Music Genres

I’ve always had a bit of a problem separating things like music by genres. In a recent piece I wrote, I made the statement, “I tend to think of all worthwhile American music as being a type of blues.”* I knew when I typed it that the statement would bother some people. People have a way of strongly identifying with the art that they enjoy. Saying that I’m a Blues** fan, you’re a Country fan, and she’s a Hip-hop fan isn’t just describing what type of music we enjoy. It’s making a statement about who we are as people and that bugs me.

When I was young, I never even thought about genres. Growing up, I regularly heard my dad’s music, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Stones, etc., and my mom’s music, Simon & Garfunkle, The Beatles, Show tunes, Itzhak Perlman, etc. I heard Def Leppard and Run DMC from my older brother. And I heard Michael Jackson, Van Halen and Madonna on the radio. When I started playing an instrument, my parents got me Horn music like Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. And with all of that, it never occurred to me that any of it was separable. It was all just music. I knew that Strauss’ horn concerti sounded different than Herman’s Hermits Greatest Hits, but not in any classifiable way. They were just different songs.

I’ve never managed to get over the feeling that music is just one big, inseparable thing. Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn to talk about genres in order to have conversations with other people. It started with Classical (Not that Classical is a good descriptor at all, but it is the most common word for everything from Bach to Ligeti). As I played and studied it, I was forced to wall it off into its own thing. Of course, there is no one sound or structure that all Classical music has in common. Nor is there anything that is exclusive to Classical music. Classical just became music that I might play on my horn.

Jazz was the next separate genre for me, and it was kind of the opposite of Classical. I was in pretty much every ensemble I could be in as a student, but they wouldn’t let me in the Jazz band. Apparently, the horn isn’t a Jazz instrument (I’m glad no one ever told Julius Watkins or Tom Varner that). So, Jazz became the music that I don’t play on my horn. I know that seems like an odd way of defining a genre. Most people would probably say that Jazz is music that is improvisational and swings. Except when it doesn’t swing or isn’t improvised. All I know is I resisted Jazz for the longest time because they wouldn’t let me play it, which is sad because I love it now. Whatever it is.

Things stayed this way for a long time. There were essentially three genres: stuff I played, stuff I didn’t play and everything else. It wasn’t until I started working in a record store that I had to learn everything else. If a customer wanted something, I had to know which section of the store to look in. I learned that Blues meant the artists that were shelved over near the office. And Gospel/Religious meant the artists next to that, then Country next to that. Pop/rock was on the back wall, R&B was near Rap/Hip-Hop and Reggae/World Music. Then we round that out with Jazz, Classical, Folk, New Age and Easy Listening.

I learned it for the job, but I never found the labels at all satisfactory. There’s the blatant racism in keeping all of the black artists separate from the white artists. But aside from that, genre labels just don’t give worthwhile information. If I tell you that Bessie Smith and Buddy Guy are both blues artists and Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Smith are both jazz artists, I’d be correct. But that’s hugely misleading because Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong sound a lot more alike than Bessie Smith and Buddy Guy, and Jimmy Smith and Buddy Guy sound a lot more alike than Jimmy Smith and Louis Armstrong. If the genres won’t tell me what the music actually sounds like, what’s the point?

As far as I can tell, the point, as I hinted at in the beginning, is to allow people to separate themselves based on their preferred music genres. Genres seem to create little musical bubbles that people can stay in. It’s like the social media echo chamber except it predates social media and it makes me uncomfortable. It’s very claustrophobic. When I listen to music, I want to stretch my ears. I can’t do that in a bubble, no matter how big that bubble is.

So, even though I’ve had to learn all the genre labels for various reasons, I still don’t really hear them. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two types of music, good music and boring music. Any other labels just get in the way of my enjoyment.

 

 


*I know that I’m currently cataloging my record collection and splitting things by genre. The site I am using forces me to use genre labels, it won’t allow an entry without one, so it’s just the easiest way to do it. I may not like it, but sometimes I have to go with other people’s structures.

**Blues is a bit confusing because the word can be used as a genre label, which is what I’m talking about here, but it can also refer to a musical form. That form can be found across genres, from Classical to Jazz to Folk to Country and pretty much any other genre you can think of.

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Some Thoughts on Art


“My sister is always talking about God and heaven and how Jesus has a mansion waiting for us after we die, so I asked her: if heaven is so great, what’s the point of living here on earth?” she said.

“Let’s just cut to the chase,” I responded. “What’s the point of living, period?”

That’s just one version of this conversation, which I’ve had with surprising frequency over the last few weeks. It goes beyond a sense of ennui and restlessness, even beyond the typical navel-gazing of existentialism. “What is the point of this?” is the euphemism we use because the alternative is too difficult to say out loud: What is all of this pain for?

Acting wasn’t on my bucket list, and yet a confluence of opportunity and availability has given me the chance to play Frederick Douglass on stage (you can learn more about it here). I’ve only been doing it for a couple of months, but I’ve already learned that acting is not about pretending to have an emotion; acting is the ability to summon the real emotion at will, and to speak and perform through that emotion by connecting feeling, language and movement. I have most of the language down (as it turns out, learning lines isn’t that hard), and I’m understanding the movement better. The emotions though, that’s where I keep running into problems.

I was discussing this with my director during rehearsal. He was the one who told me that acting is having the emotion. As he was talking, I closed my eyes and began breathing deeply. I imagined myself breathing in his words, trying to take in the message like oxygen, making them critical to my life. I listened, and I started to understand what he was saying. Connecting the language and the movement to the feeling, that was the key. I had to find my feelings.

The only time I feel most emotions is when I’m high. I used to think that smoking weed heightened my experiences. I was smoking with my ex once, and we’d bought a bunch of candy to eat. She started eating before I’d filled the pipe. “Why are you eating it now? Don’t you want to wait until after we smoke so that it tastes better?” I asked. “It tastes the same to me either way,” she said. I thought that everyone’s experience was the same as mine- that jokes were funnier, food tasted better, sex was more enjoyable after smoking.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that weed wasn’t making things better for me. It was allowing me to connect with a range of emotions that were locked away behind a concrete wall for most of my life. Things felt and tasted better because I could fully experience the sensation of enjoying them. This worked in the opposite direction too- if I smoked when I was anxious, it didn’t suddenly cheer me up. Instead, I became much more anxious as my inebriation tore down the wall around my feelings.

I haven’t been able to access my feelings without being high, until I was listening to my director talk to me. I was able to finally touch the feelings that had so much protection around them. I burst into tears because all I found was sadness. A deep, endless sadness, built up over thirty years but hidden away from even myself. The kind of sadness that recoils from the touch, but desperately wants to be touched all the same, and lashes out and yearns in random, alternating moments. It felt impenetrable, and sobbing uncontrollably did nothing to lessen it.

“How am I supposed to act,” I asked, “If the only thing I feel when I find my emotions is sadness?”

Many years ago, a therapist taught me that anger is a secondary emotion, a response to an event which causes a primary emotion, usually something like pain, loss or sadness. Anger is almost a defensive measure in that sense, transforming the coldness and lethargy of hurt into the heat and kineticism of rage. Anger has been my defense mechanism of choice for most of my life. It was too difficult to deal with the sadness; lock it up, throw away the key, and post anger as the guard to the door. Weed took out the guards, and cracked the door open, and every once in a while, something other than sadness would sneak out into the rest of me.

Now, I’ve discovered that art does that for me as well. I listen to music so often and so loudly that I’ve damaged my hearing, but that’s a small price to pay to be able to engage with my emotions when I’m listening to a song. I discovered about two years ago that singing makes me feel better when I’m angry. Learning how to act has been an experience in learning how to climb over the wall I’ve built, and it has begun to affect how I interact with art in other ways too. I cried last night while working on a story. I cried this morning while reading the introduction to a collection of short stories.

There was nothing sad about the story I was writing or the book I was reading. Art has given me a way to access parts of myself, and that means moving through a great deal of sadness. I’m okay with that; I’d rather be on the verge of tears while watching television than trying to contain my own wrath. Yet there’s still something beyond the sadness, and that’s the hurt. And beyond the hurt are all of those positive emotions that I want to be able to feel. Before I can do that though, I have to ask the questions which I’ve heard from others too: Why have I been hurt? What did I do to deserve this hurt? How do I stop hurting? And what is all this hurt for?

Back in high school, I wrote in my notebook, “What is the meaning of life?” One of my friends saw it and wrote back, “Life has no meaning, idiot. It’s up to you to give it meaning.” That goes for the hurt we experience as well. There’s no point to it, or lesson or grace in pain for its own sake. People hurt each other, and an indifferent universe hurts us too. These things just simply happen. We can connect that hurt to an experience though, and make that experience into something beautiful- words on a page, or music in the air, or movement on a stage. Art is our conversation with ourselves and each other, our connection to the depths of our own experience and the breadth of human existence. You don’t need pain to create art (that “tortured artist” trope is ridiculous), but art comes from our attempt to make sense of the pain. Art doesn’t provide a point to the hurt, or to living in general. But maybe it provides us with something better than an explanation: a lovely way to deal with the hurt.

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The Wall

My name is Jam Stunna.

I was born Jamil Rashad Ragland on October 21st, 1985. Names are a funny thing, because they determine so much of who you are and how the world relates to you, yet you have almost no say in picking your name. Your parents say, “You’re a Jamil,” so I’m a Jamil. I went by that name exclusively, until 2003. I was playing a game with my brother, and after performing a particularly impressive move, he said, “Damn, Jam Stunna!” As soon as I heard it, I said, yes. That’s my name. It’s the name I use in every videogame I play competitively. I had the chance to choose who I would be known as to my opponents.

Why videogames though? Why not chess or bowling? I have no idea. My love for videogames began before I can remember. My parents told me the story of renting a Nintendo Entertainment System from Blockbuster (yes, I’m now old enough to be able to tell stories about practices and places which no longer exist), and spending hours playing Super Mario Bros.  When they came to a level that they couldn’t beat, they handed me the controller. I was two years old.

Videogames have always been a part of my life. For Christmas in 1991, all I wanted was a Super Nintendo. My brothers and I knew that the big box wrapped in gold paper was it. Our mother compromised with us: we could open one present at midnight. The golden box was chosen, and we stayed up until 4:00 AM playing Super Mario World.

That Super Nintendo was also the site of one of my most crushing defeats. We eventually got a little game for it called Street Fighter II. Until then, the only chance I had to play it was in a barber shop near Kent Street in Hartford. My father would take my brothers and I with him when he went to visit his friends, and we would run to the barber shop, quarters in hand, to play Street Fighter II on the lone arcade cabinet in the shop. The adults beat us without mercy- losing meant that you went to the back of the line, so no quarter was offered. I couldn’t get enough of it. When I finally got my hands on the cartridge for my Super Nintendo, I practiced obsessively. I played the arcade mode over and over again, trying to beat the game as fast as I could on the hardest difficulty. I sparred with my brothers and friends, and became the best Street Fighter player in my neighborhood. No one could touch me.

And then my uncle from Georgia showed up.

Eric was the cool uncle. He was in his twenties, tall and thin like a blade of grass. I thought his accent was funny, and it made his jokes even funnier. He’d come to visit for a couple of weeks, and one afternoon I introduced him to Street Fighter. He’d never played the game before, so I was ready to show him all sorts of neat tricks I’d learned after hours of playing.

He beat me without me even laying a finger on him.

As the announcer called out “Perfect!“, I was dumbfounded. How could this happen? I was the best! Not only had I been defeated, I’d been embarrassed. Double-perfected by a man who had never played the game before. I swore that such an affront would never happen again. I played and played and played, but my rematch against my uncle never came. He’d wisely taken his W and retired from Street Fighter with a 100% winning average.

I learned that day that there’s always someone better, but I would be reminded of that lesson again just over a decade later. I’d shifted my competitive focus away from Street Fighter and towards Super Smash Bros. instead. I was even more relentless in my practice for that game. I went online to message boards to read about advanced strategies, watched match footage, organized round robin tournaments in my college dorm, and played almost nonstop. When I arrived at my first tournament for Super Smash Bros. Melee, I was ready. I knew I was going to win.

And then I ran into Cort.

He was the best player in Connecticut, and one of the best players in the country. He proceeded to four-stock me, the functional equivalent to the whooping my uncle had given me in Street Fighter.

I’ve only won one tournament in all my years of competitive gaming. I’ve never beaten anyone of note. I’ve never traveled farther than NYC for a tournament. I’ve never made it out of pools at a major event. I’m what they call a “pot monster,” someone who shows up to a tournament with no realistic chance of winning, who is basically just contributing their entry fees to the haul of the eventual winner.

But that doesn’t matter. Of course winning is important, but the challenge, the opportunity to learn, is more important. Yesterday I couldn’t do this combo, but today I can. Yesterday, I didn’t understand frame data, but today I do, Yesterday, I didn’t know what 236H meant, but today I do. Every day I can improve, and that improvement translates into wins. When I lose, I can clearly see why. My opponent was better than me. They executed better than I did. They understood the matchup better. They had a better game plan. I can go home and work on that, and do better tomorrow.

When I ran into Cort at that Smash Bros. tournament, he was like a wall. I’m proud to say that when the challenge presented itself, I chose to try to scale that wall. I lost, but I went home and practiced, and improved. So much of everyday life feels mired in mundane inanity, and maybe videogames belong in that category too, but I don’t feel like they do. I can’t be the best registrar, or the best journalist, or the best legal assistant. I can be the best Smash Bros. player, or Dragon Ball FighterZ player, or Street Fighter player. That doesn’t mean I will be, but when I run into that next wall, I will have the choice to run away and give up, or try my best to scale it.

And I won’t do it alone. This journey has introduced me to the best people I’ve ever met. DarkDragoon, Trademark, _V_, AxelSlam, Cort, milktea, thumbswayup, JV Smooth, AOG, Flaco, Handsome313, Marjeezy, Brookman, LessThanThree, AwsmSean, Silas, Mr.GaryPhil, Prince of Fire, Manny, OtakuChin, Vyers, Minato, L-W-X- those words sound like random nonsense to many people. But to me, those are the names of my friends. Those are the people who have known me the longest. They’ve watched my son grow, from swinging in a bassinet while we practiced wavedashing and link combos to watching him win his own matches in tournaments now. We’re spread around the country, and even the world now, and we’re still united by the love of the game which grew into our love for each other.

They’re the people who know my real name.

 

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Some Thoughts on Black Self-Determination

Source: https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cassandramaria/2015/12/09/police-brutality-through-media

I cried during the scene in Black Panther when Erik Killmonger spoke with his father, because he was expressing the hurt that I’ve had so much trouble putting into words. Erik’s rage is overblown and genocidal for the sake of a Hollywood blockbuster, but that rage is so real and so raw for so many people, including me.

We could have had so much more than this. More than ghettos and police brutality and slavery and HIV and heart disease and redlining. So much was stolen from us while we have been raped and tortured in the cruelest ways for hundreds of years. Our women, children and men are killed and their murderers walk free, not in 1818, but in 2018. We experience the constant indignities of working for less money to live in more dangerous neighborhoods. I’ve often heard the way that America treats black people described as a slow-moving genocide, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Genocide isn’t slow. It burns white hot and rages out of control; it’s how you kill six million Jews in six years or a million Rwandans in one hundred days. What’s happening here is different. It’s meticulous and planned for the long term to make money. Extract maximum value from Black people, and shave a few years off of Black life here and there, not with gas chambers or roaming death squads, but with poor food and divestment.

All of this continues to exist after the end of state-sanctioned segregation. The legacy and effects of all of those laws and practices continue down to today of course, but it’s no longer illegal for black people to live in certain places, go to certain schools, or vote (actually, scratch that last one). Somehow we still find ourselves locked in certain communities, hoping for the trickle-down from benevolent white people. We can’t get better schools for our children, unless it’s to benefit white children too. We can’t get development for our own sake; it’s designed to attract white people. Dozens of buildings, millions of dollars, and still, the North End is the North End. How much longer are we going to continue to ask for things- education, equality, justice- from people who don’t want to give them to us?

A lot of serious people have positioned liberation as the answer to that question. It’s an idea that animates a great deal of progressive/radical work, especially in terms of racial justice. The end goal of various movements, from emancipation through Black Lives Matter and beyond, is liberation for oppressed Black people. But liberation is a noun. It’s a thing, like a tree or a rock. We can describe what a rock looks like, but what does liberation actually look like, in practice?

To me, it looks alot like Bloomfield, CT.

Bloomfield is one of the 21st century inheritors of the self sufficient Black community in America. It is the only municipality in New England which has a majority Black population, with 58% of its 20,000 residents hailing from African American and black West Indian descent. A Black woman is the mayor. The Town Council is majority Black. The Board of Education is almost all Black, with a Black chairperson. The median income is on par with the median income for the state. The schools have completed an amazing turnaround in the last decade. There’s a fascinating history of how Bloomfield’s population became majority Black (I wrote about it in the first chapter of my senior college project), but the short version is the same as everywhere else: block busting, racially restrictive housing covenants, redlining and white flight. Out of the lemons of racial segregation, a pretty amazing lemonade of Black self-determination has emerged.

A question I’ve been struggling with though is whether or not anything that grows from the poisoned ground of racism in America can be just. If real estate is racist (it is), municipal borders lock less mobile Black people out of critical resources (they do), schools are not about education but instead signaling social capital through access (they are), and all of this is dripping in patriarchy which reinforces Claudia Jones’ triple oppression, then is Bloomfield, as simply a Black version of all of those systems, actually worth celebrating?

I argue yes, because the fact of the matter is that all systems are created by people, and people are generally terrible. Claudia Jones was a Communist, a member of a system which envisioned a radically different socioeconomic system than capitalism. It was also a system which directly led to the deaths of millions of people, just like capitalism. And mercantilism. And feudalism. And the divine right of kings. And every single imperfect system which imperfect humans have tried. There is no magic inflection point where this time we’re going to get it right. We’ve already tried that- it was called the End Of History, and it included all of the racism and sexism that plagues us still. Then September 11th happened, and we were reminded that some people don’t forget history.

That’s all to say that liberation in practice is going to look a lot like whatever the dominant system of the day is, and our task is not to labor in the hopes that one day we can declare victory over the worst impulses of humanity. Our task will be to mitigate those impulses as best as we can, because you can be assured that the system of global white supremacy will fall someday, just as the Assyrians fell and every organizing system since then has. People will be at the center of whatever comes next, and you can also be assured that one group of people will try to treat another group as lesser.

Right now, we find ourselves as the group being treated as lesser, and to paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, appealing to your enemy for better treatment requires them to give a fuck about you. Let us weep for what could have been, recognize what is, and fight for what can be. We have a pretty good example of what can be, right next door.

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Music Collecting – Reggae

After cataloging my Blues collection, I decided to do something small, Reggae. I believe Reggae is the smallest segment of my collection that I will bother separating. I almost didn’t. I almost just lumped it in with Folk, but most people, in America at least, think of American Folk music when they hear Folk, so I figured I would give it its own category. As a type of music, it certainly warrants its own category, I just don’t have much of it.

I have a grand total of eight Reggae releases, and I don’t think I missed any. It’s so small because I know myself too well. I’ve never looked past the surface of Reggae because that would turn into me wanting dozens or hundreds of Reggae albums. I’ve never had enough money for all the records I do buy, so I have to limit myself somehow. I generally like what I hear, except for Dub, and I’m sure I’m depriving myself, but that’s the way things go.

I have two Bob Marley albums, Catch a Fire and Exodus. I’m sure I have Exodus because there used to be a law in America that required every white person from the suburbs to have a copy of Jamming and Three Little Birds. Luckily they’ve relaxed the law since nobody buys records anymore, but back in the day I didn’t want to get in trouble. It turns out I like Exodus, so I’m sure that’s why I picked up Catch a Fire. And I like that one, too.

I have Peter Tosh’s Legalize It (Echodelic Remixes). I have no idea why I own this one. It was a limited edition Record Store Day exclusive in 2012, but I don’t normally get things for their collectability, especially things that I don’t want to listen to. And I don’t like it at all. Remember what I said earlier about Dub. It sounds fake and has no soul. I wrote a while ago about my strong preference for live music. This is about as far away from live as you can get.

Next I have two albums by Third World, Reggae Ambassadors: 20th Anniversary Collection and Third World Live. And I know exactly why I have them. In the early 90s, probably 1992, I went to see Santana. Third World was the opener and they were fantastic. I was completely unfamiliar with them before seeing them, so the collection was to get me up to speed. The live album was just because they were so good live, I figured it had to be good. I’m still quite happy with both of these purchases.

Then there’s Toots & The Maytals. I have Ska Father and True Love. I’m pretty sure Toots is the most famous Reggae musician after Bob Marley. He frequently collaborates with other musicians in different genres. So, even as a non-Reggae fan, I heard him quite a bit. I’m sure these two were just to find out what he sounds like on his own records.

Finally, I have Wingless Angels by Wingless Angels. I got this one because of Keith Richards. He produced it. It’s basically a drum and chant record. It reminds me of field hollers or 1920s era spirituals. It’s strangely hypnotic and satisfying. They put out a follow-up record a few years ago. I’d like it, but I haven’t gotten around to buying it yet.

And that’s my history with Reggae. It’s limited, but I like it. What’s not to like? The melodies are catchy and the bass lines are wonderful. If I win the lottery, I’d love to do a deep dive and learn more. But, for now, I’ll just have to be satisfied with what I’ve got.

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A Wrinkle In Time – Some Thoughts

I first read A Wrinkle In Time when I was a kid, probably ten or eleven years old. I liked it. When I saw they had made a movie, I was curious. I reread the book. I still liked it. Then, I started seeing the reviews of the movie. They are mostly unkind. It has a 40% critics score and a 34% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. But, I threw caution to the wind and went to see it anyway. Now I’m confused.

It was a good movie. I’m not saying it should win the Oscar next year. I’m just saying that it did everything I need a movie to do. It had characters that I cared about doing interesting things. There was a definite plot with a satisfying resolution. The actors were good in their roles. It looked neat. So, why all the hate?

Maybe the bad reviews come from people who forgot that it was a kid’s movie they were seeing. I see a lot of kid’s movies, having a daughter. There are a few great ones, like Paddington, but that’s the exception. Most of them are pretty awful, like The Emoji Movie. A Wrinkle In Time is a lot better than most of the kid’s movies I see. I feel like I’m giving the haters a big benefit of the doubt here, but maybe that explains the bad reviews.

The only other thing I can think of is some combination of sexism and racism. It’s rare to have a movie with a female lead. It’s even rarer to find a movie with a person of color in the lead role. This movie has both with Storm Reid playing Meg Murray. I hate to think that in 2018 that’s too much for people, but we did just elect Trump president. I’ve heard that Black Panther has gotten artificially low scores because racist trolls are posting bad reviews of it. Could the same thing be happening here?

I’m not saying everyone has to love this movie. Sci-fi isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe some people can’t identify with a kid who feels awkward and misunderstood. But, taken for what it is, it’s a good movie. It has a great message. And I would have said A Wrinkle In Time is an unfilmable book, but the movie keeps the feel of the book intact. Ignore the reviews and check it out.

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The “Right” Kind of Hero

Credit: Carrie Devorah (http://www.wenn.com/)

I was listening to the breathless coverage of Rex Tillerson’s firing, and how various people from news show talking heads to Deep State prognosticators were discussing how it would effect Iran, North Korea, Russia, and pretty much the entire globe when Mike Pompeo takes over.

With that understanding of the Secretary of State as super important, I want to talk about Condoleeza Rice for a moment.

Condoleeza Rice was born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 14th, 1954. That’s the same year that Brown v. Board of Education was decided. The Montgomery Bus Boycott started when she was one. She was the same age as the four black girls who were incinerated in the church bombing in her home town. This was Bull Connor’s and George Wallace’s Alabama.

I want that to sink in for a moment, because I think it matters when you consider that she became the third most senior individual in the United States government, and served as the face of US diplomacy all over the globe.

A black woman born in Alabama, named Condoleeza.

It’s too easy to understate how monumental of an achievement that is, partly because there’s not much understanding of what the State Department does, but also because black and brown people generally disagree with her politics. I know that I do, but I did come across an interesting quote from her speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention:

“The first Republican that I knew was my father John Rice. And he is still the Republican that I admire most. My father joined our party because the Democrats in Jim Crow Alabama of 1952 would not register him to vote. The Republicans did.

Yet there’s something more to the dismissal of Rice than just her politics, because she actually has a contemporary that is still held in higher esteem despite similar politics and culpability in the George W. Bush administration: Colin Powell. He’s always been a Republican, and until his speech at the UN to make the case for the Iraq War, was incredibly popular with black people. The Iraq lies damaged him too, but where it only dimmed his star, it completely snuffed out Rice’s.

Did you know that Rice is an amazing pianist? I’m going to post her performance with Yo-Yo Ma here, because you should hear it:

No one talks about Condoleeza Rice, at all. She barely gets mentioned in the national security and foreign policy podcasts I listen to. She’s not a contributor to any of the papers I read or shows I watch. There were no stirring tributes to her during Black History Month, and I doubt there will be during Women’s History month. Despite her excellence, intelligence and achievement, she committed the sin of being a black woman, and that makes it easy for everyone, even her own people, to ignore her because of this or that reason- her politics, her effectiveness, her lies, etc. News flash: they all lie. They’re all political. That’s how this system works.

This is not to say, at all, that Rice is not responsible for terrible things on the world stage. She was right there, repeating the “smoking gun/mushroom cloud” line during the run-up to the Iraq War. But Henry Kissenger was a terrible person, and so was Robert McNamara, and a hundred other evil white men whose names we are forced to remember. Why not hers too?

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The School Walkout

On the morning of March 14, 2018, students all over the country participated in a school walkout to protest gun violence and to honor the seventeen children killed in Parkland, FL. In a lot of ways, this was inspiring, seeing thousands of kids believe in a cause and actually try to do something about it. But I couldn’t help but think of two questions posed by Hannah Arendt in her “Reflections on Little Rock”, “Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world? And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in our school yards?” The answer to both of those questions seems to be yes, which is just wrong. Every adult needs to be ashamed.

There are lots of reasons why there is a distinction between children and adults. I don’t think I really need to get into them here, but I’m thinking of things like the fact that, typically, children are not emotionally or intellectually ready to make political decisions. But having this distinction between children and adults has consequences. Children have fewer rights than adults. For example, they cannot vote or work. But there are consequences for the adults, too. In creating this distinction, adults are assuming responsibility for doing the things that children are deemed unable or unprepared to do. It is the responsibility of adults to make political decisions, to care for the children, etc.

It isn’t the first time, and sadly it probably won’t be the last, but it appears the adults of the United States have abdicated their responsibilities. While I agree with the students and admire their courage, I can’t help but think that they should not be in a position where they feel that they need to do this. It’s our job, not theirs. They are covering for us. I find that embarrassing.

It’s not just important to let children be children. Adults need to be adults at the same time. It’s our duty to be political, to make difficult decisions and to protect the children. On the issue of gun violence, we have failed completely. When this issue comes up with my daughter, I will have trouble looking her in the eye as I try to explain that failure.

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Your One & Only – A Book Review

Your One & Only is the debut novel by Adrianne Finlay. It was released on February 6, 2018. It’s young adult, post-apocalyptic sci-fi. I have to say the standard shpiel about spoilers, so in this opening paragraph I’ll just say that I really liked it. I recommend the book, five stars, etc. If you’re worried about spoilers, go out, get a copy, read it and then come back and finish reading this. I’ll wait for you.

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There. Now that you’ve finished it (or if you just didn’t care about spoilers to begin with) we can move on. Full disclosure, I should let you know that I know Adrianne. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I knew her. We were good friends in college, but we really haven’t talked in twenty-plus years. It would have been nice to keep in touch, but we were nowhere near each other and it was before social media and cell phones. In fact, I didn’t even have my first email address yet. It was tough keeping in touch in the mid-nineties. Don’t think that my knowing her influences my review. I would have enjoyed the book no matter who wrote it.

The story itself is compelling. The plot moves at an incredible pace, and each new thing comes logically from the previous thing, which is all to the good. Nothing feels contrived or like a twist for the sake of a twist. Basically, Homo sapiens has died off from “the slow plague.” The story is set three hundred years later and the world is populated by modified clones, Homo factus (made man). There are nine different clone models and ten copies of each model in each generation. There are ten generations at a time, so each city has 900 individual clones. Only they don’t think of themselves as individuals, they think that each individual from a certain model is interchangeable with all the others of that model. The clones superficially seem human. But, no one has been born from sexual reproduction in over three hundred years. They are just copies of copies of copies. And they have the ability to “commune” with each other, it’s a form of telepathic communication that always keeps their emotions in synch.

Add to this mix one real human, Jack. Technically he was cloned, but he is an unaltered clone of a real human from around our current time. When Jack is a teenager, his “father,” Sam, tries to integrate him into society. It does not go well. All of the clones are either afraid of Jack or hostile to him. Only Althea-310 is somewhat sympathetic and intrigued. When there is a series of thefts and sabotage, everyone blames Jack, even though Jack is innocent. Althea and Jack solve the mystery, but it is too late for the society, it is falling apart. The story ends with Jack, Althea and a group of clones leaving the city to start a new life in a new way.

Jack and Althea-310 are the main characters. They are well developed. I cared about both of them as I was reading the book. Jack is obviously an outsider, but he is a good kid. Like any kid, he wants to fit in, but can’t. I think everyone had at least a moment of not fitting in as a kid, so he is easy to relate to. Althea is more alien than Jack, but she is also a bit of an outsider. She has a scar on her wrist, so she is visually distinguishable from her sisters. This seems insignificant to us, but it is the thing that allows her to understand Jack so they can fall in love.

The point of view is interesting. It is always third person, but the chapters alternate, chapter one is Althea and chapter two is Jack and it goes that way for the entire book. The Althea chapters tell the story from her point of view while the Jack chapters tell it from his. The Althea chapters make the lives of the clones seem normal while the Jack chapters make humans seem normal. It is effective for this book. The only downside is that almost none of the other characters are fully developed. We only get snippets of what Jack and Althea think about them. I’m honestly torn as to whether that’s a downside or not. I was certainly curious about Sam and the Nylas, but I really appreciate a tight point of view.

The language works well for the book. It’s unobtrusive, not overly flowery or ornate. But it does have a distinct style. It’s very visual and the images are nice. They are often unexpected, no clichés here. My favorite is, “Jack noticed how the word mother rolled in Sam’s mouth, foreign and strange. Not unpleasant, just something to work his tongue around, like a sour candy,” from chapter two.

The few quibbles I have with Your One & Only, I think, come down to the fact that I am not the intended audience, I’m way too old. The relationship between Jack and Althea seems more like Romeo and Juliet than Anthony and Cleopatra. I absolutely understand how this would be more appealing for a younger audience, but I would have liked to see some deeper conversations. At this point in my life, I’d rather read about a relationship built on mutual respect and shared values than one about passion and curiosity. I’m also torn about the pace. It is relentless. A huge part of me loves that. There is no waste. It’s the type of book that could be read in one sitting if you’re not careful. But there’s another part of me that wanted some pauses, some quiet moments to reflect and feel the consequences of the action.

Overall, I really enjoyed Your One & Only. It’s exciting and interesting. She did a nice job of building a new world. The ending is deserved. And I really cared about the characters. I just hope they don’t mess up the movie. (I have no idea if someone’s going to make a movie of it, but I would go see it.) I can’t wait for Adrianne’s next book.

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Music Collecting – The Blues

A long time ago, I wrote this piece about collecting classical music. It was so long ago that it was on a different blog. I’m still working on the project of cataloging my record collection. After I finished classical, I moved on to blues. It’s taken me a while to get everything in, but now I’ve finished blues and am ready to move on to something else.

Blues took a lot longer to catalogue, partly because it’s bigger than my classical collection. I know I’m missing some, but I put 675 blues albums into the catalogue. It’s funny, that doesn’t even sound like a big number to me. It also took a long time because the Discogs.com database is woefully incomplete when it comes to blues. Probably a third of my collection was not even listed and I had to add the releases to the database. And more than half that were in there were incomplete, bare bones entries that I had to update. I know that no one was making me do it, but it takes a long time to add a complete entry.

Like classical, it was fun going through my blues collection. There were some that I distinctly remembered where, when and why I got them. There were others that I had completely forgotten about. Mostly, it gave me a good excuse to listen to a bunch of things that I haven’t listened to in a while. It reaffirmed that blues is my favorite style of music.

My taste in blues pretty much runs the gamut. I’m not a big fan of blues rock. Otherwise, East Coast, West Coast, Delta, Chicago, Texas, New Orleans and even some British are all good with me. I’m definitely not a purist or a snob about it. I tend to think of all worthwhile American music as being a type of blues. Good country is just blues by white people. Jazz is blues with a different set of instruments. Rock is non-country blues by white people. But for this project, I pretty much stuck to what is typically labeled as blues. I kept what most people call rock, R&B, country, zydeco and jazz out of it.

Blues is a really misunderstood genre. People have this image of it being depressing. But, like any other type of music, it covers all the emotions. There are plenty of songs about heartbreak, but there are also songs about being in love, about partying, about traveling, about politics and anything else you can think of. Some of it is for listening, but a ton of it is for dancing.

For me, it all started with John Lee Hooker. I didn’t know anything about the blues as a kid. It wasn’t exactly pop music in the 80s. I had heard some blues from guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton, but I didn’t even really recognize it as blues. Then, I read an interview with Keith Richards where he said something to the effect that if he inspired one person to check out John Lee Hooker, his career has been worthwhile. That got me curious, so the next time I gathered my paper route money and went to the record store, I blindly grabbed a John Lee Hooker album, 20 Greatest Hits. It was a bargain bin collection. There were no liner notes, no credits. It just had a picture of him on the cover and a list of songs on the back. I had never heard anything like it. The guitar was so idiosyncratically personal. The voice was so deep (not in the pitch sense, but in the profound sense). If this was the blues, I had to learn more.

Since the album I had didn’t give me anything to go on, I started with the famous artists, the B.B. Kings and Muddy Waters and whatnot. When I turned sixteen, I also started looking for blues artists who were playing nearby. Through that I rediscovered B.B. King and discovered Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Etta James, Robert Cray and such. I also started reading the liner notes on every new album I got. I noticed that Junior Wells kept showing up on Buddy Guy releases, so I checked him out. I also paid close attention whenever the notes mentioned an influence and bought those, guys like T-Bone Walker and Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy. Finally, I started reading magazines, Living Blues and Blues Review, and became familiar with all of the new artists. It’s funny, what took me years of study and trial and error as a kid could be done in an afternoon now with the internet.

It’s hard to pick, but I think Muddy Waters has to be my favorite. I didn’t even discover him in the normal way. The first record of his I got was I’m Ready from 1978 on the Blue Sky label. I loved it. It was only after that that I found his classic, famous records from the fifties and sixties on Chess. I think if I were stuck listening to only one album for the rest of my life, I would want that album to be Folk Singer. It’s from 1964 and features Muddy on guitar and vocals, Buddy Guy on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums.

Muddy Waters’ stiffest competition may come from Mississippi John Hurt. Their styles couldn’t be more different. While Mud is all swagger and usually played with a full, electric band, John Hurt is gentle and played by himself. It’s just him and a finger-picked acoustic guitar. And it’s brilliant. He made his first recordings in 1928. Then the depression hit. He didn’t make another recording until the sixties during the folk boom. Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me is basically perfect. I’ve often had the thought that if you’re not listening to Mississippi John Hurt right now, there’s something better you could be doing.

Willie Dixon is the most credited person in my collection. Between his songwriting, producing, bass playing and singing, he’s on nearly a quarter of all the releases I have. If you’re not a blues fan, there’s a good chance you aren’t familiar with him, but you know his songs. He wrote Seventh Son, I Just Want To Make Love To You, Spoonful, Hoochie Coochie Man, You Shook Me and probably a thousand others. He was also a fascinating person. He sat out World War II as a conscientious objector. He said that until black people were treated like citizens in America, he couldn’t justify joining the army and fighting for the country. He worked tirelessly later in his career to recover money that had been stolen from black artists by their white producers and managers. He’s really worth learning about.

While going through my collection, I couldn’t help but notice how the music has changed. Now, blues is a guitarist’s genre. That wasn’t always the case. In the early days, there were cornets and clarinets, banjos and accordions, harmonicas and mandolins, washboards and pianos and fiddles and kazoos. Those instruments still exist, but they are mostly used in other genres now. It really bums me out that blues piano and blues harmonica are lost art forms now.

Like Keith Richards, I’d like to think that maybe this will get someone to check out the blues. With YouTube, Spotify and Pandora, it’s really easy to do. The music is truly wonderful. If you check it out, I promise you won’t be sorry. And if you want any guidance, I’d be happy to help.

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