Sunday, April 18, 2010

Images of an Epic Summer to Come Part II

Images of An Epic Summer To Come

There’s So Much to Look Forward To: 20 Reasons Why This Will Be An Epic Summer

Being in Liberia, for all its wacky adventures, has properly served its purpose as a self-imposed exile from the daily grind of New York City life. Things had hit the wall by January, when I could be found cursing loudly on subway platforms every time I narrowly missed a subway. I needed to get away and think, recharge, and pick up some good stories. So far, all has gone according to plan, sense of purpose is renewed and all that. But, like Dylan once sang, “I’m going back to New York City; I do believe I’ve had enough.” That’s from “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues,” a stellar track of Highway 61 Revisited. When I was in the band George Carlin Must Die (don’t worry, he was already dead), we covered the song for our album, Jesus Freak Meth-heads. The band was only together for about six hours, but man did we rock.

I can’t wait to stomp through clouds of volcanic ash to get back to the New York scene. New York usually does the whole late spring/ early summer thing with superb gusto, and 2010 will be no different. My perspective on the local and national mood might be a little warped, but thanks to the magic of the internet I am probably reading the same garbage that you are, and I too live in fear of coming face to face with an earnest looking Wolf Blitzer every time I flip on my television.

Because lists are ideally suited for the 140 Characters or Less Era, I’ve compiled my “Reasons the Summer of 2010 is Going to Awesome.” My own biases shine through- I’m not sure how many of you will really stand to gain much from my high school reunion, for example- but this list ought to fire up any soul who just lived through an urban winter.

20. Midnight Spin (all summer): One of Brooklyn’s most rocking new bands, these guys are going to have a big 2010, and this summer you can catch them on the rise in NYC, Boston, D.C and wherever else. I’ll be road-tripping with them for at least one weekend this summer to write a dispatch on the dudes, who know how to have a good time on stage and off it.

19. Williamsburg (all summer): While Wburg is always intriguing, the lack of accessible subway stops can make it a brutal winter destination. Action spills onto the sidewalks, fun things go down in the parks, and Williamsburg is positively hopping and full of energy during the summer. After two summers as a resident, it’ll be a sweet homecoming.

18. The Flaming Lips (July): They are touring this summer. If you don’t know why this is so exciting, do yourself a favor and hit the Youtubes to see why they are considered one of the bands you have to see before you die (or, I suppose, before they die).

17. Financial Reform (May-June): Really, Republicans? The party of corporate thugs has always had masterful snake oil charmers, but this May we’ll have the pleasure of watching Republicans trying to fundraise on Wall Street while simultaneously blocking financial reform as a “giveaway to the banks.” The mental gymnastics required to execute this strategy are simply beyond the abilities of this Republican leadership, and should lead to some entertaining moments, provided corporate Democrats don’t ruin the fun like they always do.

16. All Good Music Festival (July): The preeminent jam-band festival for the laid-back, hang-out scene, this festival brings bands like Parliament and the surviving members of the Greatful Dead to the mountains of West Virginia. West Virginia is one of three states east of the Mississippi River that I have not partied in, and I’d like to check it off the list this summer; I’m currently 35/50, and #14 on this list will bump me up to 37.

15. West Coast Road Trip (August): For someone who loves the open road and adventures away from home, I’ve been shielded from the Left Coast for years by some mystic force. Other than a single night in Los Angeles on a 2007 wedding trip, I haven’t been to the West Coast since 2004. I haven’t been to Portland or Seattle at all, to my great regret, though in my defense, that is only because my car broke down on the 2004 Great American Road Trip. This lazy August jaunt should be a chance to reconnect with peeps, see some great progressive work happening on the ground and soak in two of America’s top cities for the first time.

14. Baseball Season (all summer): Baseball games have gotten too expensive, plain and simple. I’ll still try to get out to some good matchups this summer, but gone are the days of hopping on the subway spontaneously with a friend and grabbing an Upper Deck ticket to see the Mets battle whoever was in town. At Citi Field, a stadium name I won’t ever get over, the cheapest seats are called “The Promenade”, and they are not cheap. Nevertheless, baseball is still the ultimate background television dive bars, and it’s good to have it back. On the heels of my fantasy basketball success, I declined to enter a fantasy baseball league, and will thus be able to relax and enjoy, instead of being glued to my laptop to make seismic roster moves every few hours.

13. High School 10th year reunion (May) : Has it really been ten years? Yes, it definitely has. A full decade has passed since the Collegiate Class of 2000’s reign of terror ended with a wild and tumultuous spring of WWF-inspired populism and Gatsbyesque parties. If Facebook profiles are any indicator, the fifty some boys who made up that graduating class have largely gotten their shit together, which will make for a great contrast with the fifth year reunion, which was something of an unemployment bash.

12. Silk Road Palace (all summer): It’ll be another summer at the Silk Road Palace, one of my very favorite New York institutions. A Chinese restaurant that serves unlimited free boxed wine with every entrĂ©e, this place has been the bedrock of many a Friday and Saturday night for the crew over the last decade. I’ve celebrated at least part of my birthday there in 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009. The typical Silk Road dinner involves 12-18 people from all different circles coming together to bond over a raucous dinner, replete with fun toasts and boat races. What makes it particularly fun in the summer is that when pre-seating gets too crowded you can wait outside, and likewise, once the meal is over, the buzz-killing cold doesn’t rush you into a hasty post-Road decision. This summer the Road will once again be the place to be, particularly with me moving within closer striking distance to the Upper West Side restaurant this June.

11. The U.S Social Forum (June): On June 22nd, progressive groups are gathering en masse for an organizing conference in Detroit. I could not be more fired up. Activism has deservedly taken its lumps for its disorganization and fractured nature, but thanks in no small part to online organizing, an enormous roster of standout local groups is getting together in one of America’s most beleaguered cities, one I’ve been meaning to visit for years. Did you know that New York to Detroit is only a ten hour drive? And that large organizations attending are told to consider buying a house rather than renting a lot of hotel rooms? This is a rare conference actually worth going to.

10. Sandinista (always): The Clash’s fourth album is so drenched in epic music and context that it remains one of the best things about the coming summer, thirty years after its release. Thirty years ago, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones spent much of the spring and summer throwing together 36 bewildering tracks that became the greatest triple album ever, and my favorite album, which Mick Jones called “a good choice.” The opening track, “Magnificent Seven”, is probably the first “white rap” song ever released. The album dabbles in dub reggae with Mikey Dread at the helm. It rocks out with “Police On My Back” and goes into a “Revolution #9” like sound collage on “Mensforth Hill”. It goes super political with “Charlie Don’t Surf”, a song that predicts September 11th, “Something About England”, which documents the collapse of national morale in England during the 20th century, and “Washington Bullets”, a song about American Cold War imperialism in Latin America, with a simultaneous rejection of Soviet, Chinese and British foreign policy. I mean, honestly, who the fuck writes songs like this anymore? And don’t say Immortal Technique. Titus Andronicus is only two albums into their young careers, so they could conceivably dig deep down the road and make an album this deep and spectacular. The Clash released Sandinista as a triple album (36 songs) so that they could escape their terrible record contract faster, a move that did not escape the record label. In the eventual compromise, the Clash gave up a large percentage of their royalties in return for the label’s pricing it like a double album, to make its purchase accessible to Clash fans. One of the disappointments of 2009 was our failure to put together a proper tribute concert for the 30th anniversary of London Calling. Well, we have a shot at redemption on December 12, for Sandinista’s official 30th. It’ll be a weirder, but more magical show, and we have a summer to plan it.

9. The U.S Open (August): It feels weird to rank a single tennis tournament over the entire baseball season, but the U.S Open has a trump card- the chance to see Roger Federer in his prime one more time. In the last twelve months, Federer has resolved the question of whether he has bested Sampras for the title of best tennis player ever (Yes, see French Open, 2009) and has set his sights on the next level, “Greatest Athlete of Our Time”. Federer’s prime has already lasted at least a year longer than most expected, and in a sport like tennis, you have to wonder how much longer R-Fed will be out there, now that he has statistically nothing left to prove. The heroics that the great ones summon at this stage of their careers, slightly past their physical peaks, are sometimes the most memorable- think Jordan’s Finals performances against the Utah Jazz.

8. Pick-up Basketball (all summer): Between devastating injuries, the bar exam and assorted trips abroad, I haven’t been in a regular pick-up basketball groove in years. While part of me feels that I’ll never be quite the same player post-knee surgery, I’m still not a guy you want guarding you. Sippy and I first took the street-ball court together fifteen years ago, and its long due we racked up some wins on 76th street along with the surviving members of the Hung Jurors, and whoever else is around.

7. The Death of Conservatism (all summer): Conservatism is wrecked. A total joke. Remember when conservatives you knew would bask in their intellectual superiority, snide oozing with every painful conversation. Unfortunately, a combination of world class bumbling by President Bush (How’s that Project for a New American Century going?) and the recent decision to sell their intellectual capital for some short-term Tea Party outrage has left the conservative movement bankrupt in every sense of the word. Now I’m no fool, please don’t mistake my claim to suggest that Republicans will never return to power. Massachusetts voters elected Scott Brown to “break the gridlock in Washington”, when the strength of the Republican opposition is the source of gridlock, a lapse of rational thinking that just makes you have to sigh and get back to work on that civic education. But when the Republican base is a throng of backwards, bigoted fanatics, driven by irrational fear and dare I say, loathing, their days as a majority party are forever threatened.

6. The NBA Play-offs (May and June): The caliber of play in the NBA right now is simply at a level unmatched since I became a fan of the game in 1992. Everyone is hoping for the Kobe v. Lebron matchup that Nike promised us with its incessant commercials last year, but there will plenty of intrigue on the way, including the last gasps of the 2008 champion Boston team and the 2007 champion Spurs team, and the post-season debut of Kevin Durant, perhaps the most prolific young scorer the league has ever seen, and the captain of my 2009-10 championship winning fantasy basketball team. Ultimately, however, the biggest spotlight will be on Lebron. The chattering classes have been waiting two years for this moment (See #4 below).

5. Marathon Day III (May): This twenty-six drink romp through all five boroughs of New York is a day absolutely unlike any other. Conceived of as a way to celebrate my 26th birthday, the tradition is now in year three. There is nothing like the anticipation of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at 10:45am on a Saturday as the team, a mystery till boarding time, assembles for the first leg of the journey. Did you know that not only is the Ferry free, but you can buy cans of beer for $2 and drink them on the deck? Marathon Day takes about 14 hours, and it has only been completed by three people, but the ebb and flow of merry travelers is part of what makes it special. Sign up to join here!

4. Lebron Lebron Lebron!!! (July): On July 1, Lebron James will become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, giving him his first opportunity to escape the dregs of Cleveland and make his mark as the biggest sports icon in the world, holding court at Madison Square Garden 41 nights a year (plus playoffs) and single-handedly save the Knicks franchise. Nor is this just a sports story- the allure New York has on Lebron has little to do with basketball; in fact, joining the Knicks would probably be a career setback. But at the last Cavs-Knicks game at the Garden, Jay-Z, Spike Lee and Chris Rock schmoozed with members of the championship Yankees team, which was honored during the first quarter, with Grand Master Flash dj’ing. You just can’t have moments like that in Cleveland, and Lebron knows that. When he visits New York this July, he will be a highly sought after recruit for the whole city, which is guaranteed to put on a spectacular show for him.

3. The World Cup (June-July): Part of me is shocked and disappointed that I won’t be in South Africa to witness this spectacle in the flesh. South Africa, aware of its product, has priced people like me out of attending, but no matter. The quadrennial event that pits nations against each other with much more nationalistic potency than the Olympics will be coming to a local pub screen near you. There will be a lot of subplots at work- for Americans, the desperate need to atone for our dreadful performance in 2006, and a spotlighted June 12 match against England that hundreds of millions around the world will be watching. The World Cup also always has its share of the “traditional powerhouses” vs. “upstart nation” subplots, and with the Cup being hosted in an African country for the first time, a run by Ghana or Cameroon would be particularly awesome. South Africa is expected to fare worse than any host country in the Cup’s history. Even from our far away perch in New York, the World Cup will be thrilling to watch. I’ve even imported a Brit from Liberia to educate us on the finer points of the game. Cheers!

2. Bonnaroo (June): I assume folks have had at least had the decency to ogle this year’s lineup. It actually be less impressive than last year’s unhuman roster, which included an evening of watching Al Green, the Beastie Boys, Phish, Nine Inch Nails and MGMT back to back. It wasn’t even fair. When you’re too wiped out from watching Wilco and Bruce Springsteen to finish watching Public Enemy perform “It Takes A Nation of Millions”, it’s time for karma to spread itself more equitably. This year the headliners include some busts (Kings of Leon?), but it’s hard to argue with Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z, Weezer, and, wait for it- the Flaming Lips, who will be performing their own set and also covering Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. If that’s not the place you want to be on Earth, I don’t know what is. It makes the entire festival worth it, even if you aren’t sold on the best punk act of its era, the Dropkick Murphys, one of the best young bands in America, the Gaslight Anthem, or John Fogerty, all of whom will be there. Even Conan is listed as a headliner, though I don’t know what he brings to the table. Maybe they’ll pair him with Dave Matthews Band, though in fairness to the long loathed dudes of DMB, we’ve all grown up a little, and I just might give ‘em a look from the back of the crowd. I am sure that some of the Roo faithful will read the previous paragraph with some disgust. After all, Bonnaroo was supposed to be the mecca of jam bands, where people in tie-dyed shirts got stoned and nodded their heads every now and then to 15-minute cover songs (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Things were awkward for a few years- did Radiohead really make sense as a headliner? Rap, too, was brought in gingerly. But all things must pass, and ‘Roo is not really a jam band festival anymore. It is, however, a great time with great people, with enough great music that everyone in attendance will find a reason to make it one of the most memorable experiences of 2010.

1.Bull Moose Movement (all summer): Zombie parades, working with community groups, generating camaraderie across the digital divide…there is so much to look forward to in the nascent Bull Moose Movement. The project is a collaboration of progressive activists across the country, centered in Brooklyn, which seeks to empower communities against corporate influence through civic education. And it will be epic- as any group named for Teddy Roosevelt’s renegade third party candidacy would be. Did you know that the Wizard of Oz is an allegory for 1890s anti-corporate populism? Come find out when we screen it at the Bull Moose Tavern, our hub pub in Hell’s Kitchen.
Progressives are back in a big way right now. We all stumbled a bit in the transition for George Bush to Barack Obama. But the this summer should feature some strong activism, including the teachers movement, which is pushing back hard against the ridiculous charter school impositions from on high, and the citizens united against Citizens United, who are calling on Americans to rethink how corporations should be treated under our laws while they seek to undermine our democratic process. The Bull Moose Movement will be partnering with plenty of sweet groups along the way, and celebrating an optimistic future along the way. Dear Summer of 2010, Let’s do this. Sincerely, Janos and Friends

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Enemy is Everywhere: Review of new Titus Andronicus album

"From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide."
Abraham Lincoln, Address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838.

The crucial element missing from the progressive resistance to the George Bush era and the rise of the corporation was a meaningful soundtrack. Titus Andronicus, a fiery punk band from New Jersey, may not define themselves as activists (neither did Bob Dylan), but their second album, The Monitor, delivers a much-needed blistering rebuke to contemporary society.

For those of you who missed their 2008 debut, An Airing of Grievances, Titus Andronicus’ debut was packed with anthems about finding purpose in the doldrums of New Jersey. In their second record, they revisit that idea through the prism of the U.S Civil War. The album is fantastically ambitious, an adjective used to describe few major bands today; in fact, when asked to describe the album, front-man Patrick Stickles offered, “Through and through, it is a whole-hearted and potentially ill-advised grab for some sort of imaginary brass ring, the sound of a band desperate for success and defiantly unafraid of failure.”

The opening song, “A More Perfect Union” unleashes a torrent of emotions- distaste with culture, the depressing escapism of alcohol, and the difficulty of figuring out what exactly you’re looking for: “I didn’t want to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey,” to a musical background dripping with influences from Bruce Springsteen to Civil War melodies.

The second track, “Titus Andronicus Forever,” ends with a passage from a letter Lincoln wrote to his law partner in 1841: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheer face on earth.” This is a striking quote. First, you would think Lincoln said it during the Civil War, as the Union’s exhausted Commander-In-Chief. In fact, he was simply another 30-something lawyer struggling for meaning. Lincoln was deeply melancholy for much of his life, and was subject to tremendous mood swings even as president. Depression, when it strikes, is a major obstacle to most of us achieving our goals, as it often leads to unproductive feelings of self-pity and nihilism. Yet the same man who expressed his own sadness so dramatically went on to become not only a great president, but one of the most important figures in American history. It makes my own bouts with dark moods feel petty by comparison.

I love this album as a history lover and an activist. Nearly every sprawling track on the album starts or ends with a quote from Shakespeare, Lincoln, or Jefferson Davis. The album is titled after the U.S.S Monitor, the first ironclad ship commissioned during the Civil War. The fourteen-minute closing track, “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, is named for a naval battle involving the U.S.S Monitor in 1862. Who still writes fourteen minute epics? Who references history so effusively in their garage rock song? Who asks this much of their fans to simply get through the album? One terrible review I read didn’t even realize it was a Civil War concept album- I guess singing “Glory, glory, hallelujah” and tracks called “A More Perfect Union” and “Four Score Part Two” didn’t ring a bell. I think it’s great to ask people to think harder, and the demands of this album, musically and lyrically, are refreshing.

I agree with the album themes to an extent. On “Four Score Part Two”, Stickles rails,
“It’s still us against them, it’s still us against them, it’s still us against them, and they’re winning.” So true, but it’s not over yet, Patrick, it’s not over. Modern history has been a constant struggle for fulfill Tennyson’s exoneration, “Tis’ not too late to seek a newer world.” In the last century we as a people have emerged from the wreckage of the worst war in human history to expand the rights, opportunities and comforts of men and women all over the world. None of it is has come easy- the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the liberation of Africa and fight against apartheid, acceptance of gays, social welfare for the poor, a new middle class all over the world, medical and communications advances. ‘You’ve got to admit it’s getting better, all the time,’ as the rarely profound Paul McCartney would tell you. That’s why no matter how ‘bad’ things are, I tend to believe they will eventually get better, even if it very much still is us against them, and they’re winning.

During “No Future Part Three: No Escape From No Future”, the band harshly chants, “You will always be a loser!” a thematic reprise from their first album, though this time Stickles ends with a piercing yell, “And that’s ok!” Not only is it ok, but I’ll re-raise Stickles- the era of the loser is on its way out. Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastic campaign theme from Slapstick, “Lonesome No More,” has been realized in the internet era. Never has it been easier in the history of human history to find people who look like you, think like you, share your values, enjoy the same music, root for the same teams, and just generally like you. Perhaps I’m conflating being a loser with isolation, but inasmuch as I’ve ever associated the link, we are entering a true “Lonesome No More” era.

If Titus Andronicus could pick one quote to define the album, it would probably be the chorus line from “Titus Andronicus Forever” (incidentally, also written on their t-shirt): “The enemy is everywhere, the enemy is everywhere. No one seems to be aware or care, but the enemy is everywhere.” They are right, of course, as cynics often are. But I’m simply not going to leave it at that gloomy message; I’m just too pumped up after listening to album. So I’ll counter with a verse that we all know and love, which just as easily could have fit with the spirit of the album, and which speaks to the effort we need to make as a society each day:

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Robert Kennedy, Indianapolis speech, the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination, April 4, 1968.