Monday, November 15, 2010

Lost Hope: Did Obama Okey-doke the Liberals?

On Thursday night I watched a Frontline program called Obama’s Deal.  The next day I picked up a book by Edward McClellend called Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black PresidentYoung Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President.  These two mainstream media offerings were related to some degree. Obama’s Deal documented the two year ordeal that President Obama went through to get his ObamaCare passed into law, while Young Mr. Obama detailed Barack’s rise from a community organizer on Chicago’s southside to becoming the only black member of the U.S. Senate by 2004. Both are very good sources for insight into Obama's poltical modus operandi and they both ALSO go a long way in explaining the misgivings that Liberals are having over Obama’s actions as President thus far.  Many Liberals view the wheeling and dealing it took for Obama to become an U.S. Senator and the wheeling and dealing it took for him to pass the Health Care bill as examples of Obama's willingness to compromise Liberal principles.

As an Illinois state senator and as a U.S. senator Obama appeared to sell out liberal ideas for the advancement of his own career and agenda on a regular basis.  For example as a state senator, Obama allowed developers (similar to those he took contributions from) to demolish a historic nightclub in his district (on Forty-seventh street) known as Geri’s Palm Tavern for, what appeared to be, political gain.  Similarly he voted to close the DCFS (children and family services) office on Chicago’s Westside to appease fiscal conservatives.  Also Obama was implicated in the porking out of a $29 million gun range to Sparta, Illinois in order to get the Senator from that district to support him.

Then, while campaigning for POTUS in 2008 Obama promised that if elected he would run corporate lobbyists out of Washington.  He famously badgered the Bush Administration for letting the Health Insurance Industry write the Health and Drug bills.  But then, once he was elected POTUS himself, he directly ushered the Health Insurance lobbyists and the Drug Industry lobbyist into the white house to do basically the same thing all over again: i.e. to author his ObamaCare. And the liberals were thinking: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!?

Many Liberals started feeling as if they had been okey-doked.  There wasn't going to be any drastic CHANGE in the way politics were done in Washington. Obama wasn’t throwing lobbyists out of the capital—he was inviting them in. He wasn’t sticking it to fraudulent, wasteful and abusive corporate CEOs—he was bailing them out! And what happened to the total transparency (that would allow each individual to make an informed decision) that he promised?  Liberals were becoming discouraged--on the verge of being convinced that our political system breeds unethical maneuvering, no matter who the president is.  The Obama campaign of 2008 had rallied the far-left in a historical manner, but after two years of dashed hopes on what seemed like false promises, the thin membrane separating Liberals from total anarchy or total apathy was on the verge of breaking. And if that thin membrane were to break, (that thin membrane based on the belief that Liberals have a hope that they can change things within the American political system without compromising their liberal principles) then liberals would be left with basicaly two alternatives. One, they can totally turn their back on the American political system (anarchy or apathy). Or two they can evolve into Progressives.

Obamacare Pictures, Images and PhotosTo take the Progressive route would take faith.  ObamaCare was seen by some Liberals as the epidome of  how they would have to compromise their principles.  In fact some began comparing it to the Bush/Cheney's War For Oil in Iraq.  Whereas NeoCons tried to argue that in the long run the ends justified the means in invading Iraq, similiarly Liberals felt they were being put in the position of having to argue that in the long run ObamaCare is best for the United States.  In some ways this was a hard argument to make, partly due to the brilliance of Obama as a poltical player.  If Obama revealed too much, he would have provided fodder for the right-wing attack machine.  Instead Obama employed a strategy that may become as large of a part of his legacy as "passive resistance" has become to Martin Luther King's, which is: "Leading from the Back".  Determined that in the long run universial health care will be for the betterment of the US, Obama took on an Obstructionist Party of No that dominated Congress and was able to move his agenda ahead like few other POTUSes in history have been able to do. Instinctually Progressives understand that ObamaCare is a neccesary stepping stone toward socialized healthcare.  But living in an impatient, fast-food, immediate gratification gotcha-politics society where people expect perfection right here and right now, the idea of passing something as complex as ObamaCare seemed almost unrealistic. Yet Obama took on the task, having faith that eventually the bugs in Obamacare will get worked out.  The important thing was providing that springboard foundation for universal health care that ObamaCare would provide.

By passing ObamaCare, Obama made a stance that, America needs to be a country where humanitarian concerns trump monetary concerns.  A country where it is more important for children to have health care and for folks with pre-existing conditions to get treatment than it is for the stockholders and CEOs of the drug and health care industry to continue making record-breaking profits.  For Progressives who believe that humanitarian causes should trump monetary causes, the case for ObamaCare being worth the cost is an easy one to make.  Yet the unfortunate machinations that got ObamaCare pushed through remained: it had been politics as usual—the exact thing that Obama promised America that he wasn’t going to do. A promise, that more than anything else, inspired Liberals to get out and vote for Obama in 2008.  So after two years without Obama delivering on his promise of changing "politics as usual" there is a question of whether on not Liberals will vote for Obama in 2012.  Have they lost Hope?

I give Young Mr. Obama 3.5 out of 5 WagemannHeads.

©2010 Rockism 101. All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thoughts on Formulaic Non-Fiction Books

Extra Lives: Why Video Games MatterExtra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell

My soon to be five year old son wants a Star Wars light saber something or other video game for Christmas this year. The first problem with that is that this game is for the Wii game system and I only have a PlayStation 2. The second problem is that I have not yet been sold on this notion that video games aren’t just a waste of time and they aren't turning the youth of America into dumb, fat and happy drains on the purse strings of their hard working parents. Just like most every other parent today, I too once played video games—as a 12, 13 year old in the 1980s it was Atari home systems and darkly lit, sticky-carpeted arcades—but I can’t honestly think of a single thing from the time spent in front of a video game monitor that has contributed much to my adult life. Tom Bissell’s book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter however promised to straighten me out on that, and if I were worth my weight in Arcade tokens then I would make that the point of this blog.  Instead I'd like to write about Bissell's writing style.

About 5 years or so ago I stopped reading fiction and switched pretty much exclusively to non-fiction. More recently, one specific genre of non-fiction (a genre I call Pop-centric non-fiction) has taken my fancy.  These are books that deal with a subject matter that involves some aspect of pop culture.  They are often written with the author injecting him or herself into the narrative.  And a large number of them follow a basic formula. The formula goes like this: First of all you start off with a well-written (perhaps inspired even) first chapter that reveals the subject matter in an incredibly interesting light.  In Brad Millano’s Vinyl Junkies for example, we start off with Milano at a record listening party of sorts. While in Big Hair and Plastic Grass, the reader is drenched in a hipster-worded general overview plus teases of events and highlights that made the decade of the 70s so unique and interesting. This well-done first chapter, along with an eye-catching front cover and some gushing praise from other authors on the back cover, seems to be enough for publishers to believe that as a reader you have gotten your money’s worth.  The problem however is that, more times than not, the remaining chapters of these Pop-centric non-fiction books are paint-by-number assimilations of historical accounts of the subject matter and/or journalistic episodes and interviews that may marginally shed some light on the subject matter, but in general seem random or without direction.  Usually, somewhere halfway through these books, it becomes obvious that it is best just to start skimming or even just jump the to end and see if the last chapter has anything worth smelling.

As I sat down to read Bissell’s Extra Lives I wasn’t expecting anything more than another installment in this long line of formulaic Pop-centric non-fiction works. I did notice right off the bat however that Bissell writes in a style that is very enjoyable to read.  He writes from personal experience that reveals his inner thoughts and is likable and funny. For instance:

Was I apologizing to some imaginary cultural arbiter for finding value in a form of creative expression [video games] whose considerable deficits I recognize but which I nevertheless believe is important? Or is this evidence of authentic scruple? On one hand, I love Bioshock [a videogame] which is frequently saluted as one of the first games to tackle what might be considered intellectual subject matter—namely a gameworld exploration of the social consequences inherent within Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (long story)…If I really wanted to explore the implications and consequences of Objectivism, there were better, more sophisticated places to look, even if few of them would be as much fun (although getting shot in the knee would be more fun than rereading Atlas Shrugged). When I think about games, here is where I bottom out. Is it okay that they are mostly fun? Am I a philistine or simply a coward [to admit that a video game can be a work of art]? Are games the problem or am I?”

The first 25 pages or so was fun reading and it was obvious that Bissell had succeeded with the first part of the formula (the well-written first chapter that places the subject matter in an incredibly interesting light).  Author Keith Gesson, on the back cover of Extra Lives, accurately describes Bissell’s description of killing zombies in the first iteration of Resident Evil as “simply a tour de force.”

After this successful—yet formulaic—start though, Bissell moves us into chapter three (titled the Unbearable Lightness of Games). At this point he is moving away from framing the central issue of the book (that which is conjured up in the subtitle of the book “Why video games matter”) from a "personal" context to a "video game industry" context. This is where the book starts to get sluggish and I started getting the urge to start skimming.  The next two chapters basically feed into my worse fears. In these chapters Bissell interviews some video game gurus and he visits some video game convention, and the result is that as a reader I glean some vague understanding of the issues facing modern game designers, but nothing of much interest really.  In fact the only interesting thing to come from these chapters was that they caused me to continually think: “Jesus Christ, our society has way too much leisure time on our hands.”  Personally I have gotten off on video games before, but as I get older there is some pressing, ticking clock in the back of my head that starts to go off whenever I feel like I’m wasting time—which is really my biggest complaint against video games.  Logically, we only get so much time on this earth, 80 years maybe, so of course wasting that time scares me.  And I’ve played enough video games in my life to realize that they can be a huge waste of time.  But on the other hand, if your time is spent on an enjoyable activity, then who among us is to say that it is not time well spent?  In fact, if you think about it, what more could the average person hope to accomplish than finding an enjoyable way to spend their time?

However, other than the realization of this nugget of wisdom, reading chapters 4 and 5 in Extra Lives was starting to feel like a waste of time. And when chapter 6 started off with another encounter with a video game industry personality, my fingers starting twitching at the edge of the pages, preparing for “skim” mode. Fortunately though chapter 6 introduces Jonathon Blow, the designer of a game called Braid, which leads the text to some fascinating ideas that are outside the video game industry mainstream. Just in the nick of time, this short interesting chapter momentarily rescues the book from Mediocre-ville. The most interesting idea here is the idea that a video game can actually be art. Jonathon Blow criticizes video games for not touching people emotionally—like other forms of mass media can do; films, poetry, art, music, etc—and Bissell goes into detail how Blow’s game Braid not only attempts to touch people emotionally but also aspires to be thought of in the realm of art.

Neil Young Nation: A Quest, an Obsession (and a True Story)The final three chapters of Extra Lives are above mediocre as Bissell takes the narrative back toward a more personal context. But by the end of the book I was left pondering where does Extra Lives rate in terms of the pop-centric non–fiction genre that it belongs to?  Having become my genre of choice over the last year or so, I've come to recogniza at least two classics of the Pop-centric non-fiction genre: Kevin Chong’s Neil Young Nation and Josh Wilkers Cardboard Gods. Both of these works are obviously labors of love and thoughtfully written, but perhaps more importantly each one is written with a three dimensional narrative. By this I simply mean that there are at least 3 threads being wove throughout the narrative from start to finish. The first dimension in both Neil Young Nation and Cardboard Gods is the basic subject matter that each book is dealing with: Neil Young in Neil Young Nation and baseball cards in Cardboard Gods. The second dimension then is each author’s unique personal story and relationship to the subject matter. I've read a good number of pop-centric non-fictions that have these two dimensions, and Extra Lives is no exception.  But what allows Neil Young Nation and Cardboard Gods to really explode as both entertaining and interesting works of writing is that each of these works go beyond the two formulaic dimensions by introducing a “device of continuity” that not only helps keep the narrative grounded but also helps move the narrative along and build it into something greater than the sum of its parts.  In Neil Young Nation the devise of continuity is a road trip Kevin Chong takes in which “…I decided to follow the same route Young took from Winnipeg to Fort William (now Thunder Bay), and then from Toronto to Los Angeles…I visited the places that were important to Neil and a few people associated (albeit tangentially) with Neil, and stopped in Auburn, Washington, to see Young play at Farm Aid 2004.” And in Cardboard Gods the devise of continuity is reproductions of actually baseball cards that Wilkers coveted as a youth.

In Extra Lives Bissell has only two dimensions, the first being video games and the second being his personal relationship with video games and art, etc. But Bissell never fully commits to a 3rd dimension. Perhaps he just didn’t think of a device of continuity (or some other hook) to give the narrative more depth. And in the end, this is what prevents this book from being truly a great book. A hook of some sort could have possibly rescued the two boring chapters involving the ins and outs of the video game industry. One possibility of a third dimension could have involved Bissell’s cocaine use while playing video games. But Bissell doesn’t introduce this aspect until the very end of the book.

In the end, Extra Lives was better than most pop-centric non-fiction attempts, but not quite great. It had two boring chapters in the middle that almost sank it. Therefore it receives 3 out of 5 Wagemann Heads.


Pop Quiz

True or False:
Parents who played video games in their youth insouciantly dismiss the notion that video games lower our moral standards and promote violence.

©2010 Rockism 101. All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bury My Heart

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American WestBury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

This is a book that should be required reading for high school students. I was a sophomore in high school when I read it and it had an immense impact on my outlook on life. In fact, after reading it I decided that I wanted to live my life like the Indians lived theirs. The Indians didn’t punch a timeclock, they didn’t wear neckties, they didn’t have tv commercials and they didn’t pollute the environment, in fact they didn’t produce waste. When they killed a buffalo they used every single part of that buffalo, for eating, for clothes, for making teepees, for tools, jewelry, etc. The Indians had it right. That was the right way to live. They worshipped the Earth, the moon, the sun, the sky, the universe. They didn’t have child-molesters in robes telling them how to live their lifes. They didn’t have corporate-sponsored politicians making the laws to which they had to live by. So I became convinced that I should live my life like the Indians…or at least as true to the Indian way of life as is possible in the modern world (this was 1984ish).

Two things probablly kept me from being locked away in a looney bin after that. The first was that I was only 16 years old and 16 year olds of course are able to act obnoxious, socially awkward or whatever, without getting thrown in a looney bin. The second thing was that I had an accomplice, a peace-loving hippy chick that thought in abstractions and spoke in poems. Together we began our quest to live the Indian Way...

Although I last heard from her around the time of the fist Gulf war, together we made a vow to remain true to the Native American spirit. For years I kept a copy of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee beside my bed, until it was stolan sometime in the late 1990s. But it was only a material pocession anyway.
Five out of five Wagemann heads.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What Is The Internet Doing To Our Brains?

Somewhere around my 3rd year of college I began to realize that there is this sizabe contingency of academics who spend their entire lives with their head swimming in the clouds of the world of intelligencia.  These people can’t change a tire on their own car or sew a patch on their torn blue jeans yet they are always creating social manifestos instructing everyone else how they should live their lives.  Of course no one ever really took these eggheads seriously except for other academics.  But over time, with the tide of technological evolution, this academic circle jerk has actually merged with pop culture.  The result is that we now have books like the two I review here:   

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr

One of the assertions that Nicholas Carr makes in The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains is that too much internet use is causing people to lose their ability to read books. Carr explains that this has happened to him and a number of his friends. They lose interest in what they are reading after a page or two and start skimming—which is kind of ironic because that is exactly what I found myself doing as I was reading Carr's book, especially during chapter two where he beats a dead horse while making the point that the human brain has plasticity. The brain has plasticity. It’s not a revolutionary notion. We get it, let’s move on already. His obsession with this notion reminded me of when my 4 year old daughter learns a new word and has to repeat in ever other sentense she uses. But beyond that, how ironic is it that Carr seems to think that his target audience—presumably people who are addicted to the internet as much as he is and who have lost the ability to read books—would or even could read his book! I mean if he really thinks that books are obsolete and that the people he is writing for can’t even read one, then really what is his mojo for writing this book?

Whatever Carr’s motivation, I agree with his general idea that the internet changes the way people’s brains work. Right now the internet is still fairly new and exciting and most Americans have access to it and use in on a regular basis.  But not everyone in the world however, is a mediaphile egghead who spends every waking hour on the internet frantically obsessing to find every bit of trivia and diversion that is offered by every link that pops in front of their face (like Carr and the handful of friends whom he talked with in coming to his conclusion do). Some people are actually rational enough to get on the internet, use it for what they need, then go about living a regular life—that may or may not include reading a book as a relaxing, leisurely past time. But Carr argues that the internet’s allure is so overwhelming that in the future everyone will be like him and his ilk--eggheads spending every waking moment on the internet--like an all-consuming daily religion.

At one point Carr goes as far as to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan claiming that the purpose of humanity “is to produce ever more sophisticated tools—to ‘fecundate’ machines as bees fecundate plants—until technology has developed the capacity to reproduce itself on its own. At that point, we become dispensable.”

What a cheerful thought. This guy Carr, must be a laugh a minute at a cocktail party.

But...what if Carr is right? Afterall, what IS the purpose of technology? And what is the nature of consciousness for that matter. Not just human consciousness, but what mystics would call the cosmic consciousness. I mean, this notion that God is some all knowing, all seeing old man with a beard and a robe who lives in the clouds is not my cup of tea, but for the millions of Earthlings who go for that kind of thing, then what does this notion—that we are nothing but vessels for the cosmic consciousness and that we are on a path of being replaced by our own technological inventions—say to them? As a collective consciousness has humanity realized that we are not long for this planet? We have polluted our planet's oceans, raped its lands of it resources, poked holes in its ozone and continue to do so at an alarmingly increasingly rate. We once looked to the heavens, traveled to the moon, in search of a new home, but now maybe our home—the future home of consciousness—can still exist on this polluted planet. Only now, this consciousness will not be housed in our air-breathing, disease-plagued vessels of human flesh and bone, but...wait for the technology we’ve created.

This notion would surely pull the carpet out from under the God-fearing folks of this planet—or perhaps they would adapt to it, with time, just as they’ve adapted to Darwin’s findings. Either way, if we eventually accept this idea that our technological creations will someday take the place of our human bodies—that somehow we can transfer our souls from our human vessels to those vessels of our technological creations—the question then becomes, “What aspects of humanity do we want to pass on?” And who will be the gate keepers that decide? What if evil heartless, dickless turds like Dick Cheney are in charge of determining what aspects of the soul will be replicated (programmed) into the future-consciousness? Or what if we are in the midst of this battle today? What if every time you click on a porno link or a link to a tabloid piece or nazi skinhead site you are actually taking part in creating a database for the future soul to draw from?

In the end, there is no doubt that we have entered the Information Age, and no doubt that the easy access to information that we enjoy is having an effect on our culture, society and individual brains. Carr’s argument that the human brain (mankind in general) is in the process of going from preferring real world experiences interacting with humans (in the flesh) to preferring to live in the virtual world of hyperlinks, videostreaming, text messaging, etc seems a bit on the alarmist/extremist side to me though. After all, there is a very rich and beautiful human existence beyond that of the internet and I think Mr. Carr just might need to widen his perspective and reconnect with some of this humanity.

Overall, I found the subject matter of The Shallows to be very fascinating, thought provoking in fact. But Carr’s tendency for overkill and his paint-by-numbers approach to writing made it drag and it became boring pretty quickly. For this and other reasons I give The Shallows 2.5 Wagemann Heads


Everything Bad is Good for YouEverything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson

If everything bad is actually good for you, like the title of Steve Johnson’s study of pop culture suggests, then his book must be the best thing since penicillin. In attempting to make the argument that pop culture is actually making mankind smarter, Johnson is guilty of huge lapses in logic which stems from a very limited view of reality that pretty much totally misses the point on almost every level. Even the one tool of pop culture that actually is improving mankind, that being the internet (since the internet has obviously evolved into one of the most important sources of information and communication in modernized civilization), Johnson’s off-base argument is that the internet’s value comes from its ability to allow fans of pop TV shows to gossip about the fictional characters and plots in their favorite TV shows. What he doesn’t explain—probably since it isn’t true—is how gossiping on a Desperate Housewives website is better for you than actually talking to a live person about real things happening in your real life.

Throughout his book Johnson continues to grasp for straws as he reaches one bizarre, unscientific conclusion after another in his attempts to legitimize all the time he has wasted in his life watching sitcom/melodrama TV and playing fantasy games on the computer. One such bizarre conclusion Johnson reaches is that “most” video games do to the “reward” circuitry of the brain what the game Tetris does to one’s visual circuitry. Never mind that he can’t cite any scientific proof for this, most likely since this claim is in fact a totally unfounded conclusion. Johnson rationalizes that the time, energy and money he has wasted during his life on playing video games is making him more evolved by arguing that millions of other people have wasted just as much of their time on these same video games. So it must be good for you right? That’s the kind of pedestrian logic that Johnson’s book is littered with. This is bad stuff, but Johnson compounds his illogical conclusions with a bad habit of making annoyingly off-base generalizations. He says things like people don’t “explore” movies or music in anything but the most figurative way. That’s obviously false. Even the village idiot knows that movies and music have many layers (in which the more you learn about, the better you can experience them in various ways).
Read Johnson's book or read this chart?  Hmm...

So less than 60 pages into his book it became obvious that Johnson is an ignamaroon. His main problem is that his view of the world is limited strictly to the world of pop culture. He seems to think the entire world watches as much TV as he does, plays as many video games as he does, and spends all the rest of their time sitting in front of a computer screen gossiping with others about the latest Survivor episode. And although there are certainly millions of Americans that do spend hours in their parents basement hypnotized by the intricacies of fantasy video game worlds, and millions who have closer relationships to fictional TV characters than they do with real humans, Johnson offers no statistics as to how many or to what extent, and he certainly doesn’t explain how all of this is bettering mankind. He just assumes that everybody is like him, totally ignoring (or perhaps he doesn’t realize the fact) that many people simply use video games, TV and movies as diversions from their daily lives for a few hours of entertainment here and there, not as the sole tool for giving their life a purpose.

I guess what I found most assbackward's about Johnson’s book was his attempt to promote being obsessed with pop culture as being for the betterment of mankind. To me there is no benefit to society in having a worldview that is limited in scope to nothing but corporate-sponsored pop culture. In fact it makes me wonder how those who are seeing the world from such a limited view are interacting with the real world and affecting it at all. From reading Johnson’s book it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Johnson (and those others with the limited perspective of a pop culture junky) would rather have someone who was a champion player at Sims 2000 become mayor of his city over someone with real world city council experience who has dealt with the complexities of community politics. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they would rather have a champion Nintendo player managing their favorite baseball team over someone who was an actual former big leaguer. And who, I wonder would they want as the top policy makers of America’s Department of Defense, a hotshot whiz at Dungeon and Dragons and Command and Conquer or someone who had military experience in real world conflicts? The point I’m trying to make here is that while the couch potatoes that make up the population in Johnson’s world are doing amazing things on a video game or coming up with incredible insights to reality TV show strategies, it is the people who are actually living in the real world who are putting their stamp on reality. Obviously video games cause you to make decisions while playing, but so does taking a walk, so does hiking or biking or rock climbing or going to a library or music store or a job interview. The difference of course is that in real life your decisions have real life consequences, consequences that actually matter. In video games they don’t. In video games you can start over, you can use ‘cheats’, you can be killed and come back to life.

Johnson doesn’t seem to get this. In fact he compares playing video games to studying Algebra. And although mastering algebra may not give the average person skills that they use every single day in real life, Johnson doesn’t site even one skill that is learned from playing a video game that is going to help the average person in real life. Johnson’s main argument is that video games cause the player to ‘probe’ and ‘telescope’ yet he doesn’t explain how these two skills have any relation to real life. Without any scientific research on the subject, it seems pretty obvious that skills you learn playing a video game are not likely going to be skills that will help you in real life, and one reason for that is that in video games the possibilities of what you can do are all limited to the confines of the game. In real life hobbies like biking or taking roadtrips, even collecting baseball cards, you can make up any rules and values you want. You determine the goals instead of having some fabricated limitations assigned to your ‘character’.

I do however concede that the Internet is a good tool for mankind, although Johnson’s case for it is way off base. I also see how video games can be of some minimal benefit, beyond just entertainment. But by far the weakest of Johnson’s many weak arguments is that pop culture is making mankind smarter because TV show narratives have become more complex and that their characters have become more complex. That’s probably true if you are comparing them to TV characters of 30 years ago, then yes, perhaps they are more complex. But compared to real people, or even compared to literary characters, or film characters then no, they are not more complex. In fact most of what I’ve seen on TV is rehashed and repackaged bits, plots and characters from older foreign films, off-Broadway theatre and radio programs of yesteryear. Again Johnson doesn’t seem to get this. In fact at one point in his book Johnson goes on and on for several pages, making a total fool of himself by blubbering on about what a cutting edge and original technique is employed in Sienfeld by something that is nothing more than a simple running gag. In this case the running gag is that the character George Costanza uses a false name (Art Van Delay) to try to impress people. Even though similar running gags go back to the beginnings of performance, Johnson treats it as if it’s the most original and creative thing since sliced bread. Yet he offers no explanation at how this running gag is any more creative than Jack Benny’s ‘tightwad’ jokes or Mr. Ropers ‘turn to the camera and grin’ bit that was worked into several Three’s Company episodes.

Still, this doesn’t prevent Johnson from concluding that these more complex TV characters and narratives are turning all of mankind into this super insightful observer that can read emotions, intentions and motives better than someone who doesn’t watch TV shows. And the ridiculous thing about Johnson’s limited thinking is that if people really are learning their life lessons from so-called “complex” TV characters and content, and if they are really operating under the false notion that being an expert on what strategies Reality show characters should use, or what plot twist the Sopranos is going to take, makes them an expert on real life issues, then they are going to make some terrible decisions in real life. I’m talking “voting for George W. Bush” caliber terrible decisions.

Overall, due to the carelessness of thought and the over rationalization and leaps in logic Johnson makes in nearly every one of his arguments, it’s becomes way too easy to dismiss his entire book as nonsense. I recommend you ignore this book completely.

For more writing by Ed Wagemann click: ED WAGEMANN

Monday, August 30, 2010

Murder in the Metro: Laetitia Toureaux and the Cagoule in 1930s FranceMurder in the Metro: Laetitia Toureaux and the Cagoule in 1930s France by Gayle K. Brunelle

 My high hopes for Murder In The Metro started the moment that I spied it on the New Releases shelf at my local library. I was impressed with the subtle genius of the graphic design of the front cover (pictured above). Then, flipping to the back cover, I noticed that the book was written by two authors. The photograph showed two women, the co-writers of the book, seemingly sitting beside each other on a park bench. The woman on the left looked relaxed, down to earth and happy, possibly even having armpit hair. She seemed like someone that I would get along with, someone I would be interested in what she had to say. The other woman I wasn’t so sure about. There was nothing that struck me one way or the other about her.

I sat down and started reading and after 20 pages into it I was actually starting to think that at last I had found my brilliant female writer.  And not just one--but two.  Upon finishing Chapter 1 and 2 I turned the page to Chapter 3 with that familiar feeling that comes with reading certain brilliantly entertaining books. The story was intriguing, the setting was fascinating, the story-telling was comfortable and non-self-conscious. It had me submerged in a foreign land and a distant past. I was hooked. So as I turned the page to chapter 3 I was already settled in and prepared to be thoroughly tantilized some more. But that didn’t happen. Instead of galloping along at the engaging clip that the book had been trotting at, there was an abrupt about face. All the sudden instead of unfolding a fascianting mystery, there seemed to be an agenda behind the book, it became bogged down in scholarly gobbley-gook, it took on judgmental tone, politicized and stiff. As a reader you know you are in trouble when you read “In this chapter, we begin the…” For Christ’s sake! Is there any single prepositional phrase in the written language that is more frickin’ boring than that?  That was my first red flag as that content happy feeling of being at the beginning of a good read was replaced by that gut-wrenching, sinking feeling that comes with the disappointment of having high hopes dashed.

I turned to the back cover of the book again to get another look at the two female writers.  Upon close inspection, I felt certain that this disappointing chapter 3 must had been written by the woman on the right, Annette Finley-Croswhite (even the name sounds like it has an agenda). Finley-Croswhite’s biases immediately start littering the paragraphs of Chapter 3 and by paragraph two she is blathering on about the term “bourgeois” as it is used by historians. By paragraph three she is on about “male journalistic anxieties about the newly asserted young women of the interwar period” and male journalists whose “speculations increasingly reflected their fears of modern sexual mores, their erotic fanasies”. Again, are you frickin kidding me??? Three paragraphs into the chapter and this “historian” is claiming to know the inner-mental workings of long dead French journalists who I imagine she’s never met??? These over-generalizations combined with the disappointment of having a savory reading experience suddenly ripped away from me was too much. I decided that I had to contact these writers, if for no other reason that to find out which one wrote this chapter and which one wrote chapter one and two...

...Less than two weeks later I return home from work, open my email and find a response to my critical review of Murder In the Metro by none other than Annette Finley-Croswhite, the co-author who I was ripping on. She was very polite about explaining some of the criticism of her book. Here is what she had to say:

Both authors are equal co-authors in every sense of the word. Chapter 2 or 3 that you take issue with was written in a side-by-side manner and edited thoroughly by both authors. "Murder in the Métro" was meant to be a cross-over book, academic, but one general readers could enjoy. The book was written by two university professors, who also love to write. That said, it was published by a University Press, Louisiana State University Press. As a result, it was also written for scholars. Academic presses make certain requirements and use outside readers to review books to accept or reject for publication. Compromises occur between writer(s) and reviewers. In this case, both one outside reviewer and one editor at LSU required a discussion of the word "bourgeois." It was NOT our choice to make that inclusion, but one that was deemed necessary by two different authorities. It was part of the "negotiation" process that went on before a final contract for publication was issued. Writing a "cross-over" book isn't easy. This one went through many versions to smooth out the language. We tried to make it fun, but that is clear in some places more than others. Hopefully, you enjoyed the later chapters that are written more like chapter one. The point is that as a "cross-over" work it contains elements of both an academic text and a more popular book. Just like a piece of music in a "cross-over" situation, a variety of motifs are used. The "hook" is "popular," but the substance is, afterall, academic and based on twelve years of very hard work, much of it spent in archives digging in old documents. And "Murder" wasn't published by a popular trade press, but an academic one.

As for my name, I'm sorry you take issue. It was an accident of birth, reconfigured at marriage to please my father, who very much wanted me to take my husband's name. As a name it is cumbersome, I'll give you that, but the choice was made at a more innocent time of my life when I felt it was important to appease a father I dearly loved with a bow to his old-time values. I'm sure, secretly, my choice pleased my husband as well. Additionally, I enjoy a linguistic connection with the name my sons carry, their father's surname while retaining the link to my birth name and heredity.

With regard to my co-author, Dr. Brunelle is a very elegant woman, and perhaps, the smartest person I have ever met. She also has a great sense of humor. But alas, neither one nor the other author is solely responsible for any chapter of the book.

I hope I've answered your questions. We are working now on a biography of Eugène Deloncle, the founder of the Cagoule, that we hope to market to a trade press in a popular style--without much of that academic verbiage you disdain. We also continue to produce academic scholarship as university professionals.

posted by AnnetteFinley at 6:49 am (EST) on Jul 18, 2010

First of all, I was impressed by the fact that Annette Finley took the time to respond to me. And her good humour seems to indicate that she has thick enough skin to take my two cents worth for what it is. She also educated me on the process of writing her book and how that process was partially responsible for the criticisms I had of it. Still though, I had to stand by my review. I really can't stomach all of that scholarly hoity-toity crap and I would have liked to have seen the two authors blend the scholarly stuff into the narrative of Murder in the Metro in such away that it wasnt such jarring change of pace. I think if it were my book and I had put so much into it and some outside "authorities" insisted that I had to include something, I would have told these "authorities" exactly where they could go shove it. In my opinion, the suggestions of the "authorities" nearly ruined a potentially great read--and that is just a sin!

Murder in the Metro gets 2 Wagemann Heads.



Who's Who In Rockism: Brett Milano

Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record CollectingWhile doing research for “Who’s Who In Rockism”, the name Brett Milano kept popping up. Milano is a music journalist for the College Music Journal, the Boston Herald and the Boston Phoenix. I first came upon him several years ago while reading the liner notes of a Rhino records CD called The Very Best of Todd Rundgren (circa 1997).  But it is Milano’s 2003 Vinyl Junkies that seems to be a touchstone in any detailed discussion of Rockism I've come across. Even though I don’t recall the word Rocksim actually being used in Milano’s Vinyl Junkies, his book is full of passages like the following that make it easy to see how Vinyl Junkies would easily seduce the Rockist reader.

“…you don’t have to be one of those vinyl snobs—the kind who think that digital sound is flat and heartless—to appreciate that playing a record is a whole different experience. Placing the needle in the groove is a physical act—maybe a sexual one, if you really want to stretch the metaphor—and it’s just not the same as pressing the button on your CD player, where you can’t even see what’s going on. And even though they’re more high-tech, CDs just aren’t as mysterious. There’s a computer-age explanation for why that digital sound gets reproduced, just as there’s a computer-age explanation for everything.”

And here's another Rockist-friendly excerpt:

“…For some collectors, it’s not just about buying a bunch of records. It’s about living in the pop culture era of your choice. Anyone who gets deep into non-standard music is already making a decision about living outside the mainstream.”

Milano’s guided tour through the world of record collecting consists mainly of meetings and conversations with 30 or so record collectors who range in age from the mid 30s to the mid 60s, who are mostly male (although Milano seems to go out of his way to include 3 or 4 females) and most of whom—if not all of whom—are connected to the music industry in some way. This last aspect seems natural enough of course, but I found that limiting his focus group just to the mainstream record collectors gave Vinyl Junkies a lack of depth. I would have like to have heard the words of record collectors who weren’t involved in the music industry. Why not include conversations with some dentist or accountant, or janitor, who also just happens to collect records? Are the record-collecting habits of regular, everyday people operating outside the hipster judgments of the music industry/record collector hemisphere not worthy?

I’ve been collecting records since the age of 8 (I used birthday money to purchase Steve Miller's “Keep On a Rockin me Baby” 45). So I enjoyed Milano’s book, but at the same time I was let down in that he only really touched the surface of a very large and interesting subculture. At various points in the book he tried to describe the smell and look of a vintage album, the smells and looks of record collector’s rooms, of DJ booths, of record stores, and even of the rush of searching for a record, but in the end there was something missing. Milano has a understated-realistic, workman-like style of writing and his love and knowledge of music comes through clear, but he missed a real opportunity here to write something much greater. The locomotion behind every collector I’ve ever met is the idea of having a mission. Milano touches upon this during parts of Vinyl Junkies, but to really understand the excitement and frenzy that someone on a mission experiences, you have to be on a mission yourself. In the first chapter of the book Milano appeared as though he was going to create a mission—a mission for the reader, a mission for himself, etc—when he explains in great detail experiencing a record listening party with his friends Pat and Monoman. This gets the book off to a great start, but from there Milano just sorta randomly goes from one record collector conversation to another, occasionally touching upon one theme or another, but with no real sense of mission at all.

So for this reason and many more, my final verdict is 3 Wagemann heads.


***Bonus Material***
I have a bittersweet reaction to any book, movie, song, etc that has the title “[something:] junkie” in it, for it was my 1996 Golden Circle Award winning essay Streetball Junkie in which the term “junkie” was originally used to describe a person that is obsessed with something—something other than drugs—in a very addictive, drug-like way. Since then there have been a plethora of “junkie” novels, movies, etc and I have yet to see one dime for the intellectual property that I have contributed to our beautiful pop culture. But did Willie Burroughs get any monetary compensation for his creative insertion of “punk” or “heavy metal” into the 20ths centuries pop culture landscape? No. But he does get the credit, so who knows, maybe 50 years from now I’ll get my due and be considered as the William Burroughs of Generation A.D.D. (Generation A.D.D. by the way, is another term that I first popularized as well).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Who's Who In Rockism: Chuck Klusterfuck

I disagree with about 90% of everything Chuck Klosterman utters, yet I enjoy reading him (although I only end up reading about 50% of any book he publishes and skip or skim the other 50%). I've always liked reading/hearing thoughts and opinions that differ from my own, especially if those thoughts/opinions are presented in an interesting and entertaining way--which is the same reason that I listen to Rush Limbaugh at times.

Sometimes I will agree with Klosterman in spirit, but disagree with him on the detail. A good example of this is the 20 page riff Klosterman goes off on about NFL football that starts on page 125 of his 2009 book Eating The Dinosaur. Like Rush Limbaugh often does, Klosterman seems to be passionately saying a whole lot about absolutley nothing, using small nuggets of wisdom or verifiable facts and stretching them beyond any sort of comprehension or meaning what so ever. With a voice as bold and confident as Olympus he spews completely contradictory ideas and arguments within sentences--or even words--of each other. And after doing such he goes on, as though what he is saying makes absolute sense, which makes it all very comical to me.

During his 20 page tirade on NFL footballl for instance he states that what makes the NFL so great is that it is not trying to be anything that it is not. But then sentences later he says: "He [Brett Favre] was the human incarnation of how the NFL hopes to portray itself..." Contradictory. Then he goes on to argue that the NFL is liberalism cloaked in conservatism, going as far as conjuring up a story about how Teddy Roosevelt legalized the forward pass and how former comissioner Roselle was a Marxist.

Klosterman has not been the first to suggest that the NFL has socialistic tendencies. Afterall the league does have a salary cap and a salary minimum. It has a weighted college draft and ofcourse the teams all share the massive tv reveune that the league brings in. The idea being that you are only as strong as your weakest link, so if you empower those on the bottom, you make the entire league stronger. So the case that the NFL is liberalism cloaked in conservatism has real merit and is one of the few things that Klosterman points ot that actually makes some sense. Some of Klosterman's jibber-jabber is entertaining, but most of it seems to be babbling on for the sake of babbling on, possibly just to entertain himself. Which is fine. Because even though alot (probablly even most) of this babbling bores the socks off of me and I end up skipping over it (like his tirade about laugh tracks or his musings on Garth Brooks), there are sections of his book that I find moderately entertaining and which are no worse than watching reruns of The Office, for example.

For this reason and more I give Eating the Dinosaur 1.5 out of 5 WagemannHeads

View all my reviews

Old Weird America's Last Stand, part 1

Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball CardsEarly this summer, while perusing my local suburban library, I came upon a non-fiction book about baseball cards titled Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards by Josh Wilker . I hadn't read a book about baseball since about 1981 (and that had been the instruction manual that came with my Johnny Bench Batter-Up) and I wasn't expecting much, but when I took Wilker's book home and began reading, it was instant magic.  To use a baseball analogy, reading Cardboard Gods was like watching a little known big league hurler pitch a near perfect game. From the first few pitches you realize that this guy has his good stuff. His curve ball is biting, his fastball has a sharp giddy-up, he is in command of the plate, pinpoint control. And as the game goes on, he gets stronger, more confident—perhaps a lapse in judgment or a missed pitch here and there, but nothing to get him into trouble. By the seventh inning you are cheering him on with all you've got in total appreciation of being able to witness the greatness of a masterly executed shutout or no-hitter even.

PhotobucketBy the final out Cardboard Gods may not have been a perfect game for everyone who reads it, but it was an absolutely perfect read for me (not unlike the Doc Ellis no-hitter that Wilker's references). Of course part of the reason this book resonated with me certainly has something to do with the fact that author Josh Wilker is the same age as me, that 95% of the baseball cards he mentions were ones that I owned and coveted, that he grew up in an alternative family situation that involved moving from house to house frequently, he had a step-father, he had a brother who is close in age, and that both Wilkers and I were UPS package handlers in the early 90s.

But there are plenty of aspects of Cardboard Gods that anyone can appreciate, for instance his brilliant use of a “device of continuity” that ties the book together. Wilker starts each chapter with a reproduction of a Topps baseball card circa 1974 to 1980 and then goes on to connect an aspect of his childhood (and/or an aspect of American culture and/or the nature of mankind) with an aspect of that card. Wilker’s observations about the poses, gestures and facial expressions of the ball players captured on the cards were especially brilliant as he insightfully wove these snapshots into the parallel narrative of his childhood in 1970s America. One great example of this was the side-by-side chapters in which Wilker juxtaposes a 1978 Bo McLaughlin card with a 1976 Steve Garvey card:
Photobucket“Everybody was going from before to after. Everybody had a look on their face like they’d just caught a whiff of a nearby landfill. Everybody was ambivalent about the length of their hair…Everybody went back and forth from having a regular job to laying on rusty lawn furniture all afternoon unemployed…Everybody began wondering how to file for divorce…Everybody was Bo McLaughlin…Everybody except Steve Garvey.”

As Homer Simpson would say "It's funny cuz its true!"  Also true, almost alarmingly so, was how similar Wilker’s sense of these player’s essence (as obtained from their cards) were to my sense of these player’s essence (also gleaned exlusivley from their card), and the sense that thousands of other kids growing up in the 70s must have gotten from these cards as well. Wilker’s was right on the money-- from his ruminations on the 1976 Victory Leaders card with Jim Palmer and Randy Jones to the old school admiration triggered by the 1978 Wilbur Wood card and so on and so forth.

PhotobucketI was also entertained by the way that Wilker used baseball cards to say so much about people, about the trials and tribulations of childhood and about 1970s America all at the same time.  As I flipped the pages from chapter to chapter, each revealing another lost treasured image of the Cardboard Gods from my childhood, I began to notice a sense of exhiliration—an exhileration that was similar to the exhiliration that (just like Wilker explained having as a kid) I also experienced in my youth every time I bought a new pack of baseball cards and then obsessively thumbed from one Cardboard God to the next. Wilker even pays homage to that lost experience of exhiliration (common to nearly every boy who ever bought a pack of baseball cards in the 70s) by opening the book with an offering (in image at least) of one of those rock hard miniature slabs of pink sugar/bubble gum that came inside every pack of Topps baseball cards from that era. Even the cover of Cardboard Gods is cleverly designed to replicate the packaging of a pack of baseball cards from the 70s era. This all resonated with me (a thrift store/garage sale junkie anyway) as Cardboard Gods displayed a rich understanding of that certain 1970s Americana vibe that only a kid growing up in that era could truly understand.

I imagine that a lot of guys in their 40s have experiences of wandering up to the storage area above their parent’s garage some weekend afternoon, looking for a tool or something, and stumbling upon a stack of shoeboxes that housed the thousands of baseballs cards that they once collected as a kid. Reading Cardboard Gods was like opening up those boxes and being bombarded with those long lost memories, and for this alone it deserves:
5 Wagemann Heads


PhotobucketI don’t know what happened during the 1980s that ruined the two great passions of my childhood life—major league baseball and classic rock—but somehow shortly after I blossomed into a teenager my passion for each of them slowly and sorrowfully fizzled. I had just turned 13 years old in 1981 when the Major League's players went on strike and I immediately had this very raw “screw them” epiphany. By 1984 I had no real interest in major league baseball what so ever. I had stopped collecting baseball cards and obsessing over the league leaders and box scores in the Sunday paper, I couldn’t sit through an inning of watching a ball game on TV anymore and I soon found myself just channel surfing right past the highlight reels on ESPN. And on the rare occasion that I actually found myself at a major league ball game, I’d sit there interested in anything but the actual game; the guy selling peanuts, some large breasted woman three rows up, a cloud… Even when I consciously tried to focus on the game, after two or three pitches, I’d just think to myself, “What’s the frickin point?” Not just the point of watching the game, but what’s the frickin point of major league baseball in general? The broadcasters regurgitating one cliché after another, the players mechanically steroiding about like robots. Even the fans seemed ridiculous, with their puppet-like reactions of anger and/or rehearsed celebrations. Maybe I should have just blamed it all on Reagan and let it go at that.

But then, some 20 plus years later, I came upon Wilker's Cardboard God's which had so completely awakened my long lost obsession for baseball cards and the game of baseball in general that I couldn't help but wonder, “What the fuck happened all those years ago?” How could something I once lived and breathed and cared so much about become totally meaningless and actually annoying to me? Had major league baseball really changed that much? Or was it me? Had I changed that much? I mean what was it about big league baseball that I had once thought was so frickin great?

To get the answers to these questions and more I immediately sought other non-fiction books about baseball. My hope was that these books would not only sustain the nostalgia, but actually help me figure out why I had ever lost my love for baseball and baseball cards to begin with...

Big Hair and Plastic GrassThe first book I found, Big Hair and Plastic Grass by Dan Epstein, was prominently displayed in the New Releases section of my local library - the cover of which promised a treasures trove of interesting anecdotes, funny details and witty insight. Besides great images of Oscar Gamble and Mark "the bird" Fydrich, the cover also sported a retro design that instantly conjures up the distinct 1970s vibe. But even as the title and sub-title promised a funky ride through the baseball landscape of the swingingest decade, I proceeded with caution for as I’ve been burned before by cover promises and stylized illustrations. Then, as always, I look to the book’s back jacket to get an image of author. There I see Epstein - dressed as hipster wannabe, complete with 70s side burns, a height-ashbury jean jacket, and a coolier-than-tho smirk. Then taking a bite out of his introduction, at first it seems as though Epstein might actually delivery on his big promises when he acknowledges the disparity between Major League baseball in the 1970s and Major League baseball post-70s when he writes:

Photobucket“In recent years, for example, the Atlanta Braves have held a ‘Faith Day’ promotion, featuring performances by Christian rock bands and testimonials from Braves players about how Jesus turned their lives around. This is same team that, back in 1977, drew more than 27,000 fans for a ‘Wet T-Shirt Night’ competition.”

Well shit, this might just be the book I've been hoping for. Unfortuneately as I read on, it didnt take long to realize that this book was more style than substance. The large part of Epstein's text is year by year summaries of how teams won their divisions, who the stat leaders on the teams were, with a few seasonal and individual game high lights mixed in, which all goes to read like a 3rd year college journalism student covering the local college team. At the begining of each chapter Epstein tried very hard to shoe horn pop culture into the baseball landscape. I'm not sure what the point of that was other than try to add some kind of context but it came off as Epstein wanting to be considered an expert on 70s culture so that he might be asked by the producers of VH1's "I heart the 70s" so that he could contribute witty comments about slinkys or moon boots.

About halfway through, I began skipping around a bit. Then a bit more. There were some interesting narrative possibilities, but Epstein only touched the surface and gave the cliche wikipedia-ish treatment to them, and not much else.

PhotobucketBy the time I got to 1978 I was looking at maybe two words per paragraph until I finally just gave up. The most disappointing thing here, is that I DO believe that the subject matter is worthy of a book. A good book even. Possibly something in the tradition of an oral telling along the lines of Loose Balls (about the American Basketball Association) where we have the stories told directly to us from the mouths of the players, owners, coaches, managers, umps, anouncers, etc themselves. Overall I give it 3 out of 5 WagemannHeads. I think Epstein could have done more with the wealth of material than what is here.

Finally two and a half years later, my answer comes:

The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark FidrychThe writing for The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych by Doug Wilson isn't the deepest, in fact sometimes it seems like its more geared toward an audience of high school or college age kids at times - but that didn't really bother me. I'm not a baseball romantic. But I was in 1976. I ate, slept and shit baseball. And Mark Fidrych played the game as if he did too. And how could an 8 year old kid not be drawn to the Bird? His perma-grin, his love of guitar Rock music, his bushy unkempt hair, his wild antics on the mound and his joy in the game. He was like a big kid himself. And it was as if his sheer love of the game, his passion for baseball, led to his success - which in turn inspired young kids like me to believe that all you needed to make it to the big leagues was simply to love the game, play it with every fiber of your being every second of the day.

And all changed. A silly injury that led to a sadly drawn out exit. Something was missing from baseball without Mark 'The Bird' Fidrych in the Major Leagues. The game had been changing with free agency and corporatization. Baseball players, who previously had to sell insurance in the off season to make ends meet, were become multi-millionaire brandnames represented by narrow-eyed agents who wrangled endorsements for them and spinning the stories of their clients personal lives that was splattered all over the Sports sections than they did enjoying the game.

Would baseball had steered clear of all these evils had Fidrych stayed in the game? No, of course not. But for one brilliant summer in 1976 it seemed possible. In fact whenever the Bird took the mound, for that one brief moment, almost anything seemed possible.

View all my reviews ----

PhotobucketEven though I lost interest in major league baseball after the strike of ’81, I still enjoyed playing baseball.  In high school I played two years on a team that finished first place in a conference that showcased the talents of future major league ball players like Jim Thome, Joe Girardi.  In 1984 during my sophomore year I hit .375 and led the conference in sacrifices while finishing second on our team in stolen bases.  At 5 foot 10 and 140 pounds I didn’t have the power to knock it out of the park, but I had an instinctual skill for the cat and mouse dueling that goes on against an opposing pitcher in the batter’s box (and the opposing team while on the base paths).  To this day I still love to play the game.  But the major league’s still do nothing for me.  I just don’t care.  If anything, when I think about it, I’m actually a bit annoyed by the fact that major league ball players get paid multi-millions to run around in their pajamas and play a game that nearly any 10 year old kid would give his left nad to do for free.  And it’s not necessarily the players that annoy me.  It’s the entire system that gets on my nerves. Why is it that our culture puts so much value on this—let’s face it—meaningless game, while school teachers, nurses, garbage men and millions of other people who actually do something for the betterment of our society get didily squat on a popcicle stick?  Why are people so frickin desperate for baseball?  And basketball?  And hockey and good lord Nascar—at a time when gas is $3 a gallon and our troops are dying in the middle east over oil. 

So on that note, just let me say this: "Go Steelers!!!"  I know, I'm a hypacrit.  I watch NFL football religiously every Sunday that I can--which ends up only being about 12 sundays a year if I'm lucky.  But I've never contributed monitarily to the NFL in anyway what so ever.  I don't buy jerseys or flair, I've never bought a ticket to a game.  I even put the commercials on mute when they come on.  But I do watch and I do talk about the games and I do pretend to be Big Ben when I'm playing football in my bedroom with my 4 year old son and 2 year old daughter.  So, I am contributing to the perpetuality of the NFL's existence in some small way.  And by extension I am contributing to the perpetuality of the dispicable corporate consumer culture that is more influencial on our society than any religion could ever be.  But what is my alternative?  To stick my head in the ground and become a grumpy old hermit?  There are sands in the pop culture beach that are beautiful.     

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Who's Who In Rockism: Geof Emerick

Here There And Everywhere Abridged Compact DiscsLately I'm starting to believe that 90% of what makes a good book is the subject matter and the other 10% is the author not being a total ass wad. In Geoff Emerick's Here There and Everywhere it would be hard pressed to find a subject matter that is more interesting to me right now. Emerick was like 15 years old when he started working for EMI and participating on Beatle recordings. He was there in fact for the first ever Beatle recording and eventually became the sound engineer for all of their later work. All while still a teenager. His love for music and the Beatles comes through in his narative and he conveys a number of fascinating insights and anecdotes. There was a section early in the book that dealt with his youth/background that I didn't find particularly interesting and should have been edited out in my opinion. Also I could have done without some of his judgements and tooting of his own horn, but for the most part this was a very enjoyable read and I give it a strong recommendation.

4 Wagemann Heads.


Who's Who In Rockism:  Steve Almond

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us (with Bitchin' Soundtrack)The following is a letter I recently sent to the publisher of a book called Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life:

Hi, I just finished reading your book Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life and I’d like to review it for my blog: Rockism101. Before I write my review I’d like to share some of my thoughts about your book with you and give you a chance to comment on these thoughts.

For the first 100 plus pages or so I had a hard time trying to figure out what the point of this book was. Maybe I was confused by the title, which is very misleading. In fact, until you explained where you got the title from—a Boris McClutheon show you put on—I was wondering/expecting whether this book was some kind of hipster parody of a self-help book like “I’m Ok, you’re Ok” or “How to win friends and influence people.” Maybe it should have dawned on me earlier, but this book was about you, Steve Almond, not about “you” the reader who wants to have his life saved by Rock and Roll. I understand that writers have to conjure up intriguing titles to draw the prospective reader’s attention, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit cynical and that this title choice might have been a slick trick on your part. This slick trick though, ties in well with what I think the real theme of your book is. You aren’t a famous celebrity—and you address this in the book—so why would anyone want to read a book that is essentially a lengthy memoir of one aspect of your personal development as it relates to Rock and Roll? Maybe there are some fans out there who have read your stuff before or who know of you, but that is small fries, I image. You certainly aren’t a Chuck Klusterfuck, I mean. So the title of this book revealed to me that you think that Rock and Roll can save your life.

So Rock and Roll is the vehicle through which you have chosen to gain a larger audience—and gaining a larger audience (gaining celebrity if you will) will make you happy and in the end save your life. Throughout the book then there are a series of musicians who you have come to worship: Nil Lara, Joe Henry, Ike Reilly, Boris Mccutcheon, Bob Schneider, Chuck Prophet, the Strawze. But none of these artists made it big, either because they wouldn’t or couldn’t compromise. Their commercial failure seemed to make them appear lesser and unhappy beings (from your perspective) and the lessons you gleaned from them was that being a creative genius (something that you admittedly aren’t) wasn’t all it is cracked up to be. In the end in fact, it is Dave Grohl, a Commercial Pop Hack (in my opinion), who is your role model. Grohl is the best example of someone who is happy and famous at the same time. And somehow that inspires you to conclude that you might be able to be perfectly happy being a “midlist toiler”. But honestly, after all that has come before that, I find that epiphany a bit hard to swallow. The more believable point of your book seems to be that if you (and by you I mean Steve Almond) want to be happy, you have to be successful. And to be successful (since you aren’t a creative genius) you have to be a Commercial Pop Hack—which is why you have written this book.

Not that there is any shame in that, for being a Commericial Pop Hack isn’t easy—it takes hard work, a little luck, etc. Still though it seems a million times easier than doing the heavy lifting, soul searching and hard living it takes to become a tortured creative genius. Which is why, in the end, you will still be a Drooling Fanatic.

With that said, I’d like to throw you a compliment. While reading your book I was also reading another book called Bandalism by Julian Ridgway. This book was incredibly terrible. In fact after about a half dozen pages I decided to just skip around and I skim through it hoping to find at least one nugget of something that seemed the least bit entertaining or interesting. And I found nothing. This poor sap Ridgway doesn’t even have the skills/ability to be a Commerical Pop Hack. I have no idea what kind of moron would want to buy this book (I get all of my books for free through my library by the way) so I’m not even going to make an attempt to describe how terrible this book was (mainly I just want to forget about it). Maybe you can pick it up for yourself if you are truly curious. But my point is that even being a commercial Pop Hack takes some talent. And there were definitely parts of your book that were very good. Early in the book you described how listening to the Cars “Moving In Stereo” on a walk man transformed the people around you, making them appear deeper, etc. I thought that was a great insight/description. I read a book or two a week, and I have a low threshold for mediocre writing, and it was little gems like that which were enough to keep my interest. One of my favorite sections from the first part of your book was when you described the listening process, from vinyl to 8-tracks to cassettes to cds and to digital files. This one section convinced me that you were worth continued reading. There were times that I would skip a paragraph or two, or even a page or two, but overall I ended up reading about 98% of the book. The end of the book (beginning with the chapter about Ike Reilly) was a lot better than the start of the book. I think you have a real talent for capturing the interesting lives of the musicians you covered.

To end with, I want to nitpick one minor thing that really irks me, and that is when people include hip hop as part of Rock. If you are going to include hip hop in your narrative, then you are talking about Pop music—not Rock. Rock has a history, an evolution, an ethos, etc that is an entirely different animal than hip hop. Talking of Rock and talking of hip hop as if they are of the same ilk is likely to not only piss off Rock fans, but piss off hip hop fans as well. And again, it makes the title of your book appear disingenuous. If you need to include Hip Hop in your story, then maybe a better title would have been “Commerical Pop Will Save My Life.”

I hope to hear from you soon.

As of the publication of this blog Almond nor his publisher have yet responded to me.  I give Rock and Roll will Save Your Life 2 Wagemann Heads.