Monday, June 15, 2020

Closer to Home? 50 Years Later, It Seems Prophetic

Happy June 15, everyone! Yes, even before this Friday (Juneteenth) we have an anniversary to celebrate!

As everybody knows,1970 was the year that rock and roll died. It was the year in which, as I vividly recall, I read a music review in one of the underground New York newspapers (maybe The East Village Other) referring to the "Grand Funk and James Gang garbage" that had begun depreciating the airwaves. I knew who Grand Funk were. I had never heard the James Gang, and in the half century since I don't think I have ever listened to an entire album by them.

The year the Beatles broke up. The year Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died. Or, how's this for contrasting "egad!" occasions: the year Black Sabbath releases their first album, and The Partrdige Family have a #1 hit with "I Think I Love You". There were always artists who you thought must have had to bribe DJ's to play their records - you turned out to be right, in some cases - but suddenly you had this influx of soon-to-be superstars whose records you could turn up as loud as you wanted and still not feel like they should be in your rock collection: The Carpenters. James Taylor. The first U.S. release by a sort of piano-bar type guy named Elton John. In general, everything was too loud, or not loud enough, and nothing was just right.

Or so it seemed. What a difference a day makes, or at least a half-century.
 
In June 1970 my junior year of high school drew to a close. The civil rights movement, feminism, gay liberation and especially protests against the war in Vietnam had gripped the consciousness of people my age. Revolution was in the air; there were so many self-styled Marxist groups around that you could take any combination of "revolutionary", "worker", "socialist", "league", "world" and "party" and there'd be a group for that. The Strawberry Statement became a film, and so did Joe - the one, an exaltation of student rebellion, the other an outlet for reactionary anger at everything associated with the Hippie movement of the 60's. Nixon, the redbaiting politician from California, was busy invading Cambodia, with the support of his notorious National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, who would later win a Nobel Peace Prize for the humiliating peace treaty he was forced to sign after the death of about a million Vietnamese and 50,000 Americans.

March 6, 1970: The Weathermen explosion, as self-styled revolutionaries accidentally blow up a Greenwich Village townhouse. 3 unlucky members die, the others are arrested.

April 13, 1970: The Apollo 13 explosion, a near-disaster. 3 lucky astronauts survive.

May 4 1970: National Guardsmen open fire on a student protest at Kent State, killing four. The day goes down in infamy. A few days later, hard hat construction workers attack student protesters on Wall Street. (When I marched about a week after that they merely threw rivets at us from the upper girders of construction site.)

May 15 1970: After some rowdy behavior on the campus of mostly black Jackson State College in Jackson, FL, police officers pump 460 bullets over 30 seconds into a dormitory filled with unarmed black students, killing 2 and injuring 11. The news is quickly forgotten.

May 25, 2020: The entire world watches a video of the brutal police murder of George Floyd, the streets of major cities erupt in protest for weeks, and some long-overdue changes may finally take place. It only took another 50 years, and hundreds if not thousands more black lives being exterminated by the "justice" system, for anything at all to change.)

The country was in the grip of a major recession for most of 1970. The average rate of inflation was 5.7%, the highest since 1951. (It would be more than double that 10 years later.) The unemployment rate was over 6%; the economy grew by .2 percent. The U.S. position as postwar economic leader of the "free world" was eroding rapidly.

Look for things to love about 1970 and you come up pretty empty-handed. But I have one. And it is calculated to make every rock critic in America hold their forehead with two hands as if they just woke up with a major hangover. If I could only get every... any?... rock critic in America to read this.

So, yes, this was the year that everything went to shit in music; it wasn't just Grand Funk and the James Gang; we were suddenly inundated with noise bands who sounded like they had possibly heard Little Richard once and figured if they could just learn to play three chords and a couple of simple blues riffs they could be rock and roll stars. And they were right. Sabbath, Spooky Tooth, Slade, Wishbone Ash, REO Speedwagon, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Mountain, Savoy Brown, Iron Butterfly - you keep going if you want. It all sucked. True, some of those bands managed to come up with a song or two that was not completely worthless; one or two even managed an album that I would not melt down for the value of the vinyl. I can think of only one - Aerosmith - that managed to turn my head around and make me a fan. But all this dreck - pre-metal or degraded rock&roll or whatever you want to call it - we knew it was garbage and rock music was more or less over. We knew that because we knew Hendrix and Cream and Led Zeppelin and we didn't think these guys got it about how to play hard rock.

The end of the decade more or less confirmed that we were right; for in place of the sorry list above, you could now make a new one: Journey, Foreigner, Styx, Kansas, Rush, Toto, Boston, Kiss, Steve Miller, and a lot more bands I have never had any use for. Inbetween came another sorry lot - Montrose, Van Halen, Foghat, Slade and those endlessly productive one-hit wonders, Golden Earring, who had actually been around forever until they got on anyone's radar. To say nothing of peripheral progressive rock acts like Starcastle and Uriah Heep. Once again, here and there a song or two managed to climb up from the mire and prove that there was life beneath the surface. Provoked by one of my brothers, I was recently forced to acknowledge "Separate Ways" as a so-called "guilty pleasure". There may be more than that buried in these bands' combined output, but having just taken a refresher course in the Grand Funk discography, I am not inclined to do a listening project to see what I missed. I know that the 70's start out bad, and get worse.

And yet... the thought that this assessment might be a little too harsh pushes its way into my consciousness, due to the all but criminal intervention of a friend way back when, at a time when teenage angst was as ripe as a week-old banana and even the distant chimes of romance were about as sweet. I put up valiant resistance, to the music at least. She was a big Grand Funk fan, had all of their albums - three or four, at that point. I would show up at her house, where, if I recall, a sister or brother and mother and maybe a few pets would be wandering about, but we had something remotely resembling privacy in her room - at least if the music were loud enough that no one could hear us. And Grand Funk was loud, nobody would deny them that. She played their first album a few times; I hated it and told her so. "What about 'Heartbreaker'?" Although the single only charted in Canada, it somehow struck GF fans as a hit. I found it no less annoying than the rest of the disk. Besides, by the time our story takes place, there had already been a song called "Heartbreaker" - actually more like a few dozen, but the one I had in mind was not only a great song but had one of the greatest guitar solos ever recorded. I was a huge Zep fan from almost the day their first album came out, and this was a lot of nonsense by comparison.

She played their second album and thought I had to like that. It had already gone Gold by that time, for reasons that people of discerning taste are still trying to figure out. I thought it sucked. She probably would have thrown me out, had it not been for their third album.

By way of hindsight, let me just add that today I find their early albums less offensive in certain ways than I did then. Though neither of them will ever have much of a place in my heart, or ears, I no longer hear them as collections of incompetent, not to say cynical, junk. In fact, while you can point to places here and there where Farner's guitar solos seem to just die, or never get started, and Brewer's drumming is not always convincing (and usually of little creative interest), there are plenty of other places that demonstrate a fair amount of competence. Farner's lyrics are usually pretty forgettable, but the songwriting, especially from "Heartbreaker" to the end of On Time, has some sparks of creativity. Toss them in with all the hard rock bands that were crawling out of the woodwork at the time and they sound like more of the same. But give a good listen and you can see that while he's no Eric Clapton, Farner was already a bit better than quite a few rock guitarists at that time, and he was willing to take a few chances, while Brewer - again, no Ginger Baker he, but the extended solo he manages on T.N.U.C. is not compatible with complaints about the band's competence. Brilliant, no, but more than competent.

June 15, 1970: Capitol Records releases Grand Funk Railroad's Closer to Home. It was the album that made them a household name. The latter may not be something to celebrate, but the album surely is.

There used to be this industry thing about third albums; something like, "Either this one hits or we're going to stop wasting our money promoting you." I don't know if anyone told that to Mark Farner, the songwriting, singing and guitar-playing engine of Grand Funk Railroad. At the time of which I'm writing, the single "I'm Your Captain" had already made the rounds, and I could not deny it was a good song, maybe a great song. It was not the kind of song that made you think, "Oh shit, the 60's are really over now;" it was, on the contrary, the kind that made you feel like there might be hope. So, even though it was delayed gratification, being the last cut on the 2nd side, I listened a little more attentively to the whole album. And it grew on me, and grew, and... well, finally, I bought the album. Many years later, I bought the remastered CD. I downloaded it and put it on my CD Walkman, on my mp3 player, on my smartphone. If I could only bring 10 albums it would probably go with me to a deserted island. What the funk happened to me?

First thing - it is one of those relatively rare albums - I know you have some - on which I can honestly say I look forward to every track. Second, unlike their first two albums, it has a clean, professional sound, though not as clean as it would become on E Pluribus Funk. Third, the songwriting is top notch - and for the most part not in the least addressed to Top 40 radio, as nearly every song is more than four minutes long. "Sin's a Good Man's Brother" is built around a riff that's up there in the "Day Tripper" class. "Aimless Lady" is just incredibly well constructed, a great melody (not always Mark Farner's forte, to say the least), with a terrific bass line from Mel Schacher and an irresistable beat. In contrast to "Heartbreaker" and some other early tracks, the 2-part harmonies are not perfunctory but really put some bite into the chorus. It's a kind of vocal sound that practically identifies GFR, and when they work they work - e.g.. on the chorus of "I Don't Have to Sing the Blues", which opens the album's second side, or on a song like "Black Licorice" from We're an American Band (albeit in the latter case behind lyrics that just about hit rock bottom, and in both cases are borderline offensive). "Nothing Is the Same" is another great composition. Starting with another very nice guitar intro, it becomes a fine rocker that sort of boils over as the song goes into double-time towards the end. The two cuts that stand out least, "Get it Together" and "Hooked on Love", are blue-eyed soul efforts (which I suppose a lot of Farner's songs could be called), and since I will unabashedly say that some of my favorite soul is of the blue-eyed kind (The Righteous Brothers used to be regulars on my turntable) I happen to like them. And "Mean Mistreater", a title familiar from more than one old blues song, is enough all by itself to paralyze me with nostalgia for days gone by, a ballad of uncanny power in its simplicity. A by no means minor virtue of the album is some note-perfect solo work by Farner, pretty much throughout the first side.

Songs about sailors, or with sailing metaphors, were not exactly uncommon in rock at that time. The years 1966-72 featured Billboard top 10 hits like "Yellow Submarine", "Sloop John B.", "Come on Down to My Boat Baby" and "Brandy", not to mention hosts of others that didn't chart much but burned into our skulls nonetheless, like "Wooden Ships". In 1970 Blues Image contributed their still familiar hit "Ride, Captain, Ride". So "I'm Your Captain" had plenty of thematic company, and its strong acoustic component was right on target in a year when James Taylor was a big star and even Led Zeppelin released an album full of acoustic and folk-derived tracks. On the other end of the musical spectrum, producer Terry Knight somehow managed to hire musicians from the Cleveland Symphony, one of the world's leading orchestras, to record the instrumental overlays at the end. Not that the parts are so difficult they demand top flight professionals, but the silky string sound is what you would expect from that ensemble. (I doubt that George Szell was conducting - though if he was, that might help explain why he kicked the bucket a month later.) The harmonies are great throughout, and in particular they give the bridge ("Am I in my cabin dreaming/Or are you really scheming/To take my ship away from me") the kind of depth needed to keep things moving forward as the D chord changes to minor and the song suddenly assumes a new level of harmonic complexity. But ultimately, it's the success of the simple, repeated chant "I'm getting closer to my home" that makes you keep listening and want to raise your voice and chime in. Add to all that some of Mel Schacher's most interesting bass guitar work. (On the album as a whole Schacher's work has a good parallel: John Paul Jones' work on Zep II, which still seems like the best thing he ever did.) All of that behind an unusually fine set of lyrics from Farner.

At the time, a version of the song cut down for Top 40 play made it to #22. Now, I'm no big fan of the listener-polled "Top 1043 Classic Rock Songs" released every year by Q104.3 in New York City (there's another early post in this blog on that topic). But apparently, in 2015 "I'm Your Captain" ranked #9. Those rankings are heavily affected by the station's rotation in any particular year; the 2019 poll had it at #52. Whatever - for a song that didn't even make the Top 20 playlist when it was released, it has had remarkable staying power.

And here's another thing to make you scratch your head: it is usually interpreted as having something to do with misgivings about the Vietnam War. Farner has never confirmed this, and I personally don't find it compelling. But it does have an odd thematic similarity to Amazing Grace, the song by and about a slave ship captain who felt "mighty sick", turned around and brought his enslaved cargo back home.

"I'm getting closer to my home...": is it Farner's "Amazing Grace", or the anthem for a national quarantine? If it seems prophetic, with its mood of impending doom and its exaltation of the virtues of being home, that is just one more thing that adds to the mystique of Closer to Home. There is a long list of groups with one great album, writers with one great book, and filmmakers with one great movie. Put this on the list: Closer to Home is one of the greatest albums ever made, no matter what you think of Grand Funk Railroad, Mark Farner or 70's rock.

Anniversaries are a good opportunity to re-evaluate things, and in that spirit I have taken it upon myself to listen once again to some of GFR's albums, which I had once dismissed as rubbish. I am not about to become a Grand Funk fan, other than Closer to Home. But I am willing to say that my degree of antipathy towards their other albums has somewhat diminished. The first two still don't impress me, though the first, On Time, seems a bit more creative, and the second ("Red Album") just a bit more polished, than I used to think. Survival doesn't do much for me, quite a letdown after Closer to Home. But E Pluribis Funk suggests that after finally getting their act together on Closer to Home, and then losing it again on Survival, they at last found their groove. It's not going to any deserted islands with me, but it is a respectable, possibly even good, album. The band and the sound are both extremely tight, and Farner's guitar work, which was already excellent on Closer to Home, has become first rate - or maybe second rate, since he is no Clapton or Page, or Hendrix for that matter. But whatever the merits of the view that GFR emerged from the streets of Flint as a trio of hacks, it is completely untenable by the time E Pluribus Funk comes out. Phoenix, their next album, is, like most of their albums, a land of peaks and valleys, the latter being the points at which you are pretty sure you were right about them the first time, and the former constantly challenging that with more creative songwriting and flashes of instrumental inspiration. We're an American Band is similarly tight and instrumentally excellent, though I don't like the material as much as on the previous two albums.

That, to me, is all the important albums they made, and it turns out that out of the six there is at least one outstanding gem, one pretty decent hard rocker, and one that might get a "not bad" in a generous moment. Now, think of another band that tends to get a bit more respect, alleged cowbells and all. I refer, of course, to Blue Oyster Cult. Their first album was pure genius, start to finish; their next best, Agents of Fortune, a respectable effort, with of course one of the greatest singles of all time; and their only other collection even worth talking about, Fire of Unknown Origin, might get a "not bad" in a generous moment. The rest is pretty much on a par with the worst of Grand Funk, if not a drop below. The difference comes down to maybe two BOC hits that are a bit over GFR's level (the other, of course, being "Burnin For You"). Mountain gets way more respect than Grand Funk, for reasons that are obscure to me, as they do not even have one album as good as Closer to Home. (Not to mention it was really "Mississippi Queen" that had the cowbell!)

Sadly enough, Mark Farner, the creative force behind GFR, the man who sang, on Closer to Home, "I don't care who you are, I love the human race", is now a raving rightwing lunatic, given to conspiracy theories and other nonsense of a sort currently enjoying a pulpit on Pennsylvania Avenue; he has been quite explicit about their anti-Semitic content, which even the Trumpet of the White House has not enunciated publicly. In 1972 he wrote "I Just Got to Know", which asks if you're ready "to stand up and fight for your rights" and "tired of the war and all that shit". The album also contained a rather dubious appeal in the name of Jesus to stop overpopulation "so you won't have to die". What's more, "The world is full of pollution/and Jesus is the solution". Okay, if that's your bag... but where was this heading? Farner's 1976 song "Don't Let 'Em Take Your Gun" (from their god-awful Zappa-produced Good Singin', Good Playin') has become an anthem for "Second Amendment people", while 1983's What's Funk? features an ignorant anti-communist rant against the revolution in tiny El Salvador, as if a victory of the downtrodden peasantry there would have been an existential threat to Farner's freedom in the U.S. (Recall how the revolution in Nicaragua toppled democracy in America...)There is so little to love about his politics that it is hard to believe he was once a hippie and a liberal. "Talk about a revolution/It seems to be the only solution", he sang on Closer to Home's opening cut, "Sin's a Good Man's Brother", at a time when the "revolution" was supposed to be about peace and love and and legalized pot and an end to war and rigid conservative values. He wrote environmentalist songs before that was a thing, peace-love-and-brotherhood songs, and anti-war songs. It's hard to understand how that guy became the person he is today.

As a Jew living amidst growing anti-Semitism I am not about to forgive Farner for promoting hatred and religious fanaticism. On the other hand, as a human being I cannot fail to admire his devotion to a son who tragically became quadriplegic after some ordinary teenage antics, and died a couple of years ago at 29 after a 10-year battle for survival. I wish I could put the two men together, as I wish I could put the genius of Closer to Home together with GFR's more prosaic efforts. The difference between a good human being and a cynical jerk can go act by act, and that between a great band and a mediocre one can go album by album.

I have discussed at some length in a previous post the unforgiving assessment of Grand Funk Railroad by my lifelong friend (and professional rock critic, which I can hardly claim to be) Ira Robbins, so I won't repeat myself here. The main reason to mention it again is that you can now read it on the magnificently updated Trouser Press web site, which has its own rewards if you like to read about rock; and that, if you appreciate the great writing in that piece, you can now partake of more of it in Ira's second novel, Marc Bolan Killed in Crash. (I already plugged his first one in that 7-year-old post I just referred to!) That should get you in the mood for a golden anniversary trip through 70's rock if anything will. In any case, GFR will never be a favorite of critics, and though I can't quite find my way to the Voldemort view that Ira takes of them, there are some good reasons for this.

But what I now want to go into is another aspect of their legacy that picks up again where I began, with the demise of worthwhile rock and roll in 1970. The year that rock music got sucked down a sinkhole, never to quite make it back, as we all know.

Well, here's an album playlist in which you might find a redeeming song or two:

Bridge Over Troubled Water, Moondance, Sweet Baby James, Ladies of the Canyon, Deja Vu, Elton John, McCartney, Let it Be, Workingman's Dead, BS&T 3, Time and a Word, Cosmo's Factory, John Barleycorn Must Die, A Question of Balance, Stage Fright, After the Gold Rush, Abraxas, Jesus Christ Superstar, Zep III, Tumbleweed Connection, American Beauty, The Man Who Sold the World, Layla, Naturally, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tea for the Tillerman, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, All Things Must Pass, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

I don't care how old you are, if you don't know and love most of those 26 albums you are not a person I can go out for beers with. Well... okay, maybe that's a bit hasty, but it would be more fun if you did! They all came out in 1970. I could try to boil it down some more, but already, most of those are arguably the best, or one of the best, efforts the respective artists ever produced. Maybe not Zep III; maybe not Let It Be, though in its stripped down version (Let It Be... Naked) it is up there, for me. Maybe The Man Who Sold the World is not Ziggy or Hunky Dory. Maybe...

Let me put it this way instead: in 1970, The Band, Blood Sweat and Tears, ELP, Eric Clapton (with Derek and the Dominoes), CCR, CSNY, the Grateful Dead, George Harrison, Elton John, The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, Santana, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Three Dog Night, Traffic and Neil Young each released what is either their best or one of their two best albums. The only reason Joni Mitchell and Yes are not on that list is that they each made too many albums of surpassing brilliance to choose one or two. All four of the Beatles released their first solo albums, and all four convincingly demonstrated that their solo careers were going to live up to our expectations. The Dead and Elton John each released two great albums in the same year. What a terrible year for music.

Lauro Nyro's Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, even if not her best, was part of a trio of albums that opened a door through which Elton John, Joni Mitchell and a long list of later artists, including Kate Bush and Tori Amos, were happy to walk. (You can argue that Stevie Wonder deserves some credit there, but Nyro brought in a quality of freedom from pop limitations that I think anticipate his 1973 Innervisions and later work.)  Melanie's Leftover Wine and Candles in the Wind and The Carpenters' Close to You came out too - you can mutter "But that's not rock!" all you want, they won a lot of fans.

Still, I may have undersold 1970, in some ways. Perhaps you are a Ten Years After fan, you're going to add Cricklewood Green, I guess. If you are a prog rock fan you can point to early albums by about a dozen important prog bands, from Hawkwind and Van der Graaf Generator to Jethro Tull, Genesis and Gentle Giant. There is some classic underground stuff like Soft Machine's Third, if 2, Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother, a couple of Zappa albums, a Beefheart album, and, if you wish, Bitches Brew.

I have not mentioned 2 albums each by Dylan, King Crimson, The Doors, Badfinger and T Rex, and albums by the Beatles, Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren, Pretty Things and Poco, among many other noteworthy efforts, because they might not be those artists' best recordings. I ditched all live albums and posthumous releases (Cream, Hendrix, Stones, even The Who's Live at Leeds) and lots of other stuff. Chicago, marred by a few too many instrumental breaks of questionable merit, still had "25 or 6 to 4" and some other great songs. Jethro Tull's Benefit came out, and The Guess Who released by American Woman and Share the Land.

I have plenty of personal favorites that year, though they might not be yours: One Day at a Time, my favorite Joan Baez album, for example. Also three albums that Wikipedia seems not to know the exact release date for, all of which I think I still have: the eponymous Seatrain (with "13 Questions") and Sugarloaf (you do remember "Green-Eyed Lady", right?) and The Jaggerz' We Went to Different Schools Together (you should recall "The Rapper" too).

Beyond that, just a buttload of interesting stuff, take your pick: Argent, The Strawbs, Spirit, Faces, Canned Heat, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Fairport Convention, Mott the Hoople, Blue Cheer, Shocking Blue... It seems that while we were pining away for sixties music, musicians were busy re-inventing it, in spite of the James Gang crowd. It wasn't all them and Sabbath and Savoy Brown at all. Maybe there was a bit more in the "Hmmm, that's interesting" category than the "OMG what a brilliant album" category. Maybe Jefferson Starship's Blows Against the Empire, another 1970 release, does not match up with the best Jefferson Airplaine albums. There was a lot of searching for direction, some underwhelming experimentation, but overall, a lot of life.

It turns out we had our heads up our asses, so we could only see the shit that was coming out, while the next era in rock was unfolding. It was driven in large part by folk music, in part by technology, as new synthesizers, keyboards, mixing and amplification equipment were rolled out, and to some extent by a turn toward classical music, at least in the prog rock contingent. Still to come, amidst all the dreck, were The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, Aqualung, Madman Across the Water and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Joni Mitchell's other jazz-inflected middle period albums, nearly the entire, brilliant output of Steely Dan, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and some great work by the later Genesis, the best Moody Blues albums, and terrific work by some of my personal favorites - Nektar and 10cc, for instance. A certain guy named Bruce was about to spring from the Jersey Shore, initially to be dismissed by serious music fans as a Dylan wannabe; so, we had been wrong before. Across the ocean was a guy who didn't just make great music, he sort of re-ordered our thinking of what popular music was, again and again; I refer of course to David Bowie. And though a regrettable schism opened up between rock and R&B, and between white and black artists - another charge frequently heard in reference to the 70's - albums like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On?, Isaac Hayes' Shaft soundtrack,  and work by Sly Stone and others still broke through the artificial barriers.

Take it all together, and it was one of the greatest decades for music. The year 1975 alone had a slew of incredible albums - if I'm still blogging then, tune in for my next golden anniversary post.

And, finally, as if this is not enough fun already, there's this 1970 timeline story from Wikipedia:

"Grace Slick is invited to a tea party at the White House by Tricia Nixon, daughter of U.S. President Richard Nixon. Slick arrives at the party with Abbie Hoffman, who is on trial for conspiring to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The pair planned to spike Nixon's tea cup with a heavy dose of LSD. Slick is recognized (although Hoffman is not) and told to leave because she is on the FBI list."

Now, look, Ivanka, you can do better than Tricia Nixon, can't you? So who can you get to help with that? I'm voting for Courtney Love, but you can use your imagination - Carrie Brownstein's an option, maybe even Lady Gaga? I do admit that there's a slight problem with this plan: if your Dad got dosed and lost his grip on reality, who would ever know the difference?

Oh, how far we've come since Richard Nixon! Maybe we'll get some great music this decade.

(Note: Originally posted at 9:00 a.m., and substantially updated at 4:25 p.m.)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Joker: Is the Joke on Us?


The bird population may be severely diminished, but there is hope: a Parrot has been spotted outside the box office of a famous Brooklyn cinema. What this means for biodiversity I'm not sure, but it at least means a new view from the Lamppost.

What is Todd Phillips up to, anyway, in this latest epistle from the Batcave? I sat through about two thirds of the film thinking it was a genuine art house piece which was going to take me somewhere new. I ended up feeling like I had been treated to a remake of The Dark Knight, with references to the urban decay of the 1970's and a Fellini-esque ending thrown in to top off a really unworkable stew of moral, political and psychological themes.

The problem with this film is that it starts out by providing motivations for Arthur Fleck's anger that suggest a serious psychodrama, but the plan is realized amidst a confusing muck of thematic impulses that never really get sorted out. First we get the idea that Arthur is a just a bit off, then almost immediately we find that he has a medical condition that causes him to laugh inappropriately - presumably Pseudobulbar affect, or PBA, though the film never puts a name on it. This condition can have a range of emotional effects, but Phillips never makes it clear whether Arthur's bizarre behavior all stems from this or whether he is also subject to schizophrenia or some other condition. For example, he is also strongly delusional, but that is not obviously related to PBA. We learn that he is on medication, but we are never sure what the medication is for, since he seems to have more than one mental disorder. At some point he apparently loses access to his medication, but yet another loose knot is what direct effect this has on his later actions or mental condition, if any.

Into this already complex picture Phillips adds a history of severe child abuse. That makes probably three different psychological motivations for the murderous spree that ensues. Hey, let's also make him an orphan with a deranged adoptive mother who he still lives with - why stint on emotional issues? The method here seems to be to pile it on rather than carefully work out any single theme.

Well, we are not done. Arthur is also placed in New York City at its nadir, the street violence, racial animosity, riots, graffiti, declining social services and infrastructure decay of the 1970's. (In a piece of ahistoric but playful nonsense, the film opens with Arthur dressed in his clown suit, holding a sign advertising the closing of "Kenny's Music" - presumably a dual reference to Manny's Music on 48th Street and Kenny's Castaways, which closed in 2009 and 2012 respectively - but hey, we get the idea.) The urban decay forms a backdrop of general hostility, insensitivity and paranoia that stokes the flames of Arthur's already inflamed psychosis.

Believe it or not, Phillips is still not quite finished motivating Fleck's violence. Arthur is also trying to hold down a job as a clown, where labor issues and a co-worker who is a bit of a lummox add to his worries. Yes, he is going down, down, down...

But he's not quite at the bottom yet. You see, amidst all his tsuris, Arthur still wants to make something of himself. Although the film makes clear (sometimes in surprising ways) that Arthur is delusional, it is not clear that he is incapable of surmounting this to the point of being able to do standup. He even wants to appear as a guest on a t.v. talk show with host Murray Franklin, who seems to be modeled on Merv Griffin, the iconic talk show host of the 70's. And in a plot twist that is such a stretch I can't even count this as a spoiler, Murray gets hold of a clip of Arthur being foiled in an attempt at standup due to his laughing disease, and makes fun of him on the air. So add public humiliation to Arthur's worries. This is almost like a second film spliced onto at least one, if not two or three others, for the sake of adding another opportunity for Arthur to spill blood. It's also a cheap way of getting off, though I don't want to say anything that would spoil the unsurprising ending. But I'm jumping the gun a bit - let's go back.

The first two encounters that set Arthur off are both with black people - a group of violent youths who steal the "Going Out of Business" sign he is carrying in front of Kenny's and beat him up, and a woman on a bus who shows remarkable insensitivity. But Arthur is not going to seek revenge on these people, which would immediately put in question the moral assets he needs to attract our sympathies by pitting him against other down and out individuals. Instead, the appropriate opportunity presents itself when he is, rather dubiously, attacked on a subway by three Wall Street dudes who have turned from harrassing a woman to pummeling Arthur. He has been given a pistol by the aforementioned lummox at the agency he works for, and the one-percenters and sexist jerks get their bloody comeuppance in an act that could be called self-defense.

Well, it is self-defense, but it is also feels like a reference to the Bernard Goetz shootings of 1984. This is the first instance of how the film is not just psychologically murky but politically questionable. The stage for Fleck's killing spree is set with incidents perpetrated by minorities, but to make it acceptable at first Phillips engineers an unlikely subway assault by white guys in business suits. Of course, neither the actions of a Goetz nor the shooting to death of three white guys really is morally defensible, though some use of the gun might have been in that situation. But Phillips also needs this incident to incite a grander theme of epic violence by people who worship the clown as something like the leader of an Occupy Wall Street movement. So the film is now involved with yet another, almost contradictory, theme: what begins as a parable of urban decay (the outer representation of Arthur's psychological decay) turns into an Occupy story, only grafted onto scenes of violence reminiscent not of the Occupy encampment or marches but of New York during the blackout, of Chicago or Paris in 1968, of Watts and Newark and other scenes of resistance by the poor, minorities and students to the mess that their cities had become and the power structures that kept them that way. All of which is carried out by demonstrators in clown masks, which both hides their racial identity and tacks on an urban legend about violent clowns, a sort of visceral mockery of a movement that was subjected to violence by the police, not the other way around.

Cinema can be great entertainment even when its content is highly questionable. Joaquin Phoenix's performance as Arthur is so brilliant it shouts "Academy Award" and keeps you riveted even as the film's endless multiplication of strands leaves you wondering what meanings it is trying to put across. Comparison with Heath Ledger's Joker is inevitable, and if Ledger has anything on Phoenix it is just that he played this kind of character first. But in Christopher Nolan's film one thing the Joker clearly lacks is any justifying motivation; it is his embodiment of pure malevolence that marks his character. Phoenix's ability to enter the overly complex psyche of this mentally fragile Joker is remarkable, even if there is ultimately no way to reconcile all the disorders it encompasses. The cinematography is also terrific; Lawrence Sher depicts bleakness both indoors and out with a vividness that recalls not only Scorcese's 1970's films but Blade Runner, Repulsion and others that disturb visually as much as they do psychologically.

The moral shape of the film runs like this: we are initially somewhat sympathetic to Fleck in defending himself, and willing to at least understand as he takes revenge for his child abuse. Arthur, as the lingo of narrative fiction goes, now has "agency"; he is not going to simply disappear down the tubes of abuse, illness and depression. But at this point we are led to believe that Arthur has exorcised his demons and is on the way up - the expectation, for me, was that he would be healed but then have to face the consequences of the way he got there. Instead, we are treated to additional, quite gruesome, murders with a pretense of justification so thin that it is all but irrelevant. We are left in a kind of moral limbo, where Arthur's "recovery" turns into the lame idea - supported by extraordinarily lame speeches that are presumably supposed to have an effect on the audience - that whoever hurts you in any way whatsoever should be blown away.

This sorry outcome is then appended to a mythos of a city upended by clown-suited protesters who sanctify Arthur and his violent spree, so that not only Arthur but the Occupy-like critique of social inequality is compromised by the descent into random violence. That is a mythos that does not really resonate. The egalitarianism of the moment, from the Occupy movement to Black Lives Matter to the Democratic primary debates, is a potentially transformative development that needs to be taken seriously, and has nothing to do with violent clown myths. Ultimately, the joke is on us: the film sucks you in to Arthur's mission of righting every wrong done to him only to invite you to a clownishly violent form of opposition to social injustice. I have to pass on the invitation. Feel the Bern, if you are so inclined, but not the burn.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Arnautoff Mural and the San Francisco School Board Taliban



In March 2001, six months before the destruction of two much larger (and heavily populated) twin structures, the Buddhas of Bamyan were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Having first attacked the Buddhas with mortars and failed to do much damage, they declared all out war on these 1500 year old statues carved into a mountainside and obliterated them with dynamite.

The Buddhas may have been "false idols" according to Islamic law, but that was not the initial reason the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, gave for blowing them up:

"I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings - the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddha's destruction."

So said Omar the Humanitarian, in a flawless piece of logic. He was angry that someone offered money to preserve cultural artifiacts instead of for famine relief, so he blew them up. Mullah Omar did not discuss whether the Taliban's imposition of a Neanderthal form of Islamic law, or the enormous refugee situation caused by the civil war being fought against it, had anything to do with the famine. But the appeal to the plight of the oppressed must have seemed like a fine diversion for an act of cultural barbarism by the reactionary, mysoginist, Taliban, who were only following Sharia law in stoning the stone staues.

The San Francisco Board of Education has recently voted to paint over Victor Arnautoff's Life of Washington, a 1936 mural in George Washington High School,  because it depicts history as it really was, with the Father of Our Country (and largest slaveholder in the nation at the time) in proximity to the dead bodies of Native Americans and black slaves being sold and picking cotton on his plantation. Inspired by his socialist view of U.S. history, Arnautoff wanted to shock people who were used to seeing the whitewashed view of history in which the only thing going on in the Revolution is a victory of brave white men over their British oppressors. The SFBE is duly planning to respond by whitewashing Arnautoff's mural.

If you have not heard about the controversy you are probably thinking, "What a bunch of conservative idiots. Another right-wing attack on an artwork that depicts unpleasant truths." It does indeed remind us of the efforts by conservatives like Jesse Helms and Al D'Amato's to defund the National Endowment for the Arts because they helped pay for Andre Serrano's photograph Immersion (Piss Christ) – a protest against the denigration of Christian icons which was taken as its exact opposite, a denial of Jesus. Life of Washington is SFBE's Piss Christ, and signals open season on works that depict the uncomfortable truths of life in America.

But the SFBE, at least according to their rhetoric, are not reactionaries but progressives. They say that the mural "glorifies" slavery, genocide... white supremacy" etc. Not being art critics they do not appear to have given much thought to what difference there might be between depicting and glorifying. Such nice distinctions do seem to be too much to ask of ideologues on either the right or the left.

Worse yet, the mural upsets students, they say. Erasing artwork is apparently their idea of teaching freedom of expression: the art upsets some people, so get rid of it. Yet the Times reported evidence that few students thought the murals should be removed. I have not seen a study or poll of these students by racial category, but the Times article says, "Of the 2,004 students at Washington High, most are Asian-American; 89 are African-American and four are Native American." It wouldn't matter if there were only one African-American student, or none – if the message of the murals were clearly racist, and they had no redeeming artistic content, then one would have a case for obliterating them. If they did have artistic merit there would be a case for finding a new school building and using the old one as a museum, letting in people who wanted to view the artwork - just as I can, if I wish, open up a copy of slavery apologist George Fitzhugh's Cannibal's all! but I don't think it should be required reading for high school students. But Life of Washington is not racist but anti-racist and does, by most accounts, have considerable artistic merit. There's no case here.

Someone should inform the SFBE that high school students are frequently endowed with brains. And those brains can surely comprehend this "trigger warning" if it were conveyed to students in  general assembly on their first day in the school: "Our school is lucky to have some of the greatest artworks of the Works Progress Administration, a project of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that created public art works during the Great Depression. But these murals depict scenes that might be upsetting to some, scenes of slavery and the murder of Native Americans. When you see these scenes keep in mind that the artist was drawing people's attention to the darker facts of U.S. history, injustices which others tried to hide by making the Founding Fathers heroes without talking about some of the evil things they did. Victor Arnautoff was a socialist who didn't think the reality of American slavery or genocide should be painted out of history, any more than the Holocaust should be denied. So keep that in mind and appreciate the historic nature of the school you are attending."

But they don't have to stop there. They could also add: "And for those who feel that there should be more positive images of people of color we have those too. In the 1960's African-American artist Dewey Crumpler was asked to create a new mural, which he dubbed Multi-Ethnic Heritage, and it positively depicts the struggles of people whose rights were denied in George Washington's day."

Obliterating murals for political reasons is nothing new. One of the most famous cases was Nelson Rockefeller's destruction of Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads at the RCA building (30 Rockefeller Center) because the painter refused to remove a portrait of Vladimir Lenin from the mural. In May 1934, in spite of protests from many of the most famous artists of the day, the petroleum heir ordered that the mural be plastered over.

Rivera's Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park was also initially removed by its owner because it contained a portrait of a Mexican atheist holding a banner that read "Dios no existe" (God does not exist). Rivera was finally forced to remove the "offending" words, which happened to be true. Apparently facts are not acceptable on murals when they offend people. The fact that Washington was a slaveholder apparently makes no difference to the SFSB Taliban.

The statements from the SFBE defending their vote are, in the vernacular, a pile of sanctimonious, self-serving bullshit, and it is hard to even give them the time of day. "This is reparations," SFBE Vice President Mark Sanchez is quotedas saying. This and undocumented references to the sensitivities of students make up the sum total of their argument. Going from the banal to the absurd, at least if it is supposed to be an argument to obliterate an artwork, we have this:

"Native American Barbara Mumby-Huerta, who staffs the San Francisco Art Commission, challenged statements on historical accuracy, saying that the mural is ignorant of indigenous people. 'To portray a Native person face down, dead, you are trapping their soul so that they can not move on,' she said, per KQED."

Let's just say this: there is intelligence as well as ignorance in artistic traditions in every culture and every nation, and if we are going to sort through our entire cultural legacy and start trashing everything that offends modern sensibilities then we will have nothing left pretty soon. But sorting and selecting is not even what the SFBE is about – get this: "School district spokeswoman Laura Dudnick confirmed that although only two mural pieces stand out as offensive to members of the community, the board’s decision would apply to all 13 panels of the mural." I guess they made an aesthetic judgment that painting over just the allegedly offensive images would offend more people than leaving them as is!

Recently, Sanchez and SFBE President Stevon Cook responded to an op-ed piece in the Times by Bari Weiss, whose credentials mainly seem to be a series of critiques of student activism. The mural bashers' response is of a piece with the rest of their self-serving logic: like the Taliban, the Rockefellers and others they are putative knights in white armor serving the interests of offended minority students. But Weiss is hardly the only one who has responsed to their intended desecration of Arnautoff's work: over 400 artists signed a letter asking them to reverse the decision, a fact they have not addressed and are not capable of addressing because they have nothing of any intellectual merit to say. Pity the students of the San Francisco school syste, whose education is being directed by misguided, self-appointed curators.

Among the points made about the mural by the artists is: "Its meaning and commitments are not in dispute. It exposes and denounces in pictorial form the US history of racism and colonialism. The only viewers who should feel unsafe before this mural are racists." Artists 1, "Educators" 0.

Other heavy hitters of the art world are starting to weigh in. Rocco Landesman, former Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote a letter that was printed in the NY Times on July 3. On July 26 art critic Roberta Smith also weighed in. (Go to this link for pictures of the murals.) Both of them mentioned the similarity of the SFBE's planned action to the Taliban's demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and Smith also mentioned Rivera's Man at the Crossroads. But what they missed is the terrifying similarity in the logic of these acts: let's destroy this artwork because it makes decent people uncomfortable. Let's make the world a better place by removing this unpleasant reminded of the past.

Which makes me wonder: has the school board also banned the reading of Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom used the "N-word" in some of their stories – although it is perfectly plausible that they put the "N-word" in the mouths of characters who would have used it, while neither endorsing such use nor intending to demean people of color? 

Leni Riefenstal was an ardent Nazi who made the film Triumph of the Will as a promotional Nazi video. As a Jew, not to mention the son of a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, my discomfort at watching it is mitigated only slightly by the passage of time since those horrid events. But watch it I did, not just to remind myself that evil can at least temporarily triumph, but because its deplorable effectiveness makes it one of the greatest early examples of documentary film. True, it is not shown daily in my school, but suppose I went to a film school where it was required viewing - should I object and refuse to watch it? Why? It may have been intended as a picture of an Aryan future, but there could not be a better portrait now of national insanity.

Explicit sexuality makes some people uncomfortable. We do have a responsibility not to show young children certain things that would upset them, for the simple reason that they are not capable of understanding enough to put those things in context. But when someone wants to cover up a painting or sculpture because people capable of adult forms of reasoning (am I giving everyone too much credit?) might be offended seeing David's naked penis or whatever, it is not a matter of being sensitive to the feelings of a certain social group but of pandering to a lowest common denominator that it is the job of cultural institutions to educate.

Oh, did I say a bad word? Yes, perhaps the next thing the SFBE Taliban should do after they've spent over half a million dollars to destroy art is to obliterate the word "education" from the entrance to their offices. Apparently it offends some people. Them, in particular. After all, if the geniuses of the SFBE are capable of raising the $600,000 it is estimated to cost to remove the mural, why haven't they raised it to buy textbooks and technology, raise staff salaries, improve infrastructure, or even – I can't believe I thought of this – build a new building where the still anonymous offended students can conduct their education in blissful isolation from unsettling images? (Maybe that would take a little more money, but there are plenty of supposedly progressive Silicon Valley billionaires who should be more than happy to help with such an admirable cause.)

Victor Arnautoff, whose politically progressive mural is to be whitewashed, was an assistant to Diego Rivera. Apparently the destruction of socially critical ideas on walls is a great source of agreement between the alleged Bay Area reformers and the man who is mainly remembered for the violent death of dozens of Attica inmates and corrections officers. Arnautoff was a prolific painter who did quite a few murals in the Bay Area and elsewhere. Most of them raised controversies due to his left wing views. Maybe they should all be painted over? That would eliminate much of the legacy of a major American immigrant artist, who brought a critical perspective to U.S. culture and history. Could the SFBE possibly see that that is something to be preserved and supported today, rather than attacked?

Arnautoff taught numerous future artists during his career as a professor at the California School of Fine Arts and, for 25 years, at Standford University. After a 1955 series of lithographs in which he criticized Richard Nixon and McCarthyism there were calls for his removal, and he was hauled before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. He survived this assault and remained on the faculty. But his work may not survive the assault of putative liberal educators in an atmosphere where the desecration of left-wing art counts as "reparations". "Intentions don't matter" said one official. Yes they do, say almost every art, literary or cultural critic I've ever read.

While writing this piece, entirely by coincidence, I discovered a form of personal connection with Arnautoff. My uncle, the photographer Harold Roth, was stationed in the Bay Area when he was training as a paratrooper during World War II. (He was never deployed as far as I know.) There was a competition for army artists in his service division, and he entered a photograph entitled "Vermont Landscape". Among 475 works submitted, his photograph was selected as one of 180 to be exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and one of only 30 to be sent on to a national competition. There were photography and fine arts juries of four persons each, and presumably both had to vote on works sent to the national competition. The photography jury included two outstanding photographers, Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham. The most well known name in the fine arts jury was Victor Arnautoff.

But this distant personal connection to Arnautoff, through my uncle (another progressive artist, who made a major contribution to a community program in the Bronx called The Point, which helps poor children learn photography) has little to do with my sentiments about the planned actions of the SFBE. Those sentiments are a reaction to the perversion of progressive politics by the senseless actions of a gang of ideologues. If anyone needs further confirmation of Arnautoff's anti-racist sentiments they can read this. What a grave-roller it would be if he were to find that his mural is to be destroyed by administrators who call themselves defenders of oppressed minorities.

Rockefeller got away with his acts of vandalism, not to mention wanton killing, but the SFBE Taliban may not fare as well. The destruction of public visual art is now prohibited by law, specifically by the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. Among its provisions are:

Grants such an author [i.e., the artist] the right to prevent any destruction, distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would harm his or her reputation or honor

Extends such rights 50 years beyond the author's death (or co-author's, in the case of a joint work) with respect to visual art works created as of the effective date of this Act.

Arnautoff died in 1979, so the SFBE Taliban may need another 10 years before they can legally proceed with their white paint assault; maybe by that time some actual educators will be in charge. Being in a public institution, George Washington High School is ultimately owned by the people of San Francisco, so any citizen may have standing to sue for the destruction of a common cultural heritage. And there is reason to think they might win, too, given this recent decision:

Ruling that graffiti — a typically transient form of art — was of sufficient stature to be protected by the law, a federal judge in Brooklyn awarded a judgment of $6.7 million on Monday to 21 graffiti artists whose works were destroyed in 2013 at the 5Pointz complex in Long Island City, Queens.

In November, a landmark trial came to a close in Federal District Court in Brooklyn when a civil jury decided that Jerry Wolkoff, a real estate developer who owned 5Pointz, broke the law when he whitewashed dozens of swirling murals at the complex, obliterating what a lawyer for the artists had called “the world’s largest open-air aerosol museum.” (from The New York Times)

San Franciscans might have standing, but so might Arnautoff's heirs – he died in 1979, and perhaps there are living descendents who care enough about his legacy to stop the West Coast Taliban from protecting students in the wrong way.

So, finally, you are no doubt wondering what African-American artist Dewey Crumpler thinks about destroying the mural that he was brought in to "respond" to? He was interviewed by artnet news, and I couldn't imagine a better way to end this discussion than by quoting him. You really need to read the whole interview, about his own mural and his views on art and society. But the following will do for here:

"I thought 50 years ago that it should not be destroyed—because there are elements that are just waiting in the wings to take down other art, and they will use this argument to do exactly that."

"If you run away from history, you’ll never change history. You have to confront history. Art is a teaching tool. That’s why every culture in the world uses it.
All the conversations and emotions stirred up by a work of art are part of what that work of art means. My mural is part of the Arnautoff mural, part of its meaning, and its meaning is part of mine. If you destroy his work of art, you are destroying mine as well."

And those words may be worth a thousand paintings.