Monday, July 27, 2015

A Little Thunder

So, as you may recall from my previous post, Thunderation!, or through other channels, I published a book of poetry earlier this year entitled Thunder at Darwin Station. And hey, if you haven't bought a copy yet, what are you waiting for?

Well, I have had a couple of occasions to do some readings from the collection, one of them being at a variety program at the Players Club in Manhattan back in March. My friend John Rovito was also present. John is the founder and artistic director of the Poets & Actors Company, a group he started up via the social media site LinkedIn, (originally under the name of SlamDogs), a group that also puts on live performance events. John was kind enough to make me one of about a dozen featured artists on the group's site, and you can sample excerpts from Thunder at Darwin Station on my page over there.

And, when I did my readings at the Players, John made a video recording of one of them, and it appears on another page on his site, and over on Vimeo where it was uploaded. And now here:

Lance Strate at The Players Club from John Rovito on Vimeo.
Poet Lance Strate performs "Thunder at Darwin Station" at the Players Club in NYC.

So, yeah, my name's spelled the wrong way on the subtitle in the video, that happens sometimes. And to be honest, this was not my best performance of the piece, but then again, it's the only one so far to be recorded, so there you have it. And if you'd like some more of it, or just want to do something nice, here you go:

Hey, it's worth it just for the cover art! The poetry, well, it's an acquired taste (so why not go ahead an acquire it?)!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Yes, Tempus Fugit, Squire

So, it seems altogether appropriate to do a post on a song called "Tempus Fugit" here of Blog Time Passing. And while time does indeed fly, and it seems to do so whether we are in fact having fun or not, this song seems especially timely right now, as it is generally acknowledged as one of the many songs recorded by the progressive rock band Yes that best showcases the extraordinary bass guitar work of the late Chris Squire.

So let's get right to it, with the video portion again a product of vzqk50HD Productions:

And let's get those lyrics in here as well:

Born in the night
She would run like a leopard
That freaks at the sight
Of a mind close beside herself
And the nearer I came
How the country would change
She was using the landscape
To hide herself.

More in the mind
Than the body this feeling
A sense at the end
Of a circular line
That is drawn at an angle
I see when I'm with you
To navigate waters and finally answer to-yes.

If you were there you would want to be near me
Innocence, you could hold all the materials
And though nothing would really be living
It would shock Your fall into landing light
In the north sky time flies fast to the morning
The cold of the dawn it meant nothing to us
You were keeping your best situation
An answer to-yes

(Yes, Yes) And the moment I see you
(Yes, Yes) It's so good to be near you
(Yes, Yes) And the feeling you give me
(Yes, Yes) Makes me want to be with you
(Yes, Yes) From the moment you tell me—yes

If you could see all the roads I have travelled
Towards some unusable last equilibrium
Run like an athlete and die like a dead beaten speed-freak
An answer to all of your answers to-yes

In the north sky time flies faster than morning
The cold of the dawn it meant nothing to us
You were keeping your best situation
An answer to Yes

(Yes, Yes) And the moment I see you
(Yes, Yes) It's so good to be near you
(Yes, Yes) And the feeling you give me
(Yes, Yes) Makes me want to be with you
(Yes, Yes) If we wait for an answer
(Yes, Yes) Will the silence be broken
(Yes, Yes) Should we wait for an answer
(Yes, Yes) Do we leave it unspoken

(Yes Yes Yes Yes . . .)

Squire's bass in "Tempus Fugit" dominates most of the song. And while this is another example of his attempt to turn the bass into a lead instrument, there is no question that it is also the driving force behind the song's rhythm. The song appears on the group's 10th studio album, Drama, released in 1980.

Drama stands, in many ways, as an aberration in the band's history. Following the mixed reception that their previous album, Tormato, received in 1978, two fifths of the band left due to creative differences. The departure of keyboard player Rick Wakeman was seen as unfortunate, having been regarded as the best to have filled that role. But a Yes album without Wakeman was entirely conceivable, and the record made prior to his joining the band, none other than The Yes Album, is generally considered one of their 3 best. After all, Wakeman didn't join the group until their 4th album, Fragile, played on the next two, left the group and was replaced on their 7th album, Relayer, and returned to the group for the next two.  

But singer Jon Anderson had also left the group, and Anderson was a founding member of Yes, and the lead vocalist on all of their previous albums. As the voice of the band, he more than anyone else represented the band's identity, and fans had a great deal of difficulty accepting his absence. 

Perhaps an analogy can be made between a band's lead singer and the sound of our own voices. For individuals, losing their voice temporarily can be highly frustrating, and losing it permanently can be traumatic. Truly so, I mean this without hyperbole or exaggeration. We take the sound of our own voices for granted, but they are much more a part of our identity than the way we look. We may look in the mirror a couple of times each day, maybe less, maybe a bit more depending on how much your looks matter in your profession, or to you personally. But our looks are not with us to the same degree as the sound of our own voices can be. Even when we're not talking, we can still hear our voices as we think, and what is thinking but talking to ourselves silently? If it's too noisy, we say, I can't hear myself think. We never refer to being unable to see ourselves think, and we don't imagine our faces, or bodies, when we're caught up in the act of thinking.

So there is a severe psychological trauma that individuals experience if they lose their ability to speak forever, say due to a laryngectomy (surgical removal of the larynx), often necessitated by cancer of the larynx brought on by smoking or drinking. It may follow, then, in a more modest way, for a band like Yes who had recorded and performed for many years with only one singer taking the lead, that that singer became intrinsic to the group's identity, and his loss difficult to accept, at least for the fans, because fans in some way derive their identity from the object of their enthusiasm.

Another problem was that the replacement of two key members took many fans by surprise, either when they purchased their copy of Drama, or when they saw the group in concert. Nowadays, such changes in personnel would be amply broadcast via the internet and social media, which would have provided the opportunity for feedforward, and perhaps a change in plans. At the very least, there would have been more of a chance to break the news gradually, rather than having the experience that many fans had of going to see Yes in concert, expecting to hear Anderson's voice, and getting someone else instead, along with a substitute on the keyboards.

So who replaced Wakeman and Anderson? It was Geoff Downes on keyboards, and Trevor Horn on lead vocals. Both had previously been members of a new wave band called The Buggles. It was considered at odd combination, insofar as new wave, as a more mainstream evolution of punk rock, was seen as a reaction against the excesses of progressive rock, and therefore almost almost diametrically opposed to all that progressive rock was about. Punk and new wave emphasized shorter songs, getting back to the older idea of the 3-4 minute single that fit into the 45 rpm format and was aimed at the Top 40 charts, and relied on more down to earth, often prosaic, sometimes ironic lyrics, less cosmic and preachy, more angry and rebellious, etc. But I hasten to add that at least some of new wave was similar to progressive in being alternative and experimental, intellectual, and reflecting an interest in technology, science, and science fiction. 

So the arrival of Downes and Horn was not at all absurd, and it certainly was not forced on their part, or on the part of remaining Yes members Squire, guitarist Steve Howe, and drummer Alan White. And just in case you're asking, who in the world are or were The Buggles, well, here's their best known song:

Some video, huh? A real tribute to mid-20th century media transitions. And as you may well know, when the cable channel MTV was launched in 1981, this was the first music video that they played (and for those who don't know, MTV originally was devoted almost entirely to playing music videos). The song itself had been included on the first album by The Buggles, The Age of Plastic, released in 1979. If you're not familiar with it, I'd recommend it, and here it is, as a matter of fact:

This video includes 3 bonus tracks not on the original album, which consisted of 8 songs divided evenly on the 2 sides of the record, "Living in the Plastic Age," Video Killed the Radio Star," "Kid Dynamo," and "I Love You (Miss Robot)" on side 1, and "Clean, Clean," "Elstree," "Astroboy (And the Proles on Parade)," and "Johnny on the Monorail" on side 2.

So, anyway, as you might imagine, I like what The Buggles did here especially for their use of media ecological and science fiction themes. I find the music enjoyable, and not entirely inconsistent with the progressive rock approach of Yes. But when it comes to singing, Horn's voice is significantly lower than Anderson's, and while he tried to raise it up higher when he joined Yes, he just wasn't able, and it no doubt caused quite a bit of strain on his vocal cords. Perhaps that had something to do with Horn switching roles from performer or producer, a career change that resulted in quite a bit of success, not the least working with the next version of Yes.

The point being that Drama was an aberration because the band broke up in 1981, so there were no subsequent Yes-Buggle albums made. At least not until 30 years later, in 2011, when Yes released another album without Jon Anderson, who was replaced by Benoît David, while Geoff Downes returned to play keyboards. This time, Anderson's absence was not by his own choice, but due to illness. And once again it was controversial, among the fans, as it was three decades before, but this time also because Anderson argued that he had recovered sufficiently. Downes has remained with Yes as they released their last album with Squire, appropriately titled Heaven and Earth, in 2014, with Jon Davidson as lead singer.

So, more than a little actual drama associated with the release of Drama. And returning to "Tempus Fugit" I'd say that it was not only Anderson's voice that was missed, but also his lyrics. Anderson had a certain way with lyrics that made them cryptic, a cool medium in the tradition of Symbolist poetry (as Marshall McLuhan would say), modernist in that sense as opposed to the postmodernist sensibility of The Age of Plastic. Postmodern self-reference and self-reflexivity can be seen in the repetition of yes and yes, yes in the lyrics of "Tempus Fugit," something Anderson would never do. And while that sort of thing became commonplace in rap and hip hop, it went against the loftier sentiments associated with progressive rock.

Simply put, "Tempus Fugit" is not one of my favorites, and in my view, not one of the best songs Yes recorded, which is to say that it is a good song, just not outstanding. It is certainly an interesting piece, a product of an interesting period in their history. And without a doubt, it is very good instrumentally, and on the power of the bass line alone, a memorable composition, one of the best examples of why Squire was in a league of his own as a bass guitarist. Oh, and by the way, the previous posts in this series are Yes, Squire, Yes Again, Squire, and Squire's (Not So) Silent Wings, in case you missed any of them and want to catch up. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Waiting for the Firesigns

So, the recent passing of Phil Austin, one of the four members of Firesign Theatre, prompted me to write a couple of blog posts featuring their second, and most popular album. Just on the off chance that you missed those posts, or are in need of a review, the first was A Nick in Time for Firesign, and the second was Of Flip Sides and Firesigns.

Well, now I'd like to turn to their first album, Waiting for the Electrician of Someone Like Him, released in 1968. Like side 2 of their second album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All, which features "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger," side 1 of Waiting for the Electrician of Someone Like Him includes some of their more accessible, mainstream material, relatively speaking.

In fact, side 1 consists of 3 short pieces, again relatively speaking, as opposed to "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger," which takes up an entire side of the album, and as opposed to side 1 of How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All, which, while listed as several separate pieces, is really one long journey through an insane, hallucinogenic landscape, and mediascape.

So, let's start with the first track of side 1, which is given the name, "Temporarily Humboldt County" for reasons I could not fathom. A quick hop over to the wikipedia entry for the album, however, reveals that, "the group had been told by friends in Humboldt County, California, that the local Indians added 'Temporarily' to the county's name as a way of saying no one could really own the land."

"Temporarily Humboldt County" is a parody of narratives that tell the story of the discovery of the New World, colonization, westward expansion, and our treatment of Native Americans. It's just over 9 minutes long, so here, take a listen:

As I recall, some time ago I was speaking to someone who was teaching a class on audio production, and he used this particular track as an example of what can be done with an acoustic medium and a radioplay format. No doubt, he also used it because it is relatively straightforward as a narrative.

Clearly, this recording also reflects the understanding, still not all that widely held in the 60s, about how Europeans treated the "Indians" (as they are are still officially referred to by the US government), and satirizes not only mainstream, but also the counterculture mythologies. Coming out of California, the Firesigns would have been much more attuned to both the stories of the wild west, and of the Spanish conquest, than us northeasterners.

Waiting seems to be a theme here, whether it's for the electrician referred to by the album title, or someone like him, or the "true white brother" the Indians are waiting for in "Temporarily Humboldt County" (and disappointed to discover it wasn't us). 

Perhaps the connection can be traced back to Waiting for Godot? Certainly, Firesign Theatre can be seen as heir to playwright Samuel Beckett's absurdism, creating sonic environments that place the listener at the center of the play, immersed in the action, spatially rather than sequentially in medias res. Orson Welles referred to radioplays as theater on the air, and the Firesigns also are part of that lineage, creating an acoustic theater of the absurd.

Waiting... what a concept! As much as we live in a temporal environment measured by nanoseconds, even picoseconds, as much as we eschew delayed gratification, as much as we want everything to be available on demand, it seems that waiting is as much a part of our lives as ever, and in some ways, due in large part to all of our technological innovations, more so than ever. It's like sports journalist Tim McCarver used to say when he was calling the New York Mets baseball games, nothing slows the game down more than speed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

4 Points on the Meaning of the Donald Trump Candidacy

So much attention on the part of the news media is being devoted to Donald Trump running for president that I can't resist adding some comments on the meaning of Trump's candidacy, on Trump as a pseudo-candidate, on Trump as a celebrity candidate, on Trump representing the business sector, and on Trump as a leader.

1. Trump is a pseudo-candidate. Much of the coverage about his candidacy amounts to discussion about whether he should be taken seriously or not. The opinion polls showing him leading the pack of contenders for the Republican nomination are evidence that he is a legitimate contender. But his behavior falls outside of the norm of political rhetoric, adding to the fact that his past experience does not fit the profile of most major party candidates.

While news media are covering Trump as a controversial candidate, and how some are arguing that he is not fit to be president, most are not taking the opportunity to raise the more interesting question of what are the requirements to becoming president? Part of the problem is that we have the American cultural myth that there are no requirements, that anyone can grow up to be president, so it goes against that deeply held and cherished belief to suggest that someone who is born a citizen and is not a convicted felon cannot be president. No one wants to say that American presidents tend to come from a relatively small segment of the population, to have a relatively narrow set of qualifications based on education (Ivy League for the most part in recent decades), socioeconomic background (often affluent, at least professionals occupying the upper middle class). and experience (significant records of government service).

And when it comes to the coverage, while there is acknowledgement that Trump's candidacy is fueled by his personal fortune, implying that anyone with the means can effectively "buy" his way into the race, this tends to obscure the fact that much of the task of running for president is about fundraising, that all of the candidates have to be or quickly become resource rich in order to mount an effective campaign. Which leads to the inverse conclusion, that people without the means or connections, poor people, working class people, even most middle class people, can never become president. Of course, everyone knows this, but it is never actually stated in an overt manner, because that would pop the bubble, ruin the illusion.

But even here, there is the sense that Trump's use of personal wealth to fund his campaign places him outside of the political norm. It's not unheard of, but it is another way in which he is non-traditional candidate.

Of course, the main thing is that he speaks off the cuff, and that his comments, about immigration, Mexico, John McCain, Obama's birth status, etc., are not politic. And there is an obvious popular appeal to this, in contrast to most candidates being increasingly more unwilling to take a stand on anything because it will be shared throughout our vast electronic media environment, to all of the conflicting constituencies that the candidates are vying for support from. In the face of the bland way of talking that results from all this, an uncandidate who speaks his mind and is not afraid of offending others comes across as authentic where all the others seem phoney. That this contributes to Trump's appeal is clear enough, but again what often goes unsaid is that this also implies is that if you are authentic, you can never be president. That is perhaps the greatest threat posed by Trump's candidacy to traditional politicians.

The solution, of course, is a theatrical one. Following Erving Goffman, we can understand that authenticity is a performance, a way of playing a role, and candidates need to play the part of being authentic while not actually being authentic, just as actors need to convince you that they are the character they're portraying, not an actor playing a part. The performance needs to be transparent, so the audience forgets that it is a performance. And let's be clear, sometimes the performance of authenticity may not be a lie; in fact, it works best if most of the time the performance is felt to be real and true by the actor. Most politicians, not having experience on the stage or screen, have some trouble with their projection of a sense of authenticity when performing their roles. Of course, Ronald Reagan, who was an actor before he became a politician was the master at creating an image of authenticity, and thereby establishing credibility, and likeability, with his audience.

Despite the threat that Trump's image of authenticity poses, ultimately he will be seen as a pseudo-candidate. The message that he is not to be taken seriously, or that he is not fit to be president, is being broadcast fairly consistently by the news media, comedians and talk show hosts, and by many of his Republican rivals. And while this is not the intent of the journalists and media professionals at least, dismissing Trump serves to reinforce the legitimacy of all of the other candidates.

I want to emphasize this point: By presenting Trump as a pseudo-candidate, news media outlets are telling us that all of the other candidates are not pseudo-candidates. They are telling us that they are, in fact, real candidates. That they are, in fact, authentic.

This serves to disguise what media ecology scholar Jacques Ellul referred to as the political illusion, the illusion that politics in a technological society is not reduced to decisions largely made by technical experts on the basis of efficiency, rather than any other human value.


Postmodernist Jean Baudrillard, a media ecologist in his own right, once argued that the function of Disneyland, an an obvious simulation of reality, was to give us the impression that everything else is real, is not a simulation as well. That is, it gives us the impression that our malls, highways, cities, buildings, homes, as well as our parks and farms, are not the product of human technological intervention, that we have not radically reshaped the environment that we live in. That it is not, in that sense, an artificially manufactured, pseudo-environment.

By the same token, Trump as a pseudo-candidate reinforces the view that the other candidates, who all behave in the narrow way that a candidate is supposed to behave, and who all represent a narrow segment of the population, all are real, actual, authentic, legitimate candidates that ought to be taken seriously. Trump is the obvious simulation of the political process that hides the fact that it is all a simulation of a true democracy.

I don't mean to say that it makes no difference whatsoever who we elect as president. It does make a difference. Just maybe not anywhere near as much difference as we are led to believe. And just that the difference it makes has less to do with the candidates themselves, and more to do with the specific technical experts they call upon to guide them.

2. Trump is a celebrity candidate. In referring to Trump as a pseudo-candidate, I have been following media ecology scholar Daniel Boorstin's lead. Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event to refer to artificially manufactured events designed simply to be reported by the mass media, publicity stunts, interviews, press conferences, press releases, news leaks, etc. And in a groundbreaking discussion of heroes and celebrities, he referred to the celebrity as a human pseudo-event.

It follows that Trump is a celebrity, and is certainly not the first to capitalize on star power in the pursuit of political office, the most obvious example being Reagan. And it is perhaps not surprising, given the prominence of the entertainment industry in California, that that state would give us Reagan and more recently Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor, but how to explain Minnesota where former professional wrestler and movie actor Jesse Ventura served a term as governor, and comedian Al Franken is currently serving his second term as United States Senator? Except to understand that celebrity politics is a national, indeed an international phenomenon.

Much has been made of the fact that Trump has been host of the reality television program The Apprentice for over a decade, and its variation (quite fitting in this context) known as The Celebrity Apprentice. His famous last words to contestants, "you're fired!" is taken as evidence of his leadership ability, the efficiency of the executive, unconstrained by sentimentality, or even humanity.

But on the subject of celebrity, it is worth noting that, while he has enjoyed considerable success in business, as a real estate developer, Trump is a human pseudo-event in the sense that he is not the most successful executive or entrepreneur in this area, not at all. Long before he was tapped to host a TV series, going back to the 80s and the Reagan years, he was a master at self-promotion, and so gained much higher visibility than many others whose records of achievement in business, in real estate, in hotels and casinos, in any of the areas he was involved in, far exceeded his own. He is the product of publicity, not profits.

And with the barriers that once existed between sectors of society dissolving on account of the electronic media, where everything is just an image, a performance, and a chunk of data, Trump was able to move between worlds, from private enterprise to the world of celebrity, and so to television entertainment, and from there into politics. Just another example of what Neil Postman referred to as amusing ourselves to death. A process that has exploded in the decades that followed Postman's publication, which I address in my own work.


3. Trump means business. Trump is hardly the first individual to run for president based on his experience in the private sector, as a corporate executive, rather than as a
politician. Back in May, Carly Fiorina made it official that she was seeking the Republican nomination, her background being a former executive at AT&T and Lucent, and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, before being forced to resign.

In 2012, Herman Cain was one of the Republican candidates, running on his experience as a Vice-President at Pillsbury, an executive at Burger King, and CEO of Godfather's Pizza. Mitt Romney won the nomination, and while he served one term as governor of Massachusetts, he also
emphasized his experience as an executive and CEO of Bain & Co. management consultants and the Bain Capital private equity investment firm.

 Going back a little further, in 1992 Ross Perot ran as an independent candidate, as a billionaire entrepreneur with long experience in the tech sector, and gained enough support in the polls to be included in the televised debates along with
incumbent Republican president George H. W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. He drew almost 19% of the popular vote in the general election, much of which might have otherwise gone to Bush, which insured Clinton's victory. Perot ran again in 1996 under the banner of the Reform Party, which he founded, but only drew 8% of the popular vote that time, still a very significant showing.

From all this, you might conclude that business-based candidates are not serious contenders for the presidency, and that does seem to be the case, sort of. But note that our previous two-term president, George W. Bush. while  campaigning based on his service as Governor of Texas, also included quite a bit of private sector experience on his resume, working in the oil industry, both as an executive and
an entrepreneur, and as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team for five years. Moreover, he was the first president of the United States to hold an MBA degree (from the Harvard Business School). Opinions on his actual business acumen and how well it served him as a political leader vary considerably, as you might imagine.

4. Trump is a leader. Trump's rationale for why he is qualified to be president, a rationale shared by all who run on their experience in business rather than politics, is that politicians are often not efficient administrators, and that the private sector is a better training ground for leadership than the public sector—note, in this regard, that for a long time, it was military service that was seen as the best preparation for civic leadership, but the aftermath of the Vietnam War put an end to that, and consider the despicable treatment of John Kerry in 2004 (running against George W. Bush who evaded serving in Vietnam by enlisting in the Texas National Guard, and through family connections avoided a dishonorable discharge after refusing to take a required medical examination, presumably due to drug use), not to mention the recent conflict between Trump and John McCain over McCain's experience as a POW and status as a war hero.

There is an analogy at work here, that government is an organization like any other organization, and therefore the skills and talents needed to run one organization can be transferred to another. Following this logic, the CEO of a soda company can become the CEO of a computer company (a move that brought Apple to the brink of bankruptcy in the 80s), that it's all about technique, method, not material. And even if this would be true for the private sector, does it translate to the public sector. Is the simile that government is like a business, or worse yet the metaphor that government is a business, put in a milder way that it ought to be run like a business, valid?

Calvin Coolidge is often misquoted as saying, "the business of America is business," the actual quote being, "the chief business of the American people is business," but either way, he did not say that the American government is a business or should be one. Does government manufacture a product? Does government sell products or services to consumers? Are the people customers of the government, and consumers of its products and services? Is the government itself something to be bought and sold? Does the government have an owner or owners? Are there shareholders, with some having more than others, maybe even some being majority stockholders? Knowing the kinds of answers that many would give to these questions, it might make sense to substitute "should" for "does" because my point is not to argue about the reality of socioeconomic and political inequality, but rather about how we think about the concept of government.

The argument for approaching government as if it were a business, and the presidency as if it were being the CEO of a corporation, is that the private sector is more efficient than the public, because any given business operates within an external environment of free enterprise, and therefore faces Darwinian pressures of competition, survival of the fittest and all that, along with the financial pressure to maximize profits for shareholders, which requires businesses to operate in as lean and mean a manner as possible. Now, holding aside the fact that businesses often are successful in squelching competition, and are not always so wonderfully efficient, the argument itself is based on the technical criteria of efficiency, which media ecology scholars such as Ellul and Postman have argued is inhuman, anti-human, hostile to any human value. 


Is government all about efficiency? Maybe, if we're talking about fascism, Nazism, totalitarianism. Not if we're talking about citizens participating in democratic self-governance. Not if we're talking about preserving human rights, human dignity, and nurturing human potential. Not if we're talking about doing what is right and providing for what is good, for individuals and groups, communities and the people as a whole. Not even if we're talking about what Trump called the art of the deal, the ability to negotiate with individuals who do not share the same views or goals, and to be diplomatic. The old-fashioned words, statesman and statesmanship, and apologies for the sexist language, refer to qualities entirely different from that of a sharp business executive.

We use the same word, leader, to refer to heads of state and heads of corporations, and the officers who devise battle plans and the officers who actually lead soldiers into battle, and community organizers, and clergy, and school administrators, and the list goes on and on. And the case can be made for studying leadership as a general concept, but ultimately, there are many different types of leaders for many different types of situations, and what makes for a good leader is always dependent on the context. Different contexts are differences that make a difference. They are differences that can make all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Fortune in Speakers' Fees

So, here we go again. In my recent post, Of Fees, Futility, and Mike Huckabee, I related how a quote of mine regarding the huge speakers' fees given to politicians and other celebrities was included in an article entitled, The Real Reason Mike Huckabee Keeps Running for President, published in The Daily Dot back on May 6th. And how that quote was taken from a longer quote used in an article entitled Talk Is Not Cheap: Why Do Ex-Politicians Earn Huge Money From Making Speeches?, published in the International Business Times back on Decemeber 18, 2003, and immortalized in my blog post of February 23rd, 2014, Giant Speaking Fees-Fi-Fo-Fum.

Phew! Well now, last month, Fortune magazine ran a piece on this topic, entitled Speech Inflation: Why Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Others Get Massive Speaking Fees, posted on their website on June 11th. The author of the article is Ben Geier, and it has a highlighted blurb at the start that goes like this:

Long after they step away from the limelight, ex-politicians can make a mint off of speaking in public. You can blame the rise of speakers bureaus for some of this.

As you might gather from this, the emphasis in this article is a bit a different, and, oh yeah, you can go click on the title and read it over there, or stick around and read it here. It starts off like this:

In just under two years, President Obama will be out of office, leaving the White House and giving way for another politician to start taking flak. What, pray tell, will he do with all that free time? If his predecessors offer any clue, he won’t do much, but he’ll get paid a lot for it.

Last week, Politico reported that former President George W. Bush makes between $100,000 and $175,000 for every speech he gives and that he has given at least 200 speeches since leaving office in 2009. A bit of simple math translates that activity into more than $30 million for the former president in speech fees alone. Compare that to the relatively paltry $400,000 a president makes a year while in office, and you can see why presidents look forward to their retirement.

Now, Geier provides some historical context, and it begins with someone you might consider an unlikely individual, and for that matter, an unlikely president:

Paying ex-presidents to give speeches really took off with Gerald Ford, Politico notes—which makes sense, since Ford didn’t ever really plan to run for president and likely figured he would stay in the House much longer than he did. Ford took umbrage when he was criticized for making money off of his former job, saying that as a private citizen he could leverage his past however he pleased.

Not long after Ford started hitting the lecture circuit, the Washington Speakers Bureau—home to many high-powered speakers, including George W. Bush and his wife Laura—was founded in 1979. These agencies have played a major role in the skyrocketing fees that high-powered speakers now command.

Now for the part you've all been waiting for, the point where I get to weigh in on the topic. And here it comes:

“Whenever you have a middleman, that adds to the cost,” said Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University. The desire among agencies to maximize fees, and the added ability to negotiate that comes with having professional representation, means organizations are more likely to see speaking fees grow. Plus, the agency system simply provides more access to influential figures like ex-presidents, meaning more groups are able to get the power elites they want, if they are willing to pay the price.

I should add that, while I have done a fair amount of public speaking, and have had some interaction with these agencies, I have not signed up with one, and others that I know who have done so have expressed mixed feelings about it all. But then again, we're talking about academics and intellectuals here, not politicians and entertainers.

Anyway, let's get back to the article:

But why exactly are organizations willing to pay so much for an hour of a former politician’s time? It isn’t for the content, that’s for sure. Generally, speakers and those who hire them are mum on just how much money gets handed over for these engagements—which, by the way, aren’t usually the most thought-provoking or newsworthy speeches. (Politico notes that in one speech to a bowling industry group, Bush let loose the earthshaking bon mot that “bowling is fun.”)

And now back to me for the (obvious) answer to the question of why they get paid the big bucks for banal banter:

“The speech is kind of secondary to … just being able to have a big name at your event,” Strate said. “It might get reported on some form of TV or cable news, which further adds to the prestige and the publicity of the event.”And even if it doesn’t end up on the evening news, almost every conference will put their speeches on YouTube, where there is always a chance it will go viral.
And the article ends with some figures Geier or someone at Fortune figured out, and their implications for the current crop of presidential hopefuls:

Though speakers fees are often kept confidential, we do have a few estimates of what famous ex-politicians make:

  • Bill Clinton supposedly made around $225,000 for a gig last February.
  • Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and one-time Republican presidential hopeful, is said to have pulled up to $270,000 for a speech. 
  • Sarah Palin, former Alaska Governor, former Republican vice-presidential candidate, and all-time cable news and tabloid fixture—is said to have made $115,000 for a speech in 2011.

These are just the big guns. Even the fringiest of also-rans—think Howard Dean and Herman Cain—have big-time speakers agents and can pull in serious coin for giving a fluffy 45-minute talk. Given that most of the declared 2016 candidates on both sides of the aisle have a fairly slim chance of becoming president, perhaps financial incentives, rather than the pull of public service, has some impact on just how many people run for high office.

This echoes the point made in the article I was quoted in the month before,
The Real Reason Mike Huckabee Keeps Running for President

By the way, in this instance, Geier interviewed me by phone, so I don't have a record of all of my comments to share (and it also accounts for the "kind of" bit in my second quote in the article). And our conversation took place on the same day this piece was posted online, June 11th, which is pretty remarkable, at least from an old school point of view. 

At the time, I was in Denver, at the annual meeting of the Media Ecology Association, so I had to sneak off and find a quiet corner for the phone call. Of course that's the kind of speaking we don't get paid for, but I suppose you might say that's a fee-bull excuse...


Monday, July 20, 2015

Together Again at Tech-Mex

So, while I was in Mexico City this past March to to give a series of lectures at Universidad Panamericana, as I mentioned in my recent post, My Panamericana Visit, I also had a chance to see my friends and fellow media ecology enthusiasts, Octavio Islas, and Fernando Gutiérrez. 

And I was quite happy to learn that Fernando has moved up in the world, and is now Director (equivalent of Dean) of the División de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades (School of Social Sciences and Humanities) at the Santa Fe Campus (a section of Mexico City that is home to many business headquarters, kind of their high tech center) of Technológico de Monterry (Monterrey Tech). 

Congratulations, Fernando!
So, I had a chance to visit his campus, and give a guest lecture to one of his new media classes, an enjoyable experience. The students were all bright and attentive, and there were also several faculty members present. And I suppose that's how my little presentation to the class wound up on Twitter:


Of course I spoke about media ecology, and the Media Ecology Association:

But I talked about media ecology especially in regard to the study of new media:

And speaking of new media, this also gave me the opportunity to try out embedding tweets in a blog post, something I had not had the opportunity to experiment with before. Funny to see that little 15 second video, which really is mostly medium, very little message:

And also more than a little self-reflexive, in that it is a video of me showing the class another video (while I'm talking over and about it). And in case you're curious about the video I was showing, it was one I included in my 2011 post, The Choral Village. The video, by composer Eric Whitacre, wonderfully illustrates the potential of new media for collaborations that would not otherwise be possible, while also exemplifying the dematerialization accomplished by electronic media, the disembodiment that we experience, or what McLuhan referred to as being discarnate and angelic, as well as what Sherry Turkle so aptly summarized as being alone together.

But what was truly marvelous about my Mexico City trip was the opportunity to be together together. Nothing can quite take its place.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Squire's (Not So) Silent Wings

In two of my previous posts, Yes, Squire and Yes Again, Squire, I wrote about the recent passing of bass guitarist Chris Squire and about the group he co-founded and played with for almost half a century, Yes. And I included two of their songs that especially showcased Squire's unique approach to turning the bass into a lead instrument, "Heart of the Sunrise" and "Starship Trooper," both of which are among their better known songs, from two of their most popular albums, Fragile and The Yes Album, respectively.

This time around, I want to share a lesser known song recorded several years after those two, and included on their 1978 album, Tormato. As the album cover makes clear, tormato is a variation on tomato, presumably as rendered through a British dialect. And while it suggests a bit of self-deprecating humor, it also reflects the fact that the band was less than satisfied with the album. And while it may not have been completely panned when it was released, Tormato did meet with a mixed reception. Simply put, it was not as good as their earlier stuff that you could listen to on The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), and Close to the Edge (1972).

The band's line-up on Tormato was almost the same as on Fragile and Close to the Edge, with Squire, guitarist Steve Howe, Jon Anderson on vocals, and Rick Wakeman on keyboards. The only difference was the drummer, Alan White taking the place of Bill Bruford, Bruford having left the group after the release of Close to the Edge. White remained with the group ever since, substituting a solid rock beat in place of Bruford's more jazz-influenced drumming. For the most part, it was a difference that made significantly less of a difference for fans than the times when other musicians took the place of Anderson, Howe, or Wakeman. Bruford only returned briefly to play Yes music with the breakaway group, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe circa 1988-1990, and together with White for the Union album and tour, circa 1991-1992.

I can only imagine that it must be strange for White to be the longtime drummer for Yes, for approximately 45 years, and yet to somehow always be in the shadow of Bruford, who played with the group for only a few years, but appears on their best known and most popular albums.

But I digress.  The end of the 70s was the time when punk rock had hit the peak of its popularity, and the related genre of new wave was coming into its own, and they represented an approach to rock music that was almost diametrically opposed to that of progressive rock. Interest in concept albums, complex compositions, and fusions of classical, jazz, and rock was at an all time low, which was bad news for Yes. Progressive rock still had its enthusiasts, and Yes their die-hard fans, but Tormato was, in its time, a disappointing album, and stands as the end of the group's classic era, as Anderson and Wakeman left the band a year after the album's release. It was the end of an era. 

Only in retrospect could the album be said to be, not one of their best, but a respectable contribution to their discography. Or at least, I'll say it. Others may disagree. But I think most would agree that the album has at least one or two cuts worthy of note. Which brings me back to the point of all this, the lesser known song (as compared to "Heart of the Sunrise" and "Starship Trooper") that features Chris Squire's bass, and I should add that Squire also played an important role in providing backing vocals to Jon Anderson. The song I am referring to is "On the Silent Wings of Freedom," and it is credited to Jon Anderson (for the lyrics) and Chris Squire. Here's a quote about the song from its Wikipedia entry:

The song is the final and longest song on the album. On this particular track, as with most of the album, Squire sends his bass through his foot pedal controls to give it a more harmonized sound. Thus, the bassline had a different tonality to it from previous albums, yet was still able to retain his signature "growl". Most Yes fans favour this one song, as it is the closest track to other fan favourites like "Close to the Edge", "Heart of the Sunrise" and "Awaken". It also foreshadows the harder rock sound the band would move to on Drama.

Drama is the album the group released after Tormato, minus Anderson and Wakeman, and I'll leave that off for another day. I will reinforce the entry's point, that this song has the same sort of quality we find on their big three albums, The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge, while it also incorporates more of a hard rock sensibility than their earlier work. The track also highlights Alan White's powerful drum playing, and there is some very nice interplay between Squire and White here, and also between Squire and Wakeman. Only Steve Howe's guitar playing moves a little bit into the background here, as compared to much of their other material, which opens up more room for Squire to shine.

As was the case in the previous two posts, this YouTube video, featuring the album cover art of Roger Dean, comes courtesy of vzqk50HD Productions. And here are Anderson's lyrics:

On the silent wings of freedom
Where I offer myself midst the balancing of the sun
On the winds of celestial seasons
That would carry me on, midst the balance of being one
On the dream of our love eternal
That will eventually bring our living once more with you

Where we are coming from
Or where we go
We only know we come with sound

Where we are coming from
Or where we go
We only know we go around and around

On the back of your forty-second screamdown
Do you choose to be lost midst the challenge of being one
On the flight of regardless feelings
As you hurtle to fear midst the challenge of everyone

On the darkest night so painful
Do you hunger for love midst the torture of being one
On the passing light of easing
Have you seen you inside midst the being of everyone
To the common goal of freedom
Where we offer ourselves midst the balancing of the sun

Where we are coming from
Or where we go
We only know we come with sound

Where we are coming from
Or where we go
We only know we go around and around

I very much like the line, "we only know we come with sound," which strikes me as quite media ecological in its insight.

And the song also strikes me as a fitting memorial, the silent wings of freedom as a metaphor for release from pain and sickness, and for passing on from this earthly plane.