Thursday, October 2, 2014

New History Wars in Colorado

Over the past two weeks High School students in Littleton, Colorado have protested the School Board's attempt to revise changes made to the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum. The new curriculum questions the traditional narrative common in textbooks with titles like, "The March of Freedom."  Conservatives see the new material as being too "negative" with units on slavery, oppression of women, the displacement of Native Americans, robber barons, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the disco era etc . . They favor content with a triumphant narrative emphasizing the genius of a free market system, glorious military victories, and "respect for authority."

Battles over history are nothing new. The culture wars of the 1990s came to a fever pitch in 1992 over the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America. The once gallant explorer suddenly found himself reduced to an amoral opportunist who introduced genocide, disease, and racism to the New World. Battle lines were drawn. Nowadays, Columbus Day looms as a day of trendy moral outrage and social awkwardness.

Most historians now recognize grand narratives of the past exist only in the imagination of the historian who writes them. You get a version of the truth, but nothing close to "the truth."  Therefore, the teaching of history has evolved into a maze of contradictions and red herrings. Since the 19th century, historians of all stripes have used history to advance political agendas and therein lies the anxiety in this debate.

The fear of indoctrination drives conservative advocates crazy. They suspect a “Progressive” agenda to brainwash students into believing the government is the answer to every social ill. Sure, a curriculum exploring negative aspects of history could lead to a political awakening. But a new generation of bleeding heart lefties? It’s no more indoctrinating than fiercely pro-capitalist, Reagan worshiping material that glosses over the difficult questions.

As Joyce's alter ego Stephen Dedalus observed, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." I partly agree. To explore the past takes fortitude and an open mind. But don’t fall into despair like Stephen. I applaud the students of Jefferson County taking a stand against a sanitized history curriculum. I would also tell them, don't rely too much on "the system" to set the record straight on the past. Go out and read a few history books on your own. Travel to a historical site. Ask a living person about a historical event.  Get diverse points of view.  And finally, realize history is part of the path to self-knowledge.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Review: Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle

Ever since the demise of The Beatles in 1970 much of the blame unfairly fell on Paul McCartney.  Many critics championed John Lennon as the sole creative force behind the band. Tom Doyle's new book, Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s is a sympathetic account of McCartney's struggle to win respect and regain his identity as a solo artist.

Doyle's portrait of McCartney is that of a level headed person in manic pursuit of new creative challenges.  After the Beatles broke up he nearly suffered a nervous breakdown and rarely left his farm in Scotland, "For the first time in his life, he felt utterly worthless . . . He was 27 and suddenly of no use to anyone anymore" (3).  Days and nights were spent drinking to relieve his depression.  Eventually he snapped out of it and returned to songwriting, starting his own band Wings.

Ian MacDonald's epic history of The Beatles Revolution in the Head concluded all the ex-Beatles failed as solo artists.  That's a harsh conclusion and one in need of reevaluation. McCartney released nine albums of varying quality in the 1970s, with many hit singles in between (far more than his old bandmates).  After a string of mediocre albums, which critics joyously ripped apart, Band on the Run (1973) proved a critical and commercial breakthrough.

Doyle's colorful account of the Band on the Run sessions, an album produced in Lagos, Niger, are a high point in the book.  Paul, Linda, their children spent seven weeks in a war torn region of Africa making the album.  One day Paul and Linda ventured out and were robbed at knife point. They also lost their demo tapes and had to rewrite the songs from memory.  One day in the studio, Paul had a panic attack and had to be rushed to a hospital (possibly brought on by excessive marijuana use). Also, local musicians resented Westerners making music in their country. Ever the diplomat, Paul diffused the situation by inviting them to the studio and convincing them he had no intention to rip them off.

Band on the Run produced the hit singles "Band on the Run,"  "Jet", "Helen Wheels", and "Bluebird" which all became staples of FM radio.  Now over forty years old, the album manages to recapture the spirit of a Beatles record.

Paul found stability in his marriage to photographer Linda Eastman and their five children. In 1976, Wings embarked on a triumphant arena tour of America, performing before 67,000 at the Seattle Kingdome.  The tour produced a massive live album, Wings Over America.  

As the decade came to a close, the momentum of Wings screeched to a halt.  Their 1978 LP London Town, a collection of soft rock tunes recorded on a yacht, made them sound completely out of touch. Punk and New Wave were reinventing popular music. Nevertheless, they scored yet another hit with the folkie, "Mull of Kintyre."

A major portion of the biography covers the parallel course of John Lennon.  That's the sad part of the story. Doyle believes the two of them never achieved a reconciliation following their bitter break up.  On Lennon's Imagine album he chided McCartney on "How do you Sleep" with digs like "a pretty face may last a year or two/pretty soon they'll see what you can do."  In interviews, Lennon was less than kind to his old partner.

In 1974, John and Paul hung out in L.A. and played together in a drunken jam session and did consider working together again.  In 1976, Saturday Night Live offered The Beatles $500 to perform live on the show. Coincidentally, Paul was visiting John and Yoko that night and they briefly considered taking up the offer (a night fictionalized in the TV movie Two of Us).  Alas, Lennon-McCartney, never wrote another song, much to Paul's regret.

The death of Lennon left him devastated.  A flood of death threats forced McCartney and his family to avoid public appearances for a time.  In 1981 Wings disbanded, and Paul released the inventive solo record McCartney II.  In 1982 he wrote his own tribute to Lennon, "Here Today."  

 Man on the Run fills a much needed gap in the ever increasing catalog of Beatles literature.  After finishing, you may want to dust off those old Wings records and give them another chance.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Book Review: The Dark Knight Returns

The mid 1980s saw the release of two classic graphic novels: Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.  Both works complement each other and cover similar themes of political corruption, mass media culture, and the fascist subtext in superhero comics.  Although Christopher Nolan's film trilogy did not directly adapt the The Dark Knight Returns, Miller's influence reigns over those pictures.

The story follows a world weary Bruce Wayne who chose to stand by as Gotham City descended into a dystopia.  The crime rate skyrocketed.  Batman's one man crusade against criminals appears to have been in vain.  And he's not been seen in ten years. Many believe the Batman's a myth. A terrifying group of criminals known as the mutants are terrorizing the city.  Meanwhile, Batman's longtime nemesis the Joker is about to be released from the sanatorium for good behavior.  Even the Man of Steel appears as an unlikely villain.

In Miller's world, Superman still stands for the same values of truth, justice, and the American way - and that's the problem!  For Superman is the Reagan administration's enforcer of justice and moral values. He's on the side of big business and the military-industrial complex - he went establishment!  When Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement, the government decides to crack down on his one man crusade against the criminal underworld.

Miller's vision remains more relevant than ever.  A recurring theme is the the mind numbing effect of 24 hour news coverage.  The media plays on the people's fears for ratings. Doubts are also raised about Batman's psyche: Does he truly care about the people or does he do it because he enjoys inflicting punishment?  There's an unsettling vibe in the story of living under the incessant dread of catastrophe.  

As far as superhero stories go, you'll find nothing better.  Miller wrote a classic.  The artwork's iconic and groundbreaking.  The Dark Knight Returns has not dated one iota.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar

In Harvey Pekar's final graphic novel, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, he attempted to resolve his conflicting feelings towards the state of Israel.  Raised by Zionists in post-war Cleveland, Pekar grew up with a clear belief in Israel's mission to be a homeland for all Jews. With artist J.T. Waldman, Pekar accomplished two things: 1) an overview of Jewish history 2) chronicled his own evolving views on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  While he's proud of the resilience and courage of the Jews to survive and uphold their traditions in the face of incredible adversity through the ages, he no longer considered himself a Zionist.

The turning point for Pekar came the after the Six Day War of 1967. After quickly throwing back a combined attack from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, Israel began to expand it's borders and establish settlements.  Pekar wondered how an oppressed people could be okay with oppressing another group with an equal claim on the land?                                     
Aftermath of the Six Day War

Pekar and Waldman have no answers for these complex questions of history, politics, and religion.  However, both agree there must be some solution out there.  Waldman observed, "It's like everyone's view on the subject is so entrenched that no one bothers talking about it anymore."  True.  Today, consumers want news that conforms to their worldview.  Anything that goes against their view is written off as nonsense.  The wall to wall coverage of the recent troubles in Israel reports the day to day events as if they exist in a vacuum.  Any opinion on these matters requires a strong knowledge of the root causes.

A personal anecdote.  In college, I studied mostly American and European history. As an undergrad, I took a survey course on the Middle East.  Although the professor admitted a bias for the Palestinians, the course was informative and insightful.  A few years later, in grad school, I had a professor who wanted it known to anyone within earshot he gave financial support to the Arabs and on more than one occasion I heard him indulge in ugly rants against Israel ( he was a white male American who taught American labor history) One day he asked me point blank if I supported Palestine.  

To be honest, I never had a strong view on the matter.  The history fascinated me and I'd always sympathized and admired the Jews.  I recalled reading about President Harry Truman's decision in 1948 to support Israel, an act I viewed as an act of political courage. At it's best, isn't America about helping the underdog?  Anyway, the professor looked at me as if I had said something hateful.  After that he ignored me in class. Despite his rudeness, I thanked him on the last day of class and he coldly told me, "Too bad I got stuck with a student like you."  There's nothing like rude awakening on how "entrenched" people, even educated ones, refuse to hear the other side.

I'd highly endorse this book for anyone looking for some historical perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The illustrations are vivid and capture the sweep of history and how it directly compares to the present.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beck At Lifestyles Community Pavillion In Columbus, OH: 6/20/14

On June 20th, 2014 Beck performed before a packed crowd at the Lifestyles Community Pavilion in Columbus.  Beck, who came to prominence with "Loser" in the 1990s, has continually produced albums of high quality and varying styles for the past two decades.  

Sean Lennon's touring band "The Ghost of Saber Tooth Tiger" opened up for Beck.  Songs from his new album have a heavy Beatle influence in the style of "Dear Prudence" and "Cry Baby Cry" from the White Album. During his set,  Lennon spoke of his admiration for Beck and even joined him onstage later in the evening with cowbell in hand.

Around 9, Beck took the stage and opened with a rollicking "Devil's Haircut." Five songs were played from his new album of sonic wonders, Morning Phase.  With over a growing song catalog, he split the difference between the old and new.  Five songs from his breakout LP Odelay brought some serious 90s nostalgia to the proceedings.  Heartfelt acoustic performances of "Lost Cause" and "The Golden Age" from the somber 2002 album Sea Change comprised the middle section of the show.  

About midway through things picked up in a hurry as the opening strums to "Loser" hit the spectators.  For Gen X, the chorus "I'm a loser baby/so why don't you kill me" helped express their pre-millennial malaise.  At one point, Beck tipped his hat to his fans and exclaimed,"I'm canceling tomorrow's show, we're just gonna play here again!"

The groove kept going with "The New Pollution" and a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."  For the encore, he ended with the bluesy "Debra" and the essential "Where It's At." Everyone left with the beats still going in their head and I overheard people saying, "best show ever"; Beck easily won over Columbus.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Critical Perspectives on Movie Geeks United

Movie Geeks United is a podcast featuring in depth movie reviews, interviews with guests from the film industry, and lively discussions about the past, present, and future of film. Recently, Movie Geeks contributor Jamey DuVall and critic Tony Macklin, have recorded a series of conversations entitled "Critical Perspectives." The depth and wit both exude in their talks are like a film school in themselves.

DuVall's easy going style serves as a nice counterpoint to Macklin's acerbic take on contemporary movies. From 1965-1977, Macklin edited the scholarly journal Film Heritage. During those years he conducted several interviews with many important figures from Hollywood history such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, and Howard Hawks. The Film Heritage interviews are available online.  They are well worth your time.

In a recent episode devoted to film comedy Macklin and DuVall covered Chaplin, Apatow, and everyone in between.  DuVall tends to favor only high and low humor, while Macklin prefers comedy with melancholy undertones.  Other shows have covered American movies of the 1970s, the Sight & Sound list of the greatest films, and the evolution of film criticism.  

A generation ago movie critics played a crucial role in fostering a vibrant film culture. Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for his film writing in 1975 and inspired many on his television show Siskel & Ebert.  Pauline Kael's reviews in the New Yorker serve as a sort of history of the era and at their best read like literature. And many other critics wrote with passion and eloquence on the art of film.  Nowadays anyone can be a critic, but often the best voices are muted in the cacophony of noise on the web.  Movie Geeks helps keep the spirit of informed criticism alive.

The "Critical Perspectives" series can be accessed at the Movie Geeks United home page and Mr. Macklin's website.  You should check them out.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Concert Review: Jeff Tweedy Performs New Material on Summer Solo Tour

Jeff Tweedy, chief songwriter of Wilco, has embarked on a solo tour this summer in support of his yet to be titled solo album.  Last Wednesday evening he performed at the Brown Theater in Louisville.  The two hour set consisted of all new material with his own touring band (including his son Spenser on drums) for the first part and then an all acoustic collection of mostly Wilco tunes (and other tracks from various side projects).

In an era of fragmentation Tweedy has emerged as a leading voice in American rock music. For the past 20 years, Wilco has garnered a large following by constant touring and an ever evolving sound.  Their music draws upon a multitude of influences ranging from British Invasion, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, The Replacements, and Pavement to mention a few.

Before a nearly packed house, Tweedy opened with a somber collection of songs dwelling on mortality and love.  Performing new material before a live audience always presents a challenge, but a fierce melancholy and passionate delivery carried them along nicely.  His self deprecating humor and banter with the crowd added some levity.  The new songs sounded amazing and carry the promise of a stellar LP. 

The acoustic set opened with "Via Chicago," the central track on Wilco's 1999 venture into pop, Summerteeth.  Then came "I am Trying to Break Your Heart" with the iconic opening lyrics, "i am an american aquarium drinker/i assassin down the avenue" from Wilco's breakthrough 2001 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  Included in the set were some deep tracks such as the whimsical "Pecan Pie" from the Golden Smog project and the irreverent "The Ruling Class" Tweedy recorded with Loose Fur. Two songs from the Uncle Tupelo days also appeared: "New Madrid" and "Give Back the Key to My Heart."  For an encore, Tweedy gave a literally unplugged version of "Misunderstood" and invited the crowd to sing along as a show of respect and appreciation - thus ending the evening on an especially high note.