Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dippy Dead Celebrity Week Is Over!

Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays all died last week, sending this blog into a tailspin of mourning as the media trampled over small children to hog Serious News Time. For example, an entire Keith Olbermann show was devoted to Michael Jackson coverage, with no mention of "mentally ill pedophile."

We create our celebrities, we twist and transmogrify the beautiful into the grotesque, which is to say, their faults are ours, and ask not for whom the bell tolls. May these tortured souls rest in peace regardless, and Farrah's Speedo nipples achieve deserving immortality.

Without further ado, I hereby usher in the Al Franken Era. Minnesota's governor just announced he would rubber-stamp Franken as Senator. For conservatives, this is going to be great! Every time Al opens his mouth to drone nasally on about metric shoe sizes or some other liberal doggerel, they will writhe and awwk like vampires speared to beach-chairs in Bermuda. Just do us all favor: bite the bullet, take the pain. Close your eyes, and think of Sarah Palin!

Update: Jon of the aptly named 'He Is Not Dead Yet' corrects my celebrity body count mistakes:
Marc: You forgot about Ed McMahon. Also, we all know that celebrities dies in threes: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson. Billy Mays threw in an extra, fourth dead celebrity AT NO ADDITIONAL COST!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Goldman Sachs To Make Record Bonus Payouts

As we listen to the those "om-nom-nom" sounds draw closer, it's good to remember what the point of all the hubbub was: to have Goldman Sachs keep Wall Street on business-as-usual footing, and in return to allow it to take over the United States banking system. So glad Obama has placed the financial fate of the country in these people's hands. Via the Guardian:

Staff at Goldman Sachs staff can look forward to the biggest bonus payouts in the firm’s 140-year history after a spectacular first half of the year, sparking concern that the big investment banks which survived the credit crunch will derail financial regulation reforms.

A lack of competition and a surge in revenues from trading foreign currency, bonds and fixed-income products has sent profits at Goldman Sachs soaring, according to insiders at the firm.

Staff in London were briefed last week on the banking and securities company’s prospects and told they could look forward to bumper bonuses if, as predicted, it completed its most profitable year ever. Figures next month detailing the firm’s second-quarter earnings are expected to show a further jump in profits. Warren Buffett, who bought $5bn of the company’s shares in January, has already made a $1bn gain on his investment.

Goldman is expected to be the biggest winner in the race for revenues that, in 2006, reached £186bn across the entire industry. While this figure is expected to fall to £160bn in 2009, it will be split among a smaller number of firms.

Iran News Roundup

Everybody's pressuring Khameini, who seems past the point of no return. In response, the Revolutionary Guard warns of much more violence waiting for protesters:
A statement posted Monday on the Guard's Web site warned protesters to "be prepared for a resolution and revolutionary confrontation with the Guards, Basij and other security forces and disciplinary forces."
Mousavi bets otherwise, and urges more protests. ""In your protests, continue to show restraint. I am expecting armed forces to avoid irreversible damage," he said." (Reuters)

Former President Khatami chimes in, who "warned of 'dangerous consequences' if the people were prevented from expressing their demands in peaceful ways. "

Iran arrested 457 demonstrators yesterday per state radio, although Rafsanjani's daughter has been released.
The Guardian Council validated the election after review, but official dissent builds. Parliamentary Speaker Larijani:
But in a sign of the divisions emerging among senior Iranian figures over the vote, parliament speaker Ali Larijani said: "A large portion of the people perceived the election result to be different to the one officially announced. This perception must be respected. (AFP)
The sensational video above is of "peaceful demonstrations" Iranian-style, wherein police are sent into full-tilt retreat. Watch it. Then tell me if you can remember any instance in American history when police or army units did not fire on a crowd acting in similar fashion. Because I can't think of one.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran's Crisis And Opportunity

Naj over at Iran Facts has been in understandable distress over the tumult in her country, and today abjured my silence. Truthfully, I feel adrift in Iranian internal affairs, but am someone who marvels at the sheer number of Iranians, millions of them, willing to peacefully put their lives on the line in passionate service.

Listening to Publicly Traded Media frame the demonstrations this week, you'd think post-election disapproval boils down to a generational dispute. In one corner, we have a forward-looking, freedom-loving Twitter Generation casting away beards and head scarves to square off against a severely backward, unyielding theocracy. While social networks have been useful for the opposition and the authoritarian regime was so blog-darned clueless it thought banning foreign reporters would diminish coverage, the media narrative has distorted the basics in exchange for Packaging...which is, of course, their Job. They have cast the conflict in mythical terms, something like "The Islamic Revolution vs. Gay Marriage,"
when more accurate political Packaging would be Godzilla vs. Mothra.

If you wonder what makes modern Iran tick, it doesn't take much poking around to conclude that it's complicated. It's a constitutional democracy, yes, well-functioning at local levels, but also resembles a Soviet command economy and is ultimately run by a Supreme Leader. The leader is a cleric powerful enough to invalidate voting results in an insultingly obvious way, and then publicly decree that the demonstrations will be put down by force. If the Mormon Church ran the US, figuring out the resulting factional dynamics would be next to impossible, but they would be easy compared to Iran's.

Few in the West or the East know what goes on behind and between the doors of the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, Expediency Discernment Council, or have any insight to the respective rabbinical squabbles and sways over Parliament (Majilis) which commonly result in overturned legislation. As a measure of volatility, one-third of sitting Majili candidates were disqualified from running again in 2008, indicative of a cresting conflict between theocratic and democratic factions.

When trying to predict outcomes with sparse data, falling back on fundamentals of the Human Condition is advised. Impulses towards civilization, i.e., living by agreed-upon rules conducive to peace and harmony, often clash with wills to power. There is constant tension between individuality and groupthink, rationality and emotion, morality and immorality, and there are simple questions. Who has power? What are their motivations?

Hashemi Rafsanjani is Iran's richest man. A former President, he chairs both the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Discernment Council; he is rumored to have resigned from the latter body last week, one tasked with mediating disputes between the Supreme Leader and Parliament. His nickname is "Shah," he is a pro-business free-marketeer hostile to the current President's isolationist policies, and he sent an open letter to Khameini, the Supreme Leader, a week before the presidential election warning of vote fraud consequences.

The wronged opposition candidate (Mousavi) is a pragmatic and open to rapprochement with the West, yet seems to be unacceptable to both Khameini and, for the moment, to Rafsanjani. Khameini, Iran's first post-revolution President and survivor of a 1981 assassination attempt, has a history of violent repression and executed thousands of dissidents. Rafsanjani can now use Khameini's response to popular protests as a reason for dismissal in his capacity as Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which has the constitutional power to elect and oust the Supreme Leader.

Mere logic is often unreliable in these things, but Rafsanjani appears to be angling toward installing himself or a proxy as Supreme Leader. The basic structures seem unlikely to change, and Mousavi's appeal for a return to uncorrupted revolutionary principles is similarly unlikely to occur (see Naj's translation of his remarkable letter), but his appeal will bear strong offspring. Theocracy is intransigently shooting itself in the foot, hollowing out its authority and provoking conditions for a long arc towards modernism in elected offices with less direct control of church over state. Politically, the next tactical step would be commercial back-channel communications by Rafsanjani's son, the head of Gaz-Iran, to the Obama Administration on nuclear and energy issues.

Rafsanjani is a firm supporter and direct beneficiary of the nuclear power generation program, appreciates its implied effects on Israel, and would almost certainly trade close monitoring for shifting administration contracts to US suppliers. While innocents protesting election fraud are gassed, beaten, shot, and photographed for future detainment, this is the cold-around-the-heart door they're making it possible for Iran to walk through.
If such is done, Iran will immediately be immunized from attack by Israel and the unbalanced scales of power in the region would swing towards equilibrium.

While sometimes achieving desired results, naked applications of force are expensive and unreliable. As of today, Iran's Supreme Leader set a host of unintended and, for him and the current regime's supporters and enemies, undesired consequences in motion. Having known and abetted the protests which brought down the Shah in 1979, resisting the will of the people is a Supreme Irony.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Seattle Rain Watch Begins

In a previous rant on Brett Favre I mentioned we've been having nice weather here. How nice? All-time record nice. 29 straight days without rain nice, never happened here in May and June before. Ra roams loose in Western Washington. There are clouds today, but there was yet sun, too, and there will be more when it peers through the nimbus and the Olympics' scarps after 9 tonight.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Neko Case In The Crystal Ballroom

Seats for Neko Case's show at the Paramount in Seattle were already selling for $250 back in April. They were only $25 per in Portland so a kindly internet goddess, aka Lord Wife, swooped in to scoop up two for my birthday, booking us onto an Amtrak and into the Hotel DeLuxe. It's just a few blocks away from the Crystal Ballroom where she played two nights, an old hall with a fully functional "floating floor" once popular for swing dancing.

I was turned onto Neko Case by a friend's facebook aside in late February, never hearing anything of her before. The more she sinks in now, the clearer she stands as a poet who happened to develop into a singer.
Poetry in turn brings back Mr. Marcinec, my high school AP English teacher, who once asked the class to debate whether verse can be assessed on technical merits alone, or if the artist's life must be taken into account. The answer, to me, was as sharp as a late hit. If you walk home past dark woods on bitter-cold nights near Robert Frost's haunts, as I did, musing on death whilst rejecting it is an option is easy to spot. You have to move, or you have to freeze.

Knowing that Coleridge woke up from his opium dreaming of Xanadu and Kubla Khan increases your odds at guessing what suppressed wish a stately Pleasure Dome signifies, and J. Alfred Prufrock's spiritual exhaustion starts to resonate when you plot it against T.S. Eliot's European travels as Edwardian life unraveled prior to World War One.
Neko Case went to school in Tacoma, leaving home at 15 to live in a classmate's unfinished cellar while the nearby Green River Killer was ripping through more than 70 young women, half of them under-aged runaways. She's still scared to walk alone at night, and absent that context, you might awkwardly misinterpret one of her most popular songs, Deep Red Bells. She wrote it not as an ode to g-spots, but to victims:
where does this mean world cast its cold eye?
who's left to suffer long about you?
does your soul cast about like an old paper bag
past empty lots and early graves?
those like you who lost their way
murdered on the interstate
while the red bells rang like thunder
deep red bells, deep as I've been done
Putting Case's name in the same breath as Coleridge and Eliot is intentional. She belongs. At 18, she started playing drums for a succession of punk bands. A god-given ability to sing was noticed and invited to do covers, and from there she went on to share in the artistic processes of a number of bands. She credits collaboration with musicians such as The New Pornographers, The Corn Sisters, The Sadies, Cub, Maow, and Kelly Hogan for teaching her the craft. She began to write her own material, releasing her first solo album (The Virginian) in 1997.

Her pieces combine stark observation with gorgeous melodies and fervent passions. Anger stirs unmistakably below all the surfaces, and there's a wild, even creepy quality to her, like wind blowing dust over abandoned roadside attractions. Flash-floods of overstuffed vans and army bases, grabby brakes and shabby blokes, emotional voids and hangovers, waitress gigs and crippling angsts come gushing through like gray water in laundromats. While her songs aren't always equally intense or personal they're sent from the same address, and she writes only as a woman who has been helpless before men can. It must've been very tough for a control freak of such high order. Her body of solo work is nothing less than a resolution to turn and face the humiliations of love, and, with music as her protector, to learn. With Middle Cyclone, she sets out to explore, finally having taken her struggle by the smooth handle.

The album seems to rein in vocal strength in favor of sharper lyrical focus. Every note and part of each composition is arranged to let you apprehend the words, delivered atop exceptionally precise instrumentals which often meander from traditional verse/chorus structure to weave in micro-songs. Heard live, the band performed a studio-perfect version of every piece, so tightly that "Neko Case" might best be thought of as a collective. Middle Cyclone was accordingly recorded in her barn in Vermont with over a dozen musical guests, including Garth Hudson (formerly of The Band), M Ward and a nest of robins in the rafters.

The Crystal Ballroom was Sold Out and a waiting line had already formed outside the closed box office two hours before the show. We spotted it in perfect time, so I snagged the best standing-room spots in the house--we occupied the "Magic Corner" 20 feet away from the artistic breakthrough of the year's main mike. Even without industry backing (Case's US label is ANTI-), Middle Cyclone debuted at #3 on Billboard, occupies the #2 spot on US Rock and is easily the most successful indie release of 2009. After a long hike, she arrived at a secret narrow embarkation point where critical acclaim meets critical mass.

Case had long been pigeonholed as a banshee, a speed-baller for
belting out other people's songs. While there's no overlooking her dominating voice, labeling her as a torch singer is downright obstructive, and fails to describe how she can sail across genres and vocal planes. Let me put it this way: she could sing like Patsy Cline, Tanya Tucker or Rosemary Clooney, but they could not have easily returned the favor. As a pure singer, she's capable of nerdy introspection, tobacco-row mourning, indie-pop smoothies, eco-folk, jagged punk, charcoal chanteuse, retro orchestra and I would bet Wagnerian opera. She can conjure an interstate truck stop at 4AM, high school sweethearts home for goosebumps, fuzzy heroin magic carpets, square dancers bouncing off '68 Cadillacs with big chrome bumpers, and spiky CBGB mosh pits. Her voice attracted big-label attentions, but its proprietor had other plans:
"I'm not out to become Faith Hill, I never want to play an arena, and I never want to be on the MTV Video Music Awards, much less make a video with me in it. I would like to reach a larger audience and see the state of music change in favor of musicians and music fans in my lifetime. I care very much about that."
Case claimed there would be no love songs on Middle Cyclone, that all the lyrics could be taken literally, that Nature would be the focus. Which may be technically true, but it's akin to Stephen King stating, "I'm through with horror. My next books will all be travel guides." Ruthless restraint and a naturalist's aperture are devices which set the album apart, brilliantly so, because her genies can't be bottled or chained. You feel them straining and threatening to break loose at a remove, and you can hear when they beat the screens down. The first song is about a libidinous tornado unable to find its lover, or make him understand, carving his name across three counties. "People Got A Lotta Nerve" is about a caged elephant and an aquarium killer whale taking revenge, but like Coleridge's subconscious, Case sidles up and becomes a defiant predator giving fair warning. Then, as with Frost's deep dark woods at night, it's a mite difficult to rule out indelicate possibilities when she tosses her throat back and wails, "I'm a man-man-man, man-man-man eater!"

At a concert you pick up things the albums and tubes can't convey. You realize Neko's an introvert, not very comfortable in the spotlight, self-conscious of her relatively flat butt. Her skin and hair have the translucence and texture of perogies in orange vodka sauce, and she honestly loves animals. She's really just there to cut diamonds, and to compensate she's hired a statuesque, lung-expanding brunette backup singer arc-welded like a water tower to her left who banters in the pauses like an extroverted emcee, announcing her love for good burgers, that she's 46, and "my beauty secret is low wattage."

Before singing "The Pharaohs" Case remarks, "This song is about my second boyfriend," and when she pours out the bourbons of "my body burned, my legs ached/but you never came to bed/you just left me there awake/you kept me wanting wanting wanting/like the wanting in the movies and the hymns," veins thick as her middle fingers stand out on her neck. She discloses that "Red Tide" is about 3 million assholes who moved apropos to Seattle during grunge's gestation and suddenly noticed they hate the rain. The mollusks, they have won. You notice she reads voraciously and make a mental note: if you ever run into her, don't ask her about what she's done. Ask what she thinks of The Confessions of St. Augustine.

After whistlings and stompings on the trampoline floor the backup singer came back up first for the encore and you caught her say "Oh, what the hell." They played for another forty-five minutes
, so you knew they were done for good and pressed back through the bodies of screaming cognoscenti. You walked up to the DeLuxe and asked your wife how best to classify sui generis. She pauses and says, "Country gothic," and you think of how Boadicea might have fared if she'd properly armored herself for the Romans and their arenas. You think of her song about waking up to disorienting hotel fans spinning overhead, heads webbed with indiscretions watching maids who have nowhere else to be in Portland on a Sunday morning:
Prison girls are not impressed
They’re the ones that have to clean this mess
They’ve traded more for cigarettes
Than I’ve managed to express

Monday, June 15, 2009

Why Brett Favre Will Never Retire

It's easy to make fun of Brett Favre, a National Football League quarterback so famous even Lord Wife knows who he is. She was once moved to remark, "Why do those announcers just keep repeating the words 'Brett Far-vuh, Brett Far-vuh' like some kind of &*$#ed-up bird call...did he get back from prison or something?"

Admittedly, this post is just to get me rolling over a steep blog-slump borne of unspeakably gorgeous, teasingly tenuous Seattle springtime sun that could get shut down going into the summer like Mariners' batters facing Mariano Rivera in the 8th inning of the 2001 ALCS. The trade-offs of radiation plus children, travel, and time have resulted in a pathetic recent pace of one post per week. It's more parental gulag than semi-retirement, with swim lessons, bikes, strollers, eating fries in Tangletown under Hornitos sunbrellas, Adirondack chairs on stone patios and being condemned to perpetual chauffeur and bodyguard duties (my true callings) in relentlessly nice weather.

Thankfully, Favre is thinking of coming out of his 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th (depends who you ask) retirement to play another season in the NFL. Why would he do this?
Many point to his competitiveness, his love for the game, how he holds the known records for consecutive quarterback starts and for vomiting on sidelines and in games. Some have said he might want the record for interceptions thrown (310), but I just looked it up--he already owned that by 2007. Others suspect life on the road suits him and the little sum'pins he might have on the side, but he's made enough money to buy his own team. The Green Bay Packers offered him 20 million dollars to retire and he turned it down. I, having known all along he would never retire while he was physically able to roll his shotgun arm back to the huddle on degenerative hips, know why he won't.

His father was his high school football coach, dying on a Sunday in 2003. Favre played the following Monday Night game against the Oakland Raiders, throwing four touchdowns in the first half enroute to a 41-7 victory. Brett Favre still plays for his dad, and to deny death.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Uh-Oh...Sarah Palin Just Found Her Message

"If the government owns 60% of GM and is borrowing money like crazy from China...who really owns GM?"

It's a very good question. She and the GOP have figured out the open door to walk through. Attack government borrowing and point out that it comes at the cost of giving increasing policy control to foreign power. FDR's stimulus in the Great Depression was not funded by foreign powers, a point the Chinese Finance Minister echoed when he said today that US Treasury bonds should be issued in yuan, not in dollars.

Palin's interview with WWF character Sean Hannity will be aired tonight, and the message will probably be co-opted by the fractured GOP and gain wider traction. It hits the fear buttons, and it's true. Early transcript of her interview here.