Posted in documentary, entertainment, Podcasts, Review

Sneerial: Season 2

nn_01_jmi_berghdahl_140602I deliberately didn’t post an instant response when Serial Season 2 started. Those who listened to Season 1 from the very beginning were obviously hanging on the release of the new season, and the temptation to react hotly, instantly, and disappointedly (Prometheus style) was strong. I wanted to give it a chance.

On its own terms, Season 2, about Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl, was okay. It’s a high quality production from the same team and it’s not doing anything wrong, per se. But it doesn’t hold the fascination that the miscarriage of justice featured in Season 1 does. Bergdahl deserted his US Army military post in Afghanistan, got captured by the Taliban, and was held captive for five years, but his story didn’t chime with me. He’s certainly a bit of an odd character, but I don’t care about him, nor about the Americans’ misadventures in war.

While the Adnan Syed case was unknown to almost everyone outside Greater Baltimore, the Bowe Bergdahl case was more notorious – at least to some. To be honest, it was as new a story to me as the Season 1 story was, but I’m aware by now that it has been widely discussed in the media, and certain presidential candidates have weighed in with their opinions. I don’t know what other choices they had, but it seems odd to have gone for this.

So there’s that: the sense that Season 2 was raking over ground already ploughed by Big Media, which made it less gripping. Season 1 worked because it shone a spotlight onto a single murder case in a city that sees a couple of hundred homicides a year. In other words, there had been another 2800 homicide cases in that city alone since Syed was jailed. Picking his case out of thousands and making it such compelling listening was a great feat of journalistic detective work, and made you, the listener, feel part of something special. Bowe Bergdahl’s case doesn’t have the same obscure fascination.

Then there’s what happened as Serial started to broadcast. Just as it was building up a head of steam, with weekly episodes at least being listenable and the details of the case starting to get a grip, they decided to swap to a fortnightly release schedule. Obviously, they had their reasons, but any momentum that Season 2 had gained was lost. And we’re up to 9 episodes now (the 10th is out this week), which means it must be nearing the end, but I just don’t feel the same level of anticipation. In fact, I barely notice its releases among all the podcasts I consume.

One interesting side effect of the slightly subdued reaction to Serial 2 has been that the ancillary podcasts that came into being around the original are struggling for relevance. Some, like Crimewriters on Serial just spun off and started to do more of their own thing (such as talking about Making a Murderer instead). The Bowe Bergdahl case didn’t really fit with the Crimewriters On theme, and anything else they discussed was of less interest to me (I didn’t think much of Making a Murderer), so I’ve unsubscribed. Meanwhile, Undisclosed has clearly come into its own when it comes to the Syed case, and has put forward more new evidence in its run than Serial ever managed. With the recent PCR hearing in Baltimore, Undisclosed remained on top of its detail-oriented game, while the Serial updates from the first few days of the PCR seemed detached and superficial.

Meanwhile Season 2 seems to meander around, poking into Bergdahl’s case in sometimes interesting ways, without ever feeling like it’s going anywhere important. While they could have gone for the military and foreign policy jugular, it feels to me like they’ve back pedalled, taking care not to offend the military industrial complex and their supporters.

So it’s a shame, but in retrospect, Serial 1 was something of a black swan, impossible to reproduce, and should have been left in its own unique category. In the meantime, its parent podcast, This American Life has lost a lot of its mojo and really misses those standalone episodes that Sarah Koenig used to produce.

After this showing, I’d be really surprised if Serial spawned a third season. It’s a shame, because now it will be remembered for a failure, which is neither fair nor just. Still, if it means Sarah Koenig is let loose on a wider variety of stories, it will be a blessing.

Posted in bastards, documentary, Podcasts

The State vs. the State vs. Adnan Syed

fax_cover_disclaimerI have of course been following the Adnan Syed post-conviction relief hearing on the Twitter and via podcast updates. These hearings can only take place if the defence team has new evidence to present, which means their scope is very limited, and cannot, for example, continue arguments from the original trial, or include stuff like, hey, the internet thinks Jay was probably lying. It’s interesting to contrast the carefully impartial journalistic updates from the Serial team with the more partisan and personally involved updates from the Undisclosed podcast crew. Less professional, but with more of a stake in the outcome. And do I detect, in the studied way that Serial is ignoring all of the things that Undisclosed has uncovered, a certain chilling in the atmosphere between the two podcast organisations?

So this PCR hearing rests on two bits of ‘new evidence’. The first is an alibi witness who was not called in the original trial, being presented in support of the idea that Adnan’s original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective assistance of counsel by not including her testimony. The second is a complete rebuttal of the original trial’s cellphone location evidence, which sounds like it might not be ‘new evidence’, except it includes part of an exhibit (a fax cover sheet) that was perhaps deliberately excluded by the prosecution the first time around. This is – possibly – what is known as a Brady violation, which is when the prosecution doesn’t disclose evidence under the rules. What the cover sheet discloses is that the cellphone company, AT&T, included a disclaimer saying that the data was only reliable for outgoing calls. Obviously, if this had been introduced into evidence at the original trial, the whole cell tower narrative would have been called into question.

The alibi witness undermines the original prosecution narrative of the case, which argued that Adnan murdered Hae at a certain point in the afternoon after school. Asia says she saw him in the library opposite the school during the 20 minutes or so that he couldn’t account for previously.

Serial, of course, started with that question: can you remember what were you doing at a particular place/time six weeks ago? The podcast framed this as Adnan’s key problem: because he couldn’t account for about 20 minutes of his time, because he didn’t remember, or he had nobody to corroborate his memory, he was screwed. (My personal theory about why Adnan had such trouble remembering that day is because it’s possible his whole day revolved around either smoking or obtaining weed.) So Asia’s testimony is important because she’s accounting for that time in the afternoon, when Adnan said he was in the Library. Though apparently, he himself didn’t recollect speaking to Asia. (Why not? Weed? You see how it goes.)

So it really was a big fucking oversight that Gutierrez didn’t contact Asia.

But here’s the thing. If Asia’s testimony gives Adnan an alibi for the prosecution’s timeline of the murder, the cell tower evidence completely destroys the prosecution’s timeline, which they painstakingly constructed around their understanding of (selected highlights from) the cell tower data.

If the cell tower evidence is invalid, the timeline is invalid and Asia’s alibi isn’t relevant to it. So it’s not so much the alibi that matters as it is that the original defence counsel didn’t follow it up.

All of which means, in my mind, mistrial, and should certainly lead to a new trial.

But I called this post ‘The State vs. the State’ because, as we all know too well, the State hates to be wrong. The judge sits between Defence and Prosecution but is also a representative of the State, connected to all the other judges who have passed sentence and turned down appeals etc. over the year. The reluctance of a judge to overturn a verdict rendered by colleagues is inherent in the structure. So while the judge might not be personally biased against Adnan, they are going to be biased in favour of the System – because to admit that the System isn’t perfect is to dismantle the State.

In a larger sense, too, the defence is part of the State, because the (perfect) system cannot function perfectly when accused persons don’t have access to a defence. This system, by all accounts, is under extreme pressure both here and in the US, where public defenders, for example, get an average of a few minutes with their clients. As portrayed in a recent episode of the always-zeitgeisty The Good Wife, this means that detained people with no financial support get very little chance of a fair hearing.

This situation isn’t helped by people who sneer at the idea of defence lawyers trying to defend guilty people. The tenor of many of the Adnan Syed trolls on Twitter is that ‘he did it’ and therefore all these liberal campaigners are in the wrong. But the thing is, nobody can be that sure of anything in this case, other than the person or persons who actually murdered Hae Min Lee. If that’s Adnan, so be it, but I don’t know, and nor do any of the internet people who make such strong assertions. The kind of people who get angry when a person is released ‘on a technicality’ are similar to the people who try to justify torture. The State has to be held to account, has to prove the case, and cannot be allowed to conduct themselves dishonestly – even in the name of justice for victims.

The problem with the evidence in the original trial was that it was, on the one hand, constructed and presented by the prosecution in a way guaranteed to mislead the jury in certain ways. They didn’t point out that Jay was getting away with his supposed accessory role. No mention of the Crime-stoppers witness who received an oddly specific amount of money, for example. No mention of how the State’s star witness managed to change his story so many times to precisely match the eventual narrative of the cell tower pings.

The standard of evidence is supposed to be, as any fule kno, beyond reasonable doubt, but though the jury in the original trial were (reportedly) leaning towards not guilty, that at the second trial got an entirely different impression (perhaps because the star witness was more convincing second time around). Now, taking into account the Asia testimony, the doubt now clouding the cell tower data, without even mentioning the possible police and prosecution misconduct, I think we’ve got nothing but reasonable doubt here. Case not proven. No matter what you suspect, no matter your prejudices or theories, there isn’t enough evidence for the conviction to stand.

As to that misconduct, I think that Undisclosed have done a sterling job of uncovering Brady violations, blatant witness coaching (tap tap tap), junk science and a complete lack of effort in pursuing any other suspects, as well as a history (in Baltimore) of similar misconduct in other cases. Whereas Serial finished on a note of open-ended (but reasonable) doubt, I feel that if you followed the case through the incredible detail work of Undisclosed, you’d now be assured that (at the very least) a new trial is what this case needs. It’s a shame, I think, that the family of Hae have to go through this, but their anger should be directed at the police and prosecutors who did such a shitty job all those years ago.

Posted in Books, concerts, documentary, entertainment, gigs, live, music, Review

The Ties That Bind – The River Collection

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I’ve written quite recently about The River, and it has been at the forefront of my mind lately, mainly because my younger daughter has grown to love Springsteen, and we have conversations about which is my favourite album. And it comes back to this, the Springsteen album that I got for my 18th birthday, and which was still new and fresh to me throughout the year that followed: the year I left school, left home, experienced life on the dole, the economic realities of the Early Thatcher period.

One of my enduring regrets is that in the summer of 1981, when both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen played in London, and I was offered the chance to see one of them, I chose Dylan. At the time, I loved Dylan more, had loved him for longer, and when there was just enough money for one gig, it was him I chose. That was during his evangelical period, but the news was that he’d lightened up on the concert front and started playing some of the old hits again. I didn’t know then what I know now, which is that a Bob Dylan concert will always be an event, but that he will never play the songs you love in the way you love them to be played. Wanting to see Dylan live was a hangover from my school days; a friend of mine had gone with her big brother to see him on the 1978 tour, maybe the Blackbushe Aerodrome concert, and I remember feeling envious. So 1981 was a way of getting over that, I suppose.

But it could have been Springsteen, that June in London, it could have been Bruce. The Dylan concert wasn’t terrible, but it was indifferent at best, and the next time Springsteen came to London, when I finally got to go, in 1985, it was a stadium gig. It was a different kind of show. I know the lore. From The Bottom Line club days, through to the arena concerts, that was a different vibe. By the time he was playing the big stadia, that was a different kind of show altogether. The sweet spots were the ’78 and ’81 tours: he had so much good material by then, but was also still playing a venue small enough for there still to be a connection with the audience. Back then he catered for the larger audience by playing multiple nights in the same venue. Hard on the band, sure, but such a band.

The 1975 E Streeters were funky and I want to say loose but they weren’t loose in the sense of out of time. They were tight in that sense, but had that soulful swing that went with the flared trousers and the long hair, beards, and floppy hats. You can see them at their best in the Hammersmith Odeon show. Back then, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, and Steve Van Zandt were all fairly new to the band, which was really much more of a backing group for Bruce the frontman. By 1978, supporting the hyper-real Darkness on the Edge of Town, they were hard driving, disciplined, road-hardened rockers. The shows were brilliant, and they were really focused on Bruce and Clarence, the mutual adoration and interplay between those two. By the time of The River tour, this version of the E Street Band had so many miles behind it they could do anything. And the shows were different again: there was Bruce the frontman with impressive sideburns and a quiff, along with his sidekick Clarence, but also, moments when Garry Talent and Steve Van Zandt would bounce down the stage in unison. The entertainment was growing larger to cope with bigger venues, and the breadth and depth of the material was astounding.

The River, as I wrote before, is Springsteen’s best work. This new boxed set attempts to place it in a context: the third in a trilogy, yes, but also an attempt to capture something of the live shows because of that oft-repeated criticism that Springsteen on record was nothing like as good as Springsteen live. Which is saying something, when you consider how brilliant both Born to Run and Darkness are. This was an attempt to capture on disc the sound of the band, with basic tracks recorded ensemble, allowing the sounds of the instruments to mesh together with overspill. The history of music is often a history of the battle between musicians who know how music sounds live, and sound engineers, who want to control everything.

The boxed set does a good job. First of all, you get the aborted single album version of The River, which is packed full of decent songs but ultimately feels thin and insubstantial. Springsteen wanted to include some light and shade, but it just didn’t work at single album length. So he did what he seems to always end up doing: he took it back and went to work again.

Amazingly, there are several songs on the 10-track single album version (“Be True” being the most notable) that didn’t make it onto the 20-track double. You can’t help observing that Springsteen throws away more good songs than most other artists have good songs. Listening to the 22 songs on the Outtakes disc, I was struck by the thought that this album of rejects was obviously better than The Clash’s London Calling, which always seems to make critics’ lists of “best albums”, probably because they wouldn’t want to be accused of ignoring that whole punk/new wave era.

In the accompanying documentary, Bruce laughs ruefully at the notion that he left “Roulette” off The River and instead included the insubstantial “Crush on You”. But he was right, I think, because “Crush on You”, “Ramrod”, “Cadillac Ranch” and others manage to capture the irreverent life-affirming joy of the live shows. The River is an album that captures the struggle and despair of working people’s lives and at the same time includes the escapist, wondrous music that saves those same lives. How is it possible to feel so good and so bad at the same time? Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

So my big issue here is with the documentary. While it’s great to hear Bruce talk about this stuff, and his process, and his struggles with sequencing, balance, and tone, I would also like to hear from some of the other people involved. Springsteen mentions how he kind of deliberately set his perfectionist manager Jon Landau against the Wall-of-Sound advocate Steve Van Zandt, creating a conflict that he could resolve as the one in the middle. When he said that it made me think of the “Classic Albums” documentary about Damn the Torpedoes, and the clash between Jimmy Iovine and Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch. I would like to hear from Miami Steve, the other musicians, from the engineers, from Landau. After all, what happened next speaks volumes.

First of all, Bruce abandoned the band, and the recording studio, altogether in favour of a TEAC home 4-track and the stripped down Nebraska. And then, during the recording of Born in the USA, Van Zandt left the band, to be replaced on the subsequent tour by Nils Lofgren. After that album, it was a long time before Bruce attempted to record with the E Street Band again. So I think there’s a story there about how hard he is to work with, and how frustrating he has always found the recording process.

But there it is. Maybe one day, we’ll learn something more. For now, this is the fourth version of The River I’ve bought/owned. I really wanted this for the live show on the DVD, but the rest of the package is good, too. The photo book is hefty, and there’s also a facsimile of a note book with scribbled and typed lyrics, mostly of songs that didn’t make the cut.

So who is this for? Fifty quid bloke? Fifty-something bloke? Yeah, probably. That’s me. I can’t see this as an entry point for someone, and I’d struggle, actually, to come up with a way in for the genuine newcomer. Anything you might offer as a playlist would be horribly patronising and off the mark. Probably watching some YouTube clips would be the best bet, these days. But how do you make the leap from watching a 5-10 minute clip to sitting through all the albums or a whole show? How did my own 15 year old daughter get into Bruce? He was just there, in the house, in the same way that Frank Sinatra and The Beatles were for me. For the record, she says it was the song “Wrecking Ball,” which she discovered on the iPad and played over and over, and then went from there.

People these days will fall over themselves to get tickets for the live shows, but how many of them are really there for their first experience? What is music, anyway, in 2016? I just… I just… I just don’t know.

Posted in documentary, entertainment, music, Review, Television

20 Feet from Stardom

71QJju2iOQL._SL1425_Whenever my younger daughter and I get telly time to ourselves, we tend to watch music and music-related things. This weekend, we watched a few documentaries and some YouTube stuff.

First up was Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which was a fascinating look at how a band with a great sound, universal acclaim, and tons of talent can still fail to make it because a record label fucks up, or goes under, or for some other reason fails to promote or distribute them correctly. It’s a sobering film, really. Fascinating, but disturbing to think how few records Big Star sold, no matter how many music journalists obsessed about them. If you are or have ever been a music journalist, it should be especially sobering: what exactly are you for, if this can happen?

In similar vein, the brilliant film 20 Feet from Stardom was both uplifting and tragic. To hear, first hand, the story of how Merry Clayton came to make her extraordinary contribution to “Gimme Shelter”; or to see colour footage of Ike and Tina Turner with the Ikettes, including Claudia Lennear; or to see Judith Hill singing “Desperation” solo at a piano – all of this was brilliant. But then there are the stories about the other side of the business. How attempted solo careers stalled due to industry or public indifference; how being a great singer wasn’t enough, you had to be sexy too; how modern cost-cutting trends mean that the work dries up.

The record industry has a long history of exploiting and discarding talent, of course, but there’s something especially poignant about the difficulties experienced by the likes of Darlene Love, whose contract with Phil Spector kept her out of the spotlight for too long, and who, when she was finally free of him, found that her next manager was somehow persuaded to sell her contract back to Spector. The same Spector, of course, who kept his own wife Ronnie a virtual prisoner in their home for five years. Darlene Love, who had to work as a cleaner to make ends meet. Or Claudia Lennear, whose one solo record, Phew, was pretty damn good (including Ry Cooder on guitar and production from Allen Toussaint) but failed to do much in the charts.

That was the next step, to give that record a listen. It really is pretty good. She sounds not unlike Tina Turner (hardly surprising) with some Jagger mannerisms (who borrowed from whom, who knows). Cooder’s guitar makes a lot of it sound like Taylor-era Stones.

Our third music doc of the weekend was I’m Not in Love: the Story of 10cc, which was very interesting. I wasn’t aware, when they were a thing, of the band members’ prehistories. In today’s music industry, Godley and Creme  could have had their side projects and the band could have taken two, three years off at a time, but not in those days. The actual story of “I’m Not in Love” is itself mind-blowing.

Finally, we watched this 55-minute snippet of The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert, featuring Bruce Springsteen with a slew of guest stars, including Darlene Love. So good. And I was in floods of tears watching an obviously unwell Clarence Clemons play his wondrous “Jungleland” solo. So great.

Posted in documentary, entertainment, Podcasts, Review

Undisclosed episode 2

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 08.27.05First things first: I thought the audio quality of the second episode of Undisclosed was much improved, and I didn’t notice any of the presenters talking too fast this time, so thumbs up to that.

As the first was about Adnan’s day, this episode was about Hae’s day, and called into question many, many of the things we’d been assuming were true. If it’s about anything so far, Undisclosed is about the unreliability of memory and the ways in which witnesses can’t really be trusted to have remembered the facts.

None of this is terribly surprising, but when the legal system (and this case in particular) is so determined to keep relying on sworn witness statements, it’s good to be reminded of it. In fact, Serial itself might well have spent more time on this – made it more of a theme – because the very first episode began with the notion that Adnan Syed is in prison because he couldn’t remember what he was doing in one twenty minute period six weeks before he was asked about it.

The first episode of Serial began with that question: could you remember what you were doing six weeks ago, if asked? Obviously, it depends on whether you were doing something particularly memorable; or whether your life is pretty regular and has routines.

Say, for example, you remember the day vividly because you happened to be co-coaching the school wrestling team, and you wanted the more experienced coach to be at the match with you, but they didn’t turn up? You’d remember that, especially if it made you anxious, vividly. This was one of the key points in the original trials, and in Serial itself. Why did nobody check, then, whether there really had been a wrestling match on January 13? Turns out, there wasn’t. The match that Hae didn’t turn up to was the week before, on January 5th. That’s your ineffective assistance of counsel, right there.

What does this mean? It means that our ideas about the time-line of Hae’s last day are wrong. It means that a witness was mistaken. It means that there was a pattern to Hae’s behaviour, that this previously reliable and responsible girl suddenly let a friend/colleague down. Why? Maybe because of her intense involvement with her new boyfriend?

One thing that does interest me was that there was apparently a teacher who was the liaison between staff, students, and police. This teacher was close to Hae and was apparently planning a trip to France with her. This, I want to know more about. Was it a school trip? With a group of students who would by then have graduated? Or was it a private holiday? A teacher with a student? I think we need to know.

The famous local news clip, showing Hae posing for indoor hockey footage and being interviewed, was also supposed to have taken place on the 13th. Only nobody mentioned it, talked about it, or remembered it. Turns out, that was almost certainly the week before, too.

We still don’t know what happened. But we do apparently know that a lot of what we thought we knew is wrong. Which throw loads more reasonable doubt into the case, but doesn’t provide Adnan with anything convincingly exculpatory.

Posted in bootlegs, documentary, entertainment, film, movies, musings, Review

Los Angeles Plays Itself

This 2003 documentary by Thom Andersen was finally made available for the home video market in the autumn of last year. I’ll confess that I hadn’t heard of it. I’m pretty up on things, generally. I mean, I knew about the Helvetica and Linotype documentaries. I knew about Side by Side. But not this.

So maybe it was my head in the sand, maybe it was something else. It all seems to have been a little hush hush. You don’t need to think very hard to come up with a reason why it took more than 10 years for the film to appear on DVD. And the same thought will explain why, even now, you can’t buy a Region 2/European version.

Rights. Clearances. You’d think the media conglomerates would be friendlier towards education and more supportive of academic work or film historiography. This film does shade towards a personal polemic, but it is still fascinating, detailed, brilliantly done.

But although I looked, I could only buy an imported Region 1 DVD or Blu-Ray, and I couldn’t find a legitimate download.

I could find an illegitimate download. It was low resolution (640×480) and looked soft and painterly when displayed on my HDTV. When I first played it, the sound was not just a little out of synch, but a good minute, playing the voice-over over completely the wrong pictures. Using different playback software fixed this problem. My daughter complained that the voice over was monotonous, and it certainly can be at times. But I found it interesting enough to watch all the way through. It reminded me of Adam Curtis documentaries. The clips were there to support the polemic.

The complaint in the film is that Los Angeles is often distorted or misrepresented in films. Cars turn corners in the movies and are suddenly 30 miles away. Characters exit a building to find themselves on a street 15 miles away. Los Angeles is often called upon to play other cities, or different countries: New York, Chicago, Switzerland. People are portrayed as living either in the hills above the city or on the beach. Rarely do we see them in the midst of the vast suburban sprawl where most of the inhabitants live. There are some wonderful modernist buildings in the city, examples of progressive, utopian architecture: but they are usually depicted as the homes of crime lords and drug dealers: only evil people choose to live in modern buildings.

My favourite sequences in the film were

  • the one about the Bradbury Building and all its appearances in film (including Blade Runner, which I’m going to see again tonight);
  • The Bunker Hill history, showing how its gradual destruction and disappearance was recorded in the movies;
  • The Chinatown sequence, discussing the background to the script, and the way in which the film’s fictionalised and temporally transposed story of water corruption serves to conceal the real scandals of Los Angeles history;
  • and the LAPD sequence, discussing how the police are seen as an occupying force, working against the interests of the people they’re supposed to serve: are they the only police force whose motto is in ironic quote marks?

There is much, much more. Street corners, diners, motels, locations that turn up again and again. Things that get knocked down and rebuilt as simulations. The film puts to bed a lot of the myths about Los Angeles. It complains that it is the only major city known by its initials – and blames the movies. The idea that ‘nobody walks’ and that ‘everybody drives’ is exposed as an example of a white privileged viewpoint. In Steve Martin’s LA Story, there are only two black characters with speaking roles: they are both in the service industry.

It was interesting to see excerpts of forgotten, independent, neo-realist films such as Killer of SheepThe Exiles and Bush Mama, depicting the Los Angeles ‘hidden’ by the movies, or only ever viewed through the lens of the privileged cop point-of-view, which sees brown people as the enemy within. These are ‘foreign’ films made in the heart of the city largely ignored by the film industry that is based there.

This page lists the films excerpted in the documentary, in order, including their repeated appearances. If you can get hold of a copy, highly recommended, rights be damned.