Music Notes January 2010

January 31, 2010 at 10:14 pm (Uncategorized)

At the start of the month, I planned to see the Cribs. However, then I heard Charlotte Gainsbourg was coming.  Alright I thought, let’s do that. I passed on the Cribs and Charlotte cancelled her North American tour. Aargh! Still, Massive Attack has a new release very soon, so a tour ought to be in the offing.

Here’s the month then.

1. The Velvet Underground Under Review

Newish 80 minutes documentary about the Velvets from their origins to Loaded. Some amazing footage from the Factory days. My only complaint would be the people who appeared in it. Of the original band, only Maureen Tucker was on camera. I should note Doug Yule was also interviewed, But neither Lou Reed or John Cale were part of it.

My favourite line is by Clinton Heylin. He noted that when a band releases a record, especially its debut, listeners can usually spot where they came from: hmm, the Sonics + the Stooges + the Byrds= ??? With the Velvets its not like that. The Velvet Underground and Nico springs Athena like into existence. Perhaps a unique event in the history of rock.

2. Hush Arbors – Yankee Reality

American transplant to the UK makes psychedelic country record. not as strange as it seems, and a lot better than it sounds.

Ecstatic Peace

3. The Damned – Damned Damned Damned

The Damned did everything first. First single, first album, first to tour the US, first to break-up and then reform. All at break neck speed. Then they changed direction and made strange beautiful music. But it’s the first one, I keep coming back to. Sanctuary have just re-issued it was a triple set – the original album, plus Peel sessions, B-sides, demos, and two live shows including their first one when they opened for the Sex Pistols. Outstanding.

4. The Slits – Cut

And possible the band who did everything last. But when they did… The magnificent ragged glory of the Slits is captured on their Peel sessions (even the bit where Ari yells, I can’t remember the words). So it was a bit of a surprise when they turned out the polished masterpiece that was Cut. Just re-issued by Island as a double set with 30 bonus tracks. Now, I’m not sure I need to hear four versions of some of the songs, but if you’re a Slits completest, this is for you. Anyone know where I can get the Boring Life bootleg?

4. The Raincoats – The Raincoats

After Palmolive left the slits this was her next project. Like the Slits in that they were totally unlike anything else, the Raincoats were also totally different. They often sounded like a band pulling in four directions, but somehow they created a beautiful chaos. The debut has just been reissued along with Kurt Cobains’ sleeve notes from 93, a bonus track, and some crazy super-8 videos. Get it now.

5. The Cockney Rejects – Greatest Hits volume 1

Now after 78, punk went in a number of directions. There were those who said lets carry on the revolution and not be bound by a new orthodoxy. The two previous entries on this list are examples of that. The Rejects were part of another wing that said, back to basics. I loved both wings. By the fourth album, the Rejects were sliding into a rather dull sludge metal, but this is dumb fun. Full of macho clichés and a romanticized Alf Garnett working classism, it’s still great. Play loud. Reissued with a Peel session.  

6. Juliet Naked

The new book by Nick Hornby. Hornby’s first novel High Fidelity was set in a record shop (the music nerds dream), and he’s also written a book about his favourite songs. This book is the story of a musician who abruptly retires and becomes a recluse. His most popular album Juliet becomes a cult classic for his obsessive fans. Then one day, he releases the demos. Not his best book, and too neat an ending for my liking, but worth a read. See yourself anywhere?

7. The Drums – Lets Go Surfing

Brooklyn based. Irresistably catchy pop. Listen. Love

8. Roky Erickson on PBS

Caught Roky on Austin City Limits recently. If you’ve never seen him, it’s a start. Not a great show (Roky’s voice is wearing thin), but more than watchable. Watch it online here (You can skip the Kings of Leon part though)

9.  Patti Smith – Just Kids

Too bad Christmas is over. I’ll have to think of other reasons to justify buying this one. Her autobiography. Read the New York Times review

10. Passings

Two big ones this month.

Mick Green of the Pirates died of a heart attack on January 10. Green was famous for being able to play lead and rhythm guitar at the same time. Wilko Johnson credits him for his own style.

And then Jay Reatard died on January 13 of as yet undisclosed causes. Saw him last summer, and although i didn’t enjoy the show, I did like the records. You can grab his version of Nirvana’s “Frances Farmer will have her Revenge on Seattle here.

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Howard Zinn

January 27, 2010 at 11:26 pm (Uncategorized)

I don’t think I can let the death of long-time activist and author Howard Zinn pass without comment.

Zinn was a bomber pilot in World war two, but later came to re-examine his actions, and to see the truth beneath them. He was active in the anti-Vietnam movement and most of the important popular struggles since then.

While there’s much to disagree with in Zinn’s leftism, his People’s History of the United States, published in 1980, is a classic of sorts. I remember reading it in the 1980s, and feeling I was being let into a sort of secret alternative world where everything was the same, yet completely the opposite. a world where the losers and the little people of our world get to tell their stories.

For some people, history has been about learning dates or kings and queens; for me, and I suspect for Zinn too, history is about missed possibilities, missed opportunities and the hope that next time, we’ll get in right.

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Brief Notes on H1N1

January 26, 2010 at 10:21 pm (Uncategorized)

H1N1 has been covered in far greater detail elsewhere than I can here. So, here are a few observations instead.

Five years ago, I read Mike Davis’ truly terrifying book, The Monster at our door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. In the book, Davis details the number of flu pandemics and near misses since the Spanish flu epidemic after the First World War. (If you watched this week’s episode of Fringe, you can’t have been too happy either)

During the SARS outbreaks in Toronto in 2003, there was a palatable fear in the air. If you wanted a seat on the bus, just wear a mask. People weren’t sure if you had SARS or were just being careful, but nobody wanted to take a chance. God forbid you were Chinese and coughing in public – people were ready to have you quarantined on the spot. It was like living in The Andromeda Strain.

I visited a hospital two days before the second outbreak. This put me into the monitor but not quarantine category.  When I told colleagues at work about this , I could see them inching away (for the record, I didn’t get SARS).

 And then things were fairly quiet. Until H1N1.

H1N1 is a subtype of the influenza A virus. Like the regular seasonal flu, it’s quite contagious, and like the regular flu it’s nasty, possibly because it’s a new strain for which many seem to have lower rates of immunity. However, according to the U.S. Centers for  Disease Control, every year in the U.S. between 5 to 20% of the population gets the flu. About 200,000 are hospitalized as a result, and roughly 36,000 die. Every year. At time of writing various estimates exist, but it seems as if 13,000 people globally have died of Swine flu. 

 I still see the ads on TV urging me to get an H1N1 shot, but somehow they lack the urgency of the pre-Christmas frenzy. What with earthquakes in Haiti, meltdowns on NBC and the impending prospect of the Winter Olympics, who can find the time or energy to be excited about a flu bug? Davis’ book suggests that there have been numerous ‘almost spanish flu like epidemics’ , and perhaps this has been one of them too.

The thing which strikes me about this particular epidemic is the level of skepticism.

I should fess up right away, I haven’t had a flu shot. Why? Basically, I’m lazy. I couldn’t be bothered going down to a clinic to get a shot. If someone had stopped me on the street or in my workplace (more sanitary) and offered me a shot, I probably would have gotten it. It’s interesting to consider the reasons people have advanced for not getting it: 

  • The religious.  Elements within the more devout Christian community  view all vaccinations as suspicious. I’ve always wondered about this, and would like to know where in the Bible it disavows vaccinations. This fear of the scientific is mirrored in sections of Muslim thought too, where some have argued that they can’t use the hand sanitizer because it has alcohol in it (er, you don’t drink it)
  • The professional conspiracy theorists.  Others argue essential this is a  manufactured crisis, and basically a government plot to control the population and to sell things. I received more than one email arguing that H1N1 more or less did not exist, and it was all a plot by the pharmaceutical industry and Donald Rumsfeld to sell drugs to a gullible public. 
  • The skeptic. A more general distrust of government.
  • The know-nothing element. I read more than one letter in the paper which said something to the effect of , “well, my grandmother never got shots and she lived to be 95 years old, so I don’t need them either.”

When people ask me if I had a shot or I got the kids vaccinated, I often feel the need to explain, “Well, no, but for…(any of the above reasons).”  

Last year in Canada, the government and the news media led a panic- mode broadcast:


After several weeks of this message, a new one replaced it


Predictably, this led to wide-spread panic, with people queuing for hours along with their small children to get a shot. In addition, there were displays of populist rage as people deemed undeserving got shots while others did not (health care professionals were deemed deserving, but when hospital directors and private schools got them too, many, even those who wouldn’t have got a shot, felt somewhat annoyed)

I had polio shots and all the others when I was a kid. When the chicken pox vaccine came out, I had my kids vaccinated. Yet, the level of distrust of this vaccine is incredible; no doubt though, this has been re-enforced by reports of people receiving too high a dose along with negative reactions to the vaccine.

The times we live in.

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CLR James Book Launch – You Don’t Play With Revolution

January 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm (Uncategorized)

Courtesy of Upping the Anti. Worth checking out.   

Toronto launch of “You Don’t Play with Revolution: the Montreal Lectures of CLR James”.   

Please join us on Monday, February 1st at 7pm at the anitafrika dub theatre (62 Fraser St) in Toronto for the launch of “You Don’t Play with Revolution: the Montreal Lectures of CLR James”. 

“You Don’t Play with Revolution” is a collection of eight never-before-published lectures by the celebrated Marxist cultural critic CLR James, delivered during his stay in Montreal in 1967 and 1968. Ranging in topic from Marx and Lenin to Shakespeare and Rousseau to Caribbean history and the Haitian Revolution, these lectures demonstrate the staggering breadth and clarity of James’ knowledge and interest. 

Editor David Austin will give a talk on the significance of CLR James for revolutionary politics today and speak about the ideas and perspectives James puts forward in this collection of his work. David Austin is founder and trustee of the Alfie Roberts Institute, an independent educational center based in Montreal. He is the author of numerous articles on the Caribbean and Black Canadian left and has produced documentaries for the CBC on the life and work of C.L.R. James and Frantz Fanon.  

Location: anitafrika dub theatre, 62 Fraser St., Toronto ON (two blocks south-east of Dufferin and King).

Event Co-Organized by:

Anitafrika dub theatre

Upping the Anti

A Different Booklist

 Alfie Roberts Institute (Web site is down at the moment)

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Up in the Air – A Review

January 10, 2010 at 11:44 pm (Uncategorized)

I always hated those movie reviews in Socialist Worker that focused on any movie that was mildly critical of a particular aspect of capitalism, magnifying that small instance, and then concluding the film’s real shortcoming is it doesn’t call for the overthrow of capitalism. 

The thing is any realistic depiction of life is in fact a critique of capitalism. If it shows how capitalism affects, no, ruins people’s lives, how it be anything other than a critique?

Over the holidays, I went to see Jason Reitman’s new film Up in the Air, which certainly does focus on an unpleasant aspect of capitalism; namely its tendency to grind up people’s lives in the pursuit of profit.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man who sends his life literally up in the air in a plane. The double entendre of the title becomes obvious as the film’s central point unfolds.

Bingham works for a company which fires people for a living. When companies lay off employees, but lack the intestinal fortitude to do it themselves, Bingham’s company is there to do the dirty work. As Jason Bateman as the company’s oily president proclaims in the depth of the recession, now is our time.

But he who lives by the sword, sometimes dies by it. Bingham has evolved his career into a lifestyle choice. He is free because he is not tied down (Bingham also gives lectures on the theme of “What’s in your backpack?” suggesting living a life free of people and things). So when the ironically named Natalie Keener suggests the company, in the name of efficiency and cost-cutting of course, fire people over the internet, Bingham realizes his lifestyle is threatened too.

Interwoven with this theme is a casual relationship Bingham begins with another frequent flier Alex (the marvellous Vera Farmiga). In the course of this relationship and his sister’s wedding, Bingham flinches, and almost learns a lesson. And perhaps that’s what’s so great about this film: It doesn’t wimp out on its premise and give everyone a nice neat happy ending.

At the end of the film,  Bingham is left gazing at the flight board, and we fully appreciate the film’s title. 

But as charming as George Clooney is, and his charm is considerable, the thing that I was left with is the performance of some of the extras in the film. When they were shooting scenes  in St. Louis and Detroit, Reitman advertised in the local papers for people who would like to take part in a documentary about losing a job. He received over 100 responses, and ended up filming about 60 people (30 in each city). 22 made it into the film.

In one memorable moment,  one man repeats the truism that the loss of a job often feels like a death in the family. But, he says, it felt like I died. sometimes a piece of art doesn’t have to call for the overthrow of capitalism to show the horror and destructive ness of the system.

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Curse You Joss Whedon!

January 10, 2010 at 1:06 am (Uncategorized)


I had decided I wouldn’t write anything more about Dollhouse until the end of the series on January 22, but last night’s episode “Getting Closer,” just knocked me out.

On the face of it, Dollhouse didn’t seem like a winner: The story of an organization which takes people and mind-wipes them each week only to imprint them with new temporary personalities for the entertainment of the clients doesn’t seem like a winner. It’s repulsive. Especially, in the case of Sierra who was into this form of slavery.

The early episodes weren’t much fun. Better than a lot of shows on TV in terms of the writing and the dialogue, but not what we’d come to expect from Joss (notice how we all feel close enough to be on a first name basis?)

But then a wonderous thing happened. The personality of the week faded, and the real story became the evolving personality of Echo (Eliza Dushka). Suddenly we cared about the Dolls, and even the ‘evil’ masters of the Dollhouse, including Adelle and Topher. Still, it wasn’t ever going to be a  mass show, and when word of cancellation came, it was not a surprise.

Strangely, the shows since cancellation have been some of the best.  Last night’s episode “Getting Closer” is a case in point. Now longtime fans of Joss Whedon’s work have come to expect two principles in the world: first, plot twists are the norm. Second, if there’s a character the audience loves, KILL THEM.  (Joyce, Tara,  Wesley, Anya, Sheppard, the list goes on and on…) 

Well, I’m an old hand, but last night caught me off guard. Oh, good Amy Acker is back as Dr. Saunders. And boy was she back! And the revelation about  the true head of Rossum also took me by surprise.  

This post in the Onion’s AV Club does a nice job of summing up the episode for me.  so curse you Joss Whedon, and curse you too Lindsey for now I owe you a cup of coffee – Rossum isn’t something made up for Whedon geeks, but from a  play by Czeck playwright  Karel Capek. Read it here

Two to go.

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January 2, 2010 at 3:20 pm (Uncategorized)

Over the holidays, I watched the 2008 BBC production of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. It’s one of those masterful period pieces, the BBC seems to do so effortlessly, employing as it  does a vast cast of British acting talent.

Watching the grimy scenes of London, I couldn’t help but be reminded of William Blake’s poem “London.” 

 In Little Dorrit, the rawness and savagery of  capitalism is evident.  The story begins in the debtors prison the Marshalsea, where those who cannot pay are cast.  Much of the story takes place in and around the prison, and its shadow hangs over the characters (when Arthur Clennam is bankrupted after the collapse of the Merdle’s bank, it is to the Marshalsea he goes).  

The world in the story is society, where those of good breeding dwellNot necessarily the rich mind you. Even after William Dorrit becomes wealthy, he is not accepted into this world because he was formerly in the debtor’s prison. This also takes on a comic form. After he is informed of Merdle’s suicide, the family butler sneers at Merdle because, after all, he was a businessman, not a part of the nobility.   

Blake’s poem, written in 1792 a half century before Dickens, are just as powerful as Dickens.

 I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow, 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man, 
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.  
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls; 
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh 
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse 
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear 
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

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