I Saw the Light (Hank Williams) and Janis: Little Girl Blue (Janis Joplin)—Popular music and its discontents

By David Walsh
3 October 2015

This is the third in a series of articles devoted to the recent Toronto International Film Festival (September 10-20). The first part was posted September 26 and the second part October 1.

Country music performer Hank Williams (1923-1953) and rock and roll singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) were both significant figures in the history of American popular culture. Williams died at 29 and Joplin at 27. Each is the subject of a new film. I Saw the Light (Marc Abraham) is a fictional account of Williams’ life; Janis: Little Girl Blue (Amy Berg) is a documentary about Joplin.

The gifted British actor Tom Hiddleston plays Williams and also creditably sings his songs (musician Rodney Crowell worked with Hiddleston for a month). I Saw the Light follows Williams’ life from his marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) at a gas station in Andalusia, Alabama in 1944 (the owner is also a justice of the peace) to his death, from alcohol and pill-induced heart failure, en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day 1953.

Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light

Abraham’s effort is a fairly standard film biography. It treats some of the ups and many downs in Williams’ life. The singer drank heavily, between occasional periods of sobriety. He was often in pain because of spina bifida occulta, a condition in which the outer part of certain vertebrae is not completely closed. He and his wife frequently fought, over money, over her desire to sing, over his affairs, over her affairs. They eventually divorced, and shortly before his death, Williams married again.

I Saw the Light

Williams had his first big hit with “Move It on Over,” about a man in trouble with his wife, in 1947. In fact, it is an early rock and roll song, one that unmistakably reflects the postwar atmosphere. After a successful stint on the Louisiana Hayride, Williams first performed at the Grand Ole Opry in June 1949, where his “Lovesick Blues” was a triumph. The glory did not last long.

He was eventually fired from the Opry for alcoholism in 1952 and his famed producer, Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford in the film), stopped working with him. His life went from bad to worse … It did not help matters that a quack, who had obtained his “Doctorate of Science” for $35 began prescribing amphetamines, Seconal, chloral hydrate and morphine for the ailing and addicted singer. I Saw the Light fleshes out these various episodes. Hiddleston, Olsen and Cherry Jones as the formidable Lillie Williams, Hank’s mother, all do well. The film avoids painting any of the characters as yokels, but it also avoids saying much of anything about them. This movie is not an immense step forward from Gene Nelson’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, the 1964 film with George Hamilton as Williams and Susan Oliver as Audrey.

Williams was a remarkable singer and songwriter. His lyrics are clever and insightful about everyday life. His liveliest songs “swing” with confidence and swagger, finding a large audience in a population that had endured the Depression and the war and now, with jobs and with some money in their pockets, had no intention of returning to the darkest days of the 1930s—“Move It on Over,” “Honky Tonkin’,” “I’m a Long Gone Daddy,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Mind Your Own Business,” “Why Don’t You Love me,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” and more.

In one of the better scenes in I Saw the Light, Williams-Hiddleston is in New York—where he feels like a fish out of water—for the Perry Como television show in November 1951. He speaks frankly to a reporter from a big city newspaper. “Everyone has a little darkness,” he says. Williams refers to the anger, misery, sorrow and shame that everyone feels. “I show it to them [the public]. … They think I can help.”

In another comment, cited by Colin Escott in his biography of Williams, the real-life singer told an interviewer (perhaps the one fictionalized in the film?) in 1951, “Folk songs [which are what he termed his own music] express the dreams and prayers and hopes of the working people.”

This element seems deliberately played down in I Saw the Light. Perhaps Abraham was frightened of making sweeping and too easy generalizations, and unsubstantiated generalizations should obviously be avoided. But Williams was born in immense poverty in rural southern Alabama and grew up during the Depression. His father was a terrible drunk and his mother was not an easy person. He drank, and ultimately took pills, all his brief life to alleviate physical and psychological pain. But his songs reflected something more than merely his own personal distress and striving. Their rhythms and words tapped into the sentiments of large numbers of people.

The film convincingly recreates the physical look of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but pays little attention to the larger forces at work that shaped and propelled Hank Williams and country music in general. One does not really obtain a sense in I Saw the Light of the quality and character of everyday life out of which his songs emerged.

Country music, including its very name, is full of contradictions that deserve to be explored. Like Williams’ family, which moved from rural Butler County to Montgomery, Alabama, a city of 70,000, when the future singer was 13 or 14, the genre was created and developed for the most part by those who were, in fact, leaving the “country.”

As historian Rachel Rubin notes: “In its most important early decades (the 1920s to 1940s), country music told the story of urbanization, and the genre’s relationship to rural living was more a musical epitaph for a way of life increasingly being left behind as both black and white Southerners fled the rural South for the promise of good jobs in the city.”

Neither is the question of Jim Crow segregation touched upon in the film. Abraham’s may have had the healthy notion that I Saw the Light should not become prey to contemporary identity politics, but simply sidestepping complexities is not helpful either.

One of Williams’ earliest influences was the African American street musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, who apparently showed the eight-year-old how to improvise chords on the guitar. Williams had many African American fans. The final shot I Saw the Light is newsreel footage from the day of Williams’ funeral in January 1953 in Montgomery, and one sees many black faces in the crowd milling about on the street.

Claudette Colvin was one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement in Alabama. She was arrested for opposing segregation on Montgomery’s buses in March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks was taken off a city bus by police, sparking the famous boycott. Speaking of her childhood, Colvin told her biographer Philip Hoose, “I listened to the Grand Ole Opry, too. The star of the show was Hank Williams, a famous country singer from Montgomery. When he died, his funeral drew the biggest crowd in the history of the city; Hank Williams’ wife invited the black community to attend since so many of us liked his music, but Mom wouldn’t let me go because the funeral was segregated.”

These are the sorts of fascinating dramas and conflicts that a more serious work on Hank Williams’ life and times might have raised. As it is, I Saw the Light is a pleasant film that does not go terribly deep.

Popular music has played, and continues to play, an immense role in American life. There are many reasons for this, including the extraordinary heterogeneity of experiences, traditions and nationalities that jostle against one another in America and seem worth calling attention to. But is it not possible as well that a population so politically disenfranchised and excluded as the American people must find some outlet, which social democratic, “Communist” or labor parties have provided to a limited extent in other countries, for its feelings and sufferings?

Janis Joplin

Amy Berg is making a name for herself as an interesting documentary filmmaker. Her Deliver Us from Evil (2006), about a Catholic priest who admitted to molesting and raping 25 children, and West of Memphis (2012), about the frame-up of a number of young men for the supposed “satanic” murder of three eight-year-old children, were both systematic and compassionate.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

In Janis: Little Girl Blue, Berg turns to the life and career of singer Janis Joplin, who was immensely popular for the last several years of her life until her tragic demise from heroin and alcohol in October 1970.

Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, a sea port on the Gulf of Mexico and at the time the center of a large oil refinery network. Her father was a mechanical engineer in the oil industry. In high school, as Little Girl Blue details, Joplin felt persecuted and an outcast.

The civil rights movement and the social developments of the late 1950s and early 1960s were obviously critical to the course of her life. One of her first musical memories, Berg’s film notes, was hearing folk singer Odetta’s version of “Careless Love.” Joplin tried folk singing in Austin, Texas, before first moving to San Francisco in 1963, where she sang but also developed a methamphetamine habit and became “skeletal.”

After a brief period back home in Port Arthur, Joplin returned to San Francisco in 1966 and became the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, a “psychedelic rock” band. A major breakthrough took place at the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the first of the large, well-publicized music festivals, in June 1967, where she sang a memorable version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.”

Berg’s film follows the vicissitudes of Joplin’s professional and personal life. She left Big Brother in 1968 and went out on her own as the leader of her own bands. She continued to use serious drugs. A friend says blithely, “We shot heroin for fun.” She eventually took for Brazil to clean herself up, where she fell in love with an American tourist.

Janis Joplin in 1970

Berg treats Joplin’s life with a great deal of sympathy. The singer, who exuded confidence and bravado on stage, was beset by anxiety and insecurity. She told a Montreal reporter in 1969, “Send me your review. I agonize over all of ’em. Man, I’m really neurotic. I really want people to love me.”

Joplin’s recordings are not generally as good as they could be and she tended, as filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker remarks, to “shout and scream.” It will elicit cries of outrage from some, but, in my opinion, there is very little of the “San Francisco Sound” that stands the test of time: too much self-indulgence, too many drugs, too much self-delusion.

However, anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it. This writer saw her in concert three times in 1968 and 1969, including on a bill with B.B. King only a few hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.

Her last boyfriend David Niehaus comments in Berg’s film that Janis “could feel everybody else’s pain.” She could not be oblivious, Niehaus explains, to suffering, her singing represents an “entire honesty.”

Laura and Michael Joplin, Janis’ younger siblings, participated in the making of Berg’s film and are interviewed in it. They were present at the public screenings in Toronto. Each makes a highly favorable impression. They spoke with considerable affection, four decades or more later, about their elder sister. Laura described Janis’ emotional life as a “roller coaster” from early on. She made clear that her sister hated “racism” (Port Arthur had an active branch of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s) and felt strongly about “integration” and “equality.” Footage of Janis’s mother, after Janis’ death, reading one of her daughter’s letters, is also very moving.

The final and most apt comment in Little Girl Blue comes from John Lennon, on a talk show following Joplin’s death. Lennon observes that no one is asking the most important question, why people take drugs in the first place. He suggests that it comes from a “problem with society. People can’t live in society without guarding themselves from it.”

Gillian Armstrong’s latest film

Australian film director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, High Tide, Oscar and Lucinda) has made an intriguing and original documentary, Women He’s Undressed, about the legendary Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly (1897-1964), born Orry George Kelly in Kiama, New South Wales.

Women He’s Undressed

Armstrong has actor Darren Gilshenan portray Orry-Kelly in various slightly camp reenactments of episodes from the designer’s life. Sent to Sydney by his parents in 1917 to study banking, Orry-Kelly developed a love for the theater, before emigrating to the US in 1922. He shared an apartment with the future Cary Grant, then Archie Leach, in New York City, where they sold ties together.

Orry-Kelly moved to Hollywood in 1931 and eventually found work at Warner Brothers. In the end, he had 300 film credits, including as costume designer for such films as Juarez, When Tomorrow Comes, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, The Little Foxes, An American in Paris, Oklahoma!, Auntie Mame, Sweet Bird of Youth, Gypsy and Irma La Douce. During certain periods, he worked on as many as 50 films a year.

The talking heads include Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda and award-winning costume designer Ann Roth, all of whom speak about Orry-Kelly with great respect and affection.

The designer, who was gay in what he described as a “homophobic city” (Hollywood), never found personal happiness. He drank a great deal, and when drunk was apparently “foulmouthed” and “mean.” Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards for his design work (the most won by an Australian until costume designer Catherine Martin surpassed his total in 2014).

Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach, is a biographical film about the trials and tribulations of American screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), blacklisted and sent to jail in 1950 as one of the “Hollywood Ten,” screenwriter and directors who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.


Roach is best known to this point for directing the Austin Powers series of films with Mike Myers and the Meet the Parents series with Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro. He also directed the execrable Borat, with Sacha Baron Cohen. None of this is very auspicious or seems a serious preparation for taking on one of the most complex and fraught political periods in American history.

One’s misgivings are largely confirmed. More can be said about the film when it eventually comes out to the movie theaters, but Trumbo represents the writer (played by Bryan Cranston), a Communist Party member from 1943 to 1948, as little more than a tepid liberal. Granted, the Stalinist party presented itself during this period as the most fervent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the war effort, but there was more to Trumbo and his adherence to the CP than that. His 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, about a shell-shocked World War I veteran, was a quite ferocious attack on imperialist war and its horrors. In any case, Trumbo is a weak effort.

Sunset Song

More should also be said in the future about Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, based on the well-known 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Davies (The Long Day Closes, The House of Mirth, Of Time and the City) is an immensely sensitive filmmaker, but his adaptation of the novel is oddly dissatisfying.

The story, set in the early 20th century, involves a farming family eking out an existence in northeast Scotland. The patriarch (Peter Mullan) is as hard and unsympathetic as a closed fist. His wife, worn out by painful births, eventually takes her own life and those of her two youngest children. Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), the eldest daughter in the family, is deserted by her beloved brother, the victim of their father’s brutality, who takes off for greener pastures in Canada.

After her father’s death, Chris marries Ewan Tavendale, a young farmer, and the pair spend some happy time together. However, the shadow of World War I falls across this isolated region too. Under the pressure of public opinion and against his better judgment, Ewan enlists and is sent off to France, where he experiences the horrors of trench warfare. When he comes home on leave, he is a transformed human being. One tragedy follows the other. Sunset Song is a lovely film, but its focus and center are not at all clear. The first line of the film, spoken by Chris to a school-friend, is this: “Is your father a socialist?” And a discussion of equality and the French Revolution soon takes place. However, much of the film is devoted to the sadism of Mullan’s character, which the actor, frankly, overdoes and which becomes a bit tedious.

World War I, a central fact of the story (and the period!), one would think, comes in rather late—almost as an afterthought. When a WSWS reporter asked Davies, who seemed somewhat demoralized by the state of the world, at a public screening whether his film was intended to be taken as an “anti-war” statement, the filmmaker looked bemused and replied, no, no, it was merely about “forgiveness” and such. Something is muddled.




Nietzsche on the Power of Music

“Without music life would be a mistake.”

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional,” Oliver Sacks wrote in contemplating music’s singular power over the human spirit — a power that has humbled some of humanity’s most brilliant minds into a state of awe that transcends the intellect.

Among them was the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900). He who proclaimed that “god is dead” and believed that nothing worthwhile is easy found in music life’s sole unmerited grace.

In an autobiographical fragment quoted in Julian Young’s altogether fantasticFriedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (public library), the German intellectual goliath writes:

God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.

Nietzsche wrote these lines two months before his fourteenth birthday — a detail doubly poignant when contrasted with the “vain ostentations” marketed to teenagers today. But his profound reverence for music never left him. Toward the end of his life, he immortalized it in an aphorism included in his 1889 book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer:

What trifles constitute happiness! The sound of a bagpipe. Without music life would be a mistake. The German imagines even God as a songster.

Complement the wholly illuminating Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography with the great philosopher’s ten rules for writers and his heartening 1882 New Year’s resolution, then revisit these seven essential books about music and the mind.



Rave SWAT Teams

Cops Cracking Down on ‘Evil’ People Who Dance Late at Night

The motion is a reactionary step following the death of two people at last month’s HARD Summer music festival.

Los Angeles, Ca — Last week, local politicians in Los Angeles voted unanimously to create a new police task force that will be entirely focused on electronic dance music events. Earlier this summer, Los Angeles County council members proposed banning these types of events entirely. While that option is still on the table for them, they are now moving to crack down on these events until they are able to initiate a complete ban.

The recent proposal to create a police task force was put forward by county supervisors Hilda Solis and Michael Antonovich. The motion reads “Ultimately, in the interest of public safety, a ban of electronic music festivals at county-owned properties remains a possibility that will continue to be evaluated.”

“I want to emphasize that our efforts around this motion, above all, are about the health and safety of those attending these events. No lives should be lost while attending any music event,” Solis said in a statement.

The motion is a reactionary step following the death of two people at last month’s HARD Summer music festival at the Pomona Fairgrounds.

While deaths at events are a concern, they are largely due to the prohibition of these drugs, which makes them more dangerous. To make matters worse, the zero tolerance policy at events prevents drug users from getting the help they need when something does go wrong.

The development of a rave task force is reminiscent of the fear-mongering propagated about raves in the late 1990s.

In April of 2003, the government passed a law that everyone could agree on, the Amber Alert Bill. The Amber Alert is a notification system that sends warnings about missing and abducted children.

At face value, this seemed like something that was completely positive, and when it comes to rescuing abducted children, the Amber Alert system has surely saved many lives. However, the piece of legislation that put this system into effect is a perfect example of how the government is able to pass unpopular laws, by attaching them to popular bills.

In the case of the legislation that set up the Amber Alert system, there were also completely unrelated issues covered in the bill. For example, hidden deep within the bill was one of Joe Biden’s pet projects, the RAVE ACT, a law that imposes legal penalties on hosts and participants of late night dance parties.

According to the Wikipedia entry for the RAVE ACT:

On Thursday (April 10, 2003) the Senate and House passed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (formerly known as the RAVE Act) as an attachment to the child abduction-related AMBER Alert Bill. The language of the original act was changed slightly before the bill was passed without public hearing, debate or a vote.

Festivals and other events are not to blame for overdoses, or other personal decisions that attendees make on their own. This is especially important to consider when the events host anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 people.

In an area with that many people, as populated as some towns are, it is inevitable that a wide variety of situations can pop up. In fact, any large event that hosts so many people see occasional deaths. Due to the large volume of people, the chances increase that something will go wrong somewhere. This goes for sporting events to parades and other types of events that are considered wholesome and family-friendly.

Some other factors to consider are the many unintended consequences of the drug war, which causes drugs to be more dangerous, and limits harm prevention policies that could be put into place to prevent overheating and drug overdoses.

John Vibes is an author, researcher and investigative journalist.



Why the Rich Love Burning Man

Burning Man became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core.


In principle the annual Burning Man festival sounds a bit like a socialist utopia: bring thousands of people to an empty desert to create an alternative society. Ban money and advertisements and make it a gift economy. Encourage members to bring the necessary ingredients of this new world with them, according to their ability.

Introduce “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and “decommodification” as tenets, and designate the alternative society as a free space, where sex and gender boundaries are fluid and meant to be transgressed.

These ideas — the essence of Burning Man — are certainly appealing.

Yet capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: last year, a venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at the festival, his camp a hyper-exclusive affair replete with wristbands and models flown in to keep the guests company.

Burning Man is earning a reputation as a “networking event” among Silicon Valley techies, and tech magazines now send reporters to cover it. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Alphabet are foaming fans, along with conservative anti-tax icon Grover Norquist and many writers of the libertarian (and Koch-funded) Reason magazine. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even went so far as to claim that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley.”

Radical Self-Expression

The weeklong Burning Man festival takes place once a year over Labor Day weekend in a remote alkali flat in northwestern Nevada. Two hours north of Reno, the inhospitable Black Rock Desert seems a poor place to create a temporary sixty-thousand-person city — and yet that’s entirely the point. On the desert playa, an alien world is created and then dismantled within the span of a month. The festival culminates with the deliberate burning of a symbolic effigy, the titular “man,” a wooden sculpture around a hundred feet tall.

Burning Man grew from unpretentious origins: a group of artists and hippies came together to burn an effigy at Baker Beach in San Francisco, and in 1990 set out to have the same festival in a place where the cops wouldn’t hassle them about unlicensed pyrotechnics. The search led them to the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man is very much a descendent of the counterculture San Francisco of yesteryear, and possesses the same sort of libertine, nudity-positive spirit. Some of the early organizers of the festival professed particular admiration for the Situationists, the group of French leftists whose manifestos and graffitied slogans like “Never Work” became icons of the May 1968 upsurge in France.

Though the Situationists were always a bit ideologically opaque, one of their core beliefs was that cities had become oppressive slabs of consumption and labor, and needed to be reimagined as places of play and revolt. Hence, much of their art involved cutting up and reassembling maps, and consuming intoxicants while wandering about in Paris.

You can feel traces of the Situationists when walking through Black Rock City, Burning Man’s ephemeral village. Though Black Rock City resembles a city in some sense, with a circular dirt street grid oriented around the “man” sculpture, in another sense it is completely surreal: people walk half-naked in furs and glitter, art cars shaped like ships or dragons pump house music as they purr down the street.

Like a real city, Burning Man has bars, restaurants, clubs, and theaters, but they are all brought by participants because everyone is required to “bring something”:

The people who attend Burning Man are no mere “attendees,” but rather active participants in every sense of the word: they create the city, the interaction, the art, the performance and ultimately the “experience.” Participation is at the very core of Burning Man.

Participation sounds egalitarian, but it leads to some interesting contradictions. The most elaborate camps and spectacles tend to be brought by the rich because they have the time, the money, or both, to do so. Wealthier attendees often pay laborers to build and plan their own massive (and often exclusive) camps. If you scan San Francisco’s Craigslist in the month of August, you’ll start to see ads for part-time service labor gigs to plump the metaphorical pillows of wealthy Burners.

The rich also hire sherpas to guide them around the festival and wait on them at the camp. Some burners derogatorily refer to these rich person camps as “turnkey camps.

Silicon Valley’s adoration of Burning Man goes back a long way, and tech workers have always been fans of the festival. But it hasn’t always been the provenance of billionaires — in the early days, it was a free festival with a cluster of pitched tents, weird art, and explosives; but as the years went on, more exclusive, turnkey camps appeared and increased in step with the ticket price — which went from $35 in 1994 to $390 in 2015 (about sixteen times the rate of inflation).

Black Rock City has had its own FAA-licensed airport since 2000, and it’s been getting much busier. These days you can even get from San Carlos in Silicon Valley to the festival for $1500. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg flew into Burning Man on a private helicopter, staying for just one day, to eat and serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches. From the New York Times:

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

The growing presence of the elite in Burning Man is not just noticed by outsiders — long-time attendees grumble that Burning Man has become “gentrified.” Commenting on the New York Times piece, burners express dismay at attendees who do no work. “Paying people to come and take care of you and build for you . . . and clean up after you . . . those people missed the point.”

Many Burners seethed after reading one woman’s first-person account of how she was exploited while working at the $17,000-per-head camp of venture capitalist Jim Tananbaum. In her account, she documented the many ways in which Tananbaum violated the principles of the festival, maintaining “VIP status” by making events and art cars private and flipping out on one of his hired artists.

Tananbaum’s workers were paid a flat $180 a day with no overtime, but the anonymous whistleblower attests that she and others worked fifteen- to twenty-hour days during the festival.

The emergent class divides of Burning Man attendees is borne out by data: the Burning Man census (yes, they have a census, just like a real nation-state) showed that from 2010 to 2014, the number of attendees who make more than $300,000 a year doubled from 1.4% to 2.7%. This number is especially significant given the outsize presence 1 percenters command at Burning Man.

In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be — they commission artists of their choice and build to their own whims. They also determine how generous they are feeling, and whether to withhold money.

It might seem silly to quibble over the lack of democracy in the “governance” of Black Rock City. After all, why should we care whether Jeff Bezos has commissioned a giant metal unicorn or a giant metal pirate ship, or whether Tananbaum wants to spend $2 million on an air-conditioned camp? But the principles of these tech scions — that societies are created through charity, and that the true “world-builders” are the rich and privileged — don’t just play out in the Burning Man fantasy world. They carry over into the real world, often with less-than-positive results.

Remember when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to help “fix” Newark’s public schools? In 2010, Zuckerberg — perhaps hoping to improve his image after his callous depiction in biopic The Social Network donated $100 million to Newark’s education system to overhaul Newark schools.

The money was directed as a part of then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s plan to remake the city into the “charter school capital of the nation,” bypassing public oversight through partnership with private philanthropists.

Traditionally, public education has been interwoven with the democratic process: in a given school district, the community elects the school board every few years. School boards then make public decisions and deliberations. Zuckerberg’s donation, and the project it was attached to, directly undermined this democratic process by promoting an agenda to privatize public schools, destroy local unions, disempower teachers, and put the reins of public education into the hands of technocrats and profiteers.

This might seem like an unrelated tangent — after all, Burning Man is supposed to be a fun, liberating world all its own. But it isn’t. The top-down, do what you want, radically express yourself and fuck everyone else worldview is precisely why Burning Man is so appealing to the Silicon Valley technocratic scions.

To these young tech workers — mostly white, mostly men — who flock to the festival, Burning Man reinforces and fosters the idea that they can remake the world without anyone else’s input. It’s a rabid libertarian fantasy. It fluffs their egos and tells them that they have the power and right to make society for all of us, to determine how things should be.

This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity. Recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op-ed, in the wake of the Obamacare announcement, in which he proposed a healthcare system reliant on “voluntary, tax-deductible donations.”

This is the dream of libertarians and the 1 percent, and it reifies itself at Burning Man — the lower caste of Burners who want to partake in the festival are dependent on the whims and fantasies of the wealthy to create Black Rock City.

Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.

Of course, the wealthy can afford more, both in lodging and in what they “bring” to the table: so at Burning Man, those with more money, who can bring more in terms of participation, labor and charity, are celebrated more.

It is a society that we find ourselves moving closer towards the other 358 (non–Burning Man) days of the year: with a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.

It’s much like how in my former home of Pittsburgh, the library system is named for Andrew Carnegie, who donated a portion of the initial funds. But the donated money was not earned by Carnegie; it trickled up from his workers’ backs, many of them suffering from overwork and illness caused by his steel factories’ pollution. The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.

At Burning Man the 1 percenters — who have earned their money in the same way that Carnegie did so long ago — show up with an army of service laborers, yet they take the credit for what they’ve “brought.”

Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression:

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

The root of Burning Man’s degeneration may lie in the concept itself. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.

It is in their interest that we are as self-interested as possible, since the more we obsess over our digital identity, the more personal information of ours they can mine and sell. Little wonder that the founders of these companies have found their home on the playa.

It doesn’t seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who’ve come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.

Burning Man will be remembered more as the model for Google CEO Larry Page’s dream of a libertarian state, than as the revolutionary Situationist space that it could have been.

As such, it is a cautionary tale for radicals and utopianists. When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.






The Moksha Tribe collective was organized in August of 2001, and we threw our first event, Aboriginal, in January of 2002. The last event occurred in 2008. The collective was comprised of like-minded souls, passionate about music and dance and the DIY ethic, and interested in unselfishly giving back to the EDM community and those in need in the Bay Area. We threw parties for love, not money, and all profits from our events after expenses were donated to worthy charities like Larkin Street Youth Center www.larkinstreetyouth.org/

Most EDM collectives arise, I believe, when some old friends decide over beers to throw a party. Moksha was somewhat unique: the formation of the tribe involved transforming virtual minds into a physical family. All of the original members came from sfraves, the hyperreal virtual community http://www.hyperreal.org.

Like many people on sfraves I spent lots of time bitching and complaining about dishonest promoters, poor but expensive parties, and the lack of any meaningful, transformative experiences at these events. Someone on the list wrote me and said: “If you’re so unhappy, why don’t you throw your own fuckin’ party?” He was right. After all these years in the music and dance community I had the experience and intuition to do something good for the community. I was just too damn lazy. I decided it was time for me to give something back to the community that had given me so much love and light over the years.

I put out a call to sfraves and to some specific individuals with whom I shared, in many cases, intellectual and spiritual affinities. Apparently there was much of the same frustration I felt out there, because nearly forty people volunteered to form a new collective to provide non-profit parties to the rave community. Of the forty, thirty became the core group that threw the first Aboriginal party. Some in the Moksha Tribe collective had no experience throwing parties; others had significant backgrounds in organizing party events. Many are DJs and producers.

The big challenge initially was to turn this virtual community of people who didn’t really know each other into a community of friends and even, in a non-physical sense, lovers — a genuine family. It has always been one of my firm beliefs that good parties are given by loving friends for friends. Moksha Tribe was really an experiment. I had never organized a collective based on primarily virtual relationships. But my communications with each of these volunteers led me to believe that we all shared some powerful beliefs about raving and true passion for music and dancing.

So we set about to build, really, an intentional community. For three months we had two or three meetings each month. The experienced trained the inexperienced, and we threw parties for each other. Most important, we developed some pretty intense, trusting and caring relationships. I could honestly say that before the first party I had real love and affection for these people. We had built a tribe.

We all agreed, and it is clearly stated in our goals, that we would throw non-profit parties with the intention of giving any profits after expenses to charity. The parties were to reflect the roots of our rave subculture by being thrown for love rather than profit. Moksha Tribe sought to create a genuine family vibe at these parties that is sensual, spiritual, loving and liberating. We welcomed and embraced the diversity of the music and dance community. Ultimately, we hoped to create a new paradigm for our subculture: we will put our raver values into action and give back to the whole of society by helping the needy. Moksha, by the way, means liberation and enlightenment — transcending the temporal and mortal world of ordinary experience. Moksha Tribe hoped to create temporary autonomous zones at our parties where guests can truly experience liberation and freedom in a caring, loving environment.

All Moksha Tribe members were volunteers. Our operating expenses, most of the equipment and supplies, and initial event expenses were either donated by members or funded internally. No members received any compensation from the collective, and individuals even pay for their party tickets.

Much love,

Apollo, founder of the Moksha Tribe collective




Apollo @ Catch 20-2 by Moksha Tribe

Post Capitalism


Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25

The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.

But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.

But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.

Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:

While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.

My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.

Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?

They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.

Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.

Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.

In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.

All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.