You’re so nice on drugs: the best of Nick Lowe

A pub rocker whose soul lay in country, Nick Lowe began as a smart ass who lost interest in jokes, hence his smarts. For a while, though, this punk fellow traveler released several of the funniest singles of the new wave era; it’s amazing that he got as high as #12 at the heart of the disco era with “Cruel to Be Kind.” My pick hit is a b-side that finds him riding on the “Foggy Notion” bass line through the heart of the city, looking for big kicks and plain scraps; my favorite album is the long out of print and soon to be re-released Nick the Knife, on which for the last time he balances the sweet and the sour. I’ve given those post-Party of One albums several chances, and, boy, the guy who wrote the wittiest Bowie send-up ever had reduced himself to coming up with titles like “You Stabbed Me in the Front.” My first Humanizing the Vacuum post was a review of 2007’s At My Age, still a bore.

1. Heart of the City
2. Cruel to Be Kind
3. (I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass
4. Big Kick, Plain Scrap!
5. And So It Goes
6. Music For Money
7. Cracking Up
8. Marie Prevost
9. Nutted by Reality
10. Little Hitler
11. American Squirm
12. Let Me Kiss Ya
13. Ragin’ Eyes
14. Rocky Road
15. The Beast in Me
16. Too Many Teardrops
17. Indoor Fireworks
18 Born Fighter
19. Half a Boy and Half a Man
20. The Rose of England
21. Soulful Wind
22. Time Wounds All Heels
23. What’s Shakin’ on the Hill
24. True Love on a Gravel Road
25. Who Was That Man?

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Covering the Kushner-Russia story

The New York Times and the Washington Post have outdone themselves uncovering the rot beneath every stone of the Trump administration, but it doesn’t mean the reporting hasn’t had flaws. Having each published stories about Trump son in law Jared Kushner’s secret communications with the Kremlin, the news organizations offered subtle shades:

n the New York Times’ innocuous version of events “the idea was to have Mr. Flynn speak directly with a senior military official in Moscow to discuss Syria and other security issues.” For the president-elect’s incoming National Security Advisor to conduct direct talks about ongoing military operations with a foreign government outside the auspices of the American government would be highly unorthodox but not necessarily indicative of anything more nefarious than Flynn’s deep distrust for an Obama administration national security team that, after all, fired him.

This explanation is, however, somewhat difficult to square with the key claim of the Washington Post’s report which is that Kushner not only asked Kislyak to set up a line of communication with Moscow, but specifically suggested “using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring” by the American government.

The idea of discussions between Russia and the incoming administration seems innocent enough on its own terms, but the apparent effort to set up a line of communications that would be concealed from the American government suggests something more sinister.

To watch the coverage last night and this morning is to note that the “innocuous” version has taken hold, or, more accurately, a mishmash of both stories

Why, as Yglesias, remarks, the administration would require access to Russia’s diplomatic communication channels to open secret talks with Syria is a question no one’s answered. As for Russia, “the prospect that he may have been jockeying for Chinese or Russian financiers to bail out him and his family from a potentially disastrous investment at 666 Fifth Avenue” looks like the straightest line, and it’s surprised me that few pundits have made this obvious point.

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Queerture feature: ‘Alien: Covenant’

Fans who’ve dreamed of helping Michael Fassbender with a fingering should race to any theater showing Alien: Covenant. Playing the synthetic Walter and his less advanced but more erudite earlier model David, Fassbender has a scene in which the latter shows the former how to properly play a flute. Director Ridley Scott frames and lights the twins like Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore tonguing over pottery in Ghost. It’s Alien: Covenant‘s tenderest scene and one of the few moments of sexual tension in Scott’s work. The rest of Alien: Covenant is a competent trudge through worn tropes; Scott shows more craft than this series deserves at this point, and Fassbender gets his best showcase for his bitch-priss elegance in years but the last 50 minutes or so are a surrender into nonsense.

In this entry, set before events in the original trilogy, the MacGuffin is the two thousand colonists on board the Covenant headed towards Origae-6. James Franco plays the ship’s captain, fortunately killed within minutes by a neutrino explosion, a development that inspired more applause in the theater than anything we saw in the next two hours. Ranking officer Oram takes over, played by Billy Crudup in a performance designed to flaunt those genetic marvels called his cheekbones as slavishly as possible. After their ship picks up a transmission from a world whose surface schematics suggest an environment similar to Earth’s, Oram orders the ship to head for it. The deciding factor? The crew picks up a John Denver song, which any sensible sort would wait out until Boz Scaggs or Steely Dan get an airing; but the crew of the Covenant is not much smarter than their earlier/later incarnations and a good deal dumber. They haven’t been on the planet’s surface for more than two seconds before Oram is planning to build condos in wheat fields. Meanwhile members of his command crew disturb piles of what looks like horse puckey, breathing in a black film that turns their bodies into hosts for — well.

The rest of Alien: Covenant consists of good actors like Demián Bichir and Carmen Ejogo getting eviscerated or incinerated in the ruins of a fallen city where long-haired David, the last member of the previous film’s Prometheus, rules an empire of frozen embryos, discarded genetic experiments, and recitations of “Ozymandias.” Trying to impress Walter, he gets the poet wrong — a detail that the viewing audience’s only English major noticed and for which he rewarded himself with an extra fistful of popcorn. In dialogue scenes set amid the grey-hued tumult of the ion storms that rock the planet, Covenant recalls Blade Runner: indeed, David gets a couple of gaseous speeches about destiny and God and what-not that remind me of pickup lines I’ve heard chicken hawks use on less savvy twinks.

A master of clammy surfaces and interior space that invariably looks like contemporaneous sketches for hotel lobbies (Blade Runner anticipates the design of a Hilton in 1985), Scott keeps the film bumping, but he can’t transcend John Logan and Dante Harper’s script, which, as I already noted, asks audiences to accept bald-faced stupidities for the sake of a monster movie. Why the hell is every member of the command crew married? Since when does a seasoned officer place his whims above a mission? Why does the script provide hints of Oram’s Christian faith but throw them away (possible answer: Scott is among the least spiritual of filmmakers). Why hasn’t communication technology improved since Aliens? I know the James Cameron flick is set later, but my quibble demonstrates the redundancy of Covenant. We’ve seen the creatures sneak into ships before; we’ve seen young women fight these creatures with help from the android. Watch Alien: Covenant for Fassbender, a performer who’s never convinced me he’s little else than a straight man’s idea of a gay fantasy but with a forked tongue — a xenomorph after an afternoon at Gold’s Gym.


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Zbigniew Brzezinski is dead

An eminence when I was growing up and learning about the vapidity of Sunday morning talk shows, Zbigniew Brzezinski, along with Sam Nunn, was the last avatar of the Cold War Democrat: the national security advisor who still believed in verities about the Soviet Union inherited from Dean Acheson. This frequent guest on “Morning Joe,” appearances greased by his daughter the co-host, was speaking in coherent sentences until this spring; those sentences and his haircut gave him an implacability that in a less fractious age would lend him instant authority. Foreign policy hawks praised him as the only bright star on the Carter White House foreign policy side, which should tell you something: like his contemporary Henry Kissinger, “Zbig” understood how to play the Beltway game. I tend to dismiss him because he inspired the only Cabinet resignation inspired by a White House decision in my lifetime:

Mr. Brzezinski was also a prime mover behind the commando mission sent to rescue the American hostages held by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary forces in Iran after the overthrow of the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi — a disastrous desert expedition in April 1980 that claimed eight lives and never reached Tehran. Mr. Vance had not been informed of the mission until a few days before. It was the final straw: He quit, “stunned and angry,” he said.

Cyrus Vance was willing to surrender limo privileges for the sake of honor. By the time the Carter administration reached its ignominious end, its defense budgets would elicit the Reagan’s team admiration. If we still belived in foreign policy Wise Men, a term drenched in irony and big glops of blood after Vietnamm, “Zbig” would be its chair.

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Montana House race results

With over two-thirds of the vote cast (i.e. 37 percent) before Greg Gianforte treated a Guardian reporter as if he were a towel mat for his bare wet feet, there was little doubt Rob Quist would lose the Montana special election; Gianforte’s margin of victor and turnout mattered to me. Quist narrowed the gap to just over six points, according to the latest figures. Jeremy Stahl:

If the numbers hold, Democrats might actually consider it an encouraging sign nationally. Gianforte and his affiliated Super PACs outspent Democratic opponent and country music performer Rob Quist and his Super PAC supporters by about $5 million. Donald Trump won his race against Hillary Clinton this past fall in the state by 20 points, while Ryan Zinke—the Republican whose seat is being filled after he left Congress to become Trump’s Interior Secretary—won his contest by just under 16 points.

So you’re looking at about a +13 point swing for the Democrats from November’s presidential tally, and a nearly +9 point swing from last year’s Congressional race. That was not enough for Democrats to take a seat they haven’t won in 20 years, but it is consistent with a recent pattern in this year’s special elections of large swings towards the Democrats. Last month in a deep-red Kansas district, Democrats experienced a 24-point swing

On the other hand, I agree with Stahl that the Dems will have to win one of these races soon. Georgia?

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Complicating, circulating: the best of Vince Clarke

He shades sweet melodies with darker tones — happiness isn’t a moment recollected in tranquility so much as a moment discovered amid quiet devastation. Whether Dave Gahan, Alison Moyet, Andy Bell, or Feargal Sharkey co-wrote and sang, respectively, Vince Clarke’s craft was such that he looked for flesh to make his words. Often coming off as a Moyet clone but whose heart overcame the limits of his talents, Bell is his longest collaborator. He’s blank, but attractively so, a gay man still looking for kicks no less devotedly than he did in his twenties. Call him callow — I would. It makes him human and likeable and exhausting in the manner of a best friend’s acquaintance.

Moyet? Well. Possessor of an extraordinary voice that swelled as it realized its physical and emotional range, Moyet would spend the rest of her career looking for a context. When she found one, she was staggering — for one thing, Bell never wanted to fuck a beautiful trick as unreservedly as Moyet does on “Ode to Boy.” I’d say she deserved a David Stewart but Stewart, straitlaced about inspiration after 1984, deserved Annie Lennox and no one else. But with Clarke she enjoyed a true partnership, writing songs separately and together, peaking with “Only You,” beloved by early eighties synth skeptics as an example of A Good Song. The problem is they were right.

I haven’t said anything about David Gahan because Moyet, Bell, or Sharkey could have sung his bits on Speak & Spell without fuss.

Here are eighteen Clarke imperishables.

1. Only You
2. Situation
3. Just Can’t Get Enough
4. Nobody’s Diary
5. New Life
6. Chains of Love
7. Dreaming of Me
8. Oh L’Amour
9. Boys Say Go
10. Never Never
11. A Little Respect
12. Drama
13. Fingers & Thumbs (Cold Summer’s Day)
14. Love to Hate You
15. Walk Away From Love
16. Blue Savannah
17. Don’t Go
18. Ship of Fools

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Democrats can’t win for losing

A couple of remarks regarding the Montana special election:

I don’t get the pundits who have claimed that Rob Quist’s beating Greg Gianforte in the contest for the open house seat allows the GOP to, let me cite Chuck Todd, breathe a sigh of relief. Losing a seat is losing a seat — one less loyal member on whom Speaker Paul Ryan can rely for crucial votes. Moreover, as the environment gets more toxic for Republicans in 2018 it’s quite likely that Quist keeps his seat, or, rather, harder for him to lose it. Should Gianforte win, Dems have another symbol of GOP decadence to use in ads.

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‘What they always pant for is magic’

H.L. Mencken:

Once he gets under way his slightest utterances will take on an an oracular character, and another swill begin carrying their babies to him to be cured of cramps, windgalls and distemper. For the plain people of the world are always looking for messiahs, and whenever one wears out they resort to another. They are never content with hard diligence or common sense; what they always pant for is magic.

I believe that successful businessmen usually man poor public administrators. They always share the popular delusion that ruling a government is precisely the same thing as running an electric company, a wholesale house, or a chain of grocery stores. It is, of course, nothing of the kind. The public official drafted from business invariably discovers to his dismay that dealing with politicians is an art quite new to him, beyond his talents and experience, and one times out of ten they quickly wreck him.

I wonder whom he could be referring to.

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Trump’s assault on the press

How tempting for Republicans to treat House candidate Greg Gianforte’s assault on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs as an isolated incident. This idea collapses under scrutiny. First, Gianforte’s own history of making putatively irreverent comments about wishing violence on members of the press. Second, the leader of his party, a lifelong man of wealth used to threatening insinuations and preemptory commands, detests the idea of scrutiny, press or otherwise. He can’t stand it. Consider:

1. During the campaign in November 2015, Trump mocked a New York Times reporter with a congenital joint condition.

2. At a Texas rally in February 2016, Trump promised supporters, “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when [journalists] write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”

3. A day after Trump’s inauguration, press secretary Sean Spicer blasts media for getting reports about DC crowd size wrong.

4. Excluding major news organizations like CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times from press briefings.

5. In anticipation of a February speech at CPAC, Trump or an amanuensis tweeted that “the FAKE news media” is “not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

6. Daniel Ralph Heyman of the Public News Service was arrested and charged with “willful disruption of government processes” last week after shouting questions on the Hill at Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.

This is the culture created by the president.

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Trouble in the heartland

Many things have happened today: Russian intelligence agents discussed how to get suasion over candidate Donald Trump, the same president reveals locations of two America nuclear subs to the sociopath Filipino president who regards the drug war as an extension of personal loyalty, the attorney general may have failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador, and former FBI director James Comey might have himself been swayed by fake news involving former attorney general Loretta Lynch and Hillary Clinton.

No. The biggest news emerges from Montana, by far the most interesting state from an electoral point of view when discussing states that swing GOP. Its citizens like Republican president but elect Democratic governors and legislators. The Guardian‘s Ben Jacobs alleges that GOP at large candidate Greg Gianforte “body slammed” him after Jacobs asked him a question about the CBO score for the House kill-poor-people bill. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, the first to play the audio portion, leaves little doubt that the attack was egregious and unprovoked. Here is the account:

The Republican candidate for Montana’s congressional seat slammed a Guardian reporter to the floor on the eve of the state’s special election, breaking his glasses and shouting, “Get the hell out of here.”

Ben Jacobs, a Guardian political reporter, was asking Greg Gianforte, a tech millionaire running for the seat vacated by Ryan Zinke, about the Republican healthcare plan when the candidate allegedly “body-slammed” the reporter.

“He took me to the ground,” Jacobs said by phone from the back of an ambulance. “This is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me in reporting on politics.”
GOP candidate has financial ties to US-sanctioned Russian companies
Read more

Jacobs subsequently reported the incident to the police. The Gallatin County sheriff’s office is investigating the incident.

A statement by campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon blamed Jacobs for the incident, saying that he “entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions”.

“Jacobs was asked to leave,” the statement reads. “After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground.

“Spun away” is a phrase by a zealous PR person or a man who thinks “defensive driving” equals shooting a person who makes a U-turn at a busy intersection. At this moment police in Bozeman are taking statements.

Whether this means Democratic opponent Rob Quist, a folk singer who likes cowboy hats, has a chance is a question we’ll answer tomorrow night; I know the race was already tightening in the last week, the Quist campaign has gotten a million bucks in donations alone. Democrats in Montana thinking about staying home now have motivation. But in a party in which eighty percent of members support the president, and despite a candidate with a purported history of violence, it wouldn’t surprise me if The Guardian‘s leftism isn’t used against it.

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I can cast a spell of secrets you can tell: the best of Chaka Khan

CVS is responsible for saving lives — a pharmacy open late, eggs and half and half available when supermarkets have closed, and encouraging “Through the Fire.” Maybe that’s how Kanye West learned to love it. This middling R&B, adult contemporary, and pop single has had an impressive longevity, such that even before Kanye’s 2003 “Through the Wire” it might’ve been the first Chaka Khan song recognized by Gen X and Triassic-era millennials. Guess what? Through the polite flame of those twinkling synthesizers and non-existent rhythm, Chaka triumphs. Against 1985’s “That’s What Friends Are For,” I’d rather have “Through the Fire” on my side.

One of my favorite published essays examined Chaka’s post-Rufus solo career through 1984. At the time Spotify didn’t host most of those albums; now the essay serves a practical function. It’s not every solo career that kicks off with a statement as startling as Ashford and Simpson’s “I’m Every Woman,” a thunderclap of a single that registers as vividly as Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” as declaration of independence. All these albums have their moments, though. I’d also include 1986’s expensive flop Destiny, boasting collaborations with Green Gartside (included below!) and Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins. During this era, just before Tina Turner expanded the commercial possibilities for black women over thirty, Chaka was alone. Of course these albums have gauche moments (have you heard her cover of “We Can Work It Out”?). “What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me” is a Ned Doheny cover, for god’s sake. But I learned then that the singer functioned as the auteur in the cinematic sense, no matter how involved he or she was in the writing.

Meanwhile I also have to deal with Rufus, the funkiest average mixed race band ever, even without a Stevie Wonder track that became their biggest hit.

1. I’m Every Woman
2. Ain’t Nobody
3. Through the Fire
4. Do You Love What You Feel
5. Tell Me Something Good
6. Clouds
7. I Feel For You
8. Sweet Thing
9. Move Me No Mountain
10. What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me
11. Got to Be There
12. I Know You, I Live You
13. This is My Night
14. Get Ready, Get Set
15. Papillon
16. Dance Wit Me
17. Love of a Lifetime
18. You Got the Love
19. Stay
20. Watching the World

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‘Pipelines spill and leak’

My monthly reminder that we still take seriously the construction of these pipelines. :

Two barrels, or 84 gallons, spilled due to a leaky flange at a pipeline terminal in Watford City on March 3, according to the state’s Health Department. A flange is the section connecting two sections of pipeline. Oil flow was immediately cut off and the spill was contained on site. Contaminated snow and soil was removed.


The pipeline leaked 84 gallons of oil in South Dakota on April 4. That spill at a rural pump station also was quickly cleaned up and didn’t threaten any waterways. The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources posted a report in its online database but didn’t otherwise notify the public. Its policy is to not issue news releases on spills unless there is a threat to public health or water.

Tribal leaders and attorneys say the leaks bolster their demands for further environmental review of the pipeline.

“We have always said it is not a matter of it, but when,” tribal attorney Jan Hasselman said after the South Dakota leak. “Pipelines spill and leak. It’s just a fact.”

One hundred-seventy gallons of oil doesn’t major, not when compared to, say, the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But context, context. Last December, the Belle Fourche pipeline spill dumped almost two hundred thousand gallons of the awful stuff into a creek. Every time North Dakotans have been lucky: no threat to water or arable land for now. All it takes is one systemic failure to turn Fargo into Flint, and I’m not sure what the answer when Congress and the president’s views are no different from Scott Pruitt’s — you know, the filing clerk for the fossil fuel industry.

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