Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Monday, July 01, 2019

Bob Dylan’s Eyes

The films by or about Bob Dylan are every bit as strange, unique, intimate & evasive, as he is and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story, streaming now on Netflix, is no exception, blending documentary footage Dylan had taken during the famous 1974-6 tour with more than a few fictional add-ons from the likes of Sharon Stone, Kipper Kid Martin von Haselberg, and studio exec (just not that studio nor that exec) Jim Gianapolus. But as somebody who has been listening to, close-reading and watching the troubadour of Hibbing for at least 57 years, the real stars of this paradocumentary are Bob Dylan’s eyes. They are luminous, blue and often (in the faux Noh white paint that turns up pretty much everywhere on Dylan, violinist Scarlet Rivera, and even for a bit Joan Baez, during the tour) green.[i] Most importantly, they are searching, making contact, commenting on the action we see and the inner workings behind the mask that are not given to us during the two-hour, twenty minutes of the film.

In 1974, Bob Dylan had largely been off the road for the previous eight years following a motorcycle accident before returning to do a series of stadium and arena-sized shows with The Band, the legendary backup quintet once known as Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks. During the interim, Dylan and the Band  had  been down in the basement making some glorious music, the group had become nearly as famous as their front man, and the stadium shows reflected this with alternating sets. It was a format that had become standard in the post-Woodstock era, one that lives on today all over the globe, from Coachella to K-Pop[ii]. But it is also the form that drove the Beatles into retirement from live performance in 1967 and its fundamental inhumanness is its basic truth. Rolling Thunder Review repeatedly returns to the fact that the smaller venues Dylan chose for the three-year traveling carnival he had created to succeed the gigs with the band ensured that it would never succeed financially.

But touring is an essential economic truth in the music business, where record companies were sucking up vast portions of any performer’s earnings long before the rise of the net and the cloud put control of the product into serious doubt. After a five-year touring career in the early 1960s and a six-month return before screaming masses of adoring ants, Dylan was searching for something different. Rolling Thunder was the result.

With the stadium shows, Dylan had begun rolling out his new strategy of reworking some of his standards, often quite dramatically, and the Rolling Thunder performances show Dylan’s passion for these new versions of what had already become familiar classics as well as more recent fare from the records released during the eight years away from touring. But what is really most notable are Dylan’s facial expressions, his directness with the audience, eyes rolling when Baez transposes a phrase, eyebrows arching, registering emotion. It’s not just that Dylan is having fun, although how often  have you seen him acknowledge that, but that he’s communicating and collaborating with his expressions in ways I had not seen during his folk and earlier rock periods and never in the course of his Never-Ending Tour that has gone on now for over 31 years.[iii] Like, say, Miles Davis (a performer whom at times reminds me of Dylan in his obsessional focus on the piece at hand), who seldom if ever interacted with audiences, Dylan often feels onstage is if he were alone with his band. Not so in these performances.

Which is what gives these shows & this film an intensity Dylan seldom approaches elsewhere.

Rolling Thunder was also Dylan’s attempt to create an alternative to the isolating realities of fame and travel that can bedevil musicians. Anyone who has seen Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley arriving for a concert with some backup band he has never met, let alone with whom he has practiced, or heard the exhaustion in the voice of a solo artist like Eric Andersen (who has a bit role in this film), or who can count the number of musicians who have died on the road, will sympathize. Dylan’s idea was to put together a small community of first-rate artists and take them all along for the ride. While the film returns repeatedly to the figure of the carnival, it’s really the pilgrimages of, say, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that echo most loudly here. The film’s second billing goes to Allen Ginsberg, labeled in the credits as (Dylan’s phrase) the Oracle of Delphi, who begins the tour as a central obsession for Dylan (“absolutely not a father figure” Bob insists as Ginsberg leads him to the grave of Jack Kerouac, footage everyone has seen before but given new poignancy by the context offered here ) but concludes it sharing roadie duties with Peter Orlovsky. Others in the mix include Patti Smith, Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn and Joni Mitchell. Oddly missing from the interviews are most of the musicians who back Dylan up, particularly Bobby Neuwirth, Dylan’s close friend who served as the functional producer of much that ensued musically on the tour and who proves a reasonable successor to the great lead guitarists Dylan has had going back to the late Mike Bloomfield.

If the tour was, as everyone insists – from Gianapolus as producer to the jowly Dylan of just last year – a failure, it wasn’t financially[iv] so much as socially. The dynamics of the road are relentless – Baez, Dylan’s ex-lover from the sixties quits the tour & her absence as a grounding is noticeable[v]. What does it mean to have a roving commune in a world so hungry for roots? You can run away to join the circus, but the circus itself turns out to be a very circumscribed home. The commune movement, from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters forward, was as much a seventies’ phenomenon as a holdover from the sixties, and as the sometimes incoherent pacing of appearances from Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford & Jimmy Carter[vi], reflects, the failure of the revolution of ’68 left everyone not already bunkered down in the counterculture without many alternatives. The power imbalance between Dylan and everyone else is something nobody can get past – even Baez, here as elsewhere a snarky skeptic unafraid of being incorrect, concedes to it. Bob is Bob, but unlike Charlie, he doesn’t want a harem to kill for him, or – a la Baker-roshi – to ensconce him in wealth and pussy. Dylan profoundly distrusts power, but his followers are like iron filings to his magnetic presence. It’s the Gordian knot he will never cut.

Much, too much in fact, is made of the question of masks as Dylan’s only plausible defense to this conundrum, and when you hear Hurricane Carter’s snappy, upbeat chatter about how Dylan is still searching regardless of his claim to have already found some inner peace, you remember that Rolling Thunder was Dylan’s last stop before the Bible[vii]. In one sense, this is where Scorsese – Dylan’s friend since at least The Last Waltz – fails as a filmmaker. A director with some critical distance might have looked with a more jaundiced eye at the wall Dylan hits at the end of this tour, aesthetically, spiritually, intellectually. Good intentions will only get you so far. There’s a reason even Ringling Bros. gave it up in 2017, and why so many other performers have retreated to Nashville, Branson or Vegas, why the Blue Man Group or Cirque de Soleil don’t do the road. At 78, Dylan still performs at 100-plus venues per year, compared with the Stones who do 30 once every five years, and McCartney something comparable to that. Dylan is driven, albeit not by fame, fortune nor glory – his fumbling of the Nobel Prize should tell us that. In a sense, he’s like the secret cylons in Battlestar Gallactica, who know who they are by the song they can’t get out of their head, written as it was by Bob Dylan.

[i] It probably says hazel on his driver’s ID.

[ii] Incommensurable, I know.

[iii] The credit roll lists every show from 1974 through 2018 and we are talking thousands.

[iv] Billionaire Sir Paul McCartney and maybe the Gershwins must be the only other people to come close to Dylan in revenue from covers of their music.

[v] Their discussion of their marriages, Dylan to the “woman I love” in Sara (not always present on the tour and not visible here), Baez to Stanford anti-war activist David Harris (“the man I thought I loved”), is a level of intimacy nowhere available elsewhere in any film of Dylan I’ve ever seen.

[vi] How many of today’s audiences will recognize a dazed Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme being arrested after her attempt to shoot Ford at the Sacramento state capitol, or even know that Ford was the target of two assassination attempts in one month? If Scorsese had been making a film about the period, rather than the tour, he’d have noted the arrest of Patty Hearst and her SLA compatriots that same month, prompting one of the network news broadcasts to project its coverage over the background of the Beach Boys’ California Girls.

[vii] Where is T-Bone Burnett whose presence on the tour is sometimes credited with Dylan’s religious conversion? Or David Bromberg? Didn’t he get together with his wife, artist and Santeria practitioner Nancy Josephson, on the tour? So many great musicians Scorsese could have talked to and did not. Indeed, there would seem to be a documentary waiting to be made of Scarlet Rivera’s presence throughout. Having been “discovered” by Dylan walking down the street in New York – an event as improbable as Trungpa’s famous cab ride with Ginsberg – everyone seems terrified of her.  Next to Dylan, Ginsberg & maybe Baez, she’s the most visible person here, still making use of the musical career that apparently fell from the sky.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Is power a function of speech? That, in essence, was the core of the Supreme Court decision we know under the deeply cynical – but curiously not inaccurate – name of Citizens United. Limiting the right of the wealthy to spend limitless sums of capital on political campaigns was curtailing their right to speak about issues that matter both to them and the polis.

But capital is not speech – it’s power. Consider the example of Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos.  The company employs 613,300 people, roughly twice the number who worked at IBM when I was employed there in the late 1990s. Amazon actually earned $171 billion in revenue in 2017, with an overall net income of $3 billion, assets worth $131 billion and a stock valuation of just under $28 billion. Thus the equity per employee of Amazon was a smidgen over $45,000. One could argue that the company was and is a good buy at its current price of around $1500 per share. There is a lot of value in its activity that is not captured in a stock price that low.

That value is divided, of course, not among its employees, but rather its shareholders, the largest being Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Not that Bezos depends entirely upon undervalued Amazon stock for his wealth. His early investment in Google (a mere $250,000) for example, is now worth more than $3 billion and Bezos owns a lot of other stuff, including a space exploration company and, through a limited liability corporation called Nash Holdings, The Washington Post, an asset that makes him a target of angry tweets by President Trump. Overall, Bezos is said to be worth over $150 billion, slightly ahead of Bill Gates, but considerably ahead of you and me.

Whether Bezos is the richest man in the world, as Wikipedia and Forbes, assert, or not depends on part on how one values the wealth of some off-the-books types, such as Vladimir Putin ($200B, give or take[i]) or the 2,000-members of the Saud family said to be worth a total of roughly $1.4 trillion, a significant amount of which is controlled by a handful of elders. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the one country named for its ruling family.

A few years ago, when Bill Gates first became the “richest man in the world,” it was a title that  could be had for $30 billion. The subsequent growth in these numbers reflects a fundamental tendency of capitalism to accumulate and concentrate. If all the money in the world (currently somewhere around 255 trillion US$) were divided equally among the eight billion people on this planet, everyone would have a net worth a little under $32,000, which is about one year’s tuition at an Ivy League school. So the likes of Bezos, Gates, Putin and Mohammad bin Salman represents quite a bit more than their “share” of the world’s wealth if we look at the planet as something akin to an asset that belongs to us all.

Which means that these disproportionate concentrations of wealth represent serious distortions of power, including the power to concentrate food, shelter and physical wellbeing. That is what politics is all about. In terms of wealth, Jeff Bezos has 4 million seven hundred thousand times that of the average human being. Dividing Amazon’s HQ2 50,000 future employees among the residents of northern Virginia and the Bronx is just one way to ensure that Bezos’ absolute economic influence in the metro DC and New York City regions will be magnified by significant voting blocs of people for whom what is in Amazon’s interest translates into their own welfare. It’s the old “What’s good for General Motors” formula updated for the internet age.

So the protection of wealth as speech – again, the essence of Citizens United – is intended to ensure that the concentration of capital will be protected by the US Constitution. It’s a neat trick that Lewis Powell first foresaw when he suggested the weaponization of the US legal system in his memo to the US Chamber of Congress in August of 1971. Since then, the US right has organized systematically to take over the courts, a process that has required diligence, organization and a reasonably singled-minded focus for 48 effing years to accomplish its goal with beer-boy Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court and the Senate’s wave of confirmations of Kavanaugh knock-offs to fill a wide range of lower court vacancies that built up during the Obama years, complements of Mitch McConnell.

By way of contrast, future Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was so appalled at the defeat of George McGovern by Richard Nixon in 1972 that he founded the Democrat Leadership Conference to ensure that Democratic politics in the next generation would not be weighed down by any socialist-leaning ideas from the American Left. Clinton’s vision of a Democratic Party working in unison with liberal aspects of corporate America has governed the party pretty much until this last election. Even now, the Democrats find themselves with Chuck Schumer, a US Senator who represents exactly one city block of lower Manhattan, and Nancy Pelosi, a committed centrist, running the party in Congress, plus a passel of disparate candidates hoping to run for the presidency in 2020, exactly two of whom (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) might be characterized as “on the left.” Most, although not all, of the rest seems to be following the Obama formula of looking progressive while operating as centrists – no “out” centrist has won the Electoral College since 1996. Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic Congressman who often voted with the GOP and who can be characterized as a progressive only when contrasted with the likes of Ted Cruz, is more typical of the field.

In short, we have a relatively organized American right, currently being held captive by a politician who demonstrates that party’s contempt for professionalism in politics, against a  broad array of candidates most of whom actively do not want to challenge the Democratic party’s symbiotic relationship with Wall Street, Hollywood and tech billionaires. What an appealing choice! Further, the longer the Republicans can control the Senate and the executive branch, the more damage they can do and the longer it will take any bottom-up mass movement of Americans to overturn the right’s stranglehold on at least the judiciary.

And did I mention that climate change makes the problem more urgent every day?

It’s enough to make a Chomskyian out of a sane person, if only because Chomsky’s complaints about the rapacious nature of capitalism tend to be reasonable. The real problem is how to undo what has been done and overturn capital’s stranglehold on the polis. If you don’t break that stranglehold, any short-term fixes will prove as fragile as Barack Obama’s progressive heritage.

I think that the answer to the first question has to lie in a series of Constitutional Amendments, the first of which declares that money is not speech. But I wouldn’t want to call a Constitutional Convention in the present political climate, would you? Handmaid’s Tale, here we come.

Long term, it will take at least the single-minded focus that the GOP has demonstrated since 1971 and a degree of organization that is the equal of the Republican right. One aspect of that organization has to be a consistent never-ending critique of capital’s role in society, precisely its capacity to concentrate power.

It is that disequalibration that underpins all the ways that capital empowers every form of privilege that exists: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, age privilege, you name it.

If I look at how Jeff Bezos employs his wealth, he seems innocuous enough. Amazon’s corporate contributions have skewed slightly Republican, but not significantly so, and Bezos himself has mostly supported establishment Democrats. His ownership of the Post has been hands-off  in pointed contrast with the Murdoch clan, allowing professional journalists to do their jobs, even if a lot of Post contributors clearly suffer from inside-the-Beltway conventional thinking. Bezos’ more important political contribution has been a $10 million gift to With Honor, a non-profit cofounded by GOP strategist (and never-Trumper) David Gergen to elect more veterans to Congress. Not all veterans are conservatives – Ron Dellums was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as well as a former Marine. But the overall impact of such giving, like hiring some 50,000 employees in two key districts on the East Coast, seems poised to ensure the well-being of Amazon itself as it remakes the commercial sale and distribution of products in a web-driven world.

And progressive-sounding politicians who do nothing to ensure the election of progressives at the state and local level, as was the case with Obama, or who do nothing to disengage US foreign policy from the interests of international corporations – as was also the case with #44 – do little more than ensure that the worst immediate consequences of capital may be inhibited while the deeper stranglehold of wealth on history and privilege continue unabated. I think it’s arguable whether or not Obama made the ascendancy of a racist and fascist to the presidency inevitable, but he certainly helped to magnify the damage that man can do while in office. Voter suppression campaigns in Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere, are a direct result of Obama’s abandonment of state and local politics while in office. The disarray of US foreign policy reflects the reality that Obama’s international vision amounted to little more than continuing the use of US military might (this time with drones!) to bolster a global order tailor-made by and for US corporations[ii]. When Trump came to pull that house down, it was already in considerable shambles.

The same year that Lewis Powell penned his infamous memo to the Chamber of Commerce, he was nominated by Richard Nixon to the US Supreme Court where he would serve for 16 years. He died finally in 1998, some twenty years before the Kavanagh nomination ensured that a nation that leans to the left will have its laws interpreted for a generation by a court that leans markedly to the right. That’s a vision of a long arc, a vision the left has lacked for a generation. With the growing threat of global warming sure to push ever larger numbers of people to increasingly desperate acts, it’s really now or never.

[i] A problematic figure suggested first by Bill Browder, the Russian investment oligarch son of former US Communist Earl Browder, and man most likely to grip a poisoned doorknob for his opposition to Putin.

[ii] Henry Kissinger’s corporate sponsor throughout his career was Nelson Rockefeller. His Democratic counterpart, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was in turn sponsored by David Rockefeller. The company the Rockefellers inherited was Standard Oil, the global predecessor to Exxon. Kissinger and Brzezinski ran foreign policy during the Nixon and Carter years, and were replaced  during the Reagan era by Casper Weinberger and George Schultz, both of whom ran divisions at Bechtel. Reagan’s vice-president was the only CIA official to ever own his own oil firm, George  HW Bush. Oil’s tight control of foreign policy fit right into the rise of the automobile in post-WW2 America, as well as the automobile’s greatest achievement, the American suburb and the physical remaking of every metropolitan region in the nation. Why are the Saudis our friends? What’s good for General Motors?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them—

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius—

all to no end save beauty
the eternal—

So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful

for this
to be warned against

saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut—

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—

The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—

It is the Inquisition, the

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them

This is
the power of their faces

It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought

Well, now we know which poets were bullies in high school.

I want to thank the several dozen people who reached out to me, mostly back-channel, to convey their support and to apologize for the behavior of their friends (my friends too, more often than not) over this past weekend. Humanity often seems like a test to see if it is possible to save the planet with such a deeply damaged species and these groupthink mobs are a chance to observe that damage at its worst.

Ironically, I received more Facebook friend requests over the 48 hours after I posted my last message here than I’ve ever received in one weekend. I haven’t been able to accommodate them all because I’m at Facebook’s arbitrary limit of 5,000 “friends.”

Perhaps doubly ironically, this blog received its 4,000,000th visit over on Memorial Day.

Obviously I knew that by exaggerating the scale of my comparisons I would trigger some response and I realize that some people think that scale itself must change the structure of the dynamics. It doesn’t, which was precisely the point I was trying to make.

More crucially, I do realize that some people feel great pain if it appears that somebody outside of their community does not take seriously the violence that has been – and continues to be – done to them, which is a feeling that the question of scale can invoke. That’s a fair criticism, and I hear it.

Did I feel that I was making light of anybody’s pain, or dismissing acts of violence? On the contrary, I felt I was doing just the opposite, pointing out that fighting evil with evil does not make it good. Signing the petition to the AWP – and the subsequent actions of that organization -- seems to me unambiguously evil, and it lines up with every other censorious act in history. Many of which have had horrific consequences.

When the folks at Rolling Stock publically wished Allen Ginsberg “the gift of AIDS,” I felt that it was a despicable thing to do, and said and wrote so at the time. But I did not think then, nor do I now, that it would have been a good idea to attempt to prevent them from participating in any of the normal duties of the profession of a poet. When friends of that journal who sat by in utter silence during those acts of explicit homophobia (and, elsewhere, anti-Asian racism) now tell me that I have “crossed the line,” I have a complicated reaction. Part of me simply thinks that, no, when faced with evil you have always chosen evil and you do so now. I should hope that I’m the other side of that line.

But part of me simply feels sadness. Simply because many of the folks attempting to pile on at the moment are indeed poets and readers I think of as my friends. I should note that I don’t believe either Vanessa Place or Kenny Goldsmith intended their projects to read as racist, but both presented overdetermined content capable of being read and received all sorts of ways. And anyone who has read Citizen: An American Lyric should recognize that just because somebody didn’t intend an action to be read as racist doesn’t necessarily absolve it from racism. What Vanessa Place is being punished for is the crime of polysemy without a license.

But we all should know that race makes everybody in the US pretty crazy. The right’s paranoid obsession with the idea that Obama might have been born in Kenya (he wasn’t) rather than the idea that the current president of the United States grew up on the streets of Jakarta (he did) is a good index of that. Now if only he governed like somebody who learned the lessons of American empire on the streets of Indonesia….

There is a reason I began my note on Friday with the observation that the most important of all human rights is the right to blaspheme. Without that right, every other human right, every other human activity, can be (and eventually will be) curtailed. Human history is littered with the carnage of that. If only Muslims get to determine how Mohammed is portrayed, if only Putin gets to determine what his opponents may say of him, if only the Philadelphia Police Department gets to determine what Mumia Abu Jamal is or is not permitted to say in public, if only rapists aren’t allowed to impugn their accusers, if only the mayor of Iguala gets to determine what is said of his administration, if only the GOP gets to define marriage, or to determine what can be said about climate change – the instances, once begun, quickly become endless and it matters not one whit that some of these could have the best intentions or represent the trauma of history on a given community. The denial of genocide in France, the denial of genocide in Turkey, the denial of genocide in Syria or in Palestine. Everybody, it seems, is willing to ban some speech just so long as “good people” get to decide. The problem is that who gets to decide almost always aligns with power.

One of the first political activities of my youth, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964-5, was not originally about speech. What the local business community was objecting to was people picketing the restaurants of Berkeley and Oakland as diners came to eat dinner. The pickets protested the refusal of these restaurants to hire people of color. Diners might choose to eat elsewhere. At the time, the President of the US Senate was Republican William Knowland, who also happened to own the Oakland Tribune, a newspaper that relied in part on ads from these very same restaurants. It was Knowland who asked the University to halt the use of card tables at the Bancroft Street entrance to the campus to sign up protestors for coming pickets. The speech that was being curtailed was essentially a question, “Would you like to sign up for tonight’s picket? It’s going to be at X restaurant at Y location.”

One can always argue that there is something about the circumstances surrounding any attempt to shut down an activity of speech that makes this case different. It is always different, which is exactly why it is not. This is not to erase historical context but rather to note that you cannot deploy a weapon against one side that will not ultimately be deployed against everyone else. And the history of power in Western Civilization suggests that progressives should be especially careful not to deploy the weapons of censorship that have been far more often used against them.

Over the decades I’ve consistently supported and given money to has been the American Civil Liberties Union, the one organization I know that gets this problem. Often I’ve sent them a contribution after they have taken an action, like supporting the right of Nazis or the Klan to march, that I knew would cost them some of their traditional progressive backing. I’ve realized that if we don’t protect the rights of those we disapprove of – say the Westboro Baptist Church – then we can’t expect to save our own rights either.

What do I think should happen? I would argue for more speech, more interaction, both on the part of those who feel aggrieved and those who may have offended them (yours truly included). Placing topics off limits and punishing people that, however ineptly, may have crossed imagined lines is not a way to generate new or more insights. It is certainly not a mechanism for getting people to listen or come together.

I am reminded during all of this that there have been times and places in US history when Irish, Italian and Jewish Americans have all been categorized as non-white. One still sees the category of “White Hispanic.” That may seem laughable in 2015, but within five miles of my house is the grave of Duffy’s Cut, where in 1832 some 50 Irish railroad workers were slaughtered in order to “curtail” an outbreak of cholera. By the standards of the US census, my grandfather “became white” when he was adopted in 1892 and had his name changed from Ambrose McMahon to Emerald Ambrose Silliman, but even that was only because officials did not recognize his new surname as a contraction of the original Sillimandi. In 1891, the year my grandfather was born, the Klan lynched 11 Italians taken from the jail in New Orleans.

[i] My thanks to the Philadelphia poet who reminded me of this poem.

Friday, March 21, 2014