What If He Hadn’t Left The Building?

A few days ago, my friend Richard Gadsden suggested to me that I should write something about how Elvis might have had more artistically productive years in him had he lived. As this is a subject on which I have Opinions (and as Richard is one of my Patreons, and I’m planning to start writing posts on topics they suggest on an occasional basis anyway) I thought I’d give it a go.

Before we look at what I think would have happened with Elvis had he lived, though, I think I have to make the case that Elvis’ artistic contributions hadn’t *already* ended by the time of his death. There’s an unfortunate myth that Elvis was artistically a spent force from the moment he joined the army. It’s certainly true that Elvis was not *consistently* as great in the 60s as he had been in the 50s — allowing “Colonel” Parker to make decisions which sacrificed any kind of artistic integrity for quick money put paid to any hope of him having a completely artistically satisfying career. (On the other hand, which of us could say, hand on heart, that were we told “your job is to go and hang around on the beach in Hawaii, and to kiss several incredibly beautiful bikini-clad women. For a month of this arduous work, we will pay you two million dollars (at 1960s dollar values) — oh, but you also have to sing a stupid song about papayas”, we would say “no, I value my artistic integrity more than mere wealth”? Certainly you could buy a great deal of flexibility about my *own* integrity for a great deal less money than that).
Even during the 60s, though, Elvis recorded “Such A Night”, “Reconsider Baby”, “Little Sister”, “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame”, “Suspicious Minds”, “Guitar Man”, “Such A Night”, “Return to Sender”, “Long Black Limousine”, his two extraordinary albums of religious music, and more.

And then in the 70s, Elvis got really good. This has been rather obscured by a few factors. One of those is that he looked ridiculous to modern eyes — while he was only actually fat for a year or two prior to his death, it’s the image that remains of him. But of course fat people can still make great music. And the jumpsuits he wore then also look ridiculous now — but no more ridiculous than the stage costumes of *any* musical act in the mid-70s. It’s just that Elvis died before he could change his image.

But worse, from a legacy point of view, is that the music he was making wasn’t cool. There is still a belief, for God only knows what reason, that the only music which is artistically valid is music which is aimed at, and deals with the concerns of, hormonal middle-class adolescent males. Presley’s 70s music wasn’t like that. It dealt with the concerns of fat middle-aged divorced truck drivers — which given that Presley himself was a fat middle-aged divorced ex-truck driver is hardly surprising.

But if you’re able to listen to music without bringing some rather unpleasant bigotries around age and class to it, listen to the last album Elvis released in his lifetime, Moody Blue (Spotify link — and while searching for that I also found this — a double CD of his complete last studio recordings, released only this month, which I’m listening to as I write, and which is excellent).

Listening to that, what do you hear? You hear an extraordinarily tight band — the same people who backed Gram Parsons, playing the same kind of music Parsons played. 70s Elvis is the secret root of almost all Americana, the grandparent they’re embarrassed by and keep in the attic, but without which the entire genre wouldn’t exist. And over it all, THAT VOICE.

Elvis’ voice is less controlled in his last recordings than in the stuff he did up to about 1974. Whether this is because of his substance abuse problems or a deliberate artistic choice is open to question. But the thing is, that lack of control is only relative. Listen to that live version of Unchained Melody — he’s singing in at least three different ranges, different parts of his body, while playing the piano, and doing it with *extraordinary* projection. Listen to the final “to” in “to me”, where he manages to go from a low bass to high falsetto smoothly. That’s a GREAT singer. Then compare the vocals on “If You Love Me Let Me Know” — a light country tenor — to those on “Way Down”, a growling funky low baritone.

At the time of his death, Elvis was, quite simply, a better interpreter of popular song than anyone else alive at the time save *maybe* Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, or Frank Sinatra — and was, frankly, doing better work than those three at the time. If 70s Elvis had no artistic future, then *no* pure vocalist (so one who wasn’t also a writer) had an artistic future.

But what kind of future could he have had? He only put out a handful of albums in the 70s, because he was being worked to death by Tom Parker. So we need a plausible way in which this could have happened.

One exists. Assume Elvis didn’t have the heart attack in 1977, or that he survived it. Elvis’ father died about eighteen months later. Vernon Presley was, by all accounts, an extremely selfish, greedy, man who relied on his son for financial support, and who saw Tom Parker as a financial genius who was responsible for the income stream. Once Vernon was gone, there was no need for Elvis to be provider, and no-one with power over him to keep him with the Colonel.

So imagine Elvis sacks the Colonel in 1979. He hires Jerry Schilling to be his manager instead (Schilling was one of Elvis’ closest friends, and also managed the Beach Boys and Jerry Lee Lewis, so a plausible choice). Schilling recognises that Elvis has serious problems, and hires in the controversial therapist Eugene Landy, fresh from bringing Brian Wilson back from the brink (in our timeline, Schilling was the person who hired Landy to treat Wilson for the second time, in the early 80s, so again this is plausible).

What kind of career is plausible for Elvis in this timeline? Well, the one that isn’t plausible is one that a lot of people who only like Elvis’ 50s stuff fantasise about — Elvis is reinvigorated by punk, starts making simple rock records again, covers “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (for some reason *everyone* thinks Elvis would have covered Joy Division). This is a fundamental misreading of the kind of artist — and the kind of man — Elvis was. For the same reason, I don’t see him going the Rick Rubin route. Elvis was someone who was fundamentally not concerned with the kind of credibility someone like Rubin offers.

So here’s what happens. Elvis completely ignores punk and post-punk — he simply doesn’t get it. When Elvis Costello has a couple of hits, he makes some disparaging, insulting, remarks to the press about people stealing his name, but that’s about it. Instead, he makes a terrible disco album, probably produced and written by Barry Gibb. It flops horribly. During the early 80s rockabilly revival, there’s an abortive attempt to record something with Dave Edmunds producing, but it gets nowhere, as Elvis gets frustrated and says “I thought you were meant to be the new hot thing, but you’re just doing the same shit I was doing thirty years ago, boy.” — a single is released, but the planned album is on hold.

And his career doesn’t recover for several years, especially after his endorsement of Reagan for President turns the music press even more firmly against him. It doesn’t recover, in fact, until Live Aid.

Elvis was hesitant about doing Live Aid at all — it wasn’t his audience, and because of the fifteen-minute turnaround time he wouldn’t be able to use his full band, as there was simply not enough time to get them set up on the stage. However, Bob Geldof pressured him, and pointed out that he would literally be the only major star they didn’t have, and what that would do for his reputation.

So it was eventually agreed that to make it special, he’d get his old bandmates Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana together for the first time since 1968, with Jerry Scheff subbing for the late Bill Black on bass. They would do one song, just one, but that should be enough. They went on stage, horribly underrehearsed, and did a terrible version of “Hound Dog”. The audience applauded, but more out of embarrassment than anything else.

And something clicked inside Elvis’ brain. He wasn’t used to having to actually win an audience over. But he’d show them.

“I got time for one more, don’t I?”

The band looked confused.

“Oh, don’t worry fellas. I won’t be needing you.”

Elvis took off his guitar, and walked to the front of the stage, and completely alone, sang an a capella version of “How Great Thou Art”. That moment, endlessly shown in clips shows over subsequent decades, started the revival of Elvis’ career.

A TV special, “Elvis 86”, featuring guests Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Belinda Carlisle, and Mark Knopfler, was a success, and was quickly followed by a comeback album — Elvis’ first album of new material in five years. Produced by Jeff Lynne, and with songs contributed by Lynne, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney, and others, it was widely regarded at the time as the first truly satisfying album he had ever released, although its reputation is now slightly lower than it was at the time.

It went to number one, as did the 1989 follow-up. That follow-up had a number of problems, not least Presley and Lynne falling out half-way through, with Mitchell Froom taking over the production role for the last five songs. But one song from the Lynne sessions — a Lynne/Petty co-write, “I Won’t Back Down” — returned Presley to the top of the charts.

After that, of course, came the classic Unplugged special and album. The early and mid nineties, though, saw a creative nadir for Presley, with short-lived collaborations with Mutt Lange, Jim Steinman, Diane Warren, and other purveyors of big ballads for film soundtracks. Many of these records were hits, and his duet with Celine Dion on “The Power of Love” is largely considered responsible for bringing her to the attention of Anglophone listeners, but really there’s very little of worth here. By the time he was sixty, the King was still regularly charting, but was creatively bankrupt.

Salvation came in the form of Don Was, who produced the Grammy-winning duets album The King and Them, featuring Elvis duetting on new versions of his hits with such then-popular singers as k.d. lang, Michael Stipe, Bono, and Alanis Morrissette. While in retrospect the album is fairly weak, and sold mostly as a novelty album, it made Elvis seem briefly hip again, for the last time.

In the last decade of his life, before his death in 2005 aged seventy, Elvis concentrated on making albums of cover versions. His record of Hank Williams covers, including a posthumous duet on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” which was a minor country hit, was the first of several themed albums, including an album of covers of the R&B songs he had loved as a youth and three volumes of interpretations of the great American songbook.

So anyway… that’s the closest thing I can come up with to a way in which Elvis — a deeply inconsistent and frustrating artist, but one who was capable of greatness — would have had something close to an artistically reasonable career in the decades after 1977. It’s not what my fantasy Elvis career would be, but it *is* probably the best possible path through the kinds of choices the real man was likely to have made. I could go into more detail — about his occasional recurring guest role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, about his point-missing cover version of a Monty Python song, about his contribution to U2’s Rattle and Hum — but that’s the broad-strokes outline. With most of those albums, if we actually had them, we’d still be complaining about the problems, and about the frustration of listening to them knowing that he could have done so much more with his natural talent. If it was otherwise, it wouldn’t really be Elvis.

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Update re: last post

Assuming they do this (and we will be checking) I think that counts as a win, and shows the power of kicking up a fuss on social media. It would be nice if they’d bothered to say sorry publicly as well, but you can’t have everything, and fixing the problem is all that matters.

But if we turn up in a couple of weeks and those screens aren’t there…well, let’s just hope that they are.

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Why Do AMC Cinemas Hate Blind People?

My wife is legally blind, and likes to go to the cinema. There are a few cinemas that we go to, and most of them are very good about her blindness. We sometimes go to HOME, and they provide audio description headphones whenever there’s a description for that film (sometimes, as with watching classic films from the 50s or whatever, there isn’t). When, as sometimes happens, there’s a technical problem with the audio description, they apologise, refund us the money, allow us to watch the rest of the film for free, and give us complimentary tickets for a future showing. Most of the time there isn’t a problem, of course.

Other times we go to the Cineworld in Stockport. They also provide audio description headphones for every film (they only show big new films, all of which now come audio described), and will do things like suggest the best place in the cinema to sit for optimal reception of the signal. They do this quickly, professionally, and without any confusion.

And on occasion we go to the AMC in Manchester city centre.

We will not be going again, and suggest you don’t either, if you care even slightly about disabled people.

Holly only discovered the existence of audio description as a regular thing a year or two ago, and we’ve only been to the AMC twice since then. The first time was a little over a month ago, to see Ghostbusters. Unlike at HOME or Cineworld, where as soon as you ask for audio description headphones they go and get some, explain where the switches and so on are, and generally go out of their way to help, the people at the AMC seemed to treat the request in much the same way as if I’d requested they provide me a porcupine that speaks Spanish. Eventually, after about four people had some earnest conversations, they provided a pair of headphones and I took it in to Holly, as the film had already started at that point.

When she put them on, she discovered it wasn’t the audio description, but rather the soundtrack, amplified for hearing-impaired people. I took the headphones back out, explained the situation, explained it again to someone else as the first person didn’t understand (that is NOT a dig at the person in question, but at the lack of training they have been provided), and eventually explained it to the projectionist, who they called out, and who said, and I quote:

Oh, we never bother with that, as no-one ever asks for it

I repeat:

Oh, we never bother with that, as no-one ever asks for it

so now I had to go back into the cinema and make my wife cry, by explaining to her that she wouldn’t be able to properly watch the film she’d been so excited about seeing, because the cinema couldn’t be bothered with her.

After the film, we complained to the manager, who said “he shouldn’t have said that” (note what she *didn’t* say, which is “that’s not true” — she just said he shouldn’t have said it). I explained to her the duty under the law to provide reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities, and she said “this won’t happen again”, and gave us a couple of complimentary tickets.

As I explained to her at the time, though, what we wanted wasn’t tickets, but an assurance that they would start to bother.

Yesterday we (along with our friend Debi, who’s here to stay for a few days) gave them a second chance, going to see Finding Dory (a film Holly had already seen once, so if they messed things up again she wouldn’t be totally lost).

This time, after talking to four different members of staff, we were eventually told “well, it’s not *advertised* as being audio-described” — as if it were our fault for expecting them to fulfil their legal obligations whether or not they were advertising it.

They then told us they *did* have an audio-described showing of Finding Dory, if we wanted to see it.

A 3D showing.

Not only do 3D screenings cost more than 2D screenings, and require glasses which cost extra — thus ensuring they are charging extra for providing disability accommodation, which is illegal — there’s also the rather important point that


I say often here because “blind” covers a variety of problems and most blind people have *some* vision. Some blind people can probably get something out of 3D effects — but it certainly shouldn’t be expected.

At that point I just became a raging ball of fury, and I still am twenty-four hours later.

The first time this happened, I tweeted about it and got a reply from them, offering to discuss this in private by DM or email or any other way which didn’t give them bad publicity. I didn’t take them up on it, because I told them I wasn’t interested in private compensation for us, but in *public* steps taken to actually solve the problem. When Debi talked about this time on FB, she similarly got a reply as a private message (which I haven’t read but which from her description solved nothing). Again, no public acknowledgement that this is even a problem.

So I have a simple question to ask AMC. Three questions, actually:

Why do you hate blind people?
Why do you like making my wife cry?
Is there any reason at all that we shouldn’t pursue prosecution under the Equalities Act 2010 for your active contempt of disabled customers?

I asked the first two questions on Twitter yesterday, and of course got no response. Maybe adding that third one will get them to publicly apologise, not only to one disabled customer, but to all the others they “don’t bother” with or illegally charge extra for their legal rights, and more importantly maybe it will get them to actually fulfil their obligations to disabled people.

Because if asking the question doesn’t get them to do that, then I will have an answer, and will have to take this further.

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The Turtles Complete Original Albums Collection

For a band as important as they are, and one that (unlike almost all of their contemporaries) owns all their own masters, the Turtles have been rather shoddily dealt with in terms of reissues of their catalogue. While they were pioneers in doing decent reissues in the 1980s (Rhino Records, which for many years was the market leader in archival releases, got started with the Turtles’ back catalogue), many of their albums had fallen out of print in recent years, and the few CDs that remained available were fairly shoddy affairs when compared to, for example, the reissues put out by Now Sounds of the Association’s catalogue.

This has now changed, with the release of The Complete Original Albums Collection and its counterpart All The Singles, which between them cover everything the band released (apart from some early recordings under the name The Crossfires, from before they became The Turtles, which have occasionally been stuck out on compilations under the later name).

These sets have had the involvement of Andrew Sandoval, who I’ve often praised here previously for his work on reissues from pretty much every important 60s band who weren’t the Beatles, and while I can’t speak to sound quality or liner notes, having bought the album set as MP3s (the physical set isn’t out in the UK for another couple of weeks, and frankly both physical sets are currently ludicrously overpriced on Amazon UK — their prices in every other country are much more reasonable) I can be sure that those are superlative, as they have been in every other reissue project Sandoval has had a hand in.

One disappointment is that there are a handful of things on the singles set that aren’t on the albums set (luckily, I had all of them anyway, because that’s the kind of person I am). I understand all the myriad reasons why that will be the case (it’s much cheaper from a licensing perspective to include multiple versions of the same song than include multiple different songs, for example), and these things are always a balance between artistic and commercial goals, but it’s a shame that there’s not something you can point to and say “that has *everything*”.

However, the album set does come tantalisingly close to just that. Most of the tracks missing are insubstantial things like the record-company-mandated country single “Who Would Ever Think That I Would Marry Margaret?”, but two tracks, “Lady-O” and “You Know What I Mean”, are among their very finest work and are absolutely required listening for anyone who even has a passing interest in the band.

I would imagine, though, that anyone wanting to buy a six-CD set of the Turtles’ work probably already has a singles compilation. If you don’t, the new 2-CD compilation is probably a better starting place than this set, and you should buy that. But for those who already have the hits, what does this set have to offer?

Disc One is the Turtles’ first album, It Ain’t Me, Babe, in both mono and stereo mixes, and is by far the weakest of the set. At this stage, the Turtles were a one-hit wonder, their version of the title track having reached number eight on the charts, and so they had to crank out an album of generic folk-rock semi-protest at short notice. There’s really little of value here — while the title track is pretty good, at this stage they only had one idea, which was for Howard Kaylan, the band’s lead vocalist, to try to sound a bit like Colin Blunstone, and to get loud in the chorus and quiet in the verses. Using this idea, they blast through some other Dylan covers for which this technique doesn’t work, a handful of P.F. Sloan songs (including “Eve Of Destruction”, which they relegated to an album filler but which would later become a massive hit for Barry McGuire), a couple of unoriginal originals, and a bizarre baroque-pop cover version of “It Was A Very Good Year”, which would have been odd even were it not being sung by someone so young his parents had to countersign his record contract.

This first album is nice to have, of course, but not something one is likely to return to for many repeat listens. It gives very little hint that the band recording it would go on to (at least occasional) greatness or importance. It’s possibly slightly better as a folk-rock cash-in than, say, Folk City by Jan & Dean, but it’s not a classic of the genre.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, of disc two, containing mono and stereo versions of their second album, You Baby. You can tell how much care was put into these early albums by the fact that it contains one song, “Let Me Be”, which had appeared on the previous LP. It’s a collection of generic folk-pop based around two hit singles (“Let Me Be” and the title track, a great little Sloan/Barri pop song, one of the best pop records of the simple three-chord jangle-pop beat style ever made) with much of the rest being filler (a typical example is a song called “In Suburbia”, written by Bob Lind of “Elusive Butterfly” fame, which is the most perfectly condensed example of 60s sneering at middle-class people I know of).

But then, during the recording of disc three, which contains mono and stereo versions of their third album, Happy Together, everything went wrong for the Turtles, and they got good. They had a string of flop singles, and their rhythm section left, for various reasons (most notably rhythm guitarist Jim Tucker was so disillusioned after meeting a drunk, abusive, John Lennon — his inspiration and reason for taking up the guitar — in London during a UK tour that he got on a plane back to California, gave up music and never spoke to the rest of the band again).
Lead vocalist Howard Kaylan, backing vocalist Mark Volman, and lead guitarist Al Nichol were all that was left of the band, and they regrouped and changed direction. They took on a new drummer, John Barbata, and more importantly added bass player Chip Douglas, recently a member of the Modern Folk Quartet.
The new line-up had four excellent singers, and they decided that rather than folk-rock, they were going to play music that was like the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “good-time music”, but with an extra emphasis on their vocal harmonies. They got hold of a rejected demo by songwriters Alan Gordon and Gary Bonner, who were signed to the same publishers as the Lovin’ Spoonful, and Chip Douglas came up with a great arrangement for it, combining the best elements of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Beach Boys, and the Turtles’ own signature quiet/loud dynamics into what was one of the great pop records of all time, “Happy Together”.
Douglas left soon after that single, being poached by Mike Nesmith to be the Monkees’ producer on the strength of his arrangements for the Turtles, and he was replaced by Jim Pons, himself a superb bass player and singer, for much of the rest of the album. But he’d done his job. The Turtles were now a harmony band, with an understanding of arrangement and dynamics, creating perfect sunshine pop.
Happy Together is as mixed as the earlier records, songwriting-wise — although it contains another great Bonner/Gordon single, “She’d Rather Be With Me”, an early effort by Warren Zevon, and some very good original material by the band members, including the extraordinarily strange psych-pop song “Rugs of Woods and Flowers” it also contains pap such as “Guide For The Married Man”, a title song for a dire farce. But even the worst tracks have a confidence in the performances, arrangements, and production that was totally missing from the first two albums. Not everything on it is great, but quite a lot of it is, and it’s a solidly *good* album.

disc four presents their first *great* album, and their first one only to be released in stereo, The Turtles Present The Battle of the Bands. Chip Douglas returned for this one, as producer rather than bass player, and brought with him two songwriters from the Monkees’ circle — Harry Nilsson, who co-wrote the title track with Douglas; and Bill Martin, who wrote the environmental ballad “Earth Anthem” which closes the album.
Other than a cover version of the Byrds’ “You Showed Me”, everything else on the album is original. Each track is done in a different style, and credited to a different fictional band, (“The Atomic Enchilada”, “The Fabulous Dawgs”, “Chief Kamanawanalea and his Royal Macadamia Nuts”, “Nature’s Children”), and for the first time the Turtles show on record the sense of humour that had always characterised their live performances.
Many of the songs contain stupid puns and jokes (for example “Kamanawanalea” is pronounced “come on, I wanna lay ya”), but most of the joking is musical, and it’s fascinating to hear them do such spot-on musical pastiches that yet work as non-ironic examples of the genres.
The ultimate example of this is “Elenore”, which is credited to “Howie, Mark, Johny, Jim & Al”, because it’s a pastiche of the Turtles themselves. Specifically, it’s a parody of “Happy Together” written by Kaylan, with deliberately bad lyrics like “you’re my pride and joy, et cetera”. It manages to be absolutely hilarious, but also to be a genuinely great pop single.
The disc is rounded out by a variety of non-album singles and alternate mixes, including “She’s My Girl”, the last (and arguably the best) of the Turtles’ Bonner/Gordon singles, which is one of the first records I ever truly obsessed over. I remember sitting and playing my 45 copy of that over and over as a tiny child, just wondering how they managed to get that sound. As an adult I can see exactly how they did it, but it’s still marvellous. There’s also “The Story Of Rock & Roll”, a flop single written by Harry Nilsson, who had originally given it to the Monkees (who had recorded a backing track but never finished it).

Towards the end of Battle Of The Bands, John Barbata quit the band, being replaced by John Seiter, for what would be their final album, Turtle Soup, which makes up most of disc five.
While the band themselves aren’t apparently fond of this, I think it’s honestly their masterpiece. It’s produced by Ray Davies, who they brought in to work on it after falling in love with The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, and it’s an album that in my opinion should be ranked with that one or Odessey and Oracle in the lists of great pastoral psych-pop.
People always point to “Love In The City” as the great track from this album, but to me the standouts are “You Don’t Have To Walk In the Rain” (a beautiful reworking of the Elenore/Happy Together formula, with great lines like “I look at your face/I love you anyway”) and the gentle ballad “Dance This Dance With Me”, which shows that they’d internalised the Kinks’ music so well they could write a better Ray Davies song than Ray Davies himself could for much of the rest of his career.
The CD is filled out with demos of songs from the album, and with full-band recordings of songs that the Turtles wouldn’t release while they were still together, but which Volman and Kaylan (and Pons) would rerecord a few years later for the first few Flo & Eddie albums — songs like “Goodbye Surprise”, “There You Sit Lonely”, “Marmendy Mill”, and “If We Only Had The Time” which will be very familiar to fans of their post-Zappa work.

The final CD, disc six, collects songs which had previously been bonus tracks on earlier CD releases, mostly from the releases of the first two albums. This is as mixed a bag as you would expect (things like a version of “We’ll Meet Again”), but some of it’s great — “She’ll Come Back”, a song that only appeared on a film soundtrack at the time, shows their Zombies influence to the point where it could easily have been from the first Zombies album (and would have been better than much that’s on it), while their version of the Goffin/King song “So Goes Love” is far, far superior to the Monkees’ later version, and “Grim Reaper of Love” is a mess, but a wonderful mess. Whatever made them think that the best way to follow up their top twenty hit “You Baby” (“From the time I go to sleep til the morning comes I dream about you baby, nobody but you”) was to do a song with verses in 5/4, choruses in waltz time, an electric sitar, and lyrics about “killing the living and living to kill”, it was a magnificently brave decision.

All in all, this is finally the set the Turtles deserve. It’s not the place to start with them — you want to get any hits compilation with “Happy Together”, “Elenore”, “She’s My Girl”, “You Know What I Mean” and “Lady-O” on it if you want an easy introduction to their music. But if, after hearing those, you want more, it would be hard to imagine a better collection.

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Linkblogging For 21/8/16

Blood pressure headache today, so no full post. There’ll be a proper post early tomorrow morning (a review of the Turtles Complete Albums box set) and possibly another one later tomorrow (the second What Autism Feels Like post), but for now, links.

My friend Matthew Rossi, one of the finest writers I know, has set up a Patreon. I can’t fund it myself right now — I’m not crowdfunding any more things (other than those I’ve already pledged to) until I know what my writing income is going to stabilise at — but as soon as I know what it is I will, and you should now.

Jo Walton on the writing of The Just City

Dark Adventure Radio Hour, who do audio dramatisations of Lovecraft stories in the style of 1930s US radio, have made their version of The Shadow Over Innsmouth available for free download.

The Men Who Left Were White — a powerful piece on the now-defunct Gawker, about the rhetoric of black men leaving their children, written by the black descendant of white slaveowning rapists.

A knitting pattern for a cellular automaton tea cosy

And a streaming video link that I’ve not yet watched, to a Monkees (Micky & Peter) show from a couple of days ago, broadcast on AXS TV)

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Donald Trump is a very, very, very bad man. That much is certain. He is a fascist (I can make the argument if you really need me to). He is a slumlord. He is someone who inherited enough money to last several lifetimes and squandered much of it on narcissism and self-promotion. He’s viciously racist, at least one of his ex-wives has testified under oath that he raped her, he reportedly doesn’t understand why the President shouldn’t use nuclear weapons, and he reportedly has many strong ties to the Mafia.

That, to me, would give most satirists who want to wield the mighty sword of satire to defeat him (I would, here, insert the Peter Cook quote, but I already used it this month. It’s been one of those months.) more than enough to go on. However, that’s not enough for the great satirists at “anarchist art collective” InDecline, who have probed further than anyone else before ever has, and have noticed that he is a fat man with unusual-coloured skin, that he is balding and not conventionally attractive, and that it is possible he may have a small penis, as some men do.

These observations, which only the geniuses of InDecline could possibly have made, have led to the creation of a widely-publicised set of statues turning up in public places, depicting Trump as a fat, orange, nude man with a micropenis and no testicles or scrotum.

Now, before we go any further with this, I want to point out that while in many cases it is possible for something to be a subtle, multi-layered artwork whose nuances are completely beyond my tiny philistinic mind, in this particular case it isn’t. InDecline, who created the “art” in question, also created “Bumfights”, the popular video series in which homeless people fight each other for tiny amounts of money. Their most recent “art project” prior to this was a video called “Rape Trump” showing them graffitiing a mural of Trump with a ball gag in his mouth, the phrase “¡Rape Trump!” and directions to Trump Tower written in bad Spanish. Their website has as an FAQ “How do you know if a Police Officer is gay? The smell of his mustache.”

In short, these are not subtle people, but rather they are the kind of “anarchist” “provocateurs” who make South Park seem like the epitome of sophisticated wit. When asked for an explanation of the statues, they said ““We decided to depict Trump without his balls because we refuse to acknowledge that he is a man. He is a small arrogant child and thus, has nothing in the way of testicles.”

In other words, this really is all on the surface. It’s pointing at someone and saying “ha ha, he’s fat and has a small dick, and also no balls”. That is, in fact, the entire substance of the art, both in its intention and in its reception by the bulk of its audience.

This is important to say, not because it would *excuse* the problems with this were it a more complex piece of art, but it would *explain* them. I know as well as anyone that it is necessary for art to push at various societal boundaries, and that art which is not completely successful can often communicate horrible ideas. When we talk about works being “problematic”, this is often what we mean, and I am more willing than most to give leeway to problematic works (some of the art that speaks most profoundly to me includes Cerebus, the music of Frank Zappa, some of Kubrick’s work… if I cut everything that had problematic social messages out of my cultural life, I would have a drab life indeed). But in this case there’s nothing left other than a simple message, which is that fat people, those with small penises, and those with no testes, are inherently mockable.

(There’s also the way that statement ties human worth, masculinity, and genital configuration together in a way which manages to be both misogynist and transphobic simultaneously, but let’s leave that aside for now).

So, is mocking fat people, people with small penises, and people with no testes, a good idea?

Surprisingly, of these, the one which is now *least* acceptable is mocking fat people. Of course, this is still far more socially acceptable than many other bigotries, but there is at least *some* recognition in some quarters that this is wrong. “Fatphobia” is at least frowned upon, if not by the general population, at least among say the leading-edge 25%, the same people who dislike transphobia, biphobia, and other socially-sanctioned bigotries.

Penis-size shaming isn’t. When I wrote this last year, it was literally the second time ever I had seen or heard the argument made in public that mocking the size of a penis is a bad thing to do (the first time was in Richard Herring’s Talking Cock). It might be something that is becoming slightly less acceptable now (I’ve seen two other people, both friends of mine who would be described as “SJWs” say similar things since), but still it’s considered absolutely acceptable to mock people for presumed small penises. Even though it can cause men to be suicidal. See here. And here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and…

And then there’s the no testes, no scrotum thing. There are three reasons I know of for men having no testes. One of those is men who have had orchiectomies, usually after having testicular cancer. Obviously people who’ve had to have body parts removed because of cancer clearly haven’t suffered enough, and need to be ridiculed, right?

The other two reasons are even more appropriate, because some intersex people and trans men also have micropenises but no scrotum. In other words, their genitalia look exactly like those on the statue. Trans men have, understandably, been a little upset by this. But obviously trans men and intersex people are so privileged by our society that they’re acceptable collateral damage, right?

I keep seeing these statues being defended on the grounds that “he started it” (because obviously Donald Trump doing something is a good reason to do the same) or that Trump deserves mockery. He does — and worse. But he deserves it for being an evil man who does evil things, who makes his money from human misery and revels in the fact.

What he doesn’t deserve is mockery for unrelated physical characteristics, some of which he may not even have (I have no evidence that InDecline have any special knowledge of Donald Trump’s genitalia), but which *are* shared by millions of other people who are already made to feel bad, sometimes to the point of suicide, by societal attitudes towards them.

I don’t expect better from edgelord anarcho-bros like InDecline. I do, though, hope for better from self-described liberals and progressives, than for them to share this kind of filth approvingly. Principles of human decency apply even to one’s opponents, but even ignoring that, the fact is that Trump isn’t the victim here. The real victims are trans and intersex people, fat people, and people suffering from the expectations placed on them by toxic masculinity.

Those are the people we’re supposed to help, not hurt.

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New Batposts Up

Two Batposts are now up. An old one you can read for free, on Mindless Ones, about a Riddler story and the Miranda ruling, and a newer one for Patreons only (for the next few weeks, before it goes public too) on a rather dull episode featuring The Archer.

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