“I’m proudest that I haven’t killed anybody”

In a letter to a colleague, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. remarked that his dissents in cases that limited the reach of the First Amendment merely upheld “the right of a donkey to drool.” If Matt Lauer’s knees can tremble whenever Ann Coulter appears on “The Today Show,” then its producers have the right to ask Gore Vidal. While his influence on me is incalculable (and I still insist that his underappreciated historical novels, not his essays, represent his permanent achievement), he’s also espoused some crackpot views: endorsing the theory that Abraham Lincoln was bisexual, and now, that Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been a better president because she’s a woman. 

A new interview with the Times Online, he gets off a few zingers at Obama (on healthcare: “He f***ed it up. I don’t know how because the country wanted it. We’ll never see it happen”), Edmund White (“a filthy, low writer…all he writes about is being a fag and how it’s the greatest thing on Earth”), and Katherine Hepburn’s expense (“She had Parkinson’s. She shook like a leper in the wind”). Wanton cruelty is okay on national TV as long as it’s embodied in right-wing demagogues. Why can’t left-wing ones get in on the fun? 

Can’t find a better band

The day has come: I can fully endorse a Pearl Jam album. Insisting on hitting the ambivalent note whenever my friends discuss them was as predictable as the subsequent ordering of Goldschlager shots, and I apologize for neither. Until Jack Irons arrived I pegged them as a grooveless whirr, a righteous howl, the voice of prophecy for portents that they lacked the interest in defining. At worst they were competent dullards whose peonage to a lead singer with more charisma than sense forced them into “experimental” areas they lacked the imagination to realize. 2006’s eponymous album exploited Eddie Vedder’s abstruse anti-Bush rhetoric to compile their hardest, fastest songs yet. Half of it was still a muddle, but for the first time since 1998 I understood what they were up to.

What’s shocking about Backspacer is how Pearl Jam turn professionalism — their secret sharer — into a muse as potent as anger. Ballads like “The End” and “Just Breathe” bask in the loveliness that Vedder’s ever huskier voice has finally coaxed his bandmates into falling behind. Brendan O’Brien, whose CV reads like a treatise on a particular kind of sincere nineties roots-rock, embroiders without tinsel. For six songs the guys don’t slacken; on “Gonna See My Friend” and “Johnny Guitar” Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron fuse into the rhythm section I’ve always wanted, forcing Stone Gossard to push harder against Vedder’s vocals. Meanwhile the to-me-redundant Mike McCready, economizing, changes from failed Mick Taylor to promising Ronnie Wood. A pretty little thing called “Amongst The Waves” spits its unpromising opening verses in your ear (“What used to be a house of cards/has turned into a reservoir” — Bernard Sumner, come home), and “Force of Nature” on the second half returns us to the well-intentioned blur of past failed rockers like “Lukin”; but otherwise Backspacer offers one consistent minor pleasure after another, often threatening to become more than that on “The Fixer” and “Just Breathe” — when Vedder reminds me why he still commands one of the largest cult audiences in the world.

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine story: coming out in middle school. An excerpt:

Though most adolescents who come out do so in high school, sex researchers and counselors say that middle-school students are increasingly coming out to friends or family or to an adult in school. Just how they’re faring in a world that wasn’t expecting them — and that isn’t so sure a 12-year-old can know if he’s gay — is a complicated question that defies simple geographical explanations. Though gay kids in the South and in rural areas tend to have a harder time than those on the coasts, I met gay youth who were doing well in socially conservative areas like Tulsa and others in progressive cities who were afraid to come out.

The concept blows my mind. In middle school, and for most of high school, sexuality, such as it was, happened to other people. One platonic attraction that in retrospect had all the makings of a crush never registered in the crotch area. All-boy high schools are cauldrons of suppressed erotic play, resentment, sadism, and competition anyway. An “alliance” organization of the kind the article describes might have helped — had I not attended a a Catholic all-boy high school (I remember no homophobic chatter from teachers, though, and was taught none of the Church’s nonsense about human sexuality). The point is, I needed to be “sexualized” at an earlier age.

The fightin’ side.

We all have blind spots, and one of my worst was Merle Haggard, to whom I only really listened in August. I took a chance and spent the $3 on a used copy of 2000’s If I Could Only Fly. It didn’t take — most of the songs felt tentative, not because of Hag’s singing or guitar, god knows, but because like a lot of old-timers he settles for enlivening genre exercises instead of writing new ones. The exception was “Wishing All These Old Things Were New,” which contains one of the best opening line I’ve heard in  years (“Watching while some old friends do a line”) and doesn’t let up from there, conjuring more shades of rue and determination than most artists do in a lifetime.

Rolling Stone just published a pretty good profile of the man, apropos of nothing (he’s not promoting a record). Unfortunately, I can’t link to it. But if it had the effect of a similar (but superior) profile of Dolly Parton in 2003 it’ll send the kids scurrying for the most thorough Hag compilation, like 2006’s Hag: The Best of Merle Haggard. Too brief, neat, and kind, eager to omit classics like  “Kern River” and some others from his more maudlin but essential eighties hard drinkin’ phase, it’s nevertheless the best overview available. Then start digging.

Nothing can stop them now

A shame that, 1993’s So Tough excepted, Saint Etienne have never made more than one listenable album — and lord knows I’ve tried several. Smash The System, the only one of the (several) extant compilations  I own, is perfect, perfect, perfect; even without “Pale Movie” and “Who Do You Think You Are,” it makes the strongest case on the trio’s behalf as masters of a very particular kind of urban but gooey would-be pop music that I don’t hear any of their contemporaries matching or even wanting to record. I suppose the Pet Shop Boys come closest, and Sarah Cracknell is as crucial, indivisible, and inexplicable to the band’s impact as Neil Tennant to his act. In “Lose That Girl” and “Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi),” she perfects a distance from her material that’s no less affecting for being sung in a voice whose charm depends on the singsong buoyance of an unapologetic member of the bourgeoisie; she’s like a friend relating situations involving mutual acquaintances that she hasn’t experienced herself but has thought through anyway. Maybe that’s why she and her colleagues can’t make perfect albums: their compassion doesn’t extend so far.