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SMUS: POTUS = Public Enemy Number One

September 16th, 2020

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BY WILLIAM C. HENRY Taking into account, 1) the death toll is now nearing 200,000 and, 2) we have Trump on tape admitting he KNEW early on about the severity of the SMUSCoronavirus and, 3) he admits he KNEW it was an AIRBORNE virus and, 4) he didn’t so much as “request” or even “suggest” that Americans wear face masks or, god forbid, set an example by wearing one HIMSELF and, 5) he decided it would be more beneficial to his re-election prospects if he made wearing them a partisan, divisive, POLITICAL choice rather than a humane one, it’s predicted that some 35 million or so of you “basers” will still vote for the Upchuck in Chief.

Can you see where this is going? Shucks, I’ll bet you’ve already guessed it. Yup, I’m among the millions upon millions of Americans who’d like to know–a hundred thousand or more of whom are literally DYING to know–precisely when and why it was that you baser instincts born-agains decided that this oh so fetid fake facts formulator of yours would once again be your main man.

For starters, was it when you heard the bottom-feeding “buckpasser” complain about the “cupboards and shelves” of the national medical stockpile being empty–even though he’d had over THREE YEARS to fill them–when the virus came to our shores?

Could it have been when your official snake oil storyteller suggested that ingesting disinfectant or large amounts of hydroxychloroquine, or going out into the sunlight could cure people of the infection?

Or, was it maybe when the Deceiver in Chief said that ANYONE who wanted to get tested for the virus could do so?

Whoa. I wonder if it was when he gave that trillion dollar tax break to the richest Americans and a teeny tiny tidbit to you so he could brand it a “middle class” tax cut?

Was it perhaps when you heard that the Putin ass kisser decided not to even verbally condemn the Moscow murderer for offering bounties to the Taliban for the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan. The Dunce Cap in Chief says he didn’t even know about it. If you believe that, I got ANOTHER phony Trump business venture I’d like you to invest in.

Oh, I’ll bet it was when you learned that Trump said that electing Joe Biden would “invite terrorists into the suburbs” while at the same time the Prevaricator in Chief was forcing the Afghan government to release Talaban prisoners who are believed to have received Russian bounties for killing American soldiers. Can you smell the shit coming from the Crapper in Chief’s facial orifice?

Maybe it was when the Oval Office diarrhea disgorger stated there were some “very fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville, or perhaps it was after any one of the myriad of times he’s refused to denounce the bullshit and the fake, totally fabricated, vile, vitriolic, divisive, conspiracy crap spewed out by the likes of QANON, the NRA, the White Nationalists/Supremacists, the KKK, and EVERY OTHER racist Republican-approved rag, organization or website on planet earth.

Wait. Was it when the BONE-SPURRED FIVE TIME DRAFT DODGING DINGO denigrated our military leaders as nothing more than profiteers, and our military dead as simply losers and suckers?

Or maybe, just maybe, it was when Trump told his Department of Homeland Security to stop providing intelligence analysis on Russian interference in our electoral process. That would really be dear to your wannabe dictator’s heart now wouldn’t it?!

If not that, then maybe it was when he said he will defund and/or otherwise aid and abet the demise of the United States Postal Service in order to accomplish his re-election.

Wait a minute. Hold everything. Come on, admit it. I’ve finally nailed it, haven’t I? It was when he recommenced his disgusting “birther” bullshit with Kamala Harris as his racist 2020 campaign’s target du jour. I’m right, aren’t I?!

Okay. I understand. It’s hard to pick a single deciding malevolence when it comes to the Trump presidency. So many choices, so little difference between his mind-numbing malignancies and malices. And four years later you “basers” haven’t changed a bit. One is only left to wonder if imbecility, bias and masochism are embedded in the genes.

P.S. Nice job at all of the Divider in Chief’s rallies! I particularly liked the “no face masks” touch! You couldn’t possibly have shown more peabrained partisan unity when it comes to not giving a rat’s ass about the health and welfare of your families, relatives, friends or fellow Americans in general! Keep America Gagging!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fed up later stage septuagenarian who has actually been most of there and done most of that. Born and raised in the picturesque Pocono Mountains. Quite well educated. Very lucky to have been born into a well-schooled and somewhat prosperous family. Long divorced. One beautiful, brilliant daughter. Two far above average grandsons. Semi-retired (how does anyone manage to do it completely these days?) and fully-tired of bullshit. Uncle of the Editor-In-Chief.

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CINEMA: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again

September 11th, 2020

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TENET (Directed by Christopher Nolan, 150 minutes, USA, 2020)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC After months of delays,Tenet, the latest epic from blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan finally hits theaters this week.The film that many hoped would kickstart theaters after the pandemic has been up until this point shrouded in secrecy. I was given the chance to review it for Phawker, but only if I viewed it in a theater, of course. Nolan is all about the theatrical experience and like the rest of his catalog, this film benefits from being projected as loud and big as humanly possible. While I was at first understandably hesitant to watch a film in a room full of people, this was to be a critic screening limited only to press, which for the KOP IMAX theater gave everyone plenty of space. Masks were also enforced, and to be worn throughout the duration of the film, so I felt comfortable finally making my return to the theater.

Tenet is the story of “The Protagonist,” no really, that’s his name. Played by John David Washington (son of Denzel) who we last saw in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. The film opens with a CIA mission that goes horribly wrong when “The Protagonist” is captured and chooses death over selling out his comrades and swallows a cyanide capsule. He miraculously wakes from “death” sometime later, only to find he was actually recruited by a mysterious organization called Tenet, and the whole cyanide capsule episode was simply a loyalty test. John’s character is tasked with tracking down the source of metal that has been “inverted,” so it flows through time backwards. For instance, if a bullet was made of this material, it would shoot back into the gun tearing backwards through its target rather than forward. After meticulously setting the logic for the film’s take on temporal navigation, Nolan spends the next two hours slowly unraveling these rules as the narrative chooses spectacle above all else.

The mysteries of time is the thematic throughline that spans Nolan’s filmography. This time he tackles time travel. Now keep in mind, the films that convincingly employ time travel as a plot device, and keep audiences engaged, are the ones that simplify it and stick to their established rules. After getting our feet wet with the whole inverted object McGuffin hunt we start on, the film then keeps adding elements and theories until it goes full on Back to the Future in the second act. At this point the film becomes a muddled and dense mess that will no doubt confuse and confound most, as we are tasked with contending with past and present versions of our lead characters. By the third and final act, Tenet feels like a masturbatory exercise as the director throws any and all logic out the window in the name of some of the most breathtaking action set pieces ever committed to film, which I can almost get behind.

Thanks to Spike Lee I know John David Washington isn’t a bad actor, but he just doesn’t hook into the Nolan cadence here, he feels stilted and uncomfortable in his performance. Nolan also tries and fails miserably to employ comedic one-liners at various points in the script, through Washington’s character, in an attempt to offset some pretty disturbing scenes of domestic violence. Speaking of which, Elizabeth Debicki sadly spends the majority of the film, as nothing more than the damsel in distress, or an object to be fought over as “The Protagonist” and her abusive, inverted arms dealer husband battle over her fate. The only winner here is Robert Pattinson, who excels in Nolan’s world. He quickly eclipses “The Protagonist” as his partner Neil, who seems to know much more than he lets on.

Dense and pretentious, Tenet will irritate even the most dedicated Nolan fans with its curiously flawed similarities to Inception. This film desperately wants to be clever but instead comes off as frustrating and confusing as it sacrifices the director’s trademark grounded logic that usually make his films fantastical yet plausible. Still the film is visually stunning and its approach to its inverted action sequences are worthy of the hype. But I honestly think the script should have probably baked for a few more years to hone the film’s chronology a bit more and iron out some of the rough dialog that Nolan himself has seen fit to obscure with overly aggressive sound design. Tenet is arguably the weakest link in Nolan’s otherwise stellar filmography, and serves as further proof of the old adage that all directors try to make the same film over and over again with steadily diminishing returns.

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CINEMA: The Dudes Still Abide

September 4th, 2020

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BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC (directed by Dean Parisot, 91 minutes, USA, 2020)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Shrouded in rumor, and two decades of production delays, many fans feared Bill & Ted Face The Music was going to be a lot like the epic disaster that was Guns and Roses’ Chinese Democracy, when it finally hit screens. With word trickling out every once in a while, praising the concept or the script, touting it as a worthy successor to the series, which for the third film in a franchise is basically unheard of; the longer we waited the more they began to question these rumors as nothing more than insider generated hyperbole to get the project moving. But as the story goes, it was Steven Soderbergh himself, who is a producer on the project,  that we have to thank for finally getting this project moving. After loving the script so much he gave it that final push into production, so we could have one final excellent adventure with our favorite time traveling duo.

Bill and Ted Face the Music picks up with Bill & Ted 25 years after the events of Bogus Journey, with the duo having yet to complete their final task foretold by the “Great Ones” from the future: writing the song that would unite the world. Their band’s popularity has run its course and they’ve gone from filling the Grand Canyon, to barely filling taco night at the local dive bar. But when time begins to collapse in on itself, the pair are visited by the daughter of Rufus (George Carlin), Kelly (Kristen Schaal), who lets them know they now only have 74 minutes to write the song, or existence as we know it will cease to exist. From here the film splits into essentially two narratives. The first is Bill & Ted hitting the Circuits of Time to steal the song from their future selves, only to make things worse when they encounter several cartoonishly bizarre future Bill & Teds, a la Bogus Journey. The second features their two twentysomething music savant daughters taking Karen’s time travel pod and collecting historical musical figures to be in their father’s back up band, al la Excellent Adventure. 

Being a young kid into heavy metal in the 80s, Bill & Ted hit particularly hard in my preteen years. I was just starting to watch Headbanger’s Ball when the Bogus Journey soundtrack hit, and it was on constant repeat, that is, until Nirvana shattered the music world in the mid-90s. That being the case, I approached this film with great trepidation since I didn’t want to watch my heroes old, broken and disenfranchised. Instead the film begins with Bill & Ted still the consummate optimists, with the film using the completion of the song as the metaphor for that eternal plight of the unattainable dreams of youth. Bill & Ted, much to their family’s dismay are relentlessly trying to solve this puzzle they were tasked with, and it’s only when their daughters get involved and the world begins to come crashing down on them, that they realize the answer may have been in front of them all along.

The returning cast here are all known quantities, with Winter and Reeves still somehow embodying that youthful spark and radiating a knowing innocence. With the passing of George Carlin, who gets a great nod in the film, Kristen Schaal takes the reigns as their chaperone from the future. Schaal’s brand of awkwardness and dry delivery is an excellent addition to the cast along with Ready or Not’s Samara Weaving as Bill’s twenty something daughter. Samara is a joy to watch on screen with an endless reservoir of enthusiasm for any role she tackles and is honestly one the most talented new actors working today.

For fans of the series, the film keeps the cartoonishly goofiness you’d expect. Face the Music is hardly your slick big-budget Hollywood spectacle, and instead leans into its budgetary restraints which makes for some truly bizarre moments. Like when we witness a muscle clad version of Bill & Ted in prison, who attempt to kill our heroes for their phone booth. There’s a charm to how the camp is employed and given the script is by longtime scribes Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon it’s easy to overlook its shortcomings, since you’re completely lost in the story. It’s no easy task to combine two films that are so different in tone as Excellent and Bogus, but it feels natural here as the two stories have an ebb and flow here that calls back to some of the best moments of the previous entries. This all transpires with a charming wholesomeness that is downright moving as it really uses the relationships of Bill & Ted and those around them, to really give the film it’s warm and gooey center. Message: Be Excellent To Each Other!

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EUREKA: New Covid-19 Study Is A Game Changer

September 3rd, 2020

Covid-STAY INSIDE

 

ELEMENTAL: Earlier this summer, the Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee set about crunching data on more than 40,000 genes from 17,000 genetic samples in an effort to better understand Covid-19. Summit is the second-fastest computer in the world, but the process — which involved analyzing 2.5 billion genetic combinations — still took more than a week. When Summit was done, researchers analyzed the results. It was, in the words of Dr. Daniel Jacobson, lead researcher and chief scientist for computational systems biology at Oak Ridge, a “eureka moment.” The computer had revealed a new theory about how Covid-19 impacts the body: the bradykinin hypothesis. The hypothesis provides a model that explains many aspects of Covid-19, including some of its most bizarre symptoms. It also suggests 10-plus potential treatments, many of which are already FDA approved. Jacobson’s group published their results in a paper in the journal eLife in early July.

According to the team’s findings, a Covid-19 infection generally begins when the virus enters the body through ACE2 receptors in the nose, (The receptors, which the virus is known to target, are abundant there.) The virus then proceeds through the body, entering cells in other places where ACE2 is also present: the intestines, kidneys, and heart. This likely accounts for at least some of the disease’s cardiac and GI symptoms. But once Covid-19 has established itself in the body, things start to get really interesting. According to Jacobson’s group, the data Summit analyzed shows that Covid-19 isn’t content to simply infect cells that already express lots of ACE2 receptors. Instead, it actively hijacks the body’s own systems, tricking it into upregulating ACE2 receptors in places where they’re usually expressed at low or medium levels, including the lungs.

In this sense, Covid-19 is like a burglar who slips in your unlocked second-floor window and starts to ransack your house. Once inside, though, they don’t just take your stuff — they also throw open all your doors and windows so their accomplices can rush in and help pillage more efficiently. The renin–angiotensin system (RAS) controls many aspects of the circulatory system, including the body’s levels of a chemical called bradykinin, which normally helps to regulate blood pressure. According to the team’s analysis, when the virus tweaks the RAS, it causes the body’s mechanisms for regulating bradykinin to go haywire. Bradykinin receptors are resensitized, and the body also stops effectively breaking down bradykinin. (ACE normally degrades bradykinin, but when the virus downregulates it, it can’t do this as effectively.)

The end result, the researchers say, is to release a bradykinin storm — a massive, runaway buildup of bradykinin in the body. According to the bradykinin hypothesis, it’s this storm that is ultimately responsible for many of Covid-19’s deadly effects. Jacobson’s team says in their paper that “the pathology of Covid-19 is likely the result of Bradykinin Storms rather than cytokine storms,” which had been previously identified in Covid-19 patients, but that “the two may be intricately linked.” Other papers had previously identified bradykinin storms as a possible cause of Covid-19’s pathologies. MORE

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BOOKS: America Agonistes

September 2nd, 2020

The Quiet Americans

 

NEW YORK TIMES: Once upon a time, there was a nation that saw itself as a beacon to the world. It would lead, as John Quincy Adams put it, by the gentle power of its example. If it all sounds a bit grandiose to us now, it did, too, to Graham Greene, the English author of the 1955 spy novel “The Quiet American.” Greene liked to complain that Yankees were “plump, smug, sentimental, ready for the easy tear and the hearty laugh and the fraternity yell.” He was particularly galled by American pretensions to purity in foreign affairs. “Innocence,” he insisted, “is a kind of insanity.”

Scott Anderson’s enthralling new history of early Cold War espionage takes its title from Greene’s classic — and shares much of its disillusionment. Anderson, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and author of several books, including “Lawrence in Arabia,” follows the story of four C.I.A. operatives — Michael Burke, Edward Lansdale, Peter Sichel and Frank Wisner — from their heady early exploits through their government’s ultimate betrayal of its own idealism. Anderson, whose own father once helped create foreign paramilitary squads as an adviser to the Agency for International Development, casts his characters’ narrative as a tragedy, both personal and national. After a decade of flawed postwar spy games, by the mid-1950s much of the world had come to see the United States as just “one more empire,” Anderson writes, “one that lied and stole and invaded” like the others.

Lying and stealing and invading, it should be said, make for captivating reading, especially in the hands of a storyteller as skilled as Anderson. All the characters of “The Quiet Americans” could have stepped from a film set — and some of them actually had. Burke, a James Bond figure “before James Bond existed,” had been working as a screenwriter before being recruited by the C.I.A. He could just as often be found hanging out with Ava Gardner or sharing bourbon and pancakes with Ernest Hemingway as he could be dispatching infiltrators to Eastern Europe.

Indeed, for all their ill-advised or bungled covert ops — which included coups from Tehran to Guatemala City — it is impossible not to be a little swept up in the spectacle of this bygone era when intrepid individuals actually shaped history, even if it was often for the worse. Anderson quotes an erstwhile ornithologist who had joined the Office of Strategic Services, the C.I.A.’s World War II precursor, lamenting the office’s breakup once the conflict had ended. “Jesus H. Christ,” the operative griped, “I suppose this means that it’s back to those goddamned birds.” MORE

FRESH AIR: We’re used to a world in which American intelligence services operate with enormous power and reach. Our guest today, writer Scott Anderson, has a new book about the early years of the CIA, when America was victorious in World War II and former soldiers were improvising a campaign of spying and covert operations to contain and undermine the nation’s new adversary, the Soviet Union. It was a time, Anderson writes, when Americans wielded great moral authority in the world and nations struggling to throw off colonial rule looked to the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy. Anderson concludes that the CIA’s rigid commitment to anti-communism and willingness to topple democratically elected governments squandered the goodwill the U.S. held in the developing world and led to a disastrous war in Vietnam. Anderson tells the story through the lives of four young men who played important roles in the CIA. Scott Anderson is the author of two novels and four books of nonfiction. In 2016, he authored a story about the modern history of the Middle East which took up an entire issue of The New York Times Magazine called “Fractured Lands: How The Arab World Came Apart.” He spoke to me from his home in Fleischmanns, N.Y., about his new book, The Quiet Americans. MORE

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CINEMA: The Stranger

August 28th, 2020

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TINY TIM: KING FOR A DAY (dir. by Johan von Sydow, 78 minutes, USA, 2020)

BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Growing up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, situated just a stone’s throw from the Mason Dixon line, we didn’t get a lot of celebrities coming through our neck of the woods. In fact, in the ten plus years I lived there, the closest we got was an extra from 12 Monkeys – and Tiny Tim, who came through one year with the traveling circus. I was probably eight or nine at the time and I remember two things about that day. One was he did “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” and to this day I have never again heard a sound like that come from a human being. Second thing was, well, you know how most people are terrified of clowns? Well, they haven’t seen Tiny Tim in full clown, singing in a high falsetto. It was a kind of surreal experience that has haunted/fascinated me since.

Johan von Sydow’s documentary King For A Day, based in part on Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life Of Tiny Tim, Justin Martell’s definitive tome on the eccentric musician, is a near-flawless bit of filmmakin that successfully liberates the man from the myth. Utilizing animation, the film begins with Tim’s humble beginnings as Herbert Butros Khaury, an awkward, androgynous Lebanese/Russian teenager living in 1940s Manhattan. Herbert didn’t seem to fit in anywhere, that is until he discovered his unconventional voice that would land him his first steady gig, literally singing in a circus midway Freak Show. The narrative steadily builds from there as we see Tiny’s rise to fame, through archival footage and talking heads, as the world becomes fascinated with this enigma of a man. Interviews with fans, friends and family are offset with excerpts from Tiny’s personal diaries to deliver Tiny’s take on a particular situation.

It’s this perspective that gives us a unique insight into the man as we experience, through his eyes, not only the dizzying heights he rose to in his life, with his marriage to his first wife, which was the second most watched TV event ever.  But the devastating lows that followed when America soon tired of Tiny, relegating him back to the circus, which is where I happened to discover him in my youth. This on its own would be more than a satisfactory narrative given Tiny basically dies right off camera after a live performance, but there’s much more to the story here. While most of us are familiar with this living curiosity, the film sheds some much needed light on Tiny’s musical career as the likes of Wavy Gravy, Tommy James, and the late Jonas Mekas extol the virtues of Tiny’s very distinctive sonic palette and his diverse catalog of recordings. This is brought full circle by our narrator, a surprisingly somber and restrained  “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Unlike Justin who penned the book, Johan wasn’t a fan of Tim before the film, which really rounds out the doc. He didn’t come to the project with any nostalgic baggage, he just wanted to tell this man’s story in the most subjective way possible. He does this by not only presenting the misunderstood, wistful genius you’d expect, but the complex womanizer as well, sometimes in painful detail. King for a Day is as much a thought provoking take on the precarious nature of celebrity as its the story of Tiny Tim’s tragic life. Johan never gets lost in the superficial weirdness of his subject, instead he makes sure every bit of interview, musical performance or photo further humanizes a man who for most of his life was reduced to nothing more than a freak show oddity in the twilight zone of inexplicable celebrity.

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FROM THE VAULTS: Bill Bruford’s Landmark New Yorker Profile Of Lucinda Williams Turns 20

August 27th, 2020

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NEW YORKER: The musician David Byrne once compared the intuitive writing of Bill Buford to the work of the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. Since 1995, Buford has contributed nearly fifty pieces to The New Yorker. He has written about a wide array of subjects, including his butchery apprenticeship in Tuscany, the connoisseurs who seek the perfect dark chocolate, and the art of breadmaking in Lyon, France. The New Yorker’s former fiction editor, he has also published three books, including “Among the Thugs” and “Heat.” One of my favorite pieces by Buford is “Delta Nights,” a ruminative Profile of the country-blues singer Lucinda Williams, published in 2000. Williams, Buford observes, is an amalgam—a musician capable of working in a multitude of genres and conveying a variety of keen emotions. Like some of her musical influences, she’s gifted with a voice so rough and husky that the singer Emmylou Harris once described it, in Buford’s paraphrasing, as “capable of peeling the chrome off a trailer hitch.” Her music often calls upon, and simultaneously subverts, Southern narratives. Her work, Buford writes, “is more poem than song, a surrealistic invocation of Southernness not unlike the kitschy religious shrines and turquoise serpents and bottle-cap Christs in Lucinda’s own house. It’s a bit of mythmaking, by a poet of loss, about a place that’s receding from experience, and that might never have been there in the first place.” Williams’s explorations of the Delta in her music echo Buford’s own childhood recollections of the South. At the core of the region’s mythos, he notes, in languorous ripples of prose, is a love affair with the notion of loss and dispossession. Williams’s earthy musical tones and biting verses exquisitely capture this sense of loss. It is her ability to transform personal melancholia into vibrant, evocative strains, Buford discovers, that captivates listeners—and offers a raw glimpse into the genesis of a singular musician’s artistic journey.—Erin Overbey, New Yorker Archive Editor

NEW YORKER: It’s a damp Delta night in January, and we’ve pulled into Lambert, in Quitman County, Mississippi, at one time a modestly prosperous cotton town, now reduced to a rather curious thing. The railway station—stripped down and operated in an only-one-man-needs-to-run-it kind of way—is still functioning as an agricultural freight stop, more or less as it always has, but it seems to be the exception. The town center consists of two rows of Main Street-like buildings, vaguely Victorian in design, relics of nineteenth-century antebellum cotton commerce, almost all of them abandoned. One of these would have housed the barbershop, or the bank, or the post office. Now they’re home to whomever, whatever, anybody, nobody. One was the Rexall drugstore. (The “x” in Rexall has broken off.) The feeling of the place is of impoverished improvisation, variations on a squatter’s theme, and Lambert’s empty buildings have been taken up by anyone who has the know-how to crack open a padlocked door and get the electricity turned on. As we pull in, flames leap out from a corner, the only light on a street without street lights: it’s a barbecue, the pit constructed from fallen loose bricks, right out on the sidewalk. The town seems to be deadly desolate, and yet, weirdly, it is also busy with people.

It’s Saturday night, and we’re in the heart of the heart of the Delta, the homeland of the blues. Our drive began in Clarksdale, near the birthplace of Muddy Waters, and continued through the very crossroads where Robert Johnson, seventy-two years ago, was supposed to have done his legendary transaction with the Devil, exchanging his soul for a satanic facility on guitar. And for half an hour we’ve been on county highways, all straight lines and right angles, cutting through plowed fields of cotton and soybean, seeing no other vehicles, no people, no lights except the distant dull blue of a farmhouse television, and then this explosion of busyness, in this place near no place, an embellished dot on a road map. We park, get out. Main Street is thrumming—a heavy, amplified bass coming from behind a number of boarded-up store-fronts. We pick a solid, thickly painted door, which gives after I push against it, and it opens up to the sweet, acrid smell of a woodstove, a smoky array of blue and green lights dangling from an overhead pipe, and, atop a stage in the corner, a sixty-year-old man in a two-piece suit and brown patent-leather shoes—Johnnie Billington playing electric guitar.

This is the first stop on a visit to Delta juke joints, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by that profoundly unmodern, unreconstructed feeling that you still find in the South. I’m here because of an interest in Lucinda Williams, the Louisiana-born singer and writer, and although she isn’t with me tonight (she’s in Nashville, singing with the North Mississippi All Stars—as it happens, a Delta blues band), the Delta has served Williams as a highly personal, emotional reference library, something she keeps coming back to in her music, for images or metaphors or, sometimes, for its famous twelve-bar arrangements and its flattened blue notes. Williams is forty-seven, and, obsessively working and reworking a small collection of tunes, has created a concentrated repertoire of around three dozen exceptionally powerful songs. For a thirty-five-year effort (Williams began playing when she was twelve), that works out to about a song a year, and it’s still possible to see a live show in which she gets a little carried away—and she always seems to be on the verge of getting a little carried away—and hear almost the entire œuvre, as was the case about eighteen months ago at New York’s Irving Plaza, when Williams’s encores went on longer than the act, and the audience emerged, after nearly two and a half hours, thoroughly spent, not only by the duration of the program but also by the unforgiving rawness of the songs. They’re unforgiving because they are so relentlessly about pain or longing or can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head sexual desire, but most often they’re about loss, and usually about losing some impossible fuckup of a man, who has got more charm and charisma than a civilized society should allow, and who never lives up to any of the promises he made when he was drunk, on drugs, in lust, in love, incarcerated, in pain, insane, in rehab, or, in some other essential but frustratingly appealing romantic way, unaccountable. He’s usually from Baton Rouge, Louisiana (and a bass player), or from Lafayette, Louisiana (and a bass player), or from Lake Charles, Louisiana (and a bass player), or maybe from Greenville, Mississippi (and a bass player), and the songs come across as both very Southern and also painfully autobiographical. Ouch! you think after you’ve heard Lucinda Williams for the first time, this girl has gone through some shit. Her songs are not traditional rock and roll, if only because they are more written, more preoccupied with the concerns of language and image, than most rock tunes. They’re not country, although there is an occasional twangy country element. They’re not folk, even though “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” her 1998 album (and her first commercial success), got a Grammy award for the best contemporary-folk record of the year. And they’re not blues, even though they are informed by something that might be described as a blues attitude. MORE

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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t

August 26th, 2020

Hoax

 

FRESH AIR: CNN correspondent Brian Stelter says President Trump’s “cozy” relationship with Fox News is “like nothing we’ve seen in American history.” In his new book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, Stelter describes the president as a “shadow producer” to Fox News host Sean Hannity — who, in turn, acts as a “shadow chief of staff” for Trump.

“This is a relationship that is extraordinary, because Trump shapes Hannity’s show [and] Hannity advises the president on policy and personnel,” Stelter says. “And then at 9 o’clock sharp, the president is watching Hannity deliver the talking points that they have already discussed.”

But Stelter notes that Trump’s close relationship with Fox News goes beyond Hannity. “Fox is Trump’s safe space. It’s where he’s not going to be humiliated, where he’s not going to hear uncomfortable truths,” Stelter says. “There’s just no example of this kind of alliance between a president and a media outlet ever before.”

Stelter adds that Trump’s reliance on Fox News has created a dangerous feedback loop — especially with regard to COVID-19. “When the virus was silently spreading in the United States in February and early March, some of his biggest stars [on Fox News] downplayed the threat, almost edged into denialism,” he says. “And the biggest problem about that is that Trump heard it. He echoed it. They echoed Trump back. So we’re into this grotesque feedback loop where they’re telling each other it’s going to be OK, and they are lulling the president into a false sense of security about the virus.” MORE

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Hatemonger
 
FRESH AIR: It’s impossible to understand the Trump era, with its unparalleled polarization, without tracing Stephen Miller’s journey to the White House. That’s what my guest, Jean Guerrero, writes in her new book, “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda.” She describes Miller as the architect of Trump’s border and immigration policies, helping Trump, quote, “conjure an invasion of animals to come steal American jobs and spill American blood,” unquote. She describes the ideological arc of Miller’s life and investigates his ties to right-wing mentors and far-right groups. She adds, many are baffled at how someone so young with so little policy or legal expertise gained so much power, outlasting and overtaking his mentor, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. Her book helps show how he did it.

Guerrero is an investigative reporter who formerly was with KPBS, the radio and TV station in San Diego. She previously covered Mexico and Central America for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. She’s the author of a previous book called “Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir” about growing up with a Mexican father and Puerto Rican mother.

Jean Guerrero, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let’s talk about the arc of Stephen Miller’s ideology. He was anti-immigration in high school, and you describe him as growing up in California at a time when there was a strong anti-immigration movement. What are some of the things in his world, in his personal life that you think helped lead to his extreme views on immigration? MORE

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The Republican National Convention In 2 Minutes

August 24th, 2020

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CINEMA: Beyond The Grassy Knoll

August 21st, 2020

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC On the surface PizzaGate sounds like one of those grotesque conspiracy theories scraped from the bowels of 4Chan. In this alt-right fairytale propagated in the darkest reaches of Facebook and Twitter, Hilary Clinton and the democratic party were running a child sex ring out of the basment of a Washington DC pizzeria. In 2017, this was the catalyst that drove Edgar Maddison Welch, to travel from North Carolina to Washington DC with three automatic weapons in an attempt to free the imaginary enslaved children, shooting up the pizzeria in the process. Director John Valley has decided to tackle these events in a striking satire that provides some much needed food for thought in these charged times, when we are continually forced to reassess what we hear or read in the media. As the title would suggest, Duncan: A Grindhouse PizzaGate Satire is a semi-fictional account, pushing things a bit further to sharpen its point.
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WIRE FROM THE BUNKER: Meet The New Dylans

August 20th, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-08-20 at 12.19.17 AM

 

Houlon2BY JONATHAN HOULON FOLK MUSIC EDITOR Bruce Springsteen is certainly the most famous artist to have been saddled with the “New Dylan” tag at the beginning of his career and, indeed, in a stamp-sized photo on the back cover of his first LP, the Boss looks like he coulda been Bob’s greaser cousin from Joisey. His blue work shirt, in particular, calls to mind Bob’s working stiff appearance on the front cover of his own Times They Are A-Changing release from 1963, a good decade before Springsteen’s emergence on Greetings From Asbury Park in ’73. But, musically, Bruce never quite sounded like Bob. His stuff was largely R&B and pop-based vs. Dylan’s roots in folk, country, and blues. I suppose early Springsteen lyrics such as “your barroom eyes shine vacancy” (from “For You”) bear a resemblance to some of Bob’s more florid formulations as in “your sheet metal visions of Cannery Row” (from “Sad-Eyed Lady”). But by Bruce’s 4th LP, 1978’s Darkness On The Edge of Town, he had left any Dylanisms behind and began to sound more like Bob’s own heroes — particularly, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. Bruce has stayed in that simpler musical and lyrical lane ever since. God bless him!

The recently late and incredibly great John Prine is probably the second most famous artist to have been called the “New Dylan.” Prine certainly sounded more like Bob than Bruce and possessed some of the same rudimentary yet compelling musical skills. But Prine also had his own deal. As I wrote about at the time of his death, Prine had a more generous and forgiving approach than Bob. Bob tries to come off as a regular guy; Prine actually was one!

There have been many other New Dylans who have achieved lesser degrees of fame than Springsteen or Prine and who, at times, seemed to have gotten bogged down with the moniker. Steve Forbert (who I love) and Louden Wainwright (who I generally find annoying) come to mind. In keeping with our didactic stance, however, the subjects of this Wire are two New Dylans — David Blue and Sammy Walker — who appear to have completely fallen off the radar if they were ever on it.

The real question — to paraphrase something Springsteen once said — is why would we ever need a “new” Dylan? The “old” one never went away and, in fact, has repeatedly re-invented himself or, put differently, is the ultimate “New Dylan” himself. Here’s a brief summary of Bob’s reinventions for those of you (shame!) who haven’t been paying attention all along: Folk Bob (first 4 albums), Electric Genius Bob (Bringing It All Back Home to Blonde On Blonde), Country Squire Bob (The Nashville Skyline period and beyond), 70s Singer-Songwriter Bob (arguably consists of masterwork Blood On The Tracks alone); Las Vegas Bob (Live At Budokan anyone?); Jesus Bob (even after the box set treatment a few years back, the Gospel Years remain undervalued and, I am convinced, represent Bob’s last stand as a great singer. He’s gotten by on phrasing since 1981’s Shot Of Love, the last of the Jesus trilogy); Lost Bob (the 80’s); Folk Bob Pt. 2 (early 90’s releases where Bob went trad again); Modern Bob (1997’s Grammy Award-winning Time Out Of Mind which marks the beginning of a late career resurgence that continues to this day); Frank Bob (three records of Sinatra covers) and … drum roll! … with this summer’s release of Rough And Rowdy Ways: Name Droppin’ Bob!

I — like many Dylan freaks — would have loved this new record even if Bob, say, had gone steam punk. The Sinatra stuff was brutal. I never got Frank and I thought one of Bob’s greatest achievements was putting pay to the quite inaccurately titled “Great American Songbook.” I mean, they didn’t give the fucking Nobel to Cole Porter, did they? So, yea, after three albums of that Wee Small Hours of Whatever the Fuck It Was, I woulda taken anything.

Is Rough And Rowdy Ways a comeback? As great as people say it is? Proof of Bob’s eternal genius? Probably not. I, for one, have had enough of Bob using blues ready mades and his claim in “False Prophet” to not be one is, in and of itself, untrue: all prophets are false, Bob. Jesus Bob coulda told you that! And what’s with the song “Key West”? C’mon, man, that’s Jimmy’s Jam!

But so much ink has already been spilled on this thing that I won’t bore you with my song by song analysis. Rather — and, hold tight, we will eventually get to New Dylans David Blue and Sammy Walker as promised — I’ll take (as we are wont to do around here at Phawker) the Christian Scientist approach. We’ll collect data and then cast judgment upon it.

Bob has certainly dropped names before. Off the top of my 42 years of listening head: Sonny Terry, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Barry Goldwater, Brigitte Bardot, William Zantzinger, Hattie Carroll, T.S. Eliot, Bette Davis, Shakespeare, George Jackson, Rubin Hurricane Carter, Joey Gallo, Jesus, Neil Young, Billy Joe Shaver, and Alicia Keys (just to name a few!). But with Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob has taken the name-drop to a new level, one worth cataloguing.

Note on Methodology: I have purposely excluded any fictional figures such as St. John the Apostle or Lady Macbeth. My background is in Philosophy, not Literary Criticism, tho I do have a real soft spot for its continental incarnation during the 80s. In short, I don’t have the lit-crit chops to get into inter-text theory here. I’ve also left out anyone I couldn’t identify such as “Jerome”. Garcia? Kern? And who are the “Montgomery and Scott” that Bob refers to? Sounds like the name of a brokerage firm in Philly to me but I’m certainly not being paid enough to do the detective work. You figure it out!

Anyway, here’s what I’ve got from opening track “I Contain Multitudes” to closing track (if it’s actually part of the record) “Murder Most Foul” (which Bob released as a teaser of sorts at the beginning of COVID)>>>

1. Edgar Allan Poe 2. Anne Frank 3. William Blake 4. Ludwig van Beethoven 5. Frederic Chopin 6. Al Pacino 7. Marlon Brando 8. Julius Ceasar 9. Leon Russell 10. Liberace 11. Sigmond Freud 12. Karl Marx 13. Jimmy Reed 14. William Tecumseh Sherman 15. Georgy Zhukov 16. George Patton 17. Elvis Presley 18. Martin Luther King 19. Allen Ginsberg 20. Gregory Corso 21. Jack Kerouac 22. Louis Armstrong 23. Jimmy Buffett 24. Buddy Holly 25. Harry S. Truman 26. John F. Kennedy 27. Wolfman Jack 28. Lee Harvey Oswald 29. Jack Ruby 30. Patsy Cline 31. Abraham Zapruder 32. Lyndon B. Johnson 33. Tom Dooley (sic) 34. Etta James 35. John Lee Hooker 36. Guitar Slim 37. Marilyn Monroe 38. Don Henley 39. Glenn Frey 40. Carl Wilson 42. Oscar Peterson 48. Stan Getz 49. Dickie Betts 50. Art Pepper 51. Thelonious Monk 52. Charlie Parker 53. Buster Keaton 54. Harold Lloyd 55. Bugsy Siegal 56. Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd 57. Lindsey Buckingham 58. Stevie Nicks 59. Nat King Cole 60. Harry Houdini 61. Jelly Roll Morton 62. Bud Powell

Rough And Rowdy Ways By The Numbers:

Males: 45 (72.6%)
White Males: 37 (59.7%)
Dead White Males: 32 (51.6%)
Females: 5 (.08%)
Black or Brown: 23 (37.1%)
LGBTQ+: 1 (.02%)
Born in 21st Century: 0 (0%)
Born in 20th Century: 28 (45.2%)
Born in 19th Century: 12 (19.4%)
Born in 18th Century: 2 (.03%)
Born Before Christ: 0 (0%)
Mentions of Christ himself: 0 (0%)
Americans: 34 (54.8%)
Europeans: 9 (14.5%)
Africans: 0 (0%)
Australians: 0 (0%)
Asians: 0 (0%)
Members of the Eagles: 2 (.03%)
Members of Fleetwood Mac: 2 (.03%)
Members of Mumford & Sons: 0 (0%)
Cast of Sanford & Sons: 0 (0%)

Look, I’m not trying to do a number on Bob (*ugh* – Editor). My late father first took me to see him in 1978 (Vegas Bob period) and things have never been the same. I consider Bob a spiritual father of sorts who, if truth be told, replaced the person who introduced me to him a long time ago. Sick, I know. But the data is what it is. From what I can tell, folks, Name Droppin’ Bob ain’t WOKE and, at this late stage in the game (he turns 80 next year), we’re probably past the point of enlightenment: Bob knows what he knows.

So there’s the newest Dylan (Bob himself). Shall we turn to two of the oldest New Dylans?

David Blue — born Stuart David Cohen — was a contemporary of Bob’s in the fertile Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 60s. Another denizen of that scene — Eric Anderson — apparently came up with the name, upon which hearing, Dylan quipped: “It’s all over now, David Blue.” Blue, according to legend, was present when Bob wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” and actually helped by strumming the chords as Dylan refined the lyrics. Heavy, man! Blue also bore a remarkable resemblance to Bob especially during his Electric Genius period (’65-’66) which you can see in this clip from Renaldo And Clara, filmed during the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975. Blue oozes charisma as he recounts those early days in the Village, whilst banging the pleasure machine next to a hotel swimming pool. You can see why Bob would have wanted to hang out with Blue: he was super-cool! Unfortunately, Blue started his recording career as a rank imitator of Bob (particularly of the thin wild mercury sound achieved on Blonde On Blonde) whose songs and voice were not at all up to the task. Blue, however, developed considerably and would go on to release several albums that I would actually put up there with Leonard Cohen’s best. Blue started as a Bob clone but he sorta ended as a likeness of Leonard and at times transcended comparison to anyone. Blue died of a heart attack while jogging around Washington Square Park in 1982. He had no ID and it took several days for his corpse to be identified. He was as obscure in death as he was in life.

Sammy Walker — who as far as I know is still kicking around — appeared on the Village scene over ten years after Dylan and Blue but was actually discovered by another major player of that early 60s scene: one Phil Ochs who by the mid-Seventies was spiraling out of control, calling himself “John Train”, and eventually surrendering to the deep despair that would lead to his suicide in 1976. Not exactly your standard A&R guy! Sammy, like Blue, also resembled Bob but more so in that man-of-the-people way that Bruce emulated early on. Sammy also sounded almost exactly like Folk Bob and, unlike Blue, did actually have the musical and songwriting chops right off the bat. Unfortunately, he was never able to overcome the New Dylan tag it seems and later in life — long after he had retired from the biz — speculated whether he would have achieved greater success had he consciously tried to sound less like Bob. In any case, both of these old New Dylans deserve a listen. So let’s spin some sides by Sam’n’Dave!

“Song For Patty”: Sammy came up from Georgia and quickly scored a contract with the venerable Folkways label based on Ochs’ recommendation. This song is the title track of his 1975 debut. Check out Walker’s pristine picking and sweet harp work. Sammy, apparently, thought Hearst was a legitimate revolutionary; Ochs considered Tania a KGB spy. One thing most of us can agree on is that you could easily mistake “Song For Patty” for an early Dylan composition. It’s that good! I’ve always been confounded by the peculiar and incredibly poetic line contained in the chorus: “Please meet me at the Holocaust Valley and you can tell us about it some day.” Hmmmm.

“Catcher In The Rye”: Another one from Sammy’s Folkways debut. See what I mean about Walker’s physical resemblance to Dylan (I’m so sorry to impose but you’ll have to actually click the link)? The astute folkie, however, may notice that Sammy’s voice is actually closer in timbre to Woody than Bob. No matter. One thing’s for sure: Holden Caufield (and Alexander Supertramp for that matter) despised “phonies.” Sammy’s the real deal!

“Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin'”: By ’76, again with Ochs’ help, Sammy scored a contract with Warner Bros and on his eponymous release for that label was produced by the legendary Nik Venet, producer of Glen Campbell, King Curtis, Fred Neil, Lou Rawls, Linda Rondstadt and many more. But even Venet’s cache could not propel Walker to fame despite the undeniable beauty of track’s like this one where Walker — by then living in New York — yearns for the simplicity of the peach state.

“Looking For Friend”: While Blue started as a New Dylan, by 1971, he found himself on David Geffen’s Asylum label and sounded a lot more like Lenny than Bobby. “Looking For Friend” from the Stories LP (perhaps Blue’s best overall collection) will surely appeal to fans of David Berman who famously sang that all his “favorite singers couldn’t sing.”

“Cupid’s Arrow”: To bring things full circle, this clip from 1976 shows Blue (in one of only two clips of him — there are NONE of Sammy Walker in the 70s) performing at a memorial concert for Phil Ochs shortly after Walker’s mentor hung himself at his sister’s house on Long Island. Blue says at the beginning of the clip that he wrote the song for Phil but, to these ears, it always sounded like a love song to Bobby: “You moved me but I didn’t know why // Cupid’s arrow was aimed too high”.

Sure it was, Dave, but is there any other way? Keep your aim true, friends, if not high and I’ll see you in week.

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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t

August 18th, 2020

FRESH AIR: That’s the sound of an immigration raid getting underway in the new six-part documentary series “Immigration Nation” now streaming on Netflix. Our guests today are the series’ co-directors and co-executive producers, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz. They spent three years filming immigration enforcement actions and their effects after President Trump took office, and they had remarkable access to agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. As you’ll hear, the filmmakers’ relationship with ICE deteriorated sharply after the agency saw rough drafts of the planned episodes.

The series follows ICE agents, their supervisors and spokesmen, activists, immigrants and their families and even a smuggler who guides migrants across the U.S. border for hefty fees. The stories are compelling, and they raise questions about the impact of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration. Shaul Schwarz and Cristina Clusiau have collaborated on several previous documentaries, including the Emmy award-winning films “A Year In Space” and “Trophy.” Schwarz spent time around the U.S.-Mexican border for his 2013 film “Narco Cultura,” which premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2013. Schwarz and Clusiau joined me via Skype from Brooklyn. MORE

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When Fascism Comes To America It Will Have A Combover And Carry A Bible He’s Never Read

August 17th, 2020

Trump_fascist

 

THE ATLANTIC: President Donald Trump’s open admission yesterday that he’s sabotaging the Postal Service to improve his election prospects crystallizes a much larger dynamic: He’s waging an unprecedented campaign to weaponize virtually every component of the federal government to partisan advantage.

Trump is systematically enlisting agencies, including the Postal Service, Census Bureau, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security, that traditionally have been considered at least somewhat insulated from political machinations to reward his allies and punish those he considers his enemies. He is razing barriers between his personal and political interests and the core operations of the federal government to an extent that no president has previously attempted, a wide range of public-administration experts have told me. […]

The deployment of federal agents this summer may represent the most tangible manifestation of Trump’s determination to wield the federal government as a weapon against his political enemies. Light, who has studied the federal government’s operations for decades and is usually no alarmist, describes it as “shocking.” Sending those assets into cities over the objection of their mayors, he told me, “does resemble the early days of a police state, I’m sorry to say it.” […]

Rosenberg framed Trump’s actions in dramatic terms. Trump, in his combative speeches around the July 4 holiday, claimed that “far-left fascism” is trying to “overthrow” and “destroy” American “civilization”—allegations that could justify almost any level of “authoritarian crackdown by the government of the United States against the president’s domestic political opponents,” Rosenberg argues. “We are watching an authoritarian in action before our eyes. And we haven’t woken up to the significance of what we are seeing, frankly.”

Those are accusations that have rarely been directed at an American president. But as students of democracy point out, the pattern of subordinating all government operations to the interests of one party, and even one individual, is a core characteristic of illiberal and authoritarian countries. Shaub, like Rosenberg, sees exactly that end point. “I think if he’s reelected, the republic may die—and I’m having to force myself to say ‘may’ so I don’t sound like a complete alarmist,” Shaub, now a senior adviser to the government-watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said starkly. “But I don’t see how the government can survive four more years of this … Whatever your worst fears are for whatever comes next aren’t as bad as it will be, by a long shot.” MORE

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