Brel, Bowie, and Viva Las Vegas!

Jacques BrelTo make up for the catchy pop folk I put you through earlier today, I present to you a great performance with David Bowie and Mike Garson, who does an extended keyboard solo in the middle. You may remember Garson for his playing on a number of Bowie albums, most especially on the title track of Aladdin Sane, where his avant-garde solo steals the whole album. There is no avant-garde here, just a delicious and effortless piece of musicianship.

The song is “My Death,” which was apparently from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which I have not seen. The song is a translation of a Jacques Brel song, “La Mort,” off La Valse à Mille Temps. Lyrically, the translation isn’t bad. There are a couple of problems. The first is that the French conception of Death is not ours — it is a pale woman. So the chorus sung to “you” in front of the door has a romantic element that is totally missing in the English version. Also, the original has constant references to time slipping away. This is also missing in the translation.

The way that Bowie chooses to do it is odd too. He sings it like a dirge. Brel’s chorus is upbeat. It’s like he is saying that as long as he can flirt with death, he can stay alive. Or something. You can never say with Brel because his work is so layered. None of this should be taken to mean that the Bowie version is bad. It isn’t. But the Brel version is better:

But Brel doesn’t have Mike Garson backing him up. What’s more, we expect Bowie in his old age to croon for us. He’s been doing it since David Live back in 1974 when he didn’t expect it. (I still think it is a great album; I don’t care what anyone says.) If you want to skip ahead to the Garson solo, I forgive you. It is at 4:50. And if you have any doubts about whether you should watch this, consider this: the translation was done by Mort Shuman, best know as the co-writer of “Viva Las Vegas”!

I can’t resist. In general, I don’t like Jello Biafra’s vocals. I think they detract from Dead Kennedys, which is still one of the great California punk bands. But with “Viva Las Vegas,” Biafra’s vocals are just perfect:

Getting Mellow With Kenny Loggins

Kenny LogginsI am not really a Kenny Loggins fan. But there is much to be said for his earlier folky stuff. And I got “Danny’s Song” stuck in my head today, so I went looking for it. But I tried to avoid both Loggins and Messina and Anne Murray. And that brought me to the following lovely version of the song with two guitars, one bass, and three voices. It is Loggins on lead vocal. I don’t know who the other guys are.

What most impressed me was the lead guitar. I love tasteful music like that. And that country rock bass works really well too. With all the posing that goes along with popular music, it is nice to see a well crafted song performed beautifully.

You might notice that Loggins sings, “Conceived in lust” rather than “love,” as it is on the original recording. Apparently, he thinks it is funny. What it shows to me is that, like most musicians who have a hugely popular song, he secretly hates it. And I have to say that I have always found the song far too precious. Let’s see: you are poor and about to become a father and that’s just great because you have “love”? Grow up!

Of course, if the lyrics had been more mature, it probably never would have been a hit. It is nice regardless. And as I said: beautifully performed.


The show (or video) is sponsored by Taylor Guitars, who make some very attractive instruments.

The Oppotunity Cost of Neoliberal Policy

Opportunity CostAs you should know by now, you should be reading Jonathan Cohn every day. And yesterday was no exception. He wrote, Is Obamacare Making Insurance Cheaper in Your City? It is primarily concerned with the new Kaiser Family Foundation study that I wrote about yesterday morning, Good News About Obamacare Doesn’t Get Out. But Cohn went into a bit more depth about the issue, as he usually does.

I was very struck by the end of the article where he talks about how the lower premiums will be distributed. He provided the example of Los Angeles where the decrease in premium is due to lower prices offered by Anthem. So if people have Blue Shield right now and decide to just keep it next year, they may end up paying more. Cohn commented, “It’s confusing, I know. And you can safely assume that not all consumers are going to understand this. It’s going to cause real problems come open enrollment time, particularly since some people will choose to re-enroll in their current plans automatically.” Indeed it is confusing.

This is one of the many problems with neoliberal policy. There is this idea that people have nothing better to do with their time but to look at all the options for health insurance each year and decide which one is best. To conservatives, this is called, “Freedom!” But it doesn’t feel much like freedom to the average American who is already busy making ends meet. It reminds me of the lines at the grocery store. I think most people would prefer a single queue where they know they would be treated fairly rather than the current system where the most obnoxious people dash to the next check-stand that opens.

What’s more, the economics of neoliberal policies are never fully worked out. These policies normally have huge opportunity costs. But they are ignored because it is a cost that is far greater on the poor (with little political power) than it is on the rich (with much political power). I know that we consistently get saddled with neoliberal policies because we are told that they are the only ones that are politically viable. But the reason they are politically viable is because they benefit the rich, and the country is run by and for the rich.

I’m glad that Obamacare is working out well. There is no doubt that it is far superior to the system we had before. But it is still suboptimal. We continue to use “free” markets to provide services, even in cases where those exact markets were a total failure. Look at the way that those in the so called Education Reform movement are so eager to destroy the public school system because they claim it is broken. If only these people applied the same thinking toward the healthcare system. But of course, the two are exactly opposite. Destroying public schools is seen as in the interests of the rich, and protecting our byzantine private insurance system is seen as in the interests of the rich.

You can predict government policy with a simple procedure. Does it benefit the rich? If so, it is the mainstream policy. If not, it is out of the question — not even worth discussing — “commie talk.” Are you enjoying your oligarchy?

Makeup as Dehumanization

Using Makeup to Go From Beautiful Inhuman

I found this image in an article, How Women Transform With Makeup. To me, this is horrific. The article contains a total of ten women who transform into dolls. I really don’t get it. The women are all attractive without makeup. And in the process of “improving” themselves, they lose their humanity.

It’s the imperfections that make us interesting. And the point here seems to be about massaging the imperfections away. It is also, of course, about losing “ten pounds instantly with contouring!” The whole thing makes me think that the reason only women wear makeup in our society is because we want to minimize women. Makeup not only turns them into objects of adoration, but it takes from them their individuality. I’m bad at recognizing faces, but it is still the intention of the process to make the young woman in slide six look nothing like the young woman in slide one. I find it deeply disturbing.

I also wonder who the makeup is meant for. Is it for men or what women think men want to see? Or is it for themselves? I hope it is the latter. And I can see that. It shows a great deal of skill and it really does transform the face. On the other hand, if it is for the former, I tend to think it is for nothing. Most guys aren’t that picky. That’s kind of redundant: most guys are, well, guys. And in my experience, they like most women who are just willing to talk to them. Major attraction occurs when they meet a woman who laughs at their stupid jokes. And though men generally take makeup on women for granted, I’m not sure there would be much complaint if they stopped.

The final image above reminds me of what Roland Barthes said about Greta Garbo:

Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt. It is true that this film (in which Queen Christina is by turns a woman and a young cavalier) lends itself to this lack of differentiation; but Garbo does not perform in it any feat of transvestism; she is always herself, and carries without pretense, under her crown or her wide-brimmed hats the same snowy solitary face. The name given to her, the Divine, probably aimed to convey less a superlative state of beauty than the essence of her corporeal person, descended form a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light. She herself knew this: how many actresses have consented to let the crowd see the ominous maturing of their beauty. Not she, however; the essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more that formal. The Essence became gradually obscured, progressively veiled with dark glasses, broad hats and exiles: but it never deteriorated.

To me, there is something anti-feminist about makeup. This is what Barthes is getting at about Garbo and the platonic ideal. Ideals are not real and to ask women to pursue such a thing is to dehumanize them. But at the same time, there is something anti-masculine about it. Heterosexual men should love women as they are. There should be no need to dress them up as though they were somehow wanting.

I would never claim that women should or should not use makeup. That is up to every individual to decide. But the fact that so many women feel the need to wear makeup and men expect it, does not speak well of our culture.

Why Do Conservatives Minimize Slavery?

The Economist: Are We Racists?I’m sure you’ve read about The Economist review of Edward Baptist’s forthcoming book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The anonymous reviewer concluded, “This is not history; it is advocacy.” That was because Baptist just focused on how slave owners forced more productivity out of slaves. The reviewer just couldn’t understand why he didn’t spend any time on all the slave owners who got their slaves to be more productive by being nice to them. You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar! Am I right?!

There has been a lot of comment on this review, but most people just think it is funny. It is so over-the-top offensive that it is hard to take it seriously. Or maybe we are all so used to it by now that we figure, “Of course a conservative magazine would write that.” Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times noted that the review was very similar to what The American Spectator wrote about the film 12 Years a Slave, “If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr McQueen does not want us to hear about it.” Yeah! Can’t we get a little Margaret Mitchell fiction to cut the bitter taste of Solomon Northup’s nonfiction? A little balance, that’s all we want! Am I right?!

The Economist has reacted the way you would expect from a British publication. They admitted their error and moved on. In place of the article is an apology, Our Withdrawn Review “Blood Cotton.” (For transparency, they rightly leave the article after the apology.) And they don’t try to justify or minimize:

There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologize for having done so.

So good for The Economist. But the question is naturally raised: why is it that conservatives — Libertarians most especially! — are so often trapped by a kind of slavery apologia? One would think that believers in freedom would be especially offended by slavery. Yet they are forever making arguments that slavery was on its last leg and this nonsense about how slave owners treated slaves well because the slaves were valuable “property.” What’s with that?

I think there are two issues. The first, and less important, is that they define “freedom” in such a way that it is meaningless. For example, freedom is “paying no taxes.” It is not “the ability to find work.” Conservatives believe that the government has a role in enforcing property rights. But it has no role in seeing that people who were born poor after all the property was divvied up have an option to make a living. Thus, it isn’t surprising that such a skewed idea of freedom would cause them to get confused about an issue like slavery were the slave owner is, after all, extremely free. And eliminating slavery requires collective action, which they hate.

The second reason that conservatives tend to minimize slavery is much more important. Conservatives have created a kind of idolatry. In its most simplistic form, this is a religion where the founding fathers were demigods who produced the divinely inspired Constitution and so on. Slavery puts a real damper on this party. If God was really behind the founding of America, why didn’t he get rid of slavery instead of coming up with that three-fifths clause? Thus, conservatives need to minimize the horror that was slavery to make it at least seem acceptable enough that it could wait 77 years.

Of course, the knowledgeable and intelligent people at The Economist don’t fall for such a thing. They believe something more sophisticated: free market ideology. But this is no more defensible. If free markets work so well, why is there slavery? And note: during slavery, it was those in the South — the slave owners — who were in favor of free trade. In the north, the fledgling industries wanted economic protection. So, far from being anti-free-market, slavery fully embraced it. I’ve been in many arguments with libertarians about this, but the arguments are not good. They all come down to, “But protecting people from slavery is one of the things we do need a government for!” Of course, the kind of weakling government they want would never have the power to stop slavery. It’s all nonsense.

I think that intelligent conservatives need to take a close look at themselves. When The Economist can push an idea that is normally reserved for confederate apologists, it is clear that there is racism festering in the core of conservative ideology. It’s great that the editors of The Economist were quick to admit their error. But that error indicates something going very wrong at the magazine and the conservative movement generally. But maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe all political movements have racism bubbling under the surface. Am I right?!

Actually: no. I don’t think so.

The Pros and Cons of Roger Waters

Roger WatersThe great singer and songwriter Roger Waters is 71 today. He is best known as the longtime front-man for the band Pink Floyd. And toward the end of tenure with the band, he pretty much took it over. The last album he did with them, The Final Cut, is better thought of as the first Roger Waters solo album.

At this point, I find Waters’ work generally a bit too much. But there is no question of his genius. His best work was the middle period of Pink Floyd when the other members of the band were able to dilute his excesses. His best work is found on Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. By the time of Animals, it was clear that things were getting out of hand. And The Wall, which is a brilliant album, signaled the end of Pink Floyd as a collaboration. At that point, Waters’ work was too personal and it was right that David Gilmour took over the band and Waters went on to solo work.

I haven’t paid that much attention to his solo work. It is quite good but I feel like I’ve gotten as much out of Waters as I can. And now some of his clichés drive me crazy. The biggest example is his tendency to jump from very quiet sections to very loud sections. Although things like Jesus Christ Superstar have been called rock operas, Waters work is really the only thing I know of that I think deserves the term. That’s high praise coming from me. But I am rarely in the mood.

Here is the video from the title track from Roger Waters’ first official solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking. It is a great example of everything that is good and bad about Waters. I especially think it is a weak concept of a man having a vaguely contiguous series of nightmares. But it does show how he can manage to create an interesting album with the thinnest of ideas. The album also features some of the best work I’ve ever heard by Eric Clapton.

Happy birthday Roger Waters!