Category Archives: Diatribes

Opinion pieces exploring the political, metaphysical, or hypocritical.

World Cup Rant, Part 2: The Hair of God, the Head of an Octopus

When long-suffering Spain defeated Germany yesterday to qualify for its first-ever World Cup final, you could point to the usual sports pundit’s list of factors to explain the 2008 European Cup champion’s victory, from Spain’s superbly choreographed short-passing game to the offensive wizardry of the brilliant midfielder Xavi. But since none of these reasons would allow me to go off on a musical tangent, I’ll focus instead on two acts of divine intervention.

First, let’s talk hair. Xavi’s Barça teammate Carles Puyol scored the winning goal, and as the late Warren Zevon might have noted, his hair was perfect. Puyol has a huge head of rock star hair that could have seen him waking up with Peter Frampton’s wine glass in his hand in 1976, sparking the dubious hair-metal craze in 1986, skateboarding with Pearl Jam in 1996, or opening for My Morning Jacket in 2006. More locally, Puyol’s hair would have easily qualified him to substitute for the lead singer in Barcelona band Sopa de Cabra (see the video below). To be sure, Puyol can’t match the legendary locks of Colombian soccer star Carlos Valderrama. But at the decisive moment in yesterday’s match, Puyol’s flowing tresses gave him an unusually wide target to receive the ball on Xavi’s corner kick and connect for the winning header. By contrast, close-cropped German striker Miroslav Klose, who might as well have been a member of Kraftwerk, stood nearby in disbelief.

In contrast to Argentina’s celebrated Hand of God goal 24 years ago, this one was perfectly legal. Still, it’s clear that Spain won by the hair of God, which can’t bode well for the follicly challenged Netherlands team that will face Spain in the final. In Spain’s honor, here’s an impromptu list of songs about hair:

Ben Vaughn Combo, “Wrong Haircut”
Nina Simone, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”
Mongo Santamaria, “Afro Blue”
Calexico, “Hair Like Spanish Moss”
Danney Ball, “Let’s Give the Devil a Bad Hair Day”
Cowsills, “Hair”
Morrissey, “Hairdresser on Fire”
Pavement, “Cut Your Hair”
Beck, “Devil’s Haircut”
Blake Miller, “Long Hair”
Captain Beefheart, “Hair Pie, Bake 1 and 2”
Rogers and Hammerstein, “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair”

But wait, there’s more. Spain’s victory over Germany was also preordained by a precocious cephalopod. British-born Paul, who lives at an aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany, is the world’s most famous psychic Octopus. He has stunned the world soccer community by successfully predicting the outcome of 10 of 12 matches in which Germany has been involved dating back to 2008, including all six of its World Cup matches this year. Not everyone has appreciated the brilliance of the Oracle of Oberhausen. The Argentine newspaper El Dia unwisely suggested that he become the star of a paella recipe, and outraged German chefs have now followed suit. By contrast, Spanish chef José Andrés has removed octopus from the menu at all his restaurants. Paul has yet to weigh in on the outcome of the final match. Until then, the only thing I’m sure of is that neither side will be eating calamari or listening to the songs of bald musicians.

Sopa de Cabra, “Sents”

Mongo Santamaria, “Afro Blue”

Beck, “Devil’s Haircut”

Beatles, “Octopus’s Garden”

A Mighty Wind: Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone”

Coastal California in January is a setting for unpredictable bursts of melancholy and joy. Scandinavians or Minnesotans would barely recognize “winter” here, but we have impossibly thin skins for ours. We have too many sunlit summer teaser days to steel ourselves for the bleakness, and when the big storms hit the Bay Area, you might as well be walking through an Ingmar Bergman movie or a Leonard Cohen album. This makes January the perfect time to listen to Neko Case‘s weather-obsessed 2009 album, Middle Cyclone.

Calling a musician a “force of nature” is a tiresome cliche, because who isn’t? We humans are a bunch of animals, and the “artificial” music of Kraftwerk and Gorillaz comes from nature just as much as Delta blues. (I’ll exclude Coldplay and Sting, since they appear to be pure cylon.) But I digress. What matters about Neko Case isn’t that she’s “natural,” but that she has such a fluid force. Galvanizing calm and rage, she can take a phrase lesser lights would turn into mushy prattle (“I’m a man-eater” or “never turn your back on Mother Earth”) and make you believe her life and your life depend on it. She doesn’t just sing about stormy weather, she is the weather.

On “This Tornado Loves You,” perhaps Neko’s best song yet, she is the speed of sound, stalking lost love like a funnel cloud ready to strike. She is the force of love and danger spinning out of control. She’s the perfect soundtrack for a continent hanging on to hope while flirting with impending doom. She’s even the cool hood ornament on a 1967 Mercury Cougar. For those of us who emerged from the Zeroes with our attention spans twittered into submission, it’s a revelation to hear in Neko’s “Tornado” a rock musician with an ace geologist’s sense of timing:

I have waited with a glacier’s patience
Smashed every transformer with every trailer
’til nothing was standing
65 miles wide
Still you are nowhere
Nowhere in sight

I’ve played Middle Cyclone repeatedly while reading Dead Pool, James Lawrence Powell’s gripping account of how decades spent denying the forces of nature have left the western landscape vulnerable to climate change, potentially turning places like Phoenix into dusty, uninhabitable ghost towns. The rivers whisper and scream with the violence of lost love, but still we are nowhere in sight.

In the first clip below, Neko Case performs “This Tornado Loves You.” In the second, she chats with a Canadian talk show host about mesocyclones and animal instinct, Goethe and Harry Nilsson, Loretta Lynn and PMS. At the end, she hallucinates about George W. Bush visiting a taco wagon dressed in a grimy tank top.

Neko Case, “This Tornado Loves You”

Neko Case Interview

Please Remember Victor Jara

Victor_JaraDespite a lifelong obsession with politics and music, I only really learned about Victor Jara because of Professor Joe Strummer. “Please remember Victor Jara, in the Santiago stadium,” the late, lamented Clash bard quietly intoned in “Washington Bullets,” and I had to find out what he meant. Jara, the Chilean singer-songwriter and pioneer of the nueva cancion movement, was tortured and murdered with many others following Pinochet’s CIA-supported 1973 military coup on September 11, 1973.

Earlier this month, 36 years after his death, thousands convened in Santiago to give Jara a proper funeral, following a new autopsy that confirmed his torture and murder. Attendees included Jara’s widow, Joan Turner, and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, whose own father was among the junta’s victims. It’s belated poetic justice that Pinochet died in infamy as one of the world’s most disgraced public figures, while the boxing stadium where Jara lost his life is now known as Victor Jara Stadium. The next time you’re looking for a profile in courage, consider the poem fragment Victor Jara penned in the boxing stadium moments before his execution, and after his hands had been broken:

To see myself among so much
and so many moments of infinity
in which silence and screams
are the end of my song.
What I see, I have never seen
What I have felt and what I feel
Will give birth to the moment…

Because Victor Jara’s recordings aren’t widely heard in this country, his role in progressive iconography has long eclipsed his earlier fame as a singer-songwriter. But as his discography and a handful of video clips confirm, he had a wonderful voice. A couple of his better-known songs are in the clips below. After the click-through are just a few of the songs he’s inspired, featuring Calexico, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Claudia Acuna, Inti-illimani (and, please remember, the Clash).

Victor Jara, “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz”

Victor Jara, “Te Recuerdo Amanda”

Continue reading Please Remember Victor Jara

Shatner Meets Sarah: Tundra on the Edge of Forever

Palin-DylanFor a long time after I first saw spoken-word artist Sarah Palin recite for a national audience, part of me doubted her existence. I have nothing against regional dialect poetry, and hers hasn’t suffered from lack of attention. Last fall, the Utne Reader described her work as beat poetry, comparing her Katie Couric interview line-by-line with works by Ginsberg and Kerouac. In Salon, Camille Paglia, the Sarah Palin of essayists, described her Alaskan counterpart’s style as “closer to street rapping than to the smug bourgeois cadences of the affluent professional class.”

Still, I remained skeptical. Palin’s ice-fogged persona—equal parts Northern Exposure and Manchurian Candidate—seemed too calculated to be credible to all but the most serious Ted Nugent fans. It didn’t help that the author of her signature convention speech is a vegetarian animal rights activist, or that the names of her six children (Snipp, Snapp, Snurr, Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka) sounded too familiar. I kept waiting for the J.T. Leroy/ James Frey-type moment that would blast her story in a million little pieces, revealing “Sarah Palin” to be the creation of a bored Berkeley creative writing student, or Tina Fey’s older sister.

But Palin is indeed real, and the past month has shown that I clearly misunderestimated her artistic skill. A governor is a lot like a performance artist, but with actual responsibilities. With her recent resignation, Palin has brilliantly freed herself from the chores of governance. Much like the title character in the children’s story Duck for President, she will find that quitting frees up time to work on her memoirs and give speeches only other ducks can understand. Her farewell rant in Alaska, which many found inscrutable, ranks as a surrealist tour de force, sledding over the icy tundra of grammar and diction like an American Idiotarod of freestyle improvisation.

Even better, late last month on Conan O’Brien’s show, “master thespian” and Canadian mind-control expert William Shatner performed cover versions of Palin’s farewell speech and Twitter posts. Palin joined a select few over several decades–notably, the Beatles, Dylan and Pulp–deemed worthy of Shatner covers (remarkably, Shatner is six years older than John McCain). For those like me put off by Palin’s chirpy delivery of her own material, Shatner’s covers were a revelation. Following up on his moving and poignant 2004 masterpiece Has Been, Shatner used his martini-dry delivery to make Palin’s words boldly go where no prose has gone before, peeking at the “big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future.” Or, as one of Palin’s tweets makes perfectly clear:

Left Unalakleet warmth for rain in Juneau tonite. No drought threat down here, ever…but consistent rain reminds us: “No rain? No rainbow!”

William Shatner, performing Sarah Palin’s Tweets

I doubt that even Shatner knows the first thing about splitting the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs. But his spinning salad of Palin’s prose added a new layer of intrigue. I briefly recalled Ken Nordine’s worldly and other-worldy word-jazz. Even more, I thought of the surrealist beat poet Ted “The Hipster” Joans. As poets, Joans and Palin are a little like Captain Ahab chasing his nemesis: Joans’ Moby Dick was Dave Brubeck; for Palin, it’s Barack Obama. Joans’ credo was “jazz is my religion, and surrealism is my point of view”; for Palin, religion is her jazz and surrealism is her language. Joans spoke of poems as “hand grenades” meant to “explode on the enemy and the unhip”; Palin uses poems as hand grenades to explode on the unrighteous. Joans said “you have nothing to fear from the poet but the truth”; we have nothing to fear from Sarah Palin but her lies.

Ted Joans, “Jazz is My Religion”

keelerMost of all, listening to Shatner’s take on Palin made me think of his encounter with another feisty, dangerous brunette a generation earlier in the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever. I’m no Trekkie, but if Shatner had a moment as a master thespian, this is it. Due to a deliciously preposterous alteration of history which forces the crew to go forward into the past, Shatner’s character, Captain James T. Kirk, is transported into the United States in the 1930s, where he has to choose between saving humanity from Hitler and hooking up with Joan Collins. In the sixties, this was apparently considered something of a close call. Love and hormones almost get the best of Kirk, but in the end justice triumphs.

As aired, City on the Edge of Forever enraged Harlan Ellison, author of the original script for the episode. The TV episode suggests Collins’ character, a Depression Era do-gooder named Edith Keeler, was supposed to be killed in traffic accident. But unless corrected, the accidental change in history would spare her life, allowing her to spearhead a pacifist movement delaying U.S. entry into World War II. That delay would then have permitted the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb first and conquer the world. When the episode aired at the height of the Vietnam War, the antiwar Ellison disliked having an unsubtle bird flipped at the peace movement against his wishes.

Listening to Shatner’s performances last month made me think of a more contemporary moment at the edge of forever. All kidding aside, Sarah Palin could conceivably become President. I’d bet against it, but I remember how far-fetched it once seemed that we would have Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura as governors. At a time when climate change is already occurring and Alaskan glaciers are melting with surprising speed, having a President who once said she was “not one who would attribute” global warming as “being man-made” could recklessly alter history—not our past, but our future. Describing Edith Keeler’s commitment to peace, Spock in City on the Edge tells Kirk, “She was right. But at the wrong time.” By contrast, Sarah Palin is wrong, and at the wrong time.

Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever”

William Shatner, “Common People”

Jacques Dutronc: 500 Billion Little Martians Can’t Be Wrong

dutronc-cigarI only remembered it was Bastille Day an hour before it was over this Tuesday, but I knew just what I wanted to hear. Jacques Dutronc is a revered figure in his country’s rock history that remains a total obscurity to many stateside. That’s a shame, because if there’s one person who can demonstrate that “French rock” isn’t an oxymoron, it’s Jacques Dutronc. Dutronc’s music calls to mind the scene in the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in which a reporter asked Ringo Starr if he was a mod or a rocker, and he responded, “I’m a mocker.”

Jacques Dutronc made being a mocker into an art form. The dapper Dutronc drew energy from sixties-era youth rebellion at the same time he skewered its narcissistic excesses in songs like the brilliant breakthrough single “Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi,” said to be an answer song to the Franco-Dylanisms of Antoine’s “Les Élucubrations d’Antoine.” Set to an insanely catchy thumping backbeat, Dutronc rattles off increasingly surreal population statistics (700 million Chinese, 50 million imperfect people, 500 billion little martians), while always placing himself in the forefront (“et moi”).

Whether he’s tackling prickly everyday problems (“Les Cactus”), flipping the bird to hypocritical swingers (the bachelor sendup “Les Playboys”), or lampooning armchair hippies (the sitar-tinged “Hippie Hippie Hourrah”), Dutronc is also smart enough to capture what’s compelling and cool about his subjects. As with his closest British counterpart, the Kinks’ Ray Davies, Dutronc’s ironic swagger would have fallen flat if his music weren’t equally forceful, and diverse enough to capture an occasional tender subject, like his affection for Paris in the morning (“Il est cinq heures, Paris s’eveille”). Too suave to really play garage rock, he still understood enough about its simple power to deliver on songs like “La fille du père Noël,” a Gallic spin on Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” that can hold its own with the Yardbirds’ cover of the Diddley ditty.

Two other central figures in Jacques Dutronc’s world deserve special mention. First, Dutronc’s longtime muse, collaborator, and wife of almost three decades is Francoise Hardy, the classiest and arguably the most talented of the French ye-ye pop singers (their son is the jazz guitarist Thomas Dutronc). Still gorgeous well into her sixties, Hardy became an accomplished singer-songwriter who has remained open-minded enough to collaborate with everyone from Blur and Air to Iggy Pop.

Second, most of the credit for Jacques Dutronc’s droll commentary is owed to his songwriting partner Jacques Lanzmann, a twentieth-century Renaissance man whose odd career found him, at various times, as a welder, truck driver, copper miner, painter, founder of a men’s magazine, travel show host, and author of 40 novels. Lanzmann, whose brother Claude directed the Holocaust epic Shoah, also escaped a Nazi death squad as a teenager, reputedly because he was determined “not to die a virgin.” Now that’s French resistance!

Jacques Dutronc, ““Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi”

Jacques Dutronc, “Les Cactus”

Jacques Dutronc, “La Fille Du Père Noël”

The Aviator, Part II: Sky Saxon

Baby, baby, I can’t let go
I got the Seeds on the stereo….

The Zeros, “Wild Weekend”

seedsLast Thursday, the world lost a musical pioneer known for his childlike wonder. He sealed his reputation making joyful noise, yet also seemed doomed to tiptoe through fields of anguish and despair. The singer precisely captured his moment in time. But in his increasingly strange last decades, he seemed to come from another planet, so absorbed in his restless search for solace that his oddness overshadowed his moments of unalloyed pop brilliance.

I speak, of course, of Sky Saxon, singer and bassist for the psychedelic garage band innovators the Seeds. Los Angeles-based writer and radio host Ken Levine aptly described Saxon’s music as “a mix of hard rock, blues, peyote, and not sleeping for several weeks.” Overshadowed in his time by hitmakers like the Kingsmen and the Troggs, and later by the likes of Love and the Doors, he continued the trend even in death, passing away within hours of a better-known guy who fancied himself as the King of Pop. Saxon and the Seeds were inconsistent and erratic, and their most fertile period was short-lived. But at their best, they produced relentless mini-anthems filled with love and danger. “Pushin’ Too Hard,” my favorite of these, is as compelling as anything in the Jacksons’ catalogues, and meant more to me personally.

Sky Saxon was also known as Richard Marsh, a Mormon kid from Utah and former doo-wop bandleader who discovered he could make his voice sound like Mick Jagger swallowing gasoline. When he moved to California and formed the Seeds in the mid-Sixties, his new moniker fit nicely with a new band taking flight, first with the roar of proto-punk garage rock and later with the birdlike flight patterns of flower power. The Seeds discovered trippy keyboards before the Doors, and were unleashing raw power before the Stooges. They were their best at their simplest, exemplifying Woody Guthrie’s dictum that if you use more than two chords, you’re showing off. It’s fitting that Saxon’s final days were spent in Austin, stomping grounds for fellow psych-garage head cases both old (Roky Erickson) and new (the Black Angels).

If the Seeds were a movie, they would have been a grainy, no-budget independent film that lingers in the memory longer than last year’s big-budget Oscar winner. They were a little scary, but they played with heart. Saxon wound up ingesting too many of the Sixties’ finest pharmaceuticals and joining a spiritual cult, but he remained a charismatic and inspirational figure to musicians. The Seeds remained his signature group, and they were as seminal as the name implies. Muddy Waters loved the Seeds so much that he described them as “America’s own Rolling Stones,” and wrote the liner notes to one of Saxon’s lesser side projects, an attempt at garage/ blues fusion. Joey Ramone claimed that listening to the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” inspired him to sing, and the Ramones later covered a second Seeds standard, “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.” I’m pretty sure the Ramones also took haircut tips from the Seeds.

The most heartfelt tribute I’ve seen to Saxon’s legacy came from Los Angeles native Nels Cline, whose genre-bending guitar work has found him collaborating with everyone from Charlie Haden to Mike Watt to Willie Nelson, fronting his own improvised music group, and playing lead for the fiery nineties roots-punk combo the Geraldine Fibbers on the way to his current lead duties with Wilco. In an obituary last week, Cline described Saxon as his first rock idol, not simply for the Seeds’ music, but for the charisma he exuded while appearing on TV programs with names like “Boss City” and “The Groovy Show.” Cline wrote that he “would stare in disbelief as he—clad in shiny satin Nehru shirts bedazzled with some gaudy brooch—would gyrate around lasciviously, holding the microphone in every cool way imaginable. He seemed from another planet.” Years later, Cline ran into an aging hippie at Trader Joe’s with an unmistakable style, and you can guess who it was. Saxon and Cline went on to play an improvised set, using the name Flower God Men and their Assistants. The flower god man has taken his final flight, but the thrill ride continues.

The Seeds, “Pushin’ Too Hard”

The Seeds, “Mr. Farmer”

If a deep, slow groove with big implications for globalization are your bag, all 10.5 minutes of “900 Million People Daily All Makin’ Love” should be required listening:


The Aviator, Part I: Michael Jackson

Can you just imagine digging up the King,
Begging him to sing
About the heavenly mansions Jesus mentioned….
He went walking on the water with his pills.

Warren Zevon, “Jesus Mentioned”

broad_inaugural_12When Elvis left the building a generation ago at what seemed then the very advanced age of 42, I loved a few of his songs, but mainly considered him a bloated, Eskimo Pie-addicted man-cartoon that some kids’ parents liked. Only later did I discover what the fuss was about: the Memphis truck driver getting “real, real gone” in the magical Sun Sessions; the swaggering sex machine; the out-of-control mystery train that not even a dozen corny movies and a thousand prescriptions could completely derail. No wonder even Nixon cited Elvis as the explanation for the Bermuda triangle (“Elvis needs boats”).

This week, at the young, tender age of 50, another larger-than-life man-cartoon made an inglorious exit. Like Presley, Michael Jackson walked on water, first with his brilliance and later with his pills. And as with Elvis, I dismissed most of what he did long before he left. But MJ was an arresting presence even for those who, like me, did my best to ignore him. Elvis even seems an inadequate comparison for his stratospheric global reach. A closer comparison might be Howard Hughes, another man-child of erratic brilliance, whose master aviator’s soaring heights later gave way to reclusive paranoia and heartbreaking tailspin.

For now I will set aside the aspects of Michael Jackson’s life better left to the justice system and to his maker. As an admiring non-fan, I’ll count down five of his huge accomplishments:

1. He Liberated Eastern Europe from Communism.

Who do you think accomplished this, Reagan and Gorbachev? Please. The invasion of Afghanistan was bad enough, but the Kremlin’s most self-destructive act was its 1985 decision not to censor a vinyl version of Thriller. Long before MJ built a 35-foot statue of himself in Prague, his invisible gloved hand shook like a thousand Adam Smiths, securing our opportunity to visit McDonald’s in Vilnius.

Michael Jackson, HIStory Teaser

2. He Made Globalization Irreversible.

Don’t blame him for the shortcomings of NAFTA, GATT and world-beat fusion music. The new century would still be inconceivable without globalization, and MJ was its mascot. If there’s any doubt, listen to Caetano Veloso’s version of “Billie Jean.”

Caetano Veloso, “Billie Jean”

3. He Stopped Quincy Jones from Making Bad Solo Records.

Quincy Jones has a great ear for talent other than his own. Long ago, Q made five-martini bachelor pad classics like “Soul Bossa Nova,” which featured the amazing Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But by the late seventies, he’d spent far too much time making lame film soundtracks. Soon after Q started mentoring MJ, he woke up and started sailing the high seas of Eighties soul-funk cheese, producing bizarre period classics such as 1981’s The Dude, which even features a zany cover of a song by Ian Dury and the Blockheads sideman Chaz Jankel. The Dude abides.

Quincy Jones, “Soul Bossa Nova”

Soul Bossa Nova (Tema da Nike) – Quincy Jones

4. His Voice Was Better than Your Favorite Singer’s Voice.

Maybe that’s stretching it. Still, once you get beyond the tabloid crassness, Jackson had a voice so divinely inspired that comparisons are almost unfair. Production values and taste are things that can be questioned, and I’ve criticized those in most of his work. But his abilities were already astonishing by the time the J5 featured his preteen lead on “I Want You Back.”

Jackson Five, “I Want You Back”

5. He was Jackie Robinson in Aviator Glasses.

It’s hard to describe how segregated most of the pop mainstream was at the end of the seventies, with much of white America (including me) still in “Disco Sucks” mode and rap still emerging from the underground. Off the Wall and Thriller shattered that rigidity. If the path that followed has had some cracks in the pavement—like having to endure Fred Durst limply pretending to be funky—MJ still helped prepare the country and the planet for their multiracial future.

Indian version of “Thriller”

Funny videos

Heavy Metal Drummer

lars-ulrich-denmarkI’m a walking bag of contradictions. In my mind’s eye, I am free of bigotry, but as soon as someone I don’t know walks in the room, I immediately start sizing up the music they listen to, based upon their appearance and wardrobe alone. Typically, the set of associations goes something like this:

Ann Taylor pantsuit: Natalie Merchant
Polo shirt, khakis, possible African choker: Vampire Weekend
Tie-dye T-shirt, jeans, over 35: Dead, Phish
Tie dye T-shirt, under 35: Fleet Foxes
Business suit, two ties: Wazmo Nariz (to get that one, it helps if you were in Chicago around 1980)

Too often, my stereotypical associations turn out to be, well, right on the money. That’s what made it gratifying to learn last month that I was dead wrong about the musical inclinations of America’s left-leaning sweetheart, MSNBC pundit Rachel Maddow. I would have suspected her to favor the gentle and droll—some Belle and Sebastian here, some Jens Lekman there. Judging from the glasses she sometimes wears in interviews, perhaps some Buddy Holly or Elvis Costello would enter the mix.

rachelBut metal? That would bring back memories of the epic Terry Gross/ Gene Simmons smackdown from a few years ago. I would have judged mild-mannered Maddow more likely to be a pastor of muppets than a master of puppets (and yes, she has drawn a muppet analogy to the decline of the American auto industry). Yet before an interview with Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, the Rhodes scholar blushingly described herself as a “fangirl.” Maddow displayed the “Enter Sandman” ring tone on her Blackberry and described how the Master of Puppets album changed her life when she was fifteen. And the fan-love went both ways; in a recent Time feature, Ulrich put the Rachel Maddow Show on the short list of his favorite things, right up there with tightrope artist Philippe Petit and Mark Rothko, who loved black even more than the average Metallica fan.

I’m by no stretch a metalhead; to me, Howlin’ Wolf makes James Hetfield sound like a girlyman. But I appreciated Maddow’s explanation of how Master of Puppets’ cathartic rush became the soundtrack to everything she wasn’t expected or supposed to do as a teenager. And Ulrich did his part to mess with my stereotype of the heavy metal drummer, which essentially comes from the Spinal Tap theory that they’re interchangeable and likely to spontaneously explode (“Most of them died in their sleep while playing,” explained Tap’s David St. Hubbins.) On the show, Ulrich, the diminutive Dane and Michael Keaton lookalike, chatted up the virtues of social democracy and San Francisco tolerance. When Rachel asked Lars his reaction to Metallica’s music being used to harass prisoners during the Iraq War, he shrugged it off: “I could name 30 Norwegian death metal bands who make Metallica sound like Simon and Garfunkel.”

Rachel Maddow interviews Metallica’s Lars Ulrich

Wilco, “Heavy Metal Drummer”

Stuck in the Middle with Flu

The noble quest of Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter to be the keystone in the Senate’s archway may have ruined his chance to sing with Senator Orrin Hatch and the Osmonds. Switching parties was a drastic step, but I personally blame the EPA for years of inaction. For two decades, scientists have warned that the habitat which once allowed Moderatus Republicanus to spawn and thrive was in startling decline. A generation ago, mild-mannered moderates roaming the Americas could count on the opportunity, given the right connections, to support charities with Nelson Rockefeller, shop for V-neck sweaters with Eliot Richardson, build log cabins at the Log Cabin Club, and listen to Edward Brooke sing Marvin Gaye songs for Barbara Walters.

But those days are long gone. Although Moderatus Republicanus is occasionally still seen in the Maine wilderness and the Austrian parts of California, the species may already be doomed to suffer the same fate as the passenger pigeon and the Whig Party. Experts begged for action after Pat Buchanan’s 1992 convention speech, which the late Molly Ivins described as better in the original German, but little was done to reverse the tide, and we all know what missions were accomplished in the last eight years.

The extinction event for this troubled species quite likely came earlier this week. I speak not of Specter’s defection, but a television interview in which the delightfully perky Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann found it “interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter.” Ever the nuanced orator, she clarified that “I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.” Another “interesting coincidence” she may have overlooked is that the swine flu epidemic occurred when Gerald Ford was president, as Chevy Chase would have gladly told her. Ouch.

Meanwhile, Senator Specter’s struggle for survival will require serious musical inspiration, and serious intestinal fortitude, as he shares metamucil with Joe Lieberman and finds his seat at the cafeteria table with Ben Campbell, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, and Evan Bayh. The survival of a species is always precarious. But only time will test zoologist Jim Hightower’s prediction that in the future, nothing will remain in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You”

M.I.A., “Bird Flu”

M.I.A. –
bird flu – M.I.A

Pretenders, “Middle of the Road”

Battle of the Beards

When I started writing about music in the Eighties, a prominent beard on a musician was often viewed as a sure sign that the performer was an out-of-touch hippie fossil, or barring that, a member of ZZ Top. That started to change during the goatee epidemic of the Nineties, which I was convinced would make facial hair disreputable for decades to come once the grunge bubble burst. But history has proven me wrong, because the late Zeroes have seen an outgrowth of musician facial hair worth of a post-Civil War presidential campaign, along with a revival of the hierarchy of beards. In what follows below, I’ll survey some of the notable beards of the moment, ranked from zero to ten on the Sanders-Hudson index. For the uninitiated, that index celebrates the beardly perfection of saxophone visionary Pharoah Sanders and Band keyboardist Garth Hudson, whose historic contributions have done for beards what Christopher Walken has done for the cowbell.

Facial outgrowth isn’t always a sign of greatness, or vice-versa. Patchy-faced Bob Dylan and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy have sometimes dabbled in facial hair, but these are not beardly men; you might as well put a spoiler on a Volvo station wagon. Nobody knows that better than Tweedy himself, the author of “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard” (“things got pretty weird, and I grew Bob Dylan’s beard”). And gave a major thumbs down to Stuck Between Stations favorite Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), ranking him three points below the composite band score assigned to current beard icons the Fleet Foxes. Explaining the Captain’s lowly 5.9 ranking, the site noted: “His lip ferret was merely average. And his poet’s beard was never much more than the obligatory mark of a mad musical genius.”

At the outset, I have disqualified Devendra Banhart, because that would be too easy, like naming Jesus on a list of famous sandal-wearers. This list is for beard-growers, and I have it on good authority that Devendra was born bearded to traveling circus performers from Caracas. Here are my rankings in this year’s Battle of the Beards:

• Kyp Malone, TV on the Radio (Sanders-Hudson Rating: 7.5)

The guitarist-singer from Brooklyn’s innovative art rockers-turned-mutant funkateers had this year’s beard competition all sewn up. But, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Kyp has now trimmed his beard.

TV on the Radio, “Dancing Choose”

• Jim James, My Morning Jacket (Sanders-Hudson Rating: 7.0)

James’ Kentucky combo may well rank as the most hirsute band of the past decade. But he’s docked two notches here, because his Prince falsetto on this year’s Evil Urges is less convincing than that of Spoon‘s Britt Daniel, and worse, he has reportedly switched to a mustache.

My Morning Jacket, “Wordless Chorus”

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