Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Orange Has Been the New Black ... for a Long Time

“Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis, 2003

Prisoners in Guantanamo on hunger strike.  Prisoners in California on hunger strike.  Volleyed and thundered.  Almost total black-out by the bourgeois ‘news.’  We know the majority of prisoners in Guantanamo are innocent or with short term charges.  The prisoners in California are protesting, as their number one demand, the practice of long solitary confinement.  They say it is an abridgement of the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, as prohibited in the U.S. Bill of Rights.  Solitary for many years is torture.  Of course, the U.S. protects torturers and still sends suspects to be tortured, even under Obama.  Solitary?  The U.S. CIA developed that technique long ago – referred to in Naomi Klein’s book, “The Shock Doctrine.” (reviewed below)

Angela Davis, of course, was jailed herself long ago, and is still an anti-prison activist.  This book is a description of the need for prison ‘abolition’ – not prison ‘reform.’  The term ‘prison reform,’ as she points out, is as old as prisons themselves – showing they were flawed from the get-go.  Prisons were at one time thought as a progressive reform over English capital punishment and mutilation for minor crimes (see Saudi Islamist criminal law now).  However, even in the 1800s a normal liberal like Dickens understood that prisons were cruel and rehabilitated no one.  Nothing has changed – except, perhaps, the neo-liberals, as they now embrace the prison-industrial complex.

Davis’ figures are somewhat dated, as things have gotten worse since she wrote this book.  2.3 million prisoners are now incarcerated in the U.S., the highest percentage in the world.  25% of all the prisoners in the world are in U.S. prisons, when we have only 5% of the world population.  Half are in jail for drug ‘crimes.’  The majority are black.  70% of arrested blacks go to jail for drug ‘crimes’ – a percentage many times higher than whites. The super-max isolation prison – invented here in the states, the land of the ‘free’ – is now being exported to South Africa, Australia and other countries. 

Her book fits in perfectly with the books “Slavery by Another Name” and “The New Jim Crow” (both reviewed below.) It is a short primer on prison justice issues, covering the profiteering corporations, women’s issues in jail, the theory and a bit of the history of prisons, and the politics of abolition versus ‘reform.’  As Davis points out, mass incarceration in the U.S. is an extension of slavery and of Jim Crow convict leasing.  It plays the same role in the black – and now Latino population – as those systems did, as a form of labor profit and control.  Prison and police hang over the black and Latino communities like Damocles swords, as a warning to all – even if you are never jailed.  Time passes in the U.S., but only the forms change.

After the Attica revolt in 1971, college courses were offered to prisoners by a local college.  That program ended 21 years later and that is symbolic - as U.S. prisons no longer pretend to ‘reform’ anyone.  It is a purely punitive institution, measured in time only – just like work.  Libraries are shut, educational opportunities reduced, even weight-training cut back or ended.  Instead, prisoners work for capitalist firms for peanuts – Hospital Corporation of America, Dial Soap, AT&T, Famous Amos, ADM, Nestle, Wal-Mart, Ace, Hewlett Packard, RJ Reynolds, Verizon, Polaroid, Sprint and Ameritech. Not to mention the integration of the military with the prison-industrial complex, or the firms like Wackenhut or Correctional Corporation of America (“CCA”) and the food/ medical/ drug firms that can make direct profit in the privatization of prisons.  And no surprise, privatization is most prominent in the south and west of the U.S.  The American Gulag is a very profitable place. 

The strip search, which is legal in the American prison system – which involves probing a woman’s vagina and anus and a man’s anus for ‘contraband’ – is a form of sexual assault.  And it is just the beginning of the practices of sexual abuse and assault practiced in U.S. prisons, of which women are especial targets  (See commentary on "Rape, Really?"  below.) While ‘outlawed,’ the practices are not prosecuted, but tolerated as a part of the punishment regime.  Hey, you’re in ‘prison.’  What do you expect? 

Davis does not dwell on the death penalty or the drug war or draconian sentencing laws or even solitary, opposing all, but instead shows how these practices are part of a wider prison system that is actually an integral part of capitalism.  Prisons are the place where economic, cultural and ethnic ‘violators’ are put; where the surplus population can be housed; where corporate super-profits can be made; where punishment can be meted out that is not meant to deter crime; where minorities can be disenfranchised; where the ‘free’ work-force can be terrorized; where blame can be laid. 

So far, it seems to be working.  But like every other oppressed group, prisoners are rising.

And I bought it at Mayday Books.
Red Frog
July 24, 2013

P.S. - A quote from the Guardian re prison ’reform’ and racist disparities in crack cocaine sentencing, July 23rd:
"Last month, President Obama quietly did something that should shake every American to the core. Seeking to enforce federal crack cocaine laws that have since been repealed, the Obama administration asked a federal appeals court to ensure that thousands of human beings, mostly poor and mostly black, remain locked in prison even though everyone agrees that there is no justification for them to be there."

I.E. Obama & Holder want to continue the sentences of mostly black crack cocaine convicts, even after those laws have been repealed.  In other words, the black upper-middle class running the STATE can be as big an enemy of black people as the white upper middle class.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Block 17 on the El Camino Real

“Camino Real,” play by Tennessee Williams.  Girl Friday Productions, July 19, 2013

Minneapolis is reputed to be second to NYC in number of theaters per resident.  So there are plenty of plays to see here, by all kinds of companies, fly-by-night and not.  This ensemble group, which seems to specialize in mainstream plays, chose Tennessee William’s most abstract work, “Camino Real” for its latest outing.  The parts played by Gutman, the Gypsy and Kilroy were especially strong.  The title is mostly pronounced in the gringo fashion, ‘CAM-ino Real, as in reality, not RE-al.’

Normally, Williams specialized in sad humanistic dramas about realistic, sometimes working-class, people. Instead, this play is sort of a sprawling, symbolic mess.  Written in 1952, it starts out as some kind of veiled political allegory, ‘perhaps’ about life under an unidentified dictator called the ‘Generalissimo.’  The real Camino Real or “royal” or “kings highway,” is a road in California linking Catholic missions.  Another with that name links Mexico City and California, so it might reference someone like the Mexican dictator Porfiro Diaz, prior to the Mexican revolution. The El Camino de Santiago is a religious trek in the Spanish Pyrenees, which would reference Generalissimo Franco. It could mean Generalissimo Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, who was another bastard during that period. Or it could just mean the ‘Democrats and Republicans’ dominating Los Angeles and the U.S. at the time.

The dictator, through his front man ‘Gutman” and his bandolier-wearing soldiers, controls the water fountain at the center of town, shoots people to death in the plaza, controls the main hotel, and captures people to turn them into ‘patsies’ or clowns.  His ‘street cleaners’ patrol the streets and haul away the dead bodies of the poor.  The Gypsy and her hooker daughter work with Gutman to dominate the Town, which he has divided into 16 blocks – just as the play has 16 sections.  Gypsies in the 50s, of course, still meant ‘treacherous.” Gutman has banned the use of the word, “hermano” – brother in Spanish.  The pronunciation alone hints that the play is dominated by Nortenos.  So it looks like a veiled and hesitant look at oppression.   Perhaps a theater version of magical realism a la “100 Years of Solitude.”  Indeed, the Camino Real is a bleak place, and Williams said it was his vision of his world at the time. 

The lead characters are various ridiculous romantics – Don Quixote, Casanova, Baron de Charlus from Proust’s “Remembrances of Things Past,” Lord Byron (as a rock and roll poet), a famous courtesan, Marquerite Gautier, and a famous gypsy.  Into this batch of hapless romantics runs “Kilroy.”  Kilroy is the name U.S. soldiers used during World War II to mark their presence in various European towns through drawings.  Kilroy is a former Golden Gloves champ, down on his luck, but still happy, energetic, naïve, yet pure at heart.  Kilroy, who is working-class, stands up to Gutman, with no help from the romantics, and is ultimately beaten and turned into a ‘patsy’ with a blinking ‘red’ nose.

Most of the ostensibly political action takes place prior to the intermission – in the first 6 blocks’ of the portentous ‘Real.’  After intermission, during the next 10 blocks, many denizens of the Camino Real jump on the ‘il fugitivo’ plane and escape.  The soldiers disappear.  What remains are two love stories between Casanova and the Courtesan and Kilroy and the Gypsy’s daughter, Esmeralda.  The street cleaners lose their political nature and take on the nature of ‘death’ itself.  Gutman ultimately just becomes a ‘devil’ figure, disconnected from politics.  Kilroy and Quixote eventually leave the Street together through a one-way exit – suicide - after Kilroy escapes his role as a patsy.  The aging Casanova and his unwilling Courtesan finally embrace, even though Casanova was not known for his allegiance to one woman.  The Gypsy girl falls in love with the honest gringo, but he has been turned into a cat and is dead and gone.  In the end, Williams jettisons allegorical politics and instead timidly embraces ‘love’ as his solution to the problem of death and decay – something we are familiar with from his other plays.  Of course, this is no solution either.  Helplessness is instead the overall feeling the play transmits. 

Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, was gay, and was marked by that birthplace and his sexual orientation. He died in a hotel in New York, some say from an overdose of drugs, others from the effects of his drugged state. 

This play seems to be an attempt to generalize and perhaps modernize his style.  It was written at the beginning of the McCarthy period and some see it as a reaction to the conservatism of the time. After all, writers do not write in a social vacuum.  I’ve seen 6 of his other plays in various forms – “Glass Menagerie,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Night of the Iguana,” “Streetcar Named Desire,” “Summer & Smoke,” and “Suddenly Last Summer” - and this is the weakest.  He worked in Hollywood for a long time, adapting his plays to the screen, and was no doubt familiar with the ‘El Camino Real’ running through California and Los Angeles.  Williams turns that road from a beautiful name into an awful place – ‘perhaps’ his view of America, but a very hazy view at that.  Many commentators attempt to make this Williams' play political.  Even this troupe writes that this play will ‘resonate with the present.”  Personally, anything this oblique will not resonate much at all.  What we really need are direct artistic attacks on oppression and the state, not heavily veiled, self-censored, and ultimately pathetic, attempts.

And I saw it at Theater Garage
Red Frog
July 21, 2013

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Night Witches, Soviet Amazons and the Red Venus

“Women in Soviet Art” Exhibition at the Museum of Russian Art (“MORA”), Minneapolis, through November 10, 2013

The MORA has put on another great show of Soviet art, this time centering on feminist and female proletarian themes.  The only museum of its kind in the U.S., MORA is curated by Masha Zavialova, a former top translator in the USSR.  It has the largest collection of Soviet art outside Russia.  This show can lead to a re-evaluation of Soviet art in general – at least to people who completely scoffed at it in the past.  Unlike present bourgeois art, which does not focus on people or work, but perhaps day-glo refrigerators packed in tea leaves, this show does not avoid reality, labor or humanity.

The exhibit is structured on a time-line, from the initial revolutionary period, to art under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev – of women during the war, at work, at play, and also painting – as the show includes Soviet women artists too.  Of particular interest are five great paintings by Gely Korzhev, who was born in 1927 and just died last year.  This is one of them – an activist ironing a banner for a celebration of the October revolution, “On the Eve of the October Holiday.” 

Another Korzhev work, “Adam & Eve,” shows a disabled Russian worker and former soldier waiting for his working wife to decide if he should have his vodka apple – the Russian version of the fall.  Another smacks of the grotesques of Goya – ugly Russian politicians gather under the dissected body of a female Russia, though this ‘mother’ Russia still dominates the picture. In another, the paint takes on the feel of the rough skin of an elderly Soviet solider and his daughter.  In another, the working-class “Red Venus” is revealed – head scarf and boots, naked.  (More of his work here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfXHH84GV4c)

These monumental canvases capture Soviet women – Russian, Armenian, Uzbek – working as loggers, machinists, road workers, plasterers and painters, engineers, child-care workers, military pilots, astronauts, fishmongers, human plow animals, soldiers, young girls and students.  Two depict giant women wielding log spikes, aptly called ‘Soviet Amazons” by Zavialova.  One, Razdrogin’s “Worker,” done in 1970, shows a somber young woman in front of a wall of fish – wearing the same white uniform and wings as the headless white fish behind her.  Anyone who has read “The Jungle” will see the symbolism here.  (“The Jungle,” reviewed below.) Other paintings are of the 'Night Witches’ – young Soviet women pilots who flew bi-planes at night over Nazi lines to drop bombs, sometimes 10 sorties a night – with just maps, no radar, no high speeds, just guts.  There are also lighter pictures of private families at the beach, nervous schoolgirls frolicking in the snow in Moscow or reading by a window or listening to the words of their grandmother.  The pictures show women not to just be ‘workers’ but to also have a personal, private side – even at work.  Of course, work is not as glamorous in real life as it is in a painting – it is much harder, dirtier and more dangerous.  Though NOT being pictured at all is hardly an improvement – yet that is the tack bourgeois and petit-bourgeois artists take.   The working classes in capitalist countries are truly the invisible men and women.  This art, at least, makes them 'present.'

The text, written by Zavialova, is a mini-history of Russia, explaining the role of women in the USSR. (See also “Soviet Women – Walking The Tightrope,” reviewed below.)  In 1917 the new Soviet Constitution allowed the vote, divorce, abortion, the right of women to work, to education, to be in the military – in effect a complete ERA - an ERA that does not yet exist even in the U.S.  It details the efforts of Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai in setting up communal crèches, kitchens and laundries.  These steps led to a doubling of female life expectancy and 90% reduction in child mortality. 

The texts also detail the work of the “Zhenotdel” – the womens' section of the Communist Party.  Elected women went to work-sites, hospitals, schools and other institutions and weighed in on issues from a working-class feminist point of view.

The text details the later backwards steps taken by Stalin, who declared the womens' question ‘solved.’  The state began sending women back to the kitchen and home, reintroducing sex segregation, banning abortion - a sort of Soviet Victorianism.  Pictures of working women were less and less frequent.  Yet women had to flood into the workforce, partly because so many men died during the Civil War and especially during and after World War II.  Eventually, at a certain point in the ‘50s, 100% of new workers were women, and with it, more depictions of women workers as someone worthwhile.  However, this new-found freedom carried a cost for women: working both at home and at work, the double-shift.  Exhaustion, anger, alcoholism and unhappiness came in its wake.  This caused the first Soviet feminists to begin to organize in 1979.  Later, the great ‘liberal’ Gorbachev was quoted as saying that the ‘excesses’ of womens' liberation in the USSR had to be corrected, and so the USSR should ‘return women to their womanly mission.' Perhaps he was anticipating bourgeois restoration.

The exhibit is especially interesting because it includes more than paintings.  There are displays of Constructivist and other fabrics, original Russian feminist Samizdat printings on onion paper, posters about ending “Kitchen Slavery” commissioned by Kollontai, the first and very popular color Soviet cookbook, Constructivist wallpaper, the legend of Baba Yaga, photos of female Soviet self defense units, even a rather bad bust of Angela Davis in wood!

Putting this art next to desiccated American ‘post-modernism’ is instructive.  One speaks to and of the majority of people in the country.  The other ignores them.

Red Frog
July 16, 2013
I visited the MORA on Bastille Day, a celebration of the victory of the French People over monarchy, the church and the army.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"God is the Better Story ... "

“Life of Pi,” film by Ang Lee, 2012

I heard this film once described as a very long screen-saver and I had to see it.  After all, what could be more beguiling than the artificially bright colors of an exotic and long computer visual?  Well, this movie for one.

The visuals in "Pi" are OK, but just as the overwhelming awareness of computer technology dampens even a visually better film like ‘Avatar,’ this one can’t seem to escape the cute animal syndrome, bathed in phosphorescent luminosity and whaleness as it is.  Zoos are actually not cute, nor is taking wild animals to be sold. (see review of “In Fear of an Animal Planet,” below)

This film concerns a bright and likable Indian boy named “Piscine” Patel (the story was written by a Catholic French Canadian evidently) who changed his name to “Pi” to avoid being called ‘Pissing.”  He lives in Pondicherry, a Tamil town in India on the western tip of the country, a town once dominated by the French.  Since “Slumdog Millionaire,” India has slowly grown its own presence in Western film outside Bollywood – ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,’ ‘Darjeeling Ltd,’ ‘Eat Pray Love’  – mostly depicting it as a charming, funky place.  However, 'Slumdog' was a virtual piece of Soviet propaganda about poverty compared to the rest.

‘Life of Pi” is the most conservative film of the bunch.  It is saturated in religion and visual unreality.  It is the story of a titanic Ark shipwreck and the Ark lifeboat that survives – with Pi and a Bengal tiger on-board, as told to a reporter in Montreal.  Lets go to the CGI tiger, exhibit number 1, named ‘Richard Parker.’  Pi and 'Parker' live on a lifeboat that never shows the blood or bones of a dead orangutan, a zebra or a hyena; no tiger shit; or fish bones or scratches.  A tiger that can’t seem to get up on the slipperiest canvas cover in history, even from a bench a foot below it.  A boat that gets half-filled with water and never sinks lower.  Pi falls in a seething ocean a number of times and always manages to come up right next to it.  Meer Kats inhabit venus-flytrap islands shaped like Egyptian sarcophaguses full of taro root.  And yes, this tiny boat floats all the way from the Marianas Trench above the Phillipines to Mexico.  This is truly a children’s story, and Pi a modern Gunga Din.  So be it.  Let it join ‘The Jungle Book’ or “The Lion King.”

Yet it is structured as some kind of profound pop philosophy masterpiece.   You see Pi is an interfaith fan of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.  Unlike his rational father (who drowned), Pi loves Christ and Vishnu and prays to Mecca.  He wants to be baptized.  He tells the reporter – and this is the line that is repeated several times – that his story of survival on the boat will ‘make you believe in God.’  And the key line of dialog at the end – which the religious reviewers try to ignore, is “So it goes with God.”  As in, which story of life do you prefer – the miserable, sad one – or the magnificent heroic one?  As one person joked, “This movie will make you believe in God the same way that Skittles will make you believe in rainbows.” (Skittles, if you don't know, is a candy that features rainbows in its advertising.)

The movie is a saccharine failure as a religious film, although religious or 'spiritual' people might miss that.  Perhaps instead of God the tiger is the real central character.  Parker walks away from Pi into the Mexican jungle at the end of the film without looking back.  Pi thought he’d made a connection with the tiger, which he says, “kept him alive.”  He gave him fish and fresh water.  But according to the tiger, he hadn’t made a connection.  After all, the tiger had been stuck in a zoo, then shoved in the hold of a cargo ship to be sold, then dumped into the ocean to starve.  I’d say getting into the jungle as fast as he could would make sense, Gunga Din or no Gunga Din.

So who or what is the tiger – because obviously it is not a real tiger.  Nature?    Some people take it as such.  Nature doesn’t give a shit about humans, as this CGI tiger indicates.  And humans don’t really give a shit about nature, as the real treatment of Bengal tigers shows.  But since it is a CGI tiger, I don’t really know.  Real tigers don’t dance - they just go extinct.  In fact, the Bengal tiger is now down to 1,400 in India; 1,850 world-wide.  Perhaps CGI tigers are all we will have left.  That and cute animal screen-savers. This film will not have changed that one whit – in fact it will have just ignored it.

And I saw this movie at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis, USA
Red Frog
July 10, 2013

P.S. – The Department of Natural Resource Extraction (DNR) in Minnesota just announced a 25% decline in our ‘tiger’ – the grey wolf.  This after 500 were shot or trapped out of a population of 3,000 in the hunting season last November, after the U.S. (under Obama) took the wolf off the endangered species list.  The bastards running the DNR, who are merely fronts for the lumber, mining and hunting industries, say this is ‘no problem.’  However, killing lead members of a pack, or pregnant females can lead to pack decimation BEYOND the mere number killed in the hunt, which could account for the other 250 - as a total of 750 wolves died last year.  The criminal killers at the DNR and the Democratic / Republican parties have decreed another wolf season this November. 

Perhaps we can turn wolves into screen savers?  Or silk screen them on sweat shirts?  Save the wolves!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Village Anarchist

“The Five Stages of Collapse – Survivor’s Toolkit,” by Dimitri Orlov, 2013. 

Orlov is the village anarchist. At least that’s the solution this book comes up with.  Financial, commercial, political, social and cultural collapse coming? Get back to small hunter/gatherer or farming communities based on family and gift economics.  Orlov disregards the working class and socialism, which is understandable for many people burned by Stalinism / bureaucratism.  But he’s not naïve enough to suck up to capital, which he criticizes throughout the book.  He does see some benefits in the workers state economies, which were not based on the ‘market’ but on earlier forms of cooperation.  Yet his enemy is not profit or the capitalist class but industrialism itself, ‘largeness’ itself, the state itself (as if the state or an armed force can never represent the majority) and hierarchy itself – mostly centrist-anarchist concerns.  

Orlov wrote “Reinventing Collapse” (reviewed below) about the destruction of the Russian economy in the 90s under the tender bourgeois tutelage of Jeffrey Sachs and George Soros.  That book had the benefit of a specific and factual focus.  Now he’s attempted to synthesize that experience to global dimensions – and produced an idiosyncratic, contradictory and somewhat derivative account.  Just the anthropological studies he chooses to highlight are odd.  Iceland’s premier in the face of the 2008 financial collapse; the Russian Mafia; the Pashtuns; the Roma; and a tribe in Africa called the “Ik.”  Many right-wing anarchists have a fascination with lumpenism, thieves and crime.  His inclusion of the Russian Mafia, the Roma and the Pashtuns as examples of solid family structures that are enduring and perhaps enviable in the coming collapse reflects this.  Iceland makes sense, but the Icelandic right just triumphed in recent elections, reflecting that the anti-financial consensus in that tiny nation was very fragile.  And not the occasion for 'smallness' to overcome.  The mass struggles in Greece, Spain and Egypt?  The restiveness of the massive Chinese and Indian working classes?  Invisible.  In fact, the majority of people in this world are invisible to the great cooperator, Orlov.

Right-wing anarchists dislike the working class and here Orlov agrees.  His theory is that the working class was born of industrialism and will die as it decays, due to peak commodities, financial collapse and climate change.  This certainly has some truth – although even the working class of Marx’s time, small as it was, was able to impact events.  Witness the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune.  As he well knows, the small Russian working class led the Russian revolution and later the Chinese revolution.  Now that the working class is the largest it has ever been in history world-wide, Orlov wants to hasten it off the stage of history quickly – to be supplanted by nomadic hunter-gatherers, without written languages but a splendid oral tradition.  This he calls ‘survival.’  I call it petit-bourgeois romanticism.

Unfortunately for Orlov, the working class outnumbers the Pashtuns, the Roma and the Russian Mafia now and will, even after a financial, economic or political collapse.  That is OUR mob. The possibility of world-wide global revolution is now more possible than it was even during Lenin and Trotsky's time.  It can result in a steady-state economy that is sustainable and is not based on chaotic markets or growth.

Orlov does support cooperation as the answer to collapse, and that is progressive.  Like Kropotkin he understands that humans succeed when they help each other, not when they fight. Yet he pictures the pyramid of people to cooperate with like this.  First, family and clan; second, friends; third, strangers.  Now you will notice there is no room here for ‘co-workers’ or even ‘neighbors,’ let alone something like ‘class.’ Given Orlov is an isolated writer, he has no co-workers.  His only co-worker is his cup of tea or perhaps a liter of vodka.  Instead he advocates ‘de-proletarianization,’ which to him means the wonders of avoiding industrial and white-collar work.  I suspect he has been highly successful in that regard.  He highlights lumpens who proudly avoid work or rip off those who do. His vision of the future under a collapse of all industrial life seems to be a very luxurious life.  No one evidently has to hunt or farm or work much.  Just create cultural artifacts and socialize.  Agricultural work in the hot sun without many machines?  No problem.  Hunting for small game?  Always a dead shot!  Fishing without a fish finder in the wide ocean?  No problem.  The perspective is somewhat ridiculous and starry-eyed, but then, we have to look forward to something other than the abyss.

Contradictions abound in this book.  He slights the survivalists who are making money off fear.  Yet his books are selling based on the fear of collapse.  He denigrates literacy and the internet while writing a popular blog.  He denigrates the nation-state while promoting the ‘city-state’ of yore.  He claims atheism, while promoting the enduring quality of religious institutions.  He opposes theocracy and then tells us how ‘together’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ the Pashtuns are.  He predicts world collapse by 2050 at the latest, but then delineates how the present European financial crisis is leading to near economic collapse.  Certainly, this particular collapse will not take 38 years.  He stigmatizes the U.S. for its high prison population, then claims it is a result of illiteracy, not the war on drugs.  He is encouraged by the increasing number of ‘failed states’ – glorying in the fall of the state apparatuses.  Yet he ostensibly opposes their replacement – war-lordism.  He insists there is a space for anarchic cooperation to develop in Mogadishu and the upper Congo instead.  This paradise of cooperation has not occurred yet.  Misery by itself usually does not produce progressive social change.  Oppression, instead, oppresses. 

Orlov, unfortunately, has become adept at lazy, sweeping generalizations and general bloviating.  There are certainly some nuggets of usefulness here, but submerged in a sea of romanticism.

His theory is that his stages of collapse – first financial, then commercial, political, social and cultural – can be separately analyzed.  He hopes that social and cultural collapse can be contained, because otherwise human life will descend to below animal culture, as his survey of the “Ik” tribe describes.  The Iks are subject to extreme starvation because the Kenyan government has forbidden them access to their ancestral homelands inside a ‘nature’ park.  The government has chosen animal-animals before human-animals in this case.  As a result, the Ik have no food and live a ‘every person for themselves’ life – throwing children out of the hut at 3 and letting the old die. Their biggest source of humor is the misfortunes of others.  The Ik, however, are not victims of collapse per se, but of bureaucratic state laws, neo-liberalism and the resulting starvation.

Who is Dimitri Orlov?  Well, in this book he mentions that both his father and grandfather were professors in the old USSR.  The family left the USSR in the first wave of dissidents in 1972.  Now he loves sailing and is a self-identified writer and blogger.  His hero is Peter Kropotkin, who engaged in the Russian Revolution by doing absolutely nothing while in-country, dying in his bed in 1921.  If the revolution or even social upheaval comes to the U.S. Orlov will probably be invisible, preserving his family in water-world, while fishing for the few remaining species in the ocean. Co-operation?  ‘Group’ survival?  Not unless you are related.  

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
July 4, 2013

Celebrate the 1776 Revolution from British Colonialism, a true revolution of cooperation, not carried out by families, mafia or thieves, but by an army of dedicated small farmers and city workers.  “Our” mob.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Every Musicians’ Connected: 150 Guitars


"Life,” Biography of Keith Richards, 2013

The Rolling Stones are the most long-lived top rock band in the world.  In the U.S. the Dead, the Band and Springsteen give them a run for their money.  The Beatles flared and died too quickly, as did many other monster groups.  Dylan, and perhaps Neil Young are still the kings of the singer-songwriters, but their groups are not a “band” per se, as Young does not always play with Crazy Horse.  It is to be seen if any of the current crop of blues-rock groups like the Black Keys, the Alabama Shakes, Jack White’s various bands, Drive-By Truckers, Kings of Leon or even bands like My Morning Jacket or the Decembrists can reach the same level.  It is doubtful.

Richards was and is key to that artistic success.  He provided the classic riffs to many Stones songs like "Sympathy for the Devil" and “Honky Tonk Women." And came up with some of the key lyric choruses like “I Can’t Get No – Sa-tis-fact-ion” and "Wild horses - couldn't drag me away," though Jagger was the word-wizard for most Stones songs.  The Stones, if you remember, were the ‘bad boy’ alternative to the Beatle choir boys – at least initially.  This book details many of those problems – drug busts, tax issues, court appearances, many incredibly close scrapes with the law and the cops, rowdy shows, destructive hotel stays, odd hangers-on, groupies, contentious relationships, guns, knives, dealers and drugs.  Lots of drugs.  Keith was a heroin addict for 10 years, kicking it finally in the early 80s.  He’s not proud of it – too much – but he does manage to point out how he could ‘handle it.’  Careful use, good quality, cold turkey, etc. He claims while recording it enabled him to work and record and not fall asleep and ignore all the chaos surrounding the band.

You grow to like Richards in this book as a person – in spite of his clichéd public persona.  He explicitly says he was living the ‘outlaw’ life – though its not sure how much of a role the fans played in that.  But it seems Keith – or “Keef” – in reality IS that non-lethal outlaw.  Clothing was castoffs from his girlfriends sometimes, which grew into his gypsy wardrobe, unlike Charlie Watts, the ex-jazz drummer, who wore Savile Row suits .  Richards tried to live the life of a music pirate, and somehow succeeded in his own estimation, all because of music.  Richards was surrounded by lumpen artists, wealthy patrons, druggies, people who dabbled in criminality and he had perhaps more money than he knew what to do with.  Richards grew to hate the police, of course.  He bought or rented houses in Jamaica, Switzerland, France, Turks & Caicos and the U.S. Anyone else would have spent much more time in jail, but his connections, status and lawyers always kept him out of totally serious trouble.

What is really key to this book is the music – always, for Keith, it was the music.  Richards grew up in a hardscrabble town on the southeast edge of London, along the Thames.  Both he and Jagger came at it as record collectors first.  They studied Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, JL Hooker – all the American greats.  They bought records directly from Chess in Chicago.  They lived in squalor and only thought about music.   If you are a music ‘junkie’ than this book will keep you high.

They picked up cheap instruments, running them all through one amp, doing covers of American blues, R&B and some country.  Keith liked to record on cassettes, simple 8-track studios, basic equipment using a few mikes in simple rooms even after that initial period.  They only wanted to be a cover band, the best blues band in the UK, until Andrew Loog Oldham locked them up and made them write a song. “As Tears Go By” was the product of that first lockup, but it was so un-bluesy they were embarrassed.  They let Marianne Faithful record it first instead. 

The enduring mystery is why did some working class British boys become so attracted to U.S. blues music that they dragged it out of the racist prison it was locked into in the States?  This was 1962!  Many British bands - Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac, the Moody Blues, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Ten Years After - all started out trained on the blues.  Even today, European visitors to the Mississippi Delta museums and sites equal or outnumber American visitors.  WTF?  (See review of “In Search of the Blues,” below.)  As a kid, our group listened to obscure Delta and Chicago blues in our little house in the southern prairie of Minnesota in the mid to late 60s  Little did we know it was being done in many other places. One of our compadres named himself “Blind Northfield Slim” – even though he could see well enough and was white as the sun.

Richards describes his ‘come to Jesus’ moment when he discovers ‘open tuning’ using 5 strings on the Telecaster guitar, removing the bottom sixth.  I’m not a guitar player, but this tuning allowed him to get a jangle that helped the massive Stone’s riffs sound like they did.  He says he first learned this open tuning on the guitar from Ry Cooder, but just for slide guitar and expanded it to rock guitar.  Later he taught the tuning to Ike Turner, of all people.  The pupil teaching the master, as Richards would put it.

There are great nuggets in this book.  The band name came from Muddy Waters, not Bob Dylan. These guys worked constantly for years – either touring, recording or preparing to do both.  They had very little time off.  Jagger and Richards were on the same wavelength and could write songs quickly, starting with bits and pieces of melodies, riffs or lyrics that just grew like weeds. On an early tour they went straight to Chess’ 2120 South Michigan Avenue to record in Muddy’s studio.  “Street Fighting Man” was written about the May 1968 revolution in France.  When the Stones recorded “Exile on Main Street” in the chateau Nellecote basement in France, Richards worked constantly, many times all night, with a top crew.  Bobby Keys, who’d played on many U.S. R&B records with Delaney & Bonnie and Derek & the Dominoes; Mick Taylor had joined; Jimmy Miller and Andy Johns were doing the producing and recording.  They used a mobile studio, one of the first ever.   They later wrote and recorded the great songs “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at the legendary Muscle Shoals Alabama studio on the fly.  Richards lays the fuckup at Altamont primarily at the doors of the San Francisco City Council, who refused the use of Golden Gate park, and then the Hells Angels.

There is the required gossip about Mick Jagger and the constant strife over Jagger’s overweening attitude.  Richards describes Jagger as a brother, but not a friend.  He goes through his side-work with various Jamaican bands, a film he did with and about Chuck Berry; his solo project, the “X-Pensive Winos,” the odd upbringing of his son Marlon; his romance with Anita Pallenberg and eventual marriage to Patti Hansen; relationships with Brian Jones, Mick Taylor and Ron Wood, his troubled relationship with is father etc.  There is a lot of name-dropping of prominent cultural figures in the 60s, 70s and later, not just in music.  Although it’s not really name-dropping when you are a ‘name’ yourself.  Richards comes off as the loyal ‘band’ member who wanted to keep it together, a true friend and honest partner, in spite of all his fucked-up drug or emotional tantrums – which he does not dwell on, as he can barely remember them, or chooses not to.  

Richards said the Stones didn’t make money until the tours starting in the early 80s.  Like many rock acts, they were being ripped off by various promoters, managers, etc.  He claims record royalties only paid the overhead.  And so those giant stadium tours took off.

As the Kinks sang about in one song, they got out of the ‘factory’ and into music, only to enter another factory, the music industry.  Richards made that factory his own, which is rare.  While this is not a political book, the Stones were key in undermining bourgeois culture for awhile, and even the frozen culture of the Soviet bloc, as his comments on Vaclav Havel and a recent book have noted. (The book is "How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin: The Untold Story of a Noisy Revolution")  Rock has always had working-class roots and this book certainly shows that.  Long Live Rock & Roll! 

And I bought it as a discount out of Mayday Book’s music section.
Red Frog
July 1, 2013
"Summertime ... and the livin' is easy..."