Leonard Cohen – Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979

Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979

Leonard CohenField Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 Columbia CK 66210 (2001)

Leonard Cohen was first a poet then, perhaps, a musician. His monotone voice is something you love or hate. This album features recordings from four dates of a 1979 tour in the U.K.  While not exactly a live greatest hits collection, Field Commander Cohen does end with his classics “Bird On the Wire” and “So Long, Marianne.” The recordings are very good, only adding as much music as necessary.

The sheer genius of Cohen’s lyrics dominates everything he has done. His music is best described as an acquired taste. The durable ideas and complex emotions unfold slowly. It takes at least two or three listens to grasp Cohen’s purpose. The liner notes are particularly helpful with full listings of all lyrics, which are sometimes understood easiest when read. Vocals add another layer of meaning to Cohen’s words, which can be confusing to new listeners.

Songs portray likable losers and bare insecurity.  The faux doo-wop of “Memories” is a sweet story of longing, complete with innocent rejection. “The Stranger Song” captures the appeal of a singer/songwriter’s isolation, recalling the best of Cohen’s early work.  “Lover Lover Lover” pauses for a long instrumental passage, while a duet on “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” highlights the song’s sappy wit. “The Guests” is a twisted vision of desire. These songs are deep and profound. Cohen can take you where few other artists can, and offer a glimpse deep into his personal experience.

The band plays well. Overall the sound is mellow, even bland, but this seems like a calculated plan to showcase the lyrics.  At times the spark of live performance breathes new life into the songs.  Guest appearances by Raffi Hakopian and John Bilezikjian spice up the arrangements. Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson sing backup, adding refreshing vocal depth. The album ends with arguably the best performances.

Leonard Cohen was about as strange a “rock star” as there ever was. He came to popularity near the end of the big 60s folk movement.  His unique blend of poetry and music would never catch on in another era, and is still unbelievable as it actually happened.  Leonard Cohen could be a great bluesman (though his voice would defy that genre).  Rather than the blues, he fashioned his own blend of comedy and tragedy.  This album is a good example those talents.

Field Commander Cohen is a nice album for long-time Cohen fans wanting more live material, and is still a good introduction for new listeners (it strikes a good balance between accessibility and potency), though there are many better live Cohen albums, like Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 and Live in London.

Patty Waters – College Tour

College Tour

Patty WatersCollege Tour ESP-Disk ESP 1055 (1966)

Patty Waters was one of the first truly experimental singers.  She introduced abstract, avant garde, wordless singing — based on everything from shrieks, whispers, and hums to grunts and moans — into the fabric of jazz music.  But she also integrated more conventional jazz and blues styles.  This album was recorded on a tour organized by attorney Bernard Stollman‘s ESP-Disk’ label, with a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, for a group of ESP-Disk’ artists to tour New York colleges with music departments in April of 1966.  Others on the tour were The Sun Ra Arkestra, Ran Blake, Burton Greene and Giuseppi Logan (the last three all appear on these recordings).  Much like Sun Ra, Waters moves between wildly disparate styles, and her innovations lie as much in a similar refusal to privilege one style over another as in anything she achieved strictly on the more experimental end of the musical spectrum — where she pioneered techniques later adopted or deployed by the likes of Linda Sharrock, Yoko OnoJeanne Lee, Diamanda Galás, and reminiscent of the “extended techniques” of Joan La Barbara too.  All that is to say that parts of the album (“Wild Is the Wind,” “It Never Entered My Mind”) track a typical jazz singer’s repertoire in the 1960s (compare Nina Simone), while the weirder parts of this music are akin to much else on the ESP-Disk’ label at the time, when the label was an early bastion of “free jazz”.  Waters deserves credit for her facility across that entire spectrum.  Rather than juxtaposing those elements as incompatible opposites, she deploys them as part of a universal continuum broad enough to contain multitudes of different elements.  As one reviewer put it, this is music for those drawn to “dreams that blur the line between pure delight and hellish nightmare.”  Extending that insight, perhaps this is music like Andreĭ Platonov‘s writings, which chose to subjectivize worldly experience by building utopia out of what others typically considered a dystopia.  That is to say that this sort of outlook embraces parts of the human condition that many marginalize, discredit or criticize.  It finds room for feelings of uncertainty, regret, confusion, pain — in an indifferent, meaningless universe, these can be bestowed with as much value as anything else.  This fit into the context of the New Left movement of the 1960s, and the yippie/hippie lifestyle.  This also seems to anticipate the May 1968 slogan: «Il est interdit d’interdire» (“It is forbidden to forbid”).

Even for those who struggle to enjoy this music or subjectively consider it “good” should at least recognize that it pushed boundaries and took bold steps into new territory.

Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson – Pancho & Lefty

Pancho & Lefty

Merle Haggard & Willie NelsonPancho & Lefty Epic FE 37958 (1983)

Here’s an album that occupies a strange place between “urban cowboy” country and easy listening pop.  Hag and Willie both sing really nicely, even if most of the material is pretty fluffy.  The synthesizer, electric bass, trebly electric guitar and other little orchestrated touches bestow on it a dated, faddish sound that is unmistakably of its era, but, for what it is, it delivers fairly consistently.  The slickness isn’t too much of a distraction.  There aren’t any obvious stinkers here.  As a long as expectations aren’t too high, this is a nice light outing.  The best song is probably “Opportunity to Cry,” which has no discernible input from Haggard.

Dean Baker – Inequality As Policy

Link to an article by Dean Baker:

“Inequality As Policy: Selective Trade Protectionism Favors Higher Earners”

This article is Baker grandstanding as usual, making the same arguments he has made ad nauseam for many years.  There are numerous flaws in his arguments, which is extremely unfortunate because he’s trying to make some important points, however crudely, about the promotion of inequality.

The major flaw in his argument about intellectual property (IP) law is that he conflates the specific case with the general case (a type of association fallacy).  This is a flawed form of argument that many economists use regularly to deceive readers.  Baker concludes that all IP is bad, but his argument relies almost exclusively on examples from copyright and pharma patents.  It almost goes without saying that copyright laws are indeed maximalist and skewed toward special interests.  His criticisms there are spot on and need no further explanation.  His critiques of patents focus on pharmaceuticals.  The problem is that pharma is not like other technologies.  Pharma is a regulated industry, and companies are able to rent-seek even with unpatented drugs.  Recent examples in the headlines include the Martin Shkreli saga and the EpiPen debacle.  While excessive patent strength/value may be problematic, it is not the sole cause of rent-seeking problems.  And there are so many unique aspects of the pharma industry (right down to doctors’ monopolization of writing prescriptions) that criticisms of pharma patents says almost nothing about patents in other technology areas.  Baker writes, “The laws have been changed to extend patents to new areas such as life forms, business methods, and software.”  The problem with this statement is that it is completely false.  While the U.S. patent laws have indeed been updated with the America Invents Act, and other miscellaneous legislative changes, it is worth noting that these changes to the patent statutes did not alter patent-eligible subject matter (35 U.S.C. 101 – unchanged since 1952).  While courts did expand patent subject matter eligibility from the early 1980s through the turn of the millennium, Baker ignores how the major development in patent law in judicial decisions over the last decade has been to curtail patent subject matter eligibility (Bilski v. Kappos, Mayo v. Prometheus Labs., Alice v. CLS Bank, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, etc.).  Baker suggests a trend in a direction directly opposite to the bulk of the recent judicial record.  While numerous other countries prohibit patenting of medical diagnosis or treatment inventions, and countries like Germany historically (though no longer) prohibited patenting chemical compositions, there was never such a ban in the United States.  Furthermore, what about trademarks or trade secrets?  These constitute whole areas of IP law, yet Baker makes no mention of them.  This further underscores how Baker has cherry-picked specific cases, divorced from their specific factual contexts, and (misleadingly) presented them as the general case.

The comments to Baker’s article make some useful points.  As Vic Volpe notes, software and financial patenting is arguably a bigger problem than pharma patents.  (see also, e.g., http://open.mitchellhamline.edu/cybaris/vol5/iss2/1/).  Also, BobbyG notes the misleading citation of average physician salaries in the article, which further evidences how Baker’s primary mode of argument is to distort the facts to serve his ideological agenda — in case it is in doubt what that is, Baker supports centrist “New Deal” Keynesian economic policies.  So, while it is fine that Baker critiques neoliberal policy in its promotion of “winner take all” inequality, readers can rightfully question how and why he inserts New Deal liberalism in its place.  Of course, many other critiques of patents and such are equally ideologically-driven, which is unfortunate because meaningful criticism is needed.


Addendum:  Baker has continued to promote the same line in a further interview (no surprise).  But what is hilariously ironic is that he makes the following snide comment: “There also is a reluctance to think differently. We often joke that intellectuals have a hard time accepting new ideas. Unfortunately it is close to accurate. Even well-established academics are much more likely to accept an idea from an academic with high standing than a person with less standing, no matter how compelling it might be.”  Reading the whole interview makes clear that Baker fails to see how this criticism forcefully applies to him too!