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November 2006

This Is A Big Load Off My Mind

Being thrown out the airlock of a spaceship without a spacesuit would not be nearly so terrible a death as is sometimes imagined.

Might not even be fatal although if you got thrown out you probably aren't going to get back in within the 90-second or so survival window. All in all, I think I'd rather be thrown out without a suit than with one, assuming I was not going to be rescued. That scene in 2001 where HAL launches Frank (can't believe I remember his name) into the void has always been pretty horrifying to me. Oh wait, I think he dies pretty quickly...anyway, point holds.


Music of the Week — November 12, 2006

Roy Buchanan: Sweet Dreams: The Anthology (Disc 1)

Like many other guitar heroes, Roy Buchanan never really put the whole musical package together. He was too much of a virtuoso to be a sideman, but he doesn’t seem to have had the broad musical vision, not to mention the singing and songwriting skills, needed to lead and mold a band into a distinctive identity. The lineup on these tracks, mostly recorded in the early and mid-‘70s, shifts constantly. The rhythm sections, while always capable, never seem to have the fire that Buchanan himself does. Without his spectacular guitar work, most of the music here would be lackluster.

But what guitar playing it is. As with Eric Johnson, reviewed here recently, anyone who loves electric guitar should hear Buchanan. His style is bluesy with a country accent, rich, soulful, and not infrequently mind-boggling in its technical skill. If he didn’t invent, he apparently brought to some kind of peak the use of harmonics to get a sudden high, wild leap of pitch and tone. He uses wide bends and some knob twiddling to get a strange crying sound that I’ve never heard from anyone else. My only reservation about his playing in general is that his tone gets kind of squawky and thin when it’s at its loudest, but that’s not most of the time.

This is the first disc of a two-disc set, and includes mostly studio performances. The second disc favors live recordings (review forthcoming in the next week or so). The set includes material from the solo albums he released on Polydor and Atlantic, plus some unreleased material. To my taste the four tracks from the early unreleased album, The Prophet, are not that interesting—Buchanan doesn’t play that much on them, although what he does play is impressive. Although it was to be billed as a Buchanan solo album, it also involves, very heavily, Charlie Daniels, singing, playing guitar, and writing songs. I didn’t know Daniels had a hippie period, but his “Black Autumn” features portentous lyrics along the lines of early Simon and Garfunkle and that fast-echoing fade—I’m sure there’s a name for the effect—on the vocal to make it psychedelic. Or something. You can also hear Daniels sing “Story of Isaac” here, which is interesting.

The fun really starts with track 5, Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams.” It’s a sweet distillation of pure American soul, as is the last track on this disk, “Wayfaring Pilgrim.” Both are Buchanan at his absolute best, rich, sweet, soulful, and sometimes fiery. Most everything in between is in the same class, although the hard rocker “My Baby Says She’s Gonna Leave Me” doesn’t do much for me. Most of the others are blues or blues variants, and all have great moments, at least. “The Messiah Will Come Again” in particular, something of a Buchanan signature piece, is a powerful voice of religious yearning.

Most listeners will probably share my opinion that Buchanan overdoes it sometimes, but I find it very forgivable. It often sounds like an understandable result of the skill and emotionality of his playing. Take “Five String Blues,” for instance. The crying thing toward the end is overdone, I admit. But when the entire lyric of a song is as follows:

Oh oh oh Jesus
This is my final plea
You know I’m still begging you
Don’t let the devil get the best of me

some weeping is probably appropriate.

Buchanan died in 1988, in a jail cell, an apparent suicide, after being picked up for DUI. I hope the devil didn’t get the best of him.

Here’s “The Messiah Will Come Again” on YouTube. No pyrotechnics, but what feeling. For fireworks—in fact for a pretty complete technical inventory—try “Roy’s Blues”, part 1 and part 2. Catch the harmonics about thirty seconds into part 2.


Sunday Night Journal — November 26, 2006

Christ the King?

I was surprised to discover that today is the feast of Christ the King, and a little dismayed that I was surprised. There was a time when I paid more attention to the Church’s feast days. My wife and I, coming from non-Catholic families in a non-Catholic culture, have never really gotten these things entirely into our habits of mind and practice, but we made more of an effort when the children were small, especially when we were part of a Catholic home-schooling group.

These days we aren’t doing much more than the bare minimum of external observance. For a number of reasons, some worthy and others less so, we’ve stepped back from our local parish, and float between two. We go to the diocesan cathedral twenty miles away on most Sundays because the liturgy is far more conducive to worship than that of our local parish. Tonight, though, we went to the local parish for the first time in some weeks—to the evening Mass, because we had spent most of the day traveling—and the switch from the magnificent cathedral choir to the pop style at our parish was jarring. It took a few minutes for me to begin to take seriously the fact that I was in fact at Mass. But I got pretty focused at the homily, delivered by a deacon who is a very fine and solid preacher.

He had the nerve to talk about the Second Coming as a fact, to be taken as it was taken by the apostles. Spoken by a Baptist minister of the old school his evocation of the Judgment and of what’s at stake in it would have been pretty mild, but for a Catholic it was very strong stuff: the Second Coming will happen, and even if it doesn’t happen while we are in this world, we are all going to die, and we are all going to be judged. Christ is in fact the king; some will receive him willingly, some not, but all will be ruled and judged by him. He will be everyone’s king by force of cosmic law, but will he be owned as such, with grateful obeisance of the heart, or will he be resented and resisted?

I fancy that the King’s judgment will be of a piece with something that happens within us, and that we will know, immediately upon facing him, not only what he thinks of us, but what we think of him: either that this was what we have always wanted, or what we have always dreaded. In that sense the judgment may not be a surprise, but a recognition of something we’ve always known in the most secret places of our hearts.

Surprises there will, no doubt, nevertheless be. If we are not surprised by our own fates, we will probably be surprised by those of others, as Mrs. Turpin, in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” is surprised by her vision of “whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs”—all entering heaven ahead of herself, whom she sees somewhat glumly bringing up the rear of the procession, resentful at her place in it. There’s some reason to suppose at the end of the story that this vision of herself may, in fact, be a cure for the pride that is the cause of her resentment. And so the vision may be a prophecy that, because it was given, will not come true.

Like Mrs. Turpin, I’ll be happy to be anywhere in that procession. But I’m a pretty stiff and undemonstrative person, and I must say I kind of like the idea that I might be clapping and shouting and leaping like a frog.


Music of the Week — November 5, 2006

Lanterna: Desert Ocean

I have fallen perhaps fatally far behind in this feature. I’m not sure I can keep it up as a weekly—perhaps it will become bi-weekly. I’ll make the reviews, or most of them, briefer, for a while and see if I can maintain that.

The fact that I know this album at all is an example of the benefit of giving away a little music. eMusic offers a free daily download to subscribers, and while many of them aren’t to my taste, some have been great discoveries. I think “Luminous,” the first track here was one, and although I’d never so much as heard the name of the band before, that one track sufficed to make me get the whole album.

This might best be described as ambient rock—all guitar-oriented instrumentals, except for occasional wordless background-style vocals, and much more concerned with mood and atmosphere than making a technical impression. “Luminous” and a couple of the other tracks are more than slightly reminiscent of the guitar sound on U2’s Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree—you might think you were listening to U2 minus Bono (which is good, if you ask me). Other tracks remind me faintly of ‘70s country-rock such as Pure Prairie League, maybe Poco, maybe some of Neil Young’s stuff (e.g. Harvest). It’s not a sound I was wild about when it was new, but now, and in this context, it carries a nostalgic tinge that makes it enjoyable. “Surf” is not, as I expected, an exercise in the reverb-heavy surf guitar sound, but rather a building and rolling sound that actually does have some kind of connection with its namesake. “48th and 8th” has a bit of ’50s Santo and Johnny (“Sleepwalk”) or Floyd Cramer (“Last Date”) vibe, a very wistful sad-love-story-soundtrack sort of thing.

Overall there’s an open, faintly mysterious atmosphere, befitting the title. It’s a perfect album to put on when you want something that touches you without making great demands on your attention or emotions. I keep playing it on the way home from work. Unlike the recently reviewed NEU!, for which the claim is sometimes made, it’s great music for driving.


Barb Nicolosi Rips the Baby-Boomers

Rather vigorously, apropos the latest movie from Clint Eastwood. I actually agree with her in the two or three paragraphs where she's talking about the stereotypical boomers. The only problem with the piece is that Eastwood was born in 1930, putting him not just a year or two but a decade and a half older than us--he could easily have had baby-boomer children, although according to the Wikipedia biography he started late. So I think her real target is a certain sort of liberal who may be of any age. Still, it's funny.

Sunday Night Journal — November 19, 2006

Hefner and Marilyn

I read not long ago that Hugh Hefner has arranged to be buried near Marilyn Monroe. “’When I found the vault next door to Marilyn was available,’” he explained to the Daily Telegraph, “’it seemed natural.’” “Natural” may not be the precisely correct word; let’s say “appropriate” instead, symbolically appropriate. Marilyn appeared on the cover of the first issue of Playboy in December of 1953. Less than ten years later she was dead of a drug overdose, which may have been accident, suicide, or even, according to some rumors, murder. By most accounts she had an unhappy life whose disappointments were of such an elemental nature that it’s hard to imagine that they seemed to her a fair trade for fame and money. Like most movie stars, she couldn’t stay married, and she apparently couldn’t carry a pregnancy to term, a result of chronic endometriosis which may have made her position as the most visible sex symbol in the world cruelly ironic. What, in the end, is the use to a woman of being celebrated for her beauty if it only works to insure her loneliness?

Hefner, on the other hand, recently celebrated his 80th birthday with a lavish and well-publicized party. There was a picture of him in the paper with a couple of the sort of girls who have always been associated with his magazine: blonde and curvy, but stiff and controlled and synthetic-looking, almost cold. It’s a cliché to compare them to Barbie dolls, but the resemblance can’t be missed.

Apart from differences in makeup and hair styles on the part of the girls, the picture could have appeared anytime in the past forty years or so. Hefner has aged but, thanks no doubt to medical skill, still looks pretty good. The girls, of course, are exactly as young as they were forty years ago, having been replaced again and again as necessary from an apparently endless supply.

One wonders how long the working life of a Playboy Bunny, or whatever the girls who are paid to hang around the Playboy enterprise are called these days, might be. Are they stupid, wasting their youth living it up and getting their pictures taken in ridiculous costumes (or out of them)? Some are, no doubt, but from the look of the girls in the paper, I’d guess that they tend to be a fairly hard-headed bunch who pretty well know what they’re doing, coolly using their sex appeal to get what they want. This bargaining, as old as the species, was discouraged and deplored by feminists of a generation ago but has now become acceptable again under the name of “empowerment.”

Mais où sont les bimbeaux d'antan? There’s a very limited period of life when young women can play this game. They have, roughly, the decade between twenty and thirty to make their play, and whether they’ve found a tenable path for the rest of their lives is a matter of little or no concern to Hefner and like-minded men. The girls can go on to become women, using Playboy as a path to something else that they really want: to marry a rich and/or famous man, perhaps; to have children; to have a career that allows them to remain fully dressed; to grow old in security. Or perhaps to fail, to become prostitutes or drug addicts—it doesn’t matter to the Playboy, for whom that ten or twelve years of high sexual bloom is the only thing of interest about a woman. No one, I imagine, pretends that the girls are after the life of unending and inconsequential sexual promiscuity with which the magazine tantalize the men who read it.

I’m using the word “girl,” by the way, very deliberately, mindful that it is not approved for females past puberty. I don’t know exactly when a girl becomes a woman in my perception. But, as with a boy becoming a man, it entails the assumption of some level of responsibility, or some combination of age and responsibility: reaching an age somewhere past thirty, becoming a mother—a responsible mother, that is—or some other solid accomplishment. In any case, Playboy Bunnies don’t qualify.

Marilyn Monroe exists for Hefner, one imagines, only as a sex symbol. Her sad childhood of illegitimacy and orphanages and abuse, her solitary pain, her pathetic death, and most of all the life that she did not live, the full life that might have taken her past her youthful sex appeal into something deeper and wiser—none of this is real to his sort of man. Her early death helped to insure her permanent place as a sexual icon. It’s not her achievement, but the waste of her that makes her an appropriate female counterpart to Hefner’s version of what a man should be: not husband, not father, not wise or good or brave, but a mere sybarite notable mainly for his shrewd skill in managing to remain one for fifty years. It’s darkly fitting that they should lie beside each other in death, not husband and wife, not even lovers, but consumer and consumed.

Note: the quotation in the first paragraph comes from this excellent commentary on Hefner’s career.


(Not) Talking About Politics

I read and think about politics a fair amount--I would guess probably a bit more than the average person--but every now and then something makes me realize that it's really a relatively minor concern for me. For instance, this post by Rod Dreher. Discussing the desirability, or not, of Christians being involved in politics, and the chastening effect of the recent election, he says, "I believe the idea that we conservative Christians are doing our part to push back hard against the spirit of the age by enthusiastically voting Republican, even as we turn ourselves and our children over to the corrupting broader culture, is foolish and dangerous."

To which I can only reply, using the vernacular: duh. What's surprising, even shocking, to me here is that anyone would ever have thought that "enthusiastically voting Republican" was a significant component of "pushing back against the spirit of the age."

I've voted mostly Republican for some time and am one of those socially conservative "values voters" of whom we heard a lot in 2004. But never--never, never, never--did I see voting Republican as a direct expression of Christian belief. From the Christian point of view, the Republicans have been preferable because they have been, as I put it in the interview in Rod's book, an ally, albeit an unreliable one, whereas the Democrats had become an enemy. But I never had the idea, apparently held by some, that voting Republican could be a major factor in turning a non-bordering-on-anti-Christian culture into a Christian one. The world doesn't work that way.


Sunday Night Journal — November 12, 2006

Funky Town

It’s hard to define the word “funky.” I think it originally meant “bad-smelling,” and sometimes it still does (“These leftover greens are getting kind of funky—I’m throwing them out”). But now it’s also a term of approbation, connoting among other things a sort of sloppy authenticity, along with color, flair, and insouciance toward the staid and dignified. It brings to mind certain associated adjectives: greasy, dirty, smoky, spicy; flavorful; the opposite of bland. A good exemplar in food is red beans and rice; in music, “I Got You” (if you don’t recognize the name, you’d recognize the sound—it’s the famous James Brown song that starts off “I feeeel good,” and if you’ve listened to the radio at all over the last forty years you should be able to hear that horn line now).

And if you want to pin the word on a city, New Orleans has first and undisputed claim. The term may be black—African-American, to use the clumsier and politer term—in origin, but now, like so many black contributions to our culture, it belongs to everybody, although it’s still particularly associated with and most used by and about black people. Likewise, the existence of an old and continuing black culture in New Orleans is a major component of its funkiness.

So is the juxtaposition of so many different and vivid things, good and bad. Songwriter Grayson Capps nails the place perfectly as “that rotten old town that everyone loves.” Don’t kid yourself: New Orleans is a mess. It was a mess before Hurricane Katrina and it’s a mess now. It has a long history of corruption and shiftlessness, from the city government to the bars of the French Quarter. But it can still get under your skin. The appeal has something to do with the color and flavor of the place, and also with starkness of its contrasts: rich and poor, sleazy and holy, clean and dirty.

We’ve just come back from an overnight trip there. We went to Mass Sunday morning in one of the more beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, the Jesuit Church of the Assumption, its architecture described as “Hispano-Moresque,” a style of which I had never heard, but which I presume is something out of post-Moslem Spain. Not too far away there were probably still a few of Saturday night’s drunks bumbling around, and others just starting out, Sunday morning or not. Sin abounded, I have no doubt. And yet grace was there in plenitude.

A friend of mine who doesn’t much like New Orleans has remarked on there being something dark about it, and of course he’s right, but that’s not the whole story. The darkness is serious and pretty much out in the open, but it coexists with a lot of Christian light and a whole lot of basic human warmth.

Sometimes in this mega-techno-capitalist world, “funky” just seems like another word for “human.” That’s part of the reason why America needs this city. It’s also, come to think of it, why white America needs black America. But that’s a topic for another day.


Music of the Week — October 29, 2006

Funkadelic: Maggot Brain

Yeah, I know. I can’t believe I’m writing about an album with such a sickening name, either. Worse, the title song is precisely the one that interested me. The problem was that I had run across several references to its being a killer guitar piece, and, loving that instrument as I do, I had to check it out. Here, for instance, is what the All Music Guide reviewer has to say about it: “George Clinton famously told [guitarist Eddie] Hazel to play ‘like your momma had just died,’ and the resulting evocation of melancholy and sorrow doesn't merely rival Jimi Hendrix’s work, but arguably bests a lot of it.” ( Full review here.)

I don’t know about it being better than Hendrix—I don’t know that the comparison is even particularly relevant—but it really is a great piece of moody, melodic, noisy electric guitar work. Unfortunately, besides the hideous title, it includes a thirty-second spoken intro which is equally disgusting, and I’m going to have to find an mp3 editor that will let me remove that piece without converting to wav and back to mp3, with consequent fidelity loss.

What about the rest of the album? Well, as I guess everybody who’s ever heard the name “Funkadelic” knows, it’s a mixture of early ‘70s funk, “psychedelic” rock (which really just means some heavily distorted and wah-wah-ed guitar), and a certain amount of goofiness. “Can You Get to That” makes me think of Sly and the Family Stone, “Super Stupid” makes me think of Hendrix. Most of it is not really the kind of music I’m generally drawn to, but still, it’s very enjoyable, in fact irresistible, if it hits you when you’re in the right mood—lots of fun if you’re happy, and maybe of some assistance if you’re sad. Recent releases have a couple of extra tracks, including a great short piece called “Whole Lot of BS” which some smart newscaster would do well to license and adopt as an intro to political campaign stories.


A Prediction, for the Record

I just posted the following over at the Crunchy Con blog, in a discussion about who the 2008 presidential nominees would be. Rod Dreher thinks Obama/Edwards for the Democrats; I doubt it. I'm posting this here, just as a way of officially going on record with my prediction about Hillary, so you can laugh at me two years from now if I'm wrong, and I can crow if I'm right. And also to make sure that I've recorded for posterity my favorite observation about Bill Clinton:

I don't consider myself very savvy about electoral politics, but, that said, count me among those who don't think Hillary will ever be president. I don't have a prediction as to whether she'll run or not but I think she's just too damn irritating to too many people to get elected. I'm sometimes tempted to withdraw that prediction when I watch her making her moves to the center, but I don't know if that's really working within the party. An awful lot of people see her as both unscrupulous and sanctimonious, sort of the secular counterpart of a crooked preacher (come to think of it, that's similar to what I always said about Bill--the Manley Pointer of American politics). If that perception is as widely shared as I think it is, it's a major obstacle.

I have a hard time seeing Edwards as the Dem nominee. One reason he's disliked in the South is that he comes across as--to be brutal--a slick twerp lawyer who got rich suing people. He could be acceptable as a poor twerp if he were evangelical enough, or as a rich trial lawyer if he had a Senator Sam-type persona. But he's got the worst of both.

I wouldn't count McCain out.


The Mrs. Picks Another Winner

Once again she puts a movie on our Netflix list because it sounds interesting (or something) and comes up with a real gem: Saints and Soldiers. I had a vague idea that it was about World War II and supposed from the title that it probably involved combat-weary soldiers being assisted (or not) by nuns, or something of that sort, and was going to be kind of on the inspirational side. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But the word "inspirational," while perfectly good in itself, smacks of at least close proximity to "sentimental."

Well, not a bit of it. It is a WWII story, and it is, in the end, inspiring (depending on what you believe). I recommend it highly. It's tough and intense and the violence is not prettified (although it's not accentuated, either). Not something to watch for relaxation, but well-written, brilliantly acted, beautifully photographed, and it probes deeply and honestly into the big questions.


Reckless vs. Feckless

Them's your choices at the polls today, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, as I see it. The Iraq war is a tragic mess and it's hard to justify hope of a decent and stable government emerging there. But as in 2004 the Democrats don't have much to offer except Monday-morning quarterbacking and ankle-biting. Increasingly it appears that neither party has much to offer except "Well, at least we're not them!"

And by the way, I'd like to express my irritation at the exhortations to "get out and vote" at all costs. If you aren't at least halfway informed, please, don't bother.

I think I will drink a toast tonight to my old high school civics teacher, J.D. Clanton, who, as a classmate from those days recently reminded me, knew what it meant to be a citizen and did a damned good job of communicating it. Any failure of his students to follow through can't be attributed to him. I can't praise a teacher much more highly than by saying I wish he could have taught my children.


Sunday Night Journal — November 5, 2006

Wingless Chickens: Judging the Baby Boomers

Upon sitting down to write about this topic, I realized that it’s either too big or too small for a few hundred words. You could easily write a book tracing the roots of contemporary moral confusion back for quite some distance—to the early 20th century with no difficulty at all, easily to the 19th century, and from there just as easily to the Enlightenment, perhaps all the way back, as Richard Weaver insisted, to a medieval philosophical-theological error. Anyone even glancingly familiar with Catholic interpretations of history will have met this view. For a current example, see the October issue of Crisis where Benjamin Wiker discusses Locke’s influence on the slow rot of the concept of marriage. You could meticulously document the connections and evolutions of ideas which resulted in a lot of college kids forty years ago doing and saying a lot of really stupid and destructive things.

Or you could just observe, briefly, as I did when in the comments section when this subject came up a couple of weeks ago, that the social and political upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t simply spring up overnight like mushrooms, and moreover that the baby boomers were more followers than leaders in those upheavals, at least if you use the official definition of that generation as including those born between 1946 and 1960.

Since this is not a book, I’ll content myself with noting some specific illustrations of those last two points, which really are one point: that the Great Revolution of the 1960s was simply the most visible moment of a development which had been in progress for some time. I need to note first, and then ignore, the fact that most baby boomers did not participate in the revolution. To some degree it’s still reasonable to lump them in as part of it, because they were certainly affected by it and tended to drift along in its general direction, with even those who weren’t consciously sympathetic to it sharing some of its underlying attitudes, notably a sense that life was more a matter of enjoying oneself than of doing one’s duty. Few were those who consciously and openly challenged it.

An apparently widely held view of history divides it into three phases: first, Ancient Times—everything from the Big Bang until World War II. Almost everybody was an idiot then. Here and there a few interesting things happened, such as Galileo’s tweaking of the Church, the separation of church and state, and the invention of socialism, but for the most part all was waste and void: inquisitions, crusades, slavery, the oppression of women, the repression of sexual pleasure. World War II was more or less the beginning of Modern Times, but it was really only a prelude to the 1950s.

Although this period was technically part of Modern Times, it was dominated by the same sort of people who had been doing all the inquisitions and crusades and such, and they were devoted to perpetuating or restoring those evils. A particularly oppressive aspect of the 1950s was that it had no colors: everything was black, white, or gray. Then in 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected President. Colors appeared. Political and sexual liberation erupted. The baby boomers began to look around them and to discover that not everything they saw met with their approval. Driven by their unprecedented intelligence and idealism, they set out to build a world of perfect freedom, with emphasis on the principle that no sexual impulse should be denied or have permanent consequences. All the period since then has been a titanic struggle between those who cherish this liberation and those who Want to Turn Back the Clock.

This is not, actually, the way it happened. Nor is the converse accurate: that all was well until roughly 1960—men went out to work, women took care of the home and the children, most people were reasonably well-behaved sexually, the Mass was in Latin and reverent, until one day a sexual mania erupted which has yet to run its course. It’s time I explained those chickens in my title. They come from one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters:

[I]t is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.

This was written in 1955, and I suppose I could rest my case here. But let me mention a few more items, narrowing the concept of the revolution (and of O’Connor’s observation) to the sexual revolution—it really encompassed more than that, but that was (and is) the non-negotiable core.

One: a week or two ago I was in the library and had a yen to read a nice shallow page-turner. I picked up From Russia With Love. I think I had read one of Ian Fleming’s books many years ago but didn’t much remember it. From Russia was published in 1955 and I was surprised at just how saturated with sexual titillation it is. It never gets very explicit, but the atmosphere and attitudes are entirely libertine.

Two: the first issue of Playboy magazine appeared in 1953.

Three: the Kinsey Report, which might be called the Great Permission for the sexual revolution, appeared in 1948 (the year I was born).

Four: the contraceptive pill, which was the great enabler of the revolution, came to market in 1961 when the first boomers had just entered high school.

Five: Elvis et. al.

In fact the principles of the modern sexual revolution were explicitly articulated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most often under the name of “free love,” as the pet project of a small number of intellectuals and social revolutionaries (H.G. Wells, Margaret Sanger, The revolution took a while to work its way into society at large, partly because of natural and sensible resistance, and partly because for real success it required contraception and abortion, both of which had technological and legal problems. It began to reach the middle class in the 1920s (when Coming of Age in Samoa was a best-seller), was pushed into the background by the Depression and the War, began to flower in the 1950s, and bloomed riotously in the mid-‘60s when a perfect combination of factors came together: cheap, effective, accessible contraceptive technology, a level of prosperity hardly imagined by most societies, a large number of young people born into comfort and entering sexual maturity, a new low point in the steady attenuation of religious belief. And so forth.

So what, in the end, was the responsibility of the baby boomers? We were not the prime movers of the Great Revolution; we only happened to catch the crest of the wave. In the end, I think it can be said that we were essentially passive and essentially negative: we did not generally strive for much at our personal expense, but rather, simply by being what we were and hanging around, institutionalized the changes, or, more precisely, allowed the more determined among us to institutionalize them. And we were negative, in the sense that T.S. Eliot said that liberalism is essentially negative, in that its fundamental impulse is toward the elimination of restraints and limits rather than toward construction. The imagined new world was not so much an actual new thing as the elimination of the old.

Let me add, if only to avoid the charge of Manicheanism, that I do think there was a positive side to at least some of the social changes of the past forty years, even outside of the end of racial segregation, which almost no one would decry. But that’s another topic. If we weren’t directly responsible for as much as harm as some say, it is also true that the claims of our great accomplishments for the good are highly exaggerated at best. Somebody named Steinhorn has published a book called The Greater Generation which makes the claim that the baby boomers are pretty much the most wonderful people ever. That’s according to advertisements and reviews; I wouldn’t want to read the book, and the words of the author and the publisher seem to constitute a level of self-conviction that makes doing so unnecessary.


Music of the Week — October 22, 2006

Eric Johnson: Live from Austin, Texas

Anyone who has a taste for virtuoso rock guitar should own this album. Eric Johnson is one of the great players, and if my limited acquaintance with his studio albums is an accurate sample, he’s one of those atypical rock musicians whose live recordings are actually superior to his studio work. Reportedly he’s very much a perfectionist, and it may be that he polishes some of the life out of his work in the studio. All I can say for certain is that of the three or four songs here which I’ve also heard in their studio versions, these live performances are definitely superior (with the possible exception of “Zap,” the album version of which sounds like a live-in-the-studio take, as if the three musicians were actually playing together, with little studio tinkering afterward).

This disc is actually a 1988 Austin City Limits appearance, recently issued on New West as part of a series of Austin City Limits concerts by a lot of good people. I heard this or a very similar take of “Cliffs of Dover” years ago in the form of one of those little plastic magazine inserts which served, you might say, as the mp3 samples of the phonograph era. In spite of the poor sound quality I thought it was one of the greatest pieces of electric guitar work I’d ever heard, and put it on a tape which soon got lost or given away or broken. A few years later I heard the studio version, from the Ah Via Musicom album, and it just didn’t seem the same: the fire and the edge weren’t there. That version won a Grammy, so somebody must have liked it a lot. I guess they didn’t know what they were missing.

How to describe Johnson’s playing? Well, of course there’s speed—that’s part of being a guitar wizard—but it’s not mere speed. To my taste his favored tone packs a lot of emotional punch, at least on these live tracks. He has the long singing sustain that you expect from a Stratocaster player, a bit in the mold of Cream-era Clapton, but a little more precise and focused, a little smoother and richer, but definitely not without bite. It’s a very vocal tone, somehow—to my taste he does the guitarist’s trick of turning a singing line into a sudden scream or howl better than anyone. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe his melodic vocabulary; I suppose it’s basically blues-oriented, but there’s all kinds of unexpected stuff in there, unusual leaps that are musically potent. Whatever the musical explanation may be, what comes through is a very positive kind of excitement. He played in this area recently, and in a pre-concert interview with the local paper said something to the effect that he just wanted to get people elated for a while. Yep, “elated” is the right word. (No, to answer the obvious question, I didn’t go—I have tinnitis and am very wary of making it worse by exposure to rock-concert sound levels.)

Of course there’s always the problem of fitting the virtuoso into a group. That difficulty may have something to do with the fact that Eric Johnson is not a household name. His singing and songwriting are nothing to get excited about, but he seems to want to do them. (Maybe he’s like a lot of us, taking for granted the gift he actually has, and wishing for ones that he doesn’t have.) To my taste most of the compositions here serve the purpose of providing frameworks for killer guitar playing, but wouldn’t be of a lot of interest otherwise. “Cliffs of Dover” is an exception—the playing and the composition are an inseparable unit, and in my opinion make for one of the greatest rock instrumentals ever.

Any day now, copyright owners are going to crack down on YouTube, but as of right now you can see and hear this performance of “Cliffs” there. Check it out.

Samples of the other tracks at eMusic.