I’m in Rio, but I’ve left you with a few reviews.
1) Michael Bloomfield Box Set
Remember when I recommended There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream by the jazz pianist with the PhD in American studies Ben Sidran—(I'll bet he doesn't support BDS)—well I want to recommend it again, a) because it's great, and b) because it tells the story of the musical friendship between Michael Bloomfield and Barry Goldberg. This story was retold in the documentary I reviewed last summer, Born in Chicago, which I hope has since seen wider release.
Why am I saying all this again?
Because SONY Legacy has released a beautiful box set devoted to Bloomfield’s career. Perhaps you’ve never heard of Mike Bloomfield. You’re not alone. Here are a few quotes:
“The first time I saw Michael play guitar…it literally changed my life enough for me to say, ‘this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’” - Carlos Santana
“Best guitar player I ever heard.” - Bob Dylan
“The future of rock guitar was in ‘East-West.’ At one point or another you’re hearing what would become the Grateful Dead, Santana, the Allman Brothers, Crazy Horse, Television and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.” - Dave Alvin
"Mike Bloomfield is music on two legs." - Eric Clapton
The box is titled “From His Head To His Heart To His Hands. It’s a 3CD/1DVD set anthology produced and curated by Al Kooper (who played with Mike Bloomfield on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited sessions in 1965 and the Super Session album in 1968). It’s a nearly perfect artifact, containing everything anyone ever heard from Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag, tracks with Muddy Waters and Janis Joplin, Highway 61 band outtakes, and much much more. Among them: Bloomfield's first demos for John Hammond Sr. in 1964 and his final public performance, and a track from the 1980 Bob Dylan concert in San Francisco where Dylan introduces him in what would be one of his final appearances anywhere.
Directed by Bob Sarles, Sweet Blues: A Film about Michael Bloomfield combines vintage audio interviews and live performance footage of Bloomfield with newly lensed reflections on the artist from the guitarist's friends and fellow musicians. It’s a heartbreaking story but a profoundly important one for the history of both rock and the blues and I, for one, am grateful to Kooper and company for telling it in so complete and sensitive a fashion. You also get a 40-page booklet with lots of photos extensive liner notes by musician and lifelong Bloomfield fan Michael Simmons.
Who, after all this enthusiasm, is Mike Bloomfield, you ask. Here’s a short bio from the people at Legacy:
Born in Chicago in 1943, Mike Bloomfield learned blues guitar as a teenager hanging out in the clubs of the South Side, where he "played with every living musician who played electric blues" in real time with masters like B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Big Joe Williams and many more) from 1959 into the early 1960s.
A blues artist, Bloomfield was a prodigy who assimilated jazz and world musics into his fluid improvisations. As a final cog in the wheel of the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band, one of rock's first interracial bands and one of the blue's first experimental ensembles, Bloomfield helped open new vistas of cultural and musical possibilities in 1965-66.
Bloomfield, who'd been signed in 1964 by legendary A&R man John Hammond Sr., was called into duty as a session guitarist for Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album. The results, particularly the single "Like A Rolling Stone," took rock radio in a whole new direction while Mike Bloomfield went to work on the Butterfield Band's psychedelic blues masterpiece, East-West (1966), a landmark recording combining elements of blues, jazz, psychedelia, Eastern music and more.
Bloomfield founded The Electric Flag, an experimental soul band fronted by horns and humming with high energy, in 1968. That same year, he sat in for the Grape Jam disc in Moby Grape's sophomore double album and collaborated with Al Kooper on the platinum-selling Super Session LP.
From 1968-69, Bloomfield would continue to release innovative, guitar-heavy works, including his debut solo album It’s Not Killing Me and My Labors with Electric Flag member Nick Gravenites. His career was later highlighted by session work including Muddy Waters’ Fathers And Sons and Janis Joplin’s solo debut I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! As well as recorded sit-ins with Woody Herman and Tracy Nelson.
If any of the above appeals to you, I promise you will be glad you got this set. It deserves any and all of the awards for which it is even remotely eligible.
2) Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin box sets
Rhino has put together two extremely decently priced four-CD collections you might need if your collection is light on either one: Otis Redding, The King Of Soul, and Aretha Franklin, The Queen Of Soul. The former coincides with the 50th anniversary of Redding s first album, Pain In My Heart, which helped define the Stax/Memphis sound. This box set has ninety-two songs he sang before that fatal 1967 plane crash on the heels of his biggest hit, “Dock of the Bay.” There isn't anything special in this set, except of course endless, affordable, great music.
Ditto with The Queen Of Soul, which celebrates Aretha’s best years: those at Atlantic Records between 1967 and 1976. It’s got eighty-seven songs arranged chronologically, covering the albums I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Aretha Arrives, Lady Soul, Aretha Now, and Soul 69. And yes, it’s got "The Weight" with Duane Allman on slide, along with "Spirit in the Dark" from Aretha Live at the Fillmore West (1971). You also get some Amazing Grace (1972). And like the Otis, it’s cheap. Go to it.
3) Two new/old Dead releases
Two new/old Dead shows have also been released recently. Dave's Picks, Volume 9, features the complete show from May 14, 1974 at Adams' Field House at the University of Montana in Missoula. It's pretty great—especially the "Scarlet Begonias" and the twenty-two-minute "Playing in the Band," but it's also sold out at Deadnet so you better sign up for future releases or explect to pay a lot of money on Amazon.com. Fret not, however, my friends at Real Gone Music are continuing their re-release of the Dick's Picks series with Number 20: 9/25/76 (Capital Center, Landover, MD) and 9/28/76 (Onondaga County War Memorial, Syracuse, NY). Two songs short of two complete shows—and those two songs, "Bertha" and "It's All Over Now," were played at both shows, so they appear on the set at least once—the collection boasts five hours-plus of music in 1976 following Mickey Hart's return after a twenty month absence.
4) Bernard Malamud and Susan Sontag Library of America collections
Library of America has graced us with two volumes—nearly 1,800 pages in all—of Bernard Malamud's novels and stories of the 1940s and 1950s (volume 1,800 pages) and of the 1960s (volume 2,992 pages).
So Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) is one of the big four (Singer, Bellow, Roth) and in some ways, the most influential, if only for his influence on the latter two. He is the last of them to be so honored but if you are unfamiiar, well, now is the time. He is best known to real Americans for his first novel, The Natural (1952). It’s perhaps the great American Baseball novel, but it is a pretty odd duck in the Malamud oeuvre as it’s Jew-less. Beginning with the The Assistant (1957), Malamud’s grocer’s family and the mysterious drifter who comes to rob, and then to work at, his store, created a kind of template for the rest, perhaps the most famous of which is The Magic Barrel, a deep fable about a rabbinical student and the matchmaker who leads him to an utterly unexpected bride.
In the 1960s—volume 2—I am looking forward to A New Life (1961), “a satiric campus novel set in the Pacific Northwest (based on the author’s experiences at Oregon State), in which native New Yorker Seymour Levin finds himself confronted not only with a new landscape but with erotic intrigue, university politics, and an appointment that isn’t quite what he had expected it to be.” The Fixer (1966), lately in the news, is the blood-libel story retold and Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (1969) follows the comic misadventures, sexual and otherwise, of a failed American painter in Italy. I read that one thirty years ago. Volume 2 also has the brilliant “The Jewbird,” And I’ve only scratched the surface.
LOA has also released Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s.
I have mixed feelings both about many of Susan’s works as well as her making it into the canon, so to speak. It contains Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will (1969), On Photography (1977), and Illness as Metaphor (1978), with six previously uncollected essays including studies of William S. Burroughs and the painter Francis Bacon and a series of reflections on beauty, aging and the emerging feminist movement.
Ted Cruz is Trolling Congress; It’s Time the Media Calls Him On It
by Reed Richardson
In the accountability-free zone that passes for Sunday morning news shows, it takes a lot for a politician to generate any kind of pushback from their intellectually malleable hosts. So, it passes as noteworthy when Bob Schieffer, host of CBS News’ Face the Nation, recently followed up on a ridiculously false statement by one of his show’s guests, Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
BOB SCHIEFFER: All right, lemme—lemme go back to one thing and—the question I asked you was, "Would you ever conceive of threatening to shut down the government again?"
SEN. TED CRUZ: Well, as I said, I didn't threaten to shut down the government the last time. I don't think we should ever shut down the government. I repeatedly voted—
BOB SCHIEFFER: Well—
SEN. TED CRUZ: —to fund the federal government.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Senator—
BOB SCHIEFFER: —if you didn't threaten to shut down the government, who was it that did? I mean, but we'll go on—
Not exactly withering cross-examination, to be sure. But what even the transcript of the absurd exchange doesn’t fully capture, though this video clip does, is Schieffer’s astonishment—to the point of outright amusement—at Cruz’s brazen embrace of an obvious lie. The clubby world of DC punditry depends upon an unspoken agreement of plausible deniability between both pundits and politicians. So when one of the latter so clearly and consistently leaps off the cliff of reality, members of the former who try to stick with the equivocating, “both sides” script risk being taken down as well. That someone like Schieffer could be reduced to near giggles by Cruz’s duplicitousness symbolizes how timid and soft the Washington press corps has grown. And it reveals how ill-prepared the media is to deal with someone like Cruz, whose shtick is naked, intellectual dishonesty.
Put more simply, Cruz is little more than a Congressional troll. Since his election fifteen months ago, he has embarked upon a non-stop campaign of willful antagonism, privileged contrarianism, and unabashed self-aggrandizement. Trolls peddle phony outrage and crave undeserved attention and, not coincidentally, Cruz’s political toolkit contains just two elements: monkey wrenches and soapboxes.
As just one among 100 in the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” Cruz tends to get written off by the press as merely a colorful, mostly harmless crank. The Senate’s precarious legislative process and the House’s deep polarization, however, means Cruz’s disingenuous obstructionism makes an already dysfunctional Congress even more unpredictably combustible. All last summer, he ran a traveling political medicine show for the FEMA-camps-and-Benghazi-conspiracy crowd, touting the potential for repealing Obamacare as part of the impending government budget showdown. Though his trolling was an obvious fundraising and publicity stunt with zero chance of success, Republicans in Congress went along with his no-win scenario, taking the whole of the federal government down with his party in October.
In the past week, Cruz pulled two more variations on this same reckless behavior. While Senate Republican leaders had already accepted the necessity of passing a clean debt limit bill and were willing to let Democrats approve it with a simple majority, Cruz nearly blew up the process by threatening a filibuster at the last minute. Facing yet another publicity disaster, not to mention risking the full faith and credit of the nation’s financial system yet again, twelve GOP Senators reluctantly voted for passage. And while disaster was temporarily avoided in that case, Cruz likely killed off the House’s numerical advantage on immigration reform when he unexpectedly stuck the incendiary “amnesty” label on Speaker Boehner’s broad principles for reform last week.
Of course, no one should shed tears for folks like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell when they have to publicly confront the embarrassment of the GOP’s slouching towards Bethlehem. And if the Republicans’ refusal to address immigration before next fall’s midterm elections costs it seats in the House or its chance for the majority in the Senate, so much the better. But make no mistake, Republican self-immolation on this scale means millions of Americans are burned in the backdraft.
Sadly, the press rarely connects the dots on the long-term, real-world damage of Cruz’s legislative sabotage. In fact, his tactics have so mesmerized the media that what would otherwise be unprecedented intransigence by the rest of the GOP caucus gets normalized. For example, there was this New York Times story last week, which soft-peddled Cruz’s key role in sparking the potential debt ceiling disaster but that gave credit to Senate Republican leaders for having “rescued” the aforementioned debt ceiling vote. Politico, as only it can do, one-upped the Times with a long, behind-the-scenes process story that also glossed over Cruz as provocateur and instead featured this laugher of a quote from Senator John McCain about Mitch McConnell’s “yea” vote: “I must say it was a very courageous act.” Yes, inside the Beltway, it takes “courage” for the Senate Minority Leader to vote for a bill to pay for things that Congress has already spent money on.
The usual suspects, apathy and ignorance, are no doubt contributing factors in the political press’s unwillingness to call out Cruz’s spiteful grandstanding. I suspect subconscious bias is at work as well. The "Everybody hates him" reputation Cruz has now firmly and deservedly established sounds an awful a lot like the old newsroom shibboleth about objectivity—that when both parties are complaining about your reporting that’s a sure sign you’re doing it right. If you’ve ever wondered how far afield from honest governance a politician can wander before the “objective” media finally calls out his or her bullshit, Ted Cruz looks to be the ongoing case study.
This kind of journalistic negligence emboldens other extremist Republicans in Congress to sow even more dysfunction, though. In addition, the lack of public accountability only serves to discourage more rational members of the GOP who might otherwise be tempted to leverage intra-party pressure in stopping the needless obstruction. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that the fear of facing a primary threat on the right from the next wannabe Ted Cruz—whom the press will lavish with uncritical attention—has reduced some feckless House Republicans to concern trolling with their Congressional votes, as part of what’s being called the “vote no, hope yes” caucus.
In the end, this is the most pernicious effect of Cruz’s trolling—the way his deceitful behavior disconnects political rhetoric and action from the good faith of those Americans he represents—and more importantly—how it impacts those Americans he doesn’t. Any press corps that proclaims to be a beacon of truth and accountability in a free society should feel compelled to call out these anti-democratic tactics for what they are. Failure to do so really is no laughing matter.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: Michelle Orange writes about British political satire and its American progeny.