Albums as Texts: Legless Bull by Government Issue (D.C. Hardcore)

leglessbull“Anarchy is DEAD” — Government Issue 

The Chomsky-Foucault Debate
Government Issue, Legless Bull
Bad Brains, Black Dots
Void, Faith, Void/Faith
Minor Threat, Salad Days

[This is a column about lyrics as texts, not a history of music column.  Through close readings of album titles, song titles and close readings of lyrics, we will listen toward the microcosm of the album, and the macrocosm of Youth Culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and more recent decades.]

Are you ready for nine minutes of hardcorest D.C. punk music?  Check out Legless Bull, the first e.p. by Government Issue, released in 1981.  When punk music first arrived on the District of Columbia music scene in 1979, the city was impoverished and regimented into strict racial ghettos, making it difficult to travel from one side of the city to another.  But D.C. had also a steady stream of upper-middle class government workers, educated and intelligent–the children of whom would soon become the lyricists of bands such as the Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Void and Government Issue.

With D.C. Hardcore music, gone is the freakout-for-the-sake-of-freakout of the New York and U.K. scene, as well as the obsession with chemical intoxication of the West Coast.  The Straight-edge movement of Youth Culture has remnants still today, with Youths tattooing black Xs on the back of their hands, indicating they cannot be served alcohol.

The album Legless Bull goes straight to its most direct critique, with the rhetorical voice of condemnation.  First targets for Government Issue’s lyricist, Stabb, are Evangelical Christians.  “Send us money, and you’ll be saved/ pretty soon you’ll be our slave/…Religious rip-off/ Gospel scam/ Ernest Angeley, Billy Graham/ Upside-down cross is what you should wear ”  Track three, “Rock and Roll Bullshit,” advances the satire of drug culture, as well as corporate acts such as Van Halen, Super Tramp and Rock’n’Roll Camp.

Then comes the lyrical highlight of the album, “Anarchy is Dead.”  In the 90’s, the Sex Pistols’ lyric, “Anarchy in the U.K.” became the immediately identifiable cry of the poser, but Government Issue tackles the hard truth of governmental necessity in 1981.  Which leads us to the Chomsky-Foucault debate. 
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews 2/19/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger. Reviewed by Ron Charles (Washington Post).

Oh man, just read this opener by Charles:

Forget Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa tower; the hot new super-agent is 14th-century writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Thrill to his daring Middle English rimes! Gasp at his mighty scansion! Here in the pages of Bruce Holsinger’s medieval adventure, that randy old poet finally gets the “Mission Impossible” cameo he deserves.

Sounds dumb, but also kinda awesome. Charles seems to actually have enjoyed the book quite a bit, though it’s hard to tell sometimes whether he is being sincere or derisive. There’s more summary here than we usually get from WaPo, but it’s still worth a read.


barkBark, by Lorrie Moore. Reviewed by Charles McGrath (New York Times).

McGrath doesn’t really say much about the book, which is Moore’s first story collection in 16 years, instead focusing more on the author herself. Whatever, though, Moore is a really good writer, and at least some of the stories in here are sure to be strong.


Afrofuturism, by Ytasha L. Womack. Reviewed by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons Reviews).

I like perusing the Strange Horizons site for two things: learning of good sci-fi books I might want to read, and indulging in the occasional teardown. This time, I found something closer to the former in a pretty decent piece of literary criticism about an art aesthetic I’d never even heard of before. I don’t know when I’ll have the time to read Afrofuturism, but I totally want to learn more.


Quickly: Murakami fans can look forward to his latest in English this summer. Describe a book as “a Mexican family’s comic woes vibrantly recall Greek mythology and the young James Joyce” and I’m sold.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 2/12/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


parthenonThe Parthenon Enigma, by Joan Bretton Connelly. Reviewed by Nick Curley (Barnes & Noble Review).

This isn’t actually a review, but an excerpt with an editor’s preface–and it’s fascinating. I wish I had the time to invest in this book, which explores the millennia-old mysteries of one of the West’s most recognizable pieces of architecture, but also its monumental (sorry) impact on the Western thought since the Enlightenment. Give the excerpt a shot, because I’m not doing a very good job of expressing Connelly’s premise. 


H R C,  by Amie Parnes and Johnathan Howell. Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani (New York Times).

I love Hillary and can’t wait for her to be our next president. However, I can’t really stomach contemporary political books though–they either serve a masturbatory role for supporters or an antagonistic one for the opposition, neither of which is worth my time–so I’ll be passing on this, but fans of this sort of thing should enjoy what’s on offer here, which is essentially a start to the 2016 hype machine. Really though, my main hope for this book is that somewhere out there there is a conservative leaning book blog that has a jovial editor (or maybe grumpy in this Bizarro fantasy) that’s gonna get drunk on a podcast and review this book with escalating rage.


Alena, by Rachel Pastan. Reviewed by Carolyn Parkhurst (Washington Post).

I’m a sucker for retellings. I don’t know why, since they are far more often bad than good. But it sounds like Pastan’s modern day Cape Cod retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca might actually be worth a read. Of course, I’ve got to read du Maurier’s original first…


Quickly: Here’s some cute, heart-filled children’s books. I’m by no means a religious person, but I love the new pope, whose latest awesome deed (endorsing the new Ms. Marvel, which sports a Muslim, Pakistani-American female protagonist) caught a lot of people’s attention. This gallery of famous authors’ houses is a nice curio. Maybe BJ Novak’s stories are funny, or maybe they’re terrible.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 2/5/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


triple-packageThe Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Jed Rubenfeld and Amy ChuaReviewed by Hector Tobar at the L.A. Times.

Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother rose to controversial fame on its simple, racist thesis that “Chinese mothers are superior.” Now Chua has teamed up with her husband to controversially explore racism in another book, this one about why certain “national-origin groups” are more successful than others. Tobar gratifyingly dismantles this drek, which he calls “sloppy” and “shallow.” It’s a fun ride.


For Today I Am a Boy: A Novel, by Kim FuReviewed by Jiayang Fan at the New York Times.

The only precious son in a Chinese-American family of daughters desperately longs to be a girl. That’s a simple but surprisingly compelling premise.


The News: A User’s Manual, by Alain de BottonReviewed by Ian Jack at the Guardian.

De Botton retains credentials both as an approachable modern “philosopher” (by publishing yet another slight volume about a narrow subject) and one of the world’s most condescending assholes (that subtitle, blech). Jack wrangles with him well, taking him to task for Gladwellian simplifications and obfuscations, ultimately finding it propagandish and far from thorough.


All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, by Jennifer SeniorReviewed by Andrew Solomon at the New York Times.

I’m not sure exactly how useful parenting books are to childless people—probably about as much use as my set of Perfect Pushups are to me. Still, the review is a bit interesting. It seems Senior’s book takes a semi-historical view of parenting, tracking the time when children went “from being our employees to our bosses” as she writes. I take exception to the notion that parents are happier than people without children, but Senior does caveat that they are also more miserable. Plus, I find the title intriguing. Not enough to, you know, read the book, but intriguing.


In brief: Well, it’s been 5 months since the last Joyce Carol Oates novel, time for a new one. … Marilyn Stasio calls Isabel Allende’s mystery novel “ungainly,” “eccentric,” “thoroughly charming,” and “a lot of fun to read.” … A film institute is publishing Charlie Chaplin’s novel sixty years after he wrote it.David L. Ulin writes about William S. Burroughs on the occasion of his 100th birthday. … That guy from the office wrote a book of stories (not him, the other guy… no the other other guy).

Book Radar: February 2014

[This monthly feature is a brief look at interesting upcoming books. These are not reviews, these are previews; we have not read these books. Follow Book Radar here. Click the title links to find more info about these books.]


Some craziness around the holidays (including a Boston blizzard that caused me to miss a flight to a wedding) prevented me from writing the January version of this column, so let’s catch up this month.


barkBark: Stories, by Lorrie Moore (out 2/25)

New stories by Lorrie Moore, one of the funniest living writers, period. I don’t even have anything else to say in this blurb, because I didn’t bother to read anything else about the collection before I put it in the number 1 spot for the month. If you’ve never read Moore, start with Self-Help. Maybe the funniest and most original debut story collection ever.

badluck-wayBadluck Way, by Bryce Andrews (out now)

“Mine might have been a simple, pretty story, if not for the wolves. In late July, they emerged from the foothills . . .” That’s a hell of a first line. This memoir about life on a Montana ranch sounds like a ragged modern western. Sold.

annihilationAnnihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (out 2/2)

I’m not on board with the first volume of a trilogy weighing in at a scant 208 pages. Why not write one 600-page book? It stinks a bit of squeezing three books’ worth of money out of a single book’s worth of writing. But I can’t ignore the early reviews, which are uniformly glowing. The story follows a secret expedition to a geographically vague location called Area X, where many previous expeditions have met their doom. There are colorful characters, including a leader with hypnotic powers, and a bizarre landscape to tackle, featuring such things as a fungus spore that bestows ESP. All in all, a decidedly supernatural, and probably highly stylized, tale of espionage and conspiracy.

dominionDominion, by CJ Sansom (out now)

I’m not usually one for speculative fiction, but this WWII alternate history—in which Germany won, the UK is a willing Third Reich territory, and Winston Churchill leads the resistance—sounds epic enough to be fun. And it’s available on Audible, which is my new kryptonite.

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Albums as Texts: The Clash (’76)

“Coma girl and the excitement gang, nobody dissing the teen-scene gang” 

–Joe Strummer
Elmer Rice, the Adding Machine
the Clash, the Clash (American release)
AC/DC, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheep (Australian release)
the Sex Pistols, Nevermind the Bollocks, here’s
movie: a Way of Life
Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times


[Punk music: what does it mean?  What problems of society do punk lyricists recognize? What solutions do these groups offer?  How do social, economic and political moments effect Youth Culture, and how are these interpreted through Youth Culture?  If punk is about tearing down, what remains when all is torn down?  What rhetorical voice does each lyricist use?  How low can a punk get?  I argue these questions can be answered through a close reading of the best albums in the punk project and following punk tradition, of their lyrics, mixed with analysis of contemporary cultural theory and a few additional 20th century texts.  This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column.  We will engage in close readings of lyrics, song-titles and album titles, toward the microcosm of the album, and the broader macrocosm of Youth Culture in the 1970’s, 80’s and more recent decades.]

The same record company woes whined about by the Sex Pistols are dealt with far more complexly by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash, on their first album, the Clash.  I like the American release, it furthers criticism of the U.S., but not in Rotten’s rude sexualized terms, but the U.S. as an ideology-pumping megastructure on a global scale.

Clash City Rockers seems a little pale today, but was hard rock at the time.  And the critique is there, “don’t complain about your useless employment.”  Mic Jones and Joe Strummer’s rhetorical voice is one of the most interesting and dynamic in all punk music.  I’m so Bored with the USA follows second on the American release, “Yankee detectives are always on the T.V….  nevermind the stars and stripes lets watch the Watergate tapes.”  This is a system of ideology under critique by Strummer.  So called air-space, these programed networks– decentralized, which is a mercy– woke us up and put us to sleep from the 1950s to the 1990s.

On the American release, Remote Control and Complete Control are a textual suite, united even in their title theme of control, or lack there of.  Remote Control, a Mic Jones song with Strummer interspersed: “can’t make a noise, can’t get no gear, can’t make no money, can’t get out of here.  Big business it don’t like you… You got no money, so you got no power.  They think you’re useless.”  Youth Culture is deemed useless by the corporate entities, according to Jones.  The interplay between the two lyricists is dynamic, as well, Jones repeating “repression,” while Strummer struts, “I am a robot.”  Straight out of Elmer Rice and Charlie Chaplin, man as machine, not even, as a small part of a machine. 
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 1/22/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


the-keptThe Kept, by James ScottReviewed by John Smolens at the Washington Post.

Somebody using the phrase “powerful debut novel” usually makes my eyes glaze over, but this rave about James Scott’s first novel has me intrigued instead. Sure, it’s mostly just the Coen-brothers-esque violence and weird details like “various forms of death by ice.” I’m a sucker for a frontier story that actually makes the frontier sound as awful as it must have truly been.


Winter, by Christopher NicholsonReviewed by Ian Sansom at the Guardian.

The studies suggest that unrequited love hurts like physical pain. Still, it’s a hard subject to dramatize. Nicholson’s “thistledown” novel, about Thomas Hardy’s unrequited love, might have a shot.


Priscilla, by Nicholas ShakespeareReviewed by Alan Riding at the New York Times.

My first thought, upon seeing the headline of this review, was: who has the balls to use Nicholas Shakespeare as their byline? Even if that’s your real name, the best anybody’s ever going to think about your work is, “Second-best Shakespeare I’ve read.” Anyway, this is a memoir about the guy’s aunt, who was evidently a notable operative in WWII, and it seems decently entertaining (it does warrant the sentence: “Only on their honeymoon … did Priscilla discover he was impotent.”). Still, I bet it’s no Richard III.


In brief: This novel about a writing program sounds insufferable, but maybe that’s just the stink of Adam Langer on it. … A new book about Pussy Riot and their “revolution.”A new boxing novel purported to be excellent.Tom LeClair calls Richard Powers “a writer at the level of Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace,” which is almost certainly hyperbole, but damn me if it doesn’t make the book sound better.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 1/16/14

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


the-conductor-and-other-tales-3The Conductor and Other Tales, by Jean Ferry. Reviewed by Michael Dirda (Washington Post).

When Dirda says a set of stories “may remind you of Italo Calvino or Steven Millhauser at their most beguiling,” I don’t need to read anymore. I’m sold. I did read on though, and then promptly ordered a copy of the book–which is not new, by the way, but in re-release. If you like short fiction and the fantastic, this sounds like a winner.


The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, by Olivia Laing. Interviewed by Jasmine Elist (Los Angeles Times).

Speaking as someone who unabashedly drank his way through an MFA program, the romance (with all the highs and lows that entails) between writers and alcohol is a fascinating one. Elist’s puffball interview questions aside, some of the insight Laing dug up for this book sounds pretty fascinating. It runs the risk of being a preachy or didactic screed of course, but could just as easily be an interesting exploration into the creative process of six beloved authors.


Brown Dog, by Jim Harrison. Reviewed by Heller McAlpin (Barnes & Noble Review).

This “rollicking” collection of five previously published novellas (and one new one) about a eccentric woodsman sounds brimming with character and charm. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to read a book featuring this guy: “There’s something hapless but never hopeless about Brown Dog, who constantly gets caught up in harebrained schemes to protect what’s sacred to him, including the Anishinabe burial grounds, whose location he’s stupidly divulged to a seductive anthropology graduate student during a ‘pussy trance.’” McAplin is a lucid reviewer, so the review is worth reading in it’s own right.


Quickly: This romance novelist just landed an 8-figure advance; I hope it puts St. Martin’s out of business. Semi-related, this guy should totally be running HarperCollins for real. Instead they are doing the same tired, old stuff. (Also, the origin of that YA book “by” Frey is beyond grimy, and NYT should know better.)

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 1/8/13

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


I was not supposed to be here. I was supposed to be, literally, on a beach in Jamaica as I type this. I understand that shit’s Mars-cold in Minnesota, but here in Boston we had one day of heavy snow and somehow the airlines are crippled, still, a week later. Our friends who went to Jamaica early (it was a wedding) were supposed to leave Sunday and are still there as of now (Tuesday). But their situation is harder to pity. Anyway, all that’s by way of saying: if I come off just a touch saltier this week, you now know why.


little-failureLittle Failure, by Gary ShteyngartReviewed by Michiko Kakutani at the New York Times.

If you agree with Kakutani’s opening premise—that Shteyngart is the funniest working writer among a peer group of super-talented “immigrant” authors including Jhumpa Lahiri and Edwidge Danticat—then sure, I guess keep reading. Personally, I see Shteyngart as the literary equivalent of American Hustle: good, and entertaining, but all of the superlatives feel like reaching (best comedy of the year? seriously? are the Golden Globes completely paid for by Columbia Pictures?). I think Shteyngart is pretty good. His first two novels were indeed pretty funny, although they were basically two different versions of the same story, and neither was as side-splitting as it was cracked up to be. (A few books I have found exceptionally funny: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and anything by Amy Hempel.) I honestly couldn’t finish Super Sad True Love Story, one of those sci-fi books that impress people who’ve never read sci-fi, or watched a sci-fi movie, or heard of Star Trek. I guess my main problem with Shteyngart praise is that I do not believe he offers something notable besides comedy. Kakutani treats him like he’s Nabokov with jokes, and I’m just not convinced.


The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think, by Julian BagginiReviewed by Steven Poole at the Guardian.

These philosophical food books that are always coming out usually pique my interest but I’ve never actually read one. This one sounds like exactly the same situation, except for an amusing review. The Guardian’s reviewer is not only an author in the same area as the reviewee, Poole’s book is actually mentioned (kindly, Poole reports) in The Virtues of the Table. What happens next is unheard of in an American paper. Instead of pussyfooting around, trying desperately not to offend his colleague, the author, Poole lays into him (at least, by today’s standards). “I remained serenely unpersuaded by his overall argument,” Poole summarizes, and though he praises a few moments in Virtues, you get the sense of an actual review being written here, and not just another link in the “let’s convince the peasants to buy our wares” publishing chain. It’s refreshing.


Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, by Peter KornReviewed by Spike Carlsen at the Star-Tribune.

The so-called maker movement continues to pick up steam these days, and I count myself among those gravitating toward more “old-fashioned” creativity in a world beset on all sides by cheap, automated manufacturing. Korn takes a decidedly philosophical, almost dreamy approach toward analyzing this movement, and Carlsen finds himself on board.


In brief: The NYT’s second review of Little Failure doesn’t contradict Kakutani, but does feature 99.8% plot summary. I honestly don’t understand how their book review is so poorly run, they double review books and then print reviews that would look amateurish at Goodreads. Good use of resources, guys. … Andrew Sean Greer loves Chang-Rae Lee’s latest, but always take author reviews with much salt. … OK, but to give the NYT credit, this review of Martin Gardner’s autobiography by Teller, of Penn & Teller, is pretty unique. And it will make you feel like a lazy asshole since Gardner wrote and edited more than 100 books and wrote this one in a nursing home at the age of 95. … A bookless public library has opened in San Antonio, begging the question: do you really need a $2.5 million building for that? … The L.A. Times’s book review section is now called “What to Read” which misses at least half the point of a book review section. … Katherine A. Powers discusses her discovery of the Irish crime writer Gene Kerrigan. …

Albums as Texts: Horses (’75)

“In my Blakeian days”

 – Patti Smith, book lecture at Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery


Patti Smith, Just Kids
Ezra Pound, Cantos
Patti Smith, Horses


[This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column.  We will examine album lyrics for meaning, and analyze with close readings album titles, and song titles, combined with close reading of lyrics.  We are reading, listening and looking toward the microcosm of the album, and the broader macrocosm of Youth Culture in the 1970’s, 80’s and more recent decades.  ]

Now for a real trip: Patti Smith’s Horses.

When she wrote her song “My Blakian Days,” performed on her 2012 book tour, Patti Smith felt out of favor and unappreciated as a major poet in league with William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, and Ezra Pound.  This was before her book Just Kids– an autobiography of her life with photographer Robert Maplethorpe– became a finalist for the American National Book Award.

New York in ’75: this was the beginning of the US punk scene, with bands like Patti Smith, Blondie, the Ramones and the New York Dolls.  Smith experienced disenfranchisement, unemployment, and extreme-poverty.  And along with all these other bands, a hefty dose of androgyny.  Very punk, tearing down neo-Liberal binaries of gender and the desired body.  How many genders have you met?  I’ve met Female, Male, FtM transgender, MtF transgender, talked with third-gender eunuchs and a eunuch male, and exchanged emails with a self-identifying gender-queer woman.

But ‘75 in New York City had everything that seventies punk would become– rock’n’roll, Max’s Kansas City, and unaffordable housing.  What was missing, that punk first gained in UK in ’76, was the rebellion.

To open the album, she repeats, “My sins my own, they belong to me.”  So ask yourself, what else, then, if anything, belongs to her?

In Gloria, Patti Smith sings as a genderless figure desiring a woman– she has no gender.  She has a way with words, to be sure, and a rhythmically emphatic vocal style, “I let my eyes rise to the big tower clock, and I heard those bells chimin’ in my heart, goin’, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong.”
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