It’s the Learning Fucking Nothing that Has Kept Me Young

The following is the entirety of Rolling Stone’s album review for Willie Nelson’s new album Band of Brothers:

A minute into Willie Nelson‘s new set of songs – largely self-penned for a change – it’s clear the man who wrote Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” 50-some years ago has lost neither verve nor cojones. Co-writing with producer Buddy Cannon, Nelson sticks to his wheelhouse: love, heartache, rambling and music-making itself. The vocals remain indelibly creaky against stony acoustic guitar, bright steel whines and dusty harmonica whinnies. “We’re a band of brothers and sisters and whatever/On a mission to break all the rules,” he sings on the title track – a pledge of solidarity from an 81-year-old outlaw that, even at this late date, rings 100 percent true.

Wtf?!!!  There are blurbs on the back of book jackets longer than that!  I picked this review at random, but there are plenty of reviews at Rolling Stone and other places that are this short.  This review tells us absolutely nothing about the record other than Willie co-wrote most of the songs.  A critic’s job is to inform the reader about a work of art.  A good critic can not only help us make informed choices about what art we want to support, but can also enlighten us so that we understand a work of art better.  Criticism is and still is a way in which I have found many of the books, films, and albums that I treasure.  Until he died I used to like to go to Roger Ebert’s website to see what he thought of the latest films.  I didn’t always agree with him, but I came away more informed than when I started reading.  Go to http://www.rollingstone.com and read some of the old reviews.  Sometimes it is laughable how wrong they got an album, but there is at least some kind of opinion.  They are at least grasping for the truth even if they fall far short of it.  This review is just plain lazy.  A little part of my brain died by reading it.  Unfortunately the Deadwood quote, “It’s the learning fucking nothing that has kept me young,” does not apply here.  We can only hope that the writer got paid by the word…

Scandals for the Hoopleheads

I just don’t understand the scandals the right wing is trying to use on Obama.  The Benghazi scandal and now the Bergdahl scandal just seem so obviously created to distract the hoopleheads.  (Hooplehead is a term in the show Deadwood to describe the ignorant easily influenced masses.  Honestly, and I say this as a former History and American Studies Major; watching Deadwood is one of the best ways to understand America that there is.)  Even just rereading over the Benghazi facts I had trouble understanding what the scandal was really over other than some people don’t like Obama.  If you have read as much about the CIA as I have it isn’t hard to imagine that our intelligence was confused for awhile.  Our intelligence community did not predict the fall of the Berlin Wall as one example.

Our last president started a war under false pretenses.  Where were these people then?  Why does Dick Cheney still get any face time in the media to push his bullshit ideas when he should be locked up as a war criminal?

If someone wants to get mad at Obama there are plenty of more deserving targets for their outrage.  Why don’t these people protest our drone programs or the fact that there aren’t any big league financial people sitting in jail after destroying our economy?  It is because these people don’t care about the truth, they just care about scoring points.  Let’s call this scandal for what it is; a death fart by a party that has no real solutions for America’s problems anymore.

Insane Language

Over three years, fires raged, violent crime spiked and the murder rate soared so high that on a per-capita basis, it “put us somewhere between Honduras and Somalia,” says Police Chief J. Scott Thomson.  

“They let us run amok,” says a tat-covered ex-con and addict named Gigi.  “It was like fires, and rain, and babies crying, and dogs barking.  It was like Armageddon.”

I read those sentences in an old Rolling Stone today.  They were in an article by Matt Taibbi about Camden, New Jersey.  I understand what is going on there to be a human tragedy.  However, those sentences were so batshit insane they made me laugh.  I have a thing for over the top language.  Whether it is Hunter Thompson or the writing on Deadwood I just enjoy that type of language.  Maybe it is the kind of thing where if I didn’t laugh I’d cry.  Who knows such things…

Deadwood and United Fruit

Everything leads back to DeadwoodDeadwood is my favorite TV show of all time.  I believe it is the closest we will get to Shakespeare in our time in terms of dramatic depth and the shows rich verbal complexity.  The show takes place in the illegal town of the same name in the late 19th century.  The show is about how societies organize themselves and also about the bloodier side of free market capitalism.

Today I was reading about how the connections between leaders in our country and the United Fruit company that lead to coup in Guatemala in 1954.  This coup happened because of the revolving door between big business and government.  John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles both represented United Fruit when they worked at the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell.  When the Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz came to power he wanted to nationalize lands owned by United Fruit.  Arbenz was no communist, he only wanted an economic arrangement that was actually beneficial to his country.  However, the Dulles brothers, because of their long standing relationship to United Fruit, and their views that any kind of nationalistic indigenous behavior was the work of communists, decided to try to overthrow Arbenz government once the Dulles brothers became the Secretary of State and the director of the CIA.

The show Deadwood shows how economic forces shape political reality.  It is dramatic truth that helps one to understand the world at large.  During the second season the titan of industry William Hearst comes to the town.  His role in the town is the primary overreaching conflict of season three.   When he can’t get what he wants by using covert methods of misinformation, coercion, and bribery, he turns to violence.  He employs the Pinkerton detective agency, which in the show could easily stand in for the CIA.  They use violence to crush organizing activity, and eventually kill the person who most stands in the way of his ability to acquire a claim that he desires.

Our country has a history of allowing corporate interests to drive foreign policy decisions.  The incident with United Fruit and Guatemala is just one such incident.  One can look to recent events in Iraq, especially in the aftermath of the initial invasion, to see how companies help shape our policy for their own interests.  Sometimes these policies can even manifest themselves in overt violence.

What really great story telling can do is to relate truths in ways that are easy to comprehend.  Great art can help us to reach universal truths by allowing us to step outside of our current political moment. It can help us interpret the world around us in ways that journalism, which can often be biased and is also often the mere recording of data, cannot do.  If you are looking to understand the world that we inhabit it helps to pay attention to the news, it helps to read history books, but one should never forget the value of art.  Fiction can sometimes be more enlightening than mere fact.

Drinking Yourself Into a Werewolf

In the show Deadwood the character Slippery Dan says, “Why does I drinks like I do?”  One of the most darkly comic moments on a show full of them is when Slippery Dan is grabbed by an enraged Adams and run through with deer antlers hanging on the wall of the Gem Saloon.  The character Tom Nutall remarks, “Oh, he just 12 pointed Slippery Dan!”

You can watch this clip right here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nzEb03swVo

Last night No Show Ponies played Sam’s Town Point during SXSW.  Afterwards I celebrated with friends and band mates.  I temporarily lost my keys and my wallet.  Today I was still so drunk when Trey, our driver, merch guy, and roadie in Shinyribs, showed up to pick me up, I forgot my bass amp.

I don’t drink much anymore, and this is exactly why!  Someone informed me that it was a full moon last night.  As one grows older one hopefully learns.  I once read that the definition of comedy was the hero going into the inner-most cave and learning nothing.  I also read that when people they meet up with old friends they often resort to behaving exactly like they did when they left off.  If you see your friends from high school, you will most likely resort back to some of the same behaviors that you carried with you in that time period.  I remember Bruce Springsteen saying that was one of the tough things about being in a band.  Whenever he got the E-Street band back together they often would fall into old patterns of behavior.  I think drinking is much the same.  If you haven’t drank for a month or two and are doing it with old friends, you try to party like you used to back in the day.  However, your body is not conditioned and you end up being possibly even more foolish than you used to be.  In short, it does not pay to turn into a werewolf very often, under the light of a booze soaked moon.

Dollhouse, Firefly, Mad Men, Deadwood

I like the Joss Whedon show Dollhouse.  I’ve been watching the first season again and have never seen the second, but I plan on it. It’s a really entertaining show if you can get past the first couple episodes.  It’s not until the larger arc of the story is introduced that the show becomes interesting. 

I tried to show my brother an episode.  My brother, like me, is a big fan of Whedon’s show Firefly.  I picked one of the better episodes that I thought would stand alone as I felt the first episode did not do the show justice.  He couldn’t get into it.  Afterwards I was trying to think why, as it seems like something he would like, given to the fact that he has liked Firefly and other things by Whedon. 

I started thinking how important to Whedon’s writing, and really TV in general, is the fact that you need to become invested in the characters to really get enjoyment out of something.  In the episode I showed him the characters get high on an experimental drug and starting acting out of character.  What is funny if you know the characters probably isn’t if you don’t know them.  You don’t have any kind of template to base your reactions to. 

I think one of the reasons that TV has been so well done in recent years is that shows have gotten better at creating well rounded characters that have long story arcs.  Mad Men, maybe my favorite show that is airing right now, is great at this.  By the time you get to later seasons even a glance between two characters can be infused with deep meaning.  A show like Mad Men has depth to it that really only great literature can beat. 

My favorite show of all time is the show Deadwood.  I think it is as close to Shakespeare as we will get in our lifetime, with an amazing amount of swearing thrown in.  Aside from being a well written entertaining show it shows how societies organize themselves and also highlights the bloodier aspects of capitalism in our history.  However, I know plenty of people that have tuned in somewhere in the middle and had trouble telling what is going on.  The language and the politics of the show are too dense.  I completely understand this as I think you have to go on a journey with the characters in the show from the beginning.  There are lots of subtle things that are being done that make sense if you see it slowly build.  If you are thrown in the middle of it is like reading chapters out of order in a book. 

I guess if there is a show that your friends like that you want to like, but don’t get, start at the beginning.  There is still a chance that you might not like it of course, but it is worth a shot.  There is a lot of great writing in TV right now, just try to find a way to watch it without the commercials.  Whatever entertainment or ideas you get from a show will be sucked out by those things.  

Manifest Destiny and Eating Horses

We often hear about Manifest Destiny as part of our American Myth.  Here is what Manifest Destiny meant to those actually practicing it in 1870:  “The rich and beautiful valleys of Wyoming are destined for the occupancy and the sustenance of the Anglo-Saxon race.  The wealth that for untold ages has lain hidden beneath the snow-capped summits of our mountains has been placed there by Providence to reward the brave spirits whose lot it is to compose the advance-guard of civilization.  The Indians must stand aside or be overwhelmed by the ever advancing and ever increasing tide of emigration.  The destiny of the aborigines is written in characters not to be mistaken.  The same inscrutable Arbiter that decreed the downfall of Rome has pronounced the doom of extinction upon the red men of America.”

This was said by The Big Horn Association in 1870.  This association was a group of white frontiersmen and miners.  I got all of this from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. 

While I was reading my brother called me upstairs to watch a scene from the TV show Deadwood.   In the scene a U.S. Military leader is giving a speech to the town that is all about nobility and providence.  It is basically a composite of all of the military and political speeches that we always here with some period details thrown in.  While he is speaking a slightly deranged member of the audience is mumbling what really happened on their campaign.  He is saying things like, “We ate our horses!”

Always be aware that the myths and stories that we tell ourselves are often ancient oceans apart from the reality that went on.

White Slavery, Flag Waving, and Money

http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html

The above link is to the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930.  This was also known as the Hays Code and I mentioned it in the previous blog.  The first two things it says are: “If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind

A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures. Formulated and formally adopted by The Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc. and The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. in March 1930.”

I think it is funny that the code talks about how, “White slavery should not be treated,” and that, “The use of the flag shall be continuously respectful.”  So I’m guessing that you could show black slavery, but you dare not show any disrespect towards the nation’s flag while that slavery is underway.

There are all kinds of absurdities in this document.  Again, this was 1930 so the times have of course changed.  Most of the things that were discouraged in motion pictures back then are now pumped into peoples’ homes on a daily basis.

David Milch, which I alluded to in the last blog, talked once about how the idea of the western hero, the man of few words, was created because of this code.  I’m going to paraphrase a good bit here.  Basically what he talks about is how the heroes in westerns were prevented from talking like they often would in lawless towns of the 1800’s.  In the movies they couldn’t swear or say many other things that are and were part of regular everyday dialogue.  So in order to have them not speaking in clean and unmanly terms, the filmmakers of that era just decided to not have them speak much at all.  That is how a sort of mythic American hero came to be.  He didn’t come out of history, but out of a set of rules governing pictures during a time when a lot of the templates for films were being created.  Again, this is largely me paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

I’m against censorship of any kind.  Just like with this code, often you will get absurdities in what gets censored and what does not.  We often see this now on TV where swearing is censored on mainstream television (less and less all the time of course), but someone can kill a hundred people in an action film and no one will bat an eye.   Often what is censored depends on who is in power.

That being said it is perfectly legitimate to have a conversation about what is worthwhile viewing and what damages the culture at large.  I see a great deal of reality TV as promoting casual cruelty and meaningless consumerism.  Basically things that make the world go round.  I would never want to see any of this stuff censored, but I feel that it is ok to talk about how this kind of programming debases the humanity of the people participating in a lot of these shows and also desensitizes the viewer to absurd behavior.

It’s easy to get angry at the participants of these shows.  But most of the people in these shows are just trying to survive by making a quick buck and aren’t very smart to begin with.  It’s really the TV executives and people that prosper far greater than the participants that make sure that even when one of these shows fail that there is another one to replace it.  They are cheaper to produce than a lot of other programming and make too much money when they are successful.  They also function much like the modern day versions of the Roman Coliseum.  Give the people bread and circuses and they will be entertained enough so that they can escape the drudgery of their daily lives.  There is less likely to be rioting in the streets this way.

I’d be lying if I said that some of these shows aren’t entertaining on a base level and that I never watch them.  It’s all too easy to occasionally get pulled downstream by a fast current.  However, I do try to keep that thing to a minimum.  I don’t do this because I have any kind of intellectual or moral superiority over anyone, it’s just that I know that I’m as susceptible to giving thumbs up or down in the entertainment coliseum as anyone, so I try to keep my distance.  I’d probably get addicted to cocaine if I ever tried it, so I just don’t.

Meanwhile a show like Deadwood, which features a great amount of swearing,nudity, and violence, can only be shown on pay cable.  However, I would argue a show like this could teach someone more about American history than many of the shows on the History Channel.  It deals with how a society structures itself.  It also deals with the powerful forces that shaped American culture.  This show was cancled after three seasons, but American Idol goes on.

Although many people on the right and left disagree about what is causing it, most agree that there is some kind of decline in our culture that is going on.  Although there are some things that can’t be shown in mainstream TV, or said on the radio because of decency standards, there isn’t much anymore.  This is because the only thing that seems to really matter anymore is what makes money and what doesn’t.  The right wing religious people and the PC left can rage all they want, but if something makes a buck it will eventually make its way onto the airwaves in one way or another.  Until we decide as a country that money isn’t the thing that matters most, the floodgates will remain open.  The only vote that counts anymore is one that is made with the almighty dollar.

American Empire Then and Now

I just got the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for Christmas from my girlfriend.  In the past I’ve read Hampton Sides’s amazing Blood and Thunder and S.C. Gwynne’s extraordinary Empire of the Summer Moon.  I also just finished two books on Custer and his Last Stand, of which I talked about in previous blogs.  I was a history major for several years in college and graduated with an American Studies degree from Penn State.    I’m looking forward to reading Dee Brown’s book, even though I am already aware of its gloomy conclusion.  I think it is important, if you want to understand the myths that shape American culture to this day, to understand what really went on in the West.  Often the things that exist in popular culture have as much to do with Hollywood as they do with reality.  There is a brilliant clip on the Deadwood DVD extras of creator David Milch talking about how the Hays Production Code created the idea of the mythic silent western hero, the man of few words. 

That’s not to say that anything is black and white.  Many Indian tribes were also capable of extremely violent and brutal behavior.  However, I think this is an important chapter in our history that can not only help us better understand ourselves, but also help us as we go forward.  America still often exhibits many tendencies of being an empire, even though we often try to deny this to ourselves.  

The Presence of the New

http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/12/05/the-uns-robotic-peacekeepers/

This article from andrewsullivan.com talks about how the U.N. is going to start using unarmed drones for surveillance during peace keeping missions.  The US continues to wage its morally troubling drone war.  Many of you are probably aware of how Amazon wants to start using delivery drones.  If you Google it you will see how drones were used to deliver beer at a rock festival in South Africa.  As Al Swearengen says in Deadwood, “We are in the presence of the new.”