Johnny Cash – The Baron

The Baron

Johnny CashThe Baron Columbia FC 37179 (1981)

For The Baron, Cash teamed up with producer Billy Sherrill, the man most responsible for the popular “countrypolitan” style used with Charlie Rich, George Jones, and others to great success over the previous decades.  The Tennessee Three were not on the album.  It was a more ornate studio band instead.  The results are pleasant if plain, as the countrypolitan style was definitely getting a little dusty by the early 1980s.  Cash also admitted in his second autobiography that he and Sherrill didn’t exactly put in a tremendous effort.  The best thing here is the opening title track, which seems pretty clearly an attempt to mimic the success of Kenny RogersThe Gambler but based on the story a pool shark instead of a card shark.  A version of Tom T. Hall‘s “Ceiling, Four Walls, and a Floor” is decent too.  “Chattanooga City Limit Sign” is one offering more in the rollicking novelty-song style of “One Piece at a Time.”  The worst thing here is without a doubt “The Greatest Love Affair,” the most cloyingly patriotic song cash probably ever recorded (and he recorded a lot of that garbage, so this is saying a lot).  Not an essential Cash album, but also not the worst he’s done.

Historian Jefferson Cowie has written about the sorts of socioeconomic changes that took place in the 1970s, as evidenced through music and film (Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class [2010]).  In an article, “That ’70s Feelin’,” he described the way a dominant expression of working class sentiment in popular media became the individual “psychological release” of the character Howard Beale in the film Network (1976), when he exclaimed, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” without offering that exclamation in service of building any sort of program of positive action (after all, Beale was manipulated and later killed in the film for standing in the way of the network’s new “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour” program).  There was fragmentation and parochial infighting.  Much of Cowie’s music and film examples draw from the influence of Richard Sennett & Jonathan Cobb’s The Hidden Injuries of Class (1973), which described the conditions that sort of gave rise to the re-birth of individualism and Tom Wolfe‘s “me generation”.

Cash made a series of albums in the late 1970s and early 80s that are fairly interesting when viewed through the lens of Cowie’s thesis.  The Rambler, The Last Gunfighter Ballad, The Baron, Johnny 99 — all of these albums, in whole (like The Rambler) or in key songs, are structured around a lone individual.  If there is a dominant narrative of the lone individual failing or having a bittersweet ending trying to break away from the claustrophobic confines of social structures, like in the films Rocky (1976) and Saturday Night Fever (1977) that Cowie highlights, Cash’s albums paint the loner as someone worn out by clinging to something of the past or looking to reclaim it.  On The Baron, this characteristic is all over the title track, and even “The Hard Way” and “Ceiling, Four Walls, and a Floor“.  The title track on The Last Gunfighter Ballad is about a shameless, fame-seeking gunfighter run over by a car as an old man, dismissed by latter-day society as part of the lunatic fringe.  The entire album The Rambler involves Cash playing a wise old man archetype, teaching and helping those he encounters on his journeys.  Even on Johnny 99 the Springsteen song “Highway Patrolman” concludes with the lines, “man turns his back on his family / he ain’t no good.”  While the circumstances of these sorts of songs deal with lone individuals, they offer a different treatment than what Cowie talks about by sympathizing with a need for community and lamenting anomie.  In this way, Cash was going against the grain amid the rise of the Carter-Thatcher-Reagan era.  This might be one partial explanation for his diminishing commercial success in the era.

Cowie’s thesis also parallels and draws from Christopher Lasch‘s in The Culture of Narcissism (1978), which explained how, by the 1970s, individualist narcissism had displaced traditional symbolic authority, as a byproduct of corporate bureaucracy.  (Lasch’s thesis is probably best viewed as a supplement to Jacques Lacan’s thesis that “discourse of the university” had displaced “discourse of the master” during the 20th Century, with Lasch espousing quasi-populist socially conservative leftism informed by psychoanalysis and Lacan).  Here, Cash’s invocation of the aristocratic title “the baron” is a direct reference to a relic of symbolic authority from the past, and the namesake in the song encounters a young individual (his son) representing the new individualist narcissism, who was denied the opportunity to receive the “wisdom” of the paternal figure — thereby breaking from (patriarchal) tradition and its symbolic structures.

Much, much later, when Cash triumphantly made a “comeback” with his American Recordings album in the 1990s, circumstances had changed.  The usual story is that producer Rick Rubin came in and revived Cash’s career.  But, aside from Rubin’s indeed excellent work as a producer, this marketing ploy falls apart on close examination.  A lot of the renewed success came from timing.  Cash was hardly singing differently on American Recordings than he was on The Mystery of Life, which was the commercial nadir of his long career.  But on American Recordings, the songs he was singing showed very different choices than what he had offered on flops like Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town.  By the mid-1990s, the cracks were showing in the neoliberal political order that went hand-in-hand with the socioeconomic conditions Cowie was writing about.  Audiences were maybe believing a bit less in the narrative preached by the loner raging against the system.  Rocky V (1990) was a bomb.  But Cash, still around, and still in his own way questioning the very notion of the individual triumphing against the social order, was back to singing about the downtrodden, lost individual in need of others for support — “Bird on a Wire,” “Drive On,” …  Is this not just what Cash was singing about in the late 1970s too?

It might be possible to argue that the particular style of austere acoustic guitar playing on American Recordings is better or more attractive to audiences, but we should also consider the point of reference of the audiences that made the entire American Recordings series of albums more successful than the past efforts.  Johnny Cash now had an element of danger.  He may have had the image of the “man in black”, who did prison concerts and was beloved by the mean, dangerous convicts locked away there, but he also was a guy who cultivated that image to supposedly help the poor and deprived (he even wrote a song about why he is the “man in black”!).  He wasn’t using the outlaw image just to bolster his own situation (though, obviously, he was doing that too; he was trying to sell his recordings after all) but to call attention to a lack of solidarity.  Those efforts were still shot through with contradictions.  The closer “The Greatest Love Affair” on The Baron is patriotic garbage, the sort of nationalistic chauvinism that is squarely at odds with the egalitarian impulses elsewhere in Cash’s music — does equality for all really stop at arbitrary borders on a political map?  Though the kind of bastardized patriotism of a song like that was one of the only ways the working class had left to express solidarity in a world of bullshit jobs and self-interested hedonism.  And let’s look further at the man’s American Recordings comeback, to the second installment, Unchained.  Songs like “Rusty Cage” and even “Rowboat” revive the theme of the loner raging against the system.  And even “I’ve Been Everywhere” vaguely fits that mold as well.  Those tunes lack the appeals to solidarity and revival of old systems of community and family found elsewhere in Cash’s work.  But is it telling that many consider Unchained a lesser album in the American Recordings series?

No doubt, The Baron is a weaker Johnny Cash album.  But given a close examination, there is is something to be admired in Cash’s intransigent support of his old New Deal style social optimism against the great weight of the Carter-Thatcher-Reagan era’s neoliberal onslaught against it.  Cash wasn’t overtly political in his music, but his politics were intimately a part of what he did, apparent as much in what he didn’t do as anything else.  So, in a way, a meaningful appreciation of Johnny Cash at the peak of his powers and popularity should create some obligation to look at Cash when his outlook on life and what he represented was under attack, when it would have taken superhuman efforts to swim against the current from his position.  Does “The Baron” even take on something of an autobiographical tone?  In a way, too, Cash and Sherrill making a countrypolitan album in 1981 is something like Harry Nilsson singing on “You’re Breaking My Heart” (Son of Schmilsson): “You’re breakin’ my heart / You’re tearing it apart / So fuck you.”  It was maybe a populist cop out, in failing to reconnect with new audiences.  But if what listeners wanted was hedonism, Johnny Cash was just raising his middle finger to them, like in the iconic photo of him by Jim Marshall from San Quentin Prison, who said, “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.”

Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited

Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited

Various ArtistsLook Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited Sony Masterworks 88843 06067 2 (2014)

Johnny Cash was a guy whose greatest achievements took substantial influence from his religious beliefs and upbringing.  When he spoke or performed in a way directly dealing with religion, it usually came across as overly literal, in the most absurd sort of way (The Gospel Road).  “Hey Jesus, turn this water into wine real quick!”  Where (christian) religion served Cash the best was in standing for the proposition of being a better person, and taking the burden for doing so upon yourself.  Not, as is increasingly the case with the many sorts of egotistical flavors of religion popular today, by convincing yourself that you are a better person than others no matter what you do or by claiming to help others by helping yourself.  Cash was no saint.  His personal history is littered with sordid details and grave mistakes.  Instead, this proposition is about acknowledging flaws and striving to make the world a better place, through acts of generosity and humility.  It is the idea that no matter who you are, what you are, you can be (and do) better, measured in terms of what your own efforts accomplish for others.  In this regard, Cash’s secular music that still took moral authority from religion, and gave expression to his political views that leaned toward egalitarianism, stands out.  Few professional efforts in his career embody this more directly than his 1964 concept album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.  The other most apparent example was his support for prisoners, represented most visibly by his series of live albums recorded in prisons (At Folsom Prison, etc.).  But before he became a leading advocate for compassionate treatment of prisoners, he made an album about the shameful treatment of Native Americans.  Bitter Tears was his first use of his fame as a musician in the context of social issues.

The idea of descendants of white European settlers in the New World taking a sympathetic, moral view of the Native Americans certainly began long prior to Johnny Cash’s lifetime.  Helen Hunt Jackson published A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes in 1881.  The very title of the book alone conveyed that the European settlers treated Native Americans with without honor.  As she wrote, the “lesser” right” of occupancy of native lands given to the Native Americans by the European powers was “bound” to give way to the “right of discovery” (or “discovery doctrine”) which included the ability to grant, sell, and convey title to the land.  Exploitation was inevitable.  Johnson v. M’Intosh was an early and significant U.S. Supreme Court decision along those lines — shamefully still the law in the United States — establishing that it would be inconvenient to allow Native Americans to sell land to European-American settlers, thereby creating conditions that allowed appropriation of land by the Federal Government much easier.  There is a still very far to go to see equality and fair treatment of Native Americans in the United States.  As late as 2009, a class-action lawsuit settlement of $3.4 Billion was paid out by the U.S. Government for malfeasance in dealings with Native people and tribes, including damning admissions of failure to maintain even minimally adequate accounting records for moneys supposedly held in fiduciary trust on their behalf.

In 1964, the year Bitter Tears was released, questions of social justice were all around, if in a slightly different context.  This was the year that the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by the Johnson Administration.  The “freedom movement” (also called the “civil rights movement”) tended to be framed as a question of rights for Afro-Americans subjected to discriminatory Jim Crow segregation laws.  Attention to Native Americans was something that went beyond a narrow conception of the era being about a merely binary black/white racial divide.

The early/mid-1960s was also the time of the urban folk movement, when the likes of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and others made “protest songs” popular.  It is possible to see Johnny Cash’s album about Native Americans, coupled with appearances at events like the Newport Folk Festival, as purely commercial concerns seeking to expand his audience (and therefore his record label’s customer base).  Urban folk and protest music tended to appeal to middle-class, college educated types.  Those were important record-buying demographics.  Some of his earlier recordings, like Blood, Sweat and Tears (1963) already headed in that direction.  He did not come from the same sort of upbringing as most of the protest folk artists.  Yet they were listening to him.  But for Cash, as someone who emerged from Memphis, Tennessee, and was seen mostly as a country music artist, this broader career move must at a minimum also be seen as something that broke from expectations — though he did release a number of “old west” themed albums that did fit somewhat within the Nashville fold (Ride This Train, Sings the Ballads of the True West).  Accounts indicate that Cash had to fight his record label to record the music for Bitter Tears, and he ran an ad decrying how the music establishment won’t give it airplay later on.

Cash rather uniquely bridged a divide between rural and urban audiences.  Much of the time that involved finding values that worked for both types of listeners, and working them into song. Joe Bageant wrote Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir (2010), which used his own personal history to portray how rural populations were displaced during the 20th Century, increasingly thrust into urban jobs, without desire to see their old way of life die off.  In that way Bageant offered an account of the origins of rural populism, of a kind created by the purposeful machinations of certain political forces.  Seeing beyond those forces and working against them, down a path other than the frenzied and directionless reactive anger of populism, were people like Johnny Cash.  He grew up on a New Deal farm in Dyess, Arkansas, and called it, approvingly, a “socialistic setup”.  In a way, Cash was kind of like country music’s Eleanore Roosevelt.  He embodied the legacy of the New Deal coalition’s more compassionate, democratically empowering impulses, seeing the possibility of uniting the needs of the rural poor with the compassion of educated urban elites to promote the well-being of everyone — rather than to pit urban and rural groups against each other for narrow personal gain in a kind of “divide and conquer” strategy.  Empathy and community show up as positive ideals, things to actively foster.  So it should have surprised no one that when Cash had a network TV show five years later, he was reaching across racial and class divides to feature musical performances from a wider spectrum than just about anything in mainstream media.  There was no hesitation in thinking audiences could find a common ground, and appreciate the inherent worth of other points of view.  It was awkward sometimes on the TV show, but that very awkwardness was in a way proof that this was a foray into new and unfamiliar territory that made use of untested formulas.

This tribute album project was inspired by Antonino D’Amrosio‘s book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears (2009).  The album was released to coincide with the fifty year anniversary of Bitter Tears.  There has been a continued interest in Cash’s music since his death in 2003, with a hit 2004 biopic (Walk the Line), a 2004 book on the making of At Folsom Prison (Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece), an unsuccessful Broadway musical (2006) and soundtrack (2008), a 2007 satire movie vaguely based on Cash’s life and Walk the Line (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), and boxed set re-releases of all of his Sun (2005) and Columbia (2012) albums.  Certainly, some of this is driven by efforts from the Cash estate or other rights owners to posthumously bleed every penny they can from the man’s legacy, just as has happened with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, etc.  But aside from whatever crass motivations record labels and heirs may have, it says something about Cash’s continued relevance to audiences that these things are successful enough to keep being released.

Peter La Farge wrote five of the songs from the original album, and Cash the rest (the closer co-written with Johnny Horton).  They vary tremendously in tone.  “Custer” is a rollicking song that mocks General Custer, who was defeated and killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn by allied native tribes.  The single and best-known song from the album is “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” about a Pima native who fought in WWII for the United States in the Battle of Iwo Jima (in the Volcano Islands).  Hayes was one of five U.S. marines and one U.S. navy corpsman pictured in an iconic, award-winning photograph by Joe Rosenthal called “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” which was taken on Mount Suribachi during a battle against the Japanese Empire and was widely distributed by a press wire service almost immediately after being taken.  Hayes is seen furthest left in the photo.  Hayes’ personal history following the publication of the photo, and the war, is a tale that might well have inspired a hundred stories about neglected veterans, the sort made much more common through the Vietnam War.

Some of the songs on Bitter Tears were given a serene, atmospheric treatment that Cash had previously applied to religious songs.  “Talking Leaves,” and to some extent “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” borrows from Cash’s 1962 B-side “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” recorded with The Carter Family.  This is telling about Cash’s approach to Bitter Tears.  He saw the treatment of Native Americans as a topic for which the use of religious music was appropriate.  Whatever the nearly chant-like wails of a backing singer (either June Carter or Anita Carter) added to religious music, they could add to protest music too.  This was the application of moral appeals drawn from religion to social issues.  The gambit is that audiences will have the same favorable reaction in both contexts.  However, this also had the effect of belittling possible sources of government power.  Cash invoking religious song arrangements tends to place (religious) morality above the actions of governments, and suggests that government actions must be submitted to the standards of a higher moral authority.  Laws are not a supreme power.  They are laws of men, and can be wrong.  Crucial in this moralizing is that Cash is not appealing to “the market” or some sort of (non- ethical) economic justification for the treatment of Native Americans.  There is no balancing of interests to produce a maximum tradeoff, or efficient equilibrium.  Instead he frames the issues in terms of inherent, basic, absolute ideals that are equally applicable to all people.  He is singing about human dignity and its loss.  He is singing about honesty and perfidy.  He is singing about survival and murder.  Whatever the context, the government falls on the side of moral wrong, often from a point of view of providing selfish benefits to some groups at the expense of others, and the predominantly racial divides between those exercising power and those subject to it are made clear.

On this tribute project, much of the edge in Cash’s original treatment is gone.  The performers seem more interested in paying tribute to Cash the man than the cause he originally championed on Bitter Tears.  Certainly, the new performers claim compassion.  That is made clear in the liner notes.  But remaking recordings from fifty years ago in the sedate, ordinary fashion in which they are done on Look Again to the Wind will challenge no one’s belief’s about the treatment of Native Americans, now or in the past.  This is a self-congratulatory shout-out to people who already know better.  It is hard to see how this project does anything to advance the interests of Native peoples.  That isn’t to say there isn’t good stuff here.  One of the most successful re-interpretations is “White Girl” by The Milk Carton Kids.  Cash’s original suffered under an ill-suited application of the typical Cash boom-chicka-boom rhythm, and nearly stammered vocals that made it exceedingly difficult to follow the song’s lyrical narrative.  At least in this new version, the intent of the story told in the lyrics is clearer.  Some of the other performances are a bit more sanctimonious, and the humor on Cash’s original is often missed.

Did Cash ever follow-up on Native American activism after Bitter Tears?  Well, not really.  When the American Indian Movement (AIM) was most active in the 1970s, Cash had sort of moved on and shifted his focus to prison advocacy.  He met with politicians and appeared in prisons, trying to make positive differences and call attention to the treatment of prisoners.  He was no longer calling attention to the treatment of Native Americans in the present.  While that was too bad, in some respects, it shouldn’t take away from what he did do to support the plight of Native Americans.  Bitter Tears is still a compelling album fifty years later.  Look Again to the Wind has none of those compelling qualities.  It is actually a pretty boring album — as boring as any Hal Willner tribute project.  But, at a minimum, it presents a chance to revisit Cash’s original effort and appreciate what an incongruous feat it was.

Robert Pollin – Back to Full Employment

Back to Full Employment

Robert PollinBack to Full Employment (MIT Press 2012)

Robert Pollin’s Back to Full Employment is a short book meant for general audiences (not just professional economists) advocating an economic policy shift in the United States towards one promoting “full employment”.  He goes into some detail about what he means by “full employment”, referring to an abundance of “decent jobs”.  The idea of decent jobs in turn relies on Lawrence Glickman‘s definition of paying “a wage level that offers workers the ability to support families, to maintain self-respect, and to have both the means and the leisure to participate in the civic life of the nation.”  The basic thrust of Pollin’s argument is that neoliberal austerity policies must be abandoned.  Instead, policies that benefit society at large should be pursued.  As one reference point, he trumpets the success of pro-labor policies in Sweden since WWII, without really acknowledging how the Swedish labor coalition has largely fallen apart in recent decades and shifted toward the sort of austerity policies Pollin criticizes (though it staged a small comeback since the publication of Pollin’s book).  Pollin glosses over explaining what neoliberal economic policies are really aboutfavoritism for financial interests over labor.  But it remains clear that he favors employment policies that benefit the majority of the population, especially people unable to find any work or work that supports a dignified existence.  This is sort of a counterpoint to Tyler Cowen‘s The Great Stagnation (2011), which advocated a kind of doubling-down on austerity measures.

After setting out why he believes full employment is possible, he lays out some discrete policy objectives to promote full employment.  This is where the book falls a bit short.  For instance, he argues that dollars spent on teaching and a green energy economy will provide more jobs per dollar than those currently spent on oil & gas or the military.  However, jobs retrofitting existing infrastructure for “green energy” seem temporary — what happens when existing buildings are all retrofitted?  Moreover, “A Green New Deal conceived as tampering around the edges of industrial capitalism— employing the un- and under-employed to manufacture solar panels and batteries for electric vehicles, would add to carbon emissions and other environmental harms at a point in history when the collective ‘we’ can’t afford it.”  The other problem is that the data is very, very limited.  Only a handful of job sectors are discussed.  What will the rest of the populace do?  He also opposes trade protectionism (“trade nationalism”).  While admitting that data on this is “mixed”, he alludes to looking only at the last 35 years.  Because the neoliberal project has been around 40 years, he doesn’t seem to be looking at a relevant or long enough period.  One would really need to compare the protectionist era.  Michael Hudson did so in America’s Protectionist Takeoff 1815-1914 (2010), and Hudson has argued that protectionism has historically been a critical policy for all successful industrialized economies.  Pollin may lack data for his conclusion, but he does make an interesting (albeit conclusory) moral argument that success in the United States shouldn’t come at the expense of the well-being of people in other countries — a rejection of beggar-thy-neighbor policies and national chauvinism.

Pollin says that there should be requirements to prevent banks from “hoarding” reserves, and a financial transactions tax should be implemented.  In many ways, Pollin is pushing Keynesian measures.  But, there are many people suggesting that such policy measures would have the opposite effects on employment than Pollin suggests.  In other words, he seems to be making unwise policy recommendations, even if you agree with his goal of providing “full employment”.  The first problem is the bank “hoarding” argument.  In essence, he is saying that banks are holding too much reserves and should be more highly leveraged!  People like Ole Bjerg, Nobert Häring & Niall Douglas, Michael Hudson, Martin Wolf and the UK Positive Money initiative have instead suggested implementing a 100% reserve requirement on banks.  This is an old proposal.  The Nobel prize-winning chemist Frederick Soddy proposed it long ago, and the conservative economist Irving Fisher later picked it up (many economists credit the idea to Fisher, even though Soddy — not an economist — clearly articulated the proposal first).  Pollin takes the standard Keynesian view that a lack of aggregate demand is the problem the economy faces today.  But what he overlooks is the problem that Bjerg states most clearly: a dominant ideology that sees “being in the market” as the only legitimate socioeconomic policy, which naturally leads to excessive speculation.  Any change in “aggregate demand” that leaves in place the ideology behind neoliberal austerity policies is bound to revert to the same problems at some point.  A more effective half-measure would be to create public banking options alongside private ones, as advocated by people like Ellen Brown and already present in the state of North Dakota.  Of course, speaking of full measures, it has been said before that “To talk about ‘regulating economic life’ and yet evade the question of the nationalisation of the banks means either betraying the most profound ignorance or deceiving the ‘common people’ by florid words and grandiloquent promises with the deliberate intention of not fulfilling these promises.” Left untouched, too, are proposals supported by people like Ralph Nader to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act and reinstate the Wagner Act.  These sorts of things would throw real power behind labor, as a countervailing force to parasitic financial interests. Or instead of supporting the Dodd-Frank Act, and debating the effects of its loopholes and limitations as Pollin does here, which have since been subject to further repeals, why not fully restore the Glass-Steagall Act as Elizabeth Warren proposes?

Pollin also argues for a financial transaction tax.  While superficially appealing, this doesn’t seem to solve all the underlying problems.  For instance, real estate speculation could potentially survive such a tax without impact.  A more robust solution is the one Michael Hudson advocates in The Bubble and Beyond (2012).  Hudson states that capital gains taxes must be at least as high as income taxes on labor.  This would seem to exactly fit Pollin’s goal of promoting “full employment” because it would take away tax incentives that promote absentee ownership over labor.  Pollin claims credentials undoing damage from Jeffrey Sachs‘ austerity policies in Bolivia.  Hudson has those credentials too, from work in Latvia.  Hudson’s views on tax reform seem more wide-reaching though.  Of course, it would be possible (and perhaps desirable) to enact both proposals.

Lastly, Pollin argues that decreases in healthcare and military spending will not undo the benefits of a “full employment” program.  The military prong is the one that should raise eyebrows the most.  Pollin perhaps underestimates how dollar hegemony as the world’s reserve currency is a policy enforced down the barrel of a gun, with a long history of the United States invading or sponsoring coups in countries whose governments fight that paradigm.  Rob Urie, Michael Hudson, William Blum, and others have explored this.  When Pollin argues that the United States can provide “full employment” while at the same time reducing military expenditures, his argument seems suspect.  Hudson’s famous Super Imperialism book explores in much greater depth how U.S. financial dominance was always a veneer over a threat of military action.  And Ernest Mandel has offered a detailed explanation of how imperialism is a kind of release valve for the natural tendency of purely domestic profits to decline.  While it does seem that the United States should reduce its military belligerence, it does not seem that the nation can do so and provide “full employment” in the long term without eliminating its trade deficit, counter to Pollin’s suggestion.  It is a question of changing a bunch of variables simultaneously that all prop up the shaky foundations of dollar hegemony, and, admittedly, isn’t an easy thing to assess definitively.  Though Mandel’s application of Marxist economics shows how abandoning imperialism will undoubtedly result in a decline in profits, because that is how capitalism works.

In the final analysis, Pollin’s ideas are meant to reform capitalism, putting a happier face on it.  He sticks with a growth model, without much consideration for critiques of the growth imperative raised by ecological economics and anti-capitalist leftist commentators.  Much of the problems he identifies could be eliminated by nationalization.  This is most apparent in the healthcare area.  He doesn’t advocate abandoning capitalism, even though many of his suggestions point in that direction.  His ultimate policy object, promoting “full employment”, seems like an important one.  Yet it’s hard to see how his program of trying to make political compromises leaves sufficient policies on the table.  Pollin’s specific policy prescriptions seem to have too many limitations and loopholes to be effective.  Some might even be counterproductive to the goal of full employment.  He confines himself to mostly tinkering at the edges to mitigate harsh symptoms without addressing the root causes.  Real questions of the adequacy of his suggestions remain, considering that versions of these suggestions were tried during the New Deal era and were ineptly handled or were simply too limited to be effective.  And that’s just assuming that there really would be political will to implement Pollin’s recommendations!  He is not willing to acknowledge the limits and limited applicability of Keynesian economic theory—he is really just someone with Keynesian economic policy prescriptions in his pocket in search of “problems” to justify dispensing those prescriptions.  But he’s at least raising many of the right questions.  It is undoubtedly necessary that a critical mass of people start asking the sorts of questions Pollin has broached with Back to Full Employment.  However, it seems absolutely necessary to ask deeper questions too, and demand much more.

Don Caballero – What Burns Never Returns

What Burns Never Returns

Don CaballeroWhat Burns Never Returns Touch and Go Records tg185cd (1998)

Understanding and liking this album will take a certain recognition.  Reviewer audiojunkie said this album “was the first time [he] had ever heard the drums played as the lead instrument.”  This is a useful description of how the album revolves around solos by drummer Damon Che.  There really aren’t guitar (or bass) solos, and there are no vocals.  This also means that there isn’t a lot of melody to latch on to, just shifting and complex rhythms.  Probably the closest comparison would be to a more rock oriented version of Steve Coleman‘s M-Base music, which made melody secondary to rhythm.  Don Caballero’s biggest achievement is focusing on drums and rhythm so much without grounding the music in African-derived rhythms.  This one won’t be for everyone, but heartier souls should give it a chance to grow on them.

Neil Diamond – 12 Songs

12 Songs

Neil Diamond12 Songs American Recordings 8-2876-77508-2 (2005)

People seem to have this bizarre faith in producer Rick Rubin, like he can waltz in and “save” the career of any aging star fading into obscurity with declining sales.  Not so.  Take 12 Songs for instance.  Unlike the American Recordings series with Johnny Cash or on Electric by The Cult, Rubin is all wrong for Neil Diamond.  Cash’s biggest asset was that voice, which in spite of its age could still captivate with its gravelly power.  Cash also could command with that voice, and stripped down settings put that voice on a pedestal — like Paul Robeson‘s recordings accompanied by only Lawrence Brown on piano.  Diamond, however, was always at his best with a very smooth and nuanced bombast.  Well, all that is gone here.  Nothing left to see or hear, just a fish out of water.  Rubin would have been much better served looking back to his breakthrough work with The Cult, where he — again — stripped down the production but at the same time preserved some (OK, amped up) of the ridiculously fun machismo.  Rubin may have dumped what was weighing Neil Diamond down in adult contemporary purgatory, but he also threw out most of what makes Diamond likeable in the first place — that swagger!  Final conclusion: a swing and a miss.

Bob Dylan’s Greenwich Village: Sounds From the Scene in 1961

Bob Dylan's Greenwich Village: Sounds From the Scene in 1961

Various ArtistsBob Dylan’s Greenwich Village: Sounds From the Scene in 1961 Chrome Dreams CDCD5074 (2011)

Although it’s become fashionable for certain contrarian Millennials to bash Bob Dylan as “talentless” or make some other snarky comment about him, attempting to position themselves as distinctly beyond whatever he represented, almost anyone with a pulse knows him as one of the major icons of 20th Century pop music.  So, this collection is an attempt to portray the sounds already circulating in his slice of New York City in 1961 when he first arrived fresh-faced from Minnesota and tried to make it as a musician.  There is a lot of music packed into these two discs.  But some themes draw themselves out.  From this evidence, the urban folk revival seemed a lot like an attempt to find authenticity.  It was a break from the big, orchestrated pop and jazz that dominated commercial music of the 1950s.  It had a do-it-yourself quality.  These were much the same impulses that spawned punk rock in the following decade.  Though, in hindsight, many of the white musicians in the movement were, quite frankly, too uptight and inhibited to make really great lasting recordings–punk proved more lasting more often.  Compare some of the afro-american blues represented here, like that from Lonnie Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, there is a stark contrast in authenticity.  So the “new” folkies often failed, but in their failure they took a step in the right direction.  Dylan landed in the middle of all this, and there’s no doubt the ways he took influence.  Indeed, this collection makes a few choice selections of songs that Dylan liberally borrowed from to make his own songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (“Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone)”), “Ballad of Hollis Brown” (“Pretty Polly”), and “Restless Farewell” (“The Parting Glass”).  Dylan soared above his influences, at least most of them.  Greenwich Village in the early ’60s was an incubator, but it also had a local, provincial and slightly closeted nature that was as much a limitation as the key to new breakthroughs.  Anyone wanting to understand the roots of Bob Dylan and, maybe more importantly, to understand the cultural catapult that sent him onward an upward to write things like “The Times They are A-Changin’, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Tombstone Blues,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and all the others will find a treasure trove here.