Monday, August 18, 2008

Yester-Fear




The endless anti-Russian ranting really takes me back. I figured we were locked into at least two generations of Arab bashing and demonization, when suddenly the old reliable bear blows some shit up and rolls those monster tanks that once were intended for Anytown, USA, when the commie takeover was complete, and we'd be marched at bayonet-point to the local propaganda office for ID and instructions or be shot in the head for bourgeois resistance. Comforting times. An enemy you could seriously fear, if you were paranoid enough, that is. Beyond unleashing its nuclear weapons, there wasn't any real threat from the Soviets, as we now know. But back then -- booga! booga! Fluoridation was the opening salvo . . .

Our Drill Sergeants fanned this fear during Boot Camp. This was a few months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and about a year or so before the threats to Poland's Solidarnosc, the one labor union that both American reactionaries and the corporate media could warmly embrace. So the atmosphere was thick with anti-Soviet dread; and man, did our DS' really drive it home.

"Your Russian infantryman is one tough motherfucker," SSG Arrandwind would say, a large, sun-baked Southerner with two combat tours of Vietnam under his expansive belt. "The Germans killed 20 million Russians in the Second World War, and the krauts still got their asses handed to them. The Red Army played for keeps, and shot any German surrendering. They have no mercy, and once they get going, it's you or them."

This conditioning spread to the firing range, where some of the targets were draped in what appeared to be Soviet fatigue tops, a large red star on each chest. This gave us young fucks added inspiration to kill commies, our sworn enemy, an enemy we were taught to respect and not underestimate. Why, as another DS darkly hinted, there were probably Soviet agents infiltrating our base at that very moment. Maybe he was a KGB operative, for all we knew. The Soviets were everywhere and nowhere. They could speak Brooklyn English or affect a thick Texas drawl with little effort. Study hard and learn the signs. The communists were boring from within. Relaxation in the defense of liberty was a potentially fatal vice. And so on.

I doubt that today's Russophobes can ever reach such rhetorical heights, primarily because the present Russian state is capitalist. It's not about competing ideologies anymore, but a competition for resources, geopolitical positioning, and economic advantage. Still, some old habits remain, and the fact that the US, via NATO, is encircling Russia with military bases and client regimes is not lost on former apparatchiks like Vladimir Putin. Communism may have killed 100 million people, but capitalism has slaughtered and starved even more, a brutal fact reinforced to this day. I'm sure that Putin has no problem adding to the dollar-driven body count; the only trouble is, that's our racket. The Soviets dissolved and re-emerged as cutthroat capitalists. That's where the profitable action is. My Drill Sergeants were right. Those bastards are indeed clever.

While this Russian threat talk gives me a nice retro-buzz, it also reinforces my love for cultural rip-offs. "Fridays," the American Football League, the American Basketball Association, the World Football League, the World Hockey Association, Wes Anderson films (Hal Ashby homages), among numerous others, have long inspired me. Sure, it's great to be original or break new ground. But that can only be done once. Everything afterwards is derivative in some way, and the real test is whether one can make the imitation as good as the original, or through innovation and risk, better. Sometimes this happens, as the AFL and ABA modernized and opened-up their respective sports. But most times, the imitation falls short.

I wouldn't compare The Monkees to The Beatles, simply because the two bands were so unequal in musical achievement and aesthetic approach. Well, mostly, anyway. The Monkees never pretended to be on The Beatles' level, which lent them a certain freedom once their "Hard Day's Night" TV romps began to bore them, and they sought to destroy their manufactured image through self-parody and inside critiques, culminating in their 1968 masterpiece, "Head."

This is perhaps the only time The Monkees outdid The Beatles. "Head" was a trippy act of conceptual suicide, while "Magical Mystery Tour" was a tedious mess, boasting some great songs and a few fine scenes (John Lennon as a grinning waiter literally shoveling food onto a customer's plate), but nothing approaching what The Monkees pulled off. "Head" also had political content, mostly images from the slaughter in Vietnam, which for a plastic pop band with young female fans was rather startling. (Makes sense, given that producer Bert Schneider would later win an Academy Award for his anti-Vietnam war film, "Hearts and Minds.") In one of the opening scenes, where multiple screens show various bits from later in the movie, the final image is the infamous execution of a "Vietcong" suspect by Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a single pistol shot to the head, after which we hear a girl screaming. But she's not reacting to the murder; she's screaming for The Monkees, who are about to perform on stage.

The implication is that some American youth were more interested in distractions like The Monkees than with free-fire zones in Vietnam. If Schneider and director Bob Rafelson really wanted to sharpen this point, they might've presented The Monkees with a back-up band, as was the case in their first performances together in early-1966. That would strengthen "The money's in/We're made of tin/We're here to give you more" premise. But by this time, The Monkees were a tight band who could play without outside help. The monster, as Micky Dolenz put it, had come to life. The actors who played a rock group became an actual rock group, just in time for their destruction. Here's a vivid example of this -- Mike Nesmith's "Circle Sky," from a concert given in Salt Lake City in May 1968. Dolenz's drumming had advanced to such a degree that Frank Zappa offered him a spot in the Mothers Of Invention, which Dolenz turned down. Too bad. That would've been an interesting hybrid.

This performance is among The Monkees' rawest, and as with much of "Head," is interwoven with Vietnam, including the execution mentioned above. It's as if Miley Cyrus, in the middle of a Hannah Montana movie, had one of her songs intercut with savage scenes from Afghanistan and Iraq. Given her music, such imagery could only improve the sound.