Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Anti-American Art: Babykillers

Another gruesome painting from a museum in North Korea: US GIs shovel dirt over a mass grave of massacred Korean civilians while a still-living baby clutches its mother's scarf. One massacre of South Korean civilians at No Gun Ri in 1950 came to light about ten years ago; hundreds of children, women and men were killed. This and a few other paintings I'll be showing are from the "US War Crimes Museum" in Sinchon, DPRK.

I heard a fascinating report on NPR's program "On the media" in the wake of that Republican congressman yelling out "Babykiller!" during the recent healthcare reform debate. It seems that "Babykiller" has a long history of being one of those sensational accusations that always gets attention. The radio program analyzed several historical uses of the term, including, most fascinating to me, how the term "babykiller" was flung at Saddam Hussein back before the first Gulf War. It plays a tearful excerpt from an alleged nurse recounting how the Iraqis, upon occupying Kuwait, heartlessly threw babies out of incubators so they could take the incubators back to Iraq for spare parts. It turns out the weeping nurse was a shill, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family making up atrocity stories out of whole cloth to gain Western sympathy. A fascinating segment worth a listen. I'm not saying US forces in Korea didn't kill any babies, sadly they surely did. Just sayin', hey, now that's effective propaganda.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


This is the brilliant new Erykah Badu video, Window Seat, from her brand-new album. Yes, this is filmed at the site of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas.

Update: the Universal Music Company's Sales Prevention team seems to have pulled many copies of this videos from Youtube. Which is too bad cause watching one of these caused me to buy this album. Anyway, if the replaced link above goes away again, you can watch a weird backwards version of this video at an official Erykah Badu site; worth it for the clearer narration and the word "groupthink" graffiti sort of running out of Badu's head.

Book Review: Freedom Rhythm & Sound

I picked up a wonderful new jazz coffee-table book. "Freedom Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz Original Cover Art 1965-83," compiled by Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker; published by Soul Jazz Records UK's publishing arm, SJR Publishing. It's available also at Dustygroove. Gilles Peterson of course is the English crate-digging jazz dance dj who spearheaded the acid jazz movement and who today specializes in finding stellar and fresh sounding material in the stacks of lost LPs from small independent spiritual jazz labels in America and Europe. Issued with a companion 2-cd set of super rare tracks, "Freedom Rhythm & Sound" shows the covers, including some back covers, of hundreds of rare LPs. Covering the labels treasured by spiritual jazz fans like Strata-East and Tribe records, it goes even deeper covering super-rare records from labels that released LPs in editions as small as a few hundred. An introductory essay puts "spiritual jazz" and small independent record labels in context, discussing the civil rights movement in the United States and the growing political and cultural black nationalist movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s that became fertile ground for challenging, innovative, spiritually- and socially-conscious jazz. Interspersed with the glorious artwork, much of it reproduced close to full size, are shorter essays about some of the musicians and music labels.

For a graphic designer like me this book is a treat. Most of the LPs shown here had a low-budget, DIY quality, and are incredibly evocative of the times they bore witness to. They're strikingly direct statements of the artists' intents, free of marketing department perversion. In this day of digital downloads and miniature CD-sized booklets it's a treat to see how impactful these original album designs were in a larger size.

As a music lover, especially one who has already discussed my love of a good freaky album cover, this glossy book is like a candy store catalogue. Gilles Peterson has excellent taste in music and many of the artists I know and love are featured repeatedly herein. I have to say I would be writing a different review of this book a couple years ago: once upon a time most of the rarities shown here were known only to dedicated collectors willing to fork out hundred of dollars for these rare slabs of vinyl issued in such small quantities; assuming they could be found at all. Now, a few years into digital music sharing blogs--the ones run by music lovers and collectors sharing out-of-print music, not the pirates trying to make a buck at the expense of music labels--I'm amazed at how many of these rare albums I've been able to hear. Labels like Soul Jazz Records in the UK who put out this book or P-Vine in Japan are also reissuing many of these recordings on CD or even on new vinyl; if global CD sales are down in the mass market, real music fanatics continue to buy quality stuff that has stood the test of time.

This volume has a bit of a hefty price tag -- it is a coffee table book after all -- but it really communicates the music's aesthetic. Recommended!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Anti-American Propaganda: If Going to the Dentist Is Torture, Then This Is Ridiculous

From a series of paintings from a North Korean museum accusing the American forces of commiting atrocities against Korean civilians during the Korean war comes this depiction of diabolical GIs inflicing dental torture on a Korean civilian, presumably to "make her talk." I love the depiction of the smoking GI on the right providing a kind of deliciously fay mad-scientist leer at the proceedings. I have never studied the Korean war in detail, and I don't know what the relationship of this painting is to reality, but all sides in this conflict seem to have committed plenty of well-documented massacres in its three-years of back-and-forth routes up-and-down the Korean peninsula. This is clearly the flipside of the Hollywood propaganda film image of the slant-eyed evil Chinese communist administering water torture to the hapless captured GI.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Return of The East! Pharoah Sanders Came Back to Brooklyn

Back in the seventies, Pharoah Sanders recorded a classic live album at a long-gone cultural center called The East in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, which I am proud to call my own home, has always been a home to a particularly fertile brand of African-American culture. Cross-pollinated by waves of immigrants from the southern U.S., from the English-, French- and Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean, and even from African countries; and sharing space with communities routed in other, different immigrant waves from Europe and the Middle East, Brooklyn's African-American community has been self-conscious, politically aware, and culturally ground-breaking for decades. The East seems to have been a showcase for Afro-centric, progressive, and independent jazz musicians; among the other ground-breaking albums recorded there is Mtume's legendary Strata-East label rarity, "Alkebu-Lan, Land of the Blacks."

The organizers of last night's concert wanted to recreate the vibe of The East in 2010, and so the 11th Annual Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival presented "Pharoah Sanders Returns To Brooklyn" at the Boys & Girls High School in Bed-Stuy. The concert opened with a performance from the Yoruba folkloric ensemble Omi Yesa. Lead by akpwon Amma McKen, the group of singers and drummers (on bata and cajon) played some of the liturgical songs of the Yoruba/Lucumi/Santeria religion. (Amma McKenn can be heard on her excellent album "Alaako Oso.") It was a little odd for me to hear this music--indeed these singers--outside of a ritual setting: one of the singers, Ola Dejean, in fact sang at my own initiation into the religion back in 1996. Maferefun Obatala. Anyway they had two excellent dancers and a narrator explained the context of the music nicely.

Omi Yesa was followed by some recitations by the poet Louis Reyes Rivera. His closing poem, "Place I Never Been" about the assassination of Malcolm X was devastating. (You can see him reciting this poem a few years ago on Youtube.)

Longtime activist, and one of the original founders of The East, Jitu Weusi spoke about continuing efforts to keep Brooklyn and African-American educational institutions meaningful to the community they serve.

After the intermission, out came Pharoah Sanders. He was joined by his longtime bassist Alex Blake and longtime keyboard player William Henderson; and by three drummers: Greg Bandy on traps, Abdul Sabor on hand drums and percussion, and Neil Clarke (also, by the way, a Yoruba priest) on congas and percussion. As a previously unannounced guest, legend and fellow seventies ground-breaker Gary Bartz joined the band on alto sax for about half the show. (Bartz was a veteran of The East as well; he's featured on the "Alkebu-Lan" album).

As I mentioned yesterday, despite my long affection for Pharoah's music, I had never seen him perform. My favorite of his albums are his run of Impulse! albums from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, and while his albums of more traditionally jazz-focused standards of more recent years are pleasing, I really wanted to see him perform in a setting outside that of a quartet. Last night I got my wish.

It was an incredible evening. The band opened with the slow strains of John Coltrane's "Welcome," and moved into a terrific version of a Broadway show tune that John Coltrane first forever transformed, "My Favorite Things," which segued into another chestnut "Clear Out of this World." My fear of Pharoah playing standards was completely unjustified. The percussionists added color and depth and groove, and all of the musicians were in fine form. "My Favorite Things" was Coltrane-esque, yet taken to a still newer place by the presence of congas and Afro-Latin percussion. Pharoah let out a couple of his trademark screeches, and did something I'd heard about but couldn't previously imagine: He keeps playing his tenor sax after he takes it out of his mouth, pushing every bit of wind and breath dawdling inside that horn out. When the air is finally gone his fingers turn the keys of the sax into tiny percussion instruments. It was unspeakably amazing; joyous.

The band played non-stop. Solos and melodies came and went. Pharoah wandered around and occasionally off the stage. While at some point the band focused in on Pharoah's "Save Our Children," from one of his later albums, the set list became amorphous and irrelevant. I think there was a bit of something like "Stairway to the Stars." There were a couple bars of "The Creator Has a Master Plan." But it just became music. There were a lot of bass solos from Alex Blake. There were rounds and rounds of band introductions. Pharoah sang, and chanted, and led the audience in calls-and-response. He played air-guitar on his sax. He deferred to the talents of his partners and then he soloed and showed off his trademark quirks and distinctions. I mean this in a completely good way: the music became a kind of blur, ebbing and flowing; it stopped mattering which song was being played; it was just something to experience. His years of playing Nigerian highlifes and playing with the Gnawa musicians of Morocco were all evident. "Save Our Children," which I was once a little unimpressed by, has stepped up in my list of favorite modern Pharoah tunes.

I think what I found most unexpected was how playful the concert was. The musicians seemed to be having a great time, and especially after being joined by Gary Bartz, Pharoah seemed to relish his role in the collective magic taking place on stage. I loved the audience. All the energy sent into the room by the band was sent right back by the audience. It clapped when it was time to clap, but it sang when it was time to sing, and people called out when something amazing or wonderful happened, which was often. Perhaps it was because I was lucky enough to be in the front row (off to the side), it didn't feel like a large impersonal venue; it felt incredibly present and intimate.

It was a great homecoming; I feel lucky and blessed to have been able to attend.

(Both photos are from last night's event; the top one by me and the one of Sanders and Bartz together taken by Jesse. P.S. I assume this was being recorded; if anybody knows of the availability of that recording, drop me a note in the comments)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pharoah Sanders Returns to Brooklyn

Cosmic Jazz superstar Pharoah Sanders is returning to Brooklyn tonight, and I get to see him. I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never seen him perform before: I'm just too young to have seen him when he performed regularly in the early 1970s, and I've passed up more recent club dates where he seemed to be doing the "old freaky jazz guy rediscovers the standards" shtick that he and so many other seventies players have done in the past few years. Guests at the concert tonight include a poet and a Yoruba music ensemble, so I'm imagining this will not be Pharoah plays "Stardust" and "Misty." Above is a performance from a couple years ago of Pharoah appearing on David Sanborn's TV show. It's a little shocking seeing Pharoah play with somebody so completely at the opposite end of the spectrum, but it's a completely enjoyable clip. They're playing "Thembi," originally on a Pharoah album of that title from way back in the day.

Anti-American Art: Shave and a Haircut

These laughing GIs are doing something unspeakable to a bound Korean prisoner. This and a few other paintings I'll be showing are from the "US War Crimes Museum" in Sinchon, DPRK. They depict scenes from the Korean war but I don't know when the paintings date from. The museum remains today a de rigeur tourist stop for foreign visitors to the world's most isolated state. The Korean War of 1950-1953, still technically unresolved, seems to have left some deep psychic wounds on that nation, perhaps as well it should. Korea was the first nation to fall victim to Japanese expansionism: it was occupied by Japan from 1905 to 1945. It became the first hot conflict in the cold war between the two post-war superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets were not directly involved in the fighting, unlike their then-allies in the new People's Republic of China who sent hundreds of thouands of troops to drive out American and United Nations forces. It was a brutal war (my late uncle Quentin fought in it) which neither side was able to decisively win.

The torture committed by US forces in the aftermath of its invasion of Iraq puts this depiction of torture in a fresh light.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Now thats' what I call money

A republican congressman from North Carolina has called for the replacement of General Ulysses S. Grant's portrait on the US $50 bill with an image of President Ronald Reagan. I'm horrified in general at how Ronald Reagan is treated in popular memory. He was a doddering senile fool, his administration responsible for a sea change in American attitudes toward government that we're still trying to dig our way out of. As far as I'm concerned his support of dictators, of apartheid, of CIA meddling around the world is unforgivable. And his neglect of the AIDS crisis while thousands died was truly criminal.

But I was having hard time in my mind defending Grant's presence on the $50. Sure, he defeated the racist confederacy in the civil war--the real reason this reprobate congressman wants to erase his likeness--but he also presided over the genocide of native Americans in the west.

Which is when I remembered the money from my stay in Nicaragua in the 1980s. On th 10 cordoba note was an image of a stone-throwing revolutionary on the front, and an image of mine workers on the back.

On the fifty cordoba note was an image of the triumph of the revolution in the main plaza of Managua in, and an image of martyred FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca Amador on the front.

On the front of the 1000 cordoba note was an image of Augusto Cesar Sandino, the anti-American revolutionary from the 1930s who was the inspiration for the Sandinista revolution.

So who should be on our money? Here's my modest proposal.

Lincoln can stay on the five. Never forget the civil war and the emancipation. Get rid of that $1 bill, it's not worth anything anyway. On the ten dollar bill let's replace Hamilton with somebody like Rosa Parks. We're gonna need a ten to pay for a bus or subway ride before long so it's fitting. The twenty should go to Sequoyah or Tecumseh, payback for Andrew Jackson. The fifty goes to radical emancipationist John Brown, who would give new meaning to the "In God We Trust" motto. The hundred should go to Martin Luther King: doesn't a bundle of Kings sound better than a bundle of Benjamins? All those bigger bills, well, somebody give me a sample of them and I'll tell you who should go on them.

Anybody got a better proposal? How about for small change?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Head of Church of Child Rape Implicated in Coverup

"The pope, while he was still a cardinal, was personally warned about a priest who had molested as many as 200 deaf boys. But church leaders chose to protect the church instead of the children." (NY Times editorial)

Really is anyone surprised that the right-wing, anti-gay, former Hitler Youth member Pope Benedict joined his church's establishment in protecting a serial rapist in his clergy from prosecution? The jewel-encrusted corrupt entity that is the Catholic Church has long considered that its clergy have a God-given right to rape children without fear of legal retribution: to rape their minds, abuse them as slave labor, and in many many thousands of cases, literally sexually rape or abuse them. It's sad commentary on this power hungry organization that it's not shocking that the pope himself is directly implicated in the coverups. An excellent summary of the case in question is here. The rapist priest in question was disciplined by being moved to a different parish where he continued to work around children.

Jesus, as they say, wept.

Anti-American Art: Forgive us our trespasses

This stamp from North Korea is part of a series issued in 1971 noting worldwide resistance to the US. This stamp shows the EC 121 spy plane shot down by North Korea and the USS Pueblo captured by North Korea, both in waters claimed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the late 1960s. The crew of the Pueblo are seen surrendering, as a resolute Korean soldier brandishes his bayonet. The crew of the American spy plane died in the incident; the crew of the Pueblo spy ship spent almost a year imprisoned in Korea. The Pueblo is today a tourist attraction in Pyongyang.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The New "Jim Crow Terrorism"

A thought provoking article by Melissa Harris-Lacewell on The Nation's blog entitled "Is this the Birth of a Nation" about the teabaggers:

To the extent that a state is challenged as the sole, legitimate owner of the tools of violence, force, and coercion, it is challenged at its core. This is why "state's rights" led to secession and Civil War. The legitimacy of the central state was challenged, then reestablished. It is also why the Civil Rights Movement was so powerful. The overt abuse of state power evidenced by the violence of Southern police called into question their foundational legitimacy. The federal government had to act or risk losing its authority as a state altogether.

Which leads us to March 2010.

The Tea Party is a challenge to the legitimacy of the U.S. state. When Tea Party participants charge the current administration with various forms of totalitarianism, they are arguing that this government has no right to levy taxes or make policy. Many GOP elected officials offered nearly secessionist rhetoric from the floor of Congress this weekend. They joined as co-conspirators with the Tea Party protesters by arguing that this government has no monopoly on legitimacy.

...We must now guard against the end of our new Reconstruction and the descent of a vicious new Jim Crow terrorism.

Professor Harris-Lacewell argues that the teabagger movement is not just idly racist but purposefully seditious. It's worth reading the whole thing, and it's refreshing to read a perspective on the so-called tea party movement that correctly nails its purported populism as racist revanchism not some kind of neo-progressive anticapitalism. Avoid the frightening comments.

East Village, 1980s

I found this, taped to an East Village lamppost, in the 1980s. Words from an anonymous poet/crazy person. It's hand-written on the back of someone else's class notes, on lined three-ring paper.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Anti-American Art: Sleeping with the Fishes

Two of four stamps issued by North Vietnam in 1973 to mark the downing of the 4,181st American aircraft. The stamp on the right shows the downing of a B-52 bomber over the port of Haiphong, and the stamp on the left shows the wreckage of US aircraft underneath the waters, tangled in the nets of Vietnamese fishing boats. The Vietnamese suffered horrifying casualties under American aerial attack, but somehow this tiny nation managed to defeat the most powerful military machine on the planet.

Monday, March 22, 2010

More on Left-Wing Homophobia: My Story of Survival

When I was writing the other day about the "Forgotten Legacy of Left-Wing Homophobia" I kept wanting to add a coda about what was generally my own ultimately positive experience of finding a corner of the left that was pro-gay. It seemed too much to squeeze into that post, but in thinking about it all some more I remembered some forgotten details and am reminded that my own experience was actually a little more mixed.

I first became involved with the organized left when I was at college in Chicago. In 1976 I joined the "Spartacus Youth League" which was at the time the youth group of the Spartacist League. I had known I was gay since I was a small boy, but in those long-ago days before high school gay-straight alliances I kept it to myself. None of my friends seemed to be also gay, and when I got to college where there were a very small handful of openly gay students I was confused and uncertain about how to cross the threshold out of my closet.

That today gay and lesbian high school students can go to their proms with same-sex dates seems like something wonderfully hopeful and miraculous. Back then I think I was afraid to even say the word "gay." The Sparts had a party line on the issue that was couched in their typically archaic dense Leninist prose. "Full democratic rights for homosexuals" was their rousing slogan; like the New York Times of the day they had a distaste for using the word gay in print, viewing it as prettified, faddish and generally coddling of reformist petite-bourgeois tendencies. The SL had many lesbian and gay members, including especially many gay women in national leadership, and dry as it was, its pro-gay-rights line was shared by precious few left parties at the time. Anyway I wasn't out so who was I to quibble.

In 1977 I travelled to a Spartacist national conference in New York; afterwards I stayed in the city for a few days. My visit coincided with a major protest against the anti-gay orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant, then inflaming the ignorant with a crusade of bigotry. That's me in these two yellowed photos from the SL's Workers Vanguard paper carrying the "Stop Anita Bryant Full Democratic Rights for Homosexuals" sign. My visit also coincided with 1977's Christopher Street Liberation Day celebration: Gay Pride.

I left my host comrades for the evening and went off to that alone. I had never seen anything like it in my life. Christopher Street had a grittier feel back then: the West Side Highway was still elevated, and the piers were still crumbling multi-level structures, not astroturfed parkland. The intersection of Christopher Street and the dark space under the Westside Highway was full of gay bars: it had an edgy, industrial, down-by-the-docks fringe feel, unbelievably distant from today's gentrified landscape of glass condominiums. A stage was set up down there, from which blared Donna Summer's hypnotic synthesizer-beat hit "I Feel Love." And the streets were packed with gay men celebrating the night. I was unbelievably excited, but unbelievably scared. Strangely, at one point I saw one of the gay SL members walking in my direction. He began to smile and wave at me and Judas-like I abruptly dashed into the street to hide behind a car to avoid talking to him or confronting several of the obvious facts now hammering at my head. At a party meeting the next day he gave me a knowing smile which was sort of warmly reassuring. I thanked him silently for not forcing me to acknowledge what had happened.

All of this is ironic because what the Sparts supported was gay rights but what they hated was gay liberation. They held that the notion of gay liberation was a middle-class lifestyle issue, somehow false and misleading in its disconnection from the struggle of "the workers." Gay people, er, homosexuals, deserved legal rights but their issues were secondary to the struggle for Women's Liberation. Further, they had a rule for their membership called "the closet rule," whereby gay Spartacist members were forbidden to publicly identify themselves as gay. "Disciplined communists do not risk victimization for their extra-political conduct, for instance public avowal of homosexuality" was how the SL described this monstrous rule in a 1977 issue of their press. Despite this unbelievable bit of bigotry, the Sparts attracted most of a small gay communist collective in California called the Red Flag Union (though the minority split to the RSL, the group I ended up in a few years later).

That trip to New York had really expanded my mind. I was only 18 that summer; it was a lot to process. Back in Chicago I really failed to apply myself to school. I lived with other party members. I socialized mostly with my political comrades, and that was a peculiar blend of liberating experiences and horrifying ones. I remember one female comrade who worked as a waitress took me out one night to my first gay bar: it was a drag bar on the near north side called The Baton. She went there all the time with her coworkers and thought it would be fun to take some of us. It was an amazing evening: unbelievably beautiful drag queens lip-synched perfectly to pop and disco songs. The highlight of the evening was some performer whose name I have long forgotten strutting about and mouthing the words to Linda Clifford's "Don't Give It Up." It's probable that the following Monday morning I'd be up at dawn to attempt to sell newspapers to the shift change at the factory gate at a steel mill on the city's southern edge.

Another time hanging out at some bar or restaurant with comrades after an event this wretch of a woman named Tweet, an older woman in party leadership with an oddly aristocratic southern air about her and a younger boyfriend sitting on her other side, rammed her tongue in my ear and announced that she was trying to determine if I was gay. I felt completely assaulted. I had peers in the group who were also wrestling with questions of sexual identity and their friendship was valuable and life-transforming; but this was a singularly unpleasant episode. Not long after party leaders suggested I avail myself of some therapy available to me at school. When the therapist asked me why I was there, I told her my friends said I needed therapy. She said I probably needed new friends. I left school and left the SYL and came out at the end of 1978.

I got a job, I got an apartment on the north side near Wrigley Field, I made some attempt to socialize in the gay world, but I remained a radical. I started to talk to a woman from the group Spark, which was trying to break out of its Detroit home turf. Spark had been founded by people who had left the Spartacist League many years before. After the high-octane arrogance and self-righteousness of the Sparts I needed to go back to basics; I needed something more gentle. Spark tried to recruit people through what was basically a reading club. I met with a Spark activist and a couple other people to talk about a piece of assigned fiction. The books were actually really great: rather than dry Marxist Leninist theology we read things like Howard Fast's "Spartacus." The discussions were pretty interesting. These works of fiction addressed issues of class consciousness and the possibility of revolution in a really useful way.

I went up to Spark's annual "Winter Festival" in Detroit. A fairly apolitical event, it was like a giant house party for all its contacts and members: hundreds of people attended, an interracial crowd larger than any Spartacist event I had ever attended, even if it was social rather than activist in nature. I was struck by how the leadership of this group seemed mostly female, and to my eyes, mostly apparently lesbian; actually the woman in the group who was trying to recruit me, although she never discussed her personal life, gave off a strong lesbian vibe as well (and I really mean that as a compliment!). Here was the odd thing about Spark: in our open, fairly liberal society, Spark operated under the rules of a Bolshevik cell ca. 1910. Anyone working with the group had to choose a new first name: even peripheral contacts like me (now "Daniel") and the very nice (probably lesbian) woman "Carrie" who became my same-level trainee partner. Phone numbers were not to be shared: as a contact I only a number I could call -- from a payphone -- to leave a message for Sarah and was to use it only in emergency. Otherwise meetings were to be by regular place and location, with an emergency fallback. I had regularly scheduled meetings with "Sarah" and separate ones with "Carrie" and "Sarah" together either to discuss our readings or to sell papers. It must be said the Spark newspaper was fairly vapid and written for a very low reading level, although I enjoyed the theoretical journal that was published by Spark's international tendency in France.

So finally I decided I had to come out to "Sarah." I asked her something abstract about Spark's position on the issue. She asked me if I was asking hypothetically or because I was gay. Then she floored me. She told me, "Well if people who are that way want to work with our group we ask that they no longer be that way." In other words, being gay might be offensive to the workers Spark was trying to recruit so being gay was incompatible with being one of their activists. I was flabbergasted; even though I was recently out I my gaydar was finely tuned and I knew there was no way I was reading these people so completely wrongly.

It was an extension of the Spartacists' 1950s-style closet rule taken to its logical extreme: not only can you not tell people you're gay you can't actually be gay. She said it as softly and gently as she said everything; it was without rancor or moral condemnation. She didn't spit out a complicated justification about the proletarian family like the Canadian Maoist tract I reported on, it was just matter of fact. And I knew, having gone through what I had already gone through, I could not settle for that kind of personally corrupt defeat.

So that Spark went out. I realized that my gay identity was too important a part of me--too hard won--to be able to set aside. I had been talking off and on to a guy named Joe Galanti who was in the Revolutionary Socialist League. As a Spart I had learned to sneer at the RSL, but I gave them a second chance. Joe was proudly and openly gay; and the slogan of the RSL was "Gay Liberation Through Socialist Revolution."

I went to the first national gay march on Washington with them in 1979, and formally joined the League in 1980. In 1981 I even moved to New York to be the art director of their newspaper. While in the end the organized Leninist left was not the place for me, I felt that in the RSL I could truly be myself. It was liberating and empowering to discover like-minded people who walked the walk as well as talked the talk. That's me, above, surrounded by red gay liberation flags, in the RSL contingent of a gay pride march in New York City in the early 1980s.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A few words about Healthcare Reform

I'm writing this on the Sunday that the House is holding its supposedly final debate over healthcare reform. President Obama has just agreed to issue an executive statement emphasizing that the Hyde Amendment is firmly in place and that abortion will not be funded under government paid healthcare, thus winning over the votes of the conservative anti-abortion rights Democrats like Bart Stupak. Which makes the healthcare reform bill slightly more imperfect than it already is.

It's sad that the Hyde Amendment is law and it's sad that this capitulation is necessary. It's sad that this is not really universal heathcare in the sense that phrase is understood in more advanced countries like Canada and Europe. It's sad that this bill doesn't mark the death of the predatory health "insurance" industry, and it's sad that even something as tame as a "government option" isn't included. It's sad that lesbian and gay partnership benefits were also excluded at the last minute, and it's sad that it includes some funding for what is euphemistically called "Abstinence Only Sex Education" but is actually just teen murder.

But the question is: do we want the racist and anti-gay horde of teabaggers and the ultraright Republican party to win or do we want to be on the side of people who are, at least, laying a foundation for what could, as social security and medicare have, evolved into being social programs that are of huge value and importance to regular people?

Choose your side carefully. And meanwhile tell me what groups like all those self-proclaimed leftist groups and "progressive" bloggers who are howling over the betrayals in this bill have ever, ever, actually achieved?

We should fight for universal medicare. We should fight against the Hyde Amendment and for universal access to safe and accessible abortion. We should fight for all sorts of gay and lesbian partnership rights in healthcare. All these things are absolutely righteous causes. But right now, this fight is over this very imperfect bill and it's a fight we MUST win.

(photo is of the shrine of St. Roch's in New Orleans, taken by me.)

Anti-American Art: Cut and Paste

During the cultural revolution, Chinese publishers issued hundreds of clip art books, with reproducable line-art motifs of Chairman Mao, people in struggle, waving banners, and the whole realm of revolutionary graphic iconic images. Many were in this woodcut style. These books of clip art were apparently designed for people to use in local publications or flyers, though in a country without freedom of the press I'm not exactly sure how that worked. Anyway, they put Dover clip art books to shame. This 1960s image shows a Vietnamese guerrilla walking away from the smoking hulk of a downed American aircraft carrying a handful of American helmets as souvenirs.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Las Siete Potencias Africanas

The "Seven African Powers" as shown on this prayercard is one of my favorite syncretic images. This card is easily found in Botanicas in New York City, as are glass-encased candles bearing a similar image. It's not exactly Santeria, in that actual Lucumi/Yoruba religion as practiced in the houses of initiatory tradition doesn't really have much to do with this old-fashioned mixing of saints and orishas. It's more a spiritual touchstone, recognizing the centuries of ancestors who kept alive African traditions of worship beneath the surface of Catholicism. There's a sort of parallel tradition of spiritualism, espiritismo, that has largely replaced Yoruba style egungun worship as ancestor reverence in the new world. It's a mix of European Kardecian spiritualism and all sorts of folk traditions, and more likely to be eclectically ecumenical in its symbolism and iconography. Lighting up a 7 African Powers candle isn't gonna make you an initiated priest of Chango, but it can start you on the path of getting in touch with your spirit guides and ancestral spirits.

Anyway here are seven of the major orishas portrayed as Catholic saints; surrounding Olofi, one of the identities of God, portrayed as Jesus. It's all very complicated, each facet of each illustration telling a complicated story of spiritual meaning in both its original Catholic myth and its Santeria correspondence.

My favorite of these syncretic combinations is Saint Barbara at the top: ironically a teenaged warrior princess armed with a sword and a chalice is shown to represent Chango--Shango, Xango, Sango--the most passionately male orisha there is. Chango radiates raw masculine strength and sexuality; when he mounts his initiates, male or female, the very air in the room changes, filled with an almost animalistic heavy male magnetism. Its a beautiful experience to be blessed by Chango, who rules fire and lightning. This syncretic image reveals something to me so profound about inner passion and gender; it's a kind of visual shorthand for what could be an extended theological treatise.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Anti-American Art: Class Project

I'm not exactly sure what this 1950's Chinese poster is saying about the USA, but it can't be good. Click on the image for a much larger version to see why: in the background is the bloodied carcass of a dog being stuck with pitchforks: written on the side of the dog in Chinese is "America." The classmates are earnestly working on craft projects, carefully laying out a beautifully lettered pair of banners that are also saying something not so nice about the USA. I wish I read more Chinese characters.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Forgotten Legacy of Left-wing Homophobia

In the face of today's resurgent right-wing fundamentalist movement which demonizes gays, using opposition to marriage equality as an excuse for dragging out tired old arguments and prejudices, it's hard sometimes to remember how far, in fact, we've all come. In the face of right-wing Americans running off to Uganda helping to organize "death to sodomites" rallies and backing super-repressive legislation in such countries, it seems natural to think of the movement for gay equality, or what we once called gay liberation, as walking hand in hand with other socially progressive movements. But it wasn't always like this. There used to be profound divisions on the left as well. I was reminded of this when I ran across this pamphlet tucked into a crowded shelf. Published in Canada by the Maoist/pro-Albania communist sect Lines of Demarcation, "On the Question of Homosexuality" was published in 1981 reprinting a dialogue between the group and the left-leaning Body Politic Collective, which published a progressive, gay news journal in the 1970s and 1980s. Reading like one of today's ultra-right evangelical texts, the blurb on the back promises "a clear analysis of the foundations of homosexuality in class society and upon the oppression of women and discusses the reactionary character of the homosexual recruitment movement."

This pamphlet is a sad little reminder of some of the tragically awful thinking that has plagued the left, especially its dogmatically varieties. While Canada's Lines of Demarcation might have, I hope, faded into historical obscurity, the US Revolutionary Union, since evolved into the Revolutionary Community Party and more recently the force behind the "Not In Our Name" wing of the anti-Iraq war movement, once held positions identical to these.

I won't attempt to summarize all of this hateful pamphlet's arguments, but let a few lines speak for themselves and serve as a grain of salt:

"The Bolsheviks must take a stand against, and expose, homosexuality. The social institution of homosexuality itself stands in antagonistic contradiction with the proletarian revolution. Homosexuality in the ranks of the Bolsheviks and in the ranks of the revolutionary proletariat will erode the struggle against the bourgeoisie, will introduce bourgeois individualism and degeneration, will sap the righting capacity of the proletariat, will drag back the struggle for the political unity of the sexes and for the complete emancipation of women. The complete abolition of homosexuality is a goal of the proletarian revolution and will be a great step forward in the liberation of the proletariat.... Homosexuality did nothing to promote the survival of the species. Those who perceive the world through their gonads, as does the homosexual recruitment movement, will never be able to grasp this very simple idea, but to a materialist it is obvious...The role and influence of homosexuality in modern decadent imperialist art is extremely important to the entire construction of the antisocial offensive by the imperialist bourgeoisie against socialist revolution....The entire discotheque culture -- its lights, its dancing, its music -- originated on Fire Island, New York, a gathering place of homosexuals and has been seized upon with full vigour by the bourgeoisie for its entire offensive in the corruption of youth, diverting them from political concerns and sapping their fighting capacity....The same holds true of fashion. The fad of long hair for young men begun among homosexuals; then, when large numbers of young men were letting their hair grow long, the homosexuals led the charge back to short hair....The homosexual movement is a consistent ally of every agent of bourgeois reaction which is willing to 'come out' and embrace it, from the lowliest Trotskyite all the way up to the United States Marines....Its doom is spelled by the inevitability of the proletarian victory."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy Damballah's Day!

Afro-Caribbean religions like Santeria and Vodoun are syncretic traditions. When European slave traders and colonialists imported millions of black Africans to the new world, they did their best to outlaw the original culture of the slaves, seeing in it a threat to the necessary dehumanization of their new human commodities. Yet people are resilient, and the slaves managed to keep their traditions alive inside the new traditions that were forced on them; in the end synthesizing something new, with deep African roots, but unique to the new world.

The nature spirits from west Africa, the loa of Dahomey and the orisha of Yorubaland/Nigeria, survived in the clothes of Catholic saints. St. Patrick is usually depicted standing with his staff, commanding the serpents who writhe at his feet to leave the island of Ireland. Thus St. Patrick was seen by the Haitians as a person with a relationship to serpents, those mysterious beings who manage to transcend the realms of earth and underworld. In vodoun, Damballah is the world serpent, a spirit of great power and mystery who encircles the world, bearing hidden mysteries and representing the unity between the spiritual and physical realms. So St. Patrick came to represent Damballah himself: a nonthreatening icon of the Catholic St. Patrick could represent to its devotee the actual presence of Damballah.

Today now that there are neither literal colonialists nor slaves in the new world, the open face of the original African deities are less likely to be hidden in Catholic clothing. Shown here is a Haitian vodoun beaded panel honoring Damballah. These beautiful panels decorate altars sacred to the spirits.

So if St. Patrick is meant to represent the Christians driving out of Ireland its original indigenous Pagans, let us reclaim the day by celebrating the rainbow serpent Damballah. What goes around comes around: My Irish ancestors will have to understand.

Anti-American Art: People Get Ready

Get ready, it's time for the unity of the peoples of the world again. It's a quote from Mao about uniting to fight US imperialism and a striking, if somewhat odd, two-color representation of an extremely well-armed international mob. 1960s Chinese poster.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Echoes of a Past Life - Is This the Boy Side of the God/dess?

This is another piece from Queer Pagan days, and another polemic, if you will, against the gender division central to much of modern Pagan belief.

My attraction to Paganism was initially to its idea of the immanent and female Goddess that is the living planet earth around us. I was attracted to the work of many feminist scholars (some of whose work has been discredited in "scientific" circles) who interpreted early human religious beliefs as worship of an Earth Mother, alive and present in the world around us. This, all in counterpoint to the Judeo-Christian concept of transcendent, invisible, and male God figure living somewhere up in the sky, ie, in heaven. Many of these feminist scholars portrayed human history as an extension of a struggle for male-female dominance, suggesting that modern alienated and male-dominated society was the fruit of the victory of "male" sky religion over "female" earth religion. As a gay person and a feminist I found a lot to admire in that concept; and I still think there is some validity in it. Certainly it's a fact that history is written by the victors, and it's tremendously productive to reexamine history through a lens that rejects the triumph of Judeo-Christian values over "primitive" ones as necessarily progressive.

But as my spirituality deepened I came to think that viewing everything through the duality of gender was about as productive spiritually and politically to me as it was to me personally, which is to say that as a non-heterosexual, flipping male-dominant spirituality on its head didn't get any closer to the way I experience the world as a same-gender loving individual. In Santeria, the religion I wound up adopting (although I would say my belief-system remains personal and idiosyncratic beyond somebody else's particular definition), gender is more fluid, and so to me a more accurate reflection of reality. It's not that I think my own gender is fluid, it's not, but that I think the world around us, especially its spiritual aspect, is not as easily split into clear male and female halves. I'm less interested in the division but in the unity. I don't see that counterpoint between sky God and earth Mother Goddess anymore: it's all one amazing, glorious, living presence, multi-faceted and miraculous beyond measure. It's not useful for me to see God the supreme being as an old man sitting on a cloud somewhere, though I certainly don't reject the image of Santeria's Obatala as an old white-clad man up on a mountain. And frankly it's no longer useful to see a Supreme Goddess as merely a fertile and fecund Mother hiding in the dirt beneath us (though again I don't reject the image of Santeria's Yemaya nurturing us from her ocean lair). All these ways of trying to describe the barely describable spiritual experience are simply not counter posed. They can all exist together. In unity. And in complete inadequacy for anything actually approaching accurate description of the mystery that is Life, that is God.

The halves of the yin and the yang, those are all present everywhere in us and around us. The productive tension of male and female aspects is not all external: it's not all about men and women. Sometimes it's about finding a unique balance point inside ourselves, as solitary individual beings, enabling us to find productive fulfillment in living out our lives, no matter the literal or metaphoric genitalia attached to ourselves or the ones we love.

Anyway, my original essay is below. I note, this time, the absence of a pseudonym!

(Artwork note: the photo above is from a gravestone in northeast Pennsylvania, photographed by me about 1995. The art below is a woodcut of witches dancing around the horned god).

Is This the Boy Side of the God/dess?
by Ian Scott Horst
Originally appeared in the Heartfire 9994 (Winter 1994) issue of Queer Pagans Newsletter

In traditional Wicca, priestesses are supposed to wear a moon crown to suggest their incarnation of the female Goddess, and male priests are supposed to wear a stag-horned crown to suggest their incarnation of the male God. Some time ago I took to wearing to certain rituals as a talisman a piece of antler I had long ago bought in Finland. The amulet is a piece of reindeer antler, and it became to me a powerful magical tool. Then I discovered something important about it: In reindeer, antlers are found on both the males and females. And this fact became emblematic of something for me, and this knowledge increased the power of the tool.

For me the idea of the Horned God is an idea full of paradox. His energy is energy I know I possess: energy I have felt myself channel in ritual, energy I have surrendered to whilst thrashing about in bed, energy I have faced as I stared into the eyes of other Priests. When I look at my own sexuality and mortality, I find in this idea of the Horned God tremendous strength in seeing my own sensual alive-ness as the presence of the Divine. Its presence within me in the fuse-short minutes that are this life, my life, is a gift. But I find myself questioning, who, or what, exactly, is this Horned God?

I spent years as a political person on a trajectory from hard-core leftist to queer activist, and so when I found in the convergence of my feminist principles and awakening spirituality the concept of God as Goddess, as Great Mother, as Cosmic Female, I found myself in a moment of harmonic epiphany. Like most of you, presumably, I found my rejection of an invisible male authority-figure-God and my embrace of a materially-present loving Goddess a liberating, empowering act. And here on this path I found not anti-sexual judgment but a commitment to the idea that all consensual acts of sexuality and sensuality were celebrations of Divine spirit.

There are many paths that might be considered Neo-Pagan. Orthodox Wicca holds that the Goddess is half of a male-female divine couple, the Lord and Lady. Wiccans love to divide everything into male and female correspondence: The Lady is, I suppose, the female Deity I've described above. The Lord is the Horned God. His images are powerful, based on an amalgam of ancient paleolithic art, Celtic and Graeco-Roman myth and medieval English folklore. He is represented as being half human and half animal. His stag horns suggest the vibrancy of the wild animal, the mortality of the hunted, and the literal "horniness" of a rutting beast.

I call myself a Priest/ess now. I am male: and like you, I celebrate my gender because it's who I am. I am proudly and openly Queer, and like you I celebrate my sexuality because it's who I am. Like you I find Divine inspiration, validation and connection in the way I live, in the way I will die; in the way I fuck or get fucked, in the way I walk down the street, in the way I eat, shit, and sleep. You, man or woman, are you different? Is this a boy thing? Or is the lesson of the Horned God more simple: you better live and fuck now while you have the chance. I don't know about you but I don't think the Horned God is half of anything.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Anti-American Art: Forget Darfur, Remember Vietnam

Set of stamps issued by Cuba in 1966 to note "US Genocide in Vietnam." The depiction of bombs falling, gas warfare, and poisoned water buffalos are brilliant miniature examples of mid-1960s Cuban graphic art. The flag of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the Vietcong) makes up the background to each horrifying vignette.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Blind Injustice

Somehow I've kept this bumper sticker since the presidential election of 1972, which I was too young to vote in. Surrounded by other anti-war family and friends, I was surprised and devastated when President Nixon defeated George McGovern. This "Re-Elect the Dike Bomber?" sticker was put out by Nixon opponents who wanted to cut to the chase: Nixon was a war criminal not a presidential candidate. The "dikes" in question refer, of course, not to butch lesbians but to the civilian agricultural infrastructure of Vietnam that Nixon spent much of his presidency trying to destroy.

I'm reminded of this bumper sticker by the repeated inability of Americans to empathize with the millions of people in foreign countries effected by American interventions, or American policies, or American self-interest, or, as it is best summed up, by American arrogance. Recently Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a liberal Democrat, rightly attacked the American media for its fixation on the bizarre personal scandals of congressmembers rather than on liberal Rep. Kucinich's just defeated bill calling for withdrawl of US forces from Afghanistan. An admirable sentiment. But Rep. Patrick characterizes the Afghan war as having taken "1000 lives," a number that completely erases the thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis, including likely thousands of non-combatants, killed by "NATO" (ie, American) forces, or even those killed by Taliban suicide bombers, all of which deaths might be laid at the feet of the ongoing American effort to do whatever the hell it is trying to do in that part of the world.

It's kind of like how the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, undeniably a horrible horrible crime, is seen by Americans to be somehow worse than the deaths of ten? a hundred? a thousand? times that many people in Iraq in George Bush's unprovoked attack and its unending aftermath. All those innocent civilians killed "accidentally" by US airstrikes; all those Iraqi pedestrians and motorists casually murdered by Blackwater mercenaries, do their relatives not weep for these sudden and senseless deaths just like the relatives of those killed by the 911 hijackers?

"Re-elect the Dike Bomber" was a call to hold Nixon accountable for what he actually did. It was brave, accurate, and a landslide of Americans turned out not to give a crap as they voted for an ugly, corrupt, lying sleazeball; just as they did years later in sweeping Reagan and re-electing Bush. Why are Americans so blind to what is being done in their names?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Anti-American Art: Crashing and Burning

From a set of stamps issued in 1968 by North Vietnam to mark Vietnamese-Cuban solidarity against the United States, two fighters approach the burning hulk of an airplane labelled "USAF." North Vietnam regularly issued stamps marking its defense against US attacks, many showing downed planes and captured American soldiers. I'll present more later.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Surprise! AMG Gets it WRONG - The Pharoah Sanders Album That Doesn't Exist

I have long been Pharoah Sanders' Number One fan. I've been haunted by an item allegedly in his discography that I know nothing about. The mainstream source for discographical information on the web is the All-Music Guide, and it clearly lists a 1974 album for Pharoah, on the Capitol label, called "Voyage to Uranus." If you google this album, you'll find pages of listings seeming to verify the existence of this album. One or two them include people claiming they like this album or have used parts of it in their mixes. But I have never seen this album. Ever. I did hear an album a few months ago called "Voyage To Uranus," by Clive Stevens' Atmospheres, featuring among others, the fine guitarist Ralph Towner. It's a pretty decent obscure fusion album, worthy of inclusion in the Kozmigroov canon.

I started asking some of my music blog friends about this alleged Pharoah Sanders album. And then I remembered the name of the Atmospheres album. Damnit! It was issued on Capitol in 1974. And then my blog friend Cheeba pointed out that the Capitol number for the Atmospheres is the number AMG claims for this Pharoah album and that AMG is used as a feed for the majority of automated music websites. Eureka! We may never know how AMG ascribed this album to Pharoah in the first place, but here is the clear creation of an internet myth. By snowballing a mistake, AMG has seemingly created a rarity that some have claimed to have heard, and nobody seems to have ever doubted.

Let it be said clearly: While "Voyage to Uranus" is a fine album, it is not an album on which Pharoah Sanders plays.

AMG has a lot of useful information. It also has at least one completely clueless gatekeeper and reviewer, Scott Yanow, who doesn't actually like 1970s jazz, and so pretends that 1970s jazz either doesn't exist or is not worth listening to. Musical taste is so completely subjective that one can't be blamed for not liking something. But it seems bizarre that someone who only likes straight-ahead jazz artists who cover lots of standards would be an arbiter of taste, attempting to review a decade of music known for breaking the rules of jazz, breaking the rules of category and genre. It's not surprising under those circumstances that an error like this would be made. Hey AMG, want a music reviewer who actually loves the sound of the seventies? I'm available!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Anti-American Art: Crush the Snake

This stamp was issued in 1965 by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, then only the northern half of the country, to mark the tenth anniversary of the Asian-African solidarity conference in Bandung in 1955. The brown and yellow peoples of Africa and Asia are grasping a fanged serpent labelled with "USA" and dollar signs. While the US had been meddling in Vietnam for years, 1965 really marked the beginning of all-out war. Later Vietnamese stamps wouldn't treat their fight against the U.S. quite so metaphorically.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What Happens in Shushan Stays in Shushan

For the third year in a row I attended the Purim pageant "Folies Esthere" organized by the New Shul in Greenwich Village.

The pageant and costume party reenacts the story from the book of Esther of King Ahasuerus of the Persian empire and his queens Vashti and Esther in ancient Shushan (Susa). The King demands his queen Vashti submit to his whim and prove her fealty by dancing naked before him. She refuses and is driven out. The King chooses from all the women of Shushan young Esther to be his new Queen. Unbeknownst to him, Esther is a Jew. When the evil henchman Haman, advisor to the King, has a run in with Mordecai, leader of the Jews, Haman swears revenge against the Jews and tells the King he must have them all killed as a danger to his rule. Esther intervenes, makes the King refuse to harm her people, and then reveals her people are the Jews. Haman is executed for his evil treachery, and a celebration ensures, involving the sharing of delicious hamantaschen cookies.

It's a profound ritual: the reenactment of the story combined with recitations of holy texts are the sort of one-two punch I'm used to from my Pagan days that make it possible to internalize the lessons of the pageant and transform a performance into a spiritual experience. The pageant is participatory: a costume party is organized for the event and noisemakers are waved about every time the name of the evil Haman is mentioned. Despite a thread of Jewish ancestry, I'm not Jewish and so I don't know what it's like to grow up with this sort of ritual. It's certainly earthier--and more revenge filled--than the average Christmas pageant.

What makes the New Shul's Purim celebration unique, though, is that this liberal, family-oriented congregation with lots of children and members of all ages, has chosen to transform the ritual into a challenging experience on many levels, not least of which is its embrace of complete genderfuck. Queen Vashti has, for these three years, been portrayed by my drag queen friend Candy Samples. King Ahasuerus is portrayed by a drag king; and this year in fact every role from Esther to Mordecai to Haman is portrayed by a member of the opposite gender. The cantor singing the sacred text was an evening-gown clad woman. (Photo of Candy from Lisa Teiger)

Candy/Queen Vashti was accompanied by two "Vashti Vixens," fellow drag queens, who sang Candy's new song "Promise of a New Year" and later, after Queen Vashti refused to submit to the King's will to bare herself except for her crown, a medley of Mama Cass's "Make Your Own Kind of Music" with the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore show.

Before Haman is executed, transformed into a GI Joe doll hanging from the balcony by a noose, s/he issues an impassioned warning that s/he, Haman, represents the dark wickedness potential in all of us, something we must constantly guard against and uproot. As the GI Joe doll swings, darkly hilarious and disturbing, the community begins to sing "Once there was a wicked wicked man, and Haman was his name..." Justice wins out and bad people who would scapegoat others for their problems -- in this case the Jews -- are defeated. Powerful stuff.

The gender-switched pageant is funny but completely reverent. I'm trying to wrap my head around the intentions of the New Shul for setting it up this way. Is it just in the costume-party tradition of Purim and with reference to the (once upon a time) gay identity of the Village? Much to ponder.! hiss!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Anti-American Art: Hey don't point that at me I only live here

"Drive the US Out of Asia!" That would be what these pissed-off Arab, Cambodian, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese folks bearing their bayonets and heavily-eyebrowed scowls are trying to do. Kinda makes their point. Cultural-revolution era 1960s Chinese poster.

Monday, March 08, 2010

International Women's Day: Fantasy v. Reality

Above, a Sandinista billboard in Managua. "Por la igualdad de participacion de la mujer": "For the Equality of Participation of Women." Below, women on a train returning home from the market in Managua to Diriamba. Both photos by me, both from 1986. I guess the lesson here is that it takes more than good intentions to change oppressive class relationships. Legal equality, which technically even the United States has failed to embrace, is one thing; the breakdown of gender roles is quite another.

March 8 is International Working Women's Day

What don't you see on these stamps from the early years of the (Soviet-backed) Democratic Republic of Afghanistan? The top stamp celebrates the International Year of the Child, 1979. The bottom, celebrates Mother's Day in the Revolution from 1980. What's missing? The burqa!

Yes, the full-body covering for Afghan women, face concealed behind a mesh mask, so condemned by Western feminists, was not the fashion under Afghanistan's progressive secular government in the years of, and before, the so-called Soviet invasion. Women worked, served in government, served in the armed forces, went to school, and didn't wear the burqa. You may thank the Western-backed Mujahedeen, and its primary backers Ronald Reagan, George Bush I and Saudi Arabia, and the Taliban for the burqa.

With respect to all the well-intentioned do-gooders on the coattails of the continuing US invasion of Afghanistan trying to undo some of the Taliban's oppressive anti-women policies, one wonders what the state of Afghan women might be had not the superpowers and regional powers decided to spend the last thirty years mucking Afghanistan up.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

My First Record Store or, Go Ahead Judge an Album By Its Cover

I went to college at the University of Chicago, located in the idyllic integrated enclave of Hyde Park on deeply segregated Chicago's south side. I spent only my first year in a college dorm, in a tiny room with a succession of odd roommates: we were all uncomfortable with each other in that dorm, from weirdly diverse cultural backgrounds and all suffering some kind of cultural shock. It was 1976 and how I, a radicalized Russian language student arrived too late for the student revolution and itching to come out of closet wound up surviving with a farmboy from southern Indiana, a jock from Michigan, a failed Jesuit student from lord knows where, and a motley crew of nerds, managed to hang on to sanity I'll never exactly know. Before I fled the dorms for the warmer geniality of shared apartment life the one thing I discovered was that my brand new mushroom-shaped plastic stereo record changer with an 8-track deck built in could transform my dreary dorm room into a private oasis with music no one else I knew could stand.

I had discovered my first record store. In high school I ordered plenty of records from Columbia House (where I was destined to work years later), and was developing the rudiments of my taste. But I lived in a suburb without a record store and didn't have much money.

I had always wanted a Joni Mitchell album: somebody I knew used to play "Court and Spark" for me all the time, but I didn't own it. When I got to college and found that nearby record store I'm pretty sure the first thing I got there was "Hejira," Joni's jazzed up album with Jaco Pastorius that turned her into an enemy of her longtime folk fans and made me a lifetime Joni worshipper. The trippy composite photography on the gatefold sleeve sucked me in. It was the first thing I played on that record changer, and this record has remained a favorite. Her tales of change and longing became a refuge for me; someplace to sink in and retreat from the stresses of the world.

On my next trip to the record store they were playing this crazy record from some singer I had never heard of. She was Brazilian, named Flora Purim, and "Nothing Will Be As It Was...Tomorrow" was like nothing I had ever heard before. It had Al McKay, the guitar player from Earth Wind and Fire on it--I loved them!--and what I heard in the store won me over completely. Again, a completely trippy album cover with a giant bird and some naked lady covering her face with a mirror. I bought the record and put it on my record changer. Flora Purim was queued up second. As I was doing school work expecting to hear the record drop instead I heard something dragging catastrophically on the record needle. The stereo was sitting in the window and the sun was shining; before the record had dropped the sun had wilted my new Flora LP like a floppy hat. I rushed it back to the record store after trying to straighten the disc out before it hardened again. "Hey! This album is warped!" I complained back at the store, and got a new one. Believe it or not I went home and, stupidly, repeated my mistake. The store clerk eyed me suspiciously when I returned my second "warped" copy for a third one. But I learned my lesson. "Nothing Will Be As It Was" never melted again, though it soon became my favorite album.

I was really hooked on the record store. I would listen to the albums I had bought and just get lost staring into the artwork. Those 12-inch cardboard sleeves are more satisfying than a tiny CD booklet could ever be. Anyway, I was convinced that trippy album artwork was the ticket. On my next trip to the store I saw the wall covered in $1.99 cutouts, most of which were from the Impulse! label, which had just collapsed. I picked out Sun Ra's "Nubians of Plutonia" with its epic imaginary Plutonian landscape and reclining nude goddess. The price was certainly right. Oh my God. When I got this home I had no idea what I had discovered. It was unlike anything I had ever heard. For years I would put this album on for new friends. It made many people run from the room, but for me its crazy off center jazz beats, afro-drumming and weird chanting transported me. It usually transported my roommate out of the room, which was convenient as well.

It took me a while to understand that this incredibly modern and avant-garde music had actually been recorded in the late 1950s: it was a long time before I understood how Impulse! had licensed and repackaged Sun Ra's original catalogue. Impulse!'s marketing completely won me over. Every time I went back to that record store, it was straight to the Impulse cut-out wall. I wasn't ready for all of Sun Ra, I know I picked up one and couldn't make it through the dense and screechy wall of cosmic sound. But "Angels and Demons At Play" became my second Sun Ra score. It sounded almost like what most people called jazz, but with a freaky freaky edge that sucked me in.

Next up was a two-record set: Alice Coltrane's "Reflection on Creation and Space, a Five-Year View." Who was this lady with the distant stare? This album really changed my life. I didn't understand it. I didn't understand what she was talking about on the liner notes for this or the other Alice Coltrane cutouts I proceeded to buy. But it was incredibly compelling stuff. She's playing Indian music; she's playing jazz; she's playing the harp for chrissakes. She's doing these incredible string arrangements; she got advice for one of them from Stravinsky's ghost. If John Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things" from the early 1960s was a musical revelation for a generation, and a kind of violent retribution against "The Sound of Music" and the saccharine world of showtune innocence and the cult of the jazz standard, imagine what it was like for me to hear Alice's version of John's version first. There's that percussive carnival organ she played; there's her cosmic harp and the strings that always seem to want to soar off into outer space.

My next attack on the cutout wall was Pharoah Sanders. I grabbed "Elevation" and "Village of the Pharoahs," which, this being the cutout wall, were generally not considered to be his A-list. Listening to the bells and flutes of "Mansion Worlds" or "Memories of Lee Morgan" on "Village of the Pharoahs" or to Joe Bonner's rhythmically percussive piano playing on "The Gathering" on "Elevation" transported me. I didn't even smoke weed to this music to become completely high on its deep spiritual vibe. Being able to push myself through the inevitable cacophony on a Pharoah Sanders or Alice Coltrane record became the most rewarding challenge: I couldn't always do it at first but when I mastered the art I could practically feel my mind expanding. None of my peers could tolerate this stuff, but to my satisfaction some of the slightly older guys I soon met among the radicals I had begun to hang out with dug it all too.

Sure my taste expanded and diverged afterwards. When I moved away from Hyde Park up to the north side, and eventually away from Chicago, there were new record stores and new musical directions. I got pretty hooked on disco, and even some rock. But I remained a sucker for a trippy album cover, and honestly, I don't think that has lead me wrong too many times. It's sad that record stores are such a thing of the past, and sad that album art has gone from being a 12" gatefold wonder to a 5" booklet, and now to a two- or three-inch jpg in the corner of iTunes. But all the music is still there, and that's not so bad.

Thankfully, the music mentioned here has all made it to the digital age and isn't too hard to find on CD. Jazz Supreme has lots more info on the Impulse! artists and cosmic jazz. There's some Sun Ra, including a compilation I created, on my music blog Ile Oxumare, with links to downloads.