Monday, May 25, 2015

Decoration Day

Happy Memorial Day!

As I am wont to do, I am inclined to think about the origins of holidays on holidays. This one began in the wake of the Civil War - officialy in the north in 1868; less officially, and at various times and places in the south in 1866 or so. And one of the first instances came in Charleston, South Carolina, where a large number of freed slaves (mainly) gathered to pay tribute to the Union soldiers who had died at the Hampton Park Race Course, which had been used as a prison camp during the war. The dead had been buried there - the freedmen cleaned and landscaped the grounds and gathered for a ceremony on May 1, 1865, to honor the Martyrs of the Race Course. There may or may not have been any direct connection between that and the commemorations to come, but it set the patterns - parades, memorialization of the war dead - and I suppose an attempt to claim the holiday for a political purpose. In this case a good purpose - the end of slavery and preservation of the union. But in coming years, the south would try to claim it as a celebration of the "lost cause".

Over the years, the original significance of the day has been replaced by a more general day of remembrance for the war dead - we do have more wars to remember now. That is a good thing to remember - but it is good, too, to go back to the origins. I admit too that I feel this more strongly on Decoration Day (and Armistice Day) than most holidays - the Civil War is, really, the foundational moment of the United States. We existed for 87 odd years before that, but the Civil War is what defined us (or at least, defined us as something worth being.) We live with its effects more than we live with the effects of any other event in our history, even now. Which links it to Armistice Day - since WWI had this impact on the rest of the world. everything since - bigger or smaller - flows from the Great War, as it flows from the Civil War in this country. And so - keep in mind where this came from, and maybe, the cause behind it.



Here, then, is Orson Welles, explaining and reciting The Battle Hymn of the Republic:


Friday, May 22, 2015

The Music of a Long Weekend

Friday! a long weekend! a long weekend that's already starting for most of the people I work with, but not for me! bit of poor planning there. All right - I want to get some real material up here - make some use here of all the Ivan the Terrible stuff I did for class; answer Dennis Cozzalio's latest quiz (which is a - holy Crap! - a month overdue already!) - write about history (started reading about Andrew Johnson, America's worst ever president - who was, at the same time, a very fascinating character) - etc. Some of that will come! it isn't just talk! But today it is talk...

So music:

1. Karen Dalton - How did the Feeling Feel to You
2. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles - I You Can Wait
3. Fleetwood Mac - The Sun is Shining
4. Nick Cave & Bad Seeds - Deanna
5. Arcade Fire - Flashbulb Eyes
6. Devandra Banhart - The Spirit is Near
7. The Kills - Damned if She Do
8. AC/DC - Shake a Leg
9. Beatles - Her Majesty
10. The Low Anthem - To Ohio

And some Video - let's start with Karen Dalton - different song (It Hurts me Too), but something. The Karen Dalton track is from one of those Mojo compilations - something I didn't know existed until now. But now that I do - this is some good stuff.



I wonder if Devandra Banhart is a fan? (This is also a different song than iTunes tossed up, but you take what you can get.)



And finally - I think Peter Green tends to get the attention (with good reason, as Peter Green is one of the Great guitar players of rock), but Jeremy Spencer is no slouch, and nice to see him still playing (2009 or so):

Friday, May 15, 2015

I'm A Reasonable Man Get Off My Case

A week late, but here's May's Band of the Month - sticking with the late 90s early 00s theme for the moment. Sooner or later in this series, we're going to get to bands that don't have much biographical significance to me - and that's probably the case this month. I like Radiohead, obviously - that's why they're here - but I just like them. It took a while - I remember Creep coming out, remember thinking they sounded like 85 other generic 90s bands, though they could turn a phrase... Then forgot they existed for a few years, then discovered, to my shock, that they were extremely popular and widely loved by people who loved music. It was an amazing fact, I thought - though I was almost completely innocent of ever having heard them (other than Creep.) People I knew would have long earnest and intense discussions (ie, arguments) about them, whether Kid A was brilliant or some kind of terrible betrayal - and it felt like they were talking a foreign language. And then, for reasons I can't begin to remember, I got one of their records - Amnesiac it was - and discovered that they were quite good. So I got others, liked them, and accepted the fact that I was a Radiohead fan.

It still feels a bit alien to me somehow - listening to them makes me feel like a college kid in the 90s. I wasn't a college kid in the 90s, but I feel very confident that I would have loved them if I had been. This is particularly true of OK Computer and the Bends - I like their sources (I hear U2 and the Smiths in there, very strongly, and the lingering ghost of David Bowie and Pink Floyd), but it still feels very far from me. But - if I were 10 or 15 years younger - I know this would have filled me with exaltation and wonder. But I'm not - and maybe more odd than anything, the records of theirs I really love are the electronic ones - Kid A and Amnesiac - maybe because they have moved far enough from their sources to just sound like themselves - maybe because Thom Yorke has stopped trying to emote, and sounds less whiny - maybe just because I love the rhythm tracks on those records. I don't know, and I guess it doesn't matter. They are great, hypnotic records, full of great compelling songs.

Not that there aren't great songs on their other records - before and after really - and everything they do sounds fantastic. The early records have more guitar, and sometimes quite magnificent guitar (what Jonny Greenwood can make come out of a guitar is sometimes a thing of wonder) - all of them are exquisitely constructed tracks. And though Yorke's lyrics don't always convince me, when he's on - "when I am king you will first against the wall, with your opinion which is of no consequence at all" - "laugh until my head comes off, swallow til I burst" - "I wish I was special, you're so fucking special" - he nails it, can't deny it. So it goes, and I keep getting the new records and listening to the old ones, and though I can't help wondering what I would have thought if I had been 17 when OK Computer came out.

And here are 10 songs:

1. Idioteque
2. Subterranean Homesick Alien
3. Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box
4. Paranoid Android
5. National Anthem
6. Creep
7. A Punch up at a wedding
8. Bones
9. I Might be Wrong
10. Optimistic

And here are some videos - we'll start with Creep, live in 94 - a song that holds up pretty well, over the years.



Idioteque, 2012:



Subterrainean Homesick Alien:



And Electioneering, to let Jonny show off a bit:



Paranoid Android (which I imagine is obligatory) - from Austin City Limits:



Finally - here's a cover of Packt like sardines (etc.) by a band I might be getting to eventually (Punch Brothers) - which does illustrate jjst how good these songs are:


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Film Preservation Blogathon

Just want to drop a quick link in here for the Film Preservation Blogathon running this year at Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod and Wonders in the Dark. I am coming out of my Ivan the Terrible induced isolation, so don't have a lot to say just now - but you can find plenty to read, and can donate to a good cause - the National Film Preservation Foundation. Enjoy!

The theme of this year's blogathon is Science Fiction film - Ivan the Terrible is NOT a science fiction film, though shots like this might give you that impression...

Friday, May 08, 2015

Friday Random Ten

Tjis week should be Band of the Month week, but I am behind on things, and so will have to wait a week. It's coming, but not until Ivan is done.



Anyway - songs, before heading out into another excellent spring Day, VE day, 70 years along... Random 10:

1. Jack White - Entitlement
2. Neutral Milk Hotel - Oh Comely
3. Frank Zappa - Let's Make the Water Turn Black
4. Chicago - Beginnings (live)
5. Stooges - Slide (Slidin' the Blues)
6. Flying Burrito Brothers - Wheels
7. Six Organs of Admittance - Anesthesia
8. Wilco - Art of Almost
9. John McLaughlin - don't Let the Dragon Et Your Mother
10. Deerhoof - I did Crimes for You

Video? little Jack White maybe to start:



And Neutral Milk Hotel:



And end with Wilco, with Nels off the leash:

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Lusitania

Today is another aniversary from 100 years ago - the Sinking of the Lusitania. The Lusitania was a British passenger liner running between New York and Liverpool, still making runs in 1915, despite the increased danger from German submarines. The Germans wee. at this point in the war, beginning to carry out unlimited submarine warfare - that is, they were beginning to attack British ships on sight, from under water, with torpedoes - rather than surfacing and attempting to evacuate the ships first. They made no secret of this - before the Lusitania left New York, they circulated a warning, pointing out that England was a war zone, and they had the right to attack ships near England, and would - that passengers traveled at their own risks. But passengers traveled, including a lot of Americans - and when the Germans sank it, 218 Americans died, of the 1198 total casualties. It caused a sensation - the British condemned the attack roundly; the Americans too, and edged toward war - and certainly turned against the Germans. The Germans, for their part, while defending their actions, abandoned unlimited submarine warfare for two years - they only resumed in in 1917, when the war was starting to go against them. It didn't help - in 1917, the Americans were having none of it, and came into the war not long after. The sinking of the Lusitania, then, did finally lose the war for Germany (the US's involvement went far toward breaking the stalemate) - though it took a few years to come to pass.

That is probably all for the best, but you have to feel some sympathy for them. They claimed at the time that the Lusitania was a legitimate target, carrying armaments - and it was. Which makes it not entirely untrue to say that the passengers were being used as human shields - the morality gets muddy there. The morality of naval warfare - blockades and submarine warfare - is pretty murky anyway. The British blockades the Germans for the whole war - and went a long way toward starving them out. Causing serious ongoing suffering in the civilian population. But the British did this with surface ships - they had a huge navy that could cut off trade with Germany without using submarines. The Germans lacked the surface fleet, but they had submarines, which were very effective against shipping - though the nature of submarine warfare makes it impossible to wage without killing people. Surface ships can turn back freighters - a large surface navy can stop shipping without always sinking it, can drive off any military escorts and so on - submarines can't do that. They can only sink ships. They can't surface to engage with ships - a few destroyers can rout a submarine. So waging a blockade with subs is a murderous affair - immediately murderous: killing people instantly and terrifyingly, rather than starving them slowly, the British way.

But it points to something else - that 20th century warfare was becoming total war - wars are always won and lost through logistics, but this is all the more obvious in the 20th century, with heavy industrialization, with larger populations, concentrated in cities that have to bring their food from somewhere else. And with the industrialization of warfare itself, creating an insatiable appetite for machines of killing. Commerce becomes all the more important - commerce and industry - and they become legitimate targets for attack, with all the civilian casualties that come with it. This would only grow more important as time passed, as air power became more important - it would justify the use of strategic bombing in WWII. That's a topic for another day - but in the end, it would end up killing millions (maybe) of civilians, without really making any dent in anyone's war making capabilities. Not in absolute terms, and not in comparison with what submarines (and conventional blockades) would accomplish.

Finally - here is Winsor McKay's animated film on the sinking of the Lusitania, a fine piece of wartime propaganda by a great filmmaker:

Friday, May 01, 2015

Walpurgisnacht & May Day

Happy May Day, ladies and gentlemen! It is a happy May day, this year - we have an actualy sort-of socialist to vote for! Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont, is running for president, as a Democrat. Now - I don't have any illusions that he is going to win - though I don't know how much that matters. If he's there to keep bringing up economic matters, it can't hurt. And it's nice to have someone to vote for in the primaries that I can vote for without reservation. I am no fan of Hillary Clinton - she and Bill have always come off as trimmers, willing to give up anything for an inch of advantage for themselves - it's hard to imagine her holding the line on as much as Obama has been able to keep from the GOP. But in the end, that doesn't matter in the least - in the general election I will vote for a Democrat, the nominated Democrat, even if it's Martin O'Malley. Parties matter infinitely more than the candidate, especially in these days - with an extremely partisan political climate, and one party openly pursuing class and often race warfare. Not that I'm ever tempted to vote for Republicans, but now, it is imperative that people vote for Democrats, until the Republicans are broken, and change their positions.

That's a topic for another day, I suppose. Today - I'm just happy there's a candidate for president whose politics make sense to me. And is a Vermonter! Go Bernie!

Now - for music - my Russian culture class is into the 20th century, and this week talked about Mikhail Bulgakov and Master and Margarita, and thus I am thinking more of Walpurgisnacht than May Day proper. And so, in honor of professor Woland and co. (and the fact that the book managed to make it into the mainstream of international pop culture within a year of its eventual publication) - here is a top 10 songs about the devil:

1. Rolling Stones - Sympathy for the Devil
2. Beck - Devil's Haircut
3. Robert Johnson - Me and the Devil Blues
4. Van Halen - Running with the Devil
5. James Blood Ullmer - Devil's Got to Burn
6. Throwing Muses - Devil's Roof
7. Brian Jonestown Massacre - The Devil May Care (Mom & Dad Don't)
8. Nick Cave - Up Jumped the Devil
9. Grateful Dead - Friend of the Devil
10. Modest Mouse - This Devil's Workday

And video? well - here's footage of the Stones working it out. With a camera rolling around the studio maned by mad Frenchmen, I imagine.



And I suppose any Walpurgisnacht tribute needs the Sabs:



And finally - we need some witches for Witch Night, so here's some live Eagles for you. I'm sure there's a great clamor for live Eagles from my readers...

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Gallipoli

100 years ago today, the landings on Gallipoli Peninsular took place. The campaign was the brainchild of Winston Churchill basically - the idea was for the allies to force their way up the Dardenelles and take Constantinople, giving them access to the Black Sea, and thus Russia. There's a lot of backstory to this battle. Start with the Ottoman Empire deciding to join the Germans and Austrians in the war. The Young Turks hwo rules the Ottoman empire were close to the Germans - the British tended to be more bullying, while the Germans offered help and support - the Turks chose Germany. That shut off the Dardenelles, and most significantly, cut off sea routes to Russia. The Russians in 1914 were desperately short of supplies - England and France had no way to get them material. So Churchill and company thought to force their way up the Dardenelles, take Constantinople, and open the shipping lanes to the Black Sea.

Churchill tried first to do it with naval power alone. Battleships were sent, they bombarded the Turkish defenses, then tried to steam up the straights - only to be devastated by mines, primarily. Several ships sank - the fleet retreated. After this, the army was sent in. The idea was to find and destroy the Ottoman artillery - the guns hadn't done much against the battleships, but they had driven off the minesweepers, leaving the battleships helpless against mines. And so - on April 25, 1915, troops were put ashore at several beaches on the Gallipoli peninsular.

The landings were a disaster. Amphibious landings under fire were still something of a novelty - getting men ashore was not easy. What's worse - the Allies did not really know what they were getting into. The ANZAC forces landed a mile off from where they were supposed to land - across the whole area, the Allies did not understand the lay of the land, the conditions on the beaches and so on. They didn't have any idea of the strength of the men waiting for them. They landed in the face of determined resistance, from men dug in on high ground, from positions that allowed crossing fire - they never had a chance. Casualties ran 60-70% in most of the battlegrounds - by the end of the first day, the British and ANZAC forces had managed to take a strip of land by the beaches, but no more. And they never went anywhere in the next 7 months. Because as bad as the landings went, once the Turks were able to bring in enough men to hold the ground, they had the allies completely at their mercy. They had the high ground - they had positions that let them rake the allied positions - the battle quickly turned into protracted trench warfare. It was probably worse than anything on the western front, too - the peninsular was dry and hot, and what fresh water there was was controlled by the Ottomans - water had to be brought in to the allied forces - every thing had to be brought ashore to the allies forces. And there was never enough - the trenches became hellish and stayed that way.

In the end, the allies left, losing 250,000 odd men. The Turks lost about the same, but they won, expelling the invaders. As far as the war went, it was just another of the many pointless and hopeless battles that accomplished nothing but very long casualty lists. Beyond the war, though, it has a great deal of importance. It was a great moment in Turkish nationalism - the victory had great importance to their morale, and provided a source of national pride. It also elevated Mustafa Kemal (later Attaturk) to prominence. It had a similar effect in Australia and New Zealand. The heroism and suffering of the ANZAC troops made Gallipoli the definitive campaign for those countries. And their use - the sense of being thrown into battle half prepared, and of beings used as distractions and covers for the British (an idea that is not really fair) - led to resentment in Australia and New Zealand against the British, and helped to form the idea of those countries as nations unto themselves. It strengthened their sense of independence - the emergence of their sense of national character. It has made today, April 25, a national holiday in both countries, and made it the most important military commemoration as well.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Freeze (winter clings...)

I wake up this morning and find it cold again - cold! why is it so cold? Because I'm writing papers about Russia? Probably. That must be it. In any case, as we proceed - another simple weekly music post is in order. Expect something more substantial tomorrow for ANZAC day, but for now, let's just have some iTunes fun to mark the successful ends of another working week...

Songs:

1. of Montreal - Heimdalsgate Like a Pormethean Curse
2. Prince & The Revolution - When Doves Cry
3. Pavement - So Stark
4. Danielson - This Day is a Loaf
5. John Lee Hooker - Burning Hell
6. Grateful Dead - New Speedway Boogie
7. Fairport Convention - Doctor of Physick
8. Decembrists - of Angels and Angles
9. Minutemen - Bermuda
10. Built to Spill - ut of Sight

Video? dig if you will a picture...



Here's an acoustic version of the Of Montreal song:



And - we got John Lee Hooker on the list, so we gotta have John Lee Hooker - ain't no heaven, ain't no burning hell.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Gas! Gas!

The other big historical anniversary right now is the Great War. And what happened 100 years ago today needs to be mentioned. On April 22, 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres began - it was a very important battle, because it marked the first successful use of poison gas in WWI. The Germans opened the attack by releasing a great mass of chlorine gas - they had it in canisters that they opened by hand, and hoped the wind would carry it over the French lines. It did (though it also poisoned a good number of Germans) - it devastated the soldiers in the front lines, and caused a huge gap to open in the lines. But the Germans weren't prepared to exploit the opening - they didn't have reserves ready to attack, whether because they didn't think the gas would work that well, or because they were as afraid of it as the French, I don't know. In any case, the hole opened, but by the time the Germans attacked, the Allies were able to close the gap. And just like that, they were back to regular trench warfare, and the battle continued another month and another 100,000 or so casualties for both sides.

On a tactical level, it was WWI in miniature - a new method of attack that did, in fact, break the stalemate, but that couldn't be exploited, followed by endless repetitions of the same tactic, that couldn't work again. Almost from the start, certain Canadians realized they could protect themselves from the gas by pissing on cloth and breathing through it - it didn't take long for word to get around, and then for gas masks to be distributed. These defenses were never enough to prevent the horrors of gas warfare, but they were enough to negate it as an offensive tactic. It just became another horrible way to die. And everyone kept doing it - the Germans tried again on the 24th of April, with some success, but never enough to break through. After that, everyone started using gas, but it was never decisive again. Just another method of killing, that usually caused as much trouble for the attackers as the defenders (since the gas hangs around in trenches, and you have to advance through it). It is one of the many things that made this war one of the most horrifying things human beings have done to one another, made trench warfare a sustained hell on earth. And, after April 22, 1915, never really accomplishing anything of military importance.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Music to Rain By

Happy Friday! Coming up on a long weekend, in Boston anyway. Is spring here? it is warmer, though it's back to raining all the time. But that is spring. I am not very energetic this morning, so let us turn directly to iTunes for inspiration:

1. Mudhoney - In and Out of Grace
2. Deerhoof - News From a Bird
3. Arcade Fire - Joan of Arc
4. fIREHOSE - More Famous Quotes (play it George!)
5. Richard Thompson - Mr Rebound
6. Saint Etienne - Action
7. Interpol - Always Malaise (The Man I am)
8. Nirvana - In Bloom (live)
9. Loren Connors - Air No 13
10. Scott Walker - Epizootics

Video? Here's Mudhoney, of course:



here's another band from the Pacific Northwest, singing about pretty songs:



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Assassination of Lincoln

150 years ago today, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the third act of The American Cousin at the Ford Theater... (I pick on the lede - but it's actually a pretty sharp piece of reporting - with the writer also turning over the assassin's gun to the authorities.) Coming 5 days after Lee's surrender, this was a horrible shock to the country - his funeral would be the occasion of intense mourning.

It was a terrible event - and in retrospect, it becomes even more appalling. The Vice President was Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, who had been placed on the ticket as a symbol of unity with the south, and who was already something of a problem. He was given to intemperate remarks - he was considered more vindictive than Lincoln. He'd also made a fool of himself at his inauguration, getting good and plastered and giving a drunken blur of a speech - since then, he'd stayed out of sight and hoped everyone would forget about him. And now he was president. And as president, he set about trying to reconstruct the Union, in a way that brought the old southern slaveholders back to power, let them pass laws that virtually reinstated slavery under new names... The Republicans in congress were having none of this, and passed their own laws, and when he vetoed them, they overrode his vetoes, and when things went far enough, they impeached him.

It was a disaster, the United States government breaking down at a time when it needed to be very sharp, to deal with reintegrating an unrepentant south into the country without surrendering the freedom won by the war. The radicals in congress eventually were able to implement their policies - but only for a few years, and with much of the gains of the war undone at the end of Reconstructions. Could Lincoln have done better? His stated policy toward the south was probably closer to Johnson's than to the radical Republicans - but he was also a better politician, and had a better sense of doing what needed to be done. It seems likely he would have done far more to protect the rights of Blacks after the war - his policies had evolved steadily toward more radical positions toward slavery and race, and it's reasonable to expect that would have continued. But saying that - it is also possible that he would have been hung up on the same issues that destroyed Johnson. It wasn't just Johnson's policies that undid him - it was the villainy of the south, who did everything they could to undo the end of slavery. Johnson's problem, and Lincoln's if he lived, was not so much the radical Republicans as it was the former confederates - Johnson was willing to work with the confederates; would Lincoln have been? would he have been able to get them to accept free Blacks, Black voting, and so on? He might have - but it's no guarantee. And if they didn't cooperate, they were going to come into conflict with the congressional Republicans, the Thaddeus Stevens, Ben Wade, Charles Sumner types - they had won the war, and were not about to give in now. It is possible, in the end, that had Lincoln lived, the next couple years would have undone a lot of his legacy - maybe not likely, but possible.

But none of that happened. Lincoln died, and history went where it did (and where it went ended up being mostly bad - 100 years wasted, basically). And Lincoln's life itself remains as one of the greatest in this countries history. He did win the Civil War - more than any other president won any of our other wars. He was, fairly early in the war, the sharpest strategist - understanding the need to use the Union's advantages in number and material to crush the Confederacy, understanding the need for action and aggression. And as a politician, he kept a very fragile and contentious country together - kept it committed to a bloody and destructive war, until it won. And finally, he freed the slaves - he recognized the reasons for the war, and accepted them, and imagined, during the war, the opportunities it afforded, of making the United States worthy of its imagined view of itself. We were not, before 1863, or 1865, a very admirable country - we were not free, however much we wanted to say we were. Slavery poisoned us, almost incurably - and Lincoln saw that, and moved to change it, and to reinvent the country as what it should have been. That matters. Even if Reconstruction failed, the war, and Lincoln, remained as a reminder of what we were trying to become. We have a model of what the country should be, what it can be, something we can live up to. Abraham Lincoln works pretty well for that.

Friday, April 10, 2015

If I'm Not in the Band Doesn't Mean I'm Square

Band of the Month time - this month, I think, it's time for Mercury Rev. I name dropped them quite a bit last month - I'm not sure how much direct link there is between Mercury Rev and TV on the Radio, but I can see the continuity in my affection for the two bands. I discovered Mercury Rev about the turn of the millennium - maybe with All is Dream, maybe before, I don't know. I remember reading about them, probably in Mojo, back around the end of 2001 - about the time I was discovering Krautrock, Japanese Noise (Boredoms, Acid Mothers Temple), real prog (Van Der Graf Generator, Soft Machine) - they sounded intriguing, I got a couple records, and immediately became a fan. I imagine I got All is Dream and Yerself is Steam together - close to it anyway - those are very different records, but I adored both. I certainly listened to both records rather obsessively for a while... a fact to be reflected in our song list, I imagine... They were, in that period (first couple years of the millennium), just about my favorite band. They make a good token of what I was listening to - which is, admittedly, almost everything - the 00s I was listening to music regularly, and I had money, so I bought everything that struck my fancy - and listened to most of it! on CD! whole records! what a strange time! But they spanned a lot of styles - the noisy oddness of their early records to the lush song craft of their later ones - all of which I liked. Acid Mothers to classic Scott Walker to the Decembrists - Mercury Rev manages to touch most of it. That breadth, that mix of tunage and noise (with sense of humor), is what reminds me of them in TVOTR - that is the connection...

I loved both sides of them from the beginning, and still do. I was addicted to All is Dream - a gorgeous record, pretty, sophisticated songs, clever words ("caught like a fleeting thought stuck inside of Leonard Cohen's mind"), and bracketed by two of the most glorious orchestral rock songs on record. But I was in awe of Yerself is Steam. Those early records, I have to admit, probably come closer to hitting my sweet spot that anything else around at the time - they play like a mashup of Pere Ubu and Pink Floyd, performed by Faust or Amon Duul - wanking guitars, horns and strings and noise, shifting tempos and styles, squawking roar chasing melodic passages chasing mumbled weirdness - what's not to love? The Pere Ubu influence is hard to miss - Dave Baker has a lot of David Thomas in him, and more than one of their songs proceeds like Sentimental Journey bumping into Syd Barrett's poppier numbers. Which isn't far from the way Baker's vocals clash with Jonathan Donahue's - their voices contrast the way the parts of the songs contrast - the way their appearances clash, in things like the Chasing a Bee film... They are all over the place in a way that is just thrilling.

Once Baker left, the pop/melodic/orchestral side took over - even the music hall/dixieland influences (Meth of a Rockette's Kick or Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp) disappeared over time. (Was that a function of Suzanne Thorpe's departure? A lot of the off kilter complexity of their music came from her - the flute cutting against the squall, and so on...) Leaving them still fantastic, but maybe a bit more one dimensional. But they still make such good songs - what can I say against them? They have become craftsmen, and very fine ones - the production is superb, and songs are constructed with such richness, the instruments and sounds blended, interacting. Hercules stands as the perfection of this, I imagine, the way it builds, instruments slipping into the mix, accumulating, to the release of the guitar solo - and then quietly dissipating into the night - yes. That's the Pink Floyd influence, brought to perfection - probably no accident that I renewed my old love for the Floyd about the same time I started listening to Mercury Rev.

So that is that. And a top 10 Songs:

1. Hercules
2. Chasing a Bee
3. Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp - utterly joyful piece of music, this is, horns and guitars and keyboards and flute chasing each other - great stuff...
4. The Dark is Rising
5. Empire State (Son House in Excelsis)
6. Meth of a Rockette's Kick
7. Syring Mouth
8. Secret for a Song
9. Car Wash Hair
10. Something for Joey

And Video? We have to start with Film - they started as a band to make music for films (like Can! speaking of Krautrock...) - and those films are as cool, strange, beautiful as the songs. Here is Chasing a Bee, as epic on film as on record:



Here they are live in their early, abrasive days - Syringe Mouth, Baker's anti-charisma on full display, and Donahue and Grasshopper making a dreadful noise:



And here's a reminder that even in the early days the pretty songs were there - here, doing Snowstorm and Carwash Hair with Dean and Britta.



And later - another video, this for Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp, an altogether different kind of semi surrealism:



The Dark is Rising, live on Jools Holland:



And a Secret for a Song, also on Jools:

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Appomattox Court House

150 years ago today, Robert E. Lee surrendered formally to the US Government at Appomattox Courthouse, and though the Civil War dragged on quite a while longer, this was where it ended. Lee's army was the Confederacy, really, especially after Nashville (maybe even Atlanta - once Hood left the city, his army was irrelevant, in terms of changing the ending) - and facing the facts and laying down arms put the rebellion to rest.

I have mostly written about the military aspects of the war in this series - I will have to turn to the politics as we go forward. (I hope to go forward: I need to read about Reconstruction, it's something I don't know enough about. I hope that is reflected on this blog - probably not tied to anniversaries so much, but I hope to continue to write about the period.) But for now, one more military post... There wasn't much left to the Confederacy in the spring of 1865. Sherman was marching where he would in the Carolinas; forces in the west were equally unfettered; only Lee offered much in the way of resistance. Dug in in Petersburg, he could still fight - though Grant was able to stretch his lines more and more until they were almost ready to break anyway. At the same time, they were almost cut off from supplies, not that there were many places left producing food in the South. They were beaten - but Lee kept trying. With spring, Grant renewed his pressure on Lee - mostly using Phil Sheridan to do the dirty work - they got around the Confederate lines, they got them out of the trenches and thrashed them when they did. That left the trenches too weak to be held - and on April 2, the Union broke through. Lee made one more try to extend the way, thinking he could make a dash to the Carolinas, to join Joe Johnston's army there and maybe be able to beat one of the Union armies. It was probably not very likely - either Grant or Sherman had more men than the combined rebel armies could muster - well equipped and well armed veteran forces unintimidated by the Rebels, led by generals who could count, knew they had all the cards, and were prepared to fight it out to the end. But it never came to that - never mind their fighting abilities, the days were long past when the Rebels were able to outrun Union troops, and Grant and Sheridan had no intention of letting them. They harried Lee with everything they had, and with Grant and Sheridan driving them, the Union army moved effectively - and ran Lee down with ease. There was some fighting - it didn't matter, Lee was out of options. So he stopped.

Grant, probably understanding Lincoln's desires to get the war finished and start the process of undoing its damage, gave generous terms. News spread, and other armies followed in surrender, usually also receiving good terms - and the war wound down. There was, maybe, for a moment, a chance that the aftermath of the war would be successful - the means of surrender went a long way toward making reconciliation possible between the two sides. But that was ruined quickly by John Wilkes Booth - and it's probably too much to hope to think the South, having just fought a suicidal war to preserve slavery, would accept any kind of decent settlement for Blacks after the war. Instead, they began fighting to suppress the freed slaves, while redefining the war to be about something other than treason in defense of slavery - a campaign that was a good deal more successful than the war itself had been. (And is still being fought today.) But that's all in the future, on April 9, 1865 - for that moment, for that week, maybe, there was peace and hope.