Music Monday: Tom Waits, or, “I’d Rather have a Bottle in Front of Me Than a Frontal Lobotomy” Edition


Well, we just moved.

If I were a drinking man, this would have been a cataclysmic week for my liver. The ordeal with our moving truck alone would’ve made the pope cuss.

I don’t drink, however, so I like to drown vicariously through the music of the great Tom Waits from time to time.

His seminal album Small Change is always in heavy rotation on my mp3 player. One reason is the clinical precision with which Waits captures the chaotic messiness of lives lived on the margins. Prostitutes, con men, and coffee shop bums typically populate the songs of both early and late Waits. (Waits’ career does rather neatly fall into two major phases – the first half characterized by a drunken beat poet/jazz lounge persona, with the latter half seeing Waits take on the role of mad ringmaster of life’s surreal circus. Both phases are essential listening and the album Swordfishtrombones starkly provides the diving point for this remarkable career).

One of Small Change’s highlights is the beautifully comic parody “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” This song captures the essence of early Waits in all its comic desperation. We can picture the lounge singer diligently plucking away in a nasty, smoke-filled bar diligently providing entertainment for its seedy patrons, all while providing us an ironic critique of the whole environment. Reminds me of teaching some days.

At any rate, one of Waits’ many great gifts is his ability to infuse these low, urchin-like characters with a humanity that makes the listener truly fall in love with them. This seems to me to be an entirely Christian approach to life, and Waits’ music has at many times in my life, moved me in what can only be described as a spiritual way. He, like all great artists, does not avoid the muck, but rather dives in head first, finding in it the ugly truth and disgusting beauty of life.

Here is a clip from the old Martin Mull show Fernwood 2 Night, in which Waits parodies his own parody, in a proto-Stephen Colbert kind of way. Truly brilliant and utterly hilarious. Enjoy!

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Teaching with the Alien

alien secret service

In previous posts, I’ve confessed to a weakness for “speculative documentaries.” You know, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, U.F.O’s, and all their friends in the crypto-zoologicaspere (I should copyright that term!).

One program holds a special place in my heart, however: Ancient Aliens.

As I’ve shared previously, this program performs a dizzying array of death-defying rhetorical shenanigans, and is so utterly removed from the logic that binds the rest of us to reality that I thoroughly enjoy watching it.

At its heart though, I think my love of the show’s antics is a love of rhetoric. I watch the crimes that Mr. Giorgio and company rhetorically perform against humanity and, like Superman, my argumentative mind springs into action. “This would be great to show my students!” I think aloud.

Uh oh. I think you see where this is going.

Unlike a lot of literature types out there, I personally don’t mind teaching freshman composition because, to me, the construction and expression of arguments are a vital part of what makes us beautifully and insufferably human – I believe rhet/comp to be central to any liberal arts education. With those lofty goals, the argumentative gymnastics of a conspiracy-ridden mind are gold, Jerry. Gold!

I give you the following video, for which I must thank my friend, Stephen:

Step One: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

I showed this video to my classes today, after confessing my love for conspiratorial narratives. I told them about the all-encompassing grand narrative of the Ancient Alien types – how the Annunaki supposedly came down and created human beings to mine Gold for them et cetera. (Here I should point out that this video is not connected to the program Ancient Aliens – it simply shares the same mythos). Then basically anything that ever happened after that is part of the alien conspiracy. The whole bit. I admitted some shame in knowing as much as I do about the “theory,” then I asked them to watch the above video and take note of some of its particulars to specifically argue against. The key phrase was “specific.” I stressed that they were to identify concrete formal and rhetorical structures that they could then analyze for their function and overall effect.

The conversations we had were excellent. Several students pointed out the problems with zooms that pushed beyond what pixel limits of the original video would allow. Still others argued that the abundance of rhetorical questions simply plants ideas in the views head and tempts them into making false assumptions. Others pointed out that the computer generated narrator-voice makes attribution impossible and that the script could have been written by a ten-year-old boy and we would never know.

One canny student observed that the application of a video filter that resembles a heat-sensing camera falsely suggests that the poor secret service agent is a reptilian. She noted that the heat sensor would have had to have been a part of the original video for that gimmick to work.

The Importance of Being Specific

I was proud of my rhetoricians in training. They noticed many things that I did not, and we had a series of terrific conversations about writing. Most importantly, I tried to stress that when they are engaged in argumentative writing, it really helps to have something to, you know, write about. By not simply relying on their initial, general impressions – “Are these people serious?” “Don’t they know that they sound crazy?” – they made it possible to have a productive conversation. In short, identifying concrete things that present problems gives the writer something to write about. I then urged them to take the same approach with their current research projects.

My Personal Response to the Video: Aliens? Maybe. Anti-Semitism? Yep.

Before moving on to the next topic of the day, I offered my own response to the video, re-enforcing the fact that my response was only really possible after identifying specific, problematic elements in the video’s argument. Now I’ll share it with the internet.

This video is a raging, syphilitic case of anti-Semitism.

First of all, whenever I hear the term “Zionist cabal,” my Jew-hater radar detector springs into action. Check.  Second, after laying down its “Zionist cabal” card, the video ever so un-subtly offers the following image of Lee Rosenberg, President of AIPAC:

Lee Rosenberg

I have no doubt that the video’s authors found Mr. Rosenberg’s most awkward moment so they could juxtapose it directly against the image that immediately follows; that of their “shapeshifting alien.”

Supposed Alien

The argument is clear. The video exploits its deceptive rhetorical tricks to suggest (without actually saying outright) that not only is there a Jewish conspiracy, but the Jews themselves are more closely aligned with the aliens than with the humans. This, of course, goes back to anti-Semitic rhetoric that spans the ages. The oft-debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a model for this type of deception and, incredibly, there are still people who believe in its truthfulness, as I’m sure there are people who believe the claims of this 3 minute video.

This video is not simply mindless stupidity, it is ugly hate speech packaged for weak-minded conspiracy theorists. It is dangerous if we don’t pay attention to how it makes its arguments.

Oh, and in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, look at this.

Same as it ever was.

At any rate, I used this as an example of the importance of paying attention. Passive consumers of information are prey to dangerous minds, and may become dangerous themselves. Active readers have the benefit of an insight that is not only advantageous, but also a moral obligation.

English class may not always be thrilling, but the lessons we’re trying to teach you are important.

Unless, of course, I too am one of the Annunaki, sent here to confuse my students and keep my race in power.

I am bald, you know.

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Music Monday: (Gulp) Worship Music? Me?


I know, I know. I’m the guy who hates worship music. Let’s just put that out there. I’ve even posted about this anti-passion before. See my ode to the great Rodney Crowell.

However, I do like church (generally).

My family and I recently purchased a house near Athens, Georgia and so we’ve been snooping around churches there. Who knows what’s going to happen, but we’ve found one we really like so far, and the music is no small part of that.

The church is called Classic City Community Church and their band is called “The Classic City Collective.” I’ve been so moved by them that I even bought their CD today (also apparently available on iTunes and Amazon).

The group undermines all my comfortable cynicism about Christian music. They seem to have a commitment to artistry that eludes most contributers to the decline of Christian Culture (aka “praise bands”).

They have taste. They have musical talent. And most of all, they can claim that most unique trait, subtlety. The music is emotional, but not boorish. These folks clearly are passionate about God, but they also have dignity and brains.

In other words there are no lyrics like “Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss.”

Contemporary physicists like to point out that given the vastness of the universe, the appearance of life here indicates that it all but certainly exists elsewhere. Likewise, this group’s existence has given me hope that there are musicians out there who are fighting against my bitter cynicism about Christian music and culture.

If good taste and dedicated artistry exists in Athens, surely it exists elsewhere. This is no small leap into optimism for me, and I’m grateful for the correction.

Here’s a clip they produced about the band and its mission. Do yourself a favor and give ’em a shot.

Two highlights I’d like to point out. At about 1:15 in, there is sample of an utterly beautiful song called “A Mind at Perfect Peace.” I wish I could find a clip of the whole thing because it is truly lovely.

Also during that clip, the group’s leader, Paul Reeves, reflects on his reluctance to write worship music in the first place. He basically claims that the purpose of this music is a great responsibility and that he “didn’t want to do that flippantly.”

This betrays a commendable artistic maturity, let alone a fine spiritual one. Well done, sir. You’ve sold a tough (yet newly hopeful) customer.

Hi-Five Friday: “I’ve got strep” edition

2013-04-04 19.22.13

So this week has not gone as planned. My eldest came down with strep and … you can guess the rest.

Well don’t cry for me, Argentina. I’ve got some groovy links to see me through.

And now you do too!

1). Hilarious mash-up poster, combining the upcoming Star Wars movie with Little Miss Sunshine. 

Cover of

Cover of Little Miss Sunshine [Blu-ray]

2). Imagine this!!! Female superheroes…wearing all their clothes!

3). Incredible old photographs of New York City. The dead guys at the bottom of the elevator shaft are worth the click alone!

4). What is The Shining really about? A new documentary surveys several theories, including one that paints the movie as Kubrick’s Holocaust film. Cool read. Can’t wait to see the doc.

Kubrick's film was the second to make notably ...

Kubrick’s film was the second to make notably innovative use of the Steadicam, which can track motion smoothly without a dolly track. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5). Why conservatives hate college. It’s not John Belushi. It’s apparently Populism abusing the world again.

John Belushi

John Belushi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

BONUS LINK). I’m not above breaking my own rules. I came across this incredibly sweet tribute to the late, great Roger Ebert and had to share it as well. What a guy.

I’d love to continue the conversation, so please comment and share!

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Music Monday: Billy Bragg’s Transcendant Activism

Sweet moderation, heart of this nation,

Desert us not. We are between the wars.

Billy Bragg

I came to Billy Bragg’s music during a moment that I believed in politics. I had a good heart and wanted to fix the world’s problems, and Bragg’s music offered a kind of utopian inspiration for my political imagination.

The passions of those days are gone for me. I’ve made the ethical move away from activism and have sought contemplative distance away from the grating sound of what Matthew Arnold called the “ignorant armies” clashing by night. Ideological Facebook skirmishes do little more than amuse me now. The delusion that just the right slogan written on just the right meme will turn the tide of the battle for the good never ceases to make me smile (or sometimes squint).

Nonetheless, Billy Bragg’s music, though clearly ideological, holds a dear place in my heart to this day. There is a sweetness to his political vision that I can’t help but admire still.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing him in concert three times in three different cities and each experience was transcendent for me. He is one of those rare performers who is so entertaining as a speaker, you almost look forward to his lengthy diatribes and introductions as much as you do his musical performance. To put it bluntly, the man is a comic genius. His banter with his band and with his audience (sycophants and hecklers alike) is truly priceless. He is currently on tour and if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend checking him out.

It’s always occurred to me when seeing him perform that his audience remains loyal to him because he remains loyal to them. Though I fight to maintain my precious political reclusiveness, I still have my imagination and I can imagine a better world for all people. This is who Billy aims his music at; the person who believes in what is currently not. In this way, his music transcends the immediate political sphere and directs his listener toward a distant utopian future.

In less capable hands, this might be silly and naïve, but Billy’s humor, musical skill, and utter lack of cynicism makes it work against all odds.

Though I cannot match his commitment to What Is Not, I am most thankful for it. Billy Bragg’s music still operates like a conscience for me, never letting me rest in my detachment. Gently challenging my Arnoldian ideals and keeping me from drifting away into cruel, cynical callousness.

“Between the Wars” is a masterpiece. A folk song sung to a single distorted electric guitar. In this song, Billy weaves youthful idealism and wicked realism into a stark portrait of our collective ideals, failures, and hopes. Please listen, enjoy, and, most importantly, consider.

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