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IN ORWELL WE TRUST: Q&A With Pulitzer Prize-Winning National Security Reporter Tom Ricks

Thursday, May 25th, 2017

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BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA Under the darkening skies of the late 1930s, liberal democracy was on the ropes and fascism and totalitarianism was on the rise, reason and common sense were overwhelmed by racist entreaties, economic misery and nationalist fury, press freedoms were under attack and the facts had become a matter of opinion. Sound familiar? Two less than distinguished men rose to the occasion: a tarnished, boozy politician named Winston Churchill and a sickly, failed novelist named George Orwell. Although they did not know each other, Churchill and Orwell would lay down the intellectual and political framework — in soaring oration and sonorous prose — that turned back the rising tide of illiberalism.

In the process, both would become great men, not just men for their season, but men for all seasons — including the the post-factual age we call the here and now. Which is what prompted Pulitzer prize-winning national security reporter Tom Ricks to make them the dual subjects of his latest book, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight For Freedom. Ricks is currently a contributing writer to Foreign Policy and a security advisor to the Center for the New American Security think tank, prior to that he logged in 25 years as a distinguished Nat Sec reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He’s authored six books, including 2006’s Fiasco, his jaundiced eyewitness account of the Iraq War, which went to number one on the New York Times bestseller list. In advance of his appearance at the Free Library tonight, we got Ricks on the horn to discuss how the writings, orations and actions of Churchill and Orwell impacted the then and how and why they continue to speak to the now.

DISCUSSED: H.L. Mencken, Joseph Stalin, Martin Luther King, T.S. Eliot, Leon Trotsky, General Franco, the Spanish Civil War, Hitler, Mussolini, tuberculosis, booze, Wikileaks, fake news, the Battle Of Britain, alternative facts, Trump, illiberalism, climate change denialism, Lech Walesa, the Invasion Of Iraq, Alger Hiss, Andrei Sakharov, the Katyn Massacre, Letter From A Birmingham Jail, the Second Boer War, John Lennon, Neville Chamberlain, Edward Snowden, The Mitford Sisters, Keith Richards, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Animal Farm, 1984, and the sun setting on the English Empire.

PHAWKER: Thank you for taking the time to do this. thomas-e-ricks_person_image.original I really love the book and thought it was incredibly timely, which is actually where I want to start. hat prompted you to write this book in this time? Clearly you recognized some contemporary resonance.

TOM RICKS: Yeah, well, I was beginning to feel uneasy about three or four years ago about how people talked about free speech. Both on the left and the right it seemed to be less appreciated than in the past. People seemed more accepting of limitations on free speech. And at the same time I was going back and reading 20th century journalists, partly just to look back for my own entertainment and curiosity at who stood up, who’s worth reading now. I started with H.L. Mencken and found him absolutely anachronistic. Then I went to S.J. Perelman and didn’t find him funny at all. I found E.B. White had pretty good prose, but really wasn’t speaking to our times. I found Hemingway irrelevant. And then I picked up Orwell, and his prose style seemed so fresh and so contemporary that it made me stop and think. And the realization came to me as I was writing the book that I think he really invented the modern op-ed style of opinion, which is based on straightforward, clear writing. The statement of an observation of facts. The explication of those facts and then conclusions from those facts, which is the basic 650 or 700 word op-ed piece.

PHAWKER: It’s not only free speech that’s endangered, we’re living in the time when liberal democracy seems to be on the run. There’s a passage here on page 45where you write that “many people, especially the young and engaged, thought that liberal capitalist democracy was tired and failing. They felt that the only two ways forward were fascism or communism, beckoning from Berlin, Rome, and Moscow, ending the Western way of life.” How does that speak to now?

TOM RICKS: I think it does very much, which is this time of ours is kind of similar internationally to the 1930’s in that, as I wrote in the book, democracy, and especially liberal capitalist democracy, seemed to be faltering and did not seem to speak to the people. In America, to the white working-class, especially. I have to say, related to that, is the sense that facts don’t matter. People can make up their own facts. I think my favorite passage in the whole book is at the end of the chapter on Spain when I quote Orwell talking about how he came back in England, read the newspapers, and saw battles described that had never happened. Heroic acts of soldiers that had never occurred. Just absurd representation by both the left and the right of the facts of the matter, which would have set him on his lifelong course to always put the facts before party. To always insist that you cannot suppress information because it supports your ideological position to do so.

PHAWKER: That’s actually getting to a point I wanted to raise about your Churchill&Orwelldescription of 1984, you write that Orwell asserts that “collecting the facts is a revolutionary act insisting you have the right to do so is the most subversive action possible.” Again, this has a very contemporary resonance in light of Trump’s war on the facts and observable reality. Your old stomping ground, the Washington Post, felt the need to put the motto, “Democracy dies in darkness” on their front page every day.

TOM RICKS: I gotta’ tell you, I hate that motto.

PHAWKER: [Laughs] Oh, really?

TOM RICKS: Yeah, it should be, “Democracy thrives in light.” Or, “Sunshine in the best disinfectant.” It’s such a dark, morose…I just don’t like it. I understand the sentiment, where they’re coming from, but you were leading to a question and I kind of interrupted you..

PHAWKER: I wanted to get you to speak to this notion of this post-factual age some insist that we are now in and how this lines up with what Orwell was railing against in 1984, and for his whole life, really, and how that stacks up against Trump’s vicious war on the press and the non-partisan reporting of objective reality.

TOM RICKS: Well, I think there’s always been a struggle in this country, and in others, about facts. Look, we have people who claim that the Civil War was not about slavery, against all academic evidence, as well as some of the Confederate states’ constitutions showing us that it was. We still have people that claim that the Earth is not warming. Now, you can argue about why it’s warming. But I think it’s indisputable that the Earth is warming up, right now. I think that’s always been the case. There’s always a struggle, especially when you have extremist administrations.

Right now we have the most reactionary president, probably in American history. And I say that because he exists in reaction to what has preceded him. He’s not just right-wing, he’s extreme right-wing, and he will not be pinned down to facts. He’ll say one thing today, and another thing tomorrow, and even if they’re completely opposite, he’ll believe them to be equally true because he said them. And if you read 1984, that’s the absolute definition of authoritarian government, when it insists that it can decide what the truth is and what the past is. And so there’s this long tradition of people opposing that by saying, “What are the facts of the matter?” I think Orwell was quite visionary in seeing that that was the best way to respond to Stalinism. And you see people like Sakharov and Walesa, and other dissidents in Eastern Europe and Russia, who respond by just Winston_Churchillsaying, “Let’s collect the facts.” And the Soviet government recognizes that as a revolutionary, subversive activity.

And that’s why I take the next step and say take a look at Martin Luther King and his wonderful Letter From A Birmingham Jail. It says, “Here I sit in jail. What are the facts of the matter?” The fact of the matter is, Birmingham is the most segregated city in America. The negro is subjected to official violence to enforce that segregation. And then he says, “What are the acts to be drawn from this?” That’s very much Churchill, very much Orwell, and very much in the Western intellectual tradition of insisting on the facts, observing the facts, and applying your principles to them. Then, from that, producing a course of action.

But in order to do that, and this is something that people tend to forget about Orwell and Churchill, you have to be willing to blow the whistle on your own ideological side. That’s something that Churchill and Orwell, these two very different people, have in common. Churchill in the 1930s breaks with the conservative party over the rearmament of Germany. Beginning in 1933, he gets up, and, speech after speech, he says, “What are the facts of the matter?” And the facts of the matter are that Germany is rearming. The British Conservative party, led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, doesn’t want to hear that. They push him into the wilderness. They basically make it clear that he cannot be in the government, even though he’s a conservative. And, in fact, he’s kept out of government until World War II begins.

Likewise, Orwell comes back from Spain and says, “Look, the fact of the matter is that both the left and the right are lying about what’s going on there. The left didn’t want to hear that. And he never became a right winger – it’s sort of a myth that he became a conservative – he’s not. He remains a socialist all his life and he remains dedicated to individual liberty in a very insistent way. But, he says, when the left is wrong, ‘I’m going to say so.’ And that cost him a lot of friends on the left.

PHAWKER: That brings me to the next question. What made you pair Churchill and Orwell together in the first place?

TOM RICKS: I think, to begin with, they’re both heroes of mine. I think they’re the most important people of the 20th century. And, one day, I happily realized that they were both war correspondents, as I was. I thought, “Isn’t that great? The two greatest men of the 20th century, in their youth, were war correspondents.” Then, as I said, as I was going through this tour of 20th century journalism, it struck me that the only one who really seems to be of our time as much of his own is Orwell. I think he really is the greatest journalist of the 20th century for that reason.

PHAWKER: I had to chuckle some of the excesses of the British Empire, the white male privilege – like the moveable feast of booze that Churchill took with him down to South Africa to cover the Boer War.

TOM RICKS: It’s stunning to me. One of my favorite passages is when he’s having breakfast shepard-fairey-poster_1984at the British embassy in Cairo during the war and he asks the ambassador’s wife for a carafe of white wine. She says, “At breakfast?” And he says, “Madam, I’ve already had two whiskey sodas.”

PHAWKER: [Laughing] But by the same token, George Orwell, his whole life was struggling with tuberculosis and goes to…where does he go? Does he go to Northern Africa to get away from the smog of London and rest his lungs?

TOM RICKS: Well, he goes to Morocco after his lungs begin bleeding.

PHAWKER: And he goes there to heal his bleeding lungs, but he’s smoking like a chimney the whole time.

TOM RICKS: Exactly, yeah. He really had no regard for his own personal well-being. I think it really resonates that he came home one day and his wife had left dinner for him and the cat and, by mistake, he ate the cat’s dinner.

PHAWKER: I think it’s really fascinating that he was willing to go so immersive into all aspects of society at that point. That he would go to Burma and he would be the policeman. He would be the imperialist, and he would come back and he would be the beggar and the bum, the hobo, in England and Paris.

TOM RICKS: You may be misreading Burma a little bit. I don’t think he went to Burma as a writer to observe. I think he went to Burma because he wanted to see what power felt like. I think he’d been on the wrong side of power his entire life. First his father, then at schools. He’d been the poor, charity scholarship boy at school. He’d been beaten for it because sometimes he didn’t do his work well enough. I think he really just had a sense of, “Okay, let’s see what power’s like.” And he saw that, ‘yes power does corrupt, even I am corrupted by it. I gotta get away from it.’ He has a wonderful essay “Shooting An Elephant,” in which he concludes that being a colonial power destroys the colonialist every bit as much as it destroys those he colonizes.

PHAWKER: Getting back to how all of this speaks to the here and now, there’s also a passage in the book where you talk about this Lord Londonderry fellow who advocates, not just for appeasement of Hitler, but for aligning with the Germans in the fight against communism. Now, that really sounds like an echo of Trump’s campaign talking point that we should align with the Russians to defeat terrorism, which I believe was Putin’s idea in the first place. Can you speak to that?

TOM RICKS: I think it’s just the nature of anti-democratic elements. They will recognize like minds and sympathize with them. So you see, in the 1930s, the British Aristocracy with the exception of Churchill, was very comfortable with the Germans. The Mitford sisters, Chamberlain and other British officials going to pay homage to Hitler with Mussolini on pilgrimages to his office to meet him in Germany. It’s always them going to Hitler, never Hitler going to England. They always come back and say, “He’s a man we can trust. He’s a man we can deal with.”

If you look at Trump’s face, his emotion, his personality in play when he meets with foreign leaders – beginning again, the democratic leaders like Angela Merkel he seems unhappy with and acts as if they’re adversaries, but the autocrats like Erdogan of Turkey and the Russian visitors, he seems very comfortable with. These are people who he thinks he understands and who understand him. I think they’re playing him for a chump. That’s exactly what Hitler did with Chamberlain. This is another reason you need to stick by unpopular positions. The correct position will almost always be unpopular at the beginning. I have to constantly remind people that eventually Trump and a good number of people around him are going to end up in jail under the charges of obstruction of justice, maybe perjury, and fraud. Don’t compromise with them. Don’t enable them. Block them at every step you can because they are wrong about what this country is and they don’t understand how our country works, or what makes our country great, especially the U.S. Constitution.

PHAWKER: You point out in the book that even back in the 1930s assassination was a tool in the Russian foreign policy toolkit. When the secret Russian government archives are opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s, it revealed that Orwell had been designated for execution in the event of his capture by Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War. Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same, right?

TOM RICKS: Yeah, but don’t forget that Putin is an old KGB member. And the KGB is a direct descendant of the NKVD, which was the Russian espionage association, the secret police, that targeted Orwell, unsuccessfully, but targeted many other people successfully. For example, Trotsky. Twice, they sent Spanish communists from the civil war to attack Trotsky. The first time, they failed. The second time, they succeeded and killed him in Mexico. Orwell had friends who were killed by the Russians. The Russians built a crematorium on the outskirts of Barcelona to get rid of the bodies of the Spanish leftists they killed. These were not fascists they were killing. The fascists weren’t around Barcelona. They were the anti-Stalinist leftists like the Trotskyites and the aChurchill_Hellnarchists. Those were the real enemy to the Russians and those are the people they went after.

PHAWKER: A quick detour on that point. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Trotsky had seized power instead of Stalin? How do you think the course of history may have changed? Or the course of Socialism and Communism for that matter?

TOM RICKS: My guess is that Trotsky would have winded up doing the same thing to Stalin’s people.

PHAWKER: Would he have killed millions in the Gulags?

TOM RICKS: Obviously I don’t know, but my gut feeling is probably so. Because the nature of Stalinist and Trotskyite communism is to say, “I’m right, those who oppose me are wrong and must be exterminated.” I think this derives directly from Lenin. I think Lenin had that point of view. These are all proteges of Lenin.

PHAWKER: And Lenin was adamant that it would require a ruthless dictatorship in order to impose these Marxist reforms on the Russian people.

TOM RICKS: Yeah, I just read a good book about Lenin, After Finland Station. About when he’s coming back to Russian and he really energizes things but he also immediately starts going after the Mensheviks, who were actually the more popular faction on the left at that point.

PHAWKER: I was somewhat shocked to read that T.S. Eliot turned down Animal Farm when he was an editor at Faber & Faber because it was “too Trotsky-ite.”

TOM RICKS: He also thought the pigs were right. He thought the pigs should rule because they’re smarter. I think this goes to Eliot as a wanna-be aristocrat. This is one reason I have an aside in the book about how the British never understand the Americans because they think that the Americans that go over there are representative, when in fact they’re aberrations. T.S. Eliot? Henry James? These are not representative of the American people. Someone once told me that if you really wanna’ succeed as an American at Oxford or Cambridge, the first thing you do is wear a cowboy hat. Don’t deny who you are. Don’t try to be British.

PHAWKER: By the end of World War II there was a lot of wariness about the Americans from the British. There was a fear that we would become the new imperialists, which, in fact, we did.

TOM RICKS: Well, look at both the left and the right. The right resents America at the end of World War II because we’ve not supported the British Empire. In fact, they tripped us up on Vietnam. When FDR said he thought that Vietnam should be independent, the French and the British both said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Think of how history would be different there. So, the Americans were explicitly anti-colonialist, which leads, at one point to the biggest breach between Churchill and Roosevelt. Churchill goes batshit when Roosevelt sends him a letter advising him on how to handle the India question. They think that maybe the Americans just don’t understand this. I think the Americans actually had a better take on how imperialism was doomed than the British did.

But at the same time, the British left come to loathe American culture. And remember, it’s the British aristocratic left. I think people have never properly understood the cultural history of postwar Britain. Philby, Burgess — the leftist communist spies inside the British establishment. They’re from aristocratic background and they are undermining America on purpose. Philby is the head of counterintelligence in the British Embassy in America. Guy Burgess is giving the Russians information on American plans in the Korean war. They’re actively working against America.

I emphasize this because at the same time, British working class is falling in love with America. The generation of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones comes immediately out of this period. John Winston Lennon, named for Winston Churchill is born during The Battle of Britain. Keith Richards was actually evacuated during the war to avoid the bombing. But these people embrace American working class culture, and especially black American culture. So, at the time the aristocratic Left and the aristocratic Right are holding their nose over America, the British working class is saying, ‘this is who we wanna’ be.’ They get up and they start singing like black American farm hands. I think it’s one of the great cultural battles in history, and it’s never been adequately told.

PHAWKER: Is it true about the Tehran Summit, where Stalin is saying that he’ll have to execute 50,000 Nazi Officers, not unlike what the Russian army did with Polish army in the Katyn Massacre. Stalin will later claim, and not very convincingly, that he was kidding. Churchill was Orwell_Truthappalled. Oddly, FDR seems nonplussed.

TOM RICKS: I think he recognized he couldn’t do anything to stop it. I think he knew that Stalin was taunting them with the fact that Katyn Massacre, which neither Churchill nor Roosevelt wanted investigated and couldn’t do anything about. I think that’s really what that conversation was about. Churchill wasn’t going to stand for it and Roosevelt’s attitude was, ‘I can’t do anything about it.’ Also, Roosevelt is getting old and tired at that point and may simply have been fading out of the conversation.

PHAWKER: Churchill and Roosevelt didn’t want the Katyn Massacre to be investigated because they needed Russia to be an ally against the Germans, right?

TOM RICKS: Exactly, and they’re correct. The number one goal throughout World War II was to keep the Russians in the war.

PHAWKER: And we probably wouldn’t have beaten the Germans without them.

TOM RICKS: Yeah. I mean, the Eastern Front was a far more significant front than the West.

PHAWKER: A couple questions I wanted to ask you that are not related to the book. One is, like a lot of people’s opinion about Wikileaks and Assange and Edward Snowden, my assessments have evolved in the fullness of time. It’s become blatantly obvious that Assange is not America’s friend. He’s not even liberal democracy’s friend. The selective transparency of Wikileaks is clearly part of the information warfare arsenal of Russian intelligence. My question for you is about Snowden — is he a good guy or is he a bad guy? He’s become the Alger Hiss of the Information Age.

TOM RICKS: I’m ambivalent. I think he may have done the right thing, but I think he may have committed a crime. I’m a great believer in conscientious objection and civil disobedience, but I go back to Gandhi and Martin Luther King on this. When you commit civil disobedience, you not only break the law knowingly, you say so and you insist on being jailed for it because you believe the law is unjust. That’s why Martin Luther King said, ‘I am in jail for calling on my country to obey the law.’ That is an unjust situation. You use the fact of being jailed to support your case. The fact that Snowden ran and hid himself in the embrace of the enemy is not a good sign. I’ve been worried generally about the wild recklessness of their information releases. How many people in various third world countries have gotten in trouble because of their names appearing in Wikileaks documents? How many people have been executed or jailed? We don’t know. I’m surprised that no one’s reported on that.

PHAWKER: I’m not questioning the part about revealing that intelligence agencies had turned their incredible surveillance powers on Americans — that was whistleblowing on clear Fourth Amendment violations. But there was also a lot of classified materials that Snowden took that seemed to have no bearing on privacy, civil liberties or the NSA’s omnipresent surveillance of the American people. My question is why were all those other materials taken and then leaked to other countries?

TOM RICKS: Yeah. He may have done the right thing the wrong way. He’s not a hero of mine. I’ll say that. And Assange is much less than a hero. To me he seems like a bad actor on the international stage.

PHAWKER: Having covered the Iraq War that, in retrospect, do you see it as a historically necessary action that was deeply flawed in its execution, or was this simply a case of imperial hubris that turned into an epic boondoggle, that instead of America flexing our muscles to the world revealed the limits of American power to the world?

TOM RICKS: I’ll take B. You know my book Fiasco begins by saying that the American invasion of Iraq may have been the most prodigal act in the history of American foreign policy. By which I meant, the most unthoughtful and reckless act in the history of American foreign policy, and I stand by that.

TOM RICKS WILL DISCUSS CHURCHILL & ORWELL @ THE FREE LIBRARY TONIGHT

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SIDEWALKING: Set The Twilight Reeling

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

A post shared by G Callan (@glcallan) on

Aerial shot looking west above Franklin Square taken 5/17/17 by @glcallan

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GEEK SQUAD: Riot Girls

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

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the-geek-300x300BY RICHARD SUPLEE GEEK SPACE CORRESPONDENT After the ensuing critical shitstorms that greeted the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad last year, Warner Bros. is trying to salvage the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) which includes the following superhero franchises: the newest Superman and Suicide Squad and upcoming Wonder Woman,  along with Aquaman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Shazam, and Cyborg. Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — which includes Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, plus TV and Netflix shows and too many films in development to listis still leading the superhero genre. The DCEU is hoping to change that this year with next month’s Wonder Woman followed by The Justice League. Their short term plan is solo films for each member of The Justice League through 2020’s Green Lantern Corps.  However, recently Warner Bros. revealed their long term plans with announcements for a Nightwing (a grown up Dick Grayson/Robin) and a Joss Whedon written/directed Batgirl film1-8.

Right away, Batgirl caught my attention. From the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show (1997-2003) to the first two Avengers films (2012, 2015) to the lesser known Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2007), Joss Whedon proved he can handle superheroes. He also proved he can handle funny superheroes. While Batgirl is not a comic relief character, the DCEU as a whole has a serious and gritty tone. A change of pace is what the franchise needs. Batgirl probably won’t be a comedy, but it should be lighter than Batman v Superman.

But what else should Batgirl be? Besides Joss Whedon we only know this Batgirl’s name. Barbara Gordon, the daughter/niece of Police Commissioner James Gordon (their exact relationship changes with writers) is probably the most known of Batman’s female sidekicks (from the Adam West how and most Batman cartoons). Personally, I am not a fan of a Barbara Gordon as Batgirl anymore. I grew up with a Barbara Gordon who wasn’t Batgirl. My only comic book experience with her was Oracle. For those unfamiliar, Barbara Gordon was shot in the spine by The Joker (as part of his attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by giving him “one bad day”) and paralyzed9. While this is one of the worse examples of “women in refrigerators” (a trope where female characters are brutally killed or maimed so a male character can have character development) in comic books, it led to a new identity. Barbara became the super hacker Oracle who organized all the superheroes in Gotham. Despite being confined to a wheelchair she was helping people. She became such an asset to Batman that storylines had to be written around her. She proved that even the disabled can help out in the superhero world without any magic or alien technology to fix her spine. 6 years ago, DC did just that and made Barbara Gordon Batgirl again. This felt like a demotion to me. Barbara was Batgirl when Dick Grayson was Robin and yet Dick moved on to Nightwing for good. She wasn’t even Batwoman. It also took away DC’s strongest and most prominent handicapped character. Oracle could easily be a supporting character in Batgirl with someone else under the cowl.

Barbara Gordon was not the only Batgirl. She wasn’t even the first. My personal choice for a Batgirl film is Cassandra Cain. Cain was bred and raised by the League of Assassins (adapted by the Dark Knight Trilogy as The League of Shadows) to be a weapon. She was never taught how to speak, only to fight. This made her “native language” body language. She can perfectly predict anyone’s fighting style. She will notice your breath quicken and your arm muscles clench before a punch is thrown. She became a hero after her first assassination. Cassandra saw life leave her victim’s body. She saw all the ticks and movements a body does just end. She read death. She vowed to never kill again and eventually met Batman. A Cassandra Cain film will be a martial arts superhero film where the main character needs to carry the emotion with few words. The action must be part of the story like in Old Man Logan (2016). It can even include Barbara Gordon as the mentor/tech support Oracle. Also, Cassandra Cain (along with a handicapped Barbara Gordon) will add more diversity to the DCEU and the genre in general. I cannot name any Asian superhero with a film in development. And yes, that does matter. Representation is important even in a fictional universe with Martians and mermaids. And not just so minorities can see themselves in comics or film. Pop culture is an exaggerated self-portait of society and it paints a telling picture when the majority of main characters all look the same. Fans are excited for Wonder Woman next month partly because of the lack of female characters and the same can be applied to all underrepresented groups. But Cassandra Cain is the unsafe choice. A general audience doesn’t know her. They know Barbara Gordon. The DCEU always made the safe choices. Warner Bros. should be looking for the most interesting characters, not the most popular.

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HOW TO GROW UP TO BE A DEBASER: An Intensely Personal Q&A w/ The Pixies’ Black Francis

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

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Photo by NOAH SILVESTRY

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the complete and unabdridged version of my 7200 word Q&A with Black Francis of The Pixies’ for the cover of the March 2014 issue of MAGNET MAGAZINE. We’re reposting it now on the eve of the Pixies’ performance at the Electric Factory tomorrow night. Enjoy.

BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA The year is 1988. I’m a college DJ stranded in the middle of Pennsyltucky. Entranced by the naked boob on the cover of Surfer Rosa, I slap it on the turntable and…they had me by the first 20 seconds of “Where Is My Mind?” They never really let go. Shortly thereafter I got a gig working for a Pennsyltucky daily. They asked me one day if I wanted to interview some guy named Black Francis from the Pixies. Would I? Man, this was a dream come true! I could finally learn the WTF of lyrics like, “He bought me a soda, he bought me a soda/ And he tried to molest me in the parking lot.”

When I got him on the phone, he was no doubt bone-tired from endless touring and weary of answering stupid fanboy questions. He insisted I call him Charles and pretty much refused to give me a straight answer to any question. “Who cares?” he’d say. “We just try to make cool rock music.” I remember thinking: what a dick.

It’s 1993. In the wake of a dispiriting trail of tears across North Ameria as U2’s opening act, and years of low-intensity inter-band strife, Black Francis breaks up The Pixies via fax,PIXIES MAGNET COVER rechristens himself Frank Black and proceeds to release a steady string of increasingly irrelevant solo albums. Kim Deal managed to land on her feet, but after a few seasons of success, the Breeders’ career collapses under the weight of the Deal sisters’ substance abuse and related baggage. Joe Santiago managed to eke out a living scoring films you never saw along with the occasional episode of Weeds and the second season of Judd Appatow’s Undeclared. And the drummer gave up music to become…wait for it…a magician.

In some ways — ways he is still not fully ready to cop to — Black Francis suffered the most. Breaking up the Pixies was Black Francis’ original sin. The world — at least the part of the world that had any bearing on the life of Charles Kittredge Thompson — loved the Pixies and decided that he would be punished for his sins with a long twilight bar band exile of dwindling record sales, half-full concert venues and diminished cultural relevance, despite making music that was, almost without exception, as good, if not better in it’s own way, than his Pixies work. “Everything I do as a solo artist will always be overshadowed by this other band called the Pixies,” he says in the documentary Loud Soft Loud. “It doesn’t matter what I do, it’s always going to end in tears.”

The cold hard fact is, people like bands, not songwriters. A band is a narrative – with archetypes, the cute one, the funny one, smart one, and so on — a songwriter, in the public’s imagination, is just some guy who bangs out jingles to make the mortgage every month. Barry Manilow is a songwriter, The Beatles are a narrative. People love good stories more than they love good songs. Frank Black didn’t have a good story.

It would take him a decade to figure that out.

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A GIANT STEPS ON: RIP Mickey Roker, Jazz Legend

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

Mickey-Roker

BY BILL HANGLEY JR. The 20th century took another blow today with the passing of a Philly jazz giant, Mickey Roker. A master of the drums and a mentor to generations, Roker was a link to an age when people paid big bucks in Tokyo or Hamburg to see what any Philloid could still see for free.

His death was reported today by Temple Univerity’s WRTI, which will be featuring his music all day; no cause of death has been announced so far. He was 84.

Roker was both a global ambassador and a local institution. Like countless others I first heard him holding down the groove in Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus, during the years when the traditional Philly jazz bar was already an endangered species, and Ortlieb’s was a lonely outpost in a gap-toothed neighborhood whose next boom was still decades away. As a player, he was the epitome of classy, tuneful swing, and as a Philadelphian, he was a standard-bearer for the open-hearted spirit that represents the best of our town; much of what I know of the highest purpose of music I learned watching him and his peers welcome my young friends to the bandstand to share and carry on the legacy of the music they loved.

“When he asked for me to be on the first gig I did with him I felt like my dreams had come true,” wrote local tenor player Victor North on hearing of Roker’s passing. “And then, that contagious, inclusive laugh of his. I miss him already.” North’s Facebook page is full of similar sentiments from other players, harbingers of the tide of testimonials yet to come: “A treasure.” “One of a kind.” “Amazing talent and yet so humble.”

Born in Florida in 1932, Roker landed in Philly at 10, part of the great migration of African Americans from the segregated South to the violent and heartless North. The city’s lively jazz scene “kept me out of prison,” Roker once said. “Philadelphia was so gang-infested at the time, and the drums kept me in the house practicing.”

Mentored by a jazz-loving uncle just four years his senior, learning at the feet of stalwarts like Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Heath, his resume would eventually include a laundry list of the one-name greats: Dizzy, Sonny, Ella, Herbie, Milt, Wes. Self-taught, self-made, he was blessed with an effortless swing that once inspired Gillespie to say: “Once he sets a groove, whatever it is, you can go to Paris and come back and it’s right there.”
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REAL ESTATE: Stained Glass

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

Real Estate have shared an immersive, first-of-its-kind new music video for “Stained Glass” – the second video to be released from their latest album In Mind, out now on Domino. Directed by Craig Allen, the interactive experience allows fans to color and share their own animated kaleidoscope-like video, creating something unique and experimental. Create your own here: stainedglassvideo.com. 

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SPOLIER ALERT: Look Who’s In The Black Lodge

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

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David Lynch ratcheted up the mind-bending weirdness to 11 last night on the two-hour debut of the long-awaited third season of Twin Peaks: pie, logs, dwarves, dead blue prom queen wrapped in plastic, Dracula, bigfoot, UFOs, Trump and the Saudis in the Black Lodge doing God knows what with some kind of illuminated orb…OK, you caught me, haven’t watched it yet.

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REVIEW: WXPN’s 17th Annual NON-COMMvention

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

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Photos by @HELLERHOUND

On Wednesday of this past week, the all-encompassing humidity and ninety-degree-plus temperatures characteristic of Philadelphia summers interrupted an otherwise pleasant stretch of spring. People trudged through the city as if wading through bathwater; their jaws slack, tongues swollen, threatening to hang out of their mouths like dogs. Betraying conventional wisdom, Philadelphia looked into the sky, directly at the sun, asking WHY? Scientists might have an issue with this line of logic, but I think proponents of notions like synchronicity and collective unconscious like Carl Jung may have agreed that we can attribute the heat wave that hit the city on Wednesday and persisted through Friday to the high concentration of musical talent that came into Philadelphia for WXPN’s 17th annual NON-COMMvention, an industry event for non-commercial radio stations to get together to talk shop and check out a showcase of emerging talent and seasoned veterans kickstarting reunion tours. The NON-COMM attendees came in from all over the country, as did the artists who brought the fucking heat.

A couple months back, I saw the list of about thirty bands and artists who were set to play the showcase and tried to whittle it down to the three I was most into. It was rough. I think my first list was about twenty Gallo-8685deep. I like writing and everything, but reviewing twenty artists seemed like a bit much. This is a music review, not a Thomas Pynchon novel.  But it was hard to ignore bands like Baskery, three Swedish sisters whose act sounds like the Triplets of Bellville doing an impression of The Tallest Man On Earth. But like that D.H. Lawrence quip reminds us, “one must discriminate,” so I whittled as best as I could to the following: Ron Gallo [pictured, right], a Temple U. dropout who slips in Philly references like “The Kensington Strangler” over Jack White-esque screeching electric guitar; The Growlers, who sound like the Strokes went to California, dropped LSD in a Redwood forest, and reemerged with an album; and  Benjamin Booker, who makes frenetic, soulful rock music with New Orleans grit overtones.

I checked out the showcase on Wednesday night, even though none of the acts I’d settled on were playing. It’s not hard to find parking in West Philly, so I grabbed a spot within a five-minutes walk of World Cafe Live. A five-minute walk on Wednesday night, though, was more than enough to work up a soaking-through-the-shirt shvitz. For those of you not acquainted with colorful Yiddish phrases, shvitz means sweat. But this isn’t a language lesson.

Wednesday night I went in with an open mind, looking forward to hearing some music, but more just trying to get a feel for the event. Everyone had on a lanyard that displayed a conference pass with their name and their affiliation. There were four main camps: record-label reps from indie outlets like Saddle Creek, non-commercial radio employees, press, and XPN members. I’d put the median age somewhere around 50. When people bumped into one another, both parties apologized profusely, trying to claim the blame to assuage the possibility of the other’s guilt. The atmosphere reminded me of the co-op in southern Vermont where I used to shop — civility to the nth degree. Definitely not your average concert vibes. When the bands got on stage, though, the tone shifted as the scrutinizing gaze of the record-label and radio industry reps shifted to the artists. The stakes felt high, like the bands were auditioning for radio programmers. Oh right, that’s actually what was happening. Let me rephrase. The stakes were high, as bands sought to attract the attention of radio programmers in hopes of getting some airplay for their new albums. Again, not your average concert vibes.

So, I was wandering around World Cafe Live, alternating between the upstairs and downstairs stages, playing the license plate game with people’s passes, banking states like Washington, Texas, Minnesota, and New Jersey, and seeing what rooms my press pass could get me into, before I found myself wheedling through people packed like sardines in front of the stage upstairs in anticipation of this band called The Districts. I’m pretty confident that World Cafe Live had the AC going, but nothing will ramp up the heat in the room like densely packed bodies. Oh, the smells. I wish I could write a poem for you about the smells. But that’s for another time. I’d heard about this Pennsylvania band, The Districts, who are coming out with an album this summer called Popular Manipulations. I perused a few of their songs online, and they sounded like your run-of-the-mill folk music, lots of acoustic guitar and harmonica. Meh. But, fuck it, I thought, maybe I was missing something that they’d be able to fill me in on through their live show. I have no trouble admitting when I’m wrong, and expletive expletive expletive!, was I wrong about The Districts.

Like I was saying, I had been in La La Land, drifting through World Cafe Live, but The Districts brought me back to earth. The band showcased the rare ability to strike a balance between structure and chaos in rock music. Their sound was tight, but simultaneously sounded like it was exploding. Frontman Rob Grote delivered an unwavering intensity, putting his entire body into his performance with a desperation to express himself that lit a fire on stage. This fire was too hot for some, who trickled out of the venue during the set. But for every person who left, the fire drew another in, like a moth to a flame. The Districts’ performance was an eye-opening call to feel your feels and live your life; a rock band performance like I haven’t seen in awhile, which couldn’t have been further from the effete folk drivel I’d heard online. I left NON-COMM Wednesday night drenched in sweat, but I looked cool and dry compared to Rob Grote, who had to be wet-vac’d off the stage.

After another 95 degree day, and feeling drained from The District’s cathartic performance, I didn’t make it to NON-COMM on Thursday night, which meant that I missed Ron Gallo. After all that whittling, The Districts swooped in like a swarm of termites and fucked it all up. Such is life. What I’ll say about Ron Gallo though, is that If you like afros, the White Stripes, and/or electric guitar, you would be remiss to not check him out.

So Friday night, I went back to check out The Growlers [pictured, below] and Benjamin Booker. Did I mention it was fucking hot? So, I was baffled when The Growlers came on stage and everyone was wearing army canvas button-downs, and frontman Brooks Nielsen was wearing an overcoat. I knew the band was from SoCal, but damn, hot is hot, right? I dug the matching leopard-print collars. But, the outfits were mostly confusing. One of Growlers-8949the guitarists straight-up looked exactly like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting. The bassist looked like a Swedish dude destined for Death Metal who’d been transplanted from Stockholm to Santa Cruz at a crucial moment that led him join a psychedelic surf-rock band. The best of all of it, though, was the guitarist who was standing directly in front of a fan, which blew through his hair throughout the entire set, making him look like he was acting for a glam-metal music video. It was hilarious, but I’m sure he felt like he’d won lottery getting to stand in front of the fan, while the rest of the band sweat bullets under the sweltering stage lights.

Musically, The Growlers’ sound is an extension of Nielsen’s hyper-intentionally modest dance moves. In a style that mirrored his moves, Nielsen’s vocals weaved intentionally through three-electric guitars, a back-bone bass, and a synth. I looked around around and saw just about everyone’s head was bobbing. Unlike The Districts, The Growlers didn’t drive anyone out of the venue with their rhythmically-driven psychedelic funk , but they also didn’t set the stage on fire. Instead, decked out in their coordinated army canvas tour outfits, Nielsen used his mic as a dance prop during instrumental breaks as he placed his other hand on his belly, searching for his internal rhythm to guide his subdued dance moves. Overall, I wasn’t blown away by The Growler’s music. It didn’t force me to feel, like my favorite music does, but it did act as a portal to another time and place. The Growler’s sound, combined with their odd, quasi-coordinated look transported me into a southern California beach-town drug scene like that of the world of Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Inherent Vice.

After the Growlers’ set, I stepped outside for some air. HA! Right, still ninety degrees. There was no escape. I gulped down some “fresh air” full of car fumes and headed back inside for Benjamin Booker. I looked up at the stage and was happy to notice two things. First, the lead guitarist looked like Seth Rogen with an afro, which was cool in its own right, but particularly great after missing out on Ron Gallo’s afro the night before. And second, Benjamin Booker performs with a standard arrangement rock band — a rare thing these days. And damn, they provide the perfect framework for Booker’s gravelly, soul-baring voice, scattered, smothered and covered in Louisiana hot sauce. Sonically connected to the likes of John Mayer and Tom Waits, Benjamin Booker delivers a grittier, bluesier version of Leon Bridges’ music. The intimacy of his raspy vocals draws you in like a friendly stranger putting you up for the night after a long day’s journey on your way to somewhere very far away. – DILLON ALEXANDER

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CINEMA: White Hawk Down

Friday, May 19th, 2017

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THE WALL (2017, directed by Doug Liman, 81 minutes, U.S.)

Buskirk AvatarBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The battlefield on which the new thriller The Wall is set in is boringly familiar, a cliché even: the beige blankness of the desert, the armored U.S. soldiers, the bent and blasted rubble, and the forbidding drone-laden soundtrack with Arab voices chanting overtop. The history of Hollywood’s war films makes for a telling window into public attitudes about national conflicts about our endless wars in the Middle East (if you begin with the Afghanistan invasion of 2001), and the public’s unthinking acceptance of them, have led this century’s war movies to be numbingly immutable. Since at least 2005’s Jarhead, it seems as if war films are always willing to admit to the hypocrisies of our military policy but they are just as readily willing to shrug them off, as if they are as unchangeable as the sunrise. Unashamed patriotism flows, well, unashamedly, and the dutiful soldiers are just guiltless pawns in the game.

As a war film, The Wall pushes back again this formula a bit, giving the soldiers Arab nemesis plenty of time to ask some serious questions of U.S. military policy but it is still, by design, unable to bestow real humanity to the Arab people on the receiving end of our military might. Nevertheless, as a thriller it’s a certifiable humdinger, a gripping little chamber piece about a man trying to stay alive while a sniper picks away at his his cover, shooting it away brick-by-brick.

The set-up is so refreshingly simple it could easily have been whittled down further to a tight little hour-long TV episode. Two soldiers, the Biblically-named Issac and Matthew (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena respectively), are guarding a pipeline after the Iraq War’s announced end. Approaching a pipeline facility, the solders find all the oil workers have been shot dead and before they know it they’re under fire with Matthew quickly down and unresponsive. The rest of the film has Isaac pinned down behind a twenty foot remnant of a wall, with shots firing at his feet whenever he get a clever idea.

Bringing together Bourne Identity-director Doug Liman, a script by Dwain Worrell that was recently on Hollywood’s “Black List” of great unproduced screenplays and the thrilling camerawork by Roman Vasyanov (who did vivid work on the WW2 tank film Fury in 2014) and keeping it to a taut 81 minutes gives the film the smartly-efficient punch of an old 50s B-movie.

But what makes the film most interesting is something we never see. Inside Isaac’s helmet is a built-in headset radio system. The sniper has found its frequency and can communicate back-and forth with Isaac. The sniper’s name is Juba and he’s played by Laith Nakli, a British actor who has specialized in playing ominous men of Middle Eastern descent (he’s in the latest version of the TV series 24 playing, you guessed it, a terrorist). Juba wants to have a conversation with Isaac, who is resistant to letting Juba “get into his head.” But Juba has a lot to say, not all of it easily dismissed. For starters that wall where Isaac has taken cover was once the wall of a school, bombed by U.S. forces. Juba asks why Isaac has come so far to make war in his country. Isaac tunes out these questions and instead concentrates on coming up with a plan to escape this slowly tightening noose.
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REVIEW: HDLSS “False Flag”

Friday, May 19th, 2017

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I was eighteen when I met Far and Wolfy, sitting at a dining room table, surrounded by sprawling potted plants, original paintings of clowns, and framed collages. With a voice somehow both barbed and soothing, Far charmed me with his thoughts on writing, while Wolfy slipped downstairs to the basement where the concrete walls were splattered with paint and poetry, and you couldn’t step a foot in any direction without being within an arm’s reach of an instrument.

The sounds of electric guitar grew in the basement as Wolfy worked the loop pedal, and upstairs, Far told me about how their project, Headless Horseman, was a vehicle for their attempt to cut off their heads and embrace the instinct of their will. Back in 2010, I was probably too green to really ‘get it,’ but I knew it sounded fucking cool. Far led me downstairs where Wolfy stopped the loop, and played me Headless Horseman’s track, “Wavlngth.” My immediate response was just, “woah.” Surf rock meets Animal Collective, I said. Wolfy scoffed, while Far sort of giggled, explaining that they’d gotten the Animal Collective comparisons a lot, much to Wolfy’s chagrin. Just like Animal Collective’s seminal record Feels, “Wavlngth” sounded like I thought my consciousness might, a breathing Jackson Pollock splattered with the binary blood of the internet, woven together by a guitar riff that could’ve been lifted from a Ventures track.

Headless Horseman released a handful of songs, which showcased a wide range of genres that expressed their experience as musicians acting as musical anthropologists, scouring the most desolate and esoteric corners of the internet, all while Far kept his fingers on the pulse of pop music like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Far’s love of pop music was a lot like his favorite snack from back then, sour peach gummies and Cherry Coke.

Now, Far and Wolfy have shed their Headless Horseman moniker in favor of the minimalist, vowel-less, HDLSS. This new name shifts focus away from the folklore association and toward their essential goal in making music, which is to make it a “headless” act of intuition rather than a heady calculation. Their single, “False Flag” presents their collage-reinterpretation sound, heard in their 2010 track “Wavlngth,” but substitutes surf rock for doo wop. The song is a call to stay in touch, or reconnect, with your own truth in a world in which a maelstrom of media attempts to shape the way you see yourself and the world around you. As only a philosopher-poet turned lyricist could, Far morph’s these cerebral sentiments into emotionally provocative lines like, “I’m half awake in my third eye/A grave mistake I normalize.” “False Flag” is a cohesive pop song that draws heavily from doo wop but includes a glitch-heavy bridge that forces the listener to confront the struggle to unify a personal point of view. This single’s been dropped in anticipation of the band’s forthcoming Selections from DUMB, which is scheduled to be released on July 14th via HDLSS Ltd. – DILLON ALEXANDER

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TONITE: Like A Bird On A Wire

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

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PREVIOUSLY: Everybody knows that 2016 was a cruel and unusual year. Intolerably cruel. Everybody knows that war is over and everybody knows the good guys lost. So I am only half-kidding when I ask: How can we possibly be expected to endure the abominable presidency of Donald Trump without David Bowie, Prince or Princess Leia? But I’m dead serious when I say we can’t do this without Leonard Cohen, who died at the ripe old age of 82 on the day before the election. As ever, his timing was impeccable. It goes without saying that he’d seen the future, baby, and it is spray-tanned murder. A few weeks prior to his Leonard_Cohen-2016-You_Want_It_Darker-e1483412666323departure, he’d released You Want It Darker, one part deathbed confessional, one part last will and testament, one part love letter to all he can’t leave behind.

This collection of prayers for the doomed is arguably the most perfect album-length statement in his sacred canon. Like all prime Cohen, it is marked by astonishing verbal acuity and a high-def philosophical clarity that coalesces into a kind of metaphysical calligraphy carved in stone by the Old Testament prophet gravitas of his voice, that patented sepulchral purr that has been getting liberal arts majors laid since at least 1967. He’s never sounded more certain or fearless, or closer to death, so near you can almost hear the Grim Reaper’s Vader-like breath on the back of his leathery neck as he croaks out lines like “I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” “It’s au revoir,” and “I’m ready, Lord.”

Invariably spare and fleeting and surprisingly luminous, the music on You Want It Darker — a midnight jazz lowing in the moonlight, a monastic noir for the ears, and a quick stroll down Boogie Street for old time’s sake — is relentlessly faultless in arrangement, tonality and execution. The recording, overseen by his son Adam, ensures that everything is writ timeless and crystalline as befits the eternal verities he’s been tasked with preserving. History will rank the title track and “Treaty” next to “Bird On A Wire” and “Hallelujah,” a hundred floors above us in the Tower Of Song.

Because the thing about Leonard Cohen is that he was always right, always — even when he turned out to be wrong about, say, Rebecca DeMornay or trusting his manager with his money or his decade-long Zen hermitage atop Mt. Baldy. Because the incontrovertible koanic fact of the matter is that the way to always be right is always admit when you are wrong, acknowledge that was then but this is now. Or as he sings on “It Seemed The Better Way,” it “sounded like the truth, but it’s not the truth today.” Because today nothing is true, and when nothing is true everything is permitted. That is the crack in the center of everything, where the Putin gets in.

Look, nobody should be surprised that The Rapture came and only took Leonard Cohen but that doesn’t make it any less sad and lonesome. While I can’t blame an 82-year-old man with a splintering spine for getting on with the dirty business of dying, I can’t help but feel left behind on an abandoned ship in a darkening sea, still tending the flame of “a million candles burning for the help that never came.” In my prayers, I asked Leonard Cohen “How lonely does it get?” Leonard Cohen hasn’t answered me yet, but I can hear him coughing all night long, a million miles above us in The Great Beyond. – JONATHAN VALANIA

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THE LADY OF THE LOG: Q&A w/ Catherine Coulson

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

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Artowrk by JJUSTINE DEVINE

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally posted on September 28th, 2015. In advance of Sunday night’s long-anticipated reactivation of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, we present this reprise edition.

EDITOR’S NOTE 4/25/16: Just found out the sad and shocking news that Katherine passed away today. In tribute, we present a reprise edition of this very in-depth interview we did with her last October in advance of her talk at the Pennsylvania Academy Of The Arts, which was part of PAFA’s David Lynch retrospective, The Unified Field. She was very generous with her time — this was probably the most in-depth interview she ever did — and flattered that we would devote so much time and space to the discussion of her life and career. As you might expect of the Log Lady, she went through the interview with a fine tooth comb checking facts and sent back two extensive lists of corrections. I know she was very pleased with how it turned out. The resulting interview is a wide-open window onto Katherine’s fascinating life and career. She will be missed. Good night, Miss Coulson, wherever you are.

BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA Catherine Coulson, aka Twin Peaks‘ resident Log Lady, will be giving a sold-out talk at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on Saturday about all things David Lynch, with whom she has collaborated creatively since production commenced on Eraserhead back in 1971. Like everyone else in the cast and crew, from star down to cameraman, she was paid $25 a week. When money ran low — as it often did over the course of the six years it took to complete the film — her weekly salary was halved to $12.50. But true to his word, Lynch cut everyone in on the proceeds when Eraserhead became a cult smash. “Eraserhead helped put my daughter through college,” Coulson told me a few weeks ago when we spoke on the phone. She still gets a check every year. Back in the lean years, Lynch and Coulson brainstormed a character called The Log Girl — kooky, clairvoyant, and always cradling heavy lumber. She would have to wait more than a decade  to bring the character to life as cast member of Twin Peaks. By then, The Log Girl had blossomed into The Log Lady — a role she will be reprising next year when the Twin Peaks franchise reactivates after going dark for 25 years, with Lynch and Mark Frost back at the helm. As you’ve no doubt heard by now, that gum we all like is finally back in style.

DISCUSSED: Doing experimental theater naked in Haight-Ashbury in the Summer Of Love; meeting David Lynch @ The American Film Institute; being assistant director of Eraserhead and earning $12.50 a week for six years; being married to Jack Nance, aka Henry from Eraserhead; doing Jack Nance’s Eraserhead hair style; The Unified Field; The Amputee; Bertolt Brecht; Hamburger Hamlet; Jean Genet; Anne Bancroft; Ellen Burstyn; Mel Brooks; The Elephant Man; Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts; Jack Fisk; Sissy Spacek; why David Lynch always wore three ties while making Eraserhead; the Lady In The Radiator; Bob’s Big Boy; Agent Cooper; Major Briggs; the prevalence of Log Lady tattoos on the internet; Roseanne Barr; Russ Tamblyn; Richard Beymer; Piper Laurie; Mark Frost; Kyle MacLachlan; Fire Walk With Me; the return of Twin Peaks.

PHAWKER: Tell me about your life before David Lynch comes into the picture. Where are you from?EraserteamCROPPED

CATHERINE COULSON: Oh, gee. I don’t even remember life before meeting David. I was a young woman then. I met him at the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills, right after he moved there from Philadelphia. He was a student at the American Film Institute, and he heard about our theater company, which was in San Francisco, where I had been working. I was married to Jack Nance, who went on to play Pete Martell on Twin Peaks, and Henry in Eraserhead. David heard about the two of us in a workshop that we did at the American Film Institute teaching acting to director fellows. He asked Jack to come over and work a little bit on his script for Eraserhead. He cast Jack, and then he asked me if I would be a nurse in Eraserhead. He had a kind of outline. I had graduated from Scripps College in Claremont, California, and then moved to San Francisco for grad school. Met Jack Nance, got married. Came down to Beverly Hills on tour with our theater, and that’s when I met David. I really spent the next four or five years of my life working on Eraserhead, because Jack was playing Henry. I kept waiting to shoot my scene, but by the time we got to it, it seemed like overkill to do the scene where the nurse gives Henry and Mary the baby. I was helping to raise money for the film, by that time. David decided not to shoot it, which I’ll always regret, because it would’ve been fun to be in it. I am in an outtake — which unfortunately, I think is lost — where I’m strapped to a bed tied with battery cables. It’s in the room next door to Henry’s. During this time, working together on the film, we became very good friends and collaborators. I always felt like I was the handmaiden to genius. I did everything from styling Jack’s hair to making grilled sandwiches for the crew. We also made The Amputee, is that in the show, do you know? Have you seen it?

PHAWKER: No, do tell.

CATHERINE COULSON: Oh, OK. It’s an interesting piece,  When the AFI executives wanted to test two kinds of videotape ‘stock’ for use in the students’ projects they asked Fred Elmes to shoot something twice on the two different kinds of tape. (I think they were expecting a color chart or grey scale). David heard about it and he and Fred decided to shoot a scene which David wrote about a woman writing a letter. I played the woman — an amputee — and David played the doctor who tended to her bandaged stumps. We shot it twice on two video tape ‘stocks’ and used voice over only. The short was called The Amputee and when it was screened by the AFI executives for the two video tape companies, I remember one of them saying, “LYNCH. LYNCH HAD SOMETHING TO DO WITH THIS!”

David Lynch & Log LadyI guess they weren’t prepared for blood spurting out of an amputated limb.We just called it a simple little love story, Eraserhead. But it seemed really normal to us, at the time. When people would ask what Eraserhead was about, we would just say it’s a simple love story. So that’s pretty much my history. I was an actor, and I worked for David, and then I went on and worked in film as a result of working on Eraserhead. I did camera work, and then I went back to acting full-time, and that’s what I’m still doing. We’re going do Twin Peaks again, so I’m excited about that.
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TONITE: Epic Soundtracks

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

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JAMIE DAVISBY JAMES M. DAVIS At the birth of the Internet, David Bowie famously remarked that soon music would be like “running water.” Everywhere, inescapable, available at the touch of a button. Any song from the entire history of recorded music, available at your fingertips, on your smartphone, anywhere you go. This is the world we live in now, and for me personally, it’s difficult to remember a time even when hearing a certain song meant having to go out and buy a CD. Farther back still is the time when hearing obscure music meant finding a dusty old record in a yard sale, or paying some incredible sum of money at an auction. But where PBS’s new documentary three-part series American Epics begins is before even then, when those dusty records were brand new. A time when, for vast parts of America, the only way to listen to music was to hear it performed live. Having musical talent made you an asset to your community. The first episode, which airs tonight at 9 pm, opens with the story of the Carter Family, detailing how Sara Carter could draw a crowd just by beginning to sing from her porch. It’s difficult to imagine a world where entertainment was hard to come by, and also to recognize this world as the beginning of our own.

American Epic tells the story of these people, American folk artists who worked so hard on their craft out in the middle of nowhere, only to be scooped up by the beginnings of the record industry. These people were given bus fare so that, for the first time in their lives, they could leave their towns and go to New York, to the 22nd floor of some skyscraper so that electrical engineers in lab coats could record their American-Epicmusic and sell thousands of copies of it. American Epic tries to live entirely in this single moment in history, when the phonograph was just becoming widely used. It’s the moment of discovery, after which what is discovered can never remain the same. Its Schrodinger’s cat writ large. The most heartbreaking example of this is in the final episode, detailing how the Hopi people began to promote their own sacred dances as entertainment for white people. How after hundreds of years of tradition, what had been a central part of the community became a curio, practically overnight.

For anyone interested in the history of American music, American Epic is essential viewing. It removes the sense of old-timey music being the realm of beard scratching intellectuals and reminds us that these people were real, and that at the time their music was marketed and promoted just like popular music today. The way we listen to music now is utterly different, we live in a world of technology and leisure. But we are fundamentally still the same combination of soul and body that we were a hundred years ago, and listening to music from that time, understanding stories from the past, can remind us of that fact.

PART 1 OF PBS’ THREE-PART AMERICAN EPIC DEBUTS TONIGHT @ 9 PM

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Cost of the War in Iraq
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