May 2010

David Byrne to sue the Governor of Florida

David Byrne is currently preparing a lawsuit against the Republican Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, for the use of Road to Nowhere in a political campaign. Check out the full story.

Besides being theft, use of the song and my voice in a campaign ad implies that I, as writer and singer of the song, might have granted Crist permission to use it, and that I therefore endorse him and/or the Republican Party, of which he was a member until very, very recently. The general public might also think I simply license the use of my songs to anyone who will pay the going rate, but that’s not true either, as I have never licensed a song for use in an ad. I do license songs to commercial films and TV shows (if they pay the going rate), and to dance companies and student filmmakers mostly for free. But not to ads.

I’m a bit of a throwback that way, as I still believe songs occasionally mean something to people — they obviously mean something personal to the writer, and often to the listener as well. A personal and social meaning is diluted when that same song is used to sell a product (or a politician). If Crist and his campaign folks had asked to use the song, I would have said no — even if they had offered a lot of money, such as I have been offered in the past for ad use (though I’ve always turned these offers down).

Byrne is one of my favourite artists, as regular readers will know. The fact that he has made, and continues to make, records that mean more to me than almost any others is further enhanced by his remaining one of the few artists who have resisted the lure of commerical advertising. One can only imagine how much money he’s been offered for the use of certain songs in his back catalogue and deeply admire his artistic integrity. For me, hearing a song or piece of music in an advert almost always destroys it. So given the importance of his music to me personally, I hope and pray he maintains his stance.

Go David!

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May 2010

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Last week I was lucky enough to get free tickets to a preview screening of American: The Bill Hicks Story. I’ve been a huge fan of Bill Hicks since the early 1990s. To my eternal regret, I discovered him about two weeks after his last gig in the UK. I remember first watching a video of Relentless* — the Montreal show that paved the way for his international success — and realising immediately that almost all stand-up comedy I’d encountered ’til that point had been complete shit.

At the time I was fascinated by the idea of rockstar-as-shaman; the jester figure who nonetheless holds the power to effect real change… shifting consciousness and perspective. And by extension, culture and politics. I saw Bill Hicks doing the same thing in a different medium. The least mediated of all ‘the media’, in fact. People were showing up, and paying, just to hear him talk. And not always simply because he made them laugh… some at least, wanted to listen to him proselytize. To hear what he had to say.

And I was one of them. When his comedy veered too far into polemic he’d joke about being “at the wrong meeting”, but I always wanted to know where that other meeting was. And could I go? Even now, sixteen years after his death, a new film about Bill Hicks is an exciting prospect to me.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

But is it an exciting film? Well, the first thing to point out is that any film liberally peppered with clips of Hicks at work is going to find it hard to make me dislike it. And I certainly didn’t. But I’d be lying if I said it was all I’d hoped for. If anything I was itching for more clips of Bill and less of the surrounding narrative. Not because an exciting film can’t be made about the life of Bill Hicks, but because this one sadly falls a little short.

Perhaps there is an inevitability to that, though. When the subject of a biography is famous for his consummate skill as a speaker, it’s always going to be a let-down when most of the film involves other people speaking about him. In many ways, the 1994 documentary (It’s Just A Ride) produced by Channel 4 and found on the Totally Bill Hicks DVD is better because it tells more of the story through Bill’s own performances.

Using animated photo montages and the occasional ‘talking head’, American: The Bill Hicks Story is told in a rather matter-of-fact manner that never really gets at the deeper issues that inspired and drove him. We’re told about his strict parents, religious upbringing and consequent rebellion against that authority. We learn of his battle with alcohol, his psychedelic awakening and his sense of futility when faced with the twin walls of indifference and hostility that the American public threw up around him. But it’s all conveyed in a rather blank and unengaging way. It’s like someone reading out the recipe for your favourite meal, but never allowing you to taste it.

Sixteen years ago Bill Hicks became one of my major influences. Mix tapes I put together at the time had snippets of his material between some of the tracks. Phrases and phrasing from his routines became shared jokes among my friends; and not always because they were the funniest lines. Often it was because Hicks simply got to the root of an issue more succinctly than anyone else could… is there a better analogy for the US military-industrial complex than “Pull up G-12”? Can anyone top his “… so I said “forgive me” as an example of the deep contradictions we routinely gloss over in our lives? Thanks to Bill Hicks it became possible to enunciate the words “Drink Coke” in such a way as to make reference to the inherently pornographic nature of commercial advertising and the tendency of modern society to reduce even the most sacred of things to yet more fuel for the engines of profit… to be consumed and shat out like everything else. All that; merely by adding a pause and a particular intonation to an existing advertising slogan.

Even today, among fans of Bill Hicks, that short-hand is still going strong. When a TV commercial tries to sell us something using the music of a once-respected artist, the phrase “sucking Satan’s pecker” comes unbidden to our minds. When we hear yet another X-Factor wannabe popstar clone sleepwalk through a classic song, we silently scream “play from your fucking heart!” at our TV or radio. And every time a politician scares us with tales of some foreign threat to our way of life, we see Bill Hicks playing the role of Jack Palance in Shane.

Hicks was an incredibly funny man. Not to everyone’s taste, certainly, but if you got him then you really got him. Beyond that, however, he was a cultural commentator and social critic with truly rare insight. A man who courageously spoke the truth even when he knew it was torpedoing his own career. In our modern world of crass commercialism and unfettered consumption, where the corporate media is working overtime to hide from us the consequences of our suicidal lifestyles, the voice of Bill Hicks is sorely missed.

As for American: The Bill Hicks Story? Any film that allows you to see snippets of Bill’s stand-up on the big screen is to be recommended. And perhaps the fact that — as a longtime fan — there was little in the film that I hadn’t already seen or didn’t already know, means that I’m being unfairly critical on what may well be a wonderful treat for those less familiar with his work. Overall, it’s far from a ‘bad’ film. And if it turns a few more people onto the work of the great man… then it’s a very welcome addition to the unjustly slim body of work by — and about — Bill Hicks.

* Those of you looking to track down Relentless should be warned that the 2006 DVD release is rather poor when compared with the original VHS. Firstly it’s a different performance (same festival, different night) and Hicks isn’t having quite as good a show. On top of that, the image quality — bizarrely — is worse than the video. But most annoyingly of all, almost 15 minutes of material has been mysteriously left out. The DVD still represents a great hour of stand-up, but if you can track down an old VHS copy, you’ll have a much better experience.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

May 2010

Welcome to now

In what’s being described as “a bid to bring stability to the UK after a general election which has created a regrettable vacuum of power”, the queen has declared herself absolute monarch and summoned the three party leaders to Buckingham Palace, where she earlier arrived by helicopter from Windsor Castle. In a statement released through the queen’s spokesman, she plans to “sit down with the three leaders and knock some heads together”. She also plans to broadcast an emergency statement at 9pm this evening on all British television and radio channels.

Having established the firm support of the army and 50 of the 60 police authorities, with only a handful of authorities — in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — choosing to abstain from a hastily arranged secret poll of Chief Constables carried out by civil servants, it is thought that the leaders of the parties will wait until they hear what the queen has to say before making any statements.

Sources close to Prince Charles, however, appear to be claiming that the Royal Family have little to do with this “Stabilisation Process” and are merely being used as a mask of constitutional legitimacy by senior figures in the civil service, armed forces and intelligence community. “The queen is taking some very bad advice”, one insider is quoted as saying. While another suggested that there may even be an element of coercion involved with threats being made against the lives of several of her family members.

While little remains clear at this moment, one thing does seem certain; The Policy For a New Direction, a document that was rumoured to exist in the weeks leading up to the election, will be part of the agenda at the Buckingham Palace meeting. The existence of this ‘covert manifesto’ was only substantiated early this afternoon when it was leaked from within the Police Force of Northern Ireland. It now appears that the document, which has been couriered to every police authority and armed forces installation today, bears the Royal Seal and carries the signature of the queen along with that of General Sir David Richards (on behalf of the entire General Staff of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces) and the heads of the Metropolitan Police Service, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, Ministry of Defence Police and British Transport Police, as well as MI5 and MI6.

Leastways, that’s what I dreamt last night. That, and some stuff about a massive asteroid hitting the Atlantic Ocean and being in the West of Ireland and trying to think of ways to escape the approaching tsunami.

Too much election night coverage, I feel.

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May 2010

All over bar the shooting

As I write, there are still 9 seats to be declared in the UK elections. The initial exit polls appear to have been roughly correct, but pretty much all previous polls over the past three weeks, as well as all the reflected media coverage appear to have been spectacularly wrong. I picture a good week of media self-analysis… in the media, of course… once the actual political outcome has been settled. How did we get it so wrong? they’ll ask themselves. And sell you their answers at 30p a copy. Or beam it into your home for the price of the licence fee — or more expensive still — a commercial advertisement.

And the thing they got so wrong, of course, was the insistence that it was a three horse race. It wasn’t. It’s not quite over yet, but one thing is very clear, Nick Clegg did not drag his party above the rank of also-ran. He may yet hold the balance of power, but it’ll be by default rather than because they genuinely increased their stature. Even their share of the popular vote has only risen by 1%. Admittedly that was from a pretty decent starting-point in terms of their recent history, but it’s hardly the line the public were being fed from the media. They’re actually down 5 seats at time of writing.

During last night’s election coverage, the likeable Prof Brian Cox showed up on Channel 4 and told the gathered electorate, gazing at our glowing rectangles, that they were “stupid”. We all sat there and laughed, and insisted it was “those other people” he was talking about, not us specifically. Yes indeed. Though let’s face it. If you’re one of the ten and a half million people who voted Tory, then you’re definitely one of the people he’s talking about.

Of course, he was actually being more general than that. Prof Cox was making a point about our collective decision-making and how it seems to have ended up firmly dedicated to self-destruction. Our seemingly cruel lack of self-awareness as a culture and our ten thousand year war against nature… externalising our collective schizophrenia into the wider ecology of mind. OK, so he didn’t use those exact words. I was translating into Batesonian.

Anyhoo, that proved to be the highlight of the election coverage… Prof Cox calling us all stupid.

But enough about the coverage, what about the outcome?

Well, that’s the thing… even with just 9 seats left to declare, we don’t know it yet. It appears that the media may have got that much right — the possibility of a hung parliament / minority government is a very real one. The Tories are going to end up the largest party, but far enough away from an overall majority to make things complicated. Oh, and just what the Welsh were thinking by making it easier on them, I’ll never know.

But of course, the real reason the Tories aren’t as far from an overall majority as was being predicted isn’t the appearance of more spots of blue on the map of Wales. Rather, it’s the failure of the Lib Dem swing to show up on cue. They were supposed to grab a bunch of seats from the Tories. But they didn’t. In fact they actually lost ground to the Tories overall. The opportunity to unseat Oliver Letwin in a real Lib Dem / Tory marginal was squandered. For that, the Lib Dems should publicly apologise. As should the people of Dorset West.

Meanwhile Labour also held their ground against the Lib Dems overall and didn’t lose as many seats to the Tories in the north as was being predicted. Certainly they’ve retained enough to allow Gordon Brown first shot at forming a government, constitutionally speaking. Though whether that’ll happen is anyone’s guess, with the Tories moving to declare victory even though lots of people are saying they have no legal right whatsoever to do so.

That kind of magical thinking can be very effective though. Ten and a half million tory voters all believing in a Conservative victory at the same time is the kind of thing that can manifest such a victory in reality. Especially when you have the Murdoch Press acting as a Great Unholy Sigil. The fact that far more people voted against the Tories than voted for them isn’t necessarily relevant either. If a sense of doubt creeps into them, as it surely must be doing if you’re a Lib Dem after the past three weeks of ecstatic preparation; and perhaps is also happening with many Labour voters who will view the loss of 90 seats and the body language of so many Labour MPs as signalling defeat.

So a minority Conservative government using the Ulster Unionists as additional muscle? The worst of all possible worlds? There’s a part of me that’s sadly unsurprised.

Alternatively we could technically see a rainbow coalition with a Lib-Lab pact recruiting the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the SDLP and the incoming Green MP as a broad left coalition. Labour can promise the Lib Dems electoral reform in return for their support, but I’m not sure they’d be willing to offer the others what they’d demand.

Which reminds me… congratulations to Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party and new MP for Brighton Pavilion. I wish her well; it’ll be good to have a Green voice in parliament even if it’s likely to get drowned out most of the time.

Meanwhile there’s also the other possibility of Clegg bringing the Lib Dems into government with the Tories. The fact that this is even being discussed seriously by the Lib Dems is clear evidence that they are the deluded free-market capitalists that I suggested they might be. All the same, if they wrestle electoral reform out of the Tories in return for their support, they’ll still have been worth your vote. Possibly.

With 9 seats left to declare, the Tories have passed the 300 mark, but only just (302). Labour are on 256 with the Lib Dems at 56. So a Lib-Lab pact would bring them to 312 and clear of the Tories, though short of a majority. And even though Cameron will be trying to cast his “I have moral authority” spell upon the land, a look at the popular vote is revealing. Certainly it demonstrates the kind of distortions wrought by a First Past The Post electoral system.

With 23% of the overall vote, the Lib Dems won less than 9% of the seats (they should have about 148 seats if each vote was treated equally and proportionally). The Tories, on the other hand would drop about 70 seats, if representation was roughly proportional to the votes cast. You can see why they oppose electoral reform.

And even though Labour would also drop roughly the same number of seats, you can see why they wouldn’t be quite as unwilling to consider some kind of electoral reform… it’d be Labour that the Lib Dems would be more likely to deal with if both offered a working majority. And under PR, a Lib-Lab pact would have a clear majority (though not a massive one), while the Tories would have far less claim to ‘moral authority’ with not nearly enough MPs to form a stable minority government.

There’s still plenty of twists and turns to come. But my suspicion is that we’ll see David Cameron in 10 Downing Street by the end of the weeked. I was going to say “it’ll be funny to see how he deals with the economic crisis, resource depletion and climate change”. Except it won’t be funny. It’ll be fucking tragic.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2010

Airtricity SmartSaver Green Plan

I’m not the sort of person to provide free advertising to corporations. Nonetheless, I’m willing to make an exception in this case. A couple of years back, I switched my electricity supplier from the ESB to Bord Gáis. They were cheaper and they claimed to generate 10% more of their power from renewable sources. At the time, my research into alternative suppliers didn’t offer a better solution.

Then, at the beginnning of this year, I stumbled upon Airtricity’s Smartsaver Green Plan (click on the relevant tab on that page). Because I’d just begun a new billing period with Bord Gáis, I couldn’t switch straight away, but I put the wheels in motion. Then, a couple of months ago there was a bit of a muck up with the paperwork and the switch was delayed again (in fairness to Bord Gáis, it seems like it was an honest error by Airtricity rather than them trying to keep hold of me).

Anyhoo, the upshot of it all is that I’ve just received a letter from Airtricity informing me that I’m now, finally, on their system.

If you know anything about how national power grids work, you’ll know of course that I can’t claim the actual electrons being sucked into my home to power my appliances come directly from windfarms. However, what Airtricity guarantee is that over a year, their windfarms will add 100% of the power I use to the national grid. Barring a decision to go off-grid and self-generate (the ideal route, perhaps, but also somewhat impractical for me right now) this is the best solution available from an environmental perspective.

So well done to Airtricity for their 100% scheme. If we’re going to shift our society towards sustainability, this is the kind of thing we’ll need to be doing. I urge my Irish readers to make the switch.

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May 2010

A brief note on the UK election

Tomorrow the UK goes to the polls in the hope of electing a new government. I say “in the hope” because there is a slim possibility that a hung parliament could lead to political paralysis and force another election in the near future. That is, however, a slim possibility. It’s more likely that a hung parliament will lead to some form of coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems. This is potentially the most desirable outcome, given the current voting system, as it may well usher in electoral reform (in my view the best thing that could happen to UK democracy).

More likely still, however, is a small Conservative majority. I’ve heard talk of a two seat majority, but I suspect it’ll be a little larger than that. Large enough, certainly, for David Cameron to form a government despite receiving a near-record low proportion of the popular vote.

A Tory win will be bad for two specific sets of people.

Firstly, it’ll be bad for those on a low income or welfare. Not so much “the poor” as “the not rich”. The economic policies to which the tories are wed will not fare well in the face of the problems to come.

Secondly, it’ll be bad for the Conservatives themselves. The Governor of the Bank of England recently suggested that whatever party is in power over the next five years will be forced to drink from a poisoned chalice. They will frantically try to blame anyone but themselves, but will nonetheless find themselves associated with the problems they fail to solve. The Bank Governor believes the next ruling party will be cast into the political wilderness for thirty years.

My advice (for the little it’s worth) is to vote Lib Dem. “What’s that?” you gasp, “You’re surely not endorsing one of those centre-right, free-market parties you heap so much scorn upon, are you?” Well, no. I’m not endorsing them per se. Rather, I’m endorsing the electoral reform they may bring with them. That way, by the time the next election comes round, a vote for the Greens or the hard left won’t be a wasted vote. I don’t necessarily want to see a green or hard left government in the UK, but I do believe that the presence of those voices in parliament would be a positive thing in a world where sustainability becomes our over-riding concern.

So yeah, vote tactically to ensure the Lib Dems get some say in what happens next. Not because they offer hope of good governance (they don’t!) but because they offer hope of finally destroying the two-party capitalist duopoly that has dominated the UK landscape for so long.

This advice doesn’t extend to those constituencies where the Greens have a genuine chance of winning (there’s one in Norwich and one in Brighton, I believe), nor to constituencies in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland where an alternative to the Big Three stands a realistic chance. But everywhere else, the sensible vote is for electoral reform.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2010

Unpopular Ideas #1

The general election campaign is coming to an end over in the UK and the public will soon place an ‘x’ in a little box on a sheet of paper… this act — performed every four or five years — is modern democracy in action. Government by the people. Apparently.

This particular election is being contested by three main parties plus several smaller ones. And although there is a real possibility of the smaller parties gaining a couple of seats in parliament this time round, the British electoral system is heavily stacked in favour of the larger ones (of course the “local” parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will all win seats in Westminster, but I’m concentrating here on parties with a UK-wide presence… my knowledge of Scottish and Welsh politics is severely limited and Northern Irish politics have little bearing on the UK as a whole, mired as they still are in local sectarianism). Indeed with the recent surge of the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls, it’s possible that the Greens, UKIP, Respect and others will be even further marginalised by the consolidation of power on the centre-right.

And let’s not be under any illusions, all three (Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems) are centre-right parties. None of them propose real change, none of them — despite claims to the contrary — can be considered progressive, except by twisting the definition of that word until it means almost its precise opposite. All three are dedicated to free market capitalism even as they pay lip service to public service. All three promise a “return to growth”, betraying not merely a sorry lack of imagination but also a dreadful ignorance; one so extreme that it’s difficult not to suspect it’s willful; of the current situation regarding energy resources and global sustainability. None of them will even use the word “sustainable” except, oxymoronically, as a prefix to the word “growth”.

The single most important issue facing British — and global — society has been utterly ignored by those campaigning to run the UK for the next half-decade. So whilst a very real, very serious and very physical problem has begun to manifest around us, anyone watching this election campaign could be forgiven for concluding that the only issues facing the modern world involve the social graces of those seeking election and the artificial construct known as money. Currency, debt, money… it’s essentially a human-created system for which we have written (and if we choose, can re-write) the rules. Energy, food, natural resources… these on the other hand are the building blocks of the physical systems by which human life is maintained. Our mistake is to have overlaid the former on top of the latter, and then somehow forgot we did so; so that we have fallen into the trap Korzybski tried to warn us about… that of confusing the map for the territory.

“Getting the economy moving again” has become the mantra for all sides in this election campaign. And one of the ways they intend to achieve this is via a radical shake-up of the welfare system. While I agree that the question of how society supports those without an income is going to become a huge one over the next few years, the ideas being considered in the current political mainstream are wrong-headed in the extreme. Based — as they are — on a mistaken belief; that maximising employment is a good thing.

However, considering what we know to be true about the short-to-medium term sustainability of energy resources (see my recent three-parter on Peak Oil if you don’t know what I’m talking about), this brings me quite neatly to the first of my ‘Unpopular Ideas’. Namely that:

Unemployment is a good thing

I’m aware that this sounds vaguely “wrong by definition”, like suggesting that racism or beating up old ladies is a good thing. We have been conditioned to accept certain premises by the very structure of the society we’ve created. And those ‘structural premises’ are difficult to shake off. If, however, that society is fundamentally flawed (and unsustainability is perhaps the biggest flaw that any society can suffer from)… guilty of what Gregory Bateson calls “epistemological lunacy”… then we are obliged to re-examine those initial premises.

… the premises work only up to a certain limit, and, at some stage or under certain circumstances, if you are carrying serious epistemological errors, you will find that they do not work any more. At this point you discover to your horror that it is exceedingly difficult to get rid of the error, that it’s sticky. It is as if you had touched honey. As with honey, the falsification gets around; and each thing you try to wipe it off on gets sticky, and your hand still remains sticky.

Gregory Bateson | Pathologies of Epistemology

Nonetheless, we must try to rid ourselves of the stickiness before we make too much of a mess. Because when our continued survival (perhaps not as a species, but certainly as a civilisation) depends upon those premises being corrected, then it’s surely a matter of urgency for us to do so. And one of the first of those premises that gets called into question when re-examining society through the filter of decreasing energy resources, is the notion that people should be encouraged to be economically active; furthermore that such economic activity should be maximised.

See, I’m not claiming — by any stretch of the imagination — that being unemployed is a good thing in our current society. Our society, after all, is specifically designed to make unemployment relatively uncomfortable in the hope of minimising it*. What I’m suggesting is that we need to re-imagine our society as one that views economic activity as a necessary evil; itself a process to be minimised. We need to reshape society so that the basic needs of all members are met, while consuming as little energy as possible in meeting them.

Energy, after all, can be defined as “the ability to do work”. Indeed, in physical terms, the SI unit for work (the joule) is identical to the SI unit for energy. So, as I said recently…

…with less energy available, there will be less work. This is not predicated upon an ideology or desired policy, but on the basic laws of physics. And we need to get used to it.

A recession is another word for a decrease in economic activity. And because we have built a world that is unable to tolerate such decreases, we strive to avoid recessions and to quickly overcome them via a “return to growth”. It seems to me, however, that we should perhaps view our current recession in a more positive light. We should perhaps find a way to use this slowdown as a springboard towards a powerdown. As unemployment rises, we should be looking at ways to accommodate this as a positive thing, rather than viewing it negatively through the lens of our old premises and searching for ways to reverse it.

I’m not suggesting that our society — in its current form — is capable of sustaining a continuing decrease in economic activity and the subsequent large-scale unemployment such a decrease will bring. I’m instead suggesting that a continuing decrease in economic activity is completely unavoidable, and society must be remodelled in such a way as to turn this to our advantage.

* That said, I do know several people who consciously choose to avoid work… placing time above money and avoiding all that messy materialism that becomes so addictive once you get a taste of it. By and large they tend to be happier than most of the people I know who work. Given a basic, functioning welfare state, unemployment generally becomes a serious burden only when thrust upon the unwilling.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

May 2010

Something for the weekend

Do I Love You? (Indeed I Do)

Merrick turned me on to this song a while ago and despite it having been co-opted by the advertising industry it remains one of the most uplifting and downright joyous records ever made. It was also one of the pieces of music played at my wedding last week. Enjoy.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Audio