Is Trump right about “fake news”?

Yes and no. Let’s look at the cases of CNN, the New York Times and the Denver Post.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” – Warren Buffett

President Donald is big on labeling things “fake news.” While his definition of the term amounts to “reporting that disagrees with me or calls me out on my many lies,” the truth is that, for reasons Donald wouldn’t be able to grasp, America actually does have a serious news credibility issue. “Fake news” isn’t new, and it does represent a toxic blight at the core of our republic.

I, for one, am hellishly unforgiving when news agencies lie to me, and it happens more than it should. Continue reading

Cry Baby Cry…darkness in the nursery

“Cry Baby Cry” is exactly what we would expect a nursery rhyme to be: a charming sing-a-long with a dark message at its core.

“…I think I got them from an advert – ‘Cry baby cry, make your mother buy’. I’ve been playing it over on the piano. I’ve let it go now. It’ll come back if I really want it. I do get up from the piano as if I have been in a trance.” – John Lennon speaking to Hunter Davies

John said that a commercial gave him the idea for “Cry Baby Cry.”

John, White Album period (image courtesy Eyeglasses Warehouse)

That may be true. We know, however, from both In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works that Lennon was attracted to both fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm and nonsense verse like that of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. What “Cry Baby Cry”  gives us is John playing with the conventions of the nursery rhyme.

All of these forms – the fairy tale, nonsense verse, and nursery rhyme – come from the need ordinary people have to comment on political, social, and psychological issues peculiar to the cultural contexts in which they were written. Fairy tales were ways for children to learn about life’s dark and sad events such as kidnapping, murder, and deadly accidents; nonsense verse allowed writers to explore complex – and often taboo – subjects such as sexual deviance and mental illness; nursery rhymes most often provided common people with clever ways to comment on political issues (such as  the tempestuous rule of Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Mary in”Mary Quite Contrary). Continue reading

Random thoughts about record albums – part 1: Dylan’s LP idea…

…and how the invention of vinyl changed music forever.

“I agonized about making a record, but I wouldn’t have wanted to make singles, 45’s – the kind of songs they played on the radio. Folksingers, jazz artists, and classical musicians made LP’s, long-playing records with heaps of songs in the grooves – they forged identities and tipped the scales, gave more of the big picture. LP’s were like the force of gravity.” – Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. One

Bob Dylan (image courtesy Mojo Magazine)

I’m about 50 pages into Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1. The quote above leapt out at me last night as I was reading. It seems a prescient comment from our latest literature Nobelist, given that he was one of those about to usher in the record album as art form.

Dylan’s preoccupation with making LP’s rather than singles (we still use the term album, though the operative word for a single is “track” these days) seems, on the face of it, in line with his preoccupations: he didn’t see himself as, nor did he want to be, a “hit maker.” That would have been selling out to commercial forces (stop me if you’ve heard that one before) that, as a budding artist (stop me if you’ve heard that one before), Dylan disdained. It might cost him that “force of gravity” he desired.

Serious music fans know that “force of gravity” as authenticity. According to Dylan, authenticity lay in the album format.  Continue reading

In My Life: Lennon remembers…

There’s something Shakespearean about Lennon’s meditation on life and meaning.

“I think ‘In My Life’ was the first song that I wrote that was really, consciously about my life, and it was sparked by a remark a journalist and writer in England made after In His Own Write came out. I think ‘In My Life’ was after In His Own Write… But he said to me, ‘Why don’t you put some of the way you write in the book, as it were, in the songs? Or why don’t you put something about your childhood into the songs?’ Which came out later as ‘Penny Lane’ from Paul – although it was actually me who lived in Penny Lane – and Strawberry Fields.”  – John Lennon

Outtake for the Rubber Soul album cover (image courtesy “Yer Doin’ Great”

The marvelous Beatles Bible offers four John Lennon quotes about the composition of “In My Life.” Lennon considered it one of his most important songs for several reasons. It was the first song, he says, written about his life – the result, Lennon told multiple interviewers, of a comment by British journalist Kenneth Allsopp concerning Lennon’s first book, In His Own Write.

Another concern Lennon has was his ability to write melodies – something that his writing partner, Paul, was and is particularly adept at. “In My Life” is predominantly John’s melody (though he says Paul wrote the middle eight). Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Carole, Joni, and Carly: sometimes it’s hard to be a woman…

“A young woman in the spring and summer of 1967 was walking toward a door just as that door was springing open. A stage was set for her adulthood that was so accommodatingly extreme—so whimsical, sensual, and urgent—that behavior that in any other era would carry a penalty for the daring was shielded and encouraged.” – Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us

Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sheila Weller’s triple-decker biography (and I use this word advisedly) Girls Like Us gives readers a look inside the lives of three of the singer-songwriter era’s biggest stars: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. Weller’s book is well-researched and the reader learns a great deal about each of these major figures. What becomes a question for the astute reader as he/she progresses through the book is whether what is being learned is always useful or meaningful.

This is not to say that Weller’s book isn’t compelling reading, especially for music buffs, fans of any of these particular music legends, or Boomers nostalgic for the era in which King, Mitchell, and Simon did their finest work. It is.

What may not work for some readers is the focus of Weller’s biographical studies. That may be because the work of these three songwriters are feminine (and feminist) concerns. One certainly cannot argue that three writers known for highly personal and confessional songwriting are treated unfairly by the author’s looking at their artistic careers through the lens of their personal lives. What might be giving me (and may perhaps give other readers) pause is the level of detail that Weller goes into in exploring King’s, Mitchell’s, and Simon’s private lives. Continue reading

Varner outs Zeke: the outrage is reaffirming

A gay man’s assault on a transgender fellow player was stunning. The response by the tribe, the host, the audience, and most importantly the target, gives a little hope to those of us losing faith in our fellow humans.

On last night’s episode of Survivor, Jeff Varner, who was fighting for his life in the game, turned to fellow contestant Zeke Smith during tribal council and asked him, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?” It was like someone had dropped a bomb on the place. Ten seconds of staggered silence gave way to a deluge of outrage against Varner, with members of the tribe shouting over each other in a moment unlike anything in Survivor history. It was a beatdown of unprecedented proportions and it was richly deserved. A Google search for [zeke smith jeff varner] is currently returning ~82,000 results – stories, tweets, videos, you name it, so feel free to sample for yourself the public response.

Continue reading

Imperial Stormtroopers are precise in exactly which galaxy far, far away?

Image credit: Knowyourmeme.com

If you have ever watched the original Star Trek TV series, you know that anyone on an away team wearing a red shirt was doomed to die. Except Scotty – Scotty is invincible.

And if you’ve seen the original three Star Wars movies (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi), you’ll know that Stormtroopers can not hit anything. Combine these two foibles and you get the SF fanboy/girl joke at right.

Which brings me to my point. Continue reading

Love Me Do – the first one…

“Love Me Do” was their first song, but it was far from perfect…

“‘Love Me Do’ is Paul’s song. He wrote it when he was a teenager. Let me think. I might have helped on the middle eight, but I couldn’t swear to it. I do know he had the song around, in Hamburg, even, way, way before we were songwriters.” – John Lennon

“‘Love Me Do’ was completely co-written. It might have been my original idea but some of them really were 50-50s, and I think that one was. It was just Lennon and McCartney sitting down without either of us having a particularly original idea.” – Paul McCartney

John, Paul, George, and Ringo (image courtesy Wikimedia)

We know now (at least those of us who are American) that it was their first.

Most of us learned about it in that tidal wave of spring 1964 when it seemed that the Beatles released a new record every week. Many of them were fantastic – “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “She Loves You,” “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “Twist and Shout,” “There’s a Place,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” It seemed like an endless stream of great song after great song, the releases of new singles coming sometimes only a week apart thanks to the Beatles’ tangled history of American deals.

So it was Tollie, a Vee-Jay subsidiary, that released “Love Me Do” in the US in April 1964.   Continue reading

A Hard Day’s Night…in search of the lost chord

One chord can change your life.

The Fabs tormenting the posh gent in A Hard Day’s Night (image courtesy Neatorama)

“There was no reason for Michael to be sad that morning, (the little wretch); everyone liked him, (the scab). He’d had a hard day’s night that day, for Michael was a Cocky Watchtower.” – John Lennon, In His Own Write (published March 1964)

“I was going home in the car and Dick Lester suggested the title Hard Day’s Night from something Ringo’d said. I had used it in In His Own Write but it was an off-the-cuff remark by Ringo. You know, one of those malapropisms. A Ringoism, where he said it not to be funny, just said it.” – John Lennon (1980 interview)

“”Well, there was something Ringo said the other day’… He said after a concert, ‘Phew, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ John and I went, ‘What? What did you just say?’ He said, ‘I’m bloody knackered, man, it’s been a hard day’s night.’ ‘Hard day’s night! Fucking brilliant! How does he think of ’em? Woehayy!’ So that came up in this brain-storming session, something Ringo said, ‘It was a hard day’s night.'” – Paul McCartney (1997 interview)

They began filming the movie A Hard Day’s Night only ten days after returning from their frenetic, triumphant first visit to America. Continue reading

Ghost in the Shell: a 2-minute review

The 2017 remake of the manga classic is marvelous to behold, but not especially filling emotionally.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

Went to see Ghost in the Shell the other day. In IMAX. IMAX 3-D, to be precise. Initial impressions:

1) It’s just fucking gorgeous. The designers have studied the classics, from Blade Runner on down, and they create a world that does justice to the genre. This flick ought to win all the technical Oscars.

2) The story itself works well. Continue reading

The Mature Society, pt 3: what would a better America look like?

Part 3 in a series.

by Dr. Michael Tracey

The problems of education, religion, critical thinking, a commitment to the truth, and holding ourselves to a higher standard: creating the mature society won’t be simple.

There is, then, a different question, driven by another thought which is that there is a certain sense of responsibility for the critic – if one is not to be nihilistic or utterly despondent – to suggest if not a way out then at least a sense of what something “better” might actually look like. In particular, here, to ask the question of just what a mature society might look like: what would be the texture of its culture, its mood, its ambition, its practices, its relationships, its preferences, its allegiances? What would it look like as a moral and ethical entity? What would there be about it that the dispassionate mind could admire?

A useful definition of mature would include: Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Positively 4th Street: positively Shakespearean…

Bob Dylan will pick up his Nobel Prize shortly while on tour in Sweden. Joan Baez was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Whether they ever got over each other is a question that may never be answered.

“I think women rule the world and that no man has ever done anything that a woman either hasn’t allowed him to do or encouraged him to do.” – Bob Dylan

“Instead of getting hard ourselves and trying to compete, women should try and give their best qualities to men – bring them softness, teach them how to cry.” – Joan Baez

Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu (image courtesy Goodreads)

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan have had a long and complicated relationship.

There have been a number of books written about that relationship (including memoirs by both Dylan and Baez themselves) which try to get at what drew them together and what drove them apart. To save you any apprehension, the upshot is that nobody, not even Dylan and Baez, will ever understand. That doesn’t mean that writers and scholars won’t try to understand, of course.

One of the most interesting attempts to explore the Baez/Dylan axis of complexity is David Hajdu’s fascinating Positively 4th Street. Hajdu doesn’t get any further than any other scholar or writer (or Dylan or Baez) with explaining the complexities of the Dylan/Baez relationship, but his book is fascinating because he takes an unusual tack in his exploration. In a plot device that is positively Shakespearean, Hajdu uses the microcosm of the relationship between Joan Baez’s sister Mimi and Richard Fariña to parallel the macrocosm of Bob Dylan/Joan Baez.

Continue reading

The Mature Society, pt 1: 1984 vs Brave New World

Part 1 in a series.

by Dr. Michael Tracey

We live in a moment of hyper-consumerism, uber-war and insidious surveillance by a vast security apparatus. But what might it look like if Orwell and Huxley were both wrong.

“The age of maturity that past authors were hoping would come seems not to be the destiny of humankind… Humanity is condemned to seek truth rather than possess it… This would be the vocation of our species: to pick up the task of enlightenment with each new day, knowing that it is interminable.”- Tzvetan Todorov, “In Defence of the Enlightenment.”

In The Empire Strikes Back, young Luke Skywalker asks his Jedi master, Yoda, whether the dark side is stronger than the good? “No,” Yoda replies, “easier, quicker, more seductive.”

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh…” Philip Larkin, The Trees

This essay is, in the first instance, impelled by a deep sense of disappointment at the immense gulf between the grand promise of this country, the United States, and its objective contemporary condition, the sense one has looking out across the landscape with squinted eyes that there is, as Milton writes in Paradise Lost, “Demoniac frenzy, moping melancholy, / And moon-struck madness.” Continue reading

Good Day Sunshine…ah, spring, when one’s fancy turns to…

Songs like “Good Day Sunshine” indicate that the wit and whimsy that originally endeared the Beatles to millions would not disappear.

“It was really very much a nod to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Daydream,’ the same traditional, almost trad-jazz feel. That was our favourite record of theirs. ‘Good Day Sunshine’ was me trying to write something similar to ‘Daydream.’ John and I wrote it together at Kenwood, but it was basically mine, and he helped me with it.” – Paul McCartney (as told to Barry Miles)

John and Paul (image courtesy People magazine)

Ah, spring, sweet spring. The sun shines, trees and flowers begin to blossom. It feels great to go outside. It also feels like weather for, as John Sebastian urges us in the song Paul refers to above, “blowin’ the day to take a walk in the sun.

Great Britain is not a sunny place. The warm waters of the Atlantic coming north from Africa mingle with the cool air of Great Britain’s northerly latitude and produce the fog for which the island is justly famous as well as clouds and rain. Lots of rain. John even wrote a song about it. Sunshine, as you’d guess in such a climate, is prized.

The summer of 1966, when the Fabs were working on the songs for what has been called at times their greatest album, Revolver, was exceptional for being sunny and hot.

Paul found that inspiration. As he did The Lovin’ Spoonful song. Continue reading

A few words about Pete Shotton…

It wasn’t easy being John Lennon’s friend, and Yoko didn’t make things any easier.

“If anyone was doing the hanging on, it was John. He hung on to me, always had done. He always made me feel special, made it clear he was desperate for my company, especially when he was depressed and fed up, which he was for many years. He used to say to me: ’I don’t want to be a Beatle any more, stuck in a bag marked Beatle. I want to open the bag and let the Beatles out. I want to be myself.’” – Pete Shotton (as told to Hunter Davies)

John Lennon and Pete Shotton (image courtesy Beatles-Freak’s Reviews)

As anyone who’s ever tried it will tell you, it’s hard to be a friend. However close or long term a friendship, there are always moments when a friendship is tested by actions or circumstances that make or break the friendship. In many, if not most, cases friendships fail these tests. Those few that survive (one hesitates to use the word pass, as friendships are acts of endurance rather than one-off events like tests) can reach a level of intimacy and trust that provide the persons involved with comfort on the long, hard road of life.

But how does one stay that kind of friend when that friend becomes one of the most famous people in the world? Pete Shotton knew. He was John Lennon’s closest friend (outside the other Beatles) from the time they met at age six until Lennon’s death – 34 years.

As you have likely guessed, John was not an easy friend. Continue reading

Chuck Berry and the Beatles: standing on the shoulders of a giant and all that…

According to one source, the Beatles covered at least 15 Chuck Berry songs.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon

Chuck Berry (image courtesy Rolling Stone)

I had planned to write an essay this week about George Harrison’s brilliant synthesis of rock and Indian music, “Within You, Without You.” That plan changed suddenly with the sad news of Chuck Berry’s death.

Check that.

What made me change my mind was the Chuck Berry obituary/tribute posted at Rolling Stone. In an essay of several hundred words, the Rolling Stone writer gave a long list of bands who covered Berry songs and who were influenced by him. While the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys got plenty of mention (and rightfully so), the Beatles weren’t mentioned at all. That is an oversight, to paraphrase (possibly) Churchill, up with which I cannot put.

See the above John Lennon quote. We can go from there. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Dancing about architecture: trying to read Paul Morley’s Words and Music…

I could offer several excuses for why I quit Words and Music, a book I had high hopes for (Morley is one of the great experts on contemporary pop), but the simple truth is I hated it.

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” – attributed variously, most likely by Martin Mull

Martin Mull (image courtesy Wikimedia)

As I have explained previously, my 2017 reading list is devoted to reading books about music. I have covered only three books so far, Larry Kane’s latest Beatles’ book When They Were Boys, the Billie Holiday memoir Lady Sings the Blues and Peter Guralnick’s excellent study of roots music, Lost Highway. (I’ve also written a number of essays about Beatles’ songs and a book review or two.)

I’m currently about 100 pages into a very good book on Bob Dylan, Joan and Mimi Baez, and Richard Farina, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street. I turned to this book after spending several days trying to read another book, a book I looked forward to reading, as I noted in this description from my reading list essay:

Paul Morley, Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City – Morley is one of rock’s most trenchant critics and in this book he speculates about whether pop is at the end of its lifespan. Any book that calls for opinions from both Madonna and Wittgenstein is must reading.

I read about 40 pages of Morley’s book before putting it aside and taking up the Dylan/Baez book. I could offer several excuses for why I quit Words and Music, a book I had high hopes for (Morley is one of the great experts on contemporary pop), but the simple truth is I hated it. Continue reading

No Reply: the Beatles write a breakup song…

The scream at the end – “no reply!” – is one of the bleakest moments in the breakup song genre.

Beatles ’65 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

“It was my version of “Silhouettes”: I had that image of walking down the street and seeing her silhouetted in the window and not answering the phone, although I never called a girl on the phone in my life. Because phones weren’t part of the English child’s life.” – John Lennon on “No Reply”

This was going to be another essay.

I had planned to write about what I am convinced is the greatest single ever released – “Strawberry Fields Forever” b/w “Penny Lane.”  But that was going nowhere (though I can see what I want to say, I can’t quite seem to say it yet, which betrays a lot about my love of the Fabs) so I turn to another favorite, the opening song on both the British release Beatles for Sale or, if you were an 8th grade nerd like me, Beatles ’65.

“No Reply” opens both albums. This is one of those rare times that the British album and its American counterpart agree. That makes me very happy. Let’s leave it at that. Continue reading

David Bowie and Paul McCartney: boats against the current…

Successful artists feel constant commercial pressure to repeat their sales success – a pressure that can make any artist choose a safe route.

…so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

David Bowie and Paul McCartney (image courtesy Pinterest)

I watched a couple of documentaries (thank you Open Culture) this week featuring rock stars from the classic era, one about a living musician, the other about one who has, alas, shuffled off this mortal coil. What I found most interesting about each of these films is the reminder that it is very difficult for any successful artist, especially for a David Bowie or Paul McCartney, who have enjoyed success at the highest level of their art, to move forward. In a popular art form such as rock music has been, part of the problem is commerce; one who is successful and whose art is embraced by a wide public sells much “plastic ware,” as Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman wrote. They feel constant commercial pressure to repeat their sales success – a pressure that can make any artist choose a safe route.

Another, perhaps even greater part of the problem, especially for an artist like Bowie or McCartney, comes from those whose admiration (and money) made them acclaimed, and wealthy: fans. Any artist like Bowie or McCartney with a long career arc (given that the average length of a popular musical star’s career is 18 months, the nearly 50 year career of Bowie and the 50+ year career of McCartney are by any measure remarkable) is bound to have to deal with one of the strongest desires of fans as they, like their heroes, age – nostalgia for past works which form, after all, the soundtracks of their lives. Continue reading

Rolling Stones

I Wanna Be Your Man…Beatles or Stones?

If what Lennon says is true, “I Wanna Be You Man” has a special place in rock history.

“It was a throwaway. The only two versions of the song were Ringo and the Rolling Stones. That shows how much importance we put on it: We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?” – John Lennon

Ringo during his Jean Paul Belmondo look period (image courtesy Pinterest)

Ringo sporting his Jean Paul Belmondo look (image courtesy Pinterest)

The composers of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney, thought so little of the “Ringo song” on the British release With the Beatles (the American release came on Meet the Beatles) that they “gave” the song to the Rolling Stones who released it as their second single.

Neither John nor Paul thought much of the song, though it’s a nifty Beat music rave-up. Paul’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” from the same period, is a song of the same sort – much more familiar to (and popular with) the casual Beatles fan, but “I Wanna Be Your Man” has its own charm. As a tune it hearkens to the early days and is reminiscent of the Beatles’ Cavern shows in its rowdiness and “cellar full of noise” jocular machismo. Continue reading