February 14, 2009

A Perpetually Sputtering Bonfire of the Ptolemies

"It's a long, long way to the top—but when you come down, it's one headlong rush."
—David Lowery of Cracker
Gravity is working extra-hard on everybody these days, but for me, its extraordinarily powerful pull on the rabid wild animals of the financial industry makes Mr. Lowery's quote strikingly appropriate. Jimmy Cliff said the same thing much better, of course, and it's not like previous faux-flagellations of the super-rich have yielded any behavioral changes in terms of arrogance, entitlement, or narcissism (a Boesky or Milken here, a Madoff there), but since king-hell extravagance seems to be falling back out of style for the time being, it's probably a good time to reflect on the mind-sets that got us to this point. When the worst is yet to come, we tend to dismiss the merely awful in tense anticipation of whatever ugliness may follow, but one of the most predictable episodes in the whole sorry saga of the President's economic stimulus package was the temper tantrums and other spastic freakouts from Wall Street and the Republicans when they realized they weren't getting all the props from Obama and Geithner that they'd paid for in 2008.

It was these convulsions—along with this week's Michael Phelps pot hysteria and that insane mother of octuplets—that provided an ugly display of decaying American existence in the twenty-first century—a time of transitory, post-Soviet ephemeral enemies; a brutal era of politics rent by fantasy-fluffed rhetoric; a cerebrally juvenile period of culture in which dead trends were recycled every twenty years as "the next big thing"; a conspicuously consumptive, banausic, and profoundly ignorant world of avaricious debauchery populated by solipsistic, flaccidly obese and intellectually inbred citizens with prominent eyes and swollen necks. It was a nation of flagrantly degenerate men, hopelessly bored housewives, and cynical, spoiled children—all overwhelmed by a profound sense of dashed glory never to be regained, and obsessed with history and the chronicling of their titanic Greatest Generation forbears. Mass retreat to a private life of urbane commercial and secular pleasures, all provided to them by an economy dependent on slave labor, seemed the only option. Science wasn't exactly frowned upon, but it was plenty yawned at, and a general moral distaste for the processes of finance engendered incredible economic ignorance.

Consider Anthony P. "Tony" Soter III, for example—a multi-millionaire Los Angeles investment banker and scion of the legendary Manhattanite first family of economics; a vain, morally corpulent swine who lurched his way through careers in both financial law and management before flaming out in a series of depraved, megalomaniacal episodes at his Newport Beach mansion late last year. Soter had been a friend and colleague of many of L.A.'s biggest names across a variety of disciplines—divorce lawyers, plastic surgeons, land developers, movie stars, two mayors, and a governor—but within three months he blew several successive, sky-high-profile arbitrage gigs and demolished too many of their portfolios with mercurial fits of incompetence.

Soter himself was not a first-rate mind, but his fifty-five-year-old brain contained enough residual echoes of his ancestors' economic genius to create a passably proficient advisorial style—while not quite the swaggering, pencil-dicked he-man of Wall Street, his macho bravado nevertheless matched up very well with that of the other reptiles and vampires clogging the upper echelons of Los Angeles' ecosystem. His guiding philosophy, as stated to Kudlow and Cramer back in April 2005, was nothing more than the same old self-enriching, privilege-worshipping royalism of the Reaganite 80's: "Money is how the world keeps score, gentlemen; it separates the free from the slaves. All I'm doing is providing my clients with the best possible return any American could ask for—the freedom to buy their way out of anything unpleasant." He was duly féted by his hosts as a true visionary. Then—according to a December '08 investigative series in the OC Weekly:
One day in late 2007, at the peak of his career, Soter signed off on multiple routine memos authorizing substantial investment of several clients' portfolios into promising firms that had recently gone public. L.A. County court records indicated 80% of the investments in question were to one stock in particular: PhysCon Inc., an Agoura-based company specializing in ritual stomach-stapling with a lucrative sideline in full-body cleanses. PhysCon was also known, in certain circles, as a silent partner in the manufacture and distribution of a device called the "Philo-Meter," an "astoundingly effective" piece of "assistive sexual equipment" prominently advertised during late-night TV broadcasts on KTLA, KCOP, KTTV-11 and KCAL-9.
Soter, however, kept early nights—and therefore the existence of any such super-dildos was entirely beyond his ken. So, almost four months later, he was dining at Alessandro's in Santa Barbara when he received a frantic text message from his personal assistant Dimitri Gonatas (a loyal minion who'd attended USC with Soter's coke-addled, nymphomaniacal daughter Cleo) to call the Wilshire office immediately. Gil Garcetti's brown-shirted vice squad was knocking on the door and shouting awkward questions through their megaphones. Soter laughed it off at the time, and hung up on Gonatas to instead take a call from his twenty-five year-old mercenary son Tommy—on assignment for Blackwater in Iraq as a munitions expert. Later, however, as Soter's limo threaded its way back down the 101 to L.A., a sneaking suspicion began to gnaw away at his multiple ulcers. He couldn't check in with Gonatas yet. He needed to go home first—to Balboa, so instructed the driver to drop him at his Porsche in a secluded corner of company property.

Tony Soter had never accustomed himself to the sun-fried suburbia of Orange County; in his head he longed for the frantic human crush of Manhattan, and cringed inwardly every time he'd heard his son Tommy describe the City to his young friends: "New York is a phat city, man. Stinks, though." Tommy's voice continued to ring in his father's head as Soter drove through the security gates of his mansion, parked the Porsche next to the Lamborghini, and made his way inside. Once in, however, he immediately detected something wrong. The air was electric with tension, and there was no sign of the Mexican servants anywhere—though that in itself was no surprise; Soter's imperious wife Bernice insisted on treating the help like house-slaves and he was sure he'd seen impotent murder in their eyes many times.

However, Soter's thought process was interrupted then by what sounded like a minor avalanche, followed by the wavering notes of a collective, gleefully orgiastic shriek. "Jesus Christ," he thought, "what the hell has that woman got herself into now?" He quickly bounded up the stairs to the third floor—the elevator would, ironically, be too slow—and was then confronted by the disturbing and yet fascinating vision of Bernice—and various naked limbs of her entire fifteen-woman "investment club"—covered in a mountain of dildos, which had spilled out of the walk-in closet. Soter barely had time to process this before the cops burst in, hot on his trail from L.A., and arrested everyone on the spot. His routine approval, four months back, of Bernice's surreptitious bid to make additional millions on the inflated value of her favorite product, had effectively sealed his own doom.

That was Tony Soter's last relatively normal day in Newport, because he was soon indicted by the L.A. district attorney on a galaxy of charges: insider trading, racketeering, obscenity, fraud, tax evasion, and much more. His army of lawyers was no help—half of them were tangled up in the same mess—and his many high-profile friends all over California experienced convenient fits of devastating amnesia when confronted with the reality of what would become the most embarrassing confidence scam California had seen since the passage of Proposition 13. Soter's life deteriorated rapidly at that point—his son was captured by insurgents in Anbar, his wife ran off to Bali with Anthony Kiedis, his daughter was sold into slavery in Mazatlán by her Sinaloan dealer, and his Balboa mansion was burned to the ground by those same vengeful Mexican servants. He is currently on twenty-four-hour suicide watch—but of course, it could have been much worse. At least he never had to submit to the indignity of a castrated bonus or a $500,000 salary cap like his Wall Street counterparts. That would have been entirely too shameful.

Cross-posted: dkos, dd, fsz.

February 10, 2009

Reqiuem for a Music Geek: The Soothing Sounds of Regression Therapy

The more I re-read historian Peter Green, the more I think I might have some freaky-deeky past life in the Hellenistic Age. According to Green, that society was basically a three-hundred-year afterbirth of Alexander the Great's transcontinental military stompilation—a mass of neurotic and egomaniacal inadequates, constantly obsessed with analyzing and anthologizing their civilization's glorious past. Now, connecting that with my own less-than-latent self-absorption might seem a stretch, unless of course you have the occasion to, say, speak with any of my ex-girlfriends—who will undoubtedly be happy to regale you with horror stories of my near-psychotic ability to "dwell on the past," "take things too personally," and "never ever get over anything." My father might also have similar insights on this, too—but the point is the same: like many humans, I am congenitally vulnerable to the icy grip of nostalgia, and it works on my psyche in weird and warped ways. Naturally, as a lily-white rock music geek I have all sorts of sonic triggers for said nostalgic impulses, and thankfully I was able to notice and harness them as their frequency increased considerably when I passed my thirtieth birthday—which isn't really that different from what happens to many other people at this age, but so what?

It was kind of a perfect storm—my band Honey White wasn't playing or rehearsing much anymore, I settled into a steady professional career, got married, and bought a house in a California beach town that was developmentally schizophrenic enough, in one way or another, to remind me of every other California beach town I'd lived in or visited in my life. The knockout blow, though, was landed almost three years ago, when I saw a film called "Brick" for the first time. It's a fairly transparent genre mash-up exercise (teen flick meets crime noir) that nevertheless pushed all the right buttons to send me spiraling into a pit of the past that I'm only now starting to crawl out of. The fact that it was filmed in director Rian Johnson's hometown of San Clemente, California—right next to Dana Point, where I grew up—was fatal, in terms of zapping me back 10-15 years and a few hundred miles, and the cinematography's atmospheric attention to detail sealed the deal. I thought, "Shit, I could do that—and I could write it, too." I dug out the half-baked Bret Easton Ellis rip-offs that I'd scrawled when applying for grad school fiction programs, and rebuilt them from the ground up, throwing "Brick" and other films like "Donnie Darko" into the thick, congealing goo along with stylistic bits and pieces of authors like Ellis, Donna Tartt, Neal Stephenson, Irvine Welsh, Hunter Thompson, and Chuck Klosterman, and it eventually became my "novel," The Weapon of Young Gods.

Naturally, it all had to have a soundtrack. Now, many of my friends and bandmates have endured my Reverb Thesis—the one where I argue that our brains are hard-wired to crave sounds evocative of aquatic and/or zero-gravity spaces because of how they subconsiously yank our minds back to the first sounds our ears ever processed, which we heard as fetuses through liquid in the womb. I slapped this idea together, however, because of a much less profound reason: my childhood was in the early 1980s, when chilly New Wave sounds ruled Southern California radio stations like KROQ and 91X, and echoing, reverbed guitar notes where everywhere; behemoths like U2, the Cure, and the Smiths were the biggest offenders, of course, but there were thousands more. Anyway, it's for those reasons that I think reverb makes me nostalgic for childhood and young adulthood—even as a junior in college, Radiohead's "OK Computer" album was slathered in enough reverb to affect me that way. It was more contemporary stuff, however, that conspired to really sink me in the dunk tank of nostalgia, and the formula wasn't really all that complicated: relatively simplistic lyrics set to big, booming rock epics. Conveniently enough, the dreaded Twenty-Year Nostalgia Cycle had progressed to the point where things like that were trendy again, so I should have foreseen my doom. As it was, I had to (yet again, and as always) realize this too slow to take proper advantage of it, but i was helped along by music from three bands in particular (though no one album specifically), and many other songs from many more groups of similar styles.

Surprisingly, the Secret Machines were the first out of the gate. Bryn and I had previously been really into their "Now Here is Nowhere" album, but the tunes were arguably a bit too prog, and the lyrics too pretentiously knowing, to really qualify as grade-A juvenalia. Their second album "Ten Silver Drops," however—and specifically its first half—had reverted spectacularly to personal self-obsession and reflection: "Alone, Jealous and Stoned," "All At Once," "Lightning Blue Eyes," and "Daddy's in the Doldrums" were, for whatever reason, great primers for my brain to go all squishy and regressive. The shockingly pedestrian sentiments at the heart of each Curtis Bros. lyric were shot through with some genuine hard hits which were just as simple, but no less effective: "I know that I was wrong/but that don't mean you were right"—stuff like that. Puerile on paper, but as any Pink Floyd fan knows, pretty effective when set to symphonic pomposity—as the teenage mind is prone to do, of course. It's a weird thing to get deep into a piece of art that you know damn well is cerebrally beneath you on your good days, but that's pop music for you—and like I said, I was primed to receive this shit in the worst way, so it worked very well at best and set the stage for the next round: Interpol.

I actually detested Interpol when I first heard of them in 2002. I hated how they looked like just another arrogant bunch of New York art students that were way too pretentious for their own good—and believed all the snooty reviews by aging blowhards like Robert Christigau who lambasted Interpol as a calculated reheating/diluting of Joy Division and various other post-punk English depression cases. Paul Banks' stentorian drone of a voice didn't help either...but when it was on the store stereo down at Just Play Music in Santa Barbara, there was that frigid and deadly guitar tone, backed up by a muscular J-bass and cannon-fire percussion, and I eventually conceded that I could deal with—even enjoy—stuff like "Untitled" and "NYC" and "Lief Erikson," as long as I didn't have to look at those pretentious motherfuckers. My brother Bryn sensed weakness, but I rebuffed his attempts to sell me on Interpol's second disc, "Antics," during the summer that our band was making our very own reverby-epic album in San Francisco. Bryn didn't give up, though—he knew how much of a pathetic sucker I was, as an unregenerate U2 fan, for egomaniacal grandiosty—and so set his next trap with Interpol's third album "Our Love to Admire." Not coincidentally, the band had opened for U2's "Vertigo" tour in the interim, and like the Doves and Secret Machines before them, made an album after that experience that was predictably, but awesomely, epic in shape and scope—helped in no small way, surely, by an injection of major-label attention. Bryn knew that all he had to do was play me the first track, "Pioneer to the Falls," and I'd become a quivering puddle of ecstatic glop—which is precisely what happened. The plastic angst that coursed through the song and its parent album was a great soundtrack to bashing out chapter after chapter of fiction marinated in bitter and ugly memories; "Pace is the Trick," "Mammoth," and "Rest My Chemistry" worked wonders, too.

You can't be a sad bastard all the time, though, and neither of the previous two bands worked well when I needed to juice up some less...morose material. I had just about played Interpol to death by the time British Sea Power released their shiny new "Do You Like Rock Music???" album, and that plus their previous two added—as only zany Englishmen could—the right amount of refreshing self-confidence, annoying whimsy, and bizarre celebration of random crap. BSP is pretty obviously indebted to early-80s groups like Echo and the Bunnymen, but Echo never seemed to laugh at anything at all; BSP singers Yan and Hamilton take on ugly nativism ("Waving Flags"), rampaging senility ("True Adventures"), vicious revenge "A Wooden Horse"), deadly floods ("Canvey Island"), and collapsing icebergs ("Oh Larsen B") with alarming amounts of pip-pip and tally-ho aplomb. The way they go from zero to HUGE in three minutes on "Canvey Island" is amazing, and the extended instrumental coda to "Larsen B" is elegaic, simple, and glorious. Like the previous two bands, though, they couldn't sustain it to my satisfaction over the course of an entire album—my British Sea Power playlist is some great daffy fun for an afternoon drive, but it's only about 16 songs; too innocent to tickle my snide side a la Supergrass, and too twee to take on the studied cool of other bright-and-happy-sounding bands like Sea and Cake. There's another weird parallel, too—for some reason BSP falls into the same category of indulgent and harmless Anglophilia that I'd been stuck in with "Foyle's War" DVDs and "Harry Potter" books—which smacks of some weighty but distant Welsh/Cornish roots that my mom's side of the family clings to desperately when they're feeling karmaically put upon.

And yeah, it's hard to see any of this as anything other than, at root, some massively delusional behavior on my part. You may have laughed or sneered at many points in this essay, and I don't blame you. I mean, escaping from my adult life via the soothing sounds of regression therapy? The only excuse I really have is that this is my default setting, really—it took some pretty big (and probably childishly overblown) emotional traumas to send me fleeing in to the arms of lyrically caustic geniuses like Dylan, Costello, and Lowery—and even though listening those three titans of truth goosed me to write my best stuff, and remain my biggest well of inspiration, I think that for better or worse I'll still be the same coddled suburban teen who thought (thinks?) one of the most ecstatically high highs is Edge's guitar solo in "The Fly." Emotional juvenalia is a nasty, vicious habit, but I succumbed to its siren song way too long ago to turn back now. All I can do is hope that whenever it rears its ugly head—like when I hear wind chimes in TV on the Radio's "Tonight,"—I can at least keep the bastard on a leash long enough to bleed some more refried wisdom out of each successive sorry episode. Hopefully it won't hit me again for another ten years, but if it does, I can always write it off as a Genuine Mid-Life Crisis, and maybe get a sparkly expensive new guitar in the deal, too.

February 08, 2009

The Bipartisan Kleptocracy Will Never Die

I'm sorry, but I don't think I'll ever get tired of saying that. A vague sense of panic has been rattling through my soul for over a week now, though, so I think I'll say it again: "The Bipartisan Kleptocracy will Never Die!!!" I know, I know—it gets played out pretty quick, but it's sort of instinctual at this point, because my god, the oligarchs sure are a testy bunch these days. I mean, it's gone beyond the usual soggy hand-wringing and petulantly adolescent demands for massive tax cuts that we all expect from them anyway—it's to the point where you can almost hear the hysterical terror in their voices every time they get within shouting distance of a news microphone. There is electricity crackling in the air all the time now, and the wrong raised eyebrow can strike sparks anywhere if you're not careful.

Because hey, let's face it—the kleptocratic impulse is strong in the United States of America, and indeed always has been. When you found a nation on theft, slavery, and murder, you're powering the subsequent society on some of the biggest, baddest voodoo that anyone has ever known, and it's only a matter of time before you'll miss a few payments and a phalanx of repo men come knocking. Hand-in-hand with that compulsion is, of course, the reflexive fear that has convulsed generation upon generation of Americans since day one of the Jamestown settlement—the sort of skittish glance over your shoulder to make sure no one's coming to Take Your Shit. The sort of projectionary flinch that's so familiar among thieves convinced that they're surrounded by more thieves, because how surprising is it that other people want to sneak our stash when we did the very same to them? Isn't that how the universe works?

Well, in this country it does—handily spiced with some home-grown, institutionalized racism to boot—and I really believe it's the only way we know how to think. The concept of "our" has always come in a distant third after "mine" and "yours," and the idea of the commons has been so denigrated, and its real execution so botched—many times purposefully so—that the mere hint of anything resembling "socialism" is shouted down in a paranoid frenzy of overreaction. That's why we have dim-bulb non-plumbers accusing future presidents of "socialism." That's why we have transparently ugly and hideously bloated payoffs to the necrotizing financial industry derided as "socialism" by tax-hating zealots and know-nothing faux-populists alike. We all just can't stand that Someone Else Got A Better Deal, Man—and I can't believe that it hasn't produced frantic bank-runs yet. I'm getting pretty antsy here waiting to see which CEO will lose bowel control next and crash their albatross of a company smack-dab against the stock exchange bell.

And really, it'll only be funny as long as it isn't me—but until then I won't cry a drop for any executive who gets tossed in the sheep-dip. The rich may indeed act like wild animals when they get nervous, but the spectacle of once-powerful people brought weeping to their knees is one I have been unable to resist watching—especially since none of them seem to realize that their great golden calf will never truly be cast aside in this country. The robber-barony has shown itself to be remarkably resilient in the face of repeated shocks to its very core throughout its entire existence, but everyone seems to forget that every time the Dow gets a shade too red, and somewhere, the shades of Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman just smile.

Even so, it's unsettling, in a knife-twisting sorta way, to see the bankers now down on the ocean floor with lawyers and realtors. Their endless death shrieks should be soothing, but this twisted Bonfire of the Ptolemies is repulsive no matter how you slice it. The mushy-headed reality of a Shiny New President that can speak in complete sentences ought to be reassuring, especially when he sinks the skewer deep into swine like Limbaugh—and yet I can take no real further pleasure from that, either, because I've still got some short-sighted One-Term blinders on right now, for better or worse. The final days of any empire are always messy and ugly—and usually much more so than even the craziest Cassandras dare to speculate—but when even the Avatar of Hope says "things will get worse before they get better," that sets off a whole orchestra of dog whistles. The End Times mentality is definitely a hard habit to kick, but Americans have had it nailed into our psyches in so many ways, and for so many years, that it's become something much more insidious than instinct or second nature.

And no—I'm not feeling Revelations right now, thankfully, and am not even rising to the level of late-period Roman decline—but the weekly bummer of decompression is there. It's more like a cumulative, gradual, Egyptian-style letdown, and as everyone knows, Ancient Egypt was many things, though it was not in a hurry to become any of them—but more about that ugly reality later, I think. It's worth a mention for now, though, because the freaks pissing in our collective punch these days with their $500K bonus-whines and Super Bowl parties are stone cold amateurs compared to the gluttonous and sybaritic beasts that ruled antiquity. Take the Roman tax farmers, for example: those ruthless bastards reached an early peak in imperial bureaucratic broad-daylight robbery. They plundered the riches of spear-won provinces so thoroughly that in at least one case, Anatolia in 88 BC, the suffering natives were eventually goaded into killing every Roman in the territory—a figure sometimes estimated at 80,000 men, women, and children. That wasn't the end of it—the Romans came, saw, and conquered—but the whole episode serves to shed some historical light on concepts like "megalomania," "desperation," and "decadence."

Yes, decadence. It may be an unfashionable concept these days, what with Teh Change threatening to slow the daily avalanche of reality that we all endure to some degree, but when it comes to dealing with the inevitable slide of the United States of America into the tar pit of history, decadence is in the eye of the beholder—and in this nation of cathode ray addicts, such eyes are never in short supply. The sick and torturous twists of American moral, financial, cultural and political degeneration have long held a firm grip on the imaginations of citizens across our land—but the death spiral's seductive tune has been on "repeat" for a long time now, shuffling along to the same old rhythms of venality, if indeed it bothers to move at all. And holy shit, that's a long way from the initial thoughts about we frantic, paranoid Americans—who are notoriously fickle when it comes to reading rambling blocks of text, especially on a Saturday night—so let's just nip it in the bud right now with the wisdom that the kleptomaniacal robber barons may screech and moan, but in this country, they'll always be among us. Always.

cross-posted: dkos, fsz

February 01, 2009

We Love It when Our Friends Become Successful

My friends Mia Bortolussi and Ian Crawford have put their leftover newlywed energy into a bustling new enterprise called Little City Designs, a clothing store currently offering some great apparel at the Etsy hand-made online shop. They've already snagged some local bloggy attention, too. Em and I have many old-school Little City shirts from a few years back, but there's lots of new items up there now, and it's some pretty eye catching stuff:

There's a lot more, but most important is probably this one, for Valentine's Day. Go get it:

I worked with Mia in the design biz for a few years, and she always rocked every project. And Ian, well, he's simply the bestest bike mechanic/violinist that I've ever met. Their combined creative talent could churn out enough energy to power...well, to power a little city, actually. Big high fives to both of them.

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