Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Playlist For Eric Ericson (1918-2013)

There's no other description for Eric Ericson that suffices except to say that he was, bar none, the greatest choral conductor of the twentieth century. In 1945, he formed the a cappella Eric Ericson Chamber Choir in Stockholm, and led it until 2003. He lead the Swedish Radio Choir from 1951 to 1982, and the all-male choir Orphei Drangar from 1951 until 1991, and there was not a single important professional choir which he did not guest conduct. Sergiu Celibidache, a conductor as frugal with his praise as he was with fast tempos, called him 'the grand chief of choir of our time' (it probably sounded more idiomatic in French...). 

Ericson, more even than Robert Shaw, is responsible for the international blend of sound which most choirs today have - creating a middle ground between the perfectly straight-toned blend of the English church choir and the full-throated operatic chant of the Russian Orthodox church. His repertoire spanned the entire era of written music, from the earliest pre-polyphony to countless world premieres of choral works from composers as well known as Henze, Penderecki, Dallapiccola, Nono and Ligeti (whose Requiem Ericson premiered and who dedicated his Drei Chorphantasien to Ericson) to dozens if not hundreds of Scandinavian composers. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

800 Words: The Productivity of Suffering Part 1

There’s a long list of people who deserve severe beatings in this world. But at the forefront of that list is those among you who welcome misfortune because it’s something from which you can learn. Well,… yes, no doubt we can all learn from our misfortunes. Among other things, we can learn that misfortune sucks and there’s no way to extinguish its occurrence.

And yet there is another side to misfortune, one whose importance you often exaggerate, and nearly as often to pernicious ends, but nonetheless your point is impossible to refute.  And that point is simple: if a new advantage to life is to take wing, something else must wilt for the advantage to thrive.  To dumb it down still further – things change.

The rest of us should not be blamed for being fearful of change. Change is the single most terrifying word in any language, a state of existence for which living things have been biologically conditioned to resist for billions of years. We resist change for the simplest of reasons – change might kill us, and often does. Short of death, change is the deadliest disease to befall the face of the Universe since The Big Bang. Not all change will kill us, and some of it blesses us beyond imagining. But it is that very unpredictability of change which so terrifies us. Change is a certainty of existence more inevitable than death, and often far more anxiety provoking.

Even if every disaster in our lives does not herald a new triumph, every triumph must grow from a state of disaster. A hero must rise high so he may fall, and an underdog must start low so he may rise.

But it is only a conservative who automatically equates disaster to change. Not a conservative in the political sense – since political conservatives can sometimes be the most radical of all change agents; rather, conservatives in the sense of how we ought to live. Sometimes these ‘life’ conservatives view change as a disaster because the quality of their great lives would suffer immeasurably, but in many cases, these conservatives are their own best jailers – trapping themselves in comforts and triumphs so much less than what their rewards could be. Yet it can’t be denied, these conservatives have a point. Considering how easily change can (and has) lead to still greater suffering, perhaps it’s best to settle for the small consolations one has and not upset the established order of things.

And yet, what about we (The Royal ‘We’?) in the world whose consolations are clearly not large enough?

But before we go any further, I suppose it must be asked: What is ‘large enough?’ After a certain point, being upset that some people have better lives than you is little more than ‘Rage of the Entitled.’ To give the most obvious example, how can an upper middle class kid from suburban America whose grandparents survived a catastrophe during which their death was almost guaranteed yet flourished in a new country as few ever could in the old one ever be less than joyful at his lot in life? Particularly since so many billions would sell their souls to start life with his advantages. And yet, what if that very prosperity becomes a gold-barred prison from which there is no escape?

If this is the way he sometimes feels, then he’s hardly alone. History is packed to the brim with prosperous nations who felt the need to blow up their blessings, as though the Promised Land at which they arrived was nothing but a broken promise. The Romantics of 1848 started a revolution with the express purpose of blowing up the post-Napoleonic stability. 10 million people died in the Napoleonic Wars, and yet it was the prosperity of peacetime that followed which planted a wish in people to overthrow their greatest achievements. Or why did the first European generation who ever knew a lifetime’s peace rebel against their good fortune by involving themselves in World War I for no good reason  – a war that caused 37 million casualties, or nearly 100 million if you count the Spanish Flu which broke out in its wake; or what about the ‘Baby Boomers’ who blew up the achievements of ‘Greatest Generation’ in the 1960’s? Technically, to compare the casualty list from the 1960’s revolts to World War I is ridiculous. And yet the effect of the 1960’s was to overthrow the New Deal Liberal order and allow it to be replaced with 40 years of conservative governance in which all the goals of the revolutionaries were put still further back. It was no more rational a rebellion than anything in 1848 or World War I, and yet people decided that their prosperity simply wasn’t good enough. Were these simply rebellions of entitlement, or is it part of human nature to smash something that’s too good?

When humans achieve a better state of living, they can’t help but aspire to a state still greater. The poor man imagines a full belly, the rank-and-file soldier an era of peace, but the prosperous man can only yearn for more prosperity. And because prosperity endows those who have it with greater opportunities for leisure time, their yearnings become that much more obsessive.

But prosperity is always relative. The post-WWII prosperity of the United States was built on the sacrifices of the Soviet Union, who lost 27 million people (compared to America’s 405,000) in what the Soviet Union termed The Great Patriotic War. When soldiers returned to America triumphant, it was only the white soldiers who experienced the greatest benefits of the postwar boom. The GI Bill created a new middle class by paying for the educations of 51 percent of World War II veterans who otherwise would never have gone to college. And yet until Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, Black veterans would never have been accepted at any college but an all-black. And in 1950, only 37 percent of American women attended any form of college during their lives.

Prosperity is only a condition for those who benefit from it. Perhaps those born into prosperity should be forgiven more than they generally are if they think they’re giving back to the less fortunate in ways that are entirely narcissistic – like protests which set back the causes they promote, or displays of solidarity which 99.99999 % of the world’s less fortunate will neither see nor hear about, or expensive charity fundraisers in which the entertainment costs as much as will ever be donated to charity.

And yet, dear reader, though you live a life of stability and outward contentment, you persist in the idea that your life is not good enough and that some goal at the end of the road is the Holy Grail which shall obviate all those intense yearnings to which you are subject – and rather than improve the lives of those who suffer more than you, you have a natural urge to glorify them… Whether in the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Social Progress, the most valued person is the one whose suffering is the greatest. The mourners shall be comforted, the hungry and thirsty shall be filled, meek shall inherit the earth, and the poor’s is the very Kingdom of Heaven. Unless…of course… the suffering of the mourners, the hungry, the meek, or the poor is occurring too close to your blessings, in which case your natural urge is to do everything you can to distance them from yourself, as the nearness of their suffering invites the possibility that their suffering may invade your joy and bring down the quality of your life to their level.

And yet, perhaps, you should not be so keen to dismiss those plebes surrounding you with saliva dripping from their mouths who wander into cafeterias with shopping bags screaming about socialism. There is a chance, however unlikely, that they are a higher form of life than you. Of course they’re probably not, but there is that small chance that you’re going to learn more from them than they ever could from you – and that doubt should gnaw at you, even if I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. The people with the greatest suffering are the ones who will be the most solicitous of a different solution to their problems, and will therefore develop mechanisms to think more critically, act more boldly, and feel more sensitively. A small percentage of those outcasts, whose presence upon the world stage you glorify even though you’d never want to have lunch with them, will completely change the curvature of the Earth. The rest will in all likelihood continue their suffering until their dying day, with no relief to the omnipresently correct thought that they've experienced such black tribulation to no justifiable end. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Playlist: For Wolfgang Sawallisch (1923-2013)

He was a fixture on the international music scene for more than fifty years, and in all that time he never got enough credit. Wolfgang Sawallisch was a German conductor who was roughly contemporary with both Herbert von Karajan and Carlos Kleiber, and of the dozens of phlegmatic German kappellmeisters to appear before the world's great orchestras from their generation, Sawallisch was the only contemporary of theirs from a German-speaking land who clearly had the ability to match those two giants.

Not that you could tell from appearances. Karajan and Kleiber had charisma to match their extraordinary talent. But in an era when conductors are measured as much by their aesthetic appearance as any musical acumen, Sawallisch success seemed rather unlikely. While The Guardian's obituary called him suave, it would be difficult for any young American to think of him that way. His reputation in America was always more than a little unfair. In later years his comb-over and aviator glasses made him look more less like a conductor and more like a retired banker sitting on the orchestra board. And towards the end of his career gathered a reputation for musical arch-conservatism that was entirely undeserved considering all the more contemporary German composers he championed when he was head of the Bavarian State Opera. By the time he became music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in his 70's, he was perhaps the textbook example of the geriatric foreign music director - a 'name conductor' (and not a huge name at that) brought to an American city because of past accomplishments in Europe. If he succeeded surprisingly well during his ten years in Philadelphia, it's because his musicmaking was nowhere near as dull or characterless as he seemed. Not eveybody agrees with that assessment, but the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra certainly do.

He wasn't 100% consistent in his ability to get extraordinary performances (who is?), but Sawallisch had a particular combination of forces that worked a kind of miracle. He could draw the most stupefyingly viscral sound from orchestras, yet simultaneously shape it (Georg Solti could have learned a thing or two by watching him). He was not a conductor who went for the sort of individualized interpretations one finds in Furtwangler or Eugen Jochum, he was a thoroughgoing traditionalist who made the best case of any German conductor from his era to keep tradition going.

One look at Sawallisch's baton technique on video is all it takes to realize that this was a conductor with a technique that could hold its own with the greatest stick technicians in music history. But unlike Lorin Maazel or Seiji Ozawa, that stick technique was unfailingly used to shape phrases imaginatively. There's no doubt that Sawallisch could be uncomfortable when he wasn't feeling the music, but in the German masters he knew so well, he was among the greatest there has ever been. Sawallisch was a conductor of the anonymous school whom if he could would always hide behind the music, and yet when the music sounded as well as he made it, why not? He was a kappellmeister, but in very highest sense of the term.

Schumann: Requiem

Strauss: Four Last Songs

Wagner: Siegfried's Funeral March

Strauss: Capriccio

Schumann: Symphony no 4

Britten: War Requiem - Libera Me

Schubert: Symphony no 9 "Great"

Wagner: Siegfried's Rhine Journey

Wagner: Overture and Venusberg Music to Tannhauser

Find Sawallisch's Ring Cycle in this Playlist

Mendelssohn: Elias/Elijah (excerpt - in German)

Beethoven: Ah! Perfido,

Beethoven: Symphony no 6 "Pastoral" (The Storm)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 5 "Emperor"

Beethoven: Symphony no 7 (finale)  (as a very old man, all he needs is a few fingers...)

Mozart: Symphony no 38 "Prague" 

Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 22

Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 21 "Elvira Madigan" 

Mozart: The Magic Flute

Brahms: Fourth Symphony

Brahms: First Symphony

Brahms: Piano Concerto no. 2

Bruckner: Sixth Symphony

Schubert: Complete Symphonies

Strauss: Don Quixote

Strauss: Symphonia Domestica

Rehearsing Till Eulenspiegel

Rehearsing the Three Boys in The Magic Flute

Conducting Edda Moser as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute

Dvorak: Stabat Mater

Dvorak: Slavonic Dances

Britten: War Requiem - Dies Irae

Tchaikovsky: Symphony no 5 (finale)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ET: Almanac

Professional historians are apt to dismiss contemptuously as "novels" all historical works which are not merely impersonal, laborious collections of material. But after one or two generations at most their own works turn out to be novels, the sole difference being that theirs are empty, boring, uninspired, and liable to be killed by a single "find"; whereas a truly worthy history-novel can never become a "back number" as regards its deeper significance. Herodotus is not a back number, although he recorded for the most part things which every elementary schoolmaster can refute; Montesquieu is not a back number, although his writings are full of palpable errors; Herder is not a back number, although he put forward historical opinions which today are considered amateurish; Winckelmann is not a back number, although his interpretation of Classical Greece was one great misconception; Burckhardt is not a back number, although Wilamowitz-Mollendorff, the present-day pope of Classical philology, has said that his cultural history of Greece "so far as science is concerned has no existence." The point is that even if everything which these men taught should prove erroneous, one truth would always remain and could never become antiquated: the truth as regards the artistic personality behind the work, the important person who experienced these wrong impressions, reflected, and gave form to them. When Schiller writes ten pages of vivid German prose on an episode in the Thirty Years' War which bears no resemblance to what really happened, he does more for historical knowledge than a hundred pages of "reflections based on the latest documents," written without a philosophical outlook and in barbarous German. When Carlyle works up the story of the French Revolution into the drama of a whole people, forced onward by powerful forces and counterforces to fulfil its bloody destiny, he may be said to have written a novel - even a "thriller" - but the mysterious atmosphere of infinite significance in which this poetical work is bathed acts as a magic insulating sheath to preserve it intact from age to age. Then, again, is not Dante's unreal vision of Hell the most competent historical picture of the Middle Ages which we possess to this day? Homer, too, what was he but a historian "with insufficient knowledge of sources"? All the same, he is and always will be right, even though one day it should transpire that no Troy ever existed. 
All our utterances about the past refer equally to ourselves. We can never speak of and never know anything except ourselves. But by sinking ourselves in the past we discover new possibilities of our own ego, enlarge the frontiers of our consciousness, and undergo new if wholly subjective experiences. Therein lies the value and the aim of all historical study. 

- Egon Friedell, Cultural History of the Modern Age

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Back Into The Ghetto - A New Song

When I say that nobody would be curious about the things I write, this is exactly what I mean. For all the cheats in terms of rhyming, metric schemes, and grammar, and for all the excessively dry polemic, this is the best song I've ever written. But it's half in Yiddish, and it requires a Waste Land type of guide in order to help most people understand it (see below). Those who do understand it, after correcting the finer points of the Yiddish grammar I've forgotten since I was a small boy, would probably tell me this song is anti-semitic. 

So here it is, the best song I've ever written:

To the tune of Chussen Kala Mazel Tov

Zo du geyst back into de ghetto mit a freylich herz
Und all der verk it’s gone to vaste to get you outa der
Ven Hitler’s back he’ll know for ver tzu look far you und mir
Zey got you out du tukhes lekker gonif schmuck.

Far all ze’er lives zey had to tip-toe mit a greycer schmertz
And all der alter kockers told them zey hot nicht a prayer
Tzu macht du mer den just a foyler schnook mit no career
A zhid needs more den shkutzes’ kuck und fallen luck.

Und deine girlfriend she hot vanted you tzu be a goy
Und eat dein tuna fish mit-out der crust und rye
But dein mishpoche zogt neyn zo it took about a year
Den you became hagodl narish frummer schvantz.

Ve tsu vil vanted you to be a real nice Jewish boy
Tzu be a cardiologist mit bills so high
But ven ve heard vat our sohn did ve vould rather had a qveer
dan a schmegeg’ who vouldn’t eat our food just vonce.


Und dein complaints about our lives are such geferlekh bull
Gemacht dein tzorn against dein yerushe du b’emes von’t
Did you expect us tzu fall on our knees and azay kvell
Ven you reduce your biltung to some kleyner crumbs

Ve’re rich and spoilt you tell us cuz ve never go tzu shul
Und du hast people pray for us because ve don’t
Und yet you take our money hent-iber-fist tzu feed dein kinder vell
So you can study Toyreh till Moshiach kommt.

You tell us dat ve macht an ayn hore mit our every vort
Und dat ve’ll hound you cuz ve’re critics half tzu death
Und den you join a fucking cult mit a Shabtzkiveynik Rebb'
Und ve’re apikorsim till die end of time.

Und now du machts a ze’er gevalt far every time ve snort
Und ven ve’re in dein heuse ve’re scared to take a breath
Ist deine cult mischpoche better den dein alter spider veb
Vhich you called our heym in vhich you lived far dimes.


Ve vorked two hundred years tzu get out from ze ghetto
Ve outlived vars, pogroms, und riots all our lives
Vhen ve came tzu Amerike tzo macht a greycer life for you
Ve said religion vould not be our eyntsik firer

Du hast aroysgevorf our hopes just far dein ego
You vant tzu macht us break out in a bunch of hives
Und for der suffering dein kids vill have you just don’t have a clue
Du fucking schmendrick. A chalerya af dir!


far: for
dein: your
du: you
tzu: to
freylich herz: joyful heart
tukhes lekker: asslicker
gonif: thief
schmuck: ejaculate on the tip of a penis
greycer schmertz: great sorrow
alter kockers: old shitters
foyler schnook: foolish sucker
zhid: derogatory Russian term for Jew
shkutzes: derogatory term among Jews for non-Jewish males
kuck und fallen: shit and fall over it
mispoche: family
hagodl: the great
narish: simple-minded
frummer: orthodox Jew
schvantz: dick
schmegegge: contemptible idiot
geferlekh: terrible
Gemacht: finish
tzorn: wrath
yerushe: birthright, inheritance
azay: really
kvell: to cry out of pride
biltung: education, upbringing
kleyner: small
hent-iber-fist: hand over fist
Toyreh: Torah
Moshiach: Messiah
Ayn hore: Evil Eye
vort: word
Shabtzkiveynik: False Prophet
Rebbe: Rabbi
Apikorsim: Heretics
a ze’er gevalt: a huge scene, a terrible woe
mishpoche: family
heym: home
greycer: greater
firer: guide
aroysgevorf: thrown over

schmendrik: idiot, dumbassA chaleriya af dir: A cholera on you!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Where Does The Catholic Church Go From Here: A Guest Post from a Reader

I have been thinking of Benedict's resignation all day. As a dissenting Catholic with strong views on the subject, allow me a few serious thoughts (even though I too have been joking all day):

1) As is always the case with a conclave, this is a rare opportunity for the Church leadership to examine itself closely - I believe it should be a moment of spiritual catharsis, a confession of sins, so to speak. Though it has countless times throughout the centuries been used as a tool for bribery and manipulation, the sacrament of reconciliation is in many ways the most appealing radical element of Catholic faith - the opportunity to quietly face your demons, accept responsibility for your role in their domination over your life, and to take the necessary penitent steps to reform yourself. It's more than just "say 12 Hail Marys and call me in the morning." It is: I have sinned. These are the circumstances of my sin. I shall now implement this action plan to rectify the wrong I have done and become a better person and therefore closer to God. It is grace through faith and deeds, never only faith.

The last time this was attempted was with Vatican II and Pope John XXIII (also known as the only Pope I revere other than St. Peter). 

2) A genuine moment of reconciliation within the Church has to begin with the insidious culture of child rape. I am not going to water it down and call it mere "sexual abuse." It is rape. To varying degrees of course, but as Todd Akin had to learn the hard way - rape is rape. The highest ranks of the Church hierarchy are responsible for allowing it to occur, going back years. One need only look to the stories coming out of Ireland to understand how far-reaching and systematic this rape was. Other stories are emerging: Germany (where many allege that Ratzinger himself covered up crimes), Fr. Maciel and the Legion of Christ in Mexico; and of course we are aware of the stories in the U.S, from Boston (where Cardinal Law was promptly shipped to a plum assignment in the Vatican) to L.A. (where the moral corruption of Cardinal Mahony has recently been exposed). 

Nothing else cuts to the heart of the leity's lack of faith and trust in their Church's institutions more than this. If you cannot let your son or daughter become an alter-server without thinking twice, then the institution is broken. If the servants of God are shielded from the law of man - then you are dealing with a moral corruption similar to and in fact deeper than a mafia family's attempts to make its own rules. 

No amount of financial settlement can come close to truly addressing the problem - a public papal full confession is the only place it can start. And then the penance must be longed, and absolution earned from deeds and good faith. 

3) From there the Church could then begin to address some of the underlying root causes. Syndicated columnist and former priest James Carroll identifies the fear of and subjugation of sex as a major one. By pushing natural biological sexual urges into the closet, into the realm of shame, they marginalize the people they seek to have authority over. And no one suffers more as a consequence than the ones who must remain celibate. With very rare biological exceptions (some people are indeed asexual), sexual urges are as natural as waking up in the morning. It borders on cruelty to force these individuals to restrain themselves, and heightens the possibility of those urges being acted out in unhealthy ways. 

I don't expect the Church to come all the way over to my beliefs about women's reproductive rights, sexual orientation, or even the role of women in the Church overnight (though the longstanding history of the Church's treatment of women is part of their dysfunction). But they at the very least could give ground on contraception - as they have allowed their scientific understand to evolve over time. And they should remove the celibacy requirement, and allow priests to marry. Just about every other religion allows their pastoral leaders to marry, including the Eastern Orthodox Christian faiths (which only force bishops and the upper echelon to remain celibate). It helps reduce the degree of of the most overwhelming crisis in the church, and it would solve a practical crisis the Church has in recruiting young men into the priesthood. 

4) I don't expect any of this to happen, sadly. After all, at least 90% of the Cardinals were appointed by either John Paul II or Benedict XVI. For all of the popularity of John Paul II, and all of the credit he deserves for confronting totalitarianism (both in the forms of Nazism and Soviet Communism) and for healing the Church's relationship with the Jewish community, his true legacy is in dismantling all of the promising reforms of Vatican II. He crushed dissent (especially the left-wing liberation theologists) and through his personal Luca Brasi, Joseph Ratzinger, enforced a rigid conservative dogma (and a stranger more mystical tendency to make everyone and their mother a saint). For all the ways in which the Church will be praised as forward-thinking if Conclave chooses a non-white pope, that Pope will almost certainly be as rigidly conservative as his two predecessors. 

5) There was, however, one aspect of Benedict's announcement that is underplayed in it's radicalism. While everyone focuses on the fact that almost 700 years has passed since a pope last abdicated (and that was a political move at the conclusion of the Great Schism), that alone is not the reason why Benedict's decision is radical. No, it's radical because the only intellectually honest way it can be viewed is as a repudiation of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Whether he meant it to be or not, we may never know. After all, his thought process may well have been more immediate: he's old, he's tired, and he doesn't want to do it anymore. But even that is a blunt admission of the Pope as a mere mortal. It is a giant crack in the surface of papal infallibility, a doctrine that arose in the 1800s as a political ploy to increase the Vatican's power. It may take another 20-30 years to realize the next step of it, but if the next pope nears age 85 and sees himself as too old, too tired, and too sick to be Pope, it is another clear admission that these men are mortals, not the closest thing to God incarnate on Earth. 

After flip-flopping back and forth on Catholicism and even my faith in God through the years, I still don't know where I land, or even why I still consider myself an adherant of an organization that is so fundamentally corrupt (and that has acted out great evil through the years) that it may not be reformable. But whatever the greater truth of the great beyond is (and I actually do not want to know and do not want to even discuss it), religious institutions are the most influential force in the world at governing human relations. If we want more freedom in the world (and real freedom, not false Rand Paul freedom), we need to reform religious institutions. 

And that alone makes the soul of the Catholic Church worth fighting for, even if those who proclaim to stand for it refuse to fight for it themselves.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

800 Words: The Importance of Making Fun of Religion

(Patton Oswalt on Sky Cake)

One of the weekly fights I get into with my father is over the issue of religion. One of us is always grumbling about religion. Not over the veracity of religion, an issue on which he becomes withering even more quickly than I. The fights are over the issue of religious tolerance, and particularly what constitutes religious tolerance. He believes that the modern willingness to hold religion up to ridicule is a perfect example of the breakdown of the social contract. To him, a culture which is so quick to ridicule believers is a country whose intolerance causes it to become dangerously unstable.

Whenever I hear him make this argument, I can’t help feeling as though my ears are melting. It seems more than a little strange that a person who devoted so much of his life to mocking religion in private should have such an attachment to its public upholdance. But then again, we must give the devil his due and the devil has a fair point. As the American right-wing grows ever more protective of its values and ever more defensive against the onslaught of progress, perhaps seizing every opportunity to make them feel rejected and isolated is not the wisest idea. Furthermore, I  have the same problem Dad does. I love religion nearly as much as I loathe it, and there is always at least a pang of guilt every time I make a withering comment about it.

I love the comfort religion provides, I love its unbroken sense of connection that transcends thousands of miles and thousands of years. Whether one believes in religion or not, (and I certainly can’t), it is one of the few experiences in life in which a person can feel the boundaries of space and time transcended - even if the experience is just an illusion, religion can convince you for a few minutes at a time that there is more to existence than the essence of this crude cruel world, and that all the suffering our world inflicts upon us is not in vain. Even if that isn’t true, we all need to believe that occasionally. And because religion provides so many billions of people with such a stupendous, comforting, dangerous lie as that, it causes people to do things they would otherwise never countenance - not just to kill, rape, and maim, but also to be accepting of others, to forgive those they hate, and to improve the lot of fellow living beings. Religion makes the world a worse place to live, and yet it simultaneously makes the world a better one.

But because religion is such an overwhelmingly powerful illusion, and because the temptation to embrace its irrationalities is so overpowering, religion must always be held accountable for its illogic. To discourage people from talking about its dangers, even from people’s natural inclination to make light of those dangers, is one of the most serious capitulations to the perils of religious belief that the world contains. The fence between self-censorship and imposed censorship can sometimes be a the size of a hair, and if we are unwilling to talk about the problems of religious belief, it can only be a given that religious belief dictates the law of the land. The secularists among us, and even the reform-minded believers, may believe in the separation of Church and State, but religion does not by its very nature. And when given the power of censoring others, even by compelling others to practice self-censorship, it cannot help but exploit that censorship for its own gain.

We live in a country whose very founding was based upon religious tolerance as much as any other precept, and that fundamental right of the United States can never be violated. If the most fervent secularists among us believe there is no danger of that ever happening, then might I suggest they read up on the history of the Soviet Union. But tolerance does not necessarily mean respect or reverence. People should always be reverent of people’s ability to believe exactly what they want, but people should not be reverent of the beliefs themselves. They should always be curious about what believers believe, and always respectful when visiting religious houses of worship; but public discourse is the place where important issues are debated. And if you can’t use humor to make your points, then the debate becomes all too serious and the stakes seem too high. It’s humorlessness, not humor, which causes intolerance.

The fact that we don’t take religion too seriously is what prevents religion from controlling public life. If religion is truly as serious a business as its believers allege, then it must control public life. To take religion seriously enough not to mock it is to pay it the complement of taking it seriously, and religious seriousness has caused thousands of years of Holy War. Because different religious beliefs conflict with one another, only one religion can control public life. There must always be as many checks as possible to prevent one religion from subsuming others. As disgusting as it may seem to believers, the ability to mock religion is to religious believers’ benefit.

Monday, February 11, 2013

On The Backs of Others - An Old Song

While I work into the wee hours of the morning on two new songs, here's one from the Voices of Washington days that I'm gonna revive at the musical gathering which will occur next Sunday at my house. Not my best effort, but not bad. I wrote it for my chorus to sing as a more poppy standard for an idea that I had called the 'Concert for Washington' that was supposed to be the epochal event that made me into the most important musician from Washington DC since Duke Ellington. Since my self-delusion has known no bounds, it would have probably served me well to remember that I'm from Baltimore. But this was my attempt at a half-parody of Bob Dylan. One singer told me that the end result sounded more like Schoolhouse Rock... Not sure if she meant it as a complement, but if it was meant an insult, there are much, much less flattering ones.

In every country of the world,
It's always boom and bust.
Except the cap'tal cities cuz,
They hold our bonds in trust.

In Them we Trust and Liberty
Because we have no choice,
And if we don't what good is it
Cuz they speak with our voice?

And with our gold they pave our roads
And give us daily bread.
But those who have no gold to spare
Must they put in their share for us to spread?
On the Backs of Others.

But if our share is in Detroit
And Cincinnati too,
How come we can't see where it goes,
Or how it comes to you?

Will it be taken to a place,
Where charity goes to die?
And if it does will we know then
That politicians lie?

Cuz if they don't then we excuse
Th'excesses of the job,
When people smile as they stab,
Remember they climbed up the angry mob,
On the Backs of Others.

They're just like you and me, no doubt
They cook ther'own Sauce Bearnaise,
And caviar and de Foie Gras,
Cuz duck’s a food you braise.

And if they say their not like us
We'll run the dead-beats out,
Cuz we don't like no elite bums
gone tell us what to doubt.

Cuz if we doubt then we will know
That we must then feel shame,
And with such shame we must cast off
the burden that the White Man brought to fame.
On the Backs of Others.

So fat cats get the greenbacks in
Their pockets deep and wide
While children starve and poor men curse
what all good men abide.

For all good men and women too
take note what they observe.
And yet they never see we get
The leaders we deserve.

And when those leaders then exude
An unmistakable whiff,
We put the clothespin on our nose
Close eyes and let them lead us off the cliff.
On the backs of others.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Playlist: Sun Records

The Memphis Record Label that founded Rock'n Roll (at least the white half... maybe I can find a Chess Records playlist for the other half)

Part 1:

1 Mystery Train (Little Junior's Blue Flames) SUN 192
2. Blue Suede Shoes (Carl Perkins) SUN 234
3. Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On (Jerry Lee Lewis) SUN 267
4. Bear Cat (Rufus Thomas) SUN 181
5. Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash) SUN 232
6. Color And Kind (Look-A Here Baby) (Howlin' Wolf)
7. Flyin Saucers Rock n Roll (Billy Lee Riley) 260
8. Ten Cats Down (The Miller Sisters) 255
9. I Never Knew (Roy Orbison) 
10. Your Cheatin' Heart (Cliff Gleaves)
11. Just Walkin In The Rain (The Prisonaires) 186
12. The Hucklebuck (Earl Hooker)
13. Shake 'Em Up Baby (Frank Ballard)
14. Willing And Ready (Ray Smith)
15. Rock 'n' Roll Ruby (Warren Smith) 239
16. Born To Lose (Carl McVoy)
17. Lonely Weekends (Charlie Rich) PHILLIPS 3550
18. I Need A Man (Barbara Pittman) 253
19. Ubangi Stomp (Carl Mann) 
20. Sadie's Back In Town (Sonny Burgess) PHILLIPS 3551
21. Groovy Train (Wade Cagle & Escorts) 360
22. Don't Be Runnin' Wild (Problem Child) (Ken Cook)
23. Go! Go! Go! (Roy Orbison) 242
24. Red Velvet (The Kirby Sisters)
25. Greyhound Blues (D. A. Hunt) 183
26. I Forgot To Remember To Forget (Charlie Feathers)
27. Lewis Boogie (Jerry Lee Lewis) 301
28. Peace In The Valley (Million Dollar Quartet)
29. Down By The Riverside (Million Dollar Quartet)
30. Who Will The Next Fool Be (Charlie Rich)

Part 2:

1. Great Balls Of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis) 281
2. Matchbox (Carl Perkins) 261
3. Feelin' Good (Little Junior's Blue Flames) 187 
4. Mona Lisa (Carl Mann) phillips 3359
5. Ooby Dooby (alternative version) (Roy Orbison) 242
6. Guess Things Happen That Way (Johnny Cash) 295
7. My Babe (Narvel Felts)
8. It's Me Baby (Malcolm Yelvington)
9. Paralyzed (Million Dollar Quartet)
10. I'll Wait Forever (Anita Wood)
11. Somebody Told Me (Little Milton) 200
12. Rockin' Bandit (Dubbed version) (Ray Smith) 319
13. Pearly Lee (Billy Lee Riley) 277
14. Red Hot (Billy 'The Kid' Emerson) 219
15. Uranium Rock (Alternate Take) (Warren Smith)
16. Raunchy (Bill Justis)
17. Got You On My Mind (The Miller Sisters)
18. Just In Time (Harold Jenkins)
19. Ain't Got No Home (Carl Mann) phillips alt take
20. Ain't Got A Thing (Sonny Burgess) 263
21. Cheese And Crackers (Rosco Gordon)
22. Got Love If You Want It (Warren Smith) 286
23. Feelin' Low (Ernie Chaffin)
24. There's Another Place I Can't Go (Charlie Rich)
25. Handsome Man (Barbara Pittman)
26. How Long Can It Be (Maggie Sue Wimberley)
27. Goin Crazy (Mack Self)
28. Rockin' Daddy (Eddie Bond)
29. Cloudy (Brad Suggs)
30. Goodnight Irene (Johnny Cash)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

800 Words: What Winning the Super Bowl Feels Like

The first year I was aware of sports was 1988. It was the year the Orioles lost 107 games. Let’s repeat that number, 107 games. 107 games out of 162. In the Post World War II era, the only teams that have done worse are the 1962 New York Mets and the 2003 Detroit Tigers. And yet by the end of the season I was a baseball fanatic. 107 lost games was, in its way, far easier to endure than eight years later when the Orioles made it to the 1996 League Championship, only for its chances to be deflected by a twelve-year-old named Jeffrey Maier who snatched the ball into the stands. When I was two years old, the Baltimore Colts left Baltimore in the middle of the night, with the barest imaginable warning. We were a town of irredeemable sports losers, and there was no consolation in sight.

Meanwhile, Baltimore’s murder rate soared, as did its drug problem. There were years in which Baltimore assumed the mantle of the murder capital of America, the crack capital, the heroin capital, the venereal disease capital, the teen pregnancy capital, and the child illiteracy capital. The Baltimore which existed ten minutes from my childhood home was a town of despair, and while statistics don’t lie, they also don’t tell the whole truth. Why did this happen to Baltimore at exactly the time when it did? Why not Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Hartford or St. Louis or Kansas City or Oakland or Gary or Minneapolis or Nashville or Memphis or Louisville or Cincinnati or Flint or Camden or Newark or Providence or Detroit or New Orleans or Jacksonville or Birmingham or Jackson or Little Rock or Phoenix or Las Vegas? Was the departure of the Colts and Bullets and the decline of the Orioles unrelated to Baltimore’s larger problems, was it symptomatic, or was it the cause? How many people in Baltimore would not have become addicted to crack or heroin had they a hobby to pursue like following professional sports? How many people in Baltimore would have had better community organization or mentorship that could have been spearheaded by a better sports environment? How many teen boys would have had a better outlet for physical activity than gang violence? How many teen girls would have avoided early pregnancy because the boys were playing and watching more sports?

These are all intangible questions to which answers can never be measured. Very few arguments can be made that a lack of sports is related to the decline of American city that is not counterfactual, yet the speculation remains tantalizingly present. Baltimore is the only city in America that lost two of its three major sports teams and simultaneously saw a heartbreaking decline in the third, and for a small amount of time afterward, it became the Worst City in America. Can the two things be entirely unrelated?

Sports, more than art or politics, is the direct standin for the hopes and fears of our own lives. If the teams we love blow their leads and choke, what hope is there for little people like us? If the teams we love can deliver when required, what is not possible in the quest to make ourselves bigger people? Communities of friends with like-minded political opinions or cultural consumers are very poor replacements for a community of people who love the same sports team. Short of religion and love, there is nothing in people’s DNA more significant than their sport loyalties, and nothing except for religion and love which binds people closer together.  

Baltimore was once a great sports town. Johnny Unitas had his Colts, Wes Unseld had his Bullets, and Brooks Robinson had his Orioles. Baltimore was a town enjoying the fruits of  the mid-century American Pastoral as much as any other, and toward its end, Baltimore perhaps flourished as no other city did.

The Colts-Jets Super Bowl III Immortalized by The Simpsons

In 1953, a Baltimore-based clothing manufacturer named Caroll Rosenbloom won the rights to a new NFL franchise. By 1958, the Baltimore Colts were unquestionably the best team in football and won the NFL championship in both 1958 and ‘59. Many people still consider the ‘58 championship to be the ‘Greatest Game Ever Played’ as it was the very first game to utilize either overtime or sudden death. The 1968 Colts were known as the ‘Greatest Pro-Football Team of All Time” until they were defeated by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III (an upset that would in some ways repeat itself with the 1969 World Series which pitted the 109-win Orioles against the New York Mets). In their Baltimore years, the Colts produced no less than 11 Hall of Fame players and coaches (Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Artie Donovan, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Ted Hendricks, John Mackey, Jim Parker, Joe Perry, Weeb Ewbank, and Don Shula), they appeared in 10 playoffs, won five conference championships, and three NFL championships. Until they began a losing streak in 1978, it was arguable that the Colts were the greatest franchise in the history of football. And yet after Robert Irsay packed up the Colts in the middle of the night and sent them to Indianapolis with barely a moment’s notice and not even so much as an apology. It was an extraction of a city’s heart that put nothing in its place.

In 1954, Bill Veeck moved the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore, and shortly thereafter was forced out as majority owner by his partners, who named Jerry Hoffberger chairman. By 1965, the New York Yankees’ nearly unbroken 45 year reign as the American League’s dominant team was definitively over, for six seasons the Orioles unquestionably took their place and even after the Yankees returned to dominance in the late 70’s, the Orioles remained strong contenders every year from 1966 until what is still their last World Championship in 1983. Brooks Robinson was their archetypal player, but the teams of those years included other national legends like Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, and Eddie Murray, and also local legends like Boog Powell, Paul Blair, Mark Belanger, Davey Johnson, Elrod Hendricks, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor; in the booth we had Chuck “Ain’t the beer cold!” Thompson calling the games, on the bench we had Earl “@#$^#$ @$#^#$%&” Weaver managing. Between 1964 and 1983, the Orioles won seven division championships, six pennants, and three World Series. Their players won four MVP awards (Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, and a very young Cal Ripken), six Cy Young Awards (Mike Cuellar, Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone, and three for Jim Palmer), three Rookies of the Year (Al Bumbry, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken), eighteen consecutive winning seasons, and fourteen consecutive seasons with pitchers who won more than twenty games (including four pitchers who won more than 20 in 1971). But by 1979, Washington trial attorney Edward Bennett Williams bought the team from Jerry Hoffberger, who then began a long-held process of using the team as a cash cow. He threatened repeatedly to move the team to Washington as a way to extract more money from the City of Baltimore (particularly for a new stadium), yet he was unwilling to pay the money to keep teams competitive in the era of free agency - a practice which was continued by the next owner, the clearly corrupt Eli Jacobs. When local personal injury lawyer, Peter Angelos, bought the Orioles, he was hailed as the team savior who would restore the Orioles’s former glory. His financial commitment to restoration was unquestionable, but his incompetence was equally so. Angelos believed his judgement to be better than the most proven baseball managers and general managers in the game which he hired at top dollar. By 1999, Angelos was reputed so difficult to work with that no experienced professional would come to Baltimore if they had any chance of a better job.

For a few years, Baltimore even had a wonderful basketball team. In 1963, the Chicago Zephyrs moved to Baltimore and became the Baltimore Bullets, and bn the late 60’s, we were the town of Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld who reached the conference finals twice in five years and appeared in the postseason nearly every year.

But by 1984 that Golden Age of Baltimore Sports was definitively over, and the decline was all too swift. First came heroin, then AIDS, then guns, then crack, and urban flight all throughout. The Baltimore of the postwar era was but a memory, and compared to what Baltimore once was, the Baltimore of the late 80’s and 90’s was an above ground sewer.

This new Baltimore needed Cal Ripken as its idol. During what is perhaps the darkest chapter in Baltimore history, the city needed a symbol that would be there every day for them through the very worst of days and show an iron commitment to charity, to pedagogy, to work-ethic, to loyalty, and to family. Cal was the ‘Last Oriole’ of the Golden Age and a reminder of a better era for a city that needed to hold onto memories with all the care of a family heirloom. The very concept of the ‘Oriole Way’ came from Ripken’s dad, a longtime Orioles coach and minor-league manager. The Oriole Way is the most fundamental blue-collar values transferred to baseball; hard work, professionalism, dependability, and a fanatical focus on the most basic skills. In the mid-20th century, hard work was rewarded. But there was something insultingly tragic about how the ‘Oriole Way’ reached its way into baseball consciousness. In 1987, Cal Ripken Sr. was named manager of the Orioles, a capstone to a thirty-year career spent in service for his team, with his oldest son the star shortstop, and his youngest son about to be called up to become the starting second baseman. Together they made an instructional video for little leaguers to be released in 1988 on how to play baseball the ‘Oriole Way.’ By the seventh game of 1988, Cal Ripken Sr. was fired as manager, and the Orioles would lose 107 games. By the time the Orioles were ready to share their secret with the world, the Oriole Way was a colossal failure.

Cal was there to protect us in all our darkest days, but he couldn’t show us how to win. For that, we needed to wait for the football to return. Though the manner in which football came back was hardly a surprise, there was certainly an irony in robbing Cleveland of their Browns after we’d been robbed so brutally. But football returned to Cleveland in two years, and unlike Bob Irsay, Art Modell apologized for what he’d done. After four undistinguished seasons, there was positively no indication of the spontaneous flowering that would happen in 2000.

The Orioles were a team defined by two things: dependability and mediocrity, and one fed the other. But the Ravens were defined by their volatility. We were the Baltimore of the Ripkens, but we’d become the Baltimore of the Lewises. In the Age of Ripken, the Orioles were sometimes respected, but never feared, and when the steroids scandals happened, they were no longer even respected. But in the Age of Ray Lewis, Baltimore housed the most feared, and perhaps the most hated team in America.

The Ravens were a new team for a new era of Baltimore. Violent crime rates, while not as high as they were, were still high, and test scores were low, but there was a definite sense that the tide had turned. Martin O’Malley brought in the first budget surplus in Baltimore’s recent history and brought new ideas to crime prevention. Rather than dwell in nostalgia for a lost Baltimore, the problems of the city were confronted honestly to the public and aired to an international audience through television shows like The Wire and The Corner. We’d not only gone from the Baltimore of Cal Ripken to the Baltimore of Ray Lewis, we’d also gone from the Baltimore of Barry Levinson to the Baltimore of David Simon.

Even in a sport in which it was once estimated that 1 in 4 professional players are involved in serious crimes, Ravens were notorious for being a violent team of thugs and criminals. You could make something resembling a Pro Bowl all-star team the list of current and former Ravens with arrest records: Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Germane Lewis, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, Steve McNair, Chris McAlister, Gerome Sapp, BJ Sams, Corey Fuller, Leon Searcy (I’m sure I’ve left out a few...).

The Ravens were not only the new Baltimore,  in some ways they were the new urban America - made desperate and hungry by decades of poverty and violence, and determined to improve their lot by any means necessary. The symbol of the new Baltimore was Ray Lewis, and he was as perfectly reflective of what the city needed as Cal Ripken had been fifteen years before. If ‘The Oriole Way’ was perhaps the catchphrase of Ripken’s Orioles, then ‘Protect This House’ was the catchphrase of Ray Lewis’s Ravens. It isn’t even a Ravens’ catchphrase, it’s a slogan from an Under Armour commercial (itself a Baltimore-based company) which hundreds of athletes chanted over the years for the camera, and yet after Ray Lewis used it, it became a Baltimore chant.

Cal’s charisma came from that he seemed to be born a good man and retained his overwhelming decency even through the most adverse of circumstances. No matter how badly the Orioles did, he never lost heart, and showed up ready to play every game as though it were a championship. But Ray’s charisma came from that he seemed to be born anything but a good man, yet strove with all his might to become one. Even if you don’t think Ray Lewis murdered those kids, it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t in some way involved. But like so many in Baltimore, Ray needed a second chance to prove his worth to life. Cal Ripken’s charisma came from his devotion, Ray Lewis’s career came from his redemption. Ray Lewis knew that past events would make him spend his entire career being one of the most hated players in the NFL, but he acted with integrity anyway - mentoring other football players and college students, setting up financial foundations for veterans and the unemployed, and preaching the gospel ad nauseum to every person and camera which he meets. He was as loathed by football fans around America as Cal was beloved by baseball fans, but Ray made us win. Cal didn’t.

The Orioles played a gentile, old fashioned, offence-driven, slow-moving baseball (seriously, we've often been timed as having the longest game of any baseball franchise in America) that got the job done with efficiency and self-effacement. For nearly fifteen years, the Ravens have played an action-packed, vicious, defense-oriented, brutally violent game in which the most health-threatening injuries to other players and to themselves are considered mere collateral damage. Much was made of Bernard Pollard’s industrious ability to put members of the New England Patriots on the Disabled List. But what wasn’t as well known was that at the time when he gave Stephen Ridley a concussion in this year’s AFC championship, he was suffering from six cracked ribs.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that in this era of free agency, the great sports dynasties happen in America’s most thriving metropolises: New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami. Declining industrial cities seem unable to form the same dynasties, occasionally we have champions from Baltimore or Detroit or Cleveland, but they are exceptions which prove the rule. It seems that every time a ‘Rust Belt’ city makes it to a championship, they’re considered the ‘underdogs.’ Their owners don’t have the fiscal ability to compete with more thriving cities, and therefore must make do with better results from less talent. And their fans, from 90 years old to 9 months, suffer a spiritual blow with every defeat which makes them believe a bit more plausibly that their greatest hopes are unattainable. It is a cycle of decline and despair that feeds on itself. In sports, as in life, the more defeated we’ve been, the more opportunities there are to be defeated in the future. There are, unfortunately, winners and losers at life. Gore Vidal got it all too right when he declared “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Life is a contest; we can’t help the truth of that, if it isn’t ‘always’ a contest. With very few exceptions if any, every good thing which happens to you is a bad thing that happens to someone else. Someone else did not get your job, someone else was rejected from the school to which you got accepted, someone else is not dating your girlfriend, and someone else is not the parent to your children.

Some losers are only so in their own mind, but no one is a bigger loser than those who are the victims of society that can’t properly provide for them and no one is quicker to take from others what should be theirs as a fundamental right. A society that cannot keep its people well-fed, employed, well-educated, and community-minded is a society headed for disaster. And an important part of a society’s proper function is for its locales to have excellent sports teams – be they professional, college, amateur, or recreational. Without it, the human need for physical activity becomes misdirected – the thrill of competition turns all too easily into a taste for violence and domination.

But as Baltimore finished its first decade of climbing back from its nadir, a new era is lurking on the horizon. The era of Ray Lewis is over, but the era of Joe Flacco (and perhaps of Buck Showalter) is clearly in ascendance - in which Ripken-and-Unitas like taciturn, bland, dependable men who do nothing except play the game dominate the statistics and the press coverage. The lid of the id was taken off by Ray Lewis in a town that values quiet grit and would never turn to such flash unless it were direly necessary. But Joe Flacco’s own father called him ‘dull.’ Perhaps this is a sign that Baltimore’s old identity is coming back, and Ray Lewis made it possible.