Private prisons may make money, but they sure as hell don’t bring in Johnny Cash. From Folsom to Soledad, concerts for convicts have spawned legendary performances, and there’s a strange ring to each one. It’s chilling to hear a tune interrupted by a warden and tough to fathom the fleeting joy of each song for the captive audience. Although listening to cell-block concerts may feel like eavesdropping, these recordings crackle with such empathy and power that it’s hard to keep away from the keyhole. — Keith Meatto
At Folsom Prison
Columbia, 1968. So well does Cash wear the mantle of his dark subjects that one wonders if he ever gunned down a man, festered on death row, or skirted the law in Mexico. But what Cash seems to know, the felons at this maximum-security facility clearly understand: They cheer wildly for the mythical Folsom inmate who “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” The Man in Black’s bottomless bass radiates compassion for desperados of all stripes: convicts, sharecroppers, and coal miners who toil in holes as “dark as the dungeons.”
Live in Cook County Jail
MCA, 1970. Before King takes the stage at this Chicagoland joint, the 2,117 prisoners shower venomous boos on the warden. But when the Beale Street legend takes over, all spite dissolves into raucous reverence. King’s baritone — alternately preacher-growly and lover-sweet — rings truest on ballads like “3 O’Clock Blues” and “The Thrill Is Gone.” But B.B. also cuts loose on upbeat tunes, when the six-man band duels with the vibrato honey of his guitar, Lucille.
Live at Soledad Prison
John Lee Hooker
MCA, 1972. At Soledad, Hooker ditches his wistful side and hauls like a “big-wheeled big wheel.” Over the driving pulse of snare and cymbal, Hooker serves up his earthy brand of woeful, repetitive boogie: “Serve Me Right to Suffer”; “What’s the Matter Baby?” The crowd goes wild when John Lee Jr. joins his father for an impromptu call-and-response session on “Boogie Everywhere I Go.”
Live at Chelmsford Top Security Prison
Creative Man, 1976.The angry droning at Chelmsford captures the Pistols in all their low-fidelity glory. The show was hardly an orderly affair — about as close to “Anarchy in the U.K.” as a maximum-security prison gets. One prisoner stripped and threw his clothes onto the stage, while Johnny Rotten did his best to serve up a riot. Not everyone felt so moved: Several black inmates returned to their cells rather than endure the punk concert.
Live at Westville Prison
Delmarck, 1983. Milton Campbell isn’t quite a blues legend, but try selling that to the Indiana inmates who enjoyed his company. Milton rips through a blistering set, backed by sputtering basslines and carnival keyboards. He swings hardest when he revs up the tempo, as on “Friend of Mine” and the B.B. King classic “Bad Luck.” In such cases, nothing about the man sounds little.
Life So Far: A Memoir
By Betty Friedan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 384 pages. $26. Second-wave feminist grande dame Friedan wrote this overly conversational, minutiae-filled memoir to “set the record straight” in the face of recent unflattering biographies. She succeeds only halfway. The sections chronicling the writing of The Feminine Mystique and the founding of the National Organization for Women are compelling. So are her inspirational accounts of triumphs such as the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality: “The mounted police were trying to make us march on the sidewalk, but … there was no way we were about to walk down Fifth Avenue in a little, thin line. I waved my arms over my head and yelled, ‘Take the street!'”
But these positive elements are overshadowed by matters of style (trifling passages like, “We bought the first Eames chairs and a red plastic Eames rocker and a free form three-corner Noguchi dining table”) and substance: Friedan is stubbornly unself-critical about her role in confining the women’s movement to a narrow range of “mainstream” issues. She doesn’t entertain the thought that trying to counter the movement’s “preoccupation with lesbian rights … [and] the overemphasis on racism, poverty, and/rape” may have been, in retrospect, a bad idea. The potential for such insight is the great promise of a memoir, and its lack makes this book a sad artifact rather than useful history. — L.M.J.
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
By Robert D. Putnam. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 384 pages. $26. The demise of bowling leagues is only one symptom of growing social isolation in America. Membership has atrophied in every group from the Boy Scouts to the League of Women Voters. And participation in churches, unions — even poker games — has waned. Drawing on some 500,000 interviews conducted over the past quarter-century, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam concludes that our once-vital civic conscience has devolved into a “civic malaise.”
We shun all things political, but enlist lawyers to safeguard our private interests. We flip the bird while driving and ignore stop signs. We commute and channel-surf for hours, but spend mere minutes interacting with other people. New technology has linked hemispheres, Putnam argues, but it has also severed ties that bind a healthy society.
Despite the grim picture his exhaustive study paints, Putnam is ultimately optimistic that we can become reengaged in community and political life. Let’s start, he says, by encouraging kids to play trombone, left tackle, or King Lear. As for adults, we’d do well to value an open front porch over a private back yard and the corner store over the megamall and easy parking. — K.M.
Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money
By David S. Broder. New York: Harcourt, 2000. 272 pages. $23. Alarmed by the growing impact of state ballot initiatives, the Washington Post’s Broder — the “dean of American political journalism,” according to Brill’s Content — takes a thorough look at the phenomenon and pronounces it a bad thing.
When voters enact laws by initiative, Broder argues, they undercut the wisdom and experience of the representatives in our statehouses. Other evils spawned by the initiative process include interest-group disinformation campaigns; poorly drafted laws that can engorge bureaucracies and tie up the courts for years; an absence of spending limits for proponents or opponents of a measure; and the growth of a “lucrative initiative industry” of consultants and paid signature gatherers.
Worst of all, says Broder, initiatives nullify the genius of the Founding Fathers’ checks and balances system, which remains the best tool we have for countering “personal or economic or sectional interests.” — J.F.K.
Dr. John. Blue Note, 2000. After last year’s blizzard of Duke Ellington tributes — honoring the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth — jazz listeners could hardly be blamed for feeling a little homage fatigue. But there’s nothing tired about this funked-up collection of 12 Ellington standards.
Dr. John has selected tunes uncommonly suited for his hip, rasping vocals and bluesy piano style. Ellington aficionados may be surprised how well the dreamy “Mood Indigo” works as a gospel-tinged soul song, or that the 1940 classic “Perdido” makes for airy acid jazz (with Ronnie Cuber’s booming baritone sax solo saving it from becoming a little too airy).
Dr. John outdoes himself with a soulful reading of the lesser-known “Flaming Sword,” using the loping rumba of the bassline to propel his bright, spare solo. The Doc demonstrates a highly personal approach to the Duke’s music — and by not forgetting to sound like himself, has found perhaps the most sincere way to remember jazz’s greatest composer. — A.R.
The Invisible Hand
Greg Osby. Blue Note, 2000. If the title of this album reflects a newfound awareness of market forces, you wouldn’t know it by Osby’s music. The adventurous saxophonist’s latest offering is decidedly anticommercial — marked by rhythmic complexity, subtle use of space, and an emotional range that oscillates between the mournful and the ominous.
Osby collaborates with legendary experimental jazz pianist Andrew Hill, whom he credits as a formative influence. Both men share a flair for asymmetrical rhythms and a fluid sense of time — and Hill sounds particularly at home over the fitful stops and starts of tunes like “Ashes” and “Sanctus.”
The album is highlighted by two takes of Osby’s original, “The Watcher,” a duet with his saxophone riding a shifting harmonic palette from Hill’s keyboard. Roving masterfully between dissonance and a serene lyricism, Hill seems to alter the mood with every chord. Their open-ended duet is a high-wire act — any miscommunication between the players and the song could slip into dreadful formlessness. But on both takes, Osby’s responses to the searching inventiveness of his mentor are inspired. These exceptionally emotive performances serve as eloquent reminders that musicians need not be loud to be intense. — A.R.
The Covers Record
Cat Power. Matador Records, 2000. It’s telling that Chan Marshall kicks off her new record by taking the most popular (not to say inescapable) rock-radio hit of all time — “Satisfaction” — and rendering it practically unrecognizable. Excising its signature guitar line and many of the lyrics, Marshall turns what remains of the Stones opus into a hypnotic, despairing wail.
The reclusive Marshall, who has recorded under her nom de disc since 1995, is an understated yet formidable song stylist. She remolds the lyrics on the rest of The Covers Record with evocative melancholy, the bare-bones guitar and piano showcasing her dark vocals. The intimacy she brings to songs like Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind” and Bob Dylan’s “Paths of Victory” leaves all the dignity of the originals intact while allowing them to find new life in the voice of a true admirer. — A.Z.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman. 95 minutes. Iris Films, 1999. With few frills and a minimum of introduction, this Sundance award-winning documentary presents four hearings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — the body empowered to grant amnesty to apartheid-era criminals in exchange for the perpetrators’ full disclosure of their offenses and motives.
The featured hearings speak to the complexity of the undertaking and raise uneasy questions about the nature of justice and forgiveness. Should it matter if a killing was premeditated — as when police hunted down a group of antiapartheid activists — or the result of mob violence? Can unapologetic statements of fact suffice? Or should remorse be a factor, as it seems to have been for the murders of seven blacks from Guguletu township?
Like the TRC, directors Reid and Hoffman are humble enough to recognize that they don’t have all the answers. Indeed, the documentary’s stark, narrationless style will leave many viewers wanting a fuller explanation of the commission’s methods, objectives, and results. But by letting the hearings speak for themselves, the film dramatizes the idea that the simple act of exposing these atrocities is an essential step toward what TRC chairman Desmond Tutu calls “restorative justice.” — C.B.
Subdivide and Conquer: A Modern Western
Jeff Gersh and Chelsea Congdon. 56 minutes. Bullfrog Films, 1999. To air on PBS affiliates this summer. The opening frames set the dystopian stage for all that follows: A lone cowboy, riding his horse across the open range, crests a hill. But instead of the open West, he encounters an endless vista of sprawl: Cookie-cutter subdivisions stretching to the horizon; endless avenues of strip malls; a choking haze of smog. This is not the mythical West of John Wayne or the Marlboro man; this is the grim reality of Albuquerque, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix — and every major enclave in between.
In scene after scene, Subdivide and Conquer attacks the root of western sprawl: the county commissions and local planning boards that made the ranchette the paragon of residential living and continue to join with business interests in sidling up to the trough of federal development subsidies.
Congdon and Gersh call on Westerners to get political — to reject the trophy home and to elect local officials committed to constraining development. Barring such initiative, the directors predict, 50,000 square miles of the West — an area roughly the size of New England — will be paved in the coming decades.
Subdivide and Conquer offers a revealing look at the perils of unmanaged growth. We may well look back on this documentary 30 years from now as a lesson in How the West Was Lost. — T.W.
Reviews by: Chris Berdik, Jonathan F. King, Keith Meatto, Lisa Miya-Jervis, Andrew Rosenblum, Todd Wilkinson, and Andrea Zeisler.