The new year searches for a theme. Sometimes annual themes come ready-made; a presidential election looms, or a war. As far as can be seen from the American Rubicon called California, the theme (for the rest of you, anyway) that ushered in the new year is: It’s fucking cold, even as those of us on the West Coast lament every dip of the thermometer below 50. The media so abhors the vacuum of manmade conflict that it rushes to render even the weather controversial. Thus Fox Nation turns the designated polar vortex into a personal taunt of Al Gore—“What global warming?”—either truly or willfully ignorant that climate change is not about vanishing winters but meteorological extremes growing more so. Nonetheless this provided temporary solace to a right unsettled by reports that Obamacare might work after all.
Barack Obama is given to the long view, which comes in handy for a man at his particular nadir in this particular moment. More than the vexing and inexplicably botched launch of the Affordable Care Act, the president has been undone by ten words uttered enough times so as to feel exponential: If you like your health plan, you can keep it.
The year is 1961 in Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, and the title character is a struggling New York City folk singer caught in one of life’s loops. The movie begins where it will end, with Davis onstage at the Gaslight, one of the West Village venues for a musical movement that, in the early ’60s, was caught in a loop of its own, believing it was the start of something rather than the finish. Before getting his butt kicked in a back alley by a mysterious stranger, Davis sings the song of a man condemned—if only in his miserable mind—to be hanged; we assume Davis must be a victim before we realize, over the next 100 minutes, he’s a fuckup. Homeless and broke and constantly relying on the kindness of strangers or near strangers or the newly estranged, the suddenly solo singer was once half of a duo whose fortunes were on the rise. Now haunted by the loss of his partner to suicide and raw to the doubts that go with being on his own, Davis believes he’s too good for the advice of people who try to give him some, and too good for the world, of which every setback seems to offer only further proof.
This has been a week in the crosshairs of history past and present. A century and a half ago the most besieged president ever, under whom half the country went to war against the other half, made the most compelling case since the Declaration of Independence not only for union but for union’s noblest requisites. Now this week is haunted equally by that declaration spoken at the edge of the Gettysburg killing field and the cruel rejoinder to it almost exactly a hundred years later, by another assassin’s shot echoing the one that murdered Abraham Lincoln. Apparently gunfire is the common American answer to those who call upon a common destiny for the America of our dreams.
After Bob Dylan, and notwithstanding Brian Wilson and the Motown team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Lou Reed was arguably the greatest and most influential American songwriter of the 1960s. Though his growing cult would attain mainstream recognition in the early ‘70s, and though in the 1980s he would eventually become a household name—in some stranger households, anyway—the foundation of his work was laid early, on which was built not only everything he did later but the sensibility of first glam, then punk, then the “alternative” ethos that dominates rock and roll to this day.