Winter played a fleeting return engagement in New Orleans this week. Unlike the Mid-March blizzard in the Northeast, it wasn’t anything to write home about but we ran the heater and shivered a bit. I’m not a fan of the new practice of naming winter storms even if the first one is named after a famous theatrical character, STELLA. Unless, that is, it’s named for the Hunter-Garcia ballad Stella Blue. The mere thought of a blizzard makes me blue so that could be it.
It may have been chilly of late but Spring allergy season is upon us with a vengeance. I have a mild case of red-eye but I’m used to that. A worse pestilence is this year’s flea crop. We haven’t had a hard freeze for several years so the nasty little buggers are dining on Oscar and Della Street. All we can do is treat the house, medicate the cats, and hope for the best. The idea of putting a flea collar on Della is particularly unappealing. She’s been known to draw blood so I’ll pass. Chomp.
This week’s theme song comes from R.E.M.’s classic 1987 Document album; more on the album anon. It’s my favorite record in their catalog and Disturbance At The Heron House is the kat’s meow. The lyrics were inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which is another reason I like it so much.
Here are two versions. The original studio track and one from R.E.M.’s appearance on MTV Unplugged. The second video has Radio Song as lagniappe.
The “followers of chaos out of control” indeed. In fact, they can follow me to the other side after the break. I hope it’s sufficiently chaotic.
We Begin the Begin with a segment about you know who.
R.E.M.’s Document At 30: I somehow missed Anne Zaleski’s late January piece about Document at Salon. The main target of the album’s lyrics was Reaganism and its effect on the country. You can draw a line straight line from Reaganomics to this week’s Trump budget. They not only want to starve the guvmint, they want to starve chirren and old folks. I seem to recall many seniors voting for the Insult Comedian. I hope they experience buyer’s remorse before the GOP messes with Social Security and Medicare.
Back to Document. It’s a highly political record but it also rocks with what Hubert Humphrey called “the politics of joy.” HHH was mocked for that turn of phrase but I still like it. I also like how Zaleski closes her piece:
The way R.E.M. always balanced emotional levity and political commentary feels like a useful survival mechanism, one that deserves to be excavated and updated for the modern world. As online debates seethe over political memes and mocking hashtags — and whether such sardonic humor softens the severity of what’s going on or is simply a way to cope — finding such equilibrium is an imperative.
In the end, it’s poignant that “Document” starts with the aggressive “Finest Worksong,” whose very first line is the rabble-rousing cry “The time to rise has been engaged.” More than anything, the album urges people to stay motivated, and to speak up and take action — timeless advice that feels more vital than ever.
The rabble certainly need rousing at this point in time. I think Finest Worksong would be a helluva theme song for the resistance:
Let’s move on from rock politics to the surreal world of cartoonist George Herriman. That’s not as odd a transition as you might think. R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe is not only a Herriman fan, he has two Krazy Kat tats. This is one of them:
It’s hard to see, but it’s there. It makes me wonder if Peter Buck was ever tempted to throw a brick at Stipe, Ignatz Mouse style.
Krazy Kat’s Kissing Kousin: I just finished Michael Tisserand’s brilliant biography of George Herriman, Krazy. You may recall the post about the author signing the book for me on the parade route during Carnival. Herriman’s Krazy Kat was the first comic strip for eggheads. It was loaded with subtle political and cultural references as well as implicit commentary on Herriman’s status as a black New Orleans Creole who passed for white. It’s a must read book for anyone interested in the history of American popular culture.
A relatively minor detail in a chapter about Herriman’s New Orleans family stuck with me. One of Herriman’s cousins, Ralph Chessé, also moved to California and passed. Like Herriman, he was a gifted artist whose painting is this week’s featured image. Chessé was a talented puppeteer who had a teevee kids show, Brother Buzz, in my native Bay Area from 1952 to 1969.
Genes are a remarkable thing. That entire family is full of artists, writers, and musicians including singer John Boutte, Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Kraziest Kat of all, George Herriman. The parallels between Ralph Chessé and George Herriman are striking: both were artists who used anthropomorphized animals in their work.
There’s no indication that Herriman and Chessé ever met but the latter must have been aware of the legendary cartoonist. That concludes this brief climb up the Herriman- Chessé family tree. Now how the hell do I get down? Maybe Ignatz will weigh me down with bricks to ease my descent…
I’ll give the last word of this segment to Michael Tisserand with the book trailer for Krazy. He’s a busy bee, much like Brother Buzz.
Monument Valley was where John Ford set many of his Westerns. George Herriman got there first. Score one for Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse.
We’re going to linger in the first half of the 2oth Century with our next piece. It takes us to the world of sideshow freakery at its worst.
Freak Show Serfdom: My fascination with carneys and sideshows is well-known. I thought I’d heard it all until I read about Eko and Iko. Their real names were George and Willie Muse. They were Albino African-American brothers who were sideshow performers for decades. They were also effectively enslaved by their manager who took more than the customary 10% if you catch my drift. I say serfdom, you say peonage. Let’s call the whole thing off.
It’s a fascinating story told in a new book by Beth Macy, Truevine. I haven’t read it yet but I *have* read a review by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian and now you can too. All I’ve got for you is a scan of a postcard on which the Muse brothers look like proto-Rastafarians:
Speaking of freak shows, our next segment is about the man who has helped transform the White House into a Mad House.
B3 Brownshirt Documentaries: Everyone’s talking about Stephen K. Bannon of B3 Brownshirt fame. (The k is not for krazy but it could be.) I’m not sure if he’s the “real President,” but he has the Insult Comedian’s ear. I wonder where he keeps it? In a safe in case he needs to blackmail Trumpy? It’s what a proper kidnapper would do. Bannon has kidnapped an entire country, after all. Perhaps it’s time for Ted Koppel to revive the whole America Held Hostage thing.
Bannon fancied himself a filmmaker before turning his attention to wrecking our country, the EU, and NATO. He made a series of wingnutty “documentaries” from 2004-2016. I haven’t seen any of them, although I probably should since I’m a small e expert in Bannonology. The good news is that Sean Nelson of The Stranger has watched them so we don’t have to:
It will surprise no one that the cinema of Steve Bannon consists entirely of conservative nationalist propaganda tracts designed to advance the values of the Tea Party movement, unacknowledged contradictions and all: small government, low taxes, militarism, isolationism, Christianity, self-interest, patriotism, contempt for America, everyone who disagrees with you is an elitist, immigrants are a threat, outsiders are the only real heroes, free-market capitalism is essential, regulation is tyranny, society is too permissive, Wall Street is corrupt, Democrats are hypocrites, liberals are fascists, Barack Obama is a fraud, and Bill and Hillary Clinton are worse than a thousand Hitlers. But above all, liberty. Always liberty.
Bannon is currently trying to peddle the idea that he became an alt-right white nationalist extremist because of the 2008 financial crisis. I’m not buying it. He was a nutter before then. More importantly, he’s a propagandist: Leni Rifenstahl without the technique and good-looks or Joseph Goebbels without the tidy brown Nazi party uniform. Bannon is an unshaven slob. I guess that makes him an artiste or some such shit. He’s certainly full of brown stuff so he might as well don a literal brownshirt.
Let’s move on from the agit-prop “documentaries” of Steve Bannon to a real documentary.
Documentary Of The Week: What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy is the brain child of human rights lawyer Philippe Sands who, like everyone else of European Jewish ancestry, lost relatives in the Holocaust. The film tells the story of Sands’ relationship with two men whose fathers were Nazi war criminals: Niklas son of Hans Frank and Horst son of Otto von Wachter.
Niklas Frank is scarred by his father’s crimes whereas Horst Wachter tries to explain them away. The interplay between the two elderly Germans and their interlocutor, Philippe Sands, is fascinating. This is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen about Nazi Germany and I’ve watched more than a few.
Here’s the trailer:
What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy is currently streaming on Netflix. I give it 3 1/2 stars, an Adrastos Grade of B+ and a Siskelian thumbs up. Way up. The question of up what remains open.
Saturday Classic: Chunga’s Revenge was Frank Zappa’s first full-blown solo album. The players, of course, were all members of the Mothers including Flo and Eddie who were Kaylan and Volman of the Turtles in real life. The line between solo and band albums was always a thin one in Zappa world.
Chunga’s Revenge was the first Zappa LP I ever bought and it still owns a special place in my heart. There are commercials but they’re worth it to hear Road Ladies and Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink.
That’s it for this week. I’ll give Krazy Kat’s kreator, George Herriman, the last word. He doesn’t look like a follower of chaos out of control but Krazy and Ignatz certainly were.