Saturday, November 28, 2015

The tango lives on in Argentina--in its politics as well as in its streets and tango halls

(Enrique Santos Discépolo)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Enrique Santos Discépolo, supreme poet and lyricist of the tango, once penned these words:

Don’t you see, you poor fool
That whoever’s got the most dough is right?
That honor’s sold for cash, and morals for pennies?
That no truth can withstand two bucks?

The tango is more than a dance. “Nostalgic and forlorn, viewing time present as a misfortune, the tango reflected a total style of life,” writes author Robert D. Crassweller in his sweeping Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina, “a psychology, a creative sensibility that nevertheless expressed the viewpoint of the loser with a fatalism recalling the Moorish strain in the Creole heritage.”

(To the right, tango in the Confitería Ideal)

I thought about such things as I recently wandered Calle Florida and the other streets, boulevards and plazas of this fascinating city, listened to tango in the ancient Café Tortoni, and danced it in the century-old Confitería Ideal.

(To the left, tango in the Café Tortoni)

I thought about them while reading the newspapers, too, with voters lining up to choose between the Peronist Daniel Scioli and the neo-liberal Mauricio Macri for president. Twelve years of Kirchnerismo—the pro-worker, neo-Peronism of the late Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina—were coming to an end, and the question was whether Argentina’s fragile economy will continue to march forward from the disastrous bankruptcy and depression of 2001 or turn back the clock to those bad old days.

Macri, the well-do-do former businessman-turned-mayor of Buenos Aires, won the election, but the ghosts and legacies of Juan Peron and the Kirchners will haunt him if he attempts to implement the “austerity” politics that helped get Argentina into trouble in the first place.

I talked to workers along Calle Florida who were passing out anti-Macri literature. Hernan Pose and Rodolfo Olmos, both members of the CTA (Central de trabajadores de la Argentina) workers organization, told me they worried about the conservative Macri’s policies on public education, immigration, debt and credit issues.

(To the right, Argentine workers Hernan Pose on the left and Rodolfo Olmos on the right)

Argentina was an early victim of global neo-liberal business practices that take productive companies and run them into bankruptcy by saddling them with huge, unpayable debt while enriching the corporate pirates who ran them and as well as those who buy and sell them and blame the workers for their problems.

This story is eloquently told in Sin Patrón, a book by the Lavaca Collective (a worker-run collective of journalists in Argentina) about how workers themselves took over approximately 170 such companies in the early 2000s and brought them back to life.

Argentina was once one of the six richest countries in the world. Vast with its own “Wild West” history that includes the elimination of native cultures as a cost of the land’s Europeanization, this is a country that saw itself as a potential global leader, not an economic basket case.

There is a sense of unfulfilled mission in Argentina. Its most famous politicians, Juan Perón and his wife Evita, created hope in many of a glorious future, but in their wake came a brutal dictatorship and ongoing divisions between Perónists and anti-Perónists.

The tango can be heard everywhere in Buenos Aires. It’s in the streets as well as the old halls where the great tango king Carlos Gardel, “El Zorzal Criollo” (“The Creole Thrush”), used to sing. Nostalgic and fatalistic, indeed, but glorious, too, and mysterious with the potential of all mysteries for either good or bad.

I’ll return soon to Argentina in another column that will look at the country’s open-door policies toward immigration.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tav Falco: expatriate torchbearer of Memphis music, the artist as outsider with a clear view of what's inside

(To the left, Tav Falco with yours truly in Memphis)

 MEMPHIS – Tav Falco, enfant terrible of the 1980s, still the provocateur and “psychobilly” master, walked onto the stage at Lafayette’s Music Room here, dressed in black, his hair a Nuevo-‘50s coif, picked up his guitar and let loose.

I listened from the balcony to an indictment of ethnic arrogance.
These people don’t look like us—they don’t smell like us
We are the masters of their miserable fate
For mercy they get down on their knees to pray
But we’re superior in every way—they’re insects in every way
It's doomsday baby

Falco was the Antonin Artaud of the Memphis punk and post-punk scene who in his first performance in the late 1970s took a chainsaw to his guitar and sliced it into pieces before passing out on stage. But no longer must he bear insults such as when local TV host Marge Thrasher told him his band Panther Burns’ just-finished gonzo performance of Johnny Burnett’s “The Train Kept A Rollin’” “may be the worst sound I’ve heard come out on television.”

Falco’s live-TV response to her insult was Tom Waits-precious: “Well, the best of the worst is what we’re after.”

(To the right, Tav Falco performing in Mempis)

 “The artist, he is never really on the inside,” the Arkansas native told me in one of two recent telephone interviews he gave me while on his just-ended cross-country tour, a tour that included stops in Clarksdale as well as Memphis. “He can see what is happening on the inside, but he moves around on the outside. … He’s never quite assimilated.”

Falco today is an expatriate living in Vienna, Austria, another river town, a Memphis-like outpost on the Danube River where money and profits “are not the defining criteria” of the artist.

Even when Falco was living in Memphis and performing with legends like Jim Dickinson and Big Star leader Alex Chilton, he stood apart, a “torchbearer” of the city’s music at its post-Sun and post-Stax nadir yet bringing to it what writer Robert Gordon called “country blues … with a punk aesthetic.”

He named his band Panther Burns after the Mississippi Delta town, which got its name from a troublesome panther whose ungodly shrieks after being caught and burned alive are still supposed to haunt the nights there. The band played everything from rockabilly to tango.

“As far as punk aesthetic, I never ascribed to that,” Falco told me. “I am just a working artist. I don’t ascribe to these labels. I use the term rock ‘n’ roll to cover a broad spectrum.”

Along with his “Whistle Blower” tour, Falco has just released a new album, Tav Falco: Command Performance, and a new book of his early black-and-white photographs, An Iconography of Chance: 99 Photographs of the Evanescent South. Some of these photographs also appeared in Falco’s monumental 2011 book, Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death, a surreal history of Memphis in which Falco, as alter-ego Eugene Baffle, travels through time alongside figures as diverse as General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Machine Gun Kelly.

A noted filmmaker and actor as well as musician, photographer and author, Falco acknowledged his art has taken on a new edge, overtly socially conscious and acutely aware of injustices both here and abroad. “I’m all for art for art’s sake, but there comes a point where the artist, the rank-and-file artist citizen, can no longer remain silent, because silence is complicity.”

On his new album, the song “Whistle Blower” warns of a creeping fascism in American society where figures like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are hounded and punished for revealing the dark underbelly of the nation’s politics and policies. Another song, “Doomsday Baby”, is a broadside against Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians.

Falco said he’d like to return home someday but things stand in the way. “Arkansas is so crazy, so benighted and so fascist, I find it difficult to entertain that idea,” he said. “Arkansas used to be a marvelous place to live.”
Yet in some ways he has never left. Along with its protest songs, Tav Falco: Command Performance also includes paeans to Memphis and Southern music: Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues”, Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok” and Charlie Feathers’ “Jungle Fever”. And his book of photographs, the first in a planned series of three, pays homage to an “evanescent South” that is always with him.

“There is a landscape that draws people … a social fabric,” he said.

He remembers his first trip from backwoods Arkansas to the big city of Memphis and hearing blues musicians such as the Memphis Jug Band, Napoleon Strickland, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Bukka White. “I was enthralled. … I saw how they mesmerized the audience and how the ladies and gentleman were throwing silver dollars at them.”

It’s not something an artist easily forgets.

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Labor needs an old-time revival in the South with preachers shouting a new gospel that champions working folks!

(To the right, a 1930s strike banner on display at the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, Ark.) 

I’ve long preached about the need for labor and progressives in general who want to win over the South to tap into a Southern tradition that doesn’t get much attention but which is every bit as real as those other, darker traditions that have held the region back much of its history. I’m talking about populism, real populism, not the faux kind pushed today by Fox News, but a rock-ribbed belief that blue-collar, small farmer, black and white and brown Southerners deserve their seat at the table and a voice in their lives.

You saw that tradition in Myrtle Lawrence, a white, uneducated, snuff-dipping sharecropper who became one of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union’s best organizers in the 1930s. She was a major force in rallying the poorest of the South’s poor to demand their rights as human beings, and to do it  she had to withstand the condescending snickering of white Northern liberals and Southern black activists as well as the threats of landowners and right-wing politicians.

Today, most Democrats are too weak-kneed and compromised to reach out to modern-day Myrtle Lawrences who might help turn around the region that spawned the poisonous Tea Party movement that is pushing the Republican Party even further to the right.

“Democrats should demand that Tea Party rebels explain why they are in league with a party that intends to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in order to finance more tax cuts for billionaires,” William Greider writes in the latest edition of The Nation. “If common folks ever understand the corrupt nature of the Republican coalition, we will see a popular rebellion that makes the present chaos look like, well, a tea party.”

The depth of that corruption can be seen in the current series running in the New York Times, “A `Privatization’ Of the Justice System’”, that details how corporations have sidetracked the nation’s judicial system into corporate-friendly arbitration in handling consumer and employee lawsuits and complaints.

“All it took was adding simple arbitration clauses to contracts that most employees and consumers do not even read,” reporters Jessica Silver Greenberg and Michael Corkery wrote. “Yet at stake are claims of medical malpractice, sexual harassment, hate crimes, discrimination, theft, fraud, elder abuse and wrongful death.”

The Democratic Party’s long record of cuddling up to labor during campaigns and generally ignoring it after the election shows that working people—whether in the South or beyond—cannot rely on mainstream political parties. A viable labor movement would do more than anything else to bring about real revolutionary change.

Labor organizer Tefere Gebre told Facing South’s Chris Kromm recently that organizing the South is crucial to labor’s future and to the region itself. “The South has become a dumping ground for the global multinationals. As Americans we feel offended that multinationals are seeking the South for cheap labor and unregulated labor and profiteering when they come and set up here.”

Gebre talked about a new focus by organized labor on major Southern cities like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando and Miami. All well and good, but more will be needed. The soul of the South has never been in its major cities. It’s out in the country and in the small towns and medium-sized cities. Labor and other  progressive groups have to reach the South’s soul.

Myrtle Lawrence and the STFU did. Their meetings “had come to resemble a southern evangelical revival more than a labor organization,” historian Elizabeth Anne Payne has written. “Women … gave testimony about the power of the STFU in Holiness style, witnessing that the Holy Spirit could instantly transform lives through the union.”

A revival. That’s what labor needs, and so does the South. Good preachers, too, and a gospel that champions regular working folks of all races and stands up to the dark, old, bankrupt traditions and ideas and their hypocrite apologists.