Monday, May 31, 2010

Exiled on Main Street

The new, "deluxe" version of the Stones' classic album, "Exile On Main Street" was released to great fanfair about two weeks ago.
The reviews of the new mix and the ten "new" songs, culled from the band's vaults of unreleased material, have been pretty spectacular. Rolling Stones Magazine gave it a 5-star review endorsement. (How could they NOT, given the name of the mag and that fact it had this album listed at number 7 on its list of all time great rock albums just a few years ago?)
When I wandered into Chester County Bookstore last week and saw the sticker price of just $20, I thought to myself: "Why wait to nab this wonderful puppy? It's selling on line for more than this!"
I gotta say, it was a smart move.
I am always up for having a philosophical discussion on which band is better, the Stones or the Beatles. Which band you choose usually depends on whether you go to church or not. ("All the angels sing!" usually means you side with Lennon and McCartney; admitting you like "Goat's Head Soup" more than "The White Album" indicates you are prepped just fine for Dante's seventh circle of hell).
Ifyou are a fan of the Stones (or just of the music of that era), this is a CD you need to hear. More than 75 percent of the songs on the radio these days do not measure up to the tossed off songs from the second disc of the deluxe version of "Exile On Main Street". Some are earlier versions of songs that appear on the album, but others were never officially released by the band. When you hear them now, it's hard to understand why.
"Plundered My Soul" is a song that could have been as big as hit as "Tumbling Dice." It starts with the same kind of jagged guitar shuffle of that Stones' classic and carries in it the same loose, drunken DNA of most of the songs on "Exile", which was mostly recorded at Keith Richards' mansion in the South of France while the Stones were dodging the tax authorieties in England. The song just kills. The wail of the back-up singers sent chills down my spine.
Then there is an alternate take to the album's classic closer, "Soul Survivor." On this version, you get to hear Keith Richards taking the lead vocal from Jagger. The song stuns you at first, because the vocal difference between Jagger and Richards is so pronounced. But when you go back and listen to "Happy" (Richards' primary vocal on the album) you recognized that this moment is Richards' bid for "co-billing" as a front man in the Stones: his vocal is ascerting that he could have taken the "McCartney role" in the Stones. It stands on its own merits. I would have liked to be a fly on the wall when the boys debated which version should be the "official" one.
"Good Time Woman" is an early version of "Tumbling Dice" with different lyrics, well worth hearing for that reason alone. You can barely hear Jagger's vocals in the muddy mix, but the imprint of the song is always there, in the background, a song that just demands your attention.
The extra disc ends with a blistering instumental called "Title Five." It sounds like the Stones' riffing on a Dick Dale surfing classic. It's a thumping, balls to the wall rock classic that never made it into a "song". But when you listen to it, perhaps you will instantly recognize it for what it is: a moment in time when the best rock n' rollband in the world was working together in the studio, putting down a track that would stand the test of time.
It hardly matters that they never provided lyrics to make "sense" of the structure of the song. It's still a classic. The "song" rocks all on its own.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Writing About the Apocalypse

The Revelation of St. John, the last book of the Christian Bible, has long fascinated me. And because it subverts the real meaning of Jesus, and all he stood for, it may be the most misunderstood and dangerous piece of writing in all of Western literature.

My summer class at West Chester, Writing About the Apocalypse, started this week so once again I am knee-deep in the gore and viscera of those scary old icons of Revelation: the Four Horsemen, the Whore of Babylon, the Seven Seals, the Anti-Christ and Armageddon, the "Last Battle" between the forces of good (lead by an Avenging Warrior King Jesus, after his glorious return to Earth) and evil at the End of Time.

Revelation is a myth of epic proportions, and it's not the only religious myth that predicts the End of the World. Other religious traditions feature apocalyptic scenarios, including Islam. But true believers only give credence to their own particular version of the End. If we don't debunk the myth and call it that, we do so at our own ignorance and peril.

Not surprisingly, given the boiling state of the culture wars in America, Revelation is one of the defining dividing lines between rational religious belief and a more virulent, dangerous strain of Christianity. Revelation has religious fundamentalists in a vice-grip.... and the implication that Christ is coming soon to wreak havoc on the forces of Satan is not only endorsed by far too many of our more conservative religious leaders, it's become a political touchstone for conservative politicians, too.

And therein lies the danger. As the Republican Party has cut loose its ties to political moderates who don't kowtow to religious fundamentalists, the radical fringes of fundamentalist Christianity have become increasingly aligned with the GOP.

For a while there, it was easy to believe Republican strategists like Karl Rove catered to their End Times beliefs just to gain votes that would allow them to push their economic agenda on America (smaller government, tax cuts for the wealthy). But now born-again End Timers are threatening to take control of the party. These are people who hope and pray for the Second Coming of the Lord and all its rapturous implications for a Last Battle.

The Jesus of Revelation subverts Christ's most essential teachings in his Sermon on the Mount about the nature of love and re-imagines Christ as a warrior King who will smite the forces of evil. This image of Jesus Christ is not based on anything he ever said or personally espoused. It is based on a dream that one of his disciples had. It was written down and passed around and saved as a message of hope to 1st Century Christians who were being fed to the lions in the Roman Coliseum for professing their faith.

J.R.R. Tolkien used the template of Revelation effectively to give his Lord of the Rings trilogy a gravitas that resonated with readers who had experienced the horrors of World War II. Dozens of other modern novelists (Stephen King and Tom Clancy come to mind) have borrowed the Revelation blueprint to titillate readers in apocalyptic page turners.

Our summer blockbuster movies constantly recycle End of the World themes to sell tickets and keep movie-goers on the edge of their seats. The culture -- both popular and religious -- is steeped in the violence of Revelation's End of the World formula.

It's one thing to use Revelation as a subtext to sell paperback novels or tickets to blockbuster movies. It's quite another to use it to set a party's political agenda. The real danger of Revelation is that it subverts the true message of the Christ. It allows fundamentalist Christians and religious conservatives to believe in a worldview that accepts the violence of war as a political alternative to diplomacy and peaceful negotiations of political differences.

Political and religious progressives in the West should muster the strength to confront church elders about the divisive nature of Revelation. Maybe it's time to consider taking it out of the Bible, as the Eastern Orthodox Christian church has wisely done already.

Of course, that would be bad for the religion business. Christian leaders seem to like having two popular but polar opposite versions of the Christ in their Bible. Political progressives can gravitate to the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the "turn the other cheek" Jesus.

Conservatives can keep the sword-wielding Savior who "comes again" to slaughter the enemy on the fields of Armageddon. It's almost as if you can hear them talking to one another behind closed doors at their religious councils: "If we can live with the inconsistencies, why not have both versions of Jesus?"

Alas, one version of Jesus is based on a wish for revenge and bloody retribution. The other version of Jesus lived and breathed and spoke the truth about violence.

Unless we reconsider the role Revelation plays in our collective faith and remove it from our most sacred texts, we must live with the threat of being doomed to seeing its bloody end played out in real time by people who are praying for it to happen and doing all they can to ensure when "the end" comes, it's St. John's version.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Specter/Sestak dust-up

I saw a bumper sticker on the back window of a proud Tea Party/veteran's car last week that caught my eye. It seemed to speak for the vast majority of Pennsylvania's Republicans -- at least those of the far right. (Isn't that about all of 'em?)

"Benedict Arlen" -- it pronounced, a clever reference to the Revolutionary War turncoat.

I laughed, but had to admit -- as with most bumper stickers -- there was a layer of truth to it. Specter left his party after five terms because the party's value had fundamentally changed. Moderates like Specter aren't welcomed any more in GOP circles. It wasn't just that changing sides had become politically expedient. It was that his middle of the road views had become aligned with the middle class, middle of the road values of most of the commonwealth's Democrats. Specter is the same as he always has's the electorate that has changed.

Specter and has primary opponent, Joe Sestak, the Delaware County congressman, have been lobbing salvos in the form of TV advertisements at one another for the past several weeks in hopes of capturing next Tuesday's Democratic nomination for Specter's U.S. Senate seat.

The ads have been running non-stop on both local networks affiliates and on cable TV too. Both campaigns are knee-deep in gore from the bloodfest. Sestak's best broadside shows George Bush with his arm flung around Specter, calling him a "a good man, a trusted ally." Hoo boy! The guy did vote for the president's stimulus package, Joe!

Specter countered with his own ads complaining that Sestak pays his "campaign staff" (isn't that just a cute euphemism for "volunteers"?) less than minimum wage and that Sestak has made a political career out of missing votes in the House of Representatives. (How do you defeat a five-term incumbent if you're not pressing the flesh, pounding the streets and seeking campaign contributions, Arlen?).

Just as polls seem to indicate a rising tide of support for Sestak, Specter bought out his biggest cannon, at ad that shows President Obama's arm flung warmly around Specter's shoulders touting his now famous stimulus package vote and calling him a "good Democrat."

Will either one of these guys be able to survive the onslaught and stand a chance of beating the GOP's likely candidate, Pat Toomey, a knee jerk conservative who makes Barry Goldwater look like Fidel Castro in comparison.

Folks have short memories, and lots of other high power ammo is sure to come out between now and November 9th, so anything could happen.

But if Sestak beats Specter in a close primary next Tuesday, would you be willing to bet Specter won't pull a Joe Lieberman on state Democrats and run as a third party independent?

The guy can't be THAT desperate to hold onto the reins of power?

Could he?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Pop Culture Buzz Alert -- Ike Reilly

Every once in a while you hear a band or a performer for the first time and it feels like your soul has been lifted up and your consciousness raised and you think you've known this music forever. The music just bowls you over; makes a lasting impression at first listen.

I felt that way when I heard Bruce Springsteen's first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, back when I was reviewing records for my college newspaper. And then the first time I heard Tom Waits doing his jazz-bo schtick in some tiny New Orleans club, teetering on the edge of sobriety and singing in a whisky tinged voice of bohemian shenigans he'd witnessed in the streets of Los Angeles. Both of them were keen observors of life's smallest but most significant moments.

And last week I picked up the lastest CD from a former Chicago doorman named Ike Reilly and it was as if I meeting a dear friend for the very first time...a guy I knew was gonna change my life...or at least make me see things in a new way. If you like barrelhouse rock 'n' roll sung by a wordsmith whose worldly-wise lyrics come spilling out of him like a jagged spear of lightning eager to strike the church steeple, check out Reilly's latest, Hard Luck Stories.

Like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, the main appeal of Reilly's songs are the vivid images they paint in your mind and the sense of humor they display. He sings his songs with a world-weary rasp and the same kind of untapped urgency that Springsteen brought to life on his debut album in songs like "Blinded By the Light" and "Spirit in the Night" Reilly's songs can barely contain the ideas they are expressing and they are backed by a roaring, road-hardened blues band, highlighted by a Farfisa organ and a wailing harmonica.
Here's a sample lyric from "The Girls in the Back Room":
They say your brother is a loaded pistol
some kind of former ranger,
got a disability check from his VA stuck in the chamber
still he roadside bombs are bursting
and forever he'll be thirsty
said that gulf water was (friggin') murky
he had drank it anyway
I saw him blowin that old marine band
with a charbroiled purple heart rattling in a bedpan

"Good Work" is a knowing wink at high school graduation ceremonies with their "after party" debaucheries and their even bigger early-morning blow-outs, the "after-after party-party". And "The Reformed Church of the Assault Rifle Band" chronicle's a relationship gone wrong when one partner finds true religion while the other finds a much different kind of redemption forming a rock band. It won't take you long to figure out which side Ike's taking.

A song that's getting some nice spins on WXPN, sung in tandem with Shooter Jennings, is called "The War on Terror and Drugs". And the poignant "Flowers On Down" shows Reilly can handle the nuances of regret and longing in a ballad format. There's really not a weak cut on the whole fine slab of acerbic greatness.
Read a review of his Khyber Pass performance on Saturday night, May 8th, here:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Civil Disobedience of an American Mother

On Mother's Day, in 1983, I published one of my favorite stories in the Sunday Magazine of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was about my Mother, Agnes Bauerlein, and it chronicled her transition from a housewife and mother of 11 children into a political activist.

Although she didn't realized it at the time, her anti-war activism had its roots in World War II, when she identified the bodies of her oldest sister and her youngest brother, who died in an air raid on her hometown of Nijmegen, Holland, when American and British bombers were trying to drive the Nazis out of Holland.

In 1980, after most of her children were grown and out of the house, she attended a meeting at her local Roman Catholic church. Her pastor was asking his parishioners if they might be willing to host anti-war activists who were coming from all around the country to support Daniel and Philip Berrigan and six other peace activists known as the Plowshares Eight.

Against my father's better judgment (he had served in the Navy in World War II and had voted for Ronald Reagan that year) my mother convinced him to open their home to take activists who would be coming to the trial in Norristown. When the defendants themselves asked to stay at my parents home, because it was large enough for them to use it as their base of operations while they were on trial together, my mother's activism began.

She too, began to listen to her conscience. She too, began to perform acts of civil disobedience against the arms race, occasionally with the Berrigan Brothers or other Roman Catholic clerics.

Last month, someone at the Catholic Peace Fellowship found an old article that was written by my mother in 1987, and published in Swords into Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament, defending her work for peace and her decision to risk arrest as a way of helping to end the arms race. As a tribute to my mom, I am reprinting parts of it below, with a wish that all Mothers have a blessed and joyous Mother's day.

This is my mother's 1987 testimony:

The blessings of a large family were never more clear to me than on the afternoon of July 4, 1982, when we gathered for a family picnic at ourhome in Ambler, Pa. My grandchildren splashed playfully in the backyard swimming pool, surrounded by doting aunts and uncles. Their mothers chattered nearby under the shade of an oak tree. A volleyball game raged in the background while my husband snoozed in oblivion.

On that holiday, I was perhaps more acutely aware of my blessings because I knew I would probably not be part of that tranquil domestic scene for some time to come. Later on, as we gathered around the table, my heart skipped a beat at the thought of being involved in an act of civil disobedience/divine obedience that might possibly mean a long separation from my loved ones.

Slowly, over many previouis months of serious thoughts and prayers, I had decided to protest the proloferation and contuation of the nuclear arms buildup in a stronger way that I had previously done. I had decided that civil disobedience would be my way of saying no to an insane arms race that threatens all life on our planet.

I left home on a July morning of 1983 to join my six compatriots in preparation for our symbolic disarmament action. Our time was spent in sharing, prayer and solitude. Under the theme "faith in the face of fear," we celebrated the Eucharist. We all had our own hopes and fears and anxities. In faith we accepted would would come the rest of the day.

Sleep did not come easy that night. At 5:30 a.m., July 14th, I watched a magnificent sunrise over the ocean and saw it as a good omen. For the last time we met in a circle, prayed for guidance and, after some hurried hugs, left for our destination.

Walking into AVCO, a plant in Wilmington, Mass., that manufactured components for the MX and Pershing II missiles, we carried our household hammers, our blood, photos of our families, various prayers, and statements of peace and justice. On behalf our our 37 children, 24 grandchildren and all future generations, we also issued an indictment against AVCO and its co-conspirators, including the national security state, for committing acts against God and humanity by manufacturing for profit weapons of mass destruction.

Our intent in issuing this indictment was to show that our acts were justified under divine and international laws -- laws that call upon all people to prevent crimes against humanity from occurring.

Entering the building went smoothly, contrary to our expectations. Doors were literally opened for us and we were met by greetings of "Good morning." Once inside the building, I was overwhelmed with a sense of oppression. This factory of mass destruction brought images of violence, death and hell to my mind as we wandered through the vast open area, looking for a suitable place to commit our action. Fear took hold of me. It was not a fear of being caught but a fear of not being able to express my sense of despair through this action. Still, I knew the truth must be told. Faith led us through an unfamiliar building into an assembly room filled with large crates where we found parts to the MX.

We poured our blood over these and symbolically hammered this particular nuclear "sword" into a "plowshare," praying that our action would bear fruit. Strangely enough, we were in there for quite a while. Even our singing and hammering, sounding like a bell of justice, drew no one's attention. Eventually, though, we were discovered and apprehended by AVCO's security and local police -- but not before we were able to carry out a direct act of disarmament and expose the nature of AVCO's work.

Later that day, after we were arrested and processed, we were all jailed. The men were taken to Billerica jail in Massachusetts. The four of us women spent the next 10 days in the Framingham jail before being released on our own recognizance at the pretrial hearing.

During our mid-December jury trial in 1983, I tried to speak about my conscience and convictions. The expert testimony in our defense also served to communicate my belief that our actions were morally and legally right. Having myself experienced the horrifying effects of Nazism, it was deeply moving to hear the testimony of Dr. Richard Falk, who told the jury that under the Nuremberg Accords and international law, actions like ours are required not only to prevent future crimes such as those perpetated by the Nazis, but also to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction from ever occurring. Also, in light of the imminent danger posed by nuclear weapons, Daniel Ellsberg testified that our actions were reasonable and necessary to help lessen the risk of nuclear war and initiate the process of disarmament. These witnesses and others who testified all reconfirmed for me that I have a moral and human duty to act to prevent nuclear war.

Despite hearing testimony on the justification of our acts, the judge declared that all of the expert witnesses' testimony was irrelevant to the case. He also ruled that issues of conscience and moral and international law could not be considered by the jury in rendering a verdict.

The jury found the AVCO Plowshares members guilty of trespassing and "wanton" damage to property. The seven of us were immediately taken to jail and shortly thereafter released on our own recognizance, pending an appeal for another trail.

Perhaps my youngest son, Matthew, then age 10, summed it up best of all, when I questioned him on his feelings of my possible prolonged absence. His answer was thoughtful and simple. "I don't like it when you are away and I will miss you, but I know why you are doing it and the more of you that are doing it, the better it will be for us kids."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

the right wing bias of media monopolies

I am knee deep in grading papers and I don't have nearly enough time to read or write a decent blog....but thought I might share this link to a story I saw today on Truth Out that addresses what I consider to be one of the nation's biggest problems: the lack of accountability for truth-telling in the mainstream media.

Listening to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck complaining about the mainstream media is like hearing a joke you already know the punch line to. They ARE the main stream media!

C'mon folks! there's one "liberal" paper left in America, the New York Times.

The Fairness Doctrine was rescinded by the Reagan administration back in the early 1980s and ever since, the mainstream media's been drifting farther and farther to the right. Increasingly, media outlets are falling into the hands of large (bottom-line oriented) corporations. This article should be a wake up call to everyone! More to chew on soon!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How much force is too much force?

How much force is too much force?
That is the question that Taser-gate has forced us to ponder.
The picture above was taken at Citizens Bank Park on Monday evening at the Phillies' game. It shows a Philadelphia police officer aiming his taser at a 17-year-old fan who entered the field of play and disrupted the proceedings until he was subdued and apprehended.
The episode was the buzz of sports talk radio yesterday. Not surprisingly, the pundits could not reach consensus. Vai Sikahema and John Gonzalez, hosts of a morning sports talk show on 97.5 FM, the Fanatic, were on opposite sides of the fence. Gonzalez thought the taser incident represented another "black eye for the city" and that the officer used too much force to stop the teen-age culprit. Sikahema, who played for the Eagles, felt the use of force was appropriate. After all, he said, when you break the law, you should expect consequences to happen.
Callers took widely different positions on the incident. Some thought tasers were a good idea and that the sight of a young fan shuddering involuntarily on the outfield grass, shaking from an electrical shock, would discourage other fans from disrupting our ballgames. One said it set a dangerous precedent and warned if citizens didn't protest this kind of police action we were becoming complacent and were in danger of becoming subjected to "a police state."
Later in the day on the same station, Sal Paolantonio -- who covers the Eagles for ESPN -- said if the boy had been his son, he would hire a lawyer and pursue a law suit against the officer who used the taser. He noted that tasers had killed more than 300 people over the years (most of them who died had a pre-existing heart condition at the time they were subdued with a taser) and that the company who makes tasers has advised police departments around the country that tasers should never be aimed at the chest of a suspect.
How you feel about the use of tasers usually comes down to how you feel about law and order and that, all too frequently, tends to echo a person's political views as well. Conservatives usually side with police officials, who say the use of a taser to subdue a person fleeing arrest is consistent with modern police policy and actually safer than using several officers to trap or tackle a suspect.
Liberals tend to believe the use of a taser to subdue a young fan in a public place like the ballpark is a classic case of excessive force. It's one thing to subdue a suspect who is fleeing police after snatching a purse. It's quite another to use it on an over-zealous fan who wants to bring attention to himself by joining Ryan Howard on the field for 30 seconds.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsay defended the actions of his officer and said he has used appropriate force. But it didn't take long for the police department to rethink its tactics. Last night, just as Cole Hamels was about to throw the first strike in the ninth inning and protecting a 1-0 lead, another fan jumped the fence and ran onto the field.
This time, the fan was apprehended without the use of a taser.
Hamels seemed to lose his composure after the incident. He quickly gave up the lead and left the game in a 1-1 tie. Luckily, the Phils won it in extra innings.
If they'd lost it, the court of public opinion might have come to the conclusion that using tasers on such disruptive fans is a good thing.
I, for one, would prefer not to see attention seeking teen-agers or drunk fans seeking a moment of "fame" treated like criminals fleeing the scene of a crime. Let's ask our law enforcement officials use common sense in the future.