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William C. Altreuter
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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Watched Twenty Feet From Stardom last night. Great music, obviously. Interesting stories, too. The structure of it was notable, and I want to dwell on that a bit. The movie is about backup singers, and it features one who broke through after she was 40 to become a star in her own right; one who almost did, but didn't, quite; some who've made a living at it; and one who is trying to become a solo artist but hasn't, at least yet. Throughout we get some interviews with some of the big deal stars that the singers (all of whom are women, by the way, and mostly all African-American) have worked with. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger. All three of these white guys admire the craft that the singers bring to their performances-- but both Sting and Springsteen seemed somewhat condescending to me, particularly the loathsome Mr. Sumner, who seems to think that being paid scale and scuffling for gigs is what develops character and makes these women good artists. Springsteen is only slightly better: he seems to be implying that there is some element lacking in the make-up of these singers that prevents them from becoming big-deal popstars, like him. Oddly, Sir Mick comes off the best: he talks about singing with Merry Clayton and it is clear that he had great time doing it, admired her talent, and respected her as a person.

It's funny how it goes. Just last week I was talking to a friend about the idea of meritocracies. You'd think that there would be fields where the best rise to the top, but if there are I am not sure I know what they are. It ain't art or music, and although sport might seem to be the answer, there are a lot of athletes out there who feel like they had the tools and just didn't get the breaks. For every Kyle Warner who somehow breaks through there are dozens of QBs who got sent in for a series and then sat  for the rest of their careers. In our glamor profession keeping score is tricky. Some people reckon it is as easy as counting the money, and some think it's about ascending to the bench, and some people even think that becoming a law professor is the pinnacle, but the Kyle Warner principle is at work here too. I know lots of rich lawyers, and enough stupid judges, for sure, and the law schools are full of dolts who found that actually practicing law was not to their liking, but enjoyed academic politics just fine. I'm glad Darlene Love gets her props, and Merry Clayton's vocal on "Gimme Shelter" gives me chills every single time.  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"We are in the habit of seeing untended nature as a sort of blankness, awaiting human work to fill it." The reason I believe that the climate crisis is an urgent problem is that there will inevitably be human suffering as a result, and I deplore suffering. On the other hand, whatever will be left will be what is left. My urban neighborhood is teeming with life, and if, in 200 years it is all raccoons and Canada geese and wasps, well, too bad for us. There is a weird sort of arrogance to the notion that only people matter.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A couple of thoughts on "How Gary Hart's Downfall Forever Changed American Politics".

1.  Why is it that the New York Times, or people who write for the New York Times, act as though they have discovered something, even when the thing they claim to have discovered took place right in front of of us? There is one big revelation in this story: the Miami Herald report about Hart's philandering broke at the same time as the E.J. Dionne piece in the Times in which Hart was quoted as saying, “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” I didn't know that, and it is important. Pretty much everything else is stuff that anyone who cares already knows.

2.  The reason the important part is important is that it colored the perception of the story. Politicians and sex scandals are nothing new: I'm writing this in shadow of the statue of Grover Cleveland that stands outside Buffalo's City Hall. James Madison Alexander Hamilton got tripped up*. It is a central plot device in Citizen Kane. It tortures reality to say that Hart's downfall was due to some sort of post-Watergate reassessment in politics and political journalism. That's not what happened. Hart crashed and burned because of his perceived arrogance, not because of any troubles in his marriage. Madison made the right play: fess up. It's not the crime, its the cover-up. O'l Bill Clinton went one better. He never really admitted to anything in 1992, and by the time the New York Times and the Republican Party caught up to him we learned something very important: Nobody Cared. Clinton weathered the storm because the storm was about something that had nothing to do with whether Ol' Bill had been a capable President, and it had nothing to do with whether he was a likable guy. He was, and he was. Hart, who was perceived as flinty and arrogant, confirmed that impression in the minds of some. Caught in an alley, few of us would have had the wit to do what he should have done, and I can't fault him for being evasive. Too bad. Now we know what the right play is in those circumstances.

3.  The other reason it is important is that it is a useful insight into the arrogance of quite a lot of journalism. The Miami Herold reporters injected themselves into national politics-- and indisputably affected the course of the election-- by deciding to go after a candidate. That used to be called yellow journalism. Nothing new under the sun, mind you: and what do you know? Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal were the source of the expression, back in the late 19th Century.

4.  Would Hart have done better than poor Michael Dukakis? Well, who can say? He couldn't have done much worse: part of Dukakis' problem was that he got the nomination by being everybody's second choice. Candidates like that do not tend to inspire a great deal of fire in their supporters, and it isn't hard to imagine Hart, a good looking, smart guy with a fair amount of national experience, taking to Bush in a way that Dukakis never managed to work himself up to. Certainly Hart would have been better than the Bush reign that followed.

* CJ Colucci caught me confusing my Federalists in the Comments. My apologies to Dolly Madison for the mix-up


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

To the Freshgrass Festival at MassMoCa over the weekend. For those who are interested in the what the social scene looked like to me there's my Twitter feed: @altreuter, #BluegrassBingo.

Louis Armstrong said once, ""All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song." Of course, Louis was one of the great geniuses of American music, so it should go without saying that he was right, but at an event like this I find myself thinking about Louis nearly every moment. One of the things that is notable about a bluegrass festival is how white it is, but as Hubby Jenkins pointedly observed during the Carolina Chocolate Drops' set, African American music is the river that runs through all of American music. It's as true of bluegrass-- a form essentially invented by one man-- Bill Monroe defined it, but it has grown nearly as far past his definition as jazz has evolved past Buddy Bolden. At one time I thought different, and considered bluegrass as calcified as Dixieland, but that was my mistake, and although the Freshgrass Festival takes a wide view of the music that includes what I'd call country, or Country and Western, or even some other stuff, there is no question that this is all encompassed by Louis' definition. It is as American as it could possibly be, and it possesses an indisputable terroir.

No two ways about it, everyone we saw could flat out play. Notable: Claire Lynch, Alison Brown, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, David Grisman, Michael Daves & Tony Trischka. The Chocolate Drops were the artists that I was most impressed by; last time we saw them Rhiannon Giddens was eight months pregnant. This time she was in extraordinary voice. And of course, Emmlou Harris-- a classic American voice.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

I am often struck by how often the policies proposed by the Right are not only wrong, but demonstrably, historically wrong. This is true pretty much across the board-- on foreign policy and on domestic policy. For example, the arguments against increasing the federal minimum wage are always the same, and never correct.
"Raising the minimum wage is not, by any stretch, a poverty panacea. Its knock-on economic effects are in fact complex, its redistributive aim less well targeted at the working poor than, say, the earned-income tax credit. But opponents who insist that a raised minimum wage only hurts low-wage earners by eliminating entry-level jobs—a popular conservative position today—often have a weak grasp of the lives of the people involved. In March, Representative Paul Ryan, attacking the proposed hike at a town-hall meeting, said, “The majority of these workers are younger people just getting into the workforce.” This is not so. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average age of workers who would benefit from a higher minimum wage today is thirty-five. Eighty-eight per cent are over the age of twenty. “The typical worker who would be affected by an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2015 looks nothing like the part-time, teen stereotype: She is in her early thirties, works full-time, and may have a family to support.” In last week’s issue, I wrote about fast-food workers who also look nothing like the stereotype, and who have begun fighting for an industry-wide raise and the right to unionize. Their present wages are hopelessly inadequate. One study showed that fifty-two per cent of fast-food workers are on some form of public assistance."
Put another way:
Them that's got shall have
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible says and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own

Yes the strong get smart
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don't ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own

Money, you've got lots of friends
They're crowding around your door
But when you're gone and spending ends
They don't come no more
Rich relations give crusts of bread and such
You can help yourself, but don't take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sasha Frere-Jones Tweeted a series of "Perfect Recordings": Volume One, Volume Two, Volume 3, Volume 4, and Volume 5. Somebody assembled them into a Rdio playlist, which is here. There is quite a bit that I am familiar with, and some things that I've heard of but never heard, and some things that I probably wouldn't have ever listened to but for this curation. (When I take the time to listen to rap or hip-hop I recognize that it is closer to the R&B that I like than I think when I am not paying attention, for example.) It is a revelation, is what I'm saying.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Urban Outfitters is selling Kent State sweatshirts with fake bullet holes and bloodstains. Obviously this is appalling, but you know what? As far as I am able to tell, Neil Young and his harmony buddies kept the money from "Ohio" and nobody accused them of crass commercialism. I've always been kind of shocked that the university continued operating under that name-- call it re-branding or call it commemoration, some profound acknowledgement seems in order. Kent doesn't conceal its history on its website and apparently commemorates it with scholarships and memorials. Good for them, I guess, but I could no more wear a Kent sweatshirt than I could a Confederate uniform. Here in WNY there are a surprising number of people who are Ohio-oriented rather than New York-centric, and quite a few of those people end up going to Kent. I cannot imagine what that would be like, but the massacre was a long time ago, and to high school students today it probably seems as remote as the Civil War. 44 years is a long time: we're six or seven wars on since then. The other day a friend posted this photo
of a spent tear gas canister on her Facebook page: it is from the Special Collections Library at UB, and even though the entire architecture of UB is a kind of commemoration of the anti-war riots at Buffalo, essentially none of the students there are aware of that history. It was about ten years before my time-- I wasn't quite in high school back then, but I knew about Kent, of course, and about UB, and Columbia, and the rest of it as well. It was happening all around us, and it seemed like a big thing. Now, apparently, all of it is recalled, if it is recalled at all, ironically, with a Jimi Hendrix soundtrack. I harbor no nostalgia for the Sixties, but I like to think that I likewise have no illusions about that time either.

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