Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Eight Big Myths

It really is true. Former President George W. Bush allowed the country to be run into the ground through reckless deregulation, a staggeringly expensive, unnecessary, and ill-conceived war, and a huge budget deficit (after inheriting a balanced budget). President Barack Obama got stuck, as it were, with the bill for fixing all of Bush's errors, and is now being blamed for spending the money that had to be spent. And now Bush's Republican Party is vowing to do the exact same things as before if they get back into power.

California blogger Dave Johnson recently posted the following excellent article about the current political debate. I usually don't re-print articles like this in their (near) entirety, but these points are important to remember as we approach Election Day, and I couldn't say it any better:

Here are eight of the biggest myths that are out there:

1) President Obama tripled the deficit.
Reality: Bush's last budget had a $1.416 trillion deficit. Obama's first budget reduced that to $1.29 trillion.

2) President Obama raised taxes, which hurt the economy.
Reality: Obama cut taxes. 40% of the "stimulus" was wasted on tax cuts which only create debt, which is why it was so much less effective than it could have been.

3) President Obama bailed out the banks.
Reality: While many people conflate the "stimulus" with the bank bailouts, the bank bailouts were requested by President Bush and his Treasury Secretary, former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson (Paulson also wanted the bailouts to be "non-reviewable by any court or any agency"). The bailouts passed and began before the 2008 election of President Obama.

4) The stimulus didn't work.
Reality: The stimulus worked, but was not enough. In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus raised employment by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs.

5) Businesses will hire if they get tax cuts.
Reality: A business hires the right number of employees to meet demand. Having extra cash does not cause a business to hire, but a business that has a demand for what it does will find the money to hire. Businesses want customers, not tax cuts.

6) Health care reform costs $1 trillion.
Reality: The health care reform reduces government deficits by $138 billion.

7) Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, is "going broke," people live longer, fewer workers per retiree, etc.
Reality: Social Security has run a surplus since it began, has a trust fund in the trillions, is completely sound for at least 25 more years and cannot legally borrow so cannot contribute to the deficit (compare that to the military budget!) Life expectancy is only longer because fewer babies die; people who reach 65 live about the same number of years as they used to.

8) Government spending takes money out of the economy.
Reality: Government is We, the People and the money it spends is on We, the People. Many people do not know that it is government that builds the roads, airports, ports, courts, schools and other things that are the soil in which business thrives. Many people think that all government spending is on "welfare" and "foreign aid" when that is only a small part of the government's budget.

Happy Halloween, everyone, and please remember to vote on Tuesday!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Scenes From Rocktober (So Far)

Here are some of my treated cell-phone photographs that no one seems to like from the last few night's concerts. For starters, here's Atlanta's Sealions opening up for Metric at Variety Playhouse:

Metric at Variety Playhouse, Thursday, October 28:

Metric's acoustic encore:

Arabesque flourishes at Atlanta's fabulous Fox Theater:

Thievery Corporation at the Fox, Friday, October 29:

Setting the Fox stage for Massive Attack:

Massive Attack at the Fox, Friday, October 29:

Tonight, I've decided on Dawes and Peter Wold Crier at Smith's Old Bar over Royal Baths and The Fresh & Only's at the 529 due to the closer proximity of Smith's and since I'll be going with my friend Nick, who's a fan of Dawes-style Americana more than the edgier music at 529 tonight.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Thievery Corporation & Massive Attack; Fox Theater, Atlanta

The Fox Theatre is a 5,000-seat performing arts venue located in a former movie palace in Midtown Atlanta. The theater dates back to 1929 and was originally planned as part of a large Shrine Mosque. Its Moorish design has been described as “picturesque and almost disturbingly grandeur beyond imagination.” Among the theater's many charming quirks is a solitary apartment with a single resident, popularly referred to as the "Phantom of the Fox," who has been granted a lifetime rent-free lease.

D.C.'s Thievery Corporation mixes elements of hip hop, dub, jazz, reggae, classical Indian, Middle Eastern, and Brazilian music into an abstract, instrumental, mid-tempo dance music whose classification falls somewhere between trip-hop and acid jazz.

UK's Massive Attack are generally considered to be progenitors of the trip-hop genre. Their hypnotic, darkly sensual, and cinematic fusion of hip-hop rhythms, soulful melodies, dub grooves, and choice samples set the pace for much of the dance music to emerge throughout the 1990s.

With regard to that last video, I've always been a sucker for five-minute, single-take, tracking shots.

The sets tonight at the Fox were superb. Thievery Corporation were the polar opposite of minimalists, having at times as many as two drummers, two d.j.'s, two horn players, a sitar, a bass, a guitar, and multiple singers and rappers all simultaneously on stage. Massive Attack featured the most elaborate stage lighting and effects that I've seen since Muse, and they also brought along several singers, including veteran reggae singer Hoarace Andy for many of their songs. They closed with their song Karmakoma and a quote by Howard Zinn displayed behind them ("Terrorism has replaced Communism as the rationale for the militarization of the country, for military adventures abroad, and for the suppression of civil liberties at home. It serves the same purpose, serving to create hysteria.") Eclectic and exciting performances all around.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Rocktober may have officially started back on the the 8th with the Tu Fawning, Suckers, and Menomena show, and continued the next week with the Union Line, Ruby Suns, and Local Natives show, but tonight it got underway in earnest with Metric at The Tabernacle.

The Tabernacle is a former Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta that's been converted to a 2600-seat concert hall. It was first built in 1911 and temporarily converted to a House of Blues during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The venue is noted for its twin balconies and high ceiling.

Metric has long been a favorite band of mine. Singer and bandleader Emily Haines is the daughter of the jazz poet and restless spiritual seeker Paul Haines, lyricist for Carla Bley's remarkable Elevator Over the Hill. Born in New Delhi, India, she was raised in Canada in a house rich with music and experimental art. Her father would often make cassettes of rare and eclectic music for his daughter to listen to and her early influences included Carla Bley, Robert Wyatt, and later, PJ Harvey.

Here they are back in 2003:

And in 2005:

Here they are in 2009:

Finally, here they are performaning in KCRW's Santa Monica studio in 2009, with the glamour turned down a little bit:

Tonight's show was loud and awesome. Emily Haines has fully embraced her status as a full-blown rock star and seemed confident and in control as she danced and pranced and sang in front of the band. They closed with a great acoustic cover of Combat Baby, just her and guitarist James Shaw on stage with an acoustic guitar, and soon they had the entire audience singing along ("No one wants to fight me like you do"). It was a great close to a great set.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Meanwhile, in rock 'n' roll news, Sherlock's Daughter are back in New York from their tour with The Charlatans. Tu Fawning are back in their Portland home following their tour with Menomena. For those interested, there's a fairly informative piece on Tu Fawning at the web site for Portland's Willamette Week newspaper. Tu Fanning will be the headliner this Friday night at Portland's Doug Fir lounge, a fine establishment that I got to visit during my stay in PDX.

Not that I will be going to the show. Not only is the venue a continent away, but I've got tickets that night to see DC's Thievery Corporation and Bristol, England's Massive Attack at Atlanta's fabulous Fox Theatre. But as great as that will be, and I'm sure that it will be great, I'm just, if not more, excited to be going the night before that (i.e., tomorrow night ) to see one of my all-time favorite bands, Metric, play at The Tabernacle.

Two major concerts at large venues on consecutive nights might sound like a bit much, and to be honest, when I bought the tickets in two separate on-line transactions last August, I didn't notice that I was buying tickets for back-to-back evenings until they had arrived. I'm just lucky that they weren't both on the same night.

But those two shows are just the tip of the iceberg - it's Rocktober, and my concert ticket is full. Saturday night, after having heard Metric, Thievery Corporation and Massive Attack all play on consecutive Thursday and Friday nights, I have to choose between watching California's Dawes and Minneapolis' Peter Wolf Crier perform at Smith's Old Bar, or hear two fine San Francisco bands, The Fresh & Onlys and Royal Baths, at the 529 Club in East Atlanta Village. As of this moment, I honestly don't know which way I will go.

Rocktober will then spill over into the calendar month of November (Rocktober is not confined to the mere conventions of calendars). On Friday night, November 5, the fine Seattle singer-songwriter Damian Jurado will be opening for Austin's Shearwater at The Earl; I've become a big fan of both, and I'm looking forward to this, another great show at the ever-reliable Earl. On the next evening, I'll have to make another choice, this time between Brooklyn's Sufjan Stevens at The Tabernacle and Quebec's Wolf Parade at Variety Playhouse. And then on Sunday, November 7, Mumford & Sons play a sold-out show at the restored Roxy, now called The Buckhead Theater. I don't have tickets to the latter, but am confident that some kind person somewhere will share an extra ticket with me.

But my most anticipated show of the year (I've had the tickets for months now) will be on the following Friday night, November 12, when Austin's The Black Angels and Vancouver's Black Mountain both play at The Earl. The show is sold out and the club will be packed, and I'm still somewhat amazed that the show hasn't been moved to a larger venue if only due to the sheer volume of the two hard-rocking bands. I can't imagine how loud they are going to sound at the tiny Earl, but the opportunity to see these two powerhouse bands up close and personal is nothing short of awesome.

The reason that I'm posting all of this now is that this blog may not be updated very frequently for the rest of this busy Roctober, or at least until November 12. I'll do what I can, but I ain't promising much. The other reason that I'm posting this now is - I get to see Metric tomorrow night!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Georgia Power Company, a subsidiary of Southern Company, the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the U.S. utility industry, brought my own lesson home to me yesterday and reminded me how "home" is just a formation of the mind.

More specifically, when I got home from work yesterday, with just barely enough time to feed the cats and change my clothes before Monday Night Zazen, I discovered that they had turned off my electricity. Flip the switch, and nothing happens. Guess I hadn't paid my bill.

Several months back, the power company converted me from monthly billing by mail to "paperless billing," and now I'm supposed to check their website frequently to find out when my next payment is due and for how much. Occasionally, I do get emails from them advising me when my latest bill is available on line, but I hadn't received one in a while, so I found it more than a little annoying they they went ahead and cut off my electricity without any advance warning.

There's nothing like a dark house to remind you how dependent you are on electricity. I wanted to call them and complain - and hopefully get the power back on - but I didn't have their number or a recent bill on which I could have found their number. I couldn't look them up on line either, until it finally dawned on me that I could find their number using my 'Droid. However, it was low on power and I couldn't recharge it, but I went ahead and used the remaining charge to Google their telephone number, went through the long automated menu of options, and waited for the next available operator, all while on the last ounces of juice left in the phone.

I wanted to be kind and equanimous on the telephone, but in truth I was a more than a little gruff to the attendant on the other end. I complained that I was not given any warning and would gladly have paid had I known, et cetera, but couldn't send them an on-line payment now because they took the power away from my computer. She told me that I could pay over the phone, but that I'd have to call another number, there would be a $3.95 service charge and a $50 reconnection fee, and that it could take them up to 24 hours to restore service. Also, it would be up to me to call Georgia Power back after I made the payment and give them the confirmation number of my completed transaction. Apparently, the collection service can't be bothered to inform their client that the debt had been settled.

I was plenty frustrated but I had no option but to call, give my credit card information to the payment "service," and then call Georgia Power back with my confirmation number. And try as I might, I couldn't help but being snarky the whole time, even while I knew that even if they were being a little heavy handed, it was all really nobody's fault but my own.

By the time I had finished, I was at the very end of the phone's power, it was now almost too dark in the house to do much of anything, and I just barely had enough time to make it to the zendo. I brought the charger for the phone with me to charge its batteries while I recharged my psyche.

When I got home, they hadn't surprised me by quickly restoring my service, so I had to make due the best that I could in a dark house. I listened to my iPod a little and read a little by flashlight before going to sleep. I set the alarm on my cell to wake me up the next morning, and showered in the dark (the water is heated by gas, so I was still able to at least enjoy a hot shower). When I got home from work today, the power was back on.

Looking back, I think what got me so angry was that their unannounced move seemed so invasive, so intrusive. By cutting off my power, they reduced my "home" to a mere "house." Whatever that added element is that makes a house a home was gone. To put it another way, they stripped away my delusion that "home" was anything but an impermanent aggregate of brick, wood and glass, and for a day I was in effect rendered "homeless." This place where I'm now typing was just a dark and uninviting shelter where I was able to sleep in peace and take a shower, but not the brick-and-mortar extension of the self that I've come to consider "home."

Insult to injury: today, I did get an email from the power company telling me that my bill was available for viewing on line and that the full amount that I had to pay over the telephone last night to get the power back on was due in two weeks. There was no mention of service termination or its re-establishment, no credit for the payment that I made, and worst of all no apology for their blunt treatment.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

In a particularly insightful line in his poem, I Like The Wind, Robert Wrigley notes "I like the fact that the dog is not barking."

At first glance, this line might not sound like much, until we consider what the dog not barking sounds like. Like the proverbial sound of one hand clapping, it is silence, but by constructing the concept of the-silence-of-the-dog-not-barking in our minds, that silence can bring us joy, happiness and contentment. Of course, we can construct other things out of the sound of silence that may bring us things other than joy, happiness and contentment (the sound of the phone not ringing comes to mind), but for now, let's just think about the sound of the dog not barking.

The emptiness of the dog not barking becomes a form. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. It's a form that we've constructed in our minds but once created, it become real. We can confirm the existence of the form with others ("can you hear the dog not barking?"). Like all forms, the sound of the dog not barking arises (when the dog stops its barking), sustains (for as long as it's quiet), and eventually ends (when the dog starts barking again). And like all forms, we choose how we interact with it, and whether we like it or not - we might not be so glad about the sound of the dog not barking if an intruder was entering our home.

When we think about it, "home" is also a form constructed in our mind. We can all agree that a "house" is a more-or-less temporary collection of boards, nails, plaster, glass, etc., the "more" or the "less" depending on the time scale we consider. But after putting our furniture and family and stuff into the impermanent house, we conceive of it as "home" which brings us joy when things go well and sorrow when they don't. But it's still nothing more than that aggregate of boards, nails and so on - the "home" part is just what we've added to it in our minds.

Many years ago, an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus involved a high-rise apartment building constructed solely by hypnosis. The architect/hypnotist, a certain El Mystico, simply hypnotized the tenants into believing the existence of the building, and thinking it real, they moved in and made it their home. When asked if the apartments were safe, El Mystico replied, "Of course they're safe. There's absolutely no doubt about that. They are as strong, solid and as safe as any other building method in this country, provided, of course, people believe in them." The cameraman then interviewed a tenant.
Tenant: Yes, we received a note from the Council saying that if we ceased to believe in this building it would fall down.

Voice Over: You don't mind living in a figment of another man's imagination?

Tenant: No, it's much better than where we used to live.
It's sort of like that, except that we're our own El Mystico.

Buddhist readers will already know where this is all going - like "the dog not barking" and "home," self is also a form constructed in our minds, which has no absolute, concrete reality beyond those of the other empty forms we've been examining. But what Buddhists often seem to forget is that just like "the dog not barking" and "home," once created, the self does have an existence, and an existence that we can confirm with others. Like the dog not barking and home, the self is impermanent and empty of any absolute or independent existence, but once created, it is, in fact, a "creation" and every bit as capable of bringing us joy and sorrow as that quiet dog or our so-called home.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Return of Friday Night Videos

Not to make too fine a distinction between this series and "Videos Worth Watching," however.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

To Save All Sentient Beings; To Affirm Life and Not To Kill

It's harder than you think to crush a chipmunk's skull. Especially when it keeps moving.

A while ago, I wrote here that for a time I had adopted a second cat as a companion to my pet cat, Eliot. She didn't get along with Eliot so I had to return her (it was part of the arrangement that I could bring her back if they didn't get along). But the problem of Eliot being alone all day remained, so eventually I gave it a second shot and adopted a grey-and-white male named Izzy, and as it turns out they get along great. They groom each other and play together, usually some sort of chase-and-wrestle game. Sometimes their play gets a little out of hand and I have to break them up, but it's really no different than two little kids who sometimes play a little too rough. But the bottom line is that Eliot now has a friend, so at least that problem's solved.

Today, when I left for work, Eliot stayed inside the house and Izzy was outside. When I came home, Izzy was waiting on my porch, but when I leaned over to pat him on his head, he ran off. I let Eliot out of the house and together we walked over to see what was up with Izzy.

It turns out that he had caught a chipmunk, one of Eliot's favorite preys. It was still alive but squirming in pain in his clutches. Izzy would let go of it for a moment only to pounce back onto it, but the chipmunk could no longer run away. I didn't see any blood, but I imagine that my dear little pet might have broken the chipmunk's legs with his rough play so that it was no longer able to escape its tormentor.

Eliot came by to take his own little swipe at it, and soon the two cats were huddled over the injured, frightened little creature, occasionally pouncing on it when it managed to slide a few inches away. They didn't display anything that I would call malice toward the chipmunk and seemed to have no intention of killing it, much less eating it. They just seemed to like jumping on top of it with their claws out, and occasionally picking it up with their mouths and dragging it to some other part of the driveway.

I know that this is simply cats acting in accordance their own nature, but my own nature is to be compassionate and try to protect the chipmunk. But if I took the cats away and brought them inside and away from their prey, the chipmunk wouldn't have lived for long, much less stopped its suffering. It was clearly my responsibility to take it out of its misery by ending its life. It was my duty to finish what my domesticated cats wouldn't. As Tom Waits once sang, "There's always some killin' you got to do around the farm."

But how to do it? I was wearing a pair of black oxford shoes (I had just come from the office) and not the kind of boot with which I could have stomped on it. In my mind, I envisioned using the edge of a shovel to quickly decapitate it, but then I realized that I didn't own that kind of shovel. I looked in the trunk of my car to see what I might have had, but found nothing but an umbrella - a useless tool for the job at hand. And that's when it hit me - the best tool that I have for this sad job - one that I keep in the toolbox in the closet off of the kitchen.

A rock hammer is a tool that geologists use, a sort of short-handled sledge hammer. Some are modified picks for finessing a mineral out of its matrix, and others are dull sledges for just plain old busting up rock. I have both kinds, but selected the latter for the job. I went to the kitchen, opened the toolbox in the closet, and took out my weapon of choice.

The cats were still tormenting the chipmunk when I got back outside, but I shooed then away. The chipmunk was laying on its side, spinning around like some sort of crazy pinwheel powered by one apparently working leg. I wanted to only hit it but once and to hit it hard square on the head so as to take it out of its pain and terror as quickly and mercifully as I could, but it was moving quite a bit and suddenly the hammer in my hand seemed quite small. I waited to see if it would stop, but it kept moving, so taking my best aim, I lifted up the hammer and brought it down on the chipmunk's skull.

Which, to my surprise, didn't collapse under the blow. The blow managed to pop one eye out its socket and cause blood to issue from its mouth, but the chipmunk kept moving, albeit now in violent, spasmodic convulsions.

I felt awful and sick. Quickly, I hit it again, and then again, and then another time to try to end its suffering as quickly as I could. By the fourth or fifth blow, its skull was completely crushed. It must have been dead, but the body kept twitching, possibly in post-mortem spasms but I couldn't tell for sure. Feeling now like some sort of monster, I hit it again and then a final time. It's head was now horrifically flattened and after a moment or two, only its tail twitched and then finally that, too, stopped.

The cats were staring at me in shock and awe. They didn't know that I had such brutality in my nature.

I scooped up the corpse with a piece of cardboard, put it in a trash bag, and dropped it in the trash. The cats seemed to have instantly forgotten their game and I called them back into the house for their dinner. I washed the blood off of the hammer and put it away.

In Buddhism, we vow to save all living things, and I had just killed a sentient being in the most brutal way I can imagine. We take a precept to affirm life and not to kill, and I had just killed. Of course, to have merely taken the cats away and just left it there would have been to kill it to, but only more slowly. Killing the chipmunk was the kindest thing I could have done to it, even if it hadn't happened quite as quickly as I would have liked. In all, I don't think more than 5 seconds had passed between the first and last blow of the hammer, and the first one probably killed it, or at least rendered it brain dead and beyond feeling pain, and all motion after the first strike was probably just reflex. But still . . .

I don't blame the cats - they were merely expressing their true nature as domesticated predators. It's their instinct to kill smaller animals, it's hard wired into their DNA. And I don't blame myself - even if I hadn't let Izzy outside, there are other cats out there killing other chipmunks and larger predators killing larger prey, not to mention humans and their crimes and wars. I just got caught up for a moment in that cycle of birth and death, and intimately experienced what it is to kill and what it is to suffer, and by extension, what it is to die and what it is to live.

But washing the blood off the hammer, I knew that I had killed. I didn't enjoy it - it horrified me - but I was still capable of doing it. In Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Zen Master Dogen wrote, "Do good things secretly while people are not watching, and if you make a mistake or do something bad, confess and repent of it. When you act in this matter, good deeds you have done in secret will have recompense, and wrongdoings will be revealed and repented" (Book 1, Chapter 18).

So after putting the hammer away, I turned on my computer, got on line, and opened up Water Dissolves Water.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Local Natives (again) at The Masquerade (again)

I've seen and heard a large number of bands so far this year, and I'll probably tally up some sort of list in late December of "Best Shows," "Most Surprising," "Most Disappointing," and so on and so forth. But we're not there yet, so at this point I'll just say that up to last night, I've only seen two bands twice this year, and they were both openers whom I saw twice only accidentally. I saw The Strange Boys open up for Spoon last March, and then again last month they opened for Those Darlin's. Similarly, I saw Suckers open for Menomena last week in a concert that's a sure candidate for a "Best Show" nomination, and I also saw them open for Local Natives back in May.

Up until last night, though, I hadn't actually bought tickets or ventured out with the intended purpose of seeing the same headliner twice. But even though last May's Suckers/Local Natives show was such a miserable experience due to long waiting times at the over-crowded venue, both bands had played such great sets that last night I ventured out to see Local Natives headline for a second time.

But here's the irony: they were playing at the same over-crowded venue as last May. The Masquerade is probably my least favorite place to see bands in Atlanta, not the least because it's an all-ages venue that tends to attract large swarms of teenagers (which only reminds me of how old I've gotten) but also because it's a large, multi-story venue that often insists on holding two or even three concerts simultaneously. This means that there's two or three times the crowd, and that sounds from one floor often bleed down to the other. When I saw Suckers and Local Natives there last month, the club herded the large audience into a small, ground-level, stage aptly named "Hell," and then had the crowd wait for over an hour as a heavy metal band upstairs finished their set. The standing-room-only crowd had no choice but to stare at an empty stage for an hour while pressed shoulder to shoulder and muffled metal sounds bled down through the ceiling. I considered this to be rude and exploitative of the club management. The only saving grace that led me to go back last evening is that Local Natives were going to be playing in the larger, upstairs room, aptly named "Heaven."

At one point during last night's set, guitarist Taylor Rice asked the crowd how many people saw them play downstairs the last time they were in Atlanta. A lot of hands went up, mine included, and Rice noted that after the tour was over, the band had all agreed that the downstairs crwod was the craziest audience of the tour. Was that any wonder, I thought, after what we had been through prior to their set? When the music had finally started, the cathartic release had the audience climbing the walls.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Masquerade is in a large facility, a 19th Century building that once was the old DuPre Excelsior Mill that manufactured a wood wool packaging product known as "excelsior." Prior to becoming the Masquerade in 1989, it operated as a pizzeria under the name Excelsior Mill and left much of the old factory works in place. They had even imported a large Wurlitzer pipe organ for occasional shows. There was a lot of wasted space, but that was part of the charm of the place. I used to go there frequently, and someday I should post a blog about the crazy things I've seen and done at the Excelsior Mill, but when Masquerade took over, they maximized the old building's potential by setting it up as a multi-stage "music park" for both indoor and outdoor concerts.

Last night, there was an even larger crowd than before to see Local Natives (their reputation having apparently grown even since last May) and Heaven was just as packed as Hell had been during their last show. The crowd was also just as young, full of high schoolers and teenagers making me feel even older and more out of place than usual (not that alienation's always a bad thing, though). I got there at about 8:30 pm and managed to squeeze into the crowd fairly close to stage right and then, reminiscent of last May, waited for a half hour until the opening band, SoCal's The Union Line, took the stage at 9:00 pm sharp. Unlike last time, though, this wait was forgivable as it was only for the actual showtime to begin, not due to the promoters' greed of trying to squeeze two events out of the same venue in a single night (although there was something going on downstairs).

I had never heard or heard of The Union Line before last night, but they played a fine set full of intricate harmonies and good musicianship. Like so many other indie bands, they switched instruments and everyone took a turn at playing some sort of percussion or another (there was a large tom tom set up on stage left for various members to bang on at various times). The young Masquerade crowd was very receptive and enthusiastic, startling the band as they reacted loudly to the band's every move, even cheering when their bass player untied his pony-tail and shook his long hair out around his face. The lead singer remarked several times that this was their best crowd of the tour yet, which only incited the crowd to cheer even more loudly, and so on. "We got stuck in traffic coming here," he noted, "Two hours without being able to move, so this is just great!" I know how he felt, as that sounded like my experience last time at Masquerade. On their Facebook page, the band wrote, "ATL! You blew our minds last night. Thanks to everyone who caught our set and picked up an EP." A band to be watched, and a good warm-up for the crowd and for the evening.

New Zealand's Ruby Suns took the stage next. I've heard one or two songs by them but didn't know quite what to expect. My confusion only deepened when they opened with a cover of Prince's I Would Die 4 U. It was a faithful cover and they didn't add anything unique or put their own signature on it, but then it never really took off either. What's the point of covering Prince if you're not going to make the song your own or at least get a good groove going? Throughout their set, they relied a lot on pre-programmed synth sequences and recorded samples, at times jumping around to music that no one on the stage seemed to be making. Their set wasn't helped any by the muddy sound mix either, which let the dense layers of keyboards, recordings, and vocals all blur one into the other. A trio of two keyboardists and a drummer, they sound a lot like a Kiwi version of Animal Collective and it would be easy to dismiss them as just that, but despite all of the problems they still managed a few moments of transcendence, and like the Union Line before them, everybody played percussion at one point or another.

Local Natives took the stage at 11:00 pm sharp (Masquerade apparently does have some proactive management after all). The audience, which had gotten fired up by the Union Line but were then somewhat subdued by the Ruby Suns, re-awoke in a big way. They enthusiastically sang along with every song, sometimes even drowning out the band, who didn't seem to mind at all. There wasn't an intro that wasn't met by thunderous applause, a chorus that wasn't joined, a stage move that didn't elicit cheers. In short, a splendid time was had by all.

The band opened with Airplanes, a touching tribute to a grandfather who died before he could meet his grandson, but the crowd picked up the song's "I want you back, back, back" refrain and lifted it to a new level of joyous intensity. Everyone was jumping up and down, and you could even feel the old factory floor bouncing enough to give some of us older audience members pause to consider the structural integrity of the old Excelsior Mill. Local Natives followed their opener with one of my favorites of their songs, World News, which is basically just a clever vehicle to deliver the song's crescendo of a chorus, which the crowd again took and just ran with.

Great song followed great song in a veritable love fest between audience and band. They saved my other favorite, Sun Hands, for their encore. The crowd instantly recognized the distinctive opening drum line and by the end of the song, I don't think there was a person in Heaven who wasn't shouting "And when I can feel with my sun hands, I promise not to lose her again" at the top of their lungs, either on the stage or in the audience (your narrator included).

Did I mention the place was packed? I have no idea what the club's capacity is, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that it had been exceeded. We were all jammed together, and I felt sorry for the shorter members of the audience as I doubt they could see much of the stage for all the taller persons standing around them. A few brave persons even attempted to surf the crowd towards the end of the set but were generally dropped to the floor after a few seconds aloft.

I left with a big smile on my face, but it's still going to take someone as great as Local Natives to get me to go back to the Masquerade again.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My posting from yesterday about unemployment benefits, so-called "class warfare," and the redistribution of wealth has generated a couple of emails. I've learned that although the official rate of unemployment is 10 percent for those with high school degrees and almost 15 percent for high school dropouts, it's only 4.4 percent for college graduates. So people living in affluent, well-educated, suburban neighborhoods like my friend C. don't always see the effects of the national joblessness, and can develop a mindset that it's "someone else's" problem.

One alert reader stated that although she agrees with me in principal, she thinks that I got the reason for the lingering unemployment wrong. The continued high rate of unemployment, she claims, is not due to businesses not rehiring their old work force, and pointed me to former Clinton-era Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's excellent blog, where he states, "Our jobs crisis is due to the collapse of demand in the U.S. after the housing bubble burst. No longer able to borrow against the rising value of their homes, the vast American middle and working class can no longer spend enough to keep the economy going."

This makes absolute sense to me. It's not because of immigration, or the Chinese, or Marxists in the White House not caring about the working man, it's because no one has enough money any more to actually buy anything. Who's going to hire employees to provide things if no one is buying them?

"If Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) want to blame something," Reich continues, "blame America’s record level of inequality – an almost unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top, and a smaller proportion for the vast middle."

The evidence is all around us. It’s no mere coincidence, as Reich points out, that 1928 and 2007 marked historical high-water points for shares of national income going to the top 1 percent. Today’s median wage is now 5 percent lower than it was at the start of the decade, taking inflation into account, while top earners are doing better than ever.

But it wasn't always like this. Malcolm Gladwell recently pointed out in The New Yorker that "There was a time, not so long ago, when people at the very top of their profession - the 'talent' - did not make a lot of money. In the post-war years, corporate lawyers, Wall Street investment bankers, Fortune 500 executives, all-star professional athletes, and the like made a fraction of what they earn today." In 1935, he points out, lawyers in the United States made, on average, four times the country's per-capita income. By 1958, that number was 2.4. The marginal tax rate on income above two hundred thousand dollars a year was as high as 91 percent. In 1975, supermodels like Lauren Hutton were paid $60/hour, and had to work six sessions a day to make a comfortable living. The rich were doing very well, and the very rich, those who inherited their fortunes, were doing very well indeed, but the wealth in America was distributed much more evenly than it is now.

Today, the core assets of most Americans are their homes, whose values are now 20 to 40 percent below what they were three years ago, while, as Reich points out, the key assets of America’s wealthy are shares of stocks and bonds, whose values have declined far less.

So what's needed then to get the unemployment rate down and the economy functioning better is to get more discretionary income into the pockets of middle- and working-class Americans. Tax cuts for those in the median income brackets will do this, as will, on at least a temporary basis, extending unemployment benefits. Nancy Pelosi, it turns out, had it right after all - extending unemployment benefits will, in fact, help create jobs.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Conversations With C.

The other day, I had a rather revealing conversation with my right-wing, Tea Party friend C. We used to work together at my old job, but he left that company shortly after I did and is now a client of mine. I provide peer review, quality assurance, and administrative support for his new business, and he keeps his overhead low by using me only on an as-needed basis rather than hiring full-time employees. Although we used to get in rather heated arguments, we get along fine now and can even talk about politics.

So the other day, he claimed that the government is making unemployment worse by extending benefits for the roughly 14 million Americans currently without work. By compensating them not to work, he reasoned, we were encouraging the unemployed not to seek jobs, and the unemployment rate isn't going to go down anytime soon if people don't have a motive to find a job.

I told him that I saw it differently. No one likes living on the roughly $300/week unemployment pays, and there's plenty of motivation to find work, such as providing for your family, meeting the cost of living, and finding a little self-respect. The problem isn't motivation to find jobs, it's a lack of jobs out there. Many of the industrial clients I've worked for over the years have closed down, and their factories and facilities have remained shut down for years.

Not surprisingly, he did not agree. "There are plenty of jobs out there," he claimed. "I see 'Now Hiring' signs all over" ("Where?" I wondered silently). "Lots of businesses are slowing down or even closing shop," he continued, "because they can't get anyone to work for them. At lunch today, service was terrible - I had to wait forever - because the restaurant did not have enough waiters."

One of the reasons I've seen for the nation's slow recovery out of the recession was that although some businesses had recovered somewhat from the crash of 2008, they've learned over the past several months how to do more with less, how to get by on fewer employees, and given the uncertain shape of the economy, weren't rehiring back to their old levels. This, in turn, keeps unemployment high and continues to keep the economy unsteady, which, in a negative feedback loop, keeps them unwilling to hire. I explained to C. that the nationwide loss of manufacturing jobs forces people who used to work at the shuttered factories to just barely get by (if that) on unemployment, and they have no discretionary cash left over to support retail stores or the kinds of restaurants at which C. suffered such poor service.

"But that's exactly my point," he said. "They just keep sitting around waiting for their old jobs to magically come back, instead of looking for new work. But they don't wake up to the fact that their old jobs aren't going to return and they're not taking perfectly good jobs at Wal-Mart or McDonald's or Starbucks to make ends meet. They may have to move to find a job - go to some other city or state - but that's how the market works - people are drawn to those areas that have opportunities, instead of wishing that opportunities came to the people."

"Let me get this straight," I said. "Take someone who worked as, say, a machinist for 20 years at a factory, or in sales, or a manager, or for that matter any of the blue- and white-collar jobs associated with manufacturing, with kids in school and parents living nearby. You want them to tear their families apart and move away from their friends and relatives, take their kids out of their schools, maybe walk out on their upside-down mortgage, so that they could take a minimum wage job with no opportunity for advancement? Wouldn't it be better to invigorate the economy so that decent jobs that can support families and communities were available to more people?"

"If they don't have other skills, that's their problem," C. replied, "and nobody put a gun to their head to buy a house they can't afford. It's sad, but it's better than the government forcing a 'planned economy' on the country."

This is one of C.'s big worries, that the country is drifting off into some sort of neo-Marxist socialist republic. He believes that the Obama Administration is engaging in "class warfare" by suggesting that the temporary tax cuts for the wealthiest 5% of the nation he repealed and their taxes be allowed to return to 1990's levels. He considers that a "redistribution of wealth," like in some left-wing banana republic.

But what he fails to see is that forcing the middle class into minimum-wage jobs, converting the old manufacturing workforce into servants, attendants and service providers for the wealthy, is in itself class warfare of the most demoralizing kind, war on the middle class. It is nothing short of redistribution of wealth, but in this case, toward those already wealthy.

He can't see this, and in fact he even thinks that he "won" the argument because I let him have the last word. There was no chance of turning him around and I saw no point of discussing it further. Besides, I don't want to make him angry as he's a client, and my job is to provide him with my services for an hourly wage.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sign of the Times

Today (10/10/10) is another one of those binary days, where the date can be expressed by 1s and 0s only. Please take a moment and enjoy 10:10 and 11:11 p.m., if you haven't enjoyed those morning hours already, and here's to November 11.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Another Concert Post

Since Water Dissolves Water has apparently morphed into a music blog, I might as well post some pictures of last night's concert. Here's Portland's Tu Fawning on stage as I arrived, albeit slightly late due to some traffic tie-up at Freedom Parkway and Boulevard (I forgot that shows at Variety Playhouse, unlike most other venues, tend to start on time).

According to their label's website (Polyvinyl Records), Tu Fawning is primarily a project of Joe Haege and Corrina Rep. That's Corrina back there to the right on drums, although she later stepped forward and took the mic for vocals for most of the set.

The band also includes Liza Reitz, above left, on keyboards and strings and Toussaint Perrault, below right, on horns and guitar.

Their music is very eclectic and slightly tribal at times - virtually everyone drums or plays some sort of percussion at one point or another (although no one ever picked up a bass - I thing Liza plays most of the bass lines on synth). They played an excellent, well-received set, finishing with a rousing version of The Felt Sense. The crowd even asked for an encore, rare for an opening act, although the band was contractually obligated to only play their allotted 30 minutes.

Brooklyn's Suckers followed. I saw Suckers earlier this year when they opened for Local Natives at The Masquerade, and was impressed. They played an even better set last night, perhaps due to the improved acoustics and sound system at Variety Playhouse than the cavernous Masquerade.

Everyone in Suckers sings and sings well, either contributing to harmonies or sharing the lead. As with Tu Fawning, everyone takes a shot at a little percussion, and their bass player even contributed a little trumpet.

Toussaint Perrault of Tu Fawning came on stage with a trombone during Suckers' set, giving the band a bona fide horn section for a few numbers.

Portland's Memonena (sounds like "phenomena" but with an M) headlined and performed one of the most exciting sets I've heard all year. Like the previous bands, Menomena share vocal duties, although Justin Harris usually fills the front-man role while playing bass and baritone sax.

Menomena's music can be quite surprising, as their songs frequently shift structure as they explore various possibilities of instrumentation, volume, and intensity. Their songs have accurately been described as "having holes" in them, wherein they seem to digress from the song and explore a quiet little piano figure, or a baritone sax riff, or a barreling drum sequence. And since the instrumentation keeps changing on top of the structure, Menomena can claim to be one of the most accessible and interesting experimental music outfits touring today.

The baritone sax is a great touch, giving some of their songs a bluesy, whiskey-soaked sound reminicent of the band Morphine. Throughout the set, Menomena were joined on stage by Tu Fawning's Joe Haege on guitar. Sucker's front man Quinn Walker occasionally contributed some backing vocals, singing into drummer Danny Sein's mic.

Justin Harris remarked how nice it was to play in Atlanta at someplace other than the tiny Drunken Unicorn, and Brent Knopf (keyboards, above) thanked all the fans who've supported Menomena at their previous Atlanta gigs at the Unicorn and the Earl. But despite Variety Playhouse's larger stage, drummer Danny Seim still managed to knock over Justin's baritone sax, and it's mic didn't work during a crucial solo on the closing song. Justin made the best of it, even pantomiming playing his sax at one point.

For your listening pleasure, I put together the little mixtape below, containing songs from last night's performers. So enjoy The Felt Sense by Tu Fawning, Black Sheep and A Mind I Knew by Suckers, and TAOS and Five Little Rooms by Menomena.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Rock 'n' Roll Tragedy

Back in September, a student at Wesleyan University set herself on fire with a flammable accelerant on the edge of the school's athletic fields. Her suicide note held a lyric by the band Stars, "When there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire" from their song Your Ex-Lover Is Dead.

The lyrics to their song also advise "Live through this and you won't look back," but a suicidal college student isn't likely to pick up on that nuance. Stars cancelled an appearance at Wesleyan scheduled for a few nights later and donated the cancellation fee to charity. They played the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta last Friday night - despite good intentions otherwise, I didn't go. Not because of the tragedy, which I hadn't heard about until after the Friday-night show, but because I had to work through the weekend.

The Swell Season, who experienced an on-stage suicide when a man leaped to his death onto their stage during a concert in California last August, are offering free grief and trauma therapy to anyone who witnessed the act.

As it turns out, Charles Haddon, lead singer for Ou Est La Swimming Pool, didn't jump off a communications tower after a festival performance out of self indulgence or drug-induced delusion. Apparently, he had performed a stage dive during their act and landed on a young woman, seriously injuring her. She was taken away in a stretcher to an ambulance. Haddon had been told that she would be paralyzed for life, and guilt stricken, sobbing, with his head on the floor, the grief got the best of him and he ended his own life for what he thought he had done to her's. In actuality, the young lady is expected to make a full recovery.

Finally, Russell Lissack, the lead guitarist for the band Bloc Party, was recently bitten by a lion at a South Africa game preserve. On top of that, while he was in the hospital, it got quarantined after two men died from an unidentified virus during his stay there. You may need to get vaccinated before going to a Bloc Party concert.

I bring up all this suffering only as a reminder that even fame and fortune do not provide any respite from the First Noble Truth.

Friday, October 01, 2010

I'll Just Leave This Here . . .

I've discussed his ideas here before, but here's Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran explaining things in his own voice. Videos worth watching, indeed.