Two Biographies of Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema’s Theoretical Analyst

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy    Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard

Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux 2004)

Richard Brody, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (Metropolitan Books 2008)


Two biographers have written substantial books on filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.  Despite a common focus on the same biographical subject, and a shared belief that Godard is one of the most important filmmakers of his time or maybe ever, the two writers take markedly different approaches with equally different levels of success.

Godard, of course, was a Swiss-French filmmaker who transitioned from a circle of post World War II cinephiles to a leading director in the French nouvelle vague [new wave] movement in the late 1950s.  His cinematic style was revolutionary.  His ideas about the nature of cinema were inscribed into his works.  He broke all the rules of cinema, from editing to framing, in a kind of ongoing scientific analysis of the form itself that restated classic cinema with streaks of modernism.  Like many of his nouvelle vague compatriots he worked largely with low budgets, to preserve a degree of artistic freedom from producers.  He shot mostly on location and with scripts often devised during shooting.  After a series of critically lauded films through the mid-1960s, many starring his first wife Anna Karina and filmed by cameraman Raoul Coutard, Godard entered a militant period in which he rejected commercial cinema.  He made collaborative films with French Maoists, then turned to television and video projects in the mid 1970s.  He “returned” to commercial film in the late 1970s, and has remained a critically lauded outsider as he became an octogenarian.  His audiences had dwindled.  Yet he continued to provoke and expand the possibilities of his chosen medium with new projects.  Among his notable later works was a massive and sui generis video project on the history of cinema and the history of the 20th Century released in the late 1990s.  An irascible and sometimes misunderstood person, the recent biographies offer impossibly different accounts of the man behind the films.  Only one ultimately proves reliable though.

MacCabe brings a comprehensive classical education to bear on Godard’s work.  He places Godard in a deep fabric of artistic and political endeavors stretching back centuries.  Most fundamentally he provides an explicit analysis of the ideologies Godard adopted in his work, and relates them to his influences and the times and places in which he lived.  Personal details are provided only to an extent minimally necessary for an understanding of Godard’s attitudes and ideals.  Though perhaps a few possibly unflattering details are omitted.  MacCabe also proves an eloquent writer. Take his statement on the motivations of directors like the young Godard:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that the history of the cinema is the history of a plot by shy unprepossessing and sex-obsessed men to surround themselves with heartrendingly beautiful women.” (p. 123)

MacCabe elucidates the way Godard the film critic established the framework of his cinematic vision, one that is fundamentally an analysis of the nature of cinema.  He highlights Godard’s writing while at the journal Cahiers du Cinema that, in hindsight, posits the truth of Godard’s personality (TiNe) and worldview (gauchiste).  Discussing one such article, MacCabe probe’s Godard’s conception of cinema in relation to reality:

“What Godard emphasizes — a point that [André] Bazin makes in his almost exactly contemporaneous article on Stalin — is that the cinema is not just a representation of reality, but becomes part of the reality itself.” (p. 72)

This point tends to attract people like Godard.  It is a restatement of a point elaborated at length by Alfred Korzybski, who formulated the issue thusly:

“The map is not the territory; the map doesn’t cover all of the territory; and the map is self-reflexive (it becomes part of the territory).” Science and Sanity (1933)

Portions of the book on Godard’s formative experiences establishing new grounds for film criticism with staff of the journal Cahiers du Cinema and his engagement with Henri Langlois’s famous contextual juxtapositions through screenings by the film archive Cinémathèque Française simply crackle with energy.  One feels Godard’s excitement.  But this reveals also the concepts that his cohorts imparted to him and his work.  Crucial is a new view of authorship in cinema, which separated Godard not only from other filmmakers and critics but also made a unique contribution by cinema to the arts as a whole.  In it, the audience’s perspective steps forward.

“One locates one’s author not by ignoring the specificity of his artistic medium, but by emphasizing it. . . . Cahiers’s author theory is the only theory of the author which is formulated from the point of view of the audience, and indeed explicitly formulated as a method to move from the position of the audience to that of the artist.” (p. 75)

This concept returns later in the book, transitioning to the legal and political sphere where audience rights are not recognized.

“Godard precisely understands copyright as a crucial artistic and political issue.  Most legal discussions turn around differences between the French and the Anglo-Saxon systems, with the French being held to favour the author, while the Anglo-Saxon favours the owner of the copyright.  What differences there are pale into insignificance beside the fact that neither system allows the audience any rights whatsoever.” (p. 301)

Brody, writing with MacCabe’s book already published, focuses on factual detail.  While Brody did interview Godard (* read on), most of the contents of Everything Is Cinema come from archival research and a few new interviews, mostly of those who lived and worked around Godard.  His book therefore functions most effectively in cataloging existing materials on Godard, organized chronologically around Godard’s various professional projects.  There are chapters addressing each of Godard’s films.  Readers can locate relevant sections in relation to particular works, as they are viewed, and review the citations to find relevant materials.  This is quite unlike MacCabe’s approach, which unabashedly favors certain films with longer, more in-depth treatments, and mentions others only in passing.  Footnotes are minimal.  Another thing that Brody does is draw out (and embellish?) the more lurid details of Godard’s personal life, which MacCabe largely passes over.  There is something of a prudish tabloid quality to Brody’s treatment that MacCabe explicitly tried to avoid.  And Brody’s tone is like much other writing in The New Yorker magazine (where he is a film critic and editor), burdened with the same arrogant, self-satisfied, self-important conservatism masquerading as mildly left-of-center liberalism that is taken entirely for granted.

Brody’s presentation tries to extrapolate the larger meaning of Godard’s work from very selective factual detail of Godard’s private life.  In this way, Brody attempts to remove Godard’s own perspective from the analysis of Godard’s work.  MacCabe, in complete contrast, tends to see Godard’s private life as offering little directly useful information about his professional work (with a few notable exceptions for his pre-professional youth, at a high level, and certain later incidents where his public and private life merge), and instead directly engages the public side of Godard’s work on its own. To the extent that Brody draws conclusions, he draws them from the catalogued facts as filtered through his own ideological position.  He seems to make his case by drawing a conclusion first, picking only the facts that support that conclusion, and then drawing a “connection” from that subset of facts to the predetermined conclusions.  The reasons he draws his initial conclusions are not probed in any meaningful way.  Brody’s approach is overarchingly to try to associate Godard with disfavored groups.  Critic Adrian Martin wrote that Brody seems to have an axe to grind, and his research focuses only on supporting certain accusations (namely, alleged anti-semitism and misogyny) but not testing them against potentially contradictory facts (or recognizing a lack of factual support).  This is the central basis for the (many) claims by critics that Brody tries to smear Godard.

On the substantive analysis of Godard’s work, many have complained that Brody overextends himself in viewing all of Godard’s work as an expression of autobiographical fiction.  A damning review by Bill Crohn dismisses Brody’s biography as “cultural journalism”, and cites a New York Times letter to the editor that castigates Brody’s “ideological simplifications and biographical reductivism”.  Crohn also details a host of factual errors and blatant factual distortions, along the lines of Martin’s critique.  But the complaint about reductionism is at the heart of the matter.  Brody returns endlessly to his thesis that Godard’s films should be viewed as strictly autobiographical:

King Lear gathers in one film all of Godard’s preoccupations from this period, and does so in an extremely original, albeit elusive, form.  It . . . was centered on Godard’s self-mythologizing in and through cinema and his recuperation and redefinition of the grand tradition of art by way of the cinema.  As such, King Lear is something of a personal manifesto . . . .”  (p. 491-92)

This very much recalls the work of lesser biographers, like Terry Teachout with Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2009), which can be viewed as writing a biography as a book-length argument that jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s anachronistic later recordings like “Hello, Dolly!” are important, or Joseph Dofman’s Thorstein Veblen and His America (1934), which has been, somewhat belatedly, criticized for projecting the biographer’s own insecurities onto his biographical subject by extrapolating from dubiously selected facts from Veblen’s private personal life.  No one will doubt that there is an autobiographical element to Godard’s work.  Yet Brody’s one-dimensional, reductionist approach takes it as just about the only element that matters.  It seems like an excuse to justify Brody’s own taste amongst Godard’s works — a bit like Teachout with Armstrong, he seems to want to build up a reason why his personal favorite works are “really” Godard at his best.  Brody is entitled to his opinions, but opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.  Brody’s views fizzle on their own.  Alongside other views, the self-interested moralizing of Everything Is Cinema becomes much more clear.  The claims of anti-semitism are one such area.  Brody seems to have a difficult time separating anti-zionism (which is not anti-semitic) from anti-semitism.  This is Brody’s failing, not Godard’s (who has explicitly drawn this distinction).  People with personalities like Godard love to mock those they consider intellectual inferiors by forcing them to read between the lines with veiled insults.  To that end, when Brody visited Godard in Europe to interview him, Godard snubbed him, and sarcastically mocked his poor interviewing skills.  Reviewer Bill Crohn went so far as to say that Brody’s mean-spirited and distorted bio may have been framed as revenge against Godard for that incident.

MacCabe instead tries to convey Godard’s ideological position, and to contextualize it, and through that filter restricts the raw volume of historical facts presented.  There is never any feeling that more facts would alter MacCabe’s conclusions, because his perspective aligns with the basic course of Godard’s work and career.  This is what is most strikingly different in Brody’s account as compared to MacCabe’s.  Brody does not engage his own ideology explicitly.  In his relentless provision of “facts”, usually relating to the private sphere of his subject, he rarely if ever explains the nature of his own frame of reference.  In attempting to adopt a neutral and “objective” journalistic stance, he makes a play to impose his subjective position on the reader through an emphasis on lurid gossip of doubtful reliability.  This does not sit well.

MacCabe is prone to sweeping statements to elaborate ideological positions, conflicts, and milestones, in cinema and other arts.  For instance, his take on modernism as an element in Godard’s work and a factor that shapes the disposition of Godard and his place within the fabric of the artistic world, provides a unquestionably succinct summary:

“Modernism is most familiarly known as the turning of the focus on to the form and medium of art itself.  *** The paradox of modernism is thus that it offers a totally democratic view of art — the determination to turn every aspect of both world and self into matter for art — in forms which require a level of attention and commitment which limits the audience to a mere handful.”  (pp. 278-79).

But statements like these are explicit in MacCabe’s writing.  And they dazzle and delight with their wit and cutting insight.  He presents them in the context of ongoing debates.  The reader can agree or disagree, complete with some sense of where to look for contrasting viewpoints.

MacCabe is direct in stating that he is an unabashed Godard partisan.  He writes in the first person to explain his favorite films and to recount periodic interactions with Godard.  He thinks Godard’s best works are Passion (1982), Le Mépris [Contempt] (1963) and Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998), with a sentimental attachment to Made in U.S.A. (1966).  Brody states that he thinks Godard is among the best film directors, but clearly despises the man himself and spends most of his biography dredging up (if not fabricating outright) tabloid “dirt”.  He favors King Lear (1987) (having identified it as the very best in his list of the ten greatest films ever, while MacCabe says it fails to integrate some excellent constituent parts) and Eloge de l’amour [In Praise of Love] (2001) (which he rates as the best film of its decade).  Notice how MacCabe separates out his own views and sentimental attachments from an independent context of critical significance, while Brody posits that his personal views are what defines critical importance?  This is why MacCabe’s writing is superior.  In all, Brody’s book may serve as a useful chronological bibliography, but as an overview of Godard’s career it is unreliable and biased.  MacCabe has offered a very impressive biography, one that captures Godard’s life and work as well as any might.  Skip Brody’s tedious tome (I couldn’t even get through it cover to cover) and seek out MacCabe’s wonderful book.  Of course, among other writing on Godard, another crucial reference remains the collection Godard on Godard (1985).  Godard started as a film critic, and there is a tremendous amount of the filmmaker’s own writings available that shed much light on his manner of thinking and his cinematic work as such.

Elvis Presley – Elvis Is Back!

Elvis Is Back!

Elvis PresleyElvis Is Back! RCA Victor LSP-2231 (1960)


Elvis Is Back!, named in reference to the man’s return from service in the U.S. Army in Germany, marked a clear transition in his music.  The days of wild, energetic, iconoclastic rock and roll were behind.  The new approach is more clean-cut.  If the early Elvis could not be shown on television from the waist down, for what his gyrating hips implied, then the new Elvis was calculated to be a little safer and more palatable to parents, implying nothing much at all.  And to be clear, Elvis is Back! is calculated.  It’s a highly eclectic batch of songs, performed in a variety of styles, determined to find something to appeal to everyone.  There is peppy Drifters-style R&B/doo-wop, Hollywood country & western like Marty Robbins or Roy Rogers, sultry R&B/proto-soul like Little Willie John, secularized gospel, and a lot of teen idol heartthrob fodder.  There are no up-tempo rockers (though “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” comes closest).  Any echo of rural origins from Elvis’ earlier music is also gone.  The man’s voice lets go of its previous bite and sharp delivery in favor of increasing amounts of vibrato in the style of Roy Hamilton, something like a traditional pop or even operatic form of singing that doesn’t come from blues or rock.  Elvis, surprisingly, proves up to the task.  He sings strongly in this new way even without using falsetto or breathy vocals.  His stylistic range and versatility emerged here as some of his most unique and lasting talents.  While the songs aren’t all great–this was an era when the best stuff was reserved for non-album singles (like the ballad “Fame and Fortune“)–there are no missteps.  Elvis sings well, though really he would only improve in his vocal abilities in the coming years.  It’s easy to see how the styles developed here would later produce the best of what The King accomplished from 1968 to around 1972.  What shouldn’t be ignored on this record is the production.  Elvis’ handlers made this the absolute pinnacle of sound recording technology in its day, just as producers at Columbia had made strides recording Paul Robeson in the 1940s with new ribbon microphones.  New three-track technology allowed a crispness and balance between Elvis’ leads, backing vocals, and instrumental accompaniment.  This one is ultimately a bit of a period piece, evincing a time in pop music when innocence and conservative values briefly won out over the revolutionary energy of 50s rock–before being crushed by the wave of modernity in the “underground” rock movement of the late 1960s and the growing power of black soul music during the freedom/civil rights movement.  Yet, it’s probably one of the best examples of what strictly commercial pop had to offer in 1960.

Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis

From Elvis in Memphis

Elvis PresleyFrom Elvis in Memphis RCA Victor LSP-4155 (1969)


From Elvis in Memphis was recorded after Elvis made his comeback on a 1968 TV special.  It is widely regarded as one of his best albums–maybe the very best–from his later career or even his entire career.  That’s something.  On closer inspection this is a little different from that, but still amusing and intriguing.  This was the beginning of, or at least the immediate precursor to, the Vegas act, sequined jumpsuit period.   He was singing differently than he used to, with a smoother, rounder tone heavier on vibrato, taking away all the sharpness of his earliest recordings.  In a broader cultural context, this album came at the absolute pinnacle of the good times for the American working man.  Ordinary folks had their chance to obtain a small, bastardized piece of the leisure class lifestyle, and Elvis was there ready to grow fat and lazy with them. What From Elvis in Memphis offers is an attempt to portray a kind of “ordinary” life, street-wise and gritty, dressed up enough to keep the peons interested.  It’s a life of huge cars, electric home appliances, and a growing sense of deserved (yet limited) decadence.  The thing is, Elvis is always hesitant to go too far.  This is an album that doesn’t really want to get its hands dirty, or at least not too dirty.  So it can only look on its subjects from a distance, never quite getting there.  “In the Ghetto” is a perfect example.  It’s a good Elvis performance, but there are better versions that shed some light on the one here.  Candi Staton did a version (that Elvis liked) that goes that extra distance; it feels like it’s sung from the ghetto rather than looking in on it.  Then there is a version that Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds did.  The Bad Seeds’ version is reflective of Elvis’ performance, more so than of the song’s lyrical content, with Nick Cave singing it ironically on the basis of its kitsch value but always threatening to make it serious at any moment.  The songs on From Elvis in Memphis are mostly quite mediocre and the band forgettably professional.  But there is still something here in spite of that.  There is a charming pomposity in this music.  The vision it conjures up is the sort of humble guy growing up, making it big and looking back to those folks that got him there, as if kneeling down to deign some poor kid to admire his jeweled ring (hey, maybe you can make it too kid).  It’s like giving that kid, that kind of listener, this music out of a sense of charity.  It’s the subtle complacency behind that sort of a perspective that led to the downfall of the good times it enjoyed.  Rather than going the extra distance and being the sort of honest, humble music that might show a solidarity and adherence to the values of the common man, this album really takes the sort of view that sees itself as standing apart, looking back, acknowledging a divide from its origins and its audience.  Yet the lasting value of this work is that it represents the dreams and hopes of its times, even though those dreams and hopes are flawed and their achievement somewhat hollow.  There’s no denying that songs like “Long Black Limousine,” “Power of My Love,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “After Loving You,” and “In the Ghetto” are all solid expressions of these things–with much of the best material congregated on a very solid side two of the LP.  If this commentary means anything, consider it in the context of Orson Welles‘ film Vérités et mensonges [F for Fake], the notion that the act of forgery says something in and of itself about motives that lead humans to create art and artifice.

Elvis Presley – On Stage: February 1970

On Stage: February, 1970

Elvis PresleyOn Stage: February 1970 RCA Victor LSP-4362 (1970)


Although widely acknowledged as a cultural phenomenon that transformed America with his charisma and music in the 1950s, Elvis’ career got off-track in the 1960s as he focused on making terrible (but profitable) movies rather than making music.  In 1968 he made a comeback with a TV music special, followed by a Vegas engagement with a new band.  As it turns out, the Vegas act came to define Elvis’ later career.  It was a glitzy show, with a horn section, backing singers.  Elvis had taken to wearing gaudy jumpsuits too.  This music had now become a sort of high-energy, rock- and soul-inflected, southern style of crooning.  No one had really done anything like that before.  It was a period when rural-influenced musical acts could find wide acceptance, with former Sun Records label-mate Johnny Cash having a major network TV show at the same time.  Elvis sings remarkably well here.  The results are probably more consistent than his much-lauded From Elvis in Memphis album, even if this never reaches the greatest heights of that earlier studio effort.  One notable characteristic is the lack of the customary mid-set batch of Elvis’ past hits, which many aficionados deem the least interesting part of most Elvis shows and live recordings of the era.  Although Vegas acts have become something of a cliché, Elvis was a pioneer in the form.  Countless musicians, down to even Bob Dylan, have tried to emulate this kind of grandiose entertainment, but few if any came close to Elvis.  That the man became a cultural icon not once but twice in one lifetime, all before the age of 40, is nothing short of amazing.  Consider this Elvis’ best live album, and possibly one of his best albums period.

Michael Hudson – The Bubble and Beyond

The Bubble and Beyond: Fictitious Capital, Debt Deflation and the Global Crisis

Michael HudsonThe Bubble and Beyond: Fictitious Capital, Debt Deflation and the Global Crisis (ISLET 2012)


If you have time for just one economist today, Michael Hudson would make an excellent choice. The central premise of The Bubble and Beyond is that “the miracle of compound interest” has for all time tended to exceed growth of the “real” economy, which invariably leads to excessive credit claims that cannot be paid. He cites Richard Price‘s famous example of how a penny invested at 0 BC with 5% compound interest would have by Price’s time (1772) become a solid sphere of gold reaching to the orbit of Saturn — obviously unpayable!  Part of the problem today lies with the self-serving tendency of mainstream economics to exclude analysis of finance (particularly the closely-related finance, insurance and real-estate or “FIRE” sectors) from the analysis, which Hudson attempts to incorporate into a more inclusive model. All past economies (excepting ancient Rome) burst such financial bubbles to wipe out bad debts. But Hudson has shown that the ongoing financial bubble organized by the Washington Consensus (Alan Greenspan being the most recognizable face of the phenomenon) has resisted debt write-downs by fueling further debt pyramiding (paying debts with more debt). Building on his landmark book Super Imperialism (a must-read), he shows how the Washington Consensus has adopted tactics not unlike those of a suicide bomber, threatening to destroy countless economies if demands (from the USA, the world’s largest debtor) are not met. But further, he does not shy away from illustrating how countries that do not toe the line are routinely invaded by military forces or subject to “color revolutions”. Hudson is spot on in his analyses, in a way that is refreshingly accessible, reasonable and reliable. He provides summaries of the history of economics that demonstrate how many of the concepts he is now restating have been known — if marginalized — for centuries. Yet many past writers could not have anticipated the sheer magnitude of the present bubble economy, or the ways in which vested interests would successfully stave off reasonable solutions. Much of the problems revolve around tax policy, in Hudson’s view, with a clear need for a more progressive income tax, especially with higher rates for “capital gains”. Oh, and there is a need to deal with financial fraud too, by sending criminal banksters to prison. But those policy prescriptions have a successful history in modern Western states that debt write-offs do not enjoy. It is there that Hudson goes the extra step. He says bankers need to take a loss on bad loans, and he backs up that claim with historical examples that go back to earliest recorded history in Mesopotamia.  This historical grounding demonstrates that current tactics are fundamentally inadequate, from the historical perspective.  There lies his most important contribution.  He provides context for the way dominant think today deviates from accepted wisdom of the past.  This allows the reader to step outside the economic paradigm of the present to envisage another, more stable and equitable one.

This is a good book, and an important one. But due to the importance of the topic, it is worth pointing out a few areas where the book is lacking — or simply where a second edition could make some simple improvements. First, as many other reviewers have noted, this book is basically a self-published collection of materials from pre-existing articles. As always follows in such cases, the editing and proofreading is abominable, with typos, duplicate paragraphs, and tedious repetition endemic throughout the book (particularly where disparate articles were making the same or very similar points). This man deserves a good editor!! Second, there is a general lack of adequate citations. Hudson spouts off numbers without revealing where they come from, and talks about things like the ancient Roman economy while only mentioning historians like Plutarch in passing near the end, many chapters later. Of course, there are portions of the book that include a rich set of citations, and those wonderful efforts cast somewhat of a pall on the chapters that lack them. Moreover, he talks about things like bank “keyboard credit” without adequately explaining his use of such terms (Norbert Häring and Niall Douglas’ Economists and the Powerful does a superior job explaining that point, for instance). Third, Hudson gets bogged down in a bit of a “sour grapes” tone when deriding mainstream economics, particularly the “Chicago School Monetarists” like Milton Friedman. Hudson is absolutely right that those mainstream schools of economic thought are really no more than lobbying efforts on the part of financial interests, not objective “science” or anything approaching it. But the endless repetition of the accusations does get tiresome, and what would have had quite an impact in a single chapter gets dulled somewhat when revisited over a dozen or more. It also would have been interesting if Hudson elaborated on the ways ignored economists like Frederick Soddy and Thorstein Veblen wrote about many of these exact same topics 80-125 years ago (he occasionally refers to his other books when discussing Simon Patten, but few besides Patten get adequate treatment in these pages). Moreover, while Hudson laments how the economics discipline has been hijacked by hacks shilling for Wall Street, he doesn’t really explain why a sociologist like the late Pierre Bourdieu could write a microeconomics book like The Social Structures of the Economy that dovetails well with Hudson’s macroeonomics. Why continue to think in terms of the narrow confines of provincial, silo-ed academic specialties, thereby reinforcing them?

Minor flaws aside, this is the sort of work that better deserves the attention lavished on Thomas Piketty‘s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. At the least, readers should investigate some of Hudson’s articles for Harper’s Magazine (incorporated into the book), which provide some important general summaries, or read up on the citation-rich chapters showing how Karl Marx repeated claims by protestant reformer Martin Luther that are even omitted from anthologies of Luther’s works! There’s a host of valuable material here and the world would be a better place the more widely its concepts were known.

The Birthday Party – Junk Yard

Junk Yard

The Birthday PartyJunk Yard 4AD CAD 207 (1982)


The Birthday Party reached a peak with Junk Yard. It soars on a pulsing energy that never fades. It is goth rock. It is punk. Frightening rockabilly. Angular funk. Gospel and blues. Demonized cabaret lounge jazz. These and other styles collide in a gruesome, purposeless, and—above all—glorious spectacle. But the darkness in which this music dwells is entirely stable. It is confident, at least. The album is mixed to emphasize the low end and the high end, with little mid-range. There are no compromises.

The Thatcher-Reagan era has, in many ways, turned out to be the beginning of the end (or at least another milestone in the world’s continued march towards an easily avoidable doom). Junk Yard plays like The Birthday Party intuitively knew this. The slow groove of “She’s Hit” reveals from the beginning that this group was more aware than most. They absorbed the maddening energy of the times, without becoming bound to them. Unlike the living dead of the world, who are modeled on an image of the past, The Birthday Party were in a state of regenerative flux, continually rebuilding something morbidly happy from the decay.

“Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” is a sleazy literary come-on, and Nick Cave sings, “Where for art thou baby-face.” Still, the words come out more like a warning to a future victim issued too late. And yet, The Birthday Party can be trusted. Despite rubbing out simple hopes and pleasant dreams, the band’s resolve is never spent. If something on this album doesn’t arouse something in you, then you might already be spiritually bankrupt. But either way, at least you will wonder what you are made of.

Barry Adamson guests on “Kiss Me Black” (filling in for the jailed Tracy Pew). His bass blasts to the forefront immediately with mangled tones that bend enough to engross listeners as much as whole songs or albums often do. Matched with Cave belting out, “Hey hey hey hey,” the song reveals no intention of relenting. The song is a small representation of all the band was.

Easily the most important rock band to emerge from Australia, aside from The Bee Gees, The Birthday Party later disbanded after recording a few EPs but no further full-length albums. While there is a saying about wicks that burn brightest burning the shortest, that quip doesn’t quite capture what The Birthday Party were about. They were a black hole that sucked life and the universe into a seeming nothingness. What that leaves us with is anyone’s guess. In a black hole, no known laws of nature apply.

Elvis – An Afternoon in the Garden

An Afternoon in the Garden

ElvisAn Afternoon in the Garden RCA 07863 67457-2 (1997)


Recorded during the height of Elvis’ “Vegas” show era, An Afternoon in the Garden presents an afternoon show recorded June 10, 1972 at the 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden in New York City.  It was part of a sold-out four show stand.  The evening show of June 10th was previously released as Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden.  There are plenty of live Elvis albums from this era (Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, On Stage: February 1970, Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis, not to mention plenty of live cuts on That’s the Way It Is et al.), and most are quite good (uh, not Having Fun With Elvis on Stage though).  Guitarist James Burton really gets a chance to shine here, even getting space for a psychedelic wah-wah solo on the Presley favorite “Polk Salad Annie.”  The set list is almost the same as on Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden, minus “The Impossible Dream” but with a few additional tunes here.  For that matter the set list is similar to many other Presley live albums.  But these are all great tunes.  What makes this set so amazing is that you get some of the soulful bombast of On Stage: February 1970, some of the grandiose theatrics of Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, plus some of the kicking rock drive of Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, all rolled into one perfectly balanced package.  Elvis just commands this show, with every little flubbed lyric chuckled off and re-purposed as an opportunity to charm the audience.  As with most other Elvis live albums of the era, this is a complete show that plays (almost) like being there in person.  Pop music rarely if ever had a figure like Elvis who could deliver with spectacular feeling and aplomb the biggest, brightest and best hopes and emotions of salt of the Earth folks who quite rightly dubbed him their king.  This is a damn fine album, recommended for anyone.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements – The Tao of Mad Phat (Fringe Zones)

The Tao of Mad Phat <Fringe Zones>

Steve Coleman and Five ElementsThe Tao of Mad Phat <Fringe Zones> Novus 63160-2 (1993)


Steve Coleman.  There are perhaps few figures in 1990s jazz quite as pretentious.  He indisputably was a central figure of that time.  So many, from his now well-known early cohorts like Cassandra Wilson to later figures like Vijay Iyer, have taken influence from him.  He practiced a style of music he called “M-Base”, short for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations.  Now, okay, I just called it a style.  Coleman has this to say on the matter: “Music critics have constantly stated that M-Base is a musical style and this is not true.  Since the beginning of time critics have by and large been unable to deal with any creative expression.  M-Base is a way of thinking about creating music, it is not the music itself.”  Mmmm, right, okay Coleman.  M-Base merely fits the accepted definition of “style”, but he say it’s not a style.  I guess this just puts him in the same category as teenage garage bands that sound just like The Stooges but refuse the connection and insist they are totally unique man!  You know, the kind of adolescent posturing that tries to talk a big game but does not deliver at nearly the same level, though, in fairness, is perhaps just due to being inarticulate and lacking self-awareness–dooming them to repeat musical history.  But that aside, Mr. Coleman should go read Science and Sanity by Count Alfred Korzybski, who famously said “the map is not the territory”, and then reflect on the fact that a table is not a table, it is merely something that is collectively understood by the word “table” and the word is not the thing itself.  Now that I’ve sufficiently blown your mind, writing more about Coleman and this album is probably a fucking waste of time, but, frankly, I don’t give a shit.  Come back and read the rest later.  I’m making a goddamn point here and it needs to be made.  Coleman has often used a trick much like many modern economists and their veneer of mathematics used to conceal their faulty assumptions and circular logic (or like Ornette Coleman with his “harmolodics” for that matter), which hides some rather simple ideas behind a bunch of technical jargon and big words.

Tao of Mad Phat has to be among Coleman’s best efforts from the 90s.  It was recorded “live” in studio before a small, select audience (not unlike Beach Boys’ Party!).  The hallmarks of the man’s sound are all here: lots of electric instruments and synthetic sounds.  The focus is on shifting rhythmic textures, with things like melody a mere by-product of the rhythms.  But then there is “Incantation”, which features a number of guest spots rather than his usual backing band, and which feels different in many respects from the typical M-Base style.

The basic sound though is kind of cyclic.  It’s like James Brown and Maceo Parker, sort of.  Though the focus on rhythm gives the music a narrow objective that lacks the daring of Miles Davis‘ funky fusion of the 1970s that took the limitless possibilities of Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s electronic music and applied them to jazz.  Steve Coleman usually took the sonic textures of fourth-tier 1980s funk and incorporated them into a jazz setting.  The tendency was to produce listless schlock like Black Science.  But Tao of Mad Phat isn’t listless at all.  The atmosphere provided by the staged “live” setting gives the band a chance to stretch and adjust their rhythms in a fluid manner, without the claustrophobic search for perfect meter, pitch and other distractions to spoil things.  For a change, performance takes precedence over theory.

There is the other issue of the “spirituality” of Coleman’s music.  This album avoids much direct expression of it in the performances.  It’s noticeable mostly in the titles of the songs.  Part of this element comes from a very vaguely Pan-Africanist view of the African diaspora, with similarly vague allusions to Asian religions.  The Afrocentrist elements were hardly unique to Coleman, as this was the era of One for All and that whole aesthetic.  While there is something noble, perhaps, in Coleman’s intentions, most often the problem is that stacked next to, say, Pandit Pran Nath or lots of other purely religious music, Steve Coleman’s stuff just…sounds…so…cheesy.  He comes across as the guy with statutes of Buddha, the Virgin Mary, and Ganesh in front of his house, because, well, he values all religions, and he shows it with plaster lawn ornaments.  It seems slapped on top, without deep foundations in the music.  Here at least, that whole aspect of the music is pretty easily disregarded.

I can’t exactly say I’m a huge fan, but this is a pretty good album, and it’s worth it if you have an interest in the upside of some of the most stultifying forces of the halcyon days of 1990s jazz.

Jim Collins – Good to Great

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't

Jim CollinsGood to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (Random House Business 2001)


Read The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig for an absolutely devastating debunking of Good to Great (or the “peer review” by Matthew Anderson). I won’t repeat what is readily available in Rosenzweig‘s book, or elsewhere, but will say that Rosenzweig systematically picks apart how Collins seems to have no understanding how to conduct proper research and how many of Collins’ theories don’t hold up to scrutiny. Much of Good to Great sounds maddeningly like the kind of “science” relied upon by climate change/global warming deniers. In fact, if you read the collection of Albert Einstein‘s writings Ideas and Opinions, in numerous places he states that science cannot involve deducing theory from evidence, which happens to be precisely what Collins claims he has done with Good to Great and Collins calls it the physics of business/management. Everything you need to know about Jim Collins and his ilk can be summed up by recognizing that probably no union has ever organized workers to demand that management gurus like him be brought in. This is not neutral stuff.  It is partisan rhetoric used to consolidate power with a management class, and strip it from ordinary workers.  In more concrete terms it is about selling feel-good myths to top corporate management, to justify shake-ups and layoffs, and the pay-for-performance regime in executive compensation, for example. There are a few good points in here, but mostly they are reworkings of existing concepts assigned useless new buzzwords by Collins. As many others have made clear, it is sort of amusing to see how many of the companies that Collins trumpets have since gone under (Circuit City), been involved in massive fraud (Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo), or are just plain slimy and corrosive to public well-being (Philip Morris). He seems to defend this in a crude way, simply implying that businesspeople should be sociopaths… Anyway, the bottom-line myth behind this is the idea that MANAGEMENT holds the key to the success or failure or a business. Read Confronting Managerialism by Robert Locke and JC Spender for a useful (and quite different) historical perspective on that. Indeed, the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said, “‘Management Theory’, a literature produced by business schools for business schools, fulfills a function identical to that of the writings of the European jurists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who, in the guise of describing the state, contributed to building it: being directed at current or potential managers, that theory oscillates continually between the positive and the normative, and depends fundamentally on an overestimation of the degree to which conscious strategies play a role in business, as opposed to the structural constraints upon, and the dispositions of, managers.” (The Social Structures of the Economy).