wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: essaying

John Le Carré, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY.

The third Le Carré I’ve read and the most impressive, the most ambitious. I look forward to finishing the ‘Karla trilogy’ soon — though not right away, and not only because I’m reading Blood Meridian and Graves’s Greek myths…

Schoolboy‘s not quite as warmhearted as Tinker, Tailor for several reasons, not least the change of primary venue from beloved England to Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, centering on Hong Kong. Le Carré deftly handles the intricate politics of his setting, letting the American humiliation in Saigon serve as backdrop to a more complex and far-reaching story of ’round-eyes’ integrating into a society which (for all its strangeness) is as wearily, complexly human as Le Carré’s Europe. But for all its effortless evocation of time and place, and Le Carré’s usual eerily precise characterization, Schoolboy‘s plot is a touch more diffuse than Tinker‘s. It breathes, its rhythms make sense in retrospect, but it’s a damned long and complicated book — and Le Carré’s deftly employed narratorial touches (proleptic insertions and retrospective commentary, unexpected almost gossipy asides) pull focus, somewhat, from the ‘Russian gold seam’ premise to enact a kind of ‘literary’ meta-level mystefaction: Schoolboy‘s narration suggests not only that it may end with a surprise but that the kind of ending it will deliver will come as a surprise.

In other words, you always get the rug pulled out from under you with the master’s books — deception as such is a deep thematic interest of Le Carré’s — but Schoolboy goes further than the previous ‘Karla’ novel in unsettling the reader, upsetting not just the world-frame but the narrative frame. Of the three I’ve read so far, it’s the first Le Carré novel I’d identify as making a consciously ‘modernist’ commitment, engaging in the kind of epistemological games which litcrit types enjoy in lieu of actual fun.

Which isn’t to say Schoolboy isn’t conventionally satisfying! It’s a grandly cynical romance, an Englishmen-abroad potboiler, a great ‘jungle novel’ — the long setpiece in which Westerby and his charming young driver cross into Thailand is an extraordinarily vivid and exciting piece of adventure writing, reminding me so strongly of Norman Rush’s canonical Mortals that I wondered whether the latter novel was intended partly as an homage — and it ends not only with an extended bang-up climax but with a perfectly judged coda in which the ashes of concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘win’ and ‘lose’ are scattered unceremoniously in the Thames.

It’s just that Le Carré seems to be trying here for a level beyond what his previous ‘spy novels’ had attained. Tinker, Tailor is about (among other things) the madly, ruinously circular clash of two declining empires, but plotwise focuses tightly on the Circus, its gorgeous boys’-school interludes working thematically off to the side a bit; Schoolboy attains both greater intimacy with its fully human protagonist Jerry Westerby and painfully harrowing distance, Greek-tragedy distance you might say, by carefully rendering what feels like a vast civilizational unraveling all around him. Awe-inspiring wide shots of a world at its end…and then inescapable, claustrophobic closeups. And again. And again.

I didn’t love Westerby’s story as I loved Tinker, Tailor — honestly I wanted to spend more time with Smiley, because I’m a sap, and Westerby’s great Error is the one element of the novel I had trouble subscribing to, and there are a lot of hateful bastards harrying the Better Guys in this story. But while the previous novel inspired admiration and love, Schoolboy inspires awe. Days after finishing, I can’t believe what I’ve just read.

Girl note

Well, there’s one other shortcoming to talk about. The three Le Carré novels I’ve read have spent little time on the inner lives of women, and not one that I can recall has passed the ‘Bechdel Test.’ Yes, he writes about a largely male world; yes, he peppers these stories with interesting female characters with serious expertise and complex private views facing grave moral choices. Yes, he was a ‘man of his time.’ And Lizzie Worthington, the great test of our schoolboy’s honour, is a self-created protagonist of her own story, wearily trading on sex and perceived shallowness to make her way. She’s an Interesting Female Character. But her viewpoint doesn’t enter into the book’s narrative calculus — the book’s ‘third act’ would be something very different if Worthington’s view of Westerby and the Circus were made explicit, but for Le Carré it’s enough for us to watch her watch the plot.

That didn’t strike me as any sort of great problem while reading — Westerby’s emotions are laid bare throughout the book, and any vividly rendered inner life is a gift; plus the book is brilliant (did I mention?) — but the pattern’s there, and it matters. Only in our idiot century could it be said to matter more than the stories themselves, and to me it doesn’t. But a true account of this extraordinary book, and its extraordinary author, demands honesty on this score.

Logan.

  1. I suspect Hugh Jackman is the last screen Wolverine; I hope so. You can only ring changes on that character so many times, within the confines of the ‘tentpole actioner’ as they say. Jackman grew into the role, doing solid work even in terrible films, and created — pardon me — an iconic screen character; he deserves the chance to bring the curtain down. The fact that whoever’s making those alternate-timeline X-Men movies won’t cast anyone else in the role is a real compliment to him. (That said, I wondered a couple of times what Mel Gibson could’ve done as old Logan — it was the beard that set me off, but Jackman’s fellow Aussie is still, I think, better at communicating Logan‘s mix of pain, confusion, resignation, misanthrophy, and (lest we forget) feral rage.)
  2. Patrick Stewart deserves an Oscar, not only because he’ll make an excellent speech. He takes a risk here and delivers a flawless performance that owes nothing to the standard language of ‘superhero films’; Jackman does a lot of fighting, as you’d expect of Wolverine, but Stewart is playing a low-key drama about aging ungracefully. I’m reminded of Gielgud’s frail Prospero, and wish I’d seen Stewart’s…
  3. Dafne Keen provides a feral take on Stranger Things‘s ‘Eleven.’ She’s every inch as good as her costars, especially in the film’s many intensely quiet moments. So’s Stephen Merchant as a run-down Caliban, who must’ve loved playing scenes with the naughty Mr Grant. And though Boyd Holbrook’s role is a bit of a clunker, he does his best to run off with the film. Everyone onscreen is in top form. As someone else points out: a lot of excellent screen actors pop up in cape’n’cowl films with nothing to do, and Logan shows how deep you can go once you’ve established the characters and ensemble and are no longer beholden to the almighty ‘mythology.’ (By all accounts Logan diverges completely from its ostensible source material, profitably cynical hack writer Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan.)
  4. Logan is a Western (no points for figuring that out), and makes heartbreaking use of footage and dialogue from Shane. Yes there’s much talk — predictable, since film critics are almost all hacks, even the ‘names’ — of Logan ‘transcending’ the comic-book film and ‘defying genre conventions,’ etc., but for God’s sake ignore all that chatter. It’s squarely within the conventions of a different sort of story that’s fallen out of favour with (young) film audiences, and it will be overrated by critics as a result. This is an important thing to understand about critics and tastemakers: when a media text that appears, or is expected, to belong to one genre is revealed to belong to another, they flip out, because in that case they have something to do. Sci-fi story that’s actually a domestic melodrama? Gush. Fight movie doubles as anticapitalist protest? Gush. Surprisingly gory superhero film is really about old people? Gush. (Star Wars meets The Dirty Dozen? Gush of relief.) It would be a very good (if somewhat old-fashioned) Western if it didn’t have superheroes in it, its iconography smartly utilized by James Mangold et al., but once those adamantium claws go snikt there’s no stopping the fanthusiasm, and critical perspective collapses.
  5. As ‘awesome’ violence is to comixxx fanboys, schematic genre-crossing is to film critics.
  6. I cried at the end, during the eulogy (it doesn’t spoil anything, really, to suggest that there’ll be a eulogy, though I won’t say whose). I had an intense feeling of having come through something, and I can’t tell whether I mourned the character or the franchise, which is a little disgusting. Jackman’s been Wolverine for, what, twenty years? That’s a long time to live with an idea. But during the other obvious tearjerker moment, not only didn’t I cry, I didn’t feel much of anything — it felt like a necessary step in the narrative progression of a dark Western film. ‘But this is a big deal in a superhero movie!’ went my inner nerd, and I began to wonder whether that voice, too, needed to die in order that everyone else might glimpse transcendence.
  7. The idea that every aesthetic judgment about a superhero film must be conducted in terms only of other superhero films is cowardice. If they’re good films, they’re good even with masked vigilantes in them, and we shouldn’t use the words ‘guilty pleasure’ to mask our interest. If they can’t hold up to that standard — if, for instance, your connection to Logan and Logan is nostalgia for a line of commercial products, and you’re just better off watching Mangold’s riveting 3:10 to Yuma — then why do we bother? Because they’re popular? Logan‘s quite a good film on its own terms, and that’s enough to justify the price of your matinee ticket, but the gushing has to do with its status as a ‘genre-defying’ popcorn flick, which shows how deep the rot has gone. One critic approvingly points out that the heroes fail, at one crucial juncture, to drive over a chicken-wire fence; they get snarled in it instead, and have to back out. Funny, no? Clever, no? Honest, no? And so we must deduce that no superhero film has ever been honest before, because we’re goldfish forgetting the other side of our tank.
  8. Lemme put it this way: I saw the movie yesterday and can vividly remember much or most of it now, nearly twenty-four hours later — but only because I’m trying. Honestly, until I sat down to write about it, it had slipped from my mind, like so many other good movies.

THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS, dirt cheap. Buy?

The Wire and The Sopranos were on sale on Blu-Ray for $60ish apiece yesterday only. If you haven’t seen them, you should consider buying them next time this happens.

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these posts, forgive me if I’m a little rusty.

The turn-of-the-millennium ‘Golden Age’ of primetime drama kicked off with damaged/compromised classics like Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files, which incorporated soap-opera seriality (via shows like Hill Street Blues) into the hourlong network drama format. Canonical shows like Buffy and My So-Called Life reveled in that new freedom, clearing way for achievements like the first two years of Veronica Mars, but it wasn’t until HBO got into the game that the primetime drama reached full maturity.

Oz was their first step, but The Sopranos was the breakthrough: a domestic ‘dramedy’ playing on familiar tropes (the henpecked Kramden/Bunker figure, the dysfunctional ethnic clan) with a theretofore unimaginable intensity, viscerality, subtlety, and — this is the key — honesty about sacred institutions like marriage. The Sopranos, by no means the subtlest of HBO’s great dramas, demonstrated that a primetime series could leave important matters of plot and character unexplained from week to week, trusting viewers to follow not only the in-world action but the various social-critical and symbolic levels of the show as well. Though this may seem silly to young viewers today, it was an extraordinarily demanding show in its time.

It was an actors’ showcase. James Gandolfini and Edie Falco not only gave two of the great individual performances in the history of the medium, they collaborated on one of the essential onscreen depictions of a marriage. The cast wasn’t uniformly excellent, and there were only a handful of sizable female roles, but the high pitch of the action meant that everyone on the show had great material to work with, and a handful of performances were career bests. (The rise and fall of Johnny Sack, for instance, is a masterpiece of writing, acting, and direction.)

It was a writers’ showcase. David Chase and his staff took huge risks: showing the main character committing horrific violence with his bare hands, say, or doing a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern episode in the Pine Barrens. Carmela and Tony’s showdown in the Season Four finale (‘Whitecaps’) includes two bravura scenes which belong in the American dramatic pantheon. ‘The Test Dream’ is pure Freudian nightwork. And of course the finale is an extraordinary achievement — perfectly emotionally correct but, at the level of plot, a bit of a tease.

It was laugh-out-loud funny — indeed, it was in many ways a domestic/workplace sitcom in the All in the Family mode — yet its often broad comedy only deepened its horror, denying viewers easy acclimation to a single tone (unlike Game of Thrones, say, a fine successor show which has traded wit for (self-)importance). Of the Golden Age dramas, The Sopranos was the jokiest one, and the most disturbing.

It was, in the final analysis, the Peak Era show that most harshly defied viewer expectations. Deadwood‘s anticlimaxes, The Wire‘s ‘inner’ climaxes, the unintentional hilarity of Galactica and Lost‘s endings…none of these assaulted the basic art/artist/audience contract the way the final season(s) of The Sopranos did. David Chase’s deep cycnicism is the primary colour of those last 20ish episodes, making the show less immediately satisfying but ultimately more haunting. Like the Seinfeld finale, Chase’s closing episode ‘Made in America’ reveals the pitch-black heart of the work; of course viewers hated it, didn’t get it, asked the wrong questions. But it works and it’s beautiful.

The Sopranos is one of the great American dramatic achievements.

(And yet Mad Men, helmed by Sopranos alum Matt Weiner, surpassed it in most respects. Weiner’s achievement is secondary, late: he applied the dramatic model of The Sopranos to a meticulously reimagined 1960s Manhattan, foregrounded female characters (and writers) (neither of which Chase took to), and sacrificed none of the comedy or dramatic intensity while doing without the lurid violence. I’d say Weiner’s series is ‘the better show’ overall, for what that’s worth. But as with the imperfect Buffy and X-Files, at its peak, nothing could touch The Sopranos.)


The Wire, meanwhile, is harder to talk on without parenthesizing. It’s the most tightly constructed Peak Era show, and the one with the biggest immediate social impact. It’s hard to celebrate individual scenes, sequences, and episodes, because the show was conceived in purely serial terms, each episode existing solely as a portion of the whole. No standalones, no gimmicks, just pure longform drama of a kind never before seen on primetime TV. (Even Babylon 5 couldn’t work on its level, though Breaking Bad fans claim that show did.) The well wrought multiyear narratives of The Wire make the X-Files ‘mytharc’ and Lost‘s endless backstory tap-dancing seem even more childish than they actually were.

Yet the satisfactions of the series are very different from those of the other ‘Peak Era’ dramas. By creator David Simon’s own account, The Wire‘s characters were conceived in a more limited way than Chase’s (or David Milch’s) — a ‘Greek’ vs ‘Shakespearean’ dramatic model, with the little guy crushed over and over by ‘postmodern institutions’ — so the only completely imagined character on the show is its dearest subject, Baltimore itself. The private lives of the individual characters barely register, except as (usually ironic) counterpoint to the ongoing polemic. This is risky business, but Simon managed to put together one of the best writing staffs ever assembled for a show of this kind. They pulled it off.

The Wire, then, is the ultimate treatment of a single city in American TV or film, each season focusing on a different community (cops and drug dealers, dockworkers, City Hall, city schools, the Baltimore Sun) to make an inescapable point about the disaster of the ‘drug war’ and the suffocation of the urban underclass under late capitalism. Its chief virtue is ‘authenticity’: driven by a collective reportorial instinct (and Simon’s own experience as a journalistic ’embed’ with Baltimore PD’s Homicide unit) Simon and his writers attended to details which might never have occurred to writers on an ordinary cops’n’robbers show. The series’s pragmatic attitude toward the drug trade (‘the only profitable industry left in West Baltimore’) and the creators’ realism about the limitations of police work (the cops and corner boys are soldiers in a war none of them actually want to fight) keep the drama even-keeled, in a sense, making room for small victories and drawing extraordinary power from small defeats — there are heroes and villains aplenty, but The Wire‘s world is one in which the Struggle, the Dream, is simply to be able to slow down, to survive, to be ordinary. Even moreso than The Sopranos, which focuses on the long second act of a man’s life, The Wire dramatizes continuation, settling, even boredom.

Plenty of gunfights, of course, and highly technical discussion of investigative techniques (infodumped so skillfully at times you’ll never know what hit you), some superb comedy, and each year, a penultimate episode so crushingly sad and intense that you’ll swear it was the best thing ever aired on American TV.

Which, honestly, it might’ve been. I know which shows I prefer from hour to hour, but taken as a whole, there’s nothing like The Wire. It’s one of the classic works of American agitprop — but it’s also a great crime drama. The Sopranos is no longer one of a kind, but The Wire is, and will (I suspect) remain so.

Revisits: The Slip, Dave Matthews, Grimes, Radiohead.

Listening again to some discs I’d put aside, trying to hear something new in somethings old.

Grimes, Visions (2012)

An immersive piece of intoxicated tinkerer’s psychedelia which I dismissed too quickly in favour of the immediately accessible Art Angels. It still feels a bit like student work, which is to say there are moments of obvious Technique and an abashed quality throughout — if you’re willing to write the words, why not take the next step and sing so’s we can actually make them out? — and this is very obviously a Somewhat Muddled but Affecting Drug Album where Art Angels (the (minor) breakout pop hit) is an enthusiastic celebration of clarity, and perhaps sobriety. Yet the best songs (visions?), like ‘Genesis’ (my favourite and my wife’s), bring gal-pop narrativity to spacey electronica in a lushly trippy style, engaging the senses instead of making sense or settling for sensation. A strong argument for making the dancefloor and the chillout room all one big space, or maybe one very small one. And though the bespoke knob-twiddling of EDM still strikes me as the midpoint of a slippery slope down to shared-isolation consumerist hell, there’d be a place for Grimes in a world that still valued accident and the unfamiliar. For her sake I’m glad she’s off speed, though it’s a very small but real letdown that her next album won’t be a trip like this one.

The Slip at High Sierra Music Festival, 9/6/98

In their early incaranation, one of the small handful of worthwhile ‘jam bands’ — they combined schmind-schmexpanding hippie wandering with proper jazz language, and in the late 90s their considered engagement with electronic tools opened up new vistas. (Afterward they took a turn to electronica-touched indie pop, which brought them more attention; by that point I’d fallen off the radar somewhat.) They were astonishing live, passionate and spiritually intense but with actual existing chops. All three members are superb players, and Boston was their adopted hometown, so catching them at an all-night MIT basement show or burning up the Paradise was always a special experience. In those days drummer Andrew Barr took off for a few months of apprentice drumming in Mali, and came back with new old knowledge, playing with devotional fervor. I don’t know whether that was before or after this feelgood festival set, which is bound to be more affecting if you’re already up on the band. Excellent ‘Yellow Medicine’ here after a bunch of festival jams, but the career highlight is ‘Honey Melon,’ a gorgeous tune off From the Gecko that’s lifted by fiddle and didgeridoo into unself-conscious exultation. The set overall is less essential than I used to think, but the final two tunes, more than a half-hour in total, are the truth. I miss this band so much.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

  1. These are the best strings I’ve heard on a rock album. I don’t love all of Jonny Greenwood’s film work, which at times has seemed to me to be more ‘interesting’ than beautiful, but there’s no denying his ambition — or, at this point, his mastery. Remember how folks gave Beck props for hiring his dad to do (gorgeous) string arrangements on Sea Change? This isn’t an additive process like that: Greenwood’s textures, acoustic and electronic, are essential to the structure of each piece. The second verse of ‘Burn the Witch’ — a statement of intent and show of force — features string backing of extraordinary subtlety and beauty, even while the rest of the arrangement cruelly weaponizes the string section. Subtlety isn’t exactly a rock’n’roll virtue, but listen closely to the way heavily processed samples of Thom Yorke’s moaning/humming turn out to be models for — or fore-echoes of? — the avant string part that poisons the back half of the song.
  2. Yorke has always done a brisk side business in haunting solo acoustic ballads: ‘Desert Island Disk’ continues a line running back through ‘Give Up the Ghost,’ ‘Faust Arp,’ ‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Exit Music (for a film),’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ — songs which have sometimes grown in performance to include full-band accompaniment, but which at heart are guy-with-guitar songs. Indeed, Yorke & Greenwood’s two-guys-with-two-guitars shows are perfect showcases for the songs they’ve crafted together, just as Dave Matthews’s duo shows with Tim Reynolds are an ideal showcase for his own underpraised songwriting work. ‘Desert Island Disk’ features spare synth backing and hushed work from the whole band in its final minute, but it’s a reminder that Yorke, all by himself, is a major talent. So’s the next track, which sees Yorke singing in unplaceable character as supplement to an extended uptempo not-exactly-dance tune. You can’t say Yorke’s never been better — go listen again to ‘Sulk,’ a song he refused to sing after its release partly because of The Big Feelings, though I suspect the demands it placed on his tenor were too great anyway — but he’s never gone further in, lyrically or vocally.
  3. Some American rock critics hate it when a British band puts out a masterpiece. Not just Christgau; his resentments are just easy to see. (Go read the Dartmouth grad’s U2 and Radiohead reviews if you don’t believe me — the best of our record reviewers is more chip than shoulder, there.) Americans are often suspicious of subsequent British invasions. And Radiohead, especially on this album, are very British (English, duh) indeed, trafficking in a pastoral unease that a nation needs 2,000 years of continuous local anxiety to work up to. As I tried to get at in a review I wrote of Adam Roberts’s superb SF novel Bête, I think the essential thing about American imaginary landscape is that our monumental geography predates Euro colonization — America was ancient before whites arrived, and it stretches so far in both time and space that its chief function is to make people feel small and/or (falsely) humble. But Britain itself is ancient — older than Christianity — and British fantastika seems to me to treat the mysteries of the land as understandable in terms of permanent residence rather than latecomer settlement — America has mountains and rivers and resentful natives, Britain has stone circles and fairy rings and ley lines and resentful Britons. The video for ‘Burn the Witch’ drives home this difference: when Americans go on about witch trials, they do so in tiresome moralizing tones, to tell a just-so story about {$intolerance_du_jour}. But the Wicker Man? Guy Fawkes? Spring-Heeled Jack? Now we’re into something else, free now of childish didacticism. The nightmarish somber-cheeriness of the ‘Burn the Witch’ video has no precise analogue in American culture. Or so it seems to me.
  4. Moon Shaped Pool came out two weeks after Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but without Lemonade‘s built-in pressure to have the correct opinion about it (Beyoncé is now the Significant musician, about whom Opinions must be had and shared; Radiohead’s just a band). Of the two albums Lemonade certainly goes further beyond everyone’s previous sense of the artist’s capabilities, or at any rate her interests — we all knew Beyoncé was a tremendously talented singer, and it’s not as if she wrote the music or (underwhelming except to autobiographically interested fans) lyrics. Moon Shaped Pool sounds like Radiohead moving further down a path they’d opened several albums ago, making more-than-ever complex and subtle use of familiar elements like aforementioned strings, disquieting electronics, Yorke’s alien voice, etc.; it’s the most emotionally mature thing they’ve ever put out. ‘Band gets better at the things they’re uniquely good at’ is a nice story, but younger cultural critics don’t have time for it. There’s no hook, no novelty. Radiohead are old news. Well, if we’re only giving credit for achievement and not potential or indeed Significance, then the old news is still news: Radiohead are the more musically and indeed lyrically ambitious than Beyoncé (and just about everyone else in pop or rock), and while Yorke’s vocals occupy a much narrower emotional envelope, he relies less on cliché and formula.
  5. Not for the first time, I find myself privileged to grow old/young alongside artists who were once said (dismissively, sensationally) to speak for their time, but who were always and only (it turns out) speaking for themselves.
  6. It’s beautiful.

Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets (1998)

DMB’s best album, so f’ing what, but also a good album on its own terms — so good that even the terrible early Matthews tune ‘Halloween’ can’t ruin the vibe. It helps that ‘Halloween’ is sandwiched between ‘Stay,’ a perfect gospel-tinged bit of danceable pillowtalk pop, and ‘The Stone,’ an extraordinarily tense rhythmic experiment which makes the case for Carter Beauford’s hi-hat as pop music’s 1998 MVP. The antic/rustic/pastoral interludes help the album cohere, as do the beyond-the-call Kronos Quartet and producer Steve Lillywhite. The inclusion of pianist Butch Taylor (who joined the band full-time around this time) seems inevitable — rounding off the percussive guitar/bass/drum texures and varying the sax/fiddle atmospherics. Matthews writes great little songs without strong melodic identities, which suits his improvisatory dude-with-guitar style but means his Band needs to deliver a lot more than background. Thankfully they do: Crowded Streets is both a topologically varied and a sonically unified album, democratic in spirit but with a coherent shared sensibility.

You’re under no obligation to take Matthews and his Band seriously; despite their early popularity and surprising staying power they’re not exactly essential artists, and Matthews’s songwriting tends toward diffuseness. In my 33-1/3 book on Phish I called him an ‘intuitive savant,’ and I stand by that — his stripped-down acoustic duo shows with soulmate Tim Reynolds showcase his oddball folk-pop experiments, and he’s written a handful of unassailable tunes in that mode (‘So Damn Lucky,’ ‘Bartender,’ ‘Jimi Thing,’ and ‘Warehouse’ come to mind, and I have a soft spot for ‘Christmas Song’). But his batting average isn’t high enough for the canon, c’mon. I take issue with Robert Christgau’s tired ‘bland as a tofu sandwich’ snobbery, not least because some well-made tofu sandwiches have kicked this carnivore’s ass all over the place (and I find DMB’s integrated-in-every-sense funk/folk/jazzgrassish pop sound pretty interesting), but there’s no denying that Matthews has never made ‘dangerous’ music, whatever you take that to mean.

And his lyrics are, worryingly often, just terrible.

Still, Crowded Streets shows how much room there is for experimentation within DMB’s radio-friendly mid-90s hedonism template. The songs move, the singer digs deep, the band passes the energy ball with casual expertise, and the sound belongs to them alone. Overlook them if you like, no one cares. Dismiss them if you like — but listen first. Listen, if you have a minute, for what so many of us heard back then.

Just look down.

The 9/3 show at Dick’s was the first 2016 Phish show I’d listened to at any length, and the only one I attended this year. I’d heard bad things about the summer tour — not ‘they’re not equalling the heights of 2015’ stuff but ‘they are playing bad shows,’ which is nearly unthinkable for this most generous of bands — so while their headlining sets at the Lock’n festival had gotten decent reviews, I wasn’t expecting anything special from the Dick’s shows. Hey, we all have off years.

Well.

If you follow the band enough to be reading this, you already know what happened that night: they opened with Slave, played one of the best first sets since Coventry — including an extended Disease in the two-slot — then dove deep for an exploratory Blaze On(!) > Simple(!) > etc. > Hood(!!) sequence complete with what I’m reliably informed is one of the first actually interesting Marimba Lumina jams. Then there was the encore, a first-ever walkoff bass solo in Coil. And of course, on Sunday night they arguably topped that performance with a spectacular run of extended jams. There is, in other words, nothing to worry about — and I’m actually looking forward to checking out the rest of Summer 2016.

My experience of the show was the polar opposite of my usual concert-night arc: up by the Mike’s-side rail I was totally dialed in to the opening set, bursting out laughing dozens of times (I was sober) and undergoing the kind of gentle transformation that’s the reason I go see Phish. Afterward, wide-eyed surprise and grateful hugs and a needed breather amongst new friends and acquaintances. But after relaxed chatter and the last of my one drink at setbreak, I found myself a little disconnected from the second set, slipping back into analytical mode, suddenly self-conscious about my appearance. It happens — it just hasn’t happened to me in years.

But there was a moment in the second set, during the gradual crescendo out of the Simple/marimba jam, when all my senses seemed to focus, and (pardon me if this langauge seems hippie-ish) I tuned in to the ‘fifth voice’ which is the ensemble’s gestalt effect, the emergent ‘groupmind.’ And I think I said aloud at that point: ‘This is new music.’ Page and Trey had developed this rich textural bed with Rhodes, marimba, and subtle guitar loops (listen closely to the soundboard for these), Fish was getting into some unexpected sounds on his kit, and Mike was playing in a lead-from-within style that reminded me, in a way, of Trey’s guitar whorls. And for a couple of minutes it was just magical. On tape it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime improvisation or anything, just a moment of easy intimacy and effortless mastery.

And I’m reminded that while we have no right to demand new music from four musicians who’ve been playing these songs for more than thirty years, we still get the privilege night after night of hearing them discover things — about their art, themselves, the family we and they have made over the decades. And those discoveries, those experiences of real newness which can’t be planned or scheduled and which I’d distinguish from mere ‘novelty’ (which was Phish’s early specialty), are the secret of both Phish’s success and their creative rebirth these last few years. And the best part, from my perspective, is that they’re opening these new musical vistas not by manically pursuing every new impulse, but by accepting the evolving moment of improvisation, performance, fellowship…and letting the ‘groupmind’ dictate the content of each jam. After getting famous for responding instantaneously to All the Ideas, they now use their carefully honed collective-improvisatory tools to respond with extraordinary sympathy, extraordinary emotional intelligence, to the Deepest Feelings arising from the creative moment.

On the surface this is less impressive — feelings, every teenage moron has those — yet we see time and time again that the kind of emotional copresence and empathy which older musicians (and other collaborative artists) model for us tends to be inaccessible to younger musicians. Rockers tend to mellow, yes, and mellow rock has no cachet in a culture which fetishizes youth’s frantic unsustainability. But the ones who find their way to a sustainable creative life gain access to perspectives which rock traditionally doesn’t make room for. Of course, you see this all the time in jazz and blues: older players stop showing off and start straightforwardly playing what they feel, speaking truly out of their experiences. This then gets derided as ‘conservatism’ by critics and young musicians peacocking for their peers. What these anxious status-seekers don’t yet see (though in the end they always do) is that the enforced simplicity and honesty of mature artistic expression takes just as much work, just as much courage, as the various modes of engagement beloved of younger artists.

We’re just not trained to recognize that purity of expression as a pop virtue — though we do go on about the ‘purity’ of art from well outside our mainstream experiences; hence the ‘world music’ craze during a period of authenticity-fetishism amongst cosmopolitan Westerners.

In Phish fandom we like bickering about the usual inanities: They Suck Now, This Version of Song XYZ Is Ranked #4 at Best, Trey vs. Jerry, Umphrey’s Is Only a Jam Band, Jukebox Sets Are Boring, They Don’t Jam Anymore, They’re Back, They Weren’t Back Until I Said So, etc. I don’t get as amped about online Phishmoaning as I used to; writing those two books drained almost all of that impulse from my system. One of our fannish commonplaces is this old saw:

Long jams are better, and long jams that go ‘out of the box’ are best.

I’ve long believed this uncritically, and have at times justified it to myself with what I’ve insisted, and maybe even believed, were aesthetic principles. Like a lot of fans (maybe most) I’m most excited about long exploratory improvisations. But we should stop fooling ourselves: thirty-minute open-ended improvisations aren’t the point of Phish’s projects, they’re a means — only one of several — to the end which Trey and the other guys have explicitly identified over and over throughout their time together:

Some of the grand ideas are mellowing, in exchange for the grandest idea, which is communication. (Trey, Specimens of Beauty)

[During the silent part of ‘Divided Sky’]…at that moment, we were in the middle of it, and I started to see these colours — I’m not kidding…as soon as I could see them, I started improvising — but I didn’t play anything. I did everything in the course of improvisation except play the actual notes. And as soon as I did it, the whole place erupted. Tears started rolling down my face. It was at that moment that I knew that it was truly bigger than me. “It,” you know what I mean?’ (Trey on Charlie Rose)

Sometimes the deepest point in the evening is…silence. When every channel of communication has opened wide and the entire moment is welcomed in — when musicians allow themselves to respond to every aspect of the moment unself-consciously, and we grant ourselves the same freedom — that’s the point, the peak, the theme. The intensity of communication is often most obvious to listeners at ‘peak’ moments, which recognize because they’re loud and musically straightforward and involve the release of tension which has built up during the actual communicative linking which has been going on uncommented-upon for hours already, duh — but to see that expressive means as the only possible form the ‘spiritual’ project can take is to make a familiar error. (I wrote about this at length in 2013, in the midst of one or another tiresome fannish spat.)

I listened all morning to the glacial late-70s Urban Sax albums — droning minimalist-ambient compositions for 40ish saxophones(!!) which present a kind of immersive static soundworld devoid of the usual virtues of concert-hall music. Heartily recommended as accompaniment to brainwork. But I’ve just turned on the Orlando Stash, good ol’ 11/14/95, and it’s so…demanding! Has any rock band so insistently demanded total attention to abstruse spontaneously developed forms? You kinda get that with some jazz groups, but how often has any band in any genre offered such an intensity of both genre-conventional catharsis and absurdist interrogation of those conventions? At least with the Dead you can put on a tape and just float, at least until Drums > Space — this Stash > Manteca > Stash > Dog-Faced Boy > Stash is 40 minutes of nonstop perversity, and the band’s good nature doesn’t actually make its civil disobedience against musical rationality any easier for the first-time listener, never mind this ‘jaded vet’…

I bring up this symphony of weaponized mathematics (which you have a moral obligation to listen to today) just to make the point that early Phish, at their mid-90s experimental-improvisatory peak, generated and elaborated more ideas per second than anyone else in rock — Yet another reason not to stress the Phish/Dead connection. But the ideas aren’t the meaning of the work, which is found, I believe, in the posture of readiness adopted by band and fans alike. Submission to Benign Stochasm, offered in (and sanctified by) a spirit of generosity which marks callow early Phish, for all their embrace of childishness, as already wiser than their years. I get it, some folks just come to hear a handful of specific songs and are bored by the rest. But most of us, more and more of us as time has gone on, we’re there not to hear peaks upon peaks but to be radically open to one another’s shared experience of what a hell of a lot of us insist on calling the ‘divine’ — whether or not the music itself ‘peaks’ with loud major chords or not. More and more I believe that the music is one outward manifestation of the transformation we gather to undergo.

Just so’s you know, this is the closest I come to ‘spiritual’ talk. As far as I’m concerned, there are almost certainly no deities, no ‘souls,’ no afterlives, no ghosts, and no cosmic musical ‘source’ to draw on. But there’s the obvious to reckon with: the universe hums, minds sense one another beyond the named senses, and music is one way our hearts learn to beat in shared time. So lately my writing about art gets this way sometimes because, um, it seems to me the universe is this way.

And when I say that Phish’s ‘cow funk’ makes sense not as a style but as an ordering principle, and that ‘peaks upon peaks’ function the same way, I’m trying to encourage you both to listen very very closely to the musical details which make up this extraordinarily detailed improvisatory music, and to recognize that as long as you’re listening closely with truly open ears (and a shake of the hips), it doesn’t really matter what you hear. Some of you will never believe that, some of you already do. I’m hoping to reach someone else.

And when I say that this post isn’t really about Phish but rather the thing that Trey says they’re trying to channel, I hope you hear that not as ‘hippy-dippy’ New Age talk but as an exhortation to look beyond the local noise of ‘style’ to the great curve which that noise obscures.

You don’t need to climb the highest peak to set foot upon a topological miracle. Just look down. I’m joking and I’m serious.

Milton Nascimento, MINAS (1975).

Except for a melodramatic ‘Norwegian Wood’ bonus track (I prefer PM Dawn’s — oh, and the Englishman’s) this is all Brazilian Portuguese, and I’ve never looked around for translated lyrics. No need, really. As pure sound, as longform musical structure, as an example of what you can do with maybe an hour of recorded sound, Minas is a triumph on par with the understandably overrated Dark Side of the Moon, mixing elements of jazz, funk, prog, chamber/baroque pop, and a variety of Latin styles into a work of generously melancholy psychedelia which signifies both within and across individual tunes. The out-of-phase children’s chorus which recurs throughout the album could be a folk tune or a lullaby or the Brazilian national anthem for all I know, or even a once-in-a-lifetime miracle of melodic inspiration — it doesn’t matter which, because the melody functions in a variety of ways from track to track, here a ghostly descant, there a calming restoration, now a question mark, then a closing parenthesis. Like the street sounds which fill the great Black Orpheus soundtrack, Minas‘s children’s chorus place the already unconventional musical goings-on in a rich context that’s no less vividly imagined or imaginable for being a studio fantasy.

That ‘Norwegian Wood’ is the remaster’s biggest question mark. Like everything else on Minas, it’s gorgeous, building over five minutes to alternating statements of the two minor-mode lines (‘She asked me to stay…’). Slowed down considerably from the original, whose inappropriately jaunty groove is the point of the track, the source of its poisonous irony, Nascimento’s cover turns Lennon’s kiss-off into something between a hymn and a dirge. But it’s not funny, and beauty isn’t in short supply over the 42 minutes prior to ‘Wood.’ So why’s it here? I suspect the answer is some variation on ‘vibe’ — Nascimento’s treatment of Lennon’s tune, like John Coltrane’s unbearable intensification of ‘My Favorite Things,’ perfectly suits the overall project, and while it makes sense that it was left off the original album, the song only makes sense in that context. The sheer pleasure of the intertwined voices and rich orchestration is the only justification needed for such a performance, but if you’re reading for meaning (which maybe you shouldn’t) then you’ll find it in the way ‘Norwegian Wood’ picks up gingerly, quietly, after the ‘Day in the Life’-ish orchestral shenanigans of proper album closer ‘Simples.’ Again: descant, restoration, question mark, parenthesis.

Minas is grand without sounding pretentious, intimate without inducing claustrophobia, subtly sexy without bothering with readymade grooves so labeled. It reminds me strongly of Shuggie Otis’s hermetically funky Inspiration Information, another work of easygoing psychedelia by a master arranger. Both albums benefit, in rerelease, from bonus tracks which enrich the overall experience — Otis’s ‘Freedom Flight’ is a perfect sequel/extrapolation of the ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ outro, while Nascimento’s ‘Caso Você Queira Saber’ reaffirms the equivalence of the album’s great pleasures (spiritual and bodily).

Of course, the lyrics might make a fool of me. But again: I prefer not to know, for now. The sound is rich and varied enough, ramifies broadly and pierces deeply enough, without that extra meaning-layer. I’ve just tracked down a healthy portion of Nascimento’s discography, and look forward to digging deeper, but after a dozen listens, Minas seems inexhaustible: that marvelous paradox, a complete and self-contained and well wrought representation of a vision without borders or limits.

James Luceno, STAR WARS: DARTH PLAGUEIS.

Prequel to the prequels, its title character briefly mentioned in Revenge of the Sith as the villain who taught the Emperor and created (or caused to be created) Anakin Skywalker — it’s hard to imagine Dark Plagueis making sense or holding interest to anyone who isn’t already something of a Star Wars obsessive. For them, for me, it’s a (minor) revelation, assembling the scattered ‘prequel trilogy’ into a coherent narrative and imparting a real sense of mythic heft to Palpatine’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

This is a better book than Labyrinth of Evil, better in many ways than the Thrawn books (especially the later volumes), and has me thinking Luceno is a genuinely strong writer overall. On the merits, I find myself happily recommending it to anyone who cares at all about the films. But that ‘on the merits’ is doing a lot of work there — after all, the merits of a movie tie-in novel providing century-deep background to the prequels to one of American mythology’s recent holy texts are…difficult to determine ‘objectively.’

I enjoyed it. It crosshatches the Star Wars ‘Expanded Universe’ superbly. It will, I secretly geekily hope, become relevant to the Rey/Ren trilogy.

Enough about the book.


The prequel trilogy, the Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker and the Rise of Emperor Palpatine, takes more abuse than it deserves. Yes, the dialogue’s terrible; yes the acting and direction are flat and wooden despite the massive reservoir of available talent; yes, the pacing is all wrong; yes, the edits cut a coherent story to pieces and turned Episode III into a hyperfocused all-Anakin-hour instead of the proper finish which the political plots demanded. And yes, yes, yes, the love story is an embarrassment which even Natalie Portman couldn’t save.

But as 2012’s Darth Plagueis makes clearer than ever, as I’ve contended for years, the story of the prequels is substantially richer than Lucas has ever been given credit for. The prequels’ political story is opaque the way The Wire‘s fifth season is opaque — asking the viewer/reader to pay attention to what’s not happening is a weird way to go about the business of drama. The point of the prequels is: How does Anakin become Vader, and how did the Republic fall? But scene to scene, for viewers who care to get invested in Silly Plot Stuff, the mystery of the prequel series is: Cui bono? Why is Palpatine supporting a Trade Federation blockade that undermines the Republic Senate? Why did a Jedi Master (Sifo-Dyas, briefly mentioned in the film) commission the breeding of a clone army more than a decade before the events of the trilogy? Why is Dooku pushing the Separatist agenda while working with the guy who’s trying to take over the Republic? Why does Palpatine tell Anakin a snippet of Plagueis’s story? Nerd-viewers tend to throw up their hands and say that the prequels simply make no sense. But Luceno’s novel paints a different picture: Palpatine’s plot isn’t incoherent, just complicated and something like a century old, stretching much further into the storyworld and deeper into that world’s mythology than the films are able adequately to depict.

You might say Lucas failed twice over, then: failed to make films that hold together as films, and — sadder, I think — failed too to bring the full scope of his conspiracy plot to the screen. But that conspiracy plot is actually pretty groovy.

Clarificatory nerdery: Dooku was tempted to leave the Jedi by Plagueis, acting ‘on his own’ but with a little help from bad friends, and his character suddenly makes all kinds of sense set against the political situation of the final years of the Republic. Sifo-Dyas’s commission of the clone army was suggested by Plagueis, but it was necessary because the Republic had demilitarized years before, and the Senate was wary of authorizing local planetary/systemwide militias. Dooku’s involvement with Palpatine was a complex mix of self-interest (Dark Side curiosity) and a kind of burn-it-to-save-it noble interest in remaking the Republic. The Trade Federation was an actual galactic mover&shaker, illegally armed, whose attempted entry into the Senate as a non-planetary voting member is actually a compelling political story/allegory on its own.

Luceno, writing Darth Plagueis in the middle of the Obama presidency, had the luxury of going beyond the histrionics of Bush-era political discourse — and while it’s weird to say this about a Star Wars novel, I can tell you that the political parallels between the prequels and the current state of USA politics are compelling and long planned. (This shouldn’t be news: Star Wars itself was, remember, partly a cry against Nixon and Vietnam.)

My point here is that the movie prequels just scratch the surface of a political narrative that’s of interest in itself, and which transforms Star Wars from a simple hero/villain pulp story into a century-spanning tale of backroom intrigue in which laser sword fighting (though Cool) is actually something of a distraction. The Sith are in the middle of it all, not just as cackling sorcerers but as political schemers whose Grand Design succeeds precisely because it’s carried out on both the metaphysical and ‘mundane’ levels — in other words, the ridiculous notion of an Evil Vizier manipulating the galactic legislature for a century actually makes a lot of sense if the vizier is actually a political frontman and a banking clan bigwig funding a sort of Trilateral Commission over the better part of a century. In other other words, the prequels turn out to be the story of, if you’re willing to play fast’n’loose with history a bit, Henry Kissinger and Nixon taking over the galaxy.

Which is exactly what Lucas wrote on the first handwritten page of his first draft of Star Wars: ‘a band of Nixonian thugs’ engineering race riots and capitalizing on political chaos to sweep into power.

Again: this isn’t Great Literature. It isn’t even great filmmaking, except in terms of visual imagination. But when people talk about George Lucas’s vision, this is part of what they mean: his ability to conjure a universe that feels real, lived in, despite containing centuries-long wizard conspiracies and laser space monks and such. I’ve written before about Lucas as the Chris Carter of film, or vice versa — gifted with a remarkable creative vision, but lacking some of the technical skills (in both Lucas’s and Carter’s case, dialogue writing especially) to bring it fully into being.

Luceno’s novel, as a culminating text in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (which is ‘no longer canon,’ though it’s hard to tell why anyone should care), helps realize that vision. It makes Star Wars better. That’s not such a big deal, despite my word count here, but it’s not nothing.

And y’know, maybe it’s not such a small thing either.

Pierce.

Does this look like wordcount padding to you?

In the clamor of a presidential race, which this year is even more distracting because of a clamorous and vulgar talking yam, a lot of important information gets drowned out that ought to be part of the presidential race in the first place.

That’s Charles Pierce, beloved of leftish readers who prefer articulate but shopworn outrage to analysis, drowning out some important information with a rush of cliché over at his blog ‘shebeen.’ Annoying as I find the ‘yam’ bit, it’s the misused ‘in the first place’ that puts me off. Surely a quick reread should’ve flagged that clunker?

Sensible people insist Pierce is a Great Writer in his mode, but his Esquire Politics blog has been trash all year, and paragraphs like the one quoted above are the reason why. Every single fucking post is riddled with ‘clever’ nicknames like ‘the vulgar talking yam’/’He, Trump’ or ‘Tailgunner Ted Cruz,’ tired rehashes of years-old jokes, and threadbare secondhand verbiage out of the Sclerotic Greyhair anthology. There’re ten thousand leftward bloggers like him, frankly, and dozens of them are reaching for new insights and new prose without any noticeable loss of perspective. I’ve linked admiringly to Pierce in the past, when his brand of overwrought doomsaying has suited the emotional tenor of some darker-than-usual cultural moment. But at this point he’s stamping about the ol’ shebeen like a more historically informed and somewhat less self-important Keith Olbermann — remember how K.O. got off a couple of memorable ‘viral’ speeches on his TV show before abruptly reaching the limit of his insight? — which is a damn shame considering Pierce’s actual talent and skill levels.

He was necessary reading once, back when he couldn’t be reduced so easily to a formula.

I say all this because Pierce talks constantly (and with extraordinary condescension) about the decline of rationality and sense in the USA — this from a man who in 2009 wrote a book called, wait for it, Idiot America — yet as near as I can tell, he long ago joined the parade of hurt/comfort pundits whose main job is to point at an extremely obvious outrageous affront to leftesque sensibilities (dumb people with guns! the politics of the image!) and recite a comforting litany of complaints (our nation is in decline and you and I are in no way to blame!), the balance of outrage and been-there-blogged-that worldweariness calibrated to go well with, say, a sugary milky caffeinated drink from your local fast-coffee chain. The ~left blogosphere has made this sort of pageview-trawling pseudoanalysis its primary sport for years and years now.

And while you might well think that the Real Problem is the rise of right-wing talk radio (which has been a major cultural force in this country for a quarter-century, you knob) or Citizens United or the lack of safe spaces or Lin-Manuel Miranda not getting enough awards or whatever issue you fill your Outrage Moments with…the fact that the tribe which identifies itself as Educated and Informed and More or Less Left But Also Totally Jazzed About the Fruits of Hypercapitalism — know anyone like that? — just can not be bothered to communicate with any of the other tribes, the fact that our Elites are doing their best to turn not only their neighbourhoods but their entire mediated existences into gated geographic/cognitive communities (the Safe Space as model of the Self), is exactly isomorphic with the ‘epistemic closure’ which was such a big deal amongst Righty crankfluencers a few years ago.

In other words: if you prefer your own tribe’s clichés to merely being in the world with members of any other tribe, you are part of the Idiot America that Pierce and his (mostly younger and dumber, therefore more forgivable though no more tolerable) cohort like to think they stand outside of. The system is rigged against you, just like it’s rigged against everyone who isn’t in charge of it, but you still bear a portion of the blame. Just like me and Charlie.

But you’re not getting paid to pass off your outraged gesticulation as critical insight. So your share of the blame is that much smaller.

That’s all.

Hite/Bauman: THE CTHULHU WARS (2016).

Lovecraft memorably spoke of his sense of ‘adventurous expectancy’ as the impetus behind his work; this slim Osprey book stresses the ‘adventurous’ part, telling the story of the US military’s several-hundred-year war against the Mythos, from Cotton Mather and Roanoke to Special Forces operations in post-9/11 Afghanistan. I picked it up for Ken Hite’s name, of course; his Nazi Occult kicked off the Dark Osprey line a couple of years ago with his usual panache, and this was originally a solo Hite title. Gotta say, I’m a lot more interested in a new Hite book than a new Cthulhu book — the Mythos doesn’t generate much adventurous expectancy in me anymore — and I was surprised when it arrived the other day, having forgotten I preordered it six months ago.

In the end it’s a somewhat…workmanlike book. Bauman started from Hite’s outline, notes, and isolated fragments of prose, and cleverly worked the conceit of Hite as his deceased lunatic informant into the text. He did well. Short pieces of prose are superbly effective, and the final page (unsigned) finally breaks through to a subtle Lovecraftian creepiness. But the rest of the book is, as the title promises, Muskets/M-16s/Nukes vs Cthulhu (including a nice little picture of that last) — an extremely implementation-dependent idea, because it’s almost self-defeatingly unscary on the face of it — and the deliberately dry ‘after-action report’ approach keeps the book from attaining the extraordinary allusive density of Hite’s usual work. At day’s end, ‘an Osprey campaign book with bits of Lovecraftian flavour’ is a different kind of conceit from ‘assume every lurid tale about occult Nazi shenanigans is true,’ the former bound to a dust-dry house style where the latter can explore different approaches, and while there are occasional eerie echoes throughout The Cthulhu Wars, it reads like an elaboration of a Neat Idea rather than a coherent dark vision. It ends well, but the buildup to that end isn’t as satisfying as I expected.

In other words, the idea of ghouls eating the dead at Chickamauga is no more horrible to me than the idea of those thousands dying at Chickamauga in the first place — but I can imagine a version of the story, a bit more subtly shaded, which might go beyond the fact of ‘Mythos + USA History’ to something deeper, darker. The book’s last chapter escalates neatly, suggesting a properly Lovecraftian Bad End out beyond the final pages, but with the exception of the final sentences, nothing in the book haunts me, which is the only thing I ask of HPLesque work. Partly that’s the premise. Partly it’s the fact that the book does exactly what it says on the tin, but only that.

To clarify what probably seems like fanboyism: plenty of nerds dig Ken Hite’s writing, but I think that even his fans don’t realize how much work his work is doing.

Hite’s Suppressed Transmission columns, along with material like the Mythos section of his Trail of Cthulhu (or for that matter his bravura ‘nerd trope’ verbal improvisations at cons), make a strong case for him as the possessor of one of the most fecund imaginations and the most singularly effective prose style in RPGs. (Only a handful of writers, like S. John Ross and Jenna Moran, are as consistently strong on the page with Detwiller, Stolze, Laws, Wallis, and a few others up there too.) I’ve compared him to Douglas Hofstadter, whose Metamagical Themas columns are an equally singular achievement, showing a similarly catholic creativity. Hite’s prose has music to it, but (unlike Ross’s or Moran’s, or Hofstadter’s when he keeps his punnery in check) it isn’t particularly beautiful. Here’s the thing, though: while there are other writers with similar styles, Hite’s (somewhat scary) instant recall gives him the ability to shade every trope he deploys with a historical parallel here, a mythic resonance there. I keep coming back to the word density — in his best work, every sentence is a campaign seed, and every other word is bi- and tri- and tetrasociated until it generates a kind of psychedelic effect, a more functional and sane equivalent to the ‘eliptony’ nonsense which fills some number of his bookshelves. (Check the ‘Bibliophany’ in the first Transmission omnibus for a bulletproof reading list of eliptonic crazytalk and disreputable scholarship.)

So my reaction to The Cthulhu Wars is inescapably coloured by Hite’s name on the cover. It’s no slander against Kennon Bauman that the book fell short of my expectations — the Stolze/Hite Grim Wars book for Wild Talents disappointed me too, and Stolze is the man who wrote Progenitor for Christ’s sake! Collaborations are tricky: as a hardcore Phish fan I resigned myself long ago to the fact that 98% of the time Phish’s collaborations can only dilute their weird alchemical mixture (whereas the much less precisely tuned Grateful Dead thrived with guests onstage). I suspect that it’s a little like that with Hite: he supplements other people’s work well, and I bet it’s not hard to match the tone of his prose, but the characteristic contour of his work, the way it optimizes for polyvalence, is easy to parody and fiendishly hard to replicate properly. Think of the way Lost replicated the tiresome complication of The X-Files with none of its visionary ramifications — a failure of implementation which comes of not having That One Weird Mind in the writers’ room, the one who zigs left when the other folks are zagging right, in total confidence that it’ll all work out if the room just rolls with the punches.

(TV-nerd sidebar. The X-Files is an odd case: usually the head writer/creator shapes the show by being the best at writing it; cf. Community, Buffy, or (when Brian Vaughn and Drew Goddard weren’t around) Lost itself. But as the recent X-Files miniseries reminded a fanbase that seemed to’ve forgotten, Chris Carter is a hopelessly hamfisted scriptwriter who made a great show by virtue of his sensibility and imagination, not his actual teleplays. The Weirdest minds in the room belonged to Carter’s writing staff — the enigmatic Mr Morgan in particular.)

So this is all the long way ’round the barn to saying that The Cthulhu Wars was a perfectly fine read, Kennon Bauman stuck the landing, I consider it a Minor Victory on its own terms, but it’s not quite on the same level as GURPS Weird War II or The Nazi Occult. That shouldn’t even count as criticism; this is my psychodrama, not the book’s.

Is Hillary Clinton qualified to be President?

Tiresome disclaimer: I didn’t vote in this year’s MA primary. I stand by my summer 2008 prediction that Clinton would win in November 2016. I’m an admirer (but not a backer) of Bernie Sanders. I proudly supported Obama against Clinton, and proudly support principled and intelligent local candidates regardless of party affiliation, when I know enough to vote with confidence.


In one crucial respect, Sanders is totally unlike Clinton: he’s a political idealist who’s never used his political connections to enrich himself (just look at his suits), while she and her husband have been busy grifters since their Arkansas days. When she suggests that Sanders is unqualified, she’s making a ‘meritocratic’ appeal which should be familiar to anyone who follows the horserace — Sanders has the wrong background and has not Put In the Time and Done the Hard Work. You can agree or disagree with this claim on the merits, that’s up to you, but by taking up the question you adopt Clinton’s framework for thinking about politics.

When Sanders says outright that she’s unqualified, not because of her level of preparedness but because of the specific decisions she’s shown herself to be willing to make, he’s making a different sort of claim altogether, one which is all but unknown in the federal government. From TPM, which (it bears mentioning) is less and less subtly pro-HRC by the day:

Sanders reiterated Sunday in an interview with NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that he thought Clinton has the experience to be President, but questioned her Wall Street donations and stances on other issues.

“I think those issues will tell the American people that in many respects, she may have the experience to be president of the United States. No one can argue that. But in terms of her judgment, something is clearly lacking,” Sanders said.

The idea that (say) noisily advocating for Bush’s invasion of Iraq would disqualify you from high office on moral grounds could never, ever enter into Clinton’s calculations. She is a different kind of person in government for different reasons, surrounding herself with creatures whose presence Sanders would never tolerate, and happily selling her constituents up the river for short-term political gain. She’s willing to lie, to race-bait, to suborn perjury, to call publicly for war and then insist she’s a peacenik, to support the nakedly racist class warfare of the ‘War on Drugs’ while pantomiming sympathy for blacks, to claim the mantle of Advocate for Women while personally hiring private investigators to publicy smear the parade of women who believably accused her husband of sexual malfeasance up to and including rape. These, for Sanders and for people who came of age thinking of politics as he did (and to an extent clearly still does), are her moral qualifications — evidence of the decision-making equipment she has available for the job.

That’s why Sanders and his most vocal supporters can’t abide Clinton. It’s not what you think, it’s how you think — in that respect she’s 100% part of the problem, indistinguishable in moral terms from the Republicans whose ‘vast conspiracy’ famously troubled her marriage twenty years ago. Even if HRC’s current policy proposals are much closer to Sanders’s than to the GOP’s, the difference between the two is that Sanders (by all accounts) treats them as statements of principle, which is why they can at times be maddeningly vague, while Clinton’s policy sheet is — how to put this? — subject to last-minute revision the instant Money says so.

You are welcome to your belief that Clinton will be a effective chief executive. You’re welcome to believe that her liberation from her sociopathic husband has revealed her True Colours. (I might even agree with you.) You’re welcome to vote Democrat down the line, because ‘at least they’re better than the Republicans.’ But the Sanders campaign insists on something difficult: the Dems really are no better than the Republicans if their worldview is no different from the GOP’s. Clinton is part of the Permanent Ruling Party, she has been for a quarter-century, and Sanders has made himself that Party’s enemy at some cost to himself. (Again: look at his suits.)

That is the choice, this primary season.

When Sanders speaks of Clinton’s ‘qualifications,’ he’s not saying she hasn’t been vetted. He’s saying she was vetted by the known liars and predators on her own team, from K Street to Wall Street, and she can’t be trusted.

You can agree or not. But at least think about it. The man went to all the trouble of running for President, after all.