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andee's world: May 2006

andee's world

Hello and welcome to my blog. This space will be devoted to opinions, observations, lists, articles and whatever else I feel like posting. Subjects will include music, human nature, politics, life in NYC, etc. If I paste someone else's writing up here, it is because the author said something way better than I ever could. By the way, I don't claim to be a particularly smart guy; I'm just a musician with some opinions. If you disagree with me, that's cool -- but then, you're probably wrong.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Long Way from Anywhere

"If people want to get to know me better, they've got to know my parents and the values my parents instilled in me, and the fact that I was raised in West Texas, in the middle of the desert, a long way away from anywhere, hardly. There's a certain set of values you learn in that experience."

GW Bush—Washington, D.C., May 5, 2006

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Music of Spring 06

ZZ Top El Loco, Deguello
At this point in time, I can't get enough of old ZZ Top. Never really listened to the bearded Texas blues trio much before but it's dawned on me how incredibly cool and unusual their music is, especially the late-70s/early-80s era, songs like "Cheap Sunglasses," "Tubesnake Boogie" and "Pearl Necklace." I enjoy the Eliminator stuff too but not nearly as much. Man, that Billy Gibbons is one badass guitar player.

Sufjan Stevens, Come On Feel the Illinois
It's hard to comprehend a piece of work like this without spending alot of time with it. This eccentric, Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter has begun what will surely be a lifelong project -- to make a concept album based on each of the 50 states. This, his second installment in the series (the first was Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State, which I have not heard yet) is a big slice of highly-orchestrated indie pop that, lyrically, describes events in Illinois history using a very personal, first-person narrative. If that sounds like something you'd have trouble digesting, let me assure you that the music alone carries the show here; I know because I've barely looked at the lyrics. Thanks to Keeta for pestering me to buy this.

Honey Cone, Soulful Sugar; The Complete Hotwax Recordings
After I heard the great single "Girls It Ain't Easy" on Sirius Radio (I could leave Little Steven's Underground Garage on for the rest of my life and wouldn't tire of it), I was compelled to hear more of this early-70's Motown girl trio, so I found this exhaustive, 2-disc set. After listening a few times, I'd have to say that "Girls It Ain't Easy" is still my favorite song (first impressions, etc), although there's a wealth of uplifting pop gems here like "While You're Out Looking for Sugar" and "The Day I Found Myself." My only complaint is unneccessary covers of "Aquarius" and "Son of a Preacher Man."

If someone could bottle the feeling of this music, it would save the world.

Barkmarket, Gimmick
Thanks to Marty E. for foisting this confrontational chunk of clanging, early-90s musical vitriol on me. Apparently the leader of this band is (or was) Rick Rubin's main engineer, and does most of the heavy lifting in Rubin's "productions." As for Barkmarket, it's pretty bracing stuff that recalls Skeleton Key and early Helmet -- noisy, bitter, uncompromising and, as a bonus, intelligent. Not for parties.

Gary Numan + Tubeway Army, Replicas
Already wrote about Replicas, but I just pulled it out of mothballs today. Originally bought this a year ago and listened to it all of summer '05 and now it's back in rotation. This music just sounds so cool, and there's nothing else quite like it. How many have made music you could say that about?

Various Early Seventies Blooze Rock
My friend Alison recently burned me a varitable boatload of CDs by late-60s/early-70s hard rock bands like Cactus, Frijid Pink, Mountain, Black Cat Bones, Pentagram, Beck/Bogert & Appice, Blue Cheer and Humble Pie. These are the bands that get left out of conversations about Zeppelin, Sabbath and Purple. It's important to note that, for all the bands that get remembered, there are plenty of fine ones that get forgotten.

Die Warzau, Engine
These guys came from the same Chicago/Wax Traxx! scene that gave us Ministry, Front Line Assembly and KMFDM, but this band is much funkier, favoring walloping, wide-spaced grooves over the rat-tat-tat rhythms of their industrial peers. And they've got an honest-to-god pop song, "All Good Girls," which is quite excellent. I bought this nine years ago, I think.

Jeff Beck Blow By Blow, There and Back
I just picked up Blow By Blow at Academy Records a few weeks ago while Mike D. and I waited for Mark to show up to Motorhead rehearsal. I hadn't heard it in a long time and, wow!! It's so great to check this stuff out again. We all know Jeff Beck is a genius guitarist but my favorite thing about this album is the compositions. "Diamond Dust," in particular, is staggering (thanks in large part to producer George Martin's brilliant orchestration). Ditto for the exhilerating "Scatterbrain."

I've had There and Back for a couple of years and I love it only slightly less than Blow By Blow. It's slicker and more rock (less jazz) than that album and features the massive and unmissable talents of drummer Simon Philips and keyboard genius/creative foil Jan Hammer. After this album, Beck stopped playing with a pick. And he got better.

Lords of the New Church, Method to Our Madness
I've been hearing LOTNC songs on Sirius that I really like and when I found this on vinyl at Academy, I thought I'd drop the measly $5. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if it's worth the investment. I think all this band's good songs, like "Open Your Eyes," were on the first record. This one's got no memorable songs and basically sounds like a relic of its time, the 80s.

The Pretty Things, Come See Me
This slightly lesser-known British Invasion group gets touted as the dirty underdogs who made the Rolling Stones look respectable, and indeed, they were one of the few old guard rockers admired by the original punks. I recently heard their song "Walking Through My Dreams," a gorgeous piece of psychedelic pop, on Sirius Radio, which inspired me to pick up Come See Me, a tight, 25-track best-of compilation which spans the Pretties' career from their garagey 60s singles through their more psychedelic, early-70s recordings to their mid-70s tenure at Led Zeppelin's Swan Song label. I don't know if rock and roll is real anymore, but it sure was when these guys were playing it.

IAMX, Kiss + Swallow
My friend gave me this a week ago. I don't know much about this guy, only that his dayjob is singing for the Sneaker Pimps and that he's got a pretty successful, off-the-radar solo career. This is really good, dark electro pop in the vein of Depeche Mode and Soft Cell, with slithering beats and clean, airbrushed production. Gets a little samey towards the end, but certainly not a bad soundscape for sultry summer nights.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Not My President

NSA Has Massive Database of Americans' Phone Calls
By Leslie Cauley, USA TODAY
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS: The NSA record collection program

"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.

For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made — across town or across the country — to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.

The three telecommunications companies are working under contract with the NSA, which launched the program in 2001 shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the sources said. The program is aimed at identifying and tracking suspected terrorists, they said.

The sources would talk only under a guarantee of anonymity because the NSA program is secret.

Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, nominated Monday by President Bush to become the director of the CIA, headed the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005. In that post, Hayden would have overseen the agency's domestic call-tracking program. Hayden declined to comment about the program.

The NSA's domestic program, as described by sources, is far more expansive than what the White House has acknowledged. Last year, Bush said he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop — without warrants — on international calls and international e-mails of people suspected of having links to terrorists when one party to the communication is in the USA. Warrants have also not been used in the NSA's efforts to create a national call database.

In defending the previously disclosed program, Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls. "In other words," Bush explained, "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

As a result, domestic call records — those of calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders — were believed to be private.

Sources, however, say that is not the case. With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers' names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA's domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.

Don Weber, a senior spokesman for the NSA, declined to discuss the agency's operations. "Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues; therefore, we have no information to provide," he said. "However, it is important to note that NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law."

The White House would not discuss the domestic call-tracking program. "There is no domestic surveillance without court approval," said Dana Perino, deputy press secretary, referring to actual eavesdropping.

She added that all national intelligence activities undertaken by the federal government "are lawful, necessary and required for the pursuit of al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorists." All government-sponsored intelligence activities "are carefully reviewed and monitored," Perino said. She also noted that "all appropriate members of Congress have been briefed on the intelligence efforts of the United States."

The government is collecting "external" data on domestic phone calls but is not intercepting "internals," a term for the actual content of the communication, according to a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the program. This kind of data collection from phone companies is not uncommon; it's been done before, though never on this large a scale, the official said. The data are used for "social network analysis," the official said, meaning to study how terrorist networks contact each other and how they are tied together.

Carriers uniquely positioned

AT&T recently merged with SBC and kept the AT&T name. Verizon, BellSouth and AT&T are the nation's three biggest telecommunications companies; they provide local and wireless phone service to more than 200 million customers.

The three carriers control vast networks with the latest communications technologies. They provide an array of services: local and long-distance calling, wireless and high-speed broadband, including video. Their direct access to millions of homes and businesses has them uniquely positioned to help the government keep tabs on the calling habits of Americans.

Among the big telecommunications companies, only Qwest has refused to help the NSA, the sources said. According to multiple sources, Qwest declined to participate because it was uneasy about the legal implications of handing over customer information to the government without warrants.

Qwest's refusal to participate has left the NSA with a hole in its database. Based in Denver, Qwest provides local phone service to 14 million customers in 14 states in the West and Northwest. But AT&T and Verizon also provide some services — primarily long-distance and wireless — to people who live in Qwest's region. Therefore, they can provide the NSA with at least some access in that area.

Created by President Truman in 1952, during the Korean War, the NSA is charged with protecting the United States from foreign security threats. The agency was considered so secret that for years the government refused to even confirm its existence. Government insiders used to joke that NSA stood for "No Such Agency."

In 1975, a congressional investigation revealed that the NSA had been intercepting, without warrants, international communications for more than 20 years at the behest of the CIA and other agencies. The spy campaign, code-named "Shamrock," led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was designed to protect Americans from illegal eavesdropping.

Enacted in 1978, FISA lays out procedures that the U.S. government must follow to conduct electronic surveillance and physical searches of people believed to be engaged in espionage or international terrorism against the United States. A special court, which has 11 members, is responsible for adjudicating requests under FISA.

Over the years, NSA code-cracking techniques have continued to improve along with technology. The agency today is considered expert in the practice of "data mining" — sifting through reams of information in search of patterns. Data mining is just one of many tools NSA analysts and mathematicians use to crack codes and track international communications.

Paul Butler, a former U.S. prosecutor who specialized in terrorism crimes, said FISA approval generally isn't necessary for government data-mining operations. "FISA does not prohibit the government from doing data mining," said Butler, now a partner with the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C.

The caveat, he said, is that "personal identifiers" — such as names, Social Security numbers and street addresses — can't be included as part of the search. "That requires an additional level of probable cause," he said.

The usefulness of the NSA's domestic phone-call database as a counterterrorism tool is unclear. Also unclear is whether the database has been used for other purposes.

The NSA's domestic program raises legal questions. Historically, AT&T and the regional phone companies have required law enforcement agencies to present a court order before they would even consider turning over a customer's calling data. Part of that owed to the personality of the old Bell Telephone System, out of which those companies grew.

Ma Bell's bedrock principle — protection of the customer — guided the company for decades, said Gene Kimmelman, senior public policy director of Consumers Union. "No court order, no customer information — period. That's how it was for decades," he said.

The concern for the customer was also based on law: Under Section 222 of the Communications Act, first passed in 1934, telephone companies are prohibited from giving out information regarding their customers' calling habits: whom a person calls, how often and what routes those calls take to reach their final destination. Inbound calls, as well as wireless calls, also are covered.

The financial penalties for violating Section 222, one of many privacy reinforcements that have been added to the law over the years, can be stiff. The Federal Communications Commission, the nation's top telecommunications regulatory agency, can levy fines of up to $130,000 per day per violation, with a cap of $1.325 million per violation. The FCC has no hard definition of "violation." In practice, that means a single "violation" could cover one customer or 1 million.

In the case of the NSA's international call-tracking program, Bush signed an executive order allowing the NSA to engage in eavesdropping without a warrant. The president and his representatives have since argued that an executive order was sufficient for the agency to proceed. Some civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, disagree.

Companies approached

The NSA's domestic program began soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the sources. Right around that time, they said, NSA representatives approached the nation's biggest telecommunications companies. The agency made an urgent pitch: National security is at risk, and we need your help to protect the country from attacks.

The agency told the companies that it wanted them to turn over their "call-detail records," a complete listing of the calling histories of their millions of customers. In addition, the NSA wanted the carriers to provide updates, which would enable the agency to keep tabs on the nation's calling habits.

The sources said the NSA made clear that it was willing to pay for the cooperation. AT&T, which at the time was headed by C. Michael Armstrong, agreed to help the NSA. So did BellSouth, headed by F. Duane Ackerman; SBC, headed by Ed Whitacre; and Verizon, headed by Ivan Seidenberg.

With that, the NSA's domestic program began in earnest.

AT&T, when asked about the program, replied with a comment prepared for USA TODAY: "We do not comment on matters of national security, except to say that we only assist law enforcement and government agencies charged with protecting national security in strict accordance with the law."

In another prepared comment, BellSouth said: "BellSouth does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority."

Verizon, the USA's No. 2 telecommunications company behind AT&T, gave this statement: "We do not comment on national security matters, we act in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers' privacy."

Qwest spokesman Robert Charlton said: "We can't talk about this. It's a classified situation."

In December, The New York Times revealed that Bush had authorized the NSA to wiretap, without warrants, international phone calls and e-mails that travel to or from the USA. The following month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, filed a class-action lawsuit against AT&T. The lawsuit accuses the company of helping the NSA spy on U.S. phone customers.

Last month, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales alluded to that possibility. Appearing at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Gonzales was asked whether he thought the White House has the legal authority to monitor domestic traffic without a warrant. Gonzales' reply: "I wouldn't rule it out." His comment marked the first time a Bush appointee publicly asserted that the White House might have that authority.

Similarities in programs

The domestic and international call-tracking programs have things in common, according to the sources. Both are being conducted without warrants and without the approval of the FISA court. The Bush administration has argued that FISA's procedures are too slow in some cases. Officials, including Gonzales, also make the case that the USA Patriot Act gives them broad authority to protect the safety of the nation's citizens.

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., would not confirm the existence of the program. In a statement, he said, "I can say generally, however, that our subcommittee has been fully briefed on all aspects of the Terrorist Surveillance Program. ... I remain convinced that the program authorized by the president is lawful and absolutely necessary to protect this nation from future attacks."

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., declined to comment.

One company differs

One major telecommunications company declined to participate in the program: Qwest.

According to sources familiar with the events, Qwest's CEO at the time, Joe Nacchio, was deeply troubled by the NSA's assertion that Qwest didn't need a court order — or approval under FISA — to proceed. Adding to the tension, Qwest was unclear about who, exactly, would have access to its customers' information and how that information might be used.

Financial implications were also a concern, the sources said. Carriers that illegally divulge calling information can be subjected to heavy fines. The NSA was asking Qwest to turn over millions of records. The fines, in the aggregate, could have been substantial.

The NSA told Qwest that other government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, also might have access to the database, the sources said. As a matter of practice, the NSA regularly shares its information — known as "product" in intelligence circles — with other intelligence groups. Even so, Qwest's lawyers were troubled by the expansiveness of the NSA request, the sources said.

The NSA, which needed Qwest's participation to completely cover the country, pushed back hard.

Trying to put pressure on Qwest, NSA representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to Qwest's patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested that Qwest's refusal to contribute to the database could compromise national security, one person recalled.

In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest's foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government. Like other big telecommunications companies, Qwest already had classified contracts and hoped to get more.

Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.

The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them," one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A second person confirmed this version of events.

In June 2002, Nacchio resigned amid allegations that he had misled investors about Qwest's financial health. But Qwest's legal questions about the NSA request remained.

Unable to reach agreement, Nacchio's successor, Richard Notebaert, finally pulled the plug on the NSA talks in late 2004, the sources said.

Contributing: John Diamond

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

An Apology from a Bush Voter --by Doug McIntyre

Monday, May 8th, 2006

By Doug McIntyre / Host, McIntyre in the Morning Talk Radio 790 KABC

There’s nothing harder in public life than admitting you’re wrong. By the way, admitting you’re wrong can be even tougher in private life. If you don’t believe me, just ask Bill Clinton or Charlie Sheen. But when you go out on the limb in public, it’s out there where everyone can see it, or in my case, hear it.

So, I’m saying today, I was wrong to have voted for George W. Bush. In historic terms, I believe George W. Bush is the worst two-term President in the history of the country. Worse than Grant. I also believe a case can be made that he’s the worst President, period.

In 2000, I was a McCain guy. I wasn’t sure about the Texas Governor. He had name recognition and a lot of money behind him, but other than that? What? Still, I was sick of all the Clinton shenanigans and the thought of President Gore was… unthinkable. So, GWB became my guy.

For the first few months he was just flubbing along like most new Presidents, no great shakes, but no disasters either. He cut taxes and I like tax cuts.

Then September 11th happened. September 11th changed everything for me, like it did for so many of you. After September 11th, all the intramural idiocy of American politics stopped being funny. We had been attacked by a vicious and determined enemy and it was time for all of us to row in the same direction.

And we did for the blink of an eye. I believed the President when he said we were going to hunt down Bin Laden and all those responsible for the 9-11 murders. I believed President Bush when he said we would go after the terrorists and the nations that harbored them.

I supported the President when he sent our troops into Afghanistan, after all, that’s where the Taliban was, that’s where al-Qaida trained the killers, that’s where Bin Laden was.

And I cheered when we quickly toppled the Taliban government, but winced when we let Bin Laden escape from Tora-Bora.

Then, the talk turned to Iraq and I winced again.

I thought the connection to 9-11 was sketchy at best. But Colin Powell impressed me at the UN, and Tony Blair was in, and after all, he was a Clinton guy, not a Bush guy, so I thought the case had to be strong. I was worried though, because I had read the Wolfowitz paper, “The Project for the New American Century.” It’s been around since ‘92, and it raised alarm bells because it was based on a theory, “Democratizing the Middle East” and I prefer pragmatism over theory. I was worried because Iraq was being justified on a radical new basis, “pre-emptive war.” Any time we do something without historical precedent I get nervous.

But the President shifted the argument to WMDs and the urgent threat of Iraq getting atomic weapons. The debate turned to Saddam passing nukes on to terror groups. After 9-11, the risk was too great. As the President said, “The next smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud.” At least that’s what I thought at the time.

I grew up in New York and watched them build the World Trade Center. I worked with a guy, Frank O’Brien, who put the elevators in both towers. I lost a very close friend on September 11th. 103 floor, tower one, Cantor Fitzgerald. Tim Coughlin was his name. If we had to take out Iraq to make sure something like that, or worse, never happened again, so be it. I knew the consequences. We have a soldier in our house. None of this was theoretical in my house.

But in the months and years since shock and awe I have been shocked repeatedly by a consistent litany of excuses, alibis, double-talk, inaccuracies, bogus predictions, and flat out lies. I have watched as the President and his administration changed the goals, redefined the reasons for going into Iraq, and fumbled the good will of the world and the focus necessary to catch the real killers of September 11th.

I have watched the President say the commanders on the ground will make the battlefield decisions, and the war won’t be run from Washington. Yet, politics has consistently determined what the troops can and can’t do on the ground and any commander who did not go along with the administration was sacked, and in some cases, maligned.

I watched and tried to justify the looting in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. I watched and tried to justify the dismantling of the entire Iraqi army. I tired to explain the complexities of building a functional new Iraqi army. I urged patience when no WMDs were found. Then the Vice President told us we were in the “waning days of the insurgency.” And I started wincing again. The President says we have to stay the course but what if it’s the wrong course?

It was the wrong course. All of it was wrong. We are not on the road to victory. We’re about to slink home with our tail between our legs, leaving civil war in Iraq and a nuclear armed Iran in our wake. Bali was bombed. Madrid was bombed. London was bombed. And Bin Laden is still making tapes. It’s unspeakable. The liberal media didn’t create this reality, bad policy did.

Most historians believe it takes 30-50 years before we get a reasonably accurate take on a President’s place in history. So, maybe 50 years from now Iraq will be a peaceful member of the brotherhood of nations and George W. Bush will be celebrated as a visionary genius.

But we don’t live fifty years in the future. We live now. We have to make public policy decisions now. We have to live with the consequences of the votes we cast and the leaders we chose now.

After five years of carefully watching George W. Bush I’ve reached the conclusion he’s either grossly incompetent, or a hand puppet for a gaggle of detached theorists with their own private view of how the world works. Or both.

Presidential failures. James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Jimmy Carter, Warren Harding — the competition is fierce for the worst of the worst. Still, the damage this President has done is enormous. It will take decades to undo, and that’s assuming we do everything right from now on. His mistakes have global implications, while the other failed Presidents mostly authored domestic embarrassments.

And speaking of domestic embarrassments, let’s talk for a minute about President Bush’s domestic record. Yes, he cut taxes. But tax cuts combined with reckless spending and borrowing is criminal mismanagement of the public’s money. We’re drunk at the mall with our great grandchildren’s credit cards. Whatever happened to the party of fiscal responsibility?

Bush created a giant new entitlement, the prescription drug plan. He lied to his own party to get it passed. He lied to the country about its true cost. It was written by and for the pharmaceutical industry. It helps nobody except the multinationals that lobbied for it. So much for smaller government. In fact, virtually every tentacle of government has grown exponentially under Bush. Unless, of course, it was an agency to look after the public interest, or environmental protection, and/or worker’s rights.

I’ve talked so often about the border issue, I won’t bore you with a rehash. It’s enough to say this President has been a catastrophe for the wages of working people; he’s debased the work ethic itself. “Jobs Americans won’t do!” He doesn’t believe in the sovereign borders of the country he’s sworn to protect and defend. And his devotion to cheap labor for his corporate benefactors, along with his worship of multinational trade deals, makes an utter mockery of homeland security in a post 9-11 world. The President’s January 7th, 2004 speech on immigration, his first trial balloon on his guest worker scheme, was a deal breaker for me. I couldn’t and didn’t vote for him in 2004. And I’m glad I didn’t.

Katrina, Harriet Myers, The Dubai Port Deal, skyrocketing gas prices, shrinking wages for working people, staggering debt, astronomical foreign debt, outsourcing, open borders, contempt for the opinion of the American people, the war on science, media manipulation, faith based initives, a cavalier attitude toward fundamental freedoms-- this President has run the most arrogant and out-of-touch administration in my lifetime, perhaps, in any American’s lifetime.

You can make a case that Abraham Lincoln did what he had to do, the public be damned. If you roll the dice on your gut and you’re right, history remembers you well. But, when your gut led you from one business failure to another, when your gut told you to trade Sammy Sosa to the Cubs, and you use the same gut to send our sons and daughters to fight and die in a distraction from the real war on terror, then history will and should be unapologetic in its condemnation.

None of this, by the way, should be interpreted as an endorsement of the opposition party. The Democrats are equally bankrupt. This is the second crime of our age. Again, historically speaking, its times like these when America needs a vibrant opposition to check the power of a run-amuck majority party. It requires it. It doesn’t work without one. Like the high and low tides keep the oceans alive, a healthy, positive opposition offers a path back to the center where all healthy societies live.

Tragically, the Democrats have allowed crackpots, leftists and demagogic cowards to snipe from the sidelines while taking no responsibility for anything. In fairness, I don’t believe a Democrat president would have gone into Iraq. Unfortunately, I don’t know if President Gore would have gone into Afghanistan. And that’s one of the many problems with the Democrats.

The two party system has always been clumsy and imperfect, but it has only collapsed once, in the 1850s, and the result was civil war.

I believe, as I have said countless times, the two party system is on the brink of a second collapsed. It’s currently running on spin, anger, revenge, and pots and pots and pots of money.

We’re being governed by paper-mache patriots; brightly painted red, white and blue, but hollow to the core. Both parties have mastered the cynical arts of media manipulation and fund raising. They’ve learned the lessons of Watergate and burn the tapes. They have learned to divide the nation for their own gain. They have demonstrated the willingness to exploit any tragedy for personal advantage. The contempt they have for the American people is without parallel.

This is painful to say, and I’m sure for many of you, painful to read. But it’s impossible to heal the country until we’re willing to acknowledge the truth no matter how painful. We have to wean ourselves off sugar coated partisan lies.

With a belated tip of the cap to Ralph Nader, the system is broken, so broken, it’s almost inevitable it pukes up the Al Gores and George W. Bushes. Where are the Trumans and the Eisenhowers? Where are the men and women of vision and accomplishment? Why do we have to settle for recycled hacks and malleable ciphers? Greatness is always rare, but is basic competence and simple honesty too much to ask?

It may be decades before we have the full picture of how paranoid and contemptuous this administration has been. And I am open to the possibility that I’m all wet about everything I’ve just said. But I’m putting it out there, because I have to call it as I see it, and this is how I see it today. I don’t say any of this lightly. I’ve thought about this for months and months. But eventually, the weight of evidence takes on a gravitational force of its own.

I believe that George W. Bush has taken us down a terrible road. I don’t believe the Democrats are offering an alternative. That means we’re on our own to save this magnificent country. The United States of America is a gift to the world, but it has been badly abused and it’s rightful owners, We the People, had better step up to the plate and reclaim it before the damage becomes irreparable.

So, accept my apology for allowing partisanship to blind me to an obvious truth; our President is incapable of the tasks he is charged with. I almost feel sorry for him. He is clearly in over his head. Yet, he doesn’t generate the sympathy Warren Harding earned. Harding, a spectacular mediocrity, had the self-knowledge to tell any and all he shouldn’t be President. George W. Bush continues to act the part, but at this point whose buying the act?

Does this make me a waffler? A flip-flopper? Maybe, although I prefer to call it realism. And, for those of you who never supported Bush, its also fair to accuse me of kicking Bush while he’s down. After all, you were kicking him while he was up.

You were right, I was wrong.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Ten Years Gone

Well, are ya gonna wish me a happy anniversary? Today it's exactly ten years since I moved to this gosh-forsaken heck-hole known as New York City. I am celebrating with a sixpack of PBRs and The Damned's The Light at the End of the Tunnel.

Ten years in New York. I can't say I'm surprised to still be here. When I left Pennsylvania in May of 1996, I did so the way a caged animal escapes a zoo. I knew I was never going back. After visiting New York a few times, I knew this was where I belonged, cheesy and cliche as that sounds. Some of my friends suggested that I would be back in PA after a year or so. I told them not to leave the light on for me.

To this day I haven't been to a city that I feel so natural in. A friend of mine recently said that when he first came to NYC, the sheer enormity and volume of the place made him feel insignificant. For whatever reason, I felt the opposite when I arrived here. I immediately felt a part of New York.

Not that I even knew which end was up when I moved in. My friend Mike and I somehow conned a nice middle-aged casting director named Scott to sublet his apartment on 58th and Broadway to us. We had no idea whether it was a cool location or not; we just knew it was in New York City. We were thrilled beyond belief. After signing away most of our savings to Scott for the first and last months' rent (plus security deposit -- another month's rent), Mike and I moved into our first bona-fide NYC apartment, giddy to the marrow.

It was only a one bedroom, but in a nice, quiet, prewar building near Central Park. I graciously let Mike have the bedroom and I took the couch in the living room. I don't know why I did that. It was a small, pullout, couch/bed type thing but the "bed" part had no mattress, only bare springs. Ouch. Not the most comfortable surface to sleep on. And the couch itself was too small for anyone but a child to extend himself on fully. So what I did every night was pull out the "bed" and arrange the couch cushions in a row on top of the sharp, deadly bedsprings, and slept on that. Well, I shouldn't say "slept." Truth is, I didn't sleep for the first two or three months in this city.

My dad drove me up with my stuff and helped move in on May 3rd. I remember there was a homeless guy hanging out right at the front door to the building, under the awning, asking us for handouts as we moved in, and it occurred to me that Dad probably thought I was crazy for wanting to live here. But to me the homeless guy was part of the ambiance. New York has it all: the richest and the poorest, the most splendid beauty and the most sordid ugliness. I love that about it.

It actually took two days for Mike and I to move in, May 3rd and 4th, a Friday and Saturday. By Saturday night we were all moved in and it was our very first night as New Yorkers. We were bouncing off the walls. We had no idea where to go, and we certainly wanted to celebrate. We bought a ton of booze at the local liquor store, made Long Island iced Teas and got loaded at the apartment before taking the train downtown to some place we'd heard about called Webster Hall.

Well, needless to say our first night in the Big Apple was not stellar. Webster Hall is a pit, albeit one popular with the B&T crowd, which we would soon learn, stood for Bridge and Tunnel. Tourists, get it?! See, we could talk like that now because we LIVED HERE. Weren't tourists anymore, we were New Yorkers.

I didn't know a soul in the city and had absolutely nothing lined up for myself -- no job, no gigs, no prospects, no plan of attack. I just knew I was here to play music. On the Sunday afternoon following our underwhelming evening at Webster Hall, I grabbed my Strat, with a little, battery-powered amp, and wandered around town a bit, hoping to maybe find someone to jam with.

It was surprisingly easy; in Central Park I met a homeless dude named Silk, who was a pretty talented singer and a real character. He had a dog named Soul. Silk n' Soul. Silk and I played a bunch of tunes together that day, although the only one I can remember now is "My Girl." I actually jammed with that guy a few more times in the future, whenever I ran into him in the park. He was a riot. You know the Beastie Boys song "Johnny Ryall," about the homeless guy who claimed to have written "Blue Suede Shoes"? Well that was Silk. He maintained that he'd written "Waterfalls" and that TLC's producer stole it after hearing Silk perform it in the street. For all I know, he was telling the truth.

Silk and I talked about doing a legitimate subway busking gig together but it never materialized. I wanted to do it but it was hard to pin Silk down; after all, he had no home and no phone number. It was tough to arrange things with the guy.

Anyway, back to that first day. After playing with Silk, I took the train downtown and found myself in Washington Square Park wandering around, sitting in with various impromptu jam sessions. You know those hippies that play Beatles songs and such. It was ok.

Then someone gave me a flyer that said an open jam was happening at Cafe Wha? All I knew about Cafe Wha? was that Hendrix used to jam there in the 60s. Sounded cool. So I took my Strat to MacDougal Street and found Cafe Wha?, went inside.

There was a backing band onstage. It was still full daylight outside. No one else was in the club but the bartenders. Kind of a weird scene; seemed like a touristy place. The band saw me come in with a guitar and lit up. "Hey, we have our first taker!" I got up onstage and played and sang "Foxey Lady" with the band. I couldn't believe Hendrix had held court at this cheesy place three decades earlier. Obviously it wasn't quite the same joint anymore. Oh well. I did my thing and left.

Later that week I started posting flyers advertising guitar lessons. Very slowly I started getting students. My very first was a guy named Steve, who lived on Lafayette Street. I am still teaching him to this day. Now he lives upstate with a wife and kid but he still drives into the city every other week for the lessons. How cool is that? I went to recording studios and dropped off demos of my guitar playing, hoping to get session work. ANYthing. I walked everywhere, couldn't even afford the subway. I'd walk 50, 60, 100 or more blocks a day.

Like most just-off-the-boat musicians in New York, I started looking for gigs in the Village Voice. I knew I would ultimately want to put my own thing together but for now I just needed to get my feet wet. I joined two bands right away: one was an established goth/metal outfit in the vein of Type O Negative and the other was a paid gig with an Alanis Morrissette-ish female singer/songwriter from Montreal who had some financial backing, management and Billy Idol's ex-drummer. Unfortunately, whatever money I made with her was absorbed by the cost of rehearsing with the goth band, who insisted on practicing at least twice a week at the horrid Funkadelic Studios. Oh well. Live and learn.

My first two gigs in NYC were at Limelight (yes it was still Limelight then) with the gothers and Sin-e (yes, the old Sin-e on St. Marks Place where Jeff Buckley recorded his live ep) with the Canadian songstress. I was pretty psyched.

However, my money was evaporating. New York does that to you, and fast. I needed paying gigs. I started looking for a proper job, anything. Bartender, barback, proofreader, record store cashier, fucking Starbucks. I was desperate. I wound up taking a job at a place called Specialty Signs, right across from the old Tramps, on West 21st Street.

I still don't know what the job was supposed to be, some kind of bullshit office work, I think. It wasn't all corporate with ties and stuff; it seemed laid back, dressed-down, pretty innocuous. On the first couple days I sat at a desk waiting to be trained, killing time and answering phones. Periodically the boss sent me out to run errands -- I deposited checks at the bank, bought trash bags at Staples and even picked up toys for his kids. Whatever, it was a job. During the downtime at my desk, I made a few short phone calls; I needed to open a bank account and schedule lessons and rehearsals and stuff.

On day three, I showed up dutifully at 8:30 a.m. (can you imagine?!?). I got to my desk and sat down, waiting for my morning's marching orders. Straight away, the boss storms in and says, "no personal phone calls at this job. Can't make any, can't receive any."

Huh? No phone calls? Not even local calls?

"No. If you need to use the phone, do it on your lunch break, on the pay phone in the hall." He walked out.

I considered that for a minute, then got up and quit the job. And you better believe I made sure I got paid for the hours I put in at Specialty Signs.

I was never cut out for regular jobs and I was kidding myself to think I had moved to NYC to do that kind of thing. I decided that day to just pour more energy into making a living at music, sink-or-swim style. That's basically what I've been doing since.

Meanwhile, I wanted to find the heart of the club scene in this city, and had no idea where to look. At that point in time, I didn't know if the cool shit was uptown, midtown, downtown or in the outer boroughs. For all I knew, the action could have been on Bleecker Street, Wall Street or 104th Street. I was clueless.

The Village Voice "nightlife" section started to illuminate the way, however; I soon realized that the epicenter of the rock scene in New York seemed to be in the East Village and the Lower East Side.

One Saturday night, I was poring over the paper looking for something cool to do (and probably drinking some eye-wateringly strong, bottom-shelf vodka cocktail). I found this ad for a party called Green Door, at a club called Coney Island High. It said the guest dj that night was Joey Ramone. The cover was $5.

Wow. THIS was why I'd moved here. I decked the rest of my drink, made another one, poured it into an Evian bottle for the road, clipped the ad and went downtown on the N/R. I found Coney Island High, a cool-looking, red-painted edifice on St. Mark's between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, and got in line for the club. Took a pull from my surreptitiously stowed vodka drink. Looked behind me. Joey Ramone was in line behind me.

WHOA! It was JOEY RAMONE, the rock legend, architect of a worldwide musical revolution, standing behind me, waiting in line to get into his own gig. HOLY COW! I was elated. I said something stupid, like, "hey, Joey, you ready to rock?" and he grinned and said "I hope so" or something shy and self-effacing like that....he was so cool. The antithesis of the typical "rock star" type who breezes into clubs with an entourage, here was Joey Ramone waiting his turn in line, just like everyone else. I can't tell you how great that was, for so many reasons.

I wound up having the time of my life that night. Joey spun an incredible set of punk and dancefloor rock and roll. Coney Island High was packed with rockers, freaks, punks, glam kids, regular people. The vibe was so unpretentious, everyone was sweaty and dancing like crazy. Joey spun Blondie, the Stones, T. Rex, New York Dolls, The Damned. I couldn't believe I was at a club that actually PLAYED The Damned, or any other cool music, for that matter. In Pennsylvania that shit was unheard of.

I danced my legs down to the kness that night (thanks, Morrissey) and emerged from CIH, at dawn, a sweaty, high-as-a-kite mess. The city seemed so fresh, clean and innocent at that hour. There wasn't a happier person on the planet than me that morning.

Our sublet at 226 W. 58th Street only lasted three months and Mike and I relocated to the East Village on August 1st, where I graduated to a full-sized couch. I eventually figured out how to make it in this city but I must say, those first, wobbly, uncertain few months contain some of the best memories.


Dead Kennedys, Bedtime for Democracy...brought this one with me from PA. My introduction to the DKs.

The Damned, The Light at the End of the Tunnel...can't say enough about how much I love this band. My friend Jeff, from back home, had copied this double disc for me and I became hopelessly hooked. Listened to this alot during the first couple months in NYC. Hell, I still listen to it alot now.

The Fugees, The Score..."ready or not, here I come, you can't hide"...remember that?

KMFDM, XTORT, Angst and Naive...I had just discovered KMFDM maybe a month before moving here. The XTORT album had just come out and I picked it up here in the city. I love that album. Record store hopping has always been one of my favorite New York pastimes.

No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom...I ultimately wound up unloading this album but for a few months I enjoyed "Spiderwebs," "Excuse Me Mister," "Hey You" and other songs whose titles escape me at the moment. So very nostalgic...talking about it almost makes me want to buy it again.

Rage Against the Machine, Evil Empire...can't say I still listen to this one much, but the first few tracks are pretty devastating...and by the way, where are the protest bands of today?

Love and Rockets, Sweet F.A....found this one for $3.99 in a used bin, and it was a new album at the time, so I considered that quite a consumer coup. I still like this record although no one has really paid much attention to it.

The Cure, Wild Mood Swings...I ran to the nearest Tower Records the day this album was released (I think it was Tuesday, May 7th), bought my copy, ran back to the apartment, tore off the shrink wrap, put it on and was...well, kind of disappointed. Most Cure fans absolutely hate this album but, all told, it's not nearly as bad as they say. One thing's for sure, though -- the magic years for the Cure were over by this time...I ventured out to Nassau Colisseum on Long Island a few weeks later by myself to see The Cure on the WMS tour. That was a great show.

LARD, The Last Temptation of Reid...haven't heard this in ages. It was the side project of Jello Biafra and Al Jourgensen. I do remember the song "Mate, Spawn & Die." That's a great one.

Skinny Puppy, Rabies...I had just stumbled into Skinny Puppy, too, around this time. Rabies was co-produced by Jourgensen, perhaps a reason why I was drawn to it and the band. I've since collected half-a-dozen or so Skinny Puppy records but Rabies is still probably my favorite. First impressions are hard to beat.

Ministry, Filth Pig...I still think this is an underrated album. I listen to it now and as far as I can tell it's pretty damned potent. Was heavily into Ministry at this time, obviously -- was also listening to Twitch and Land of Rape and Honey, not to mention Revolting Cocks' Linger Fickin' Good and anything else related to Al Jourgensen.

Beastie Boys, Ill Communication...this album's too long but it's great anyway..."Root Down," "Sabotage," "Sure Shot" -- good times, good times.

The Muffs, Blonder and Blonder...brilliant songwriting. Still love this album to death. I saw the Muffs on the Blonder and Blonder tour in September '96 at Coney Island High. They were really fun. Caught the Damned there in '98, too. Coney island High sure was a great place.

Deee-Lite, World Clique...I bought this along with a Stranglers cd and Skinny Puppy's Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate disc at the Times Square Virgin Megastore, which was just walking distance from my apartment. I remember putting on the first track where Lady Miss Kier says, "from the global village...of communication...NEW YORK CITY!" and being really excited.

Still excited.