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Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Joan Baez: Obama Inspires Me

The following is a translation of an article by Joan Baez published in the French newspaper Le Monde 26th July, 2008 under the rubric "I Have A Dream."

Much as I love and respect Joan, I can't help having two misgivings about this piece:

1) I thought the whole point of racial equality is that it shouldn't matter what colour your skin is. Obama's major appeal to Joan seems to be that he's black.

2) Is she serious about Obama preaching non-violence and pacifism?! This is a guy who has already threatened to invade a U.S. ally—Pakistan—and has made hawkish noises on Iran etc.

Joan Baez: “I dream that Obama as president will reunite and unify a country that has been divided for too long"

Something unheard of is happening in America. Something bright that I never could have imagined happening in the darkness and torpor that has seized the country for the past seven years. Something moving, motivating, and inspiring. Something that, in the ruins of the current political reality, embodies hope. I have always refused until now to engage in so-called party politics. I have never wanted, despite numerous requests, to lend my support to election candidates at any level. But what is happening today is too extraordinary for me not to change my attitude. 1) Barack Obama is a candidate for the White House. 2) Masses of Americans are ready to accept a black President. That is the healthiest thing that has happened in this country for a long time.

I wrote a letter to Obama. And his reply made me very happy. It was in the style of Martin Luther King. With an expression of sincere faith in non-violence. After all, he has a picture of Gandhi in his office. Something is right, therefore, from that point of view… Indeed, Obama brings me closer to feeling a pride for this country that I've never felt before. When his wife Michelle evoked this unprecedented pride on the evening of a primary, she caused a storm.

But not being a candidate, I can assure you that yes, there would be pride in being – finally! — well represented in the world and knowing ourselves to be reliable and generous, capable of solidarity, and pacifistic… A new feeling for me, as someone who hates any idea of allegiance to a country—birth is such an accidental thing! —and who has never been able to salute the American flag, hand on heart, while reciting idiocies! Or any flag, for that matter!

I’ve always felt myself to be a citizen of the world, even if it means being misunderstood. I remember, for example, a protest march alongside Cesar Chavez and thousands of Mexican workers. “So do you feel a Latino,” the general asked me in the enthusiasm. “No more than I feel Scottish,” I replied.

Hard to describe my evolutionary journey. So many elements unite to make a person. My parents evidently played a big part. My father arrived from Mexico at the age of two; he was the son of a Methodist preacher who had chosen to live in the United States with the most disadvantaged in society. The idea of sharing is essential in our family. My father also decided to become a preacher, before becoming disappointed in the Church and turning toward mathematics and science. He became a physicist, a researcher, and opted for a teaching career rather than accept higher paid posts in the defence sector.

He was profoundly honest and grateful to the United States, which had given him his chance, and it was only at this death that I discovered the importance of his work, notably the invention of the X-ray microscope. My mother, who is now 95, was born in Scotland, but grew up in the United States with her father, who was also a preacher. She never had a particular devotion to America, and it’s from her, I believe, that I inherited a rebel temperament.

When I was eight years old, my parents became quakers. My sisters and I hated at the time the austere and silent Sunday morning assemblies. But their way of according so much value to human life and placing good above nations and territories influenced me greatly. It was in these circles that I discovered that alternatives to violence existed, both at the personal and the political level. And it’s basically around this idea that I built my life.

We travelled a lot as a family. When I was 10-11, we even saw Baghdad; it was like being on another planet. Iraq, it was said, was 50 years behind the other countries of the region and people lived in shocking poverty. The streets were full of beggars, cripples, and children rummaging in dustbins. And I felt a spontaneous solidarity, feeling infinitely closer to them than to the Westerners who frequented the trendy British club. That’s where my passion for social justice was born. It was also there that Mom made me read The Journal of Anne Frank, which had a big impact on my life. I even think it was the trigger for my concern for other people.

My dark Mexican skin perhaps heightened my awareness, in adolescence, of racial discrimination. But there were discussion workshops organized for the benefit of young quakers that kindled my interest in the problems of the world. It was during one of these seminars near Carmel that I was literally bowled over by a 27-year-old black preacher from Alabama, who spoke to us about justice and suffering, about battles to be fought with the weapons of love and non-violent revolution. His name was Martin Luther King, and his words had so much effect on me that I trembled with excitement and fear at the same time. He gave form and words to my passionate but imprecise beliefs. And I felt that there was a path there in which I would do something. Sing, of course, since I have this gift. But sing while expressing something.

I saw King several times again. He had an amazing coolness and sense of humour given the weight on his shoulders. I sang "We Shall Overcome" on that famous 28th August, 1963 in Washington on the stage where he gave his “I have a dream” speech before 350,000 people.

I think Bob Dylan was there too.

I marched at his [King's] side in Grenada and in Mississippi at the head of a procession of black children who were being refused access to a white college. And in 1967 he came to visit me when I had been jailed, for the first time, for protesting against the mobilization for the war in Vietnam.

It was an era of struggle, of faith, of engagement. There were debates, boycotts, and demonstrations. For civil rights, against inequality and conscription. And against the war in Vietnam, of course, for which I refused to pay my share of military tax. I set up an institution for the study of non-violence in California. I also went to the war zones. My whole life has been determined by this permanent mobilization—concerts, protests, travelling—for a multitude of causes: the mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, Andrey Sakharov, Amnesty International, Chilean and Greek political prisoners, the banning of torture, the abolition of the death penalty...

It seems to me, moreover, that not enough credit is given to all these militants for non-violence for the results achieved. There are those who put an end to the war in Vietnam. The president didn’t want it! The marches, chants, petitions, and all the protest action paid off! And they still do! What’s more, it was this spirit, this cohesion, this enthusiasm that was missing in the eighties and nineties, which were marked by people turning in on themselves and by a total rejection of the idea of self-sacrifice. The shock of 11 September, 2001 and the lamentable, criminal response of the American government might have provoked a somersault. But Bush exploited and maintained the fear. Everyone felt obliged to vie with one another in patriotism so as not to arouse distrust and to keep their jobs. Even the media! What a disaster!

And now Obama has appeared. And millions of Americans who have till now been disillusioned and excluded once again want to act. We are seeing crowds of young blacks travel for the first time in their lives to listen to a candidate and to vote. I’ve been told that crime has fallen in some areas and the ghettos are calmer. And Gabriel, my 38-year-old son, who has never been interested in politics, is organizing a concert in his town with his musician friends to collect funds for Obama's campaign. And here am I, who was not so long ago so skeptical about the usefulness of voting, starting to dream.

I dream that Obama as president will reunite and unify a country that has been divided for too long. I dream that he will bring decency and integrity to the troubled waters of Washington. I dream that he will raise the bar on what is morally and legally acceptable in a democracy (neither torture nor the death penalty) and that he will call on the rich to share their wealth. I dream that he will resist the call for war and seek dialog with opposing parties. I am not naïve, I know that the presidency is a dangerous, exposed post, not favourable to the blossoming of a pacifist. But I find this man inspiring.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Bargain of the week

Well, when recession bites, you can count on your friendly neighbourhood Sainsbury supermarket to ease the pain. If the 1p reduction in the price of medium-sized pork pies wasn't generous enough, the retailer also offers this unbeatable bargain for Cider drinkers (I stole the price tag off the shelf this morning):

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Loudon Wainwright III Part 5: I'm Alright

Now we come to one of the best records of Loudon's career, perhaps his second-best of the eighties. It was recorded two years after Fame and Wealth, once again on the small folk label Rounder Records. I'm Alright was recorded in London, England, and Loudon himself moved there around this time (the song "Cardboard Boxes" is about moving house, as it happens).

Loudon had produced Fame and Wealth himself, but perhaps realizing that the sound of that album wasn't too great, he invited Richard Thompson on board again, this time as producer as well as session man. The result is a much cleaner sound, though equally stripped down. (Ironically, Thompson's own albums at this time suffered from misguided attempts by other producers to give them an eighties sheen; he might have been better off producing his own records.) As was noticeable with Fame and Wealth, Loudon has given up attempts to be a rocker, having parodied his efforts in "Watch Me Rock, I'm Over Thirty" (on Final Exam, as we saw.)

The opening song of I'm Alright is in fact the lonely acoustic troubador song par excellence. It is ironic, then, that many people today probably know it best in a lush band arrangement with harmony vocals. Yes, it's One Man Guy, the song Rufus appropriated from his Dad and now everyone thinks is his own.

I'm not denying that Rufus's version is sweet on the ear, or that there isn't a curious Oedipal thing going on, with Rufus apparently going against the grain of the lyric by suggesting that whatever Loudon may be, he, Rufus, is not a miserable, selfish loner. That, at least is the impression given by his use of Richard's son Teddy and his own sister Martha on vocal harmonies. How can he be a one-man guy with his best mate and loving sis behind him?

Thus Rufus's version, however sweet, doesn't interpret the lyrics so much as reject their message. This is another of Loudon's loner songs, simultaneously celebrating and recoiling from his motel room existence and his alley cat ways (check out "Motel Blues", "Ingenue", and several others). The song confesses the selfishness of this kind of existence, while clinging to it, even revelling in it. It suggests that the only thing we can depend on and trust is ourselves:

these three cubic feet of bone and blood and meat are all I love and know

Perhaps no one since Philip Larkin has been this honest about the selfish pleasures of the single life.

Thus as a son's gift to a father, Rufus's version is ambiguous, to say the least. Nevertheless, royalties on "One Man Guy" must represent one of Loudon's biggest ever pay days (after "Dead Skunk" and Johnny Cash's cover of "The Man Who Could Not Cry").

The song is written to be sung live at one of Loudon's endless solo shows:

People will know when they come to the show
What kind of a guy I am
They'll understand what I stand for
And what I just can't stand

Great word play, that! And a perfect concert-opener.

Here you can see Loudon perform the song:

And here is Rufus's very different interpretation:

The next song, Lost Love, is a breakup song without an apparent personal angle, it being highly stylized in the manner of a Noel Coward song or something from that era. I'm very fond of it, however untypical of Loudon it may be. There is some great wordplay again.

I've noticed that you never call me "darling", darling
I understand the reason wh-hy-hy-hy
There is no reason why you should call me "darling", darling
Leave love alone and let it die.

The middle part is more like the Loudon we know and are distinctly ambivalent about, however (see "Mr. Guilty" and the later "So Damn Happy"):

I'm not completely sure I'm sorry, darling
When I get angry, then I'm glad
[lapsing back into Noel Coward mode) But when I'm not glad, I'm sad.

As with his country pastiches on Final Exam you wish Loudon would write a little more in this jazz-lounge vein.

Then we have the blues parody, I'm Alright, the title track. Loudon introduces it in concert as the "happy blues." Those old black guys certainly make you think the bottom of their world has fallen out now that their baby darn left them, but a middle class white guy like Loudon can't be that unselfconsciously solipsistic, so on the whole you believe him when he says he's "all right without you", though there may be an element of protesting too much. The performance of the song below is prefaced by an interview with Loudon in which he explains that the album was originally going to be called One Man Guy, but his agent persuaded him that the record-buying public would think he was gay, so he changed it... The performance is a good example of the visual and physical element of Loudon as a performer: lots of spastic gestures and weird facial contortions.

In another interview excerpt shown after the performance of the song in the above video, Loudon says that he was originally drawn to the idea of making it clear that the singer is not "all right" after all; but in the end he was drawn to the comedy ending with the dental floss....

After those thematically linked songs comes a Loudon song about someone else (notice how these are becoming more infrequent as we go on? Not John is about the death of John Lennon five years earlier. It's a sincere tribute, though Loudon cannot resist an irreverent pun:

John Lennon and his wife Yoko - Oh No

youttube offers us a video montage together with the album performance of this song:

Incidentally, loser assassin Michael David Chapman may have been stalking a different victim 12 months earlier:

Cardboard Boxes is about moving house, as already stated, a nice semi-acoustic number with some great drumming.

Screaming Issue is a song written to Loudon's daughter by the singer Suzzy Roche (member of the family vocal group The Roches), who was born (judging by the song's lyrics) the previous Christmas. There would be another daughter (Lexie Kelly) by another woman later, so that it is sometimes difficult to be sure who these Wainwrights are singing about (Rufus has said that "Little Sister" is not about Martha, so is it about Lucy or Lexie?) At least there is no mistaking for whom this song is intended as Loudon mentions Lucy by name. The title puns, of course, on two senses of "issue." Delicate and beautiful.

Next we have one of Loudon's edgy funny songs, about the questions journalists always ask anyone who still has the temerity to outstay their welcome in the music business: How Old Are You?

The questions range from the nasty and impertinent:

How come you don't try to write a novel?
How come you don't try to write a play?
Isn't it time you died or retired?
Why the hell won't you just go away?
How old are you, are you crazy?
How old are you, are you really a drunk?
Are you bitter, have you grown lazy?
Were you embarrassed about "Dead Skunk"?

to ones that Loudon probably wonders about himself:

How come you didn't get big like Bob Dylan?
How come you didn't get big like Springsteen?
Were you unable or were you unwilling?
Tell us the truth about it, come on, come clean!

(Nice guitar by Richard Thompson, by the way!)

Then there is the utterly charming Animal Song, about the noises that animals make. A children's song. I don't trust the performer who never records at least one of those. Here's Loudon performing the song (followed by 'Five Years Old) live in 1987:

Out of This World is a hopeful song looking forward to the next life. Daddy Take A Nap is a slightly annoying brass band stomp with mildly amusing lyrics written from a child's point of view. Ready or Not (So Ripe) is an optimistic sounding song I've never got my head around.

The album closes quietly with Career Moves, which looks back over Loudon's career in the music business and as an entertainer with a lot of quiet pride:

For 20 odd years I have strummed on guitars
5,000 lost flat picks, four fingertip scars
I must have broken a million g strings
Picking and strumming, and playing these things
Banging and tunin', and playing these things.

And it's been 16 years now that I've written songs
Over a 100 and still growing strong
About drinking and hockey and flying above
Again and again about unhappy love
Over and over, unhappy love.

And it's music for money, but I'll do it for fun
Oh, I know how to do it, it's easily done
To stand on a stage doesn't make me afraid
I'm comfortable up there, it's gotten me laid
It always amazes me when I get paid.

So here am I doing all that I can do
You're paying, I'm playing, I'm grateful to you
Indoors and outdoors, at home and abroad
I sing these songs and you people applaud.
You haven't changed much, you still applaud.

With that obvious cue to the audience in the last line, it will be seen that the album is framed by two songs that seem written to order for Loudon's live shows. Moreover, "Career Moves" is Loudon's answer to some of the questions the hostile journalists ask in How Old Are You?, in particular, why he still sings and why he won't quit the business.

Here's Loudon singing "Career Moves" live on British TV in 1993:

You'll have to supply the applause yourself on cue!

I'm Alright was nominated for a grammy. It goes without saying that it didn't win...

Note: Scandalously, this fine album appears at time of writing to be out of print, with asking nearly $50.00 for a second-hand copy! Ordinarily I would not recommend that anyone download an mp3 copy of the album (that's against the whole ethos of these threads, which aim to present the artistic integrity of the LP/CD medium), but should you wish to support the artist, you can do so here: