Barack Obama, Edith Piaf, Joe Strummer

We went to a Barack Obama rally Friday, the Edith Piaf biopic La vie en rose Saturday, and the Joe Strummer biodocumentary The Future is Unwritten Sunday – and Al Gore Monday, though he’s going to get an entry of his own.

We were a little disappointed with Barack. The event wasn’t a rally exactly, but a fundraiser for a more plebian group than usually gets to attend them – those willing to contribute $25 (bronze), $50 (silver), or $100 (gold) apiece to see him at the relatively small (maybe 4,000 maximum) indoor Qwest Event Center that recently opened in the former exhibition space built into the ground level of Paul Allen’s football stadium.

It turned out to be little different from a free rally, however, and could easily have been held in the stadium itself, given the impersonal nature of the way Barack addressed the crowd. He was okay, but really just shouted his typical rally stump speech at us, with no acknowledgement that we weren’t just a crowd of the curious, but actually cash-donating supporters.

We sprang for the $100 level, figuring it would guarantee us seats near the front. How wrong we were. In an odd attempt at egalitarianism – considering Barack’s next stop was a more intimate fundraiser at the Westin hotel with tables for those donating $500 apiece, and a photo op for those donating $2,300 – each donation level got an equal shot at being close to the candidate, with an equal pie-wedge-shaped slice dedicated to each: gold on the right, silver in the middle, bronze on the left – and Obama on a catwalk between gold and bronze.

True, we did have a smaller line to contend with when we arrived (though silver and gold shared the same one) – but as for seats, there were none to be had in the floor area we were directed to in front of the press cameras. My wife, who has physical issues with standing for a long time, was actually turned away when she tried to leave the floor area to snag a seat in the back half of the hall – I guess maybe they were afraid there wouldn’t be enough of us gold types to make a sufficient crowd for the press pictures. Later on, I think they allowed the bronzes to fill in behind us – and in the seats in our slice of the hall my wife had tried to use.

Even odder was the pre-show, arranged apparently by the local groups organizing the event, with no input from the Obama campaign. It was like a kind of allegorical homage to Obama’s heritage and early life, beginning with two traditional African dance groups alluding to his paternal heritage, followed by a disaffected high school guy strumming his guitar and singing laughably innocent songs of teenage angst – I think the main lyric was, “read my lips – we’re all gonna die someday” – as if here were the contemporary incarnation of Barack back when he inhaled.

Then a chorus of people gathered onstage – I think they were the volunteers who organized the event, though they could have been a cross section pulled from the crowd – and led us in a chant and clapping for Obama to appear before us – which took longer than anyone thought it would.

And as I said before, when he finally arrived and spoke to us, it was a bit of an anticlimax. There was no real effort to reach out to us, to address us as real people who’d thought enough of his candidacy to contribute to his campaign. Instead, he was just like a rock star, doing his show, and we clapped and woo-hooed our approval, and tried to get close enough to shake his hand when he descended the runway at the end – a woman a couple of people in front of my actually succeeded. I felt closer to Bono the last time I U2, I think – and certainly felt more of a connection to him that time we saw Bono taking a carriage ride with his kiddies down near Pioneer Square, when he tipped his hat to me for having noticed him from afar.

I guess we should have spent $1,000 on the Westin – maybe it would have felt less like a rock concert, and more like real politics.

Today Obama hit me up for another contribution by email – he does it so regularly it seems almost like spam – but this time he said it would be a lottery, and 5 people would be selected to have dinner with him and a real chat – so I sent another $10 to enter. I never spend that much on the lottery.

The movies we saw the next two days at SIFF seemed to provide commentary on the pitfalls Obama faces being a lumpen-friendly rockstar to the masses.

Edith Piaf was definitely lower class – abandoned by her street singer mother, neglected by her alcoholic grandmother, saved by her WW1 veteran father and spirited away by him to live among the maternal whores in his own mother’s brothel, runaway boozer discovered on the streets of Paris, exploited by gangsters who killed the nightclub owner who discovered her – until she finally made a success of it and became France’s best-loved music hall maven.

Unfortunately, La vie en rose doesn’t even let her enjoy her success. The director, who talked after, had a horror of making just another biopic – so we’ve already see Piaf in decline, collapsing on the stage from injuries sustained in a car accident and the incipient terminal illness that killed her before she reached 50, starting at the very beginning of the movie, an arty non-linear dual (later triple) timeline that merely reveals her doom before we have a chance to enjoy her unlikely triumph.

In this the film merely succeeds in resembling the most depressing muscian’s biopic I’ve ever had the misfortune to see – De-Lovely the Cole Porter story starring Kevin Kline, which shows him dying at the very beginning and has his dead spirit preside over the entire sorry story of his life.

Anyway, at least the filmaker allows Piaf, among the less likable aspects of her psychology he dwells on in an attempt to justify the bad bahavior of true artists like himself (as he fancies himself in her image), one truly redemptive quality – whenever some nobody comes along to play her their song so she might consider singing it, and her underlings try to get them to go away, Piaf says – screw my schedule and all the other things I have to do, let them in, let me hear them – and then loves their song, does it and makes it famous (so it is with Je ne regrette rien here, and with La vie en rose too I think ) – saying, “hey, what’s the use of being Edith Piaf if I can’t make important people wait and listen to this schmo and see whether he’s any good?”

And that’s what I miss in Obama. Who is he listening too these days, but his handlers? Back in the day, when he ran for the Illinois Senate, and the US Senate, according to his book he was actually a lot like Piaf, and listened to real nobodies sometimes, who said things worthy of his attention, and that made it into his book. But now? He’s a rock star. Who can get through the crowd and the handlers?

Actually, Joe Strummer is a closer analogue to Obama – or what Obama will likely become. We finally saw Strummer alive, in the flesh, playing with the Mescaleros at the EMP’s Sky Church a few years back, just before he died – we’d missed him at a club in New Haven back int he early 80s when the Clash were still a going concern, because after I called to see if tickets were still available before going to the club to buy them, some chick from Wallingford not only asked, but asked them to hold the tickets for her until she got there – and although I got there first, they held them for her. Jerks. The club folded soon after, thank God.

Anyway, the movie – Julian Temple’s homage to the friend he discovered later in life, since Strummer rejected him for being too close to the Sex Pistols when punk was happening, as we found out a couple of nights ago in his drunken interview with a jerky Sean Nelson, Stranger emeritus – disclosed Strummer’s roots in the squatters movement in mid 70s England, and traced the collapse of the Clash soon after they hit it big to how conflicted Strummer felt about being a radical rock star, calling for an egalitarian social revolution so successfully that he soon found himself rich and playing to football stadiums full of fans – instead of the few real fans he used to let in the window of his dressing room so they could sneak into the small clubs the Clash was playing in the early days for free.

This killed his career – he just didn’t really want to do that kind of scene. While the early part of the movie is filled with unnamed talking heads no one recognizes who knew, lived and played with Strummer when he was a nobody like them – and who he screwed over to join the Clash – the later part of the movie is filled with unnamed talking heads so famous we already know their name on sight – Bono, Johnny Depp, John Cusack – who knew Strummer in later life, and just couldn’t understand why he had such a problem being rich and famous like them – hell, they do very well at it, thank you very much.

And I think that might be where Obama is headed: the more successful he gets in traditional rock star/Presidential fashion, the more contact he’s going to lose with the egalitarian, community organizing, everybody’s point of view is significant roots that have compelled interest in his candidacy – and the more he himself may start to wonder, “Where the hell am I now? What have I done? Why do so many people adore me? Do they really listen to me – or I to them anymore?”

But for that story, we’ll have to wait for David Plouffe or some other now close advisor to tell, 10 or 20 years on, of the fall of Ziggy Stardust, at the hands of the Spiders from Mars – his own, along with a very few others.

We can only hope it doesn’t actually turn out that way, and that Obama actually does find a way to start a movement, and not just be a candidate, however adored by the crowd.

That’s what he claims he wants to do – but so far it isn’t really looking that way.

Posted Friday, June 8th, 2007 under Uncategorized.


  1. Good description of the Obama event. My ambivalence was very similar.

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