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CINEMA: This Is America

August 10th, 2018



BLACKKKLANSMAN (Directed by Spike Lee, 135 minutes, USA, 2018)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC BlacKkKlansman is the real-life story of how the first African American police officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan. Starring John David Washington (son of Denzel) as Ron and Adam Driver as his partner, BlacKkKlansman proves to be one of Spike Lee’ most ferocious social commentaries to date cleverly disguised as a hilarious buddy cop movie. Lee uses the very relevant narrative to comment both on the backsliding of race relations in America and how it wasn’t exactly an accident that we got back here in the first place.

Set in the early ‘70s, at the tail end of the Civil Rights movement, the film introduces us to Ron (Washington), an ambitious young rookie who is first tasked with infiltrating the Black Power movement. When he realizes the movement isn’t peopled with the kind of violent radicals his superiors sent him to find and instead encounters a group of embattled minorities struggling for equality he cold calls the Klu Klux Klan after seeing an ad in the paper recruiting new members. Using a phone demeanor that would impress the bosses of the call center in Sorry To Bother You, Ron sets up a meeting with the local chapter of the KKK and uses seasoned Detective Flip Zimmerman (Driver) as the real-life incarnation of his racist caricature. Thanks to Ron’s gift of gab on the phone with David Duke, he quickly moves up the ranks in the KKK and in no time is nominated as chapter president. The investigation begins to attract some unwanted attention when they uncover not only the Klan’s ties to the military, but their plan to impress Duke on his visit to Colorado Springs.

Due in no small part to the daily horrors of the Trump presidency, Lee seems to have recaptured that spark that gave us the kind of scathingly frank commentary coupled with an intimate African American perspective invocative of Do the Right Thing. The director pulls no punches as the film ends with a grim montage illustrating how the KKK’s cycle of racism continues even to this day, ending with the Tiki torch-wielding Nazis descending on Charlottesville. This is the serious message Lee wants to impress on an audience in search of a light buddy cop comedy. Still, BlacKkKlansman is not simply a political statement, it is a funny and thought-provoking film that captures both the ugliness of hate and dogged beauty of the struggle for equality.


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Q&A: Talking Funny w/ SNL’s Melissa Villasenor

August 9th, 2018



mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA Comedian/actress/impressionist extraordinaire Melissa Villasenor was born 30 years ago in Whittier, California. By the age of 12 she was doing impressions of famous people. At the tender age of 15 she did her first stand-up routine at the storied Laugh Factory in Hollywood. By the age of 18 she was a regular at comedy open mic nights around town, often hiding under a hoodie to pass for a dude to get her jokes taken seriously in this sexist world we currently reside in. After years of working the comedy circuit, and an appearance on America’s Got Talent, she landed a job as a performer on SNL in 2016. She has a remarkable gift for impersonating the likes of Owen Wilson, Barbara Walters, Jennifer Lopez, Zooey Deschanel, Gwen Stefani, Lady Gaga, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, to name but a few [see the video at the bottom of this Q&A]. She has applied this skill to voiceover work on Family Guy and Adventure Time. She played a waitress on Barry, SNL alum Bill Hader’s new show about a hitman-turned-actor on HBO, and played herself on Judd Apatow’s Crashing. She will be performing at Punchline Philly August 9th-11th, which is why we got her on the horn last week.

DISCUSSED: Tough Latinon moms, Whittier, California, the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp, Britney Speark, NSYNC, Mandy Moore, tattoos, her drawings, Freud, anxiety dreams, seeing Nickelback 56 times, SNL, being bad at talking dirty and the secret to channeling the voicings, body language and facial tics of famous people.

PHAWKER: You grew up in Whittier, California? What can you tell me about that? You have brothers and sisters or are you an only child?

MELISSA VILLASENOR: I have an older brother and a younger brother and sister who are Villasenor_Gwentwins. I’m the middle child. We’re close in age, they’re my best buds. I come from a Mexican family, we’re very close. Sometimes too close? My parents are very funny, they’re opposites. My mom is a really tough Latino mom. My dad is very sensitive, very jolly and my mom is just brutally honest. Polar opposites, but very fun.

PHAWKER: Is anyone else in your family a performer or comedian?

MELISSA VILLASENOR: Nope, no entertainment folks.

PHAWKER: I was reading you started doing stand-up at age 15, is that correct? Like in clubs?

MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yes. I did the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp summer of my sophomore year. I mostly did impressions. I found that online and thought it was cool because most open mics, you can start at any age really but it’s hard when you’re not 18 yet and you can’t be in the club because they’re serving drinks. I started doing open mics at 18, 19. I was starting to do shows in Hollywood.

PHAWKER: I also read you started doing impersonations and impressions when you were twelve?

MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah, that’s when I started doing a lot of singing impressions.

PHAWKER: What spurred that? You were just mimicking people on the radio or videos or TV or whatever?

MELISSA VILLASENOR: Yeah I was so obsessed with Britney Spears and NSYNC and Mandy Moore and I think that’s the age when you’re just soaking up a lot. I always loved singing, it comes from loving choir and singing and I think just hearing your voice over and over and realizing, ‘oh man I could change my voice.’
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CINEMA: We Are Young

August 8th, 2018



BY MARIAH HALL Bo Burnham didn’t intend to write and direct a movie about eighth graders, it just worked out that way. In the New Yorker, he confessed, “I wanted to talk about anxiety…Anxiety makes me feel like a terrified thirteen year old.” Burnham started out as a YouTube star in 2006 and managed to flip viral video fame into a comedy career. Now he has written and directed his first film, Eighth Grade, about a middle-school girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher). She makes YouTube videos that no one watches, aside from her endearing father, played by Josh Hamilton, signing off with the catchphrase, “Gucci!” The beeping Photobooth countdown becomes a repeated motif signaling moments of self-reflection, as the videos she makes are largely life-coaching tidbits delivered in a stuttering, self-conscious voice that feels improvised. That the actress playing a fourteen-year-old is truly fourteen, and her syntax is halting and littered with pauses in the form of “uh” and “like,” adds to the film’s authenticity.

Eighth Grade captures the reality of the collectively hellish middle school experience without falling into indie film coming-of-age narcissism or functioning as an anti-Internet cautionary tale. Most scenes left me cringing with second hand embarrassment, my breath held through painfully awkward moments. From pining after a popular boy to throwing a half-eaten banana at her hovering single parent, it was the perfect blend of melodrama and relatability. Twenty-first century adolescents are hooked on the glow of their iPhones, headphones rarely unplugged. Social media magnifies every insecurity and savages self-esteem. Kids perform their lives rather than living them, hiding behind a glass screen, striving for the validity of likes and followers. In Kayla’s absence of friends, the scroll of Tumblr posts, refreshed Twitter feed, gifs, Snapchat filters and Buzzfeed quizzes, act as emotionally vacant entertainment to distract her from real life.
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BEING THERE: Rise Against @ Festival Pier

August 6th, 2018



Ben Franklin, in his infinite wisdom, once suggested “Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.” Chicago veteran punk rockers Rise Against brought their Mourning in Amerika tour to Philadelphia on Saturday night determined to spread Franklin’s sage advice. On tour in support of their new and altogether excellent Wolves album, Rise Against are now in their 19th year of melding Thin Lizzy guitar heroics to Bruce Springsteen-ian heartland earnestness.

Saturday night at the Festival Pier, the band performed in front of a gigantic tarp with an vertical blood red and off-white striped flag bookended by silhouettes of a desperate looking man who appears to be about to jump to uncertainty or possibly certain death. Singer Tim McIlrath anchored the middle of the stage clad in all black a la Johnny Cash, slashing out riffs on his bright white Gibson guitar while lead guitarist Zach Blair and tattooed bassist Joe Principe bounded right to left behind him. Only the tippy top of drummer Brandon Barnes head was visible behind his drum kit but he was easily heard keeping time with great vengeance and furious anger at the back of the stage. Throughout their set, the band was strafed by white laser beams of light and stuttering strobe lights.
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August 6th, 2018



THE ATLANTIC: Settling into a sense of safety is hard when your life’s catalog of memories teaches you the opposite lesson. Imagine: You fled from a government militia intent on murdering you; swam across a river with the uncertain hope of sanctuary on the far bank; had the dawning realization that you could never return to your village, because it had been torched; and heard pervasive rumors of former neighbors being raped and enslaved. Imagine that, following all this, you then found yourself in New York City, with travel documents that were unreliable at best.

This is the shared narrative of thousands of emigrants from the West African nation of Mauritania. The country is ruled by Arabs, but these refugees were members of a black subpopulation that speaks its own languages. In 1989, in a fit of nationalism, the Mauritanian government came to consider these differences capital offenses. It arrested, tortured, and violently expelled many black citizens. The country forcibly displaced more than 70,000 of them and rescinded their citizenship. Those who remained behind fared no better. Approximately 43,000 black Mauritanians are now enslaved—by percentage, one of the largest enslaved populations in the world.

After years of rootless wandering—through makeshift camps, through the villages and cities of Senegal—some of the Mauritanian emigrants slowly began arriving in the United States in the late 1990s. They were not yet adept in English, and were unworldly in almost every respect. But serendipity—and the prospect of jobs—soon transplanted their community of roughly 3,000 to Columbus, Ohio, where they clustered mostly in neighborhoods near a long boulevard that bore a fateful name: Refugee Road. It commemorated a moment at the start of the 19th century, when Ohio had extended its arms to accept another influx of strangers, providing tracts of land to Canadians who had expressed sympathy for the American Revolution.

Refugee Road wasn’t paved with gold, but in the early years of this century, it fulfilled the promise of its name. The Mauritanians converted an old grocery store into a cavernous, blue-carpeted mosque. They opened restaurants that served familiar fish and rice dishes, and stores that sold CDs and sodas imported from across Africa.

Over time, as the new arrivals gave birth to American citizens and became fans of the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cleveland Cavaliers, they mentally buried the fact that their presence in America had never been fully sanctioned. When they had arrived in New York, many of them had paid an English-speaking compatriot to fill out their application for asylum. But instead of recording their individual stories in specific detail, the man simply cut and pasted together generic narratives. (It is not uncommon for new arrivals to the United States, desperate and naive, to fall prey to such scams.) A year or two after the refugees arrived in the country, judges reviewed their cases and, noticing the suspicious repetitions, accused a number of them of fraud and ordered them deported.

But those deportation orders never amounted to more than paper pronouncements. Where would Immigration and Customs Enforcement even send them? The Mauritanian government had erased the refugees from its databases and refused to issue them travel documents. It had no interest in taking back the villagers it had so violently removed. So ice let their cases slide. They were required to regularly report to the agency’s local office and to maintain a record of letter-perfect compliance with the law. But as the years passed, the threat of deportation seemed ever less ominous.

Then came the election of Donald Trump. MORE

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August 3rd, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally posted on July 16th, 2012

BY JONATHAN VALANIA Surf music? Dick Dale invented the stuff. Pure mainlined adrenaline, it is. Like a pocketful of white lightning. Nitroglycerin on hot wax. Surely you’ve seen the opening moments of Pulp Fiction. Easily the most thrilling marriage of profanity, felony and surf music in the history of American cinema. Rock guitar? He re-invented it. He is more or less the bridge between Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. He worked closely with Leo Fender — godfather creator of the essential machinery of rock, the Fender guitar and the Fender amp — to advance the power and the scope of the electric guitar. He pioneered the idea of guitar as nitro-burning funny car. He made it a fast machine and louder than it had ever been before. When you are packing out the ballrooms of Southern California with 4,000 kids a night, as Dale routinely did in the early 60s, you’re gonna need a lot of firepower. Before Dick, guitar amps didn’t go to 11. After Dick, they did. Now 81-years-old, Dick’s been rocking’ and rolling for more than 50 years. Nothing — not cancer, not diabetes, not renal failure — can stop him. Long may he rock. Dick Dale plays the Ardmore Music Hall on August 16th, which is why we got him on the horn. Discussed: How to surf, Quentin Tarantino, Gene Krupa, surfing, beating cancer, Leo Fender, John Travolta, surfing, going blind, Egyptian medicine, and the angels of mercy.

PHAWKER: Unlike, say, The Beach Boys, you actually used to surf correct?

DICK DALE: Sun up to sun down.

PHAWKER: What advice would you offer to non-surfers?

DICK DALE: Well, you should certainly get someone who has been surfing a long time to give you tips on what not to do with your board as you’re walking out into the ocean. Many times, some people will put the board down horizontal to their body on the water and the water will come real, real slow, you won’t even see it happen when it happens, and it will push the board upward right into your face. So you should always have the board pointing out towards the ocean, the nose of the board, and you should stand beside it with your hands on the board. When you go out in the water and you’re paddling out, I used to always start out paddling fish style on my stomach and when I was tiring I’d get up on my knees and paddle then go back down on my stomach. You’ve got to be careful sometimes when you’re grabbing the rails of the board when your hands are wet, a lot of the times a person put wax on the board and on the rails there was the wax, and your hands will slip off out into the water and you’ll just smash your face into the board and you could break your cheek or get injured that way. Another thing, I don’t want to take up all your time …

PHAWKER: No. Go ahead.

DICK DALE: When you’re paddling out to the water and the waves are coming at you, one’s going to come over you. Well what I used to do was to lean forward, grab the nose of my board with both hands so that I’m laying on it and I’d roll over and pull the nose down towards my head so that the waves would go right over the top of me and continue rolling as I went through the wave. Some people, they’ll sit forward and they’ll kind of duck their head down and push the nose up but I don’t advise that. I advise them to, if they’re laying down or just kneeling paddling, just grab the nose with both hands, like 10 or 12 inches down from the tip of the nose on each side of the rail, and then just spin over upside down in the water and pull that nose down so that the waves go over you. You don’t want that wave to break on you and slam the board up into your head.

PHAWKER: It sounds like a good way to get knocked unconscious.
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The 10 Thoughts I Had During Radiohead Last Night

August 2nd, 2018



1. As the shadowy members of Radiohead took their places on the darkened stage, the PA played a live recording of some drone-y, vaguely Eastern-sounding trance music that may or may not have been the Master Musicians of Joujouka. The recording ends with a sound bite of local-girl-made-good Nina Simone telling an interviewer: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear.” That, in two words, is the definition of white privilege: no fear. No fear of being beaten, bullied, abused, blackballed or murdered in cold blood live on Facebook by the police for the unspeakable crime of not being white. OK, I will get down from my soapbox now and on with the jokes.

2. When you are guitarist Ed O’Brien, sometimes being in Radiohead means just standing there with your teeth in your mouth watching Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood push buttons and twirl knobs. As with jazz, being in Radiohead is about know what not to play and when not to play it.

3. Their light show is way better than War On Drugs’ light show. To put it another way, if Radiohead’s light show and War On Drugs’ light show ever gets into a West Side Story-style back alley rumble there will be blood. Because when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day. Look it up.

4. In addition to the balletic shafts of pure white light of said light show, there was a giant moon-shaped-pool-looking screen behind the band upon which a flickering cubist montage of band member close-ups danced subliminally, handily solving the eternal riddle of how to make pasty middle-aged Brits pushing buttons and turning knobs visually exciting. Can’t speak for the other 21,000 or so people in attendance last night, but over in Section 113, we were impressed.

5. ‘Idioteque’ is the word that comes to mind when Thom Yorke does his man-bunned dance-like-nobody’s-watching thing even though everybody is watching. On a related note — and I say all this with unconditional love and all due respect for the band’s art and legacy — Yorke is really lucky this Radiohead thing took off because while he may be a genius-level singer/songwriter, as a tambourine player I am sorry to say he couldn’t even get hired by Josie and the Pussy Cats.

6. Jonny Greenwood is like a brunette Brian Jones with better cheekbones in that he has that same mystical ability to pick up just about any instrument and conjure some magic out of it. Which is why he is allowed to comb his hair any way he bloody well pleases.

7. Speaking of which, there is an old Jonny Greenwood joke that goes: When Jonny Greenwood goes to the barber he says, in the Borscht Belt voice of Triumph The Insult Dog, ‘Just a little off the bottom…OF MY NOSE!’ and then they both break into howling laughter that, unnervingly, lasts a few seconds longer than “Stairway To Heaven” start to finish. In the ensuing silence, Jonny and the barber exchange knowing nods and then he exits wordlessly stage left. Hilarity ensues.

8. Phil Selway is a motherfucker on the drums. There is no higher compliment. Then there’s that mysterious nameless second bald guy on percussion who just showed up a couple years ago and never left. Lucky for them, because best I can tell the double-bald headed drummer thing is completely unprecedented in the entire recorded history of rock n’ roll.

9. Colin Greenwood has the roundest eyes in rock n’ roll. Look, I don’t want to get into an argument about this.

10. There is an unconfirmed rumor going around that Paul Thomas Anderson was in town filming both Philly nights of Radiohead’s tour for his next movie. Even though I have this on good authority, I saw no evidence of this from my vantage point in section 113. However, I so very badly want this to be true I am willingly suspending my disbelief for this one. – JONATHAN VALANIA

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FEEDBACK: State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe Responds

August 1st, 2018

PREVIOUSLY: Fear & Loathing In Pennsyltucky


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EXCERPT: Fear & Loathing In Pennsyltucky

July 31st, 2018


Illustration by BRITT SPENCER

PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE: December 5th, 2017, started out as just another low and mildly contemptible day in Harrisburg. But by midmorning, it had metastasized into one that would live in infamy. In the bowels of the State Capitol building, in the midst of an undoubtedly fascinating debate about landlocked easements before the State Government Committee, something both unforgivable and endlessly hilarious happened: Representative Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery County), in a futile effort to stave off interruption long enough to finish his sentence, briefly touched the arm of the man seated next to him, Representative Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County), the committee’s glowering, authoritarian chairman. Although the man-on-man contact lasted less than one second, it sent Metcalfe into a full-blown gay panic and triggered the following cringe-inducing pronouncement:

Look, I’m a heterosexual. I have a wife, I love my wife. I don’t like men, as you might. But stop touching me all the time. It’s like, keep your hands to yourself. Like, if you want to touch somebody, you have people on your side of the aisle that might like it. I don’t.

There were gasps of disbelief as those present checked to make sure they hadn’t been transported back to their fifth-grade lunch line. The committee’s executive director, Kim Hileman, averted her gaze as if from a grisly crime. But on closer inspection — you can watch on YouTube — she was trying not to laugh in the chairman’s face.

It was the tap on the forearm heard round the world. What became known as Touchy-Feelygate made international news and was dissected on late-night talk shows. Neil Patrick Harris explained to America while guest-hosting Jimmy Kimmel Live that homosexuality isn’t contagious: “You don’t turn gay if a gay person touches you; we’re not like zombies.” (Bradford, for the record, is straight, not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

But the rant was hardly out of character for Metcalfe, who for the past 20 years has been holding up the far-right “God, guts and guns” end of the political spectrum in Harrisburg. He’s railed against “fake news” while sounding false alarms about voter fraud and libtard crusades to confiscate guns. On Facebook, he puts quotes around the word “students” when referring to the kids of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. During 10 terms in office, he has successfully opposed multiple versions of a bill that would offer LGBT people the most basic protections from housing and employer discrimination. He thinks mass transit is a taxpayer-funded people-mover for welfare queens. He once invited a white nationalist to testify at an English-only bill hearing.

Since 2010, Metcalfe, who’s 55, has chaired the powerful but dysfunctional House State Government Committee, which reviews legislation that broadly impacts government, such as election law. It’s also where all good Democrat-sponsored — which is to say Philly-friendly — legislation goes to die. That isn’t some anarcho-leftist exaggeration; it’s a statement of fact, one Metcalfe proudly acknowledges. “When [Democrats] oppose us on my committee, they lose every vote and we win every vote! I block all substantive Democrat legislation sent to my committee and advance good Republican legislation!” Metcalfe cackled on Facebook in April. “Liberals continue their lying attacks in an attempt to stop my work in defense of taxpayers and our liberty!”

It would be easy to dismiss Metcalfe as the troll prince of Western Pennsylvania, where he lords over a relatively paltry fiefdom of the roughly 70,000 residents of Pennsylvania’s 12th State House district, a bucolic patchwork of farms and suburbs north of Pittsburgh. But as chairman of State Gov, Metcalfe lords over all 12.8 million Pennsylvanians. And given that he’s been waging a two-decade-long proxy war on the people of Philadelphia through our lawmakers, Chairman Metcalfe is most certainly our problem. Which raises questions: Who the hell is this guy? And how does someone like him keep getting elected? MORE

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BEING THERE: My Bloody Valentine

July 31st, 2018



Last night, The Fillmore was levitating three feet high and rising by shoegaze progenitors My Bloody Valentine. The original MBV line-up is currently touring the US for the first time in five years, and, as last night demonstrated, they are still more than capable of blowing minds and melting faces with thick walls of fuzzy reverse reverb. Openers Heavy Blanket, J Mascis’s new three-piece instrumental stoner-rock band, Heavy Blanket, warmed us up for the ear-blasting volume that lay in store. The band seems like a fun little project for Mascis to solo the entire time with the same power trio configuration as Dinosaur Jr.

When MBV finally walked onto the stage they were dwarfed by their amp speaker stacks. Lead guitarist/vocalist, and My Bloody Valentine mastermind Kevin Shields was plugged into six amps, each pushing a 4×12 cabinet – I kid you not. They had enough gear for five bands, and their sound was just as immense. They began with “I Only Said,” a foreshadowing of the set containing more Loveless songs than anything else – six songs out of the twenty played, to be precise – and nobody was complaining. As Shields and vocalist/guitarist Bilinda Butcher stood there, whammy bars never released from grip in the fabled “glide guitar” fashion, I was in utter stupefaction that I was actually witnessing this miracle of music.

MBV wowed the crowd with two new songs but nobody knows what they’re titled yet, presumably we will find out upon the imminent release of two EPs of new MBV music. The set list was everything the superfans wanted to hear, short of the band playing their entire discography from start to finish. A rear-screen projector flashed a barrage of psychedelic imagery behind the band, but I sometimes preferred to close my eyes and dissociate to the swirling symphony of heavenly noise. On “Wonder 2,” drummer Colm O’ Cíosóig and bassist Debbie Googe strapped on guitars and joined Butcher and Shields to create a glorious, heart-racing sonic racket of pure transcendence. Closing the set, they played “You Made Me Realise,” from the 1988 EP of the same name. Injected into the middle of the song was a seven- or eight-minute wall of mostly unchanging fuzz that cast a meditative high upon the crowd, and undoubtedly the band as well. My Bloody Valentine didn’t come out for an encore, but the crowd had already been satiated to the point of intoxication. – KYLE WEINSTEIN

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ICYMI: Obstruction Junction What’s Your Function?

July 31st, 2018



THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS: Previously undisclosed evidence in the possession of Special Counsel Robert Mueller—including highly confidential White House records and testimony by some of President Trump’s own top aides—provides some of the strongest evidence to date implicating the president of the United States in an obstruction of justice. Several people who have reviewed a portion of this evidence say that, based on what they know, they believe it is now all but inevitable that the special counsel will complete a confidential report presenting evidence that President Trump violated the law. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel’s work, would then decide on turning over that report to Congress for the House of Representatives to consider whether to instigate impeachment proceedings.

The central incident in the case that the president obstructed justice was provided by former FBI Director James B. Comey, who testified that Trump pressed Comey, in a private Oval Office meeting on February 14, 2017, to shut down an FBI criminal investigation of Trump’s former national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Comey has testified the president told him.

In an effort to convince Mueller that President Trump did not obstruct justice, the president’s attorneys have argued that the president could not have broken the law because the president did not know that Flynn was under criminal investigation when he pressured Comey to go easy on Flynn. In a confidential January 29 letter to the special counsel first reported by The New York Times, two of the president’s attorneys, John Dowd (who no longer represents Trump) and Jay Sekulow, maintained that the president did not obstruct justice because, even though Flynn had been questioned by the FBI, Trump believed that the FBI investigation was over, and that Flynn had been told that he’d been cleared.

On its face, this is a counter-intuitive argument—for if Trump believed that Flynn had been cleared and was no longer under investigation, there would have been no reason for the president to lean on Comey to end the FBI’s investigation—telling Comey that Trump hoped that Comey would be able to “see your way clear to letting this go.” Yet Trump’s attorneys have pursued this line of argument with the special counsel because perjury and obstruction cases depend largely on whether a prosecutor can demonstrate the intent and motivation of the person they want to charge. It’s not enough to prove that the person under investigation attempted to impede an ongoing criminal investigation; the statute requires a prosecutor to prove that the person did so with the corrupt intent to protect either himself or someone else from prosecution.

If, therefore, Trump understood the legal jeopardy that Flynn faced, that would demonstrate such intent—and make for a much stronger case for obstruction against the president. Conversely, if Trump believed that Flynn was no longer under criminal investigation, or had been cleared, the president could not have had corrupt intent. But previously undisclosed evidence indicates just the opposite—that President Trump was fully informed that Flynn was the target of prosecutors.

I have learned that a confidential White House memorandum, which is in the special counsel’s possession, explicitly states that when Trump pressured Comey he had just been told by two of his top aides—his then chief of staff Reince Priebus and his White House counsel Don McGahn—that Flynn was under criminal investigation. This memo, the existence of which I first disclosed in December in Foreign Policy, was, as one source described it to me, “a timeline of events [in the White House] leading up to Flynn’s resignation.” It was dated February 15, 2017, and was prepared by McGahn two days after Flynn’s forced resignation and one day after Trump’s meeting with Comey. As I reported, research for the memo was “primarily conducted by John Eisenberg, the deputy counsel to the president and legal adviser to the National Security Council,” who, in turn, was “assisted by James Burnham, another White House counsel staff member.”

During my reporting, I was allowed to read the memo in its entirety, as well as other, underlying White House records quoted in the memo, such as notes and memos written by McGahn and other senior administration officials. My reporting for this story is also based on interviews with a dozen former and current White House officials, attorneys who have interacted with Mueller’s team of investigators, and witnesses questioned by Mueller’s investigators.

In arguing in their January 29 letter that Trump did not obstruct justice, the president’s attorneys Dowd and Sekulow quoted selectively from this same memo, relying only on a few small portions of it. They also asserted that even if Trump knew there had been an FBI investigation of Flynn, Trump believed that Flynn had been cleared. Full review of the memo flatly contradicts this story.

The memo’s own statement that Trump was indeed told that Flynn was under FBI investigation was, in turn, based in part on contemporaneous notes written by Reince Priebus after discussing the matter with the president, as well as McGahn’s recollections to his staff about what he personally had told Trump, according to other records I was able to review. Moreover, people familiar with the matter have told me that both Priebus and McGahn have confirmed in separate interviews with the special counsel that they had told Trump that Flynn was under investigation by the FBI before he met with Comey. MORE

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INCOMING : Tanukichan

July 30th, 2018



San Francisco’s Hannah Van Loon, a.k.a. Tanukichan, has captured the melancholy essence of end-of-the-week not-wanting-to-do-anything on her debut wonderful debut album, Sundays, following on the heels of her 2016 EP, Radiolove. Produced by Chaz Bear (Toro y Moi) at Company Records, the album is rich in moody dream pop tones, and Van Loon’s drowsy falsetto vocals are compellingly reminiscent of Julee Cruise and Bilinda Butcher. But, Sundays is more than just a haze-cradle to lull the listener into deep space; the album’s sonic repertoire ranges from temple-massaging silk to brow-furrowing fuzz. The ten-track, 31-minute album opens with what feels like the July sun beating down through the window onto your helplessly limp Sunday body. Yes, this is the fuzz I mentioned earlier. Just when mirages threaten to plague your vision, the drum beat is introduced, followed by Van Loon’s breathy vocals to cool things down as the hot, bassy fuzz slinks off… for now. A screeching lead guitar, a fuzzy rhythm, and a solid bass come together with layered Van Loon harmonies in a glorious send-off into the rest of the album. Although this first track, “Lazy Love,” is my favorite on the album, the satisfaction-value of the songs following was left unharmed. Sundays is a worthy ode to summer sadness through polarized sunglasses in an endless meadow, and, at the same time, its every blade of grass bears a glistening dewdrop of hope that nostalgic moments are still ever in the making. – KYLE WEINSTEIN


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BEING THERE: Smashing Pumpkins @ Wells Fargo

July 30th, 2018



The Smashing Pumpkins need no introduction, so I will be brief. By Siamese Dream (1993), arguably one of the greatest albums of the ‘90s, The Smashing Pumpkins had become an unstoppable force in the alt-rock firmament. 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, blew fans away once again. Their fourth studio album, Adore (1998), was exactly that: a door – a door into an entirely new nightmare realm of Pumpkins, an intimate shadow dance with lead guitarist/vocalist/prophet Billy Corgan’s goth side. Their next venture, 2000’s Machina/The Machine Of God were the last recordings put out before the big breakup. Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center, fully 64.5 percent of the setlist was comprised of songs from those albums. Yes, I did the math. This emphasis on the classics makes sense, with three-quarters of the original Pumpkins lineup — Corgan, guitarist James Iha, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin — reuniting for The Shiny And Oh So Bright tour.

Saturday night, the Wells Fargo Center faded to black and an enormous screen on the stage displayed a five-or-so-minute animation showcasing archival Pumpkins esoterica, including the ice cream truck from the “Today” music video, Mellon Collie, and other nostalgia to give the audience an idea of the epic trip down memory lane that awaited them. Once the introductory video was over, the two halves of the screen parted like the red sea for Corgan, who stood alone with an acoustic guitar, wearing a strange black and silver half-robe-half-suit thing. He looked like Pinhead sans pins.

Opening the set, Billy stabbed us with “Disarm,” and it was lovely. Then, the full band came out and played “Rocket,” a clever way to blast off into the long journey ahead. The fifth song of the set was a real treat: a worthy cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which was when the on-screen visuals displayed a colorful array of cosmic imagery, and a shiny, hooded silhouette of Billy struck poses and sang atop a fifteen-foot-high bridge in front of the illuminating brilliance of the venue’s monolithic screen. After “Drown” the big screen lit up with a pre-recorded speech by Corgan that was as insufferably pretentious and egotistical as you might expect. His giant face preached about The Smashing Pumpkins being “the dreams you stopped dreaming oh, so long ago. Yes do all colors mixed and marred make up the black, as do all numbers fix up to zero, zed, and null.” If you guessed that the resulting song was “Zero,” then you are correctamundo. But wait – there was an important message at the end of this speech: “So let’s blow out fading embers to boast about things near, forgotten, and buried. Tis the end, tis the end, tis the end.” It was all done in a cringy, melodramatic Shakespeare-meets-Poe manner, but it made one thing very clear: tis the end of The Smashing Pumpkins.

All night long, Jimmy Chamberlin’s drumming was abso-fucking-lutely on point; James Iha and Billy Corgan shared that divine guitar synergy they forged at the dawn of The Pumpkins in ’88; some things never change. After “Zero,” the band went Machina, playing “The Everlasting Gaze,” “Stand Inside Your Love,” and “Thirty-Three,” all in succession. Next up was “Eye,” originally recorded in 1997 for the soundtrack of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. After a song written for a dream-logic film, what would be a more fitting follow-up than the dream-rock classic, “Soma”? This was followed by another on-screen interlude, this one featuring Mark McGrath in Vaudeville attire hyping up the audience. At first, I thought it was a set break and the man on the screen was a cheesy advertisement, but I was wrong, and he soon faded away for the band to play “Blew,” which was followed by the set’s first Adore songs, “For Martha” and “To Sheila,” back to back, with Billy playing piano high atop a 25-foot podium. The two soft pieces were beautifully and appropriately paired, being the closing and opening tracks of the album, respectively.

Next came “Mayonaise,” “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” “Tonight, Tonight,” and – get this – “Stairway to Heaven”! Very well done, might I add. Then came “Cherub Rock”. Then Vaudeville McGrath came back on the screen to introduce the next song, the beloved hit, “1979,” followed by “Ava Adore”. Billy then dedicated “Try, Try, Try” to the City of Brotherly Love. He also expressed how stoked he was to be playing under Doctor J’s swag, pointing up at the famed 76ers player’s banner. He said that, growing up, Doctor J was his favorite player.

“Today,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” and “Muzzle” ended the set, but Philly wasn’t going anywhere without an encore, so The Pumpkins came back out with one of their new songs, “Solara,” during which Chamberlin had to stall with a drum solo as Billy beckoned for a mysterious off-stage figure to make an appearance. That figure remained unknown until the final song, a cover of Betty Noyes’s “Baby Mine.” Yes, another thoughtful addition to the brilliant list of songs, as Billy returned to the stage after a quick disappearance, carrying his very own ear muff’d toddler. In the middle of the song, he put little Augustus Juppiter Corgan down to stand in front of the sea of ogling fans. The little rascal made a break for it as soon as his father’s head was turned, disappearing backstage. – KYLE WEINSTEIN

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