Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book Reviews: Revival

by Stephen King
I wonder if as we age we all begin to have more feelings of nostalgia. Perhaps it is also the case that our mortality is more on our minds. That's certainly the case for me. I wouldn't call myself old just yet but I am certainly neither young nor any longer under the illusion that I am going to live forever. I don't know if that is the case with Stephen King. Fictional books are not autobiographies. Fiction doesn't necessarily tell you anything about what the author is actually thinking about or experiencing in his or her personal life. Nevertheless it is interesting that it seems that after King's near death at the hands of an inattentive motorist and his self-acknowledged entry into senior citizen status more of his books have horrific car accidents, narrative grumbles about aging and its indignities and very sharp tones of regret and nostalgia. A character in Revival points out that humans have three age ranges : youth, middle age and how the f*** did I get so old? But of course all of this could be completely coincidental. Only King knows for sure. In the foreword to Revival King name checks some of the writers who have influenced him. These include such luminaries as Arthur Machen, Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft. The introductory quote is the famous Lovecraft couplet "That is not dead which can eternal lie/And with strange aeons even death may die". Revival is a loving homage to all of those writers and more while still being an identifiable King work. Like many King stories it has references to his earlier creations. Revival's tone just screams out Joyland, from the first page to the very last. There are numerous stylistic similarities, from the first person framework, to the old man looking back at his life and remembering the glory and embarrassment of first time sex, to the excitement of a man actually discovering his true talents. One character in Revival even points out that he briefly worked at the Joyland carnival. I will have to go back and peruse Joyland to see if that was the case. Like Joyland, Revival generally keeps the open supernatural stuff off the page until later but unlike Joyland  the reader is aware much earlier that something strange is going on.

I don't think that Revival ever went for the gross out (my definition of gross out might differ from yours) but King has never needed to do that. He can and has accomplished that goal in several books but that's not what I enjoy about his work. His horrors are usually quite grounded in everyday reality. Looking at life there's quite enough horror to go around for everyone without having to include supernatural events to scare people. One of King's gifts is to meld the supernatural with the prosaic in a manner which allows the reader to easily suspend disbelief.

This story reminded me of Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Frankenstein and several Lovecraft stories featuring the malign god Nyarlathotep. Nyarlathotep maliciously shares and displays many scientific and even magical advances that generally have the effect of driving humans mad. Revival also had a big nod to the mad scientist motif, especially as inspired by real life oddball scientist and engineer Nikola Tesla (who may himself have been an inspiration for Lovecraft's Nyarlathotep). Revival takes place over fifty years but it doesn't drag. The book is around 400 pages in hardcover.

In 1960's small town Maine a new Methodist preacher named Charles Jacobs arrives to become the new pastor. The very first person he meets and befriends is Jamie Morton, the youngest son in the large Morton family. Reverend Jacobs is a good man, a friendly one, who even plays in the dirt with Jamie as Jamie plays war. Jacobs is not a fire and brimstone type of preacher but he still increases the church's popularity. The town's women and girls are attracted to his youth and good looks while the men and boys feel the same way about his beautiful blonde piano playing wife Patsy. And everyone adores the couple's cute son Morrie. Reverend Jacobs is fascinated by electricity. He is something of an amateur scientist/physicist. He finds ways to link the wonders of electricity and the natural universe to God's message when he preaches. Jacobs also displays more practical applications for his electrical inventions when he is able to heal Jamie's brother Conrad from an accident which has left him mute. Of course as this is a King book, grief and tragedy are not far off. When a horrible accident occurs Reverend Jacobs spectacularly loses his faith and leaves the town. Jamie grows up to become a touring and session rock guitarist. He's struggling with his own losses and pains. He's also fallen into a nasty heroin addiction. By chance he comes across the Reverend Jacobs again. Jacobs is still friendly but has taken his interest in electricity far beyond what it was in Jamie's youth. Jacobs thinks he can heal Jamie of his addiction. Jacobs thinks he can do even more. Jamie is not sure that the pastor is still the same good man he knew in his youth. There is, pardon the pun, a special spark between the two men and no I am not talking anything of a sexual nature. An uneasy relationship is restarted, one that will last for years in some form or another.

There are events in the universe that we can not perceive unassisted (visible light is only a small portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum) and other phenomena that we do not yet fully understand (e.g. dark energy) The world we think we know is experienced quite differently by creatures who have senses far superior to ours (dogs and scent) or who possess senses we lack (sharks and electroreception). What would life look like if we pulled back the veil of this world? Are there truly things man is not meant to know? This book raises and depending on what you think of the ending, answers that question. Revival is also a love letter to music and musicians. King played guitar with the just recently retired all author rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders. Revival has a few potshots at faith healers and evangelicals. I didn't enjoy this quite as much as some of King's earlier works but it's still good. Most of the shudders came from the idea of aging, disease and death and not so much things that go bump in the night. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the health issues of stubborn siblings may nod their head in recognition while reading some passages.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Disturbed Man Kills Two NYPD Officers: Blame Game Ensues

As you might have noticed (and I was planning on writing a separate post touching on this and still may later this week or next) there have been recent nationwide protests about the level of (often deadly) violence which US local police forces use against Black Americans, especially Black males, especially young and/or unarmed Black males. In the cases of the deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford and Eric Garner, mostly white grand juries and/or prosecutors refused to charge the police with any crime at all. Some white supporters of police not only applaud and celebrate these no indictment outcomes but take to the media to lecture black people on their actual or perceived shortcomings and point out that in the big picture, police killings of citizens are relatively rare events. So quit crying and be happy you're living in America. Or something. The same people taking a phlegmatic view about police on citizen violence started singing a different tune when a disturbed and violent young man shot and killed two NYPD police officers, after shooting his girlfriend and before killing himself.

Two police officers sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn were shot at point-blank range and killed on Saturday afternoon by a man who, officials said, had traveled to the city from Baltimore vowing to kill officers. The suspect then committed suicide with the same gun, the authorities said. The officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were in the car near Myrtle and Tompkins Avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the shadow of a tall housing project when the gunman, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, walked up to the passenger-side window and assumed a firing stance, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said. Mr. Brinsley shot several rounds into the heads and upper bodies of the officers, who never drew their weapons, the authorities said.

Suddenly the relatively rare incident of a citizen shooting and killing two police officers became the foreseeable outcome of "anti-police rhetoric" and "incendiary comments" made by various anti-police brutality protesters and such persons as President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and professional gadfly/MSNBC host Al Sharpton and probably any other black person to the left of Ben Carson. At least that is what former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Union leader Pat Lynch said.

To paraphrase and expand on what a friend on facebook pointed out recently, remember the meltdown the right-wing media and police unions had over the (alleged) murder of a Pennsylvania state trooper by right-winger Eric Frein? Remember how mad Giuliani and Sean Hannity got at their right wing drinking buddies for all the murderous anti-government and anti-police sentiment that presaged the murders of police officers by Cliven Bundy supporters Jerad and Amanda Miller? Remember how right-wing Congressman Steve King of Iowa harshly criticized the anti-tax/militia members of the right for setting the stage for the murderous actions of Joseph Stack?  Remember how conservatives were horrified about the murders committed by Fox News viewer Jim David Adkisson who felt compelled to murder Unitarians because they were liberal? Conservatives felt so despondent about this that they forced Fox News to reduce or eliminate its demonization of liberals. Right. Of course you don't remember any of that because none of it ever took place. Rather than condemn Stack, Congressman Steve King did all but say he sympathized with him and blamed the IRS for existing. By the standard which people like Giuliani or Congressman Peter King seek to apply to others they themselves have "blood on their hands". They would disagree with this. Their argument is of course weak. They seek to delegitimize all protest against police brutality and police misconduct. It's the same media playbook that conservatives used against MLK and others in the sixties. Giuliani is incapable of perceiving that such a thing as police misconduct exists. It's a blind spot that both he and several police officers seem to share. I remain amazed that such a bitterly malevolent person was ever elected to any office but that's an essay for another day.
It apparently has to be written out in bold letters but it is possible to protest against police brutality and murder of citizens without also cheering for the murder of police officers. And I think most decent Americans realize this. If I protest against racist police that doesn't automatically mean that I hate all white people or all police. That said, much as Malcolm X once got in hot water for saying that chickens coming home to roost was a certainty, it's important to realize that a system that does not provide a sense of justice will see more and more confrontations and killings between officers and citizens. If we don't want this (and who does?), all of us must work to weed out and punish the bad officers. If the man who murdered those officers hadn't killed himself it's a certainty that unlike police officers who have killed citizens, he would have been arrested, indicted and convicted. Giuliani is not going to dig up irrelevant dirt on the deceased officers as he did with unarmed Black men shot by police. No one is going to claim, as Donald Trump did with the vindicated Central Park Five, that these police weren't angels. No one is going to wonder if the police did anything to cause Mr. Brinsley to fear for his life and use justified force. So just as I don't think that the actions of Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo mean that all officers are murderous goons, I don't think that protesting their brutality means you cheer Brinsley. I don't want cops shooting innocent people. I also don't want crazy people shooting cops. It's not an either/or situation. And whether Giuliani or Lynch or anyone else like protests or not they are lawful. I am sure that were a person like Giuliani to obtain greater power than he had he would eliminate protests altogether but fortunately this little amendment is still in effect. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Interview: North Korea Punks Sony and Hollywood

I don't like confrontations. However there are situations where some people or organizations will provoke a conflict to take something from you or yours. Maybe it's your lunch money or a job promotion. Maybe it's your self-respect. Maybe someone has insulted your little sister. When these things happen the only thing you can do is fight. Someone wants to throw down? You give them all they expect and more. You need to punch the bully in the mouth. You won't always win. You may get a beatdown, figuratively or even literally. But by fighting back you raise the cost of the clash. Bullies, like other predators, seek easy weak prey. If they have trouble taking things from you then even if they win the resulting fight this time, the next time they may leave you alone.  When you fight back you might win. You show the bully and other observers that the bully made a mistake. By refusing to cave to extortion you reveal that it's the bully, not you, who is the weak cringing coward. Sometimes just standing up to a bully may end the situation. It's hard to say for sure. But it's certain that allowing yourself to be bullied, to be insulted, to be humiliated, will bring more of the same. Once you get on your knees for someone it's pretty difficult to stand up straight again. Unfortunately Sony executives, other Hollywood magnates, film distributors and theater owners never seemed to learn this critical life lesson. Hackers connected to the North Korean government broke into Sony's databases to steal sensitive, private and confidential information. They warned Sony not to release The Interview, a Seth Rogen satirical comedy about the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. 

The hackers threatened to publicize other private information or to engage in unspecified 9-11 type actions. They also threatened Sony's vendors and business partners. Sony and US film distributors crumpled like a wet paper bag. Major theater chains declined to show the film. Sony pulled the film from release. 

Fearing that the exact precedent about bullies which I described above was being set, other theaters planned to feature the older movie Team America: World Police, which made fun of Kim Jong-Un's equally oddball late father Kim Jong-Il, but Paramount Studios pulled that film as well. And just in case anyone who was super special stupid might have missed the point of what was going on here, the severely English language challenged hackers sent an email to Sony that congratulated Sony for the speed and intensity of its kowtow to their demands. The email also stated that if Sony knew what was good for it, it would ensure that that The Interview was never released in any format, theatrical, video on demand, web based or otherwise. 

"Very wise to cancel 'the interview' it will be very useful for you," read the message. "We ensure the purity of your data and as long as you make no more trouble." "Now we want you never let the movie released, distributed or leaked in any form of, for instance, DVD or piracy," wrote the hackers.

So let's review. The US claims to have a belief in freedom of speech. The important concept in freedom of speech is not that a work can't be criticized or mocked or even boycotted but rather that our government can't put in prior restraint to tell the artist what he or she can create. And obviously the government can't allow private actors to employ threats of violence or actual violent acts to prevent an artist from creating or sharing his work. North Korea has no First Amendment or concept of free speech. The only rule in North Korea is don't upset Fearless Leader. That may work for North Korea but US Sony and the theater chains made a big mistake in allowing North Korea to export its censorship into the US market. If a bovine butterball like Kim Jong-Un can get Sony to wet its Depends, what might other dictators or for that matter interest groups seek to do? The implied power of hackers just went to an entirely different level, one light years beyond where they were previously. Make no mistake, Sony will not be the only corporation or organization impacted by this surrender. Other groups and other governments will seek to target US based media companies for censorship. Other studios are already "rethinking" films that are set in North Korea or make any sort of reference to North Korea. This was a test. Sony and Hollywood failed it. They talk a good game about freedom of speech and standing up for artists but when it comes down to it they're just cowards. I should point out that I'm not the biggest Rogen or Franco fan. The Interview could very well be an unfunny movie full of jokes about body functions, obesity and gay sex, all of which seem to fascinate Rogen greatly.

Being cynical I wonder if distributors were really just worried that this movie would be a financial turkey and therefore jumped at the opportunity to drop it. That could be. But that's not the point. We wouldn't permit the US government to tell us we couldn't make or watch a movie. So why are we letting the North Korean government tell us what to watch? If globalization means letting Pacific Rim communist dictatorships influence or censor American media,  then we need to reset some things. Hollywood once made movies and shorts satirizing Nazis. It made movies about evil communists during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But today's studio heads have no guts. More's the pity. It should be a reminder to us that media corporations  have no real interest in First Amendment rights. Kim Jong-Un just made Sony cringe and roll on its back. American business leaders have gotten soft. Sony has stated that it still intends to release The Interview but we'll see.

Movie Reviews: As Above, So Below, The November Man

As Above, So Below
directed by John Eric Dowdle
What is the basis of fear? It's the unknown isn't it? It's the dark. In the dark our primary sense of sight is useless. That in and of itself can cause disorientation. Another major fear that many people suffer from to a greater or lesser degree is claustrophobia. I might have a tinge of this myself. I don't like the feeling of being restrained, caged or closed in someplace. At all times I want to know that I'm in control, that I can get up and leave from wherever I might be, that I can move around and breathe freely. As Above, So Below is an interesting horror film that combines the hoary old tropes of found footage and handheld cameras with some cool historical and semi-mythological information. It gives a tip of the hat to films like National Treasure,  Angels and Demons or The DaVinci Code. Obviously it also makes very strong references to The DescentIt may raise the more thoughtful viewer's curiosity about lost cities, ancient science and the flotsam and jetsam of civilization. As mentioned, the film emphasizes the simple fears of being trapped and lost somewhere in the dark. The ending is not the best in my estimation but no film is perfect. I did like that not everything was explained. The movie allows you to make up your own mind about some things. This film uses some very simple and classic techniques to ratchet up dread and excitement. Generally speaking my interest was kept throughout the entire film with only one or two dead spots. The movie maintained viewer interest without too many magnificent massive mountains of mammary gland tissue displayed willy nilly or excessive grotesque gratuitous gut-wrenching ultra-violence. So I suppose that's a skill that must be recognized. It is possible to make an entertaining film and scare people with only modest amounts of violence or toplessness. There are plenty of shocks and frights that the viewer may know are coming. Until the very end these shocks still manage to impress. Sometimes very simple techniques can work the best. And believe it or not, the black guy didn't die first. He's not a primary character but not dying first is a step forward.

Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) is a scientist/archaeologist with a krav maga black belt, multiple doctorates, multiple language proficiencies and a singular powerful albeit occasionally disturbing tendency to focus in on whatever her current goal is regardless of whatever the risks are to herself or to other people. This last characteristic is not presented as a stereotypically bad thing because she happens to be a woman. It has both good and bad applications. It's probably something she inherited from her father, who was in the same line of work. It's just who Scarlett is. She's a scientist who takes things seriously. She doesn't mean anything by it. Scarlett just has a obsessive dedication to science and knowledge. Scarlett has a special interest in the ancient science of alchemy. It's her family's quest to discover the Philosopher's Stone, a magical artifact believed to be able to heal, grant eternal life, and turn things into gold. After a harrowing escape from Iran where she was trying to cross reference some ancient data on alchemy, she believes that she's found where the Philosopher's Stone may be. She thinks the grave of the French medieval alchemist Nicholas Flamel, believed to have found the Philosopher's Stone, has clues to where the Stone might be. Half bullying, half flirting with her onetime lover George (Ben Feldman), a Renaissance Man who speaks the few dead languages that she doesn't, Scarlett convinces George to translate and help her to work through some clues on Flamel's headstone and elsewhere. This information leads her to believe that the fabled stone must be at a certain point in the Paris catacombs. So despite George's concerns and warnings, Scarlett thinks there's nothing to it but to put together a little mini-expedition to crawl through the dead, the caves, the old city, and find that stone.
Needless to say, things don't exactly work out as Scarlett had anticipated. Much of this film was actually shot on location in the catacombs. The film captured the generally creepy nature of the place. Just walking among the dead of centuries past, walking through rows and rows of skeletal remains in the dark, inhaling the dust of those long departed could be enough to give most people the creeps. This movie moves very slowly. It tries to wring out the maximum amount of fright from something as simple as getting lost underground or getting stuck in a tunnel. If you have ever been lost and discovered that your first plan to reorient yourself didn't work you can appreciate the increasing trepidation that may arise in this situation. Now imagine that same scenario but underground in a massive cemetery with concerns about air quality, water, food and cave-ins. Then imagine that you weren't even supposed to be on this trip but are there purely by accident. And just for fun start throwing in some para-normal activity. That's As Above, So Below. This was a worthwhile but not great film. If you can appreciate the feelings of claustrophobia and fear of darkness this is well worth watching. As I said I didn't really go for the ending because I thought it was a little out of left field. But there are some people who like those sorts of endings. Like some great horror or sci-fi novels this movie did manage to remind me that no matter how important any of us think we may be, in a hundred years or so, all of us will be just like those remains in the catacombs, moldering away and slowly turning to dust. For some people that is the true horror. For others it's just a fact of life. The film's title is taken from Hermetic texts. It is a saying which was quite popular with alchemists and occultists.

The November Man
directed by Roger Donaldson
This could and should have been a better movie. If there is a former Bond actor (Pierce Brosnan) paired with a former Bond girl (Olga Kurylenko) I expect a little more chemistry and sexual sparks between the two leads and more excitement throughout the movie. Instead, I found that this film was only intermittently interesting. It did not fully exploit the idea of government coverups and secret collusion with some very nasty people that it imagined. Also it would have been a nice little aside if the film had bothered to explain how Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) was an American CIA agent when he has such a strong Irish accent. I'm not saying the CIA doesn't use people from across the world. It does. But a little more backstory would have been useful as US viewers are reminded of Devereaux's foreign status every time he speaks. Anyway. At its worst this film was reminiscent of some of the similar Eastern European secret agent movies that Wesley Snipes made right before he had to report to prison for tax evasion. I mean that the story occasionally jumps around and some of the acting and effects weren't the best. Brosnan is showing his age though he (or perhaps his stunt man) gamely goes through the necessary fight or action sequences. At this point in my life or rather at this point in his life I am expecting to see Brosnan play the man behind the man, the financial mastermind or smooth talking political leader instead of an field agent who's still kicking behind and taking names. But what the heck, right? If actors of similar age like Denzel Washington and Liam Neeson can still play older warriors who are mad, bad and dangerous to know, why not Brosnan?

The results are mixed as far as I was concerned. At its best this film does make you question what's really behind some events that most of us only read about in the papers. It brings in some real life events and alleged reasons why those events took place. As the film points out repeatedly, governments are not moral actors. They can't afford to be. You might question that in the abstract but in the world in which Devereaux operates such luxuries are not available to operatives like him. Or that's what he's been led to believe.On the other hand each and every individual always has a choice about the actions that he or she takes in life. Those choices may be constrained or not very palatable but nonetheless, choices remain.
When the film opens we see that Devereaux has something approaching a conscience or at the very least he's not a fan of any sort of "collateral damage". Assigned to protect the US ambassador to Montenegro, Devereaux forbids his partner, protege and son in all but name, David Mason (Luke Bracey) from taking the killshot on the would be assassin. There are too many civilians around. Devereaux thinks he can stop the assassination another way. Mason has different ideas and takes the shot anyway, killing an innocent girl in the process. Disgusted, Devereaux goes into semi-retirement in Switzerland. But of course the agency is not done with him. He's called in to help shepherd a Russian deep-cover CIA operative Natalia Ulanov (Mediha Musliovic) out of Russia. This lady has some information about her boss, Russian general and political rising star Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski) that could be very useful to the right people. But she'll only trust Devereaux to bring her out safely. Unknown to Devereaux, another faction in the CIA has different plans for Ulanov. They send Devereaux's old buddy Mason to oversee them. Of course, everyone, not least of all Devereaux, has secrets and goals of their own. So it's every man or woman for him(her)self and God against them all. One person who may have the key to everything is a journalist named Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko in a mostly toned down role). So if this appeals to you then you know what to do. I didn't hate the movie but I wasn't blown away by it either. It had the normal level of cliches, desperate last stands and surprise reveals that weren't really surprises. OK as a lazy afternoon movie or if you happen to be a serious Brosnan fan but overall it was just middling to mediocre in quality.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Murder Ballads

Why are murder ballads so enduring in music? Frankie and Johnny, Pretty Polly, CC Rider, T or Texas, Delilah's Gone, Hey Joe, 32-20 blues,

Lansing Michigan Satanic Temple Holiday Display

I am not religious. I am a big believer in the separation of church and state. I am also however a big believer in the right of the individual to make a stand based on his or her sincerely held moral, ethical or religious beliefs. Sometimes, these tenets can conflict. What is right or good is not immediately apparent. In the past few decades though what has been apparent is that some devoutly religious Christian people feel that there is a "war on Christmas" or that they are losing ground in American culture. This has provoked a backlash in which some Christians seek to leverage their majority status to place a Christian imprimatur on government and/or secular functions. The classic examples of this are attempts to make Christianity the official religion of a state or the entire country, Christian prayers at legislative sessions, which the Supreme Court upheld (wrongly imo) and the never ending battles over holiday nativity scenes at government buildings. When challenged over the last, people supportive of such scenes often ask those opposed what's the big deal, advise them to quit being so sensitive and suggest that they have a nice warm steaming cup of STFU. Well.
I am not among those who are outraged by nativity scenes but I definitely sympathize with those who are. And once you open the gates to allowing religious displays on government property, well then you need to understand that it's an all or nothing type of rule. The people in Lansing, Michigan, our capital, are learning that this holiday season as the Satanic Temple (Detroit Chapter) is moving ahead with plans to place its own holiday display on the Capitol lawn. The Satanic display was originally planned in response to a Christian nativity scene but the Christians were apparently lacking in organizational skills and so far have not finalized plans to get their nativity scene in place.

 I guess the Satanists were a bit more motivated. Being in the minority or being the underdog can certainly tend to make someone work a little bit harder. Until the Satanists announced their plans the only Christians who were working seriously on a nativity scene were from out of state.

The group, which describes itself as a collective of “Satanists, secularists and advocates for individual liberty," has received permission to put up a display on the north Capitol lawn from December 21 to 23.

"We would prefer that no religious iconography was displayed on Capitol grounds or on state grounds for that matter," said Jex Blackmore, founder and head of the Detroit chapter. "But if there was going to be a singular voice represented, we felt it was best to add to that representation of diversity here in Michigan."

John Truscott, a member of the Michigan State Capitol Commission, confirmed that The Satanic Temple has been granted approval for the temporary outdoor display.

"We are restricted by the Constitution and bound by the Constitution to recognize their First Amendment rights," said Truscott. "We don’t have the ability to reject them if they meet the guidelines of the Capitol."

But on a personal level, Truscott said he thinks it is "absolutely disgusting to hijack a Christian holiday," and he expressed hope that the public will "just completely ignore these negative forces."

Blackmore said that Satanists do not worship Satan as some might think but rather seek to separate superstition from religious beliefs and advocate individual liberty, rationalism and human knowledge. She said that is the reason that their display will be a "snaketivity" scene featuring a snake granting a book of knowledge. Blackmore's point is that the greatest gift is knowledge. People being who they are, once the news got out that the Satanists, of all people, would be placing a display on Capitol grounds, every politician and their mama ran to the nearest microphone to denounce the Satanists as evil, talk about how much they loved Jesus, and promised to ensure that a Christian nativity scene actually was erected. This last didn't seem to bother Blackmore as she said that the snaketivity scene would actually work better in conjunction with Christian iconography. But she did say that "If our Legislature finds it morally incomprehensible to respect the diversity of differences among Michigan citizens, then perhaps they are much better served as members of the clergy rather than representatives of the people." I can't disagree with that in this context. I certainly understand how some devout Christians might find the display of Satanic iconography offensive but just about every religion by definition has a bone to pick with someone else's religious claims. It's baked into the cake. People can try to paper this over by saying well, as long as we're all Christian we should have no issues, or as long as we're all followers of Abrahamic religions we're all good or as long as you're not an atheist I have no issues with you but the bloody history of inter and intra-religious conflict shows otherwise. The fact that a Christian finds Satanism offensive is irrelevant to whether a Satanist should have the same rights as anyone else to put up displays on public property. I would prefer no religious displays on public property but if we're going to allow it, we have to allow it for everyone. And the same logic applies to Christians who want to use religious beliefs to avoid or ignore certain secular laws. They should remember that everyone else also will get that same right. 

What do you think?
Does Blackmore have a point?
You're Queen or King for the Winter. Do you allow this Satanic holiday display?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Music Reviews: The Chi-Lites, Stuff

The Chi-Lites
As much as any other music artist or group not named James Brown or The Jackson Five, The Chi-Lites were the primary group that would exist on a soundtrack of my childhood. I have many positive early memories that involve Chi-Lites songs. My father sang a lot around the house. I recall Chi-Lites songs being among his favored groups. People tend to look back through a rosy lens at the music of their childhood; I am likely no different in this regard. Nonetheless I do think that The Chi-Lites were special for their time and compare positively with a lot of the singers around today. The Chi-Lites (a Chicago based group, hence the name) were a smooth soul/R&B singing group that updated fifties doo-wop stylings for the then current pop/soul market. They combined soul, gospel, pop, funk and slight mixtures of rock-n-roll and even lounge music for a format and sound that was pretty perfectly balanced between sweetness and grit. A lot of their early work featured compositions which opened with heart felt spoken word intros that segued into passionate tenor leads, sparse instrumentation with occasional fuzzed out guitar leads and slickly harmonized backup singing. Like any other group that wanted to sell records and thus continue to eat, the Chi-Lites changed with the times, moving from the funk, romance and nationalist inspired lyrics of the early seventies to smoother semi-disco sounds of the late seventies and early eighties. I prefer the earlier sounds which are disproportionately represented here but to each his or her own. If you are into soul music or pop-soul with generally positive, or at least not overtly negative lyrics, The Chi-Lites may have something for you. Musically you can easily hear the family relationship between The Chi-Lites and Curtis Mayfield's music or some of Hendrix's clean toned ballads. 

The Chi-Lites' primary, albeit not exclusive, songwriter and lead singer was Eugene Record. His plaintive tenor defined male romantic need though it would take time before I understood his lyrics.

I enjoy the long intro to (For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People. It's like an airplane or rocket taking off. That music hearkens back to a time when change of all kinds was in the air and black people were unashamed and unapologetic of being well, black. There was a tinge of optimism in the air. I also like their version of Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues better than the original, a shocking bit of blasphemy for which my brother has flatly promised to ritually excommunicate me from the United Sound Church of Detroit. Speaking of Motown, You're no longer part of my heart is very similar to dozens of contemporaneous Motown works. If I were Berry Gordy or H-D-H I might have sued just on general principle. Oh Girl is a modernized blues lament with an added country twist. I always thought that it was a harmonica featured on that tune but it's actually a melodica. Prominent bass scatting on For God's Sake (Give More Power to the People) and Are You My Woman is provided by Creadel "Red" Jones. I love singing his parts while I'm driving. The Man and The Woman points out the necessity of duality for the creation and promulgation of life and morality. No matter how much men and women might occasionally get on each other's nerves, neither is possible without the other. That's a message which still needs to be heard. Trouble's A Coming is a gospel-rock tune which I had not heard before. It sounds to my ears like something which with different lyrics could have been on 1972 era Sesame Street. That's a compliment. Homely Girl is another countrified soul ballad which is similar to some Stax songs. Apparently Beyonce and a few other modern singers sampled "Are you my woman.." for their own songs which I have not heard. I'm not a huge fan of sampling, even if everything is properly credited and paid, which I believe it was. But whatever.

The Chi-Lites recorded for Brunswick Records which was run by the alleged Mafia associate Nat Tarnopol (who also "owned" Jackie Wilson). The scene from the movie The Five Heartbeats where Big Red dangles a recalcitrant musician outside of a hotel window for daring to question him about missing royalties was supposedly based on a real life incident between Tarnopol and a restive Jackie Wilson. Allegedly some of The Chi-Lites later discovered that not all credits and royalties had been properly paid or accounted for by Brunswick. There were battles within the group for recognition and money. Most of the original singers are now deceased. Like with any other family there were sudden tragedies which alternately brought them closer together and drove them further apart. I can't say who was right or wrong or who was stealing and who was living right. All I know is that they created wonderful music. 

Oh Girl   Have You Seen Her? The Man and The Woman  The Coldest Days of My Life

You're No Longer Part Of My Heart   A Lonely Man  Are You My Woman(Tell Me So)

(For God's Sake)Give More Power to the People   Trouble's A Comin

Inner City Blues(Make Me Wanna Holler)   Write A Letter To Myself   I'm Not A Gambler

Marriage License Let Me Be The Man My Daddy Was  Toby  Homely Girl


Gordon Edwards, Eric Gale, Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee, Chris Parker
and Steve Gadd (l-r)
Stuff was a peculiar band in that it was deliberately made up of sidemen who ran in a lot of the same musical circles. I don't mean that they were untalented. Much the opposite, in fact they were all extremely talented musicians. But their best work prior to Stuff was generally done backing other people, not as leaders. The people with whom they recorded and/or toured separately and occasionally together is far too long to list completely here but included such luminaries as Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, James Taylor, Bill Withers, Joe Cocker, Steely Dan, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Billy Joel, Miles Davis, Paul Simon, Donny Hathaway, Carla Bley, Ron Carter, Barbara Streisand and many more. Although when tasked to do so they could and did provide some burning solos on their chosen instruments, with a few exceptions none of them were known as soloists. The group had no charismatic frontman or frontwoman lead singers. There was nobody out front dancing. So the odds of the group finding success in a crowded seventies R&B marketplace seemed to be relatively low. But for a brief glorious moment Stuff did have market and critical success. Stuff created a number of swinging danceable compositions that could equally be described as funk-jazz, R&B, pop-gospel, uptempo blues, and pop. Most, but not all of their work was instrumental. Some of their music was constructed so similar to vocal pop compositions that you're wondering what happened to the singer. Stuff's music was almost symphonic in arrangement. For Stuff, the almighty groove was the key. No matter if someone took a solo or not, nobody ever ever ever let up on the groove.  The band was the living incarnation of the Sly Stone song Everybody Is A Star

Of course for my money the best solo ever recorded on a Stuff cut was pianist extraordinaire Richard Tee's insane pounding gospel solo on Do You Want Some of This. The group was functionally and musically a democracy but was initially put together by Gordon Edwards, the bassist. On the infrequent occurrences when someone is singing on a Stuff recording, it's often Edwards. I wouldn't describe him as a great singer but he was a direct and honest one. Hear his raspy voice on Love of Mine
Other Stuff members included soul guitar demigods Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale and jazz fusion/funk/rock drummer Steve Gadd. Gadd was relentless on the drums. Dupree and Gale played intricate interlocking mostly clean guitar parts. Either one alone could sound like two guitarists by himself. If all you know of guitar is someone playing with as much volume and distortion as possible, these two guitarists may be a welcome revelation. The band also occasionally had a second drummer, who also worked in an R&B/jazz style, Chris Parker. Sometimes Bubba Gets Down is from a live show in Japan, where the band was quite popular. It's a 2/4 soca tune. On Need Somebody, which is the last track on the "More Stuff" album (starts at 29:54), it's Tee who's doing the singing. I like his voice a little more than Edwards' but it's all good. Parker and especially Gadd show why drums are so important to a band's sound. I think modern R&B has lost so much by eschewing drummers for samples and machines. I like this band a lot. For me it's good music to listen to while I'm exercising or cleaning the house. It's organic soulful music that will almost certainly draw out and dissipate negative emotions. Stuff recorded only three studio albums under their own name ("Stuff", "More Stuff" and "Stuff It") but the releases are easy to find. I'm not crazy about their slick cover of Orleans' Dance with me but that's because I like the original so much better. YMMV. Gordon's Theme is sublime. Stuff wasn't afraid to use space in their music.

Do You Want Some of This  Reflections of Divine Love  Sometimes Bubba Gets Down

Foots(Live at Montreux)  My Sweetness  Love Of Mine  How Long Will It Last

That's The Way of The World  More Stuff (Full Album)   

Honey Coral Rock/You Are So Beautiful  Dance With Me   Gordon's Theme

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Senate Intelligence Committee Releases CIA Torture Report

The Senate Intelligence Committee just recently released a declassified (by the White House) report on torture engaged in by the CIA and other agencies under the Bush Administration post 9-11. There's not too much here which is surprising or that was unknown to anyone who was paying attention to some of the leaks and other allegations that have come out over the past decade. And certainly it's not unknown to the people who were tortured or the governments which assisted the US in activities which are illegal under both national and international laws. No, the only people who might be surprised are American citizens who don't pay a tremendous amount of attention to what their government is doing. Because the Obama Administration whiffed on bringing these perpetrators to justice immediately after the inauguration it's unlikely that any of these folks will ever be identified and held to account under the American criminal justice system. Prosecutorial discretion is a wonderful thing sometimes, eh? But that aside as others have said in a democracy, in a constitutional republic, in America, theoretically the citizens are still the boss. And the boss always has the right and for that matter the obligation to know what his employees are doing. It is amusing to me that some of the conservatives who were against this release claim to be more concerned about the possible negative impact on US interests or citizens overseas than they are about the rights of US citizens to know the crimes the government has committed in their name. 

I think that secrecy in government, even where needed or legitimate, tends to corrode trust. But in this case, unlike say diplomacy, there is no need or right for the government to commit crimes and then claim that we have no right to know what they did. It's important to point out that the torture techniques were harsher and more expansive than we were first given to believe. They also didn't work. Although this report release is only a very small step in doing the right thing, I think it's a good start. Let justice be done though the heavens fall.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The CIA used sexual threats, waterboarding and other harsh methods to interrogate terrorism suspects and all were ineffective at eliciting critical information, according to a U.S. Senate report released on Tuesday. Senator Angus King, an independent, told CNN releasing the report was important because it could persuade a future president not to use these techniques.
Besides the now-well-known practice of waterboarding, tactics included weeks of sleep deprivation, slapping and slamming of detainees against walls, confining them to small boxes, keeping them isolated for prolonged periods and threatening them with death.
Three detainees faced waterboarding, the simulated drowning technique. Some were left broken by the treatment, pleading and whimpering, one described as assuming a "compliant" position on the waterboarding table at the snap of an interrogator's fingers.
"We did things that we tried Japanese soldiers for war crimes for after World War Two. This is not America. This is not who we are. What was done has diminished our stature and inflamed terrorists around the world."

  • Rectal feeding
  • Interrogators with histories of sexual assault
  • Russian Roulette
  • Kidnapping mentally challenged people to use as hostages
  • Stress Positions
  • Threats to kill and rape the children or mothers of prisoners

Executive summary of Senate Report

Monday, December 8, 2014

Highland Park Police Love Triangle

The town of Highland Park, Michigan is not really a suburb of Detroit as the entire town is within Detroit. It is almost smack dab center in Detroit. Although it is an independent municipality, it has more or less the same class and racial demographics as Detroit and many of the same financial and tax issues. Center Line is a suburb of Detroit though, it, like Highland Park is surrounded by a larger city, in this case Warren. Warren and Center Line have (changing) demographics which still remain quite different from those of Detroit and Highland Park although neither Warren nor Center Line is a rich area. Thus concludes the SE Michigan geography lesson. I mention that only to point out that no place has a monopoly on stupidity. Although nationally you might have heard of this story as "Detroit area" or "Detroit cops" apparently none of this took place in the City of Detroit proper. So thank goodness for small favors.

I won't judge anyone else's private proclivities. You put a camera in anyone's bedroom you might be surprised at what you find. All I will say is that when your private behavior causes you to have to pull guns on people with whom you were previously doing the do, perhaps you might want ask yourself if you are really making good decisions. Because I'm thinking you're not. Fortunately nobody in this story was shot though but that was mostly through dumb luck. Situations like this while possibly humorous because of the exposed private affairs are also important reminders that police are not necessarily any more worthy of respect than other people. Though as they are usually armed they can be more dangerous than other people. But police or not some things are just dumb. Stupid is as stupid does. Domestic violence knows no boundaries. Watch the video below the jump.


A love triangle involving two Highland Park police officers ended with an armed standoff, and one of the officers has been charged with trying to kill his wife and another woman.

The domestic drama began when former Highland Park Police Reserve Officer James Johnson's wife says she found a used condom in the trash last month. 
After the discovery, Vivian called Highland Park Officer Varee Roberson over to their Center Line house. She was angry James had been with yet another woman after the three of them had engaged in sexual activity together back in June. 

Fox 2 News Headlines

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Book Reviews: The Devil's Red Nickel, The Sinatra Club, The Savage Sword of Conan

The Devil's Red Nickel 
by Robert Greer
In some very minor respects this mystery novel walks the same side of the street as similar works by Walter Mosley and Gar Anthony Haywood in that it imagines a black hero in a genre which still has very few such characters. But aside from the fact that the three authors share chromosomes and similar melanin levels and take black humanity for granted there's not too much else in common. The writing styles are utterly different. C.J. Floyd is a middle aged bail bondsman/private detective who lives in Denver, Colorado. He's definitely and defiantly old school. He drives around town in his 1957 Bel Air convertible. He's a man who loves listening to doo-wop and classic R&B. Think Esther Phillips and not Beyonce. Floyd is not exactly a wealthy man. In fact he's under some financial constraints because he's having some issues with people skipping their bond. But Floyd's not a man to let anything get in his way of doing what he sees as the right thing. He's good people. An older man named Leroy Polk dies of what appears to be a heart attack. The doctors/medical examiners find one of Floyd's business cards among the dead man's effects. Now Floyd did not know Leroy Polk personally but like millions of other people he knew the man intimately in Polk's persona of "Daddy Doo-Wop", a Chicago area DJ, music promoter, A&R man, producer and would be record company owner. Daddy Doo-Wop helped break tons of black music acts throughout the Midwest and West. Record companies and their acts would do their best to get their music played on his show. If Daddy Doo-Wop played your record that could make you famous and make you a lot of money. On the other hand if he didn't like your music it could be very difficult to get people to come to your shows. In some instances you might as well have quit the music industry and taken up needlepoint.

As a teen and young man, Floyd listened to Polk's show and was enthralled. Daddy Doo-Wop not only influenced Floyd's music tastes but also gave him the idea to go into business for himself. Floyd is shocked and saddened to learn of Polk's death. However the local police are interested in how and why Floyd's card wound up in Polk's possession. And so is Polk's attractive daughter, Clothilde. She's convinced that her father did not die of a heart attack, no matter what the coroner's report says. And she wants Floyd to look into it. Clothilde is not the kind of woman who listens to the word no. When you look like she does, you don't hear the word no very often. Floyd's investigation will lead him into some pretty deep and dark waters. The music business is not a place for shy people. There are some pretty nasty sharks out there who would just love to take a chomp out of a bail bondsman who they think is out of his league. Even if Daddy Doo-Wop did not die of natural causes there is a depressingly large number of people who might have had motives to kill him. Not too many folks are losing sleep over the fact that Daddy Doo-Wop is no longer on the planet. And that's all I want to say about that as I do not wish to give away spoilers to readers who might be interested in this book. Anyway I also want to write shorter reviews because of time constraints. So this is as good a place as any to stop. In paperback format this book is just over 300 pages but it's a quick read. 

There was never any spot that I felt that the story died. With one or two exceptions the characters are mostly engaging. Everything and everyone feels real. Most of the story lines are neatly wrapped up. It's written in third person, which I like. If you are into well constructed mystery stories that neither insult your intelligence nor get too complex this could be a good read for you. The author is also a doctor and medical professor as well as being a Denver native.  So because the book's events mostly take place in Denver certain book locations, real or fictionalized might be familiar to those of you who are native to that city or have passed through.

The Sinatra Club

by Sal Polisi
Salvatore Polisi, aka Crazy Sal or Sally Ubatz, was a mobster associated with the Colombo faction of the New York Mafia. For the obvious reasons he eventually decided to get out. He testified against former associates and entered the Witness Protection Program. The Sinatra Club is his memoir. However it's not as good as it could have been because of three decisions. First, recognizing that Sal Polisi is less well known than John Gotti, the book plays up any and all associations that Polisi had with Gotti, stories and rumors he heard about Gotti, Gotti's bad temper about his gambling losses, Gotti's distaste for hookers, the time Polisi was in the restroom with Gotti and Gotti made a racial insult against Sarah Vaughn and so on. Second, Polisi was a horrible husband who was never faithful to his wife. He constantly informs the reader that he needed at least five certain sex acts daily. While this adulterous behavior is not so uncommon among married mobsters, Polisi shares way too many details. Evidently Polisi's true love and soulmate was his primary girlfriend Jane, a fallen angel madam, dominatrix and prostitute. Polisi was already married when he met Jane. To hear Polisi tell it he was uniquely able to convince the otherwise asexual/lesbian Jane to try some salsiccia. Polisi spends a lot of time discussing all the ways that he and Jane made whoopie, by themselves and with other women. Some details were similar to Penthouse letters. Maybe there are a few people who needed to know how Jane could convince Polisi (in his words) to do things that Italian guys normally didn't do. I wasn't one of those people. Neither Jane nor Polisi's wife wanted to share him though each was content for a while to be lied to by him. That particular storyline ended the way you might expect. Lastly the book jumps around in time too much. As individuals there are things which are important to us all that happened decades ago. Polisi had a turbulent and occasionally abusive childhood. But as a reader it was frustrating to skip back and forth between the story of Polisi's sister's death and the time that a higher ranking mobster made Polisi do something really savage to someone. Although Polisi is frank about his evil ways, he's ashamed of having committed a particular act, which even by Mafia standards, was depraved, albeit possibly deserved. FWIW Polisi claims he never killed anyone.

It is interesting to compare Polisi's street level account of events with stories or documented testimony given by other informers or undercover agents. He repeats as fact things which others contradict. I wouldn't necessarily say he got a lot of things wrong. I would say that similar to people in the real world, his perspective differs from those who were higher up and/or made more money. The guy putting the engine in a vehicle on the assembly line has a different perspective than a fellow at the same company trying to create a worldwide business plan for the upcoming fiscal year. It's important for mobsters not to be curious or ask too many questions. Either characteristic can be extremely hazardous to a gangster's future health. He is after all working with very violent suspicious people who don't believe in coincidences or in taking chances that someone who knows too much won't talk. As legendary mob boss Lepke Buchalter said way back in the thirties, "no witnesses, no case". So it's unsurprising that on some things I really was curious about Polisi didn't know the answers and/or went out of his way not to ask questions of people who did know the answers. 
Polisi was never "made" or formally inducted into the Colombo crime family. Although this is a huge distinction within the world of organized crime it's more or less meaningless to people who only interact with the Mafia as victims, curious outsiders or customers. Basically all this additional status would have meant is that an organization recognized Polisi's outstanding entrepreneurial and/or murderous potential and went on record extending its protection to him. No one could have murdered him without prior permission from his bosses. Polisi would have had much more authority within the Italian-American underworld but also would have had much greater expectations and workload. His bosses would have tolerated fewer mistakes. Polisi would not have been able to decline certain requests. Polisi was a jack of all criminal trades. He was involved in muscle work, loan sharking, gambling, bookmaking, auto theft, armed robbery and bank robbery. He beat up pimps who were rivals to Jane. But his primary business became narcotics importation and wholesale distribution. Polisi ran a club which gave this book its title. Although the club was initially profitable via hoodlum gambling games, Polisi's primary interest was in using the club to launder his drug profits. It's not that he wanted to hide them from the IRS. No, he wanted to hide them from mob superiors who would have killed him for dealing or more precisely for dealing without making sure they got their cut. If you liked the movie Goodfellas I suppose you might enjoy this story. Polisi knew or ran with many of the people portrayed. But I found the book's organization and style a little offsetting. There was a film made from this book which I have not seen.

The Savage Sword of Conan Volume One
based on tales by Robert E. Howard
This was a gift from my brother, who knows that I am a fan of most things Robert E. Howard and to a lesser extent classic comic books. The Savage Sword of Conan is a collection of seventies era Conan comic book stories, generally published by Marvel Comics. It's important to get a few things out of the way immediately. Some of Howard's work could be very grim and violent. There was a streak of racism and what would be today called sexism which ran through it. The men, especially Conan, are drawn as well muscled fighters. As you can no doubt tell from the cover these stories are primarily designed to appeal to people with an inborn frank appreciation for the feminine form, i.e. men or people who will one day be men. The women are generally drawn in shapely feminine styles featuring lush hourglass figures with plenty of visible cleavage and ample backsides. Conan's default response to an attractive woman is "You know we're gonna f*** so you might as well give me some now and get it out of the way". This usually works. There's only a few women on whom it doesn't work but even there Conan is still trying his best. In the very first story "The Frost Giant's Daughter" there is some controversy about whether Conan was going to commit a crime and if so was it from his own desire or was he under more malign influence. Rereading it I think it's unclear. The reader will have to decide for himself. On the other hand in other stories lack of consent is considered to be one of the most evil things imaginable, whether it be a woman ravished or a man enslaved. Conan speaks against both in the harshest of terms. Howard had plenty of contradictory ideas, some of which could be found in the same story. Because it was the seventies I don't think too many people cared or noticed but today comics like these would probably attract a lot more opprobrium from both feminists and traditionalists. Problematic depictions of women or non-whites not withstanding these stories are exciting. Howard wrote a LOT of Conan stories. Many of them turn up here in abridged black and white comic book format. However the authors do not limit themselves to Howard's published Conan work but remix some of his other stories and/or make up their own Conan tales. Some of these work better than others. Much of the prose can fairly be described as purplish but to be fair that is part of the appeal for stories such as these. A typical example might be "When a man looks at you, woman, he forgets his will until you show it to him". Lines like this might make you laugh out loud but in these stories they make perfect sense. Conan has been in just about every line of violent work there is, soldier, mercenary, thief, brigand, pirate and has the scars and stories to prove it. The artwork quality varies a bit from story to story but is generally good.