May 20, 2022
What happens if Nazi butchers are ‘reassessed’ in the name of national pride?
In March 1965, the festering corpse of 64-year-old Herberts Cukurs was discovered stuffed into a trunk in a seaside bungalow in Montevideo, Uruguay. During the 1930s, Cukurs’ exploits as a dashing aviator had made him one of the most celebrated men in Latvia. Under the Nazi occupation, he found a new calling as a prominent member of the Arajs Kommando, the SS-affiliated killing unit responsible for the burning of the Riga ghetto and the massacre of around 25,000 Jews in Rumbula forest, among other barbarities.
Cukurs was contentedly operating a pedal-boat business in Brazil when allegations of his crimes became public knowledge and the Latvian Lindbergh mutated into the Latvian Eichmann. In fact, Yaakov Meidad, one of the Mossad agents who had helped kidnap Eichmann in Argentina five years earlier, led the mission to kill Cukurs. He left on the body a folder containing a passage from Sir Hartley Shawcross’s closing prosecution statement at the Nuremberg trials, which imagines that humanity itself “comes to this court and cries: ‘These are our laws – let them prevail!’” Continue reading...
Jun 28, 2021
Despite lacking the vitality of the best oral histories, Sheldon Pearce’s book illuminates the turning points in a life cut painfully short
There’s a clip in Adam Curtis’s documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head of an interview Tupac Shakur gave when he was a high school student in California in 1988. Even as an unknown teenager, he flares with charisma as he talks about reviving the revolutionary spirit of the Black Panthers. His mother, Afeni Shakur, gave birth just weeks after she was acquitted in the 1971 trial of the Panther 21, and raised him to think that he was “the Black Prince of the revolution”. When we see him again, in an interview from 1995, some vital part of him has shut down. He talks instead of survival and revenge: “Fear is stronger than love.” The following year, he was shot dead at the age of 25.
Tupac’s brief, protean life has taken on allegorical power and New Yorker writer Sheldon Pearce’s oral history clarifies the turning points. Tupac was always one to watch. Former teachers and students at his two high schools, where he played Othello and the Mouse King, remember him as a sweet, thoughtful theatre kid who loved poetry and dance. He landed his first movie role in 1991, the same year he released his debut album. Rappers often make good actors because they are role-players and storytellers. In early songs such as Keep Ya Head Up and Brenda’s Got a Baby, Tupac was still the Panther’s son, sensitive to injustice. But once gangsta rap took off, he sculpted himself into someone harder and meaner, lest anyone think his lyrics weren’t the real deal. Continue reading...
May 31, 2021
Adapted from a New Statesman column, this collection of writers’ love letters to their most treasured albums soars when it ventures away from the canon
It must be about 20 years since I read my first article about “the death of the album”. Technology gave birth to it in 1948 with the launch of the 12-inch vinyl disc and technology was expected to kill it by unbundling the parts from the whole: Napster begat iTunes begat Spotify. Yet while sales nosedived, artists doubled down. Albums such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City are every bit as substantial and satisfying as a 1970s opus, while the likes of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have made the transition from hitmakers to album artists. No matter how many singles or EPs someone releases, fans on social media will still ask: “When is the album dropping?” It turns out that the basic concept of a coherent package of songs is far more resilient than the doomsayers imagined. Even when untethered from physical formats, it remains the narrative engine, the definitive statement, the main event.
Music journalism has fared less well, as unlimited streaming has made the consumer-guide function of album reviews redundant. Yet thoughtful writing about classic albums thrives in places such as Pitchfork’s Sunday Review series and Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 imprint, serving the same purpose as sleevenote essays. The question they answer is not: “What should I buy?” but: “What am I missing?” Continue reading...
Nov 18, 2020
Patrick Barwise and Peter York survey the forces threatening the future of Britain’s much-loved corporation
Patrick Barwise and Peter York must be miffed that the phantom controversy in August over patriotic songs at the Last Night of the Proms came too late to feature in their new book. Here was a classic soufflé of an outrage, whipped up from the flimsiest ingredients, which enabled newspapers and ministers to wave the flag in the face of the BBC’s incoming director-general Tim Davie for several days. Meanwhile the government floated Charles Moore, a man with no broadcasting experience who once appeared in court for not paying the licence fee, to be the next chair of the BBC. After Moore bowed out, attention turned to Sir Robbie Gibb, who went straight from heading BBC Westminster to working for Theresa May and is currently raising funds for the new right-leaning channel GB News. Other candidates are in play, but “Rule, Britannia!”, if nothing else, will be safe in the next chair’s hands.
The BBC, Barwise and York claim in this staunch defence of the corporation, is “the whole British nation in all its untidy variety and, at the same time, one of its glories”. This book’s value lies in its steady accumulation of myth-busting data. In 2015, 99% of households used at least one BBC service at least once every week. It remains by far the most trusted source of impartial news. Nineteen out of the 25 most-watched programmes of the last decade were broadcast on BBC One. The BBC is still, to quote the old Radio 1 slogan, the nation’s favourite. Continue reading...
Oct 11, 2020
The remarkable rise of rapper Kendrick Lamar deserves a more compelling book than this hyperbolic account
The Art of Peer Pressure, a standout track on Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album Good Kid, MAAD City, is a nail-biting account of disaster averted. Billed as a true story, it describes an eventful day the 17-year-old Lamar spent under the influence of his more erratic friends in Compton, Los Angeles. After they burgle a house, police sirens enter the mix and Lamar imagines being arrested for the first time, but there’s a characteristic twist: “They made a right, then made a left/Then made a right, then made another right/One lucky night with the homies.” There’s a similar what-if quality to Duckworth, the final track on 2017’s Damn. Lamar recounts a potentially fatal altercation in the 1990s between his father, Kenny Duckworth, and Anthony Tiffith, the man who would later launch his career through Top Dawg Entertainment. “If Anthony killed Ducky,” Lamar concludes, “Top Dawg could be servin’ life/ While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.”
His albums aren’t gangster movies or political manifestos but morality plays Continue reading...