Signal-Boosting: Buy Matthew Rossi’s Books

I’m going to post a proper post tomorrow, but for today I’m going to signal-boost someone else. My friend Matthew Rossi needs help.
You can read the details here, but the short version is: his wife needs medication to stay alive, and the Alberta healthcare system won’t pay for that medication. Both he and his wife are disabled and unable to work full-time, and Matthew has to earn a living from his writing.

Now, there *is* a GoFundMe — which was originally set up for *Matthew’s* medical treatment (he has progressive diabetic retinopathy), and both I and Matthew would be grateful if you donated something to that, but that’s a short-term thing. What they really need is for him to build a writing career, and the only way for him to do that is for people to pay him for his writing.

Now, I wouldn’t recommend people do that if his writing didn’t deserve paying for, but I can honestly say that I can’t imagine any of my friends or readers *wouldn’t* like his stuff. When I first started blogging, there were three people whose writing convinced me that blog essays could be an interesting form, and my online voice is, to this day, a poor imitation of them. Those three people were Andrew Rilstone, Brad Hicks, and Matt. I don’t know if he’d see it in there, but *I* can definitely see a link between the thing I wrote yesterday about Strange Fruit and his pseudo-historical essays. If you like my writing, the chances are at least some of what you like comes from him.

He’s also an incredibly good person — one of the best I know. I’ve known him for a dozen or so years now, and while we’ve not always been close (life gets in the way of long-distance friendships), there *have* been times we’ve been close, and during those times he’s been *incredibly* supportive. He’s been there for me at times when I needed someone, and in ways that mean that I credit him, at least in part, for me still being alive and married.

So if you like my continued existence or my writing, you’d probably like him, is what I’m saying.

If you want to support his writing career, the best way is to buy his books. Unfortunately the ebooks are Kindle-only, but his two novels at least are also in paperback.

The novels are the first two in a series of young adult fiction involving shoggoths, vampires, and other such weirdness, but written with a perception and intelligence rare to the genre. The two ebooks of essays are wonderful essays in historical imagination, and would I think appeal to anyone who liked Robert Anton Wilson’s writing.

(The fifth book, Things That Never Were, is also extremely good, but I don’t know that he gets royalties from that like he does for the others — it was trad-published a long time ago. Buy it last.)

You can also back him on Patreon. I’m a backer (at the lowest level — a good chunk of my own income at the moment comes from Patreon, so at the moment I can’t afford to spend much on backing other people) and he’s one of the better-value people to back — you get downloads of his novels, bonus posts, and other things.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that. Buy some good books by a good writer.

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Strange Fruit

The singer Rebecca Ferguson has been reported as having accepted the offer to play at Trump’s inauguration, under one condition:

I’ve been asked and this is my answer. If you allow me to sing “strange fruit” a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and down trodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world, then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington. Best Rebecca X

For those who don’t know the song… well, first of all, you *should* know the song. Watch the video below. It’s one of the most powerful songs ever written. (Note, it’s about lynching. It may upset you more than you’d otherwise think).

The song is an appropriate one for the Trump inauguration, and not just for the obvious reason — as if its message that Black Lives Matter wasn’t an important enough one right now.

The song is famously “by” Billie Holiday — she made the song her own — but it wasn’t written by her. It was written by a man named Abel Meeropol.

Some have said that Holiday didn’t even really understand the song, no matter how well she performed it — the usual nonsense about black women. There’s no way an uneducated black woman, a survivor of sexual abuse, a drug addict, could have understood — *really* understood — that song. She had an “instinctive artistry”, that’s all. She didn’t understand the message she was sending.

The evidence people usually put forward for that is that when she first heard the song, she asked Meeropol what “pastoral” meant. This isn’t taken as evidence of an artist taking an intelligent interest and wanting to understand a particular nuance, using a word she hadn’t come across before, but somehow it’s seen as the opposite.

(Maya Angelou talks about meeting Holiday later, and Angelou’s son asking Holiday the same question. Holiday replied “It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That’s what it means…. That’s what they do. That’s a goddam pastoral scene.”
I think she understood the song.)

Holiday’s record label, Columbia, wouldn’t release it. It was too controversial. She had to go to a tiny indie label to put it out. It still sold, eventually, and if Billie Holiday is remembered a century from now, it will be for that song above all else (no matter how good that “all else” is — and it is. She was one of the greats).

Abel Meeropol didn’t write the song under his own name, though. He wrote under the name Lewis Allen — after the names of his two biological sons, both of whom died in infancy.

He later adopted, and raised as his own, two more sons. Those two were Michael and Robert Meeropol, born Michael and Robert Rosenberg. They were orphaned because their parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were (like Meeropol sr) members of the Communist party — and they were convicted of espionage, giving state secrets to Russia.

Julius was probably guilty. KGB files certainly seem to suggest that he was working for them. But they also suggest that Ethel Rosenberg was not guilty of the charges against her.

The consensus about Ethel Rosenberg seems to be that the “evidence” against her (the testimony of her brother David Greenglass, later recanted, which he said he only gave to save his own wife from the same fate) was coerced from her brother by one of the prosecution team, Roy Cohn.

Roy Cohn was a rising star of the legal world at the time. Cohn publicly admitted to coercing testimony from Greenglass, and also to illegally using his influence to get the judge in the case appointed and to persuade the judge to impose the death penalty.

Cohn’s “work” in that case brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Cohn became a major figure in the McCarthy hearings that did more to damage American public life and political discourse than almost any other event of the last century. Cohn was particularly involved in the “lavender scare” which led to massively increased persecution of gay men.

(Cohn was himself a closeted gay man).

Cohn then went into private practice, specialising as an attorney in working for Mafia figures. One of his clients, one who is not so far as we know connected to the mob, was a New York slumlord. That slumlord was repeatedly charged, throughout the 1970s, with breaking anti-discrimination laws, denying black people housing.

That slumlord was Donald Trump, and Cohn was his mentor, and the single greatest influence on him in the 70s and early 80s.

(Trump’s father Fred, incidentally, who at the time Trump first worked with Cohn was the owner of the Trump organisation, marched with the Klan. He also had a famous Communist songwriter write against him:

I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project

Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,

)

Blood on the leaves — blood at the roots. Everything about Strange Fruit and its aftermath and aftereffects resonates with Trump today. A woman who was sexually brutalised by powerful men, her agency ripped from her posthumously. Russian espionage used in the service of the far right. The societally-approved murder of black men, given a fig-leaf pretext of keeping order. Klan lynchings. Witch-hunts over unacceptable political opinions. Persecution of LGBT people.

But mostly, more than anything, those murders. Black people being murdered, in broad daylight. Their murderers being let off. Those who complain about the murders being considered subversive and controversial.

By their fruits shall ye know them, and the fruit of Fred Trump’s loins, and of Roy Cohn’s mentorship, is a strange and bitter crop indeed.

Black lives matter. Rebecca Ferguson’s statement matters. And she understands exactly what statement she is sending.

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Question — Archiving Other People’s LiveJournals?

Does anyone know of a tool that will allow you to archive *someone else’s* LiveJournal (ideally in an easily-editable format)?
I had a LiveJournal myself years ago, but deleted it a long time back. However, I’ve been meaning for a while to archive Brad Hicks‘ LJ and turn his better entries into an ebook I can send to people. His journal has some incredibly good insight on it, and I often find myself referring to things he wrote on there, but he’s not updated it in over four years, and with the recent LiveJournal move to Russia, I have no idea how long it will remain online. As it’s licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial, ShareAlike 2.5 License, I’ve planned for a while to create an epub which I can host somewhere and point people to as needed (especially since Google doesn’t seem to have half his posts spidered, so it’s almost impossible to find particular posts when I want to link something).
All the tools I’ve seen for archiving LJ are designed for archiving one’s own posts, and most haven’t been updated in many years (some are written in MS-specific languages or store in proprietary formats as well). I’d like, if possible, to find something that will grab all the entries (not fussed about the comments) and store them in some human-editable format.
If anyone knows of something like that, could you let me know?

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A New Year…

Happy new year.
I’m still in a pretty wretched state after the Christmas period — in the last twelve days my average speed has been forty miles per hour (not an exaggeration) and that kind of thing gets to you after a while. So I thought I’d just do a quick blog post today, and talk about plans for the year.
Last year was dominated for me by health problems, and that means that I have at least four unfinished major writing projects. They’re all quite close to completion, though, so over the next few months you can expect me to finish the third volume of the Beach Boys book, the posts (and book) about Batman 66, and two novels — both of which I have near-complete short first drafts of but which need radical reworking in the second draft.
So there should be at least four books out this year, as I’ve done the bulk of the work for all of them and just need to pull them over the finishing line. After that, we’ll see… I’ve been working on some ideas for a spec script, and some other bits.
Thanks for all your support last year — for the last six months my Patreon has been one of my major sources of income, after I quit my job due to ill health (the other source has been some occasional freelance work). I hope to be better at rewarding that support this year.

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A Simple Thought on the US Election

I have seen a lot of people, over the last few weeks, putting the blame on various different factors for Hillary Clinton’s loss. “It was the FBI!”, “It was BernieBros!”, “It was Putin!”, “It was Jill Stein!”, “it was fake news!”, “It was voter suppression in North Carolina!”

These are mostly being used to argue that Clinton “should” have won, and that she ran a good campaign. In fact, though, I’d suggest that they prove the opposite.

Before we go any further with this, to get something out of the way, I obviously wish Hillary Clinton had won. The set of possibilities for a Trump presidency, as far as I can tell, runs from “corrupt kleptocracy run by the worst President since the US Civil War” as the best option, through “installing a permanent fascist dictatorship”, all the way to “nuclear Armageddon and destruction of all life on the planet within a year”. There is no possible scenario left that doesn’t involve a lot of people, including people I love, dying.

Clinton, by contrast, would have been another Obama. People would still have died, but far fewer of them, and there might have been at least some improvements to the lives of at least some marginalised people.

So given the choice between Trump and Clinton, there’s no choice there.

But the thing is, it should never have *got* to a choice between Trump and Clinton.

See that list up at the top? It’s true. Every one of those things is “to blame” for Clinton losing, because the loss was narrow enough that had any one of those things been different, she would have scraped a win.

But almost every one of those things above could have been predicted before the start of the campaign. There are *always* sore losers who supported another primary candidate — Clinton had her own “Berniebro” equivalents in 2008, the PUMAs. There are *always* more ideologically pure third party candidates running — remember Nader? It was obvious that one of America’s enemies would try hacking both major parties’ data and to use that to influence the election — Russia and China are two of the biggest state sponsors of hacking, and neither are exactly known for their commitment to the sanctity of the electoral process. And “fake news” has been around as long as the Internet — Snopes has been around for twenty-one years now, and the reason for its existence has always been to combat the kind of bullshit that the media has suddenly woken up to in the last few weeks. The voting rights act was overturned three years ago, and plenty of us made a huge stink about it then.

The only one that *might* not have been predicted even four years ago is the FBI involvement. And even that should have been a possible factor taken into account, given that Clinton was already under investigation at the start of the campaign. And they should have been prepared for *something* like that, if not that exactly — there’s a reason “October surprise” is a phrase. *SOMETHING* was always going to come up just before the election that would make the front-runner look bad. Everything else should have been factored into the calculations *years before the primary campaigns even started*.

The fact is, Clinton was up against someone with no previous political experience, who personally insulted journalists for major newspapers, who had no idea of the basic requirements for the role of President or what the job entails, who is charmless, abrasive, physically repellent (shouldn’t be a factor but it is), a habitual liar, an open white supremacist, and a self-admitted multiple sexual abuser.

When *that’s* your opponent, it takes a special kind of incompetence to even let it get close enough that losing is a possibility. It should have made Reagan vs Mondale look like a close-run nailbiter.

The fact that it didn’t — that it got close enough that normal, expected, political events could cause her to lose — shows that the Clinton campaign was fundamentally flawed.

(And yes, I know, more people voted for her than for her opponent. The skewed Electoral College is something else everyone has known about for years).

And I think the reason it was flawed is that people have learned the wrong lessons from Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Obama. In all three cases the narrative seems to be “a preternaturally charismatic and charming figure, up against an unpopular, long-serving, corrupt and decaying government, and offering an ideologically bland programme of right-centrist managerialism, campaigning with a message of change and hope, managed to get the more leftwing of the two major parties into power — it must be the ideologically bland right-centrist managerialism that did it!”

The fact is, we have seen many other attempts to replicate Blair, Clinton, and Obama over the years. Having the same programme and an uncharismatic leader who was already in power led to abysmal defeats for Al Gore and Gordon Brown. Ed Miliband, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg all seem (rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly) like cargo-cult copies of Blair without the charisma, and none of them are exactly watchwords for political success.

On the other hand, Justin Trudeau kept the “going up against a really unpopular government” part, and the “being ludicrously charismatic” one, and the “change and hope” one, and added in an actually radical programme for government (compared to that party’s history and to Canadian politics right now) and moved his party from third to first place. And incidentally, while the Blair government was a right-centre-authoritarian one, the manifesto on which Blair was elected in 1997 was a radical one.

Put simply, centrist policies don’t appeal to the electorate. People will vote for them over obvious evil (again, Trump *did* lose the popular vote, as did Bush jr against Gore), but they won’t do so *enthusiastically*. They’ll vote, but won’t persuade five of their friends to vote too. They *will* turn out to get rid of a government that’s already harming them, if it’s bad enough and has had enough of a “chance”, and they will then vote for centrist policies if they’re packaged as a change from the norm, as “coming from a town called Hope”, as “things can only get better”.

But “the same thing you’ve already got, but certainly nothing much better, and run by a competent-but-dull administrator” has as far as I can remember only won for John Major in the UK in 1992, and he was from the party of the right, which has a different set of priorities from the left.

Put simply, there’s nothing less electable than “electability”, and the sooner the mainstream left realises this, the better for all of us.

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Linkblogging For 24/12/16

As always over the Christmas period I have no mental capacity for writing at all, as the stress to my system of being around unfamiliar people, in unfamiliar places, eating unfamiliar food, and having no privacy has caused all my higher brain functions to shut down.
(Patreons will get last week’s comic reviews soonish. Travelling is a *killer* for writing or even reading)

So today you get links, and be grateful. In my day you’d only get a walnut and a toy train.
Charles Stross is posting Laundry Files “fanfic” on AO3
Toward a new hacker ethic
On the Unlikeliness of the Repathologization of Homosexuality
Mental Disorders As Networks (Slate Star Codex, so as always comments probably contain fascism)
A good piece on how fandoms repurpose online tools for their own ends
And Andrew Rilstone on the Burnhamite tendency in Labour

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In Defence of Wonderful Christmastime

(Before we start, a note: I just googled to check a fact about this, and on the first page of the Google results for “Wonderful Christmastime” is a piece on Salon with the same title as this, published two hours ago. I’ve not read the Salon piece, and I said a week ago

I also want to get some thoughts down over the next day or two about the Richmond Park by-election and in defence of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”,

I just say this in case anyone thought this was inspired by the Salon piece. Any similarities are coincidental.)

It’s December, and so it’s the time of year for a thousand contrarian pieces about how Christmas is evil, and a thousand more meta-contrarian pieces about how, no, Christmas is really great after all.

My own view on the matter is summed up by the fact that my two favourite Christmas songs are (genuinely) “Fairytale of New York” and “It’s Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas”, and I am thus both the cliched hipster cynic and someone who appreciates that this is a bad thing to be. Ah, do you see? Et cetera.

But one thing on which everyone seems agreed [EDIT: except apparently for one person at Salon who gets their copy in a couple of hours before me] is that Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is a terrible record.

What no-one ever does is explain *why* it’s a terrible record. So instead, I’m going to explain why it’s not.

First, one has to look at it in context. The big complaint about it, of course, is simply that it’s inescapable this time of year. That’s true, but it’s not something that would have been known in 1979, when McCartney released it.

British Christmas music is very different from Christmas music in the US. Both countries’ Christmas experiences are based around Boomer nostalgia for Christmases of their past, but in the US that nostalgia is for the very early childhoods of the early Boomer cohort — secular Christmas music as played in US shops, “holiday” radio stations, and so on (at least in the Midwest) is rooted in the pre-rock era, and is mostly music by crooners or by modern performers copying that music. “Wonderful Christmastime” is, in fact, one of only three songs written post-1963 I’ve ever heard on US radio over Christmas (the other two are “Hey Santa!” and “All I Want For Christmas Is You”). Otherwise, US Christmas music ends with “Little St. Nick” and Phil Spector’s Christmas Album.

Meanwhile in the UK, Christmas music starts in 1973, with Slade and Wizzard (still the two peaks of Christmas pop, never to be beaten), and continues through Mud, Boney M, Band Aid, Wham!, and Shakin’ Stevens, more or less ending in 1985 apart from a couple of outliers (Cliff Richard’s “Mistletoe and Wine” and East 17’s non-Christmas-but-somehow-always-played-then “Stay”). It’s the music of the younger Boomer contingent, and of their teens and early twenties.

But when McCartney wrote and recorded the song, of course, there was no way of knowing that it would become a Christmas perennial; in the UK half of them hadn’t even been released yet, while in the US it would have seemed that those had stopped being made more than a decade earlier. There was no reason at the time to expect it to be anything other than a one-off hit, no more or less lasting than, say, “Goodnight Tonight” or “Old Siam, Sir”, or any of the other singles Wings released around then.

(Interesting fact, for some varieties of interesting — “Wonderful Christmastime” was the first solo single McCartney ever released. True fact. All his previous “solo” work was credited to “Paul & Linda McCartney” or to Wings).

I can certainly understand that someone could develop an aversion to a certain record just from hearing it too many times — there are records that were in heavy rotation on the radio when I worked factory jobs and had to hear them three or four times a day in depressing circumstances which I never, ever, want to hear again. But that’s not a particular reflection on the record.

So, let’s just look at it as a record.

First, the lyrics. Yes, as many will point out, they’re simplistic, and if you’re primarily interested in lyrics there’s little to love here. I’d argue, though, that this is a deliberate choice by McCartney. If one listens to any of his late-70s records, the lyrics are, when taken alone, frankly asinine.

But I think that the man who wrote “Eleanor Rigby”, “Paperback Writer”, and “She’s Leaving Home” probably knew that writing, for example, a song whose entire lyrics are “Don’t get too tired for love/Don’t let it end/Don’t say goodnight to love/It may never be the same again/Don’t say it/Don’t say it/Say anything but don’t say goodnight tonight” repeated for four minutes twenty, didn’t convey the same subtlety, pathos, and wit.

The thing to remember is that McCartney was, more than anything, a rock and roller, and for someone of his generation, rock and roll meant exciting new sounds, not complex lyrics. While McCartney got his place in the Beatles by being better at remembering lyrics than Lennon (who cared so little about lyrics himself that he would just improvise new lyrics to the songs he was singing), he never actually managed to learn the lyrics to, say, “Long Tall Sally”. He didn’t have to. He knew what it sounded like. And all the music McCartney grew up on and loved — songs like “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, “Peggy Sue”, “Hound Dog”, “Tutti Frutti” — had almost no lyrical content whatsoever. It was all about the *sound*.

And the same is true for McCartney’s late-70s and very-early-80s output. He only seems to start trying to write songs *about* things again on a regular basis after Lennon’s death (almost as if he felt like now that his more political ex-partner was dead, he had to take up the reins). But the vast bulk of his late-70s output is purely about finding new sounds, and to judge it on its lyrical content is a little like judging The Wasteland as an interpretive dance piece — so far from the clear aims of the work as to be not even wrong.

So, let’s look at the *sound*. And we see that what he’s doing here is very similar to what he’s doing on “Temporary Secretary”, recorded around the same time, which rather than getting derided from all sides is currently regarded as an innovative classic, with Rolling Stone including it recently in a “12 Weirdest Paul McCartney Songs” listicle.

Both songs are experiments in electronic sound, but “Temporary Secretary” is… well… more conventional and less experimental. Yes, the sequencer bleeps are good, but they’re nothing Giorgio Moroder hadn’t done before, and with the crunchy guitar and loud drums, it’s just a fairly standard pop record for 1980 — clearly the same kind of thing as, say, “Take Me I’m Yours” by Squeeze a couple of years earlier.

“Wonderful Christmastime”, on the other hand, could almost be the work of the Radiophonic Workshop. The only instruments on the track are a kick-drum, sleighbells, and layers upon layers of analogue synths (Wikipedia claims there’s guitar on there as well — after listening many times with headphones, I don’t think so, though I could be wrong. One of the instruments in the last instrumental break — the one playing the twiddly melody — may be an acoustic guitar, but if so it’s been distorted to the point that it sounds like an analogue synth that’s been set up to sound a bit guitary. Apart from a single note in the verse after that break, that sound doesn’t appear anywhere else on the track though).

And they’re not being used in normal ways, either. There’s very little chordal support here — it’s lots of intertwining, largely monophonic, lines coming and going. It’s a very, *very* sparse-sounding instrumental track, but there are a lot of small shifts. Try listening in headphones to just one channel, and listen to just those very high, violin-like, sustained notes, and the way they shift.

What the backing track is, largely, is an extremely creative musician pushing what can be done just with synths to the very limits while remaining within an absolutely standard pop song structure (and this is another very McCartney thing; he tends to go wildly experimental on *one thing*, while holding everything else steady, almost like a control. This may explain his massive success).

But McCartney also knew that synths sounded, to listeners at the time, “inorganic” and futuristic. To make it palatable to the casual listener, you have to have something very human. And so we have what sounds like a very casual vocal — it’s husky, and very slightly off key at times. It sounds, actually, rather a lot like McCartney’s brother Mike.

And listening casually, you might think there’s some occasional sloppy double-tracked harmony, along of course with the multi-tracked “ding dong”s and so on. It might sound like a slightly inept vocal, even.

But listen closer. Everywhere where it sounds like he’s singing solo, he’s at least double-tracked, and often triple- or quadruple-tracked. All that roughness in the vocal is *precisely calculated* roughness — a very, very, professional vocalist managing to sound, deliberately, like someone with a decent voice having a sing-song at a party.

And that’s the paradox of this track — the friendly, human-sounding stuff is the work of precise, ruthless, calculation, while the inhuman, cold, machine-like stuff is made by someone giddy with the possibilities of his new toys and playing with them. That’s McCartney all over, really, and whether you like or dislike the record, I’d argue that “Wonderful Christmastime” is, if nothing else, the quintessential Paul McCartney record; the one I’d play people who wanted to learn *everything* about the full range of Paul McCartney’s music in three minutes and forty-five seconds.

Yes, one can certainly get tired of hearing it, and I can more than understand why so many people don’t like the record. But even if you never want to hear it again, it remains the most experimental, innovative, and interesting big Christmas hit ever.

Just don’t ask me to defend the B-side.

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