Sundown

 

Bruce Springsteen’s new solo record “Western Stars” puts us inside the heads of lonely men adrift in an American West so picture-perfect it might as well be a movie set. Springsteen’s characters here are all variations on a dusty-booted theme: A wayfarer hitch-hikin’ down the highway; an aging movie stuntman with a steel rod in his leg; a has-been Western movie actor downing raw eggs before shooting a Viagra commercial. All of these men harbor regrets about broken relationships. They’re waiting on the Tucson train for redemption or hoisting a toast to an absent lover in a ratty motel room. Wild horses, coyotes, charros and steers make an appearance, as do truckers, bikers, a souped-up ’72, an El Camino and John Wayne.

The aging men of  “Western Stars” are free-falling towards obsolescence.  These characters are in constant motion, but it’s an illusion of motion, because they always end up in the same place — at the end of the line, unchained but tethered to the failures and regrets inside their own heads. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” is how Kris Kristofferson put it, in another time and place. The sadness on this record is palpable. Springsteen discussed his struggle with depression in his fine 2016 autobiography Born to Run and in “Springsteen on Broadway,” and while depression is never mentioned on “Western Stars,” it’s there, obliquely, in the cellos and minor chords and the self-imposed isolation of its characters.

Produced by Springsteen and Ron Aniello (who also produced 2012’s “Wrecking Ball”), “Western Stars” is deeply layered with lavish strings, keyboards, horns and female backup singers; the orchestrations often do the emotional work of a film score. Here and there, a rugged, twangy guitar muscles into focus. The influences are obvious and worn proudly: Elvis Presley’s “Kentucky Rain,” the “Midnight Cowboy” movie soundtrack, the wide open vistas of Aaron Copland’s America and the kind of sleek country-pop Glen Campbell made in the late ’60’s (there’s even a reference to a county lineman on “Sundown”). “Western Stars” contains some of Springsteen’s plushest, swankiest pop melodies — you can imagine ’60’s Sinatra swingin’ through “Sundown,” “There Goes My Miracle” and “The Wayfarer.”

And it all leaves me cold.

I’ve never had a reaction like this to any Springsteen record. I’ve been disappointed with Bruce albums (“Working on a Dream,” “High Hopes”) but I’ve never before been bored. I’ve never before felt let down. My problem (and judging from the near-uniformity of the positive critical response to the album, mine alone) is that the album strikes me as lovely but irrelevant. It’s reverential retro-ism, well-crafted artifice. “Western Stars” is not what I needed from Springsteen’s first studio album of new material since 2012, his first since that rough beast slouched into the White House. It gives me nothing I can use and I’m lost.

Maybe it’s me. Probably it’s me. Perhaps, two years into the chaos and darkness of Trumpism, I’ve lost my capacity to appreciate an elegy for idealized (fetishized?) archetypes of American manhood.

I tried hearing the record as a character study, a sequel to “Nebraska,” if you will. But these anonymous characters with their less-than-compelling stories are a road-weary blur;  there’s not a Johnny 99 or Joe Roberts in the bunch. The only guy who stands out is Sleepy Joe, owner of Sleepy Joe’s Cafe, simply because he has a name. Unfortunately, that name has become popularly associated with a lame-ass Twitter insult favored by our juvenile leader. Was a change of name out of the question?

Speaking of “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” (“There’s a place out on the highway ‘cross the San Bernardino line/ Where the truckers and the bikers gather every night at the same time …”), it’s on my very short list of Bruce songs that I never want to hear again, right up there with “Outlaw Pete” and “Queen of the Supermarket.” What a strangely uninspired jumble of forced gaiety – Cajun accordion! Vaguely south-of-the-border horns! – and recycled dancing-our-cares-away imagery. It sounds Springsteen-ish but not of Springsteen, and I find this weird and not a little alarming.

Lighten up, you say? OK, I tried to lighten up and escape into “Western Stars” as a note-perfect homage to a particular genre from the golden age of AM radio pop. I grew up with that sound. I know the symphonic soft-rock and country-pop hits of the era inside and out and there’s a place in my heart for them. And who doesn’t need an escape from this world we’re living in? “Western Stars” should have hit the bull’s-eye for me, and it doesn’t.

A homage to a specific sound and genre of the past — sure, bring it on. Just not now. The timing of this release is off. We needed something more from Springsteen at this crucial moment in the life of our democracy and, for that matter, the planet. We needed his first new recorded songs in seven years to acknowledge that shit’s gotten real since 2012. Instead, he has presented us with a diorama, airless, sealed up in a world of its own.

Maybe it’s just that Bruce has so accurately envisioned our current cultural and political moment that there’s nothing more to say. I hope that’s not true. But I can see how being so far ahead of the curve can be wearying. He made a whole record about bigotry and hatred toward migrants and the homeless 24 years ago (“The Ghost of Tom Joad,” 1995). He debuted “American Skin (41 Shots),” his song about law enforcement brutality against people of color, in 2000, more than a decade before Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Philandro Castile. The searing and under-appreciated “Magic” album (2007) sounded the alarm at the exact moment when lawlessness became the guiding principle of the Republican Party. Marinate over this line from “Magic”‘s “Long Walk Home,” a response to Bush-Cheney’s adventures in Katrina neglect and Gitmo waterboarding, and consider how much farther we’ve fallen from the ideals of our founders since Springsteen wrote it: “Your flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.” On “Death to My Hometown” from “Wrecking Ball” (2012) he called out the “robber barons” stealing this country from within, the oligarchic coup that happened without a shot fired or a dictator crowned. Except, since that song was recorded, a dictator was crowned. All of those records mean infinitely more today than they did when they were released.

I wanted to hear what Springsteen has to say about the dystopian hell that’s broken loose since 2016. I wanted an album of new material that engaged with the existential terror we’re living through, that articulated our anger and lifted it up and offered community. I wanted songs we could fight with, hope with. We’ve been traveling over rocky ground. Where’s the Bruce who wrote that hymn of comfort and persistence?

Maybe it’s me. Probably it’s me. Maybe the Springsteen I need will answer the call next year, if a rumored E Street Band tour comes to pass. He has been there for us before  — notably, after 9/11 (“The Rising”) and Katrina (“Magic” and his Seeger Sessions Band rewrite of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” comprise as efficient a dismantling of the G.W. Bush era as you could hope for). I get it, though. Bruce can’t save us from the mess we’re in now. And he can only make the album that he can make at any given time. This time, it was “Western Stars,” claustrophobic and sealed off from the world as it may be, and, on the surface, it hits the right notes: It sounds like a ’60s country-pop album.

But … hear me out. There was more to that genre than a big sound and a two-lane highway. Sometimes, a country-pop song would engage with the world in a way you never saw coming. Sometimes, shit got real.

In 1969, as the Vietnam War was raging, Glen Campbell recorded a Jimmy Webb song called “Galveston,” which, like Campbell’s previous Webb-penned hits “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” featured the deep twangs and lush strings that Springsteen recreates on “Western Stars.” Wrapped in a gorgeous, fluid Webb melody, Campbell sings as a man yearning for his idyllic home town on the Gulf Coast and the girl he left behind. And then in the second verse, comes the bombshell: “Galveston, oh Galveston/I still hear your sea waves crashing/While I watch the cannons flashing/I clean my gun/And dream of Galveston.”

Did you feel that chill? “Galveston” is a deceptively pretty song about a homesick, scared GI in Vietnam. The last verse goes, “Galveston, oh Galveston/ I am so afraid of dying/ Before I dry the tears she’s crying/ Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun/ At Galveston.” “Galveston” is one of the saddest songs ever recorded. Campbell’s soaring tenor on that last “oh, Galveston” made me cry when I was 12 and it makes me cry now. All the lush strings in the world can’t hide the horror of the situation the narrator finds himself in.

And yet, “Galveston” reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country and Easy Listening charts and number four on the Hot 100. Clearly, people were willing to accept the painful reality of war articulated in a hit song on AM radio. They wanted to hear Glen Campbell, one of the most successful entertainers of the time, acknowledge the world beyond Phoenix and Wichita. They needed a pop song’s reassurance that they were not alone in their worry and confusion, as the death tally of young men mounted, ideological chasms divided Americans and the world felt like it was coming apart at the seams.

I guess what I’m saying is, I wish that “Western Stars” had been Bruce’s “Galveston.”

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Aretha forever

©Atlantic Records

Let’s not speak of Aretha Franklin in the past tense. Let’s speak of her in eternals. The sun and the rain, the earth and the sky, love and faith, sorrow and perseverance. Aretha embodies all of those things and gives them voice, a rich, supple voice flowing with humanity. It’s among the two or three greatest voices popular music has ever known.

Aretha’s music is godly, lusty, turbulent, ecstatic, glistening. She spans musical styles and decades, while always remaining Aretha. She is the Queen of Soul, the reverend’s daughter, the woman who shows other women how to demand R-E-S-P-E-C-T, whose voice gave voice to torrential grief at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and soaring joy at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. She brought Obama to tears when she sang ‘A Natural Woman’ to its co-writer, Carole King, when the latter received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2015.  Of that performance, Obama told The New Yorker, “American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears — the same way that Ray Charles’s version of  ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed — because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”

Aretha is the soul of black America, she is the soul of America, period. She is soul music, and the music of the soul. Aretha, simply, is. And will always be.

***

Aretha is …

“Respect”.  From her 1967 album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, this is the song that changed everything. Aretha didn’t write it (Otis Redding did), but she wholly subverts it. A man reminding his lover, “I’m about to give you all my money … And all I’m asking, a little respect when I come home” is one thing. A woman singing the same lines, demanding “my propers” when she comes home from work, creates a thrilling new power shift. In the ‘60’s, Aretha’s “Respect” was adopted as an anthem of both the women’s rights and Civil Rights movements — intersectional feminism before the concept had a name. Aretha and her sisters Carolyn and Erma came up with the spelled-out repetition of the title and the “sock it to me” backing vocals. Listening to it now, more than fifty years later, it sounds more eruptive, uncompromising and triumphant than ever.

Amazing Grace. Aretha grew up a reverend’s daughter from Detroit (or “De-twah,” as she pronounced it, like the French), singing in her father’s church. She returned to her roots with this double gospel album recorded live at Los Angeles’s New Temple Baptist Missionary Church in 1972. Amazing Grace was the biggest-selling album of Aretha’s career. I wrote this about the album in 2012: “This is the greatest singing you will ever hear. Period. Aretha’s rich, glimmering melisma on “Precious Memories”, her spine-tingling screams of ecstasy on “Amazing Grace”, her roof-rattling testifying on “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” will take your breath away. Amazing Grace is the holiest record I own. And I say this as a secular Jew and an atheist. I don’t believe, but I am moved beyond words by the joy, the spiritual transcendence, of Sister Aretha’s voice lifted in praise. And that’s religion enough for me.”

 

“Nessun dorma”, Grammy Awards 1998. She stepped in for an ailing Pavarotti to sing the aria from Turandot with only minutes to prepare, singing it in the key that had been arranged for him. (This video keeps getting removed from You Tube, so act quickly.)

Young, Gifted and Black. Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a cohort of Dr. King; he also recorded a sermon entitled “The Meaning of Black Power.” And Aretha used her profile to further black pride and culture. A small report in a 1970 issue of Jet Magazine details how Aretha “stands ready” to pay Black Panther Angela Davis’s bond “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” The piece quotes Aretha as saying, “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit] and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. … I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.” (When the bond was set, Aretha was on an overseas tour and communications glitches prevented the transfer of the money.)

The chugging funk of “Rock Steady” and the misty, swirling R&B of “Day Dreaming” are two of my favorite Aretha-written songs. Both are from her Young, Gifted and Black album, released in 1972, the same period as Amazing Grace. Aretha in the early ’70s, with her natural hair and African dress, was a powerful contrast to the conservatively groomed young woman of her early career. The video below, a galloping performance of “Rock Steady,” comes from a 1971 episode of The Flip Wilson Show, and I’m including it because it validates a hazy memory from my youth. I remember watching Aretha on a variety show, maybe this one, with my mother, who offered a  stony dismissal of Aretha’s “crazy” hair and African garb. Watching Aretha on TV with my parents during this period was like sitting in a sauna of heated disapproval. Fast forward to President Obama’s 2008 inauguration, for which Aretha donned the quintessential church hat, festooned with a magnificent, oversized bow, to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and instantly became the butt of white comedians’ jokes. Oh, and my mother couldn’t deal with that hat, at all.

The Interpreter. Aretha stands with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald as the greatest interpreters of pop songs of the 20th Century. With her unerring ear for arrangement and melody, her precise knowledge of when to caress a word, when to draw out a syllable, how long to hold a beat or a cry, and when to just let her emotions go, everything she sang became an Aretha Franklin Song. She conveys a deep connection to the lyrics of some of the most surprising choices. When Aretha sings it, the God-Is-Dead high-mindedness of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” becomes a gospel sermon about faith as the antidote to loneliness in disconnected times. Her ecstatic “I Say a Little Prayer” is the definitive version, all exuberant, full-hearted passion; Dionne Warwick’s (lovely) original of the Bacharach-David classic sounds muted and distant in comparison. Aretha pours blood and soul into Simon and Garfunkel’s tepidly angelic “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and connects to Elton John’s “Border Song”  with every atom of her being.

Sisterhood. If you’re going to talk about the seam of female strength and solidarity that runs through Aretha’s greatest hits, you have to talk about her relationship to her backup singers on those records. This is what I wrote in a piece called “In Praise of Backup Singers”:

The backup singers on Aretha Franklin’s records aren’t musical accessories, they’re emotional necessities. When Aretha is sad, crying over the man that got away on “Ain’t No Way,” they’re crying with her (that’s Cissy Houston’s mournful soprano). When she’s giddy in love on “Chain of Fools,” they’re giddy too. When she’s giving that no-good man the business in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” they’re standing right behind her, hands on hips. Aretha’s backing vocalists are more than her harmonizers, they’re her girlfriends, confessors and sisters — on many of her recordings, they’re her actual sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin. “I got a call the other day,” begins Aretha’s spoken intro to “Angel.” “It was my sister Carolyn saying, ‘Aretha, come by when you can. I’ve got something that I want to say …’ ”  “Angel” floats on Aretha’s soaring wails of loneliness, but it ends with a calming moment of sweet empathy from Carolyn and Erma: “He’ll be there, now don’t you worry/ Keep lookin’ and just keep cookin’,” and you can imagine them reaching across the kitchen table to take her hands and dry her tears. Aretha’s music is the sound of sisterhood, women supporting and comforting one another. One voice.

The Queen of Soul. The 2015 Kennedy Center Honors video encapsulates better than any of my words what a profound and immutable part of popular music, of America’s collective soul, Aretha Franklin will always remain. Amen.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2018

If You Give a Turtle a Cookie

512px-Sen_Mitch_McConnell_official
(Photo: United States Senate, Official Photo. Public Domain)

 

If you give a turtle a cookie,

He’s going to ask for a SCOTUS seat.

If you give him a SCOTUS seat,

He’ll probably fill it with an ultra-conservative, partisan hack.

When he’s finished, he’ll count his money from the NRA.

Then he’ll want to take away your health care.

When he tries to take away your health care, he might notice that he doesn’t have the votes.

So he’ll probably blame it on the Democrats.

When he’s finished blaming the Democrats, he’ll want to have an unethical lunch with the ultra-conservative partisan hack he put in the SCOTUS seat that he stole from you after you gave him a cookie.

He’ll tell the ultra-conservative partisan hack to start sweeping away all the rights granted to everyone a turtle could possibly hate.

He might get carried away and sweep away voting rights for people of color and every other Democrat-leaning group in the land.

He may even end up banning Muslims as well!

When he’s done, he’ll probably want to destroy workers’ unions and LGBT protections under the law.

You’ll have to listen to the pundits lecturing you about civility,

while the turtle crawls into his insulated turtle-hole, makes himself comfortable and laughs and laughs and laughs.

He’ll probably ask you to read him a story.

So you’ll read him newspaper reports about brown-skinned immigrant babies in DHS jails at the border, and he’ll ask to see the pictures.

When he looks at the pictures of crying babies in cages, he’ll get so excited he’ll want to draw one of his own.

He’ll draw a picture of a woman forced to carry an unwanted or life-threatening pregnancy to term, even in cases of rape or incest.

Then he’ll want to hang the picture on his turtle-hole wall.

Looking at the picture will remind him that

Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land.

So … he’ll ask for another cookie.

In retrospect, you should never have given that slimy bastard a cookie in the first place.

(With apologies to “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond .)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape 2018

Year-end Clearance, Day 3! Humor from My Reject File

rejected

I’m celebrating the end of a crap year by posting selections from my impressive file of rejected humor submissions. Sure, I had trouble focussing on writing this year;  it’s hard to be creative when you’re checking Twitter every two minutes to see if the world is ending. But could my diminished publishing output have less to do with perpetual anxiety than with the fact that these pieces just weren’t funny?

Nah. I stand by my work. Even this probably-too-obscure list from the end of 2016 that I submitted in a blaze of fear-induced insomnia.

img_0295_lussekatter1

Lists: Delicious Holiday Foods from Around the World, or Professional Hockey Players?

  1. Getzlaf
  2. Tourtiere
  3. Hamhuis
  4. Salomaki
  5. Abdelkader
  6. Lussekatter
  7. Golabki
  8. Goligoski
  9. Wingels
  10. Springerle
  11. Andestag
  12. Landeskog
  13. Phaneuf
  14. Jokipakka
  15. Joululimppu
  16. Struffoli
  17. Toffoli
  18. Kourabiedes
  19. Krejci
  20. Pekka Rinne

Christmas foods: 2, 6, 7, 10, 11, 15, 16, 18

Hockey players: 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 17, 19, 20

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

Year-end Clearance, Day 2! Rejected Humor Submissions, All Sales Final

rejectedI’m kicking 2017 to the curb with a Toyotathon of humor pieces that never found homes this year.

Today’s offering illustrates how hard it is to keep up with the brutal churn of the news cycle. Remember “Bodega”?  Sure you do. Back in September, a couple of former Google employees announced plans for a startup that would place “Bodega boxes” in lobbies of apartment buildings, office buildings and dorms. These machines, called Bodega, would offer things found in a mom-and-pop corner store, minus Mom and Pop or any pesky human interaction. Essentially, they were proposing hyped-up vending machines. But wait — here’s the best part!  In their funding plan, the founders talked up Bodega boxes as an eventual replacement for “centralized shopping locations” — in other words, they would be replacing those majority-immigrant-owned stores that are always there for you, on holidays, at night, through blizzards and hurricanes. It was tone-deaf tech culture at its worst.

I was a couple hours late out of the gate with my piece, and then a submission-software glitch lost it in the shuffle, making it even later. Bodega’s moment in the outrage cycle was gone within a week. So here’s my satirical take on a terrible tech idea, preserved for posterity.

***

Say “Hola” to ABUELA!

rosie-robot-jetsons_zpspkxwmcrq_syxzyv

Like many of our friends in Silicon Valley, we, the founders of JoshWorx, sympathize with the hard-working undocumented immigrants being persecuted in the name of nationalism. But sympathizing is one thing; experiencing the cruel upheaval of deportation first-hand is another. That’s what we — Josh and Josh and Josh — learned when we went out to get lunch one day and found that the tamale lady on the corner was gone. We asked around, and when we heard that she got snagged in an ICE dragnet at her kids’ elementary school, we bowed our heads in silent reflection and mourned the loss of that lady’s amazing tamales. Well, Josh and I did — Josh was never that keen on them, but her cart was really close to the office.

Our traumatic experience taught us that Illegal immigrants can’t be removed from society without repercussions. You might ask yourself, If all the undocumented Mexican workers are sent back, who will make my tamales? Who will pull my hair out of the shower drain? Who will do something about that family of raccoons living under Josh’s deck? As you can see, this is a national emergency. Which is why JoshWorx is proud to introduce our game-changing autonomous technology to help the innocent victims of harsh anti-immigration policies — victims like you and me and Josh and Josh. Say “Hola” to ABUELA, your personal immigrant replacement unit!

ABUELA — Autonomous Bot Undertaking Established Latino Assignments — does all the jobs the (sadly) departed undocumented Mexican immigrants in your life used to do, only faster and with no need for awkward conversations in eighth-grade Spanish nouns!

Does your apartment need vacuuming? ABUELA’s Roomba-partnered technology will leave your floors spotless (unlike Marta, who could never quite manage to get to those last few dust bunnies under the bed). Are you hungry? No need to interrupt a binge-watch of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to visit your neighborhood taqueria — ABUELA’s onboard freezer is stocked with tamales, enchiladas and all the other Mexican comfort foods you crave, while her microwave unit delivers them piping hot to your table! Garden looking scraggly since Luis was sent back to Jalisco against his will? Check out ABUELA’s retractable hedge clippers! You’ll never feel guilty about standing inside your air conditioned home watching ABUELA dig out a dead stump in 101 degree heat — unlike Luis, ABUELA is equipped with an advanced core-temperature-cooling system!

We understand the tragedy of families pulled apart by the anti-immigrant agenda of a probably illegitimate president. We’ve been there. Josh and Josh’s wives, Amanda and Amanda, had to lean out of their respective Director of Marketing jobs after our nannies vanished overnight. And believe us, nobody is happy about it. Which is why we’re working on ABUELITA, a fully automated child-minder/self-driving-car hybrid. But, honestly, it’s not going great at the moment, because Unmarried Josh is always preoccupied with his stupid idea for a bodega-in-a-box. Bro, it’s just a vending machine! Let it go!

Anyway, ABUELA is here to help working parents, hungry programmers and people who aren’t into touching the toilet brush maintain the same quality of life they enjoyed when the immigrants were still around. We at JoshWorx even foresee a day when farmers who’ve lost their undocumented workers can employ whole fleets of ABUELAS to harvest the tomato, squash and blueberry crops rotting in the fields. We just need a little time to figure out a work-around so that ABUELA’s cold mechanical fingers stop crushing the delicate fruit to a pulp. (Hey Siri, take a note: Juicer bot? JUICITA? EL JUICADOR? JUICERO?)

JoshWorx is committed to diversity. ABUELA is the product of a talented engineering team that brings a wide cultural perspective to the table. Although, it’s basically just Josh and Josh at the moment; Masoud went home to Tehran for his sister’s wedding ages ago and seems to have run into some visa trouble. And we hardly ever see Josh anymore, now that he’s found investors for the bodega-in-a-box. But we’re confident that we’ll be able to put an ABUELA in every “casa,” “manana!” Or, more likely, whatever the day after “manana” is — we’ve had our hands full ever since Amanda walked out on Josh, and Amanda was named Director of Marketing for bodega-in-a-box. Every day is “Take Your Children to Work Day” around here, LOL. It’s been really great getting quality time with our kids. We’re so blessed! Seriously, if anyone knows a couple of nannies who’d work for $10 an hour and no benefits, could you shoot their info our way? Ethan! Isabella! Other Ethan!Stop that! ABUELA IS NOT A TOY!

(More rejects tomorrow!)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

Year-End Clearance! Everything Must Go!

rejected

Rather than dwell on the black hole of despair that was 2017, I’ve decided to end the year with some slightly irregular, re-gifted, hit-or-miss laughs. Yes, it’s my first ever year-end comedy clearance sale! Think of it as the Happy Honda Days of Rejected Humor Submissions. Hum “Holiday Road” as you read, if that helps! For the next three days, this blog will feature humor pieces that never should have seen the light of publication, according to the editors who were not as amused by them as I was. Surely you, my readers, can find some room in your hearts for the misfit toys, the day-old fruitcakes, the office grab-bag Yankee Candles, that comprised more than half of my humor writing output this magical year!

First up, we have a rejected letter to Steve Bannon, from early in his reign as the “presidential” “brain.”

*****

Dear President Bannon,

Many years ago, you made a fortuitous investment in a struggling television show called “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” As a result, you earned a handy sum in rerun residuals. Due to an accident of time and place (I lived in the same apartment building), I was a reluctant player in that sorry glorification of Jerry Seinfeld‘s little comedy act. I write to you today to offer my support as a brother-in-arms against the greatest threat our Republic has ever known: Funny Jews.

Oh, they think they’re so clever, quipping and wisecracking as if they, not Aleksandr Dugin, invented comedy! It pains me, Herr Bannon, to see them trying to break you now with their feeble quips and Internet memes about your (I paraphrase) big-boned physique and devilish nature. For I too have been the target of like barbs from one Jewish “funnyman” in particular. Hello, Jerry. 

For nine years, my dietary habits (which are perfectly in moderation — just ask my good friend the Soup Nazi), the cleanliness of my apartment and my work ethic were reduced to mere punchlines, while Seinfeld and his cohort reaped media acclaim. Well, the joke is on them, thanks to your brilliant foresight investing in this incomprehensibly popular series. Lo, these many years later, what an irritant you must be to the liberal coastal elites who find Seinfeld’s inane observations about airplane peanuts so irresistible! What a moral quandary they now face when they tune into their precious reruns. Their nightly escape from reality only adds another penny to your coffers. Bwa-ha-ha! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

President Bannon, let me be frank. You and I are kindred spirits. I too am a man who knows how to nurse a grudge and who savors the piquant nectar of revenge against a sworn enemy.  For you, it’s Jews, and women, and liberals, and African Americans, and gays, and Muslims, and Mexicans, and small refugee children with life-threatening heart conditions. For me, it’s … Jerry. Allow me to propose an allegiance.

I have many skills that could be useful in your crusade to bring about a new world order. I have been a loyal employee of the U.S. Postal Service for well over 30 years. I know how to tamper with the mails and get away scot-free. I follow orders. I am stealthy, nimble and unburdened by conscience. I will rat out anyone, anytime, anyplace, and I’ll do it with a smile on my face.

To wit: Jerry has been consorting with a Pakistani restaurateur, one “Babu Bhatt.” A cursory interception of Mr. Bhatt’s mail reveals that he is an illegal. Do with this information what you will, My Leader. There’s plenty more where that came from. I stand ready to serve you — for a not unreasonable price. Think of what you could accomplish with a sympathetic Postmaster General by your side! 

Yours in solidarity,

Newman

129 W. 81st St., Apt. 5F

New York, NY 10024

uMCZFBr

(Coming tomorrow: Another reject wrapped up in a big red bow!)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

Music therapy on the anniversary of awfulness: The Rails’ “Other People”

Has it only been a year? It feels like a century. There’s a Reductress satire headlined, “Why I’m Preparing for the Anniversary of Trump’s Victory by Rolling Myself Up in a Rug and Dying in There.” Oh, such a tempting option! But the tiny flicker of optimism that hasn’t yet been beaten down tells me that a better way to mark this obscene milestone is by denying our doll-handed pretender the satisfaction of our despair. So I’m going to spend the day practicing defiance through positive action, and humbly suggest that you do the same. Volunteer in your community. Join a voter registration drive. Do a small kindness. Walk in a park. Talk to people. Take a break from Twitter. Listen to music.

I’ll make that last suggestion even more specific. Listen to “Other People,” the exquisitely angry and spot-on second album by the Rails. The married British folk duo (Kami Thompson and James Walbourne) recorded this record in Nashville, and it perfectly captures the mood of the past year, all upheaval and bad juju, shattered unity and evil bastards smirking their way to power. “Troubled times and devil bones/ There’s a fork in the road,” Thompson sings in the first and last line of the album’s final track. This is a record haunted by Trump and Brexit; hearing it for the first time was like finding an ally and a friend.

The record opens with “The Cally,” Walbourne’s harmonium-driven slow march that conjures the working-class neighborhood of Caledonia Road in the ’60s, when “them big old towers, they shot up fast and left us looking skyward.” Later, on the track “Brick and Mortar,” we see that march of progress continuing throughout London in present-day, and what a betrayal of the working-class it all turned out to be.

With ferocious fuzzed-out guitar and a snapping snare drum beat halfway between a New Orleans funeral procession and a Celtic march, “Brick and Mortar” sneers at deep-pocketed “sharks and lions” gobbling up neighborhoods whole, driving out working people, artists and the poor in favor of luxury flats and bullet trains to the suburbs: “And every piece of track is another stab in the back/ They’re tearing up old London’s brick and mortar.” (The song is specific to London, but it feels like San Francisco to me.) The themes of displacement and a broken country in disarray are there again on Kami’s heartbreaking “Leaving the Land” and that ominous finale, “Mansion of Happiness,” in which one of those forks in the road ends up pointing towards an England of  “walking dead,” too suckered in by their screens to see their country stolen out from under their noses.

The record is so thematically cohesive that even the songs that deal with relationships in turmoil (“Late Surrender,” “Drowned in Blue”) or lost souls struggling with their own destructive behavior (“Dark Times,” “Hanging On,” “Shame”) work as metaphors for the bigger picture of things falling apart.

I don’t want to give the impression that this record is a downer. Like Thompson’s Brit-folk royalty parents, Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson and brother Teddy, The Rails are skilled at enrobing the bleakest lyrics in the most rousing Celtic/Americana snap and twang.  Most of all, while “Other People” is not exactly a cheery record, it might give you some comfort to hear your own rage and sadness mirrored in Thompson and Walbourne’s voices.

If you’re nearly tapped out of hope that justice and good will prevail, listen to the title track, “Other People”; it’s a searing denouncement of the selfishness, cruelty and tribalism encouraged by the Brexit “Leavers” and Trumpism’s “I’m the only one that matters” credo. This song is exactly the affirmation of the power of community we need right now.

Thompson has a dark diamond of a voice dipped in sorrow and shining with intimacy and kinship.  Singing the unsparing, astringent lyrics of  “Other People,”  she does something similar to what Jarvis Cocker did on Pulp’s “Common People,” but in a much sweeter way. She makes you feel like you’re not alone in this upside-down world. She makes you believe that we will eviscerate these assholes together.

“Crazy people, money grabbers, old religion and new regimes/Backstabbers, heartbreakers, psychopaths with evil schemes,” goes the first verse of “Other People,” and as a summation of Trump and Farage and their armies of darkness, you can’t ask for much better than that. Then Walbourne comes in on the deceptively simple chorus, which has a melody that carries a hint of a gospel sway: “There are other people in this world, other people in this world, not just you.”

The first time through the chorus, The Rails are simply confirming the reality that a segment of our fellow humans is willfully devoid of empathy or moral compass. On the second verse, Thompson directly addresses the money grabbers, psychopaths, et al.: “Take the money, steal the candy, rob the blind and kick the dog/Build your palace on a graveyard/ Make believe you’ve done nothing wrong.” After that litany of evil, when Thompson and Walbourne harmonize on the chorus, they sound how many of us feel a lot of the time — like we’re up against an overwhelming force.

But then, something almost miraculous happens. On the last verse, Thompson and Walbourne turn away from the bad guys to sing to the rest of us: “Heard a sad voice, heard it cry/Take me back to better times/ This cold world feels unfamiliar/We’re all strangers in our own time.” And in this context, the chorus is transformed into a message of solidarity and strength, a reminder that we are not alone, that “there are other people in this world” who share our fears and defiance, and in this battle, it’s “not just you.” It’s a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall moment, and it could have been corny, but it isn’t; instead, it’s a brave and heartening anthem for these dark times.

(Other People by The Rails was released in the US June 29, 2018 on ThirtyTigers. It debuted in the UK last fall on Psychonaut Sounds, iTunes, Amazon, and Pledge Music, UK)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017