Archive for July, 2008

Whadda I Know About Economics?

It seems that the American financial system and perhaps the entire U.S. economy could be headed toward a meltdown in the magnitude of the Great Depression. How the hell  could this be happening? There is a word for it. That word is greed, a greed unchecked by any concern of the public good; criminal, outlaw greed. 

Who are the culprits? Let’s start with Ronald Reagan. Move from there to Newt Gingrich and his “Contract With America’s Rich.” From there move back to the faceless economic and political theorists of the American Right. Collectively the vision of this gang was to emasculate government oversight of the economy. Hey they succeeded! Now we’ll all be paying the price of that ignorance and ideological recklessness. 

First, let’s remember that all that dough, those huge amounts of it, did not simply go missing. Very little of it just disappeared. Not at all. It was skimmed off the system by the sharp operators over the past three decades and migrated – To the slippery accountants, lawyers and lobbyists, to the MBA fixers, to the oily friends of Bubba Bill, the Bushes and the likes of Jack Abramoff, the dealers and fixers, the New Paradigm shysters, suits and scam artists who were given free reign to game the system to the disadvantage of the rest of us. The business sections of most daily newspapers now read like the police blotter of an inner city; indictments, fraud, scams perpetrated or abetted by the leading financial institutions of the nation; major banks, brokerage firms, predatory credit card companies.  Enron was not unique or isolated, and tax cuts for the rich were just not enough. The former Washington Post columnist William Grieder chose the biblical word “usury” to describe the massive shifts in wealth away from the have-nots and into the pockets of the already haves. Woody Guthrie’s line from the thirties fits well the situation of this new century, “some men rob you with a mask and gun, some with a fountain pen (read laptop).” 

Visit any of the choice, second and third-home, waterfront/golf course McMansion regions anywhere in the country. You can calculate the extent of the ill-distributed gains. Drive the roads of the “better “ suburbs and count the plethora of over-the-top luxury cars. All this in a time of increasing numbers of poor and working poor Americans. Universal health care? We can’t afford universal health care! Ask yourself how did all of this narrowly distributed new wealth come about?  Just hard work I suppose. Think about CEO compensation, and recall if you will, that little creep who waltzed away from the NYSE with a sweetheart severance deal of a mere $179 million. The national Ponzi scheme that’s marked the past several decades of the American economy is beginning to look like the fowl or foul bird come home to roost. Too late now to whitewash the walls. 

Whadda I know about economics? Not much. But I remember former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Pete Dexter writing of the attempts by utility company executives to explain the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown. When challenged about his lack of nuclear expertise, Dexter wrote, “I don’t know anything about nuclear technology, but I know a lot about bullshit. And that’s what this is, Bullshit.” 

After the Bear Stearns bailout, the imminent rescues of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and now several major banks going go belly up, I listen to the words of Dubya, of Bernake and Paulson and like Pete Dexter, I think I know what I’m hearing. Stay tuned!

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How Come No Hockey Lit, Eh?*

*attributed to either Doug or Bob McKenzie

It would appear that literacy and hockey seem to be mutually exclusive terms. Any review of the literature devoted to what The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick called “the only game in the world, ice hockey,” reveals a paucity of “real” books.

It’s been repeated for almost two decades that the only “real” book on the game is “The Game” by Ken Dryden. I did stumble across an excellent collection of short stories, “Hockey Sur Glace,” by Peter LaSalle. Both books appeared way back in 1989.

There’s a new anthology I’ve yet to read, but probably will read, titled “The Greatest Hockey Stories Ever Told.” But aside from the inclusion of Alec Wilkinson’s terrific New Yorker profile of Mike Richter, the collection seems short-handed in literary terms.

What’s got me doing this “how come” bit is; how come what could arguably be the smartest game in the world has no body of writing that reflects the absolute wonder of what goes on out on the ice? We’re talking about the only team sport in the world, other than polo, that goes faster than a man can run, a game that combines the savagery of football, the grace of ballet and the complexity of quantum mechanics. You’d think the shelves would be groaning with learned explications. Vast forests have been destroyed to flatter the vanity of people who like baseball, “a great game,” as Barry Melrose once put it, “for the people who can’t play hockey.” I’m told there are even some scholarly books about golf.

These musing have arisen from my current reading of Stephen Brunt’s  2007 “Searching For Bobby Orr,” a fan’s book, but a critical and well-written fan’s book, one that happens to contain some first-rate descriptions of the mechanics of how the game unfolds. Unfortunately, pages 176 – 181, a wonderful account of a 1970 Orr short-handed goal against the Red Wings, is probably the best illustration of why nobody wants to write about hockey, or for that matter read about it. As a hockey exceptionalist, I loved every word on those five pages of dense text on the Orr goal, but it took all of that writing to try to begin to do justice to a near-miraculous sequence of events that unfolded in less than ten seconds.

Based upon a praiseful footnote in Stephen Brunt’s Bobby Orr book, I will seek out and read the late Peter Gzowski’s, “The Game of Our Lives,” an account of the 1980-81 Edmonton Oilers season and an attempt “to describe and define the genius of Wayne Gretzky.

But the great hockey novel continues to wait. “Our Game,” as Mr. Gretzky calls it, deserves better. Where is the hockey knowledgeable literary genius who will do for hockey what Budd Schulberg did for boxing, what Hemingway did for bullfighting or Malamud for baseball. If such lesser athletic endeavors could generate enough grist for thousands and thousands of freshman English papers, then how come there’s not at least one endowed chair of Hockey Literature at one of the community colleges in Manitoba? How come, eh?   

 

33 1/3’s “Shoot Out The Lights”

In an oft-quoted aside on the futility of trying to describe music in words, Elvis Costello is said to have said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Probably true, yet… There are those of us need a bit of help getting past some of the barriers to really hearing what we’re hearing.

I came late to the pop music heritage of the sixties. Already an adult when the Beatles arrived here in 1964, much of the sound track of the youth and counter-cultures seemed entirely irrelevant to my own life. Fortunately, the scales fell from ears and the music began pouring into my head. However there’s been so much of it that there are huge gaps in my pop music literacy. Given all of that, I’ve come to accept the buzz that Richard Thompson, despite having been relegated to cult status, is indeed one of the giants among guitar players and one of the musical geniuses of the era.

I never find myself forwarding to the next selection when a Thompson tune comes on the shuffle. His brilliant and unapologetic appropriation of the structures of John Fahey’s equally brilliant “Requiem for Mississippi John Hurt” as the base for “Vincent Black Lightning, 1952” would be enough to make me a believer. But his sound track for Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” and his massive double-disc “1,000 Years of Popular Music” seal the deal. But still, I had never taken the time or effort to explore in any disciplined way his and ex-wife Linda’s acclaimed 1982 album, “Shoot Out The Lights.”

In June I received a Father’s Day gift of a book, the “33 1/3” edition of “Shoot Out The Lights,” one of the small format books, each given over to the explication, however esoteric, of a single pop music album. I had read the Joe Pernice novella riff on The Smiths, “Meat Is Murder,” and came away from that experience with a new if rudimentary understanding of the appeal of Morrisey and The Smiths. But I had come of age in the nineteen-fifties, and much of the zeitgeist of an eighties adolescence failed to resonate with me.

“Shoot Out The Lights” by Hayden Childs is a masterful 116-page obsessive’s factual and fictional paean to the 1982 eight-song album, as well as to Richard Thompson, and to a lesser degree to Linda Thompson. Ten pages into the book, I realized that I had little inkling of the musical specifics that Childs was putting under his microscope. After four successive and attentive listenings of the entire CD, I was ready to go back to my reading. As Childs pursued his inventive and slightly mad takes on the significance of each track, of the context, emotional and musical of every bar, I would go back to my iPod and listen again to the song under discussion. I finished the book and stood back, realizing that “Shoot Out the Lights” is now a burned-in part of my interior landscape, of my internal sound track, and is there in ways that as yet I do not fully and probably will never fully comprehend.

Wikipedia lists fifty-eight titles in the “33 1/3” catalog, with selections as varied as “Exile on Main Street” to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” There’s even a blog devoted to the series at http://www.33third.blogspot.com/

Exceptions usually prove rules, and so much of writing about music remains a fool’s errand, but with “Shoot Out The Lights,” Hayden Childs proves himself an imaginative exception to that rule. Worth a shot.