This week’s reviews are up, free for all Patreon backers. Reviews of the new Bendis Iron Man, Faith, Black Hammer, and Astro City. Let me know what you think…
Chuck Berry turns ninety today, and has also used today to announce that next year he will be releasing his first album in thirty-eight years.
I’ve often said that Berry is the perfect example of a case where it’s a good idea to separate the art from the artist. Chuck Berry the man is, from what I know of his life, a fairly loathsome human being on every level, and I think it important to acknowledge that, but Chuck Berry the artist is a contender for most important artist of the twentieth century, and so I’d like to celebrate the artist’s birthday here.
John Lennon once said “if rock and roll had another name, it would be Chuck Berry”, and that’s pretty much the simplest way of putting it. Rock and roll had no singular inventor, no single moment of creation — at first it was really a marketing label slapped on stylistically disparate records — and one can argue forever what the “first rock and roll record” was, but listen to most of them and it’s hard to see a direct line to anything created after about 1956. Roy Brown’s “Good Rocking Tonight” and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” are Louis Jordan knockoffs (and Jordan *really* needs more credit for the huge influence he had). Bill Haley’s “Rock the Joint” is a lumpen western swing band (with, admittedly, a fantastic guitarist) playing a Louis Jordan knockoff. Elvis’ “That’s All Right Mama” is, other than the astonishing vocal, a standard hillbilly record. Some of them are truly great recordings, but they all sound like interesting paths that didn’t really lead anywhere.
Chuck Berry, though, from his very first single “Maybellene”, sounded different from anything that had come before. His influences were obvious — Jordan, Charlie Christian, Muddy Waters, Cab Calloway, Rosetta Tharpe, Nat “King” Cole, Bob Willis — but he mixed them in an utterly unique manner. To see what I mean, compare these two videos. The first is Bob Willis doing “Ida Red”, the second is Berry’s “Maybellene”.
Ignore the clumping old white men backing Berry in the second video, but pay attention instead to the vocals and guitar. Berry’s song is very obviously “inspired” by the Willis song, but the difference is so great they might as well have been recorded in different centuries, rather than just four years apart. “Maybellene” is certainly dated, but most people would, I think, get the appeal — it’s not modern, but it’s modern enough that people can connect with it. “Ida Red” is ancient history.
If Berry had “only” been the first person to come up with the idea of combining hillbilly rhythms with jump-band licks played on an electric guitar, with a Chicago blues timbre, he would still have been one of the great innovators of 50s music. If he had “only” invented rock and roll guitar — and of the great 50s rock stars he was the only one who was a lead guitarist, with all the rest either strumming an acoustic or playing the piano (though of course there were plenty of great blues guitarists around that time, but Guitar Slim or Johnny “Guitar” Watson were never considered rock and roll and never made the crossover to a white audience like Berry, Fats Domino, or Little Richard) — he’d have been one of the greats.
He also had a much better stage presence than almost all of his contemporaries. Other than him only Little Richard and Elvis didn’t look uncomfortable on stage — all the other early rock stars look like nervous kids in a school play who’ve forgotten their lines. But watch that video again — Berry is not only all over the stage, dancing, pulling faces, but he’s also doing knowing, funny, eye movements at the camera — he’s the first TV-aware rock and roll performer, and knows how to use the medium.
But his greatest contribution was in his lyrics. Berry’s topics were almost always the standard topics of the time — girls who he likes, girls who don’t like him, cars, school, and especially rock and roll music (in fact Berry is largely responsible for rock-as-myth — he largely invented the subgenre of songs about how great rock and roll is) — but the actual *words* he used…
To my mind Berry’s ability with words is second only to P.G. Wodehouse. He doesn’t *quite* have Wodehouse’s ability, but then Wodehouse wasn’t all that great as a lyricist — coming up with unusual and memorable words that fit a strict melody is much harder than *just* coming up with a good phrase. But look at a song like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, just as an example.
This is a song which takes *every single negative stereotype about black men* — they’re lazy, they’re criminals, they’re better at sports (this was less than a decade after Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play major league baseball — the argument for keeping them out had been that black people were too good at it for the white man), and most of all that they will steal your white women with their pure sexual magnetism — and turns them into unmitigated positives, and does so in such a witty manner that you don’t even realise that’s what he’s doing.
“Arrested on charges of unemployment, he was sitting in the witness stand” — what an opening line, and how much it says in so few words. This black man has been wrongly arrested, for something that isn’t a crime, but which plays up to the stereotype of black men as lazy — but Berry states it so casually, it’s impossible not to laugh. It’s simultaneously a brilliantly funny line, and one that carries real political bite. And this song, about black men being irresistible to white women, came out only a year after the murder of Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman.
But at the same time, it’s also a funny, erudite song — “Milo Venus was a beautiful lass, she had the world in the palm of her hand/She lost both her arms in a wrestling match to meet a brown-eyed handsome man”. The idea that this would be how the Venus de Milo really lost her arms is wonderful, and at the same time the line is another snub to racists — this is a black man, singing about other black men, but casually dropping references to high culture.
And Berry’s lyrics are *full* of great lines like those, whether little observations like “the coolerator was jammed with TV dinners and ginger ale” or great metaphors like the stalker in “Nadine” calling out to the woman he’s after “campaign shouting like a southern diplomat” (the line was originally “southern Democrat”, but Berry changed it to avoid party politics in his songs). Then there are things like the shaggy dog story that is “Memphis Tennessee”, where the entire song is set up to make you think it’s a story of separated lovers and only on the last line do you realise it’s from the point of view of a man whose daughter has been taken from him by his ex.
Berry’s career as an important songwriter was a short one — his first record was in 1955, and his last really important songs were in 1964, by which time a new generation of musicians inspired by him had already become major stars. The time he was a relevant artist overlaps pretty much exactly with the history of “rock and roll”, as opposed to the rock music that came later, and while he made occasional records after that time, and even had his only number one single in 1972 with the Dave Bartholomew song “My Ding-A-Ling”, nothing he did afterward mattered in the way those nine years did.
But in those nine years he did “Maybellene”, “My Ding-A-Ling”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Carol”, “Come On”, “Little Queenie”, “The Wee Wee Hours”, “Nadine”, “Rock and Roll Music”, “Johnny B Goode”, “No Particular Place To Go”, “School Day”, “You Never Can Tell”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Thirty Days”, “No Money Down”, “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Promised Land”, “I’m Talking About You”, “I’ve Got To Find My Baby”, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”, “Almost Grown”, “You Can’t Catch Me”, and a dozen others. He wrote “Havana Moon”, a song which with a couple of changes by his namesake Richard Berry became “Louie Louie”. He inspired Keith Richards’ guitar, Bob Dylan’s lyrics, and the Beach Boys’ hits. He *was* rock and roll.
Hail! Hail! Rock and roll.
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OK, same as last week, tomorrow I’ll be doing reviews, in a free post for Patreon backers, of comics they’ve suggested I get, so here (and over at Patreon) is the thread to suggest comics for me to review — the link to see what comes out tomorrow is here.
I’ve lost at least one presumed friendship already today.
I say “presumed” because the person in question apparently has such a low opinion of me that he thinks I support firebombing one’s political opponents, and cares so little about that presumed friendship that when he realised he was mistaken he chose not to apologise for that.
Just in case anyone else is in any doubt on where I stand:
I do not support terrorism of any kind. What was done to the Republican local HQ last night was wrong.
Whatever the views of the person who did it, the only people allied with them are the people who choose to be. And that goes whether I agree or disagree with them. The murder of Jo Cox (something infinitely worse than the minor property damage caused last night) did not immediately make everyone who supported Leave complicit — even though I was on the same side as Cox in the EU referendum. Nor did it oblige them to give financial support to the Remain side.
Giving money to the North Carolina Republicans is supporting a hate group. The North Carolina Republicans recently passed a law that essentially criminalises being trans in public. Calls to trans suicide hotlines, already far too high, have doubled since then. Making a donation to a political party is giving them license to use your money to further their aims, and the North Carolina Republicans’ aim is to make life intolerable for LGBT people and non-Christians, and to make it difficult or impossible to vote while black.
Refusing to support that, and saying so, is not the same as supporting the firebomber. Even if they do turn out to be opponents of the Republicans (which seems likely, but it’s not at all impossible that this was done by Republican supporters as an attempt to generate sympathy), they’re not on my side. I get to choose who I support for myself, not be arbitrarily assigned into one of two groups — either handwringing centrists who care more about property damage than about violence done to actual humans, or terrorists who want to intimidate their opponents. A pox on both their houses.
As Alexandra Erin put it on Twitter:
“I will not pay one cent in tribute to prove I am better than the bombers or the people who passed HB2. I know I am, because I did neither.”
I have had more than enough of false binary “you’re with us or with them” nonsense to last a lifetime. I’m a Lib Dem, not “really a Tory” or “really Labour”. False, forced, binaries are what brought about Brexit and what is bringing about the hate-filled atmosphere in the US election campaign.
I’m with me, and with the people I choose to be with. And I’m not with anyone who thinks that if I don’t want to give money to people who want my friends dead then I’m supporting terrorism.
OK, before I start this, I want to make one thing clear: I am not, N-O-T NOT going to tell you how you should use your vote. It would be presumptuous, arrogant, and absurd for me to think I know better than people in the USA what the real needs of the people there are, and would require a breathtaking level of narcissism for me to imagine that anyone at all would even consider changing their vote based on what some tenth-tier blogger thinks. This is not an attempt to interfere in your election.
But on the other hand, a few USian friends have asked me what I would do if I were in the US and able to vote in the election. Not, I think, for advice (most of my friends are capable of making their own minds up), but just because I sometimes have thoughts that are interesting to them. It’s on that basis that I am writing this.
My opinions of the two major candidates are not favourable, but one is distinctly more unfavourable than the other.
Hillary Clinton, I think, is an example of everything that is wrong with the current political consensus, both in the US and the UK. She’s a centre-right hawk with little in the way of principles other than “Hillary Clinton should have power”. If she gets in, I suspect her to make no more than token attempts — at most — to avert climate change, to stop the ongoing massacre of black people by the police, to stop the mass incarceration of (mostly black, mostly poor) people for the victimless “crime” of drug use, to prevent persecution of trans people, to increase the power of labour against that of capital, or to improve the economic situation of the poorest. I expect her to continue and possibly escalate the US’ ruinous policy in the Middle East. I expect her to continue and possibly increase the use of the death penalty. I expect her to attempt unworkable and abhorrent invasions of privacy in the name of “counter-terrorism”.
In short, I think that in the *very best case* scenario, thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of people will die, and many multiples of that will have their lives severely worsened, as a result of deliberate, conscious, avoidable choices she will make. More people’s lives will be ruined by her than a human mind is capable of comprehending.
But I also think it probable that she will — slightly — improve the lives of a majority of Americans in the short term. She will almost certainly not vastly *increase* the rate of climate change, the number of black people being murdered by the police, and so on. Things that are getting worse will still get worse, but the rate at which they’re getting worse won’t increase much, and may in some cases decrease, and at the end of her time in office, she will leave office without a fight.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a monster. He is clearly, to use Altermeyer’s terms, a right-wing authoritarian with social dominance orientation. Put another way, he will make *everything* worse. He will not make a single decision that would not cause death and destruction. Everything that Hillary Clinton would make worse, he would make worse. Everything that Hillary Clinton would make better, he would make worse. He is Nixon, but with half the brain, no previous governing experience, and a coke habit. I would put the chances at as high as ten percent that if he becomes President he will start a nuclear war.
I go into less detail with Trump because detail isn’t even something that applies. Just “fuck no, not that”.
So, were I a voter in the US, my first priority would be to make sure that Trump was defeated, and defeated as thoroughly as possible. My *second*, longer-term priority would be to try to ensure I didn’t have to make such a choice in future.
So if I were anywhere where my voting for Clinton would possibly make any difference to the electoral college result (say if I was in the twenty states in the middle of the range for “swinginess”) I’d vote Clinton without a second’s thought.
If I were in a state that was definitely going to go one way, I’d investigate the policies of smaller candidates who were standing. It may be that I’d still think Clinton the best of a bad bunch — if so, I’d vote for her. If I didn’t, though, I’d vote for a third-party candidate in the hope of giving them some prominence or funding in future years.
But then, down the ballot, I’d become as close to a single-issue voter as possible, on the subject of electoral reform (which, in many ways, I am at the moment, modulo the UK’s very different but equally bad system). I’d find out the positions of every candidate on the ballot on the subject, and write to all of them stating my own position, stating who I’d voted for, and why.
(There may well, of course, be other issues that would influence my vote. If I were in a state where the choice was, say, one candidate who campaigned on a slogan of “basic income, universal free healthcare, an end to the drug war, and free chocolate for people called Andrew” and another who campaigned on a slogan of “impose theocracy now! Death to all non-Mormons! And a preferential, proportional, voting system!”, I would with reluctance cast my ballot for the first).
I’m under no illusion that voting down-ballot for pro-electoral-reform candidates would fix anything in the short or medium term, but unless people start to see it as an issue that’s worth specifically voting for, there won’t even be that tiny amount of pressure to make anything better.
I’d also make sure I was a member of the Democratic Party and able to vote in primaries, and do so.
So what I’d do in US elections would essentially be what I do in UK elections — vote for whoever would make the least-worst government short term, work within the least-worst party to turn it from the least bad to one that’s actually good, and push for electoral reform over all else so that one day someone may be able to vote for the best candidate rather than just settling for one that won’t set them on fire.
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