Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Purim Spiel

So, in case you're not familiar with it, Purim is a minor Jewish holiday based on the biblical Book of Esther. It's sometimes compared to Halloween, because one of the traditions is that kids (of any age) dress up in costume for it. Nowadays they dress up in any kind of costume, but originally it was only as characters from the Book of Esther, i.e., Ahashverosh, the king of Persia and Medea, living in the citadel of Shushan; Vashti, his disobedient queen who he banishes; Haman, the villain of the story who, as the king's prime minister, plots to kill all the Jews; Mordecai, the Jewish hero of the story, and cousin or uncle (the original is unclear) of Esther; and Esther, the heroine who becomes the new queen and risks her life to save her people.

Rather than Halloween, however, Purim is best understood as a Jewish Mardi Gras, falling during that same time of year, early spring or the end of winter, and involving rites of reversal (and for adults, depending on the context, getting drunk as well). As for the historical accuracy of the Book of Esther, well, it comes across as a bit of a joke or satire, and some point to the fact that the name Esther appears to be derived from Ishtar, and Mordecai from Marduk, two Babylonian deities, while Haman is the name of a Babylonian demon.

Be that as it may, the tradition is that on Purim, the Book of Esther is read in its original Hebrew, from a scroll:

By the way, the reason why the books of the bible are called books and not chapters is for this very reason. Originally, they were all separate scrolls, the first type of book, and they retained that designation even after they were bound together to form a single volume (the same is true of the ancient Greek and Roman texts).

The Book of Esther is also known as the Megillah, a term that can also be applied to the books of Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. But most only associate it with the Book of Esther. And because it is read out loud on Purim, and because it takes a long time to read the whole thing, megillah also became a Yiddish word for any kind of story or speech that seems to go on forever, for anything that goes on for too long, or otherwise is perceived as boring.

There's also the expression, the whole megillah, which has the connotation of too much, too much. And who can forget the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character from the 60s?

Of course, Magilla Gorilla had nothing to do with the Megillah, the story of Esther, or the holiday of Purim, and there wasn't even any reference to the Yiddish usage in the children's TV program, but there was no question as to the origin of the character's name. And the silliness of the cartoon was very much in keeping with the topsy-turvy theme of the holiday itself.

During the reading of the Megillah, the tradition is that whenever the name of the evil villain Haman is mentioned, the kids (of all ages) shake noisemakers, called groggers, maybe also stomp their feet, and yell "boo!" loudly, the idea being to drown out his name. Sometimes, the names of Mordecai and Esther are greeted with cheers as well.

There's also a tradition going back some centuries of putting on some kind of play or show during Purim, the Yiddish name for it being a Purim spiel, or alternately a Purimshpil (Yiddish is a German dialect, but is written with Hebrew letters, hence the alternative transliterations). It could be a puppet show or a dramatization of the Book of Esther, but in contemporary times it tends to be some kind of comedy, satire or parody, reinterpreting the story of the Purim in different ways, especially in ways that modern audiences can appreciate. And this often includes song parodies as well.

So, all this is background to the main reason for my blog post. You see, the synagogue that I belong to, and serve as president of, Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia (Bergen County), New Jersey, puts on a Purim spiel every year. And for as long as I can remember, this involves purchasing a script from someone (the purchase price going towards some charity). And I have to say that I was not terribly impressed with the quality of what we had been getting, and for a long time have been saying to myself, I can do better than that.

So last year, I sat down and wrote a Purim spiel, which I called, The Schnook of Esther, and it was performed this past March in celebration of the holiday of Purim. In fact, it was performed twice, on Sunday morning March 1st, for our religious school, and then on Wednesday evening, March 4th. And I also played a couple of minor roles in it.

So let's be clear, this isn't Shakespeare. It isn't Seinfeld. It's not Monty Python or Firesign Theatre. It's just a bit of fun. And I did try my hand at writing some comedy skits back in the 80s, although nothing ever came of it. Oh, and I do have one very small TV screenplay credit, an episode of the animated science fiction series, Galaxy Rangers (episode 8, "Ghost Station"). So I'm not entirely a novice at this sort of thing. Just saying.

Anyway, in this post I want to share the first performance of "The Schnook of Esther" on March 1st (its world premiere, ha ha), as it was recorded for posterity. Some notes first, so please bear with me. 

First, there isn't much of a stage to work with, and not much time to rehearse, so you'll see that everyone's reading, script in hand. The songs are mostly done karaoke style, and some of them get messed up a little bit. Not that I'm complaining, just that it isn't always exactly what I wrote. There was also an attempt to get the religious school choir kids involved, which didn't work out so well, and wasn't repeated in the second performance. And as for my theatrical performance, well, I look pretty silly in this, almost embarrassed to show it to you, but then again, that is the spirit of the spiel. And the musical performances of a couple of our congregation's teenagers are absolutely wonderful, and worth the price of admission (the admission that I can't act or sing very well myself, that is).

Anyway, you can watch The Schnook of Esther (A Purim Spiel) Adas Emuno March 1, 2015 over on the Adas Emuno YouTube channel if you like, or catch it right now over here:

Now, if you belong to a congregation that puts on an annual Purim spiel, and you are interested in doing "The Schnook of Esther" next year, just let me know or email adasemuno at, and we can provide you with a copy of the script in exchange for a donation for the Adas Emuno Social Action Fund. Otherwise, I hope you enjoyed the show, for what it's worth, and I'll share a recording of the second performance another time. And maybe even a new spiel next year...

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Firesign's Electrician

So, it's time to get back to Firesign Theatre, and their first album, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, released in 1968. As I noted in my previous posts (Waiting for the Firesigns, Sending Up the 60s, and The Enola McLuhan), side 1 of the album consisted of 3 separate, short (in comparison to most of their releases) pieces. Side 2, on the other hand, is made up of one extended radioplay, the title track, "Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him," clocked in at 17 minutes and 48 seconds. 

This piece is more like the surrealistic journeys that characterize the albums that follow, although it lacks the same amount of textured sound and sense of soundscape as can be found on their second album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All (see my previous posts, A Nick in Time for Firesign and Of Flip Sides and Firesigns).

"Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him" is framed by a play on instructional record albums, specifically language learning records, a wonderful bit of self-reflexive satire. That the language is Turkish, which then places the subsequent action in Turkey, retrieves the old, radio days/mid-20th century sense of the former center of the Ottoman Empire as an exotic and dangerous place, as well as a crossroads of the world. References to narratives based on the old British Empire and more contemporary (circa 1968) Cold War espionage are also present.

There's also a bit of play with radio eyewitness reporting. And the game show parody, Beat The Reaper, is one of their most memorable segments, generally considered among their best work. But it fits together as part of a larger whole, as you can see, er, hear, here:

The Wikipedia entry on this album refers to this piece as "a Kafkaesque fantasy of paranoia" and there clearly is an influence from The Castle and The Trial in this recording. But I would also point to Hitchcock movies in which an innocent becomes accidentally sucked into a world of intrigue and conflict, such as North by Northwest, and The 39 Steps
"Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him" employs an acoustic and dramatic variation of stream of consciousness, and an almost Freudian form of free association in humorous form, a real dive into a collectivist unconscious. Following the topsy-turvy logic that their comedy is based on, I guess you could say that their first album was worth the wait.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Close to the Edge, Squire

Yes, it's the next entry in my series on the late Chris Squire and his remarkable run with the progressive rock band, Yes. And so far I've done posts on songs written or co-written by Squire that highlight his talent and innovation on the bass guitar, but now it's time for something a little different.

As I've previously mentioned, the group's three best albums all were produced in a relatively short period of time, between 1971 and 1972, with The Yes Album and Fragile both coming out in 1971, and Close to the Edge the next year.

Close to the Edge featured the same line-up as Fragile, Jon Anderson on vocals, Steve Howe on guitar, Bill Bruford on percussion, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, and Squire on bass, of course. What made the album remarkable was the fact that the title track, "Close to the Edge," took up an entire side of the album, clocking in at 18 minutes and 43 seconds on side 1. This was not unprecedented, certainly not for a live recording from a jam band like the Grateful Dead, but this was a studio recording. And of course The Beatles included a 16 minute medley on side 2 of Abbey Road, released in 1969, but that was clearly a medley of different songs. The Who's Tommy, also released in 1969, was a double album billed as a rock opera, and while the songs on the album all were more or less connected to the narrative, they were all separate songs, none of them all that long or complex. Of course another progressive rock group, Jethro Tull, released Thick as a Brick, also in 1972, with the entire album taken up by a single song, but it was a really a blending of a number of separate songs as well. There are other examples as well, but none of them can really be compare to what Yes accomplished on their 5th album.

 What made "Close to the Edge" special was the fact that it was an integral, well-orchestrated piece, one that demonstrated that progressive rock musicians could aspire to something more than making a bunch of pop songs or jamming away in the tradition of jazz, that they could aspire to something that approached, however distantly, the quality of classical music compositions. At a time when rock was still struggling for respectability, when the music that baby boomers embraced was denigrated by their parents, what Yes was doing was in effect saying roll over Beethoven in a whole new way.

Within the progressive rock movement, Yes was categorized as symphonic rock, in that they had experimented with including an orchestra on their second 2nd album, Time and a Word, and had utilized synthesizers such as the Moog to incorporate a symphonic sound on their 4th album, Fragile. With "Close to the Edge," Yes also incorporated symphonic elements, this time not just in the sound but also in the structure of the composition. This meant going beyond the surface and into the depth of symphonic sound.

The music of Yes was also labeled as classical rock, in that they drew on classical music. And while some others listed in this category were content to transform classical pieces into rock songs, with "Close to the Edge" Yes brought some of the structure of classical music into the rock idiom. This meant not just playing classical music in a rock context, but creating something akin to classical music.

The song, which is divided into 4 movements, is credited to Anderson and Howe, which means that Squire didn't write it. No doubt that's why the bass is never at the forefront of this song, although it drives the rhythm and progression of the music all the way through, with the exception of the spacey third movement. And it's hard to believe that Anderson and Howe actually wrote the bass line that Squire plays here, which is perhaps why on later albums, many of their more elaborate pieces are simply credited to Yes, meaning  all of the members of the band playing on that particular album.

Listening to "Close to the Edge" what stands out are Anderson's vocals and cryptic lyrics, Howe's lead guitar, which carries the main melodies through most of the movements, and Wakeman's keyboards, which open with the sounds of a natural soundscape, of birds and waters, proceed to give the song structure throughout, take the lead in the 3rd movement, are also featured in the 4th, and close with a return to the sounds of nature. That's what I remember best from all the times I've listened to it. 

But "Close to the Edge" also provides an opportunity to hear what Squire does with a song that is not his own. Listening to the bass guitar line, he certainly does more than keep the beat, and it actually gets increasingly more complex and creative as the song progresses from the 1st to the 2nd movement, and starts to take on an organic quality, one that strikes me as sounding like something alive, perhaps primordial, a voice from the depths. That sound returns in the 4th movement. 

Moreover, Squire is the primary backing vocalist behind Anderson throughout the song, and his singing takes the initial lead on the 3rd movement, and continues in counterpoint to Anderson afterwards.

So, enough chit chat, let's enjoy this classic Yessong, with the very cool video utilizing Roger Dean album cover art, once again produced by vzqk50HD Productions:

And now for those lyrics:

I. The Solid Time Of Change

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar
And taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour
And assessing points to nowhere, leading every single one
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun
And take away the plain in which we move
And choose the course you're running

Down at the end, round by the corner
Not right away, not right away
Close to the edge, down by a river
Not right away, not right away

Crossed the line around the changes of the summer
Reaching out to call the color of the sky
Passed around a moment clothed in mornings faster than we see
Getting over all the time I had to worry
Leaving all the changes far from far behind
We relieve the tension only to find out the master's name

Down at the end, round by the corner
Close to the edge, just by a river
Seasons will pass you by
I get up, I get down
Now that it's all over and done
Now that you find, now that you're whole

II. Total Mass Retain

My eyes convinced, eclipsed with the younger moon attained with love
It changed as almost strained amidst clear manna from above
I crucified my hate and held the word within my hand
There's you, the time, the logic, or the reasons we don't understand

Sad courage claimed the victims standing still for all to see
As armoured movers took approached to overlook the sea
There since the cord, the license, or the reasons we understood will be

Down at the edge, close by a river
Close to the edge, round by the corner
Close to the end, down by the corner
Down at the edge, round by the river

Sudden cause shouldn't take away the startled memory
All in all, the journey takes you all the way
As apart from any reality that you've ever seen and known
Guessing problems only to deceive the mention
Passing paths that climb halfway into the void
As we cross from side to side, we hear the total mass retain

Down at the edge, round by the corner
Close to the end, down by a river
Seasons will pass you by
I get up, I get down

III. I Get Up, I Get Down

In her white lace, you could clearly see the lady sadly looking
Saying that she'd take the blame
For the crucifixion of her own domain

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

Two million people barely satisfy
Two hundred women watch one woman cry, too late
The eyes of honesty can achieve
(She would gladly say it amazement of her story)
How many millions do we deceive each day?
(Asking only interest could be layed upon the children of her domain)

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

In charge of who is there in charge of me
(She could clearly see the lady sadly looking)
Do I look on blindly and say I see the way?
(Saying that she'd take the blame
For the crucifixion of her own domain)
The truth is written all along the page
(She would gladly say it amazement of her story)
How old will I be before I come of age for you?
(Asking only interest could be layed upon the children of her domain)

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

IV. Seasons Of Man

The time between the notes relates the color to the scenes
A constant vogue of triumphs dislocate man, so it seems
And space between the focus shape ascend knowledge of love
As song and chance develop time, lost social temp'rance rules above
Ah, ah

Then according to the man who showed his outstretched arm to space
He turned around and pointed, revealing all the human race
I shook my head and smiled a whisper, knowing all about the place
On the hill we viewed the silence of the valley
Called to witness cycles only of the past
And we reach all this with movements in between the said remark

Close to the edge, down by the river
Down at the end, round by the corner
Seasons will pass you by
Now that it's all over and done
Called to the seed, right to the sun
Now that you find, now that you're whole
Seasons will pass you by

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down


The lyrics are influenced by symbolist poetry, with a strong current of eastern mysticism running through them, and the sense of spirituality born out of the New Age movement is clearly present. There is an additional strong influence from Herman Hesse's Siddhartha narrative in the lyrics and music, the sound of the river especially.



But overall, it is the interplay of everything, lyrics and vocals and instrumental music of this quintet that make "Close to the Edge" one of the best songs ever written and recorded by Yes, truly an ecological and media ecological work in my view, and one of the most memorable performances by Chris Squire. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Bernie Sanders as Joe Lieberman's Revenge

So, if you've been reading my blog for the past year or so, you my have noticed that every so often I post an entry about an op-ed piece of mine published in the Jewish Standard, a weekly periodical serving the northern New Jersey area, along with New York's Rockland County. I've been asked to supply something for the paper about every six weeks or so, and I do my best to oblige. The op-ed also would be posted on their website, and afterwards I would eventually share it here on Blog Time Passing.

Well, this past spring I was informed that the Standard was partnering with one of Israel's English language newspapers, the Times of Israel, and would use their blogging platform to simultaneously publish entries on both sites. And would I be interested in participating? Being an old hand at blogging, I said sure, so I am now officially a Times of Israel blogger as well. Here's the link to my blog there. And in fact the  Jewish Standard's new site is entirely in partnership with the Times of Israel, so they really are changing with the times.

So, my first post on this new blog consists of my most recent op-ed for the Standard, originally published in the July 17th edition of the paper, and entitled Lieberman's Revenge. Click on the link if you want to see it on the Times of Israel blog, where it was posted on July 20th. Right now, as I look at the post, the third paragraph appears to be wrapping around a non-existent image. That's not my doing, and I'm told an ad appears there some of the time. Hopefully this glitch will be ironed out soon. In the meantime, yes, of course I'll post the op-ed here as well.

But before I do, let me explain that this op-ed is a commentary on the current race for the Democratic Party's nomination for president, and the emergence of Bernie Sanders as a viable alternative to Hillary Clinton. Sanders' sudden popularity brought to mind, for me, the question of whether there could ever be a Jewish POTUS (an acronym that sounds like it could be a Yiddish word, but stands for President Of The United States, a product of Twitter's telegraphic discourse). On that topic, I noticed an interesting meme being sent around on Facebook by his supporters, and it appears that it originated on Twitter:

An interesting point that no doubt would be lost on all those social conservatives who decry the "war against Christmas" (waged by the secular-humanist left). But holding political persuasion aside, the question is a complicated one for
Jewish-Americans, more so than for other minority groups, who typically view the candidacy of one of their own as a matter of ethnic or religious pride. Our long history of being strangers in strange lands means that we were excluded from being a part of hereditary ruling classes, and from having any established status at all. Viewed as foreigners, we were allowed limited autonomy, internal to the local Jewish community, to govern our own affairs, subject to the external authority of the state. While the modern nation-state opened the door to full citizenship, the tradition of exclusion from leadership positions carried over well into the new era. And with the long history of being subject to prejudice, oppression, and persecution, during which time keeping a low profile was the only real defense, the question of could is inextricably linked to the question of should.

But my point in this op-ed was to note the ironic connection between two Jewish-Americans presidential contenders, Joe Lieberman, who sought the Democratic Party's nomination in 2004, and Bernie Sanders today. Connecting the two, even though they differ dramatically in their political leanings, is how I came to view Sanders' candidacy as Lieberman's revenge. That's not to imply anything like a conspiracy (God forbid!) or anything intentional about it, just a bit of poetic justice maybe? Well, you can make up your own mind. Here it is:

Could there ever be a Jewish president of the United States? That was a question that was raised repeatedly as I was growing up back in the sixties. On the one hand, we were told that here in the USA, anyone could grow up to be president. That idea was emblematic of the egalitarian foundation of American society, the basis of our democratic system of government. On the other hand, there was the practical reality that everyone who had been president came from a very limited demographic, all of them men, all of them white, most of them Anglo-Saxon with the occasional Dutch or German representative (e.g., Martin Van Buren, Dwight Eisenhower), and all of them Protestant.

So when it came to the question of whether we would ever see a Jewish president, the conclusion we typically came to was that it was possible, but unlikely.

This is not to discount the significance of the 1960 election, when John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic of Irish ancestry, defeated Richard Nixon. No doubt, the advent of our first Catholic president made the idea of a Jewish president seem at least a little possible, and served as a spur to the discussions that took place within Jewish circles about whether it could happen, and if it did, whether it would be good for the Jews or bad for the Jews. In some ways, we were more comfortable with a figure like Henry Kissinger, who became the 56th U.S. secretary of state, or more recently Rahm Emanuel, who served as the 23rd White House chief of staff. That sort of advisory or ministerial role has a long precedent in our history, reaching all the way back to Mordecai in the Book of Esther, and Joseph in Genesis. By way of contrast, we have the 19th-century example of Benjamin Disraeli, who served as prime minister of the United Kingdom, but only after converting to the Anglican Church as a child.

Rahm Emanuel

And, as is well known, Kennedy tragically was assassinated before completing a full term in office, and while there have been several other Catholics who have seriously vied for the presidency, including his two brothers, the nine presidents who followed all have been affiliated with one or another Protestant sect. It is worth noting that the first Greek Orthodox presidential candidate was nominated by the Democratic Party in 1988, and had former Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis defeated George H. W. Bush, his wife, Kitty Dukakis, would have become the first Jewish first lady of the United States. Here, too, we could find a precedent in the biblical personage of Esther.

Then came the year 2000, when Al Gore chose the U.S. senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, to be his running mate on the Democratic party ticket. And while Lieberman was the first Jewish vice presidential candidate to win the popular vote (albeit riding Gore’s coattails), the conservative-dominated United States Supreme Court decided the election in favor of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Gore and others harbored a degree of resentment towards Lieberman for not going all in, and running simultaneously for re-election as senator, a race he won. But in truth, with the economy still going strong under the Clinton-Gore administration, the election was Gore’s to lose. And he did.

Joe Lieberman

Lieberman became a presidential candidate in his own right in 2004, and for a brief moment we came closer to the possibility of a Jewish president than ever before. But he was identified as a centrist at a time when the Democratic party was moving to the left, as the shock of 9/11 began to recede and the reality of Bush’s occupation of Iraq began to take hold. Consequently, Lieberman’s candidacy was not very successful, and the United States senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kerry, a Roman Catholic just like the other JFK, gained the Democratic nomination, only to go down in defeat against Bush’s re-election bid. Whether Lieberman would have done any better or any worse than Kerry is hard to say.

Kerry’s defeat did not slow his party’s leftward tilt, which posed serious problems for Lieberman, especially given his somewhat hawkish stance on foreign policy issues. This came to a head in 2006, when he lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut, and decided to run for re-election to the Senate as an independent. While he won the election, he lost the support of many former colleagues in the Democratic party, including Gore and Hillary Clinton, who abandoned Lieberman and endorsed his rival. And while he remained more or less affiliated with the Democrats during his final term as senator, which ended in 2013, Lieberman in turn endorsed Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, and spoke at the Republican National Convention that year. Rumor had it that he had been considered a potential running mate for McCain as well, and perhaps might have served McCain better than former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Of course, the 2008 election was extraordinary, in that we elected the first African American president. And back in the sixties, conversation about whether there would ever be a Jewish president would sometimes also turn to the question of what would be more likely, that there would be a Jewish president or an African American president? The answer was far from clear, as both possibilities seemed altogether improbable. The fact that Barack Obama was elected and then re-elected is a great testament to the progress we have made as a society, and also a reflection of significant demographic changes within the population of the United States.

The 2008 primaries were also significant in regard to some of the other primary candidates. For example, for the Republican party, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani had been a contender, and could have been the first Italian-American elected to the White House (many urged Democratic New York State Governor Mario Cuomo to run back in the 80s, but to no avail). Mitt Romney came close to taking the nomination away from McCain, and then became the Republican candidate in 2012, making him the first Mormon to come close to winning the presidency (whether Mormons are considered Protestants, or even Christians, is open to debate). Back in 2008, former United States senator from New York Hillary Clinton was considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and had Obama not overtaken her in the primaries, she might have been the first woman to serve as president.

And so we come to the present moment, and the impressively diverse set of major party candidates set to run in the 2016 primaries. On the Republican side, this includes New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Roman Catholic; former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Roman Catholic convert; United States senator from Florida Marco Rubio, a Roman Catholic of Cuban descent; United States senator from Texas Ted Cruz, whose father also was Cuban; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, an African American; and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India.

On the Democratic side, we have former first lady, senator, and secretary of state Hillary Clinton once again running as the heir apparent; former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, a Roman Catholic; and the United States senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, born and raised, and bar mitzvahed, in Brooklyn, New York.

Although their politics are quite distinct, in tossing his hat into the ring to compete in the Democratic primaries, Sanders is following in Lieberman’s footsteps as a Jewish candidate for president. And the amazing thing is that Sanders is suddenly mounting a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton. I find this somehow ironic, given that Clinton and others turned their backs on Lieberman when he was down on his luck, because Lieberman was seen as too conservative. Now, along comes Sanders, who like Lieberman has independent party affiliations while remaining associated with the Democrats, but whose politics is significantly to the left of Clinton, to the extent that he identifies himself as a democratic socialist. So now it is Clinton who is losing ground among the party faithful because she is seen as too conservative.

Bernie Sanders

I imagine that the success Sanders is achieving in the polls and in the all-important activity of fundraising is starting to give Clinton some cause for concern, maybe even an upset stomach? That’s why I would call what’s happening right now, with apologies to Montezuma, Lieberman’s revenge.

Could Sanders win the Democratic nomination next year? And if he did, could he beat whomever the Republicans pick out of their extremely crowded field, thereby becoming the first Jewish president of the United States of America?

It’s possible, but unlikely. But the really nice thing about all this is, it’s unlikely because of his politics, and not because he’s Jewish.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Enola McLuhan

Let me start this off by saying that I think it's only natural to look at the world you're living in when you're growing up, and expect to enter that very same world and take your place in it when you finally are an adult. And there undoubtedly is a resulting sense of disappointment that is universal to the human condition, because the adults that we looked up to as children will have almost certainly revealed their flaws and weaknesses, their essential humanity, as we grow up. And more importantly, as there is no way to arrest the passing of time, those adults will have inevitably aged, sooner or later growing weaker, less capable, less healthy, and will ultimately pass on.

No matter what, we cannot enter the world of our childhood as adults, not unless someone invents a time machine of course (something I believe to be impossible, but that's another story). But in traditional societies, there is at least the comfort of entering a world that is more or less the same as the one you grew up in, with the roles essentially the same, just new actors taking filling in for the older ones. The rules don't change, nor does the environment for the most part. With the exception, I hasten to add, of catastrophic events, like natural disasters, epidemics, famine, and of course war.

Another catastrophic occurrence, albeit one that has come with a multitude of benefits, has been the revolutionary changes brought about by technological innovation over the past few centuries, social, cultural, psychological, political and economic changes, and biological, chemical, and physical change as well. The phrase future shock, coined by Neil Postman and made famous by Alvin Toffler, refers to the accelerated pace of change that we live with, in which the future is now, and the world of tomorrow is radically different from the world of today.

The point I would stress here is that the worlds that we moderns enter into as adults bear little resemblance to the worlds in which we grew up. I remember full well watching the 60s unfold as a child, mostly seeing it play out on TV, and finally going away to college in August of 1974, and upon arriving, wondering, where are all the hippies? Where are all the cool counterculture types I had heard about and watched and expected to become a part of?

They were gone, of course. Not entirely, but mutated into freaks (that was the 70s term that we used), similar but not the same. The point being that things had changed drastically over the course of just a few years. So the idea that the hippies would still be around for another entire generation was entirely unfounded. But back in the 60s, there was quite a bit of speculation about what would happen if the counterculture ever took control of the culture, if it ever became the mainstream culture, if the hippies ever took charge, and ultimately, what would happen when they became adults and moved into the leadership roles occupied by the generations that had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War?

One example of this sort of speculation was the 1968 film, Wild in the Streets, directed by Barry Shear, based on the 60s baby boomer slogan, Don't Trust Anyone Over 30! The film posits a scenario in which a young radical turned rock star gains voting rights for 14-year-olds, and is elected to the House of Representatives, and ultimately becomes President of the United States. He doesn't exactly play fair in his rise to power, and once in charge, establishes a kind of police state where all the members of the older generation are moved into retirement homes and forced to take LSD.

I know, I know, it's hilarious, isn't it? A cautionary tale, the real message being, don't trust anyone under 30. Hey, they didn't call it the generation gap for nothin'! 

And then there were the stories that predicted that the children of the hippies would rebel against their parents and reject their values and way of life, just as the youthful baby boomer had rejected the values and way of life of their parents. This revenge scenario, in some ways reminiscent of the universal argument that parents give their children, just wait until you have children of your own, then you'll see, was amplified and intensified to an extreme by the severity of the generation gap between boomers and their parents. 

Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, is best understood as incorporating just this sort of extrapolation into the future. It is often not recognized as a science fiction film, even though it posits a dystopian future, and highlights the introduction of a major new technology, the Ludovico technique, an advancement in behavior modification, based on aversion therapy. This takes what was in the 60s a relatively new idea that criminal behavior is a mental illness that needs to be treated, the goal being rehabilitation, rather than a moral failing that needs to be punished, and pushes it to its extreme. 

Politically, the future dystopia is based on the liberal to socialist principles ascendant in the 60s, albeit with roots that go back to the New Deal era, with an expanded welfare state, housing projects, and permissive parenting. And whereas the counterculture youth preached peace and love, their children rejected the idea of flower power, as it was known, and that fictional rejection in some ways anticipates the advent of punk rock in the mid to late 70s. But beyond rejection, the children of the future embraced violence of every variety, to the extremes of rape and murder.

Moreover, the hippies emphasized the consciousness-expanding potential of hallucinogenic drugs, notably LSD, but also peyote and its derivative, mescaline, as well as the mild, mellowing quality of marijuana, while some got hooked on the comfortably numbing opiate, heroin. Drug use in general was condoned, but stimulants were generally used either to balance out the effects of depressants, including barbiturates and alcohol (drinking and popping pills was an activity they shared with their parents, albeit engaged in without parental or legal permission), or in the service of consciousness expansion, for example in the form of the psychedelic drug, STP. In A Clockwork Orange, their children favored stimulants, not for their mind-altering qualities, but to enhance their ability to engage in violence and sex. And they ingested them in the form of milk plus, milk being exactly the kind of wholesome, mainstream beverage rejected by the hippies.

The counterculture style was all about color, the psychedelic and the florescent and dayglo, paisley prints and the rainbow (an emblem adopted by Apple Computer, silicon valley being largely a Californian off-shoot of the counterculture, and in politics first by Jesse Jackson in the form of the Rainbow Coalition, an extension of the 60s Civil Rights movement, and later by supporters of gay rights, marriage equality, and the LGBT community generally). In Kubrick's film, their children dressed in colorless white, and black, a stark rejection of the psychedelic style (again, anticipating in some ways the punk style of the 70s).

The rejection of the baby boomers by their parents extended to their music . You might say that the call to arms of rock music was, roll over Beethoven, while in this narrative, their children, or at least the main character, Alex, preferred classical music, and Beethoven above all. 

I should note that the film is an adaptation of the 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, which of course predates the hippies, but not the counterculture itself, which had not fully flowered but was certainly firmly rooted by then. And in the United Kingdom, Burgess being an English writer, the Social Democrats had dominated the political scene since the end of the Second World War.

 And if you've never read the novel, I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than for its highly sophisticated emphasis on language. Burgess was a linguist, putting him in the same class as J.R.R. Tolkien, and much like George Orwell, he included a fictional future language based on English, in this case called Nadsat. In large part, Nadsat consists of words borrowed from Russian, such as droog, meaning close friend, devotchka, meaning girl, and Bog, meaning God. In some instances the Russian words are adapted into more familiar English ones, such as khorosho, which means good, turned into horrorshow, and golova, meaning head, turned into Gulliver. And according to the Wikipedia entry on
Nadsat, the name of this argot comes from the Russian suffix that is the equivalent of the English suffix -teen, implying that it is the speech of the fictional future's youth. Presumably, the use of Russian is a reflection of an increased acceptance and influence of the Soviet Union, in conjunction with the strong left wing political tilt of the dystopia imagined by Burgess.

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I remember reading the novel as a teen, and seeing the film when I was in college, and I just have to note the difference between narratives like this one, and the present day penchant for young adult fiction with simplistic dystopian scenarios.

There's also a bit of the revenge scenario in the character of Alex Keaton, the role that first brought Michael J. Fox into national prominence, on the 80s TV sitcom, Family Ties. Alex's parents were former hippies who remained very much in the liberal, progressive camp, while their son turned out to be, much to their surprise, a young Republican, a conservative, and a Reagan supporter.

But putting all that aside, this has turned out to be a rather long preamble to the main point of this post, which is to continue my series on Firesign Theatre, and most recently on their first album, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him. As I've mentioned before, the album was released in 1968, making it a product of the 60s, a product of the counterculture, its humor satirizing both the mainstream culture of the 60s, and the counterculture itself. This is apparent in the first two tracks on side 1 of the album, the focus of my previous posts, Waiting for the Firesigns, and especially Sending Up the 60s.

The third and final track on side 1 could be grouped in the same genre as Wild in the Streets and A Clockwork Orange, as a future scenario based on the present, circa 1968,
extrapolating what things would be like if and when the youth took over, the hippies were in charge, and the counterculture became the culture. And while there is a hint of dystopia in this satire, for the most part it's a comedic celebration. 

The title of the track, "Le Trente-Huit Cunegonde," is a bit mysterious. Cunégonde is a character from Voltaire's philosophical novel, Candide, itself a satire, and perhaps suggests a warning against the optimistic if not utopian sensibility of the counterculture, that the best of all possible worlds as imagined by the hippies might not be the perfection they would have believed it could be. I'm just speculating here, of course, and I have no idea what the reference to 38 in the title (trente-huit) refers to. But it really doesn't matter, as it has not bearing on the piece itself, which is almost 7 1/2 minutes long (one of their shorter bits, like the first two on side 1).

I find it interesting to recall that during the 60s, concern about police brutality was not simply or even mainly a race issue, and that cops were often referred to as pigs by members of the counterculture. The idea of a hippy police force may seem like an oxymoron, but there is a sense in which reform movements, when successful, turn their radicalism into a new orthodoxy.

The roots of 60s counterculture can be found, in part, in the Beat Generation of the 50s, writers and poets who began their careers in the 40s, and rose to prominence during the postwar era. Also known as beatniks, they had a major influence on and were greatly admired by the hippies. Prominent among them was the poet Allen Ginsberg, perhaps best known for his poem "Howl" published in 1955, which begins with the line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked..." When the woman at the beginning of the sketch asks the cops if they want to hear her rap, back in the 60s the term just meant talk, with the specific connotation of speaking in a sincere and truthful manner, a heart-to-heart. So when she starts to recite "Howl" she is actually not rapping as it was understood back then, plus while she uses Ginsberg's poem to try to demonstrate her hippy credentials, her choice also reflects the fact that she's an old-timer in this brave new groovy world, and therefore not with it, much like her faded body paint.

Dr. Benway is a reference to a fictional character created by another beat writer, William S. Burroughs, who was, among other things, a student of Alfred Korzybski and general semantics. And of course it's 8 million copies of the best known novel by Burroughs, Naked Lunch, that the hippy air force drops on the last stronghold of unhip resistance.

And the name of the plane they drop the literature from? Why, it's the Enola McLuhan, bet you were wondering what the title of this post had to do with all this, weren't you? The Enola reference is of course to the Enola Gay, the name of the aircraft used to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And not to make light of that horror, but it could be said that McLuhan's impact on the intellectual and artistic scene of the 60s was quite the detonation, in and of itself.

It's quite fitting that the Enola McLuhan drops books rather than bombs, and on a third world nation with low literacy rates, as McLuhan had argued that the social and psychological impact of the introduction of writing, the alphabet, and printing has been explosive, and militant in its own right. The medium is the munition! Indeed, arguably, the homogenizing effects of the alphabet and print far outstrips the flattening impact of the bomb.

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As I've suggested in my previous posts about Firesign Theatre (A Nick in Time for Firesign, Of Flip Sides and Firesigns, Waiting for the Firesigns, and Sending Up the 60s), their approach to sound recording has produced a form of comedy that has been compared to music, and that is based on the creation of a soundscape or sonic environment, along the lines of what McLuhan referred to as acoustic space (aka auditory space). The repetition in this particular radioplay of the 60s slang word groovy, by the way, also invokes an acoustic metaphor, as groovy is derived from grooves, which is how music is recorded onto vinyl and earlier recording media such as wax cylinders. So, back in the 60s, you might also say, dig those grooves, man, to refer to a musical recording that you like, and more generally to being in the groove, for settling into a routine in a positive sense (as opposed to being in a rut), for getting into something in depth, having a very positive experience, getting into the zone, etc.

There is also some play with media in this bit, involving telephone and television. But it is the direct reference to McLuhan that, for me, confirms the fact that Firesign Theatre represents a great example of media ecology praxis.

Now all that's missing is a breakfast cereal called Granola McLuhan!

The Medium is the Muesli

Well, I guess this all goes to show I'm probably better off living in this world, rather than the world I thought I'd live in when I was growing up, even if this world is not the best of all possible worlds. Not that I have any choice in the matter, or in the fact that, when it comes to media and technological innovation, it's bombs away, over and over again!