Wednesday, June 27, 2012


This book on the massive, soul-destroying Ponzi scheme engineered by Bernard L. Madoff that  tore the life savings away from thousands of trusting investors is likely to be the chief reference text for one of financial history's most sordid chapters. I'm always fascinated when otherwise smart people do really dumb things - like trust all of their money to one man, a man who was able to conjure mystically steady quarterly profits over and over again, even during times when the rest of the market was plunging. There's no schadenfreude here on my part. Wall Street is deliberately non-transparent, and derives much of its power by remaining so. When good people are cheated out of their long-held earnings by one man's greed and lies, it's sad, frustrating and ugly - as well as being a great morality tale for how the human psyche gets itself into Ponzi scheme-like messes such as this over and over again. 

"THE WIZARD OF LIES" opens with a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the days leading up to Bernie Madoff's 2008 surrender and arrest, as the fallout from that year's Wall Street meltdown had finally forced a reckoning for him. No longer able to rob the proverbial Peter to pay the proverbial Paul, Madoff finally had to give up and turn himself in. It's riveting stuff, frankly - how a lie that had been maintained for nearly 20 years (the exact dates are fuzzy) came toppling down in a matter of days - ruining the lives of thousands of people, including Madoff's own family. The book then shifts back to look at how Madoff came to build his mystique on Wall Street, and takes us through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s - decades in which there was definitely some financial chicanery on his part, but nothing quite like the billion-dollar ponzi scheme that he got running in what looks like about 1992.

Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities had a "legit" trading business that was fairly well-run and profitable. Much of this was eventually managed by Madoff's brother Peter and later by his sons Andrew and Mark. Then there was the far larger hedge fund racket he was running, which included Enron-like phony trading desks on another highly-secure floor. This is the one into which billions of dollars flowed, from wealthy Jewish donors that Madoff hobnobbed with on the charity circuit, as well as from Hollywood celebrities like Kevin Bacon and "feeder funds" set up around the world to funnel money into Madoff's scheme, likely not knowing that it was 100% bogus.The genius of this crook is that he was an exceptionally smart man who used innate Wall Street knowledge, advanced technology, reputation, exclusivity, charisma and an alarmingly strong use of deception and cunning to get people to give him their money to manage.

Madoff would then send his clients and feeder funds quarterly statements - on paper only, with no ability for online research - showing modest gains. For wealthy, risk-averse clients, watching their money grow solidly and predictably was like catnip, and they would shovel more and more his way. He'd then use this new money to cover withdrawals of old money, and statements would reference "trades" that were being made in their accounts, even though not so much as one real trade was ever executed during the entire life of the ponzi scheme.

The Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) gets absolutely raked in this book. They had multiple skeptics and intelligent folks petitioning them to investigate Madoff, whose returns were simply too good to be true. They did investigate him, several times, and the book recounts how Madoff lied, goaded and bluffed his way into not being caught several times. The SEC investigations were unmitigated disasters, and their failure led to even more people getting burned in the 2008 unraveling of the scheme.

Author Diana Henriques then takes us up again to Madoff's arrest, and spends the last third of the book in a way I was initially unsure of yet then later was very glad she spent her time documenting. Henriques walks us through the various lawsuits that flowed like waterfalls in the wake of Madoff's arrest, and the herculean efforts made by the victims' trustee to ensure that victims got as much of their lost money back as possible. Since most of the profits were phantom profits, there was many, many angry people who still believed they deserved this bogus money. She also talks about the media crucifixion of Madoff's innocent and shocked wife Ruth and children Andrew and Mark, the latter of whom committed suicide after wallowing in his new life as a tarred-and-feathered, disgraced Madoff. Other ruined investors committed suicide as well, leaving the lying, thieving Bernie Madoff on the hook for much more than lost life savings.

I said earlier that the book, which is excellent, is a morality tale, and it is. It exposes several aspects of humanity. There's the willingness to trust, and its flip side - the willingness to deceive: both deceive others, and deceive ourselves. Many people blew past the warning signs surrounding Bernie Madoff and decided to trust him while deceiving themselves - including government regulators, investment professionals and ordinary retirees. While the book tackles some Wall Street arcana, it never becomes bogged down in it and is quite thrilling in parts. Subplots are still unraveling in this tale since this book was published in 2011, and I look forward to the postscript and newly-updated chapters that will shed more light on how this happened and what Madoff was hiding as he dodged the SEC, his customers and his conscience. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Having been paying Netflix customers since their earliest days, my wife and I have built up a pretty awe-inspiring queue over the past decade. We watch a lot of film, and yet I just got around to seeing the 2004 Argentinian film "LIVE-IN MAID", which I probably plopped into the queue around 2005 or 2006, when it was clear I wasn't going to have time to catch it during its two-week run in San Francisco. And that was back when foreign films actually played in theaters. What the hell happened in the intervening seven years? When a French, Danish, Chinese, what have you film of renown comes into theaters at all, it's usually in New York and Los Angeles only - and when it comes here or to other big cities, it's usually festivals and extremely limited runs, and that's it. Granted, there are plenty of ways to see these films in time - like, say, Netflix - but the ecosystem of reviews, critical discussion, recommendations from friends and so on for foreign films seems to have up & nearly vanished.

I'm vexed because even though it took me 8 years after its release to see "LIVE-IN MAID", it's the sort of drama that shines a searing floodlight on its host country's unique historical situation and mannerisms, and thus something I'd have maybe liked to see a little closer to its release date. In this case, it was the Argentinian economic crisis of the early part of last decade, and the vast differences between rich and poor in its major city, Buenos Aires. Remember the runs on the bank, and the devaluation of their currency? They were in some pretty Greek-like trouble there for a while, and this film illustrates when happens when the rich are no longer so, and have to uncomfortably adjust to a new interpersonal reality vis-a-vis their domestic helpers.

"Dora" is the titular live-in maid; Beba is her marginally kind but scattered and distant divorcee overlord. Dora lives in a closet, essentially, in the back of the plush apartment - which ironically doesn't appear large enough to have merited a live-in maid or a maid of any kind. The back story on the relationship between these two women is revealed, somewhat, as the slow drama unfolds. Dora has worked for Beba and her family for over 30 years. When Beba basically runs out of money, her upper-class world sinks quickly and precipitously close to the reality that Dora has been living in her entire life. We don't hear much about the larger crisis in Argentina at the time, but just a few hints in the film and a faint whiff of historical knowledge on your part, and you know that this is a subtle but broad statement of what life might have been like for the Bebas and Doras of the world during that time.

I found "LIVE-IN MAID" fantastic. When it could have gone overboard with theatrics, it instead cut away to a new scene, leaving you with enough dread and loathing to keep you on your toes. The dialog was raw and real, though leavened with humor and humanity. Director Jorge Gaggero has only made this one feature film (why?), and he really made it count. He made a film about class without making it about class warfare, and a film about coping in tough times without loading on the pathos. Hedonist Jive thinks you should definitely check it out. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012


I got more detailed info on this 1995 retrospective CD from Lydia Lunch's 8-EYED SPY from Wikipedia than I did from the CD itself - no liner notes, just the disc and a few photos - but I think I had the story pretty straight pre-Wiki in any case. 8-Eyed Spy was Lydia's post-Teenage Jesus & The Jerks combo, still very much rooted in the raw atonality of the no-wave style she helped to invent with the former band, but experimenting a bit with a dirty, bluesy reduction in tempos and slightly less caterwauling. I think 8-Eyed Spy's the superior band, quite frankly, but I wasn't ready for them when I encountered them first over twenty years ago.

It took a purchase of this Atavistic CD to give me the full lowdown on the band's late 70s/1980 output (their career, such that it was, ended when their bass player OD'ed). Some of it - most of it - is seriously bent rock-n-roll, very much a part of the "destroy music" aesthetic and a world away from most post-punk of the day. I can see very well how Lunch helped to inspire the group of drug-addled scruffs from Melbourne who became The Boys Next Door and later The Birthday Party. The swamp/scuzz sound of killer tracks like "Dead Me You" from their first single bleed right into what that latter band were doing only a year or two later on their more morose material. Lunch and her bands never connected all that much with me until right about now because I had a hard time unhooking her self-promoting sleazoid tuff girl persona from that befitting a serious maker of music; and I still think that the Teenage Jesus stuff - while admirable for its sonic attack - is mostly unlistenable tripe. 

This is not. The track I'm posting for you today, "Love Split" is more skittering and wild - more classically no-wave - than a lot of the stuff on here, but I'm still pretty sure you're gonna like it. Let me know what you think - and whether some of the later Lunch material is worth my second listen, since I'm reconsidering her catalog and whatnot. 

Play 8-Eyed Spy, "Love Split"

Download 8-Eyed Spy, "Love Split"

Friday, June 22, 2012


I haven't been shy about proclaiming my love for DESCHUTES BREWING's legendary imperial stout THE ABYSS over the years, in both verbal and written form. Every year on this blog or that blog, I write up a review of this year's model that proclaims this glorious beer to be the standard-setter for the rich, milky, chocolate and barrel-aged manna that can be a well-crafted imperial stout. I'm not exactly breaking new ground with this post, either. I busted out the 2011 version, and rather than wait it out a year and "lay it down" for aging, the way some folks say ya should, I drank it clean on a crisp June day, and then begged the gods for more. They never came. 

I'll be waiting until December or so, I guess. That's when The Abyss hits the shelves, usually, and if it's not all snapped up immediately - some years are better than others - then you might still find some come January. I've even found a handful of bars that put this nectar on tap every year. That's the kind of bar where you might think about upping your 25-cent-per-beer tip a little, my friends - for they have the customer in mind. So let's get to it - Deschutes "The Abyss" 2011. Some things never change. Amazingly aromatic sniffs of vanilla and oak are the prelude to, you got it, rich and creamy tastes of same. The hops and the malt balance a sweetness you'd otherwise get from the 11% alcohol in perfect triangular symmetry. Chocolate and licorice, along with the oak and a faint and distant cherry taste form the core of the beer's construction as it warms.

As someone who feels that imperial, barrel-aged dark beers are a dime a dozen yet which is a style that only rarely touches greatness, I'm always happy to make this my go-to. It restores my faith in the style, after a year - every year - of scorched taste buds and that feeling of having been burned financially for having bought whatever this year's over-amped, over-hyped imperial stout or porter might be. They're never cheap, and dollars to doughnuts they're nowhere close to The Abyss in any way. They never are. 10/10.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


I placed a visit to The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles a couple of months ago and found, to my surprise, that rather than being a detailed litany of Holocaust horrors that it was truly as its name implies: a museum dedicated to unmasking bigotry and hatred throughout history, and offering, if you'll excuse the expression, "paths to understanding" in order to overcome it. A well put-together, scholarly museum - even uplifting and hopeful in its way. Also well put-together in a dramatic and moving sense is the classic 1955 documentary film by Alain Resnais, "NIGHT AND FOG", which was for sale in stacks in the museum's gift shop, which reminded me that I needed to finally see it after having seen reference to it for years. The film was, in fact, the first widely-seen litany of horrors from the Holocaust, and yet it differs from the museum greatly in its tone and confidence in humanity's ability to redeem itself from its murderous and bigoted nature. 

One is surprised to learn that this film, with its large historical significance, is only a mere 31 minutes, and is mostly comprised of well-edited black-and-white newsreel and found footage from the death and concentration camps. Resnais juxtaposes scenes of horrific cruelty and starvation with banal, full-color tracking shots of what camps like Auschwitz looked like in 1955, only 10 years post-liberation. As his camera moves close to the ground and films the worn, peeling buildings and gates, a narrator calmly tries to make sense of what went on in these places not so long before. As the news and documentary footage from a decade before is then spliced in, it builds in intensity. First, the construction of the "work camps" themselves. Next, the "transportation" of the Jews to the their supposed new life in these work camps. 

Slowly, he unpeels the images, saving the very worst for the last five minutes - the images that shocked the world and helped give rise to consciousness about what had happened in Europe the previous decade (to read an amazing piece about how slowly it took for "Holocaust consciousness" to develop among the non-Jewish world, check out Tony Judt's excellent epilogue to his magnum opus "POSTWAR", which I reviewed here). These are the images of the starving, the shaved, the sick - and later, the bulldozed corpses into mass pits and the piles of skeletal remains. Of course they shock and horrify still, no matter how many times you've seen them or how closely you've studied this disgraceful period of human history.

In the final minute the narrator, in so many words, expresses not simply his contempt at the Nazis but at the world - not for letting this happen, but for his belief that the world hasn't and won't learn from its mistakes. It's a bleak close, after a bleak but necessary barrage of imagery. With 57 years of hindsight between us and this film, we can of course say that there has been no comparable atrocity on that scale, certainly, but that humanity has not redeemed in full due to subsequent actions in China, Bosnia, across Africa, Argentina, Cambodia and in the minds and actions of Islamic fundamentalists today. "NIGHT AND FOG" is an intense and masterful piece of documentary filmmaking that quite obviously set the standard for many years of advocacy and humanitarian filmmaking that followed.

Friday, June 15, 2012


I used to think that all of the non-hardcore music emanating from Athens, Georgia and the south in general in the early 80s was a variation on “jangle”, which is what we called the music of R.E.M., LET’S ACTIVE and their college rock ilk. I therefore found it easy to ignore PYLON, whose records I saw in bins all the time and found out later – way later - were a great post-punk art/dance group, and OH-OK, whom I condescendingly assumed back then to be a female-fronted R.E.M., given that they were sometimes helmed by Linda Stipe – Mike’s sister. Leave it to our pal Erika Elizabeth to right this wrong three decades later and introduce me to the outstanding childlike new-wavy pop art of the band and their recent collection “THE COMPLETE REISSUE” on Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records. Erika plays this thing almost every week on her show, and after a couple spins it totally sank in and I bought it. It’s great.

I know my tolerance for twee has increased dramatically this past decade, but this isn’t even that “twee” – it’s just a load of fun, with short pinpricks of wavoid bounce, weird chord patterns and off-beat fake harmonizing. Even the live stuff they threw on here is a blast – “Jumping” and “Here We Go” had me imagining 100 new waver haircuts pogoing their asses off at some sweaty college town bar. A guy we’ve both heard of, Matthew Sweet, was the guitarist in this band – I know he had a solo career of some renown after this; I just haven’t heard his stuff (see how easy it is for me to freeze out musical acts for years based on wrongheaded assumptions?). OH-OK were around from 1981 to 1984, and yes, this is their complete recordings. The early stuff is the more happy-go-lucky; the later stuff stretches out a bit to lengths greater than two minutes (!) and has a more melancholy feel along with gentle hooks aplenty. Try this track “Such n Such” that I’ve posted for you here and try to get up offa that thang whilst doing so.

Play OH-OK, “Such n Such”

Download OH-OK, “Such n Such”

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


In 2000 I was given a fairly generous 2-month severance package as I was laid off from my job, along with everyone else in the company. I took advantage of this time one afternoon by taking a trip south from San Francisco down the Peninsula's famed "main street", El Camino Real. El Camino cuts a long swath from the city of South San Francisco all the way deep into the ass-end of Silicon Valley, just north of San Jose. That's about 50 minutes by the parallel freeways of 280 and 101, but closer to 2-3 hours worth of driving if you take El Camino itself and suffer every stoplight. Suburbs that one travels through on this Northern California mother road include San Bruno, Burlingame, Redwood City, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Palo Alto, Millbrae, Cupertino, Los Altos, Sunnyvale and others of lesser provenance.

There are only two reasons to ever drive on El Camino. One is because something you need to get to forces you to drive on it. The other is to take photos of its dying businesses and their 1950s- and 60s-vintage signs. That was my excuse for this day-long jaunt in 2000. I'm always jealous of Southern Californians when I drive around places like Garden Grove, Alhambra, Glendale or Redondo Beach. So many amazing signs! So many classic motels! Barber shops, bowling alleys and diners in these towns and many others announce that time stood still in about 1973 and that economic development ceased. Because I love the look of old neon and the exaggerated commercialism of the 60s and 70s, any time I come across an old sign like the ones in these towns I'm already sad at its eventual and certain demise, even while it's still standing.

Given that the San Francisco Bay Area in 2000 was only just starting to feel the downturn in dot-com mania, and that old buildings and apartment complexes were still rapidly being torn down to make room for lofts and condos, I figured I'd better get down to El Camino Real with my Instamatic camera and start snappin'. El Camino's our closest and really only equivalent to the commercial architectural treasures still found in LA, but in the 12 years since I took these pictures, my worst fears have indeed been confirmed, and many of these businesses are now gone. Some remain - somehow. Hopefully these poorly-shot photos mean something to someone besides myself, and if anyone knows of similar signs-n-ephemera galleries out there on the web, please post links in the comments section below.

Monday, June 11, 2012


In college I had a pal named Grady who was the rare college film studies major drawn not to highfalutin Kurosawa, Bergman, Antonioni-type films, but instead to the ultra-lowbrow exploitation films of the 50s, 60s and 70s – “Blood Feast”, “Wild Angels”, “I Spit On Your Grave” and the like. He was an ardent collector of badly-recorded VHS copies of these and many other like-minded sex, violence, Nazi, Blaxploitation, biker, “mondo”, Russ Meyer etc. films, and this world of cheapo film intersected nicely with that of punk rock and record collecting, both of which were high on our agendas as well. Thus, many a drunken night in the late 80s and early 90s was spent watching these films. Our exploitation fandom was well-timed, too. “THE PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM” and “RE:SEARCH INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILMS” had come out in the recent half-decade, and both books became absolute bibles for me and many others of that time, as we sought to see and dissect some of the worst and the weirdest films of all time. An exploitation revival crested hard in the 1990s, and mini-genres like 70’s Blaxploitation and women-in-prison movies “finally got their due”.

So here’s this recent documentary film called “AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE” that delves into the history of these sordid pictures in a light, and moderately successful, manner. I feel like this is maybe the third time I’ve seen a history-of-exploitation-films documentary, or perhaps it just feels that way, because the only one I can call to mind at the moment is the excellent, better-than-this-film “NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD”, which tackles the history of Australian exploitation films. Anyway, as someone who actually got to walk on New York’s 42nd Street in the early 80s and saw endless marquees showing “Cannibal Holocaust”-esque films all day and all night, and who also remembers the glory days of 1970s horror schlock and softcore teen-porn film very well, I’m still interested in how it all came to be, and why it was so successful. At 44 years of age, actually taking 90 minutes from my life to watch a film like this doesn’t interest me in the least anymore, but hey, I’m really glad they were around when they were.

“AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE” follows the standard this-is-a-documentary-about-films convention to the letter: Talking heads sitting in chairs and laughing about the “old days”, lots of lurid film clips, and chapterized sections for each phase of the subject’s development. You get the sense that this particular film was really made on a shoestring, though. When clips are called for from a film like, say, the landmark horror cheeser “Blood Feast”, there are times when only outtakes from the film are shown – not clips from the film itself. And yet they got the rights to show real scenes from “Psycho”, “Wild Angels”, “Easy Rider” and other biggies (public domain?). Some of the talking heads are great – Hershel Gordon Lewis and John Landis (!) in particular – but others are just awful, like a twentysomething writer named Kim Miller and a guy who still bugs me from the time I saw him do his poseur film-expert shtick live, Eddie Muller.

I did learn some things, though. I didn’t realize what a big cash-cow craze those “birth of the baby” films were in the 1950s, in which squeamish, repressed Americans paid money for the privilege of watching filmed, live births of children. The crazy-Nazi exploitation film genre was more rich than I thought it was, and a clip from a film called “THE TORMENTORS”, in which two American hippie actors dressed as Nazis chase a blonde guy who’s supposed to be Jesus, really took me back to my teens & twenties and made me wanna drink a Mickey Bigmouth six-pack and watch this one. Twice. All told, I’ll cautiously recommend “AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE” for its cornucopia of classic clips from the many eras of exploitation. They’re a real pleasant assault on the eyes and the depraved pleasure centers of the brain.