Thursday, December 31, 2009

RIP Vic Part II

Last post of 2009. Sorry it has to be such a bummer.

I suspect I was not alone in being somewhat depressed just prior to Christmas. The period between Halloween and Christmas always seems to be a down time for me.

But I suppose what is truly surprising is not that I found myself depressed during that time, but that I was surprised that I was depressed. Every year when the days get so ridiculously short, and the weather gets nasty cold, my body and mind rebel. I love the sun and warmth and I hate it when it’s dark at 4:30 and the day is over before it’s really begun.

And every year I experience this, but it seems like this is the first year that I finally realized that it is a cyclical occurrence. Huh. I guess we really can continue to learn, even as we grow grizzled and decrepit and ornery, set in our ways.

I bring up depression because I read about Vic Chesnutt’s death on Christmas morning, the day I was flying out to Pennsylvania. Following what reports say was a deliberate overdose of muscle relaxants, the singer/songwriter spent two days in a coma before he finally passed away on Christmas Day.

Since I was doing family stuff for the past several days I decided to put off writing about Chesnutt, who is one of my favorite artists of all time. Other people can give you better details on his biography, but the gist is that he was essentially a paraplegic, having survived a drunken car accident when he was 18. He taught himself to play guitar, gradually getting some use of his hands back--for years and maybe even up until his death, he attached a Velcro cuff with a guitar pick embedded in it to his strumming hand, because he was incapable of the finer precision needed to grip it.

So, the narrative now predictably turns from ‘what a brave soldier! Overcoming such odds!’ to what a tragic, doomed figure he must actually have been. Headlines like ‘Tragedy Foretold in Song’ blare out the news that, because he wrote about mortality and dark subjects Chesnutt was somehow destined to die by suicide.

I hate this Monday morning quarterbacking bullshit. The man was depressed, sure. And he wrote about dark topics. Plus he had some $70,000 in medical bills hanging over his head and, as much as we love them, cult musicians make cult money, unfortunately.

And as Jem Cohen, producer of Chesnutt’s “North Star Deserter” said, “Vic's death, just so you all know, did not come at the end of some cliché downward spiral. He was battling deep depression but also at the peak of his powers, and with the help of friends and family he was in the middle of a desperate search for help.”

I don’t want to make political hay of the man’s passing, and frankly, he has admitted to attempting suicide on at least three previous occasions, so it seems likely that there were other underlying problems besides debt and a lawsuit from the hospital. But it must be said that the health care system in America failed him. Leave it at that.

No, I would rather talk about the impact he made on my life, and what a unique character he was. His songs were indeed often dark, but laced with a self-deprecating humor, a gentle, wry irony that I think is unique to the South, at least in its purest form.

I interviewed him for a Westword profile in 2003, and what I took away from that conversation was the sense that, despite his having done several interviews that day in preparation for his tour (a rare occurrence) he seemed like he would have been happy to chat with me the rest of the afternoon.

Of course, there is a gift that some public figures have, the ability to make you feel like you are the only person in the universe, and that you super-duper-important to them. But Chesnutt was so ingenuous, so regular-guy and down to earth that there is simply no way it was act. Despite the photos I got later on of him and me at the Fox, during that conversation I transitioned from fanboy to a person simply talking with another person.

Which is what I had been all along, of course. Until we talk with these people we only approached from their art, it’s difficult to remember that they are just people, broken, flawed and limited--despite the pains some take to elevate themselves above the rest of us.

But it was always a rare thing for me as a music journalist to encounter someone who was that open and friendly and unpretentious. Another example that stands out is Echo and the Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant--we talked for nearly an hour, getting into the technical details of his guitar set-up, chatting about my own music, and even his love of the original “The Prisoner.”

But going back a bit, Chesnutt had a quality that I think of as uniquely American, uniquely Southern, a quality he wrote into his songs and also wove into conversation, and it is a kind of wry humility. It is an acknowledgment of one’s own limitations, one’s own ridiculousness, and the ridiculousness of not only our silly individual lives, but also on a species level--it is a non-bitter chuckle at the absurdity of the human animal and the society he has created.

Yes, there is sadness there. How could a man who saw his entire life change in a flash before he was even truly an adult--who came so very close to death--not feel regret and loss? But within that pain Chesnutt gave us a canon that is unique, and which, I would argue, would have been unachievable without his having been put through that trauma.

Listen to “Free of Hope.”

He says ‘Big brother’s at Columbia University/Quote unquote he’s tanning beaver pelts.’ Now ponder on that line a moment, not only for its clever crudity (which he immediately disowns as coming from someone else in the next line: ‘Subtle as a billboard/Oh so refined.’) But imagine also a healthy and whole Chesnutt, a happy-go-lucky southern boy given to drink and chasing tail, and imagine that guy writing these haunting, beautiful and terrifying songs.

It couldn’t happen.

So, it seems cruel, but I thank the universe for giving us the Vic Chesnutt he actually was, faults and all, and therefore giving him the emotional and physical pain that drove him to create. We are poorer for having lost him, but we are rich for having had him at all.

Rest in peace, brother. No more pain now.

Some pics from the Fox in 2003.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

RIP Vic Chesnutt

One of my favorite singer/songwriters of all time passed away on Christmas morning. I am working on a piece about him, but for now here is a 26-minute 'Tiny Desk Concert' from NPR.

Monday, December 21, 2009

o. my. god.


You think you got batshit crazy? I see your batshit crazy and i raise you this.

Scroll down to the user comments for some extra-crunchy batshit lunacy.

Friday, December 18, 2009

healthcare: diisillusion

Is disillusionment a pre-existing condition?

As the healthcare debate grinds on, it is becoming increasingly apparent even to people who haven’t been paying close attention that those on the right who are strongly anti-reform are not engaged in serious discussion of the merits of the Senate bill. They are motivated by a desire to simply stop the bill from passing--no matter what, no matter who it might hurt or who it might help.

Some oppose the bill simply out of spite--or to put it in politer terms, to prevent Obama from succeeding at anything, and thus neuter his presidency. Others are clearly in opposition due to their financial and political ties to the healthcare industry. Others are both spiteful and financially rewarded.

As usual, the mainstream media is the last to get the memo. They persist in fawning over the tea-partiers every time these troglodytes scrabble out into the sunlight from their bunkers and panic rooms, ignoring the glaring, obvious lies the shock troops have swallowed whole, simply because shouting idiots make for good television. (See “Jersey Shore,” “For the Love of Ray J,” ad infinitum.)

Plus, inside the Beltway it is considered impolite to openly discuss the legalized system of bribery that actually runs this country. It’s easier to focus on the focus-grouped gibberish that the wealthy insiders pass along to the rubes who carry their water as if these words had any truth or even actual meaning.

They almost certainly don’t mean anything to the pundits and politicians who invent them--aside from lining their own pockets. As Peggy Noonan demonstrated so plainly during the 2008 campaign, these Terribly Smart People will spew out utter bullshit that they don’t believe at all, simply because they know they are expected to perpetuate the accepted narrative (i.e. the narrative that best avoids uncomfortable questions of who is really running things. Preferably a narrative with a very narrow focus and simple horse-race numbers.)

To paraphrase Chomsky, the MSM says: Which do you prefer--Coke or Pepsi? As if those are the only two possible choices. How about some juice instead? Or a beer maybe?

And of course it’s to be expected that the media, a wholly-owned subsidiary of big business and the current system as it (dys)functions today would play its usual dishonest games. It isn’t at all surprising that they grant frothing morons who spew disinformation (see Bachmann, Michelle; Grassley, Charles) the same weight as thoughtful, earnest people on both the left and right who are trying to get at the parts of the healthcare debate that exist in reality and what the real-world consequences might be if they were enacted into law.

So, these are the things we knew. These are perhaps the things that are not so shocking. What I think the real problem today is for many on the left who supported Obama is that what is new, what has been revealed in recent weeks is that Obama and his people are also a part of that same machine.

Whoa, big surprise, O starry-eyed idealist, O dumb-ass worshipper of Obama, O Obamamaniac. Right?

But no, I am none of the above. I am aware that the same political system that created Obama also created Joe Lieberman. Both are beholden to interests outside of the ones they talk about publicly.

But what I think pragmatic people hoped for with the election of Obama was that grown-ups would be in charge again, finally. That there would be some swing of the pendulum back toward sanity, and responsibility, and reality in the way that our government ran things. That is, sure, things swing rightward--deregulation, chest-pounding idiotic wars, tax cuts for the wealthy--that’s just the way politics works, if you take the long view. But then someday, the pendulum usually swings back, or at least that’s how it usually works.

That hasn’t happened this time around. What I am saying is that what we have seen this administration do every time it has been confronted with an entrenched power is to go along with what that power wanted. And I am saying that perhaps this isn’t the result of weakness, or indecision, or even dithering, but rather just a calculated capitulation to the status quo (read: big money) that was planned all along.

What if Obama never seriously intended to fight? To wit:

-- in the way the administration bailed out Wall Street with virtually no restrictions and certainly no strong reform of the catastrophic ways in which they do business.

-- in granting General McChrystal (he of Pat Tillman cover-up infamy) virtual carte blanche to run Afghanistan for the next decade or more.

-- by quietly working behind the scenes to ensure that Big Pharma wasn’t threatened, killing legislation that would have made it easier to buy pharmaceuticals abroad.

-- and finally, perhaps most telling, by taking himself and the bully pulpit of the White House and his formerly massive store of political capital virtually out of the healthcare debate.

When people say, Where O Where has Obama been? Why hasn’t he been working harder to twist arms? Why didn’t he fight for the public option? Etc., etc., perhaps it’s because there never was any serious intention to challenge any of these powerful entities, despite stirring, bold campaign rhetoric. Perhaps, after all, this is a sort of Waterloo--not for Obama, but for American democracy.

The plutocrats are firmly at the helm. In every important debate the will of the people doesn’t mean shit--unless those people happen to be bank presidents or major stockholders of defense companies or pharmaceuticals.

Much as it was when the last guy was president. It just seems a lot more disturbing now.

Seriously, read that Chomsky article I linked to. Here it is again.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

hanging with the douchebags

I have had a life-long abhorrence for attention-seeking behavior. Or to be more specific, attention-whore behavior.

Now, as an actor and musician, I clearly engage in some attention-seeking behavior of my own, admittedly. But I don’t think I am being hypocritical if I specify that the type of behavior I am talking about is unwarranted attention. (See ‘The Hills.’ See Balloon Boy. See virtually any so-called reality show.)

Perhaps it is the humble Midwestern roots, but ever since I was a kid, I have always found myself annoyed by whiny, tantrum-throwing, graspingly spotlight-grabbing people. There is, to me, a clear desperation of a certain type of person who is not sincere in what they are trying to say, but rather simply seeking to be the center of attention. And--this is the important part--for no good reason.

If someone is playing music on a stage, or acting in a show, or even telling a story in a bar, it makes perfect sense to me to pay attention to them. What I’m talking about is people vying for attention that they do not deserve.

So, to borrow a concept from Bill Maher, I have a new rule for us to ponder. It is a direct result of the White House gate-crasher story, the latest attempt by talentless assholes to grab the spotlight in an attempt to secure themselves a place on a reality show (I mean, really?!? That’s the big goal for these human fart-bubbles? To achieve the fame of a Kardashian or a Ray J or a Tila Tequila?? How…utterly…depressingly…sad.)

My new rule is this: anytime news people refer to someone who is an ‘aspiring reality show participant,’ or whatever phrase they use for these alleged humans, they should be required to use this phrase instead: ‘douchebag.’

Here’s an example: “The Salahis, who are aspiring reality TV stars, made news when they showed up at Tuesday's state dinner.” (CNN)

Would instead read: “The Salahis, who are douchebags, made news when they showed up at Tuesday's state dinner.”

Here’s another: “Like Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the socialites and Real Housewives of D.C. aspirants who swanned into the White House on Nov. 24, you do doughnuts on the lawn of notoriety and smack head-on into the tree of shamelessness.” (Time)

Would read: “Like Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the socialites and douchebags who swanned into the White House on Nov. 24...”

This, I think, might do something to discourage this douchy behavior, or perhaps even these douchy aspiriations. If we all acknowledged the truth--that reality show stars are themselves no-talent douches, and therefore that anyone who was striving, nay, burning with desire to become one of them must be an uber-douche--then we might steer some impressionable children away from this type of douchy lifestyle.

Here is an appropriately outraged article on the latest douchebag thing.