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INCOMING: Bohemian Rhapsody

May 11th, 2018

A Queen biopic with Mr. Robot‘s Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury? We are so there. Opens November 2nd.

BILLBOARD: After a 10-second teaser trailer dropped on Monday (May 14), briefly revealing star Rami Malek in his Mercury get up, the full trailer proved that the Mr. Robot actor was the only choice that made sense. Malek has already earned praise for his uncanny resemblance to Mercury, and the blitz of scenes in which he inhabits the flamboyant rock star in a variety of colorful outfits and through multiple hair eras is evidence that the wait was worth it. The trailer opens with Malek, wearing a fluttering white cape, engaging in the familiar call-and-response with an audience that was one of Queen’s signature live concert staple moves, before cutting to snippets of Malek as Mercury in a gold lame jumpsuit, a black leather outfit and shirtless while wielding the late singer’s iconic half microphone stand as the instantly recognizable strains of “Another One Bites the Dust” kick in. The quick-cut trailer bounces from Mercury’s first meeting with guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to their rise through the ranks while the “Dust” beat is overlaid with snippets of other hits, including “Killer Queen” and the movie’s title track. It peaks with a scene in which May plays the central “Rhapsody” riff in the studio and Mercury informs him from the mixing board “this is where the operatic section comes in,” which cuts to the band huddled around a microphone bringing Mercury unlikely musical vision to fruition. MORE

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SPARKLE HARD: A Stephen Malkmus Documentary

May 11th, 2018


PREVIOUSLY:  I’m driving Stephen Malkmus’ car. In America, that’s tantamount to possessing someone’s soul. But wait, it gets better: I’m listening to Slanted And Enchanted—make that Malkmus’ copy of Slanted And Enchanted—and it sounds great as I tool down the sun-kissed streets of Portland, Ore., with the windows down and the stereo up. There’s a parking ticket flapping beneath the windshield wiper—and it bores me. I look around at all the people, and I just don’t care. Not a care, really, in the world. I am, for a moment, Stephen Malkmus, fortunate son. Listen to me, I’m on the stereo.

Actually, I’m driving Malkmus’ girlfriend’s car. Which you would know is even better if you’ve ever seen his girlfriend. Her name is Heather Larimer, and she’s beautiful and bright and 28. She was a cheerleader and she has a master’s degree in creative writing—a major-league summer babe (AOL Keyword: Babia Majora). By the time you read this, you may have already seen her singing in Malkmus’ new band, the Jicks. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up.

I’m driving Malkmus’ girlfriend’s car because I’ve come to Portland to find out what it means to be Stephen Malkmus (AOL Keyword: Laconic), and the first thing he wants to do is get a friggin’ battery for his car. It’s a 1989 Acura Legend, and it’s been stranded for months in front of his former apartment up in the rich, old-money part of town. Up here, on this faintly Olympian perch where even modest homes list for $300,000, we sit waiting for the AAA guy. Malkmus, the man Courtney Love called “the Grace Kelly of indie rock,” doesn’t want to be interviewed yet, and it isn’t like I know him from Adam; for that matter, after spending three days with him, I will still not really know him from Adam. Aside from a bit of strained small talk, my first half hour or so in the company of one of indie rock’s most acclaimed wordsmiths is spent in silence, watching him clean out his trunk. A soggy copy of an old income-tax form. A Thin Lizzy album. A rumpled suit bag and battered dress shoes, probably last worn to the funeral of his friend Robert Bingham (author of a collection of short stories called Pure Slaughter Value and heir to a publishing fortune). Bingham died from a heroin overdose in the fall of 1999. “I don’t think he was really that into it,” Malkmus will tell me later. “I think he just tried it with this girl … ” The rest of the thought trails off in deference to the privacy of the dead. MORE


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EXCERPT: ‘The Worst Person In Government’

May 10th, 2018


Artwork by DANIEL ADEL

GEORGE WILL: Donald Trump, with his feral cunning, knew. The oleaginous Mike Pence, with his talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness, could, Trump knew, become America’s most repulsive public figure. And Pence, who has reached this pinnacle by dethroning his benefactor, is augmenting the public stock of useful knowledge. Because his is the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party, he clarifies this year’s elections: Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing.

Last June, a Trump Cabinet meeting featured testimonials offered to Dear Leader by his forelock-tugging colleagues. His chief of staff, Reince Priebus, caught the spirit of the worship service by thanking Trump for the “blessing” of being allowed to serve him. The hosannas poured forth from around the table, unredeemed by even a scintilla of insincerity. Priebus was soon deprived of his blessing, as was Tom Price. Before Price’s ecstasy of public service was truncated because of his incontinent enthusiasm for charter flights, he was the secretary of health and human services who at the Cabinet meeting said, “I can’t thank you enough for the privileges you’ve given me.” The vice president chimed in but saved his best riff for a December Cabinet meeting when, as The Post’s Aaron Blake calculated, Pence praised Trump once every 12 seconds for three minutes: “I’m deeply humbled. . . . ” Judging by the number of times Pence announces himself “humbled,” he might seem proud of his humility, but that is impossible because he is conspicuously devout and pride is a sin.

Between those two Cabinet meetings, Pence and his retinue flew to Indiana for the purpose of walking out of an Indianapolis Colts football game, thereby demonstrating that football players kneeling during the national anthem are intolerable to someone of Pence’s refined sense of right and wrong. Which brings us to his Arizona salute last week to Joe Arpaio, who was sheriff of Maricopa County until in 2016 voters wearied of his act.Noting that Arpaio was in his Tempe audience, Pence, oozing unctuousness from every pore, called Arpaio “another favorite,” professed himself “honored” by Arpaio’s presence, and praised him as “a tireless champion of . . . the rule of law.” Arpaio, a grandstanding, camera-chasing bully and darling of the thuggish right, is also a criminal, convicted of contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge’s order to desist from certain illegal law enforcement practices. MORE

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May 9th, 2018

tUnE-yArDs copy

Artwork courtesy of KALTBLUT

BRIAN_HOWARD_BYLINERBY BRIAN HOWARD When tUnE-yArDs, the musical project of Merril Garbus, broke out in 2011 with the mesmerizing album w h o k i l l— a jittery, skronking mash up of acoustic and electronic, funk, soul and Afro-pop—it was a revelation. It felt especially fresh, making all the year-end lists, and topping the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll. But a lot has changed in the world since then, and a white woman from New England playing African beats is received a little differently now. In the intervening years, Garbus has weathered criticism for her liberal cribbing from the Afro-pop songbook she so loves, and on her new, dance-music-inspired album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, addresses many of those issues head-on. In interviews ahead of the release, Garbus has talked a lot about the personal work she’s engaged in, grappling with issues of privilege, appropriation, her own whiteness, and what they mean in her life and in her music. The new record feels very much the work of a person in the depths of some tough self-analysis. For a record with such infectious grooves, the ride gets more than a little bumpy—appropriately, given the odd times we’re living in. Oakland-based Garbus and bandmate Nate Brenner hit Union Transfer on Thursday. We caught up with Garbus and asked her about the right way to pay homage to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, touring through Trump country, how to evolve and dancing at the end of the world. We caught up with Garbus the morning after Game 3 of the Sixers/Miami Heat series. Turns out she’s an NBA fan.

MERRILL GARBUS: Did the 76ers win?

PHAWKER: We did win, yeah!

MERRILL GARBUS: [laughing] Congratulations!

PHAWKER: Thank you! Yeah, Joel Embiid returned to the lineup, so that was very… we’re all really excited about that. We missed him. Are you a basketball fan?

MERRILL GARBUS: I am, yeah. We’ve been watching all that lately.

PHAWKER: Who’s your team?

MERRILL GARBUS: The Warriors. I mean it’s so unlike me not to root for the underdog, but I’ve lived here long enough that, you know, I saw them come up from nothing to champions, so yeah… Still a Warrior’s fan. Nate’s a Pacer’s fan, Indiana, so I’m also a secret Pacers fan.

PHAWKER: There’s an off-key piano note within the first few seconds of “Heart Attack,” the very first song on the new album; that strikes me as significant. That note seems to be saying quite a bit. I w-h-o-k-i-l-lwas hoping you could talk a bit about what it means, both to the record and maybe about life right now.

MERRILL GARBUS: Thank you for noticing that. [laughing] It’s funny ‘cause I think “Heart Attack” was one of those tunes that, in my struggle to understand and to eventually embrace four-on-the-floor dance music, it was a kind of song that I hadn’t written before, and I guess the “wrong note” is the Tune-Yards-y part, the dissonant part. What I don’t appreciate about a lot of other pop music is… there’s no dissonance, there’s a kind of, “Everything is okay. Everything’s rosy in here” [vibe] but everything is not okay. I love when music reflects that. I think that certainly there’s a lot of contemporary pop—specifically hip-hop and R&B music that does have those dissonant moments in it. But, thanks for bringing attention to it, because I think you’re right. We were starting the album with a song that was like the most generic lyrically. It’s the least pointed. It could be about the end of a relationship. It could be about the world. It could be about anything—and I want it to be that way for people. But the dissonant note felt really important so that it wasn’t just a generic candy pop tune.

PHAWKER: On the song “Coast to Coast” you seem to be grappling pretty openly with the divided country we find ourselves in right now. There’s fear in there. There’s what feels like an army marching, and then there’s the line “We let freedom ring, but whose freedom?” There’s a lot of disillusionment in the world right now, and I feel like there’s a bit of that in the song, as well. How do you think we make sure everyone’s freedom rings going forward?

MERRILL GARBUS: Work at it really hard. I was listening to this radio show on climate change last night as I was driving home—you know, driving home, burning fossil fuel—and one of the points that Paul Ehrlich—he’s the author of the 1968 book Population Bomb—suggested was that we actually have to evolve in order to make it, like, we have to evolve into organisms that are not so sight-oriented because we can’t always visually see the danger of climate change. I think we have to evolve to withstand discomfort a lot more. I feel pessimistic about our capacity as humans to evolve on purpose. We might be forced to evolve. We have to work really hard on ourselves and also on our society. I think the optimistic part is that a lot of people have taken that work on—as I’ve heard said around here in activist circles, “Get in where you fit in.” Do the things that feel the most accessible to you and that you’re the most passionate about, and then work on them. And a whole lot more listening. I think we need to be ready to listen to what we might not want to hear.

PHAWKER: On on the song “ABC 123” there’s that line “Sitting in the middle of the sixth extinction.” There are moments in the song NIKKI NACKwhere there’s this sense of the world is burning, so we might as well dance, and other moments where the uplift feels like a rallying cry. I read a story about how you were DJing the night of the election, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about dancing and writing dance music as the world is crumbling.

MERRILL GARBUS: The world is crumbling, to me, from my perspective, but that’s a very limited perspective, an American, Western and white American perspective that we… you know, I’m saying “us,” as if you’re like me, but I don’t know; so I’m going to say “us” as in NPR listeners and climate change believers, scientists. There is this perspective that I just assumed is a monolithic perspective. Something that was really illuminating to me around the election, I was doing a lot of racial justice work and just coming to understand that there are a lot of people who feel like the world has been crumbling for a long time. There are a lot of people who have been dealing with their lives feeling threatened on a daily basis for a very long time. So it opens this window for me that maybe I don’t know everything. I have a really deep belief that it’s healing and joy and pleasure that will give us the tools to be resilient in these times… like, no matter what, we have to keep celebrating what we have; if we don’t celebrate what we have, we’ll take it for granted. If I don’t celebrate life, then I’ll take life for granted.

PHAWKER: There’s a line in “Who Are You?” that really struck a chord with me. It’s that line “Communion is old, but what makes a community whole.” I grew up Catholic, and I stopped practicing the moment I went to college. And now I’m fortysomething with a one-year-old daughter, and even though religion still doesn’t resonate with me, I find myself wistful for the idea of having a place where everyone in the community goes once a week, to see people that you don’t see in your day-to-day life. Is that the idea behind that line? And if so, what do you think is or could be a replacement for that sort of meeting place in a world where there’s a lot of disconnect in our communities?

MERRILL GARBUS: It feels like to me like it’s an opportunity lost in terms of organized religion. There’s not a whole lot of trust in organized religion anymore, at least in many parts of the world. There’s all the blind trust in it for some other people. I’m really wondering about that, because I think I’ve definitely found it somewhat in organizing in activist circles. You know, like I was really glad to take these workshops in the buddhist community about privilege… white privilege and about whiteness and how it separates us.

PHAWKER: So in the songs “Then Is Now” and “Colonizer” and in some others as well, you address the kind of tricky theme of cultural appropriation, which is something you’ve confronted in your own back catalog. W h o k i l l owes quite a bit to African musical traditions, and it’s clearly music that appeals to you. How have you come to confront influence in your songwriting? Do you find yourself editing yourself if you feel like you’re using something that isn’t yours to use?

MERRILL GARBUS: I think it’s a big old question mark. By which I mean, I don’t think there are answers necessarily, but I do think that there are real things to consider. For instance, I asked myself, ‘How can I give credit where credit is due? How can I pass the mic?’ as in, ‘How can I draw attention to people who are not often given opportunities in this world?’, which is really, you know, we are living in white supremacy. It sounds so drastic, I think, sometimes, to say it that way, but it’s just true. So, how do I pass the mic to others who don’t usually get the mic? And then financially, you know, I lifted something from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which felt very karmic somehow, being influenced by Paul Simon and Graceland. The line “Reveal yourself, reveal yourself” on “Private Life,” comes right from their song “King of Kings.” Just tune-yards-i-can-feel-you-creep-into-my-private-life-artworkto credit them and to pay them royalties felt like doing it the right way. That’s the right way. But I feel like cultural appropriation just is. It’s happening all the time. Jack White doesn’t talk a lot about cultural appropriation, but he’s the total cultural appropriator,. And he has his own way of paying homage, but I find him problematic at times, too. I find Justin Timberlake problematic, and I love his music. So, I think we as white musicians, who are influenced by black music, we are problematic. And as with everything having to do with culture and race and society, there’s no real clear or clean answer, but I really do believe that there is intention, and there is being courageous, and there is letting go of our egos enough to admit when we’re wrong, or when we’re causing harm.

PHAWKER: What are some examples ways that you’ve passed the mic?

MERRILL GARBUS: One is this radio show that I do, C.L.A.W., where I get to interview women and play the music of female-identifying producers and rappers. I feel like rap is an art form that has always been exactly that: people taking the mic and expressing their truths, and that was why this particular project was really fulfilling to me. And I would say also in who we choose to amplify, bringing them on the road with us. … An important motivation for me is to create more connections and relationships with musicians who are different than me and are telling different stories than me. Music is this incredible opportunity for that because musicians have music in common, and that can be a real lubricant for some of these really difficult conversations that I think we do need to have.

PHAWKER: I noticed there are a lot of dates on your tour that are in what I guess you would call “red states.” Was that intentional? A little “coastal elite” bubble bursting?

MERRILL GARBUS: No, it wasn’t… I mean we always try to get to as much of the country as we can. So I hadn’t really thought about it that way. But maybe that’s why the ticket sales are so low in Houston [laughs]. Nate’s from Indiana, and I’ve got a lot of family in Kentucky. I’ve always had a complicated attitude towards liberal and conservative, just because of where I come from. I really do believe that the majority of human beings want the same thing. We want peace, and we want shelter. And we want to be fed, and we want safety for our loved ones. Something that we’ve always loved doing, and always tried to do is not just be New York and L.A., even though, absolutely that’s where our largest fans are, on the coasts. We gotta talk to each other, so that means bringing California to Nebraska.


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INCOMING: Electoral Dysfunction

May 8th, 2018



Comedy! Politics! Yelling! All this and more as NYC’s longest running political debate/sketch comedy show comes back to the City of Brotherly Love! New York Daily News columnist Robert George and Philly Weekly contributor Timaree Schmit lead a panel of comedians and experts to dissect the news of the week, Trump, politics, Trump, pop culture, Trump, Kanye and maybe some Trump if we have a free minute. Get tickets HERE.

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May 6th, 2018

This is America
Don’t catch you slippin up
Look at how I’m livin now
Police be trippin now
Yeah, This Is America
Guns in my area
I got the strap
I gotta carry’ em

#ChildishGambino #DonaldGlover

RELATED: Five Things To Know About “This Is America” Video

RELATED: Interview With Director Hiro Murai

THE NEW YORKER:  The Glovers were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They believed that Satan controls life on earth, that only a hundred and forty-four thousand anointed Christians will be saved to Heaven with Jesus, and that we are living out the last days before Armageddon. Stephen Glover said, “We were wised up early to not celebrating our birthdays and that there was no Santa Claus and no magic. Our mom made us watch ‘Mississippi Burning’ when I was six, and she always warned me about wearing saggy pants and said, ‘If someone sucks your penis, come tell me.’ ” Glover said, “I know Mom was doing all that to protect us, but it gave me nightmares. I wouldn’t go into bathrooms alone or eat anything except turkey.”

Beverly Glover forbade all television but PBS—animal shows and slavery documentaries. Donald, Sr., sometimes let the kids watch Bugs Bunny cartoons and Bill Murray movies. Glover would secretly turn the television on with the sound low and tape episodes of “The Simpsons” on his Talkboy recorder so that he and Stephen could listen to them later: archeologists reconstructing the popular culture of their own time.

Glover announced early on that he wanted to attend N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts and then write for “The Simpsons.” That seemed unattainable, but so did most of his desires. When Nintendo 64 Donald_Glover_this-is-americacame out, in 1996, his mother declared it too expensive. Stephen Glover told me, “I said, ‘Oh, well.’ But Donald heard on Radio Disney that they were giving a Nintendo 64 away to the ninetieth caller every day for a week. He listened all week and kept calling in until he gauged the perfect time, and one day he ran upstairs and said, ‘I won it!’ He’s always been able to will what he wants.”

In Glover’s living room, his son, Legend, ran in clutching a plastic giraffe. Glover hugged him and fell backward. “Shoe, Daddy, there!” Legend cried, pointing at his own shoe. “That’s right,” his father said, holding him aloft.

As Legend bustled over to show me the giraffe, Glover said that he thinks of reality as a program and his talent as hacking the code: “I learn fast—I figured out the algorithm.” Grasping the machine’s logic had risks. “When people become depressed and kill themselves, it’s because all they see is the algorithm, the loop,” he said. But it was also exhilarating. When he was ten, he said, “I realized, if I want to be good at P.E., I have to be good at basketball. So I went home and shot baskets in our driveway for six hours, until my mother called me in. The next day, I was good enough that you wouldn’t notice I was bad. And I realized my superpower.” During a lunch break on set one day, in the gym of a Baptist church, I had watched Glover play 21 against five crew members. He made three long jumpers, then began charging the lane to launch Steph Curry-style runners—stylish, ineffective forays facilitated by the crew’s reluctance to play tough D. “It sounds like I’m sucking my own dick—‘Oh, he thinks he’s great at everything,’ ” he said now, leaning forward. “But what if you had that power?” MORE

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INCOMING: Frankie Cosmos

May 5th, 2018

Frankie Cosmos


Frankie Cosmos is the dreamy indie-pop conception of 24 year old Greta Kline. The band name is a nod to Frank O’Hara, whose poetry inspires Kline’s lyrics, and functioned as a stage persona to the limelight-shy singer. Kline fell into the New York DIY scene in high school, playing in a few indie bands, including the synth-pop group Porches, and uploading recordings on Bandcamp. Currently, Frankie Cosmos also includes bassist Alex Bailey, keyboardist Lauren Martin, and drummer Luke Pyenson. The band is preparing to tour the U.S. and Europe this summer after the release of their new album, Vessel, which arrived late March via Sub Pop, the Seattle-based record label that signed Nirvana. Vessel preserves the classic lo-fi quality of 2016’s Next Thing with Kline’s sweetly melancholic voice rising over grainy distortion. The album’s sound is heavier and more concrete than previous work, the songs punky and compact, minimalist storytelling. Still, the album’s brevity doesn’t make it any less impactful, as Kline weaves enchanting narratives of self-reflection, singing of girlhood heartbreak with a gentle, shrugging humor. Her ability to capture the vulnerability of being human with empathetic simplicity gives her music accessibility, as it lacks the ironic bite or self-pitying melodrama of other millennial-aged groups within the indie pop genre. Even with the band’s rising popularity, Frankie Cosmos remains rooted in the independent scene, emblematic of the genre’s self-proclaimed authenticity. – MARIAH HALL


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BEING THERE: King Krule @ The Fillmore

May 3rd, 2018


As the sun set on a Philly swooning with the first blush of spring, lazy fingers of sunlight skimmed bared necks in the evening glow. After downing tap beers at Interstate Drafthouse, me and my posse wandered the grungy back alleys of Fishtown, woozily making our way to the Fillmore to see the King of Krule, indie’s It Boy of the moment. Brooklyn-based jazz/hip-hop ensemble Standing on the Corner was midway through their opening set as we breezed into the twilit showroom. Despite the sultry clime, SOTC’s frontman wore a black parka with the hood up, his rimless glasses flashing under pale shafts of light. He paced the stage restlessly, spitting poetry while his band member kept time on a wine bottle with a drumstick and raked wind chimes with a whimsical air.

The set break felt drawn out and tense, the room humming with nervous energy. The six-piece band that accompanies King Krule took the stage first, tension building until the man of the hour, Archy Ivan Marshall, aka England’s King Krule, stepped onstage to a chorus of frenzied screams. The ginger-haired singer, clad modestly in a beige button-up and billowy tweed trousers, gripped the mic with both hands, his gaze mournful, cheekbones brushed with shadow as he let loose his cadaverous baritone. In the spacey between-song interludes (one of these gaps was filled with the theme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, to much appreciative laughter), Archy was a dark silhouette wreathed in lavender mist, indifferent to the whoops and howls of approval from the exuberant crowd. His manner was withdrawn, between-song banter was marginal and muted, as he motored efficiently through the artfully constructed setlist. The band transitioned fluidly between disparate vibes and tones, pulling from both 6 Feet Beneath The Moon and The Ooz, which dropped last October.

The crowd elbowed and thrashed in a violent mosh pit to heavier songs like “Emergency Blimp” and “Dum Surfer,” while Archy narrated the maelstrom with a disaffected growl, chest heaving as though an invisible hand was wrenching the words from his throat. A saxophonist with a bowl haircut took long, meandering solos over the thrumming bassline. “Baby Blue” was infused with a drowsy euphoria, the audience swaying contentedly, strangers brushing shoulders. For “Biscuit Town,” Archy hunched over a red keyboard, plunking out riffs with a tripping ease. “You’re shallow waters, I’m the deep seabed / And I’m the reason you flow / I got more moons wrapped around my head and Jupiter knows,” he murmured from some watery, sunken depth.

The encore song was the long-awaited “Out Getting Ribs,” the melody hanging suspended, cymbals hushed, words gritty with a tangible hurt. “Girl I’m black and blue / so beaten down for you / well I’m beaten down in bloom,” Archy crooned, voice alien and echoing as if from the end of a long tunnel. “Don’t break away / I waste away.” The song faded, speakers crackling with static, the room plunged into a hungry, empty dark. – MARIAH HALL

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EXCERPT: How The Toxic Partisan Fabulism Of The Swift Boat Veterans For Truth Dragged Us Up A River Of Lies & Into The Heart Of Trump’s Darkness

May 2nd, 2018


Illustration by Ian Moore

THE BAFFLER: As any consultant or press surrogate will tell you, presidential campaigns are in part referendums of character—or at least had been prior to Trump’s ascension. So even in spite of Kerry’s self-inflicted weaknesses as an antiwar candidate, the patrician senator was still well positioned to provoke a deadly contrast between two candidates. After all, without the Iraq war as a defining issue, the 2004 presidential election would likely have been just another battle between two members of America’s landed gentry. Kerry, given the inside track to be the representative of principled opposition to the war, played up his sacrifices, his honorable actions, and his fraternal mien around military veterans. From this secure ground, it should have been no great trick to portray Bush as a rich wastrel who had absconded from similar duty (going missing for long stretches of his National Guard deployment in Texas) and then run a new generation of soldiers into hopeless overseas entanglements through his sheer and painfully self-evident lack of competence.

It seems pretty clear that the forces supporting President Bush knew all too well such a comparison could prove to be fatal. That’s because, rather than attack Kerry at the ripest points of contradiction Kerry Vietnamthat were already on offer, they opted instead to libel him.

The Drunken Boat

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth announced themselves with a letter dated May 4, 2004, less than two months after Kerry had locked up enough primary votes to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and three days after U.S. forces pulled out of Fallujah, leaving it in the care of a CIA-backed Sunni security force. At this point, it was starting to become clear that opposition to the U.S. occupation in Iraq was not simply a rearguard action on the part of the erstwhile loyalists of the Hussein regime; it was a mass insurgency led by those whose hearts and minds the United States was failing to win. (Thomas Ricks, in his book Fiasco, would record a wan assessment of the first battle of Fallujah from a Marine officer named Jonathan Keilar: “The Battle of Fallujah was not a defeat, but we cannot afford many more victories like it.”)

It was a time of bad news from Iraq and the downward-trending opinion polls on Bush and the war, and the Swift Boaters stepped forward with the first great fake news initiative of the new American century. Their letter painted Kerry as a thoroughgoing fraud. Insisting that many of the signatories were “men who served directly with [Kerry] during [his] four month tour,” the signers accused Kerry of “grossly and knowingly” distorting the “conduct” of his fellow soldiers, hiding “material facts as to [his] own conduct” during the war, and acting “without regard for the danger [his] actions caused [the signatories].”Swift boat vet ad

The letter continued:

We believe you continue this conduct today, albeit by changing from an anti-war to a “war hero” status. You now seek to clad yourself in the very medals that you disdainfully threw away in the early years of your political career. In the process, we believe you continue a deception as to your own conduct through such tactics as the disclosure of only carefully screened portions of your military records. Both then and now, we have concluded that you have deceived the public, and in the process have betrayed honorable men, to further your personal political goals.

“Senator Kerry, we were there,” they wrote, reaching a crescendo. “We know the truth.”

But were they, and did they? Of the more than 250 people whose names were affixed to the letter, only one—Steven Gardner—had spent time as a member of Kerry’s Swift boat crew. In one of the group’s television advertisements, Gardner claimed to have “spent more time on [Kerry’s] boat than any other crew member” and for good measure contended that Kerry had lied about being on a “secret mission” in Cambodia during the Christmas of 1968. But records showed that Gardner had only spent a month and a half with Kerry, less than many other soldiers. Furthermore, Kerry had never characterized his excursion in Cambodia as a “secret mission,” and while Kerry later admitted the actual trip across the border occurred within the SwiftVetsSet-1x2first few months of 1969, his presence near the border of Cambodia that Christmas season was backed up by both military reports as well as in Douglas Brinkley’s 2004 book on Kerry’s wartime record, Tour of Duty.

Unfit to Remember

It turned out that the Swift Boat letter was full of such rank distortions and untruths. Despite the signers’ righteous “we were there” claims, most simply were not. Former Swift Boat partisan Alfred French, for instance, later admitted that he had no firsthand knowledge of events that he’d claimed to have witnessed in a sworn affidavit. And some of the Swift Boaters who had been Kerry’s contemporaries were not at all ill-disposed toward him. Grant Hibbard, a division commander who’d signed the letter, was the author of positive evaluations of Kerry. Another signatory, George Elliot, had submitted Kerry for a Bronze Star.

Of the more than 250 people whose names were affixed to the letter, only one—Steven Gardner—had spent time as a member of Kerry’s Swift Boat crew.

John Kerry Decorated

John O’Neill, a SBVT founder who coauthored the group’s book-length campaign-season broadside, Unfit for Command, with Jerome Corsi, drew criticism from several interview subjects who contended that he’d distorted their reminiscences into stump-style attacks on Kerry’s character and pointedly edited out their favorable accounts of Kerry’s wartime service. Such omissions were especially telling, they argued, since O’Neill had no firsthand experience with Kerry in Vietnam and had in fact only served on a Swift boat after Kerry had finished his tour of duty.

Throughout it all, those among Kerry’s “band of brothers” defended him against the charges, joined in that cause by Kerry’s Senate colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain, who referred to the SBVT’s attacks as “dishonest and dishonorable.” (Four years later, he’d end up welcoming their donations to his own presidential campaign.) The Associated Press reported that even some of the men Kerry had fought against in Vietnam were perplexed by the accusations. (“I think it’s just American politics,” one former Viet Cong fighter archly and accurately noted.) MORE

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EXCERPT: Thinker, Sailor, Author, Spy

May 1st, 2018

Nance Painting 0

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt of a profile of Philly’s own Malcolm Nance, a Naval Intelligence vet turned national security analyst for MSNBC, that I wrote for the current issue of Philadelphia Magazine.

PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE: Back when Malcolm Nance was in high school and it all got to be too much — the intense academic workload he brought upon himself, the gnawing anxiety about the uncertainty of the future, the big-ass shoes he had to fill as a Nance —  he had a favorite place to go to chill, focus and get his head on straight: Independence Square. To him, it was hallowed ground, the cradle of democracy. He would sit on a bench in silence for hours, savoring the peace and quietude, and stare up at the statue of Commodore John Barry, aka The Father of the American Navy, pointing the way.

He would contemplate the idea of America: that all men were created equal — no matter your color or creed or religious beliefs, or lack thereof — and born free; that we all Malcom-Iraq-M92came from somewhere else and all men were innocent until proven guilty; that every man and woman had a voice that was heard at the ballot box when it came to choosing our leaders and the way forward; and all the men and women that made the ultimate sacrifice over the last two and a half centuries to give that idea a chance to grow in the light and protect it from all enemies foreign and domestic. That we, as a nation, hold these truths to be self-evident and inviolable.

As a grown-ass man, when it all gets to be too much — his wife’s stage 4 cancer, the persistent death threats against his family, the deeply troubling suspicion that in a moment of weakness a foreign enemy has seized power in this country under cover of the darkness and chaos they have sown — he still goes to Independence Square to recharge his batteries and get his head back on straight, to separate what matters from what doesn’t.

“The very fact that I was born and raised in Philadelphia, where I was taught how this nation was born down at Fifth and Chestnut makes me, and all Philadelphians, uniquely qualified to feel aggrieved at the present state the country is in,” says Nance. “The great struggle in America today is not between the Eagles and the Patriots but the struggle to keep safe the values, ideas and traditions established in the heart of this very city. Across the street in Washington Square, there is a statue of George Washington, father our country, guarding the graves of dead soldiers, both black and white, with the inscription ‘Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.’ That was my career, I worked in darkness to protect that light.” MORE

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April 30th, 2018


GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER DIRECTOR OF THE CIA & THE NSA: These are truly uncharted waters for the country. We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself. In this post-truth world, intelligence agencies are in the bunker with some unlikely mates: journalism, academia, the courts, law enforcement and science — all of which, like intelligence gathering, are evidence-based. Intelligence shares a broader duty with these other truth-tellers to preserve the commitment and ability of our society to base important decisions on our best judgment of what constitutes objective reality. The historian Timothy Snyder stresses the importance of reality and truth in his cautionary pamphlet, “On Tyranny.” “To abandon facts,” he writes, “is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so.” He then chillingly observes, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” MORE

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THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH: Q&A w/ Gen. Michael Hayden, Ex-Director of The NSA & The CIA

April 30th, 2018



EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally posted on March 14th, 2016

BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA The irony of people like me having to, by law, inform General Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA and NSA, that I was recording our phone conversation may have been long ago lost its amusing resonance for the general, but not for me. Given his faintly Bond villain mein — the fleshy Blofeld-ian dome, the piercing blue-eyed X-ray stare, the indomitable ramrod straight, four-star posture during appearances on cable news and at congressional hearings — and status as the architect of the omnivorous all-seeing/all-hearing God-eye of the post-9/11 American surveillance state, it’s not entirely surprising that General Hayden came to be seen as the dark Lord of the NSA Sith by the Snowdenistas, not to mention many in the nat-sec wing of the Fourth Estate.

However, it is an image that is at odds with the sunny disposition and candor of the man I spoke with on the phone last week. That goes double for the author of Playing To The Edge: American Intelligence In The Age Of Terror, Hayden’s just-published folksy-toned memoir detailing his tenure as the keeper of America’s deepest and darkest secrets and absolving himself of any violence that may or may not have been done to the fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution in the wake 9/11. The takeaway? I’m not evil, I’m just drawn that way by the Edward Snowdens and Glenn Greenwalds of the world. In his defense, Hayden bookPlaying To The Edge offers plausible, albeit self-serving, explanations for the necessity of his means and methods for data mining the darkest recesses of the of 21st Century digital communications matrix as well as the darkest recesses of the souls of the terror suspects he had rendered to secret prisons for so-called “enhanced interrogations” during his tenure as director of the NSA from 1999 to 2005 and director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009.

Although Osama bin Laden enjoyed Public Enemy Of The State Number One status for the decade spanning the fall of the Twin Towers and his assassination by Seal Team 6 in 2011, it was Edward Snowden who proved to be Hayden’s greatest, albeit ex post facto, nemesis — or more accurately Hayden’s legacy’s greatest nemesis. And his thinly-veiled rage at and contempt for Snowden in the wake of the former Booz-Allen contractor’s game-changing 2013 data dump of the NSA’s crown jewels into the hands of journalists was both palpable and constant on cable news ever since. But lately, in conversation as well as a surprising number of passages of the book, one senses that Hayden’s thinking about the balance between privacy and security has “evolved,” as they like to say inside the Beltway, in the intervening years. While he still condemns Snowden’s actions as destructive and treasonous, he now concedes that Snowden was a harbinger of the citizenry’s long pent-up demand for greater transparency and accountability in surveillance matters and a re-calibration of the balance between public safety and individual privacy. It is a conversation that is both necessary and a long time coming, he says, but we could have had it without blasting a huge hole in the side of the secrets factory. His detractors counter that if you believe that they have some Pentagon Papers to sell you. It will be years before history renders a final verdict, in the mean time, enter this Q&A with General Hayden, who will discuss his new book tonight at the Free Library, into the public record. DISCUSSED: Benjamin Franklin, Edward Snowden, essential liberty, temporary security, the exact parameters of PRISM and Stellar Wind, transparency vs. translucency, Apple vs the FBI, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Nixon, Trump, GCHQ. Dmitry Medvedev, James Clapper, Michael Chertoff, the Chertoff Group, Eisenhower, the military industrial complex, and the darkness looming on the event horizon.

PHAWKER: Benjamin Franklin famously said that, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” True or false?

GENERAL HAYDEN: True, but Franklin is very careful with his language. Essential liberties for temporary safeties. I think he implicitly understood that these are tough questions that have to be decided. My view is that they are decided based on the totality of circumstances in which you find yourselves. We are balancing things that are virtues — privacy on the one hand and security on the other. Liberty on one and safety on the other. Over time, where that line is, we have to make adjustments for. I’ve said at a conference in British Columbia that, privacy is the line that we continuously negotiate for ourselves as unique creatures of God and ourselves as social animals, with social community responsibilities. Hayden bookIt’s not surprising that it’s hard. Some things are easy because they are always wrong and some things are easy because they are always right, most things are in between.

PHAWKER: There is a lot of confusion at the moment as to what exactly the NSA is or isn’t doing. I think a lot of Americans are under the impression that the NSA is Hoovering up all of the digital data that’s flowing across America in the course of the day – phone calls, web traffic, emails, etc. Could I ask you to clarify, without violating classified information, what exactly the current parameters of the Stellar Wind and the PRISM programs as they apply to the United States?

GENERAL HAYDEN: Sure, NSA does not have the authority to target what we call protected communications. That would be the communications of US citizens anywhere in the world along with people inside the United States. The only way they can be targeted is through a court order after determining that the target is the agent of a foreign power. Now, that gets hard to explain because there’s the whole taxonomy of words like ‘inadvertent collection’ or ‘incidental collection.’ So there’s no denying that communications to or from Americans gets swept up by NSA, but they are not targeted. If NSA is ever given the chance to explain how it does each of those processes, I think that most reasonable people would say that, “Well I get it. That’s about the only way you can do your vision.” And so, frankly, as far as I’m concerned, within some operational limits, the more transparency, the better, because I’m pretty comfortable that most Americans would agree what we’re doing is fine.

PHAWKER: That brings me my next question, you make a distinction in the book between transparency and translucency as it applies to what you’ve just detailed. Can you clarify that for the sake of our readers?

GENERAL HAYDEN: Yeah, I use the word “transparency” because it’s a facile word and it rolls off of the tongue. But I said that at Aspen a year ago and a good friend, Mike Leiter, who used to run the National Counterterrorism Center, corrected me and said, “Mike, I get your point, but what you really mean is translucency, not transparency. If something is transparent, you are able to learn the intimate details.” Mike Leiter’s point was translucency allows you to see the broad shapes and the broad movements. You see enough to be comfortable with what is going on, but you don’t reveal so much that your adversaries also learn what you are doing. It isn’t worth doing anymore if they know it. I think it’s actually a very useful word in describing where we need to be when it comes to these kind of things.

PHAWKER: I wanted to ask about where you come down on the FBI vs. Apple debate.

GENERAL HAYDEN: I come down on the side of Apple, which may or may not surprise you.

PHAWKER: Yes, it does.
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CINEMA: The End Of The World As We Know It

April 27th, 2018


AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (Dir. by Anthony & Joe Russo, 149 min., USA, 2018)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC More than a decade in the making, Avengers: Infinity War is Marvel Studios most ambitious story to date, bringing together the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to take on its greatest threat, the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), in an apocalyptic fight to the finish. First glimpsed in the post-credit stinger at the end of the first Avengers film and remaining just outside the periphery of our heroes over the course of Phase 2 and Phase 3, the coming of Thanos promises the biggest shakeup to the MCU since the Russo Brothers’ Marvel debut Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Given that the contracts of most of the Marvel roster (Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, and Jeremy Renner) expire at the end of Phase Three, it looks like Marvel president Kevin Feige is unleashing Thanos to wreak havoc on the MCU and clean house for the top-secret Phase 4. Fittingly, the job of directing the franchise-ending installment of the saga falls to the Russo Brothers, who have picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Whedon and turned in some of the MCU’s more complex and darkest entries to date.

Getting into comics as a kid in the 90s, Thanos was easily my favorite big baddie. Born an Eternal (essentially a demigod) the hideously disfigured Titan was born of the Deviants gene, making him a pure nihilist obsessed with death. The film makes a subtle change to the character while retaining his endgame, imbuing his genocidal crusade with a strange, almost conservationist slant. After witnessing the death of his own planet due to overpopulation Thanos hopes to collect the Infinity Stones to restore “balance” to the universe – by killing off half of the of its population. The only thing standing in his way is not only Earth’s mightiest heroes The Avengers, but also the Guardians of the Galaxy. The film’s narrative forks early on as the Children of Thanos, otherwise known as the Black Order, are sent to Earth to gather the Infinity Stones in the Avengers’ possession, while Thanos and his daughter Gamora search for the few still at large in the galaxy. This back and forth delivers the epic team ups and reunions fans would probably expect, as our earth-bound heroes make their last stand in Wakanda in a desperate attempt to protect Vision.
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Via BuzzFeed