Iraq: Ten Years Gone

What’s ten years and a couple trillion dollars between friends, huh?

And I mean, it’s not like anyone could have seen this coming, right?

Right.

Anyone who’s read this blog knows my thoughts, and anyone who knows me, especially those who knew me circa 2003, and most especially those who were on numerous email threads before, during and after the debacle, understand my position, which has never wavered.

Protesting in NYC, February 2003

I’d like to turn the mic over to some eloquent and righteous folks who serve up some enlightenment, anger and elgaic prose.

First up, this devastating letter written by Iraq war veteran Tomas Young, who is near death and full of understandable bitterness about the ways he –and many of his fellow soldiers– were misled, abused and discarded. The entire thing is mandatory reading and can be found HERE.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

The New Republic has gone to the trouble of compiling multiple posts from an array of folks, HERE.

A couple of excerpts:

And the losers? Apart from the Sunnis, whose hegemony was shattered by the force of American arms, that would be the United States. 4,487 dead, 32,223 wounded, 20 percent of whom have catastrophic brain or spinal injuries, and this is not even counting psychological injuries. A trillion dollars spent. The systematic torture of prisoners that, as we are now learning seems to have been sanctioned at the highest levels of the chain of command in Iraq. Corruption both by U.S. uniformed personnel and contractors, which, from the report of the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, seems to have existed to a degree unparalleled in American military history. And all this so we can have Maliki ruling Iraq instead of Saddam Hussein! Could anyone who supported this war today encounter a relative, spouse, or friend of one of the American soldiers who was killed or grievously injured in Iraq and tell them with a straight face that this war was worth their sacrifice?

I now see the decision to invade Iraq as cynical, tragic, immoral, and irresponsible to the point of folly. I do not think that the thousands of U.S. and allied lives lost were lost in vain: Only time can tell what Iraq will become; how the Iraqi people will look back on the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing ten years of violence; and what role Iraq will play in the larger Middle East. It is very difficult to imagine any transition from Saddam to post-Saddam without some violence and political upheaval in a nation as fractured religiously and ethnically as Iraq. But in hindsight, the U.S. decision to spend tens of billions of U.S. dollars; to ignore all knowledge, planning, and expertise about Iraq with regard to what should happen when the bullets stopped flying; and to ignore the opposition of many of our closest allies in deciding when and how to take action is virtually indefensible. And I could not in good conscience look an Iraqi widow, parent, or child in the eye and tell them that the tens of thousands of Iraqi lives lost served a larger purpose, which is a burden that every American who did not actively demonstrate against the war must carry. 

The always excellent Charlie Pierce has been typically en fuego and if you are not reading his blog daily @ Esquire, you should be. Check out some necessary vitriol and truth here, and here.

I will hazard the same guess that I hazarded at the time. The members of the liberal political elite in this country were piss-down-their-legs scared of two things in 2002. First, that the next attack would land on their heads, since most of them live and work in or near what were presumed to be the primary target zones, both of which actually had been already. And second, that they would get called fifth-columnists (or worse) by the triumphalism of the incipient American imperial adventure in southwest Asia. Nobody wants to be George McGovern, after all. So they found their excuses, and they found in Kenneth Pollack somebody who would give them a Potemkin war they could support. And then they signed on with Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld and all the rest of them.

Shut up, all of you. Go away. You are complicit in one way or another in a giant crime containing many great crimes. Atone in secret. Wash the blood off your hands in private. Because there were people who got it right. Anthony Zinni. Eric Shiseki. Hans Blix. Mohamed ElBaradei. The McClatchy Washington bureau guys. Dozens of liberal academics who got called fifth-columnists and worse. Professional military men whose careers suffered as a result. Hundreds of thousands of people in the streets around the world. The governments of Canada and France. Those people, I will listen to this week. Go to hell, the rest of you, and go there in silence and in shame.

John Judis, one of the handful of brilliant thinkers who, like my man Paul “The Krug” Krugman is always right about everything, reflects on what it was like, 10 years ago, to be sane. Entire piece HERE.
I found fellow dissenters to the war in two curious places: the CIA and the military intelligentsia. That fall, I got an invitation to participate in a seminar at the Central Intelligence Agency on what the world would be like in fifteen or twenty years. I went out of curiosity—I don’t like this kind of speculation—but as it turned out, much of the discussion was about the pending invasion of Iraq. Except for me and the chairman, who was a thinktank person, the participants were professors of international relations. And almost all of them were opposed to invading Iraq. 

These dissenters were entirely right about the war, and nothing that has happened since then has weakened their case. The United States got several hundred thousand people killed to install a regime that may eventually prove to be as oppressive as Saddam Hussein’s, is closely allied to the Iranian government, and has proven as likely to give oil contracts to Chinese firms as to American firms. And oh yes, Iraq didn’t have “WMDs” after all—a ridiculous acronym that the administration and its supporters used to equate the possession of chemical or biological weapons with the possession of nuclear weapons.

The people who had the most familiarity with the Middle East and with the perils of war were dead set against the invasion. That includes not only the CIA analysts and the military professors, but also the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which rejected the administration’s claims that Iraq was about to acquire nuclear weapons. But they were not in a position to make their voices heard. The CIA analysts were reduced to creating this half-cocked scheme for getting a report on the far-flung future to the White House, which they hoped someone would read. The military dissenters, as we know, were silenced by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz. And the State Department was ignored by the White House.

Finally, Glen Greenwald, another lonely man who stood up against the insanity all around him (then, and now for that matter), eviscerates David “Axis of Evil” Frum and his half-hearted rationalizations (and mind boggling solipsism) in a piece appropriately entitled “David Frum, the Iraq War and Oil” (guess what it’s about?). Check it out here to find out the worst-kept secret of the last decade, one way too many people saw through before the boots ever hit the ground.

There are countless other examples of people having their reputations viciously maligned for suggesting that oil was a significant factor in the US and its allies wanting to invade Iraq.

In order to minimize the role he played in helping bring about this war, Frum writes:

“People often ask me whether I have regrets. It seems absurdly presumptuous to answer the question. I could have set myself on fire in protest on the White House lawn and the war would have proceeded without me.”

As Jonathan Schwarz replied: “Yeah, there’s no way that somebody like Frum could have changed anything if he’d revealed Cheney’s deep interest in Iraqi oil. Poor David was utterly powerless.” At exactly the time that virtually all of official Washington was mocking and scorning anyone who suggested that oil was a significant factor in Washington’s designs on Iraq, Cheney and Chalabi were spending “long hours” together, “contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq” as “an additional source of oil, an alternative to US dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia”.

***

These people with buckets of blood on their hands and around their ankles have been saying all kinds of stuff this week (so much of it predictably self-serving), but there are two words they all should be repeating, every day for the rest of their lives: I’m sorry.

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Keep on Baracking in the Free World: 10 Songs for 4 (More) Years

1. Now’s The Time.

Because, you know, it is.

2. Focus on Sanity

No further comment necessary. Thank you America!!!

3. II B.S.

His name is CHOLLY MINGUS and I approve this message.

4. You Can Make It If You Try

True for our president; true for any of us. Preach it Sly!

5. Walk the Streets of Glory

Right?

6. Hey You

Together we stand, divided we fall…

7. Day After Day

Civil War is raging endlessly, day after day…

8. This Must Be The Place

But I guess I’m already there…

9. Give Blood

Give love and keep blood betweeen brothers…

10. Fight the Fight

We are all fighting the same fight
We are all in the same war
We are all in the same revolution
You got to know what you’re fighting for…

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Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Four

Walking the Streets of Glory: Israel Vibration’s The Same Song

The cardinal rule for any serious appraisal of art involves a necessity to separate all discussion of the artist from the artifact. Mostly this is essential because so many unsavory characters have managed to create amazing art despite—or because of—their self absorption and nastiness. Monomania is sometimes obligatory, as we have seen from masters ranging from Tolstoy to Miles Davis. In short, it seldom sheds meaningful insight on a famous (or infamous) work to stand either on a pedestal or in the trenches, attempting to offer up easy (or difficult) analysis.

The list of artists known as assholes—or worse—to their friends or enemies is not short, but it’s a mistaken assumption that only difficult people create works that last. On the other hand, the list of genuinely decent human beings who have managed to make meaningful art is short but sweet: John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Dolphy come immediately to mind. However, hagiography rarely augments an individual’s oeuvre; in fact, it usually besmirches it. The only thing excessive praise and inappropriate criticism share is that they almost always say more about the commentator than the art being commented upon. The proponents of either extreme usually betray religious leanings that render their insights instantly dated and ultimately irrelevant (postmodern literary criticism and political correctness have been the more popular—and culpable—cults of the critical arena in recent decades).

And yet. All of that being said, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the life and the way(s) it influenced an artist’s development. With one group in particular, it is not only impossible, but negligent to make no mention of their exceptional trajectory from obscure and impoverished kids to adored legends of reggae music. Make no mistake, Israel Vibration’s debut, The Same Song is an indispensable classic, and would be loved—and discussed—if no biographical information on the artists was available. Nevertheless, the blissful sense of wonderment these songs provide accrue additional layers of meaning, and import, when the lives and circumstances of the young men who created them are considered. Long story shortened: Jamaica endured a polio epidemic in the latter years of the 1950s. Three of the boys disabled by the disease, Lascelle Bulgin, Albert Craig and Cecil Spence, met at a rehabilitation facility in Kingston. They bonded over the love of music and a dedication to Rastafarianism (legend has it that once they grew out their dreadlocks they were summarily evicted from the Mona Heights Centre).

Eventually they formed a vocal trio and, calling themselves Israel Vibration, began singing for change on various street corners throughout the city of Kingston. They were rescued from performing (and living) on the streets by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who helped fund the recording of their first album. After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, their vision, and sound, was fully formed when they entered the studio. The results, quite simply, are staggering. The title track is, like the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time”, an opening salvo that also serves as a powerful—and empowering—statement of purpose: young men who had faced little other than hardship and discrimination, wise beyond their years, crafting an open letter of acceptance, unity and inevitability.

They tackle similar issues as the other landmark albums already discussed (this being roots reggae, the themes and sounds are not dissimilar), but where the Mighty Diamonds and Culture confront injustice and preach peace with, respectively, heavy doses of soul-influence and celebratory abandon, Israel Vibration balance the two styles with their own unique groove. On the more upbeat songs, like “Why Worry” and especially the ebullient “Walk the Streets of Glory”, the voices are appropriately buoyant; on the more topical, defiant songs, like “Weep & Mourn” and “Ball of Fire”, the pace—and the voices—are languid, even solemn. This manages to be powerfully elegant (or elegantly powerful) music, and it’s in part due to the unforced, easily-invoked vulnerability in these voices, but mostly it involves the very notion of underdogs speaking out for the underdog—without pity and with the gentle perseverance of faith. These last two songs describe the plights of the have-nots and the pitiful apathy of the powerful on par with the best efforts of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. And yet, even when the subject matter is deadly serious, there is a ceaseless air of celebration and joy that makes all the sense in the world: the people making this music are, when all was said and done, happily aware of how lucky they were simply to be alive.

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Summertime is Reggae Time (Revisited)– Part Four: ‘The Same Song’ by Israel Vibration

The cardinal rule for any serious appraisal of art involves a necessity to separate all discussion of the artist from the artifact. Mostly this is essential because so many unsavory characters have managed to create amazing art despite—or because of—their self absorption and nastiness. Monomania is sometimes obligatory, as we have seen from masters ranging from Tolstoy to Miles Davis. In short, it seldom sheds meaningful insight on a famous (or infamous) work to stand either on a pedestal or in the trenches, attempting to offer up easy (or difficult) analysis.

The list of artists known as assholes—or worse—to their friends or enemies is not short, but it’s a mistaken assumption that only difficult people create works that last. On the other hand, the list of genuinely decent human beings who have managed to make meaningful art is short but sweet: John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Dolphy come immediately to mind. However, hagiography rarely augments an individual’s oeuvre; in fact, it usually besmirches it. The only thing excessive praise and inappropriate criticism share is that they almost always say more about the commentator than the art being commented upon. The proponents of either extreme usually betray religious leanings that render their insights instantly dated and ultimately irrelevant (postmodern literary criticism and political correctness have been the more popular—and culpable—cults of the critical arena in recent decades).

And yet. All of that being said, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the life and the way(s) it influenced an artist’s development. With one group in particular, it is not only impossible, but negligent to make no mention of their exceptional trajectory from obscure and impoverished kids to adored legends of reggae music. Make no mistake, Israel Vibration’s debut, The Same Song is an indispensable classic, and would be loved—and discussed—if no biographical information on the artists was available. Nevertheless, the blissful sense of wonderment these songs provide accrue additional layers of meaning, and import, when the lives and circumstances of the young men who created them are considered. Long story shortened: Jamaica endured a polio epidemic in the latter years of the 1950s. Three of the boys disabled by the disease, Lascelle Bulgin, Albert Craig and Cecil Spence, met at a rehabilitation facility in Kingston. They bonded over the love of music and a dedication to Rastafarianism (legend has it that once they grew out their dreadlocks they were summarily evicted from the Mona Heights Centre).

Eventually they formed a vocal trio and, calling themselves Israel Vibration, began singing for change on various street corners throughout the city of Kingston. They were rescued from performing (and living) on the streets by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who helped fund the recording of their first album. After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, their vision, and sound, was fully formed when they entered the studio. The results, quite simply, are staggering. The title track is, like the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time”, an opening salvo that also serves as a powerful—and empowering—statement of purpose: young men who had faced little other than hardship and discrimination, wise beyond their years, crafting an open letter of acceptance, unity and inevitability.

They tackle similar issues as the other landmark albums already discussed (this being roots reggae, the themes and sounds are not dissimilar), but where the Mighty Diamonds and Culture confront injustice and preach peace with, respectively, heavy doses of soul-influence and celebratory abandon, Israel Vibration balance the two styles with their own unique groove. On the more upbeat songs, like “Why Worry” and especially the ebullient “Walk the Streets of Glory”, the voices are appropriately buoyant; on the more topical, defiant songs, like “Weep & Mourn” and “Ball of Fire”, the pace—and the voices—are languid, even solemn. This manages to be powerfully elegant (or elegantly powerful) music, and it’s in part due to the unforced, easily-invoked vulnerability in these voices, but mostly it involves the very notion of underdogs speaking out for the underdog—without pity and with the gentle perseverance of faith. These last two songs describe the plights of the have-nots and the pitiful apathy of the powerful on par with the best efforts of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. And yet, even when the subject matter is deadly serious, there is a ceaseless air of celebration and joy that makes all the sense in the world: the people making this music are, when all was said and done, happily aware of how lucky they were simply to be alive.

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August 26, 2002: Remembering My Mother in Music

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Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that small numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

When it comes to the death of my mother, I of course have meditated on the loss privately and publically, and anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) understands that her life and death are an unequivocal component of my ongoing existence. Nothing remarkable about that, really: it is what it is. I am not alone; in fact, one need not suffer the untimely death of a parent to understand that their presence is inextricable from one’s own. That said, it’s not because my feelings or experiences are unique, but because they are the opposite that I have little compunction sharing some thoughts on this plaintive anniversary. Indeed, for me these occasions are much more a celebration of her life (and her unambiguously positive influence in my life) than any sort of disconsolate meditation on death. It is what it is.

 

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As I have mentioned in other pieces (most recently on my birthday), one of my earliest and most positive memories of art and discovery is associated with my mother: listening to Nutcracker Suite and drawing pictures. Tchaikovsky has a real Proust-like effect on me (and, I suspect, a great many grown-ups who have indelible memories of the Nutcracker or Fantasia, or both), but on a purely aesthetic level it is like Bizet’s Carmen: I can (and do) enjoy it on purely musical terms. Moreover, I prefer it that way (and having seen my share of holiday performances and the opportunity to enjoy a full performance of Carmen, I’m happy to have those experiences and need not go there again). Anyway, there are more than a handful of favorite moments (coincidentally or not, conductor Fritz Reiner’s version from 1960 is the first compact disc I ever purchased, in 1986), but the one that gets me every time is the sombre yet majestic “Coffee: Arabian Dance”.

 

There’s no shame in my game. I cannot deny my past and the fact of the matter is, back in the ’70s I thought Jesus Christ Superstar was pretty awesome. Moms, sis and I knew this one by heart (at least Side A of the 8-Track, which received heavy airplay in the Ford Grenada). This was in the pre-Kiss and post Fantasia time period, and of course before I discovered the original “rock opera” Tommy (not the last time ALW would be influenced by a rock band). In any event, this was my first and last dalliance with Andrew Lloyd Webber and while I can hardly stomach it now, oh how I loved it then. And you know what? A handful of moments are still worth reliving.

 

I’ve also alluded to the fact that we worshipped at the altar of the White Album, and we’d listen to the cassette (taped from the original double record) constantly in the car. Our favorite singalong was (obviously) “Rocky Raccoon”, but one of my favorites that I can never hear, now, without thinking of my mother and those million car rides is another great song by McCartney, “Mother Nature’s Son”:

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It was pretty cool to watch movies with my mom, who was much more lenient than Pops when it came to the Rated R ones. One we watched many times (which I haven’t seen in ages and suspect I’d like much less now) was The Big Chill. Of course, the soundtrack was ubiquitous at that time and did for Motown what soundtracks like O Brother, Where Art Thou? did for bluegrass and Goodfellas did for oldies (or at least Tony Bennett). It’s silly to contemplate now, but it was almost a novelty to hear Smokey Robinson and The Temptations in the very arid early years of the ’80s. Indelible baby steps for an impressionable young honky:

Beethoven. I’ve spoken often in regards to my worship of Ludwig Van. Everyone encounters the symphonies first, but once I latched onto the piano sonatas, that was it. It still is. I’m not sure if I ever succeeded in getting my mother to really appreciate the immortal  Mondschein, but she at least tolerated how often it was played during the late ’80s and early ’90s in her house. Since I’ve already thrown Barenboim a bone, I’d like to give props to Freddy Kempf’s superlative rendition of one of the truly sublime compositions ever written:

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The other great discovery and love of my life around this time was Bob Marley: kind of like Beethoven and the symphonies, it’s impossible to have ears and not be exposed to Legend at some point in high school or college. When the amazing Songs of Freedom (by far the best box set of all time) came into my life during grad school I latched onto it like a remora. This career-spanning set opened a large door wide on Marley’s music (particularly the mostly unknown, and remarkable, work from the late ’60s and very early ’70s), and eventually, reggae. Moms needed no convincing, she formed her own deep love and appreciation for Marley and would sing his songs on my answering machine. Suffice it to say, our shared love of the great man is one of the very special bonds in my musical and spiritual life.

I think she saw pretty quickly that I was going to be a special case, and there is little doubt that regardless of anyone’s opinion, I was off and running early on, and little could come between me and music. Nevertheless, her encouragement (from Kiss to The Beatles to The Doors all the way through classical and then jazz) was generous, ceaseless and always appreciated. It’s kind of neat to consider that a CD she originally bought for me my senior year of college (when I explained to her that it was very important for both my studies and my sanity to procure this album) is one I wrote about almost twenty years later. I can’t think of a more beautiful song from a more perfect album to commemorate my gratitude.

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Not too much needs to be said by way of introduction to Jimi Hendrix, but my mother definitely dug some of his (less experimental? more accessible?) work. This one was, and is, a no brainer: a song he wrote about his mother (who passed away when he was ten years old): “Angel”:

August 27, 2002 was the first day of the rest of our lives. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall (or half-reall) the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: driving from father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The emotions and sensations would become overwhelming at times, and there are those awful moments when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again. During one of these episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I had not been paying attention to my car stereo, and then this song (by the great Israel Vibration) broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life:

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Finally, and this one is the most important, for me.
The ’70s: this one reminds me of coming home from school and spending time in the house in between games of soccer or kickball or whatever else I was up to in those days. I have a memory: it was either autumn or winter, but it was a day I couldn’t play outside, so I was stuck inside the house and my mother had first dibs on the sounds. She was a huge fan of Janis Ian (as I would become, and remain) and I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider Between The Lines one of the better albums of that time, or anytime. “At Seventeen”, “Tea and Sympathy”, “Light a Light”: this is as good as it gets. But it’s the swan song, “Lover’s Lullaby” that affects me most; it haunts and restores me in equal measure. This one makes me think of my mother, so young; myself, so young, and even the beautiful Janis Ian, so incredibly young and so unbelievably beautiful. Sentimental? Not so much. True, this is wistful on multiple levels, and while my nature is to embrace or confront things that I consider cliche, it still took me quite a while before I could bring myself to listen to this song after my mother’s death.

I can, now, and when I do I naturally think of her. And inevitably I think about myself:

Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,

Like wither’d leaves, to quicken a new birth;

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

 –Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind”

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Five Easy Pieces

Music always helps.

Here are representations from each of the five major food groups (jazz, blues, reggae, classical, rock) that are unceasingly able to make me happy, or at least happier. Music is the one miracle you can always count on, and I can always count on these five easy pieces.

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Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Four (Popmatters.com blog)

Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Four
Walking the Streets of Glory: Israel Vibration’s The Same Song

The cardinal rule for any serious appraisal of art involves a necessity to separate all discussion of the artist from the artifact. Mostly this is essential because so many unsavory characters have managed to create amazing art despite—or because of—their self absorption and nastiness. Monomania is sometimes obligatory, as we have seen from masters ranging from Tolstoy to Miles Davis. In short, it seldom sheds meaningful insight on a famous (or infamous) work to stand either on a pedestal or in the trenches, attempting to offer up easy (or difficult) analysis.

The list of artists known as assholes—or worse—to their friends or enemies is not short, but it’s a mistaken assumption that only difficult people create works that last. On the other hand, the list of genuinely decent human beings who have managed to make meaningful art is short but sweet: John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Dolphy come immediately to mind. However, hagiography rarely augments an individual’s oeuvre; in fact, it usually besmirches it. The only thing excessive praise and inappropriate criticism share is that they almost always say more about the commentator than the art being commented upon. The proponents of either extreme usually betray religious leanings that render their insights instantly dated and ultimately irrelevant (postmodern literary criticism and political correctness have been the more popular—and culpable—cults of the critical arena in recent decades).

And yet. All of that being said, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the life and the way(s) it influenced an artist’s development. With one group in particular, it is not only impossible, but negligent to make no mention of their exceptional trajectory from obscure and impoverished kids to adored legends of reggae music. Make no mistake, Israel Vibration’s debut, The Same Song is an indispensable classic, and would be loved—and discussed—if no biographical information on the artists was available. Nevertheless, the blissful sense of wonderment these songs provide accrue additional layers of meaning, and import, when the lives and circumstances of the young men who created them are considered. Long story shortened: Jamaica endured a polio epidemic in the latter years of the 1950s. Three of the boys disabled by the disease, Lascelle Bulgin, Albert Craig and Cecil Spence, met at a rehabilitation facility in Kingston. They bonded over the love of music and a dedication to Rastafarianism (legend has it that once they grew out their dreadlocks they were summarily evicted from the Mona Heights Centre).

Eventually they formed a vocal trio and, calling themselves Israel Vibration, began singing for change on various street corners throughout the city of Kingston. They were rescued from performing (and living) on the streets by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who helped fund the recording of their first album. After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, their vision, and sound, was fully formed when they entered the studio. The results, quite simply, are staggering. The title track is, like the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time”, an opening salvo that also serves as a powerful—and empowering—statement of purpose: young men who had faced little other than hardship and discrimination, wise beyond their years, crafting an open letter of acceptance, unity and inevitability.

They tackle similar issues as the other landmark albums already discussed (this being roots reggae, the themes and sounds are not dissimilar), but where the Mighty Diamonds and Culture confront injustice and preach peace with, respectively, heavy doses of soul-influence and celebratory abandon, Israel Vibration balance the two styles with their own unique groove. On the more upbeat songs, like “Why Worry” and especially the ebullient “Walk the Streets of Glory”, the voices are appropriately buoyant; on the more topical, defiant songs, like “Weep & Mourn” and “Ball of Fire”, the pace—and the voices—are languid, even solemn. This manages to be powerfully elegant (or elegantly powerful) music, and it’s in part due to the unforced, easily-invoked vulnerability in these voices, but mostly it involves the very notion of underdogs speaking out for the underdog—without pity and with the gentle perseverance of faith. These last two songs describe the plights of the have-nots and the pitiful apathy of the powerful on par with the best efforts of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. And yet, even when the subject matter is deadly serious, there is a ceaseless air of celebration and joy that makes all the sense in the world: the people making this music are, when all was said and done, happily aware of how lucky they were simply to be alive.

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