Contrary to James Fallows’ lament, political coverage really is better this time

James Fallows. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Brookings Institution.

Strictly speaking, there is nothing actually wrong in James Fallows’ 4,000-word takedown of the political press, which has been the talk of liberal Twitter since it was published by The Atlantic earlier this month.

But to argue, as Fallows does, that we’re doing it all over again, and that Joe Biden is falling victim to the same irresponsible coverage that befell Clinton four years ago, is to misunderstand the moment.

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Album #5: McCoy Tyner, ‘Enlightenment’

I knew right away what I wanted to play Sunday morning as I thought about the life and death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. McCoy Tyner’s “Enlightenment” is one of three spiritually intense albums on this list, and it’s the one that speaks most directly to me. Recorded live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1973, it consists of four great musicians addressing the Almighty in as direct a way as you are likely to hear in this plane of existence.

Tyner, who died earlier this year, was one of the leading pianists of the 20th century. He was, among other things, a key player in John Coltrane’s classic quartet — the one that recorded “A Love Supreme” in 1964. I imagine Tyner saw “Enlightenment” as his own answer to “A Love Supreme” — and, truth be told, he doesn’t quite manage to equal Trane’s towering accomplishment. Who has? But I’m going with Tyner because I was introduced to “Enlightenment” when I was a teenager, and thus it resonates with me in a way that goes beyond “A Love Supreme.”

How to describe “Enlightenment”? It’s impossible, really. The bare-bones rundown is that the album comprises the three-part “Enlightenment Suite” plus three additional tracks — “Presence,” “Nebula” and “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit.” Tyner is all intensity and dense chords. The other musicians, saxophonist Azar Lawrence, bassist Joony Booth and drummer Alphonse Mouzon, are collaborators rather than accompanists — full participants in a common purpose.

Booth’s solo between “Nebula” and “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” is astonishing. At the beginning, he sounds like he’s groping for something that’s eluding him. But then he finds it, and what he plays is the closest to singing that you’ll ever hear on an upright bass. Much of the concert is available on YouTube; here are parts one and two. They are well worth watching to get an idea of the level of concentration and sheer physical effort that the band brought to bear.

(By the way, the other spiritually focused albums on the list are Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” No. 12, and Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace,” No. 22.)

I had the good fortune of seeing Tyner perform twice in the 1970s, at Paul’s Mall and the Paradise. He was a great soul whom we’ll all miss, but he left a legacy that will endure. I know that Justice Ginsburg’s tastes tended toward opera. But I’m sure she would recognize the brilliance and the connection to the infinite that Tyner, Lawrence, Booth and Mouzon made in Switzerland one day 47 years ago.

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Bruce Freeman Rail Trail

Eighteen-mile ride this afternoon along the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, from Acton to Chelmsford and back. I didn’t start taking pictures until the return trip, so this is north to south.

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Willowdale State Forest

I took a six-mile hike in Willowdale State Forest in Topsfield on Saturday. And for th first time in ages, I managed to avoid getting off the trail in the confusing northwest section. Beautiful day for a hike!

What’s next following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg meets President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Photo in the public domain.

On this day of national mourning, do yourself a favor and read Linda Greenhouse’s magnificent obituary of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in The New York Times. The accompanying video is outstanding as well.

So where do we go from here? During the Democratic primary campaign, Pete Buttigieg called for expanding the size of the Supreme Court as retribution for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal even to consider Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s choice to replace the late Antonin Scalia.

Buttigieg’s idea gained no traction then. But Joe Biden and the Democratic congressional leadership should go to McConnell immediately and make it clear that expanding the size of the Supreme Court from nine to 11 is exactly what they’ll do if he moves ahead with his grotesquely hypocritical plan to fill Ginsburg’s seat before Jan. 3, when the next Congress is sworn in.

Of course, they will then have to go out and win the White House and Senate and hold onto the House. Otherwise, even if McConnell agrees, he’ll turn around and ram through President Trump’s choice during the lame-duck session.

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The Globe’s partnership with Biogen raises potential ethical concerns

The Boston Globe has announced a partnership with Biogen in which the company’s 4,000 Massachusetts-based employees will receive digital subscriptions. “As part of the deal,” writes Globe reporter Jon Chesto, “the Globe will host two town-hall style discussions around topics of Biogen’s choosing.” In return, the Globe will be paid somewhere in range of six figures.

State House News Service’s MASSter List estimates the deal at $800,000 and warns that it is “rife with conflicts-of-interest concerns.” Indeed it is. I’m not especially worried that the Globe’s coverage of Biogen will turn squishy as a result of the deal, because it’s not really any different from the pressures news organizations are under to go easy on an advertiser — or, in the case of a nonprofit, a funder.

It all comes down to those town halls. How involved will the Globe newsroom be? Will the Globe’s promotion of those town halls cross any ethical lines?

Good for the Globe for finding another revenue stream, especially at a time when COVID is wiping out what was left of already-shrinking ad revenues. Nevertheless, this is worth keeping an eye on.

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COVID Diary #11: Back on campus, and feeling pretty good about it

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy.

It feels more normal than I had expected.

I’m writing this on Tuesday of Week Two at Northeastern University. I’ve taught five classes — two via Zoom, three in person. I’ve taken three COVID tests. I’ve been rear-ended on the Zakim, taken the commuter rail, gotten on the Orange Line and walked the three miles from North Station to campus. I’ve ordered coffee, including my first Starbucks since last March, which I’m drinking right now.

And yes, I’ll admit, it’s good to be back.

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Bright lights in Denver

After Alden Global Capital destroyed The Denver Post, everyone assumed it was lights out. A city that had long had two vibrant daily papers (the Rocky Mountain News closed down in 2009) now barely had one.

Suddenly, though, news sources are proliferating in Denver. Today the all-digital Denver Gazette makes its debut, joining an earlier start-up, The Colorado Sun. The alt-weekly Westword continues to publish.

The lesson, as always, is that when legacy media fail, entrepreneurial journalists seize the opportunity to move in.

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Album #6: Derek and the Dominos, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’

There are three albums on my list that are what you might call black-swan events — they are so much better than anything else the performer recorded that all you can do is gape in awe. One of them is Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (No. 12). Another is yet to come.

Today’s entry is Eric Clapton’s greatest moment as a recording artist. “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” is better than what he did with Cream and, sadly, far better than anything from his long, mostly disappointing solo career. Released in 1970, “Layla” is perhaps the ultimate guitar album. Clapton has never sounded better, pushed to unequaled heights by guest guitarist Duane Allman, who contributes stinging slide guitar. Solos are double- and triple-tracked; it can be hard to tell who’s playing what.

Clapton has always been obsessed with the blues, and he is at his best on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Key to the Highway” and especially “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” — all of which are grounded in an authenticity that’s utterly lacking from his derivative 1994 all-blues album, “From the Cradle.”

The title song, with its famous piano coda by drummer Jim Gordon (or perhaps, as I learned in researching this post, Rita Coolidge), is considered by most observers to be the best on the album. But it’s suffered from overexposure during the past 50 years, and I actually prefer some of the rave-ups co-written by Clapton and organist Bobby Whitlock. Songs like “Anyday,” “Keep on Growing,” “Tell the Truth” and “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” are so drenched in guitar heroics by Clapton and Allman that you feel spent just listening to them.

The vocals, by Clapton and Whitlock, are on one level some of the worst ever committed to tape; on another level, though, they add to the feeling of over-the-top chaos that pervades the entire album and makes it so exciting to listen to. Unfortunately, though the original vinyl struck me as bright and well-produced (by Tom Dowd), the CD I later bought and now the Spotify version sound muddy, even though it’s supposedly been remastered. The crystalline sound I remember from my teen years doesn’t quite come through.

“Layla” ranks a little lower here than it did on my Facebook list because the idea on Facebook was to list the albums that most influenced your music tastes. Here I am simply ranking my favorites — and as outstanding as “Layla” is, I’ve got five I like more.

Derek and Dominos only recorded one album and came to a bad end. Whitlock, like Clapton, is still with us and continues to work. But Allman died in a motorcycle accident. Bassist Carl Radle died from alcohol and drug abuse. Gordon, a terrific drummer, murdered his mother during a psychotic episode and was sentenced to life in prison.

For one brief moment, though, they made magic together.

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Album #7: Carla Bley and the Jazz Composers Orchestra, ‘Escalator over the Hill’

There are three albums on my list that I discovered because of great music writing. The first, Charlie Parker’s “Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes),” comes in at No. 14. Another will come later.

Today’s entry is “Escalator over the Hill,” a two-hour 1971 release written by Carla Bley and performed by her, the Jazz Composers Orchestra (which she co-founded) and a cast of stars. I discovered this remarkable album because of a review by Stephen Davis that appeared in either The Phoenix or Boston After Dark; I suspect it was the former, though I didn’t make a note of it on the clip that I kept. (For you alt-weekly trivia buffs, Boston After Dark became The Boston Phoenix, and The Phoenix became The Real Paper. It’s complicated.)

Davis describes “Escalator” as “a phantasmagoria of sound, imagination, and virtuousity,” and Bley’s writing as “a mingling of the immediacy of rock with the harmonic and thematic intelligence of jazz.” What music-obsessed 15-year-old could resist? Especially since you could order the three-record set, with notes, pictures and “a handsome gilt-letter box,” for just $12, not a lot of money even then.

“Escalator” was No. 5 in my Facebook list earlier this year. I’ve moved it down a bit. Great as it is, it’s just not the sort of thing I find myself listening to very often. It’s too big, too ambitious. The music comes at you relentlessly, in waves. How to describe it? A jazz-rock opera? (Or, rather, a jazz and rock opera; there is no jazz-rock on “Escalator,” thank you very much.) A “chronotransduction,” as Bley calls it?

I listened to “Escalator” in full this week for the first time in a few years. It doesn’t merely hold up. It sounds as fresh as it did when it was first released. The 13-minute “Hotel Overture” is as stunning a piece of music as I’ve heard, a gonzo big-band performance that ranges from a rather traditional opening to free jazz, anchored by Gato Barbieri’s screeching tenor sax.

And there’s so much more. Much of it is indescribable, but I should note that, among some of the finest jazz musicians of their era, we also get to hear Linda Ronstadt, nearly unknown at the time; Jack Bruce, a couple of years past Cream; and Viva, part of Andy Warhol’s entourage, who provides occasional narration with an utter emotional flatness will make you laugh.

A word about Bruce: He’s all over the album, and his singing and bass playing are among the highlights. Davis called “Escalator” “the zenith of Jack Bruce’s long and amazingly checkered career.” You could also say that Cream was not the best power trio Bruce ever played in; rather, it’s Jack’s Traveling Band on “Escalator,” in which he’s joined by Mahavishnu John McLaughlin on guitar and Paul Motian on drums (and Bley on organ). “Businessmen,” in particular, rocks so hard that there’s really no place else to go.

I could go on. But let me express my one reservation: Paul Haines’ maddeningly obtuse lyrics. Depending on my mood, I find them either hilariously inventive or hopelessly pompous and esoteric. The story is supposed to be about the weird characters who inhabit Cecil Clark’s hotel, set in Rawalpindi. But it really isn’t. Bruce and Ronstadt supposedly play the lead characters, David and Ginger — but that idea is haphazardly executed at best. Here’s a taste of Haines from “Detective Writer Daughter”:

Detective writer of English
She was once the queen of Sweden.
His father’s horse was something like a house
Dad was a German where they lived.

But never mind the lyrics, although you might love them. This is incredible music that stands up to repeated listenings — oom-pah music, Indian music, ominous noise, trumpeter Don Cherry’s atonal soloing, chanting.

I started with Stephen Davis. I’ll close with Marcello Carlin, who began a 2003 essay about “Escalator” with this: “So here I am, faced with the task of explaining and justifying to you the piece of music which I regard as the greatest ever made, the gold standard against which I qualitatively measure all other music, the definitive record which, 30 years after its original appearance, may still render all other records redundant.”

The greatest record ever. How can you resist? Oh, and did I mention that, for all its strangeness, “Escalator” is also surprisingly accessible? Set aside some time and give “Escalator over the Hill” a chance. Everything else is melancholy and industrial.

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