Richard Byrne

Richard Byrne is a journalist who lives in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Balkans via Bohemia.

Recent Articles

The Good Book

It has been almost 80 years since novelist Sinclair Lewis set his most iconic fictional creation, a hell-raiser turned hellfire preacher named Elmer Gantry, loose on an unsuspecting America. For a clergyman in his 70s, Gantry has proven to be remarkably hale and hearty. Op-ed writers and columnists lean continually on Lewis' parson to represent a uniquely American type: the fundamentalist hypocrite serving up corn pone and brimstone to promulgate a strict public morality. The type was on its way to the margins in Lewis' day; the 1920s were when modernity won, if not in fact in the great heartland, at least in the larger self-image of a nation gorging itself on jazz, burlesque, motorcars, and bathtub gin. But the type -- the living, breathing Gantry, as it were -- is now back with a vengeance. Take, for instance, the open letter written to President Bush by fundamentalist educator Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, on the day after the election. When Jones declares, “In...

Lyndon Agonistes

As Democrats flock to Boston to nominate John Kerry for president, few surprises will await them at the Fleet Center. Today's political conventions stay relentlessly “on message,” and they serve as mere heralds of the home stretch of a seemingly endless presidential campaign. A key part of that unwavering message is a recounting of party values and triumphs. And just as the late Ronald Reagan will provide a thematic touchstone for Republicans convening in New York City, Democrats will recite a legacy that extends from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Harry Truman to John F. Kennedy to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton. One true surprise in Boston would be to hear the name of Lyndon Baines Johnson invoked as a link in that chain. At nearly every convention since LBJ left office in 1969, Democratic presidential aspirants have kept America's 36th president out of their quadrennial message to America. George McGovern ignored Johnson completely in his 1972 acceptance speech. In 1976, Carter gave...

Please Come to Ohio

On the demo tape that won him a record deal back in 1991, Bottle Rockets' leader Brian Henneman sang a song about Neil Young. Fittingly, Henneman's portrait (co-written with longtime collaborator Scott Taylor) was more of a woodcut than a watercolor. “Neil once voted Republican,” sings Henneman in one verse. “And that pissed off a lot of fans / He's just a guy who gets confused / He's a lot like me / He's a lot like you.” The song nails both the confusion and the common touch in Young's politics. Ecology, poverty, the drug, and Richard Nixon are recurring themes, but the overall impression left with the listener is that of a man striking a series of eccentric postures. It is the politics of the wet middle finger held in the air to gauge the breeze. Yet puzzling out those politics is essential to understanding Young's artistry. Throughout much of his career, and on his latest record, Greendale (Reprise), Young's middle finger has been more than a gesture. It has been a way to tell --...

Mekon Love

The Mekons -- punk rock's aging but irrepressible street urchins -- have yet to surrender to time. Holding forth from the stage of a smallish rock club in Northern Virginia on a recent March night, one could never tell that the band had started its career way back in 1978. Their latest release, Punk Rock , is a grab bag of songs from the band's early years as art school punks in Leeds, reworked (or "worked over") into more sophisticated idioms. Many of these songs ("Never Been in a Riot," "32 Weeks") have been rarities for decades, existing only as glorious rock hearsay in the writings of critics such as Lester Bangs. After a few singles and three records, the group imploded into an arty mess of shards sometime in the early 1980s. The songs revisited on Punk Rock predate the body of work for which the Mekons are best known. In 1985, at the tail end of the nationwide miners' strike in the United Kingdom, lead Mekons Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford picked up the jagged remnants of the...

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