Summertime shows reinforce the awesome power of music

News-watching can get a bit dispiriting at times. So it’s always good to remember that the same species responsible for robocalls, cluster bombs and The Bachelorette also spawned the treble clef and the Fender Telecaster. If there’s anything that gives me hope for the hairless monkey, it’s not politics, but the arts. Music in particular.

Three shows stood out for me this summer. I missed the Vancouver appearance of the young R&B singer/songwriter Janelle Monáe, but managed to catch her at the Montreal jazz fest. After bringing the house down with an a capella version of Nat King Cole’s jazz standard “Smile,” the pint-sized powerhouse belted out her science fiction-themed songs with the pipes of Whitney Houston and the moves of James Brown. She had the audience in the palm of her hand the entire time.Image

The second stunning performance was courtesy of Dead Can Dance, kicking off their August world tour at the Orpheum. Australian Lisa Gerrard and Irishman Brendan Perry, signed to the British shoegazer 4AD label back in the ’80s, have mastered a singular form of world music that sounds both ancient and futuristic. Perry performed a mesmerizing solo version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” but it’s Gerrard’s otherworldly vocals that stole the show. The seraphic singer nodded politely at marriage proposals shouted by men and women in the audience. “You’re amazing,” she softly told her lovestruck  fans, blowing them a kiss after the band’s third encore.

The third big act involved former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. With his omnipresent shades and corkscrew hair, the British expat rocked furiously during a thunderous gig last week at the Aladdin Theatre in Portland, Oregon. He and his Rant Band hammered out classic tunes like “All The Way From Memphis” and “All the Young Dudes,” along with selections from his outstanding new album When I’m President.Image

The uptempo title track is a POV fantasy of an average Joe entering the Oval Office with a tongue-in-cheek intent to get his “ugly mug on Mount Rushmore” after bringing down the legislative sledgehammer: “I’m gonna lean on the one per cent/When I’m President/I want a 28th Amendment.” But the lyrics give way to a stark assessment of Beltway realpolitik: “You hold those truths to be self-evident/When you become president/But somethin’ happens to you up on the hill/It’s business as usual/How do you want to buck the system?/Welcome to the Pit and the Pendulum.”

One standout track on When I’m President is the slowly chugging “Ta Shunka Witco (Crazy Horse),” sung from the perspective of the Lokata leader stranded in a buffalo-stripped wasteland. “Paid for the rich to steal from the poor/There ain’t no honour in ya…. well, that great white father down in Washington/I’ve got a knife between my teeth for the fork in his tongue.”

Janelle Monáe is 26. Gerrard and Perry are in their early 50s. Hunter is an age-defying 73, and was mostly AWOL from the music scene for two decades before a four-album winning streak beginning in 2001. I asked the singer/songwriter about his late-life creative renaissance and if a line from British art critic Cyril Connolly applies: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

“The ‘pram in the hall’ couldn’t be truer,” Hunter replied on his website forum. “If there’s been any kind of ‘renaissance’ it’s because I forgot myself and then remembered myself when M.R. passed.” (That’s his close friend and creative foil Mick Ronson.)

Ronson, who died of liver cancer in 1993, is hardly a household name although his instantly recognizable guitar lines are scattered across the airwaves like diamonds. I have little doubt that Ronson’s brilliant arrangements and stratospheric riffs—still heard in early songs by Ian Hunter, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Morrissey, Mellencamp, and others—will continue to outlast the schemes of the privileged and powerful.

Good music has staying power. The music of Salzburg composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is all over today’s albums, films and classical radio, yet the 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire that followed his death has long been a footnote in history books.

Music can outlive empires, and that gives me a peculiar kind of hope.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 7


Media’s repetitive, rhetorical knives out for Wikileaks leader

What’s up with the media chorus on the cornered founder of Wikileaks? “Assange berates U.S. from balcony of Ecuador Embassy,” pronounced a Reuters headline from Aug. 19. “Assange berates United States from Ecuador embassy balcony, ” echoed CNBC. “_Julian Assange appeared on the first-floor balcony of Ecuador’s London Embassy to berate the United States,” echoed the San Francisco Chronicle. “Defiant Assange berates U.S.,” parroted The Oman Tribune.

“His hypocrisy and cowardice is rivaled only by his self-aggrandizement and arrogance,” fulminated The Australian. “In pleading his case for martyrdom, he was quick to berate U.S. and British authorities, but conveniently ignored the serious allegations of sexual assault against him.”

As of this Wednesday, a Google search of the terms “Assange,” “berate” and “Ecuador” netted 171,000 hits (5,930 hits on Google News alone). The problem is there was no actual “berate,” at least according to the dictionary definition of the verb: to “scold, rebuke, reprimand, reproach, reprove, admonish, chide, criticize, upbraid.” Rather, the hunted activist calmly called on U.S. president Barack Obama to “do the right thing” and stop the U.S. persecution of his whistleblowing organization and its members.

During his 2008 election campaign, Obama promised protection for whistleblowers, defending their “acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled.” Ironically, his administration has turned out to be even more enthusiastic than George W. Bush’s minions in targeting men and women of conscience for prosecution. The sixth person to be charged under the Espionage Act, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, has the distinction of being the only figure charged in connection with the Bush-era rendition and torture program. The accusation: he revealed classified information about the program itself, including names of colleagues.

Is this the endgame for Britain/U.S./Sweden’s sport of whack-a-mole with Assange, with the complicity of a mynah-bird media: to turn him into a human hazard light for any insiders who get the funny notion of exposing high-level crimes and misdemeanors? If he is extradited to Sweden, Assange fears he will bounced to the U.S. and jailed like the still-untried soldier Bradley Manning, who has been sitting in solitary confinement for over 800 days for allegedly releasing the infamous State Department cables to Wikileaks.

As for the serious allegations of rape, both accusers agreed they had consensual sex with Assange. A female Swedish prosecutor, since over-ruled, threw out the initial arrest warrant for the Australian activist after finding no evidence of criminality.

If there was a singular voice of sanity in last week’s Assange-watch, it belonged to Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian. “Is it not remarkable that one of the very few individuals over the past decade to risk his welfare, liberty and even life to meaningfully challenge the secrecy regime on which the American national security state (and those of its obedient allies) depends just so happens to have become-long before he sought asylum from Ecuador-the most intensely and personally despised figure among the American and British media class and the British “liberal” intelligentsia?”

Assange won the 2011 Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism, with the judges congratulating him on giving “the public more scoops than most journalists can imagine.” Since then, the actual reporting on Wikileaks has segued from the content of the cables to the character of its founder, including tabloid-like speculations on his toilet habits and hygiene from the likes of Bill Keller of the New York Times.

The character focus seems like a TMZ-style diversion from the real story-the international secrecy/security complex that has ballooned since 9/11.

In 2010, Wikileaks’ so-called “collateral murder video” spread like global wildfire on broadcasts, broadsheets and blogs. It revealed a 2007 US airstrike in Baghdad that resulted in the deaths of eight men, including two war correspondents for…wait for it…Reuters. Images and words from the disturbing video even made the front page of The Vancouver Sun (Last week the online edition of the paper reproduced the original Reuters wire story, “Assange berates U.S. from balcony of Ecuador Embassy”).

Hundreds of media outlets across the world took part in repeating, rewording and incorporating the b-word into their copy. To this observer, it smells like something between the manufacture of consent/contempt and lazy, high school cut-and-paste.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 31