November 30, 2017

The Afterlife of Otis Redding

Otis Redding’s five magnificent years in showbiz transformed the sound of soul music. His grainy, growling, and “squawking” voice kept the music rooted in the older traditions of the black church and black life in America. Yet ...

Otis Redding’s five magnificent years in showbiz transformed the sound of soul music. His grainy, growling, and “squawking” voice kept the music rooted in the older traditions of the black church and black life in America. Yet his secularized sound—tempered with the sweetness of Sam Cooke, the flamboyant flair of Little Richard, and the showmanship of James Brown—also ushered in a new era of African American pop in the ’60s.

With a little help from his virtuosic, multiracial band, Redding’s appeal also managed to cross over to white audiences on stage. His show-stealing set at the Monterey Pop Festival led Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir to claim, after Redding’s performance, that he had “seen God on stage.” Chris’s brother Michael Lydon, a music journalist at the time, was also there covering the event. He described Otis’s appearance as “ecstasy, madness, loss, total screaming, fantastic.”

Six months later, that Monterey god died in a plane crash. “The crown prince of soul,” the Rolling Stone headline declared, “is dead.”

50 years after this tragic loss, we’re looking back at the living legacy of Otis Redding’s soul.

Jonathan Gould, author of the new biography, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Lifegives us the origin story—tracing Redding’s career from his humble gospel roots in Macon, Georgia to his magisterial turn onstage in Monterey, California. Redding’s death, for Gould, also punctuates the end of one era of soul music.

James Brown (left) backstage with Otis Redding (right)

Larry Watson, who sings and teaches the soul tradition at Berklee College of Music in Boston, hears a slightly different story. For him, Redding represents an ideal model of an unassimilated African voice. As he wrote to us in an email earlier this week:

Otis Redding is a special breed and one of our foremost classical voices. He represents royalty in African-centered, unapologetic musical Blackness without ever uttering one political slogan. His very presence and sound represent our collective ancestral memory. It is the rumblings of God’s unhappiness with the way we continue to treat one another. His sound is Blind Tom, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner. He is also the sound of that vulnerable Black Mother and the Motherless Child. His sound captures what Dubois and Malcolm and King eloquently wrote about. He was one of our main vessels allowing us to mourn and rejoice that we would see another day of life.
For Larry, you can hear everything you need to know about Otis’s technique in the difference between Sam Cooke’s original version of “A Change is Gonna Come” and Redding’s raw re-interpretation.

Janice Pendarvis, one of the legendary back-up singers featured in the documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, takes great delight in performing Redding’s music. She once sang “Dock of the Bay” in a rehearsal for the reggae legend Max Romeo. Still today, she hears Otis’s posthumous hit as a “perfect record,” but in order to really understand the nuances in Redding’s performance style, she says, listen to  “Try a Little Tenderness.”

Emily Lordi is a literary scholar of the soul tradition at UMass Amherst. She wrote a book on Redding’s iconic female contemporaries—from Mahalia to Aretha—and another on one of Otis’s successors, Donny Hathaway. As a scrupulous close reader of this generation of soul singers, she shows us how those little “Tenderness” tricks were later transformed–and in some sense distorted–by Kanye West and Jay-Z:

Ed Pavlic is a poet with a keen ear for the long history of black music in America—much of which he distilled in a book we love, Who Can Afford to Improvise? on the musical inheritance behind James Baldwin’s prose. He take us through the evolution of the Otis style and spirit that came roaring out of the church and is still moving in the world—particularly through younger singers like SZA and Ravyn Lenae. The key for Ed Pavlic is not the sound of any performer, but the sound of a community.

As an added bonus, Pavlic also put together a special “continuous soul” playlist for us. The set of songs traces Pavlic’s history of an evolving tradition. Listen to it here:

October 12, 2017

Thelonious Monk at 100

At Thelonious Monk’s hundredth birthday, it’s our ears that have changed, not his sound.  Instead of odd angles and eccentricity we hear orchids in music, various and beautiful.  The truth of the man’s life is ...

At Thelonious Monk’s hundredth birthday, it’s our ears that have changed, not his sound.  Instead of odd angles and eccentricity we hear orchids in music, various and beautiful.  The truth of the man’s life is clearer, too: drawn back from the ragged edge to the creative center of classically American music.  

The quirky story of Thelonious Sphere Monk made a new sort of sense in Robin Kelley’ grand biography in 2009.  Monk was one of the be-bop revolutionaries, it’s always said, uptown in Manhattan in 1941, but Robin Kelley revealed him as a child of Fats Waller stride piano and all the music of 1930s Harlem and well beyond it.

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He mumbled at the piano and danced around it. He showed up late sometimes, sometimes disappeared, and did time for small drug offenses. But inside Robin Kelley’s biography is an unshakably original, purposeful musician, ever a generous genius, an attentive father, son, and husband, in triumph and in trouble.

What Monk did was take the oldest, rooted tradition of the piano, in Harlem, New York, all over the country. And then he combined it with a future we have yet to achieve. It’s collapsing space and time. And his whole approach to the piano is one that brings past and present and future together in one. And he had never ever left his roots as a stride pianist — all the way to the very last tune he ever played.

Monk wrote close to a hundred songs still being interpreted and reinvented. He was musician beyond category, or genre, or period, in Kelly’s persuasive account. It’s fun to see Monk now an African-American Emersonian. His line, for instance, that “the piano ain’t got no wrong notes,” resonates with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s war on conformity and consistency. “To believe your own sound,” paraphrasing Emerson’s line in Self Reliance, “that is genius.”  

Robin D. G. Kelley in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 18, 2009

June 8, 2017

The Chomsky Effect With Robert Barsky

Noam Chomsky had two giant careers: one in the science of language, another in the rough and tumble of anti-war politics, beckoning the question is it one Chomsky or two? In our two weeks of interviewing, ...

Noam Chomsky had two giant careers: one in the science of language, another in the rough and tumble of anti-war politics, beckoning the question is it one Chomsky or two? In our two weeks of interviewing, reading and discussing the man, I was searching for the larger idea or human impulse that drives the stubborn peacenik and the father of modern linguistics.

You can feel some of the answer in Chomsky’s voice and presence, but we got outside clarification too from his biographer Robert Barsky, who’s puzzled through the Chomsky links for years – and talked with Chomsky about them. I asked Robert Barsky to lay out the foundational principles of Chomsky’s thought – first about language acquisition, and then about power:

At the end of the day, so much of Noam Chomsky’s work is about power. If power is in the business of teaching us how to be good consumers, if power is in the business of keeping us down, if power is in the business of teaching us how to vote against our own best interests, then what is the opposite? The opposite is: how do you promote creativity? How do you promote people’s ability to think for themselves? How do promote people’s understanding of their connection to the people around them in ways that are going to benefit themselves and their environment as opposed to just allow them to have more power.

That I think is at the very heart of Noam Chomsky linguistically, in terms of academics and in terms of his social thought.

Noam Chomsky’s student and friend Robert Barsky teaches law and literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Twenty years ago he wrote Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent and after that: The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower.

Listen to our full hour on (and with) Noam Chomsky here.

May 3, 2017

Ian Johnson and the Souls of China

Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize covering China for the Wall Street Journal–mostly economics–but then discovered what felt like a bigger story: a full-blown spiritual crisis inside a frenzied money culture.  In Chinese villages and ...

Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize covering China for the Wall Street Journal–mostly economics–but then discovered what felt like a bigger story: a full-blown spiritual crisis inside a frenzied money culture.  In Chinese villages and booming big cities alike, what he came to see unmistakably over 6 years on the road was a restoration taking place across the peculiar mix of Chinese religion: Buddhist meditation, Daoist exercises, Confucian moral discipline.

In his new book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After MaoJohnson says the spiritual revival in modern China is centered not so much on the God questions as on how to organize Chinese life again around communities of belief, ritual and practice.  What Confucianist advice do you want before you invest? Do we head for a cave together for peace and quiet? What Johnson sees is a vast identity search in a people tossed and tussled by outsiders and now by a century of their own modern  revolutions, people still fiercely hungry in an historic boom time:

Theology does not play a huge role in Chinese religion… Using the tools of Greek logic to prove or disprove a proposition is not something you find too much in Chinese religion. Most people are happy to participate because they feel it gives structure to their lives, and ritual. Though we often think of ritual being empty or unimportant, it’s really the profound question of how you act in a certain situation. Like, what’s the proper way to mourn a dead person? What’s the proper way to behave in relation to other people in society? Those are pretty important questions. Those are actually quite profound. I think what also I found is that there’s a great exuberance in the religious life of China. If you think of a pilgrimage outside of Beijing to Myao Fung Shin, there’s a whole lot of people drinking and smoking cigarettes and cursing and yelling. It’s not all sitting, quietly meditating and saying, “Ohmm.”

 

– Ian Johnson in conversation with Christopher Lydon 4/10/17.

Podcast • February 7, 2017

Stephen Kinzer: America’s Empire State of Mind

Why are we everywhere in the world, so often with guns drawn? The provocative reporter Stephen Kinzer has covered a number of our “regime-change” interventions in the world, from Guatemala to the Middle East. And ...

Why are we everywhere in the world, so often with guns drawn? The provocative reporter Stephen Kinzer has covered a number of our “regime-change” interventions in the world, from Guatemala to the Middle East. And in book after book, he’s sharpened the question: how did our country that was born in proud rebellion against the British Empire become the mightiest empire of them all — taking on the sorrows and burdens and expenses that come with most of a thousand military bases around the world. And how has the instinct to intervene persisted through so many bitter mistakes and losses, from the first de-stabilization of democratic Iran in the 1950s to Vietnam in the 60s to Iraq yesterday and Afghanistan today?

In Kinzer’s new book, called The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, the short answer to the big question is a conflict in our blood: We are isolationists to the bone, and incurably drawn to trouble, both. Once upon a time, the biggest names in the country — President Teddy Roosevelt and his arch enemy Mark Twain — argued the difference at the top of their lungs. Steve Kinzer surfaces their argument again.

Podcast • June 16, 2016

Susan Faludi: My Father, The Woman

We’re really feeling the fault lines of human identity in 2016: the vexed questions of who we are, who we aren’t, and who we’d like to be. The “angry white male” is back—and voting. Some ...

We’re really feeling the fault lines of human identity in 2016: the vexed questions of who we are, who we aren’t, and who we’d like to be. The “angry white male” is back—and voting. Some kids on campus are so rigidly identified—by race, sex, or orientation—that they’ve lost the ability to speak to each other. Single-sex bathrooms are suddenly a political battlefield.

In her captivating new book, In The Darkroom, the eminent feminist and reporter Susan Faludi has lots of lessons for this moment. She learned them in the company of her father who—estranged from her and aged 76—emailed his daughter with a bombshell: he now identified as a woman after reassignment surgery in Thailand.

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Steven Faludi left many selves behind him. Born István Friedman, the son of a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary, he shed his religion, his family, and his home after the tribulations of the Holocaust. He resurfaced in Brazil as a “swashbuckling” bachelor filmmaker, then again in New York as a domineering, sometimes violent, all-American suburban dad.

In her memories of her childhood, Susan Faludi reveals what “patriarchy” feels like at the level of everyday life—her thin-skinned father belittled and spoke over her and her mother, forced her to wear traditional Hungarian peasant dresses, and even attacked her after she attended a church meeting. Steven, then passing as Christian, didn’t want his daughter to abandon her Judaism:

As I was drifting off to sleep that night, my door flew open. My father stormed in. “I created you,” he shouted as he yanked me out of bed. He grabbed me by the neck and began knocking my head against the floor. His torrent of wrath was largely incoherent, but his point was clear— that he wouldn’t have a Catholic child. “I created you,” he repeated as my head hit the boards. “And I can destroy you.” Thus did one daughter come to know that her father was a Jew.

In the Faludis’ world, matters of personal identification were confused, obscure, and still deathly important.

When Steven, now Stefi, asked her daughter to write her story, she may have been hoping for a fairy tale of last-minute self-actualization. And in her research, Susan realized that many trans memoirs play out that way—in what she calls “sugar-and-spice accounts”:

The before and after states I read often seemed cast in hell and heaven terms… The memories that predate operation are often cast as belonging to someone else, a person who no longer exists.

But Susan’s memory of her father—the man she watched break into the house after a separation to beat and stab her mother’s lover with a bat and a Swiss army knife—wasn’t easily eclipsed by the new woman she met in the hills outside Budapest. It took a long period of self-disclosure before the two arrived at compassion, care, and love. 

It’s an uneasy question about the identity voyages we’re watching today—how does a new label, even a new body, relate to the same old self?

Steven Faludi had worked as a photo retoucher for Condé Nast, airbrushing away imperfections. (Susan remembers his narration: “See, she no longer has that unsightly mole! Look, no more wrinkles!”) After her transition, Stefi Faludi modeled herself single-mindedly on a ‘50s housewife—a kind of perfect reversal of the long “macho, aggressive” period.

And yet Susan is pleased that in the last two years of life, her father finally relaxed into her own skin—identifying not as a woman, but as “a trans.” That’s “trans,” less as in category “transition” than in the “transcendence” of identity categories themselves. It sounds like how Susan Stryker, a pioneer in this thinking, describes the trans identity: “something more and something other.” “It’s a phrase I really love,” Susan says.

You can support Open Source by purchasing Susan Faludi’s new book, In the Darkroom, on Indiebound or Amazon.

 

Podcast • November 16, 2014

Stephen Kotkin: Who’s Bigger Than Stalin?

Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin has taken on the most important biography he can imagine: the life, rise and thirty-year reign of Josef Stalin. The first book of a trilogy (out now) goes from Stalin’s birth in ...

Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin has taken on the most important biography he can imagine: the life, rise and thirty-year reign of Josef Stalin. The first book of a trilogy (out now) goes from Stalin’s birth in 1878 to 1928.

And he’ll defend the statement. Stalin was nobody from Georgian who became the longest-serving leader of the century. He’s the man who won (or survived) a world war and forged the nuclear, industrial power called the Soviet Union. And he combined, with terrific force, the features of the totalitarian leader: an impossible dream — of a personal, Communist “paradise on Earth” — and real, unmatched brutality. So, forget Putin — forget everyone. Stalin stands alone in the century. Stalin

The new Russian patriotism is playing its own memory: it does away with Stalin’s Communism in favor of the iron man who whipped the Nazis and changed the map of Europe. Vladimir Putin’s game of equivalences extends to distant history, too: yes, Stalin was bad, he conceded, but no worse than Oliver Cromwell.

So, Kotkin says, as Putin’s Russian Federation revises its textbooks, menaces memory organizations, and stirs up hate and anger, it’s an old playbook they’re using — at a less dire moment and to more muddled effect.

As the conversation ended, Kotkin noted how his subject’s shadow lingers over Putin’s current war. Stalin notoriously starved Ukraine, but he also kindled the idea that they were their own people, with their own nation — another inconvenience inherited from the father of the Russian century.

Podcast • October 23, 2014

Daniel Bausch, Ebola Doctor

For almost twenty years Dr. Daniel Bausch — director of the Emerging Infections Department at the U.S. Naval Medical Research facility in Peru — has been back and forth to West Africa, treating cases of hemorrhagic fever caused by Ebola and viruses like it (Lassa and Marburg among them). Bausch may know Ebola, up-close and personal, better than any American doctor working today.


For almost twenty years Dr. Daniel Bausch — director of the Emerging Infections Department at the U.S. Naval Medical Research facility in Peru — has been back and forth to West Africa, treating cases of hemorrhagic fever caused by Ebola and viruses like it (Lassa and Marburg among them). Bausch may know Ebola, up-close and personal, better than any American doctor working today.

This time, he says, it’s worse than ever before. In Sierra Leone and Guinea, medical teams he helped assemble have been hollowed out by the disease. Among the lost is Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, the veteran chief physician at the Kenema Clinic, whom Bausch himself had hired for the job ten years earlier. Bausch believes he left Sierra Leone the same day this Spring that Dr. Khan began to show symptoms of Ebola; he died in July.

Bausch saw doctors and nurses getting sick, leading to a collapse of morale and a swamped ward. At one stretch Drs. Bausch and Khan were alone, shoulder-to-shoulder, tending to a ward full of sixty or so Ebola patients. I asked him about Dr. Khan, whose heroic fight and calm death sounds like something right out of a novel.  Like the humanist Dr. Rieux, to be precise, in Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague.  Dr. Bausch told me he was re-reading Camus’ masterpiece through the Ebola tribulations in West Africa this fall of 2014.

Bausch believed at one moment this spring that the spread of the disease had been contained, but he told us it’s proof that “you can’t put out 99 percent of a forest fire — you have to put it all out.”

Still he’s hopeful that we’re getting the message in the West: we need to try harder to bring the best of modern medicine to the world’s poorest corners. West Africa, he said, will need the Marshall-Plan treatment after its long war with Ebola finally comes to a close.

By the Way • August 4, 2014

Ai Weiwei, China’s Artist/Enemy #1

Not perhaps since Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Gulag has there been a dissenting artist who got to be as famous as the government that hounds him. But Ai Weiwei’s situation is one-of-a-kind.He’s a scathing ...

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Not perhaps since Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Gulag has there been a dissenting artist who got to be as famous as the government that hounds him. But Ai Weiwei’s situation is one-of-a-kind.He’s a scathing oppositionist who argues with me that China’s moral, natural, aesthetic, philosophical and family foundations have been “completely destroyed.” At the same time he is a celebrity, the virtual mayor of an industrial district in Beijing that’s become a thriving village of modern painters, sculptors, studios and galleries.

At one cheerful turn in our gab, he’s reminding me about the Chinese gift for breaking rules, for thinking outside the box, for double thinking, even under Communism: “Yeah, that’s the culture. Chinese are quite intelligent, witty, and create their own liberal space. Even in very extreme conditions, they still can achieve some kind of happiness or self, some kind of confidence, so that makes Chinese culture very different from others.”

Images courtesy of the Hirshhorn Gallery (copyright Ai Weiwei). 

Ai Weiwei is China’s official scare-word and favorite non-person. He’s what Solzhenitsyn called a “second government.” But let’s remember: the embattled democrat and artist of ideas was a star consultant in the design of the “bird’s nest” stadium built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He sees himself naturally as a leader and a patriot. He’s mastered what people say is a very Chinese use of paradox and contradiction. He refers to his testing of the limits as a kind of performance art.

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We met his wary sort of humor and warmth on the way into his walled garden. He parks his bicycle at the gate with a basket full of fresh flowers as a greeting each morning to the government spies who ‘mind’ him and who, it turns out, took our picture on the way out.

Ai Weiwei SpyFor almost an hour the conversation flew around a big table in the traffic of Ai Weiwei’s studio. Maybe the worst disaster in China, he said, is the flood of migrant workers out of farm villages into cities where they have dangerous jobs, small pay, no benefits and no residency rights – no rights to city schools, for example, for their kids. “This is just modern slavery” for the migrants, said Ai Weiwei. For the broken families left behind, it’s a desolation.

He says our friend the novelist Yu Hua is “absolutely right” about the continuity between Mao’s brainwashing Cultural Revolution and the booming Market Revolution today. The key links, he concurred, are violence, lying propaganda, and a tiny monopoly of political power. Just off the high-speed train from Shanghai, I confessed I was dazzled by the smooth ride at 300 kpm and by the orderly green abundance in the farmlands. “Wouldn’t this government be good for – say – Egypt?” I asked. But he’s heard the line that China is developing faster than Brazil, or India, or Egypt, and he’s not impressed. “How do you give young people hope, imagination and creativity,” he asked. “Those are the inner structures I think a lot and worry about.” As we wrapped up, he said I’d made him sound like a complainer, just a critic. We could have talked about the weather, he said, “or food, or sex.” Next time we will.

And what did I take away? Mainly gratitude to this brave man for his stubborn, almost fearless attachment to the soul questions: he’s reminding us all what it costs to stand out as an individual, and for a society to stay free, alive, critical, human.