Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ford, Saddam, and Shakespeare

I'm always annoyed when I hear the media reflecting the empty cliche that death comes in threes. I think the first time I heard this was when Princess Di and Mother Theresa died within days of each other. If I were editing a major newspaper I would have published a story a month later with the headline: "No one significant dies; Numerology dealt a serious blow."

Alas, with the passages of Gerald Ford, James Brown, and Saddam Hussein this week some moron somewhere on the blogosphere is probably trotting out this tired cliche for analysis. Double alas, that moron is me. Only I'm going to remove James Brown from the equation and bring in Augusto Pinochet, who died on 12-10.

I think it's interesting that three notable heads of state who rose to power in the 1970s all met their demise in the same calendar month. It's also noteworthy to trace the similarities between the two non-U.S. leaders. Saddam will no doubt be remembered by future generations of Americans as an enemy. I predict that very few people will know that he was a de facto U.S. ally at one time (this probably isn't a hard prediction to make because I think very few people know this right now).

Pinochet shares with Saddam the distinction of being a murderous dictator who enjoyed U.S. support under the enemy's enemy principle. Such a principle served these dictators well for a time, but the problem with relying on historical exigency is that when the winds of exigency shift, you are hung out to dry. There may be some benefits to being a dictator, but the job has a lousy retirement package. (Pinochet and his family actually tried to fashion a golden parachute and ended up crashing).

The fates of these men call to mind Richard II's speech in the eponymous play by Shakespeare, in which the Bard manages to make the most privileged worthy of pathos:

...within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Gerald Ford had one thing in common with the dictators: he too owed his political fortune to exigency. And like so many dictators, his political misfortune was tied to historical factors well beyond his control. Yet, the difference between Ford and the dictators is that while Saddam and Pinochet had a series of adventures and misadventures spanning decades, the former president was allowed to escape the curse of kings that Richard II lamented. The last thirty years of Gerald Ford's life may not have been very Shakespearean, but I don't think he would have traded them for a Middle Eastern or South American nation.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Virtues of Megalomania

I've had a bit of a relaxed schedule this week, so I've taken some time to indulge myself and watch a few episodes of my favorite cartoon from my pre-school and early elementary school years: "The Superfriends." Among the surprises I've encountered upon a re-visit 20-some years later: 1) I didn't know that Casey Kasem voiced Robin 2) The musical score was pretty catchy 3) The villains were pretty good role models

Three of our culture's most celebrated qualities are perseverance, nonconformity, and good-humour. If someone never gives up, ignores naysayers, and learns to laugh at life, they have pretty well absorbed the stock oracular wisdom of Western society. Nobody embodies these qualities better than the Superfriends villains.

No matter how many times Lex Luthor is put behind bars or has his plans foiled, he comes back with a the full vengeance of a blissfully-ignorant megalomania. Amazingly, an episode I saw this week showed that the writers were self-conscious of this problem. Lois Lane goes to interview Lex in prison. Lex brags to her that he is intellectually superior to the Superfriends. Lois asks, quite reasonably, why he is in prison if he is so superior. Lex changes the subject and talks about how he will she will find out the truth soon enough. Despite this show's overall dis-interest in developing characterization, this was actually a pretty telling moment of characterization. The viewer is left with little doubt that Lex really does think he will succeed, past failures to the contrary. In contrast, the Superfriends are the one's often often expressing doubt ("I don't think I can break free"..."It looks like we are goners this time"). Kasem's Robin in particular seems to serve no purpose other than to give voice to a constant pessimism.

Of course, in the above episode, Lex does succeed in busting out of prison and immediately assumes his green and purple suit. Most people wouldn't wear such a garish outfit without much fear of mockery. Lex Luthor doesn't care if people make fun of him. He likes this color combination, and he's going to wear it, regardless of what anyone says or thinks. Compare this non-conformity with the clique that is the "Superfriends," in which the heroes are so eager to fit in that many of them wear capes out of peer pressure, even when such capes likely prove cumbersome in combat.

Upon assuming his freedom and donning the green and purple, Lex proceeds to laugh, over and over again. He usually laughs at his own cunning and ingenuity, which, when one examines this, is an odd thing to find funny. Yet rather than criticize him for laughing at something that has no inherent humour, I think the lesson that many kids can draw is that it is O.K. to be happy. Contrast the gleeful criminals with the Superfriends. The Superfriends only laugh when their pet monkey or dog does something funny. Otherwise, they are dour-faced. They often make puns, but more so for mockery of their opponents than for a genuine attempt at conviviality.

In fact, the more I think about it, Superfriends villains remind me of the Ayn Rand Objectivist hero--optimistic, self-assured, joyful, and nonconforming. The Superfriends themselves are the opposite. I wish I could draw some further conclusions from this, but I can't get the Superfriends theme song out of my head.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

World's Tallest Man Saves Dolphins

When I saw the above headline on my homepage, I was rather harried, but I was compelled to take the time to click on it and find out what bizarre scenario would involve a giant dude rescuing aquatic life. If you are similarly compelled, you can check out the story here.

I was a little disappointed to see that the world's tallest man was only 7-9, or barely taller than the likes of Manute Bol, Shawn Bradley, or Yao Ming. I expected the world's tallest man to be around eight feet, since that's how tall professional wrestler Giant Gonzalez was said to be (though he was actually a relatively diminutive 7-6).

But my disappointment is tempered by excitement. I have a renewed faith in the human race's ingenuity. Previously, I feared that we had become beholden to a crippling over-reliance on technology. The vets involved tried to use mechanical instruments to extract the plastic, but instead of giving up, they thought outside of the box. Somewhere in their brainstorming sessions, somebody had a lot of courage to say, "Why don't we just call the tallest dude in the world and have them reach in there and pull it out by hand?" I wonder if that person felt trepidation when proffering this solution. Would they laugh at him for such a seemingly comic book response to the problem? If so, it doesn't really matter because he got the last laugh.

This entire incident makes me wonder if other problems can be solved through more old-fashioned means. How do you solve Middle East hostilities? Call in the funniest man in the world to loosen everybody up. How do you fix the national deficit? Call in the world's best accountant. (Actually, now that I think of it, Alan Greenspan was given carte blanche for years under the theory that he was the world's best economist). How do you find Osama bin Laden? Bring in the dude with the best eyesight in the world to Pakistan and have him start looking. (I hear Roger Daltrey can see for miles, so he might be the best person for the job). How do you the gas crisis? Call in the most flatulent dude in the world to create methane. (This could double as a plot for a Farrelly Brothers film).

So while some naysayers lament the tough challenges humanity faces, I have unbridled optimism that we are entering a new golden era of problem solving. Utopia is just around the corner.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

There Was a Song That I Did Not Care For

The other day I heard a song on my XM that I first heard on an oldies station years ago. A lot has changed about my taste in music and my aesthetic sensibilities since then, but my reaction to this song has remained constant: utter disbelief. I can't believe that this song was ever written, much less recorded, much less released, much less became a top 10 hit in 1968. Paradoxically, though, I can't believe this song is not more prominent today as a novelty song.

The simply use of the word "groovy" today is enough to inspire either a cringe or a grin. A recursive chorus that claims "I think it's so groovy now/That people are finally getting together/I think it's wonderful and all/That people are finally getting together" is even more cringe/grin inspiring. But the first verse is unbelievable in its earnest, unironic, didacticism:

I knew a man that I did not care for
And then one day this man gave me a call
We sat and talked about things on our mind
And now this man he is a friend of mine

Wow. That verse defies commentary. The entire song, "Reach out in the Darkness" by Friend and Lover, can be heard here.

So how did such a song become a hit? I guess I have to offer an explanation. It certainly captures the 1968 zeitgeist, or at least an overly simplified version of the 1967 zeitgeist. 1967 was the "summer of love." The Beatles "All You Need is Love" was a huge hit that year and could be seen as a more sophisticated version of the same sentiment in "Reach Out in the Darkness." By 1968 the more artistically uninspired, perhaps commercially calculated, versions of "peace and love" songs would stand to enter a receptive, undiscerning public consciousness.

The song's easy scenario for reconciliation (all you have to do is talk about things on your mind) may have been tantalizing for a nation in the midst of Vietnam, assassinations, and riots. And, weirdly enough, the song might have been a hit because it appealed to nostalgia. With everything happening so fast in 1968, it could have hearkened back to the simpler time of...1967.

With the passage of time, though, this song's prominence has faded. Meanwhile, other songs from the era have stood in as shorthand for the naive "peace and love" ethos, namely "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" by the Fifth Dimension and "Get Together" by the Youngbloods. These songs are alternatively used to mock the hippie movement and to lament its passage. Why wouldn't "Reach Out in the Darkness" function just as well? Perhaps it is just a victim of timing. The former two songs were hits in 1969 and can claim a loose association with Woodstock. "Reach Out in the Darkness" boasts none of what I call "soundtrack credibility." There is not enough associative or evocative power in the song.

But all that can change with one movie. I guarantee that if any moderately successful movie features this song on its soundtrack, the song will re-enter public consciousness. It is the ultimate kitsch artifact, lying dormant and waiting to be re-discovered. If this song, rather than "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" were performed at the end of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," or sung by Jim Carey instead of "Somebody to Love" in "The Cable Guy," it would be back already.

Unfortunately, we can't count on "Friend and Lover" themselves to help with the process. According to Wikipedia, Cathy Conn is living in the mountains of New Mexico (as could probably have been predicted forty years ago). Jim Post, meanwhile, is doing Mark Twain re-enactments and putting out a music-phonics program to help kids learn how to read. Here is some information about the program:

There are 28 fun songs, rich in vocabulary and information-there's Mable the Milk Cow who starts the birth of the Moos and Luther the Cowboy who's too tough to brush his teeth, Delbert the Dinosaur who loves to dwaddle and dream, and Bugs who bring all their kin and just move in!!

I think it's so groovy when old hippies help kids learn how to read.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Plastic People of the Universe

Green Day is urging you to contact the president. They want to prevent Arctic oil drilling and they are promoting alternative energy sources. Who would have ever thought back in 1994 that this trio of (literal) punks would ever (literally) live up to their name?

Despite Green Day's activism, a lot of leftist political activists lament the lack of involvement that contemporary pop musicians have in pushing ideology. They long for a redux of the 60s when protest songs filled the charts.

I have even seen some criticism of Bob Dylan for not including any commentary about the Iraq War on his ironically named new album "Modern Times." Such criticism is hilarious in light of the fact that Dylan never even penned an overt protest against the Vietnam War. ("Masters of War" is often erroneously cited as one, but it came out before escalation in Vietnam and was likely about the Cuban Missile Crisis). I recently listened to a fascinating radio interview Dylan did on an alternative New York station in 1965. Dozens of people were able to call up and ask Dylan whatever they wanted. One caller pleaded with him to speak out against Vietnam. "People are dying," he literally whined. "People have always died in wars. Wars have been going on forever. There's nothing I can do about it," replied Dylan (I paraphrase from memory).

And Dylan was probably right. Popular music, not for lack of trying, didn't do anything about Vietnam in the 1960s. Popular music, not for lack of trying, really hasn't done much of anything to help society. Concerts have raised money and awareness, but how much of a cultural impact have they made? Willie Nelson said this year that he can't consider his Farm Aid concerts of the last 20 years a success, since there is still a need for them (incidentally, Dylan can be credited for the actual genesis of Farm Aid when he went off-script at Live Aid and said that some of the money being raised for starving third world people should go to American farmers).

But if musicians can be said to wield little influence, how much less can poets be regarded? Percy Shelley called them the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." He might have the first word right, but I'm not sure about anything after that. Much has been made this year about the fiftieth anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"...and by "much" I mean "not very much." Fifty years after bursting onto the poetry scene, a google search of Ginsberg's name yields a respectable 1.6 million hits...or about 29 million less than 25-year-old Paris Hilton garners.

Just imagine an alternative world where a poet and a rock band could spark the beginnings of a revolution. If it ever did happen, said poet and rock band would achieve worldwide notoriety, right?

Actually, no. If it did happen the poet would hardly ever be thought of in relation to the country he influenced and the rock band would have one video on youtube with less than 200 views. And I say this with absolute certainty because this is the actual recognition with which Allen Ginsberg and the Plastic People of the Universe enjoy for sparking a cultural revolution in Czechoslovakia in the 60s and into the 70s. Here is all you need to know to appreciate what should be appreciated:

Plastic People on Myspace
Plastic People on Wikipedia
Plastic People on Youtube

Why is the story of this heroic rock band not celebrated? Is it because the left is loathe to celebrate subversion of a leftist regime? Is it because of the relatively minor role of Czechoslovokia in world politics? Or is it for the same reason that Frank Zappa has sold fewer records than the Backstreet Boys? (what's wrong with a little atonal dissonace anyway?) A combination?

Whatever the case may be, here's a thought for Billy Joe and the boys in Green Day: how about adding a saxophone, violin, and string bass to the mix?