Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Moons Over St. Louis: The Power and Glory of Prisonshake

The tumult of the autumn at Richard Byrne Inc. led me to put a number of essential tasks to side. One of the most important was to obtain the long-awaited Prisonshake double record -- Dirty Moons -- and let it sink in long enough to have something intelligent to say about it.

Finally did so. Put simply, Dirty Moons is more than worth the 15 year wait since the last Prisonshake record, 1993's The Roaring Third.

You're excused if you're not familiar with the 'Shake. God knows they can be hard enough to track down. Infrequent gigging. A back catalogue scattered over mere continents. But when the band has erupted into song (1986-1992ish in Cleveland; 1993-1995 in St. Louis; now), they're among the best rock bands in the United States: brainy without being wonky, muscular riffs bouncing off lyrics both cynical and tender.

Ringleader Robert Griffin (who also runs Scat Records) and lead vocalist Douglas Enkler have formed the spine of the band from its conception, but the addition of drummer Patrick Hawley and bassist Steve Scariano added power and fluidity to the band that really pays off on Dirty Moons.

In line with the "brainy not wonky" line above, while there is no high concept here, there are some elegant conceits and jagged formalistic moves (the "suite" on side two; traditional vinyl sides dubbed as "multiple entry points"). Don't let them turn you on or put you off. Most of what's here is good ol' American rock and roll -- recorded in analog at various levels of fidelity but with unflagging inventiveness and energy.

I could reel off a bunch of moments that stand out on multiple listens: "Fake Your Own Death" swerves from its jammy introduction into moody and sinister Jeff Beckisms before disintegrating and coalescing again a few times, or the moment when that aforementioned side two suite revs up for take off on "Rebecca, You're the Rain."

But for me what shines through are the sometimes dueling, but more often complementary sensibilities of Griffin and Enkler. For all of his dinged and dented hardboiled aesthetic shell, Griffin writes some of the best love songs in rock. (Just check out the furious romanticism of "Dream Along," or the unabashed erotic revelry of "Crush Me" -- the latter song married to smash and grab riffing.)

And Enkler? Well, the acidity of his observations cut through any and all bullshit posing, and the record is studded with his sharp lyrical gems. "The Cut-Out Bin" is worth quoting at length because of the song's savage look-back-in-anger at a life in rock:

Back in the day, before songs were numbered
And only bikers and sailors had tattoos
I'd work all day, selling records to assholes
Huffing boo and screwing you

Some say rock and roll has died
And at times like these I wish they were right
Watch 'em spawn a litter, watch none survive

No one gets a twilight to their career anymore
No one gets a chance to make
Mediocre record number four
When they bring back the cut-out bin
Save a place for us behind the Pretty Things

The other highlight on the record for me is Enkler's performance on "Fuck Your Self-Esteem," which may be one of the most finely-chiseled bits of rock on the topic of sexual mayhem ever penned, and yoked to savage riffs that propel the song along:

Well the next free moment she tells me, "fuck you"
I say that's not nice I'm the only one who loves you
That's not a brain, that's flaps and triggers
Slots and levers like a Mousetrap game
Does someone need a punch in the mouth?
Please don't let on that I knew you when....

You can get Dirty Moons on e-music, but everybody (except me, of course) makes more money if you order it directly from Scat Records. (The Dirty Moons page at the Scat site also has an mp3 of "Crush Me.") Griffin also keeps an indifferently updated blog about the record; there's plenty of cool back matter there.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Clash of the Titans: Blogging MLA

This is the first time in five years that I have not been to the annual meeting of the Modern Languages Association (MLA), which is being held this year in San Francisco. (Yes, the wife is delighted.)

But two awesomely-talented former colleagues of mine are there toiling in the book exhibit, the panels, and the dark murky corners where a lot of the business of the meeting really gets done.

Scott McLemee -- Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed, and Quick Study blogger at Arts Journal -- is giving his take on the meeting here. (And many thanks to Scott for a terrific link to my Nation piece on Renaissance Journalism at Quick Study that pushes the ball much further down the field by adding C.L.R. James' thoughts on the topic.)

And the wonderful Jennifer Howard -- who blogs at her own eponymous site and occasionally pinch-hits at Bookslut --is giving her blow-by-blow on the Chronicle of Higher Education's news blog. (Jennifer's first few posts are here and here and here.)

Between McLemee and Howard, you'll have that San Francisco MLA feeling without the papers on Althusser and the trolley car.

What Can Renaissance Journalism Tell Us Today?

So at long last, my piece on an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library -- "Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper" -- has been published by The Nation in its latest issue. (You can see it online here.)

The good news is that though it took awhile to get it published (I wrote it back in November), the exhibit itself continues until the end of January, which gives you plenty of time to go see it yourself. (Details and opening hours are here.)

In all the clatter and cacophony of debate about how the newspaper is dying, it is useful at times to have a look back at history and see what it tells us about the seeding and blossoming of an industry. Christopher Kyle (a historian as Syracuse University) and Jason Peacey (a historian at University College in London) did a masterful job of doing that.

I hope you'll read the whole article -- and particularly if you're in journalism -- take a quick trip over to the Folger and have a look around. It's the sort of exhibit that will inform -- in a subtle but powerful manner -- the decline and transformation of the print news industry.

Image of the front page of the "Mercurius Rusticus" courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Saturday, December 27, 2008

New York Times on Bosnia and Islam

An interesting story -- though a couple years late, perhaps -- on how the investment in what one might call "Islamic evangelization" by Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations is progressing in the New York Times today.

The story touches on all the (all-too) familiar contrasts and fault lines between pre-war and post-war Bosnia: the urbanity and lightly-worn Islam of pre-war Bosniak Muslims versus the increasingly open displays of overt Islamic fashion ("fully covered women and men with long beards"). Serbs versus Bosniaks. I pa da.

Some of the quotes in this 2008 article are vintage 2000 and earlier, such as this one from Mustafa Efendi Ceric, who is the chief spiritual leader of Bosnia's Muslims: "The Serbs committed genocide against us, raped our women, made us refugees in our own country. And now we have a tribal constitution that says we have to share political power and land with our killers. We Bosnian Muslims still feel beseiged in the city of Sarajevo."

Sigh. It is more than 12 years after Dayton, yet the rhetoric plunges the reader right back to the mid-Clinton presidency.

Amidst the rehearsal of a few Balkan favorites (attacks on a gay pride event, for instance), the article does report a few new twists, including a multiethnic battle against Islamic kindergarten in state-run schools in Sarajevo.

The article doesn't really get into two key issues, however.

The first is the extent to which the investment in promoting Islam by outside players -- which is also more than a decade old now --has not taken root, despite the $700 million dollars poured into the country. When I lived in Sarajevo nine years ago, my neighborhood -- Alipasino Polje -- was a key target in that effort. It's where the immense King Fahd mosque (mentioned in the article, and funded by Saudi Arabia) was erected, for instance, just three dozen paces from the front door of my apartment complex.

Back then, the residents viewed it with a quintessentially Sarajevan mixture of pride, mockery and opportunism. (Who doesn't love sporting complexes in the neighborhood?) On my last visit two years ago, the feeling was much the same, though clearly attendance at the mosque was up a bit.

The other issue is just how any Islamic revivalism has taken root -- to whatever extent it has -- in Bosnia.

The demographics of ethnic cleansing -- on multiple levels -- have definitely driven the phenomenon. The first level is the effect of the siege and the war between 1992-1996 on Sarajevo itself: the brain drain and the shredding of the delicately-woven multiculturalism of the city drained Sarajevo of much (not all) of its fabled urbanity. But like any urban center, the city filled back up again with a massive influx of refugees from other (less urban) parts of Bosnia that had been ethnically cleansed by Serbs and Croats. Those refugees came from places where equally-delicate (though much less cosmopolitan) social fabrics were also torn asunder.

That forced population transfer and the residual ill feelings from the war doubtless has provided some fertile ground for some Bosniaks to assert a more overt identification with Islam. But it's simultaneously ironic and pathetic and morally bankrupt for Republika Srpska prime minister Milorad Dodik to label Sarajevo as a "new Tehran" -- as he is as quoted as saying in this article. Because if it's true (and a weighty preponderance of evidence is to the contrary), Dodik and his fellow Serb citizens of Bosnia made it that way with their destructive war.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Švejk vs. Schweyk: Encounters with Brecht

Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War is my favorite novel. Sure, there are others that give me plenty to chew on, and plenty of entertainment. (I think number two would have to be Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.)

But Hašek's book has given me by far the most to think about in my career -- about war, about the human condition, about beer and grog. Plus, it has the advantage of being the ultimate Balkan and Bohemian book -- set mostly in Prague and South Bohemia (and Budapest and Galicia) -- and yet starting with the key Balkan event of the last two centuries: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.

The key to Švejk's enduring relevance is the profound mystery of its protagonist's character. For a literary invention that has often been advanced as a symbol of the Czech national character (much to the chagrin of some Czechs), this mystery seems particularly crucial. Is Švejk -- as he so often explains as he seeks to shirk military service for the hapless Hapsburgs -- "a certified idiot?" Or is he a supremely cunning and subversive force?

The argument for idiot is the sheer pathos and farce of the situations in which Švejk finds himself -- jail, mental hospital, the train station in Tabor drinking beer after beer with a Hungarian, causing a riot in Kiralyhida, and then literally captured by his own troops. What normal and sensible -- let alone a crafty and cunning -- person would place themselves willingly in such situations? And yet Švejk so often outwits and flanks the officers, judges and bureaucrats who would crush him that it would seem foolish to accept the "patent idiocy" that he produces as a catch-all excuse for his behavior.

My own theory is that Švejk is neither idiot nor savant, but rather that a sense of play -- the innocent and yet often brutal play of children -- so deeply permeates his character that it forms the blueprint of his behavior in any situation. It is a sense of play that results both in punishments and in tiny triumphs of the human spirit. (My theory also addresses that notion of Švejk as an expression of the Czech character: Švejk does tap deeply into a mischievous and cruel vein of Czech humor as a resistance to cruel and oppressive realities.)

These deep thoughts about Švejk bring me in roundabout fashion to the question of Bertolt Brecht's attempt to interpret Hašek's iconic character. I recently tackled the German playwright's Schweyk in the Second World War -- which reimagines Švejk as he might have functioned in the more brutal and efficient thrall of the Gestapo.

If The Good Soldier Švejk is my favorite novel, why wait so long to check out Brecht's take? Well, there's a natural inclination to keep one's favorite thing pure somehow within the mind. (Impossible, yes. And yet we try...)

But there's also my own complicated dramatic relationship with Brecht. It's hard to argue that Brecht's best works (Dreigroshen Oper, Mutter Courage, Galileo, Arturo Ui and many of the poems) are among the last century's greatest. But there is a stridency and oversimplicity-- not to mention Brecht's fraught relationship with his collaborators -- that gives me pause, and puts me in the camp of Peter Handke in preferring Odon von Horvath's work. Handke wrote back in 1968 that "Horvath ist besser als Brecht" -- and have you read The Measures Taken lately? Read it and then read Horvath's Faith Hope and Charity. The gulf between the sensibilities and moral feeling of these writers is immense, but boil down to Brecht's feeling (and sometimes "unfeeling") for humanity as a striving mass, whereas Horvath sees -- and feels -- the individual and the power of jargon to warp and pervert societies.

I finally succumbed to curiosity, however. (It didn't help that Brecht scholars feel the play to be in the middle ranks of his works: John Willett and Ralph Manheim write in the introduction that"the whole notion of pitting Hašek's beautifully ambiguous figure... against Himmler and the SS is a deep misconception which distorts both recent history and Hašek's novel.")

Having read it now, I vigorously disagree. There are certainly moments when the critique above applies -- particularly in the ending dream sequence where Švejk encounters Hitler outside Stalingrad. But Brecht succeeds on two key levels in his Schweyk: he keeps much of Švejk's sense of mystery and play and yet skilfully adapts the original material to meet a transformed historical context. Brecht's play is darker and less comic than Hašek's novel (which is dark enough despite its comedy), but one feels the intrusion of Brecht the propagandist in the moments where the play drifts toward pastiche of the German war effort. In its adaptation of the novel to the much-less ambiguous patriotism of the Czech resisatnce, however, it is terrific -- and Brecht has incredible mastery of the pub talk and bureaucratic subversions that fuel Hašek's classic.

So yes, Brecht's Schweyk is imperfect. But if you're interested in how Hašek's iconic figure has transformed other writers and been transformed in turn, it's more than interesting. It is, in its way, quite brilliant.

The Beer War Over Budvar

The battle between Czech brewer Budejovicky Budvar and American mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch (which is now owned by European giant InBev) over the "Budweiser" trademark has extended to almost a century now, but last week saw the Czechs take a victory in the European Union's courts.

Last week, an EU court ruled that AB was not entitled to a blanket claim to the "Budweiser" trademark across the union. That was a victory for BB because it already has the right to the "Budweiser" trademark in a number of EU countries -- and can keep it in those places.

The battle over the Budweiser trademark has been waged in hand-to-hand fashion across numerous international market. (In the US, for instance, the Czech Budweiser is marketed as "Czechvar -- and, oddly enough, imported by AB/InBev.) The history between the two entities is complicated by a competing thicket of historical claims, but it's clear that when Adolphus Busch decided to name his American lager "Budweiser," he was seeking to trade off the reputation of Bavarian and Czech-style lagers -- which had been invented in the 1830s and 1840s.

The battle ramped up after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when AB attempted to muscle its way into position to buy the Czech thorn in its side. But the Czechs held firm and the battle continues. Beer drinkers can be thankful for that on balance, because the Czech Budweiser is an excellent lager -- a bit sweeter and smoother than the other great major beer of the Czech Republic: Pilsner Urquell.

Back in 1992, I had the privilege of going to the Budejovicky Budvar brewery to interview Jiri Bocek, who had just assumed the top post at the company, for a story that ran in the St. Louis alternative newspaper The Riverfront Times. (Alas, it predates the online archives of the paper, but this story from the Prague Post a few years later is a useful synopsis.)

Bocek asked that my girlfriend Katerina (who was translating) and I arrive at 7 a.m. We got a tour of the factory and then settled into Bocek's office. Coffee, tea or beer?, he asked.

The opportunity to taste a factory-fresh Budvar was not wasted. Bocek said that I was the first Americna journalist to opt for the beer at that hour. It was very productive interview.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On the Move

So it's been like a war zone here at Balkans via Bohemia HQ. There's been loads of work for the new magazine, a feverish spot of Christmas shopping, illnesses (though not malingering) amongst the ranks, and marching and more marching coming up -- in particular, a concerted assault on the Bradenton/Sarasota reboubt with a possible North Carolinian anabasis. As Svejk once said: Maul halten und weiter dienen.

But when we get to Jaroměř -- metaphorically, that is -- there will be joy. I promise that readers will be treated with a steady stream of posts through the late Christmas season and then with increasing frequency into the new year. We have passed the great tribulation and have now emerged into a reasonably priced pivnice with fresh Velkopopovicky on tap.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas Cabaret Cheer!

Local chanteuse and friend of Balkans via Bohemia Barbara Papendorp has finally announced the dates for a special Christmas cabaret in Washington, D.C.

The Mall, The Merrier plays over five consecutive nights starting on December 18 at The Warehouse Theater in Northwest DC. Papendorp is joined by Elver Ariza and Scott Sedar for what she promises is "seasonal song and schtick."

And if you want some Papendorp in your stocking, you are in luck: Barbara is also featured on a new CD of a live performance of Jill Leger's cabaret, Googling My Ex (and Other Obsessions), back in June of this year... (Click on the link above to order.)

The Mall, The Merrier
will be a cozy and cheerful revue. Reserve your tickets here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Sleazy Underbelly of DC Diplomacy

A quick post amidst the sniffles and the piles of work at the new job to point readers to two great new items to read on the dark corners of DC diplomacy:

1) Laura Rozen -- proprietress of the amazing War and Piece blog -- has a wonderful new article up at Mother Jones (where she's a star at the magazine's powerhouse DC bureau) on Shlomi Michaels -- a former Israeli commando who seems to turn up in the oddest places in US foreign policy. For instance, in the spring of 2004, Rozen reports that Michaels met with a former CIA agent in the office of GOP string-puller Ed Rogers, bringing along material that he claimed might help George W. Bush get reelected. Rozen writes that:

He had a well-placed Iraqi source—a former officer in an Iraqi military psychological operations unit, he said—who had gathered hundreds of pages of contracts, maps, and photographs documenting meetings between Iraqi and Ukrainian officials. The information, Michaels said, would prove that Iraq had pursued a covert chemical weapons program. Michaels wanted Bruner to set up a meeting for him and the Iraqi source with the CIA. To turn over the whole dossier, he wanted $1 million.

Rozen weaves a fascinating story about the nexus between spooks and security and reconstruction and runaway capitalism that draws in former CIS director James Woolsey and former FBI director Louis Freeh. It's terrific journalism. Read it here.

2) Ken Silverstein -- the Washington editor at Harper's magazine -- caused a stir in July 2007 when he published a devastating article that showed Washington lobbyists at their absolute worst.

What Silverstein did was undercover muckraking at its very best:

(a) He crafted a fictitious interest group.
(b) He chose a vicious repressive regime that the imaginary firm wanted to rehabilitate. In this case, it was the Stalinist Central Asian "republic" of Turkmenistan.
(c) He went looking for lobbying help to burnish the Turkmen regime in Washington's corridors of lobbying power.

Surprise, surprise. Silverstein found DC lobbying firms jockeying madly to help out a nation firmly on every world human rights watch, despite the odious nature of the regime and the flimsy cover story he concocted to seek their help.

Equally unsurprising is the fact that media scolds --led by lead scold Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post -- actually pilloried the messenger. As Silverstein noted in a follow-up piece, "Earlier this year, when I was working with my editors to plan out a story about lobbyists willing to work for the Stalinist regime in Turkmenistan, I predicted that after the story was published Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz would write a hand-wringing, tut-tutting column about my tactics. Right on schedule, Kurtz delivers his opinion. 'No matter how good the story,' he writes, 'lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.'"

Yep, that's just the kind of nonsense you'd expect from a media columnist whose wife is a media spinner and lobbyist largely associated with conservative causes. Oooh, pity the poor lobbyists busted as they salivate over Stalinist cash by journalists with gumption and a knack for exploiting the greed and gullibility of the powerful.

Anyway, Silverstein's article is now a terrific book called Turkmeniscam (Random House). You can get a sense of how it's being received in this online book forum at Firedoglake, hosted by journalist Lindsey Beyerstein. You can also buy Turkmeniscam here. Do so.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More Kundera Kontroversy......

We've had an enforced hiatus here at Balkans via Bohemia. Call it "The Unbearable Heaviness of Workload." Plus, an election.

To make it up to loyal readers, a bit of an update on the twists and turns of "L'affaire Kundera" since last we blogged it in mid-October. In a nutshell, archivists at the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR) who were researching the case of a Western spy stumbled upon a record of Milan Kundera denouncing that agent to police in 1950 -- thus effecting his arrest.

In my previous post (and in an article in The American Prospect), I argued that this wasn't really a scandal, considering the context of the times and Kundera's known pro-Communism beliefs in that era. I concluded that the document is likely accurate, and also speculated that his intensity of his fervid denials of the insident now were rooted in his own deeply-held views about art and the privacy of the author.

Now, however, it's becoming a bit of a scandal/ Not only will Kundera not back down from those denials, but he's enlisted a group of 11 literary heavyweights to write the much-dreaded "public letter" about the case.

The letter is sickening, largely because it offers so little scope for truth-telling and free inquiry. Simply doing archival research and reporting the results is transformed by these authors into "an attempt... to stir up a defamatory campaign with the aim of sullying the reputation of Milan Kundera."

Puh-leese. Kundera's relationship with his native country is complex. And while there are many in the Czech Republic who do not like him or his work, the article reporting the denunciation was sober and backed by very firm evidence. The presentation of the documents was no orchestrated campaign. The defense, however, seems very orchestrated. And Kundera is dicing with his legacy.

At the wonderful Sign and Sight website, Anja Seeliger has more wise words on the literary dust-up.

(Photo of Milan Kundera by Fredrik Rafusson from the HarperCollins website.)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Catonsville Nine Reading in DC: 11/3/2008

Back in late 1992, when I was a staff writer at Baltimore City Paper, I convinced my editor that tracking down the Catonsville Nine on the 25th anniversary of their revolutionary protest against the Vietnam War and other US military incursions of the era (including Guatemala) in 1968 would make a good article.

Part of the reason that I wanted to write it was the outsized influence that the incident had in my own childhood and teenage years in suburban Philadelphia. I was precocious enough to follow the heated discussions in the Catholic community -- both in my family and in larger circles -- about the Berrigan brothers and their forthright campaign of civil disobedience against US military and foreign policy -- a line that went from the Baltimore and Catonsville actions in 1968 through their decision to go underground as fugitives after their convictions to later actions against nuclear war in the 1970s and 1980s.

Little did I know that it would be one of the best articles in my journalistic career --and one of the most cited pieces in subsequent literature about 1960s protest and the mobilization of American Catholics against Vietnam.

I managed to track down seven of the nine men and women who stormed into a Selective Service office in Catonsville, MD in 1968, seized draft records, dragged the out into an adjacent lot and burned them with napalm. (One protester, David Darst, died in a car crash shortly after the group's trial and conviction; the second, Mary Moylan, had spent years underground before turning herself in to authorities in 1978. I was not able to convince her to be interviewed.) I also managed to track down the officer who arrested them, the prosecutor of the case and numerous others involved in the saga.

The best part of the reporting and writing of the story was getting to know the ringleader of the action: Phillip Berrigan. History is going to judge him as an important figure in the history of civil disobedience and forceful, confrontational nonviolence. He was a towering personality, fierce in his convictions, and yet possessed of a personal gentleness and generosity. He made some mistakes but even those foibles and errors bring to mind Nietzsche's notions that the errors of great men are more venerable than the truths of little men. There was a lot to learn even in Phillip Berrigan's missteps.

I reminisce about this long-ago story of mine because the play that Phillip Berrigan's brother, poet and activist Daniel Berrigan, wrote about the action and the subsequent trial -- The Trial of the Catonsville Nine -- will be given a staged reading on Monday night, November 3, as part of a reading series on War and Ethics organized by Journeyman Theater and Theatre J.

The staged reading is directed by Rahaleh Nassri (who readers of this blog may recall was the widely-praised Romeo in Taffety Punk Theatre Company's all-female Romeo and Juliet) and the performance will be followed by a panel discussion that features the host of this here blog.

If you've got the pre-election night jitters, what better way to shake them off and prepare for the act of voting then hearing the tale of one of the great acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in American history? The reading starts at 7:30 pm.

More info on the reading here. More information on the Catonsville Nine here. Video of the protest is here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Václav Havel's Temptation in DC

Saw Constellation Theatre Company's production of Václav Havel's Temptation in Washington, D.C. last night. It's a wonderful production, but since a number of the local reviews have taken aim less at the staging than Havel's play itself, I thought it might be useful to talk about the play as well as what I liked about this production.

I really like what Allison Arkell Stockman, the director of the play and the founding artistic director of Constellation, did with Temptation. A.J. Guban's set design was wonderfully inventive, and the use of choreography to link scenes and set changes really propelled the play forward.

The production boasts a number of strong performances. Frank Britton's Fistula is every bit as fussy and compelling as Havel wrote him. (And his bony Nosferatu fingers are a wonderful touch.) Heather Haney's Vilma has just the right dose of surface insouciance and interior pathos. And Jesse Terrill's Director was pitch perfect -- and got the loudest laughs of the night.

As a play, Temptation presents a couple hurdles for a production. The first is the sheer range of styles that it presents. In a way, Temptation weaves multiple themes favored by Havel -- the office politics of The Memorandum, the quest to "live in truth" in a state of totalitarianism and paranoia that he made stageworthy in his trio of Vaněk plays, and the satiric possibilities in a fusion of philosophy and seduction in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.

Temptation distills and concentrates all of those modes -- and blends in Havel's own reworking of the Faust legend rigged up to advance his own views that humanity is brutalized not only by its own innate foibles and moral failings but also by its worship of science and technocracy. (In a neat twist, Havel has Fistula -- the tempter -- reduce the conscience of the play's Faust figure -- Dr. Foustka -- to a neat psychological category: the "Smichovsky Compensation Syndrome.")

Constellation navigated this trickiness with great skill -- and its choices of emphasis in the production have helped translate this knotty play quite successfully. As an example, let me point to the end of the play, which -- as written by Havel -- is a bit of a mess that ends with the audience being driven from the theatre by smoke and a fireman with an extinguisher. But Stockman skillfully uses the ring dance and smoke that Havel calls for to relink the play back to the Ur-Faust of Marlowe and (sort of) Goethe. It's a wonderful stroke that is emblematic of the overall quality of this production.

In sum, if you're interested in Havel as playwright but have never seen his work performed, Constellation's Temptation is a great place to start. And for those who do know the work, you'll be delighted by the company's grappling with this very difficult play.

Tickets here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Case of Kundera

So my article on Czech historians' discovery that Milan Kundera denounced a Western spy in 1950 is up at The American Prospect. The short version is that (a) I think this incident did happen; (b) it was completely understandable in the context of those times in Czechoslovakia; (c) it's ludicrous to paint Kundera as some kind of collaborator with the regime based on this incident, and (d) his true betrayal to his own work is in trying to deny it happened now that it's out of the bag.

I feel very confident in making the (a) argument. State archivists have confirmed the document's authenticity. Indeed, the fact that it is only being discovered now is testimony to the fact that Kundera has very minimal contacts with the Czech secret police (StB). If his contacts had been more extensive, we would have know about them by now -- whether those revelations came from the communists in the late 1960s, 1970s or 1980s as an effort to tar his reputation as a dissident, or in the orgy of delving into the secret police files after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Others, however, are trying to deny or elide this incident -- which will certainly force readers to reexamine Kundera's corpus and reevaluate his writings on totalitarianism, memory and betrayal. (I make a quick stab at it in my article.) You can check out some counterarguments here and here. I find them quite unconvincing -- desperate lunges for some plausible denials.
And Kundera's denial -- which I tackle in the article -- is a knotty and lawyerly construction.

At bottom, this incident (and the public revelation of it) is not the "assassination of the author" that Kundera has made it out to be. There's a compelling context for it, and our knowing about it may even make the work richer. But the author of Testaments Betrayed -- which compared such investigation and analysis as a trial -- is certainly going to see it as a conviction of himself in a kangaroo court of history.

R.I.P. Edie Adams

Wife of the legendary Ernie Kovacs. Comic genius in her own right. Founding member of The Nairobi Trio. (This performance still makes me crack up after hundreds of viewings.)

New York Times obit here. Her performance of "That's All" on the last ever I Love Lucy here. And this ad might have made me take up cigars 42 years ago.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Palin and Philadelphia Phans

So you have likely heard by now that GOP vice-presidential candidate (and most notorious hockey mom in America) Sarah Palin was booed lustily by Philadelphia Flyers fans as she dropped a ceremonial puck at center ice last night.

Clownish conservative Flyers owner Ed Snider probably thought this was a good idea, but pretty much every newspaper and wire service except the Philadelphia Inquirer (which stated this morning that she was greeted by "cheers and boos" before changing it up this afternoon to emphasize the booing) has played up the cacophonous catcalls. (And check out the video above. The moment that Palin is announced, but before a deafening wall of music kicks in -- 12 seconds into the video -- the booing can be heard in all of its passionate intensity.)

The Passion of the Palin in Philly has also provided an occasion for the (many) detractors of the notorious "Phanus Philadelphianus" to squawk once again about just the nasty dispositions of those who follow sports in the City of Brotherly Love.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. We've heard it all before. The booing of Santa Claus. The snowballs rained on Jimmy Johnson. (Among those throwing snowballs? Now-governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell.) The jeering of injured Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin. The booing of Beyonce and Destiny's Child at the NBA playoffs because on of the singers wore a Lakers jersey.

It's not that Philly fans aren't bad. But I think the notoriety of Philly fans depends on what sport you're speaking about. There are no better college basketball fans than Philadelphia fans -- and no better college hoops city than Philadelphia. Everyone is passionate about their Big 5 team (St. Joseph's, Villanova, Temple, Penn and La Salle --and throw in those Drexel Dragons), but there's a healthy respect for the opponent (John Cheney's infamous tirade about "sending in the goons" to foul St. Joe's players in 2005 being the rule-proving exception) and even the hard-boiled college fans in Philadelphia understand the concept of "student athlete." (And there's no better place to watch college basketball than the Palestra.)

Some of that feel-good attitude spills over to 76er fans. The mildest of the breed. But as a lifelong Eagle fan who's grown quite weary of the team and the plutocratic and often-inhuman qualities of the NFL in general, I can say that Eagles fans bow to no one in their knowledge of the game and are exceeded by no other pro football fans in their relentless, vicious negativity. Veteran's Stadium when I was growing up was a cauldron of hate (or "Nest of Death") when an NFC East team came in.

My favorite story about watching an Eagles game in the 700 level of the Vet -- which was razed to the ground a few years ago -- was trying to warn a security guard about a battle brewing at halftime of a bitterly cold Eagles/New York Giants game. The maelstrom began when a 10-year old Eagle fan gave the finger to two Giants fans walking back to their seats. The Giants fans unwisely decided to clamber up a few rows to confront the child, which led to a human wave of green-clad fans mobilized to confront the blue-clad enemy.

I pointed out the bubbling conflict to security guard, who stood watchful but impassive. "I can't do anything until someone throws a punch," he said.

The Flyers fans that booed Palin are also pretty boorish, though it's not the first time they've weighed in on politics. Their cascading boos came in handy as a weapon in the Cold War in the 1976 "Super Series" against the Soviet national team, when the Flyers (literally) clobbered the Russians off the ice. Flyers coach Fred Shero's quote at 1:06 into that video is echt Philadelphia sports attitude: "If we win, I'm going to be sky high. If we lose, I think it it will be worse than dying."

And the surging Phillies, now two games away from the World Series? Well, I agree with shortstop Jimmy Rollins that Phillies fans are front runners. When the team is losing, there is no worse place to be than at a Phillies game. You'd need Scrubbing Bubbles to cleanse the place of its deep and curdled stain of misery. But when the team is winning, Phillies fans are positively uplifting to the team. That '93 Phillies team that made the World Series run was carried by the fans. The scrappiness of the '08 Phillies has likewise been rewarded of late --though it took the fans a while to buy in.
And on that note: Go Phillies! Until you choke, you losers!

Note: This is also probably a good place to point out that that my brother -- Delaware sportscaster extraordinaire Tom Byrne -- is blogging again at Unobstructed View.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Pox, Punks & Poetry: Charles Nicholl's The Lodger Shakespeare

Writing a biography of Shakespeare is a difficult task. In fact, that degree of difficulty is what's kept the dim bulbs of the "Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare" movement burning. There are many gaps in the record. Years in which we have absolutely no idea what Shakespeare was doing -- particularly in his early adulthood. The holes in the narrative have tempted some to rely upon conjecture and informed guesses to fill in many of the gaps -- or exploit holes in the narrative to deny Shakespeare his due.

The last major effort to write Shakepeare's life -- Stephen Greenblatt's 2004 book Will in the World -- filled those gaps with forays into historical context and the fashionable hypothesis that Shakespeare's early years may have been spent in the home of a recusant family. James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 took a similar tack in a more telescoped fashion. (I interviewed Greenblatt and other scholars for this article when his book was published.)

Over the last few weeks, I have read another Shakespeare biography of sorts that is among the best things I have ever read about the dramatist/poet. Charles Nicholl's The Lodger Shakespeare takes as its starting point the playwright's curious role in a bitter lawsuit waged between a French emigre (from whom he rented a room) and his son-in-law over a promised and largely-undelivered dowry.

Nicholl notes that Shakespeare's deposition in the case bears "one of six surviving signatures, and the earliest of them," but he adds that it is the dramatist's statements within the document that also carry special weight :

We know the thousands of lines he wrote in plays and poems, but this is the only occasion when his actual spoken words are recorded.

Yet The Lodger Shakespeare is much more than a close reading of legal documents. Nicholl uses that starting point to examine the world of high fashion, extramarital affairs and seedy taverns and whoring that most certainly surrounded Shakespeare in his rented quarters. He also points out the precarious situation of foreigners in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England, and teases out the ways in which Shakespeare's proximity to the "foreign" may have impressed itself in his works.

Nicholl has a keen nose for finding bits of Shakespeare's London and the milieu in which he must have slept and written after long days and nights at The Globe in the plays. In one passage, Nicholl tackles the perplexing issue of why none of Shakespeare's comedies or tragedies are set in England itself -- and what Shakespeare was trying to accomplish by such displacement of setting for plays that were so distinctively English in every other way:

In Shakespeare, and particularly in Shakespearean comedy, real English life as it was experienced by the audience was shown to them through a prism of foreignness, by which process it was subtly distorted and magnified. In this sense the foreign -- the 'strange' is an imaginative key for Shakespeare: it opens up fresher and freer ways of seeing the people and things which daily reality dulled with familiarity.

The author of The Lodger Shakespeare also tackles an even more perplexing issue: what was Shakespeare doing hanging out (let alone collaborating on Pericles, Prince of Tyre) with George Wilkins -- a violent brothel keeper whose Elizabethan rap sheet included brutal attacks on women (many of them prostitutes) and, in one case, "woundinge one John Ball in the head with a Welshe hooke."

Nicholl argues quite convincingly that Wilkins provided a hot commodity for Shakespeare and his company, the King's Men -- plays with a hot off the presses vitality and cutting edge. He is particularly compelling in his analysis of one of Wilkins' plays -- The Miseries of Enforced Marriage -- which was performed by Shakespeare's company.

The Miseries of Enforced Marriage
was based on the same brutal and bizarre crime -- a father's murder of his two children and attempted murder of his wife, hyped in garish pamphlets of the period -- that inspired Thomas Middleton's A Yorkshire Tragedy. But in Wilkins' hands it becomes as much a farce (happy ending?) and a ripped-from-the headlines potboiler as it is a tragedy. "The Miseries does not have the intensity of the Yorkshire Tragedy but its lack of artistry makes it valuable in another sense -- we hear Wilkins and his world throughout it." (Having finally obtained a copy of the play --which has been unpublished since 1964 -- I can attest to its crude vigor, which leaps off the page.)

The Lodger Shakespeare is one of those rare books that not only confirms the genius of Shakespeare -- but places it carefully within its context of the squalor and chaos of his London. It is a brilliant piece of scholarship.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Annals of Rawk: Liquor Bike's Reunion

A rainy night in Charm City. A colossal rock show at the Ottobar. For those who were wondering whether Dave, Mike, Colin and Eric -- the men of Liquor Bike -- could pull it off a full ten years after their farewell record release, the answer was a resounding YES! What I saw was on Friday night was astonishing, because Liquor Bike's music is full of hairpin turns, surging and shifting tempos and it requires a ferocious intensity. With only a couple days of full rehearsal as a quartet, the Bike weren't just tight -- they were snare drum tight. Song after song came blasting out: "Could It Be I Am A Liar?" "Hi-Fi Sigh," "24 Karat." The night was full of old friends and new acquaintances -- and the exhibit of 90s era Baltimore rock scene photos and flyers that will remain upstairs at the Ottobar for the near future. They say you can't turn back time, but the guys in Liquor Bike stopped it dead in its tracks and nudged it back for a few hours. That's better than good; it's damn near heroic. I raise my Natty Boh to all four of you, gentlemen....

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

BvB Reading List 9/25

Long day (7am to 10 pm) so here's a quick list of things that caught my eye over the past day or so...

* Terrific review of Taffety Punk's Romeo and Juliet (and the STC's all-male version) by Trey Graham at Washington City Paper. Yes, tickets are still available but going fastfastfast....

* Did I mention the Liquor Bike reunion at Ottobar in Baltimore on Friday night? Yes, I did. And over at Baltimore City Paper, Lee Gardner leaves some indelible skid marks of his own on the band's legacy.

* Very nice Washingtonian interview with Dan "Ironman" Steinberg -- the Washington Post's sports blogger. In addition to his storied stint at Whole Foods before Sports Bog (sic) stardom, Dan wrote a great freelance story for me on bingo during my tenure as Washington City Paper editor. The money quote in this interview is his answer to the question: "Chris Cooley or Ryan Zimmerman?"

I mean, no offense to the dude, but read Zim’s blog sometime. Here’s a recent sample: ‘Football is upon us. This is my favorite time of the year. Football is easily my favorite sport.’ That’s an A-plus, Ryan. Your next assignment is to tell us what you want to be when you grow up. Then we’ll work on genealogy, and then it’s playground time. Cooley, on the other hand, posts pictures of his cheerleading wife in lingerie on his blog, provides the most detailed description of an NFL drug test you could ever want, and wrote a guest post for the legendary sports blog Kissing Suzy Kolber in which he described the NFL training camp as ‘F—k Town.’ I’m insulted that this would even be posed as a legitimate question.

* This story is why there's an Onion. The ultimate "don't rest in peace" piece.

* Week Three of the Washington Post's "Cupcake Wars." Baked and Wired's Teresa and Tony stomp the competition. Timmy sez: "We want Georgetown Cupcake!"

Monday, September 22, 2008

The New Job

Life brings a lot of changes sometimes and this is a pretty good one for Richard Byrne Inc.: Starting September 29, I will be the editor of a new magazine that's being started at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

I am an alumnus of the university -- English Honors, 1986 -- so it's a year-round homecoming for me. I'm immensely honored by the invitation to come back.

Going to UMBC was the best decision of my early career as a writer and journalist. It's where I met John Strausbaugh -- also an alum -- who helped me break into journalism at Baltimore City Paper in 1986. And James Taylor -- another alum whose Shocked & Amazed magazine explores the wonderful world of the carnival sideshow -- gave me my first internship at his literary publishing house Dolphin-Moon Press. (I think I still have paper cuts from all the envelopes I stuffed, but you couldn't get a better education in the journalism and literary business than from John and James.)

With the help of writers including the poet Anthony McGurrin -- who still teaches at the university -- my own creative work developed enough to win a fellowships to the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and to the Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis after graduating.

The primary focus of UMBC Magazine is going to be on telling the university's story to its alumni, but it's also going to spread the news about the great things going on at UMBC to other constituencies as well. (And it's going to have a terrific website.)

UMBC's story is pretty amazing. Under the leadership of President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the university has rocketed into prominence -- including being named a top five up-and-coming national university in the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings. Just as important, UMBC also placed second in the Princeton Review's recent rankings for "Most Diverse Student Body" in the United States.

It's a terrific opportunity and I can't wait to get started. The first issue will be published in February.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Taffety Punk XX Romeo and Juliet Opens Tonight!

So it's finally here! The Taffety Punk Theatre Company's all-female retort to the Shakespeare Theatre Company's all male Romeo and Juliet!

Went to the last preview last night and all I can say is wow. Director Lise Bruneau seems to have tapped into a bit of Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys in the play's bumptious opening sequences. But I don't want to spoil any more of it... let's just say your going to see scads of great performances, a really inventive set that the actors really use, and all the feminine energy put to good use in a very male play. Sure, the Romeo and Juliet scenes have a different charge when Romeo and Juliet are both women -- but the Romeo/Mercutio/Benvolio scenes are really transformed -- as is the brutal scene where Capulet essentially disowns Juliet.

Want to read more? Yesterday's Express had a great interview with fight choreographer Lorraine Ressegger. And Peter Marks' review of the STC's all-male version had a nifty shout-out to the T-Punkers:

Although you'd love to see every aspect of "Romeo and Juliet" so vividly illuminated, Muse's gender-restricted gambit is an estimable reminder of how many routes can be traveled with Shakespeare -- and how many more this company needs to explore. In a wicked-cool bit of counterprogramming, the tiny Washington troupe Taffety Punk is offering this month an answer to Muse's production: an all-female "Romeo and Juliet." It's just this kind of clever blowback that rounds out a real theater town.

Ticket information here!

Friday, September 12, 2008

BvB Reading List 9/13/08

First on the agenda: A very important post by Steve Clemons on George W. Bush and Sarah Palin and reading. Clemons argues convincingly that Bush is much better read than the misunderestimating stereotype -- and wonders just what Alaska's governor has read.

Steve writes: "I honestly don't know what she has read. She could issue a list of books she says she has worked through -- but I think that if ABC has another shot at her or if any other journalists get to spend any time on this uncertain gamble for the second highest office in the land that they give her a book test.

"Ask her what she has read and quiz her a bit. What leaders in American history does she admire? What can she tell us about the Federalist papers, or about many or any of America's best and not so great presidents? What does she know about womens' suffrage and Susan B. Anthony? or Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

"I doubt at the moment her experience as a leader appropriate for the nation -- but my assessment of Sarah Palin could be nudged into better territory if I had evidence that she had done some self-teaching about the nation and had devoured books about our leaders, our wars, and our periods of innovation, peace and prosperity."

Palin makes me want to grab the book that I've used to accompany this post. But Steve is right. Let's see what she reads.

Second on the agenda: An addition to the blogroll at right is Carole Sargent's terrific blog on publishing, which she runs out of Georgetown University. Link and visit often. There are few who are smarter about the book biz -- and you aspiring authors who visit Balkans via Bohemia should definitely pay attention.

Third on the agenda: Mike Tomasky at the Guardian gets deep into the battle of news cycles in this campaign. Great stuff.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rated XX: Taffety Punk's All-Female Romeo and Juliet

Yep... It's less than a week away now until previews... The first chance to catch Taffety Punk's all-grrl (sic) discourteous retort to the Shakespeare Theatre Company's all-male Romeo and Juliet. Right here in DC at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.

Today's Washington Post climbed on board the bandwagon with a terrific Jane Horwitz article about the production. And there's more press coverage to come in the next week.

It's been a real pleasure to get to know the Taffety Punkers as I've helped them hype this really inventive and transgressive production. A few teasers from the press release:

When Lise Bruneau, company member and Associate Director of Taffety Punk Theatre Company, found out that Shakespeare Theatre Company was going to produce an all-male version of Romeo and Juliet in Fall 2008, it plucked a chord of feminist outrage within her.

“In Shakespeare's time,” says Bruneau, “he did it with all men. For some reason, all of the theaters in America think this is so fascinating that they never tire of doing a Shakespeare production with all men! It happens over and over and over again!”

One of the things I'm most looking forward to seeing is how Lise Bruneau and her fight choreographer, Lorraine Ressegger, present the preening physicality of the play's fight scenes:

“Most women, and especially women that are trained fighters, are jumping out of their skins to be able to use some of the skills that they have,” says Bruneau. “And we never ever get to use them. So the fighting has been going really well.”

The fight choreography in the show reflects the nature of the play’s characters, says Ressegger. “Mercutio is quick, wild, sometimes rash,” she says. “Tybalt is always poised, extremely well trained, precise, most don't want to engage him.”

Ressegger also says that the dueling violence of the play spirals as the feuds unravel. “At the top of the show fighting is a natural occurrence. It's about dominance, humiliation, besting the other person. People get hurt, injured, tagged – but no one has been killed. In the beginning, the fighting is tense and people are on guard, but everyone knows you don't step over the line. The death of Mercutio causes a dramatic shift in attitudes.”

The physicality of Taffety Punk’s production is also underscored by the set, which is a playground of jungle gyms and swings that Bruneau says will call forth “climbing, holding, swinging and jumping” from the all-female cast.

“It’s unharnessed energy and power that women have just been sitting on,” she says. “They've just been sort of holding inside this passion for movement – and doing much more aggressive movement than usually we’re allowed to do.”

The XX Romeo and Juliet is at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop -- 545 7th Street SE (near Eastern Market Metro.) Pay-what-you-can previews at 7:30 pm on September 15 (Monday) and 18 (Thursday). Performances at 7:30 pm on September 19, 20, 22, 25, 26, 27, October 2, 3, 4 and Saturday Matinees at 3:00 pm on September 20, 27, and October 4. All tickets $10

For tickets call 202-261-6612, or email

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Black in Berlin: Paul Beatty's Slumberland

In the tumult of the last couple weeks at Richard Byrne Inc., it's been terrific to have a book on hand that completely rivets your attention away from the life at hand and pours it into something that's not merely diverting, but revelatory and even transformative.

For me, that book has been Paul Beatty's novel Slumberland -- which is a breathtaking mash-up of post-socialism and jazz, soul, funk. Stripping it down to plot, Slumberland is the tale of an L.A. DJ's immersion in pre-Wende Berlin and his effort to track down a legendary musician in that city with nothing but a postal address and an amazing song used as a soundtrack for a decidedly-bizarre porn film. (I'm not going to spoil the joke.)

But Slumberland is so much more than that It's a jukebox-driven juxtaposition of A sides and B sides: Berlin and L.A., white and black, East and West. It's smart, funny, sad and damning. And, yes, it's brilliant.

Beatty's kicked around for awhile in literary circles, breaking out of the Nuyorican poetry slam scene in the late 1980s. He's written two other novels -- The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Tuff (2001). And as fiction goes, Slumberland does have a poetry about it -- especially in the way that the novel's near-encyclopedic clutter of American black music's cultural signifiers surf Beatty's relentless prose rhythms and riffs. As his narrator, DJ Darky, observes early in the book:

Though I'm purportedly black-- and in these days of racial egalitarianism, a somebody--I'd never felt more white, more like a nobody. DJ Appropriate but Never Compensate. I was amanuensis Joel Chandler Harris ambling through the streets of Nigger Town looking for folklore to steal. I was righteous Mezz Mezzrow mining the motherlod of soul, selling gage in 125th Street, tapping my feet to Satchmo's blackest beats. I was Alan Lomax slogging tape recorder and plantatiuon dreams through the swamp grass misama looking to colorize the blues on the cheap. I was 3rd Bass's MC Serch making my own version of the gas face. A rhyme-tight, tornado-white, Hebrew Israelite, stepping down from the soapbox and into the boom box to spit his shibboleth.

is studded with such wonders of music criticism, turbocharged by plot and by a fierce moral indignation. The latter is cleverly masked by a surfeit of hipster swagger, but punches through particularly hard when it comes to politics:

Listening to America these days is like listening to the fallen King Lear using his royal gibberish to turn field mice and shadows into real enemies. America is always composing empty phrases like "keeping it real," "intelligent design," "hip-hop generation," and "first responders" as a way to disguise the emptiness and mundanity.

Slumberland is stuffed with anger, slang and hard-earned wisdom. It darkens perceptibly by the end but remains bouyant. And as snappy and sharp as Beatty's style is, the book is suffused with a certain tenderness, particularly in moments where Beatty does one of the hardest things that a writer can do: translate what music actually sounds like -- down to its very nooks and crannies -- into prose.

At one moment about a third of the way through Slumberland, Beatty's character DJ Darky talks about one of my favorite songs, Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments." It's a beautiful passage:

"Stolen Moments" is Oliver Nelson's signature tune, a song I find to be the ultimate mood setter; it's a classic jazz aperitif. Oftentimes, when I play hardcore underground hip-hop or punk gigs, after three or four especially rambunctious tunes the mosh pits begin to resemble the the skirmish lines of a Bronze Age battlefields, the warehouse windows start to shake, the record needle starts to skip, the women have that "I'm down with the pogrom" whatever-motherfucker look in their eyes, and I know the party is one more Wu-Tang killer bee sting or Bad Brains power chord from turning into Attica, I ply fifteen to twenty seconds of "Stolen Moments" to ease the tension, to keep the peace. Its incongruous beauty brings about the wry existential lugubriousness of the Christmas Eve carol coming from the enemy encampment on the other side of the river ina hackneyed war movie. "Stolen Moments" is that type of intrusion, a lull in the fighting, a time to finish that drink and forgive and forget.

Buy Slumberland at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Powell's

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Apologies. Readers....

Sorry that the blogging has been so exceptionally light of late. I've been a little busy:

1) Engaged in my new role hyping the amazing work of Washington DC's Taffety Punk Theatre Company. (The Rape of Lucrece is 8 pm at the Kennedy Center's Page to Stage Festival on Monday night!!!)

2) Getting multiple fantasy football leagues in shape.

3) Having Mrs. Mueller wheel me to a world war. (Na Bělehrad, Na Bělehrad!)

Regular postings will resume in the next few days. Promise.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why Georgia Is Prague 68 and Not Hungary 56

As the 40th anniversary of the Prague Spring breaks, it's instructive to see what its influence is on contemporary politics.

To wit, I've been wondering why Georgia -- after its harebrained and failed attempt to retake South Ossetia -- has completely backed down from any military response (even a guerrilla response) to Russia's invasion, blockade of its ports and extension of influence into Abkhazia. According to the New York Times' interview with Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, we have an answer:

He also said that he had made a decision not to continue to fight Russia during the invasion, and not to have his army organize an insurgency against Russia, because he hoped to save the country.

“We had a choice here,” he said. “We could turn this country into Chechnya — we had enough people and equipment to do that — or we had to do nothing and stay a modern European country.”

He added: “Eventually we would have chased them away, but we would have had to go to the mountains and grow beards. That would have been a tremendous national philosophical and emotional burden.”

I'll have more to say about the Prague Spring in the next day or so, but this seems to me a case in which a president assesses the available resources and makes a tactical decision not to fight. One wonders if President Saakashvili will be summoned to the Georgian equivalent of Čierna nad Tisou before it's all over.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Skid Marks: Liquor Bike Reunites!!!!

September is shaping up as a trip in the Wayback Machine for this former rock critic.

First, the Bottle Rockets of Festus, Missouri are coming to the Washington DC metro area on their 15th anniversary tour on Saturday, September 6th. (The gig is at the Iota Club in Northern Virginia; no advance tickets.) They're only doing 15 shows this year, so this is a special event.

The Rockets just finished recording a new record that finds them reunited with Eric "Roscoe" Ambel -- who produced three classic Rockets' records: The Brooklyn Side, 24 Hours a Day and Brand New Day. Since I've known leader Brian Henneman and drummer Mark Ortmann even longer than those 15 years (it'll be 20 years on New Year's Eve, when I saw them tear up the legendary Cicero's Basement Bar in St. Louis as Chicken Truck), it's going to be a thrill to see them again...

The Rockets, however, still exist. An even bigger September surprise for me is the imminent one-night only reunion of Baltimore's raffish punk melodians Liquor Bike on Friday, September 26 at the Ottobar in Charm City. The Bike's guitarist/vocalist David Koslowski got in touch recently to let me know about the gig, and I helped out a bit with the snazzy press kit that he's assembled to hype the show. (There are photos/mp3s and other stuff...) It's the first time they've played since another one-off reunion in 1998 which I witnessed in all its shambolic grandeur. Ten years, man. Time fades away.

The Bike put out three killler records -- Lowborne, Neon Hoop Ride and The Beauty of Falling Apart -- before falling apart themselves in the late 1990s. They're still my fave Baltimore band of all time -- equal parts songcraft and fury. Their September 26 gig also kicks off an exhibit of photos and flyers from the 1990s Baltimore scene which will also be featured at Ottobar.

Circle the date for a Baltimore road trip: Friday, September 26.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Brassed Off

Let me 'fess up: I'm not much of a Serbian brass fan.

As my friends know, I prefer my Serbian music from the likes of Presing and Sila and Dirty Cover and the continually impressive downtempo Belgrade Coffee Shop collections.

And you wouldn't catch me dead -- unless there was some journalistic graft involved -- at something as full-on Balkan brass as the annual Guca Festival in Serbia. But regular readers of this blog will no doubt be interested in a terrific article about annual festival celebrating the highs and lows of Serbian folk culture by Slobodan Georgijev on the Balkan Insight blog.

Georgijev captures the -- and I quote -- "Alcohol, barbeque, cabbage in huge earthen pots and people prone to making fools of themselves, shirts with images of war criminals and international stars, fur caps, Chetnik insignia, and cowboy hats" that accompany the festival to small-town Serbia. But he also captures exquisitely the collision of locals with the foreigners who've steadily grown into a gawking and marauding horde as the festival grows more popular:

"There are more foreigners than ever," everyone will tell you in Guca. The majority are from Bosnia and Herzegovina and France, but many came from Australia, Spain, Canada, Britain, and Germany as well. Their reasoning is obvious: this is pure exotica, this kind of indulgence in five-day drinking binge and orgy they do not have the opportunity to have at home. Foreigners have invaded all the hotels and houses in town and neighbourhood, they have occupied the surrounding hills putting up tents everywhere. The main event in the town, before the dark and "going wild" starts in the tents, is at the main square where various bands and orchestras are taking turns, drunken men are climbing the monument probably in an attempt to stick out from the crowd, pouring beer into the sculpture in an attempt to make the bronze trumpeter come to life. Half the people are jumping at the sounds of brass orchestra while the other half is recording it with video and photo cameras.

Which reminds me... Isn't it almost time for the Belgrade Beer Fest? I see Kud Idijoti and Prljavi inspektor Blaža i Kljunovi and Kanda Kodža i Nebojša and Darkwood Dub are on this year's program!

Photo from the Guca festival by PetarM used under a GNU Free Documentation License. Hvala!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Black Kissinger?

Read an interview with actor/NFL star Fred "The Hammer" Williamson at The Onion's A.V. Club today.

It was a good interview, though not as good as the recent Teri Garr gabfest in which she relates (among many hilarious things) that the director of Tootsie, the late Sydney Pollack, was a sexist who:

... just wanted the beautiful, blond, cute, shiksa girls to be nice and shut the fuck up! [Laughs.] God, I'm bad. But that's what he wanted. And that's what the world wants, I think. I'm bitter. Bitter!

Garr also ranks on Francis Ford Coppola. But I digress. As I forged to the end of the Fred Williamson interview, this bit just leapt up off the page and slapped me hard in the face:

AVC: What is Black Kissinger? That's listed on your IMDB page as your next movie.

FW: Black Kissinger is a film the Jamaicans want to do, but the Jamaicans have been dragging their feet. I'm not sure they want to do the film, and in the meantime I'm putting a project together called Spats.

Wow. And it's true. IMDB has this plot synopsis:

Henry Kissinger (no relation), a Jamaican-born American cop, returns to his homeland for a vacation and runs afoul of a violent plot by an American hotel tycoon to seize control of lucrative waterfront resort space. To get to the bottom of it all, he'll have to learn to play by a whole new set of rules - and rediscover the heritage he's denied all his life. Black Kissinger. He's the man with the plan to bring some peace to the promised land. Written by Ian Driscoll

And there's a website. Check out the art. Yikes.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) via Kosova

You'd expect a blog named Balkans via Bohemia to look at the sudden explosion of violence between Russia and Georgia from a southeasterly (European) direction. But as I dithered over what precisely to write about it, Steve Clemons at The Washington Note wrote a great post about the relationship between this current crisis and the headlong plunge to recognize Kosovo:

When Kosovo declared independence and the US and other European states recognized it -- thus sidestepping Russia's veto in the United Nations Security Council -- many of us believed that the price for Russian cooperation in other major global problems just went much higher and that the chance of a clash over Georgia's breakaway border provinces increased dramatically.

By pushing Kosovo the way the US did and aggravating nationalist sensitivities, Russia could in reaction be rationally expected to further integrate and cultivate South Ossetia and Abkhazia under de facto Russian control and pull these provinces that border Russia away from the state of Georgia.

At the time, there was word from senior level sources that Russia had asked the US to stretch an independence process for Kosovo over a longer stretch of time -- and tie to it some process of independence for the two autonomous Georgia provinces. In exchange, Russia would not veto the creation of a new state of Kosovo at the Security Council. The U.S. rejected Russia's secret entreaties and instead rushed recognition of Kosovo and said damn the consequences.

That seems to me precisely right. And so is Steve's short sharp smack to the Washington Post's editorial on the conflict on Saturday, which seems remarkably ignorant of a number of key issues raised in Steve's post.

As I've argued on this blog and elsewhere, the Kosovo dilemma is one that could have been resolved over time -- preferably by the joint entry of Serbia and Kosovo into the European Union.

There is a strong case to be made for Kosovo's independence via negotiation. Demographics argue against Serbian sovereignty over the province, and Serbia lost much of its moral authority to "rule" Kosovo in 1989 when it stripped Kosovo of its autonomy. And Serbia doubled down on its forfeit of the right to govern through Solobodan Milosevic's ham-fisted and vicious attempts to gin up conflict in the province again in 1998 and 1999 -- partly in response to the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army. That mistake by Milosevic led directly to the NATO intervention and bombing in 1999.

Strong voices in and out of government here in Washington, DC (indeed, a bipartisan chorus) argued that the US should encourage a declaration of independence by Kosovar Albanians and lead a group of nations in recognizing the new state. Despite that declaration, only 45 countries have recognized the new state thus far -- and not even the entire European Union has done so.

So the situation is a classic stalemate. The US and Europe are lucky, in fact, that the accelerated push for Kosovar independence did not cost reformers in Serbia one or both of the recent elections in the country -- both of which reformers won by the skin of their teeth. Compare the fierce riots in Belgrade that occurred after the independence declaration with the impotent and pathetic turnout to protest the arrest of war crimes indictee Radovan Karadžić. Public feeling in Serbia over Kosovo can still be a deal breaker for democratic reforms and stability in Belgrade in a way that shipping off war criminals to The Hague is not.

So what's to be done? Clearly, Kosovo's Albanians aren't revoking their declaration of independence. But the push to deprive the fragile Serbian government of peaceful ways to protest that move until it can be negotiated in a calmer and more dispassionate manner-- namely bringing the Kosovo issue to the International Court of Justice -- is a huge mistake.

Indeed, the notion of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Ambassador to Belgrade Steven Wordsworth talking of that move as a "mistake" that could impede Serbia's progress to the EU smacks of desperation to keep an international court from looking closely at the issues of sovereignty and self-determination in Kosovo and (hopefully) elsewhere.

After all, aren't those issues -- territorial integrity, self-determination -- precisely the issues in play in Georgia and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia? A thorough examination of these concepts by an international court, followed by a clear and articulate opinion by such a tribunal, could help clear up a number of sticky situations involving those issues across multiple continents.

Such a ruling may not be convenient, but it would be clarifying in a way that the current messes in Kosovo and Georgia are decidedly not.