Banter M Issue 51

The Cult of Parenthood - In the wake of the death of Harambe, the western lowland gorilla who was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo, Bob Cesca responds to criticisms that he is unqualified to weigh in on the tragedy because he doesn't have children. 

"It's Gonna Be Like This" - Chez Pazienza bleakly reports on Trump giving us a preview of what his administration's relationship with the press would look like. 

My Unpopular Opinion About Prince - With the passage of time, Tommy Christopher is ready to process the death of his most treasured musical influence, and to share his unpopular opinion that Prince...well, you'll see. 


The Cult of Parenthood

by Bob Cesca

Throughout the Memorial Day weekend, and as I tried to come to terms with the heartbreaking and unfair death of Harambe, the western lowland gorilla who was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo, I was routinely confronted by the assumption that because I'm childless, I'm therefore unqualified to judge anyone's parenting skills. It's a bizarre line of attack, but one I expected.

It's bizarre for a number of reasons, chief among them is the assumption that because I haven't festooned my Facebook page with hundreds of thousands of gratuitous photos of children, I don't actually have any. While, sure, it's currently accurate that I'm childless, there's something particularly egregious about the assumption, as well as the expectation that, if I had kids, I'd advertise the existence of those kids to every gun-toting crackpot who trolls my page. Even if I had kids, I wouldn't do it for obvious reasons -- their safety being paramount. (You should see my mail.)

Additionally, I'm done advertising private details of my life on Facebook. Life is too often difficult enough without having it play out in view of 3,000-plus people, the vast majority of whom are strangers to me. Not too long ago, I made the deliberate decision to reserve private details for private audiences. Specifically, I'll talk about my life on my subscription-only podcast with Chez Pazienza, The After Party. And once in a while here, in the MEMBERS ONLY section of The Banter. As for Facebook? Very, very seldom, if at all.

What I've learned on more than one occasion, and with significant pain, is that Facebook Life isn't always reflective of Actual Life. In fact, a recent study indicated that many couples who advertise their marriages on Facebook are most often the couples who have the most insecure relationships. Of course, other studies showed exactly the opposite. The truth is, we almost always post details that exclusively reflect how we want to be perceived, rather than how things really are. So, I don't even bother any more.

But people assume that I'm defined by what my Facebook page advertises. 

In this case, regarding children, they're partly right. I don't have kids. Now. But I spent the latter half of my 20s and all of my 30s raising a lovely young woman with my first wife. My daughter -- and she identified as such -- was three-years-old when I began a relationship with her mother, and she was 18 when we divorced. That's 15 years. My time as "Dad" spanned two decades and included paying for braces; going to PTA meetings; watching Little League; videotaping her starring role in her high school's performance of Once Upon a Mattress; cheering her prodigious singing and drumming with her high school's jazz band; and successfully seeing her off to college. I provided her with a home and every material thing she desired. She even had two bedrooms -- one for her bed and clothes, and another for hanging out with her friends. All-in-all, I think I was good Dad.

And I miss her. 

One of my biggest regrets in life is how badly my first marriage and divorce ended because, due to mistakes made all around, I no longer have a relationship with her. I hope to ameliorate this painful disconnection sometime in the not-too-distant future, but I can assure you, it won't play out on my Facebook page. Sorry. 

So, was I supposed to spill the beans about all of this in the context of debating the killing of a gorilla? No fucking way. Come to think of it, the commenters who believed I should have done so in order to justifiably weigh-in on the Harambe story can feel free to suck it.

I can only assume that it stems from the long-emerging Cult of Parenthood, which includes the following strictly-enforced rules:

1) You must be a parent to comment on parenting.

2) You must love kids.

Let's start with number two first. I loved my stepkid, yes. But I don't love kids. I'm neither infatuated with the idea of making a kid, nor raising one again. Obviously, I've already more-or-less raised one, and I have no interest in starting over, though I'm sure nitpickers will take issue with my parenting status since I'm no longer an active part of my kid's life. To that, I'll add another well-placed "suck it."

Without getting too deep into my personal "issues," I'm not afraid to admit that I'm a bit too selfish in my middle 40s. This is part of who I am, for better or worse. The mere thought of doing so triggers an instant tsunami of exhaustion -- imagining having to start all over again. Likewise, too many parents have children for the wrong reasons, and I don't want to be one of those people. They fall in love with the concept of making a human being; or they're infatuated with seeing a half-clone of themselves; or they acquiesce to having children to save their relationship -- not realizing that having kids is the best way to distract yourself from the dysfunctional aspects of your marriage, leaving those issues unattended to fester and metastasize into an inevitable divorce.

In a more superficial sense, I don't want any more Happy Meal toys on my floor. 

I don't want a new cold virus every month. I don't want to see the next poorly-designed CG movie starring talking cars. I don't want the responsibility of making sure the child doesn't die. I don't want to contribute to overpopulation. I don't want to schedule sexual activity or "date nights" around my kid's life. I don't want to turn yet another child into the subject of yet another social media exhibit. Sue me, but I want my own life, shared with no one else other than a loving female companion.

This isn't to suggest you're wrong for wanting or having kids. It's just not for me any more. (And, no, that's not why my now-adult stepdaughter and I aren't on speaking terms.)

Circling back to "You must be a parent to comment on parenting," this one's really easy. Since when do we have to experience something first-hand in order to evaluate it? 

I've written about politics since I was 16-years-old, but I've never actually been a politician. Does this mean I can't be expressly outraged when they fuck things up? Of course not. Likewise, my readers are welcome to criticize my writing, despite some of them having never been published. And guess what? Even if I hadn't chased my stepdaughter in public at age four, nearly losing sight of her at a Reading Phillies baseball game not unlike the parents of the little boy who jumped into Harambe's enclosure, I think I'd be aware enough of how life works and how children misbehave to evaluate what went wrong in Cincinnati. 

Similarly, my completely childless friends are equally at liberty to comment without having experienced parenthood. Why? Because as long as comments are backed with insight and facts, it's perfectly acceptable to post your take on roles that you haven't personally held.

Losing sight of your child at Walmart is dangerous. Losing sight of your child at a zoo where there are enormous -- and enormously bored -- animals that could kill your child, is flagrantly negligent, especially knowing how everything turned out in Cincinnati. Not too long ago, the Cult of Parenthood engaged in a backlash against those of us who criticized a man who locked his child in the back seat of a hot car, killing the boy. I was instructed that those of us who don't have kids could never understand what it was like, and so we were being unfair in excoriating the parents. (It turned out the parents did it intentionally, which made the story far worse.) 

Irresponsibility is irresponsibility, no matter the context, and it's plainly recognizable when it occurs. I don't feel any obligation to be a member of the Cult of Parenthood in order to elaborate about irresponsible parenting, nor does anyone else. And we should never assume what our friends have or haven't experienced. Indeed, evaluating my personal life without the facts in hand is far more clueless and ignorant than evaluating a scenario that played out in public and which ended in the untimely death of an endangered gorilla.


"It's Gonna Be Like This"

by Chez Pazienza

Donald Trump doesn't like answering questions. He damn sure doesn't like being forced to account for his actions or inaction. For decades he's surrounded himself with yes-men and sycophants, all of whom have either been forced to or have willingly played along with Trump's fantasy that he's the single greatest human being to ever walk to the face of this earth. Among the many reasons Trump is self-evidently unqualified to be President of the United States -- his narcissism, tendency to bully those he considers beneath him, lack of knowledge or desire to learn what he doesn't know, racism, sexism, willingness to commit war crimes and turn the U.S. into a rogue state -- his absolute resistance to oversight or adversarial press coverage should sit very near the top. A president has to accept that he or she is going to be answerable to the people and the free press that, in theory, works on their behalf. If you're not ready to face tough questions every single day and instead throw a tantrum in the direction of anyone who isn't on his knees belting out hosannas to you, you don't deserve the office. 

Which of course brings us to Trump's latest brazen attack on the supposedly dishonest media, with "dishonest" in this case meaning that they dared to call Trump out on his bullshit. His Tuesday news conference to confront nagging questions about exactly how much was paid out to veterans' groups in the wake of his big six-million-dollar boast months ago was a ridiculous spectacle even by Trump standards. At issue was the fact that Trump had been promising for months to pay out six mil to veterans -- money he'd supposedly raised as part of an event held at the same time as a Fox News debate he bombastically dropped out of -- but for months hardly any money had moved from Trump's coffers to the veterans' advocates. It took a report in The Washington Post recently pointing out as much for the money to finally begin flowing -- and on Tuesday Trump stood at a podium and wondered aloud what all the fuss was about given that he'd allegedly kept his word. The problem, of course, was that he didn't keep his word -- not until the press made the truth public. While Trump bragged about all the money he was giving to veterans, the reality was that more than a dozen checks were sent to vets' groups the day the Post story was published

So, yeah, the media shamed Donald Trump into doing what he said he would do. 

You can guess how Trump reacted to this fact (other than to deny that it was fact). The actual issue of how much money was paid out, where it went, and when it was paid took a backseat to nearly 40 minutes of Trump being an angry baby, claiming the press was inherently dishonest and had treated him unfairly yet again. Trump's attacks were as pointed and personal as they've ever been toward his enemies in the media: He called ABC's Tom Llamas "a sleaze" and sarcastically dismissed CNN's Jim Acosta as "a real beauty." He claimed to not want to be given credit but then, of course, immediately turned around and groused that nobody was giving him the credit he felt he deserved. “Instead of being like, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Trump,’ or ‘Trump did a good job,’ everyone’s saying, ‘Who got it? Who got it? Who got it?’ And you make me look very bad,” Trump whined. “I have never received such bad publicity for doing such a good job.” That's Trump: He has the best words and does such a good job and he's very, very, tremendously unhappy, because the "haters" in the political press don't smile, nod, and say, "Okay, Mr. Trump! That's good enough for us!" when he said he kept his word. It's almost as if they didn't hear him when he emphatically declared, "Believe me!" after every other sentence. 

Maybe the most revealing moment of the whole stupid sideshow, though, came toward the end, when The Daily Mail’s David Martosko asked Trump whether this kind of evasion and bullying of the press would be standard operating procedure should Trump -- God fucking help us all -- become president. "Yeah, it is gonna be like this," he responded. Now this really shouldn't surprise anybody. Again, Trump not only dislikes being questioned by an adversarial press, he despises the idea that an adversarial press exists in the first place. Far inside the depths of that rotting tangerine that sits atop his shoulders, Trump believes in the authoritarian principle that people in power shouldn't have to deal with those buzzing media flies and the bad publicity they bring. Certainly, as Donald Trump, he shouldn't have to deal with it. He's notorious for flinging around the threat of lawsuits against uncooperative news outlets like Japanese throwing stars and he's already promised that, if elected, he'll "open up our libel laws" and basically subvert the First Amendment's guaranteed press freedoms. Trump spokesdick Roger Stone has likewise suggested that a President Trump might "turn off (the) FCC license" of CNN, as if he could do such a thing. But it's not just about what he could and couldn't do in terms of crushing the free press. It's about what his general relationship with the press would be. And he spelled it out for us in no uncertain terms. 

In a Trump administration, the press would not only be stonewalled -- it would be actively punished for doing its job. Think the media has griped about the Obama administration's supposed secrecy? Think the press has lost its mind over Hillary Clinton's personal e-mail server? Those "scandals" would amount to rosy nostalgia for the good old days were Trump to ascend to the Oval Office. Donald Trump doesn't like anyone knowing his business. He refuses to release his tax returns. He refuses to discuss his business failures (or even admit they're failures). He lies without compunction about how wealthy he is and, really, pretty much everything else and assumes that no one will call him on it and if they do he simply denies the lie ad infinitum and berates the press for daring to question him. A President Trump would balk entirely at the idea that a public servant must be accountable in all things he or she does. You would never know what Trump was up to because everything done in private would be kept secret and everything public would be a lie. Trump consent to every one of his governmental communications being available to the public at the whim of any media "sleaze?" No fucking way. That's for suckers. The administration of Donald Trump wouldn't simply be secretive. It would be the equivalent of a totalitarian regime. The state-run news outlet would be Fox News. Everyone else would be considered unfriendly and put on an enemies list. What was once a threat only to Trump would be, in the mind of a President Trump, a threat to the United States itself. 

Now make no mistake: Conservatives are looking at Trump's extended salvo against the media and eating it up. Sentient bowel movement Rush Limbaugh is praising Trump for standing up to the "liberal media." "That was the kind of press conference Republicans voters have been dying to see for who knows how many years," he said on his radio show Tuesday. "How many years have people been begging for a Republican to just once take on the media the way Trump did?" The reason for the hostility toward the press by now barely even needs to be addressed. For decades conservatives have cast the political press as a great boogeyman whose liberal bias made it easy for Republicans to dismiss out of hand. The media run a story you don't like as a conservative, regardless of whether it's an inconvenient truth? Just tell your idiot constituency to consider the source. If it came from the liberal media, the story can't be trusted anyway. Trump is the living embodiment of this ethos. And there's little doubt his diatribe against the media on Tuesday will go over like gangbusters with his supporters on the right. The question, though, is how the general electorate, which Trump has to win over, will respond to his combative stance. It's true that the popularity of the news media hasn't exactly been stellar in recent years. But the media still controls the narrative and despite the tons of free publicity they've given Trump over the past several months, now that they're asking tough questions and exposing Trump on a grand scale, you'd like to believe some of the truth about him will stick.

You'd like to believe it. But then again, who the hell knows anymore? Even with Trump as the Republican nominee, we're way through the looking glass. And the world we've entered is terrifying.  

My Unpopular Opinion About Prince

by Tommy Christopher

It's actually been, what, 42 days since the world received the terrible news that Prince Rogers Nelson had been found dead at his Paisley Park studio/estate/nerve center, and the outpouring of grief that followed was tremendous. Cable news gave the tragedy the sort of treatment usually reserved for a missing airplane, and the words-are-not-enough tributes to his genius and his influence on music and culture were at once overwhelming and wholly inadequate. There has never lived another human being who could do what Prince did.

To call Prince a musical genius is to blaspheme him. Could God write a riff so funky even He couldn't resist it if He tried? I don't know, but Prince could.

At the time of his death, all I could manage were a few pitiful tweets about how sometimes it really does snow in April, and even now, my mind races to make sense of the loss. It's as hard to underestimate his influence on me as it is his influence on the world.

Part of the grief I've felt, though, has been a sort of guilt at having already mourned the loss decades ago, because while Prince never, ever slipped as a musician, his artistry peaked in the early 80s, and faded sharply as that decade came to a close. That's nothing I wanted to be thinking while the world was grieving, and nothing anyone wanted to hear.

My first exposure to Prince was a five-second clip of 1999 that played on some video countdown show in 1982, and it was so quick that I couldn't even read the name of the group, but I was instantly hooked. 

Music had always held an influential position in my life, and I know that every douchebag at every coffee bar likes to say he has "eclectic" taste in music, but mine really was a hot mess. Growing up, my friends all listened to James Brown, The Jackson 5, Otis Redding and Parliament; my aunts and uncles listened to the Stones and The Beatlesand my mom, who was a guitar and piano teacher, played classical music and listened to people like Bob Dylan and Earl Scruggs.

I was also a sucker for disco, ever since I heard the song Hotline and assumed it was about my mom's volunteer job at a suicide hotline. I even went through that awful country music phase that swept the nation in the late 70s-early 80s, so I'm also known to warble out a Charlie Pride tune from time to time. I was also a relatively early adopter of rap music via the Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight B-side, Apache.

By the time Prince came around, Michael Jackson was just blowing up, and I was also an obsessive Men at Work fan, an attraction fueled by the group's superlative musicianship and Colin Hay's distinctive vocals.

When I learned the identity of the mysterious purple-clad band leader, I immediately went to the wrecka stow to buy up every album I could find. This was in the days before the internet or anything else about life as we know it and I wasn't really an experienced record buyer, so I wound up with cassettes of Prince's first four albums -- none of which contained 1999

Eventually, I did get it -- I got them all on vinyl -- but that first foray afforded me the chance to witness Prince's growth as an artist. It blew my mind that he played every instrument and sang every vocal on every song on those albums, because that is mind-blowing. But the common thread that runs through his early work is that the songs all feel as though they were born complete, as though they were 3D-printed directly from his brain. You couldn't hear the gears turning, because there was no machinery at work.

His first two albums were very much what the album art promised, tasty dessert menu selections brimming with poppy arrangements and sugar-sweet seduction, with hints at the darker edges to come. His debut album, For You, contained the naughty electro-pop single Soft and Wet, as well as the uptempo single Just as Long As We're Together, each of which charted on urban music charts, but the remainder of the album consisted of moodier tracks like the a capella title song and the lounge-y Crazy You. It sounded like the kind of music adults would play at a key party while they waited for the kids to go to bed.

On his eponymous sophomore effort, Prince injected heavy doses of grit into the bubbly mix of tunes that included the dirty wolf in fluffy sheep's clothing that was I Wanna Be Your Lover ("I wanna be the only one that makes you come...running"); hinting at his hard rock influences and dark psyche with the tormented Bambi, in which he tries to convince a lesbian object of lust that "it's better with a man;" and the sweaty dance workout Sexy Dancer. The album also featured the future Chaka Khan/Melle Mel hit I Feel For You and a handful of lonely, downbeat ballads. 

Although it lacked the thematic cohesion of his later efforts, the tracks on Prince all had the organic feel that permeated his first nine studio albums, and was the first real showcase of his diverse influences.

It was with 1980's Dirty Mind album that Prince began a string of albums that wandered the cavernous rooms in the mansion of his mind. Listening to that album is like descending the staircase into the basement. The A-side features the driving title track, as well as the future Cyndi Lauper cover When You Were Mine and a couple of other tunes that hinted at the darkness to come, while maintaining a pop lamplight. 

The B-side of Dirty Mind, however, was a late-night crawl through the dark alleys and seedy hangouts of Downtown Prince. The vivid party track Uptown segued right into the aggressively dirty Head, which begat the notorious ode to incest, Sister, a song whose frenetic tempo perfectly conveys the taboo anxiety of the subject matter. That track rolls off the table into the defiant funk protest song Partyup, which marked the first sign of the geopolitical tension that would permeate his work from then on.

Dirty Mind also marked the start of another Prince trademark, the kick-ass non-album track. Gotta Stop (Messin' About) was a UK single that was released as a promo-only EP in the states along with Uptown and I Wanna Be Your Lover, and would be the first of a long series of non-album B-sides that were better than most other artists' A-sides. My Gotta Stop EP is one of my prize possessions.

The almost uncomfortable intimacy of Dirty Mind gave way to Controversy, another anxiety-riddled trip through the mind of an artist bursting at the seams with almost too much to say. The title track takes on the vagaries of fame, and is followed by effortless forays into topics like activism (Sexuality), masturbation (Private Joy), mutual masturbation (Jack U Off), nuclear war (Ronnie, Talk to Russia), and current events (Annie Christian) like he's chatting up eight different girls at a cocktail party. 

The highlights of the album for me, though, are the two sides of the same sexy coin: Do Me Baby and Let's Work. If you can find the 12-inch version of the latter, which contains a promise to "do it in a cemetery," so much the better. Unlike most artists of the day, Prince's extended versions weren't just mildly enhanced with repetitions of the hooks from the 7-inch, but were often almost completely different creations.

If Dirty Mind had been a look inside a corner of Prince's mind, 1999 was an extended stay, and for my money, his best work. Even the pop-inflected first side of the double album was lyrically introspective and musically ambitious, combining good times with the end of the world on the title track; sexual insecurity with sweaty intimacy on Little Red Corvette; and obsession with bouncy synth-pop on Delirious.

Side two's Let's Pretend We're Married was a darker, dirtier take on the seductions of Dirty Mind and Head, but it's the underrated D.M.S.R.that's the star of this side, presaging Crunk by a good twenty years.

From there, the album winds its way through another late-night trip through the wandering mind of a mad funk genius that features not one, but two aviation-themed masterpieces and probably the only depiction of someone saying Yosemite Sam during sex that you're ever likely to find. The album concludes with the simultaneously hilarious and sexy International Lover, thanking the listener for flying Prince International.

It was here that I think Prince's music peaked, and while his next four albums kept up with 1999 in mastery and that livewire quality between the music and the man's mind, his music would never again be this intimate. Of those next four albums, Sign 'O' the Times is the one I'd take with me to a desert island, but none of them are dispensable.

In fact, it was his next-closest brush with intimacy that I believe caused Prince to begin overthinking and overproducing his music, and showing the seams as he tried to stitch in new influences. The Black Album was a flawed masterpiece that was scuttled before its release in favor of the uneven Lovesexy.

As the title suggests, it was a dark album that combined the rawness of Dirty Mind with an exploration of new musical styles like jazz and hip-hop. Prince was originally not a fan of rap, and mocked the form on The Black Album with the track Dead on It, then turned it inside-out with the frightening, non-rhyming cautionary tale Bob George.

The intimacy of that album seemed to scare Prince, and so the replacement album, Lovesexy, featured a brighter outlook that seemed forced. The album is still eminently listenable, but the extended versions and B-sides are much better. 

The Black Album would go on to become a legendary bootleg, but nothing is more illustrative of the transformation it attended than its eventual official release years later, which featured grossly overproduced versions of those stripped-down tracks. If you can find the CD bootleg with the gonzo bonus track In All My Dreams, that's your best bet.

Prince remained a peerless musician and composer, of course, but in my view, never got back into that perfect Twilight Zone that his early work lived in.

The good news is that there are several careers worth of bootleg studio and live recordings from that period in circulation, each one of them a revelation. Shortly after The Black Album, a scratchy low-fi bootleg called Chocolate Box emerged in record stores, and many of those tracks appeared years later, once again in nearly unrecognizable form, on Prince and The Time albums for the film Graffiti Bridge. Only Joy in Repetition was left largely unchanged, and it's the best song on the album next to Thieves in the Temple.

Of the countless live Prince bootlegs that are in circulation, He's Got the Look is the best Prince album you'v never heard. Taped at a late-night 1987 post show jam session in Paris, the record is Prince at his most masterful and intimate. 

In the internet age, though, gigabytes worth of tracks from the legendary vault are now available -- much of it released by the man himself under his pioneering digital release strategy. I've got more vintage Prince than I could ever hope to listen to. That doesn't mean I won't still spend every Christmas night drinking banana daiquiris 'til I'm blind, but I'll always have something to play so he won't hear my tears.