Thursday, January 27, 2011

THE ERA OF POLITICAL UNREALITY

I haven't uncorked a good political stemwinder in a while, unless you count my post on "THE LOTTERY" a few weeks ago. So here goes.

Years from now, books will be written about our era. As the books mock us, and seek to explain the United States' political class's tone-deaf response to the looming fiscal crisis that was about to hit, they'll have titles like, "Heads In The Sand"; "Death of the American Dream"; "Denying The Obvious - Obama and the Era of Unreality" and the like. Like the many recent books about the recent financial crisis of 2008, a crisis that helped to sound the fiscal panic alarm (an alarm that appears to have not been heard) they'll talk of how all the warning signs were there. They'll talk of how our leaders suffered from a sclerotic system of government that continued to reward them for talking big talk about "investment" (i.e. even more spending), and for kicking the can down the road until after the next election, even as the death knell of the republic was being heard.

The only big difference between our current era of political unreality and most financial bubbles is that many more of us know we're in serious trouble, and have the means to talk about it without sounding like we're batty pessimists saying the sky is falling. An entire election this past November appeared to turn on a section of the electorate understanding that we're totally hosed without bold action. Me, I've been following politics very closely for 25+ years, and I've never remotely been as pessimistic as I am now. Obama's State of the Union speech this week might have been the final straw for me. It was an "unreal" as anything I could have scripted for the films that will be made in 15 years lampooning this president. We'll make some hard choices - but not right now. We need to cut spending - but how about another round of billions of spending on high-speed rail (!) and the chimera of "green jobs"? We don't like debt - but let's spend a bunch of cash we don't have anyway, in search of a "Sputnik moment" that will never, ever come.

This article by Peter Suderman on Obama's bizarre speech - and the subsequent Congressional Budget Office warnings that we're doomed, largely in part to his and his predecessor's policies - is required reading. We are broke. Bad things are about to happen. Major political and social shake-ups that will negatively affect this country - and by extension, the world - are on the way. It's the only thing that matters right now, as far as I'm concerned, and all politics should be subservient to ensuring that the blows we're about to take are as painless as possible for the greatest number of people. As Matt Welch has written, "the only real policy issue in America right now is that we are on the verge of fiscal catastrophe because we cannot afford the government we're paying for today, let alone the one we're promising for tomorrow."

Here's what I strongly believe lies in our immediate future, since the sniveling, cowering political class can only find the will to talk about problems, but not actually do anything about them:

1. Key states - like my own, California, will go into default, and ask for a federal bailout, which they are likely to get. Which will make things worse, and reward the states' fiscal stupidity. (The only thing that might prevent this is if the Feds allow them to file for bankruptcy first).

2. Thousands upon thousands of people will be thrown out of work, particularly at the state level. The government(s), reaching a breaking point, will barely be able to help.

3. The US government will have its credit rating severely downgraded, and find it difficult to borrow more money. Think Iceland, Greece and Ireland. I unfortunately believe this will happen before the end of 2011.

4. Due to huge public pressure on pension reform, unions will mount an all-out blitz to save their long-growing perks. They'll see a backlash the likes of which has never been seen in the US before, and the era of public-sector unionism will (finally) begin to wane, rapidly.

5. The federal government will repeal most, if not all, of the 2010 Obamacare bill (the parts that won't have already been struck down by the courts).

6. Republicans will bluster and make microscopic cuts here and there, perhaps even boldly rolling spending back to 2009 levels (whoa!), and will then have their asses deservedly handed to them by the electorate for being such cowards. More "radical" spending cutters - likely from the Tea Party, or from newly-spooked Democrats looking to shore up their ridiculous political party, will be elected to take their place.

7. Obama will be a one-term president, trounced in 2012, probably by some other clown. He will be memorialized as one of our worst presidents in recent memory, along with George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

8. High-speed rail, "green jobs initiatives", overseas entanglements in the Middle East - all of the big spending areas and "Sputnik moment" projects will be drastically cut or eliminated. Social Security, Medicare and state-based Medicaid will finally be dramatically - but hastily - reformulated out of necessity, with certain promises made dozens of years ago being broken, affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of elderly.

And maybe - just maybe - all of these things I'm fairly certain will happen in the next two years will also lead to some sort of reckoning - one that might keep my son and his generation from being saddled with taxes and obligations that will surely drive America into second-rate status, after so long a "reign" as one of the most sound and prosperous nations that ever existed. Yet I look across the political leadership and the media landscape and I feel nothing but sadness, to be honest. I can't stand the way the media changes the subject when sacred cows like unions and social security are brought up; I can't stand the fact that a US deficit commission recommended the first bold concrete steps to get us out of this mess, and Obama and both parties totally ignored it; and I surely can't stand that the reckoning is so stone-cold obvious and yet we mostly pretend that it isn't.

It's going to be a very weird couple of years. The Air Force might finally have to hold that bake sale to buy some bombers before they're through.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

ITALIAN CRAFT BEER DELIVERS AT LAST

Been hearing a lot about “Italian craft beer” the past couple of years? I don’t blame you if you scoffed. Is there anything more dejecting that going to a nice Italian restaurant, deciding that you want to forego wine (as you often do), only to find “Peroni” and “Moretti” as the only choices on the birra part of the menu? Mamma Mia! Well, in preparation for my first-ever trip to Italy in a few months I decided to get on the Italian craft beer bandwagon in a hurry. When I was at EATALY in New York City last month, I had the opportunity to buy a couple of Italian imports that I’d never seen before, and that are most definitely pretty hard to come by in the US of A.

The first of the two I stashed in my suitcase is from the Italian brewer I've read the most about - BIRRA DEL BORGO, from Borgorose, Italy. Their EXTRA RE ALE is outstanding. It's nearly the perfect cross between a Belgain tripel and a souped-up American IPA, with all the yeasty zestiness of the former, and the bright, hoppy character of the latter. It's even a little soapy, and it comes off as a good thing. Loaded with flavor and mouth-tingling yeasts, and super aromatic to boot. It's as good as anything from Northern Europe, Old Europe, New Europe, you name it. A real find. Birra Del Borgo Extra Re Ale - look for it on your grocer's shelf. 8.5/10.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

HOPS AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING

Well, I think we know what 2011's most disappointing beer is so far . SIERRA NEVADA's "HOPTIMUM" had a two-weeks-old reputation as an absolute destroyer of an IPA, a "whole hop cone" India Pale Ale that was going to clock in at 10% ABV while it did some serious clock-cleaning of its own. Yet on the whole - eh, I don't like it so much.

HOPTIMUM is massive - a big, oily, intensely sticky-pine IPA that tastes of booze and lacquer. Compared to other palate-whompers I've had in the past - like DRAKES' DENOGGINIZER or SOUTHERN TIER UNEARTHLY - this just comes off as a bridge too far. Caramel malts are present in spades, but they are not balanced with the hop attack at all. You're left with a warm, almost hot feel to the thing, without the flavor or even the aroma to back it up. I cry "uncle". I went,hat in hand to five different beer stores to finally nail a bottle of this one. I daresay you should refrain from doing the same. 5/10.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: "SPRAY PAINT THE WALLS - THE STORY OF BLACK FLAG" by Stevie Chick

I took a break from heavy non-fiction this month to instead lay into the story of one of the heaviest rock and roll bands of all time, the almighty BLACK FLAG. This could have been an awful book - I had to read a chapter in the bookstore just to make sure I wasn't getting into some Vice Magazine or Behind The Music-style retelling of what I knew to be a pretty bewildering and wildly interesting saga - and once assured, I actually downloaded it onto my new Kindle (!), making for some real cognitive dissonance whilst reading of this bootstrapping, pioneering punk rock band on a 21st-Century piece of technology.

Stevie Chick's "SPRAY PAINT THE WALLS" is a better-than-solid unwrapping of the legacy left by a band who punished themselves to create some of the most roaring, nihilistic musical art of all time. More than anything, it's about guitarist, band founder and prime mover Greg Ginn, who's one of the only people involved who gave the author zero to work with and completely ignored this project while it was being written. After reading this, what was once fairly obvious became 100%, no-doubt-about-it truth: Black Flag was Greg Ginn's band, and he ran it like a personal fiefdom, with psychological power plays and summary figurative execution of his bandmates his stock in trade. It's not like it's something to be mad about or anything - I mean, it's just the story of a rock and roll band, not a nation or an oppressed people - but for a band this important to my life personally and to that of many others, it makes for pretty riveting reading as you see how Ginn's decisions and hang-ups made the band what it was.

Now, granted, I never saw Black Flag play, which grates to this day. There's one good reason why - by the time I was old enough to actually pay to go see them, around 1984 or so, me and my friends though they pretty much blew. And guess what? They did! Though the book still makes a valiant effort to describe thinly-produced plod-metal records like "Loose Nut" and "In My Head" with the same level of reverence and detail it does the amazing 1978-81 stuff, it's pretty clear that the author shares my bias that the only Black Flag worth engaging discussion in is everything up until "MY WAR" came out, with everything after that being an interesting story and that's about that. Black Flag was a total joke to us as they were hoofing it around the country those last two years, with the straining, sweating, whining, "life-is-pain" magnum opi they'd play while dressed in dolphin shorts to baffled punks looking to slam and stagedive. Granted, that confrontational , two-steps-ahead approach to music creation is what makes them interesting to read about, but certainly not to listen to at the time.

Henry Rollins fell far deeper under the shadow of Ginn's neuroses and ego than I'd ever contemplated previously, but it makes sense. When he was recruited to join Black Flag in 1981 - a great move, by the way, as there's no doubt that Rollins was a terrific frontman, if only my second favorite vocalist of theirs after the mighty Dez - he seemed like a confused but goofy punk kid with something of an attitude about him. Shortly thereafter, after moving into Ginn's parents' house and indoctrination into the punishing Beefheartian daily practice routines that Ginn mandated for any Black Flag member, he turned into "Henry Rollins", the musclebound, longhaired nihilist who could give physical presence to Ginn's admittedly absurd I-hate-myself lyrics. I mean, it seemed to work at the time. Their "DAMAGED" record from '81 is, of course, a masterwork of demented rock and roll art, and one of my favorite records of any era. But the Rollins that emerged from that - the funny guy you see on TV - is probably a lot more like the guy who entered the band as well. The guy in between may have been pretty  friggin' intense, but I almost feel like he was "Stockholm Syndromed" a bit by Ginn after reading this book.

Black Flag made way too many missteps along the way, even in their glory years, when the fury and squall of Ginn's guitar was absolutely magical and like nothing before or since. Think "TV Party". Think "Louie Louie". Think Ron Reyes as a vocalist, the band's strong EP "Jealous Again" notwithstanding. And later on, contemplate the damage that marijuana played on Ginn's ability to craft a song anyone would want to listen to. This book, without going too deep on it, makes it clear that Ginn, who was already completely lost in his art, became a dope smoker of the highest order, sometimes too baked to play & who had to have everything set up for him by the rest of the band so he could shake his hair and lose himself in some minutes-long improvised lead. Yikes.

I saw Ginn's stoner/instrumental trio GONE play live very shortly after Black Flag broke up, probably in late 1986 or early 1987, and that was exactly my impression. There were only 5 people there to see them open for fIREHOSE on the latter's first tour, which should tell you something about how Black Flag were perceived by most people by that point, with their important records and most goodwill long, loooong behind them. Ginn came up to where we were sitting - it was too boring for us to stand - and inches away, he confrontationally shook his ass-length hair directly in our faces as he weedly-weedlied out some pompous solo. It was either a good-hearted call to action to help raise us from our lethargy and transport us to the astral plane, or because he was totally baked beyond belief. It was pretty funny, and to this day it's the only time I ever saw him play live and is the mental picture I get whenever I think of the guy.

Back to the book. Early on Stevie Chick almost lost me when he started in on the whole (paraphrasing here) "California is a land of sea, surf and good vibrations - but there was a dark side lurking underneath the sunny exterior" method of describing how violent punk rock came to be in Southern California. Yet he rights the ship very quickly, and in short order, does an excellent job describing the Rodney's English Disco era, the town of Hermosa Beach, the Masque era and on and on into Black Flag's rise as the parent-terrifying kings of worldwide punk rock. There were some terrific stories I'd never read before, many of which are told by first singer Keith Morris, who's always been a favorite of mine, a total clown prince with a quick mind and the classic SoCal wastoid personality. Various Minutemen, Meat Puppets and other leading lights are interviewed, with a surprising load of interviews with & Black Flag tales by Masque founder Brenden Mullen, whom I'd always read "never booked Black Flag because he didn't like bands that weren't from Hollywood". Read this book and you'll definitely get his contrary take in spades. He convincingly claims he was even asked to be in the band at one point (!!).

Once the book got going, I absolutely devoured it on my Kindle and iPhone (dork!). Sure, its material includes the source data for everything I once considered important in this world, as the music that poured from Southern California during this time was among the most powerful influences on, and succor for, my life, particularly in my late teens and twenties. But it really never lets down. Even when we're in the "Slip It In" era and beyond, you've got Kira giving great interview, as well as Rollins himself and all manner of hangers-on. Want to learn more about what NIG-HEIST was? This is your book - the 'Heist gets a lot of play. I'd recommend this to anyone who's read my review this far, because obviously you know what a special band Black Flag were, all missteps and badly-produced records notwithstanding. I'd imagine this will be the last word on their complete saga until Ginn emerges to tell the tale his way. Now that will be a hoot.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"HOUR OF THE WOLF"

I discovered the films of Ingmar Bergman way back in college with a life- changing viewing of "THE SEVENTH SEAL" in an undergrad English class, but I can't say I've done the finest job of barreling through his pantheon in the intervening 24 years. That's not to say I haven't seen a bunch of them - in fact, just for S&G's, let's make a rank-ordered list of all the Bergman films I HAVE seen, some of which are among my favorite films ever, all of which preceded my viewing of "HOUR OF THE WOLF" the other night:
  1. Persona
  2. Scenes From a Marriage
  3. Cries and Whispers
  4. Autumn Sonata
  5. The Passion of Anna
  6. The Seventh Seal
  7. Wild Strawberries
  8. Saraband
Ouch. That's one every three years, for 24 years, from someone who has long purported to be a "huge Bergman fan". That's even weaker than I expected. With that in the back of my mind, I loaded up the Netflix streaming queue with many of the ones I hadn't seen, and decided to start upping the pace a little. "Hour of the Wolf" was the first in this project.

This black and white gothic psychodrama features several of the key ensemble players that Bergman used through most of the 60s and beyond: Liv Ullmann, Max Von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin and Erland Josephson. It sprang from a script that was eventually broken into two films, the masterful 1966 "Persona" and this slightly less masterful meditation on mental illness, marriage, aging and how "two people become one" after years of being together. And it is definitely creepy.

Von Sydow's character, a man wracked with guilt and shame and who is aging less than gracefully - basically, he's turning into a reclusive basket case who is too scared to go to sleep for fear of visions - is haunted by not only his past but these visitors to his waking hours (?) who torment him with his sins and temptations.

Ullmann, who plays his wife, is either an accessory to his madness or simply a helpless observer - with Bergman it's often hard to tell. That's why films like these, which leave the viewer with a profound sense of unease and paranoia, have been dissected in film schools and media forums for decades. Because Bergman was so masterful at close-ups - especially of Ullmann - and at juxtaposing jarring music with his imagery, his films take on this gauzy, mythic quality where the images linger long after you've forgotten the deeper meaning of what he was grasping for. Often with Ingmar, it was all about him anyway.

I'm not going to call this one of his masterpieces, but I'll also say that I pondered it for a week afterward. Even as I type this I'm trying to figure out the best ways to both warn the unwary and to excite those whose film palates are thirsting for experimental adventure. Put it this way - if you loved any of the films I mentioned in my all-too-brief list of the Bergman films I've seen, then you're going to have a soft spot for "Hour of the Wolf" which certainly qualifies as his most "traditionally" scary film. I'm going to move on to the purportedly shiny happy "Smiles of a Summer Night" next.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

“THE ABYSS” 2010 – MANNA FROM THE GODZ

I went especially out of my way to imbibe a glass of DESCHUTES BREWERY’s perennially fetching imperial stout “THE ABYSS” a couple of weeks ago. To be honest, I’d do just about anything to drink what has become one of my favorite beers ever created. I was in Las Vegas for work, I was sick with a cold and totally run-down, and yet I remembered the time in early 2009 when I went to Mandalay Bay’s restaurant “The Burger Bar” and they had a fresh keg of 2008 ABYSS on draft. On draft! I hopped in a cab, full of blind faith that the same restaurant/bar might actually have this beer again two years later, only a week after the announcement went out that ABYSS 2010 was being shipped to bars and bottle stores across the USA.

Well, yeah – they had it. And it was amazing, of course. Some people have talked about past batches of this beer being “infected”, like the 2009 version that I reviewed here and rated 9/10. If that’s infection – baby, infect me. ABYSS 2010 comes on strong with a thick-foam creamy taste, and more so than last year’s, has a rich chocolate taste as opposed to the more espresso-black, bitter coffee taste of its predecessor. It’s a beer that’s already reached legendary status only a few years after it first hit the market, and I implore you to try and land a bottle (at least) during the next 4-8 weeks they’ll be available. After that – well, there’s always next year. 9.5/10.

Monday, January 17, 2011

THE GREATEST 20-MINUTE ROCK SONG OF ALL TIME

It’s a very short list, actually. There’s the HAMPTON GREASE BAND’s “Halifax”, and then there’s everything else. How did I come to worship this epic-length, multi-part guitar onslaught/Southern-fried Zappa boogie barnstormer? It all started with CLAW HAMMER, a band that I called my favorite in the early 90s and whom I befriended around that time as well. I was their road manager on a North American tour in 1993, and among the many bands they turned me onto via the tape deck during those six weeks (embarrassingly, I had barely heard BIG STAR before this time), it was 1971’s HAMPTON GREASE BAND that rang the most true to my still-forming rock and roll consciousness. Claw Hammer had copped quite a few moves from this barely-heralded Atlanta band, and because of the Grease Band’s exceptionally low profile in the interregnum, there really wasn’t anyone to call them on it – so they very proactively offered up their thanks, praise and the wearing of this influence on their proverbial sleeve by covering the band’s “Hey Old Lady & Bert’s Song” on their first album.

It’s “Halifax” that I come back to the most, however. It opens the Hampton Grease Band’s only record, a double album called “MUSIC TO EAT”, in spectacularly non-commercial fashion. In 2004, I wrote this about “Halifax” on my old blog:

“….just may be the single best 19 minute, 42 second song ever created. Ostensibly about the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, rumor has it that the band selected it based on the old blindfolded pin-into-the-map trick. The lyrics read like a combination Canadian travel brochure/history lesson created over a bongload of really good weed, and they're delivered in the exceptionally bent jester/pirate/mad scientist voice of Bruce Hampton. Song cycle-loving Johnny- and Jill-come-latelys such as my favorites the FIERY FURNACES are still learning from the twists and turns this number takes. It's a good 7 or 8 killer songs wrapped up in one, full of frantic fretboard runs, an outrageous stop-start guitar solo, loads of homegrown Beefheartisms, and a heartbreaking melody at its start and finish. It's a frostbitten sea shanty for the ages, and I'll play it every 3 months on my headphones until I die”.

I fully recognize it’s not for everyone. The band says in the posthumous liner notes for the “Music To Eat” CD that their record was the second-worst-selling product ever put out on Columbia Records, after a yoga record (!). Even Captain Beefheart fans, whose numbers are multiplying after the man’s recent death, may find “Halifax” too fusion-y, too long, too wacky, too obtuse . Me, it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. I’ve posted it for you to listen to and download here.

Play The Hampton Grease Band, “Halifax”


Download HAMPTON GREASE BAND – “Halifax”

Friday, January 14, 2011

“EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP”

I’m about as big of a fan of “street art” as I am of golf, but I’d heard over the past year that “EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP” was a great nutcase of a documentary, a real con job that proceeds like a straight-up doc, yet has you wondering until well after the end if you’re the one being played. It concerns – and was likely conceived by – the British street artist Banksy, an admittedly very talented artist whose canvas happens to be public and private buildings and spaces, as well as the crew of quote-unquote artists who are also practicing this graffitic form. Actually, though, it’s really about a hanger-on who follows these guys around, a Los Angeles-based Frenchman named Thierry Guetta.

Guetta starts filming all the modern players in street art culture – the guys who, in the dead of night, hang “Andre The Giant Has a Posse” posters and the like all over cities like Paris, San Francisco and New York – and in the process, realizes that he has enough material to make a documentary on it. But he’s a total boob, a sycophantic imbecile – a funny guy with a big heart, sure, but who has a camera and a ton of raw footage and no idea how to put it together. After he gets the reclusive and world-famous Banksy to agree to be filmed, he decides that his mission is complete, and he can assemble all of the footage together into a true documentary. Banksy sees his absurd finished product, however (a product I don’t believe actually exists), and decides to instead start documenting the rise of Guetta himself, who has himself decided to become a street artist, and who copies the work of all of his street idols.

Here’s where it gets interesting. What’s not in dispute is that Guetta renamed himself Mr. Brainwash, or MBW, and actually got a real cover-story feature on his art shenanigans in the LA Weekly. Mr. Brainwash also had a real art installation at an LA warehouse, where his derivative and imbecilic artworks were seen by thousands, thanks to the LA Weekly cover feature. What I’m fairly certain of, after watching this excellent film, is that the entire process – this documentary, the Mr. Brainwash art show in LA, "Mr. Brainwash" himself – were conceived, managed and filmed by Banksy, as a prankish way to make a sideways statement about the co-optation of street art by the mainstream. That’s it. And while that “statement” might seem pedantic and trite, this film is anything but. It’s a total hoot. Hedonist Jive says check it out.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

HOPPY BREW YEAR (COUGH)

If my paltry Twitter following is any indication, those of you that do choose to follow @jayhinman are mostly interested in the beer talk, judging from the many @beerguy23 and @thebrewdudes and @sudsluver "follows" I've got going on. So I'll give you what you're looking for, my friends. It's either a new batch of beer reviews, or some more books about North Korea & atheism. Wait, what's that you say? I thought so. Here goes:

THE OUTSTANDING

DOGFISH HEAD - "BURTON BATON" - These just started showing up in the San Francisco Bay Area the past couple of months. I'd had it before, even reviewed it before, but loved it more than ever. It's an oaked IPA - yeah - and it truly has hops and oakiness held in perfect balance. Warm and comforting and just a pleasure to behold (and drink). 9.5/10.

THE BRUERY - "LOAKAL RED" - (pictured above) First, I can't thank Rational Realist, a.k.a. The Beer Rover, enough for procuring this beer for me. He had to snatch it from some local store in California's Orange County and then bring it back to his domescile in San Diego before sending it to me. A true patriot and hero. It's a delicious oaked red ale. Tastes like toffee, almonds and the inside of an oak barrel, along with some citrus at times. It has an amazing, relaxing smoothness to it, and I made this my New Year's Eve ale and all was right at the tail end of 2010. 9/10.

UNIBROUE - "TRADER JOE'S VINTAGE ALE 2010" - Clever beer punters know to pick one of these up every year - it's Canadian beer maestros UNIBROUE masquerading as a Trader Joe's house brand. It's soooo good this year. Man. Sweet molasses and brown sugar, and a little smokiness makes its way in the strong flavor. 9% alcohol and packs a mean punch. Totally fantastic strong dark ale. 9/10.

TWO BROTHERS BREWING - "THE BITTER END" - Had this once before, reviewed it on my blog even, but returned to Spitzer's Corner in New York City again just to make sure the first time wasn't a fluke. It wasn't. An incredibly drinkable pale ale with a liberal dose of hops, and if it was bottled in my home area I'd call this my go-to "weeknight beer" from now on. 9/10.

BOULEVARD BREWING - "BOURBON BARREL QUAD" - Ahh, now this one was a real beast, a nearly 12% ABV quadrupel-style monster from Kansas City that's malty, sweet and lightly boozed. Maple, spice and bourbon. Really exceptional, as we've come to expect when this brewery goes big as part of their "Smokestack Series". 8.5/10.

THE VERY GOOD

THE BREWER'S ART - "GREEN PEPPERCORN TRIPEL" - I'm not even sure how to look for a peppercorn in a beer, but man this is a really, really good one. 9.2% alcohol with an immense yeasty, citrus tang. Very juicy and sweet with slight bitterness. Lemon juice. Hops. An excellent aftertaste that lingered til I went to bed with dreams of another one of these in my future. 8/10.

FREE STATE BREWING - "OATMEAL STOUT" - Enjoyed this on tap in Overland Park, Kansas during a recent business trip. A really silky oatmeal stout with a great chocolate aftertaste. Better than most of these by far, and a nice wake-up call for me to this Kansas-based brewer. 8/10.

AUBURN ALEHOUSE - "PU240 IMPERIAL IPA" - Picked up this bomber of big brassy imperial pale ale on a whim, and I'm mucho glad I did. Piney and very strong double IPA, smooth but quite aggressive. Great discovery. 8/10.

AVERY BREWING - "IPA" - Yeah, just your basic no-frills IPA from Colorado's Avery Brewing, and like everything they touch, it's better than most everyone else's. 7.5/10.

SAMUEL SMITH - "YORKSHIRE STINGO" - Was I a little disappointed in this ale, despite my high-ish score? I was, I was. Draft Magazine gave it their highest-ever score of 100 points, and annointed it a 21st Century masterpiece. Me, I liked it - quite a bit - an "old ale" that tastes like it, with hints of stwed fruit, plums, oak and maybe  - just maybe - even a little figgy pudding. 7.5/10.

STILLWATER ARTISINAL ALES - "CELLAR DOOR" - Big-tasting wheat/farmhouse/saison that has an equally huge aroma - must be the sage in the mash. Yeah, I think I do really taste the sage in this (drinking it as I write this post). Clear, highly carbonated and tasty - and like their other two beers I've tried, not enough to seperate as far from the middling herd as I'm sure they'd like. Still a work in progress. 7/10.

GRAND TETON BREWING - "PURSUIT OF HOPPINESS" - A dry imperial red ale, way more malty than hopped-up and one that can easily be "chugged" if you're so inclined. A brown caramel beer with a strong wheat backbone. Not one half bad. 7/10.

PRETTY THINGS - "ST. BOTOLPH'S TOWN" - A big, malty and bitter brown ale from one of my new favorite American brewers. Tastes of sour cherries and smoke, with a bit of a bite. It's something to be considered and not slammed, and unlike the Two Brothers Bitter End I drank right before it. 7/10.

THE GOOD ENOUGH

WYCHWOOD BREWERY - "HOBGOBLIN" - You've probably seen the tap handle for this English brown ale, it's got a weirdo looking goblin fella on it, very ornate & with warts on his face. Bravo for that. The beer, hmm, well - it's OK. A fruity, plum jam-like brown ale that I enjoyed whilst it was in my hand, but still scored a 6.5/10.

THE LAME

BOUNDARY BAY BREWING - "CABIN FEVER" - One of my favorite brewpub experiences was visiting this Bellingham, WA brewery in the late 90s - amazing food, amazing beer, cool chuggin' hippie band playing, and just a great vibe all around. Tried their winter beer this year and could not recapture the vibe. Tons of flavor (caramel and burnt sugar, mixed with booze), with alcohol very apparent. Supposedly only 7% ABV, and unfortunately something of a mess. 5.5/10.

TENAYA CREEK - "HEFEWEIZEN" - (pictured here)  I have to go to Las Vegas every January for work, and every January I try a different Tenaya Creek beer with middling-to-poor results. Not surprisingly, this is really basic, over-carbonated and watery. Few discernible tastes outside of the faintest whiff of a German hefeweizen. 5/10.

BIG TIME BREWERY - "PERSPECTIVE IPA" - I used to frequent this Seattle brewery when I was in grad school up there, and tried this on draft during a recent visit. Didn't like it. A light-bodied, chalky IPA that coats the back of the mouth with its foul chalk dust. No thanks. 4.5/10.

LA JOLLA BREW HOUSE - "PARIAH" - As well it should be. A totally crap IPA. 3.5/10.

TOO BIZARRE TO RATE

STONE BREWING - "VERTICAL EPIC 10-10-10" - Have you tried this one yet? I have an unopened bottle sitting downstairs, and after the glass I had the other night, it might stay there forever. Is it wine? Is it a Belgian-style beer? An IPA? A white wine Belgian IPA? I could not get a handle on this to save my life - so I'm going to just postpone any bashings until I bravely go for that bomber sitting downstairs and work on my description a little better. This might be a masterpiece for all I reckon, much like how truly great art is usually recognized years after the fact. Right? Right?

Monday, January 10, 2011

"THE LOTTERY"

2010 was the year that "my side" of the debate over how best to educate America's children began to be articulated in places beyond libertarian and conservative echo chambers, and strangely enough, it was a series of movies that seemed to move the debate the furthest. I still have not seen the much-heralded "WAITING FOR SUPERMAN", made by the same folks behind the Al Gore global warming scare film "An Inconvenient Truth", but it was the topic du jour among many of the liberal parents we know well & whose kids our son goes to public school with. All of a sudden it became OK in 2010 for Democrats, "normal folks" and the like, to say questioning, skeptical and even disparaging things about teachers' unions and the stranglehold they have over the declining state of American government-run schools. That film, along with the unceremonious forced resignation of DC School superintendent Michelle Rhee, a hero to many across the political spectrum for her no-nonsense stand against educational bureaucracy business-as-usual, seemed to have helped push many former agnostics into the school choice/radical school reform camp. It's about friggin' time.

For the small number of people who saw "THE LOTTERY", which I enthusiastically watched several weeks ago along with a lesser school-choice documentary called "THE CARTEL", the sides are obviously very clearly drawn. This is a masterful documentary that focuses on the school enterprise zones that have been tentatively set up inside of Harlem, New York City, as well as the desperate parents looking for any kind of alternative to the dead-end public schools their children are "zoned" to attend school in. Every one of these parents is African-American, and they are strivers, several of whom had zero opportunities of their own growing up in the same exact neighborhoods, and they see wasted lives of crime, illiteracy and menial work for their children without an alternative to the stultifying schools that the educrats would otherwise choose to force their kids into.

Thanks to forward-looking programs pursued by Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, and through the efforts of educational choice superstars like Geoffrey Canada and Eva Moskowitz, Harlem has a series of charter schools that emphasize educational rigor and straight-up results. They don't emphasize tenure, teacher grievances and the bloating of administrative staff - these are for-profit schools that must demonstrate results for a long-neglected, very poor student body, or they will unceremoniously lose their charters. Parents, naturally - but perhaps surprisingly to white liberals who once thought that school reform efforts was being run by greedy Wall Street Republicans and their fat cat friends - are desperate to get in, but they must undergo a lottery, since the demand for the few slots is so small.

The film follows these four families as they try to wend their way through the process of getting into Moskowitz' Harlem Success Academy, along with hundreds of other families who'd love to find a way out of Harlem poverty for their children. This school and others like it in the district are profiled, and it's dumbfounding for me and for many of the parents to see the schools' own ambitious charter writ so clearly, and in such marked contrast to that of most government-run schools - To get every child in the school into college. Period. Whatever it takes. In low-income, African-American Harlem this is a big deal, and you desperately root for each family as you learn more about the schools and families themselves.

Of course, the neighborhood activists and the teacher's unions are none too pleased. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, mouths the usual do-nothing status quo platitudes, and various protesters-for-hire from Acorn (Acorn!) are bussed in from other parts of the east coast to do her and her cronies' bidding. The director of this film, Madeleine Sackler, is obviously trying to shine a light on just how obstructionist the keepers of the status quo can be to helping ambitious families from getting a quality education for their children. After all, one chink in the armor of the government-educational complex and that might be enough for the whole thing to come tumbling down. It might actually (gasp) introduce competition, experimentation, the profit motive, the ability to fire bad teachers, the ability to shut down bad schools, the ability to do away with one-size-fits all "teaching to the test", and so on. This is anathema to those holding the keys to the complex, and it's one big reason why more than half of the African-American boys in the United States aren't graduating from high school.

Not all of the families in "THE LOTTERY" actually win the lottery. It's heartbreaking for the ones that don't. I thought this was a terrifically-paced documentary that should pick up thousands of new converts to the good fight, and as well it should.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “THE MORAL LANDSCAPE” by Sam Harris

The first of the big three “proud atheist” books I read was Sam Harris’ excellent “THE END OF FAITH” from 2004, a book that I reviewed here, and then added some thoughts to here. That led me to Christopher Hitchens’ “GOD IS NOT GREAT”, and once I’d completed that, I was pretty much done with atheist books and had no need for Richard Dawkins’ “THE GOD DELUSION”. Nothing like preaching to the converted - pun very much intended. I was very excited to see Harris’ big follow-up “THE MORAL LANDSCAPE” hit the shelves several months ago – an argument for how science can help mankind solve moral and ethical dilemmas, rather than religion. Yet after completing it, I found it to be a book-length explanation of an idea that could have easily been a nice essay in The New Yorker or The Atlantic or something, and came away somewhat frustrated that I’d squandered so much time on it, as happens when one reads an unsatisfactory book all the way through.

It’s not that I don’t agree with Harris’ central thesis nor his ideas, not at all. The book is a somewhat rambling defense of the fact that science, in the form of prove-able hypothesis of brain activity and scientific studies of how human beings define “things that are good and right” in their brains, is approaching a moment in history where it can rationally settle moral arguments about what is good/bad for humankind. This is something that we’ve left to religion for millennia – “murder is bad because the Bible says so”; “thou shalt not commit onanism because a priest said so” and so on. We haven’t completely overcome this, of course, but Harris rightly envisions a time when science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the most fulfilling and rewarding lives possible.

Yet the book needlessly seems to be written completely on the defensive, despite what to me is pretty straightforward and exceptionally reasonable on its face. Harris spends the first half of the book essentially making the same points in dozens of different manners, always coming back to the central thesis. Like I said, I could have seen this make for a terrific article, but I wouldn’t recommend that you cuddle up with this for an intense week of reading like I did. I didn't learn a whole lot, and unlike his last full-length book, wasn't left with a new arsenal of argumentative firepower to use against the forces of darkness and unreason.

Monday, January 3, 2011

NEGATIVE GUEST LIST & MY CHEATER SLICKS BLATHER

A few months ago I was asked via email to contribute some "Cheater Slicks memories" for an Australian fanzine (print! a print fanzine!) called NEGATIVE GUEST LIST. I was more than happy to oblige, and in the brief interim, editor Brendon Annesley sent me some back issues of what is a pretty crazed, 80s-style cut-and-paste garage punk magazine. I like how slapdash the thing is, how utterly nonsensical it is in parts, and how it looks even less sophisticated than my own crude fanzine efforts twenty years ago.

Annesley and his crew have a strong taste for the bleeding and noisy edge of garage-oriented punk rocknroll, and thus, their new issue, #19, with a great CHEATER SLICKS overview written by the band's drummer Dana Hatch. It's punctuated with other interviews and recollections from Larry Hardy, Merle Allin and yours truly. Annesley emailed me on "deadline day" and reminded me I promised him I'd write something about the band, so I quickly coughed up this hairball with my morning coffee, a story of the best Cheater Slicks show I ever saw. If you're interested in ordering the magazine, more info can be found here.

There was a particular Cheater Slicks gig in my hometown of San Francisco that stands proudly as one of the most jaw-dropping rock and roll experiences ever witnessed by man or beast. I’d tell you that I’d seared the October 10th, 1995 date of the blessed event into my brain if I thought you’d believe it – but nah, I looked it up on the information superhighway just now. Most transcendent rock experiences are usually recounted as “The First Time I Ever Saw…” (nope, I’d seen the Cheater Slicks play twice before) or “The Day The Band Got Into A Fistfight On Stage, and Then Inexplicably Kicked Out The Jams” (none of that). This was just a show – a show from the era’s most incendiary howling garage cyclone of a band, whom had probably played a dozen such shows on their “Don’t Like You” tours that year and the year before.

The Cheater Slicks told me what the secret sauce of the evening’s magic was when, mouth agape, I asked them what the fuck had just happened. They’d played Portland, Oregon the night before, see, and had left that city at 3 in the morning for the long drive south. No one slept during the entire ten hour drive, despite trying, and once they arrived in San Francisco past lunchtime, no one could find it in themselves to catch even a wink of sleep. So this pissed-off, bedraggled, unshaven and unshowered trio of sleepless rock miscreants suffered through the indignities of the soundcheck; the turgid, crushing hours of the interminable pre-show wait; and of course, the de rigueur hideous opening bands before unloading it all on the stage.

They arrived at their anointed hour angry and a little unsteady, and it showed. Both Shannon brothers slashed at their guitar strings like they deliberately wanted to snap them, and I remember Dave Shannon taking every opportunity to turn his back to the audience and crouch in front of his amp to emit high-decibel squeals, hiss and feedback. Just because it would hurt, is how I read it. A lot of the time he wasn’t even really playing, per se, but was instead just letting the thing feed back at top volume and shaking it violently to vary the tone. And Dana Hatch – good lord. That guy is a Neanderthal skin-basher even on a bad day, but tonight, with eyes bleary and throat raw, he was a friggin’ possessed animal. One crazed, ear-splitting number after another, with no breaks for tuning nor audience banter nor nothing – “Trouble Man”, “Wedding Song”, “Feel Free” and especially, whoa: “Sadie Mae”. It was one of those shows where strangers in the audience turn to each other after a song and laugh in amazement – then share a high-five before buckling up and settling in for the next firebreather.

Something tells me the Cheater Slicks slept well that night, whether on someone’s garage floor, a moldy futon, or in the competitively upscale environs of a Motel 6, three disgustingly unkempt men to a bed. They earned such comforts with their valiant and heroic efforts in San Francisco that night, and it’s one of those live shows I’ll never forget.