Sunday, March 18, 2007

Kirk Rundstrom, 1968-2007: Thank you.

Also published by Blogcritics Magazine
Like a lot of people in this world, I have a million things I’m supposed to be doing today. But it’s gray again in Paris, my beautiful old dog is an old dog, I’m sitting in a room full of furniture that’s been sold on-line as a major symbolic step in a harrowing divorce process, and it’s Sunday. That there are other puppies that will be born, that people can fall in love again—it all just makes me sadder; seems more just if they could not. But most of all, I can’t justify going one more goddamned day without talking about Kirk Rundstrom. New puppies and loves? Maybe. Another Kirk Rundstrom? No fucking way.

Kirk Rundstrom of the ever-beloved insurgent country groups Split Lip Rayfield and Scroat Belly was taken by cancer on February 22. I’m disgusted with myself for having deferred my memorial ‘til now. His passing has had a considerable impact on me, and it's not only because we were the same age.

I first saw Kirk playing with Scroat Belly in Lawrence, Ks some time in 1995. Though I’m not precise on the date, I’ll never forget the impression that Kirk left on me. One word comes to mind: energy. The man was Shazzam on guitar. He beamed (smiled right back at the Grim fucking Reaper, I’d bet), he rocked, and yet tattooed, work-booted and capped by farm feed suppliers, the man never played the cocky rocker. When you watched him shred that acoustic (or electrified acoustic) guitar you witnessed an electrical storm on guitar strings. He and his comrades would play until they either couldn’t physically play any more or the club owner pulled the plug, as Kirk looked out disappointedly from a small pond of sweat he had generated over the last two hours of giving everything he had to an audience. He loved to share his energy. He forgave us our faults and welcomed us asking nothing in return save for our attention. Were Jesus to return as an rocker, Kirk Rundstrom would be an obvious form for him to take—what? You didn’t read that sermon: “Will preach for beer?”

After that first kiss, I henceforth slept with only one eye shut, the other ever looking for a new Scroat Belly or Split Lip Rayfield—in a word: Rundstrom—show to be announced, which I could not possibly miss, I said to myself and not overstating the matter all that much. I moved to Chicago in 1997 but had the good fortune of seeing Rundstrom perform often there, Chicago being the headquarters of Bloodshot Records, which boasted Rundstrom's bands on their impressive roster.

Like others, I was never ever disappointed by a Kirk Rundstrom performance. I never felt ripped off as if by one of these bands who appear to prefer playing to a wall and who are more than happy to be off stage in 30 minutes and no encore, no matter how much you paid for a ticket. On the contrary, Kirk would encore until the cows came home, and then some more.

In the late 90s I had the opportunity to meet the man personally when he came to Chicago, generously appearing with his band mates to record live for the alt. and classic country show on Chicago’s WNUR radio station, “Southbound Train,” which I hosted with Keith Cook. Not only was Kirk a fine musician and performer; he was also a fine human being by all standards. Talented, friendly, generous, an un-pretentious bon vivant who loved his beer, American gothic, and barbeque. His big tattooed forearms gave him the air of a scrappy farmer, even a man who had had his share of winning bar fights—until you saw that smile of his. There was nothing macho about it. He seemed to bridge waters, peoples, styles, classes, regions.

As others have also remarked, it is unsurprising that he would with his bandmates bridge what had seemed naturally gulfed audiences and styles of music: bluegrass, speed metal, punk, and hippy jam bands. There were elements of each in his music, his style, his way of being. Perhaps others had tried: they had failed where he succeeded, even if not enough people have been able to appreciate his talent for this bridging and hybridity.

"You put electricity and drums behind us and we're a rock band," he said in a well-circulated quote. "We play bluegrass instruments, but we don't do covers. We don't wear rouge or bolo ties. I don't know any traditionals. I couldn't play a flat-pickin' song to save my life. I'm a hack of a guitar player. Eric may be one of the best guitar players I've heard, but we forced him to play banjo. I don't know what Wayne is doing. He's just shredding his mandolin. I wouldn't even want to be associated with the state of bluegrass today. It's lounge music."

This approach to music made Scroat Belly’s one and only album on Bloodshot Records, Daddy’s Farm a cult classic. Each song seemed to be a tempest of twang, loud, hard and fast, preceded by a more traditional lull and followed by the same. There was always something rough and not really ironic about Kirk’s and Wayne’s vocals in the slower parts of the songs which kept them from sounding like straight duplicates or caricatures of a Louvin Brothers or Bill Monroe number; and always something twangy in voice, style and arrangement that kept them from ever being confused with Metallica or Agent Orange imitators.

An acoustic version of Scroat Belly (on some songs at least) lived on in Split Lip Rayfield also on Bloodshot, which produced a number of impressive albums in this unique genre, my favorite of which is perhaps the first and eponymous album in 1998. With Kirk, Eric Mardis joined on banjo, while Jeff Eaton strapped a lone cat-gut string to a truck fuel tank and bloodied his duct-taped hands on bass; Scroat Belly’s Wayne Gottstine returned later to “shred,” as Kirk said, a mandolin in the mix. Can you start to imagine what this looked like live, had you never tasted the sweet nectar of a Split Lip show? The syncopated beats and minor chords of “Outlaw” and barnburner; the auctioneer-ish vocals and sped up, even if often rudimentary, picking of “Long Haul Weekend”; a kind of truck-stop poetry to numbers like “Pinball Machine”; a necessary simplicity and celebrated naiveté of “Sunshine”; a vaguely Balkans-like pace and punchiness to some of them—they stuck with you all day and commanded your return to them, a command that has me often returning to this album almost ten years later.

Unlike with Heehaw and some of its descendants, it was never completely clear to what degree Split Lip/Scroat Belly embraced and lived the country motifs and clichés they rearranged, added to, and played with, which was probably a good thing. This complex relationship with the rural, the land, and its culture (like Faulkner’s with the South!) also emerged in their DIY streak, such as t-shirts they made with the montage of a well-nourished hog in silhouette, the name Split Rip Rayfield and the text “100% pure fat.” Funny, ironic, knowingly embracing what the mainstream South Beach Dieters feared in food, culture, music? Who knows? But it was good.

My ex- and I shared a lot of wonderful things together, perhaps the most powerful and satisfying being music, especially live music. For us, going to their shows was like the revivifying trip to the spa that our bourgeois counterparts swear is indispensable for getting out of bed in the morning and continuing this often perplexing daily cycle. From SxSW 1998 to various gigs in Chicago and Lawrence through 2004, we would leave Kirk’s shows re-charged, beaming, Kirk’s smile as contagious as the music he played. If I could change one of the many things I don’t like about myself, it might very well be to take Kirk’s smile and use it like an Evil Eye. It seemed to offer asylum and to ward off bad luck, even if its limit was death.

Kirk’s (his bands’) recordings of course must lack that visual zest. Yet, more than a little strangely, you can hear without much effort and concentration that missing sense. The sound evokes the image. Kirk was and will continue to be a spirit. You listen and you can see him behind those lifeless speakers and that grim faux-metallic stereo, his playful bulging eyes and unquenchable smile refusing to fade—ever. So thank God for recorded music, and despite Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, thank God for memory: Kirk’s spirit, his smile, lives on, and God knows I, like others, need it. Thank you, Kirk. You will not soon be forgotten.Tribute to Kirk Rundstrom

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Healthcare, Polls, and Bad News

In “top Yahoo news stories” this past week, a Reuters' wire article announced a poll just found that health care is the "top domestic concern" of a majority of Americans (Iraq being the top overall concern). This article is an example of serious problems with public opinion produced through polls, and its representation in the news.

First of all, the trouble with this Yahoo/Reuters article is the same a lot of news suffers from: lack of context. We need to know the history of this issue to understand whether this is a new concern, which many readers will likely infer. If the issue's been around for a long time, then how would that be news? ‘Course it wouldn't be; it’d be "olds." And if we dig a little in the mainstream press and public opinion research, we find in fact that health care and Americans' interest in universal health care has been a big concern for a long time. A Harris poll in 2005 surveyed Americans on a range of health issues. It found that 75% of Americans "strongly favored" universal health care in the U.S. Interesting finding. However, the poll doesn't tell readers how Americans think it should be funded. Would Americans be willing to pay a bit higher income tax for this coverage? Questionable, given the popularity of tax breaks. Americans are notorious for having their cake and eating it too. A poll last year, for example, found that nearly 60% of Americans think the U.S.
tax system is unfair.

Going back further, what do you know? In October 2003, an ABC News/Washington Post poll “found that Americans prefer universal health care to the current health system by a margin of two to one. Even more revealing is the fact that Americans favor guaranteeing health insurance for all, ‘even if it means raising taxes.’” Indeed, some sources claim that Kaiser Foundation polls from 1992 to the present have shown majorities of Americans favoring universal health care for Americans or “health care guaranteed for all Americans,” but it’s not always clear what respondents understand by these terms.

Questions that ask what is a "top concern" among a variety of issues handpicked by pollsters can also be misleading. No one asks, "Do you want your government to address your top concern only or several of your concerns?" So, first of all, the questions in public opinion studies can be skewed and misrepresent public opinion in its deeper sense, a public agenda, which would, in turn, supposedly influence a legislative agenda--how representatives are supposed to serve their constituents or be thrown out.

Yet the way questions are asked and the way issues are presented in the news without giving a history of an issue and opinion about it, legislators are free to press on with pet issues that they may have put on the polling agenda in the first place (such as immigration, for instance). Nor do such questions about "opinion" often measure how well citizens understand opposing arguments on such issues. This is the problem with democracy by opinion polls. As the late Christopher Lasch pointed out, American democracy does not just need information; it also direly needs public debate and citizens capable of critically evaluating it.

Indeed, opinions that have not passed through the filter of public debate and information-gathering was not the vision of the father of modern public opinion polling, George Gallup. In his Public Opinion in Democracy(1939), Gallup argued “the people, having heard the debate on both sides of every issue, can express their will” in public opinion polls. The result would be the nation as “one great room.”

What we have today is more like a million different rooms, which hardly arrive at opinion through debate. Indeed, as I've shown, it's not always clear how opinion is formed and how strong it is on a personal political agenda. Is there another way? Stay tuned for Part II of the problems with public opinion.
(also published by Blogcritics Magazine)
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