Randy Newman Avenges a Murdered Bluesman on “Dark Matter”

Charlton-Randy-Newman-Dark-Matter.jpg

The standout track on “Dark Matter,” Newman’s first solo album in nine years, is “Sonny Boy,” about a blues musician whose identity and music catalogue were stolen posthumously.

Photograph by Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP

By

The New Yorker

In the early nineteen-seventies, when the Rolling Stones were at the height of their powers, the American singer-songwriter, composer, and pianist Randy Newman was taking a less conventional approach to rock and roll and the blues. In his music, Newman paired rolling New Orleans piano lines with mordant lyrics to write satirical songs about life, often conjuring narrators—both fictional and real—to help him get his point across. The results were sometimes hilarious, as on the 1971 novelty tune “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong,” a shambling waltz about failing to find your way around in the sack. But they were also controversial, as with “Short People,” from 1977, a catchy little pop number on which Newman channelled the voice of simple-minded bigots so successfully that he was accused of being one himself.

Newman grew up visiting soundstages in Hollywood; three of his uncles wrote film scores for a living. Later, Newman’s career would also include some significant work for film, most notably his music for Pixar’s “Toy Story” movies. Now, for the first time in nine years, the seventy-three-year-old has made a new addition to his solo catalogue with the release, last week, of “Dark Matter,” his eleventh studio album and perhaps his most topical. There is a song inspired by photographs of a shirtless Vladimir Putin, a song about the differences between science and faith, and another in which the Kennedy brothers discuss the Bay of Pigs. (There was even, in an early version of the album, a song aboutthe size of Donald Trump’s penis.)

The standout, however, is “Sonny Boy,” a languorous jazz tune about the tragic life and death of Sonny Boy Williamson, a successful blues singer-songwriter who was murdered in 1948 after a gig on Chicago’s South Side, and who had his identity and music catalogue stolen posthumously when another artist started performing his songs under his name. In it, Newman imagines the bitter resentment in Sonny’s voice from beyond the grave: “This man stole my name, stole my soul / They’re so holy up there, they don’t understand / But he even tried to steal my jelly roll!” Although Newman surely has very little in common with a dead bluesman from Tennessee, he manages to sound damn convincing.

~~~  LISTEN ~~~

First Listen: The Blind Boys Of Alabama, ‘Almost Home’

-images-uploads-gallery-bb_press_photo_-1-_wide-b057dde7b3d7a018c69c9f4267ff3f7239e09014-s900-c85.jpg

If The Blind Boys of Alabama’s surviving founders, Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter, never get around to writing their memoirs, the autobiographical slant of the legendary gospel group’s new album, Almost Home, will be close enough. Fountain (87 years young) and Carter (85) started singing together as schoolboys in 1939 and went pro in 1944; The Blind Boys of Alabama began their recording career four years later. Nearly seven decades down the line, Almost Home looks back on the long, hard, but ultimately gratifying road they’ve taken.

Blind Boys of Alabama, Almost Home.

The album includes bespoke compositions by Americana songsmiths like Ruthie Foster, Cris Jacobs, and Valerie June, as well as a couple of straight-up cover tunes. But the whole thing really revolves around a batch of songs written by others with input from The Blind Boys, making the personal stories of Fountain and Carter a crucial part of the proceedings, and chronicling a journey marked by both jubilation and tribulation. Don’t forget we’re talking about an African-American group from the South that spent a sizable chunk of its career sans civil rights.

~~~  READ/LISTEN  ~~~

Patagonia’s Big Business of #Resist ~ Outside

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 7.56.13 AM.png

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 7.59.40 AM.png

The iconic brand has long been the conscience of the outdoor industry, forsaking hefty profits to do the right thing. Now the company is going to war against the Trump administration over protections for public land in a bid to become a serious political player—which happens to be very good for sales.

On February 16 of this year, the outdoor industry transformed. This wasn’t due to a first ascent, a remarkable new piece of gear, or some surprise merger of iconic companies. Rather, what happened that morning was the most mundane of modern American rituals: a conference call. Around 15 minutes into the conversation, a 52-year-old businesswoman from Staten Island, New York, declared war on the ruling party of the United States of America.

The stakes for the conference call may have been high, but expectations were not. Salt Lake City had hosted the industry’s semiannual trade show, Outdoor Retailer, since the mid-1990s, with the event drawing some $45 million to the state each year. That kind of money can buy influence, but within Washington’s halls of power, the outdoor industry had long been seen as a self-licking ice cream cone: easily pleased with itself and unable to withstand even mild heat.

“They don’t like conflict,” one Capitol Hill insider told me in early February. “I don’t think they have the gumption for the fight.” That harsh assessment was widely shared. In the weeks leading up to the call, Peter Metcalf, the founder of Black Diamond, worked behind the scenes to push the OIA to get serious, writing an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune suggesting that the group pull its show out of Utah “in disgust” if the state didn’t end its “all-out assault … on America’s best idea.” But it wasn’t the first time that Metcalf had proposed secession. “I think we get a similar letter from Peter every six months,” Utah’s lieutenant governor told a public-radio reporter afterward—a rhetorical pat on the head.

Things took a hard turn when Yvon Chou­i­nard, the 78-year-old iconoclast and ­founder of Patagonia, announced that his company would boycott future shows if Utah didn’t change its stance on Bears Ears. Arc’teryx and Polartec soon followed. On the call with Governor Herbert, the industry was led by Amy Roberts, the executive director of the OIA, who soon turned the floor over to Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario—the ­woman from Staten Island. The industry leaders were demanding that the governor publicly reject his congressional delegation’s calls to gut the Bears Ears protections, and Marcario calmly explained the seriousness of their conviction. “Just on this call right now, the CEOs represent a little more than $5 billion in revenue,” she said, “and it’s rare we come together galvanized in this way. This is not a political issue or a ploy or anything like that. It’s a moral issue for us.” Scott Baxter, the president of the North Face, echoed Marcario, as did Jerry Stritzke of REI. After some 40 minutes, Herbert refused to meet the demand. The industry leaders thanked him, signed off, and started looking for a new home for their $45 million prize.

~~~  READ/LISTEN  ~~~

This is not okay

images.jpeg

 ~ The Washington PostJuly 25 at 2:00 PM
 

WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a tweet Tuesday for not aggressively investigating Hillary Clinton, most attention focused, understandably, on the implications for Mr. Sessions. Yet even more alarming than the president’s assault on his own attorney general is Mr. Trump’s return to the “lock her up” theme of his 2016 campaign. We need to recall, once again, what it means to live under the rule of law. Since his inauguration six months ago, so many comparisons have been made to “banana republics” that it is almost unfair to bananas. But there is a serious point to be made about the difference between the United States of America and a state ruled by personal whim.

In a rule-of-law state, government’s awesome powers to police, prosecute and imprison are wielded impartially, with restraint and according to clearly defined rules. These rules apply equally to rich and poor, powerful and weak, ruling party and opposition. In such states, individuals advance on the basis of their talent and initiative, not whom they know. Companies invest where they think the returns will be highest, not to please those in power. The result is that, over time, rule-of-law states prosper. Banana republics do not.

No country ever has attained perfection in this regard, but the United States has been the envy of the world because certain norms have been accepted. After hard-fought elections, the losing side concedes and the winning side leaves the loser in peace to fight another day. Leaders are expected to speak truthfully to their citizens. They respect the essential nonpartisan nature of law enforcement and the military and key civic organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. They show respect, too, for the political opposition.

To list those basic expectations is to understand how low Mr. Trump is bringing his office. Just in the past few days, he urged Navy men and women to call Congress on behalf of his political goals and turned the National Scout Jamboreeinto an unseemly political rally, calling the nation’s politics a “cesspool” and a “sewer” and disparaging his predecessor and the media. Routinely he trades in untruths, even after they have been exposed and disproved. He has launched an unprecedented rhetorical assault on the independence of the Justice Department, the FBI and the special counsel’s office — and now he is again threatening his defeated 2016 opponent.

Members of Congress who are, properly, investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 race have not questioned Mr. Trump’s legitimacy. Ms. Clinton herself graciously conceded. The FBI thoroughly investigated her email practices and found no basis to prosecute. Yet Mr. Trump attacks Mr. Sessions for taking “a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes,” implying that a politically inspired reinvestigation might help the attorney general keep his job. It is disgusting.

Timidly, belatedly, but encouragingly, members of Mr. Trump’s party are beginning to push back. Last week, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that there would be “a tremendous backlash” from Republicans as well as Democrats if Mr. Trump attempted to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russia’s behavior in 2016 and any possible Trump campaign involvement. On Monday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) also came to the counsel’s defense. “I don’t think many people are saying Bob Mueller is a person who is a biased partisan,” Mr. Ryan said. “He’s really sort of anything but.”

What’s at stake is much more than the careers of a particular attorney general or special counsel. The United States has been a role model for the world, and a source of pride for Americans, because it has strived to implement the law fairly. When he attacks that process and seeks revenge on his opponents, Mr. Trump betrays bedrock American values. It’s crucial that other political leaders say so.

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 6.46.22 PM.png

~~~  WATCH  ~~~

‘We need to get this done’: Kamala Harris gets tough on Russia probe (and ignores the mansplainers)

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 9.54.34 AM.png

The Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee admonished Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) during her questioning of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on June 7. (The Washington Post)

~~~

“I’m not going to stop asking the questions.”

Asking the questions at Senate Intelligence Committee hearings related to Russian interference in the presidential election has added to the aura around Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). The former California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney’s victory was among the few Democratic victories the night that Hillary Clinton lost the presidency. The fuss over Harris at the hearings is as much about her line of questioning as it is about the reaction to it among Republicans on the committee.

“I just want to get to the truth of what happened,” Harris told me in her office during the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “We should know what happened, and there should be the appropriate consequence and accountability for what happened.” She expressed frustration with the pace of the investigation, saying, “We need to do this as swiftly as possible.” But she added, “We need to be precise. We need to be careful. But we need to get this done. The American people have a right to know.”

Of course, you can’t talk to Harris about all that without asking her about her reaction to the “listen here, little lady” mansplaining she has endured from Republican men on the intelligence committee. “That Sista Girl look,” Harris laughed when I asked her about her steely-eyed, hair-flipping gif-worthy reactions. “I’m truly focused on, ‘I gotta get the answer to this question. We need to know the answer to this question,’ ” Harris said.

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 9.57.46 AM.png

~~~  READ MORE / LISTEN TO THE PODCAST  ~~~

The Uncertain Musical Legacy of Merle Haggard

Cantwell-The-Uncertain-Musical-Legacy-of-Merle-Haggard.jpg

Merle Haggard’s torch is carried by roots rockers and old-school acts, but his place in mainstream country is less secure.

Photograph by Michael Williamson / The Washington Post / Getty

~~~

One of the year’s best albums is a Merle Haggard tribute called “Best Troubador”—the odd spelling is deliberate—from the singer-songwriter Will Oldham, working under his stage name, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Oldham, who is thirty-seven, specializes in a ragged, old-time hillbilly style, often updated with ladles full of irony. But on “Best Troubador” he sounds as serious as heartbreak; the album lacks even the hint of playfulness that lurked about Haggard’s most earnest performances. Oldham performs living-room-still versions of songs selected mostly from outside of Haggard’s classic period, relying heavily on album tracks rather than big hits. His readings of cult favorites “The Day the Rains Came,” “Roses in Winter” and “If I Could Only Fly”— a Merle-associated Blaze Foley song, included here in a recording that would barely qualify as a proper demo—are so delicate and mysterious that you fear a stiff breeze might blow them away forever.

It’s a marvellous tribute, but not one likely to inspire waves of Haggard converts. There will be other tribute albums—Willie Nelson, Haggard’s old friend and collaborator, already has one in the can. And at the close of his latest album, “God’s Problem Child,” Nelson makes a promise about Haggard: “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” It’s a nice song and a nicer thought. But is it wishful thinking?

Popular music rarely lasts, even when its creators build it for that purpose—as Haggard typically did, with one eye on the past and another on the ages. Such endurance depends on external factors. Johnny Cash, Haggard’s friend and occasional recording partner, had a network-TV series and a late-in-life resurgence that was popular with alternative rockers, as well as an Oscar-winning movie made about his life, in 2005. Haggard’s working-class persona proved mostly resistant to crossover appeal, and his counter-to-the-counterculture political associations always muted his broader appreciation. The question of a lasting and widespread musical legacy remains wide open.

In April, on Haggard’s birthday—which was also a year to the day since he’d died, at the age of seventy-nine—eighteen thousand people gathered for an event called “Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard,” at Bridgestone Arena, in Nashville. The several generations of fans present already knew both the words to Haggard’s songs and his roles in country history: blue-collar poet and proto-outlaw, devotee of idiosyncrasy, at once a follower and advancer of tradition. Performances proceeded briskly but without much sense of celebration or loss; participating artists had clearly been instructed to eschew sharing any Haggard stories or memories in the interest of time. Merle’s mourners came, sang, and went, all in a tearless rush.

~~~  CONTINUE READING  ~~~

Sean Spicer’s 6 months in the White House, as told by Stephen Colbert

It was a pair of comedians, not the press, that hung around the neck of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who unexpectedly announced his resignation Friday.

Melissa McCarthy’s occasional impersonation of “Spicey” on “Saturday Night Live” became an instant classic, helping draw the most viewers the show has had since the Clinton administration.

But it was Stephen Colbert who was slinging jokes and routines aimed at Spicer’s infamously short fuse and bluster on what seemed like nearly every episode of the Late Night Show on CBS.

Spicer’s tenure as press secretary was historically short — a unique case considering it did not end because of a Watergate scandal, the end of a presidential term or an assassination attempt, which prematurely ended the careers of some of his predecessors. If Spicer was a late-night comedy junkie, Colbert’s jokes might have made it feel like the career of Stephen T. Early — who served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s press secretary for a record 4,403 days.

For his part, Spicer has been an occasional good sport. On Friday he told Fox News host Sean Hannity about his SNL portrayal: “I think that there were parts of it that were funny, but there’s a lot of it that was over the line. It wasn’t funny. It was stupid, or silly, or malicious.”

Here are some of the most defining moments that Spicer came under Colbert’s fire during the past six months as President Trump’s press secretary.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 1.50.28 PM.png

~~~  WATCH/READ  ~~~