Torture

Having finally gotten around to reading Sam HarrisThe End of Faith, I was surprised to discover a lengthy digression on torture as relates to the prosecution of what we still called, in those benighted days, the War on Terror.

It would be inaccurate, I think, to say that Harris stood in favor of torture as such. However, he did argue powerfully that our revulsion to torture is essentially hypocritical, extending as it does from a sort of moral blind spot. Harris’ argument is too lengthy to quote directly, so I will summarize it as fairly as I can.

  1. We are resigned to what we call in warfare “collateral damage,” meaning the unintended destruction of non-military targets and the injury and death of civilians.
  2. The toll in pain and death exacted by collateral damage is as gruesome as that of any other wartime horror: men, women and children are blinded, crippled, mutilated or killed, or suffer thirst, starvation and sickness in the wake of attacks that destroy local infrastructure and services.
  3. The pain and suffering of the collaterally damaged is, in fact, qualitatively of little to no difference to that suffered under torture.
  4. The preceding premises being true, one cannot morally object to one but not the other; anyone willing to accept collateral damage in wartime has no basis from which to declaim torture as immoral.

Harris made this argument to illustrate the limitations and biases inherent in our moral reasoning, particularly the human tendency to respond to individual suffering while remaining relatively unmoved by the suffering of a great many people. There is a component of torture — perhaps the way in which it is reducible in our imaginations to a dichotomy of victim and tormentor, the latter holding the former utterly in his power — that seems immediate and visceral. Yet Harris, while admitting even he found his own conclusions unsettling, was not simply arguing as the devil’s advocate. Those who have read The End of Faith will know that Harris has a very large axe to grind against Islamic fundamentalism; unlike most thinkers of essentially leftist bent, Harris has no compunction about denouncing Islam as a religion of ignorance, hatred and cruelty, nor does he balk at describing its war on the West in essentially neoconservative terms: that is, as a clash of civilizations, a zero-sum game in which compromise or rapprochement is out of the question.

As a person repulsed by the torture that has been carried out by my government ostensibly on my behalf, I was brought up short by Harris’ arguments. Had I been too quick to give in to my instinctive reaction of horror and outrage? How can one argue with any conviction that slamming a man’s head repeatedly into a wall is worse than, say, burning a little girl with napalm while denuding the forests surrounding her village? Is one of these things really worse than the other?

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Merry Christmas, Music Biz. Love, the Beatles.

If you’re the type who would care, you probably know: the long-promised remastered versions of the Beatles’ albums will finally be released this year on September 9. (“Number 9” … yes, we get it. Even better if they had come out in October — i.e., the one after 9/09.)

I’ve been following this story — what very little there has been of it to follow — for about three years now, ever since the Apple Computer/Apple Corps trial, when the secretive Neil Aspinall was forced to admit in court proceedings that he was, in fact, supervising a total revamping of the group’s catalog. Questions that had been fruitlessly batted back and forth are now finally answered. Yes, the mono Sgt. Pepper will come out; in fact, all of the albums will be available in mono (except for Abbey Road, which was never released that way). Yes, the music has been cleaned up in a way that, we are assured, adds the punch expected of contemporary rock while still being true to the original mixes’ ambience. Yes, even the original, oddball stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul will come out, which most people will likely not bother to listen to more than once. And while no details of packaging have been released, we know we can get all these goodies in two fell swoops: all of the stereo albums and all the mono albums will be available in two separate box sets.

It was that last detail that really brought it home to me, that illuminated what should have been a patently obvious fact: they are going to sell a shitload of discs.

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On coolness and Beatles

I recently resurrected an old piece I wrote for Pop-Culture-Corn called “How Cool Is Paul McCartney?”. The original feature, now lost somewhere deep in the belly of a Google backup drive, found four writers each making the case for a particular Beatle as the apogee of Cool. I was asked to represent McCartney because of my avowed fondness for his work; I accepted because I was, and still am, sick of the sneering attacks music critics have been aiming at him since roughly five minutes after John Lennon’s death.

And also, truth be told, because I have an unfailing sympathy for the uncool. And McCartney, no matter how cool his various achievements, will always, personally, be uncool. As many a sardonic wag has remarked, The Beatles are dying in order of coolness. Ringo’s next.

Reading my essay over now, there are a few things I would change: I’d tone down the Yoko bashing, for one thing. (The creepy, unhealthy psychodrama of the Lennon/Ono marriage rests more with the groom than the bride.) For another, I actually think I could’ve made my case stronger. Forget for a moment the fact that, in 1966, McCartney was among the handsomest, most interesting and most sought-after (read: cool) figure in arguably the most culturally significant city in the world at that moment. He went where he wanted, slept with whom he wanted, did whatever the fuck he pleased; no one would turn down a chance to trade places with Paul McCartney. But forget all that and just stick to what you can quantify. McCartney was the first of the Beatles to write his own songs, the first member of the fledgling Quarrymen who actually knew how to play. (Lennon played the guitar with banjo chords until “Paul taught [him] to play properly.”) Unlike Lennon, who before meeting Ono deeply mistrusted anything avante garde, McCartney eagerly absorbed the musique concrete of Stockhausen or Glass, and was the first of the Beatles to rip the eraserhead out of his tape recorder and begin making tape loops in his home studio. Without McCartney, “Tomorrow Never Knows” would have consisted of John Lennon banging out C on his acoustic guitar, and the world might have been spared “Revolution #9” altogether. It was McCartney who pushed the Abbey Road engineers to overdrive the trebly guitars of “Nowhere Man” and who had the idea of recording his bass through another amplifier instead of a conventional microphone. Critical opinion has swung between either Sgt. Pepper or Revolver as the Beatles’ masterpiece — and both are dominated by Paul, from behind the desk if not always behind the mike. This is something beyond cool; there are maybe a dozen people in 20th century popular music who can claim achievements of this rank.

And yet.

I will defend McCartney’s creativity and experimentalism to the end. Yet my heart-of-hearts favorite Beatle?

John.

John Lennon was a deeply wounded man, a man for whom braggadoccio and cruelty served as a mask for an insecure boy who never stopped resenting all the grownups who thought he was worthless — and who he must have at least occasionally suspected were right. Lennon’s earliest efforts at “honest” songwriting were exercises in formulaic self-pity, no more or less fundamentally honest than the likes of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But somewhere around 1965, Lennon figured out how to tap his inner conflicts without resorting to sad-clown poses. He presented the tangle of his psyche with all its contradictions intact, grounding his songs in uncertainty, hesitancy, confusion. Lennon’s finest songs — “She Said She Said,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus” — are snapshots of a tumbling psyche in mid-churn.

The usual critical line is that McCartney, by contrast, was shallow, preferring to pander with a smiling face and a thumb perenially turned upward. That’s an oversimplification. McCartney aired his share of emotional dirty laundry, most famously in “We Can Work It Out,” positively Lennonian even before his partner added its rather impatient middle eight. But McCartney, ever the forward-thinking optimist, tended to present his emotional dilemmas post-facto, their tensions already resolved. If Lennon’s songs were the work of a skeptic, McCartney’s were the product of a believer. Think of “Let It Be” and its famous opening lines:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me

No sooner is the crisis introduced than the solution arrives. Lennon could have handily written an entire song about finding himself in times of trouble — indeed I seem to recall a song called “Help” written in 1965 or so — but for McCartney, it is merely the precursor for the dramatic uplift, the consolation that is the song’s true message. “Hey Jude” of course is an anthem of consolation, a plea for optimism that is both cannily calculated and wholly heartfelt. Both “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be” are gorgeous songs, and the former is among the Beatles’ very finest, but unlike Lennon’s finest, they begin after the crisis has taken place, not in the middle of it.

So I will always admire Paul’s amazing abilities, his drive, and his belief that the ordinary and the positive are worth celebrating. But it’s John who, briefly and wonderfully, speaks to me.

How Cool Is Paul McCartney?

It was a moment of pop-culture surrealism worthy of The Simpsons: Paul McCartney, schmoozing backstage at the MTV awards, innocently picks up a baguette and bites into it. His front tooth suddenly shoots out of his mouth, and while it doesn’t land into anyone’s Ketel One–and-cranberry, those looking on are flabbergasted enough. Yes, the gap-toothed McCartney confesses: the Cute Beatle wears a fake tooth. The reason? A motorbike accident more than thirty years ago, in which a stoned McCartney flipped over his handlebars and fell face-first into a dirt path. Though the accident had been public knowledge at the time, McCartney kept the full extent of his injuries hidden for more than three decades, the best-kept secret in all of Beatledom.

Somehow it tells you so much about Paul McCartney: the need to present a sunny, all’s-well face to the world; the juvenile streak that manifests so often in his music (even John knew to stay away from dangerous machinery when he was stoned); and most importantly, the essential mystery that has been hiding in the public’s plain sight ever since the Beatles first came to the consciousness of a generation. McCartney was the smiling, puppy-eyed charmer, and he adopted that characterization so expertly that few people to this day have bothered to look past it. They see a shallow media persona and assume it hides a shallow man, and they’re wrong.

It was not always so. Anyone involved in London’s artistic and cultural ferment of the mid-sixties (which John Lennon largely wasn’t, preferring to shuttle his friends out to Weybridge rather than mix it up at nightclubs) knew McCartney as a key figure, popular among the cognoscenti for his intelligence, curiosity, and openness to new ideas. Naturally his cultural pursuits weren’t allowed to infringe on his favored pastimes of getting high and sleeping with women, yet he still found time to help launch London’s first countercultural newspaper and bookstore, talk movies with Michaelangelo Antonioni, collect the work of surrealist painter Rene Magritte years before anyone else thought it worthwhile, be seen with one of London’s most beautiful and talented actresses, and — oh yeah. And write all those songs.

The greatness of McCartney’s songwriting is so self-evident as to be beyond dispute. It need only be pointed out that his work is far less simplistic than is often claimed. “When I’m Sixty-Four” may be a light-hearted toe-tapper, but the fear of aging lying beneath its charming façade can ambush an unwary listener (“indicate precisely what you mean to say/Your’s sincerely, ‘Wasting Away'”). “You Never Give Me Your Money” is a heartbreaking confession of the Beatles’ decaying carmaraderie, simultaneously recriminatory and celebratory; I’ll take its stunningly versatile four minutes over Lennon’s chest-thumpingly obvious “God” any day, thank you. And “Penny Lane,” arguably his finest single achievement, is a joyful, smutty, kaleidoscopic remembrance of childhood every bit as mind-blowing as its more lauded companion piece, Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields.” (Spend a half-hour sometime pondering the nurse who “feels as if she’s in a play” but “is anyway.” Your head may explode.)

So how, despite his undeniable achievements, has McCartney acquired his reputation as a lightweight, middlebrow balladeer, cuddly and unthreatening? Truth be told, the fault is mostly his, and goes beyond the admittedly depressing decline in the quality of his work around the mid- to late seventies. The birth of Safe Paul McCartney can be traced to the summer of 1967, when Rebellious, Intellectual Paul McCartney admitted to a BBC reporter that he had not only taken LSD (the first pop star to make such an admission), but found the experience beneficial, even a little fun. The establishment came down swiftly and mercilessly, deriding him as an “irresponsible idiot” and generally making life difficult for every drug-taking pop star from then on. While John Lennon never lost his taste for outrageous remarks, McCartney has made nary an offensive peep since, and by the mid-eighties was confessing in interviews that his own family was “a lot like” that depicted on The Cosby Show. Thus the perception of Paul McCartney as an ordinary family man, a perception that has preserved his privacy while chopping away at his artistic reputation.

Happily, there are signs that McCartney is finally coming out of the woods and achieving parity with his martyred ex-partner. A pair of studio albums reminded the public of both his songwriting prowess (Flaming Pie) and his rock n’ roll pedigree (Run Devil Run); a new biography called Many Years From Now finally gave him due credit for his role in advancing the Beatles’ art; and the tragic death of his wife Linda, as sincere and humble a celebrity’s wife as any you’d hope to meet, reminded the media that a life of simple decency was nothing to sneer at. Of course there will always be naysayers; Yoko Ono, appalled at what she regarded as a slur on her late husband’s memory, shriekingly attacked Many Years From Now as a compendium of lies, claiming McCartney was merely “Saglieri to John’s Mozart” and that McCartney made little contribution to the Beatles other than insuring they all turned up on time. Her remarks, in their utter falsity and paranoia, make her pitiable. Lennon at his angriest never claimed to be the sole genius behind the Beatles. And when, years later in America, he would weep listening to “My Love” or gently croon “Here There and Everywhere” to Yoko from their white grand piano, he demonstrated something that his widow is still too blinded by jealousy to appreciate: that a song that insinuates itself into your heart is never simple, and never easy. The seeming effortlessness comes from genius, know-how, hard work, and an emotional generosity that’s impossible to feign. May we all live to see them receive the respect they deserve.

Originally published on Pop-Culture-Corn around ’99 or so.

I Still Kinda Like It When a Plan Comes Together

There’s nothing like revisiting a TV show from your youth to discover exactly how much you’ve grown up in the intervening years. (Or how grown up you already were, if you’re one of the fortunate ones.) I have no idea who that child was who took such pleasure in the Dukes of Hazzard, whose heart used to leap like a deer at the sound of “Dixie” played on a car horn; the good-ol’-boy-hating adult of today wants nothing to do with him. And I strongly suspect the kid who willingly sat through those episodes of Silver Spoons was, in fact, an alien doppleganger sent to infiltrate Earth society by posing as a witless twelve year-old whose role models were dorks. Maybe he was just a kid too lazy to get off his ass and change the channel.

Whoever those strange alternate selves turn out to be, I do feel a strong kinship to the kid who watched The A-Team. I was thrown back into his presence on the occasion of TV Land’s A-Team Fandemonium Marathon: 48 hours of dummy bullets, exploding cars, and men soaring balletically through the air. Not to mention lousy acting, weak puns, preposterous celebrity cameos, and enough specimens of Geniune Eighties Hair to start a museum. It’s probably not a good idea to watch anything constantly for two straight days, and sitting in front of The A-Team for more than a few hours inflames the human demand for plausibility into a rage-fueled geyser. “How can Hannibal Smith possibly have an acting career when he’s a wanted fugitive?” you might find yourself demanding of your roommate, or girlfriend, or cat, or the wall. “Who actually thinks Face is that good-looking? How could any doctor with brains think that Murdock is really crazy? How many stupid machines are they going to build out of discarded freezer parts or old wheelbarrows? And why the fuck doesn’t anyone ever get killed?”

But why stop at rampant implausibility when you can add repitition? All tv shows rely on formula to a certain extent, but The A-Team is in a league—a sport—all its own. It established a formula in its first few episodes and stuck to it so rigidly one could easily imagine a software program capable of generating A-Team stories. (Oh look—someone already has.) And although every A-Team fan knows the routine, and since you probably wouldn’t be reading this if reams of gunplay and cheesy jokes aren’t your cup of tea, we nevertheless must revisit, briefly, the well-oiled engine that was an A-Team story.

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Revolutionary Fart Jokes: George Carlin

In September 1970, a famous comedian in a suit and tie went onstage at the Frontier hotel in Vegas and, before a drunk, peevish audience of golfers and conventioneers, inaugurated a revolution in stand-up comedy—and got himself fired.

“I don’t say shit,” the comedian told the crowd. “I’ll smoke a little of it, but I won’t say it.” As pivotal moments in popular entertainment go, it may not quite rank with Dylan going electric at Newport in 1965. But in a town whose comedic taste ran to the it’s-all-in-fun nouveau-minstrelsy of Sinatra and the Rat Pack, to out yourself as a foul-mouthed dope smoker was tantamount to throwing a drink in the Chairman’s face. For George Carlin, it was a shot across the mainstream’s bow. Sick of pandering to the prejudices of an intolerant white middle class, he was ready to risk his livelihood to become the first stand-up of the Woodstock generation.

The idea would have seemed foolhardy even a few years earlier. Occasional mavericks like Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory notwithstanding, the career of a successful comedian followed a predictable, orderly path: from radio to nightclubs to talk shows to theaters until, with luck, the ultimate reward of movies. Carlin ascended this pyramid as a mainstream comic, and, incredibly, grew a beard and did it all over again. He forced the establishment to re-accept him on his own terms, in the process expanding the very idea of what “mainstream” comedy could be. Gone were the square routines about game shows and TV commercials. In their place came openly drug-flavored ruminations about language, culture, and religion that make up the most familiar body of work of any comic of the last forty years.

Born in 1937 and raised in the then-Irish neighborhood of Morningside Heights, George Carlin had no aspirations to be a revolutionary; his chief aim was to avoid getting his ass kicked. The son of a working mother and an absent father, he honed his verbal gifts on the streets of the Bronx, where a well-timed remark might be all that saved him from a beating by the gang from up the block. Quitting high school to pursue full-time his dream of becoming the next Danny Kaye, he landed his first radio job at nineteen, and soon had worked up a comedy double act with a newsman colleague, Jack Burns. “Burns and Carlin” flirted with edgier, more socially conscious material before soon going their separate ways, but Carlin on his own was too ambitious to risk derailing a promising career. He spent the latter half of the sixties working a hard grind of talk shows, B-movies, and seedy middle-class drinking holes, increasingly aware he had nothing in common with his audiences, and that his own act was becoming an embarrassment to him.

When he finally hoisted his freak flag in 1970, he had the advantages of a well-known name and an ear for the nuances of voice and language that let him mimic everything from a hyperactive AM deejay to a first-generation Irish barfly. Beyond that was the accident of fate that found him in his mid-thirties at a time when, as he put it, “the whole country seems to be either 18 or 50.” Too young to mourn the passing of the social order the sixties had demolished, yet too practical to be swept up by the utopian optimism of the youth movement, he straddled the generation gap with unrivaled ease. He could deconstruct the absurdities of contemporary speech as easily as hit you with a killer fart joke—and in a single routine, too.

This process survives today in the six albums Carlin recorded for Little David records, which contain virtually all of the material for which he remains famous: “Baseball and Football,” “Class Clown,” “God” and, most famously, “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” (“shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits”–all he could think of in one sitting). He invented so-called “observational comedy” with a single remark: “Anything we all do–and never talk about–is funny.” His records, like Richard Pryor’s, became valued contraband among underage listeners, prized as highly as joints or Playboys and passed from friend to friend with a ritualistic fervor Jon Stewart likens to a rite of passage.

Carlin’s invention began to flag at around the end of the seventies, and by the start of Reagan’s second term drug use and ill health had sapped most of the vitality from his act. As comics like Steve Martin and Robin Williams became the new innovators in stand-up, the public image of Carlin froze into a caricature of the aging hippie, churning out pothead wisecracks (“Know how you can tell when a moth farts? He flies in a straight line.”) for audiences as old and out of it as he was. The image was not without truth—for a time.

For in the early nineties Carlin, who had already proved American lives could have a second act, reinvented himself again, this time as a raging, misanthropic prophet of doom, whose comic distance from life had grown so vast it literally encompassed the entire cosmos. Gone were the stoner’s winsome, “D’ya ever notice—?” wonderings; in their place, a pissed-off old man who paced the stage like a penned lion, unable to hide his contempt for a frightened culture eager to trade its freedoms for the illusory comforts of euphemism and “sneakers with lights in them.” In the world of comedy, where groundbreaking talents succumb to either early death (Bruce, Sam Kinison), infirmity (Pryor), or embarrassing movie careers (Williams), such a transformation is unprecedented. Perhaps it’s not so outrageous to compare Carlin to Dylan, another artist who’s found renewed vigor among the disappointments of growing old. Both forever expanded the vocabulary of their medium, and both offer permanent warning against ever dismissing an artist as “past his prime”–though Dylan, it must be said, has yet to come up with a really good fart joke.