Sunday, August 4, 2013

In Defense of Spike Lee

I will admit, I have never seen a Spike Lee movie in my life, which seriously needs to change. But in the past week, I have been a little disturbed this past week watching Spike Lee being talked down to on two separate interviews. Recently Spike Lee began a campaign to finance his own movie on the crowd funding website Kickstarter. The campaign has generated some controversy, considering the site is typically considered to be a platform for younger and unnoticed enterprises whereas Lee is one of the most acclaimed directors of his time.

This was the gist of both of the interviews Lee did. In both instances the gist of the interview was that since Lee is a successful, why would he need crowd-funding? The CNBC interview was particularly offensive when one of the interviewers quoted a website comment saying that if someone as successful as Lee could not get a movie funded then he might as well hang it up.

The absurdity of that comment shows a bit of cluelessness about the film industry. Name recognition does not warrant that their pitches will always get picked up. Conversely, just because film executives do not see a film as being worth funding does not necessarily mean the idea is poor quality.

It is not a mistake that both of these interviews, were on business channels. In both interviews, the seemed the most important aspect to define success is how much money someone has or how much money a movie can gross. However, ticket sales or revenue does not make a film successful. Sometimes quality does not translate to quality of output.

But also both of these interviews ignore the fact that there have already been attempts by people who would largely be considered successful to go the crowd-funded way. Louis C.K.'s Live at the Beacon Theater  was completely funded by ticket sales and by people buying the show directly online for $5. The venture was successful and C.K. won an Emmy. He could have easily gone through a large distributor and had a guarantee of a larger chunk of cash but instead went independently and had it pay off, not necessarily monetarily but with a quality production.

Similarly, Andrew Sullivan, the godfather of modern-day political blogging, went independent in February, relying completely on his readers to generate his revenue and go without advertisements or being housed by a large publication like the Daily Beast or the Atlantic. As the former editor of the New Republic, host of the Dish, the blog by which all other blogs are judged, Sullivan didn't need crowd-funding but rather has chosen to do it in the same spirit of the Dish--which is to promote a greater symbiotic relationship between Sullivan and his readers.

Similarly, Lee is attempting to directly appeal to viewers to say that if they like what Spike Lee does, then they can take part in helping him make a new film. In turn, there can also be the advantage of allowing for more devotion from those who watch his movies. If they give money to a movie, viewers are probably more likely to go see the film and tell those around them to check it out. Lee's attempts should not be misconstrued to his ideas not being marketable enough but he should be applauded for trying to venture into new territory in a film industry in need of changes.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Why Zeppelin still matters

The final months of 2012 turned out to be a boon for Led Zeppelin, despite not recording any new material. In October, Brad Tolinski, editor of Guitar World, released Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page, which featured a series of interviews with the famously reclusive guitarist conducted over the past two decades that cover the guitarist's monumental career. While most Led Zeppelin bios tend to simply focus on the (admittedly decadent) rock and roll lifestyle of the 1970s' premier hard rock band, these interviews focus on Jimmy Page the artist.

The book opens with Tolinski profiling the days of Page's youth where he was told what meant to be a man of the ax. Chronicling his formative years miming the style of the latest Elvis Presley and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup records to be shipped into England, his stint at art school and jamming as a skiffle guitarist, his tenure as one of England's most sought-after session guitarist and his time in the prolific British blues band the Yardbirds, readers are allowed to put the pieces together and see that Page's eventual machinations were not ahead of their time as much as they were an amalgamation of varying influences. His time in art school forced him to think unconventionally about presentation, while his time in the studio playing guitar for the Kinks and the Who granted him a reservoir of knowledge about studio production, and his tenure as the lead guitarist for the Yardbirds, a band rooted in the blues but willing to expand the dimensions beyond the traditional twelve-bar format, gave him the breathing room for experimentation that he would eventually push to the outer limits.

What's more those are just the first three chapters before the formation of Led Zeppelin. Ever the student of Aleister Crowley, the Occult and mysticism, it is clear reading these interviews that while Page was not the frontman or the "leader" of Zeppelin, he was the alchemist blending together the four elements that were himself, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham, to create a fifth element, as he would say, in his own form of magick. Except Page's brand was not conducted with a caldron in black robes but rather in Headley Grange, where the band recorded IV and Physical Graffiti. Their invocations were not in the forests but on the stages of Madison Square Garden, the Forum Arena and Earl's Court. Page pores over every anecdote of how he properly miked Bonham's drums for the thunderous intro to "When the Levee Breaks" and how he mastered his own guitar tracks at separate studios. In fact, the amount of scrounging and scouring for the right mix makes one wonder how Page found time for the antics Zeppelin became famous for on the road.

This is not to say there are not tantalizing tidbits for the casual reader. He mentions how at one point he was sitting outside of a window on an air conditioning system, having flight attendants stealing the band's hundred dollar bills they snorted cocaine with and ending their shows in Los Angeles so they could party earlier. One of the more jarring aspects is Page not sleeping for five days while filming The Song Remains the Same, which has become the Citizen Kane of hard rock concert films.

The chapters following Zeppelin's demise are admittedly lull. The next two chapters cram in all of Page's experiments in the 1980s and 1990s, even down to their most absurd like his collaboration with P. Diddy on a remix of "Kashmir." In addition, Page goes in depth on how he transferred the Zeppelin catalog onto CD and his trailblazing marketing of his work with the Black Crowes online long before iTunes. Nevertheless the book is a must for Led Zeppelin fans who want to know how Page forged the musical magick with his Hammer of the gods, as well for guitarists who want an inside look into the mind of one of rock's greatest and producers who want to learn more about doing more with less in the studio.

However, the last chapter does cover Zeppelin's momentous reunion show at London's O2 arena in December of 2007, which was finally released in DVD format in November of 2012. Entitled Celebration Day, the reunion show, which served as a tribute to the late impresario of Atlantic Records Ahmet Ertegun, the show serves just as that: a jubilant retrospective of Zeppelin's entire catalog. With Bonham's son Jason on the skins, the band powers through a veritable fan's paradise of Zeppelin's staples, from the straight-ahead slammers like "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll" to epics like "Kashmir" and "In My Time of Dying" and the extended jam versions of "No Quarter," "Dazed and Confused" and "Whole Lotta Love" in the ways that the band would perform them in their heyday. What's more, for the first time, Page plays the solo to "Stairway to Heaven," often considered the Model T of hard rock guitar solos, note-for-note (albeit a whole step down to facilitate the aging Plant).

While there are clearly times where the band's timing falters slightly and Plant can no longer evoke the genuine raw sexuality of the 70s, it is still a worthwhile venture and will leave fans scratching their heads as to why Plant prefers to continue in his bluegrass ventures. Particularly, it will have fans in the states wondering as they were often more willing to embrace Zeppelin than their English counterparts. Zeppelin's notoriety across  the pond was so profound that this past December, they were honored by the Kennedy Center for their contribution to the arts in the United States, leading to an invitation to the White House by President Barack Obama,  who stated, "when the Brits initially kept their distance, Led Zeppelin grabbed America from the opening chord." Even more rewarding must have been the fact that they were honored the same night as Buddy Guy, the Chicago Blues guitar titan who served as an archetype for Page, and his contemporaries in England, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.

Later in the evening, as broadcast on CBS on December 26th, Zeppelin sat in the Presidential Box at the Kennedy Center's theater beside the President and First Lady, where they were treated to younger artists performing renditions of their staples. While some versions were a little shaky, namely Kid Rock's version of "Ramble On," two of the most moving moments of the night cam during Lenny Kravitz's cover of "Whole Lotta Love," where the camera panned to the President, laid back and singing the lyrics to the rock anthem, and Heart's rendition of "Stairway to Heaven," featuring a choir, strings and Jason Bonham on drums. By the end, Plant was moved to tears.

Despite calling it a day with the passing of John Bonham, Zeppelin's still remains relevant to this day. Walk into any Guitar Center and inevitably some kid in a black t-shirt is trying (miserably) to mime the intro to Stairway. Whizzing down the Autobahn of Germany or the heartland of America in a Cadillac, the Shuffle on Steroids that is "Rock and Roll" is blaring out of a sound system. In an era where many artists try to live up to Zeppelin's decadence or knack for anthems, they often forget the most crucial elements: the desire to commune with the audience in a meaningful manner; the chemistry that comes with making music with equal parts to the extent that no member overshadows the other; and the desire to be authentic, even when talking about the depths of Mordor and Mayqueens. Zeppelin's legacy continues because of the dedication of its bandmates, both during their time together and in preserving the canon. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What the Blog will be in the future

Back in August I noted that the blog would no longer be as active as it was over the summer. In recent months I have had to refrain from posting my political opinions on the internet as a result of joining a school newspaper. Objectivity is key in reporting and I have no moral qualms about that. That's the nature of the business. That being said, I spent time thinking about whether or not I want to continue blogging. In the end I decided the answer is yes, but the blog will be different from what it was. Mainly now, this will be a blog based on going over older albums, digging up bluesmen that need to be listened to and the occasional poem by yours truly. I think this is the best way to go forward and I hope people will stay with me.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

No More

T.S. Eliot stands outside my front door
Selling Tracts and Leaflets funded by Las Vegas Liquor Stores
Without any regard for the schoolteacher and the whore
Singing the blues in the House of Commons on a Saturday Night

No means no in every sense of the word
It means no for a potential sunset viewing among the herd
It means no to the bastion of soliloquies of Richard the Third
It means no to George Washington Flying a Kite

I will hold onto these fantasies in my thicket of remorse
While I curse the darkness with Conor Friedersdorf
And cast my net for clarinets at fisherman's wharf
All the while, my I give up my vision for insight

Friday, August 24, 2012

Romney and Obama: Two Unwilling Mantle-Bearers

Ta Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic has put out an article about the general inability or flat-out refusal by President Barack Obama to assume the role as a leader of the Black Community.  Coates' assertion Throughout his term, there has always been a seeming unease about having a black President. In addition, the President has also shown a great fear of being seen as a "black President." Since the beginning of his career on the national stage, he has desperately attempted to not portray himself as the person to save Black America. In his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, instead of talking about the struggles of Black America, he admonished black Americans for saying reading a book was "acting white" and the only other time he mentioned race in that speech was when he famously stated "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

Similarly, upon running for President, he ran from his race. When the story broke about Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Obama chose not to explain the traditions of the black church and did not defend what his priest said. Rather he pivoted gave a speech on the racial tensions still pervading America. Rather than owning his race, he attempted to paint himself in Pan-Americanism, showing himself as an ultra-Patriot. He has similarly avoided the question of his race during his Presidency, quickly back-pedaling after the Skip Gates controversy and instead of discussing race, chose to try and reconcile the misunderstanding.

As Coates notes in his article the only time the President has really directly addressed race relations since then was when he discussed the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and it was met with backlash. While the President has not said he regrets weighing in, and it is impossible to know what he is thinking, in most likelihood it probably validated President Obama's concerns about being a "black leader" as opposed to the leader of the United States of America.

Similarly, some of the President's greatest critics have come from members of his own race. Public Intellectual Cornel West, who vigorously supported him in 2008, called him the "black mascot of Wall Street." Similarly, Members of the Congressional Black Caucus like Emanuel Cleaver and Maxine Waters have proven to be some of his most vehement critics on the Hill. Yet, rather than address these criticisms or take them to heart, the President famously admonished the Congressional Black Caucus in a fiery speech where he exclaimed "Stop Complaining." Throughout his national career, a key aspect of the President's career has been his flouting of "black issues."

In some ways, ironically, this fear of identity ownership may be something that President Obama shares with his 2012 opponent, as Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has shown similar aversion to being seen as "the Mormon Candidate." Similar to Senator Obama's Speech on race, in 2007 Governor Romney gave a speech on his Mormon faith, firmly asserting "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions." He later stated " A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States." Since then, Governor Romney has been wont to discuss his Mormon faith and its possible influence on his political worldview.

Yet, as trivial as it is, by becoming the Republican Nominee for President, Governor Romney is now the most prominent Mormon in America. In addition, since Mormonism has faced many stereotypes, and rumors as only a fringe faith, now that it enters the main stage, it will naturally be subject to closer examination.This appears to be a burden that he is unwilling to bear, naturally. Like President Obama, Governor Romney wants to be judged on his record on the issues and how he addresses the needs of the voters he is courting, not the needs of the Mormon Community as a whole. Whereas Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, his Primary opponent and fellow Mormon, was more comfortable discussing spirituality, and the role the church had on his life, Governor Romney altogether would avoid the issue.

A large reason for this is perhaps the fact that the Governor is part of a party that has strong influence from Evangelical Christians, many of whom assert Mormonism to be a cult. Coupled with his change of position on issues like abortion, it leads many in the Christian Evangelical wing to question his sincerity. Hence, like President Obama appears to try and paint himself "American," the Governor has attempted to paint himself as "Severely Conservative" to borrow one of his own phrases. Instead of focusing on his faith or portraying Mormonism in a positive image, he has ducked the issue, feeling it to be unimportant.

This analogy is not perfect of course. Governor Romney has not been elected and there is no knowledge of how he would tackle the Mormon question as President. However, as a candidate, he has found himself in a conundrum. Will he allow himself to address and discuss his faith in a frank and open conversation? Or will he hope both his would-be supporters and detractors alike turn the other way and find other aspects of his life to examine.

In some way though, by both Governor Romney and President Obama obfuscating their respective minority statuses, they may be doing what they feel is in the best interest of their communities. Like the immigrants who docked on Ellis Island, they feel a need to be "more American" than anyone else, in hopes of showing that Blacks and Mormons can be patriotic, competent Americans capable of governing from the highest office in the land. Yet, what both men fail to realize is that as long as they hide their race or only communicate with winks and nods, it also allows their opponents to speculate with winks and nods about their respective race and faith.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

End of Regular Blogging for the Summer

This Summer I re-launched the EMG Blog after having not properly tended to it and I must say it has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had as a writer. Though I know I do not have a loyal reading base, this blog has always been a cathartic thing and I feel I grew as a writer over this summer. But alas, this Saturday I shall be returning to the University of North Carolina for another year of schooling and therefore will not have as much time as I have had this summer to write. I will try and write monthly at best but my studies still do come first. Thank you for reading and I look forward to this Christmas where I can get some good quality writing in.

The Weekly Standard and Human Events Display Intellectual Dishonesty at their Finest. Updated

Usually I don't insert myself or use the first person in these blog posts but today I make a special exception because I am in some small way indirectly involved. Today, The Weekly Standard and Human Events, both conservative publications released a clip of Former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles praising Representative Paul Ryan, Governor Mitt Romney's newly-minted running mate. This meme passed quickly and was even picked up by the liberal Huffington Post. The clip includes Bowles remarking the following:
“Have any of you all met Paul Ryan? We should get him to come to the university. I’m telling you this guy is amazing. ... He is honest, he is straightforward, he is sincere. And the budget that he came forward with is just like Paul Ryan. It is a sensible, straightforward, serious budget and it cut the budget deficit just like we did, by $4 trillion. … The president as you remember, came out with a budget and I don’t think anybody took that budget very seriously. The Senate voted against it 97 to nothing."
This in and of itself would be a damning clip, if it were intellectually honest and played the whole of what Bowles was saying. But it is a misrepresentation of what Bowles said and I should know, because I was there. Bowles, the former President of the University of North Carolina System, was speaking at his Alma Mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for the annual Thomas W. Lambeth Lecture in Public Policy. For those who do not know, I am a proud Tar Heel and decided to drop in on this event to see what Bowles would say. On this evening, Bowles was invited to speak about the work he conducted on National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, also known as the Bowles-Simpson Plan.

The segment in which Bowles discusses Representative Ryan comes at around the 35:40 mark of the video. It is true that Bowles does praise Paul Ryan in a number of aspects. However, he does remark that the Ryan Budget did two very different things than the Simpson-Bowles budget. First is that the Ryan budget does not cut defense, but actually increases the budget, whereas Simpson-Bowles does tackle defense. According to Bowles, this means that Representative Ryan had to make up for $1 trillion in cuts elsewhere in the budget. Second, is Simpson-Bowles uses 92 percent of new revenue to lower taxes to create three new tax brackets and eight percent of the money to actual deficit reduction whereas the Ryan Budget takes all of the money from the closing of loopholes and deductions and uses them to reduce rates, forcing Ryan to make another $100 Billion in cuts.

It is true that Bowles is critical of President at around the 41:00 mark of the lecture. However, he does say that the President did set up some triggers to slow the rate of growth. Also, is well known that Bowles and Former Senator Alan Simpson feel resentment that the President did not wholeheartedly adopt their plan so it is not any breaking revelation. Furthermore Bowles excoriates Congress for last year's debt ceiling debacle, and according to a New York Times article published this week, Representative Ryan worked to try and stall the "Grand Bargain" between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, joining with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his attempted obstructionism.

In addition, while Bowles may admire Paul Ryan, the love may not be mutual as Congressman Ryan was on the Simpson Bowles Commission and voted no on the plan, due to tax increases. Lastly, this week, Bowles criticized Governor Romney, Ryan's running mate, in an article saying his tax plan would not amount to real deficit reduction in an op-ed for the Washington Post. The idea that Bowles is a wayward Democrat who is somehow hitched completely to the Ryan wagon is a canard that deserves to be debunked thoroughly.

By the way, cool side note, in that video, yours truly asks Bowles a question at the 49:07 mark. And though this blog is not in the business of picking winners and losers, I make the exception by saying I am a proud student at UNC Chapel Hill, so GO HEELS!

Update: Bloomberg does a great service that I am not adept enough to do by showing the whole clip of Bowles' critique. In complete honesty and disclosure, when researching this blog, I had seen the link for this video that showed the whole clip, and I expected there to be an article, but I chose not to use it because I felt I could add a different contribution even if Bloomberg had not reported this, which they ably did. However, I still feel this blog post holds significant weight and it will stand with this update. I apologize for any impropriety.