Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 8, 2020

Bob Dylan’s $300 million dollar bash

Filed under: beatniks,capitalism,commercialism,fashion,music — louisproyect @ 8:38 pm

Well, I looked at my watch
I looked at my wrist
Punched myself in the face
With my fist
I took my potatoes
Down to be mashed
Then I made it over
To that million dollar bash
Ooh, baby, ooh-ee
Ooh, baby, ooh-ee
It’s that million dollar bash

–Bob Dylan, “The Million Dollar Bash”

Yesterday the NY Times reported on the blockbuster deal between Bob Dylan and the Universal Music Publishing Group. They acquire ownership of his entire songwriting catalog for $300 million. It was clear that the deal would pay off for both parties. Universal would benefit from the royalties paid by other artists covering his songs and from corporations using his songs to accompany their commercials. Perhaps Universal began to salivate seeing the new Volvo ad that has Pete Seeger’s “Hard Time in the Mill” playing in the background. It depicts a young couple trying to manage the job of caring for twin boy infants, changing diapers, etc. I doubt that anybody in the market for a $40,000 car will identify much with the lyrics but, then again, I am no expert on marketing.

Every morning just at five
Gotta get up, dead or alive
It’s hard times in the mill my love
Hard times in the mill

The FolkSongIndex website provides some background on the song:

The [textile] industry’s growth was based on a vastly expanding number of women and children in the mills. In the four textile states in 1890, men formed only 35 percent of the work force, women made up 40 percent, and children between the ages of ten and fifteen made up 25 percent. A seventy-hour workweek earned about $2.50 in 1885 and slightly less in 1895. At the same time profits were phenomenal. According to historian Broadus Mitchell, “It was not unusual . . . in these years to make 30 to 70 percent profit.”

I have no idea how or why Pete Seeger’s estate would have allowed his performance to be associated with a company like Volvo that would build a factory in a right-to-work state like South Carolina. As it happens, Volvo is owned by the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. in China. Given the Chinese preference for a tame workforce, it is doubtful that a union will ever prevail at Volvo, no matter the willingness to exploit Seeger’s pro-working class song.

As for Dylan, he is not a virgin when it comes to selling out. The Times article mentioned his promiscuous past:

In 1994, Dylan let the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand — predecessor of the current giant PricewaterhouseCoopers — use Richie Havens’s rendition of his 1964 protest anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in a TV spot. Fans, media commentators and even other artists reacted in horror; Time magazine wrote about the controversy with the headline “Just in Case You Hadn’t Heard — The ’60s Are Over.”

The Coopers & Lybrand spot was far from Dylan’s last commercial license: He did a prominent deal for a Victoria’s Secret TV spot in 2004, and later worked with Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi and IBM. Two years ago, he launched a high-end whiskey brand, Heaven’s Door.

Like most rich people, Dylan will undoubtedly (and his estate after he dies) make substantial contributions to the charities he favors like Amnesty International and the End Hunger Network. But what troubles people is the way that corporations exploit his reputation as a rebel in order to sell crap. Take the Victoria Secret’s ad:

Victoria’s Secret is a terrible company, allowing Jeffrey Epstein to use its credibility to carry out his crimes.

Perhaps we’ve reached the point where “cred” is only established by relying on the music of icons like Bob Dylan and Peter Seeger. Dylan, after all, will always convey rebelliousness just as Jack Kerouac still does for many undergraduates today. Even the ultimate bad boy William S. Burroughs figured out that there was money to be made from one’s reputation:

I should mention that Jack Kerouac got into the act himself:

Madison Avenue pays attention to anti-corporate iconography because it helps them market goods to the 18-30 year old consumer group. After all, unless you are an evangelical Trump voter in that sector, you too want to buy things that make you feel bold and special.

Was there any culture that was more hostile to the corporate world than the punk music scene? Take the Pogues, for example. This great Irish punk band was not only on the left politically but featured a singer named Shane MacGowan who abused alcohol and drugs. None of that got in the way with them doing a Cadillac commercial:

In 1988, Thomas Frank started a magazine called Baffler that sought to explain how capitalism was capable of co-opting the rebel. It stopped publishing in 1995, perhaps because it had become commonplace about the interaction. Frank relaunched it in 2011 as a general leftwing magazine that I subscribe to.

The original Baffler had the slogan “Commodify Your Dissent” that became the title of a collection Frank published in 1997. Have a look at an excerpt from the first chapter to get an idea of how they got to the heart of this most peculiar relationship:

Why Johnny Can’t Dissent

The public be damned! I work for my stockholders.
–William H. Vanderbilt, 1879

Break the rules. Stand apart. Keep your head. Go with your heart.
–TV commercial for Vanderbilt perfume, 1994

Capitalism is changing, obviously and drastically. From the moneyed pages of the Wall Street Journal to TV commercials for airlines and photocopiers we hear every day about the new order’s globe-spanning, cyber-accumulating ways. But our notion about what’s wrong with American life and how the figures responsible are to be confronted haven’t changed much in thirty years. Call it, for convenience, the “countercultural idea.” It holds that the paramount ailment of our society is conformity, a malady that has variously been described as over-organization, bureaucracy, homogeneity, hierarchy, logocentrism, technocracy, the Combine, the Apollonian. We all know what it is and what it does. It transforms humanity into “organization man,” into “the man in the gray flannel suit.” It is “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery,” the “incomprehensible prison” that consumes “brains and imagination.” It is artifice, starched shirts, tailfins, carefully mowed lawns, and always, always, the consciousness of impending nuclear destruction. It is a stiff, militaristic order that seeks to suppress instinct, to forbid sex and pleasure, to deny basic human impulses and individuality, to enforce through a rigid uniformity a meaningless plastic consumerism.

As this half of the countercultural idea originated during the 1950s, it is appropriate that the evils of conformity are most conveniently summarized with images of 1950s suburban correctness. You know, that land of sedate music, sexual repression, deference to authority, Red Scares, and smiling white people standing politely in line to go to church. Constantly appearing as a symbol of arch-backwardness in advertising and movies, it is an image we find easy to evoke.

The ways in which this system are to be resisted are equally well understood and agreed-upon. The Establishment demands homogeneity; we revolt by embracing diverse, individual lifestyles. It demands self-denial and rigid adherence to convention; we revolt through immediate gratification, instinct uninhibited, and liberation of the libido and the appetites. Few have put it more bluntly than Jerry Rubin did in 1970: “Amerika says: Don’t! The yippies say: Do It!” The countercultural idea is hostile to any law and every establishment. “Whenever we see a rule, we must break it,” Rubin continued. “Only by breaking rules do we discover who we are.” Above all rebellion consists of a sort of Nietzschean antinomianism, an automatic questioning of rules, a rejection of whatever social prescriptions we’ve happened to inherit. Just Do It is the whole of the law.

The patron saints of the countercultural idea are, of course, the Beats, whose frenzied style and merry alienation still maintain a powerful grip on the American imagination. Even forty years after the publication of On the Road, the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs remain the sine qua non of dissidence, the model for aspiring poets, rock stars, or indeed anyone who feels vaguely artistic or alienated. That frenzied sensibility of pure experience, life on the edge, immediate gratification, and total freedom from moral restraint, which the Beats first propounded back in those heady days when suddenly everyone could have their own TV and powerful V-8, has stuck with us through all the intervening years and become something of a permanent American style. Go to any poetry reading and you can see a string of junior Kerouacs go through the routine, upsetting cultural hierarchies by pushing themselves to the limit, straining for that gorgeous moment of original vice when Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” in 1955 and the patriarchs of our fantasies recoiled in shock. The Gap may have since claimed Ginsberg and USA Today may run feature stories about the brilliance of the beloved Kerouac, but the rebel race continues today regardless, with ever-heightening shit-references calculated to scare Jesse Helms, talk about sex and smack that is supposed to bring the electricity of real life, and ever-more determined defiance of the repressive rules and mores of the American 1950s–rules and mores that by now we know only from movies.

May 3, 2016

Richard Greener: a life in radio

Filed under: commercialism,radio — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

The interview with Richard Greener above was prompted by his commentary on the death of KGO, an AM station in San Francisco that featured local news and talk until it was bought by Citadel in 2007 and turned into a typical soulless syndicated programming automaton as former KGO on-air host Claudia Lamb put it in a Soundwaves article I sent to Richard a month or so ago.

Citadel, along with Cumulus, Entercom and Clear Channel (a.k.a. iHeart Radio) destroyed radio as we knew it. If you can’t stand to listen to radio anymore you can thank these companies. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed them to consolidate thousands of Mom-and-Pop radio stations into just a handful of owners. What was once a thriving marketplace of ideas and new music became a moribund feedback loop of homogeneity and satellite programs.

Richard summed up what was going on:

Thanks Louis…

I was one of 6 partners in US Radio, Inc., which was completely controlled by a limited partnership in which I was also a partner. All of this was more than 50% owned by a single investor, Ragan Henry. Ragan was a black attorney in Philadelphia. In 1985, when I was VP/General Manager of Radio Station WAOK in Atlanta, the flagship station for our group, Ragan called me and asked this question: “What is the price at which you cannot say ‘No’ to an offer to buy WAOK?” We sold WAOK, my radio station, for $4 million. This was the largest amount ever spent on what was called a Class 4 AM station. At the closing in Philadelphia I was heartbroken. I was losing my radio station. Yes, I was fabulously compensated. But my heart was broken. Money doesn’t count. At the closing table, Ragan leaned over to me and whispered: “I never fell in love with anything I’ve owned.” Well, of course not. That’s the difference between an investor and a broadcaster.

I spent 33 years in radio, including the last 7 years where I owned part of the company but was retired from active, daily management after my 4th heart attack. As much as I wanted to work, I couldn’t. Still, Ragan insisted I get paid. As a Director of the company I tried to stop my own salary and he ruled me “out of order.”

 From 1981 to 1996 we bought, operated and sold more than 30 radio stations from coast-to-coast, almost all Black Programmed. In the end, in 1996, we sold our last 18 stations, all of them to Clear Channel Communications. We made $219 million. Yes, I was a partner. Nevertheless, I was a broadcaster first. I know how Claudia Lamb feels.

That’s why the memoir I’m writing is titled, “The Last of the Radio Negroes.”

I have been thinking about the decline of radio lately largely because of my dissatisfaction with classical music programming on both FM stations and “the cloud” that are now accessible to me through a Sonos Playbar, a device that I bought to improve the sound of my flat screen TV as well as its ability to access Internet-based programming. With literally thousands of radio stations at my fingertips, I find myself as dissatisfied as I am with cable TV—the proverbial 500 channels and nothing to watch.

As I pointed out to Richard in the beginning of the interview, radio has been an important part of my life for more than sixty years as these vignettes would indicate:

  • 1952: My parents had still not bought a TV. In the evenings we sat in the living room listening to shows like “Mercedes McCambridge for the Defense” that was in the Perry Mason genre. My parents would sit on the sofa listening to the show as they read one of the ten or so magazines they subscribed to, including Colliers that featured short stories by Ring Lardner, Sinclair Lewis, J. D. Salinger, and Kurt Vonnegut. Once the TV entered our lives, the magazine subscriptions all lapsed.
  • 1960: I begin listening to WBAI over a high-power FM antenna that our TV repairman had installed on a tall pole in our backyard 90 miles from New York. I listen mostly to music, including Gunther Schuller’s amazing survey of 20th century music. Any resemblance to that station and today’s is purely coincidental.
  • 1966: I am living in Hoboken and studying philosophy at the New School, just across the river, mostly to maintain a student deferment from the draft. I usually go to sleep at 4am, having read Hegel or Kant all through the night as I listen to WNCN. “Listening with Watson” starts at midnight and ends at 6am. William Watson would typically start with the complete “Well-Tempered Clavier” by Bach performed on a piano by João Carlos Martins without any interruptions. Once the last record had been played, Watson would say something like “Wasn’t that wonderful? Let’s play it again” and he did.

I search desperately for something on the Sonos or the Boston Acoustics radio that sits on my night-table, a very fine receiver. All the classical music follows the same predictable pattern, drawn from the late romantic repertory. If I hear Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite one more time, I will be tempted to look into assisted suicide. Radio Survivor is a website that was started by Matthew Lasar, the author of “Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network”, and two other people who describe themselves: “We are obsessed with the future of radio and are charmed by radio historians, radio dramatists, radio bloggers, and anyone else who cares about radio as deeply as we do.” Lasar wrote about classical music programming today most eloquently:

I believe that contemporary classical music should be integrated into the larger classical music picture. Instead, most classical radio stations restrict themselves to a very limited and conservative version of the “common practice period” of classical music. You hear lots of Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart), and Romantic (Chopin) content on these stations, but not much else. Pre-Baroque content is filtered out because it is mostly vocal and most classical operations avoid music that foregrounds the human voice. Post-Romantic content is filtered for anything that smacks of twelve-tonalism, non-western scales, pop music hybridity, prepared instrumentation, and, of course, the human voice again.

The result is that your typical classical music radio station functions as a sort of a portable easy listening museum for the work cubicle. This is unfortunate and sad. Real classical music is the music of God, of history, of nations, of utopia, dystopia, empire, and revolution. It is a wonderful conversation about the past, present, and future of the human race full of tone poems, operas, sonatas, symphonies, song cycles, and solo performances. But for a long time San Francisco’s principal classical music station adopted the very odd motto “Everyone Remain Calm.” This has nothing to do with real classical music. Ludwig von Beethoven did not want everyone to remain calm. “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman,” Beethoven famously declared.


July 28, 2013

Spammers, don’t waste my time or yours

Filed under: commercialism,computers,crime — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

My readers may have noticed a post from the other day asking someone to stop posting what appeared to be legitimate comments from a page identified as spam in WordPress’s database. Since the comments did not have the usual “Excellent points you are make! I will definately bookmark you for future enjoyment” quality, I assumed that they were legitimate. As someone pointed out to me, the spammer took the trouble to find some text somewhere that plausibly corresponded to the content of my post. I should have taken WordPress at its word and simply deleted the bogus comment. Just now some other spammer has taken the same tack as evidenced by this comment being held in my spam queue:

Screen shot 2013-07-28 at 4.52.28 PMI googled the words highlighted above and discovered that they were first posted to Andy Newman’s blog. Some idiot spammer is taking the trouble to find some comment made elsewhere so that one of my readers will click his link. Doesn’t he understand that people who visit the Unrepentant Marxist are the most deeply suspicious people on earth, as likely to click such a link as they are to vote for Mitt Romney? I guess the url of the link indicates the level of desperation. Bodaideal.blogbyt.es comes from Spain. The unemployment there is over 50 percent for people in their early 20s. I would only advise my spammer to work for the overthrow of the capitalist system there. He will have much more success in that endeavor than tricking my readers into going to a website titled “Ideal Wedding”.

July 13, 2010

Harvey Pekar’s last appearance on the Letterman show

Filed under: capitalist pig,commercialism — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

November 3, 2009

Annals of rock and roll

Filed under: capitalist pig,commercialism,music — louisproyect @ 12:21 am

Bono wishes Bill Gates a happy birthday

From Harper’s Magazine Blog:

Sting: Obama, Synchronicity, Hypocrisy

By Ken Silverstein

The biography of a celebrity asshole, in three short chapters. Excerpts below all come from news stories published in October of 2009.

From the Associated Press, on Sting’s deep thoughts on Obama:

The former Police frontman said that he spent some time with Obama and “found him to be very genuine, very present, clearly super-smart, and exactly what we need in the world.” Sting, 58, said he’s hopeful that the world’s problems can be dealt with, but is frustrated that “we seem to be living in a currency of medieval ideas.” “My hope is that we can start talking about real issues and not caring about whether God cares about your hemline or your color,” he said. “We are here to evolve as one family, and we can’t be separate anymore.”

From EurasiaNet, on Sting’s visit with the daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, whose regime killed one prisoner by immersion in boiling water:

Tickets to see British singer Sting perform in Tashkent will cost between $1,000 and $2,000 dollars, organizers say. The former Police front man will play at the Alisher Navoi Theater on October 18 as part of Art Week Style, a fashion and art event masterminded by Gulnara Karimova, President Islam Karimov’s daughter. Even the cheapest ticket will cost more than 45 times the average monthly salary in Uzbekistan, the report notes. Previous entertainers at Karimova’s showcase include Rod Stewart and Julio Iglesias.

From Fashion Week Daily:

Sting made it all way to Uzbekistan for the event, where he joined beautiful Dr. Gulnara Karimova at fashion shows and beyond. The superstar closed the week with a concert at the Tashkent Sate Opera and two giant screens were positioned in the square outside the State Theater to accommodate all of those who couldn’t get tickets to the charity performance. And believe it or not, the entire city knew every word to nearly all the songs in the set.

June 17, 2008

Baseball and capitalism

Filed under: commercialism — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm

Willie Randolph: fired and humiliated

Last night, just around midnight, Willie Randolph—the New York Mets baseball team manager and first African-American manager in New York baseball history—was fired by the team’s general manager Omar Minaya along with two of his coaches. The firing took place in a California hotel during a road trip. The media had been predicting Randolph’s firing for at least a month since the team was losing more games than it was winning despite the third largest payroll in baseball.

On WFAN this morning, NY’s all-sports radio station from which Mets games are broadcast, the host was railing against the Wilpons, the team’s owners, and Minaya for treating Randolph in such a shabby fashion. Why did they have to wait until he was 3000 miles away to fire him? Mike Vaccaro, a NY Post reporter, described it this way:

This? This is unspeakable. These men couldn’t have been fired in New York, before heading on a plane and flying 3,000 miles to their doom? They couldn’t have been spared the ignominy of a public perp walk back east, their dignity thrown into their carry-on luggage?


Is this the best the Mets can do? Is this really what they are about? Can they really consider themselves a professional operation when they do the simplest task in sports, firing the manager, this wretchedly?

My response is that of course they are a professional operation. That is how the bosses routinely treat employees, as I discovered after I left Goldman-Sachs. One morning, about 15 long-time managers were escorted by security guards with all their belongings shortly after discovering that they could no longer logon to the email system in the morning. The humiliation taught the remaining management who was in charge.

Fred Wilpon: N.Y. Mets owner and tax cheat

Fred Wilpon, the owner of the N.Y. Mets (his son Jeff is co-owner), is a real estate developer. If you know anything about N.Y. real estate, you can only wonder why the Wilpons did not have Willie whacked by a mafia hit-man.

In 2002, Fred Wilpon and other real estate barons bribed the city’s property tax assessors to illegally slash their tax bills. The city’s finance commissioner said, “We found a definite understatement of value with these properties. We set out to revalue them using standard assessment procedures. The end result is a higher tax bill.” If you want another example of this kind of double-dealing, you should study the early years of the Cuban revolution. When Castro decided to nationalize some American corporations, he paid them the same amount that Batista’s corrupt tax assessors has assigned. When they squealed about how unfair that was, Castro reminded them that they should have never tried to cheat the Cuba people to begin with.

Evidently, the Wilpons were not just unhappy with the Mets’s performance under Willie Randolph; they also were incensed that he had the nerve to talk about the problems facing Blacks in professional sports.

In an interview with the Bergen Record, a New Jersey paper, Randolph was asked whether black managers are held to different standards than their white counterparts. He replied:

I don’t know how to put my finger on it, but I think there’s something there. Herman Edwards did pretty well here and he won a couple of playoff [games], and they were pretty hard on Herm. Isiah [Thomas] didn’t do a great job, but they beat up Isiah pretty good. … I don’t know if people are used to a certain figurehead. There’s something weird about it.

The Wilpons reacted to this as if it were a Reverend Jeremiah Wright sermon. After he was summoned to their office and bawled out, Randolph carried out what amounted to a Maoist self-criticism:

First of all, I want to apologize to Met ownership, SNY and my team for the unnecessary distraction that I created, that I caused the last couple of days. I shouldn’t have said what I said. It was a mistake. Simple as that, it was a mistake. There’s no excuses for that. No excuses for it. I’m owning up to it.

Randolph is not the only Met manager whose performance was put under a microscope. Minaya is in the hot-seat as well since he hired the expensive free agents who are underperforming.

Omar Minaya: Mets general manager accused of reverse racism

There is also a racial dimension to the flak that Minaya is taking since he—a Dominican—has been accused of favoring Latino players. A few years ago the Mets traded their pitcher Kris Benson to the Baltimore Orioles. His wife, a former model and dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, accused Minaya of building an “all-Latino” team. Although I had always favored the Mets, this was enough to turn me into a rabid fan, especially when one of the Latinos was Carlos Delgado.

Carlos Delgado: political progressive past his prime

Delgado, a Puerto Rican, has been deeply involved with the movement to stop Vieques from being used as a testing ground for U.S. bombing runs. He was also against invading Iraq. During the 2004 season, Delgado protested the war by remaining silent in the dugout when the horrible “God Bless America” was played during the seventh inning stretch.

Unfortunately, Delgado’s performance on the field is not on a par with his politics. Like a number of the very expensive Latino free agents that Minaya lined up, they were past their prime. This is the consequence of trying to buy a baseball championship. Right now, some of the top teams have the lowest payroll. Sooner or later, some wealthier team will purchase their top players but at the risk of buying a faded rose. In the off-season, Minaya managed to acquire Johann Santana, a Venezuelan two-time winner of the Cy Young award. Many commentators thought that Santana’s best years were behind him, however, and his less than spectacular performance this year might bear that out. Of course, the mediocre hitting of the Mets was a factor in several of his losses.

One other source of top Latin talent is revolutionary Cuba, where baseball players and other athletes are expected to shun big contracts of the sort that Santana enjoys. Since there is enormous economic pressure on Cuba, affecting even the elite, it should not come as a surprise that Cuban baseball players defect to the U.S. on a regular basis.

An alternative model

In a long article titled “Commie Ball: A Journey to the End of a Revolution” that appeared in Vanity Fair Magazine, financial journalist Michael Lewis reveals the slim pickings that face North Americans who want to exploit Cuba’s human resources:

For the 30 players who traveled with the Cuban national team, quitting Communism for the big leagues has been as simple as missing the bus or hopping the wall in left field. But relatively few Cuban players have left their island and almost none of the best. What has come to the U.S., instead, is a rattlebag of players past their prime, players in political trouble, players injured, and players who were never very successful in Cuba. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez escaped by boat in 1997, when he was in his early 30s, and became a star with the Yankees—but he had spent most of his prime in Cuba, and insisted that he never would have left had he not been banned from baseball by the Cuban government because his half-brother, Livan, had fled Cuba two years earlier. Gus Dominguez’s former client Rey Ordoñez, who spent seven years as the starting shortstop for the New York Mets, left Cuba in 1993 only after it became clear that he was blocked by better players from starting for his Cuban team, the Havana Industriales.

U.S. agents seeking to convince Cuban ballplayers to defect have a tough time entering Cuba, but the doors are always open for people who simply love the sport in harmony with the island’s socialist values. One of them is Kit Krieger, a former head of British Columbia’s 41,000-member teachers’ union. Michael Lewis reports:

There were no official Friends of Cuban Baseball, and so Kit Krieger became an unofficial one. “I have the largest collection of Cuban-autograph baseballs in Canada,” he says. “The second-largest is 31 million people tied, with none.” Once he went to Cuba with paper and pencils and schoolbooks; now he goes with bats and balls and gloves. He meets with team managers and players and league officials. He became close friends with Communist Party officials who shared his love of baseball.

It strains the resources of a retired schoolteacher living on his pension to medicate half of Cuba’s old-timers and equip some large number of young Cuban baseball players, and creates domestic problems in the bargain. “My wife thinks I’m being used,” he says. “And she’s right. I am being used. But so what? These people have nothing.” In 2001, to supplement his pension, he created a small company, called Cubaball, to introduce baseball fanatics to Cuba. Most of the people who go on these trips aren’t anyone’s idea of normal. They all know more than any human being should about Cuban baseball history, and perform, for the benefit of the locals, astonishing feats.

Michael Lewis is the author of “Liar’s Poker”, an excellent book about Wall Street financial cutthroats. He knew this world from experience, having started out as a bond salesman for Salomon Brothers, a firm that once employed me as well. In 2003, he wrote a book titled “Moneyball” that investigated the success of the Oakland A’s, a successful professional team that was under-funded, just like the teams that have shot ahead of the budget-busting N.Y. Mets.

With his fascination about price/performance ratios, Lewis is at a loss to explain how Cuban society works, especially within the baseball stadiums. It starts with the snack vendors who resist the temptation to rip him off when he overpays:

Up in the stands are three ladies with trays of peanuts and cookies and whatnot. I grab a few sacks of peanuts and some weirdly wrapped cookies and ask them how much for the lot. “Five pesos,” they say, and so I give them five of what the foreign-exchange lady at the Havana airport had given me. Wrong! I’d paid them 25 times the going rate for peanuts and cookies, and the ladies are so delighted and startled that they try to give me their entire store.

And it extends to the souvenir stands, or lack thereof:

What’s even odder is what is not sold: souvenirs. It’s hard to imagine an American baseball game without jerseys and autographed balls and bobble-head dolls being hawked for outrageous sums. There’s none of that in Cuba.

And to top it all off, there’s the players themselves who play for seeming peanuts:

Officially the players aren’t paid at all for playing baseball but for some other “job” they hold. “Coach,” say, or “sports counselor.” For their phony jobs they get 250 Cuban pesos a month. The 520 players in the Cuban National Series receive, in total, $60,000 a year. In theory, the entire Cuban league could be bankrolled with roughly one-seventh of the salary of a rookie big-league benchwarmer.

The rest of Lewis’s article is interesting, but contains the typical jibes at a society that does not operate on the profit motive. He accuses Cuba’s baseball players of supplementing their meager income with black market sales of sports gear, something he presumably finds reprehensible. One might hope that with his interest in Cuban baseball and an obvious affection for the Cuban people he might work for an end to the blockade which creates the economic difficulties that provide a fertile ground for the black market.

On Saturday and Sunday I like to run in Central Park. I always stop at the baseball fields on the east side of the park, near 102nd street to take in an inning or two of baseball. It is much more fun than watching it on television since you can stand very close to the action. I like to stand behind home plate and watch the ball speeding toward the batter. When he connects, there is a solid crack of the bat that television can never approximate. Plus, you get to hear the banter between the players, a very important part of the sport.

Pancho Coimbre

Last Saturday I stopped to chat with the manager of one of the teams and learned a bit more about the teams. They are organized through the auspices of the Pancho Coimbre Baseball League. None of them earn a penny but local businesses contribute to a fund that pays for uniforms and gear. In others words, these mostly Latino players are in it for pleasure rather than profit. As such, they have an affinity with the Cubans.

Coimbre played professional ball in Puerto Rico in the 30s and 40s. After leaving Puerto Rico, he played with the New York Cubans, who were part of the Negro Baseball League. Following his retirement Coimbre began managing teams in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean nations. It was in Puerto Rico that Coimbre discovered the great Roberto Clemente, who he helped recruit to the major leagues in the U.S. (Clemente died in a plane crash in 1972 while delivering goods to the victims of the earthquake in Nicaragua.) In the wiki entry on Coimbre, learn that he promoted an ideology that focused in the performance of the team, instead of the success of individual players. Coimbre died on November 4, 1989, when he was trapped in a house fire. The Central Park-based teams play in a league quite rightly named in his honor.

A September 5, 1994 Newsweek article explains the economics of the Pancho Coimbre league. Many of New York’s Latinos cannot afford the price of a ticket to watch the Yankees or the Mets. And the prices cited below are from 14 years ago. They are much higher today.

I make $ 7 an hour,” says Luis Rivera, 40, a cook who coaches a neighborhood peewee team. “I have four kids. If I go to the stadium, I can only take one.” It costs $ 29 a month just to watch most of the games on cable TV, and parts of the neighborhood still aren’t even wired for cable.

Given these harsh economic realities, they did what was necessary to satisfy their love of the sport:

Instead, Latino immigrants have imported their own baseball — and some say it’s better. Owners in the Paneho Coimbre Athletic League, named after a Puerto Rican star in the old Negro Leagues, put up $ 5,000 each to field teams of dazzling young players from around the city. A training ground for big-leaguers like the Blue Jays’ Devon White, Pancho Coimbre attracts hundreds of fans every weekend in Central Park. Its 71-year-old president, Jose Calderon, says the striking pros might learn something from organizations like his. “This league’s only for one purpose — to play ball,” he says from his beach chair behind home plate. “We have no drugs. No fights. If you want to have a beer after the game, you can have it. But not in uniform. If I see that, I’ll suspend them.” In Puerto Rico, Calderon says, the pros stay active in youth leagues and teach kids to play. Here the players demand even more money — while Calderon’s teams play on dirt and gravel. “In Yankee Stadium, we’ve got Latin guys making millions of dollars,” says Lueis Vazquez, who at 34 is one of the league’s retired legends. “What do they do with it?”

To watch the Pancho Coimbre teams in action, just go to Central Park on any Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It is a welcome break from the scummy world of capitalist sports.

March 21, 2007

Selling Out

Filed under: commercialism,music — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

(Apologies for not having posted material in about a week. Was tied up studying for a Turkish midterm.)

Long before Thomas Frank became famous for his “What’s the Matter with Kansas” book, he was the editor of something called “The Baffler”. This is a very witty and elegantly written left-of-center journal that has covered many different aspects of American society but mostly on how mainstream politicians and advertising exploited “hip”, “radical” or “countercultural” themes. One of the first companies to do so was The Gap, which hired William S. Burroughs for one of their commercials. Since his “Naked Lunch” was filled with scabrous descriptions of gay sex and getting high on heroin, it proved that an American corporation would do anything to establish “street cred” with its younger customers.

Thomas Frank: analyzed “hip” capitalism

“The Baffler” went out of business for a year or two about a decade ago when a fire destroyed its editorial offices. It then resumed publishing. Articles from the early days of the magazine are collected in “Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler”; used copies are available for less than $3 on amazon.com. Frank then followed up with his “The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism”. I guess that more or less exhausted the topic for Frank since he has not returned to it.

That being the case, I made a note to myself to say something about the latest manifestations of “Hip Consumerism”.

The first are the Dennis Hopper commercials for Ameriprise.

This is a pitch to people who wore long hair in the 1960s to set up an investment plan so that they can do all sorts of wild and crazy things after they retire. Of course, sitting at a desk writing memos all day and going home at night to a suburban split-level might not be so wild and crazy, but at least you can fantasize about what you might be able to do after you retire. Watching your investment dollars grow is of course a sure-fire way to spur one’s imagination. Back in the 60s, of course, people didn’t plan for the future. They lived for the day.

As the motorcycle riding outlaw in “Easy Rider,” Hopper personified that desire to live for the moment. But in real life, he was not all that different from the aging baby boomers. He gave up drugs and alcohol over 20 years ago and nowadays his biggest passions are golf and the Republican Party. As a matter of fact, one of his latest dramatic roles is far more reflective of his character than “Easy Rider” or the Ameritrade commercial that tries to exploit his rebel image:

Ottawa Citizen, September 16, 2005 Friday Final Edition

Closet-Republican Hopper jumped at E-Ring script

By Gail Shister

“People would be surprised to know that,” says Hopper, maverick star and director of the ’69 hippie-stoners-on-bikes classic, Easy Rider.

“I’ve been a Republican since Reagan. I voted for Bush and his father. I don’t tell a lot of people, because I live in a city where somebody who voted for Bush is really an outcast.”

One of Hollywood’s legendary “enfants terribles,” Hopper, 69, is so straight now it’s almost scary.

He’s been sober for 22 years. He plays golf. He wears suits and ties. And now he’s starring in his first prime-time series — Jerry Bruckheimer’s new Pentagon drama, E-Ring, premiering Wednesday (NBC, Global, 9 p.m.).

Hopper plays army Col. McNulty, a Vietnam vet and real estate tycoon who’s lured out of retirement to return to the Pentagon. It’s no surprise McNulty is a colourful character. “He’ll be doing a football pool in one hand and selling a condo in the other, while running a top-secret op at the same time,” Hopper says.

I can’t say that I am that upset about Hopper “selling out” since I never thought that much of him to begin with. Along with Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro, he seems intent on recycling a bunch of tics that he was identified with early on in his career. I guess that’s what sells movie tickets.

Dennis Hopper: golf-playing Republican

Of far more concern to me is hearing “Blindness”, a song by The Fall, used in a commercial for a Mitsubishi SUV as seen on Youtube. (You can see a full live performance of “Blindness” there.) The Fall’s lead singer is Mark E. Smith, who unlike Hopper, has never stopped taking drugs or alcohol as should be obvious from the Youtube performance. Nor has he ever bought into the values of bourgeois society.

Mark E. Smith: Mitsubishi salesman

I own perhaps a dozen albums by The Fall and rank them as one of the finest rock bands of all time. They emerged out of the English punk scene but had a somewhat different sensibility. Where other bands tried to outdo each other in appearing outrageous on stage, Smith and his band members were far more interested in the performance itself–almost like classical musicians.

The Fall were never political as groups like The Clash. Mark E. Smith’s lyrics were far more elliptical and had much more in common with surrealism than agitprop (admittedly the two overlapped once upon a time.) Mostly they had a way of stretching one’s mind, like the best Dylan songs. Here’s one of my favorites. It seems awfully relevant to the Ameriprise and Mitsubishi commercials:

Everything you see you want.
Go to clubs.
Middle class revolt.

Put it down….

He wants Homestyle
Sublimates the envy to C2s
Bump into each other and jolt
D2s, D1s, bump into each other and jolt
Middle class revolt

Middle class revolt
Everything you see
Middle class revolt
Go to clubs
Crashing into C2s
Middle class revolt

A man
Extremely lazy
Exhumes the cooked pigeon
His words indignant
Because it was cooked wrong
Middle class revolt


Blog at WordPress.com.