Monthly Archives: September 2009

I Am Back

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Been offline and busy, got married in Morocco, still waiting for the music to stop playing in my ears. But now. I am back.

And I don’t feel like talking about politics.

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Let’s Get Lost

Last night I saw Let’s Get Lost, the most chillingly disturbing film that I can remember having seen in a long time. It wasn’t horror movie, but a documentary about the Jazz trumpeter and singer, Chet Baker. In the film, director Bruce Weber goes back and forth between 1988 interviews of the then 57 year old Chet Baker (who would later fall to his death at 58) and interviews with various people who had been closed to Baker during his career, including ex-wives, former lovers and his estranged children.

I became a fan of Chet Baker back in 2000-01 when I first moved to Madrid and was living in a beautiful but unheated apartment (with limited hot water) in the Barrio de Salamanca. My memory of that winter and that apartment is of being wrapped in blankets and listening to Chet Baker. I would listen to “Time After Time” to fall asleep and “Let’s Get Lost” to wake up in the morning. Baker had a weak, yet completely distinctive singing voice, that regardless of its obvious limitations was able to transmit such great emotion and tenderness — similar perhaps to  Billie Holiday.

Also like Billie Holiday and so many other Jazz musicians, Baker was a drug addict. Unlike the majority of his junky contemporaries who died in their 20s and 30s, somehow Baker was able to stay alive until he was 58 — but at an incredible cost. Instead of coming off as the sensitive and profound man behind the tender voice and virtuoso trumpet, the Chet Baker portrayed in Weber’s film is an apathetic, emotionless and decaying man, on the verge of death, constantly fading from consciousness. Then there is the video footage and photography of the once youthful and beautiful Chet Baker who over the course of 30 years goes from resembling James Dean to becoming the spitting image of Charles Manson. And finally there is the damage left in the wake: the bitter former lovers and the jaded, borderline white trash offspring.

In his film, Sweet and Lowdown about a fictional Jazz guitarist, Woody Allen does an excellent job of separating the musician from the music and musical genius from other forms of intelligence (ie, someone could play beautiful music but be an otherwise uninteresting person). But in Weber’s film, the total asymmetry between the man and his voice is truly disturbing and even haunting. I don’t think I will ever listen to him the same way again, unfortunately.

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Filed under Digressions, Jazz

Been Busy

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Sorry for not writing much these days, but I have been real busy (who hasn’t?). I’ll be back in full swing once things calm down a little.

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The Free Speech Hypocrisy

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In her Washington Post op-ed, “Yale’s Misguided Retreat”, Mona Eltahawy describes how the fabricated controversy over a 2005 Danish cartoon was manipulated by “two right wings — a non-Muslim one that hijacked the issue to fuel racism against immigrants in Denmark, and a Muslim one that hijacked the issue to silence Muslims and fuel anti-Western rhetoric.” She also argues that the decision of the Yale University Press, now publishing a book on the controversy, to not publish the images in question promotes the cause of extremists.

Personally, I couldn’t care less whether the images were published or not. Nevertheless, I believe that

  • Eltahawy’s conclusion that the images should be published, and
  • the fact that the majority opinion in the Western media was that Muslims protesting the cartoon confirmed the inherent extremism of Islam and its incompatibility with freedom of speech

are both contrary to Western rhetoric on free speech as a free market tool to achieve the will of the people and the long history, especially in the U.S., of public outrage by Christian and Jewish groups about comparable religious satire.

Just today I read about the successful Israeli protests to remove a series of paintings (by an Israeli artist) that portray the mothers of Palestine suicide bombers as the Virgin Mary. What about the history of outrage by American Christian groups against The Last Temptation of Christ, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, Chris Ofili’s Madonna made out of cow dung (what Giuliani called “sick”)? Not to mention record and book burnings, intelligent design, the U.S. refusal – based solely on pressure from religious groups – to withhold funding to any U.N. program that promotes safe sex or family planning, even if doing so would save lives. (In Spain, it is actually illegal to poke fun at the royal family).

We are also educated to believe that instead of regulating or criminalizing certain corporate activities, we should let the free market intervene. In other words, instead of telling companies they should be environmentally-friendly or socially responsible, the free market will correct abuses through consumer demand. We celebrate the fact that people have the right to freely protest the government and industry to demand that their interests are taken into account. That is how, for example, Don Imus lost his talk show – not because he broke the law but because employees, listeners, and sponsors threatened to leave. And although Vick did his time, public pressure alone is what is keeping him from returning to pro football. This summer we had the gun-carrying Town Hall protesters and now the Republicans saying that Obama shouldn’t be allowed to speak to American school children. Furthermore, we have a foreign policy tradition of embargoes against countries – a comparable form of protest – that offend our notions of fairness (Cuba, Apartheid South Africa, Sadam’s Iraq and Iran).

So it is hard to argue, from a Western standpoint, that Muslims protesting — ironically, an exercise of free expression itself — breaks with what we commonly hail as the virtues of a free market democracy in practice.

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Filed under Essays