Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Game of the Rough Beast

This is an open letter.
This is a game.
This is a poem.

To The Editors,
Dear Mr Reporter,
This is my second draft.

First I wrote to The Editors,
Then it was to you.
Now it's a different beast.

A parlour game in your honour.
I tried it out on a friend.
A political junkie, he likes toli.

He said it was rough,
That it needed work.
Bear with me, I'm wrangling with this thing.

I'm a child of the web.
First an adventure in hypertext
Now prose and some poetry.

William Butler Yeats.
Recall what he wrote:
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"

This is part of a series.
I hope you'll play.
It's about The Second Coming

  1. Cut and Paste
  2. Cause and Effect
  3. The Game of the Rough Beast

Cut and paste

A game for you.
Simple instructions.
A test of comprehension.

Phase 1: Cut

Read the following passage.
It's from the New York Times
Some questions when you are done

In the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, thousands of Palestinians mourned the death of most of the Ghaliya family and wept as Huda Ghaliya, 7, kneeled to kiss her dead father before he, her mother and four siblings were buried. All were killed when the Israeli shell struck the beach where they were having a picnic. Huda had been playing nearby on the beach at the time. On Saturday, she asked mourners, "Please do not leave me alone."

The Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya of Hamas, who called the incident "a war crime," said he would adopt the girl. Later, Mr. Abbas, who called the incident "a dangerous, horrible, ugly crime against civilians," issued a presidential order adopting her.

The dead included Ali Ghaliya, 49, and his wife, Raisa, 35, and their children Ilham, 15, Sabreen, 7, Hanadi, 1, and Haihsam, 4 months. Mr. Ghaliya's first wife survived, said Ayyam Ghaliya, 20, one of Mr. Ghaliya's surviving children.

Questions (Phase 1)

  • Imagine that you wrote this passage, what title would you use when you submitted the article?
  • Imagine that you were the editor of this newspaper and received this article, what title would you use when you published it?
  • Bonus question: What page would you run this article on?

Phase 2: Paste

Read the following passage,
it's from the same article.
Some questions when you are done

Hamas fired at least 15 Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel on Saturday, ending a tattered 16-month truce with Israel, a day after eight Palestinians were killed on a Gaza beach, apparently by an errant Israeli shell.

Later on Saturday, in Ramallah, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced he had set July 26 for an unprecedented Palestinian referendum on the principles of a unified political platform agreed upon by Palestinian prisoners, which calls for a Palestinian state in pre-1967 boundaries alongside Israel.

Spokesmen for the ruling Hamas movement said they rejected the referendum decree and were studying their options, raising the prospect of further confrontation.

Questions (Phase 2)

  • Imagine that you wrote this passage, what title would you use when you submitted the article?
  • If you were the editor of this newspaper and received this article, what title would you use when you published it?
  • Bonus question. How well do these passages flow?

Cause and Effect

I made your second passage my first.
If you read the published article,
You'll no doubt see the reverse.

These were my friend's answers:
"Orphaned girl adopted by President"
"Random stuff about Palestine"

He saw two different stories:
"Death of family leads to end of truce"
"Hamas breaks cease-fire to distract attention from political confrontation with the President"

This was the published title:
Hamas Fires Rockets Into Israel, Ending 16-Month Truce
My friend then wrote "The perfidy of the press is one subject you should be used to"

It was a late night
The Wife saw me reading
Something in my face

"Why are you reading this Israel-Palestine stuff?"
Then I showed her your second passage,
I now call it the second coming.

"But they've buried it.
I would have never read past the beginning.
What page is it on? ... The whole thing is hidden..."

The Guidelines
They said:
Avoid politics

The Guidelines
They said:
Don't pick fights

Common sense,
Empirical evidence:
Steer clear of the Israel-Palestine matter

Still: I'm a journalist's son
You've given me an opening
I can't resist the temptation

The journalistic impulse
I seek out strange bedfellows
A student of editorial decisions

I'm in awe of what you've accomplished
You wrote the strongest fourth, fifth and sixth paragraphs I can imagine.
You ought to be a hero.

You covered a textbook massacre
Wrote in the strongest language
And yet: the story was buried.

A skillful presentation
You reported eight deaths
You shouldn't be accused of mendacity

And yet: the story was buried.
It's lost. Misrepresented at best.
The Reporter and The Editors.

Intentional and artful rather than inept:
The page, the wording, the images, the placement.
And calculation: the title. Best left unread.

Below the fold.
The Reporter's byline.
Those delicately arranged passages

A terrain of uncertainty
Did The Editors ask you for balance?
Were there two separate stories?

Who chose the title?
And are you proud of it?
I'd rather be wrong.

I would be grateful if you could comment
On words hidden in plain sight.
I had the most dreadful time that night.

A young girl has been taught
An awful lesson in life:
Death, the school of hard knocks

I lost faith that night
At this brutish spectacle
What kind of world is this?

A perplexing script:
Business as usual,
There go those Palestinians again.

My first draft:
Your article published on Sunday June 11, 2006 in the New York Times newspaper is by my measure the most skillful piece of journalism in the past year. I applaud the care you have taken in your endeavours, the craft with which either yourself and your editors combined to tell a story. It is so skillful that I feel obliged to write to you.
My second draft:
Your article published on Sunday June 11, 2006 on page 6 in the New York Times newspaper is by my measure the most skillful piece of misdirection I have witnessed in journalism in the past year. The phrase intelligent design does not do justice to the craft with which either yourself and/or your editors combined to bury a story of outrage. I applaud the care you have taken in your endeavours. It is so skillful that I feel obliged to write to you. You should win a Pulitzer for it.

I attempted to play your game
Exercising editorial discretion
And tried my hand at misdirection

The rest of the article
The same clarity of structure
3 paragraphs to muddy, 3 paragraphs to disarm

The Reporter and The Editors
I haven't slept since that day.
I assume someone didn't sleep round your way

The cameras must have been rolling
Slightly different story the next day
Hmmm, a new reporter.

The Game of the Rough Beast

Cut and paste.
Cause and effect.
The logical structure of perfidy.

The Reporter
The Editors


A question
An exclamation
A period

A fine line

Cognitive dissonance
Fair and balanced

Paragraphs: 1-2-3
Paragraphs: 4-5-6
Jackson 5: "ABC. Easy as 1-2-3"

I want to think the best of you.
I want to think the worst of you.
This is all a big muddle.

I want to think the best of The Reporter.
I want to think the worst of The Editors.
Resistance or deception? I'm unmoored, bereft.

[ this space intentionally left blank ]

The beach at Beit Lahiya.
The soul of a reporter.
The policies of The Editors.

"From Gaza into Israel"
"On a Gaza beach"
First movement and action, then the passive, a mere location.

"Hamas... launched at least 15 Qassam rockets"
"An errant Israeli shell"
First actor then action, then the passive. There's no actor.

Curtis Mayfield spoke the truth
We lost him, I miss him
This is what he sang:

They're all political actors... but they all know
If there's a hell below
We're all going to go

The logical structure of perfidy.
An awful reversal of causality.
The strange architecture of misdirection.

Normally effect follows cause.
Outrage is directed at cause,
And understanding attaches itself to effect.

In the human infrastructure of misdirection,
Cause follows effect,
And cause is itself an effect.

In those middle pages of your newspaper,
Cause is buried by effect,
And outrage attaches itself to effect

All that remains is effect.
Your byline, your story, the passive tense
The Editors, The Gray Lady

Back to front, the story is buried.
Eight dead bodies replaced by abstraction
Grim reality meets editorial necessity

I can't work out this puzzle.
I don't know which facts to dwell on.
I like to play this puzzle at night.

I don't know how to order these paragraphs.
Cut and paste. Cause and effect.
I don't want to play the game.

Do you sleep at night Mr Reporter?
Do you think The Editors sleep at night?
I rewrite your article at night

Her name is Huda Ghaliya.
Her family is dead.
They died on the beach in front of her.

It was a picnic. On the beach.
A shell.
They are all dead.

She cried.
They died.
I cried.

I suspect you cried
Did The Editors cry?
And were the cameras rolling?

Did the world cry?
Errant Israeli shell
15 Qassam rockets

June 11, 2006
Page 6 of the New York Times
The title, your story: buried.

The beach, the picnic, the shell
The cameras, the family: the coffins
The rockets, the funeral, the story

June 12, 2006
Page 8 of the New York Times
New title, the story: gasping.

Night. Sleep. Day
Black. White. Gray.
The Reporter. The Editors. The Gray Lady.

New York Times.
The Reporter.
Hamas Fires Rockets Into Israel, Ending 16-Month Truce

The spin.
Peretz: Gaza beach blast may have internal Palestinian cause

New York Times
Round two. Politics as Theatre.
Errant Shell Turns Girl Into Palestinian Icon

This is what I read that night
This is what I saw
This is the fog of war

Do you know each other?
Do your editors know the other editors?
This is such a muddle.

My original title: Abject mendacity of New York Times Editors
My draft title: On misdirection and injustice
My published title: The Game of the Rough Beast

I wanted to avenge her.
Instead I wrote a parlour game.
It is my only act of resistance.

I want to stare directly at the heart of darkness.
I hope I won't flinch.
I don't trust myself.

I wonder if you've come close to the rough beast.
I think you've come close to the rough beast.
Have you come close to the rough beast?

I want to know what he looks like.
I don't want to know what he looks like.
I know he's there.

I can only hope that one day you will do a follow-up story on her loss.
I can only hope that one day you will do a follow-up story on the Hamas shelling.
A follow-up story with the same editors.

I can only hope you'll play the game again
The game of cut and paste
The game of cause and effect

Then maybe I'll sleep at night
Then maybe I'll know the rough beast
Then maybe I'll make my own accommodations

I have only my pen to wield
I wonder if you've read this far
I hope you haven't read this far

He is close
I can hear him
A neighbour's house is on fire

I hear her cries.
I see her face.
I play my music

"It's 2am when the party's over
All I wanna do, all I wanna do
I wanna be with you"

Cut and paste.
Cause and effect.
The logical structure of perfidy.

Her name is Huda Ghaliya.
Her family is dead.
They died on the beach in front of her.

I want to avenge her.
Bring them back to the picnic.
Maybe it is better this way.

What kind of injustice is this?
Who is writing the script?
And who is editing it?

What are the names of your editors?
Did you have an editor at all?
I prefer to know them as The Editors.

Let's hear it from the poets
William Blake: Til we have built Jerusalem
William Butler Yeats: Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

Yeats's first cut,
A quotable sort
Everyone remembers this:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But it's about The Second Coming
The story written afterwards
And everyone forgets it:

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born?

My thesis as it is:
In the School of Hard Knocks
Things Fall Apart beats Heart of Darkness

More practical, bear with me.
Heart of Darkness: Angola, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Congo, Chile, Somalia, El Salvador
Things Fall Apart: Soviet Union, Nigeria...

Try it again, your neck of the woods.
Heart of Darkness: 9/11, Baghdad, Al Zarqawi, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Haditha...
Things Fall Apart: Katrina, Enron, Abramoff, Cunningham...

When I read your article
I was reminded of the poem
"A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun"

I seek a comfort suite
And pray for peace and quiet
The cement of my society

To be out of sight
To live out of mind
A chance to recover

I try to stare at the sun
I want to look into his eyes
Confront him head on:

The rough beast.
Observe his contours
Resist nostalgia

I hope I don't flinch.
I want to cover my eyes
I fall asleep

Help me, Mr Reporter.
Her name is Huda Ghaliya.
The rough beast, The Editors

This thing's a puzzle.
I'm tired of the game.
Where are The Editors?

I wake up on the beach at Beit Lahiya
Where are you, Mr Reporter?
And who are The Editors?

The rough beast lies next to me.
William Blake: Among those dark Satanic Mills
William Butler Yeats: Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born

Yours sincerely.
Sincerely yours.
I'd like some answers.

The Game of the Rough Beast
The Reporter and The Editors
The beach at Beit Lahiya

The Second Coming
The Ghaliya family lost four members less than two years ago when an Israeli Army shell hit their farm in Beit Lahiya. Then, as now, the army said it was shelling to try to stop Palestinian fire into Israel.
The Rough Beast

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Publication

Some good news, which I'll announce by paraphrasing Public Enemy's Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos

I got a letter from the university the other day
I opened it up and read it
It said: "We wanna publish."
They wanted me for digital culture or whatever
Picture me giving a damn, I said "Hell yeah".

Unlike Chuck D's response to the US Government and its Army, I was elated that Cultural Sensitivity in Technology was selected to be published in Best of Technology Writing 2006 by the University of Michigan Press in its new imprint Digital Culture Books. It took a few months, as these publishing cycles go, but I now have the first ISBN associated with my name.

Best of Technology Writing 2006

There's further reason to cheer since acquisition editor, Alison Mackeen, noted that mine was the only blog post that was selected for the volume; the other contributors are mostly journalist or academic types. The web is the great leveler and I am greatful that my musings can appear along with the heavy hitters of traditional media and technology. It is rather like the way that The Humanity Critic can lie in the same folder as Malcolm Gladwell in my Bloglines subscriptions and each are equally appreciated.

Over the past year there has been interest expressed in various books of toli. It turns out that if you write as much as I sometimes do, there'll be an audience for you once you find your voice (at least on those days when the stream of consciousness tendancies are curbed). In this respect I am pleased that it is the cultural sensitivity piece that is the first to hit Gutenberg's press because it was written in a personal yet controlled voice, and I was able to navigate the tension between an entertainment and a focused monograph. The folks I like to read cross the spectrum from dry technical exposition to the satirical. One needs to cater to both education and whimsy hence my writing tends to run the gamut from small things to big ideas.

The time that was spent in editing back and forth and wrangling my conversational web style into something fit for the printed page was instructive. I am a ruthless editor of others but don't normally submit to that impulse in my own writing. Still I don't envy editors and I have renewed appreciation for the blood, sweat and tears it takes to actually make a reasonable book. In any case, I revised and expanded the article, throwing in a few bits about the human factor, the web and irreverence. Do check out the book; as befits its title, it contains lots of great writing about technology and its implications. Eminently readable and stimulating, I'll be mining it going forward and will be pointing out some of the food for thought in it.

I was asked to come up with a tagline for the article, my take:

Everything is local.

Now I have to get serious about The Pitch. Oh and I should get back to writing in this joint.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Recent Non-Specific General Threats

In which we consider homelands and security, and specifics and generality... A digression in the Things Fall Apart series, an entry under the banner of The Rough Beast...

The letter that I reproduce below was slipped under the door to my apartment about a month before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. It originated from the NAA, which I learned stands for the National Apartment Association. It's a form letter that my landlords didn't bother to customize with their identifying details - they don't believe in the new formula. It was sent to them by said association and they in turn simply photocopied and distributed it to all the tenants in the apartment building. Thus we all returned home after another cold Bostonian work-day and bent down to pick up our unadulterated advisory. We considered, with alternately concern and bemusement, the message of the day from The Authorities on the slightly-faded ink of their overtaxed fax machines and photocopiers.


The letter concerned "recent non-specific general threats to apartment buildings" by Al Qaeda and the like. It was all there: the terrain of uncertainty, the exquisite precision of the language, the advisability of duct tape and social living in our communal relationships, not to mention the knowledge that The Authorities would deign to helpfully provide warnings about our homelands and security. Suffice to say that our little apartment community would have something to discuss in ensuing months.

When the histories of the 2003 Iraq war (the second or third Gulf War depending on who is counting) and the so-called Global War on Terror are written, I hope historians and anthropologists alike can use some of this material. Where others ponder the significance of Downing Street Memos and parse notions of fixed intelligence, I'll instead focus on the small things that troubled me and my neighbours.

As they search for colourful anecdotes about these trying times, I hope they might consider delineating the contours of the strange infrastructure of fear, the bureaucracy, the homelands and the security that we have seen. Perhaps like the vintage 1950s drills about jumping underneath your school desk, or hurtling into designated nuclear fallout shelters when the atomic bomb sirens sounded and that godless enemy attacked heating up that Cold War, these letters will come to be seen as quaint as some currently see the Geneva Conventions.

The cynics might also consider just how fear can be manipulated and to what ends. It is surely a matter of pure coincidence that just two days earlier the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, had made his legendary speech apropos Saddam Hussein's purported Weapons of Mass Destruction to the United Nations. Now safely retired after long and loyal service to his country and two generations of Bush Presidents, the good General has apparently let it be known via an aide that the WMD speech was the "lowest point in my life". I find comfort that the terrorist infrastructure of those heady days reached out to affect not just apartment dwellers in Cambridge but also the high-powered politicians and fiercesome soldiers.

It gives one pause; timing is everything in life. The world got ominous tomes and Powerpoint presentations about aluminium tubes, uranium and specific bio-weapon trailers during prime time; the next day we got advisories about threats to our apartment communities. But let me not digress about burnt-out cases and fallen angels like Colin Powell even though these are some of my favourite topics, instead I thought I'd share some historical marginalia. Make of it what you will.

Recent non-specific, general threat to apartment buildings


From NAA 02/07/03 6:28PM p. 2 of 2

February 7, 2003

Dear Resident:

Your apartment operator has been notified by the National Apartment Association of a possible terrorist threat targeting apartments and hotels. This alert closely parallels a similar alert in May of 2002. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller raised the national terrorism threat-level to "orange" indicating a "high risk of terrorist attacks".

Ashcroft described the non-specific threat. 'Recent intelligence reports suggest that al Qaeda leaders have emphasized planning for attacks on apartment buildings, hotels and other soft or lightly secured targets in the United States."

At this time, we want to emphasize that this is not a specific threat against any particular apartment building, nor is there a particular time frame or location identified. Please keep abreast of local and national news for emergency information and updates.

All residents are asked to be aware of any suspicious activities and report them to the local FBI Field Office <go to to find the field office that is closest to you> and then to the apartment management office <insert the phone number and names of on-site personnels>. If you believe the activity is an emergency, call 911 immediately, and then report it to the apartment management office.

Here are some tips that can help make a difference at your apartment community.

  • Report suspicious people or activities at the apartment community to the management. For example, vehicles, visitors, unusual traffic, noise, solicitors, abandoned packages, residents changing their own locks.
  • Get to know your neighbors. Terrorists can succeed through the anonymity that apartment communities may provide.
  • Keep apartment keys, access cards and amenity access cards in a secure location and let management know if any have been lost.
  • Do not provide building access or access codes to persons unknown to you.
  • Do not open your door for service/maintenance personnel without first obtaining proper identification.
  • Make sure the emergency contact information that we have on file for you is up-to-date.
  • Know the emergency evacuation procedures for your apartment home, if one is required. <apartment operator you may want to attach evacuation procedures to this letter, or instruct residents what to do.>
  • Adopt a Family Disaster Plan. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has developed a model plan for you to use ([now a broken link - a copy at the Internet Archive])

The federal government issues these alerts to raise awareness among Americans in hopes that a vigilant community can help thwart terrorist actions. Many potential threats here and abroad have already been halted because residents like you have seen and reported suspicious activity.


<Apartment Operator: Insert your standard closing>


I've been wondering of late how these things are propagated, that is, how the opaquely named Department of Homeland Security gets the word out. What I wondered is the relationship between said department and the National Apartment Association? From all appearances in the letter, the NAA is simply acting as as an agent of the government but nowhere is the exact connection explicated. The NAA and its authority are simply facts on the ground.

The thrust of the letter is about vigilance against things falling apart. The "be prepared" rhetoric doesn't go too far into the demonization of the amorphous enemy but the undertone is there. The possible threat, we are advised, "closely parallels" an earlier scare. There are the injunctions to report suspicious people or activities (echoes of McCarthyism) although here it is tempered with the eminently sensible "get to know your neighbours" proposition. There's the listing of officious officials and authority figures, the reassuring comfort of the names of Messers John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge - now safely consulting and lobbying said departments in lucrative private practice. The complete impersonality of this bureaucratic note should be noted, it is the language of Homeland Security. Oh well...

Ponder the title again, I'll remove the caps:

"Sample letter to residents on recent non-specific, general threat to apartment buildings"
I can't think of a better example of non-specific bureaucratese. There's a musical logic in its various clauses, or is it the poetic cadences that one should celebrate? One wonders how many other sample letters exist in the association's portfolio on any number of different topics and to any number of different audiences. One wonders also what the difference would be if the threat were old or indeed specific instead of recent and non-specific, and if the message would be more finely calibrated.

Consider also this comforting sentence with some emphasis on what someone who skimmed might take away

At this time, we want to emphasize that this is not a specific threat against any particular apartment building, nor is there a particular time frame or location identified.
One doesn't want to dwell on a cynical reading of these things because there must have been a fairly well-founded fear. I am well-versed in the anonymity in apartment life and, not to get all existential, that life can be impersonal and anomic. We could all spend more time building communities. The problem is having officialdom mandate the effort. There is only a fine line between the tame "be friendly" admonition and the hectoring "spy on your neighbours" proposition, and the plain reading of the message goes beyond "be vigilant" to "be scared".


Fear is a funny thing and, in small doses, it can be a great motivator; its close counterpart, hysteria, is an unhealthy thing and therein lies the rub. There is a fear tax that we pay when these levels are elevated and it manifests itself in paralysis and uncritical thinking. Those who capitalize on fear can go a long way in exploiting our impairment. It is somewhat ironic then that the injunctions in the letter, like the threat that prompted them, are unfocused, generalized and, yes, non-specific. One definition of the word terror is of a non-specific fear. Those skilled at the theater of fear are much like those who spread gossip and then add "I'm not the gossipy type. I just wanted to let you know so that you would be aware."

The letter ends as follows
<Apartment Operator: Insert your standard closing>

Kafka, Orwell, Ionesco and Beckett couldn't have written it better. You are made aware that there is an interlocutor, the Apartment Operator, who is taking instruction from a higher authority. Ideally the NAA should be in the background, reassuringly disembodied. Fear not said he... Everything has been personalized for you. That is what the script calls for, simply follow it. My landlords paid lip-service to the threat; they were concerned enough to circulate the warning but they were mildly subversive at the same time. I appreciate the fact that they passed the letter on without any editorial changes. Life is too short.

I know a ninetysomething year old lady who gave short shrift to the letter. She had seen it all before and instead regaled us with eye-opening tales of Red Scares and life during the Cold and paranoid War. In our apartment building it was lights out that brought us together. Our coping mechanism for these troubled times was conversation. Indeed in our hallways we were mostly outraged at the sense of insecurity that the letter tried to instill in us. Our search for community was organic and we hardly needed the intervention of that terrorism industry or that army of well-meaning bureaucrats. Not to mention that the urls listed in the letter turned out to be broken links as FEMA immediately revamped its website. At present, only the FEMA kids' disaster plan page remains up. Things fall apart they say.


Beyond the timing of the release of general warnings, non-specific and otherwise, it has been noted that the color-coded threat level system instituted in the US has been a little handicapped since its inception. The reason is that in order to have green be the colour for the "all-clear" threat level, the natural spectrum of light, as normally seen in rainbows, has been altered in the Homeland scheme. Thus ice cool blue has been promoted to "guarded" whereas tropical green has been demoted to "low". A bureaucrat or marketing person's intelligent design is at odds with evolution, physics and reality.

homeland security advisory system

I arrived in the United States at the end of the Cold War hence I missed most of the distortions that long episode had caused in the culture. I seem however to be getting an education in fear writ large over the past few years of homeland security. As I ponder a life unmoored in a sea of current liquid threats, I look fondly back to those days before sample letters came my way. These days I'm not aiming for green loot or greener pastures, I'd rather have the blues. I seek comfort in recent non-specific general threats, those I can live with.

<Apartment Operator: Insert your standard closing>

Next: The Game of the Rough Beast

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

World Cup Radio Toli

I tried to keep away, believe me... Last night, right after the movers departed with our possessions, I donned my Stephen Appiah shirt and headed to the WGBH studios to make an appearance on Radio Open Source to dispense some toli on the World Cup and sports as a leading indicator. You can download the podcast to listen if you care. It was my last Bostonian hurrah with Christopher Lydon, Chelsea Merz and crew, a show packed with both erudition and down home punditry. On the phone were Robert Lipsyte, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Patrick Belton and John Ralston Saul - cosmpolitans and sports lovers all.

Chris's pitch for the show was simple

What is this comprehensive "globalization" of sports stars, money, victory all about?

What is the story unfolding in this World Cup summer of empires falling and rising — empires of money and fashion as well as of national pride and prestige?

These were some notes I sent him over the weekend, my talking points, if you like, about possible directions for the topic: sports as leading indicator and sports as globalization off the top of my head.

On Sports as a Leading Indicator

You'd have to talk about the French team and its composition.

Zidane as the street gladiator. 17 of the 23 players are minorities. Cosmopolitans?

You'd also have to talk about how they are looked at by their countrymen... With love by most, but ambivalence or outright hostility by some (e.g. Jean Marie Le Pen).

You'd have to talk about the changing nature of the game and how everyone plays in Europe. The Brazilians have made almost one billion dollars selling their players to European teams. The Africans too, and these days many of the African teams were playing a very European game with only flashes of their previous freer flowing style.

What about identity and allegiances? I've pondered it recently.

Brazil, Argentina and Old Europe as the Great Powers; South Korea's showing in the last World Cup. Australia doing better than the US this time.

Rupert Murdoch built his empire on sports: Sky satellites... Fox Sports World and elsewhere as the expression of his parochial interests. The problem with the coverage: all highlights, all sensational, all superficial, all triumph over adversity, missing the subtext. Compare to Fox News.

Connect to the entirely ridiculous coverage by ESPN/ABC. Less said on that. I watched it all on Univision. This bit by Jeff Klein of the New York Times covers it all: The Sins of American Sportscasting.

Dana Blankenhorn too wrote about The Greatest Game Ever Played

Americans still have no clue about the World Cup, or of soccer in general.

The U.S. announcers are horrible. They talk about everything but the game in front of them. They repeat the back-story endlessly. They assume the ending and look two games ahead. They talk about other shows to be on the next day or the next week.

Tony Karon, whose coverage was excellent, had piped in earlier with How to Watch the World Cup.

I have a pretty good idea where Osama bin Laden will be on June 14 -- and June 19, and again on June 23. Not his exact location, but it's a safe bet he'll be in front of a TV tuned in to Saudi Arabia's World Cup soccer matches with, respectively, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Spain.

Sporting Blues

You'd have to talk about America's place in sports. Great Power? Things Fall Apart? Decline and Fall? I don't know but small things add up. You need some joie de vivre and the sports headlines should be providing comfort.

It was not a good 4th of July... No McEnroe, no Connors, no Agassi, no Sampras or Roddick, no Venus, no Serena, no Lindsay Davenport winning at Wimbledon. Instead a Swiss guy and a Spaniard are providing the excitement. And what about that tall Chinese woman who made the quarter finals and gave Clujsters the fits, Li Na? What about feet binding? The Chinese are coming...

Nathan's hot dog eating competition was won by Kobayashi again, a small Japanese guy out-ate red-blooded Americans. Hot dogs for God's sake.

If you watched the world cup on Independence Day you would have seen Italy against Germany (weren't they part of the original Axis of Evil back in the World War?).

The US team had been knocked out by Ghana, and it was the "Nigerian" player who bumped the guy and gave away the crucial penalty. Where is Ghana on the map again? And Ghana beat the Czechs, the number 2 team?

If you read the news, the front page of the New York Times showed a baby faced soldier in chains accused of rape and murder of a 15 year old girl and her family in Iraq, echoes of Abu Ghraib, erustication. He was wearing a black Johnny Cash shirt and looked vaguely gothic and troubled.

If you went to the movies you would have to make sure you didn't see An Inconvenient Truth, The Road to Guantanamo Bay or Army of Shadows as you got your Superman Returns tickets.

Things like that put a damper on the fireworks...

On the other hand, it is silly season, just a few bad apples. In other news, the Israelis are using American tanks to blow up Palestinian bridges and power stations...


You'd have to talk about Italy winning with deadly efficiency. You'd also have to mention the corruption back home in their football league.

Sports is big business, the global brand.

You'd have to talk about Fifa and the International Olympic Commision, bureaucracies created by English and Frenchmen but now totally their own thing. Who was that Spaniard at the IOC with his corrupt ways?

You could talk about how tribal identities are forged when you watch sports.

Sports bind the US more even than religion since there is that Church/State separation business.

The Germans started buying flags once again since their team did so well this time.

Gamesmanship: Portugal's diving cynicism and the head butts in the Netherlands match.

Togo and Cote d'Ivoire have been on the brink of a civil war but were quiescent for the past few months since their teams made it to the cup. What will the future bring?

In Ghana there is considerable nationalism now based on the way the team played. We came to win and did well. The nation fully expected that the cup would come back with the boys. Ghana flags are flying everywhere these days. Will this feeling be capitalized on in the economic sphere?

me Chris Lydon


Yannick Noah, the great French tennis player, was French when he won but was characteristically "of Cameroonian descent" when he lost. Similarly, the coverage of Zidane, and the urge to "understand" his actions, focuses on his Algerian immigrant upbringing. Wayne Rooney, who similarly lost his cool and shoved Ronaldo to be sent off must comes from the same immigrant school of hard knocks I suppose, as does Luis Figo whose head butt was unprovoked. Right?

Silvio Berlusconi's political career was supercharged by his ownership of a football club. How he would have loved to bask in the triumph of the Azzurris, the colour and slogan of his political party if he were still Prime Minister. Instead he was indicted for fraud days before the final.

I don't quite buy the argument that Americans only care about "their" sports (NFL, baseball, Nascar etc.) and will always remain indifferent to football and the World Cup. If there is one thing that America understands, it is attention and the impact of large numbers. Branding is the signal contribution America has made to the world. That is why there is a "World Series" in baseball even though much of the world doesn't play that game. Hence the excitement of a truly global game like football, one that literally is the lingua franca of the entire world, will permeate consciousness and attract participation. Soccer children will become the next generation's soccer moms and dads and will want to see their heroes make it on the global stage. Join the queue.

Wolves and Emperors

During the show, I tried to handwave a little about this notion of sports as a leading indicator, mixing my metaphors as is my custom, and I should explain what I was getting at. Poetically I started with the focus on small things like the current poor performance of the US in sports. Someone had brought up the Duke of Wellington in the conversation, but I rather harkened to The Boy Who Cried Wolf in that folktale as a leading indicator of perils that faced his community... To relate that to another folktale, the message in these leading indicators is often that The Emperor has no clothes. And I'd hazard that we are currently living in an imperial moment. The difference between the reception of the boy who cried wolf and the devastating impact of the boy who pointed out the emperor's hubris was that the words were said at a parade. Thus it is at social events or gatherings that we reflect on the zeitgeist and see things in their true light. Sporting events like our ceremonies and our public holidays are the grand events when communities come together. Politicians can't control the zeitgeist, nor can big businesses really control the human drama of sporting events. Still they can try, and I can recall Mr Bush delivering turkeys to the troops one recent Thanksgiving. I'm not so sure that there has been much comfort in this silly season of our discontent however. But perhaps one shouldn't make too much of these things.

In any case, head nods are due to my fellow panelists and to the Open Source crew who conjure up news feverishly every day, Chelsea, David, Brendan, Robin and the rest. The conversation continues apace.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Book of Toli

toli: n.1.A juicy piece of news. 2. The latest word or gossip. 3. The talk of the town, typically a salacious or risque tale of intrigue, corruption or foolishness. (Ga language, Ghana, West Africa)

I give you a guided tour to the first year and a half of toli. This is the material I would draw on if I had the time to fashion a novel out of my earlier musings on the blog (everything written before the appropriately titled Mind the Gap was fair game). I've tried to discern themes that were lurking in these writings to give an organizing principle to what were often cacophonous outpourings. As befits things written for an audience of one, these notes stand alone and can be read in any order. To date I've resisted the call for better organization of the blog and have been happy to let folks encounter the toli in their own way. This then is a gesture in the direction of friendliness of navigation (all those links on the right hand side were getting irritating).

The technology writings mostly constitute a separate collection, and I've been told to excise the music and literary pieces if I am actually serious about developing a good book proposal. On this last, I can't imagine my brand of toli without some consideration of art hence they remain firmly part of my elevator pitch. The current Things Fall Apart series essentially revisits these ideas with more formal constraints, something that I paradoxically am finding very liberating.

Looking at the list, it appears I've written quite a bit, and on many varied topics. In any case, I hope this proves useful to newcomers or that it serves to reintroduce old friends to the nascent toli that issued as I found my voice. Welcome again. July, 6, 2006. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I. The Journalistic Impulse

Strange Bedfellows

"I'm in the grip of the journalistic impulse."
This Be Ghana

Small Things

"You welcome the U.S. to the fun of the Third World."
This Be Ghana. This Be Koranteng

II. London's Got Soul

"Celebrating the South London Brew."
Catford cat

III. The Art of Toli

Musical Obsession

"If you live with a music lover you'll know that
there's something not quite right with them."
highlife musicians

Highlife Musicians

An Omnivorous Reader

"Quintessential abstractions flung across the table."

Frankies in Osu

IV. The New Formula

The B-Movie Theory

"Manifest Destiny revisited as farce."

Cultural Sensitivity

"It is rather in small, insignificant items that
the tribal instinct is articulated."
Mangoes in the garden

Oxford St, Osu RE

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The Great Move West

So The Wife and I leave for Berkeley in ten days. We have a weekend to do some furious packing before we hand our earthly possessions to those paragons of reliability known as The Movers. The chosen movers incidentally built in a lot of padding in their quote, 3,000 pounds worth of padding it seems, hmmmm, and there is some toli to be shared about their approach but I won't tempt fate until we safely receive said possessions on the other side. To paraphrase Dick Cheney, the last throes can be a very "interesting" phase.

All this to say that our time in Cambridge is fast drawing to a close (at least for the next couple of years), and that the Great Move West beckons.

Some would say it's about time, that 15 years living 10 minutes from your freshman dorm (and 11 years living 15 minutes from your office) indicates a certain aversion to change (or lack of imagination depending on your point of view). I've long found my relative stability a source of comfort. In any case, all change now...

I'll continue to work with Lotus/IBM - out of the San Francisco office with occasional forays to the Almaden lab. If you read the tea leaves closely you would have surmised that there was a transition 9 months ago, and that the work front has been more IBM than Lotus ever since. That switch made this westward journey easier and it has been good to be in a group ostensibly focused on web technologies.

I have been agitating for a certain reinvention of Big Blue with mostly middling results but my dark matter has occasionally warped things in the right direction which is pleasing. "This web thing is going to be big. Really!" I resisted the dot com temptation during that bubble, and I've been lucky enough on the whole to work on interesting technology. By and large, we've tended to keep in mind the effects of said technology on those who use it. Thus there is considerable delight in the problems I grapple with, and the solutions found, delight that overshadows the school of hard knocks that life sometimes enrolls you in (or voicemail hell to pick on a small thing).

If time permits, I'll share some assessments of the various tributaries of this chapter: Havard, Cambridge, Boston and the evolution of Lotus into IBM; some amateur anthropology perhaps from my ground level view. I suspect however that I'll be too busy engaging with the new to worry about such navel-gazing. Typically also, such things are better done at a certain remove.

I've been going through a fairly prolific phase of late, but now real life demands a blogging hiatus - at the very least until we settle on the new coast. In the interim I'll point you to a couple of new links intended to ease navigation on the blog: The Book of Toli and The Toli Technology Series. I'm slowly working up to The Pitch and hopefully there'll be good news when it's fully baked.

If you're in Boston you might well catch us at the Bastille Day business where Amadou and Mariam are purportedly performing - funny that one's last act in Boston is to listen to Malian and Senegalese musicians on the anniversary of the French Revolution, let them eat cake and all that) or at The Middle East on July 15th when The Brand New Heavies (!!!) and Van Hunt will do their thing. Some soulful and funky music to round out this chapter.

[Update] After the movers leave, I'll be doing a radio appearance on Radio Open Source on WGBH tonight Wednesday July 12th at 7pm, dispensing some toli on sports as a leading indicator. You can stream it live or listen to the podcast later. A last bostonian hurrah with Christopher Lydon, Chelsea Merz and crew.

Next stop Berkeley.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow

A friend was hurting very publicly the other day. The reason was friends and, as she vented, she even started reciting the cautionary lyrics of Jody Watley and Rakim's song of the same name.

Have you ever been stabbed in the back
By someone you thought was really cool?
And its infectious chorus
Friends will let you down.
Friend won't be around.
When you need them most, where are your friends?
And so forth. At that display, I thought I'd fulfill her request and send her the song in question. Of course my computer was falling apart as usual thus my impulse was thwarted, although I did begin to compile a playlist to cheer her up. 12 hours later, the computer seemed to have temporarily recovered, and with the benefits of a night's sleep, I decided to go beyond the dozen tracks I came up with off the top of my head.

Thus I give you the expanded Friends Playlist, and with it I can inaugurate a new banner in the Things Fall Apart series namely: The Comfort Suite. Said suite of course started with Mind the Gap and Comfort Food and Rare Groove. The theme of the playlist should be obvious: a musical head nod to the ties that bind as things fall apart.

Friends: A Playlist

It is fitting that we start with Friends, the most enduring hit of Jody Watley's greatest solo effort, her 1989 album, Larger than Life. It has aged better than the other songs that reached the top of the charts because of its subject matter.

Jody Watley Larger Than Life

As she sings, "I'm talking about your friends", and she delves into the pitfalls of the subject with her customary aplomb, a terrain where envy and deception sometimes reign. And then right on cue, The R, Rakim Allah himself, at the peak of his influence, drops knowledge with a controlled verse of worldly wisdom. All you have to say is "Friends are hard to find" and any hip-hop head will complete the line for you "so be careful" and go on from there. This is the prototype of the hip-hop soul that now permeates the charts and it works better than almost all of them because it is so balanced. The then reigning Queen of Soul met with the Crown Prince of hip-hop and their child was royalty. Andre Cymone's production is straight out of the Minneapolis Sound and the result is the perfect soul, hip-hop and pop song. Serendipitously a lesson from Jody Watley was discussed just on Friday; something must be in the air about this song.

Earlier on in her career with Shalamar in which she teemed up with Howard Hewett, she also had a hit with a different version of Friends thus this a topic that motivates our Jody.

Whodini too have a nice anthemic and bouncy version of Friends which can still turn a dancefloor alive. Old School hip-hop developed out of house parties and park gatherings of friends thus their take on Friends emphasizes the bonding rituals that prevail.

We are both Ghanaians, and on a nationalist high at the moment, hence we can turn to some glorious highlife from the motherland. The centerpiece of the playlist comes courtesy of the Beach Scorpions wonderful Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow. At almost ten minutes, this song is the definition of sublime: the shifting and unhurried drums, the tongue-in-cheek chorus, the light and intricate guitar fills that float around. Every lyric is repeated twice since the tale is cautionary. Call and response is part of our traditions, and we firmly believe that there is joy in repetition as far as these life lessons go. (Some kind soul uploaded it to youtube for your listening pleasure.)

Electric Highlife

Judge for yourself as the pidgin stylings and folk wisdom pour forth from the first line on
Don't disgrace me, what I do for you?
I do you good, but you can't remember

You know that, life is up and down
Wherever your are, wherever you are
oh my sister, oh yes. Oh my brother, oh yes

Friends today, Enemies tomorrow
Friends today, Enemies tomorrow
Highlife musicians combo

The matter gets complicated and we enlist onlookers in this affair
Mr Frankie, listen to my matter
Oh Brother Frankie, this is my matter
The time I get my money, I used to go without
The time I get my money, I say, I tell em it be for them
They don't remember what I do for them sometime ago
Oh my sister, what I do for them oh yes.

Friends today, Enemies tomorrow
Friends today, Enemies tomorrow
The case is well stated but then since Ghanaians wear their religion and politics on their sleeves, we get the invocation of the Golden Rule.
Love your neighbour as you love yourself
Wherever you are, wherever you are. Oh yes.
Oh my sister, wherever you are, oh yes.
Oh my brother, wherever you are, oh yes.
highlife musicians

Anthony Scorpion's plaintive voice meshes well with the mandolin and clarinet that punctuate the music. I defy you to keep from nodding your head or smiling to this laidback song and, well let me go for hyperbole, superb piece of liberation highlife.

The Beach Scorpions might well have been singing about Donald Rumsfeld. He too was so inconsistent when it came to Saddam, Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow is the theme song for the Axis of Hypocrisy. It's funny what a little Black Gold can do to these friendships of ours.

There is another reading of the song however, which is that Brother Scorpion was playing a Kweku Ananse ruse, and all this palava was a veiled appeal for money. The clue is in the line "They don't remember what I do for them sometime ago". "Sometime ago" is awfully imprecise and perhaps it is that he is basically broke and lazy and consequently trying to appeal to one's sense of shame (the word "enemies") and foggy memory ("they don't remember") in order to get some unearned cash. Well that's the paradox of friends today, enemies tomorrow.

The Beach Scorpions know all too well what Jealousy can cause and they sing to their wives
Jealousy will kill you, take your time,
Watch yourself. Oh my wife...
Look your face in the mirror
You'll see that you'll grow lean
Again there is considerable mischief in their singing. One wonders if the jealousy wasn't a little deserved as these guys run around town with the groupies that every musician typically garners.

Musically close to Jody's track is Rumors by Timex Social Club from the aptly titled Vicious Rumours album.

Sometimes it is simply a matter of Games as Chuckii Booker would have it, and he should know given that he was Turned Away earlier in his career. Mark Morrison interpolated that song with Return of the Mack and maybe Macks, and the games they play, are the root cause of our problems with friends.

Jonathan Butler chimes in with Lies
Wish I could have seen it in your eyes.
Lies. But I never did... realize.
As do the Thompson Twins if you prefer your lies served as New Wave pop.

Prince will oblige with Old Friends for Sale but you can always make new ones, at least that has been my experience. But if you do want to hang on to them, Prince's case is instructive and indeed he eventually reconciled with those who made him sing those heady words:
The sun set on my heart this evening
For someone who said they would die for me.
Donnie recently sang You've Got A Friend in The Colored Section which sounds reasonable enough.

I won't mention Dionne Warwick singing That's What Friends Are For since you presumably know that what you want out of friends often isn't what you get.

The Dramatics however claim that What You See Is What You Get, but that is dubious when one considers the vagaries of the human factor.

And how about Vesta Williams with the infectious Once Bitten, Twice Shy which was contemporaneous with Jody and Rakim's take.


And for a good mix from the same era how about Robbie Nevil's wonderful slice of pop life: C'est la vie. The chorus:
C'est la vie
C'est la vie
That's just the way it goes
That's life
And while on that same theme, how about Earth Wind and Fire's That's The Way Of The World. I'm always happy after I listen to that one especially the live version. An anthem for the hard knock life that Oliver (by way of Dickens), Annie and Jay-Z know about. One really needs to hang in there under the circumstances.

As Ruby Turner sang in that neglected UK soul album produced by Womack and Womack, It's Gonna Be Alright. The Blacksmith remix was my friends' soundtrack back in 1989.

We must be mindful of what The O'Jays termed Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind Of People but your mileage may vary. This, of course, was part of their Back Stabbers album and the title track is often relevant in friendships.

Brenda Russell and her then husband sand a duet on Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me Of A Friend). Was that prescience about their later break up? Who knows, but you wonder sometimes whether life imitated art or if it was the reverse. She also later followed up the pragmatic soul anthem In the Thick of It and the message was "better get a grip and get it on".

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes pose the question as follows: Where Are All My Friends?

Fried provide the answer with Friends in Lo Places. Those who know, know Fried. Jonte Short is down low, and with that unique voice of hers, gives us a soulful notion of Portishead by way of Memphis and the Fine Young Cannibals. Her voice is languid and bluesy; the song is great, what else can I say.


Gary Numan asks Are Friends Electric. He is our greatest electro-pop auteur.

Cheryl Lynn notes that it's Got to be Real (although that more properly belongs in a love playlist if you want to be a pedant about these things).

Donny Hathaway reprises The Beatles' Jealous Guy and gives it soul flavour, the music that is, not the jealousy which is the eternal temptation ever since Cain.

Colonel Abrams lets bygones be bygones but rues How Soon We Forget. He also had that dancefloor groove of Trapped but that is not quite appropriate here.

You Remind Me courtesy of Patrice Rushen is wistful and has been sampled to death. It's no wonder Prince was in love with her although she was the one who got away. And what a voice, her appeal is Straight From the Heart

Emeline Michele - Bastille Day

Count Basie's Orchestra was all about Dinner With Friends in those late night jook joints that were the essence of swing.

Charlie Parker insists with typical lyricism that Just Friends should be invited to said dinner. Bird was a sensitive soul who couldn't suffer fools. Unfortunately when it came to his addictions he didn't follow his advice.

Abstrac's I'll Be Your Friend features Bernard Bell and is full of reassurance.

The Winans sing about A Friend, a simple gospel tune from a band of brothers produced by Teddy Riley with his customary keyboard work. "There is a friend that sticks closer than every brother". The Quakers, that original Society of Friends, would no doubt nod their heads to that message.

Donny Hathaway returns with We're Still Friends through the ups and downs.

Eddie Kendricks gets more precise on the nature of the friendship with a song called Intimate Friends. Those are the best ones, the ones that go beneath the surface.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong playfully debate gentle letdowns in Can't We Be Friends. They resolve things amicably, well who can deny Satchmo?

Simply Red have a partial answer to that question namely sometimes Money's Too Tight to Mention
Oh money, money, money
Truer words have never been sang.
We're talking about Reaganomics...

We're talking about money, money
Yeah, money, money. Oh money, money.

We're talking about the dollar bill
And an old man that's over the hill
Now what are we supposed to do?
This is my favourite song from Mick and the boys, and the album cover shows him as an Oliver Twist in the making since trickle-down and supply-side mantras leave much to be desired in the world commons. Nay they lead to the poorhouse, or is it Bleak House, Hard Times and worse? The song, and Dickens, remain very relevant today it is sad to say. Heck it's enough to make Warren Buffett Turn Against God.

Simply Red Picture Book

Full Force with Friends B-4 Lovers are typographically innovative and put friendship B-4 sex which is a sound strategy for lasting relationships (and safe sex).

Gladys Knight and The Pips invite us to get on board the Friendship Train. On the other hand they also sang about catching that Midnight Train to Georgia and that was their more enduring musical legacy. Hmmm.

Again going back to Ghana, we turn to Guyoyo whose electric highlife inveighs against Osikuni Atamfo (Gossiper Enemies)

Annie Lennox of Eurythmics posited that There Must Be An Angel playing with her heart and who can blame her. One hopes it wasn't her compere, Dave Stewart. The heavenly chorus: "Must be talking to an angel".

kuumba 35th year reunion

She should have listened to Jonathan Butler's Melodie, a soothing instrumental guaranteed to ensure soul survival.

Those southern knights known as The Crusaders, erstwhile of Street Life fame, want us to "Keep on, Keep that Same Old Feeling". Those good old days of pure friendships and southern comfort...

Best Of Friends by Lenny White is a classic bit of jazz-funk, a celebration of those that enrich our lives.

Biz Markie's Just a Friend is about betrayal sang in an off-key voice
Baby you
Got what I need
And you you say he's just a friend
And you you say he's just a friend
Jonathan Butler is quite the flirt with More Than Friends, the title track of his 1988 album which saw him continue with the themes of lies. The album features the then-ascendant Teddy Riley to liven things up a little.

More than friends

Surface cut to the chase, they want to be Closer Than Friends. I've always thought it was just a seductive come-on and the song certainly sounds that way, but perhaps they are just echoing the words of The Godfather, Michael Corleone that is, namely
Keep your friends close but your enemies closer
Michael Jackson is Just Good Friends with Stevie Wonder. There were hysterical concerns about the nature of some of MJ's later friendships but really they are pure ones, even judicially certified. Judgment matters when it comes to friends you need to figure out who's bad.

Musiq Soulchild is more concise with Just Friends (Sunny). An optimistic song about yearning and wanting to hang out without hidden agendas. If only it was always so.

S.O.S. Band deliver the message of the hour with the exuberant Just Be Good to Me. The full flowering of Jam & Lewis's take on the Minneapolis Sound was in the irresistible grooves they wrote for the S.O.S. Band and they never looked back. We all need the occasional SOS Band.

S.O.S Band

Chubb Rock provides some sound advice in Treat Em' Right. As the saying goes:
The Fat Lady sang
I crushed her
Word up The Chubbster
Father MC retorts that you should Treat Them Like They Want To Be Treated to the sounds of Jodeci's chorus. He's upset about those who act all warm and cuddly only to play around with his mind when his guard is down. It is only later that he adds "you should treat them right" and it is almost an afterthought.

Prince wants to be friends and not just your boyfriend. I remember the LoveSexy tour in 1988/89, when he would sing If I Was Your Girlfriend and bring the house down with its minimalist Linn drums and Camille voice. And there was that bed on the stage business to add to the sexual confusion.

Me'Shell NdegéOcello takes no prisoners and even delivers some playground taunts
If that's your boyfriend
If that's your boyfriend
Then he wasn't last night.
That's a bit harsh but such is the life of Plantation Lullabies; this is the school of hard knocks that we are talking about. It's enough to Make You Wanna Holler as she sang in the Peace Beyond Passion album not coincidentally released on the Maverick label.

MeShell NdegeOcello Peace Beyond Passion

Jaguar Wright goes Woman to Woman and has a chat with someone who happens to be sharing her man. Some friendships are born of dysfunction and co-dependency but we are nothing if not social beasts.

Pebbles in Girlfriend takes up the time-honoured task of the concerned friend who witnesses a break up and mixes harsh truths
How could you let him treat you so bad?
Uh oh.
with the kind words that befit a good pep-talk
You know you were the best he ever had. Oh oh
She even gets all existentialist quoting The Bard, Shakespeare that is, by way of Hamlet
To be or not to be. That is the question.
She adds the urban analysis
It just takes a street degree.
And then comes the chicken grease of the song:
You cried your last cry
I've lied my last lie.
I'm out the door, Babe
There's other fish in the sea.
If only I could count the number of times my female friends have sang those words to my face, and with a quite vicious intent in their face and voice. L.A. and Babyface broke through commercially with their production on this song and never looked back since. Incidentally if memory serves me right, Pebbles's words of wisdom got her married to L.A. Reid.


Ronnie Laws gives us Friends and Strangers, soothing jazz funk for two-faced operators. "Doublé" as I used to say in secondary school. If you care, the remix by Madlib is infused with some fiercesome drums.

On the pure jazz front we can turn to Sonny Rollins's version of Just Friends. When Rollins plays for Bird you know its all about friends

Rollins plays for Bird

Tina Turner boldly states that What You Get Is What You See and, well, Ike Turner didn't hold anything back in their relationship. He was like Jody Watley, larger than life.

Samuelle's So You Like What You See is the missing link of the New Jack Swing movement and is graced by one of Teddy Riley's best songs. "You better get with the program". Incidentally this album was available for 6 cents on Amazon. I bought another copy to send to a friend. Really there's one great song there, it's worth your time.

We then turn to War's Why Can't We Be Friends and this gets us into matter of politics; maybe those neocon rogues could listen to this tune. It's not a zero-sum game, and the prisoner's dilemma will only put us on The Road to Guantanamo Bay.

Amel Larrieux sang Get Up a few years ago to motivate her friends about the Infinite Possibilities in the world. By the way some friendly advice from your lowly DJ, her new album is the truth, run to your record store or iTunes as appropriate.

Jonathan Butler pleads Take Me Home, another instrumental track from More than Friends. He was sorely missing his friends in South Africa living all those years in the US as he did. People like to forget apartheid and downplay its human costs but they are still with us, and this song provides musical evidence. The most talented musicians were forced into exile and, even if some landed well like Butler did, it is worth remembering all those friendships that had to be put on hold for P.W. Botha, De Klerk and those other rogues.

Isaac Hayes Shaft

Isaac Hayes, Black Moses himself, preaches about A Friend's Place and one hopes friends don't get the Shaft.

Tweet sings Best Friend with Bilal who reciprocates with Soul Sista. Bilal too turned in an unreleased version of Prince's How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore? which is far better than Alicia Keys' take. Of course Bilal is the greatest jazz singer to play the soul scene. As Marc Anthony Neal put it in Songs in the Key of Black Life, Bilal quite literally pimps the microphone.

Bilal 1st Born Second

Kirk Franklin on the other hand received A Letter From My Friend a graceful gospel ballad. He certainly knows how to put a choir to good use.

Vesta Williams' Congratulations is about that quite common emotion termed Schadenfreude. The occasion is her being informed of a friend's impending marriage, it's about the one who got away. Thus she wails
I thought it would be me
Standing next to you
And so forth. She also has that Relationships album for a full length treatment of such matters.

Cameo contribute one of their rare ballads to this soundrack: Friend To Me. The interplay between the voice and the horns make this delicate song a great testimonial. Sometimes however, they get pointed and will come back with You're Talking Out The Side Of Your Neck on the She's Strange album.

Eddie Kendricks explains that He's A Friend Of Mine, Eddie is one of those Temptations who Keeps on Truckin'.

The Hollies make it a matter of family with He Ain't Heavy (He's my Brother) and again we turn to Donny Hathaway's version which is full of the pathos the song deserves.

Donny Hathaway Live

Donny Hathaway also contributes You've Got A Friend which he reprised in his duet album with Roberta Flack.

In the same vein we can turn to Rodgers and Hammerstein's You'll Never Walk Alone from Carousel, a song beloved by Liverpool football fans all over (speaking as one). It builds the tribal connection quite effectively. Nina Simone's instrumental version is poignant and reflective on Little Girl Blue, her big coming out party whose fortieth anniversary is right around the corner.

Nina Simone Little Girl Blue

Incognito, the acid jazz pioneers, intone that you're Still A Friend Of Mine and more will be forthcoming on said group and genre.

Van Hunt recognizes Suspicion (She Knows Me Too Well). You can't hide certain things from good friends even if you try. There's also the bit about being Down Here in Hell (With You).

Les Nubians and Morgan Heritage mix France, Congo, Jamaica, French and English and ask Brothers and Sisters to "give thanks a praise to the Almighty".

Zap Mama get to Yellin' Away with Talib Kweli and Common in the camaraderie of Ancestry in Progress.

I've previously discussed Cherrelle singing My Friend in the context of her affair with Randy Ran and friendships are things that endure at Home.

And apropos affairs, Sade claims that she's not one to Turn My Back On You.

To raise the feelgood quotient, I suppose we can include Bill Withers' Lean on Me. Perhaps though we should try the funky version of that song done by Club Nouveau, the revamped Timex Social Club in that album about Life, Love & Pain you can't go wrong with that song. The boys also had a hit with Jealousy and perhaps that is part of what is up in these cases.

Life Love and Pain

Zhané know that it's all about the party and the need to unwind.
I am ready to call my friends
So we can all get down
With the party
Hey Hey, Mr DJ
Hey Mr DJ
You can get this started
If I'm asked this nicely, I try to deliver. Renée Neufville continued her collaboration (and presumably friendship) with Roy Hargrove and gave us "Drop it On the One"


Aretha Franklin is a preacher's daughter and goes back to the source in What A Friend We Have In Jesus, a song performed with such Amazing Grace.

Earth, Wind & Fire are soulful prophets and say that you should Keep Your Head To The Sky. The live version of course is coupled with Devotion and that's what we seek of our best friends.

De La Soul enlist the Native Tongues with Buddy. The remix takes Tanaa Gardner's Heartbeat and turns it into a collective exercise in celebrating friendships. It features the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Monie Love and Queen Latifah and embodies the best of hip-hop.

The end of this playlist will be Friends To The End by Wreckx-N-Effect. Featuring the Redhead Kingpin (of Do the Right Thing fame), this is the best that those Soul Men released. On an album that introduced the New Jack Swing, and foreshadowed Rump Shakers and such, this was the standout track. A posse cut is all about friendship and they oblige with verbal dexterity, wit and that ineffable feeling we call kinship. The first line states the thesis: "We've had the peanut butter now it's time for the jelly". We've gone from Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow to Friends to the End.

I'm sure you have your own favourite songs about friends and I'm sure the suggestions will be forthcoming and they are welcomed. I called it quits at around 100 songs. In any case, it will be a while longer before I can add to this list: the computer gave up the ghost right after I burned the cd (and possibly for good). As they say things fall apart. Still I hope I managed to give some comfort in this suite.

Hang in there Bubu. The cd is in the mail.

Balla Tounkara

P.S. I'll happily burn some more cds when I get the new computer.

Friends, a Playlist

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