Three Songs for Memorial Day

In honor of Memorial Day here are three songs that deal with those who went to war, both those that came back and those that didn’t.  All three of these songs feature great writing, with lived in characters that are fully formed.  There is no mindless flag waving going on here.  They all treat veterans like people, not like political imagery.  In the first two there are even some short injections of dark humor.

Johnny Cash – Drive On

Marah – Round Eye Blues

Bruce Springsteen – The Wall

On a personal note I feel mixed emotions on Memorial Day as I scan the headlines.  In our country we are always told to “support the troops”.  But usually after the fact, after we have sent them out to be broken, after we have sent some to the final place they will see.  Nothing to me says support the troops more than not sending them into war in the first place unless absolutely necessary.  On Memorial Day you often read in the news about people getting easily offended over some kind of symbol they find disrespectful or something someone said. But where were these people when we allowed our leaders to send our young men and women to places they should have never been?  Many of them were waving flags blindly.  There are real lives that are damaged, families broken up.  I’m for all kinds of healthcare, etc., when our troops come home.  However, the best way to support the troops is through peace.

The O’Jays – Message In Our Music

A really great forgotten soul record is The O’Jays album Message in Our Music.  It sounds like it cost a million dollars to make.  It’s soul music as opera or symphony.  It’s a big sound, in line with other Philly Soul albums, with strings, horns, keyboards, Spanish guitars, exquisite backing vocals, and a rhythm section that won’t quit.  And that is just the tip of the iceberg!  Some of the rhythms are disco, but when played super badass drummers and bass players, it doesn’t matter.  These fuckers can lay down a pocket.  The O’Jays sing as if their lives are on the line, as if they have ever done anything different.   This as far as sound could be pushed, the pinnacle of recording, before technology started moving things in the other direction.  There are love songs and message songs.  The O’Jays on one knee crying, while the backing vocals act as a Greek chorus.  Don’t get me wrong, unlike the dirty funk of James Brown, this music is silky smooth.  However the world is big enough for both.  And when the O’Jays make you believe in every note, when Eddie Levert is shredding his vocal chords in search of love and meaning, there is is enough earthiness to go around.  

P.S. If for some reason you are new to the O’Jays I would probably start with Back Stabbers, but almost their entire 70’s output has something to offer.

Mad Max: Fury Road Movie Review (2015) | Roger Ebert

I haven’t had the time or the idea to write about the new Mad Max in any way that I felt would be original.  However, this is an absolutely great film that deserves to be seen in the theater.  The above review gets it largely right.  If you haven’t seen it,  you should, especially if you love insane entertainment and groundbreaking visual spectacles.  A sample from above:

“Fury Road” would be remarkable enough as a pure technical accomplishment—a film that laughs in the face of blockbuster CGI orgies with some of the best editing and sound design the genre has ever seen—and yet Miller reaches for something greater than technical prowess. He holds aloft the action template that he created with “The Road Warrior” and argues that Hollywood shouldn’t have been copying it for the past three decades, they should have been building on it. “Fury Road” is a challenge to a whole generation of action filmmakers, urging them to follow its audacious path into the genre’s future and, like Miller, try their hardest to create something new.

How Apocalypto Relates to the News

When I watch the news I often think of the movie Apocalypto.   This is a Mel Gibson directed movie that deals with the Mayans.  The movie is an insane spectacle filled with ideas and blood.  The characters speak in ancient Mayan dialogue, but the movie is brilliant because it manages to tell the story in ways that are mostly visual.  It is an extremely intelligent piece of entertainment, an action movie with ideas.  It is barbarous, batshit insane, kinetic entertainment.  

Now why do I think of this movie when I see the news?  This is not due to the themes of the movie.  The Mayan empire is depicted as a civilization on the verge of collapse due to environmental calamity and human exploitation.  It came out during the Bush years and the Iraq War.  Gibson even commented that the Mayan rulers were very similar to Bush in his boys.  Sure, the invading Europeans put the nail in the coffin of the Mayans, but the Europeans are aided by the Mayan leaders’ tyrannical rule.  That is not to say that is true in history, but Gibson is trying to draw a parallel through art.  He is saying if we don’t quit oppressing people, if we don’t protect the environment, history shows that we and our way of life is in trouble.

However, none of that crosses my mind when I watch the news.  The greatest emotional quality of Apocalypto is insanity.  When I watch the news and they focus on the trivial and ignore the important, I feel emotionally like I do when I watch Apocalypto.   When I see war and oppression trumpeted as normal, when I see global warming treated as not real, when I see celebrity eclipse the common good, I feel the same as when I watch Apocalypto.  

There is intellectual truth and emotional truth in art.  Even if you argue that the movie doesn’t have the former, it has the latter in spades.  It feels like what happens when the world turns upside down.  It’s why the movie makes me happy, even though it is largely an action movie and a quite dark one at that.  Someone connected to an emotion that is all too common in the modern world.  It’s always uplifting to know someone feels like you do.  If there are others, you might just stand a chance. 

The Brilliance of Mad Men’s Ending

Spoiler alert for the finale of Mad Men

The more I think about the ending of Mad Men, the more I think it was brilliant.  I want to try to ignore doing any kind of traditional recap, as there are plenty of those online.  I want to talk more about how things ended with the shows main character, Don Draper.  His story line wrapped up in a way that was perfect in that in some way it gave people what they wanted, but was also disturbing and critical as well.  It somehow managed to be happy and depressing at the same time.

Don Draper finally seems to find a glimmer of inner peace while meditating.  He says, “ohm”, and you hear the sound of a bell.  The next and final cut is to a famous Coke ad where people sing about harmony and how Coke is the “real thing”.  (This is a real ad.)  I don’t see any other way to read this than Don created the ad from his life experiences as he had all series.

In one sense those fans that want Don Draper to find a happy ending got one.  He will essentially be alright.  Stan said earlier that Don was a “survivor” and Peggy replied that he was always right.  You get a sense that whatever happens to Don Draper after the credits role, he will survive and be essentially alright.

However, as a character, even if he does or doesn’t find lasting inner peace, he is basically ending up at the same place he began, turning his life experiences into advertisements.  He is commodifying the experiences of life.

What is disturbing is that this is essentially what advertising does.  It takes real experiences, strips them of their meaning, and uses them to sell people things that they don’t need, some of which are even harmful.  Don’s inner peace was used to sell Coke, a product we know to cause tooth decay and child obesity.  As my brother said, “Draper took all of the pain, all of the things he learned, all of the idealism of the 60’s, and turned it into something banal.”

So much of our society commodifies and cheapens things that should be sacred.  In free market capitalism the market takes everything in life and reduces it into something that can be sold on the market.  Peace, love, and happiness become just mere commodities, stripped of any higher purpose.

The brilliance of the ending is that Mather Weiner, Mad Men’s creator, was able to give Draper an ending that was both happy and disturbing, and that also commented on his character, his TV show, and the real world all at once.  That’s quite a feat to go out on.

Mad Men, Mad Max, and Music

I’ve been taking some time off with friends and family.  I have many things I want to write about in depth, but just a few brief thoughts in the meantime:

1.  I will need to ponder the Mad Men final for awhile.  I thought it split the difference between Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. It gave the audience some of what they wanted and at the same time was interpretive enough that I think any quick judgment of it is misplaced.  My emotions and thoughts were complex while watching it.  I feel like any kind of summation at this point would not do the material justice.

2.  The new Mad Max is simply fantastic.  It is visually stunning, exploding with unique imagery, full of non-stop action, and batshit insane.  It’s entertainment with ideas and clearly directed by someone with true vision.  It makes other summer blockbusters look like marketing decisions.  I should throw in that it is emotional and subversive too.  But even if you just go see if for pure fun, you won’t be let down.

3.  Went on a walk today with My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, and Chromatics.  Three great bands for enhancing a mood while still giving you space to think.

Dreaming in the Penal Colony

Air travel puts me in the bleak mood.  It is where the rotten seems of the past few decades of American Exceptionalism expose themselves.  People standing in line, on top of each other, eating shitty food, like in some sort of penal colony, while a bunch of 1 percenters stretch their legs. 

My layover is in Detroit.  A couple white bread all American males surround me, acting as if they aren’t sharing their space with other human beings.  Buzz cuts, golf shirts, and an air of entitlement. They’ll probably be the ones at the front of the plane in future years.  Part of me wishes an engine would die, just to see the lights in their eyes dim for a moment.  When you wish upon a star…