Monday, December 31, 2018

With its Luke Kelly overview, 2018 was the year Jacobin published a reasonable piece on popular culture. The End Times are here.

2018 will be recalled as The Year that Marked the Arrival of the End Times.

There were bush fires in the Arctic, a fascist was elected president of the world's fifth-most populous nation, and the US socialist publication Jacobin Magazine ran a reasonable piece relating to popular culture.

There is no other conclusion to draw. All we need is for a Donald Trump tweet to make vague sense and we're done.

Jacobin, after all, is not known for reasonable pieces on popular culture. They seem to think that "popular culture", as a field dominated by "the Class Enemy", is something to shout at. Their approach tends to involve declaring loudly just how much they are "Against" things in a bid to generate clicks with cheap didactic controversies.

This leads to some regrettable cases. Maybe the most extreme was the horrific and offensive piece they ran just after US country music legend Merle Haggard died, that involved an extremely dishonest and one-sided slandering of the singer.

I was so incensed I wrote a post with the catchy title: "An Open Letter To Jacobin Magazine On The Matter Of Merle Haggard: Please just shut the fuck up before you embarrass the Left any further".

In my response, I was far from alone.

However, their piece on legendary Irish folk singer Luke Kelly ('Ireland's Red Troubadour') is better. It is informative and sharp, capturing the dynamic interplay between artistic creation and the social conditions that surround it. Christ, I'd even encourage people to actually read it and God knows I never thought I'd say that about a Jacobin piece on popular culture!

The piece not only looks at the artistic qualities of Luke Kelly -- best known as a member of The Dubliners and often considered Ireland's greatest folk singer -- but provides a useful overview of the social conditions in which he grew up, and the broad social forces behind the Dubliners' role in reviving and transforming Irish folk music.

These economic and cultural changes helped The Dubliners update Irish folk music for the 1960s and beyond -- presenting it with a rawer, gritter feel, connected to the spirit of rock'n'roll. This in turn opening the way for the likes of The Pogues who, in the 1980s, took it even further and wedded Irish folk music to the spirit of punk.

It is true that in Luke Kelly, Jacobin has an easy case to manage. He was, after all, not simply a brilliant balladeer but also a dedicated socialist. At one point a card-carrying Communist, he travelled from pub to pub in England, performing songs then selling The Daily Worker to audiences.

Kelly's status as a socialist allows Jacobin to acknowledge his importance as a singer without getting caught up in awkward complications involving contradictory and shifting politics of artists as they seek to engage with the world around them in a process mediated by fucking capitalism, its power, and its capacity to determine how you earn a fucking pay check as an artist.

Not so poor Merle Haggard, who may have been one of the greatest American singers of the post-war period and a towering figure for millions of working people, but he did have some political contradictions, the goddamn sap. So fuck him, better to accuse him of fantasising about a place where "politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites” despite writing multiple anti-racist songs.

Not that I'm bitter.

Luke Kelly was not a songwriter, but a brilliant interpreter and performer of songs. His legacy rests on his stunning capacity to express emotion in his vocals and whose versions of several Irish folk standards are definitive.

He was also a socialist committed to the interests of ordinary people -- and saw folk music as a way to express this. He refused to tour South Africa, helped organise political rallies at which he also performed, and supported the civil rights struggle in Northern Ireland, opposing internment and other brutal policies of the British state.

Jacobin concludes:

Ireland shaped Luke Kelly, his music flowed from the heights of its history, rose and fell with its social upheavals, and mourned its unfulfilled promises. But maybe more importantly, Luke Kelly shaped Ireland. His music became part of the national fabric...

But probably his greatest contribution was the fact that no other known figure in human history has rocked a giant Ginger Afro like quite like Luke Kelly,


In honour of Jacobin's unexpected achievement in publishing a cultural piece that doesn't make you want to tear your own eyeballs out, I made a playlist of 10 songs, posted below, sung by Luke Kelly.

It is a range of songs, including his iconic version of tracks like "Raglan Road" and "The Rocky Road to Dublin". It features his moving version of Phil Coulter's ode to his disabled son, "Scorn Not His Simplicity"-- a song whose emotional power Kelly respected so much only ever performed it  publicly once, so as not to undermine it with repetition.

The only explicitly political song is the first on the list, "Alabama '58", about systemic racism in the US. But there is social commentary through out, especially the Coulter-written "A Town I Loved So Well", which details the destruction of British-occupied Derry in the 1970s.

Some are traditional songs that The Dubliners helped revive with defining versions, such as "Whiskey in the Jar", others more recently written songs that, in large part by the Dubliners effort, became classics and standards, such as Brendan Behan's prison song, "The Auld Triangle", and the English folk singer Ewan McColl-penned "Dirty Old Town" (like Kelly, both Behan and McColl were socialists).

For its part, the Kelly-sung Dubliners' version of "Dirty Old Town" is very similar in style to the version of The Pogues in the 1980s, which is how many, like me, first came to the folk standard. When The Pogues do "Dirty Old Town", they are covering not just the song, but the Dubliners' version specifically.

The track listing is below...

Alabama 58
The Auld Triangle
Raglan Road
The Rocky Road to Dublin
Leaving of Liverpool
Dirty Old Town
The Town I Loved So Well
Black Velvet Band
Scorn Not His Simplicity
Whiskey in the Jar

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Awesome mullets, a keytar and sax solo... is Icehouse's 'Electric Blue' clip Oz rock's most '80s clip ever?

'80s on 'roids! Iva Davies had his mullet permed! 
This is a question many of us have pondered in depth when in the throes of a booze-fuelled YouTube music binge that somehow takes a turn towards the synthpop-wing of commercially successful Oz rock from the mid-to-late '80s.

Icehouse's signature tune, 1987's "Electric Blue", co-written with John Oates from Hall and Oates fame, didn't just reach number one in Australia but even managed to break into the top 10 in the much-vaunted Canadian Single Charts too! 

And it isn't hard to see why: it is not just the deep, melodic voice of singer Iva Davies put to some solid synth work that makes the track a winner. To fully appreciate it, you need to watch the film clip in all its stunning glory:

'If a boy had a chance...' then that boy would take the chance at getting Iva Davies's mullet! Check that shit out! This is the most glorious mullet in recorded human existence. And for extra '80s bonus points, Davies even had it permed!

This clip would be a strong contender for Oz rock's most '80s contribution to the '80s for that mullet alone, but it is only getting started. It is not even the only mullet... the drummer sports one too

On top of the strong mullet showing, you have to chuck in the appearance of actress Paris Jefferson, best known for playing Athena in Xena, Princess Warrior, as the object of Davies' desires. She goes full '80s, with a big perm complimenting a tight-fitting blue dress that looks torn from a Madonna clip of the same era, as she pouts and flirts seductively for the camera.

Of course, this being a chart-topper from 1987, it doesn't just feature synthesisers, it features a dude in sunglasses playing a keytar

This being 1987, there is the inevitable saxophone solo... and they don't fuck about. It comes in early and it comes on strong. And the sax player is, naturally, featured in silhouette against a setting sun. Later, his back drop is some Big City lights at night!

This is a 1987-style video writ large and it was no fluke. Because possibly the SECOND most '80s clip from Oz rock in the '80s was Icehouse's single "Crazy" from the same year.

Sure it doesn't quite reach the heights of "Electric Blue", but Davies' mullet is still there, as is Paris Jefferson with her permed hair as his love interest. For this clip, Davies contributes to the '80s vibe by wearing New Wave-style pantaloons and sings at one point in front of a dry ice machine. It makes a solid second-place, for sure.

No one can possibly disagree. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

This Is Life In One Poem

A Life In One Poem

And so
I pause
To watch
The grass
Grow slowly
Or So
And then
I Hit

OH IT IS SO TRUE!!! Also, here is a Tom Waits song.

Marie you are the wild blue sky
Men do foolish things
You turn kings into beggars
Beggars into kings...

The face forgives the mirror
The worm forgives the plow
The questions begs the answer
Can you forgive me somehow?
Maybe when our story's over
We'll go where it's always spring
The band is playing our song again ...

Moon is yellow silver
Oh, the things that summer brings
It's a love you'd kill for
And all the world is green...

He's balancing a diamond
On a blade of grass
The dew will settle on our graves
When all the world is green...

Pretend that you owe me nothing
And all the world is green
We can bring back the old days again
When all the world is green...

Sunday, December 02, 2018

George HW Bush and the sad decline in 'civilised' mass slaughter

So George HW Bush has suffered an untimely death. Untimely coz the goddamn war criminal and one-time CIA director, who was US president from 1988-92, died at the disturbingly old age of 94.

Why do these bastards live so long? (Rhetorical question: obviously his health care was of a far higher quality for the vast majority of those he ruled can afford.)

Now, as we live in the disturbing world where a barely literate, semi-functional-on-a-good-day Orange Freak is in the White House, explicitly encouraging open White Supremacists and neo-Nazis, it can be easy to look back on the glory days when those who oversaw unspeakable mass murder and destruction of entire countries could at least string a sentence together.

But while Donald Trump may be living proof that things can always get worse, Bush Sr was still a war criminal and bigot, whose administration was responsible for suffering on a scale almost impossible to comprehend.

The brutal legacy of the first Iraq War (which featured devastating use of depleted uranium by the US military) and the US invasion of Panama are enough to make the point, followed by his administration's refusal to act on the AIDS crisis so that the loved ones of those who died from the disease once threw their ashes on the White House lawn in a desperate protest.

Of course, some do like to pretend.

Take John Barron, who wrote a piece at ABC News headlined "George HW Bush was an underrated president from a more civilised era of US politics". He concluded that Bush Sr's passing "feels like the end of a more civilised era in American politics".

Perspective is everything. No doubt Bush Sr was more "civilised" to his opponents within the US political class.

But nothing was civilised about his administration's wholesale destruction of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, which featured the large scale, horrific slaughter of civilians as well as retreated Iraqi soldiers.

This was one-side butchering simply because dictator Saddam Hussein (a former US ally) had upset US oil interests by invading Kuwait (which Saddam believed he had the US green light to carry out).

The US used depleted uranium.
The Intercept noted:

Under Bush Sr., the U.S. dropped a whopping 88,500 tons of bombs on Iraq and Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, many of which resulted in horrific civilian casualties ... 
U.S. bombs also destroyed essential Iraqi civilian infrastructure — from electricity-generating and water-treatment facilities to food-processing plants and flour mills... 
 The Bush administration deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure for “leverage” over Saddam Hussein. How is this not terrorism? As a Harvard public health team concluded in June 1991, less than four months after the end of the war, the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure had resulted in acute malnutrition and “epidemic” levels of cholera and typhoid.  
By January 1992, Beth Osborne Daponte, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau, was estimating that Bush’s Gulf War had caused the deaths of 158,000 Iraqis, including 13,000 immediate civilian deaths and 70,000 deaths from the damage done to electricity and sewage treatment plants.
So 158,00 Iraqis killed. For scale, that is more than 50 times the death toll from 9/11.

Still, as retreating Iraqi solider conscripts were blown to smithereens by smart bombs, at least their final thought could have been "at least the uncivilised brute who ordered this isn't also issuing nonsensical tweets that are an embarrassing daily reminder of the likely irreversible decline in US imperial power".

Or they could have thought that if they knew what the fuck Twitter was, which obviously they didn't, being too blown apart to have caught the 2006 launch of the social media platform..

Even before Iraq, there was another case of military slaughter for US interests under Bush Sr -- the 1989 US invasion of Panama. This war was aimed at removing Panama dictator Manuel Noriego, using his various human rights abuses and alleged involvement in the drugs trade as an excuse.

But like Saddam, who the US happily sold weapons to in  '80s while he massacred Iraq's Kurdish population, Noriega had been a US ally until the US decides its interests were better served without him.

US soldiers during the 1989 invasion of Panama.
The death toll of the US invasion, in which the US air force bombed Panama City's poor neighbourhoods, is contested, but ex-US attorney general Ramsey Clark estimated it about 3000. Human Rights Watch noted:
[Panama's civilian deaths] reveal that the "surgical operation" by American forces inflicted a toll in civilian lives that was at least four-and-a-half times higher than military casualties in the enemy, and twelve or thirteen times higher than the casualties suffered by U.S. troops.
There, though, a lot more than just war crimes when it comes to Bush Sr's legacy, from his racist policies to deadly AIDS denialism. He also oversaw tax cuts that shifted ore wealth to his corporate mates while devastating ordinary people. He also imfamously ramped up racism as a Republican electoral weapon.

But asides from all the butchery and bigotry, what were his personal qualities?

Well I guess no one should ever expect much from their war criminal corporate elite overlords, so maybe it is just in keeping with his life's calling that he has also been accused of being a serial sexual harasser.

After all, it is not much of a defence to have someone say: "Sure he may have destroyed the lives of countless thousands on multiple continents, but at least he never touched any inappropriately!"

Then again, this is hardly a problem for just the extremely powerful. We have ample, almost ceaseless, evidence that you don't need to be a war criminal to be responsibly for serial sexual misconduct. You appear, mostly, to just need to be a man socialised in this society.

All up, it seems that the very best that can be said for George HW Bush is he "isn't Donald Trump". This is a low bar almost all of humanity manage to leap, except for Donald Trump, who probably accuses the bar of being a "Mexican rapist" anyway.

So here are three songs that apply perfectly well to the deceased ex-president-- personally or in terms of the impact of his polices and those of his class on the world -- who is now as dead as the many thousands he helped kill.

Weapons not food, not homes, not shoes
Not need, just feed the war cannibal animal
I walk the corner to the rubble that used to be a library
Line up to the mind cemetery now
What we don't know keeps the contracts alive an moving
They don't gotta burn the books they just remove 'em
While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells
Rally round the family, pockets full of shells

So you say
It's not okay to be gay
Well, I think you're just evil
You're just some racist who can't tie my laces
Your point of view is medieval
Fuck you... fuck you very, very much

A bitter wind blows through the country
A hard rain falls on the sea
If terror comes without a warning
There must be something we don't see
What fire begets this fire
Like torches thrown into the straw?
If no one asks, then no one answers:
That's how every empire falls