About Joni Mitchell

November 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Joni Mitchell is 75 today.

Fifty years ago, liking her music was so cool in 1968. But by the end of the century, that had changed, as I painfully realized when I saw “About a Boy.” She had become the punch line to a joke.

It’s not that Joni herself changed, though she did, nor that her music changed, though it did. But what had changed was the liking of her music. It has followed a cycle roughly similar to what Jenn Lena in Banding Together calls “genres,” from “avant garde” to “tradionalist.”

The boy “About a Boy” is about is Marcus, a twelve-year old who lives with his mother Fiona.

Marcus knew he was weird, and he knew that part of the reason he was weird was because his mum was weird.. . she didn't want him to watch rubbish television, or listen to rubbish music, or play rubbish computer games (she thought they were all rubbish), which meant that if he wanted to do any of the things that any of the other kids spent their time doing, he had to argue with her for hours.

She likes Joni Mitchell, and so does he. The two of them sing Joni Mitchell songs together. The scene in the movie — mother and son in the kitchen, singing not especially well — is painful to watch.

The political and cultural preference Marcus has adoptedfrom his mother do not do him much good outside the home, especially at his new school.

If he tried to tell Lee Hartley — the biggest and loudest and nastiest of the kids he'd met yesterday — that he didn't approve of Snoop Doggy Dogg because Snoop Doggy Dogg had a bad attitude to women, Lee Hartley would thump him, or call him something that he didn't want to be called.

Into their life comes Will (Hugh Grant in the movie), who makes it his mission to separate Marcus culturally from his mother, to transform Marcus into someone the other kids will not bully. He introduces Marcus to music that is more generationally appropriate, as in this clip.  (I’d embed it here, but the clip is Mystikal, and this post is supposed to be about Joni Mitchell.)

In the end Will is successful. The final lines of the book are reminiscent of the “K-Mart sucks” ending of “Rain Man.”

Will decided to give Marcus a little test. “Hey Fiona. Why don’t you get your music and we can all sing a Joni Mitchell song?”...

But Will was watching Marcus’s face carefully. Marcus was looking really embarrassed. “Please, Mum. Don’t.”

“But Marcus, you love singing. You love Joni Mitchell.”

“I don’t. Not now. I hate Joni Mitchell.”

Will knew then, without any doubt, that Marcus would be OK.

We Still Need a Queen — Now More Than Ever

October 31, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

As Durkheim noted long ago, the function of a ritual, regardless of its specific content, is to heighten group solidarity. So the important symbols in a ritual represent the group as a whole. Those symbols are objects, but they are also people — usually the group’s leader. That’s why America needs a queen. Or someone like her.

When Trump announced that we would go to Pittsburgh, the mayor asked him not to come. Many Jewish leaders said he should not come. Thousands of people signed a petition asking Trump to stay away from Pittsburgh. So did leaders of the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Nevertheless, he persisted. Thousands of people took to the streets in protest. The mayor and “the top four Republican and Democratic congressional leaders who were invited to join him all declined.” Not all of Pittsburgh’s tens of thousands of Jews opposed the visit. The Times reports (here) that “more than 40 ‘members of the Jewish community’" signed a letter welcoming Trump because they like his stance on Israel. Wow, more than forty.

If only we had a queen. Back in 2007, I wrote a blopost with this same suggestion. I had just watched the movie “The Queen..”

Most European countries, with their long histories of monarchy, have retained a nonpolitical figure as symbolic ruler of the country. In some countries (England, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, etc.) it’s an actual monarch; in others, it’s a president, who has only ritual duties, while the actual business of running the country falls to the elected prime minister. But in the US, we have this strange system where a partisan politician is also our ceremonial head of state.

The “partisan politician” at the tie was George W. Bush. Today “partisan” seems like too weak a word. Trump rarely tries to accommodate the entire nation. He likes winning. . . . and gloating about winning, waving his triumph in the loser’s face. And when he does try to be accommodating, he’s not very good at it.

The family of Daniel Stein, a victim of the attack who was buried on Tuesday, explicitly told inquiring federal officials that they did not want to meet with the president. They cited Mr. Trump’s comments immediately after the shooting that the Tree of Life should have had an armed guard. “It was just a worthless thing to say,” said Steven Halle, Mr. Stein’s nephew. “When something tragic has happened, you don’t kick people when they are down. There should have been an apology.”

“You don’t kick people when they are down.” Well, Mr Stein, maybe you don’t.

One other observation from that 2007 post now strikes me now as quaintly amusing.

An early scene in “The Queen” shows Tony Blair coming to Buckingham Palace. He has just won the election in a landslide, but he will not be prime minister until he kneels before the Queen and is officially requested by her to form a government. As historian Robert Lacey says in his commentary track on the DVD, “People feel it’s good that these politicians have to kneel to somebody to be reminded that they are our servants.”

The president, going before someone who symbolically represents the entire nation, and kneeling. Imagine that, if you can.

Why Not the Vest?

October 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yesterday, Trump blamed the Dodger loss on the manager, Dave Roberts. He shouldn’t have taken out the pitcher.
Trump also blamed the slaughter in Pittsburgh on the Tree of Life syagogue. They should have had an armed guard.

Unlike many of Trump’s statements, these are not lies or untruths. They are counterfactuals about a single event; there is no evidence that can tell us whether they are accurate. It’s unlikely that a similar baseball situation will soon arise. And if, in some future fifth inning, a pitcher who is pitching well tells the manager that he’s tiring, and the manager thinks about replacing him, will anyone remember this game?

Mass shootings are different There will be more of them in our future — this is America after all — so we will continue to search for policies to reduce the carnage. The armed guard idea is very popular these days, especially among gun lovers — the people who want to increase the sale of guns.  After every mass shooting now, they tell us that the only solution is armed guards.

 I suppose it’s worth noting that the police who arrived at the synagogue were armed, heavily armed. They were also trained, well trained. Their training and weaponry exceeded that of any guard a synagogue might have had. Yet four of the officers were wounded. Two are still in the hospital. Were it not for their bulletproof vests, police officers too might have been among the fatalities.  And therein lies the answer —  bulletproof vests.

The assumption behind armed-guard policy is that we cannot do anything about the shooters. We cannot change their psychology, and we certainly cannot —  must not --- do anything to limit their access to extremely deadly guns. In that spirit, and using the same assumption, I am offering this modest proposal: All schoolchildren, all worshippers, all those who attend concerts or popular clubs, all spectators at movie theaters and sporting events — they should all wear bulletproof vests.

When you go into a synagogue, they usually have a large box so that you can pick out a yarmulke and tallit if you haven’t brought your own. Imagine if Tree of Life synagogue had also had a box of bulletproof vests. Or if Steve Scalise and those other Republican legislators had had the good sense to wear bulletproof vests when they went out on the field to play softball. Think of the death and injury that would have been prevented. At clubs, the person giving you the little bracelet or stamping your hand could also give you a bulletproof vest. Schoolchildren would have a bulletproof vest at home to put on as they leave the house for the schoolbus.

The NBVA membership would burgeon. States would pass laws promoting the manufacture and sale. Think of the variety as fashion designers get into the arena. Bulletproof vests for all occasions, in all colors. Cute, pink vests for girls to match the cute, pink AR-15s they can now buy (I am not making this up.).

Yes, some people may choose to walk around unvested. But hey, some people disable their car airbags and don’t use the seatbelt. If these risktakers get shot, we will make the same argument about bulletproof vests that our president makes about armed guards.

A vested society is a safe society. That will be one of the slogans. Or, “You can’t stop a bad guy with a gun, so make yourself less vulnerable.” OK, I admit it lacks the macho fantasy element of the good guy with a gun, but that’s true of “shelter in place” and other parts of “active shooter drills.”  Anyway, the goal is the same, and the vests will be more effective.

I have seen the future, and it is bulletproof vests for everyone. What a country.

Make America Great  — and Safe! — Again.

“The Deuce” — Old Porn, New Language

October 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you’re old enough, it’s easy to spot language anachronisms in period TV dramas like “Mad Men” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I’m old enough. I notice the terms that we now take for granted but were nowhere to be heard in the wordscape of a few decades ago. (Earlier posts on these shows are here and here.) It’s much harder to remember the opposite — words and phrases from the period that have since disappeared, words that place the scene firmly in its historical context.

I’ve been watching “The Deuce” on HBO. It’s set in the  world of West 42nd Street circa 1970, with its pimps and hookers, strippers and porn merchants, cops and gangsters, and assorted others who plied their trade in that neighborhood. Nothing in season one seemed out of place, maybe because the episodes were written or overseen by people old enough to have been bar-mitzvahed by 1970.

In Season Two, Candy (Maggie Gyllenhall), has gotten into porn as a way to escape the dangers of life as a street hooker. She has gone from being on camera to writing scripts. In Episode 4, we see her at a shoot where an actor complains about his lines, and others support him. It’s bad even for porn, they say. Candy agrees.

“I’m gonna try to tweak it,” she says.

No, no, no. In 1970, people didn’t tweak scripts. They didn’t tweak much of anything, but if they did, it was an actual thing you could pinch with your fingers. In porn, it might have been a nipple. Anywhere else, it was most likely a nose. Nothing had changed in the 370 year since Hamlet.* It was only towards the end of the 20th century that people began tweaking less tangible things like systems, colors, or designs.

(Click on the image for a larger view. 
The graphs show the last few years of each period and the 
most frequent completions of the phrase "tweak the” for the entire period.)

Candy has ambitions beyond grinding out low-budget, poorly written fuck films. She wants to produce a film with multi-layered story, with characters, and with a woman’s point of view. She has come up with the idea — a porno version of Little Red Riding Hood — but she realizes that she doesn’t have the talent to write the script. So she meets with a writer. When she reveals what the film will be, she fears that he’ll reject the project. But she’s wrong. “It’s genius,” the writer says.


The trouble is that in 1970 (the year the writer of this episode was born), genius was not an adjective. It was a noun and only a noun. Even today, Webster online does not recognize genius as an adjective.

I know what people did not say in 1970. But what did they say? What is the language equivalent of the disco suit? The only thing I can think of is groovy.  Yes, there was a brief period — a few weeks back in the late 1960s — when people actually spoke the word without a trace of irony. But what else?

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* Who calls me “villain”? Breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? (II, ii)