Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Next Christmas Album You Need to Buy

It may seem strange to talk about a Christmas album right now. In fact, trying to buy Christmas music right now is like trying to buy home heating oil #2. The refineries have stopped making heating oil, switching over to gasoline for the summer, and they won't go back to heating oil until September. In the same way, this is the wrong season for retailers to be putting Christmas music on the shelves and advertising it. All of their Christmas CDs are in the warehouse, where they will remain until Thanksgiving.

Or Halloween.

Or Labor Day.

Unless you're an online retailer. Then it's Christmas all year long.

But I digress. (I'm allowed to do that. E' il mio gioco; le regole, le faccio io.) Let's talk about Christmas music.

Last December, I heard a music review on National Public Radio, of a new Christmas album by Sting, called If On a Winter's Night... . (Yes, the ellipsis is part of the title.) The reviewer played clips of some of the songs, and talked about a few of the tracks, enough to make me want to buy the CD. So I did.

I think I played it once last winter, and not even all the way through. But it's been sitting on my shelf for six months now, and I recently decided to try it again. It's much more listenable the second (and third) time around.

If you're in the mood for Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song or John Denver and the Muppets' The Twelve Days of Christmas, this album just won't do it for you. It's a very introspective album. Each song invites the listener to go with Sting, deep into the emotions and the thoughts that are the underpinnings of The True Meaning of Christmas.

There's no catchy Winter Wonderland in this album, and no Beach Boys harmonies. Even Natalie Cole's beautiful rendition of Mary, Did You Know doesn't dig as deep as the lyrics on this album, and Natalie's Mary does dig deep. Each song on this album takes one emotion, and examines it in the light of the season, to a depth (sometimes a surprisingly dark depth) that may make the casual listener uncomfortable.

But don't listen to the album casually. Allow yourself the luxury of really getting into it. And take time to read the accompanying booklet.

The music, both the composition and performance, are superb. Because it isn't tied to the rhythms of the traditional carols like Silent Night, or the contemporary jingles like Winter Wonderland, the music is as deeply introspective as the lyrics, and the music matches the lyrics in magical ways. Besides that, Sting takes advantage of the opportunity to showcase his musical talent, to do some virtuoso things that you won't hear on commercial radio.

It may be too deep, too dark, for you. Borrow it or sample it before you decide to buy. Don't plan on playing it at a Christmas party. It's not that kind of music. It will kill the party in a hurry. But on a winter's night, when you're home alone or with the one person in the world who understands you, put it on and allow Sting to pull you in to a different kind of Christmas experience.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

That Didn't Take Long: McChrystal is Out, Petraeus is In

This morning, President Obama announced that General David Petraeus would be taking General McChrystal's place as the head military guy in Afghanistan by General David Petraeus. General Petraeus did a great job turning the Iraq war around, and had been serving as the head of the U.S. Central Command, which includes Asia and the Middle East. Petraeus will actually be stepping down one level to fill the Afghanistan slot.

David Petraeus is a highly regarded officer and an extremely intelligent person. He has figured out how to work with, or maybe around, all the civilian meddlers and egomaniacs in Washington. This may work out satisfactorily after all.

But I'll bet you good money that no reporter from Rolling Stone will be invited to accompany Petraeus anywhere -- or any other military leader -- ever again.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Keep General McChrystal; fire some of the civilians instead

A Rolling Stone reporter got a chance to interview General Stanley McChrystal, currently (but maybe not for much longer) head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The reporter, Michael Hastings, was supposed to fly home after two days, but then the volcano in Iceland blew its top, and the reporter ended up following McChrystal and his staff across Europe and all the way to Kandahar and back to Washington. The two-day trip turned into, what was it, 28 days? Longer?

(NPR aired a telephone interview with Hastings today. That's where I got those facts from. Hastings sounded a little stressed out -- he lashed out unnecessarily at Michelle Norris, the NPR interviewer. He's back in Kandahar, and I think that maybe he needs to come home.)

The result of spending 28 days with the general and his staff, with his "notebook in one hand and tape recorder in the other," as he said it, was that he saw the general and his staff let their hair down a few times, and it became clear in those unguarded moments that the military leaders in Afghanistan do not have a lot of respect for the civilian leaders in Washington.

Now, we could debate whether that's right or wrong, and whether the military leaders are supposed to, as Oliver North said, "salute smartly and charge up the hill" or whether they're allowed to have (and voice) their own opinions. I don't want to debate the rightness or wrongness of the general's behavior.

Political reality being what it is, he's toast. But firing him would be the stupidest thing those civilians in Washington could do right now. McChrystal has pointed out, without actually saying it, that Afghanistan has out-Vietnamed Vietnam. It's a war run by the civilians in Washington, an appalling number of whom have never held a gun or stood in a uniform. That was one of the big mistakes of Vietnam.

Let the warriors run the war, for Pete's sake. Nobody in the White House right now knows how to fight a war. The president surrounds himself with experts, he says, but they're the wrong kind of experts. There is no Colin Powell, no Norman Schwartzkopf, to provide the perspective of Someone Who's Been There.

McChrystal was absolutely right when, in January, he stood up to Vice President Joseph Biden when Biden wanted to put more UAVs and fewer troops into Afghanistan. And the contempt for the civilian leadership, which unfortunately leaked out during the reporter's stay, and which was also unfortunately published for all the world to see, is a contempt that those civilian leaders have earned.

Would it have been better if McChrystal had enforced the discipline among his staff so that they kept all of that contempt bottled up while the reporter was around? The contempt was real, and to hide it for 28 days would have been dishonest.

If McChrystal is fired for this episode, it will be because he was honest. And once the political leadership of this country starts firing people because of their honesty, we're in trouble.

You may not believe me. You don't have to. But I was right about the banks, I was right about the car companies, and I was right about the post-Nov-2008 Democrats. I'm right about this, too. You'll see.

Postscript: Hastings said (to quote NPR) that he "remembered being shocked by the general's candor and outspokenness during interviews, but he did not anticipate his article would cause the hullabaloo it has." That's baloney. He entitled his article "The Runaway General," indicating that he knew exactly what kind of reaction the article would get. After spending weeks witnessing the honesty of a great man, Hastings resorted to a lie to try and weasel out of taking responsibility for his own words.

Save us from inept politicians and spineless reporters.