Random Autumn Thoughts 2020


Every now and again I like to clear out my bookshelves, my reviewing backlog, and my brain. This column is one of the latter. Call it, if you will, a list of musings and low-level rants.


Literature seems to be the first place we notice that women are outstripping men in the brains department. The academic achievement level of girls has surpassed that of boys, too many of whom are shuttled into the brawn side of things. Visit a bookstore and you’ll see what I mean. The vast majority of new fiction titles come from female authors.


In a related vein, although I applaud women’s intellectual accomplishments, there are too many books from young female writers written about the same subjects. Two in particular are those dealing with motherhood and/or trying to settle into a career. The first is, for obvious reasons, not a subject to which I can relate; the second is way too often expressed from a whiny privileged Millennial POV. It’s not like Millennials invented 20s-something career anxiety. I miss having more male fiction writers on my to-read shelf. It would be nice to read some male scribblers who aren’t sportswriters or political pundits.


The guy who mows and plows for me has kids of various ages that he and his wife having been trying to help with their online schooling. He told me recently that they had no idea how hard it would be and would never again badmouth teachers. I hope others remember this the next time they’re tempted to vote down a school budget or use ludicrous statements such as, “Teachers only work six hours a day and they get their summers off.”


Thanks to all the folks who’ve been making home concerts available during the lockdown. One thing, though; for heaven’s sake, take Jim Henry’s advice and don’t start playing until you get the sound right. You won’t keep listeners if the vocals are as muddy a frog’s living room and the mix as lumpy as cookie dough.


I know people are getting antsy and feeling housebound. Here’s some easy advice: It’s October! If you can’t appreciate the beauty of fall foliage, you deserve to be cooped up. Go for a walk. Take a drive. Hike. Getting “out” means more than driving to the mall.


Is anyone beside me sick and tired of fools who think it’s their “right” not to wear masks? Who the #%!&$#! do you think you are to risk my health? Your “right” does not extend to endangering others.


I’m also exasperated with government officials and college administrators whose idea of protecting public health is to “educate” the public, perhaps even hire someone to “remind” people they need to wear masks. Educate? Jaysus, Mary and the goat! There are just three things to know: (a) wear a mask, (b) maintain at least six feet of distance from others, and (c) wash your damn hands. Anyone too dumb to do these things shouldn’t be allowed outside without a keeper. I suggest they sit inside with weak-kneed politicians.


 ☛ I typed the comment above before Donald Trump came down with COVID. I do not wish this virus on anyone, but there is an old adage that if you play with fire, you will get burned. Trump has consistently ridiculed the ideas of masks and social distancing by holding meetings and rallies in which he practiced none of the above precautions and made no demands of those around him. Another adage: Science is true whether you believe it or not. Enough said. 

Since when did a “church” become a building? Shame on ministers who fan faux discrimination flames, defy public meeting guidelines, and spread both hatred and the virus. Being a good Christian should mean respect for humankind. Insisting on opening the building doors just means you’re a jerk and a technophobe. Take a spoonful of WWJD and get a teenage parishioner to show you how to do online services.


Nine members of Tennessee’s NFL team tested positive for COVID. Gee, who could have seen that coming? I’d call the NFL season the dumbest idea in sports, were it not for the fact that UMass still has a football team.


 One of the few joys of aging is that you can stop trying to accumulate cultural capital and admit you don’t like things that supposedly make you a more “sophisticated” person. Here are a few things I just don’t like:


·      Opera: I appreciate its complexity, but if you give me a choice between operatic soprano and a herd of screeching cats raking their nails over a chalkboard, I’ll go with the felines.


·      Hip hop and rap: If music doesn’t have a melody, it’s not my thing. Once upon a time, rap and hip hop were the voice of the urban black experience. That time was the 1980s. Today it’s just processed pop that legitimizes antisocial behavior. If I want more bad verse, I’ll add to the rotten poetry I’ve written myself.


·      Shakespeare: This one drives some of my good friends crazy, but I don’t speak Elizabethan, okay. I don’t get why so many intellectuals who scoff at Biblical literalism treat every word from the Bard of Stratford as if it was pulled from the Gospel of St. Billy Shakes. Plus, do you have any idea how hard Shakespeare is for someone with hearing loss?


·      Comedy for idiots: One blessing of Covid-19 is that fewer “mainstream” comedies are being made. Can we legislate this as a permanent condition? Other than films with camouflaged Hollywood stars pretending to be warriors, nothing makes me slump in my seat with my fingers in my ears as often as a trailer for a “comedy” written for people with IQs of 60.


Rob Weir




Gamblers, Fruit Bats. Son Little, Fiona Silver, Greensky Bluegrass


Too often, tags like “indie” or “alternative” are masks for artists trying to obscure what they really are. “Adult alternative,” for example, almost always means “folk,” and “indie” too often means midtempo rock that would like to be pop. Gamblers, a Brooklyn-based band, uses the handle “alternative” and for once it’s an apt term. The group is headed by singer Michael McManus, who has been a hip-hop producer, though you’ll not hear any of that on the band’s debut LP Small World (Symphonic). You will, however, hear enough genre-crossing for “alternative” to make sense. The title track is jangly rock with a hint of funk. It’s a love-is-hard song, but it’s more atmosphere than poetry; Gamblers like to close musical spaces and dip listeners into a sonic bath. “Small World” is like the early Beatles crossed with The Beachboys, and “Pet Sematary” an excellent punk cover of a Ramones song. “Give Yourself Into Love” splashes dribbles of electronica into the mix, and “Corinthian Order” is hypnotic, with McManus singing in tones vaguely reminiscent of Neil Young. “The Selfish Bell” is harder-edged with a speedball grunge vibe. Apparently three members form the core of Gamblers, but videos show five on stage. Others display everyone dressed in jumpsuits Devo-style. Jam band, rock, punk, grunge, surf, and more makes Gamblers a throw-out-the-labels act. It’s one you should catch when you can.


Paste Magazine has studios in New York and Atlanta that are go-to sources for hearing short concerts of artists known, moderately famous, and unknown. Since 2011, it has been owned by Wolfgang’s Music, whose renowned Vault is a trove of classic performances from the past 70 years of rock, jazz, bluegrass, folk, blues, country and more. Here is music from several recent postings: 


If you’ve never heard of the Fruit Bats, the name might sound like a band from the 1990s. You’d be half right. It is the brainchild of singer and former guitarist for The Shins, Eric D. Johnson. The Fruit Bands were formed in 1997, made some records, and broke up in 2103. Luckily, their brand of soft rock lent itself well to impromptu lineups and/or a solo act. Johnson has a new recording, Gold Past Life (Merge Records). “Ocean” is nostalgia-tinged love song with a vaguely country feel. Johnson’s nasal voice wends its way to the brink of falsetto before easing back to a strong but controlled tone. My favorite song is “Mandy from Mohawk (Wherever You Are),” an imagining of someone from his past and the lives she may have led. This one is acoustic folk with muscular acoustic backing and doublings that accent the tempo. Also try “Cazadera,” a soulful take on a man who often feels lost and the woman who helps make sense of things.


Speaking of soulful, Son Little at Paste is the stage name of Philadelphia’s Aaron Livingstone, an R & B guitarist, singer/songwriter, and son of a preacher. The last factoid made me wonder if gospel legend Mahalia Jackson influenced the content of his song “Mahalia.” Little employs a big Sam Cooke-like voice and plays guitar like he’ll lay some hurt on it if it doesn’t behave. Jackson divorced twice, but lyrics like Yeah this life’s full of promises/We’d keep but we always break may be coincidental. Things seldom go well in the blues, and one certainly gets the sense that the relationship about which Little sings in “About Her Again” won’t fare much better than Mahalia. “Suffer” would be smooth soul for someone with more of a Nat King Cole voice, but Little’s robust vocals infuse this one with urgency: But we don't have to suffer, you and I/We don't have to wait in the trenches every night. All three songs come from his newest recording, Aloha (Anti-Records).


Fiona Silver at Paste is a mighty mite weaned on Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Joan Jett, Radio Head, and Amy Winehouse. You can still hear a touch of girliness in her voice, but her new Hostage of Love EP is both here-and-now and a harbinger of things to come. “Hot Tears” is a mix of pop, blue-eyed soul, and rock. Her band is robust, but she doesn’t allow it to overwhelm her. On “Dark Bluey,” she simply takes charge. She is hungry to impress and over-sings this one, but you can tell there’s not a shy bone in her body. She busts out the horn section for the title track, which drenches the song with a bit of Sin City ambience enhanced by assuming a bit of a Jim Morrison-like dread and danger pose. “Violence” has a jumpier tempo and the scratch in her voice makes the song more impactful. Her band knows when to get out of the way. It also knows how to fill in behind guitarist Guy Fiumarelli when he electrifies a song and amps Silver to another level.  


Despite its name, the Michigan-based quintet Greensky Bluegrass is a blend of what Parade Magazine compared to “bluegrass meets the Grateful Dead.” That’s not a bad analogy; they have definite jam band chops and in a song like “What You Need,” Paul Hoffman’s vocal is the most bluegrassy thing about it, despite instrumentation from standup bass, dobro, banjo, acoustic guitar, and mandolin. “Like Reflections” even sounds like a Grateful Dead title and it too has a meandering mix. Only “Money For Nothing” has a breakdown feel. For my dosh, Greensky lacks passion, but they’ve been around for nearly 20 years and have a devoted fan base. If you’re in it, check out their recent CD All For Money.  


Secret Honor: Altman's Brilliant Take on a Paranoid Presidency

Secret Honor (1984)

Directed and produced by Robert Altman

Cinecom/Criterion Collection, 90 minutes, NR (strong language)



With the election bearing down upon us, a new revelation has surfaced that when Donald Trump was a young man, he corresponded with his political hero: Richard Nixon. Quite coincidentally, a few days earlier Secret Honor surfaced in my Netflix queue.


Secret Honor was a one-man show before Robert Altman filmed it in 1984. Altman and playwrights Donald Freed and Arnold Stone were careful to call the show a political myth, but anyone familiar with the White House tapes from the Watergate scandal will recognize there is considerable truth amidst the imagined. Although actor Philip Baker Hall didn’t always resemble Nixon, he had his mannerisms down so well that after a while we forget we are watching a play and begin to feel like voyeurs to a total mental collapse.


In 1964, historian Richard Hofstader published The Paranoid Style in American Politics. His target wasn’t Nixon, rather Hofstader sought to explain why Republican voters chose Barry Goldwater over the statesman-like Nelson Rockefeller. Goldwater was trounced in the general election, but Hofstader worried about an emergent type of political personality driven by rightwing conspiracy theorists and fearmongers, and was at heart anti-intellectual and demagogic.


Secret Honor is set in Nixon’s New Jersey study sometime after 1976, as he mentions Gerald Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in that year. Even before Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, there was discussion as to whether he was clinically paranoid. Altman takes this as a given. We see the disgraced ex-president hunched over a tape recorder, pacing around the room, obsessively checking video monitors, sweating, swearing, and drunkenly ranting. A loaded revolver appears from a drawer and lies on the desk. Nixon eyes it repeatedly but, as we know, he did not use it.


Those drawing upon the paranoid style of politics run the risk of becoming their own creation, which is what happened to Nixon. He infamously compiled an enemies list that began with 20 names and swelled to 576. It’s one thing for a conservative to believe that labor leaders, political opponents, and liberal journalists are enemies, but when a list includes Barbara Streisand, Joe Namath, Hugh Hefner, trumpeter Herb Albert, Paul Newman, and a host of retired military officers, it invites speculation that the president has lost his marbles.


Secret Honor will make you believe that Nixon was indeed mentally ill. He is ostensibly making a tape for an imaginary court hearing in which he justifies everything he has ever done. Instead, he rages against President Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger, the Kennedys, Jews, African Americans, Latinos, and especially the Committee of 100, an elite that emerged from yearly Bohemian Grove encampments in California. Nixon believed the Committee of 100 created him against his will and conspired to shape America for its own benefit. Bohemian Grove is a real thing where the power elite does indeed hobnob, though in theory it’s a retreat from power and politics. Make up your own mind whether Nixon was paranoid about that one, but its very clear (in the film at least) that Nixon was unhinged. He couldn’t even make his tape, as he interrupted himself with profane tirades, talked with his long-deceased mother, poured more whiskey, and launched rambling attacks that blamed everyone he could think of for his failings. He even claimed that he engineered his own resignation to save the nation from the conspirators. (This is the “secret honor” of the film’s title.)


Hall’s performance was astounding. The energy he put forth was such that one can scarcely imagine how he could have summoned it on a nightly basis for the stage. Altman makes the performance more palpable by mixing mid-range shots with closeups that make us see Nixon’s raw anger, stumbling speech, wildness, slumped body language, and furrowed brow. We both hate and pity the figure we see on the screen.


I wish to reiterate that Altman never claimed what we view was 100 percent historical; it is an imagining of a monologue that we have no record actually took place. Nonetheless, to circle back to Hofstader, Secret Honor is a portrait of the paranoid style of politics. What else can we call a person who can’t get along with anyone, dislikes his own military leaders, is an Anti-Semite, a racist, takes no responsibility for his actions, and blames failure on others? Right now, we call him the 45th president of the United States. It’s interesting that George Soros was on Nixon’s list. How sad that today’s purveyors of paranoia continue to beat a tired horse. (Soros is 90!)


Robert Altman blew red hot and icy cold as director. Secret Honor is one of his well-made films. How utterly sad that Secret Honor remains relevant. Nixon begat Trump. One can only hope there is no third act.


Rob Weir