Category Archives: Books

Kurt Cobain’s Journals Reveal a Man Worthy of No Admiration

Kurt Cobain, the front man of the groundbreaking 1990s Seattle grunge band Nirvana has been considered the “spokesman for a generation” though his fame only lasted for roughly two and a half years before his inevitable 1994 suicide. His music was revolutionary and his fashion quickly became imitated by the mainstream, but Cobain was far from worthy of adulation. He was an extremely troubled person. He was depressed and angry, narcissistic, hateful, antisocial, poorly educated, hypocritical and self destructive with a major drug addiction, but a knack for writing catchy tunes.

I’ve always liked Nirvana’s music, but I’ve never cared much for Cobain as a person. I did eventually acquire all five Nirvana albums, but I have never worn their t-shirt. I say this to illustrate that I’m not just some Nirvana hater. I can separate the man from the music, and this article is about the man as he chose to present himself, his thoughts, ideas and values in his own words. I just don’t think there is much to admire about Kurt Cobain outside of his musical success. That was my opinion at the height of his fame, and after reading his “Journals,” published in 2002, that opinion wasn’t changed. It simply provided more evidence and details to confirm my earliest thoughts.

The Positive

I’ll begin with a positive note regarding what was admirable about Cobain. He was driven and he did seem to have a plan which he followed unwaveringly to eventual commercial success. He did what a lot of musicians and bands don’t do but should; he wrote out his vision for Nirvana. He crafted his business mission statement as it was – he thought out his distinct musical identity, his image and the values he wanted to project. He clearly identified his influences and what he wanted to influence his music. He wrote out steps and tactics in his journals. He thought about distribution, exposure, and reaching fans in an era before the internet made this much easier. He didn’t just do this once; as time went by he revisited and revised his plan as he figured out more about his tastes, styles and abilities instead of just drifting aimlessly in a chaotic musical landscape. Sadly, however this one paragraph is all that I found admirable in Cobain’s journals. The rest of his character was tragically flawed, and ventured into dark and evil places.

Obsessed with Grief

The most noticeable character trait displayed in Cobain’s journals is his overwhelming obsession with grief. His early preoccupation with suicide is evident by page 5, written no later than 1989, exclaiming “kill yourself,” a sentiment that is repeated multiple times throughout the Journals. He was fixated on everything “bad” to the point it seems he had no room left in him for joy. He hated everything. He hated himself. He was ashamed to be white, ashamed to be male, and ashamed to be American. I think this grief and self-hatred is the root of all his many other issues. When a person hates himself it leads to an inability to enjoy anything. It leads to nihilism, self abuse and eventually if left untreated to complete self destruction. Kurt Cobain eventually became dark, uninspired, and hopeless.

Obsessed with Division

Cobain was obsessed with creating division in the world. Though he portrayed himself as an advocate for love, tolerance and inclusion, it’s obvious he thrived on strife and division. He was especially preoccupied with creating division between the generations. This seems to originate from his personal issues with his own parents and upbringing. He wasn’t satisfied with his own sense of isolation; he wanted everyone else to feel that isolation too. He hated his parents therefore everyone of his generation should also hate their parents. Misery loves company.

Rape Fetish

Cobain was obsessed with rape, conflating it with traditional masculine sexuality to which he claimed to be opposed. He mentions rape repeatedly. He even imagines himself as a rapist, and writes about a time in high school when he tried to take advantage of a young girl who was considered “retarded,” though supposedly undiagnosed. At a later point he decided it was Nirvana’s job to “teach boys not to rape.” Apparently his method was to write songs like “Polly” and “Rape Me” that are so ineffectual they sound as if they are romanticizing rape. He later acted perplexed when listeners didn’t comprehend these were supposedly “anti-rape” songs.

Between pages 90 and 95 Cobain wrote the most bizarre part of his journals, a story about a fictional serial murderer, rapist a child molester he named Chuck Taylor. Apparently Chuck became this monster due to his father’s influence. It includes a very graphic scene in which Chuck is forced to watch as his father beats, rapes and sodomizes his mother while extolling the virtues of being a “man” and abusing women. In another entry (pg 109) he says he likes to make incisions on an infants’ stomach and then “fuck the incision until the child dies.” It’s another peek into Kurt Cobain’s grotesque dysfunction.

I got the sense that Cobain had a rape and murder fetish that haunted him, contributing to his self-hatred. He related this to himself “as a man,” and projected that upon the idea of masculinity. Since he saw “right wingers” as representing traditional masculinity he could project his sickness and self-hatred onto them as an “other” thereby gaining a false sense of virtue and self-righteousness for hating them instead of addressing his own demons.

Hypocrisy, Self-delusion and Terrorist Advocacy

Hypocrisy was another of Kurt Cobain’s worst traits. In multiple entries, Cobain says that to him “punk rock means freedom.” It’s another recurring thought in his journals. This would seem to be a motive for his hatred for “right-wingers,” because he saw them as trying to restrict his freedoms through pro-life and other religiously based legislation. But he wasn’t very considerate of other people who chose to live in a manner in which he disapproved.

There are multiple entries in which Cobain expressly advocates for and glorifies Left-wing terrorism. Amongst the many examples of people Cobain said he wanted to kill, he wrote a disturbing passage describing how he wanted to go through high schools and put guns to the heads of popular kids and force them to renounced their “gluttonous” lifestyle or be killed (132). He didn’t write this as a frustrated teenager. He was a grown man well into his twenties expressing a desire to murder kids who simply used their freedom to make different choices than he made. Here, Kurt Cobain’s reoccurring hypocrisy is on full display in one of the most disgusting of ways.

Cobain’s writings also show a strange obsession with the KKK and outlandish caricatures of “right wingers” and misogynists. He really was a product of the west-coast’s socio-political atmosphere and ideology which helped warp him into someone who seemed to be barely clinging to his humanity.

Cobain’s self-delusion is most evident when he wrote about his place in the music industry. Of course he wanted to be successful as a musician, but he felt guilty for that so he tried to rationalize his ambition to fit his radical ideology. Rather than honestly admitting he was desirous of fame and fortune, he instead tried to portray his major-label aspirations as some form of punk-rock Trojan horse strategy. He liked to say he was working on the inside to “rot” and destroy the industry, while in reality he was sitting as the cherry on top of Geffen Records, raking in all that gluttonous money he wanted to shoot children for enjoying.

He liked to pretend that he was in polar opposition to the rockstar excesses of the 1980s, but that was really just his form of gluttonous stardom. He wasn’t the wild, pussy slaying, private jet flying party animal. Instead he portrayed himself as the neopunk rock star; prepackaged rebellion, and feigned social consciousness. He knew he was playing a role that didn’t align with his real identity, and he felt pressured by the image he constructed of himself. That kind of cognitive dissonance must certainly be hard to live with.


Lack of Depth

There was a common misconception in the 1990’s that Cobain’s lyrics were mystical script of otherworldly genius that had to be decoded in order to truly perceive their great depth. I never bought it. While I could enjoy the energy of his music, I always thought his lyrics were haphazardly written, sloppily thrown together into a reckless word-salad. In his journals and other interviews he clearly reveals that his lyrics were quite often retched out at the last minute or adlibbed onstage until something stuck. He was frustrated by people who tried to analyze his lyrics because he knew there was nothing there worth analyzing. Cobain’s lyrics seem disjointed and jumbled because they are disjointed and jumbled. He mumbled and slurred a lot of his words because it really doesn’t matter if you understand them. Don’t look for depth and insight in Cobain’s lyrics because there is none.

He Loved His Ignorance

One of the more disappointing aspects of Cobain’s personality is that he preferred to remain ignorant. He mentions repetitively that he is not particularly well educated, and the grammar, and spelling throughout his journals is evidence enough of this. He wrote “I purposefully keep myself naïve and away from earthly information because it’s the only way to avoid a jaded attitude” (pg 125). That’s just dumb. Cobain liked to have strong opinions that resulted in a radical ideology and violent attitude, but didn’t want to actually have the knowledge by which to evaluate those ideas. He preferred to keep his miseducated opinions that fueled his desire to murder children because it made him feel good. Kurt Cobain was an idiot.

To go along with his multiple displays of ignorance and irrationality, Cobain liked to disparage musicians who actually bothered to learn music. He specifically ridiculed Eric Clapton who not only helped to forge modern rock and roll, but also managed to survive the test of time even while battling the same vices (heroin) that Cobain was too weak to overcome. Cobain regurgitated the same clichéd wannabe punk rock jargon that music theory is “bullshit.” The irony seems lost on him when he also complains about not being a very prolific songwriter. He never made the connection that music theory gives a person more tools to work with to create more original music instead of rewriting the same song over and over again while feeling like a fraud. Cobain’s inability to write new, significant music after “In Utero” contributed to his final mental breakdown and eventual suicide. It’s an example of how Cobain consistently made decisions and embraced attitudes that lead him steadily down a path of self-destruction.

To his credit, I suppose, Cobain knew all this about himself and through all his ignorance, hypocrisy, self-deception, delusions and his antisocial personality he freely admitted it. He told us as much in his lyrics.

“I’m a negative creep”
“I’m a liar and a thief”
“I think I’m dumb”
“I hate myself and I want to die.”

Rooted in self-hatred, fear, ignorance, left wing politics and drugs every decision he made was another step toward his early suicide.

Maya Angelou said “When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” Kurt Cobain showed us time and time over again. There is nothing there to be admired.


Keith Richards: Life, a Candid Autobiography

Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography Life is a solid exposé and memoir on the life lived by the Rolling Stones guitarist. Weighing in at 547 pages of narrative, it’s clear that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer intends for the reader to come away with a full picture of himself, not just as a founding member of one of the greatest rock bands in history, but as an individual apart from that legend.

The autobiography kicks off with a scandalous story from the road of when Keith and Stones’ rhythm guitarist Ronnie Wood were arrested with a number of illegal substances in Fordyce, Arkansas in 1975. It’s one of the more exciting stories in the book and it sets the tone for numerous tales of drugs and legal issues to follow it.

After that, Life immediately shifts to Keith’s childhood, adolescence until he meets and begins playing music with Mick Jagger (p. 77). This was the hardest part of the book for me to get through. It seemed overburdened with trivial details about Keith Richards the child. While some meaningful events and information is relayed her such as his initial introduction to music and guitar a lot of it seemed unnecessary, but then it is the story of his life, not just of his adult music career.

This makes for an autobiography that is well balanced between the author’s personal life and ideas and his superstar music career. It’s not written in a manner that tries to glorify the rock and roll lifestyle or to revel in fame, but it doesn’t shy away from it or wrap itself in false humility. Keith opens up and tells us quite a lot of personal information about himself, his origins, his philosophies, his loves, his strengths, and his weaknesses. He writes intently on the subject of music and how he came to it with passion, the origins or the Rolling Stones, his often adversarial friendship with lead singer Mick Jagger, his addiction, resulting arrests and subsequent rehabilitation.

The book is chocked full of stories and candid details. Some of the points I liked the most include the following.


The Rolling Stones didn’t write their first song until 1963 when their manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked Keith and Mick in a kitchen together in Willesden and told them to “come up with a song.” Before that, Keith thought songwriting was someone else’s job. This is easy enough to understand since up until this time in music history it was very common for the songwriters to be different people from the performers. Truthfully before the Beatles made it fashionable popular bands rarely composed any of their own music.

Keith makes it quite clear that there was never any rivalry between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, or between any of their respective members. They were friends. Keith refers to the two bands as being a “mutual-admiration society.” He even says that they would call each other up and plan their single releases so to not compete with each other (pg 141). Any amount of rivalry that may have seemed to exist was nothing more than media hype.

As mentioned above, Keith speaks very candidly about his drug addiction. Early on in his life, Keith experimented with recreational drugs, alcohol and cannabis. He was introduced to amphetamines while on tour in the US with R&B acts including Little Richard and Bo Diddly. He talks a bit about LSD in the 60s and a particular three-day trip he took with John Lennon which was so significant that neither of them could quite remember what all had happened. His terrible addiction to heroin however came about in a far less cavalier manner. It happened the same way it seems to happen with the opiate epidemic plaguing the US today; from an injury and overmedication. He was in a car wreck and afterward was in such pain, having a nurse come to clean his wounds everyday that he was prescribed morphine. After several weeks on the drug he became hooked. When the doctor took him off the medication he had severe withdrawals which he treated with underground opiates and eventually heroin which he continues using for the next several years.

I really love that Keith talks about his experiences with Reggae and Rastafarians in Jamaica where he lived for some time. He speaks very highly of the culture, philosophy and most especially the music of the Rastas he became friends with, and how that was a major influence on him and helped him get his head straight from years of excess.

If gleaned properly there is probably a solid handbook’s worth of advice and information on beginning in music, theories on how to approach playing guitar, songwriting, performing live, recording and band dynamics. Keith doesn’t come across with any rock star pretentiousness to speak of. He does get a little preachy and high minded at points, but otherwise stays well-grounded even when telling tales of times when Keith was anything but grounded.

Life is a thorough trek through the years of Keith Richard’s history. It’s sometimes a little wordy, a bit snide, and long. It isn’t always a page turner, but it does hold a reader’s attention fairly well and it delivers all the juicy, candid details a fan of the Rolling Stones, or just rock and roll history will enjoy.


Motley Crue’s The Dirt Movie is a Wild Ride

The Dirt hit Netflix several days back and it’s pretty killer. I’ve only watched it four times since then.

To say “the book was better” is pretty cliché even if it’s true, but I have to respect the process and the logistics involved in making a film of this scope. It’s difficult to fit a 428 page memoir into an hour and forty minute movie. It’s probably even harder than fitting a 20 year career (at the time of publication) into a 428 page memoire.

I have to say I didn’t have a lot of high expectations for this movie. It’s easy to be cynical. Band biographies are often hit or miss and I didn’t care for some of the updates I saw of The Dirt as it was being produced.

Upon the first viewing, my concerns were mostly squashed. It’s a fun ride through the debauchery and maturing process of one of hard rock’s most notorious and most popular bands. Aside from a few minor timeline issues and some soft-balling of major tragedies, I can’t much complain.

I can easily forgive the timeline issues, as I said above it’s a 20 year career reduced to less than two hours. What more can we expect? We’re even afforded a scene when manager Doc McGee arrives in which guitarist Mick Mars informs us it didn’t actually happen that way. The Dirt acknowledges from within that there’s only so much time to make the important points and still have an entertaining movie.

The Dirt really captures the spirit, the attitude, and more than anything the personalities and the differences between them of the members of Motley Crue as I came to understand them over the more than three decades I’ve been a fan.

We get to see Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) as the dark, angry, creative force that he was and to some extent still is today.

There’s Tommy Lee (Colson Baker) as the young, naive, goofy, party animal he was always known to be.

Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) is as he was the rakish, blond, southern Californian playboy.

Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) is the older, grumpier, dry, no time for bullshit guitar slinger struggling with his crippling degenerative arthritic condition.


Highlights from The Dirt include a scene wherein the early pre-Motley Crue three-piece arrives at a party to try to recruit singer Vince Neil, and the stark contrast between the dark, grungy borderline punks, and the blond, glam rocking lady’s man is almost comedic.

Tommy Lee’s narrated scene on “a day in the life” of a drummer on tour would probably be almost unbelievable for anyone who hadn’t kept up with the reported antics of the band throughout the 80s and some of the 90s. Still, it’s among the funnier parts of the movie.

And of course, the tour with Ozzy Osbourne poolside scene when the Oz snorts a line of ants which is so infamous even The Family Guy had a segment about it is one of the more memorable and entertaining parts of the film.

However, it’s the soft-balling of two major tragic moments that bothers me the most for a movie that is supposed to be a tell-all expose of the best and worst of the Crue’s career.

For starters;
Vince Neil’s tragic car wreck that killed Hanoi Rocks’ drummer Razzle is presented in a far less incriminating light than the actual accident. In the movie it appears as if it was little more than a silly conversation that distracted Neil, causing him to drift into oncoming traffic resulting in a wreck that ended the drummer’s life and stopped Hanoi Rocks in its rise to fame. In reality Vince Neil was very drunk, speeding at 65 mph in a 25 mph zone and swerving around a fire truck when he crossed into oncoming traffic and hit two other vehicles, killing Razzle and permanently crippling the two people in the other vehicle. It was an avoidable tragedy for which Vince only spent 19 days in jail.

Secondly;
Bassist, primary songwriter and visionary of the band, Nikki Sixx’s overdose in the movie is also a gloss job. The movie doesn’t shy away in the least bit from the crippling heroin addiction that nearly killed him. Well, technically it did kill him for about two minutes, but the paramedic managed to get his heart pumping again. Missing from the story is the reportedly cavalier attitude with which he injected the deadly dose. Also missing were the other prominent actors in the scene. It’s fairly well known that Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and drummer Steven Adler were at the party, but the movie completely leaves this out except for a brief shot of a figure strung out on the couch who resembles Slash. It’s a significant point considering it was Slash’s girlfriend Sally McLaughlin who performed mouth-to-mouth on Sixx before the ambulance arrived. Maybe these details were left out of the movie to avoid infringing on the reputation of the other band, but their image as heavy heroin users is well established in Slash’s self-titled autobiography anyway. On top of that, The Dirt didn’t mind depicting Van Halen’s David Lee Roth using cocaine in the band’s party pad earlier in the film.

The Dirt skips almost everything regarding the Crue’s time in rehab, but I didn’t mind because as Vince Neil says in the film “you don’t want to see any of that shit.”

They also skim through the John Corabi years as if it took place over little more than a few months, but since most real Motley Crue fans don’t care much for that period it’s fine. In fact, I can’t name a single song from that album. The main problem is that The Dirt completely neglects Vince Neil’s solo career as if the only thing that happened to him during that time was the tragic death of his daughter, Skylar.

The Dirt is a great ride, and a damn good biopic. It delivers well on the best and worst of Motley Crue’s history. It touches the perspectives of all four members of the band, as well as their manager Doc McGee and it experiments with nontraditional styles of story-telling, with fourth-wall breaking segments, cross-narration, comedy, and very candid representations of some of the darkest points of the bands lives.

Any fan of band biopics should enjoy The Dirt.

A Critique of the Garden of Eden Story in Genesis

The “Garden of Eden” story in the Book of Genesis has always bothered me. It’s not a matter of criticizing this bit of religious legend because I disbelieve in it or the religions which claim it as their own. I’m pretty alright with most forms of the Abrahamic strains and the values they champion in society. I just find this to be poor story telling.

The Earth Always Required Tilling
In Genesis 2:5, God had created a barren Earth, with no vegetation because no rain had yet been sent and no man had yet tilled the soil. God then creates man (2:7), and then God, Himself plants a garden and causes every sort of good and edible plant to grow and then places man in that garden to “till it and tend it” (Gen 2:15).

God Knows He’s Dealing with Humans
In the middle of the garden, God placed the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:9). We can only assume that there was a purpose for God to place the two trees so near each other, but the document never explains if there is any reasoning for this.

God then says; “Of every tree in the garden you are free to eat; but from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat; for as soon as (in the day that) you eat of it, you shall die (Gen 2:16-17).”

Context and audience should be of utmost concern in a narrative in order to understand the intent of God’s instruction. God was talking to a man, and the following verses where God creates a woman to be his companion assure us that it was a male human He was addressing.

And humans die. It’s just what we do.

Despite the standard theological stance that Adam and Eve were created immortal, the document of Genesis never actually makes this statement.

To a human; “If you eat that, you’ll die!” would logically be understood by a human to mean that it is toxic in some way and will kill them within a day or so.

It does not however coincide harmoniously with a statement such as; “I know I put that tree right smack in the middle of your smorgasbord, but if you eat from it I’m going to kick you out of the garden, make you work like a slave, and THEN after 900 years you’ll die.” So God is not quite being fully honest about his intentions or plans involving the man who is being expected to trust Him.


The Serpent is Punished for Telling the Truth
In Chapter 3 verse 1, the shrewd (arummim) serpent shows up, and asks the woman; “Did God really tell you not to eat the fruit from the trees in this garden?” And the woman explains that it is from the tree of knowledge of good and evil that the humans are not allowed to eat or even touch because they will die.

The serpent says; “You are not going to die, but god knows that as soon as you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will become like divine beings who know good from bad.” Once again it is a human being addressed here. It is a fact that death is a natural part of the human condition and Genesis does not suggest otherwise.

So with full consideration for the participants in the dialogue of the storyline we can address the statements being made in proper context.

First of all when asked if it was true that God had forbidden them to eat the fruit of the garden, Eve answered that if they even touch it they would die. This is obviously an inaccurate statement and the serpent informs Eve of such.

The truth turns out to be precisely as the serpent states it; the fruit does not kill them, it opens their eyes to the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, modesty from immodesty. These are all traits valued by civilization.

There is no evidence for a rational accusation of deception on which to indict the serpent. On the contrary, the only information we have on him is that every statement he makes in Genesis can be substantiated within the text.

The story does not tell us whether or not the serpent knew how God would react to their eating of the fruit. This seems like a vital plot detail to be left out if this was how the author intended it to be understood.

But God does react, doesn’t He? Upon finding Adam and Eve clothed in modesty because they ate from the tree of knowledge and now were wise like gods, the man’s integrity automatically collapses as he blames his wife.

God then confronts Eve and she alleges that the snake duped her. This accusation has no merit. All of the serpent’s statements have been solid, but God does not even take a statement from the serpent. Instead God just curses him.

Still there has been no explanation as to why God put that tree in the garden in the first place if he didn’t want humans to eat from it.

There is a mighty intelligent reptile in this story, though. Perhaps the tree was there for the animals to eat and learn good from evil, but not for humans?. How else could the serpent have been so wise?

Are the Curses Really Curses?
The next thing God does is curse the woman with painful childbirth and then the ground with difficult tending. Here we see elements from an ancient fertility cult. It’s fairly common in most indigenous religions and philosophies to see a connection between agricultural cycles and female reproduction, so it is a natural connection to make between more difficult childbirth and more difficult farming.

However, this unfortunate obstacle only requires human ingenuity to develop agriculture in order to overcome it. Tilling the soil is something that the ground required anyway (Gen 2:5) and something Adam was doing already (Gen 2:15).

The discovery or invention of agriculture is the main driving force for civilization and necessarily leads to food surpluses, vocational specialization, the market, economics and an overall higher standard of living. It’s difficult to view this as a bad thing. But then it’s also difficult to see acquiring knowledge of good and evil, morality and immorality as being a bad thing.

God says; “by the sweat of your brow you shall get your bread to eat until you return to the ground from which you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return (3:19).”

This curse does not really imply that death is anything new. It sounds more like the type of thing that might come during a breakup or a domestic dispute; “You’re going to work lousy job’s your whole life! You’re nothing but dirt anyway! You came from dirt and you’re always going to be dirt!”

Certainly none of this should be taken literally. I think it was never intended to be anything more than a deeply thought-provoking story to teach community values through proto-historical metaphor and allegory. It’s just poor story telling.


Dr. John: Under a Hoodoo Moon, Review

The funky bluesman Mac Rebennack, otherwise known by his stage name Dr. John is a much-honored part of the cultural fabric that is 20th and 21st century New Orleans.  His autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon chronicles Rebennack’s life from his time as a child coming of age in The Big Easy, through a young struggling musician’s career, and eventually building a legacy as one of America’s most treasured musical icons.

Under a Hoodoo Moon is written in a loose manner with a bit of Rebennack’s New Orleans vernacular, giving it a sense of authenticity and the playfulness that is characteristic of funk music in general and New Orleans music specifically.  The book for the most part follows a linear path, but it repeatedly backtracks to cover stories that Rebennack decided were more relevant at a later point in time. In some cases this seems like a less efficient method, but it does not detract from the overall presentation.

At times Rebennack’s story seems to focus more on the development of his career, business associations, projects and the politics surrounding the music industry, without any emphasis on the personal, philosophical, emotional and inspirational experiences that contributed to the making of the man.  Then he very candidly writes about his struggle with heroin addiction that plagued him for thirty years until he finally kicked it in 1989, but not before doing a stint in Louisiana “Angola” State Penitentiary.  In his writings, it seems Dr. John tended to compartmentalize his professional activities from his more illicit affairs. He introduces the reader to an assortment of characters, hustlers, and junkies along with the musicians he calls family.

In his early days, Rebennack paid the bills by gigging with racially integrated bands at a point in American history when such groups were technically outlawed, and by working as a session musician for countless popular acts. He paints a picture of a golden era of New Orleans music in the 1950s and early 60s before the musicians unions caused so many problems which drove national recording acts to take their business to other cities such as Memphis and Los Angeles.

In 1965, after Rebennack was released from prison, with the music scene dead in New Orleans he too set out for the west coast.  In California he made contact with several colleagues from back home and began working as a session musician with many of the top acts of the day.  These included The Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Sonny and Cher, the O’Jays, Frank Zappa, and Iron Butterfly just to name a few. Dr. John offers some interesting and often humorous observations about some of these acts and his experiences working with them.

During his tenure in Hollywood Rebennack created and adopted the persona of Dr. John, a New Orleans hoodoo medicine man from the 1860s and recorded his ground-breaking Gris Gris album. This is a point in the story where more strictness toward a linear narrative would have improved upon this biography.

Though Dr. John rose to fame on the popularity of Gris Gris with all its voodoo and hoodoo imagery, there is very little in the first two-thirds of the book about his experiences with those traditions.  Up until this point what is mentioned amounts to a brief reference to making goofer dust, a companion burning a black candle to curse the police during a drug score, and more humorously a brief description of a joint ritual in California with another musician who practiced Aleister Crowley styled ceremonial magic in order to curse a producer who had screwed them both in a deal.  It’s not until chapter nine, well after he covers the recording of Gris Gris that Dr. John goes into any detail about his personal connection to a Voodoo temple, and his investment in a voodoo curio shop in New Orleans which really inspired the album.

Under a Hoodoo Moon is a great read, and also provides a fair bit of ethnographic gems covering the roots of the New Orleans musical tradition. He describes his first experiences with the Black Indian Tribes, Mardi Gras Krewes that competed for marching routes during the annual Mardi Gras festivities and pioneered second-line drumming that gives New Orleans music much of its uniqueness.  He also dedicates a significant chunk near the end of the book to speaking nostalgically and reverentially about his time playing with Professor Longhair, the New Orleans pianist who had more influence upon him than anyone else.

I enjoyed reading every page.

          


The Ten Grandmothers; Epic of the Kiowas by Alice Marriot – Book Review

The Ten Grandmothers covers the history of the transition of Kiowa culture during roughly a 100 year period between 1847 and 1944 in an epic linear narrative.  As a work of history and anthropology, this book reads as compellingly as good fiction, with the profound depth of meaning as mythology.

The chapter Going Away was the most compelling to me.  This chapter takes place in 1883 with Grass Stem, the son of Hunting Horse and Spear Woman.  Once Grass Stem emerged from the school house in his blue trousers and white shirt, with his hair cut, his earrings removed and with the new name Stanley Hunt, it was clear that Kiowa life had changed permanently.  Nothing else up to this point in the book had quite the same impact regarding the changes to Kiowa life, not the coming of the first white traders, not the near extinction of the buffalo, not even the ending of the Sundance.  At the point Grass Stem is renamed, we get a glimpse not only of what has been lost in Kiowa culture, but the future of it.

            

The Ten Grandmothers is written in a literary style that reminds me of one of my favorite books, Seven Arrows by Hyemeyohsts Storm.  It similarly follows the interactions of the Cheyenne, Crow and Sioux in a mythologized fashion over a period of several generations from before the arrival of the white man.  It progresses into the modern era using the old stories and the symbolism of the Sundance in order to convey the teachings of the Medicine Wheel.

Being written from a multi-generational perspective within the same families is what makes The Ten Grandmothers so effective in capturing the sense of change and adaptation from the freedom of life on the prairie to the 20th century.

The story ends with a strong sense of melancholy nostalgia as Spear Woman recounts all the events of the past to her granddaughter while they make their way to the buffalo park.  The buffalo have returned, only this time they are raised behind the fence, like the Kiowa.  And their appearance at the end of the book serves as a beacon that there is an as of yet unwritten future for both the buffalo and the Kiowa.

First Fieldwork; the misadventures of an anthropologist

First Fieldwork; the misadventures of an anthropologist by Barbara Gallatin Anderson

First Fieldwork is a first-person account of the author, Barbara Anderson’s experiences and misfortunes as an anthropologist in the field during her graduate thesis.  Although fictionalized, it is a clear testament to the perils of being an anthropologist thrust unprepared into the field.

During her fieldwork studying the effects of urbanization upon a small Danish Island village, Anderson is faced with challenge after challenge to fitting into the regular patterns and expectations of the people.  From the beginning she nearly catches her family’s cottage on fire.  As a means of better adjusting to the community she takes a cooking class, only to quit the course due to a series of embarrassing episodes beginning with a disastrous meatloaf resulting form her mistaking the Danish word for flour for the word for sugar.

        

I was especially amused by the chapter about the Danish bathhouse in Copenhagen.  A situation like this, without much knowledge of the culture or the language is a perfect example of just how alien one can be even within another Western country.  And just as the bath attendant announced to the other patrons in the pool as Anderson entered; “Here comes an American lady” could just as easily have been the second title for this book, perhaps with “Look out!” preceding it.

Overall First Fieldwork was an entertaining read with insights into fieldwork and the potential problems to be encountered as profound as they are humorous.  The lesson for me was that although fieldwork can include a series of embarrassing and uncomfortable events, it is often those very things that can be of the most value in learning to effectively navigate and describe a culture.


Ishmael, An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit: Book Review

Quinn, Daniel (1992) Ishmael, An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit, New York: Bantam/Turner Books

Daniel Quinn’s award winning novel Ishmael is a compelling exposition of the author’s social and political perspective through the eyes of a gorilla.  The essential theme upon which the book is written is one that lays the blame of all our modern political and environmental perils squarely on the shoulders of the Neolithic agricultural revolution. The author’s reasoning is that agriculture is the beginning of human exploitation of the earth, other species and cultures.  Quinn further asserts that the world’s modern industrial agricultural society is unsustainable and destined to disaster. With these two premises established Quinn’s argument next follows that if the human race and the earth are to survive for much longer, industrial society will have to transform itself into a less exploitative culture. Ishmael­ has inspired an entire cult following of neotribalists desirous of bringing Quinn’s vision of a post-industrial society established on low impact kin based communities to life.

From its very first page Ishmael swiftly moves forward with a sense of purpose and profundity. As the story opens Quinn describes the unnamed narrator’s disgust at reading an ad in the personals section of the newspaper: “TEACHER seeks student. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” The narrator expresses his sense of disillusionment at this presumptuous author whom he figures is just another charlatan marketing a worn out fashion statement as a social and spiritual revolution. This opening acts as a hook that catches the reader by the sensation of a social revolutionary disillusioned from the experiences of one flaccid effort after another, never truly offering or accomplishing anything substantially alternative to the status quo. Although skeptical of this self-appointed guru, our unnamed narrator still decides to investigate the charlatan he’s sure he’ll meet.  Surprisingly, the guru is not a man at all, but a gorilla named Ishmael capable of deep philosophical thought and communication. The lesson he seeks to impart is an accounting of the collision course upon which he sees the human race and that which he believes is the remedy for it.

The blurring of reality and absurdity is implicit in the author’s narrative bringing to life the remarkably believable character of Ishmael. The author’s deep use of metaphor begins at the title of the book and the gorilla’s name.  Ishmael stands as a representative, a spokesman of sorts for the natural order of the earth, flora and fauna.  While the gorilla had lived in a menagerie he began to became self aware and learned to recognize a certain sound as referring to him; Goliath.  The name is strongly indicative of the manner in which gorillas, great apes, wild animals and the natural world is typically viewed by modern humans; a degraded, threatening, crude philistine to be conquered by our heroic civilization. But when Mr. Sokolow upon encountering the animal announces to him “You are not Goliath,” he is making a profound statement about his rejecting the greater society’s perception of the world.  This statement is further expounded by the name which Mr. Sokolow instead chooses to bestow upon him. Transformed from the image of the hulk which tormented the Israelites Goliath is renamed Ishmael; the disinherited son of Abraham who through no fault of his own was cast out from the Israelite race, deemed as little more than “a wild ass of a man.”

        

Ishmael explains that all of the modern nations of the world whether England, Russia or China are descendants of these exploitative agriculturalists whom he designates Takers. Takers are acting out a myth that places them at the top of creation as the owners of the earth.  A different myth is being acted out by the few societies who exist in distant tribes and bands still living similarly to the pre-agricultural Mesolithic hunters and gatherers whom he designates Leavers.  Leavers do not see themselves as the masters of the earth, but as part of it. A society is always governed by a mythic theme and the difference between these two myths could not be more different.  The reason Ishmael says that all our social and political revolutions have failed to stop our eventual demise is because they have all failed to reject the Taker myth and simultaneously embrace the Leaver myth.

Ishmael explains that Nazi Germany was the inevitable result of the Taker’s myth being acted out and that this myth is still being acted out through the entire civilized world’s perception of, and behavior toward the natural environment. With the gorilla as instructor we are taught that the human race broke away from a sort of mystical interspecies ecological brotherhood, setting their selves and the world on a collision course to destruction by setting themselves up as gods who know the difference between good and evil, with the power to decide who should live and who should die.  Ishmael, the gorilla even uses the Genesis creation story as an example of a misinterpreted and incorrectly practiced narrative that has served to misalign the human race with the earth. The biblical fall in the garden, according to our gorilla mentor is really a story by which our pre-agricultural pastoralist contemporaries illustrated this severing from the natural order.  Once humans settled down and cultivated enough food to support a growing population they became warlike and expansive.

While generally well thought out and reasonable in his approach, there are several points in Ishmael’s interpretation of events that must be questioned.  He characterizes the farmers as the culture that victimizes the herding people’s and extinguishes all the other species, including the predators in their environment while completely exonerating herders for the destruction they also cause in the world.  Many forests have also been destroyed in order to create pasture land to feed the herds.  And there is after all a reason western folklore has always depicted the wolf as the antagonist of the shepherd.  Aside from this and a few other bits of artistic license taken by the author, Ishmael is a engaging book that stimulates deep reflection on our relationship with the earth now and throughout history.  To describe the course of our eventual demise Ishmael uses the image of a primitive, non-aerodynamic plane on its test flight plummeting toward the earth while the pilot looks down at the ground rushing up at him and says “well, it’s gotten me this far, no sense abandoning it now.”

Though classified as a novel, the majority of Ishmael takes the form of a dialogue between the unnamed narrator and the gorilla guru.  The message Ishmael hopes to impart to the world is that the human race’s only hope in continuing to survive lies in rejecting the myth of the Takers and embracing the myth of the Leavers.  The novel ends on somber tone, but one that imparts a motivating hopefulness and a sense of urgency.  Ishmael is an excellent book which should be read by everyone looking for real alternatives to the modern political and ecological turmoil engulfing the world.  We’re an inventive species.  It’s time to invent.


Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto: A Review

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1964 (orig. 1884), Washington Square Press, New York

Marxism is the bedrock and foundation of communism.  This tyrannical philosophy did not meet its end with the demise of the Soviet Union.  It is still very much an active threat to liberty today.  Proponents of Marxism seek to undermine capitalism at all points and they have learned to use the political system expertly to achieve their aims. What are those aims?  To centralize all authority over your life and finances in the hands of an all-powerful and uncompromising state, seeking global domination.

Marxism and the theory of communism are rooted in the essay Bourgeoisie and Proletarians by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, found in the Communist Manifesto, first published in 1884.

Class Warfare

The primary theme of Marxism is class warfare.  Marx opens his essay with the bold and all-encompassing  statement that the entire history of “all hitherto existing society” [later revised to exclude traditional “native” societies] is characterized by class struggles.  In short, there is always, in all situations class antagonism between an oppressor and an oppressed.  Modern “capitalist” society, he says is no different from medieval society. Instead of titles like “lord” and “serf,” we now have a dichotomous class distinction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  The only solution, Marx says is open and “violentrevolution.

bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie is initially defined as “the class of modern capitalists, owners of means of social production and employers of wage-labor” (57), but is eventually revealed to also include the middle class property owner. The bourgeoisie are driven by economic and technological development.  The historical development in these areas created “industrial millionaires”—the bourgeoisie, successful business people responsible for toppling Feudalism and creating a society where technology and education are available to all. Instead of creating a more liberated society however, Marx claims the bourgeoisie have only created “new forms of oppression.”  Marx believed that Representative government only serves to manage the affairs of the bourgeoisie.

                

proletariat

The proletariat is defined as “the class of modern wage-laborers who, having no means of their own, are reduced to selling their labor in order to live” (57).  Marx presents the idea of an isolated working class, a people without hope of improving their lives.  Marx argues that workers are enslaved by the bourgeoisie, most especially the manufacturer.  Once the worker has been paid by his employer, “he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.” (70).

The proletariat is supposed to represent the “immense majority” who own no property and supposedly have no power or control over their lives.  Their mission in life is to enviously destroy the property and wealth of those who do.  Marx explains that as wealth becomes concentrated in fewer hands, the bourgeoisie is shrinking in number.  Those who washout of the bourgeoisie, become proletarians (since Marxist theory only allows for these two “classes”).  These washouts “boost the intellectual acumen” of the proletariat.  Marx also recognizes that the “social scum” may be absorbed into the movement as a “bribed tool.”

Luddism

The bourgeoisie constantly strive for progress, causing older, less efficient methods of production to be replaced by newer, more advance technologies. Marx denigrates this, claiming that the economic value of labor is decreased because technological advancement makes jobs easier to perform.  Marx complains that this has caused women’s labor in bourgeois society to be worth as much or more than a man’s. He decries the fact that industrialism has put people on equal economic footing despite age or sex.  He also complains that technology has caused the world to become more integrated with disparate countries now sharing in each other’s cultures.

Modern industry offers commodities at such inexpensive prices that demand is created by the people’s  desire to obtain these inexpensive goods.  With the increase in industry, the proletariat grows and becomes concentrated in greater numbers.  Due to competition in the workforce, wages fluctuate, requiring worker’s unions to develop in order to keep wages at a fixed minimum.  On occasion riots are necessary to further the proletarian cause.

Technological advancement in the traffic of information has allowed the proletariat to interact to the degree that they can now more quickly and efficiently organize themselves into a political party.  Since the bourgeoisie has created an environment in which technology and education are available to all, the proletariat must now use those benefits against them to destroy the very source of those benefits.

Violent Revolution

The ultimate goal of Marxism is violent communist revolution.  The first goal of the proletariat is to stage a successful revolution in their own countries, and then unite throughout the world in order to create a communist world order.  Marx explained that the score can only be settled when “that war breaks out into open revolution and where that violent  overthrow or the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat ” (p 77).  To accomplish this, the proletariat must first organize themselves into a class and “wrest all capital, by degrees, from the bourgeoisie,” and “centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state” (p 93, emphasis added).

Statism

In order to support and maintain this statism, Marx planned to destroy the family by replacing home education with social education (p 89), and abolishing all personal property and inheritance.  He also planned to abolish countries,  nationality and all “eternal truths,” all religion, and all morality including Freedom and Justice (p 92, emphasis added).  In order to accomplish this goal: “Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” (p 116).

Conclusion

This is Marxism at its core: class warfare based on the politics of envy.  It looks toward an omnipotent state to manage the affairs of the people.  Marxism’s long-term goal is global communism, and the abolition of national identity.  It is anti-freedom and scoffs at ideas like justice, and  morality.  It views technological advancement as a detriment to society and ignores any concept of personal responsibility for the proletariat. This ideology is covertly and sometimes naively promoted under various liberal pseudonyms, often uncited in order to avoid the stigma of the word “Marxist.”  It is quite possibly the most dangerous philosophy at work in society today, especially for people who value freedom, independence, and justice.

The Communist Manifesto ends with these words: “Working men of all countries unite!”

Rabbi Daniel Lapin and the Secret to Jewish Success

Lapin, Rabbi Daniel (2010) Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money, Second Edition, Hoboken, John Wiley and Sons Inc.

LapinThou Shall Prosper is a fascinating exploration into wealth creation among Jews and the values within Jewish communities that encourage financial success.  It is organized into 10 separate chapters, titled commandments in imitation of the Laws given to Moses.  Written by Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi motivated by a desire to research and catalog the cultural traits that have contributed to this, making them available to all people.  The book promotes what Rabbi Lapin calls Ethical Capitalism.

I have always been fascinated by the subject of Jewish success.  It only takes a little attention to notice that Jews are disproportionately successful in business and finance than any other ethnic group in the United States, if not the world.  As Rabbi Lapin explains, this is not to suggest that there are no poor Jews.  But as the most consistently oppressed people throughout 3,000 years of history, the Jewish people could easily have been expected to cease existing altogether.  But they haven’t, and wherever Jews are afforded the slightest opportunity they tend to thrive.

Rabbi Lapin points out that Jews represent less than 2% of the American population, but in any given year may represent as much as 25% of the names on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans.  Jewish households are also twice as likely to be wealthy as those of non-Jews.  This is a remarkable phenomenon that deserves to be explored and hopefully explained.

Anti-Semitic conspiracy enthusiasts might see all this as evidence of Jewish misdeed in acquiring wealth.* However, genuine social scientists understand that a better explanation lays in some set of cultural values being perpetuated within Jewish communities.  Personally, I have always seen this as admirable, like a mystery to be unraveled.  That’s why, when I found this book on the shelf, I didn’t have to think very long before I happily handed the clerk $24.95 (plus tax) and walked out the door with the book under my arm, ready to read.

Foreseeing the anti-Semitic arguments, early in the introduction Rabbi Lapin debunks the idea of Jews operating jointly as some sort of cabal, plotting their dominance over society.  In fact, Rabbi Lapin explains that Jewish communities are typically just as dysfunctional and full of conflict as most others.

Rabbi Lapin makes many points along the way regarding wealth, Jews, and the world, all of which are worth some serious consideration.

Education is Key

Lapin illustrates early on that education is very important to being successful in business and finance.  Jews, though not necessarily any “smarter” naturally than non-Jews tend to place a lot of value on literacy and a love of books.  Conversely however, Rabbi Lapin suggests that people holding advanced degrees are not necessarily more likely to achieve wealth.  They tend to do poorly with money, and often seek employment at universities rather than focusing on financial independence.

Popular Culture Promotes Poverty

Rabbi Lapin tackles the fallacy embraced by so many in society that business, business people, and money are somehow bad.  He illustrates how “movies and television conspire to make you poor,” showing that since the 1970s, business people are portrayed as villains twice as often as any other demographic.  The constant pushing of this message has effectively brainwashed the viewing public into accepting the narrative.  He confronts this fallacy by explaining that most wealthy business professionals have actually made their wealth by enhancing the lives of consumers.

Lapin also explains that popular culture vilifies wealth, but admires immoral behavior.  He illustrates this last point by showing that many of People magazine’s “Greatest Love Stories of the Century” were in fact cases of marital infidelity.

You Are Already in Business

Perhaps the most valuable lesson in Thou Shall Prosper, is one that is also asserted by many other successful people: the importance of understanding that we are already in business.  By virtue of being alive and independent, our lives are our businesses, whether we realize it or not.  We may even have a board of directors, such as our friends or family whom we ask for advice or guidance in financial matters.  Moving forward with this logic, I suppose we can count our spouses, children, or other dependants as our shareholders so to speak.  By illustrating this, Rabbi Lapin further explains the importance of not being a wage slave.

                   

Make Friends and Contribute to Charity

Wealth is created through human interaction.  In order to be successful in business it is imperative that one have a large network of friends that can help encourage you on your path to prosperity.  Rabbi Lapin does not suggest you should attend business oriented breakfasts and luncheons to make these acquaintances.  Such gatherings, he says are too full of self interest, yours as well as the other attendants.  Instead he recommends joining civic service organizations like the Rotary club.  He also recommends donating heavily to charity.  This sort of contribution raises your consciousness, and may contribute to a karmic increase in our own wealth.

Value the Wisdom of the Ancestors and Ancients

It is important to value ancient literature and history.  This helps you to see patterns in time and human nature, and to gauge the future in order to set goals.  This is not just a Jewish trait.  Many Asian businessmen also apply lessons learned from ancient Taoist, and Buddhist literature to their financial plans and aspirations.

Meditation and Reflection

Regularly disconnecting yourself from daily distractions like television, radio, and other external influences is imperative.  This allows you to clear your head and take notice of things that you might have otherwise overlooked or ignored.  These may be useful thoughts and fully formed ideas.  These are all things that can help you more accurately foretell and plan for the future.  Set aside a regular time and day for such activities during which you can be alone, away from distractions in order to do nothing but reflect on trends, ideas, and set goals.

These are only a few examples of the remarkable lessons that can be found in this profound book, but it only scratches the surface.

Thou Shall Prosper by Rabbi Daniel Lapin is not a typical book on business.  It’s much more than that.  This is a book of finance, philosophy, religion, history, sociology, and self-improvement.  Much like any classic work of philosophy, and like the Torah by which much of this book is inspired, Thou Shall Prosper is not just a one time read.  It’s the type of book that needs to be read, reread, thumbed through, and meditated upon multiple times over in order to get the fullest use out of it.  I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to improve their life financially and spiritually.

* It is unfortunate that I or Rabbi Lapin would even feel a need to mention this, but due to the nature of the real world (and anyone who has spent any time on the internet will know), it must be addressed.