Friday, October 5, 2007


Wow. Greil Marcus, although I know for certain that you are not, I hope you are reading this. My computer, a 2007 MacBook, has entirely rejected a brand new copy of Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin'. I keep pushing the CD back in, the MacBook keeps shoving it out.

Daresay, Grail, something about the times? They, indeed, are a changin'.

Enough, Already! "Enhanced Interrogation" is Torture

"This government does not torture people. We stick to U.S. law and our international obligations," said the President of the United States, George W. Bush, to reporters in the Oval Office today.

"It is a policy of the United States that we do not torture, and we do not," Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said.

There we have it--the United States government has incorporated Military Police into interrogations, sodomized prisoners and thrown them into underground cells with putrid water when they were not charged with a crime, encouraged interrogators to make detainees stand up for hours at a time and adopted KGB-style techniques originally designed to train U.S. Special Forces to withstand being interrogated and tortured, but the United States does not torture.

Let law be the judge.

Eventually, plenty of U.S. government officials will have to face up to their own assertions and go on trial at the International Criminal Court. Since some occupy the highest ranking positions of American government, it won't be difficult to track them down.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

More Guns, More Advisors

"Detailed planning is underway for the U.S. military to begin scaling back its primary mission from one of fighting a counterinsurgency to an advisory and training role, which will involve pulling U.S. troops out of Iraqi cities and closing some U.S. bases, Odierno said."

Will this "advisory and training role" be like the one that created the Strategic Hamlets in Vietnam? I.E. a quixotic mission and abject failure? Training and advising is more complicated than it seems when dealing with a security force infiltrated by a kaleidoscope of violent militias and death squads--who will soon be flush with $100 million in Chinese weapons. This plan looked like a cop out to me at first. But it's actually a deeper, more prolonged commitment.

Monday, October 1, 2007

"It's My Party, and I'll Kill If I Want To," Or Remembering a Car Ride

My family was crammed into a white four-door sedan, cruising down the interstate and heading for Paradise Hills, a suburb in San Diego close to the border with Tijuana. Paradise Hills is usually left out of the San Diego maps, which tend to highlight hot spots on the beach like Pacific Beach or La Jolla. I lived near La Jolla, over half an hour away by car. My family, which was really a group of friends, most of whom had troubles with their own family and graciously took on their parallel familial roles, headed for John’s house.

John, the dad and driver, slipped an unlabeled CD into the car’s player. We were about to hear a band he had recorded days ago, called Hide And Go Freak. The first song began with a sample of something like an old radio jingle. “Hey everybody! It’s time for show and tell! It’s time for show and tell!”

I’ve always loved music, often more for ideas or odd sounds than disciplined melodies and rhythms. My love began in earnest in 2001, during my sophomore year of high school, the year I joined the family at dinner parties at John's house in Paradise Hills. I abandoned Jimmy Page’s maverick guitar licks almost overnight and turned to indie rock greats like Sebadoh, who recorded their early work on very cheap 4-track tape recorders. I started hanging out at coffee shops around San Diego’s downtown area, haunting performances of thrash-punk bands or random singer songwriters. I spent hours surfing the All Music Guide online, poring over the bios and discographies of Unwound, Helium and the like. I indiscriminately downloaded thousands of mp3s from Kazaa.

I listened to anything. That’s what made John such an ideal source for sounds—he listened to everything. A few weeks before this night, at his house, he explained how Charles Ives once wrote a symphony to be performed across a huge field, each section coming from North or South, East or West. He put on a record by Hugh Le Caine, who manipulated magnetic tape and built some of the first touch-sensitive synthesizers. The first track was a drop of water on a tape spliced into a series of patterns. John then put on a download of the first Kraftwerk record—which has an orange pylon on the cover, sounds nothing like what Kraftwerk would later become and has been out of print and rejected by the band for years.

But curiosity only goes so far. For all of the music I owned, I only listened to a fraction of it. Alexander, another member of the family, offered an appropriate description for John’s music: most of it, he said, was something intellectuals at a dinner party could wax academic over while drinking wine and eating Brie. Even people with eccentric taste prefer melodies to ideas when they’re driving home from work or school.

So, rolling down the highway during the 18 seconds before the old radio jingle sped up and warped and eventually decayed, I wasn’t expecting much from Hide And Go Freak. I anticipated novelty. The songs would be abrasive, or just bizarre, I thought. They might not have a beat. They might not have anything at all, except for an avalanche of effects over someone playing tricks on a turntable with LPs from a thrift shop. Who knows?

“I’ll show you something new! I’ll tell you what to do! Then you’ll have a chance to show and tell me to…” the last line squirmed away. In came a cymbal crash, a messy tribal beat on some toms, an ominous piano line and a yammering vocalist. It sounded like sludge-covered monsters creeping through a dank alleyway, snapping their fingers, tapping their feet, waiting for something to happen. Then the song hit the chorus—a cascade of keyboard lines from a Casiotone synth, a jumpy bass, the vocalist almost screaming and hopelessly out of tune. I pictured him covered in sweat, shaking around in John’s garage, giving up to the catharsis. Really, John said, he had sung the vocals in his parent's coat closet, coats included, in total darkness. Before the song was over, I knew this was something I had never listened to before in my life. When the song was done, I knew I had discovered a new world of music.

There were only four recordings on the CD. One was live, but John did the rest. The first number was called “It’s My Party, And I’ll Kill If I Want To.” One lyric goes, “Everyone’s having fun but me/and the clown smells like vodka/but I’m the birthday bitch I pull and pull/Instant destruction/Gather around kids to open my presents/Who got me the shotgun?” These lyrics are ridiculous and depraved. I find them hard to take seriously. But then as now, I hear something revolutionary when I listen to “It’s My Party, And I’ll Kill If I Want To.”

Each musician was talented, that was obvious, but it didn’t matter unless they served to destroy the status quo. Picture the B-52s battling the Yakuza assassin in the geodesic domes of William Gibson’s story “Johnny Mnemonic.” Imagine a Halloween celebration amped up with amphetamines and hallucinogens—ugly, reckless, irritating, but romantic. When I hear this song, Roy Baty in Blade Runner comes to mind. Like Roy, Hide And Go Freak was half human, half electronic, and ready to gouge the eyes out of its master.

This is probably how every new wave band started: alienated, destructive, but ready to dance. However, I knew from this song that Hide And Go Freak was not some new wave derivative, some wild garage band. Hide And Go Freak was what all new wave bands should have become.

John’s recording later became a 7” titled “A Strategy for Living in an Unlivable Situation.” It came out in the Spring of 2001, about the same time the keyboardist for the band died of alcohol poisoning. Before Hide And Go Freak officially broke up, they Xeroxed the packaging and distributed their first and only pressing to record stores around the city. John never gave me the CD copy: he wanted me to get the 7”, in all fairness to the artist. I bought one as soon as it hit the stores.

I didn’t own a turntable, so my girlfriend at the time taped this onto a cassette, after DEVO’s 1978 album “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!” Driving around in my mom’s Ford Taurus, I usually fast-forwarded through DEVO’s songs to get to Hide And Go Freak. But that tape died long ago.

By the end of sophomore year, the family had pretty much broken up. A couple graduated or dropped out of high school. John and his wife, Shaila, got a "divorce." Then Shaila legally married Ruben, another family member. They got a legal divorce and now she's in a civil union with her girlfriend. These days, John lives in New York City. Every few months, I run into him and ask about Hide And Go Freak. Last Sunday, I put the 7” on my turntable in my apartment in Brooklyn. The needle was broken, so I could only hear through one speaker. That wouldn’t do, but I craved to hear these recordings again. So I got John’s phone number from Facebook and called him. We talked for a while. Thankfully, he still had all four recordings, including another mix of “It’s My Party, And I’ll Kill If I Want To.” He emailed me the songs. I pressed the refresh button on my Gmail continually, until they showed up in my inbox. Now that I have been reacquainted, all I want to do is listen—over and over again.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Vox Pop: Why Did We Go to War?

[The J/M/Z train at Myrtle Ave. Photo by Punk Elmo.]

Last Saturday, six people milling around Bushwick, a bustling immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, said the Bush Administration cooked up links between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda to invade Iraq, acting out a personal vendetta for the benefit of big business.

In the 1990s, Scott Brown, 47, said he regularly read newspaper and magazine articles suggesting that Hussein and Al-Qaeda were arch nemeses. “The two just never got along,” Brown said.

Nevertheless, in September 2002, by the end of a month-long drive across the country with his friend, Brown said that radio stations they listened to were in a furor over deposing Saddam, suddenly an alleged state sponsor of terrorism.

“In every small town across America, there were no opposition voices whatsoever,” he said. “Occasionally you would here someone called in and ridiculed.”

Brown thinks Bush was taking out a personal vendetta against Hussein—who dispatched agents to Kuwait in April 1993 in a failed attempt to assassinate the former president Bush.

Jason Enriquez, a 26 year old from Long Island, agreed. “There’s personal grudges,” Enriquez said.

Another reason for going to war, Enriquez said, was the prospect of securing control over Iraq’s oil fields. “But you’re never really gonna know the truth,” he added. “If you go by what everybody tells you, what the media tells you, they cover up a lot of the stories.”

Ty Smith, an African American fellow in his early thirties, pointed to lucrative contracts with weapons manufacturers.

“When there’s a war, companies get money,” Smith said, as he waited for food at a local diner called Snack Town. “There are a lot of arms companies out there that we don’t know about.”

Steve Trimboli, 50, a Brooklyn native who owns the bar Goodbye Blue Monday, echoed that sentiment. “It’s just big business,” Trimboli said. “I don’t even know how big it is, but it’s big.”

Still, nine people in the neighborhood did not know or care why America went to war.

“I really don’t wanna to talk about it,” said Andrew Gray, 35, a Briton who recently bought two row houses in Bushwick. “It’s just been going on so long, it’s just not something that I’m particularly bothered about.”

Cyrus, an African-American who declined to give a last name but looked to be in his early twenties, seemed to agree. He had scant interest in joining the war effort, to face an insurgency of violent paramilitary groups—like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and rival Shia militias, whom the United States suspects of getting funding and weapons from Iran, or the homegrown terrorist group Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who lately have assassinated sheiks and police officers that support reconciliation in Iraq.

“I just live here,” Cyrus said, strolling down the street with his friend towards Flushing Ave, a lively commercial sector where cars clog the street near the Woodhull Medical Health Center, Latin music blasts from electronics stores and people eat roasted chicken at slapdash eateries. “We’re free,” he added.

Among the 17 people asked Saturday about why America went to war, six declined to comment altogether. But one supported the war. “They took down the twin towers,” said Ernesto Villegas, 38, a U.S. citizen from the Dominican Republic who owns a corner store on Broadway. “They can be back,” he added. “So we gotta go for war.”