Faces of the missing from the Oakland warehouse fire (L-R) Nex Iuguolo, Chelsea Faith, Ara Jo, Micah Danemayer
Everyone has been anxiously searching for answers about the cause of the horrifying fire that broke out on Friday, December 2, in an artist warehouse set to host the “Golden Donna 2016 Silk West Coast Tour.” As confirmed so far, the fire has claimed the lives of 30 people.
In between the need for locals to alert loved ones about their safety, health and well-being in light of what’s happened, there is a growing mainstream narrative that looks to pin the blame for this tragedy on the culture of the artists who inhabit the building.
Outlets such as CNN and DailyNews are making it a point to emphasize that residents were living in this warehouse illegally and making commercial use of it without a permit.
While mainstream media is intent on painting a portrait of irresponsible artists/ravers who should’ve never opted to reside inside the warehouse in the first place, no one is asking the larger question of why these artists are forced to work and make a living in these specific circumstances.
Even some critics on social media have managed to find fault with the culture of tenants of this artist collective — which, in so many, they describe as pathological — blaming them for the incident:
Nowhere in their narrow-minded criticisms is a consideration of the shrinking opportunities to legally secure residential and commercial property in the city of Oakland. Breaching this issue of the ongoing property crisis in Oakland would point the finger toward systemic forces that exceed the so-called excesses and personal flaws of individual behavior.
Oakland has been ravaged by this property crisis — including gentrification — for years now. Artist collectives have been among the hardest hit by this issue. For example, the tenants of the artist collective known as the LoBot, which set up shop in industrial buildings within the lower income community of the Lower Bottoms, had its lights cut off in July, after thirteen years in operation.
As East Bay Express documents it, “The underground artist studio and venue’s landlord had discontinued its lease, and the newly doubled monthly rent was too high.”
In a curious fashion, mainstream reporters have queried aloud in their coverage about why the tenants of these warehouses do not seek permits that would allow them to legally stay in these buildings and hire the necessary services that would get the interior structures up to code. Looking closely at the problem, the answer is pretty simple: they can’t afford it. And while the responsibility of staying up to code rested upon Ghost Ship’s owner Derick Ion, the artists living and working in the space had little to no choice but to choose between stable housing and their own safety.
According to the SFGate, the LoBot is symptomatic of a bigger concern: Oakland rests among the 4 cities with the highest rental market in the entire country:
“One bedrooms increased 19 percent in the past year to $2,190,” writes SFGate “while two bedrooms increased 13.3 percent to reach $2,550.”
In its lamentation of the Oakland housing crisis, The Guardian portrays a similar dismal predicament that is citywide in scope, writing, “For many, the only way they can stay in Oakland is to sleep in their cars or on the streets.”
But, you won’t find economic considerations of this caliber in mainstream reports, for capitalism is far more comfortable and content with catering to the lie of atomistic individualism over deadly malfunctions in the infrastructure of the system and blaming the human disasters that are consequential to these systemic calamities on the psychological shortcomings of people viewed as willingly isolated from one another to their own detriment.
For anyone interested in helping with this tragedy, you can donate to this YouCare campaign.
For the liberal elites, it’s come to this. We’ve been reduced to this. We are all Duncan Lloyd, an assistant city solicitor in Philadelphia. Lloyd was busted by surveillance cameras videoing a buddy spraying “Fuck Trump” on the side of a newly opened Fresh Grocer. Lloyd is pictured below in his civil disobedience uniform.
Yes. That’s a man, wearing an ascot, holding a glass of wine, who tagged an upscale supermarket.
This is our life now, hyper-educated coastal elites. We’re not going to stock up on guns and insta-waffles. We’re not going to hop in a Prius and ethanol-roll motorists we disagree with. We’re not going to burn an American flag, because we don’t own an American flag, because what kind of jingoistic prick can find space for a freaking flag in a one-bedroom apartment?
All we can do is turn up our noses, drown ourselves in an earthy vintage, and tastefully vandalize what establishments we pass. We are a broken, beaten people. It’s just like high school. We’ve got our books and our vastly superior reservoirs of knowledge and empathy, they’ve got a viselike grip on our underpants. “F**k Trump” isn’t a protest, it’s a prayer, only we’re too smart to really believe that there’s an invisible sky judge who is listening.
“If the image of an upper-middle-class city attorney clad in a blazer and sipping wine while vandalizing an upscale grocery store with an anti-Trump message strikes you as perhaps the most bourgeois sight imaginable, that’s because it is,” said Joe DeFelice, chairman of the Philadelphia Republican Party.
I bet Joe DeFelice doesn’t know how to recognize or pronounce “ascot,” or suspects his supporters are too stupid to know what one is, so he chose to snark Lloyd’s blazer:
“Nothing can better represent the hysterical pearl-clutching of the ‘progressive’ elite in response to this earth-shattering election, when residents of Chestnut Hill and similar neighborhoods across the country discovered – gasp – that other people have a voice too.”
It’s not the discovery of their voice that has us clutching our pearls. It’s the waking nightmare of having to listen to it. We already gave these people the History Channel, and they turned it into 24 straight hours of men with visible ass-crack fishing, chopping, and fighting over trash left behind in a storage locker. WHAT WILL THEY DO WITH C-SPAN? I cannot abide live coverage of Tom Cotton buying guns and meat at Walmart.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney says Lloyd can keep his job he hasn’t made a final decision about Lloyd’s job. Unquestionably, that’s a double-standard. If a Trump supporter had written “Go Trump” on the side of a synagogue, or a library, or really anything of intellectual value, he’d be out on his ass.
But that’s because these Trump people are actually frightening. They ran on a campaign of white supremacy. When they vandalize your city, the action is but part of a larger campaign of hate crimes and intimidation.
When Duncan Lloyd vandalizes your city, it’s part of his larger campaign of finding a way to crawl out from under his covers in the morning. Look at him. LOOK AT HIM. He’s not out here trying to send the children of Trump supporters back to Mexico. He’s not trying to destroy the climate so Jesus can Rapture him to Graceland. He just wants to be able to look his cats in the eye without feeling ineffectual and ashamed. “I made a statement today, Odysseus and Penelope. I’m not going to let this be normalized.”
So, laugh at Duncan Lloyd. Laugh at all of us. Cackle away! But remember, it’s people like Lloyd who are at least trying to deal with reality. It’s all you Trump voters who will be looking the other way while he pulls your pants down and takes what coins you’ve scraped together. The con man is going to screw you guys the hardest.
One day, you’ll be asking to borrow Lloyd’s spray paint.
UPDATE (12/2/16: 12:00): The mayor’s office says that it has not decided on a course of action yet. Kenney’s office says: “We’re waiting to hear the full story, and we’re waiting to see if any charges are filed. The Mayor and Solicitor Sozi Pedro Tulante will make a decision on [Lloyd’s] employment based on that information.”
Then, six years later, Huxley turned all of this upside down. He headed West, to Hollywood, the newest of the New World, where he took a stab at writing screenplays (with not much luck) and started experimenting with mysticism and psychedelics — first mescaline in 1953, then LSD in 1955. This put Huxley at the forefront of the counterculture’s experimentation with psychedelic drugs, something he documented in his 1954 book, The Doors of Perception.
Huxley’s experimentation continued right through his death in November 1963. When cancer brought him to his death bed, he asked his wife to inject him with “LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular.” He died later that day, just hours after Kennedy’s assassination. Three years later, LSD was officially banned in California.
By way of footnote, it’s worth mentioning that the American medical establishment is now giving hallucinogens a second look, conducting controlled studies of how psilocybin and other psychedelics can help treat patients dealing with cancer, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug/alcohol addiction and end-of-life anxiety. The New York Times has more on this story.
For a look at the history of LSD, we recommend the 2002 film Hofmann’s Potion(2002) by Canadian filmmaker Connie Littlefield. You can watch it here, or find it listed in our collection of Free Movies Online.
The onetime insurgent candidate is now in a position to reshape the Democratic Party and take on Donald Trump.
It feels like a bomb went off in Washington. In less than a year, the leaders of both major parties have been crushed, fundamentally reshaping a political culture that for generations had seemed unalterable. The new order has belligerent outsider Donald Trump heading to the White House, ostensibly backed in Congress by a tamed and repentant majority of establishment Republicans. Hillary Clinton’s devastating loss, meanwhile, has left the minority Democrats in disarray. A pitched battle for the soul of the opposition party has already been enjoined behind the scenes.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won overwhelming youth support and 13 million votes during primary season, now sits on one side of that battle, in a position of enormous influence. The party has named him “outreach chair,” and Minnesota congressman and Sanders political ally Keith Ellison is the favorite to be named head of the Democratic National Committee. This is a huge change from earlier this year, when the Sanders campaign was completely on the outs with the DNC, but many see Sanders’ brand of politics as the Democrats’ best shot at returning to prominence.
Sanders’ rise is a remarkable story, obscured by the catastrophe of Trump’s win. When I first visited with Sanders for Rolling Stone, 11 years ago, for a tour of the ins and outs of congressional procedure, he was a little-known Independent in the House from a tiny agrarian state, an eccentric toiler pushing arcane and unsexy amendments through Congress, usually on behalf of the working poor: expanded access to heating oil in the winter, more regional community health centers, prohibitions against regressive “cash-balance pension plans,” etc.
His colleagues gently described Sanders as a hardworking quack, the root of his quackery apparently being that he was too earnest and never off-message, even in private. He had fans among Republicans (some called him an “honest liberal”) and many detractors among Democrats, who often grew weary of his lectures about the perils of over-reliance on donations from big business and Wall Street.
In other words, Sanders was a political loner, making his recent journey to the top of the Democratic Party even more remarkable. He has been put in this position not by internal patronage but by voters who are using him to demand that Democrats change their priorities.
At his Washington office a week after the election, I sat down with Sanders and his wife, Jane, just after the release of his new book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In. When he offered to get me a copy, I told him I’d already read the e-book, at which he frowned. “Does that have the pictures?” he asked. He was relieved when I told him it did, including black-and-whites from his youth in Brooklyn.
Sanders’ experiences growing up in the hardscrabble Flatbush neighborhood still seem central to the way he looks at the world. All the adults in his neighborhood voted Democratic. The loss of the support of those kinds of people still eats at Sanders, like a childhood wrong not yet corrected. Thus the opportunity he has now to push the Democrats back in that direction is something he doesn’t take lightly. He’s spent his whole life getting to this point.
The senator and his staffers were obviously sorting through a variety of emotions, and it was hard not to wonder what might have been. But Sanders admonished himself once or twice not to look back. “It’s not worth speculating about,” he said.
Instead, Sanders laid out the dilemma facing the Democratic Party. The Democrats must find their way back to a connection with ordinary people, and this will require a complete change in the way they do business. He’s convinced that the huge expenditure of time and mental effort the Democrats put in to raise more than $1 billion for the Clinton campaign in the past year ended up having enormous invisible costs. “Our future is not raising money from wealthy people, but mobilizing millions of working people and young people and people of color,” he says.
On other issues, he was more careful. The senator’s sweet spot as a politician has always been talking about the problems of the working poor: the economic struggles, the anomalous-across-the-industrialized-world story of a decline in life expectancy among rural Americans. But those same voters just lost any sympathy many Democrats might have had by electing the race-baiting lunatic Trump. Exactly how much courting of such a population is permissible? Is trying to recapture voters who’ve made a racist choice in itself racist?
Sanders believes it is a mistake to dismiss the Trump movement as a monolithic expression of racism and xenophobia. Trump’s populist appeals, sincere or not, carried the day, and Democrats need to answer them. Trump pledged not to cut Medicare or Social Security, promised to support re-importation of prescription drugs from other countries, and said he’d reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act. Sanders insists he and his staff are going to try to hold him to all of these promises. How they’ll manage that is only a guess, but as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders could easily force the Republicans into votes on all of these issues by introducing amendments during the budget resolution process, which begins in January. “Were those 100 percent lies that [Trump] was telling people in order to gain support?” he asks. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Sanders seems anxious to communicate a sense of urgency to young people. No more being content with think-tank-generated 14-point plans that become 87-point plans in bipartisan negotiation, and end up scheduled to take effect in 2040. People want change right now. To survive Trump and turn the tide, Sanders says, he needs help. “You don’t have to run for president,” he says. “Just get people involved.”
After the election, you called the anger Trump connected with “justified.” When did you first recognize that sense of discontent and alienation was big enough to have the impact it did this past year? I’ve seen it for years. I’ve seen a media, which has basically ignored the declining middle class, that doesn’t talk about poverty at all, and has no sense of what is going on in the minds of millions of ordinary Americans. They live in a bubble, talk about their world, worry about who’s going to be running 18 years from now for office. Meanwhile, people can’t feed their kids. That’s something I knew.
Talking about those issues, seeing that they resonated, that did not surprise me. How quickly they resonated did surprise me. How weak the Democratic establishment was, and how removed they were from the needs of ordinary people, that also surprised me.
President Obama talked after the election about winning Iowa by going into counties even if the demographics didn’t “dictate” success there. This seemed to be a criticism that the party had decided to ignore big parts of the country. I talked about that in the book. That’s exactly what we did. We had 101 rallies in that small state. That’s grassroots democracy. You speak to three-quarters of the people who end up voting for you. In New Hampshire, we had just a zillion meetings – far more people came out to our meetings. If you had the time to do that around the country, the world becomes different. The assessment has got to be that not only did we lose the White House to the least-popular candidate in perhaps the history of America, certainly in modern history, but we’ve lost the Senate, we’ve lost the House, we’ve lost two-thirds of the governors’ chairs in this country. We’ve lost 900 seats in state legislatures throughout the country in the last eight years. Maybe it might be time to reassess?
Is there any way to read that except as a massive repudiation of Democrats? No. I can’t see how any objective person can. It speaks to what I just mentioned; we cannot spend our entire life – I didn’t, but others do – raising money from wealthy people, listening to their needs. We’ve got to be out in union halls, we’ve got to be out in veterans’ halls, and we’ve got to be talking to working people, and we’ve got to stand up and fight for them.
This is how screwed up we are now. When you have a Republican Party that wants to give huge tax breaks to billionaires, when many of their members want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, when they don’t believe in climate change, when they’ve been fierce advocates of unfettered free trade – I’m talking about pre-Trump – why would any working person, when they want to cut programs for working people, support them?
I think we know the answer. We know what the Karl Roves of the world have been successful in doing. They’re playing off working-class people against the gay community, or African-Americans, or Latinos. But that only works when you have not laid the foundation by making it clear to those workers that you are on their side on economic issues.
Look, you may not be pro-choice. But if you know that your congressman is fighting for you and delivering the goods in terms of education, health care and jobs, what you’ll say is, “I disagree with him on that, but I’m going to vote for him.” We’ve seen this in Vermont. We have seen the conservative parts of the state where there are many people who have disagreed with me. But they vote for me, because they know I’m fighting for their rights.
In your book, there are a lot of moments where you say things like, “Look at products like the iPhone. These are American inventions, but they’re not made in America anymore.” Some people will say, “This is nationalism. Why shouldn’t liberal-minded people care about raising the standard of living for poor people in China, in India?” I heard them. We ran into that big-time from corporate liberals. Two things here. I would say there are very few people in the United States Congress who have a more progressive outlook than I do in terms of global politics and international politics. I am deeply concerned about poverty in countries around the world, and I believe that the United States and other major countries have got to work to address those issues. But you do not have to sacrifice the American middle class in order to do that. I find it ironic that the billionaire class says, “We’re worried about the poor people in Vietnam, and that’s why we’re sending your job to Vietnam.” That’s the billionaire class talking.
Clearly we know what that is about. And you have some “liberals” who echo that point of view. I would like to see the United States government and the rest of the industrialized world work harder, with sensible policy to improve the standard of living, to help people create jobs, and sustainable jobs, not wipe out agricultural sectors. In Mexico, for example, NAFTA devastated, as you know, family farms when people could not grow corn to compete with American corn manufacturers.
How you create a sustainable global economy that protects the poorest people in the world is a very important issue for me. But you surely do not have to do that by wiping out the middle class of this country. I think we have a right in this country to hold corporate America accountable for gaining the benefits of being an American corporation, while at the same time turning their backs on the American working class and the consumers who helped create their profits and their wealth.
What about the criticism you got a lot last year, including from former President Clinton, that this idea that we can do anything about these globalist trends is unrealistic, that all we can do is “harness the energy” of the change? Donald Trump has rewritten the rules of politics. Let’s give the guy credit where credit is due. No one thought . . . he started off as a joke, right?
Just before Donald Trump became our reality TV star president-elect, songwriter-bard Leonard Cohen died, leaving an incomparable legacy.
Releasing his last album weeks before his death at 82, Cohen charted courses for survival and redemption. And he pulled no punches. To the end, he deftly interwove themes of darkness and light that were political and personal, erotic and sacred. More than entertaining his listeners, Cohen intimately engaged them. He called on fellow travelers to take heart, make change, laugh, pray, dance, and act with courage, dignity and love.
Insights from a dozen Cohen songs are relevant to today’s unsettling realities.
1. Achieving democratic ideals is an ongoing challenge. Cohen’s prescient “Democracy” (1992) recounts the governmental system’s challenges and shortcomings. “It’s coming to America first, the cradle of the best and the worst…from the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet…It’s coming from the sorrow in the streets, from the holy places where the races meet…Democracy is coming to the USA.”
Cohen told Paul Zollo in Songwriters on Songwriting in 1992: “It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country…This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another.”
How to navigate all this complexity? The song admonishes: “The heart has got to open in a fundamental way.” Cohen sends godspeed for America’s precarious journey: “Sail on, sail on, O mighty ship of state! To the shores of need, past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate…”
2. Stare down desolation with grit and grace. In “Steer Your Way” (2016), released on his final album, Cohen’s sings: “Steer your way past the ruins of the altar and the mall…/Steer your way past the pain that is far more real than you/That’s smashed the Cosmic Model/That blinded every view.”
He calls for unflinching self-review and humility: “Steer your way past the Truth that you believed in yesterday/…And say the mea culpa which you gradually forgot/Year by year, month by month, day by day/Thought by thought.”
As Cohen prepared to bid farewell, he surveyed the natural world and a coarsened culture with trademark irony: “They whisper still, the struggling stones/The blunted mountains weep/As he died to make men holy/Let us die to make things cheap.”
3. Yes, the system is rigged—now what? Decades before Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren railed against oligarchs and plutocrats controlling America, Cohen pronounced, “Everybody knows the deal is rotten/Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton/For your ribbons and bows.”
“Everybody Knows” (1988, with Sharon Robinson) is a caustic litany: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/That’s how it goes/Everybody knows.”
Both bleak and droll, it can be heard as a fatalistic accounting of corruption or an urgent plea to clean things up.
4. Hold onto an inner guiding compass. “In My Secret Life” (2001, with Sharon Robinson) celebrates quiet subversiveness. “I do what I have to do/to get by/But I know what is wrong/And I know what is right/And I’d die for the truth/in my secret life.”
The song recounts the strain of facing ever-present horrors: “Looked through the paper/Makes you want to cry/nobody cares if the people/live or die/And the dealer wants you thinking/That it’s either black or white/thank God it’s not that simple/ in my secret life.”
5. Take care of body and spirit. “Come Healing” (2012, with Patrick Leonard) is reverent, transcendent: “O see the darkness yielding/That tore the light apart/Come healing of the reason/Come healing of the heart.”
A devout Jew, Cohen also often referenced other spiritual traditions: “Behold the gates of mercy/In arbitrary space/And none of us deserving/The cruelty or the grace/O solitude of longing/Where love has been confined/Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind.”
6. Tough times call for clear-eyed vision and empathy. “The Future (1992) is prophetically stark: “Give me back the Berlin Wall/give me Stalin and St. Paul/Give me Christ/or give me Hiroshima…I’ve seen the future, baby: it is murder.”
Cohen explained to Rolling Stone in 2009 that “The Future” and “Democracy” were on his concert set list, “because their apocalyptic vision seems truer now than when they were recorded. People really thought I needed help back then,” Cohen told the reporter, laughing.
The song warns: “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions/…the blizzard of the world/has crossed the threshold/And it has overturned/the order of the soul.” Nevertheless, he offers a way out: “I’ve seen the nations rise and fall/I’ve heard their stories, heard them all/But love’s the only engine of survival.”
7. Embrace imperfection. “Anthem” (1992) starts as a solemn serenity prayer, “The birds, they sang/At the break of day/Start again/ I heard them say/Don’t dwell on what/Has passed away/Or what is yet to be.”
Then it urges action and acceptance, despite all: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
The narrator defiantly prepares for mythic battle: “I can’t run no more/With that lawless crowd/While the killers in high places/Say their prayers out loud/But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up/A thundercloud/And they’re going to hear from me.”
Rebecca De Mornay, who co-produced the song, told Uncut about the verse: “That ‘I’—that’s the soul of Leonard Cohen.”
8. Invoke a higher power. The incantatory tone of “If It Be Your Will” (1984) reflects Cohen’s fervent mysticism. “From this broken hill/All your praises they shall ring/If it be your will/To let me sing.”
It’s a plea for global as well as personal salvation: “If there is a choice/Let the rivers fill/Let the hills rejoice/Let your mercy spill/On all these burning hearts in Hell/If it be your will/To make us well.”
9. Comfort others and do what you can to sleep well. Cohen told Rolling Stone about a song he was working on in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession: “I thought that ‘Lullaby’ was just what everyone needs to get to sleep in these troubled times,” he said.
Released in 2012, it’s beautifully simple: “Sleep baby sleep/The day’s on the run/The wind in the trees/Is talking in tongues…If your heart is torn/I don’t wonder why/If the night is long/Here’s my lullaby.” Cohen reassures the listener: “There’s a morning to come.”
10. Live passionately. A popular standard, “Dance Me to the End of Love” (1992) honors deep love and the protection it can provide. “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/Dance me through the panic ‘til I’m gathered safely in/Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove/And dance me to the end of love.” Even as passion gets spent, it shields: “Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn/Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn.”
Cohen told an interviewer the “burning violin” image “came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on.” He added that “It’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.”
11. Celebrate paradox (and cultivate patience). “Hallelujah” (1984), Cohen’s exultant and erotic anthem has been covered some 300 times. He drafted 80 verses over five years before its release, sometimes singing alternate lyrics in concert, such as: “There’s a blaze of light/In every word/It doesn’t matter which you heard/The holy or the broken Hallelujah.”
It took 15 years for “Hallelujah” to become a massive hit. Cohen told the CBC radio show Q in 2009 that after it was released on Various Positions in 1984 in Canada and Europe, Sony decided not to release the album in the U.S.: “The only person who seemed to recognize the song was Dylan. He was doing it in concert,” Cohen said.
More than a decade later, “Hallelujah” recordings by John Cale and Jeff Buckley began building an audience. Rufus Wainwright’s version in the 2001 film Shrekbrought it into the mainstream.
12. Take positive action, however you can. In “You Got Me Singing” (2014, with Patrick Leonard) Cohen’s deep-throated delivery conveys triumphant optimism (accompanied by a violin and country-tinged vocals). He makes a winking nod to his signature song: “You got me singing/Even tho’ the news is bad/You got me singing/The only song I ever had…You got me singing/Even tho’ it all looks grim/You got me singing/The Hallelujah hymn.”
His tone is matter-of-fact and resilient, even lighthearted: “Even though the world is gone/You got me thinking/I’d like to carry on.”
Virginia Small is a freelance journalist in Milwaukee who has followed the work of Leonard Cohen since his first album was released in 1967.
The consummate musical cliché of the baby boomer era is the big, guitar-wielding encore where a bunch of white men in long hair and casual clothes take turns singing one verse after another of a really long, usually blues-based, song. Sometimes it is followed by a boomer-iffic group hug among presumably straight men.
In its crudest form, this describes the enormous, multi-band, marathon concert that came to be known as “The Last Waltz”: a rock-till-dawn gathering assembled by The Band, a quintet of roots musicians who had once backed up Bob Dylan, to play a farewell show alongside their old boss. Old friends and inspirations like Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John and Muddy Waters joined in as well (and, for some reason, Neil Diamond showed up).
As humble as The Band’s identity was — this was a group without a lead singer, after all, and which saw itself as channeling the spirit of the American past even though most of them came from Canada — the concert itself was like the final stand of rock’s royalty. It was a celebration of a legendary group, of the fellowship of the road, of the passing of an era.
But what’s funny about “The Last Waltz,” which was filmed on Thanksgiving 1976 in San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom and released as a Martin Scorsese film two years later, is that it didn’t just engage nostalgic boomers. It spoke to music and film fans — some of whom would go on to become important players in a country-derived tradition The Band had helped inaugurate. Forty years later, it’s still a milestone.
“Oh, man, it really blew my mind!” said the normally dry Gillian Welch, the pioneering new-acoustic musician, born in 1967, who didn’t hear the original three-LP album or see the film until she was in college. “So much of the music I loved — all in one show. I was unprepared for what it looked like when you played music that sounded like that. They were moving more than I thought. Oh man! They just looked like gods to me. I think it honestly went into me at a cellular level.”
The musician James Felice says he and his fellow Felice Brothers — an upstate New York roots band mostly in their early 30s — saw the film only about a decade ago. “I just remember feeling a palpable sense of awe at The Band’s musicianship,” he said by email. “Each guy was so damn good, and had such unique style and personality, but they made it work perfectly together. They were basically rock and roll superheroes, like ‘The Avengers’ or something.”
What’s surprising about this boomer milestone, made and released before most Xers were out of elementary school — some, because the birth range typically goes from 1964 to 1981, were not born yet — is how the movie connects across generations.
Part of it is just that this concert saw a collection of some of the greatest and deepest musicians of any generation. Some of it is Mojo-magazine-style nostalgia for a more authentic age. “We all romanticize that period so much,” says Taylor Goldsmith, the 31-year-old lead singer of the band Dawes, whose first few albums grew right out of the ground The Band plowed. Some members of Wilco, including bassist John Stirratt, are also major fans of the film and the group.
But part of it may be that “The Last Waltz” and the story of The Band — especially for those who know the whole tale — signified both boomer utopia and Gen X disillusionment at the same time. Nobody was killed, and no one OD’ed on the brown acid. But with one movie, Scorsese and The Band produced Woodstock and Altamont simultaneously. On its 40th anniversary, which sees Rhino reissuing the recording and film in various versions, it’s as ambiguous as ever.
* * *
Around the time of The Band’s Thanksgiving concert (which involved a turkey dinner served to thousands of audience members), the course of rock history was changing in a profound way. The group was retiring partly because its members were worn out from the road, but they also recognized that they were the final gasp of something — of a rock ’n’ roll tradition that was grounded in the Chicago blues, gospel and the rockabilly of the South. (The movie’s inclusion of Muddy Waters, the Staples Singers and their old boss Ronnie Hawkins was in some ways a nod to this.)
So it was not just vainglory to dub the concert “The Last Waltz”: This really was the end of something. Some of these musicians would have late-career renaissances years later — Neil Young and Dylan most notably — but most of them had already peaked artistically by 1976, and even their best work would seem out of place in the new world.
Glam musicians like David Bowie and Roxy Music had electrified young music fans, and made the denim-and-fringed-vest crowd look like backwoods day laborers. The year before the concert, a New York City poet named Patti Smith had released a volcanic debut album called “Horses” that went so deep into feminism and contemporary politics that even Joni Mitchell seemed positively medieval.
By Thanksgiving, history was bending. CBGBs was now more important than the Fillmore West: Its denizens, the band Television, had recorded punk rock’s most poetic LP — “Marquee Moon” — a few months before, and the gawky geniuses of Talking Heads had just signed to Sire. Britain was burning: The Clash and The Sex Pistols had just played a show together in Sheffield. If this new generation had its way, this would be a last waltz indeed. By the time the concert film was released, two years later, punk bands were moving into mid-career (the Clash was dreaming up “London Calling”), and “New Wave” showed a second, more pop-savvy vanguard led by a lanky, bespectacled Liverpudlian who had cheekily named himself for the king of rock ’n’ roll. The Sugarhill Gang would score hip-hop’s first hit with “Rapper’s Delight” just a year later.
This kind of irreverence, aggression and sonic experimentation was most decidedly not what The Band or “Last Waltz” fellow travelers like Eric Clapton or Emmylou Harris or Ringo Starr were about.
Gen Xers and their younger compatriots, though, grew up in a world shaped by punk and hip-hop, and the moussed-out glitz of MTV. And somehow, this earnest, often blues née country née folk-based music, so different from what this younger crowd heard on the radio and saw on television, would make profound sense to some of them.
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As celebratory as the concert was, as sincere its treatment of the music’s old guard, there was a darkness to “The Last Waltz” that was different from what the group may have intended. Some of the band members were wasted from drugs. The Band’s guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson told a backstage anecdote — the film was full of moments where the musicians spun stories from the road — that involved playing with legendary bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, who would alternate playing harmonica with spitting blood into a can.
Most seriously, perhaps, the members of The Band — after 16 years on the road — hated each other. At least some of the time. Robertson was the only one dedicated to a retirement from touring; the others weren’t as sure. And it didn’t get better when the movie came out. Levon Helm, the band’s drummer and sometime singer, was particularly upset. “For two hours we watched as the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut,” he wrote in his memoir, “This Wheel’s on Fire.” “The film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck.”
Robertson was most outgoing member of the group, and an engaging and charismatic storyteller, but at times it seemed like pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson, who both sang as well, were barely part of the group. (Helm and bassist Rick Danko fared a bit better.)
The reality cut against the image of the band, memorialized in part by a bravura chapter in Greil Marcus’ “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music,” as a group of ego-less, passionate friends, singing vocal harmonies that could help the nation heal after the divisions of the Vietnam war.
When Goldsmith saw the movie in 2008, around the time Dawes was recording its debut album, “North Hills,” he saw, mostly, the dream. “You heard that there’s a whole philosophy to the group’s name: The guy who wrote the songs didn’t sing them, and there was no lead singer. It was so democratic. That’s what created the romance. You think of partnerships like Keith and Mick, or Lennon and McCartney. This was like a five-way relationship — that rock ’n’ roll band romance — epitomized in American rock.”
Perhaps appropriately for younger generations that inherited a less innocent nation after the reveries of the boomers, some Gen X and millennial fans responded to the film not in spite of, but because of the pain and tension.
“It made you want to see more of it, because it sounded like so much had been left out,” says Michael Trent of the Americana duo Shovels & Rope. “As much as I hated to take sides,” says his wife and bandmate Cary Ann Hearst, who was won over by Helm’s description of being an Arkansas country boy visiting New York City, “it’s hard not to. But it didn’t change my mind about the movie, or its sweetness.” Shovels & Rope sing a song about Hudson, “The Last Hawk,” on their new album.
As a first viewing of the movie became an obsession for young musicians, their point of view grew more complex. Some learned, for instance, that they were not really hearing what was played that night: Much of the parts were later overdubbed in the studio because the playing was so sloppy. “The more you get to know about ‘The Last Waltz,’ or get to know about Richard Manuel — in the film he’s pretty tweaked out… It was a pretty tragic story,” says Goldsmith. “They seem upset with each other. But it doesn’t make you love them any less.”
The hard tales from the road, the stories of personal tension, and the rigors of the touring life only excited Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings even more. “It means there was all this life behind this one concert,” she said. “You’d drive around for 20 years — yeah, that’s what you’d do. I honestly think it’s altered decisions Dave and I have made. We drive around in a Cadillac, and have been doing that for 20 years. You don’t take a shuttle to the airport.”
The Band — most of whom played with Dylan on his tumultuous 1966 world tour (as “The Hawks), on his epochal “Blonde on Blonde” album, and on the rough home recordings later released as “The Basement Tapes” — certainly had some great years before things all went bad.
But the albums after their first two — “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band” — only occasionally approached the old magic. And post-“Last Waltz,” their solo careers mostly faltered.
Things went from bad to worse. In 1986, Manuel hanged himself after ingesting liquor and cocaine. A heart attack after decades of drink and drugs killed Danko in 1999. Helm ran a series of “midnight rambles” at his farmhouse in Woodstock and made several celebrated albums in his 60s. But cancer took him in 2012. Hudson and Robertson are still alive.
But that’s not entirely all.
My interest in this group, album and film are not entirely archival. As a kid, I was dragged, partly against my will, to see the movie at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. It was a double feature with “Singin’ in the Rain,” which I knew and loved, but I was, at 10, not the least bit interested in waltzing. At the time I was a pure British Invasion-and-Dylan zealot — the idea that country rock even existed or could be any good had never crossed my mind. My father insisted.
But from the first scenes of backstage pool-playing and the one-two-three punch of Band songs “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In,” and “It Makes No Difference,” my life changed. It took me years to get deeply into alt-country and the blues and Van Morrison, but I was launched on a journey. My dad wasn’t always right, but he often was. I dedicate this story to his memory.
Scott Timberg is a staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He’s the author of the new book, “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.”
Trump’s election was enabled by the policies that overlooked the plight of our most vulnerable citizens. We gird ourselves for a frightening future
Thursday 17 November 2016
The neoliberal era in the United States ended with a neofascist bang. The political triumph of Donald Trump shattered the establishments in the Democratic and Republican parties – both wedded to the rule of Big Money and to the reign of meretricious politicians.
The Bush and Clinton dynasties were destroyed by the media-saturated lure of the pseudo-populist billionaire with narcissist sensibilities and ugly, fascist proclivities. The monumental election of Trump was a desperate and xenophobic cry of human hearts for a way out from under the devastation of a disintegrating neoliberal order – a nostalgic return to an imaginary past of greatness.
White working- and middle-class fellow citizens – out of anger and anguish – rejected the economic neglect of neoliberal policies and the self-righteous arrogance of elites. Yet these same citizens also supported a candidate who appeared to blame their social misery on minorities, and who alienated Mexican immigrants, Muslims, black people, Jews, gay people, women and China in the process.
This lethal fusion of economic insecurity and cultural scapegoating brought neoliberalism to its knees. In short, the abysmal failure of the Democratic party to speak to the arrested mobility and escalating poverty of working people unleashed a hate-filled populism and protectionism that threaten to tear apart the fragile fiber of what is left of US democracy. And since the most explosive fault lines in present-day America are first and foremost racial, then gender, homophobic, ethnic and religious, we gird ourselves for a frightening future.
What is to be done? First we must try to tell the truth and a condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. For 40 years, neoliberals lived in a world of denial and indifference to the suffering of poor and working people and obsessed with the spectacle of success. Second we must bear witness to justice. We must ground our truth-telling in a willingness to suffer and sacrifice as we resist domination. Third we must remember courageous exemplars like Martin Luther King Jr, who provide moral and spiritual inspiration as we build multiracial alliances to combat poverty and xenophobia, Wall Street crimes and war crimes, global warming and police abuse – and to protect precious rights and liberties.
The age of Obama was the last gasp of neoliberalism. Despite some progressive words and symbolic gestures, Obama chose to ignore Wall Street crimes, reject bailouts for homeowners, oversee growing inequality and facilitate war crimes like US drones killing innocent civilians abroad.
Rightwing attacks on Obama – and Trump-inspired racist hatred of him – have made it nearly impossible to hear the progressive critiques of Obama. The president has been reluctant to target black suffering – be it in overcrowded prisons, decrepit schools or declining workplaces. Yet, despite that, we get celebrations of the neoliberal status quo couched in racial symbolism and personal legacy. Meanwhile, poor and working class citizens of all colors have continued to suffer in relative silence.
In this sense, Trump’s election was enabled by the neoliberal policies of the Clintons and Obama that overlooked the plight of our most vulnerable citizens. The progressive populism of Bernie Sanders nearly toppled the establishment of the Democratic party but Clinton and Obama came to the rescue to preserve the status quo. And I do believe Sanders would have beat Trump to avert this neofascist outcome!
In this bleak moment, we must inspire each other driven by a democratic soulcraft of integrity, courage, empathy and a mature sense of history – even as it seems our democracy is slipping away.
We must not turn away from the forgotten people of US foreign policy – such as Palestinians under Israeli occupation, Yemen’s civilians killed by US-sponsored Saudi troops or Africans subject to expanding US military presence.
As one whose great family and people survived and thrived through slavery, Jim Crow and lynching, Trump’s neofascist rhetoric and predictable authoritarian reign is just another ugly moment that calls forth the best of who we are and what we can do.
For us in these times, to even have hope is too abstract, too detached, too spectatorial. Instead we must be a hope, a participant and a force for good as we face this catastrophe.