"The true gentleman is friendly, but not familiar." - CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A FOREIGNER IN WINDHOEK



The Southern Times in Namibia asked me to write a story about my experience living there. Enjoy. If that's the word for it. 


Recently, you may have noticed a bearded young foreigner wandering Windhoek, stopping occasionally to drink a Windhoek Lager, and mispronouncing 'Windhoek'. I blame the Windhoeks.

He's me, and I was writing this, a list of observations made during my stay. Approach them as if they're the considered words of a homeless outsider who travelled 12 000 miles to a country he'd never seen to visit a man he'd never met, then complain to the editor. Your country beckons to me, and I'd proudly take the altar beside a Namibian bride in one of those traditional cow hats that somehow so turn me on.

- Afrikaans sounds like English backwards.

- The ladies here bring tears to my eyes. So do the internet speeds.

- If we Americans, like Namibians, had to pay for power and cellphone airtime upfront and had no access to credit cards, we'd be living in trees.

- Why do so many Namibians comment on the way Angolans dress? They look pretty stylish to me. Green's the colour of life.

- Windhoek has the friendliest stray dogs I've ever encountered. They even starve cheerfully.

- I suspect half the electrified fences surrounding Windhoek homes aren't on. If only we knew which ones.

- Southern Africans call traffic lights "robots". Six weeks and it's still funny. It'll probably always be funny.

- Men: staring silently at a woman in a club like you're about to decapitate her isn't considered flirting.

- Women: panicking because you're not pregnant by 20 is only going to get you impregnated and possibly decapitated by one of the above men.

- Most people overseas might assume otherwise, but I’m here to report that Namibia is a safe and modern country. Safe, unless you are a Namibian woman (see: passion killings, rape, being sold for cattle). Modern, meaning white people own everything, which they’re selling to foreigners fast while locals pay them rent and guard their buildings.

- This shouldn’t last, because Namibia’s full of geniuses. My friends here sit around hatching national high-speed rail plans with one eye on today’s mackerel prices while using the word ‘trifecta’ in a sentence.

- Calling light-skinned Namibians ‘colored’ is not offensive here. Neither is calling them ‘Mexicans’. Neither is suggesting that they “act like Mexicans” even though the person speaking has probably never met a Mexican.

- It's true: Namibian beef and beer are world-class. Remember: if you squeeze in some vegetables, you'll live longer, giving you more time to eat even more Namibian beef and beer.

- Relax, foreigners. Men here are not staring at you when you walk down the street. They’re staring at your girlfriend.

- Africa: everything good is better, and everything bad is worse. (see: beef, taxi prices, tap water, AIDS)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

FACEBOOK PRIVACY: WHO CARES?


FACEBOOK, THE SOCIAL NETWORKING SITE HALF YOUR LIVES REVOLVE AROUND, has finally figured out how to make money. More than 50,000 sites now have ‘Like’ buttons which, when pressed, generate a message in your status timeline indicating your interest for said site, story, product, etc. Go to cnn.com, for instance, and you may see a window containing pictures of your friends alongside summaries of stories they ‘like’ (assuming your friends read the news, that is). Of course, if you click ‘Like’ on TieMeUp.com, don’t be shocked when you see buttplug ads on your profile page the next day. Facebook shares the data on your tastes with companies who then pay to advertise directly to you. Observant users already know Facebook has been doing a small-scale version of this for years. Just check the right column of your profile and see. But of course, the concerned citizens of the Internet are at full-on, nipples-out Indignant Level Red, flooding status feeds and news sites with words like “privacy”, “breach” and “privacy”.

Did I say “privacy” twice? Well, lets talk about privacy then. First of all, what are you hiding? Who are you people? Serial killers? Secret agents? Do you unlock your apartment door using face recognition technology? You wish you were that interesting. These are the people who clamp passwords on their laptops so nobody will steal those 200 new pictures of their ugly newborn that all their friends have been just dying to get their hands on. These are the kind of people who just want something to be outraged about, but find things like war and the corporate looting of America too racey. Whenever you meet someone who takes privacy extra seriously, be on alert, because they either have serious skeletons in their closet, or they’re just serious pains in the ass. I’m happy to share 99.99% of my personal information because, for the most part, I’m a law-abiding person and I’m not ashamed of my interests. The few things I prefer to keep private, I KEEP PRIVATE - a.k.a. off the Internet and out of my mouth. We share information because we want others to know who we are, what we like, and how we feel. That’s why it’s called ‘sharing’. You don't have to press 'Like'. Got a high-profile job? Leave the ‘privacy settings’ page alone and just keep the flicks of you huffing nitrous oxide off the Internet. Nothing’s foolproof, and it’s not worth it. This was true before Facebook’s expansion, and it’s true now. Nobody's got a gun to your head.

If you have a website, the ‘Like’ function may also be good news for you. If you install the button on your site, both you and Facebook should begin to see a healthy uptick in visitors - provided people actually ‘Like’, or like, what you’re promoting, of course. Nobody in history has ever clicked a web banner deliberately. The economy’s in the toilet partially because everything is on the Internet now, but nobody has figured out how to make it profitable for the big guys and the little guys - until now. This is the future of business, and for the sake of your eight blogs and two real estate websites that haven’t seen ten visitors since February, it’s wise not to interfere.

Which brings me to my final point, which I will pose as a question: do you want Facebook to survive? Since you’re probably reading this article between commenting on your friends’ new Cancun pictures, I’ll assume the answer is a healthy ‘yes’. Then be happy that the site you spend so much time on has finally found a way to make a buck and tailor advertising to your personal tastes in the process. Advertising is a fact of life, and if products must be shoved in my face, I’d prefer they’re products I’m interested in. You’ve been using Facebook all this time for free. You even use Facebook to start Facebook groups to complain about Facebook. Now you’re crunchy because they finally figured out how to make money off you? Nothing good is free, folks.

HOW GURU RAISED ME.


BACK IN THE DAY, I COULD NEVER UNDERSTAND WHY GURU WAS FAMOUS. When I first heard Gang Starr in 1994, I said "dope beats, but is that guy really rapping on the whole record?" His famed 'monotone style' sounded like talking. Half his rhymes made me laugh out loud. Fifteen years later, the "who can recite the funniest Guru line' game is still a house party hit. It's not that I didn't like him to an extent, I just couldn't understand what he was doing in a group with DJ f^&king Premier. Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony was rapping in triple-time. Redman was rapping on the moon. Guru was rapping about going to the bookstore.

But if you wanted to hear Primo, you had to hear Guru. So I listened. And as time went by, I started putting together the pieces of a man. Here was a guy who sat on a stoop for his album cover. The back cover was a close-up of his hands. Here was a rapper who never raised his voice, used no vocal overdubs, no loud hooks. Here was a rapper who talked about being his own worst enemy. About how to survive, how to strive. About grace under pressure. As we grew, Guru became indispensable. Plenty of rappers were better technically, but there was no replacement for Guru, no substitute. There isn't a lyric from any Gang Starr album since Hard To Earn that I don't know by heart. And they make a whole lot more sense to the man I am now than they did to the boy I was then.

As teenagers, we obviously had no idea what ‘keep it real’ meant. Ask us to explain it and we'd normally take it upon ourselves to fill a blank that wasn't there: real 'tough', real 'hardcore', and on. A lot of murders went down in the name of that phrase, and it might have killed hip-hop as we knew it too. ‘Real’ is a concept that escapes adults, never mind a bunch of insecure street kids who suddenly became the center of the pop world. Too many of us thought “keeping it real” meant nothing more than owning up to the evil in us, giving in to the evil in the world. Too few of us understood that it also means pushing to be the best person we can be, and improving the world in the process. Life is a struggle between the way things are and the way things should be, and too many of us stopped struggling. Guru never did. Even then he was older than most of his listeners, so we were too young to understand what he was saying, or how it was molding us all. Guru talked about being grown, and, well, being grown is corny sometimes. 'Keep it real' is the value that defines my generation. It’s a value I live by. It’s a value Guru taught me, and he embodied it. Guru will forever have a place in my heart as a shining example of the virtue of life’s twin pillars: honesty and good intentions.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Comparing the Republican & Democrat Health Plans


YEP, APPARENTLY THE REPUBLICANS HAVE ONE TOO. I bumped into one at the free clinic last week (my new significant is a real ballbreaker) and he had just enough time to hip me before the nurse called him in for his boosters. Apparently I’m the only writer in the world who knows it exists, which is where he started whining about nobody listening to Republicans because they’re the house minority or something, I kinda tuned him out around that part. Anyway, after extensive googling and two Facebook breaks, I found links to both the Republican and the Democrat healthcare plans, and here they are. As always, it’s probably best to apply a ten to fifteen percent Promise Shrinkage Ratio to both plans, since politicians did write them, after all.

THE REPUBLICAN PLAN. http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/GOPHealthPlan_061709.pdf?tag=contentMain;contentBody

Well, it’s written by a man named Roy Blunt, which is a definite score for them. It discusses financial rewards from employers and insurers to employees who keep their weight down, stop smoking, etc. And that’s about all the pluses I see here. Allowing young people to qualify as dependents until age 25 so they can stay on their parents’ plans, andoffering tax credits to businesses who offer health insurance to their employees are the only other plans that sound like... plans, and the Democrat version includes both of those suggestions and a bunch more. The rest of this document is composed of a bunch of bullet points stuffed with ambiguous phrases like “added flexibility”, “extra incentive” and “additional resources”, along with the usual Republican cure-all of lowering taxes. I’d love to say that there are two good American healthcare plans out there instead of just one, but Mr Blunt’s contribution seems vague, simplistic and, most worryingly, short. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Republicans had no plan for reforming healthcare until the Dems made a national issue out of it, and the one they do have now ain’t much. You can’t help but feel that the Pubs as a party don’t think there’s much wrong with healthcare in America today.

THE DEMOCRAT PLAN. http://www.barackobama.com/pdf/issues/HealthCareFullPlan.pdf

Full insurer-patient transparency, i.e. full breakdowns of everything from what your operation really costs them to how many people have acquired infections in the hospital you’re in. Digitizing all health records. Requiring health coverage for children. Requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions. Lifting the 2003 ban that prohibits the government from negotiating medicine prices with manufacturers. Investing into continuous support programs for chronic diseases, rather then just dealing with them when they flare up. The list goes on. The Dems don’t have a concrete solution for increasing competition between insurers, but at least they’re addressing it. The Dems’ is simply a more comprehensive plan which offers feasible solutions for problems that, to read the Republican plan, aren’t even problems.


My take? Tax us more and get us all covered. Law, order and security, a.k.a. police and the court system, are basic built-in requirements of a civilized society, and healthcare is too. ‘Death panels’ already exist, so that’s a non-issue. We all know people who have been refused treatment by their insurance companies. Besides, I’m tired of choosing and re-enrolling in a new health plan three times every year because I can’t pay my bill one month. You take money out of my pocket every spring to study Moon craters; take some of that money and give little Timmy his kidney transplant already, and spare his parents a hernia and another bill.

And the bottom line is that, yes, a lot of Americans are stupid. If (and this is not a small 'if') I have $100 left over after paying all my bills, I’m gonna spend it on dinner and a movie, not health insurance. We’re consumers. That’s how you made us, and that’s how you got rich. Does that mean we deserve to die on a waiting room floor? We know the American economy runs on suckers. It’s our God-given right, and sometimes it seems like our patriotic duty, to be stupid and OD on Coke and Big Macs and Benson & Hedges so that the terrorists don’t win, or something. Capitalism says there’s nothing wrong with separating an idiot from his money, and there’s nothing wrong with watching that broke idiot die over some minor health problem either. Capitalism raised a nation of people who tend to make bad choices, but it feels no duty to take care of them.

Residents of the richest country in the world are flying to India for medical operations. If that isn’t a bad sign, I don’t know what is.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF THE TOWN HALL MEETINGS


Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve. -GEORGE BERNARD SHAW


We should forget town halls, and replace them with study halls. —“BILL MAHER



A) Steve Carell’s character in the 40 Year Old Virgin, comparing the feel of the female breast to “a bag of sand”.

B) At least 90% of the people at these town hall meetings taking place across the country.


What do a and b have in common?


They all have somewhere in the neighborhood of no idea what they’re talking about.


People argue over issues they don’t know shit about all the time. God knows I do. It’s fun. You know the routine: you have one good point, you run with it, make a couple more up, the other person gets pissed off, things get all weird for a minute, someone pours another round of shots, and we laugh it off. Good times.


These town hall shindigs don’t sound too different, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. Circular arguments, death threats and assault is all well and good at a house party, but I’m getting three automated phone calls a day from the Accounts Receivable robot at Anthem, or Blue Cross, or whatever that company calls itself this week. The next time I stub my toe on the couch could be my last. You’re playing with our LIVES over here.


Obviously the concept of the town hall meeting is a good one. But only if everyone understands the specifics of what is being discussed. When you spend ten minutes cussing me out for only bringing you back eight hot wings from the spot around the corner when I actually brought you back twelve, well, that’s ten lost minutes that I’d probably want to take out on your face myself, if I wasn’t such a shitty fighter. Everyone has to be on the same page, or I might as well talk to my dog.


Speaking of pages, has anyone seen one page of this 1,000-page healthcare overhaul bill? I’ve googled it forwards. Backwards. In French. In Roman numerals. Nothing. I guess the bigwigs figured that since none of them have read even a quarter of it, nobody else would want to. And they’re probably right. We’d all love to save the world, but after reading 1,000 pages of political drivel we would need saving our damn selves. Psychiatric help is expensive, and I know my insurance didn’t cover that, even when it was active.


I think people should be quizzed at the door of these meetings to ensure that everyone taking part in the discussion has read some portion of the bill in question. Or, the first segment of each meeting should be devoted to explaining the bill. Or something. Anything that gives everyone in the room the information they need on the topic they came to discuss. Until then, these meetings will be a bunch of citizens and politicians arguing over a bill nobody has read. They look like great fun though. I’m a sucker for a good street fight. I just hope these people have health insurance.


Monday, July 20, 2009

SIX SIGNS THE RECESSION IS AFFECTING YOU


DO YOU SLEEP IN A DUMPSTER? If your answer is yes, then the current economic ‘downfizz’ is definitely impacting your life. It is possible that you’ve been a jobless loser since well before Alan Greenspan went from looking old and smug to just old in pictures, but we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, until the state starts taxing that too, then we’ll need it back, with interest. But that’s only the most extreme case. Many of us still have roofs over our heads that aren’t made of cardboard, and for us the crunch is manifesting itself in more subtle ways. I sat down and came up with six of the most common telltale symptoms, because I have a lot of free time on my hands these days.

YOU’RE CLEANING YOUR PLACE A LOT. I guess it doesn’t hurt to put a coaster under that book on the coffee table. I suppose everyone should sweep their roof at least once. And I can’t remember the last time I pulled the buttons off my computer keyboard and blew the breadcrumbs out from under the space bar either. A clean home makes you look good, and if you do get evicted, it makes moving out so much faster.

YOU’RE EXPLORING HOBBIES. You crochet, eh? Who knew? Duct tape origami? I guess it takes all kinds. Extreme ironing? More power to you. On that note, feel free to come iron my clothes anytime you run out of rumpled threads. Job-hunting is time-consuming. I'll bring you back an application from Old Navy or something.

YOU’RE DRINKING A LOT. We’re not saying you didn’t usually have a rum and coke with breakfast before you got laid off. And The Unfamiliar supports daytime drinking under any circumstances. It's just those empty beer bottles beside the toilet that are bothering us. And hassling the drive-thru cashier at McDonalds about getting a liquor license is a waste of even your time, frankly.

YOU’RE WORKING OUT A LOT. Check out Freddie Fitness heaving away on the sideways row! Get a load of Wilma Workout on the elliptical! Again, this is a great thing. Your increase in exercise will hopefully help you sweat out all that liquor. And you know the saying: ‘prevention beats a cure’. Or is it ‘a gym membership is cheaper than health insurance’? I forget. Anyway, your ankles look great.

YOU’RE AT HOME A LOT. Man, I had the WHOLE BLOCK. All three red properties, all three yellow properties, all hoteled up. But then I screwed up and gave him a permanent pass in exchange for Pennsylvania Avenue. He had like thirteen bucks! I’m getting his ass tomorrow. Can we just leave the board here on the table? Nobody’s gonna mess with it, right?

YOU’RE BLOGGING. Blow it out your ass. You'll have your own in a week, tops.

The MJ Sidewalk Party, Olympic & Figueroa


SOME PEOPLE SAY THE BEST SPOT IN A HOUSE PARTY IS THE KITCHEN. Others say the best spot in the club is the parking lot. But I'd wager that most of yesterday's attendees would agree that the place to be at Michael Jackson's memorial in the Staples Center was... the Staples Center. For most people, the next best place was watching the proceedings at home on TV, which is what almost every Angeleno who gave half a shit and didn’t have memorial tickets did with their Tuesday. FAIL.

So many LA residents take living here for granted. Waaaa traffic! Waaaa parking! Waaaaa.... job! You sound old. Yesterday I spoke with several people in other cities who would have gladly stood as close as the cops would let them get to the action, just to be part of something huge, something historic, something human. And likewise, there were some locals who didn’t have tickets, and just didn’t feel right sitting at home with a family pack of bon-bons, watching the grand send-off of one of the most influential people to ever walk God’s green earth from fifteen stinking minutes down the street. Thus the Olympic and Figueroa MJ Sidewalk Memorial Party came to be.

Korean news crews. Mexican water vendors. Bums and mothers who thought rolling a stroller through a packed sidewalk wasn’t the worst idea ever. Uppity new Downtown residentswho think wheeling their bicycles through a packed sidewalk wasn’t the worst idea ever. “It’s actually illegal to block the sidewalk, you know.” Uh, yeah. Well those 50 cops over there seem okay with it, lady. Nitpicky cops. “We’re gonna need you to stand on the sidewalk,” literally one step behind me. Really? Suspect fans, supposedly engaging in a spontaneous MJ singalong for the news cameras, but they had to print out the song lyrics. What kind of MJ fan doesn’t know the damn song lyrics?

Opportunists like Imaginehr Cantero II, a short Central American man in an olive pin-striped suit and relentlessly brillcreamed haircut whose nametag says ‘evolutionary scientist’ and business card (which he passed out to everyone in reach) says ‘home recovery service’. He does a mean moonwalk though. Opportunists like the high-school kid who got checked by a bystander for trying to hawk fake memorial programs for $20. “You’re lying,” she says. “It’s called hustling!” he cries. Confused tourists like the fat white lady with her fannypack choking her belly who said “I think there’s a billion people here!” Not exactly.

Random chants like ‘spread the love with the glove’. No thanks. Sounds like something you catch in an operating room. Impromptu dance-offs that never lasted too long because the MJ CD started skipping. At least someone’s still buying CDs. Or burning them. Memorabilia houndslike the old lady begging passersby after the memorial let out for their ticket stubs. “You have the memories; can I have the paper?” And lastly, haters like the guy with the ‘stop useing my taxes 4 millionaires’ sign who got the chewing out of his young life by a lady nearby before getting dragged off by the cops, kicking and yelling and flashing his college ID. “I go to USC, you dumb bitch!” Then you should know how to spell ‘using’, bub.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Iran Loves Michael Jackson


1987 WAS THE LAST TIME I WAS IN IRAN. It was a trip of many memories for an eight-year-old; the sight of the first pair of naked breasts that weren’t my mom’s (they were my cousin’s), a furious storm during which a thunderbolt took the roof off a building (which probably didn’t happen), sneaking a priceless Persian painting past rifle-wielding customs agents in Tehran airport on my mother’s orders.

The soundtrack to my Iran memories is equal parts classical Persian music and Western pop. George Michael's "Careless Whisper" will always remind me of rolling huge roundabouts in a rusting white Peugeot. The Bee Gees and Abba leak through my Tehran recollections, as if playing on a transistor radio turned low in the next room. Even in a religious state where Western music was hard to find, their music became part of the sound of Iran just as it did across the world, because it was melodic and inoffensive (not that most Iranians understood the words anyway). But they were just songs to most people. Few cared much about the people who made them. But not when it came to Mike.

Michael Jackson was America in penny loafers. Cool. Edgy. Rich. Michael was Coca-Cola and hamburgers. Michael was theme parks and smiling children. And all this as a black man in a white man's country. He was moonwalking, crotch-grabbing proof that the American Dream was real.

Not that we thought he was just anyone; far from it. Even now, there probably aren't enough black people in Iran to fill a record store - much as is the case in the southern, country end of England, which I returned to after my trip - so black people fascinated us. But Michael wasn't really black to us, or even white: he was Michael fucking Jackson. We loved him for the same reason everybody loved him: he was a real-life superhero. Loving him made us feel like a part of the world, which we were isolated from in so many ways. We now had something in common with American kids, and it rocked a curl and a glove on one hand.

If you think America is also slowly dying from debt and painkillers, then you might say Michael Jackson is America in death as well as life. It seems to be how a lot of our superheroes go. The American Dream becomes a Hollywood nightmare, and eventually, a VH1 special. Nobody wanted to see Michael go like this. He brought the world too much joy to leave it in such anguish. Michael Jackson paid the cost to be the boss. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the news of his death causes at least some pause in the people protesting against the government in Iran now. They're fighting for his American Dream - even if it isn't necessarily here anymore.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Iran: Separating Fact From Fiction


IRAN'S ON FIRE, AND FINGERS ARE POINTING as fast as the bullets are flying. Conservatives are big cheaters. Liberals are sore losers. And like clockwork, the know-it-alls on each side are trundling out all kinds of important-sounding factoids and statistics which they copy-pasted into their brains from Facebook posts and mass emails and their favorite ‘alternative’ news source that ‘tells it how it is’. Everyone waits calmly with a comfy little smile tickling each edge of their lips for the idiot in front of them to finish reciting the last Iran fact that they swear they heard on CNN but actually heard from their sister’s half-Iranian brother-in-law, so that they can return fire with a factoid they read on a blog on page eight of the Google results with thirteen spelling errors. Boom! In your face! All hail the world’s newest master politician. And to think I’ve been working at Starbucks all these years!

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a weird little concept known as journalistic impartiality. The term may sound complex, but it’s not. It means that we don’t let our feelings on an issue fuck with the facts. And we welcome the possibility that the facts could prove our feelings wrong, because that would lead to a greater understanding of the issue —“ which is what journalists are supposed to be in the business of. News is always subject to a little bias, no matter where you get it from. Humans can’t say anything without throwing their own spin on it. It’s your choice to take the deliverer’s word for it or not, and if the news you’re getting already chimes in with the way you feel, chances are you’re going to take it. Now that everyone’s a journalist, you can bet that 75% of everything you’re told is probably not worth the time it takes you to hear it. But even people many might expect to keep things 100 do no such thing; after six months of Obama in office, Rush Limbaugh still can’t find one good thing to say about the man. Really? Golden Rule #1, kids: if someone swears they’re always, always right, you’re probably being bullshitted. Humans just don’t have that high a success ratio. Golden Rule #2: the truth is normally somewhere in the middle. Stand about equal length from the nutcases on both side of any debate and you’re probably right on the money.

So with all this in mind, let’s boil this Iran thing down to the facts.

  • Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is nuts (see: last four years of the Ahmedinejad administration).
  • Ahmedinejad is popular with a lot of Iran's more backward, isolated citizens who are also nuts.
  • Mir-Houssein Mousavi is slightly less nuts than Ahmedinejad (see: his eight years as Iran's Prime Minister before the post was removed, during which he kept its economy stable despite international economic sanctions, embargos and a ten-year war with Iraq).
  • Mousavi is popular with a lot of Iran's more educated, progressive citizens who, coincidentally, tend to be slightly less nuts.
  • Iran is quite like the U.S., in the respect that its big cities are full of educated people, but its small-town areas are full of people who are, well, a bit nuts. And they are the people who get nutjobs like Mahmoud Amhedinejad and George W. Bush into office.
  • Iran is a country where people are routinely kidnapped and jailed for offenses like wearing short sleeved shirts, or fraternizing too openly with the opposite sex.
  • Iran is a country with one of the youngest and most literate populations in the world, and tons of natural resources and exports. Yet its economy is in the tank and most of those young people are literally dying to get out.
  • Government forces are kidnapping, beating and killing people for protesting. And they will continue kidnapping, beating and killing people until people stop protesting, or until there are no protestors left. Kidnapping, beating and killing people is how the Islamic Republic of Iran commonly deals with protest.
  • The government is shutting down internet connections wherever it can, confiscating cellphones, kicking out all foreign journalists, and jailing many Iranian journalists, so that they can kill even more protestors than they’re killing already. Oh, the journalists who do nothing but agree with the government get to stay. They’re okay.
  • The president of Iran isn’t even the guy in charge, ya big dummies! The Supreme Leader of Iran, currently a cuddly little white-haired man with a nasty mean streak by the name of Ali Khamenei, is basically the Islamic Pope out that way, and along with his cabinet of fellow cuddly little white-haired men with mean streaks known as the Assembly of Experts, he can overrule anything the President tries to do. That’s right, anything. And Mr Khamenei is currently firmly in Ahmedinejad’s corner.
  • The only person who stands a chance of doing anything about this is yet another cuddly fella (not much hair though) named Akbar Rafsanjani, ex-president, richest man in the country, Mousavi’s strongest ally and a powerful member of the Assembly of Experts who has been silently beefing with both Ahmedinejad and Khamenei, a situation that only got more sour when his daughter Faezeh was recently arrested for, you guessed it, protesting. If Rafsanjani can get enough votes from the other experts, he can have Khamenei expelled as Supreme Leader. And rumor has it he has been in meetings with his people to do just that.

So, media and politics share the same problem: nobody wants to be wrong. And the world keeps burning. Enjoy your lattes, folks.

My verdict? Go Rafsanjani!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

ONE MO 'GEN: REWRITING CALIFORNIA'S CONSTITUTION


How can you expect a bunch of people who couldn’t get something right in 100 years to get it right in one? Or even ten? Hell, even 20?

This is the first thought that crosses many minds upon learning of the news that a movement, spearheaded by the Bay Area Council and Repair California, is gathering support to rewrite the California constitution from scratch. Yes, apparently laws like “women may not drive in a house coat” (I’m not making this up) cannot be repealed individually under any circumstances, but with enough support we can just throw the entire constitution in the trash like it was a sudoku puzzle or something. And as long as the damn thing is, I hope Ahnuld has a recycle bin.

As California’s negative balance continues to look more and more like Herr Schwarzenegger’s ‘80s box office figures, a brand new constitution increasingly looks like the only chance the state has of not being mistaken for Argentina by 2020. That is, unless it sucks. And if the closet Nazis and wind-powered tree-huggers are the only two crews who show up to the party, as is customary for our great state, then my money’s on Buenos Aires. At least it’s next door to Brazil. We get Oregon.

The pro-revision crowd’s remedy for this potential problem is to select the people who will have a direct say in the constitution’s rewriting using a jury pool, a.k.a. us. Of course, the possibility that the people we select end up making decisions as awful as the people we tried not to is a distinct one. California schools have been shitty for a long time now; most of us are probably way dumber than we think we are. And according to news sources, the potency of marijuana today is now upwards of ten percent, and everybody knows we’re all high over here on the West Cizzoast.

But hey. It’s like that kid in fourth grade with all the boogers always used to say to you at times like these: “do you have a BETTER idea?” Of course you don’t. So off we go. If the BAC and Repair California can get themselves together in time, the new constitution could end up on the ballot as early as 2012. Makes me wanna roll one up just thinking about it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

1969 = 2009




THERE ARE MANY REASONS TO BELIEVE THAT THIS YEAR WILL BE AT LEAST AS SIGNIFICANT AS THE MOST FAMOUS YEAR IN MODERN HISTORY – AND MAYBE MORE


Of all man’s fantasies, the afterlife looms largest. Our pursuit for some sense of terrestrial understanding of the fate that does or does not await us beyond this earth ends only when we are sent off it to find out firsthand. We are so transfixed by the eternity yawning before us that we never consider the one we emerged from. The longer we spend looking down the road in the direction we came from and asking ourselves what’s back there beyond the horizon that we can’t see, the more our minds begin to wrap around the idea that the ether on both sides of us is one entity, surrounding us like space does the stars. And with that understanding comes only more questions. We watch dead actors chatter away in black and white movies, and nod along to tales of dinosaurs and Romans and Nazis and all the other forces this world has played host to at times when we were nowhere to be found. Even then, we had been nowhere for an uncomfortably long time, such a long time that the word ‘time’ becomes inadequate.

The 30-and-younger among us don’t know where we were in 1969. We definitely weren’t here. But we’ve seen, heard and read so much about it that we could be forgiven for sometimes feeling like we were. It is and has long been the most familiar year in today’s pop culture consciousness. Its mention instantly summons the same visions in everyone. Tie-dyed hippies clashing with police truncheons. Mammoth hoses spraying African-Americans against the creaking walls of dilapidated buildings. Plump army helicopters cruising over smoldering rainforests. To hear the books tell it, 1969 was the year the American dream and the American nightmare blended into a race war fantasy in Charles Manson’s head, a murky Vietnamese swamp a continent wide. History distils the past to its extremes, and the images at the other end of the spectrum are only slightly less universal, a fact that owes itself to our unquenchable fascination with tragedy. Earth, momentarily obscured behind an astronaut’s helmet as he glides in slow motion across the Moon’s surface. The sounds of some of the most revered figures in music, blowing over the heads of 400,000 people in a field in upstate New York. The implanting of the first artificial human heart.

Those are just the most symbolic of the events that rang out the Sixties, but by no means its only significant ones. A botched police raid on New York City’s most notorious gay bar turned Manhattan into a week-long riot scene, and the Stonewall Inn into the emblem of the gay rights movement. A snitch named William O’Neal drugged 21-year-old Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Black Panthers, then considered the American government’s biggest domestic threat, before Chicago police officers entered his home and put two bullets in his head. A former civil engineer named Yasser Arafat became commander-in-chief of the then-fledgling Palestine Liberation Organization, going on to become the world-recognized face of the resistance. A Haitian immigrant introduced a virus then known as Gay Related Immune Deficiency to the US, according to AIDS researchers comparing Caribbean mutations with more primitive African strains. Every year has its own claim to fame, and without any one of them, this world would be almost unrecognizable, a cosmic alteration a million Marty McFlys couldn’t achieve. But only certain years are truly pivotal ones, years that redefine the attitude and course of a nation. 1969 was such a year. 2009 is going to be another.

History and economy share many parallels: man-made constructs that we can record and speculate over, but ultimately can predict no more accurately than we can our lives. Our surest tool is a keen eye for the patterns that precede those years when one or both pots boil over: a period of relative calm in the ocean, punctuated by occasional ripples that seem to dissipate almost as swiftly as they form. And in calm waters, the world kicks its feet up. The frailty of peace and the dogmatic vigilance it demands is forgotten. The t’s start showing up uncrossed and the i’s begin popping up undotted, and finally, when the bill has grown so lengthy that we can’t see where it begins anymore, we wake up one morning and the entire tangled mess has collapsed on our heads. It’s only as we sit in the shambles and rifle through the detritus for answers that we notice the devil peeking out at us through the details. Belts tighten as losses mount, and the blare of sirens overlap into a united wail that sends us into the streets, streets that are all some of us have by then. And when the people slam the fences of that big building on the hill and tear through its layers and burst into the hidden room at the center to find that there’s nothing in there, just a bare concrete cellar with a mop in the corner and a folding chair in the other, that’s when rich heads start to roll - heads of states and heads of corporations, instead of just heads of households. When things get dire, humans instinctively ramp up the push towards zero, because at zero there’s nowhere to go but up. Destroy and rebuild. Things never change quite as much or for quite as long as we’d hoped, and they probably never will. Man moves in small steps; the giant leaps are far and few between. The devil is in the details, but so are the angels.

It’s hard to ascertain how the people of the Sixties would have responded to the crises of today: a global economic collapse whose bottom our most experienced financial minds cannot see; a messy war in Iraq that began unnecessarily, but whose outcome will sway the tide of global stability for as long as we live; an infinitely messier war in Israel thousands of years old whose outcome still seems as far away as it always did; and a rapidly mounting environmental catastrophe in the making that could dwarf all of our other problems combined. Entertaining romantic visions of the Chicano, African-American, feminist and gay protesters who flung themselves into the paths of riot police time after time throughout the Decade of Protest in their pursuit to secure the rights the Constitution was supposed to have guaranteed them, it becomes tempting to surmise that they might well have exerted much more of an outcry in the face of the recent injustices that contributed to today’s laundry list of woes than their modern-day counterparts have thus far. However, such comparisons are as irrelevant to 2009 as activism itself. The bedfellows of big business and government have, through their ever-burgeoning exchange of money and privilege, instituted a monopoly over every aspect of modern American life which makes the concept of being held accountable to the average citizen seem quaint, almost laughable. While it can still be somewhat effective as one of a series of measures, old-fashioned activism in and of itself is considered a symbolic effort more than one with any promise of real returns. In the Sixties, people were just beginning to explore its power. Forty years later, we know its limitations. However, President Obama’s twin victories in the 2008 Democratic primary and the general election would have been fantasy without the mobilization of today’s youth. It remains to be seen if Obama will be the catalyst for the dissolution of the merger of Wall Street and Washington, but if anything, the young people of today’s integral role in Obama’s stunning coup is proof plenty that, if anything, they are shrewdly learning to fight fire with fire.

Man has a curious tendency to assign importance to multiples of ten, particularly with respect to the calendar, as if events somehow play out in tidy ten-year compartments with their own personalities that change as soon as the fourth digit in a year turns from 9 to 0. And of course, they often do, partially because sometimes fate just works like that, but also because we work like that; we sniff out patterns, we snoop for similarities, and we sift for themes, because it helps us make sense out of the chaos. Time is our creation, like history, the economy, and money, and our own lives. They are all privy to myriad variables: the shifty progress of planning, the winds of chance, the pitfalls of our ineptitude. Bankers looted America for every sliver of the gold that gave the dollars our grandfathers spent their worth, then printed reams of empty paper whose only value was negative, each dollar a debt, and declared it worth every bit as much. And when they figured out that even the cash was unnecessary, that merely typing numbers on the right computer screen could now achieve the same effect, that’s when they realized they could create even more numbers for themselves by making it easier for other people to enjoy some of that action too, even if they couldn’t necessarily pay the loans back. And most Americans were only too happy to play along, until those pesky numbers that went from meaning nothing to meaning something ended up meaning way too much. Today they affect the cash in our pockets, the food on our plates, the place we hang our hats. And in the wake of globalization, the whole planet suffers with us. Sitting in the ruins of a manmade natural disaster, our only salvation is to trace the mistakes that brought us here, and internalize the lessons once and for all. After 2009, the modern world will never be the same. If it somehow continues to be, it will be our failure.

California Part 2: What's The Problem.


IT SEEMED LIKE THE NO-BRAINER OF ALL NO-BRAINERS. The kind of question most sane people would laugh a little under their breath before answering. Should gays be allowed to marry? Hmm. Well, I’ve heard tell of this mythical document called the Declaration of Independence, which legend has it is rather important round these parts. And I found this one line in it which goes “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” which I think wraps that issue up. Any other dumb questions?

Well, the only thing that made most sane people feel dumber – or angrier – than Proposition 8’s passing a couple of months ago was the California Supreme Court’s decision yesterday to uphold it. The issue has officially moved from the ‘no-brainer’ pile to the ‘head-scratcher’ pile, where it struggles for space within a vast landfill of similar head-scratchers collectively known as the California Constitution, a document best described by the fact that after over 500 amendments and revisions, many of which completely contradict both state and federal law, it is now several times longer than America’s. The world grabs a bag of popcorn and watches, perplexed, as the home of Baywatch, Hollywood, the fourth largest economy in the world and home of much of its most sought-after real estate continues to get broker by the nanosecond. And at the helm of it all sits Arnold Schwarzenegger: the Terminator, Mr. Universe, the Austrian Oak, begging elementary schoolkids to take an extra week off so that he won’t have to let child rapists out of jails. The world turns the TV off, shocked, disgusted, disillusioned, and shouts Why? Why, California? Well, after a little digging I think I have some leads.

WE DON’T VOTE. Apparently, all the political Facebook petitions and Obama fan groups in the world aren’t enough to get California’s young, diverse youth to stop Twittering long enough to head to the state elections and offset the old, white men who continue to constitute the lion’s share of votes.
RICH PEOPLE ARE CRAZY. Worse, these aging Caucasian chestnuts tend to either be faux-radical Guevara nuts (privet Berkeley!) or ultra-conservative Dubya fans (howdy Orange County!), which guarantees a ridiculous outcome on most every proposition. And these are the same people who create most of the propositions in the first place.
SACRAMENTO IS POINTLESS. When a completely retarded and arguably illegal proposition does pass (see Proposition 8), the state legislature has no power to override it, and it never expires. Oh, and in California, any budget changes require a two-thirds majority vote to pass, and so do tax changes. So basically, Democrats and Republicans hate on each other’s budget and tax proposals to the point that nothing gets passed and we end up in the clusterfuck of a situation we’re in now.
Ah well. Where's my surfboard. The ocean's still free, right?

Monday, May 18, 2009

SO, CALIFORNIA'S KINDA SCREWED




MAN. ONE THING THE TITANIC COULD HAVE USED MORE OF WAS BUCKETS. I mean, 86 buckets or 144 buckets or however many buckets they already had on board for the janitors probably wouldn't have been enough to turn that whole 'sinking to a watery grave' thing around. But just imagine if they had, like, 20,000 buckets! A whole floor of nothing but buckets, and everyone could have just grabbed one each and pailed ass until the ship just, I dunno, stopped sinking? And yeah, OK, that huge hole in the hull would still have been there, but with 20,000 buckets they could have shoveled out so much water that there would be no water left in the ocean and everyone could have just walked home along the sea floor from the middle of the Atlantic. Dude, nothing's impossible. And I don't think you understand how many buckets 20,000 buckets is. That's a lot of buckets.

Today, California is having what poiticians call a 'special election'. You may know these kinds of elections better as the ones where you're not voting for people but propositions: you know, those laws that sound like apartment numbers and aren't really laws yet? Normally they're about interesting issues such as whether gay people have the right to walk their dogs or not, but sometimes they're about really boring stuff, like how many paper clips the Oakland School District should not receive this year, or how many extra buckets we can add on to the state budget. When the propositions get boring, we're in big trouble, because it means the government is doing whatever it can to spend less, and if there's one thing Ahnuld hates to do, it's spend less. Well, the propositions on deck today are so boring I could hardly be bothered to read them properly. The most I could gather is that we're now down to stealing money from the under-five and mentally retarded (link). Ahnuld has said that even if all these propositions pass today, Gullyfornia will still be $15.4 billion in the hole. If they don't (and nobody expects them to), we're in the dogpit for about $21.3 billion.

Now, what does Gullyfornia going belly up actually mean? Is it like if I couldn't pay my rent and my son-of-Satan building management company sends those tall Terminator-looking cops with the buzzcuts and the wraparound sunglasses over to throw me and my aging furniture into the street? Or is it the usual situation where college professors with thick-rimmed glasses and funny names get all worked up on the news (and when are they not doing that) but that's about it? Well, I don't know yet. But I have recently become privy to some information that is helping connect the dots for me.

- Apparently California has the worst bond rating of all the 52 states. I'm still not 100% sure what a bond is, but it definitely sounds important, and our bonds are worth less than, like, North Dakota right now. That can't be good.
- Mayor Villaillarairaigogogogosa has suggested privatising Los Angeles' parking meters, a.k.a. he's begging a big company to buy them off the government. And last I heard, parking tickets take care of at least half of L.A.'s budget. So that can't be good either.
- San Quentin is for sale. The land, not the prison. Apparently rich people like oceanside views, so I think the idea is to demolish the building, stuff as many child murderers as possible into all those extra beds we have at all our other prisons, let a few of the child maimers and child assaulters go, and sell the land to developers so Oakland Unified can get those paper clips after all. Hopefully child maimers don't like oceanside views too, or the Watsons may have some unexpected houseguests when they finally move into their brand new San Quentin beachhouse in 2012. Hopefully they'll have a bucket handy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: "Quantum Of Solace"


DANIEL CRAIG'S (or his stuntman's/men's) LEGS ARE AT LEAST AS USEFUL as his arms. Maybe more. Everyone knows it's the arms that get life done, while legs aren't good for much beyond getting you around and kicking toilet seats up. But throughout this movie all four of his limbs are in an almost non-stop flurry of kicking and punching and jumping and dangling off buses and booting corpses aside. He reminds me of that creature Lisa Simpson saw while hallucinating in the dentist's chair that was basically a pair of legs on top of another pair of legs, and it would flip over and over again in place. Action from up top AND down bottom. The same goes for at least half of the cast: it's two hours of apes in tailored suits hopping all over buildings like kids playing Spiderman on monkeybars and doing tons of stunts that are obviously completely physically impossible and incapable of happening. Which doubtless explains the two serious injuries that happened during shooting.

So obviously, a wonderful movie. James Bond knocks off twenty-two well-armed killers with a flyswatter, adjusts his tie, and downs a fifth of cognac in exotic locales across the globe. Quantum was shot on quasi-location, Chile and Panama filling in for Bolivia and Haiti respectively, so you only occasionally have those moments when you feel like what you're seeing onscreen is actually happening in a soundstage in Burbank with a catering truck in the parking lot. And those are due to some unrelated tacky touches, like the requisite villain of obscure European origin and South African accent (here played by the creepy short guy from Munich), a few questionable lines (is there actually such a thing as "Canadian intelligence"?), and some horribly placed product placement (isn't Ford going out of business anyway?). Jeffrey Wright excels as possibly the most grizzled spy in movie history. Everyone is trying to simultaneously shoot and fuck each other. And now all I want to do is stand in a pristine hotel lobby in a fine suit, murmuring priceless information to shadowy "contacts" before making a hilariously dry remark and retiring to my hotel suite to make love to a model/spy.

And man oh man, what love it would be. Now I have an answer for people who ask me which celebrity I think is hottest. Olga Kurylenko. Just imagine this piece of work rolling up on you in the street and telling you to jump in in a bad Bolivian accent. I don't think even the women would be mad at that.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

NEW ORLEANS BRASS BANDS and MY HURRICANE KATRINA EXPERIENCE (Rime)

(written several months before Hurricane Katrina)
THE AIR IS THICK IN NEW ORLEANS. AND NOT IN A FIGURE-OF-SPEECH KIND OF WAY, EITHER. The moment you exit the sanctuary of air conditioning for the outside world, the very instant your body traverses any load-bearing structure whose walls separate ‘inside’ from ‘outside’, the consistency of that big empty nothing forever surrounding us reverts to something not quite water, yet not quite not, and the 20% of your body that isn’t water suddenly becomes besieged at every pore, orifice and corner by a dripping, swampy heat that smacks into you in repeated gusts, like rubber flaps in a carwash. New Orleans is as close to the mythical town of Atlantis as a city can get without being, well, a myth – and the humidity is only the most telltale sign. The theory that a strong enough earthquake could cause Southern California to crack off the continent is known bullshit today, but there’s nothing imaginary about the elaborate system of pumps, canals and levees that work constantly to keep Lake Pontchartrain and America’s longest river from turning Louisiana’s largest city into Discovery Channel material for our-great-grandchildren. The city at the clitoris of the Mississippi River is eight feet below sea level, and sinking onward at a rate of three feet per century, leading some scientists to predict that by 2100 the whole city could be underwater, if the enormous flood that the same scientists have been predicting for years hasn’t already taken care of that by then.

In many ways, New Orleans is half underwater already. Moisture and mold stains the walls of most buildings. Torrential rainstorms come and go before the money in your parking meter has a chance to run out. Partially drained swampland doesn’t make for very good burial grounds, so coffins are stored in tombs above soil, a practice which also lessens the chances of Aunt Connie’s remains floating down Canal St. every time a flood decides to roll through town. And the air is goddamn thick; thick with sweat and cooker steam and the rank smell of warm trash mingling with the sweet aroma of Cajun food, and the ghosts of slaves and pirates and the feeling that all this history could disappear tomorrow, all wafting through town on a bed of humidity that turns your clothing into hot, wet towels that stick to you like flypaper. Many cities are famous for their unique atmosphere, but in New Orleans it’s on your skin, it’s up your nose, but maybe most of all, in your ears - which is to say, your soul.

********

The Deep South of the United States is to popular music what the Middle East is to religion. Just as the barren terrain that now comprises Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia is acknowledged as the spawning grounds of Christianity, Islam and Judaism - the world’s three most dominant faiths - the bordering southern American states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee make up the area where the twin cultural behemoths known as blues and jazz first came to be. Jazz became the first original American artform, redefined contemporary music, and gave us a universe of immensely talented figures that gave us some of mankind’s most enduring tunes - and the originators at the center of all this were residents of the worn-down wards, penniless parishes and dollhouse slums of New Orleans, a place where music and turmoil have been the only two constants since French colonists first set up camp roughly 400 years ago.

A century before Jewish mobster Bugsy Siegel turned a tumbleweed town along an extra long stretch of nowhere named Nevada into man’s temptation and a scoundrel’s salvation, New Orleans was the original Las Vegas. The airplane still but a mere dream at the time, the seas were the skies of the 18th century, and the French knew that a city built at the point where the Mississippi River runs into the Gulf of Mexico would allow them to regulate and profit from the shipment of goods and people up and down the Mississippi, maintain military control over North America’s underbelly, and attract boatloads of visitors in the process. Building and operating a city on marshy, flood-prone, mosquito-ridden swampland proved to be just as impossible as it sounds, and as hard as the French tried – much as the Spanish did for the 40 years after they took over southern Louisiana in 1763 - it wasn’t until the Americans gained control of the area in the early 1800s that the stars above New Orleans finally aligned. Epidemics of yellow fever and cholera continued to periodically send bodies floating through the city’s almost permanently waterlogged streets, but now bodies were also starting to pile up in the avenues and social establishments of the famed French Quarter, and these ones were alive and kicking – and drinking, dancing, gambling, fucking, fighting, and everything else they couldn’t do back home in half as much style. Every day, sailors, merchants, tourists and fugitives stepped off boats onto the damp Louisiana soil in search of a good time, and every night they found exactly that within the many ‘pleasure’-based establishments of the Quarter, and Storyville - an adjoining neighborhood established in 1898 as the only legally operated red-light district in the U.S. before being bulldozed into oblivion in the ‘40s. It was here, in the bars and whorehouses of the Big Easy, that the rest of the world was first exposed to the local musicians’ freeflowing take on the traditional brass band, fused with the sounds and customs of Africa and Europe and the spirit of a people at a juncture of many worlds - a phenomenon we now know as jazz. And it is downtown New Orleans brass bands like the Rebirth Brass Band and Soul Rebels that are taking this sound – and its lineage – into the future.

“There is a structure, but there’s not a structure,” explains Phil Frazier, tuba player and spokesman for the Rebirth Brass Band, of his band’s approach to songs. “Everybody know where the melody at, everybody know the head and the beginning. In between, we let it flow. As long as we hit that ending and that beginning.” This musical framework, a trademark of jazz, was first stumbled upon around the turn of the 20th century by horn players and drummers who would play behind funeral processions as they journeyed through the streets of New Orleans on the way to the cemetery in a ceremony now known as the jazz funeral: a custom with roots in Catholic wakes, military street parades and West African tribal practices, which all share a common thread of celebrating as well as mourning the death of a loved one. The band plays somber instrumental renditions of Protestant hymns on the way to the funeral, but once the body has been buried and the procession exits the graveyard for the return walk, the drummer strikes an up-tempo beat known as the ‘second line beat’ over which the musicians play improvised lines with a joyous, raucous feel as mourners and passing strangers alike dance behind. “The artform of second line is having a good time, dancing on beat, no matter what you do, as long as it’s on beat,” says Phil.

The popularity of the jazz funerals sparked the creation of musical fraternities called ‘social clubs’, whose members would turn each other onto gigging opportunities around town and loan each other money when in need, but most importantly, would come together to play the second line at a fallen member’s funeral procession. This trend turned jazz funerals into public grounds for local social clubs to flex their chops in front of each other, and, coupled with the practice of ‘cutting contests’ – jam sessions where musicians unable to keep time with the veterans were sent offstage – made the New Orleans brass scene a very competitive place, as it remains to this day. In high school, band class is taken as seriously as football and basketball is taken in most other high schools, and regular street parades featuring different area high school bands also act as displays of musical proficiency towards one another. “It’s like a fun battle,” Phil continues. “If you went to an uptown or a downtown high school, you always wanted to have the best band.”

This spirit of competition is alive and well between the brass bands of today, if the words of fellow outfit the Soul Rebels are any indication. “The difference between [other brass bands] and us is the difference between Fred Flintstone and the Jetsons,” one member replies with a snicker when asked his opinion on the rival groups that they share the New Orleans brass scene with. At once peers and rivals, the Soul Rebels and Rebirth maintain an intriguing relationship as two sides of the same brass nickel: Soul Rebels slightly more progressive than Rebirth, but both injecting a large dose of funk, rhythm and vocal participation into the time-honored jazz equation. Where Rebirth is more of a traditional brass band, sticking largely to a mainstay of rhythmic jazz with funk and soul inflections, the Soul Rebels bring more of an edgy, hip-hop feel to the brass experience. In effect since 1991, the Soul Rebels’ discography is four albums deep, the most recent release being this year’s Rebelution, which features appearances from Scratch (formerly of the Roots), Wordsworth, percussionist Bill Summers, and reknowned New Orleans DJs Maximillion and Calculus. “From the start, we wanted to be hip-hop,” says founding member Lumar Leblanc (snare drum). “We grew up in the hip-hop era, so we were examples of their music. Even though we had a lot of jazz in us, we still love hip-hop too. When we started out we were like Public Enemy-style. Raw beats, raw horns, and a whole lot of conscious-type rap. But now it’s all about the music. The main thing was, we didn’t wanna be categorized into just one area. We wanted to have enough music to please everybody, so we had R&B stuff, we had the rap stuff, we had straight-ahead second-line… we tried to please every crowd.”

In contrast, Rebirth’s history stretches a little further back. Founded by Phil and brother Keith (bass drum) back in their high school days in 1983, Rebirth has recorded with the likes of Maceo Parker, Ani DiFranco, Robbie Robertson and the late Soulja Slim (Phil is Slim’s stepson and Rebirth performed the second line at his funeral), and have five albums under their belt. Though generally regarded as more traditional than the Soul Rebels, Rebirth was pioneering the fusion of rap music into brass music years before the Soul Rebels came to be. “We was raw,” Phil recounts of Rebirth’s early days. “We was real raw, but you could tell a sound was developing. We was straight out of high school, we was still a marching band. We got around the older guys. The older guys said ‘y’all need to learn this song, y’all need to learn the traditional music.’ So we learned traditional music. At the same time the brass bands were dying down, and that’s when rap was coming out. “Rapper’s Delight”, that’s our era. So we ‘sampled’ the music from them and the younger guys started liking it and we kept doing it every day, and a lot of people started taking interest again, like ‘brass bands are getting cool again. Ain’t that same old traditional stuff no more.’”

Indeed, one of the biggest pitfalls plaguing the brass bands of today is the ordeal of cluing the world (more specifically, the show promoters of the world) on to the fact that while jazz may act as the foundation of their sound, this is definitely not music for your average grandfather’s dinner party. “The way [show promoters] advertise us is as a jazz band,” Phil laments. “But people who know us from New Orleans know we’re beyond a jazz band. They know we’re more like a funk band, a hip-hop band, like Tower Of Power. So once some new people get turned on to us they say, ‘Man! Why are they advertising you as jazz?’ We can do jazz, we can do hip-hop, we can do funk. Any category you put us in, we’ll play that kind of music. We also do cover tunes by other artists. We do a song that we call ‘Don’t You Wish’ but it’s actually Stevie Wonder’s ‘Part-Time Lover.’ We can change it around. It’s more like a Tower Of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire-type thing, but at the same time we’re still a New Orleans brass band.”

Carrying such a heritage into the future is an honor neither band takes lightly, and no matter how far they may veer into other genres, both groups stay true to the improvisational, free-jazz spirit of brass music in studio as well as onstage. “We have not really rehearsed in over two years,” Lumar says of the Rebels. “We may have a one or two-hour rehearsal before a recording session to go over some things, but on the whole we just do gigs and we bring whatever we learn on the gigs to the recordings. Most [song ideas] happen onstage, and half of it is from a mistake from one song, and we might just take that shit and turn it into something new, and the whole band just vibes off of it. We feed off of each other. Everyone has their different methods of coming up with songs, but the majority of the stuff comes from just getting on the gig and releasing.”

Release is one thing this community has come to need plenty of, in recent times as much as any other era in its already tumultuous history. With New Orleans consistently claiming one of the highest murder rates per capita of any city in the country, its brass bands find themselves being employed for their second line services way more than they would prefer. Phil attempts to shed light on the situation. “In the ‘80s crack hit New Orleans so hard that brass bands started playing for more crack funerals. We have the French Quarter, the red light district. New Orleans is built on corruption as it is. So crack – I hate to say it – was built for this city. You got everything that’s illegal [available to you], 24-hour drinking, everything stays open 24 hours. Crack hit this city real hard. When it hit the city, we had a lot of crack killings, crack funerals, friends dying on crack, friends killing friends for that stuff, fast money.”

********

And the beat goes on. Tourists from around the world continue to flock to New Orleans year in and out to experience the sights, smells, feel and sounds of America’s first Third World city: the bastard child of aristocrats and criminals, conquerors and slaves, soldiers and whores. As the murder rate rises like the surrounding waters threatening to turn the Big Easy into the Big Punchbowl, its residents do what they have learned to do best over the years: celebrate in the face of doom. Born in the graveyard, formally introduced in the brothel, jazz is the sound of war: the descendants of slaves, blowing the pain of hundreds of years through brass instruments in the formation of a military band. But on a stinking wet Southern night in one of the countless local bars and clubs that Rebirth or the Soul Rebels or the Dirty Dozen Brass Band or The Stooges regularly perform at, a buzzing crowd of mohawked punk rockers, ghetto folk, hip-hop heads, out-of-towners, college kids, ravers and regular old New Orleans residents of all ages and races can pop the top off an Abita, spark up a cigarette in the front row, and add a few more buckets of sweat to the air while rocking to some of the most electrifying, life-affirming live shows you’re likely to catch in your lifetime. And therein lies the spirit of jazz.


Check http://www.therebelzone.com/ for more info on the Soul Rebels, and http://www.rebirthbrassband.com/ for Rebirth. Special thanks to Bam & Real of 13AM Productions for having my back like brothers, and to Jacque-Imo’s for one hell of a meal.



**POSTSCRIPT** My post-Katrina editorial.

In October 2004 I traveled to New Orleans, where I stayed for a couple of weeks, crawling the lopsided streets and gutbucket bars of Algiers, Uptown, Downtown and the Quarter with my N.O. squad (big ups 13AM Posse), just as I’ve done every summer since 2001, the year I first touched down in the Sunken City. On that visit I interviewed two of the city’s premier brass bands, the Rebirth Brass Band and the Soul Rebels, and had local photographer Tyler Austin shoot both groups live on stage. The story languished on the ass end of my to-do list through the first half of ’05. I had discovered a completely unique music scene, drenched in history and culture, living and breathing within a city unlike any other on the face of the earth – and in the United States, a place where all the things that are supposed to make a country special, from the cities to the music to everything else, are starting to look and sound eerily the same. I considered this the most important story I had ever worked on, and I was not about to rush it for anyone or anything.

“Rebirth Of The Soul Rebels: The Next Generation Of New Orleans Brass Bands” ran in issue 15 of RIME, which made print mid-August. By the time it was finished, it was as much an essay on the history of the city as a report on the brass scene, and the first portion of the piece discusses N.O.’s precarious position between – and below – two major bodies of water, and the good possibility of a flood one day filling that gap. On August 24 I jumped on a train bound for New Orleans with a box of issues: one for Tyler, one for every member of the two bands that gave me their time, one for every friend of mine who fed me and chauffeured me around town and put a roof over my head. The story was my gift to the city and its people, and anything other than personally delivering it wouldn’t have felt right to me. I jumped off the train 10pm on August 26 at the Amtrak station on Loyola Avenue, and caught a ride to the home of some good friends Uptown. 24 hours later, we were lugging furniture up the stairs of their home as wide-eyed weathermen adjusted sweaty collars on the living room TV before a satellite image of a cloud formation the size of Europe moving in stop-motion jerks around the Caribbean, now almost completely blotted out by swirls of white and grey. By sunrise, we had three carloads of family, pets, food, and everything else we could fit and couldn’t live without inching down the Airline Highway, surrounded bumper-to-bumper by miles of other cars. That night, we checked into a church recreation hall turned hurricane shelter in nearby Lafayette, Louisiana, where we stayed with two hundred disheveled, freshly homeless New Orleans-area residents as Katrina made her rounds. The prevailing attitude at the shelter was that people would be allowed back into New Orleans a few days after the storm left, at most. When word got out that children were being raped in the Superdome restrooms and there was a sniper on the roof of Tulane Hospital, we packed up and drove to Houston, where we put the older folks in our convoy on a plane to Los Angeles. From there, the rest of us drove back to L.A. in two days flat. Louisiana license plates trailed us all the way home.

A week before I jumped on that train, a friend of mine offered to buy back my train ticket and fly me into New Orleans on the 27th so that I could attend an event she was throwing in L.A. the night before. Looking forward to two days of peace and scenery on the Amtrak, I turned her down. The flight I would have been on had I accepted was cancelled because of Katrina. In retrospect, it’s only right that I was there to witness what turned out to be both the next chapter of the story I was on my way to deliver, and the last weekend of Old Orleans. I always used to ask myself: How can such an antiquated, decadent, defiant city still exist in 21st century America? This is a question that we are now going to need a real answer for.


link to an mp3 of a live New Orleans-area AM radio broadcast covering Katrina as it happened, recorded on my mini-tape recorder over a car radio as we were evacuating (click to stream, or right-click to save)



the traffic jam on the Airline Highway out of New Orleans, one day before Katrina hit



the recreation center of The Rock church, in Lafayette, LA, which was converted into a hurricane shelter, which we stayed in for three days




the chow line outside the shelter, day three

a diner in Arizona that we stopped at as we were driving to Los Angeles from the shelter.