Friday, January 21, 2011

FICTION: The Street Has a Thousand Eyes

‘The Street’ Has a Thousand Eyes

--from the contemporary proletarian fiction collection 'NIGHT PEOPLE' AND OTHER TALES OF WORKING NEW YORK--

By John Pietaro

“Hurry up, Becca, hurry up---I am late already!” Mindy said, in a semi-exasperated tone to her 8 year old daughter, whilst leaping through her usual morning acrobatics. The girl silently rolled her eyes upward as she left the breakfast table and then moved into the bathroom to brush her teeth. She’d come to know this ritual that her well-meaning but disorganized mom somehow got them into each morning.

“Beck, wow---do you believe its 8:25 already??”

“Yes, Mom, I told YOU we were running late fifteen minutes ago”, Becca called out from over the bathroom sink, mouth still filled with toothpaste.

“Ah, okay, we’ll just have to get it together”, she said, more to herself, knowing full well that Becca is nauseatingly on time and seems to be helping to run the house almost like one of the hedge fund managers Mindy works for. She was proud of her daughter who, in response to Mindy’s wild sprint through life, remains calm and understated. She even took charge of her own name, by insisting that Mindy and everyone call her simply ‘Becca’ as opposed to the given name Mindy had thought was so profound: TriBeCa, in honor of the cool neighborhood she’d resided in since finishing her MBA. But nothing doing for Becca who reminded her mother that it sounded kind of pompous and at least a little yuppie--when she was just six. Presently Becca was a thoughtful and bright girl, mature well beyond her eight years; she tended to remind Mindy of Natalie Wood’s character in ‘Miracle on 34th Street’. Yeah, a lot people saw her that way and of course all in contrast to her light-hearted, fun-loving mother. As both a parent and stock broker, Mindy was pretty rare in this way.

Mindy leapt into her skirt and shoes, tucking in her blouse with one hand as she brushed her mane of brown curls with the other. Before you know it both had their coats and hats on and were down the elevator and onto West Broadway, heading toward Becca’s elementary school, and in one felt swoop the girl was safely tucked into her classroom. As Mindy breathlessly jumped into a taxi cab, the facade of their building quietly watched the mayhem as her cab morphed into the thick street traffic. And so began another day.

Mindy shot into her office like a bull out of a chute, curly hair and coat-tails askew. “Whoa, there, whoa, lady----no need to rush, the boss is not here yet!, shouted Terrie from her cubicle. “Oh, thank God”, Mindy responded with relief, “I certainly didn’t want to get called on the carpet again---okay just enough time to grab a cup of coffee before I really start the day”, she added with a laugh. Stopping in front of Terrie’s desk, leaning in close, she asked her co-worker about her date the prior night and exchanged water-cooler gab. The bright morning sunlight gleamed off of Terrie’s desk nameplate, shimmering into Mindy’s eyes as she tried to focus; ‘Theresa Gionoffrio’ burnt like a beacon in front of her. “Yeah, maybe we should grab that cup of coffee”, she said.

In the coffee room, as Mindy and Terrie poured too much sugar into their coffees their discussion shifted from the usual fair to a newer employee no one seemed to know much about. “So what’s that new guy’s name again?”, Mindy asked, “Stanton somebody?”.

“It’s Stanton Chambers”, Terrie explained with a questioning look on her face. “Sounds like a made-up name doesn’t it? He should have been an actor instead of a broker. Only, no actor ever avoided everyone’s eyes like this guy. He speaks to no one and ever since Mattingly brought him into the firm his hours have been bizarre and he has rarely been present at any of the regular staff meetings. He’s got no family pictures on his desk, we don’t even know if the guy’s married or has kids or anything. No one has any info on him--he was never properly introduced to the staff. You know I tried to get some of his background through the internet and there’s absolutely NOTHING listed. No mention of his having worked for any other firm before this, here or nationally. You know that’s ridiculous. The boss gets really cloak-and-dagger when he’s around. Have you ever seen him have lunch with anyone? Have you?? I never have!”, Terrie exclaimed in a hoarse stage whisper.

A little overwhelmed from the velocity of her friend’s intensity, Mindy lloked perplexed. “Why, what do you think, he’s some kind of spy? From another stock firm or something?”, Mindy asked.

“No, not another firm, maybe he’s undercover from the SEC, or worse--FBI” said Terrie, as her eyes grew wider. “You know about the probes that have been going on since the crash. And after Madoff we’ve had to document everything, all the “T”s crossed and “I”s dotted”.

“So then what are you worried about”, Mindy asked inquisitively, “We are a clean firm, we have nothing to fear…”

But still there was something about Stanton Chambers. You could have a name like that, couldn’t you? But the lack of information on him and his avoidance of the others stood out rather glaringly. His actual role in the firm remained an enigma. And the man could almost never be found at his desk. She began to wonder if her friend might not be right. Oh, well, too much work to catch up on now; with the opening bell about to sound she re-focused and reached for her computer mouse.

By 5PM Mindy was beat. Scrambling through data bases and reaching out to clients straight through lunch seemed to be the way things would continue to go, she thought, for one of the smaller securities firms on ‘the Street’. Well, Crestfall, Mattingly, wasn’t actually on Wall Street, but with an address close by on Hanover, it was almost just as good. Sort of. “In today’s embattled economic climate, it’s been an uphill battle all the way but we’ll maintain our stride and we’ll continue to thrive”. That’s what Mr. Mattingly regularly said to the staff during meetings and it’s what Mindy needed to feel now. Still fairly new to single parenthood, responsible for so much more than before and absolutely refusing to give up her condo (the one she’d struggled to buy long before her failed marriage to Bruce), she now had growing concerns about her financial stability. Mindy had been with Crestfall Mattingly for five years now and had no plans to go after the big houses, not at this point. It was a comfortable office, she made a pretty nice salary and Terrie, who’d become a close friend during the tumultuous divorce, was always on hand. It was a good feeling and offered her a needed semblance of security. Mindy was just hitting 40 but refused to succumb to depression about that. Hell, if she’d managed to make it through a bitter divorce, 40 was small potatoes. She surely had no room to add more onto her plate, so thoughts of Stanton Chambers and any potential problems at the office would have to wait till tomorrow. With that she zipped up her brief case and shut out the lamp on her desk.

Mindy’s subway ride back to TriBeCa to pick up her daughter from daycare took just a few minutes. Having the daycare center so close to Becca’s school was a great relief, and it had come highly recommended, too. When Becca saw her mom she smiled and ran to grab her coat. As the pair walked home Becca told Mindy all about her day. Mindy, for a few minutes at least, felt a wave of calm come over her as she enjoyed a quiet moment with her little girl. Becca’s vivid description of schoolyard happenings, homework assignments and how much Cathy and Tiffany hated Ms. Bronson all took on a new relevance.

“So Mom, what are we going to do about dinner tonight?”, said the child, passive-aggressively reminding her mother that she’d forgone food shopping the night before. “Ooh, Beckster, why don’t we just go to the corner and get some Chinese---or maybe Italian?”, she said, pretending to seek permission from her daughter. And they both broke into laughter as they walked up the street.

THE NEXT MORNING after spilling coffee on her blouse and nearly setting the toaster on fire trying to make a quick breakfast, Mindy once again whisked her daughter off to school and cut through the morning blur of lower Manhattan. As she angled her way through the thicket and throngs she tried to recall what the sidewalk actually looked like. Another day, another marathon race. Work began uneventful enough and she’d even scored some new leads from the old files. It was going to be a good day.

At lunch time, Mindy grabbed Terrie and the two made their way to the falafel place before it became too crowded. “So, have you thought any more about what we were talking about?”, Terrie asked her friend a little anxiously.

“What, about Mr. Right and you the other night?”

“No, Mindy, about Mr. Wrong---Stanton Chambers. I am telling you, something is up. He called in to speak directly to Mattingly this morning, just before you got in. Mattingly cancelled a teleconference with the coast my department had on the agenda since last week— while he and Chambers were barricaded in the back office. His secretary said he could not be disturbed.” The women sat silently then. It was a long lunch.

Back at the office Mindy found her way over to Chambers’ cubicle, the one at the end of the row, near the window. Of course Chambers was not in; after his meeting with the boss he was once again out of the office. At least she could safely look around now. There were no identifying objects on the desk and the cubicle’s walls only had a calendar hanging up---one of those you get free at the bank--with the nice landscape shots. She noticed that January was still open, but today was February 9. Oh well, Chambers must keep his appointments in his hand-held, that’s all. She turned to the next cubicle to inquire about him but it was empty---the desk bare and even the computer and phone missing. Didn’t Frank used to sit there? She couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen him. How bizarre these personnel shifts are in an office of only 49 people. Sitting quietly at the following desk was Bill Tyler, a pensive older man who’d been with the firm a long time. His specialty was in building hedge funds and as of late he’d also become a leader in the office for futures investments. A strong, serious finance professional.

“Hi, Bill”, said Mindy in her most refined office tone, “how have you been?” After exchanging the appropriate amount of office banter, Mindy ever so gently brought Chambers’ absence into the conversation:

“So, by the way, uh, what’s up with this guy? We never see him around and he seems to command a lot of attention from the boss” she said, pointing to Stanton’s untouched cubicle. The riveted look on Bill’s face in response to this quickly made her realize that she’d trod rather heavily in her directness, as is too often the case. Oh, damnit big friggin’ mouth Mindy, she thought to herself.

“What do you mean…er, Mindy? Stanton was here earlier today— I think. He’s around a lot but he has a varied kind of schedule…yeah, you know”, stammered Bill as he repeatedly glanced over to the back office. Okay, now Mindy realized that something was definitely going on.

After work and splitting a pot of spaghetti with Becca and Terrie, Mindy sat in the living room with her friend. Over drinks they could safely talk about the mystery of Stanton Chambers. “Alright, Terrie, after my foot-in-mouth conversation with Bill Tyler I thought I’d live a little dangerously and ask a few more sources some questions. I spoke with Eddie in the mail-room, you know he knows everything about everyone, and he doesn’t like Chambers either. Eddie is always flirting with me, so when I asked him if we could speak privately it was no problem. I am still trying to shake him off of my leg now, but I was able to find out that right after New Year’s Day Chambers was hurriedly brought into the firm by old man Mattingly himself. Eddie’s been here for 12 years and he said he’d never known that to happen before---no vetting by the board, no formal introductions, nothing. He was also given a confidential phone line and confidential email address, kind of a ‘batphone’ right to the boss, as Eddie said. And even before he began working here Chambers had several large crates delivered to this office from a company out in Boston”, explained Mindy to her wide-eyed co-worker, “and no one ever saw what was inside them”.

“It gets better, Terrie. I also spoke with Rochelle over on the main reception desk. Look, she’s a great source--she sees everyone come and go, receives all of the courier deliveries and dispatches the messages. She used to date my brother Elliot, so I have a good in with her. Okay, so I say to her, ‘Rochelle I gotta ask you about someone’ and she goes right to work. Rochelle told me that Chambers has his own keys to the front door and was given security clearance to come and go anytime. He is not part of the night staff of brokers, but he has been known to come in at all hours. The security guard downstairs confirmed that he has signed the logbook on about five different occasions well after hours. Rochelle also said that the brass have asked her to put calls out to Chambers at various times of the day, when he would normally be here, but he’s ‘out in the field’, whatever that means. She’s reached him many times while he was out of state, of all things, and he’s told her that he’s on a special assignment. Chambers also had packages delivered to the bosses at odd hours. Rochelle said the packaging appears to be discs of some kind”, she said with a hand rummaging through her thick head of curly hair. “Discs, Terrie, like some kind of secret files”, but the last words were delivered in a loud stage whisper, lest the walls---or Becca---overhear this top secret conversation.

As Terrie sat in silent amazement, Mindy, whose hand was now twirling great sections of her hair, continued on:

“Okay, look, so what could all of this mean? I thought about what you said, that he may be a federal plant, but obviously with all of this connection between the bosses and Chambers, he’s obviously not investigating them”.

Terrie’s hand went to her mouth, leaving just enough room to ask, “Christ, do you think he’s investigating all of-----us??”, as a feeling of nausea swept over her.

“Uuhh, I don’t think so. I have been reading these stories in the paper lately—you know about how the CIA just publicly admitted that they are allowing their agents to moonlight in corporations, especially here in the financial district.

“Yes, yes, that sounded like James Bond stuff to me”, Terrie cut in excitedly. “Do you think Chambers could be, er---licensed to kill??”, she said, eyebrow cocked, attempting levity.

Mindy continued: “Hedge funds have been hiring these guys to serve as human lie detectors, watching for problems in big companies that they are considering moving stocks from. These agents are not making a lot of money doing spy work for the government so they take on these part-time jobs, mostly through this intelligence company in Boston---it specializes in gathering information about corporations through CIA operatives. This stuff is like ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’, I swear. The CIA had to cave in to these agents because they were afraid they’d lose their top intelligence people to the Street, where they could make huge sums of money. So lots of them have been finding their way into offices like ours, investigating potential transactions, deciphering the validity of financial reports and offering expert opinions to the CFOs. It blows my mind that in a time when the world is screaming about terrorist threats and the country is involved in two wars, financial firms get the best of this country’s intelligence operatives!”, Mindy said, a little too loudly for Terrie to feel comfortable.

“Jeeee-sus, Mindy”, Terrie affirmed, “I read some of those reports, too. If this guy is a fed then anything can happen. Mattingly may have hired him but you know that we’ve run into problems in the past and if Chambers sees anything inappropriate going on, isn’t he mandated to investigate it? But the bread is being buttered here, so you got to wonder who he pledges allegiance to. He’s still a career CIA agent, working in this sector to pay off a house or two, right? But who’s he ultimately working for?”, Terrie stated, coming to a conclusion that disturbed her in a way that she’d not quite considered before.

“Yes”, Mindy jumped in, raking fingers through her long locks. “If Wall Street is making use of the intensive training guys like Chambers have received with tax-payer dollars, then it seems like our people who received all of the bail-out money are now getting much more of a holiday bonus: the service of the intelligence agencies, too!”

Terrie shook her head. “So what do we think we’ve got here, Mindy? A mysterious new broker who may be CIA working as a spy-for-hire. This is why he is in all of the closed-door meetings, especially when they are having the conferences for the Archer merger and the South Street Properties buy-out; these have been among the highest targeted prospects for over six months now, so it makes sense that the Master of Disguise would be called in to investigate these. There are hundreds of millions at stake here”, she said, quite satisfied at her own skills of deduction.

“Elementary, my dear Ms. Gionoffrio”, Mindy offered as she poured them both another glass of Pino Noir…

THE RADIO ALARM CLOCK CLICKED ON AT A MUCH TOO LOUD VOLUME. That the dial was set somewhere between a Hip-Hop station and some kind of foreign language broadcast did not help Mindy’s headache one bit. Pulling herself out of bed after a very late-night session of talk and drink (what time was it that Terrie left again??), she looked over at the obnoxious thing and tried to read its blurry numbers while reaching for the OFF button. Becca came in smiling, carrying a cup of coffee. Thinking about the whole Chambers affair again as she showered, Mindy bristled with excitement. Well at least this was a motivational tool.

After ambling through the morning, Mindy got Becca off to school and then found her way to the office. After hanging up her coat, glancing at the headlines of the Journal and looking over her agenda for the day, Mindy got a text from Terrie. It was about Chambers; he’d just come into the office. Mindy gave it a moment and then thought she’d put the whole thing to rest by walking over and seeing the enigma up close. Grabbing her mug off the desk, she rapidly walked down the hall, heading towards the coffee room; to do so she needed to pass the corridor which led to Chambers’ unit. As planned she intercepted him, seemingly by accident.

“Oh, hi Stanton. Haven’t seen you around lately. Where have you been?”

“I have been in and out, moving between here and the office in New Jersey. In fact, I am due back over there soon” he said. But she knew damned well he was not working out in Jersey. Her inquiries there had produced no evidence of Chambers working across the river. “Why do you ask?”. He added, rather firmly. His eyes now looked directly into her own for the first time--and they were of steely gaze. The guy didn’t blink.

She fought against the anger building----he was trying to make her feel dismissed. “Oh, no, just curious. I thought maybe you’d left Crestfall---as mysteriously as you came here”, she said with a chuckle, still locking eyes with the man. Chambers offered a tight, closed-mouth smile which signified an end to the banter, nodded and then turned away to take off his coat. As he did his suit jacket came partially open and Mindy was quite certain she saw the butt of a handgun peek out from under his left arm. Chambers quickly turned to look her full in the face again and asked: “Anything else?”

Mindy now gave the closed mouth smile as she shook her head and moved back toward her own sector of the office. She’d by then forgotten all about the coffee. As she walked by Bill Tyler, sitting two desks over, put his head deeper into his cubicle and appeared busy.

That night Terrie was again at Mindy’s apartment and they began to gather their data on this vexing situation. Reports of the CIA and Wall Street were coming in from sources as diverse as politico and the London Guardian, the Huffington Post and numerous financial journals. It was wild, but yes the news clarified that there were agents in their midst. Politico reported that a big thing with the hedge fund managers who employ these agents is “deception detection” in order to figure out who’s lying to them. And that’s just the start of it.

“Wow, I wonder if our own Napoleon Solo has been teaching Crestfall’s board about interrogation techniques, like these articles say”, Mindy wondered. “Or if he’s been using some of this sci-fi sounding technology….hey, did you read this other article that describes the way they use laser beams to listen in on conversations?? Yeah, they have a hand-held laser that can be aimed at an office window it records the vibrations going on in that room. Then the spy takes it back to HQ and they are able to break down the vibrations and piece together speech pattern and build them into whole conversations. No board meeting can ever really be secure, under these circumstances”.

Terrie sat a little motionless and then explained that her biggest concern was the eventual fallout of this on the staffs of financial institutions. “Remember”, she said, “the ‘deception detection’ and other investigations--as well as spy toys--can be used by the agent to report on investors, corporate transactions and of course……us. We’ll always be looking over our shoulders. While they seek out information about the money-movers outside, they can just as easily, no—more easily—watch we on the inside. When the larger houses use these tactics the smaller firms need to follow suit, to keep up with the competition. Christ I never thought I’d be complaining about working in an electronic sweatshop; I became a broker to better myself, but now if we are being watched the heat is really on. Can this be happening?”

“Shit, yes”, Mindy offered, staring down at the coffee table. “The strange vibe in Chambers’ part of the office is not happenstance. All of the strange comings and goings. Bill Tyler’s fear. And whatever did happen to Frank? If this is true….We have to find out exactly who Chambers is, what Chambers is.”

Terrie did not respond but took a long, deep drag on her cigarette. As she exhaled the smoke plumed up and around the two like a sweeping, grey fog. “I have an idea”, she said.

AS THEY’D PLANNED Terrie drove to Mindy’s building the following evening. It was 6:37 as she sat out front and the late-winter sky was dark and cloudy. No stars, no real moon to speak of either, Terrie thought as she looked up at the blackness through her windshield. It seemed perfectly ominous for this, their foray into the spy racket. The pair planned to park nearby the Crestfall Mattingly brownstone on Sutton Place, the uptown conference room, for just such a top-heavy urgent meeting. This was to include ONLY the board’s most prominent members, and a handful of major investors. If Chambers was a part of this when no one else on staff was invited, his prominence would be clear.

“Damn, where in hell is she?” Terrie thought to herself. “We agreed to meet here at 6:30 so we could get over there before they all arrive for their damned meeting. Oh, Mindy—hurry up”. Terrie stared into her wrist-watch as she heard three quick raps on the passenger window. It was Mindy, smirking oddly while pointing downward to her left. Yes, she has Becca with her.

“Mindy---what, I mean, why…??”

“I am so sorry, Ter, really”, Mindy offered. “But the baby-sitter cancelled at the last minute and there was no one else. You know Becca will be quiet and she’s got her little computer game with her, so she’ll be no trouble”

“I’ll be no trouble, Aunt Terrie”, Becca concurred.

Now with Mindy riding shot-gun and Becca firmly strapped into the back seat, Terrie quickly drove around to the FDR Drive and headed north, working the accelerator pedal for all it was worth and not slowing down until they’d gotten to the upper East Side. Traveling through the streets of this ‘old money’ part of town, winding around the townhouses and exclusive luxury high-rises, the two brokers-turned-detectives saw that for all of their own social climbing, they remained just cogs in the wheel of big business. And small cogs at that.

“Okay, here it is”, Terrie announced at 6:54 as she pulled up to the curb just off of 58th Street. “Crestfall’s off-site conference room and the bachelor pad for the private little liaisons the wives of the board members are not supposed to know about”, she added with a bitter grimace, all the while considering how hard both she and Mindy had to work to break through the barrier that still kept finance capital an old boys’ club. The Street’s upper echelon is careful to let just so many outsiders into their midst.

Now secured in a parking space across the street from the company brownstone, just a little off to the side, the pair had ample opportunity to see the comings and goings without being too obvious. Just then the first limo pulled up right in front of the building. Now even Becca looked upward and all three watched Mr. Mattingly and two officers of the board emerge and walk up into the house. This was followed by a town car which dropped off Mr. Nordstrom and Mr. Devereaux, two of the company’s major investors, as well as another man in business attire.

Jack Iselin, a retired Senator who now stands as a leading board member, arrived next and after his limo pulled out, one more took its place, dropping off several more well-attired men who hurriedly made their way into the house before Mindy or Terrie could identify them. So far, so good---all of the people invited to this meeting were certainly Crestfall Mattingly’s movers and shakers. No question that this meeting was of highest-level importance.

Terrie breathed a sigh of relief when she announced that it was now 7:21 and that there was no sign of Chambers, or whatever his name really was. Perhaps they’d been wrong all along.

“No, wait, Ter. I can’t quite shake this feeling. I don’t think all of the guests have arrived”. Mindy insisted.

And then one last limousine pulled up to the front of the house and sat still for what seemed like an eternity. With its interior light on, they could see the figure of someone speaking on a cell phone behind the smoked glass. Mindy and Terrie crouched down into their seats. Finally the limo door opened and a tall, slim man with an overcoat got out, snapping his phone shut as he stood. He stopped and turned, speaking to several others in the car as they climbed out. It was Chambers and two other men who were strangely similar in general appearance. All three were tall, slender, thirtyish, wearing dark coats, suits and ties and sported short haircuts which framed ultra-serious mugs. The still open limo door threw an amber luminance onto them and it fought with the street lamp’s yellowish glow, tossing shadows this way and that.

For guys who were the main attraction at this top priority meeting, they surely demonstrated no urgency. They quietly made small talk as they stood on the curb, calmly adjusting coats, hats and brief cases. One or two more close mumbles in their huddle and then they disappeared up into the front entrance of the house.

“Secret agents? Spies on loan?”, Terrie asked, raising her shoulders in question.

Mindy paused at length and then said: “It seems that Chambers and company have a power here that is new even in this cut-throat business. Now it’s not just the weight of capital that turns the wheels---but the degree of espionage capital can command”. Becca now looked up from her video game, watching the two women carefully.

Mindy turned toward Terrie, looking at her closely, and added with an ironic exaggeration: “Sshhhh. Listen-- hear that? It’s the sound of the wall between big business and government being torn down all around us”.

Her grin faded as the three sat silently in the night air. The playing field was now becoming permanently altered and its fallout would be felt by their children and the children yet to come. And somehow no one thought to predict its approach.

CD REVIEW: The US vs John Lennon (2006)

CD Review by John Pietaro

CD: The U.S. vs John Lennon: Music from the Motion Picture

2006,EMI Capitol Records/Lions Gate Films

Last November, just in time for what would have been John Lennon’s 66th birthday, a documentary was released that got to the core of the singer’s radicalism. The film explained how Lennon developed from ‘Beatle John’ to an artist of social change, and of course how the United States government responded to this. Remember, these were the years of Nixon’s high-paranoia as well as the continued hysteria of the Cold War. J. Edgar Hoover remained closeted but all-powerful, COINTELPRO was in full force and Washington was run by a secret government not seen before in the annals of American history. The irony, of course, shines brightest only with a comparative view between the White House then---and right now.

Much attention, particularly in Left circles, has been placed on the film’s relevance, but in this setting, the focus is on the soundtrack recording. Hey, Lennon was a musician after all. The album opens up with John’s composition, “Power to the People” which dates from his Plastic Ono Band period, as do many of the selections included here. “Power” is one of those rare treats that is as much a rollicking pop number with a sing-along chorus as it is an angry protest song:

Say we want a revolution/We better get it on right away/Well get on your feet/End of the street/singing Power to the People, Power to the People

With this piece, Lennon was responding to his own trepidation of just three years before; his Beatles release “Revolution” refused to actually commit to the action of its own title. By 1971, he was more than ready. And while “Power” was a great rallying cry, it went even deeper. This song also addressed the sexism that is often evident in the movement, so it offered empowerment—and exposition--beyond the obvious. Once this song actually went to the pressing plant, there was no turning back for Lennon.

While the soundtrack includes the usual suspects, so to speak, special attention has been placed on rarely heard numbers. And herein lies the treasure. “Gimme Some Truth”, a Plastic Ono Band number from ’71 is a classically pissed-off protest song though it is slow and deliberate in nature and artfully arranged (including George Harrison’s soaring slide guitar). Surely this selection could be about rebellion from anyone’s perspective, especially that of a teenager. In this sense it’s timeless, yet it’s also very much a timely song, what with the politics Lennon encountered. Its unlikely chorus somehow works musically as much as it does topically:

No short haired yellow bellied son of Tricky Dick is gonna mother hubbard soft-soap me with just a pocketful of hope /Money for dope/ Money for rope.

Also from 1971 is “Attica State”, a recording made as Lennon and Yoko Ono performed at the rally in support of peace activist John Sinclair, then being held on trumped up drug charges. Supported by acoustic guitars and, apparently, a thumping foot, Lennon and Ono sound about as raw as can be expected. Unwelcoming feedback from the sound system (the bain of the rally musician’s existence) creeps up more than once, but this just adds to the immediacy. Lennon is even heard commenting on the stripped-down nature of the performance: “I haven’t done this in years”.

Another song from the same concert, “John Sinclair”, offers some specifics on the case of the peace activist. But most important is Lennon’s opening statement to the crowd: “We came here not only to help John, but also to say to all of you that apathy isn’t it. We can do something. Okay, so Flower Power didn’t work—so what? We start again”. With this, Lennon gave acknowledgement to the gorilla in the parlor—the reality that the youth movement did not immediately change the nation’s direction—but in identifying it, he also insisted on the need to maintain the fight. This is the difference between a musician of social commentary and one of social protest.

Also present on the CD is “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama, I Don’t Wanna Die” from 1971. Credited to John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band with the Flux Fiddlers, here one can appreciate Ono’s effect on Lennon: repetition, simple almost droning form, improvisations atop the structure, extra musicians, and vocal emoting all point to Yoko’s own experiments in the Fluxus art movement. This can especially be said of the brilliant “God”, which is also included in this set. This song was of course heard extensively in the day’s after Lennon’s murder (The dream is over…).

1969’s “Bed Peace” is brief slice of Lennon and Yoko Ono’s campaign of ‘bed-ins for peace’. It acts as a lead-in to the Beatles release “The Ballad of John and Yoko”. Also included in this album are segments of the film’s spoken soundtrack, including John’s discussion of the movement. This bit of discussion from ’69 easily leads into “Give Peace a Chance”, a piece which has since become immortalized due to its use at major anti-war rallies during the Vietnam era and today.

Of course Lennon’s rather infamous “Working Class Hero” is thankfully included as are classic cuts “Imagine”, “New York City” (recorded with the kicking Elephant’s Memory Band), “Instant Karma” and “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”. It is odd that the powerfully feminist “Woman is the Nigger of the World” was left off.

Other tracks include 1970’s “I Found Out” (a grungy blues-inflected piece about self-realization as well as a full comprehension of the movement around him), an instrumental version of “How Do You Sleep” (really directed at McCartney while they were at odds), “Here We Go Again” (co-composed with Phil Spector) and the almost painfully beautiful “Oh My Love” written for Ono in ’71.

Okay, so the Beatles remain the greatest rock band in the eyes of most of us and none of its members’ solo careers could ever compare to the group’s eight chart-topping years. But only an unfettered Lennon who’d gone through important life-changes, realizations and identifications could have accomplished so much for the progressive movement of his day. He allowed the mainstream to become the radical.

As Nixon knew, a globally popular rock star with political awareness is perhaps the most dangerous weapon against the status quo. That’s why he worked so hard to try to silence John Lennon.


CD REVIEW: John Mellencamp, 'Freedom's Road' (2007)

CD Review by John Pietaro

John Mellencamp, Freedom’s Road, Compact Disc, 2007 Universal Music Group

Singer-songwriter John Mellencamp has long since grown out of his 1980s ‘John Cougar’ persona, yet the 55 year-old’s latest release expresses a new maturity. With “Freedom’s Road” he offers a realistic view of the United States in these times, through the metaphor of the all-American road-trip. And he takes the listener along for the ride. Hard to say exactly how the heartland will respond, but suffice to say that this album works on many levels, from social protest to flag-waver.

Yes, this album is filled with Americanisms—Country & Western-tinged radio-ready anthems (complete with the occasional fiddle and female choir) that intermingle with classic rock trappings. A strong and solid rhythm section lays down the foundation for crisp guitar leads whirling Hammond organ and gritty vocals. But the star-spangled road is one which careens along lost, dusty highways that travel through forgotten places. The Midwest of Mellencamp’s youth—or rather the idealized Midwest of his youth—has been replaced with a hard reality. Even the CD packaging speaks volumes: though adorned with wonderfully cliché photos that wreak of “brotherhood week”, good times and road travel, the sepia stain belies the tail-gait party. Closer inspection reveals what’s hidden beneath the family values…a burning cross here, a hanging tree there, a snarling police dog and a few other choice relics of the pre-Civil Rights years in small town America.

Musically, Mellencamp is probably not treading new ground here, still it’s good to know that he’s never at a loss for pop sensibility. This is a damned listenable album. It is accessible to all, even if they had to be led in through the airing of “Our Country” on a commercial before it was heard on radio (ah, John, the irony is not lost that this bitter drive through Americana was paved with a Chevy ad). No matter; once you’re in the passenger seat, you’ll listen. And I guess that’s the whole point. In recent interviews, Mellencamp stated that, but for the constant airing of his song as a jingle, his new album may have been dead on the charts upon release. Sad, but probably very much the case.

“Our Country” is far from a pedestrian number. The songwriter masterfully grafted a topical song onto a prideful Country tune which calls for bigotry to be replaced with equality, and for science to stand alongside religion. Much like a Thomas Hart Benton painting in a WPA gallery, this song speaks of a people’s USA in gritty but positive terms. Further, Mellencamp seemingly crowned the album’s title as a result of the final verse in Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land is Your Land”, which includes the line, “Nobody living can ever stop me as I go riding down freedom’s highway…”. Mellencamp puts more than a bit of old-style populism into his music, like the founders of the folk revival. It all speaks of—and to—you and I. And what could be more American than dissent? (try telling that to a Republican back home). This emotion extends into the CD’s opening number, “Someday”, a call-and-response major-minor introduction to this journey through the back roads of the US. Its positive yet urgent message is compelling; almost a “How long? Not long” wrapped in formulaic Country-rock. With ease, it pulls the listener in.

Mellencamp pulls no punches, and expresses no patience, in cuts such as “Ghost Towns Along the Highway” (small town runes) and “Rural Route” (harsh dysfunctions and abuses masked by country secrets). And he demonstrates marked irony in “The Americans”, which expounds over-the-top American virtue. Mellencamp has explained that this lyric does not indicate the reality of human relations in the Midwest and south, but what needs to occur there. Acceptance, inclusiveness and equality are still a far-off goal for many, he explained, but the song offers no visible sign of the composer winking into his microphone. Listeners will take this at whichever level they choose to, or are ready to.

This album’s other points of immediate interest include the title song (which declares that “Freedom’s Road must be under construction”) and the powerfully significant “Jim Crow”, a duet with folk legend Joan Baez, so much a part of the Civil Rights era. Here’s a daring piece which reflects upon today’s racism, disguised as it may be beneath acceptable smiles. How easy it is for many of us to rest on the laurels of the past forty years, ignoring the various hatreds in our midst.

And that’s really what this pocket of the American experience in 2007 seems to be about. Yes—we can fight to take it back from the bigots, the corrupt leaders, the manipulators and the reactionaries, but we first need to realize that it’s gone. Otherwise “Freedom’s Road” is just more background music at a ballgame, barbecue….or a Chevy spot.


FILM REVIEW: 'Bruno' (2009)

Film Review by John Pietaro:

BRUNO, Universal Pictures, 2009

Sacha Baron Cohen has a tendency to pick the scabs off of our societal infections, if only to look closely at the festering within. Cohen, who turned the mirror on southern US conventions in last year’s Borat, exposing the racism and xenophobia that lurks in Dixie—and points east and west—has returned for another trip through this nation’s most embarrassing moments, but this time brought to us through the lens of the Bizarro world.

The character of Bruno Gehard, an oversexed, flamboyantly gay, Austrian “fashionista” whose behavior is hyper to the point of being overwhelming, was developed for Cohen’s cable television program “Da Ali G. Show” some years ago. All of the show’s characters, Borat, Bruno and Ali G himself were portrayed by Cohen, demonstrating his skill for characterization as much as his twisted sense of derring-do: each of the characters stumbled through unscripted interviews with unwitting targets who usually left the interview bewildered, agitated and unsure as to whether or not they’d been victimized by a Candid Camera for today’s dangerous times. While Borat, a supposed Kazakhstani with harshly anti-Semitic and sexist opinions, did little to foster relations with the Middle East, Bruno straddles the fence that was torn down by the Stonewall uprising forty years ago. Okay, maybe I should stop… I am not trying to say that this stuff is not funny: it was hard to sit through this and not laugh—hysterically most of the time. But the guffaws heard in the theatre all sounded like they were sharing space with grave discomfort, endless cringing and pure guilty pleasure. Yet it is clear that while exposing the rabid homophobia found in southern blue-collar communities, Cohen is both winking at and laughing at those in the know. It’s a slippery slope. But then so is the plot itself…

Bruno, the host of a European television show, finds himself jobless following a candidly filmed disaster at a very real Milan Week fashion show (Paul McCartney is seen in the audience). He of course relocates to the United States, seeking notoriety in L.A. and engaging in behavior that only begins with ‘outlandish. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture this amazingly flamboyant figure trying to interact with the so-called beautiful people and making a fool of everyone in the process. But as Cohen’s core goal here is to expose the ugliness beneath the gloss, he never comes close to leaving well-enough alone. Modeling himself on “Bradjolina”, Bruno even feels the need to illegally adopt an African baby (“I traded him for an Ipod”, he explains to a horrified talk show audience). He names the child “O.J.”, telling all that it’s a “traditional African-American name”, of course.

In an attempt to interview a harried Harrison Ford, Bruno is blown off with profanities by the irritated actor. More so, Cohen exposes singer Paula Abdul, one of the hosts of TV’s ‘American Idol’, in a horribly uncomfortable segment. All of his resources are spent on crew and interview site, so there’s no money left over for furniture. He acquires the use of three Mexican laborers to become the furniture (yes, you read this correctly). While the three were probably in on the nature of this gag, Abdul clearly was not, thus the frightening outcome of an interview about her humanitarian activities while sitting on the back of a middle-aged Mexican worker who’s seen looking visibly uncomfortable. Though he had her for a while, Cohen’s need to push the envelope to the furthest limits ultimately saw the singer leave in an embarrassed ‘huff’. But no more so than his biggest catch: former presidential candidate Ron Paul! Paul is discussing his election platform during his interview with Bruno when there’s an equipment failure and the discussion needs to be put on hold. In one of the most uncomfortable segments you’ll ever witness in a movie, Bruno takes Paul to his bedroom and attempts to awkwardly seduce the Congressman, who storms out of the suite in a flurry of furious choice statements including “queer!” So much for the Ron Paul revolution.

But the film doesn’t end with the humiliation of a few cultural icons, not at all. Bruno decides to tour the American south after being blacklisted in Hollywood, taking us into the Alabama offices of evangelist preachers who claim to be able to “cure” homosexuality (“You need to engage in activities with other men, being around strong men in good, manly activities” one of them says to him, stepping right into Bruno’s homoerotic trap). Of course he ends up on an overnight hunting expedition with guys who could be part of a routine by Larry the Cable Guy, straight out of ‘Hee Haw’—but are not. Though offering to climb into their tents while naked, Bruno somehow survives the night, but just barely. He also infiltrates an Alabama swingers’ party, again somehow coming away relatively unscathed, but the movie-goer watches these scenes with hands almost entirely covering the eyes, realizing that Cohen’s cinema verite cringe-fest is ultimately no joke.

This film climaxes, so to speak, with a temporarily macho Bruno in the part of Ultimate Fighting promoter “Straight Dave” speaking to a packed southern auditorium full of screaming fans. Remarkably, the crowd really does believe that “Straight Dave”, whose slogans are some of the harshest in homophobic history, is for real, and the beer-guzzling rightwing Nascar types in the house are whipped into a frenzy awaiting the bouts he is presenting. But “Dave” is joined by his male lover in the midst of all this and they begin embracing and writhing in an open-mouthed, graphic sexual display as infuriated and horrified spectators holler out violent threats and rush the cage, throwing beer and chairs over the fenced-in ring. While this episode was surely a set-up for the unsuspecting fans of uber-macho sport, it presents to us just how ugly the heart of America can be. The crowd’s response could only have been augmented with a cross-burning.

While most enlightened people see the character of Bruno in the context of guerilla humor--not as a mean-spirited caricature of a gay man but a means to expose the public’s hateful reaction to the lifestyle--one comes away wondering. If an apparently straight Cohen needs to use the worst stereotypes of gay culture as a means to poke fun at the red-faced reactions to it, whom is he ultimately serving? I won’t give up on the clear progressive message herein, even if its drowned in a sea of contemporary shock-value humor, but viewing the film from a Marxist perspective is like tip-toeing through a mine-field. We love it when Cohen has battled with hard-core rightists in the past—hip activists always get the joke--but wonder if the denizens of conservatism are just laughing at the titular character, using it to proved their judgmental views “correct”. In any case, Bruno is a trip through the underbelly of the good ol’ boys around us and possibly, quite possibly, within us too.


Album review: Gene Pritsker’s Sound Liberation, Let’s Save the World Suite

  Gene Pritsker’s Sound Liberation , Let’s Save the World Suite (Composers Concordance 2022) --originally published in The NYC Jazz Recor...