I made the mistake of seeing Parasite last night, a week after it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. All the accolades for the South Korean film catapulted my expectations to an unreachable height, no fault of Bong Joon-ho, who co-produced, wrote, and directed this gritty capper masterpiece.
My expectations were lifted even higher by the enthusiastic comments and recommendations of people I trust on social media and friends who I know have discernable taste in movies. Some of the posts on Facebook first brought Parasite to my attention a few months ago. I wish I had listened to their recommendation sooner.
Parasite is a well-crafted thriller, texturally engrossing, with heavy undertones of class struggle — the privileged versus the desperate. There are no “good guys” in the film. The story’s the thing.
I rate the first half of the movie as brilliant. A masterful black comedy set in Seoul, South Korea — but which could take place anywhere in post-modern urbania where gross inequities exist. The guilty pleasure of watching a mannerless viper’s nest of lowlifes-turned-con artists who methodically integrate a rich unsuspected family of victims with their own demons and secrets is shocking and often hilarious. The writer-director’s juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy is a marvel of perfectly paced moviemaking.
The second half of the film, when the mood turns considerably darker and more violent doesn’t match the brilliant set up. I also had some doubts as to believability towards the end of the movie. But these criticisms weren’t enough to dissuade me from saying it probably deserved the Best Picture Oscar.
I tend to like movies about con artists and scams. When they’re done right, they’re among the more enjoyable topics explored in cinema. Parasite will take its rightful place alongside films like The Sting, American Hustle, and others as a caper where we don’t know who to cheer for.
In the end, I suppose the lesson is — we’re all parasitic in one way or another.
ON PRESIDENTS DAY (FEBRUARY 17, 2020) 100 YEARS OF PRESIDENTS — RANKED
There have been 18 American presidents over the past century (1920-2020). Our presidents have served short terms (Ford-just 2.5 years) and much longer multiple terms (Roosevelt-13 years). Here’s my ranking from best to worst:
Franklin D. Roosevelt
— America’s greatest president since Abe Lincoln, and it’s not even close. Probably saved democracy both from collapse from within and by his steady leadership during WWII. Launched the New Deal, saved tens of millions from starving via govt, programs, began Social Security, mass civil works programs and government projects; repealed prohibition; inspired and lifted the nation during its worst economy in history
Dwight D. Eisenhower
— Centrist non-politician; great leader; and national father figure; always fair-minded. Slow on civil rights, but presided over the decade when the US was at its economic and global peak; warned future generations of the military-industrial complex and left office highly-respected by both parties
Lyndon B. Johnson
— America’s most liberal president on domestic policy; ambitious advocate for the Great Society; civil rights pioneer; far too many domestic accomplishments to name here–including the creation of Medicare, the “War on Poverty,” govt.-funded scientific research, education, gun control, expansion of immigration –but his legacy remains badly tainted by the drastic escalation in Vietnam.
Harry S. Truman
— Strong record as a Cold War warrior; common man approach to governing; what he lacked in charisma he made up for in honesty. Outstanding leadership in post-War Europe and Japan while holding a fragile situation together while the Cold War ramped up to dangerous levels
— Inherited an economic disaster and helped to turn around the country; was a “first” in so many ways that inspired people all over the world; steady economic growth during every year while in office; health care bill passed; advanced gay rights and increased government protections; gets negative marks for lapses on civil liberties, use of drones, and poor use of diplomacy in some parts of the Middle East (Syria)
— Guided America through a tough period of growing pains; minimized US casualties during a global conflict; an idealistic visionary; scholarly; incapacitated in his final years
Gerald R. Ford
— Short tenure, but held the nation together after the worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War; didn’t have sufficient time to accomplish a lot, but generally gets high marks from historians (and was the target of TWO assassinations–poor Ford). Like seriously, who would want to kill Gerald Ford?
George H.W. Bush
— Received one of highest approval ratings in history during the late 80s, then a deep recession hit; receives positive marks on foreign policy following fall of USSR and building a coalition to counter the threat in Iraq
— Inspiring; regal; ideological, and charismatic, but also tainted by arms-for-hostages scandal; criminal acts in Central America; begins to look worse as we distance ourselves from the “Greed Is Good” Reaganesque-’80s
— After failing to pass universal health care early in his first term, then governed as a centrist, with very strong economic numbers; presidency plagued by personal scandal, including impeachment; Not looking as good in retrospect
John F. Kennedy
— The most overrated president in American history, hands down. Witty and charismatic, for sure. But a disaster on foreign policy (failed Vienna talks, Cuba, Bay of Pigs, Berlin, escalation in Vietnam), completely silent on civil rights for more than two years while Black churches were being bombed, very average record on domestic economic policy; Final Assessment: all style but little substance
Richard M. Nixon
— Very mixed grade….extraordinary foreign policy achievements, but criminal conduct in Southeast Asia responsible for untold numbers of needless deaths in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and elsewhere; remarkably liberal on domestic policy, but destroyed by his own inner-demons revealed during the scandal of Watergate
— A big fat do-nothing free-market conservative who governed in the midst of prohibition, isolationism, neglectfully silent on the rising tide of racism and segregation; guilty for his Laissez-faire economic affairs
— A good man but a bad president–or at least a weak and ineffective leader; he suffered devastating effects of the energy crisis, high inflation, the Iran hostage ordeal….but is also widely considered to be the best ex-President by many
— Brilliant man who, based on other parts of his life, should have been one of America’s best presidents; but remained stubbornly wielded to conservative economic policies and small government, even after the ’29 stock market crash nearly destroyed the country; now looked upon as a complete failure
Warren G. Harding
— Dumb and dirty: Scandal-plagued failure of a president who was utterly neglectful of his duties while in office. He let the markets run wild, gave unnecessary tax cuts, championed America’s isolationism; slashed immigration; and hired corrupt cronies
George W. Bush
— Launched two pointless unwinnable wars in the Middle East, presided over deregulation and lack of proper government oversight of markets which resulted in the global economic collapse of 2008; legacy tainted by approval of torture, loss of civil liberties, and increased govt. surveillance
Donald J. Trump
— Inherited a strong economy and has been a disaster ever since; increased national debt–now a record high, repeated foreign policy disasters, unprecedented personal and cabinet scandals, record staff resignations-firing-criminality; impeachment and trial, intentional divisiveness, appalling ignorance, and unapologetic corruption. By comparison, Trump makes George W. Bush look like George Washington.
Yesterday, I visited the new Sahara Poker Room, which opened the previous day. Sahara management’s bold decision to dedicate considerable space and cost to poker deserves praise. If you are a Las Vegas poker player (or a visitor), it seems to me this is the sort of thing that should be supported. At the least, the Sahara Poker Room deserves a visit.
This is the first poker room to open in Las Vegas in ten years. The Las Vegas poker market, which has been flat for quite a long time, has experienced consolidation. The biggest rooms have done fine. Meanwhile, several smaller rooms have been reduced in size or have closed.
Typically, a new poker room opening would not interest me. However, two key attributes attracted my attention.
First, this was my first visit to the new Sahara property since it was rebranded from the (previous) SLS Resort. That failed experiment turned into a half-billion-dollar disaster. Bringing back the classic Sahara name and updating the property is certain to jump-start enthusiasm for the northern area of The Strip, which has been a ghost town for anything north of the Wynn. Once some other properties in the area open up (namely Resorts World across the street), the Sahara should do quite well with both hotel stays and foot traffic.
Second, I’m a big fan of Steven Pique, who is hired as head of poker operations at the Sahara. I worked with Steven for years on the WSOP Circuit traveling around the country. He was always thoroughly professional and knowledgeable. His impact on the new room should be both immediate and long-lasting. I’m glad to support Steven, who deserves every bit of success.
So, what is it that’s special about the Sahara Poker Room. Here are a few observations:
1. Free parking and easy access from the garage. Other casinos charge for parking or require long walks. I was able to get into the parking garage easily (from both Paradise and Las Vegas Blvd.), park on the 4th Floor, and walk to the poker room within 5 minutes.
2. Comps are awarded at $2 per hour, which is a nice perk. Check with the room on exact hours, but during the day shift, the comp rate is $3 an hour.
3. I really like the giant screen television on the wall. Most poker rooms have TVs with sporting events high overhead. It’s not always easy to see the action. For those who enjoy playing poker while watching sports, the giant screen is an attraction (see photo). Whoever made that decision got it right.
4. While I was visiting, a player ordered food inside the room. Imagine that, a cart with a plate and silverware was wheeled up next to the player. So, instead of fast-food garbage brought to tableside, the Sahara offers real food with a wide range of menu items combined from several restaurants. I’m really big on food served at tableside, and this right up there with the Aria (best food service in the city) in terms of poker and dining options.
5. The room is new and will take a little while to develop a loyal fan base. However, I noted they’ve already spread Pot-Limit Omaha and are eager to expand to more games than just Hold’em. Talk to Steven or any of the managers, and I expect they’ll do everything possible to accommodate a request. Once again I stress, these are POKER people running the room, not flunkies assigned from other areas of the casino floor.
6. Tables and chairs are spacious and comfortable. I can’t stand cramped poker rooms where players are sardined into seats. This is common in Las Vegas, where players are treated like chattel. Smoking is banned, of course, and there were no signs of second-hand smoke.
7. The Sahara Poker Room initially was advertised to be a room that would close at 2 am. However, the first night one of the games lasted until 7 am the next morning. Steven noted that no poker game will ever be shut down. So, the room might close overnight during slower times midweek, but so long as a game is going, it will run as long as players want to play.
8. Not really poker-related, but I love the restaurants at Sahara. The steakhouse (Bazaar Meat by Jose Andres) is probably the best in the city. The Italian restaurant is also very good. There are also some burger places, including one inside the race and sportsbook. Again — this is another difference: Most sportsbooks don’t offer food. But Sahara has a full-scale restaurant inside the sportsbook (a carryover from SLS).
9. I love the location of the poker room. It’s right next to the casino floor, but still far enough away not to be bombarded with the noise from slot machines. It’s always a good indication as to how management feels about poker by the placement of a poker room, and it’s obvious this establishment is taking the game and its players seriously.
Let me be clear. I’m difficult to please. I’m opinioned. I don’t do fluff pieces. I blast failure. But I also praise commitment and effort. At the Sahara what I see is exactly that — commitment and effort.
I wish the new Sahara Poker Room well. They’ve spent serious money and have designed a beautiful room. If they build it, let’s hope they come. I recommend making a visit.
To use a sports analogy, I put her in the game, and she’s fumbled twice and thrown two interceptions. I’m looking over to the bench to see what”s available, and there sits BERNIE SANDERS.
Last week, I wrote and posted here and on Facebook for the first time about my lean in the 2020 Nevada Democratic Caucus. I finally announced my support for a candidate.
Based on several factors and weighing the evidence, I calculated the percentage that I would vote for AMY KLOBUCHAR in next Saturday’s Nevada Democratic Caucus at 60 percent. BERNIE SANDERS stood at approximately a 40 percent chance. No other candidate was on my list of considerations.
Here’s an update:
I now assess my support for KLOBUCHAR at 53 percent. She dropped seven points. That means I still lean slightly to KLOBUCHAR over SANDERS in the race, but that lead is fragile and subject to change.
Four things have hurt my support for KLOBUCHAR, all within the last 48 hours:
(1) KLOBUCHAR’s appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher last night was a disaster. Actually, she did very well in the 14-minute sit-down interview with the host, for 12 minutes. Then, the final two minutes were a political train wreck.
Maher’s pet issue the past two weeks has been “what happens if Trump loses the election and refuses to concede — then what’s the plan?” He’s done entire monologues on this. Each candidate gets asked this question. It’s a tough question, but one that a presidential candidate must be anticipating if anyone on KLOBUCHAR’s staff was doing their job.
So, KLOBUCHAR was smiling and about to wrap up a successful appearance in front of likely the biggest audience of her career, 12 million mostly sympathetic Left-leaning viewers. Even Maher was practical about the race and seemed to lean to KLOBUCHAR. She was two minutes from the finish line.
Then came the question everyone in the audience was anticipating: “What will you do if…….”
KLOBUCHAR might as well have been a deer caught in the headlights. She paused and fumbled. In fairness, this wasn’t KLOBUCHAR’s fault. She doesn’t have time to watch Bill Maher on HBO. She’s kinda’ busy right now. But someone on her staff had to know that question was coming. Maher even prefaced the question with, “I ask this question of all the candidates….”
This is the job of advance people. Researchers. Campaign staff. A competent manager. They blew it.
Then, to make matters even worse, KLOBUCHAR gave the answer that made Maher cringe and the audience groan. Viewers of the show know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s was a disaster. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the look on Maher’s face. He was bent over with his head tilted down towards his lap, his face covered by his hands as if to say. “OH NO!”
It could have been a great night for KLOBUCHAR. Instead, it was a disaster. Oh, and she also forgot the name of the President of Mexico, but I’ll cut her some slack there on a fatigue lapse of memory.
(2) Some of the comments posted in favor of SANDERS to my previous thread on Facebook did resonate with me. I do listen to reason and weigh the evidence. If you don’t do this also then, excuse me, you might be in a cult. I won’t call out anyone by name, as you know who you are when I responded to the posts on social media. However, one significant counterpoint that was made did neutralize one of my concerns about SANDERS.
I noted SANDERS winning the presidency in November would create an inevitable backlash in 2022 where Democrats would get hammered and probably lose the House and certainly lose the Senate. That would set up another impasse, and the perception that Sanders was a bad choice and Democrats can’t govern.
Short version of this is, even a SANDERS victory could be perilous to the long-range goals of the Left (basically, wrong candidate at the wrong time). SANDERS’ backers noted that it doesn’t matter which Democrat wins the White House — the Republican slime machine will kick into high gear. Any Democrat will be called a “socialist.” It doesn’t matter if Bernie Sanders or Mike Bloomberg or Jimmy Carter is in the White House, the dirt-dumb simpletons who know nothing of political terminology will label anyone a socialist. So, SANDERS or whoever, it won’t matter. The 2022 prospects are the same. I hereby concede on this point.
(3) KLOBUCHAR supported last year’s anti-BDS bill which means she backs criminalizing American citizens’ criticism of Israel. This is totally unacceptable. It’s anti-free speech. The bill has to be unconstitutional. She was the only Senator to vote in favor of the anti-BDS bill, which is an AIPAC initiative. Whatever someone believes about the Israel-Palestine conflict, suppressing free speech is wrong. The ACLU is on our side of this, but unfortunately, the anti-BDS bill passed in the House and the Senate and is now in limbo as states and courts battle it out. I was not aware of KLOBUCHAR’s position on this and find her support to be very troubling.
(4) Here in Las Vegas, KLOBUCHAR gave two speeches (I saw clips on television) where she slams “socialism.” This isn’t a way to win my support. In fact, it’s repellant. I almost flipped against her on this issue alone.
If KLOBUCHAR wants to use the evils of “socialism” against her rivals, I’ll listen and be prepared to chalk up some of the rhetoric to political opportunism. But if she’s going to trash the core principle of government as an agent of social and economic justice (the essence of socialism), then I’m prepared to bolt from her campaign and march to BERNIE SANDERS. Anyone who uses socialism in the pejorative is an automatic strike-against with me.
My updated assessment — she’s on a serious tightrope with me right now, and the wind is blowing.
To use a better sports analogy, I put her in the game, and she’s fumbled twice and thrown two interceptions. I’m looking over to the bench to see what”s available, and there sits BERNIE SANDERS.
With seven days still to decide, I welcome input. If you don’t live in Nevada, consider me your proxy. Feel free to try and persuade me who I should support in the Nevada Caucus. I will post again if my opinion significantly changes.
Writer’s Note: The 2020 Nevada Democratic Caucus is only a week away. For those unfamiliar with how exactly a caucus works, here’s a detailed, and sometimes humorous account of my last experience, which happened four years ago.
The Self-Indulgent, Highly-Detailed, and Occasionally Funny Story of My Nevada Caucus Experience in February 2016
This past Saturday morning, I attended the Nevada State Democratic Party caucus for Precinct #6672, which covers The Lakes section of Greater Las Vegas. I take great pride in boasting I reside in The Lakes. That means we’re better than everybody else, except for those rich pricks that live in Anthem.
My precinct includes mostly single-family homes, plus some nice condos and a few apartment complexes in the area just north of Desert Inn and west of Durango. For those unfamiliar with Las Vegas, that’s about 7 miles off the Strip, heading west towards Summerlin.
Democracy in action.
What’s a Caucus?
A state caucus is a very different experience from attending either a primary or a general election. Most of us have participated in both primaries and elections before, in which procedures are familiar: (1) we check in with a poll worker, (2) enter a voting booth, and then (3) cast a ballot in secret. On most occasions, voting takes no more than a few minutes if the line isn’t long. However, caucuses take considerably longer than that and require much more of a commitment. For this reason, caucuses don’t generate nearly the voter turnout as primaries and elections. Good. Keep out the doddering dimwit dirt-dumb masses. They vote Republican, anyway.
About 80,000 Nevadans caucused this year, which was down from 117,000 the last time there was a real contest back in 2008. Given the clear decline in statewide turnout, it’s becoming apparent that Barack Obama had a serious impact on overall enthusiasm when he initially ran back in 2008 which this year’s Democratic candidates are not matching. That could spell trouble for the Democratic nominee, come November 2016. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Wow, what I right or what?!?]
Pros and Cons
Nevada’s state caucus has both pros and cons. It brought both good news and bad news for those of us proud to call “the Silver State” our home.
It was good for us because we’re only the third state (on the Democratic side) to hold a primary/caucus. That means our votes really matter this time, more than in past years, when we voted much later in the primaries, by the time the races had already been decided. Nevada has a reputation (deserved somewhat) as a state that’s politically indifferent, apathetic even. Accordingly, there were some valid concerns Nevadans might not be the best voting block to determine party nominees in the privileged spot of early primaries and caucuses. Nevada’s reputation certainly isn’t enhanced any by its reputation where just about anything goes when it comes to vice. Fortunately, holding this “first caucus in the West” may have turned a corner, symbolically speaking, as Nevada’s population increasingly becomes more diverse and representative of the nation as a whole.
As for the bad, caucuses can be intimidating for some voters, especially those who aren’t as involved in the political process or up to speed on the issues. For one thing, participants are required to pledge their support for candidates publicly — in front of friends, neighbors, and others in their local community. While many of us proudly wear out political stripes on our sleeves and have no hesitation supporting a candidate, others could be less enthusiastic about the process and even dissuaded from attending.
[Another quick note about caucuses: As an activist, I prefer this option over simple voting because it weeds out some lightweights who aren’t as dedicated or informed (with exceptions — some voters may have legitimate conflicts with work, school, or family and cannot attend a process that takes a few hours). The downside is losing all privacy in a caucus. I have serious questions about the biggest unions in the state and membership which turned out heavily for Hillary Clinton. Were some workers who caucused at polling places such as the big casinos intimidated from possibly supporting Bernie Sanders? In response to criticism that a Saturday caucus would penalize lots of service industry employees who are at work during the busiest day of the week (many of whom are in unions that support Clinton), local Democratic Party officials set up caucuses as several casinos on The Strip. That’s fine. What’s troubling here is the potential for intimidation in a work environment when it comes to pledging public support for candidates. How many union bosses were dutifully overseeing their flocks making sure their subordinates turned out for Clinton? Yeah, those are sour grapes — but valid questions.]
Standing in Line
Marieta and I arrived at about 10:45 am. We heard people that would be allowed in at 11 am. However, the doors were open and registration had already begun by the time we arrived. Our precinct caucus was held at a local elementary school — MJ Christensen — who turns out is a local diamond merchant and jeweler. Only in Las Vegas would you see a public school filled with impressionable children named after a diamond dealer, an end-of-the-line financial empire built on the backs of native Africans laboring away in dangerous mines for less than a dollar an hour and monopolistic practices of the global diamond market-based in Antwerp, which artificially creates the lunacy of allure for these buffed up coal deposits.
But, I digress. We were discussing the caucus. Here’s what you would expect to see:
We waited about 10-15 minutes in line before finally clearing registration. While standing in line, we were surprised to see volunteers from both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns actively engaging those of us waiting to reach the front in order to check-in. They were polite. Each volunteer tried to pass out stickers and buttons in support of their respective candidates. I thought it somewhat odd that campaign workers are allowed to actively engage voters who wait in lines, but this was only a minor annoyance.
Once at the table, we weren’t asked to show any form of identification (voter ID laws are a controversial issue in many states). Instead, we were asked various personal questions such as name, date of birth, address, and so forth and then once our identity was confirmed, each given a ballot. The photo above shows the line at check-in, with perhaps 20-30 people lined out the door and standing outside. Later on, I was told the line reached more than a hundred.
Surprisingly, our local school was the polling place for not just us, but eight precincts on the west side of Las Vegas. So, the long line was somewhat misleading since it includes a much larger geographic area than I had initially realized.
After some confusion, we were shuffled into a first-grade classroom at the end of the hall. This was to be the official “caucus” of Precinct #6672.
Back to School
Here’s where the situation turned comical.
No one considered the quirky logistics of large numbers of adults crashing into a classroom tailored entirely for 7-year-olds. All chairs and tables were tiny, made for little people, raised no more than a foot up off the floor. Moreover, the seats were made of plastic for bodies that weighed perhaps 70-80 pounds. Watching 200-plus pound adults, some of whom were over 6-feet-tall trying to scrunch into these uncomfortable chairs with our teeth pressed into hour knees was unbelievable, until we finally decided to grin and bear it….remember, this is basically what flying coach is like. So, we dutifully took our seats and toughed it out. Also, seeing lessons posted up on the wall about being good little boys and girls would prove useful once the political debate started.
A Party Divided
The gathering included some serious drama.
As I said before, we were among the first to arrive. Once we entered the classroom, a pleasant young man asked us who we intended to support. When we answered “Sanders,” he insisted that we sit on the opposite side of the room. This seemed like a strange request since the 10 or so people already in the room had gathered around a large table and were talking like old friends. It was an odd feeling that we were asked to sit elsewhere until we learned the Hillary Clinton supporters were to caucus over here, and we were supposed to gather over there.
There we went.
Five minutes later, I took a quick headcount and it was 11 lost souls on the side of the room for evil Clinton, versus just 3 with wisdom on the side of good and decency, hardly enough of a quorum to belt out a chorus of “The Internationale.” I whispered over to Marieta that this was going to be a very long day, insisting that the demographics of clueless old people who tend to reside in The Lakes were within the Clinton sweet spot. I feared this was a very bad early sign for Sanders in Nevada, even with the ridiculously small sample size. I’m a fatalist, remember.
But then, the winds of change blew (hey, I’m trying to make this interesting — we’re caucusing inside a first-grade classroom, so cut me some slack….I’m building steam). The Sanders supporters began to flow in, presumably done with morning Pilates and utterly famished by granola bars. Perhaps they’d partied too long the previous night and were just waking up. A few minutes later, it was 16 awful people for Clinton and 14 heroes for Sanders. We’d closed the gap! From that moment forward, each time a new person walked into the room, there was a real element of suspense. With noon approaching and the deadline for new attendees, it was deadlocked even at 23 supporters each. The drama rose faster than anatomy parts under Bill Clinton’s desk.
Then and there, I realized Sanders was — what we call in sports betting — a mortal lock. This was the perfect microcosm of a caucus. The older and more traditional types, the stubborn party loyalists, the old guard — they would mostly tend to arrive EARLIER. Just like the 5 pm buffets all around town that are packed with blue hairs, Clinton’s loyalists had already shown up and blown their wad. Sailors the first hour of shore leave. The druggies, the radicals, and the intellectuals like me who stood with Sanders would stumble in, either lost or late. Gee, I wish I could have made a bet on this. I knew my instincts were correct. We were a lock.
Then, an old bitch walked in and nearly blew it. An old woman with white hair who looked like she died five years ago doddered in like she’d lost her Social Security check, and we knew instantly that Clinton had taken the lead. Fuck. Okay, so that’s me thinking to myself. I didn’t say it too loud. Then, a youngish girl with pink hair and a giant nose ring accompanied by a boyfriend with lots of tattoos came in just moments later, and I knew we were back on top. Rescued. 25-24 for Sanders. If the blue hair dies while in caucus, we might be 25-23.
Just as the official proceedings were about to begin, three more people popped into the room. At that instant, there was a deafening silence as they waddled the carpet towards the chalkboard. Conversations stopped in mid-sentence. Arguments ended. We all knew that whichever side of the room they sat on would tip the scales and determine the outcome of our precinct (or so, we thought — ass-ripping spoiler alert ahead).
The three older white angry-looking latecomers walked down the middle of the classroom, seemingly caught inside a parking garage forgetting what level their car was parked. When the precinct captain finally asked “who” they were supporting, someone mumbled “Bernie,” and 25 people on my side the room suddenly burst into loud applause like the Broncos has just scored the winning touchdown and covered the point spread. If I had a football, I would have spiked it over the American flag.
The Caucus Begins
Oh, wait. Before I tell the story about the actual caucus (you still with me?), first I have to rant. Hide the children. Lock way the knives. This is going to be ugly.
I love that people are engaged and interested. I really do. It’s so Norman Rockwell. It’s so America-like. I’m interested in what common people think about the issues. Sometimes. Occasionally. Okay well, never. But, I digress once again. Let me continue.
The gibberish that flowed of the mouths of some of these people were gut-busting, bat shit baffling! One woman, a Clinton supporter, got into an argument with a Sanders supporter. The woman barked, “I will never support Sanders! I don’t want to work hard and just give it away to people who don’t want to work!” I should have retorted with caucus instructions for the next Donald Trump rally taking place this Tuesday night because she must have either gotten lost or she’s clearly in the wrong political party: however, it took me a couple of minutes before I could regain my ability to speak. She’s bitching about supporting “people who don’t want to work?” That’s really her biggest issue? That’s what bother her most — not wars, nor income inequality, nor health care, nor the environment, not any of the other 189 issues that are more important right now?
Another Clinton supporter brought up the subject of foreign policy. Well, not those words, exactly. More like, “Bernie won’t keep us safe!” or something that you might hear at from Ted Cruz. Somehow, I resisted the temptation to scream out “REMEMBER BENGHAZI!!!!!!” But that would have Tea-Partied me straight off to Cliven Bundy’s psych ward.
I realize there’s some obvious bias here which is juicy cannon fodder for the haters, but when I chose to, I can speak with some bona fide objectivity when it comes to political discourse. Without exception, everyone on the Clinton side of the room, particularly those who spoke out were very traditional old-guard Democrats very much used to support the establishment. It sort of reminded me of what Palm Beach County’s nursing homes must be like on bridge night. Don’t misunderstand me, these were loyal Democrats. But they were not voters who thought much about issues or even seemed to have much of a grasp of current affairs. They were voting for Hillary because Madge and Betsy were doing the same thing and that was the norm. They hadn’t had an original idea, nor an outside the box thought since trying to decipher the hidden lyrics to The Platters when they were teenagers.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ supporters were far more intellectual, clearly more widely read, talked in far greater detail with facts and statistics about real rather than imaginary issues, and were even in some instances still not fully sold on Sanders, but at least swayed enough by his message of change of political revolution that the idea seemed intriguing and worthy of supporting. I often judge a person’s intelligence on civic matters and the prospect of wanting to get to know them better (politically speaking) based on whether or not they can see shortcomings within their own philosophical persuasion. Those who acknowledge a wide spectrum of likes and dislikes and prove themselves capable of POLITICAL INTROSPECTION are far more credible than blind sycophants who fail to see any flaws in their own leanings and favored candidates. Doubt, and even self-doubt, are virtues, in my political wheelhouse. Blind faith is the elixir of stupidity, proof of a close mind that desperately needs lubrication.
Yeah, it’s a small sample size. Many Clinton supporters are very bright people fully capable of arguing a compelling case, I agree. However, none of them were present at Precinct #6672.
The Caucus Really Begins
Sorry for the caucus prick tease. Time for action.
A nice woman with a Clinton sticker on her shirt stood in front of the classroom and called the meeting to order. The first matter of business was to select a caucus precinct captain. The lady mentioned that she’d attended three training sessions and that was why she was heading up this meeting. She asked for unanimous consent to be “elected” as captain or chairperson or whatever she wishes to call herself. I figured this was not the time to throw down the gauntlet and draw a line in the sand, fearing turning the whole room against me, so I too meekly raised my hand and went along with the rest of the crowd, agreeing to vote in a Clinton supporter as our leader.
Next, the vice something or other, the assistant, the second in command was to be chosen. One never knows if the chairperson might collapse before our very eyes and die on the spot, necessitating a chain of command where the precinct is rescued by a backup. To ensure against this dire possibility, a young man wearing a Bernie t-shirt offered himself up as the Biden of the group and he too was voted in with unanimous consent. Now, we were rolling. Ten minutes into the official caucus, we’d established our leadership. Had both the chairperson and assistant somehow been wiped out or become disposed of in some kind of disaster, one presumes our caucus would have been suspended since we didn’t have a contingency for a backup to the backup. Sort of like Grand Poobah in The Mikado, I role I once played by the way.
After that, the lady took out a large manila-style envelope and asked for contributions. She noted the State Democratic Party mandated that envelope be passed around the room in the event some idiot was gullible enough to donate money someone might be so delusional, they might be inclined to pull out a checkbook. I saw one lady drop a twenty into the envelope as it was passed around the room. Too bad that was after it had already passed through my hands — as I might have been tempted to pilfer the loot.
Next, we had to count the number of attendees in the room and determine if we had a quorum, whatever that meant. We took a headcount, by rattling off numbers one at a time. Surprisingly, we all discovered we could count to 53, but even with 53 witnesses that weren’t enough clear evidence of an exact count, and so we had to do it all over again.
So, we started again, this time counting ourselves as we raised our ballots. One. Two. Three. Four. And so on. Fittingly, this was a first-grade classroom.
During the merry go-count-around, we discovered one person was visiting from out of town and had come in as an observer. I have no idea how someone stumbled in off the street into a caucus (talk about a bad case of getting lost!), but this actually happened. Since there’s apparently nothing at all to do in Las Vegas, this person declared she was visiting and did not intend to participate in the caucus. I resisted the temptation to ask where she was headed off to next — the joys of an insurance seminar?
Next, we were shocked to discover two people had been sitting on the wrong side of the room. When it finally came time to count heads and take ballots, two people in the Clinton camp professed the intended to vote for Sanders. That created some confusion, but at least we didn’t have to recount the room again. Turns out, Sanders ended up with 28 votes to 24 for Clinton. Sanders was the winner!
Of course, one pass through wasn’t enough. We each raised our ballots once again, one at a time, and (shocker!) the vote turned out the same. 28 to 24. The Sanders side of the room erupted in applause while the Clinton camp appeared disappointed and dejected. As I said, democracy works. Kinda’.
This is Ologharchy Democracy?
Turns out, our precinct was given 8 delegates to award proportionally, according to the vote (delegates to the county and state convention — not the national). The chairperson pulled out a calculator and did the math according to her instructions. Unfortunately, the 28-24 margin wasn’t within the formula to award delegates 5-3 in favor of Sanders. Even though Clinton lost by 4 votes, the delegate allocation would be split evenly, 4-4.
Someone in our group protested. Okay, that was me. Then, another more vocal supporter stood up and demanded to know what it would take to get the delegates to swing 5-3 for Sanders. Again, the calculator provided the answer. The chairperson stated that if we could get ONE Clinton supporter to defect, that would tip the scales 5-3. Since caucuses are different and give us that right, we pounced.
One of the Clinton supporters (to his credit) admitted he was unsure about supporting either candidate, but had made a rather quick decision to do what seemed safe. The man, perhaps age 60 or so, dangled a carrot by stating he might be swayed to come over to the Bernie side. That launched a remarkably interesting 15 minutes of dialogue which surprised even me. The case for Bernie couldn’t have been argued any better than OJ’s lawyer, and I really thought we had a shot at swaying not just the weak link in the chain, but half the room.
Well, the man inexplicably became stubborn, unresponsive to logic and burrowed himself deeper into the Clinton camp like a fat tick on a farm mutt. Had the ballot been secret, I’m sure he would have defected. However, peer pressure can be a strong force — again — one of the problems with caucusing.
Final delegate count: Sanders — 4, Clinton — 4.
This Caucus is Adjourned!
The final order of business was to select actual delegates to attend county-wide caucuses and register their votes. Volunteers were taken. I joined with Leon Trotsky and two others locked arm-in-arm as pledged delegates for Sanders, to be cast in Clark County sometime in April. One guarantee: At least I’ll have material for another column.
We departed and went off to lunch. Even with the annoying quirks and time-wasting, I still felt satisfied with what I’d experienced. I felt even better about Sanders’ chances of winning Nevada. If he could carry my precinct, which probably has all of ONE Socialist actually living in the entire neighborhood, and few of the base demographic groups that tend to support Sanders strongest like students and free-spirited artists as you might see in other parts of town, surely he was pulling even bigger numbers elsewhere. From my vantage point, the Sanders camp was representative of the heart and soul of the left, while Clinton attracted a far more traditional voter. Then, I realized I’d forgotten about unions and the commotion that was probably taking place on The Strip, where turnout would probably be high since the caucuses were so convenient.
As I was enjoying the first part of my meal I checked my messages. That’s when I lost my appetite. Corky Parks, my fellow leftist comrade off of Facebook, messaged me and announced that NBC had called just Nevada for Clinton. I wanted to punch the phone.
Democracy in action? I guess I need to go back and repeat first-grade.
For the first time ever, I’m still somewhat uncertain as to who I will vote for in a major election.
With Nevada’s caucus now ten days away, however, I now have a lean. I am prepared to announce this preference in today’s column. This is a fragile choice subject to change. I’m no longer on the fence, but the fence is still easily within reach. I never understood voters who said they made up their minds right before the election, in the past. Now, I’m part of that “semi-undecided” group.
 First and foremost, my voting decision and activism are entirely predicated upon one thing. I’m only interested in removing the evils and dangers of Donald Trump and any other political leader associated with his toxicity. My ideology is totally irrelevant to the discussion. And since I’m an ideologue, this is a significant departure in practice for me, something that’s very difficult to do.
 Every Republican — from the president down to local judges — must be defeated. Period. Exclamation point. Any candidate with an “R” next to their name is an automatic — FUCK NO. Indeed, I wish there was a “FUCK NO” box to check. I bring this up because the candidate at the top of the ticket has a huge impact on down-ballot races. The coattail effect will be huge in 2020 (i.e., there will be very little vote splitting, I believe). So, we need to get the top of the ticket right, by choosing the best candidate who will help the other races (which means keeping the House and perhaps even flipping the Senate).
 I strongly supported Bernie Sanders in 2016. He’s the closest in philosophically to my own politics. However, I have several serious and justified concerns with Sanders. While he has done wonderful things to educate millions of Americans about (democratic) socialism and he has energized many young people, I fear he may tarnish the movement from this point forward. I would be thrilled to be wrong on this point. But I’m not wrong in having concerns. If Sanders loses in the general election, Republicans would certainly maintain control of the Senate (ensuring another six years of McConnell) and there’s even some chance Republicans might re-take the House. If this happens, the consequences for our country and democracy would be utterly catastrophic.
 I’m glad Pete Buttigieg is in the race. He’s a fresh face. He articulates a centrist Democratic position, and I’m good with that politically speaking (though I don’t agree ideologically). His surprising success and national exposure will go a long way towards broader acceptance. I wish Buttigieg was running as a congressman, senator, or something other than an inconsequential mayor. I like having him as a choice, but don’t see any chance of supporting him at the caucus.
 I might get sick if Joe Biden wins the Nevada caucus. He reminds me so much of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign. If I thought Biden had any capacity whatsoever to re-energize his candidacy, I might be persuadable to supporting him or at least reserving judgment. But there’s nothing to jump-start here. He’s the old car battery that’s been sitting in the Dodge out in the driveway that hasn’t started in four years. Biden served his country well and is a good person. But he’s nearing his public service expiration date and would be a bad choice for the nomination. I can’t think of a single person excited about Biden’s candidacy. That said, given the dysfunction and corruption of the DNC and the role of superdelegates, I’m not sure he’s done quite yet.
 Elizabeth Warren will drop out of the race after Super Tuesday, on March 3rd. It’s sad really. She’s had a good ground game here in Nevada set up for more than a year. There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t get a call or text from the Warren campaign asking me to come to see her speak or lend my support. I actually think Warren’s Nevada campaign has done a good job, and I have the frontline experience to say that. However, these first two primaries have been devastating and she won’t do well in South Carolina, either (which is next). I can’t see Warren finishing in the top three here, which is what it would take to get her back in the race.
 I’m leaning towards supporting Amy Klobuchar in the Nevada caucus. I would measure this support at 60 percent certain. She’s more of a default choice at this point. She checks some key boxes — particularly on gender and being midwestern. I have some serious differences with Klobuchar on issues, but I’m willing to set those aside from pragmatism and practicality. Her third-place showing in NH was a breakout, and I really liked her speech afterward. That was the first time I’d seen Klobuchar catch any fire. I also like her personal story, which is now getting some press. She seems like the best chance to beat Trump at the moment, though I’m perhaps weighing the NH results too heavily.
 Finally, all of this could change. I’m disgusted with the Culinary Union here in Las Vegas, which is demonstrably anti-Sanders. The disgraceful and corrupt practices of the Culinary Union in the 2016 race, rescuing Clinton’s campaign which was floundering, was scandalous. Right out of the old Chicago machine political playbook. Now, they’re trying to torpedo Sanders, astoundingly under the guise that universal health care (Sanders’ core issue) would disrupt the negotiated health care plans between casinos and their workers. In other words, “WE GOT OURS–SCREW EVERYBODY ELSE.” That’s the Culinary Union’s position. I’m generally a huge supporter of unions, but this backstabbing on universal health care smacks of perversion. Read on…..
 If I arrive at my local caucus (The Lakes/ Las Vegas) and see the Culinary Union people there all wearing Amy Klobuchar t-shirts and marching around like Hillary Clinton’s failed flunky robots, I might bolt across the room and stand with the Sanders supporters in the caucus. I’m not sure how I will react. But I will have a very hard time standing with that union crowd against my ideological brethren. I hope it doesn’t come to this. I honestly don’t know what I’ll do.
 If anything I’ve written causes you to rethink your position, then that’s good. I hope by sharing my own conflicts and decisions, this might help others going through the same thing. Thanks for reading.
Writer’s Note: New Hampshire results are still unknown at the time of this writing. My random comments here are non-partisan and do not reflect support for, or opposition to, any candidate. As I like to say, political science doesn’t care about your feelings.
— If Bernie Sanders wins the NH primary, and he should win today, DNC and old guard Democrats will become even more panicky. They’ll attempt to create a moderate-wing firewall in the SC primary (coming in late Feb.), where Sanders floundered in 2016. In the meantime, look for establishment Dems to become more outspoken in their concern and criticism of Sanders in national media. They’ll openly question his electability in the general election. Hillary Clinton has already latched onto this “stop-Bernie” resistance. If Obama speaks out as well, that weight might be enough to stop Sanders’ momentum and kill his chances of winning the nomination. This division between liberals and moderates will likely turn ugly, especially given there’s still resentment from the way Sanders was treated by the Dem establishment in the ’16 race. This divide should be very alarming to those who oppose Trump in Nov. Should he be the nominee, Sanders will need the Dem party establishment and moderates. And any presumptive moderate Dem will need Sanders’ 25-30 percent voting bloc to turn out heavily in Nov. to win.
— Pete Buttigieg continues to gain momentum and has become the wild card in the Dem race. This is totally uncharted territory. Experience used to matter in elections, but Buttigieg’s thin resume might not be a factor as he improves his stage presence on the campaign trail, sharpens his message, separates himself from the much older candidates, and continues to attract followers. With little or no voting record, there’s not much to criticize (one reason presidential winners often come out of nowhere — Trump, Obama, Clinton, Carter). Buttigieg’s being gay won’t be talked about by his opponents but lingers as a serious concern as to his electability. Given minority-support is absolutely essential to winning the nomination, and Buttigieg lacks significant Black or Latino support at the moment, combined with those constituencies being more traditional towards gay acceptance, it’s difficult to foresee any path to the nomination for Buttigieg. The March 3rd primaries will determine if he indeed becomes the “moderate” firewall to stop Sanders. My projection is, his percentages will top out at around 25 percent and then fade after Super Tuesday. Just way too many obstacles here.
— Ideally, Buttigieg wants a two-person primary race — himself vs. Sanders or Warren. He believes he’ll win over moderates and establishment Dems while also pecking away at some percentage of progressives. This is Buttigieg’s best chance to win the nomination (Biden and Klobuchar dropping out). However, don’t discount Bloomberg in the race.
— Joe Biden’s support continues to fade at an alarming pace. He stands the chance of finishing fourth yet again (Biden was fourth in Iowa). This would have been utterly unthinkable a few months ago. Ex-vice presidents aren’t supposed to be struggling on this level. Typically, they’re way in front or among the co-leaders in early primaries. Biden has run a horrid campaign, so far. While Trump’s attacks and phony allegations of corruption would be a factor in the general election particularly when fueled by the conservative slime machine, the disinformation campaign has no impact on the primaries. What’s ruined Biden has been his own repeated gaffes and probably more consequential, his failure to excite voters and/or attract new supporters His debate performances were uninspiring. And now, Biden has gone on the attack, even running ads targeting Buttigieg. Who would have thought an ex-VP would have to resort to blasting a mayor that was polling at just 5 percent back in December? This is a sure sign of desperation.
— Biden looks doomed. He’s looked upon as stale. But he could stage a comeback should he somehow finish in the top 2 in Nevada, which demographically is a good state for Biden. The old so-called “Harry Ried political machine,” which put gave H. Clinton a primary victory in ’16 seems to be Biden’s biggest lifeline. This is a shame, really. Nevada is one of the final caucus states and party insiders hold all the cards. Nevada skews slightly older (good for Biden), is wielded to unions (good for Biden), has a comparatively small student demographic (good for Biden), and doesn’t vote as an outlier (good for Biden). If Biden doesn’t do well in Nevada, that will foretell of serious problems to come.
— Elizabeth Warren appears frozen at 15 percent. Her percentages look immovable at the moment, unlikely to lose much support but even less likely to gain new supporters since Sanders is (arguably) the current frontrunner and has raised a huge campaign war chest. Short of some coup ‘de tat within the party ranks designed to stop Sanders, using Warren as the last firewall, I don’t see a path for her to the nomination. Warren has also committed some self-inflicted errors in the campaign which will be difficult from which to recover. If/when Warren drops out, that sets up a fascinating scenario: Her support is likely to split, with ideological progressives going to Sanders while the more feminist #NeverBernie contingent latches on to the opposing frontrunner (anyone but Sanders).
— Amy Klobuchar desperately needs Biden to crash. And fast. If Biden bombs in the Nevada caucus and somehow Klobuchar pulls off better Super Tuesday numbers than her moderate rival, she could become the presumptive Dem establishment favorite. This would be key to gaining endorsements and campaign donations, which will be essential. She also needs a win somewhere come Mar. 3rd, if possible (Minnesota, her home state, would be a nice start). Klobuchar should be playing a long game here, a sort of horserace scenario where she runs 3rd or 4th the first half of the race and then closes strongly down the stretch. There’s some concern Klobuchar will be able to get into the top three, but comparatively speaking, she looks like the far better runner over Biden (and perhaps Buttigieg, also). The major question is, can she whittle away support from Biden (and perhaps Warren)?
— Andrew Yang is the Liberal-to-Moderate-Pro-Business-Social-Libertarian candidate in the race, holding at 5 percent. He’s unlikely to extend his percentages beyond that, but given his message has resonated with a contingent of loyal followers, he’ll be taken seriously for another month or so. Yang is counting on getting at least 10 percent in Nevada, and perhaps finishing 4th or higher, which would keep him in the race into the spring. Yang’s problems are Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg — all of whom will gain supporters as rivals decline. It’s hard to foresee how Yang factors in this race, other than tossing his support to one of the other candidates and having a small role as a novelty speaker at the national convention.
— Michael Bloomberg is running a most unconventional campaign, carpet bombing the national airwaves with ads and using his vast personal fortune to set up a formidable political organization. While Bloomberg is polling poorly, his message (“I’m the only candidate in the race who can beat Trump”) is likely to gain some traction. Bloomberg faces obstacles, namely his lack of personal engagement with Dem primary voters and his vast wealth which is looked upon in some progressive circles with suspicion. Bloomberg needs Biden to exit also, as quickly as possible, in an effort to become the presumptive moderate frontrunner. Bloomberg may also be counting on a brokered Democratic National Convention coming in the summer. He’s got the money to ride out a series of primary defeats and even fade the perception of irrelevance until he possibly comes out of nowhere as the compromise choice among delegates.
— Tulsi Gabbard should have done much better in this primary race as a candidate. Early on, Gabbard looked to be a JFK-for-the-21st-Century Democrat — youthful, vibrant, military background, ethnic, female, effective as a speaker and debater — but she never caught on and has been little more than a distraction in the race. Gabbard has no constituency in the party at this point and is presumably staying in the race to posture for name recognition and future speaking engagements. Big mistake by Gabbard in deciding not to run for re-election in 2020 as a congresswoman.
— Tom Steyer might be relevant here if it were not for Bloomberg, who has both a name and a resume. It’s difficult to understand why Steyer stays in the race, other than the chance to get some free press. He’s certainly sincere in his beliefs, but one would think it’s time to throw his “support” behind another candidate. He should be out of the race after Mar. 3rd.
— Final Thoughts: This should be a three-person race so far as serious contenders go, after Mar. 3rd. Sanders will be one of the frontrunners. The other two are expected to be moderates. Sanders has unusually high negatives within the party at this point, as insiders remain mistrustful of him as a bona fide independent and self-described democratic socialist, a socialist sheep in democratic wool. However, none of the moderates, aside from Buttigieg, generates much enthusiasm. Michael Bloomberg seems poised to be the unknown factor in this race, particularly if he can climb into contention with some delegate support.
A friend on Facebook asked me this morning why I chose Midnight Cowboy as a favorite personal movie. This does seem like an odd choice. It’s rather dark and depressing and not the typical film associated with inspiration.
I didn’t plan on writing this up, but since my answer wouldn’t fit into a simple post, I decided to create a new thread, and ultimately this article, which is admittedly very personal to me. I hope this will answer the question about Midnight Cowboy and its continued impact, 50 years after it was released.
Initially rated X when it was released, the film was shocking for its time. It was part of a tidal wave of cinematic creativity following the MPAA’s relaxation of restrictions and implementation of a rating system. I was eight years old when I saw it. Think of that in all its implications.
All movies are viewed with an impenetrable prism, and that prism is our own experience and perception. We filter all stimuli through our own screens, which inevitably distorts the reception of art. It’s why two people can watch the same movie — or hear the same song or look at the same painting — and come away with entirely opposite impressions.
My own prism clouds my judgment of Midnight Cowboy in a positive way. I had really cool parents, who exposed me to things when young that other kids simply didn’t see. They divorced when I was 2, but each took me to the movies, even R rated movies. Other kids were going to see 101 Dalmatians and Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. Meanwhile, my mother — a single parent in her 20s — was taking me to see films like Midnight Cowboy, Serpico, Patton, The Godfather. Same with my father, on weekends.
I mean, I was like 8 or 9 or 10. Those things make an impression. A powerful impression.
For me, Midnight Cowboy was really frightening at the time. New York City looked so scary. These two losers were selling blood, one was a male prostitute living in an abandoned tenement in Harlem. But there was also something quite beautiful about it. The love. The compassion amidst the chaos. The humanity on streets paved with indifference.
Now, let’s fast forward 45 years later and please listen to this story:
I don’t think I saw Midnight Cowboy again at least all the way through until an entirely accidental encounter and I’d like to share this because it gives such a (I hope) poignant perspective of how movies impact us.
My last working WSOP was in the summer of 2016. We worked 54 straight days with no time off, 16 hour days. Brutal on the mind and body. You have to go through it to understand. Trust me, the body and mind are wrecked. I came back home on July 16, 2016 and arrived at 5 am at home. 5 am. The sun was just coming up. Marieta had the door open to the house. She had just made morning coffee.
My mind was so wound up I could not sleep, so Marieta turned on the TV (at 5 am) and it was TCM channel and Midnight Cowboy was just starting with Harry Nielson’s famous “Everybody’s Talkin'” theme song. We sat there and for the next two hours watched this movie from start to finish that I had not seen in 46 years. I can’t describe it, but my memories of that morning are tearful. She had never seen it before, so this was oddly a joyous experience, being able to reconnect with something from my own past as a child and then watch Marieta as she too became absorbed by the oddest couple, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
That was my morning on July 16th, 2016, which also happened to be Marieta’s 55th birthday. And the day began at 5 am watching Midnight Cowboy.
“I write songs. Then, I record them. And, later, maybe I perform them on stage. That’s what I do. That’s my job. Simple.”
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: WEEK 8
DAY 50: Van Morrison at Montreux
“Smoke on the Water” (Deep Purple — 1971)
“Smoke on the Water” begins with one of the greatest guitar riffs in rock history.
“Dun, dun, dun dun-dun, dun-dun dun, dun, dun, dun-dun….”
Then the rat-tat-tat of drum cymbals come in, accompanied by a thundering bassline, which then launches into vocals that, until this writing project, I’d never really contemplated before.
I doubt many rock fans reading this who likely know every note of the song are quite as familiar with the backstory which led to the unusual lyrical narrative. Word-for-word, the true story is told of what happened during a deadly fire that broke out during a rock concert inside the casino ballroom at Montreux, Switzerland.
In December 1971 British rockers Deep Purple arrived on the shores of Lake Geneva to record a new album. The entertainment complex was part of the Montreux Casino…..
“We all came out to Montreux On the Lake Geneva shoreline To make records with a mobile We didn’t have much time.”
The night before recording was set to begin, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were playing at the casino. The scene got really wild. Someone in the crowd fired a flare gun into the stage cover, which suddenly burst into flames. The scene turned into chaos.
“Frank Zappa and the Mothers Were at the best place around But some stupid with a flare gun Burned the place to the ground.”
Deep Purple watched the bizarre scene from their hotel room. The entire casino complex and entertainment venue burned to the ground. Frank Zappa’s band also lost all their equipment in the fire. Witnessing the surreal experience, “Smoke on the Water” somehow materialized out of the ashes and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky.”
The entire casino and entertainment complex was gutted by fire. Deep Purple’s recording plans were ruined. With no other option, they set up a makeshift recording studio in the hotel and laid down most of the tracks for what would become their most successful album, titled Machine Head.
The impromptu song wasn’t expected to do much and was a reluctant addition to the album. It became Deep Purple’s biggest hit. Today, “Smoke on the Water” is honored by a sculpture along the shores of Lake Geneva.
Which now brings us to….Van Morrison.
Van made his first of 18 appearances (so far) at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974. He’s performed at Montreux more times than anyone, other than anyone other than B.B. King and Herbie Hancock. Van’s first of two live shows the first year ignited a bit of controversy when he screamed to someone in the audience to “fuck off.” Often cantankerous while onstage and obtuse to the extremes of disbelief, the debut performance is nonetheless, widely regarded as one of the best of his career.
During this week’s installments, I’ll be writing more about Van’s live concerts at Montreux, because there have been so many and such great music came from that stage. But first, it’s fun to know the real backstory of the special venue where all this takes place and its indelible impact on our rock n’ roll memories.
This song and soundtrack (posted here) have a great video collage of the 1971 fire.
DAY 51: “Street Choir” (1974 — Live Performance at Montreux)
After the Montreux Casino on Lake Geneva in Switzerland burned to the ground in 1971, the famed international jazz festival was in limbo. There were questions about where to hold the performances. There were also fears that unruly crowds might recreate the incident that inspired “Smoke on the Water.” But the real crux was rapidly changing musical tastes at the time, and a debate as to whether rock n’ roll, R&B, and other non-jazz acts belonged on the festival bill.
The Montreux Jazz Festival would quickly grow into the second largest of its kind in the world, thanks to the pragmatic decision made by organizers to broaden the invitee list to big names, some not commonly associated with jazz.
Fortunately for Van Morrison, his jazz credentials were solidly in the bag by 1974. He’d recorded numerous jazz-infused tracks, had an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz standards, released a transcendent smash hit album, Moondance that enjoyed rare crossover appeal with both rock and jazz audiences. And — Van played the saxophone!
Van and his hastily assembled band played two shows at Montreux in their first year. It’s inconceivable as to why these live shows turned out so well. The best explanation is superior musicianship, led by drummer Dallas Taylor, sitting in with Van for the first time. Taylor was the drummer for Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Van’s debut at Montreux is a juxtaposition of awkwardness and near-total withdrawal from rock superstardom which oddly metastasizes into par excellence. The four musicians onstage had barely even rehearsed together, yet they cover an entire set of Van’s original recordings, with no notes nor sheet music. It’s astounding to watch. Van is clearly in a period of transition here as a live performer. He’s abandoned all pretense of rock expectation, showing up on stage looking like a math tutor. There’s even a false start at the beginning of the track.
“Street Choir” was the only song played that night known to the audience. Fans expecting to hear “the hits” were upset, leading to an infamous incident that shall be discussed later. “Street Choir” was originally written as an acapella song, intended as the title track on an entirely non-instrumental collection. In fact, the entire album was to be acapella, which would have been quite a stretch to pull off. But Van abandoned the concept after a few sessions.
“Street Choir” ended up as the title track for the album His Band and the Street Choir, released in 1970 as a rapid follow-up to the success of Moondance. Van, already bitter towards the music industry, was infuriated when Warner Bros, the record company decided to rename his album without his consent. It was originally titled “Virgo’s Fool.”
Van’s gradual slide into loathsome anger at the music industry, which he often took out on his audiences, was well underway. Nonetheless, as the Montreux shows from the 1970s reveal, it’s all about the music.
Put on the headphones, crank up the volume, and watch brilliance on display.
DAY 52: “Moondance” (1970)
“It’s a fantabulous night for a romance…”
So writes and sings Van Morrison in “Moondance,” one of the most successful songs of his storied career, which was released 50 years ago this week.
Since then, “Moondance” has been covered by hundreds of different artists, of all genres — from harpists to sax players, from jazz and blues bands to the winner of last year’s Mongolia’s Got Talent. Really. They’re covering Van in Ulaanbaatar.
The title track on Van’s widely-acclaimed 1970 album, this song was considered an oddity that didn’t fit the norms of the day. The style of music certainly didn’t comply with conventional rock playlists. Indeed, rock-oriented radio stations were reluctant to play the track because it didn’t sound like a hit song with the usual instrumentation common to the most popular artists of the era.
Instead, “Moondance” was entirely jazz-infused, with its idiosyncratic timing, a standup bass, and Van’s offbeat vocals, punctuated with a swinging piano laced with brass. Fortunately, album-oriented radio was coming into its own as a force, and the staggering quality of content spread throughout both sides of the Moondance album became immensely popular, thus becoming Van’s first bona fide collection of solo hit recordings. “Crazy Love” covered by Ray Charles became a hit. “Into the Mystic” is also off the Moondance album. It is certainly among the most whole of “album rock” collections ever made, the sprawling sum of its parts greater than any single.
Indifferent to commercial tastes and appeal, Moondance did enjoy tremendous critical and popular success as an album but the actual track wasn’t released as a single until seven years later. It charted in 1977, making it one of the most unusual recordings in pop music history both for its duel release dates and staying power as an enduring record now five decades later. “Moondance” is the song Van has played live more times than any other original recording.
The song’s origins go back to a jam session in 1967 when Van was rehearsing in Boston. His pick-up band was covering an old show tune called “Lazy Afternoon.” Van began to improvise from that standard and quickly came up with the melody that would later become “Moondance.” He had no idea at the time it would reignite his career and establish him as one of pop music’s most creative yet unpredictable artists.
Here’s the original recording from the 1970 album.
As Van would say, it’s “Fantabulous.”
DAY 53: “Troubadours” (1979)
“Troubadours” is a gorgeous track off of Van Morrison’s 11th studio album, Into the Music. It’s a celebration of life and love laden with neo-classic instrumentation. This song and most of the album’s collection foretells the looming horizon of Van’s songwriting and music, which increasingly will become more introspective and spiritual into the 1980s.
When Van took the stage at the 1980 Monteux Jazz Festival in Switzerland just months after the album’s release, most in the audience were hearing “Troubadours” for the first time. Indeed, most of his band, which includes the great Pee Wee Ellis on sax, is performing live with Van in a spontaneous, unrehearsed setting. Throughout this stage performance, Van can be seen displaying uncertainty as to entry points and occasionally barks out chord progressions to his fellow bandmates. A few of his sidemen had been part of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, which backed Van’s albums and live shows in the early 70s (they disbanded in 1973). So, they were somewhat familiar with Van’s free-flowing format.
Also, note Van smoking a cigarette during the song.
We’re covering the “Montreux” period because it merits a closer and more thorough retrospective. His 1974 and 1980 performances were among the best of his career, though he’s far more subtle, even distant, from the typical rock routine. This too foretells Van’s evolution into a deeper more withdrawn state, which certainly alienated some audiences far more accustomed to flashy rock acts and the pizzaz of the disco period. Van is about as un-cool as he can be in this show, which (I believe) allows us to focus on the marvelous song structure and vocalization. One can almost see the patriarch of David Byrne (Stop Making Sense) in this clip. Byrne later noted Van’s influence on his own (anti-) style and faux act.
Van has played Montreux on 18 different occasions during the course of his storied career, mostly concentrating on jazz compositions, which is third in line to a huge list of greats which includes Herbie Hancock (27 times) and B.B. King (21 times). After the Montreux Casino burned down in 1971, the venue shifted around. However, this stage hosted many of the greatest performers and show in jazz history.
Rarely is Van ever upstaged, but “Troubadours” allows his band to flourish. Especially the piccolo trumpet. The song really takes off at about the 2:00 mark.
DAY 54: “Twilight Zone” (1974)
Van Morrison’s first live appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival was by all accounts a disaster.
Fresh off the stunning It’s Too Late To Stop Now USA-UK tour (which resulted in an ambitious three-disc collection many critics label as one of the greatest live albums on rock history), Van arrived at Lake Geneva in the Summer of ’74 with a scaled-back band and much more mellow sound. The Caledonia Soul Orchestra’s lush brass and string section were replaced with a simple keyboardist and bassist. Even Dallas Taylor, from Crosby, Stills, and Nash on drums couldn’t keep up with the crowd’s restless expectations.
Making the sour mood even more acrimonious, Van opted to perform unfamiliar material almost exclusively from the Veedon Fleece sessions, along with tracks which were supposed to be on the (later shelved) follow-up album. He skipped all his well-known hits, an omission that didn’t go over well with the audience. Moreover, Van didn’t seem to put in the same vibrant energy his fans were used to seeing. In Van’s defense, he presumed the more laid back “jazz festival” setting would be far more open to new music and sounds, but then quickly discovered he couldn’t escape the shadow of his own towering reputation as a dynamic live performer.
At Montreux, on a makeshift stage, Van played an esoteric setlist, which also included his sax solo and a harmonica solo. Then, for reasons unknown, Van took longer than expected to return for an encore, up to 10 minutes by one witness account. In the awkward void, an intoxicated fan jumped up on the stage and began yelling into the microphone, commanding Van to play his “hits.” Finally, Van arrived from backstage to do a rare encore. As the fan was escorted out of the venue, Van — in characteristic disdain of criticism that would mark his career as a live performer — barked out, “Hey, I’m going to play what I like, and if you don’t like it — go fuck yourself!” Almost as though to rub it in, Van and his three bandmates then closed with the instrumental “Harmonica Boogie,” and with that, the concert was over.
Sometimes referred to as the Go Fuck Yourself show (which became the title of the bootleg album before the actual live concert was released years later), the show opens with “Twilight Zone.” Note the awkwardness and lack of production in the clip. This is actually the first time (and song) Van had played with this band, which appears in other segments of the series because they are quite good. “Twilight Zone” is highly unusual as Van, typically a bass-baritone vocal sings in falsetto during most of the song. Van’s intentionally-mistuned guitar also adds a raw folksy feel to the sound.
“Twilight Zone” was an outtake from the Veedon Fleece album, which bombed both commercially and critically. This disappointment led to a three-year hiatus from touring. The song was later included as a bonus track on the re-issue 30 years later, which is now acclaimed as a collection ahead of its time, much in the vein of Astral Weeks. The studio outtake also made its way onto The Philosopher’s Stone, a 1998 compilation album.
DAY 55: “I Will Be There” (1972)
Van Morrison was heavily influenced by the classics, especially by what’s been called the “great American songbook of standards.” Musical icons included the Isley Brothers, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and many others. Morrison even cited country acts, including Hank Williams and the Carter Family as part of the foundation for his vast musical canopy.
Long before doing retro-recordings became chic, Van wrote a new song that was clearly inspired by Duke Ellington’s jazz standard from the year 1940, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” I haven’t seen anyone make the direct comparison; but to me, this original composition credited to Van is nearly identical in rhythm, melody, and timing. Van’s songwriting repertoire was overflowing with material by the time the Saint Dominic’s Preview album was released. He didn’t need to copy other artists. However, this track has the trademark Ellington sound. It’s unmistakable. Perhaps even something from the subconscious.
During the early 70s, Van was in the midst of his flirtation with many different styles of music. But he always seemed most comfortable within the R&B groove. This outlier of a recording, mostly forgotten now, fits in nicely with the other material on the album.
Saint Dominic’s Preview became Van’s most successful US-album all the way up until 2008’s Keep It Simple. Remarkably, it contains only 7 songs, but each has resonated with critics and fans alike long after the release date.
“I Will Be There” deserves more love and attention, and we’re delivering that today.
DAY 56: “Wild Honey” (1980)
Van Morrison was once asked to name his favorite album. He gave a surprising answer. From his vast pantheon of dozens of studio albums and live recordings, he chose the somewhat obscure and esoteric 1980 release Common One.
Indeed, Common One is one of those magical brews that takes time to process and savor. This is not a party album. It’s the disc you play loud while driving a long trip, or sipping a goblet of Port alone, reflecting. Its five disjoined tracks do not make for a concept album. There’s no prevailing theme throughout. Two of the songs are more than 10 minutes long.
“Wild Honey” doesn’t fit either, as a song or track on the album. It seems oddly misnamed. There’s nothing wild about it. It’s the slow dance song that comes on 15 minutes before closing time.
Two things stand out from this long-forgotten track — Van’s phrasing and the unique sense of timing, which seems slightly off, but fits perfectly, infused with the STAX-like horns.
Van closed out the 1970s with yet another album that was eviscerated by critics, but which today is looked upon with far more curiosity and appreciation.
Usually indifferent to criticism and openly hostile to commercial metrics, Van was greatly disappointed with the response to this album. Common One marks a demarcation in time, a transition from one era and sound to the next. This album buried Van as one of the decade’s greatest R&B soul singers and most gifted songwriters, but it stands today as a glorious tombstone and a proud exclamation point on a definitive chapter of the VM canon.
“Can’t you feel my heart beating, just for you….”
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Sitting here on Thursday afternoon in disbelief watching a live “speech” from the White House — a ranting, rambling, wrecking ball from a madman surrounded by ass-kissing sycophants, with more *I*s and *ME*s than an alphabet soup factory.
It’s stunning to witness the manifestation of a political cult in America.
Years ago, in his contrition speech, Bill Clinton apologized to the American people for putting them through the ordeal of impeachment.
Today, in his boast reminiscent of what we see in third-world dictatorships, Trump attacked…..
∙ Barack Obama
∙ Hillary Clinton
∙ Joe Biden
∙ James Comey
∙ Bob Mueller
∙ Mitt Romney
∙ Claire McCaskill
∙ Jerry Nadler
∙ Adam Schiff
∙ Nancy Pelosi
∙ Chuck Schumer
∙ “the top scum” of the FBI