Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Interstellar" - Overcoming the Impossible


It may be an odd connection, but after watching Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” I couldn’t get Roger Ebert’s review of “Apollo 13” (for me, a pantheon movie) out of my head (what’s really odd, I suppose, is that I would remember what Roger Ebert wrote about a film released nearly 20 years ago – but that’s me). 

Early in his four-star review, Ebert wrote:

“Like Lindbergh, who crossed the Atlantic in the first plane he could string together that might make it, we went to the moon the moment we could, with the tools that were at hand.”

And he closed with these lines:

“When I was a kid, they used to predict that by the year 2000, you’d be able to go to the moon.  Nobody ever thought to predict that you’d be able to, but nobody would bother.”

Compare what Ebert wrote back then to these lines spoken by Cooper, the former test pilot turned reluctant farmer, in “Interstellar:”

“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

“We've always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we've just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we've barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”

Anyone who grew up in the age of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo will appreciate the point that both Ebert and Cooper are making.  The astronauts who flew into space in those programs were larger than life people, accomplishing larger than life things.  For a while, we almost took them for granted.  The greatness of “Apollo 13” was rooted in that it a) showed that for every one of those larger than life characters getting their ass shot up into space, there were 5, 10, probably more back on the ground making it happen; an b) demonstrated, as Jim Lovell put it, that there was nothing easy about going to the moon.  There were reasons that the manned moon program ended, and from a political and policy standpoint, they were no doubt entirely reasonable and defensible. But what Ebert was hinting at in his review of “Apollo 13” was that we lost something when that program ended – we lost the notion that there was always a new frontier that we, as Americans, could and would conquer, for the betterment of mankind.

“Interstellar” taps into that notion by imagining a world that is now in peril, one that has essentially given up those ambitious dreams while struggling just to put food on the table for its citizens.  And the world that we see in “Interstellar” is strictly seen from the American point of view, with vistas straight out of what most would comfortably call “middle America.”  That world is threatened by dust clouds that are filmed by Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema, his cinematographer, in a way that immediately invokes the horrifying images of Dust Bowl American from early in the 20th Century.

Cooper is stranded in that world (a world where children are taught that the Apollo missions were a lie), caring for his son and daughter, living with them and his father-in-law in a home that, when the dust storm hits, you almost imagine will be lifted off the ground in the same manner that we saw in “The Wizard of Oz.”  But even though he has made the best of his life as a farmer, we see early on that his remains thrilled by the notions of science, space travel and technology.  An early scene where he, Tom and Murphy chase an unmanned, long forgotten drone through the cornfields in their truck is thrilling, and sets the tone for a man and daughter who continue to want more out of life than the hand that the world has dealt them.

It’s tricky to write about the movie in great detail without spoiling some of its most wonderful developments.  Suffice to say that it turns out that NASA is still around, and that for years they have been working on a secret program to find a new home for those on Earth, in another galaxy.  A mysterious wormhole near Saturn is involved, which has conveniently appeared for reasons unknown.  And thus begins the great adventure of the film, as Cooper and his fellow astronauts head through the wormhole into a galaxy where they are forced to deal with realities of science such as time and relativity.

In embarking on the journey, Cooper must make the choice to leave his children at home.  And while he tells them upon departing that, given the vagaries of time and space, he may arrive back home to find all of them approximately the same age, it is crystal clear that he always intends to go home.  Like the character of Cobb in Nolan’s “Inception,” what Cooper wants to do more than anything else is get home to be with his children.  Which makes the moment when Cooper realizes, due to a foul-up on one of the planets the crew visits in order to test for livable conditions, that his kids have aged 23 years in the span of just seven minutes (from his point of view), all the more affecting.  Matthew McConaughey plays the moment in spectacular fashion, which comes as no surprise given the roll that he’s been on for the past three years.

There are many more surprises in store, including the appearance of an unbilled cast member that had me saying “Oh my God” under my breath, and like “Inception” the way back home is fraught with peril and what amounts to a labyrinth maze that I’m still not sure I entirely understand.  But like “Inception,” I suspect that “Interstellar” is a film that will become clearer – and more powerful – upon multiple viewings.

McConaughey is joined in the cast by Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Nolan-regular Michael Caine, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, David Gyasi and Bill Irwin, among others.  There is no weak link, but special kudos are due to the young actors who play Cooper’s children as young children: Timothee Chalamet as Tom, and especially Mackenzie Foy as Murphy.

The relationship between Cooper and Murphy is the movie’s heart and soul, and that (plus the relationship’s inextricable link with the overall theme of exploration and wonder) is never made clearer than in this early exchange:

Murphy: Dad, why did you and mom name me after something that’s bad?

Cooper: Well, we didn’t.

Murphy: Murphy’s law?

Cooper: Murphy’s law doesn’t mean that something bad will happen.  It means that whatever can happen, will happen.

You could probably say the same thing about a Christopher Nolan film.  And “Interstellar” is a great one.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

No Country for Old Men? The Visions of Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp and Bob Seger

In his review of Bruce Springsteen's The River, 34 years ago this fall, critic Paul Nelson asked the question, "Bruce Springsteen isn't an old man yet. Isn't it odd that he's trying so hard to adopt the visions of one?"

[Footnote: Nelson loved Springsteen, and gave the album a very good review, but you have to remember that those were the days when Rolling Stone record reviews frequently had the temerity to question even the works of the Gods.]

Fast forward to this fall, and the release of new albums by three artists who are old men - Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp, and Bob Seger.  They're 66, 63 and 69 years old respectively, and you can say what you want about 60 being the new 40, but I'm not buying it.  These guys are grizzled veterans, even if Browne sometimes looks as if he might have an aging portrait of himself hiding up in the attic somewhere.  They're all members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  They all enjoyed, at one point in their careers, the trappings of superstardom - platinum albums, the cover of Rolling Stone, the works.  And now, all three are closer to the ends of their careers than they are to the beginning.

Based on these new works, they are all acutely interested in their respective visions, wanting to make statements about the world we live in.  This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as all three have addressed the world around them throughout their careers.  Of the three, Browne is probably linked most closely to the political world, but even at the height of his popularity Mellencamp wrote songs like "Rain on the Scarecrow," and heck - Seger released a song protesting the Vietnam War, "2 + 2 =?," before anyone had even heard of Jackson Browne or John Mellencamp (not to mention "Feel Like a Number" a decade later).  So let's stipulate that their bonafides are well established when it comes to this sort of thing.

Let's start with Jackson Browne.  In the October 23 issue of RS, there's a piece written by Browne with David Fricke, "My Life in 15 Songs," which contains a vital clue as to how he approaches politics in his songs.  It's when he's talking about "For America," about which he says the following:

"The reason "For America" was so explicit is I had done "Lawyers in Love," and nobody got it.  It was sarcastic, and people didn't find their way into the humor.  This time I was determined not to be misunderstood.  I needed to be clear about it - "I was made for America."  Even people whose judgments I admire were like, "Maybe you can change that."  I think it worried a lot of my audience."

It's commendable that Browne is that open about his approach, because his change of approach in his writing was a pivotal point in his career.  Unfortunately, while I admire his consistency and his steadfastness in pursuit of a cause, his art has suffered for it.  When I listen to "Standing in the Breach," there's no doubt in my mind that the political songs are the weakest songs on the album, some to the point of being almost unlistenable.  Consider these lyrics:

It's so hard keeping track of what's gone wrong
The covenant unravels, and the news just rolls along
I could feel my memory letting go some two or three disasters ago
It's hard to say which did more ill
Citizens United or the Gulf oil spill

"The Long Way Around"

The Romans, the Spanish, the British, the Dutch
American exceptionalism - so out of touch
Successions of empire repeating its course
Extracting the wealth and ruling by force
On and on through time

"If I Could Be Anywhere"

Which side?
The corporations attacking
The natural world - drilling and fracking
All done with the backing of the craven and corrupt
Or the ones who fight
For the Earth with all their might
And in the name of all that's right
Confront and disrupt

"Which Side?"

Rock on!

The problem I see with lyrics like these - aside from the fact that I just don't think anything is quite as black and white as Jackson apparently sees it - is that they're not any better than the drivel that we're subjected to on a nightly basis on the cable news networks.  It's a lecture, plain and simple, it's shrill, and then Browne goes and ups the ante by essentially saying that we're either with him or against him - there's no middle ground.

Even that could be forgiven if there was a hint of humor in the songs, or an anger in the music to complement the anger inherent in the lyrics.  Unfortunately, the songs are just not that interesting, and they come close to pulling the album down with them, like an anchor.  And frankly, I don't think they do the causes about which Browne cares about so deeply any good.  In the end, he just comes across as a guy who approaches life without ever having asked himself the question, "did it ever occur to you that you might be wrong?"

The good news is that there are several really strong songs on the album, which overall make it his best in quite some time.  There's the doo-wop pastiche "Yeah Yeah," which suffers only from being about two minutes too long, there's "Leaving Winslow," which demonstrates that on occasion, Browne can address political concerns with humor (not to mention fun and interesting music), there's "You Know the Night," for which Jackson and Rob Wasserman have written some great music to accompany some lost lyrics from Woody Guthrie, there's "Here," which proves again that one area where Browne can always be trusted is with matters of the heart, and in fairness there's even the title track, which does address the worldly concerns he cares about without coming across as overly pedantic.

On "Ride Out," his first album in I have no idea how long, Bob Seger also falls into the trap of literalism on his most overtly political song, but for the most part comes out unscathed.  Frankly, it is just great to hear his voice again, and to know that there's still some fire in his belly (which looks to be a little more substantial than his halcyon days of the late 70s, I have to say).  So while you may roll your eyes a bit when the first song comes on and you hear that Bob is once again extolling the virtues of Detroit-made cars ("Detroit Made"), you can't help but smile to yourself because the damn song sounds so good.  And to be fair, John Hiatt wrote it, so at least you can't accuse Seger of going to the same well too often.

Of the ten songs on the album (I bought the bonus version that has three additional tracks, but I'm never sure whether to consider those songs a part of the album, and in this case I'm not going to), four are covers, and this is something for which Seger should probably be commended - why push it too hard if you just can't come up with an album full of winners anymore?  And they're all strong choices - Steve Earle's "The Devil's Right Hand," which is given a treatment that would feel right at home on Springsteen's "The River;" "Adam and Eve" by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, which allows Bob to get his country on; and "California Stars," the Tweedy/Bennett Woody Guthrie song from the great Wilco/Billy Bragg album "Mermaid Avenue."

But many of Bob's tunes are strong as well.  "Hey Gypsy" sounds at first like a young dude strutting song that he might have written forty years ago, until you get to the line about him getting "kinda nervous 'cause the music's too loud" and realize that there's a fair dose of self-deprecation in the mix.  There are some songs near the end of the album ("All of the Roads," "You Take Me In" and "Gates of Eden") that definitely sound like a man who his ready to sum up his career and his life, and while they may strike fans of his hardest-edged work as feeling a little bloated, it's hard to deny their emotional impact.

The two overtly political songs are a mixed bag.  Bob strikes out on "It's Your World," which demonstrates that he cares deeply about what is happening to the environment but not in a particularly interesting way, and "Ride Out," which strikes me as being the best song on the album.  It's not quite "Feel Like a Number" ("Damn it, I'm a man!"), but it's close enough.

Of the three albums, the one with the strongest (and purest) musical and lyrical vision is John Mellencamp's "Plain Spoken."  What Mellencamp is achieving in the late stages of his career is really quite remarkable.  It's almost as if he knows that, because of his ridiculous early "Johnny Cougar" days, he's doomed to go to his grave underrated.  But he's determined to do something about it, and amazingly enough this album coupled with 2010's "No Better Than This" may just be the strongest one-two punch of his entire career (and that's leaving out his collaborative effort with Stephen King, "Ghostland Brothers of Darkland County," for which he wrote several terrific songs).

A hint of the themes explored on the album can be derived simply by looking at the song's titles, which include "Troubled Man," "Sometimes There's God," "Tears in Vain," "Freedom of Speech" and "Lawless Times."  On this record, Mellencamp is most definitely adopting the vision of an old man.  It hasn't been an easy life - as intimated in the title of the song, if "sometimes there's God," sometimes there's not:

Sometimes there's God and sometimes there's just not
A little redemption would help us a lot
Sometimes there's God in the palm of your hand
Somedays hard times will cover your land

On "Plain Spoken," Mellencamp essentially is telling the same story as Jackson Browne, but he's going about it in an entirely different way.  He's telling the stories of the lives of people who have been impacted by the things that Browne sings about in the songs that are quoted above, and then allows the listener to reach their own conclusions.  And if he's done his job, it shouldn't be that difficult.  And when he does go the literal route, on the album's closer "Lawless Times," he accompanies what could otherwise be construed as strident lyrics with a musical accompaniment that demonstrates he's not taking himself too seriously, even when talking about such important matters.

On the album's two best songs - "The Isolation of Mister" and "Blue Charlotte" - Mellencamp achieves a beauty in both the stories being told and the music that leaves one almost breathless.  These are not happy stories - the former song is about a man who realizes (too late) that what he thought was a life of freedom was in fact a cage, and the latter is about a man (perhaps the same man?) who pays a visit to Charlotte, in the days before her death:

And if you pass tonight in your sleep
You will still have me to weep
I'm all that remains here
Blue Charlotte

Yellow letters from your youth
All of them seeking truth 
The poems written from me to you
Blue Charlotte

Behind those words is some of Mellencamp's best singing, and a mournful violin that sounds like nothing less than the knife to cut the pain out of the protagonist's heart that Bruce Springsteen sang about in "The Promised Land."

In the end, let us praise these famous men, and be thankful for what they have brought to us.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Mixtape - "Best of 2003"

If I had to hazard a guess, this one was probably created sometime in early 2004.  Let's do a track-by-track commentary:

Side One

Stones in My Passway, John Mellencamp.  From "Trouble No More," the album that Greil Marcus described as "old singer, old songs."  It's one of his best.

Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine, The White Stripes.  Jack and Meg at their rocking best.

This Boy is Exhausted, The Wrens.  I don't know what happened to this band, but the album they came out with in 2003 (I'd found it only because Christgau had given it an A) was great.

You Don't Have to Be So Sad, Yo La Tengo.  I've always preferred "soft" Yo La Tengo to "electric" Yo La Tengo, so this one was right up my alley.

Sacred Love, Sting.  This was from what is Sting's worst album.  I never listen to it anymore.

Lunch with Gina, Steely Dan.  I really enjoyed "Everything Must Go," the album on which this song originated.  Aside from a handful of tours, haven't heard anything from the Dan since then.

Don't Leave Home, Dido.  This is from the only Dido album that I own, but it is enjoyable.

Sweet Side, Lucinda Williams.  Lucinda Williams made what I consider to be one of the greatest albums of the last 30 years - "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" - but the rest of her work has been a little disappointing.  There's always a great track or two, but also some that really don't cut the mustard.  This falls into the former category.

Here I Am, Emmylou Harris.  This was around the time that Emmylou had stopped singing and was breathing in a very pretty way.  But it is a good song.

Last Stop Before Home, Rosanne Cash.  It's a great song, from what is probably one of her most underrated albums.

Side Two

Bandit, Neil Young and Crazy Horse.  This is from the "Greendale" album, which I suppose I'd put into the category of "noble failure."  Neil's one of my all-time favorite artists, but he does put out a lot of weird sh*t.

Goodbye, Patti Griffin.  An amazing song - this is the live version, which blows the original recording away.

Among the Living, The Thorns.  A "mini supergroup," The Thorns consisted of Matthew Sweet, Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge.  They made one album, and it was pretty good - reminiscent of CSN at their best.

Symbol in the Driveway, Jack Johnson.  I'm not sure how many Jack Johnson albums it is necessary for a person to own, but the two that I own are enjoyable.  This is a really cool song.

He War, Cat Power.  To be honest, I don't remember this song at all.

12:51, The Strokes.  The best song off of the Strokes' second album.

Firewalker, Liz Phair.  I'm a staunch defender of the "Liz Phair" album, but I'm not sure why I chose this song - it's far from being the best on it.

Thrown Down, Fleetwood Mac.  When this album came out, a friend said someone told her that it "was better than Rumours."  It wasn't.

Light of Day, Joe Grushecky.  An excellent, "acoustic rocking" version of the Springsteen chestnut.

Disorder in the House and Keep Me in Your Heart, Warren Zevon.  We still miss you, Warren.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

29 Days in October

I. The Sportsman

A few days ago, I started thinking about a blog post on likely candidates for Sports Illustrated's annual "Sportsman of the Year" award.  Ostensibly, the award is given each year to "the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement."  I say "ostensibly" because when you look back at the history of the award, it's pretty clear that the "achievement" portion of that equation has far outweighed "sportsmanship."  There are exceptions to the rule, one example being Arthur Ashe winning the award in 1992, long past his playing days.  But more likely than not, the award winner is going to an American from a major sport, who has completed a great achievement, either in that year's season or during the course of his/her (almost always his) career.

This has led to some choices that SI might wish it could recall because of subsequent events - Pete Rose in 1975, Joe Paterno in 1986, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, Lance Armstrong in 2002, and even Tiger Woods himself, in 1996 and 2000.  But it's also led to many choices that have withstood the test of time, including John Wooden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jack Nicklaus, Sandy Koufax, and many others.

In looking at this year, I tried really hard to come up with the ideal mix of achievement and sportsmanship, and came up with what I felt were two viable candidates:

- The San Antonio Spurs, the very embodiment of team achievement in sports, a collection of elite players each of whom has demonstrated over a long period of time that they are willing to sacrifice their own individual goals in pursuit of team success.

- Bill Snyder, the football coach at Kansas State University, who has demonstrated in this era of big money college football that it is still possible to compete at the highest level with players that few people (outside of the diehard fans) have heard from, for a campus that few people would identify as being a Mecca of college football.

I'd still be happy with either one of those choices.  But frankly, you can just throw them out the window, because after what we've seen in the last 29 days, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Sportsman of the Year has to be Madison Bumgarner.  Now, to be fair I don't know anything about Bumgarner's personal life outside of the fact that he is from and lives in North Carolina.  I can't vouch for whether he is, in fact, a "Sportsman."  Based on the entertaining locker room scenes after the Giants' wins in the NLDS and the NLCS, he seems to be a bit of a goofball.  But in this era of social media where each athlete's foibles are examined and exposed like never before, I've never seen or read anything to suggest that Bumgarner is a jerk, or someone who gives his teammates and competitors a difficult time about anything.

So in this case, I'm comfortable saying that what Bumgarner achieved in the month of October has clearly set him apart from every other athlete in the sports world in 2014.  As one scribe put it earlier this week, for the month of October, Madison Bumgarner became 1968 Bob Gibson.  And he did it on the very biggest stage in all of baseball, under the greatest pressure one could possibly imagine.

He is, or at least should be, your Sportsman of the Year for 2014.

II. The Game

When the Giants brought Madison Bumgarner into the game last night, I posted this comment on Facebook:

"Well, this is either going to make history, or be one of the most disappointing World Series moments ever."

Right at the beginning, it didn't look good, but once he got out of the first inning he pitched, it seemed as if he got stronger, as if he were drawing strength from the moment.  And the thing was - there was just no margin for error.  The Royals triad of relievers was well rested, and as they proved last night, were damn near unhittable.  And Bruce Bochy was determined to ride the big hoss into the sunset, regardless of whether it was in victory or defeat.  It was Bumgarner's game to lose.

After the seventh inning, thinking that we would HAVE to see Sergio Romo in the 8th, I posted:

"Wow.  Just wow. #MadBum"

It was one of the few moments in a lifetime of watching sports that I was truly understanding and appreciating everything that I was seeing, as it was unfolding before me.  This was history - this was the kind of thing that in 50 or 100 years, an 8-year old kid might read about in the Baseball Encyclopedia and try to imagine what it was like - just like I did when I was 8 and read about the great moments in World Series past.  And the thing was, once Bumgarner got past a certain point, it really didn't matter how the game ended - it was going to be a legend, and the only question that remained was whether it would be a story of triumph or one of tragedy.

And at the end of the game:

"#LEGENDARY  #MADBUM"

It's hard to even describe it.  It was one of those moments that you wanted to keep on going.  And so I kept watching, whether it was on Fox Sports 1 or ESPN.  I wanted to hear others talk about it, I wanted to see the players talk about it, and celebrate it.  And today I've read everything about it that I could possibly get my hands on - including the thoughts of the legendary Roger Angell - 94 years young.

III.  The Team

If you had told me that there would come a day that the San Francisco Giants would be widely referred to within baseball circles as "a model franchise," well...let's just say it would be a tough choice between laughing out loud and giving whoever said such an outlandish thing a very funny look.  But that is now the world that we live in, a world where the Giants have won three World Series Championships in the past 5 years.  

A cousin of mine posed the question on Facebook after the game of whether this championship topped the last two.  And the best response to that is probably "who cares?," because each one of them was great in its own way.  The first one will be remembered for being the first one, ending decades of frustration (and, at times, utter misery); the second one will be remembered for being about a team that just refused to die, winning six consecutive elimination games; and this one will be remembered, not just for the historic brilliance of Madison Bumgarner, but for the heroic efforts of stalwarts Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval.  

I've said before, it never gets old.  I know how lucky we Giants fans are.  And amazingly enough, we have become the team that others root against because now "we're getting greedy."  Well, to heck with that.  I'm ready for some more.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

#MadBum


A Game 7 I'd rather not have seen

The way I'm wired, it really is best if I head into tonight's Game 7 thinking that the Giants are going to lose.  Rationally, I know that there's very little to the notion of "momentum" in baseball.  But all you have to do is look at the historical record to see that the last road team to win a Game 7 in the World Series was the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979.  The Giants failed to do it in 2002, and after they'd lost Game 6 in the most excruciating manner possible, I didn't even entertain the possibility that they'd win Game 7.

And heck, the year before that, Mariano Rivera suffered through the one notable postseason failure of his career, failing to save Game 7 against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  And if Mariano Freaking Rivera can't overcome Game 7 on the road, what chance do mere mortals have?

In my lifetime, the Giants have lost three Game Sevens - in 1962, when I was two years old, and Willie McCovey hit the legendary scorching line drive with runners in scoring position, right into the glove of Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson.  Fortunately from my point of view, I was but two years old at the time so it doesn't bother me that much.  Then there was 1987 in the National League Championship Series against St. Louis, after Dave Dravecky ended up on the short end of a 1-0 nailbiter in Game 6.  Atlee Hammaker couldn't get the job done (and that's probably being charitable) in the finale, and there was little to no drama in the game.  And of course, 2002.  We broke the curse in the 2012 NLCS, so at least there is some precedent for the Giants winning one.  However, that was at home.

So on the mound tonight, we have Tim Hudson.  Tim Hudson has had a great career.  It's probably not a Hall of Fame career, but it would be more than good enough to get him into the "Hall of the Very, Very Good," if there was such a thing.  If we had 2001 or 2002 Tim Hudson pitching tonight, I'd feel a lot differently about this game.  But the rules require us to play 2014 Tim Hudson, so one can only hope that it's the Tim Hudson who pitched 7 or so very effective innings against the Nationals in the 18-inning epic.  Of course, that's also probably the only good game he's pitched in quite a while.

So I head into tonight with low expectations, but don't judge me harshly - from there, there's nowhere to go but up.  And if Barry Zito could grasp one last gasp of magic to stave off the Cardinals in 2012, there's no reason why his former Athletics teammate Tim Hudson can't do it tonight.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

World Serious - Getting Ready for Game 6

You know it's a big one when you start getting nervous at 10 a.m. for a game that begins just after 5 p.m.

On the one hand, Giants fans really have nothing at all to complain about, even if they don't win the World Series.  If you had told me, at any point during this season (or at least after the team went into its summer swoon after once having had a 9-game lead over the Dodgers) that the Giants would be one game away from winning the World Series, I probably would have laughed out loud.

But here we are, and since we are just one game away from winning the World Series, we might as well win it, right?

From my point of view, it's both good and bad that we're playing the Royals.  Along with the Red Sox and the A's, the Royals have long been one of my favorite American League teams, and (I checked last night) I still have the entire Game 7 of the 1985 World Series on an old VHS tape.  For those of you too young (or too old) to remember, the Royals returned home for Game 6 in that World Series too, and proceeded to win it in about as dramatic a fashion as possible - scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Cardinals to force a Game 7, which was an 11-0 rout whose most dramatic moment was a meltdown on the mound from Joaquin Andujar that, if memory serves, was his last notable appearance in a baseball game.

When that happened, I was a waiter at Chuck's Steak House of Hawaii, and I clearly remember celebrating quite loudly when the Royals pulled out Game 6.  It felt great at the time, but I'd really hate to be on the opposite side of that equation.  Of course, the Giants have been there before, suffering through a meltdown for the ages in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series against the Angels.  But on the bright side, we did head to Philadelphia in the 2010 NLCS and pulled out a thriller in Game 6, but on the other hand we went back to St. Louis in 1987 with a 3-2 lead and came back home empty-handed.

You can see where my mind goes with this stuff.  Predictions are silly in a game of this magnitude, but you've got to like our chances if for no other reason that we've got a core group of guys who have been there before and are not likely to allow a little pressure to take them off their game.  And we've got Jake Peavy on the mound, and while he certainly hasn't looked unbeatable for most of the postseason, he's certainly got the right attitude.

So let's just get it on - Play Ball!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Your National League Champion San Francisco Giants

It never gets old.

You can add Travis Ishikawa, Michael Morse and Joe Panik to the annals of Giants history, "Unlikely Heroes" wing.


And now we head to the World Series that all the experts predicted on the eve of the play-in games, the San Francisco Giants vs. the Kansas City Royals.

This will be interesting, and fun.  I can't work up a lot of hatred for the Royals, because I always liked them when I was growing up, and George Brett remains one of my all-time favorite players.

The Royals are white hot right now.  But so are the Giants. 

There was a time when I could have written up a position-by-position analysis for the Series, but that time is long past.  I watch the Giants almost every night, but it's been years since I've been able to talk with any assurance about players that I don't see on a regular basis.  I know very little about this Royals team and these Royals players. 

What I do know is that they swept us in Kansas City in early August, although I don't recall thinking at the time that I was watching a World Series preview.

Three in five years.  At my age, that probably means that I've given up any right to complain about the outcome of my favorite teams in any sport.

Here's hoping we bring home another trophy.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Twin Peaks

So, it's official - Twin Peaks will be returning to television, on Showtime, with 9 episodes directed by David Lynch, in 2016.

So now we have two years to debate the question: is this a good idea?

First things first: I'm comfortable saying that Twin Peaks was a legendary show; in fact, that it was one of the landmarks in the history of the medium.  But such a bold statement comes with a very major caveat.

Consider these lines of dialogue from Blade Runner:

Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - and you have burned so very, very, brightly Roy.  Look at you: you're the Prodigal Son; you're quite a prize!

Roy Batty: I've done...questionable things.

Tyrell: Also extraordinary things; revel in your time.

If there was ever a show that could be said to have done extraordinary but questionable things in a very short time, Twin Peaks was that show.  I have no qualms whatsoever saying that the first season episodes, and the second season through the resolution of the Laura Palmer storyline, were among the most compelling ever shown on television.  I also have no qualms whatsoever saying that after that, the show went off the rails to such a degree that it was practically unwatchable.  By the time that Lynch was brought back to direct the finale, it was far too late - the images on the screen may have been as visually and aurally thrilling as they ever were, but there was no longer any point to the exercise.  In that sense, the show went from legendary to having jumped the shark in a shorter period of time than any other.

Can you catch lightning in a bottle a second time, 25 years apart?  That is the question that no one can answer today.  And despite having both Lynch and Mark Frost back on board, there's no guarantee that Twin Peaks can once again capture the zeitgeist in a way that True Detective did this year (I for one don't think it's a coincidence that the resurrection of Twin Peaks comes so soon after Detective).

We can only hope, and wish for the best.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Sportsball Update: It's October, Baby

It was the kind of day for which sports bars were created.  Too many games going on at once, and way too many to manage with one television and remote.  But try I did, and it was well worth the effort.

In college football, we might as well call it the day of Katy Perry.  For those of you who missed her surreal and memorable performance on ESPN's College Gameday, it's worth seeking out.  Over the course of 10 or so minutes, she flirted with Lee Corso, declared her crush on Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight, asked about the South Carolina game, "is that the one with the cocks?" and proceeded to outpick all of the Gameday experts.  Then the day ended with a Vine going viral of Perry chugging a beer and diving off of a bar into the crowd in Oxford - which was probably the best possible way to close out one of the craziest days in College Football history.

Then you had Mississippi State taking it to Texas A&M, and all of a sudden looking like one of the best teams in the nation.

Then you had Mississippi completing the daily double and coming from behind to beat Alabama, the closest thing to a CFB dynasty that we've seen this century.

Then you had TCU hanging on at the end to beat Oklahoma, which up until yesterday had been looking a lot like the first couple of teams that Bob Stoops coached.

Then you had Notre Dame holding on against Stanford in a soggy slugfest - an ugly battle that went down to the final round, with the Irish prevailing on points.

Then you had Arizona State shocking USC with three touchdowns in the final four minutes of the game, including the winning TD on what was, in all likelihood, the worst defended Hail Mary pass in the history of College Football.

Then you had Nebraska almost pulling off an amazing comeback on the road against a Michigan State team with one of the stingiest defenses in the land.

Then you had Utah upsetting UCLA in the Rose Bowl, right after UCLA looked to have righted the ship with a dominating performance against Arizona State.

And finally, you had the California Golden Bears prevailing over Washington State 60-59 - and no, it was not an overtime game - despite allowing more than 700 passing yards.

Oh yeah, and then there was the 18-inning painful masterpiece that was the game between the Giants and the Nationals - which proved that "Giants Baseball: Torture!" just might be back as the slogan of the day.  It was a classic pitching duel, raised to legendary status with a) Matt Williams's decision to remove Jordan Zimmerman with two outs in the ninth inning; and b) Yusmeiro Petit's 6-plus innings of one-hit relief for the Giants.  About a), all I'll say is that it shocked me at the time, and that it didn't work out for the Nationals.  About the second, I hardly even know what to say.  But if the Giants go all the way, they'll look back on those six innings as the turning point of their entire postseason.

Can the NFL even hope to match the drama of Saturday?  It's not likely - but I don't mind watching, just to find out.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Friday Mixtape: Johnny Cash, American Recordings

This one dates back to 2004, shortly after I had finally seen the light on the series of Johnny Cash's "American Recordings" albums produced by Rick Rubin.

I bought the first album when it came out and enjoyed it, but not as much as I should have.  And then it wasn't until the day I first heard "Hurt" playing on the stereo system at my favorite record store (the late, great The Beat on J Street in Sacramento) that I knew I had to have that one, too.  And after that, I knew I had to have them all.

If you're a longtime reader, then you know that I think the American Recordings series of albums represents one of the great musical stories of my lifetime.  It's rare that an artist - even a great artist like Cash - is able to write the last chapter of his/her musical legacy the way that Johnny Cash was able to do with Rick Rubin.  Essentially, it was "sing and play whatever you want, and we'll gather the musicians and get the tape rolling." It was a great gift from Rubin to Cash, and ultimately a great gift to all of us.

So this one is pretty simple - I picked out my favorite songs from each of the first four American albums, and there you go.  And back when I was still driving my '97 Honda Accord, I damn near wore this one out.

Johnny Cash - American Recordings, 1994-2003

Delia's Gone
Let the Train Blow the Whistle
Drive On
Thirteen
Oh Bury Me Not
Tennessee Stud
Redemption
Like a Soldier
Rowboat
Sea of Heartbreak
Rusty Cage
Country Boy
Memories Are Made of This
The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea
Mean Eyed Cat
I've Been Everywhere
Solitary Man
Nobody
I See a Darkness
Would You Lay With Me
Before My Time
Country Trash
Mary of the Wild Moor
I'm Leavin' Now
The Man Comes Around
Hurt
First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Tear Stained Letter
Streets of Laredo
We'll Meet Again

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sportsball Update!

Since we're about to head into the best month for sports of the entire year, it seems like a good time to share some random thoughts about happenings in the sportsball world.

We'll start with what is clearly the most important story in sports right now, that being the California Golden Bears.  No doubt about it, fans with a heart condition (or fans with a special appreciation for defense) should not watch this year's version of the Bears.  Sure, they're highly entertaining, but they're also hazardous to your health.  Last week, it was the Hail Mary in Arizona, made possible only after the team had allowed the Wildcats to score two touchdowns in the span of about 3 minutes.  This week, it was the double-overtime 59-56 survival contest against Colorado,  featuring seven touchdown passes by both quarterbacks. 

Clearly, the "Bear Raid" offense of the Bears can score a lot of points, and it is likely to keep them in every game they play this year.  Progress is clearly being made, and with the two Washington teams coming up in the next couple of weeks, 5-1 is possible.  After that, the Bears face one of the toughest stretches that any team outside the SEC will face this year - currently, 5 of the 6 teams are in the Top 25.  But you know what?  I'll be shocked if we don't beat at least one of them.

And then, we go across the pond to the biennial disaster also known as the Ryder Cup.  If it's late September in an even-numbered year, we must be getting our asses kicked by the Europeans.  And not a lot of it makes sense.  Sure, right now the Europeans have more players at the top of the world Top 50 ranking, but even that doesn't explain the disastrous performance of the Americans in the foursomes (alternate shot) matches year after year after year.  A friend called it "baffling," but you have to wonder whether it calls out a lack of strategic thinking on the part of the U.S. players.  And that could be a function of the courses they have played most of their lives; the majority of which lack the strategic elements that you find on many of the British/European courses.  Whatever the cause, we suck at foursomes.

And let's face it, with Tiger and Phil in full decline mode (and even at their best, they were never world-beaters in the Ryder Cup), the U.S. players near the top of the World 50 ranking are, shall we say, less than intimidating.  At #4 you've got Jim Furyk, as great a guy as one can imagine - but also the player above all others who has demonstrated a glaring inability to close the deal under pressure.  Then there's Bubba Watson, who if it weren't for John Daly would probably win the title of most inconsistent and maddening two-time major winner in golf history.  With Watson, you get all or nothing.  After that there's Matt Kuchar, another great guy but also another guy who is streaky and not likely to strike terror in the hearts of his opponents.  Then, a bunch of young guys like Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler who are definitely on their way up, but who also lack the experience under pressure to dominate in a contest like the Ryder Cup.

As far as I'm concerned, the kerfuffle around the selection of Tom Watson as Captain and Phil Mickelson's backhanded criticism of Watson's strategy in selecting his teams (which admittedly - he even admitted it - was less than stellar) is a red herring.  Hell, pick me as Captain, and I'll make the smart choices in the team play, as well as in the singles.  In the end that doesn't mean a damn thing, because the Captain isn't out there making the shots.

How about some baseball?  Can the Giants continue their streak of winning World Series in the even-numbered years of this decade?  It certainly doesn't seem likely, but hell - this is the streakiest team in the world, and all it takes to win a title is to get hot at the right time.  There's really no dominant team this year, and you can make a decent case for about six of the teams in the postseason.  Should be fun.

And finally, the San Francisco 49ers.  Jim Harbaugh may be in Michigan by this time next year, and Colin Kaepernick may look like he has no idea what he's doing out there about half the time, but a win against one of the three remaining undefeated teams in the league is nothing to sneeze at.  They could be (and probably should be) 4-0, but there's a lot of football yet to play and after four weeks it seems pretty clear that every team in the league (with the possible exception of the Raiders) is capable of beating one of the others.

And it's almost October...where the fun really begins.

LP of the Week - "Willy and the Poorboys" (1969)

"Willy and the Poorboys" was the THIRD album released by Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969.  Just wrap your head around that fact for a while.  Nowadays, artists that release an album a year (and frankly I can't think of any, off the top of my head) are called "prolific."  But Creedence wasn't like any other band, and back around that time they enjoyed one of the most artistically fruitful 24 months (or so) that a band has ever had.

The album clocks in at an economical 34 minutes, and it's really more like 29 since "Poorboy Shuffle" and "Side o' the Road" are not much more than filler.  But it makes the most of that half hour, featuring four bonafide rock classics ("Down on the Corner," "Fortunate Son," "Don't Look Now (It Ain't You or Me)," and "It Came Out of the Sky") two classic covers ("Cotton Fields" and "The Midnight Special") and two side closers that prove that Fogerty could stretch it out a bit and still stay true to the Creedence sound ("Feelin' Blue" and "Effigy").  Add it all up together, and it's an album that richly deserves its status as one of the all-time greats.

Some quick fun facts:

- I got the album for my birthday when I was in fifth grade.

- My youngest brother (who was four years old at the time) loved "Down on the Corner," and liked to listen to it on my transistor radio with the single earplug stuck in his ear.  If my parents knew how loud he liked it, I doubt they would have been very happy.

The only perfect Creedence albums are the two "Chronicle" collections, but it's a fair statement to say that they never released a bad one and came through with at least three enduring classics.  "Willy and the Poor Boys" is one of them.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Friday Mixtape: "Abel and Cain: Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon"


The origin of this one was Jackson Browne’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  That night, Bruce Springsteen gave a memorable induction speech, which included the following passage:

“The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, they gave us California as paradise and Jackson Browne gave us Paradise Lost. Now I always imagine, what if Brian Wilson, long after he’d taken a bite of that orange the serpent offered to him, what if he married that nice girl in Caroline No? I always figured that she was pregnant anyway, and what if he moved into the valley and had two sons? One of them would have looked and sounded just like Jackson Browne. Cain, of course, would have been Jackson's brother in arms, Warren Zevon. We love ya, Warren. But, Jackson to me, Jackson was always the tempered voice of Abel. Toiling in the vineyards, here to bear the earthly burdens, confronting the impossibility of love, here to do his father’s work. Jackson's work was really California pop gospel.”

It’s not as if I needed an excuse to create a Jackson Browne/Warren Zevon mixtape, given that they’re both on my short list of pantheon artists, but Bruce’s speech was all the incentive I needed.  It doesn’t have a date on it, but I’m guessing sometime in late 2004.

Abel & Cain: Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon

Doctor My Eyes
Redneck Friend
Desperados Under the Eaves
Poor Poor Pitiful Me
Late for the Sky
Before the Deluge
Carmelita
Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner
Lawyers, Guns and Money
The Pretender

Running on Empty
Sentimental Hygiene
Lawyers in Love
In the Shape of a Heart
Bad Karma
The Indifference of Heaven
Sky Blue and Black
I Was in the House When the House Burned Down
My Ride’s Here
The Naked Ride Home