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Tag: Woody Guthrie

The Critical Mass

I read the Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Aug. 19

Today’s coffee is Burundi. First music of the day: The Margaret Explosion.

1, “At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of  China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electronic shavers. That is the old way,” The Times reports from Drachten, The Netherlands. “At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous humans…. This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution.”

2, More from the Brave New World: A handful of new companies are specializing in “predictive consumer analytics,” or the e-score. “These digital scores, known broadly as consumer evaluation or buying-power scores, measure our potential value as consumers,” The Times Sunday Business section reports. Unlike your credit score, you can’t get your e-score. Algorithms calculate a consumer’s number, and “banks, credit and debit card providers, insurers and online educational institutions are using these scores to choose whom to woo on the web.”

3, A saxophonist who I’ve never heard of, Von Freeman, has died at age 88. Fame came late to Freeman. “His work had a daring elasticity, with deliberately off-kilter phrasing that made it sound like speech,” The Times writes in the Chicago tenor player’s obituary. “He cherished roughness and imperfection, although, as critics observed, he could play a ballad with the best of them. Where some listeners faulted him for playing out of tune, others praised him for exploiting a chromatic range far greater than the paltry 12 notes the Western musical scale offers. ‘Don’t tune up too much, baby,’ Mr. Freeman once told a colleague. ‘You’ll lose your soul.'”

4, Dance critic Alastair MaCaulay strips the artsy facade from provocative nudity in dance. “This June, at the climactic moment of Paquerette, an hour-long duet at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn (part of the Queer New York Festival),” he writes, “Cecelia Bengolea and Francois Chaignaud, after removing what few garments they had been wearing, inserted dildos up their backsides and kept them there for perhaps 10 minutes. The only dance moment of note occurred when, side by side, each held a balance on one foot while using the sole of the raised foot to hold the dildo in place.”  MaCaulay calls the performance “irksomely coy, along aren’t-we-being-bold-and-don’t-you-love-us-for-it lines.”

5, Bobak Ferdowski, flight director for NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, is the accidental Internet celebrity scientist known as “The Mohawk Guy.” One of his cultural recommendations is Thrilling Adventure Hour, a podcast which he compares to “an old-time radio show. There’s a variety of shows within the podcast. One of them takes place on Mars. ‘The Nerdist’ is also a podcast hosted by guys who have interests similar to mine – sci-fi and technology. I’m not sure what the definition of a nerd is. Historically it could have been perjorative but now I think society is more embracing of people that might have more science-y or unorthodox interests.”

6, This headline on The Times lead editorial says it all: “Truth and Lies About Medicare: Don’t Believe Most of What Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan Are saying.”

7, Also on that page, an essay by Lawrence Downes notes the approach of Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, but laments the soft image we’re being presented of the protest singer. He writes that “under the saintly folk hero has always been an angry vigilante – a fascist-hating, Communist-sympathizing rabble-rouser who liked to eviscerate his targets, sometimes with violent imagery…. He wrote hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people.” Downes is dismayed that Republicans such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (a Bruce Springsteen fan who is also an enthusiastic union buster) and Paul Ryan (a Rage Against the  Machine fan who believes in cutting humanitarian services while escalating military spending) are apparently not listening to the words that castigate their positions. “It’s hard to be a troubadour with dangerous ideas,” Downes writes, “if people refuse to be challenged or offended by them.”

8, In the magazine, professional book critic Dwight Garner explains why it’s important for critics to be mean. So that we can start arguments, and get to the truth of the matter: Is this thing any good? Garner refers to an essay by Jacob Silverman on the web site Slate, which condemns Twitter as a “mutual admiration society” for writers, a world in which “all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.” The biggest problem I have with Garner’s essay is, his best idea is actually someone else’s idea. Got anything new for us, sir?

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: July 15

A steamy, humid morning. The kitchen is overflowing with the detritus of last night’s dinner party. Ugh. The coffee? All I have is that generic stuff. First music of the day: A Donovan collection. Remember, you can follow me on Twitter at @jeffspevak1.  Not that I have anything to say.

1, “U.S. Is Building Criminal Cases In Rate-Fixing” is the lead story of the day. Charges are expected to be filed later this year by authorities in Washington and London against banks and individuals who manipulated interest rates during the world financial crisis.

2, In the magazine, and “The One-Page Magazine” page, a one-sentence book review of Scott Reynolds Nelson’s A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters that’s shorter than the book title. “We have hardly ever had a well-functioning banking system.”

3, The Food and Drug Administration was spying on its own scientists – at first just five suspected of collaborating with Congressional officials, outside medical experts and journalists. The FDA’s goal was to quell criticism of the agency’s procedures, particularly concerns that some approved medical equipment, including scanners for mammograms, exposed patients to high levels of radiation. “The agency, using so-called spy software designed to help employers monitor workers, captured screen images from the government laptops of the five scientists as they were being used at work or at home,” The Times writes. “The software tracked their keystrokes, intercepted their personal e-mails, copied the documents on their personal thumb drives, and even followed their messages line by line as they were being drafted….” Alarmed, the White House told FDA administrators last month that it must operate within whistle-blower protection guidelines. That warning appears to have come too late. Some scientists who were dismissed by the FDA claim they were let go in retaliation for their whistle-blowing activities, and have filed lawsuits.

4, Joining the mountain of evidence that climate change is altering the face of the planet are the mountains themselves. Thirty-four people in the U.S. alone have died in avalanches since November. “The extremes are becoming more extreme,” says a mountaineering ranger at Denali National Park.

5, In the Sunday Review, we find more on the effect that man has on the planet and nature support system: “ecosystem services,” the biologists call it. “AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme Disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades,” says science writer Jim Robbins, “don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.” Our increasing encroachment on natural wildlife  habitats increases the likelihood of disease infecting the human species.

6, Brian McFadden’s political cartoon, The Strip, digs into voter disenfranchisement, with one panel lampooning the screenings that some segments of society – the poor and minorities, mainly – will be subjected to. “But fear not fellow Republicans!” says a guy who looks like Florida Governor Rick Scott. “The test will not reveal your Super-PAC donors. Adds another old white pol, “We respect their privacy.”

7, “Are Parents Too Involved?” asks Stephanie Coontz in an essay on parents who orchestrate  their children’s lives after college and beyond. Depends on the circumstances, Coontz writes; it’s certainly more costly for children to build a separate life these days. But the real damage, she says, may be that kids who have wealthy helicopter parents have an unfair and even dangerous advantage over the rest of us. “The academic achievement gap between low- and high-income children has increased over the last 40 years, as has the gap in rates of college entry and completion,” she writes. ” The arms race among high-income parents often does turn their children into winners. But society as a whole loses.”

8, “That device in your purse or your jeans that you think is a cellphone – guess again,” write Peter Maass and Megha Rajagopalan, two reporters specializing in digital privacy. “It is a tracking device that happens to make calls. Let’s stop calling them phones. They are trackers.” According to Paul Ohm, a law professor at the University of Colorado, “Every year, private companies spend millions of dollars developing new services that track, store and share the words, movements and even the thoughts of their customers. These invasive services have proved irresistible to consumers, and millions now own sophisticated tracking devices (smartphones) studded with sensors and always connected to the Internet.”

9, In an editorial, The Times scoffs at conservatives who continue to insist that the answer to America’s energy needs is “Drill baby drill.” After noting that states such as California and Maine will not welcome the kind of rampant drilling of Republican dreams, The Times writes, “The deeper Republican fraud is the idea that a country with only two percent of the world’s oil reserves – and a daily appetite for more than one-fifth of the world’s oil production – can drill its way to energy independence.”

10, Japanese manufacturers  import cars to to our shores via box-like ships like the Andromeda Leader. It looks less like a ship an a floating warehouse, two football fields long, carrying 8,500 cars on 13 decks. The journey from  Japan to Jacksonville, Fla., at 17 to 19 knots, takes 28 days. The NYK Line, one of several operating between the two countries, has 120 ships similar to its Andromeda Leader. And there are other lines. When these ships return to Japan, they are empty. A dramatic illustration of the world trade imbalance.

11, While on the subject of imports, outrage hit these shores this week when it was revealed that the Ralph Lauren outfits to be worn by the U.S. Olympic team were manufactured in China. But the last couple of Lauren designs for U.S. Olympians were also manufactured offshore, while for a decade before that the U.S. teams were dressed by the Canadian company Roots, mostly without public outcry. This could all be avoided, The Times notes, if the teams were “to go back to the ancient tradition of competing in the buff.” Nice idea, until the  gymnasts get to the uneven parallel bars.

12, “The Plain of Jars” in Laos bears the scars of American carpet bombing during the Vietnam War. And the imprint of a forgotten Iron Age civilization that littered the landscape with hundreds of stone jars, some thigh-high, others 10 feet tall. Like the Easter Island statues, they were made elsewhere and brought to where they now stand, silent, refusing to bear witness to who created them, and for what purpose.

13, An improved version of the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers is out on DVD and Blu-Ray. The Times muses over whether this film is about pod people taking over the planet or is actually about McCarthyism and the fear of standing up to that evil. Your choice. But the latter resonates today when Kevin McCarthy says “I’ve seen how people allow their humanity to drain away. We harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is.”

14, The 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth on July 14 came with a reminder that his best-known song. “This Land is Your Land,” originally featured lyrics that you didn’t sing in elementary school, but that enjoyed a resurgence at Occupy encampments throughout the county:

There was a high wall there

That tried to stop me

A sign was posted that said ‘Private Property’

But on the other aside it didn’t say nuthin’

That sign was made for you and me

15, In the Book Review we learn that Guthrie wrote a novel, still unpublished, despite acolytes such as Bob Dylan praising its genius. House of Earth refers to the adobe houses that Guthrie became fascinated with in the Dust Bowl of the ’30s, where a man could build himself a home of mud if he set his mind to it. But it also has themes of greedy capitalists against the little guy trying fight the forces of nature in the scorched Texas Panhandle. “Today, Texas is in the midst of a prolonged drought; global warming is a scientific fact; and wildfires, blizzards and tornadoes increasingly ravage the American landscape,” write essayists Douglas Brinkley (who wrote the new biography Cronkite) and Johnny Depp (yes, the actor). “The unerring rightness of adobe living is now more apparent than ever. It’s almost as if Guthrie had written House of Earth with the summer of 2012 in mind.”

The Critical Mass

SXSW: Where’s my Springsteen and Veg-Head Nachos?

Nothing is more beautiful than lasers on Sixth Street at night.

Nothing is more beautiful than lasers on Sixth Street at night.

At this stage in my life, I avoid standing in lines. If you’re not Bobby Flay, last week that meant hanging with 5,000 people at 9:30 in the morning outside of Stubbs’ BBQ in Austin, Texas. Somehow, one of the biggest events of the South by Southwest Music Conference has become the Rachael Ray Feedback party. Train and Jimmy Cliff were the music headliners. The food, what you’d expect of the Food TV queen: Li’l Devils miniature corn dogs, Sloppy Chicken Suiza Sliders and vegetarian,  gluten-free Veg-Head Nachos with Green Chili Queso and Spice Refried Beans. I told my friend Tommy, who was insistent on plunging into the midst of this mess, to text me later that afternoon if he saw the crowd waning a bit.

Before we move on to other business, my Top Five acts for the festival:

5, Steve Poltz, 11 p.m. Sunday night at the Saxon Pub, after the festival was over. Playing solo, Poltz’s frantic, class-clown set included using voice effects to sound like a Norwegian death metal band while singing “all of the Arlo Gurthie songs I know,” which was basically portions of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” Then he brought up two of Arlo’s daughters to help him sing his own “Hand Job on the Church Bus.”

4, Todd Snider at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary. Snider’s a funny guy, but his new songs are also a bit more venomous than usual. He doesn’t like this class disparity in wealth thing, and there were a couple of times when I thought he was suggesting the rich had better watch themselves, lest the poor arise and kill them all. Everyone applauded heartily.

Lost in the Trees plays gothic orchestral folk.

Lost in the Trees plays gothic orchestral folk.

3, Eliza Gilkyson and Carrie Elkins playing back-to-back in the tiny Victorian Room at the elegant Driskill Hotel. Gilkyson writes some of the most elegantly acerbic screeds against Republicans that you’ll hear, and she doesn’t apologize for it as she sings of how “they waited for their god in vain.” The energetic Elkins had just about lost her voice by the end of her show, but called on a bunch of folk-singer friends to join her onstage to swap verses on a truly eye-watering version of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

2, Lost in the Trees at 1 in the morning at Antone’s. It was a thrill to see that this North Carolina folk orchestra could pull off its elegantly spooky songs in a live setting, with strings and tubas and French horns.  And the two women in the six-piece band had red sequins glued around their eyes.

1, The Magnetic Fields at the Austin City Limits Moody Theatre. An unconventional band, I’d always thought of it as more of a synth-pop sound until this night. Here, it was piano, guitar, cello and mandolin, with lead man Stephin Merrritt playing a small harmonium. A perfect setting for Merritt’s whimsical and cynical songs, which he delivered in a smooth baritone. And the droll chatter between songs was hilarious, even when the notoriously cranky Merritt and pianist and sometimes lead vocalist Claudia Gonson seemed to be getting a little snippy, whether it was with the noisy audience or each other. Gonson played a little piano intro to “Your Girlfriend’s Face” and then, apparently expecting Merritt to have already joined in, announced, “And it will be sung by Stephin Merritt.” Merritt, who looked like an arch English professor in his tweed hat and hands stuffed in the pockets of his corduroy jacket throughout the show, responded “After Claudia completes her variations on the intro.”

I encountered a mystical, still-unexplained pyramid of bicycles late at night on Fourth Street.

I encountered a mystical, still-unexplained pyramid of bicycles late at night on Fourth Street.

In the midst of all this, Bruce Springsteen was turning the conference into his personal meet-and-greet, mission statement and public rehearsal for a tour that he would launch just a few days later in Atlanta with the E Street Band. That’s fine with me. Everyone in Austin last week – some 2,000 acts, and thousands of industry lackeys – had an agenda, or else they wouldn’t have been there. But as omnipresent as he was, I never saw Springsteen. I saw Mojo Nixon a half-dozen times, without even trying. But you make your choices at an event this big, and I pursued other bands while Springsteen was making a surprise, but not unexpected, appearance at the Austin Music Awards, singing with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo. My friend Scott attended Springsteen’s convention keynote address and was struck by his theme, which sounded like a pocket history of rock and protest. Springsteen even picked up a guitar to show how his own “Badlands” was inspired by  The Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” And I didn’t win one of the pink wrist bands that allowed entry into Springsteen & the E Street Band later that evening. But my friend Steve got in, even though I deserved it more than he did.

While Springsteen & the E Street Band were playing Thursday night, I was at the Woody Guthrie tribute. There was a rumor Springsteen might even turn up after his own show. Woody’d be 100 if he were alive today. He’s not. But his music is. I know a lot of Woody Guthrie songs. But I’d never listened to them quite so intently. Garland Jeffries opened with Dylan’s “Song for Woody,” then two dozen musicians followed, most playing two Guthrie songs. I was most struck by what a great story “Pretty Boy Floyd” tells, and how the Mexican-American singer Lila Downs wove together some jazzy-Latino pieces of “This Land is Your Land” with other pro-immigrant words written by Guthrie. Downs noted that so many anti-immigrant voices were talking about “forgetting about the places that we all come from sometimes, and he was very much into reminding us of that.” Springsteen never showed up – but producer Hal Wilner was hanging around the back of the room for no explained reason – and Arlo came out at the end to lead a bunch of the musicians and the audience in “This Land is Your Land.” It may have been Springsteen’s conference, but it was also Woody’s. “When I look at where we’re at as a nation,” said Chris Masterson, who plays guitar for Steve Earle, “I wish he was still around.”

I know how he feels.

I know how he feels.

As I wandered Austin at 1 a.m., I marveled at the mass of humanity that filled the closed-off streets. Music of all sorts poured out of every open door and widow, and from the tight knots of drum circles. People ate trailer-made Korean burritos as thin laser lights slashed through the dark sky overhead. Weren’t lasers supposed to be dangerous things?  But now, in the 21st century, we play with them.

We stopped at the Congress Street Bridge at 7:35 one evening, waiting for the world’s largest urban bat colony to emerge in their nightly pursuit of many times their body weight in insects. But the bats, like Springsteen at the Woody Guthrie tribute, were a no-show. In March, they’re still wintering in Mexico.

I was at a party a block from Stubbs’ when Tommy finally messaged. Rachael Ray’s party was winding down, we could probably get in without waiting in line. We finished our beers and headed over to Stubbs’ BBQ. The line was gone. So was the party. I saw overflowing trash cans of beer cups and paper plates. A security guy at the gate sized me up. “Are you here for the recycling?” he asked.

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