Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Outsider Art Galery #1: 2 x 5 (The Reckoner) / 3 x 5 (The Squawker)

<2 x 5 : The Reckoner>

<"I Can't Explain (M-M-M-My Generation)">

If you've followed this blog any length of time, you'll have sussed that Mod culture is a major artistic influence of mine. This effort started with an idle thought ("What would all those smashed guitars and amps have looked like, once the Who were done with 'em?"). 

In the process, that opens up a window to ponder other questions, like the meaning of autodestruction, and whether it leads to the desired catharsis (or doesn't).

Not everybody got it, though. One older lady I used to know said, "Oh, what are all these tulips doing in this?" To which I said:

"Tulips? F#ck#n' tulips? 
You must be joking!!
"They ... are ... not ... 
f#ck#n' ... tulips!

"They are:
Guitars!! Guitars!! Guitars!!"

At that point, though, I decided i
t might be wise to make the connection
 a tad more explicit 
(hence, the Hi-Watt amp brand 
in the top left corner, 

<"I Am" (Number Two)>

Squawker and I did collages for an art therapy group. 
The idea was to create a collage 
summarizing your best qualities, 
without getting long-winded, 
or giving the game away.
Which brings me to...

3 x 5: The Squawker

<"I Am (Number One)">

Squawker finished before I did, 
I think, hence...the title.
Titles in art can be
 quite an arbitrary business,
as Renoir proved, with one of 
my all-time favorites:
Woman Looking At A Vase Of Flowers.


A nice little 5" x 7" work from Squawker, 
reminds me of a softer take on the style of, 
say, Raymond Pettibon. 
What is the woman thinking, 
or feeling, 
or going through? 
You choose.

<"Club Scene">

Spot the personalities in this one: 
Andrew Eldritch, Noel Gallagher, 
Jimi Hendrix, and Iggy Pop,
 to name the male figures here 
enjoying a fantasy-fueled night 
on the tiles...
always loved this one!

Support Outsider Art:
& Send Us 
Some Of Yer Own...
If Ya Dare!!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Today's Post-Midterm Message: Health Inequity Can Kill You

<Word Cloud:
University of New South Wales Sydney School Of Medicine>

I feel like I've been leveled by a bulldozer. For the past week, Squawker and I have been flattened by some kind of monster flu bug, that's become one of those grim winter traditions: "Welcome to this, buddy!" At least The Squawker and I have been spared what my sister just endured -- the chronic diarrhea and puking bouts that often accompany with these bugs.

However, though I'm mostly over the sniffling/snorting phase, I'm struggling with back pain, which has migrated from my right side, to the center to my left side. Which is rather terribly inconvenient, as our Brit cousins might say, when one is spending a great deal of time under the covers. Or sitting to do a post, like this one. It is what is, so I'll just have to carry on.

Still, in light of the flurry of interest in my last post ("Today's Midterm Message: Life Is Not A Pre-Existing Condition"), I thought it made sense to follow up with a related topic: health inequity. Put bluntly, where you live can literally determine how long you live. Or how soon you die.

That's the thesis of Dr. David Ansell, of Rush University Medical Center (Chicago, IL), who's spent 30 years studying how racism and social inequity impact life expectancy -- one of the simplest, barest metrics of human existence. I stumbled on his YouTube presentation, and his work, while letting my fingers do the Googling (so to speak).

Ansell's presentation, "How Inequity Kills: Health Systems And Health Inequity" (September 27, Lake Michigan College, Benton Harbor, MI) is linked below in its entirety. I haven't seen it in full yet, but what I have caught is pretty disturbing, as you might imagine. Simply stated, the gaps between rich and poor -- which, one might argue, have grown into canyons, if not outright chass -- are also revealing themselves in who lives, and who dies. A lot of this information is deeply disturbing; as Ansell says at the beginning, "I always tell people, 'Wait till the end to clap. You may not like what I say.'"

The venue where Ansell spoke is a case in point. Life expectancy in Southwest Michigan's Twin Cities -- better-off, white St. Joseph, MI -- is 19 years longer than in its largely African-American, poorer neighbor, Benton Harbor. Put another way, you can bank on living to 86 or 87 in St. Joseph, and its equally lilly white neighbor, Stevensville;. However, if you live in Benton Harbor, 67 is the average life expectancy. Across the board, the gap between rich and poor is 15 years nationwide.

Ansell calls this phenomenon "the death gap," which is driven by access to healthcare, as well as structural racism that's often built into policymaking, particularly at the local level -- where the gaps are most glaring, he asserts. Those phenomenons have led to death gaps between rich and poor of four (Ireland), eight (Great Britain) and 30 years (Michigan). "Now, every developed country has a gap, but no country has a gap like the United States," he says.

<UNSW World Cloud, Revisited:
The Reckoner>

Of course, such concerns are hardly new. People have bandied them about endlessly since the 1980s, when "trickle down" economics and flat wages became, with rather few resceptions, deeply embedded instruments of public policy. However, all this wealth only seemed to flow largely in one direction, to an inner ring of elite overdogs, who wasted little time finding the best representatives that money could buy.

And they're not shy about the privileged cocoons they inhabit. Far from it, as this ever-so-tasteful anecdote from Business Insider's November 12017 interview with billionaire Sean Parker suggests: 

"So ... I'm going to be like 160 and I'm going to be part of this, like, class of immortal overlords. [Laughter] Because, you know the [Warren Buffett] expression about compound interest. ... Give us billionaires an extra hundred years and you'll know what ... wealth disparity looks like."

Sensitive, isn't he? With more than a whiff of moral bankruptcy to boot. If Satan does exist, and he's up for crafting a special air-conditioned room -- well, I've got a fair idea of his first candidate. Let's leave it at that. You can read the whole nauseating business for yourself below. Enough said there.

Even so, it's interesting that Facebook's first president has a qualm or two about letting his kiddos consume the offerings of a social media conglomerate that hungers 24/7 to exploit their time and attention ("God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains"). 

Guess that makes him a trifle hypocritical, too, so...well, once you finish selling your soul, you may well as tick all the wrong boxes, right? It's like Jays Potato Chips: you can't stop with just one (sellout), right?

Of course, there's a school of thought that suggests we're silly to get so upset. Sean Parker only spouts publicly what people like him intone, mantra-like, behind closed doors, and hey, who cares? He's only a billionaire, so why would anybody believe him, anyway? No harm, no foul. It's all good, right?

But here's the problem with that logic. As Ansell's presentation clear, if we don't undo all those corrosive practices that shorten an average person's life -- whether it's credit checks to get a job, or restricting their living spaces to the neighborhoods, or making insurance conditional, at best -- we'll slide ever further back into the pre-New Deal dark ages. Or, as Ansell observers, "What we tolerate, we promote. So, if you tolerate unsafe conditions, we're promoting unsafe conditions."

You can assign whatever metrics to the problem you wish. One nugget that stands out from the Business Insider article is this one: in 2016, annual healthcare costs reached $10,345 per person. Plugging that back into Ansell's Twin Cities example, that figure chews up about 3 percent and 54 percent, respectively, of a person's average income in St. Joseph ($34,985), and Benton Harbor ($18,962).

Granted, Michigan was one of the few Republican-led states to expand Medicaid to its most vulnerable citizens, though time will tell how many actually keep their coverage, once those long-threatened work requirements kick in. In the end, though, it's fair to say that healthcare issues are often a question of numbers. 
Review the above statistics, again, if you wish, and watch Ansell's presentation. Then ask yourself: "Who really comes out ahead here?" If that doesn't rally people after the Democrats' midterm successes, nothing will. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Hurry, Hurry, 
Before Your Medicaid Evaporates):
(Cut 'n' paste in your browser, if needed):

Business Insider
Dr. David Ansell:
How Inequality Kills:
Health Systems & Health Equity:

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Today's Midterm Message: Life Is Not A Pre-Existing Condition

<All Photos: The Reckoner>

Here's what happens when you lose medical coverage for a decade. Study this photo, and you'll notice the reddish-orange freckles dotting my feet. However, I'm not a redhead (though I've dyed my hair that shade, now and again).

Those spots are from blood pooling in my feet, due to a condition called DVT (deep vein thrombosis). DVT occurs when a blood clot develops in the deep veins of your legs, which lead to pain and swelling, though it often occurs with no symptoms.

I got diagnosed in 2005. Like most conditions, DVT sneaked up on me. Suddenly, all those late night journeys at work -- from the layout computer, to the printer, and back again -- became exhausting. My steps felt heavy and lumbering. 

I felt spooked enough to call my sister, because she's the kind of person who reads medical journals for fun. She advised me to hit the ER immediately, where they told me what was going on.

I underwent a procedure to close the clot in my left leg, but was told it would reopen, at some point. That's simply how the procedure worked then. That's why they call them "side effects." But when that moment arrived, I couldn't capitalize, once my next job evaporated, along with my employer-paid coverage.

As I've chronicled here, I couldn't to address that issue until last summer, when I finally qualified for expanded Medicaid health coverage. Only then did I get the surgery to close the vein -- after it reopened, just as the doctor predicted. 

My surgery coincided with the Republican Party's failure to undo the Affordable Care Act, via its last-ditch option -- the so-called "skinny repeal,' or pulling the plug on the individual mandate, as we all watched that drama unfold on national TV.

During the follow-up visit, I asked the doctor: "What would have happened if I'd had to wait longer, or couldn't get this procedure done at all?"

He answered: "Well, the blood would have kept on pooling down there, so you would have definitely felt worse. You got this done at a good time."

We've been hearing the phrase "pre-existing conditions" a lot on the campaign trail lately. On one hand, it's stupid jargon, the kind that insurance companies invented to deflect attention from their dubious practices. Whenever I hear that phrase, I'm tempted to shout: 

my ass!>

<"Life is NOT
a pre-existing condition!">

<"Stick that 
in your balance sheet, 
and smoke it!">

That's hardly surprising, given the Republicans' animosity toward anyone -- aside from themselves, and their kind -- getting theirs. Wait, you say, isn't my wife entitled to care for heart disease, or diabetes?  The answer rings back, hollow and predictable as always: Sorry, kid. You're on your own. Maybe the marketplace will take pity on you.

We're not at that tipping point yet, but make no mistake -- the GOP elephant is gunning for all of us, and aiming those giant tusks aimed straight for our jugular. 

One example came in last year's attempts by the GOP-led House Of Representatives to strip the Affordable Care Act's 10 essential benefits -- like prescription drugs, for example -- from the law. I'm referring to the verbiage that insurers may not "design benefits in ways that discriminate against individuals because of their age, disability, or expected length of life."

This is crucial language, and it's no surprise that Republicans keep barreling to kill it -- as 20 states ruled by them are vying to do, via their federal suit, Texas v. the United States. The suit argues -- since the GOP-dominated Congress has killed the individual mandate, effective next year -- the law cannot stand, including those protections for pre-existing conditions.

If the U.S. Supreme Court hears the case, its newly-minted far right majority could well give their gubernatorial buddies a free pass to do throw us all back in the Dark Ages -- when people struggled to get even basic health needs covered, or  raise money, against all odds, to cover the related costs of dealing with them.

I think back to my high school days, when one of my fellow classmates, and Drama Club members -- let's call him Rob -- got diagnosed with cancer. He was a junior, and only a year behind me, which meant that he was only 17 when he heard those dreaded words, followed by the knot in his stomach.

Rob's family ended up taking him to Wisconsin, the closest place where he could get the more sophisticated treatments that his condition demanded -- once he'd exhausted all the initial care that our area had to offer. 

But, in doing so, he also exhausted his insurers' bottom lines, an event that forced out of the "decent" hospital, and into the "affordable" one (read: below average).

Rob's decline came a few months before my sister graduated from high school in June, where -- somehow, against all odds -- he took his final walk with her, and his classmates, with a surgical mask clamped around his mouth.

Of course, his hair was long gone, and he leaned on the person ahead of him for support as he went to his designated folding chair, just ahead of the track. Rob died a few weeks later. 

His mom and dad -- who'd been left destitute by their ordeal -- were now living with my high school chemistry teacher, who readily took them in (being an in-law, by marriage). Without that sense of loyalty, and blood tie, I don't know what Rob's parents would have.

I thought of Rob again this year, when I spotted an obituary for his mother. I can't imagine the heartache that dogged her life -- first, from burying her son, then outliving him by a good 30-plus years, not to mention the financial stress that turned her and her husband into virtual beggars. 

Sad and distressing as this story sounds, it was also totally commonplace. It's not a new one, either, as we know from the 1950s, when Oliver Hardy -- the bigger half of the famed comedy duo, Laurel & Hardy -- suffered a stroke that ended his working days forever, and forced him to sell his house to pay off (you guessed it) those mounting medical bills.

Imagine if the ACA and that list of 10 essential benefits had been in effect. Think of how much suffering could have been alleviated in both situations -- because the people trapped in those webs deserved so much better than the hand life dealt out them.

It's why I often feel a great deal of cold, coiled, pure hard-boiled anger -- and, though much of it is directed against the Republicans, they're not the only ones who'll feel it, even as I head off in today's midterms...first, to protest them, and then, to vote against every goddamned one of them.

As usual, I digress, but let me explain.

Mike Braun's campaigning outfit -- an open-necked shirt, plus dark pair of casual pants -- ranks among the cutest pieces of political theater we've seen lately. From looking at him, you'd never realize that the Republican gunning for  Democrat Joe Donnelly's seat is yet another uber-millionaire, with a net worth variously pegged at roughly $33 and $95 million per year. But at least he dresses like the common man, right? Therefore, he's just like you, maaan...right?

If you buy that, then you think the Washington, D.C. swamp looks like the Sahara Desert. But that's hardly my biggest issue with Braun, whose cut 'n' paste GOP platform might well be summed up as -- hey, whatever Trump wants, I'll do. To me, the most pressing reason is a look at Braun's claims of solving the healthcare debate at his company, those pesky career politicians be damned.

What does the record actually show? In essence, as the Politco.com story details, Braun stuck his employees, 900-some of them, with hefty deductibles -- $5,000 per person, $10,000 per family -- before he covered their bills. A worker at Meyer Distributing wound up no better off than, say, his counterparts at Walmart, with all their endless copays and deductibles that chew up what little income they earned.

Anyone who treats his employees this way can hardly be expected to make a great Senator, never mind a mediocre or passable one. Yet I've seen a fair amount of commentary in print, and online, from people who complain about Donnelly's lack of progressive cred, moan about how much they hate both parties, and wish for the perfect candidate to come and sweep them off their feet. It's the political variation on that old TV battle cry: Camay, take me awaaay!

But here's the problem with that kind of thinking, and where it gets us. Yes, I'm not keen on Donnelly bragging in his TV adverts about his readiness to side with Trump on delusions like the oft-threatened border wall. But, let's also remember: this is freakin' Indiana, the state that gave you Vice President Mike Pence. Like it or not, sometimes, it pays to tread carefully, especially in a state that Trump won by 20 points in 2016. Need I say more?

I don't live in the Hoosier State, but I'm well aware of what Donnelly has to deal with there -- so I'll give him the benefit of my doubt. What he says in a 30-second ad matters less than where he stands, and what he does, like last summer, when he proved decisive in blocking the GOP drive to kill the ACA. I don't want a creep like Braun playing that role. Need I say more?

Wait, I almost forgot, there's a third option. Lucy Brenton, that plucky Libertarian businesswoman who -- despite getting off some well-placed debate zingers -- has yet to break out of the political subsoil of support, where she hovers between 3 and 8 percent. I support third parties, but in a race this close, I also feel the "no shots" have a public duty to drop out -- as the Green Party candidate has just done, in Arizona's Senate race -- rather than play the designated spoiler. We all know how well that worked in 2000. Need I say more?

Simply put, we're living in a continual state of emergency, one that would feel far more unbearable without the energies of the anti-Trump resistance to counteract the worst effects. I, for one, am tired of people trying to elegantly rationalize their way out of the situation -- both parties suck, I hate all the ads, politics is a dirty business, yada-yada-yada -- that, if it's left to continue corroding and spreading unchecked, will eventually allow them no such luxuries. Need I say more?

The above-mentioned logic -- or lack of it -- reminds me of a statement attributed to Winston Churchill, the World War II-era British Prime Minister: "An appeaser is one who gives food to a crocodile--hoping it will eat him last."

Or, as my sister so acerbically put it a couple weeks ago, when she talked about canvassing college students who hadn't followed any of the issues, pre-existing or not: "People need to stop acting as though this is like 'The Dating Game.' You're not having them over for coffee. You just want to elect somebody that will put your own interests first, for a change."

And that's why, today, I'm off to protest, and then, to pull the Democratic lever on everything. I know that the world won't change overnight, because there's so much work left to do, even if they get one (or both) congressional majorities back. I know that I won't agree with every candidate on every issue. But now that we've spent two years under the shadow of Trump and company's darkest labors, it's time to set aside those worries, and focus on the bigger picture.

Otherwise, all those elegantly nuanced arguments, however appealing they sound, won't mean anything. I don't want to cling to a nuanced life raft -- it's not going to help me survive the frigid North Atlantic waters, once the Titanic slides down for the last time into its murky black depths. So let's proceed accordingly when we pull the lever in the voting booth, shall we?

In other words, I want to get across the finish line, and bring others along with me -- pre-existing or not. And maybe, just maybe, that'll give us the first step in taking our country back. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Hurry, Hurry,
Before You Eat That Five-Figure Deductible):

"It Was Not Real Insurance":

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


<Yer Humbler Narrator's
 well-worn copy, 40 years later!>

<i.: A Teenager & His Purchase>
The teenager's eyes scan the record racks: he wants that record he's read about in Rolling Stone. He's not expecting an easy time. Rock 'n' roll in this coastal resort town revolves around bar bands, and the Top 40 chestnuts that everybody's heard a million or so times ("Brown-Eyed Girl," anyone?). That doesn't interest him, though.

Nor does he particularly care for the fare that most of his classmates are buying, arena rockers like Journey and Foreigner, REO Speedwagon and Styx...the usual suspects, all selling records by the boatload.

The other available options leave him equally cold, whether it's cloying "baby baby" odes (Pablo Cruise, yuck!), soft-rock slush (Seals & Crofts, double yudk!), or self-referential singer-songwriter navel-gazing (Billy Joel, triple yuck!).

Instead, the boy's attention is riveted 4,000 miles across the Atlantic, where punk rock has exploded with a capital "P" in Britain's capital city, London. It's a stripped-down, full-throated roar that owes little to what he's enduring lately on the radio.

The teenager has discovered the bands making the biggest noise -- the Sex Pistols, and the Clash, of course -- via a two-page spread in TIME magazine, that arch-establishment media bastion that his dad brings home every week, then dutifully discards, so his son can read it, too.

He's gotten into The Clash, Give 'Em Enough Rope, and Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols, plus a handful of related acts -- the Dead Boys, the Stranglers -- sought out their albums, and played them to death. Now he's ready to widen his net, to the acts that haven't hit these shores yet. Like the Tom Robinson Band, for instance.

His hands dart through the racks, fup-fup-fupin the practiced rhythms of the explorer going about his mission. "Let's see: Peaches & Herb, Pink Floyd, Pointer Sisters, Raydio, REO, Kenny Rogers, Rolling Stones...ah, okay, here we go!" He pauses to savor his triumph. "I knew it was here."

The teenage boy hoists the album out of the rack, mesmerized by the yellow clenched fist that dominates the stark black front cover: TOM ROBINSON BAND. POWER IN THE DARKNESS. 

His eyes scan the grey info box in the top left corner: "INCLUDING BONUS EP FEATURING 2-4-6-8 MOTORWAY GLAD TO BE GAY."

Behind him, his mother's brow furrows with concern. She's agreed to take him here, after shopping for a few goods of her own. 

"'Glad To Be Gay?' Oh, God, son, you don't want that, do you?"

The boy's reflexes kick in, prompting him to do what teenagers have always done, since time immemorial. He changes the subject. 

"Gee, Mom, it's not like listening to this album would make you gay. Besides..." In the heat of the moment, he hastily improvises. "This might make a pretty good resource for a research paper. I'm sure it'll be OK."

His mom stares blankly, but doesn't snatch the record away outright. It's his allowance, so he can spend it as he wishes, right? 

But she sets down one condition. "All right. Whatever you do, though, don't play that song when Dad's around."

The boy nods in agreement as they head to the cash register. Dad's politics confuse him, at the best of times. He's anti-Republican, and strongly pro-union. 

On other matters, though, Dad's outlook is one that seemingly defines relationships as man/woman, full stop, and has little affinity for his son's interests in "those long-haired howlers." 

On the ride home, the boy makes two mental notes. Keep your album in the brown paper bag, just in case Dad's actually home

As a builder, he puts in lengthy hours, but his schedule is so unpredictable. You never know, right? His other mental note? Get some headphones.

He's only 14, but he's already learned one thing: this music doesn't allow for any half-measures.

<Power In The Darkness: rear cover>

<ii. The Back Story>
Forty years ago in October, the Tom Robinson Band (TRB) launched a 28-date UK tour that's now viewed as their breakthrough moment -- one that culminated on December 10, 1978, with an appearance in Hyde Park, as part of an Amnesty International human rights demonstration.

For special guests and support, the band brought over Northern Ireland's finest punk exponents, Stiff Little Fingers -- who wound up playing many of the same venues within six months, as Tom himself has noted -- in one measure of the tour's significance. But there were plenty of others.

For Tom Robinson (lead vocals, bass, guitar), Mark Ambler (keyboards), Danny Kustow (lead guitar), and Brian "Dolphin" Taylor (drums) -- or simply, TRB -- the tour marked a rousing affirmation, for anyone who needed it, that it really pays to follow your instincts.

By any measure, TRB had enjoyed a rocket ride to success, beginning in November 1977, after signing to EMI, and their first single ("2-4-6-8 Motorway"/"I Shall Be Released") reached #5 UK, where it stayed in the charts for over a month. 

Further confirmation of TRB's popularity came at the end of 1977, when Capital Music Awards listeners voted them as Best London Band, and Best New band. A month later, the Rising Free EP -- four tracks, taped at The Lyceum, in London, the previous fall -- reached #18 UK.

EMI then released Power In The Darkness in May 1978,on EMI Records. The sole single, "Up Against The Wall"/"I'm Alright Jack," didn't fare as well as its predecessors (#33 UK), but the album's overall performance (#4 UK, #144 US) made up for that showing. 

The album earned gold records in the UK, and Japan, and has since been reissued several times, such as 2004, with two bonus tracks (including a live version of "I'm Waiting For My Man," by the Velvet Underground, and a remix of the title song).

For Tom Robinson, this newfound burst of interest in his work came in sharp contrast to the fortunes of his previous band, Cafe Society, a winsome acoustic trio that issued one self-titled album in 1975 on the Kinks' imprint, Konk. 

However, the experience proved unsatisfying. Two Kinks (lead singer/guitarist Ray Davies, keyboardist John Gosling)oversaw the album, for which they squeezed in sessions between their own band's commitments. As a result, Robinson recalled, Cafe Society's album took a long time to complete...longer, perhaps, than a new act might feel prepared to wait.

Other complaints included an armada of overdubs, allegedly at Ray Davies's behest, that Robinson and his Cafe Society cohorts, Raphael Doyle, and Hereward Kaye, came to despise. Those issues aside, Cafe Society's one and only album expired, without raising a stir, after selling a mere 600 copies. In that sense, the result made arguments about its merits academic, at best. 

The album has since been reissued as The Cafe Society Archives, so if that encourages you to seek it out, by all means, do so. As for me...having heard the handful of tracks on YouTube, I have to say, Cafe Society wouldn't have been my cup of tea, then or now, though it's definitely of historical interest for TRB fans.

Power In The Darkness stamped an exclamation mark on the Cafe Society era for good. TRB recorded the album over three months at one of London's classic studios (Wessex Sound), with a topflight producer -- Chris Thomas, the man behind Bollocks, the Pretenders, Roxy Music, among many, many others -- and two engineers, Bill Price, and Jerry Green, who became big names in their own right. 

Equal kudos should go to the art director, Brian Palmer, and the respective back cover and inner sleeve photography of Terry O'Neil and Pete Vernon, whose efforts created a visual array that matches the music.

Like most bands who taste sudden success, TRB's fortunes would change markedly, and not for the better. 

For 15 thrilling months, however, TRB's classic lineup of Ambler, Kustow, Robinson and Taylor proved unbeatable, and made music that - as Power In The Darkness demonstrates -- inspires us to this day. The proof lies in the grooves, so let's take a closer look at the contents.

<Not all my albums are held together
with Scotch tape -- but it's
getting awfully close!>

<iii. Power In The Darkness:
Track By Track>

<Side 1>
<"Up Against The Wall">: This is one track that always inspires, when I get stuck in my own songwriting. Like many of the songs here, "Up Against The Wall" is built on a simple, declamatory, fist-clenching riff (G-D-C, then G-C, and back again). It's a brisk opening salvo of a society going belly up ("White boys kicking in a window/Straight girls watching where they never gone/Never trust a copper in a crime bar/Just whose side are you on?").

Danny Kustow's full throttle guitar is the star here, but Taylor's not too far behind: check out the crisp machine gun rolls that he unleashes at the 3:00 mark, which ratchets up the tempo, and the excitement, considerably during its final 36 seconds.

Overall, the lyrics offer a stark snapshot of a nation racked by unrest ("Consternation in Mayfair/Riots in Notting Hill Gate"), as the Labour government of Prime Minister James Callaghan slides ever deeper into an economic abyss that his Tory arch-rival, Margaret Thatcher, is poised to exploit with her bare-knuckled brand of monetarist dogma. 

Substitute the likes of Donald Trump, Theresa May, and others like them, and you won't miss a  beat with any of these lyrics, including my favorite ones from this album: "High wire fencing on the playground/High rise housing all around/High rise prices on the high street/High time to pull it all down!" 

Sadly, like so many songs from this era, "Up Against The Wall" still applies, and you won't have to change a word, in light of the Trump regime's attempts to strip basic rights from so many others -- such as citizenship, health care, and the right to live their life without a target pinned to their back.

<"Grey Cortina":> Another snapshot of rock's obsession with all things automotive, this blast of three-chord thunder celebrates the '70s' best-selling British family car. (As many Brit bands have done, it seems, like the Bristol punk quartet, The Cortinas, featuring a teen, pre-Clash band Nick Sheppard, for example.)

Kustow does a wicked impression of a revving motor, as Ambler's electric piano chugs away underneath it all, and the Robinson-Taylor rhythm keeps the proceedings moving along, in a gleeful tribute to this auto's outlaw cool: "Never cop a parking ticket/Never seem to show its age/Speed police too slow to nick it/Grey Cortina got it made">.One of the few light moments on this album, it's still great fun to hear, after all this time, and it was always good live, too.

<"Too Good To Be True":> When vinyl ruled the roost, conventional wisdom held that only two positions existed for slower or moodier fare: either as the album closer, or in the middle of a side, where this mid-tempo ballad sits.

Mark Ambler's loping electric piano is the major instrumental presence this time, which underlines its theme of promises made -- a better career, better girlfriend/boyfriend, better government, take your pick -- yet never delivered.

If you're a progressive-minded person still waiting for America to get its shit together politically ...then you know the feeling, and you know the material. Yet that's only one level of meaning here. 
At the same time, you feel the narrator's not in a position to capitalize, for reasons that you're invited to provide yourself ("Facing a phase in the future/Hope I've got something to lose/Too good to be true". Whatever level of meaning you choose, the answers probably aren't going to feel comforting.
<"Ain't Gonna Take It">: Every band needs an anthem or two in its flight case, and this song qualifies ("They're keeping us under, but we ain't gonna take it no more!"). In many ways, it's a close cousin to "Up Against The Wall": both end with thunderous blasts of feedback, both feature ferocious guitar/organ duels behind the vocals, and both make their cases in just over three minutes. What's not to like there? I thought so.

The song does suffer from an odd clinker or two, lyric-wise, such as the plea that opens its last verse ("Sisters and brothers, what have we done?/We're fighting each other now, instead of the Front"). It reminds me of the wags who say, "Beware of anybody not in your immediate family who calls you 'baby'", even if I support confronting bigotry in all its guises (such as the National Front, Britain's homegrown neo-Nazis, referenced in the above line). Still, it's safe to say that you won't care, once Ambler and Kustow play their distinctive musical tag during the thrill-a-minute mid-section. (It's also the only Kustow-Robinson collaboration, a curious fact for such a great, distinctive guitar player, though there's plenty who don't rack up a lot of songwriting credits -- like Jeff Beck, for instance.)

Still, as this song shows, you feel that this album accurately captures TRB's live prowess (although one leavened with the usual post-production "stacking" of instruments that producers like Thomas have deployed, then and now). If you want to capture the sound of short sharp shock, this is how you go about it.

<"Long Hot Summer">: The energy doesn't flag on this closer, one of several songs that urge the listener to act ("Hey, Joe, get up and go, wouldn't like to tell you twice"), rather than sit on the sidelines, because the times won't allow it ("There's all this heat, out on the beat, telling us we don't belong ... It's gonna be a long hot summer, from now on"). If Power In The Darkness -- and this song -- has a theme, we can sum it up in two words: "Get involved."

<Side 2>
<"The Winter Of '79">: This midtempo track, as its title suggests, runs down a series of major and minor events -- from the National Front's rising profile, to the price of beer ("A pint of beer was still ten bob")-- during the so-called "Winter Of Discontent" that led up to Thatcher's general election victory the following spring.

The mood ranges from cheeky sarcasm ("You say we're giving you a real hard time/You boys are really breaking my heart"), to bitter defiance ("Yes, a few of us fought, and a few of us died"), to slow-burning fatalism ("The top people still come out on top/The government never resigned"), all ticked off in matter-of-fact fashion by a nameless narrator still struggling, it seems, to make sense of it all. 

Where he fits in, he doesn't know, and he's not totally sure, but he's ready to tell you his story, anyway, because he's got something to say. And you need to listen.

The musical setting matches the song's "just the facts, ma'am" vibe, building from low-key vamping that bursts to life near the end of each verse. It's an effective device, aided and abetted by some typically moody Kustow guitar fills. 

This approach helps to color the keynote lyrics ("The world we knew busted open wide, in the winter of '79"), without trampling all over them, as a lesser outfit might well have done. Where many bands prized attitude over ability in the punk era, to varying degrees of success, "Winter Of '79" exemplifies TRB's knack for combining subtlety and aggression, without compromising either aspect.

<"You Gotta Survive"/
"The Man You Never Saw">:
Now, I'm going to temporarily violate my  own rule, and break the original running order up, since these tracks seem similar to me, in terms of their approach, and purpose.

Both pffer bleak snapshots of a society skidding off the rails, whether it's the mass roundups in "The Man You Never Saw" ("I just called in to tell you/That your place is being watched/Don't go into work tomorrow/Try and make it down the docks"), or the total breakdown of life as we've known it in "You Gotta Survive" ("Every single house has been looted/Every single city's been burned/Every can of food has been opened/Every single stone has been turned")). 

Both songs maintain the high energy approach, from different directions. "The Man You Never Saw" is arguably Power's most uptempo track, as Kustow cuts loose with giddy abandon. On "You Gotta Survive", he's back to darting in and out, amid subtle keyboard washes from Ambler (who's exemplary throughout, like his colleagues; oh, and let's not forget that he and Tom co-wrote both of these tunes, plus the title track).

In both cases, however, Tom's not advocating anything, but painting a disturbing vision of what happens to a country once the gloves go off, the social contract implodes, and the guardrails against abuses of power no longer work to curb the resulting collapse.

In "The Man You Never Saw," anonymity becomes the order of the day, the only response that makes sense to entertain ("Don't repeat this conversation/Don't let on we've met before/Try and make like I'm a stranger/I'm a man you never saw"). In "You Gotta Survive," the brutish imperative to live another day, however miserably, trumps all other impulses ("Found a parka on a dead man/Jamie's got a couple of knives/Countryside's crawling with maniacs/You gotta survive"). 

Or, to put it another way, these songs could soundtrack Thatcher's most vicious, infamous public statement: "And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families." We all know how well that pronouncement worked, don't we?

<"Better Decide Which Side You're On">
As side two winds down, the mood shifts yet again, strategically, melding one of Tom's most in-your-face lyrics here ("You'd better decide which side you're on/The chips go down before too long/If left is right, then right is wrong/Better decide which side you're on"), with a tinkly, electric piano-led pop-rock melody that wouldn't have sounded amiss in the darker recesses of Abba's imagination.

Which is my way of saying, "I haven't played this track a lot, then or now" -- not so much because of the lyrics, but the tinkle-tinkle-tink we get here seems like too much of step back, and a retreat, after all the unbounded energy that we've heard unleashed so far. 

Still, it's remembering, once again, what the conventional wisdom of the time suggested: if you traded in three-chord thunder, you needed to give the fans, now and then, time to catch their breath. So I see how this track suits that strategy. 

As I recall, though, TRB got the most stick, in general -- and Tom, in particular, as the main lyric writer -- for oversimplifying the topic here (the need to take direct action, standing up for what you believe in). Many a critic moaned: Ah, Tom, could you please go about your business a bit more subtly?

But see, here's the thing. On one hand, when people just set their pet slogans to music, the results can vary dramatically, from a pure quality control standpoint. 

Even so, as a songwriter myself, I firmly believe that there comes a time when you have to drop the clever rhetorical armor, and the fancy wordplay, and just...f#cking...say it. Whatever that "it" might be. (That's why I feel disappointed, in an amusing way, about that second line in the chorus that I've just quoted, "The chips go down": I always heard it as, "The shit goes down," which sounded better to these ears, and certainly, more in keeping with the song's overall message.)

That's why "Anarchy In The UK" packs such a wallop, 40-odd years later, since its opening couplet combines two polarizing words("I am an antichrist/I am an anarchist". Whether you are either of those things is irrelevant -- you'll love to hear it, or you won't. Either way, you'll have to think about the topic at hand, and how it impacts you, so, mission accomplished.

So, in that sense, "Better Decide" probably works better now, than it did at the time -- especially since our society has become so bitterly divided, and so polarized, to levels not seen since the late '60s or early '70s.

And, though this song isn't my favorite one here, I have little time for the other charge often leveled against it: Hey, Tom, don't you think you're dating yourself, with references to Mary Whitehouse, and people of that ilk?

Tom took a lot of stick for this "front page news" approach, but it's no different from countless folk-rockers singing about long-forgotten labor disputes, natural disasters and political issues. People still sing along with many of those songs, even if they're not aware of the story behind them...but it's funny how you can breathe new life into them with an updated line or two.

That's exactly what TRB did with these songs, like "The Winter Of '79" -- which became "The Winter Of '89," with references to the fall of Communism, among other topics -- when I saw them in the fall of '89, and spring of '90. It worked well, and showed me how a song need not stay shackled to its original time and place. Hell, if that's not a timeless sentiment, what is?

<"Power In The Darkness">
Dunk, dunk, dunk, dunk, dunk/Dunk, dunk, ah-dunk-dunk: The clack-clack-clacking of Dolphin Taylor's cowbell alerts us that we're now venturing into different territory, a midtempo funk-rock groove that breaks all the rules.

At first glance, it's little more than a chant, with five distinct sections, starting with its infectious chorus ("Power in the darkness, Frightening lies from the other side/Power in the darkness/Stand up and fight for your rights"), powered by Ambler's organ swirls (Bum, bum/bum, bum), followed by a rap-like middle portion ("Freedom, we're talking about your freedom/Freedom to choose what to do with your body/Freedom to believe what you like").

An extended jam follows, vamping from A to D: Ambler takes the lead, amid soundbites of alarming news clips ("The six p.m. curfew is to remain strictly enforced"). Tom then resurfaces, with an ironic spoken interlude,("And it's about time we said, enough is enough, and saw a return to the traditional British values of discipline, morality and freedom"),that quickly builds to an unhinged, reactionary blast,or freedom from "Football hooligans, juvenile delinquents, lesbians and left-wing scum" ...the last-named group forming the natural constituency, perhaps, for this album("Freedom from the leftwing layabouts and liberals/Freedom from the likes of you!")? 

After that final exclamation, the band stops cold, then kicks into a second extended jam -- driven along by some of Kustow's most manic guitar leads, with the chorus repeated three more times, for good measure, to bring home the message -- before the song crashes to a triumphant halt. 

No gentle fadeout into that good night, it seems, for this track -- which, at 4:53, is the longest one here, and closes Power In The Darkness on a rousing note. 

After hearing TRB sing, "Stand up and fight for your rights," how could anybody listening at home not feel inspired to do likewise? How could anybody settle for less, or go back to the order of things they disliked?

Well, that's how I felt, anyhow, listening at home, and later, with my best friend in high school, where we'd take turns trying to match that mock reactionary upper crust Brit accent in the final spoken section.

So, unusual structure or no, what "Power In The Darkness" -- the song -- demonstrates is that, if the music connects, the creator's done the job, full stop. I had yet to start playing guitar, but right then, I knew that other options existed beyond the norm...and I planned to explore them, when (and if) I got the chance.

<iv. One Fine Day In Summer Camp>
The teenage boy, now a couple years older, shifts uneasily in his seatHe's only been here a couple days, at this state university, where he's diving into a week-long journalism camp. Then, he'll shift gears, to a two-week theater camp. 

It's his first major time away from home, deep in the heart of Indiana, and he's still trying to process what's going on around him. He's already met someone who reads New Musical Express religiously, and also keeps up with all the new stuff emerging from Britain, so...on that level, so far, so good.

Tonight, the teacher is running the group through a few exercises, starting with ways to write good headlines, then, moving along to basics of journalism: the five Ws (who, what, when, where, and why), how to write a good lead, and so on.

Suddenly, the night takes a different turn. Back from a break, the teacher decides to get the group's collective brain going with some word games. One requires each participant to answer with an adverb, or preferably, a word ending in "ly." 

It seems harmless enough, until one of the girls comes up with, "'I like boys,' he said, gayly."

The girl's hardly finished giggling, when the group breaks up laughing with her...except for the teenage boy, who covers his mouth, and turns his head, so people can't gauge his reaction.

Not to be left out, the teacher throws out a couple anti-gays quips of his own, as he eggs on the group. For a couple minutes, the air turns a finer tinge of blue.

The boy is disgusted. He doesn't know anyone gay, and he's sure that he likes girls, but that's hardly the point. 

He's heard plenty of this crap back home, and it disturbs him. How is it possibly okay, he asks himself, to single out a group of people for constant mental and physical abuse, just because of who they are? How can anybody feel comfortable doing such a thing?

He looks around the room and wonders what he should do. At long last, the laughter is dying down, but no one else seems to be challenging it.

For a second, he thinks about protesting, but swats that impulse aside. What good will it do? he sighs to himself. You'd end up hanging all by yourself out there. You're not going to change any minds, so just let it go. It's not going to make any difference.

Finally, the teacher winds down the game, and moves onto other exercises. Walking back to his room that night, however, the teenage boy feels lousy. 

He thinks back to those first blasts of punk and reggae that he heard a couple years ago, The Clash, TRB, Bob Marley, and other artists like them. What's the point, he wonders, of singing along with all that stuff, if you're not living what you believe

He begins poring over the night's homework, but feels himself closing on a decision. Next time, whenever that comes, he's going to stand up for what he believes. Whatever the fallout. Whatever the outcome. Whatever the consequences. Nothing less will suffice. Stay tuned, he assures himself, because there's plenty more to the story.

Look out, listen, can you hear it?
Panic in the county hall
Look out, listen, can you hear it?
Whitehall's got us up against a wall
They've got us against the wall...

They've got us up against the wall...

<"Up Against The Wall" 
single picture sleeve>