Tom Waits has become the secret handshake of cool — either you know it or you don’t, and after 20 albums, if you still have to ask you’ll most likely never know. Me? I’m a lifer. True story: Back in college I borrowed 1985’s Rain Dogs from the public library and got so lost in its lurid tales of the depraved, the derelict and the dispossessed camping on the wrong side of the tracks in Reagan’s Morning in America that I didn’t return it for a year and a half.
When I finally brought it back, I was banned for life. All told, it was worth it. I mention all this because Bad As Me sounds like welcome echo of Rain Dogs‘ spellbinding urban magic realism. Both albums are fulcrums effortlessly balancing all that has come before — the-piano’s-been-drinkin’ drollery of the Asylum years and the cinematic sweep and lump-in-your-throat sentimentalism of the Coppola soundtrack years — with all that comes after: the creepers and the weepers, the keepers (Bone Machine, Mule Variations) minus the sleepers (Alice and Black Rider).
We start off on a runaway downtown train, careening through the through the slaughter houses and gin joints of “Chicago.” Then we’re wading through the fevered, hoodoo swamps of “Raised Right Man.” On “Everybody’s Talking At The Same Time” we’re tooling down the lost highway of some forgotten David Lynch movie in a vintage convertible with tail fins and Laura Dern and Nicholas Cage fucking in the backseat. “Get Lost” sounds like the theme song for some X-rated Elvis movie Jim Jarmusch should’ve directed, some Ann Margaret required. “Kiss Me” is easily the greatest non-silly love song since Barry met White. The warped, wild-eyed tango of the title track — powered by Rain Dogs alum Marc Ribot’s switchblade guitar — sounds like the greatest song Screaming Jay Hawkins never recorded. There’s a savage, sideways-marching post-war G.I. blues called “Hell Broke Luce” (“I left my arm in my coat!”) that manages the neat trick of supporting the troops while cursing the war pigs that pay them to kill and be killed.
Every song feels like it’s happening at the stroke of midnight, which is pretty much how it ends. It’s “New Year’s Eve.” The streets are streaked with dirty rain and neon and steam’s coming out of the ground like the whole goddamn town is about to blow. There’s gunfire and then sirens. We duck into a bar where nobody brings anything bigger than a fiver and run into the same crowd we met “In The Neighborhood” midway through SwordFishTrombones. It’s good to see the old gang again. It’s been a long time, and we’re all just a little bit older and a little bit colder. By now, everybody has figured out the dice were loaded and everybody knows the good guys lost. But at least we still have each other, until death do us part. Not that we have much choice. Thirty years after Reagan, it’s midnight in America and we’re all beautiful losers now. – JONATHAN VALANIA*
Bad As Me is Waits is at his alchemical best, lonely and lusty, loose and wild. Nostalgia’s not a dirty business here, the past gets dragged across a scratchy record and into the present, kicking and screaming and howling at the moon. The ghosts of an inscrutable America, at war with its own image, flicker in the rearview mirror before receding into the sleepless haze of history. Marc Ribot’s abstract twang makes the title track lurch with unhinged menace. “Back In the Crowd” sways heavy and gentle, evoking the slow-motion mirror-ball magic of an old, smoke-filled seaside dance hall. There’s the wheezing waltz of “Pay Me” and the sultry “Kiss Me,” which sounds like it fell out of the back of 1978’s Blue Valentine, comes on like the flush of a slipped mickey. It’s not all boozy sadness — amidst the wailing and gnashing the joint still jumps and the house still rocks, horny horns honk and frantic guitars skitter like crazy cats on a hot tin roof. “Satisfied” may be the most badass Stones-homage committed yet in this post-wax age. Keef even lends his cracked croon to the dying-of-the-light duet “Last Leaf.” Don’t think twice about missing out on the bonus tracks: all suitably imperfect gems in the crown of this treasured troubadour’s storied career. Bad As Me is both an invitation and a dire warning: Heavens to Murgatroid, if you can’t stand the heat, get the hell out of the backseat and while you’re at it turn up the Wolfman Jack. – BRIAN MURRAY
THE MOST PERFECT SONG OF 2011: Apothecary Love
This old-timey charmer from The Low Anthem’s drop-dead gorgeous Smart Flesh, the follow-up to 2009’s blessed Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, made me smile all year long. It vibes like a summery cross between The Band’s Music From Big Pink and Beck’s Mutations – all mournful, moonlit country lilt and coal mountain melody waltzing matilda across the fruited plains and purple mountain majesties of the warm, narcotic American night. Its like old time country lemonade for your ears. The singer sounds like an Appalachian Cat Stevens telling it on the mountain, the harmonica wheezes like a far-off train whistle in the night and hearing that ghostly pedal steel is, in my considered opinion, the closest you will ever get to God. Set in the olden days — when women wore bonnets, men wore britches and everything was sepia-toned — the lyric concerns two soon-to-be lovers that meet cute in an apothecary (sort of like an old-fashioned CVS). He’s just minding his own business, browsing the potions, pills and medicines, when he notices a sad-eyed lady of the lowlands. He quickly determines that she is tormented by the darkening voices in her head, the “conspiracy delusion that her boyfriend kept fed” and tells her that he’s got the cure for the shape that she’s in. Understandably she’s suspicious at first, but he assures his intentions are pure and all that he wants is to be the friend she so obviously needs. He has a voice you can trust. By the second verse, they are back at his homestead and she’s already feeling better. She shoots him with whiskey and then chases him with gin, she calms and comforts him, and stills the tremble in his hands — turns out she’s got the cure for the shape that he’s in. Cue scratchy, silent film footage of mortar grinding in pestle, train going into the tunnel, etc. All’s well that ends well, you would think. But by the last verse, she’s left him, he’s “reeling with that time-release feelin’” and so he heads back down to the apothecary, hoping to find a new cure for the shape that he’s in. In a word: perfect. – JONATHAN VALANIA
Tossing aside any narrow definition of Swedish pop, Lykke Li reprograms 60s girl band tropes— sweeping choruses and “He Kissed Me” innocence—for this bleaker age. The lesson: All those perfect, snowy mountaintops of the Nordic idyll resolve into dirty slush in the sunshine. The critics all seized on “Get Some,” with its Bo Diddley beat and stunning declaration—“I’m your prostitute, you gon’ get some” as the Rosetta Stone. But “Sadness is a Blessing” is the perfect pop masterpiece—music for girls to sing together and boys to listen to when no one is watching. That’s some real gender-smashing power right there. And two discs in, Lykke Li has no visible ceiling. A track titled “Unrequited Love”, sung by a Swedish pop singer over a spare, bluesy vamp sounds like a bad idea, conceptually. But in Li’s hands it swells up into a ballad Mick Jagger would gladly have carpet bombed on Beggar’s Banquet. A bitter, Stones-y howl from a 25-year old woman, unbound. – STEVE VOLK
THE BLACK KEYS
Once the album-opening Elvis-ian surf-a-billy of “Lonely Boy” lights your fuse, you will want to take the full ride in the Black Keys latest nitro burnin’ funny car of an album. On their last record, Brothers, The Black Keys dialed back the thick, freakiness of their trademark fuzzed-out biker bar choogle in favor of a smoother, white boy R&B biker bar choogle and wound up winning three Grammys and selling over 870,000 copies in the process. No wonder the mood of El Camino is celebratory, with less emphasis on the blues and soul music and more emphasis on white light/white heat, be it the T-Rex-ian “Gold on the Ceiling” or Stones-y stomps like “Run Right Back.” What you have right here is a straight out, pedal to the metal party record; a sticker affixed to the cover simply reads: “PLAY LOUD.” That’s sound advice, son. – COLONEL TOM SHEEHY
David Comes To Life
At nearly 78 minutes of full-throttle, full-throated punk rock, David Comes To Life is as relentless it is revelatory. As a rock opera about a lightbulb factory worker who finds and loses love over the course of four acts, it’s maddeningly convoluted and only semi-decipherable, especially given the growling, shouted vocals of the gruff Damian Abraham aka Pink Eyes. But Canada’s Fucked Up produced the year’s most purely exhilarating album, an adrenaline rush of triumphant hooks and triple-guitars (helmed by mastermind Mike Haliechek aka 10,000 Marbles) that owes as much to the Who as to Fugazi or Husker Du, whose Zen Arcade is its closest ancestor. It’s a fist-pumping moshpit of caterwauling voices, sweetened with sporadic female call-and-response vocals and extended instrumental passages. “To love and to lose has been my refrain – just when I think I’ve found hope I lose it again,” Pink Eyes barks at the beginning of “The Recursive Girl,” and that sums up the storyline. But by the end of the album, he’s singing the cliché that “love will never die,” and Fucked Up has you believing in the redemptive power of love and punk rock power chords. — STEVE KLINGE
JAY-Z & KANYE WEST
Watch The Throne
Watch the Throne is the absolute height of hip-hop grandeur. If Sheek Louch and Roy Lichtenstein filmed a porno in the Guggenheim with some raunchy amputee prostitutes — that porno might achieve the same level of greatness Jay-Z and Kanye did with this one. Beats tend to switch midway through, lyrics about Fish Filets and blowjobs in mall restrooms are delivered with casual elan, guest appearances are both surprising and spare, the producer lineup reads like the Pro Bowl roster. This album is much, much more than part 2 of Kanye’s opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s a new height for Kanye’s still-peaking ascendancy and a fitting denouement for Jay-Z’s soon-to-fade prominence. — MATTHEW HENGEVELD
The King Is Dead
The Decemberists went to the country for The King is Dead, recording it in a barn on an Oregon farm. Appropriately, the sound is rootsy and simple–folk tunes, Neil Young-ish country, REM style rock, and acoustic ballads. Gone are the prog rock and convoluted story cycles of past releases. The mix features harmonica, banjo, fiddle, accordion, pedal steel, and bouzouki, while the guitars are mostly acoustic and strummed, with Peter Buck adding his ringing guitar for a couple songs. Gillian Welch also contributes harmony vocals to over half the songs, adding country cred and mitigating Colin Meloy’s nasalosity. There’s even a barn and a horse on the back cover. The songs, which are shorter and more oblique than previous releases, reference nature frequently and focus on topics like family and community. In other words, it’s the opposite of The Hazards of Love. But what makes The King is Dead so good is the songwriting. All of the 10 songs have great melody lines and lyrics, and the ballads make the heart ache and taken as a whole, overwhelming evidence that Meloy may well be the finest rock songwriter standing at the start of the 21st Century. – MIKE WALSH
King Of Limbs
The strange mime-meets-epilepsy dance that bowler-topped Thom Yorke does in the video for “Lotus Flower” exemplifies the oblique dichotomies that King Of Limbs occupies: the twilight zone between funny and serious, between form and shape, between hue and color, between agony and ecstasy. Like so much of the music Radiohead has made in the 21st century, it sounds like it was made by paranoid androids — one part chimerical electronica, one part rock noir, one part accident and one part invention. The twitchy, inscrutable swirl of sonics is riven with anxiety and phantom menace — like we’ve rigged the Nostromo to self-destruct in five minutes and we’re racing for the escape pod amidst the steam and sirens, knowing fully well it will take us six minutes to get there — and offset by the minimalist operatics of Yorke’s vocals, which have the same effect as horses at a riot. It is his unique brand of genius that he can make every song sound like an accusation and an elegy all at once. What exactly he is on about remains open to debate and the particulars probably best left to the obsessive narratives and counter-narratives of message board exposition, but suffice it to say King Of Limbs‘ eight songs are ghost stories from inside the machine. — JONATHAN VALANIA
We all heard the clock ticking on Zach Condon—the precocious 19-year old super genius who demonstrated what a slight Brooklynite can do with a Balkan beat or Mexican funeral march. The conundrum: Once he had forced many thousands of hipsters to pretend they understand the finer points of a French chanson, wouldn’t his cultural mash-ups simply grow tiresome? But The Rip Tide, Condon’s third disc in the folkie outfit Beirut, suggests his gifts are more lasting. The obvious prize winner is “Santa Fe,” which rides a melodic progression reminiscent of David Bowie’s “Heroes” through airy realms of new world electronica and Old World pomp. The key takeaway from Rip Tide, though, is what his new, more spare arrangements reveal: Yeah, those martial beats still provide a rough kick in the pants. And those ringing horns, when they sound, suggest the romance of a foreign port on the horizon. But again and again, the songs on Rip Tide break down at some point, the exotic elements stripped away so all we’re left with is a melody and Condon’s warm croon, and still he has the power to wash us all out to sea. We thought of Condon as a kind of curator—a musician picking over the choice pieces of foreign cultures. But it turns out what he’s best at is writing songs. – STEVE VOLK
Bill Callahan’s last album, 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, was one of the most inviting of his career. Full of strings and lush, careful arrangements, it’s the opposite of Apocalypse, which uses insistent, vaguely blues-based guitar vamps, both acoustic and electric, as the bedrock of a song-cycle about one man’s conflicted relationship with his country. Not unlike PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, Apocalypse tackles this nation’s myths and delusions, triumphs and tragedies, dreams and disasters, but where Harvey is direct and vitriolic, Callahan is metaphoric and wry. The album is full of cattle drovers and other horseback riders; wide open roads and amber waves of grain stretching to shining seas; vexing questions of freedom and military service and commitments both personal and political. It’s also a very funny album, with wordplay that is easy to miss without a lyric sheet (“America! The lucky suckle teat, others chaw pig knuckle meat / Ain’t enough teat, ain’t enough t’eat, in America!”). We’re the lucky ones to have this album to chaw on. – STEVE KLINGE
How Do You Do
Despite being a geeky Jewish kid from the Detroit burbs, Mayer Hawthorne loves 60s and 70s Motown and soul music so much you would be forgiven for thinking his records were actually recorded back then. But Hawthorne makes no apologies on How Do You Do (his major label debut) for working in an earlier style. Instead, he wallows in the richness, joy, and romance of soul music, and delivers neo-classics in the process. And despite a healthy sense of humor about himself (those thick frame David Ruffin-esque glasses crack me up as do his videos), Hawthorne’s music is no joke. With a voice that recalls Smokey, the Temps, and the Delfonics, Hawthorne delivers songs on How Do You Do that immediately make the feet want to move. But be careful: these songs are so infectious, you could throw out your sacroiliac. – MIKE WALSH
“There’s a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch and it’s bringing me out the dark” goes Adele’s opening declaration on 21, and after the fact it sounds like prophecy because Adele exploded in 2011, providing comfort food for the soul for legions of mopey MILFS, weepy gay men and all the lonely people in between. Adele delivers these songs of love and hope and sex and dreams with a voice that is river deep, mountain high, with a wisdom, weariness and a fierce resolve far beyond her tender years. From the locomotive guitar chugging at the start of “Rolling in the Deep” until the final plaintive wails of “Someone Like You,” 21 floats like a butterfly and stings like a beeyotch. Her music was in perpetual rotation up and down the radio dial, and deservedly so, because 21 was the one album this year that people who don’t really like music all that much and those who can’t live without it could agree on. – PAUL STEENKAMER
Ashes & Fire
Ryan Adams is one of those love him or hate him artists. I go back and forth. Sure, he’s an inveterate attention whore, a piss-poor editor of his own creativity and a drama queen man-child too in love with his own legend. But when the planets do align, and The Fates allow it, he is also a top-shelf singer-songwriter in the grand tradition of the great denim bards of Laurel Canyon. Ashes & Fire is one of those occasions. It is not, as the growing consensus would have it, as good as 2000’s Heartbreaker, his previous high-water mark — it’s better. Much better. Reportedly clean and sober and happily married, Adams seems to have finally grown the fuck up. There is a master class precision to the writing and execution of these songs — an exacting attention to subtlety and nuance, a perfectly calibrated modulation of mood and dynamics — that simply cannot be faked. Some credit must go to producer Glyn Johns who has a long track record of catching lightning in a bottle. But also to Benmont Tench and his magic Hammond B3 as well as Norah Jones, who plays a mean piano throughout and harmonizes rather angelically on a few songs with Adam’s wife — who, I’d wager, actually deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Ashes & Fire’s becalmed gravitas. Because, unlikely as it might seem on so many levels, it would appear that Mandy Moore (yes, that Mandy Moore) has succeeded where so many have failed and finally made an honest man out of Ryan Adams. — JONATHAN VALANIA*
The duo of guitarist Brian Oblivion and vocalist Madeline Follin that comprise Cults have created a sound that is easy to listen to, but hard to put your finger on. Their self-titled debut is shot through with distinctive retro ’60s girl group sounds, lush period production, sunbeam melodies, and beautiful harmonies. Yet if you listen carefully, you realize that this CD is a bit darker than the music first implies, plus there’s the creepy gimmick of including bits of extant spoken word recordings from infamous cult leader Jim Jones. But somehow all that is offset by the finger snaps, hip-shaking maracas, and the chiming glockenspiel gives this CD’s darker flavors a light-hearted finish. – PAUL STEENKAMER
OK, so I gave this album a poor review just a month ago, but it is a critic’s prerogative to change his mind. Upon closer inspection, Undun is marvelous, especially compared to every non-Roots album that 2011 produced. The story-telling is vivid and postmodern, beginning with the violent death and ending with the not altogether unfamiliar life of a good man gone bad. Call it a concept album or a movie between your ears, but don’t say The Roots lack for ambition. While most hip-hoppers are still vying for a spot on Hot97, The Roots are shooting for a cotdam Grammy. The Roots aren’t in the realm of Lil’ B or Action Bronson anymore; Undun is boxing with contenders like Gillian Welch, Wilco and Alison Krauss. In that respect, Undun is a grand slam for the South Philly boys. — MATTHEW HENGEVELD
With all the woozy synths, hash pipe sonics, and pinging dub echo, Black Up is possibly the most psychedelic album released in 2011, an achievement rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that it is first and foremost a hip-hop album. Headed up by Palaceer Lazaro (a.k.a. Ishmael Butler, a.k.a. Butterfly of beloved ‘90s alt-hip-hoppers Digable Planets), the mysterious Shabazz Palaces released two full-of-promise EPs last year, but their first full-length is a densely-layered, 36-minute masterpiece. In a year that did nothing but hype the teenage Odd Future’s juvenalia as rap’s destiny, it was a veteran nearing middle age who created its freshest sounds. Perhaps for some, that’s a cause for concern, but I’m too enchanted to worry. – BRYAN BIERMAN
W H O K I L L
The sound and scope of Merrill Garbus’ tUnE-yArDs project has continued to grow, displaying a notable shift between the first two albums. The brilliant debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, was recorded almost exclusively by Garbus on lo-fi equipment and free software. On her follow-up, W H O K I L L, the ukulele and expansive voice loops remain, but there’s a lot more toys to play with. Working in a pro-studio with many other musicians, Merrill and multi-instrumentalist/co-writer Nate Brenner litter the songs with afrobeat rhythms, fuzz-bass, and siren-like saxophones not unlike The Bomb Squad’s gritty production work. And where the debut was about sadness and heartbreak, W H O K I L L is filled with the anger that follows, perpetually swarmed with violent imagery. On “Killa”, Garbus soulfully warns, “all my violence is here in the sound,” backed by an ‘80s funk beat that keeps building until it falls in on itself—it’s a strange and scary mix, but like a car accident you can’t help but look. — BRYAN BIERMAN
The Harrow & The Harvest
The storied past — half-remembered, half made up — is invariably the purview of roots music, but few practitioners display a more uncannily authentic connection to those sepia-toned days of yore than Gillian Welch. It’s like she’s some long forgotten Carter Family offspring who died at birth and was reincarnated into now. That is one way of explaining the power and the import of The Harrow & The Harvest’s brand of American beauty. The other explanation would the inordinate talent and devotion of Welch and her musical (and life) partner Dave Rawlings. Together, their precisely picked melodies weave their way in and out of Welch’s vocals to frame a starkly haunting tableau of Appalachian life, highlighting themes of discontent, disconnection and a yearning to return to the warmth and safety of old homes sold off or shuttered or foreclosed on a long, long time ago. The slower tempo of this album, combined with the minimalist instrumentation, pushes the indelible vocal harmonizing of these two longtime collaborators to the fore. Her first album in eight years (Eight years! The Beatles entire career was over in eight years!), The Harrow & The Harvest is proof positive that some things are still worth waiting for in our instant gratification world and cements the duo’s position as the postmodern face of American folk music. — MEREDITH KLEIBER
The Magic Place
I remember in the early 1980s being swept up by the first few EPs of The Cocteau Twins, particularly the swirling atmospheres around Elizabeth Fraser’s voice (whose tone pretty much defines the over-used adjective “ethereal.”), but my interest waned over the years because as songwriters the Cocteau Twins were fairly uneven at best. Juliana Barwick has been dogged with comparisons to the Cocteau’s music since she came out of Brooklyn (claiming Louisiana heritage) back in 2006, but she’s bested their work by ditching pop songcraft altogether and instead just reveling in the church-y atmospherics of the sound itself. She builds her pieces around short, repeated melodies, looped vocals, and just the hint of piano, bass, or guitar, giving them the feel of hymns more than songs. Enya? No, more like those intimate Eno moments, with a peacefulness profound for being diametrically opposed to the mood of our times. – DAN BUSKIRK
With its bland cover and its ungodly generic title, “Awakening” does little to alert you to the strength of the latest release from Chicago flautist Nicole Mitchell. A genre that sadly has the sturdiest of glass ceilings when it comes to women, jazz sadly has little time for anything but stellar female talents. Former president of the legendary jazz collective AACM (Artists of the Advancement of Creative Musicians) Mitchell is just that type of extravagantly talented figure. “Awakening” exhibits her mastery of composition, it is filled with tunes that reap emotion from a familiarity that shifts and morphs with an brilliantly exploratory intelligence. The band here is three-quarters of the Thrill Jockey group Frequency, with Tortoise’s guitarist Jeff Parker replacing reedman Ed Wilkerson and milking his electric’s mellow tone for fine gauzy effect. It is in the spirit of Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk that Mitchell can evoke such strength and nuance from the simplicity of her instrument, and her band of Chicago-based heavy-hitters proves that they don’t need gimmicks to make memorable jazz records. – DAN BUSKIRK
THE DUMB ANGEL
Teenage symphonies to God. That’s the phrase Beach Boys auteur BrianWilson used to describe the a heartbreaking works of staggering genius he was creating in the mid-’60s, when his compositional powers were achieving miraculous states of beauty and innovation even as his fevered faculties skirted the fringes of madness. With the 1966 release of Pet Sounds, The Beach Boy’s orchestral-pop opus of ocean-blue melancholia, Brian clinched his status as teen America’s Mozart-on-the-beach in the cosmology of modern pop music.
Less than a year later, he would fall off the edge of his mind, abandoning his ambitious LSD-inspired follow-up, an album with the working title Dumb Angel later changed to Smile, which many who were privy to the recording sessions claimed would change the course of music history. Instead, it was The Beatles who would, as the history books tell us, assume the mantle of culture-shifting visionaries with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released a few months after Wilson pulled the plug on Smile. Meanwhile, Wilson sank into a decades-long downward spiral of darkness, exiling himself to a bedroom hermitage of terrifying hallucinations, debilitating paranoia, Herculean drug abuse and morbid obesity. While he would later recover some measure of his sanity, he would never again craft a work of such overarching majesty.
In the wake of all the breathless hype for an album that was never finished, Smile took on mythical status, and a cult of Wilsonian acolytes sprang up as fellow musicians and super-fans tried to connect the dots into constellations and piece together a completed album from the bootlegs of recording session outtakes that have leaked out over the years. For decades, Wilson maintained a Sphinx-like silence, unwilling or unable to talk about the project, which only amped up the mystery surrounding the project. But given its central role in his precipitous downfall, it’s no wonder Wilson refused to even discuss Smile in interviews, let alone entertain repeated entreaties to finish and release it. Furthermore, he no longer had the Beach Boys’ golden throats to carry his tunes — brothers Carl and Dennis are deceased and his relationship with cousin Mike Love has devolved into acrimony and six-figure litigation.
Meanwhile, even with Wilson‘s protracted absence from the music scene, the dark legend of Smile was passed down via oral tradition and backroom-traded bootlegs to succeeding generations of pop obsessives, scholars and composers and hailed by many as the enigmatic “Rosebud” of popular music. Selected tracks from the Smile sessions — spectral, spooky, ineffably beautiful — released with 1994’s Good Vibrations box set only fanned the flames of obsession and lurid speculation. Like the mysterious leopard found frozen to death near the summit of the mountain in Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” everyone wanted to know how Wilson got that high and what exactly he was looking for up there.
Aided by the radical interventions of psychiatrists and a cornucopia of mood-altering and anti-psychotic medications — not to mention an empathetic support network of friends, family and business associates — Brian has staged an impressive comeback despite that fact that he remains a very damaged soul. For the last decade, he has delivered moving concert performances with an exceptionally fluent 10-piece band of new-school L.A. scenesters that is capable of replicating the sunbeam glories of those Beach Boys harmonies and recreating the orchestral pop glories of Pet Sounds down to the last ornate sonic detail.
The, in 2004, Brian shocked the music world with the announcement that he had finally completed his lost masterpiece with the aid of this crack touring band, re-recording the vocals and backing tracks and completing, with the help of his Smile-era lyricist Van Dyke Parks, the project’s half-finished songs. As welcome as news of this development was to Smile buffs, the end result was somehow less-than-completely-satisfying, like visiting a replica of an historic artifact in a museum (Not the actual bed that George Washington slept in, but an incredible facsimile!) The critical response was fawning, but smacked of the over-praise usually reserved for special Olympians, and as such ultimately fleeting.
Which is why the five CD box set The Smile Sessions will be the final word on Smile, separating once and for all rumor from fact, solving old mysteries, cracking the riddles of incompletion and providing closure for those that have pondered and puzzled over Smile‘s tragicomic legend for the last 44 years. Relying on cutting edge digital technology to assemble, assess and edit together the best and brightest moments buried in the more than 30 hours of Smile work tapes — which was a fool’s errand in the razor-and-scotch-tape analog era — and using the 2004 re-do as a guide for song selection and sequence, engineers Mark Linnett and Alan Boyd have assembled the closest we will ever come to a completed Smile on Disc One.
Discs Two, Three and Four assembles rehearsal work tapes, embryonic early takes and alternate versions of the songs on Disc One. These outtakes are fascinating for the range of experimentation and innovation attempted here, as well the telling snippets of dialogue (“Are you guys feeling the acid yet?” Brian asks during an early run through the Gregorian chant of “Our Prayer”). Disc 5 contains 24 versions of “Good Vibrations,” enabling the listener to hear its evolution from quasi-R&B stomper to the trippy pocket-sized symphony that plays in perpetuity on oldies radio. Recorded over the course of nine months in three studios at a cost of $40,000 the song was at the time the most expensive single ever made. Serving as a bridge between Pet Sounds and Smile, “Good Vibrations” marks the beginning of Brian’s use of the modular composition technique that made the song both a deathless classic and an intimation of Smile‘s impending doom. Instead of tracking songs from beginning to end as he did on Pet Sounds, Brian recorded and re-recorded an endless series of interchangeable sonic segments that would be jigsawed together at the end. This technique would prove doable but daunting in the digital era — where point-and-click technology enabled the engineers to time travel back and forth across hours and hours of recording sessions in mere seconds and edit together otherwise incongruent musical passages with relative ease — but epic, laborious and, quite literally, crazy-making in the low-tech analog era of the late 1960s. In that sense, Smile was way ahead of its time, as Brian and his acolytes always claimed, if only because the technology needed to complete it simply didn’t exist in 1967.
But a few listens to the songs on Disc One would cause any neutral observer with a functioning pair functioning pair of ears to conclude that this music was way ahead its time sonically and thematically — a cinematic travelogue narrated by a psychedelic barbershop quartet fronting a cosmic Salvation Army Band, mapping the birth of a nation, the westward expansion of manifest destiny from Plymouth Rock to blue Hawaii, evoking all the weirdness and whimsy, the laughter and the tears, the triumph and tragedy in between — because it still sounds thoroughly modern, and for that matter altogether mind blowing, 44 years after its stillborn inception. *
BY JONATHAN VALANIA In advance of her recent reading at the Free Library to promote her new book Reimagining Equality: Stories Of Race, Gender And Finding A Home, we present a conversation with Anita Hill, professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. Discussed: The fantasia of a Post-Racial America; the mendacity, narcissism and hypocrisy of Clarence Thomas and Herman Cain; the right wing’s racializing the blame for the 2008 financial crisis; how she passed the lie detector test Clarence Thomas refused to take; the emancipation of her grandfather from slavery; the shady backroom deal that silenced the Congressional testimony of three more women who came forward to accuse Clarence Thomas of grossly inappropriate behavior; the cruel partisan blowback and dirty tricks she weathered in the wake of her Congressional testimony that immortalized her as the Rosa Parks of sexual harassment.
PHAWKER: Given the election of Barack Obama, are we in a post-racial era? And if not, is that even a realistic expectation that we would reach it at some point in this country?
ANITA HILL: I don’t know at what point we might reach it, I certainly don’t believe we are here today, there’s too much evidence of racial disparities that have been well documented by social finances, there are too many incidents of it that have been documented anecdotally, so absolutely we’re not there yet. Is it a possibility for the future? I’m not certain, I don’t have that kind of a crystal ball. But what I do have is some things that we need to look at if we are truly serious about ever getting there.
PHAWKER: Speaking to your book here a moment, conservatives like to blame poor people – which I think is often code for minorities – for defaulting on mortgages they should have never been given and that was the sum and total cause of the financial collapse of 2008. Can you speak to that?
ANITA HILL: The foreclosure crisis could not have happen just because of individual mortgages taken out, it’s just impossible, that’s not even logical. In fact, there were loans taken out that should never have been issued, there were creditory loans that were given to people, people were given loans that were well above the cost that any loan should ever have, they were well above market cost and often they were given to people who qualified for potential loans at conditional rates, people were targeted, communities essentially were targeted for the pedaling of prime loans. So all of those taken together have to be understood and recognized and I do document how that happened in Reimagining Equality, but as well the foreclosure crisis and the collapse of the housing market were because those loans and faulty financial devices were bundled and sold up the stream whether they were loans taken out in minority communities or loans taken out by white people, these were bad loans that were then marketed and pedaled up the financial food chain. That is ultimately what caused the collapse.
PHAWKER: I’m curious what your take was on the so called ‘beer summit’ which I would say is probably the last moment or opportunity for a national discussion on race.
ANITA HILL: I felt it really rather limited not only in scope but it was also very limited in the way it was structured and set up. It gave the impression that the kind of issues we’re facing that are issues that have to do with race can be negotiated and settled on a one-on-one basis, when in fact that simply is not the case. They are far too systemic, they have a far broader impact than any two individuals. It was an interesting exercise but it just did not go far enough or go deeply enough with the concerns that were brought to the public’s attention by the arrest of Henry Louis Gates.
PHAWKER: Your grandfather was a slave, which kind of blows my mind, is this something you discovered when you were working on the book?
ANITA HILL: It blew my mind, too, to think that I’m only one generation away from slavery. If you think about that, if any of us think about it we tend to think about history as something well in the past and so remote and I guess the saying is correct, ‘History isn’t the past, it is present.’ I had heard that my grandfather had been born a slave and that his mother had been separated from his father, my great grandparents, at some point towards the end of slavery. But I had no way of documenting it until I went back and looked at the census record. We, as scientists and scholars, think we have to document everything. I had all the anecdotal information, but in fact I did wanna go back and document and find out exactly if it was true and it was true, my grandfather was born in 1864 before the slaves were officially freed. He fathered my mother when he was in his 50s and my mother was born in 1911. So he was a bit older than he was supposed to be, I guess, if I’m doing my math correctly. My mother was 45 when I was born, and that’s how what would have been a span of maybe two or three generations of slavery occurred within one generation.
PHAWKER: What do you make of black conservatives that spend most of their careers minimizing the impact of race on society in the modern age, and then when they get into trouble they immediately cry racism? I’m thinking of Clarence Thomas calling his nomination hearing a ‘high tech lynching’, I’m thinking of Herman Cain saying there’s this huge conspiracy against him to smear him – I’m curious what your take is on that.
ANITA HILL: I think unfortunately it does indicate a certain kind of narcissism if you will, but at the very least a double standard, that if things that happened to other people are denounced or denied as racism, any kind of thing that they perceive as being a miscarriage then is turned around and called racism. I’m not quite sure what the psychology of that is, I’m not in psychology by training, but I’m sure there are plenty who are who could tell us exactly what kind of personality creates that. But on a more serious note, I think the injury then that it does is that these people, individuals like Clarence Thomas are seen as spokespeople for African-Americans and the denial of our lived experience as African-Americans, when we do see and experience racism is really an insult to us as well as having the potential for setting all of us back, the entire society whether you’re an African-American of European-American or Latino or any other races that live in this country.
PHAWKER: Just quickly here, if you could confirm a few things I’ve read about the hearings, you took a polygraph test and passed it. Justice Thomas refused to take one, is that correct?
ANITA HILL: That is correct, I took a polygraph test administered by Paul Minor who was an FBI agent, a director of the FBI, not the head director but he was high up in the FBI, and who was an expert in the administration of polygraph tests.
PHAWKER: And there were three more women that were going to testify to similar behavior by Justice Thomas but as part of a back room deal between Republicans and Democrats basically the testimony was shut down at the end of your testimony, is that correct?
ANITA HILL: I still do not know why or how the testimony was shut down, I do know that there were three individuals who were ready to testify that I and my team were waiting for to testify, they had experienced similar behavior or had observed it, they were completely independent of me, so they weren’t just corroborating my story, except that their stories were very similar to mine and the experiences they had were very similar to mine.
PHAWKER: Just a couple things about the fallout afterwards, you went on to teach at the University of Oklahoma, it’s my understanding that there was a women’s group that raised money nationally to start a scholarship fund in your name. This angered conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma who first of all demanded that you resign, failing that they tried to pass a law that would make it illegal for the university to accept money from out of state, failing that they tried to dismantle the university? Is all that true?
ANITA HILL: Yes. They tried to dismantle the law school, it was a lot of political shenanigans if you put it in a nice way. It was amazing because I don’t know many institutions or legislators who have refused to accept donations that came from all over the country from individuals who would send in five, ten dollars, some would try to send in money monthly, some were from the state of Oklahoma who were really behind the effort. Ultimately what happened was that the higher regions of the state of Oklahoma did approve the fund, but the president of Oklahoma University at the time issued a ruling that there could be no over-fundraising for the fulfillment of the private donations. So again, the politics continued, the pressure was there, and ultimately there was some negotiated deal and much of the funds were removed from the state and given to Brandeis, where I am now.
PHAWKER: But you were pressured to resign and you did eventually five years later. Why were they asking you to resign? On what grounds? What did you do wrong besides testify truthfully under oath?
ANITA HILL: You know, again it was all political pressure. It’s something I talk about quite a bit in Speaking Truth to Power, I can’t even get into all of the details at this point. But I will say this, I have very supportive colleagues, and I did ultimately leave the university but I left the university because I had an opportunity to come to Brandeis to work on issues related to gender equality and racial equality and I have a very happy existence. Had I not made that move, I’m not sure that I would have been able to write Reimagining Equality certainly in the way that I have written it not only with an understanding of the law, but an understanding of sociology and pop culture and the number of policies that have contributed to housing inequality in this country.
PHAWKER: How do you react to being called ‘The Rosa Parks Of Sexual Harassment’?
ANITA HILL: That’s a name that has been thrown around, of course any mention of my name in the same sentence as Rosa Parks is high praise and flattering. She was such a beacon for me when I was growing up and the idea that you’re with this woman who was just absolutely committed to equality and willing to put her own well being at risk to stand up for what was right. What I hope is whatever people call me is that my desire really is that my effort to help other people find their voice and be able to stand up and to resist discrimination, whether it’s in the form of sexual harassment or any of the number of other forms people experience.
PHAWKER: If you had to do over any of this, would you do anything differently?
ANITA HILL: Oh gosh, who knows if you would do anything differently but I can say this – I would certainly do it all over again. And I would do it because of why I did it to start with. The integrity of the court is what was at stake in 1991 when I testified. The integrity of the court believes that it’s the integrity of the individual to serve on the court. I had information about Clarence Thomas that went to his integrity, his belief in the law, a law that he was bound to enforce as the head of the EOC and that hasn’t changed. I do believe that in the long run, even though people say, “Well, he ended up on the court anyway,” in the long run we started a conversation, many people demanded change, and we have moved forward.
Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger–risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese and shellfish. Your first 207 Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your 208th may send you to bed with the sweats, chills and vomits. Gastronomy is the science of pain.
Kitchen Confidential soon occupied the New York Times best seller list and led to Bourdain hosting his own show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations, wherein he trots the globe sampling the outre customs and exotic cuisines of various indigenous peoples and, for fear of offending his hosts, and in the pursuit of damn good television, bravely chomps down just about everything put in front of him, including: sheep testicles, ant eggs, seal eyeballs, a whole cobra with its heart still beating, and, most disgustingly, a wharthog’s anus, which required him to take Cipro for two weeks. In my book, he is pretty much The Coolest Man On Earth. Given that chefs are the new rock stars, I hereby dub him ‘The Lou Reed of Food.’
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Glen Matlock was the original bass player in the Sex Pistols, and he was also one the band’s principal songwriters — all the classic Pistols tunes (”Anarchy In The UK,” “God Save The Queen” “Pretty Vacant”) bear his imprimatur. So why haven’t you heard of him? Because he left the band — whether he quit or was fired depends on who you ask — just before the Pistols went supernova and was replaced by human car wreck Sid Vicious who’s onstage self-mutilation, epic dope appetite and ignominious demise (dead from a heroin overdose while being jailed for the murder of his girlfriend/Courtney-Love-role-model Nancy Spungen) rendered him iconic. Matlock plays on the first three Pistols singles, and shares songwriting credits for all but on track on Never Mind The Bollocks — with Steve Jones playing his bass parts on the recording. After the Pistols, he formed the New Wave power pop band The Rich Kids and various other side projects and tours with fellow veterans of the great punk wars of the 70s and 80s. By the mid-90s, Matlock was back in the saddle for an intermittent series of Pistols reunion concerts that continued well into the last decade. He plays the North Star Bar tonight with his latest project Glen Matlock & The Philistines.
PHAWKER: Can you please identify yourself so I can get a [recording] level…
GLEN MATLOCK: Hello I am Glen Matlock, I am from England but I am temporarily in New York in my friend’s apartment looking out the window at the Empire State building and it’s very cool!
PHAWKER: I would like to talk about some ancient history as far as the Pistols go, I hope you’re cool with that.
GLEN MATLOCK: Well, there ya go. I can’t do much better than that can I?
PHAWKER: Let’s start at the very beginning. How do you meet those guys? How did the Sex Pistols come together? How does Glen Matlock become part of the Pistols?
GLEN MATLOCK: Well, basically I ended up working for a guy called Malcolm McLaren, who is quite renowned – our manager at the time. He used to run a Teddy Boy clothes shop in London. I got a job working there. Every oddball and weirdo used to come in on a Saturday afternoon because all the bathtubs and bars were closed from three o’clock til about five thirty, which encouraged people to go shopping down at King’s Road, which is where the store was. His place was kind of weird, his place would attract the weirdest people. That’s how we all met. [Sex Pistols guitarist] Steve [Jones] and [Sex Pistols drummer] Paul [Cook] would come in and try to steal things, basically. I kind of got matey with them. I overheard that they were putting a band together and the bass play never used to turn up. I happened to be learning the bass guitar – well, I had a bass guitar at the moment, it didn’t mean I could particularly play. I just said, “Well, I’ll play bass,” and they were like, “Oh, man, great. What bands do you like?” The only band that was really worthwhile listening to at the time was The Faces. I said, “Well, I dig The Faces.” So that became our common ground. We started rehearsing away, you know, mainly playing covers and things. We really had a kind of a spirit, but we didn’t necessarily have somebody to encapsulate that and put that into words. Steve was the singer at the time originally – it soon became quite clear wasn’t going to cut it as our singer. We were on the lookout for a singer among all the other weirdos and oddballs that hung out at the store was Johnny Rotten. So we called him in. Basically that was it, that’s how the band started. MORE
In advance of his appearances tonight and Saturday at the Helium Comedy Club, we got Judah on the horn and solicited some very useful advice, such as: How to beat up a cyclops and a one-armed man; how to rock the trucker hat (and Run DMC spectacles) with no real truck driving experience to speak of; how to have an illicit affair with your junior high school teacher; and how to land movie roles as wrestling fan, action figure dude, drunk man, ice cream man, maintenance man, pawn shop patron, and cafeteria guy. You know you want to know.
PHAWKER: Could you please identify yourself?
FRIEDLANDER: Judah Friedlander, the world champion. Living in America, being a winner.
PHAWKER: Let’s go back to the very beginning. You started out as a cameraman for a Chris Rock show back in ‘89?
FRIEDLANDER: Nope, no – incorrect. That’s an IMDB myth, I’ve been doing stand up since I was 19, I’m 42 now. Always been my main thing, and before that I was making short movies, I did animation when I was a kid and stuff, I was 19 when I did my first stand-up, and I don’t know, I guess I was probably around 27 or something like that and around ‘96/’97 is when I started doing acting gigs, like commercials, and then like around ’98 I started getting acting stuff in TV and movies. I did about 30 movies, and then I got 30 Rock, but stand up has always been my main thing, just me all by myself.
PHAWKER: Just to clarify – that’s like totally wrong?
FRIEDLANDER: What, the camera thing? Nope, never worked on the Chris Rock SHOW… a friend of mine, Mike Dennis, who lives in Philly and runs Reelblack Films, he was doing a documentary on Chris Rock, and I’m a friend of his and I was doing a little bit of camerawork and a little bit of sound work on that. The movie actually turned out really well I think it’s on Chris Rock’s main website now.So yeah, we were 18 or 19 and Chris Rock was his favorite comedian at the time – Chris Rock hadn’t really broke through at that point, I think this was 1988. Mike Dennis, who lives in Philly, he actually just did a documentary about Chris’ little brother, Jordan Rock, who is like 19.
PHAWKER: I’m glad we could truth squad that glaring Wikipedia half-truth. So, let’s start with the look: the glasses, the hat – where did this come from? How did that get started?
FRIEDLANDER: Well, let’s see that’s a good question. I remember having to get glasses in like the 10th grade and I remember the salesman picking out these little glasses saying ‘they’re real cool, chicks like these.’ I realized the guy’s full of shit, but it seems like back then they’re always making glasses real small, so it’s like you couldn’t tell you were wearing glasses, and I remember back then in the early 90’s all the cool kid wore those tiny glasses, like John Lennon used to wear or whatever, so I was like “you know what, why not go the opposite route of the tiny glasses and just get the biggest fucking glasses I can find, and celebrate it instead of hiding it?’ But now everything is flipped – now all the hipsters wear big glasses and the thin, small glasses aren’t cool anymore. And back then nobody had sideburns, all the pretentious posers had those thin glasses and they all had goatees, so I went the opposite of that and got big fuckin’ sideburns. But now all the hipsters have big sideburns and all the blue collar guys have goatees. And I’m just still dressing the way I’ve been dressing for, I don’t know, 20 years.
PHAWKER: And how about the trucker hats?
FRIEDLANDER: Yeah, that was actually something I never really stopped wearing from the 80’s, you know? In the 80’s when I was a kid that was pretty much the only kind of hat you could get, and I remember after wearing them for years I would try to find patches and stuff from my favorite bands and stuff. I’d get a blank cap and stitch them on myself. I was always like ‘why buy a hat that has someone else’s label on it, where you’re just advertising their shit?’ Now the only hats I’ll ever wear say WORLD CHAMPION, because I am the greatest athlete and martial artist in the world. The hats I wear on 30 Rock, I make them all myself. About two or three times a year, the writers of the show will actually come up with a hat slogan and work it into a plotline, work it into a storyline on the show. I’ll still make the hat, but other than that I come up with all of the slogans and make all of them. MORE
The long awaited release of the session tapes of Brian Wilson and Beach Boys never-completed masterpiece, SMiLE, is finally here. With the full participation of original Beach Boys Al Jardine, Mike Love, and Brian Wilson, Capitol/EMI has, for the first time, collected and compiled the band’s legendary 1966-’67 sessions for the SMiLE Seesions 5-CD box set. In several sessions between the summer of 1966 and early 1967, The Beach Boys recorded a bounty of songs and drafts for an album with the working title Dumb Angel that was intended as a follow-up to the band’s 1966 masterwork, Pet Sounds. After more than a year of work, things fell apart, Brian went off the reservation, and the master tapes were ultimately shelved. Drawn from the original masters, SMiLE Sessions presents an in-depth overview of The Beach Boys’ recording sessions for the enigmatic album, which has achieved legendary, mythical status for music fans around the world. Recently, Phawker had a chance to speak with Brian Wilson about SMiLE.
PHAWKER: I don’t know if you remember this, but in 1965 you reportedly had a religious experience while under the influence of LSD, and out of that came Pet Sounds and SMiLE, which are arguably some of your greatest moments of artistry?
BRIAN WILSON: That’s true. The upside is you get the song, but the downside is you have to come down off that drug. That’s the hard part.
PHAWKER: Why did you wind up abandoning SMiLE anyway?
BRIAN WILSON: Because we thought we were too far advanced for the public to hear.
PHAWKER: Do you think that the public finally caught up?
BRIAN WILSON: I think the public is finally ready for it, yeah.
PHAWKER: Just to start off with, for the sake of readers that might not know anything about The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles please explain…
JON FOY [pictured, below right]: Sure. Well, it’s a documentary about a mystery. It explores this sort of urban legend-esque type of phenomenon. Someone’s been laying these tiled messages, and they’re embedded in the street. They look like little plaques. They’ve got messages about resurrecting the dead. They’re sort of cryptic. They’ve been in the street for almost three decades, basically across the U.S. and South America. Nobody knows who does them – or why, or how, at least at the beginning of the story that was true. So it’s a documentary but it’s kind of like a mystery, with some kind of overtones of sci-fi. Some people say horror, although nothing horrible happens to anyone in the film.
PHAWKER: Roughly how many are there in Philadelphia?
JON FOY: Who knows? They can come and go. We’ve seen many come and go, but as for right now, I’d say at least 100 in the city. Four of them just appeared right outside the movie theater where it’s playing tomorrow.
PHAWKER: Oh, really?
JON FOY: Yeah, last week they disappeared. Four of them. It’s really pretty eye-opening.
PHAWKER: I haven’t seen the movie all the way through. Is the mystery solved at the end?
JON FOY: Well, people debate that. I think so. As a story-teller, it’s more about telling a satisfying story, and I think it’s a satisfying story. It’s not all resolved, but we do present our findings. In my mind, there’s a whole lot that we present. I mean, it gets pretty thick – kind of like layers of exposition and details and stuff like that. There’s plenty to chew on.
PHAWKER: Why are they named Toynbee? Where’s Toynbee name come from?
JON FOY: The historian Arnold Toynbee, who was a noted British historian. He would sort of talk about history in large strokes. He would talk about the rise and fall of civilizations – the Egyptians, the Romans – things like that. He would try to put together theories about what caused the rise and fall of civilizations. I think – I’m not 100% sure about this – but I think that he published the largest publication in the English language, which would be his Study of History. So, you know, big ideas. They’re called Toynbee tiles because of all of the messages. The messages on the tiles typically read, “Toynbee idea, in Kubrick’s 2001, resurrect dead on planet Jupiter. They refer to themselves as tile, and they’re made out of floor tiling we believe, so we call them Toynbee Tiles. MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIAAnn McElhinney and her husband Phelim McAleer describe themselves as journalists/documentary filmmakers whose only agenda is to tell the stories that aren’t being told: That environmentalists like Al Gore, James Cameron and Gasland director Josh Fox are (in order of appearance) liars, cheaters and hypocrites; that global warming/climate change is scam; that scientists who insist otherwise are only in it for the money; that fracking is harmless; and fossil fuel consumption is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Last week we got McElhinney on the phone and we went round and round on climate science atheism, the existential dangers of fracking, the scalability of renewable energy, and the accuracy of Gasland. I will give her this much: she has a knack for loudly talking over people who disagree and not letting them get a word in edge-wise, responding to any attempts at interjection with an unbroken torrent of verbiage, and making it clear that any raising of voice would be matched decibel for decibel. Plus, she has a disarming Irish brogue that almost makes all the blarney that comes with it believable. Almost. MORE
BY BRYAN BIERMAN Let’s start by saying this: Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance is the greatest album ever made. Possibly. Released in 1978, the band took only the great parts of punk rock then shuffled it around, adding musique concrete tape noise and free-jazz sax solos. It was the perfect blend of rock ‘n’ roll and avant-garde—you don’t fully understand it at first, but it still makes you want to head into the garage and try your hand at emulating it. But by the time of its release, lead singer David Thomas had already inspired a legion of bands in Cleveland with the short-lived Rocket From The Tombs, who took the incendiary madness of The Stooges to its next logical step. The band soon imploded in ’75 before ever recording a proper album and its members split up into two factions, forming Dead Boys and Pere Ubu, both of which became successful in their own right. Over the years, the small amount of Rocket’s recorded material was bootlegged, giving the band its proper legendary status. In 2003, Thomas and the original members reunited, finally recorded a debut album with new drummer Steve Mehlman and Television’s Richard Lloyd replacing the late Peter Laughner. In advance of their show on Sunday at Kung Fu Necktie, we corresponded with Thomas through e-mail about the new album, why musicians should quit the biz and how he isn’t crazy about being touched.
PHAWKER: Rocket lasted one year – from summer of 1974 to summer of ‘75 – why did you break up?
DAVID THOMAS: Youthful stoopidity aggravated by drug and alcohol abuse.
PHAWKER: How did you come up with the name and what was it supposed to mean?
DAVID THOMAS: When I was in high school, my buddy and me made a stop-action film inspired by Frank Zappa, I suppose, called The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs. I have no idea how it came to be, a reference I suppose to Plan 9 From Outer Space or some such thing. It doesn’t MEAN anything! Seemed like a good idea for a band name when it came time. I don’t really remember. Maybe I thought it was good because it DIDN’T mean anything.
PHAWKER: What did you make of a band calling itself Rocket From The Crypt – flattered or irked? Ever see them live or have any contact with them?
DAVID THOMAS: Never met them. Never actually heard them, that I am aware of. I didn’t really think anything. Sorry. Just didn’t impact on me at all. MORE
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following interview with Bert Jansch was originally posted back in April when he opened for Neil Young. We are re-running it again upon learning the sad news that he passed away yesterday at the age of 67. The Guardian has an excellent obit you can read HERE.
“As much of a great guitar player as Jimi [Hendrix] was, Bert Jansch is the same thing for acoustic guitar…and my favourite” – Neil Young
Legendary folk guitarist Bert Jansch, who opens for Neil Young at the Tower tonight and tomorrow, emerged as one of the leading lights of the British folk revival in the mid-60s, staring down the camera on the cover of his debut like James Dean at at hootenanny. His early solo recordings — most notably his self-titled 1965 debut — deftly wedded ancient folk traditions with post-war American jazz and Delta blues, a fleet-fingered hybrid that would catch the fancy of people like Donovan and Nick Drake. In 1967, Jansch went on to form Pentangle with John Rebourn which, while not quite the satanic drug-folk the name conjures, often inhabited the middle ground between spellbinding and mesmerizing. Pentangle’s recorded six albums of pre-electric jazz-folk sorcery — all dueling baroque guitars and feverish drumming, bowed upright bass and trilling, flute-like vocals — before disbanding in 1972. Jansch resumed his solo career, touring regularly and recording over 25 albums over the course of the next four decades, more than earning his rep as a guitar player’s guitar player. In addition to then-contemporaries like Neil Young and Jimmy Page, Jansch counts Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler, Pete Doherty and Devendra Banhart as acolytes. We recently got Jansch on the horn to discuss his connections with Nick Drake and Devnendra Banhart, his participation in The Libertines reunion, the druid-folk reveries of Pentangle and getting ripped off by Led Zeppelin… MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Annie Jacobsen writes about national security for the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday Magazine. Recently, she published a fascinating and expansive history of Area 51, which is sort of the Land Of Oz for conspiracy theorists, UFOologists and national security buffs alike. According to Jacobsen, it is also the incubator and proving ground for most if not all of the gee-whiz top secret surveillance hardware, aircraft and weaponry deployed by the national security state and ground zero for more than 100 above and below ground nuclear bomb tests. But it is the final chapter of the book that has sparked the most controversy with its jaw-dropping claims that the infamous UFO crash at Roswell was actually a Nazi-designed flying saucer piloted by children surgically disfigured to look like ETs, sent by Stalin to trigger mass hysteria in the U.S. a la War Of The Worlds. Furthermore, Jacobsen alleges that U.S. scientists spent decades reverse engineering the spacecraft and its mutant pilots — some of which survived the crash and persisted in a coma. Her single, anonymous source for all is a man she claims is the last surviving member of the team that worked with the Roswell remains. Recently, we called upon the author to explain…
PHAWKER: One of the first things I wanted to ask you about that I haven’t read or seen touched upon in any of the other interviews that I’ve encountered is this very intriguing line about Howard Hughes having a secret hangar at Area 51 and what exactly he was doing out there is still classified. Can you elaborate on that at all?
ANNIE JACOBSEN: I wish I could, that’s one of the few details in the book that that’s all I got. That came to me from Jim Freidman who worked as the liaison between Area 51 and Hughes’s people in the hotel. Jim Freidman was the guy who would let Hughes’s people know when a nuclear bomb test was going off twenty-four hours before the test, so he was at about twenty-two hours advance notice on the rest of the population. He [Hughes] was apparently deathly afraid of nuclear weapons and he thought the world would end, so said Jim Freidman, and so he would skedaddle out of town in advance of the weapons test, but what exactly he was doing at Area 51 in that hangar of his is unknown. Of course Hughes Aircraft was a big defense contractor, but that is actually of great mystery still.
PHAWKER: Can you talk a little about the Atomic Energy Commission and the enormous power it wielded back in the post-World War II era and the secrets that, by design, it witheld from everyone, including succeeding presidents.
ANNIE JACOBSEN: The Atomic Energy Commission, now called the Department of Energy, has always enjoyed its own system of secret keeping, which I found very surprising when I first began reporting it. That is not the way the Constitution is set up but it is the way the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 was written and it gave the Atomic Energy Commission its own secret keeping that runs parallel to the presidential system which is what the Department of Defense worked under. The argument for it was this idea of nuclear power immediately after the war was so volatile and so uncontrollable that its secrets needed to be kept in a manner—and this is where we get the phrase “born classified”—all the nuclear secrets, and that included everything with timing and firing and alpha measurements and so on, needed to be able to be kept on lock down essentially with the AEC and no one else could have access to that. Scholars who study this call that an unanswerable authority, and I certainly felt that same way when I was researching the AEC and its secret keeping ability, the way that they were able to for example conduct medical experiments on humans under the aegis of AEC work was very scary and spooky and that remains the case to this day and many of their records remain classified under that rubric of AEC secrets but they actually have a lot more to do with other issues and they should never have been classified at all in that way in my opinion. MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Baghdad metallurgists ACRASSICAUDA have survived Saddam’s thugs, al Qaeda goon squads and assorted jihadist jerks — all of whom tried to silence them, under threat of death or imprisonment — but can they survive Fish Town? Find out tonight when they rock Johnny Brendas, along with all-girl Metallica tribute band Misstallica. On the eve of a U.S. tour, we got Acrassicauda drummer Marwan Riyadh on the line to talk about life in a war zone when you’re young, Iraqi and just wanna rock the fuck out — which is easier said than done, because if American bombs don’t kill you, the insurgents probably will. MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Daniel Clowes’ 30-plus-year career as a cartoonist/graphic novelist/screenwriter has seen some remarkable reversals of fortune. Back in the mid-80s, when Clowes was fresh out of Pratt and looking to take the graphic design/illustration world by storm, he couldn’t get art directors to return his phone calls. These days, post-Ghost World, the New Yorker and The New York Times plead with him to return their calls. When not busy cranking out darkly hilarious comic works like Eightball, Dan Pussey and David Boring, or illustrating Ramones videos and Supersuckers album covers, or working with Coke to create the infamous OK Cola anti-marketing campaign, Clowes forged a successful secondary career as a screenwriter, which resulted in an Oscar nomination for the screenplay to Ghost World. More recently he has focused on the long-form comic strip, investing works like Wilson and the just-published Mr. Wonderful with both his distinctive graphic imprimatur and a gift for story-telling and character study that rivals any of the big-wigs of contemporary fiction. Not bad for a form that heretofore aspired to little more than indulging the fantastical yearnings and hormonal angst of pimply-faced teenage boys. If Clowes is not careful he will wind up being remembered as the guy who made comics respectable. Clowes will be appearing at the Free Library tonight to promote the recent publication of the aptly-titled Mr. Wonderful. Long a fan of Mr. Clowes’ work, we got him on the horn to discuss recent work like Wilson and Mr. Wonderful along with Ghost World, Lloyd Llewellyn, Eightball, Jack Black, Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, Thora Birch, Art School Confidential, Rudy Rucker, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Michel Gondry and the advantages of male pattern baldness. MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA In the beginning, before there was Spiritualized or Spectrum, there was Spacemen 3. If you came of age in 80s, in the dreary grey flannel age of Reagan/Thatcher, when drug war hysteria was reaching a feverish pitch, Spacemen 3 was hands down the most persuasive and rewarding argument for the ingestion of mind-expanding substances since Pink met Floyd. In August of 1984, Jason Pierce (a.k.a. Jason Spaceman) received a government grant to attend Rugby Art College — which he promptly misused to purchase an electric guitar and amplifier. It was at Rugby Art College that Pierce met classmate Peter Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom, a.k.a. Peter Gunn), son of a wealthy importer. Kember ’s initial impression of Pierce was that he’s “someone who is very smart, but very lazy.” Kember and Pierce bonded over a mutual interest in psychedelic music and recreational drug use. Pierce turned Kember on to the Stooges. Kember reciprocated by turning Pierce on to the Cramps, Velvet Underground and heroin. They formed a band that combined all four influences and call themselves the Spacemen. Later, they’ll add a “3″ to the end of the moniker, borrowing the number from an early Spacemen gig poster that reads “Are Your Dreams At Night 3 Sizes Too Big?”
“Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to ” was their mantra and their methodology. At the height of Just Say No, they openly sang the praises of mind–altering substances to the media and crowned themselves kings of the one-chord drone, funneling White Light/White Heat-era Velvets and pre-mental-hospital 13th Floor Elevators through a mesmerizing prism of noisy trance rock. And they did it all sitting down, as did the audience members. In fact, some laid flat on their backs. Many of them, you see, had taken drugs to listen to music to take drugs to. Here’s Kember talking about the role drug use played in the creative and personal life of the band during an email interview I conducted with him back in 2001:
ME: What role did drugs play in the creative process of Spacemen 3?
PETER KEMBER: It’d be a lie to understate their role, but plenty of folk have found our music enough to replace drugs for consciousness alteration. I always felt I was merely a conduit or antenna receiving moods/feelings and translating them into sound forms and lyrics in order to re-transmit the experiences that encapsulated our lives .
ME: You have spoken very candidly about your heroin use during the band. Was that something you and Jason did together?
PETER KEMBER: Sometimes. Not much, Jason took very little drugs during the S3 period—except lager and Jack Daniel’s. I turned Jason and other band members on to LSD, etc., and though we used heroin together occasionally, I think it was always more my weakness. Not to say hash, weed, speed, coke and mushrooms didn’t figure -they did frequently. I never believed in turning on friends to smack. Jason made his own choice, I have not been a social heroin user ever; (it’s) more a personal habit. It interferes surprisingly little, but for the effects of its criminalisation.
HamptonSides is an acclaimed bestselling author and a National Magazine Award nominated journalist. He won the PEN USA Award for nonfiction and the 2002 Discover Award from Barnes and Noble for Ghost Soldiers, a historical narrative following the rescue of WWII Bataan Death March survivors that was later adapted into the Miramax feature film The Great Raid. His next book, Blood and Thunder, was adapted into an episode of the Public Broadcasting Service’s American Experience series. Hellhound On His Trail, is a taut and thrilling account of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 65-day manhunt for his killer, the longest in American history.
PHAWKER: The book is called Hellhound On His Trail, which is a variation on the title of an old Robert Johnson song. Why did you choose that for the title?
HAMPTON SIDES: Memphis plays such a huge role in the book and in the life of Martin Luther King — it was were he came to recruit for his Poor People’s Campaign and it was where he was assassinated. And Memphis is Robert Johnson country, it’s blues country. The song is all about being pursued, either by fate or history or death, depending on how you read the song. It’s all about looking over your shoulder. The book is really about how the FBI is chasing King, and then Ray is chasing King, and then the book changes emotional valence when the FBI is chasing Ray. It’s meant to work on multiple levels.
PHAWKER: In broad strokes, can you explain James Earl Ray’s worldview, specifically as it applies to race.
HAMPTON SIDES: Well, he was a racist. He talked while he was in prison about how killing King would be his retirement plan. He called him Martin Luther Coon. He was contemplating moving to Rhodesia [after killing King], which was a racist/segregationist breakaway state that didn’t have an extradition treaty with the US. He was doing volunteer work for the George Wallace campaign in 1968. None of this necessarily explains why he would pick up a gun and stalk King and try to shoot him. There is some mental illness there, aggravated by long term use of amphetamines. And the idea that he had that he was going to be the ambitious one in his family, I think he did view this as a business proposition, because there were various bounties on King’s head, and I think he hoped that eventually he would collect one of them.
PHAWKER: But he was not a join-the-KKK kind of a racist…
HAMPTON SIDES: No, but he wasn’t a joiner period and he spent a good portion of his adult life behind bars anyway, so it would be hard for him to go to meetings of the local Klan. Also, once he was out he was a fugitive so he was reluctant to get too familiar with any group. And the volunteer work he did for the George Wallace campaign was done under an alias.
PHAWKER: For the benefit of our younger readers, could you explain the George Wallace phenomenon?
HAMPTON SIDES: George Wallace was the former governor of Alabama, who was quite articulate, in his redneck way, at articulating the frustrations of the white underclass. So when he ran for President in 1968 as an independent candidate he enjoyed an initial surge in popularity. It was the most successful independent campaign since Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party. Wallace was a stone cold racist, he was the guy who stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama to prevent integration. He was governor of the state where Martin Luther King enjoyed most of his Civil Rights victories — Birmingham Alabama, Selma, Alabama — so there was a sense that MLK and Wallace sort of played off each other and I think that this was a duality that was going on in Ray’s mind.
PHAWKER: How would you compare the mindset of the average George Wallace supporter with the virulent anti-Obama sentiment of the Tea Party?
HAMPTON SIDES: The culture of hate is still alive and well. Only now it’s armed with technology, specifically the Internet, which has become sort of an echo chamber of hate. These people are out there. There is a lot of chatter, loose talk about taking on politicians and police men. People packing heat at political meetings. Talk about taking the country back, violently if necessary. It’s scary. So I think there is a lot of similarity. I guess Mark Twain was right when he said that history does not necessarily repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. And it’s rhyming right now in a lot of stark ways. Demagogues like George Wallace don’t always understand the effect that the poison they are putting out into the world effects certain people. Especially lost souls like James Earl Ray who will take the message literally and pick up a gun and change history. MORE
“Society is my friend: he makes me lie down in a cool bloodbath” — KURT VILE
BY TONY ABRAHAM Listening to Fishtown indie hero Kurt Vile’s new So Outta Reach EP is like walking through the Smithsonian Institute of American Music For People Who Wear Classic Pumas. Vile has alchemized the wizardly fretboard musings of John Fahey and the quasi-whispered lethargy of Townes Van Zandt and the whole thing is shot through with a lull-inducing slow train energy that is is positively mesmerizing. Having gradually abandoned the thin-skinned lo-fi textures that were the hallmarks of his early success, Vile delivers rich, full-bodied songcraft on So Outta Reach. On the opening track, “The Creature,” Vile channels a darkening Poe-esque ambience and splices it with the twangy fingerplay of Piedmont Bluesniks like Blind Willie McTell and Elizabeth Cotton. Vile summons a pulsing, dark skies energy on his angst-ridden cover of Springsteen’s “Downbound Train.” So Outta Reach is really an extension of Smoke Ring For My Halo, Vile’s fourth full-length released back in January, and that is not a bad thing at all. Sure, he may look like a walking caricature of a high school stoner with his inky locks stretching down to his butt, but appearances can be deceiving. Vile is quick to point out that he just doesn’t have the disposable hours for roasting bowls that he used to. Between recording, touring, and spending time with his wife and daughter, he’s a very busy man. Fresh off of a three-show run with the Flaming Lips, Phawker got the chance to talk to Kurt.
PHAWKER: What is the first album you ever bought with your own money?
KURT VILE: Um, let me think. It would probably be a cassette, you know? I think the first, I’m almost positive the first thing I bought was – I’m from a small suburb called Lansdowne that’s just outside of Philadelphia and they opened this store called C.R. CDs, so yeah they had cassettes. I’m almost positive I bought the Smashing Pumpkins Lull EP ON cassette.
PHAWKER: If you had to do it over, would you buy something else?
KURT VILE: To be honest, I think that’s a pretty great EP. I don’t wanna change my childhood. But you know, there’s a small chance it could have been U2 or something. Maybe I secretly changed it anyway.
PHAWKER: Hypothetical situation – your house is on fire and you only have time to save one album, which is it?
KURT VILE: That would be such a bummer. Let me think. If I could even just start by grabbing the album I bought today, at least I wouldn’t lose that. I just bought the John Fahey boxset reissue today, so if I could at least take the thing I bought today, that’d be fine.
PHAWKER: Have you ever gotten a cease and desist from Kurt Weil’s estate?
KURT VILE: No, conveniently the names are spelled differently. And you’re right, it is my real name but I wouldn’t be able to use it probably if it was spelled the same way. Even though it’s my own name. So thank God for that.
PHAWKER: If you could go back in time and collaborate with any musical figure in the last 100 years, who would it be and why?
KURT VILE: The last 100 years? Let’s just say for respectful reasons, though I doubt he’d want to play with me, Charlie Patton. Go right to the source. You know what I mean? MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIAJoe Boyd is a most intriguing fellow to rock snobs or anyone with a working knowledge of the cultural history of the latter half of the 20th century. An American ex-pat (south Jersey represent!) living in Britain most of his life, Boyd not only had a front row seat for some of the most important albums, bands and events of the psychedelic 60s — events that would, in many ways, define rock history moving forward — he was often their chief enabler. Boyd produced “Arnold Layne,” Pink Floyd’s first single, along with albums by Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band to name but a few. He was manning the sound board when Dylan went electric the Newport Folk Festival and essentially ushered in the modern rock era. All of this was detailed in his endlessly fascinating 2006 memoir White Bicycles, which Boyd will be reading from tonight at World Cafe Live — with a focus on the year 1967, psychedelia’s annus mirabilis. Backing him up will be Robyn Hitchcock, whose career as itinerant idiosyncratic folk-pop troubadour stretching back 30something years to his glory days with the Soft Boys could be accurately characterized as the love child of Boyd’s work. In between Boyd reading passages from White Bicycles, Hitchcock will be playing relevant tracks from Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, Dylan, Hendrix and much more. With this in mind, we rang up Hitchcock to discuss all the above and then some and the conversation touched on everything from acid, Eno, and Hendrix to Syd Barrett, the Velvet Underground and Dylan’s Basement Tapes.
PHAWKER: Cool, we’re rolling. Alright, first question: Where were you in 1967?
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: Where was I physically?
PHAWKER: Physically or mentally or either way you want to take it.
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: I was in the South of England. Mostly in a small city which was once the capital of England called Winchester. Winchester is famous for its long Medieval cathedral, which has been there for about 800 to 900 years. And in the days before ocean liners and aeroplanes, and anything big really, there it was in the valley. You could see the cathedral for miles. And behind the cathedral there is a hill and at the top of that hill was a Neolithic site which means it had been used by people maybe 3,000 or 4000 years back, towards the Stonehenge Era. And everybody thought that they would excavate up there to see if they could find flint heads and such. So I was really in a very ancient kind of place and I was in a school that had damp, stone cloisters and all the kind of things that Americans would like to think that Brits grew up in. It was a very Old World kind of academic school with lots of wood and stone and grit and flint and not a lot of heating. And I would hear these records coming through, some of which were produced by Joe. So that was my setting, yeah.
PHAWKER: Okay. Let me ask you this. How did you hear that music? You mention these records. Was this stuff on the radio or was it pirate radio?
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: We hardly had radios then. It was a kind of academy for bright boys whose parents had some money, and we were kind of incarcerated in that. But, you know, people bought records, so we had lots of access to recorded music. I mean in those days, apart from what was on pirate radio, there wasn’t much really. I mean of course that was when Radio 1 started. But no, I mean it was just records, I suppose, that people thought to buy. Funnily enough, Brian Eno was around. He was at the local art school and he befriended some of the sort of older hipper boys at our school and he would turn up and produce bits of concrete poetry and conceptual writing and stuff for the school magazine. So Brian Eno was around in our world about five years before he reached everyone else via Roxy Music.
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: So Eno had been a sort of factor in my life. Never a very close one, but he would turn up at performance art events like filling up balloons with helium and writing messages on them. Another time he gave an underground music concert quite literally in an underground chamber – a medieval courtyard – with a blue light bulb screwed into the fixture above. I mean, I don’t know how they managed to hook up lights in a Medieval basement but they did somehow. And Brian Eno, he had a Revox tape machine, which must have weighed a ton, and he was running it, playing something backwards – I think it was a Dylan song – and he had somebody playing a de-tuned electric violin. He must have been the first person to get hold of The Velvet Underground. But I remember one of the kids at school turned up with a Velvet Underground album at least a year before it was released in Britain. So that was the weird thing; we were in some ways very isolated but in other ways, you know, there was a whole current of hip that was flooding through Winchester. MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA When Buffalo Beast editor Ian Murphy called up the governor of Wisconsin late last month pretending to be David Koch — AKA one half of the infamous Koch Brothers — he not only humiliated a sitting governor and revealed him to be nothing more than a stooge for the corporate oligarchy, he also put a chink of transparency in the armor of a rapacious billionaire who has heretofore proven untouchable. Sure, it was juvenile, irresponsible and barely legal but I would argue that it was also the greatest feat of gonzo journalism since Hunter S. Thompson published Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail. George McGovern’s campaign manager famously said that Thompson’s book was “the least accurate and yet most truthful account of the campaign.” Arguably, Ian Murphy’s prank phone call was the least accurate but most truthful piece of reportage (yes reportage, it was fly on-the-wall immersion journalism taken to it’s logical extreme) on The Battle Of Wisconsin because it pulled back the curtain to reveal, in a way that everyone could easily grasp, the depressing reality that corporate puppetmasters now control the strings of politicians. Let’s face it, most Americans didn’t read Jane Mayer’s exhaustive and indispensable Koch Brothers expose in the New Yorker, but in the wake of the blanket news coverage Murphy’s prank phone call garnered just about everyone understands the gist of her piece: elected officials serve at the pleasure of the corporate overlords that funded their ascendance to public office. And is not making the scales fall from the eyes of the general public — wherein they once were blind but now can see, to paraphrase an old hymn — the ultimate act of journalism? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. With this in mind, we got Murphy on the horn to discuss all the above as well as his plans to run for Congress as the Green Party candidate.
PHAWKER: What were you hoping to accomplish when you called up Gov. Walker posing as David Koch?
IAN MURPHY: To prove one simple point: That at a time when Walker couldn’t be bothered to talk to the voters of Wisconsin, or even the Democratic Senators in exile, he had plenty of time to talk about crushing unions with an archconservative billionaire donor.
PHAWKER: Looking back, what do you think you accomplished? What do you make of how the situation in Wisconsin played out?
IAN MURPHY:I’d normally be too bashful to say this, but after spending a week in Madison, I’d say I changed the narrative. Before the call, everyone—most bought into the false premise that Wisconsin was broke and poor Scott Walker was only doing what he could to make things right. After the call, people realized that Walker was carrying out, as he saw it, the first attack on working families and unions in a nationwide assault—one partially engineered by the Kochs. A lot of people never heard of the Kochs. They know them now. And they see this attack on the middle class sweeping the nation. MORE
BY LAURA WESTERMAN Hunter S. Thompson once said “there is no honest way to explain [the Edge] because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” For Playboy “Imbiber” columnist Dan Dunn, these words are both a cautionary warning and an irresistible dare. He’ll be in town on Thursday to promote his new book Living Loaded: Tales of Sex, Salvation, and the Pursuit of the Never-Ending Happy Hour, a heady cocktail of booze expertise and sexual misadventure. His tales of drunken hook-ups, barroom brawls in Ireland, all-day benders and Bible-driven mosh pits provide much-needed entertainment for the adult reader as Dunn [pictured below, right] comes to the realization that it’s a lot easier to “just say no” than wake up butt naked on the floor of a TV producer’s living room with a headache the size of Mount Everest. But, he argues, where’s the fun in that? MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Longtime New Yorker staff writer, author, essayist, children’s novelist and Philly homeboy Adam Gopnik will be at the Free Library tonight to promote his new book The Table Comes First: Family, France & The Meaning Of Food. Earlier this week, I got Gopnik on the horn and we discussed writing, food, crime and punishment, the necessity of factory farming, the slow dissolve of print into the digital ether, the uncertain future of the New Yorker, the secret world of children’s literature, the enduring power of Tolkien, seeing Hendrix and the Incredible String Band at the Electric Factory, doing avant garde theater on South Street in the late 60s and why the HoJos on City Line Avenue will forever hold a sacred place in his heart of hearts.
PHAWKER: You grew up in Philadelphia. How long did you live here?
ADAM GOPNIK: I was born in the Lankenau Hospital and I lived in Philadelphia until I was 12, went to the H.C. Lea school on 47th and Locust, I think it’s still there. I lived on 41st and Locust until my parents – my parents were graduate students at Penn, my dad taught at Rutgers, then they both got jobs at McGill, then we moved to Montreal.
PHAWKER: Any distinctive memories from that time?
ADAM GOPNIK: Oh my God, my whole childhood is there, I don’t know where to begin.
PHAWKER: Generally positive or generally negative?
ADAM GOPNIK: Oh, generally positive, are you kidding? Listen, I was blessed with happy and enchanted childhood. When I go back and I walk the streets of West Philadelphia were I grew up, as everyone does, the difference between the scale and enchantment between my memory and the reality of course is always there. But no, I loved it, I loved the streets of West Philadelphia, I loved the campus at Penn, I was a Phillies fan back in the old Shibe Park, as my dad calls it, Connie Mack Stadium as it was already. My grandfather ran a little grocery store up near Spring Garden and that was one of my key memories because I would go and work there, supposedly, every Saturday, you know, put on a white apron and work the cash register up there. He was a wonderful man who had started off as a wholesaler and his father had a wholesale business down in the wholesale market and a butcher at Penn Fruit, you probably don’t remember what Penn Fruit was but it was a chain of supermarkets. Then he had his own little store for about 30 years. So yeah, I remember when I got a little bit older we would sneak into the Electric Factory, you probably don’t recall but it was a great rock club that was down there, and I got to hear Jimi Hendrix and the Incredible String Band and God knows who else. Then I was also acting at that time, for a brief and very productive period Andre Gregory, the director, head of the theater down on South Street called Theatre of the Living Arts, which is no longer a stage theater, but for about five years he ran that and I was sort of the kid actor in the company. So I did a lot of avant garde theater and I also did some TV commercials in Philadelphia. We had Big Brothers of America, do you remember Big Brothers of America? MORE
BY ALEX POTTER Seamus McGraw recently published The End of Country, a heart-breaking expose of the unexpected/unintended consequences of hydraulic fracturing, or, “fracking,” on the lives of the people in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania who have lived off the land for generations. As the book points out, it is both a curse and a blessing that they live on top of the Marcellus Shale, the world’s second largest subterranean deposit of natural gas. Four years ago, McGraw knew nothing about natural gas or the controversial techniques for extracting it from the ground. Amidst financial turmoil, McGraw and his family agreed to lease their property to Chesapeake Energy for the right to drill for gas in their backyard. At the behest of his mother and his own conscience, he decided to resurrect his abandoned investigative journalism career and teach himself everything he could about tapping the ocean of gas under his feet. The book is a thorough, humane study of the efforts of a courageous few who have stood up to the industry with varying degrees of success, and includes the first steps in how to learn from their examples. In this interview, he discusses the new vs. the old Department of Environmental Protection, the recent contamination disaster in Dimock, Pa., and the compromises that must be made in order to do this thing the right way. We can’t stop this thing, he believes, but we can minimize its harms if we educate and assert ourselves.
PHAWKER: Your book doubles as both a technical explanation of fracking and a personal memoir. You write very honestly about your personal accomplishments…
SEAMUS McGRAW: …Or lack thereof…
PHAWKER: …And you mention several times throughout the book how this project was a special opportunity for you. You also came into a little money over the drilling. Do you consider writing this book and speaking up for the people of rural Pennsylvania an opportunity to redeem yourself?
SEAMUS McGRAW: I’m gonna give you a couple different answers to that question. The book threw me a lifeline, one that I didn’t necessarily want. I was ready to bag the whole [journalism] profession, I really wanted out. Then the contract came through for the book and it gave me the opportunity—or, sentenced me, for the time being—to remain a writer. It gave me another opportunity—and I’ll be perfectly blunt about this—to put a barrier between myself and the benefits, such as they were, accrued from the Marcellus. I could then turn around and claim, somewhat artificially, the moral high ground, and say this is my benefit from the Marcellus, not the revenue from the gas which, to this day, I’m still very ambivalent about. But it also gave me another opportunity, and this goes right to the heart of your question: it’s not so much to redeem myself, in terms of writing this book, as expressing as best I could not just the attitudes, but the character of the people who live in the endless mountains of rural America and not to redeem myself. I’ve already told you that I’ve given myself the hypocritical out on the money by being able to say, “My money from the Marcellus comes from my labor, not from something that’s just simply bubbling up out of the ground,” and it keeps me in the [writing] business. With regard to the people—and this is the most important issue in the book, quite honestly—rural people in general—the people in the endless mountains are a perfect example of this—are turned into cartoons, they’re used like pawns to make points by far more sophisticated people, so to speak, frankly by both political parties. You have one side referring to them, drawing cartoons of them and saying, “This is the backbone of America,” when they don’t give a good goddamn about these people. And you’ve got the other side turning around and saying “They’re the gods, guts and guns crowd,” and they don’t understand these people. What I tried to do in the book—because regardless of what my failings are, I’m still a writer and I’m still one of these people—is to try to point out that these people are far more savvy, far more knowledgeable, they have far more character than the people on either side of all of the debates that are going on in this country—the most important one being energy—who try to exploit them. MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA The first rule about interviewing comedian Charlie Murphy is DO NOT ASK WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED WITH DAVE CHAPPELLE. The second rule is much the same, as is the third. Unfortunately, I didn’t figure that out until it was too late. Live and learn. Judging by his reaction to the Chappelle inquiry, I chose not bring up my other hot button question: What the hell ever happened to your brother? He used to be so fucking funny and then somewhere along the way he became this bitter hack seemingly intent on proving Mencken’s dictum that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Alas, that is a question for someone to else to ask. What we did talk about however was Rick James (bitch!), his first blow job, Caligula, getting paid, Norbit, growing up with Eddie, big pimpin’, and the death of his wife. Tomorrow night, Murphy kicks off a four night run at the Helium Comedy club.
PHAWKER: You’ve probably been asked this a million times but I have to ask you – what ever happened to David Chappelle?
CHARLIE MURPHY: You gotta ask Dave that question. I seen Dave and he seems pretty happy to me. He does stand up still, he’s out in the Bay Area a lot, and he seems to be pretty happy.
PHAWKER: But he doesn’t wanna do the show anymore or didn’t wanna do the show anymore?
CHARLIE MURPHY: I don’t know if they didn’t wanna do the show no more, if Dave didn’t wanna do the show no more, I don’t know what the story is at this point you know? That stuff I let go a long time ago, know what I’m saying? The show’s been out of production like eight years now you know? So, I don’t really think about the Dave Chappelle Show on a daily basis. That’s far removed from my reality right now, the reason why I get to do all the beautiful things I’ve been blessed to do, like going to Scandinavia, going to Canada, and people have love for me, you know? I don’t really know what happened, you know what I’m saying? There’s so many different rumors, you know?
PHAWKER: Can you tell me your Rick James story real briefly for our readers that might not be familiar with it?
CHARLIE MURPHY: Rick James story?
PHAWKER: The time he came over and put his shoes on your couch?
CHARLIE MURPHY: When I met Rick James I was 24 years old and just getting out of the Navy. I was at that point where I couldn’t figure out how to get a woman to give me a blow job. They just wouldn’t do. I had the wrong approach or whatever but I just couldn’t master the art of getting a woman to give me a blow job. Then I met Rick James. I’ll never forget the night I met rick James — I was shocked. ‘Rick James, wow!’ you know? I’m hanging out with him and my fellas and the night that I met him I got my first blow job from one of the chicks that was around him. He was tellin’ them, “go over there and have sex with Charlie.” I had never been around anybody like that before, know what I’m saying? Never. This person was like Caligula, know what I’m saying? We’ve all seen that movie Caligula andI don’t care who you are, you can say what you wanna say outwardly, but all men really wish they could walk into a Caligula-like environment at least one time in they life, you know what I’m saying? So here, me and Rick James are real tight. I didn’t realize he had access to that kind of lifestyle. We became real tight. He was a real playful dude, you know we always used to rough house, beat on each other, kick each other, punch each other, whatever we was both young then. If you hit me now, at the age I am now, you’d probably get stabbed. But you know back then we used to rough house around like that. MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Ray Lewis, a retired Philadelphia Police captain with 24 years of service under his belt, created some of the most iconic imagery of the Occupy Wall Street protests by showing up at Zuccotti Park in his uniform with a sign that read: NYPD, WATCH ‘INSIDE JOB,’ JOIN US. Footage of his high profile arrest outside the New York Stock Exchange went viral, and he quickly became catnip for the media and was hailed as a hero by Occupy sympathizers. But not everyone was pleased with his actions. Two weeks ago he received letters from Philadelphia Police Commissioner Ramsey and the Fraternal Order Of Police telling him to cease and desist showing up at OWS protests in uniform. Although the letters did not say so explicitly, Lewis says the subtext of the letters was that he would be stripped of his pension and/or arrested for impersonating an officer if he did not comply. Lewis’ response? Bring it on. On Friday we got Lewis on the horn to discuss all the above.
But before we get to that, let me tell you about a couple of Philadelphia Police Officers who DIDN’T lose their pensions. Exhibit A is Officer Tyrone Higgins who sexually abused a 12 year old girl he was mentoring — beating her, forcing her to perform oral sex and anally raping her– for EIGHT YEARS. After a two year investigation, Higgins was allowed to resign from the force exactly one day before he was arrested for sexual assault, thereby ensuring that he would not lose his pension. Even if convicted. Which he was. THAT guy got to keep his pension.
Exhibit C is Adrian Makuch, a former crime-scene-unit officer who pleaded guilty in 2010 to attempting to lure a child into a motor vehicle, unlawfully contacting a minor, and patronizing a prostitute and was sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months in prison. Pension: $2,203.56 a month since 1/4/2010. Because the crimes were not conducted on city time, his $2,203.56 per month pension was not forfeited.
Meanwhile Ray Lewis goes down to Zuccotti park wearing his dress blues and carrying a sign that says JOIN US, and gets threatened with arrest and losing by the chief of police and the FOP? Seems to me, if they were any kind of cops, Higgins and Hilensky would have been arrested for impersonating an officer a long time ago.
PHAWKER: How did you wind up joining the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park? Have your political views changed in recent years or were you always sympathetic to progressive causes?
CAPTAIN RAY LEWIS: Always, I was a protestor against the Vietnam War. I always realized how crooked and corrupt government is. In joining the police force though, I realized it was a tremendous way to help people and every day it gave me immediate gratification and reward for my job and that’s what I wanted, I could not stand boring jobs. Subsequently I did police work in a very professional and respectful manner and I can see how it positively affected people by being truly concerned about their problems and taking the extra step to help them.
PHAWKER: Now I’m assuming your perspective wasn’t necessarily shared by your fellow police officers.
CAPTAIN RAY LEWIS: That is correct.
PHAWKER: Did you keep your politics to yourself or was this a source of debate?
CAPTAIN RAY LEWIS: Pretty much, yeah. I did interject every once in a while when I saw I could have a little bit of impact but I basically kept them to myself, yes.
PHAWKER: Tell me how you wound up going down to Zuccotti Park. You saw the protests on TV?
CAPTAIN RAY LEWIS: I don’t get any news from corporate media, and that includes television, radio or newspapers. My sole source of information is the Internet and I found the Occupy Wall Street protests extremely interesting. I followed Zuccotti Park from the mountains and in seeing what was happening – often times if I railed against corruption it was like I was a loose cannon, a fruit loop just out there by myself saying how corrupt everything is. Then when I saw all these people occupying Zuccotti Park and what they were sacrificing, the way they were living, their conviction came out so strong for social justice and they were just tired of it. They set out to change it and I wanted to help. MORE
BY MEREDITH KLEIBER You’ll be hard pressed to find a harder-working musician in Philadelphia than Adam Granduciel. When he’s not on tour with his own band, Philly’s own The War On Drugs, he’s either touring with The Violators, the band of close friend (and Drugs founding member) Kurt Vile, or completely engrossed in finessing experimental recordings in his Fishtown home studio. The War On Drugs’ new album, Slave Ambient, is essentially the product of those intense home-studio recording sessions, enhanced by Granduciel’s astute songwriting and the commanding synergy of the band. I caught up with Adam by phone on his day off from the recent west-coast leg of The Violators’ tour and we chatted about the new album, touring, and the laziness of modern journalism.
PHAWKER: Let’s start with where it all began. How old were you when you realized that you had real musical talent?
ADAM GRANDUCIEL: My friend’s dad played electric guitar, and I went over there one day when I was about 13 I’m guessing, and I played his electric guitar and thought it was the coolest fuckin’ thing I’d ever done in my whole life. Then my dad bought me an electric. I’ve loved music since I was 8 or 9, even though it was mostly pop. Then I started to write when I was about 17.
PHAWKER: So did you form any bands back then, or was it mostly by yourself?
ADAM GRANDUCIEL: I had a few little bands in high school. We just played at my friend Jeff’s house. It wasn’t until I moved to Philly in 2003 that I was really interested in forming a band. I was doing some recording on my own and learning how to write songs, kinda getting into that. And then in 2005, [The War On Drugs] formed in a way.
PHAWKER: I know you moved to Philadelphia sort of on a whim in 2003. What were your initial feelings after moving here, and how have they changed over the years?
ADAM GRANDUCIEL: When I first moved there, I was into it. I was in the frame of mind that I was living in this new place without really knowing that many people. And then as I look back on it, it’s been such a great thing. I met everyone I play music with now as a result of me going there. I had a place where I could record and build a little studio, had friends that built studios… It’s a great place. I can’t imagine myself moving anywhere or living anywhere else. I’ve been in the same house for seven or eight years now.
PHAWKER: Upon moving to Philly, you met and began to play with Kurt Vile. Where did you guys meet, and how did you get started talking about music?
ADAM GRANDUCIEL: A couple months after moving here I met Kurt. He and my roommate at the time worked at the Yards brewery together. And he was like, hey, you should come see my friend Kurt. He’s playing tonight at The Fire. I was standing in the middle of the room and he was playing a Pavement cover, and I was like “this dude rules.” MORE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA This is the third and final installment of a massive, 30,000 word, three-part Q&A with Philadelphian Wendell Potter*, former mild-mannered Cigna health insurance executive turned whistle-blowing superman standing up for truth, justice and the American way. (You can read Part I HERE and Part IIHERE) You may have seen Mr. Potter testifying before Congress or talking about the ills of the health insurance industrial complex on CNN or MSNBC or PBS, or in the pages of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Time magazine, to name but a few. Last year he published Deadly Spin, an authoritative takedown of a sick and dangerous healthcare system and the incredibly powerful and phenomenally profitable industry that games it for billions. He debunks the dark arts of modern corporate P.R. that uses subterfuge, misdirection and good old fashioned distortion of the truth to manipulate public opinion and absolve its paymasters of all culpability for the dirty deeds that make those obscene profits possible. In the end, Deadly Spin is an impassioned call for substantive reform, basic mercy and common decency.
In the first installment we discussed the crisis of conscience that turned him from loyal, not to mention highly paid, company man to crusading reformer, watchdog and all-around thorn in the industry’s side. Having long thought he was on the side of the angels he increasingly came to realize that he was in fact playing for the other team, that the point of for-profit healthcare insurance is not paying for customers’ medical costs but avoiding doing so whenever possible. That for-profit health insurance corporations have a legal obligation to prioritize the enhancement of shareholder value over saving the lives of its customers. That he had blood on his hands. That he was an apologist for a system that denies medical care to more than 50 million Americans, and as a result more than 48,000 people die prematurely every year.
Potter was tasked with writing an official-sounding report that minimized the problem and shifted all the blame on the uninsured. He helped craft reform-killing talking points for the healthcare lobby’s Congressional stooges to repeat into the cameras of Fox News and CNN. He was part of the effort to smear Michael Moore and discreditSicko, his 2007 critique of the iniquities of the healthcare industrial complex, even though deep down he knew Moore was dead-on. The final straw was having to serve as company spokesperson through the resulting media firestorm when Cigna denied 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan a liver transplant and she died less than a week later.
In the second installment we discussed the smear campaign against Michael Moore and Sicko. It begins with a cabal of health insurance operatives hiring a mole to sneak into the premier of Sicko at Cannes and take notes so that neutralizing talking points can be crafted. These talking points — which mostly rely on the usual lizard brain illuminators, namely fear (”Universal coverage is creeping Socialism!”) and loathing (”Taxpayers will have to pay out of pocket for illegal immigrants to get Cadillac health care!”) — are then passed along to various industry-owned Congressmen who dutifully parrot them in the echo chamber of 24-7 cable news and talk radio. It ends with Wendell Potter apologizing to Michael Moore live on national television.
In the final installment, we discuss how and why Obama’s effort to reform health care largely failed, who killed the public option and what was their motive, why moving forward with Obamacare is absolutely essential to substantive reform in the future. But the bottom line is that nothing will change until elections are publicly-financed and politicians are no longer beholden to powerful, deep-pocketed corporate interests for campaign cash. Money is the root of all that is evil, and wrong and dysfunctional in Washington, DC.
PHAWKER: When was your last day at Cigna?
WENDELL POTTER: May the 2nd, 2008.
PHAWKER: When did you go from guy who just went away quietly to guy who testifies before Congress about the ways the health insurance industrial complex games the system and torpedoes reform at every turn?
WENDELL POTTER: It was almost a year later, actually March of 2009. I think the date was March the 5th, the very day the president had his healthcare summit at the White House. It was kind of the kickoff of the healthcare reform debate at Washington. The president invited representatives of a lot of different organizations, insurers from pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctor groups, some consumer groups, employer groups and labor unions, a gathering of all the constituency groups that are important or would be involved in reform, with the hope of trying to get everyone on the same page working towards meaningful reform and to try to get it off on a positive start.
PHAWKER: Do you think most of those people showed up in good faith planning to cooperate and make reform happen? Or was it window dressing?
WENDELL POTTER: It was window dressing. What happens when you are setting out to reform any sector of the economy, in particular the healthcare system, there will be winners and losers, and everyone wants to make sure their interests are protected, that no one gets a haircut, that no one loses. So they all go in and say they support the president in favor of reform, but the reality was and is that they support reform as long as their interests are protected. As long as reform doesn’t have any adverse effect on them, their pockets or their incomes.
PHAWKER: You retired but had no plans to advocate reform or be an industry critic. In fact you were a little concerned that if you did speak up there would be blowback or recrimination, correct?
WENDELL POTTER: I felt it wouldn’t be in my best interest to be visible and vocal, so I thought if I ever did do anything it would be behind the scenes. It didn’t occur to me at that time that I would have the nerve to be anywhere near as public as I decided to be.
PHAWKER: What was the fallout you were afraid of?
WENDELL POTTER: I was afraid I could get sued if I wasn’t careful about what I said and how I said it. I’ve been very careful, I’ve worked with the legal and public affairs division of the company, I worked with lawyers all the time. My boss was general council. Of course I also was part of the effort to discredit Michael Moore, so I know what the industry does to try and discredit their enemies or critics, and they have a lot of money.
PHAWKER: Deep pockets, right?
WENDELL POTTER: Very deep pockets. When I decided to do this I took this all into consideration and I went back and forth a lot before I decided to finally do this. Many times I thought, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?’ But eventually I got pissed off to the point I said, ‘I can’t not do this, I have to take a stand. I’ve got to do something.’
PHAWKER: So, March 5th, 2009, you were watching television…
WENDELL POTTER: And flipping through the channels I landed on this interview with this Congressmen I had met, I didn’t know him well but I had met him.
PHAWKER: What was his name again?
WENDELL POTTER: Zack Wamp. Very odd last name. Republican from Chattanooga. I went back later to make sure I heard what I thought I heard, but he was essentially calling Obama all but a Marxist and a socialist, and was very dismissive in particular to people who were uninsured. That’s what got me so mad.
PHAWKER: Didn’t he bring up the illegal immigrants and the money will go to pay for them?
WENDELL POTTER: It was clear that his comments to me were xenophobic in trying to make people believe that –
PHAWKER: Quasi-racist, really.
WENDELL POTTER: It was a racist comment. I just got really upset about it. I started making some phone calls.
PHAWKER: Zach Wamp, R-Tennessee, represents the next Congressional district over from where you grew up. You know the people whom he represents, you know how they live.
WENDELL POTTER: I know the section of the state, yes.
PHAWKER: There are probably a lot of working poor, people that would have to rely on free clinics to get medical care.
WENDELL POTTER: His Congressional district that borders the one where I grew up and includes some of the poorest counties in the country. I’ve been to every county in Tennessee, I know that state very well and I knew his district and I knew there were a lot of people in his district that were uninsured and were that way not by choice but because they couldn’t afford it and needed it but couldn’t get it, people that would have been helped by the kind of reform he fought against.
PHAWKER: So, you started making some calls to journalists you worked with when you were at Cigna, who connected you to some academics who connected you to some advocacy groups who eventually referred you to some Congressional aides to Senator Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which was holding hearings on the health insurance industry, that could use a guy like you.
WENDELL POTTER: I was invited to meet with people who were on the committee’s investigative staff who did a lot of the leg work before the hearings. I agreed to do it and they grilled me for two solid hours. It was very interesting, very memorable, very scary because they were clearly trying to determine if I was legitimate, if I knew what I was talking about.
PHAWKER: And that you weren’t just a crank or a mole?
WENDELL POTTER: All that, they wanted to make sure I was not a mole and that I didn’t have an ax to grind, I wasn’t doing this because of a grudge with the company. After two hours they were satisfied that I was not a mole and that I didn’t have an axe to grind with Cigna. I even made the point of stating that during when I did testify to the senator that what I was talking about was not specific to Cigna, and I always do that, the practices I talk about are prevalent throughout the industry, just about every company engages in them because they have to. It’s developed as a standard operating procedure throughout the industry.
PHAWKER: You were called to testify before a hearing on what?
WENDELL POTTER: It was a hearing on healthcare information and how the healthcare reform law should be structured to make sure consumers get the information they need so they can make informed decisions, but also into the practices of the insurance industry and because of the broadness of that I told the industry about how much investors influence the ‘medical loss ratio,’ something that most members of Congress never heard about. Medical loss ratio is an indication first of all that insurers consider it a loss when they pay a claim and whenever they spend money on anything pertaining to medical care or claims, it’s a loss hence the name medical loss ratio. The ratio is how much money they spend on care compared to how much they take in in revenues from their policy holders. Investors are constantly pressuring for-profit companies to spend less and less of revenues on patient care because the less they spend on patient care, the more there is available to reward shareholders.
PHAWKER: How do you do that? You raise the bar on what you are willing to pay for, your guidelines become more rigorous?
WENDELL POTTER: The guidelines become more rigorous as to who you will insure in the first place, there’s a greater incentive to cherry pick the healthiest and exclude people who really need insurance, they have long engaged in a practice of refusing to sell coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, but also they do it by refusing to provide coverage for needed care.
PHAWKER: Policy holders who are sick and their doctors say they need this or that procedure or treatment.
WENDELL POTTER: And the insurance company will overrule that.
PHAWKER: Just to clarify how the insurance industry works, you guys are taking premiums from customers, it’s a huge pile of money and you’re taking that money and investing that elsewhere. In what?
WENDELL POTTER: They have a lot of pretty broad investment portfolio. It can be investments in index funds and other stocks, but also in real estate. These companies often have large real estate holdings. In fact, Cigna owned hotel properties and a lot of different kinds of real estate properties. So they have a broad investment portfolio, it’s diversified. Not just stocks and bonds, but in real property and things of that nature as well. Whenever they announce earnings, they segregate out how much money they earn from investments. When you pay premiums, you’re money is invested and they of course have to have a certain amount of money available to pay claims but a lot of the income is from investments.
PHAWKER: On average a person pays about $5,000 a year in premiums?
WENDELL POTTER: It depends on how much coverage you’re buying. The average for a family of four is about $15,000. Most families pay that but don’t realize they’re paying it because most of use get coverage through employers, so it’s subsidized. In other words, the employer pays a substantial portion, usually significantly more than half. So we workers assume that we’re getting, that it’s the employers money. It’s our money, but we’re not getting it in the form of compensation. It comes in the form of a benefit like that. For an individual now, it’s less that half of that – five to six thousand dollars a year. But if you have a family and have to have coverage for the whole family, the minimum cost now is $15,000.
PHAWKER: So in order for Cigna to make money, they have to pay out less over your lifetime than you pay into the fund?
WENDELL POTTER: All of the insurance companies have many underwriters on staff who do nothing more than estimate how much each person or a group of people will cost the company based on what underwriters come up with, they are able to price their premiums at a certain level to exceed what they pay out in medical claims. If the underwriters are good, they are always able to price their products at a certain percentage above inflated medical costs.
PHAWKER: So you testify, what exactly were you telling them that day?
WENDELL POTTER: I was telling them that for 20 years I saw how insurance companies confuse their customers and make it difficult for customers to understand and get the information they really need. I went on to explain some of the practices the companies engage in to make sure they meet shareholders’ expectations. I said they do what they do to meet Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations.
PHAWKER: What are some of the things they do? Where’s the absence of transparency in all this?
WENDELL POTTER: They often will purge their small business accounts when an employee’s dependent gets sick because that means the company will have to pay more claims than they anticipated and when the premium comes up for renewal, the company will jack the rates up so high the employer has no choice but to cancel coverage for everybody.
PHAWKER: And find coverage elsewhere?
WENDELL POTTER: If you can, because once you’re priced out of the market you have to disclose to your next prospective insurer that you have this employee that’s gotten sick. You have to provide a lot of information to your prospective insurance company, whether you’re an individual or a small group.
PHAWKER: Doesn’t this happen all the time though, isn’t somebody going to get sick in every company at some point?
WENDELL POTTER: Exactly, that’s why we have fewer and fewer small businesses able to offer coverage, they’ve been priced out of the market. Several years ago it wasn’t so bad, but but now far fewer than half of small businesses are able to offer coverage.
PHAWKER: This ratio you’re talking about, where they’re just demanding you pay out less so the profit margin is wider.
WENDELL POTTER: They’re quite willing to get rid of small businesses if they aren’t profitable and the company term for this is ‘purging,’ they use this internally not externally but I disclosed that in my testimony, that this is a common practice called purging. Another, which some members of Congress had heard about a few weeks before I testified, is called ‘policy rescission,’ that happens when someone who has bought a policy on their own through the individual market, usually because they don’t get it through an employer, and if the policy holder gets sick and that raises your claims, the insurance company will go back and take a close look at your application for coverage to see if they might find a reason to cancel your policy, which they usually do. They do that routinely.
PHAWKER: There’s a guy in Sicko whose job was to do just that.
WENDELL POTTER: The LA Times did a an investigation and found out some companies paid employees a bonus for finding policies they could rescind. They call it rescission or rescinding coverage which is essentially canceling someone’s policy often in the midst of treatment for cancer. There was one woman who testified she got a notice the day before she was scheduled to have a mastectomy because she had failed to disclose she had been treated recently for acne. These are examples of the lengths these companies will go to to avoid paying claims.
PHAWKER: Does this not result in lawsuits?
WENDELL POTTER: No, most people can’t afford to. And even if they do, the way the laws are written, policy holders have very little ability to sue insurance companies and employers for denying coverage.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about the infamous ‘individual mandate,’ which requires that everyone purchases health insurance. Everyone. That was the industry’s idea.
WENDELL POTTER: As the healthcare reform legislation was working it’s way through Congress, the healthcare lobbyists were very insistent that the reform legislation had to have an individual mandate in it, a requirement that we all had to buy coverage or they would do all they could to derail the reform as they had in the past.
PHAWKER: Why were they so adamant about that?
WENDELL POTTER: It would favor them because not only would we be required to buy coverage but if I’m for example someone who has low income and can’t afford the costs, the government will subsidize the cost. They’ll be getting revenue from two sources, individuals who pay from their own pockets, but a lot of people can’t afford it so the government subsidizes it and the money goes straight to the insurance companies. So they get an entire new revenue stream they hadn’t had before. And since everybody will be required to buy coverage, no one company theoretically will be disadvantaged. No company will get more sick people than any other company, but there will be some risk adjustment in the way this all takes shape so companies are protected from adverse selection, from getting more sick people than their competitors. So they’ll get a lot of money.
PHAWKER: It’s corporate welfare.
WENDELL POTTER: It gives them what I call a new lease on life because they know their current business models aren’t sustainable in the long haul and we’re seeing the evidence of that with growing numbers of Americans without insurance, it’s not because they don’t want coverage but they’ve been priced out of the market or haven’t been able to buy at all because of the practices of the industry.
PHAWKER: When you say not sustainable — sustainable for them or the public?
WENDELL POTTER: Both. it’s not sustainable for them as health policy, but it’s not sustainable for them from a business standpoint because in this country we’ve got a mature market for health insurance – it’s not growing. What is growing is the number of people who cannot afford coverage. What the companies do is steal market share from each other, it’s not an expanding market so they way they grow is to buy each other through mergers and acquisitions or to take market shares from each other.
The other reason why it’s not sustainable, the current business model is based on what they refer to as consumer-driven care, a euphemism for high deductible healthcare policies in which they’re able to shift more of the cost of care from them to us. But there’ s a limit to the point where that doesn’t work. People will eventually get to the point of saying it doesn’t make sense to pay good money for a high deductible plan because I’ll pay so much out of pocket that they’ll become under-insured the minute they buy these high deductible plans. They’re forced to pay so much out of their own pockets that in many cases people are forgoing care. You have to spend in many cases thousands from your own pocket before your insurance company will give you a dime to cover your own care.
PHAWKER: If the individual mandate provision was inserted into the healthcare reform at the insistence of the health insurers, why are the Republicans, who clearly have the industry’s back, fighting the individual mandate so aggressively, using it as a cudgel to try to kill Obamacare, with Republican-run states suing the federal government in the courts.
WENDELL POTTER: It’s because of politics and ideology. They see this as a winning issue for them and it’s to their advantage to try to turn against this reform for the purpose of getting their allies or colleagues re-elected. It’s ideology. They’re saying it’s an infringement upon freedom and the free market, but it’s really a political strategy to win control of Congress and the White House. So they grandstand against the individual mandate but it’s not genuine. In my view, it’s disingenuous because they get a lot of money from insurance companies, the companies spend a lot of money on elections and lobbying efforts to influence how policy should take shape in Capitol Hill. These Republicans must realize, I think many of them do, that the insurance industry really needs this individual mandate. It’s disingenuous and the real motivation is not really to kill Obamacare, not to repeal it or have it declared unconstitutional despite what you might hear, it’s to get more Republicans elected.
PHAWKER: By saying look, this is socialism, it’s the government telling you what to do.
WENDELL POTTER: And the insurance industry is willing to go along with that because they know if Republicans control the Senate and the White House, they would be able to strip out consumer protections in the law, but they would be able to preserve that individual mandate.
PHAWKER: Let’s drill down on Obamacare – what are the consumer protections that are in there now?
WENDELL POTTER: Most importantly it prohibits them from refusing to sell coverage to us, it makes them at least offer us coverage. If we’re going to have a requirement that everyone has to buy coverage, the insurance industry can no longer use pre-existing conditions to refuse selling us coverage. That will be a thing of the past. It requires them to spend at least 80% in what we pay in premiums on medical care and they cannot go below that as many of them had been doing. It requires them to allow parents to keep adult children on their policies until age 26 if their children haven’t been able to get policies from their employers. It also makes it illegal for them to cancel policies when you get sick, unless you’ve committed fraud and lied on your application. If you’ve lied on your application, they can cancel your coverage, but they can’t do it just because the want to. And for senior citizens it closes a large gaps in Medicare coverage for medications that’s called a ‘donut hole.’ Plus Medicare will start paying for preventive care like screenings. So it is benefiting a lot of people already.
PHAWKER: Why aren’t the supporters of Obamacare explaining this to the people?
WENDELL POTTER: When people are told the benefits they say they like that and are for that, but they’ve been subjected to a relentless opposition to Obamacare and believe the whole act is bad, made to think the individual mandate is not in their best interest. They think wrongly that most of us who have insurance already will be affected. It will not affect most people except those who don’t want coverage. It’s been vilified by the opponents of the president and they have been successful in turning people away from reform. My belief is that it’s been so successful that we’ve forgotten why we need reform in the first place.
PHAWKER: You were saying half of all small business owners cannot provide health insurance for their employees anymore – when did it get to that percentage?
WENDELL POTTER: Even in the early- to mid-90s well over 60% were able to offer coverage but it’s been decreasing ever since. These days most of the smallest businesses can’t offer insurance.
PHAWKER: That’s one of the main Republican talking points: Obamacare will hurt small business owners.
WENDELL POTTER: What they don’t realize is the law doesn’t apply to small businesses that employ fewer than 50 people, which is the majority of small businesses. It’s a small percentage of small businesses that will be affected by this but we’ve been led to believe that this is something that will be onerous to all business owners but it’s not. It’s only a small number of small businesses that don’t offer coverage now will be required to. It also supplies a subsidy to small businesses if they want to provide coverage, so it will actually be a benefit to small businesses and help them offer coverage when they haven’t been able to in the past.
PHAWKER: Explain the public option and why the industry was so vehemently opposed to it and succeeded in killing it.
WENDELL POTTER: The public option as originally envisioned would’ve been a government insurance plan and would have been operated just like a private insurance. It would have had to abide by the same rules as the private plans. It would be a plan that would operate on a nonprofit basis and consequently more than likely offer the same benefits as a private insurance plan but possibly and probably at a less expensive premium because it’s a nonprofit. It would have been another choice, it would not have replaced private insurance, it would have been a public option. We would have the option of buying health insurance from the government or a private insurance company.
PHAWKER: You would pay the government premiums.
WENDELL POTTER: Exactly the way you would pay a private insurance company.
PHAWKER: But if people couldn’t afford private insurance, how would they afford public insurance?
WENDELL POTTER: If you wanted coverage from the government but couldn’t afford premiums you would’ve gotten a subsidy to pay for your premiums.
PHAWKER: Why were private insurers so vehemently opposed to it?
WENDELL POTTER: They didn’t want another competitor and realized the government operates more efficiently than they can. They operate on a nonprofit basis and are able to have a much lower overhead cost than private companies. They don’t have to pay CEOs a hundred million dollars a year, they don’t need to reward shareholders every three months. They operate much more efficiently. Private insurers knew that and knew it would take business from them and they didn’t want that.
PHAWKER: Wasn’t the public option for people who couldn’t afford private insurance?
WENDELL POTTER: As initially proposed, it would have been for anyone. If you had coverage available from your workplace, you wouldn’t have been able to apply for the public plan. Most get coverage from employers so it would have been a small percentage of people that qualified for the public option.
PHAWKER: I distinctly remember candidate Obama was talking about a public option, but I don’t recall President Obama ever saying much about it.
WENDELL POTTER: It became clear to me that the insurance industry was getting to him and those around him to embrace the individual mandate. When he was running for president he said he was opposed to it but the industry changed his mind. They sent people to the White House to do that and they were very successful. They did the same thing on Capitol Hill to members of Congress. The bill that that ultimately was passed, contained something that the president said when he was running that he did not support, the individual mandate, and it did not contain the public option which he had supported. It was becoming clear over the course of 2009 that he was backing away from the public option. He said that while the public option was important and would help keep insurance companies honest, it’s not the only way we can go about doing this. He was essentially back-pedaling. When he said that it was clear to me that he was throwing the public option overboard.
PHAWKER: That was the beginning of my great disillusionment. It was a litmus test for how corrupt the system has become — with the White House and control of both houses of Congress he couldn’t do any of the things he said he would do on the campaign trail — the things that made people vote for him.
WENDELL POTTER: It really is the system. I honestly think the president really believed it when he was campaigning and thought he had a chance to pull this off. The system wasn’t going to let that happen and it is the system that we have allowed to develop that controls Washington. No one person will ever be able to do things in a different way.
PHAWKER: He seemed to start running for reelection immediately after inauguration when he should have said ‘I’m happy to be a one-termer but I’m going to go balls to the wall and get this done because this is what the American want.’ Do you think that would have been suicidal?
WENDELL POTTER: I think it would have been and here’s why, yes he’s got the bully pulpit but he doesn’t have millions of dollars to devote to PR and advertising constantly, one of the reasons why we’ve seen erosion in the support for healthcare reform because even though he and Democrats can talk about benefits, they really can’t overcome all the opposition coming from millions of dollars spent on PR and advertising efforts to discredit the reform.
PHAWKER: I find this hard to believe, we’re talking about the federal government. They spend almost four trillion dollars a year and the public is wildly misinformed about healthcare reform because they can’t match a few million dollars worth of negative ad buys? There’s no money budgeted for this?
WENDELL POTTER: There is not, I’ve been to the White House and know there is no adequate amount of money to explain the Affordable Care Act. There just is not.
PHAWKER: Why isn’t he pushing for a change in Congress that would allocate some funds?
WENDELL POTTER: He got what he could get. Congress put this together. There’s a website but in terms of having money to hire big PR firms and advertising companies to compete, they don’t have close to the amount of money that opponents have.
Also consider that people would be skeptical if it was coming from the White House in the first place or the administration. There are a lot of constraints, a lot of credibility issues, but the other thing is to get the kind of change we really need, you have to change the system. He could go in there and go balls to the wall, I don’t care if I’m a one-term president or not, this will be a meaningful reform. A lot of people were saying why didn’t we go with single-payer or something bold that would put these companies out of business, which a lot of people support? It’s because the insurance industry has the money to devote to PR and advertising campaigns, corporate allies that have and will join them in an effort, and in fact the administration was already threatened by the pharmaceutical companies who said if you don’t play with us and give us what we want, we will bring in the heavy artillery, we will make sure nothing passes, the insurers will do the same thing, hospitals will do the same thing, they’re so influential and that’s why it’s hard to get anything done. We’ve been at this 100 years and haven’t because of the incredible power that special interests have. When you’re trying to influence or change something you’re affecting someone’s profits and income, these people have powerful trade associations and allies and millions of dollars to make sure it doesn’t happen.
PHAWKER: They have the money but we have the numbers, though.
WENDELL POTTER: That’s why I’m optimistic. That’s why I wrote Deadly Spin, to make sure people know their enemy and how they’ve been able to [kill reform] time and time again. Understand your enemy and play by their rules, you don’t need the money they’ve got but you need a strategy and what I have observed is that advocates for reform don’t have a clue about strategy. They don’t have coherent political and communications strategies. It’s not that the tools of PR are evil, they’ve just been used so successfully by people without our best interest at heart. You also need to have some kind of structure that is effective at pushing real change. We don’t have, as consumers, anything quite like America’s Health Insurance Plans, the big trade association for insurers, we don’t have anything like the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which is able to amass a lot of resources and demand discipline and a cohesive strategy. Consumers are all over the map and have competing interests, it’s hard to bring them together with one way of doing it and that’s where things fall apart, because we have dissension within the ranks.
PHAWKER: If we had gone to a single payer system, do you think there would be degradation in innovation and the quality of care, would it be like the post office?
WENDELL POTTER: No, because you can look at all of the other developed countries of the world and see they’ve achieved universal coverage and can guarantee citizens of those countries has access to decent care and it is not lower quality care, the outcomes of success are often far superior to ours. No, there doesn’t have to be degradation of loss in technology, they can continue to do that. Single payer is not dead, it just won’t pass at the federal level in the near or distant future. It can start at the state level like it did in Canada. It started in Saskatchewan, one of the smaller provinces. One of our smaller states, Vermont, this year passed a bill to move towards single payer. It could happen. If Vermont does it, other states will notice that and if it can show that it can guarantee access while controlling costs, you’ll start seeing other states follow Vermont’s lead. That’s how we’ll get to the system we need, not out of Washington because of the way the system is structured.
PHAWKER: Why is Romneycare so hated by the right?
WENDELL POTTER: It wasn’t hated by the right until it became possible to use it as a tool against Obama. Romney doesn’t want to acknowledge that Romneycare was the model for the federal law that’s passed. It’s been able to get them very much closer to universal coverage but they did it trying to keep private health insurers in place with an individual mandate as the federal law has with new regulations as the federal law has and it was something that Governor Romney oversaw and worked very closely to get passed. They just don’t like it because they call it Obamacare. It’s all political and contrived to try and win an election, they could care less as to whether it might work or not.
PHAWKER: Why the long gap between Obamacare being signed into law and when it actually kicks in? is it really necessary for a 2 ½ years waiting period?
WENDELL POTTER: The long phase-in was in deference to the insurance industry largely because they were able to persuade the administration and Congress that it would take a long time for us to change, to abide by all these new regulations and get everything in place to be able to do what you say we’ve got to do, we need that kind of lead time. They were able to persuade them to do that.
PHAWKER: You don’t think it was really necessary, just time to dismantle reform before it kicks in?
WENDELL POTTER: Absolutely. Some of it is legitimate, these are huge companies that have to put this in place so it is complex, but I don’t think it was necessary to wait quite that long. They could have done it easily a year earlier or a more than that but clearly one reason for dragging it out is it gives special interests more time to weaken it or derail it and that’s exactly what we’re seeing behind closed doors now out of public view, even though the law has passed and as big as the legislation was, the way it’s implemented is what’s important. After the law is passed then people will then begin writing regulations to implement it and they are just as susceptible to lobbying as Congress is.
PHAWKER: In the main you are for Obamacare, it’s progress?
WENDELL POTTER: I said at the time that it was important for Congress to enact what was before them considering the political dynamics. I said it’s more important to pass it than to kill the bill. It took us 100 years to get to that point and it was unlikely that Congress would get anything better, it falls short in many ways and it’s far too friendly to insurers and special interests. But if it’s implemented as intended, it will bring coverage to 30 million people without coverage right now and those subsidies can be viewed in a positive way, enabling them to get coverage and ending some of the most egregious practices of the insurance industry and make them behave differently. It was not possible to get rid of the insurance industry, we might wish it so but it’s not the real world. We live in a political world and most people don’t understand that. They have a low opinion of Congress and often for very good reason because of the way it’s influenced and held captive by special interests, but we’ve allowed it to happen.
PHAWKER: How do you change that when the people responsible for changing the way elections are financed are on the take?
WENDELL POTTER: People are beginning to wake up to the reality of what’s going on and paying more attention. That’s what Occupy Wall Street is really all about, protesting the influence they have on our lives and government as rightly they should. That can be the beginning of a broader movement than it currently is to the point where it can be a growing awareness of how dysfunctional our government is and how captive it is by Wall Street and special interests. Until that gets more traction, and I think it will, it can reach that tipping point if more people understand what is really going on. There is more of us than them, as you noted earlier. Occupy may be the beginning of it.
PHAWKER: Linguistically, we need something sexier than ‘campaign finance reform,’ people’s eyes glaze over the minute you talk about this, they don’t realize how crucial it is, how it’s the key to everything. We need a Frank Luntz on the left.
WENDELL POTTER: We do and there isn’t that. Part of it is no one has figured out how to hire a Frank Luntz on the side of the angels. Linguistics and language are extraordinarily important, I wrote about that in my book, language is how these special interests achieve their goals. They’re masters of manipulating public opinion to achieve their policy goals.
PHAWKER: Where do we go from here?
WENDELL POTTER: Where I go from here is to continue building awareness of what’s going on to do exactly what we’re talking about, help a movement gain traction, enlighten people about just why Congress really is dysfunctional, why things can’t happen there, and why we need to take our government back from Wall Street and corporate interests.
UPDATE: Another woman has come forward to say that Bill Conlin, the Hall of Fame baseball writer and former Philadelphia Daily News columnist, sexually assaulted her when she was a child. The woman, who asked not to be identified, said Conlin repeatedly abused her when she was about 7 and lived in the Whitman Square section of Washington Township, Gloucester County. She was a childhood friend of Conlin’s son, Peter, and often spent time at his house nearby. It was there, she said, that Conlin molested her. She is the fifth person to tell The Inquirer that Conlin assaulted her. MORE
DEADSPIN: He was calling me from his condo in Largo, Fla.—the condo he would occasionally mention to big-time his readers—and he sounded desperate. Conlin knew the Inquirer‘s Nancy Phillips was working on a story, and he had an idea of what it would say. He laid out for me a muddled timeline involving his niece (one of his accusers) and a decades-old family vendetta that, Conlin believed, had precipitated the story. It was as if he was piecing together Phillips’s story as we spoke. I had a hard time following along. He’d give me specific details about what happened in Margate, N.J., then veer into florid tangents (a Conlin staple in both print and conversation) about the neighborhood’s kids and their families there. He was going to get a lawyer, he said, but he also didn’t want to be silent. He wanted to defend himself and he wanted to know if he could possibly do it on Deadspin if and when the story came out. There, he reasoned, he could reveal his true feelings, without fear of insulting any dead-tree readership with profanity. Besides, he said, he might not have another outlet once the story hit anyway. MORE
BOB FORD: I don’t know the Bill Conlin who was described in The Inquirer as an alleged serial molester of young children, but I know too much now about the crime and the secrecy that goes along with it to disbelieve with any certainty he exists. I never met that man, but I have known for 30 years the bombastic, funny, ridiculously talented Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter who I thought was Bill Conlin. I have worked with him, traveled with him, drunk with him, played tennis with him, and stood under a thousand spring training suns talking mostly about baseball but eventually about everything else. Everything but this. MORE
PHILLY POST: Unlike some Phillips projects, the Conlin piece came together quickly, in about five weeks. Prompted by the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal, Kelley Blanchet, a niece of Conlin’s and one of his alleged victims, confided her story to Amy Rosenberg, her friend and an Inquirer reporter. Since Rosenberg had a conflict of interest, she asked Blanchet if she could contact Phillips. “It was pretty straight-forward reporting,” says Phillips. “I almost don’t consider it investigative. It wasn’t document intensive. I didn’t have to research deeds, mortgages. It was just talking to people, and going from there. It wasn’t that complicated. I wouldn’t put this among my top accomplishments as a reporter.” MORE
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The U.S. version of Stieg Larsson’s international best-selling thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has arrived, a little more stylish and pumped up, yet containing much of the same problematic structure that dogged its previous adaptation and the source novel itself. Like the Harry Potter series, this film adaptation has ballooned to a jumbo length of more than two and a half hours to capture the many details of the novel, whether it makes for energetic storytelling or not.
In an unnecessarily convoluted plot, the story follows the investigative journalist Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he is hired by a wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the death of his teenage niece 45 years prior. The case brings him to an isolated Swedish island where Vanger’s extended family live, all in open disdain for each other. Soon Blomkvist is uncovering Nazi pasts, financial chicanery and increasingly brutal threats.
Daniel Craig gets little out of an under-written role but the film belongs to Rooney Mara as Lisbeth, the “girl” of the title. Pierced, closely pruned and punked-out, Lisbeth is what has made Larsson’s triology a phenomena, selling more than 8 million copies in the U.S. alone. Violent, butch, and brooding, Lisbeth is a ward of the state due to an incident in her childhood, and the t-shirt she wears nicely sums up her attitude, “Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck.” Lisbeth is a master hacker (is there any other kind?) and she is recruited by Blomkvist to help solve this long-standing mystery.
Lisbeth was first brought to life two years ago when a Swedish-filmed trilogy of the character’s adventures was made for European television and theatrical release in the U.S. The films made a star of the previously unknown Noomi Rapace and it may well do the same for Rooney Mara but she is done no favors by Steven Zallian’s plodding script. David Fincher, the director of the artfully ghoulish Seven and the artfully brutal Fight Club, hardly seems like the type of filmmaker to soften the story’s infamous sexual violence but he somehow manages to subtly soften Lisbeth’s hard edges for blockbuster audience consumption. Her gut-wrenching revenge against her rapist parole officer is intact but in other details he downplays the sadistic pleasure that Lisbeth receives from dishing out violence to powerful, corrupt men. Worse yet, this version restores the novel’s improbable romance between Blomkvist and Lisbeth, wisely dispensed with in the Swedish version, while simultaneously giving her a Daddy Complex that serves to weaken a character we are drawn to for her strength.
Fincher’s approach underlines the contradictions inherent in all tellings of this story, the uncomfortable mixture of of sexual titillation and feminism (the book’s Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women.) We see a lot of Mara’s naked body, beginning with her rape scene, while her rapist is afforded a shadowy modesty. Likewise, in her tryst with Blomkvist the camera surveys Lisbeth’s body but allows Blomkvist to retain his modesty. There’s even a disturbing promotional shot of Craig coolly staring at the camera while his star stands next to him naked. It makes for an uncomfortable way to promote a film about a character who is invariably defined by her on-screen rape.
The film further neuters the character by leaving her violent relationship with her father out of the story, making this version self-contained (no sequels have been announced) but losing the creation myth of Lisbeth’s sadistic streak. Perhaps all this wouldn’t be so vexing if the film could sustain the excitement of its action sequences, where Fincher’s film springs to life with the visceral thrills of Lisbeth’s vengeance, but instead Fincher drags us through Blomkvist’s endless, monotonous investigation of taciturn, middle-aged cyphers. The mystery itself is nothing new, hidden incest is the default plot twist of any modern mystery that wants to flaunt socially-acceptable “taboos.” The film’s failure is that it honors every detail of the mundane investigation while botching the fierce lesbian heart of the story’s main asset: Lisbeth.
When filmmaker David Fincher asked Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and his songwriting partner Atticus Ross to compose the music for his U.S. film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher had one request: for the music to sound ‘textural.’ So Reznor and Ross, who won an Oscar for their score of Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network, experimented with sounds created by stretched-out bell tones, piano beds filled with nails and clothespins, and mixes of distorted instruments played imperfectly. “We wanted to create the sound of coldness — emotionally and also physically,” Reznor tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “We wanted to take lots of acoustic instruments … and transplant them into a very inorganic setting, and dress the set around them with electronics.” Reznor and Ross’ hauntingly beautiful soundtrack features three hours of new instrumental music and two cover songs — Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” with lead vocals by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ Karen O, and a cover of Bryan Ferry’s “Is Your Love Strong Enough,” with lead locals by Reznor’s wife, Mariqueen Maandig. Those two covers complement the instrumental score, on which tracks are layered with simple melodies, machine-like noises and unsettling synthesizers to create a dark, moody atmosphere and complement the foreboding images on screen. “[The instrumental sounds are] processed and stretched and manipulated into a setting where it may sound harmonically familiar, but if you tune into it, it’s not behaving in a way that you’re accustomed to that type of sound behaving,” Reznor says. “I find experimenting around in that is an interesting place to work.” MORE
RELATED: Industrial music is all about the intersection of man and machine, drawing sonic tropes from the pneumatic wheeze of moving parts, and taking lyrical cues from the existential exigencies of life in a mechanized world. Trent Reznor made it speak to the punkish angst of youth trapped in dead-eyed factory towns in the dawn of the Information Age — and became the new Man In Black. MORE
THE NEW YORK TIMES: That a glamorous movie star whose day job involved hours of makeup calls and dress fittings would spend her off hours designing sophisticated weapons systems is one of the great curiosities of Hollywood history. Lamarr, however, not only possessed a head for abstract spatial relationships, but she also had been in her former life a fly on the wall during meetings and technical discussions between her munitions-manufacturer husband and his clients, some of them Nazi officials. Disturbed by news reports of innocents killed at sea by U-boats, she was determined to help defeat the German attacks. And Antheil, arguably the most mechanically inclined of all composers, having long before mastered the byzantine mechanisms of pneumatic piano rolls, retained a special genius for “out of the box” problem solving. Over several years the composer and the movie star spent countless hours together drafting and redrafting designs, not only for the torpedo system but also for a “proximity fuse” antiaircraft shell. In reality, their patent was an early version of today’s smart bombs. The device as they made it employed a constantly roving radio signal to guide the torpedo toward its target. Because the signal kept “hopping” from one frequency to another, it would be impossible for the enemy to lock onto. To solve the problems of synchronizing receiver and transmitter, Antheil proposed a tiny structure inspired by the workings of a piano roll. This was a feat that years later would be used in everything from cellphone and Bluetooth technology to GPS instruments. MORE
Sportswriter Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News speaks after being honored with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for Journalists for his more than 45 years of baseball coverage at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, July 23, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar
UPDATE: Three women and a man say they were molested as children by Bill Conlin, a Hall of Fame baseball writer and Philadelphia Daily News columnist. In vivid accounts, the four say Conlin groped and fondled them, and touched their genitals, in assaults in the 1970s, when they were from ages 7 to 12. “This is a tragedy,” said Kelley Blanchet, a niece of Conlin’s who said he molested her when she was a child. “People have kept his secret. It’s not just the victims, it’s the victims’ families. There were so many people who knew about this and did nothing.”MORE
PHAWKER: Sad and shocking, Nancy Phillips’ story removes any reasonable doubt from us jurists in the court of public opinion, which, it looks like, is the only court Bill Conlin will be tried in. What an ignominious end to such a storied career, an all too familiar refrain these days.
DEADSPIN: The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s top investigative reporter, Nancy Phillips, has written a story containing what we’re told are allegations of child molestation against sportswriter Bill Conlin, a longtime columnist at the rival Daily News. Conlin resigned just moments ago, according to a source at the Daily News. MORE
NBC PHILADELPHIA: A spokesperson for the Daily News confirmed to NBC10 that Conlin retired today (and did not resign), saying more details would be released later. MORE
CBS KYW: A story being published in the Philadelphia Inquirer (sister publication of the Daily News) says that Conlin is being accused by more than one alleged victim, and reports that the accusations are “documented,” although it was not immediately clear what that meant. George Bochetto, Conlin’s attorney, denounced the accusations today. “Mr. Conlin is obviously floored by the allegations, which supposedly happened 40 years ago. He has engaged me to do everything possible to bring the true facts forward and to vindicate his name,” Bochetto said. MORE
AJ DAULERIO: Bill Conlin hasn’t been a reporter for quite some time, and he’s thrilled about it. He’s a columnist now, so the idea of standing around a smelly locker room with a bunch of young kids begging players for empty page-filling quotes makes him squirm. He spent close to four decades lumbering all over the world to chronicle the most prestigious sporting events — Wimbledon, the Olympics, too many Super Bowls, etc. — but that thrill died a slow, obvious, waking death with him long ago. […] The problem is, the game has changed — Conlin’s game, sportswriting. Four decades ago, when Conlin started covering the Phillies, we opened our newspapers to learn about sports, which meant writers were the shapers and keepers of that communal dreamscape, a heady job; plus, players liked getting mentioned in the papers. ESPN and the Internet changed that, in both immediacy and highlight drama. At the same time, sportswriters and players used to play tennis on off days, or drink together in hotel bars — unthinkable now — and the writer would sometimes pick up the tab, which is really unthinkable now. The culprit there, of course, is money; players started getting paid truckloads of it. Being marginalized, ignored and otherwise relegated to has-been — even though he’s still, at 75, this city’s best columnist — has Bill Conlin raging into the night at bloggers foolish enough to disagree with his sporting assessments, and e-mailing anyone who will listen about just how good he was and still is. (You might also get e-mailed a snapshot of a young, much thinner Bill on a surfboard.) So no, he hasn’t recovered from that last World Series he traveled back and forth across the country to write about in ’01; he hasn’t gotten over the way he and the other, lesser writers, were herded to a room with tiny TVs. MORE
RELATED: CONLIN’S HALLMARK IS that he never offers a tough opinion that isn’t right. “His first reaction is to be an absolute sonovabitch. He’s never wrong in his first reaction,” says Pat McLoone, his editor at the Daily News, who’s read or worked with Conlin for most of his life. Yet that attitude can also be, to say the least, problematic. Conlin’s a tireless e-mailer who has no problem toe-to-toeing with readers who disagree with him. Especially bloggers. He’s challenged those know-nothing “pamphleteers” to online pissing contests if they provoke him. “My career versus theirs,” he wrote of one. Sometimes he’ll send along pictures of his old Florida condo as a bizarre way of proving his success. MORE
BILL CONLIN: I’ll go with what I picked up covering more than 4,000 major league games over what some sallow, basement dwelling, nerd thinks he knows AFTER the fact. All those acronymic formulas work great until you’re up there facing a 95 MPH fastball. So you do what you do and I’ll do what I do. I guess the bottom line comes down to: My career against yours: Next time you’re in Cooperstown visit the Scribes and Mikemen Exhibit. The formula for getting there is YOE + RR = HOF (Years of Excellence + Reader Recognition = Hall of Fame) MORE
BILL CONLIN ON SANDUSKY: So where does this rank on the scale of American tragedies and disruptions in our time? Watergate? Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders? The Lindbergh kidnapping? O.J. Simpson? More recently, the Casey Anthony trial? This is right up there with any of them. And if the media coverage is any measure, it is bigger than any of them . . .MORE
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