Fargo: new Coen Brothers miniseries is Minnesota mean

Less than a week after TV lost its greatest asshole (spoiler alert) the TV gods have provided us with a new reigning champion: Fargo’s Lorne Malvo.

by James Brown

Billy Bob Thornton’s Malvo is the protagonist of FX’s dark comedy Fargo miniseries. Based on the Coen Brothers film of the same name, Fargo takes different tack than most TV shows based on films (like the ill-fated CBS chase drama The Fugitive or ABC’s Karen or even the excellent NBC drama Hannibal), breaking with its motion picture heritage. Joel and Ethan Coen, the writer/director duo behind the Academy Award winning film, and Noah Hawley (Bones) designed a new tale that indulges the spirit of the original with new characters and another town: Bemidji, Minnesota. Continue reading

Generation-X

How Generation X will save the world

What is Generation X? Maybe our last, best hope for change.

by Sara Robinson

You can’t blame Gen X for having had eee-freaking-nuff of the whole generational identification thing.

Americans born between 1960 and 1980 (give or take a couple years on either end) have spent their lives squeezed in between two over-hyped cohorts who have consistently hogged the spotlight, the jobs, the money, the social concern, and all the other cultural goodies that matter. To the temporal north, there are the Boomers — idealistic, moralizing, hyper-creative visionaries who still can’t entirely let go of their youthful golden years when they were so determined to Save The World. To the south, X looks down on the Millennials, the over-coddled, over-hyped, over-connected Indigo Children whose future is vanishing before their eyes — and who are now being held up at the next generation that just might Save The World. Continue reading

How I met your premise: HIMYM finale about as real as sitcoms get

Many critics and fans felt cheated by twist in How I Met Your Mother finale. They should feel grateful.

by James Brown

There are three types of TV viewers: the surfers, the passive, and the devotees.

Surfers flip channels and watch anything that catches their attention. Passive viewers want comfort food: dramas that thrill them and sitcoms full of belly laughs. Devotees ask all that surfers and passive viewers want and more. Devotees also ask that those same shows are logical, well shot, acted, written and directed, all the while being original. Those same viewers, increasingly and unrealistically, ask fictional television to reflect and comment on reality. Few hours of television have done all that as well as the much scrutinized and often panned How I Met Your Mother finale. Continue reading

Big laughs, Broad City

Broad City explores typical New York tropes through a fresh lens with hilarious results.

by James Brown

It’s easy to compare Broad City, the latest sitcom from Comedy Central to Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls; their bones are the same. Both series star young, broke, white, twenty-something female characters in modern day New York City, but that’s where the similarities end. Girls is a direct descendant of Ally McBeal. It’s a melodrama that finds laughs (and at times brilliance) in the margins of its characters’ strained relationships. Even its flights of fancy are grounded in a character driven reality. Broad City isn’t interested in any of that. Much like FX’s Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Broad City trades realism for lots of silliness at supersonic speed. Broad City is a live action cartoon worthy of the Road Runner.

Continue reading

Journalism

Local newspapers: fewer reporters = less content = declining revenue

Corporate owners treat news as “product.” As a result, the industry is on life support.

by Patrick Vecchio

I can’t remember how young I was when I fell in love with my local newspaper. It started with a comic strip: Mandrake the Magician. I would wait on our front porch for the newspaper boy, spread the paper on the floor and read Mandrake on my hands and knees. As I grew older, my interest expanded to different sections of the paper. By the time I reached high school, I was reading it from front to back. I loved it.

I never left my hometown, and after studying journalism in college, I began working as a reporter at a tiny daily newspaper about 20 miles away. Continue reading

Steroids

Should Major League Baseball allow steroid users into the Hall of Fame? Yes, says Matt Record.

Part 1 of a series.

by Matt Record

Baseball has been marked by cheating forever. It’s hypocritical to draw a line now.

These are – in my opinion – the top 15 best position players in the history of baseball:

  • Babe Ruth
  • Barry Bonds
  • Willie Mays
  • Ted Williams
  • Ty Cobb
  • Hank Aaron
  • Tris Speaker
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Honus Wagner
  • Stan Musial
  • Alex Rodriguez
  • Rogers Hornsby
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Eddie Collins
  • Mickey Mantle

The fact that two of the top 15 best hitters may never make the hall of fame is a  shame and a frustratingly meaningless shame at that. Continue reading

CATEGORY: TunesDay

Confessions of a recording artist: I love making CDs, but I hate post-processing

by Michael Smith

Post-production takes all the fun out of the process, and most bands can’t afford to hire Phil Spector like The Beatles did.

As I write this, I’m sitting at my computer and thinking about working more on finishing my band’s new album. Unfortunately, for the last couple of months “thinking about it” is all I seem to be capable of doing.

If I were to break down the workload in terms of percentage, we’re probably about 80% done. It’s been a long road to get here. In the last two years, the band and its immediate family has endured a writer’s block, a couple of job changes, added a new member, celebrated a fantastic wedding, and dealt with a successful breast cancer treatment. Business has been far from usual.

And through all of that, the songwriting is done. Continue reading

CATEGORY: TunesDay

The National’s Trouble Will Find Me: art, in a way that popular music rarely is

by Patrick Vecchio

In 2007 I subscribed to a magazine called the Oxford American. It calls itself “The Southern Magazine of Good Writing,” and you might wonder why I subscribed to it, bein’ a Yankee and all, but that’s a tale for another time.

Anyway: The back cover of one issue was a full-page ad with a photograph of what looked like a rock band. The ad contained a two-word phrase—The National—and the word Boxer. Every now and then, I’ll buy an album on a whim, even though I’ve never heard of the band and never heard a single note of their music. So I figured out the band was called The National, the album was called Boxer, and I bought the record. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Sports

Baseball Hall of Fame voters: it’s time to judge the judges

by Rafael Noboa y Rivera

Baseball writers in the Steroid Era had one job. And they failed at it.

Earlier this week, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) unveiled the newest Baseball Hall of Fame inductees. Baseball fans were paying particularly close attention to who made the cut, as they have the last few years, because many of the eligible players were star performers during baseball’s Steroid Era. Many of these writers show no mercy towards players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa. Players they once laureled as Olympian heroes are now condemned as cheats, unworthy of the game’s highest honor.

What is interesting is that even as they stake out the higher ground, piously commenting on how moral standards must be maintained, these same writers are pleading with us as baseball fans to give them a break, cut ‘em a little slack. Continue reading

CATEGORY: RacePolitics

Duck (Dynasty) and cover: intolerance, ignorance and the “politically correct”

by Patrick Vecchio

Sometimes it’s okay to be intolerant of ignorance.

A sign on my hometown’s main street claims political correctness and intolerance are driving the furor over remarks by Phil Robertson, star of the A&E Network show Duck Dynasty.

A story found on the Fox News website provides a link to the GQ magazine article in which Robertson said, among other things: “I never heard one … black person say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!” Continue reading

CATEGORY: BusinessFinance2

Is Bobby Jindal anti-business?

Governor Jindal’s comments in the Duck Dynasty case provide aid and comfort for those who would handcuff American business leaders.

by Richard Hough

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal earlier this week offered some disturbing public remarks that must have come as a shock to many of his constituents in the business community. Jindal has long been an ally for American businesses of all sizes, and my organization, the American Commerce Institute, continues to regard him as a friend. However, his spirited defense of Phil Robertson in the Duck Dynasty controversy, while appearing to strike a blow on behalf of free speech, actually worked to undermine the principles upon which our free market system are based. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Climate

Faux Pause: climate contrarians lose favorite talking point

by Greg Laden

In an ongoing effort to discredit mainstream climate science, climate contrarians have incorrectly asserted that there is a “pause” in the rate of global warming. This was never true,  but now, it is even less true.

CATEGORY: ClimateGreg Laden teaches anthropology at Century College and blogs for National Geographic Scienceblogs.com. He is a long time resident of the Twin Cities and has written extensively on matters of climate change and other areas of science.

To any objective observer, the Earth is now a world warmed. The decade 2001-2010 was the hottest decade on record, and every single month since March 1985 has been warmer than the 20th century average.   Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Lou Reed’s musical influence? Not so fast, Dr. Sammy

by Patrick Vecchio

My man Sam Smith posted yesterday about the wide-ranging influence Lou Reed had—and continues to have—on popular music.

Alas, though, Sam was no doubt in the throes of grief and unable to think straight when he wrote: “The Beatles were the biggest thing in the history of popular music and it’s hard to imagine any band or solo artist ever surpassing the influence they exerted, both musical and cultural. But it’s entirely possible that the #2 position on that list belongs to Lou Reed.”

It’s also entirely possible that Justin Bieber is the reincarnation of Sam Cooke. Continue reading

CATEGORY: MusicPopularCulture

Lou Reed: “I just don’t care at all”

Legendary battles with Lester Bangs in Creem revealed the depth of Reed’s ennui

by Patrick Vecchio

For several years in the 1970s, I was a fan of Lou Reed, who died Sunday at age 71. When I learned he had died, the first thing I thought of was his 1974 album Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal.

Animal was the antidote to the Floyd boys’ Dark Side of the Moon, and it was an album you wanted all of your friends to hear. My roommate and I would gather friends in our dorm room, get ourselves in the mood for some music, kill the lights and then start the turntable. Nobody would say anything until the turntable arm lifted at the end of the album side. Generally, the reaction of first-time listeners was “whoaaaah.”

Nearly forty years later, some of Animal holds up well (“Sweet Jane” and “White Light/White Heat” about the best, and maybe “Lady Day”), but “Heroin” is Lou shooting up with self-indulgence, and “Rock and Roll” is for the most part guitar wanking. Continue reading

CATEGORY: InternetTelecomSocialMedia

Social media and false intimacy

by Patrick Vecchio

I was searching YouTube the other day for a Jason Isbell song I thought a LiveJournal friend should hear. I found the song, and while I was listening to it, I scrolled through the listener comments and spotted this one:

Jason,Your the reason I play_ guitar and write songs. But most of all id like to thank you for saving my life in a lot of ways. I will always take playing for a room of 15 drunk guys on hard times and connecting with them, over making radio bullshit. i dunno what life has in store for me, but i hope its a life as a working musician, getting by and helping people through rough shit. Shit that your music has helped me through. Thank you Jason, keep playin for those who understand, leave the rest.

Setting aside its sincerity, the comment made me wonder: Did the writer think his words would reach Isbell? I hope they did, but my hopes are faint because of the false intimacy of social media.

Admittedly, I have a limited perspective. I am on Facebook, although I rarely visit it, comment on other people’s statuses or tell people I “like” something or someone. I have a LinkedIn profile, but all I do is say OK to anyone desperate enough to want to add me to her or his network. I maintain this blog, which I post to in bursts—not the best way to attract and keep readers. My credibility as a critic of social media is shaky.

Even so, the concept of false intimacy rolls around in my brain like a marble rolling around in a bathtub. The rolling marble got particularly loud one day this spring. The university where I teach puts on a sports symposium every other year, and this year, one of the panelists was someone whose writing I’ve followed and admired for years. I spent 90 minutes alone with him as I drove him from the Buffalo airport to the university.

I thought his writing had given me a pretty good idea of what kind of a guy he was, but he was as charming as a canker sore. I tried to get him to talk about work of his I was familiar with, but it just annoyed him. The trip was so unpleasant that I told the symposium organizer to find someone else to drive him back to the airport the next day.

This leads me to wonder how well we know people who exist to us only as words. I like to think my blog friends would find that if they met me, they would see my online personality was just an extension of who I am in person. At least I hope that’s the case. I don’t know, though.

This knowing-but-not-knowing idea resurfaced a couple of weeks ago on Facebook. I received a friend request from a woman whose name I didn’t recognize until I dropped the name after the hyphen of her last name. It turns out she was a classmate from high school. Her friend request puzzled me because I don’t remember even speaking to her back then—that’s how different our orbits were. When I replied to her request, I said it was “good to hear from you after 40 years.”

She wrote back. She has had a distinguished career and might be someone you’ve seen on TV or read about. She asked the usual questions about me, and then our online conversation faded. I told her I’m always glad to hear success stories involving our classmates, so I was glad she reached out and had done so well. Even so, I still don’t know her much better than I knew her in high school.

The question is, why did she reach out? To put on the other shoe, why did I hope my response would prompt a reply?

I suspect it’s because we want to be in touch. We seek significance in our lives, so we post snippets of them on Facebook, we write about them on our blogs, and we tweet them—and we’re gratified if someone responds. A blog post that gets zero hits feels like failure.

We constantly whip out our cell phones to see whose message we’ve missed. Once I post this, I’ll begin checking to see who responds, and how quickly. We want to be wired, networked, in on the conversation, even if the conversation has the substance of meringue.

Because the Internet makes it so easy, we reach out to musicians, authors and other people we don’t know. The chances of reaching them are far better than they used to be, and from experience, I know how gratifying it is to hear back from someone whom we respect, even idolize to a degree.

I once emailed a writer whose work I had read in The Sun magazine. I told her how much I admired her short story, but I also told her how reading it deflated me as a writer because she was much more talented. Quite unexpectedly, she responded with encouraging words. Several months later I read another story of hers, and I emailed her again, thinking she wouldn’t reply and might think I’m a 59-year-old fanboy. Instead, she replied how much she appreciated my comments because her piece, in her words, “cost me a lot” emotionally. Had this exchange happened 30 years ago, it would have occurred at a snail mail pace, which would not have been nearly as satisfying as our wired world’s instant gratification.

We cannot grasp how many people know about our online personalities (hello, NSA), and as a result, when we write, we can’t answer one of the two basic questions a writer asks—“Who is my audience?” Nor can we, as an audience, truly know the writer. On the car ride from Buffalo, my favorite writer turned out to be a dick; the short story writer turned out to be someone whose responses were unexpectedly sincere.

Maybe the person who posted the YouTube comment to Isbell got a degree of satisfaction from it. After all, we never can know if someone has read a comment and simply not responded. So we continue to reach out to expand our network, to learn more about people we know only superficially, and we hope they live up to our expectations. This is one way we try to make our place in the world a little more certain—but in our age, such certainty is elusive.

#Occupy Rock & Roll: Warrior Soul at The Maywood

Warrior Soulby Jon Epstein

Concert Review: Warrior Soul at The Maywood, Raleigh NC, July 14, 2013. 

As I write this review, CNN is on the television, the talking heads essentially lipsyncing the propaganda fed to them by corporate and political interests and doing their best to sound convincing. It is news, after all. People shooting other people, some individually some in groups, your favorite plastic celebrity du jour has committed a horrible faux paux resulting in embarrassing video, compromising cell phone photos, and defenses revolving around the “disease of addiction,” and solemn promises to seek treatment in Malibu just as soon as scheduling allows….“George Zimmerman is ADHD and medicated, which altered his mind,” the mannequin just announced. How convenient….Jodie Arias is suffering from PTSD which manifested itself in unhealthy relationships and sexual manipulation…well how about that…The economy is a mystery, says the financial analyst….hmmm…that’s not good….This corporate shill says this, that lobbyist says that…and now another look at the “beautiful people” and the opulence that you too should really, really want… Jesus freak tightrope walker crosses Grand Canyon and lives because Joel Osteen endorsed him….”And in other news things are bad all over and getting worse: War, famine, death, disease, drought, pollution, poverty, violence, drug addiction, ecological disaster…. It turns out that America seems to be the cause of most of this…. Now here’s a well endowed blonde with sports”….. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…. And now a word from our sponsor… Whose by prescription only product might help….

And so it goes. Some things never change.

Twenty-three years ago, a CD came across my desk that totally resonated with everything I had seen, been disturbed, angered, and confused about for as long as I could remember, and the questions that consumed me and led directly to my decision to become an educator, writer, and activist. That CD was Last Decade, Dead Century, and the band was Warrior Soul, fronted by Kory Clarke. Clarke was a very, very angry man. That’s not really anything new in the world of heavy rock, where anger is often mandatory and manufactured. But, you see, Clarke was REALLY angry, and very smart. An excellent songwriter with a flair for visual imagery and the dramatic, coupled with passion for the truth and a genuine concern for society’s invisible casualties and castaways and fury for the blind eye we are all manipulated into turning away.

1009831_10201648053833900_139504434_nWhen the band began with the opening chords of “I See the Ruins” I knew that not only did some things never change, but sometimes they are not supposed to change until they have fulfilled their purpose. As the band vamped on a “Big E.” Clarke took the stage, smiled and nodded at familiar faces, slowly opened his arms into a “Jesus Christ Pose” and let loose with a furious whisky and razor blade scream:

I am the child of the new generation
The psychotic product of total frustration
Lost in the void of the social soup
Yesterday’s plans gone awry
I found you standing there cold
So I picked up on the usual topic
I feel the pain of a thousand wars
I feel the pain of a thousand wars
I got no problems man I got no problems man I got no problems man
I live in TV land
I’m an electronic image beaming out to you…

What followed was an hour and a half of some of the finest and most furious hard rock music ever written, which also happened to contain the most important and timely social and political message that most rock fans have never heard, but should have. The band performed songs from most of their albums, but focused on material from their debut, the follow-up (Drugs, God, and the New Republic) and this year’s release, Stiff Middle Finger. I was also pleasantly surprised that the band chose to showcase four songs from 1994′s criminally ignored 1994 Salutations from the Ghetto Nation. Individually, this album’s first three songs (“Love Destruction,” “Blown,” and “Shine Like It”), which the band played in order, stand as unrelenting and angry anthems. Taken together they become a furious eulogy to the burnt out, confused, dangerous and dying culture that America has become and a condemnation of the guilty, which as Warrior Soul sees it is pretty much all of us, but with a special kind of pissed off for the politicians and their corporate masters who have taken us all there, but allowed only a select few to benefit on the way.

Much has been written about the failure of Warrior Soul to achieve the mainstream success that they deserve. Some focus on the inflexibility of Kory Clarke and his insistence on being honest, and on his unwillingness to meet music industry demands to tone down the intensity and be more warm and fuzzy. This could be true, but no one, and I mean no one, who has ever witnessed Warrior Soul in all their fury would seriously suggest such a thing to Kory. It would be like asking Franklin Graham to star in a porno.

In the end, the reason is obvious. America is medicated, propagandized, overweight, manipulated, placated and ego-inflated. We are unwilling to confront the truth of our complicity in the sorry state of affairs that passes as history these days, and we sure as hell don’t want to hear people sing about it. While it’s OK to sing about how neato it is to find a groovy old sweater at the thrift shop, it is not OK to discuss why it is that the thrift shop is there to begin with. While it is OK to sing about the heroism of the American solider, it is not OK to sing about why, exactly, they were in a situation requiring bravery to begin with. While it’s OK to sing about how hard it is for an honest man to make a living in our gutted and hijacked economy, it is not OK to sing about why it is that the economy got gutted to begin with. It’s OK to complain, it’s not OK to question. Questions make us uncomfortable, so we shun the questioner and focus on Honey Boo Boo instead.

Warrior Soul is the rock and roll equivalent of Occupy Wall Street. Loud, often obnoxious, confrontational and essential. Like Occupy, Warrior Soul deals in the truth in all its messy glory. And like Occupy, Warrior Soul deserves your attention. The question is; are you too comfortable, or too misinformed, to care?

In conclusion please be wary where authority reigns
Control tightens as we sleep a false security
All our leaders answer to silent bosses where profit fills their greed
Think before action learn before acceptance
Decide what you should be

“In Conclusion” – Kory Clarke

Jon Epstein is a sociologist, musician, artist and writer living in Winston Salem, NC. Epstein has published widely on subjects related to music and popular culture. He, along with Sam Smith and Tim Lynch founded Rocklist, the first online community of academics and writers dedicated to the serious discussion of rock culture.

To the lost: a photographic tribute to Andrew Ashcroft and the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew

by Sarah Allegra

It was last Tuesday, July 2nd, that I found out about the tragic deaths of the 19 firefighters in Arizona a few days earlier. At the same time, I discovered my childhood friend, Andrew Ashcroft, was one of those lost. It took a while to sink in. Andrew, who I had played with for years, was gone.

Not only Andrew, but 18 others of Arizona’s finest firefighters were lost. They were called the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew; they’re essentially the Navy Seals of the fire world. They were trained to go into the deadliest, most dire situations and kick the fire’s ass. They went in to make a fuel break for the devastating forest fire when the wind changed and trapped them. There was no escape.

My heart breaks for Andrew’s widow, left to raise their four children, the oldest of whom is merely six, by herself. It breaks for Andrew’s mother Deborah, who has to bury one of her children. It breaks for the 18 others families in the same situation.

Andrew with his family

Andrew was only 29. He had been named the 2011 Rookie of the Year in the Hotshot crew. He’d had to really work to get into the crew. That was what he wanted to do. He chose to be the best, bravest, most worthy of men. I am in awe.

It’s important for me to state that it had been a long time since I’d seen Andrew… I was probably 13 or so. But he and his brother TJ were a big part of my childhood. Our moms were friends and would frequently trade babysitting, so for years my brother and I saw and played with the Ashcroft boys several times a week. My brother was the oldest of us, TJ was next, then me and Andrew was the youngest, even though only four years separated us all. It was just enough of an age difference that the older two boys would want to go off and do Secret Older Boy Things together (mostly involving GI Joes, as I recall) so Andrew and I were often our own group… which sometimes involved merely of sulking about being left out of Secret Boy Things. But we made our own fun.

I can't find a photo of th four of us together, but here's a photo of myself (in front), TJ and my brother in some strange church play.

I can’t find a photo of the four of us together, but here’s a photo of myself (in front), TJ and my brother in some strange church play.

One of the clearest memories I have of the four of us is arguing heatedly over who got to be which character when we would play Batman. My brother, the oldest, was naturally Batman. When he and I played it at home, I was Robin, and I felt that was my part. But TJ’s slight age difference made a good argument in the logic of children for him assuming the role of Robin. The debate was settled when we found out about Batgirl, who I would obviously play, leaving Robin to TJ. But poor Andrew was always stuck being Alfred or some random henchman; he never got to play a really good character. I had laughingly told this story to my husband Geoff quite a while ago, not realizing the irony that was to come.

Andrew grew up to be a real, living, actual hero. He lived his heroism more than any person I know of. He went out doing what he loved, with the men he loved, and if he ever felt fear, he never let it stop him. I am so sad his family has lost him. I am sad that the world has lost such an amazing person. And I am sad that I never got to know Andrew at this age, that we lost touch, and I only discovered what an incredible person he was second hand. The world is 19 wonderful souls poorer.

As I cried into Geoff’s chest the day I heard the news, one of the first things he asked was how I was going to work through my feelings photographically. This is just one of the many reasons I love him, because I was already mentally hard at work trying out different concepts. As I was working through my grief and trying to put my feelings into a visual form, I was also talking a lot with Katie, who had recently experienced a similar kind of loss. It was a great comfort to have her and other people in my life familiar with grief to talk to. Katie and I already had a shoot planned in a few days, so I told her to just expect that we would shoot something to honor Andrew and the other firefighters.

This was another shoot done on a non-budget. It took just a few big, yellow smoke bombs and the fresh flowers. Also, HUGE thanks to Geoff for being my human shutter release!

Usually I edit things in order of them being shot, as that seems fairest, but this got bumped way up in line. I really wanted it to be released today, the day of the big memorial service in Prescott. You’ll see that Katie is playing the role of the rescuer, pulling me to safety, but not far from the danger herself. The smoke wrapping around my body and throat actually happened exactly like that, straight out of camera, and seems to want to pull me back and not let go. Katie is carrying 19 large orange, yellow and red flowers, symbolizing the fallen heroes, and I like that there are smaller yellow flowers connected to the stocks; they seem to symbolize the fireman’s family.

When I searched for a title for this photo, I immediately remembered what Jimmy in Boardwalk Empire says before each drink instead of the standard “cheers” or “bottom’s up;” he says “to the lost.” For Jimmy it was about his lost comrades during the war, but it seemed to fit here perfectly. This is also the only time I’ve ever done a square crop on a photo. For the most part I stick very strictly to my 2×3 ratio. This photo just called for something else, so I went with it. There are some detail shots of the photo below.

I hope Andrew’s family heals as quickly as it can, along with the rest of the families. There is nothing I can say or do that can make it better for them. How I wish there was. All I can do is try to honor the fallen heroes, with my words, my photos, and my many, many tears.

Andrew was a badass… but the very best kind, who hasn’t lost his softer side. He was a true hero, like Prince Lir. We didn’t know that Andrew was the biggest hero of us all.

He should have been Batman.

To The Lost

To The Lost

To The Lost - detail

To The Lost – detail

To The Lost - detail

To The Lost – detail

To The Lost - detail

To The Lost – detail

To The Lost - detail

To The Lost – detail

CATEGORY: Photojournalism

Scenes from a Tokyo skid row clinic

by Dan Ryan

This is a condensed, reworked excerpt from my recent Amazon Kindle photo essay book “Ningenkusai: A Tokyo Panic Stories Mini-book.” I prepared it for exclusive publication by the Japan Subculture Research Center. But, happily, it was then picked up and republished by Zero Hedge. You can buy a copy of the full book at Amazon.

¥———¥———¥

You’ve probably never heard of Sanya. The Tokyo City Government doesn’t acknowledge its existence, and you won’t find it on any official maps. Sanya is more or less Tokyo’s skid row, where people, mostly men, end up when the other parts of this immense, gleaming city have stopped offering comfort and opportunity.

Sanya is where the Japanese outcasts, food animal butchers, leather tanners, and other professions considered “unclean” by Japan’s traditionally Buddhist ruling class, a.k.a. the burakumin, or dowa, plied their trades for centuries. These tradesmen may mostly be gone, and the smell of the blood they spilled long-since drifted away, but the stigma of what Sanya once was remains, and it clings to the many of the people who live and work here.

Pic 1

Sanya is a blue-collar place, where an aging population of day laborers lingers on the fringe of Tokyo society. Many laborers have drinking problems, and they’ve ended up in Sanya to hide their abuses from their families. Sights like this fellow are pretty common, except in rainy weather.

Pic 2

And even then Sanya has a shōtengai dotted with little bars and liquor stores.

Pic 3

For many men in Sanya, government welfare assistance is available but is a problematic thing. Applying for it requires identity verification by contacting an applicant’s family. Most Sanya men who have fallen on hard times and taken to excessive drinking don’t want this. They would rather their families not know where they are or how they live. Revealing this would mean bringing unbearable shame upon their loved ones.

So when you’re down in Sanya and public assistance isn’t an option for some reason, what do you do? You go private, to a small outfit like Sanyūkai NPO, a non-religious non-profit organization. The Sanyūkai NPO and the free medical clinic within it is run by a couple of foreign missionaries who have been doing charity work in Sanya since the early ‘80s.

Pic 4

Deacon Jean LeBeau, the director of Sanyūkai NPO, is a French-Canadian Catholic with the Quebec Foreign Mission Society. Deacon Jean has been in Japan for 41 years, including 28 years in Sanya. He’s a humble, affable man, who would rather speak Japanese than either English or his native French.

Pic 5

Sister Rita Burdzy, head nurse of Sanyūkai clinic, is an American from St. Louis, Missouri who came to Japan in 1981. She is a nun with the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic of Ossining, New York, a Roman Catholic order whose members devote their lives to service overseas in specialties such as medicine and agriculture. Sister Rita holds a Japanese nursing license and is the nurse in charge of most of the activities at the clinic.

Pic 6

It’s a small facility, with only two beds in the examination room. Hundreds of ailing men have passed through this place since it opened in 1984. And somehow it manages to keep doing the job.

Pic 7

In addition to Sister Rita, medical services are supplied by a volunteer roster of over 30 medical doctors and registered nurses. Doctor Kanade Hagiwara, an urologist at a general hospital in Tokyo, is one of those volunteers. She treats patients at the clinic on the fourth Saturday of each month. The NPO is not a religious organization, and therefore does not insist that either volunteers or clients adhere to any one faith, or have any religious faith at all.

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Within the clinic, the one concession to spiritual matters is this hand-made banner and the shrine beside it, which is dedicated to recently-departed clients and patients of the clinic.

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Since Sanya does not officially exist, Sanyūkai clinic has an address in Kiyokawa, in Taito-ku ward, on a small street that could easily pass for an alleyway. Outside the clinic, unless it is raining or bitterly cold, men in need of clinic services sit on benches and wait, often with Sister Rita and Deacon Jean (whose back is shown) somewhere nearby.

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But the men who gather outside Sanyūkai clinic tend to make it more of a social venue than the dreary medical waiting-room scene you might expect. They’re a diverse group, even though most are older day laborers who get less and less work as they age. The men in the middle and the right fall into that category. The guy on the left is a transplant from nearby Asakusa, whose reasons for ending up in Sanya are not entirely clear.

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But this man, who died of a brain hemorrhage in June 2012, used to own a bar next to the clinic.

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While this fellow is a professional cook who does not always get daily work.

If the men who frequent the Sanyūkai clinic share one thing, it is a quality Sister Rita calls “ningenkusai” (人間くさい), which she says “is a quality of being very human, of smelling comfortably human. Of being full of human traits.” She adds that this is the best English translation she could offer for a concept that she says is uniquely Japanese.

With obvious fondness, Sister Rita goes on to say that despite their backgrounds and personal secrets “these men have a purity of heart and are very charming. There is no guile in these men.” She sums things up by saying when men come to the clinic off of Sanya’s streets and ask for help “no questions are asked. We’re a family.”

And you can feel the truth of it when she says it.

So, there’s no crime story here, and no breaking scandal. It is surprising, and shameful, that a city like Tokyo has had a problem like this for so long. But at least the phenomenon of homeless and chronically drunk and unemployed street men isn’t being ignored. Good people are on the case. People like Sister Rita and Deacon Jean.

Reporting and photography for this story was done in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012.

Incomplete Transsexual

The incomplete transsexual: a small tale from the Seoul Bar

by Dan Ryan

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It was a little like the scenario in that Kinks song “Lola,” but only in passing. I met her in a little place called Seoul Bar, which is in a rundown section of northeast Tokyo called Sanya. At first I thought her was a him, and she sounded like a man but…

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The lipstick should have given me a clue, but it was confusing initially, even more so because his, sorry, her English was pretty rusty, and my Japanese was horrible. She took an interest in me because I was American. When she was still fully he, he used to work for Americans in the ‘60s. Or the ‘70s, but doing what I never completely figured out. But we managed fitfully to communicate, and after a few minutes I thought he was a pretty interesting woman.

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She’d had the money at some unspecified point in the past to start the process of becoming her true self, to transition from male to female. Her family, which might have included a wife and kids, never understood nor approved of what she needed to be. They disowned her many years ago.

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However, it was obvious she was accepted in Seoul Bar, but also treated a bit like an oddity. When another bar patron took a schoolboy jab at her breasts, it bothered me. It was playful, but far from respectful. But it was nearly 13:00, in a bar in a crummy part of town, and everyone was drinking. So maybe my standards were unrealistically high. Hell, she even wanted me to take a feel of her tits. She was proud of them. I declined.

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She was also proud of her hands, justifiably I thought, but seemed frustrated by lingering facial hair. My guess is whatever hormones she used to take had worn off some time ago. She also said she still had the male parts she’d been born with.

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I left the Seoul Bar when the karaoke was about to start and went out to the shōtengai to take more pictures. After about five minutes,  I noticed my ladyfriend walking in the same direction I was. She had bar-snack crumbs on her face, and in the outdoor light I could really see how worn- and shabby-looking she was. Yet as she waved her hands around at my camera, her manicured nails were still noticeable, as were her few female bumps and curves. She looked more like a woman standing up outside than she had hunched next to me in a chair in the dark little bar we’d been in.

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She and I walked together for a few minutes. She didn’t mind me taking pictures of her. In fact, she carried herself with a little bit of the vanity some women seem to naturally have, whether their looks entitle them to such vanity or not. But the fact that this woman, this shabby, incomplete woman, carried herself in this a way instantly earned a small measure of my respect. It took, for lack of a better term, balls.
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We came to a stop when she spotted a man she knew, a friend I suppose, a guy I had photographed previously. He was pretty goddamned drunk. But she wanted to go talk to him.
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Like I said, she was proud of her breasts and not shy about playing with them in public. I didn’t ask her to do this. I don’t know enough Japanese to get that far. But she posed for me a few times out there in the street, and this is where her hands always ended up. You’ve got to roll with these things in some parts of Tokyo street life.

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Then she walked over to talk to her friend. It was a short conversation. The guy in the gutter made a slow lunge for my ladyfriend’s crotch. Her response, as I barely understood it, was to offer to show the man that he would have gotten a handful of male goodies if she had let his fingers reach their target. This was a little bit too much for me, the idea that this incomplete woman was prepared to whip out her male equipment in the street.

So I walked away. But you know, I never even got her name.

(Pictures taken on the shōtengai in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012)