The Beatles, Get Back

I just finished watching the new Beatles’ documentary on Disney+, Get Back. It’s in three parts, and the third part ends with almost the whole rooftop concert (some but not all downtime between songs seems to have been cut), which wound up being their last public performance together. So I put together this playlist to reflect all the songs they performed, using rooftop performances where available in the order in which they appear.

https://music.apple.com/us/playlist/the-beatles-rooftop-concert/pl.u-VL2aIBYGkNr

My playlist covers these songs:

  1. “Get Back,” original studio version. This wasn’t part of the rooftop performance, but was captured in the Beatles’ studio on Saville Row some time before. The first rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t seem to be available on iTunes.
  2. “Get Back,” 1969 Glyn Johns mix. The second rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted this one. Glyn Johns put together a version of the songs on Let It Be originally intended for an album titled Get Back “that would match the documentary nature of the forthcoming film” (more about the film later; taken from the liner notes to Let It Be… Naked). Johns’s mixes are now available on a deluxe version of Let It Be recently released.
  3. “Don’t Let Me Down” (first rooftop performance).
  4. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  5. “One After 909” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  6. “Dig a Pony” (album version that sounds like the rooftop performance to me, but I’m not sure).
  7. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (the second rooftop performance doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted the 1969 Glyn Johns mix).
  8. “Don’t Let Me Down” (1969 Glyn Johns mix, same as above).
  9. “Get Back” (third rooftop performance from The Beatles Anthology 3. The anthology doesn’t indicate which rooftop performance, but Paul has a line in here about getting arrested, which he added after seeing the police on the rooftop, so it’s the third performance).

We should keep in mind the whole recording session was intended to be released as a TV special. According to the liner notes on Let It Be… Naked the original concept was a TV performance of songs from the white album, and then it transformed into a documentary recording the creation of a new album from the beginning. The conclusion of the TV special was intended to be live performances of the new songs in front of an impromptu audience, which would be their first live performance since August of 1966. What wound up being a documentary film about the recording of the album was released concurrently with the album in 1970.

A few observations.

It’s a miracle they got anything done. Of course the eight hours of video we see is greatly edited down from the 60 hours of video available, but they seemed to spend most of their time singing their own and other people’s songs in funny voices. Sometimes it seemed like they were just having fun (most of the time, actually), but sometimes it seemed like they were tired of it all and not taking it seriously. Billy Preston showing up changed everything and made everyone feel better. He was great. George Martin’s presence seemed like a good thing as well, even though John told Martin to stay away at first (liner notes for Let It Be… Naked).

Paul goes on a little tirade at the beginning, at the very beginning, saying something along the lines of, “If we’re not going to do this, we should just quit right now.” I felt at the time like that was what split up the Beatles. Throughout the sessions Paul refers to their days in Hamburg several times, which leaves the impression that he hadn’t really had much fun with the band since then because that was a few years back by this point, and he seems dissatisfied with just making albums.

I don’t want to create a false impression. Paul was playful most of the time and upbeat. He just had some moments. George actually quit and the other three had to take a few days to get him to come back, and then later on George talked about all of them just doing solo projects and then coming back together. He seemed frustrated in having too small a role in the band and its songwriting.

There is a little scene, sound only, where Paul and John are talking together about what they need to do to get George back. The documentary claims that the filmmakers at the time hid a microphone in a flower pot at a diner where Paul and John went to discuss the situation with George. That sounds like nonsense to me. You have to realize this was 1969. There is no WiFi or Bluetooth. Of course they had transmitters, but they weren’t that small, and a sound cable running underneath a random booth at a diner would be kind of obvious, not to mention the fact the filmmakers had no way of knowing exactly where Paul and John would be sitting. So I think the conversation was staged. That doesn’t mean the conversation didn’t reflect anyone’s real feelings, but I’m just not buying the hidden mic in the flower pot story.

Moving on, I had a strong impression that anything Paul touched musically would be golden because of it. Any input he gave would make a song better. And the first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

The wives were all there at different points. Yoko the most, then Linda (still Eastman with her very young daughter from a previous relationship, who was precocious and hilarious), then Ringo’s wife Maureen, with Pattie Boyd (Harrison) appearing once. Yoko was quiet and unassuming throughout the sessions, and watching her occasional facial expressions and gestures — and they were rare — is worthy of some study and attention. She would at times sing/screech into a mic while the Beatles played to it; at one point Paul played drums to Yoko’s singing. So yes, there were tensions within the band. It’s not clear they weren’t manageable. It’s hard for me to say that Paul, or John, or George, or Yoko split up the band.

What really seemed to be working against the band was having to come up with a bunch of new songs in three weeks and then be ready for a television special at the end of it. They could only agree to get George to come back by scrapping the TV special idea and moving their songwriting and rehearsals back to their own studios instead of the warehouse in Twickenham that was serving as a sound stage. So I think a number of factors were working against the Beatles, the biggest one of them being the Beatles.

I wish they had been able to do what John suggested, which was record their own solo albums and then come back together and record as the Beatles, especially in retrospect of the enormous creative output each of them enjoyed as solo artists in the 70s. It really was something seeing them all at different times sit behind drums or piano or strum the guitar. I think George was the only one who didn’t play any drums.

I couldn’t wait to see them get on the rooftop, because that was a public performance. That’s the one time there is no doubt that while they were having fun, they were also taking the music seriously. The rooftop concert deserves special attention, but not only because it was their last public performance. As a performance, it seemed more like a rehearsal of their new songs than a performance. “Get Back” was played twice at the beginning and once at the end, and two other songs were played twice. Two of those performances of the other songs wound up being the tracks used on the album, while the version of “Get Back” used was performed in the studio some days earlier.

What was enjoyable about the rooftop performance, beyond just seeing the Beatles perform, were interviews with the public on the street. Young and old said, “It’s the Beatles!”, “I wish we could see them,” “This is wonderful,” with a number of complaints too: “They woke me up from my sleep and I don’t appreciate it.” Ha. The police arrived after reportedly receiving 30 complaints about noise in a few minutes. They were stalled, and the two officers who initially arrived on the scene looked like two rosy-faced little fourteen year old boys, blustering and threatening like teenage boys too. There’s been quite a bit of reporting over the last day or two (from this writing) about the officers. The main one in the film was Ray Dagg, who was 19 years old at the time. I can’t track all the references right now, but he admitted he was probably making up “30 complaints” (he had no idea how many they received), and that he was bluffing about being able to arrest them on the charges he specifically mentioned. They don’t apply on private premises.

Most interestingly, he said he knew he was being recorded in the lobby of the Beatles’ studios because he saw a microphone in a flower pot. On the one hand, this validates the mic in the flower pot story explaining the recording of Paul’s and John’s earlier conversation about George, but on the other hand, if he saw it just looking casually while standing up, it’s hard to believe Paul and John wouldn’t notice it sitting at a table.

But throughout all encounters with the police, everyone was very polite. When the police arrived at the rooftop, the Beatles finished their performance without being asked while the officers stood by and watched. They ended with the version of “Get Back” in which Paul sings a line about being arrested which appears on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection.

And that’s the thing with the lyrics. No one showed up with written lyric sheets except maybe John for “Across the Universe” and perhaps George’s songs, but I don’t recall in the latter case. Otherwise, lyrics were improvised on the spot with the music. In one of the film’s highlights, Paul wrote a first run at “Get Back” while they were all waiting for John to show up, who was an hour late. “Get back.” He’s late. Get it? “I miss the old days at Hamburg.” “Get back.” Get it? Several of the songs seemed like immediate reactions to the situation at hand later revised into songs. One version of “Get Back” reflects anti-immigrant feeling in Britain popular at the time, which seemed terribly and painfully familiar.

It’s a great documentary. It’s real life. But it’s real life hanging out with the Beatles while they try to make some new music. It’s real life amplified. It was 41 years to this day since John Lennon died when I posted an initial draft of this review to Facebook. I am grateful for the timing of it all, but what a loss.

Tiffany at 50: She’s Not Alone Now

I had the pleasure of seeing 80s’ pop icon Tiffany (Darwish) perform in Melbourne, Florida, at the Iron Oak Post on November 21st. Her performance gained national attention through outlets like TMZ because she said to the audience, “F-you, guys,” after struggling with her singing during the performance of her hit song “I Think We’re Alone Now.” She later apologized for her behavior in a recorded video, saying she had a panic attack because her voice was failing.

As someone present in the audience, I’d like to give my own firsthand account of that night and correct some misleading impressions made by TMZ reporting.

Iron Oak Post is a bar that’s split in half between a drinking area and a performance venue. The bar itself stretches between the two. It’s a small venue that holds concerts regularly. For a bit of context, Melbourne has about as many heavy metal bands as my current town, Merritt Island, has turtles, and let me tell you–that’s a lot. The opening act was a great local band, DL Serios, who that night had Michelle Jones on glowy electric violin (check out the DL Serios Facebook page for additional video).

I’d seen DL Serios before, and they rocked, hard, closing with a cover of Kiss’s “Let Me Go, Rock ‘N Roll” that blew my doors off. I think they played it better than Kiss. The night they opened for Tiffany, however, they were more subdued, with their lead guitarist on acoustic and their drummer on a stripped down set he was playing with his bare hands, slapping the drums. He still sounded so big I couldn’t tell until I looked hard at his equipment. Frontman Chris Long was on point, energetic, and engaging, as always. They played acoustic versions of many of the same songs I’d heard cranked up loud and electric in another performance. Michelle Jones, who performed with the orchestra for the Page/Plant No Quarter tour in the mid 90s, sat in because she likes to jam with the band, and she did. Jam.

When Tiffany came out, there were sound problems right off, including some squealing feedback and a lack of reverb. I’d seen Ektogasm in the same venue some time back, and they had sound problems then too. The bass guitar sounded louder than the lead guitar that night, for example, at least to me. After two or three songs, however, the sound problems seemed to get worked out, and Tiffany and her guitarist Mark Alberici, sitting next to her on acoustic guitar, started moving through a number of Tiffany’s songs from her most recent album, Pieces of Me. I wasn’t at all familiar with these songs, but I was impressed with the songwriting, which in that format sounded like very well put together singer-songwriter pieces.

She also spent some time talking about a charity she was sponsoring on her tour, the Give Foundation, dedicated to poverty relief. It was clear from a number of her comments that she was at the end of a long tour and some fatigue had been setting in. Near the end of the night, Michelle Jones joined Tiffany and her guitarist onstage, unrehearsed, for a nice jam at the end.

And now we get to the “incident.” I initially decided not to write about what happened, because why draw attention to it?

But once TMZ covered it, why not?

A friend of mine in attendance that night sent me her video footage of “the incident,” which you can also see in the TMZ links. My friend’s video is immediately below.

Of the three Tiffany videos I posted above (gotta slide right from the first to the second in the first embed), the first was at the end of the night, once Tiffany quit singing and her guitarist and Michelle took over. It’s frankly hard to believe they didn’t rehearse. The second video (yes, slide right) was from very early in the night, Tiffany’s popular version of the Beatles’ “I Saw [Him] Standing There” from her first album.

TMZ accurately reports that Tiffany’s voice started giving out at the end. She sounded hoarse and like she was losing breath, and she was self-conscious about her fatigue and the sound quality all night. But TMZ gets a few things wrong in these sentences:

Tiffany was onstage Sunday night in Melbourne, FL with her band, belting out a few tunes including her hugely successful “I Think We’re Alone Now.” You can hear Tiffany struggle with a few notes, but fans help her out — singing along word for word.

However, near the end of the song, Tiffany apparently hears or sees something she doesn’t like in the crowd … telling them, “F*** You!!!”

Let me respond line by line:

Tiffany was not “onstage with her band.” She was onstage only with her guitarist Mark Alberici on acoustic guitar until the end of the night, when Michelle Jones joined them onstage.

Tiffany did indeed “struggle with a few notes,” and fans did “help her out — singing along word for word.” If you watch the video, the audience sang along loudly for a few lines. Right before she got frustrated, the audience stopped singing along because she’d quit singing lyrics.

Tiffany did not say “F*** You!!!” The typography here implies she shouted angrily at the crowd. She didn’t. You can see in TMZ‘s own video and the video I provided above that she didn’t so much sound angry as maybe a bit annoyed. She sounds like she’s talking to an annoying friend at a party. And TMZ didn’t report everything she said. What she said was,

“F- you, guys. I’m gonna f-ing… [I can’t make out what else she says.] This is my hit.”

When she said it, she was looking straight into the audience, slightly to her right, so TMZ is right in saying that something in the audience set her off. But she was talking to someone specific, maybe a couple people up front laughing at her for her singing.

By that point it wasn’t so much a concert as drunken karaoke with the original performer.

And yes, TMZ also reports that “there’s been some speculation alcohol played a factor…” From my point of view, that’s not speculation. If you watch to about 13 seconds into my first video, you’ll see a barstool slightly behind and between Tiffany and her guitarist populated with the contents of a minibar. That pint glass she was drinking from, I have been told, wasn’t Guinness, as I thought at the time, but whiskey, so she started out with a good 4-5 fingers in there, and I was told that there was some pretty hard drinking backstage too.

Yep, Tiffany was a bit lit by the end of the night.

But the biggest thing TMZ got wrong was this: “her latest show in Florida struck a sour note between the singer and her fans.”

No. There was no “sour note between the singer and her fans.”

When she told the audience, “F- you, guys,” the crowd cheered. Just watch the videos. That was their highlight of the night.

Her guitarist Mark, by the way, was a great stage partner. When he thought she started going a little off the rails he’d try to reign her in, tugging at her sleeve, and I think he and Michelle Jones started jamming together at the end to get her away from the mic.

But did I tell you this was a heavy metal crowd? Did you know there’s a Jim Morrison house not far away?

What I saw, and what I think most of the crowd saw, was a great moment in rock and roll. Morrison died when I was just a kid, so I’ve never been to a Doors concert. But that night with Tiffany, or at least that moment, felt like one. Most of all, it was a moment of reality instead of polish. That’s what made it great to so many people there. Five seconds of her real feelings were more important to the crowd than 90 minutes of polished self-presentation. Without necessarily encouraging that behavior in the future, we love you for that, Tiffany.

It was the death of a vapid 16 year old singing fun pop songs and the birth of our next Janis Joplin. She has the material. She has the voice. Just don’t die on us like she did.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not knocking her 16 year old self. She was great when she was 16, 17, 18 years old for a teenager. She’s just better now.

What I saw was a 50 year old woman who has earned the right to be herself… being herself. It was Tiffany proving that one 50 year old version of herself is better than two 25 year old versions, even if they’re crammed into one body.

I don’t need to hear those 80s songs. I’d like to hear her sing “Honkey Tonk Woman” in the real voice she has today. Heck, that should be the title of her next album. I want to hear her next album, which she announced she’s delaying until 2022, and give her last album, Pieces of Me (2018), a good long listen, because the new music I heard that night was better than anything I heard from her in the 80s.

Miley Cyrus and Brittany killed their teen pop idol alter egos. Let Tiffany do so as well.

Tiffany is alive and well, and she proved it at Iron Oak Post that night.

Reflections on Twenty Years of College Teaching, Part 2: Pedagogy

Things I wish I’d learned my first year of college teaching that would have made me a better teacher:

First, the subject matter you’re teaching is indeed important. I already knew that. But you know what else is important? In fact, just as important to your students’ education as the subject matter itself? The instructor’s answer to the why question: why do I have to take this class?

I’ve spent enough time teaching non-majors that I simply accept the need to sell gen ed classes to my non-major students. Why do first year writing classes matter? Because oral and written communication skills have been among the top ten skills desired by employers in all employer surveys conducted over the last twenty years, usually in the top three. More immediately, because you need the skills you’ll develop in those first year writing courses in your upper division courses.

Why do your literature courses matter? Because you need narrative in everyday life: you need narrative to sell yourself to graduate programs and employers, to sell a product or service to customers, to explain the importance of a treatment to a patient, the guilt or innocence of this person, the history and intent of this contract. And you need character study as well for similar reasons. In addition to the fact that literature is virtually a lab for the study of the diversity of human experiences, feelings, and ideas, literary study teaches you that not everyone is like you. In other words, literary studies approximate real life: you’re observing people’s words and actions without being told what they mean, but you still have to make sense of them. You have to collect and construct evidence into a coherent argument about these very things. Welcome to everyday living in your personal life and in business and professional environments.

More of the why has to do with the purpose of college classes. Now more than ever, students and parents tend to think of college courses as job training, which is an understandable reaction to an environment of economic depression. But they can never completely be that. No college can update its curriculum to keep it current to the minute with the actual practices in any given industry, and if they tried, they’d have a schizophrenic, incoherent curriculum. The best a program of study can do is provide the background needed to make a graduate trainable in the current environment.

But even more than that, college studies develop student cognition. They expand the range and type of thinking available to students, which is vital to critical thinking, problem solving, and future educability. Arts and sciences curriculum especially serves this goal: math and philosophy expands student capability in abstract reasoning (of different kinds); art in visual literacy, creativity, and just helping you to see; music in creativity, audio literacy, and just being able to really hear; history in the construction of narrative out of disparate, incoherent arrays of facts; literature in many of these, often a combination of them, along with creativity. All of these are brought into upper division, more vocationally-oriented studies and into all future vocations no matter what the field.

But moving past the why into nuts and bolts? Just as important as teaching the subject matter is establishing the following connections:

What is being taught –> how you’re being assessed –> why you got that grade.

Yes, a student who has really learned the material knows why they earned the grade they did. Grading, or assessment of any kind, is as important a part of the learning process as the initial presentation of the material. It’s not an annoying institutional afterthought. In a sense, caring about these connections and making them clear is answering another kind of why question: why did I get that grade? Rubrics matter, actually. They narrow and focus the purpose of your assignments and should be used to direct student attention. You really aren’t teaching everything with every assignment. What’s the purpose of this assignment? The more narrowly and specifically you can answer that for each assignment, the better your assignment design is, and the more you can link assignments into coherent course goals, the better your course design is.

How would I sum all of this up? The most important question you can answer for your students, not just after the fact, but from the beginning, is why? Why am I doing this? Take the time to answer that question up front.

“Avengers: Endgame, Iron Man, and America”

Avengers: Endgame, Iron Man, and America”
by James Rovira

A revised version of this article now appears on Sequart.org.

Disclaimer: this commentary includes major spoilers starting with the second sentence of the third paragraph, so I wouldn’t read too far if you haven’t watched Avengers: Endgame yet. It also won’t make much sense if you haven’t watched Endgame and the Iron Man, Captain America, Avengers, and Captain Marvel films.

With the release of Endgame the weekend of April 28th, 2019, Marvel Films completed a remarkable achievement: the conclusion of a story that took 22 films to tell. Endgame itself is virtuoso storytelling, wrapping up multiple story and character arcs in a single, deftly told, gripping film. There is no wasted screen time beyond some needed comic relief, and the film is three hours long. I think it’s fair to say that Endgame is this generation’s great epic film, its Ten Commandments. Given the resources and time invested in this eleven-year film cycle, I think it’s worth a little bit of time thinking about what the MCU has been saying to us all this time. I think the MCU is telling us that we still, collectively, haven’t overcome the trauma of the Holocaust, and it’s pointing to a possible way that we might do so.

IronmanposterImmediately after watching Endgame I went back and rewatched the first MCU film, Iron Man (2008). While the MCU encompasses twenty-two films (so far) and dozens of characters, many of whom have their own stories and character arcs, the only characters with completed story lines from origin to end of life are Tony Stark, Captain America (to old age, though, not death), Vision, Black Widow, and Thanos. Of these, Tony Stark/Iron Man and Captain America are the focal points of three films each, unlike Vision and Black Widow, and Thanos is the chief antagonist within the MCU, so this twenty-two film story arc is best understood as a contest between Iron Man and Captain America, on the one hand, and Thanos on the other. But since the MCU begins with Iron Man’s origin and Endgame concludes shortly after Tony Stark’s funeral, this series of films is fundamentally about Tony Stark vs. Thanos. Captain America is important to the series as he represents a different kind of foil for Tony Stark, taking the form of a different way of being a hero, but occupying that position makes him a secondary character in relationship to Stark, who in the end, as the MCU series protagonist, is the one who defeats Thanos.

The question, “Who is the protagonist of the MCU series?” seems silly and academic, a fun exercise for a high school English class, especially given the range of characters and number of films, but I think we need to take seriously the fact that the Infinity Stones story, and the MCU itself, for that matter, begins with Iron Man’s creation and ends with Tony Stark’s death. The central image from Stark’s funeral, his first miniature arc reactor encased in a ring that said, “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart,” originated in the first Iron Man film as a gift from his future wife, Pepper Potts. It was a wry joke at the time, the idea that Stark the billionaire playboy weapons manufacturer needed proof he had a heart – and that this proof would take the form of a high-tech gadget in a case – but the centrality of this device I think encapsulates the MCU universe’s commentary on the real nature of the contest that it’s representing.

Tony Stark is America after World War II: weapons, tech, war, and hedonism. The MCU is assessing not the greatest generation, the one who beat Hitler, but the Baby Boomers, their children, what we did with our parents’ and grandparents’ legacy, and how we inherited their fears and managed them. I mean this “we” literally. I was born in 1964, so was among the last of Baby Boomers, and Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Tony Stark, was born about eight months after me in 1965. In the MCU, Stark himself was born in 1970. People our age are of the second generation after World War II: our parents didn’t fight in the war, but our grandparents did. My grandfather served during World War II while my father was in the Army during the Korean War. So the MCU represents our grappling with the legacy of World War II and the Holocaust from an American perspective, documenting two different responses to this legacy distributed across two to three different generations.

Thanos_AvengersThe first response is Thanos’s, who is driven by his own personal holocaust, the literal loss of his world, and how he sought to prevent that loss from happening on a cosmic scale by wiping out half of all life in the universe. His thought was that with less competition for resources life could thrive again. When he realized life couldn’t move forward after such cataclysmic loss, his plan B was to wipe out all life completely and start again. I think we need to come to grips with this psychology of death. The trauma of Thanos’s holocaust was so internalized by him that he sought to repeat it. His desire was never to preserve life, but to be the controller and distributor of death, to be the source of the next holocaust rather than its victim.

Tony Stark, on the other hand, illustrates how our desire to build a shield around the TheAvengers2012Posterworld to keep the Holocaust from ever happening again is what is killing it. His first shield around the world was Ultron, who nearly destroyed all life on Earth in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). In the next Avengers film, Avengers: Infinity Wars (2018), Stark and the Avengers failed to stop Thanos, who succeeded in wiping out half of all life in the universe by finally acquiring the Infinity stone that Stark placed in Vision, whom he built to stop Ultron. In effect, our powerful defensive measures in themselves created the repeat holocaust they were intended to stop. Therefore it’s no coincidence that Stark is a defense contractor. He embodies the profits and hedonism of this industry, its love of tech and power, a love that is disseminated throughout American culture, embodied in superhero movies themselves, and extended across the globe through US foreign policy. The MCU’s Iron Man originated in the Middle East with Stark’s discovery that his weapons, which were intended for the defense of the United States and its allies, were being sold to terrorists. Our real shield around the world, we should learn from the MCU, started out with a desire for protection and has descended into the naked pursuit of profit at the expense of all principle.

Avengers_Infinity_War_posterStark’s other foil, I have observed, is Captain America. Captain America/Steve Rogers represents the imaginary form of our uncorrupted ideals, the Greatest Generation itself, who in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was frozen in time in 1945 to be later resurrected in the present generation to battle evil once again. But his presence alongside Stark led to a civil war among the good guys in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Stark, on the one hand, wanted to bring the Avengers under the control of world governments while Steve Rogers, on the other, seeing how Hydra had infiltrated the top levels of governance – further commentary on what we have become – no longer trusted the system with that power. A civil war among the good guys was inevitable because both sides were right. Superhero power, if it existed, would need to be held accountable to governmental oversight, but those who would provide this oversight can’t be trusted. The MCU only resolves this dispute but pitting them against a common enemy that represents nothing less than universal death itself, Thanos, the embodiment of our own death instinct.

Thanos_with_Infinity_Gauntlet_and_Stones_(MCU)But Stark was the one who defeated Thanos in Endgame, not Captain America. I think we should consider carefully just what the Infinity Gauntlet, powered by all of the Infinity stones, really represents. It’s a cliché: if you could snap your fingers and change just one thing, what would it be? Thanos would snap his fingers and wipe out half the life in the universe, and then, when frustrated, all life itself to start over. Stark snapped his fingers to wipe out Thanos and his forces. The problem is that both sides still think the only way to win is to kill everyone on the other side. Worse than that, even Captain America thinks like Thanos: early in Endgame, Captain America says that if we can’t move forward from the massive loss of life experienced at the end of Infinity Wars, then Thanos should have killed us all. When Thanos realizes that life won’t move forward from the loss incurred at the end of Infinity Warshe reasons exactly like Captain America: if they can’t get over it, kill them all and start over.

Captain_Marvel_posterSince the Infinity Wars plotline is about the prevention of a holocaust, I think that the MCU cycle of films reveals to us how much the Holocaust, the real one we suffered in World War II, continues to scar us all: we beat the Nazis but have become them in that we think killing all the bad guys is in the end the only real solution to our problems. If you don’t believe we think the only way to win is kill off all of our enemies, why all the nukes? What better way to kill them all, how more efficiently, than with nuclear weapons? Why do you think we have so many? Do you think it’s a coincidence that the real villains of Captain Marvel (2019) wound up being the Kree, an intensely technological, highly diverse federation of planets? Do you think it’s a coincidence that the “terrorists” in Captain Marvel were minority victims of the Kree? Who here most resembles the United States? But more importantly, what a massive failure of the imagination it is to think that the only solution to our problems is mass death. Why couldn’t Thanos snap his fingers and make all life consume only half as much resources to survive? Why couldn’t Stark snap his fingers and change Thanos’s mind, maybe by showing him a different future? Why can’t we snap our fingers and keep the world safe in a way that doesn’t involve bigger and faster planes, missiles, and troops?

PeggyCarter2A new way of thinking is needed here, a way that the MCU teaches us we haven’t learned yet but, maybe, Captain America did. At the end of Endgame, Rogers completed his mission, returning all of the stones to their original locations in time, but then he didn’t come back. He stayed in the past, married the love of his life, Peggy Carter, and lived a full life with her. Captain America’s character in the MCU teaches us that we don’t move forward until we learn the solution to our problems won’t be found until we stop killing.

As an aside, we should note that Captain America returning the stones to their original locations at the end of Endgame didn’t solve the problem of creating an alternate reality, as Thanos’s time travel forward created two timelines: one of the current Infinity Wars/Endgame chronology in which Thanos lives until 2019 until he is beheaded by Thor, and an alternate one in which Thanos leaves that timeline in 2014, before recovering any of the stones, and never returns to it, to be finally defeated later in 2019 by Iron Man. Steve Rogers stayed in this alternate reality, married the woman he loved, and then caught up with the Infinity Wars reality as an old man. I think Rogers just appearing naturally in the Endgame timeline, showing up on a bench, was a mistake as well. He lived his life in the alternate timeline. He should have only been able to return to the Endgame timeline in a quantum travel suit.

Either way, while the MCU teaches us that we haven’t learned, the MCU also teaches us that we really learn when we quit being soldiers and start having a life. The best of us, the Greatest Generation, did that for the most part, but it also gave birth to the modern military industrial complex. Their children and grandchildren picked up that complex and ran with it. Our grandparents beat the Nazis, but as a culture we’re still like Tony Stark, partying on war profiteering. We should learn from these films that as of right now, on our current course, in our real history, we’re racing toward the next holocaust. The MCU also teaches us, however, that we have other, better examples before us, so in the end asks this question: will we follow our better examples, or will we stay on this path until we cause another holocaust?

Women in Rock: Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless as Künstlerroman

Check out my iTunes playlist for Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless.

Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography, Reckless, has generated a number of mixed reviews and ambivalent reactions on social media. I’m going to try to untangle those reactions because I think it’s an important work for a number of reasons. Before I get started, though, I’d like to add that my comments here will be supplemented by my own research into Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives in Cleveland, Ohio, when I was researching a proposal for a 33⅓ Series book on the Pretenders’ first album about three years ago. Part of my research involved the usual music magazine readings and whatever available scholarship there was, which included Chrissie Hynde’s own music writing when she did a brief stint as a writer for the London-based music magazine NME. Reckless was hilarious on this point. She felt like a fraud as a writer. I think she wasn’t. She offered what she had, which were authentic reactions. But feeling like a fraud, she said writing for a living was “like getting paid to shoplift.” The real gem of my time in the archives, though, was six cassettes recorded by Kurt Loder when he was interviewing band members for his May 29, 1980 Rolling Stone article about the Pretenders, who hit it huge both in the US and in the UK with their first album that year. Those cassettes cover much of the ground in Hynde’s autobiography and add different details.  

Hynde and her autobiography are important because, first of all, she is undeniably one of the most important female figures in rock. I’m using the term “rock” narrowly rather than broadly: classic rock, punk, post-punk, new wave, grunge, indie, or alternative as opposed to rap, R&B, or pop, which is almost never guitar-based. She stands out not just as lead singer and “frontman” but as a rare female rock guitarist, at least rare for her generation. Janis Joplin and Grace Slick were singers, Suzi Quattro played bass, Patti Smith has appeared onstage with a guitar but is mainly a singer, and Hynde’s peers — Wendy O. Williams, Debbie Harry, and Siouxsie Sioux — were also just lead singers. The only prominent female rock guitarists were usually in all-female bands like the Runaways, the Go-Gos, and the Bangles. Joan Jett is her only real peer after the end of the Runaways and the start of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who released their first album in 1980, same year as the Pretenders, but that band didn’t significantly chart until 1982. Lita Ford may well be the first frontwoman in rock playing lead guitar since Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but her first album didn’t come out until 1983. Female singer-songwriters like Joan Baez played acoustic guitar and weren’t primarily “frontmen” for a band, and they usually weren’t playing rock.

Hynde, by her own accounts, in her early forays into being a musician was often slotted into the lead singer position — which she deserves, because she has a great voice — but she also insisted on being able to play rhythm guitar too. Not because rhythm was all she could play, but because it was all she wanted to play: “I’d never once been tempted to play a single note. Chords, for me, three, less is more” (193). Apart from her own position as a rare female “frontman” and guitarist, though, she was a very close eye-witness of the rise of punk and post-punk in London in the late 70s and early 80s. She associated with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo while she was at Kent State, she was present during the shooting there, and she was close to members of the Clash and the Sex Pistols. She got close to Lemmy of Motörhead and started angling to steal his drummer. She almost formed a band with Tom Verlaine. She’s an observer of that bit of our cultural history from the standpoint of a close insider, so her account is also valuable for those reasons.

The mixed reviews are due in part to frustrated expectations. The original subtitle, My Life as a Pretender, implies for many people that the book should consist of background on Hynde followed by her history of the band from about 1978 to 2014 or so. But that’s not at all what we get. What we get is her life from childhood to around the time of the deaths of James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, the Pretenders’ original lead guitarist and bass player, respectively, in 1982 and 1983. She makes quick work at the end of that period of an attempted marriage to the Kinks’ lead singer and guitarist Ray Davies and of her first pregnancy, by him. When the clerk saw Hynde’s and Davies’ emotional and physical states when they came to get married, he told them to “come back another day.” They returned home and acted like it never happened. And she makes even quicker work on the last page of her marriage to Simple Minds lead singer Jim Kerr in 1984, which lasted until 1990 and with whom she had her second child.

So if Hynde ends her story around 1984, why subtitle it “My Life as. . .” anything? The book ends when she’s 33, just over half a life ago as of the time of this writing. She announces the beginning of the Pretenders with the line, “And that, essentially, was the beginning of the Pretenders,” which appears on page 235 of 312. It’s the closing line of chapter 26. The actual history of the Pretenders takes up the last 25% of the book and only covers their first two albums plus Hynde’s initial work on “Back on the Chain Gang,” which would appear on the Pretenders’ third album. Readers who were expecting a comprehensive life didn’t get it. And as one reviewer complains, understandably, she left out quite a bit of really interesting material by cutting her autobiography off at 1984.

She didn’t discuss, for example, what it was like being a mother of two and a rock star. She’s said elsewhere that her daughters didn’t know what she did for a living until they were teenagers: they just slept in the tour bus while she performed. She didn’t describe much what it was like being a woman rock star and “frontman” on the road, which she does cover in interviews. Some of this material is on Loder’s tapes but didn’t make it into his article. She didn’t describe her six years with Jim Kerr or her second marriage, and she didn’t go through the many iterations of the band and her songwriting after Pretenders II, not to mention her many appearances and collaborations aside from the Pretenders as well as her solo album. She does not, of course, have any obligation whatsoever to write about any of these things, but readers expecting to read about her life as a Pretender might have expected some of this material. She’s still able to write a second book, so who knows what she may approach in the future?

I think, in part, the subtitle means that for her the Pretenders really ended with the deaths of Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott, but especially with the death of the latter, as Farndon had been fired from the band for drug use shortly before Honeyman-Scott’s death. Hynde credits Honeyman-Scott with her own success as the leader of the Pretenders. She wrote the songs, but his guitar work, by her account, made them great. The subtitle also alludes to her perception of herself as a pretender: while she recounts that she spontaneously came up with the name when the song “The Great Pretender” popped into her head, her book narrates the various personas she had to navigate since childhood. Her parents were post-World War II conservatives who wanted normal lives and normal daughters, and Hynde spent years hiding her love of rock music, drugs, and bikers from them. Her parents were Rush Limbaugh fans in the 80s and 90s, and when Limbaugh started using the opening riff of the Pretenders’ “My City was Gone” to start his show, Hynde refused to pull it because she knew her parents were listening. She even says in the Prologue to Reckless that “I couldn’t have told this while my parents were alive.”

RockandRomPalFinalCoverIt’s natural to care about the opinions of one’s parents, but this feeling has persisted, intensely, until Hynde is in her 60s. It’s hard not to see it as a sign of Hynde’s feeling of dividedness over her own life. So is she perhaps pretending with herself? Sherry Truffin’s “‘Crying Like a Woman ‘Cause I’m Mad Like a Man’: Chrissie Hynde, Gender, and Romantic Irony” in Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2018) is a good study of Hynde’s androgyny and ambivalence as Romantic phenomena and is worth checking out. There’s no hiding that Hynde believes her book is about drug abuse and its consequences, which is what she said she meant by the title Reckless. I don’t think she’s pretending in the book. After listening to Loder’s interview tapes, the book captures her voice, though not always with her energy. One reviewer accused Hynde of holding back, but I don’t think she ever does. At least, she never holds back from her readers anything that she’s not also holding back from herself.

Understanding this facet of Hynde’s writing helps us approach one of the most controversial parts of the book: Hynde has been raped twice, and in the book and in interviews she blames herself. Needless to say, victim-blaming doesn’t play well with many people, and it shouldn’t. But there’s some misunderstanding at work, both on the book’s end and on the part of reviewers and other respondents, and it has to do with Hynde’s intent for taking blame. In terms of legal and ethical blame, the only persons at fault for a crime are of course the ones who commit it. If I leave my car door unlocked and someone steals my wallet from the front seat, the thief alone is responsible for the theft, and he or she isn’t let off because I left my door unlocked. But that doesn’t mean I don’t exercise any agency in the matter: I could have locked my doors. In other words, blame has to do with ethical and legal responsibility for an act, while agency has to do with the outcome of an act, or the ability to affect an act, to determine to some extent its ultimate success or failure.

The problem with so much rape discourse, for as long as women have been taught strategies for avoiding rape, is that blame and agency are often identified with one another. Too often women have been told that if they didn’t exercise agency, then they are to blame, but that’s wrong because blame and agency are completely separate categories. Rapists, thieves, or any perpetrators are always to blame for their own actions. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t exercise agency to prevent rape or theft. Maybe we should think of it this way: everyone is responsible for their own agency but not anyone else’s. Leaving your door unlocked doesn’t mean that someone is somehow compelled or obligated to steal your wallet, just like seeing a woman passed out on the ground doesn’t mean that anyone is compelled to rape her. While you might be responsible for leaving your door unlocked, only thieves are responsible for stealing your wallet, because that’s their exercise of agency. But on the other hand, placing the blame on perpetrators of crimes, where it belongs, doesn’t mean that we’re all powerless. Blame only rests on the person who commits the act, but there’s plenty of agency to go around. I think Hynde’s comments constitute her assertion of agency, her wresting control of her life, and what happens to her, from the rapists to claim it for herself. Only the rapists are still, and always, to blame.

The general idea of a confusion of categories gets us close to the real issue with the book. We certainly learn quite a bit about drug abuse from the book (yes, it’s horrible), but the book isn’t about drug abuse. We learn quite a bit about Hynde’s life, but the book isn’t just an autobiography. I think the book suffers, just a little, from being unaware of its own purpose, which is that it’s a very special kind of autobiography. It’s a Künstlerroman, or a book about the growth and development of a person into an artist. What the book most consistently narrates are the origins of Hynde’s attraction to rock, her desire to perform, and the experiences that created her as a songwriter and a performer. Once she gets into her early 20s, and especially into Pretenders-era personal history, the book becomes a history of her early songwriting too. It’s an explanation of how music became her vehicle of freedom and her primary exercise of agency, the way she took control of her own life to make it what she wanted it to be. It is a narrative of her life starting with her awakening to music and ending with her attainment, and then apparent loss, of everything she’d worked for.

What ultimately drove her to rock, to music? For her, rock was “nothing you could be taught, coming from inside and upstairs: never black or white; never good or bad. Personal, personality–Him up there, that’s who we were all talking to. To address another human was one thing, but a singing voice was capable of so much more” (194). Hynde would agree with Steve Argent, and I think she’s been trying to give some rock back to the person she believes gave it to her.

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