How I Discovered Jules Shear

Got No Breading - Jules and the Polar BearsI was shocked recently when frequent commenter JMF did not know who Jules Shear was. He’s a really well informed guy on most things that matter. So I followed up his comment with a few of Shear’s songs. And I started with the first song of his that I had ever heard, “Lovers By Rote” off the first Jules and Polar Bears album, Got No Breeding. It is a great album. In fact, it is one of the greatest. It still thrills me. For the decade that followed that, Shear tended to be produced as a New Wave artist and it never worked. Then his work went more in an acoustic direction that was much better. But still, the Polar Bears were the perfect band for him: unhinged rockers with Richard Bredice with wonderful gritty guitar solos. You should buy the album. Really.

But I was thinking, “Why was ‘Lovers By Rote’ the first Jules Shear song I had ever heard?” After all, it is the third song on the album. Well, it was because I was in this band when I was 18 with this “old” guy, Roger, who was 30 who played keyboards. Pretty much I wrote everything, because that is and was what I did. I mean, I’m an okay guitarist now, but I was horrible then. I was slightly better on the piano, but nothing compared to Roger who was actually kind of good.

Will was also in the band, where he destroyed his voice in really beautiful ways. He has always had a strong voice, but at that time he was a wild man. John Lydon had nothing on him. Anyway, Will and I were really very “interesting” and “edgy” and all that. And Roger didn’t know quite what to make of us, but what he did make of us was not good. I think he saw us as students or something. The only thing worse than our learning abilities were his teaching abilities.

Anyway, one day I brought in this song called, “Do You Like Life?” It was basically just logorrhea, “People don’t care left standing in the rain you left a puppy dog…” And so on. It was word collage with three verses and then a kind of chorus in the middle of it that was written in something bizarre like 4.5/5 time and it was basically chanted. At this point in my life I second guess everything but I didn’t then. I knew the song worked. Roger hated it.

But he didn’t hate it because he didn’t like the sound of it. He didn’t like it because you just didn’t do that sort of thing. Note, this is 1982. We are well into the post-punk movement. I listed to Gang of Four a lot in those days. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing to stop you from doing anything at all as long as it worked. And “Do You Like Life?” worked as well as anything else we did. In fact, I think some of the other songs we did were more challenging to listeners. (And compared to some of what I write today, it was downright charming; everyone hates what I do now.)

So a couple of days had gone by and Roger was really excited. He had found a song he had to share with me: “Lovers By Rote”:

Do you see?! You could just start chanting in the middle of a song because this guy on this album did it. I was 18, so I said, more or less, “Yeah, I knew I could do that because, you know, I did it.” But I loved the song, especially the refrain, “Stupid questions about love are the stupidest questions of them all.” Which now seems kind of appropriate because Roger asked a lot of stupid questions about music.

The band didn’t last much longer than that. For one thing, I know I was horrible to work with—I’m just too caught up in my own thing. There’s a reason why I’ve generally worked alone or with one other very understanding person. But the bigger problem was that Roger was far more interested in drinking than realizing my bizarre vision. Will and I went on to create our own duo. We tried to add other people, but anyone who could actually play had more or less the same reaction to our work that Roger did. They could tell we were onto something new, but that wasn’t necessarily good.

Maybe this is why I so treasure idiosyncratic art that isn’t necessarily technically good: pure protection of my own self-esteem.


Here is the song “Too Soon Gone” from one of my favorite of Jules Shear’s solo albums, Allow Me:

Blindness of the Upper Middle Class Journalist

Social ClassI have something else to say about Will Bunch. Writing in 2008, he has two big problems with the modern Republican Party: budget deficits and global warming. These are, of course, the great concerns of the upper middle class journalist. He may work out of Philadelphia, but there is a fair amount of Villager in him. The thing I don’t like about his writing is this sense I have that to him it is all very simple: he’s just looking at the facts. And it just so happens that the facts turn out to be what is best for him and his class! What a great coincidence that is time after time after time after time…

Now, I understand: budget deficits can be a bad thing. And when Reagan was racking them up, there was no need. He also racked them up in the worst possible ways: by giving big tax cuts to the rich and spending money on unnecessary military hardware. But Bunch seems to think they are just a bad thing in general. And you know what? For people who own things like bonds, they are bad things. If you own a bond that pays 5% per year, then the lower the inflation rate, the greater your gain! And God forbid that inflation would go above 5% and you would actually lose money! That would definitely prove that we do not have a loving God.

On the global warming issue, I’m with him. It is a huge issue. But it is an issue that only those with a good solid job can worry about. The truth is that fighting global warming could be turned into a huge jobs program. But I don’t hear that from Bunch. I’m not saying he would be against it. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. But nonetheless, global warming is really just a symptom of a larger problem: inequality. We would have solved the problem a couple of decades ago if it weren’t for some really rich people who are making so much money by allowing us to destroy the world. Oh, and an assist by poor workers who are afraid that nice upper middle class intellectuals will destroy their jobs without doing anything to replace them.

I haven’t read much of Will Bunch, but I think he’s quite a liberal guy. He has a blog that is quite good. But there is this problem that I have with political writers. I’m poor. I know my thinking is affected by that fact. But among the upper middle class, there is incredible ignorance of their class biases. It is very much like the way that we don’t notice the air or the way that early cultures didn’t see that the sky was blue. This is because they live in a bubble. They talk to other upper middle class writers and read their work. They don’t read Frankly Curious or the Socialist Worker (although I’m sure at least some of their writers make it into the middle class).

But I think this is a problem. (Of course I think everyone should read Frankly Curious so I too can move into the upper middle class and not see that the sky is blue!) It’s perfectly fine that steel works mostly talk to other steel workers. But when Ed Kilgore and Steve Benen and Greg Sargent are all talking to themselves it creates a troubling situation. In a sense, it is just as bad as the epistemic closure on the right. It isn’t that they aren’t aware of what people are saying on their right, but to a large extent they ignore or at best discount what people are saying on their left. We get this from Jonathan Chait all the time on a couple of issues. They’ve convinced themselves that they’ve found the sweet spot: maximum truth. But it is actually, as for us all, just the truth of their class. And I have no problem with that—as long as they acknowledge it.

And for the record: the sky is mostly blue and would always be blue if there were no ozone in the atmosphere. But ask yourself: what color is the air in your home? Grappling with that question will unlock the problem faced by the upper middle class journalist.

Democrats Must Stop Believing the Reagan Myth

Tear Down This MythIt’s been well over a month since I started reading Will Bunch’s Tear Down This Myth. It’s an important book and I learned a few things from it. But I come at it from the perspective that Presidents are not very important when it comes to the things we give them the most credit for. In the case of both Reagan and Clinton, they get credit for economic booms created by the Federal Reserve. In the case of Reagan, it was Paul Volcker cutting interest rates, after having brought inflation down by more or less destroying the economy. (There was also the aid of international fuel prices going down, which also had nothing to do with Reagan.) In the case of Clinton, it was mostly Alan Greenspan’s heterodox theories (which turned out to be right) that said that 5% unemployment was not full employment. So presidents: meh.

In international affairs, presidents can have a much bigger effect. And actually, Bunch makes an excellent case that Reagan’s openness to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union on nuclear reductions was a profound and positive legacy. Of course, that’s not what people think about Reagan and the Soviet Union. The myth is that Reagan spent vast sums of money on the military (true) causing the Soviets to keep up (not true) and thus bankrupting them (also not true). Bunch doesn’t talk about it, but people always get the Gorbachev causation backwards. It wasn’t that he liberalized the government; it was that the government decided to liberalize itself, so it elected him.[1]

Bunch spends the end of the book at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. It gave me an idea for a documentary. I could go to all of the presidential libraries and scoff at them. It would not be partisan at all, because I think they are all fakers. Ultimately, that’s a bit of the problem with Tear Down This Myth. The truth is that we mythologize all of our presidents. And I really don’t think the fundamental problem with the Republican Party is that they don’t understand who Reagan really was. Because here’s the thing: all politicians exist in their environment. We all know that Richard Nixon as he existed in 1972 would fit very well in the modern Democratic Party. But we also know that if Nixon were alive in today’s political environment, he would be someone like Scott Walker—or maybe worse: Louie Gohmert.

So who would Reagan be if he were around today? Well, his rhetoric is most like that of Rand Paul if you ask me. He would absolutely be against any increase in taxes. He would absolutely be for gutting the social safety net. He would be (as he was) a clever racist politician. The only real difference I see is that Reagan would be more of an interventionist. But I fully expect Rand Paul to devolve on that issue.

The question that Bunch never grapples with is the effect of Reagan’s rhetoric on today’s Republican Party and I think it is about right. The big problem is not what Reagan means to Republicans. The big problem is what he means to Democrats. From Clinton on, they’ve done nothing but praise him. Reservedly, but clearly. Now is this just good politics because Reagan was so popular? I don’t think so. FDR was hugely popular but you won’t find any Republicans mentioning his name without spitting afterwards. And now Bill Clinton is very popular, but did any of the Republican candidates for president talk about how they wanted to be like Clinton or how they wanted to “end corporate welfare as we know it!”?

Bunch does spend a bit of time on this question. But overall, his message is that modern Republicans don’t understand who Reagan really was. Well, they do. When they talk about how he was a tax cutter, they aren’t talking about how he was a cutter of everyone’s taxes. They don’t care about everyone. I discussed this in some depth last month, Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest. He was their man! The modern Republicans understand this and Bunch just doesn’t.

What we need are Democrats running for president who say, “When Reagan became president, this country went way off course. He built up our military to a ridiculous level, even though the Soviet Union was crumbling. He cut aid to the poor. He gave unprecedented amounts of money to the rich. He pretty much destroyed private sector unions. He started a great shift of wealth from the poor to the rich. It is our job to reverse this. It is our job to go back to the days of a strong middle class. Reagan had an idea for this country. It was worth a try. But he was wrong. And now we must fix the problems he created.”

The problem with the Reagan myth is not that Republicans believe it. It is that Democrats believe it.

[1] Years ago, I wouldn’t have used the word “elect.” But the truth is that every country has its Overton Window. Gorbachev was elected. And although it is true that a Soviet Ronald Reagan would not have ever been taken seriously, it’s also true that today, an American Gorbachev would never be taken seriously. Americans greatly overestimate just how much democracy we have.

More Idiocy from Chris Matthews

Chris MatthewsJonathan Chait offered up a snarky little article this morning, Chris Matthews Goes Tea Party on Elizabeth Warren. What happened was that Matthews was complaining that Washington wasn’t getting the things done that she things should get done. He said things like, “You’re blaming it on the Republicans, but you control the Senate and you control the White House.” To this, Chait right responded, “Well, right, but the Constitution doesn’t say that if the House, Senate, and president disagree on a bill, then best two out of three wins.”

The reason that Chait refers to this as going all Tea Party is that the main thing that distinguishes the Tea Party from mainstream Republicans is this idea that the former think somehow they can will themselves to power. They may only control the House of Representatives, but if they just hold firm the rest of the government will be forced to follow. This is what happened in the government shutdown. The real problem is that on the right there is a certain kind of delusion that we don’t see on the left. For example, I’m a very practical leftist who is open to pretty much anything that works. But I have no illusions that I’m not far to the left of the country. The Tea Party really does think that their policy preferences are popular, when they are actually a lot less popular than mine!

So I disagree with Chait’s contention that this delusional thinking is now breaking out on the left. This is just yet another case of Chris Matthews being a jerk. And he is hardly a liberal. He pretends to be a liberal because MSNBC is now a liberal network. When MSNBC was a conservative network, Matthews was one of the biggest proponents of war. He was also allegedly the main person pushing for Phil Donahue’s firing. And that should tell you all you need to know about Matthews: it isn’t about ideology. It is all about his power and money. His “brand” is as a straight talking truth teller. And the truth he tells is whatever is convenient at the time. It was once really convenient to be a big booster for the Iraq War.

In this interview, Matthews is just trying to sound serious and like an “every man.” He wants to know how the Democrats are going to bring back the middle class. Elizabeth Warren had good things to say. But Matthews complains that union aren’t doing anything—demonstrably false. He says the president says something different every day and he doesn’t know what is going on. And then he gets into his, “Why does the Republican control of the House constrain you?” Mostly, it just seemed like he needed a nap.

I don’t know why Matthews is on the air anymore. He must be good friends with powerful people. Because he’s an idiot. He’s got to know that Obama has, in fact, called for increased infrastructure spending and it has been blocked by the Republicans in Congress—especially because he called for it. Of course, he’s the guy who wrote the totally stupid book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked. All he was doing in this interview was pushing the moderate’s answer to everything, “Why can’t the parties just get along?” Well, when one of them manages to win elections by not getting along, there isn’t much the Democrats can do until the voters wake up.

All That Fosse

Bob FosseLast year, I wrote, Apologies to Alan Turing for the birthday post. It’s interesting that his birthday comes just a day after another computer pioneer, Konrad Zuse. But when talking about Turing, I can never seem to get into the work that he did. He was so badly abused by our culture. It is sad. I never forget him. But today, let’s think happier thoughts.

On this day in 1927, the great choreographer and director Bob Fosse was born. In terms of his theater work, it was so great that to this day, people produce musicals the way he did. The only other theater director I’ve seen that done for is Samuel Beckett, and that is most certainly not because he was a great director. Fosse’s approach to choreography was highly stylized. You absolutely can’t miss it. At the same time, from talking to dancers, it was a form of dance that was very hard on the body and often led to injuries and otherwise shortened dancing careers.

I’m mostly interested in him as a film director, because that’s mostly where I know him from. I can’t think of a more consistent filmmaker. And this is despite the fact that his films are shockingly different from one another. He started with Sweet Charity, a musical with fairly standard direction. But the dance numbers were fantastic—both for the dance and for the way they are directed. Here is “Big Spender”:

Then he did Cabaret, which is astounding in the advancement on Sweet Charity. Most notable about it is that he changed the play from a standard musical into a film that had musical numbers only in the scenes in the cabaret. This makes it far more real. He also made the sexual aspects of the film far more explicit—quite a change from when film versions usually toned down or completely changed the sexual content as in The Children’s Hour. Here is one of the great numbers, “Mein Herr.” The song works especially well in the film given that Sally Bowles is actually the opposite of how she is presented in the song. She is fundamentally a romantic:

Next, Fosse made his first non-musical film, Lenny about the rise and fall of Lenny Bruce. I remember the first time I saw the film. I had never seen anything like it. It is presented almost as a documentary. It has since become absolutely standard cinematic technique in films like, Leaving Las Vegas. It is a technique he would refine to a much greater extent in his last film, Star 80. That film is generally thought to be his weakest. I long thought that myself. But now I think the film is perhaps his more profound as he demonstrates that the exploitation and murder of Dorothy Stratten was not the result only of her estranged husband but of pretty much everyone in her life.

Between those two films, Fosse made his masterpiece: All That Jazz. It is a film like no other and I still watch it every couple of years. It pulls together everything in his life. As I talk about a lot around here, I like idiosyncratic art. Well, this film is idiosyncratic art by a master artist. It tells the story of a miserable artist who hates himself and pretty much everything else. Yet the filmmaker isn’t wearing a mask. He assaults every part of the entertainment business and himself with great relish. The best moment in the film is where Joe Gideon is hanging out with a janitor at the hospital. The janitor sings, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag” at Gideon’s request a few times. It is a rare unpretentious moment in Gideon’s life where he reconnects with what he originally liked about show business: the pleasure of music for its own sake and not as a commodity fine tuned to the point where, at least for the artist, it loses all its charm. Sadly, that scene is not online. (Typical: the scenes I find most important are usually not interesting to other people.) So I’ll show this scene that ought to be shown to all aspiring actors:

Happy birthday Bob Fosse!