My new Think Again column is called “Why Are ‘Liberals’ Such Meanies?” and it is here.
My new Nation column is called “MSM to Liberals: ‘Eww” and it’s here.

Whole Lotta Motown Goin On…
It’s Motown’s 50th anniversary and I’ll bet nobody at Berry Gordy’s shop in 1961 ever imagined that we’d be observing it like this. I really like the packaging on the 50th Anniversary: Singles Collection 1961-1971 for both the Temptations and the Supremes. Each are three cd sets in book form featuring every single each group produced, both A and B side and a bunch more. (The Complete Motown Singles series used the same format.) Each has this box set is accompanied by a booklet filled with detailed information about each single, reproductions of their picture sleeves from around the world, and rare photos. I prefer the Tempts’ grittiness to the Supremes’ prettiness (and Levi Stubs and the fabulous Four Tops to both) but these are really handsome, information-filled packages—I really love this new trend where music consumers are being treated as amateur historians, it makes for so much richer an experience-and there’s plenty of stuff in both sets that very few people will already have. More here and here

In addition, there are some wonderful performances, but not much in the way of information on the two DVD collections, Best of the Temptations on the Ed Sullivan Show and The Best of the Supremes on the Ed Sullivan Show and both are pretty cheap, but if you’re the kind of person who wants either one of those, then you’d have to be really crazy not to want the double CD, and also pretty reasonable, Motown Gold From the Ed Sullivan Show. It includes performances by the Jackson 5, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Martha & The Vandellas and Gladys Knight & The Pips, and is the best visual collection of vintage Motown you’re likely to find anywhere and a delight from start to finish. 

If you want to spend more time with music on your TV (etc.) there a new bluray of Cream’s 2005 reunion show at Royal Albert Hall and it’s beautifully shot and the sound is incredible. The music is only so-so as Cream is one of the most overrated bands in history; Clapton’s solo career has many much higher points, but the versions of “Badge” “White Room” and “Sunshine” are pretty nice and some of the other songs amost make up for Ginger Baker’s hysterical drumming. (They leave off “Tales of Brave Ulysses” for no good reason.)  I’ve also been watching new Bluray shows from Bad Company, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Peter Gabriel. They all sound terrific and all are, of course, a matter of taste. Gabriel: “New Blood – Live in London” and it will please his fans without a doubt. Bad Company live at Wembley Arena in April 2010, has the three surviving original members Paul Rodgers, Mick Ralphs and Simon Kirke with Howard Leese on guitars and Lynn Sorensen on bass, and a guest appearance by Jimmy Page. In the case of both this and the Emerson Lake & Palmer – 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert, it depends on how you feel about seeing these guys about thirty years older (and pauchier) than you remember them. For me, I prefer just the music and the memories of my unhappy youth, The value of these, however, is that the music sounds better than ever, because nothing recreates as well as bluray. Your call on all concerned.

Back to history, I watched the documentary The Hollies: Look Through Any Window 1963-1975 DVD. It’s pretty great, especially for the peformances. Twenty-two of them are available for the first time. It’s also narrated mostly by Hollies Graham Nash and Allan Clarke but also with  lots of other folks too. Again, I’m loving this new commitment to the historical record, combined with the great music. More here

Speaking of history, Paul Simon’s turning 70 and he’s got a handsome new collection called “Songwriter.” It’s kind of problem because there’s too many great songs by Paul Simon (post S&G) to fit on just two discs. And I’m kinda angry that he left off “Slip Slidin’ Away “ which is not on any of the other albums, which, by the way are also being remixed and released. The is the second batch which begins with the still terrific “Still Crazy” and continuing on some highs and lows—“The Capeman,” I continue to insist, is an incredibly underrated piece of work—and there’s plenty of good stuff in the rest if less consistent albums. Songwriter is here. You’ll have to search for the rest.

I am also listenging to:
* Johnny Cash: Bootleg Volume 3: Live Around the World, which is another collection of rare and unreleased shows from his days on the road at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas Texas in the 1950’s through the 1970’s.

* Glen Campbell Ghost On The Canvas which is just a terrific album, and will be Glen’s last as he is suffering from Alzheimer’s. They are beautiful, moving songs with guest appearances by Jakob Dylan, Paul Westerberg, Chris Isaak, and the great Dick Dale,

* The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. This album is a lot like those Wilco/Billy Bragg records of Woody Guthrie’s old lyrics. Bob Dylan organized this collection, taking the notebooks that Hank left in the back of his Caddy on New Year’s Day 1953, and parceled them out to Jack White, Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, Levon Helm, Merle Haggard, etc. I think that ought to be enough information for anyone.

* Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie This is a more complicated affair. These are mostly not quite songs, but speechs, musings and diary entries set to much by Rob Wasserman’s in collaboration with Jackson Browne, Ani DiFranco, Kurt Elling, Michael Franti, Nellie McKay, Tom Morello, Van Dyke Parks, Madeleine Peyroux, Lou Reed, Pete Seeger, Studs Terkel, Tony Trischka, and Chris Whitley. The Jackson Browne song is about seventeen minutes long and really terrific. The rest are mostly interesting and sometimes quite worthwhile, sometimes, something one wants to hear once in a great while.

Finally, and perhaps most elaborate, is Sting’s new box set 25 Years [3CD + DVD] It includes songs from his solo era from each and every album since 1985’s The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, to his 2010 album Symphonicities, though it’s less a greatest hits collection, of which there have been plenty, than personal statement by El Stingo of what he likes the best. It’s all been nicely remixed and comes with a previously unreleased live concert DVD and a pretty fancy and quite comprehensive hardcover book, though as classy it looks and feels, it doesn’t come cheap. More here

Now here’s Reed:

The Same Kind of Bad as Me
By Reed Richardson 
For most of his long and illustrious career, Tom Waits has never been one to get embroiled in ephemeral trappings of popular culture or, for that matter, the counterculture. After all, in 1975, the same year that disco began its unfortunate run up the pop charts and the Eagles blanketed the radio warning us about California’s self-indulgent “life in the fast lane” with its “pink champagne on ice,” Waits was off chronicling a whole different scene—seedy bus stops and downtown strip joints, where a character like “the last of the big-time losers” either ends up “rained on with his own .38” or stuck with a “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” His songs inhabited the cracks in the country’s zeitgeist, where the opposing cultural forces had either cancelled each other out, or more likely, never even gained a foothold in the first place.

Even after Waits’ performance shtick transformed from boozy troubadour to avant-garde artist in the early 1980s (thanks to his marriage to Kathleen Brennan, who has been his musical co-collaborator ever since), his lyrical focus on small towns, hard luck, lost love, ironic humor, and genuinely weird people remained pretty much unchanged. And within this broad and often bizarre pastiche of Waits,’ any hint of politics was reliably missing.

This may be somewhat surprising since Waits, in recent interviews, has cited two particular live shows he saw as a young teenager as seminal moments in his understanding of musical performance—the first was of James Brown and the second, Bob Dylan. Indeed, listening to his nearly four-decade back catalog will yield few obviously shared sequences in those three performers’ musical DNA. But on Waits’ new album, Bad as Me, ($10.99, or $12.99 with bonus tracks, Anti-) these two foundational influences—hard-working entertainer; masterful storyteller and allegorist—come to the fore as never before to create his best album in more than 10 years and one of the best studio albums of his storied career.

Of course, as any dedicated Waits fan can tell you, achieving the former isn’t saying much. For a guy who consistently churned out an album a year in his first decade recording and, then, during his second averaged one every two years, Waits now releases new studio albums on a laconic schedule approaching the gestation cycle of cicadas. In between this latest recording and his 1992 Grammy-winning album Bone Machine, Waits only released two, all-new records: Mule Variations (1999) and  Real Gone (2004). Perhaps most maddening to a Waits fan like me is that these recordings are invariably much better, at least to my ears, than his other side projects, compilations, and live album releases, of which he has had seven during the same period.

I make a point of breaking off and examining the past two decades, what I characterize as Waits’ “late period,” for two reasons. First off, the release of “Bone Machine” is his first real embrace of found or non-instrumentalized sounds—whether its buzzing saws, whirring appliances, or, as on “Bad as Me,” firing machine guns—a musical tool he continues to employ (to mixed success, I feel). Second, that album also marked the first, ever-so-subtle turn toward a larger political awareness in his music, as was seen in the environmental allegory, “The Earth Died Screaming.”

Since then, sightings of Waits the polemicist have been few and far between, but they are unmistakable nonetheless—while Mule Variations lacked anything resembling a political tone, Real Gone served up perhaps the best anti-war song of the Iraq/Afghanistan era, the intensely personal soldier’s tale Day After Tomorrow. (When I saw Waits perform this song at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in the spring of 2006, as dozens of U.S. casualties were coming home in flag-draped coffins every month, his simple lines at the end of the second verse: “They fill us full of lies / Everyone buys / About what it means to be a soldier” elicited the most powerful emotional response I’ve felt in a concert audience in years.) Then, on the Orphans album, Waits dropped all pretense and launched a direct, attack on the madness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fecklessness of our then president with “Road to Peace,” a song as trenchant in its political analysis as it is laden with hooky, bent electric guitar riffs:

Once Kissinger said / We have no friends / America only has interests / And now our president wants to be seen as a hero /
And he’s hungry for re-election / Bush is reluctant to risk his future /
With the fear of his political failures / So he plays chess at his desk
And poses for the press / Ten thousand miles / From the road to peace.

On Bad as Me, you won’t find such a specifically targeted political broadside, although “Hell Broke Luce,” a heavily produced, clanging, Weill-inspired tune comes close. Sung from the perspective of a frustrated, wounded Iraq War vet—“How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess / Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk”—the song delves into the damage that remains after our soldiers finally return from war. Still, the vulgar, military voice Waits adopts sounds a bit too pedantic to me. It’s an unnecessary contrivance and its impact pales in comparison the quiet, straightforward strength of “Day After Tomorrow.” But the song’s stark conclusion does tie in with the leitmotiv of much of the rest of the album and is perhaps its saving grace: “Now I’m home and I’m blind / And I’m broke / What is next.”

Waits’ question here is no mere rhetorical flourish—it brings up a very real problem. As does the album’s other notably political song, the loping, syncopated shuffle of “Talking at the Same Time.” Backed by nine pieces, Waits condenses all that instrumentation into a subdued, stripped-down arrangement that’s equal parts social commentary and gallows humor. Waits’ tipsy, high-register vocals, the sad horns honking opposite the downbeat, and the piano tinkling out “I told you so’s” all conspire to deliver the bad news. “Well it’s hard times for some / For others it’s sweet / Someone makes money when there’s blood in the street…We bailed out all the millionaires / They’ve got the fruit / We’ve got the rind / And everybody’s talking at the same time.”

Waits wrote these lines long before this or this happened of course, but sometimes coincidence makes for the most powerful symbols. And with GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain berating the Occupy protestors as shiftless losers while dismissing any criticism of his ridiculous, screw the poor, 9-9-9 tax plan (or whatever it’s being called this week) as being about apples rather than oranges, Waits’ fruit-rind metaphor becomes scarily accurate.

With these two songs as thematic tentpoles, the rest of the album gathers underneath, once again fleshing out the lives of Americans who are struggling to get by or living in society’s interstices. Some by their own choice, sure, but many of them not. Still, Waits is careful to keep a light hand on the throttle here, content to let the listener spend most of their time enjoying some of the best writing and studio accompaniment of this career. (One caveat, however, the three bonus tracks were, in my mind, not worth the extra two bucks, with only the second song, the kind of Springsteen-like “Tell Me,” being worthy of multiple listens.)

The album’s opening song, “Chicago,” ignites from the very first note with a pulsing, pushing tempo—a hustling sax line and insistent banjo driving the melody over a rattling, El-train track of a percussion beat laid down by Waits’ son, Casey. Those who loved 2004’s Real Gone album will find much to like on “Raised Right Men.” The song’s discordant organ blasts, hopped-up bass line (played by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea), and raw, accusatory vocals are all of a piece with the earlier album’s notable songs Hoist That Rag and Make It Rain.” “Get Lost,” a tight, Rockabilly tune is a bold declaration of coming-of-age independence, an expression of a uniquely American longing that might best described as “get me the hell out of here.” It’s a theme that has appeared numerous times in Waits’ repertoire and “Get Lost” serves as a kind of blunt, high-energy yang to the writerly, subdued yin of his 1977 running-away-from-home song Burma-Shave.”

Any Waits album worth its salt includes a couple of ballads and Bad as Me serves up some fine examples. “Back in the Crowd,” a pretty cowboy ballad with Waits’ voice in far more velvety than volcanic form, could easily have been cribbed from a Howard Hawks western 50 years ago. And as far as musical denouements go, the delicate and melancholy key change in the song’s final few bars is another jewel unto itself. “Kiss Me,” a half-spoken, half-sung elegy for a love that’s slowly dying, harkens back to early period Waits, its title refrain echoing the frequent pleas of “Send me” on 1978’s “Blue Valentine.” And as Bad as Me’s last song, Waits gives us “New Year’s Eve,” another example of his penchant for choosing one of the best from a batch of recordings—“Day After Tomorrow,” “Come on Up to the House,” “That Feel”—to finish off an album. A gentle march with accordions and guitars leading the way, the song offers snapshots of a close-knit New Year’s Eve celebration, but it really encapsulates what Waits does best with his music and lyrics—create characters that resonate with real humor and with real pathos:

It felt like four in the morning / What sounded like fireworks
Turned out to be just what it was
The stars looked like diamonds / Then came the sirens /
And everyone started to cuss.
All the noise was disturbing / And I couldn’t find Irving
It was like two stations on at the same time
And then I hid your car keys / And I made black coffee
And I dumped out the rest of the rum.

There’s a wary, on-the-fringe subtext working here; it’s a portrait of a family that knows it must look out for another, maybe because it hasn’t always do so in the past. But it also speaks to a feeling of isolation, as if they’re adrift alone, just one wrong turn away from losing it all—the car, the house, everything. And, of course, for many Americans nowadays, that’s exactly how life is.

That kind of living in fear isn’t much of a life, though. And on Bad as Me’s self-titled song, a rowdy, caterwauling anthem with a honking and growling baritone sax, Waits suggests the patience of some is growing thin. Part accusation, part commiseration, “Bad as Me” could easily be interpreted as an angry rebuttal to all those 1-percenters who look down upon the remaining 99 percent as lazy, no-good suckers because we never figured out how to game the system in our favor: “No good you say? / Well that’s good enough for me…You’re the same / You’re the same / You’re the same kind of bad as me.”  

The mail:
Michael Roberts

Ugh.  Friedman (just read "Mr. Friedman, Meet Mr. Obama").  I remember seeing him for the first time on Charlie Rose talking up the possible upcoming war with Iraq in front of a live audience.  He was such a cheerleader for it, but I had no idea if he knew what he was talking about.  I doubted that everything would be all sunshine and roses (as it were, considering the show) but didn’t know if he had some special knowledge.  Since then I think we’ve become all too familiar with his special knowledge.  Who can forget the Mustache of Understanding and his most crucial period of time – the next six months (renewable, monthly), now known in some circles (Hi Atrios!) as the Friedman Unit. This time around, in the face of completely unreasonable behavior by Republicans, he wishes Obama could morph into the perfect political fairy godmother of his dreams, magic wand and all.  A cartoon about each of his essays could be made showing how stupid it is – a Fractured Fairy Tales for our times.  He is just so inane and tiresome.  He has such a persistent, fictional paradise running around in his head that he wouldn’t be out of place in a padded cell, wearing a straightjacket.


Hi, Eric, Making signs.  Going to, yes, Occupy Cheyenne tomorrow.  If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.

Saw you in the movie unreasonable man with Ralph Nader and you really looked like a sniveling baby. You really got duped by obama and Nader looks exactly right. You should try reading Glenn Greenwald or somebody that actually knows what theyre talking about when it comes to the Democratic party, you pedantic lepton.

This line you use as a quote to advertise your books worthiness is great, "Presidents can pretty easily pass tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful corporations. They can start whatever wars they wish and wiretap whomever they want without warrants." Presidents can also end wars, which is what Obama promised to do…first thing in office. He didn’t. He shifted some troops around and started another war in Libya. I almost respect the hours of gymnastics you must have to go through to produce that intellectually dishonest tripe and to be able to continually support a war criminal and a party of imperialist war mongers. 

Here’s your girl Hillary today. After this. No humility. Nazis used to laugh while they starved and begged. That"s your democratic party.

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