Category Archives: Religion

You Are an Individual: Songs of Freedom, Part 3 of 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2 for the beginning and middle, because this is the end, folks!

In “Don’t Take Me Alive”—another ’70s tune that was way ahead of its time lyrically and musically—we get the idea that the boys had more than a passing acquaintance with the militia movement:

Agents of the law and luckless pedestrians,
I know you’re out there with rage in your eyes and a megaphone.
Saying, “All is forgiven. Mad dog, surrender!”
How can I answer? A man of my mind can do anything.
I’m a bookkeeper’s son, I don’t want to hurt no one,
but I shot my old man back in Oregon—don’t take me alive.
Got a case of dynamite, I could hold out here all night.
Well, I shot my old man back in Oregon—don’t take me alive.

There are scores of great songs and many, many individualistic and anti-statist lyrics in the Steely Dan discography. If you have some of their albums, you know that; in fact, I haven’t run across many serious musical folks who have only one. Once you start, and like it, you will end up with all of them. Like I did.

First of all, know this: The best musicians in the biz are on these dates. Everyone in the music business has a very, very high regard for Steely Dan; the stock answer among the cognoscenti when someone asks, “How do I learn how to produce records?” is, “Listen to Steely Dan.”

From the political standpoint, I couldn’t recommend any of their records over any other. However, my personal opinion is that Katy Lied is the ultimate early-to-mid-years session, while Aja and Gaucho are the later-date blockbusters. Steely Dan’s first album of the 21st-century, Two Against Nature, got them the Grammy that Aja should have won in 1978 over Rumors, Fleetwood Mac-flavored chewing gum for the ears. It would be a great first Dan album for the uninitiated. All of their records, new or old, feature first-rate musicianship, original compositions, wry and intelligent lyrics.

This is popular music the way the term was understood in George Gershwin’s day: the highest level of art and craft, arranged and packaged and delivered to an eager, informed, quality-conscious niche group. Most pop music is eminently disposable nowadays; Steely Dan records are keepers, and you will be astonished to hear material from, say, 1978 (“Peg”) that could be released today and still sound ahead of its time!

Anyway, yes, Virginia, there is music whose lyrics are individualistic, pro-freedom, pro-market, anti-war, and everything else that warms most libertarians’ hearts. You just have to look for it these days.

Full circle now: I was writing those new lyrics for the album closer, remember? And the tune that they accompany has a funky, upbeat, infectious Steely Dan-ish vibe to it, so I wrote identifiably libertarian lyrics, rather than another diluted sermon. That was the beginning of my exit from supernaturalism, but that’s another tale. As for that first liberty anthem, I’ll give you the intro verse and chorus:

I’m not Superman, but I sure would like to play him on TV.
Souped-up circumstances, rodomontade reality.
Buffed-up, bullet-proof, never falls to sinister conspiracy.
Launchpad on the roof, supersonic sandwich-board for liberty.
Don’t you tell me how to live my life,
and I won’t tell you what you gotta do.
You know that no one here is qualified
to rule the other members of the zoo.
And you don’t need no politicians
telling you that one size fits all.
You are an individual,
and you have to answer your own call.
I’m not Superman, I’m not going
to fly down to your rescue.

All right! Jamming with liberty! I hope you hear the music that your worldview deserves, friends, and to that end I do recommend Steely Dan for progressives, libertarians, independents, even non-Establishment conservatives, and anyone else who eschews the official news and views. Are there other liberty-leaning lyrics? Plenty, and you might know of some that I don’t. What good are they? Well, depending upon your audience, sometimes it’s easier to spread the word when it’s set to a good tune. If you know of any, please share!

Only a Fool Would Say That: Songs of Freedom, Part 2 of 3

(Read Living in Harmony: Songs of Freedom, Part 1 of 3)

Well, okay then: Where are the liberty-lovers’ lyrics? Without going back to Sousa, or quoting favorite hymns, or dredging up Broadway show tunes, what can we listen to in the last few generations of music that won’t insult our political sensibilities?

Some of you who know the group I’m going to name may not even have gleaned the libertarian, occasionally even patriotic, slant of the lyrics; others of you may have heard the group’s name, but not realized what their message was; still others may not like the slick, funky jazz style of the music (which means you are not a musician). But to everyone, I heartily recommend—Steely Dan.

Donald Fagen (l) and Walter Becker aged well, as did their music.

Donald Fagen (l) and Walter Becker aged well, as did their music.

Whoa! A group named after the Naked Lunch protagonist’s marital aid? What?!

With these eccentrics, I saw (heard) it early on, in a song from their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, in 1972—and even at that time I recognized it as being way out of the mainstream, message-wise. Riding atop a relaxed little Latin beat, propelled by a spare jazz-combo arrangement with first-rate guitar work by Denny Dias, were these lyrics:

A world become one, of salads and sun?
Only a fool would say that.
A boy with a plan, a natural man,
wearing a white Stetson hat.
Put down that gun, be gone!
There’s no one to fire upon.
If he’s holding it high, he’s telling a lie.
I heard it was you talking about
a world where all is free.
It just couldn’t be—and
only a fool would say that.

Holy cow! A far cry from “We Are the World” with its unmistakable message of global governance, wealth redistribution, and rule by (sensitive and nurturing) elites. Another great Steely Dan tune, “Babylon Sisters” from the 1978 Aja album, had this to say about young airheads with unregenerate musical tastes:

Drive west on Sunset to the sea.
Turn that jungle music down,
just until we’re out of town.
This is no one-night stand, it’s a real occasion.
Close your eyes and we’ll be there.
It’s everything they say, the end of a perfect day,
distant lights from across the bay.
Babylon sisters, shake it.
So fine, so young, tell me I’m the only one.

Yikes. Not only are Donald Fagen and Walter Becker good musicians and writers, they’re guys who don’t take themselves too seriously. Try to imagine Mr. Blue-Collar Produndity, Bruce Springsteen, poking fun at himself. This seriously average fella is called a “genius” by the PC critics in the national media—a genius who still hasn’t learned a few more chords to elevate somewhat the emaciated carcasses of R&B tunes past that he calls his original compositions. Self-parody? For the “musical conscience of his generation”? Goodness, no!

Not only do they mock big government, Fagen and Becker mock their own aging egos and the radio culture that enriched them:

Hey, nineteen [19-year-old], that’s Aretha Franklin.
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul.
Hard times befallen soul survivor.
She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.
Hey, nineteen, we can’t dance together,
we can’t talk at all.

(Part 3 of 3 is up next.)

Living in Harmony: Songs of Freedom, Part 1 of 3

Going on 15 years ago, when I was finishing up my first original-music CD project, I had to write lyrics for the last tune on the album. Now, inasmuch as I was trying to be a “Christian man” at that time, committed to the ethics despite having jettisoned the supernaturalism, there was usually a message of love or hope or renewal in my songs. It was often quite sincere and sometimes quite contrived. Okay, fine.

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Walter Becker (l) and Donald Fagen not only brought jazz sensibilities and top players to pop music, they wrote, “A world become one, of salads and sun? Only a fool would say that,” in 1973. They went on to build among the best repertoires of music in the modern era, and spoke of liberty often.

But the lyrics that came along for that last song were different. Instead of being spiritual in nature, they derived from my other main self-tagging adjectives, the ones contending (not always cordially) with my baffled spirituality: libertarian and skeptic. And this got me to thinking about the dearth of sensible, sensitive, well-thought-out lyrics in contemporary music. Not a whole lot out there, frankly, neither then nor now, that’s very positive about liberty and individuality. It often seems there’s nothing positive at all, in any genre.

Well, okay, you have your country ditties and your lounge crooners. And, sure, you’ve got your gospel artists reminding everyone Who God Is and What Great Things He’s Doing in their lives, but I was thinking of the secular music segment, and the mainstream one at that. What are the messages that we, as a society, get from that cacophonous buffet? We have heard, and heard all about, the rap and the hip-hop and the twerking and the rest of it. But even among the mundane radio-daze tunes, where are the un-PC, or skeptical, or individualist, or non-conformist, or libertarian, lyrics?

Bubblegum for the Ears

No one needs any more evidence of the sorry state of modern songwriting than the playlist at any major-market radio station; tune in to the AM or FM powerhouses in your neck of the woods, whether rap or dance or techno or alternative or rock or who-knows-what, and you’ll get pretty much the same batch of tunes as folks do on L.A.’s undiversified outlets. And we don’t need to spend more than a few bullet points summing up the current state of affairs in pop music lyric writing. You have your

  • cop-killing misogynists of the gangsta rap school, where violence is banal and women are whores;
  • three generations of tra-la-la Lolitas (Madonna, Britney, Miley) winking and slinking to coyly and crudely sing their featherweight fables of sunny seduction and guiltless sensuality;
  • angry troubadours and troubadourettes across a number of musicologically primitive genres;
  • the discombobulated heirs of such musico-moralizers as Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl, and Melissa, correcting the benighted members of our Sick Society with profound pronouncements within their weighty warbles; and
  • those self-consciously Wizened Souls, like Sting and Paul Simon and these U2 characters, who find it incomprehensible that anyone young or hip or aware or intelligent would have any opinion outside the shallow orbit of Ellen or Rachel.

Did I leave anyone out? Of course.

I left out a lot, but I served up enough to make a meal. You know where I’m going with this, and you have enough examples of platitudinous high-school poetry, both in the above paragraphs and in your own memory, to sustain the following generalization: most pop music lyrics that touch on issues philosophical, or political, or spiritual, will rarely mention freedom except in the sorta-Southern-Rock semi-military style that patriotic football fans go for. We’re not just talking Bob Dylan here, you know? Yes, I’m sure you do.

And because you do, you will doubtless wait breathlessly for Part 2 (and there will be a Part 3, as well, so as not to weigh you down too much each time).

Putting Descartes Before the Hordes

He was a lawyer who never had a client—but he argued the case for rationalism, inveighing against the theretofore vague definitions of knowledge and truth, in his voluminous correspondence with the great thinkers and theologians of his age.

He joined the army of a Dutch prince at the age of 22—but he eschewed a military career to devote himself to the rigorous pursuit of knowledge through the study and application of mathematics and philosophy. He was French by birth—yet he died in Sweden after living most of his life in Holland.

Anomalies abound in the life of René Descartes, a man who, on the one hand, stands as a milestone on mankind’s long road to enlightenment and reason, and on the other, has had much of his life’s work disputed and derided.

The Procedural Rule

Rejecting the scholastic methods of his philosophical forebears, who sought truth by contrasting and comparing the views of accepted authorities, Descartes posited in “Meditations on First Philosophy” that a “firm and permanent structure” of knowledge requires building “anew from the foundation.” He determined to rid himself of presuppositions, ignore all but incontrovertible facts, and discount any evidence supplied by his senses.

To the extent that the use of this truth-seeking methodology—his Procedural Rule—succeeded in advancing the studies of optics, analytical geometry, and the theory of equations, Descartes shall be forever ensconced in the pantheon of intellectual giants. That his main contribution to philosophy was to establish the certainty of uncertainty suggests that his quest left him, as its chronicle left so many of his skeptical descendants, personally unfulfilled.

However readily one might accept Descartes’ process for challenging conventional wisdom by application of his Procedural Rule—and the fact that rationalism as a philosophical denomination was born with his “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason”—it is clear that the “father of modern philosophy” was himself stymied by the limits of his senses and intellect. “[It] is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth,” he finally admitted.

Descartes was quick to add, however, that his Procedural Rule could ensure that he would never give “credence to any false thing.” Common sense, the sciences, mathematics, logic: In no domain is there indubitable truth provable by human methodologies, because of the undependable nature of our senses.

Yet pervading all of these realms is the consciousness of man, the inquiring and doubting self that is the only solid, certain, provable entity in Descartes’ dualistic universe, to wit: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.

Failing His Own Test

René Descartes, an extraordinarily gifted man, brought his formidable mind to bear on the profound questions of many disciplines, but through a peculiarly human, undisciplined application of his own methodology arrived at any number of specious, spurious, even silly conclusions.

For instance, the notion that “animal spirits” in human blood interact with “thinking substances” of the brain to create a nerve-channel charge that enables the limbs—was this fanciful idea put through the Procedural Rule wringer? And did the great Renatus Cartesius display intellectual integrity and dedication to objective truth by abandoning his belief in a Copernican universe when it was pronounced heretical by the Catholic Church?

So where, outside of his analytical analog to Euclidian construction, or the fundamental law of reflection, or his inspired though embryonic assertions of the undulatory theory of light, is the consistency, the unassailability, of Descartes’ philosophy?

A Place of Primacy and Permanence

The man who shook “foundations to [bring] the downfall of the rest of the edifice”; the man who was first to challenge categorically the perceptions, assumptions, and sensations upon which entire classical belief systems were founded; the man who enshrined along with the doubt of the objective the certainty of the subjective; the man who extrapolated from that subjective certainty the existence of a God apprehended by reason—this man does, indubitably, occupy a place of primacy and permanence in the history of philosophy.

Today, many of his great and varied contributions to our knowledge of geometry, optics, anatomy, and mathematics—not to mention our knowledge of knowledge itself—are unknown to most people on the planet. Yet someday, perhaps, the great René Descartes will be more widely recognized for his grand, passionate, provocative reasoning.

Perhaps he will even be as revered and respected as modern celebrity philosophers Eckhart Tolle, Bono, Bill Cosby, or Tom Cruise. It could happen; I don’t know.

I only know that I doubt it.

From Hot Air to Second Wind (Part 2)

We begin Part 2 of ‘From Hot Air to Second Wind’ with the final paragraph of Part 1, but we encourage you to read the introduction in full before starting the conclusion, mainly because it is not the conclusion, and doesn’t come after it, either. That is one reason that it is called something with a “1” in the name. Go ahead, read it, we’ll wait for you… Okay, then, here we go:

I was becoming one guy on the job, another guy everywhere else. After about a month of looking at meeting rooms full of unhappy harried faces, I stumbled upon a realization that would make me a congruent person for the home stretch of the contest: I recognized that I had better relationships off the job, when I was uniquely, solely “me,” than on the job, when I was a group member, one of “us.” I seized on this revelation like a stick shift and slammed it into overdrive.

To this point, I had been holding meetings and occasionally passing out some memos with sales figures, contest updates, bumpersticker boosterisms. The standard corporate fare. Armed with my new, enlightened outlook, I decided to make the sales-contest memos more entertaining, more “me.”

In the final five weeks of the contest, I cranked out about 150 “entertaining” memos; that’s right, four or five a day. Now, calling these productions “memos” is both too little and too much definition; some were undisguised, unadorned comic strips or short stories. What made them memos in any Websterian sense was that they had the words “Date,” “To,” and “From” on them, and “Subject” somewhere close by, usually near the top of the first page. 

And so I distributed my parodies, plays, and perorations; fraudulent celebrity interviews and fake book reviews; drawings, clippings, and doodles; jokes, insults, rumors, and limericks. Within days I had the happiest team in the contest. They contributed ideas, took copies home for friends, showered me with compliments; I was getting to know them, and they were getting to know me.

But by the end of the sales contest, I had learned another important lesson: Stay balanced. You see, I was too busy making people laugh to concentrate on sales goals and contest rules. I forgot that the idea was for me to motivate the team to better results. The pendulum had swung too far in the other direction, and got stuck.

We lost the contest.

The Big Lesson for me was that balance is essential to a successful life. I knew enough to try to spice up the dreary, empty-hype grind of a branch sales contest; but I didn’t know when to stop with the seasoning, already. I couldn’t seem to find a balance between steady sweaty effort and stress-relieving humor. 

The Big Lesson sank in. I left the computer supply biz; within a year I was writing and publishing an agonizingly precious humor mag called “Pedantic Monthly”; a couple of years after that, having joined the new Macintosh “desktop publishing revolution,” I was flying back to Boston to help some folks bring their national political bi-weekly to that new platform; and then, for another decade after that, I had my hands full running production for a magazine publisher, consulting, composing and performing original music, and writing essays, rants, and raves just for people like you.

There is a direct line from those silly sales-contest memos to the recollection of them that you are reading now. They changed my life. Writing was too serious an undertaking for me to squander my talent on corporate memoranda.

Still, being a philologic pack-rat does have its advantages, especially when it’s close to deadline and I need even more verbiage than I’ve already crammed into whatever weighty piece I’m producing. Having produced about a pound of quixotic and querulous memos way back when, writer’s block is a non-issue. I can reach into that bulging (and forever non-digitized) Pendaflex folder of fustian and flippancy, and transform yesterday’s hot air into today’s second wind.

Ah, the benefits of recycling.

Porn Drove Tech Boom, Part 3 of 3

Here is Part 1, and Part 2, and Part 3 is down there.

“The means of distribution are transforming,” Graham Travis of Elegant Angel said presciently in 2010, “and potential customers are less and less likely to part with their hard-earned money due to the sheer extent of free porn online.” This meant, clearly, that successful porn companies had to push the envelope again, and harder, to develop products and services that answer the age-old query, “How do we compete with ‘free’?”

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The 21st Century: Brought to you by people like Larry Flynt, John Holmes, and, you know, all those Kardashian people. Same difference! Like, whoa!

IPTV is growing quickly, offering a multitude of alternatives. “Freely surfing the Internet through [any] TV set is just a matter of time,” Travis predicted then. Of course, visionary porn firms did not wait to get started with content, which they began to make download-ready for everything with a screen. Joshua, CEO and director at skinworXXX, was also certain early on (2009) that “digital downloads will become more and more prevalent for movies, and products such as Apple TV will become more and more prevalent” in the future.

“iPorn” sounded about right

Joshua began preparing for the future years ago. “We have already prepared HD digital downloads of [our movies] and will do so,” he announced in late 2009, “with each and every movie we shoot [starting in 2010].” Among the largest growth areas anticipated was the mobile market for—well, everything.

With iPhones, WiFi iPods, Chromebooks and netbooks, Android phones, and tablet PCs, people began taking their adult entertainment on the road as well as downloading it during the journey. The high-tech umbilical cord had arrived, in all its invisible wireless and broadband glory, and one of the best, fastest growing entertainment providers on the web at the dawn of this enlightened era was… the Apple App Store.

It can be costly to make (softcore) iPhone apps for every porn performer in a company’s filmography. Adam & Eve took a thoughtful, measured approach to this particular technology. “We reserve the iPhone apps for our contract stars,” says Katy Zvolerin. Apps named “Adam & Eve’s Bree Olson” and “Adam & Eve’s Kayden Kross” were the debut titles in late 2009, and scores of other “starlet apps” represent both classic and current Adam & Eve starlets.

“The apps include some great images, of course, along with bios and news” about the stars, Zvolerin adds. Users, who pay less than two dollars for an app, can use the images as wallpaper, create custom slideshows, and email favorite pics to friends. The trend toward social networking goes hand-in-hand with the use of apps facilitating “sharable content,” which dovetails nicely into porn companies’ viral, social, and experiential marketing plans, too.

And what about Blu-ray?

Zvolerin had decided by 2010 that Adam & Eve would limit its Blu-ray releases to “top productions and stars,” another smart move given the cost. Joshua from skinworXXX agreed even then, opining that “Blu-ray, as great as it is, is cost-prohibitive for both adult and mainstream,” and did not see it as a big growth area, much less a money-maker. On the other hand, as many salespeople will tell you, there are still plenty of consumers who want to hold a physical product in their hands, and Blu-ray gives them the best viewing experience, bar none (so far).

Andrew Blake, who should need no introduction to film critics or fans, told this writer several years ago that he likes “the physical object as part of my appreciation, whatever the art form. I like to sit down with a physical object, sit comfortably to read a book, watch a movie.” He speaks for many porn consumers, too, when he reiterates his belief “in the physical object, not the virtual one. I want to get my hands on it as well as put my head into it.”

Elegant Angel’s Travis played it smart, realizing that there would always be “a significant market for hard products,” and his firm has maintained a strong, focused presence on the BR-DVD lists. Blu-ray players (not recorders) have dropped to less than $50, and when they hit the commodity-price level of $29 sometime this coming year, tech and porn observers may need to revisit the topic. Perhaps BR will catch on, and maybe it won’t. In Joshua’s original estimation, still as accurate three years on, it “just doesn’t have a strong enough foothold in the business to last.”

Bottom lines

Today’s porn business reflects a very consolidated marketplace with far fewer production studios than just three years ago, and is in the midst of all manner of realignments, including a geographical one. Porn is being made in the Sunbelt, the South, and particularly Florida, now that California has become downright inhospitable to business and L.A. now has sicced the condom cops on the porn studios.

It was the desire for titillation and sex play that drove the development and proliferation of digital video and other technologies, and as the economy recovers, so will the creative energies of inventors and innovators. They know there is a constant demand for quality fare. When skinworXXX’s Joshua talks about making high-quality films, he means to push the envelope of technology “and sex, as well.” This is the attitude that made porn the world-changer that it can still be.

Advocates of “slowed-down science”—more accurately, a moratorium on scientific progress, famously (or notoriously, depending on your perspective) promoted by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy—may wish to reflect that the true price of their proposal is a joyless, dour, pornless, parochial, paranoid police state. Halting progress to clean up the Internet and “stop war” is a much faster and more dependable way to bring about The End Of Life As We Know It than any possible Frankenfood, irradiated children, or computer war games gone bad.

Dragging Poor Jesus into It All the Time

Originally published Aug. 2009. Republished Nov. 1, 2013. Not much has changed in the meantime but here’s hoping…!

I admit to being a bit surprised when I hear people wasting precious time condemning sexuality, whether hetero or homo, especially when they drag poor Jesus into it all the time. There are so many more important things to be expending energy on, for God’s sake, and I mean that literally.

The fact is, Jesus was actually quite tolerant of sexual sins, as his encounters with prostitutes and adulteresses clearly show. If the people casting stones are, in fact, Christians, and are in “good standing” and following their Lord’s commandments (all two of ’em, to be precise), then they truly must be “without sin.” That is the qualification, after all, for casting that first one, remember?

Jesus forgave every sexual sinner he encountered. He reserved “viper” and such terms for the greedy, hardhearted, and unloving. Of course, today that describes far too many fundamentalists and evangelicals. I know whereof I speak, as my wife of 25 years was raised by a Pentecostal minister (before he ran off with another woman). Then, about 20 years ago, we met the founders of what has grown to be a large inner-city ministry, who did so well that they, of course, no longer live anywhere near their church members. And they have sold out to that insane “prosperity gospel” that makes a mockery of Jesus in many ways. Sad.

I think it is important for Christians to study their own belief system, and few do. I know of no one who is intellectually able (and honest) who has not discovered by studying the history of the bible the mythology of “inerrancy” and the incredible amount of editing, revision, and redaction of what are now called the scriptures. Not 1 in 1000 Christians I’ve met (and I’ve met many, many thousands) can tell you how the New Testament developed, what its oldest writing is (it’s the first letter to the Thessalonians, c. 51), what “Q” is and why it matters, etc., etc. I have met a nearly countless number of people willing to die (or so they say) for a book that they know very little about, except that “they know” it’s right and true.

Scary.

As far as judgement goes, here’s some bad news for phonies: Jesus gave a few glimpses of Judgement Day (in a few of the Gospels; you find them, the search will do you good, and I’m talking to the believers here). One time, he was accosted by a group of True Believers. They said, “Didn’t we cast out demons? Didn’t we do miracles?” and essentially asked, “Where’s our reward?” Jesus replied with something akin to, “Beat it! I never knew you.”

Another time he addressed a few folks standing off a short distance, saying that they had done well. “What did we ever do?” they asked. They were so busy being decent and compassionate they didn’t have time to think about “their reward.” What did Jesus say? Did He say, “You used my name, the magic word, so you get into heaven”? Nope. He said, basically, “When you fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the prisoners, you did this for Me, too, and thanks!”

You don’t hear those parts of the Good News preached very often any more.

It matters what you do. Jesus clearly says that “those who do good” will get their reward, those that “do evil” will get theirs. And it’s not up to Pastor Fred or that thieving, lunatic fraud, Benny Hinn, either.

Beat it, both of you. He never knew you.