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Music Review: Van Morrison “Duets – Reworking the Catalogue” – posted 4/26/2015

April 26, 2015 2 comments

So it is with a degree of trepidation that I review Van’s newest album, “Duets – Reworking the Catalogue”. My son Josh, my music authority, has already dissed it. An album of duets sounds like it could be a subpar rehash of songs done far better elsewhere.

I have listened to “Duets” quite a bit while driving back and forth to work in Massachusetts. The album is very good. It rewards many listens. I don’t like every cut but when does that happen on any album? Van did not pick popular songs to redo. It must be his contrariness but the songs are generally more obscure ones from his collection.

Before I discuss my favorite cuts on the album, I did want to say a few things about Van. Of iconic 60’s artists, I think Van Morrison has been among the most consistently creative and durable. So many 60’s rockers flamed out long ago. Van has figured a way to keep going and evolve. Plus he has sold out to no one. He has stubborn integrity. I can think of nobody who has combined soul, jazz, blues, R&B, Celtic music, and rock like he has.

I owe some Van appreciation both to my wife Debra and to my son Josh. I think both could qualify as bona fide Van authorities and experts. I think Debra owns every Van album there is. His concert from the early 90’s “A Night in San Francisco” was like a Debra theme song. It was played so much it is amazing it could play any more.

Josh did sing Tupelo Honey beautifully at his wedding. I do remember an apropos Dylan quote: “Tupelo Honey has always existed and Van Morrison was merely the vessel and the earthly vehicle for it.” While my son can flat out sing, I do think Van has been a bit of a role model. I know Josh will tell me if I am off on that. I have long thought the kid should pursue music more than he has because he has talent. But he is superbusy and what kid listens to their parent?

Hard to believe but it has been almost 10 years since Josh, Deb and I went to see Van play at the Orpheum in Boston. That was a memorable night.

As for the album, my favorite cut is “Rough God Goes Riding”. I have never seen that song mentioned in any review of “Duets”. There is just something about it. The duet is with his daughter Shana Morrison. The lyrics are compelling and the music is a perfect fit.

“..I was flabbergasted by the headlines
People in glass houses throwing stones
Gaping wounds that will never heal
Now they’re moaning like a dog in a manger.”

Van brings a poet’s touch and even when you are not sure where he is going it remains interesting.

I also liked “Carrying a Torch” . That song had been done on Van’s album, Hymns to the Silence. Both Dylan and Tom Jones have performed it too. It captures a quality of unrequited love or love that was once there and is now only longed for.

“I’m carryin a torch for you
I’m carryin a torch
You know how much it costs
To keep carryin a torch”

The version Van and George Benson do of “Higher Than the World” is better than the version he did on the album Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. It has a lighter, 70’s sounding refinement.

I thought Van’s duet with Joss Stone on “Wild Honey” was cool. I had not known Joss and Van had ever played together. ( I am a fan of Joss’s two Souls Session albums”). The end of the song is classic Van with a long improvisation.

The last song I will mention is “Real Real Gone” which Van does with Michael Buhle. Van brings energy to the song. I liked his nods to Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and James Brown.

I hope Van keeps going and going. There is a poetic superiority to his lyrics. I would mention that there is a new book of selected Van lyrics, Lit Up Inside, put together by City Lights Publishing. Van picked the lyrics he wanted to include. While this song is not on “Duets”, I think it is pretty good in capturing Van. It is off his 1998 album “Back on Top”.

Precious Time

Precious time is slipping away
But you’re only king for a day
It doesn’t matter to which God you pray
Precious time is slipping away

It doesn’t matter what route you take
Sooner or later the hearts going to break
No rhyme or reason, no master plan
No Nirvana, no promised land

Because precious time is slipping away
You know you’re only king for a day
It doesn’t matter to which God you pray
Precious time is slipping away

Say que sera, whatever will be
But then I keep on searching for immortality
She’s so beautiful but she’s going to die some day
Everything in life just passes away

But, precious time is slipping away
You know she’s only queen for a day
It doesn’t matter to which God you pray
Precious time is slipping away

Well this world is cruel with its twists and turns
Well the fire’s still in me and the passion burns
I love a medley til the day I die
‘Til hell freezes over and the rivers run dry

Precious time is slipping away
You know she’s only queen for a day
It doesn’t matter to which God you pray because
Precious time is slipping away

Precious time is slipping away
You know you’re only king for a day
It doesn’t matter to which God you pray
Precious time is slipping away

Precious time is slipping away
You know you’re only king for a day
It doesn’t matter to which God you pray because
Precious time is slipping away

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Eduardo Galeano: Remembering a Giant of Latin American Literature – posted 4/19/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/24/2015

April 19, 2015 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on April 24, 2015 under the title “The Artful Teller of Truths”.

Possibly some readers will remember this incident from 2009. At the Summit of the Americas conference, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Obama shook hands. Chavez also gave Obama a book. The book was Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries in the Pillage of a Continent. The author of that book was the Uraguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano.

The book immediately soared on Amazon but based on his reaction, it appeared Obama was unfamiliar with the book. He was quoted saying he thought Chavez was giving him a book that Chavez himself had written. For whatever reason, probably a smart-alecky one, Chavez gave Obama the Spanish version. Obama doesn’t speak or read Spanish.

I thought of this incident when I heard Galeano had died on April 13. While he was famous in Latin America and he had been famous there since the 1970’s, he was much less known in the United States.You had to look around to find an obituary. I did hear a story on NPR about his death. When I asked various friends of mine about Galeano, most had never heard of him.

So why does Galeano matter? Honestly, we do not usually pay attention to any writers, especially those from outside the United States. I will give my reasons.

Galeano made me look at the world differently. He looked at Latin American history in a way most Americans have not considered. It is a bottom up history, sympathetic to the poor people of his region. Plus he is a great and charming storyteller and the history is anything but dry. He saw a connection between the underdevelopment of Latin America and the great wealth in the United States and Europe. A passage from the start of Open Veins will give a flavor:

“The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing. Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations. Centuries passed, and Latin America perfected its role. We are no longer in the era of marvels when fact surpassed fable and imagination was shamed by the trophies of conquest – the lodes of gold, the mountains of silver. But our region still works as a menial. It continues to exist at the service of others’ needs, as a source and reserve of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and food destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them.”

Part of what set Galeano apart was not just his passion for remembering things others wanted forgotten. It was also his poetic and feeling style. In her introduction to The Open Veins of Latin America, Isabel Allende described Galeano this way:

“He is one of the most interesting authors ever to come out of Latin America, a region known for its great literary names. His work is a mixture of meticulous detail, political conviction, poetic flair, and good storytelling. He has walked up and down Latin America listening to the voices of the poor and the oppressed, as well as those of the leaders and the intellectuals…He has opposed military dictatorships and all forms of brutality and exploitation, facing unthinkable risks in defense of human rights. He has more first-hand knowledge of Latin America than anybody else I can think of, and uses it to tell the world of the dreams and disillusions, the hopes and the failures of its people. He is an adventurer with a talent for history, a compassionate heart, and a soft sense of humor.”

Galeano did live his convictions. After the military coup in Uraguay in 1973, Galeano had to go into exile. He had been imprisoned briefly. He first went to Argentina but he had to flee there as well. He then went to live in Spain. The right wing military governments in Uraguay, Argentina and Chile all banned Open Veins of Latin America. When Galeano left Argentina, his name was on the death squads list.

He was not able to return to Uraguay until 1985 when democracy was finally restored. The story of that era in Latin America in the 1970’s is not sufficiently understood. It was a horror show of dirty wars where Latin American militaries savaged their own civilian populations in the name of a war against terror. Galeano was fortunate to have escaped with his life.

After he returned to Uraguay in 1985, Galeano again took up journalism. He resurrected Marcha (renamed Brecha), a periodical which had been shut down by the military. Doing journalism was nothing new for Galeano. He had actually started his newspaper career at the age of 14 drawing cartoons for El Sol, the weekly of the Uraguayan Socialist Party. He then went on to write for Marcha and another left wing daily, La Epoca.

Even though he wrote many books, Galeano did not belittle journalism. In an interview with the Spanish newpaper. El Pais, he said,

“There is a tradition that sees journalism as the dark side of literature with bookwriting at its zenith. I don’t agree. I think that all written work constitutes literature, even graffiti. I have been writing books for many years but I am trained as a journalist , and the stamp is still on me. I am grateful to journalism for waking me up to the realities of the world.”

Galeano has written a number of other books that deserve mention. I liked Upside Down which is written in a very simple, direct style. There are many others but I will name Days and Nights of Love and War and Memories of Fire.

Galeano was also a soccer fanatic. He adored the sport and wrote a book titled Football in Sun and Shadow. I expect soccer fans would love it.

It made me sad that Galeano’s death was passing too unnoticed. I will end with another Galeano quote:

“One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness. One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others. One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the behavior and language of those who read…One writes, in reality, for the people whose luck or misfortune one identifies with – the hungry, the sleepless, the rebels, and the wretched of this earth – and the majority of them are illiterate.”

Book Review: “Young Thurgood” by Larry S. Gibson – posted 4/12/2015

April 12, 2015 4 comments

My friend Paul recommended this book and with good reason. Young Thurgood by law professor Larry S. Gibson is a very enjoyable and educational read based on extremely comprehensive research. Professor Gibson did a fantastic job of sleuthing to dig up stories and information. The book presents a vivid picture of the young Thurgood Marshall long before his tenure as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. It succeeds in showing the world in which Marshall grew up, a world in which vigilante justice sometimes competed against the rule of law. It shows how the young Marshall got his legal career off the ground.

Although it is not that long ago, the world of Marshall’s youth is insufficiently understood today. It was a world in which lynchings of black men had not been so unusual. Gibson points out that from 1890 to 1940, 5000 black Americans were lynched in the United States. Racism defined America and rigidly circumscribed the lives of all minorities.

Marshall grew up in Maryland. He personally experienced the world of vicious segregation. Gibson says that in the period from 1882 to 1930 Maryland ranked twenty-seventh out of the 48 states in the number of lynchings that occurred within its borders. 33 lynchings had occurred in Maryland.

I mention lynchings because the 1933 lynching of a black man named George Armwood figured in Marshall’s early career. He was fresh out of law school, 23 years old, and he and ten other black lawyers sought a meeting with Maryland’s governor to see what the governor planned to do about what happened to Armwood. Marshall became a lawyer one week before the Armwood lynching.

Until 1885, Maryland had restricted the practice of law to white males only. It was still a big deal that Marshall could become a lawyer. Gibson says only 60 African Americans had been lawyers in Maryland before Marshall was admitted to the Bar. It took a legal challenge to permit Black lawyers to practice as Bar members. Many jurisdictions allowed no Black lawyers.

Gibson includes the results of a survey conducted in 1928 about the status of Black lawyers in the South. The responses are eye-opening and racist as hell. Here is one from Taylor County, Fla.: “No Negro lawyer in this county now nor as ever been. A Negro lawyer would be as much out of place here as a snowball would be in Hades.”

Marshall pointedly challenged Governor Ritchie at their meeting about the Armwood lynching and asked: “Is there an investigation taking place in the state police department?” Governor Ritchie did not directly answer and the state response was the usual do-nothing. Gibson shows how Marshall aggressively pursued the anti-lynching effort. He joined the coalition effort to pass anti-lynching legislation, the Costigan-Wagner Bill, in Congress. He repeatedly wrote Maryland’s senator, Senator Tydings to push him to support the legislation.

Marshall researched prior lynchings and showed that most lynching victims were not, in fact, rape suspects. Debunking that stereotype, he showed that Blacks accused of minor offenses had typically been the ones brutally victimized. While no one was ever held accountable for Armwood’s lynching, Gibson states that Armwood was the last person ever to be lynched in Maryland. Marshall’s efforts and the anti-lynching coalition did have some positive effect although the Costigan-Wagner Bill went down to defeat in Congress because of a filibuster by Southern senators.

I don’t think Marshall would have been surprised by all the police shootings of young Black men in the 21st century. There is a direct line from his experience to what we see today.

There are many good stories in Young Thurgood. It was interesting to see the tension between his civil rights cases and his need to support himself. He went through periods of being absolutely financially desperate. To make ends meet, Marshall worked a night job at the Baltimore City Department of Health as a clinic clerk. He had to track sexually transmitted diseases. This was at the same time as he handled major civil rights cases, tort suits, divorces, and other legal matters. Marshall said, “Nobody cares which twenty-three hours in a day I work.”

Marshall was an extraordinarily hard worker. While at law school, he was always working when he wasn’t in class. He had been too poor to live in Washington DC where his law school, Howard University, was located. He lived in Baltimore and commuted to DC six days a week on the train. After getting up at 5am, he walked a mile to the B & O station on Mount Royal Avenue, He then had to walk to law school.

Gibson recounts the different jobs Marshall held including railroad waiter, assistant law school librarian, and waiter at a fancy country club resort. Marshall was very popular and socially adept in any setting. He had a very sunny and friendly disposition.

It turned out that Marshall’s winning personality and positive disposition served him well in many different contexts. Gibson describes Marshall this way:

“A gregarious person and a natural politician, Marshall enjoyed conversing with persons of all economic levels. As a lawyer he was diplomatic and collegial, disarming adversaries and defusing tense situations with personal charm and humor. Eight summers as a waiter had cultivated tact and skill in quickly assessing people and situations, and these interpersonal skills helped him greatly during his early career.”

Marshall had a remarkable talent of being reasonable with those who disagreed with him. Gibson says that ability flowed from his experience as a competitive debater in high school and college. He was a good listener. Gibson portrays Marshall as anything but a know-it-all. He said others described Marshall as “a sponge”, soaking up the ideas of those around him. He was pragmatic.

Gibson shows how Marshall was always ready to directly approach the people who had the most authority to address situations in which he was engaged. He famously had a relationship with J. Edgar Hoover. Marshall had a great sense of humor and that also helped him. There was one story Gibson told that I cannot pass on recounting.

“When Marshall met Great Britain’s Prince Edward, His Highness asked Marshall “Do you care to hear my opinion of lawyers?” to which Marshall reportedly responded with a smile, “Only if you care to hear my opinion of princes”.

The cases Marshall handled as a young lawyer were most impressive and varied. Gibson does a good job of getting into the cases and the challenges Marshall faced. In 1935, Marshall, on behalf of a Black student and Amherst College graduate, Donald Murray, filed suit against the University of Maryland School of Law, which at the time would not allow any Black students at the school. The case ultimately went to trial and Marshall prevailed on an equal protection basis. Marshall did all the work on appeal and he again won at the Maryland Court of Appeals.

The Murray case opened the door nationally to desegregation of schools and other government facilities. If his career with impact litigation ended there that would have still been huge but it was only the very beginning. Marshall had a long career litigating before he became a judge.

Marshall also was counsel on a case that addressed racial discrimination in school teacher pay for teachers in Maryland. Using his customary careful grasp of the facts, Marshall showed how on average Black teachers were paid 53.9% of what white teachers earned for doing the same work. Marshall filed four lawsuits around the issue, including one in federal court, and he again prevailed using equal protection.

The ruling in this case provided the foundation for teacher pay litigation throughout the South.

I am not doing justice to the breadth of cases described by Gibson. He shows Marshall’s losses as well as his wins. Gibson also does a good job of showing how Marshall emerged from a tradition of courageous and effective Black attorneys in Baltimore. Marshall had great mentors who modelled how to be an effective civil rights lawyer. Gibson singles out Charles Houston who played a critically helpful role in Marshall’s life. But there was also Everett Waring, W. Ashbie Hawkins and Warner T. McGuinn. Each deserves more than passing mention. Waring was the first African American to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was also the first African American member of the Maryland Bar. He was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1885.

In reading about Marshall, it is hard not to be impressed and inspired by what one man could do. His example is genuinely remarkable and warrants close study. Both as a lawyer and a judge, he is an outstanding role model. By any measure his accomplishments were staggering. I plan to write more about Marshall.

My friend Paul did not steer me wrong. Check out the book.

Militarism and Perpetual War as a Way of Life – posted 4/5/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/9/2015

April 5, 2015 3 comments

New Hampshire is now beginning to experience that riveting and recurring ritual: the migration and influx of presidential candidates. All of us in the Granite State get the opportunity to see and question all those who are trying out for that most megalomaniacal of roles. Whether at house parties or at large events, we can usually get up close and personal with the candidates. This is so New Hampshire.

In assessing the potential 2016 field on both the Democratic and Republican side, I remain concerned about the narrowness of the policy options presented by both major parties. While we often focus on the difference between Democrats and Republicans, I submit the parties have too much in common. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy and the view of America’s role in the world.

Both parties support an utterly bloated military budget. They agree the Pentagon needs much more money. President Obama thinks the Pentagon should get $534 billion in 2016. He asked for an additional $51 billion to pay for operations in the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. This represents a roughly $38 billion increase from the 2015 base budget. It does not include separate additional programs through the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons.

The Republicans support spending even more money on the military. Senator McCain was quoted favoring $17 billion beyond what President Obama requested. The Republicans have been arguing that America under Obama is “in retreat”. They suggest ramping up the war against ISIS with possible boots on the ground. They also contemplate attacking Iran. Not surprisingly, they also oppose the recent successful negotiations limiting the Iranian nuclear program.

Sums of money like $534 billion are almost incomprehensible to grasp but I think we need to look hard at what that money would be used for. Clearly on the menu is money for a permanent troop presence in Afghanistan, money for the war against ISIS, money for a possible ground war in Iraq, money for new F-35 combat aircraft and also new ballistic missile submarines.

As one military observer, William Hartung, has pointed out, all this money amounts to a huge Pentagon slush fund. We have no idea where much of it goes. How much goes for black ops and how much goes for total electronic surveillance of god knows who? How can that be compatible with democracy? Shouldn’t we know where all that money is going?

I think it is astonishing how all the hypervigilant, tightfisted House legislators on the Republican side can want to replace Medicare with a voucher-like private insurance option while being so cavalier about profligate military spending. Need a new weapon system? No problem.

The assumptions that underlie such out-of-control military spending deserve attention. America now appears to be accepting war all the time. Wars, for the most part, used to be time-limited. The War on Terror is not like that. It is forever and always. To quote New York Times reporter, James Risen:

“America has become accustomed to a permanent state of war. Only a small slice of society – including many poor and rural teenagers – fight and die, while a permanent national security elite rotates among senior government posts, contracting companies, think tanks and television commentary, opportunities that would disappear if America was suddenly at peace. To most of America, war has become not only tolerable but profitable and so there is no longer any great incentives to end it.”

In his book, Pay Any Price, Risen exposes how the old military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about has evolved into what he calls the homeland security-industrial complex. This national security state, with an expansive view of the role of the military, has embraced the role of world policeman.

The quest is for total global military dominance. Whether via drones, Special Forces, manufactured proxy armies or the use of American troops, we apparently need to be ready to intervene in any hot spot in the world on a moment’s notice. No place is off limits. The web of over 700 military installations and bases we maintain around the globe allows for the possibility of force projection almost anywhere.

I am reminded of an old essay written almost 100 years ago by the writer Randolph Bourne. He wrote a piece entitled War is the Health of the State. To a disturbing degree our economy now depends on war. The livelihood of so many depends on producing and exporting arms and munitions. There are a massive constellation of roles related to our various military endeavors. As Risen points out, management consultants and academics make no money if they determine alleged threats are overblown.

We need to be asking how much is the desire for personal profit, status, and power driving our policy?

Risen argues, and I would agree, our homeland security-industrial complex needs scary enemies to justify the expenditure of ridiculous sums of money. If Americans can be scared out of their wits, mountains of money can be thrown at contractors who fight, to use the words of George W. Bush, “the evildoers”. That is essentially what we have done. We are a nation in search of an enemy.

This is an age-old story of greed and abuse of power. Those who stand to profit from endless war have a vested interest in the promotion and constant reinforcement of fear-mongering. The fact that there is some reality to the threat (ISIS) makes it harder to see our manipulation. No doubt ISIS is horrible but it is the responsibility of Arab nations in the region to fight that battle.

By essentially deregulating national security, we opened the door to privatization and outsourcing. Risen’s book is eye-opening about the outright theft of billions of dollars that the Bush Administration lavished on Iraq. It is a story that has not been told enough. We really do not know where a ton of money transported to Iraq by the Bush Administration disappeared to. Numerous contractors stuffed money away. Risen says that billions are still squirreled away in a bunker in Lebanon. If we still had enough investigative journalists, I would think they would be looking hard at that money trail.

Post 9/11 opportunists saw a chance to make a bundle as did all the policy intellectuals who supported the second Iraq War. Many of these same folks now support a ground war against ISIS. Considering their shameless track record, it is unbelievable that anyone would buy what they are selling as if the Iraq War was not enough. These policy intellectuals, our latest incarnation of the best and the brightest, will not be doing the dying if we are foolish enough to go along with their future war plans.

I hope New Hampshire citizens ask the presidential candidates hard questions about the growth of the homeland security-industrial complex. Questions like: what is an appropriate national security strategy? What are the genuine threats to us in the United States and what are not? When is diplomacy more appropriate than military intervention? What is the strategic role for addressing poverty and climate change? Are there other ways to oppose ISIS than the use of American troops? As I mentioned, how about the role and responsibility of other Arab countries to challenge ISIS?

A powerful argument can be made for a more modest, less expensive foreign policy based on an awareness of the limits of our power. I admit to a very dark view of the results of our frequently interventionist foreign policy over the last 50 years. Both parties seem oblivious to these awful results and blindly blunder forward.

Maybe the most positive thing that could be said is that we avoided a nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That could easily have happened with outcomes too catastrophic to contemplate.

We did not reap any peace dividend after the Soviet Union collapsed. The demise of the Russian threat almost seamlessly led to the War on Terror with new justifications for military spending.

In a short article, I cannot hope to catalogue all the bad things that came out of our interventions in Vietnam and the more recent Iraq War. If we were going to make a list, I would include: so many needless deaths, devastating injuries including blown off body parts, traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, Agent Orange, napalm, tiger cages, return of torture, warrantless wiretaps, rendition, and domestic surveillance of everyone. And that is right off the top.

Generally speaking, we have lowered the bar on good reasons to go to war.

Among the candidates, with the exception of Senator Bernie Sanders (not yet a candidate), no one is even talking about our excessive militarism. No one is asking if the growth of the homeland security-industrial complex poses any dangers for democracy. I do not see candidates saying caution is better than military adventurism.

Since my argument could be misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued, I did want to say that in no way am I criticizing our soldiers who have served honorably and bravely in Vietnam, Iraq, and other war zones. Their sacrifices have been noble. My argument is directed at the architects of policies and the opportunists who try and profit from war. Too often they have sent soldiers to die for no good reason.

As the custodians of the still important, first in the nation primary, let’s make our questions count. Maybe our questions and the candidates’ answers can make some news.