My Favorite Albums – Part 1

January 22, 2013

As a good, regular writing excercise I hope to write one post per week about a music album that has special importance to myself or the history of music in general. Please excuse me if I start to sound like a Bret Easton-Ellis character.

Now this may seem like an odd place to start given that Rubber Soul isn’t anyone’s favorite Beatles album (myself included) but I don’t think the album’s importance in the history of 20th Century American music can be overstated. Rubber Soul represented a massive leap for the Beatles musically and redefined the band’s career ambitions.

By December 1965, when Rubber Soul was released, the Beatles already had five enormously successful albums in just over 30 months. However, up until Help! the Beatles seemed to be largely content to be simply another popular band writing fairly straight-forward songs about love (actualized and unrequited) and doing Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly covers – which is not surprising given that they were all still fairly young at this point (Starr and Lennon were 25, McCartney was 23, and Harrison was 22). Rubber Soul represented the group’s attempt to step away from the teen pop genre and attain that ultimate combination: popularity and relevance. The Beatles’ lyrics would continue to address romantic love, however, in a more sophisticated and nuanced fashion. Furthermore, more philosophical themes became fair game (see “Nowhere Man“).

Musically, the Beatles extended their instrumental resources including the sitar, fuzz box bass, harpsichord, and  alternate guitar tunings not typically employed in popular music. Listening to certain tracks (“Norwegian Wood“, “Michelle“, and “Girl” standout) the album almost has an international feel, though remains primarily a popular folk album. The listener also gets the first hints of the Beatles forays into soul and psychedelia, experiments that would influence countless musicians (for better and for worse) in the decade that would follow, and come to in a way consume their own work as they became an increasingly fractured studio band working as individuals rather than collectively, slipping toward self-indulgence in their music and eventual dissolution.

But the new creativity exhibited by the Beatles on Rubber Soul was not without inspiration itself.

In fact, in a lot of ways the Beatles were behind the times before Rubber Soul was released. The Rolling Stones were growing from being simply a cover band to the forefront of new rock and roll with the release of “The Last Time” in February 1965 and “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” in the summer. The Who were set to release their first album at the same time and had “My Generation” out as a single by November with their first studio album to follow shortly. The Byrds were dominating folk rock (and befriending George Harrison). And, most importantly, Bob Dylan was dropping his folk song roots and receiving massive acclaim for Highway 61 Revisited. Rubber Soul was almost catch-up for the Beatles as well as an acknowledgment that musicians, not matter how many albums they’ve sold in the past, need to remain at the forefront of a movement or risk irrelevance. Of course when you’re playing catchup you are starting from behind, and a lot of Rubber Soul‘s contents (particularly John Lennon’s songs) owe a considerable debt to Bob Dylan, so much so that Dylan sent a (possibly) playful warning to Lennon with “4th Time Around” on Blonde on Blonde, a clear response to Rubber Soul’s best song “Norwegian Wood”, mimicking the song’s melody, song structure, and subject matter. That Dylan ended “4th Time Around” with “I never asked for your crutch, now don’t ask for mine” either scared the shit out of Lennon or made him smile, depending on whose account you hear.

(Dylan may also had a influence on the Beatles adopting a chemical component to fuel their creativity. It’s alleged that he led the group to try marijuana, which they smoked habitually by the recording of Help!. Also, some of them were regular LSD connoisseurs by late 1965 (no fault of Lennon’s, this was actually due to an odd, enterprising doctor who dosed Lennon and Harrison). As Ringo said: “There was a lot of experimentation on Rubber Soul influenced, I think, by the substances.”)

Either way Dylan’s imprint could be strongly felt on Rubber Soul from Lennon’s aforementioned witty and vengeful “Norwegian Wood” to Harrison’s anti-government “Think for Yourself“., and the post-romance “I’m Looking Through You” by McCartney. Even the emotional reminiscence of “In My Life” arguably Rubber Soul’s most enduring track, owes some debt to outside influences like Dylan. The Byrds can be felt on “If I Needed Someone” (also by Harrison) and the odd “Drive My Car“.

Despite these influences Rubber Soul remains a Beatles album, led by one of the greatest voices in music history (Lennon), a top-tier guitarist (Harrison), a multi-instrumental genius (McCartney), and oh, Ringo was there too. In December 1965 the Beatles’ importance would begin to match their popularity, and they would change the face of American music onwards.


Zero Dark Thirty and the Torture Debate

January 18, 2013

The new Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal collaboration, Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatic depiction of the 10 year hunt for Osama bin Laden has been subject to considerable controversy in recent weeks, primarily due to its depictions of torture of suspected al Qaeda operatives at the hands of the CIA and American allies. Critics have claimed that the film tacitly endorses the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, intimidation, and physical violence, through a) the unrepentant practice of those “techniques” by several key characters; and b) the role intelligence extracted through torture influences the (eventually) successful elimination of Osama bin Laden.

Let’s consider the first criticism, the willingness of the characters in Zero Dark Thirty to participate in torture and their unapologetic stance throughout the movie. The first sequence in the film depicts in graffic detail the waterboarding, restricted confinement, prolonged shackling in stress positions, and abject humiliation of an already severely beaten al Qaeda facilitator by a CIA agent/contractor named “Dan”. Dan is a serial torturer who repeats these tactics on several individuals throughout the film and at times laments the public and political outrage associated with the revelation of these acts as a constraint on a “necessary tool”. Dan quickly leads the squeamish protagonist “Maya” (Jessica Chastain) another CIA analyst and the key figure (she’s actually a composite of several individuals) in the search for Osama bin Laden, away from the sidelines into active participation in torture. While Maya never seems completely comfortable with torturing her detainees, her willingness to continue employing such tactics even in Dan’s absence does put the movie into somewhat of a moral grey area. Kathryn Bigelow creates a strong suggestion that Maya sees the use of “enhanced interrogation” as an unpleasant necessity in her increasingly obsessive quest to find bin Laden, which could easily be read as a tacit endorsement of the Bush administration’s torture regime. Add to that Dan is portrayed more as the comic relief in the movie than a menacing monster (he returns state-side because he’s seen “too many naked guys” – men he’s sought to break by humiliating them) and you have the potential for a toxic concoction. Bigelow is aware of this and has defended herself on the merits of artistic license:

“Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no film-maker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time… This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds …”

And Bigelow isn’t wrong. It isn’t unfair to assume that those CIA agents or contractors that participated in the torture of al Qaeda subjects whether in Bagram, Gitmo, or some black site probably remain remorseless to this day. Whether they should be wracked with guilt for the remainder of their lives is perhaps beyond the scope of this movie, and Bigelow isn’t necessarily required to add that epilogue. This is especially true given that there have been ZERO legal ramifications for those who orchestrated and perpetrated this systematic and unquestionable crime against humanity. People do not operate in a moral vacuum. In the real world people are morally flawed, and one of the key requirements of film is to accurately depict the human condition. I believe that Zero Dark Thirty does that. That isn’t necessarily a commentary from Bigelow on whether justice should be done in the real world.

The second criticism deals with the role played by intelligence gathered through torture in locating Osama bin Laden. This criticism, explored from the affirmative (Glenn Greenwald) and the negative (Andrew Sullivan), focuses on the permissibility of torture based on its efficacy. The argument goes that torture should not be used as an intelligence tool due to its inability to provide reliable actionable intelligence. Critics of the movie, including Greenwald, and the more eloquent Steve Coll, argue that Zero Dark Thirty creates a dangerous narrative by suggesting that the key piece of intelligence that eventually led to the location of Osama bin Laden came via the torture of one of his adherents. Personally I can’t see how anyone would disagree with Greenwald or Coll’s take that vital intelligence, the naming of bin Laden’s key courier who is hunted by Maya through the remainder of the movie, is depicted as having been derived (even if not directly) via torture. While Greenwald, Coll, and even Sullivan strongly disagree with the veracity of this narrative (they are joined by Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain who claimed the movies’ depiction of events is “grossly inaccurate”) the bigger question is whether that should matter. If torture did prove crucial in finding bin Laden, or even more broadly, could be found to be a reliable intelligence source in any situation, would Greenwald, Coll, and Sullivan still disapprove of its use? Should the key determinant of whether we employ torture be its efficacy? When the debate over the crimes committed in the name of the “war on terror” is framed primarily in this light it seems to me that a number of individuals who appear to be unwavering opponents of what were clearly crimes against humanity seem to be creating a bit of daylight in their otherwise steadfast positions – this is troublesome.

The utility of intelligence derived from torture should never determine whether the practice is accepted. Even beginning that debate seems to me to detract from the rudimentary reason for opposing torture in all its forms: it is morally reprehensible. A society built on the premise of the fundamental importance of legal and political equality cannot condone inhumane practices, whether performed on citizens or foreign enemies. Permitting its use in any situation creates a slippery slope that is difficult to retreat from. Some might counter that president Obama’s repudiation of Bush II’s torture regime is proof-positive that torture can be employed in exceptional circumstances without any long-term negative impact. Maybe at first glance this appears true given Obama’s strong rhetoric about the subject, however, if we look beyond the narrow frame of “torture” we know this to be false. The extension of executive power under Bush II has clearly proven tantalizing to even a “principled” man like Obama, who has continued Bush’s policy of indefinite detention without charge, and even extended executive power to the extraordinary policy of legalized extrajudicial killings of American citizens. Decisions were made after September 11 that have had an immeasurable impact on the freedoms we enjoyed, maybe even took for granted, and I expect that we’ll be living under these unique circumstances until those responsible for throwing our legal traditions out the window in the name of security are brought to account in a legal setting.

But I digress.

The overall point is that whether Zero Dark Thirty shows torture to be effective or not, and the veracity of the film’s claims are beside the point when we consider whether we as a society should endorse torture. Those who have framed the debate as such have maybe missed a larger point. The real danger in Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture’s utility and the callousness of the film’s characters towards its (in)human effects isn’t so much how it reflects Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal’s attitudes towards torture, but how such simplistic presentations will influence public opinion. The only proper way to counter this is through a difficult moral debate.

Going Deep

January 7, 2013

Anyone who knows me is well aware of my love of Italian food. The combination of meat, cheese and sauce that is typical in Italian cooking  is all I need for a great meal. So it goes without saying that I have a particular weakness for that staple of Italian cuisine: pizza. That penchant for  Italian flatbread turned into a full-on addiction with my trip to Chicago in September 2011.

My four-day stay in America’s Second City was to focus around three key Chicago attractions: the Cubs, the Art Institute of Chicago, and deep dish pizza. The experience at Wrigley Field was exactly as it was billed – an endearing record of baseball (and America’s) long and fascinating history. The Art Institute of Chicago allowed me to see first-hand Seurat’s breathtaking La Grande Jatte, one of the most important pieces bridging the gap between the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist schools of painting.

What has stuck with me most, however, was the deep dish pizza. Call me shallow. Call me a glutton. I don’t care. Yes, this is the confession of an unrepentent deep dish pizza junky. You won’t understand my love affair with Chicago-style deep dish pizza until you’ve ventured a taste yourself. And should you find yourself in the enviable position to sample this mid-Western delicacy, I hope you deal with the withdrawal better than I, cause I’ve been searching for a comparable pie, slice, anything, ever since.

Which brings me to Trevor Kitchen & Bar in the Saint Lawrence Market area of Toronto. Trevor Bar is the only establishment in Toronto offering true Chicago-style deep dish pizza. The rapidly growing slice-chain Pizziaolo has offered a so-called “deep dish” slice called the “Godfather” for some time, but I’m sorry to break it to you Pizzaiolo, a thick crust does not equal Chicago-style deep dish pizza no matter what label you throw on it. So, given the dearth of options around and my year-and-a-half itch for real deep dish, I ventured to Trevor Bar on Friday night.

The first thing to note, Trevor Bar is exactly what its name says: a bar (and a high-end one at that). There is a restaurant portion attached to the main bar, however, if you want deep dish, you need to eat at the counter. The pizza itself is offered by a side project called Parlour, started by the bar’s owner and executive chef Trevor Wilkinson. Parlour offered their deep dish pizzas, by delivery only, for a period in 2011 as a means of testing the grounds for a full restaurant.

Like Parlour, Trevor Kitchen & Bar only offers three varieties of pizza: the Classic (sausage, tomato sauce, mozzarella), Chicken (smoked chicken and goat cheese), and the Vegetarian (eggplant, peppers, mushrooms, and cheddar). Each goes for $25 which is a tad pricey for a pie that will feed two at best. Wanting a level playing field with my Chicago experience I insisted on a sausage-infused pie for my pizza-tasting partner (a deep dish virgin) and I, though the thought of piles of goat cheese did cause me to pause.

The pizza came hot from the oven about 20-25 minutes after placing our order. On first look I was quite impressed. The crust had  the true depth one would expect from a deep dish pizza. The pizza itself was a little asymmetrical as a result of being removed from the pan and served to us on a plate – an understandable decision given that we were being served on an expensive looking bar counter-top, though uncommon given my experiences as Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s East, and Giordano’s in Chicago. Part of me was disappointed to not have seen the pan it was cooked in, a minor quibble no doubt, but one that was there nonetheless.

The Crust

As for taste, the first thing I noticed was the crust. A deep dish pizza requires a crust that is relatively thin, yet can handle the weight of all the toppings piled on top of its frame. Trevor Bar’s contribution had a very solid, flaky crust that did a good job keeping the slice intact. The crust was crisp, though I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it pejoratively as hard. Like many fine deep dish pizza purveyor’s, Trevor Bar’s crust served its utilitarian purpose of holding the slice together without being a detriment to the rich taste of the toppings. Should Trevor Bar seek to go beyond the utilitarian and develop a crust that truly compliments the remaining components of a great deep dish slice, they should look to Lou Malnati’s butter crust, a flavorful, though heart-attack inducing, addition that could only help.

The Meat

Besting the sausage offered by a city that built its reputation on the basis of its role of butcher to America is by no means an easy task, though if any city in Canada is up to it, Hogtown should be the place. And, surprisingly, Trevor Bar’s deep dish concoction fairs very well in this area. The chunks of sausage are massive, perhaps the biggest I’ve seen on any deep dish offering, and offer a flavor that doesn’t attempt to overpower the sauce and cheese elements of this holy triumvirate. I was quite impressed!

The Sauce

While a good pizza will have a solid balance in the volume of meat, sauce, and cheese on a pizza, I tend to feel that too much sauce is always better than too little, and Trevor Bar falls well into the former category than the latter, which is definitely not a knock. What Trevor Bar’s sauce lacks is zest. I found the sauce to be fairly bland, adding little to the experience. Trevor Bar needs to take a cue from Gino’s East and add a bit more garlic and seasoning (some balance of black pepper, basil, and sugar) to bring their sauce up to snuff. The sauce they offer isn’t necessarily bad – it doesn’t hurt the pizza. But it doesn’t help it either.

The Cheese

Anyone who’s had real Chicago deep dish pizza knows that you almost need an electric carving knife to cut through the cheese. Typically a thick layer of cheese is placed over the pizza’s crust, with an additional layer of cheese placed on top to help hold all the toppings together. Why Trevor bar decided to forgo that initial layer beats me, though it may have something to do with the inferior cheese they seem to be peddling. Mozzarella is a very neutral cheese that should have a slightly milky taste. Mozzarella is meant to add texture to food, not overpower the other flavors it’s paired with. Unfortunately, in Trevor Bar’s deep dish the mozzarella has the aftertaste of a Burgundian cheese which is detrimental to the entire pie, almost unforgivably so.

Overall, with a change in the type and quantity of mozzarella used, Trevor Kitchen & Bar would have a fine deep dish pizza – a methadone that might keep the affects of my unrelenting deep dish pizza cravings at bay for at least a while longer. Until then, and until Trevor Wilkinson or some other entrepreneur decides to step up with a restaurant devoted to offering Chicago-style deep dish pizza full-time there will be a dearth of deep dish purveyors in the GTA. And this is a true missed opportunity. The expansion of gourmet Neapolitan pizza establishments such as Pizzeria Libretto and Famoso show that there’s a market for high-end options along with the traditional chains and local mom & pop take-outs. For the sake of my taste buds and those of all Torontonians, this needs to happen.*

* please note: if anyone, after reading this post, is involved with the establishment of a restaurant serving deep dish pizza in the GTA,  I will sue you for a million fucking dollars.