Brick Wahl portfolio

This is sort of a Best of Brick…a long list of links to pieces from my blog. Some were written for the blog, some originally for the LA Weekly, some scattered about other zines and blogs and newspapers, and some are old but never published. Hopefully you’ll see something you like. I can be reached through the blog, or at, or 323-661-5167.

A lady in a chiffon dress reading Thucydides
“Never trust a man old enough to be your father who’s read Thucydides, her mother had warned.”

A picture of John Altman and Peter Green
“He was so good, that Peter Green, and the horizon was limitless, such were the times. 1970. Jimi lived, the Beatles still were.”

All out of vanilla Haagen-Dazs
“At the Mayfair a gorgeous power blonde stormed up to the manager on perfect legs and screamed You’re all out of vanilla Haagen-Dazs!”

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out sick

People have been asking where I’m at…. I’ve been getting over a helluva case of the flu–apparently not a variety covered by the flu shot–and been laying about watching movies and practicing scales on my cough. Haven’t written a damn thing. Not even this, which I had my staff of interns put together.

Paul Kantner

(from an email to Greg Burk)

Yeah, After Bathing at Baxter’s has wound up my favorite rock album, at the top of the pile for years, as others have come and gone. In fact, only the Sex Pistols rate with the Airplane in being a transformative band in my adult life. I heard the Pistols when I was twenty, in ’77, and it was ’77 that I picked up Baxter’s, the oddly obscure (by then) Airplane album, the one you never heard on the radio. I had most of the others. Baxter’s blew my mind like Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica blew my mind, it was overwhelming, a mind fuck. Somehow it overtook Trout Mask in importance–helped along no doubt by Spencer Dryden‘s drumming–and I still listen to it with varying degrees of awe, depending on how stoned I am. I listen to it dozens of time annually, always have. It’s the only record I have that I listened to dozens of times annually since I bought it in some hippie used record store in Isla Vista. And over all these decades of being a rock fan, the only two essential–as in needing them to breathe essential–rock albums left for me are After Bathing at Baxter’s and Never Mind the Bullocks, bought both that same year, 1977, when I was twenty years old. And when I heard Paul Kantner died, my favorite Airplane, the genius of the bunch, with his amazing sense of harmony and rhythm, I felt the briefest twinge and got on with life, which is the way it should be, because otherwise you don’t get it, you don’t get it at all. Paul got down, not the first time, you know. Paul got down and got up to go. And he’s gone.

Neocons doing bad things

I’d actually never heard of the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan, but it was the heart and soul of Neocon philosophy. It was the office that was in charge of changing Afghanistan into a modern, democratic nation. The idea was simple enough: given enough investment, one could kickstart a free enterprise economy, free of government regulation and control, out of which would come a natural stability and the formation of a democratic system. It was almost a magic trick, taking an economy and society that had not changed appreciably in centuries and with a few hundred million dollars turning it into a market for computers and cars and hamburgers and western concepts of democratic government. But unregulated commerce and democracy went hand in hand in their thinking. The power of the free market. Regime change just naturally followed economic change. It seemed so clear to them and so absurd to us. We, of course, were right, this eight hundred million (and the goats) disappeared into thin air and Afghanistan’s ancient ways are still there.

I suppose we should feel lucky they spent only $800 million, since the Neocons spent vastly more trying to kickstart the Iraqi economy after the US conquest. According to The Guardian, “in the year after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 nearly 281 million notes, weighing 363 tonnes, were sent from New York to Baghdad for disbursement to Iraqi ministries and US contractors. Using C-130 planes, the deliveries took place once or twice a month with the biggest of $2,401,600,000 on June 22 2004….” This cash was driven into town and dispensed by the tens of millions and disappeared almost immediately. Without a trace, an official told the BBC. Twelve billion US dollars gone in a flash. “Our top priority was to get the economy moving again” potentate Paul Bremer* explained to a Congressional committee. “The first step was to get money into the hands of the Iraqi people as quickly as possible.” So they almost literally threw money at people–bosses, bureaucrats, officials, whomever. What they did with the money it no one seems to know. It was unauditable. “The numbers are so large that it doesn’t seem possible that they’re true,” said congressman Henry Waxman, “Who in their right mind would send 363 tons of cash into a war zone?” Apparently Neocons would.

The Iraqi economy did not kickstart. So they tried billions more in investment, in capital, in construction, in whatever it is that creates economies where defeat was overwhelming and the government destroyed and chaos reigned. Twelve billion dollars worth in a year’s time, also unauditable. A Neoconservative Marshall Plan, though more pure, as if we’d dropped money from B-17s onto a ruined Europe. Money and copies of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, translated. I wonder if the Neocons distributed copies of The Wealth of Nations in Arabic and Pashto?

Whatever, we know the result. The Neocons were wrong. Wrong in Iraq, and wrong in Afghanistan, just as the Soviets had been wrong with their centrally controlled socialist Afghan state a couple decades before. They left a mess, as did we. I’m not saying we haven’t done good things. There are schools there now, and there are rights for women. But the Russians built schools too, and gave rights to women. When they left the economy and society returned to its old ways, as it always does, amid the wreckage of unfinished Five Year Plans and unread copies of Das Kapital. And now traditional Afghan society is coming down from the mountains again, overwhelming our schools and our sophisticated ideas about market economies.

And in Iraq, no matter how much money we spent, we only made Saddam’s half-assed Stalinist state infinitely worse. The people there survived and even, some of them, thrived under his brutal tyranny as they’d survived and sometimes thrived under tyrannies since civilization began. In exchange we gave them anarchy. The Neocons celebrated it. “Freedom’s untidy,” Donald Rumsfeld said, “and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” But there was the Neoconservative upside. “They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things” he said, “and that’s what’s going to happen here.” It didn’t. Instead of freedom, Baghdad was subjected to looting, murder, kidnapping, rape, destruction and massacre on a scale unseen since the day Tamerlane’s Mongol Golden Horde broke though the walls in 1401. Tamerlane killed 20,000 in one day. Violence during the eight years of US occupation killed several times that. The killing continued after we left. It continues still. (Baghdad is regularly listed among the top ten most violent cities in the world.) That is the sad legacy of the Neoconservative philosophy in Iraq, apparently, people doing bad things. When they write the histories of Baghdad several centuries hence the American occupation will be seen as one of its darkest periods. Ideologies that look so dreamy and elegant in Power Point can be ugly and messy in the real world. Bright and shining lies. Inconceivable ramifications. Karl Marx could never have imagined the killing fields of Cambodia. Nor Leo Strauss the bombings and death squads and squalid corruption of a neoconservative Baghdad. Sure, there’s a difference in scale. The Cambodian genocide was Mao meets Hitler, while American occupied Iraq was just another colonial disaster, not quite Viet Nam but certainly more than the Philippine Insurrection. The scale drifts out of previous American experience, but France’s disaster in Algeria comes to mind. But there’s a common principle, I think, that threads through all of them. Perhaps you can’t just drop western political philosophies onto foreign lands and expect them to unroll like they do in textbooks. Fundamental change doesn’t come from invasions and bombs and re-education. Well, it can, if you repress people enough, at least for a while. But if you want real, permanent change, change not born of repression but acceptance, not by the sword but by logic–which is what the Neocons wanted from the Afghans and Iraqis, the logical acceptance that their ideas were right–then perhaps that change has to come from within.

It did in Europe, but it took two hundred years, three waves of revolution, several civil wars, innumerable massacres, fascism, Stalinism, industrial level genocide, two world wars and the sudden collapse of communism to get there. I think the people who look at the Arab Spring and shake their heads have forgotten that. Europe seems so peaceful now. So social democratic. So enlightened. And they see Egypt and call the Revolution a failure. They look at Syria and see nothing but violence and refugees. They look at ISIS and are justifiably terrified. But change takes time. Civilizations don’t progress instantly. The Arab Spring could be where Europe was in 1789 at the dawn of the French Revolution. Or it could be where Europe was when revolution swept it stem to stern before being crushed in 1848. The Neocons and their Task Force for Business and Stability Operations could be just another costly and ridiculous misstep on the way to something better. Change, that is truly profound change, will take longer than any of our lifetimes. These are matters of generations. None of us today will see how this will all turn out in the long run, not even if you are twenty years old and live to be a hundred. But we can look at Tunisia and hope.



* Paul Bremer, the diplomat granted virtual dictatorial powers in Iraq by President Bush, held a position comparable to General Douglas MacArthur in post-war Japan, if MacArthur had been a complete fuck up.

Morally Repugnant Elite

I was reading an article from 1994 on Haiti’s “Morally Repugnant Elite” and was stopped cold by the first paragraph:
“Haiti’s tiny upper class, the 1 percent of the population that hogs half the nation’s income, is referred to by American diplomats in Port-au-Prince as ‘MREs’, short for ‘morally repugnant elites’.”

The notion, in 1994, that one per cent of a nation could control half a nation’s income was so objectionable as to be morally repugnant. Yet now the entire world is that way. Worse than that, even. One percent of the world now has more money than the other 99%. Indeed, sixty two people, combined, are now richer than the several billion of the poorest half of the population of the world put together. Haiti, as appalling as it was in 1994, had a more equitable balance of income than the entire world has today. The rich keep getting richer, hogging, as the article says, half the world’s income, with no sign their share will not keep growing. There is money being made, but less and less people are seeing any of it.

That inequality is growing as wealth becomes more and more centralized. It was 388 people with over half the world’s income in 2010. In 2014 it had shrunk to eighty. Last year, sixty-two. If this trend continues, within just a few years you’ll be able to count the owners of most of the world’s wealth on ten fingers. Perhaps it will even get to the point again of late 19th century capitalism, when John D Rockefeller was worth more, in 2015 dollars, than the top ten billionaires in the world today combined. Yet today there are many more billionaires than in Rockefeller’s time, 1,826 of them in 2015, so many that Forbes list of the 500 richest people in the world includes only those worth over $3.5 billion. Mere millionaires are a dime a dozen anymore–there are an estimated 15 million of them world wide (or a little less than one quarter of one per cent of the world’s population), and the hundred-millionaires among them (that is those with wealth measured in nine figures) have to be at least ten times as common as billionaires, so that at a bare minimum there have to be nearly 20,000 people in the world whose wealth is less than a billion dollars but more than one hundred million dollars each. Now combine them with billionaires and there are upwards of 25,000 people (an estimate I suspect is low) who are incredibly wealthy. Remember, this is not including those that have wealth between ten and ninety-nine million dollars. We are not considering them incredibly wealthy, just extremely wealthy. This is how much money there is concentrated among the top .0025% of the world’s population. There is enough money for fifteen million millionaires. And very little money for the rest of us.

The world is actually full of money, lots and lots of money. Though it has to be pointed out that together that the top 62 wealthiest people who share between them more wealth than half the world’s population have between them a little over $1.7 trillion dollars, which means that the nearly four billion people of the bottom half shared between them 1.7 trillion dollars, or roughly $400 a piece. It takes only 62 people to have as much wealth as half the population of the world because half the population of the world have almost no wealth at all. It took 388 people in 2010 to equal the wealth of the poorer half of the world because that poorer half wasn’t as cash poor as they are today. The bottom half of that half was plenty poor, of course, but those in the upper range of that bottom 50% were not poor at all. They had money. They had comfortable middle class lives. But that money began slipping away. You cannot have 14 million millionaires and billionaires in the world, with another million millionaires created annually (over 900,000 in 2014) without sucking a lot of wealth out of the hands of a lot of middle class people. All the layoffs, wage reductions, unpaid overtime, outsourced jobs, benefit cuts, automation and internships have taken income away from the many and concentrated it in the hands of a dozen million or so millionaires.

And while we consider this unjust, somehow we have gotten beyond the point where we consider it morally repugnant. We used to. The sight of the lavishly spending Haitian elites surrounded by masses of their desperately poor fellow citizens was seen as a blight on humanity. Morally indefensible. Repugnant. But it doesn’t bother us anymore, even though that sort of income inequality afflicts us now, and not just the population of the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Maybe it’s because in Haiti the top one per cent lived within sight of the other 99%, flaunting their wealth, but we only see billionaires if they run for president. Or maybe it’s because we wish we were rich, too. Ships do come in, a million of them a year. One of them just has to be ours, and it’s out there, just over the horizon.

School shooting

There was a very ugly school shooting today. Four dead, several wounded. I thought it would have been all over Facebook but instead there is this eerie silence. I suppose because it happened in Canada. We can’t scream about the NRA and Republicans and Donald Trump if it happened in Canada, and Republicans can’t yell about liberals and Obama and the 2nd Amendment. Facebook likes to pretend it is so sincere about murdered people, but all it wants to do is score political points. The dead are pawns in the endless political oneupmanship. Every time there is a shooting in the US both sides get to yell at each other. If it happens in Canada, no one down here notices. Nothing on Facebook seems to exist if it can’t be understood in the context of American politics. So Facebook goes on, blissfully depressed about dead rock stars, waiting for a massacre this side of the Canadian border it can get its teeth into.

National Hug Day

It’s National Hug Day? Really?

I’ve always gotten a lot of hugs, though I never got more hugs than I did when I was writing for the LA Weekly. Apparently being a jazz critic means lots of hugs. I don’t know why, but then I never did understand jazz. And in a jazz bar, it’d be open season on me, hugs came in waves, big smooshy hugs, a lady’s entire anatomy pressed into mine. Sometimes I couldn’t make my way across the floor to the bar without a series of powerhouse hugs. After a while I took to staying seated and ordering from the waitress, and after she gave me a big hug, she’d take my drink order. But sitting down didn’t entirely work, the hugs would still come, just in a more cumbersome fashion. One time, sitting down, I took a lady’s iron clad bra right in my eye. I could feel the mesh, like medieval mail, jabbing my eyeball. I saw stars as she said how glad she was to see me. I said I was glad to see her, though I couldn’t see at all. I was wondering if I was going to get a shiner. I didn’t. Didn’t the next time either from a different lady, I believe steel plated. More stars, more pain. Again, no shiner. But I learned quickly, and when a lady approached with the gleam of a hug in her eye, I stood up, quite genteel, and took it like a man.

Still, I’m staying home today.

Grief and David Bowie

Facebook so intensifies grief, grief for people who didn’t know you from Adam. But people get old and they die. You do huge amounts of drugs and booze, and you die a little earlier. This is just the way it happens. This mass grieving and depression is completely inexplicable to me. Tragic is a dead child. Tragic is a dead wife. We have so prolonged life, and so improved medical care, that we rarely come in touch with death anymore. It’s a very rare thing in our lives now, death. So people get hysterical when a celebrity that meant something to them dies. Or even meant nothing to them. But you all are wasting your time in this meaningless grief. It’s a luxury, this grief. When no one dies we can flaunt our grief on people we don’t know. Snap out of it. Listen to David Bowie’s music and quit associating it with death and your own selves. Live without this thinking about death. We’re that age now where death will come non-stop. The way I was raised you grieve a bit, but you laugh more, and you live. But all you people are doing is grieving. There are families being slaughtered in Syria and you are moping because David Bowie, aged 69, died. As if this is how he wanted to be remembered, with tears and despair. John, he said, I’m only dancing. So dance, people, dance and laugh and get over it.