Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Battle of the Crater

There may not be a more depressing battle in the Civil War than the Battle of the Crater, fought 150 years ago today. What happened? Basically, a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners got the notion of digging tunnel under the rebel lines at Petersburg, where the two armies had settled down to trench warfare. Their commander, named Henry Pleasants, took the project in hand - took it to his commander (Ambrose Burnside, one of the worst generals of the war), who approved - and they set to work. They dug a mine under the Rebel lines - very effectively, quickly, and without being detected - everything was set to blow the thing sky high. And behind the lines, Burnside was having one of his better moments - planning the attack, specifically training one of his divisions to make the attack, and take advantage of the expected breach int he Rebel lines. But - this is where it gets depressing. Not that it failed (as it did) - but how it failed. Burnside chose his largest and freshest division to lead the attack - a division of US Colored Troops. But when the army's commander, George Meade, found out - he panicked. He had never liked the idea of the mine - his engineers thought the tunnel would be impossible to dig; no one in the Union high command thought much of Burnside - if he liked the idea, it had to be a bad one. So Meade was not invested in the attack at all, didn't think it would work, and was not about to be attacked in the press for putting Colored Troops in an impossible situation. He told Burnside to pick someone else - Burnside put up a fight - but Grant backed up Meade (he didn't think much of Burnside or the mine either) - and that was that.

It is painful to think about it - to read about it - to read what happened next. There were other chances to win the war - Grant's campaign to get to Petersburg probably came the closest, and the initial fighting around the city in the middle of June was probably the worst lost chance of the war. As it would happen, the mine in fact did break the rebel line - though it was hardly a given that they could have taken Petersburg even with the break. But the nature of this failure, that's what really gets you. The ingenuity of the plan - the effectiveness of the mining itself - the mere fact that Ambrose Burnside showed initiative (or recognized it in others) - the fact that he had a chance to do something right for once, and mostly did it - his moral courage in choosing the Colored Troops.... And the whole thing brought to grief by the short-sightedness and prejudice and moral cowardice of Meade and Grant. And of course, Burnside reverting to type: forced to change divisions to lead the attack, he left it to chance - got stuck with the worst men, the worst general in the corps, who proceeded to fail spectacularly.

The fight itself was a disaster, except for the start. The mine went undetected - was packed with powder - there were anxious moments when the fuse went out, but it was relit, and then the thing went up and went up well. The confederate lines were obliterated, along with a good part of the hill - leaving a huge crater where the rebels had been. The Union troops attacked, led by the division of one James Ledlie - and things started going to hell. Ledlie himself spent the battle behind the lines with a bottle; his men went forward in broken and piecemeal fashion, and did very little to exploit the fact that there were no rebels left anywhere near the front. The confederates recovered quickly, and started to counter attack - as they did, more Union troops came up, with little more organization than the first wave, and soon found themselves bottled up. Finally, the Colored Troops joined the fight, and made an attack, but by now the rebels had formed a very strong line - they repelled the attacks, and forced almost all of Burnside's corps into the crater itself, where they slaughtered them. Especially the black troops, who were murdered in cold blood, as often as not. And so it ended - a complete disaster.

It didn't need to be. And not much needed to be different - letting the Colored Troops lead the attack, as they were prepared to do, would have done much to exploit it. They were ready - they knew to fan out beyond the mine, to roll up all the subsidiary trenches and break the rebel army apart - they would have won something. They were prevented from trying, and sent in late to their doom - another in the long line of disgraceful treatments of blacks in this country.

They could have won something at the Crater - though probably not the war. The problem was, as it had been at the Bloody Angle, and as it would be all through World War I - even if you broke a trench line, it was almost impossible to do much more. You could break a line - but once you did, you came up against a simple limit: there was no way to move troops through a battle zone faster than the human body could move. Maybe if you could get past the trenches, but that was very difficult - even in 1864, the area behind a line of trenches was a maze of more trenches, strongpoints, communication tunnels and all the rest. That's what Burnside's men found when they got past the crater itself - more trenches and holes and what not. They ran afoul that as much as they ran afoul the confederates. This was bad in 1864 - by 1914 (once everyone was dug in), it was even worse. Miles of trenches extended behind the main lines - you could break the front line, you could get through some of the zone behind - but you could never get far enough that there wouldn't be a new trench line waiting for you eventually. In 1864, Burnside used a mine; in 1916, everyone would use artillery to obliterate the front lines - but the results were the same. The front lines would be obliterated - the armies would move forward - the enemy would regroup and counterattack - both sides would suffer unimaginable casualties. The lines never moved. Burnside and AP Hill didn't have machine guns in 1864, so only some 4,500 Union troops were lost (out of 13,000 attackers), and 1,500 confederates - but the results were the same. The lines didn't move an inch. They wouldn't move an inch, until April 1865, when the confederates didn't have enough men left to prevent Grant from going around them; or 1918, when the Allies had tanks and millions of Americans and the Germans were out of men. Tanks, of course, changed everything - because now you could move through a battle zone, fully armored, at speed. That was a long way away.

The Battle of the Crater was the end of Ambrose Burnside, as a general anyway. (He went on to be a senator and a governor after the ware, so it wasn't all bad.) James Ledlie was done as well, drummed out of the army as a drunk. It was also the last time Grant tried anything like a direct attack on the rebel lines - after this, he accepted the siege and tried other things. Soon, he would detach part of his army with Phil Sheridan to run down Jubal Early's army in the Shenandoah Valley. Sherman would be able to take Atlanta - things would move ahead, while Grant held Lee in place.

Unfortunately, Europeans would consider this war something of a backwater feud - they would ignore what happened in Petersburg, and try to fight in the open in 1914. It took a while for that to play out, but it did - and once everyone dug in, that was that. (Their real mistake might have been something different - missing what had changed since 1864 (or 1871, and the Franco-Prussian war): the development of a true industrialized war machine - mass produced weapons, trains, the ability to bring the masses of the country into the war. The reason the siege of Petersburg is different from the siege of France in 1914 is that Germany, France and Britain managed to mobilize millions of men, keep them in action for 4 years, and make lines across the whole of France.) But all that mobilization, and all the means of moving men across large distances in 1914, still didn't solve the problem of Petersburg - you still couldn't move men through a war zone by any means but their feet. Cavalry didn't help until you got past the trenches - no one could get past all the trenches. (Until those tanks and Americans turned up.) So - size and logistics made the whole western front a siege: made it easy to hold, but everyone kept trying to break it - none of them would seem to grasp that there was nothing they could do, no way to get through all the trenches.

But that's another war (one that started 100 years ago Monday.) Just one that could have profited from the lessons of the Crater.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Tour de France Fridays

Another Friday.

I have been watching the Tour de France. It's rolling to its end - Vincenzo Nibali has ridden off with the overall victory, but there's a mad scramble behind him for the next places, with 2 Frenchmen in contention - passions must be running high over there....

It is a time consuming sport to watch though. That ands the heat have kept everything else on hold a bit. Anyway - today we're going random, as usual. I want to add a word of complaint - all the updates to iOS and phones and iTunes over the years have made it not work right anymore on my phone - smart playlists aren't synching between my computer and phone - how is that happening? I actually bought a bunch of CDs recently (new Jack White, new Boris, things like that) and would like to get them to play on the phone.... Usually I can figure out how to work around Apple's bad ideas, but why do I have to all the time? I have been a rather extreme mac loyalist through the years, but they are doing a lot to undo that. They've cost themselves a computer purchase in the last year by not updating the Mini; they're endangering the odds of me getting a another iPhone in a couple years. It's getting bad.

Enough of that. Music.

1. Iron and Wine - Rabbit Will Run
2. Husker Du - No Promises Have I Made
3. De La Soul - Potholes in my Lawn
4. Soft Machine - Certain Kind
5. Radiohead - Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
6. All Seeing I - No Return
7. Boris - Farewell
8. Warren Zevon - Poor Poor Pitiful Me
9. Lydia Lunch & Nick Cave - Done Dun
10. Spirit - Elijah

I can't resist a bit of Queen this morning...

And Warren Zevon:

Friday, July 18, 2014

The End of an Eventful Week

We need some music. The world is having one of its spells - things going bad in the Ukraine - or more accurately, trouble in the Ukraine spilling out... or this local story - about a funeral director with 12 bodies in a storage facility. Great.

And that after Tommy Ramone's death - immediately after my post on the Ramone's. That made for a very irritating coincidence - most of that post was a repost from 2004 - which I put up the week before Johnny Ramone's death. Thankfully, I have no other occult powers, when it comes to music.

On a happier note, Germany won the World Cup - the final was a very well played game, 0-0 until 112 minutes in, but an active and gripping 0-0, well played and closely contested - both teams earned their chances. It was probably a just result - maybe not as obviously as in 2010, when Spain got their deserved victory very late as well - but Germany was the best team in the tournament, the best team in the world. The Cup over all was quite exciting - very evenly matched all the way through, with almost all tight, exciting games in the playoffs. (Brazil's 2 stinkers being the only exceptions.) Having come through a superb, well contested tournament, where almost everyone looked like they deserved to be there, FIFA will probably act quickly to make sure it doesn't happen again - talk about expanding the teams in the field, to 40 or more, has been around - that should bring back the 6-0s and the bus parking of past tournaments. But while it is a mistake to underestimate the cynicism and greed of FIFA, it's best to think on what they get right - the game itself...

And - speaking of sport (and Bastille Day!) - it's also Tour de France time - this year has been a kind of bloodbath, with the top two favorites, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, forced to pull out, with a broken wrist and broken leg. It's a strange sport to watch on TV (if you have a life), but surprisingly compelling. Strategy and planning (long and short term) and bursts of excitement - I have become semi-addicted to it... though not yet to cycling as a whole.

Enough. Another beautiful day (after a nasty tropical beginning of the week), and time for some random music:

1. The Seeds - 900 Million People Daily (All Making Love)
2. Gene Vincent - Five Days, Five Days
3. The New Pornographers - Centre for the Holy Wars
4. Of Montreal - Hegira Emigre
5. Outkast - Spaghetti Junction
6. Danielson Famille - Ye Olde Battleaxe
7. Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit
8. Dinosaur Jr. - There's no Here
9. Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots part 1
10. Buzzcocks - Nothing Left

And video? That Billie Holiday song coming up in the middle rather overpowers the rest of the list... But you can't pass by something of that power:

There's not much that can follow that - live Buzzcocks have a fighting chance:

And end with Of Montreal:

Monday, July 14, 2014

Happy Bastille Day!

Is there anything more French that women, bread and art?

Maybe the roofs of Paris?

Happy Bastille Day!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

World Cup Final

We're down to the end of the World Cup. Holland beat Brazil for third place, 3-0 - that wasn't much closer than that. Tomorrow, we get the final, Germany vs. Argentina, coming in off very different wins - Germany's 7-1 demolition of the hosts; Argentina's 0-0 penalty win over the Netherlands. It's an interesting matchup.

I think Argentina is the story of the tournament. They came in built around Messi and their fantastic forward line - Higuain, DiMaria, Aguero - hoping to run people over, in front of a suspect defense. Instead? they started slowly - winning their group games narrowly, being shut down by Iran, being put under pressure by Nigeria - all the way looking very questionable in the back, and very dull up front. Messi did his work - but the rest of them were completely MIA, and Messi himself looked increasingly human. (Or completely surrounded most of the time; and the rest of the team didn't do anything to free him.) Then - they shut down Switzerland, shut down Belgium - and did both with increasingly organized, strong defensive work. And did the same with Holland. All of a sudden, they look like one of the best defensive teams in the tournament. It's been fascinating - 4 years ago, they poured in the goals, but the first organized team they played took them apart. This time - the goals dried up early, and they've turned themselves into Italy. Everyone still talks about this being Messi and 10 guys, but the last couple games have been Mascherano, the defense, and some other guys. (And Messi started turning up in front of his own penalty area...)

As for Brazil - they are being treated as the story after their collapse, but it's an odd collapse. They were thrashed by the Germans, beaten by Holland - but neither of those results look very surprising. They were coming - Brazil showed very little up to that point - the real story is probably their ability to outlast Chile and upset Columbia. Those games fooled me a bit - made me think that Brazil was getting cynical - willing and able to take the air out of the ball and win on set pieces... Not that that tactic would ever beat Germany, but it can keep a respectable scoreline. Instead, they decided to play all in attack against overwhelmingly good counterattacking sides, first Germany then Holland. They got their deserts.

And it was interesting in the third place game, watching the end - Brazil this time managed to hang around, though never looking all that strong. But in the last 10-15 minutes, the Dutch were still playing, and Brazil seemed to be looking for the exits. It brought the third goal - and summed things up. Brazil seemed completely lost in those games - willing to attack, especially early, but lost on defense, and once they fell behind, with no answers. Not enough offense to overcome a lead (they never mounted the kind of rally other teams did - look how the US reacted to being down 0-2, or Columbia, or look at the end of the Mexico-Holland game, or the end of the Switzerland-Argentina game, or even Greece when they went behind) - and still unwilling to play defense. They just folded up.

Anyway. Holland, meanwhile, had a nice world cup - beating Spain out of the gate gave them a nice path through the tourney, and they took advantage of it. Arjen Robben showed up - he was probably the best forward outside of James Rodriguez, and was again today.

And Germany? has done what they were supposed to do - they have been by far the best team, able to shut people down, able to score, able to play fast or slow, good on set pieces, good counter attacking, and good at ball control. They've done everything right. They are a game away from winning it all - and seem a good bet to do it. The way Argentina has been playing - they might shut the Germans down, but that is going to be harder than shutting down Holland or Belgium. Unless something changes, it is hard to see them scoring a goal - maybe a set piece, but that's less likely against Germany than most teams. And Messi? teams have handled him, especially in the second round. Germany should do it better than the rest. So - a good chance for a 1-0 German win, maybe they'll get 2, who knows. That's the likelier result, but Argentina is certainly capable of a win, whether through penalties, or a goal here or there. It should be a good game.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Hey Ho, Let's Go!

This month's Band of the Month is the Ramones. This post is going to be different - because I have already written it, basically, back in 2004 - reviewing End of the Century and memorializing Johnny Ramone. And really - most of what I would say now, I said then - so I might as well just repost it. (Editing to stress the music, and the autobiography... I've cannibalized these things before, for comments on some of the others bands I've written about - but I can live with that.)

From the movie review:
Punk: I heard it late, and probably didn't really hear punk for a while - what I heard first were bands like the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello - The Cars, if that counts (and probably it does, in some sense.) I don't know what the first punk song I ever heard was. Probably "Train in Vain" - I knew the Clash was a punk band, heard that - thought, this is not so strange - this is just a bit rougher version of Tom Petty or Neil Young - this is pretty good! And then I heard "Lost in a Supermarket" and thought this is even more so than the last... And then I heard "London Calling" - that's when I realized what people were talking about with punk.

The Ramones I didn't hear until End of the Century came out - "Rock and Roll Radio". I found it to be just about exactly what it was meant to be - those big melodies, the big sound - I loved it, without thinking it was anything but just a great little updating of all those old pop classics you heard on oldies stations. When I was youngr than that, I rather liked bands like The Bay City Rollers, Shawn Cassidy - those cheesy pseudo Rock 'n' Roll teeny bopper bands... The Ramones struck me as making music like that that was, unlike theirs, original (in both the sense that they wrote it and the sense that, even playing this old fashioned sound, they sounded brand new, and completely real), and absolutely legit. None of the calculated crowd -pleasing - the feeling I got from the Ramones was of a bunch of guys who absolutely worshipped the music they were playing and were trying to express pure glee with it.

It is strange - it is hard to believe, thinking about it - the poor Ramones, never had a real hit - nothing huge. Nothing like, oh - "We Will Rock You". They never sold the records - but within a year or so, that song - "Rock and Roll Radio" was as inescapably part of the universal pop culture as "We Will Rock You" - just, somehow, divorced from the Ramones themselves... And while maybe nothing else from the Ramones has reached that level of popular penetration, their music has permeated pop culture. Everyone knows them, loves them, takes them - took them - for granted...

Sometime in 1980, the radio stations where I lived got cool. I don't know when or why or how, but that year, I heard everything - I heard the Ramones, the Clash, the Talking Heads and Blondie and The Cars and Elvis Costello and The Police, I heard the B-52s, Split Enz, The Vapors, Sniff and the Tears, The Greg Kinh Band, U2 - all of this alongiside, on the same station, I think, as all the AOR stuff around. Zep and the Doors and Stone and Hendrix - and a good dose of Bruce and Lou Reed... not to neglect Southern Rock - crappy metal (Ozzie, Ronnie James Dio, Def Leppard, The Priest) - party rock (George Thorogood) - art rock (Steely Dan to ELP)... This did not last that long. Radio in Boston, in 1981 or so, was similar - less classic rock, more punk, new wave, and edgier punk and new wave (you could hear Soft Cell and the Damned in those days... the FCC was not so curious - you could hear "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" on the radio...) All this stuff layered on top of my fairly well established AOR music tastes - I liked a lot of the newer stuff, though I still separated it from the old stuff. That started to change as U2, REM, and eventually groups like the Replacements and Husker Du entered my consciousness....

But the Ramones - yes, the Ramones. Somewhere in here (80 or so) the radio started playing older stuff - "I Wanna Be Sedated" - sometimes "Sheena is a Punk Rocker", covers - "Do You Wanna Dance", "Needles and Pins" - very rarely, though, anything deeper, harder than that. Much later I heard those songs - and then a buddy of mine got Ramones Mania, and we wore the tape out, driving around listening to it over and over. And so... years after that, on a drive to New Jersey with some people, we had only 2 CDs in the car, and listened to Rocket to Russia through 3 or 4 times - that was a very good thing. It does not wear out its welcome. Every time "Cretin Hop" kicks in, you think - should I tell them to turn it off? Why should I? who's going to regret hearing this again? And so - again....

And from Johnny's memorial:
I was heartbroken by the news of his death. That surprised me a bit - I was sad, but not heartbroken when Joey died, and he was a lot more likable. It’s probably the timing - I'd seen the movie, and was writing about the band, thinking about them - and then he died. It hurt - far more than most celebrity deaths (Marlon Brando, say) - almost as much as when my transcendent cultural heroes (Johnny Cash? Charles Schulz?) died.

It’s odd, feeling sentimental about Johnny Ramone. Joey made sense - but Johnny? He was an asshole - no one liked him. He comes off very badly in the film - a sour, mean, bitter man, with a cruel streak - the way he turns to his wife and puts her on the spot about whether there was any tension between him and Joey, and won’t let her get away with uttering a platitude or too. His wife - the woman he took away from Joey, causing that break. Classy. But at the same time, he comes off as someone who knew what he had in the band - who knew, maybe even better than the others, how fucking good they really were (he says in the film that only the Clash were close to them - the only way to dispute that is to note that the Clash aren’t in their league.) He knew what he had, and respected it (The Ramones) immensely, to the point of realizing it was worth more than his petty feuds.

So, yeah, he was an asshole, but he was also a genius. Everyone says he inspired a raft of guitar players - true. And he and his band (but in a lot of ways, that is him - the sound of the band, if not their material, is really Johnny’s guitar, fully formed from the very beginning, pure and unwavering from that point on) did inspire a raft of musicians, making simplicity possible, making it possible for anyone to be in a band. I myself - I fiercely regret that I did not hear them in time. If I had heard them, instead of Kiss, in 1976? Where would I be? Better than I turned out, right? They were cool, they were simple, they were honest, they were perfect.

That is the last word on them: they were a perfect rock band. Very possibly the perfect rock band. And Johnny Ramone was, probably, the perfect rock guitar player.

So back to the Ramones - their place in the world of rock and roll, my reaction to them. About what they did - their sound, their importance...

The dirty secret is that I am ambivalent about them. Not really the Ramones themselves, but sometimes the propaganda about them, the propaganda that surrounds punk. You never hear anyone talk about the Ramones without talking about killing off the dinosaurs - and about simplicity and fun as if that were somehow antithetical to “seriousness” or virtuosity. That was not part of the first wave of punk. The Ramones' contemporaries were bands like Television - guitar noodling eggheads; Patti Smith - poetess; the midwest bands - Rocket From the Tombs, The Mirrors, the Electric Eels - coming out of the 60s bands, Stooges, Velvets, MC 5, the garage bands, the art bands (Captain Beefheart, Red Krayola, the Mothers, etc.) It was not monolithic - it was just devoted to freedom, aggression, to expression. The Ramones were part of it - it is a bitter pill to hear them being turned into another force of conformity.

I have to stop somewhere. I have the luxury here in blogland of developing whatever it is I'm saying over time. So I can come back. But I want to finish with this - something I wrote down back when Joey Ramone died. Punk changed everything - but it did more than kill off what was on the radio and replace it. (It didn't really do that - just exposed so much of what was on the radio as the shit it was.) It created plenty new - but it also changed what was already there. After punk - and when I say punk, I mean The Ramones - you could, if you were listening, hear the rock in the bloat of what came before. It didn't so much kill off all the Led Zeppelins and Black Sabbaths of the world as redeem them. Robert Plant once said that "God Saved the Queen" was a slowed down version of "Communication Breakdown" - which it is. But you needed punk to hear it again. It changed the way people listened to heavy metal - after punk, people could hear Bonham's drumming, Sabbath's drive and AC/DC's punch again. That is what punk did for me - I started listening to punk in earnest in the mid-80s - and it sent me as much for my old Zep and AC/DC records as for the punk-derived bands around at the time (The Replacements, Husker Du, Butthole Surfers, The Meat Puppets - my personal mid-80s favorites). I was not alone - as grunge would soon show us...

I can live with that... And so on to a top 10:

1. Blitzkrieg Bop
2. Rockaway Beach
3. Pinhead
4. Cretin Hop
5. I Wanna Be Sedated
6. Teenaged Lobotomy
7. 53rd and 3rd
8. Commando
9. Bonzo Goes to Bitburg
10. Now I wanna Sniff Some Glue

And video: a very great video for I Wanna Be Sedated:

Sniffin some glue in 1974, with that little Sabbath riff in the middle. (And 2 more songs in the 6 minutes of the clip.)

If you have an hour - live in Germany, 1978:

1980 - doing Rock and Roll High School and Rock and Roll Radio:

For a change of pace - a 1988 clip from Regis and Kathy Lee:

And right up to the end:

Monday, July 07, 2014

World Cup Semi Finals

It's been a lively first couple rounds of the knockout rounds - that have somehow ended up with all the favorites going through. It took some strange things to happen - from Chile and the US hitting the woodwork at the very end of regulation; a cheap penalty for the Netherlands against Mexico; some close misses and some spectacular goaltending to keep teams out - it's been amazingly tight, and all the more amazing for all the favorites to go through.

So now? it could still happen - Argentina against Belgium looked the best they have in the whole tournament; Holland had to go to penalties (and get some heroics out of Tim Krul, brought in specifically for the penalties) to beat Costa Rica (who were about the best defensive team in the field, when all is said and done.) Brazil is missing Neymar (a result of a bad foul at the end of a horribly reefed game, full of hacks and dives that were called but not carded, which just kept encouraging the violence), and Tiago Silva - they are deep and steering though, and have won the last two on possession and pragmatism as much as talent - which is Germany's plan as well - they could win. But it could also be time for the upsets - if Germany winning can be called an upset. Holland winning might be one, but not a huge one - they have scuffled at times, but Robben might be the second best player in the tourney to date (the best was James Rodriguez, by a significant margin - what a joy he has been to watch!), and Argentina has not been all that dominant - but they have won everything - same as Holland. It is going to be a corker, at least if the refs do their jobs. They have for the most part - the Brazil-Columbia game has been the only real stinker in the knockout stages. Should be fun.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Fourth of July Friday Music

Happy Birthday, America, and good luck with the hurricanes.

Making this quick, since I am on vacation... how about 10 Songs for America?

Green Day - American Idiot
The Guess Who - American Woman
Sonic Youth - Early America
U2 - Elvis in America
REM - Little America
You La Tengo - We're an American Band
Stevie Wonder - Jesus Children of America
Iron & Wine - Flightless Bird, American Mouth
Wilco - Ashes of American Flags
The Germs - American Leather

And let's add - 4 songs for the fourth of July: Bruce...

And again:


And Dean Wareham:

Happy 4th!