Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Book Review - Political Tribes

Each new President brings with him an undertow of books analyzing “the moment” we are living in. In Reagan’s America, businessmen were deified, the biggest book of the 80s was Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, and yes, Trump’s Art of the Deal, sold in the millions. As the hangover from the Reagan years lingered, writers mused on the death of American competitiveness in the face of Japanese economic supremacy. A cottage industry of conspiracy theorists made their bones (not to mention their riches) attacking the Clintons and George W. Bush’s years were defined by our response to the 9/11 attack and Iraq War. Much was written about a post-racial America under Obama, but now, authors are flocking to cement the new narrative brought on by Donald Trump’s election - the magic word? Tribalism. To this growing list of books is Amy Chua’s Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. It is a thin effort that rarely rises above a freshman-level survey course before falling apart all together in a predictable lament about “our divided nation.” 

Chua’s thesis is simple - America is exceptional, a “super group” as she calls us, largely because of our heterogenous roots, a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures that have blended into one. It distinguishes us from almost every other nation on the planet but also creates a massive blind spot in believing others want our way of life. Chua spends most of the first half of her book examining how our myopia played out in failed foreign adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela (the last appears to have been shoe horned in for no other reason than Chua had written on the topic years ago - nothing like shameless self-promotion). And here, her thesis is fleshed out to the extent an idea can be when generous margins are used and analysis does not go much deeper than a few inches below the surface. 

We backed all the wrong people in Afghanistan, failed to appreciate the Shia/Sunni enmity in Iraq, and books of far greater substance mused on our misadventure in Vietnam. It is not exactly atom-splitting writing, but to the uninformed, I suppose it is a useful primer; however, when the topic shifts from foreign to domestic, the “both sides are to blame” trope rears its head with the attendant anecdotal evidence and couched assertions with amorphous qualifiers like “many” and “some” to make limp points defensible. 

Consider the oft-fetishized demand (which Chua echoes) for seeking common ground among our national leaders. These laments are written as if attempts have not been made when in fact they have been - often - at least by one party, with null results. To take one example, after winning a landslide victory in 2008 and faced with an economy in free fall, President Obama could have pushed through a bill using only Democratic votes, but instead, he tried to get Republicans to work with him on a stimulus bill. On the one hand, he larded it up with tax cuts to entice Republicans, but on the other, kept the total under an artificial amount ($1 trillion) so as not to spook supposed conservatives. In the midst of a massive economic crisis, this effort was met with near total opposition from the GOP - no Republican House members and only three Republican Senators voted for it. To take another, when Obama tried to reform the health care system, he did not attempt to convert our system into a single payer system, no, instead, he took an idea hatched in the halls of the arch-conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. He tried to get Republicans to parlay, and in fact, more than 100 Republican amendments made it into the Affordable Care Act, but no votes were given. Indeed, Republicans have spent the eight years since the bill’s passage attempting to repeal it, undermine it, and delegitimate it in the eyes of the public. 

Of course, if you point this out, you simply prove Chua’s point about political division; however, the real sin, to me at least, is the failure of those with the platform to write about these issues to honestly engage in examining root causes and yes, pointing the finger of blame. When the economy collapsed under George W. Bush in 2008, it was Democrats who stood up and provided the needed votes to pass a massive bank bailout. Bush also got Democratic votes to authorize military action in Iraq, hell, he even got Democratic votes (at least more than a few) for his massive tax cut in 2001. Senate Republicans would not even let Obama fill the job of Public Printer of the United States (yes, that’s a thing) for months. Reason? Because they could. And of course, do not even get me started on Merrick Garland.

History continues to repeat itself. Donald Trump received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and yet he rammed through a massive tax cut without the pretense of bipartisanship. Media reaction? Shoulder shrug. Which is why I blanche at the idea that a Van Jones asking a white working class voter to help him “understand” (an example Chua cites for the kind of outreach we need) makes any difference. It does not. As astute commentators have observed, the Republican party has drifted rightward, moving the center to what was once considered “the right” a generation ago, while members of the media demand that Democrats continue chasing compromise. It is a fallacy that writers like Chua refuse to acknowledge.

Another “tribe” Chua fails to discuss is the largest one in America - that group of people who don’t even bother voting. Presidential elections tend to be high water marks for voting in our country, yet barely half of all eligible voters bother to do so. To be sure, some states do better than others, but turnout in mid-term elections is usually below 40 percent and many state and local elections struggle to attract even a quarter of the electorate. Examining this phenomenon and why it persists would have been a far more valuable use of Chua’s time, but instead, there is pollyannish coda to her book citing the musical Hamilton and the fact it starred a multi-cultural cast of actors as a sign of our country’s future. 

Regardless, the flaws extend further - on a myriad of topics, from raising taxes on the rich to enacting sensible gun reform, large majorities of the nation are in agreement, it is the politicians who are the stumbling blocks. In other words, the tribes are not nearly as at odds as books like this suggest, rather, it is elected officials - and largely Republican officials (and their donors) - who are a tribe apart. As the multibillionaire Warren Buffett has observed, the war that has been waged in America over the past 40 years, the tribe, if you will, that has routed the enemy is the wealthiest Americans, who have hoovered up more of our collective wealth than at any time in our nation’s history while simultaneously pitting everyone else against each other for the crumbs they have left behind. Had THAT book been written, and not some paint-by-numbers ramble about how red states and blue states talk past one another, it might have been worth reading.


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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Review - On Power

There is no shortage of self-help books on the market. Millions have discovered who moved their cheese and the color of their parachute. But while gurus try to extol the benefits of the four-hour work week or the liberating power of not giving a fuck, none of these authors has made a career (not to mention a large fortune) from spewing fake blood while clad in BDSM gear, six-inch platform shoes and a full face of kabuki make-up. Yes, Gene Simmons (from KISS) has joined the movement with his book, On Power.

For a guy who has adopted the nickname “Dr. Love,” Simmons (or maybe it’s his ghostwriter?) is a surprisingly fluid writer. Born Haim Witz in Haifa, Israel, Simmons emigrated to the U.S. with his mom as a young boy. Simmons’s telling of his own life has a bit of Horatio Alger about it, a mix of hard work (he picked up odd jobs from a young age and got his teaching degree even as he chased his dreams of being a rock star), clean living (he eschews the “drugs” part of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” though certainly implies he indulged heavily in the other two), and determination that resulted in his success and stardom. 

Simmons created his own image, changing his name and finding a passion that became his north star, pursuing music while doing what he had to make ends meet. If you get past the chesty bravado and, you know, the whole Gene Simmons oeuvre, On Power is a mainstream meditation on the way you can achieve success if you define that term by the amount of money you make and the power you exert. Simmons portrays himself as a clear-eyed realist, unafraid to tell it like it is, even if it means stepping on a few toes. This means (unsurprisingly) he has little patience for today’s everyone-gets-a-trophy attitude of child rearing and unapologetically encourages women to use their sexuality to get ahead. Simmons also has little patience for people who do not want to sully themselves with the tactics necessary to achieve power, explaining that wanting to do good is impossible if you are not in a position to do so (a fair point).

Other advice Simmons dispenses is basic but important - network to improve your career opportunities, have a back-up plan (and a back-up plan to the back-up plan), be frugal, focus your energy on what you are passionate about, understand the fine line between sucking up to your boss and being unafraid to tell uncomfortable truths (personally, I still have not mastered this one), associate yourself with the people who do the things you want to do, and on and on.

It all makes for light and fast reading and Simmons is heterodox in his examples, dropping references to everyone from Machiavelli (to whom Simmons offers a strong defense) to Warren Buffett (who shows that a shrewd businessman whose word is good can get very powerful people to do things they might not otherwise do) to further his points. Of course, Simmons’s success has also come from a relentless focus on his brand and that of KISS – they have licensed everything from coffins to comic books and, although the band has never had a number one album, retain a rabid following that has made Simmons a very wealthy man. In short, while you may not love the messenger, you cannot argue too strenuously with the message.  

That said, if it is possible for a small book of less than 160 pages to feel a bit padded, On Power certainly pushes the limit. The last third of the book is made up of what are essentially glorified Wikipedia entries for people Simmons looks up to or he points to as exhibits of the types of strategies he believes in – Churchill overcoming a speech impediment as a child and escaping from a prison camp during the Second Boer War illustrates tenacity, Oprah Winfrey rising from impoverishment and sexual abuse shows determination, Michael Jordan using the fuel of not making his varsity basketball team in ninth grade to feed his singular competitiveness, etc.

So, if you are looking for a pithy, sometimes potty-mouthed pep talk to tackle your life, DO NOT rock ’n’ roll all night and party every day - Gene Simmons’ orders.


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Saturday, June 2, 2018

Book Review - Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars

History is an imprecise thing. Events that, at the time, seem inconsequential, like a fledgling band happening upon a movie marquee and changing its name from Earth to Black Sabbath, or two teenagers meeting at a county fair in 1957, one being John Lennon, the other, Paul McCartney, turn out to be really important, while other events' importance is manifest as they are happening, like a young man witnessing Bob Marley perform at the Lyceum in 1975 or David Bowie announcing his "retirement" as Ziggy Stardust. 

In Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of Rock Stars, David Hepworth toggles between these two extremes, examining the arc of rock 'n' roll through one discrete event each year between 1955 and 1995. Instead of leaning on a collection of greatest hits, like a band that refuses to repeat a set list, Hepworth combs through the back catalogue. It is Springsteen way back in 1974 on the cusp of super stardom, but also at risk of becoming a never was, noodling through what would become Born to Run for six months before converting the promise expressed in his concert reviews into wide scale popularity. It is Hendrix, not at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival blowing every mind with his lights out performance and  incineration of his Strat-O-Caster or his iconic rearrangement of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969, but rather, his low key introduction to England in 1966, long before Are You Experienced? rocket launched him into the stratosphere and made him a god. 

While Hepworth finds some of our musical heroes in their embryonic states, his book is also happy to marinate in their debauched success. Uncommon People is as much about the cost of celebrity as it is the music that produces that adoration. In this way, it is easy to understand why Janis Joplin (the subject of Hepworth’s 1967 entry) is eager to rub her hometown’s nose in collective shit when she decides to return for her ten-year high school reunion, only to feel as empty and ostracized as when her wildest fantasies of revenge do not materialize. 

At the level of celebrity enjoyed by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, or Jim Morrison, it is all too easy to be sucked into a vortex of your own bullshit, to confuse the adoration you receive for the self-worth you may not feel. The list of rock casualties is long and Hepworth’s tidy summation of Elvis Presley’s demise in 1977 is Exhibit A for how the seductiveness of fame can blur easily with its isolating effects. Elvis was one of the most recognized human beings on the planet, yet he was surrounded by a cadre of sycophants lured by the whiff of easy money and access to his reflected glory but none of whom had his best interests at heart. 

Of course, as Hepworth notes, in death, the messy details that led to the early demise of artists like Presley, Morrison, Joplin, and Hendrix get swept away as fans mourn their artistry, not their very human flaws. And for those left behind, there is money to be made in remaking these stories. Presley’s survivors were monetizing him within days of his death, when his manager drily noted “the king is dead, long live the king,” to the present-day, when his ex-wife Priscilla executive produced a largely sympathetic four-hour documentary about him for HBO (naturally, with a soundtrack available in all the relevant physical and digital formats). 

Uncommon People is also deft in charting the trajectory of rock ’n’ roll. What starts out in tiny rooms and dingy bars moves inexorably with the times. As the baby boom exploded, so did rock ’n’ roll. As musicians went from being troubadours to voices of their generation, the stakes got higher but so did the temptations, after all, it’s not called sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll for nothing. In July 1974, Stevie Nicks was waiting tables after her and her boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham were dropped by their record label. Two years later, she was a millionaire co-headlining a bicentennial concert on the Fourth of July in Tampa, Florida before 50,000 screaming fans - how can that not mess with a person's head. 

As the book moves into the 80s, the predictable denouement for many rock stars who made their bones in prior decades comes to pass. As Hepworth charts rock’s domination of popular culture, it tracks closely with the lives of the people whose singular talents resulted in the form’s ubiquity. As musicians became bigger celebrities so too did their appetite for hedonism. The once-young deities like Clapton and Page, Starr and Crosby, were now middle-aged and doughy, struggling with addiction, bankruptcy, and divorce. Their challenges tracked closely with the industry. The self-indulgence and feeling of invulnerability resulted in spectacles that had tragic consequences. Michael Jackson was happy to take a check from Pepsi to shill its product, but a rogue pyrotechnic at a commercial shoot led him down a path to opioid addiction that, years later, resulted in his death. Meanwhile, the tour bubble that musicians travel in resulted in a gifted twenty-five-year-old guitarist named Randy Rhodes dying in an entirely avoidable plane crash. 

For me, the later chapters of Uncommon People are rightly bookended by the emergence of Guns ’N Roses out of the L.A. hair metal scene, applying a needed enema that flushed out the pop sensibilities of bands like Ratt, WASP, and Motley Crue and replacing it with precisely the type of hedonistic-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that makes rock great. Ironically, when the band gave in to the same excesses that befell those before them, it is left to Kurt Cobain, the man Hepworth accurately calls “the last rock star,” to apply his own corrective. Of course, Cobain was a flawed messiah and Hepworth’s argument that in Cobain’s suicide note lay a message of inadequacy, of someone who, having reached the pinnacle of his profession, feared he was not up to the challenge of being a prophet for the millions who worshipped him. 

Cobain's 1994 suicide is also a useful marker for the music business. If this tragedy was not the death knell for rock 'n' roll, it certainly put the patient on life support.  The book’s final chapter tracks the migration of music onto the Internet and with it, the game changing file sharing programs that crippled an industry that was simply unprepared for the sea change that occurred once fans stopped accepting the idea they had to pay a premium (or anything at all) for artists’ music. 

Meanwhile, the rise of boy bands, pop divas, and the mainstreaming of hip hop and rap has pushed rock ’n’ roll out of the cultural zeitgeist. What remains is nostalgia. Music companies continue churning out greatest hits collections and decades-old concerts of classic rock acts knowing a generation of 40-, 50- and 60- somethings are dependable consumers. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend can still be found marching under The Who! banner and you can now go on cruises and hear intimate performances by one-hit wonders still trying to squeeze a few more seconds out of their 15 minutes of fame. Turn on your TV and what were once anthems of youth and rebellion are now used to market Cadillacs and iPods. Of course, since the last phase of any successful artist's career is the lusty hiss of "sell out," this makes total sense.


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Monday, May 21, 2018

Podcast Review - Why Is This Happening?

To call Chris Hayes prolific is an understatement. At the tender age of 39, he has already written two books, began hosting a cable news show at 32, and has covered politics for nearly two decades. He is now branching out into podcasting, and his maiden voyage in that medium, Why Is This Happening? is a thoroughly engaging effort at explaining complex issues of the day. 

In many ways, the podcast format plays more to Hayes's strengthens than his eponymous hour-long TV show and harkens back to his original effort on MSNBC, Up With Chris. While the eight-o'clock hour requires devotion to a structured format with multiple guests covering the news of the day in staccato segments that often elide deeper understanding, Why Is This Happening? allows Hayes to stretch his legs and let his full nerd flag fly. 

The podcast is Hayes interviewing a subject matter expert for more than a half-hour in an effort to understand today's world. This allows Hayes's innate intellectual curiosity to shine. As an interviewer, this is critical - you get the sense that Hayes has not only read the books, articles, and essays written by his guests, but the books, articles, and essays his guests read in putting together their theses and the books, articles, and essays that contradict his guests' arguments. What results is a robust, deep discussion that informs the listener in ways that a five-minute TV segment is simply unable to do.

It is Hayes's fluency on so many different topics that makes Why so compelling. Compared to another wunderkind of his era - Ezra Klein - Hayes avoids the starry-eyed naivete of his wonkish colleague. Whereas Klein came into the public sphere through a college dorm room blog, Hayes was pounding the pavement in Chicago, experiencing, at a granular level, how policy, politics, and everyday life intersect.

This distinction is important. While both Hayes and Klein are well-read and thoughtful, Klein is too quick to offer benefit-of-the-doubt absolution for public policy that is abhorrent. Hayes, while unabashedly progressive, is clear-eyed in what has gone on in this country over the past several decades. For example, in his interview with Corey Rubin, Hayes concedes up front that the conservative movement has largely succeeded over the past 40 years in kneecapping regulation and redistributing income upward. But the genius of Why is in how Hayes is able to tie together these actions not just as a form of corporate domination by the elite class, but how it reflects what is now a centuries-long tradition of consolidating power by the white majority. 

Rubin’s observation that wealthy whites have successfully turned poorer whites against even poorer minority groups for more than a century is echoed in Hayes’s conversation with Brittney Cooper, as they discuss the different ways the struggles of whites and blacks are framed in the media and culture. Cooper’s interview also delves into the black experience in America and circles around everything from white male privilege to “Mean Girl” attacks on Beyonce for having too much. As Hayes point out (not ironically) it is a struggle to be human, but not everyone’s struggle is the same. When the conversation shifts to the competition among upper class parents to help their kids get ahead, Cooper rightly notes that is precisely the problem - the idea there are a limited number of opportunities in a zero-sum game where the air is rarefied - instead of making the effort to lift more people up.  

In speaking with Dexter Filkins, listeners will grasp not just the complexity of Middle East politics, but how easily small missteps might lead to the type of regional conflagration metastasizing into a global conflict that happened in 1914 and led to World War I. His fascinating discussion with Brittney Cooper is a master class on understanding identity politics not as a slur too often hurled to dismiss your political opponents, but a core tenet of how each of us views the world. These are not small ideas and the one-on-one conversation Hayes has with his guests gives them room to breathe, the conversation to meander into different directions, and has the salutary effect of giving the listener the feeling of sitting in on a friendly chat with really smart people. 

Of course, the question begged by Why Is This Happening? is Does Any Of This Matter? In delving into the theories of Edmund Burke or the millennia-long fight between Sunni and Shia, the podcast is certainly erudite, but can also come off as precisely the kind of "East Coast" elitist discussion that conservatives have inveighed against since George Wallace bemoaned pointy-headed intellectuals and Nixon fumed against the editorial board of the New York Times. Ultimately, forty minute deep dives into political theory, identity politics or military history is fine for the Georgetown cocktail party circuit, but how useful it is when the President can send out a tweet that consumes news cycles or makes stock markets gyrate wildly is less clear.

That is not to criticize Hayes's work - once upon a time, the public intellectual, not to mention good public policy informed by research, historical analysis, and its effect on people, was valued. No longer. But to Hayes's credit, he has never tried to sugar coat his bookishness or love of political theory. Now, unshackled from his anchor's desk at MSNBC, he has the opportunity to explore topics with the seriousness and attention to detail he clearly relishes. If Hayes's early podcasts are any indication of where this will lead, Why Is This Happening? will be a regular addition to your podcast rotation.

Ep 1 - Corey Rubin (B+)
Ep 2 - Dexter Filkins (A)
Ep 3 - Brittney Cooper (A)


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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Designated Survivor

As TV show premises go, the idea behind Designated Survivor was pretty good. Take an obscure, but interesting thing about our government – that one cabinet member is kept away from the President’s State of the Union address just in case a catastrophic event occurs that wipes out the rest of government – mix in a humble everyman as the accidental Commander-in-Chief when the black swan event happens, add a sinister plot that thrusts him into that job, and presto, TV ratings gold. You can almost hear the pitch meeting: “It will be The West Wing meets 24. We will even get Keifer Sutherland to play the lead role.”

So why is it, that after just two seasons, ABC canceled Designated Survivor? To me, this was an instance of the whole being far less than the sum of its parts. On paper, the idea made sense – what would happen if suddenly, our entire Congress, Supreme Court, not to mention the President, Vice President, and every other cabinet officer except the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was killed in a terrorist attack. Putting aside the fact that in real life, this would make Ben Carson President, Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman is a mild-mannered academic, a decent and caring husband and father, and the last person who could ever get elected President precisely because he is presented as the antithesis of a politician.

But Designated Survivor could never decide which it wanted to be – The West Wing or 24 and its failure to land on a consistent narrative arc is largely what doomed it. You could see in Season 1 a clear preference for the latter – an attempt at pulse-pounding (though my heart rate rarely accelerated past “mild jog”) drama involving shady bad guys who always seemed one step ahead. There was, for example, a Manchurian Candidate type, a Congressman at the speech who miraculously survived, but, it turns out, because he was tipped off and part of the plot, with the ultimate goal of getting him to the White House. He, and others, were chased by plucky FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who was hunting down clues while always in peril. Meanwhile, Sutherland’s President Kirkman spends the early episodes in a combination of impotent rage and in-over-his-head self-doubt. The problem was, having been identified as Jack Bauer in 24, you wanted Sutherland to take out the bad guys himself; instead, he got bogged down in bureaucracy.  

While the FBI searched for the ring leaders, the show ran aground on the other half of its premise – how do you stand up a new government after the current one has been torn down? But lack of exposition and an unwillingness to just rip the band-aid off to create story lines and characters made this half of the show weak. The President’s main antagonist was the opposing party’s designated survivor (which I do not think is a real thing), but by the end of the season, she was joining his cabinet, never to be seen or heard from again. You could almost see the writers trying to find their way out of narrative dead ends as the body count rose, story lines involving Kirkman’s family receded, and the attendant shock endings (there was, of course, an assassination attempt on Kirkman, the killing of the FBI’s Deputy Director, and the Manchurian candidate as well), tried to clear the way for a second season reboot.  

Season two course-corrected too far in the other direction. The 24 aspect became an ancillary story line that was confusing and esoteric (mostly involving a computer hacker that turned out to be one of Kirkman’s friends) while the show went full West Wing with rat-a-tat-tat Sorkian walk-talk dialogue that lacked the panache or brio of that beloved show’s wordsmith. Episodes featured the predictable legislative squabbles, foreign policy crises, and B- and C-plot romantic entanglements among the staffers, but none of it felt earned or authentic. Kirkman’s wife was killed off halfway through the second season, setting up a convoluted 25th amendment crisis (presided over by a random Vice President who came into the show out of nowhere as the Mayor of D.C. and by the end of that episode was a heartbeat away from the presidency) when recordings of Kirkman’s therapy sessions were leaked on the Internet, purporting to show him as unstable. 

And attempts at introducing new characters either felt forced (sure, let’s sign up Michael J. Fox to play a lawyer who, in the span of three episodes is a special prosecutor against the president, a private attorney representing a kidnapped American, and a special prosecutor for the President who ends up turning on him) or superfluous (hi there, Tom Kirkman’s younger brother, greetings, ambitious young assistant who gets three lines in each episode!)

Ultimately, it was all to the show’s detriment, resulting in its cancelation. While the show’s failures were many (the haphazard plotting and mediocre casting primary among them), Designated Survivor also suffered from being asked to do too much. Although it will go down as a two-season failure, the show produced a total of 44 episodes – four more than the acclaimed drama Better Call Saul will have aired after its pending fourth season. If dramas aired on cable TV, Netflix, and Amazon have proven anything, it is that less is often more. So too here. Had Designated Survivor been written around a ten-to-thirteen-episode season and not twenty-two, the writing and story development would have been more focused. Instead of trying to serve the dual needs of a conspiracy thriller and a political melodrama, it could have chosen one over the other. Ironically, the seeds of its own destruction were built right into the show’s conceit.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Barry

Hollywood is a land of make believe inhabited by people who pretend to be someone else. Any time a TV show tackles the struggles of actors, there is an Inception quality to it - you have real-life stars portraying not-yet-famous characters next to real-life not-yet-famous actors trying to break through and make it big. In Barry, which wrapped its first season on Sunday, the added wrinkle is that among the strivers at a community theater acting troupe is a hit man who made his way to La La Land to kill one of their classmates. 

The season unfolds on the outskirts of Los Angeles, on stage and among the low rent criminals Barry meets. The two worlds intersect because dimwitted blonde Ryan Madison is sleeping with the wife of a Chechen mob boss named Goran. Barry is contracted to kill Ryan but can’t go through with it after accidentally walking in on an acting class led by one Gene M. Cousineau (played with brio by Henry Winkler, who walks off with every scene he is in) and befriending Ryan and his fellow classmates. 

You quickly realize everyone in Barry is D-list. Gene is a past-his-prime actor still auditioning for one line roles and whose main career achievement appears to be a coke-fueled performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night not in the three hours it usually takes, but less than forty minutes. Nevertheless, Gene is beloved by his actors, a motley assortment of fringe talent whose acting credits extend no further than You Tube videos and a CSI cameo as a dead body. The Chechen Mafia types think it’s ‘big time’ to send a bullet to a rival gang but Goran, and his goofy number two, Noho Hank, conduct business over phones tapped by the police, record their own criminal behavior for reasons unknown, and Hank sends Barry texts with emojis more appropriate for a twelve-year-old than a cold-blooded killer.  

It is all low rent, like the bric-a-brac that sprung up around Disneyland in Anaheim because Walt was not smart enough to buy the adjacent land (a problem he rectified in Florida). The theater troupe runs through scenes from movies while Gene toggles between boredom and ferocity (his takedown of Barry’s performance of the scene made famous by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross might be the single funniest in the show’s eight episodes) while the police officers who investigate Ryan’s murder have a Keystone Kops aspect to them. The lead detective, Janice, is seduced by Gene’s hammy come-ons while her underlings generally fumble about until the case breaks late in the season. 

As Barry’s sort-of love interest, Sarah Goldburg’s Sally Reed comes closest to getting her brass ring. She desperately wants to nail her role as Macbeth in front of an agent who she hopes will sign her so she can then dump him when she becomes more successful (hey, it worked for Emma Stone). While she has the unfortunate experience of getting dropped by another manager who she won’t sleep with, she is a ladder-climber, dropping Barry when he becomes jealous of her flirtations with a guy who voices Pinnochio and muscling her way past her classmates for the starring role in their Shakespeare production only to circle back to Barry when his grief over killing a Marine buddy spills over into his Macbeth performance with her. 

Overall, the show has an off-kilter feel. Through the first half of the eight episode season, Barry’s world weary assassin is reminiscent of John Cusack in Gross Pointe Blank. Bill Hader is more sad sack, his facial expressions elastic in joy when Sally is with him but often puzzled and muted when trying to cope with his handler, Fuches, and the Chechens. The introduction of Chris (the Marine Corps buddy) midway through the season is the pivot point that takes the show in a much darker direction. Barry, Chris, and two other former Marines are enlisted to knock out Goran’s Bolivian competition, but their mission fails. The two Marines are killed in a shootout and Barry murders Chris when he threatens to go to the police, staging the scene as a suicide even though Barry had met the man’s wife and child. 

Barry appears to wrap things in a neat Hollywood bow when Barry murders Goran and his henchmen and the police pin the whole mess on a gang war with the Bolivians, Ryan (the deceased actor) and one of the Marines who died in the shootout with the Bolivians. But in an odd coda scene, we flash forward in time. Barry and Sally are together, working on a two-person play (directed by Gene) and spending a weekend with Gene and Janice at Gene’s retreat. Janice notices Barry’s surname is listed as “Block” not “Berkman” on the play’s poster and her suspicions are further aroused when Gene reminisces about the impromptu monologue about being a hit man Barry did to get into Gene’s acting class. When Janice sneaks out to look up “Barry Block” on Facebook, she ties the whole caper together, realizing it was Barry who appeared on a grainy video of the original murder scene. He confronts her and tries to talk her out of arresting him. When she demurs, he kills her, promising to be better as the show fades to black.

Huh? Barry has been renewed for a second season so I suppose this loose end will also be tied up, or maybe it was all just a dream (there were several such sequences in past episodes). This is Hollywood after all. 


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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Cornell - 5/8/77

May Eighth is practically a religious holiday for Deadheads. To the converted, no more needs to be said. The mere utterance of this phrase immediately calls to mind a live show of such technical precision it is now immortalized in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. But to paraphrase from the Hagaddah, “what makes Cornell different from all other nights?” 

Cornell long ago secured its place atop the ranking of greatest Dead shows of all-time, but even in that rarefied air, opinions vary. Declaring something as “the best” on a topic as subjective as music, and particularly among a rabid fan base that runs the spectrum from octogenarians to Millenials, is impossible. 

I prefer to think of Cornell as the best example of that era of the Dead’s music - which is no small thing. The band had “retired” in October 1974 amid financial problems, burn out, and an interest among the members in pursuing solo projects. A four night Winterland run closed this chapter of what is known as “Jazz-era” Dead - shows punctuated by lengthy improvisational jams, trumpet and saxophone accompaniment, and a numbing perfection that makes one show indistinguishable from the other in the high quality of the musicianship. At times, these shows stretched to nearly four hours, and signature versions of songs like Dark Star, Eyes of the World, and Stella Blue abound. 

But even in retirement, the band never quite left the stage. A sui generis show in March 1975 stands as a lone example of what can best be described as Prog Rock on LSD, a 40 minute set comprising the entire album Blues For Allah featuring Merl Saunders on keyboard and jams so thick you feel like you are being sucked into a black hole. 

When the band emerged fully in 1976, the sound changed too. With Mickey Hart back in the fold, the group moved away from five-piece jazz influences and into a more traditional rock ’n’ roll sound splashed with a light coating of pop exemplified in the early 1977 album Terrapin Station. The band also settled on what would become the standard format for their live shows (but for some acoustic/electric sets in 1980) until Garcia’s passing in 1995: two sets with a “drums/space” segment midway through the second set, and a single encore. 

By early 1977, with the tour rust shaken off, the Dead alit for a spring tour for the ages, invading the Northeast with hot warm up shows in New York City, New Haven, Passaic, Boston and Springfield before landing in Ithaca, New York on the night of May 8th. The band burst out of the gate with an aggressive version of New Mingelwood Blues featuring hard charging leads by Garcia and speaker-rattling bass bombs by Lesh. First sets allowed the band to root through its back catalogue of musical influences - rhythm and blues, bluegrass, country, and folk, and Cornell is no different. Be it the ragtime feel of Deal or the country standard Mama Tried (with Weir giving a “thanks, Mom” nod on Mother’s Day). The band is on point and as will be clear when the fireworks really start later, the unsung hero of the night is Betty Jackson-Cantor, whose mix is sheer perfection - the instruments blending so seamlessly you would be excused for thinking the band was in a studio, the vocals clear as a bell. Of course, the band was not above contemporary influences and the stretched out set closer, Dancin’ in the Streets, a song of protest and resistance in the 60s, is rearranged in a hypnotic disco tempo that just will not stop. 

For those of us who grew up on Cornell via cassette tape, the second set starts anachronistically. Can we rate different versions of Take A Step Back and deem this one the best? There is something in Jerry’s “horribly smashed” comment that always makes me chuckle and Bob’s admonition that you don’t want all your friends up front to be “real bug eyed” is just so Bobby. The band must have been satisfied with the crowd’s response, because Scarlet>Fire starts with a musical explosion that floods your eardrums in a way that every time I hear it, I mutter to myself “perfect from note one.” And it is. There is sheer joy in Garcia’s voice and magic in his finger tips as he leads the band through this staple of the Dead’s canon. Jerry’s leads are matched by Lesh’s throbbing bass and Keith Godchaux’s rich piano counterpoint. 

The thing you notice is how effortless the playing sounds, like the notes are arranged in front of them and the band is simply following a chart, but what you are experiencing instead is a group performing at a creative peak. The transition from Scarlet into Fire is extended, as Garcia starts playing the line until Lesh decides to join. While latter-day Heads are familiar with the coupling of these two songs, this was all new territory back in ’77. The band brings the funk as Phil lays down a groove that will get your toes tapping, with Jerry picking up on the beat and away we go through verses and soaring guitar solos. Fire is also a perfect example of Weir’s unconventional but “just exactly perfect” (for the Dead) rhythm guitar playing. He does not play the rhythm so much as embellish Garcia’s leads, punctuating the musical themes while allowing Garcia’s brilliance to take center stage. 

Weir’s Estimated Prophet was a newcomer to the live rotation and was played frequently throughout 1977, including at Cornell. But even after a few months, the band was already stretching the relatively straight-forward studio version into a slinkier live performer, with Garcia leaning into his wah-wah pedal and the song taking on a bit of a reggae feel. 

As events unfolded, it is easy to see Estimated as a sort of palate cleanser before the St Stephen > NFA > St Stephen main course. Part of what makes Cornell so memorable is even the minor hiccups are perfect, as in Donna’s too-soon entry into the “lady fingers” stanza of St Stephen, her voice ephemeral and drifting off as if it was always planned that way. The band barrels into Not Fade Away with gusto. Of course, Not Fade Away in the 70s was not the second-set crowd pleasing love letter from the band to the audience it became in later years. No, in Ithaca, New York, NFA was a balls-out rocker, stretched through and through and left hung out to dry, an orgy of musicianship that gives you hammer throwing guitar leads, room-rattling bass drops, and piano playing that will assault your senses in ways you did not think possible. 

And then, after a brief segue back into St Stephen, Jerry throws out Morning Dew, a 14-minute masterpiece of music that has within it moments of hushed silence, where you can hear a pin drop in a venue filled with 4,800 people, interspersed with rich instrumentals that punctuate the lyrics as the song builds toward a crescendo that if heard under the proper influence, may literally make you feel like you are seeing God. It all comes to a head as Jerry goes for ever more ambitious leads, his fingers fanning his guitar at such a speed the room starts to spin; and, as he bellows the final song’s final line, “I guess it does not matter . . . anyway” Keith hits a piano run that puts an exclamation point on the proceedings. The song will literally take your breath away, Weir’s meek “thank you” not nearly doing justice to what may be the greatest single song performance in the band’s 30-year career. The night ends with a quintessential Dead coda - One More Saturday Night - played on Sunday. 

Whew. Much has been written about Cornell, particularly with its “official” release last year around the time of the 40th anniversary of the concert. For me, the show has been a part of my life for going on 25 years. I know every note, from the wonky one Jerry hits to bring the band back into St Stephen to the one Phil plays signaling the full transition into Fire on the Mountain. I have played “air piano” as Keith closes out Morning Dew and mimicked Weir’s A-YOW during One More Saturday Night. Whether Cornell is the band’s greatest performance or not is a dorm room debate for music lovers, many of whom are well into their fifth (or sixth) decade of living and beside the point of simply appreciating a band playing at the height of their powers on a night that is now part of musical history. 


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Other posts about the Grateful Dead

Monday, April 30, 2018

Book Review - Playing With Fire

In the annals of modern American history, there are few years more consequential than 1968. It is, in its way, the dividing line between the post-World War II years and the modern day, pregnant with a whole litany of “what if” scenarios that would make anyone who believes in the Butterfly Effect dizzy. In Playing With Fire, the MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell digs into that tumultuous year with vigor and insight. A few missteps aside, for anyone who wants a neat and tidy survey of the political landscape as our country teetered on the edge of political civil war, this is the book for you. 

1968’s importance is axiomatic. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy are psychic wounds that the country still grapples with. The Vietnam War was “lost” in the late-January Tet Offensive that crippled President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to seek a second full term as President that was already weakened by the insurgent candidacy of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. On the Republican side, Richard Nixon staged an improbable political comeback, fought off challenges from governors like George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, and the up-and-coming Ronald Reagan, while the country was tearing itself apart over the war and civil rights. 

It’s a lot and O’Donnell juggles these meta narratives capably and fairly. O’Donnell’s portraits of these political titans is even-handed and he avoids falling into the romanticism of a say, Chris Matthews, who waxes rhapsodic about RFK’s quixotic run, opting instead for a mostly clear-eyed assessment of each man’s strengthens and weaknesses. To wit, RFK is, of course, a magnetic personality who immediately attracted the support of legions upon his entering the race, but O’Donnell is unafraid to point out the opportunism in his move and the uncertainty Kennedy had, almost until the minute he announced, about running. LBJ is a petty and domineering personality, humiliating his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, at every turn while currying favor and offering tips to Nixon, an idea that is unthinkable today. Nixon is ruthless and calculating, but O’Donnell also gives the man his due for seeing opportunity and seizing it, moving ruthlessly toward his ultimate goal of winning the Presidency.

O’Donnell is at his best in set piece discussions around major events of the year. He ably navigates the Democrats’ convention in Chicago (which, candidly, feels like it deserves its own book) and the waning days of the general election, when it became clear to LBJ that the Nixon team had established a back channel to South Vietnam, discouraging the Thieu government from working with Johnson and promising a better deal when the Republican took the White House. O’Donnell also has a touch feel for the inside game of politics, the crafting of speeches, the leaking of information for political gain, and general skullduggery that goes on in the heat of a race. 

O’Donnell’s own history as a Senate staffer influences the lesser known stories he tells.  O’Donnell puts you in the room when Teddy Kennedy flies into Green Bay for a secret meeting with McCarthy just before his older brother is about to enter the race and in the Humphrey hotel room as the sitting Vice President prepares to address a convention that has descended into chaos. But more than that, O’Donnell provides the necessary framing, helping the reader understand political motivations, decision making, and behavior that can only come from having sat in those rooms and watched as those calculations are made. 

While O’Donnell draws a few clear (and obvious) lines between 1968 and the modern day, be it in Roger Ailes’s meteoric rise and the beginning of the now-fifty-year “Southern Strategy” Republicans have deployed to play on white fears in the service of electoral gain, the professionalization of campaigning, the use of town halls formats and advertising, the end of party broker selected nominees in favor of primaries, oddly, he does not draw the clear analogy between McCarthy’s insurgency, and subsequent refusal to try and elect Humphrey, with the same actions of Bernie Sanders in 2016. And while it is fair to point out that unlike McCarthy, Sanders did endorse his primary challenger, like McCarthy, who, less than two weeks before election day endorse Humphrey, Sanders showed a similar dispassion toward the task. When A. Phillip Randolph took out a full-page ad pleading with McCarthy to endorse Humphrey, echoes of those making a similar argument - you may not like Clinton, but do you really want Trump - could not have been clearer. While the Vietnam rift was greater than anything the Democrats dealt with in ’16, the idea of a party less than unified in support of its nominee accruing to the benefit of their opponent is true nonetheless. 

O’Donnell also places more importance on the “Chenault Affair” than I think reasonable. O’Donnell makes it sound like LBJ’s confirmation of the back channel between Nixon’s team and the South Vietnamese government could have been a game changer that swayed the election; however, the late discovery (less than a week before the election) suggests that had Johnson done as he threatened to do - leak the information to the press - it could have just as easily been dismissed by the Republicans as a desperation tactic as a treasonous act to help elect a Republican President. Here too, the echoes of 2016 come into play, with information about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia being kept under wraps, but again, O’Donnell does not draw the obvious parallel. 

I also quibbled with O’Donnell’s coda. Although it is true that Nixon scrapped out a less-than-one-percent popular vote victory, O’Donnell implies Illinois’s electoral votes were dispositive when in fact they were not. Had Humphrey won Illinois, Nixon would have still won 275 electoral votes, a bare majority, but not enough to change the result. Of course, the narrowness of Nixon’s win was in large part due to Wallace’s presence as a third-party candidate preaching a more virulent form of white supremacy than Nixon could dare espouse. Four years later, Nixon easily carried all the states Wallace won in 1968 along with 61 percent of the popular vote, a total matched in the 20th century by only FDR in 1936 and LBJ in 1964. 

1968 will always be an important time in our nation’s history; a year when something as simple as a candidate exiting a campaign rally in one direction instead of another or a storm blowing through Memphis a few hours later than it did might have altered the course of history. But we only have the history that happened, and Playing with Fire documents it nicely. 


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Sunday, April 22, 2018

It Was Not Dusty's Fault

In recent years, no baseball team has won more preseason World Series titles than the Washington Nationals. Like clockwork, experts and prognosticators gush over the team’s talent and promise that this is the year they will get over the hump and bring the nation’s capital its first World Series title in almost 100 years. The expectations are understandable. Since 2012, the Nats have won four NL East titles and more regular season games than any other team except the Dodgers. Their pitching staff is anchored by Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young award winner and their number two, Stephen Strasburg, is becoming a threat to pick up his first. The everyday lineup stars Bryce Harper, the 2015 league MVP and other young stars like Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner. 

Of course, the team’s futility in the playoffs is well-documented. For all their regular season success, the Nats have been ushered out in what feels like successively more excruciating ways each October. The most recent failure cost the team’s manager, Dusty Baker, his job, even though he had piloted the team to division titles in both his years at the helm and 95 and 97 wins, respectively. Exit Dusty, enter Dave Martinez, the Cubs former bench coach who was expected to bring some of that Joe Maddon magic from the Windy City.

But in another year of World Series hopes, the Nats are sinking, and sinking fast. The team got off to a strong start by sweeping a three-game series in Cincinnati, but that has turned out to be fool’s gold. Not only are the Reds by far the worst team in the league, but since then, the Nats are 7-11. They are in fourth place in the division, four-and-a-half games behind the Mets. And here’s the thing, commentators can talk about slow starts and unusually cold weather, but for the Nats to get to 90 wins this year, they will need to go 80-61 (.567), to get to 95 wins, their mark in 2016, they will need to go 85-56 (.602) and to get to 97 wins, they will need to win 87 of their last 141 games, a .617 clip. In other words, a team playing .500 ball will have to play better baseball than division winning teams did over the entire season. 

Granted, the Mets and Phillies, the early division leaders, will come back to the pack. The Mets are relying on pitching that has not held up in recent years and the Phillies are a (mostly) young team that as recently as last year, was the league’s worst. But the Nats cannot count on other teams’ failures and the squad this year does not inspire much hope. Ryan Zimmerman, last year’s comeback player of the year, is back to his pre-2017 production, which is to say, very little. Adam Eaton, who the Nats gave up their three top pitching prospects for, missed most of last season with a knee injury, and after playing a handful of games this year, is again injured. While Harper is playing well, he’s getting little help from the rest of the squad, and the one bat the team desperately needs, Daniel Murphy, is still two weeks from returning. The pitching has been mediocre, the bullpen shaky (shocker), and yet, Martinez seems to be avoiding blame while offering precious little in terms of solutions. 

This state of affairs is depressing for a Nats fan. Everyone understands this may be Harper’s last year with the team and management was handed a surprise gift when last off season’s free agent class lingered far longer and many players signed for far less than expected. The Lerners are the richest owners in the sport and can be profligate spenders when they want to be, but they could not pony up $75 million over three years for Jake Arrietta? They did not think that a better back-up plan at first base than Matt Adams made sense? 

With Harper and Murphy a year away from free agency and Rendon a year behind then, why the Lerners did not go all in, especially when so many free agents were in the bargain bin, is beyond me. And what message does it send to Harper, Murphy, and Rendon that you are not willing to spend when the championship window is open? I know there is “a lot of baseball” left to be played, but we have also seen this movie before. In both 2013 and 2015, coming off dominating regular seasons that ended in playoff heartbreak, the team fell flat, missing the playoffs and finishing just above .500. It may be too early to say that will happen again, but the early returns do not look promising. 


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Monday, March 26, 2018

Scapegoating Facebook

Relax, everyone. The media has found the real culprit behind all the shenanigans that resulted in Donald Trump becoming President.

Is it Jim Comey, the FBI Director who sent a letter to Congress 11 days before the election to advise Congress he had re-opened his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email usage while also hiding from the public the fact that his agency had an active, counter-intelligence investigation into the Trump campaign? Nah. Comey got a huge advance to write a book and is weeks away from a promotional tour that will further burnish his reputation in the media as a straight shooter.

Is it the Russian government that hacked into the DNC’s computer servers and John Podesta’s personal email account? No, the Trump Administration has not even bothered to spend money specifically appropriated to address Russian interference in our electoral process.

Is it Wikileaks? They took those stolen email and disseminated all of it on the Internet and timed the releases strategically (during the Democratic National Convention and in the final weeks of the campaign) for maximum exposure. Nope, Julian Assange is still holed up in an embassy nearly suffocating on his own sanctimony.

Is it the media itself? That organism that decided it had Hillary Fatigue before she even announced for President, spent two years calling her shady, conflating her campaign against Trump as a  “lesser of two evils” election, and, of course, reported out on all that stolen email (which they knew was stolen at the time), serving to reinforce the very narrative they had created about her untrustworthiness. Of course not.

No, reporters have decided to pull out their pitchforks and storm Silicon Valley demanding the head of Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s crime, such that I can tell, is having lax standards about the protection of private information millions of its users voluntarily give up as part of the Faustian bargain we have agreed to in making social media an integral part of our lives. Now do not get me wrong, it is not a good look when it is revealed you accepted ad payments during the 2016 campaign in rubles or that Cambridge Analytica was able to so easily vacuum up information that should have been protected.

But scapegoating Facebook serves a very important purpose for the serious people on TV who analyze politics – it absolves them of any responsibility for what happened while conveniently laying blame at a company with which many people have a love/hate (or in some cases hate/hate) relationship.

Essentially, “the media” (that is, print journalism, cable news, and online news outlets) are saying:

“See folks, the problem was Facebook allowed you to get duped into believing things that were not true, we had nothing to do with your finding Hillary less trustworthy than Trump by spending nearly two years talking about her use of a private email server, an offense so minor, the State Department’s Inspector General could barely slap her wrist for doing it. No, it had nothing to do with CNN covering empty podiums at Trump rallies as “breaking news” or airing his rally speeches in their entirety, thereby saving him the effort of having to do paid advertising. It certainly had nothing to do with making up stories about the Clinton Foundation, suggesting no wrong doing, just “questions being asked.” About what? Who knows? It just mattered that an A-rated charity doing good work for millions of people in the third world was portrayed as some sort of slush fund for the Clintons to live a comfortable lifestyle. And it most assuredly did not have anything to do with an FBI Director flouting DOJ guidelines by commenting publicly about an investigation into a political campaign less than two weeks before an election. No, that guy got a sweet six-figure advance and the ever-lasting knob-polishing of the press for being a man of moral rectitude, not an aider and abetter of Trump’s election.”


No, it’s all Facebook’s fault.

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