‘Books’ Posts

Walking on the Wild Side

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

When you write about music a lot, as I do, you find yourself wondering about the nature of the stuff. Why do so many people make music? Why does almost everybody love to listen to it? Where in our bodies and minds does it come from?

Because I write songs, I have a partial answer to that last question. One source of music is the natural rhythms of the body. I know that because I often get musical ideas while I’m hiking.

The steady rhythm of hiking – walking, walking, walking, all day long – will induce a familiar song to pop into my head. Pretty quickly I’ll get sick of that song running through my mind, and the best way I know to get rid of it is to force it to change. So I make a couple of modifications to the beat or the melody. At the same time I think of some nonsense words to go with the new music that’s forming in my brain. Voilà – an idea for a potential new song.

It occurred to me that maybe, at least in humans, music actually springs from the rhythms of walking. If we didn’t walk, maybe we wouldn’t have music at all (or maybe we’d have just the non-rhythmic kinds – Arvo Pärt, Ornette Coleman, ambient music). There’d be no baroque dances, classical music, gypsy music, bebop, rock and roll, or techno. (One theory of the origin of the term “rock and roll” suggests that it came from the hammer songs of track workers, who had to rock and roll their railroad spikes to set them for the hammer.)

Rhythmic bodily functions like breathing and heartbeat might have contributed to inspiring the invention of music too. My point is that that all animals move – that’s pretty much the definition of animal, in fact. We walk on the ground, or climb through trees, or propel our bodies through the medium of air or water. Pretty much every animal makes motile progress by means of some repetitive rhythmic action (walk, swim, fly, slither). And if we humans were inspired by our own motion to develop music – if music has its genesis in such a basic function, one that we share with even the simplest, one-celled animals – it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to interpret the songs of birds or whales as having the same origin, and being the same thing, as human music.

Many animals, of course, use “tone language” to communicate. Temple Grandin, in her extraordinary book Animals in Translation, argues that these musical sounds are music, just like human music, and suggests that music is, or can be, a language.

Dr. Grandin is known for her innovations in the field of animal welfare. She uses her perspective as an autistic person to “see in pictures,” as she believes animals do, which makes her able to see things from the animals’ point of view in a way that a person with a normal, verbal-centric brain can’t. In the book, she draws on her experience with animals and her knowledge of scientific research in the field to make many intriguing points about how animals (and humans) think. With respect to music, she writes,

Researchers also agree that animal song is highly complex, which makes it a good candidate for being a true animal language… To give just one example, it’s likely that birds invented the sonata. A sonata begins with an opening theme, then changes that theme over the body of the piece, and finally ends with a repetition of the opening theme. Ordinary song sparrows compose and sing sonatas.

Grandin even suggests that humans “probably learned music from animals, most likely from birds.” To support this idea she notes that most primates don’t sing songs. As noted above, I believe it’s at least as likely that we came up with music – or at least its rhythmic elements – on our own, inspired by the rhythms we make with our bodies in the physical world (walking, walking, walking). But Grandin’s important point here is the suggestion that some animals use music as a true language, and hence our music too has at least the potential to be one as well. “It’s possible that music, or something like it, once was the human language, and maybe it still is the language of birds and animals.” She cites a recent study showing that Broca’s area of the brain, which is the part that understands spoken language, also understands music.

It’s no accident that we use the two terms to describe each other, in phrases like “music is the universal language.” I wonder what Grandin would say to the philosopher and musicologist T. W. Adorno, who admitted many similarities between language and music but pointed out that unlike in language, a message conveyed by music “cannot be detached from the music. Music creates no semiotic system.” I wonder if Adorno was right, or if, not being an autistic animal welfare scientist, he wore some of the same mental blinkers as the rest of us normals.

Book Review: Saudi Match Point by Paul Ulrich

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

Saudi Match Point bears the hallmarks of a promising writer of thrillers and those of a novice novelist, in roughly equal measure. Drawing on years of experience overseas as a consultant, technician, foreign-aid worker and (self-admitted) government bureaucrat, author Paul Ulrich economically and effectively conveys the heady atmosphere and multicultural boiling pot of Saudi Arabia. He creates colorful characters whom the reader comes to care about, most especially a sheltered young woman whose plight, in a family that adheres to ultra-strict Wahabbi Muslim teachings, is heartbreaking. And he convincingly mixes real geopolitics into fictional situations.

Less convincing sometimes is the naïveté of some of the characters. Ahmad, a telecommunications worker whose beautiful sister becomes Nick’s love interest, decrypts a diplomatic email and wonders, “Was the U.S. government telling its citizens and the world one thing yet secretly pursuing a different agenda?” But the central character is the deliciously named Nick Hansen, a young China expert with the U.S. State Department, assigned to Saudi Arabia to gauge China’s attitudes towards American activities in the Saudi oil industry. That might not sound fascinating, but as a story engine Ulrich makes it work.

Saudi Arabia Map

Nick isn’t very interesting, and the author seems to realize this, for he devotes the greater part of the narrative to the assortment of internationals who surround him – notably a globe-trotting ladies’ man from New Zealand, an intriguing Chinese agent, and two Saudi families, one relatively Westernized, the other highly traditional. Ulrich evokes the cruel repression of women in Wahhabi society and conveys the uneasy coexistence of Western interests and Islamist culture. Some plot elements – the conspiracy Nick stumbles upon, the gung-ho action ending – can seem a little unrealistic. But then, we wouldn’t want to be like Ahmad. In the geopolitics of oil, it seems almost anyone is capable of almost anything.

Ulrich’s promise as a suspense-thriller writer shows mainly in his authoritative sense of place and solid feel for character. The writing style needs smoothing, the plot relies too heavily on coincidence, and the prologue isn’t adequately explained at the end (unless I missed something). But I enjoyed the book, and I got a picture of how things are in an “exotic” foreign land. Not too shabby, especially for a first-time novelist tackling a very demanding genre.

Book Review: The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies, and My Life with Styx by Chuck Panozzo with Michele Skettino

Thursday, May 17th, 2007

I first liked Styx because the girl I liked liked Styx. Then I liked Styx because, well, I just liked them. Their shiny brand of rock may have been tailor-made for teenage girls, but its romanticism and drama also appealed to a certain type of geeky adolescent boy. I saw them in 1979 at Nassau Coliseum, with the Good Rats (Long Island’s best-ever band that didn’t quite make it) opening. It was a memorable concert. My friend threw a lit sparkler and got thrown out before the show even started. The rest of us stayed. What good friends we were.

The Good Rats banged on their garbage cans. Then Styx brought their colorful corporate rock show to the stage. When Tommy Shaw shouted “Get Up” we might have felt a little stupid, but we all got up. And “Come Sail Away” was as awesome in concert as it was on the record. Which I owned. And had listened to many many times.

Behind the band’s three frontmen, brothers Chuck and John Panozzo churned away on the bass and drums respectively. One didn’t pay too much attention to these darker, unflashy members of the band. Chuck addresses this: “I always had a dark, brooding look… In some ways, I used my physical appearance as a deflector. I played it.” Your reviewer wasn’t a bass player yet, so didn’t appreciate Chuck Panozzo’s importance. I suppose I did know the band’s story enough to know that the Panozzo brothers and Dennis DeYoung had formed it as young teenagers. But one forgets the details of fandom even though one remembers the songs.

Chuck Panozzo’s new autobiography tells the story of the band and the even more interesting story of how a closeted gay musician dealt with the “manly” world of rock, the AIDS epidemic, and his own demons.

Talk about high notes and low notes. Panozzo had co-founded one of rock’s most successful bands, and by his own account, after four successive triple-platinum albums and years of lucrative touring, he didn’t ever have to work again. On the personal side, there were co-dependency issues with his mother as well as his alcoholic fraternal twin brother John, the band’s volatile drummer, who Panozzo says would today probably have been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder or learning disability. But how many of us are lucky enough to have no family drama in our lives? From outward appearances, fate had smiled on our hero.

Thing was, Chuck was gay, and he feared, with some justification, that coming out of the closet would endanger his career, his band, and his family relationships – his whole existence. So he stayed closeted and miserable. For decades.

Oh, and by the way, during the days before AIDS awareness, Chuck contracted HIV, and he later developed full-blown AIDS. Also his beloved, troubled brother lost his battle with the bottle and died. His mother passed away while Chuck was at his sickest. And his best friend died of AIDS. And, oh yeah – prostate cancer! Now do you want to trade places with Chuck Panozzo, the big rock star?

Remarkably, Panozzo has lived – and thrived – to tell the tale. He still has medical complications, but his AIDS drug treatment – which he started late in the game, largely because of his own denial – has worked. His HIV levels are undetectable. He’s in a lasting, loving relationship after decades of utter inability to establish one, for reasons the book makes clear. And he is finding fulfillment by using his celebrity to influence the lives of young people confused about their sexual identities. “If I can make one person question why he’s hiding his authentic self,” he writes in the Introduction, “…and give him courage to make a change, then I’ve succeeded.”

Like sports, rock is a pretty macho field. Even now, many gay musicians remain closeted for the sake of their careers. During Styx’s heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed inconceivable for a member of such a popular group, with its throngs of young female fans, to be openly gay. Hence, although Panozzo is pretty tough on himself, only a hard-hearted reader could blame him for lacking the courage to come out. On the contrary, one closes the book feeling considerable admiration for Panozzo for having come through such adversity with a positive outlook and a much-improved life.

My admiration doesn’t extend to his writing style, however, and I guess on this count one has to point a finger at co-writer Michele Skettino. Panozzo may have come up with the lyrical hook to the Styx hit “Show Me the Way,” but he’s not a writer and doesn’t claim to be. Yet, for a book that’s had the benefit of a professional co-writer and (presumably) copy editing, it has far too many errors and misprints. When I see a celebrity autobiography with a co-writer credited by name, I expect a competent text, and I have to say that in a literary sense, Ms. Skettino and the publisher’s editorial staff seem to have let our hero down.

Nevertheless I found the book hard to put down, especially during its first half as Panozzo relates how music came into his life, how Styx formed, and how hard they worked before (and during) their years of success. “It is not an understatement,” he writes of his teen years, “to say that music was changing my life. Once I started to play an instrument, suddenly I felt that I had something of value to contribute. Guitar was my thing. Now, in my own head, I was someone beyond the little, fag queer on the playground.” That will resonate with anyone who has discovered his “thing,” a specific talent or drive that gives his life meaning and makes him feel worthy to exist.

Panozzo’s detour to a seminary, which he says “essentially… turned out to be a boarding school for incorrigible young men,” gives his discussion of Catholicism credibility. “I think part of the problem with the issue of gays and the Catholic Church is that gay priests within the church refuse to speak out. It is not uncommon to see a priest in a gay bar. Of course, they wear street clothes and don’t publicize what they do for a living…” And of course, “Our environment and Catholic upbringing did a very good job at repressing our sexuality – gay or straight.”

Writing of the band’s days as a Chicago-area favorite in the early 1960s, he explains that “The more popular we became, the more I began to wonder what would happen if anyone found out that I was gay. Would that be the end of it? This made me even more reluctant to begin exploring my sexuality. Playing in the hottest band around was a sort of redemption from the barbs and abuse that had haunted me in the early part of my school life. I wasn’t going to mess around with that.”

The author’s wry humor peeks through his rather plodding prose. “A huge bear of a man in leather pants and a cop hat can be a bit intimidating to a newbie,” he says of a visit to a gay bar, “[b]ut as I worked my way into the crowd and began to hear snippets of conversations, I realized, ‘These guys are talking about recipes!'” Amusingly, our rock star hero was able to hang out anonymously in the gay community because “not one gay man I knew cared much about rock ‘n’ roll.” It was the disco era, after all. I suppose there were probably very few gay people in the audience at Nassau Coliseum that day in 1979 when I saw Styx.

You can detect the sparkle in Panozzo’s eye even in the misfortune-ridden second half of the book: “Of course, no one can solve an alcoholic’s problems except the alcoholic himself, but I could kill myself trying.” Fortunately he didn’t. His narrative is interesting, and the added psychological complication of a hidden sexual orientation makes it more than just a rock bio.

The band that started as a schoolboy accordion trio playing Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra hits grew into one of rock’s biggest and most original acts. Through infighting, personnel changes, and breakups, Styx persevered in one form or another and has even had something of a renaissance in the new century, though without Dennis DeYoung, who was responsible for many of the band’s biggest hits.

Speaking of DeYoung, honest creative differences weren’t the only things that stood in the way of a harmonious band history. A bit passive-aggressively, Panozzo gets in his digs at the theatrical front man. But the book isn’t primarily a tell-all. It recounts a life in music that will interest Styx fans as well as the gay community. Its main message can probably be summed up in this admission: “I did a disservice to myself and to the people who loved me by underestimating their compassion… That is one of the main reasons that I was motivated to write this book – to help others as others have helped me.” Visit Panozzo’s website for more about the bassist, his music, and his causes.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics.

Book Review: Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Rick Coleman

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, much was made of the fact that the worst-hit neighborhoods were those inhabited mostly by poor blacks. But as the news unfolded, a specific question bounced through the country concerning one particularly rich and famous resident of the Lower Ninth Ward: “Where’s Fats?”

To be sure, not everyone knew Fats Domino was still alive in 2005. The 77-year-old musician had made relatively few appearances in recent decades, especially outside New Orleans. His numerous hits seemed to belong to a distant era. Though his seminal importance to rock and other forms of popular music had made him one of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and despite having dominated the charts for a chunk of the last century, Antoine “Fats” Domino seemed to have been, if not forgotten, relegated to the sidelines of music history.

Katrina briefly shone the national spotlight on Domino as nothing had since President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts in 1998. But Rick Coleman’s biography of the star, Blue Monday (now out in trade paperback), should play a more permanent role in preserving Domino’s legacy than any award or honor (or national disaster). It’s a fairly well written, densely researched account of the long and colorful life of one of popular music’s most influential and original talents.

In his Prologue, Coleman makes this very cogent point:

Historians…love to romanticize the stark noncommercial purity of downtrodden delta bluesmen in a commendable attempt at black cultural appreciation that nonetheless seems to rationalize the ghettoizing of many of rock ‘n’ roll’s more direct black fathers and mothers – the creators of rhythm & blues – into a historical no-man’s land. Thus, there has been vast documentation of the blues, but so little research on rhythm & blues that even major figures have disappeared into shadow. It is not a good sign of the preservation of African American heritage when by far the most popular r&b artists of the 1940s and the 1950s, Louis Jordan and Fats Domino, are today little known to most people.

The book makes a major contribution towards redressing that injustice.

Race is a huge part of the story. From the relative cultural comfort of the 21st century it’s easy to remark on how music has helped “bring us together.” We forget how recently the Civil Rights movement spawned violence in many parts of the country, and we may not be aware of how much racial prejudice music and musicians suffered during Fats Domino’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s.

Domino’s band often couldn’t get lodgings in the cities where they played. “They could buy gas at service stations but couldn’t use the restrooms.” Once audiences had started to mix, nervous promoters canceled concerts. Penetrating the pop (as opposed to the r&b) charts, even after it became possible for black artists, remained very difficult for many years. Though his music was relatively unprovocative (as compared with Little Richard’s, for example), riots attended a number of Domino’s concerts as white and black youths tried to dance together in the same halls.

“In stark contrast to his later image,” Coleman writes, “adults once…considered Domino a public menace…Domino’s shows were ground zero for racial integration.” Almost half the crowd was white at Alan Freed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Jubilee Ball” in New York City in January 1955. The lineup, including Domino, was all black, and indeed, Coleman reports that “over a year after Elvis Presley’s ascendance, the three major rock ‘n’ roll package tours were eighty percent black with all black headliners.”

Coleman’s greatest contribution with this book – even more than his documenting of Domino’s life – may be his detailed recounting of the nationally touring shows that featured Fats and other stars before and during the Civil Rights movement. “Before children were integrated in schools,” he writes, “the music integrated their souls.” Scholars and the public can learn much from the story of how music has helped unite a fractious society.

Rhythm & blues sowed the seeds of integration even in virulently racist areas. There was a curious turnabout, as whites now felt the bondage of both the ropes that [literally] segregated them away from the dance floor and their own repressive moral dictums, as they enviously watched the blacks dance.

“The most important thing about my music is the beat,” declares Domino, and Coleman has much to say about the abstract quality of European classical music vs. the physicality of the Africa-derived music that blacks had danced to for centuries and that flowered spectacularly in New Orleans in the 20th century. (New Orleans even got its nickname, the Big Easy, from musicians who knew it as a place where they could find work easily.)

“Emphatic rhythms, which were unheard on pop radio in the early 1950s, hijacked the hit parade within a year after Domino unleashed the monolithic ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ in 1955,” Coleman says, more or less accurately. I think he gives short shrift to the beat-heavy, big-band swing music of the 1940s, a trimmed-down version of which is quite evident in early R&B. But the fact that I feel justified in making such a criticism indicates how deeply Coleman delves into musicology in a book that is ostensibly a biography. The subtitle, Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘N’ Roll, could have just as accurately (if less poetically) been The Life, Work and Times of Fats Domino.

The Italian-American engineer and studio owner Cosimo Matassa recorded rock ‘n’ roll’s first anthem, Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight, in New Orleans in 1947. Two years later Domino recorded “The Fat Man” – a tamed reworking of “The Junker’s Blues,” a song about a dope fiend – at Matassa’s studio, and it became the first of his 35 Top 40 hits. Matassa also recorded Ray Charles, Dr. John, Little Richard, and many other important artists, and Coleman correctly shines a light on the engineer’s critical contributions, as well as those of Domino’s songwriting partner, arranger, and bandleader, Dave Bartholomew, and Lew Chudd, the record entrepreneur whose Imperial Records brought Fats’s music (and Ricky Nelson’s, interestingly) to the masses. He also gives the important radio DJs and concert promoters of the time their due, but Domino, Bartholomew, and Chudd form his story’s most essential triumvirate, and Fats himself comes through clearly as a brilliant entertainer, a musical innovator, and a shy, flawed, but in many ways admirable human being.

Coleman is good at describing to the non-musician what makes music do what it does. Maybe that’s because Fats was good at it too. “‘I used to play most all of my piano,’ says Domino. ‘That’s how I got that rock ‘n’ roll. Everybody used to use the 4/4 beat. Then we did that one-two-three – that added to the rhythm. The first song I recorded in 1949; that had the backbeat.” Coleman also repeatedly references Domino’s piano triplets, which have been ubiquitous in pop ballads ever since. And he backs up his claims for Domino’s influence by calling on a veritable cavalcade of stars. Paul McCartney took time off from recording Sgt. Pepper to attend a rare Domino concert in England. Elvis Presley made a point of calling Domino the real king of rock ‘n’ roll. Leonard Cohen says Fats’s version of “Blueberry Hill” is his “all-time favorite song.” Art Neville: “Fats could burn a piano, and Fats had a vocal sound that everybody loved. I ate, drank and slept Fats Domino.” Bob Marley: “My earliest influence in music comes from Fats Domino time.” And on and on. Point made.

As if to counterweigh the arc of Domino’s hugely successful career as a musician (and indirectly as an anti-apartheid campaigner), Coleman is also forced to write of the many members of Domino’s retinues and bands who died of drug overdoses or met other sad and premature ends. Death after death confronts the reader, who eventually learns that as a group, black musicians who tried to take their music to the masses during the age of segregation paid a far steeper price than exclusion from restrooms or pop charts.

In spite of his repeated personal losses, Fats Domino forged on. How he reacted to these events, we must infer from third-person reporting. The book doesn’t get deep into its subject’s psyche. The author had access to Domino and many of the important figures in his life, but the star remained (and remains) a very private person. It will be up to future biographers to determine, if they can, whether Domino simply isn’t much of a soul-searcher, or is just intensely private. Coleman describes Domino’s flaws (philandering, gambling, excessive drinking) but doesn’t give us much sense of the star’s own perspective on them. One gets the feeling that despite Coleman’s access, he wasn’t able to crack the shell.

Given that limitation, he’s still given us a crackling good story. Fats Domino’s influence should never again be obscured or downplayed. Equally important, his “big beat diplomacy” helped set the races on a path towards peace that continues to this day. As Coleman so aptly puts it, “America, which in prior centuries had figurately cannibalized Africa, was now suddenly shocked to discover it was what it ate.”

Book Review: Avoid a Migraine, Stop a Migraine

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

This monograph approaches the relief and prevention of migraines both specifically and holistically. The author brings together numerous relief techniques of her own experience (one of which she herself discovered) and a sizable chunk of current thinking, sometimes rather edgy thinking, in the field of holistic and preventative health. Avoid a Migraine, Stop a Migraine can be useful for migraine sufferers but also as a starting point for a wider personal investigation into health and wellbeing.

Author Sandra Spewock Feder begins with a caveat: “This book does not in any way give medical or any other kind of advice. At the request of fellow migraine sufferers, I am sharing my own observations and experiences. Before you do anything and if you have any questions, consult your health care provider.” One might wonder where the line is between suggestions and advice, of course. Writers know, even if they can’t admit, that their caveats are going to be regularly ignored; people – especially suffering people – are going to try suggested techniques without consulting a doctor first.

Then again, there are also doctors who succumb to the lure of a quick buck, endorsing products of unproven and questionable value. We see these charlatans on TV all the time. One feels more comfortable with an honest approach like that of Feder, who simply presents her findings based on personal experience and research, reporting on what has worked for her and what she believes caused the efficacy.

Feder gives a lively description of migraines, those headaches from hell: “Three days of pain, and another day or two recovering from being wiped out…It was like trying to stay afloat when something was relentlessly pushing me under. Each time I would give up and let the pain close over me.” But the key, the topic sentence, is this: “Migraine is a symptom. Pain comes for a reason.”

Before laying out her relief techniques, Feder presents several sections on the conditions that can lead to migraine (and pain in general) and what causes those conditions. Excitotoxins, for example, are ingredients in food that lead to an excess of certain neurotransmitters, notably glutamate. Everyone knows about MSG – monosodium glutamate – but I didn’t know (for example) that the textured vegetable protein I like to use as a substitute for ground beef in chili and other dishes contains free glutamate that could be causing havoc in my brain. (I am a migraine sufferer, although mine, thankfully, do not last as long as those Feder describes.)

Feder has some tips about what to look for in lists of ingredients on packaged food. For example, what are “spices”? Why don’t they just say what the spices are? Red flag. She also explains what nutrients can counteract the effects of excitotoxins and what foods are good sources of those nutrients. She stresses eating raw foods and drinking plenty of water, and explains the importance of maintaining a proper pH balance in the body, a difficult task given the typical, acid-forming American diet.

Feder ends by describing 25 relief techniques, some old (put ice on it), some new (specially formulated supplements), some novel (use conductive tape to bridge a break in the flow of chi). Detailed material on the related subjects of sinus health and skin detoxification is also included. For an experienced migraine sufferer, this short book will likely be a useful supplement to the research he or she has already done on this terrible, much studied, but not fully understood problem. For someone just beginning to deal with migraines, the book, combined with basic Internet research and a visit to a doctor, will be a good starting point.

Book Review: Words That Work by Dr. Frank Luntz

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

“The words of this book,” writes the Republican strategist Frank Luntz, “represent the language of America, not the language of a single political party, philosophy, or product.” Despite what one might expect from the originator of loaded terms like “death tax,” most of his book lives up to that promise of evenhandedness.

Luntz has made a career of spinning political and corporate messages. In focus groups and dial sessions he painstakingly tests words, phrases, speeches and speakers to find the precise language that is most appealing to voters or consumers. The political side of his practice has been mostly for Republican clients, but in this book he tries to keep politically neutral; where his own opinions come through, they’re usually labeled as such. On the whole he sticks to his subject: how using well-chosen words and phrases can strongly influence listeners.

Throughout the book Luntz repeats the mantra, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” That could be parsed in some disturbing ways, but Luntz seems to mean simply, “It’s not what you say, it’s precisely how you say it.” There’s certainly nothing ground-breaking about that idea. The practice of rhetoric – persuasive language – goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. But, on the evidence of this book, people remain as susceptible as ever to having their views and reactions shaped by the way ideas are phrased. It’s good to be reminded of language’s power, and it’s especially useful to read how marketers are using it on us right now.

A glaring example of Luntz’s failure to remain entirely neutral is the persistent use of the word “Democrat” as an adjective, as in “Democrat Party.” This is well understood to be charged and partisan language (otherwise known as fightin’ words) and in this context, where a minimum of scholarly tone ought to be observed, Luntz should – and surely does – know better. He also refers matter-of-factly to his 2005 New American Lexicon as having been written in the service of a “pro-business, pro-freedom” agenda, failing to acknowledge the loaded nature of both of those terms and especially the second. The idea that all Americans agree on what best serves “freedom” is patently silly.

Despite such lapses, Luntz presents much valuable insight and useful advice for his intended audience of policymakers, business leaders, and those who advise or aspire to be either one, regardless of political leanings. (But read on for a way the book can also benefit the average citizen-reader). As in much popular nonfiction, the book is big on enumerated lists: “Ten Rules of Effective Language,” “Myths and Realities about Language and People,” “priorities, principles and preferences that matter to all [Americans],” and the like. Some items seem fairly obvious, like advice to use short words and sentences, or the notion that Americans aren’t big readers. But Luntz convincingly makes the case for including them by providing interesting examples of people shooting themselves in the foot by not recognizing them – e.g. pre-Inconvenient Truth Al Gore talking over the heads of the public – and related observations, like the way older viewers at TV studio tapings watch the actual performance, while their younger compatriots watch through the television monitors. Luntz has certainly amassed a wealth of information in his years of studying the American public.

Some of the conclusions he draws from his research are less obvious and more interesting. The denizens of “exurbia” have acquired great political importance. American consumers don’t respond well to patriotic messages. (And I thought that was just here in the city-state of New York.) Perhaps most interesting, “the vast majority of Americans don’t vote based on particular issues at all.” Sure, we have a vague sense that a politician’s personality and character matter, but probably only the most cynical of us will be unsurprised at, for example, the large degree to which success in a national election depends upon a candidate’s optimistic outlook.

Some view Luntz’s product as callous and cynical manipulation – “spinning lies into truth,” as Daily Kos has put it. Others may take him at face value when he writes that his “language eschews overt partisanship and aims to find common ground.” But either way, the process of developing “words that work” is fascinating, as described by the author in a brief chapter about how focus groups and dial sessions work. (As one who has lived in both Boston and New York I was particularly interested to read that “New York City sessions are notable for their uncontrollable chaos and the frequent use of profanity. New Yorkers like nothing and hate everything,” whereas “trying to get people from New England to say anything beyond a simple yes or no is virtually impossible.”)

Enhancing its implicit claim of accurately assessing what we might call the “sense of the American people” is the book’s extreme currency – it’s aware of the recent Democratic takeover of Congress, for example. Its chapter on “Old Words, New Meaning” notes that since a culture’s use of language is always changing, a language pollster’s work is never done, a point borne out by the fact that Luntz’s discussion of the term “bipartisan” has missed out on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent coining of the term “post-partisanship.” Given a few more weeks before publication, I expect Luntz would have been all over that – approvingly.

Maybe because of being so up-to-date, the book suffers from two flaws suggesting a rush to print. First, it is repetitious, making some of the same points and using the same examples – in the same words – in different chapters. Second, it suffers from far too many misprints and grammatical errors for a book about language. In the early going, these have the effect of blunting the message.

Now for that added benefit. Most of us aren’t policymakers or business leaders, but plain citizens. As voters and consumers we are the intended targets of the “words that work” which marketers like Dr. Luntz use. To put it cynically, we are the “manipulatees.” And with this book Luntz has exposed the magician’s secrets. Read it and you’ll be better able to pick out the marketing-speak all around you, and observe – and quite likely mitigate – its effects on your own mind. And really, it’s everywhere. Seeing the Jackson Hewitt tax preparation chain’s slogan, “Hassle Free Service,” I would never have picked out “hassle-free” as a carefully selected phrase. But lo and behold, here’s “hassle-free” coming in at number two on Luntz’s list of “Twenty-one Words and Phrases for the Twenty-first Century.” According to the book, Americans prefer a product that’s “hassle-free” by a whopping 62 to 38 percent over one that’s “less expensive.” Facts like that abound in this uneven but valuable and fascinating book.

Book Review: The Means – A Literary Journal, Issue Two

Monday, January 8th, 2007

I have in my hands Issue Two of The Means, a new literary magazine. Purple Post-It® notes flap out from certain pages, but I’ll get to the journal’s choice bits in a minute. First let us reflect on the meaning of The Means.

The Internet has drastically changed our relationship to knowledge and information, but for literature we still turn to books. I suspect that having a solid object to hold and read from is integral to the way we want to ingest long works. Though millions of us happily read newspapers on the Web, looking at a computer screen is not a comfortable way to read for a long period, nor is it conducive to the state of absorption that we usually want from a book.

The continuing popularity of printed magazines, for their part, can be largely attributed to convenience. In a waiting room, or taking the train to work, people want to flip through short, easily digested articles in something that’s disposable.

Whither, then, the literary journal? Can a printed book-magazine hybrid maintain readership in the digital age? Old brands and habits die hard, and I wouldn’t expect venerable titles like The Paris Review and Poetry to vanish anytime soon. The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses lists hundreds of members. Still, it might well be seen as folly to be starting a litmag in the age of Google and Wikipedia. So when a new journal publishes its Issue Two, one can’t help being a wee bit impressed.

Co-editor Tanner Higgin declares that while The Means is “labeled a literary journal, our editorial direction has no allegiance to mere fiction and poetry. Rather, we read everything sent to us and choose what’s good. It truly is as simple as that… interviews, lists, essays, humor, art, comics, and anything else that can be slapped onto a piece of paper are fair game.” Alas, he goes on to abuse the language he has implied that he loves: “The truth is that most [literary] publications are running on a shoestring budget with no readership and thus function as poorly compensated, careless behemoths with little to no interest in costly innovation or the acceptance of risky writing by unproven writers.”

The Means Issue Two

That’s what not having an editor for the editor gets you. But out of a sense of obligation I soldier on, and there turns out to be a lot of good work between the pink covers. A sharp little short-short story by Joelle Renstrom captures the sense of fascination a young person can have with a larger than life, tall-tale-telling relation. Poignant stories by Mike Magnusson and Jennifer D. Munro illustrate how connecting with other humans can pose awful difficulties whatever the state of one’s love life. Christopher Monks’s story “Lloyd: New and Improved” brings to mind both the gloom of Raymond Carver’s depressing slices of life and the sticky-sweet grittiness of Updike’s sexual tales.

Arthur Salzman contributes an engrossing essay on juggling as a metaphor for life, with imagery that goes to some unexpected places: “And sooner or later the juggler stumbles and grows sullen, the bowling ball having crashed through the breakfront, the hamster having tumbled and scuttled under the refrigerator, the hacksaw having become embedded in her husband’s neck.” Michael Nowacki reports on the Iraq War with an unusual slant, while Andrew Michael Roberts’s metafictional dialogue with his computer illuminates the human-machine interface circa 2006:

I delete nothing. I send each received message – each documenting a lived moment – to the “saved messages” file. To where, any time I choose, I can return and re-live. In this way, I, myself, am “saved.” I am multiplied in the re-living. So that out amid the cosmic swirl of time and being swirl innumerable, “saved” me’s.

Imprecise language, to be sure, but evocative.

Filling out the volume are some poetry and curiosities of varying merit. I haven’t mentioned everything, but you may fairly infer that while Higgin and co-editor Christopher Vieau are themselves but fledgling writers, their energy and taste are having good results. The contents justify The Means.

Book Review: Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend by Scott Reynolds Nelson

Saturday, December 2nd, 2006

Not long ago, the fake-news rag The Onion cleverly updated an Industrial Age tale for the Digital Era: “Modern-Day John Henry Dies Trying To Out-Spreadsheet Excel 11.0.”

Fitting the tale of a nerdy number-cruncher into the framework of a mythically strong folk hero, the Onion made at least one reader laugh uncontrollably. When he had recovered his breath, that reader – OK, I – recognized that the story was so funny precisely because the parallel was so apt. The original, legendary John Henry had also died in a battle of man vs. machine.

I first heard the story of John Henry in a book of folk songs my parents kept by the piano and sang from often. “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was actually the biggest family favorite. I never made the connection that the two songs came out of the same historical experience, and in any case I imagined such songs to be mere fanciful stories, no more “real” than the hole in the bottom of the sea or poor Charlie who could get never get off the subway for want of a nickel. (If his wife could pass him a sandwich through the train window, couldn’t she just as easily pass him the darn coin?) These songs were about tall tales and humor, not logic and reality.

Later I learned how the American folk song collections I’d grown up with in the 60s and 70s owed their existence to the socialistic, unionizing movement that came out of the Great Depression. “Working on the Railroad” referred to actually working on the railroad; it was the working man, not the rich man, who was hurt by subway fare increases; and John Henry symbolized the worker for whom hard labor meant a life cut short.

But John Henry himself, of course, was a myth, a made-up person, a symbol, like Paul Bunyan, or Superman.

Funny thing, though: turns out there really was a steel-drivin’ man named John Henry, a convict at the Virginia State Penitentiary who was conscripted to help dig the railroad tunnels that would connect the South with the West. He and his fellow workers did drive steel by hand alongside newfangled steam drills; he, with many others, died on the job, and was buried, just as the song says, in the sand by a “white house.”

Scott Reynolds Nelson, a history professor at the College of William and Mary, used cultural clues and dogged research to track down this real-life John Henry, and tells the story in this fascinating new book. A well-balanced combination of scholarship and popular history, the first part of the book vividly, if swiftly, re-creates life in the Virginias during and immediately after Reconstruction.

Blacks, freed after the Civil War, remained subject to a separate justice system. When convicted of minor crimes they received disproportionate sentences. John William Henry, far from the mythological giant, was a short New Jersey teenager who became Prisoner 497 after he stole something from a grocery store outside Petersburg, Virginia in 1866. The prison needed to support itself. The railroads needed strong workers who couldn’t strike for higher wages. Though seen by some reformers as a way to transfer prisoners out of terrible prison conditions and into healthy outdoor work, the resultant convict lease system turned out to be a death sentence for whole populations of inmates.

The invention of dynamite had made it feasible to tunnel through the hard, ancient rock of the Allegheny Mountains. But men still had to drill the holes for the explosives. In the early 1870s, railroad contractors were testing unreliable new steam drills alongside their teams of powerful, steel-driving men. Apparently, competition occurred. A legend was born.

Along with a concise history of Southern railroads and Reconstruction justice, Nelson traces the musical forms out of which different versions of the John Henry song evolved, explaining how songs and chants – often misinterpreted by whites as indicating high spirits – were really tools to prevent injury while working in teams. The new stream drills, for their part,

lacked the flexibility found in the skilled two-man hammer teams that had been tunneling through mountains for centuries. The hammer man swung a sledgehammer down onto the chisel. The shaker shifted the drill [the chisel] between blows to improve the drill’s bite… Song coordinated the movements… humorous songs, sad songs, religious songs, all rhythm and meter and intonation but without an obvious melody – phrases, really… Theirs was a finely tuned instrument that a manufactured steam drill could not match. [C&O Railroad mogul Collis Porter] Huntington imagined that a steam drill could replace the skilled labor of miners, that he could work without their rock and roll. He was wrong.

So, the next time Grandpa complains that “kids’ music these days” is all beat and no tune, remind him that “rock and roll” got its backbeat, and its very name, from the motions and songs of black railroad diggers who toiled in the mountains long before he and Grandma were jitterbugging to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

Nelson’s evidence for identifying John William Henry, Prisoner 497, as the source of the “John Henry” legend is inconclusive, though tantalizing. Biographical information on Nelson’s John Henry is, and probably will remain, too skimpy for certainty. The song “John Henry,” however, probably is, as Nelson claims, the most recorded American folk song. There are more, probably many more, than 200 versions. (It appears on two recordings discussed in my Indie Round-up column just in the past six months: the Big Bill Broonzy Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953, and Hillstomp‘s 2004 debut CD.) It exists in many versions and has taken on many meanings. “Among trackliners who lived by their strength, [it] found its home as a story of heroism, one tinged with anxiety about the future,” Nelson says. Though the story of John Henry’s death may have originally been told in the form of a relatively tuneless “hammer song,” it

“was carefully folded into the familiar and disturbing horrors of the ballad tradition. Coal miners, black and white, made John Henry one of their own…a Moses who gave the South the Promised Land of the West, but could not live to see it. For prisoners, the song suggested the questions about loved ones: Would they be true, and would prisoners ever live to see them again?

Nelson seems ambivalent about the “English professors and sociologists” through whose agency the song was transformed from a “complex and unsettling story” to “a fabulous, impossible legend” that had, by the twentieth century, come to serve as “a historical commentary, its performance carefully calibrated to recall a bygone era.” He seems to lament a loss of purity, while recognizing that songs belong to the people and are forever developing and mutating. Placing “John Henry” in context at the nexus of what became American blues, folk, and country music, he closes with a section that includes a description of how the song spread after its “rediscovery” early in the twentieth century, from earliest recordings to popular interpretations by white artists – among them Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Drive-By Truckers, and Bruce Springsteen – and black artists such as Harry Belafonte, Mississippi John Hurt, and Cephas and Wiggins (though he does not mention all of these).

Nelson’s focus on the development of American musical forms through the lens of “John Henry” will prove enlightening to musicians and to fans of roots music. He does, however, fly quickly through this history, and some of his declarations seem a little pat. Was Carl Sandburg really the “first American folk singer?” Did Fiddlin’ John Carson “invent” country music? The book contains occasional inconsistencies and editorial or factual errors. No German or American city had a population in the “tens of millions” during the years 1871 to 1921 (or ever), and that’s a 50-year span, not 40. The band They Might Be Giants titled an album John Henry but did not record the song.

Equally important was the use of John Henry’s image and story by the labor movement. There were plays about John Henry, children’s books about John Henry (I remember one of those), and comic book heroes like Superman who evolved (in Nelson’s analysis) from the John Henry strongman character as depicted by artists of the early twentieth century. Several examples of that impressive John Henry artwork are reproduced in the book.

Few things are more interesting than when folklore and history dovetail. This book is a valuable contribution to both studies, and a fascinating read. It’s not flawless. The writing is occasionally awkward, and some errors have slipped through the editorial process. There are extensive notes, but an appendix pointing the reader to at least some of the recordings mentioned in the book would have been welcome. And Nelson, while an acknowledged railroad expert and a credible folklorist, is not a musicologist. Nevertheless he is well-qualified to tell this story, and it’s a good one.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics

Book Review: All You Need To Know About the Music Business: 6th Edition by Donald S. Passman

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

A classic of music industry literature, this title has been a must-have for aspiring and working music industry pros since it first appeared in 1991. But with all the new ways music is being made, discovered, and acquired, Donald S. Passman, a practicing music attorney for 30 years, has, not surprisingly, updated the book a number of times. This new edition retains his knack for explaining tricky legal and financial concepts in plain English. Its near-encyclopedic coverage of the music business’s many aspects makes it as valuable as ever, while a goofy sense of humor helps lighten up the proceedings.

Notable among the book’s virtues, the author takes pains to explain both sides of contractual matters that commonly need to be worked out among artists, songwriters, record labels, merchandisers, managers, agents, movie producers and others. Rather than just “Here’s what you should ask for,” Passman also describes the argument against the artist’s position and what he or she should realistically expect based on level of accomplishment (starting-out, midlevel, or superstar).

Passman is a practicing attorney who works with major clients, like R.E.M. and Janet Jackson. Reading through the long section about record deals, the typical musician could be forgiven for wondering whether the book might have been better shelved in the fantasy aisle. The percentage of aspiring musical artists who will ever need the bulk of Passman’s advice in this section is minuscule.

The sections on publishing, touring, and TV and film, however, contain much important information about areas in which the lowly beginner is most likely already working (or thinking seriously about). Many of the issues covered, like what kinds of arrangements band members should make among themselves, do need to be thought out at the beginning, before any major success occurs, even if the chances of that success are low. Anyone making a serious go at a music career will find valuable and necessary information and advice in at least some sections of this book.

Unlike most people I know in the music industry, Passman doesn’t think it’s broken. Noting its history of ups and downs, he believes big music’s current woes are just another downturn, a period of adjustment to new technologies. Such optimism is so unusual today as to seem almost wacky. One suspects that Passman’s own success as an entertainment attorney has stranded him in the rarefied atmosphere of the very top, where artists still sign (or dream of signing) major deals. Other than some rappers, I don’t know any artists who still think signing a major label deal is a good thing (though there must be some out there).

Passman does explain how such deals have changed in recent years, what the trends are, what realistic numbers are for deals with independent labels as well as majors, and so on. He covers current issues like digital downloads, and he gets all the way down to the nitty-gritty of t-shirt sales and other practical matters that come up as artists move up (or sideways). Since in its details the book remains realistic, I recommend it for anyone who wants to climb on the big scary jungle gym of the music business at any level. Not only artists – also pure songwriters, managers, promoters, lawyers, and anyone who aspires to those positions – will benefit. Read through the part about the label deals to learn how things used to be. Read through the rest, substituting – if you’re an artist – “you” for “your label,” and Passman’s advice and inside information remain invaluable.

Book Review: Why Christians Don’t Vote for Democrats

Thursday, August 17th, 2006

As a public-school-educated, secular Jew living in an overwhelmingly religious and Christian country, I have often wondered where some fundamendalist Christians get the notion that their religion is in any way threatened here. Recently word spread of a lawsuit by Jewish families against a school district in Delaware where non-Christians were essentially run out of town.

“We have a way of doing things here, and it’s not going to change to accommodate a very small minority,” a local businessman told the New York Times. “If they feel singled out, they should find another school or excuse themselves from those functions. It’s our way of life.” A Jewish mother who complained about other students using slurs against her son was scolded at a school board meeting thus: “If you want people to stop calling him ‘Jew boy,’ you tell him to give his heart to Jesus.”

I’ve traveled enough to know that the US population is not on the whole mean-spirited or even overtly racist. But I do believe that the above story illustrates an important fact: where one religion – even a very factionalized one – dominates a society, public institutions (including schools) must be governed and enabled so as to act as a firm check on the tyranny of the majority. In the US, that majority is, loosely-defined, Christian. If his public school won’t even try to protect him from discrimination, where can a little non-Christian boy turn?

Richard Miller’s sharply-worded polemic, Why Christians Don’t Vote for Democrats, presents a different perspective on the nature and value of public schools (and other secular institutions) than what I had imagined was the general view. Without mentioning vouchers per se, it helps explain why the issue has been so polarizing.

Put simply, some Christians – call them fundamentalist, evangelical, or, as Mr. Miller would have it, simply Christians – view state-run public schools as a form of taxation without representation. Just as senior citizens sometimes protest paying taxes for schools in which they have no children, Miller objects to funding schools he believes are filling Christian children’s heads with anti-Christian ideas and being forced to pay again if he wants to put his kids in a private religious school.

This raises the question: if we allow parents to use their tax dollars to put their kids in non-public schools, wouldn’t it be logical to also exempt the aforementioned senior citizens from school taxes? And while we’re at it, shouldn’t a family with six children in the public schools pay higher taxes than a family with only two? This path is strewn with dangers for a society that values egalitarianism.

Fundamentally, are we, as a country, to consider ourselves a single community that puts a high value on education? I can’t legally withhold my income taxes just because I don’t approve of the wars the government is spending them on, or not pay sales tax at the corner store because my state has a corrupt legislature. If we consider education to be a different sort of public good, to be treated specially, and we allow individual families to withhold taxes because of religious beliefs, then what is the justification for public schools anyway? Simply to educate the poor? It’s hard to imagine even basic educational standards being met by the broken stub of a public school system that would remain under that philosophy.

While he reserves his most urgent rhetoric for the school issue, Miller has a whole raft of reasons Christians shouldn’t vote for Democrats, most notably the “values” issues that came to the fore in the 2004 Presidential election. His arguments are carefully organized and obviously deeply felt. But his terminology, and its underlying assumptions, require scrutiny.

Right off the bat, he conflates the terms secular and atheist. A great many Americans believe in the secular state without being atheists, but this book confuses the two terms. That’s more than semantics – it betrays a misunderstanding of what secular means, and of what it means to this country.

As commonly used today, secular has two related meanings, neither of which implies atheism. First, it refers to worldly as opposed to spiritual matters. Second, it means “not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body,” as in secular music. The word simply denotes that part of a life, society, or culture that is not spiritual or religious.

Miller believes Christians are inadequately represented in our secular government because they are not united in their voting habits. Discussing the 2004 exit polling that uncovered the famous “values vote,” he calls it “one hint of a division occurring between secular, or atheistic, Democrats and Christian America.” Through the book he “hopes to communicate to the Democratic Party why Christians don’t vote for Democrats. How do Christians communicate to atheists their legitimate objections to the Democratic Party in a mature and loving way?”

Miller’s stress on communication and kindheartedness is laudable. But the statements quoted above use more terms in questionable ways: Christian America and Christians. In his use of these words, Miller fails to take into account the many who consider themselves Christian but disagree with his take on what Christian really means. The monolithic Christian voting bloc he imagines cannot exist, at least as the American public is currently constituted. For a great many people of faith, religious values are only one aspect of their lives. They have many – and indeed, sometimes conflicting – factors on which to base their voting decisions.

Terminology is also telling in the chapter called “Secular Journalists,” in which Miller objects to the use of the term fundamentalist. “Do fundamentalist Christians,” he asks rhetorically,

have a different theology than other Christians?… Secular journalists seem to indicate that they believe fundamentalist Christians are a small part of Christian America… [but] to suggest [that] only a few Christians believe in the fundamental teachings of the Bible is insulting and offensive to all Christians. The term fundamentalist Christian, as used by secular journalists, is intended to project a derogatory, negative image of all Christians.

It’s true that anti-religious bias exists in some intellectual circles. But Miller’s parsing of the term fundamentalist ignores one whole dimension of its modern meaning, which is “one who believes in the literal truth of a scripture.” This “f-word” may have taken on a derogatory cast for some, and it may not even be the best term for what it describes, but as long as there are many millions of Christians who do not believe in the literal truth of everything in the Bible, we need a word for those who do.

To many, it is the philosophy and teachings of Jesus that matter most. For example, although today’s Republican party is identified with the Christian right, many Christians – indeed, enough to form a majority of Americans – oppose its policies on both moral and practical grounds. Case in point: clergymen of many stripes have united to oppose Republican warmongering, while among the laity, bumper stickers ask “Who would Jesus bomb?” and broadcast convictions like “Jesus was a liberal” and “When Jesus said love your enemies he didn’t mean kill them.” Everywhere you look you see religious Americans joining nonreligious ones in calling for peace. In doing so they explicitly support the positions of the supposedly anti-Christian Democratic party.

Miller concisely states the heart of his complaint in a chapter called “Freedom of Education:”

Secular Democrats want the wall of separation of church and state to be low enough for the state to reach over and confiscate the Christian community’s wealth, but high enough to prevent Christians from benefiting from the very same taxes Christians pay. Secular Democrats do not want the school tax dollar to go to individual students, but to a self-perpetuating, tax-subsidized, secular school, which works to convert Christian students into atheists.

It’s interesting to note that while the law does require him to pay property taxes to fund his local public schools, it exempts his church from those same property taxes. That, in turn, penalizes the nonreligious property owner who must pay higher taxes to make up for all that exempt church property. (And I live in Brooklyn, the “Borough of Churches.” They’re everywhere, man!) Maybe, in some indirect way, the church on my block provides a service for me by feeding some homeless people who might otherwise turn criminal. But in the same sense, doesn’t his school tax dollar provide a service for him by paying for schools to educate all the kids from the parts of society that do not share his beliefs? We have many divisions in our society – but shouldn’t we at least strive to be one nation?

Also, Miller’s conception of what public schools are like does not reflect reality. Almost anyone who has been to public school (and paid any attention in class) will recognize as absurd his claim that the schools try to “convert Christian students into atheists.” Public school curricula, by design, have little to say on the subject. Yet his point does illustrate a conflict in educational philosophy. In the traditional “liberal arts” philosophy to which I and many Americans subscribe, the main point of education is to teach children to think. In Miller’s view, it’s to teach them doctrine. Yet both of these attitudes include their own friction and contradictions.

Church doctrine has been arrived at over two thousand years of debates, compromise, decrees, political wrangling, and wave after wave of horrendous violence. Miller is aware of that history but dismisses it with the simplistic claim that “the theological table of debate has discovered a vast agreement concerning the teaching of the Bible.” (And if you believe that, you probably believe Donald Rumsfeld’s claims that things are getting better in Iraq.) The point is that the doctrine taught in a religious school governed by one particular sect reflects just one perspective among many. Even in a country where Christian sects live peaceably, their disagreements about how to interpret the Bible, live their lives, and worship their deity or deities persist. Although “evangelical” Christianity has certainly been on a roll lately, America remains a multicultural stew of dozens of Christian sects, along with several types of Jews, Muslims, atheists, and others. The voting bloc Miller calls for is a pipe dream.

Our nondenominational public schools too live with doctrinal tension. They have often been used to slant children into specific biases, notably with respect to American history and the relative value of non-Western cultures. Religion creeps in too, in the insertion of “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, in attempts to put nonsense like “creation science” (now rechristened “intelligent design”) into the curriculum, in holiday celebrations that presume Christian religious beliefs to be universal, and, in extreme cases like the Delaware travesty, in outright persecution. So, Miller’s contention that state-controlled schools are, like state-controlled newspapers, “a form of thought control” cannot be fully denied. But the “thought control” is not, as a rule, anti-Christian.

I do not for a minute question Miller’s sincerity, but I fear that he, like many of his less articulate brethren, has fallen prey to the sort of top-down propaganda that recently brought us the much-hyped (and justly ridiculed) idea of a “War on Christmas.” Just like frightened, insecure politicians, some Christian leaders use fear to assert their rule over their flocks. One example is the fear of homosexuals reflected in Miller’s “Values” chapter, where he makes the execrable but all-too-common leap from homosexuality to evil acts:

“Secular Democrats may believe sexual orientation is genetic, but we have yet to identify the gene for pedophilia. Some adults’ sexual orientation is toward children, but this does not necessitate giving the same minority protections to pedophiles we now give to age, sex, color, or creed. Rape is natural in the animal kingdom, but it is also unacceptable to civil society.

He does it again at the very end of the book, predicting that legalized abortion will be followed by legalized infanticide. Intentionally or not, he is engaging in the same form of denigration by association that enables slave societies to view certain types of people as subhuman and not worthy of common rights, including even the right to be alive.

Miller’s other bugbear is the Supreme Court, which, he says disapprovingly, “controls entire areas of law. The President and Congress can make a law, only to have the Supreme Court disagree with it, or effectively veto it.” Well, yes. That’s the whole point. But since Miller doesn’t like some decisions that have come down from recent Courts, he proposes to scrap the whole system of separation of powers with a constitutional amendment to allow the President and Congress to overturn a Supreme Court decision by a two-thirds vote. In effect he’d like to use the Constitution to nullify itself.

“Christians,” he says, “will unite their vote because the political agenda of the secular Democrats is obviously motivated by deeply intrinsic, internalized, and imbedded religious prejudice.” You may need to read the book to decide if you agree with Miller’s claims about prejudice. But you need only look around you to see that his vision of a united “Christian” vote can’t come true in any foreseeable future. And his perception of the Democratic party as the enemy of “Christian America” is looking more wrong by the day, as Americans of all creeds, whatever they may believe about abortion or school vouchers, raise their voices (and prepare to cast their votes) against the Christian-right-backed Republican government that keeps using their hard-earned wealth to kill innocents abroad.

Book Review: Hotel California: The True-life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

Our love for music often extends beyond listening to it. We want to know about the people who write and sing the songs that bring us the most joy.

There’s no shortage of popular mythology – and hence books – about, for example, Haight-Ashbury, Woodstock, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and all the drugs and music that helped define the hippie generation. Plenty of legends – and hence journalism – arose from the punk movement too. And Motown, the Beatles, Doo-Wop and jazz all have their devoted scribes and historians.

Enter British journalist Barney Hoskyns, the former editor of Mojo, to fill in a notable gap. What happened between Altamont and disco? How did David Geffen come tantalizingly close to his impossible dream of creating an “American Beatles” out of four bickering North Americans named Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young? How did the Eagles, with their perfect (too perfect?) symbiosis of country and rock, come to be the most popular band in America? How did Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Little Feat fit in?

Do you care?

If you are among the millions to whom their music means something, there’s a good chance you do care, and Hoskyns’s book will interest you. A speedy, somewhat disorganized tour through the L.A. musical mileu circa 1966-75, Hotel California is loaded with interesting stories and observations about those and other artists along with the managers, label execs, and hangers-on who helped create the scene.

One of the book’s virtues is a taut style that conveys a lot of information in crisp bursts of prose. Equally important is Hoskyns’s extensive research, based on a huge trove of contemporary sources and a great many of his own new interviews.

The biggest lesson of the endeavor may be that this important music scene depended upon a successful symbiotic relationship between artists and producers (both the studio-engineering kind and the money kind), based on a mutual feel for music and for popular taste. For every ambitious (and by all accounts obnoxious) Stephen Stills, who created the seminal Buffalo Springfield, there had to be an A&R man like Warner-Reprise’s Lenny Waronker:

A native Angeleno, Waronker was… intrigued by a new strain in the L.A. sound: a countryish, back-to-the-roots feel heard in songs by the Byrds and other groups. “My goal was very simple,” he says. “It was to find a rock band that sounded like the Everly Brothers”… When [he] saw the Springfield live they were wearing cowboy hats, with Neil Young positioned to one side in a fringed Comanche shirt. He went beserk: “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is it!‘”

“For the new back-to-the-earth minstrels – chilling out in split-level cabins with their cats and patched-denim jeans, penning soul-searching songs about themselves and each other – living in Bel Air and driving a Rolls-Royce simply wasn’t hip,” Hoskyns explains. Instead they congregated in woodsy Laurel Canyon, where Joni Mitchell and soon-to-be-legendary manager Elliot Roberts arrived in early 1968 “from New York, where the Greenwich Village folk scene was petering out before their very eyes.”

Certainly some qualities of that time and place nurtured a musical movement with an identifiable sound, but the book’s analysis can be a little confusing. If it was the time when the solo singer-songwriter came into his and her own, why were the Eagles the scene’s biggest commercial success story? Was the public really, already in 1968, worn out by loud rock, as Robert Shelton wrote in the New York Times and Hoskyns quotes with approval – had “the high-frequency rock’n’roar… reached its zenith”? The public seemed ready for smooth country-rock from James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, but was that precisely the same public that had been grooving, as Happy Traum described it in Rolling Stone, to “psy-ky-delick acid rock and to the all-hell-has-broken-loose styles of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin” (not to mention Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and the Rolling Stones)? The book doesn’t delve deep enough to answer questions like this.

Of course the age of loud music was anything but over. But although the book may overestimate the importance of the direction popular music took in Southern California in this period – as distinct from the popularity and intrinsic value of the music itself – it still draws an engaging and useful picture of that time and place, from the singer-songwriter-fueled genesis of country-rock to its burning out in a blaze of rock star excess in the mid-70s.

By necessity, given the amount of ground Hoskyns covers in a fairly short book, the portraits of the major players are sketchy, which can get frustrating. The outsize talents and personalities of people like David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Lowell George, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons and Don Henley are a big chunk of the story, yet they’re brought to life only with little anecdotes, quotes and scraps of detail. (Interestingly, David Geffen jumps off the page more vividly than do most of the artists.)

Fortunately, Hoskyns includes an extensive Suggested Reading section. Personally I recommend starting with Crosby’s autobiography, Long Time Gone – it’s a wonder that man is still alive. Meanwhile, for an overall picture of the scene, with some valuable if not definitive analysis, Hotel California is a useful source and an enjoyable read.

Theater Review: Troika: God, Tolstoy & Sophia

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

From the long and storied life of the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina more than one substantial dramatic work could surely be culled. Peter Levy’s Troika: God, Tolstoy & Sophia is not one such, but it is an interesting and crisply written piece about Tolstoy’s last days. The great man’s domestic responsibilities, the sense of social justice that urges him to renounce his possessions, and his religious devotion collide with one another and with the conflicting desires and loyalties of the friends and family members who surround him – particularly his wife, who fears the loss of her inheritance – as his long and titanic life draws to a close in the years before revolution transformed Russia so violently. It is subject matter that lends itself easily to a drama of passions and ideas.

The staging and acting in this production do not serve the script well, however. The actors, for the most part, give one-note performances: Tolstoy (Mike Durell), scowling and bitter; his wife Sophia (Catherine Hennessey), loud, whiny and melodramatic; the publisher Chertkov (Seth D. Rabinowitz), slimily sycophantic; and so on. Only the two youngsters, Kristin Ledingham as Sasha Tolstoy and Mark Comer as the aging writer’s green but wily and romantic new secretary, Bulgakov, show some depth and chemistry in and between their characters. Yet even their love story is constricted by stodgy, uninspired staging.

In short (to use an expression not often associated with Tolstoy), the great author deserves better. Levy captures enough of the old Count’s life and times to hold the viewer’s attention, but this production just makes one wish for more and better.

At the 13th Street Repertory Theater in NYC through June 17.

The Literary Shadow of 9/11

Friday, March 31st, 2006

In the four and a half years since the September 11 attacks, New Yorkers’ lives have changed in a number of ways, some obvious and predictable, others not so much.

Even as we go about our daily business we’re conscious, of course, of the potential for an attack at any time. Naturally we’re inclined to think “terrorism” whenever there’s a sudden infrastructure problem such as a power outage. And we’ll never look at our firefighters in quite the same way again.

But another change has crept up on me in the past couple of years: a change in my life as an audience – as a watcher of movies, a collector of TV shows on DVD, and above all, as a reader of books.

As it turns out, 9/11 has drawn an indelible line across the modern storytelling oeuvre. Works composed before the event differ from those composed after – not necessarily in their content, or even in any inherent quality, but in the light in which – or shadow under which – I will read them.

I don’t read a great many new novels, but I did read Nicholas Rinaldi’s New York tale Between Two Rivers, published in 2004. Only a small part of the book dealt directly with the attacks, but the whole story seemed suffused in a consciousness of destruction, of endings. Just as a New York apartment is classified as pre- or postwar, so must a New York novel now be called pre- or post-9/11. Rinaldi’s was the first post-9/11 novel I read.

Just today I picked up a copy of Paul Auster‘s The New York Trilogy. Auster is one of those writers I have always intended to read but never gotten around to, mostly because I’m very contrary in my reading habits and hate to be reading what everybody else is. (I resisted The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy precisely because all my college buddies were going apeshit over it; and to this day I haven’t read the damn thing. My loss, I suppose.)

Still, Auster has always seemed an obvious choice on whom to spend some of my limited novel-reading time. Local not only to New York but to my own Brooklyn neighborhood, usually featured prominently on the “Local Authors” shelf of the Barnes and Noble stores around here, he is also considered a Major Literary Author on a national scale.

So, picking up the book, which was written in the mid-to-late 1980s, I read the intriguing first sentence:

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

So far so good: like any good story, it evokes a place, a situation. Specifically, I’m in somebody’s head as he remembers how something started: how the thing, whatever it was, started with the phone ringing while he, whoever he is, was in bed, and how it was a wrong number.

About the period, the sentence tells me only that the action takes place sometime since the advent of the telephone. The thirties. The fifties. The eighties. The present. Prior to 9/11, I would simply have absorbed what I could from it, and continued reading,

But I know something else, something that five years ago wouldn’t have seemed so important: when the story was written.

I know it is pre-9/11 – from modern times, but before the attack. I also know from the title that the story’s going to take place in New York. Hence its fictional New Yorkers will not have experienced the defining New York moment that was 9/11. They’ll inhabit a version of the city that no longer exists. Still “modern times,” but no longer the same times today’s reader is living. 9/11 hadn’t informed the author’s imagination. In this book, it will not have happened.

Today, and maybe until I die, I will be approaching any book – and even a pre-9/11 movie or TV series, if I’m not familiar with it – not simply as a modern story about a familiar world or city. Rather, I will be approaching it in the shadow, or in the light, of a great divide. I will have to know: was the story imagined and birthed prior to the attack? Or does it have that smoke in the lungs, that soot on the face, that shock hardened into the bones of the 9/11 survivor?

Of course this won’t apply to older stories, those set in a time that from the vantage point of September 10 2001 already felt like another era. If I revisit a classic – Herman Melville, Humphrey Bogart – or check out some Nabokov or Billy Wilder I’ve missed, then no sweat.

But if it’s from the world that I myself knew prior to 9/11, my interest may be just a little bit less.

In fact, I might feel like turning to my friend and bandmate Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who edits science fiction and fantasy, and ask “What have you got that’s good lately?”

Ahhh. Faeries.