Chris Cornell 1964-2017

Wow, I am in absolute, unadultured “punch in the gut” shock  and have been since midnight last night when I first heard Chris Cornell had killed himself.

He was an amazing talent, both as a vocalist and lyricist. His songs were powerful, obscure, thought-provoking. He was a high-school dropout but a genius.

The reason I think his death hit me so hard is that I basically blew off music for many years. Other than Stevie Ray Vaughan and U2’s “The Joshua Tree,” the 80s to me were mostly a lost decade. I mostly listened to Led Zeppelin, the Who or old blues through that whole decade. It was a genuinely depressing Death Valley of Bad Journey, Bad Foreigner, Overrated Bruce Springsteen and Astonishingly Bad Flock of Seagulls. There hadn’t been anything worth listening to for me since Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

Then, when I was living in Mammoth Lakes, through our cable service, there was a secret way to pick up radio stations. And one of those radio stations was a Fresno State college station. I started hearing this band called Nirvana on that stations MONTHS before anyone else outside of Seattle. and I loved them.

About the same time, a friend of mine gave me a tape of a band called Primus. I didn’t take to them as quickly as I did Nirvana, they were much more of an acquired test. But, I did find them strangely compelling despite Les Claypool’s weird vocals. The more I listened to them, the more I became a fan of their incredible musicanship.

About that same time, Pearl Jam started hitting it big. Pearl Jam’s “Ten” was one of the first CDs I ever bought. I liked it, a lot at first.

So, with Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Primus under my belt and this burgeoning music scene exploding out of the Seattle, I moved to the Pacific Northwest. At that time, all three bands literally erupted into megastardom. Finally, after 10 years of feeling like I was wandering through the musical wilderness, listening mostly to my older brothers’ music, I felt like I had music *I* could relate to. Angry, alienated, disconnected people railing against the wind.

My Soundgarden, Audioslave collection.

Around this time, a band called Alice N Chains came forward. They were OK, too many of their songs were about heroin and everyone in the 90s just HAD to do songs about heroin because, wow, people in the 60s didn’t find out the hard way how much it sucked.

Kind of following in the tailwind of all this musical revolution was a loud, yet weirdly quiet Seattle band with a really stupid name — Soundgarden.

I thought Soundgarden was all right at first, but they weren’t Nirvana or Primus. I bought their CDs, listened to them, then went back to the ol’ reliables, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Like Primus, it took a while for Soundgarden to grow on me.

Soundgarden was a bit minimalist, no long guitar solos, a heavy reliance on big riffs, a muddy sound at times. They sounded very Zeppelin. But, they had Chris Cornell, an absolutely unbelievable singer. Literally, some of his vocals on Badmotorfinger are superhuman. He did things on that album that couldn’t be done, no one had done, not even Robert Plant.

Back in the early 90s, I worked at a paper in Oregon and Soundgarden had a big hit with “Black Hole Sun,” (actually not one of my favourite Soundgarden songs). We used to laugh that there were a bunch of characters in the videos of Black Hole Sun that seemed to exist in our newspaper office, including a giant Great Dane.

Over the years, I get very quickly bored with Pearl Jam. I came to realize their music, while better than 1980s drek, was painfully derivative, unoriginal and depressing. Even Nirvana, especially after Cobain’s suicide, was too depressing for me. Alice N Chains doesn’t do anything for me other than “The Rooster,” one of the best anti-war songs ever written. Primus, still a huge, huge fan.

So, quietly, over the years, I started listening to Soundgarden more and more and became a bigger and bigger fan. Of all the music from that exciting, chaotic period of the early 90s, Soundgarden and Primus are mostly the bands I listen to from that era.

Later, Chris joined Rage Against the Machine and created Audioslave, another band with an unfortunately lame name. RATM was another early 90s band I loved with an incredible guitarist, incredible drummer. Chris fit right in. It was great, it wasn’t Soundgarden, it wasn’t RATM, it was something new. Chris had mellowed; he no longer tried to blow our minds with his supersonic “Slaves and Bulldozers” vocals, he relied on his soul more.

Audioslave actually put out some pretty pop-like songs. I still loved them. To this day, “The Last Remaining Light” still gives me chills 15 years after I heard it for the first time. They were apparently intended as a “one off” to begin with, but had so much success, they put out three or four albums.

Chris was a bit of an enigma. He didn’t seek the spotlight, his songs were oblique. His songs had a lot of religious imagery, but he didn’t seem to be a religious man. Like the enigma he was in life, he remains at the moment an enigma in death.

So, that was a really important era for me, the first time I really felt music was directed at ME, not my older brothers, and Chris Cornell was a big part of it. I was really hurt by his death, it was a major punch in my gut. It wasn’t like Cobain. Everyone saw that coming, and when it happened, I wasn’t even sad, I was just pissed off at Cobain. That was different. Everyone saw it coming, had seen it coming for a year or two. Cornell came out of nowhere.

Someone pointed out that Eddie Vedder is the last one left from the “big four” of Seattle — Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice N Chains. Two suicides and a drug overdose that might as well have been suicide.

Depression is  a major bitch, as someone who has been on the periphery of it most of his life, it’s exasperating, drags everyone in its vicinity down, and it’s fucking impossible to understand it.


World Trade Organization rules in favour of Australia’s plain packaging laws for tobacco

Big Tobacco simply won’t quit. After years and years and years of getting their asses absolutely handed to them in court after court about Australia’s plain packaging laws … they lose yet again.

Big Tobacco, primarily in the form of Philip Morris International, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco, has been battling Australia for more than seven years over that country’s plain packaging rules. First, they sued in Australian courts and their case went all the way to the Australian Supreme Court, where they lost.

After they lost in the Australian courts, Big Tobacco, hiding behind Hong Kong and Ukraine and other countries, tried to claim that somehow Australia was violating trade treaties (lots here on John Oliver’s show) because international tobacco companies weren’t being allowed to market their products in Australia. That tact has taken several forms, the latest being litigation through the World Trade Organization, which…

… just this week leaked a draft ruling on the side of Australia. Meaning that Australia’s groundbreaking plain packaging laws, which allow no trademarked logos on cigarette packs and require gruesome images of tobacco-caused diseases, can move forward.

Australia was the first to require such plain packages, but several other countries such as France and the U.K. have followed suit, with the almost automatic litigation from tobacco companies.

This is the latest salvo in the industry’s battle against Australia, which is one of the most progressive nations in the world in battling tobacco. I doubt it will be the last.

From a Guardian article:

The news is a blow to the tobacco industry as such a ruling from the WTO has been widely anticipated as giving a green light for other countries to roll out similar laws.

Australia’s laws go much further than advertising bans and graphic health warnings enforced in many other countries.

The rules, introduced in 2010, ban logos and distinctive-coloured cigarette packaging in favour of drab olive packets that look more like military or prison issue, with brand names printed in small, standardised fonts.

Tobacco firms said their trademarks were being infringed, and Cuba, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Indonesia complained at the WTO that the rules constituted an illegal barrier to trade.

Although the WTO’s final ruling is not expected until July, a confidential draft said Australia’s laws were a legitimate public health measure, Bloomberg reported.

Of the biggest international cigarette companies, Imperial Brands’ profits are most exposed to markets that may implement plain packaging, said analysts at Jefferies.

A spokeswoman for British American declined to comment on the ruling until it was made public, but suggested the complainants would keep fighting.

“As there is a high likelihood of an appeal by some or all of the parties, it’s important to note that this panel report is not the final word on whether plain packaging is consistent with international law,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Japan Tobacco also declined to comment on the ruling, but said the fact that the draft had been leaked was disconcerting and a breach of WTO rules.

“Such breaches completely undermine the integrity of the process, which has not yet run its full course,” she said.

The plodding pace of WTO decision-making prompted Australia, which had the backing of the World Health Organisation, to complain that its challengers were deliberately stalling the proceedings, producing a “regulatory chilling” effect on other countries wishing to follow its example.

But since the challenge was made, many other countries began exploring similar legislation, a sign that they expected the WTO to rule in Australia’s favour.

Britain, France and Hungary have gone ahead with their own legislation, while Ireland, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Belgium are among those considering it.

Big Vape thwarted in attempt to water down FDA rules

Preteen girl tries e-cigarette with her friend

As I’ve written about in the past, the Food and Drug Administration passed regulations almost exactly a year ago on e-cigarettes. These regs will likely drive most small companies out of business and further help Big Tobacco consolidate their e-cig holdings (A lot of people have no idea Big Tobacco already controls about 75 percent of the e-cig market … interesting, huh?).

Anyway, Big Tobacco was attempting to weaken these admittedly fairly tame FDA regulations on e-cigs via the budget process. Big Tobacco was lobbying to have these regs apply only to existing e-cig products and to exempt large cigars (including large, candy-flavoured cigars).

These provisions were rejected in the budget, so the FDA’s regs on e-cigs from last year will remain in place … which surprises me a bit, to be honest. I fully expect Trump to try and gut FDA before all is said and done.

What’s interesting about this is a lot of e-cig advocates screamed bloody murder that Big Tobacco was behind these regs so they could drive out the smaller e-cig companies (the regulations require that each and every e-cig product, which includes each individual flavouring, undergo rigorous testing before receiving FDA approval, which is cost-prohibitive to a lot of small companies). Now, it seems Big Tobacco — yeah, keep driving this through your head, dammit — BIG TOBACCO is fighting e-cig regulations.

Do you get it, now? Big Tobacco IS e-cigs. They are not in competition. E-cigs have become a wholly owned subsidiary division of RJ Reynolds, Altria and British-American Tobacco. I’m gonna start calling it Big Vape.

From a Campaign for Tobacco-Free Children (which is more strongly opposed to e-cig than I am) press release:

Tobacco companies waged an all-out effort to insert these provisions in the funding bill. The New York Times has reported that Altria drafted the first of these provisions and that it was endorsed by R.J. Reynolds. Altria and Reynolds gave $500,000 and $1 million respectively to President Trump’s inauguration, and tobacco interests spent more than $4.7 million in federal lobbying in the first quarter of 2017 alone.

The budget agreement also provides $205 million for the CDC’s tobacco prevention and cessation programs, rejecting a House proposal that slashed funding to only $100 million (compared to $210 million in FY2016). The CDC will be able to continue initiatives such as the Tips from Former Smokers media campaign that has been so cost effective at helping smokers quit, as well as its assistance to state tobacco prevention programs and quitlines that help smokers trying to quit.

While this agreement is an important step forward, the tobacco industry is certain to continue its attacks on FDA and CDC efforts to reduce tobacco use – and even expand them. Legislation introduced last week by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) would repeal the FDA’s current authority to regulate electronic cigarettes and essentially allow the e-cigarette industry to regulate itself. Tobacco interests have also filed multiple lawsuits against the FDA’s 2016 rule establishing oversight of e-cigarettes and cigars. Congress and the Trump Administration must continue to reject these harmful tobacco industry efforts.

I get it that e-cigs legitimately seem to help a lot of people quit cigarettes. My biggest gripe with e-cigs is the marketing toward kids, and the FDA regs do little or nothing to reel that in.


Philip Morris keeps trying to undermine California’s tobacco tax

Hello again from the Lounge, especially to all of our new readers from India.

Big Tobacco twice succeeded, spending tens of millions of dollars in the process, in having  cigarette tax increase measures beaten back in California. The industry also for many years had successfully lobbied the California State Legislature from increasing cigarette taxes. Well, in November 2016, Big Tobacco finally lost, as Californians passed a whopping $2 a pack increase by a large margin.

That jacked up California’s cigarette tax from 87 cents a pack — one of the lowest in the nation — to $2.87 a pack, one of the highest in the nation.

Big Tobacco REALLY cared about California, which at first I thought was a little weird because California had a pretty low smoking rate even before the tax increase. Then, I thought about it … while California has one of the lowest smoking rates in the nation, it also still has 38 million people, so 10 percent of say 30 million smoking-age residents of California, is still 3 million smokers, spending an average of say $1,000 a year on their habit, which adds up to $3 billion a year.

Then, I saw why Big Tobacco was willing to spend tens of millions to defeat tax increases in California, because everyone knows higher tobacco taxes are one of the most effective ways to encourage people to quit — and to encourage teens not to start to begin with. Big Tobacco  spent a staggering $71 million to try and defeat the 2016 measure. Their effort finally failed.

Well, Philip Morris is trying a new (actually, not so new) tact to undermine California’s cigarette tax increase … discount coupons to smokers in California.

Again, with $3 billion in revenue at stake, it’s worth Big Tobacco’s while to take a bit of a bath on discounts.

From a New York Times article:

“The hope is that by buffering the price shock, fewer people will quit,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C. San Francisco whose research focuses on tobacco.

 In 2014, the tobacco industry spent more than $5 billion — nearly two-thirds of its entire marketing budget — on discounts passed along to consumers, according to a government report.

At $2.87 a pack, the cigarette tax threatens to further erode (California’s) customer base. Reports have suggested that some smokers have already quit.

Cigarette taxes play a “huge” role in smoking rates, said Ilana Knopf, director of the Public Health and Tobacco Policy Center at Northeastern University Law School in Boston.

“And of course the industry knows that,” she said, “so they do whatever they can to counter those policies.”

In the short term, it might work a bit, but in the long run, Big Tobacco will have to give up on California, where the smoking rate will surely drop because people won’t want to pay $2.87 a pack.

Sacramento Bee editorial on tobacco taxes

This editorial printed this week suggests that the $1 billion a year expected to be generated from California’s cigarette tax could balance some of the cuts the state might see from Republicans in D.C. trying to cut federal funding for health care.