The List with a Twist: Rhythm and Rhyme but no Singing Time

Lest anyone think that I listen to nothing but hard rock (Perish the thought!), today I present my ten favorite voices in rap and hip-hop.

To be clear: I am not talking about the best rappers, nor the best lyricists. The ability to compose and say meaningful and interesting things is an element I considered, but it was not the biggest element in this selection. If it were, then Eminem would be on here, because I think he’s a brilliant writer (Who occasionally writes really dumb and offensive shit) and an amazing rapper. His voice, however, bugs the crap out of me. So he’s not on the list.

Here’s who made my list: people with good tone to their voice, first and foremost. For rap, I actually prefer deeper voices, though not exclusively. I cannot abide nasal voices for rappers, so Cypress Hill, even though I like their music, are out. I still like grit, but I appreciate a smooth tone in a rapper, and so I have both on this list. I admire speed and precision when it comes to rapping, as well as unique and recognizable style. And of course, it has to be good music: so 50 Cent would never make the cut. Sorry, Fitty.

Lastly, I have to note: I am old. I am pretty much the same age as rap itself. I like the rap I grew up with more than the rap today, and so most of this is old school, rather than new school. That’s just how it is. But if anyone wants to suggest a modern rapper with a good voice and musical chops, I’d be interested. But for now, here are my picks.

 

Chuck D of Public Enemy: My personal favorite. Best lyrics in rap, probably the best voice, and the music is good, too. I think of it this way: Flavor Flav is so bad — so annoying, so completely without talent, his voice so obnoxious — that he drags Public Enemy down: and yet this is still a great band. That’s all Chuck D.

And since I live here, and since this is one of their best, it has to be this song.

 

Big Daddy Kane:

He’s kind of a putz (Much too much of the egotistical “I’m big pimpin’!” kind of attitude), but you just can’t argue with that voice and the speed and clarity of his rapping.

 

(Bonus track: these first two together. With Ice Cube just as a filler in between them, and Flavor Flav to annoy you just in the beginning. Big Daddy Kane here gives what may be my favorite 30 seconds of rap music ever, starting at 1:25.)

 

Dr. Dre: Not really a big fan of gangsta rap, but — nobody does it better. Nobody.

 

 

Above the Law’s Cold-187um: I admit that this choice is largely because of this one song, which is one of my all-time favorites; but this guy — also known as Big Hutch — is damn good at this, both sound and flow. I also like that he studied jazz in college. Gangsta.

 

MCA: I love the Beastie Boys. I always have. I grew up on them — they were the first rappers I liked, and because of them, I kept looking for good rap, unlike so many of my friends that just completely turned away from rap. But I had both Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique memorized, every word, every song. But in terms of voice? It’s all MCA. Mike D is fine, neither good nor bad; AdRock has that damn annoying nasal whine, though it works well with their overall sound. But I loved hearing Adam Yauch. I love this video, too — because it seems just like three friends being goofy together in their basement. Which is pretty much the band’s whole career.

 

Queen Latifah: I could almost put Queen Latifah on the list for best voices in rock, because her singing is beautiful all by itself; but if not there, she belongs on this list, no question. Amazing talent. Here — she sings on the chorus, too.

 

Zack de la Rocha: I think Rage Against the Machine is an utterly unique band. More than anything else, I give them credit for recognizing what they could do together, how well they could make this strange mix of rap and heavy metal work. But the only reason — the only reason — they could make it work is Zack de la Rocha. Tom Morello is one of the best and most innovative guitarists in hard rock, and the rhythm section is as strong as any; but without de la Rocha, this is a good hard rock band. With him, they are one of a kind. De la Rocha can stand as one of the instruments, carrying the melody, even without a melody. That is how remarkable his voice is. And he can write about anything, and he can rap perfectly — even when he’s covering someone else’s song. As he does here, with Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” Which is originally performed by two men. Because de la Rocha doesn’t need to breathe. Listen to the live version of this sometime, when he shares the mike with Cypress Hill: the difference in how clear and cutting his voice is, compared to Cypress Hill, says it all.

And the intro is hilarious.

 

KRS-One: Rapper from Boogie Down Productions from the 80’s. I think he’s a smug bastard — he frequently calls himself The Teacher, and lectures and proselytizes and criticizes everyone, particularly other rappers, though he doesn’t strike me as that enlightened. But he is damned talented.

 

Busta Rhymes: So this guy’s videos are the weirdest freaking things I’ve ever seen. And his lyrics are frequently the sort of exploitative, racist, sexist, violent rhymes that make people dislike rap. But that grinding voice is inimitable and aggressive and powerful, and his speed is unmatched. If you can handle the weirdness of the little blue demon and the fisheye lens, listen to the fascinating combination of a slow violin melody with a fast beat and lightning fast rhymes.

 

Shock G: Another band that I loved in my youth; another pair of albums (Sex Packets and the Same Song EP) that I memorized. Which means I was a fan of Tupac before he was big. That’s right. But much more a fan of Shock-G, who led the group and also performed as Humpty Hump. And this is the song that got me. And a great note to end on.

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The Runners-Up… No, That Sounds Terrible. The Almost Made It List. The Next Best Thing. Miss Congeniality.

These are the singers that I was considering for my List of Twenty Greatest Singers, but for one reason or another they didn’t quite make the cut. These are great singers, but not the best, in my opinion; but I did struggle with several of these, and that’s why I wanted to recognize them: because on some days, these folks would be on my top twenty, and some of the top twenty would slide down a few spaces onto this list.

It should be said that while I am judging these people, they are nonetheless rock stars, who have made a career, and generally millions of dollars, performing and entertaining millions of fans. So my placing them on the B-list should really be taken with a grain of salt — a grain of salt worth millions of dollars, and gold records, and Grammy awards, and screaming fans. And, of course, this is all subjective, and so my list will still be missing people that others think are the voice of a generation, or whatever cliche you prefer.

In no particular order. No, actually, let’s make it alphabetical order so it doesn’t feel like I’m necessarily ranking them within this list.

 

B is for Bono. There are some things I don’t like about Bono, and U2, but it’s hard to argue with the idea that Bono is an icon of rock music, or that his singing is recognizable, or that he’s a talented singer with a great range. Is his singing unique? Not always. Are his songs coverable? Yup. Do some of them suck? Well, yeah. So he’s on the B list. But sometimes, there’s nothing better than driving by yourself and wailing off key to this song. (And this video shows some of the reasons I don’t love Bono. Look at that poor drummer. A rock drummer standing with a tambourine? How uncomfortable is that guy? I feel bad for that guy. I blame Bono for that.)

 

D is for David Draiman. I have never enjoyed Disturbed’s music. But I’ve often been impressed by Draiman’s voice, by the power and range he shows even while his singing style bugs the crap out of me. My wife and I heard this song on the radio a month or so ago, and we were both impressed and completely stumped as to who it was, because it didn’t sound like any band we could name, but we couldn’t believe that an unknown could pull that off. (Though it wouldn’t be the first time — see S.) And when we found out it was Disturbed, we were — well, Disturbed. Because that means that all this time, we could have been enjoying the work of a singer that talented — but instead, we had to listen to him shout “Ooo- WAHAHAHA!” So this also represents all the great singers who choose to scream instead of sing, and thus lose me.

 

E is for Melissa Etheridge. I could replace this with a half-dozen other women (And maybe I should do a Great Women of Rock list) who are tough to include on my top list because of their musical style not quite being rock enough or not quite my preference, but their voices being wonderful and enchanting. So for Sarah McLachlan and Annie Lennox and Joss Stone and Cyndi Lauper et al, here you are.

 

H is for Rob Halford. I like Judas Priest. I just don’t like them as much as Iron Maiden. And those two bands feel very, very similar to me. And I don’t like Halford’s singing as much as I like Bruce Dickinson’s. But there’s not a whole lot of difference between them, and given time, my opinion might change. So here he is, in the reserves, just waiting for Wally Pipp to have a slump. (That may be the only baseball reference I have made in 100 posts on this blog. So enjoy that.)

 

L is for Aaron Lewis. Staind is a great band — one of my very favorites. And if I liked Tool or Soundgarden or especially Alice in Chains a little less, Lewis would be in my top 20. But he is definitely the imitator, and Layne Staley the originator. So here he is. Though if it came down to acoustic covers, this guy might take the whole thing.

First, the best song by the band:

And here he is live, singing almost as well as my very favorite:

 

M is for Meatloaf. Sure, he’s cheesy — cheesier than anyone since Liberace. But have you heard this guy sing?

 

P is for John Popper. Didn’t make the top list because Blues Traveler is as much blues and folk as it is rock, and because part of the reason I am so impressed by John Popper is because that guy is the best goddamn harmonica player of my generation. But you know what? He’s a hell of a singer, too.

 

S is for Brent Smith. Shinedown blew my mind when I first heard them, entirely because I couldn’t believe anyone could sing like that. And then when I heard the band’s original music, I couldn’t believe how good they were. And if they’d been around ten years longer, or if I liked their recent albums as much as their first one, he’d be up in the top 20. For now, here he is, blowing my mind (And incidentally, making Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose song this is, sound like shit.)

 

S is also for Sting. Sting was on my top 20 until I remembered the Scorpions; I will always be a bigger fan of heavy metal than new wave. But Sting’s got a wonderful  voice, and an amazing range, and I like a lot of his songs. So here you go. I probably should go with “Roxanne,” his most unique and recognizable performance; or “Every Breath You Take,” his most famous; but I really like this one.

 

W is for Weiland. Damn him for dying. Bless him for performances like this. And STP for writing this music.

 

So there you have it; the ones who almost but not quite made it onto my Best Singers In Rock list. As before, comments and arguments are welcome.

Tomorrow: Best Voices in Rap.

 

The List

My wife showed me a list, recently, of the Top Ten Rock and Roll Singers. And on that list were some I agreed with, and some I did not — particularly Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra. Now, those two are unquestionably two of the best singers in the history of recorded music — but neither of them sang rock. Aretha sang the blues, and sometimes that can sound like rock, and people can put it on rock stations and it can top rock charts; but it’s still the blues. And the Chairman of the Board was a jazz man all the way back to the 40’s. The list I saw was also missing several of my favorites.

Clearly, this can not stand.

So, in the spirit of adding to the proliferation of lists on the internet — where the list is become something of an arms race, I think; and part of me hates this, especially since I am one-upping the list I found by increasing the number and adding corollary lists; but you know what? Screw it. — I now present my own list of the best singers in rock and roll.

Now, as a teacher, I have been taught that the first thing you must do with any graded work is provide the criteria for success — a rubric, if you will. So here’s what I based this list on: first, good music. I can’t respect a singer who sings shitty songs. This, for me, eliminates such perennial vocal luminaries as Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston — pretty much all the divas, who all sing insipid pop mixed with high-fat schmaltz. It also eliminates country music, even though I actually like Johnny Cash’s voice. But my favorite songs of his are — well, “Ring of Fire,” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” of course; but then it’s “Hurt” and “Personal Jesus,” both of which were rock covers. My taste in rock is fairly broad, but most of it is heavy, and so is my list. Second, unique vocal style. I think any list of “best” should start with the question, Can you identify that item immediately out of a pile of similar things? No “best” car can look like every other car; no “best” novel can tell the same story as every other novel. It must be unique. With voices, that means — can you recognize that voice instantly? Is it impossible for other people to cover their signature songs? That gets high marks, for me — to do something that nobody else can do. Third is longevity: this one is partly due to necessity — there are too many flash-in-the-pan singers for me to know them all and figure them into my rankings — and partly because I think a singer can blow out their vocal chords in an attempt to sing better than they are actually able to. A singer that doesn’t do that (And I’m not including the inevitable loss of range and power with age; I’m not bothered by someone in their 60’s who can’t sing like they could in their 20’s; I’m bothered by people who are 25 who can’t sing like they could at 23.) moves up in my respect, because I feel they know their ability and their instrument, and are aware of their limitations. I like smart singers. Though there are some exceptions to this rule, as you will see.

After good music, a unique sound, and longevity, we get into specific sounds that I personally like: range, and grit. This may simply be because as a singer, I don’t have a lot of range, but I do have good grit — not world-class grit, like a couple of my choices, but better than the average, I think. So I am pleased by those who can make their voice sound like a rock singer’s voice, which to me is generally not very pretty; and I am impressed by singers who can go higher than I ever could, and/or lower than I can sing comfortably.

Finally, there is an ineffable quality that I will call “Rock.” There are those who have Rock, and those who do not, and I personally like a singer who has Rock. It’s a mixture of charisma and style and a willingness to be what a rock singer needs to be. This is what keeps my actual favorite voice from being “top” of the list: because as incredible as his singing is, he’s too much of an introverted prick to be a real rock star, in my opinion. I suppose that makes him a little bit too much like me. I think that a great singer should love performing, should love singing; not wine. Just sayin’.

Those are my criteria. The longer it takes me to do this, the more names pop up and demand entry into my list, so I need to get to this while I can still keep it down to 20. Though I am still going to cheat by including a “runner’s up” list. Hey, internet: you’re just lucky I didn’t go to top 50, or even 100.

These are sort of in order, but it’s more approximate, because too much of ordering would require personal preference regarding music type, and that would destroy any chance I have of getting people to agree with me. Think of it more like categories, groups of three to five all equivalent to each other, some moving up or down according to a daily-changing preference. So here they are:

Category One: Rock Gods

1. Steven Tyler: Even if this list was in definite order from best to worst, he might go in the first spot. Because Aerosmith is an incredible band, because Tyler’s singing style is utterly unique, because his signature songs — I would list “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” “Rag Doll,” and of course the definitive “Dream On” — cannot be covered well; because the man has a throat of cast iron, which enables him to still sing “Dream On” all the way up to the top high note EVEN IN HIS 60’S. Plus, this guy just oozes rock.

2. Freddie Mercury: Most of the same things I said about Tyler, except Mercury’s voice was worlds prettier — and yet he could still grind and shout and rasp, on “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust.” And while he died too young to allow us to see if he could still sing that way in his 60’s, one of my favorite performances of his — “Who Wants To Live Forever” — was recorded when he was so ill he could barely stand, and that just amazes me. And in terms of rock? Nobody could command a stage like Mercury.

3. Elvis Presley: One of the few on my list who isn’t hard rock (Well, Queen’s only kinda hard rock. But let’s not split hairs.) because he is the King of Rock and Roll: so rock that it killed him. He loses a bit for me because a lot of his songs were blues covers, but regardless, he had a totally unique and utterly heart-breakingly beautiful voice.


Category Two: Rock Demi-Gods:

1. Robert Plant: This one I struggle with a bit, because I know that a lot of what I love about Led Zeppelin isn’t the singing, but the music; but regardless, that band wouldn’t be who they were if it weren’t for Plant. And even if you took out the music and just listened to the vocal track, everybody would know who was singing within about four notes. That gets you on my list.


2. Roger Daltrey: Much like Plant, Daltrey loses some credit because Townshend wrote all of the music; but Baba O’Riley/Teenage Wasteland is an unmatchable vocal performance and many of The Who’s songs are what they are because Daltrey was up there hollering and wailing and singing — you can’t argue with that scream in the beginning of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” They fall behind Led Zeppelin for me because of a lack of Rock: mods are just guys with bad haircuts and an ascot.

3. Janis Joplin: This may be my favorite female voice of all time. In fact, there’s no maybe about it. She’s only in this second group because she died too young to make it to the top category. But listening to her gives me goosebumps. Every time.

 

4. Sammy Hagar: This one is largely because of longevity. I mean, Jesus, Montrose released “Rock Candy” in 1973. This guy’s singing career is older than me. And he still sounds good, even at the age of 69. And his solo songs in the 80’s are great — and come on. Van Halen was never so good to listen to as when Hagar was singing, and then it was one of the best hard rock bands ever. Not to mention, in terms of rock? The guy has his own brand of tequila. And rum. I rest my case.

 

Category Three: The Best of My Youth
To be honest, this category should probably be twice as long, and it should probably be the whole list. These are the singers I love the most, almost all of them. But their music is more obscure, comparatively, and their careers generally shorter, than the people higher up on the list, so I have to make them a separate category and try hard not to pad it with too many names. Here’s what I’ve narrowed it down to, based on my criteria.

1. Chris Cornell: Cornell is the best singer from the grunge era. I know everybody talks about Kurt Cobain, and his songs were the defining moment for this time in music; but Soundgarden was so much better musically than Nirvana — and then Cornell went on to sing for Audioslave, which is the metal band that Rage Against the Machine would have been had Zack de la Rocha been a singer instead of a rapper. But he isn’t (Though I think he’s the best rapper, and one of the best lyricists, in hard rock), and so it fell to Cornell, and Audioslave freaking rocks. And he also made one of my absolute favorite solo albums, too. Just an amazing voice.

2. Layne Staley: Since one of my criteria was unique vocal style, I don’t actually think there’s been anyone as influential stylistically in hard rock as Layne Staley of Alice in Chains since — well, maybe ever. The other great singers are either too unique to be imitated or are already influenced by others before them. Ozzy Osbourne is as unique a singer as Staley, but Staley could actually sing. So beautifully.

(Please note: it’s tough to pick a song to show off Staley’s voice, because every Alice in Chains song also features Jerry Cantrell, who probably deserves the award for Best Backup Vocalist of All Time; but this one is just Staley for the choruses. Plus it’s one of my absolute favorite AIC songs. And the video shows how terrible their fashion sense was. Yeesh.)

3. Maynard James Keenan: This is the one I was talking about that has my favorite voice maybe ever, but not an ounce of rock in him. I’ve read up a bit on Tool, and watched some interviews and the like, and here’s the truth: Keenan’s a jerk. A real jerk. It’s amazing that Tool has managed to keep working together for 25 years now; but then, watch their concert footage and you’ll see why: this is a band of introverts. Every one of them is playing without any interaction with each other or with the audience. Keenan’s interaction with the audience is almost all angry and obnoxious: there’s a famous clip where a guy came up on stage and sort of tried to hug him — and he hip-threw the guy (Fun fact: Keenan was in the Army for three years, to pay for art school), pinned him, sat on top of him, and sang the rest of the song while holding this drunk fan to the floor. He’s an asshole. But he has the voice of the gods. And the best rock scream ever. Just listen: he drops it at 0:16. And then he sings. (Video and lyrics are NSFW)

And since he’s my favorite, here he is singing beautifully, live, with A Perfect Circle.

 

4. Corey Glover: This is one I would like to put higher on my list, but dammit, the band broke up for a long time, and when they reunited, they sounded awful — “Stain” is a terrible album, from what was an amazing band. But Time’s Up and Vivid are two of the greatest albums in rock, and part of the reason is this man’s voice. I tried covering this song, and it sounds simply awful — and he does this so damn effortlessly. Even when he’s shouting, it sounds beautiful.

 

5. Axl Rose: So the truth is, I was never really a Guns ‘n’ Roses fan. Never owned one of their albums. I liked their music, but it never really spoke to me — I don’t know why. And Rose also blew his voice out, and can’t sing like he used to. But they had a good run, something like ten years as the biggest band in rock and roll; and in every other category on my rubric, Rose has to be in the top names. That range — my god.

 

Category Four: Beauty

Now we come away from hard rock a little bit to the singers who, in my opinion, have the most beautiful voices in rock music — singers who have managed to make me notice even though they sing pop and funk. Because you can’t not notice these folks. There are only two because I have an easier time throwing these names out in favor of great hard rock singers than vice versa — but I can’t drop these last two. Can’t. Won’t!
1. Adele: The most recent person on my list, because her voice merits it. Simple as that. When she opens up, the sky falls. No pun intended.


2. Stevie Wonder: One of the greatest musicians of all time, he’d be higher on my list if I could stand more of his music. But this song is unbeatable.

 

Category Five: Hard Rock Legends (With and without cheese)

This is because I grew up in the 80’s as well as the 90’s. And I love heavy metal almost as much as grunge — and because my criteria match these people flawlessly. And because cheesy rock is — well, delicious.

1.Steve Perry: I admit it. I’m a Journey fan. Cheesy as all hell, yes — but I can’t not love their music, and I always wish that I could sing along. But I can’t. Because Steve Perry. Here he is, with maximum cheese, doing The Song.

 

2. Bruce Dickinson: Part of this is because he’s so freaking awesome he flew a tortoise to safety in his private plane. But mostly, because this:

3. Klaus Meine: Not as freaking awesome as Dickinson, but honestly, probably a better pure singer. And he’s a damn nice guy, I’ve heard.

4. Dio: I’m going to let Jack Black explain why Dio is on this list, and then show you with a little number that should be familiar. And if you haven’t watched the video: do. It’s like a homemade D&D tribute movie.


5. Ann Wilson: Heart sometimes overdoes the cheese even for me, and I’m pretty damn tired of “Barracuda.” But you can’t deny this woman’s pipes. And here: covering for another person on the list in 2012, a full 40 years after she started singing.


5. Brian Johnson: So I kind of didn’t want to put this guy on the list. Because I like range, and he doesn’t have any. And I am done with AC/DC’s music, since I think that once you’ve heard one song, you’ve pretty much heard them all. But: you can always know his voice. There is not a singer with more grit. He will rock your socks clean off. And he can still do this today. I can’t leave him out.

(Since it doesn’t matter which song I pick, I like this one best. Dig the cannons.)

 

 

So there you are, folks. Top twenty. Comments and criticisms are welcome.

It’s Time for The Talk.

All right: so let’s be clear. Donald Trump is not the problem.

I didn’t want to write about this, you know. I’m trying to keep this blog focused on lighter subjects, funny things, and on books and reading and teaching. And  the Trump campaign is not funny. It hasn’t been since Iowa. Since we found out that people actually wanted to vote for him. People actually want Donald Trump to be the President of the United States.

That’s the problem.

Look — he denies that he’s a divisive incendiary racist demogogue. Who wouldn’t? I deny that I’m an subversive lazy egotist, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And one of the more disturbing things about Donald Trump (May I call him Drumpf? If you haven’t watched John Oliver’s splendid takedown of Mr. Drumpf, do so now. Though for the sake of clarity, I’ll use his actual name.) is that it seems impossible to tell if he is aware of the part he is playing, or if he is being as genuine as he can be. Because it could be that he’s playing a part, having learned how to act in this role of reality-TV-star-and-capitalist-mogul that has brought him fame and fortune; but it also could be that he is one of those lucky souls who has fit perfectly into his specific niche, and this is just who he is. The famed book of Hitler speeches by his bedside could go either way on this.

But it doesn’t actually matter if he really believes everything he says, and if he’s aware of the effect he is having on his followers and on this country, and if that effect is really his intent or if he is, as I have been arguing since the start of his campaign, just trying to increase his name recognition because that is the foundation of his wealth, himself as brand. It doesn’t matter because Donald Trump is not the problem.

The problem is that millions of Americans want to vote for Donald Trump.

And the larger problem is that the rest of us didn’t know this, and we are not doing what we should be doing to fix this.

I’ve argued with a number of Trump fans. And there are three things going on here. The first is the economy. This is the biggest reason why people want to vote for Trump: they believe that the problem with the economy is the government spending too much money, which piles up too much debt, which will bring our country crashing to its knees, just like an individual who owes too much money to credit card companies. They believe that Trump knows how to handle that, that he will stop the government from spending so much money, and he will reduce the debt, because he’s a businessman, and businessmen understand money and how to make a profit. The second thing is that Trump is a bully, and bullies are funny. People like things that make them laugh, and Trump makes people laugh. He also has a reputation for honesty, and honesty is something that Americans can’t make up their minds about.

Seriously. Let me just pause to talk about this for a moment. I ask my students every year, in one context or another, how they feel about honesty and lying. And every year, they say they prefer honesty, but think that lying is just fine in two circumstances: when the truth would hurt someone’s feelings, and when telling the truth would get you in trouble. What does that mean? That means they prefer lies, but don’t want to admit it (So they’re lying when they say they like honesty.). Because what other reasons, apart from those two, does anyone ever have for lying? People lie to spare someone else’s feelings, and they lie to cover their own butts. That’s the vast majority of lies, and if those are okay with you, then lying is okay with you. Sure, there are people who lie for profit, and people who lie for malice; I can accept those as categories of lies that even Americans don’t like. But for the most part: we prefer to be lied to. We like it. We like having our feelings spared.

And then Trump comes along and says things that most of us would never say, and would prefer never be said about us — and somehow he is admirable for doing it. He is “honest,” and we love him for it. My best understanding of this is that people believe that politicians are so dishonest and so corrupt that they lie with every word they say; and we are tired of it. So even though Americans personally would prefer some little white lies, we want a President who would never, ever lie to us. And I get that: I would prefer an honest politician, too.

There is also an impression of courage in the willingness to stand up and say ugly things. Makes the man seem tough. Comes back to the bully thing: we admire bullies. Always have. We like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and we like mafia dons like Al Capone and John Gotti, and we love fictional characters that follow the same pattern. We like, as another Scarface would put it, a man with balls. And the willingness to offend, particularly in an arena — politics — where offending anyone in any way is shunned, and where people work very hard to twist themselves into knots  trying to please everyone all at once, saying offensive things seems like courage.

These two issues — Trump’s business acumen as a cure for the economy, and his crass rudeness as A) a source of humor, B) a sign of honesty, and C) a sign of courage — are reasonable enough, are understandable enough. Trump isn’t the first guy to earn our admiration for his crass rudeness: pretty much every famous radio DJ and half of the talk show hosts and stand-up comedians we love are exactly the same way. Why do we like Roseanne Barr? Howard Stern? Rush Limbaugh? Simon Cowell? All the same reasons we like Trump. As for the business thing, that has roots that go back probably as far as the United States: we have always believed that there is something special, some secret knowledge, that comes with wealth; we always think that someone who knows how to make money one way knows how to make money all ways. As if that first million — or billion — dollars is a key that unlocks the Midas touch. Carly Fiorina ran on exactly the same platform, as did Herman Cain in 2012, and Mitt Romney in every campaign he ran.

But then there’s the third reason why Trump is winning. And it’s the most disturbing. The third reason is that Trump is a bigot. He denigrates and objectifies women, an attitude that you can see reflected in the malice and bile that Americans direct at Clinton. He treats Muslims and Latinos, and women, like Untouchables: fine as long as they stay in their place and know who’s boss, but needing a lesson as soon as they get uppity and start breaking the rules that are meant to keep them in their place, separate from the nice white Christian American folks (Or, in the case of women, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.). And that message resonates. It resonates strongly. There are millions of Americans who feel exactly the same way, particularly about those two racial/ethnic groups. Never mind that illegal immigrants (the epithet Trump uses for Latinos, because that wording divides the “bad Latinos” from the “not so bad ones” — you know, the ones that stay in other countries instead of coming to this one) and legal immigrants, which comprise all racial groups and nationalities — but when Trump is talking about building a wall on the southern border, he isn’t talking about Asians coming to California on cargo ships or Europeans overstaying their visas — are actually good for the country, bringing a necessary labor force and a positive addition to the cultural mix. Never mind that Islam is no more violent or dangerous a religion than every other: that is to say, when fanatics use it to convince others to commit violence, it is a staggeringly effective tool; but if guns don’t kill people, neither does Islam. Never mind that women are better than men (That’s right. I said “better.” My wife is smarter and more talented than me. More organized, harder working, more reasonable and level-headed. Better.), and even though I personally support Sanders, I would dearly love to see Hillary Clinton debate Donald Trump. Because she’ll grind his bones to make her bread, and all he’ll be able to do is make a comment about menstruation.

The truth is, millions of Americans believe women should submit to men. The truth is, millions of Americans hate and fear Muslims and Latinos. They fear that Latinos will take over this country and make it different; and they fear that Muslims are terrorists. And they want a leader who thinks like they do.

The problem isn’t Donald Trump. It’s that despite all of the progress we have made since the Civil Rights era, despite all the political correctness and the affirmative action and everything else we have tried to do to achieve racial equality and a just society, we haven’t really done anything. We haven’t really changed anything. But we’ve convinced ourselves that we have: we elected a black President, after all. And the Ku Klux Klan is no longer hanging people by the side of the road in broad daylight. So surely we have improved; surely the problem is less now.

But it’s not. And the problem is still here because even those of us who want to try to fix the problem are not going about it the right way.

I said it above: I’ve been arguing with people who support Donald Trump. I’ve been doing it frequently, on Facebook; my students would never try to challenge a teacher on a political issue: they know how angry people get about politics, and while they don’t mind arguing with their teachers, they don’t want to make us mad for fear of grade-related consequences. And though I argue as reasonably and courteously as I can, people get angry about politics. I get angry about politics. No, that’s not true: I don’t get angry about the topics. But when someone I’m disagreeing with says, “Lol, your a retard. You need to grow the fuck up.” then I tend to get angry.

My wife can always tell. The volume and speed of my typing always goes up when I’m mad, as I start hitting the keys harder and faster. “Are you arguing again?” she asks. “Yup!” I say, pounding away. Telling someone that I don’t need to grow up, they need to learn how to think.

And that’s what we’ve been doing. Those of us who don’t support Donald Trump, who can’t believe that other people support Donald Trump, have begun every discussion with his supporters with “What the hell is wrong with you? Trump? Really? What are you thinking?!?” But they’re thinking what I listed above. They are thinking reasonable things.

You cannot convince people who are thinking reasonable things to change their minds by telling them they are unreasonable. Just like I get mad when someone says “Lol, your a retard.” That is no different from saying, “How can you support Trump? What is wrong with you!” You cannot win an argument by insulting your opponent.

To deal with Trump as a candidate, people need to treat him as a candidate: the people who support him for rational reasons need to be talked to like rational people. They need to be questioned fairly, and their answers listened to, and then, perhaps, argued with if we can do that without losing our tempers. I hope that the two people running against him (whichever wins the nomination) will behave like the long-time politicians they are, and focus on his ideas and qualifications, and refuse to go down to his level and have a bully-fight. If they can stay rational and courteous, I don’t doubt that Trump will lose the general election. The fact that gets lost in the uproar and hoopla is that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to running a country. Because he is not a politician, he is not a government worker, he is not an elected official: he has no experience. He does not know what he is doing. Businessmen can run businesses, but the country is not a business. But that is not our argument: that is either Bernie Sanders’s or Hillary Clinton’s argument.

What the rest of us need to focus on is going back to square one. There are bigots in this country. Millions of them. Our current system of affirmative action and token representatives (“The Oscars/Hollywood aren’t racist! Halle Berry won Best Actress in 2002!”), paying lip service to real understanding through nonsense like politically correct speech, have done nothing. If anything, we have pushed the problem underground, where it can fester and swell. And now it’s bursting out. Which means, as hard and uncomfortable and ugly as it is, now is our chance to clean out the infection.

We have to deal with racism. We have to fix this problem at the root: and the root is not Donald Trump. Donald Trump is not the problem.

We are.

Again? Really?

So I had insomnia last night, again. I woke up about 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep: I was too busy fretting about my teaching. (It didn’t help that I had an annoying earworm, the chorus of Five Finger Death Punch’s “Jekyll and Hyde,” repeating in my mind the whole time. But the main thing was the fretting.) Am I teaching fast enough? Am I teaching right enough? Am I teaching hard enough?

It is a constant worry. Not just for me, I’m sure, but for most teachers. It’s why the Standards movement has gained so much ground among teachers, even though logically, standards have very little to offer teachers other than more work and less individual freedom. Because teaching is a profession with an enormous amount of uncertainty. The goals are uncertain – am I teaching my students reading and writing? Critical thinking? Good citizenship? Obedience and conformity? – and the measurements are uncertain – do I want them to get high grades, or high standardized test scores? Or do I want them to feel self-confident and happy? – and the future of one’s employment is the most uncertain of all: because not only does it rest on the vagaries of school population and school funding, but it also rests on those same uncertain, everchanging goals and measurements. Teaching is like walking through a fog bank on the edge of a cliff and trying to shoot a bullseye with a bow and arrow. And I don’t mean a target: I mean the actual eye of an actual bull, that is moving somewhere through the fog, and may be trying to knock you off the cliff – especially if you shoot him with the arrow.

But here’s the thing: everything about teaching is uncertain, except for this: teachers are important, and good teachers are doubly so; and I think, after sixteen years, it is certain that I am a good teacher. I think I can know that, even if I don’t know anything else for sure. I have always been able to work well with my students, and even when the curriculum has been drastically changed, I have generally been able to adapt to the new stuff and still get good results. I am slow, both in covering material and in keeping up with paperwork; and I am a bit of a maverick, in that I tend to push for my own choices of material and my own goals rather than the ones preferred by my administrators; but our goals are generally pretty congruent, because I always have the students’ best interests in mind. It’s one of the things that makes me a good teacher. And I have had former students, and their parents, come back to me and tell me that my class was their best class, that it was one of the things they looked forward to in their school day; they have said that they learned a lot from me; they have said that I changed the way they thought, or they read, or they wrote. Bull’s eye.

Unfortunately, my confidence in myself doesn’t actually translate to a lack of worry. Partly because I am a worrier by nature, and partly because I am surrounded by a whole world of people telling me to do something differently. “You’re teaching THAT?! Don’t teach that – teach this!” “You’re teaching that THAT way?!? Don’t teach that way – teach this way. And also this way. And kind of this way, too. And make sure you have clear lesson, unit, and semester plans, all prepared in advance and shared to a Google document with everyone else who wants to read them and laugh behind their hands at you.” “Make sure they get high test scores. But not on that test – that’s the old test. Use this test. And also, keep the parents happy – which means make sure they get high grades, since that’s what pleases parents.””Oh – and check for dress code violations, and make sure they aren’t fooling around in the supply closet.” I tell myself all the time that all I need to do is my best; but it never feels like enough. At least I think that. Particularly when I wake up at 3am. It all makes it very difficult: to teach, and also to sleep.

But finally, I got back to sleep. And I had a dream. In the dream, I was making my wife drive me to school early so that I could donate a pile of art books that we didn’t want any more, that I thought my students might enjoy or be able to use. And when I got there (In standard dream fashion, it was raining Biblically, and the school was something like an old haunted Victorian, and I actually had a suite of my own – and needed to take a shower before class started – and the principal I talked to was the one from Oregon before I moved here in 2014), before I went inside, a sleepy student – it was still dark, before sunrise, plus the rain – asked if she could lie down in the back of the car, and because she was obviously tired and cold, I let her, over my wife’s irritated objections. I went inside with my art book donation, and there found that I had a new assignment: now all of my classes were going to be taught outside. (Apparently in the middle of a deluge. Hey, why not? They can learn about water conservation and climate change. And hypothermia.) Starting that morning. I objected to this, even threatening to quit, but my administrator asked me to slow down, in the middle of my outraged temper tantrum, and explain why I wasn’t willing to make this change; and in thinking about it, I realized that I was teaching things that all related pretty well to being outside – Thoreau’s Walden and Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening and the like. And I threw up my hands and said, “Fine. Fine, I’ll do it. But can I please have a moment to myself before there are students in my face?” My administrator left, and I burst into tears.

Then I woke up. And in the shower, I realized: there I was, donating my possessions, my time, my car, my wife’s patience, to my students, and my school was still screwing around with me for no good reason – and I was still doing what they asked. I do everything that is asked of me, and I do it as well as I possibly can, which is generally pretty well. And I do what is really required: I try to do what is best for my students.

Even my subconscious is tired of me worrying about this crap.

Book Review: MacHugh and the Faithless Pirate

 

MacHugh and the Faithless Pirate
by William S. Schaill

 

First, let me say something about the publisher: because this book is from Fireship Press, (Website is here) a small independent press here in Arizona that specializes in nautical and historical fiction. I found this press, and this book, at the Tucson Festival of Books, a glorious local event that celebrates the printed word, and because I am a pirate fanatic, this book jumped out at me immediately. But Fireship has a number of authors, with a number of titles, and the books themselves are top notch, good printing, good binding, good cover art. The copy editing was imperfect — but honestly, I just read another book published by Bantam Spectra which had as many typos if not more, so I won’t split hairs. This is a good press that makes good books.

And this is a good book. It’s not a great book, I’ll say that; the characters are a little too simply drawn, and the main character annoyed me a little at certain places (Largely because he thinks of younger women as romantic interests, which was entirely accurate for the time period, but still a little weird to read — a grown man going over to the home of a friend and checking out his daughter is just too funky for me.) and I wish the Faithless Pirate could have been more than just a villain, because I do love pirate narratives.

But this is, bar none, the best nautical action/adventure I’ve read, in terms of its accuracy and its verisimilitude and its author’s encyclopedic knowledge of the sea and tall ships and marine combat. Reading about these men struggling with this ships on these seas, fighting weather and currents and politics, searching for pirates, finding them, fighting them, winning and losing various battles in various ways — it was just great fun to read. The suspense is excellent, the action is exciting, and the historical and nautical details are as accurate as any I’ve known. For the sake of enjoyment, and for the sake of reading about cannons blasting and cutlasses slashing and blood spurting and everything else, this book was excellent. I hope the author continues to write MacHugh stories — because whenever he isn’t creeping on 18-year-olds, I thought this Scottish wine merchant/privateer was a great character (Though he did seem to have a whole lot of “In his younger days” adventures that made me wonder: just when did this guy start living this life of adventure? And did he ever, I don’t know, take a week or two off?) and I’d love to read more.

Book Review: The Fallen Country

The Fallen Country

by Somtow Sucharitkul

I think I may have learned a lesson from this book. Actually, two.

You see, I read this book when it was new, in 1986, when I was an angry twelve-year-old boy. I was angry for the usual twelve-year-old reasons, and to the usual twelve-year-old degree – for both, the answer is “Not much” – and reading this novel, about a boy who escapes his truly awful life of neglect and abuse through his neverending rage, which takes him into a world of snow and ice, where the cold deadens the pain and his white-hot anger is a great and powerful weapon, may have helped me realize that I didn’t really have much to be angry about, and really, I wasn’t all that angry. Not angry like this character is. There’s a scene in the book where his friends accompany him to this world, the Fallen Country, and in order to take them there he asks them to think of all of the injustices they have suffered, all the torments they have endured, and focus all of their anger into helping him reach this other place; afterwards, they confess that they were thinking about – getting grounded. Or failing Algebra. Or being jealous when their crush was smiling at another boy. Only the main character is angry about the years of systematic, violent beatings he has suffered every night from his adoptive father, or the way his adoptive mother ignores this terrible abuse, along with everyone else he has ever known, who have all been unable to help him in his war against the Ringmaster, the evil god who enslaves and tortures all of the inhabitants of this magical realm.

I think now that this book may have helped me realize that I was more like the friends, and less like the main character. And that that was okay: because while his anger gives him great strength, and the Fallen Country sounds like a wonderful place to escape to – he rides a dragon and rescues princesses, slaying hydras with his ice-sword of rage – the point of the book is that this is not a good way to live. And it makes that abundantly clear: you do not want to be like this kid. Harry Potter does the same thing, shows that while it’s awesome to be a wizard in a magical world, really, it’s probably better to have parents that weren’t murdered when you were an infant. Same thing here, only more so, because the beatings that Sucharitkul described are truly terrible.

And now that I have gone back and re-read it, here’s the second lesson I learned: books I loved in my youth should, sometimes, stay there. You see, this isn’t that great a book. There are some good things about it: the characters of the friends are nicely drawn, good renditions of Average-teenage-kid; the Fallen Country is incredible, both enchanting and terrifying, poetic and with the ring of truth; the plot and the final resolution between the main character and the Ringmaster are nicely done. But the way that the abused child is rescued by the people around him, after not having been rescued in the past, is cheesy in the extreme, and very hard to believe – nobody has cared before, even though he shows up to school daily with bruises and cuts and welts; then these characters decide to care, and lo, he is saved by their caring – and the adult characters are all awful. Not terrible morally, though the abusive parents certainly are; but just unrealistic and superficial. There’s a school counselor who doesn’t realize that her job is to report the abuse until she is talked into it by one of the teenagers. Whom she also flirts with. Yikes. It feels like the author was trying to simplify, as this is intended as a young adult book, but honestly, it my be a little too dark for that; and the result is a good book, based on a good idea, that isn’t written very carefully, or very well. Sucharitkul underestimates his audience, assuming they will believe the cardboard characters, or at least not care that they are cardboard; and the same for the weak points in the plot.

You know, I wonder if the reason I liked this author so much was because none of my fantasy/sci-fi friends had ever heard of him; I discovered this book, and I was the only one who read Sucharitkul. I also remember being enchanted by the foreignness of his name; I remember memorizing the way it was spelled, and practicing what I assumed was the correct pronunciation (Since I was never exposed to any other Thai names at the time, I was probably wrong.), and thinking how cool it was that he was also an accomplished composer of classical music.

Dammit. I was a teenaged hipster. Yeah: some things should definitely stay buried in the past.