Heisman Trophy Vote: A Look at the 105 who Left Cam Newton Off the Ballott

What do we know about the 105 voters who left Cam Newton off the Heisman ballot? In a perfect world the ballots of all 105 would be public. While that’s not the case as of now, we do have a small subset of that 105 from which we might get a glimpse into the demographics of the anti-Cam vote. To my knowledge, six sportswriters (heretofore referred to as “the public six”) have openly declared that they submitted a ballot sans Newton: Mike Bianchi, Orlando Sentinel; Gene Frenette, Florida Times Union; David Whitley, AOL Fanhouse; Kyle Tucker, Virginian-Pilot; Bob Molinaro, Virginian-Pilot; and Philadelphia-based writer Michael Bradley. A seventh writer, Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph, indicated that he abstained in order to avoid casting a vote for Newton.

Worth noting here, perhaps, is the fact that everyone on this list is white. Five of the seven are based in the south. Of course this doesn’t mean that all 105 who stiff-armed Newton were southern whites, but our small sample does hint at a trend in that direction.

(If there is an African-American voter out there who left Cam off the ballot, please, by all means declare yourself.)

Meantime, while we don’t have the data to construct a racial breakdown of the entire 105 as compared to the overall population of Heisman voters, we can get some small semblance of such a comparison in regards to ballot content itself. Whether the ballots of the anti-Cam crew have any more “integrity” than the average ballot is a matter of debate. If the public six are any indication, however, their ballots were a tad whiter.

Looking at the overall Heisman voting population we see that Newton came in first followed by Andrew Luck of Stanford and LaMichael James of Oregon. In other words, one white guy on the typical Heisman ballot. Looking at the ballots of five anti-Cam voters (Michael Bradley, to my knowledge, did not disclose who he voted for), we see that all five had two white players in their top three and four of the five put a white player at the top of their ballot.

The only writer in the group to give his vote to an African-American player was Frenette, who voted for Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. He followed up with Moore second and Luck third. Tucker and Molinaro both had Luck first and Moore second or third. Tucker had LaMichael James third (the only James vote on any of the declared anti-Cam ballots) while Molinaro had Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley second. Bianchi seemed inclined to associate “integrity” with whiteness as well, placing Moore at the top of his ballot.

And then there was Whitley who, apparently confusing the Heisman Trophy with the Boy Scout of the Year Award, had Stanford’s Owen Marecic (white) number one, followed by Colorado offensive lineman Nate Solder (white) and Texas’ Sam Acho (African-American). Again, in keeping with the trend, white guy number one and two white guys overall.

Does any of this mean that there was an element of racial bias in the voting of the 105? That the word “integrity” has been applied as a euphemism, either conscious or subconscious, for the word “white?”

That where there’s smoke there must be fire?

Honestly?

I don’t know.

While I have snippets of information that imply very indirectly that this may be the case, I don’t have nearly enough to know the truth.

Speculation is well and good, but I don’t make final judgements without all the facts.

And that’s precisely why, if I had the chance, I’d vote Cam Newton for Heisman.

“The Promise:” Bruce Springsteen as Great American Artist

The recent release of “The Promise: The Darkness of Edge of Town Story” confirms something that I have suspected for some time now. Whether we’re talking about the outtakes from the “Darkness” sessions, the remastered original songs, Thom Zimny’s outstanding documentary on the making of the album, or the live dvd’s of the tour that followed, “The Promise” paints a picture of Bruce Springsteen not only as a great American artist, but, quite possibly, THE great American artist.

 

Think about it.

 

He has lived the quintessential American life. Born into poverty on the east coast, he poured every ounce of youthful energy he had into his art, his music, maintaining his integrity along the way and still managing, despite himself, to get filthy rich. He has written about the Jersey shore, serenaded New York city, walked the “Streets of Philadelphia,” taken us with him on stark rides through Youngstown, Ohio and the state of “Nebraska,” summoned the “Ghost of Tom Joad,” climbed the fence at Elvis’ house in Memphis, stopped in a little café down San Diego way, sung about immigrants traveling “Across the Border,” wound up with a big ‘ole house in Beverly Hills and then gone full circle, returning home as a whopping success and settling back on the farm in New Jersey where he now resides. It is the living embodiment of the mythical hero’s journey. Along the way, Springsteen has covered every nook and cranny of this grand country, first as vagabond youth, a troubadour with a guitar on his back, and, later, as a superstar, a rich man touring in style. Is there any American artist who has played so many legendary shows in such diverse venues, ranging from small bars like the Student Prince in Asbury Park and Max’s Kansas City in New York to MadisonSquareGarden, every other basketball arena in the country, and on to the even larger shows at places like FenwayPark and Giants Stadium? He has proven the diversity of his talent, playing riveting Dylanesque solo acoustic shows as well as rocking stadiums of 60,000 with the E Street Band behind him, electrifying crowds and eliciting guttural screams from women that would make Elvis himself blush. He has navigated various levels of popularity, beginning with critical acclaim, a cult-following, reaching the front pages of “Time” and “Newsweek,” achieving mass popularity and fame in the 80’s, and now settling into a role as an esteemed elder statesmen of rock n roll, his audience more limited but completely devoted.

 

Thematically, Springsteen has covered every important point along the American terrain as well. His music offers a perfect balance between a uniquely American romanticism, the American capacity to dream, and a confrontation with the flipside of the American dream, the experience of being disappointed, of having those youthful dreams go unrealized. He often attributes this dichotomy to the opposing personalities of his parents: his father, a bitterly disappointed man, and his mother, the more lighthearted and joyous soul. Two of his greatest albums, “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” epitomize this sense of balance. The first of these albums, written when Springsteen was 24 years old, offers perhaps the greatest ever musical expression of youthful American yearning, exhilarating, inspiring, and full of expectations so grand that they border on the hallucinatory. What can be more American than this? On “Darkness,” meanwhile, Springsteen realized that he had to answer for the fact that dreams don’t always come true. It was on songs like “Racing in the Street” that he first began to explore the feelings of disappointment and economic marginalization that he knew so well from his own childhood. There is still hope on this album, but the point is clearly made that you have to fight for what you want in this life. You have to work for it. As he sang in “The Promised Land:” “There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor/ I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm/ Gonna be a twister that blows everything down/ That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground.” Springsteen has sung his about this faith repeatedly in his music, and he has demonstrated it in his own life.

 

Later, on “The River,” a double album, Springsteen continued to weave songs of longing and disappointment (the title song, “Point Blank,” “Stolen Car”) with lighthearted party songs (“Out in the Streets,” “Sherry Darling”). Dad and mom both represented. On “Hungry Heart,” meanwhile, his first radio hit of any significance, Springsteen pioneered a technique that would become a hallmark of his songwriting: a story of loneliness and alienation wrapped within an upbeat, catchy musical package. This technique was perfected on “Born in the USA,” an album that stands the test of time remarkably well. At the time it was difficult to gauge the depth and quality of so many of these songs for the simple reason that they were all so popular. Most notably on the title song, but also on cuts like “I’m Going Down,” “Downbound Train,” “Cover Me,” and “Dancing in the Dark,” chart-topping melodies provided clever disguises for the darker themes pulsing through the lyrics. Those who have heard more recent Springsteen albums, such as “Magic,” may note this songwriting technique on display once again.

 

In crowning Springsteen as the greatest American artist I am also taking into account the popularity of his work and its penetration of the collective psyche. Surely there are many great American artists, ranging from Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway to Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko. But how many Americans can quote a line from any of these authors or have seen the work of these painters? On the other hand, just mention the lines, “The screen door slams, Mary dress waves,” and see how many people smile and nod in recognition. I will also submit that the best of Springsteen’s work holds up in artistic quality to the names mentioned above. After all, is there really a greater American poem than “Thunder Road?”

 

You can hide ‘neath your covers

And study your pain

Make crosses from your lovers

Throw roses in the rain

Waste your summer praying in vain

For a savior to rise from these streets

Well I’m no hero

That’s understood

All the redemption I can offer, girl

Is beneath this dirty hood

With a chance to make it good somehow

Hey what else can we do now

Except roll down the window

And let the wind blow back your hair

Well the night’s busting open

These two lanes will take us anywhere…

 

I could go on, both in this song and in songs like “Born to Run” among many others, but you get the idea. The point is that no artist has lived a more quintessentially heroic American life. And no artist has expressed the ups and downs, the ins and outs, of the American experience as fully and completely as Bruce Springsteen. Who among us has not dreamed big dreams in youth and then struggled with the disappointment and disillusionment of not having things work out precisely as planned? Who has not wrestled with these situations, trying to figure out how and when to let go of youthful dreams, or how and when to hold onto them? Who among us has not enjoyed and celebrated the camaraderie of great friendships and relationships at certain times and then wrestled with feelings of isolation and alienation at other times? All of these points along the spectrum of American experience find powerful and meaningful expression in Springsteen’s music.

 

When I was much younger, for example, I never really understood or appreciated a song like “Dancing in the Dark.” The concept didn’t resonate with me. At that stage in my life I understood “Born to Run” and “Prove it All Night” and “The Promised Land.” But “Dancing in the Dark?” What’s that all about? Now, in my late 30’s, just a few years older than Springsteen was when he wrote the song, it occurs to me that this song offers the perfect image for a generation of people that have stayed single far later in life than any generation in the history of the human race. Sure you have your freedom, but what does it really matter without some kind of meaningful connection to a lover, to friends, to some sense of community? I have a bootleg of a Springsteen concert from the “Tunnel of Love” tour where, before launching into a haunting acoustic rendition of “Born to Run,” he talks about trying to live up to the promise of that song, of the fact that he had “put all those people in all those cars” and now he needed to figure out a place for them all to go. That’s the beauty of Bruce Springsteen right there, a willingness not only to dream big, but to face the ups and downs and consequences of that journey, that great American ride, for better or worse.

 

 

The Power of an Idea: Small Government Mythology as a Manipulative Force

Say what you want about Karl Marx, but he was right about one thing: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” For Marx this leads into an elaborate and complex analysis involving changes in the means of production and the relationship between classes over time, but for our purposes we can boil it down to this: there’s only so much stuff to go around (i.e. money, power, status) and everybody wants as much as they can get. So how do we decide how the stuff is distributed and who gets the lion’s share? This has been the fundamental business of human government since the beginning, aside from waging war which, more often than not, is itself about access to stuff. Of course we’re risking oversimplification here in characterizing the totality of human history and government but, if we must, the quest for stuff seems as good a place to start as any.

This being the case, those born into positions of wealth and privilege, particularly when they constitute a small minority, are faced with a central dilemma. Outnumbered as they are, how can they prevent a revolt from the vast majorities who, if organized and properly motivated, could easily overthrow the privileged few and demand, if not the heads of their former oppressors, at the very least a bigger slice of the pie? In medieval times such a revolt might be a violent one while in the America of today it might take place at the ballot box. Common sense tells us that people with wealth and power are extremely unlikely to give it up easily. In fact, they’ve been known to become quite paranoid about maintaining it and more than a bit zealous about extending it. As such, history is full of examples of how those in power have managed the task of subduing the masses and upholding the cherished status quo.

The first and most obvious of these options is through totalitarian brutality. North Korea’s Kim Jong Il offers a modern example where a dictator and his small cadre live like rock stars while millions starve. Historically speaking, though, strong-arm tactics are problematic. Totalitarian rule sets up a catch-22. The more you crackdown on suspected opposition the more you raise the ire of the masses whose popular support you cannot survive without. The Somoza family monopolized the Nicaraguan economy for much of the 20th century (with American support) but eventually succumbed to popular revolt. Initially the Sandinista opposition had been fairly weak, but, in a classic instance of the paranoia of power, the Somozas overreacted to the threat. The more they lashed out, the more traction the Sandinistas gained with the public, until eventually the numbers got the best of them and the regime collapsed.

A much more effective alternative to the totalitarian approach lies in the realm of ideas. If those in power can manage to sell an idea that justifies their own status in the eyes of the people they can rest easy without lifting a finger. This is the Holy Grail for any ruling minority. Perhaps the greatest historical example would be the divine right of kings. In a medieval world where the belief in a judgmental God was absolute, those in power sold the idea that a king was born into power because God wanted him to rule. It followed from this that if you were born into peasantry the Holy Father was equally set on you living a life of squalor. Under this view of the world, to stage a revolt against those in power would be to defy God himself and, in turn, to relegate yourself to eternal damnation. Thus, while the king and his twelve buddies were gorging themselves and fornicating like, well, kings, outside the castle gates and across the mote a mass population that could easily have put an end to the absurd inequality opted to ride it out as best they could and look forward to an improved afterlife.

Jackpot.

Of course it would be inaccurate to compare modern America to Somoza’s Nicaragua or medieval Europe. There are, however, some basic parallels in the broadest sense. Relatively speaking, we live in a country where the vast majority of wealth lies in the hands of a select few. Moreover, this is a new development. Income inequality had been steadily decreasing in America over the course of the entire 20th century before  doing an about face right about 1980. With the onset of the conservative revolution, the distance between rich and poor has suddenly and conspicuosly increased over the last three decades. The richest one percent now holds more total wealth than the bottom 90%, a level of inequality not seen in America since 1928- not coincidentally the year prior to the onset of the Great Depression.

Aside from any moral ramifications that one might wish to assign, history shows that such rampant inequality is bad for the economy as a whole. Alan Greenspan- no socialist sympathizer- has called this rise in inequality a “very disturbing trend” and told Congress that this is “not the type of thing that a democratic society- a capitalist democratic society- can really accept without addressing.” And yet, for the most part, we do accept it.

And so here we have the classic dilemma outlined at the onset. How is it that a small minority can sustain a pattern of increasing wealth and power when it not only violates the interests of the vast majority, but of the most basic principles of sound economics?

The answer is that, right around the late 70’s, the privileged few, perhaps frustrated by their declining power over the course the century, finally stumbled upon an idea they could sell to the masses to justify not only the maintenance but the rapid extension of their own wealth.

Small government.

There it was. The Holy Grail. A modern incarnation of the divine right of kings. This was the idea that government power in any form- but most importantly in the realm of taxation, social programs and corporate regulation-  constituted an affront to personal liberty and to democratic freedom itself. Once this idea gained traction with the public the door was opened for a political revolution that would re-establish the power and wealth of a select few. With this development the entire mechanism (good government), indeed the entire thought process (the belief in such), through which the working and middle classes had promoted their own interests throughout the century was voluntarily, even enthusiastically, handed over to those who had no concern for their welfare whatsoever.

Once again: Jackpot.

As such, it is certainly correct to apply the word “revolution” to the rise of small government conservatism and Ronald Reagan in 1980. It might be even more accurate, though, to refer to this as a “reverse revolution.” Whereas the concept of revolution throughout history is normally associated with an oppressed majority rising up against a controlling minority, in conservative America it’s more a case of a controlling minority re-establishing a self-serving if not oppressive influence over a larger majority.

It’s popular today on the right to use the term “class warfare” to obliterate any argument on behalf of pro-majority economic policies. This, of course, is a wonderful propaganda term itself, applying a Marxist cloak to perfectly reasonable attempts at public policy debate. In fact, the first salvo in the modern American class war was fired from above, with Reagan small government conservatism taking out pillars of pro-middle class economic policy like Apache helicopters blasting retreating Iraqis on the Highway of Death. It’s been a rather one-sided affair. Suck on that Karl Marx.

We should note, of course, that there are real differences between the divine right of kings and small government philosophy as tools of control. We can pretty much characterize the divine right of kings as a total fabrication whereas the concern for small government does have a legitimate basis in reality. In fact it is this historical underpinning that has made it such a saleable concept. The 20th century is full of examples of centralized governments and totalitarian regimes that not only failed miserably but were responsible for untold human suffering. All Americans are right to be wary of the overextension of government power in any real way that threatens to lead us down such a path.

Such wariness seems more than a bit misplaced, however, when applied to things like progressive taxation and corporate regulation. In fact, taxing wealthy people to pay for new roads (or wars) is a pretty legitimate exercise of government power. So too is preventing corporations from polluting our air and water. Or poisoning the food we eat. And countless other things that are strictly a matter of common sense for any sane society. And yet the American people are sold a small government philosophy so absolute and relentless as to find fault with even these rather obvious and necessary uses of government power.

The key word here is “sold.” Because, if you look closely- and here’s where some of the ulterior manipulations of small government rhetoric can be exposed- it is demonstrably true that conservative politicians and policy makers don’t really believe in small government as an absolute guiding principle. There are many areas in which conservative policies are happy to apply government power in a pretty zealous manner. On the one hand conservatives argue that the government is perpetually inefficient and incompetent. On the other hand, they vigorously support the death penalty, accepting the premise that government can fairly and accurately determine cases where a human life can be taken. Is there a bigger exercise of government power than that? One could argue that our penal system itself, holding a higher percentage of our citizens in jail than any country in the world, constitutes a pretty heavy application of government power. Conservatives also believe that government should make laws outlawing abortion and gay marriage. Where’s the freedom and liberty in that? Remember the Terry Schiavo case? A special session of Congress called just so conservative lawmakers could exercise control over the personal decision of a single American family. Now that’s some big-ass government.

And then there’s the military. Is there really a bigger bureaucratic labyrinth in the American government than the military? Usually conservatives tell us that the government is completely inept and virtually useless in carrying out major initiatives. And yet they support the massive logistical outlay of multiple foreign wars. And then they tell us how wonderful and miraculous our military performance is. However true this assessment may be, it does seem a little inconsistent, no?

Which one is it? Government is inefficient and useless or government (the military being, in essence, the government) is totally awesome?

And here we see that small government rhetoric is often just a smokescreen for the real governing principle of modern conservatives: protecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful few at the top.

In essence, conservative policy adheres to small government principles when it serves these interests and just as quickly reverts to exercises of massive government power when it suits them as well.

Once again, the guiding principle is not small government. It’s the protection and extension of the interests of a wealthy and powerful uber-minority. Even when it’s bad for the majority. Even when it’s bad for America.

Let’s take a closer look. As mentioned, the area where small government philosophy really makes hay is in regards to progressive taxation, social programs and corporate regulation. Conservative politicians want as little of these as possible because they threaten the extreme wealth of their constituency. They certainly want to eliminate all “entitlement” programs, of course, because, admittedly, these are programs that the wealthy pay into without actually benefitting from. The top one percent can afford good schools, good health care. If a hurricane is coming they can skip town and hole up in the Four Season for as long as it takes. They don’t need government services. So why would they want to support them with their tax money? Seems unfair.

Yay small government!

With the death penalty, on the other hand, the government suddenly becomes an all-powerful, all-knowing Godlike entity. This inconsistency is easily explained by the fact that the death penalty, and the penal system itself, are perfectly in step with the concerns and interests of the wealthy minority. People in the top one percent don’t tend to find their way onto death row. On the contrary, death row is populated by the extremely poor and disenfranchised. This is not the time nor the place for a dissertation on the causes of crime, but there is strong evidence to suggest that high crime (which we have here in America) is a predictable offshoot of economic inequality. As the top one percent increases its wealth and power, then, they’ll want to stay on top of that increasingly pesky and pissed off criminal element. In this case, government rocks! Just don’t tell the tea partiers.

The military can be seen as an offshoot of this same impulse on a global scale. It seems pretty undeniable to say that America, while using its military idealistically in some cases, has often used it to protect our economic interests abroad and/or to do deal with any backlash from said endeavors. Thus, the military serves a role in increasing the wealth and power of the top one percent while at the same protecting it from miscellaneous global threats. And, best of all, it’s the poor and middle class kids who fight the wars. Win-win for the economic elites- they reap the benefits without making the sacrifice.

And while we’re considering the military, one would think that, if you’re a believer in the ability of the American military to implant democracy in a place like Iraq, it seems a small step from there to believe, let’s say, that a well-funded FEMA could be of some use in a case like Hurricane Katrina. Yet conservatives make no such leap. On the contrary, it was Bush II who downsized FEMA considerably, with his initial FEMA director Joe Allbaugh announcing that the agency constituted an “oversized entitlement program” and that “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” To review: fighting two wars across the globe and implanting democracy in Iraq=appropriate exercise of government power; providing necessary assistance to Americans caught up in a natural disaster=inappropriate use of government power.

Again, the distinction has nothing to do with any kind of real dedication to small government in principle. It has to do with the fact that FEMA, unlike the military, provides no real benefit to the wealthy elites. Did you see many rich folk waving for help or dying in the streets in New Orleans?

Social issues like gay marriage and the Terry Schiavo case have no discernable economic motive, but they fit nicely into the overall effort to bolster political support. Gays make people uncomfortable across the social, economic and political spectrum, and therefore gay bashing is an effective way to gain public support for politicians primarily concerned with the economic interests of the elite.

Opposition to safe, legal abortion, on the other hand, is a two-fer. It serves the same electoral purpose as gay-bashing while simultaneously promoting a policy that has far more deleterious implications for the poor and middle class. Common sense dictates that the most desperate situations are those where the expectant mother is financially marginal, unable to properly care for a child, and perhaps looking at a lifetime of poverty with the child as opposed to a chance for education and/or a career without one. These types of concerns don’t come into play for the daughters of the rich. As happy as they are to support government extension of power over women’s bodies through legal limitations on safe abortions, however, conservatives revert to small government crusading when it comes to federal funding of abortion. Rich women will always be able to afford safe abortions. Poor women are on their own.

The undeniable conclusion is that small government is not, in reality, a useful or actual governing philosophy across the board. It’s a canard, and, more importantly, a tool of manipulation. Prior to 1980 the wealthiest folks in America were lacking such a tool. And their hold on power was dissipating as a result. They had no real mechanism for selling the policies that served their interests because these policies were contrary to the interests of the majority and to common sense itself.

And, then, in a bit of a perfect-storm scenario, the power of an idea took hold. The totalitarian experience of the 20th century opened the door to the successful promotion of small government as an ideal. Economists like Milton Friedman pioneered the idea that government intrusion in the economy and on high-level wealth was inherently anti-democratic (a key point in the formation of small government rhetoric as an effective weapon). And then came Rush Limbaugh, FOX News, and the rest of the right-wing media army- the perfect mechanism for selling the small government philosophy. Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck. They’re men of the people. Just a couple of average Joes lookin’ out for the folks. You couldn’t ask for better messengers.

O’Reilly and Beck are at their best when railing against the liberal “elites”- a rhetorical magic trick in which the middle class is encouraged to (and generally does) regard the Democrats as the ones who are out of touch with their interests. Obama, Reid, Pelosi, they’re all hoity-toity elites with no clue how the average guy thinks and feels. Conservatives, by comparison really do know how the average guy thinks and feels. Actually, this might be true, but conservatives are more interested in using this information for political manipulation than public policy that serves anyone’s interests aside from their own.

This is precisely why candidates like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin tend to wind up on center stage in Republican political campaigns. They wrap up pro-elite economic policy in a down home, folksy package, promoting the intended false impression that the out of touch elites are on the left rather than the right.

Indeed, while there may be some form of liberal elite in this country, the only elites that really matter, the ones that are truly dangerous, are those on the right using small government rhetoric to dominate policy. Nobody epitomizes this modern menace better than right-wing idea man Bill Kristol. Born into a politically and economically prominent family, Kristol went to a fancy Manhattan prep school, then Harvard, then hit the ground running thanks to daddy’s connections.

Kristol’s education, his health care, his path to glory were pretty much set in stone from the get-go. Yet he leads the charge against improvements in health care, education and opportunity to those below him on the economic ladder. He also never fought in a war or served in the military- but was a leading proponent of going to war in Iraq. His maniacal fear of retreating one inch from the privilege he was born into seeps through in the famous memo he wrote to fellow conservative insiders urging defeat of Bill Clinton’s 1994 health care plan:

“[If passed, the Clinton health care plan] will re-legitimize middle class dependence for ‘security’ on government spending and regulation. It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.”

Notice that Kristol is focused here on Republican “claims” to defend the middle class through small government policies. He’s not concerned with actually protecting those interests- just claiming to. Because his real objective is to protect to interests of his own cohort, the extreme economic elite, by convincing the other 99% to misconstrue their own best interests and play along.

And then there’s former president George W. Bush. Nothing exposes the vacancy of Bush’s supposed small government philosophy like his business dealings in buying the Texas Rangers baseball franchise in the late 1980’s. Bush tapped into daddy’s rolodex to assemble a group of investors, gladly accepted $200 million in tax payer money to help build a new stadium, and, most egregiously (and hypocritically) of all, worked with local government to use eminent domain to force private landowners off their property so that he and his cronies could develop the land around the new stadium for personal profit. Once again: George W. Bush used eminent domain to force private landowners off their land so that he and his cadre of wealthy, connected private investors could cash in. Initially the dispossessed landowners were compensated at a rate far below market value. Only years later, after lengthy lawsuits, were they awarded a fair market rate. Read all about it here.

This episode from the business life of George W. Bush exemplifies how the wealthy and powerful are quick to apply small government when it suits them (reduced taxes for the wealthy, reduced corporate regulations) and then equally quick to embrace the most egregious big government tactics (eminent domain) when it serves them as well. Yet again, we see that “small government” and “individual freedom” are smokescreens for the real guiding principle: the extension of wealth and power for the privileged few.

In times like these it’s hard to say whether modern society as a whole is making any kind of “progress” aside from the technological. But, for the richest one percent, when it comes to addressing the age-old dilemma of securing and even extending their hold on power against all odds, the last thirty years of American life give indication that they are perfecting their craft.

Under the divine right of kings in medieval Europe the vast majority stoically accepted their fate and tolerated life on the margins.

In small government America they take to the streets and demand it.

Live Music Review and Profile: The Constellations Live at Spaceland

Just a few miles from Spaceland in Silverlake there’s surely a couple of Hollywood suits spending ridiculous amounts of money on bottle service in the VIP section of some swanky club. Elijah Jones, leader of the Atlanta band The Constellations, and I are enjoying our own version of bottle service. The bottles are a couple of forties from a nearby 7-Eleven (Fat Tire for him, Asahi for me) and the VIP section is the back end of The Constellations’ travel van, makeshift dressing room and all-purpose home on wheels otherwise known as the Velvet Panda.

One look around the not-so-plush interior of the Panda and you know Elijah Jones isn’t in it for the money. He’s not in it for the chicks either- his girlfriend Shab Bashiri is a singer in the band. He makes little or no mention of achieving international fame, attaining worldwide musical dominance, or someday starting a clothing line. He’s living completely in the moment, excited about tonight’s performance, about the music he’s creating, the people he’s working with, and the road life he so clearly thrives on.

And as far as I can tell he’s happier than a pig in you-know-what.

As a child his mother used play him the intro to “Layla” on the piano and his father was a Baptist preacher. Watching The Constellations onstage it’s apparent that he’s inherited more than his share of musical talent- and he’s got a bit of the preacher in him as well. Actually, preacher doesn’t quite describe it. He’s more like a shaman, refusing to accept anything less than the provocation of an absolute unholy frenzy among his bandmates and anyone else with a pulse who happens to be in the immediate vicinity.   

Then again, it’s not like the rest of The Constellations are lacking for inspiration. Keyboard player Jamie Gordon hovers over his ivory machine like a man possessed, venturing forth now and again to give the cow bell a rhythmic beat down. Bass player Wes Hoffman is a sight to behold, strutting around the stage like a latter day John Belushi with an afro the likes of which haven’t been seen on a white man in these parts since the MC5 rolled through town in 1972, all the while laying down beats so fundamental to the band’s sound that they’re more like frontbeats than backbeats. If there’s such a thing as a “lead bassist” Hoffman is surely that. Drummer Nackers is often frontal to the group’s sound as well, joining with Hoffman on songs like “Setback” to pound home vicious “Tomorrow Never Knows”-like pulsations. Guitarists Trevor Birdsong and Ryan Franklin fill the gaps with perfectly timed funk flourishes. And last but certainly not least, Bashiri and Alaina Terry are much more than window dressing, though they do provide a welcome bit of eye candy. Bashiri and Terry may be backup singers but they’re very much in the foreground of the live show, providing a dreamy 60’s feel that is essential to “Setback” and laying important mood-setting sonic foundations for Jones to riff off on “We’re Here to the Save the Day” and “Weighing Me Down.” In the middle of at all is Jones, the vortex around which all else swirls. Let’s just say this isn’t a band lacking for energy or onstage theatrics.

In a memorable set at Spaceland on Monday night The Constellations flashed a musical style that might best be described as 60’s psychedelia meets hip hop with healthy doses of guitar funk, soul and punk rock attitude mixed in. It’s a testament to the band’s overall chemistry that so many eclectic influences and talented musicians can come together in such a cohesive manner. On songs like “Felicia” the band demonstrates a strong pop sensibility. In fact, “Felicia,” is downright infectious, the kind of tune that you can’t get out of your head after you hear it once or twice.  This seems fitting, since the song is about a girl you wouldn’t easily forget either- the kind of girl your mom warned you about and your dad dreamed about. Not surprisingly it’s the first single in the U.S. off the band’s forthcoming album Southern Gothic, scheduled for release June 22 (although “Felicia” as well as “Setback” are currently available on iTunes as singles.)

For all the sense of fun that the band conveys in playing these songs, their music also bears the mark of a dark and dirty southern influence as well. “Setback” gives strong indication of this, with Jones playing the role of the street poet, identifying with the grift and grime of his beloved Atlanta. Jones has a way of celebrating and even romanticizing the desperate characters of the street that is reminiscent of early Springsteen. This came across loud and clear on the Monday night closer “Step Right Up,” which Jones introduced with an intentionally maniacal laughing scream and which culminated with all kinds of sinister mayhem breaking loose onstage. It’s something that Jones re-wrote from a song originally created by Tom Waits- the artist he most respects and admires among his many influences.

Before including the song on Southern Gothic, Jones had to get the green light from Waits himself. Although they never met in person, Waits requested copies of the song and lyrics before eventually giving his okay. Imagine being an artist in any genre and gaining such a stamp of approval from your biggest hero. Now that’s satisfaction that bottle service can’t buy.

At 117,000 miles, the Velvet Panda is on its last legs, but The Constellations will be going strong in the coming months, hitting the festival circuit in their new van, already christened the Vanna White, with stops at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza among others scheduled along the way.

Getting in the Mood: Music to Listen to Before the Big Date

Life is like a movie. We’re all writer/director/stars of our own unfolding narrative. This being the case, your music collection is nothing less than the soundtrack to your life. And like any good story, yours needs a love interest. Or at least a date every now and then. And when you do have this date, it might behoove you to give some thought to the appropriate musical accompaniment. No reason to be nervous, just sit back and let the music be  your guide…

Part I: Pre-Date Tunes

There’s a lot to be said for mental preparation. Rather than just wandering aimlessly from one situation in life to the next, feel free to take a few moments to focus on the matter at hand. So you’ve got a date tonight…presumably you’ll be taking a shower, choosing an outfit, combing your hair, all that good stuff, and you’ll need some music to listen to in the process. The right selection here can put you in the ideal state of mind for romantic success. The wrong one can set the stage for disaster. Avoid anything too deep or dark, anything that reminds you of ex-girlfriends or personal failure of any kind. Keep it light, upbeat, but not over the top. This is not the time for the “Rocky” theme or AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells.”  Satanic imagery is not good for the pre-date psyche. We’re looking for something that reinforces the required self-image: suave, debonair, laid back but totally in charge. That’s you. Here are some musical suggestions (in reverse order) that can help take you there:

2. Sinatra – Key Songs: “My Way”; “Summer Wind.”

Now we’re venturing into the rarefied air of pre-date listening. Not only does Sinatra’s music take you where you need to be, but the man himself personifies what we’re going for…Francis Albert Sinatra. Now that’s someone you can channel as you head off into the night. All swagger and attitude. Warmth and romance without an ounce of sentimentality. Feeling a little pre-date anxiety? Let it drift away with the warm Summer Wind. Now go out and do it your way.

1. Joao Gilberto & Stan Getz – Key Song: “Girl from Ipanema.”

Stan Getz may not be as hip as Sinatra, but he’s plenty hip himself. More than close enough to suit our purposes here. Start off with “Girl From Ipanema” and let it go from there. Soak it in. The Brazilian bossa nova. A sublime dose of Latin romance. The musical personification of cool. This music is so cool that anyone who listens to it automatically becomes cool. It’s impossible not to. Picture yourself negotiating your date like a Getz sax solo: effortless, mysterious, self-assured, playful, timelessly sexy.

Travel Destinations: Greece

 

Sunset in Santorini

I could’ve sworn I caught a glimpse of God in the Greek Isles. Ten minutes in Santorini restored a sense of spirituality that years of catholic schooling and forced church attendance had long since beaten out of me. Of course you’ve heard about THE SUNSET. Refracted light shimmering across the Aegean, nestled within Santorini’s glorious caldera. Oh man. It’s beyond majestic. In Santorini, you don’t see the sunset. You feel it. You are bowled over by it. It makes an imprint on your soul that stays with you as long as you walk this planet. Think I’m being overdramatic? Try it. And then you’ll know.

 

At the Astra Apartments, located in the Imerovigli section of Santorini, my travel buddy and I were surrounded by American honeymooners. And why not. I can’t imagine a more romantic spot in the world. Santorini is a wonderful place to be in love. Or to fall in love. With a woman, a man, the island, or just life itself. My buddy and I, we dined in an outdoor restaurant under a warm summer sky on the edge of the sea. Diagonally across from us were two lovely young girls from Toronto. How do I know they were from Toronto? Because we sent them over a bottle of fine Greek red. They didn’t smile at us, or nod politely. They picked up the damn bottle, brought it over to our table, sat down, and drank it with us. And we all fell in love. In Santorini.

 

If the wonder of Santorini is that it can make an agnostic see God, then the wonder of Mykonos is that it can make a stiff white guy dance. And I mean dance all night long. Dance and party. That’s what you do in Mykonos. And recover under the sun. Here’s how it works…You wake up around noon and head down to Paradise Beach. Or Super Paradise Beach. Seriously. That’s what the beaches are called. And they are aptly named. Plenty of beach chairs set up there ready to go. Pick a winner and soak it all up. The sun, the women, the fat middle-aged European guys in speedos (not so much). Running along the length of the beach, directly behind you, you’ll notice a long series of bars. Side by side. Perfect for a little hair of the dog. If you’re lucky, as I was, you’ll find a group of Swedish girls nearby wrestling with a vodka-filled watermelon. If they offer you some, by all means say yes. You might just find yourself frolicking in the ocean with some Sexy Swedes while Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” wafts gently in from the speakers of a nearby establishment. This is what happened when I was in Mykonos.

 

Keep in mind, this is just the beginning of your day.

 

Around four or five o’clock everyone starts to migrate to a particular bar at the end of the beach. This is where the first real party of the day begins. Full on rocking. Everyone boozing and dancing as the sun sets. In bathing suits. It’s an outdoor nightclub. On the beach. In Mykonos. This beach party will generally go till about 8:00 or 9:00. At this point you’ll want to make your way back to town, crawl into bed, and sleep for a good three hours. Around midnight you head out to the clubs where you’ll drink. And dance. All night. Towards the morning you’ll scuttle back down to the beach for the nightclub that opens at 4:00 AM. It’s an open sky club, directly on the ocean. There you’ll dance some more, and party some more, and watch the sun come up. With a little bit of luck you’ll make it back to your bed by about 8:00 AM. Sleep till about noon. Rinse. Repeat. For as long as you’re on the island. That’s the way it works in Mykonos.

 

Have I mentioned the tomatoes? And the cucumbers? In Greece you will eat the freshest, plumpest juiciest tomatoes and the most glorious cucumbers the world has to offer. By the bowlfull. Big chunks of tomatoes and cucumbers with nice Greek olive oil drizzled all over them. In Greece I lived off the tomatoes and cucumbers, mixing in a few pork chops (cooked in that same wonderful olive oil) and Greek pizzas as well. Don’t sleep on the Greek pizzas. It’s a unique style of pie, and you’ll miss it when you leave.

 

Then again, you’ll miss it all when you leave. The sunset, the sunrise, the girl you fell in love with in Santorini, the Swedish girls with their vodka-filled watermelons, the partying, the dancing, the cool dudes from Australia you befriended and rolled with, the cucumbers and tomatoes, the whole damn thing. The Greek Islands. Nothing less than a life-changing experience. If you’re lucky, you’ll make it back it again someday. God-willing, of course.