Nick Cave is Getting Old

Q.  This is semi-random but did you see the Elvis movie?  [The hit movie “Elvis,” directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Austin Butler as Elvis Presley.  from this year?]

A.  Yeah. I was confused by it. Elvis is my hero. There was an aspect to the story of his later years that is almost religious to me.  NY Times

First of all, a journalist should not be telling Nick Cave that the movie is “a hit”.  What is your point?  That it was popular and successful?   [Well, pardon me– but, as if to prove me right, he didn’t say “hit movie”: the NY Times website attached a note to the article that my copy somehow picked up.]

I take it Cave was confused because Luhrmann, striving for some kind of credibility, I suppose, ended up allowing some ambiguity in the film as to just how “heroic” Presley was.  He clearly refused to stand up to his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who made so many bad decisions for him, and Elvis’ greatest success came in Las Vegas– a cesspool of kitsch– but he is worshipped by the credulous American public who can’t believe that someone that rich (he wasn’t, really– Parker took most of the money) isn’t also virtuous and deserving.

Firstly, I know someone reading this will, sooner or later, leap up and shout “but he had a great voice”.  Yes he did.  So does Celine Dion and Michael Bublé and a hundred other irrelevant “artists” who merely produce pleasant-sounding confections.

Is there anything more bereft of artistic merit than a Michael Bublé song?

As another aside: the film could have done one brilliant thing to lift itself above the messy contrivance that it is:  it should have contrasted Elvis in Vegas– and his audience– to the nascent punk movement in London and New York, and their audiences, just to clue the audience in to just how far from “shocking” Elvis had become and how much he had become, instead, an establishment icon.

It means very little to me, who would rather hear Bob Dylan sing one verse of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or  “Tambourine Man” or Leonard Cohen croak his way through  “Famous Blue Raincoat” or Tom Waits wail “Cold, Cold Ground” than an entire concert of Elvis.

There is a reason Elvis impersonators are so popular.  What Elvis produced is easily imitated. It’s all surfaces and gloss.  It’s that warble in his voice, the breath, the thirsty lips.  It’s audio scenery.

I won’t hide my crushing disappointment at hearing Nick Cave admit he admired perhaps the most corrupt and conformist rock-pop artist in history.  Elvis was always only ever about getting rich.  Okay– yes, he was a white artist doing black music in the 1950’s.  What did that mean to him?  That he was progressive or activist or even liberal?  He “shocked” the establishment.   Into what?  Hurling their panties onto the stage in Las Vegas?

And gosh, yes indeed, he was very attractive to girls– because, one suspects– he was a girl.  He was definitely a mama’s boy who couldn’t bear to have sex with his wife after she had become pregnant.

He was also a credulous believer in old time religion, producing several albums of the most banal, conventional gospel tunes imaginable (he made Tennessee Ernie Ford look positively conscious).   He used his money to build himself a playground at Graceland and surrounded himself with men who were willing to act like kids and horse around and eat too much and keep real people away.  He begged a fat old Dutch hustler with the cultural palette of Gumby to please, please take 50% of all of my earnings because I am too dumb and too weak to  get myself a lawyer– without your permission– and challenge you on any point on any issue including those monumentally stupid movies you signed me up for.  This was no “shock” to the establishment: it was a slobbering wet kiss to everything the white patriarchal society represented at the time.

Elvis joined the army.

Seriously– Elvis never, in his 20’s, a powerful (in terms of potential earnings power) celebrity, never challenged Parker’s control of his career, of his social life, of his engagements, his politics, his clothes?  Just how gutless exactly was the man?  Regard the Beatles, who exploded into four solo-careers, fired their manager, hired and fired lawyers and accountants, started a company, bankrupted the company, promoted new artists, demonstrated for peace, and so on, and so on, all while Elvis was sitting on a toilet in Las Vegas.  (It has to be noted here that the Beatles, too, admired Elvis, and the Beach Boys.  But they were more influenced by Bob Dylan.)

That’s not merely weird.  It’s nauseating.

Nick Cave says:

The final Las Vegas concerts were the Passion of crucifixion and redemption and resurrection.

Nick Cave– do you even know what Las Vegas is?  Have you ever been to Vegas?  Have you toured the hotels, the strip malls, the casinos?  What is there about this place that doesn’t strike you as hell?

There is a man who’s suffering on such an epic level to be onstage and to perform and to live.

No, there is a man who didn’t have the backbone to make any decisions for himself for his entire life.  You admire him for it?!!

I have always found Elvis repellent for the same reason Cave says he admired him: he played Vegas.

Growing up in the 60’s, my generation had the courage (for better and worse) to begin to think independently of the established pro-war, pro-growth, anti-sex, anti-drugs culture and strike out boldly with new values and ideas and lifestyles.  Sure, a lot of it went off the rails, and a lot of it did not endure.  But think of the environmental movement, the feminist movement, civil rights, and the antiwar attitudes that do still prevail.  Elvis had nothing to do with any of it.  It was a conscious decision, made for Elvis by the “Colonel”, to never, ever have an intelligent opinion about any of these raging issues during the entire decade.

What was Elvis doing, during the time of “Ohio”, “The Times They are a ‘Changing”, “For What It’s Worth”, “Eve of Destruction”, Woodstock, Kent State, Viet Nam, Love Canal, etc., etc., etc.?

A medley, arranged by the great songwriter Mickey Newbury, of “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials” that Presley frequently used as a centerpiece of his later concerts.

(Another note from the NY Times referring to a segment of the documentary, “This is Elvis”. )

Suffering?  Elvis wanted the worship, the attention, the money, the corrupting lifestyle, the entourage, the limousines, the bullshit.  It is what he lived for.

That changed my life as an artist. It was the most stirring thing that I’ve ever seen musically. There was something that was happening at those shows that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Well, that part is right.  You watched a generation of obese, self-satisfied, smug, contemptible Las Vegas consumers wet their panties over a  vacuous washed-up celebrity icon.  This wasn’t a crucifixion, and it certainly wasn’t redemption (Elvis had long ago lost the younger generation: he was now appealing to the teenagers of the 1950’s, who were now middle-aged and settled into their suburban homes) and Elvis wasn’t courageous or innovative or inventive or noteworthy in any artistic sense at all, aside from the fact that he was a white man performing black music.  All that blather that you read about his “come-back” is from a bunch of hacks being overwhelmed by Elvis’s popularity and coercing themselves into sucking up to the myth.

What, really, at this point in his career, was the difference between Elvis and a mediocrity like Engelbert Humperdinck?  Not much.  Elvis was louder.

We are told that Elvis died on the toilet.  Elvis lived on the toilet, on the Las Vegas of culture, literally: trashy spectacle and banal confections.


The only thing that could be more disappointing than Nick Cave’s admiration of Elvis would be Eric Clapton finding Jesus and becoming an anti-vaxxer or Van Morrison comparing Covid restrictions to slavery.

And yeah, Eric Clapton found Jesus and is now a pro-Trump anti-vaxxer and Clapton and Van Morrison compare Covid restrictions to negro slavery.

Has Clapton changed?

In 1976, Clapton said this, publicly:

Onstage, Clapton told his audience that it was important to “keep England White” and that “the Black wogs and coons and Arabs and f—ing Jamaicans don’t belong here.”

You might say, and I might say, that an incident that happened 45 years ago should be forgotten.  I would strongly agree, if it was an “incident”, like groping a groupie, or stealing your best friend’s wife (yes, he did).  But it wasn’t: it was Clapton inadvertently forgetting to hide his opinions from the public.  Clapton, who made a career playing the blues, a style created by black musicians, has never played a role in any protest or civil rights movements.  He has been conspicuously silent on those issues.   He choice to not publicly support those movements is, in fact, a statement in itself.

When he appeared in photos with Greg Abbott in Texas, one can’t doubt that that too was Clapton lettings his opinions slip into the public stream.

Now he complains that his old friends don’t call.


I was curious.

Articles on the web defending Elvis seem to think there is a constituency out there that thinks Elvis is racist.  I never thought that.  I don’t know of anyone who does.  Then I realized— that’s the strawman.  Prove that Elvis wasn’t racist and you have therefore salvaged his reputation from allegations of triviality and irrelevance– the kind of stuff I am asserting here.  So there are numerous articles on line showing that Elvis had many black musician friends and none of them thought he had any racist attitudes.  He grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, a mixed race community.  I’m fine with that.

However, I thought it was interesting that so many sites felt the need to make that defense.  In any case, I was curious: did Elvis agree to play for segregated audiences?  The Beatles refused.  Did Elvis refuse?

The rider for the September 11 concert “explicitly cited the band’s refusal to perform in a segregated facility,” writes Kenneth Womack at Salon. When concert promoters pushed back, John Lennon flatly stated in a press conference, “We never play to segregated audiences, and we aren’t going to start now. I’d sooner lose our appearance money.”  From Here.

It’s easy to find references online of the Beatles refusing to play segregated audiences.  The Rolling Stones are known to have recorded songs by obscure black artists as b-sides to their hit singles, to give them some income.

Regarding Presley’s first hit, “That’s All right Mama”:

Arthur Crudup was credited as the composer on the label of Presley’s single, but despite legal battles into the 1970s, reportedly never received royalties. An out-of-court settlement was supposed to pay Crudup an estimated $60,000 in back royalties, but never materialized.[15][16] Crudup had used lines in his song that had been present in earlier blues recordings, including Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1926 song “That Black Snake Moan”.[16]  (Wiki)

It is hard to believe that there would not be a record of it– as of the Beatles– if he ever had.  There is a clear record about one thing: Elvis virtually never stood up to Tom Parker (can we all please STOP calling him “Colonel”: he was never a Colonel anywhere)  and challenged any of his decisions, and Tom Parker obviously didn’t give a fuck about civil rights.

There is a video— by “fans”, of course– that claims that Elvis performed a beautiful, powerful song (“If I can Dream”) about truth and beauty and justice and brotherhood at the end of his 1968 NBC TV special.   But the song is anodyne at best, banal, and unspecific, and safely generic.  Not a single line that even approaches “battle lines being drawn” or “tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming” or even (of course) “Imagine there’s no country”.

People love Elvis.  I never have.  The people who love Elvis will twist themselves into a pretzel to find some way to rationalize that love, to find virtue in the man that is commensurate with their esteem.   That esteem is a reflection of ourselves, our good taste, our own virtue, but not of the reality of fat , sweaty Elvis leaning in and kissing the women taking a break from the slot machines in the front rows of the International Hotel ballroom.

Pretty Good Discussion of the Racism

Facebook is TV With One Channel

“Facebook’s standards for suggested content in Feed:
Our goal is to make recommendations that are relevant to each person who sees them. Through our Recommendations Guidelines, we work to avoid making recommendations that could be low-quality, objectionable, or particularly sensitive.”  Facebook

This is a lie. My news feed is a constant stream of “low-quality, objectionable” items.

Facebook gives you the option. they claim, of stopping that feed; then they cleverly feed you even more “low-quality, objectionable” items under a different source name, and then another different name, and another. Like “Elvis – Team Berlin” (??!!). Or “Idiocracy News Media”. Or “The Singing Contractors”. Or “Newsmax” (the one that should be named “idiocracy”). Or whatever. Facebook claims these items are not paid for– that too is a lie (they are paid for by advertising $ dependent on levels of “engagement”.)

Facebook offers very little control. It essentially operates like a TV with one channel.

The Coming Convergence and the Blessings of Being a 10-year-old Mom

I am surprised by the views expressed by “pro-life” individuals in this survey and interviews in the New York Times.

What is striking is how flexible these individuals are about when abortion should be legal and when not.  Years ago, Right to Live declared that the minute a sperm fertilizes an egg, you have a human life that is entitled to the full protection of the law, even in cases of rape or incest.   They still declare that, but real people– real Republicans– don’t believe it.  They seem to be open to the idea that there should be “reasonable” limits– even up to 12 weeks.  And they believe that abortions should be allowed in cases of rape.

They are also under the mistaken belief that a mother’s life is more at risk of death or serious injury in an abortion than she is in child birth.  That is flatly not true.  Stunningly, even the pro-choice panel the New York Times convened for the same purpose believed it.  That messaging from Right to Life has taken hold.

How stupid are the Republicans?  Well, I bet Mitch McConnell understands that the Republicans need to embrace a “safety-valve” on the issue: tolerate some flexibility and some exceptions so they can say they haven’t banned all abortions.  But other hot-heads in the party seem determined to take a hard line, even when it comes to that 10-year-old girl (perhaps, one commentator asserted, she doesn’t appreciate the blessings of being a mother).

What remains to be determined is just how much of a factor this might be in the coming mid-term elections.  Probably, the economy will matter more, even when the perception that the economy is in a mess is wrong.  Inflation is a problem, but employment, consumer spending and confidence, hiring, and productivity are all favorable.  Nobody cares: they want to believe that Biden is a feeble old man who is out of his depth, so they insist that the economy is a disaster.

The Death of Stalin

You thought “Succession” was hilarious?  The story of minor-league talents battling it out to take over the family business from a toxic patriarch?

“The Death of Stalin” is a terrific movie about the end of the life of quite possibly the worst dictator the world has ever known.  It is reported to be one of Barack Obama’s favorite films.  It was banned in Russia, which, of course, is hilarious.  It was also criticized by some for historical inaccuracies, which, of course, is also rather absurd: it is a comedy.  The comedy lies in the kind of chaos created when an authoritarian, melomaniac, paranoid leader dies without leaving a clear line of succession.

It drives me insane to read, in IMDB, an explanation of why they made the “strange” decision to have the actors speak in plain English, instead with an amusing Russian accent!  The assumption is that they should have had them speak with Russian accents, which is actually a really, really strange idea.  But these are Russians talking to each other in Russia.   Do viewers think that Russians or Germans or French people speak to each other with funny accents?

If you say, that’s what people expect, it is only because they have been trained to expect that moronic approach, the way they have been trained to believe that bullets arrive at their target simultaneously with the sound of the gun being fired: they have been trained by early Westerns which chose not to allow audiences to learn the truth.

The best solution is for them to speak in their real, native tongue, with subtitles, but having them speak fluent English is a good option, and far, far, better than the stupid accent idea.

Stalin

Estimates vary, as they will, but Stalin was probably singularly responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

Key players:

Lavrently Beria

  • Became head of the NKVD in November 1938.
  • Proposed and master-minded the Katyn Massacre in March 1940.
  • just before Stalin’s funeral, he had the army units in Moscow replaced with his own NKVD units and cancelled all the trains coming to Moscow.

Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor)

  • Closely associated with Vladimir Lenin.
  • Ran Soviet Missile Program during World War II.
  • Discredited Georgy Zhukov to curry favor with Stalin who was jealous.
  • Briefly succeeded Stalin as Premiere and “first among equals” (March 5, 1953)
  • Eventually sidelined by Nikita Khrushchev.  Attempted a palace coup against Khrushchev in 1957 and expelled from the Presidium and exiled to Kazakhstan.

Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin)

  • Negotiated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany in 1941.
  • Part of the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death to plot things out.
  • his wife, Polina, had been arrested by Beria, with Molotov’s passive consent.  Three days after Stalin’s death, Beria did indeed release Polina to Molotov, presumably to cultivate support in the ongoing power struggle at the Politburo.

Nicolai Bulganin

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Lazar Kaganovich

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Anastas Mikoyan

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Nikita Khrushchev

  • Brought back from Ukraine to Moscow in 1949
  • Regarded by British Diplomats as mouthy and misinformed and inarticulate.  They were far more impressed b y Malenkov, though the movie portrays him as a bit of a dunce.

Vasily Stalin

  • Stalin’s son
  • Called to his father’s side after his cerebral hemorrhage, he was drunk and angry, shouting at the doctors

Svetlana Stalin

  • Stalin’s daughter.  Reported that her father’s death was “difficult and terrible”.
  • Beria had been very friendly with her as a little girl, like an Uncle

Maria Yudina.

  • famous pianist who played piano at reception at Stalin’s lying in state
  • 9 years before his death (unlike in the movie which places the event the very night of) she had played the concert shown in the movie, and had been roused out of bed to repeat the concert for a recording
  • Wrote a note to Stalin which she placed in the record sleeve saying:  “I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country.”  She was not arrested.  She died in 1970.

Georgy Zhukov (died June 1974)

  • got along well with Eisenhower; tried to supply food to Berlin after war
  • however, did nothing to stop the brutal rapes and pillaging by Russian soldiers
  • unlike everyone else around Stalin, he refused to kowtow; openly dismissive of Stalin, and openly contradicted him at times
  • did loot Berlin; was caught and made an abject apology
  • Brilliant Soviet military general who guided the stand-off in Stalingrad.
  • his arrest of Beria did occur, but 3 months after the funeral (June 1953), and Beria did get a trial and was executed in December 1953.
  • supported Khrushchev’s bid for power, but, by 1957 lost favor and was forced to retire
  • never returned to a position of influence after that
  • some historians believe he exaggerated his role in WW II.

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Watch Me Risk My Life

I am ambivalent about films and stories about men and women who unnecessarily risk their lives, on mountains, in cars, under water– for…  well, that’s the question.  For what?

Almost no documentary or book about these individuals would dare suggest that these people are selfish, self-centred individuals interested primarily in self-promotion and ego gratification.   (I make an exception for “Into Thin Air”, the amazing book by Jon Krakauer which considers the issue at some length.)  Think about why that’s so.  Why doesn’t “The Last Mountain”, for example, seriously consider the issue?

Could that be because the viewer, who adores these stories, would feel implicated?  I get pleasure by watching other people put themselves in grave peril at the expense, sometimes, of their lives?  Could it be because the writers (often the daredevils themselves) or film-makers (ditto) really want you to believe they are doing something important and admirable?  Think of how often they claim there is some higher purpose to their activities: to learn more about sharks, to extend human endurance and achievement, to fulfill personal goals?

A Very High Spiritual State

Everyone… razzamataz and look at me: I was doing something that was intended to take you into a very high spiritual state.  La Monte Young

And that “something” was smashing a piano with an axe.  Among other things.

La Monte Young is an American avant-garde composer, a minimalist, whose work has “called into question” the very nature of music.  Which also what any accidental sounds do.  Always.

You know immediately that you are not cool if you do not recognize that smashing a piano with an axe, as an act of musical performance, is the most incredibly brilliant thing you have ever seen.   You are now in a very high spiritual state.

What is so brilliant about it is that you invite rational people to ridicule what you are doing, which makes it cool for hipsters to announce that they understand it.  They get it.  They are cool, hip, youthful, still fuckable.  Not like those un-cool nerds.

But you– you are a dinosaur.  A fossil.  You probably still listen to AM radio.

A Rashomon Moment on Highway 401: The Trucker Convoy

In the Japanese movie “Rashomon”, by the incomparable Akira Kurosawa, a magistrate convenes a hearing to determine who was responsible for the death of a man in a remote area of a nearby forest. Each of three protagonists, the man’s wife, a common thief, and the man himself (through a medium) confesses to the murder(!) Why? Because it is preferable to them to confess to a heinous crime than to admit to a dishonorable act that each committed during the incident. In the end, a witness comes forward who saw the incident and relates the truth to the court; only one of them is the real murderer, but all three of them are shown to have behaved shamefully.

“Rashomon” was made in 1950 and is often cited as the reason the film academy added “Foreign” to its Oscar categories. I saw it when I was very young and it shook me, and still influences my perception of why people act the way they do. (Another film I saw around the same time, “Monsieur Verdoux” by Chaplin– had a similarly powerful impact on me.)  Nowadays we sometimes say people are “invested” in a particular narrative. In fact, some people are dying of Covid 19 because of their investment in an anti-vaccine ideology.  To the end, most of them refuse to concede that they were fundamentally, ridiculously wrong about Covid.  They can’t stand the idea of admitting they were idiots.

Science isn’t perfect but it’s a hell of a lot more reliable than some website that caters to a political constituency and rages about conspiracies and media bias. And yes, the “mainstream media” is actually another way to describe accountable, institutional journalism that isn’t perfect but has a pretty good track record of uncovering facts and evidence. Most news organizations presented with the claim that vaccines cause illnesses will diligently seek evidence: scientific studies, personal accounts, opinions of qualified, experts. Something like the extinction or near extinction of certain diseases, like measles and polio– which is not hard to verify– is pretty compelling evidence.

Have I wandered?  No.  There is a powerful connection between the truth revealed by “Rashomon” (and “Monsieur Verdoux”) and truth about the pro-Trump right-wing anti-vaccine rabble that is destroying America.  This is about shame.  This is about people who have long despised the “educated elites” who promote equality and feminism and the fight against global warming and the truth about American history (that it is a history of racism and genocide) and want to tax gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and take away your guns because they have contempt for those things, and not because it is good social policy.

These people have felt a sense of shame at the condescension liberals hold for them and this is their chance to say “fuck you” to the members of the “establishment” who make them feel stupid and vulgar.

And they would go very, very far to avoid admitting that they really are stupid and vulgar.

Pre-School

According to a study in Tennessee, children from poor backgrounds offered a pre-school program (for 4-year olds) did worse in several important categories by Grade 6.

This is not supposed to be true.  It is counter to other studies which generally showed that children do better — they graduate high school and have fewer disciplinary issues– if they have an extra year of school at about age 4.  For as long as I can remember, that has been the accepted wisdom on pre-school.  But this study flatly contradicts those assumptions.

If it survives further analysis and assessment, it will have to be taken into account regardless of the politics of government-funding for pre-school.

The Kabuki Theatre of Putin and the Ukraine

[I am publishing this because I was wrong.  I want to acknowledge it, because that’s the only way we learn to be better and more astute in judging these issues.  I really thought Putin would not go this far, but it is clear he is a madman–madder than we thought–who is dangerous to all of Europe.]

Still leaning towards the idea that all this blather about Ukraine is just so much self-perpetuating frenzy: everyone is reporting it so it must be true. And who is supplying all the networks with the lustrous video of tanks and missiles and armored personnel carriers racing around? The Russians of course.

Gwynne Dyer thinks Putin has no intention of invading and he’s right more often than most pundits. Every TV newscast starts out with “INCREASING tension today… ” but tension can’t increase every day without reaching 100% at which point it’s either the same or it decreases. North Korea had it’s time; then Iran. Now it’s Putin.

Strikingly, nobody ever mentions the size of the Ukrainian army, which is actually the largest in Europe at 250,000.

If you hypothesize that this is all just theatre and watch the news in that context, nothing seems jarringly out of place. The White House wants to look tough and determined; Putin wants to look like he’s big and powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with Biden (he’s not: Russia is really not that big or powerful), the media thrives on a perpetual state of crisis.

It’s like Republicans and the crime the rate: it’s always going up. It’s now at 26,000 percent.