Friday, May 25, 2018

Brendan's Death Song

A little change of pace from the usual Red Hot Chili Peppers style, Brendan's Death Song, from their 2011 album I'm With You, is about Brendan Mullen, a long time friend of the band who gave vocalist Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea their first break in 1983.  Brendan was managing an LA club at the time, liked their demo tape, and booked them as an opening act.

Mullen remained friends with the band over the years and was in the midst of working on a documentary on the Chili Peppers when he died suddenly from a stroke in October 2009, which was also the day the band began work on I'm With You.  On receiving news of Mullen's passing, the band started jamming and eventually came up with this song.

At about the 2:50 mark of the video you can see a photo of Brendan on the hat of one of the mourners.  The lyrics mention "Kateri", a reference to Kateri Butler, Brendan's companion the last sixteen years of his life.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Too Many Tears

I first saw Buddy Guy perform at the Fillmore East in the fall of 1968.  There he was coming down the aisle at the Fillmore playing the guitar behind his back.  He remains one of the great showmen of the classic blues.

Too Many Tears is from the 72 year old Guy's 2009 album, which features many fine collaborations but this tune is the standout.  On my first listening the female vocalist brought me up short; what a great voice, but who was it?  I went to the tiny print on the CD and discovered it was Susan Tedeschi of whom I'd never heard.  Too Many Tears made me a fan and I've since enjoyed many of her recordings, both solo and with her husband, the amazing slide guitarist, Derek Trucks.

That's Derek playing slide on this cut.  Enjoy. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Death Of Stalin

How do you make a comedy featuring a man who murdered millions of people with the aid of his willing accomplices?  By making it a very dark comedy.  There are some laugh out loud moments but most of its funniest moments also prompt flickers of horror.  The Death of Stalin manages to remind one of the deaths of millions but avoids lingering on the crushing reality in an effort to focus on the how ridiculous it all was.  It is also not a political film, portraying Stalin's reign in personal, not ideological terms, though for those who know the full history of those terrible times it is a searing indictment of communism.

Verdict of History:  A very good film.  It often feels like an episode of The Sopranos, featuring Stalin's Politburo as Tony's made Mafia men.  Outstanding casting, particularly Simon Russell Beale as the cynical and loathsome Laventri Beria, Jason Isaacs as World War Two hero Marshall Zhukov, and Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, underestimated as a clownish peasant by his colleagues but who would ultimately triumph over them all.

Many of the most absurd scenes in the film are historically accurate, or at least, mostly accurate.

Stalin was left to lay unattended on the floor for hour after his stroke, because even though the guards outside his room heard him fall to the ground they were too scared to violate his instructions to not enter the room.

Once discovered, the still living dictator lay for several more hours in a puddle of his own urine as terrified Politburo members debated over what to do next.

After the daily drunken evenings at Stalin's dacha outside Moscow, Khrushchev really did come home and dictate to his wife what jokes Stalin liked and disliked so he could review the notes in the morning when he was sober.

Molotov (played by Michael Palin) really did denounce his own wife when Stalin ordered his arrest and Beria really did release her after Stalin's death.

The opening scene in which Stalin wants a recording of a Moscow orchestra recital, inducing panic on the part of the producers really happened.

Laventri Beria was truly as loathsome as portrayed, and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) as stupid.

The Death of Stalin has been banned in Putin's Russia.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

If I Were A Rich Man

Fiddler on the Roof had its Broadway opening on September 22, 1964 starring the incomparable Zero Mostel as Teyve the milkman in a play based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, set in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia during the first decade of the 20th century.  Fiddler ran for a then-record 3,242 performances and Zero's performance set the template for every future Tevye.

For Mostel, Fiddler was his third, and biggest, theater success of the 1960's, beginning with Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play Rhinoceros in 1961, followed by A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962.  In a reversal of the plot surrounding Mostel's role as a failing Broadway producer in Mel Brooks' 1968 debut film, The Producers, investors in Fiddler made $1,574 for every dollar invested.

My parents took me to see Fiddler when Zero was still in it and I still remember the event (which I believe was mandatory for every Jewish family in the New York metropolitan area because so many of our families emigrated from that part of Russia amidst the turmoil of those times).  There is nothing on YouTube from the original Broadway cast but I found this from his appearance at the Tony Awards show in June 1965.  You can see for yourself what a force of nature Zero was onstage.  It's also the reason he was not cast in the film version of Fiddler.  The director felt that anytime Mostel was onscreen he would draw all the attention to himself to the detriment of the other performers.

Fiddler on the Roof continues to be performed around the world.  It is particularly popular in Japan which at first glance seems odd but the author of a recent article in Tablet explains:
Fiddler opens with a song celebrating tradition, but the bulk of the show is about the difficulty of maintaining those traditions—and, perhaps, the futility of trying—in the face of a modernizing culture. And it ends with the family, filled with a mix of hope and fear, taking off for whole new world(s) where the old rules don’t apply and the new rules, if there are any, are not yet clear.

So maybe Fiddler resonates in Tokyo not only because it’s a family drama about fathers and daughters, or a universal tale about modernity, but because Japanese history does, in fact, include a chapter about dislocation from a sepia-toned “old world” and an uncertain journey to a “new world” where the traditional rules no longer applied. Tevye and his daughters had to leave Anatevka and even move across an ocean to find their new world. The Japanese stayed put, but the new world came to them just as surely, with the same uncertain mix of hope and fear.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Your Money Or Your Life

Sometimes a successful joke only works when the comedian has developed a well-defined persona.  That was the case with Jack Benny who had enormous success on radio, TV, and in his live act from the 1930s until his death in 1974.  Benny's stage persona was of a vain, insufferable, and incredibly cheap man. By all accounts the real Benny was a warm, gracious, and generous.

(Benny's trademark look)
Image result for jack benny hand on elbow

That's why, along with Benny's impeccable timing, this joke works so well.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Why Scooter Libby Was Pardoned Now

Until the strike on Syria was announced this evening (I guess I'm just an old-fashioned guy but I sure would like to have seen a Congressional authorization of force), the big news of the day was President Trump's pardon of former VP Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby, convicted in 2007 for making a false statement during the Valerie Plame investigation.

It’s not widely recognized that the current situation is the second time James Comey has launched a special counsel at a Republican administration. The first was during the GW Bush administration. When Joe Wilson first published his “16 Words” op-ed in the New York Times, and then his wife, Valerie Plame (that’s in Joe Wilson & Valerie Plame, the “we’re not anti-semites, we just don’t want Jews running everything” couple), was outed to Bob Novak by an administration source as a CIA agent, and AG Ashcroft recused himself (sound familiar?), his deputy Comey saw an opportunity to get his arch-nemesis Dick Cheney.

Comey and Cheney were at crosshairs because of their differing views on the War on Terror and the role of the CIA/FBI and surveillance (I was closer to Comey than Cheney on the substance of their disagreement). Comey, convinced the source of the leak about Plame was Cheney or one of his staff, decided he could use the situation to nail the Veep, and so appointed his friend Patrick Fitzgerald (who was also godfather to Comey’s daughter) as special counsel and set him loose.

Unfortunately within a couple of weeks, Fitzgerald knew the source of the leak was Richard Armitage.  The problem was Armitage worked for Secretary of State Colin Powell, not Cheney. Moreover, Armitage and Powell were also opposed to Cheney's take on the War on Terror (and it appears no law was broken by the Armitage disclosure, as he was unaware that she may have been an undercover agent, though even her actual status remains in dispute). So instead of winding up his investigation, Fitzgerald asked Armitage not to disclose his role and proceeded to spend the next year setting perjury traps for Cheney and his staff, finally nabbing Libby. I would be shocked if Fitzgerald acted on his own without consulting his supervisor, James Comey.

For more background on the Comey/Cheney dispute read this this 2007 post from Tom Maguire who covered the investigation and trial extensively.  He describes Fitzgerald as a torpedo dropped in the water by Comey “towards the USS Cheney

Whether you can objectively determine whether Libby actually committed perjury is difficult.  The question centered around one of those who heard what from whom and when controversies in Libby's various conversations with media personalities like Tim Russert.  For what it's worth, one of the chief prosecution witnesses, Judith Miller, has since recanted her testimony, stating she was misled by the prosecutors and today released a statement called Libby's pardon "long overdue".  Of course, getting a conviction was not difficult with a DC jury when the defendant is an aide to an unpopular Vice-President.

That’s why Trump is pardoning Libby. It’s a direct rebuke of Comey’s sleazy machinations, which the sitting President has direct experience with.  After all, Comey admitted he told the president on three occasions he was not under investigation, yet at the same time was leaking unfavorable takes on the Chief Executive to the New York Times, but not leaking the accurate news that the president was not under investigation.  He was also party to using the Steele Dossier, cooked up by the Clinton campaign in collusion with Russian intelligence in order to convince a FISA Court (which was not fully informed of the Clinton connection) to issue a surveillance authorization on Carter Page which would give the government broad access to the Trump campaign.  And then, to top it off, when Comey briefed the incoming president on the Steele Dossier he didn't tell him of the Clinton campaign involvement!

It is also likely that another motive for the pardon is to send a message to Trump associates that he stands ready to pardon them.  I hope he does not follow through on that.  Or at least, that he makes distinctions among them.  There is a difference between a Michael Flynn, caught in the same type of dubious perjury trap as Scooter Libby, and Paul Manafort, who may have illegally enriched himself through bank and tax fraud.

In retrospect the Wilson/Plame story is also a precursor to today's Russian collusion story in the lack of mainstream media interest in anything that would interfere with the preferred narrative.

For instance, I was always struck that no one in the media asked why Joe Wilson waited to make his revelation only in July 2003, after the initial conventional of the war was over and Saddam Hussein deposed, since he’d made his Africa trip more than a year earlier.

Let’s look at the timeline:

Joe Wilson is sent by the CIA to West Africa in February 2002 to investigate allegations that Saddam is trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. Oddly, it appears the CIA never asked him to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

On October 11, 2002, the Senate voted to authorize the President to use force in Iraq. Half of the Senate Democrats, including Biden, Kerry, and Clinton, supported the authorization.

On January 28, 2003, President Bush gave the speech that later became known as the “16 Words” speech because of his reference to Saddam’s efforts to obtain yellowcake in Africa.

The Iraq War began on March 20, 2003.

Joe Wilson’s op-ed in the NY Times appeared on July 6, 2003.

As to the substance of Wilson's accusation that Bush lied about yellowcake in his January speech here is the Washington Post reporting in July 2004 on a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report on the matter (this is before the WaPo publicly announced its aspiration to smother democracy in darkness). From the article:
Wilson’s assertions — both about what he found in Niger and what the Bush administration did with the information — were undermined yesterday in a bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report.
In any event, why, if Wilson thought Bush had a “lack of candor” in his January 28 speech did he not raise his concerns before the start of the invasion in March? I think it is because of Wilson’s own views about Saddam’s capabilities, and internal Democratic party politics.

Specifically, in a talk Wilson gave in the fall of 2002 to an audience in DC (I listened to a recording of it years ago, and am trying to find it on the internet once again), he believed Saddam had significant chemical and biological warfare capabilities. In fact, he opposed the invasion for two reasons. First, he thought the US would suffer significant casualties because of Saddam’s WMD capabilities, and second, he didn’t want American “boys and girls” dying on behalf of Israel (I don’t think he was referring to Israeli Arabs when he was making that statement).

Further, Wilson was interested in Democrats being successful in the 2004 election cycle.  If he went public with his concerns prior to the invasion, it would have put a lot of public pressure on Clinton, Kerry, and Biden to declare whether they would change their authorization vote and demand another vote. Since none of them knew how the war would turn out and whether WMD would be found that would have put them in an untenable position with a lot of political risk, a position none of them wanted to be in.

It was only politically safe for Wilson to make his accusations after the invasion when little WMD, and no nuclear material, was found.

The other important element in the specific timing of publications by the New York Times was that it created a media frenzy right in the middle of George Bush’s trip to sub-Saharan Africa. Since the media narrative was that Bush was a racist, there was a need to divert attention from his obvious concern about, and commitment to, improving conditions in Africa. The Wilson story also helped to overshadow President Bush’s speech at Goree Island in Senegal, the most remarkable speech by an American president on race and slavery since Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.

Joe Wilson wasn’t the only one in his family concerned about Jews. In 2017, Valerie Plame’s long-standing history of similar views finally became public over her endorsing tweet of an article entitled “America’s Jews are driving America’s wars”, published on a website that also carried articles like “It’s time to rethink David Duke”.

There are two interesting aspects of the 2017 tweet, which, once again, was not an aberration by Plame. First, it led to her resignation the Board of the Ploughshares Foundation. Ploughshares is the leftist foundation that worked with the Obama Administration to create what Ben Rhoades, President Obama’s right hand man on the Iran Nuclear Deal, called the “echo chamber”, a coordinated effort to help sway public opinion, an effort that included accusations of dual loyalty by American Jews.

Secondly, the Wilson/Plame worldview also obscured differences between American neo-cons and Israel on foreign policy. During the run up to the Iraq War the Sharon government in Israel told the Bush Administration that it thought Saddam was successfully contained and that Iran was a much bigger threat. Once it was clear that Bush was set on prioritizing Iraq, Sharon directed his officials to stand down on the basis that as an American ally, Israel needed to support the United States. In other words, causation was the opposite of Wilson/Plame’s accusations.

The same dynamic occurred during the Arab Spring in 2011 when many neo-cons supported the uprisings, while the Israeli government did not.

You would probably not be surprised to hear that American media did not report on Wilson and Plame's troublesome views on Jews.