RTE Has Shamed This Country

FearImage by Eamonn Crudden

There are some – possibly many – people in this country who believe that our national broadcaster is a biased institution that too often toes the ruling political party line and ignores a lot of what should be reported. I can see why people would think this, although I have to say I would never have previously whole-heartedly agreed with it. I think there are many fine presenters and journalists who very often take the political and social elite to task.

Over the past few weeks, however, RTE has shamed this country.

On January 11th, 2014, Rory O’ Neill, who performs under the name “Panti Bliss”, appeared on The Saturday Night Show and told presenter, Brendan O’ Connor, that organisations such as the Iona Institute and individuals like John Waters were – in his opinion – homophobic because of their opposition to gay marriage and gay adoption. Solicitor’s letters immediately followed, as did an apology and the payment of a large sum of (taxpayer’s) money (85,000 Euro according to this article in the Irish Independent) to the aggrieved parties. As if this wasn’t bad enough, RTE then decided to have a “debate” on The Saturday Night Show last night – February 1st – as to when it was acceptable to use the word “homophobia”. Colm O’ Gorman and Senator Averil Power did their best to point out the ludicrousness of the notion, but they were fighting a losing battle.

If the issue weren’t so serious, the panel would have been worthy of a Monty Python sketch or an article in “The Onion” (One commentator even uttered the line, “Some of my best friends are gay.”) After the show, I took to Facebook and Twitter to apologise to any non-Irish residents who might have seen the show and to assure them that this is not what our country is about. I was not being hyperbolic or facetious – I was genuinely mortified that our national broadcaster would have thought it acceptable – in the year 2014 – to have a discussion on what was “mild” homophobia and what was “serious” homophobia.

Substitute the word “rape” for “homophobia” in that sentence and tell me that it is an acceptable subject for discussion.

What all this achieved was summed up brilliantly by O’ Neill on the stage of the Abbey Theatre on the very same night as this farce of a programme was broadcast:

“… which is a spectacular and neat Orwellian trick because now it turns out that gay people are not the victims of homophobia, homophobes are.”

Shame on you RTE. Shame on you.

Do You Remember Your First Time?

Everyone who loves to read has different first times. The first book you remember reading, the first time you read your favourite book, or the first time you read one of the books by your favourite authors. For writers, there’s another first time: the first time you encountered the possibilities of the written word. I’ll venture to say that for most writers, this occurs sometime in their teens. It certainly did for me. As such, it’s most likely not going to be Finnegans Wake that inspires this moment. For me, it was a story in a comic called Warrior. Warrior No. 8

Growing up, I was an avid reader – especially of comics. At the time in Ireland, our comics were exclusively British comics (we rarely got any American comics). The British comics that I was reading were mostly action and war comics like Victor and Battle. The stories in these comics were black and white – in the art sense and in the literal sense. It was usually the brave Allies versus the nasty Nazis. Not that some of the stories weren’t very well-written, but there was a serious lack of nuance or ambiguity there.

196. Battle

And then I read a story called Miracleman. I had recently graduated from Victor and Battle to 2000AD, a science-fiction weekly with much more well-written and nuanced stories and characters than the other titles I had been reading. I began to see how writing could be a multi-layered thing, with sub-plots, underlying themes and – most importantly – grey areas. I began to discover the lure and attraction of the anti-hero (Judge Dredd being one of the best examples of this). Then on one trip to the newsagent, I picked up a new comic. It was called Warrior. It was a monthly comic styled on the European model of anthology comics. More pages, better quality paper, and more adult themes and stories. Also, more expensive than regular comics. And the story that immediately caught my eye was Miracleman.

In 1982 – four years before he and Frank Miller would change the face of comics with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns respectively – comics writer, Alan Moore, began work on Miracleman, a story that would lay the groundwork for Watchmen’s subsequent deconstruction of the superhero mythos. Mike Moran is a freelance photographer who – upon saying the word ‘Kimota’ – becomes the superhero Miracleman. But this superhero was unlike any I – or any comic readers – had ever seen before. He was depressed, unable to have sex with his wife, and she only conceives when he has sex with her as Miracleman. I never read many Warrior comics – being both too young and too broke – but I did pick up Warrior issue 8, which contained Miracleman Episode 7 . In this issue, Moran is at his day job in the newspaper office. When he steps into the lift, a woman asks him to hold her baby while she gets something out of her bag. Then this happens:

196. Miracleman 1

This was shocking stuff. Superheroes fought monsters and aliens on other planets and mad scientists on the streets of Metropolis. They didn’t get gunned down in an elevator. The character of Mike Moran understands this and says as much:

197. Miracleman 2

The story was probably only about ten pages long but I must have read and re-read it about fifty times. Especially those final panels. And that was it. My first time realising the true power of the written word. No more black and white. From now on, there would be only grey areas.

The Inevitable Lou Reed Post


Lou Reed died yesterday, October 27, at the age of seventy-one.

Everyone knows all the “legends of Lou”: the visionary musician who formed The Velvet Underground and changed the face of rock music (Brian Eno famously said: “… the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years … I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”); the notoriously “difficult” interviewee; the one-time self-confessed junkie; the prophet and seer of New York City.  All of these will be covered by many articles in the coming days.

But the most important thing about Lou Reed was the work. And, more specifically, the lyrics. What lyrics! When he inducted Leonard Cohen into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Reed introduced him by reading excerpts from Cohen’s lyrics. After reading one verse, Reed threw his arms in the air and said, “He could have stopped there!” I feel that way about many of Lou’s lyrics. In my opinion (and there will be many who will argue with me) two of Lou’s best albums are New York and Songs for Drella.

New York is a caustic, searing – oftentimes witty – indictment of the city that Reed spent much of his life writing about.

“There’s blacks with knives and whites with guns
Fighting in Howard Beach
There’s no such thing as human rights
When you walk the New York streets
A cop was shot in the head by a 10 year old kid
Named Buddah in Central Park last week
The fathers and daughters are lined up by the coffins
By the Statue of Bigotry…”
“Hold On”

“They say things are done for the majority
Don’t believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear
It’s a lot like what my painter friend Donald said to me
“Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done”
“The Last Great American Whale”

“Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death
And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard…”
“Dirty Blvd”

“You can’t depend on any churches
Unless there’s a real estate you want to buy…”
“Busload of Faith”

Songs for Drella (an album he made with John Cale) is a much more sombre, reflective and – at times – heartbreaking meditation on Reed and Cale’s former mentor Andy Warhol.

“Andy it’s me, haven’t seen you in a while
I wished I talked to you more when you were alive
I thought you were self-assured when you acted shy
Hello it’s me…”

“When Billy Name was sick and locked up in his room
You asked me for some speed, I thought it was for you
I’m sorry that I doubted your good heart
Things always seem to end before they start…”
“Hello, it’s me”

“He’d get to the factory early
If you’d ask him he’d tell you straight out
It’s just work, the most important thing is work
No matter what I did it never seemed enough
He said I was lazy, I said I was young
He said, ‘How many songs did you write?’
I’d written zero, I’d lied and said, ‘Ten.’
‘You won’t be young forever
You should have written fifteen.’

I could, of course, quote him all day, from “Heroin” or “Coney Island Baby” or Berlin”, or any one of his twenty-two albums. (Albums that he believed – if listened to chronologically – made up his “Great American Novel”. I love that idea.)

One of the lyrics that Lou read at Leonard Cohen’s induction was a verse from “Tower of Song” and it seems apt to finish this post with it:

“I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me, baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song”

Goodnight Lou.

John Milton & “Paradise Lost”: The Man Who Made Satan Cool

188. Paradise Lost

On this day in 1667, John Milton’s Paradise Lost was registered for publication. One of the most famous poems in English literature, it is also one of the most paradoxical. Milton wrote it to – as he put it – “justify the ways of God to men”. However, it is the character of Satan rather than God who has generated the most interest – and the most controversy – since the poem’s publication. As William Blake so famously put it, Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. Or as William Empson put it in Milton’s God, “the reason why the poem is so good is that it makes God so bad”.

In writing Paradise Lost, Milton set out to establish himself in the tradition of the classical epics of Homer and Virgil. In the first two books of the epic, Satan is the main character and therefore assumes the mantle of Achilles/Odysseus, the flawed hero. This was a major change in the character of Satan, who had previously been depicted as “the ridiculous Devil of the Middle Ages, a horned enchanter, a dirty jester, a petty and mischievous ape, band-leader to a rabble of old women”, as Hippolyte Taine put it.

In both books, Satan displays what could be described as great courage in the face of adversity. Having been cast out of heaven, he says,

“What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield”

He is painted as a strong military leader, whom the other fallen angels look to for leadership, and who will not submit to the will of a tyrannical monarch. Readers of the poem in 1667 didn’t have to look too far to see similarities with a certain real-life figure. Milton had long been a supporter of Oliver Cromwell – amongst many other political tracts, he wrote Eikonoklastes, an explicit defence of the execution of Charles I, as well as Defensio secunda, which praised Oliver Cromwell. Needless to say, all this didn’t go down too well with Charles II. After the Restoration in May 1660, Milton went into hiding, while a warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings were burnt. He re-emerged after a general pardon was issued, but was nevertheless arrested and briefly imprisoned before influential friends intervened.

In Paradise Lost, the “ways of God” that Milton has to justify are particularly harsh. As Ian Johnston puts it, “[God] sounds like an irascible, peevish, irrational tyrant, filled with a self-defensiveness” and “a harsh egotist whose major interest seems an inadequate defence of His own actions and grim delight in the pain He can now inflict.” So, in writing Paradise Lost, Milton is faced with a dilemma – how does someone who has spent his life advocating justice and liberty write a narrative defending the actions of a would-be tyrant?

It seems that Milton’s solution – in the latter half of the poem – was to paint an unflattering portrait of Satan: because if he cannot convincingly defend God’s actions then he can, at least, show the extent of Satan’s evil. Satan begins to display characteristics – envy, jealousy and spite – that are a far cry from his earlier nobility. What previously had been an issue of pride – to strike back at God for injuries he had inflicted – now turns into malice for its own sake.

There are some critics, such as Stanley Fish in his influential book Surprised by Sin, who claim that Milton deliberately makes Satan attractive at the beginning of the poem to seduce the reader in; his subsequent degradation is a warning to the reader of the dangers of sin, especially the sin of pride and arrogance.

But to many readers – this one included – it would seem that, however unwittingly, Milton sympathised with his antagonist. Perhaps he realised this after he had written the first two books and tried to set it right. If so, he doesn’t succeed. The strongest character in the poem remains the character of Satan. A proud, flawed, and – ultimately doomed – anti-hero.

And what reader doesn’t love one of those.

The Truth About … the “Wild West”

Gunfighters 6607

One of the biggest historical myths is that of the “Wild West”. It’s not hard to see why this myth has thrived. Names like Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok, places like Tombstone and Deadwood and events like the Gunfight at the OK Corral, have ensured the public’s fascination with gun-toting cowboys. However, the truth is a far cry from such stories.

The main part of the myth is the level of violence in the “Wild West”. If the stories and movies about the period are to be believed, cowboys were running riot throughout the frontier towns, shooting anything that moved. However, the article “Violence in the Wild West?”  highlights the real truth:

 “There were never more than five murders in any given cattle town during a single year despite the presence, on both sides of the law, of gunfighters … During the peak years of cattle towns, the average number of homicides was only 1.5 a year for each town.”

In the article “The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality”  Thomas J. DiLorenzo writes:

 “Eugene Hollon writes that the western frontier ‘was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today’. Terry Anderson and P. J. Hill affirm that although ‘[t]he West … is perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life,’ their research ‘indicates that this was not the case; property rights were protected and civil order prevailed’.”

The reason for this?

“Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved … organizations [such] as land clubs, cattlemen’s associations, mining camps, and wagon trains.”

“The wagon trains that transported thousands of people to the California gold fields and other parts of the West usually established their own constitutions before setting out … Ostracism and threats of banishment from the group, instead of threats of violence, were usually sufficient to correct rule breakers’ behaviour.”

So how did the image of the “Wild West” come about? Partly through some individual’s self-perpetuation of the myth (Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok, for instance); partly because of certain newspaper editor’s wild imaginations; and – with the advent of cinema – partly because of the equally wild imaginations of certain film writers and directors.

But one of the main reasons for the violent image of the “Wild West” is because of the US government’s treatment of the Native American population. Following the Civil War, the huge project of constructing a Trans Continental railway was undertaken. There was enormous amounts of money to be made from such a project and the men who stood to make that money all had ties to the ruling Republican Party. Only one thing stood in their way – the Native Americans.

When he became President, Ulysses Grant put his fellow “war heroes” General William Sherman and General Phillip Sheridan in charge of the “Indian problem”:

“Thus,” writes Michael Fellman in Citizen Sherman, “the great triumvirate of the Union Civil War effort formulated and enacted military Indian policy until reaching, by the 1880s, what Sherman sometimes referred to as ‘the final solution of the Indian problem’”.

“During the Civil War,” writes John Marzalek, author of Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order, “Sherman and Sheridan had practiced a total war of destruction of property … Now the army, in its Indian warfare, often wiped out entire villages … Sherman insisted that the only answer to the Indian problem was all-out war – of the kind he had utilized against the Confederacy.”

Fellman goes on:

“What Sherman called the ‘final solution of the Indian problem’ involved killing hostile Indians and segregating their pauperized survivors in remote places … Sherman gave orders to kill everyone and everything, including dogs, and to burn everything that would burn so as to increase the likelihood that any survivors would starve or freeze to death. The soldiers also waged a war of extermination on the buffalo, which was the Indians’ chief source of food.”

And so emerged the Hollywood image of “Cowboys and Indians” constantly attacking each other. In Hollywood movies, it was usually the Native Americans who were portrayed as the aggressors. In truth, it was the other way round. Of course, tales of the US government’s mistreatment of the Native Americans is not anything new. But it is interesting that this is one of the reasons for the myth of the “Wild West” as a violent and lawless frontier.

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Hunter S. Thompson’s Wild Ride

185. Hunter S Thompson

If there was ever a person for whom the phrase “larger than life” was invented it’s Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson blazed a trail of drugs and excess through his life, inventing a new style of journalism along the way. He once ran for Sheriff of Aspen on a platform of decriminalising drugs, turning streets into pedestrian malls, and renaming Aspen “Fat City” to try and keep investors away. Also, hilariously, Thompson shaved his head and referred to his opponent – who had a crew cut – as “my long-haired opponent”. In the end, Thompson narrowly lost the election.

But Hunter was also a serious journalist. In 1970, he wrote an article which would spawn a new type of journalism, one which he would become famous for: Gonzo Journalism. The article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” was a result of a last minute deadline. Pressed for time, Thompson started sending the magazine pages ripped directly from his notebook that he hadn’t edited. The style which would become known as Gonzo involved the writer placing himself into the story (as opposed to the objective and invisible journalist).

The book that would make Thompson famous was written on a trip to Las Vegas, ostensibly to interview a Mexican-American attorney for an article Thompson was working on, as well as to write a short piece on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. The subsequent book – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – turned out to be a whole different animal altogether. This was evident from the opening paragraph:

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive …’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?’

 Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. ‘What the hell are you yelling about,’ he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘It’s your turn to drive.’ I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.”

The contents of their trunk have gone down in literary history:

“The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls … Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”

 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would be a rumination on the death of the American Dream and the failure of the 60s counter-culture. Hunter’s disgust at the death of the American Dream led him to become more interested in politics. He followed the candidates on the Campaign Trail for the 1972 Presidential election, which became the book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Thompson saved some of his finest vitriol for Richard Nixon. He once described him as a man who “could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time” and said “[He] was an evil man – evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it.”

In the 1980s, Thompson became more reclusive and spent more time at his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek. He died there in 2005 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His family believe it was not a sudden decision but something that Thompson had planned. He was in chronic pain due to a number of different medical problems. The note that Thompson left behind would seem to confirm this:

 “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

 His friend Ralph Steadman said, “He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment.”

Hunter once said, “I hate to advocate drugs or liquor, violence, insanity to anyone – but in my case it’s worked”.

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What’s So Wrong With Spotify?

181. Spotify

For those not familiar with it, Spotify is an online music service that allows you to stream music. There are both free and paid options. So, what’s wrong with that? Well, probably nothing if you’re one of the 20 million people who have used the service since its creation in 2008. However, if you’re Thom Yorke – lead singer with the band Radiohead – there’s a lot wrong with Spotify. Last week, Yorke removed his solo music and the music of his side project “Atoms For Peace” from Spotify, saying in a tweet:

 “Make no mistake new artists you discover on Spotify will no[t] get paid. Meanwhile shareholders will shortly be rolling in it. Simples.”

 He went on to defend those who would call his move meaningless:

 “‘Your small meaningless rebellion is only hurting your fans…a drop in the bucket really’ No we’re standing up for our fellow musicians.”

182. Thom YorkeThom Yorke. Thinks Spotify is a ‘Creep’

And he’s not alone in his criticism of Spotify. Patrick Carney of the Black Keys said that “Spotify isn’t fair to artists”, while Biffy Clyro guitarist Mike Vennart said, “I’d sooner people stole my work than stream it from [Spotify]. They pay the artists virtually nothing. Literally pennies per month. Yet they make a killing.”

And they’re right, at least when it comes to the amounts paid to musicians. According to Wikipedia, “an artist on Spotify would need over four million streams per month to earn US$1,160 (equivalent to working full-time at a minimum wage job).” One of the most streamed songs of recent months was Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, which surpassed 1 million streams. Using the above formula, that’s still “only” $290 and – let’s face it – no new artist trying to break out is going to come anywhere near 1 million views.

But, here’s the kicker. It’s the same story with all online streaming services. The other big player in the market – iTunes – pays similar rates. I say similar because it’s hard to nail down an exact figure for either service as there seems to be differences between paid and premium users and also depending on the amount of streams.

There were, of course, those who took another view of Spotify. Twitter user @kube555 commented: “Flipside to Spotify coin. I’ve discovered countless new bands through it. In turn leads me to increase their [money] by seeing them live.” Irish journalist Una Mullally seemed to sum up the thoughts of many when she tweeted:

Una Mullally2

Una Mullally

Spotify themselves said in a statement: “Spotify’s goal is to grow a service which people love, ultimately want to pay for and which will provide the financial support to the music industry necessary to invest in new talent and music.

“We’ve already paid $500 million to rights holders so far and by the end of 2013 this number will reach $1 billion. Much of this money is being invested in nurturing new talent and producing great new music.”

So where does all this leave musicians like me and probably hundreds others like me? Both of my albums are available to stream on Spotify. (I release my albums through “CD Baby” and Spotify is one of the many affiliate music sites they send music to.) But, the fact is, given the amount of plays I will get, I’m not going to make much money from Spotify, and neither are any other artists at the same level as me.

But – and here’s the catch 22 – I can get exposure for my music on Spotify. Someone like Thom Yorke doesn’t need exposure; someone like me does. New artists need both exposure and sales, but from Spotify, we’re only going to get one of those things? So, the question is: is one of those things better than none at all?