized too late that the walls were closing in. The victories this nascent collection of political interests accumulated were buttressed by a politically weakened Carter, who attempted to curry favor by repealing a regulation long-hated in the banking industry (Regulation Q), voiced support for expanding missile defense, and trimmed his sails considerably when it came to issues of social equality. In the Senate, old bull Democrats like Frank Church, George McGovern, and Gaylord Nelson were ill-equipped to handle the flood of negative advertising that twisted their records and turned them into pariahs among an electorate all had served for a generation or more. In fact, had Democrats been paying more attention, they would have seen a chirpy House back bencher named Newt Gingrich deploying guerrilla tactics to upend the chummy, backroom dealing that kept government functioning effectively, albeit with Republicans in what appeared to be an eternal House minority, and turn it into the zero sum game we now take as a given. 


It is almost quaint to look back at the political battles Perlstein highlights, from the Panama Canal - something literally no one cares about anymore but was a tooth-and-nail battle back in the day, to stimulus proposals that would give Americans $50 (yes, 5-0 dollars) and compare them to what now informs public discourse. Here to, you start to see how politics was transforming in real time. Reagan, far more than Carter (or reporters for that matter) understood the value of what Stephen Colbert would refer to as “truthiness” more than 30 years later. Reagan’s emotive messaging would often skimp on the facts, earning him opprobrium in the media, but hit home with the audience of voters who were exhausted by years of economic woes, incompetence on the world stage, and a feeling that the nation’s best days were behind it. Leaning into (white) Americans’ sense of patriotism, a desire for a simpler time before inflation and Vietnam and the social upheaval of the 1960s, proved far more compelling than the question of whether one economists’ estimate of a tax cut was accurate or not. While Carter was skirmishing over lines of legislation, Reagan was offering what his running mate would later call “the vision thing” without worrying about the details. Ironically, it was Carter who suffered with the press, whose dubbing of him as “mean” would be repeated in races decades later (Gore was a “beta male,” Hillary was “untrustworthy” etc) while being smitten by Reagan’s charm offensive. 


Other historical echoes abound in Perlstein’s telling without his having to hit you over the head with them. George H.W. Bush is persona non grata among New Right leaders right up until the moment Reagan taps him for the VP spot, thereby ushering in six of seven presidential elections where a Bush family member was on the ballot. In Arkansas, a young Democratic governor named Bill Clinton struggles with an influx of Cuban refugees and ends up suffering his first (and only!) general election defeat. Every now and again, Perlstein name checks people like Joe Biden, Dan Quayle, and Chuck Grassley, all of whom would be involved in politics at the highest levels of government for decades to come. 


There are also the crushing ironies. The air traffic controllers union, Eugene McCarthy (!?!), and Ralph Abernathy (!!!) all endorsing Reagan look, in retrospect, as myopic at best and suicidal at worst. Carter sealing his fate by choosing Paul Volcker to lead the Federal Reserve only to watch as inflation finally gets stifled midway through Reagan’s first term putting him on a glide path to a landslide reelection in 1984. But the biggest takeaway Perlstein does not even touch is that the mission Reagan began in 1980 is now largely complete. 


Trump turned out to be the perfect avatar of ignorance and self-interest that was needed to finish the conservative movement’s four decade push to remake the federal government. The Hobbesian bargain he struck with Congressional Republicans created a conveyer belt of Federalist Society-approved lawyers to fill seats up and down the federal judiciary, cabinet and regulatory agencies led by industry lobbyists eager to roll back the regulatory state (or, in the first two years of Trump’s term, to do so by legislative fiat thanks to a bill passed in the 1990s that yes, Bill Clinton signed into law), and a massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthiest Americans that hoovered up what little wealth they did not already have and put it in their pockets. All that’s left is Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and given the trillions in debt that have now been added to the national debt, these programs will be in peril the next time the Republicans have unified control of the White House and Congress.  


It is quite possible that a wave similar to what formed in 1980 is happening today in the opposite direction. Republican policies that have starved government of needed resources, questioned science, placed a religious sheen on bigotry toward gays and lesbians, used racial dog whistling and created a yawning income inequality gap unseen in 100 years, are coming home to roost. If so, I can only hope it will not take another 40 years to undo the damage. 



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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

September 23

My daily schedule is so messed up now. I typically finish working out by 9 am, eat lunch at like 10:30 and have dinner at 4. It's like I'm already retired and living in South Florida.

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Monday, September 21, 2020

September 21

I have slept really well the last week or so. It really does affect the rest of your day. I had fallen into this bad zone in late August/early September of being up between 4 and 4:30 am, no idea why, but now that the weather has cooled and the house is, dare I say a bit chilly at night, I fall asleep in no time around 9:30 and sleep all the way through to 5:30 (or later). It is really nice.

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

September 20

I really should have quit following politics in 2000. The presidency was stolen in broad daylight and we all just moved on. But now, I really am ready to call it a day. They won. They stole it all. They've looted the treasury, redistributed the wealth, deregulated all the industries, and are now securing the courts for probably the rest of my life. So sure, I will vote for Biden and hope Democrats take both houses of Congress, but they won't do anything with it. They won't use raw power because they're expected to compromise, to reach out, to trim their sails in order to be reasonable. So, nothing will happen, Republicans will obstruct and block even modest reforms and hey, if they pass, they'll just get bottled up in courts now ugly with 30 and 40something Federalist Society judges who are anti every right known to man except gun rights. This is the country we live in now, this is the country we will live in for the foreseeable future. 

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Saturday, September 19, 2020

September 19

 It's hard not to be despondent right now. Ginsburg died yesterday and Trump is already scheming to fill her seat even before she's put in the ground. McConnell, hypocrite 'til the end, will push through whoever Trump nominates, locking in a 6-3 majority for the foreseeable future. The pandemic continues apace. It is just really dark right now.

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Friday, September 18, 2020

September 18

 I've been busy and not able to post a daily update. This morning, I woke up at about 3:30 and had trouble falling back asleep. I got up about 5:30 and was out the door by about a quarter to 7 for groceries. I came home, whipped up 5 days worth of spaghetti and meat sauce and then spent the day working on a brief.


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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

September 16

Man, I slept *really* well last night. It was glorious. Windows open, nice cool breeze, I slept past 5 am for the first time in, I am guessing, three weeks? We're in this nice pocket of time where the nights are cool but not cold and it really helps.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

September 15

Getting a filling at the dentist this afternoon <upside down smiley face> ugh, just why? It's not even a new cavity, I take good care of my teeth, just a super old filling (like from when I was a kid) that is finally giving out. 

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Monday, September 14, 2020

September 14

I am almost illogically excited for cooler weather this week. I don't know, I guess it's because this summer was so hot and I spent so much of it anxious over my HVAC and being indoors all the time, but open windows, walks in the neighborhood a ~ crispness ~ in the air all sound great even if we are still living through a pandemic.

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