Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.
New Nation column: Why Do Political Reporters Refuse to Show Us the Money?
So I was in the bar during Eric Clapton’s 70th birthday show at the Garden during the warm-up act Sunday night and I thought of a new list. It has to do with aging. It’s inspired by my own life, that of some of my friends and that of some of the people I read, see perform and about whom I think. It’s not meant to be complete by any means. In fact, it could hardly be more casual. But I think it works. To be considered you have to have reached your creative peak during my lifetime, or near it, and also have turned 70 (or died before you had a chance to, but still left a considerable body of work over a period of decades).
Category 1: Artists and writers whose talents never deserted them, no matter what age they might be, and whose final works bear comparison to their earliest (and vice-versa):
Robert Caro (though Volume 4 has significant problems and Volume 2 is just wrong)
Gabriel García Márquez
Category 2: Artists whose talents came and went over time, but who exhibited second and third winds when people were ready to give up on them and who get points for growth, experimentation and artistic bravery:
Philip Roth (But for his final “short” novels, he would have been in Category 1.)
Miles Davis (Though I’m thinking I’m perhaps being a bit too indulgent about the later work.)
Norman Mailer (As with Miles…)
Ray Davies/The Kinks
Saul Bellow (Also, next to no experimentation, just inconsistent greatness…)
Category 3: These are people who had moments—sometimes more than a decade—of genius and then followed them with decades of living on the capital of their respective youths.
The Beatles as solo artists
The Allman Brothers Band (Though I think the playing was best at the time of their dissolution, it was certainly not clear of their creativity, which peaked in the beginning.)
The Grateful Dead (Creatively, I’d say they went downhill after Keith and Donna, but then again, everybody loves the period that he or she discovered the band.)
The Rolling Stones (Okay, it was a really long period of genius, but it’s been an even longer period of only okay-ness.)
Category 4: These are people who, like physicists, peaked at the beginning of their careers and never again came close to the levels of creativity demonstrated as late or post-adolescents:
Category 5: To be determined/too early to tell:
Eric Rohmer, Comedies and Proverbs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
In a weird coincidence, I saw Éric Rohmer’s fourth “Comedy and Proverb,” 1984’s Full Moon in Paris at the Film Society of Lincoln Center the same day I began to listen to the audio version of John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy. Not so weird a coincidence, you say. Well, how about this? Both the film and the novel begin with the same proverb, “The one who has two wives loses his soul, the one who has two houses loses his mind.” The proverb was invented by Rohmer himself—what a guy. It’s been a great year for Rohmer lovers at FSLC. We got A Tale of Winter and A Tale of Summer (my favorite) and now the just marvelous Full Moon. It’s a gorgeous film powered by the luminosity of its star, who sadly died of a drug overdose and never had the career her talent and charisma warranted. FSLC had a mini-Rohmer festival to accompany the rerelease of the film, and while they are almost all great, The Aviator’s Wife was the one I enjoyed second best of those I was able to see. (I am renting the DVDs of Boyfriends and Girlfriends and the perennial Pauline at the Beach from Netflix since I couldn’t make those showings. Sadly The Green Ray does not appear to be available at all. “Comedies and Proverbs” is only one of Rohmer’s great series and guess what? I’d put it at number three. So if you don’t know his work, get going.
Speaking of le Carré, lifter of Rohmerian proverbs, Philip Roth called 1986’s A Perfect Spy “the best English novel since the war.” That’s crazy. David Denby agrees. So perhaps I’m wrong. I think it’s excellent. But I don’t think it’s even close to being le Carré’s best book, and I don’t think le Carré’s best work matches that of Graham Greene’s best work, even though I love and admire the work of both authors. But if you want to take Philip’s advice read it right away. (It is self-contained, unlike the brilliant Smiley trilogy which I much prefer). The audio version is also wonderfully read and is available from Penguin Audio
Steve Winwood at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester
And speaking of Eric Clapton, one of the disappointments of a pretty good (but incredibly expensive) Clapton concert was the fact that he forewent the honors of the vocals on “Can’t Find My Way Home.” (The others were: acoustic versions of “Nobody Loves You,” and “Layla.”) The fact that he played both of those horribly sappy hits he’s written and left out “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad,” entirely, Stevie Winwood, playing two sold out nights at the Capitol in Port Chester, stuck much closer to what you expected from him. He sang “Can’t Find My Way Home” as he did a bunch of other Traffic songs, a Spencer Davis Group song or two, and maybe three solo hits, including “Higher Love.” Of the Traffic songs, I regretted not hearing “John Barleycorn” but otherwise could not argue with the choices, which included “Glad” “Low Spark” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” The band was pretty tight and Stevie’s voice is down an octave or so, but as ethereal as ever. He’s also a much better guitarist than most people have any idea, as he demonstrated when he toured with Clapton a few years ago, in one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. This show was pretty decent and nobody went home angry, but he waited quite a while to come on and that was annoying, since you know, you’ve got to get home from Port Chester.
Odds and Ends
Finally I want to recommend a few CDs: Joe Alterman, the young (handsome) pianist, and I are not related, so you might believe me when I say I’m proud to pretend that we are when I listen to his terrific new CD, George Sunset. Read all about it here. Readers might also remember me raving about the soundtrack to the off-Broadway production of Fortress of Solitude, based on the brilliant Jonathan Lethem novel. That’s on CD now and boiled down. There’s a great little soul album inside it, even if you’ve not seen the show. (Though if you’ve read the novel, it will work for you in a different way I imagine.) I can’t imagine anyone not really loving Van Morrison’s Duets album, which is much cleverer, and more fun than most old farts’ duets albums. And Boz Scaggs is having a third creative wind, first with Memphis, and now with the equally excellent, A Fool to Care. Finally, Nellie McKay’s new CD of sixties pop is cute and clever, but also hit and miss. It’s called My Weekly Reader and you can maybe see her on tour if you check here. I unfortunately missed her show at 54 Below but the Times review is on her page and it sure sounds like fun.
Read Next: Eric Alterman on Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s tributes to jazz icons and the Broadway hit Hand To God
My new Nation column is called “Remembering the Left-Wing Terrorism of the 1970s” and it’s a discussion of Bryan Burrough’s book on that topic, Days of Rage.
And here is an excerpt from Inequality and One City published by The National Memo.
Michael Feinstein’s Sinatra Tribute for American Songbook at Jazz at Lincoln Center
Your intrepid reporter was very much out and about this week. It began with the first in a series of Michael Feinstein-curated three-part series of American Songbook performances dedicated to the life and legacy of Frank Sinatra who was born 100 years ago this year. During the first of these three dedicated programs his guests were Ann Hampton Callaway, Lynn Roberts, and Nick Ziobro, all backed up by a seventeen piece big band. It was a pretty fun evening. It stuck, mostly, but not entirely to the early pre-Capitol-era Sinatra which was heavy with Cole Porter and other songs that were later reworked (and improved) over time. Feinstein is as much an educator as an entertainer and so one learned a great deal too. Lynn Roberts, who has been performing for seven decades, sang with Frank and the Dorsey band. Callaway did not sing with Frank, but sang in the small rooms in Vegas when he played the big rooms, and this 19-year-old Nick Ziobro really did put one in mind of the young man who broke hearts at the Paramount Theater. The question is whether you can enjoy “Sinatra” without Sinatra. You can for sure, and most everyone did, but the evening is haunted by “The Voice.” Frank’s great taste both in songs and arrangements—coupled with the great big band made for a pleasant, if not earthshattering evening.
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s Tribute to Joe Temperley
A few nights later, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra paid tribute saxophonist and clarinetist Joe Temperley who, together with only Wynton Marsalis, has been in the orchestra for the full 26 years. Temperley, who is 85, performed with the orchestras of Humphrey Lyttelton, Woody Herman, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Clark Terry, Joe Henderson and most significantly Duke Ellington. But instead of playing old chestnuts from those days—or at least exclusively old chestnuts—band members saluted him with original compositions and debut arrangements that gave him a chance to shine (Wynton wrote and arranged a five-movement concerto). Another big highlight was the closer—a piano and sax duet by Temperly and pianist Dan Nimmer on Ellington’s "The Single Petal of a Rose" from "The Queen's Suite,” that left the audience breathless. Says Wynton of Temperly: “There is no greater sound on earth.” Well, I don’t know about that. But it sure was moving, and powerful and on occasion, beautiful.
John Pizzarelli and Daniel Jobim at the Café Carlye
The Café Carlyle has brought back John Pizzarelli, following his recent run with his at-least-as-talented wife, Jessica Molaskey, this time as a team with the Brazilian singer-songwriter and pianist Daniel Jobim, grandson of the seminal Antonio Carlos Jobim for a show called “Strictly Bossa Nova II,” which I guess is a sequel to a previous show of which I was unaware. Which is too bad, because this show was terrific. Though so, apparently was the last one. Will Friedwald wrote of it: “Mr. Pizzarelli and his rhythm section . . . renew our faith in the Jobim classics as well as the idea of sambaing up the likes of George Gershwin and Cole Porter.” At one point, Pizzarelli termed an album off of which they did three songs, João Gilberto’s “Amoroso” to be the “musical equivalent of Viagra.” Well, okay, but I thought it was a great deal more romantic than just that. obim sang softly, in a near whisper and the band, Helio Alves on piano; Duduka DaFonseca on drums; and younger brother Martin Pizzarelli on upright bass demonstrated how much newness can be found in music you thought you knew—whether it was “Great American Songbook” style songs converted to bossa nova style (“‘S Wonderful,” “Change Partners,” or songs that began that way but received their reinterpretations and revisions from this gorgeous and sensitive ensemble. (The drumming was particularly revelatory.) And as weird as this is to say, I actually preferred their versions of the songs to those performed on the album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim against all apparent popular opinion, I find to be one of Frank’s least successful albums—especially his famous albums. Ticket prices are just as high as ever, but Pizzarelli is just as charming and talented as ever and this beautiful bossa nova show cannot help but leave a smile on your face. And if all you know about it is “The Girl from Ipanema,” you’ll come out knowing a lot more than when you went in.
Hand to God on Broadway at the Booth Theatre.
Hand to God, currently at the Booth Theatre, is a wonderful play about a gray sock puppet with fake fur, real teeth and a bad case of possession by Satan. It’s hard to describe how creative and original—also ridiculous—this play is. Have you ever wanted to see two puppets screwing for a really long time—especially since it was the boy-puppet’s first time—in pretty much every imaginable position, and lots of funny faces?
I’m not sure what it’s really “about.” It takes place in a church basement during the meetings of a puppet-making class. The wonderful Sarah Stiles plays Jessica who is “really more into Balinese shadow puppetry,” but she will “take what [she] can get.” The puppet, Tyrone, is the best of the characters—and that is saying something, even though you can see Jason’s lips moving the whole time. And believe it or not, his hand gestures are the funniest part—that’s right a puppet’s hand gestures—along with his profane mouth. The play is being compared to “The Book of Mormon,” which I still haven’t seen, but people who have, tell me it’s not quite as funny as this one. My guess is that there is more to embarrass a dad who has taken his teenage daughter to it in “Hand to God” than in a play about Mormons, and there is also something to be learned for a sophisticated New York audience about the trials and tribulations of religious folk in the heartland who find their faith tested. Still, it’s mostly fun and lots of it. Great cast, too.
Read Next: Eric's funeral playlist
My most recent Nation column is called “Race Matters (but Not To Conservatives)” and in it, I give up on the “class over race” argument I’ve been making for, like, twenty years.
Here’s an interview I filmed yesterday with Labor Press on de Blasio and inequality in front of my apartment. It was a little cold for no jacket but decidedly “atmospheric” as we are both blowing in the wind…
And here, Katrina, Kai and I discuss the Nation’s 150th Anniversary issue.
I’ll be out and about soon. Here is where:
1) Symposium on tackling economic inequality at New York Law School on April 17, 2015 (morning roundtable, 9:15 am)
2) The Martin Luther King Social Justice Awards Dinner, (evening) TWU headquarters, Brooklyn, April 17, evening (and it’s a benefit).
3) New York City Green Festival, April 26, Javits Center, Main Stage, 12:30 pm.
4) Social Research Conference: Sanctions and Divestments: Economic Weapons for Political and Social Change, New School, May 1, 10:00 am.
I’ve got one list left in the kitty. It’s my funeral playlist and it had better be played if anyone wants to inherit anything, if you get my meaning. It’s remained remarkably stable over the past ten years. Feel free to borrow it for yours:
Before the service:
Bruce Springsteen, “The Fever,” from Winterland, 1978.
The Allman Brothers Band, “One Way Out,” from Eat A Peach.
Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” from One Hell of a Ride, disc 3.
Dylan, Clapton, Harrison, Young, McGuin, Petty: “My Back Pages,” from the Dylan 30ththanniversary concert celebration.
Played low during the service:
Van Morrison, The Band, Roger Waters’ “Comfortably Numb,” from The Wall—Live in Berlin.
Eric Clapton with the Allman Brothers “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad?” Beacon Theater, March 20, 2009.
Grateful Dead, “Franklin’s Tower” from Road Trips, Volume 4, No. 5, (Boston Music Hall, 1976)
John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things,” from the complete Atlantic recordings, disc 4, (but it can be stopped if the service is over…)
Following the End of the Service:
Elvis Presley, “A Little Less Conversation,” JXL remixed version.
Leonard Cohen, “Closing Time,” from Live in London
Allman Brothers Band, “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” from Eat A Peach.
The Clash, “I Fought the Law,” studio version, The Clash Hits Back
1) Lena Hall at the Café Carlyle.
2) Pompie’s Place at Don’t Tell Mama
3) David Bromberg and Larry Campbell at the Roulette Theater
4) Recent Publications of the Library of America
5) A whole bunch of recent audio books to which I’ve listened.
Lena Hall at the Café Carlyle
I never heard of Lena Hall before seeing her show at the Carlyle. (I never saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch and was only vaguely aware she had won a Tony for it.) But I’ve seen Buster Poindexter and Debbie Harry in the room of late and so I was almost prepared for the shock of hearing “Dazed and Confused” in the house that Bobby Short built. Ms. Hall was suffering from bronchitis, but proved more than game in putting her stamp on songs on classics like “Psycho Killer,” “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and a wonderful “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Backed up by a fine band led by Watt White on guitar, with John Deley on keyboards, Lee Nadel on bass and Brian Fishler on drums. The show also featured songs, mainly b-sides and deep cuts, by Jack White, Tori Amos, the Meat Puppets (by way of Nirvana) Queen, Elton John, David Bowie, Hozier, Erykah Badu and someone named Janelle Monae. Most, if not all, were marvelous. (And I’m so pleased to see this expansion of the Great American Songbook taking place at the Carlyle and look forward to more.) Here voice was husky and hungry, but also sweet in places an almost always powerful and deeply compelling. I left a convert in a big way. And there’s not a nicer place than the Carlyle to leave that way… that is if you can handle the prices. She will be there through April 18.
Pompie’s Place at Don’t Tell Mama
In a related, but not exactly similar vein, a few nights later I headed over to Don’t Tell Mama in the Theater District to see Hilary Gardner, Lezlie Harrison, and Brianna Thomas starring, backed by Ehud Asherie and his quintet, in Pompie’s Place–what is being called “an immersive pop-up blues supper-club experience.” The book wasn’t much, but boy was the music fun. I went in as a fan of Thomas but came out with a crush on Gardner and mightily impressed by Harrison. The tunes were typical New Orleans fare—the kind of thing you’d hear at a benefit or tribute show—but they were all delivered with verb, aplomb and some serious sex appeal. The band was awesome, especially the dude on reeds. Hosted by Arthur Pomposello, the much-missed ex-host and booking manager of the long-lost Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, the show runs through May 28. The $65 ticket price includes a three-course Cajun meal, though not the liquor.
David Bromberg and Larry Campbell at the Roulette Theater
Finally, I also headed out to deepest Brooklyn to a place called the Roulette Theater on Atlantic Avenue—a place with wonderful acoustics by the way—to catch a show by two of the greatest living musicians alive, David Bromberg and Larry Campbell. Larry produced David’s recent excellent album, Only Slightly Mad, reviewed here when it came out as an ur-Bromberg album featuring a little bit of everything, but especially wild fiddle-playing, no-nonsense blues guitar and all manner of genre-bending exercises in songwriting and soulful singing. Campbell, together with G. E. Smith, is the sort of the co-president of Northeast Americana music (with T Bone Burnett and Joe Henry serving on the west coast) and enlivens any musical gathering he joins by playing more instruments than I can name. In recent years, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Phil Lesh, Rosanne Cash, Little Feat, Hot Tuna and Levon Helm have all been unable to get by without his services.) Together the two men challenged one another a bit but mostly fooled around with old classics and let their acoustic guitars do most of the talking, (though to be fair, Bromberg’s voice has never been stronger or sounded more stentorian.) Highlights? Well, it was all kind of highlight. And the crowd of old fart Brooklynites, almost entirely male, was most appreciative. Bromberg also played with Dylan—he is heavily featured on the re-released “Self-Portrait” which turned out to be great after all—as well as the Eagles, Ringo, Willie Nelson, and Carly Simon, among others, but he has really mastered the stage as leading man with his funny/serious stories and soulful singing and guitar work. Check out his work if you have not already. You’ll thank me.
Recent Publications of the Library of America
My friends at the Library of America have had a busy spring and the offerings could hardly be more eclectic. First up is Reinhold Niebuhr, Major Works on Religion and Politics, a 960-page volume, edited by his daughter, Elisabeth Stifton. It includes Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929), Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), and The Irony of American History (1952), along with a selection of essays, sermons, lectures, prayers and other errata. Niebuhr is one of the few people that Barack Obama, David Brooks and I all admire and even if one didn’t admire him, his role in shaping the ideology of the Cold War US political establishment, such as it was, would make him required reading for anyone seeking to understand this country’s behavior in the postwar period.
Written around the same time, but almost perfectly unrelated is the volume, Ross Macdonald, Four Novels of the 1950s. Some people see MacDonald as the successor to Hammet, Chandler, and Cain. I’m willing to be convinced, especially since writers I like and admire, including
George Pelecanos, and James Ellroy are among his biggest fans. Macdonald would be 100 this year and to celebrate, we get these four Lou Archer novels, described as follows: The Way Some People Die, a twisted journey through Los Angeles high and low, The Barbarous Coast, an exploration of crime and corruption in the movie business, The Doomsters, a breakthrough novel of madness and self-destruction, and The Galton Case, the mythically charged and deeply personal book that MacDonald considered a turning point in his career.” It also includes five pieces in which MacDonald that are both autobiographical and instructional—at least when it comes to crime writing.
Finally, for now, is the box set, The Collected Plays of Arthur Miller, edited by Tony Kushner. America’s greatest playwright is also turning 100 and this three volume, nearly 3,000-page set includes everything. The big ones: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, The American Clock, Broken Glass, as well as any number of plays and playlets most of us have never heard of, including Miller’s wartime radio dramas and two rediscovered stage plays, rare early works from the 1930s and 40s published here for the first time, and the novella of The Misfits. It’s a beautiful and powerful thing and my guess is that you won’t live long enough to read all of it, but you’ll be glad for the time you spent trying. It’s obviously an awfully handsome gift as well.
One (or two) Sentence (Audio) Book Reviews:
Nick Hornby, Funny Girl (Penguin Audio); This is grade B Hornby, which is not bad at all, but not great. It’s endearing but you needn’t kill yourself if you miss it. Sweet and entertaining—and well-read.
Jonathan Lethem, Lucky Alan and Other Stories (Random House Audio): I’m a big booster of Lethem and think Fortress of Solitude to be one of the best books of the past twenty years, but I found these to be a real disappointment. I even skipped parts of some of them
Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt, The Whites, (Macmillan Audio): This is pretty good Price; not the best, but sturdy and dependable
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, (HighBridge Company): This is a terrific book and the audio is an amazing performance read by many people. Given the focus on dialect and language, audio has to be the best way to experience this extraordinary novel, which, if I were giving out Pulitzers this year, would win for fiction. It takes place mostly in Jamaica in the seventies and eighties.
Jo Nesbo, Blood on Snow, (Random House): This is a short thriller, told from the point of view of a sensitive hit man. Short, and only OK…
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (MacMillan Audio): Both great, both beautifully read.
Homer, The Odyssy, and The Illiad, (Penguin Audio): What can one say? Do it, if you haven’t done them already or haven’t in awhile, especially given the Fagles translation.
Full Name: Eric Engberg
Hometown: Palmetto, Florida
Excellent piece on O’Reilly’s lies and the failure of “Big Media” to make any stink about it. I wrote three different op-eds on the same subject, and submitted them sequentially to the NY Times, W. Post and LA Times. All were rejected. Maybe because it was because I didn’t make the case as well as you do, but it was quite dispiriting. One of the questions I asked in one of those op-eds was, “OK, so it’s asserted by his defenders that O’Reilly is a commentator, not a real anchorman. What would happen to, say, Tom Friedman or Maureen Dowd if they were caught in a series of biographical inventions? Elite journalists would be standing on their desks demanding their scalps for an unconscionable ethical breach. How is O’Reilly different; how is Fox different from a major paper?” And where, when the Falklands lies were first brought to light by Corn, are the voices of “Establishment Journalism.” Starting with the presidents of the Big-3 news divisions and moving down the list of j-school deans, major newspaper executives and the professional societies like the RTNDA and SDX, why the vast silence on a simple question of standards and ethics. I didn’t know about O’Reilly’s Falkland Islands lies until I read the Corn piece. Then I wrote a Facebook item substantiating Corn’s reporting and agreed to do a Stelter interview. I did so because I believe that no journalist can stand idly by when someone invents facts he knews to be false. I was backed up in this by virtually all the CBS people who were in Argentina in 1982, and by George Lewis, who was there for NBC. The rest of the journalism mainstream, with Wemple, Stelter and you as the principle exceptions, was sadly silent. Keep up the good work. Eric Engberg
Read Next: Eric Alterman on why race matters, but not to conservatives
My new Nation column is “A Wake-Up Call for US Liberals” with the subhead “The state of conservative intellectual debate demonstrates the power of movement crazies.”
I also published this interview with Steve Earle last week which you might have missed because it appeared as a blog post rather than a web article as intended. As with the interview Katrina and I did with Jackson Browne, and the one I did alone with Graham Nash, it runs over 6,000 words and goes back and forth between music and politics. Steve strongly opposes BDS, by the way, which you’ll see if you read to the end.
My new ebook and paperback on demand—the first original work to be published by Ebook Nation—has so far received three reviews: one neutral in The New York Times, and two relatively critical: one from my right in Capital New York and one from my left in Jacobin.
I’m OK with the Times notice. I’ve not seen an ebook get noticed by the Times before and so I’m glad to see everything spelled correctly.
The Capital New York review was a disappointment because its author does not appear to understand the relationship between an author and his publisher (and a columnist and his magazine) and so the entire thrust of his review is fundamentally misguided. Suffice it to say, I have nothing whatever to The Nation’s editorials and no one at The Nation had anything to say about the content of the book. Hence, the fellow’s entire argument makes no sense. There are other errors in the piece but one looks petty if one corrects all the errors about one’s book that appears in a review and so you will have to take my word for it that this one ginormous error stands in for many more. (I made this comment at greater length at the bottom of the review, should you click on it.)
The Jacobin review is by someone with greater expertise but a significant ideological axe to grind. One again, it would be a mug’s game to detail all my differences with it except to point out its most fundamental distortion of my argument. The reviewer, for instance, writes: “Alterman takes at face value the notion that hard-line ‘broken windows’-style policing is an effective way to reduce urban violence, despite copious evidence to the contrary.”
This is face value? From Inequality and One City:
Of the fact that the NYPD have tended to enforce the city’s laws, regulations and codes with far greater enthusiasm in poor and minority neighborhoods than they do in the wealthier—and whiter—ones is undeniable as a matter of statistical evidence. Whether this disparity is unavoidable, given patterns of crime commission to keep the city safe and secure is question upon which debate must necessarily rest. Bratton was, and remained, an energetic defender of the NYPD’s “Broken windows” policing—the argument that tolerating small “quality of life” infractions leads to more serious criminal activity—suddenly seemed less obvious than it had been previously. But writing in Gotham Gazette, social worker and independent journalist Nick Malinowski, surveyed the available data and found a dearth of “empirical evidence to support the idea that aggressively enforcing so-called ‘quality of life offenses’ through police actions has had a positive impact on public safety.” He cited, among others, a 2009 study by Associate Professor at the CUNY School of Law, Babe Howell, that found that the human costs of these enforcements, which might result in job loss, housing eviction, or loss of parental rights among many others for those ensnared in these often confusing rules and regulations, far outweigh the benefits to society as a whole.
Owing to the institution of a series of Broken Windows-inspired laws, rule changes, and enforcement decisions in the early 1990s, NYPD summonses rose from 150,000 in 1993, to nearly 500,000 just five years later. Between 2001 and 2013, the department issued nearly 7 million summonses, along with another 5 million ‘stop-and-frisks.’” This was possible because, as Malinowski explained, New York City has “nearly 10,000 laws, violations, rules, and codes that a person might break, and the NYPD initiates approximately 1 million punitive interactions with residents every year. Almost none of these interactions have anything to do with serious crime. About half result in summonses. Of arrests, just 25 percent are related to felonies.” As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi observed in an article entitled “The NYPD’s ‘Work Stoppage’ Is Surreal,” “In an alternate universe, the New York Police might have just solved the national community-policing controversy.” He mused, “It would be amazing if this NYPD protest somehow brought parties on all sides to a place where we could all agree that policing should just go back to a policy of officers arresting people [in the words of the Post’s editors] “when they have to.”
I see yet another factual error, by the way—if it has not been fixed by the time you read this—where the reviewer writes that Atlantic Yards was “in the heart” of de Blasio’s district. In fact, it’s not in the heart or even the foot. It’s not in his district at all. There’s more, no doubt, but that’s enough for today. (And sad to say, that on the day that this sloppy review appeared in the radical Left Jacobin, I actually saw my views accurately represented by the usually goofy far-right outfit, NewsBusters. I will resist the urge to draw any conclusions from that, alas.)
Phil Lesh and Friends at the Capitol in Port Chester and assorted Dead re-releases.
I headed up to Port Chester to see Phil Lesh and Friends celebrate his 75th birthday with one of a four-night stand at the gorgeous Capitol Theatre, where much of my youth was misspent. I only caught the first set owing to the train schedule, though. Still it was really nice. The band was Warren Haynes, Rob Barraco, and John Molo. The Jerry vocals were inoffensive to one’s memory and the playing was first rate, which is a good thing, because they were almost all Jerry songs. (Also true in the second set apparently, here. It was painful to leave just as “Crazy Fingers” was beginning and the band was cohering even further, but it certainly helped me gear up for three nights in Chicago this July. Also of help in this regard is Rhino’s new two cd 32-song “The Best of the Grateful Dead,” which, of course, is no such thing, but it is two discs of studio material that a lot of people won’t have, especially a few of the songs from the earliest and latest studio albums. My friends at Real Gone Music continue re-releasing Dick’s Picks and this month they’ve got a famous show: Dick’s Picks Vol. 8—Harpur College, Binghamton, NY May 2, 1970 . The show at tiny Harpur college in upstate New York was apparently one of Jerry’s favorites and it is complete save for one song, on this 3-CD set. The highlight is the the 40-minute medley that opens the second set together with the third set’s “Viola Lee Blues” plus, incredibly the Dead’s version of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World.” (Note: Real Gone is also repressing Dick’s Picks Vol. 33—Oakland Coliseum Stadium, Oakland, CA 10/9 & 10/10/76, featuring Bill Graham’s historic “Day on the Green” concerts).
Dave and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones at City Winery
You may have heard that after years of frostiness, and then Phil’s near demise, the brothers returned last year with “Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy” It was nominated for a Grammy and maybe should have won. It’s a bit too reverent though for my taste, which is why I’m happier when they play Blasters’ classics. They did both at City Winery this week along with Dave’s near great “What’s Up With Your Brother.” The whole show was a lot of fun. Phil’s incredibly daring vocal on “Please, Please, Please” was another astonishment. And the band, as always with Dave, was first rate. I don’t understand why they don’t play “American Music,” which I thought everybody loved, but “Border Radio” will stand the test of time, I think with any of Big Bill’s best.
Debbie Harry at the Café Carlyle
I’ve never the seen the Carlyle more crowded than for Debbie’s opening night show the other night; and I’ve rarely seen such a sartorial split between the high life and low life, or uptown and downtown, with downtown clearly winning. The evening was devoted to un-Blondie songs. Debbie, who was supported only by her keyboard/computer guy Matt Katz-Bohen, sang songs that you would have to be a Debbie Harry expert, which I’m not. I like a few of those songs, and Debbie’s work with the Jazz Passengers, but I was unfamiliar with most of the material, much of which reminded me of the Blondie Song “Fade Away and Radiate.” It was all pretty interesting, and per usual at the Carlyle, extremely informal, which is the only thing about the show that was per usual. After about an hour, Debbie said, “Have we fulfilled our obligation?” and ended the show. I should say I also liked the Sesame Street song a lot. And I’m glad to see the Café both branching out (or down) and doing so well with it. Debbie will be there through April 4 and ticket prices are not as high as usual.
Steve Earle & The Dukes released his new album Terraplane on February 17 via New West Records. The eleven-track set is the follow up to the 2013 album The Low Highway and features Earle’s longtime band The Dukes. It is Steve Earle’s sixteenth studio album since the release of his highly influential 1986 debut Guitar Town and is focused on the blues. I took the occasion to interview Earle at length about the album and his career, in both music and politics. We spoke in his manager’s office in New York City. Below is an edited (though still quite long) transcript of our talk, expertly taped and typed by Nation intern James Kelly.
Eric Alterman: Let’s start with the new album. Sorry, but what’s a “Terraplane?”
Steve Earle: A Terraplane’s a car. Three companies I know of make Terraplanes, the most popular one’s a Hudson Terraplane. They were popular with gangsters. John Dillinger rode an Essex Terraplane but that was a more expensive car. The original Hudson Terraplane, Terraplane means like airplane—Terraplane—it flies across the earth!
ALTERMAN: What are you saying by calling the album after that?
SE: There’s a Robert Johnson song called “Terraplane Blues” and he’s talking about sex, the car is a metaphor for something sexual. Terraplanes were like a deuce and a quarter. It was the idea of: it’s a songwriting recording, it’s a songwriting project like all my records are and it was like concentrating on, to me, the reason Robert Johnson is Robert Johnson.
I like the idea of one word, I like the idea of something that was sort of a pretty, some sort of image that talked about this and why I wanted to make a blues record.
As far as we know, and it’s the beginning of recording so there wouldn’t be recordings that predated it, but there is tradition and people have done the research and I’ve done the research. There aren’t earlier versions of those Robert Johnson songs that anybody knows about, so as far as we know, the entire genre of the blues as we know it, every bit of it, is based on one Robert Johnson song or another, which is pretty mind-blowing when you think about it. There’s not one single thing that’s not really based on a Robert Johnson song. I mean the whole twelve-bar, sixteen-bar modern blues thing—it’s all based on Robert Johnson.
ALTERMAN: That’s quite a claim, I’m not in a position to challenge it, but who else would you say contributed fundamentally to the genre.
SE: Nobody wrote any songs, everybody just repackaged Robert Johnson songs and used verses from Robert Johnson songs and took one verse from one Robert Johnson song and on verse from another Robert Johnson song or a Hillbilly song they heard and took verses from that. The verses are interchangeable in a lot of Appalachian stuff and a lot of blues stuff and some of it…
ALTERMAN: So you’re saying that everything out of Chess Records ultimately came from Robert Johnson?
SE: All of the forms, all of the chord progressions, all of the forms come from Robert Johnson and a lot of the lines. There’s three or four, Crossroads, Terraplane, they’re all basically the same form and they’re the standard thing and the shuffles are in that form. Some slow blues are in that form. Stormy Monday is really in that form with just some chords added to it and then there’s stuff like, Hot Tamales and Red Hots—that stuff get’s repeated in New Orleans over and over and over again by piano players because it lent itself to that. That may be him imitating somebody else that came before him because there’s guys at the turn of the century—that might be the one thing that’s not original. But I can’t find exactly that somewhere. People travelled up and down the river, that’s where black culture was. New Orleans is different though because Robert Johnson comes from a tradition that’s strictly oral and strictly playing by ear. Accuse a New Orleans musician, especially an African-American musician, you’ll piss them off faster than anything in the world because they’re very proud of how musically literate they are. People read charts. And everybody reminds you of it and it’s in the high school, in the junior high bands. That’s one of the things that’s changing in New Orleans and it’s a storm needs to be protected because it’ll die without it. But, it goes deeper than that. There were more literate people of color in New Orleans, than anyplace else in North America before the Louisiana Purchase and then we started systematically taking property and position away from those people. So we were left with the people who managed to hang on to something—they’re pretty literate. They learned to read and write and they stayed in school—even the gangsters.
ALTERMAN: Why this album now?
SE: I thought about it for a long time and sort of a perfect storm occurred. I’m going through a divorce…so that helps.
ALTERMAN: You’ve been divorced quite a few times though.
SE: I haven’t been divorced in a long time though. Look, all the other marriages were in the ’80s, I was on drugs, this is the first time I’ve ever been married sober, it lasted eight years and don’t even try to compare this to the other marriages because it’s not the same thing. Way more painful. Went through the whole marriage sober, went through the breakup sober, still going through the divorce sober; there’s no comparison. And it’s way longer. I had no intention, it wasn’t my idea so it’s just not the same thing…not the same person; completely different experience.
So all that stuff, plus having the guitar player that could do it. The electric stuff is more intimidating to me than the acoustic stuff. I did the acoustic blues thing, I’ve done it before. I know Jimmie Vaughan and I knew Stevie Vaughan and I know Charlie Musselwhite. I’m gonna run into those guys at the bar. Any time I’ve thought about doing this, any time I’ve even done it for a track, I think about it. I’m a very self-conscious harp player because I’m next door to Charlie Musselwhite at the East Coast Blues & Roots Festival in Australia every other year.
ALTERMAN: Do you think of this as a kind of divorce album?
SE: Part of it is. I mean it’s the album that went on during the divorce.
ALTERMAN: I’m a lover of divorce albums, Blood on the Tracks, Tunnel of Love, "Shoot Out the Lights." Were any of those in your head?
SE: No, but, it is what I was going through. There’s different ways to deal with the blues, there’s different ways to deal with pain. Sometimes it’s just to be completely and totally open to it. That’s what the song “My Old Friend the Blues” was about. Sometimes when you’re bummed out there’s nothing more irritating than somebody trying to cheer you up before you’re ready, but distraction does work sometimes. Bluster, ya know. “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” and “Better Off Alone” are the same person talking about the same experience, but one is more honest than the other one. It doesn’t mean it’s not the truth, it’s just because it’s not particularly honest. It’s just part of the deal, it’s the way human beings deal with shit like that.
ALTERMAN: You’re happy to talk about addiction right…
SE: Until I get tired of it. My patience for it is whatever the fuck it turns out to be.
ALTERMAN: Why were you an addict do you think?
SE: I think I was born an addict. It’s on both sides of my family. I don’t think I had a chance I think I was always an addict. From the time when I started using drugs, which was 11, they were always important to me, way more important to me than they should have been right up until I stopped doing them entirely, they were always more important than they should be. I smoked pot. People say marijuana is not addictive, well, me and my second wife almost killed each other whenever we ran out of pot. My experience is that marijuana leads to heroin. I have no other experience. I smoked my first joint when I was 11, and I shot my first shot of dope when I was 13.
SE: I just didn’t get strung out for a while because… well, I did get strung out but things distracted me from focusing…Opiates were always my favorite, but I kinda had an LSD habit. When I was taking acid I took it as much as I could, which wasn’t everyday because you can’t get off if you take it everyday.
ALTERMAN: Did that feel more like a need or a desire? Where you getting high because it was fun or were you getting high because you couldn’t get through the day if you didn’t get high.
SE: Both, but at the time I thought it was purely choice. But, looking back at it I used like an addict and when I drank I drank like an alcoholic.
ALTERMAN: But clearly you were fucking up your life at some point, I mean, you went to jail.
SE: I was but I lived in this world where it was harder to tell because I was successful at some things. I fucked up my first marriage and that was largely about drugs and alcohol. And I took up with somebody that could keep up with me and of course that ended the way that ends—we almost killed each other. Drugs were always part of the deal, that’s why I’m saying this marriage is completely different because I was sober.
ALTERMAN: You were young and you were in the music business—were drugs understood to be part of the deal?
SE: Yeah, but it was the ’60s so drugs were kind of part of the deal anyway. People were dropping like flies in my high school. I lost friends to either drug overdoses or car wrecks and it was about equal numbers in my high school and it was a fairly… I went to a high school where everybody was expected to go to college but not everybody there had any chance at going to college. There was no shop, there was none of that stuff because they thought it was a college preparatory high school in a college preparatory neighborhood, but the fact of the matter is there were a lot of poor kids, mostly Chicano, who were in my school, and they had access to drugs that we didn’t and we had money. Well I didn’t, but my friends did.
ALTERMAN: What town was this?
SE: San Antonio
ALTERMAN: Was Townes Van Zandt the first of your heroes you got to work with and became influenced by?
SE: He’s the first of my heroes that made records that I knew personally. I saw Townes’s records in a record store and they were right next to Dave Van Ronk’s records and whoever else’s last name started with a “V.” When I first heard a Townes Vant Zandt record I didn’t know any difference between Townes and Bob Dylan when it came right down to it. I mean, I knew who Bob Dylan was and I kind of never have not known who Bob Dylan was, but I didn’t see him [Townes] as being any less famous or less of a bigger deal than… I knew that he was from Texas… but I didn’t…
ALTERMAN: Was that the first person that you could use as a kind of model?
SE: Yeah, he was the first person that I knew and I tracked him down and I saw him on stage a couple of times.
ALTERMAN: Where and when did you track him down?
SE: Austin, Texas in 1972.
ALTERMAN: And you are how old?
SE: Pretty sure I was 17, I crashed Jerry Jeff Walker’s 33rd birthday party I think it was. And I just overhead where the party was gonna be—it was at Castle Creek in Austin and hitchhiked there and I convinced a girl that had a car that we were invited and went to the party.
ALTERMAN: Did you play for him the way it one sees it in the movies?
SE: No, no I was a complete voyeur at that thing. Never played a song, I was hoping that it would come up, that somebody would hand me a guitar. Mainly I was hoping somebody wouldn’t realize that I didn’t know anybody there and turn me out. And then Townes walked in in the middle of it and I had a feeling Townes would be there. He walked in wearing a jacket that Jerry Jeff had given him on his birthday and he lost it in a craps game and I started following him around.
ALTERMAN: How did you get your first record deal?
SE: My first record was a rockabilly record that was out on a label called LSI. I had a three-piece rockabilly band, it was 1982. So it took a while just to get that done and that was after being in town for a long time and coming very close to getting a record deal from the time I was 19 or 20 but it never happened. I had publishing deals, but no record deal. And then I just sort of hounded my publisher into letting me make a record because they were starting a label anyway to put out another artist that one of the two partners had produced on RCA and RCA had dropped the artist and he still believed in the artist and they got drunk and decided they were gonna be record moguls and start a label.
ALTERMAN: Were you in Texas or in Nashville?
SE: Nashville. I moved to Nashville when I was 19 and never went back to Texas.
ALTERMAN: So you made your living from publishing?
SE: A draw from a publishing company. It was $75 a week when it started, by the time the three years was over it was $150 a week, because that’s the way it was done then. We used to give up all of the publishing, which was half of the whole pie, and you got a very low draw.
ALTERMAN: Did you write songs that we know during that period?
SE: Well yeah, there’s a few things that were written because I didn’t record them until years later, when I made Guitar Town. The rockabilly thing got the attention of CBS records and I got signed to Epic and we released some of that stuff to singles and I made the rest of an album, but the album was never released because the singles didn’t get anywhere.
ALTERMAN: Did you make more money from other people recording your music or from the records you were making? I ask because I hear your songs all the time by other people.
SE: Yeah I know and I make money from it now, but back then I was a failure essentially as a staff songwriter. But there was no intention, none of us, me and Guy Clark, Guy was way more successful than I was but even he his intention was not to be a staff songwriter. We were all post-Kristoffersons so we all considered ourselves to be singer-songwriters. The business didn’t. The business thought they were smarter than we were and thought, “Well, we’ll put out these records and we won’t print very many copies and we’ll help you make it through the night every once in a while.” We thought we were fooling them into subsidizing us making records the way that we wanted to. Everybody thought everybody was fooling everybody. And both of us were probably right to a certain extent, everybody was fooling each of us.
ALTERMAN: So was Guitar Town a hit? Now, it seems like it was a hit, but…
SE: It was a number one country album. The first single which was “Hillbilly Highway,” went to like 32 or something. That’s the highest I’d ever been. The second single was “Guitar Town,” and it went to 8. The third single was “Someday,” and it went to like maybe 14 or 15 something like that. “Goodbye is All We Got Left,” went to like number 9 or something like that. There were two spotty, but there were two Top Ten singles and the record sold 350-360,000 copies, might have been 385… maybe it was 385. Which then was not nothing in country. That was before a lot of artists who sold millions of records in country. It was not nothing, nobody could ignore it, but when…
ALTERMAN:, I’m surprised that country radio would play it in those days. It’s not exactly George and Tammy
SE: Well George and Tammy were done. I wrote songs like George and Tammy and couldn’t get arrested. The big acts at that time were Reba MacEntire and acts like Dan Seals was pretty big. And then a couple of things happened. Tony Brown decided that the future of country music was singer-songwriters and he signed me, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith all at the same time. We all came from Texas and we’re all on MCA. Journalists on the rock and roll side of things, decided there was such a thing as new traditionalist country, which was country music they liked better than most of what had been going on since the outlaw thing had sort of fizzled out. I really was more connected to that than I was anything else. That’s really who my crowd was when I first got to town. I knew I wasn’t a new traditionalist. I know I was really a folk singer, but I was intentionally trying, I really thought I could save country music. I thought not me but I could be part of something that did.
But then, immediately with my second record I started getting pressure from the label as in “Okay, we’re gonna send you some songs now.” I said “I’ve already written my second record.” It was like, I wasn’t going with the program. It was like the thing in Jamaica where the big Rasta has the big bag of buds and tells ya to “hold the dope, mon,” and you hold his dope and he comes back and asks for the money.I actually made the mistake, I put the dope up—I had plenty of dope. I didn’t need this dope. And I tried to give it back to him and a big fucking incident occurred because I wasn’t going with the program. You’re supposed to be afraid of the Rasta with the machete and give him the money. I knew that they weren’t going to work my second record no matter what I did and what I turned in. So I made the record I wanted to as much as I could at the time. I only had so much control over it because I didn’t really know anything about recording. The drums were really loud, but I did that on purpose, it was the ’80s and everybody wanted loud. I’ve had it blamed on me that the drums are so loud on country records and I’m probably guilty. I think Guitar Town was the first country record with a mix like that.
ALTERMAN: Were your politics part of your career from the beginning?
SE: Sure. I’m a post–Bob Dylan songwriter in general, I’m a post–Kris Kristofferson songwriter in Nashville. I got there when I was still a teenager and the songs I grew up listening to you wrote about whatever was happening to you and tried to understand what was happening to you through making whatever art you were making. I saw it as art. I saw it as a form of literature. I didn’t know any other way to do it. I never ever wondered what the kids were diggin’. I did it as well as I could at the time. “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)” is a pretty political song, but people misconstrued it. There was a guy…. writing for the Boston Phoenix at the time… Jimmy Gutterman! The only bad review I ever read of Guitar Town was by Jimmy Gutterman and it was a scathing review of what he thought to be my politics. He thought I was like Kid Rock crossed with Hank Williams Jr. or something and he just didn’t understand that I created a character.
ALTERMAN: That’s a problem that’s followed you.
SE: Yeah, it happens once in a while. Sometimes I wonder, “Well maybe I didn’t do my job,” but I think it’s just the inherent risk when you create a character.
ALTERMAN: What do you think the relationship is between music and politics?
SE: I think music can change the world and I think that because of my age. I think the best political songs—Bob Dylan’s political songs are better than Phil Ochs political songs because Phil Ochs wasn’t as good a songwriter as Bob Dylan and Phil was motivated by politics primarily I think. Bob sort of famously dismissed it as journalism
ALTERMAN: Well there are two questions embedded in my question. One, is politics good for art? And the second question is, if you go to a rally and you get all excited and get your fist up in the air does that actually lead to better things happening? Is rock and roll a force for generating resistance and possibly a better world?
SE: Yes and the deal is, it’s only the “maturity” of the music business that sort of came up with the idea that there was something inherently uncommercial and inherently something to be avoided about writing those kinds of songs. People ask “Why was there not more resistance to the Iraq war?” Because there was no fucking draft, because most people weren’t at risk of fucking going. If you weren’t poor and already unemployed and living on the margins of the society to begin with, you really weren’t in any danger. And we were creating more underclass every second, so they didn’t worry about a draft, they didn’t need it.
ALTERMAN: Is the raising of money through music what is most useful?
SE: That’s deceptive. I’ve worked with a lot of not-for-profits and the land-mine being the biggest and most successful. Concerts with rock stars are a really inefficient money raiser because rock stars are rock stars and it costs a certain amount to… Some people don’t behave any differently when they’re playing a benefit than they do… They want the same fucking things in the dressing room, they want things to work the same way, the production values are the same. So, people that know what they’re doing use the concerts to raise awareness and then they do other things to raise money.
The way we raise money is me and Emmylou [Harris] would go to a rich person’s house and invite 35 or people who had a lot of money and they’d write big fucking checks and that’s where the real money—and no overhead.
ALTERMAN: That makes sense to me but I do question the idea of raising consciousness through these concerts and so forth. I think a song can do it but I think that people who go to concerts for causes, they’re at the concert. Live Aid I don’t think a lot, either Live Aid, did a lot for starving people in Africa, with the exception that maybe a little bit of money was raised, well they didn’t even try to raise that much money.
SE: I don’t know. I don’t think anybody at all was even aware or gave a fuck that there was anybody was starving in Africa before Live Aid. I think there’s bound to have been people that heard that and saw that and saw those pictures of those kids and some of them wrote other songs, some of them became doctors instead of setting themselves up to get rich as doctors got on the fucking airplane and went to Africa and treated people I think that’s what it does. The answer to the question “can music change a thing,” yes. Music helped end the Vietnam War but it still took 10 years. It’s the generation of people that begins with “Blowing in the Wind,” and it goes all the way to by the time it was. By the time the war ended, there weren’t that many protest songs. There were some but it was starting to thin out. You have to understand, big events do more than you think. The whole music business as we know it is sort of an anomaly because that happened because—The biggest selling LP on a major label in 1964 was My Fair Lady… that’s what LP’s were. Sgt Pepper happened and so that kind of changed the idea of what an album could be and there were a lot of albums but the record labels still were rudderless when it came to promoting that kind of stuff. When they got it, it was Woodstock. When they saw 400,000 people and it was just an anomaly, an accident and a mess but a lot of people from New York were there. It took 400,00 people for them to finally accept that there was a market for this music which was long form and some it conceptual, some of it based on the blues, some of it based on jazz, it was all over the map and really eclectic. Mitch Miller didn’t know how to do that so they had to let the lunatics run the asylum for a few years. The golden era is, there are some amazing records that were made between 1967 and the early 70s when finally the corporate, the people that were just running the corporations got control over the ship again to some degree.
ALTERMAN: What do you think of as the most successful political songs?
SE: I think “Blowing in the Wind,” is way up there. It’s an overt anti-war statement right as we were getting into the Vietnam War. When we were just getting into it, some people were just figuring it out what Vietnam was.. The Peter, Paul and Mary version, which I thought was the coolest things because I love Peter, Paul and Mary records. They’re not watered down or anything, they’re just their versions of those songs and they prove that he was important, that he was important as a songwriter. His manager knew that and his manager knew that you have a copyright that’s why he was able to make a living even though he wasn’t selling that many records.
You have the other phenomena now, that rock and roll becomes art because of folk music. I don’t think without Bob Dylan wanting to be John Lennon and John Lennon wanting to be Bob Dylan I think rock and roll is just loud pop music. Sociologist don’t talk about it and academics don’t study it because it was really… You know why Led Zeppelin wasn’t hip back then was the fact that guys who felt guilty because they weren’t writing about jazz didn’t want to be identified with a band or support a band that appealed to 14 year old boys.
ALTERMAN: One of my great regrets in life is having been too cool at 14 to see Led Zeppelin.
SE: Well, not me man. I’m pretty positive I had sex for the first time to a Led Zeppelin tune. I was the target audience, I was 14 years old when Led Zeppelin II came out. I was in a blues band when the first Led Zeppelin came out and we played half the record. I couldn’t sing it but we tried.
ALTERMAN: Well, I was 15 when Born to Run came out, so I had that. I wanted to ask you about Bruce. Were you surprised by the political turn Springsteen took in the eighties?
SE: No, it was always there. Guitar Town is a direct result of me going to see the Born in the USA tour and going home and writing Guitar Town the next day. That’s when I got it. I wanted to figure out myself, how to find my voice as an artist. All the records up before The River are Bruce trying to find his found and what happens on The River is Bruce finds ours. He figures out that it’s a worthwhile thing to do to try to give somebody else a voice. You have to make a conscious decision to do that. You gotta be brave to do it or stupid depending on how you look at it… And there are two ways to lend a voice. There’s assuming a character like “John Walker’s Blues.” John Walker is the character. The person singing the song isn’t John Walker Lindh, I didn’t know John Walker Lindh. The person singing the song is me but I’m taking on that character because the way that I related to it was I have a son exactly the same age as John Walker Lindh. He’s Justin’s age—they’re exactly the same age. And I saw that kid duct taped to that board and I saw Justin. My first thought, my very first thought wasn’t “That motherfucker,” my very first thought was—and that was everyone’s first thought that I knew—it was that people were… It wasn’t in Iraq and this was in Afghanistan in area where we were reasonably sure that some of the people that were responsible for 9/11 actually were. It’s the only part of what we did that you could come close to justifying. It was in that action that John Walker Lindh was picked up. But I just knew that nobody else would do it and my first thought was “God he’s got parents and they must be sick.” So that’s who I wanted to give a voice to was John Walker Lindht’s parents.
ALTERMAN: Do you think that at the level that Springsteen is at—he’s like Mr. America—that he has to make compromises about the voices he gives and how far he goes?
SE: I don’t think he does. I think he does whatever the fuck he wants to and I’ve admired him for that. It’s cost him audience, he coined that term, spending political capital..during that election cycle. Other people did it before him. Kris Kristofferson basically ended his mainstream career.
ALTERMAN: Yes, you could say the same thing about Harry Belafonte, too.
SE: Yeah. It’s funny he really was able to work. Harry Belafonte has never been not able to work. He quit making records and he worked as an actor all through the ’60s and ’70s and he was a big deal. He was in some big movies. He worked on stage here in New York quite a bit. I just don’t think about that stuff all that much.
ALTERMAN: Bruce is the best example but another example would be Willie Nelson. Everybody loves the guy, there’s nothing unpatriotic about him and yet he still has these subversive views that he’s not at all shy about talking about and you can hear some it in the music. I find that phenomenon very interesting.
SE: I do it. People do it. The reason people shy away from doing it is largely about money. The record business is shrinking enough and they just don’t want to not have a job at all. I get it. I’ve got an audience of a certain size and they’re loyal and some of them are too old to download so I still sell a few records. Most of my younger fans come for the political side of it. They’re more interested in the political stuff I do than anything else and I may be losing them with this last couple of records. This one I guess isn’t at all but except in the sense that any time making art in this world in this society the way that you want to do is a political statement in itself. I don’t accept political artists putting pressure on other artists to be political. It’s not about balls, it’s not about being a pussy. Look, if you ask Lucinda Williams why she doesn’t write political songs, I heard somebody ask her that once and she said “Steve Earle is really good at that.” She’s just not comfortable doing it. She has an audience that she reaches and she knows the job. The job is empathy. Whether you’re writing a love song or whether you’re writing a political song. Nobody gives a fuck about what you think. They give a fuck about what you have in common, that’s where you find your audience. There’s some things that I’ve written that’s just me beating people off the head and shoulders about what I believe but there’s very few of them.
ALTERMAN: You’ve been outspoken in opposition to the pressure on artists to boycott Israel. Why so?
SE: Putting Israel aside, I’ve always got to be careful about this, I’m the token guy in this situation. I don’t hang out with anything but Jews because I live in New York and I’m a lefty. Israel has become important to me. Israel is to me now what Ireland was to me in the 90s and what Mexico was to me in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s the other place in the world that I go. I really really love going there.
ALTERMAN: Could you describe why you feel the way you do about the place?
SE: I feel like I’m where Western civilization began and what I do has its roots deep in Western civilization—a form of literature. I love the food, I love the way the people live, I love…. I can’t eat hummus even in New York really anymore. There’s just something about it. There’s also a…and that’s what I encountered in a couple of other places in the world…. Vietnam’s one. The Vietnamese aren’t angry at us because they’ve been invaded over and over and over again. And it’s not because they’re that forgiving and we’re that cool. It’s because they’re not going to waste any time being angry at us because if the Martians invade they’ll go down the tunnels and kick their ass too no matter how long it takes. They just don’t waste time on that and I think there is some of that, believe it or not, to this day in Israel. I’m connected to it somehow. I was shocked. I’ve been there a couple times now, I can’t wait to go again. I hope to do a Masada concert with an audience. Look I got to do it once without an audience because it was the war. The first ceasefire collapsed and we had to cancel but we broadcasted over the internet to an empty amphitheater last year.
I boycotted Arizona because Tom Morello and some other friends of mine asked me to. I just did it because I was absolutely, categorically, opposed to those policies that the state government had—particularly the governor. I grew up in occupied Mexico, that’s my culture that’s where I come from. I saw it was a mistake because what happened was I didn’t play Phoenix, I played Tucson and I played Flagstaff, I played the places where there were public radio stations and they were the radio stations everybody listened to. What happened is the backlash was immediately, “You’ve abandoned your audience in Arizona. We’re opposed to this too and no one is lending us a voice.” Back to the job…So I decided and I think it applies to Israel and I don’t know Roger Waters so I don’t give a fuck. Cultural boycotts are meaningless. I understand the concept of an economic boycott. I understand boycotting lettuce, like Caesar Chavez did. I will participate in that kind of a boycott. I wouldn’t have bought Dr Pepper… I was very seriously into it, but I went without Dr Pepper for six months because the company that owns Dr Pepper owns one of the two biggest apple producers in upstate New York and they had locked all their workers out up there. I forget which one, it was one of the big apple juice producers and it belonged to Dr Pepper and they locked their workers out. I was asked to be a part of the boycott, they saw me with a Dr Pepper and said “Hey.” So I didn’t drink Dr Pepper for six months until they got a contract. I understand that but when my size audience… I don’t know. Maybe it’s different for Tom because he plays so much bigger places and there’s so much more infrastructure that comes into play when he plays… I’m not sure that even that applies but basically I do more good when I go and see what I see and I come back and I sing about it.
SE: I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to get to that the film I did with [Israeli recording artist] David Broza about the making of that record because it’s really important. That film East Jerusalem West Jerusalem, if they can find distribution for that film and then re-release that record then I think it would be a great thing for David and I think it would be a great thing for Israel because music does make a difference. It’s right there in the film. Not only were we making a record in East Jerusalem… We sat around for days wondering whether the Palestinians were going to show up. What they were worried about was bit recording on the record, they were worried about the fact that we were filming and they were worried about the fact that there were people watching them. Hamas is very very active on the Internet and that’s what they were scared of.
My first trip I landed in Tel Aviv, I got in a van, I went straight to East Jerusalem, checked into The Ambassador and started to walk down the hill to work in that studio. So, I know it inside out. To me, that’s home base. It’s weird, but that’s just the way I learned it.
My most recent Nation column is: "Why Nobody Seems to Mind that Bill O'Reilly Is a Total Fraud.
Today’s list (Note: This is the last of the lists I made for the end of the year and never posted. I can’t tell you how it saddens me that I will have to deal with Jon Stewart’s departure, which, as you can see from below, I was already dreading because I am the kind of person who is always aware of what can go wrong. Anyway, if you’ve got any suggestions for future lists, please send them in, thanks.)
TV Series I Watch: (My personal Emmys/Golden Globes of 2014)
Genuinely great shows:
Genuinely great, but you have to watch them on Netflix:
Near great shows that I am not ashamed at all to be watching:
Homeland (only season 4)
House of Lies
Really good but not anywhere near great, but still not shameful:
House of Cards
The Good Wife
Downton Abbey (despite its horrific politics)
Really really guilty pleasures:
Shows I eliminated from the above category this season:
Shows everybody likes but me
Orange is the New Black
An Honorable Woman
That John Oliver thing on HBO
Shows I just don’t get at all:
Game of Thrones
Sons of Anarchy
Shows I think people are really silly for thinking that they are good:
New shows from this year that I thought were worth watching:
Shows you should really try and watch even though they are gone and not on Netflix:
Prisoners of War (The Israeli Homeland)
BeTipul (The Israeli In Treatment)
Shows I hate-watched for a while but was pleased to see were (finally) cancelled so I wouldn’t be tempted anymore:
Shows I worry about what my life will be like when they finally end:
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Shows upon which I will check back in say, 6 months, when they figure out how to fix them:
The Nightly Show
Person I miss the most on TV when I see what’s out there:
Show I’m hoping will make me forget even Johnny:
1) Herb Alpert at the Café Carlyle
I caught the opening night of Herb Alpert’s March 10-21 stand at the Café Carlyle where he was joined by his wife of forty or so years, the vocalist Lani Hall, and a fine three piece band that has been accompanying them for the past eight years. In a two-week run of shows, Alpert, who will turn 80 this year, is one of the most fortunate musicians alive, having not only had a sixty year career, but also having had the good sense to cofound A&M Records—the A is for “Alpert”—and has become unimaginably rich as well. (He does do a great deal of philanthropy.) And he’s still playing pretty well, and even put a new album up on the jazz charts last year called In The Mood and won his ninth Grammy. The year before that President Obama gave him the National Medal of Arts. He’s also a pretty serious painter and sculptor and is having a show right now with Richard Mayhew, Harmonic Rhythms, at my friend’s ACA Gallery right now.
Tuesday’s show was a pretty relaxed affair. There was a TJB medley and Alpert made the crowd sing along with “This Guy’s In Love” because his voice is not really up to it anymore. His meandering on the trumpet was lovely on mostly Great American Songbook classics and he took requests and questions from the crowd in good humor. Ms. Hall, whom Alpert met when he was producing Sergio Mendes and Brazil ‘66, has a great voice, but you have to like songs sung the way Barbra Streisand belts them out when she’s belting to concur with her interpretations of say, “Up on the Roof.”
I’m looking forward to Debbie Harry’s upcoming run at the Carlyle in the next few weeks.
2) Led Zeppelin “Physical Grafitti” re-release
I’ve been enjoying the Led Zeppelin re-releases for the past year—more so than any time during the 40 years I’ve been listening to the band, but the one for which I’ve been most looking forward, “Physical Graffiti,” the band’s masterpiece (and counterpart to the Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” is finally here.
Remastered album on two discs, plus a third disc of unreleased companion audio, Jimmy Page has been doing a meticulous job of remastering these albums (and Rhino, nice packaging) so you should get it if you were thinking about getting it, even for a moment. The third disc demonstrates, once again, that these guys did not waste much in the studio. The pickings are smart—different versions of my favorite songs are here—including rough mixes of "In My Time Of Dying" and "Houses Of The Holy," as well as an early mix of "Trampled Under Foot" called "Brandy & Coke." There are also alternative mixes of "Boogie With Stu" and "Driving Through Kashmir," and a rough orchestra mix of the band's eight minute opus "Kashmir." Finally, there’s a song called "Everybody Makes It Through," which is "In The Light" with different lyrics.
3) The John Coltrane Quintet featuring Eric Dolphy: "All Of You: The Last Tour 1960”
So we’ve got a sequel to the excellent Miles Davis and John Coltrane "All Of You: The Last Tour 1960,” a four-cd of mostly new recordings that was released last year to the great pleasure of so many of us. It’s another four cd set, this one of the John Coltrane Quintet featuring Eric Dolphy and recorded a year later. It’s called “So Many Things: European Tour 1961.”
McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones were just getting started with Trane but would stick around to form the backbone of the band.
It’s not as great as the Miles set, and not only because there’s no Miles. (That was the last tour to include Trane on it, so it’s really a find, to say nothing of the more than decent audio.) This being Coltrane, and having Dolphy on it, implies, correctly, that it will be quite a bit more “out there” than anything Miles was doing at the time. The rest of the band, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones had recently joined Coltrane, though they would form the backbone of his accompanists from that point on. The song selection does not vary much—we get “Naima” and “Impressions,” along with Coltrane’s only recording of Victor Young's theme “Delilah” and a soaring “My Favourite Things” taped in Stockholm. It’s an inexpensive package and it comes with a booklet. This release features photographs, concert memorabilia and press clippings, and comes complete with an extensive booklet essay by British saxophonist and writer Simon Spillett.
4) Rendez-Vous with French Cinema
The annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” is going on now for its 20th anniversary in conjunction with the Film Society at Lincoln Center. Check out the schedule.
This year's Cinema, my handy press guide notes, includes a host of special events including free talks with Mélanie Laurent, Nathalie Baye, and Guillaume Canet in the Film Center Amphitheater; a Closing Night live musical performance by composers LoW Entertainment; a pop-up Galerie Cinema by Anne-Dominique Toussant at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy; a retrospective of films by the director of Opening Night film 3 Hearts, Benoît Jacquot: Leading Ladies at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF); and an exhibitition of giant Polaroid portraits of French film luminaries by Myrna Suarez and the 20x24 Project in the Furman Gallery. I saw a bunch of them at press previews. My favorite was 3 Hearts, though I also really liked “In the Name of My Daughter,” both of which feature the apparently ageless Ms. Deneuve, but my tastes may not be your tastes so take a look.
Read Next: Eric Alterman on 2014's best music, concerts and the year of the box set
I want to join my colleagues in expressing my shock and sadness at the death of David Carr. David and I were not at all close, but we were friends in the sense that we compared notes whenever we ran into one another at social events, which we did quite frequently, since we had similar interests and sometimes musical tastes. Like everyone else, I have nothing but good things to say about him and his great work that so elevated the paper he loved. I was planning to get all sad about the tragedy of Jon Stewart’s “restlessness,” and I am, but it feels petty in light of the death of so young and so valuable a writer as David Carr. (And that goes quadruple for Brian Williams…)
Meanwhile, I did this piece about the slow-motion takeover of journalism by the public relations industry.
And my new Nation column is about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his attempts to address economic inequality and that’s here.
Read it and then come back here. Notice that the Scheiber column is even more off base than I say, given the fact that right after my column went to press, a new poll was released with the following numbers: 58% approve of de Blasio’s performance in office, 24% disapprove according to the poll by New York One/Baruch College. So even by his own lights, there’s nothing there. It’s weird that he felt a need to write that column and no less weird that the Times was willing to print it…until you remember just how well the right’s “working the refs” actually works.
But leaving that aside, guess what? I wrote a book on this topic. Well, an ebook/paperback-on-demand, but it’s 185 pages so it’s pretty close to being a real book. Here is the excellent cover.
And here is the press release:
INEQUALITY AND ONE CITY:
Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One
(eBookNation, February 16, 2015)
NEW YORK, NY – February 12, 2015 – Bill de Blasio’s election as mayor of New York captured the attention of a typically restless city. But it also made progressives across the country—and, indeed, around the world—sit up and take notice. Following an overwhelming landslide victory, de Blasio took office pledging to “put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love.”
Based on interviews with dozens of key players in the upper echelons of the de Blasio administration, including the Mayor, the first Deputy Mayor, and most of de Blasio’s key commissioners and political advisors, along with a host of independent policy experts, award-winning author—and Nation columnist—Eric Alterman’s new e-book, INEQUALITY AND ONE CITY: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One (eBookNation, February 16, 2015), is a detailed and rigorous account of the Mayor’s first year in office.
It is, as he writes in the preface, “an attempt to move beyond the day-to-day headlines that dominate our political debate. By placing Bill de Blasio’s words, and the actions of his administration, into a political, cultural, social, and intellectual context, we can see just how daunting the task he has set for himself really is: to use the power of the city government to make New York a fairer and more equal place for all its inhabitants, and to do so while executing the fundamental tasks of governance judiciously and efficiently.”
If you want to understand what is really at stake for the city and its inhabitants during the first year of “the de Blasio experiment”—the face-off with Governor Cuomo over pre-K, the charter school battle, the epic clash with the NYPD—and how each of these issues relates to the administration’s endeavor to address the city’s skyrocketing rate of economic inequality, Eric Alterman has the story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eric Alterman is Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, and the World Policy Institute in New York, as well as former columnist for The Daily Beast, The Forward, Moment Rolling Stone, Mother Jones Sunday Express (London) etc. Alterman is the author of nine previous books, including the national bestseller What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News. His first book, Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1992), won the George Orwell Award and his It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (1999) won the Jack London Literary Prize. Alterman has been called “the most honest and incisive media critic writing today” in The National Catholic Reporter and author of “the smartest and funniest political journal out there,” in The San Francisco Chronicle. A winner of the George Orwell Prize, the Jack London Literary Award and the Mirror Award for media criticism, he has previously taught at Columbia and NYU and has been Hoover Institution Media fellow at Stanford University. Alterman received his Ph.D in American history from Stanford, his M.A. in international relations at Yale and his B.A. from Cornell, He lives with his family in Manhattan. More information is available at ericalterman.com
Inequality and One City
Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One
Publication date: February 16, 2015
ISBN 978-1-940489-19-3 (Paperback, $14.99)
ISBN 978-1-940489-18-6 (Ebook, $9.99)
You can buy it directly from The Nationhere
Megan Hilty at the Appel Room for “American Songbook,” 2/6/15:
I got weirdly attached to Megan Hilty when she was on “Smash.” I saw her do an informal promotional show at Joe’s Pub a couple of years ago but this was her first full-on performance and while she is still more potential than poise, I do think she could one day develop into a kind of next Barbara Streisand. She’s got a great booming voice, good comic timing and a genuine ability to communicate her love for the music. She’s also paid quite a bit more dues than I was aware of, on Broadway and various traveling companies before “Smash” (and motherhood). Her set was a mixture of Broadway tunes and classics, with a gorgeous “Heart of the Matter” from her first and only album thrown in. (It’s gorgeous when Don Henley sings it too, but it’s a different song when it’s sung by a woman.) As I said it’s a pleasure to see her develop, but I think she needs to stop laughing at her own jokes. I hate that. Who doesn’t? Someone needs to tell her.
Buster Poindexter at the Café Carlyle. 2/10/15
Buster got booked for two weeks at the Café which is great news especially if you are reading this, and are in New York, and want to go, since he’s playing this week too. Opening night was pretty crowded though, which I was also pretty pleased to see. And even though it’s the third time I’ve seen Buster at the Carlyle in eighteen months, I had a great time even though, let’s be honest, he’s doing pretty much exactly the same show; same jokes, too, which is a bit of a letdown, because he’s leaving lot of great jokes on the cutting room floor, including ones I’ve been telling for decades after hearing them from him. To be fair, there were a couple of VD songs thrown in. Otherwise, this review still holds:
“If I had a time machine, I would go back and kill Hitler, of course, among a lot of other things, but I would also like to stop by a New York Dolls show at the Mercer and casually mention to that cross-dressing punk, David Johansen that a few decades hence, he will be wearing a cheap tuxedo and playing the Carlyle in character as lounge lizard with impeccable taste in oldies moldies and goldies that almost nobody would ever hear performed live were it not for the said character, “Buster Poindexter,” with composters ranging from Gordon Jenkins, Frank Loesser and O.V. Wright. I wrote about his previous one-night only engagement at the Café and now, as per my advice, they gave him five nights. He was wonderful the night I saw him, looking like Eddie Haskell but sounding like Howlin’ Wolf. The band sparkled and the jokes fell flat—just as they were supposed to—and a splendid time was had by all. Judging by the house, I think Buster’ll be back there at least once a year from now on, maybe more, and if you’re looking for a fun special occasion, well, you could do a lot worse things with all that money.”
Three points I should add though:
a) He was back more than once a year
b) In my previous review—the one before the above one—I nominated him to be “Mr. New York” now that Bobby Short and Lou Reed were gone. And hey, that’s how they introduced him.
c) Finally, one thing I really appreciate about this show is the way David/Buster is expanding the “Great American Songbook” into places it’s never gone before. Megan Hilty did a little bit of this too and if you buy Steve Tyrell’s new album, “That Lovin’ Feeling,” which builds on his show at the Carlyle too, (and drawn from his early career as a producer at the Brill Building, etc) you’ll see it’s a trend. But it needs to become a bigger one. It’s really necessary and one of my causes in life. Buster does it backwards and sideways, but it needs to be done forward in time as well.
‘The Iceman Cometh’ Revived, With Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy at BAM, 2/12/15:
I was kinda wondering why I had never seen this play before, what with O’Neil being one of the big three of 20th Century American theater (Miller, Williams). When I got the tickets, I realized why. “4 hours and 45 minutes with three intermissions.” OMG, as the young people say.
Well, it’s quite an achievement given the fact that not very much happens during that time. What does happen is a kind of low-life poetic dialogue that gives you some idea of where Tom Waits, Jack Kerouac, and maybe William Burroughs came from, artistically speaking. There are moments of real beauty in this play, and while most of it is a massive O’Neil-style downer, the casting of Nathan Lane as “Hickey” does a great deal to inject a level of energy and mystery into the proceedings. Brian Dennehy is a perfect foil, one is faking happiness, the other despair, but both are terrified of THE VOID and give speech after speech to try to deflect or at least delay its strangling power. The rest of the cast is excellent too—the hookers who insist on being called “tarts” and the drunkards who dream of the days when they had something to live for (or as Dennehy’s character puts it “They manage to get drunk, by hook or by crook, and keep their pipe dreams, and that’s all they ask of life.” O’Neil at his best is matched only by Kafka for his ability to plumb the depths of human misery—no doubt spurred on by his own—and locate so much laughter and beauty on the way. This is a sad and beautiful play and a master class in classic theater. It is also crazy-long. True, it gains much of its power from the repetition it employs and the atmosphere of nuclear-level gloom that envelops it. And maybe it would not work at all were it cut by, say half, in which case it would still be pretty long. But if you’ve got the time and patience, it will be amply rewarded. “Iceman” will be at BAM for only five weeks (or so), so hurry up.
Diane Reeves at Rose Hall at Jazz@Lincoln Center, 2/13/15:
Well, Diane Reeves has one of the all time great voices and enormous range and skill. I love the album she did for the Clooney film about Murrow, “Good Night and Good Luck.” And give her points for expanding the “Songbook,” too. She sang songs by Fleetwood Mac and Bob Marley, along with the Billie Holiday-type thing one might have expected. And I was deeply impressed by her ability to carry a tune on and on with no words. (Of course she was aided by her crack band of pianist Peter Martin, guitarist Peter Sprague, bassist Reginald Veal, and drummer Terreon Gully). And the audience did love her. But I found about half the set a little too self indulgent, sung by an artist who knew the audience was going to love her no matter what. A song she wrote about being nine years old felt like it went on for nine years (and should have been saved for nine year olds in the first place). And the long scat introductions of the band were impressive but I found it grating. Maybe I’m a grouch. Well, actually, of course I’m a grouch. And again, much of the show was sublime. Interestingly, the crowd was much more integrated than I’m used to seeing at a Jazz show, which means, I guess that she has a fan base that spills more into pop than most. And again, they loved her, as I’m sure the second night’s audience did as well. But I think her set could use a dose of self-discipline rather than playing so much to the disciples. Sorry.
Read Next: Eric Alterman on Andrew Sullivan's departure from the blogosphere
My new Nation column is “Fox News: The World’s Comic Relief”: Our friends abroad give the network the derision and the mockery it deserves.”
One kvetch before we get to the lists and Alter-reviews: I have read a lot of nonsense about Andrew Sullivan this past week. It’s ironic for so many reasons I can’t quite keep track, especially in light of all the nonsense that has been written about The New Republic and, again, makes one’s head explode if one tries to take too many of them seriously simultaneously.
But here are a few:
How was The New Republic so crucial a bastion of American liberalism if under Andrew, it published and promoted Charles Murray’s racist pseudoscience? (Andrew: “one of my proudest moments in journalism.”) And ditto Betsy McCaughey’s lying, dishonest takedown of Clinton’s health care reform? (Andrew: “I was aware of the piece’s flaws but nonetheless was comfortable running it as a provocation.”) And if it were so dedicated to serious, thoughtful journalism, what the hell was Andrew doing publishing Camille Paglia on “Hillary the man-woman and bitch goddess.” And do I even need to mention that he appointed Stephen Glass as the magazine’s first-ever head of fact-checking?
But even funnier are the positions Andrew himself took. Back in the days when he was still part-Marty Peretz, Sullivan literally called me a traitor to my country, telling an outright lie about my allegedly stated views on Afghanistan. I repeatedly offered to give thousands of dollars to charity if Andrew could substantiate his lie but he never even tried. He also attacked me as a purveyor of hateful anti-Semitism owing to my analysis of the media coverage of Israel, comparing one of my columns to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Now, he has done a complete 180 and is far more critical of Israel than I ever was (or will be) and viciously attacks the people who used to be his comrades, thereby inspiring his one-time friends and colleagues to wonder why Andrew, himself, hates the Jews. So the old Andrew would have called the new Andrew a traitor and an anti-Semite. And the new Andrew apparently thinks the old Andrew is an idiot, who supported stupid imperialist wars and ran interference for evil countries. (Notice I did not even have to bring up the Trigg thing.) If this person is the most influential “intellectual” in America as I have seen two people claim in recent days, then that’s about the worst thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about my country. Andrew is to intellectuals what Sarah Palin is to politicians and Vanilla Ice was to hip-hop. Seriously, I do not begrudge Andrew his role as a pioneer blogger, nor his genius for self-promotion, but what I find most impressive about him is his ability to somehow convince people not to hold him responsible for the consequences of his atrocious judgment. (No doubt hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and millions more homeless ones would have wished that our “intellectuals” were held to a higher standard.) But give him credit, by quitting, he has finally done something to elevate the level of intellectual discourse in political life. I wish him a happy retirement. I wish my country a better class of intellectual.
Now that the Super Bowl is over—great game by the way—people will start obsessing about the Oscars. (Did you know that more women watch the former than the latter?) Anyway, here’s my 2014 movie list. Numbers 1 and 2 are the best two movies I’ve seen in many years. There’s a massive falling off after that, especially since 3 and 4 are re-releases from decades past, and you get to get all the way to #9 before you get to Hollywood. (I do expect Birdman to win best picture, by the way, also best actor and best supporting actor.)
Best Movies of Movies That I’ve Seen of 2014:
A Tale of Summer
A Tale of Winter
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alter-reviews: Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra at Rose Hall; Bettye LaVette at the Café Carlyle and the Thompson Family at City Winery.
So I caught two shows this past week. Saturday evening I saw the final of Jazz @ Lincoln Orchestra's tribute to “Jazz Titans: Duke, Dizzy, Trane & Mingus.”
I’m not sure that’s a theme. But it sure was a great night of music. The idea was to focus on the global influences that each man brought to his compositions, particularly from Africa and Latin America, and how each used their discoveries to broaden the horizons of their artistry and create new terrain for jazz. Wynton led the band in a variety of tunes that ha, per usual, been re-arranged by members of the orchestra including Ellington's Latin American Suite and Virgin Islands Suite; Mingus' Tijuana Moods; and various pieces from Gillespie's early Afro-Cuban era. By far the highlight was Coltrane's Olé, which featured a joint arrangement by at least six members of the group and some beautiful and haunting solos that made it feel historic and forward-looking at the same time, as Coltrane must have intended.
I was also able to see Bettye LaVette’s new show at the Café Carlyle, which is running through this week. As the press material correctly explained, she “showcased her inimitable style, gut wrenching vocals and songs from throughout her five decade career, as well as the world premiere of selections from her new album, Worthy,” which is on Cherry Red releases and contains songs by Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones amongst others, radically reimagined to the point where you are certain you’re hearing them for the first time. I was also most impressed with her band, which gave her wrenching vocals an atmosphere of warmth and added a degree of welcome tightness to the performance. That band, consists of musical director Alan Hill (keyboards, backing vocals), Darryl Pierce (drums), Brett Lucas (guitar, backing vocals) and James Simonson (bass, backing vocals), and like LaVette, hails from Detroit. (Her first hit came in 1962, "My Man—He's a Lovin' Man.”)
In between, I was lucky enough to catch a show by the Thompson Family—led not by guitar-god, Richard, but by his dreamboat son, Teddy. Teddy’s got some issues, but he’s also got an incredible voice and some really clever songs. I’ll let my friend Jesse Kornbluth tell you all about it on his headbutler site, here. He’s a lot less lazy than I am apparently and even shot video.
I hope your year is off to a great start.
I was just verifying the Heritage membership rolls and realized that you aren't a member yet.
I hope you choose to be part of the Heritage team—we have a lot of work ahead of us in the coming year and we need every conservative in America to stand with us.
It’s the fastest, most secure way to activate your Heritage membership.
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Read Next: Eric Alterman on 2014's best music, concerts and the year of the box set
My newest Nation column is “Theater of the Absurd” with a subhed:
“In the wake of the Paris attacks, moral idiots play their predictable roles.”
So I’ve lost Reed. It’s shame as his work was terrific—better, on some occasions, than my own—but he could no longer justify the time. In the meantime I’ve decided to add a bit of content in the form of list-making. I always liked making lists. They are fun and they don’t take too long to write or to read. I meant to do the two below for gift-giving purposes last year but we had some personnel changes at The Nation that made it difficult to post in late December and early January. Also I was kinda lazy, which is a shame, because I think 2014 was the best year in human history for box sets. It’s amazing how hard the sequencing was in terms of picking my favorites. How hard it was to choose between the Beatles, Bruce and the Basement Tapes! Mike Bloomfield is really high on the list because that box set did such a great job of making a historical argument and of putting his career in context, especially the specially made documentary. The Allman Brothers are a little lower than they would otherwise be because most of that box was out on separate releases already and in some cases, higher quality audio. Simon & Garfunkel would be higher if there were any new material there. Leonard Cohen would be higher were there not a glut of recent Leonard Cohen live recordings and cds. Ditto Sinatra: London. The Miles at the Fillmore is beloved by many who think Miles did not make a very wrong turn after Bitches’ Brew. (After, not before...) That’s why I listed the 1960s set ahead of it, despite inferior sound quality. I mean that was the greatest post-Ellington, post-Basie band ever assembled in this view—from a strict standpoint of musicianship (though I am tempted to make an argument for the final iteration of the Allman Brothers Band, I will resist). Anyway, too late for the holidays but in time for the Grammys, is the below. More lists to come.
Best Retrospective Box Sets of 2014 in rough order:
The Beatles in Mono Vinyl Box Set
Bruce Springsteen: The Original Albums Remastered Volume I
Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes Complete
The Led Zeppelin re-releases
Mike Bloomfield: From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
The Allman Brothers Band: The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings
The Kinks: The Anthology , 1964-71
The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars
The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions
Leonard Cohen: Live in Dublin
The Complete Simon and Garfunkel
Miles Davis, All of You: The Last Tour, 1960
Emmylou Harris, Songbird
Uncompromising Expression: Singles Collection
Little Feat: Red Gumbo: The Complete Warner Brothers Years, 1971-1990
Miles at the Fillmore - Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3
My Favorite Albums of 2014 (but not in order except for first few, and even those are not in literal order because they cannot really be compared and one’s feelings change over time).
The Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theater, October 28, 2014, (4 CDs, website sale only)
Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems
Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes
Reflector, Arcade Fire
Pink Floyd, The Endless River
D’Angelo, Black Messiah
The Thompson Family
Rosanne Cash, The River & The Thread
The Black Keys, Turn Blue
Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
Sonny Rollins, Road Show, Volume III
Chick Corea, Trilogy
Beck, Morning Phase
Another Day, Another Time Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis
Sturgil Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Bryan Ferry, Avonmore
Big Star, Nothing Can Hurt Me
Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle
Bob Seger, Ride Out
Government Mule, Dark Side of the Mule
Common Ground - Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play And Sing The Songs Of Big Bill Broonzy
Tuesday night, 400 of my closest friends and I saw an extraordinary performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Appel Room called "The Nearness of You." The show was in honor of the late Michael Brecker, who before he died at age 57 myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer in which the bone marrow stops producing enough healthy blood cells, won more than a dozen Grammy Awards and played with a who’s who of musicians who want to play with great musicians. At this benefit, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, Jack DeJohnette, and brother Randy, fronting a terrific 15 piece band of Brecker’s friends and musical associates put on a moving and powerful show, but also an educational one. Usually these benefits are unbelievably tedious while one is forced to sit through endless thank-yous, auctions, begging for more money and sucking up to rich people. This one, however, was a model of good taste and concise speeches. Meredith Viera, Robin Roberts and Susan Brecker were the only speakers and none went on a minute longer than necessary to pay tribute both to Michael and to the work of Azra Raza, MD, and Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD. Dr. Raza is director of the Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS) Center at Columbia University Medical Center, to whose work the funds raised by the show will be given. Taylor, who had the flu, sang “The Nearness of You” and "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight." He added that “Michael saved my life and probably a lot of other people. He led me to freedom, really from addiction, and showed a number of us the way." Simon played “Still Crazy” and “The Boxer,” which was not enough but really nice, and the show closed with everyone signing “ "Shower the People,” albeit apparently unrehearsed. The Michael Brecker Quindectet was directed by Gil Goldstein was given plenty of time with Randy Brecker and DeJohnette, among others, to shine; a lovely night all around.
So the exciting news this week was the announcement of three 50th anniversary shows by the “core four” members of the Grateful Dead at Soldier’s Field in Chicago this July. It will be their only shows and so I and many others, will have to spend our July 4th weekend in Chicago. I hope it’s not too hot. To prepare, I’ll be spending time with recent Dave’s Picks and Dick’s Picks re-releases. The former are put out by the Dead themselves and are really only available by subscription because the limited editions always sell out. (See here) I think I am caught up on reviewing the most recent releases. Dick’s Picks, however, come from my friends at Real Gone Music; the company that makes even the most obsessive of music collectors feel stupid about what they have forgotten. Their most recent shows include Dick’s Picks Vol. 12—Providence Civic Center 6/26/74 & Boston Garden 6/28/74. The excellent press material notes that “The first disc picks up the second set from Providence three songs in, featuring a short jam that leads into what many have labeled the most extraordinary live version of “China Cat Sunflower” ever recorded, complete with a sublime transition (“Mud Love Buddy Jam” a.k.a. “Mind Left Body Jam”) into “I Know You Rider.” The revelatory moments continue throughout the Providence set, highlighted by a dazzling, 15-minute “Spanish Jam.” But the second set of the Boston show—which appears here complete, beginning on CD two after a superb encore performance of “Eyes of the World” from Providence—is the one that has passed into legend among Dead fans (that it begins with a rare performance of Phil Lesh and Ned Lagin’s electronic music piece “Seastones” gives you an idea of what an adventurous night this was). The set boasts one of the most renowned live jams of the band’s career, a flawless, 14-minute “Weather Report Suite: Prelude/Pt. 1/Pt. 2-Let It Grow” leading into a 27-minute “Jam” that is simply one of the most far-ranging, telepathic improvisations ever played by, well, anybody. That this set also includes a separation of the “Sunshine Daydream” section from “Sugar Magnolia” for only the second time ever is just gravy. Out of print for years and a must for your Dead collection (oh, and did we mention this was a Wall of Sound concert?)! (Please note: Real Gone is also reissuing, in a limited-edition 300-unit run, the long out of print Dick’s Picks Vol. 35, which presented 1971 concert tapes discovered on Keith Godchaux’s houseboat.)” You can still get that, I think.
I also discovered the soul singer Jackie Moore from Real Gone. She began her recording career in 1968 with singles on the Shout and Wand labels, but made it (a little) big(ger) with Atlantic Records in 1970. There are 21 tracks recorded between November 1969 and June 1972 plus a 1973 album all together now on The Complete Atlantic Recordings, a 2-CD, 30-track set with 14 previously unreleased tracks and all remastered. Check her out. I found her to be a wonderful surprise.
I also want to plug a couple of photo books: The first is Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression, which is a companion to the cd box set listed above to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Blue Note Records. Published by Chronicle Books, the text is by Richard Havers, who also wrote the remarkably similar Like Verve: The Sound of America (2013) which was published last year for the same reason. There are forwards by Wayne Shorter, Don Was, and Robert Glasper, but the real fun is are the photos of the album covers, posters, flyers/ads, press releases, notes on various sessions, etc, which provide hours of fun, educational perusing, especially with the music on.
I am also enjoying (and should have recommended before the holidays) Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography, a companion to an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art published by Yale University Press. The museum recently acquired the core collection of Strand's prints from the Paul Strand Archive, and the book not only reproduces these on 250 plates but also features a number of essays and debates about the work, so you will learn a lot. It’s big and heavy like coffee table photography book should be, but definitely worth your time and money if you don’t already have an earlier Strand collection.
Finally, I want to celebrate the return of, and mourn the end of Foyle’s War, one of my favorite shows of the past few years. And hey, if you want to see it, you have to go to Acorn TV as apparently PBS does not have it. The final three feature-length films begin on Monday, Feb. 2nd and run for the next two weeks. The show has been around since 2003, but has only picked up steam in recent years as people got to know it. There are total of 28 shows to which you can look forward if you’ve somehow missed it beginning from the start of the second world war through the dropping of the atom bomb. The final season takes place in 1946 London.
And finally, finally, before the break, I saw Bob Seger at the Garden, at 69, has great hair. I was jealous. He’s got guys in his band who have been there since 1969, Chris Campbell on bass, Alto Reed on sax since 1972, Grand Funk Railroad's Don Brewer. “Ride Out” on Capitol is his first from the studio since 2006. He spoke of the “good message” of Steve Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand,” a Steve Earle and sang another one about global warming and third about his fireman brother-in-law and did a few others too. The J. Geils Band opened the show with an 45-minute set and were surprisingly great, given that I smoked pot for the first time in my life at one of their shows at the Academy of Music literally 40 years ago. Peter Wolf is definitely defying time.
But back to Bob. Bruce did not appear, magically, as he did the last time Seger played the Garden, but the sheer number of great songs the guy has is astounding if one doesn’t think about it in advance. (Though he only has one move: fist in the air. I could live without that.) But still. Look at this setlist. No wonder his GH collection is up there with the Eagles on the best selling albums of all time. Here’s what he played: "Roll Me Away," "Tryin' to Live My Life Without You," “Night Moves,” “Mainstreet,” “Beautiful Loser,” “Like a Rock,” “Against the Wind,” "The Fire Down Below," "Come to Poppa," “We’ve Got Tonight,” "Turn the Page," "Old Time Rock and Roll," “Hollywood Nights,” "Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” and that’s only what I remember, which is a factor of my advanced age, rather than any continued abuse of illegal substances.
Read Next: Eric Alterman on Jazz at Lincoln Center and Reed Richardson's tips for navigating the upcoming 2016 election.
Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.
There’s not been an Altercation in a while, so here are a few pieces I’ve put up of late.
The former activist and New York public advocate discusses his first year as mayor.
Why is the political coverage in The New York Times so lame?
Mario Cuomo’s Patchwork Quilt In his electrifying 1984 convention speech, Cuomo forged a new liberal vision drawn from his own ethnic experience. (From The Cause, my history of postwar American liberalism)
Moyers's most significant legacy is that he treated his audience as adult citizens of a republic. (From the second to last time Bill retired, but sadly, this time it’s for real.)
New York Winter Jazzfest
The Complete Sopranos on bluray
Sinatra in London
“The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions.”
I made it to Jazz@Lincoln Center twice last week. First, at Dizzy’s I saw Marcus Roberts’ Modern Jazz Generation, one of the most exciting developments in jazz right now. First of all it’s nice to see that Roberts can sustain so ambitious an undertaking. I recently reviewed Roberts’ MJG a few months ago when they played the Appel Room, and, at Dizzy’s, they demonstrated considerable growth both in terms of musicianship and internal communication. The musicians are almost all quite young, and they mesh quite nicely but when it comes time to solo they play as if they've been waiting an entire lifetime to shine. The set was devoted to Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, Horace Silver and a sparkling Chick Corea song from “My Spanish Heart,” my favorite album of his. I look forward to more meshing on their part, both musically and across time and space.
But the most amazing thing about the show was the warm-up act, eleven year old, Bali-born Joey Alexander. (He only played the early show because the late show would have been past his bedtime.) He began with Monk and then moved into Coltrane and elsewhere in the canon. It was jaw-dropping. It actually made me reconsider the possibility of human achievement. How this cute kid can understand what he is playing well enough to interpret what he did—much less play it, given the complication of say “Giant Steps,” was, and remains, almost impossible to fathom. After the show, he and his mom told me that he had been playing since he was 7 and he had even played Rose Hall. Check him out here. He’s an amazing phenomenon.
Later that week, I caught a performance by Wynton Marsalis and the orchestra. It was not my favorite period of jazz but I really appreciated the degree to which Wynton integrated historical context into his introductions of each piece. (The concert was based on a lecture in the six-part series Wynton gave at Harvard called “Hidden in Plain Sight: Meanings in American Music that began in 2011.) As the press material explained, the show was designed to “explore the roles of orchestral instrumentation and the expansion of harmonic prospects, the evolution of the rhythm section, and the distinctiveness of the master composers and arrangers involved. At the forefront of this celebration are Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Bill Challis, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Eddie Durham, Chico O’Farrill, and Gil Fuller,” and ended with Dizzy. Even a serious jazz fan might not be familiar with all of these folks and few people besides Wynton, and professional jazz historians would have known all about them. I was particularly ignorant about the role that Don Redman played in the birth of jazz. Actually, I was ignorant about more of than I knew. (And did you know that Eddie Durham invented the electric guitar?) The Jazz@LC schedule is here
The night before, I caught a couple of performances at the Minetta Lane Theater by David Murray and various accompanists as part of the New York Jazz Winterfest, now in its 11th year, and coincides with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference and the Jazz Connect conference, and so is filled with jazz cognoscenti. Murray, who was in town from Paris and/or Portugal, made the most of his return, by playing sets with three different bands, including “The David Murray Clarinet Summit w/ Don Byron, David Krakauer, and Hamiet Bluiett,” which was the highlight in my opinion, the “David Murray Infinity Quartet with Saul Williams”” and “David Murray w/ Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington,” There might have been more, but that was the best I could do. It was spiriting so see so many people waiting in freezing cold to get in to hear such demanding music. I love David Murray but, like say, Chick Corea, he is so versatile, it would be hard for anyone to love all of it. The festival has turned into another reason however, that this is the greatest city in the world, even when freezing.
Stuff: So I've been watching the Sopranos: The Complete Series on bluray. It's 28 discs, 4980 minutes and I can't believe:
a)the incredible visual definition of the actors;
b)how well written the first season was;
c)how young Tony was, and I guess how young I must have been since James Gandlofini and I were born the same year.
Enough time has passed to appreciate just how great this show was and how groundbreaking was its dramatic trajectory. Among the features include interviews with cast, crew, celebrities, filmmakers, critics, and academics, as well as never-before-seen archival footage from the groundbreaking series. - Two roundtable interviews with the cast and crew - Two-part interview with David Chase—Lost scenes—25 audio commentaries with the cast and crew
I’ve also spent some time with a new 3 CD/DVD Sinatra box called “Sinatra: London,” from my friends at Capitol/UMe. The shows, which have not been released before, took place during several weeks in spring of 1962, when Sinatra traveled to the U.K. to record “Sinatra Sings Great Songs From Great Britain.” It turned out to be the only album Sinatra would ever record outside of the United States. The box includes session material from the album, a 1962 BBC “Light Programme” radio special with introductions to each song by Sinatra himself, a 1953 live session for BBC Radio’s “The Show Band Show,” and a Royal Albert Hall concert from 1984. The DVD features is yet another unreleased Sinatra show from the period at Royal Festival Hall, with a “A Foggy Day” from a 1970 show appearance also at the same Hall. It comes with a nice 60-page booklet with an essay by Ken Barnes, who was there for all of it, along with two exclusive art print reproductions of original London concert posters, and a studio panorama from the 1962 recording sessions.
If your interest was kindled (original meaning) by the J@LC Orchestra show mentioned above, then you might want to pursue the music of that period with yet another sterling and extremely generous collection from Mosaic called “The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions.” This limited edition nine CD box set restores to pristine condition the great Charlie Parker'sDial Sessions, recorded between 1946 and 1947 which included among so many others, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Howard McGee, Wardell Gray, J. J. Johnson, Duke Jordan, Teddy Edwards, Teddy Wilson, Errol Garner, Tommy Potter and Max Roach. This set was originally made available in Japan 20 years ago but this is the first time you could get it except at crazy import prices, if you could find it at all.
What was Dial? Count on Mosaic, not only for their engineers, but also for their historians.
Dial founder Ross Russell, who owned the Tempo Music Shop, described as a West Coast Mecca for jazz lovers,” launched the label shortly after the Musician's Union lifted its ban on recording. Major labels were not eager to pay royalties for the first time, and this opened the door to indie entrepreneurs like Russell. Dial relocated to New York (where Parker moved as well.) The earliest tracks in the set, recorded in New York, were originally done for Comet and acquired years later by Dial. They include a Red Norvo show in June 1945, featuring Bird and Diz, Flip Phillips, Teddy Wilson, Slam Stewart, and Specs Powell and J.C. Heard alternating. At the other end, Mosaic throws in some Dexter Gordon sessions from 1947, recorded in LA, with Teddy Edwards among others. Naturally, there’s a great booklet with a 1995 essay by Russell himself. And the sound is hard to believe, given the recording technology available at the time. Mosaic is a real national treasure.
Oh, and finally, I wanted to mention that this coming this coming Tuesday, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Bobby McFerrin, among others will be headlining a benefit for cancer research at Columbia University Medical Center. The concert will honor the memory of the late sax man Michael Brecker, who played with all of them, but died in 2007 at 54 of MDS when he failed to find a match for a bone marrow transplant. The show, which will be at Rose Hall, will also support the work of Azra Raza, and Siddhartha Mukherjee, director of the Myelodisplastic Syndromes Center and a researcher at the MDS Center respectively. (Mukherjee won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.) The show is happening at the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. More here.
Caveat Lector: Your 2015 Guide to 2016 Presidential Primary Coverage
by Reed Richardson
It has begun.
Now that the calendar has officially turned to 2015, any remaining pundit coyness or pretense of reporting restraint on the part of the political press can be jettisoned. What was mere Beltway background noise will now start to slowly compete with (and drown out) other political storylines. From now until November 8, 2016, media coverage of the race for the White House will proceed to eat up the news hole at an accelerated pace.
Still, the first GOP presidential debateis a full nine months away, which means we’re still firmly ensconced in the “invisible primary” stage of the 2016 presidential election. As I’ve written previously, the campaign news of consequence being made in this period is much more to difficult to find and report. It requires steps like tracking private soirées with well-heeled donors, connecting the dots of campaign staff hiring, and getting on the ground at small, distant gatherings of the party faithful. In other words, it demands an active, aggressive approach to campaign journalism, which can be an increasingly rarefied trait in an era where poll write-ups and social media snark rule the media landscape. Which is why in the year before an election year, differentiating between actual 2016 election news and needless horserace speculation isn’t always so easy.
Point #1: Don’t put much stock in polls.
One year ago, polls showed Hillary Clinton with a huge lead over any potential 2016 Democratic rival and a pack of dozen-plus GOP candidates mostly mired in the single digits. Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that nothing much has changed. Yet, that well-established stability didn’t stop media organizations from commissioning dozens of polls in the intervening year. Nor will it slow them down going forward, since the 2011 GOP primary polling demonstrated that a lifetime of campaign booms and busts can happen in the months before the Iowa caucuses. But, since we’re not currently in the midst of either the President Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani administrations, it’s important to remember that odd-year presidential polling is of limited predictive value.
Which is why breathless reports of poll momentum in 2015 deserve a lot of skepticism. Like, for example, this craven attempt by CNN to hype its latest poll results, which purportedly show Jeb Bush “rocket[ing]” to the lead of the GOP field. True, Bush’s 23% mark means his 13%-point lead over Gov. Chris Christie is statistically significant. The political significance is much less clear, however. Because what CNN never bothers to mention is that when Mitt Romney is included in other GOP primary polls, Bush quickly drops back into a statistical tie with the rest of the pack, which strongly suggests these polls are merely measuring name ID rather than actual political preferences.
Moreover, this latest CNN poll was conducted right after Bush announced he was “exploring” a presidential run, which prompted a surfeit of mostly positive stories in the press. Not coincidentally, in their book about the 2012 election, “The Gamble,” political scientists Lynn Vavreck and John Sides found that news coverage consistently drove, rather than reacted to the Republican primary candidates’ surges in the polls. In a close race between 10 or more candidates, even a small “observer effect” by the media will be able to swing the 2015 polling narrative on who’s up and who’s down. (And for those who find volatile polls too scientific, there’s always this completely subjective, six-byline National Journal ranking of the GOP field.)
Point #2: Pay even less attention to “gaffes.”
After the Dallas Cowboys’ comeback victory at Detroit last Sunday, Gov. Christie’s awkward celebratory bear hug of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones rocketed across social media. Predictably, hot takes from the political press soon ensued. Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren took to Twitter to quickly lower the boom on Christie’s electoral chances in the state: “good bye Michigan primary.” (And yes, she was serious.)
This is, to put it bluntly, nuts. Yes, Christie has driven the New Jersey economy into the ditch and his policies would make matters worse in Michigan too, but come on. Not only is the Michigan primary 14 months away, for that matter it’s also an entire NFL regular season and two Super Bowls from now. Nevertheless, fleeting moments like these are catnip for pundits who are constantly on the lookout for ways to demonstrate their political savvy. (Worth noting: there are legitimate ethical concerns about Christie accepting all these free trips to Cowboys games from Jones, who business dealings with the Port Authority.)
In a way, gaffes are the original clickbait. But common sense tells us that they don’t really matter to voters. And political science agrees. The only people that really care about gaffes, then, are political operatives and the political press. Which is why, for example, it’s not worth reading facile op-eds devoted solely to out-of-context nitpicking of Hillary Clinton’s comments. As with almost all gaffe coverage, it can be boiled down to a shameless attempt by the press to avoid a substantive policy critique. In Clinton’s case, it’s also a way for the establishment media to gin up controversy in a Democratic primary that looks unlikely to produce sufficient drama for big ratings.
Point #3: Beware of “savvy” analysis that ignores the obvious.
This is of particular importance in 2015, since a lot of political reporting will devolve into speculating about who will or won’t be running in 2016. Even though most of these campaign decisions are telegraphed far in advance, the Beltway media loves to pretend otherwise. And more often than not, they’re deductive powers are proven to be ridiculously (and repeatedly) awful.
Take, for instance, these three related CNN headlines about Donald Trump’s “serious” presidential ambitions, put in chronological order:
-Trump ‘more serious than ever’ about 2012 run (3/10/2011)
-Trump ‘seriously considering’ 2016 bid (12/14/2014)
I look forward to the network’s chastened, fourth installment in this series later this spring. (On a related note, I have a breaking news alert to pass along to CNN: the word “gullible” was accidentally left out of the latest edition of Webster’s dictionary.)
Or consider this pitiful May 2007 exchange between ABC News’ Diane Sawyer and former Vice President Al Gore. Time and again, Sawyer tried to find some wiggle room in Gore’s weary, steadfast denials about running for president in the 2008 election 18 months away. The interview, which—ironically—was supposed to be about Gore’s new book on the corrosion of democratic discourse, ended with Sawyer stooping to journalistic self-parody: “But to dig not very deep, once again, at my peril here…I just want to say, Donna Brazile, your former campaign manager, has said, If he drops 25 to 30 pounds he’s running. Lost any weight?”
As far as unwitting self-recriminations go, “But to dig not very deep, once again,” might be my all-time favorite way to describe the Beltway establishment.
To be fair, Sawyer wasn’t the last pundit to deploy this inane, beltline analysis. Just this past weekend, in fact, Brit Hume Tweeted out this bit of political wisdom about his former Fox News colleague Mike Huckabee: “Re: Huckabee, watch his girth. You'll know he's moved from exploring to running when it begins to shrink.” Or maybe, just maybe, the fact that he voluntarily gave up a lucrative TV gig is a more realistic indicator of his actual presidential plans. Then again, that’s a pretty obvious point, one that doesn’t require brilliant insights from a cable news anchor.
Point #4: Don’t be distracted by talk of white horse candidacies.
Nobody loves a stunning plot twist more than me. Running a presidential campaign, however, is not something one just switches on overnight or at the last minute. It takes a monumental amount of hard work and just as much preparation. Nevertheless, there’s nothing that intrigues the political press more than the prospect of high-profile politician disavowing any interest in running for president and then changing his or her mind.
For the past year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has consistently sworn off any interest running for president in 2016. Still, the media keeps asking her. Over and over. How bad has this parlor game become? So bad that the Washington Post’s chief political handicapper, Chris Cillizza, recently claimed to have found a loophole in her denials, noting that: “when given the opportunity to definitely rule out running for president—past, present, or future—Warren didn’t do it.” That’s right, he wrote past. Who knew Warren could be deviously planning a presidential run in 2012? Hell, let’s make it 1980 if we’re going to entertain Bizarro world presidential match-ups.
Time-traveling Draft Warren fantasies aside, back on Earth the signs of a real U.S. presidential campaign commence with all the high drama of a corporate tax filing. Thus, you’ll notice little pundit talk or Twitter trends about Jeb Bush resigning from all his corporate boards. But the kind of nuts-and-bolt reporting that ferrets this information out offers far more valuable insight into a politician’s real White House plans than his or her diet or Shermanesque rhetoric. (In addition, this kind of reporting can also provide much richer detail on how, as in Bush’s case, a candidate’s past business entanglements can seriously undermine their presidential hopes.)
Likewise, all the chatter this past week of a return to the presidential trail from two-time loser Mitt Romney should be viewed with heavy skepticism. Though anonymous sources may be breathlessly telling news organizations like Politico that he’s “serious" and “open to the idea” of running in 2016, much of the coverage of Romney’s re-entry amounts to rich donors playing the media. I can think of nearly 66 million reasons why he won’t be running a third time. But if he actually goes through with it, he certainly won't wait around and parachute back into the race late in the fall.
Point #5: Follow the people, the money, and the money people.
The year before the actual presidential primaries begin involves a lot of infrastructure building on the part of presidential campaigns. Email lists, donor networks, state coordinators: all these need to be in place to have success in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond.
Although campaign staff stories lack a certain sex appeal, they’re often a leading indicator of a politician’s ambitions. Sen. Rand Paul hasn’t officially declared he’s running in 2016, but the campaign staff he’s already hired makes his announcement all but a formality. What’s more, staff departures can be just as important as arrivals, as they can signal to others who the perceived stronger campaigns are. Back in November, when Paul successfully poached the top digital operative of Sen. Ted Cruz—a potential 2016 rival—it sent a subtle, yet important message about the perceived strengths of the two presidential bids.
Staying power is paramount for a candidate who wants to survive the great winnowing that happens during the first few 2016 primary contests. Four years ago, after a surprise victory at the (completely meaningless) Iowa straw poll, cable news touted Michele Bachmann as a supposedly rising presidential prospect. But less heralded news reports about her campaign’s money and people problems told a different story. Her campaign’s weak fundraising in the third quarter and the mass resignation of her New Hampshire staff in October portended an early exit. Sure enough, after a sixth-place finish at the Iowa caucuses, she quietly disappeared from the race just a few days into January.
What Bachmann lacked was a billionaire backer like Foster Friess or Sheldon Adelson. These wealthy conservative spent millions to single-handedly keep the campaigns of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, respectively, afloat four years ago. For 2016, the price tab for winning the GOP nomination is expected to be north of $75 million. Which is why coverage of the 2015 battle for the benefactors, already underway, is key to understanding which Republicans have a real shot at making it to next summer’s GOP convention.
On the Democratic side, there’s little doubt that Hillary Clinton can amass a prodigious campaign war chest; the Clintons’ ability to tap wealthy individuals and corporations is, by now, well established. Instead, the more interesting storyline to follow is how her Wall Street connections might offer a political opening on the left to an insurgent Democratic challenger like Bernie Sanders. Indeed, MSNBC noted this week that Sanders has reshaped the Senate Budget Committee in a way that could provide him a natural campaign springboard for a more populist economic message.
Point #6: The ideological media primaries are important.
How much attention MSNBC pays to Sanders this year could have an significant impact on his decision to mount a challenge to Clinton. That’s why watching its coverage of him and Clinton and, similarly, observing how Fox News covers the Republican presidential hopefuls can be instructive. In this pre-POTUS election year especially, ideological news organizations and political pundits act as a kind of first-order proving ground for their party’s prospective candidates; a place to be tested in an mostly friendly environment and hone his or her message. This will be even truer in 2015 than four years ago, as the RNC plans to more tightly control media involvement in what will be substantially fewer primary debates.
Because of this, it’s worth knowing the media lay of the land. On the right, it’s no secret Fox News president Roger Ailes desperately wanted Christie to run in 2012. Over at theWall Street Journal editorial page, they don’t care much for Rand Paul and they loathe Ted “Iowa caucuses by way of Texas” Cruz. (I mean really loathe him.) The Washington Post’s resident right-wing primary obsessive, Jennifer Rubin, doesn’t much care for Cruz,likes Bush and Rick Perry, but seems to hate Paul with the heat of 10,000 suns. This is a notable turnaround for Rubin, since four years ago she trained her obsessive fire on Perry, before transforming into Mitt Romney’s obedient lapdog.) Naturally, Rush Limbaugh disagrees with all these establishment voices, loves Cruz, and doesn’t think Jeb Bush is a conservative.
On the left, the partisan media has mostly responded to the supposed inevitability of a Hillary Clinton campaign with ambivalence. The Nation has certainly made the case against pre-emptively anointing her the nominee. But the magazine has also tried to come to grips with her unique, historic standing in the party right now. In the end, left-wing media arguments about her personal baggage—her husband, her name, the “dynasty” factor—won’t be reason enough to dissuade Democratic voters if they think she stands a good chance of winning. (The same goes for Jeb Bush on the right, incidentally.) But her Wall Street and foreign policy baggage just might slow her down enough to give someone else a chance. After all, the fatal flaw in her 2008 primary campaign wasn’t whom she was married to; it was her 2002 vote in favor of a pointless, disastrous war in Iraq.
Point #7: Every election is different.
Journalists love analogies and political journalists even more so. But news stories that try to force-fit this next election into a convenient historical frame are hallmarks of lazy thinking. So no, 2016 will not be like 2008 or 1988. Or even 2012, for Republicans. The best news coverage over the coming year will recognize this and strive to dig deeper than rehashed poll roundups and hashtagged gaffes. Instead, it’s about finding the stories behind the stories, the ones that reveal how our democracy really works (or, all too often, doesn’t) and that stake out in clear terms the real-world impact of the choice voters will face in the voting booth next year.
Final note: This will be my last regular blog post here. Accordingly, I must take a moment to express my deepest gratitude to Eric for letting me write here weekly for the past four-and-a-half years. His hospitality has been nothing short of fantastic. Though I would never presume to say replaced the great Charles Pierce as guest blogger, I at least like to think I kept well tended the intellectual fires that he lit. And I’d also offer a shout-out to the dozen-plus interns—the names of whom escape me—who patiently helped post my portion of the blog over the years. Like Ted Hart, our current intern, they’ve all been great. (Follow Ted on Twitter here or, better yet, offer him a job.)
Blogging here for you has been a pleasure and a privilege, as they say. It’s also been a lot of damned hard work and opened numerous other doors for me, which I look forward to pursuing. I still plan on writing longer articles for The Nation occasionally. As for blogging, going forward you can find more of my media criticism over at Medium.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
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