Trumpthink Doubleplusungood

August 4, 2017

1984.jpgI’ve just re-read George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, partly because I recently saw a stage adaptation on Broadway (by way of the U.K.), and partly because I can’t shake the feeling that we may be nuzzling closer to this famous dystopia.

OK, I may be overstating a tad, but the shape of reality sure feels funny right now. And that intense British stage production wouldn’t be in New York today had Donald Trump not won the 2016 election. Shortly after the inauguration and Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” the novel became a national bestseller once again, and one of the show’s writer-directors sent a simple text to a producer: “84 NY?” The reply was evidently “!”

Even on my first reading as a kid, I had an unusual reaction to this provocative novel. I was most fascinated not by the “bare, hungry, dilapidated” world inhabited by Winston Smith and his fellow citizens of Oceania, or his savage climactic retro-indoctrination at the hands of senior Party member O’Brien. What really knocked me out was a device that appears about two-thirds in, when Winston opens and begins reading a secret book — with us reading over his shoulder — called THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF OLIGARCHICAL COLLECTIVISM, written by Emmanuel Goldstein. (Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t.)

The passages we are allowed to see lay out, with cold detachment, the purpose and method of creating a topsy-turvy society in which WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The hardscrabble life of nearly all citizens isn’t some crisis caused by natural or even economic calamity. It has nothing to do with forces that can’t be controlled. Winston’s torpor and misery are visited on him deliberately, planned and sustained by the very few who are actually in charge.

We can’t see “Goldstein”’s entire book, but we get enough to divine that in a venal, bloodless way, the real oligarchs of Winston’s country — and of Eurasia and Eastasia, the two other superstates which share the planet with Oceania — have created a society of stasis, of brutal rationing in service to perpetual war (the exact enemy changes at will), of narcotized subservients who are unable to grasp that life could be better because they are not allowed to have such a thought.

What a weird, science-fictional concept, right? Except you can’t read this stuff these days without thinking of Trump and his pals.

Now I am not seriously suggesting that anyone in the Trump orbit — not Steve Bannon, certainly not the boss himself — is smart enough or even shrewd enough to manage perception the way “Goldstein” and O’Brien do in Orwell. They’re not that calculating, not that sophisticated. Their choices are instinctive. They rule from the gut. Trump can sense unease and capitalize on it — he’s probably the most naturally gifted American politician since Bill Clinton. He has a huge swath of people convinced that he’s looking out for them, even though they have absolutely nothing in common besides mutual loathing for Barack Obama. And what looks like ridiculousness to most people reads as pioneering boldness to an unshakable base whose information is carefully managed — not by Trump personally, but by a right-wing echo chamber which pronounces that his was the largest inaugural crowd ever, Obamacare is destroying America, legitimate journalists can’t be trusted and should be ignored, etc. And that’s way before we get to the Sandy-Hook-was-faked and 9/11-was-an-inside-job rants.

These hamhanded clowns couldn’t possibly create Big Brother. It’s far beyond their skill set. But whether they know it or not, they are quoting from “Goldstein”’s playbook.

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Big Brother (top) and Goldstein (above) in Michael Radford’s film whose title is also its release date, played by, respectively, actors Bob Flag and John Boswall.

The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim— for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives— is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal. — Emmanuel Goldstein

This is the standard socialist spiel, far from original to Orwell, but it does heretically acknowledge middle-class aspiration. “Goldstein”’s secret is that the middle class in Oceania has been effectively managed out of existence. It’s vanishing in our real world too, through forces which are largely economic, but Trump says he knows a more nefarious secret: Others — Eastasians, Eurasians? — are sneaking into the homeland and stealing our jobs. In Oceania (its governing system is called Ingsoc, or “English Socialism” expressed in the official language, Newspeak), the notion of a happier life has been quashed. Trump’s America is no less wounded. It doesn’t look upward but backward, to a time when hard-working (ok, white) families could look at the rich and say, one day that’ll be us. What prevents them from living the dream is the enemy: Mexican workers, effete academics, “fake news,” coastal elites, the term “Happy Holidays,” take it from there. Only a drumbeat of constant cultural battle can deflect the base’s attention away from the lack of real progress. In that frail sense, war actually is peace, because…

A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party. [N]o change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness. — Goldstein

Gosh, which political party does that remind you of? This week as I write, there’s a tentative movement toward a bipartisan sitdown in the House to try and thrash out some fixes to the Affordable Care Act — which everybody agrees is flawed. But we’re already hearing whelped, primary-scared Representatives oppose any such powwow on principle: you mean you want to meet with the ENEMY?

Fear and hatred are and always have been the animating forces that stoke the roiling conservative base. Sometimes it’s out in the open, as when Mike Flynn led the crowd in that “LOCK HER UP!” chant at the Republican National Convention. Weeks before I ever conceded the possibility of an actual Trump presidency, that moment reminded me of Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate”: Hillary Clinton as Goldstein. (Oceanians regularly assemble to boo and curse at a projected image of Goldstein — somehow officially deemed an enemy of the people — until it mercifully dissolves into the likeness of their hero and protector, Big Brother. All Flynn lacked was a Hillary headshot for the Jumbotron.)

Trumpkins are sometimes tagged as rebels against the 21st century GOP, which they view as soft and ineffectual. They keep any “moderate” elected officials dishonest with the constant underlying threat of being “primaried” by somebody even more crazed. But the Pubs have depended on social “wedge issues” to motivate their base since the days of Ronald Reagan, and one strays from official orthodoxy at one’s peril. Republican, Freedom or Tea, the “Party” demands utter fealty no matter what you call it.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The Two Minutes Hate in the 2017 Broadway production.

If leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance. — Goldstein

Many observers look at Trump and see an crude, ignorant, incurious child-man who has no idea how to do the job to which he’s amazingly been elected. Remember, he’s really nothing more than a frickin game-show host. But to his most devoted fans that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. It’s so satisfying to think, he’s no smarter than I am, no better than I am, and look where he is. Trump’s business history is studded with failure. No US bank will lend him money, which is why he depends on Russian oligarchs who love to park their dough in real estate. But that’s all superseded by the fact that he’s been on our telescreens — oops, I mean TV sets — playing a tycoon for the better part of a decade. How can you blame people for confusing the actor and his role? TV Trump likes to growl, “You’re fired!” Real Trump desperately avoids conflict: he’s afraid of firing people in person, so instead he makes their lives so miserable that they quit in disgust. Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus are just the latest heads to auto-roll; at this writing, Trump is working on Jeff Sessions.

You can’t think too hard about all this, though, or else the show-biz veneer will dissipate. In fact, one of the most serious potential threats to both Big Brother and Trump is — thinking at all. One side of the cultural divide is more educated, the other less so. I’ll bet the larger cities and college towns where you live voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the rest of your state belonged to Trump. “I love the uneducated!” he crowed during the campaign. Pointy-headed intellectuals who never did a day’s honest work, ridiculous “safe spaces” for coddled crybaby students, angry protests silencing right-wing lecturers — in a Pew Research poll released in July, 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they believed colleges and universities had a negative effect on the country. In other words, most of them. (Almost three fourths of Democrats and like-minded independents thought the effect was positive.)

Trump has made a fetish out of ignorance. Behind the hollow bluster, he’s actually proud that he doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know. It’s easy to say, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” (By the way, whenever Donald Trump says “believe me,” don’t.) His ingrained narcissism may even actually convince him; delusion seems to be his copilot. But the tiniest bit of independent thought — “as a moment’s reflection will reveal,” as a friend used to say — can show Cloud Cuckoo-Land for what it truly is. Therefore independent thought is just as much an enemy to Trump as it is to Ingsoc. Most decent undergraduate programs have the same underlying goal: to teach students not what to think, but how to think. I can’t say the same for many schools founded and supported by fundamentalist Christians, or for Fox News, Breitbart and the other reactionary megaphones. Many people have their opinions handed to them because they are unwilling or unable to verify truth independently. In Trumpland, ignorance is strength.

…the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies— all this is indispensably necessary. — Goldstein

This is the principle behind “doublethink,” Orwell’s evil-Zen state that allows dutiful citizens to hold and believe in two contradictory arguments simultaneously, or to accept as truth something that can be easily disproven. Like the old joke about the husband whose wife catches him cheating: “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

I know we’ve heard presidential fabrications before, even from men I admire. But has there ever been a more brazen bullshitter than this bird? Donald Trump is a pathological liar. I don’t think he can stop himself. He lost the election by three million votes, and his electoral-college margin turned on about 80,000 votes in three states, yet he calls it a historic landslide. “I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them.” Um, nope, that didn’t happen at all. “Even the president of Mexico called me,” Trump lied to his Cabinet. “They said…very few people are coming because they know they’re not going to get through our border, which is the ultimate compliment.” ¡Mentiroso hijo de puta, señor!

My favorite Trump lie, out of dozens spewed out over the past six months, concerned his inaugural speech: “It was almost raining — the rain should have scared them away — but God looked down and he said ‘we are not going to let it rain on your speech’… and then it poured right after I left.” As anybody who was there or watching on tv knows, it rained through the first few minutes of Trump’s speech — you could see people behind him wearing ponchos — and it most definitely did not pour afterward. You’re left with a kind of reluctant awe: why would you even bother to lie about something as trivial as the weather?

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John Hurt as Winston Smith in the Radford film.

At least part of the answer may be the heady ability to alter history. While researching that last quote, I stumbled on a Christian website that reported the sun “shone” for Trump’s inauguration as a sign of God’s blessing. There’s a kernel of truth in that: the sun did peek out through overcast skies for an instant during the ceremony. But evidently God didn’t dig Trump’s speech, because moments later she made it rain again. However, to the readers of that website, the rain stopped and the sun shone as Trump took office, and that’s that.

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. — Ingsoc party slogan

Winston Smith, you’ll recall, works for the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue. His job is to repair and replace the historical record. For example, he alters a past promise to maintain rations at the current level. He scrubs all references to a purged Party member, or “unperson,” rendering him nonexistent. But a fissure appears in his capacity for doublethink when he is told Oceania is at war with Eurasia — yet he knows that the enemy has been Eastasia for the last four years. No matter. “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” Doublethink is maddening and terrifying at the same time.

Of course retroactive reality is impossible to concoct in our hip, wired age. Just ask the Secretary of War. Oh, wait, that’s his old title: now he’s Secretary of Defense, or “SecDef,” a term that sounds a hell of a lot like Newspeak. Or read yesterday’s Congressional Record to find speeches that were never uttered: there isn’t one veteran member of Congress who hasn’t inserted something after the fact. Or sit with the Texas State Board of Education as it sifts through history and science texts for orthodoxy that, because of the practicalities of educational publishing, will have to be replicated nationwide.

The most effective and “Orwellian” stroke of the current regime is the concept of “fake news.” Unlike anal-probing space aliens or government gun confiscation, we know “fake news” is really a thing. Eastern Europeans were actually making money by inventing outrageous clickbait all through the last election cycle. One whopper really gained some traction: that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were operating a child sex ring from the basement of an innocent DC pizza parlor. It went viral, and in December a 28-year-old North Carolina man fired three shots in the restaurant with an AR-15-style rifle, striking walls, a desk, and a door. He told police he was there to “self-investigate” the conspiracy that came to be known as “Pizzagate.” (As you may have expected, the restaurant doesn’t even have a basement.)

Fake news isn’t some kooky fear: it’s definitely out there. In fact Breitbart, the “alt-right” website run until recently by presidential advisor Steve Bannon, absolutely dotes on the stuff. Still it was shocking to hear Trump, at his first news conference as president, pass over CNN’s Jake Tapper and growl, “you’re fake news.” Whaaaat? Within days, Trump was using the term to describe any news organization he didn’t like, and it was an unwitting masterstroke. The eight letters of “fake news” are short-attention-span-friendly, instantly graspable. This is why the “liberal media” are constantly after Trump: all their stories are as bogus as Bigfoot, he’s actually doing a great job but nobody’s giving him a chance. But the most insidious effect is that, for his most ardent fans, Trump is slowly delegitimatizing all genuine sources of objective coverage. The truth is whatever he tells them it is. No lie is too outrageous. Even pollsters are “fake” if he doesn’t like their numbers: remember how they underestimated him last year? He recently attacked as unfair the Congressional Budget Office, which is damn near the last nonpartisan entity left in DC. When you can’t turn anywhere else for validation, you’re as psychologically dependent as Winston Smith. After all, these are people who actually believe crime and unemployment both spiked under President Obama, because that’s what the Party told them.

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. — Goldstein

With “fake news” as a cudgel to tamp down any contradiction or stray heretical thought, Trumpism becomes almost inevitable among true believers. The same antics which embarrass some people excite others. To them Trump is a human Molotov cocktail, and the more damage he does to the system the better. Yes, it’s sad-making — the 2016 election was probably moderates’ low point for a good long while, and many of us still feel apprehensive opening our morning papers — but it doesn’t have to be debilitating, for several good reasons.

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O’Brien (Reed Birney) with Winston (Tom Sturridge) and Julia (Olivia Wilde) on Broadway.

They are outnumbered and they know it. Eighty-five percent of Oceanians are lowly “proles” and therefore largely ignored. Well, a minority controls Congress and most statehouses in America too. Not only did the Pubs lose the popular vote for President, they also lost the popular vote for Senate races: more than 45 million Americans voted for a Democratic Senate candidate, while just under 40 million Americans voted for a Republican. In fairness, the Senate was specifically created to bolster the influence of smaller states: Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was re-elected with 111,000 votes and has the same Senate authority as Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, who was re-elected with 4.8 million. But even the House, which is supposed to better represent actual voter proportions, is grossly skewed. In 2016, 63.1 million Republican voters claimed 247 House seats. The Democratic vote was nearly equal, 61.7 million, but it was only worth 188 seats. That’s way out of whack and eventually something has to give.

You can blame some of that inequity on gerrymandering: for example, Austin, the most progressive city in Texas, has been electorally neutered by splitting it up into tiny parts of five different Congressional districts, four of which are represented by Republicans. But a deeper cause of inertia is incumbency: in 2016 only twelve House seats changed hands, six for each party. And a third cause is voter apathy, which is something we can actually work on.

Republicans are more successful at winning state and local elections because they understand how to rile up the base and get them out to the polls. Trump’s staggering incompetence may be having that same visceral effect on the left. We’ll find out next year. The best indication that Pubs are nervously looking over their shoulders is their massive voter suppression effort. The crown jewel is Trump’s loony Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (I love that name, it’s so…Orwellian!). Just remember, it’s in Democrats’ interest that you vote; it’s in Pubs’ interest that you be prevented from voting. We could make elections fairer by adopting ranked voting or jolt turnout by moving Election Day to the weekend, but Pubs are protected by the status quo so it will not happen any time soon. Counting on changing demographics to affect electoral results — for example, wishing Texas purple — is foolish, but it’s also foolish to squander a natural advantage when you get one handed to you. It’s not a gimme; it’ll take work.

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In Room 101.

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. —O’Brien

Trump is beginning to neglect his constituency as he shows his true colors. I don’t think the president is a fascist or an Ingsoc functionary; I don’t believe he has any deeply held principles beyond his own self-interest. Well, there may be one. Trump is petty and childish enough that he may still be smarting over the humiliating roasting President Obama gave him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. With the exception of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination (and that was mostly Mitch McConnell’s doing), nearly every move Trump has made as president has been a direct erasure of an Obama initiative, often without even thinking about it. He’s trying to rewrite history, to make Obama an unperson. But when he took on Obamacare — that blasted name again! — he didn’t count on his own voters understanding that they were about to lose their coverage. Even when McConnell cynically tacked on a two-year delay period so Pubs could “repeal Obamacare” with impunity, the shouting back home was just too great. And speaking of personal payback, was that why we saw John “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured” McCain kill the repeal effort with the flourish of a Roman emperor? As mining jobs fail to come back to coal country, day laborers for construction and agriculture disappear, and opioids continue to decimate the heartland, some suffering citizens may finally break the spell and relearn how to put two and two together.

Trump’s legislative base is crumbling as his popular support dwindles. “The ratings machine, DJT” actually had coattails in 2016, but they are starting to fray. The near-unanimous votes in both houses on Russian sanctions were a veto-proof slap in the face that said, “we’re not afraid of you.” The disconnect is probably personal. I have no idea whether Trump did anything illegal, but he clearly has money tied up in Russia and that source of capital is key to any future expansion plans, so his instinct is to make nice to Putin. One problem, though. Pubs have been taught to hate Commies for literal generations. By now, asking them to coddle Russkies is like trying to divide by zero. Yes, the hypocrisy is acrid: if Hillary had invited a Russian spy into the Oval Office, much less spilled intel to his face, the Pubs would have her turning on a spit by now. But Trump — who was already in the hole the moment he took office — has been whittling away at his own approval ratings more effectively than any enemy ever could. To be impeached by this Congress, he’d probably have to bite the head off a live chicken at the Lincoln Memorial. (Nor do I fancy a President Pence.) But remember, this entire shitstorm has occurred in only six months. I don’t think Trump can last four whole years — especially with a Congress that is less than sycophantic.

After Winston Smith survives the horrors of Room 101, we can see that he has changed. As the Cap’n says in COOL HAND LUKE, he “got his mind right.” Two plus two equals anything O’Brien wants it to be. Everything is all right, the struggle is finished. Well, that is not going to happen to us. We are still capable of seeing clearly if we only concentrate. The outrage that spits out almost hourly from this administration must not, will not become normalcy. The world has not turned upside down. Our system builds political antibodies to negate such an aberration, and if we are still suffering from shock, that means we have the capacity to resist — in the streets, in the voting booths, in the offices of our representatives. That passion is precisely what saved the Affordable Care Act. And it is what is going to eliminate Big Bother [frickin sic] once and for all.

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows. — Winston Smith

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I, The Juror

July 19, 2017

90887318.pngI just spent a month serving as Juror No. 3 in a murder trial. I don’t care to give you the details, though some New Yorkers might be able to suss them out when I tell you we reached our verdict this past Monday morning.

What I want to talk about instead was the jury-room dynamic, that tension which Reginald Rose so searingly dramatized in 12 ANGRY MEN. While we never descended into Rose’s near-feral warring factions, there was definitely an added burden which we all felt — for although some of us had done jury duty before, this was the first homicide case for everyone.

Years ago I served on a narcotics grand jury, where our job was mainly to rubber-stamp crack purchases by undercover cops. In a month of half-days, covering about a hundred cases, we only refused to indict three or four times. All we had to answer was, is there enough evidence to justify going to trial? The resolution in court would be somebody else’s problem.

I was also on the jury for another criminal trial, in which the defendant used a knife but nobody died. It was my introduction to an uncomfortable position: the law can be black and white on such matters, and whether or not you agree with a statute or think it’s fair in any individual case is beside the point. After some discussion and even some tears, we found the defendant guilty because we had to. We empathized with him but we couldn’t get around the fact that the law clearly says if you do this, you’re guilty of a crime. And we were only condemning the defendant to a minor jail term: it’s a great relief that the actual sentencing is done by the judge later.

This case in June and July was different. There were four counts in descending order of gravity, the most serious being second degree murder. It was similar to my previous criminal case in that this defendant also freely admitted his actions. The nuances surrounding the death he caused formed the core of the trial. The one legal aspect each of the four charges shared was “justification,” more commonly known as “self-defense.” The prosecution was required to prove that he had not been justified, had not acted to protect himself under the law. Those black-and-white statutes couldn’t help us, no matter how many times they were re-read to us by the judge. This was about the finer points of the law, which couldn’t be applied in this case without a collective judgment call.

The testimony took three weeks. We listened to about thirty witnesses, including the defendant, heard opening statements and summations, then handed in our cell phones and sat in a small conference room. For the next four days we hashed it out, pausing only for deli lunches brought in by the court. Four counts, guilty or not guilty, each verdict had to be unanimous.

Since all four counts included justification, we took our first vote on that issue. If we all agreed that the defendant was justified — or, more precisely, that the prosecution had failed to prove he was not — then case closed, not guilty on all counts. Our first vote as a jury was split. We were going to have to talk it over.

I know that there’s a science to jury selection, some lawyers are better at it than others, and on a big case like Cosby or O.J. they even hire consultants to help them. (Read John Grisham’s THE RUNAWAY JURY for an almost satirical look at this process.) But it’s utterly beyond me. The twelve of us — there were also four alternates and one of them had to join the jury proper after a family death — were racially, ethnically and psychologically diverse: I couldn’t discern any rhyme or reason. But I’ll say this. Every single one of them was trying their best to do the right thing. I heard cogent arguments from a couple of people who I’d thought hadn’t been paying attention in court. I was mistaken. One juror was a university professor whose default mode was to treat us like students, so frequently came off as patronizing. Another one liked to draw diagrams, and changed my own mind with one. One tended to talk in platitudes that seemed irrelevant, then something important would dart in.

The thing 12 ANGRY MEN got right was that a jury is a hive mind. Nobody remembers everything, but twelve people together can come damn close. Little bits of evidence were bandied back and forth until we had competing views on a series of events and were able to say, it could have happened this way, but this other way is more probable. By definition this process isn’t simple. If this had been an easily decided open-and-shut case it would never have gone all the way to trial: the defendant would have copped a plea or they’d have let him go. It was relentlessly tough to slice, dice, and true up slightly divergent testimony from various witnesses.

In fact, sometimes I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility over a man’s life, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. How could I possibly get to a place where I could mete out justice fairly? We were missing critical first-hand documentation, as juries so often are, and had to fill in blanks ourselves. At one point eleven of us were of one view, against one lone holdout; I thought immediately of Henry Fonda in 12 ANGRY MEN. The pressure was so great on the twelfth juror at that major impasse, the doubt so profound, that we all had to step back and consciously let the person breathe. This wasn’t a Reginald Rose drama. This was real life.

Then, one night as I was trying to drift off to sleep, I came to my senses. I wasn’t lacking any information. I had all the evidence I needed. It wasn’t my job to reconstruct the incident like a detective. All I was being asked to do was to judge whether the prosecution had proven its case in open court. This I could get my head around. After some more ups and downs, more backs and forths, and more soggy deli sandwiches, we made up our collective mind.

Many people think jury duty is a drag, but I’m glad I spent that month in court. Because of the nature of the case, I learned a lot about how certain New York City institutions really work (and if you’re paranoid, you should probably remain blissfully ignorant). For me the experience was grueling, yes, but ultimately positive. It has frankly made me feel a lot better about human beings, and boy, do I need that right about now.


Et Tu, Delta?

June 18, 2017

tn-500_juliuscaesar0037rr.jpgOutre settings for otherwise respectfully mounted Shakespeare productions are nothing new, and not just since the Royal Shakespeare Company started dressing Montagues and Capulets in biker leather. The very presence of female actors is a departure from any performance the Bard saw in his own lifetime — so much so that it took some getting used to when Shakespeare’s Globe brought its all-male TWELFTH NIGHT/RICHARD III company to Broadway four years ago. Nazis, cowboys, wartime grunts — they’ve all served as exotic backdrops to Shakespeare, the intention being to make the words shine at different angles as we twist the prism. Some inevitable day Romeo and Juliet will both be robots, if it hasn’t happened already.

The seeking and wielding of power hasn’t changed all that much in the four centuries since JULIUS CAESAR (1599) was written. It shows us authority stretched to the point of monomania, then an affronted, violent reaction to this perceived threat to the republic, and finally the utter disaster that befalls the polity after the ultimate defacing of democracy, the replacement of discourse with murder. There’s nothing particularly historical about these forces. They’re with us today and will be here long after we’re gone.

So JULIUS CAESAR’s examination of power and ill-advised redress is particularly suited to a contemporary setting. Hell, any setting. The latest effort finishes its outdoor run on schedule tonight at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare In The Park program. It’s a great production, but it leaves a wake of unwanted notoriety. For this Caesar, as played by Gregg Henry, looks and acts a lot like Donald Trump.

caesar.jpgThere’s nothing coy about the portrayal. Absurd blond wig, blue suit a tad too small, necktie a tad too long, relentlessly working the real audience as he enters. (Off mike, he bragged near us, “Biggest crowd in the history of the theater!”) There’s no question who this Caesar is supposed to suggest. Tina Benko’s slinky Calpurnia even speaks with a Slavic accent.

It’s remarkable how time can actually transmute Shakespeare’s lines. For example, when Caesar first appears amid an adoring throng and senses the presence of the Soothsayer, he asks, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” “The press” as written meant “the crowd,” but the Trumpworld audience hears, “the failing MSM.” When Brutus’s boy Lucius brings news of a “post,” he hands his master a smartphone and we understand instantly. These are all Shakespeare’s words (edited way down to an intermissionless 2:02 by Oskar Eustis, the play’s director and the Public’s artistic director) but three new ones come at a critical point. When Casca marvels at the blind loyalty of the Great Man’s fans, the line reads, “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less.” Eustis adds, just before the comma, “on Fifth Avenue.” Screams.

90.jpegOf course, anyone who has ever seen, read or heard JULIUS CAESAR, or knows the slightest thing about the historical personage, is well aware that his enemies in the Senate were so devoted to the Roman republic and its traditions that the threat of imperium drove them to assassination. Caesar was offered a crown and made to refuse it thrice, but we and they can tell it’d feel good on his head: it’s only a matter of time. On the Ides of March they strike, stabbing the triumphant warrior to death before our eyes.

Screen-Shot-2017-06-13-at-12.27.16-PM.pngHere is where America’s deep polarization rears its ugly head. Again, anyone familiar with the material is keenly aware that seeking change by doing violence becomes the downfall of each and every conspirator — in fact, that is the very point of the play. But pause for a second to consider Trump’s devoted base of supporters. They are greatly rural, greatly uneducated (“I love the uneducated!” Trump gushed on the campaign trail), and distrustful of “elites” in cities and college towns. Most of them have never seen, read, or heard JULIUS CAESAR. All they have to go on comes from professional shit disturbers who tell them that up in fancy-schmantzy New York, some guy dresses up like Trump, then a bunch of senators stab him to death onstage while the audience just sits there and watches. And that’s all true. The real shame should fall on the cynical pitchfork salesmen who deliberately withhold any context from the infomasses and not only ought to, but in fact do know better.

There’s a lot to love in Eustis’s dynamic, immersive staging. The cast are all around you — it’s far and away the most exciting CAESAR I’ve ever seen. Marc Antony is searingly played by Elizabeth Marvel and is referred to as “she” throughout. Her feverish funeral oration, delivered with a slight Southern-senator twang, so rouses the 1800-member audience that we want to pick up weapons ourselves. The energy and drive is contagious: it becomes a spectacle when the dark consequences of the assassination roll in. At times there is a literal crowd on stage, all the stagehands and extras Eustis could find. The theater erupts with passion. By now the Trump references are basically subsumed: for an hour, he’s only been a stiff under a sheet, or a ghost with no snark or irony at all.

To know all this about the production, however, you have to have actually seen it.

julius_caesar_production_still.jpgI don’t get my news from cable tv channels, but from what Trump calls “failing” and “fake” media instead. The only time I normally see these shows is in clips on Colbert or THE DAILY SHOW. I’d never witnessed the full-time 24/7 cacophony until the James Comey testimony, but it’s almost too much to take in, whether you’re watching MSNBC, CNN or Fox. Rachel Maddow in particular goes so fast that I can’t parse everything she says and still receive the sliding, ticking Chyron information crammed onto the rest of the screen. On the right there’s remarkable teamwork and cooperation: interchangeable Fox News hosts tag out once an hour, but the story of the day (in this instance, “Comey is a liar and a traitor”) is so similar that through repetition it looks like Americans of all colors and genders agree! The barrage goes on afterburners once a partisan meme begins (“the War on Christmas”), and this is what happened to the Public.

The “murder” of “Trump” drove some people batshit. Not only do cable hosts matter but now individuals do too, because social media give them their own megaphones. Somebody recorded the assassination scene with a smartphone (you’re supposed to turn them off, lady!) and posted it. The usual suspects began howling, and before long censure of the Public and this production gained traction. Delta Air Lines and Bank of America both actually pulled their funding for the Free Shakespeare in The Park program (I can’t tell whether they removed all Public Theater donation). Oh, by the way: the word “public” usually means “funded by taxpayer dollars,” but not in this case. Humiliatingly, the National Endowment for the Arts felt obliged to disclaim that none of its money was used to subsidize JULIUS CAESAR.

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Outside the theater on Friday, before the show, Trumpies…

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…and the opposition.

The icing on the cake came last Friday, the night I saw the show. There were dueling groups of protesters outside the theater beforehand; that appeared to be a ho-hum everyday event. But during the show, just after the murder, a woman ran on stage and began ranting about normalizing attacks on the right while an accomplice stood in the audience to record her on video and shouted, “you’re all Goebbels!” (Huh? I still don’t get it.) The production paused for less than two minutes, actors still on stage, while the trolls were peaceably removed through a loud ovation. Then came a spot of serendipity. The stage manager announced “Actors, please pick it up at [Cinna’s line] ‘Liberty! Freedom!’” This was too much: the audience leapt to its feet with a roar as the players regrouped to carry on. The woman continued to shriek way off in the distance for ten minutes or so, but she was wasting her breath. (P.S.: Joyce Carol Oates knows. She was there too.) The pair turned out to be a pal of James O’Keefe, the little dweeb who tried and failed to sting Planned Parenthood, and a guy who enjoys spreading nutty conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate. So much for spontaneity.

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Onstage, pre-show, audience members pour out their hearts onto a “Roman bill.” A matching one is at stage right, reading I HOPE FOR.

Please don’t feign patriotic offense at this production. I know this has nothing to do with respect for the office of the president. The reason I know is simple: this same play was staged back in 2012 by the Acting Company, using an Obama-like Caesar. He was stabbed to death on stage too, and nobody said doodly. What we have here is pure Act I, scene ii Caesar worship.

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Oskar Eustis.

Backstage just before the show, Oskar Eustis addressed a group of Public Theater donors and told them the challenge was theirs and his: to find ways to reach out to another America that not only has divergent views, but often finds no reason to even acknowledge the necessity of art to a healthy public life. I agree that if the choices are mutually exclusive, feeding children is more important than funding playhouses, but they don’t have to negate each other. The answers aren’t simple, but the Public is taking some concrete steps. It has already funded a bare-bones mobile production of Lynn Nottage’s empathetic Pulitzer Prize-winning SWEAT which it will take into coal and factory country, where the play is set. Maybe someone who sees it will receive the warmth of recognition that great art can provide: You are not alone. You are not forgotten. Now let’s make things better together. I believe that’s what many are really craving when they desperately cling to someone like Donald Trump.

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Two sheets tipped into the program after the shitstorm erupted.

Though the controversy may have affected the Public, rest assured it’s only a flesh wound. America’s greatest nonprofit theater will replace the lost private-sector donations and steam forward at full speed, but they’ll have to put forth some extra effort to do it. Meanwhile, off go my letters of censure to Delta (reminding them that, as they always say, they realize I have a choice when I travel) and BOA, just so they’ll know not all protesters think they did the right thing. And let’s at least thank goodness for an unusual and welcome side effect: for a few moments in the late spring of 2017, Shakespeare and the theater itself were as relevant as anything can possibly be.

7/3/17: In response to my letter of complaint to Delta Air Lines, I received the following email today: “Thank you for writing to let us know how you feel. No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We are sorry if our decision disappoints you. Thank you for your feedback. Regards, Ms. Rolfe.” I think Delta brass might be trying to officially pin this on the “gore” factor, not the actual one. But Shakespeare is way ahead of them. For example, Titus Andronicus serves up his own children in a fucking pie, and no corporate sponsors have ever said boo about that. The airline doth protest too much, methinks.


A Digital Guy In An Analog World

May 11, 2017

41-donald-trump-elena-kosvincheva.jpgThe Conmander in Chief seemed surprised the other day when Democrats not only failed to applaud his sacking of FBI director James Comey, but instead led a tsunami of howling blowback. The Trumpies were gobsmacked because the boss lives digitally — and that attitude has to trickle down if you want to appease him.

Donald Trump’s worldview is binary, like the basic one-or-zero building block of computing. You’re friend or foe, right or wrong, smart or stupid, rich or poor, safe or scared, strong or weak, winner or loser, Dem or Pub, toady or traitor, predator or prey, kin or stranger, Fox or fake, male or icky, white or threatening. His personality and character are not wired to coexist with nuance or subtlety, which are analog qualities with infinite gradations. Trump’s light switch is on-off. Most others use a rheostat.

Yet that messy imprecision dominates the environment he is forced to inhabit any time he steps outside his protective bubble. This is why foreign policy, for example, is beyond his grasp. He’s simply unable to perceive the shades of grey, the give-and-take required of statesmanship among sovereign nations. But somebody, if not Trump himself, better face it: despite our breathtaking advances in technology, we do not live in a digital world, but an analog one.

Trump evidently thought lefties held a digital view too: Hillary Good, Comey Bad. So getting rid of Comey — for whatever selfish reason — ought to make them cheer. It didn’t occur to him that you could both disapprove of what Comey did (even if unwittingly) to Hillary Clinton and take offense at his sudden dismissal just as he was revving up the FBI’s Russia hacking investigation.

Digital thinking is a temptation in our polarized society. The Comey firing became public just minutes before Stephen Colbert stepped onstage to deliver his monologue Tuesday afternoon. When his audience learned from the comedian that Comey was out, they reflexively applauded. That seemed to take Colbert aback. He and his staff, of course, had had time to think about it. The audience was responding digitally: serves him right for ruining Hillary! (Ludicrously, that was the White House’s official reason for the director’s firing!) But they quickly realized that Trump was really trying to stymie the Russia investigation, and when Jeff Sessions’s involvement was invoked a few minutes later, familiar boos rang out.

From most reports Comey is a stand-up guy who wants to do the right thing and is mortified by what turned out to be his role in the 2016 election. Trump is a narcissistic buffoon who couldn’t care less about how he won (the Electoral College is basically affirmative action for white people) and has never acknowledged any form of error. But as Comey put it in a farewell email to the Bureau, POTUS has the power to fire the FBI director “for any reason, or for no reason at all.” It’s telling that when the action was “imminent,” according to the New York Times, Trump called Lindsey Graham. He called Chuck Schumer. But he didn’t call Jim Comey, who found out he’d been fired when somebody noticed a tv news feed behind his back as he was giving a speech. That’s not a strongman. That’s a pathetic, classless coward.

Each time I thought Trump was done when he dissed John McCain’s war record, insulted a Gold Star family, cheered on goons at that rally, and bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. Each time I was wrong. Maybe he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not disturb the diehards in his 36% approval base. But this time he may at last find himself outnumbered. Dumping Comey was lousy in timing, justification and execution, a trifecta of malice and ineptitude.

How any serious Christian could support Donald Trump — how Mike Pence looks himself in the mirror every morning — has always been beyond me; I just do not understand. Now I add the word “Republican.” No, this isn’t Watergate — Richard Nixon only fired a special prosecutor; this is potentially even worse — but if members of his own party won’t stand up to Trump the way they did to Nixon, it’s not just the FBI’s reputation that’s in jeopardy, but their own as well. Not to mention their jobs. Because the votes of their constituents can be digital too.


I Been Paul Simoned And Art Garfunkeled

May 7, 2017

simonI like to listen to music while I cook, but as with my diet I want variety. So I have this long playlist of music I love, and I just ask Alexa to shuffle it as I pull out the cutting board. I never know what’s coming next. The other night, what popped up was “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” the opening track of Simon and Garfunkel’s album PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME. Wow, that sounds pretty good, I thought. Wonder how the rest of the album holds up? So later that night I revisited the whole thing, in order, after half a century.

Yes, PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME turned fifty last October. When it was new I was just starting my senior year in high school. Lots of water has flowed under the bridge since then and nearly everything has changed, most definitely including the music business. Its mid-Sixties conventions are almost unrecognizable today.

In 1966, in the artistic sense, we were all still trying to figure out what a “record album” was. The term originated to describe hardbound packages of single-track 78rpm disks, bound in sleeves with big holes in the middle so you could read the labels, which you flipped through just like a photo album. Those clunky beauties are long gone but the name has stuck. A single-artist collection is still an “album,” whether you buy it on a shiny digital disk or stream it down those Internets.

For pop acts, the arrival of the long-playing 33 1/3rpm single-disk “album” was largely a non-event. Throughout the Fifties, Lps — assuming you had the gear to play them — were mostly for Broadway cast recordings, which regularly topped the Billboard charts, or longer jazz or classical pieces. Pop songs, including the emerging rock & roll sound, were distributed on smaller 45rpm “singles.” That’s what filled up juke boxes, that’s what the Top 40 DJs spun on the air, that’s what teenagers stormed the record stores to buy.

The altruistic saints of the record companies, always looking for ways to devote their own modest profits toward the greater good, made some calculations as the Lp took hold. A single retailed for the better part of a buck for two songs, the chart hit and an unknown “B-side.” (Sometimes they both became hits, as with Ritchie Valens’s “Donna/La Bamba.” Too bad, thought the benevolent angels: that leaves some potential philanthropic donations on the table. Should have been two releases.) Slap a bunch of singles on an Lp, though, and you could charge the kids three, four times as much and repurpose the studio time you’ve already written off — for charity! Add yet another buck for stereo! (“360 Sound” at Columbia.)

So, while more customers got used to Lps, almost all the big pop album releases were by and large collections of previously issued singles, except for the white-collar folk revival (“The Great Folk Scare,” as Dave Van Ronk called it) and sui generis artists such as Bob Dylan. Even Dylan and other oddballs still observed conventional graphic design, listing every song title on the front cover to make the package look like more of a bargain. Dylan’s first four album covers featured song lists, though he’d probably never been heard on a Top 40 radio station and most customers had no clue until they spun the platter.

By the mid-Sixties, however, forward-thinking artists, even popular ones, were starting to kick in their stalls and strive to turn their albums into unique events. PARSLEY, SAGE is a relic from the midpoint of that transition. It’s a collection of newish songs (funny, they don’t look newish!), but three of them had already been released: “Homeward Bound” and “The Dangling Conversation” were legit chart hits, and “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” was the B-side of the huge “I Am A Rock” single (I bought that one, in fact, just to get a new S&G song). There’s a song-title list on the cover, the two hits in big bold face, but the rest of the record besides “Flowers” was a cipher until you played it for the first time.

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Artie and Paul, about the time they recorded PARSLEY, SAGE.

PARSLEY, SAGE was also halfway conventional creatively. Its twelve songs clock in at a total of just under half an hour; the longest track, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” is only 3:10. But this material was more densely packed than anything I’d ever heard. It was partly a reaction to their rushed-out previous album SOUNDS OF SILENCE. They had already split up when, after the fact, producer Tom Wilson overdubbed electric instrumentation onto the acoustic recording of “The Sound of Silence” from their non-selling folkie Lp WEDNESDAY MORNING 3 AM. That second-hand backbeat irked Paul Simon when he heard it, and furthermore the tempo had wavered on the original, so at one point the electric cats had to audibly slow down to let the vocals catch up. But the new mix made Simon and Art Garfunkel huge stars when it became a smash, causing them to reunite for that quickie follow-up. Now they were big shots, and now they were going to take their time. They spent a then-unheard-of three months recording PARSLEY, SAGE, establishing a lasting reputation as studio perfectionists, sort of the Steely Dan of the Sixties. I could hear a quantum leap in ambition the first time I played the record in fall 1966. I thought it was one of the best things ever. No lie. It was the same feeling I got when I first saw CITIZEN KANE and 2001.

If most albums at the time were hit-record compilations, they still worked because the artists had a signature sound that sustained itself throughout. While it was true that Simon & Garfunkel harmonized so beautifully that you often couldn’t tell which one was up high — they sang intervals like their idols the Everly Brothers, but without a hint of country twang; they may have sounded like altar boys but were really two Jewish kids from Queens — each track on PARSLEY, SAGE inhabited its own individual sonic environment. It felt less like a greatest-hits record and more like a collection of great short stories. Even the magnificent BLONDE ON BLONDE, which beat PARSLEY, SAGE to market by six months or so, didn’t exhibit such variety and exactitude. I was blown away.

How did I react five decades later? Spoiler Alert: ambivalently. The newness has worn off. Some PARSLEY, SAGE tracks are still hands-down classics, others have lost a bit of luster. But that short half hour is still crammed with so much creative thought that it cannot be denied.

“Scarborough Fair/Canticle” meets one’s expectations with a soft opening guitar figure. I’ve always admired Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar playing and you can tell it a mile away. He’ll pluck way down on the lower strings and almost slap them for emphasis to get a violent percussive attack. (It’s the first sound on the next song.) This jagged rhythmic effect is a cousin to the wonderful pick-heavy style that James Taylor brought along later. The boys begin their new album with an innocent medieval air, seasoned with some harpsichord fillips that favor Paul’s puffy shirt on the cover photo. But then something intrudes, “signaled by the electric bass,” as Ralph J. Gleason writes in his liner notes. It’s a countermelody, a darker countersong that fills the gaps on the road to Scarborough with the same sweet voicing, but starts to drip menace. Something about polishing a gun, war bellows blazing, scarlet battalions, generals ordering death, it becomes a real nightmare. You can concentrate on either thread — sort of choose to sip wine or chew some food — or just let the total sound wash over you as when a balance of wine and food produces a third taste. I don’t know which member found the harmony (I hope it was Artie) but this is our first iteration of a signature S&G effect, the high note from way off in the rural areas of the chord. You can hear it clearly on the final “THYYYYME…” Even in mono — I didn’t have the money or gear for stereo at the time — there’s an expanse to the track, as if it’s being performed in a large room or from a fair distance. Surprise upon surprise. As I said, this was the one that recently made me interested in hearing the entire album again. I think it still works, though by now we who have followed all these years are already expecting the “Canticle” descant (most amateur performers omit this part).

It sounds more like a normal recording studio on “Patterns,” a minor-key rumination that puzzled me even in high school, from whence much overreaching poetry springeth forth. Also, somebody brought some bongos to the session. Unless meaning is actually being obscured, I’m not a grammar nazi (screw that missing Oxford comma in the album title!) but I couldn’t hear the song back in the day without getting stuck on these lines: “Impaled on my wall / My eyes can dimly see / The pattern of my life / And the puzzle that is me.” In other words, somebody ripped out Paul’s eyeballs and nailed them to a wall, yet in the early evening gloom they can still perceive images. Seriously, I get that he’s trying to refer to the pattern, but why impale it on his wall? For that matter, not to second-guess the bard or anything, but what’s so awful about patterns in the first place? I’ll bet even Simon considers these lyrics to be juvenilia. The solution is to chillax, put down your microscope, and listen to, as Donald Fagen once put it, “the sound of the phonemes.” Just enjoy the groove as I learned to. But still: impaled eyes?!

Simon & Garfunkel had been the avatars of alienation, full of angst and woe, so it was a bit of a novelty to hear the jaunty “Cloudy.” Here again, the chorus is pure existential sighing: the clouds are gray, they’re lonely, they hang down on the singer, they don’t know where they’re going. But the verses brighten into pure joy — though the boys are about to go to 11 with the endorphins in a few minutes — maybe because they were co-written by (but not credited to) the Seekers’ Bruce Woodley, with whom Simon also wrote the hit “Red Rubber Ball” for the Cyrkle. They became pals after Paul fled to England to escape the resounding thud of WEDNESDAY MORNING 3 AM, then un-became pals, thus the non-credit. My guess is it had something to do with publishing money. But from Tolstoy to Tinker Bell, from Berkeley to Carmel, this is just finger-poppin, toe-tappin fun, a bold new direction for our morose heroes. Artie’s harmonies come from outer space.

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Carol Kaye played bass on both “Scarborough Fair” and “Homeward Bound.”

“Homeward Bound” is one of my favorite songs by anyone, and it sounds every bit as good today as it did when it was fresh. It’s one of the most poignant depictions of life on the road for a touring musician: he and the stand-up comic are the only kinds of performing artists who, when not recording, are traveling all the time. The sheer sameness can throw you off very quickly. I once tagged along with Lynyrd Skynyrd for not quite a week, and one day I woke up in my hotel room, flung open the drapes, and had a mild but real panic attack because I couldn’t suss out where I was until I found a newspaper in the lobby. (This is why rock stars tear up hotel rooms.) But I had no idea when I first heard this song how real it is. Simon probably wrote it in England, since he’s “sittin’ in the railway station” rather than a car or bus. The song is terrific, but the record yells out “hit!” because of Hal Blaine’s muscular beat and Carol Kaye’s bass line. (Yes, among their many other credits, the “Wrecking Crew” of LA session cats blew anonymously for S&G too. Carol also plays on “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.”) I know it’s the arrangement that counts because when the boys do it with Paul as their “one-man band,” it just ain’t the same. Judge for yourself, early in their Central Park concert.

Advertising is crass and manipulative! So avers “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine,” which sounds like a certain songwriter might have been watching way too much tv. Still, the banal pitches for the title panacea display wit and economy. “Does your group have more cavities than theirs?” “Do you sleep alone when others sleep in pairs?” There’s even what passes for controversy in 1966: “Are you worried ‘cause your girlfriend’s just a little late?” Not your wife, your girlfriend. You’ve been having extramarital sex, haven’t you? This piece was minor the day it was written and doesn’t age well, but the performance is full-on Everlys.

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Joe Morello brushed the tubs on “The 59th Street Bridge Song.”

And now, turning on a dime, the happiest 1:43 on record. Without a trace of irony, Simon & Garfunkel go skipping down the street on “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” which celebrates that euphoric feeling you get when everything’s perfect or the drugs have just kicked in. “Groovy” as a word has outlived its usefulness (basically replaced by “cool,” which comes from the beatnik era, and “awesome,” which comes from — I dunno, IMAX superhero movies?) but the song’s exalted state is still crystal clear today. Here again, the recording completely sells the exuberance, for the boys have borrowed none other than half of (labelmates) The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Eugene Wright is on upright bass and Joe Morello is swattin’ the super-hip brushes that set the tone immediately; yes, the same guys who recorded the immortal “Take Five.” Veteran S&G fans were nervously waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it did in “Richard Cory,” but no: “Life, I love you / All is groovy.” Angelic la-la syllables dart, weave, spill over each other in a growing chorus of contentment that luxuriously plays us out of side 1. I was happily amazed at first spin, and the song fulfills its simple mission so effectively that it has become timeless despite that antiquated adverb.

“The Dangling Conversation” is about pretension, but it’s pretentious itself, probably why it hasn’t held up as well as S&G’s other big hits. It felt much more profound in 1966 than it does today. In winkily sniffing at detached privilege it becomes guilty of the same offense. There’s certainly much to like, including once again the economy of a gifted songwriter. Simon only needs a few seconds to lay out the shallow vapidity of proper cocktail chitchat: “Can analysis be worthwhile? / Is the theater really dead?” And the lush orchestration, all harps and strings, is sublime — in a sense, just going to the trouble of writing charts and hiring players helps validate Simon & Garfunkel. But it’s hard to listen past the lyrics and enjoy “The Dangling Conversation” on an aural level, because this particular song is all about the lyrics. It only comes to life once, when despair breaks the singer’s chilly composure: “I only kiss your shadow / I cannot feel your hand…” There’s no doubt that it’s a more intellectual way to Stick It To The Man, which is why it fit right in with the times. But fifty years later, I don’t really mind when it’s over.

True fans had already heard “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” on that B-side. The straight-ahead fast picking sounded great, and since I was listening in mono, what I had here was basically that same radio mix from the single. This is one of those songs where it’s easy to mistake the mood. The melody (the same resigned note for a long while on the verses, with Artie handling the changes upstairs) and vibrant tempo could be for a ditty about waiting for a lover to arrive. Instead, leave it to our boys to muse about the inevitability of death, complete with confusion, illusion, dark shadows, tortured sleep, directionless wandering — some fairly grim stuff. If the vocal were in French, you’d never come close to pinning it down lyrically. There is an interesting thought in the chorus: “So I’ll continue to continue to pretend / My life will never end.” We all do that at a young age. But take it from us, kid: you’re gonna die.

On “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” we discover that Paul Simon does have a sense of humor! It’s the musical equivalent of that time he wore a ludicrous turkey suit on SNL and said they had told him, lighten up, you take yourself s-o-o-o-o seriously. Here he flings out cultural references just because they rhyme, from Ayn Rand to Gen. Maxwell Taylor. He’s been Mick Jaggered and “Silver Daggered,” which if you’re not our age you probably don’t recognize as Joan Baez’s signature song early in her career — in other words, I lived through all that folk-singer stuff too. But the centerpiece is the moment when Paul stops everything to do a fairly snarky impression of Bob Dylan, complete with panting in-out harmonica. He has now addressed the elephant in the room. After all, S&G and Dylan shared a label (Columbia) and a producer (Bob Johnston, formerly Tom Wilson). They had included a hokey, halfhearted cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on their first album (the one that tanked), but if Paul or Artie had ever in their lives said A-Anythin’ outside that session, we don’t know about it. For want of a better pigeonhole, both acts were categorized as “folk-rock,” whatever that means, and they didn’t click personally. We know in retrospect that they were worlds apart and evolved even farther away from each other, but we didn’t have any retrospect back then. We have to assume Dylan didn’t mind the ribbing too much because he recorded a self-harmonized “The Boxer” on his possibly heartfelt but definitely delusional SELF PORTRAIT, and many years later he and Paul toured together, even managing to co-perform a tune or two. I saw them at Madison Square Garden: two long sets that were both enjoyable for completely different reasons. Simon, Garfunkel and Laughter. Who’d have imagined that trio? Sue me, but the Dylan thing is still funny.

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The producers of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS aped this Mark Spoelstra cover for the phony album release by “Al Cody” (Adam Driver).

I’ve loved the sound of the 12-string guitar ever since I heard Mark Spoelstra’s FIVE & TWENTY QUESTIONS during the Great Folk Scare. (Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker didn’t hurt either.) When you pluck an individual string, it sounds double-tracked, like a John Lennon vocal. When you strum them all you have a little guitar orchestra. I finally got next to a Vox Folk Twelve and though it was twice as hard to tune and maintain, I never quit playing it. Paul Simon hits the 12 only rarely, but he does a terrific job on “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her,” a dreamy solo for Artie that was probably traded off for “Philippic.” Paul’s guitar is mixed in the background and loaded with reverb, and when the lyric says “cathedral bells,” you go, that’s what it sounds like: a cathedral! Talk about puffy shirts: this is Jane Austen set to music, aimed directly at the chicks. Organdy, crinoline, juniper, burgundy, frosted fields, tripping bells, honey hair, flushed cheeks, grateful tears! Is there anything we forgot? Paul steps forward for a regal guitar break and seals the deal: he makes you want your own 12-string.

But as John and Yoko once said, the dream is over. Now a racing heartbeat pulse introduces “A Poem On The Underground Wall,” a little slice of city life that makes us voyeurs while a profane graffitist defaces a subway poster with “a single-worded poem comprised of four letters.” The tempo doesn’t change but it seems to. As the perv nervously waits for his chance, scrawls his “poem” and books it up the stairs to street level, Paul and Artie help the illusion by becoming ever louder and more intense. He gets closer to what seems like an almost sexual release, maybe not even almost, and we feel like we’re watching something we shouldn’t see. Nothing has prepared us for the chugging inevitability of the rhythm. But most disturbing of all, we find ourselves thinking about what it might feel like to wield the “crayon rosary” ourselves. Finally nothing is left but the pulse we started with, and we’re finished, if not shamed.

Well, not quite. The boys wind up with another “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”-style mashup for a closing bookend. “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” begins with a reverent version of the venerable holiday carol as only these choirboys can warble. It’s beautiful. Then something seems to interfere with your sound system. You’re getting a rogue radio signal from somewhere. Dammit: some newscaster is ruining the song! How is this even possible? You keep listening and the announcer grows louder while your music gets softer. Now you can’t help but pay attention. Martin Luther King may face the National Guard in Cicero, Illinois. Mass murderer Richard Speck is indicted. HUAC investigates war protest. Nixon says opposition to the war works against the country. The news is nothing but bad, and it has finally overpowered “Silent Night.” Of course, all this was deliberate. The effect is quite powerful — in fact, too much so for posterity. “7 O’Clock News” is like a magic trick: the first time you experience it can be mind-blowing, but there’s a reason most magicians don’t repeat illusions for the same audience. Without the element of surprise, you’re only interested in the method, how you were fooled. Well, S&G hired radio DJ Charlie O’Donnell to read actual news items from August 3, 1966 and engineer Roy Halee worked the faders just right. It’s wrenching the first time, but the returns begin to diminish almost immediately. All these years later it’s not only the now-familiar juxtaposition that weakens the piece: the news items themselves are so stale they’re ancient history. I wish this track had been a B-side, or maybe a single for the holiday, so they could have ended PARSLEY, SAGE with something a bit more permanent. But who knew we’d still be listening to it fifty years later?

Sure, it doesn’t all work, and there are other dated moments. But PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME has spun off so much enjoyment over the decades that it’s instructive to consider how long that span of time really is. Fifty years before PARSLEY, SAGE, the biggest hit records, including “O Sole Mio” by Enrico Caruso, “I Love A Piano” by Billy Murray, and ”Ireland Must Be Heaven, For My Mother Came From There” by Charles Harrison, were made with frickin recording horns. Well, that much time and more has now passed for us since S&G’s first groundbreaker. Yet it still has the power to reach out over an eventful half century, to delight, provoke and entertain. Even after buying all that studio time, I’d say Columbia got its money’s worth and then some.

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The stunning Richard Avedon portrait for their next album, BOOKENDS.


Storms, No Chasers

April 11, 2017

lightning - 1(1).jpgThe National Weather Center is housed in a 250,000-square-foot, five-story building on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman. There’s a big observation deck facing south, because around here that’s where severe storms usually come from, and these people love to watch.

NWC is a partnership among OU, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and state agencies. OU’s School of Meteorology is the largest such program in the country, with about 250 undergrads and some 90 postgraduate students. But these folks aren’t exactly studying for a slot on the evening news. Their facility also houses some of America’s most capable pros. Whenever there’s a tornado or severe thunderstorm watch anywhere in the contiguous 48 states, the call originates in Norman, Oklahoma.

145e03515dc712626f7611577d4eea73.jpgThe building is pretty new — it opened in 2006 — but America’s severe-storm research infrastructure has been migrating to Norman since the early Sixties. Even before that, scientists deployed the first Doppler weather radar system here. It’s a great location because the topography is fairly flat — you know, the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain — and it sits smack-dab in the middle of Tornado Alley. The National Severe Storm Laboratory (NSSL) studies most kinds of awful weather, but the National Hurricane Center is closer to the action, in Miami. (Although fracking has of late cursed Oklahoma with more than its share of earthquakes, the seismic experts are in Denver.)

Tornado.jpgThe coolest part of NWC is the Storm Prediction Center, where the forecasters work inside a ring of honking black Dell monitors that looks like a Bond villain’s lair. They are looking for any severe conditions across the country, including winter and fire weather. When they’re confident Mother Nature’s about to get mad, they issue watches covering the affected areas. Local National Weather Service offices take it from there and spit out on-the-ground info, such as a tornado touchdown, in the form of warnings. Each NWS office serves a strictly delineated jurisdiction, which is why severe weather watch areas are always expressed by a list of specific counties.

NWC is a resource for every sort of person. They’re diverse in age, gender, nationality, you name it, but nearly all of them have one thing in common. Their favorite movie is TWISTER. Not just because weather people are the heroes, but because their own work basically inspired the whole darn thing.

The notion of collecting data from inside a tornado, which drives TWISTER’s plot, is genuine. NSSL tried its best to do so in the Seventies and Eighties. They created a nifty device and wryly named it the Totable Tornado Observatory, which of course works out to TOTO, after the canine character in another big movie that featured a twister. The screenwriters Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, who came to NSSL for research, took that as a jumping-off point and dubbed their fictional device “Dorothy.” Several actors including leads Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, as well as producers Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, also spent time in Norman.

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From left: “Dorothy,” the competitors’ “D.O.T. 3,” both movie props, and NOAA’s TOTO, which is for real.

The TWISTER folks wanted to acknowledge OU by putting the university’s seal on the side of “Dorothy.” But to their surprise, permission was declined. Why in the world would OU do that? Because storm chasing is dangerous (as TWISTER viewers well know) and the school cannot support or even condone such daredeviltry, not even in a fictional movie. So the TWISTER production was forced to design its own phony academic seal, and the team retaliated by dressing the very craziest storm chaser, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an OU ball cap for the entire picture, and stenciling “O.K. L.A.” on the side of one of the props. No hard feelings: the Weather Center’s canteen is called the Flying Cow Cafe, after one of TWISTER’s best-known shots.

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Helen Hunt says thanks.

Some people at the Center nevertheless throw caution to, well, you know, and strike out themselves, but they’re doing so at their own risk. There are some beautiful color photos of severe storms on the walls, and one student told us, “If you can’t look at these photos and determine the vertical wind shear, you have no business chasing storms.” NSSL took the TWISTER actors out on a real tornado chase, but it had nothing to do with OU, wink wink. We visited the Weather Center on a gorgeous day: blue sky, low 70s, hardly any wind. They call that “boring.”

Severe weather predictions are one more of those things we take for granted, but they’re the result of hard work, eureka moments and sheer persistence. In 2009, a piece of equipment called VORTEX 2 successfully intercepted a tornado, more than thirty years after the first halting efforts that inspired TWISTER. I read once that local tv weather people tend to forecast gloomily because of human nature: if they predict rain and it turns out nice, everybody feels happy, but viewers resent being caught in bad weather by surprise. The scientists at the Storm Prediction Center don’t have the luxury of approximation, even though our climate is almost unbelievably complex. They’re not merely suggesting that you take along your raincoat. By giving everyone fair warning, they’re actually saving people’s lives.

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Tomorrow Is Another Day

April 1, 2017

donaldtrump_aap_030814.jpgAfter a great deal of anguished thought, I have a confession, and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that resistance won’t work. I’m sitting the rest of this presidency out.

President Trump — appalling that I even have to write that — is nevertheless ensconced in the office, and he has his pals all around him. They’re every bit as inexperienced and incompetent as he is, but it’s still the @realWhiteHouse, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

Remember that at this moment he and his minions have their thumbs on the scale everywhere. All three branches are his: executive, legislative and soon judicial, once he can get off his ass and pack a few district courts.

In case you’re gloating over the Trumpcare flameout, don’t. This repeal-and-replace business isn’t over. Tea Partiers hate Obama and anything he ever touched more than they love their constituents, even the sick ones. Especially the sick ones.

Legislators are already salivating over the tax code that they’ll soon be able to rewrite any way they want to. Guess who’ll get their taxes cut. You got it! But you can’t do diddly squat to stop it!

Foreign policy? Who needs it? The most powerful guy in the world is the only one who can’t get his “mind” around the fact that we’re interconnected. It’s not just World War III you should be freaked about. It’s the slow erosion of the US’s position as leader of the free world. There’s no more moral high ground. Soon there’ll be no more economic high ground as the world’s brightest minds, the keys to our future, gradually choose to base their careers in a place where they feel welcome. Sad!

Other countries are not quaking with fear over Donald Trump. They’re laughing at us, and enjoying a big bad bit of schadenfreude as Prissy Prom Queen America finally gets what’s coming to it. Their sainted Constitution has finally bit Yanks in the ass. They got screwed by their own rules and regulations. How can you lose by three million votes in public and still take power? Inquiring dictators want to know this clown’s secret.

Once it all sinks in, you too may come to understand that the cards are stacked, the dice are loaded, the game is rigged. Resistance is futile: the frickin Borg are more empathetic. So there’s only one logical course of action. Regroup for the next election, sure, because tomorrow is indeed another day, absolutely. But for now, don’t squander your energy. Just give up and wait it out. I feel so much better now. Think about it, man. You can too.

Look anywhere, up and down the political spectrum, for another solution. Read anything you like and see if you can find any variance from my grim prognosis. I myself am tired of deception, hidden messages to the political base, inappropriate cheerfulness on a golf course or any other kind of levity while the world is going to hell. I’m throwing up the towel and I won’t waste another second worrying about Donald Trump. No, sir. Not today.

4/2/17: Though I stand by nearly everything expressed in this post, the notion that you should capitulate to the Trump catastrophe was written in jest. I don’t want anyone else to “take it the wrong way.” I tried my best to make the piece appear plausible, but I may have gone too far, and for that I apologize. I thought I’d left enough breadcrumbs (“look anywhere, up and down,” “hidden messages to the political base,” “levity while the world is going to hell,” “throwing up the towel,” categorizing the post as Humor), but I was wrong. The ultimate “tell” is this: anybody who knows me knows I would never ever ever advocate giving up or even shutting up. There is one more blatant indication that the post was intended as a prank which I’ll leave for you to find.


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