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Better Than: Flag, Black Flag and possibly White Flag

By Tony Rettman
Village Voice Blog
June 23rd

In the summer of 1981, the Southern California band Black Flag went on a monumental tour of the U.S. where they unconsciously became the Johnny Appleseeds for the American Hardcore scene. From the Midwest to Manhattan, every fuck-up kid who witnessed their sonic assault and 'Tough crap if you don't like it' attitude on that tour more than likely started a band.

It is now the summer of 2012 and what do we got? Two different versions of the band touring the country. One playing the hits everyone wants to hear. The other playing a thermin. Where punk's past seems magical and organic, its present just comes off just bat shit whacky, no?

Outside the fug of old man reunion drama, we find ourselves at the NYC release party for Barred for Life, a book consisting of images of various ne'er-do-wells and miscreants from around the globe who don Black Flag's iconic four barred logo on their flesh like an official rejection stamp from humdrum normality.

The entertainment for tonight's event consists of an all-star band including not only Black Flag guitarist and vocalist Dez Cadena, but Todd Youth of Murphy's Law on guitar, Steve Soto of the Adolescents on bass and a Scissor Sister on drums. Yeah, still haven't figured that last one out...

But the fun thing here was the rotating line-up of vocalists for the night. A bevy of infamous NYHC front men got to take a stab at their favorite Black Flag tunes. Starting off the festivities was the chairman of the NYHC board, Jimmy Gestapo from Murphy's Law. In between his frenzy soaked renditions of "Nervous Breakdown" and "Wasted," he sat cross legged Masterpiece Theatre style on a crate whilst cracking jokes on the notorious gym shorts Henry Rollins used to don in the later years of the band. Within the three or so minutes it took to belt those songs out, he was out of there riding on a cloud of bravado and cheeb smoke.

The other highlight of the vocalists was Walter Schreifels from Quicksand. With all his wiry motion and angst ridden delivery, Walter seemed the closest in delivery to Black Flag's first vocalist (and current FLAG vocalist) Keith Morris.

But the cake taker of the night was definitely Paul Bearer of Sheer Terror. Prior to his spot on stage, I spied Bearer near the bar looking like his usual sullen self. At some point, two females flanked him on either side, smiled and greeted him. He still stood stone cold still whilst having a staring contest with oblivion. He eventually walked off to wait his turn to rock the mic. As I watch him do that trot to the stage, I knew that we were in for something special. He spoke about the darkened aloofness of Black Flag prior to launching into "Depression," a tune almost too fitting to Bearer's demeanor. The whole time he delivered the lines, he jerked and quivered and seemed to be the total embodiment of everything Black Flag stood for: lament, freedom, despair and twisted joy.

All the vocalists mentioned above and the others who sang throughout the night were set on a path of outlaw living by the various swings Black Flag did out to the east coast throughout the '80s. Watching these dudes celebrate Black Flag's music in this manner was way more exhilarating and true than any reunion you could be dragged to. But hey...maybe that's just me.

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Towards Collective Liberation: Reviewed on Sadie Blog

by Katy Otto
Sadie Magazine
June 28th, 2013

I first became acquainted with Chris Crass through a series of essays he wrote in various publications I read on the topic of confronting white privilege. I didn’t always know they were his pieces until I was finished reading them—they just spoke to some of the needs my burgeoning political development brought me, after introductions in college to a host of incredible women of color feminist thinkers and a desire to interrupt some very real race privilege and lack of consciousness in my own life.

Through more digging and discovery, I learned of Crass’s work with The Catalyst Project, and was able to go to one of his training sessions led in conjunction with many other organizers from that project at the National Conference on Organized Resistance, dubbed NCOR. When I learned last year that Crass was in the process of compiling a book, I was eager to read it—and happier still when Sadie suggested the review.

Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy has a cover that would place it squarely on infoshop shelves throughout the country—two interlocking gears comprised of people working in tandem. However, there is much in this book that struck me as completely different from any activist tome I’d ever read. One thing Crass does that I’ve never seen before is credit other thinkers and activists throughout the book—including key people who helped him to develop analysis he cites throughout the pages. This honoring of the work of others, particularly women, queer people, and people of color, is really refreshing in a world where so many radical and anarchist texts that make it to a high number of readers are penned by white, heterosexual, cisgendered men. I appreciated Crass’s consistent sharing of credit in this unique way, and I would encourage this practice among other writers.

The book begins with a forward by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, longtime mentor of Crass and workers’ rights visionary and organizer, and is divided into sections—Building the Anarchist Left; Developing Anti-Racist Feminist Practice; Lessons for Vision-Based, Strategic, Liberation Organizing Praxis; Lessons from Anti-Racist Organizing for Collective Liberation; and a conclusion, pulling together some ideas for an effective path forward. Crass’s knowledge of anarchist history and leftist organizing is vast, and he weaves it into a story of his own political and personal development. While some of the historical information on movements is dense, his passion for history is clear and helps encourage the reader along.

I was most moved by the personal descriptions and history of his involvement in San Francisco’s Food Not Bombs organization. The trials the organizers faced in doing their work to raise awareness of economic injustice, meet needs of the homeless and hungry, and build both a strong movement and a community with shared values and practices in pursuit of a better world. I could relate to the stories about conflicts within the group and the stress of trying to deal with sexual harassment within radical communities while simultaneously facing great state and police repression.

Most of all, one idea that Crass talks about throughout the book stuck with me—the ongoing desire to build the new world you want to inhabit within the shell of the old, knowing that this is a necessary step if you hope for the collective liberation you’ve worked for to survive. He underscores this by talking about overcoming crisis organizing—that is, always operating under duress, never being able to take the time as a movement, organization, or group to dream about what it is we want to build and create in addition to those things we know we want to end and tear down.

This is what makes Crass’s book such a vital read. It provides a balanced look at the value of historical understanding, ongoing analysis, imagination, self-inquiry, critique, sustainability practices, communication and messaging, and loving interrogation of ourselves as equally urgent components to building a groundswell social change movement. Crass is honest about his own mistakes and shortcomings, and humble in his assertion that we must be able to, not only face these head-on as organizers, but also to recognize that addressing ingrained systems of oppression within our own thinking is absolutely necessary to doing this work authentically.

I’d be curious to see the kinds of reading groups and discussions this book would engender, and I highly encourage activists, students, thinkers, and organizers who work on social change efforts together to read it as a group. In his book, Crass has given our movement(s) a great gift, and I hope we take advantage of it as a jumping off point for our own imaginations. Use this as fuel. I sure plan to.


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Court ruling praised, but not by everyone

by Bill Silverfarb
The San Mateo Daily Journal
June 27th, 2013

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act was much welcome news for local marriage-equality advocates but many said the ruling did not go far enough and other non-supporters blasted the ruling outright.

The Rev. Terri Echelbarger with the Peninsula Metropolitan Community Church in San Mateo has a large congregation of gays and lesbians, many who attended an early evening rally in Redwood City yesterday to celebrate the ruling.

“This is an awesome day for California and the other 12 states that recognize same-sex marriage. It’s one more step for equality, we can celebrate. And, there are still 37 states that treat its gay and lesbian citizens as unequal citizens,” Echelbarger wrote the Daily Journal in an email before yesterday’s rally. “God does not discriminate but our nation still does?”

While the San Francisco Bay Area may have some of the most welcoming churches for gays and lesbians anywhere in the world, not all clergy in the area appreciated yesterday’s ruling, however.

Pastor Brad Allen with the Victory International Church in San Mateo is one of them.

“I worked on the Proposition 8 campaign and am disappointed that a lawful and democratically enacted law was struck down as a 'burden' on the most affluent and best educated subset of the American population. This group already, and quite appropriately, enjoys all of the same anti-discrimination laws that protect every other group,” Allen wrote the Daily Journal in an email.

Allen thinks the ruling is strongly inflationary and will drive up the cost for all goods and services because businesses will have increased costs for additional spousal benefits.

But the biggest issue, he said, is adoption.

“All statistics show that children do best raised by their biological parents. Adopted kids do best when raised by parents of opposite sex. Kids being adopted into gay families will suffer the most,” Allen wrote in the email.

Married couple Derrick Kikuchi and Craig Wiesner, from San Mateo, published a children’s picture book titled “Operation Marriage” that tells the true story of a family with two kids who convince their mothers to get married during that brief window when it was legal.

It was based on a true story and shows the impact Proposition 8 had on the family and how the parents persevered, Wiesner said yesterday.

Kikuchi and Wiesner were married in their church more than 20 years ago and then married again legally almost 15 years later when same-sex marriage was briefly allowed in the state for less than five months before the passage of Proposition 8, Nov. 5, 2008. Proposition 8 was a voter-approved ballot measure that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Although many homosexuals in the state took advantage of that brief window, many did not, Wiesner told the Daily Journal yesterday.

“It was the people who were locked out that we were most concerned about,” Wiesner said about those couples unable to legally marry. About 18,000 same-sex couples married in 2008.

Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, married his husband, Dr. Dennis McShane, in 2008 and they have been a couple for roughly 30 years. He is also the state’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Caucus chair.

“In 2008, I had the privilege of marrying my partner of 26 years. This was one of the greatest days of my life, as we were finally able to stand together and say, in front of our friends, family and loved ones, ‘we are a family.’ This is an experience that many loving couples have been unjustly denied until now. We are not just a gay couple; we are two individuals who are deeply in love,” Gordon wrote in a statement after the court ruling was announced.

In San Mateo County, same-sex marriage licenses will be issued as soon as the injunction against Proposition 8 is lifted by the Ninth Federal Circuit Court, about 30 days, Mark Church, the county’s chief elections officer and assessor-county clerk-recorder wrote the Daily Journal in an email.

Proposition 8 was put on the ballot five months after the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage and four years after then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The state Supreme Court annulled the marriages, however, in August 2004.

People filled the streets of San Francisco for a good part of the day yesterday near the Civic Center plaza celebrating the decision and the city’s travel association contends it will bring even more tourists to the area.

“San Francisco is where marriage equality began in 2004 and, through the legal ups and downs, we have been a beloved location for weddings, commitment ceremonies and honeymoons ever since,” Joe D’Alessandro, president and of the San Francisco Travel Association wrote in a statement. “San Francisco looks forward to hosting weddings and celebrations for all loving couples.”

 

silverfarb@smdailyjournal.com

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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'We, the Children of Cats' by Tomoyuki Hoshino (Review)

by
Tonys Reading List
June 18th, 2013

This year was a bad one for J-Lit in the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, with no Japanese book on the longlist for 2013.  Over in the US though, one Japanese work did make it onto the (very) longlist for the Best Translated Book Award, the American equivalent of the IFFP, so with Japanese Literature Challenge 7 upon us, I thought it would be a good chance to check it out - mainly to see if the BTBA judges knew what they were doing :)

*****
Tomoyuki Hoshino's We, the Children of Cats (translated by Brian Bergstrom and Lucy Fraser, review copy from publisher PM Press) is a collection of the writer's assorted short works.  It offers us five short stories and three novellas (although one of the novellas is only 32 pages long), enough for the reader to get a good overview of Hoshino's style and themes.

The first story, 'Paper Woman', gives us an insight into Hoshino the writer, right from the very start:

"As I've continued my professional writing career, I've come to think of it as an art that wavers, like a heat shimmer, between joy at the prospect of becoming something else and despair at knowing that such a transformation is ultimately impossible.  One could say that a novel's words trace the pattern of scars left by the struggle between those two feelings.  Which is why a novel should never be seen as a simple expression of an author's self."
p.1 'Paper Woman' (PM Press, 2012)
This idea of transformations is an important one for Hoshino.  In fact, in this story, the transformation is a very unusual and literal one...

Another thing we find out about Hoshino from this collection is his fascination with all things Latin-American.  Whether it's a privileged tourist searching for something worth living for ('Chino'), a dangerous teen sent to Peru to avoid trouble with the law ('Treason Diary'), or a bizarre, tango-influenced novella in an unnamed, imaginary city ('A Milonga for the Melted Moon'), the writer returns to stories of tropical lands, with guerillas, dancing, poverty and football of the round-ball variety.  While it would be easy to ascribe Murakami influences to Hoshino's stories, in this case García Marquez is probably a more likely source.

Many of the stories look at outsiders fleeing from rigid, dull Japanese society, and a couple look at the idea of 'Japaneseness'.  The young man in 'Chino' knows that his attempts to transform into a Latino freedom fighter are doomed from the start:
"No matter how dirty I might look, I knew my travels were buoyed on that lighter-than-air aluminum one-yen coin. A mode of travel little better than drifting and staring: never to touch down, never to make contact with other worlds, never to dive right in. I knew my body stank of yen, and would show me up as an outsider wherever I went."
'Chino' (p.37)

On the whole though, Hoshino is more interested in minorities than bored rich kids.  'Air' takes a magical look at gender identity, describing a man and a woman who both fall somewhere in the middle of traditional binary gender descriptions.  Forced to keep their 'irregularities' secret, they eventually find each other (at a GLBT Mardi-Gras-type event), culminating in a gender-bending climax which leaves both in a new state.

Interestingly, several of the stories are based (rather loosely) on real-life incidents, with Hoshino providing an alternative take on facts.  The novella 'Sand Planet', the longest piece in the collection, uses the story of Japanese settlers in the Dominican Republic, and a mass curry poisoning at an elementary school (a news event I remember very well from my time in Japan!), to create a fabulous story of a journalist attempting to make sense of his life.  The events of 'Treason Diary' are also based in fact, as the two main characters were suggested by two teen criminals whose families spirited them out of the country...

As fascinating as the true(ish) stories are though, it is Hoshino's imagination and style which catch your attention.  From the frankly bizarre 'The No Fathers Club', a piece in which the eponymous club is suggested by a strange sport called no-ball soccer, to the mind- (and gender-) bending events of 'A Milonga for the Melted Moon', the writer creates incredible, uncanny landscapes.  The latter story is the strangest (and best) in the collection, and it is a difficult tale to follow at times, mainly because of the constant switch in perspective between the two main characters, a man and a woman who switch clothes, viewpoints and bodily fluids (and if you think you know what that means, you don't...).

It really is a question of where one person ends and the other begins, and the language used reflects this.  At times, words and sentences melt into one another, and the image created is of a slightly off-kilter world, recognisable but foreign:
"You and I both, as we walk this earth, are nothing more than shadow sculptures carved from light.  Everyone here is just light thrown by the city in the sky as it shines in the night. This city is so filled with light the night shines like the midday sun, the silver from the sky as it falls on the surface of the river builds up and combines with the new light falling from the sky, the proof is in the way the light comes not just from the sky but from the ground beneath our feet: no shadows trouble the surfaces of this city.  Instead they hang suspended, unmoored from the ground, and eventually turn back into birds, back into people."
'A Milonga for the Melted Moon' (p.186)
The final story of the collection is fifty pages of elegant confusion and madness, and it's brilliant :)

While two translators are listed, Brian Bergstrom does most of the heavy lifting (Lucy Fraser's 'Chino' is the exception), and he also provides a wonderful thirty-page essay on the stories to complete the book.  This afterword discusses Hoshino's influences and fascination with Latin America, and also examines each of the stories in turn, teasing out common themes.  It's an addition which helps the reader to understand where Hoshino is coming from, and another example of the kind of extras which can make a great book even better (if only all publishers of translated fiction did this...).

I loved this collection, and I'm very glad I decided to check it out.  Having also received a copy of Hoshino's novel, Lonely Hearts Killer, from the publisher, he might well turn out to be my next new favourite J-Lit writer.  If you're in the market for well-written, fantastical literary fiction, this one is for you :)



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Operation Marriage: A Child’s View of DOMA, Family Diversity

by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Shaping Youth
June 29th, 2013

With the repeal of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) sending whoops of joy among civil rights advocates throughout the nation and critics shouting about the upending of traditional values, it’s important to shine the spotlight with unity and clarity on how noisy, polarized media rhetoric impacts children, both in and out of the family diversity conversation.

As “All Children Matter” (FamilyEquality.org) reports, roughly 2 million children are being raised by LGBT families, and it’s not just the legal and social inequities that can harm kids, the media mud-slinging and incivility among adults who disagree on this topic can sear into the soul like a branding iron.

A new children’s storybook Operation Marriage by Cynthia Chin-Lee, published by our friends at Reach and Teach is a true tale told through the lens of a child, capturing the essence of how discrimination lands on kids with pain and confusion.  

The storyline? “Eight-year old Alex has a fight with her best friend, Zach, who says he can no longer be her friend. Why? Because “her parents (both women) aren’t married.”

You can see where this is going, complete with subtext and political Prop 8 lawn signs creating neighborhood tug-o-wars about banning gay marriage…It poignantly speaks to how children get caught up in the tornado spin of conflicting ideologies as innocent bystanders of sociopolitical jockeying.

Beautifully illustrated by Lea Lyon, characters Alex and Nicky urge their mothers to get married “while they can.” Operation Marriage received a Gold Medal in the annual Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, in the Spirit/Compassion category, for dedication to children’s books and literacy and for inspired writing, illustrating and publishing.

I enjoyed meeting the ‘real life’ characters at the Kepler’s book signing launch last year, and found the timeless over-arching theme of fairness and family diversity appeals to every age and stage, as the publisher aptly states:

“…Where there is love there is family; where there is family, there should be respect, dignity and support.”

So here’s my thinking as the DOMA deluge in media emerges this week and the Respect for Marriage Act is reintroduced to assure all married couples equal treatment for all federal programs and purposes:

Let’s raise a white flag in the name of all children, everywhere, to ask political pundits to surrender harsh verbiage and be “media mindful” of how epithets land on the youngest voices in our society.

These are children’s families being bumped and bruised in the political chess game.

Children have the least protection to process the negative spewage of venom and vile that’s become a talk show staple for profit and ratings.

Even if kids are not exposed directly to the baiting of media outrage, much like racism, any overheard adult fodder of intolerance, stereotypes and slams often gets parroted and perpetuated by peers.

So let’s ‘surrender to civility’ shall we? I see it as a first strike hit in the verbal arms race of media controversy…

Even if public opinion polls claim the freedom to marry is overwhelmingly positive by popular vote, there IS going to be a dust up…

Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie are hitting the cover of The New Yorker which in itself is being dissected by critics in pro and con critical thinking of why it is and isn’t a good choice to represent the human rights victory…

…The ‘are they or aren’t they gay’ cartoon convo…

…A social media post detailing when the cover art originated, (hint: a year ago) and countless parents’ rights conversations about letting kids be kids without having to explain so much, so often, so early. (separate post forthcoming on the role of media in social norming)

Then there’s the news that hit TV show Modern Family is considering marriage for Mitch and Cam…

And the so-called Hollywood gay agenda conspiracy that has “come out” in the press, along with  Glaad’s detailed infographic “paving the way on the road to marriage equality”…You see my point, right?

This all foreshadows some serious outrage baiting media warfare which could put children smack dab in the blast zone as collateral damage…Maybe media producers will ‘behave’ with civil discourse instead of polarizing hateful slurs…but I’d brace for a backlash.

Whatever your personal convictions are, please fact check your tongue before engaging, put the kids first, and use positive media to instill your own family values of love and universal truths.

Full disclosure, it’s no secret I’m in the “straight against hate” contingent, supporting family diversity of every race, creed and color…

I’ve purposely used media like the Berenstain Bears books over the years to be a springboard for socio-emotional learning, from empathy to life lessons…So in addition to resource roundups like “Modern Children’s Books Help Families Explore Diversity” and specific titles gleaned from Publishers Weekly newly launched “Openly YA Tour” here are a few facts to frame the macro lens on gay marriage and parenting from a wellness and public health perspective:

The American Academy of Pediatrics four-year study Promoting the Well-Being of Children Whose Parents Are Gay or Lesbian affirms,

“…children have similar developmental and emotional needs and receive similar parenting whether they are raised by parents of the same or different genders. If a child has 2 living and capable parents who choose to create a permanent bond by way of civil marriage, it is in the best interests of their child(ren) that legal and social institutions allow and support them to do so, irrespective of their sexual orientation.”

(Here’s the full AAP report from the committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health, Mar 2013)

As I watch an entire tribe of suburban teens dress up in rainbow regalia for this weekend’s Pride Parade (some gay, some not, none caring about who is/isn’t, but all united in a ‘freedom to marry’ human rights belief system) it heartens me to realize that youth have the courage and convictions to carry forth a torch of love over hate for the next generation…

Let’s hope youth get equal if not more media time than the blowhards and hate bait…“Operation Marriage” will no doubt continue to be a battleground for quite some time…

Sample book reviews from experts via the Reach and Teach.com site:

Children need a permanent and secure nurturing family to help them thrive. Decades of research have shown that children’s social, academic, and emotional development are similar whether they have two mothers or a mother and a father. Their parents’ marriage gives children the security and the legitimacy they need to dispel stereotypes and to thrive in school and society.” -Ellen C. Perrin, M.D., Division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, Floating Hospital for Children, Tufts Medical Center, Boston, MA

Even 3rd-graders know that commitment ceremonies are not weddings and domestic partnerships are not marriage. Operation Marriage shows how important marriage is to children and that they understand that anything less, is less than equal.”– Dr. Davina Kotulski,  Psychologist, Motivational Life Coach, and Author of Why You Should Give A Damn About Gay Marriage (2004) and Love Warriors: The Rise of the Marriage Equality Movement and Why it Will Prevail (2010)

Operation Marriage is a well-constructed, age-appropriate story with an appealing cast of characters. Spunky Alex doesn’t let her best friend’s abandonment get her down; instead, she enlists her brother in a campaign that is filled with humor-blasting wedding music throughout the house, making a fake wedding program-things that will ring true to all children who’ve found creative ways to beg their parents to do something for them.  — Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of Gringolandia a 2010 ALA Best Book for young adults. Click here to read the full review.

 

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Left of the Dial on Psychobabble

Psychobabble
June 26th, 2013

Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons compiles twenty-two interviews David Ensminger conducted for such landmark ’zines as Thirsty Ear, Maximumrocknroll, and yes, his own Left of the Dial. My interest in his book was sparked by the inclusion of a chat with The Damned’s Captain Sensible, so I was slightly disappointed when I saw how brief that conversation was and how many post-first wavers comprised Ensminger’s anthology. My disappointment melted when I realized how fine an interviewer our host is and how insightful and articulate his selection of punk icons is.

Left of the Dial offers a fascinating range of experiences from such subjects as The Dils’ Tony Kinman, a first waver who lays out a near academic history of Rock & Roll, and Minuteman Mike Watt, who offers a harrowing account of the illness that nearly killed him. The diversity is impressive too as we get perspectives beyond the white, hetero dudes who constitute the prevailing punk stereotype to dig the experiences of what it’s like to be Latino (El Vez of The Zeros), female (Kira Roessler of Black Flag), gay (Gary Floyd of The Dicks), or black (Freak Smith of Beefeater) in the scene. Ensminger is a good interviewer too, respectful of his subjects but not afraid to call out the somewhat prickly Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade about the apparent weakness of the 1992 comeback record Come Again or query Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records on her sometimes-criticized business practices. Best of all is a riveting mini-oral history of San Francisco’s Deaf Club, an actual gathering place for hearing-impaired patrons to feel the beat from such performers as X, The Dils, Dead Kennedys, and a performance artist who’d receive an enema on stage.

My only gripe is that Ensminger could have oriented the reader better by indicating exactly when his interviews took place. It was a little jarring to be reading along only to discover that 9/11 had just taken place or Bush had just invaded Iraq. But that’s a pretty minor quibble about a selection of interviews so readable that I guess they now qualify as timeless.


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Left of the Dial on The Arts Fuse

by Adam Ellsworth
The Arts Fuse
June 29th, 2013

In the introduction to Left of the Dial, David Ensminger writes that his “journalism-meets-folklore” writings on the now decades old phenomena known as punk rock are not attempts to “undo the myths” or “tear down the walls” that are associated with the genre.

Instead, it is his intention to “recreate punk on a human scale, person-to-person, and ask questions that flow like ticker tape in the back of my mind.”

With Left of the Dial, he has succeeded.

To be sure, the book is not an attempt to tell the complete, or even incomplete, history of punk. It is essentially a collection of interviews with a handful of punk rock’s leading figures.
Some of these interview subjects might be a little obscure, even to the more enlightened music fan, but that’s one of the book’s greatest strengths. After all, we already know what Johnny Rotten/John Lydon thinks about everything, right down to his preferred brand of butter, but how often do we get such revealing, informative interviews from Captain Sensible of the Damned or Tony Kinman of the Dils?

While the likes of Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), and Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE) will already be familiar to anyone who’s read Our Band Could Be Your Life, Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, or just about any other book on punk/alternative music history, Ensminger goes beyond questions of simple biography and discography to unveil some of these artists’ more unlikely influences and explore their philosophies on not just punk, but life.

In some instances, this strategy of eschewing backstory in favor of getting under the surface does slightly backfire, however. For example, I was particularly confused while reading the interview with Jack Grisham of TSOL, a band I simply don’t know that much about. Once I did a little research on the band’s history and its various iterations though, I found what Grisham had to say pretty interesting. I just had to work for it.

But a little extra work never hurt anybody, and for the truly committed music fan, an invitation to dig deeper is always welcome.

Ensminger himself is certainly qualified to go deep on his subject. Not only is he a fan and longtime drummer, he’s also a Humanities, Folklore, and English instructor at Lee College in Baytown, Texas. As such, he approaches punk with both his head and his heart, and he understands that punk is not just a style of music but, at its best, also a way of life.

Fred “Freak” Smith — illuminating on what was it was like to be a black punk musician.
The politics of punk get as much play in Left of the Dial as the music does. While there are certainly right-wing punk bands (not to mention white supremacist/neo-Nazi punk bands), they aren’t what Ensminger is interested in. To him, and to the musicians he interviews, punk is an inclusive, and basically left wing, community. And while the interviews in Left of the Dial were conducted over many years, and in some cases first appeared in other publications (including Ensminger’s own fanzine, also titled Left of the Dial), this ideology is a thread that runs through the book from beginning to end.

To his credit, that doesn’t mean Ensminger tries to paint a picture of punk rock as utopia. His interview with Fred “Freak” Smith, an African American guitarist who played with the DC band Beefeater, is particularly illuminating. “What was it like to be a black punk in DC?” Ensminger asks Smith during their Q&A. The guitarist responds,

Let us keep in mind that DC is what, 80 percent black, and this punk rock scene was fueled by angst-ridden white kids, a lot of whom I found out had fucking trust funds waiting for them when they became of legal adult age. Shit, I didn’t even know what a fucking trust fund was back then. It was very strange to be these “token negroes” playing in front of predominantly all-white audiences, but we did it. As Shawn Brown [singer of the DC hardcore band Dag Nasty] and myself will attest, there were fucking issues, man. A lot of fucking issues that we had to address when we did shows.

Interviewing Dave Dictor of MDC, Edminger asks, “Did you feel hardcore punk was less tolerant of gays?” to which Dictor responds,

It definitely wasn’t tolerant of gays on the whole. There were individual scenes that were more political and cooler; of course Austin, Texas, was probably as good and friendly of a scene and not as homophobic. We were very connected to the 1970s punk rock scene, which was more like a freak revolution than say, what started happening in the early 1980s, when a lot of younger kids got involved, like Minor Threat, SSD, and 7 Seconds. That was more like young guys in the crew that didn’t have a background in which they were into the Dead Boys or New York Dolls or into all that. That was one of the first divisions that we began to notice: people had different backgrounds. The original hardcore pioneers—Ian MacKaye, Kevin Seconds, most of those people per se—were not homophobic, but the fans they attracted [. . .] I would say were.

(In case you care about these things, it should be noted that Dave Dictor is not gay himself, but he has never hesitated to call people out for being homophobes.)

David Ensminger — he believes that punk is best when it’s open to as many different sounds and people as possible.

Obviously, no scene or musical genre is perfect. What’s interesting to Ensminger though is that there are always new bands coming along who are willing to use punk rock not just as a way to express themselves musically, but to create a more just world. The book ends with an email exchange between Ensminger and Thomas Barnett of Strike Anywhere, a band that formed in the late 1990s. As is often the case with email interviews, Ensminger asks long, wordy questions, and Barnett provides even longer, wordier answers, but at the heart of their conversation is the fact that punk can be a force for social change and that newer bands are part of a tradition that goes back not just to Fugazi, or The Clash, but to the pre-rock days of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

“I remember reading an interview with Tad in Flipside in the early ‘90s,” Barnett writes to Ensminger, “where he said, ‘Punk rock is just urban folk music.’ I agree with that and raise him all of the subversive and independent arts, especially conscious underground hip-hop, garage bands, and dance punk hootenannies. Some of the hardcore electronic shit, too.”

These are of course Barnett’s words, but after reading Left of the Dial, I’m sure that Ensminger shares their sentiment. From the questions he asks to the musicians he chooses to interview, it’s clear that Ensminger believes that punk is best when it’s open to as many different sounds and people as possible, and when it’s rallying for a good cause—even if that cause is just to be free from boring, corporate rock and roll.

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Left of the Dial on Pop Matters

by John L Murphy
Pop Matters
July 1st, 2013

Is Punk Rock Just Urban Folk Music? 'Left of the Dial'

Over 20 veterans of the punk scene, over three decades on, tell David Ensminger about their formative years and their chosen values. Fragmented identities, made up on the spot, might define their adolescent musicians for years and bands to come. Some wandered beyond what became the limits of punk and hardcore; others sustain punk’s eclectic, ornery energy. These accounts compile the intellectual and personal transformations attempted by punks from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, freed of the promotional message “via ratty fanzines” or the dutifully chronological approach of “box store biographies”. As the interviewer sums up his anthology: “These are the words of punk participants centered on the legacy of punk’s sometimes fuzzy political ideology, rupture of cultural norms, media ecology, networking and outreach aims, sexual identity and race relations, and musical nuances.”

Ensminger calls his contributors icons. None matched Joey Ramone’s or Johnny Rotten’s fame, but these clever, driven strategists detoured from the dreary dead end of a decade overwhelmed by Pink Floyd, Yes, and Led Zeppelin, when few up-and-coming bands played their own songs rather than covers by FM-radio monoliths who filled stadiums. Few indie bands, according to some interviewed, even existed (at least on the other side of the garage door); this may smack of hyperbole, but depending on the dismal conditions attested to by many here, it’s the impetus for this “secret history”.

Peter Case, with proto-punks the Nerves, vowed to break out: “We were going to do what the Beatles did, but our strip bar was across the street” in 1974 San Francisco. Ensminger’s focus often settles on California, but given the anglophile emphasis by Jon Savage in his influential account England’s Dreaming, first-person verification from the other side of the world proves necessary. As The Damned’s guitarist Captain Sensible favors, bursting out from the working classes, the band-driven impetus for musical and social change deserves a hearing lately dismissed by elitist trendsetters.

This tilt balances the supposition that American punk rock stayed suburban, middle-class, and white. Chip Kinman of the Dils and later Rank and File brought, as a young bassist, a Communist lyrical stance. He figured this would rouse Golden State audiences to confront their fears better than clichéd swastikas. Similar to Case, Kinman insists on a rootsier, vernacular, populist strain within punk that aligns it to folk, country, and blues music. He argues articulately for the first wave of American punk, arguably predating if not The Ramones than certainly Rotten, as already established by the mid-‘70s in San Francisco and Los Angeles. This oddball, offbeat phase, as L.A.‘s El Vez “the Mexican Elvis” or the denizens of San Francisco’s Deaf Club typify, comprises part one of Left of the Dial.

What soon replaced it in tract-home Orange County and the tonier beach cities of the South Bay, hardcore, sounds to Kinman like “machine bands” fixed on an unrelenting discipline and a forceful rigor, exemplified by Black Flag’s SST label in its Henry Rollins phase. As for punk, Kinman labels it the “last white popular music” as he laments its “overdocumented” archival status, and rock’s “self-referential” trap which stymies innovation. No wonder those from the early stages of punk remain true to punk’s unpredictable spirit—by refusing to mimic their own youthful musical molds or models.

Part two, and two-thirds of the book, shoves its way into a mosh pit of “sound and fury”. Mike Palm of O.C.‘s Agent Orange sprinkled surf instrumentals into punk anthems. Suburban surfers elbowed into hardcore’s mosh pits, to push aside the misfits they would have despised a few years earlier in the glitter-glam era when Hollywood and San Francisco punk staggered and flirted amidst gay bars, squatters, and the fringes of the art world such as the Deaf Club.

But subversive or gender-bending punk faded. A uniform of spiked hair, leather jackets, and big boots hobbled purported non-conformists. Representing the transition to the more violent, tribal hardcore O.C. mood of the early ‘80s, Palm praises Rodney Bingenheimer, the KROQ-FM Sunday night d.j. who championed the otherwise impossible to find import vinyl straight out of London, which preceded and then propelled the local L.A. punk scene. (This reviewer also attests to the kindness and generosity which “Rodney on the ROQ” unfailingly showed to his fans—at first very few of us in 1976. His show was our only local lifeline to fresh, startling sounds from abroad or from the late-‘70s underground, before the mass marketing of “alt-rock” by KROQ and imitators.)

The Minutemen’s stalwart bassist Mike Watt entertains with tales of how he and bandmate D. Boon traveled up from San Pedro, 45 minutes south, to Hollywood’s raucous concerts. With a shared love for Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blue Oyster Cult, their terse punk-jazz-folk compressed the idealism of populist punk as it embraced the two teens. Watt affirms: “I’m trying to live up to the personal utopia I felt in my life where I could play anything I want and D. Boon could help me. We don’t have to live up to anything.” Distanced from punk’s bohemian ambiance, but lured in, Watt and Boon settled in to a place (on SST) where CCR and BOC covers coexist with a frenetic, experimental band admiring their peers such as Wire or Richard Hell.

This genial tolerance, as with the plaid shirt sported by Watt in homage to CCR’s John Fogerty, supports Case and Kinman’s confidence (reiterated in typically reliable fashion here by Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, Fugazi, Dischord Records) that punk’s progressive ethos extends its instigators’  principled, D.I.Y. and anarchic aims. Participants agree that punk unity emerges from its diversity, its ambitions, and its open-mindedness. Watt sums it up: “Back in those days, if you considered yourself punk, you didn’t say ‘I’m punk.’ Now, people say, how are you punk rock? You look like my dad.”

Speaking of punk’s contrasts between participants and stereotypes, part of the fun of this presentation is playing its players off each other. Kinman reserves choice words for Jello Biafra; Biafra lashes out at his former bandmates in the Dead Kennedys. Ensminger holds Shawn Stern (Youth Brigade) to a couple of inconsistencies in his interview, while Kira Roessler (Black Flag) reminds readers of that band’s calculated non-conformity, reacting to the rigid expectations of its own hardcore audience.

Jack Grisham (TSOL) distinguishes the “attitude” of early punk vs. the “music” and the “look” of its later versions, which usually fail to innovate. Embodying the presence of such an innovator, Ensminger introduces Keith Morris (Circle Jerks, Off) via his “extended monologues” during concerts, as “he struts the stage like a well-meaning counselor and history teacher.” As a Texas college instructor and cultural scholar himself (and PopMatters columnist), drummer-editor Ensminger suitably examines the impact of less-heralded figures who continue to strive for experimentation and agitation within the spirit if not always the template of punk.

Apropos, Morris speaks of his affection for his former roommate, the Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Pierce heaped doses of “aggro” to pepper the Americana musical stew with earthier spices. This pungent blend seeps into an lengthy conversation with Really Red’s U-Ron Bondage. Ensminger as a “digital archivist” may let this meticulous contribution go on much longer than his other entries, but the long career of activist U-Ron, from the mid-‘60s Texas acid-psychedelic era through the Reagan years into Clear Channel and Vans Shoes’ commodification of skate-punk, justifies its inclusion.

Political, sexual, and racial ramifications feature within later chapters. Beefeater’s Fred “Freak” Smith from the D.C. hardcore-funk scene and Article of Faith’s Vic Bondi challenge hardcore dogmatism. Straightedge and indulgent factions contend; Ensminger strives for fairness in hearing out the conflict, if leaning far to the left. He pushes a few interlocutors to clarify or defend their claims. He favors the upstarts (after all, this is published by the anarchist-friendly PM Press) to foment small-scale, non-corporate action to spark wider change. Dave Dictor (MDC) surveys the takeover of the alternative movement by the big labels, and he may champion Obama, but he also hopes that the Greens will—eventually after the Democrats fail—replace the powers that be.

Left of the Dial reminds readers that before Green Day or Rancid, we had Fugazi, MDC, and DOA. The difficulty with this small-scale rebellion endures: how to sustain an audience and make a living from marginal music and radical stances. Many burn out or give in. The little labels themselves encounter difficulties, competing against the majors. Lisa Fancher, founder of Frontier Records who signed many early Southern California bands mentioned here, argues for her side in this complicated situation. Ensminger then appends three “notable persons” to give their testimony. Managers, rights, and royalties, as with any popular music study, play their part in who endures and who succumbs.

There lurk a few slips in transcription (John “Vox” rather than Foxx from Ultravox; “Beechwood” rather than Beachwood for the Hollywood avenue; “Red Cross” or “Kross” for the band who had to respell as “Redd Kross”). Nearly all chapters were previously published; beyond their original readership in fanzines and on Ensminger’s eponymous LotD magazine, some entries needed editorial clarification of band members or fellow musicians casually mentioned only by first or last name by those interviewed.

Minor faults aside, this compendium provides a fitting tribute to punk’s intellectual and political energy, harnessed to a friendlier, if assaultive, approach that invites in all to play and listen. Better yet, it encourages audiences to become activists, to participate for principled change.

It boils down to protest. Thomas Barnett (Strike Anywhere) nods to the Wobblies and Leadbelly. He cites a Flipside fanzine interviewee himself, continuing the chain of credit lengthened in this collection of voices from those who those stand over but not apart from the crowd. “Punk rock is just urban folk music.”


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Left of the Dial in the Indypendent Reader

by Blake Underwood
Indypendent Reader
July 15th 2013

One of the many takeaways from David Ensminger’s newly published Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons is that subtleties matter. Even the book’s title seems to ask us to examine the distinction between an interview and a conversation, which the author makes clear over and over again. Rather than yet another compilation of call-and-response style interviews, where figures from punk’s history are asked to answer the same context-free questions about why yesterday is more important than today, Ensminger has been able to create real dialogues. The conversations draw out a diverse, narrative history of an all too often essentialized subculture. And while expected names like Ian MacKaye, Jello Biafra, and Keith Morris are present, the list of conversations also includes names that will be much less familiar to many readers, including an “Un-oral” history of San Francisco’s short lived, but historically important show space, The Deaf Club. Each conversation is exceptionally unique, often with a level of specificity that will have readers taking notes to do their own follow-up research, but always providing new insight into the people and topics at each story’s center.

Left of the Dial is broken into two parts. The first, much shorter section, entitled “Tales from the Zero Hour,” provides a rather diverse array of perspectives on the “birth” of punk from its Rock ‘n’ Roll and New Wave parents.Yet, rather than mining tired territory on the hows and whys of punk’s evolution, these accounts go quite far to describe the musical, cultural and, to a lesser degree, political landscapes that existed in the spaces that early punks carved out, often before they even called themselves punks. Featuring, amongst others, Peter Case of the Nerves, Captain Sensible (aka Raymond Burns) of the Damned, and Tony Kinman of the Dils, the conversations cover the influences on early punk music, the almost accidental development of DIY (do-it-yourself) touring, and the first attempts at mainstream cooptation of punk culture. Ensminger’s distinctly personal questions means that the conversations are allowed to meander, creating narratives that are fascinating, yet rather difficult to summarize -- such as when Captain Sensible answers a question about the difficulty of international touring in the late 1970s, with a caustic anecdote about Patti Smith and the atmosphere around the infamous CBGB, one of the earliest venues to feature punk bands in New York City. However, where this style would pose difficulty with more narrowly historical documentations, here it shines. From the start, Ensminger treats his readers like adults, either knowledgeable enough to contextualize each divergent thread of conversation, or smart enough to seek and find the materials to do so.

Though heavily focused on bands formed in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s, the book’s second section, “Hardcore Sound and Fury,” attempts to follow punk’s lineage all the way through to the present. Opening with the likes of Mike Palm and Gregg Turner, of Agent Orange and the Angry Samoans respectively, Ensminger begins to unravel the development of hardcore punk, an amorphous term used to describe the more aurally aggressive and politically confrontational subgenre that came to dominate the scene, especially in the mid-to-late 1980s.

The conversations follow the same logic as those in the first section, allowing personal experiences and anecdotes to provide explicit references, but inexplicit answers to the broader, underlying questions that too often lose their power when answered with black and white clarity. A tactic that seems employed by the book as a whole.

For example, like many of its counterparts, Left of the Dial might be criticized for its limited inclusion of women, punks of color, and other marginalized groups whose influence in and on punk has been enormous. But Ensminger attempts to allow these narratives to shine through, while not necessarily highlighting them. To this end, the inclusion of Kira Roessler not only in the book’s contents, but also on its cover, stands out in bold relief. From 1983 to 1985, Roessler played bass in Black Flag, arguably one the most important bands in punk history.

Yet, many of the bands contemporary fans are likely unaware that the band ever featured a female member, much less one who played on the band’s last four LPs. But instead of the political pandering and essentialism that can too often be counted on in such a scenario, Ensminger’s conversation with Roessler is nuanced. Without blunt, tokenizing questions, she is able to speak to the sexism and prejudice that existed towards her while the band was on the road, while never seeming to summarize her role simply as “that girl who was in Black Flag.”

Similarly, Beefeater’s Fred “Freak” Smith briefly discusses his experience as a black punk in a DC scene dominated by white, middle-class men, with a type of candor that few interviewers allow for. And though Ensminger steers Smith in this direction, it is clearly with the intention of creating a round understanding of his subject’s experience, and not to simply check a proverbial box.  [Note: For those interested, Ensminger has done extensive documentary work on women and people of color in punk history. See links at the end of this review.]

The loose style of Ensminger’s conversations sometimes leaves the reader wanting to ask their own follow-up questions, perhaps about Tony Kinman’s seeming disdain for Jello Biafra, but one is rarely disappointed with the final product. Occasionally, an elaborated introduction seems called for, especially in the first section of the book where readers may need more background information to contextualize the personalities, but this is not a book aimed at the totally uninitiated. Those without a cursory knowledge of punk history will likely be lost, and those looking for a comprehensive historical document will be disappointed. Yet, the book closes with two interviews that really seem to convey punk’s broad, enduring influence.

Speaking with Dave Dictor of MDC and Thomas Barnett of Strike Anywhere, Ensminger creates a snapshot of punk’s power as a form musical, cultural, and political resistance to the status quo. Both long-time frontmen, Dictor and Barnett have used the stage, literal and figurative, to voice the constant critique that is at the heart of punk, even when that hearis itself the target of their critique.And we are able to find the foundations of these voices, unearthing the varied inspiration these men have found from such sources as Black Power politics, the hippie generation, anarchism, and their punk predecessors.

Because punk continues to maintain an ethic of self-reliance, while also understanding the need for evolution and even reinvention, Ensminger understands that these foundations and their narratives are invaluable. While even some of voices contained within will deny that punk continues to live and endure under new contexts and with new sounds, this book belies that notion. If today’s punks and their music looked and sounded the same as their predecessors, then the reactionary, antagonistic spirit of the culture would be all but lost. The fact that punk spaces continue to serve as sources of political and personal experimentation is a testament to the strength of those foundations.  The conversations in Left of the Dial speak to much more than the longevity of a particular sound or style, they speak to the very existence of a culture that has outlived those who declared it dead decades ago. Regardless of how long a record stays on your turntable, if it truly matters, its importance will outlive the ringing in your ears.

References:

http://blackpunkarchive.wordpress.com/
http://punkwomen.wordpress.com/
http://punkandpolitics.wordpress.com/
http://washingtondcpunk.wordpress.com/

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The Human Front Reviewed in Locus

by Russell Letson
Locus
July 2013

Ken MacLeod’s Sidewise Award-winning novella The Human Front first appeared as a PS Publishing singleton in 2001, and now is the centerpiece of one of Terry Bisson’s Outspoken Authors series from PM Press. There’s a ‘‘Plus ...’’ on the cover and title page, indicating the inclusion of a pair of reflective essays by the author, an interview conducted by Bisson, and an extensive bibliography of MacLeod’s fiction and non-fiction. The elements of the package interact nicely.

The MacLeod I first encountered through the Fall Revolution novels was wild and woolly and quite emphatically Out There, all exotic tech and wide-open-galaxy settings and gnarly post-human action. And, to be sure, politics. Lots of politics. The Human Front comes from the end of that period, but has a rather different atmosphere, an almost claustrophobic variation on the UK of the post-WWII decade, with its class tensions and barriers, shabby-genteel-to-industrial-grimy economy, and straitened emotional horizons – except it’s set in the 1960s and after. But the politics are still right in the foreground. This is an alternate history in which the Cold War was short-circuited in the late 1940s and by 1963 Stalin has ended up as a guerrilla leader (a dead one, in the story’s first lines) in a grindingly permanent international conflict that pits the Allies, now the old imperialist order, against Communist revolutionaries all over the world. The frame of the story is a bildungsroman, the memoir of John Matheson, a middle-class doctor’s son and eventual Communist partisan fighter, who at an early age sees something strange at the crash-landing of an American bomber of the type that proved a military and geopolitical game-changer by dropping an A-bomb on Moscow in 1949. As exotic as the saucer-shaped aircraft is, it is nothing compared to the four-fingered, child- or midget-size pilot whose leg Dr. Matheson sets, and whose very existence, the ‘‘two men in black suits, who weren’t ministers’’ suggest very strongly to the doctor, is to remain a state secret if he knows what’s good for him and his family.

That puzzle remains hanging over the mantelpiece for a long time while young John’s political involvement in radical left causes takes him ever deeper into the asymmetrical war against the old order, culminating in an action that brings him into contact with another Allied saucer craft and its differently-but-equally unexpected pilot. Then things open out considerably, though not quite in the expansive, space-operatic manner of the Fall Revolution novels, or Learning the World, or Newton’s Wake. Instead, we get a tour through at least one more genre familiar enough that John writes that its ‘‘tedious details... need not be repeated here.’’ Then things open out yet again and we end up in somewhat more familiar MacLeodian territory.

It’s hard to comment on the novella without unleashing a spoiler of some kind, but since the story is more than a decade old, it’s worth the risk. The story’s resolution – and the solution to the problems addressed by all the various modern political-economic-technological complexes at work in this world and others – is provided not by John Matheson and his comrades, nor by any forces in his world, but by intervention from outside – in this case, by descendants of the few survivors of the old historical-evolutionary meatgrinder, operating across multiple universes of possibility. The deployment of alternative futures, not just here but across MacLeod’s fiction, is telling – it seems to me to be a severely constrained optimism-in-principle, with no guarantee of success in practice: not ‘‘we could try X’’ so much as ‘‘we could have tried X – but we didn’t and probably won’t.’’ On the other hand, maybe somebody, somewhere or somewhen, will, and here’s how it might play out in some luckier or smarter scheme of things. There is nothing inevitable about progress. In the interview, MacLeod says, ‘‘To this day, British SF writers see evolution as a vast pitiless process that will eventually doom humanity, and US SF writers tend to see it as a chirpy homily to self-reliance.’’ Most of the results of evolution’s experiments, after all, are dead ends. (Compare Greg Egan’s view of evolution in Teranesia.)

The two essays, ‘‘Other Deviations: The Human Front Exposed’’ and ‘‘The Future Will Happen Here, Too’’, explore the genesis of the novella, the former outlining the geopolitical side (‘‘the world becomes Vietnam’’), and the latter the more personal. Perhaps perversely, it is the latter I find more compelling. Even before I read these pieces, I was struck by how strongly the geography, climate, culture, and politics of Scotland seem to have soaked into his fiction, and in ‘‘The Future’’ MacLeod acknowledges his uses of particular places, not just because he knows their textures well but because

Scotland’s streets and mountains, lochs and rain have shaped my own mind just as geological processes have carved the landscape itself. This place I live in is still the place I visit in dreams. I owe it that forming, that weathering, that uplift.

That lyrical note is as important to MacLeod’s voice as the speculative or dialectical or smart-assical, and it explains much of why I return to his work so enthusiastically.

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