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Published: Thu, 27 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400

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King Dork Speaks! Frank Portman on High School, Individualism, and the War on Free Speech

Sun, 23 Oct 2016 15:05:00 -0400

(image) Forget what you've heard, kids.

Life "doesn't get better" when you graduate high school, says Frank Portman, one of the great chroniclers of adolescent angst and alienation over the past 30 years. Or, as he titles a recent song, "High school is the penalty for transgressions yet to be specified." Still, he's not completely downbeat: "You get better at navigating it, or fighting it off."

Portman is a novelist (King Dork, Andromeda Klein) and musician (The Mr T Experience) whose latest project is a soundtrack for the new paperback edition of his third novel, King Dork Approximately. Writing a soundtrack for his book is an attempt to recapture a uniquely intense and focused multimedia experience that the California native fears has gone missing in an age of information overload. (You can buy the book and download the album immediately here or get the book and a download code at

Like his earlier literary offerings, King Dork Approximately drew rave reviews for its honest, urgent, and wickedly funny take on the big and small ways that our high-school years mark us for the rest of our lives.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Reason's Nick Gillespie, Portman talks about his literary inspirations (including Philip K. Dick) and musical heroes (Pete Townshend of the Who and Ray Davies of The Kinks), and whether the world is getting more tolerant of oddballs and weirdos or increasingly more repressive of kids and adults who think and act differently. As a musician who made his bones in the post-punk world of the Bay Area before becoming a best-selling writer, Portman brings an absolutely perspective on contemporary American cultural and political life.

Produced by Ian Keyser.

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Future Nobel Laureate Warns: The Antichrist Is Coming!

Fri, 14 Oct 2016 10:40:00 -0400

It's April 1980. You live in Toronto. You're going to see future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan play a show at Massey Hall. Of course, you don't think of him as future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. You think of him as a hippie rock star who's just pissed off vast swaths of his fan base by converting to evangelical Christianity. Hopefully you weren't expecting to hear his old hits, because Dylan doesn't sing any of those. Instead he plays a bunch of his new religious songs, and at one point, with the band vamping behind him like he's a preacher and it's Sunday morning, he lets loose a little sermon. "In the Bible," he says, "it tells you specific things, in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, which just might apply to these times here." And he talks about Afghanistan and he talks about the Antichrist, and while he's standing there playing the prophet you start to realize that future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan isn't just into Christianity; he's into some freaky endtimes shit. But damn if he doesn't make it compelling, and somehow it all builds to a revved-up performance of "Solid Rock." Check out the whole thing here: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> I'm already on record as a fan of Dylan's Christian albums, and I'm not gonna recycle my arguments for them here. I wrote a piece for No Depression back in 2003 that makes my case, and if you're interested you can check that out. I'll just note that I'm not a Christian myself, so I'm not inflating their quality because I agree with them. And much as I love Dylan's best work, I'm definitely not the sort of fan who eats up everything he puts out, so that's not the issue here either. I honestly believe that Slow Train Coming is one of the great American jeremiads and that Saved is 43 minutes of good-and-sometimes-great gospel music. But I do have one little bias that might be magnifying my affection for this stage of Dylan's career. It's the window it opens on that Carter-era apocalyptic mood, when everything from the Afghan war to the Jonestown massacre—yeah, Dylan mentioned Jonestown in that sermon too—felt like a sign that Armageddon was near. Every era of American history has its own set of apocalyptic fears, a particular collection of cataclysms that seemed to loom at that specific moment. Inevitably, someone combines those historically contingent threats with the more long-lived tales Americans tell each other about the endtimes, so that, say, whatever happened that week in the Middle East is imagined as an event foretold in the Bible. Such exercises always look a little ridiculous in retrospect, once the crisis has passed without the world ending. But try to look past the ridiculousness. Try to suspend your disbelief and take them seriously, the way you might when you watch a horror movie. If you can do that, you'll find they're a valuable portal to the past. If you want to understand how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan felt as it happened, you have to take yourself out of the mindset that sees that incursion as the beginning of a nine-year war that ended nearly three decades ago. You have to imagine how it looked to someone who had no idea how this was going to end, someone who caught a whiff of Armageddon in the air. Someone who might talk about the invasion as though he was just a few years removed from doomsday, not 36 years removed from winning a Nobel Prize. And if he can wrap up that talk with a solid song, all the better. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For the Orson Welles version of Carter-era apocalypticism, check out the second and third videos here. For the far end of the period's endtimes fears, go here.)[...]

Does Bob Dylan Have a Politics and if Yes, What the Hell Are They?

Thu, 13 Oct 2016 19:06:00 -0400

Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan (let that sink in for a bit) has been on "a never ending tour" since 1988. For nearly 30 years, the man behind "Like a Rolling Stone," "All Along the Watch Tower," "Tangled Up in Blue," and dozens of other classic tunes has stayed on the road, playing concerts all over the planet.

Nick Gillespie is joined by his Reason colleague Brian Doherty and The Daily Beast's Andrew Kirell to talk the influence and meaning of Dylan, who has resisted all political and cultural categorization. What are the politics of Bob Dylan (which is different than Bob Dylan's politics), who made his early bones by writing protest songs but also claimed kinship to Lee Harvey Oswald? Admired for his authenticity, Dylan is a cultural escape artist who has regularly changed his persona and style and alienated his most-loyal fans by going electric, disappearing from view, becoming a born-again Christian, and more.

If Dylan is the "Shakespeare of our time," what does he for an encore now that he has joined the ranks of Eugene O'Neill, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison as a Nobelist?

Each participant also names his favorite Dylan record and defends his choice.

Click below to listen. About 40 minutes. Produced by Ian Keyser.

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Bob Dylan's Never-Ending Tour of The Self

Thu, 13 Oct 2016 19:00:00 -0400

Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan (let that sink in for a bit) has been on "a never ending tour" since 1988. For nearly 30 years, the man behind "Like a Rolling Stone," "All Along the Watch Tower," "Tangled Up in Blue," and dozens of other classic tunes has stayed on the road, playing concerts all over the planet.

Nick Gillespie is joined by his Reason colleague Brian Doherty and The Daily Beast's Andrew Kirell to talk the influence and meaning of Dylan, who has resisted all political and cultural categorization. What are the politics of Bob Dylan (which is different than Bob Dylan's politics), who made his early bones by writing protest songs but also claimed kinship to Lee Harvey Oswald? Admired for his authenticity, Dylan is a cultural escape artist who has regularly changed his persona and style and alienated his most-loyal fans by going electric, disappearing from view, becoming a born-again Christian, and more.

If Dylan is the "Shakespeare of our time," what does he for an encore now that he has joined the ranks of Eugene O'Neill, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison as a Nobelist?

Each participant also names his favorite Dylan record and defends his choice.

Click below to listen. About 40 minutes. Produced by Ian Keyser.

src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0">

Don't miss a single Reason podcast or video!

Subscribe to our audio podcast at iTunes.

Subscribe to our video podcast at iTunes.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Like us on Facebook.

Follow us on Twitter.

'Bob Dylan Is the Shakespeare of Our Time' - Penn Jillette on the Nobel Prize Winner

Thu, 13 Oct 2016 11:18:00 -0400

Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." As justified as the prize is, the award committee's words are an understatement. In a career that spans 50-plus years, Dylan's impact has long exceeded popular music, influencing every arena of creative expression, from film to writing to politics. While it's impossible—and perhaps ultimately pointless—to distill the essence of the figure behind songs, albums, and prose as different as "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Like a Rolling Stone," Blood on the Tracks, Slow Train Coming, Time Out of Mind, Chronicles, and Shadows in the Night, I'll take my chances. Among other things, Dylan incarnates the urge for endless self-discovery that is at the very heart of America's mythic identity. We are a nation that is always in the act of becoming something different, something new, something at once influenced by the past but free (or struggling to be free) of it. "He not busy being born is busy dying," he sings in "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." More than any popular artist (including writers and filmmakers), Dylan has constantly changed his style, sound, look, and personality over time, not out of some sense of desperate need to stay current or hip but out of a deep urge to explore himself and the world around him. As he sings in "Tangled Up in Blue," he's always "still on the road, heading for another joint." Almost alone among the crew of folk artists he palled around with in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, he didn't see himself as a rigid guardian of a newly invented orthodoxy that couldn't or shouldn't change. Rather, he used folk forms to express himself before moving on to rock, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, Christianity, Judaism, the pop standards of his youth and teen years, and more. As he writes at the close of Chronicles, his 2004 memoir that is (to me, anyway) the greatest sustained burst of Beat writing, The folk music scene had been like a paradise that I had to leave, like Adam had to leave the garden. It was just too perfect. In a few years' time a shit storm would be unleashed. Things would begin to burn. Bras, draft cards, American flags, bridges, too—everybody would be dreaming of getting in on. The national psyche would change and in a lot of ways would resemble the Night of the Living Dead. The road out would be treacherous, and I didn't know where it owuld lead but I followed it anyway. It was a strange world ahead that would unfold, a thunderhead of a world with jagged lightning edges. Many got it wrong and never did get it right. I went straight into it. It was wide open. One thing for sure, not only was it not run by God, but it wasn't run by the devil either. That strange world is still unfolding for him and he inspires us on our own explorations. Below is a snippet of a recent interview Reason conducted with Penn Jillette that ended with a discussion of what the magician finds so inspiring about Dylan, whom he calls the Shakespeare of our time. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> If we have anybody who's Shakespeare in our time, it's Dylan, and he just speaks to me more and more, and he once said in an interview that the purpose of art was to inspire, and when you see a Dylan show....You would think he's so good, you know—if you go see a jazz cat who's so good playing bass, you can leave that show going, "Why even pick up a bass again?" But for some reason—and I'm not the only one that feels this—at the end of the Dylan show, art just seems so good. I want to go write a play, or write a novel. I'll stay up all night and write a song. And you don't care that it's not as good. The other thing that I love about Dylan is he is a freak, not a cheerleader. When you go see Springsteen, it's all this inclusive stuff, you know? Don't we all lo[...]

Norwegian Black Metal Artist Elected to Local Office Against His Will

Tue, 13 Sep 2016 13:05:00 -0400

(image) Elections by their nature bring out shameless self-promotion from politicians. From Hillary Clinton's constant touting of her own "historic" significance as a candidate to Donald Trump's egomaniacal ravings, many Americans could be forgiven for desiring more self-effacing office seekers.

So Norway may offer a ray of hope for humanity. In the small town of Kolbotn, just outside of Oslo, political neophyte and international black metal sensation Fenriz (founding member of the band Darkthrone)­ has been elected to the town council as an alternate representative—despite having run a campaign urging people not to vote for him.

In an interview with the music website CLRVYNT, Fenriz (birth name Gylve Nagell) explained that he reluctantly accepted an offer from Norway's Liberal Party to stand in the local election, despite having absolutely no interest in winning office. "Basically, they called and asked if I wanted to be on the list" of backup representatives, he told CLRVYNT. "I said yeah, thinking I would be like 18th on the list and I wouldn't really have to do anything."

Perhaps concerned that apathy and total lack of experience wouldn't be sufficient to thwart his chances, Fenriz then ran an outreach campaign consisting entirely of posters with him and his cat accompanied by a plea that people not support him.

Unfortunately for this founding father of Norwegian black metal, the plan backfired spectacularly. The residents of Kolbotn were apparently so taken with his self-denying attitude that they promptly voted him into office, much to Fenriz's chagrin. "I'm not too pleased about it. It's boring," he said. "There's not a lot of money in that, either, I can tell you!"

One potential fear is that his party affiliation could alienate his core musical constituency of rabid Darkthrone fans. Norway's underground metal scene has had a sordid history of virulent anti-Christianity, with some fans going so far as to actually burn down churches. Fenriz's Liberal Party, in contrast, advocates the more moderate position of peacefully abolishing the Church of Norway as the country's official religion.

Still, Fenriz's apathetic attitude toward government arguably makes him a natural fit for the Liberals, who want a smaller, less burdensome state. The party's website calls for a number of libertarianish policies from reducing regulation to abolishing Norway's inheritance tax.

Whatever comes of Fenriz's time in office, the level of popular support for someone who's this unenthusiastic about the prospects of wielding is cause enough for celebration.

Watch Elton John's Immensely Moving 9/11 Version of "Rocket Man"

Sun, 11 Sep 2016 12:41:00 -0400

On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I published an essay in Reason titled "Why Art Failed Us After 9/11." My basic argument was the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were ultimately so senseless and pointless that they mostly escaped our capacity to come to terms with them. A number of prominent artists, musicians, and writers—I focus on Bruce Springsteen and Don DeLillo at length—tried to process the attacks and failed, largely because they refused to inhabit the actual scene of the crime. Ground Zero, it seemed, was the one place no one could figuratively stay near because the mound of flesh, bone, and rubble was just too much to bear. At the same time, there were artists who I thought rose to the occasion, especially in terms of offering comfort in the aftermath of the attacks. From the essay: Two consciously artistic gestures stand out, one of them ephemeral and the other highly praised. In December 2001, Elton John performed a "Live by Request" concert on the A&E cable channel, in which fans could call in and ask the one-time Captain Fantastic to perform their favorite tunes. Like McCartney, Young, and Springsteen, John has seen far better days, both as an artist and as a seller of merchandise. No act dominated the '70s charts like Sir Elton, that rare pop star whose commercial success was surpassed only by his interest in pushing the envelope musically. Since that long-ago heyday, he has survived a sham marriage, cut-out bins full of regrettable albums, hair plugs gone bad, multiple addictions and near-bankruptcies, the almost total loss of one of the most memorable voices in rock, and worse. He soldiers on, touring well past middle age, fat, bald, off-key, and generally happy. A woman called in to John's concert and explained that her husband was a first responder who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. She said that his favorite song was John's 1972 hit "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long Long Time)." There John was at the piano looking uncomfortably from the side like Marlon Brando tickling the ivories in The Island of Dr. Moreau, wheezing his way through a song that all of us had heard a million times before, including unintentional and intentional parody versions by the likes of William Shatner, Chris Elliott, and Stewie from Family Guy. The song's scant lyrics can be charitably described as sub-literate ("Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids…and there's no one there to raise them if you did") yet in John's croaky reading they managed to capture a profound sense of isolation, fear, and loss eerily resonant with the moment: "I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife/It's lonely out in space/On such a timeless flight/…Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone." John was sweating profusely, his voice cracking on virtually every note, high and low. The song hushed the crowd, giving all who heard it four minutes of intense communion with the dead. I've searched for that particular performance online but haven't been able to locate it. The other brilliant meditation on 9/11 suffered no such fate. The 2008 documentary Man on Wire is readily available for sale online and can be streamed at sites such as Netflix and Amazon. The deserving winner of an Academy Award, James Marsh's film retells the story of the French aerialist Philippe Petit, who in 1974 strung a cable between the Twin Towers and spent the better part of an hour performing 1,300 feet above a sparse but rapidly growing audience in lower Manhattan before being taken into custody. No moving footage of the actual performance remains, so the narrative is told through period stills, newsreels, interviews, and dramatic reconstructions. As with 9/11, we know how the story ends, yet the tension throughout the film is almost unbearable. Time and again, Petit's grand, long-planned conspiracy almost fails to come together, and yet wh[...]

Friday A/V Club: A Vintage Anti-Hippie Film Strip

Fri, 02 Sep 2016 11:30:00 -0400

(image) "Has man's dream of his children's future ended in a nightmare?" So asks Ken Granger in The Hippies, a lurid film strip from 1967. Granger was a member of the John Birch Society, and he blames the rise of the counterculture on the forces you'd probably expect a '60s conservative to invoke: progressive education, permissive parenting, World Communism. What makes his film interesting on more than a camp level is that he also blames big business, condemning consumerism and conformity in terms a hippie could love.

In the wake of World War II, the film strip declares, Madison Avenue started turning to psychologists for help selling products. The resulting research developed "techniques that could be used to create new desires in people, to change the philosophies of security and saving to the philosophy of spending." Young people in particular were easily manipulated, as a series of music- and fashion-focused youth cultures proved: "The technique of combining music with mass merchandising brought near total control of the purchasing habits of a whole generation."

All it then took (Granger continues) was for Communists to start using the same techniques to sell ideas instead of music. Presto: sex, drugs, and New Left subversion!

Marketers do not, in fact, have such perfect powers of persuasion, and the hippies were not a mesmerized mass of—in Granger's words—"zombie-like vegetables." But it's certainly true that the '60s "counter" culture owed a lot to the mass culture its members were allegedly rejecting. In his kooky way, Granger was noting a truth that many hippie hagiographers prefer to ignore. It's just that he filtered that truth through a paranoid worldview that owed almost as much to John Kenneth Galbraith as it did to Robert Welch.

Needless to say, you can enjoy this on a camp level too. Granger's frightened imagination leads him to all sorts of strange places (inevitably, there are wild sex parties), and he makes several basic errors: mispronouncing everything from "Phil Ochs" to "scabies" and scrambling the names of songs and of at least one organization. There's a pretty good soundtrack too, courtesy of a garage rock band called the Undecided. The credits call it "original music," which makes me wonder if the band's members knew—or cared—that they were recording something for an anti-rock film:

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

For a newspaper dispatch from Granger's lecture tour with the film strip, go here. For another paranoid fever dream from the era, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

Chicago Culture Cops Tax Concert-Venues Because Rap, Rock, Country Aren't 'Art'

Wed, 24 Aug 2016 10:30:00 -0400

(image) When is a live musical performance not a live musical performance? When it takes place in Chicago and the genre is rap, rock, country, or electronica. According to local officials, such concerts don't fall under the category of either "music," "fine art," or "culture"—and hence bars that host them must pay up.

See, under the law in Cook County—which includes the city of Chicago—all event venues are subject to a three percent tax on ticket sales unless the event in question is a "live theatrical, live musical or other live cultural performance." County code later defines cultural performances as "any of the disciplines which are commonly regarded as part of the fine arts, such as live theater, music, opera, drama, comedy, ballet, modern or traditional dance, and book or poetry readings." Most area venues that host live musical performances of any kind took themselves to be exempt.

But the county has recently been trying to squeeze more amusement-tax money out of local businesses by insisting that some live musical performances don't count for tax-exemption purposes because they're not artistic enough. The Chicago Reader reported last week on Cook County's attempt to ring more than $200,000 in back taxes out of Beauty Bar, along with money from around half a dozen other venues "that routinely book DJs or electronic music."

Pat Doerr, president of Chicago's Hospitality Business Association, said the move likely stems from a 2014 appeals court ruling allowing the county to go after the Chicago Bears for $4 million in unpaid amusement taxes. "My suspicion makes me think they wanted to look at every possible way to collect amusement taxes," he told the Reader, "and that's where we're at today."

At an administrative hearing on Monday, Cook County officials clarified their position: it's not just DJ or electronica music that is suspect but rap, rock, and country music also. "Rap music, country music, and rock 'n' roll" do not fall under the purview of "fine art,'" Anita Richardson, an administrative hearing officer for the county, explained.

Under Richardson's interpretation of the code, it's not enough for a performance to merely contain theater, music, comedy, dance, or literature. No, only specific works which live up to county culture cops' standards get a pass. As Bruce Finkelman, managing partner of one of the company that owns Beauty Bar, complained, such a position essentially requires a performance venue to check in with the county for every show it books to see what state art critics think.

Even Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey seems flabbergasted by the position. "No pun intended," he told the Reader, "but I think the county is being tone deaf to recognize opera as a form of cultural art but not Skrillex."

The next administrative hearing for Beauty Bar and co. is scheduled for October. The administrative hearing officer told owners they should bring musicologists to "further testify the music you are talking about falls within any disciplines considered fine art."

Death Metal vs. Donald Trump

Mon, 22 Aug 2016 10:32:00 -0400

(image) On September 16 Nuclear Blast records will release Pocho Aztlán, the latest studio album by the Mexican-American death metal band Brujeria. The group combines thrashing guitars and blast-beat drumming with first-person lyrical accounts of murder, mayhem, and assorted acts of narco-terrorism, all sung (screamed) in Spanish. Needless to say, it's pure theater of the macabre. Just like Kiss and GWAR before them, Brujeria perform in the guise of outlandish fictional characters. Specifically, the members of Brujeria portray a gang of Satanic killers affiliated with Mexican drug cartels. Their songs tell the tales of their bloody "exploits."

Originally founded in 1989 as a side project of Fear Factory guitarist Dino Cazares and Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, Brujeria has turned into something of an underground music supergroup over the years, with a lineup that has featured such notable players as bassist Jeffrey Walker (Carcass) and drummer Nick Barker (Cradle of Filth/Dimmu Borgir). If you happen to enjoy extreme heavy metal and/or extremely violent crime or horror movies, you might enjoy Brujeria too.

The band's recent single "Viva Presidente Trump!" offers a nice introduction. Spoiler alert: It's not exactly a pro-Trump song. Translated, the lyrics include stuff like this:

He hates Mexicans
If Trump wins he'll deport everyone
He hates my race, he loves his money
That crazy güero is going to start a war

According to vocalist Juan Brujo (real name John Lepe), the song "was on shelf for years with no idea for vocals. It was gonna be an 'Anti-Castro' part II song but nothing came out of it. It just needed proper motivation to go an attach itself to someone...and Trump came thru!"

Check out the NSFW teaser video for "Viva Presidente Trump!" here.

Related: The politics of Megadeth and the politics of hardcore punk.

Baz Luhrmann Just Doesn’t Get It with The Get Down

Fri, 12 Aug 2016 15:00:00 -0400

The Get Down. Available Friday, August 12, on Netflix. Elvis Lives! AXS TV. Tuesday, August 16, 9 p.m. I don't know if music has really been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died, but there certainly has been some wretched television made about it. Turn on your set this week if you don't believe me. Okay, "wretched" is too harsh a word for The Get Down, Netflix's new series about the early days of hip-hop, on which a number of rap pioneers including Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow consulted. But "bloated," "derivative," and "self-important" all seem fair, as does "scandalously overpriced." If producer-director Baz Luhrmann really, as has been reported, spent $120 million and 10 years to develop this thing, Netflix's accountants should be taken out and shot, and I don't mean with a camera. The premise of The Get Down—one of the various names the new music went by before "rap" and "hip-hop" stuck—Is interesting enough. Set in the 1977-79 time period when Manhattan was still in the glam grip of discos like Studio 54, it follows a bunch of black and Puerto Rican kids in the Bronx who are discovering the grittier attractions of tagging, break-dancing and rap—the various strands that will grow into hip-hop culture. Ezekiel (Justice Smith, Paper Towns) is a teenage poet scorned at home and frustrated in his pursuit of the gorgeous and talented Mylene (newcomer Herizen Guardiola), a Donna Summer wannabe. Ezekiel's spacey but talented pal Dizzee (Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness) wants to make a name for himself as a graffiti artist, just as the the legendary and ghostly subway tagger who calls himself Shaolin Fantastic (real-life rapper Shameik Moore) is ready to turn in his paint cans for turntables. Call it the commonality of the teenage experience, or call it an homage to the 1970s film and TV shows from which Luhrmann freely borrows. (Everything from Saturday Night Fever to Thank God It's Friday to Kung Fu; and Spike Lee is likely to use a less polite term than "borrow" for the generous helpings of Summer of Sam and Crooklyn stirred into The Get Down.) But the scenes of teenagers getting nagged by adults to get summer jobs, or carped at for listening to the latest incarnation of "the devil's music," could have been spliced in from nearly any film about adolescents made in the last 60 years. Literally: When Ezekiel's uncle mocks his ghetto-life poetry by reading it aloud in a Masterpiece Theatre voice, the resemblance to a sneering Steve Allen reciting the lyrics of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" on The Tonight Show is uncanny. That's not necessarily a criticism. (Of the movie, not Steve Allen, who has another few thousand years of writhing in Hell before he atones.) The Get Down is actually sweetly charming in the moments when the kids are practicing the Hustle for the big weekend dance concert, speculating excitedly about the content of this new Star Wars movie, or arguing the comparative merits of various comic-book characters. But those moments get fewer and further apart as The Get Down lurches forward into vainglory, pretension, and wild excess. Teenage wonder at the world mutates into grandiose aphorism. "When we see our names on these [subway] trains, even for a fleeting moment, we can say, I was here," declares a tagger, only to be outdone moments later by Jimmy Smits, playing a politician apparently from the Unicorns and Rainbows Party, who looks across the jagged ruins of the South Bronx and announces: "I see homes for my rainbow people." The bombast is not restricted to the dialogue. The Get Down is marked by the same everything-but-the-kitchen-sink messiness that colored Luhrmann's remake of Moulin Rouge! Everywhere you look there's a shootout or a chase or a fistfight or a Gotterdammerung dance contest or one character delivering a soul-cru[...]

Is This the Least Appealing Concept Album Ever?

Wed, 10 Aug 2016 11:55:00 -0400

(image) There's no doubt that Presidential Suite: 8 Variations on Freedom sounds awful. What I want to crowdsource is whether this project to "remind us of the inspirational power of political speech" might be the least appealing idea for a concept album in history, or at least—to be fair to millennials—this century. Here is the headlining pitch in an email from Motéma Music:

Glenn Close, Joe Lieberman, Deepak Chopra & More Transform Political Speeches on New Album

The album features the former Democratic senator, the actress, the alternative medicine pitchman, and others doing dramatic renditions of famous political speeches. Lieberman is JFK. Civil rights icon Andrew Young, who recently called Black Lives Matter activists "unlovable little brats," is Nelson Mandela. Close is the (still-living) Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Suu Kyi.

Other "special guests" include British Labour Party politician David Miliband as Winston Churchill, former Manhattan District Attorney (and father of The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel) William vanden Heuvel as FDR, history professor and CNN pundit Douglas Brinkley as Ronald Reagan, and—perhaps the only bright spot—actor Sam Waterson as LBJ.

After each speech is recited, that same speech is rendered as a jazz composition by composer and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra member Ted Nash, who "transcribed the actual pitches and rhythms of the Presidential speeches as they were spoken and then transformed them into original motifs, riffs and grooves." That last part might not sound all bad—if Nash didn't ooze with belief in the power of messianic political leaders to transform society.

"Great political speeches inspire us to believe we are capable of achieving great things together," said Nash. "When people listen to Presidential Suite, I want them to be reminded how far we have come but also how much we still have to do with regard to tolerance and freedom. I can't think of a better time to release Presidential Suite than during this election season."

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"Penn Jillette Is Against Clinton and Trump—and Dying While His Kids Are Young"

Sun, 07 Aug 2016 12:31:00 -0400

Last week, Reason TV released an interview with Penn Jillette, who talked about the 2016 election, his admiration for Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, and how the hard-core libertarian magician lost over 100 pounds by following a plant-based diet. I can't recommend Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales, Penn's just-published diet memoir, enough. As with all of his writing, it ranges far and wide from the putative topic in ways great and small and is immensely entertaining. And if you have any taste for extremes, especially when it comes to food, you will not be disappointed. Penn's chronicle of his nutritional regime and farewell to the "Standard American Diet" (or SAD) as directed by heterodox guru Ray Cronise is endlessly compelling, inspiring, and exhilirating. As I write in a new column for The Daily Beast, Penn is a relentless seeker who is constantly inquiring about new things, new ideas, new ways of being in the world. In this sense, he's a lineal descendant of Jack Keroauc (just as Dylan and Reed are in their own ways), but with a life wish rather than a death wish: Presto! a convincing brief for a nouveau-Beat sensibility of extremism in the pursuit of health and longevity, a 21st-century version of Jack Kerouac's hosanna to the "mad ones," the "ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars." The main difference is that Kerouac drank himself to death before reaching 50 while Penn, now 61 and a life-long teetotaler, is trying to live as long as he can both because as an atheist he believes there's nothing after this life, and because he has two kids whom he doesn't want to have "to deal with [him] dropping dead of fat when they're just teenagers." After decades of chowing down on what he derides as the "Standard American Diet" or SAD—think huge, Cheesecake Factory-sized portions of everything fried, battered, sweetened, fried, and salted—Penn was not only obese but depressed, constantly winded, and on multiple blood-pressure drugs. His descriptions of his pig-out sessions—buttered steaks, movie theater popcorn covered in oil and Milk Duds, Cinnabons chased by sweet drinks, and hunks of cheese slathered with peanut butter—would give Dr. Oz vicarious diabetes. Penn's come-to-Jesus moment (if an atheist can be said to have such an epiphany) came when he had a stent put in his heart and his doctor told him he either needed to lose a ton of weight or get stomach-shrinking surgery within six months. Having been given "official permission to go crazy" in pursuit of dieting, he soon found himself under the care of Cronise or "CrayRay" (short for "Crazy Ray"), who put Penn on a two-week regimen of only eating potatoes as a way to reset his cravings and taste buds. Slowly after that, Penn started adding back other vegetables and whole grains, small amounts of hot sauce, and eventually fruit after hitting his maintenance weight. His medical problems disappeared along with the flab but, ever the skeptic, he repeatedly cautions his readers about taking advice from a "fucking juggler whose only higher education was Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College." He is, he admits, only "a zealot wearing a broccoli suicide vest to Burger King." Whole Beast col here. Throughout Presto!, Penn reminds the reader not to take diet or life advice from a guy whose last brush with education was a stint at clown college (literally). Maybe, maybe not. But reading Presto! reminded me of what people said when they heard the debut LPs of the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, and the Se[...]

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Gets Political with RNC in Cleveland

Thu, 21 Jul 2016 12:26:00 -0400

(image) The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in partnership with Washington, D.C.'s Newseum, is currently running a special exhibit timed for the 2016 presidential election called "Louder than Words: Rock, Power, and Politics," which their according to the museum's website will "explore the power of rock to change attitudes about patriotism, peace, equality and freedom."

Apparently, the fact that the exhibit is running as Cleveland hosts the Republican National Convention (RNC) is coincidental. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's curator Karen Herman, the exhibit was commissioned before Cleveland was named the RNC's host city. 

Everything from the saxophone Bill Clinton blew on Aresnio Hall's show in 1992, to a chunk of the Berlin Wall, to a box of FBI files on pop stars like John Lennon and The Monkees is represented.

Also of particular note is a wall representing "A Brief Timeline of Censorship" in music, an installation on the infamous Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) congressional hearings in 1985, as well as pieces on musical anti-war resistance to both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. 

Check out a slideshow of some of the exhibits after the jump. 

Street Musician Has First Amendment Right to Perform, Will Have Legal Bills Paid by City of Providence

Wed, 13 Jul 2016 15:09:00 -0400

(image) Street busker Manuel Pombo has been performing on the streets of Providence (R.I.) since the early 90s. He even secured a letter of permission to do so from the city's Board of Licenses, but that letter prohibited him from soliciting donations.

Over the years, Providence police officers would variously tip Pombo for his musical efforts, though at other times they would order him to stop playing because he was "begging," and even arrest him for "disorderly conduct." In 2015, Pombo secured the representation of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island who filed suit against the city arguing that playing music and soliciting donations are both protected by the First Amendment.

This past January, the city settled with Pombo, freeing him to earn a living on the streets of Providence as well as awarding him $1,500 in damages. And earlier this week, the city was commanded by a federal judge to pay Pombo's ACLU lawyers $21,610.50 for their efforts in securing the settlement, according to the Providence Journal.

John W. Dineen, one of the ACLU lawyers, was quoted as saying at the time of the settlement:

Ben Franklin, who was a busker in his early days, will be glad to see that the First Amendment still has some life in it, although it takes a street saxophonist and the ACLU to keep it going.