Murphy’s Law

Reviews, Essays and Ruminations

Archive for August, 2006

Every Day I Have The Blues

Posted by bullmurph on August 29, 2006

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.

Now that’s a song, a blues. The real item. Not to be confused with the cookie-cutter, paint-by numbers, copycat slop that most people think of when they think theyre thinking about the blues. These days, it seems, anything goes. Anyone can sing the blues. And they do. Its not unlike whats happening all over the place, to all types of music: there are no prerequisites or apprenticeships; there is no perspicacity, and no shame. Like so much of what passes for music today, it lacks that dirty authenticity, and conviction. There is, in short, no soul. It’s clean, polished and feeble. In a word, it’s fashionable. The point being, you arent going to find many folks who really know the blues. Of course, you dont sing the blues to talk about someone else; you speak up because you feel obliged to account for yourself. Whats it all about, then?

The Blues Ain’t Nuthin But A Botheration On Your Mind.

Yeah, what he said. Listen:

I’ve been down the road and I’ve come back

Lonesome whistle on the railroad track

Ain’t got nothing on those feelings that I had.

Doesn’t that make me sad? (You don’t say). No. In fact, exactly the opposite; it helps. Life might leave a mark, but music is always medicinal. Make me sad? No; happy movies make me sad. Manufactured moments sold on shelves are too easy to see through. Sparkly-toothed simpletons who tell us how to live leave me cold. Too-cool commercials give me cancer. And, of course, the ingenious march of a million soulless pixels remind everyone of everything theyll never obtain. Reality is never enough, so sometimes anything approximating art will suffice. I would, for instance, love to instigate some excitement into my own humble narrative. Unfortunately, a fight scene is not feasible; a car chase is too much to ask for, and a love interest would appear to be out of the question. And so: its just the music and me, as usual. As always, this isnt all that I need, but its more than I should expect, especially at night.


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Rage Against the MFA Machine

Posted by bullmurph on August 29, 2006

Intermezzo: Art and Life

            The people I’ve known in MFA programs (yesterday, today, and probably twenty years from now) get taught to write.

            Or, they get taught to write short stories.

            Or, they get programmed to write short stories.

            Or, they get programmed to write certain types of short stories.


            The language is usually okay, although clichés are dispensed like crutches in an infirmary. The effort, for the most part, is there (no one, after all, would take the time to take a crack at serious writing unless they wanted to do it right; the only exceptions are the ones to whom it comes easily and who write the way most people urinate: often, every day, and it’s mostly water, or the other sort: the ones who don’t have time to actually write because they are talking about all the books they have planned out in their pointy heads, not only because it is less complicated to discuss ones brilliance at a party or in a bar, but also because there is always an audience, however reluctant). The underlying impulse, the central nervous system of these short stories, always at least approximates technical proficiency.


            What we wind up with is a story that avoids everything the young writer has not experienced: love, fear, empathy, and understanding. For starters. Style over substance equals an anaesthetized aesthetic; a soulless solution for a problem the writer created. And the short story, upon inspection, is a shell that reveals its non-essence. Poetic pronouncements of some of the important things the student does not understand.

     In other words: short stories that might sell. Short stories that strive to be successful. Short stories for readers with short memories. And in some cases, a star is born.

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While We’re on the Subject of the So-Called Liberal Media…

Posted by bullmurph on August 29, 2006

Friday, May 05, 2006

While We’re on the Subject of the So-Called Liberal Media…

(sigh). This Colbert and Cohen stuff makes one realize, once again, that there is nothing new under the sun (plus c’est change, plus c’est la meme chose). I had actually written a piece for at the editor’s request, leading up to the 04 election (remember how good it felt when we just *knew* Bush was about to lose?), and in a decision that was equal parts ironic and prescient, the piece was considered a “tad harsh” and possibly alienating (heaven forbid political commentary ruffles some feathers, particularly when it involves the media…especially in the wake of the Iraq war which at that point was still mostly well-received in the general american consciousness).

It’s fun, or at least enlightening, to revisit old predictions or opinions when they’ve been proven true; except when it’s depressing. Either way, it’s amusing and distressing to look at this, written in December of 2003 (!!) and not only stand by it, but find it somewhat quaint; if anything, it wasn’t harsh enough (and I’m glad I was rockin the freedom fry material even then). So, with the help of Al Gore’s Back-To-The-Future Machine, here it is:

Politics and the Hoi Polloi, Volume One : The American Media



Since we made it to the new millennium without imploding, it seems necessary, even imperative, for us to find ways to amuse and astonish ourselves.

Even by our seemingly increasing need for polarity in all-things-political, this past year has successfully drawn the sides even further apart, ensuring that the twain between left and right shall not meet anytime soon in this new century.

Only in America, it seems, could the (popular) media be accused, over the course of less than six months, of cravenly kowtowing to the GOP powers-that-be, and then scavenging off the suddenly off limits events in
Iraq. Who knew the honeymoon of embedded reporting would end as soon as the situation slipped out of control of the armchair nation builders back home? The same cynics that predicted this, and were castigated as traitors who arent patriotic enough to super-size their freedom fries, thats who.

It would behoove the finger pointers to face the fact that the only bias the media has is toward blood (as in the life blood of death and destruction, which equates to ratings); the only party they are beholden to is winning, and they love the smell of napalm in the morning news. Perhaps even more so than mealy-mouthed politicos, who we at least expect to be craven and self-serving, these media maggots are the real opportunists currently plying their trade. It was hard to discern a hard-core liberal slant with all the flags waving on the screens during the round-the-clock, jingo-onanism masquerading as reporting last March. It seems disingenuous to describe the Washington Post as a bastion of left-leaning agitprop when George Will and Charles The Hammer Krauthammer are given space every other day to fly their geek flags: they dont even need to browbeat liberals, they are too preoccupied with attacking fellow conservatives for not  obsequiously goose-stepping to the party line. Now, of course, we are hearing how hard it is to get a fair shake when all these pinko-commie rags are concerned with is focusing solely on the bad stuff like more people dying each month since the Commander in Chief ill-advised bring em on bravado. Youd think the GOP brain trust would be grateful that somethinganythingwas deflecting attention away from the pesky fact that Bin Laden is still in charge. Or living large. Or just living.

Despite the typically less than honest antics of the neo-con apologists of late, its been anything but a banner year for the media. This, after all, is the fellowship that allowed con artists like Glass and Blair to thrive in their ranks. And like the CEOs who, in the wake of Enron, et cetera, its suddenly fashionable to despise, as if these commandoes of capitalism havent been behind us (with their pants down) ever since the Robber Barons first goosed the money-grubbing masses, it was only when the facts became too uncomfortably obvious that they finally get censured, sent away to the country club exiles and the talk-show trail of tears.

And speaking of tears, what are the opportunists on the Left making of this panoply of potential knockout punches? Not much. The only people more inept than the posers in power are the pretenders hoping to replace them. Kerry, the default go-to guy early on, seems determined to outdo Al Gore in operating the most lame and lifeless campaign in recent memory, and he doesnt have the luxury of blaming Ralph Nader. As for the pugnacious Howard Dean, whatever else can (and will) be said about him, he has galvanized a party that has seemingly forgotten how to make a decision without first consulting high-priced PR hacks and hastily appointed pulse-takers of the ephemeral national temperament. When Al Gore perfects his Back to the Future machine (he did, after all, invent the Internet) and wins again, again, in 2000, he could learn a lot from Deans refreshing intensity.

If Democrats are counting on the oleaginous Al Franken or the insufferably self-satisfied Michael Moore to provide sane commentary currently overlooked on the unfair and unbalanced network news, something is indeed rotten in D.C. Since OReilly, Limbaugh and the seemingly lobotomized Dennis Miller have been living punch lines lately, the Left has an opportunity to focus on the Man behind the curtain, and not waste time on the sidelines with his well-paid, well-positioned ministers of doom and gloom. Its time to get busy. And as painful as much of this is to behold as it languidly unfolds in real time, it is sobering to consider the inevitability of when these made-for-TV moments are made into made-for-TV movies.


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A Love Supreme

Posted by bullmurph on August 29, 2006

Spring ’06


(from the liner notes of the 2003 reissue of A Love Supreme):


“Boosted by a crescendo of piano chords, Coltrane steps in at full throttle. In a relatively small frame–two and a half minutes–he achieves the same raspy-throated transcendence and free-flowing lyricism his legendary twenty-minute live solos reached nightly”.


To me, that is one element of why this is the apex of his composition and playing (his vision): while I respect, and remain in awe of, the longer workouts, which became increasingly intense, frenzied and loud after 1965, I can only absorb them in small doses. it’s not merely that he hit the mark so clean and clear on ALS, but he accomplished what so few artists are able to do, which borders on miraculous: he filtered all that intensity into a perfect chalice–after this recording the cup was forever too full, and but for the most faithful or forgiving listeners, the famous sheets of sound became a tsunami: uncontainable, too much for the human ear; his canvas, after all, was the entire world that he saw, but I don’t know if ever before, or after, his vision was so focused and peaceful. Or put another way, the earlier work was drizzle, then steady and certain rain; after 1965 it was hurricanes and tornadoes; on ALS it’s a thunderstorm: there is lightning, thunder, lots of loud, torrential rain; but it is a summer day, the ground is warm, and you know you are safe. So you sit back and let this force of nature wash over you and refresh and renew you. Eventually, the rain has stopped and you open your eyes and wonder how you’ll ever live without it.

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Thoughts on Colbert, Cohen and Culpability

Posted by bullmurph on August 29, 2006

From: Sean Murphy

Sent: Thursday, May 04, 2006 5:00 PM

To: ‘’

 Subject: And Now For Something REALLY Not Funny 


Dear Mr. Cohen:


Give me a personal break, and super size it. And yes, I would like some freedom fries with that.


I’m not in the habit of writing directly to political columnists, particularly ones I tend to agree with more often than not. However, it’s not merely that I disagree with your thoughts on Stephen Colbert’s recent performance; it’s my amazement at how off the mark you are that is impelling me to help you out in a time of obvious need.


First, to get right to the point: you have not been this wrong since you—along with the vast majority of the so-called liberal media—allowed yourself to be hustled by the hysterical and intelligence-insulting claims of the administration in late 2002 and early 2003. Suffice it to say, pointing out the supine performance of your colleagues at, to name the two most disappointing examples,  The Washington Post and The New York Times during the lead up to, and aftermath of, the Iraq imbroglio is rather like shooting fish in a barrel—or harpooning whales in a bathtub for that matter. And yet, it warrants mention when people who should know better not only get it so wrong, but are yet to realize, or concede, that the primary reason they got it wrong is their unwillingness to bite the hand that pets them (or the tail that wags them).


And perhaps that is the point: as others have repeatedly observed, nothing causes the political paparazzi more chagrin (including the unconscionable and repeated malfeasance and incompetence of our current administration) than the spectacle of anyone—particularly a comedian with chops slightly more cynical than, say, Jay Leno—having the audacity to point out their myopia, if not complicity in the current crises. Therefore you—and evidenced by the deafening silence and white ink this week, many of your compatriots—doth protest a tad too much. Colbert wasn’t funny? Well, let’s just say that humor, and scathingly on-target scorn, is in the eye of the beholder. I think we’ll let the looks on certain faces and the tone of certain columns (including the conspicuous absence of many commentators who just couldn’t be bothered to comment) speak loud and proud on this one. Colbert hit his mark. Early, often, and indelibly.


But to linger on why you obviously wouldn’t like being reminded how easily you were manipulated into carrying those buckets of dirty water for the chicken hawks (that you did not see through the Colin Powell charade for what it was while it was going down obviously still makes you bristle with embarrassment, as it should) is to avoid the larger issue. Your column, against all probability, suggests that you still don’t get it, and continue to let careful spin and artifice influence your better judgment.


For instance, you inexplicably call Colbert a bully for the ostensible impunity with which he lambasted Bush, to his face. This begs the immediate question: doesn’t it take a little more courage, not to mention perspicacity, to say in person, as a comedian, the very things well-paid writers like you were not able, or willing, to say in the safety of Op-Ed pages for the past several years? More to the point, how often has this president put himself in the position to be ridiculed, much less forced to answer simple questions from reporters? Not only is it abundantly documented how obsessively Bush avoids unpleasant or uncomfortable intrusions upon his eggshell sensibilities, but one of the primary (and painfully apparent) goals of his protectors and paid apologists has been to shield him from being accountable, or even (seemingly) aware of any facts that run counter to the fantasies he and his cronies have conjured up in the safety of their well-fortified situation rooms. This is a man seemingly allergic to introspection, comforted by cliché and available for fabricated words of encouragement after the dust and danger have cleared. Indeed, the only people being bullied are the citizens (be they reporters or democrats or non-Kool-Aid drinking members of the GOP) who dare to question or critique the president or his policies. Maybe you’ve forgotten about the carefully screened audiences Bush spoke to and took the occasional, scripted questions from on the campaign trail (and his entire tenure has, under the shameless machinations of Karl Rove, been one ceaseless campaign), or the folks who were tossed out of these same spectacles for having anti-Bush stickers on their cars.


This, in sum, is not exactly a president who has been obliged to suffer the indignities of being held accountable or asked, publicly, to answer a tough question. Of course, it’s easier—and safer—to (rightly) poke fun at the infuriating, yet hapless Scott McClellan for his craven stonewalling. And although no one will miss him, he was, at worst, a minion doing what he was told. Why, just to take one obvious example, isn’t the press (why aren’t you) asking every day what the president has to say about his earlier promise that anyone involved in the Plame leak would no longer be in his administration? One wishes the press found this slightly troublesome contradiction half as interesting, half as sexy, as they found the Monica Lewinsky circus, a topic about which they had the courage to keep Americans quite sufficiently informed.


Listen: you need to understand something. What Colbert is doing, and what he achieved in that incendiary performance, is beyond satire or even the current flavor of our times, detached cynicism. He is inverting the strategy Bush and Co. utilize (and which Fox News has long made its S.O.P.), to lamentably successful effect, nowhere more egregiously than in the 2004 election: create an environment where careful debate or compromise is a sign of weakness, the willingness (or ability) to concede error or allow any manner of criticism is unseemly, unmanly. This, after all, is a president who “doesn’t do nuance.”


Colbert was not merely making fun of Bush’s propensity to bumble except in the most carefully orchestrated events, or his obliteration of the English language—we can let him misspeak for himself and let the videotapes cry themselves to sleep. Colbert’s unique—and thus far unparalleled genius—is in illustrating how this cocksure inarticulacy can be played off as straight talk from a regular guy, an honest cowboy who can’t be bothered to look up facts or trust books or listen to advice from experts because he goes by his gut, and he listens to a Higher Father. Perhaps you’ve forgotten how this strategy (to Rove’s credit this debility, which would have annihilated an aspiring candidate’s chances before Reagan, and the real Republican revolution that arose from the revelation that, finally, image and facile amiability trump intelligence and acumen in the new and improved America) was deployed against Kerry, and especially Gore: Are these pretty boys with their faces buried in books really the people you want leading the country? 

Colbert lampoons the charade of patriotic and/or faith-driven certainty that is designed to avoid and discourage discussion or debate. Take a moment and consider how this rather simple scheme precedes virtually every catastrophe this administration has caused or conflated:
Iraq, tax cuts for the wealthiest 1%, warrantless wiretapping, et cetera.

“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to
America; she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”


That’s funny. It also happens to be perhaps the most succinct and devastating indictment (less than four lines!) of the incompetence, phoniness, cowardice and opportunistic impotence yet leveled against this administration.



But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works: the president makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid
Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know – fiction!


That’s funny too.

You know what isn’t funny? The same scribes that this administration scoffs at (that’s you Cohen), proving that, when push comes to shove, they’d rather defend the man who conned them by attacking the man who had the temerity to remind them how easily they were hoodwinked. That isn’t funny. It’s sad.


My condolences,

Sean Murphy




By Richard Cohen
Thursday, May 4, 2006; A25

First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy. This is well known in certain circles, which is why, even back in elementary school, I was sometimes asked by the teacher to “say something funny” — as if the deed could be done on demand. This, anyway, is my standing for stating that Stephen Colbert was not funny at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. All the rest is commentary.

The commentary, though, is also what I do, and it will make the point that Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude. Rude is not the same as brash. It is not the same as brassy. It is not the same as gutsy or thinking outside the box. Rudeness means taking advantage of the other person’s sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving. The other night, that person was George W. Bush.

Colbert made jokes about Bush’s approval rating, which hovers in the middle 30s. He made jokes about Bush’s intelligence, mockingly comparing it to his own. “We’re not some brainiacs on nerd patrol,” he said. Boy, that’s funny.

Colbert took a swipe at Bush’s
Iraq policy, at domestic eavesdropping, and he took a shot at the news corps for purportedly being nothing more than stenographers recording what the Bush White House said. He referred to the recent staff changes at the White House, chiding the media for supposedly repeating the cliché “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” when he would have put it differently: “This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.” A mixed metaphor, and lame as can be.

Why are you wasting my time with Colbert, I hear you ask. Because he is representative of what too often passes for political courage, not to mention wit, in this country. His defenders — and they are all over the blogosphere — will tell you he spoke truth to power. This is a tired phrase, as we all know, but when it was fresh and meaningful it suggested repercussions, consequences — maybe even death in some countries. When you spoke truth to power you took the distinct chance that power would smite you, toss you into a dungeon or — if you’re at work — take away your office.

But in this country, anyone can insult the president of the
United States. Colbert just did it, and he will not suffer any consequence at all. He knew that going in. He also knew that Bush would have to sit there and pretend to laugh at Colbert’s lame and insulting jokes. Bush himself plays off his reputation as a dunce and his penchant for mangling English. Self-mockery can be funny. Mockery that is insulting is not. The sort of stuff that would get you punched in a bar can be said on a dais with impunity. This is why Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.

I am not a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and I have not attended its dinner in years (I watched this year’s on C-SPAN). The gala is an essentially harmless event that requires the presence of one man, the president. If presidents started not to show up, the organization would have to transform itself into a burial association. But presidents come and suffer through a ritual that most of them find mildly painful, not to mention boring. Whatever the case, they are guests. They don’t have to be there — and if I were Bush, next year I would not. Spring is a marvelous time to be at
Camp David.

On television, Colbert is often funny. But on his own show he appeals to a self-selected audience that reminds him often of his greatness. In
Washington he was playing to a different crowd, and he failed dismally in the funny person’s most solemn obligation: to use absurdity or contrast or hyperbole to elucidate — to make people see things a little bit differently. He had a chance to tell the president and much of important (and self-important)
Washington things it would have been good for them to hear. But he was, like much of the blogosphere itself, telling like-minded people what they already know and alienating all the others. In this sense, he was a man for our times.

He also wasn’t funny.


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Boy Do I Wish Bill Hicks Was Here

Posted by bullmurph on August 29, 2006


Was just re-watching the recently re-released Sane Man DVD (if you haven’t seen it, get thee to a video store–and pick up the equally invaluable ‘live: satirist, social critic, stand-up comedian’ while you’re at it) and, inevitably, felt the painful pangs of regret: the almost incalculable void his absence left. and i’m not just talking about comedy, because he was self-evidently so much more than just a comedian (and just comedy, when done at its highest level, is quite sufficient, and close-to-impossible to pull of…quick, think of how many stand-up comics from the past two decades not named richard pryor whose work can be returned to repeatedly, with renewed joy, enthusiasm and reward? the list is short: carlin, chris rock, the lean and hungry, less solipsistic seinfeld…and perhaps the pre-lobotomized dennis miller. what else ya got?). Admittedly, it’s a pretty facile formulation to just assert “so-and-so was so much more than just a (insert endeavor–be it artistic or political or social–here)”. But the fact remains: Bill Hicks was (or should i say is? Yes, i should) more than a comedian. That’s the main reason it is never not a little painful to watch him work: the way his mind worked, and worked around the obligatory idiocies that even mediocre comedians routinely beat up like fish in the proverbial barrel. He took care of the light work as an appetizer; it was when he set his sights on politics that he sailed into the stratosphere, and i can’t help but believe–however naive i may be–that we would have been so much better off to have his voice to lampoon the Bush juggernaut when it actually might have made a difference. In other words, we’ve (finally?) crossed the threshold of tolerance (proving that the average american, even some republicans) are usually about 2-3 years behind the curve of Fox-news fed spin: I mean really, is there anything being said about, say, Iraq that wasn’t abundantly obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the middle east waaaaaaaaaaay back in 2002? The only thing more intelligence-insulting than craven sell-outs like Colin Powell and the litany of chickenshit career officers who are only now coming out to attack the utter incompetence and mismanagement of the Iraq imbroglio (now that is has become politically expedient, if not imperative to do so), is their having the temerity to imply that they have known all along how wrong it was. Gee, thanks for speaking out now fellas. It’s nice to see that similar sentiment, which was roundly assailed as everything from liberal cowardice to outright treason less than 18 months ago, is now seen as valid and sound insight, when uttered by opportunistic politicos, running the gamut from Andrew Sullivan to the always insufferable and shameless Newt Gingrich (hey guys, I’ve heard that freedom fries go nicely with crow). Ditto the hijacking (for? by?) the religious right lunatic fringe, which, as usual, was dismissed as just that (lunatic and fringe) when it was ostensibly less threatening issues like the tragicomic “debate” about teaching “intelligent design” alongside evolution or the cynical bottom-dwellers who advocate putting the 10 Commandments outside of court buildings; but eventually, inevitably, it was a bridge too far during the Terri Schiavo farce, when the Big-Mac(hiavellean) Bill Frist–in a twist that could, and should, only befit a politician–tried to bolster his presidential chances and instead deflated them, thankfully, once most of the population saw through him as the feckless, lightweight, meddling mediocrity that he is. The questionas usualremains: what took so long? Did it really require almost half-way into a second term for folks to figure out that everything this administration touches turns to doo-doo? Its refreshing, of course, to see the spiraling approval ratings for Bush and company (anyone see that response Cheney got at RFK? That was a surefire Tivo moment, if I had Tivo), but its pathetic that it had to come to this for people to wake up. What was the tipping point? I maintain there wasnt one (though New Orleans served as the final piece of evidence that only the true believers could continue to deny), but rather that this entire misadventure has been a sort of imperfect storm of incompetence, close-minded myopia and cronyism masqueradingas alwaysas Capitalism, and that if you fuck up everything you do, sooner or later reality will catch up with spin.          But getting back to Bill Hicks. I cant help but fantasize, even though I know in the darkness of my heart (or brain) that it wouldnt have made a damn bit of difference, how refreshing it could have been to see Big Bad Billy tearing into Bush. And Cheney. And Condi. And Rummy. And Wolfowitz, Powell, OReilley, et al. Just seeing the wonderful way he eviscerated Bush Sr. (and Reagan, and Quayle) in 1989 when Sane Man was filmed is enough to make one salivate at the opportunities
America, post 9/11, would afford him. But its also almost quaint to think about the (gasp) good old days (!) when making fun of Dan Quayle was part of any astute satirist’s game plan. Although the rich-get-richer religion of the GOP was alive and well right up until Clinton kicked down the barn door, (giving the Enron gang a respite, or time to regroup) and the woes of those on the other end of middle-class were as deadly serious as they remain now, it still seems like the world was a lot smaller, and a lot less apocalyptic than its become. And as easy it might be to blame much of this on the self-hating sociopaths who flew planes into our buildings, how much more comforting is it to (rightly) ridicule these repressed religious lunatics who fancy a few dozen virgins handpicked by Allah awaiting them than it is to consider our own democratically-elected (sort of) leader rebuking his father’s advice prior to the ill-begotten Iraq occupation, claiming he listened to a Higher Father who may or may not be his personal consigliere in matters of the impending clash of civilizations?
          Maybe there are times when the stakes are too serious for a comedian, even one who could be called, without hyperbole, a statesman–albeit a sardonic one–and when you can no longer look to music or movies or, have mercy on us, even the media to make sense of things, its up to us to save ourselves.

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A History Of Violence: I wish I had more hands so i could give it 4 thumbs down

Posted by bullmurph on August 29, 2006



time for a quick sanity check.


i am guilty as charged as someone who pretty much hates most movies that everyone else raves about (and i’m talking about the ostensibly “good” movies; as opposed to the obviously awful hollywood schlock mega-hit monstrosities).


so….i’d heard/read good (bordering on great) things about ‘a history of violence’. as usual, didn’t catch it in the theater. as always, ensured it was safely in my netflix queue. that’s how i roll.


ok. finally saw it.


i almost can’t articulate how AWFUL i thought it was. in the interest of time (and the fear that everyone—even, and especially the folks whose opinions in these matters i usually advocate—will disagree with me), let’s do some quick bullet points:


story: clichéd, tired and unintentionally amusing at points (any plot that you can drive a truck through that is not actually starring burt reynolds driving a truck in the late 70’s is nothing to be proud of, and nothing that should garner even mediocre props from obviously burnt-out critics who are so shell-shocked by the shit they have to sit through and so numb from trying to make so much out of so little that they pounce on anything that is being buzzed about, even if it’s the same recycled crapola).

dialogue: oh god.

acting: terrible. and what’s truly a shame is an opportunity obviously wasted: there was some not insignificant talent assembled here (although as much as i always enjoy ed harris, i don’t think he really stretches out too much in these increasingly imitative tough guy roles), but viggo was let down by a story he could do nothing with, and asked to utter words that do the wrong type of violence: to the english language, to the discerning mind. but william hurt? it’s time to put this clown out to pasture. the same man i loved in ‘altered states’ has kind of, in a sort of twilight zone perverse art-mirroring-art (or life mirroring art) trajectory, devolved just like the character from his first (and last?) great role; becoming more insufferable and exposed as someone who can’t (and NEVER should attempt) to try any sort of accent (he was in another movie a few years back called, i think, ‘smoke’, which, predictably, also was highly praised and i thought was almost insultingly bad…and had hurt butchering a half-assed insufferable new yaawk accent that was cringe worthy, making me realize there should be a new rule, called the Keitel/Hurt decree: the former should never be allowed to play a character that is not from the big apple, the latter should never attempt anything but the laconic semi-drawl of the slightly spaced out thinking man’s burnout who knows better yet…keeps…on….acting….)

lastly, lest anyone think i’m being too harsh or spending too much time & energy on a movie that i obviously didn’t care for, there is some small insult in the way this movie was reviewed and described: for a film chock-full of that many clichés, one of two things is happening: the writer/director (in this case the same, incidentally the vastly over-rated cronenberg) has gotten lazy and is substituting formula for actual thought (which is a sin), or he simply doesn’t know the difference (which is a travesty). look: clichés are the weeds of art and anyone who not only doesn’t seek to destroy them (in their own work or in that of others, hence my indignant j’accuse for the critics) but embraces them is a hack with a capital H. let them get rich, let them enjoy the spoils of their soulless schlock, but please don’t delude yourself that they are visionaries; don’t kid yourself that this crap is iconoclastic. iconoplastic perhaps.



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Cinderella Takes A Magic Carpet Ride And Sails Right Out Of Cliché

Posted by bullmurph on August 29, 2006

March 29, 2006


Talk about clichés.

Okay, let’s talk about clichés.

When it is impossible to avoid cliché (because usually you want to do anything you can to avoid cliché, unless you don’t know better, in which case you may be a cliché without ever knowing it and ignorance, of course, is bliss), you are usually in that rare territory that transcends cliché, a place that obviates cliché, you are experiencing something bordering on sublime, the type of feeling that compels forced and fake imitation. In other words, cliché.

So how to talk about GMU’s improbable (impossible? inconceivable?) run to the final four. Can there be occasions that are so cliché that they get beyond cliché, exploding cliché, requiring a reevaluation of how clichés are classified and what they are capable of inspiring?


Let’s put it another way: the GMU Patriots are in the fucking FINAL FOUR!If you watch college basketball, you love this story; if you watch sports you love this story. If you don’t love sports, that’s okay, you can get behind the underdog. If you don’t love underdogs then you are a Republican. Actually that is not right. Republicans (the politicos in particular and not the simpletons who support them) love this story—fantasize about it, in fact—because it is the one in a trillion type fairy tale that gives them the opportunity to pretend that the distressing majority of events are, of course, owned or co-opted or created by the unimaginably wealthy who are too powerful to need imaginations. (Indeed, I’m not entirely unconvinced that this entire GMU turn of events is not some elaborate scam engineered in the brilliant rat brain of Karl Rove in an attempt to deflect attention from Bush’s spiraling approval ratings…if I take this nightmare scenario to its illogical conclusion, the Patriots pull off the most unlikely of all wins Monday night, and inexplicably call me up to the podium—because, naturally, if it’s bizarro world, I’m there, and courtside—and as I step foot on stage and reach for the trophy, Tony Skinn rips off his mask to reveal that he is actually Dick Cheney, who proceeds to punch me in the balls…)

But seriously, this is too serious to make light of, and it truly transcends politics. And sports. And what can (and should) usually be shrugged off as the sophomoric rituals of collegiate competition. This is the real deal. Even if you are not an alumnus the bandwagon is big enough: hop on and enjoy this ride.

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Forever Never Changes, Arthur Lee R.I.P.

Posted by bullmurph on August 28, 2006

It’s a small club that hopefully is about to get bigger: those whose lives have been indelibly affected by Love’s ‘Forever Changes’.

Arthur Lee’s recent–and somewhat sudden–passing prompted me to attempt to articulate some of what he, and his music, meant to me. PopMatters was kind enough to publish it. The link is below, and the unedited version is below that.


The American Dream Redux or, Arthur Lee’s Forever Changes 



Contrary to popular opinion, the great American novel has, in fact, already been written. The problem is, it is not a book; it’s an album. More problematic is that, unfortunately, many people have never heard of it. The author? Arthur Lee. The album? Forever Changes.

            It is equal parts ironic and appropriate that the two primary avatars of what we recall—mostly with fondness—as the Summer Of Love (or, at least it’s sound), Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee, have gone on to that great gig in the sky within a month of each other, in the summer of 2006. Perhaps even the timing has an unintended symmetry, since we can now properly acknowledge and celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their singular achievements, next year.

            Any discussion of 1967 must begin and end with The Beatles: their shadow loomed large, then, as it does now. By breaking all the rules, they created the new rules; they not only changed music, they changed the way we listen to music. Already the biggest band in the world, they decided in the mid-60’s to cease touring so they could stay in the studio and capitalize on a streak of productivity that remains original and unrivaled. As has been well documented, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a watershed moment in rock music, as it moved the avant garde to the mainstream at a time when our culture was perhaps most open to receiving it. All of a sudden, albums could—and quickly did—become statements, and rock music was elevated to the status of art (with a lowercase A) seemingly overnight. So, while Sgt. Pepper is the alpha and omega, it is possibly as significant for its symbolic import and the possibilities it created for others. Meanwhile, as is always the case, the most interesting and enduring creations occur in the margins.

            Pink Floyd, the darlings of the burgeoning London underground, arrived at Abbey Road studios in early 1967 and began recording their seminal debut Piper At The Gates Of Dawn at the same time the Fab Four were assembling the pieces of a sonic puzzle that, with the ever overlooked George Martin’s guidance, would become Sgt. Pepper. Both masterpieces arrived in time to describe and define the Summer Of Love, or at least its distinctly British component. Across the pond, another debut album rightly gets credit for helping capture the sounds of that time: The Doors were to Los Angeles what Pink Floyd was to London, a lean and hungry band that had taken the time to cultivate a cult following that, with the help of a breakthrough single (“See Emily Play” and “Light My Fire”, respectively), shot them into the stratosphere, where they remain, undimmed today. Interestingly, the band that Jim Morrison hoped to emulate was, at the time, the heavyweight champion of the
L.A. scene: Love, led by Arthur Lee, who was also mentor to a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.

For a variety of reasons, some typical, some inexplicable, Love seemed to implode just as their ship was set to sail, and they never quite fulfilled what seemed their limitless and possibly unparalleled potential. Nevertheless, while other bands made history during the Summer of Love, Love was busy living through those times and the album that resulted, Forever Changes, was recorded during those incendiary months. Hence, in hindsight (and hindsight tends to reveal history in its fairest, if not most flattering light), Arthur Lee documented the daily planet of the Hippie Scene in real time, or at least its underbelly—and perhaps they are the same thing—as it unfolded in living color. Or, in other words, his stands as the most accurate American version, post
Monterey and Haight Ashbury. Speaking of hindsight, as time passes darkly through the wine glass, that dazed and confused fever dream of free love seems increasingly to encapsulate a triumph of style over substance.

And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, Forever Changes failed to connect. It was not a hit record, and the band disintegrated shortly after its completion, while Lee soldiered on in unwarranted obscurity, his moment come and gone. How then, has his magnum opus, so insufficiently received, managed to inspire such loyalty and enchantment over the decades? For starters, it is worthy of repeated listens, managing to deliver what so few artistic statements achieve: it deepens and intensifies well after you’ve made the initial connection. (Quick: when is the last time you listened to Sgt. Pepper all the way through?) Although none of the songs on Forever Changes crept onto the paisley playground of their time, it is impossible to quibble with the confident brilliance of miniature gems like “Alone Again Or”, “Andmoreagain”, or “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This”, all of which showcase Lee’s immutable gift: his voice had an almost extraordinary sensitivity and authority. Sound like a contradiction? That is the genius of Arthur Lee, plainly put. Listen to the demo version of “The Good Humor Man” and compare the sparse acoustic take with what the song would become, with understated brass and strings, and the longing in Lee’s delivery: if you don’t get it, Forever Changes will never speak to you, and you won’t be the first person who, even after making the effort, fails to comprehend the hype.

It’s not enough, nor should it be, to discuss the ineffable qualities of a particular work of art, so with both feet on terra firma, what is it, exactly, that makes Forever Changes indelible? First and foremost, it is honest. The setting, Los Angeles, and the streets that broiled with heat and inspiration also contained the seeds of a severity largely unreported, if entirely absent, from the rose-colored commentary of
San Francisco. A less kind way of putting this would be to suggest that there is more soul and sly elan in any one song from Forever Changes than anything The Grateful Dead conjured up in that entire era. Arthur Lee was looking around him and describing what he saw, and while his deceptively simple lyrics seem disarmingly straightforward, they inexorably reveal the mind of the man inside, who—and the significance of this cannot be overstated—felt always like an outsider. Lee, a black man, recognized the same thing Chris Rock also articulated, to well-earned acclaim, more than thirty years later: no matter how many people profess to admire and envy you, you are still an individual who, if push came to shove, exceedingly few, if any, white folks would choose to trade places with. Which means, among other things, that at the end of the day, the distance between what could be, or should be, and what is, ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. And no amount of applause or plaudits can compensate for that disparity.

How did he do it? The music is by no means morose, although there is a merciful scarcity of saccharine free-love fantasia, which certainly augments its staying power. Part of the album’s perverse charm, which requires some careful listening to capture, lies in its dichotomies. For instance, some of the songs that sound the most assured, or even ebullient, are belied by Lee’s lyrics.  On this album, Lee—like Syd Barrett on Piper—displays an uncanny facility for concision; by not quite saying it, he captures a larger truth. Perhaps most important, and unique, is Lee’s audacity to employ non sequitors with conviction, creating a more unfiltered vision. That this speaks to a lack of cynicism and trust in his abilities—and those of his listeners—is to Lee’s substantial credit considering he was all of twenty-two. This in turn tends to illuminate why a particular album might resonate and cause people across generations to get excited enough to attempt a discussion of why it means so much to them.

And I’m wrapped in my armorBut my things are material. 

Some of the lines may not make immediate sense, but just as we generally prefer to hear stories or war from the soldiers who have actually fought in them, or listen to commentary from former athletes who actually played on the professional level, Forever Changes is, in virtually every regard, a treatise from the trenches. It captures the dodgy promise that Anything Is Possible: Summer Of Love, after all, was the American Dream redux, or the Horatio Alger story that conveniently cut out the middle man of humble beginnings, hard work and redemption, replacing it with a strategically ingested tab of acid, which could render all those boring parts about progress passé. The musical narrative of 1967—at least the one that gets recycled in sentimental movie soundtracks—got the Tune In and Turn On part pegged, but the Drop Out tended to get short shrift. The subsequent account, then, is not only incomplete, but myopic—analogous to the early flush of an infatuation: it’s easy, exciting, even liberating. And yet one must, eventually, come down to earth and answer to The Man in order to accomplish slightly less radical things like paying bills and participating in the rat race, however reluctantly. Like the LSD trip, the fantasy ends. And then, after a few hours that seem to exist outside time, the trick is to exploit one’s unshackled awareness in order to navigate the often unfair reality of the unreal world. Some became baby booming yuppies; some sought solace and a steady paycheck inside the ivory tower, where they could come as close to being a rock star as the rules allow, inculcating the lessons learned to wide-eyed and impressionable apprentices. Others sought to stay perpetually outside the charade, either lazily or earnestly joining communes, or disappearing into oblivion. The sorcerer himself, Syd Barrett, changed his name back to Roger and reinvented himself, retreating to the eternal care of his Mum, tending to his garden and turning his back on the Promised Land that had splintered into a billion bad trips. The other high profile acid casualties, like Brian Wilson or Rocky Erickson, and the scores of anonymous acolytes, never quite came back from the dark side of the moon—the place that seemed like Xanadu in the summer of ’67.

And so: Lee captured that less sexy banality of the next morning, before most hippies even knew what was about to hit them. Even after, or during, the ecstasies of your altered state, you might awaken from your reverie with snot caked against your pants. Lee depicts the Big High and the lesser lows, or what the more pragmatic amongst us might call actual life. And it is this gray middle ground between compromise and revolution that provides Forever Changes its irrefutable and magnetic appeal. The moral of this story? If it’s hot, or you’re hungry, or you have the rest of your life to sort out, then a concert or a hit record or the sudden insight to see through the charade may not be enough to get you safely to the other side.


All you need is love; love is all you need.


The news today will be the movies for tomorrow.


Stop and think about that, even if your name is not Oliver Stone. That could well be the most succinct—not to mention prophetic—articulation of the so-called counterculture, circa 1967. Exhibit A:
Vietnam. Exhibit B: RFK. Exhibit C: see any made for TV melodrama sprung from the money-making minds of Madison Avenue, and it’s pretty safe to conclude that the times aren’t a changin’.

And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game:Do you like the part you’re playing? 

Back in the days when albums ended and began, the last song on a side meant something. That said, there is arguably no better one-two punch of side-closing statements than “The Red Telephone” and “You Set The Scene”. In fact, the full orchestral freak-out that concludes the album—and ushers it into immortality—has a classic literary flourish, bringing full circle the motifs introduced with the innovative trumpet stylings that accompany the opening track, “Alone Again Or”. Whether you’re partial to beginnings or endings, it’s hard to find a better model than Forever Changes for how to create a mood, and a message. In that regard, it is the album’s centerpiece, the brooding, apocalyptic imagery of “The Red Telephone” that actually does the improbable: it ensnares that three-month moment of 1967 and remains possibly more applicable to the here-and-now.

They’re locking them up today; they’re throwing away the key,I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me? 

If there is a certain lack of subtlety there, the creepy way those lines are chanted amply illustrate how—and why—rock music supplanted poetry as the medium for the postmodern masses, just as films, or even music videos, became the new books most quoted by precocious teenagers. And considering Lee, who lived to be neither wealthy nor white, ended up imprisoned in the mid-90’s, a result of his own recklessness as well as
California’s controversial third-strike laws, these lyrics proved to be more than a little prognostic. But, like the larger canvass that all our greatest art is created upon, Lee’s lyrics anticipate the less savory aftermath awaiting Timothy Leary’s disciples—those that ingested, much less distributed, the chemical vehicle to Valhalla. That these mostly innocuous civilians would pull harder time than our white collar charlatans face for fleecing employees—and the country—out of millions of dollars is fodder for a book that need not be written. Naturally, there is less than a little new under the sun, especially if you are not a fortunate son standing in its silver-spoon-fed glow. Or, how about those lines as a commentary of Americans acting Un-American—pointing twenty-plus years backward to the internments of Japanese citizens, or thirty-plus years forward to the speciously labeled enemy combatants, most of them still rotting behind bars without formal charges or legal counsel. I read the news today, oh boy.

Sometimes I deal with numbers,And if you want to count me: Count me out. 

The fact that Forever Changes didn’t—and doesn’t—sell big numbers is no new story; but this isn’t merely a commentary on its dirty authenticity being too elusive for the average American (after all, the only thing more lame than a cliché is the uncelebrated artist claiming that the idiot masses don’t “get” their vision, even when it happens to be the case). Listen: if you hear mellotrons and see kaleidoscopes when you think about 1967, you are, in fact, responding to some of what created that ephemeral feeling. Look: if you study the cover of Sgt. Pepper, or once again play Piper, that is the zeitgeist being created; look at or listen to The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request; that is the zeitgeist being recreated. Copy cat opportunism is the unassailable acumen of the agents and the more successful artists they represent. Or, it’s what we talk about when we talk about the lack of love and the fact that forever never changes.

If Arthur Lee had been savvy enough to pull the businesslike burn out or the fortuitous fade away or— cleverest career move of all—die in some spectacular fashion in, say, early ’68, it’s safe to bet that Forever Changes would have become a more central part of the collective consciousness. That is the only rite of passage we ask of our best artists: you simply need to die so we can wake up and get around to appreciating what you accomplished. Hopefully, Arthur and his very American dream now have that chance, for all the right reasons.

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Hello world!

Posted by bullmurph on August 28, 2006

to blog or not to blog…

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