It’s zombie time at campaign Hillary. Behold the dead men walking! It was with strangely slow, narcotized numbness that the candidate and her phalanx of minions and mouthpieces responded to last week’s punishing report by the State Department’s Inspector General about her email security lapses. Do they truly believe, in the rosy alternate universe of Hillaryland, that they can lie their way out of this? Of course, they’re relying as usual on the increasingly restive mainstream media to do their dirty work for them. If it were a Republican in the crosshairs, Hillary’s shocking refusal to meet with the Inspector General (who interviewed all four of the other living Secretaries of State of the past two decades) would have been the lead item flagged in screaming headlines from coast to coast. Let’s face it—the genuinely innocent do not do pretzel twists like this to cover their asses.
Meanwhile, former Bill Clinton advisor and pollster Douglas Schoen gave the strongest signal yet in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week (“Clinton may not be the nominee”) that worried backstage huddles in the Democratic party establishment are reaching fever pitch. The article’s floating of the idea of a Joe Biden-Elizabeth Warren substitute ticket (which I’ve been privately predicting to friends all year) is so evenly and magisterially phrased that I wondered if the text had been vetted by an approving White House. So this may be why Bernie Sanders (my candidate) has gone into overdrive—not to damage Hillary, as her acolytes spitefully claim, but to fight off the tactical insertion of Biden at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. Sanders could rightly claim, on the basis of his long and strenuous primary campaign, that if anyone deserves the nomination vacated by a tarnished Hillary, it is he. If Sanders does defer to Biden, it will only be via enormous concessions, beginning with the unceremonious removal of devious DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Over on the GOP side, Donald Trump continues to gain strength, despite the nonstop artillery barrage of Democratic operatives and their clone army in the mainstream media. Trump just rolls on and on, despite every foot-in-mouth gaffe that would stop a normal campaign cold. He’s terrific on the radio, I must say. Even though I do like Elizabeth Warren (I even believe she has Native American ancestry, although certainly not enough to qualify her for affirmative action), I burst out laughing in my car last week when I heard Trump confidingly say (like a yenta at Zabar’s deli), “She’s a woman that has been very ineffective—except that she has a big mouth.” His New York comic timing was spot on. I laughed out loud again this week when I heard Trump interrupt his press conference to tag an ABC reporter as “a sleaze”—at which I am sure thousands of other radio listeners heartily cheered. It’s been a long time since any major politician had the chutzpah to tell the arrogant, double-dealing East Coast media what most of the country thinks about them.
There’s an absurdist, almost Dadaist quality to Trump’s candidacy, like Groucho Marx satirizing high society swells in A Night at the Opera or the radical Yippies trying to levitate the Pentagon at their 1967 antiwar protest. Trump routinely deploys all the subversive transgressiveness that campus Leftists claim to value. He goes straight as an arrow to the forbidden and repressed—as when he recently fearlessly raised the long hushed up case of the 1993 suicide of Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel whom the Clintons had brought to Washington from Little Rock. Unfortunately, Trump mixed it up with baseless murder-conspiracy rumors, because there are already enough unanswered questions about the incident (such as possible illegal interference by Hillary’s staff in the official investigation and even the ambiguous issue of exactly where Foster died).
Trump’s boisterous, uncensored id makes a riveting contrast to Hillary’s plodding, joyless superego. Listening to her leaden attempts to tell rehearsed jokes is collective torture. Hillary is not now, nor has she ever been, a member of the Comedy Party. But we’re talking about the presidency here, not an improv club. While I would love to see a Trump-style chief executive say “You’re fired!” to half the parasitic Washington bureaucracy, I have high anxiety about Trump’s shoot-em-up attitude toward international affairs. Exactly how long would it be after a Trump inauguration before the nuke-horned bull would be crashing around the Red China shop?
Last weekend, while plowing through my old files for an upcoming book project for Pantheon, I found a written interview I gave in October 2003 to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, which had asked me about allegations of misogyny against the newly elected governor of California. Here is an excerpt from my statement:
“I am still amazed at the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to governor—a man who has never held political office and who participated in only one serious debate. It is a disturbing sign in any nation when politics have become so inefficient and corrupt that the people turn to an outsider as ‘strong man’ for leadership. This is how fascism is born. Because it is Schwarzenegger’s machismo—represented on a superhuman scale in his films—that California voters want to attack the entrenched special interests in Sacramento, his behavior toward women was irrelevant. Or rather, his behavior actually reinforced his virile image as a forceful personality who pushes through barriers.”
How eerily history seems to be repeating itself! But this time it is the fate of the entire nation that hangs in the balance. Trump is a stormily dynamic change-maker who will surely win this election unless the Democrats get their house in order and nominate a figure of honor and integrity. Bernie Sanders, who represents the wave of the future, is my first choice, but Joe Biden, with his international experience, would be a solid second. If the kamikaze party wants to nominate an ethically challenged incompetent like Hillary Clinton, then I’ll be voting Green for the second time. Go, Jill Stein!
Subject: Pre-Columbian megaliths in the Northeastern U.S.
I was pleasantly surprised to read in your latest Salon column that you've taken a serious interest in Northeastern Paleoamerican archaeology. The stone monuments--caverns, walls, dolmens, standing stones, balanced boulders, stone circles, etc.--that are found all over the Northeast are a true hidden treasure, and it is almost criminal how neglected they are by conservationists and academia.
I grew up in Massachusetts and studied anthropology at a respected New York college without ever once learning about these mysterious megalithic archaeological remains which bear such a strong resemblance to those found in neolithic, pre-Celtic Europe. Were it not for the fact that a close friend lives and spends a lot of time outdoors in rural western Massachusetts, I likely would never have learned about this fascinating subject.
What do you make of the similarity between these megalithic sites and those found on the other side of the Atlantic?
It was precisely those odd clusterings of boulders in heavily wooded areas outside Philadelphia that I starting to notice for the first time eight years ago—after nearly a quarter century of teaching in Center City. I began wondering about manmade cairns that did not seem to be piles of stones cleared from farm fields but distinctly resembled ritual spaces pictured in studies of European prehistoric art. Then I started to find imposing, smoothly planed standing stones (up to seven feet high)—virtually all of them long toppled and often half-buried and moss-covered in the underbrush. By their placement in key positions in the vast network of creeks and gorges in the Delaware River basin, I must assume they once had a sacred meaning in Native American cosmology.
When I tried to find information about these monumental relics, I hit a dead end. I would certainly classify such objects as rock art, but that term seems to be routinely confined to incised petroglyphs in Native American studies. There has been great discussion about petroglyph sites nationwide, including famous examples (some flooded by hydroelectric dams) along the lower Susquehanna River as it crosses from Pennsylvania into Maryland 80 miles west of here. Curious and frustrated, I embarked on a laborious, year-long process of going, shelf by shelf, through the immense Native American section of the library at the famous University Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. I found plenty of material on petroglyphs everywhere in the U.S. but next to nothing about monumental megalithic structures. It seemed bizarre, given what we know about the massive sculpture and architecture of Pre-Columbian societies like the Maya and Aztec in Central America.
I eventually concluded that academic training in North American anthropology has been so focused on highly specialized excavation protocols (where stratifications revealing Native American “lifeways” over thousands of years are painstakingly uncovered and carbon-dated) that there is no room for world art or world history in the basic curriculum, leading to a lack of speculative skill and larger vision. I see no other explanation for how much has been missed, in terms of both large and small artifacts, by specialists in Native American studies of the Northeastern states. On the Web, on the other hand, there are numerous sites by enthusiastic amateurs, who post photos of their discoveries in woods and farmland and eagerly trade theories.
There are few publications that I would recommend about Pennsylvania archaeology, except for Gary L. Fogelman’s superb “Chronological Typology Chart” (which I own in poster form and constantly consult), an illustrated diagram of projectile and knife shapes in Pennsylvania and the Northeast from 10,000 B.C. to 1650 A.D. New England’s ancient artifacts seem to have always received greater attention, as shown in two very useful 2006 publications by non-academics: Mary and James Gage, A Guide to New England Stone Structures (a 36-page illustrated pamphlet), and David Goudsward, Ancient Stone Sites of New England and the Debate Over Early European Exploration.
The Goudsward book shows how Native American petroglyphs were often stubbornly attributed to Norse or Phoenician visitors. But the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, Yale president Ezra Stiles, and even George Washington thought differently about mysterious markings on the 40-ton Dighton Rock on the Taunton River at Berkley, Massachusetts: Goudsward says, “George Washington viewed a drawing of the inscriptions during a 1789 visit to Harvard University and declared the carvings similar to those he had seen in his youth in Virginia.” Washington was in no doubt about their Native American provenance.
Brief scattered references in colonial diaries and travelogues show that when early European settlers questioned contemporaneous Native Americans about petroglyphs found throughout the Northeast, the tribal ability to decipher them had already been lost. Native Americans attributed the petroglyphs to a prior people, a race of “giants” who had come and gone. The Lenni Lenape of Southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, for example, were hailed by white observers for their tree art: the bark was stripped off mature trees to create a tablet space for complex images and narrative inscriptions, painted red. All of those biodegradable works have of course completely disappeared. But what still remains is a vast landscape of stone markers, some in eroded but discernible animal shape, that were created by earlier Native Americans who may (my working theory) have migrated north, as their primary food source, the great herds of caribou and woolly mammoth, followed the receding glacier.
Subject: Music diva for the 21st century
Maybe now that you feel let down by Rihanna's latest album, you might be willing to try Lana Del Rey? Raised in WASPy upstate New York like yourself, you both share an obsession with '60s European glamour.
In a world full of feel-good audio candy floss, Lana Del Ray brings back the melancholy from the torch song cabaret of Peggy Lee and Nancy Sinatra. Watch her play the spiritual re-incarnation of Isabella Rossellini's doomed lounge singer from Blue Velvet in her video for "Young & Beautiful":
As a longtime fervent Rihanna fan (I’ve written cover stories about her for both the British and Italian press), I was certainly underwhelmed by her new album, Anti, her first after leaving Def Jam for her new label, Roc Nation. As executive producer, Rihanna is ultimately responsible for the album’s various awkward or jarring transitions, not to mention such lyric fails as opening a song (“James Joint”) with the bathetic line, “I’d rather be smoking weed.” Nevertheless, I do admire three songs on the album: “Desperado,” whose menacing atmospherics recall the brilliant “Pour it up” on Rihanna’s prior album; “Never Ending,” with its lilting evocation of old British sea chanteys via Barbados; and “Love on the Brain,” a virtuoso vocal display that snatches the passionate African-American genre of soul melodrama right back from Adele.
Lana Del Rey: she first soared on my approval meter several years ago when she was feuding with the insufferable Lady Gaga, but unfortunately it looks like they’ve patched things up. (The old days of colorful show biz feuds are sadly over.) I knew Lana had grown up in Lake Placid, which is forbiddingly remote and isolated in the northern Adirondacks. I went to summer camp on a small lake near Old Forge about 60 miles southwest of there, and man, do I still remember that brutally glacial water! (This was the Syracuse Girl Scout Council’s Spruce Ridge Camp, where I nearly blew up the latrine by carelessly dropping a half-bag of lime into it.)
I do think Lana is very talented, and I am happy that she professes a love of poetry. However, a little of Lana goes a long way, in my view. She seems stuck in a groove, a prisoner of her own fictive persona, which has gotten a bit tattered about the ears. For how many albums is she going to go on with this neurasthenic mooning and morbid posturing, like a cloistered Pre-Raphaelite maiden addicted to laudanum? And for how many more albums do we have to hear exactly the same damned echo effects and clichéd wash of faux violins?
Torch song is a great style that I always include in my Art of Song Lyric course. But it requires emotional reserve and discipline to do it well. Torch (shorthand for the old slang phrase “carrying a torch” for someone) is about lamenting pain and loss while also projecting stoicism and survival. One of the greatest examples of torch was Judy Garland’s galvanic performance of “The Man That Got Away” in A Star is Born (1954), a song that became an anthem for gay men before Stonewall. Lana Del Rey needs to study Garland’s theatrical flair for dynamics, which make her lyrics seem lived rather than merely mechanically recited.
As for Lana’s tribute to Isabella Rossellini in “Young and Beautiful”, perhaps my attitude is jaundiced because I detested David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and think it remains vastly overrated. It’s the kind of titteringly self-conscious, gross-out game-playing that I find repellent wherever it occurs, from the “hip” downtown New York art scene to the snide, Foucault-spouting postmodernists of academe.
Lana’s style is often called “cinematic”, which makes no sense whatever to me as a fanatical cinephile. I have no idea what movies, aside from Lynch’s, she is supposedly channeling. Her allusions to movies are chronologically incoherent. Like the makers of the execrable Mad Men, Lana confuses hugely different periods: film noir dames of the late 1940s to early 1950s were completely different in style and persona from women of the mid to late 1950s or those of the early to mid 1960s. As for Mad Men, with its host of clumsy inaccuracies, if you want to see the actual reality of the physical workplace environment as well as the dress and deportment of middle-class women staffers in that highly specific era, please watch Janet Leigh do her phenomenally precise and understated thing as a discontented office secretary at the start of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
Let me give another example of great torch singing—by Sade, whose mother was British and whose father was Nigerian. Sade recorded the powerful “Is it a Crime” in 1986, when she was 27 years old—a year younger than Lana at the release of “Young and Beautiful”. (Please note Sade’s signature hoop earrings, which I assume Lana purposefully borrowed for her Rossellini ensemble.) Sade’s performance, with its abrupt dynamics, vocal subtleties, and final cry of pain, is positively shattering. It represents modern popular culture at an absolute peak of quality and achievement.
Nothing that Lana Del Rey has done to this point in her career bears any comparison to Sade’s exquisite artistry. Last Fall, I actually complained to my class in women’s poetry about the exasperating repetitions in a song on Lana’s just-released fourth studio album, Honeymoon. Here it is, “God Knows I Tried”, a beautiful melody that is destroyed by a turgid failure of imagination, as Lana mercilessly hammers us with the phrase “God knows” for 29 tedious times. (Yes, I just counted them—the sacrifices I make for Salon!) Lyrics need thought and development. It’s not like the quick crack of an egg into the frying pan!
Perhaps Lana Del Rey is, as you say, a “music diva for the 21st century”, when everything in pop culture has become fragmented, disconnected, and ahistorical. But retro, like anything else, requires focus and discrimination. As our parting salvo, here is the way Barbra Streisand, with her then eccentric thrift-store vintage look, opened her magnificent debut album in 1963—with the classic torch song, “Cry Me a River”, which rises to a lashing, caustic climax. Streisand was amazingly only 21. Surely it is not too much to ask today’s promising young vocalists to do less posing and more study of their own heritage.