Monday, July 30, 2007

All the boozing that's fit to print

Posted By on 07.30.07 at 07:16 PM

In Timothy McNulty's public-editor commentary about why the Tribune sometimes puts famous people on the cover (summary: "We're not really sure we know it when we see it"), he writes:

"Tuesday, for instance, Tribune editors debated whether Lindsay Lohan's arrest--a story that dominated cable news and Web sites--deserved front-page treatment.

"They decided to put a small photo of Lohan on the front with the story inside. On Thursday, the paper revisited the Lohan saga with a front-page article about alcoholism and addiction.

"The newspaper's reluctance about celebrity news is evident considering two major tabloid celebrities, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, have never been the subject of a front-page story despite their own brushes with the law and their ubiquitous presence on magazine newsstands."

Now, most people would point out that Britney Spears is a considerably more important entertainer than Lindsay Lohan, who is not without talent but who's also really only carried one particularly significant artistic project (Mean Girls). So I was a little perplexed about why she merits front page treatment and not Spears.

And then it hit me--she's a young person who got drunk and violated the rules of the road, and she's famous. That's four Tribune front-page points right there.

One could make a contrarian argument that the effects of alcohol and bad driving on American society are worse than, say, terrorism, and thus that the Tribune's crusade to document instances of underage drinking and car wrecks is like totally cutting edge journalism and moral besides. Don't know whether I believe that myself, but it's an idea.

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Mayor Daley says thank you, Chicago

Posted By on 07.30.07 at 06:44 PM

The city announced today that it's facing a $217 million budget shortfall and might have to raise taxes in the coming year.

Big surprise.

As you may recall from last year's tutorial on taxes, budgets are projections. Each year Mayor Daley predicts how much money he expects to generate in taxes and fees and how much money he expects to spend. If the latter is greater than the former, he has to raise taxes to make up a deficit. If not, taxes remain flat.

Last year at about this time, Daley was gushing that his managerial expertise had left the city flush and there would be no need to raise taxes. On the campaign trail last fall he announced that the city was facing a $65 million shortfall, the lowest in five years. Now he's saying the economy was worse than expected, with the real estate market sagging--hence the huge deficit.

I don't think the economy's the big difference. The difference is that Daley was running for reelection last year and this year he's not. Think of the increases in taxes and fees as Daley's way of saying thanks for your vote, suckers.

And the city did hit you with tax increases last year--they just didn't tell you about it. I know, I know, in today's article about the looming deficit, the Trib claimed that "taxpayers escaped any increase a year ago."

I don't know why, but the big papers aren't telling you the whole story about your property taxes. Every time the city creates a tax increment financing district it effectively raise your property taxes, as the other taxing bodies raise their tax rates to compensate for the loss of revenue. There are now 153 TIFs in Chicago, diverting over $400 million a year in property taxes. And the city keeps creating new TIFs almost every month. TIFs feed the slush fund the city uses to line the pockets of the mayor's developer friends.

In a month or two the second-installment property tax bill will come out, and scores of home owners on the west and south sides will get clobbered with tax hikes approaching 100 percent. In addition, the soaring taxes will make communities like Washington Park, Woodlawn, Garfield Park, and Lawndale unaffordable for poor or working-class people who might want to live there.

The only mystery is who Daley will blame for the coming tax hike. I predict he'll blame an economic downturn, Cook County assessor Jim Houlihan for the high assessments, and the general assembly for not giving him more money for the schools. I guarantee he won't say a word about the TIFs.

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Cal Ripken outs his inner Aryan

Posted By on 07.30.07 at 05:52 PM

I always thought you read Ayn Rand's novels in high school or your first year in college, then discarded them as malarkey. But in yesterday's New York Times none other than new Hall of Fame inductee Cal Ripken Jr. expressed his admiration. "My personal philosophy is to get a feeling of fulfillment through my work," he said. "I have a desire to create something. I guess that’s why I’ve long been fascinated by two books, ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ The leading figure in ‘The Fountainhead,’ an architect named Howard Roark, is someone I’ve thought about a good deal.”

Now I know why the Iron Man's light blue eyes always kind of bothered me. Not even Gary Cooper (who also played Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse) could make the megalomaniacal Roark appealing.

On the other hand, Ripken's fellow inductee, the great Tony Gwynn, is one of my favorite ballplayers. With a batting average of .348 over his 20-year career with the Padres, a lifetime on-base average of .388, and a lifetime on-base-plus-slugging-percentage of .847, he was a joy to watch, and his incongruously high, squeaky voice only added to his good eggedness. We need such alternatives to Barry Bonds--or objectivists.

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Daily YouShoot: Bozos

Posted By on 07.30.07 at 04:56 PM


Photo by Elizabeth Slabaugh

Keeping Clarkson down

Posted By on 07.30.07 at 04:54 PM

Wow. I really thought that Jessica Suarez's Pitchfork review of Tegan and Sara's The Con—with its opening line, "Tegan and Sara should no longer be mistaken for tampon rock, a comparison only fair because of the company they kept"—would be able to hold onto its status as the most infuriating piece of music writing I've read this month, especially being so close to the end of July. But Fox News entertainment writer Roger Friedman snuck in just in time to win the title with his summation of Kelly Clarkson's feud with Clive Davis over her album My December. Here's what Friedman had to say: "Clarkson gets points for trying out her chops as a songwriter, but demerits for not following anyone's advice, trying to take on the record industry's most astute executive maybe of all time and acting like a 25-year-old (which is, in fact, her age.)" Keep in mind that he's discussing an album that's already sold close to 800,000 copies despite her label head publicly refusing to endorse it. Not to mention the fact that Clarkson's biggest hit, "Since U Been Gone", came out of Clarkson striking out on her own to nail a harder pop-rock sound, and not by any of Davis's own big ideas.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Kelly Clarkson is one of my favorite musicians, but I respect what she's trying to do. If Clive Davis would get out her way and let her do her thing, she might be able to get out of the factory-singer game, establish a sustainable career as a real artist, and, who knows, maybe make some really good music. But that probably won't happen. The news just came out that Clarkson will deliver Davis a "pop" album sometime next year.

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Waiting for the Hour

Posted By on 07.30.07 at 10:56 AM

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting

--T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland"

So there I was at 9 PM on Friday trying to get into the Violet Hour, Terry Alexander's new Prohibition-style speakeasy in the former Del Toro space, which by all accounts is suppposed to be our ground zero for the high cocktail culture already well entrenched in New York City. I'd like to tell you if mixologist Toby Maloney's $11 craft cocktails are worth it, but it just didn't go down the way I'd hoped.

First we were greeted and carded by the very dapper and welcoming doorman George, who ushered us into spare, unfinished hallway that leads in the bar proper. We had just enough time to glimpse the candlelight drenched, blue velvet draped lounge--a soothing contrast to the chaos on the street--before George whisked us back onto the sidewalk because the bar had hit capacity. He was apologizing and taking down our cell phone number when a young woman broke ranks from the small line that gathered outside the door, brandishing her own phone and demanding George speak to "DeCarlo." (sp?) That's all it took for him to drop us and shift all of his agreeability to the other end of the line, promising the lady would be well taken care of, and bumping her ahead of us to the top of the list. Still George assured us he'd call soon when there'd be space for us, and that he had a "99% success rate" seating patrons.

That sounded reassuring, if ridiculous, so we headed down to Rodan, where we finished a round of drinks without hearing from George. We moved up Milwaukee to Empire Liquors, where an entertaining and generous barkeep kept us there for two more rounds. By then 90 minutes had passed, and because my ability to judge the Violet Hour was fairly impaired at that point, I was more than willing to give it another shot on a weeknight. But my companions, two ladies who don't need three drinks to become unruly if given cause, wanted to go back and give George heck. Confronted, he dubiously claimed we'd given him the wrong number, but immediately ushered us inside, where we were given drink menus and seated around a table on giant blue thrones. We kept ourselves busy trying to read the menu in the dark--swiping candles from other tables to amp the dim. Before we knew it, some 20 minutes had slipped by and we hadn't seen any of the bar's alchemists.

I realize libations at this level can't be splashed together in seconds, but my friends were threatening to set the menus ablaze, so I hustled them out the door where a surprised George asked us what we thought. "It was bad," we told him. He apologized, and we finished the night sulking over matchlessly bland burritos at Flash Taco.

I know the Violet Hour ain't Coyote Ugly--it's Slow Drink. And maybe it's my own fault for expecting the Wicker Park wasteland to be anything but user unfriendly on a Friday night. But I sure hope George readjusts his percentage the next time he asks for someone's number.

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One cheer for the military

Posted By on 07.30.07 at 06:48 AM


Stentor at Debitage finds a case where land is actually better off under military control than under the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Partly it's a lucky accident, and partly it's a commentary on the way environmental policy is made piecemeal, so that clean-air laws aren't necessarily rethought when we learn that controlled fires are benign. (A dissertation that compares neighboring forests is here (PDF).)

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Life at the margins

Posted By on 07.27.07 at 11:10 PM

Attendance was minimal at the screening I attended of Aki Kaurismaki's Lights in the Dusk, which played at the Gene Siskel Film Center last week (July 20-26), though somehow you suspect Kaurismaki would've wanted it that way. Or maybe this way: one lonely viewer in an otherwise empty theater, the better to nip any general stirrings of levity in the bud. Laugh if you absolutely have to, but if you do you're on your own, with only the empty seats as witness to your, well . . . unseemly outburst! Since all of Kaurismaki is about tamping down, putting the clamps on tone, not reinforcing whatever irruptive impulses you'd want to entertain: it's just you and the everlasting universal maw, which, as we all know, ultimately swallows you whole. Second law of thermodynamics: everything winds down . . . except Kaurismaki's already been there ahead of you.

But there's an art to this entropic dancing around, and Kaurismaki's pretty well the master of it. Never too much this or that, and for every dire reversal a promise of new beginnings. Desperation's always at the door, yet somehow never gets in to ransack the joint. Or if it does then out of the detritus come these fragile bursting shoots, as ecologically imperiled as they are impossibly resolute—like the clasped hands at the end of Lights, which in terms of the movie's zero-sum balancing act, seem almost too hopeful: thank God they're on-screen for only a fraction of a second. More interesting to me though—as with Kaurismaki's films generally—are the minimalist blips of life along the distressed margins of the frame: open, airy visuals, clean-cut and linear, that invariably subvert the bare-bones determinism of story. Or don't, since it's always a matter of tit for tat, of riding a liminal wave.

Arguably of course, we've been through all this before—certainly with this director—though the idea of recycling your own work endlessly brings to mind the career of Jacques Demy, whose ambition it was to "make fifty films which will be linked together and which will mutually illuminate each other's meaning through shared characters." It's subtle variations that make this sort of thing fascinating, assuming—as I will here—that it's fascinating at all, and subtlety in barely inflected doses is probably where we're at with the ironic Finn right now. Banality as auteuristic option: I guess the jury's still out on that one.

Anyway, lichens on a tundra clinging to the rocks is what Lights in the Dusk puts me in mind of most. So is that some kind of beautiful or what?

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Bye-bye Gabinski?

Posted By on 07.27.07 at 07:23 PM


In a press release distributed this afternoon, state rep John Fritchey announced that he's running for 32nd Ward Democratic Ward committeeman in next year's election.

He'll be up against longtime incumbent Terry Gabinski--if Gabinski runs at all, that is. At 68, Gabinski may be disinterested in the job, and his organization's on the ropes. In the April runoff election Ted Matlak, Gabinski's protege, lost to upstart Scott Waguespack despite having Mayor Daley's support. According to the latest campaign discosure reports, Gabinski's down to $6,040.24 in his fund. Fritchey has $59,069.

There's no love lost between Fritchey and Gabinski . Four years ago Gabinski was set to retire and hand the position over to Matlak. In order to block Matlak's ascension, Fritchey announced he was running. Under pressure from the mayor's office, both Fritchey and Matlak agreed to drop out of the race and Gabinski came out of retirement to run one more time.

This time Fritchey says he's in the race to stay, whether Gabinski runs or not. "I'm running and I intend to win," says Fritchey.

Both men have connections to cogs of the greater Democratic machine. Gabinski got his start as an aide to former congressman Dan Rostenkowski, whose father, Joe Rostenkowski, built the 32nd Ward Democratic organization back in the 30s. Fritchey, who's married to the niece of powerful 36th Ward alderman William Banks, got his big break back in 1996 when alderman Richard Mell backed him in the race to replace Rod Blagojevich, who was leaving the statehouse to run for Congress.

Despite his organizational roots and his close ties to house speaker Michael Madigan, Fritchey says he intends to use the committeeman's job to promote reform. "I think this office has potential," says Fritchey. "You can educate voters. You can register voters. You can effect change."

Committeemen also get to appoint election judges, and they get a role in slate making. Fritchey might get the pleasure of knocking out what's left of  Rostenkowski's old organization.

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Laurie Anderson's art-pop breakthrough

Posted By on 07.27.07 at 05:23 PM


Back when I was a high school student I was pretty enthralled with Big Science, the first album by musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. It was weird—especially the dark humor of the apocalyptic jet flight chronicled in the opening track—at least for a junior living in a Philadelphia suburb in 1983. The following year I went to a lecture she gave in conjunction with an exhibit of her art at the University of Pennsylvania, where she demonstrated some of her manipulated instruments. I can’t remember exactly what she did, but I sure thought it was cool. She also previewed some bits from  Mister Heartbreak, and she said no one had vocalist had a better sense of time than Captain Beefheart.    

I eagerly bought Mister Heartbreak when it was released and I did the same for the overloaded live-album box set United States, Part I-IV, an indulgence that quickly weaned me off of her music and art. I stopped paying attention, especially as her public relationship with Lou Reed became the epitome of power art couple, but I always had a place in my heart for Big Science even if I never listened to it. Back in 2000 Rhino Records put out an Anderson anthology and those pieces from Big Science—“O Superman,” “From the Air,” and “Born, Never Asked”—still sounded great to me. Then last week Nonesuch released a 25th-anniversary edition of Big Science with improved sound, a thick booklet with a nice personal essay by Anderson, and videos for “O Superman” and “Walk the Dog,” the single's B-side.    

I’ve listened to this new version three or four times now, and while it’s hard to separate my sense of nostalgia from an honest critical assessment, I kind of doubt I’ll be pulling it out again anytime soon. The songs mentioned above are great musically, the contributions by bagpiper Rufus Harley still sound amazing, and some of Anderson’s lyrics presciently dealt with the encroaching digital future with sharp, funny wordplay. But a sparse piece like “Walking & Falling” is distant and smug, with spoken word bits crafted to sound more profound than they actually are, and some of the electronics sound cheesy and dated. Still, it's impressive that an album like Big Science managed to cross over into the pop market (how "O Superman" became a chart hit in England still befuddles me), even if it ended up partly paving the way for the self-satisfied, quasi-intellectual art ethos that NPR listeners seem so proud of.

Today's playlist:

Jonathan Chen Orchestra, s/t (Asian Improv)
Art Ensemble of Chicago, Live in Milano (Golden Years/Leo)
Arsenije Jovanovic, s/t (La Legende Des Voix)
Roy Acuff, The Great Roy Acuff (Dualtone)
Talib Kweli, Right About Now (Koch/Sure Shot)


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