Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Don't be a (TARGET)

So, I was having a terrific morning. Sitting at the iMac, multigrain flakes before me, last night's episode of Friday Night Lights playing to psych me up for work. Then I get on BART, to find yet another thinly-veiled abstinence poster. It's the usual stuff: "Defend your future...stay away from drinking, drugs, teen sex...only YOU can decide that you matter." The best part? "Don't be a (TARGET)," with a little bullseye. I assume the end of that sentence is "...for Satan's crossbow."

I see this stuff around all the time, and it's definitely part of our national culture now, thanks to Bush, Tommy Thompson, and the Christian right. What bugged me so much this morning, apart from the fact that abstinence-only doesn't work, and that it promotes rampant misinformation, and that it definitely doesn't work unless you at least mention the concept of not having sex, is that I've always been proud of California for being the only state never to take federal funding for abstinence-only education programs. As Planned Parenthood's Mary Jane Wagle wrote in her op-ed to the LA Times a while back, abstinence-only education is like a driver's ed class where the teachers show students scary photos of accidents but never tell them to how to buckle a seatbelt.

But it kind of defeats the purpose if HHS and regressive school districts can take the back door and contract directly with all these unctuously named groups like Teen Esteem and FirstResort. Despite a 2004 California law that mandates comprehensive sex education (including birth control & abortion), the abstinence-only movement is still making gains in places like Fremont, Concord, Mt. Diablo, and Newark (not to mention all over central and southern CA). Hence the poster on BART. It was produced by a non-profit CBO called Await and Find, for which a more appropriate title would be "Await (Three Weeks) and Find (Out if You Got Pregnant)."

On a related topic: did anyone else feel mildly jealous of other teenagers pledging abstinence, like their opportunities for casual sex were so myriad that they had to make a formal, public vow in order to avoid it? When I was sixteen years old I didn't need Teen Esteem to make sure I remained abstinent: I worked on the literary magazine, had a job at the Mall, and played clarinet in a youth orchestra. The whole "not having sex" thing was pretty well taken care of.

That would have been a good slogan for the orchestra, by the way:

"El Camino Youth Symphony: It'll take your kid at least two extra years to get laid."

Friday, December 08, 2006

Badass pt.3

Hotel workers are three days into a hunger strike in the Century corridor at LAX. That is pretty badass, not least because (according to my sources on the ground) they're staged directly outside the Westin LAX restaurant. So guests eating breakfast are looking right out at them, and employees from the hotel are coming out on breaks to support the strikers.

LA recently extended its 1997 minimun wage law to cover the Century corridor by the airport, an unusual and somewhat controversial legislative move. UNITE HERE Local 11 fought hard to get the law passed, and the hotel owners/operators and other business will likely mount a referendum challenge. This hunger strike emphasizes the crying need to enforce that law, and also the workers' need for a seat at the table with airport hotel employers.

I don't have much commentary here, except to call attention to the new ground broken by this minimum wage extension. There's not much legal justification for mandating wages in the private sector for a particular geographic area or industry, though it isn't (in California) specifically prohibited. There are certainly economic and moral arguments for implimenting as wide-ranging a living wage as possible, but the legal dimensions remain murky.

My favorite moment in the press coverage:

"This is discriminating against 12 hotels in a very small part of the city," says Harvey Englander, a lobby consultant to the Los Angeles Hotel Association.

Proponents claim that the ordinance is justified because the airport generates the business for these hotels. But the city's "Staples arena generates business for downtown hotels," counters Mr. Englander. "Does that mean City Council should come in and set their wages and benefits?"

He said it, not us.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

this week in the n-word...

Jesse Jackson makes a fool of himself again (by the way, I'd originally come up with an individual link for every word in that sentence, but I ended up needing to split two of them in half to accommodate all the links, so I decided I should scrap it for being too hard to navigate).

Putting aside the bizarreness of the priorities here, and the general distastefulness of straining to politicize this issue, can Jesse Jackson et al truly be claiming the word "nigger" as "unprotected" by the First Amendment? Really, honestly? Even if you grant the existence of hate speech, and grant it an exception to the Constitution, and grant the word "nigger" a place in the hate speech lexicon, can there be any way to construe it as unprotected without context? Chaplinsky set the bar in this regard, outlining a First Amendment exemption for "fighting words," or words that could incite an immediate breach of the peace. Since then (1942) other cases (R.A.V., Doe v. Michigan) have expanded and qualified how the law ought to view these kinds of exemptions, but in every instance the context plays a fundamental, determining role. If Jesse Jackson actually attempted a legal argument for "nigger" -- the word alone, isolated from other words and its usage context -- as unprotected "hate speech," I imagine he would end up completely buried by the mountains of contradictory evidence. Hell, you could probably win the other side of that case using That Nigger's Crazy (Richar Pryor, 1974) alone.

One last thing on Jesse Jackson. Think about the last, say, 20 times you've heard the word "nigger" used in some sort of public context, or in some artifact intended for public consumption. I'd be shocked if it occurred in anything besides a) a hiphop song, b) a comedy routine (that includes Richards, despite him being profoundly unfunny), c) a journalistic piece on the topic (though you'd be hard pressed to find the word itself, unfortunately), or d) some form of white-pride bigotry on a short-range AM talkshow or a website. With the exception of the last one, which people in the "entertainment industry" have virtually no control over, can you think of a single instance that would meet any of the requirements of an exemption? Me neither. This is a waste of time, and each time Rev. Jackson does something like this, it makes me feel less honored by having marched with him various times.

If you really want to prevent a breach of the peace, take away
DR Period's MPC sampler. I've barely even been in a fight, and the "Ante Up" remix makes me want to yap fools.

There's another entry to go with this, on John Ridley's Esquire "Manifesto," but that'll have to wait till tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Rubber Soul (1965)

Sorry for the delay on this. It's due to the fact that I had a lot of trouble deciding about this album. Rubber Soul is comprised of songs that live up to their stature ("Drive My Car," "Nowhere Man," "Michelle," "Norwegian Wood," "In My Life"), great songs that get a little lost amongst the tall trees ("Girl," "I'm Looking Through You," "Run For Your Life"), good songs that a bunch of folks know but were still album filler ("You Won't See Me," "What Goes On," "Wait!"), and George's songs, which contribute to the feel of the album but remain forgettable to most people. I played "If I Needed Someone" about five hundred times, but that was mostly for the harmony and guitar line.

Rubber Soul, as a whole and song-by-song, has received about the right amount of adulation. So looking at over/under-ratings becomes more dependent on personal preference. As if it ever involves something more formal -- it's not like I do in-depth public opinion research. The methodology runs more along the lines of:

Overrated: When this song comes on, how guilty do I feel skipping to the next track?
Underrated: When this song comes on, how indignant do I feel about its shameful neglect by mainstream music audiences?


Most Overrated: I actually almost put "In My Life," because as great as it is, it has still been elevated by critics and fans beyond all hope of honest assessment. Mojo named it the greatest song of all time, when a better assessment would be "greatest song on Side 2 of Rubber Soul." Its slight plodding feeling in the bridge always bugged me a little, as does the vague schmaltzy-ness (and the obvious gestures at Smokey & the Miracles). But the organ solo, guitar lick, and above all the lyrics -- there's no way to describe those without using the word "timeless," so I couldn't in good conscience claim it to be overrated. Plus it's almost Thanksgiving and I'm going to have to spend about three days with my side of the family, and picking "In My Life" over basically anything else in the catalogue would create problems. So, "The Word" it is. Yeah, this song has never done much for me. As a "political statement" it's pretty bland, and Paul's lively bass playing doesn't redeem a kind of boring structure. Mainly it's overrated because it foreshadows later compositions by John; "All You Need is Love" in particular, but also stuff from his early solo years. Meh - I always skip it and don't feel the least bit bad about it. [(c) Butch]

Most Underrated: "I'm Looking Through You." Easy. This is one of those McCartney compositions that exhibit the highest degree of "form," in the sense used by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein referred to "form" as a "magic ingredient" that exhibits a "breathtaking rightness" and "inevitability." According to Bernstein, Beethoven possessed an "inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be," and I think the same accurately applies to Paul McCartney. To paraphrase from Bernstein's essay: "When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you're listening to a mid-period Beatles song by Paul." "I'm Looking Through You" belongs on that list with "Yesterday," "Penny Lane," "Eleanor Rigby," etc. The leap and fall of the melody matches the lyric perfectly, as does the performance. But under the surface, the song's buoyancy grates against a gentle, resigned bitterness that I find hard to characterize. "You don't look different, but you have changed" cuts to the heart of, I'd guess, the vast majority of romantic problems. And to couple that with "You don't sound different, I've learned the game," allows the second verse to imply an emotional history of deteriorating communication. What kills me about that line is the narrator having already figured out that what he hears is different from what's being said, and the resignation apparent in that admission. The honesty and intimacy has simply disappeared overnight, and isn't going to return. This is true of every song, but it bears repeating that the effectiveness of "I'm Looking Through You" lies in the juxtaposition of the music and lyrics -- in this case, their wild difference in tone. Thanks to McCartney's writing, the band's performance, and Martin's production, it comes across as a complete package, and somewhat spontaneous, inconsequential one at that. Beware of those songs -- they're the ones that will burrow into your mind and replace all your emotional referrents. Fair warning for people who don't own Rubber Soul.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Classical music + Jeans = Badass

A lot of badass stuff has taken place since the last time I posted on this, but here's the thing. Those linky-linky blogs always disappoint me a little. It feels like you're a teacher in a college seminar where, instead of reading responses, the students brought in "cool rocks" they "found in the yard."

So even though this particularly badass thing happened a while ago, I haven't had time to settle down and think about it. I don't have time to do that now, either, but irregardless it's totally badass and not only that, but when you read about it you might even describe it as urgently badass. Probably that will not happen.

Eric Edberg is a member of the music faculty at DePauw University. Along with being a cellist, he also describes himself as a "Drum Circle Facilitator." I have no response to that, because it speaks for itself. I will say that, although many things about this story are badass, facilitating a drum circle is not.

But in August, he did something pretty badass. He put on a concert of "classical music in jeans," which he describes as an "'informal/interactive musical event' -- a recital with the usual rules of concert etiquette suspended." Okay, that description isn't likely grabbing you by the throat, but think about it:

1) Live music is something you have to go out of your way to see. Unlike TV, radio, internet, wireless media, digital storage, and most of the other things it competes with in the entertainment field (not to mention alcohol and parlor games), experiencing live music requires a relatively substantial investment of time and money in advance. What did they do to punish you in first grade? They made you sit quietly and do nothing -- sometimes in the dark. (Or at least, the time-out room was always less well-lit than the others. I spent some time there.) So why would you voluntarily submit to that, especially for an experience you're likely unfamiliar with, only to find yourself too embarassed to divulge it on Monday at the water cooler. With the rigorous etiquette suspended, classical music becomes a lot more like a visit to the museum, the theater, the movies, etc. Add a big red cup of beer and some fried appetizers and you'd see frat guys there in no time.

2) Classical music hasn't been "classical" for about 150 years. Even when it was, it had plenty of waltzing, stomping, balladry, and even some groove. All the elements that characterized popular music have become more and more a part of so-called "classical" music, to the point that the "classical" moniker, which meant nothing at first, means even less now. Unlike jazz, hiphop, punk, etc., the vast cosmos of music that falls into the "classical" category at this point has very little uniting it into a cohesive genre, and very little separating from its counterparts across the record store aisle. Longer format (although not really), different instruments (although not really), lower volume & lack of amplification (although not really), distinct separation from folk/popular music (although not really) -- well, you see where I'm going here. At this point, and actually for about the last 75 years, the only things really separating classical music from everything else were its conventions and its audience. No reason not to change the former in order to increase the latter.

3) Many of the pieces currently experienced in worshipful, darkness were originally greeted with cheers, boos, rioting, etc. They didn't give you cough drops outside the theater. They didn't patronize you by announcing the rules at the beginning. If you coughed during the slow movement, you didn't worry about having your car keyed after the performance. I'm not saying I don't find these things disruptive, and it actually is distracting for people to pay $50 to see a concert and then talk straight through it. But that is, and always has been, the price you pay for being alive and not a hermit farmer. The idea of doing everything you possibly can to replicate the original sound, including period instruments and deep score research, only to perform the piece in a context completely alien to its original life makes no sense whatsoever. We need to give it up.

4) Up above you might have been doubting my assertion that beer would be enough to lure frat guys to a classical music concert. First off, just re-check your math there. But also recognize that people's musical tastes are forever broadening, and audience divisions are disintegrating accordingly. We have the internet and progress in musical innovation to thank for that. Unfortunately, classical music audiences are behind the curve in this respect (no evidence for this, though I've read various things in the past). Even though the DePauw concert was certainly a novelty, and this attracted more attention than it otherwise would have received, the audience response demonstrates that the concept worked. People are not allergic to classical music, and if presented in a format which they can relate to, they'll listen. Amplifying the performance and looking at less traditional venues could probably do more to build the audience and shape the experience.

5) People who care deeply about classical music (me, yup) stand to lose little to nothing with these kinds of changes. None of my favorite performances (either as a participant or a listener) took place in a darkened concert hall -- and most involved no tuxedo at all. Anyone who has seen Radiohead or Public Enemy live knows that you don't need etiquette to be serious musicians and convey your music well. If it's a less of a sacred experience because the pianist's wearing sneakers, then you need to reexamine why you go to concerts in the first place. You don't need a classical concert to see solemn people in formalwear make pained expressions: just go to the junior prom.

Here's the video footage of the concert. See how, without all the pomp, it becomes obvious that Haydn (I think it's Haydn) wrote a piece for people to get up and dance to? Yeah, the dancers are awkward and maybe trying to get attention, but just the small etiquette changes (jeans, cheering, etc.) make it seem a lot less bizarre than it would.

Conclusion: Badass.

Update & URL change

NewPlasticWeblog has migrated fully to Blogger Beta now, which -- like many things in my life -- was a stupid thing to do, but, being done, isn't worth attempting to reverse.

If you're here you've already noted the new address, but on the offchance you use bookmarks, or link to this blog, please (take a look at yourself and) make that change.

Monday, November 13, 2006

no accident

There's a lot flying around regarding the role of organized labor in the recent election cycle, including Greenhouse's recent NYT piece. I worked professionally on this cycle, and I work professionally in organized labor, so there's a limit to what I'm willing to post for public consumption. That, for Ana and others out there, is why I haven't written anything about our political climate -- because, even given my extremely minor position in the grand scheme of things, anything I post makes me a spokesperson for our union and I prefer to leave that to the communications professionals. Plus I don't trust the blogosphere.

Anyway, three things to point out:

1) Despite all the objections and worries last year regarding organized labor's reduced political might after the split, labor played a larger role (nationwide) in this election than any in recent memory. So much for that Republican wet dream.

2) In splitting off from the AFL-CIO, Change to Win representatives cited a desire to spend more effort and resources organizing and less on political work. Yet the Change to Win unions played a huge role, not just through grassroots mobilization but through endorsements, contributions, etc. For people who care exclusively about organizing campaigns, that's not entirely good news. But I've only met a handful of people who fit that description, and almost none in the labor movement. The truth is, government plays a fundamental role in the workplace, and it becomes very difficult to win battles (organizing or otherwise) there without some modicum of government support. It's not impossible by any stretch, but as the labor movement tries to rejuvenate itself through industry-wide fights, operating without decent legislation and friendly electeds may prove not just difficult but prohibitively difficult. Also, even given CtW's heavy political focus in the last 6 months, there's still a significant difference in platform between the AFL and CtW. For example, the Employee Free Choice Act (which Change to Win pushed hard throughout this cycle) has a lot more to do with organizing than the various trade and outsourcing restrictions which the AFL-CIO will likely push in the new session.

3) Labor's critical role in this election did not arise by happy coincidence, nor did it come about because the AFL-CIO and Change to Win signed an agreement to cooperate on the 06 election. The grunt work of these campaigns took place at the local level -- usually in labor councils, federations, and other organized union coalitions. Last year these coalitions had to fight to remain united as our national movement fractured, and those that refused to be weakened by the split were able to mount effective mobilizations for Democrats. In other words, they (and not so much Anna Burger and John Sweeney) deserve the credit for labor's success this cycle.

That's all. Back to the Beatles.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Help (1965)

This is going to get harder as we go along. We’re moving into the period where the albums become so good that it’s impossible for anything to be overrated, and so beloved that it’s impossible for anything to be underrated. It might take a second to get your arms around that last sentence, but – even though I’m very, very tired – I ran it down the belt a few times and it seems right.


Most Overrated: “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” I know, I know. I promise I didn’t choose this for Pitchfork-style anti-cool shock value. I honestly believe that this song receives more reverent praise and attention than it deserves. Granted, Lennon wrote an incredible lyric that balances subtle emotions – he's imitating Dylan, but he gets beyond the wordiness to very Lennon-esque direct honesty. Unfortunately, the Dylan-imitation on the rest of the song succeeds far less well. The Beatles can do Brill Building, they can do Motown, they can do Gene Vincent and Sun Records, and (later on) they could do blues and soul. But they really weren’t folkies. At best, they made folk pastiche – kind of like Brahms writing gypsy songs into his string quartets. Anyway, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is just too obvious of a grasp towards the Dylan of a year or two before the record came out. And, though the song has some bite, it lacks the venom that it needs. It's a fairly bitter song about shame and isolation, and the Beatles delivery is a little tame. Blah blah blah. Bottom line is, it’s a good song transformed into a great song by fans, which makes it overrated.

Most Underrated: “I Need You.” This song is filler. It’s a completely non-grand statement from George, in the middle of huge contributions from John (“Help!”), Paul (“Yesterday”), and the two together (“Ticket to Ride”). The thing is, this is a perfect song. Perfect songs are very, very hard to write. Unfortunately for George, he was in a band with two other guys who knew how to do it, and who could even create new kinds of songs to perfect. So “I Need You” gets looked over all the time. But its elements work so, so well together. The quiet vulnerability of the lyrics, matched with the frail pedal-tone guitar motif and some judiciously placed dissonances. Alan Pollack points out (and man, do I wish that I’d come up with this insight) that the verses ending in dissonance feel a little like sentences you can’t finish. They need the guitar motif to (figuratively and literally) resolve them. Also noteworthy: the ending gives a prime example of George’s odd sense of harmony, and the small trick – switching around the rhythm of that pedal guitar motif to resolve things in the last second – just wraps it all up so flawlessly that you don’t even notice. That’s ultimately why “I Need You” is filler: 10 seconds into “Another Girl” you’ve forgotten all about it. But without this song, the emotional balance of the album would be all thrown off.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Beatles for Sale (1964)

Most Overrated: “Eight Days a Week.” This song is overrated not because it’s bad, or even mediocre, but because it doesn’t overall live up to its moments of brilliance. If the song was comprised solely of its title, its four-bar intro, and the parallel 5ths in the bridge, it would be accurately rated as a clever, harmonically revelatory gem from the period when the Beatles made better music than they got credit for. Unfortunately, the lyrics (apart from the title) are lame and repetitive, and not in the way that makes you want to sing them over and over – a la “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Its shortness does help disguise its lyrical and structural predictability, but it remains a disappointment – to me, at least. The rest of my family loves it, and Beatles musicologists regularly point to it as evidence of the group’s maturing sound. I dunno.

Most Underrated: “Words of Love.” Again, an easy guess for my friends, because of my enduring obsession with Buddy Holly and (in particular) this song. I even recorded a version of it for Camille, with me on all three harmony lines and a charmingly bad facsimile of the solo. You will never hear this version, ever, ever. My original picks for most underrated were actually “I Don’t Want To Spoil the Party” and "Baby's in Black," which I’ve always felt (and still feel) have been unfairly ignored. But I realized that I mostly love those songs for their bizarre feel (“Baby’s in Black” = malformed hillbilly waltz) and their unexpected, open-interval bridges. Plus neither of those songs are really underrated, they’re just unknown by most and liked by a few people for whom the overwhelming feel of “Beatles-ness” is enough. I’m included in that crowd, by the way.

“Words of Love” is too often dismissed as a faithful tribute with a few quirks (e.g. Ringo playing a packing case). Like I sort of got around to arguing before with “Please Mr. Postman,” the early Beatles reveal a lot of their energy and personality through covers, however stiff or approximate. This Buddy Holly cover replicates the original closely, but somehow the Beatles stamp remains all over it. Could be the faux-Holly vocalizations, like “tell me love is real-ah," or the ingenious piecemeal switch from humming to singing during the coda. Wait, I want to explain that last thing because though I normally just throw out musicological tidbits, this one deserves an explanation. Throughout the song they’ve been humming the between-verse refrain (with more care and finicky attention to the harmony than Holly, as you’d expect), but at the end of the last verse, in preparation to ride out on the refrain, they gradually change from humming to singing “Ah.” It would be physically impossible to produce a sound between a hum and a note sung open-mouthed, so instead they switch one by one from humming to singing, so that by the end of the third refrain they’re all singing. Coupled with the precise fadeout, this technique ends up building momentum into the final moments of the song in an odd, uplifting way that bears no relation to Buddy Holly’s sensibility. It’s pure Revolver, a little preview for the outro to “Good Day Sunshine.” I hope that made sense, because “Words of Love” earns its Most Underrated status for those 15 seconds alone.

Of course, the rest of the thing deserves close attention too. In particular, I enjoy how the Beatles' predictably stiffer version reins in the Buddy Holly shamble to show off the beauty of the melody and the simple joys of the structure. Which isn’t to say I prefer the Beatles version – Buddy Holly and the Crickets cannot be outperformed, as was indisputably proven by the Rolling Stones’ version of “Not Fade Away” – just that if the songwriting is as good as it is on “Words of Love,” talented people will find new wrinkles to exploit. All of which goes to show that along with being an underrated Beatles song, “Words of Love” is also an underrated Buddy Holly song and an underrated song overall. Go find it.

Friday, November 03, 2006


It occured to me that I'm always noting things to post about, but they never seem substantive enough to merit the time it takes to even log into the Blogger website and think of something to say about them.

Yeah, I know, most of the things I do post fit that description pretty well, too.

These are usually items of interest which would, for one reason or another, cause me to say: "oh, that's badass." In fact, if I was using a different blogging program I could just tag them "badass" and be done with it.

Instead, I'm going to use them as filler to keep fresh posts up here. So, without further ado, here's two things that struck me as badass in the last 24 hours or so:

1) Last night Camille told her students that if they needed to vote in the evening on Tuesday, they could come to class late...provided they bring their voting stub. Badass because a) she's letting students out of class to make sure they have no excuse not to vote, and b) she's making them bring their stub. I'm surprised she's not having them defend how they voted on Prop 85.

2) The Why? song "Dumb Hummer" has a line about "walking right out of the bike gate at the MacArthur BART," which is badass enough, but the song actually argues that this activity should be regarded as cool. Even better, when I heard the line I realized that their description is accurate. I've never taken a bike on BART, but the people who do have an unmissable aura of cool, and when they blast through that bike gate I always think to myself "God, I'm such a lazy bastard." Also badass: the video for "Dumb Hummer" is no more than a cute, slightly nerdy chick doing a completely shameless mirror-dance in front of her garage.

Friday, October 27, 2006

two quick things...

Originally, to explain the uneven frequency of content on NewPlasticWeblog, I wrote a fairly unconsidered (and ill-advised, though no one advised me) comparison between the website and the movement to Free Mumia abu-Jamal. I'm kind of tired right now.

I'll just say that, given that the election season is upon us, I have to suspend posting until around Nov. 7th. You should all vote, but I'm guessing you will, so what you should really do is
a) volunteer with a legitimately progressive, well-organized GOTV effort, or b) make sure all your friends and family review the issues and get to the polls.

Anyway, two quick things:

1) On the bus back from Yo La Tengo (ca. 1:30AM), there was a burned-out acid case dude with long hair, mustache, denim, funky smell, etc. He rambled and rambled, accosting people in a friendly way, then turning sour, then back to friendly with no apparent prompting. His best line of the ride: (reading the placard on the window) "'No eating, drinking or smoking'...What the hell am I doing on this bus?"

2) I lost my wallet about, um, 2 months back? Still haven't replaced it. Instead, inspired by my brother-in-law, I'm using a thick rubber band. In my case, I got it from a bunch loose broccoli. So, twisted around my billfold and credit cards is a purple band that says "Organically Grown." I noticed this on the way up the stairs from BART and I thought to myself: "Bet your ass it was."

Monday, October 23, 2006

Yo La Tengo at the Fillmore 10/21/06

I love Yo La Tengo. How much? They beat out the Beatles, Percy Sledge, Springsteen, and everyone else as the song choice for the first dance at my wedding. With a cover of a forgotten disco song by George McCrae. That’s how good they are. Which explains why I’ll always see them live despite their tendency to do 15-minute-long feedback jams. Last Saturday was no different. Since I don’t yet own their new album – I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass I was especially excited to hear the new material live.

why? opened the show, and they killed. The crowd was actually into the opener and disappointed to see them go, for a change. In fact it shouldn’t surprise me too much, since why? hails from Oakland, and the Bay Area certainly isn’t hurting for Anticon fans. Is there a succinct way to describe this band? They sound kind of like Lou Barlow fronting Steve Reich and Musicians. One dude plays drums and vibraphone simultaneously, one dude plays keys and guitar simultaneously, Yoni Wolf leads the group, plays organ, snare drum, and various little pitch/feedback boxes. He also beatboxes. They all sing and go crazy. Yoni Wolf is more or less what you’d expect from an Anticon member: he's Jewish, he loves hiphop but has better sense than to make it, he has a warped sense of language, and displays no respect whatsoever for genre boundaries. Hearing why? live was remarkable and unique, and when CDs come back into the budget I'll definitely buy the albums.

Yo La was their normal, withdrawn, awkward selves, but with a little more chattiness. Over the course of the night they proved -- as the new album title suggests -- that they aren’t afraid of shit. They opened with “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” not too much of a barn-burner but nice to hear. Georgia had kind of a raspy, unwarmed-up quality to her voice that coupled with Ira’s geeky rocking-out on the organ to crank the endearing quotient right up. But the show didn't really start until James launched into the monster bass vamp of “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.” Holy cow, is that song menacing. Props to James for playing the same riff for 12 minutes without phoning it in, and props to Ira for making the various solo sections sufficiently different from one another while still getting across the overall message: “I Am Not Afraid of My Guitar and I Will Beat it to Death with My Hands.” After that, a happy detour for “Beanbag Chair,” segueing us into a piano section dominated by songs from the new album (which relies heavily on piano). They breezed through "I Feel Like Going Home" and “The Weakest Part,” pausing to channel Prince on “Mr. Tough.” Then into “Flying Lessons (Hot Chicken #1).” Not my favorite song but exhilarating to see live. The obsessive minor-key vamp gives Kaplan so much space to do crazy feedback solos. Also not my favorite thing, but for one night every year or so I’m willing to listen to a 4-minute feedback solo and Ira Kaplan's the guy to provide it.

In other news, the Fillmore got rid of their ice-cream sandwich desert…very sad, but I had apple pie. Highlight of the evening: me getting back to the floor, mouth full of apple pie and ice cream, just in time for Ira blast the intro to “Sugarcube.” I almost cried, because the sentiment of “Sugarcube” – trying to do better, or at least do whatever’s necessary to make someone happy – just resonates with me. It was one of the harder parts of growing up into a man and husband (so to speak). Doing what’s “objectively” right (or imitating the concerned nice guy on TV doing what's "right") is one thing, and I did that unfailingly for my first 3-4 relationships. It takes a lot more courage and risk to actually look at your own behavior, acknowledge the aspects of it that prevent you from being happy, and commit to change. Which isn’t to say that I’m an expert, just that I first heard this song around the same time I was trying to figure out how to be together with (as opposed to just in love with) Camille. So the song gets to me.

Then they played “Tom Courtenay,” which I love equally but I haven’t even bothered to learn the lyrics to (beyond the first and last few lines), so double good for me. One of my favorite Yo La Tengo tricks: Ira Kaplan singing over his own shrieking guitar squall, while Georgia and James hold the rhythm and harmony together. The end of “Tom Courtenay” offers an awesome example of this, with Ira repeating “I’m thinking about the needle” over and over. Have I mentioned how much I love Ira Kaplan? Yeah, I have.

The set proper closed with “The Story of Yo La Tango” [sic] and “Blue Line Swinger.” Live, “The Story of Yo La Tango” is damn near unlistenable because it’s so loud and screamy. I love the lyrics, though, and I suspect that (as with “Cherry Chapstick”) a very beautiful acoustic version is floating around somewhere. Actually, if I’m being honest, I know there’s some kind of acoustic version because Yo La Tengo appeared for about 15 seconds on the Gilmore Girls, playing that song. I didn’t watch the episode, I found it on Youtube. Really. I've watched Gilmore Girls, I admit, but it's not like I watch it. I already married into a family of smartmouth women who talk too fast -- why would I voluntarily watch one? Anyway, I think plays this tune so loud and squall-y because they want the audience covering their ears, scowling, leaving the venue, etc. They have cred to maintain.

“Blue Line Swinger” was perfect, and I mean perfect. It's such a unique song. The intro purposely turns off the crowd, with the endless organ loop and drum pageantry. Over time, the chord change gets burned into your head until you don’t even notice it. And the audience gets so used to hearing Ira’s guitar squeal and Georgia whanging away out of time that even people who know and love the song (like me) give up any hope of it improving. Then, when the beat finally kicks in and the organ loops line up with the drums and guitar, and James starts powering the low end, the wave of relief cannot be described. A good approximation would be "Woooooo!" Then Georgia starts singing the sublime melody, and you can never understand the lyrics when she sings, so it's fine for them to devolve into “Ba-ba-ba-dah” and ultimately fall apart. For that special feeling of having your brain put through a washing machine, buy Electro-Pura or just download “Blue Line Swinger.”

First encore: the theme from the new movie Old Joy, which Yo La Tengo scored, “Demons” from I Shot Andy Warhol, and a blistering cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which is a lame song (and it rips off the Beatles verbatim) but they put it over.

Second encore: A bad song by Stoneground (I don’t know anything about this San Francisco band from 30 years ago, and there appears to be a reason for that), “My Little Corner of the World,” and a heartbreakingly beautiful version of “Take Care.”

Third encore: “Big Sky” from Yo La Tengo’s first album Ride the Tiger. This song, like the others on that album, is almost good but not quite. It still made the diehard fans happy, though, and the fans like me who only listen to the band's good material got a timely reminder that almost-good Yo La Tengo’s still better than the rest.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Most Overrated: “And I Love Her.” This is supposed to be an early McCartney masterpiece, because of the melody and the complex harmonic structure. Yeah. Well, that’s all fine, but the lyrics suck. They suck so hard. People want to overlook this because a bunch of the early Beatles hits have simple/repetitive lyrics, but take note: there’s a difference between simple and bad.

“From Me to You” = simple

“And I Love Her” = defective

The faux-bossa thing does not help, and the crappiness of the lyrics make the song more boring than it should be given the harmonic interest. It’s actually a pretty boring song. Siegfried Baboon (aka Robert Anwood) of The Truck Drivers Gear Change suggests that the Beatles added that bizarre modulation for the guitar solo in order to make sure that George would definitely be awake to play it.

[By the way, The Truck Drivers Gear Change is an excellent website about songs that use the clichĂ© of half/whole step key changes to keep them interesting. Lots of Barry Manilow, but don’t worry, no audio clips so it’s worksafe]

Most underrated: This is something of a toss-up, because “If I Fell” has all the harmonic and melodic complexity of “And I Love Her” with actually great lyrics, plus it’s underplayed, no question. But I guess “underplayed” is different from “underrated.” So the most underrated award goes to “I Should Have Known Better.” A better title for this song would be: “I Should Have Been Released as a Single.” Three things I want to say about this song:

1) The dissonance between the harmonica line (w/F-natural) and the D-F#-A dominant chord gives an unmistakable edge to the song. It gets even better when John uses F# to get to the end of the first verse, and just barely avoids superimposing it over the harmonica F-natural at the beginning of the second (“Oh-Oh I…never realized what a kiss could be”).

2) The bridge is perfect. Unlike the verse, which stays pinned securely to one note, it jumps all over the place harmonically (including the huge jump into falsetto in the middle). Even better, and this is something you only notice subconsciously (or at least, I only notice subconsciously – I didn’t realize it before reading Alan Pollock’s notes) – the second time through John’s vocal isn’t double-tracked. So, on repetition, it sounds both more intimate and more insistent.

3) Best scene in Hard Day’s Night, hands down.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

With the Beatles (1963)

Most overrated: The whole album. The production is great, as are the performances, but the album is mostly filler and covers. It's overrated because it sold incredibly well, and has an unforgettable cover (the four Beatles, unsmiling, faces half in shadow). Unfortunately, "All My Loving" is the only original that lives up to the quality of the previous album. Their rendition of "I Wanna Be Your Man" is a little tame, and comes off even more so given that the Rolling Stones released an earlier, scratchier, more desperate version that makes the song feel like a Keith Richards composition even when though it isn't. If you buy all the Beatles albums, you will play this one the least frequently, guaranteed.

Most Underrated
: "Please Mister Postman." Like most Beatles covers of black music, this version is a little stiff. In fact, the Anthology editors chose to place footage of this song immediately following George Martin's commentary on the substandard quality of song choice on With the Beatles. But the song obviously doesn't suck, and the performance -- though slightly stiff compared with the Marvelettes -- absolutely kills. It really does. Lennon did the vocal, and I suspect that his affinity for the voice of Ronnie (soon-to-be) Spector began right around this time. "Be My Baby" had come out earlier that same year, and you can hear it in his inflection. The intro stamps the song "Beatles," because no one else has the goofy sincerity you hear on the handclaps and shouts of "Wait!," plus the aforementioned stiffness which you have to love because they're still cutting loose and doing their best. The best part of the song comes (of course) in the breakdown: "You gotta wait a minute, wait a minute, oh yeah, you gotta wait a minute, wait a minute, oh yeah..." In that moment -- and this is a tribute to both the songwriting team and the Beatles' performance -- "Please Mister Postman" achieves the classic Motown transcendence wherein a desperate plea for love transforms into a celebration of hope itself, the original object of affection all but forgotten. If that's a little high-minded, what I'm talking about here are songs like "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "Oh, Girl," etc. Also good: "Po-whoa-whoa-ostman."

Monday, October 16, 2006

hotel workers should fire me

So here’s the deal. I have some trouble concentrating at work. Especially now, when the exact parameters of my job have become gauzy and vague. So I’ve decided, rather than learning to discipline myself, to try to focus my goofing-off time into something marginally more productive than watching Ronaldinho clips on Youtube. The key word here, as you’ll soon see, is “marginally.”

Having quoted Chuck Klosterman in the last post, I started thinking about one of his finer (and more stupidly titled) columns, “Give Me Centrism or Give Me Death.”
It presents, for no real reason, the Ten Most Accurately-Rated Bands of All Time. Folks who know me would probably guess that my favorite part of that article was his assessment of the Beatles:

4. The Beatles – The Beatles are generally seen as the single most important rock band of all time, because they wrote all the best songs. Since both of these facts are true, the Beatles are rated properly.

It’s funnier (and a little touching) in context, but it's wishful thinking. The Beatles are overrated – a fact which John Lennon took great pains to point out as time went on. Of course they're overrated. They’re also underrated, or at least some of their catalogue is. Which brings me to the diversion at hand: I’m going to try to channel my laziness into the inconsequential exercise of discussing the most under- and overrated songs on each album. Just to be clear, this is a useless pursuit. So if Blogger has a mechanism to clear out its dead weight, its driftwood blogs dragging down passengers on the information superhighway, NewPlasticWeblog will probably be gone before I get to Revolver.

Anyway, without further ado:

Please Please Me (1963)

Most Overrated: Such an easy choice. “Love Me Do” is not a good song. It’s drivel. I wasn’t alive, but I think it was universally recognized as drivel then. The harmonica saves it from being unlistenable, but it remains wildly overrated (and, I would think, a little embarrassing for the surviving members, or at least Paul, since Ringo only plays tambourine on the album version). If you ever see footage of a live performance, or a “live” studio performance where their guitars aren’t even plugged in, they do sort of sell the song on cuteness, but it’s still boring and basically bad.

Most Underrated: “There’s a Place.” I think this was one of those tunes that made musicologists of the time think The Beatles were up to something fishy. Verse chords so bright and sunny, then they keep veering into startling harmonic territory. It has that slightly asymmetrical harmonica riff, and the stuttering start. It’s also too short for a real chorus, but it doesn’t need one because all the energy (and background harmonies) goes into the verse. I remember right around the time when Nas’s Stillmatic came out, I got tired of hearing it and Nelly on constant rotation in the dorm, so I used to open our windows and blast this song when the college tour groups came through the J.E. courtyard.

Comments welcome as always.

Monday, October 09, 2006

I'm nothing if not uninformed

(c) Chuck Klosterman.

It seems that the Stills album, Without Feathers, is indeed a reference to the Woody Allen book. And moreover, that shouldn't have been too hard to catch, since they also have a song on their first record called "Love and Death" -- named presumably after the Allen movie.

By the way, Love and Death is definitely underrated. It's a little annoying, but the more you know about Russian literature, the less annoying it gets (I'm told -- I know some, found it funny, my dad knows more, finds it hilarious). The last scene, where the main character blissfully dances away with the Grim Reaper to the "Troika" from Lieutenant Kije, is an uncharacteristically liberating moment. If you've been assigned to read Anna Karenina for college, I recommend getting that movie to lighten things up a little. Also good, the planetarium scene in Manhattan. Wait, all the scenes in Manhattan.

[Chuck Klosterman's quote in the title refers to a Dixie Chicks concert review in which he described Natalie Maines as "chunky" with an "odd sense of fashion," only to discover after the fact that she was pregnant]

Friday, October 06, 2006

Stills @ The Independent 10/5/06

We went back to our old neighborhood last night to see The Stills at The Independent, which is tied with CafĂ© du Nord for best live music venue in San Francisco (no fries, but better sound & stage). Camille and I have loved the Stills since 2003, about six seconds into “Lola Stars and Stripes.” Wait, that’s not accurate. She’s loved them since then, but at the time they released Logic Will Break Your Heart (their debut) I was engaged in an aggressive boycott of New York haircut bands. So I dismissed them like so much unnecessary conditioner.

You remember that era. Strokes, Hives, Vines, Doves, etc. I had this suspicion that, despite the improbable catchiness of Is This It?, these bands had no shelf life and secretly sucked. And I didn’t want to get too invested. It also really bothered me that Rolling Stone would “predict” some band like The Vines to be "the next big thing," then two months later would put them on the cover – like, See, we were right! It's always been that way -- just in the past, I'd had the time and inclination to investigate the music and figure out what I felt was actually good, separating it from the garbage. Now, even though I still have no time, I've got better sources. But then, I had to give up on pop music altogether. Anyway, I was right about the shelf life of all those bands, but wrong to lump the Stills in with them. For one thing, they’re from Montreal. They only look and sound like a New York haircut band. And, really, they don't sound too much like that -- their record was produced that way (in Brooklyn, no less), and they were certainly marketed in that way, but it doesn't fit well. They don't fit well with the slightly more recent Canadian invasion either, but no one fits these labels in the first place, and there's no such thing as a metropolitan music "scene" anyway, so forget I said anything and let's move on.

The band killed. Like every other mainstream popular rock band right now, The Stills are five white guys, aged 25-28 in suits/ties/formalwear of some sort, with camping hair. Left to right:

A guy who was too French for the Strokes, a guy who was way too French for the Strokes, fat Steve Caton, and my 13-year old cousin Benjie. [aka Tim Fletcher (Vocals/guitar), Olivier Corbeil (bass), Liam O'Neil (keyboards), and Dave Hamelin (Vocals/guitar)] Drummer Julien Blais isn’t pictured – but that’s fine. During the show Camille summed him up fine: “He’s kind of cute…wait, I can’t see him.”

You have to hand it to this band, though. They understand the difference between a song formula (boring) and a song recipe (tasty!), they know that it’s easier to rock out to simple melody & complex harmony, and they play tight new-wave arrangements in a loose, bombastic manner. Best of all, when their lead guitarist left, their drummer switched to rhythm guitar and took over half the vocals while their lead singer/rhythm guitarist switched to lead and made space for a new voice. It’s rare to have multiple lead singers of the same gender, and especially rare for the singing lineup to change three years in. What’s even more rare is when the less-attractive, less charismatic singer with a dorkier voice gets to sing a larger percentage of the songs on the sophomore album. But we loved him. He wasn’t totally comfortable on the guitar, so at first, due to his awkwardness and concentration, Camille starting referring to him as the “boy genius” of the band. It made sense later when we found out he’s not the regular guitarist or singer. It gave the band a more democratic feel, which is always nice.

They started with “It Takes Time,” from their new album Without Feathers (no idea whether they named it after the Woody Allen book or not – probably not). Great, but just a warm-up for “Lola Stars and Stripes.” Three years ago I would have thought the Kinks had mined that name for all its catchy singability, but obviously the Stills found unexplored potential. It’s impossible not to like that song. The follower, “Gender Bombs,” tried a lot harder to be dark and unlikeable, but since everyone in that club plays Smiths and Galore when they’re doing dishes, no luck there. Other highlights from the old album included “Yesterday Never Tomorrows” with sparkling keyboards, “Love and Death,” and a propulsive, snarly “Changes are No Good,” which Dave Hamelin (aka “Boy Genius” or “Teeny Weeny Rock Star”) prefaced by saying: “I wrote this one about a party that I wasn’t at, and wasn’t happy about it.” Camille leaned over to say “Yeah, cause you were at Hebrew school.” Buuuuuuuuuurn!.

About halfway through the show they announced that they were about to blow our minds, then revved up “Retour a Vega” and Tim Fletcher (who's hot enough as it is) started singing in French. Macy's panties department instantaneously made $900.

The songs from the new album got enthusiastic treatments too, which I always like to see. Nothing’s worse than a band that doesn’t commit as hard to its new material because of the crowd’s unfamiliarity. “The Beginning” had that bright, sunshiney epic feel, and their intense delivery of “Helicopters” helped bring out the lyrics’ lurking paranoia. I love lurking paranoia:

So keep this song
Till you catch diseases
And wait them out
Till the tundra freezes

Helicopters are chasing
Animals through the fields
Helicopters are chasing
Our spirits into the sea.

Can't front on a song about helicopters chasing animals through the fields, especially when it's set to soaring harmonies in a coda that makes you scared and elated at the same time. Good stuff. Also good: the rollicking guitar/drums/tambourine version of “Oh Shoplifter,” which offers a completely different take from the Smiths on that five-fingered art.

All in all, excellent show by a band with just a little more talent and depth than their hype would suggest. Don’t miss them if they’re coming to your town.

Monday, October 02, 2006

photoshop monday...

Some music-related fucking around on Photoshop:

Inspired by what I thought was a hilarious comment on a Youtube clip.

I love Yo La Tengo, and I really love Ira Kaplan, aka the Jewish Jimi Hendrix.

And, following a discussion last week with my coworker Matthew, some commentary on how much Audioslave has let us down:

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

it ain't in my plan to make moves without the fam

Here's a few links to friends and family who make music. It's all good or I wouldn't recommend it.

Tom Frampton -- You can find music from my Yale classmate (and current UNITE HERE organizer) Tom Frampton on his Riotfolk page. More old songs on the old Riotfolk page.

Steve Espinola -- My cousin Steve is a completely unique songwriter. I'm going to say this later about Jeff Louie too, but if there were any justice in the world, Steve would be on everyone's iPod, and known all over instead of just among his Antifolk fanbase and the people for whom I've made mixtapes. (If you've got the Moldy Peaches album, he plays on "Jorge Regula" and might be on your iPod already).

Jesse Kriss -- This guy has the distinction of dating Camille before me, about a hundred thousand years ago. Also a friend of ours from middle and high school. I don't know whether you can still find mp3s of his composition on the site, but the multimedia projects are terrific.

Matt Fitzgerald (aka Fitzgeezus) -- A Yalie, and veteran of the residential college hiphop beef wars. You'll have to take my word that it was a lot less ridiculous than it sounds...though still funny. He's part of the Sky Beneath crew. You can find their stuff on iTunes, and check out the killer soccer tribute video.

Jeff Louie -- One of my Greenwood camp counselors. Like I said, if there was any justice, Jeff's songs would be right next to Steve's on your iPod. If you like Stevie Wonder's harmony, or you like mid-period Beatles, or you wish Elliott Smith wasn't so depressing, buy Jeff's albums and check out the acoustic demo downloads.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Studio Sportsnight on the West Wing of the Sunset Strip with Tommy Schlamme

Why was the Studio 60 pilot vaguely boring to most Sorkin fans?

The short answer is, we've seen almost everything in it before, written by the same guy. Still effective, just recycled. I didn't mind at all, since it was good and it'll certainly get better. But for the record, here's a fairly comprehensive list of things that should ring a bell.

Meta stuff (poorly disguised references to the real-life writer/director team of Sorkin & Schlamme)

Writer-director team return to save failing network 4 years after being "shown the door."

Harriet Hayes=Kristin Chenoweth, the multi-talented blond entertainer dating the writer of the show, who makes an album of spiritual music and goes on The 700 Club, leading (maybe) to the breakup

Sorkin/"Tripp" drug problems & getting bonded to work in Hollywood

Matthew Perry/"Matt Albie" on Vicodin (kind of below the belt, right?)

"Tripp"/Sorkin dating a Maureen Dowd-type reporter

Jordan McDeere=Jamie Tarses (formerly McDermott), past NBC president

Censorship/network vs. talent meta-discussions -- Sorkin uses characters to complain about the network trying to dumb him down

"Tripp" in rehab 11 years ago – Sorkin addicted to crack in 1995 (11 years ago) till he went to rehab.

"Ricky & Ron" = John Wells, the hack they brought in after the real talent left

Situations (same old dramatic devices)

Offending Christians (see Sportsnight w/Jerry Falwell, WW pilot w/Mary Marsh)

Offending Christians with an unscripted outburst on live TV (see, again, the WW pilot)

Offending Christians with an unscripted outburst on live TV and being in danger of losing your job (see, again, the WW pilot, as well as the Sportsnight pilot for someone about to lose their job over problems with the network)

Network guy argues with producer over who's in charge of what aspects of the show

Back medicine making someone totally high and incoherent

Main character suddenly thrown back together with ex-girlfriend

Recycled dialogue (definitely heard this before)

"Playing with pain" (SN)

"Eat em up"/"Good show" (SN)

"Anything you can say to make me feel better about..." (SN)

"Breathing guts" (SN/WW)

"We’re blowing off _____" and everyone in the control room's disappointed (SN)

"One of us is gonna screw up/be angry at a time, it's gonna be me" (SN/WW)

"We don’t have that kind of time" (SN, maybe WW)

The falling out of a chair gag (SN pilot and WW)

“Our boy” (SN/WW/probably everything else he's done)

High as a paper kite (SN)

Going to hell in a handcart/speedboat/hula hoop (SN/WW)

You’re up on router #, have a good show. (SN)

Who am I offending? (SN/WW)

So, what's missing? We need a character whose parents split up after a long time, preferably because the father had a prolonged secret affair. We need something to be, sarcastically, a "barn burner," and we need someone to ask if you've fallen on your head. We need a season one finale that will actually answer the question "What Kind of Day Has it Been?" We need a character whose younger sibling died, and who blames him/herself for it in a repressed way. We need legs that go all the way to the floor, and Shakespeare the way it was meant to be played. We need to make someone happy by coming home at the end of the day. We need someone writing a letter because something that was supposed to have ended (tennis match, filibuster), is going on way too long. We need someone "raising the level of debate." We need smart people who disagree with you. We need a fight over the supposed significance of an anniversary. We need, when the fall is all that's left, for it to matter a great deal, and we need to know that the fact that we want to please you, pleases you. We need underwear in an inappropriate place. We need you not to talk to us like we're "other people." We need someone complaining about the lack of admonishment from the clergy over religious violence. We need people accidentally saying the wrong word to someone important, then obsessing over it.

We need Josh Malina.

Monday, September 18, 2006

in 25 words or less...

So, San Francisco MUNI has been advertising its new after-hours schedule, with the tagline:

"Get around after midnight."

They had one with a close-up of Cinderella's slipper getting onto the bus, and one with Frankenstein.

At the 16th & Mission stop for the 49 Mission-Van Ness, there's one with a picture of dracula.

It looks more or less like this, except it's in color, he's holding on to the bus handrails, and there's an ad for City College visible above his head.

Someone scribbled the following onto the poster in magic marker:

I drink blood
I get women
I smoke weed

Friday, September 15, 2006

what kind of power?

After two years, a strike, a lockout, $100 million lost due to the boycott (ahem), lobby takeovers, sit-ins, rallies, VERY early wake-up calls which I won't miss at all, and about a hundred bargaining sessions...

...San Francisco hotel workers have a contract.

It's a great contract.

No, really, you would not believe how good this contract is.

There are literally no takeaways, which is worth repeating. No healthcare cuts, copay increases, elegibility restrictions, or two-tier systems. No subcontracting, no outsourcing. No increased split shifts, no mandatory overtime, no vacation/sick pay restriction schemes. No takeaways. People should understand how rare that is for labor unions right now, especially in the private sector, especially in a volatile industry.

But it's better than that. We also won a higher cap for prescription drugs, and vision care for dependents (now Camille can get glasses for $10).

Pension guarantees ($30/yr service/month) and a window benefit ($35) for folks retiring during the contract term.

$3/hr increase non-tipped, $1.50 tipped over the next three years, plus ~$1/hrs worked since 2004 retro.

Workload reductions for room cleaners and ergonomic improvements for cooks

Ironclad (or as good as it can be) successorship and subcontracting protections

Plus more union leave time, solidarity language for the building trades, and a contract term that expires with Chicago in 2009. So we're already lining up for the next coordinated national fight.

And the most important thing we won, the best contribution we made to the future of hotel workers: Card check neutrality with Hyatt, Hilton, Starwood, Intercontinental, Omni, and Four Seasons on new and acquired properties for all of San Francisco and San Mateo county.

So 4,000 workers fought it out and reminded the rest of the labor movement (and the San Francisco progressive community) that when you're disciplined, aggressive, and you never give up, you can actually win.

But there's still 5,000 others without a contract, so I have to go back to work.

More frequent blogging to come, I hope.

(also, folks who don't know the response to the question posed in the title need to spend more time on a picket line)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

in case there was any doubt

this is why I married Camille:

Me: So I read this article about how the Tenderloin is San Francisco's next hip neighborhood. It's supposed to be the "new Mission."

Camille: Right.

Me: The "New Mission." What does that even mean?

Camille: It means there's pee on the ground but white people will still live there.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

which implies...

Chicago's new retail living wage law is another kick in the pants for Walmart & other big-box stores. It's especially effective because it challenges those stores to live up to their assertions -- i.e. big-box development supports local economies and creates quality job opportunities. The fact that Walmart, Target et al see this legislation as a significant barrier to store development demonstrates clearly that poverty wages & benefits are part of their business plan. Their low prices (and enormous profits) depend on extremely low labor standards both here and overseas, and these companies remain completely unwilling to compromise on either side.

When John Simley, Walmart's spokesperson, argues that this legislation "means that Chicago is closed to business,” that's what he's saying. A more honest statement would be: "Chicago's closed to our exploitative, damaging business model."

The Brennan Center has detailed information on the ordinance, including the actual language.

Monday, July 24, 2006

back in a few.

When SF hotel workers have a contract, I'll get back to the blog.

Until then, sporadic updates if any.

You'll be able to see what's happening with me here.

Friday, July 14, 2006


San Francisco's Pride weekend took place a few weeks ago. Here's a picture of me, more or less in my element, during the hour or so that we stood around before marching. Later on, I got a beer from Ed Dietrich at the Public Defenders office (I guess they were drumming up business?) and drank it before we turned onto Market St.

Not pictured: Camellia George, Danny Glover (who just chilled and marched with us), tons of Google employees who were squinting in the unfamiliar, outdoors natural light.

In the back of the picture you can see a "Sleep with the Right People" poster. Check that site out, it's pretty great.

I have no plans to make this a lame photo blog. However, I'll just contrast the photo above with this one, which 2004 election campaign staff in Oregon captioned "Alek at his Best."

Not sure how to take that.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

minor design flaw

Vaguely inspired by our renovation projects, I've been reading William McDonough and Michael Braungart's Cradle to Cradle. For people (like me) without experience in cutting edge industrial design philosophy, this book legitimately deserves to be described as "mindblowing." It did actually blow my mind.

I won't get into it in any depth, but the passage on how to design housing for Bedouin communities led to the following discussion last week:

Me: "...and I thought that was fascinating, how the Bedouin tents are perfectly designed for their users. 'Cause they're nomads, so the tents can be easily transported and repaired on the fly, and the shape means they draw heat up and out the top. Plus, when it rains, the fibers are all woven together and they swell up to become watertight? That kicks ass. The only real downside is --

Camille: [interrupting] -- they smell like yak butt.

Monday, July 10, 2006

I was wondering...

...why no comments on the last post, given all the Jews who read this.

Comments were broken. Now fixed.

("fire baaaaaaad")

i don't even believe in jeebus

[DISCLAIMER: The discussion below refers specifically to my personal experience as a Jew in Northern CA. Much of it could apply equally to other religious contexts, and none of it is intended to propose Judaism as singular in possessing the problems discussed -- it's just where I'm at]

So, there's been a lot of hubbub around the Jews For Jesus summer 2006 campaign. It's the culmination of a five-year evangelical effort. (Maybe they got the idea for the timing from UNITE HERE?)

Anyway, to describe my feelings on this issue as conflicted would be really understating the case.

However, as usual I don't have the time to put something coherent together, so I'll just make a few observations and number them, like the order matters.

1) I hate to admit it, but in practice, Jews for Jesus bothers me the exact same amount as the Orthodox hassidim who evangelized on my college campus regularly. At first, when I started contemplating it, I thought -- "No, that can't possibly be true. After all, Jews for Jesus purposely twists Jewish theology and tradition to persuade more people to accept Christ as their savior." But in reflecting on it, the judgements they make about my personal faith were no more presumptious or insulting than those of the Orthodox evangelists. And at least Jews for Jesus did not (in my experience, can't speak for others) approach me because I "look Jewish" and try to sell me a menorah. Whatever. At the heart of this lies the judgement that my faith, whatever it might be, will leave me incomplete if I don't change the nature of my spiritual commitments.

2. Which leads to my next point. Antimissionary groups like the JCRC's Spiritual Deception Prevention Project fret constantly about the irreparable damage done by "Hebrew-Christians" when they distort Jewish theology and appropriate Jewish symbols, tradition, etc. to convert people. I would ask, is it any worse than the damage done by anyone who stands in judgement of another because of their difference in beliefs? Personally, I'm a lot more worried about the behavior of Orthodox (and, for that matter, Conservative) jews towards homosexuality than I am about whether someone thinks Jesus is the Hebrew Messiah and wants me to have a bumper sticker. If you want to talk about damage to the Jewish community, let's take a look at the CJLS Consensus Statement, which expressly welcomes homosexual jews into congregations but refuses to ordain or marry them. It definitely ruins our reputation as an ethical people, if nothing else.

[By the way, I've heard all the rationales behind this, including those about rabbis being models of Jewish law, and about there being 612 other mitzvot to do, so homosexuality is only as bad as driving on Shabbas. Well, it's one thing to have high standards, and another for religious doctrine to welcome someone but expressly forbid them from exalting God through mitvahs & covenants. Go find me a conservative rabbi who won't marry someone because they drive to the synagogue on Saturday]

3. Which brings me to my last point. Nothing about this makes me feel good. My own community will accept and embrace me, even though I don't practice much Judaism, don't believe that many events in the Torah actually took place, and don't subscribe to the Jewish conception of God. However, someone who believes in the Old Testament and views Christ as their personal savior? -- they can't go to day camp at the JCC.

I don't know whether Jews for Jesus represents a legitimate danger or not. I can't speak for the damage they do. They threaten me, and my beliefs, exactly not at all in the slightest. When they appropriate Rosh Hashauna holiday, it just makes me glad that someone's celebrating it. If they think we break Matzah to symbolize how Jesus was broken, well, I grew up in California: on the scale of Pesach re-interpretations, that's pretty tame.

They're engaging Jewish youth with "contemporary music"? They're visiting senior centers and luring in recruits by offering them "meals, companionship, and a sense of being part of a caring community?" They're targeting the most vulnerable by adopting and caring for children with special needs? Those bastards!

That's facetious, obviously, but still. Because Jews are being targeted, some perceive a serious threat of "corruption" -- of the individual, of congregations, and of Judaism as a whole. Provided no assumptions are made about the legitimacy of these folks as people of faith (and that's a big proviso, so watch out already), I can respect that. So, in response, the JCRC does counter-leaflets, and takes out ads, and generally does their thing. But, in the process, they also find it necessary to define the "Jewish Community." Here's where I start to feel that familiar chill of confusion and alienation wash over me.

I've got no doubts about myself. To the extent that I'm a Jew and identify as one (which is, not to trivialize it, about the same extent to which I identify as a Democrat), no amount of consensus statements or rabbinical pronouncements will change that. If I was the only Jew on earth, that'd still be who I am. And if my mother's mother hadn't been Jewish, but I'd been raised the same, I wouldn't give a fuck. What sickens me with (unnecessary) anxiety is the impact of these pronouncements on my family. I'm left with the knowledge that those evangelizing Hassids who came to Yale would never sell my Catholic wife and I a mezuzah for our new home [She, by the way, really wants us to have one, whereas it barely even occured to me because I was worried about us having a working faucet]. I want her to continue her willingness to embrace my faith and expose our child(ren) to those ideals and traditions. I want to raise my kids to be both Jews and critical thinkers -- which means I'll have to hope that they choose either a conservative congregation or a same-sex spouse, but not both. Sucks for them.

To their credit, the JCRC and other critics of Jews for Jesus have, in addition to publicly debunking the "Hebrew-Christians," have also made it a priority to encourage participation in and commitment to Jewish life as an antidote, and to try to remain inclusive while incorporating antimissionary education into various programs. The crappy rhetoric remains, but it seems like a decent compromise given their choices. What bothers me is this: Jews for Jesus prompts people to defend and sanctify these particulars of Jewish life that supposedly determine inclusion in our community. But in the end, if I feel included at all, it's not such a great feeling.

Monday, June 19, 2006

what you're missing...

The reason there hasn't been content up here for a week or so isn't that there's nothing going on in the world, or in my life -- it's just that what I'm doing is staggeringly boring and self-involved (painting doors, building shelves, back and forth to the hardware store...etc), plus it warps my sense of everything else going on.

Finally, since 2002-03 I've been anticipating the summer of 2006 and the hotel workers campaign, which I'm now lucky enough to be involved in. Until we settle a contract in San Francisco, I won't be able to spend very much time at all on stuff that isn't my job, new house, or new marriage. I can't really offer many intimate details of the campaign, and I've already written plenty about the broad issues at stake.

So, like Tip said: hold tight.