Monday, May 20, 2013

The Swimming Pool Qs

Anything characterized by high energy, originality, humor and intelligence is bound to get my attention. I was at an annual fund-raising party for an alternative art center called Nexus in about 1986. Touring the studios I kept being distracted from the visual art by some very interesting Rock 'n Roll. I wasn't the only one. A large segment of the crowd was gathered around the Swimming Pool Qs in the courtyard. Once in their vicinity I was there for as long as they would play.

In any field of endeavor certain efforts stand out and the Qs were (are) definitely one helluva group. I've taken every opportunity to be in their musical presence since - most recently at the Inman Park Festival where the audience was dampened and thinned by rain. Sound-wise the instruments were turned up so high the vocal mics couldn't compete without feedback so the singing was way buried. Since I could hardly hear the vocals I focused more on the players, a rewarding experience, if a little hard on the ears. But missing the singing is no small loss. The venue is partially responsible, the stage being on the short side of a narrow tent. That arrangement gives everyone a ringside seat but the sound people failed to take control and the volume drove a few people off.

Unfortunately for the Qs they did not quite, though they came very close, manage to catch the fickle tide of megabuck pop success. They were the opening act for a Lou Reed tour which helped sales on the first album with A & M Records. The second got little promotion and so low sales. Their “failure” has blessed me however with the opportunity to see/hear them in some very intimate venues. I use the term blessed because that experience has always been a near religious one.

The band formed in 1978, with frontman Jeff Calder writing the songs, mostly, and singing many in his gravelly inflection; Bob Elsey playing a siren-song guitar, and the woman with the great name, Anne Richmond Boston, singing like an angel. Drummer Bill Burton was settled in when I first saw them and the original drummer was now playing bass when I last saw them. They'd been through a few bass players, J.E. Garnett coming and going but the core of Jeff, Anne, Bill and Bob remained (remains)... except for Anne who left the group for 16(!) years. This after their two albums with A & M failed the public whimsy and record company promotion test. But as I said, their misfortune was this writer's listening profit. My priority has been to make the art of my choice and, since I'm even less successful than the Qs at dipping into that money stream, my strategy has been to live frugally so as to have the time to do so. That means concerts by those who have caught that tide are not in my budget.

At the Inman Park Festival the Qs were promoting the re-release of the two albums they did for A & M, 1984-86, the self-titled Swimming Pool Qs and Blue Tomorrow. The package I got is a generous and tastefully assembled box including three CDs and a DVD of performances during those years along with an essay by music critic Geoffrey Himes. Photos of the youthful group capture some of their whimsical Dada, one shot depicting them surrounded by Shetland Ponies.

The bonus CD is titled Pow Wow Hour, Rarities 1982-1986. This includes some of the only love songs I've heard the Qs do. But they're far too ironic to do these without tongue-in-cheek. The DVD film, Kickstarter, is credited to drummer Bill Burton. Some of the footage seems to be on the west coast, beach scenes, I suppose shot near L.A. as they flirted with the fame machine out there.

The record company must have failed to fully promote the group because, as the DVD richly shows, the Qs had all the star ingredients – young, attractive, imaginative and skilled performers, intellgent song-writing, great costumes – didn't seem to be any stinting there, some of those outfits had to be costly. Anne's performance of The Bells Ring is just magical on the DVD. Her voice is unique, sonorous, and expressive. Jeff is no slouch in the singing department but he was (is) very fortunate to have Anne's voice to write to. Apparently she started out as back-up singer but it couldn't have been too long before the group noticed her talent went way beyond and put her up front with Jeff. Calder's witticisms, both between and in the songs themselves, and in banter with Anne, reveal an intelligence that characterizes lyrics, stage presence and musicianship (and their progressive politics). It is a real pleasure to watch any of the performers at any time as they all seem to be constantly giving 100%. They draw from an experience and talent that makes it all seem so easy. And still fun after all these years. The drumming is intense. Bob's guitar playing is typical Qs' standard, casually standing there, complete confidence, but with a half smile as if he's as surprised as you are at what's coming off those strings. And maybe he is. Jeff pounds away at his blue-green electric also, occasionally dashing off a lead lick himself but mostly providing rhythm and vocals reminiscent of, I don't know, Jagger? Steve Earl?.. but mostly Jeff Calder. The Qs are playing Smith's Olde Bar, in Atlanta, June 15 if you want to catch'em.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Drifting Toward the Waterfall

Does it drive me careening ca-razy when I see O'reilly, Beck, Hannity etc; with books on the bestseller list? That would be a yes! These (mostly) white (mostly) guys capitalize on their positions in the media to sell books. Their TV and radio shows propagate a point of view that just happens to support an economic system that the billionaire owners of the media, their ultimate bosses, approve of. Their books send the same message, keeping their followers dumbed down and focused on side issues that distract from an examination of the system that so enriches said bosses and impoverishes increasing numbers. So, when a media personality with a different agenda publishes a book it's like, what's going on? Well MSNBC, for whatever reason, has opened things up quite a lot these past few years and Rachel Maddow is one of the more delightful consequences. It's not like she's pitch perfect but compared to the neanderthals otherwise dominating the mainstream media she is truly a breath of unpolluted air.

Maddow's book, Drift, has a dedication page which reads, “To former vice-president Dick Cheney, oh, please let me interview you.” He knows better than to square off with Rachel, preferring softball questions from the other bestsellers, the ones that drive me mad! Rush Limbo etc; It's not that i'm against diversity, nope, i'm for it and they don't provide it. They stand in their highly visible media spotlights and, in opposition to the obvious facts, ridiculously complain that the media, their platform, is biased to the liberal left. Meanwhile thoughtful critics, supposedly dominating the media, are rarely invited into the discussion, to such an extent that when a carefully filtered appearance is occasionally allowed their point of view is so unfamiliar that it appears radical, out there, fringe. This arrangement shields privilege from examination. Thus the puzzling case of MSNBC. Maybe it has to do with the market, so saturated with “wingnuts”, as Rachel calls them, that the ratings war leaves little choice for the losers but to seek another segment of the “demographic”. Capitalism works in mysterious ways.

But, the book: Drift is subtitled, The Unmooring of American Military Power. Maddow laments the drifting away from the early concerns of folks like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton for keeping the military small to avoid it becoming an anti-democratic self-perpetuating force. And keeping the power to go to war out of the hands of one person, investing it instead in the congress, making it difficult to go to war. Rachel sketches out how this limitation, as seen from the executive office, has been gotten around, until eventually the congress has simply handed it over to the “one person”, reducing the hurtles and hoops that one person has to navigate such that going to war is just one of the perks of office, sort of the ultimate guy video game. Of the women who potentially have a shot at that office, like Maggie Thatcher before them, there is a filtering that guarantees the proper level of testosterone so as not to threaten unmanly changes in the agenda.

General Abrams, Army Chief of Staff during the drawdown in Vietnam, reorganized the military to reduce the chances of frivolous war, arranging so that a call-up of the reserves would be a necessity to go to war. The thinking was that citizen soldiers called up would affect everyone, bringing the war home to the average citizen who would not support lightly undertaken ventures. Desire to end the Vietnam quagmire was so strong in 1973 that congress overrode a Nixon veto of the War Powers Act, that required (or re-required) congressional approval of any military venture over 60 days. Shortly after the bill's passage congress, tired of the expense in lives and treasure of the Vietnam invasion (for that is what it was) marched down to the White House, then occupied by Ford, informing him that no funds were available for further fighting. Funding for withdrawal was all he was going to get. This tardy re-assertion of congressional responsibility came a bit late for the 50,000 U.S. troops and millions of Vietnamese killed, demonstrating just how bad things have to get before our representative will represent us. Of course the people they usually represent, their campaign contributors, were also war weary so maybe the apparent shift was still business as usual.

Obviously, as Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, these measures proved inadequate. Maddow devotes ink to the Reagan phase of the unmooring, as she puts it in her subtitle, of U.S. military power. Not an especially sparkling metaphor. Out of control yeah, but unmoored? The Gipper was not the first U.S. president guilty of terrorism but the first to be convicted by the world court for it - for which the court ordered the U.S. to pay billions in reparations to Nigaragua. Our free press showed its usual servitude to power by not reporting the judgement in 1985 so few citizens actually know about this little incident. The U.S. predictably missed its first and all subsequent payments, all while railing against Soviet and Cuban terrorism.

Reagan, Maddow informs us, made propaganda films for the army during WWII. but later exercised his flexibility with facts by claiming combat experience. This penchant for ah, lying, manifested itself during Reagan's presidential campaigns and time in office, something his loyal supporters either willfully deny or don't care about. He harped on about how the U.S. was militarily second to the Soviets (not true), how Panama was a sovereign part of the U.S. (even John Wayne criticized him for that one) and Nicaragua was a major threat in our own “back yard”... something John Kerry, who should know better, has lately taken to using to justify ugly Central American polices. The analogy of neighbors would work but, back yard? When does our neighbor's property become our back yard? Legally and ethically, simply proclaiming it does not make it so. But of course it's a propaganda term to lead the na├»ve to support policy. That our leaders would use such methods casts grave doubts on whether we would support the policy if honestly presented. Even Carter, according to Rachel, emphasized military metaphors to pursue his agenda when proclaiming that the U.S. was at peace everywhere in the world might have struck a chord. The old tried and true always does for the risk-averse. Carter did actually make the reference to peace but his emphasis became military as he felt the thugs closing in on him as the disastrous election approached.

Once Reagan took possession of the White House he proposed the biggest peacetime military budget increase at the same time as announcing the biggest tax cut in U.S. history. For some strange reason (I'd venture a billionaire-owned press played at least a major role) Reagan's popularity was up around 70% which made congress very leery of opposing him. His tax cut was transparent sleight-of-hand. The first phase was a 10% cut, heavily covered by the press. Not so heavily covered was a 10% increase in social security tax, which of course neutralized the cut for those making less than $100,000, leaving the real cut to those above $100,000. Do I have to say it? If you're in the top brackets 10% amounts to alotta jing-wa.

Drift goes on to document how this same mentality governed in virtually all areas, leading to Keystone Cops shenanigans, very funny if they weren't so dangerous, involving nuclear weapons and other WMD. When a million people gathered in New York's Central Park to oppose nuclear proliferation the administration opined that Soviet agents had helped to organize it. Integral to what we might call the John Birch Society administration was a disregard for inconvenient facts that has not exactly evaporated with the passing of that regime.

Rachel gives accounts of the Iran/Contra scandal, the invasion of Granada, the first war with Iraq, the prime movers involved and their goulish return under Bush II., the service to international corporations called NAFTA, privatization especially as it involved the military. Clinton's Serbia/Bosnia adventure gets a little cloudy. It's sometimes hard to tell whether Rachel is criticizing, approving or merely reporting on this bewildering situation but she might have gotten a little clarity from Noam Chomsky's book, The New Military Humanism. A shift to the Afghan/Iraq debacles follows with drone coverage and little flirtations with just how far we can push nuclear-armed Pakistan around. And Rachel closes with a note about how when you buy a house you accept the expensive task of maintaining it or it quickly returns to the earth. With our major investment in the military we face a similar maintenance problem on a monumental scale. I suppose her use of “unmooring” in her subtitle is meant to convey this idea, that if we don't get control of the battleship, its drift is going to be expensive and catastrophic. Get my drift?