"Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation."

Norman Mailer
"The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China--why then it will be spring."

"This new history of yours," said McPhee, "is a wee bit lacking in documents."

C.S. Lewis

Synchronicities this week

  • June 24 Midsummer/St. John’s Day
  • June 24, 1947 The first flying saucers are sighted over Mount Rainier by pilot Ken Arnold.
  • June 24, 1542 St. John of the Cross, Spanish Carmelite mystic and poet, is born.
  • June 24, 1938 500 ton meteorite lands near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
  • June 24, 1717 First Free Masons' grand lodge founded in London.
  • June 24, 1374 A sudden outbreak of St. John's Dance causes people in the streets of Aachen, Germany, to experience hallucinations and begin to jump and twitch uncontrollably until they collapse from exhaustion.
  • June 24, 1314 Battle of Bannockburn; Scotland regains independence from England.
  • June 24, 843 Vikings destroy Nantes.
  • June 23 Midsummer’s Eve
  • June 23, 1972 Nixon & Haldeman agree to use CIA to cover up Watergate.
  • June 23, 1942 Germany's latest fighter, a Focke-Wulf FW190 is captured intact when it mistakenly lands at RAF Pembrey in Wales.
  • June 23, 1888 Frederick Douglass is 1st African-American nominated for president.
  • June 23, 1848 Workers’ insurrection in Paris.
  • June 23, 1713 The French residents of Acadia are given one year to declare allegiance to Britain or leave Nova Scotia, Canada. They choose the latter, migrate to Louisiana, and become Cajuns.
  • June 21 Summer Solstice (11:28 a.m.).
  • June 21, 1964 Three civil rights workers-Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James E. Chaney-are kidnapped and murdered by the Klan in Mississippi .
  • June 21, 1948 The 33 1/3 RPM LP record is introduced by Columbia Records.
  • June 21, 1944 Ray Davies of the Kinks born in London.
  • June 21, 1916 Mexican troops beat US expeditionary force under Gen Pershing.
  • June 21, 1877 The Molly Maguires, ten Irish immigrant labor activists, are hanged in Pennsylvania prisons.
  • June 20, 1947 Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, gangster, the “man who invented Las Vegas,” shot dead in Beverly Hills, Cal.
  • June 20, 1909 Errol Flynn, greatest of the swashbucklers, born in Hobart, Tasmania.
  • June 20, 1944 Congress charters Central Intelligence Agency.
  • June 20, 1943 Detroit race riot kills 35.
  • June 20, 1893 - Lizzie Borden acquitted in murder of parents in New Bedford Mass.
  • June 20, 1871 Ku Klux Klan trials began in federal court in Oxford Miss.
  • June 20, 1837 Queen Victoria at 18 ascends British throne ; rules for 63 years ending in 1901.
  • June 20, 1756 146 British soldiers imprisoned in the "Black Hole of Calcutta." Most die.
  • June 20, 1631 The Irish village of Baltimore is attacked by Algerian pirates.
  • June 20, 1214 The University of Oxford receives its charter.
  • June 20, 451 Germans & Romans beat Attila the Hun at Catalarinische Fields.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The new "Dolls": Is America's greatest cult band back (in any meaningful sense)?

The Good Old Days

Let’s finally just say it. The New York Dolls by the New York Dolls is a Great Record. I don’t mean a great record as in a condescending 225th out of some panel of critic’s 500 best. I mean it’s one of the Great Records, impertinently elbowing its way in among British Royalty like the Beatles and Stones; cheerily bumming smokes off their own countrymen from places like Tupelo, Mississippi and Hibbing, Minnesota.

Other records may have gone deeper into soul and spirit, but for sheer screaming, nuts, up the walls, electrifying, testifying, snake-handling, wave your arms in the air like you don't care, bringing all the noise, white light/white heat, once in a lifetime, out on the far careening edge rock and roll ecstasy, I've never heard its equal, in four decades plus of listening to rock and roll.

Seeing the Dolls was--I have to use what is now a rock cliche--a religious experience. The wave of energy and charisma that came off the stage left you feeling that you had had an encounter with the essential heart of the music, that you had been given the chance to know what it was like to see Elvis singing off of a flatbed truck in Memphis in 1954, the Beatles at the Cavern Club, the Stones at the Marquee, Robert Johnson in a Misissipppi juke joint. The Dolls made me more interested in the roots of rock and roll, in tracing it back thru gospel music and field hollers and back to Africa, to find out what was the nature of this power, what was its source, and how do you wield it.

The exta edge in the Dolls music is the realization that it could all fall apart. That’s what makes the music feel so shockingly alive.Taking the stage, for the Dolls, was taking a dare. It was like watching a high wire act every night. The sense that the musicians are actually risking something, are taking a gamble, jaded my palate, giving me less patience for other, safer musicians, who make up, after all, the vast majority of what gets on record.

Well now, a band in 2009, having the nerve to call themselves the New York Dolls, has put out a record. The second under that name in fact. Who has such nerve? The two still-breathing New York Dolls, never lacking for nerve, of course. Singer/songwriter David Johansen and second lead/rhythm/songwriter Sylvain Sylvain. Is it a piece of crap, as you might assume? No, strangely enough. 'Cause I Sez So might be the only reunion that has actually captured a little old magic in its sails, and worked up some new at the same time.

I am reflexively skeptical of reunions, solo albums, partial bands struggling under an old name, etc. When it comes to rock & roll, I believe in magic, and I don't think magic rings twice, or can be forced. This goes double for bands that I loved. I had zero invested in whether this "New York Dolls" album was going to be any good or not, and I didn't even buy the first (re-union) one. But lo and behold -- something really peculiar has happened.What it sounds like is that, instead of being backing guys for Johansen--which is how his solo bands always seemed to me--a pretty tough rock & roll band with some interesting ideas and more chops than they need recruited Johansen to sing for them and pitch in on the songwriting. Or, from another angle, to this Dolls fanatic, this sounds like the best post-Dolls project Johansen's ever been involved with. The kind of thing we wanted him to do from the beginning. And strangely, while being a very good band in their own right, these "Dolls" are good in ways that remind you of the original band, without ever making any conscious hommages to the old days. Something of the Dolls sashay and sneer are there in the title cut, and the last, "Exorcism of Despair." And "My World" is not what I was looking for on this record--one for the all-time Dolls greatest hits line-up. If you've ever wondered what the Dolls might have done had they been able to keep on making records, this suggests an answer: A kind of Bo Diddley maracas shuffle taken from its its earthy roots and set against a turbulent sky. With little oriental-sounding scalar hooks, and a perfectly conceived wah-wah(!) break that cracks open the song in the middle.

David Johansen is as distinct a presence on a record as Tom Waits, and it takes some real group-first, me-second solidarity to deploy his larger than life New Yawk eccentricities to add color and character without having him take over the record. Ego's are being submerged toward the greater good here, and maybe that's what makes this different from so many of its ilk.

By the way, don't miss the great new book, New York Dolls, Photographs by Bob Gruen,. The legendary rock and roll photographer and Dolls maniac chronicles the band in all their brief but blazing glory in over 230 great photographs, most never published before.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

This week in the Secret History: Wales for the Welsh!

The blood-red dragon of Wales, Owain Glyndwr's battle flag

Owain Glyndwr, b. May 28, 1354

"'Tis the sound of Saxon foemen, Saxon spearmen, Saxon bowmen..."

Most people have heard something about Ireland's long struggle for independence from Great Britain. Thanks to Mel Gibson, many people know something about William Wallace and Scotland's fight to be free of English rule. But outside of Wales, not that many have heard of Owain Glyndwr, perhaps the most dramatic story of all, the heir to King Arthur, whose death is stilll shrouded in mystery.

Welsh prince Owain Glyndwr led a successful people’s rebellion against England’s iron-fisted rule in the early 15th century and arguably became the most famous and highly regarded figure in Welsh history.

Burdened with onerous taxation and restrictive land policies, the Welsh people chafed under English domination. Welsh myths and legends foretold a national redeemer, and the Welsh prayed for a man who would rise up against England and restore Welsh independence, a new pendragon, or head dragon, as King Arthur had been. From out of these rumblings of discontent, Owain Glyndwr emerged. Despite England’s massive military strength at the beginning of the 15th century, the Welsh, under the charismatic leadership of Glyndwr, drove the English from their land and enjoyed a hard-earned–albeit brief–independence.

The English, after having subdued Scotland, turned their full might against Wales. Many of Glyndwr's most loyal supporters died in 1410 in a battle in Shropshire. After a series of such reverses, from the sanctuary of the Welsh mountains, Glyndwr and his band of warriors employed guerrilla tactics to unsettle the English. In 1413 Prince Henry (Prince Hal of Shakespearian fame) took the throne, ruling as Henry V, and offered Glyndwr and his supporters a pardon if they would submit. Twice they refused. Glyndwr, his cause lost, vanished from history without a trace, becoming the most potent symbol of Welsh independence.

To find out where Welsh nationalism is today, read The Welsh Patriot, a blog devoted to the "Alternative Nationalist Movement and Struggle."

Friday, May 8, 2009

This week in the Secret History: Anarchy in the UK - 1381

The murder of Wat Tyler,
peasant leader

"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"

On this day in 1525 the German Peasants' Revolt was brutally crushed by the combined forces of the nobility and the church. This was the typical fate of a peasants' revolt. But these epical risings by supposedly ignorant and subservient men and women were the first symptoms of a change in consciousness that would eventually sweep their oppressors from power and begin a new age in Europe...

We tend to imagine medieval society as a fixed and immovable hierarchy, where even imagining a different ordering of society wold have been impossible. Not so. The sense of dignity and the desire for freedom are inherent in human nature. Peasant revolts, uprisings of exploited subsistence farmers, whose labor was at the disposal of their feuudal overlords, were in fact fairly common in the late Middle Ages. In Germany alone between 1336 and 1525 there were no less than sixty phases of militant peasant unrest. In the end they were almost always defeated. .

The main demand of the revolutionaries was for the abolishment of serfdom, whereby the poorest of the small farmers were in effect owned and, by law and tradition, exploited by their feudal lord.

Inn the late Middle Ages, the social gap between rich and poor had become extreme, as it is now in the United States. Dress, behaviour, manners, courtesy, speech, diet, education — all became signs of the noble class, making them distinct from others. By the 14th century the nobles had indeed become very different in their behaviour, appearance and values from those "beneath".

"The Peasants' Revolt," "Wat Tyler’s Rebellion," or the "Great Rising of 1381" is a major event in the history of England. Tyler's Rebellion was not only the most extreme and widespread insurrection in English history but also the best documented popular rebellion ever to have occurred during medieval times. The names of some of its leaders, John Ball, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, are still familiar.

In June 1381, Kentish rebels formed behind Wat Tyler and joined with rebels from Essex and marched on London. When the rebels arrived in Blackheath on June 12, the renegade priest, John Ball, preached a sermon including the famous question that has echoed down the centuries: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?". (I.e. "While Adam dug, and Eve spun, who then was the Gentleman ?") The following day, the rebels, encouraged by the sermon, crossed London Bridge into the heart of the city. They were betrayed by false promises from King Richard II, their leaders murdered, and the rising crushed.

Even though the revolt itself failed, the Peasant's Revolt of 1381 demonstrated such enormous support that it marked the beginning of the end of serfdom in medieval England. It led to calls for the reform of feudalism in England and an increase in rights for the serf class.

Bond Men Made Free is a highly readable account of peasant revolts in general, and the English Revolt of 1381 in particular, written by one of the foremost current authorities on the subject, Rodney Hilton.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Review: Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

From indie heartthrob to pop star

With her new album, Middle Cyclone, entering the Billboard charts at #3, former indie heartthrob and alt-country belter Neko Case is on the cusp of transformation into a Star. Will she be the background soundtrack for better loft parties everywhere, or will she rip the joint up and demand a response from all of us? She's a Voice, alright, but one that's still in search of the right ears.

Read my review at Bluegrassspecial.com as we ponder the eternal dilemma of underground meeting overground.

Here's how it starts:

The Angel of Anomie

"Every so often you hear Neko Case referred to as 'that voice;' sometimes, even more emphatically, 'the voice.' Something makes people talk about her like that, an awareness that Case seems poised to evolve from a mere singer into a Voice.

When a singer becomes a Voice we're no longer talking about the technical qualities of breath over vocal chords or control of the diaphragm. No, Voice in this sense means singing plus signifying. A Voice is a singer whose actual singing is just one piece of a persona. A Voice creates a psychic space for a constituency that he/she has a unique power to speak to and move. A Voice attracts to itself a world of associations. Who doesn't absorb half of Lou Reed's métier just by hearing him singing a few bars? A singer provides one piece of a performance, like a bass player. A Voice is an attraction all by itself, and carries a weight of extra-musical meaning that a singer is spared. When young Elvis opened his mouth, he personified a generation of white kids in the Deep South who had been secretly thrilling to black music in the depths of Jim Crow. When Joni Mitchell sang, there was a whole self-involved southern California hippie gentry world present. When Sinatra did his thing, there was always a saloon at closing time implied, the streets outside empty and black with rain. Lotte Lenya, Dolly Parton, Judy Garland, Marc Bolan--every inflection was enriched by what they had come to mean.

"Neko Case is one of the few performers from '90-'00's indie music equipped to even formulate that ambition...."

Find the rest in this month's issue of Bluegrassspecial.com.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Let Texas Go! Yeehaaa!

"For the old United States, the benefits would be obvious. A more intimately sized Congress would briskly enact sensible gun control, universal health insurance, and ample support for the arts, the humanities, and the sciences. Although Texas itself has been a net contributor to the Treasury—it gets back ninety-four cents for each dollar it sends to Washington—nearly all the other potential Federated States that would join Texas, especially the ones whose politicians complain most loudly about the federal jackboot, are on the dole. (South Carolina, for example, receives $1.35 on the dollar, as compared with Illinois’s seventy-five cents.) Republicans would have a hard time winning elections for a generation or two, but eventually a responsible opposition party would emerge, along the lines of Britain’s Conservatives, and a normal alternation in power could return.

"The new Federated States of the south, meanwhile, could get on with the business of protecting the sanctity of marriage, mandating organized prayer sessions and the teaching of creationism in schools, and giving the theory that eliminating taxes increases government revenues a fair test. Although Texas and the other likely F.S. states already conduct some eighty-six per cent of executions, their death rows remain clogged with thousands of prisoners kept alive by meddling judges. These would be rapidly cleared out, providing more prison space for abortion providers. "

from "So Long, Pardner"
by Hendrik Hertzberg
New Yorker, May 4, 2009