Sunday, September 25, 2005

No More War

I spent three hours yesterday in and among some 500 anti-war demonstrators, watching as they chanted, sang, waved and marched, signs held high, in solidarity against George W. Bush’s unholy war of terror in Iraq.

What really happened there? Or, more appropriately, what will happen now?

It’s no secret this country has turned against Bush’s folly. Hell, barely half were even in support of the fucking thing in the first place, with millions of protestors worldwide shouting loudly, and nearly stopping the invasion before it began.

Only once before in history did a nation’s own people rise up and force the government to abandon a war: Vietnam.

It’s going to happen again. It’s going to happen without a draft, without violence, without major arrests and god willing without the death of 58,000 of our own soldiers, and untold thousands of others.

I don’t want to wade too deep into the politics here though. This is the sights, the sounds and the curious nature of the peace movement, by its very nature probably the widest ranging, most diverse cause imaginable.

There are the usual suspects, to be sure. In the movie PCU they’re called the “causeheads,” an appropriate label for the crowd that almost seems to protest for protest’s sake.

But the march yesterday here, and judging by the pictures and video from D.C. the same there, was virtually an Everybody’s Club. There were all ages, from 3-year-olds to folks who look like they’re pushing 90. One of the highlights was the Raging Grannies, the funniest group of post-menopausal women out there. Their reinterpretations of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Guantanamera” and “God Bless America” are witty and damning.

The man in the overalls with the banjo stuck to the old standards: “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” and one of my personal favorites, the song that should be our national anthem, Communist leanings be damned: “This Land is Your Land.” Woody captured everything this country should be like, everything it would be if the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights weren’t subjugated by the power interests from the get-go of this country.

My favorite sign of the day (creative, but don’t get lost figuring it out too literally): “Frodo failed, Bush has the Ring.”

I’ve been among protests for a while, seen a good dozen of various types.

One thing I noticed yesterday, and one thing I think will increasingly come to matter as this year progresses, is the near ubiquity of calls to impeach Bush. Like previous protests, this isn’t just saying NO WAR, it isn’t just saying BUSH LIED US INTO WAR, it’s demanding the constitutional removal of an American president. It won’t happen. It should, but it won’t. The Republican majority in Congress is far too corrupt and far too deep under Karl Rove’s spell to ever take that action.

But given the forcefulness of the impeachment call at the protests, and the fact that nearly two thirds of the country now oppose the war, I’d guess that somewhere near 20 percent of this country believe Bush should be impeached and tried. Argue with the guess if you want, offer your own, be regardless, recognize that it’s a significant portion of Americans.

But back to the color of the day. I wish I was more of a photographer, or that I’d at least brought my camera. Some of my best photography came from the protests in Los Angeles in 2000. It’s not only the color and the theatrics of the whole thing. Protests have an undeniable energy, and you can capture it in people. The expressions, the yearning eyes, the sense of duty… it all comes through in the lens.

Face it, protests can be entertaining. The redundancy of the speakers aside, there’s plenty to look at, plenty to take in. Above it all perhaps is the feeling of oneness and accomplishment that pervades the rally. Demonstrators are DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT. They’re not sitting back, not writing letters, not engaging in friendly debates. They’re idealistic, but they’re not stupid. I’d wager this country’s best educated, smartest and wisest people absolutely oppose at least this war (if not war in general) for the simple reason that they’ve gotten past the bullshit administration rhetoric and understand what the conflict really is about. And those reasons – power, oil, neo-con colonialism – do not in any way justify the action, which is why so many other “justifications” were offered.

Those “justifications” were just like a baseball lineup, building to power, then falling off.

Leading off was “Axis of evil,” up second was “Saddam is dangerous,” hitting third was “WMDs” and the administration was off and running. If that wasn’t enough, the clean-up hitter was the powerful but subtle insinuation of “nuclear capabilities.” After that, the quality of hitters started falling quickly. Fifth was “liberation.” Sixth was “Democracy.” Seventh was “Bring ‘em on.” Eighth was “the insurgency is in it’s final throes.” And up ninth, the puny, ineffective “Stay the course.”

Ninth, of course, will be the one that strikes out to end the game.

Staying a disastrous course will lead to more disaster. Any idiot can see that. America is waking up. The wave is coming. And the last idiot who realizes that the course he’s stayed is ultimate disaster will be a disgraced and hopefully impeached president.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

This is a strange band to pack a 1,400 seat theatre

The last time I saw the Decemberists, there must’ve been 200 people in a little club up the road. And sure, they have what more or less qualifies as a hit album, but my best guess for the incredible difference in crowd size is simply the hype train catching up.

Colin Meloy writes things that resemble songs, but are in fact slightly more, like musical theater without the stage act. The intricacies in both story and sound give the songs an incredibly beautiful weight. The listening experience is rich. It’s hard to imagine a band that is so quirky and at the same time so good.

The songs have a fascinating postmodern love of an ancient time that never actually existed. The songs are the past as Meloy imagines it, his own classic world.

But despite this childlike creativity, these aren’t stories you tell children, they’re stories too delicate and too rich.

Follow the hype to your own record store, buy the Decemberists and embrace them. This band won’t go away – in fact their only getting better – so just submit.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Future

Mr. Chair is correct about political blogging – it’s an unsavory pursuit. Politics heats people up like little else, and it’s an easy subject to write (or rant and rave) about. For my own part, I stuck to the politics too much, and it took a long while to get over. The embedded cynicism in political writing crosses over too easily to daily life, and the overly analytical eyes can see politics in everything. In many ways it corrupts day-to-day existence. Plus, being honest, it’s a lot more painful to lose than it is to win and after November I just couldn’t take it anymore.

But Hurricane Katrina isn’t politics. It’s world history and it’s going to shake this country’s foundation. There’s anger in the masses like I’ve never seen – anger primarily at the government in general, and rightly placed.

The Bush administration’s callous approach to the relief effort and its even more galling approach to trying to weasel out from under the mounting blame and criticism has rightfully enraged everyone but the president’s most staunch supporters.

All the details about botched preparation and immediate response are well enough known (certainly by these readers). I want to know what will come. And I’ve got a few thoughts.

If nothing else Hurricane Katrina and it’s aftermath should force every American to tear down his her own thoughts about poverty, charity, leadership and the fundamental role of government in the society. It’s time for a complete re-evaluation and a whole new set of rules in this country. And I doubt we’re going to see much of a damn bit of support for the overall philosophy and direction Bush has been leading the United States.

If there’s ever been a time since the Great Depression that the common American was demanding a populist leader it’s now.

We need to add the War on Poverty to the top of the list of goals in this country. If the U.S. military is equipped to fight two wars, it’s people can damn sure add a war on poverty to the ill-defined war on terror.

Politics is what follows all this, but for a top-of-my-head pick, I’d say John Edwards looks like a hell of a president right now.

His realistic description of the Two Americas looks prescient right now.

Thousands of people died in this natural disaster for no other reason than they were poor and their government failed them. There certainly would have been a death count in this hurricane regardless, and the scary fact is that under some other set of circumstances it may have been even worse.

But every step of the way – starting years ago when the Bush administration decided to shift crucial levy restoration funds to his fool’s errand in Iraq and in all sad likelihood continuing indefinitely – the federal government has stranded its neediest citizens when they needed help the most.

This whole scenario makes the right wing’s sneers about “welfare moms” all the more cruel. It starts with their attitude, their disdain of government, their love of power and their crusade to dismantle everything that helps their fellow citizens.

Their use of “welfare” as a dirty word is among those first cancerous cells that spread to choke all of New Orleans, leaving people to use roofs as islands, food-less, staring as bodies swirled around them, unable to defend themselves against the storm.

For years the gap between poor and rich has been expanding in this country as the shining goal of equal opportunity for all has been left to rot and rust, ignored in favor of a host of right-wing causes: prayer in school, outlawed abortion, Middle Eastern oil crusades, the demolition of science and our natural world and the abandonment of civil rights.

There will be a dramatic leap in the politics of this nation soon and it will destroy the political career and the legacy of President Bush.

The driver of Wrong Way America will be booted out the passenger side door as a real leader takes over with a true American agenda: bringing our troops home from Iraq, working to restore the good name of the United States overseas, correcting corporate crime, restoring ethics and honesty to Congress, developing a tax code that closes the loop holes and dodges for the wealthy, delivering quality health care to everybody, protecting the environment and educating, educating, educating our children, each and every one, from the youngest age until they’ve achieved what will put this nation ahead of the world once again.

Government is the people of this country, not a dirty word, not something to be drowned in a bathtub.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Hot Cong Fever Forever

I ran into Al Perry today at Los Betos. He was just sitting there, waiting on his burrito. “Blazing set, man,” I said.

He thanked me, then without any hesitation said it had been one of the best weekends of his life.

He was right – he had to be.

Club Congress 20th Anniversary was nothing short of historic – three nights of outstanding music, accompanied by the feel that something absolutely unheard of was happening.

I felt it right away. The whole crowd was geared up; they all knew it. They all knew that this was something damn special.

I was hosting Stu LeBlanc and CH for their weekend out of the pines, a preview weekend of the eventual move. Also swinging through town for the weekend was our favorite expatriate, Mr. Tim Finagain, on loan from Paris.

I was riding high all week for the show and Tuesday’s show by the Knitters only added to the anticipation.

When thousands of people congregate – and dozens of bands reunite – to celebrate a city’s music scene over the years, there’s an obvious tendency to think there’s something special in that scene, something special in that sound, something special in that town. And it’s all right.

My own knowledge of the Tucson music scene goes back just eight years. I know most of Greyhound Soul and Fourkiller Flats, of Calexico and the latter Giant Sand years, of the newer clubs. I know nothing of the defunct clubs, nothing of the departed acts and sadly, next-to-nothing of Rainer Ptack.

But even in those few years, I’ve caught on to the enduring legends, caught a buzz from what came before.

The counterpart to the weekend, the documentary film High and Dry, spent a while pondering on what precisely makes up the Tucson sound. Some speculation went as narrow as a particular drum style, a sort of off-beat, opposite sound. Others cited the heavy guitar presence. Some spoke more esoterically about “space” in the sounds. Some merely over simplified it with the “desert rock” tag – which has been around long enough to actually come to mean something.

I can’t cite anything in particular, other than the city itself. It’s more of a feel and a character than anything else. It’s relaxed, with the only urgency in the music itself. It’s quirky at times, beyond unique at others. There’s a landscape to Tucson music. It’s four dimensional. Its connection with a Tucson listener is immediate – and deeper than pretty much all but that listener’s most favorite music. Tucson’s music is filled with contradictory characters – from the anti-hero Howe Gelb to the British bluesman Tom Walbank. Tucson’s music is contradictions piled on each other, competing sounds and genres layered as if they were instruments. And the perfect mix is achieved in so many different ways, it’s hard to cite a particular sound.

The first act I really caught Friday was the Sidewinders, and Rich Hopkins’ guitar alone is plenty enough to make you believe they were truly screwed out of hitting the big time. Leave the Gin Blossoms comparisons at home, the Sidewinders are more like a dust-baked Replacements in sound, if not impact and Paul Westerberg’s songwriting.

I caught a tantalizing bit of La Cerca – a band ready to make a big impact. Let “desert rock” now take over the indie stage.

The highlight of Friday, and probably the whole weekend, was Giant Sand. Howe Gelb has a presence alright, and it only grew with the importance of the event.

He’s certainly been the longest-playing and widely appreciated and revered performer associated with the Tucson music scene, as innovative and influential as you’d find anywhere these days.

There were new songs and old songs, with his old bandmates Calexico back in full force. I lost some of the specifics as the night grew hazy, but that sound is still in my mind: Howe Gelb doing whatever he wanted with that guitar. And I was constantly amazed.

Saturday brought the Al Perry All Star BBQ, with Al hosting court as the Legend he is. Not that he needs a lead guitarist, but Al brought out two, including Chuck Prophet, for a triple Telecaster attack that was stunning. He played a friendly set, filled with the classics: Loserville, Little Bird Flies Away (though I’m not sure on that title) and Dreaming. The best, though, was “We Got Cactus,” the near-signature song he rescued from obscurity, complete with its Bloodspasm songwriter singing backup. Incredible.

Next I caught the peyote blues of Greyound Soul inside the wonderfully renovated Rialto Theatre. Greyhound was in great form, perfect form really, but I had to make the toughest decision of the weekend and run across the street to catch the Drakes, performing under their new name, the Townies.

If Giant Sand hadn’t been so perfect, this would have easily been the set of the weekend.

The Drakes played old and new and sounded perfect. The guitar/keyboard combo was spot on. Tom Stauffer’s got some top quality new tunes – including one I woke up humming the next morning and couldn’t shake all weekend. Their brass section fit perfect. The Drakes’ sound is terribly hard to describe because it’s so versatile. They can swing between dense and spare like few others. I’m not sure if anybody else could go without a bass on some songs and have a tuba (that for some reason they kept calling a sousaphone) hold down the low end. They closed with Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927, but the second-to-last tune was the one that really brought the house down. Here’s to more shows and more records by the Drakes/Townies, who sound like they’ve got the “Fantasy Jones.”

And the night kept going, with a shot of pure adrenaline known as Chango Malo. The boys were in high spirits, but were either forced or offered to cut their set short to get the gig back on schedule. No problem. As the drummer left his kit to announce it would be the last tune of the night for them, he invited the crowd up on stage. So there MP and I are, dancing right onstage, along with Chango Malo and about 50 other crazies. Excellent.

But Saturday wasn’t done yet. In the surprise bonus great act of the night, I finally caught Tom Walbank, playing a righteous boogie blues like it was the New Year or something. I was groovin’ and shakin’ it – and I rarely groove, and never shake it.

I caught High and Dry on Sunday and am now vastly more informed about the scene –vastly more impressed, and vastly more appreciative of the fact that I chose this place and have been here for nearly nine years.

Sunday night however was a bit tougher. The legs weren’t holding up so well. The stomach wasn’t quite sure why it’d been drowned so much the two previous days. But the music didn’t stop and despite my lower-key demeanor, I didn’t withdraw. And the bands were perfect for a sitting back time. The swooping mysterious desert jazz of the Friends of Dean Martin and Friends of Dean Martinez (I’m still not up to speed quite on the precise difference) could float right on over to me sitting on a curb without losing a thing. And then Calexico (performing as Spoke) just kept it going. The current ambassadors of the Tucson scene played the good guys, cutting their set short to get the night back on track.

Fourkiller Flats closed off the weekend for me, a second reunion gig in two weeks and I couldn’t be happier. They played with the keyboards again, a new sounds that just slides right on in and makes the music a little denser, a little richer. I’ll never figure out why Fourkiller Flats didn’t explode. Maybe they hit the wave just a bit late, but Jim Cox’s songs of heartbreak and boozing are incredible and his voice just kicks you. The set had a couple songs that thrilled me because they were familiar from shows in years past, never recorded or left off albums for whatever reason. Ah man, what a happy comfortable time standing in front of that stage.

So that’s the roundup. I’m an appreciator in the whole scene here and the weekend was mind-blowing. I hope every performer and participant can join Al Perry in proclaiming the weekend one of the best of all-time.