Friday, October 06, 2017

Tom Petty: "He was happy to be upstaged..."

As great as Tom Petty was, I'm not sure he ever got his due.  Throughout the course of an amazing career, it always seemed as if someone else was getting more attention, getting more ink.  It might have been Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Seger, or Jackson Browne, or even someone a little more off the wall like Warren Zevon.

But think of the staying power.

I started thinking of all the times in my life I've listened to "Runnin' Down a Dream" and how with each listen, the thrill of the song never fails to catch me.  If it's on the radio or on shuffle, I never fail to turn it up as loud as it will go; certainly louder than is healthy for these 57-year old eardrums.  Then I think of the other songs for which the same thing is true: "American Girl."  "Here Comes My Girl." "I Need to Know."  "Jammin' Me." "Free Fallin'."  "Into the Great Wide Open."  "Swingin'."  "Learning to Fly."  "You Wreck Me."  "Out in the Cold."  Many others.

People who know me know how important music has been to my life.  I've always had a test to measure a song's true greatness - for a song to be truly great, it has to sound just as great on the 500th listen as it does on the first.  Not every song meets that test.  But Tom Petty had enough of them to fill up an entire album; perhaps a double album.  Probably more than that.

But as Greil Marcus noted, "he was happy to be upstaged," whether it be while backing up Roger McGuinn at Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert, or setting the stage for what might have been Prince's most legendary performance, on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" during George Harrison's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  (Sheila O'Malley also nails this aspect of Petty in her great tribute).

Those weren't the only times.  Think of all the songs when the thing you remember most about a Tom Petty song is the Mike Campbell guitar solo, or a gorgeous piano or organ line from Benmont Tench.  I absolutely love this story from Petty, about playing with Johnny Cash during one of his sessions with Rick Rubin:

"Rick Rubin called me and said, "Hey, would you like to play bass on this Johnny Cash record I'm doing?"  I said, "Aw shit, yeah, I love to play the bass."  I started out as a bass player and did that for years before the Heartbreakers, where I switched to guitar.  And of course any time I could work with John I'd be right there. To my surprise I turned up and Benmont Tench was there and Mike Campell and within a couple of days all the Heartbreakers were there, so we were pretty much Johnny Cash's backing band.  And you know what?  We've made a whole lot of records but I really think that was the truest Heartbreakers record I've ever heard.  And it's still really one of the only ones that I just absolutely put on and listen to.  John brought something out of this group that kept on amazing me day to day.  I don't know how he did it."

Honest modesty is a sign of true greatness, and Tom Petty was modest even though there's no doubting that he deserved to be right up there with every one of those legends.

R.I.P.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Ara Parseghian

If you became a college football fan at any time from the mid-1960s through the mid 1970s, you were fed a steady dish of Notre Dame football, whether or not you rooted for the Irish. The team had its own program that aired every Sunday morning, with the legendary Lindsey Nelson narrating a summary of the day's previous game ("...and now we pick up the action in the second quarter, with Notre Dame driving..."). Of course, they nearly always won.
Their coach during that era was Ara Parseghian. Not particularly flashy, and certainly not as charismatic as his peers Bear Bryant, John McKay, Woody Hayes, Darrell Royal or Bo Schembechler, all Parseghian did was win, as evidenced by his ND record of 95-17-4 - with two national championships to his credit. And sure, while one could say that in Notre Dame Parseghian had a built-in advantage that no other school in the country enjoyed, the intervening years have proven that it takes more than a talented coach to win a national title at Notre Dame.
Parseghian could have stayed at Notre Dame for as long as he wanted, but he left about as close to the top as one could imagine - an Orange Bowl upset of top-ranked Alabama, once again vexing the legendary Bear, just as his team had done two seasons before in one of the greatest college football games ever played: the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Eve 1973, which ended with the Irish prevailing 24-23.
Parseghian led a good, if not always easy life - he was a World War II veteran, he would have celebrated his 70th wedding anniversary next year, and in his later years he was a tireless advocate for medical research, after his daughter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and after three of his grandchildren died from a rare genetic disease.

And on a day when it once again appears that our "leaders" may be prepared to turn their backs on the words of Emma Lazarus, it is worth mentioning that Parseghian's father immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, to escape the Armenian Genocide. In his honor and in the honor of his son, let's hope that future generations will have the opportunities to succeed that Ara Parseghian had.

R.I.P.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Album of the Day - "Sanctuary," J. Geils Band (1978)

It's probably a fair bet that when the death of J. Geils was announced earlier this week, the mental picture that most people had in their minds was that of Peter Wolf. As the singer for the band that carried Geils' name, Wolf was by far the most visible member of the group, with the great harmonica player Magic Dick probably being second (if not him, than Seth Justman, keyboardist and co-songwriter with Wolf of the band's biggest hits).
Although they had been around since the late 1960s and held close to legendary status in certain parts of the country throughout the 70s, the band didn't really strike gold until the early 1980s, with the album and song "Love Stinks" and then the monster hit, and multi-platinum, "Centerfold." Not long after that Peter Wolf decided to leave the group, and not long after that, the band called it quits.
"Freeze-Frame" and "Centerfold" were both great songs, no doubt - and one of my favorite musical memories was the night in Deutsch Hall at UC Berkeley when a Cal Bear football player, fueled by a few too many beers (and who knows what else) decided it would be fun to do a crazy, naked dance to "Centerfold" to celebrate the end of finals week. His performance ended with about 8 of us chasing him down the hallway, to make sure he didn't follow through on his threat to repeat the performance over in the girls' only dorm.
For me, the band hit its artistic peak with "Geils" in 1977, and "Sanctuary" the following year. For this post I chose the latter, which I prefer slightly because of "One Last Kiss," a song I still consider to be one of the best of that decade. Produced by old pro Joe Wissert (who also manned the boards for Boz Scaggs' "Silk Degrees"), the album is a remarkably consistent example of what the band did best - hard rock, tinged with a touch of R&B and soul, and frequently featuring the unique harmonica solos of the Magic Man. No flashy guitar solos, just some hard-driving, well crafted, for lack of a better term, "classic rock."
R.I.P., J. Geils.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Top Sports Moments of January

This is something that I've been thinking about doing for a while, so I guess this falls into the "better late than never" category.  Each month, I'll pick what I thought were the Top 5 sports moments of the month, and at the end of the year will rank them from 1-60 (assuming there are 5 great moments each month, which probably isn't much of a stretch).

For January:

1. College Football Championship game, Clemson v. Alabama.  Hard to argue with a hard-fought, competitive game that comes down to the very last play.

2. Rose Bowl Game.  Longtime readers will know that I'm not a fan of USC, but I have to give them their props for coming from WAY behind to nip Penn State in an all-time thriller.  And just like baseball is better when the Yankees are great, College Football is better when USC is great.  Now I just hope the Cal Bears can beat them some day.

3. Federer v. Nadal, Australian Open Men's Final.  Two great warriors facing off in a great match.  Something we never thought we'd see again.

4. Williams v. Williams, Australian Open Women's Final.  See above.  Ranked lower only because the match wasn't quite as good.  This has been going on for almost two decades now - extraordinary.

5. Green Bay defeats Dallas, NFL Divisional Playoff.  Pittsburgh v. KC was also an excellent playoff game, but this one was for the ages.  AARON RODGERS!  (But props to Mason Crosby and the Cowboys' Dak Prescott as well).

Albums of 2016

Memorializing.

  • The Weight of These Wings, Miranda Lambert
  • Blue and Lonesome - The Rolling Stones
  • 57th and 9th, Sting
  • Joanne - Lady Gaga
  • A Very Kacey Christmas - Kacey Musgraves
  • Walls - Kings of Leon
  • 22, A Million - Bon Iver
  • My Piece of Land - Amanda Shires
  • We're All Gonna Die - Dawes
  • American Band - Drive-By Truckers
  • Day of the Dead - Various Artists
  • Real - Lydia Loveless
  • Freetown Sound - Blood Orange
  • Eyeland - The Low Anthem
  • True Sadness - The Avett Brothers
  • Big Day in a Small Town - Brandy Clark
  • Blackstar - David Bowie
  • Hero - Maren Morris
  • Stranger to Stranger - Paul Simon
  • Hag - The Best of Merle Haggard
  • The Things That We Are Made Of - Mary Chapin Carpenter
  • HitnRun Phase Two - Prince
  • HitnRun Phase One - Prince
  • Painting of a Panic Attack - Frightened Rabbit
  • The Hope Six Demolition Project - PJ Harvey
  • Human Performance - Parquet Courts
  • A Sailor's Guide to Earth - Sturgill Simpson
  • Upland Stories - Robbie Fulks
  • Midwest Farmer's Daughter - Margo Price
  • E*mo*tion - Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Full Circle - Loretta Lynn
  • Untitled Unmastered - Kendrick Lamar
  • Ourboros - Ray LaMontagne
  • The Ghosts of Highway 20 - Lucinda Williams
  • Wonderful Crazy Night - Elton John
  • Palomino - Trampled by Turtles
  • Duluth - Trampled by Turtles
  • Divers - Joanna Newsome
  • Coming Home - Leon Bridges

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Greatest Scene in "The Empire Strikes Back" - And What Carrie Fisher Brought To It

Those of you who know me well know that I think "The Empire Strikes Back" is not only the best Star Wars movie, but one of the greatest movies of all time.  My brothers and I seemed to know this back in the summer of 1980 when we saw it (at least) seven times, but nothing that's transpired in the intervening decades has caused me to move "Empire" down on my all-time Top Ten list any lower than #5.

In the lead-up to "Rogue One" in December, several of the cable channels were playing the Star Wars films on what seemed like a continuous loop, and one evening - even though we own the film, and I've long since lost track of the number of times I've seen it - "Empire" was on, so of course that was what I watched.  And it struck me that night what a magnificent scene the "Han is frozen in Carbonite" scene is - the colors, the editing, the music (some of John Williams' finest moments), and yes, the performances.

All of the actors are great in that scene.  Watch how the expression on Han's face changes when Lando tells him what is about to happen; watch the pain on Lando's face when the depths to which he has betrayed his friend truly sink in.  But more than anyone else, watch Carrie Fisher as Leia.  Watch the horror on her face; watch how she looks at Han, both before and while he is being lowered into the carbonite.  And then try to tell me that it's not great acting.

R.I.P., Carrie Fisher.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Election Night Memories

Before I was into music, before I was into movies, before I was into sports...I was into the political process.  Who knows, maybe it had something to do with the fact that my earliest memory is of the day that President Kennedy was assassinated.  When you're 3 years old and your mom cries all day, that tends to stick with you.

But for whatever reason, Election Day has always held a special place in my heart, to the point where I once told a colleague that it was like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Independence Day and my birthday all rolled into one.  Of course, presidential election years are the biggies, and pieces of each of those election nights remain ingrained in my memory as if they occurred just yesterday.

On Election Day in 1968, we got a cat and named him Hubert, which probably tells you a little bit about our political leanings.  It hadn't fully sunk in yet, but my family had been Nixon-haters for a long time, ever since he dubbed Helen Gahagan Douglas "the pink lady" in his first Congressional campaign.  They were all hoping that when Nixon uttered the immortal line, after having been defeated in his run for Governor of California by Pat Brown, that "you won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more," he was telling truth.  As time would tell, Nixon and the truth had a fleeting relationship.  That night, mom and dad let me stay up until 11 p.m., and at that point the networks weren't even close to calling a winner.  We wouldn't even know who our next President would be when we woke up the following morning.

It was a bit of a different story in 1972.  The family had gravitated towards George McGovern around the time of the California Primary, but after his victory here it was all downhill.  His acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention aired after 2 a.m. EST, he had to drop his running mate after it became know he'd gone through electroshock therapy earlier in his life, and...well, nothing much good happened after that.  Needless to say, it was a very disappointing Election Night, with the outcome known before we had finished dinner.

After Watergate, 1976 was tailor made for a Democratic candidate, but it ended up being a nail-biter with Jimmy Carter eking out a late call over President Gerald Ford.  Truth be told, I was never that enthusiastic about Carter as a candidate or a President; it wasn't until he became the model for what an ex-President could accomplish after holding the office that his value truly sunk in.  But while in office, aside from the genuine triumph of the Middle East accords, it always felt a little bit like Carter had filled his Cabinet with a bunch of dudes who didn't know what they were doing.  Oh well.

By the Fall of 1980, I was more or less safely ensconced at UC Berkeley, and the best and most lasting memory of that election season was that I saw my first Bruce Springsteen concert the night of the Reagan-Carter debate.  On Election Night, I joined a somewhat desultory "protest march" that was a far cry of the campus' reputation for political engagement.  But if nothing else, it was the first presidential election I'd voted in, and even though most of my dorm mates were casting their lot with John Anderson (remember him?) I stayed loyal to Jimmy Carter, even given my misgivings about his performance in office.

1984.  What to say?  Not much drama on THAT election night.  Walter Mondale was a good man and you had the history of Geraldine Ferraro being on the ticket, but no one was going to take out the Gipper that year.  Little drama again in 1998, and in retrospect it seems pretty clear that Dukakis lost the election at the moment he (or someone) thought it was a good idea to put on a funny looking helmet and ride around in a funny looking tank.  The other thing that sticks in my mind about that campaign is Dukakis appearing on "Nightline" about a week before the election, and appearing to be in absolute denial about what was going to happen the following week.

1992.  Finally, I vote for a candidate who becomes President.  The strongest memories I have of this campaign are associated with the debates, particularly the legendary moment when President Bush looked down at his watch as if he had somewhere else to be at the moment.  My election night memories mostly center on Clinton and Gore speaking to the crowd in Arkansas with the strains of "Don't Stop" blaring on the loudspeakers.

1996.  This was the first election night that I spent at the CSU office monitoring election returns on the Internet, but mostly with a focus on the state races.  Clinton's victory over Dole was a foregone conclusion long before Election Day, but the night was still memorable because the Democrats managed to regain the State Assembly, after having lost it as part of the Republican tidal wave that swept the country in 1994.

2000 was the Big Kahuna, the election night to end all election nights.  My colleague Dustin Johnson and I were again at the CSU office, sitting with a pizza in our conference room armed with six laptops setup to various election websites in the state and across the country.  Who knew that after six hours, following some of the most entertaining Dan Rather commentary ever uttered on television, that we'd be frantically scouring Florida's Secretary of State's site for more information on the vote count in that state.  I remember staggering home at around 2 a.m., and staggering out of bed at 6 to see if anything had changed.  It hadn't.

You know, I can't really say I remember much about 2004.  I was never enthusiastic about John Kerry, and even though a lot of pollsters seemed to think that he had a shot, it always seemed like a foregone conclusion that George W. would be elected to a second term.

But there was a lot to remember about 2008.  It was the first campaign where my sons were paying attention (even though they were still too young to vote, Son #1 missing by just a couple of months), and it didn't take long for them to become fans of Barack Obama.  Election night was one of those rare nights where you just cherish the opportunity to view history as it is taking place.  Of course the hopes surrounding Obama at that moment were unrealistic, and there are a few things that I wish he'd done differently.  But like him or not, he was a once in a generation President - completely at ease in the job, and utterly commanding in his projection of what it means to be a leader.  There won't be another one like him for a long time.  2012 was a muted version of what had occurred 4 years earlier, with a touch of drama because of the President's horrible performance in the first debate which made it seem possible that he could lose.

Which brings us to this year, which I'm going to save for another post.

Monday, September 26, 2016

American Songs, Days 15-21: Bruce Springsteen

So last week got a little busy, and on the day of our first presidential debate we find ourselves more than a week behind on the "American Songs" posts.  So I'm going to take what is probably the easy way out, and devote a week's work of songs to Bruce Springsteen, who celebrated his 67th birthday last Friday.

With the publication of his memoir, a lot of folks have been posting Springsteen lists - so here is a seven song perfect playlist that covers some obvious choices, and some deep cuts.



"Human Touch."  One of his very best songs, from the album many (most?) of his fans consider to be his worst.



"Badlands" and "Thunder Road."  No matter how you cut it, these two will always be at or near the top of the pantheon.



"The Rising."  There is always hope.



"Stolen Car."  What makes this one cool is that I was actually at this show.  An amazing song; a terrifying song.  "I'm driving a stolen car/Through the pitch black night/I keep telling myself/Someday I'm gonna be alright/But I ride by night/And I travel in fear/That in this darkness/I will disappear."



"American Skin (41 Shots)."  Hearing for the first time, at Madison Square Garden in June 2000, was a searing experience.  And here we are 16 years later, and we're left to ponder, again and again, when things are going to change.



"Land of Hope and Dreams."  And this is the song that leaves you hoping.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

American Songs, Day 14 - "Seven Year Ache," Rosanne Cash

"Seven Year Ache" is 35 years old now, and I'm pretty sure that's enough time for me to declare it one one of the greatest songs of my lifetime.  But one thing about which I'm absolutely certain is that Rosanne Cash is one of the greatest artists of my lifetime.



American Songs, Day 13 - "Blue Ridge Mountains," Fleet Foxes

"Blue Ridge Mountains" was the best song on Fleet Foxes' debut album, a beautiful and evocative tune that has only grown in stature upon repeat (many, many repeat) listens.  It's been more than five years since the band's last album, and former member (and percussionist) Josh Tillman, who you may know better as Father John Misty, has become a star in his own right.  But according to bandleader Robin Pecknold, a third album is on the way...eventually.

American Songs, Day 12 - "One Night," Elvis Presley

There aren't a lot of moments that you can convincingly argue represent the greatest moment in the history of rock and roll, but Elvis' 1968 "comeback special" is definitely one of those moments.  It's not as if he ever went away, but it was during the special - and especially in the sequence when, clad in black leather and joined by his musical compatriots from a decade earlier, he demonstrated that there were regions in the rock and roll stratosphere that were not open to mere mortals.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

American Songs, Day 11 - "South Dakota," James McMurtry

James McMurtry's "Complicated Game" is one of the best albums of the decade, and on it he demonstrates a knack for storytelling that rivals that of his famous father.

"South Dakota" may be the best song on the album.  It tells the story of a soldier returned home from the war, who ultimately ends up thinking that he just might have made the wrong choice.

"Because there ain't much between the Pole and South Dakota
And barbed wire won't stop the wind
You won't get nothing here but broke and older
If I was you I might re-up again"


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

American Songs, Day 10 - "Minutes to Memories," John Mellencamp

A great song, with one of the greatest lines of all time:  "An honest man's pillow is his peace of mind."

Mellencamp is one of the great stories of the rock era.  He started as a joke (and looked the part) as "Johnny Cougar," and somehow morphed over time to become a grizzled veteran who would produce great work and continue to do so until well into the 21st Century.

There was time when I wouldn't have been caught dead buying one of his albums.  Now, I'd buy one without having heard a single song.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

American Songs, Day 9 - "Where Did Our Love Go," The Supremes

"Motown was about music for all people - white and black, blue and green, cops and robbers.  I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone." - Berry Gordy

Monday, September 12, 2016

Sunday, September 11, 2016

American Songs, Day 7 - "High Water Rising (for Charley Patton)," Bob Dylan

From the magnificent album "Love and Theft," released on September 11, 2001.

High water risin', six inches 'bove my head
Coffins droppin' in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin' into Vicksburg, don't know what I'm goin' to do
"Don't reach out for me," she said
"Can't you see I'm drownin' too?"
It's rough out there
High water everywhere