Friday, September 30, 2005

Sheer Heart Attack

Rock fans have laughed at the weird stuff rock stars demand backstage — what’s known in the trade as “contract riders” — ever since David Lee Roth revealed that Van Halen requested a bowl of M&Ms every night with all the brown ones removed. As you’d expect, demands since then have gotten both sillier and more extravagant, as a quick survey of the riders posted by The Smoking Gun indicate.

Still, nothing on that list prepared me for this little bombshell, dropped by Our Lady Peace frontman Raine Maida. His band opened for the Stones at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, and as he told the student paper at Villanova, “They had a defibrillator backstage for Keith Richards — or just for whoever was feeling it at the time. I'm serious.”

It sounds like a joke, I know. In fact, there was a Rolling Stones defibrillator joke on the internet weeks before the Maida quote turned up, one of many “gosh, they’re old gags” that trailed in the wake of the current Stones tour. Fortunately, we’ll likely be spared the “Start Me Up” association in real life, if only because they’ve already licensed that one to Microsoft.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Shame, Shame, Shame

Remember all those horror stories that floated out of post-Katrina New Orleans? The murder and child rapes that turned the Superdome into a terrordome? The rampaging gangs and piles of corpses that made the convention center seem like a rain-soaked corner of hell?

Well, guess what — they didn’t happen. According to the New Orleans Times Picayune (with more from the Los Angeles Times), workers cleaning up both sites found no evidence of widespread murder. In fact, they only found evidence of one possible murder, which will require further forensic investigation to confirm. Obviously, evidence of rape is much harder to come by, but even that seems to have been considerably less common than originally reported.

Good news, then, for those worried that those cracks in the foundation of the American Dream might bring the whole edifice down. Still, a question remains: Why was everyone so ready to believe the horror stories? Is it because raping, murdering and pillaging are the kind of behaviors most people expect of poor blacks in America?

And do I even need to point out how unspeakably racist such an assumption is?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Fake Book

On August 30, while much of New Orleans was underwater, George W. Bush was photographed playing a guitar given to him by country singer Mark Wills. Numerous pundits with a firm grasp of the obvious, seized upon this to draw comparisons with the Emperor Nero, who allegedly played fiddle while Rome burned. (Never mind that fiddles didn’t actually exist back then; “fiddled” sounds better than “played the lyre.”)

What bugs me about the photo, however, is that it gets described as showing the president “playing guitar,” when at best he’s only posing, trying to look like he’s a-pickin’. How do I know? Just look at his left hand. Like many a duff guitarist, he’s formed the hand shape for an open-G chord — except that instead of having his fingers in place to play G (third fret on the lower E string) and B (second fret on the A string), he’s a fret off, at G-sharp and C. His little finger may be adding an A (fifth fret on the upper E string), but it’s hard to be certain. In any case, were he actually to strum that guitar, the result would be utter dischord, revealing him as someone who doesn’t know diddley about guitar. Instead, he poses quietly, and only instrument geeks like me notice.

I don’t mean to single out the president on this, because instrumental fakery is disturbingly widespread. One of my favorite moments in Oliver Stone’s The Doors is a rehearsal session in which the band is ostensibly learning “Light My Fire.” One of the band calls out the changes, and as he does we watch John Densmore (Kevin Dillon) fingering the chords on guitar. And getting most of them wrong.

Even when the actors know what they’re doing, mistakes can happen. Taylor Hackford was justifiably proud of the fact that Jamie Foxx, who plays Ray Charles in the bioflick Ray, is a trained pianist who didn’t have to fake the keyboard parts. Indeed, the credits feature an overhead shot of Foxx’s hands accurately miming to the classic recording of “What’d I Say” on a Fender Rhodes. But as all vintage keyboard buffs know, “What’d I Say” doesn’t use a Rhodes — it’s a Wurlitzer electric on the track.

I know, I know — this is precisely the sort nerdery that gets lampooned in The Rock Snob’s Dictionary (although why actually knowing something about the craft of music-making counts as snobbery is itself rant material). But every time I see a model mishandle a prop trombone, or watch an actor flailing his or her fingers ineffectually along a saxophone, I’m reminded of how distanced the average person is from the art of music. It’s depressing to think that for many educated people, being able to play an instrument is as much a lost craft as spinning wool or carpentry.

In that sense, having Dubya pose as a guitarist is just one more example of how people get the government they deserve. As if another such example were needed.

Friday, September 02, 2005

All Wet

It would be hard to imagine anyone following the story out of New Orleans without feeling some measure of shock, pity or dismay. Even with headlines screaming “Anarchy!” (to cite today’s Toronto Star), newspapers can hardly be accused of exaggerating the horror of the situation. Indeed, one of the scariest things about reports from the Crescent City is how essentially anecdotal the news has been. There have been unconfirmed talk of rapes and murders, of bodies in the streets, of thousands of casualties, but so far the authorities have been mum when it comes to concrete details. In this case, no news is definitely not good news; if anything, it suggests we’ve barely glimpsed the tip of this iceberg.

Much has been made about the fact that, to a very real degree, this was an avoidable disaster. As this story in Editor & Publisher summarizes, the Times Picayune has been reporting for several years now on how government funding to maintain the levees protecting New Orleans had been decimated under the current Bush administration — mostly to pay for the war in Iraq. And speaking of the war, that was also why there was no National Guard presence helping out in New Orleans, for they, too, had been sent to Iraq, along with much of the equipment needed to get supplies through flood waters.

That’s not just appalling, it should be embarrassing. By any accounting, the U.S. is the world’s richest and most powerful nation, and yet not only did it leave a major city — a world-renowned cultural center and tourist destination — completely vulnerable to an expected natural disaster, it sat on its thumbs for days as people fought, starved, suffered and likely died. A charitable reading of the U.S. response would be that the disaster was so overwhelming that even the mightiest of the mighty were unable to cope.

A less charitable (and likely more accurate) view would suggest that the Feds did nothing to aid New Orleans because, frankly, they couldn’t be bothered. It may be “the home of the blues,” but it’s also a city whose population is over 60% African-American, which boasts high crime and poverty rates, and hasn’t exactly been a Republican stronghold. Nor is it likely that the bluenoses on the right are especially enamored of the party-hearty atmosphere that inspired the nickname “Big Easy.” Congressman Dennis Hastert (R-Ill) may have made headlines by saying in an interview that New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt, but you can bet he’s not the only person in power with that thought.

Some see echoes of 9/11 in the Federal Government’s ability to act swiftly, decisively and humanely to the Katrina tragedy. Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times, suggests that Dubya’s inaction is somewhere between a character flaw and a philosophical stance. As he puts it:

At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But I’d like to suggest a different reading: Dubya’s posse doesn’t like spending money. Period. Whether that reflects a belief in making government smaller or is simply the sort of selfish parsimony common to the exceedingly wealthy is anyone’s guess. But their record is too consistent to ignore. They’ve cheaped their way through the war in Iraq, refusing to commit sufficient troops or supplies to get the job done, and they continue to cut corners in the war on terrorism. They want to privatize Social Security and other aspects of the social safety net, and have slashed countless government programs. At bottom, all that their talk about making government smaller or more efficient boils down to is Spending Less Money. And that’s essential, because it’s harder to justify cutting taxes unless you’ve done something to cut spending. Like neglecting to shore up a few levees in Louisiana…

Short-sighted? Only if you assume the Feds will eventually bail out New Orleans, and despite the backlash against Hassert, that remains an open question. Once most of the survivors have been relocated — that is, made permanently homeless in some other city — suddenly, the government will begin to stress the importance of restoring the gulf’s oil infrastructure. And most Americans, pissed off by the price at the pumps, will heartily agree. So that relief money Congress is pushing through will mostly go to pipelines, not people. New Orleans, meanwhile, will sit wet and neglected, like some decrepit Atlantis. Just you watch.

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