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This spring, TEDxPhiladelphia will officially return with a daylong multidisciplinary conference championing “ideas worth spreading.” We’ve been in hibernation for two years [yawn] but we’re thrilled to report that exciting happenings are on the horizon. On Friday, March 28, 2014, TEDxPhiladelphia will set up shop at Temple Performing Arts Center, bringing together engaging speakers, performers, exhibitors and participants to reflect on the 2014 theme “The New Workshop of the World.” The conference will echo Philadelphia’s past and present as a hub for entrepreneurs, manufacturers, developers, artists, DIY enthusiasts, and a dizzying array of thinkers, makers, and doers, while serving as a platform for people dedicated to changing our corner of the world. Right now, you can help us build the TEDxPhiladelphia experience. If you know someone who belongs on the speaker roster, or if you belong there yourself, we want to hear from you! The speaker nomination period is open now until January 16, 2014. For questions about the process, see our Speaker Nomination FAQ.
How To Disarm The NRA
All You Need Is Love. And $38 Million.
It is a sad testament to the depth of our national indifference that it took the massacre of 20 six year olds in their first grade classroom to finally trigger a united and sustained public outcry for an end to the madness. After 62 mass murders and counting since 1982, we have, it would appear, finally reached the tipping point.
On this we can all agree: Never again.
In fairness, this complacency was not entirely our own fault, it was, by and large, fostered and fomented by the National Rifle Association, which runs interference and messaging for the corporations that mass produce elegant machines of precision-engineered lethality. The NRA is paid handsomely to ensure that gun makers are never held accountable for the bloodbaths that result whenever their product is used as intended. The NRA are, according to inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom, a fearsome lot, Vader-esque masters of the dark arts of fear, intimidation and paranoia. And that’s just with its allies.
With all apologies to Leonard Cohen, the NRA has seen the future, baby, and it is murder.
The NRA is almost wizardly in its harnessing of the spellbinding power of mass media to obfuscate the obvious. In the wake of every one of those 62 mass murders, the NRA successfully convinced us to ignore the literally smoking guns at the center of all this carnage. Last month’s farcical press conference was no exception.
Pay no attention to that armor-plated guy with the M-16 methodically wasting the audience at a Batman movie. Gun laws can’t stop that kind of thing. Shit happens, get over it.
Pay no attention to that Kansas City Chiefs linebacker that just blew his head off in the stadium parking lot after ventilating the mother of his child nine times over. It’s Bob Costas who committed the real crime: Attempting to speak truth to half time.
Twelve dead kids at Columbine High? I know what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t the guns, it was the Nine Inch Nails and the Marilyn Manson and the Trenchcoat Mafia, whatever that is. Guns don’t kill, people kill. Especially goth people.
And so on.
But as effective as it is at manipulating public opinion, the NRA is even more adept at bullying Congress into inaction. The voting record of every lawmaker in the land is assessed and scored for simpatico-ness with the NRA agenda. Pity the Republican that does not score a perfect score or close to it, likewise the blue-dawg Dems trying to stay out of the doghouse in the red states they rep, because in addition to leading the congressional GOP around by its nose, they also claim to have some 50-plus Democrats on a short leash.
It is money that gives them this power.
Money in the form of much-needed campaign contributions and threats of financing pro-gun opponents to run against errant lawmakers in the next election. What is surprising is how little money they actually have to spend to completely buy Congress. In the last three elections, the NRA has spent a combined $3.3 million in direct campaign contributions.* That’s chump change. Last election cycle, Obama and Romney raised a combined $1.8 billion.
If Congress can be bought for a measly $3.3 milllion, I say we buy it back.
What we need — and by ‘we’, I mean all the people tired of being shot at — is a gun control Super PAC that will make the following offer to any congressman currently accepting campaign contributions from the NRA: If you will promise to change your position from ‘pro gun’ to ‘gun neutral’ and consider gun control legislation on its merits instead of mindlessly obstructing any efforts to prevent the next Sandy Hook — and there will be another — we will replace any and all campaign funding the NRA withdraws as a result. Additionally, we will match the NRA dollar for dollar if they bankroll a pro-gun opponent to run against you. Because, after all, it could be your kids next time.
All we need is money, shitloads of money, and I know where we can find it.
Mayor Bloomberg, get out your checkbook. Time to put your money where your mouth is. (In all fairness, he already has.) And while you’re at it, why don’t you call Warren Buffett, he’s a reasonable man, pretty sure he’d be down with this. And Bill Gates, he’s in the saving lives business these days. And they can call their 73 billionaire philanthropist buddies that signed the Giving Pledge. That’s, like, $73 billion if we play our cards right. Pretty much everyone in Hollywood not named John Voight would ante up. The cops. Life insurers. And let’s not forget, there’s 311,591,917 Americans that haven’t joined the NRA. If everyone gives a dollar, that’s $311 million. By my calculation, that’s enough to buy 100 Congresses.
All kidding aside, I am deadly serious about this. This is doable, if not inevitable. Inaction is no longer an option. Because if, in the end, we do nothing to overcome the awful inertia of the status quo, if no good ever comes out of this evil, the wholesale slaughter of 20 six-year-olds and the educators that died trying to protect them will remain for all eternity just as mindfuckingly meaningless and endlessly heartbreaking as their killer intended.
Jonathan Valania is the Editor-In-Chief of Phawker.com
*In addition to direct contributions, the NRA spent a combined $44 million in the last three election cycles financing independent expenditures such as negative ads
ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: It has been said that the genre of power pop -– frail, white man-boys with cherry guitars reinvigorating the harmonic convergence of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Byrds with the caffeinated rush of youth –- is the revenge of the nerds. Big Star pretty much invented the form, which explains the worshipful altars erected to the band in the bedrooms of lonely, disenfranchised melody-makers from Los Angeles to London and points in between. Though they never came close to fame or fortune in their time, the band continues to hold a sacred place in the cosmology of pure pop, a glittering constellation that remains invisible to the naked mainstream eye. Succeeding generations of pop philosophers and aspiring rock Mozarts pore over the group’s music like biblical scholars hunched over the Dead Sea Scrolls, plumbing the depths of the band’s shadowy history, searching for meaning in Big Star’s immaculate conception and stillborn death.
Big Star was the sound of four Memphis boys caught in the vortex of a time warp, reinterpreting the jangling, three-minute Brit-pop odes to love, youth and the loss of both that framed their formative years, the mid-’60s. Just one problem: It was the early ’70s. They were out of fashion and out of time. Within the band, this disconnect with the pop marketplace would lead to bitter disillusionment, self-destruction and death. But that same damning obscurity would nurture their mythology and become Big Star’s greatest ally, an amber that would preserve the band’s three full-length albums -– No. 1 Record, Radio City and Sister Lovers/Third –- as perfect specimens of neo-classic guitar pop. That Big Star’s recorded legacy would go on to inspire countless alternative acts is one of pop history’s cruelest ironies –- everyone from R.E.M. to the Replacements to Elliott Smith would come to see Big Star as the great missing link between the ’60s and the ’70s and beyond.
There is a dreamy, pre-Raphaelite aura that surrounds the legend of Big Star. Like the doomed, tender-aged beauties in Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides, the tragic career of Big Star would unravel in the autumnal Sunday afternoon sunlight of the early 1970s. The band’s sound and vision hinged on the contrasting sensibilities of songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. In the gospel of Big Star, Bell is the sacrificial lamb –- fragile, doe-eyed and marked for an early death. Chilton is the prodigal son, returning to Memphis after traveling the world, having tasted the bacchanalian pleasures of teen stardom with the Box Tops in the 1960s.
Where Bell was precious and naive, Chilton was nervy and sardonic, but the band’s steady downward spiral would set him on the dark path of personal disintegration –- booze, pills, violence and attempted suicide. Years later, he would reinvent himself as an irascible iconoclast and semi-ironic interpreter of obscure soul, R&B and Italian rock ‘n’ roll. Drummer Jody Stephens, the wide-eyed innocent of the group, and bassist Andy Hummel, the sly-grinning sphinx with the glam-rock hair, were the shepherds in the manger, midwives to the miracle birth. In the aftermath of Big Star’s collapse, Stephens would become a born-again Christian, and Hummel would go on to design jet fighters for the military, anonymous and happy behind the wall of secrecy his job would require. – JONATHAN VALANIA
SLATE: Rather than tell a too-much-too-soon story, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me instead profiles a power-pop troupe whose oeuvre is likened, by musician-fan Robyn Hitchcock, to “a letter that was posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985.” It’s become a cliché to call Big Star, the Memphis group led by the extraordinary songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, “the ultimate critics’ band,” and Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s rock-doc embraces this truism by presenting the writers and descendant indie-rockers who gave Big Star a successful afterlife as fans foremost, and zealots in the crusade to disseminate their idols’ tragicomically unheard work.
The film is neatly divided in two: It first follows the brief alliance of “art brat” Chilton, teenage singer of a four-million-selling single with the Box Tops, and guitar geek Chris Bell, founding mastermind who succumbed to depression and a car crash in 1978, before documenting the years-long groundswell that saw their cult grow amid reissues, cover versions, and a 1993 reformation. Big Star only released two albums during their commercially invisible career, with label Ardent Records stymied by distribution crises, and the band’s flowering was both nourished and plagued by the local “society of oddballs” (seen in brief, vivid archival clips shot by photographer and scenester William Eggleston); people with big hair, awful shirts, and absurd mustaches reveled nightly after the sale of liquor by the drink had become legal in Memphis in 1970. Before drugs and personal demons took a decisive toll on the band, their triumphant moment came when a gaggle of the nation’s rock critics came to town at the invitation of an Ardent promo man, and were blown away by a Big Star set. Nothing Can Hurt Me mythologizes the event with glowing reminiscences by the attendees, and a sense that it planted the seed for the band’s resurrection, even as Bell was having a breakdown that prompted him to erase master tapes of the first album, and limited his contribution to their second to songwriting.
Handicapped by the near absence of live footage of the band’s heyday, DeNicola and Mori give a fair hearing to most sides debating the algebra of Big Star’s quick flame-out in the ’70s, from flying against the prevailing musical winds (“We weren’t heavy“) to the indifference of industry players. But it’s also clear that they benefited from the nurturing of Ardent owner John Fry, producer Jim Dickinson (of the stillborn but eventually acclaimed third LP), and the cadre of enthusiasts who raved about them in the music press when they weren’t tracking Alex and Chris down at their post-breakup restaurant jobs. MORE
PREVIOUSLY: The year is 1999 and I’m heading over to Alex Chilton’s house, a charming Creole cottage of Civil War vintage he’s in the midst of restoring. Chilton is a forbidding totem of American music with a formidable pedigree: white soul prodigy; guiding light of Big Star; progenitor of power-pop purity, pill-addled punk and swampy garage blooze; indie’s aging princeling of white failure. He’s a musician’s musician, and each entry on his resume has spun off countless imitators and innovators.
He got his house for a song, he tells me, because it’s located in one of the Big Easy’s more depleted neighborhoods. He’d warned me in advance that cab drivers were reluctant to venture there during the day and wouldn’t even consider it after dark.
As the cab slows at a stop sign, two men in tracksuits approach and the driver waves them off, slamming the locks down and rolling up the windows. I see the suspicion in his eyes as he shoots daggers at me in the rearview mirror. What business would a white boy have here other than scoring drugs?
“Why are you going here?” he demands.
The cabbie ignores me. As the sun dips below the skyline, I begin to wonder how I’m going to get back to my hotel.
“Will you come back and get me later on?” I ask.
When we finally get to Chilton’s house, it looks like a beached tugboat in the weeds. Bars cover the doors and windows. Once inside I tell Chilton about the cabbie’s uneasiness.
“Well, one of them did get shot down the street a month ago,” he says straight-faced, before turning indignant, adding, “But it’s broad daylight! What a pussy!”
Chilton is the only white person in the neighborhood, he confirms, though that could soon change. A Caucasian couple is looking to buy the place across the street.
“There goes the neighborhood,” he deadpans. “I’ve always lived in black neighborhoods. I’ve always related to black people more than white people. If I lived in a white neighborhood, all my neighbors would be washing their BMWs and tending to the garden, and I can’t really relate to that.”
Chilton said something else to me that day that would become evident in the wake of the recent flood and the diaspora that followed: “In the South they don’t care how close the black man gets as long as he doesn’t get too big. In the North they don’t care how big the black man gets as long as he doesn’t get too close.” MORE
ROLLING STONE: The first thing you notice about Camden, New Jersey, is that pretty much everyone you talk to has just gotten his or her ass kicked. Instead of shaking hands, people here are always lifting hats, sleeves, pant legs and shirttails to show you wounds or scars, then pointing in the direction of where the bad thing just happened.
“I been shot six times,” says Raymond, a self-described gangster I meet standing on a downtown corner. He pulls up his pant leg. “The last time I got shot was three years ago, twice in the femur.” He gives an intellectual nod. “The femur, you know, that’s the largest bone in the leg.”
“First they hit me in the head,” says Dwayne “The Wiz” Charbonneau, a junkie who had been robbed the night before. He lifts his wool cap to expose a still-oozing red strawberry and pulls his sweatpants down at the waist, drawing a few passing glances. “After that, they ripped my pockets out. You can see right here. . . .”
Even the cops have their stories: “You can see right here, that’s where he bit me,” says one police officer, lifting his pant leg. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to have to shoot this dog.’”
“I’ve seen people shot and gotten blood on me,” says Thomas Bayard Townsend III, a friendly convicted murderer with a tear tattoo under his eye. “If you turn around here, and your curiosity gets the best of you, it can cost you your life.”
Camden is just across the Delaware River from the brick and polished cobblestone streets of downtown Philadelphia, where oblivious tourists pour in every year, gobbling cheese steaks and gazing at the Liberty Bell, having no idea that they’re a short walk over the Ben Franklin Bridge from a full-blown sovereignty crisis – an un-Fantasy Island of extreme poverty and violence where the police just a few years ago essentially surrendered a city of 77,000.
All over America, communities are failing. Once-mighty Rust Belt capitals that made steel or cars are now wastelands. Elsewhere, struggling white rural America is stocking up on canned goods and embracing the politics of chaos, sending pols to Washington ready to hit the default button and start the whole national experiment all over again. But in Camden, chaos is already here. In September, its last supermarket closed, and the city has been declared a “food desert” by the USDA. The place is literally dying, its population having plummeted from above 120,000 in the Fifties to less than 80,000 today. Thirty percent of the remaining population is under 18, an astonishing number that’s 10 to 15 percent higher than any other “very challenged” city, to use the police euphemism. Their home is a city with thousands of abandoned houses but no money to demolish them, leaving whole blocks full of Ninth Ward-style wreckage to gather waste and rats.
It’s a major metropolitan area run by armed teenagers with no access to jobs or healthy food, and not long ago, while the rest of America was ranting about debt ceilings and Obamacares, Camden quietly got pushed off the map. That was three years ago, when new governor and presumptive future presidential candidate Chris Christie abruptly cut back on the state subsidies that kept Camden on life support. The move left the city almost completely ungoverned – a graphic preview of what might lie ahead for communities that don’t generate enough of their own tax revenue to keep their lights on. Over three years, fires raged, violent crime spiked and the murder rate soared so high that on a per-capita basis, it “put us somewhere between Honduras and Somalia,” says Police Chief J. Scott Thomson.
“They let us run amok,” says a tat-covered ex-con and addict named Gigi. “It was like fires, and rain, and babies crying, and dogs barking. It was like Armageddon.” MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Lee Fields may well be the slowest-rising star in show business — he’s certainly among the sweetest. At 63, an age when most artists of his style and stature have long since been put out to pasture, Fields’ career is just now catching fire, after decades of fits and starts — and even a premature retirement in the 80s — stretching back to his first recording in 1969. Which works out well because everybody knows that happy endings in show biz come to those who see it as a marathon, not a sprint. And by anyone’s measure, Lee Fields is winning, and not just in the Charlie Sheen sense of the word.
Born in the South but having lived most of his life in or around New York City, Fields was blessed with voice that many compared to a young James Brown, so much so that he was dubbed ‘Little JB’. Fields rode out the 70’s with a string of rawboned funk/soul recordings that never quite became hits, but years later would become prized artifacts amongst hardcore soul scholar/collectors. Frustrated by his lack of commercial success and with a family to raise, Fields quit music and went into real estate. But the fire in the belly never really went away.
At his wife’s urging he started performing again in the 90s, eventually finding himself in the employ of Gabe Kaplan and Philippe Lehman, a pair of Brooklyn hipster soul merchants, who were almost single-handedly reviving the classic funk/soul brotherhood with labels like Desco, Soul Fire and Daptone. This led to a hitmaking partnership with French DJ/house music It Boy Martin Solveig in the early aughts and culminated in Faithful Man, his 2012 homage to the Philly International sound. In advance of Friday’s performance at Union Transfer on Friday, we got Mr. Fields on the phone to talk about all the above and then some.
LEE FIELDS: My mother was a gospel singer, singing in the church. My dad had a band when he was a young man, and had all the latest records and stuff around the house. Between the church and between my dad, it was inevitable. I was destined to do music. But I didn’t take it serious as a singer until I was about fourteen, when I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. I said, “Oh man, that looks like a cool thing to do.” One night I had a dare to go on a talent show. I took my friend up on the dare, and won the talent show. And when I saw the girls going crazy I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
PHAWKER: You saw the Beatles in ’63, that’s when you decided that this was something you’d be interested in doing. It would be another six years or so, when you did your first proper recording. Tell me about the circumstances of the first recording session. How did that come about?
LEE FIELDS: My manager at the time, this guy found me at a club and he wanted to manage me. I didn’t know. I thought that’s how it happened. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he wanted to manage me. It seemed like I had a person on my team. I wasn’t out there by myself anymore. So, he wanted to record me. We went from New York, where I was living at the time, all the way down to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Arthur Smith’s studio where James Brown recorded “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” We recorded “Bewildered” and I started building up my first fan base around New York. But the my career stagnated for a minute, until the early seventies when I recorded Let’s Talk it Over. Until then, I was still working a lot around New York in various clubs, Long Island and places. So I was very excited, no doubt.
PHAWKER: What happened with the “Let’s Talk it Over” album?
LEE FIELDS: London Records picked it up, so it got a lot of recognition at the time. It was working very good for a few years but the deal fell through on the record because music was starting to change. More pop-oriented acts. So, that fell a[art. It took me a while to get over the initial shock that I wasn’t with them anymore ‘cause you know, you’re a young man, you’re dreaming. You think that this is gonna be it. So that was one of the things that gave me hard skin, man. That tough skin. I realized that the problem with the music business is that nothing is predictable. You gotta go by your gut feeling, and you gotta have confidence in yourself. I remember the Bible teachings that my mother taught me, about having faith. That’s what I thought and really focused on. There must be some power other than the things that I could do. So I began to believe that a person making it out here would need energy from faith. I happen to be Christian, so I did a lot of hard work and a lot of praying.
PHAWKER: You have a remarkable voice and it’s often compared to a young James Brown. I’m wondering, did you ever meet
him or did you ever see him live back in the day?
LEE FIELDS: I saw him live and I met him. I met him down at Augusta in ’73. I was a young kid, you know, early twenties. And I said ‘Oh, wow. I’m gonna meet James Brown at his radio station.’ He owned a radio station, WRDW, down in Augusta. One of the guys at the radio station, one of the DJs, brought me in. He had a show that he was producing, so he brought me in. I was being interviewed on the radio station; James Brown was just getting back from Japan. They said he was coming out to the station I was being interviewed on to introduce a tour. It was so amazing; I was in a state of awe. That day felt like a dream. It was so surreal. He was definitely my hero.
PHAWKER: Do you remember what he said to you?
LEE FIELDS: I was so star struck. He would talk to me, but it was like a dream. It just got really real. He said some good things, “Young man, you’ve got to have confidence in yourself and your music.” He said something of that nature. “You’ve got to work hard.” He told me some wise things, as you would expect. “Everything will come through.”
PHAWKER: For much of the eighties, you were not doing music, at least publicly. What were you doing during that time?
LEE FIELDS: I was pretty active up until the eighties. I had my fan base and everything, and I was doing quite a few gigs. But in the eighties, new music stepped in. It was like, dance music. I began to listen to dance music very carefully. I learned as much as I could about dance music. But it seemed like it just wasn’t my time. I had a family then, and it was my dream to raise my kids right. Being a father, I had to man up. I had to bring in some bread. I had to reinvent myself. I bought a lot of real estate books, and read up about real estate. Once I got the hang of it I got a few cheap properties and fixed them up myself. Taught myself how to put the hot water heater in, that kind of thing. I had to learn a lot of stuff, because I couldn’t afford to pay nobody. I had to learn a lot about houses, how to fix them up, and rent them out. I liked it because in the beginning my desire was to become a businessman. But I still had a burning desire for music. It was there. I was still keeping up with all of the good records. The show business bug was still there.
PHAWKER: In the early 90s, you got back in the game. What changed?
LEE FIELDS: I was gonna buy a building over in Newark that had three apartments and a storefront. I was gonna rent out the apartments, and turn the storefront into an eatery that sold fish sandwiches for carryout. I saw a [carry out fish place across town] where it looked like he was making a killing doing that, selling fish. I firgured I had three apartments to rent. That would cover the mortgage, and give me a decent cash flow. Then I just turned the storefront portion of the place into a carryout fish place, and I thought it was a good idea. But then I took my wife over to look at this building. I knew she was gonna love it. I explained the plan to her, but she had a look in her eyes. She seemed a bit reluctant to do this. When I got over to the place, she looked at it. She looked at me and said, “What do you know about fish?” I said, “Well, it tastes good.” [Laughs] And she said, “You don’t know nothin’ about fish. How would you keep them?” When I thought about it, I didn’t. She advised me to stick with what I knew. I knew music.
For most of the ‘90s I was quite busy working the blues circuit. Then I met [co-owners of the now defunct Desco Records] Gabe Roth and Phil Lehman about ’97. Next thing you know I’m all the way in London, and the next thing you know, I’m on tour with The Soul Providers. I was touring all over the place, and liking it. One song led to another, and next thing you know, that label became defunct. Phillippe Lehman and Gabe Roth, they were no longer partners. Roth started up Daptone [and Lehman started Soul Fire records, which later became Truth & Soul] So I was recording for Roth’s label as well as recording for Lehman. Then they changed the name from the Soul Providers to the Dap-Kings. Sharon Jones was singing for the Dap Kings, and I was singing with the Sugarman 3, which was a smaller unit, so we could go to places that we couldn’t take the big band. So we went all over Europe, and all kind of places, opening up doors. This French DJ named Martin Solveig heard one of my tracks and he wanted me to cut this song called “Good Man” with him. Cause I wasn’t on contract with anybody. So I cut a song with Martin Solveig around 2000, and he called me back about a year and a half later wanting to do another song. In 2003 with “Everybody,” and that was a huge record in Europe. It was a dance record. Now here I am singing house music! I didn’t change my style, I’m still a soul man. I was singing soul on a house record, and next thing you know, we’re touring in Europe everywhere. That went on for about six years.
Next, Leon Michaels and Jeff Silverman said they had a project they wanted me to work on. I was busy now, busier than I ever was in the nineties. Early two-thousands, I’m still busy. I was singing with Martin Solveig at the time, I would fly home from Russia or France and I would go into the studio and record with them That went on for two years. We started around 2004, but there was so much stuff happening. They didn’t tell me what they were doing with the recordings. Around 2006, they tell me that the album is finished. I said, “What album?” They said “You got an album out there.” I was wondering what happened to all of those songs. It was the My World album. I came home from recording that day and told my wife, “Guess what? We got an album, baby!” She was so happy. I’ve been on the road ever since. Then the Faithful Man album came along. So, since 1990 I’ve been super busy. All over the place. And I’m still busy thanks to God Almighty.
PHAWKER: One of your best-known recordings is a track called, “Funky Screw.” So, what is a ‘funky screw’?
LEE FIELDS: The Funky Screw is a dance. The title is a little provocative. In the ‘70s, everything was totally provocative. Even today, I think it went overboard. Back then it was good to have a title that might suggest [sex], but when you listen to the lyrics, it’s all about something else. The “Funky Screw” is a provocative title, but it’s a dance. It has nothing to do with what it may imply. Back in the ‘70s, if you had a provocative title, the lyrics must be clean. But nowadays, they have provocative titles and the lyrics match the titles. Back then, they left something to the imagination. In other words, you could listen in front of your kids. They would have no idea what you were talking about. That’s how they made songs like that. But nowadays, there’s nothing left to the imagination.
LEE FIELDS: Well, that’s my philosophy. I’m not a doctor. I don’t know anything about medicine. The only thing I know about is music. There’s deep stuff like philosophy and medicine and law and all of that. My philosophy is that I think happiness or being in a good state of mind is healthy for people. I think when a person thinks of things that depress them, and all of the things inside them that suppress joy, I think it’s bad for your health. I think it’ll hurt you. When a person has a joyful spirit, the body operates better. At least for me it does. If I wake up in the morning and think of something depressing, and instead think about the laughs that I got inside of me. When something’s funny, enjoy it. Savor the moment. I would advise everybody to try that, and see how they feel about it. I truly believe that suppressed laughter can hurt you. We should be as joyful as we can. Everything nowadays is so depressing. Turn on the television, oh this man that did this stuff. You turn on the radio, this man that did this, this woman that did this. And then you turn on the news, everything just puts you deeper into the pit. You know what I mean? So laughter, man. It works for me. I get up in the morning and think about something funny, and I just look at the world from a positive perspective. I get my laugh on, man. Ain’t nothing wrong with it.
PHAWKER: I think that’s good advice. And I think that’s a good place for us to stop. Thank you for telling us your story, and I’m glad to see at sixty three that your career is going stronger than ever. Most people are done by now, or were done a long time ago. Your staying power is remarkable and inspiring. You still sound great, and you’re still making really vital, powerful music. More power to ya.
LEE FIELDS: Well thank you and thank you so much for letting me tell my story. Please come say ‘hello’ at the show.
ROLLING STONE: Sarah – let’s call her that for this story, though it’s neither the name her parents gave her nor the one she currently uses undercover – is a tall, fair woman in her midtwenties who’s pretty in a stock, anonymous way, as if she’d purposely scrubbed her face and frame of distinguishing characteristics. Like anyone who’s spent much time working farms, she’s functionally built through the thighs and trunk, herding pregnant hogs who weigh triple what she does into chutes to birth their litters and hefting buckets of dead piglets down quarter-mile alleys to where they’re later processed. It’s backbreaking labor, nine-hour days in stifling barns in Wyoming, and no training could prepare her for the sensory assault of 10,000 pigs in close quarters: the stench of their shit, piled three feet high in the slanted trenches below; the blood on sows’ snouts cut by cages so tight they can’t turn around or lie sideways; the racking cries of broken-legged pigs, hauled into alleys by dead-eyed workers and left there to die of exposure. It’s the worst job she or anyone else has had, but Sarah isn’t grousing about the conditions. She’s too busy waging war on the hogs’ behalf.
We’re sitting across the couch from a second undercover, a former military serviceman we’ll call Juan, in the open-plan parlor of an A-frame cottage just north of the Vermont-New York border. The house belongs to their boss, Mary Beth Sweetland, who is the investigative director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and who has brought them here, first, to tell their stories, then to investigate a nearby calf auction site. Sweetland trains and runs the dozen or so people engaged in the parlous business of infiltrating farms and documenting the abuse done to livestock herds by the country’s agri-giants, as well as slaughterhouses and livestock auctions. Given the scale of the business – each year, an estimated 9 billion broiler chickens, 113 million pigs, 33 million cows and 250 million turkeys are raised for our consumption in dark, filthy, pestilent barns – it’s unfair to call this a guerrilla operation, for fear of offending outgunned guerrillas. But what Juan and Sarah do with their hidden cams and body mics is deliver knockdown blows to the Big Meat cabal, showing videos of the animals’ living conditions to packed rooms of reporters and film crews. In many cases, these findings trigger arrests and/or shutdowns of processing plants, though the real heat put to the offending firms is the demand for change from their scandalized clients – fast-food giants and big-box retailers. “We’ve had a major impact in the five or six years we’ve been doing these operations,” says Sarah.
In its scrutiny of Big Meat – a cartel of corporations that have swallowed family farms, moved the animals indoors to prison-style plants in the middle of rural nowhere, far from the gaze of nervous consumers, and bred their livestock to and past exhaustion – the Humane Society (and outfits like PETA and Mercy for Animals) is performing a service that the federal government can’t, or won’t, render: keeping an eye on the way American meat is grown. That’s rightfully the job of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the agency is so short-staffed that it typically only sends inspectors out to slaughterhouses, where they check a small sample of pigs, cows and sheep before they’re put to death. That hour before her end is usually the only time a pig sees a government rep; from the moment she’s born, she’s on her own, spending four or five years in a tiny crate and kept perpetually pregnant and made sick from breathing in her own waste while fed food packed with growth-promoting drugs, and sometimes even garbage. (The word “garbage” isn’t proverbial: Mixed in with the grain can be an assortment of trash, including ground glass from light bulbs, used syringes and the crushed testicles of their young. Very little on a factory farm is ever discarded.)
Save the occasional staffer who becomes disgruntled and uploads pictures of factory crimes on Facebook, undercover activists like Juan and Sarah are our only lens into what goes on in those plants – and soon, if Big Meat has its way, we’ll not have even them to set us straight. A wave of new laws, almost entirely drafted by lawmakers and lobbyists and referred to as “Ag-Gag” bills, are making it illegal to take a farm job undercover; apply for a farm job without disclosing a background as a journalist or animal-rights activist; and hold evidence of animal abuse past 24 to 48 hours before turning it over to authorities. Since it takes weeks or sometimes months to develop a case – and since groups like HSUS have pledged not to break the law – these bills are stopping watchdogs in their tracks and giving factory farmers free rein behind their walls. Three states – Iowa, Utah and Missouri – have passed such measures in the past two years, and more are likely to follow. “That’s why we’ve come forward: People need to fight while there’s still time,” says Sarah. “We’re not trying to end meat or start a panic. But there’s a decent way to raise animals for food, and this is the farthest thing from it.” MORE
If there was a more beautiful, idiosyncratic and intelligently-designed debut released last year than Heyward Howkins’ Hale & Hearty, then I didn’t hear it. Heyward Howkins is basically a one-man band of joy helmed by Mr. John Heyward Howkins, a recovering geologist/e-book editor come indie-rock savant. Imagine, if you will, M. Ward and Antony naked and slathered in milk and honey, sealed in a giant clamshell to baste for a thousand years. A millennium from now, long after the oceans have evaporated and the insects once again rule the earth, when the shell opens music-box style, there will be this magnificent pearl sitting there on the half shell, and when you rub it, much like when you wet your finger and run around the lip of a crystal glass, out will come the sound the enchantment, and it will sound like uncannily like Hale & Hearty. Much the same could be said about the new Be Frank, Furness, Howkins’ just-released sophomore-slump-defying follow-up. Howkins is celebrating the release of Be Frank, Furness at Johnny Brendas on Thursday and we have a pair of tix to giveaway! To qualify, all you have to do is sign up for our mailing list (see right, below the masthead). Trust us, this is something you want to do. In addition to breaking news alerts and Phawker updates, you also get advanced warning about groovy concert ticket giveaways and other free swag opportunities like this one! After signing up, send us an email at FEED@PHAWKER.COM telling us a much, with the words HEYWOODJABLOWME in the subject line. If you are already on our mailing list, just send us an email saying as much. Either way, please include your full name and a mobile number for confirmation. Good luck and godspeed!
A batch of recently leaked to The Guardian has revealed new insights into the goals and finances of the secretive group called ALEC. The American Legislative Exchange Council is a group that brings together state legislators and representatives of corporations. Together, they develop model bills that lawmakers introduce and try to pass in their state legislatures. Through these model bills, ALEC has worked to privatize public education, cut taxes, reduce public employee compensation, oppose Obamacare and resist state regulations to reduce global warming gas emissions. “ALEC is like an incubator of predominantly conservative legislation,” Guardian correspondent Ed Pilkington tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “The vast majority of the model bills are conservative in their inception and those bills then spread right across America.” Pilkington broke the story of these documents last week in his article He’s the chief correspondent for The Guardian US, which is the American website edition of the British newspaper The Guardian. MORE
PREVIOUSLY: Several news organizations have taken a closer look at an organization, the , that has been exerting its influence on state lawmakers in an effort to get similar if not identical pro-business laws enacted around the nation. Attention is being paid to ALEC now because an organization insider, concerned about some of the non-profit group’s activities, passed internal documents to a watchdog group, the which, in turn, invited the media outlets to review the documents. Terry Gross, host of , produced by NPR member station WHYY, journalist John Nichols of The Nation who had a chance to comb through the documents. An excerpt of a web story based on Terry’s interview with Nichols:
Nichols, a political reporter for The Nation, recently wrote about the relationship that state-based legislators have with a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is a group that brings together state legislators and representatives of corporations to draft model bills that can then be introduced at the state level of government. An was recently leaked to the Center for Media and Democracy.
“All of those pieces of legislation and those resolutions [in the documents] really err toward a goal, and that goal is the advancement of an agenda that seems to be dictated at almost every turn by multinational corporations,” Nichols tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “It’s to clear the way for lower taxes, less regulation, a lot of protection against lawsuits, [and] ALEC is very, very active in [the] opening up of areas via privatization for corporations to make more money, particularly in places you might not usually expect like public education.” MORE
RELATED: WRATH OF TRAYVON: Internal Documents Reveal ALEC Reeling From ‘Stand Your Ground’ Blowback
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THE GUARDIAN: Jonathan Wilson’s fabulous recent album, Fanfare, featured the cream of the California music scene, including Jackson Browne and two-thirds of Crosby, Stills and Nash. None of these heavyweights has made it to this former working men’s club in Leeds, but the singer-songwriter has certainly brought the west coast vibe. The crystal-clear sound is perhaps what Fleetwood Mac were striving for when they spent years in multitrack studios in the 1970s. Wilson – all beard and windswept anguish – could hardly look more like his Beach Boy namesake, Dennis, if he strolled in with sand in his facial hair. The band – particularly the very long-haired bassist – could have stepped straight out of a 1975 edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test, and there are times – the lengthy Hammond organ solos – when you think this was exactly why punk rock had to happen. However, Wilson isn’t pastiching 1970s MOR; this is more a movingly heartfelt, timeless and transcendental homage. It’s a very long time since a west coast musician penned songs as great as Dear Friend or the lovely Desert Trip. MORE
PREVIOUSLY: [Josh] Tillman wants to go to the Chateau Marmont for dinner. He’s obsessed with the place—he and Emma are semi-regulars—and it’s easy to see why. Looming magisterially over the Sunset Strip from its perch in the Hollywood Hills like a duchess in a whore house, the Chateau Marmont is iconic. It is Hotel California. Errol Flynn swashbuckled here. James Dean brooded handsomely here. Greta Garbo hid here. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hunter Thompson wrote and drank here. John Belushi OD’d here. Lindsay Lohan is banned from here—she owes or owed the hotel something like $46,000, according to the gossip rags. It is where high Babylon goes to dine and be seen, where they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast. “This is a great place to see Lionel Richie or Steven Tyler eating a Cobb salad,” Tillman deadpans. Last time he was here, he saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt lunching with RZA. Tonight we spot Katy Perry and the chick who played Donna on That 70s Show.
Tillman clearly savors the existential absurdity of celebrity as much as he’s horrified by it. He’s doubling down on the notion of going Hollywood. He is working on TV pilot with Kyle Flynn, who plays keyboards in the Father John Misty touring band, about a cheesy once-famous country-music duo (think Big & Rich) that has fallen on hard times and has been reduced to making ends meet by mixing up batches of a potent meth/bath-salts hybrid that it sells through the Korean mafia. “It got a real Big Lebowski comedy of error kind of thing happening,” says Tillman, who would play one half of the country duo along with Sean Tillmann from Har Mar Superstar.
Still, even Father John Misty has his limits. He turned down $75,000 to cover Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man” for a Volkswagen ad, and politely declined when NBC wanted him as a guest judge for yet another American Idol knock-off.
Tillman gets a call from Jonathan Wilson, who co-produced and played on a lot of Fear Fun. In addition to an acclaimed solo career, Wilson—who looks like a hippie Christian Bale—has become a very in-demand producer. He’s been out drinking with Lucinda Williams and her beau, and they want to meet us for a drink. Fuck yeah. Last time I checked, she was still the legendary sweetheart of the alt-country rodeo. After dinner, we retire to the bar and join them in a booth. It becomes immediately apparent that the half-empty glass of cabernet sauvignon sitting in front of Lucinda isn’t her first of the night. Earlier tonight, she was at a rehearsal for an autism benefit that Stephen Stills is throwing on Saturday. She’s doing “For What It’s Worth.”
“So, I said to him, ‘Should I call you Stephen or Steve?’” she says. “And David Crosby chimes in: ‘I just call him Fuckhead.’”
A few more rounds later, we pile into the white van for the moonlit trek back to Misty Mountain, winding our way through the Hollywood Hills on Mulholland Drive, windows down, cool wind in our hair. Warm smell of colitas rises up through the air. There is a parking ticket flapping on the windshield and, with all due apologies to Dr. Thompson, it bores us. Ah, fun times in Babylon.
DOWNLOAD: Father John Misty MAGNET Cover Story [PDF]
THE NEW YORKER: Reggie Walton, the FISA judge overseeing the [NSA's warrantless spying on Aericans] at that time, wrote, in an opinion on January 28th, that he was “exceptionally concerned” that the N.S.A. had been operating the program in “flagrant violation” of the court’s orders and “directly contrary” to the N.S.A.’s own “sworn attestations.” Walton was considering rescinding the N.S.A.’s authority to run the program, and was contemplating bringing contempt charges against officials who misled the court or perhaps referring the matter to “appropriate investigative offices.” He gave Olsen three weeks to explain why the court shouldn’t just shut down the program. The controversy was known at the court as the “ ‘big business’ records matter.”
At the White House, Olsen and Powell told Obama of the problems. “I want my lawyers to look into this,” Obama said. He pointed at Holder and Craig. Olsen believed that the N.S.A. simply had difficulty translating the court’s legal language into technical procedures; it could all be fixed. Wyden believed that the court never should have allowed the N.S.A. to collect the data in the first place. In his view, the court’s unusually harsh opinion gave Obama an opportunity to terminate the program.
“That was a very, very significant moment in the debate,” Wyden told me. “Everybody who had been raising questions had been told, ‘The FISA court’s on top of this! Everything that’s being done, the FISA court has given the O.K. to!’ And then we learned that the N.S.A. was routinely violating the court orders that authorized bulk collection. In early 2009, it was clear that the N.S.A.’s claims about bulk-collection programs and how carefully those programs were managed simply were not accurate.”
On February 17th, about two weeks after the White House briefing, Olsen, in a secret court filing, made the new Administration’s first official statement about Bush’s phone-metadata program: “The government respectfully submits that the Court should not rescind or modify the authority.” He cited a sworn statement from Keith Alexander, who had replaced Hayden as the director of the N.S.A. in 2005, and who insisted that the program was essential. “Using contact chaining,” Olsen wrote, “N.S.A. may be able to discover previously unknown telephone identifiers used by a known terrorist operative . . . to identify hubs or common contacts between targets of interest who were previously thought to be unconnected, and potentially to discover individuals willing to become US Government assets.”
Judge Walton replied that he was still troubled by the N.S.A.’s “material misrepresentations” to the court, and that Alexander’s explanation for how they happened “strains credulity.” He noted that the FISA court’s orders “have been so frequently and systemically violated that it can fairly be said that” the N.S.A. program “has never functioned effectively” and that “thousands of violations” occurred. The judge placed new restrictions on the program and ordered the agency to conduct a full audit, but he agreed to keep it running. Olsen, and Obama, had saved Bush’s surveillance program. [...]
Any doubts about the new Administration’s position were removed when Obama turned down a second chance to stop the N.S.A. from collecting domestic phone records. The business-records provision of the Patriot Act was up for renewal, and Congress wanted to know the Administration’s position. It was one thing to have the Justice Department defend the program in court. But now Obama had to decide whether he would publicly embrace a section of the Patriot Act that he had criticized in his most famous speech and that he had tried to rewrite as a senator. He would have to do so knowing that the main government program authorized by the business-records provision was beset by problems. On September 14th, Obama publicly revealed that he wanted the provision renewed without any changes. “At the time of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, there was concern that the F.B.I. would exploit the broad scope of the business-records authority to collect sensitive personal information on constitutionally protected activities, such as the use of public libraries,” a Justice Department official wrote in a letter to Congress, alluding to one of Obama’s former concerns. “This simply has not occurred.” The letter, which was unclassified, did not explain the details of the metadata program or the spiralling compliance issues uncovered by the court. Wyden’s early hope, that Obama represented a new approach to surveillance law, had been misguided. MORE
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