Posts Tagged ‘america’

Cain’s not running for President

Posted 01 Nov 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

So just a day after writing here that Herman Cain has usurped Rick Perry as the only realistic challenger to Mitt Romney, the wheels have come spectacularly off Cain’s campaign too. The charges of sexual harrasment will hurt him, although not necessarily fatally.

More interesting is some of the evidence coming out of his campaign which suggests just how paper-thin his candidacy really is. Clearly, he’s had some bad advice about how to face down this scandal, but he wouldn’t be the first senior politician (or would-be politician, in his case) to have misplayed his hand in this context. But the bad advice itself is fascinating because the evidence points to Cain not having really bothered putting together much of a campaign team in the first place.

In fact, as Jason Farago writes in the Guardian,

Herman Cain is not really running for president of the United States. A visit by one news organisation to his supposed Iowa operation found precisely zero employees. He is, rather, on what might be the most high-profile book tour this country has seen (previous titles include Speak as a Leader and They Think You’re Stupid) – at least since Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. In fact, his campaign has been exposed for buying tens of thousands of books from Cain’s own for-profit company.

If you want to get all Peggy Noonan about it, you could bemoan the decline in American political discourse that the Cain campaign encapsulates, or critique the media frenzy that surrounds a political outsider when sex comes to the fore. And to the hysterical race-baiting of an Ann Coulter, who, right on schedule, invoked the Clarence Thomas line about a “high-tech lynching”, there is surely a demure, pearl-clutching response about how we should all rise above such mudslinging.

But to what purpose? Herman Cain is, in many ways, the candidate we deserve in the United States today: entirely media-oriented, unconcerned with the realities of governance, and largely bankrupt in both ethical and financial terms. He was never supposed to reach the top of the national polls, and yet his outsider charm and numerological approach to tax reform have allowed him to fill the yawning conservative chasm that first Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry were unable to occupy for long. But at least Bachmann and Perry know how to raise money and win elections. Cain is incapable even of that – this thing would have come crashing down one way or another, though not before sucking up weeks of news time.

It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, that the GOP is now so frenzied in its opposition to mainstream politics that a joke candidate could have got this far. Romney must be surveying the battlefield with a huge grin on his face – through a combination of serial incompetence (Perry), underperformance (Bachmann), and unseriousness (Cain) the likelihood is that the Republican Party will elect, largely unopposed, a leader it hates. Bizarre.

Beer, cider and Perry

Posted 31 Oct 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Rick Perry’s Presidential career is over – the unremarkable Herman Cain could be said to have put paid to his chances by winning over the batshit-crazy right of the Republican Party; but in reality it was Perry’s to lose and he’s done exactly that. And done so with consummate ease: from a complete failure to keep his cool to stumbling over answers and proving unable to explain myriad contradictions in his record, he did everything possible to prove his unsuitability for office – short of turning up on the campaign trail drunk out of his mind.

Oh, actually, here is he turning up on the campaign trail drunk out of his mind.

This week’s GOP debate

Posted 10 Sep 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

So, anyone else catch the Republican debate the other day between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry? In reality, of course, it wasn’t that at all – it was a debate between a host of GOP candidates, ranging from the oddly tanned, serene and without-a-prayer John Hunstman (without a prayer because he’s normal), through the likeably batshit Ron Paul (whose problem with the Republican wet-dream of building a fence on the border with Mexico is the notion that it’ll be used to keep Americans out of Mexico) and the deeply unpleasant Michelle Bachmann (who for the purpose of this debate is Sarah Palin). No, this debate was framed (literally by the stage-designers) as a Romney/Perry head to head, which is kind of useful because, sad to say, one of them with probably be president in a year’s time.

Of the two, there’s not much analysis needed. All of us with any interest in the matter should be curling up in bed each night with our hands clasped whispering ‘Romney Romney Romney’. That’s not because he’s a great dude, but because the danger of having Perry as president is all too real. Romney, as usual, was efficient, courteous, demonstrated a good grasp of detail. He might as well have been Al Gore or John Kerry up there. Perry was (as a spectacle) fantastic. He’s untroubled by detail, is even fairly blithe about gaffes (there’s something of the Deep South Boris Johnson about him, although he’s as smooth as peanut butter), and hugely charismatic in a way which might obscure from a lot of folk that unless he’s stopped he’ll have his finger on the fucking button. Every time Romney came out with something, Perry just kind of swatted him away with a bigger, broader generalisation and an old-fashioned grin.

As people keep pointing out, he’s like Bush – but only in the sense that he’s like Bush tried to be. No East Coast Yale graduate, he’s a proper Southern gentleman, complete with gorgeous accent, sparkling eyes, and a truly appalling attitude towards capital punishment. He can’t be blamed directly for the fact that when the hosts mentioned he’d executed 234 more people than any other governer, the sick bastards in the audience whooped and clapped, but he didn’t bat an eyelid. And unlike Bush – who was actually pretty bi-partisan about a lot of things when it came down to it – Perry is a hard-right absolutist. The man in the cowboy hat is not for turning.

Depressing stuff. The chances of someone like Chris Christie entering the race at this stage and shaking things up look pretty slim (incidentally, I’d bet that Palin won’t enter this race and Bachmann has already seen her high-water mark come and go), so we probably are stuck with a Mitt-Rick run off. Romney better get personal, get combative soon, or Perry will win and we’ll spend the latter half of this decade hankering after Dubya.

Fear of failure

Posted 06 May 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

One thing that really strikes me about the whole question of whether US forces were right to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is the thought of how the combatants must have felt. Specifically in relation to fear – not fear in terms of their own lives (although of course, even for highly trained personnel, that must have been huge) but fear of failure. An inability to know what was in the next room, and when the mission was beyond the point of failure. That’s where I half-sympathise with the decision to pull the trigger. Imagine if, having arrested bin Laden, the soldiers had found themselves up against unexpected circumstances which saw him freed. In ten years this was by the far the closest US intelligence had ever got to bin Laden, and this was their chance. To have let that chance go would have been a tragedy. They must have known that, and must have known that more important than their own safety was the fact that Osama bin Laden must not have been allowed the opportunity to escape. Sadly – and while I can’t rejoice at his death – I can understand why dispatching him must have seemed vital in that moment.

In Defence of Fairness

Posted 24 Feb 2011 — by Dan
Category Politics

What little idea I had after downloading an app for my Phone that I would not only find myself drawn into the world of US radio but into the combustible and divisive discourse that prevails in modern American society…
[blogging by Dan]

People shouting at each other

I don’t have a digital radio set. So all I wanted was a way of listening to my favourite stations at home and on the move. Downloading a mobile app – TuneIn Radio – recommended by friends, would, I thought, cheaply solve my 6Music shortage problem, and allow me to listen to the World Service at any time of day. It didn’t really occur to me that I would also be able to listen to just about any station in the world that has taken the initiative to broadcast online.

After downloading the app and quickly saving as bookmarks the stations I had initially bought it for, I soon delved deeper into the ‘browse’ function. The program enables you to browse through stations dedicated to a variety of subjects – such as Sports, Music, Language and Talk. I chose Talk and here the options widened further – to include Business, Conservative, Religious, Public and Progressive. It is this menu which gives away TuneIn Radio’s American roots, and which, I soon realised, led to a more succinct insight into US public discourse than almost anything else available this side of the Atlantic.

I chose Conservative immediately. Partly through inquisitiveness and also because of familiarity. Exposure to the news is enough to make anyone familiar with the names Hannity, O’Reilly, Beck and Limbaugh. But perhaps also I was in an argumentative mood and as I already knew that my generally liberal sensitivities would be confronted by stations labelled ‘Conservative’, that’s what I chose to listen to. After all, where would be the fun in choosing ‘progressive’ and listening to someone extolling the virtues of Medicare, expressing opinions with which I largely agree.

On the conservative talk stations, the shows are generally based around carefully selected news items, which are explored exclusively through the filter of the host’s decidedly fixed ideological slant – more often than not little more than his or her gut instinct. Callers are then invited to phone in and – for the most part – say how much they agree with the host, pointing out further things that he or she might have forgotten to mention in the initial rant. Where callers disagree, challenging the simplistic analysis favoured by the presenter, they can be met with some pretty stern words, and are sometimes shouted down in a surprisingly aggressive fashion.

The hosts are clearly not experts in any particular field (Rush Limbaugh has no qualifications, having dropped out of High School) but instead seek to define themselves as the everyman standing with the caller against Washington and their shared perception of the increasingly shadowy world of big Government – an oft repeated right wing concern.

A few evenings of listening to the internet feeds of various ‘Conservative’ stations is enough to leave the listener in very little doubt as to the standard of their general content or, more precisely, their entire raison d’être. AM and now FM stations, many of which in the US still use their four letter call signs such as KRLA, KNET, WNTP (how do people not get these confused?) regularly host syndicated shows from parent broadcasters with presenters such as Sean Hannity and the increasingly delusional Glenn Beck.

Parts of their mantra are already familiar. Age old Conservative bugbears, such as abortion rights and gun control are ever present, but they have been joined by more recent obsessions – 9/11, the current deficit debate, Obama’s place of birth, perceived liberal propaganda in US high schools, and the supposed socialisation of Medical care. Their arguments are non-challenging to those who already hold broadly conservative views – and they react with fury when a fellow traveler of the right expresses nuanced rather than strident views. The level of debate is designed to offer the listener confirmation of their beliefs and stoke their ire with highly selective, often misleading opinion, with innuendo often masquerading as fact.

As with much US media, adverts are frequent and, in another sign of deregulation, the presenters themselves will occasionallypersonally recommend a product or a service – a facet of broadcasting which is outlawed in much of the rest of the Developed World. There is also, maddeningly for liberals in the US and without, a market imperative to the existence of these outlets. People tune in. If you are willing to provide – ceaselessly – what people want to hear on the way home from work, you have an audience (and no little power) right there.

Subjects covered by the stations I have dipped into over the last few evenings (corresponding usually with Drive Time in the US) have included “traitorous” trade unions in Wisconsin, how convicted Somali pirates ought to be taken to Guantanamo Bay instead of the “luxury” of a Federal prison (the host clearly was unaware of the reputation of such institutions overseas) and, most astonishing of all, how one female LA-based host thought Donald Rumsfeld was “hot”!

America’s fascination with its current weaknesses, and a paranoia about the country’s place in history ironically seem to take up a lot of airtime. I say ironically because it’s clear from listening that although it is a constant bone of contention for the right wing, there’s little to suggest that they have formulated anything approaching a decent analysis of the problem.

First, they completely fail to see the extent to which Reaganomics, Neoliberalism and right-wing dogma – policy lines they ruthlessly promote – have compromised and weakened America’s global reputation, and second they apply desperately simple historical analogies to illustrate their points – showing up their own ignorance. In the last few days alone I’ve heard several school grade standard knowledge accounts telling of the declines of the Roman and British Empires, and how they can be related to the present day US, especially in relation to the acknowledged rise of China.

The constitution is also endlessly picked over – seemingly for clues for which direction the country should take. There is even, I learned, a conservative organisation which distributes pocket-sized constitutions free of charge to members of the public who request them. America’s current heightened level of fascination with its constitution (is there any other people on Earth that have the slightest clue what’s in theirs?!) is partly due to a school-led indoctrination, giving it quasi-religious status and gravitas, but it is also because of current insecurities and infighting within America itself.

After an hour or so of listening each evening I had had my fill, to be honest, frustrated I couldn’t make a transatlantic call and join the discussion, though I feel my input may have been rejected. The lack of checks and regulations on what was being said (and what I suspect is being said on both sides of the discourse) left me feeling quite worried about its effects.

Fairness Doctrine

The labels ‘Progressive/Liberal’ and ‘Conservative/Libertarian’ can be applied to much of the media in the United States today. That wasn’t always the case. But in the 1980s the ‘Fairness Doctrine’, a policy of the Federal Communications Commission which stipulated that both sides of an argument during debate must be aired, was repealed. The scrapping of this policy was led by Republicans who saw it as an affront to free speech and in contradiction of the country’s constitution. Various attempts at reinstating the doctrine or versions of it, mainly lead by Democrats, have all since failed. In the meantime the American media has gradually polarised into two opposing camps.

This has had a massive knock-on effect in the social and political sphere of a country that is having, at present, to face up to some of the greatest challenges in its modern history. Throw into the mix the nation’s first black president (something which a troubling number of Americans remain ill at ease about) and the divisive and often misreported nature of some of the reforms he wishes to instigate, and the battle lines are drawn.

Movements such as the committed – yet loosely constructed – Tea Party groups have been directly inspired, and spurred on, by several leading conservative talk show hosts. These groups have made large and quick strides since their establishment and in the recent US Midterms have even pushed aside more moderate Republican candidates and installed men and women into the US Congress who are largely untried and untested representatives of public office. In response to Tea Party marches there have been Liberal marches in opposition, most notably Jon Stewart’s recent ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ in Washington DC. This unusual outbreak of ideological marching has only served to underline the gulf that has opened up in political discourse in the US.

Though it’s easy to dismiss such extreme right wing (and indeed in cases left wing) manifestations of public debate as being wantonly provocative, the 20 year drip-drip of this nature of discourse on both radio and – increasingly – US television is beginning to have a lasting and irrevocable effect. Any population of otherwise rational and educated people would inevitably be influenced by such unrelenting propaganda – whoever instigates it. This is not just a problem in the United States. In other countries too media can prove divisive, though in the case of the UK at least media is much more stringently regulated, meaning that such variances in discourse are kept to a traditional battle between newspaper proprietors.

Americans do have other choices. Despite erratic funding the NPR network of Radio stations produces excellent and fairly balanced programmes. The majority of the free to air national TV stations remain largely free of overt political bias. Therefore surely a concentration on the merits of America’s overwhelming ability to produce globally inspiring output would be far better than passing laws that only lead to a great country shouting itself apart.

The United States, of all countries, should know that with free speech come responsibilities and that free speech on its own, without reason or context can very easily do harm. So please, America, calm down and reinstall the Fairness Doctrine, Ok, so talk radio will be tamer and Fox News duller, but look on the bright side – the increasingly insane Glenn Beck will be out of a job and your political discourse will be enriched and productive once more. America will then surely stand infinitely better equipped to face the challenges that the future will bring.

Easier Listening – An article bemoaning the loss of the Fairness Doctrine

Washington Post
– Article about ‘National Institute for Civil Discourse’ to be opened at Arizona State University. The Centre is to be Co-Chaired by former Presidents George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton. It was set up partly in response to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in the state in January.

– A history of Talk Radio in the US

[thanks Dan!]

Studying in the clouds

Posted 13 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Photos, Travel

Kids wander round these campuses barely looking at the mountains surrounding them. I guess they get so used to them. I can’t. I nearly bumped into about four people walking round the campuses, head (almost literally) in the clouds. If it wasn’t so cold here, I might refuse to leave.

University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Music in SLC: Slowtrain & The American Shakes

Posted 13 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Travel

Salt Lake seems to have a really friendly music scene. On Sunday afternoon I sat in a cafe downtown -adjoined to the quite wonderful Sam Weller Books – and logged on to the internet, wondering if I’d find a local indie record shop. My hopes weren’t especially high – I remember trying the same thing without success in both Atlanta and San Jose – but I swiftly located Slowtrain Records, which looked pretty cool and which was, conveniently, just round the corner from where I was sitting.

Downtown areas in the US often seem to me to be rather peculiar places: they share with British city centers a concentration of hotels, banks, restaurants and conference centers. But shops are hard to find, often cast out to shopping malls outside the Downtown area, or else located where you’d least expect them. Despite it’s Downtown location, Slowtrain is sat right at the end of a thoroughly suburban seeming parade of stores off to the right of the city centre. If I hadn’t known it was there, I would have stopped walking and turned back. But it was there, of course – and what a find.

Slowtrain has operated out of SLC since 2006 and little wonder it’s a success – it’s a classic independent record shop, with a great section for staff recommendations, a bunch of featured local acts (and an in-house record label) and a sizable selection of decent indie vinyl (with a nice line in heavyweight reissues). Having looked around for a few minutes, I approached the girl behind the counter and asked if she had any tips for local gigs and bars. She was really helpful, highlighting at least a show a night for every day that I’m in the city, plus a couple of good places to get a beer. What’s more, she suggested I come back that same evening for an instore and album release party by a local band, The American Shakes.

I returned at seven, to find a charmingly decked-out basement below the shop with a little stage and three rows of classroom chairs, and a bunch of locals milling around, laughing and talking.

The American Shakes are the project of singer-songwriter Brent Dreiling, with friends and other SLC scene luminaries backing him up (aren’t you always disappointed when bands turn out to be projects, rather than real bands?), something occasionally apparent when he dictates tempo to his bandmates rather than leaving it to the drummer. But their sound is integrated and full, not the weak complimentary backup that band-leaders often seem to either insist on or end up with.

Musically, they were pretty great, their sound a combination of countrified indie, bar-band rock and, most interestingly – if subtly – 60s psych, recalling at times a double-denim twist on The Zombies or the more melodic end of Nuggets-era garage. Bassist Jake Fish’ instinctive, melodic playing and some terrific pedal steel guitar playing prove real highlights.

The least convincing aspect of their performance, counter-intuitively, is Dreiling’s occasionally weak vocal projection. His voice isn’t without it’s charms – far from it – particularly on the more measured numbers, but lifting it above the fray sometimes proves difficult.

Nevertheless, it’s a show that I greatly enjoy, and I’m left with the impression that Salt Lake is probably a pretty great place to be in a band – it’s on the national circuit (Kate Nash, Ghostface Killah and The Hold Steady all play the city this week), centered round a cool record store, and seemingly pretty friendly and self-supporting, too. I’ve not, sadly, found time for another show since I’ve been here, but with luck I’ll manage one more before the weekend.

You can listen to – and buy – The American Shakes’ debut LP, Begin, here, and follow Slowtrain on twitter here should you wish to be plugged in to what’s happening in SLC.

Here’s a recording I made of the band – hope they won’t mind me sharing. This song’s called ‘Tucson, AZ’.

[nb - a few days later I picked up a copy of their LP (on limited vinyl with a free CD) and it's great. Hope these guys make it over to England at some point.]

On Salt Lake City

Posted 12 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Share, Travel

I like arriving in cities in darkness. My plane touched down in Salt Lake City on Saturday evening, too late to see anything from the aeroplane window bar the anonymous smattering of lights that designate homes, roads, hotels; lights that could belong to any city in the world. In my taxi, the driver was at pains to reassure me, as we travelled the few short miles from SLC International to downtown, that I needn’t worry about the city’s conservative, Mormon background. A lot has changed round here lately, he says – it’s a modern, liberal city. (Later, I’ll discover that to cross a road in Salt Lake, you have to pluck an orange flag from a bucket on the sidewalk and charge out, waving it).

All around you, in the morning, he said, you’ll see the mountains. If I’d arrived a day later, actually, he’d have been wrong, so shrouded was the city at the start of the week with mist and snow, but on the morning after my arrival, Sunday, I sprang out of bed towards the window, and swept the heavy curtains back to see a sight that couldn’t be further removed from the gentle slope of the Sussex Downs I see from my bedroom window back in Brighton.

Salt Lake is not a big city. Like a lot of places in the US, it’s sprawling – wide and flat (but for the hotels, which rise up in the horizon, formulaic and ugly) – but it’s open and navigable, and necessarily limited in size by the mountains that surround it. It’s sat in a basin, around 4500 ft up – really high in the scheme of things and easily enough to feel more out of breath than normal after running to catch a tram – and squashed between two ranges. The Wasatch on the right hand side; a jagged run of enormous slate grey peaks, capped with snow, and the Oquirrh mountains on the left; lower, flatter, earth-brown. To see them towering over the city is really quite a sight.

There’s nothing conventionally beautiful about the Downtown area itself. Built by the Mormons, back when they saw it as the future epicentre of what would eventually be an all-conquering faith, it’s designed on a rigid grid system radiating out from the temple, with the roads so wide they seem to occupy roughly 50% of the surface area of the city. Most of the buildings are functional rather than extravagant, with many tipping over into the straightforwardly ugly.

But it’s evocative of a kind of America with which I feel somehow familiar, despite having never been anywhere like it before. It’s simultaneously the America of the Mountain West, on the edge of the Rockies, and a kind of window into everytown America, the America of the middle. It feels resolutely typical, ordinary, lacking the bustle and pace of places in the US I’ve been before. A look at the films shot here is quite instructive – mainstream, suburban stuff like Dumb and Dumber, High School Musical, the Halloween sequels. It’s not metropolitan, urbane, well-off. But nor is it rural, down-at-heel or impoverished. It’s everyday America, and a million miles from Europe.

Perhaps if I lived here I’d find it maddening, the closed-off-ness, the scale, but as a visitor, as someone who can’t help getting excited about his travels and the weird, amazing, wonderful differences from place to place – I absolutely love it here.

Here are some shots taken downtown, just off to the right of all the ugly hotel buildings.

Review; Lou Donaldson live in the Village

Posted 11 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Share, Travel

Wow, on my last night in New York City I did something I’ve meant to do for some time but never quite got round to, mainly because I’ve never quite known where to start, wanting to take in some proper NY jazz, but not wanting to do it in some aneasthetised tourist spot, paying an arm and a leg for the pleasure. Once or twice I’ve nearly gone to some heavily advertised jazz club, but never felt it was the right option. On Friday, having gone for a couple of drinks in the Village after work, I set off back towards my hotel at about eight o’clock, intent on giving up my last night for some well deserved rest – an early night.

Walking back towards where I thought the subway station was, I passed under a delapidated red awning. Glancing up I read the venue’s name. ‘The Village Vanguard’. It was a name I vaguely recognised, but I thought nothing more of it and kept walking. I must have walked another couple of hundred yards before I realised I was headed in the wrong direction. I turned around and retraced my steps. This time, as I passed the venue, I glanced absent-mindedly towards the doorway, and a sign stopped me in my tracks. Hand written in marker pen on a piece of white paper: Lou Donaldson.

I’m a long way from being a jazz specialist, but I know that name well. Donaldson is one of jazz’s greatest alto saxophonists. A student of Charlie Parker’s, his soulful, populist Blue Note jazz puts him up amongst the absolute masters of his art, even if fashion moved away from him (the good humoured octagenarian cheerfully derides ‘fusion and con-fusion’ from the stage). The opportunity to see him live, in exactly the sort of small, run-down, bohemian venue I always imagined hearing jazz was obviously too good to miss.

I opened the doors and went in, clambering down the stairway to a small, bustling room, carpeted in red with photos of jazz heroes covering the walls. Tickets were $30. I held out three notes and smiled excitedly at the guy on the door.

“Do you have a ticket?”, he asked. I shook my head. He shook his head. Damn.

But not all hope was lost; if I headed up to the awning, he explained, there was a reserve queue. If I waited there, they’d let me in in an hour if the place wasn’t full. Ugh. I headed upstairs. There were already eight or nine people stood at the awning. I weighed up my options, and stretched my fingers experimentally in the cold Manhatten air. It might be a long wait. I decided to stick it out.

About 40 minutes later, starving, very cold and desperate for the loo, I began feeling a bit negative about things – not least because a steady stream of people, clutching tickets, were heading through the door. The reserve queue was up to about 15 people. Suddenly, a man – broad shouldered and shaven-headed – veered towards me. I stepped back, hoping to avoid an exchange. He said something about a ticket. I wasn’t sure if I heard right. Happily, he repeated it.

“You want a free ticket buddy?”, he asked.

As the guy placed a ticket in my hand, explaining that someone he’d been supposed to be bringing had dropped out, I grinned and thanked him. To my right, someone said – in a tone of voice which suggested they weren’t entirely pleased for me – “you got lucky”.

I certainly did. Five minutes later I was sat downstairs watching Lou Donaldson and his band take to the strange. Donaldson is relatively frail, as one might expect of his advanced years, but his playing is just magnificent, and his range, tone and power is completely undiminished. He’s also a born entertainer, whipping the crowd up with jokes and anecdotes, every inch the performer. He brought a physical, crowd-pleasing quality to jazz which I don’t think I knew existed – this wasn’t cerebral, although it was undoubtedly complex. This paradox is, I think, what I get out of jazz. Compared to many of his peers, Donaldson is conservative by nature – he even has a pop at Miles Davis for ‘stopping playing jazz’ at one point, but it’s truly remarkable that within his populist boundaries he still creates sounds so dazzlingly inventive and unorthadox. On several occasions his playing reduced the audience to open-mouthed expressions of wonder. The applause he received after each solo was as warm as it was awed.

At the best moments, I think I captured something of the experience of jazz which I was craving – something rich, physical, incredibly harmonious and welcoming. Thank god I was given that ticket. On a few occasions I glanced over to the bar, where I spotted my benefactor. Of every person in the club, he seemed the most enthusiastic; dancing ecstatically on his bar stool and hollaring his approval. THANKS.

Here’s the last three or four minutes or so of Donaldson’s set – a nice rich recording too; my Zoom H1 always picks up brass instruments really well.

Early days

Posted 07 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Observations

It didn’t occur to me to check the weather forecast before I came over to New York, as I’ve been at this time of year a couple of times and know it to be bright and cool; good, respectable, Spring weather.

Well, it’s absolutely boiling. I touched down late last night and pretty much went straight to bed, so I woke this morning caught somwhere between real confusion (where was I? what time was it?) and pure excitement (oh yeah – New York). I skipped the hotel breakfast and darted out onto the busy street.

I double checked. Maybe I really didn’t know what time it was? I was pretty sure that I’d adjusted my phone correctly, and that it was 8.30am; but it was just too hot for that. It must have been at least 25 degrees. Now, a couple of hours later, it must be at least 30. In short, it’s fantastic – but I’m woefully over-dressed, having only packed a couple of dark suits and a pair of heavy jeans. No trainers, just shoes. The perfect justification, then, for some spending.

It being early, all I could do at first was window-shop. My hotel is sat at the connecting point, pretty much, of a bunch of Manhattan’s most interesting districts. To the right is the Lower East Side. To the left sit Little Italy and the ever-encroaching, visually-intoxicating Chinatown. Just above is Nolita, which struck me last time I was here as a massively interesting neighbourhood, and to the side of that, SoHo, where I headed this morning.

SoHo is really amazing; wide streets, huge cast-iron industrial buildings, and some wonderful shops. It being early, I pressed my nose up against the glass at McNally Jackson and the Apple Store, and then headed to Cafe Bari, a lovely little cafe on Broadway, where I read the Village Voice and ate breakfast, which consisted of two eggs (over easy), bread, potato croquettes, an unbelievably tasty salad, and some little beef sausages.

That done, I tracked back through Nolita, picked up some books in McNally’s, and started planning next steps – which right now I think will have to consist of buying an entire new wardrobe…

precious, a film by lee daniels

Posted 21 Feb 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Reviews

I watched Precious, today, the second feature by Lee Daniels, and was very impressed, if upset, by its grim, unflinching portrayal of domestic abuse in 1980s Harlem. It’s only Daniels second film, although he is an established name in Hollywood, having produced both the excellent ‘The Woodsman’ – a hard, affecting film about a convicted paedophile – and the execrable ‘Monster’s Ball’, a condescending, unpleasant film about ‘black America’. Here, aided by some excellent casting and several terrific performances, he has crafted a film which is alternately painful to watch, surprisingly heart-warming, and very funny.

It’s the severity of the circumstances his young lead must face that resonate most strongly. Precious, an impassive, obese 16 year old who is pregnant for the second time by her own father, is played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe with real depth and significant restraint, and entirely fulfils her role in a film where appalling events are threaded routinely into the plot. The comedian Mo’Nique, who plays her mother, is even more impressive, bringing a nightmarish intensity to her portrayal of one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve ever seen in celluloid. In addition, there is good work by a (slightly too-good-to-be-true) Paula Patten and Mariah Carey, whose hard, ambiguous social worker is central to the film’s (ultimately hopeful, despite everything) climax.

At times, particularly when Mo’Nique is inflicting shocking abuse on her screen daughter, it’s terribly hard to watch. To leaven the horror, Daniels provides a hopeful subplot which lauds the role of the state in protecting its most put-upon citizens, and it’s for the best that he does, else the film might be unwatchable. At times the contrast between these two strands seems a little unbelievable, but it is a necessary plot device. As in both Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, however, there are some ambiguous moral lessons. In The Woodsman, vigilantism is presented in a strangely uncritical light, and in Precious it’s hard not to notice that every character who lines up to help Precious (and thankfully there are several) seem to have progressively lighter skin.

Her relationship with Patten – who plays her teacher and mentor – is touching and convincing; but at times it feels that Patten is a little too good to be true; an impeccably groomed, comfortable liberal – she seems remarkably unfrazzled for an inner city teacher. Indeed, her class – supposedly made up of Harlem’s most troubled teenagers – seems at times to resemble the kids from Fame.

This is nitpicking – there are great performances here, and it’s very difficult not to be upset, moved, and exhausted by the film. It’s a great success and Mo’Nique, for one, might feel unfairly cast aside if she doesn’t pick up an Oscar for her role. I hope that the intolerable life young Precious is handed in 80s Harlem is a historical observation, and that things are better for America’s poor today.

encouraging for obama

Posted 16 Feb 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Early days, but…

Obama in trouble

Posted 21 Jan 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Massachusetts! Of all the states to go Republican, I would never have guessed it would be that bluest of East Coast states. Extraordinary, extraordinary and terrible. Obama has to face up to the first, catastrophic, humiliating defeat of his political life. And there goes his senate super-majority, and any hope of the Healthcare bill passing in its current form. Christ.

What does all this mean for Obama?

Firstly, it’s pretty much what I’d be calling a disaster, if the horrific events of Haiti over the last week hadn’t reminded us all exactly what a disaster looks like. Ordinarily, a defeat at this stage of the cycle (a year in to a new Presidency which has been mired, through no fault of the incumbent, in economic collapse) would not signify so very much: governments often lose by-elections, especially during recessions, and the loss of one seat may negate Obama’s super-majority (he needs 60 out of 100, rather than 51, to pass significant legislation) but the Senate still has a healthy majority of Democrats.

But the unusual, feverish world of US Politics is stranger and sadder than that. Obama may only have lost one seat, but the current Republican party is more partisan than any in recent history, and is completely, unambiguously opposed to co-operation or compromise. Once upon a time, the GOP was a broad party representing many hues of the right – but now it is a cantankerous, disciplined beast which is entirely resistant to every law, no matter how good, or how moderate, the Democrats propose. For as long as students of contemporary politics can remember, the Democrats had, in Ted Kennedy, the best deal broker in global politics. Even if he was still there, though, he’d be hard pressed to come to an agreement with a solitary Republican. They intend to bring Obama down by obstructing absolutely everything he does. Now that Scott Brown has Kennedy’s seat, they can do that. It’s a real mess.

And if the Republicans can win in Massachusetts, they can win anywhere – all of a sudden, there’s no such thing as a safe seat in US politics.

Now, clearly this is awful news for Obama. He’s going to have a real job on in confronting and turning around this deeply discouraging turn of events. But he has to do more than just negotiate his way around this vast obstacle – he has to confront his own failings and the fact that his own mistakes helped make this happen. A year in to his presidency, it’s clear that he’s tried hard, and any liberal would take his policies over those of his predecessor in a heartbeat, but errors have been made.

Firstly, I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, had any premonition of how incredibly hard the healthcare battle would prove. In retrospect, with the economy in the state it is in, it’s probably the case that he should have left it alone until the economy picked up again. That’s a bitter admission for anyone who believes that the provision of universal healthcare is a fundamental duty of government, but the last year has proved that it is so. The opposition (for this goes beyond the Republicans) has been ruthlessly efficient in attacking the plan, organising and protesting, taking in many ways their cue from the ceaseless, senseless hounding of Clinton which they perfected in the 1990s. Obama, in contrast, has been passive, slow to make his case, and too detached from the process. He has caved in too often, and not taken charge of the situation.

The real problem has not been the bill, but the process. On the one hand, the bill has been repeatedly, robustly attacked by the American right and the conservative media, to the point where fallacious speculation about its’ contents have been repeated as fact. On the other, Obama has entrusted Congress to draft a bill in precisely the same long, slow, argumentative, concession-heavy method that it always has. A year later, the bill is almost broken – universally misunderstood but no longer universal; the public option is gone and what is left, though a dramatic improvement on what has gone before, falls way short of expectation. This is not the ‘new politics’ that Obama promised. It is the old politics, done badly. Obama’s inability to influence and drive Copenhagen was cut from the same cloth. America’s new President promised change. The change from Republican policy is to be warmly welcomed, but the greater drive to change the political process, and to change American society, has stalled.

So, what he does do? Try to push the healthcare bill through in some further weakened form? Scrap it and start from scratch? Scrap it and forget it?

Well – America isn’t Haiti and this isn’t, yet, a disaster. Worse politicians than Obama have survived blows more damaging than this, and he has plenty of time to prove that his prescription for America is worth taking. But he has to respond to this quickly – prove that he can keep going when a blow is landed and swiftly adapt his game. If the healthcare bill is dead, it may even be a good thing – the bill as it was was looking cancerous, something that might infect everything he did from this point on, and to have lanced it now may ultimately work in his favour. What he needs to do is affirm his priorities (it’s the economy, stupid), get on track, then come back and find a way to fix healthcare afresh. That means bringing to the table a bill which the American people understand – healthcare reform is an argument he can yet win. But right now he needs to be quicker, clearer and more direct on the issues that the electorate care about.

He’s down but a long way from being out. The next few months might define this Presidency.

obama and the wisdom, or otherwise, of crowds

Posted 16 Nov 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

I’m interested in this piece by Michael Tomasky in today’s Guardian, which looks into the incredible amount of opposition which Barack Obama faces in the US, and examines whether – or more accurately to what extent – the hostility he faces is rooted in racial prejudice.

It’s a good article not only because Tomasky is even-handed and cautious about making accusations of racism (unlike, say, Glenn Beck and Rupert Murdoch) but also, mainly, because he is perceptive about the nature of crowds. He acknowledges that, person to person, many of Obama’s most steadfast critics may not be racist. But having described the opposition he faces, Tomasky notes:

“This is the Obama-hating crowd. It’s deeply conservative, and it’s about 98% white. And the thing about crowds is that they develop a personality of their own that is not merely the sum of individual parts. A crowd is an organism that grows in its own way and tends to be led and excited by its extremes. It can mutate into being racist without many or even most of the individuals in it being so.”

Good article – you can read the rest here.

i’m in love

Posted 19 Aug 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Democratic Congressman Barney Frank…

Michael Tomasky, over on the Guardian, sums this up well…

glenn beck

Posted 19 Aug 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

A question for my American readers:

I may have this wrong, as I’m not exactly a seasoned watcher of US TV, living as I do in the UK, but over the last four or five years I’ve travelled over to the US a number of times and always tuned in to cable news channels to see how things are presented. It was always my observation, when Glenn Beck presented on CNN headline, that he was generally more careful, less dogmatic and less offensive than his peers on Fox. I even found him reasonably likeable, although I seldom agreed with his politics. Nevertheless, he seemed to be relatively straight-talking, willing to criticise Bush, and while egotistical, a far way from being crazy.

Obviously, since he moved to Fox, he’s gone absolutely batshit crazy. So my question is: did I just catch him on a good day on the occasions I tuned in to CNN over the least few years (probably not more than 12-20 times) or has his craziness only really kicked in the last year or so?

in praise of morris dancers

Posted 09 Jun 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Observations

Morris dancers are a funny lot, no? When I was younger, and thought it necessary to be dismissive 50% of the time and sarcastic the other 50, I would have argued without giving a moments thought that Morris dancing was something deserving of scorn; anachronistic, backward-looking, the preserve of little-Englanders and social outcasts. The sort of thing that punk was supposed to sweep away.

I was a mess of contradictions. I hated all that olde England bollocks, and bookended my days by listening to Blur’s ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, which mined exactly the same conceptual map of England for reinterpretation and examination. I didn’t get the subtlety at all. They used to slag off America, too, which I brainlessly echoed.

So when I was younger, and thought it necessary to be dismissive 50% of the time and sarcastic the other 50, I would have argued without giving a moment’s thought that America was something deserving of scorn; culturally empty, false, lacking in integrity. If I went to America, I thought, I’d find the place intolerable – fascinating in places, sure, but a wasteland of consumerism in others.

Of course, I’ve been to America plenty of times now, and don’t recall a single moment when I wasn’t enamoured with the place. I was comprehensively, immaturely wrong. And when I was there last, wandering through Central Park, I turned a corner and came upon a troupe – twirling and skipping incongruously in the Manhattan sun – of Morris dancers. From the tips of my toes to the corners of my widening smile, I felt real warmth towards them; surprise and delight. I don’t want to intellectualise the reasons for my changed attitude – but when I encountered more Morris dancers outside the Basketmakers in Brighton the other day, the thought that crossed my mind was this is surely the most harmless activity in the entire world. That in itself is reason to love it.

I wrote a new song last week. It’s not about Morris dancers – but me and Dan spent Saturday afternoon editing together footage of the dancers we saw in Brighton, creating an impromptu promo video for the song. I’ll post it here in the next couple of days.

arlo spector waves goodbye to the GOP

Posted 29 Apr 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

A couple of months ago, in the days and weeks after Barack Obama was elected, I had a funny feeling that while American politics was likely to become a great deal more fruitful and worthy, it may well become a lot less interesting as well. The sheer decency of the new President, combined with the size of the task in front of him, seemed to suggest that US politics would become sober, thoughtful, complex, where before it was brash, infuriating and – in the days when the momentum of Obama’s campaign was at its height – deliriously full of unrealistic hopes. With Obama in charge, everything was bound to tone down.

And in many ways it has – but American politics remains deeply interesting. The latest incident, the conversion of Arlen Spector from Republican to Democrat, is hugely fascinating. With the election of Al Franken still (temporarily) up in the air, Obama remains tantalisingly close to a workable majority in the Senate. Now that Spector has crossed the floor, he need only wait for the inevitable confirmation of Franken’s victory in Minnesota. The implications for Obama’s ability to stretch his agenda are profound. The Republicans can’t stop him.

And just as interesting are the implications for the Republican Party itself. The GOP looks increasingly to be in the same state that the British Conservative party were in after Tony Blair’s election in 1997 – riven with fury at their loss of power and in a tumult over their direction. Like the Tories, the GOP have lurched to the right, and the party’s complete lack of focus presents many questions. The modern day Republican party is unrecognisable from the one which was once dominated by sensible conservative moderates like Arlo Spector – politicians of his intellectual calibre are now deeply unfashionable in the GOP tent. So what of the remaining moderates? Will they come over to Obama too? If they do, his potential to affect lasting change is huge.

I hope to heaven that he doesn’t waste the opportunity in the way Labour did in the UK.


Posted 20 Jan 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Observations

Just watched Obama’s inauguration on the news; what an incredibly moving sight. A million people today will write a short note about Obama, by text, by email, on a blog or a facebook status update, or ring a friend, a parent, to express joy at his becoming President. It makes writing about the inauguration hard, because nothing I could say could, on its own, add up to or intimate the collective happiness that so many across the world are feeling. That is what is important. That and the fact that we now have an American president whom we like, whom we – perhaps naively, but perhaps not – trust.

beautifully mannered

Posted 16 Jan 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

This article, by Andrew Roberts, is a wonderfully bonkers bit of writing, and well worth a read. Titled ‘History will show that George W Bush was right’, it’s an incredible, fawning tribute to the outgoing President, by a historian whose reactionary ideas have been well-documented. It’s no surprise to find him so keen on Bush, and the arguments he makes in the first few paragraphs are familiar, even plausible in places, although I fundamentally disagree with most of his conclusions. Whatever, the article only really flies off into the stratosphere when Roberts describes Bush as a:

“charming, interesting, beautifully mannered history buff who, were he not the most powerful man in the world, would be a fine person to have as a pal”.