I find myself more and more cynical these days. A lot of people have taken to calling Donald Trump a fascist. And he is. But as Jonathan Chait wrote last week, “A nominated Trump would be a different figure.” His point is that the reason the mainstream press feels as though it can call Trump out is because the Republican establishment is attacking him. If Trump gets nominated, the Republicans will fall in line and the mainstream press will be back to, “Trump says most immigrants are rapists, and Clinton says they aren’t. Who can’t say?! It’s a postmodern world!”
But the basic outline of fascism is what we humans naturally are. What Hitler did was only remarkable because we don’t do it so much anymore — at least in such clear ways. But fascism used to be the norm, not the exception. And the broader issue is just our tendency toward hierarchy. I was reading about spotted hyenas this morning. They are the most social of hyenas, with a rigid hierarchy. (There is an interesting twist that the lowest of females is dominant over the highest of males.) It is also passed on from generation to generation; that is, if mom was top hyena, so are you. The hierarchy is based on allies and it is rare for there to be a reversal of rank.
Now, all of this should sound very familiar. This is generally how things work with primates — most especially humans. Forget Donald Trump, let’s talk about Dick Cheney. On Friday, Glenn Greenwald wrote, US First Shields Its Torturers and War Criminals From Prosecution, Now Officially Honors Them. He noted, “Yesterday, the House of Representatives unveiled a marble bust of former Vice President Cheney, which — until a person of conscience vandalizes or destroys it — will reside in Emancipation Hall of the US Capitol.” You can bet whoever vandalizes the bust will do jail time — unlike the man being honored.
This went along with a presentation where the avuncular Joe Biden said, “I actually like Dick Cheney… I can say without fear of contradiction, there’s never one single time been a harsh word, not one single time in our entire relationship.” Of course there hasn’t! Dick Cheney may be a war criminal, but he’s “our” war criminal. He may be one of the most vile humans on the planet, but he’s “our” vile human. And by “our,” of course, I don’t me you or me; I mean the power elite; I mean people of Dick Cheney’s rank; I mean the hyena allies.
I’ve always been a bit bothered by the Nuremberg trials. I’m all for justice. But there was certainly an enormous amount of hypocrisy going on. What we saw was what we always saw: the winners of the war calling out all the bad behavior of the losers. Certainly the Allies had committed war crimes. According to one recent estimate, US troops alone raped almost 200,000 women. But there were also massacres and torture. And there was the firebombing of cities. War is hell, but there is not hell to pay if you win.
And so, of course Obama was never going to prosecute people in the Bush administration. And given that, it follows that there would eventually be statues honoring Dick Cheney. That’s because Obama, Biden, Bush, Cheney, Clinton, or any other major political figure will never hold one of the others accountable. They may do different things to get our votes, but they know they need each other. Hyena allies.
On Friday, we got the new jobs report. Usually, I anxiously await the first Friday of the month, but I’ve gotten to see it as pointless. I want to see good numbers — for the economy to continue to create jobs. But what does it matter? We really do not live in a democracy; we live in a plutocracy. And that is nowhere as clear as it is with the Federal Reserve. It is a group half made up of people whose only qualification is that they are rich. And these people aren’t looking out the best interests of the country — much less the American worker.
So if the economy looks like it might be taking off — like workers might be able to demand a more just share of the nation’s productivity — the Fed is right there to stop it. After years during which the rich capitalists have made scads of money and workers have seen their pay stagnate and even decrease, the Fed is unwilling to allow even a hint of “dangerous” inflation that might hurt the rich. It has now be years that the Fed has been wanting to raise interest rates. And they have quite literally been looking for any excuse to do it. The data do not drive the policy; the data are just tools of Fed apologetics.
We are looking at raising interest rates. Why? Sad to say, a lot of it has to do with this fact: the last time the Fed raised interest rates was June 2006. It’s like people are unnerved by this or something…
Consider that the standard U3 unemployment rate is 5%. Back in 2000, Janet Yellen was certain that this was full employment — the level that you do not go below for fear of accelerating inflation. But Alan Greenspan — admittedly a bit of a crank — said no and allowed unemployment to get down to 3.9%. You may remember that period as the last time you got a raise. And there was no accelerating inflation. So hooray! We learned something: 5% is not full employment.
But it is 15 years later, and now Yellen is in Greenspan’s position. But apparently, she learned nothing from the past. Or, she is just a hack for the financial industry — which is probably the more accurate reading of it. I’m not saying that full employment would be 3.9% now. I don’t know what it is. But the truth is that there is absolutely no sign of inflation, yet we are looking at raising interest rates. Why? Sad to say, a lot of it has to do with this fact: the last time the Fed raised interest rates was June 2006. It’s like people are unnerved by this or something — like they aren’t aware of just how bad the collapsing of the housing bubble was.
I listened to the beginning of Marketplace on Friday. In the segment about the jobs report, Linette Lopez of Business Insider is obviously giddy about the Fed raising interest rates. Sudeep Reddy of The Wall Street Journal just seemed to be resigned towards it. Regardless, lots of people are going to go without jobs because the Fed is going to raise interest rates. But none of these kind of business reporters seem all that aware of it — or at least care about it.
And it is worse than I’ve stated. As Dean Baker noted, in addition to an unchanged unemployment rate, “There was also no change in the labor force participation rate or the employment-to-population ratio, both of which remain far below pre-recession levels.” So the truth is that there is incredible slack in the economy. But the Fed must raise interest rates, because the rich might lose a couple of pennies. And besides, they haven’t raised rates in such a long time!
And so we start another week of Morning Music. I’ve been reading, Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man. So I thought we ought to feature him. He was an amazing talent. He died far too young. And he spent far too much time otherwise engaged, releasing no work. Still he left the world a great deal of work: 13 studio albums.
Given that he isn’t that well known, I think we should start with his breakout song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” off his first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. I first heard it when I was in my very late teens, working graveyard as a baker. It blew my mind. For one thing, I had long been interested in a kind of chanting or talk singing. And I had long been told by people that you just couldn’t do that. Well, here was someone doing that and it was electrifying.
Note a couple of things about this. First, not all his work is like this. He was quite varied. Much of his music is very jazzy, as the song I’m going to feature tomorrow off his next album. Second, this is the original version. If you want to hear his recording of the song with a full band, it is on YouTube. I prefer this one:
Cover of “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man” licensed under fair use.
Pieces of a Man
Today we listen to the title track of Pieces of a Man. Gil Scott-Heron wrote it with jazz composer Brian Jackson — who he would do some of his best work with.
The song is the perfect combination of music and lyrics. It sounds like a jazz standard with lots of major 7th chords. It is highly evocative, even as it tells a fairly concrete story about a man destroyed by his economic difficulties. In particular, it highlights the importance of having a paying job to a man’s self-esteem. “He was a good man and a strong man, yet he went to pieces.”
I especially like the line, “And for some unknown reason, he never turned my way.” I know that experience. Men of that generation did not like to cry. But this feeling was especially true when it came to crying in front of their sons. They felt like they had to be strong for their sons. Although as this song indicates (but it is not autobiographical), sons still saw their fathers as strong. Regardless, that’s such a wonderful way of rendering the scene — explaining exactly what was happening with very few words.
Jagged jigsaw pieces
Tossed about the room,
I saw my grandma sweeping
With her old straw broom.
But she didn’t know what she was doing.
She could hardly understand,
That she was really sweeping up
Pieces of a man.
I saw my daddy meet the mailman.
And I heard the mailman say,
“Now don’t you take this letter to hard now Jimmy,
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man.
I saw the thunder and heard the lightning,
And felt the burden of his shame.
And for some unknown reason,
He never turned my way!
Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room.
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom.
But they don’t know what they are doing.
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man.
I saw him go to pieces!
I saw him go to pieces!
He was always such a good man!
He was always such a strong, strong man!
Yeah, I saw him go to pieces.
I saw him go to pieces.
We will slide smoothly into Gil Scott-Heron’s third album, Free Will. I’m making no effort to stay away from his better known tunes, because none of his work that that well know. And even people who have heard these tunes may not know who did them. Today, I feature, “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues.”
One thing that was interesting about the black power movement was how self-critical it was. In that way, it was exactly what conservatives like David Brooks and Paul Ryan claim the African American community should be. (In my work with a local Baptist church, I can assure you that this never went away.) But, of course, white America was terrified of black power. And, of course, we aren’t just talking bigots in small town Mississippi. We are talking northern white suburbanites — most of whom did not consider themselves racists.
“The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues” is very simple. It’s about self-empowerment — by way of hectoring. It also has an awesome guitar part by David Spinozza.
In 1973, Gil Scott-Heron released what I think is generally considered his masterpiece, Winter in America. And that’s saying something, considering the amazing quality of his work throughout his career. And I really think you should take eight minutes to love yourself by listening to “H²Ogate Blues.” Get it? It is an amazing musically accompanied rap. It is intense and insightful. But what it reminds me of is Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” because it is so clear that the musicians are having such a great time. It can’t help but cheer you up, and you don’t even have to think of Nixon and Vietnam. Although “Just how blind, America?” still cuts like a new razor.
But instead, let’s do a song that wasn’t on the original release of Winter in America: “Winter in America.” I’m sure it was meant to be on it. It was on his next album. And it has been on reissues. It starts with the line, “From the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims.” And I’m sure to most people, the response will be, “Yes, it probably did feel like winter in America in 1973.” But I think Scott-Heron is still right. Nothing has changed. It’s just that we are more delusional than we used to be. We pretend that we aren’t at war because we use machines to prop up our empire. Americans may not be dying, but I think it is pretty clear that America is dying.
On this live version, I’m pretty sure that that is Brian Jackson doing the flute solo. But this song was written by Gil Scott-Heron alone.
Forgive me. By definition, weeks only have seven days, and it is impossible to squeeze into that the whole career of someone as great as Gil Scott-Heron. So I’m just going to jump to his last album, I’m New Here. We’ll spend our last two days on it.
It is not even a half hour long, but it packs a punch. In one way, it is totally different from what he’d done before. There’s a lot more atmosphere. But fundamentally, it is another Gil Scott-Heron record — in many ways as good as anything he ever did.
Me And The Devil
What we’re going to listen to is a video of two works on that album. The first song is his amazing cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues.” I don’t really know what to say. You’ve got to hear it. It’s fantastic. And then, there is his song “Your Soul and Mine.” It is Scott-Heron reciting “The Vulture” off his first album, with atmospheric music underneath. “Standing in the ruins of another black man’s life…” The two songs go perfectly together:
I’m New Here is probably Gil Scott-Heron’s most personal album. Or at least it feels that way. A friend mentioned that it was interesting that he should fall into the very trap of drug addiction and jail that he preached against. But I noted that this is actually a misreading of his work. Any hectoring that he did was loving. His real attacks were against the system that destroyed people. The fact that the system, to some extent, destroyed him almost seems appropriate to me.
The good thing about it is that he was able to write from both sides of it. For example, “The Crutch” presents what I think of as a very knowing portrait of a heroin addict, even though that was not his drug of choice. But I want to share with you a very raw blues number, “New York Is Killing Me.” It is both personal and social. And it is eternal. I am apparently not the only one to think that, because there are a lot of derivative songs based on it. But here is the album cut:
We come to the end of our week of Gil Scott-Heron, and as usual, I’ve chosen a live set for this Saturday. I had a hard time choosing. The truth is that there are kind of two Gil Scott-Herons. There’s the young firebrand. Then there is the older and wiser man. Being older and wiser myself, I identify much more with the latter. But it is often great to spend time with the firebrand. It doesn’t really matter. I love it all.
The big problem is that I can’t find any live performances that are really late. They are more in the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was struggling. These performances make me a bit sad, even though they are still very good. I’ve found and hour-long performance from a German television show back in 1984. But as usual, it was taken down because of copyright infringement. So here is “Gil Scott Heron Black Wax.” It’s been on YouTube since 2014 — almost 3 years. Hopefully, it will stay. It’s good!
Cover of “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man” licensed under Fair Use.
Popcorn, Bottle, and Gil Scott-Heron
Many of you may know of my fondness for Gil Scott-Heron and his funky proto-rap. I remember the first time I heard him, I was working as a baker in my late teens. The one nice thing about that job was that I was alone and so I could listen to the local alternative radio station. And on came “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” It was a revelation, “The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal… The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner because the revolution will not be televised.”
Earlier today, my friend (and sometimes writer for this site) Will sent me a link to Scott-Heron’s song “The Bottle” with a note, “Doesn’t the bass line sound like corn popping?” I had to admit that it did. But going back over a lot of his work, that’s more generally true. That’s part of what makes his work funky. There is no funk guitar, so it all comes down to the bass and the percussion. But the bass on “The Bottle” does sound more like a popcorn machine than any other song I’ve heard.
The song itself is deadly serious despite a really catchy tune and pleasant production. It’s about hopeless people who find their only solace in alcohol. It could be anything though. The bridge is slightly different each time, but the lyrics are:
Don’t you think it’s a crime
The way, time after time
Friends of mine
In the bottle
There’s people sure ‘nough
In the bottle
But the song offers no solutions, and not even much in the way of context. Maybe in the three years between “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “The Bottle,” Scott-Heron had become a bit more cynical. I don’t actually think so. But it is certainly true that Small Talk at 125th and Lenox with “Revolution” and “Whitey on the Moon” is more strident than Winter in America. I prefer the former, but musically the latter is better.
Anyway, here is “The Bottle”:
Gil Scott-Heron was one of the rarest of things: an idiosyncratic artist who was incredibly skilled. Everytime I’m forced to listen to some American Idol skreetcher, I’m reminded of the authentic beauty of Gil Scott-Heron’s work. In a way, I think of him as our Jacques Brel. But what his work is so much more relevant to my life. I wished he were still alive. He’d only be 68 as I write this. It would be a different thing if his last album was weak, but it was some of his strongest work. He had so much more to offer us.
But I am extremely grateful for the work that he did leave to us. And I recommend that you check him out. There is lots of his work on YouTube. And you can still buy his albums at Amazon or your local record store. Listening to Gil Scott-Heron is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself!
On this day exactly 150 years ago — 6 December 1865 — the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. It abolished slavery, except as punishment for a crime — a loophole the south would use against African Americans in very clear ways. And thanks to the “war on drugs,” it has come back in a big way. Still, this was an important amendment. But it’s odd that it is more symbolic than anything else.
It is, of course, the Fourteenth Amendment that created the modern United States. This is something that I find conservatives just don’t understand. The United States was founded. It was pretty screwed up. But we had an amendment process. The Fourteenth was part of that. They might want to wish it away so they can go back to the good ol’ days of a weak federal government. But this is what America is, based upon its founding documents; if you don’t like it, you don’t like America. It’s as simple as that.
Perhaps the reason that the Thirteenth Amendment is not more important is that the Constitution never directly claimed that slavery was legal. Again, conservatives may be unhappy that Obama issues executive orders (though they didn’t have a problem when Bush did so). But they too are part of the government, and because of the way the Constitution was originally set up, Lincoln was able to free all the slaves in the Confederacy with the Emancipation Proclamation. But again, it was good to clarify that slavery was done. Plus, there were still slaves in Union states.
The whole thing is nicely ironic — and I think entirely typical of conservatives — that if the Confederate states had not been so pigheaded, the should would have been able to keep it’s “peculiar institution” for a lot longer. I know I’m rambling, but I keep remembering this line from Ken Burns: The Civil War. When poor southern soldiers were asked why they were fighting, they replied that it was because the northern soldiers were there. Well, first: they weren’t northern soldiers, but the soldiers of all of them. Second: isn’t that typical that the elites could convince poor southern whites to fight and die for an institution that doubtless made them poorer than they would have been? Nothing changes.