Angels in America

Todd R. Ramlow

By far the most resonant aspect of Angels in America today is its exposure of simplistic struggles over definitions of 'good' and 'evil'.

Angels in America

Airtime: Part I: Millennium Approaches: 7 December 2003;
Cast: Justin Kirk, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, Ben Schenkman, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Wright
Network: Part I: Millennium Approaches: 7 December 2003;

Early in the first part of Mike Nichols' adaptation of Angels in America, Millennium Approaches, two characters meet up in a dreamworld. Harper Pitt (Mary-Louise Parker) is a pill-popping Mormon housewife transplanted to NYC with her inattentive husband Joe (Patrick Wilson). And Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) is a young gay man recently diagnosed with AIDS, about to be abandoned by his conflicted (some would say callous) lover Louis (Ben Shenkman).

Both Harper and Walter are confused by their mutual hallucination: strangers, they seem to know each other intimately, or at least some personal details of each other's lives. Harper tells Prior that he is going to die, and he informs her that Joe is secretly "a homo." That they possess such knowledge makes sense, Harper says, as in this half-world, they stand at a "threshold of revelation."

Back in 1993, when Tony Kushner's two-part play of the same name dominated Broadway, it occupied a similar threshold. That year marked the high point of HIV and AIDS cases in the United States. On the heels of several years of ACT-UP and radical activism, a proliferation of AIDS-related arts and letters revealed the extent of the U.S. government's criminal neglect of AIDS.

Set in the panicky early days of the epidemic, in 1985, Angels follows the lives of three main characters -- Prior, Harper, and Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) -- their lovers, friends, and families as they deal with death and dying. Roy and Prior are specifically dying of AIDS, Harper is tormented by a loveless marriage and the general feeling of a world spinning out of control; thus the first installment's title. Despite the 19 years since its first appearance, Angels retains a sense of urgency. The tone of much critical press has suggested the film is "revelatory." And while I'd stop short of such exultation, it is a pretty impressive piece of work, and, importantly, it draws provocative links between the U.S. of the '80s and the nation today.

Angels condenses its critique of Reagan/Bush America in the character of Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), the closeted homosexual and red-baiting attorney for Joe McCarthy. Angels asserts that his perspective on AIDS reflected a general intolerance of difference. Infamous for his manic drive to get Ethel Rosenberg executed for treason, he is here haunted by her ghost (one of multiple roles played by Meryl Streep, in a nod to the "pared down" feel of a stage production). His persecution of Communists and his government's tacit persecution of homosexuals and people with AIDS amount, the film suggests, to the same thing.

Angels further represents the disavowal of AIDS in Cohn's relationship to his own homosexuality. When told by his doctor (James Cromwell) that he has contracted the disease, Cohn threatens his career if this news should get out. Roy Cohn, he asserts, is dying from liver cancer. Identified by his power and political clout (rather than by his sexuality, as gay men tend to be), he cannot be a homosexual, so he cannot have AIDS. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who "fools around with other men." Cohn's twisted logic represents the entrenched homophobia of '80s America, and his refusal to admit he is gay or has AIDS reflects the silence of the Reagan Administration during seven years of the epidemic.

It is striking that the Showtime née CBS miniseries, The Reagans, stirred such controversy for its inclusion of one sentence attributed to the former President about AIDS: "They that live in sin shall die in sin." Kushner and Nichols' Angels in America is far more critical of the Reagan and G.H.W. Bush Administrations' records on AIDS, laying the blame for its spread on governmental inaction and endorsement of homophobia. Yet, Angels has reaped only praise from critics and commentators. Quite unlike Reagan, Cohn, to this day, remains easy to revile.

Despite Angels' focus on history -- Louis works as a "word processor," and Harper obsesses over the hole in the ozone layer -- it manages to be timely. It is difficult to hear Joe Pitt express how he has sought to "overcome" his gayness through strict adherence to religious principle, and not think of the proliferation of religiously based "Ex-Gay" counseling and "conversion" therapies over the past decade. Harper's reliance on pills also speaks to a nation that has become increasingly Prozac-ed. And Mr. Lies (the fabulous Jeffrey Wright, who also plays Belize), Harper's fantasy travel agent, directly indexes our own hyper-capitalist society in which consumption is touted as the road to happiness.

By far the most resonant aspect of Angels in America today is its exposure of simplistic struggles over definitions of "good" and "evil." In AIDS and its Metaphors, Susan Sontag demonstrates how rhetoric early on cast the disease as a threat to the body politic, an invader of the nation that had to be policed and conquered (recall the slogan, "AIDS is God's punishment"). Such logic gave rise in the mid-'80s to severe immigration restraints on people from Africa and the Caribbean, and political debate about the possibility of AIDS internment colonies or a national registry for people with AIDS.

Angels critiques this rhetoric and alludes to its perpetuation. Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn's linking of Communism with homosexuality is repeated, in the film, in connections between AIDS and homosexuality with "evil"; and it seems a small step today into the G.W. Bush Administration's fight against "The Evil One." The injustice and pain caused by this binary logic calls forth the Angel (Emma Thompson, also Prior's primary nurse). She appears to Prior and tells him he is to be the new Prophet, to bear witness to the plague and warn of things to come. When he asks, "Why me?" she says that God has long since abandoned paradise, leaving the angels to deal with the seemingly endless host of human miseries of the 20th century. They are hoping Prior can help them at least forestall "the plague."

The Angel here recalls Walter Benjamin's "angel of history" in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Benjamin imagines the angel of history as caught in a storm blowing out of Paradise. Inexorably propelled forward, the Angel stares fixedly at the past and at the rubble piling up behind him, as if he would like to return and repair what has been broken. The storm, Benjamin asserts, is called "progress," and the pile of debris, the ruins and catastrophes of "history."

The desire of Benjamin's angel of history is the same as that of the Angel in Angels in America, to mend the catastrophes of the past, or at least to stop their continuance into the future. To this end, they give Prior the "tome of immobility," which stays time and stops his progress through history and disease. Thus stopped, he may join the angels in a heaven, free of the concerns of the flesh. This nostalgia for a "paradise" lost is, however, rejected by Prior and his double, Harper. For all the attention the Angel gives to Prior, Harper is, throughout, just as oracular, though more concerned with global rather than personal implications of the coming apocalypse.

Prior refuses the aegis bequeathed on him, telling the Angel that human beings "can't just stop," and that "progress, movement, and migration is modernity." To Prior, "progress" is not merely historical, technological or evolutionary; it is personal growth, wisdom, and self-knowledge. Regardless of all the pain and suffering, human beings will always choose life and their own individual "progress."

Harper repeats this logic at the end of the film, when she muses that human existence is "a kind of painful progress, longing for what we've left behind and dreaming ahead." After all the tribulations life is looking up for both Harper and Prior. Harper has left Joe for good and her soliloquy is delivered as she, literally, flies off into the sunset to a new life in San Francisco. The final scene of the film shows us five years into the future, Prior's AIDS is under control and he has back together with Louis. It is in this assertion that Angels in America becomes most optimistic, and where it resists its otherwise dismal picture. Despite disease and horrors, and despite the fact that we seem always to repeat the tragedies of our own past, there is always hope, however slight, that things will, and have to, get better.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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