Category Archives: art

Schooltree: Heterotopia

When I heard that Lainey Schooltree was composing a rock opera, I could hear my own inner Boromir at the Council of Elrond. It was as though I had just heard the news that the One Ring was to be brought to Mordor. 

One does not simply write a prog rock opera, Lainey. The black gates of the music industry are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with Arianna Grande and DNCE and Beiber. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!

Never one to back down from an epic musical calling, that’s precisely what she set out to do. Fortunately for us, she succeeded and Heterotopia is the prog rock opera you’ve been waiting for.  A project four years in the making, Heterotopia is a sprawling 100-minute epic which earns a place alongside Tommy, The Wall, or any other comparable effort you can name. Yes, it’s that good. 

Heterotopia is a sort of metaphysical Hero’s Journey mixed with gothic fantasy. It’s a pomo Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings by way of Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a down and out singer named Suzi who is disillusioned with the music industry, but finds her reality shattered when she follows a 100-legged cat down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality called Otherspace. While in Otherspace, she discovers that she has detached from her physical form and may not be able to recover her corporeal self. Worse, Otherspace is slowly being overrun by an encroaching darkness which threatens to enter the physical world and Suzi finds herself faced with an existential choice.

As good as it is, Heterotopia walks a very interesting tightrope. It has a seemingly populist heart, but it’s counterpoised by an overall vibe of gothic gloom. It may be a difficult pill to swallow for those expecting the kind of ecstatic emotional peaks one might reasonably expect from a rock musical.  As a work of progressive rock, it’s an unmitigated triumph. Heterotopia is a cornucopia of musical riches for even the most rabid prog head. It has all of prog’s virtues and none of its vices. It has epic melodies, knotty riffs, angular rhythms, squiggly synth lines, dense harmonies, and plenty of odd metered nerdity. There’s also plenty of old fashioned arena sized, fist pumping rockage. None of it feels excessive, and all of it is ultimately subordinate to Schooltree’s impeccable instincts for songcraft.  It is short on any kind of extended improvisation, but when the guitar jam and synth freakout finally arrive, it’s some serious lighters-in-the-air shit. 

Schooltree’s prog bona fides are unimpeachable. She has clearly done her turntable homework. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an obvious musical and thematic touchstone, but Schooltree hacks the prog genome and produces a refreshing and satisfying mutation of her own. Heterotopia reaches for the towering heights of Yes, Genesis, Queen, Supertramp and even deeper recesses of the family tree like Klaatu and Gentle Giant. I’m even going to second Jon Davis at Exposé by saying that Heterotopia bears some similarities to early Saga. One also detects the unmistakable DNA signature of Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Jesus Christ Superstar coursing through its bloodstream. Musicals should be judged on the strength of the vocal storytelling, and Heterotopia doesn’t disappoint. Schooltree has an equal gift for the anthemic hook, the spectral vocal choir, and the spooky incantations of Dreaming-era Kate Bush. The songs are packed with hooks, but Schooltree always manages to subvert your expectations with a clever turn of phrase. The catchiness of the songs is offset by lyrics filled with ghosts, zombies, illusions, and pits of darkness. Schooltree is one of those artists who writes the most beautifully captivating melody or irresistible pop earworm, but when you listen to what she’s saying, the subject matter often belies the emotional tenor of the music.  

The drama of Heterotopia centers around Suzi’s quest to reclaim her corporeal self. In order to achieve this, she must confront the fallen queen of Otherspace, Enantiodromia. The mythological surface of the piece is merely a vehicle for some rather morbid existential ruminations over the nature of consciousness, death, and free will. By combining prog, epic fantasy, and abstract philosophy, Heterotopia has certainly sealed a trifecta of high concept artiness. There’s a Nietzsche reference or two to be found amidst the Foucauldian mindfuckery. The central theme seems to revolve around the line between reality versus illusion, and the extent to which the latter shapes the former. Prog has always been a platform for big ideas and epic narratives, and this conjunction of mythic storytelling and philosophical speculation places Heterotopia squarely within the canon of classic prog.  

All of which returns us to the unique position this work occupies.  Prog enjoyed a cultural moment back in the 70’s and, to a certain extent, the 80’s. Nowadays, progressive rock of this kind caters to a niche audience. The type of prog that Schooltree is offering will doubtless please the faithful, but whether this particular delivery system will move the meter beyond the prog laity remains to be seen. It’s a Hero’s Journey, but the metaphysics are pretty abstract and the tone is very dark. Beneath the patina of mythological fantasy, Suzi’s tale involves what appears to be a standard dramatic arc tracing her fall, redemption, and resurrection, but it remains strangely suspended in a state of perpetual discord. Even when it reaches its conclusion, it sounds triumphant and the music signals resolution, but you’re left with lingering questions. Suzi’s transformation is obviously meant to be a profound shift, but there’s something slightly underwhelming about it. This is where Heterotopia tilts towards postmodernism. Schooltree herself says that the central idea is that “reality is an illusion”, and this insight is supposedly what liberated Suzi to shape her reality. This is a fairly standard postmodern premise, and it’s an idea that has been explored pretty extensively in every corner of the artistic world for some time. 

However, none of these concerns detract from the heroic achievement of this record. There is a level of ambition and flat out artistic brilliance in this work that simply cannot be denied. If this sounds like your thing, buy it now

Harrison Bergeron


If you were to compile a list of works of speculative fiction whose predictions of the future were truly prescient, it would have to include Kurt Vonnegut’s short story masterpiece, Harrison BergeronI am hard pressed to think of any work which so perfectly captures the pathological mentality of the modern day social justice warrior so perfectly and traces out the ramifications of this mentality if it were made into public policy. Sadly, it’s a process which seems well underway.  
Vonnegut manages to build his dystopian world in one elegant paragraph: 

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

With this single paragraph, he places us in a nightmare future where the crusade for equality of outcomes has been pursued to its fullest conclusion. In this not-too-distant future, the US Constitution contains over 200 amendments, people have lost the distinction between positive and negative rights, and perverted its original intent beyond all recognition. The ideas of equality before the law, individual rights and equality of opportunity preserved by a Constitutionally limited State have been completely supplanted by an all-consuming obsession with equal results which can only be attained by destroying uniqueness, individualism and humanity itself. Equality is, of course, enforced by a government bureaucrat, United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. Anyone who possesses a quality, attribute or skill that might set him or her apart from everyone else must be handicapped in order to preserve equality of outcomes. The intelligent receive a mental implant which short circuits their ability to think. The attractive are forced to hide their beauty behind masks. The physically able are forced to carry sacks of lead balls padlocked to their bodies. Those with beautiful voices are given speech impediments. And so on. 

The action centers around George and Hazel Bergeron as they watch their son, Harrison, commit the highest act of sedition possible after escaping prison at age fourteen.  Harrison sheds his handicaps and dazzles the world by dancing a ballet on live television before the world. 

One need only to look at any of the social justice jihads being carried out on campuses and in the media to discover that Vonnegut was on to something.  The decades-long feminist outrage against “patriarchal beauty standards” has culminated in the so-called “body positivity” movement which not only destroys the one objective standard present in modeling, but seemingly seeks to reprogram manhood to be attracted to overweight women. The politics of grievance have reached an apex with the never-ending quest to name and shame anyone with “privilege”. Genetic and biological traits now supersede individual rights or merit and are sufficient grounds for legislative redress or special administrative dispensation by today’s social justice jihadists. Perhaps the most pernicious of all the social justice crusades is the pursuit of gender neutrality by those who insist that gender segregation in sports somehow reinforces “harmful” gender stereotypes.  And let’s not forget the deathless claim of a wage gap between men and women which is shamelessly flogged by the political and media establishment despite being debunked several times over. 

Meanwhile, different versions of the United States Handicapper General get created in college campuses and different levels of federal and local government throughout the country. 

What other outcome is possible from this mad pursuit of “equality” if not the anesthetized, institutionalized mediocrity and servitude portrayed in Harrison Bergeron?  As Paul Gottfried and many others have argued, this therapeutic agenda being administered by the democratic priesthood and their lackeys seeks nothing more than to debilitate the population and pave the path to socialist serfdom.  The only equality one can reasonably expect to uphold as an ideal is equality of opportunity. Once you seek equality of results, you destroy the foundation of liberty upon which any possibility for real achievement rests. Speculative fiction of this nature is meant to serve as a warning against the realities of the present. The signs of the nightmare world Vonnegut portrayed are everywhere. Here’s to everyone discovering their own inner Harrison. 

Straight Outta Compton

Stories of musical pop culture icons are being adapted for the screen with increasing frequency in recent years. Most fail in one way or another, but Straight Outta Compton is one that’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in the story of one of hip-hop’s most controversial and influential groups. SoC tells the story of the rise of seminal gangsta rap group NWA as well as the ascent of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as solo artists. Thematically, the film covers a lot of ground. It’s a story of music industry glory, but it’s another vivid reminder of the difficulty in maintaining integrity within the when the money starts rolling. More broadly, it confronts us with the challenges of urban black families faced with the prevalence of inner city crime and gang culture. SoC is also an important film for this political moment since free speech and police brutality are themes that are deeply embedded into the fabric of the story. 

The film opens with a drug deal between Eazy-E (aka Eric Wright) and some random gang bangers which escalates very quickly. Right away, the film is taking us into the Compton underworld of the mid-80’s. Everyone is packing heat, drug dealing is one of the few engines of economic mobility that’s easily attainable, every negotiation carries an implicit death threat, and “bitch” and “nigga” are freely deployed throughout normal conversation. It wasn’t called gangsta rap for nothing. The deal devolves into threats, but everyone scrambles for safety when the armored military-style battering ram vehicle rounds the corner, plows right through the front door and cops swarm the house. Welcome to Compton, bitches.

When we’re introduced to a young Dr. Dre (aka Andre Young), his Roy Ayers induced blissed out reverie is violently interrupted by his irate single mother. She castigates him for failing to attend a job interview while simultaneously reminding him how hard she worked to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Dre isn’t having a word of it, and packs his bags so he can pursue his music career free of persistent maternal nagging. The film is giving us a sense of the burden black single mothers carry imparting the importance of developing personal responsibility and meaningful job skills in the absence of strong, paternal role models.  

We meet a young Ice Cube (aka O’Shea Jackson) penning rhymes and staring out the school bus window. Middle-class white teenagers idle away to pop music in fancy cars and clothes while he awaits being shipped back to the dreary impoverishment of Compton. The bus ride home is interrupted by armed gangsters whose sole intention is to intimidate the kids who taunted them during the route. Once again, we’re reminded that gangsters were a common phenomenon in South Central LA, and the thug life offered a sense of purpose, belonging and upward mobility for young blacks who faced a seemingly hopeless existence short on positive parental figures or examples. 

Upon his arrival home, he is treated to the prodigious turntable skills of Dre who had recently taken up residence on his couch. With the knockout combination of Dre’s instincts for production and Cube’s pugilistic street poetry, the two friends set their sights on carving out a new sound in rap that reflected the gritty reality of life in Compton. The bonds of friendship which created a new hip-hop dynasty were sealed.  

One of the great strengths of the film is the absence of phony PC propriety and artificial attempts at racial correctness. The unvarnished portrait of urban black speech and gender relations all by itself is a glorious kick in the teeth to social justice warriors who are constantly bitching about “harmful representations in the media of Marginalized Group (fill in the blank)”. Admittedly, the portraits are not the most flattering towards this particular segment of the African-American population, but when contrasted with the modern Hollywood PC orthodoxy which mandates that blacks always be portrayed in a positive light, this film feels like it’s making an above average attempt at honesty instead of trying to pander to phony leftist piety. In an early scene where Dre and Cube are given a slot to perform at a popular nightclub, the owner sternly reminds the young MCs that he wants the people focused on “pussy, not pistols”.  They ignore his admonitions and perform the track to overwhelming enthusiasm.  The track contained many of the lyrical themes which became commonplace within the gangsta rap genre: gritty, profanity laced realism, unrepentant portraits of guns and criminal activity, and raunchy sex.  

In many ways, the film is the story of Eazy- E’s role in creating NWA’s success. Emboldened by the positive reception to their track, Dre and Cube convince Eazy-E to bankroll their first recorded effort. When the crew they hire unceremoniously quit, Dre persuades E to sing the lead vocal. Here, the film gives an interesting insight into Dre’s gift for producing as well as E’s unsteady flow at this early stage in their career.  The result of this effort was “Boyz In Da Hood” and this initial success laid the groundwork for NWA.  

A big theme in the film is the challenge of maintaining integrity, professionalism and independence in the music industry. Especially when the money, drugs and women are readily accessible and the behavior and habits they acquired in the streets of Compton informed their business interactions as adults. The two dubious business partnerships between Eazy-E, Jerry Heller, Suge Knight and Dre drove a lot of the interpersonal drama between the characters.  Heller discovers E when “Boyz In Da Hood” was climbing the charts and helped steer the Ruthless crew to global success, but the absence of transparency in the contracts eventually drives a wedge between the friends. It’s insinuated that Heller took advantage of NWA, but it’s not entirely clear that he was completely unscrupulous, either.  Not only does Heller exhibit courage and loyalty throughout NWA’s ascent, but he talks E down from exacting vengeance on Suge Knight after a business meeting turns violent.  Suge Knight, on the other hand, is portrayed as a sociopathic thug with few scruples, a hot temper and a propensity towards arbitrary violence.  Clearly, the relationship between him and Dre wasn’t completely fruitless since Dre’s career went stratospheric during the Death Row era, but it brought with it a great deal of dysfunction and more than a few hangers on.

The relationship towards law enforcement plays prominently throughout the film and gives it an urgency that speaks directly to currently escalating tensions between police and the black community.  The film portrays the incident which inspired “Fuck Tha Police”, and not only is it an example of the indignities to which inner city blacks are routinely subjected, it brings the vitriol of the song to life even more vividly.  While recording Straight Outta Compton in upscale Torrance, California, the members of NWA were minding their own business outside the studio when cops descended on the scene and demanded that each of the members drop face down on to the sidewalk. Heller arrives shortly thereafter, demands that they be released and chastises the officers for assuming criminal intent based on their appearance. Heller instructs the band members to rise, but the cops refuse to allow them rise until they give the instruction. They forced the men to eat concrete and their dignity for several minutes before issuing a command to stand up.  Heller indignantly reminds the cops they’re rap artists, but the black police chief responds with a disparaging and contemptuous retort that “rap isn’t art” and tells them never to be seen in Torrance again.

NWA get their sweet revenge when the song explodes in popularity, but it draws the attention of the FBI while they’re on their first tour. Prior to their now infamous concert in Detroit, the police threaten to arrest NWA if they perform “Fuck Tha Police” during the show. Heller is rattled and advises that they abstain from performing the song to avoid any entanglements with the federal government, but NWA aren’t willing to back down on free speech grounds.  In one of the film’s finest scenes, the band members pause after finishing a song and give one another a knowing look.  The crowd is roaring with applause while Cube tells the audience about how they were threatened and the cops stationed throughout the venue grimace in anticipation of their defiance. They milk the drama of the moment just right, and when Cube instructs the crowd to hoist their middle fingers aloft and finally cues the song with, “Yo, Dre. I got something to say”, it’s positively explosive. The crowd goes mental, but shots are fired and mayhem ensues ending in the apprehension of the members of the group.

When it comes to the message of NWA and the success of the gangsta rap phenomenon, I’m divided. As a full throated advocate for free speech and free markets, I believe that NWA were fully within their rights to write and rap about whatever they damn well pleased and that the government had no business attempting to censor or silence them.  On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to cultural and religious conservatives (and even secular progressives) who find the lyrics distasteful and don’t want their children exposed to that lifestyle. I can appreciate that a parent who is attempting to impart an appreciation for monogamy, education, conventional employment and a respect for the law might feel a bit of frustration towards the success of gangsta rap. I’m also sympathetic to black community leaders and parents who also may be galled by their success because their lifestyles and message run counter to their efforts to turn their own communities around. Regardless, NWA’s message burns with intensity and relevance mostly because they were the first and arguably the best at this particular style of hip-hop. Like every innovator, scores of imitators have sprung up in their wake, but they’ll never match the originality of the pioneers themselves.

Straight Outta Compton is ultimately a story of five African-American men who achieved success by simply raising their voices and never backing down.  But like many other stories of its kind, the success came with a price.  Eazy-E’s fall from relevance, financial woes and his untimely death from AIDS was just one of the consequences of a man who was arguably ill prepared to deal with either the temptations all around him or the responsibility he took upon himself.  Though neither story was a focus of the film, the death of Tupac Shakur and the imprisonment of Suge Knight also serve as a reminder that the gangster lifestyle eventually catches up with you.  Both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube may have had the talent and maturity to both persevere and thrive, but neither of them was without flaw in their interpersonal or business dealings. There are articles complaining about the ways the film glossed over some of the ugly and inconvenient truths, but I doubt there’s a biopic out there that gets everything completely right. The film makes it sufficiently clear that none of these men were saints.  If you are someone who feels strongly that the omission of certain facts supersedes and delegitimizes the broader story the film is telling, then you should probably skip the film.

The filmmakers clearly wanted to connect the message and story of NWA to the current tensions over race and police brutality.  The Rodney King beating and and the riots which erupted in the wake of the trial verdict were weaved into the film as a vivid reminder that the Ferguson and Baltimore incidents are not new.  While many will likely shoehorn the narrative of the film into the now omnipresent and shopworn narrative of intractable, systemic racism embedded in the American psyche and institutions, the film very subtly reveals the true origins of these problems for anyone who’s actually paying attention. Like many other urban black neighborhoods, crime rates in Compton outpace the national averages. Single motherhood rates are disproportionate to other ethnic populations. Taken together, you’re going to have a community which naturally requires more aggressive policing. The police are certainly not above reproach or criticism, but the persistent effort to paint every instance of police brutality and harassment as evidence of “systemic racism” serves no one.

The performances from all the young leads are first rate and the soundtrack is filled with nuggets of classic funk, R&B, 80’s pop and hip-hop. This is a film that captures the voices of rage, defiance and alienation which changed the course of hip-hop and reverberate to this day. Like NWA themselves, the film is brash and unapologetic. Highly recommended. 

Live Aid: The Terrible Truth

Live Aid: The Terrible Truth

If you haven’t yet read Spin magazine’s stunning exposé of the true legacy of Live Aid, you owe it to yourself to give it a read.  Just like the other well-intentioned social justice musical venture whose legacy is equally dubious, Artists United Against Apartheid, this story proves that there is a vast difference between virtue signalling and being a champion for the expansion of human freedom and market economics. 

There isn’t much that needs to be added to this story other than to emphasize that Marxism creates misery and oppression everywhere it travels, and that the progressive narrative of an all-encompassing white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy is once again exposed for the pathetic, childish farce that it is. 

U2 Live at TD Garden – July 14, 2015

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U2 are easy to take for granted.

They’ve been so huge for so many years, it’s easy to dismiss them as mind numbing pablum. Their mawkishness and sentimentality begs for ridicule.  I’m accustomed to hearing musicians deride them and make snarky comments just to get a few easy “likes” on social media. 

The funny thing is that I really like U2.  I always have. 

My wife suggested that we see them and since I hadn’t seen them, I realized I’d missed out on the very phenomenon that has sealed a bond with millions of fans and placed them in the firmament of rock in the first place. 

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And boy, am I glad I did.

U2 are a band who’ve earned the superlatives.  They are the consummate Big Time Rock Band. 

For over two hours, U2 reminded me that love is the healing force of the universe and that maybe, just maybe, we can redeem ourselves through rock music.  Perhaps most significantly, they reminded me that sometimes the most transgressive, punk rock thing you can do as an artist is to write a song about your mother and actually affirm the gift of life and express love. 

In a pop culture world overrun by narcissistic wankers and smug, detached handlebar mustachioed would-be hipsters so consumed by their cynical sneering and ironic, postmodern deconstructions, U2 come across as the real radicals. 

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The music succeeds on so many levels.  It’s got a missionary sense of purpose, but never forgets that rock and roll is a secular church.  It has equal reverence for Motown, Jimi Hendrix, Kraftwerk and Elvis, but never forgets its Dublin roots.

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It’s music that says “All I want is you” and means every word.  They are a band so grounded in the emotional truth of what they’re laying down, it’s really difficult to remain unmoved.

The tour is called the Innocence to Experience Tour and naturally, as the title suggests, the show traces the arc of their development as artists and men. 

Visually, this show was a marvel.  There was a giant rectangular structure which served as a projection surface and an elevated stage.  At various points in the show, the screen showed animated renderings of their neighborhood, star constellations, oceans, nighttime cityscapes, and a virtual Johnny Cash among many other things. 

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Dublin’s favorite sons paid homage to their formative years with several selections from their latest release, “Songs of Innocence”.  I was especially moved by their rendition of “Iris”; Bono’s tribute to his mother. He set up the song with a story about his mother’s death and how it served as an opportunity to deepen his artistry.  “We all find ourselves orphans at some point in life,” he said.  As someone who lost his own mother, this sentiment hit home for me in a big way.  

U2 have never been shy about their political convictions and openly proclaim their desire for peace, justice and love in many songs.  The scars of violence in Ireland were transformed into a plea for justice for victims of terrorism in “Raised by Wolves” and a pared down “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.  Photos of victims of IRA violence were woven into a devastating digital collage while the words JUSTICE FOR THE FORGOTTEN hovered over the images like a command from beyond the grave. 

“We must never give in to fear.  There are people who hate freedom.  Who hate rock music. Who hate women.  We must never give in.  We must send the love that’s present here and radiate it everywhere so that it reaches every community,” exhorted Bono. 

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Right on, man. 

At midpoint of the set, they began to lean more heavily towards the classic canon and the show gathered momentum. 

“Bullet the Blue Sky” revealed U2 at their rockist best and successfully channeled Cream and Band of Gypsys.  Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen churned out a thunderous groove that bored into the center of the earth while Edge’s searing sheets of feedback and noise soared over the top.  A kaleidoscopic mashup of Wall Street trading pits and American iconography served as the visual companion to Bono’s Morrisonesque declamations.  “America is an idea. I want to be part of that idea”. Nice work, guys. 

The highlight was without question their transcendent rendition of “Pride”.  “This song is for peacemakers,” declared Bono. He stepped back and allowed the congregation to carry the wordless vocal phrase; gently goading the crowd to ever increasing intensity culminating in full throated ecstasy with each chorus.  This is the kind of secular devotion that is often attempted but rarely matched. 

For their encore, they delivered a trio of gems; “Beautiful Day”, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.  By the time the chiming chords of the latter began, the crowd was in the palm of their hands.  Once again, Bono didn’t even sing the first verse and simply allowed the song to be carried by the reverie of the crowd.

They exited the stage one by one until all that remained were the sounds of Edge and Bono. The show ended just as it began. Bono sneaked in a line of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”.

Message received, gentlemen.  Thank you for bringing it home. 

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Sly & The Family Stone – Don’t Call Me Nigger

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I was listening to this song last night, and I genuinely wondered if we’re headed towards a culture of repression that would censor this song purely because of the title. 

I’m concerned that we’ve already become a culture so consumed by the surface appearance and rhetoric of diversity, and yet so afraid to be labeled a racist for saying something that might be perceived as a microaggression. 

I’m concerned that we’ve become a culture that stigmatizes the usage of a word all by itself and makes no distinctions around intent or context. 

I’m concerned that we have become a culture that encourages self-appointed racism cops to go around pointing the finger and accusing RACISM in everyone but themselves. 

I’m concerned that we’ve become a culture that’s more comfortable ascribing blame to symbols and doling out moronic lectures about “white privilege” than ascertaining responsibility for the actions of individuals. 

My biggest fear is that we’ve conflated speech and words with actual violence, and by extension, are ceding a fundamental liberty that each of us has to the authority of the state and all of the sycophantic, authoritarian would-be do-gooders who believe that calling everyone and everything racist is actually creating any real racial harmony. 

If policing speech over the usage of words or enforcing some prescribed template of PC virtue becomes the norm, then we have effectively ceded free thought and agency themselves. 

This song is precisely why free speech matters.

We have the opportunity to access the best in ourselves because we’re free. 

We have the opportunity to see the basic humanity in everyone because we’re free.  

We have the opportunity to create racial harmony because we’re free. 

Not because some self-appointed social justice cop posted a link to a feminist website and not because a politician doesn’t like what someone said or wants to use the power of the government to pass a hate speech law. 

But you have to choose free speech and you have to be willing to defend it.  Not with a gun, but with the power of your own convictions. 

What will you choose?

Solid Sound Day 3 – June 28, 2015

Despite some unseasonably cold summer rain, my wife and I set out to Mass Moca to take in the sights and sounds of the conclusion of Solid Sound 2015. 

As an artist who’s consistently staked out adventurous musical territory over the course of my own career, I’ve sought to support venues, promoters, and events which present ambitious visions which fall outside the common perception of “mainstream” taste and still manage to reach a mass audience.  Solid Sound is a festival that aspires to achieve this goal and by and large, succeeds.  That said, there is a little bit of a stuffy and oppressive air to the whole thing. Needless to say, holding a music and art festival at a museum is going to have a bit of a THIS IS ART vibe to it.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but such a self-congratulatory atmosphere creates its own aura of stultifying conservatism. I measure the success of any art by how successfully it balances its various ambitions and most importantly, whether it manages to convey some basic humanity and soul. What is this artist saying about life and the human condition fundamentally?

The three acts we saw managed to present music that was simultaneously virtuosic, visionary, and futuristic, but occasionally lapsed into antiseptic and sterile intellectualism.  Some more than others. 

This tendency was perhaps best exemplified by the Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom’s Stained Radiance.  Since I was familiar with Mr. Cline’s work, I was looking forward to this set.  Stained Radiance featured Nels doing his solo guitar thing with various looping devices, delays and effects while Norton accompanied with a painting improvisation and three dancers added a movement element.  This certainly had all the ingredients and potential to be a pretentious wank, but ended up having enough of an emotional center to engage.  To my surprise, the real glue of the performance was Mr. Wisdom. He painted on a semi-translucent canvas which was projected on to the main screen in the hall.  It had the effect of being a white board so he could create negative space with a wiping tool and wash away an image with relative ease.  His style had a phantasmagoric quality to it.  The color palette was dark. His opening image appeared to be a surreal impression of Mr. Cline. Strange monstrous humanoids were conjured from amorphous blotches of paint. Anthropomorphic animals and human forms with wings took shape. The surface allowed the paint to run and gave each form a melted quality that was naturally very creepy.

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Mr. Cline churned out subsonic drones, shards of harmony and melody, shrieking spears of noise, ghostly pulsations, and icy riffs at various moments throughout the piece.  The two aesthetics were complementary.

One of the dancers was outfitted with a diaphanous fabric sheath which lent itself to a performance which resembled either an aquatic plant or a flame burning in slow motion.  Another dancer did a passage with a long piece of fabric that was meant to convey imprisonment or a struggle to be free from some kind of bondage.  The physicality of the dancers certainly lent the piece some much needed drama and made it more of a performance, but it still felt a little aimless and pretentious. 

What did they intend to convey with this performance? I’m not entirely sure.  Clearly, they were content to let the process unfold and allow the audience to generate their own experiences and interpretations.  I find that leaving it entirely up to the audience to extract a message from abstract art can be a cop out.  Abstraction for its own sake can be an evasion and a way to avoid risking any real emotions. 

This performance suffered from that pitfall a bit. It felt non-committal. I sensed vague allusions to gender based conflicts.  I sensed some struggle to be free.  I sensed a small appeal to love buried beneath the layers of darkness and abstraction. 

It had a foreboding and ominous atmosphere. It more or less held my attention. It was among the most successful attempts at this kind of performance I’ve personally seen and I’ve actually done gigs that were almost identical conceptually. However, I was not deeply moved. I’m going to seek out one of Mr. Cline’s bands next time. 

One of the great successes and recurring themes of Solid Sound is that Cool is ageless and that making vital art is the pursuit of a lifetime.  The greats may not draw the attention of the pop culture spotlight, but they are always creating and cultivating their own unique language without regard to which direction the winds of popular taste are blowing.  The booking of Richard Thompson, NRBQ and the great Charles Lloyd were testimony to this. 

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Charles Lloyd is one of the last remaining giants of 20th century modern jazz and his CV is indeed impressive

Not only was he backed up by a first rate rhythm section comprised of Gerald Clayton on piano, Kendrick Scott on drums, and Joe Sanders on bass, he was joined by Bill Frisell too!  This more than compensated for the unsatisfying and uninspired pairing with Sam Amidon. 

Mr. Lloyd exuded the ease and confidence of a true master.  His music was equal parts post-bop modernism and blues inflected spiritual exploration. It is big hearted and filled with romanticism but still leaves ample space for experimentation.  Most importantly, it was always swinging.  Frisell’s languid, cubist Americana avant-bop was totally complementary. 

We concluded our afternoon with the sedate bleeps and bloops of Quindar.  Quindar are an electronic music duo comprised of Mikael Jorgensen and James Thomas. 

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Their unique angle is that they’ve been granted access to NASA mission video and audio recordings and their performance is meant to emulate a journey to the moon. 

In theory, I should love these guys. I’ve spent the better part of my career playing music that hews very closely to this artistic territory.  My current band Mission Creep has cosmic ambitions of its own.

The music is very tasteful and the execution is flawless.  There are identifiable melodies and riffs amidst the pulsations, oscillations, and layered beats. It’s just a little too tasteful. 

They were wise to utilize video because they would be insufferably boring to watch without it.  Public Service Broadcasting from the UK are doing the exact same thing conceptually, but are utilizing live instrumentation and subsequently have a more dynamic sound. 

Sadly, King Sunny Ade was held up at the Canadian border and was unable to perform. 

Mass Moca and Wilco are producing a quality festival and I’m genuinely hopeful that it was a financial success. I look forward to next year’s incarnation. 

Solid Sound Day 2 – June 27, 2015

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My wife and I decided to check out the Wilco curated Solid Sound festival at Mass Moca this weekend. True their own aesthetic, the common thread unifying all the acts is that each band found different ways to combine American musical tradition and present it in an innovative way.

The festival had a vague feeling of being the East Coast anti-Coachella. In contrast to the image conscious, overpriced West Coast glam of Coachella, Solid Sound was all about reconciling the urbane with the rural. The abstract and adventurous with the gritty and immediate. It was a family oriented festival too, so it wasn’t monopolized by skinny jeans wearing millennials. It managed to be that festival where you were just as likely to find kids playing games on Joe’s Field as you were to find someone who could tell you what their favorite Derek Bailey record was.

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Ryley Walker played a pleasant conjunction of Americana, Krautrock and jazz.  It was occasionally reminiscent of Popul Vuh.  At other times, it devolved into a bland melange which felt facile and uninspired.  Enjoyable enough, but it certainly didn’t set my world on fire.

Luluc were a male/female folk duo who played a low key and melancholy sounding brand of music that seems to lend itself to rainy days and nights of solitude.  The female singer had a voice which vaguely resembled Nico.  Accomplished but meh.

Bill Frisell teamed up with a folk singer/multi-instrumentalist named Sam Amidon. This was perhaps the biggest letdown. Even the brilliance of someone like Frisell could not elevate Amidon’s anemic mewling. He’s talented enough and has a decent voice, but the end result felt detached and academic. Even their excursions into atonal free improvisation were so carefully modulated that they felt more precious than truly exuberant, playful or jarring.

NRBQ injected some much needed life into an afternoon which was a little too heavily weighted towards the soporific.  Their skewed take on R&B was playful and irreverent.  British Invasion style vocal harmonies were mixed with skronk sax solos and swampy New Orleans style funk.  These guys find the common ground between Professor Longhair, Thelonious Monk, and The Beach Boys and make it soar. It manages to be joyous and fun and arty all at once.  Though people often compare Phish with the Dead, it’s apparent to me that they’ve copped a few moves from these guys.

The biggest flop award goes to the insufferably pretentious Jessica Pratt.  Once again, it’s evident that there’s a decent voice and perhaps some songwriting skill that could ripen in time, but the vibe was so fragile and the emotions were too muted. I was reminded of acts like Sharon Van Etten, Waxahatchee, and Marissa Nadler but not as good as any of them. It had a “I’m so consumed by these emotions that I can barely whisper them into this microphone” feeling. And she left the stage without even a “thank you” or an acknowledgement of the audience.  Fuck you too, Jessica.

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The hands down winner of the afternoon was Cibo Matto. Though I believe that Cibo Matto belong to a tradition of NYC punk-funk that traces back to bands like Talking Heads, ESG, and Bush Tetras, their sound incorporates a bedrock of R&B/hip hop and panoply of transcontinental influences which are synthesized so effortlessly, it comes across as its own unique polyglot hybrid.  Their albums have a polished sheen of electronic beats and sounds, but they were backed up by a live rhythm section which brought some welcome brawn to their live sound.  “Blue Train” was one of the most successful marriages of Neu! and Black Sabbath I’ve ever heard.  “Moonchild” revealed them at their R&B sweetest. In “Sunday Part 1” Ms. Hattori and Ms. Honda laid down a flow that stood up against any hip-hop crew you can name. “Bbq” was a blistering punk-funk rave up that gave Primetime a run for their money. They were joyful, innovative and funky; surely the embodiment of everything for which Solid Sound stands.  A+.

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Shabazz Palaces delivered a set of futuristic hip-hop that defied easy comparisons. I was simply at a loss in identifying their antecedents. Their flow was angular but also had harmonized vocals and looped phrases and words.  Without a doubt, one of the most original sounds in the contemporary landscape. Their choreography was cool too.

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I’m just going to admit my loserdom and confess my utter ignorance of Richard Thompson. Yes, I know. What kind of a musician am I to be oblivious to this guy? His set was indeed very good and it’s imminently clear that he’s a prodigious talent. I gave myself a facepalm when I looked up his discography and saw multitude of connections and collaborations with acts I admire. He laid down a raucous set of his unique brand of blues.

Parquet Courts seemed cut from the art punk template that gave rise to the likes of Gang of Four, Pere Ubu and Wire but with a contemporary flair.  It was decent but not original enough to warrant the fanfare. But then again, Spin is apparently in the business of glorifying the mediocre and hackneyed.

And the WTF Award of the day goes to Mac DeMarco. I’ve read the hype. I watched a video once.  I kind of get it, but it’s just not my bag.  He can write a song. He can perform. The program indicates that he’s been compared to John Lennon and Ray Davies, but I’ll be damned if I hear even a fraction of either in him.  There’s a quirky funk/R&B quality to it, but it’s just not something that speaks to me.

Unfortunately, this guy preceded Wilco and since he eroded my patience, we left before their set started.  Sorry, guys.

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Day 3 review coming soon.

The Fountainhead

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Yes.

It is extraordinary.  Fully deserving of its stature.

Before I get to the meat of the book, there’s something I need to get out of way right now.

I know I’m stating the painfully obvious, but I have reached the unequivocal conclusion that the knee-jerk antipathy that gets hurled at Rand by the political Left is either rooted in ignorance or simply an extension of negative opinions held towards Rand’s more visible and vocal fans (e.g. Paul Ryan). Or perhaps both.

The vast chasm of misunderstanding which lays between her apparent adversaries and the reality of what she was actually saying is nothing short of mind boggling.  It just doesn’t compute.

Needless to say, Rand was aware of this disconnect and like the hero of the story, Howard Roark, couldn’t be bothered to give two shits.

But STILL.

The scorn I’ve seen heaped upon her by artists…ARTISTS…on social media and the blogosphere in general leaves me wondering if they have any awareness of what Ayn Rand was laying down in this book.

Seriously.

Admittedly, it took me a while to get past my own preconceptions and prejudices, but nowadays, anytime I hear anyone throwing shade on Ayn Rand, it begs the question…

Are you opposed to what Ayn Rand was actually saying, or is your antipathy rooted in an overall animosity directed towards conservatives and libertarians who champion her work?

Anyway.  The book!

Ayn Rand spoke of wanting to write a fiction of ideas and The Fountainhead overflows with them.

This is the story of two architects. Howard Roark is the implacable, uncompromising visionary. Peter Keating is the obsequious, self-aggrandizing, fame seeking but competent hack.  More specifically, it is the story of being true to one’s ideals.  It is the story of being grounded in the strength of your convictions so thoroughly that it penetrates to the core of the earth and that you are able to remain anchored no matter how much adversity the world presents.

The story traces their evolution from architecture school up through the highest echelons of the architecture world in early 20th century New York. Howard manages to get himself expelled from architecture school because he refused to be a dittohead and Peter graduates with distinction for giving his professors what they wanted. When they go to the big city, Peter gets a plum gig with the most prestigious hacks, and Howard gets a gig with the washed up idealist who is essentially Howard’s older analogue.

At every turn, we see very different set of choices, motivations, allegiances and consequences which culminates in a satisfying conclusion.

Howard Roark is a quintessentially Randian hero.  He is so singularly driven by his internal sense of purpose that it takes on a superhuman quality.  He is so consistent that it seems impossible. He faces so much rejection, so many injustices, so much misguided scorn, and is subject to so many abuses and betrayals yet remains unbowed by all of it. At so many points, I expected Roark to just lose his shit, but he never does. Many have criticized this character portrayal as one dimensional, but his ironclad sense of moral purpose and clarity is the central theme of the book. His actions are nothing short of a clarion call for all of humanity.

He is also the ultimate badass. He is so self-possessed and so clear in his purpose, he is able to tell the whole world to fuck off without ever having to actually say it. You don’t want Roark’s design? Fine. Beat it. He’ll wait for someone who does.  If no one comes knocking, he’ll seek different employment if he has to.

In a pivotal scene in the novel, a client who was manipulated into hiring Roark in order to discredit him files a lawsuit which goes to trial. Roark refuses to hire a lawyer and opts to defend himself. Witness after witness is called to heap condemnation on Roark’s building. After each testimony, Roark refuses every opportunity to cross examine.  Finally, he drops an envelope of photos of the building on the judge’s desk, and says, “The defense rests.”

Suck on it, Eastwood. It just doesn’t get any more badass than that.

By contrast, Peter Keating is Roark’s opposite. He lacks both a sense of selfhood and a moral compass. He seeks fame, but not the pursuit of virtue. He seeks wealth, but not the passion for work. He seeks the trappings of success, but not the conviction of his own ideas. He’s vapid, conniving and obsequious. Anyone who thinks that Rand equated wealth and virtue clearly has no understanding of her work. Peter attains great fame and wealth, but there is never a doubt over the message that Rand intended to convey with this character.

Ellsworth Toohey is the manipulative, self-aggrandizing but charismatic socialist who publishes an architecture column. Naturally, Toohey is the villain of this tale and his vanity and hollow pretensions make him truly detestable. What makes him truly evil is that he is intelligent and calculating. He knows how to manipulate the will of others and he is only interested in subordinating others in order to acquire power. Through Ellsworth, we are able to see the various ways that Ellsworth, and anyone whose existence is predicated on control and domination, whittles away the self-respect of everyone with whom he associates. Socialism inculcates obedience and deference to authority, and Ellsworth epitomizes the collectivist ethos in all of its insidious contemporary incarnations. He’s highly educated, has a pretense of cultural sophistication, and constantly telegraphs his alleged concern for the “common man”. Worst of all, he takes it upon himself to lecture his subjects on what they should do with their lives and demands absolute loyalty.

Toohey manages to achieve success as an architecture critic in the pages of Gail Wynand’s paper. He uses this platform to promote his insipid and self-righteous blatherings about “brotherhood” and “unity” and to openly celebrate the mediocre and the ordinary. He forms councils and organizations with lofty names and grandiose intentions that achieve nothing other than draw attention to his alleged humanitarianism. He is an utterly contemptible prick. Toohey hatches a clever and clandestine plot to discredit Roark which is so diabolical that you absolutely crave comeuppance.

What makes Toohey’s plan and the chain of events it sets in motion even more devastating is how closely it maps to real world phenomena. Whether it’s the vacuous bleating of Occupy Wall Street activists, vainglorious apparatchiks like Naomi Klein and Bob Reich, sanctimonious celebrity sycophants praising dictators like Chavez and Castro, or populist charlatans like Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders, Ellsworth Toohey’s vile spirit is found in every corner of media, academia and politics. Rand’s portrait seems pretty prescient and it gives her writing a heightened urgency and relevance.

There is a lot of interesting and refreshing editorial from Ayn Rand on what constitutes worthwhile art. Specifically, she draws attention to the ways collectivist attitudes have degraded art. She heaps venomous and seething contempt on postmodern abstraction for its own sake. Any art that fails to affirm basic morality or dwells obsessively on ambiguities is a target of her derision. Personally, I found this point of view refreshing. The prevalence of narcissistic negativity and elitist snobbery amongst musicians heaped upon music which affirms positive emotions, simple pleasures, or love itself is overwhelming. I’m not saying art needs to be monochromatic by any means, but in many cases, the obscurity of certain artists is little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy of internal attitudes and emotions.  No one is interested in hearing you whine about the world nor is anyone interested in hearing you sneer at the success of others either in words or expressed as art.

Ellsworth Toohey’s Council of American Artists featured artists with avant-garde sensibilities. Her descriptions of their work are humorous and pulsate with disdain. I do not share Rand’s disdain for the avant-garde, but her critique of avant-garde art which seeks nothing other than to “rebel against the tyranny of reality and the objective” is poignant.

Architecture critic Dominique Francon, daughter of architecture scion Guy Francon, is the love interest at the center of a torrid love triangle between Roark and Keating. Through Dominique, we are able to discover Rand’s ideas on femininity, relationships, sexuality, and professionalism. It is arguably an ideological alternative to Left feminism. Alt-feminism, if you will. 

Though it is essentially synonymous with the political Left, another source of Rand hate emanates from the feminist crowd. I believe I understand why she gets a bad rap from feminists, but just like the hate she gets from leftists in general, it is little more than overblown histrionics.  While it’s true that the women in this story are primarily love interests to the men, it is a novel set in early 20th century America. It is basically a reflection of the culture of in which it’s set. Both Dominique and Catherine are employed and the employment in which they’re engaged seems like an accurate portrayal of the type of things women would do back then and are not unrealistic portrayals of things women would do now. Just because she didn’t portray women as powerful politicians or businesswomen seems hardly reason to brand her as sexist let alone misogynistic.  I realize that Rand is on record saying stuff that would invite these characterizations and make many recoil, but she’s promulgating these ideas within the free market. She’s not forcing them on anyone.  You don’t have to subscribe to her beliefs on gender roles in order to gain value from her work.

Admittedly, the first sex scene between Dominique and Howard raised an eyebrow, but it was consistent with each character and the themes of the story.

On a related note, Rand is very sex positive.  She clearly regards it as fundamentally human, life affirming and essential. Toohey has a detached and clinical view of it and it leaves him less connected to humanity itself.

Dominique is a flawed character, but her journey towards full attainment of selfhood is ultimately heroic. It’s impossible for me to take any of the charges of sexism or misogyny towards her or this novel seriously. Like many of the vacant blatherings, childish whinings, and manufactured outrages which emanate from the feminist sphere, it is either misinformed, intentionally misleading or both.

Rand correctly attributes sexism where it truly belongs: with socialism and the political Left.  Not only does Toohey encourage Peter to marry Dominique for her looks alone, Toohey attempts to persuade Gail Wynand to hire Peter Keating by asking for an opportunity to meet his beautiful wife, Dominique Keating! Because he has no real confidence in Peter’s actual architectural talent, he must resort to peddling the physical beauty of his wife in order to make the case for him.

Through newspaper magnate, Gail Wynand, we discover Rand’s editorials on education and the media. Gail attains a world class education with curiosity and drive. He learns business by observing businessmen. He learns geography from longshoremen. Needless to say, she portrays Wynand’s public education with disdain and his pursuit of knowledge on his own terms is a powerful reminder that education must be grounded in real world activity.

Despite his worldly success, he is fundamentally a man without principles. His success was predicated on giving voice to sensationalist drivel. Gail Wynand built a successful career shamelessly pandering to public opinion, but experiences a dramatic turn in his fortunes when he makes a sincere effort to defend Roark in the climactic trial. The one time he tries to assert an editorial point of view with a sense of personal integrity and conviction, public opinion turns against him.

The voices of outrage Rand portrays could easily be mapped on to today’s media landscape.  The leftist rants are indistinguishable from those found in Salon, the Huffington Post, the Nation, or Slate.  These idiotic anti-capitalist and Marxist ravings contain the same dire warnings of the imminent threat of a capitalist takeover and only require the insertion of a reference to the Koch brothers in order to pass muster.

The book culminates in another trial against Roark in which he is charged with the demolition of a housing project he designed at Peter Keating’s request. Since the building was a government project, Keating was unable to fulfill the one condition Roark insisted upon; that it be built exactly as Roark intended.

Just as he did in the Stoddard trial, Roark defends himself by delivering a rousing speech which encapsulates the central idea of the book; that the ego is the fountainhead of virtue.

An individual acts and creates alone, and by doing so, neither exerts his will against another nor petitions an intermediary to gain access to the fruits of another’s labor.

The common perception that Rand’s vision of egoism and selfishness meant little more than “Fuck you, I got mine” is both unsurprising and disappointing. But she knew that it is in the nature of second-handers to scorn those who claimed independence and sought no validation from the public.

Her message cuts through the emasculating, infantilizing, sanctimonious layer of fat covering the paternalistic, authoritarian heart which beats at the center of modern day liberalism like a righteous sword of justice and slices it into bloody chunks.
The Fountainhead, like its hero and subject matter, stands like a monument to the heroism Rand saw in humanity.

It is a rousing fanfare, a banner of triumph unfurled in the wind, and a symphony written in tribute to the joy of human achievement.