Monday, September 15, 2014

LP of the Week - "Hotter Than July," Stevie Wonder (1980)


Just as a reminder, the posts in this category are about an album that I own only on vinyl.

If you asked a random music fan to name what he/she thought was Stevie Wonder's best album, I'm sure one of the first you'd hear would be "Songs in the Key of Life."  No doubt there would be a few "Innervisions," some "Talking Book," and probably "Music of My Mind."  I doubt that many people would say "Hotter than July," but today we're going to try and do something about that.  And don't get me wrong; even I wouldn't say that "Hotter than July" is his greatest work.  But what I am saying is that it belongs on any short list of great Stevie, and is in fact my favorite Stevie Wonder album.

From start to finish, with absolutely no roadblocks along the way, "Hotter than July" is classic Stevie Wonder.  It's got great dance tunes ("Did I Hear You Say You Love Me," "I Ain't Gonna Stand For It," "As If You Read My Mind"), it's got great political tunes ("Cash In Your Face," "Happy Birthday"), it's got an all-time tear jerker ("Lately"), and it's got  "Master Blaster (Jammin')," a Bob Marley tribute that I'm convinced, nearly 35 years later, is one of his greatest songs.

And the band?  Just absolutely smoking hot.  Particularly in his latter career, Stevie was one of those guys (like John Fogerty) who liked to do it all himself, sometimes to the detriment of the songs themselves.  But here, he is accompanied by a classic band, the core being Nathan Watts on bass, Benjamin Bridges on guitar and Dennis Davis on drums.  And they are awesome - driving each song well past its limits.

You could almost call this Stevie's "Tattoo You" - the last great album from an indisputably great artist.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Did you hear? U2 has a new album

It's pretty clear after a few days that the big story surrounding U2's new album, "Songs of Innocence," isn't the music itself but the manner in which it was released.  For those who have been living under a rock or vacationing where the Wi-Fi don't go, the album showed up in the "Purchased" section of everyone with an iTunes library on Tuesday, there for the taking with a few quick clicks or touches.  And the way some people have reacted, you would have thought that Bono himself had broken into everyone's house, and slid a copy of the new one into the CD cabinet of everyone with a music collection.

Consider the reaction from Pitchfork:

"U2 being U2, they’ve taken that strategy one step over the line into indisputably queasy territory, aligning with their old friends Apple to insert their new album, Songs of Innocence, into all of our libraries without consent. By updating the old Columbia House Record Club scam to the digital age, U2 and their Cupertino buddies have created a new avenue of opt-out cultural transmission, removing even the miniscule effort it takes to go to a website and click “Download.”

First of all, someone needs to explain to me how what U2 and Apple did last week is like  "the old Columbia House Record Club scam."  If memory serves, the way that worked was that you paid a penny for 12 albums, and then you got one in the mail each month that you could either pay for or send back unopened and unbought.  Based on what I've heard from folks who were actually a member, more often than not the album coming each month was not likely to be one that you wanted to keep.  But unless I've missed something, there's no obligation at all with the U2 album.   I wasn't even obligated to download it, and I'm presuming that for those who don't, it will just as magically disappear from the iTunes library on the day that it goes on sale in more traditional formats.

So the whole thing strikes me as silly, and it makes me wonder how many folks complaining about having U2 in their library have readily agreed to throw their privacy away through the download of insidious apps that require access to so much of one's online identity.  It also makes me wonder whether the heartburn is more about the dislike of so many for Bono as a public figure.  And that, folks, is an old story.  Bono has been a pretentious twit for much of the band's history, but I've never found that a healthy skepticism for Bono as public figure needed to spill over into the consideration of their music.

So what about the music?  Well, the Pitchfork pan and the Rolling Stone rave don't come as a surprise, because the band isn't exactly plowing new ground on "Songs of Innocence."  There's very little experimentation, either in the instrumentation or in the production.  It sounds very much like the classic U2 sound that longtime fans will remember from the mid-1980s - and as far as I'm concerned, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I think this is clearly the band's best album since at least "All You Can't Leave Behind" from 2001, and perhaps going all the way back to "Achtung Baby" a decade before that.

It seems to me that, at a certain point, a band earns the right to do whatever it wants.  And if U2 wants to return to the basic sound that defined the period of their greatest artistic success - and does it well - then I say more power to them.  And while the album is still sinking in, songs like "Every Breaking Wave," "Song for Someone," and "Cedarwood Road" sound about as good as anything they've ever recorded.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I've never been a fan of their most experimental efforts, and think that "Zooropa" and "Pop" are the worst albums of their long career.  So if you like that vein of their work and those albums, I can see where you might see it differently.

And the controversy over the unconventional release?  There are a lot more important things to get upset about right now.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Beatles Mixtape

And now, here is my crack at a 90-minute Beatles mixtape.  And this one was damn near impossible. There's one song in particular that isn't on here that should be, but including it would have required me to drop another one just as worthy.  Coin flip!  In the end, I tried my best to include all the various facets of their career and musical development.

Clocking in at 87 minutes and change:

Please Please Me
She Loves You
Money (That's What I Want)
A Hard Day's Night
If I Fell
You've Got To Hide Your Love Away
Ticket to Ride
Eight Days a Week
What You're Doing
No Reply
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
In My Life
I'm Only Sleeping
I've Just Seen a Face
Here, There and Everywhere
Tomorrow Never Knows
Day Tripper
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
A Day in the Life
Hey Jude
Helter Skelter
I'm So Tired
Come Together
Something
I Want You (She's So Heavy)
Because
Let It Be

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stones Mixtape

On Labor Day, my blogging pal le0pard13 posted a Beatles mixtape that he put together for one of his friends.  In it, he mentioned that a different friend was putting a Stones mixtape together, and that piqued my interest because I'd been thinking about doing the same thing.

Mixtapes and I go way back.  I started making them in the 1970s, and still have a couple left over from those days.  Mixtapes were an integral part of wooing my wife, and since I didn't drive a car with a CD player (or with an iPod plug-in) until last year, they also helped me survive my daily commute for more than two decades.

I like to think that I still make mixtapes, although now I do them on CDs.  It's not quite the same thing, because the act of taping the song while it's playing forces one to be thoughtful about the flow of songs - just because two songs are great doesn't always mean that they're going to sound great when you listen to them back-to-back.  And others that you might not think are so great at first blush? Well, they sound just fine when coupled with something you might not expect.

As you've probably surmised by now, I think about these things more often and more deeply than your average human being.

So with no further ado, I present my Stones mixtape.  It's just under 90 minutes long, so it would fit on one standard length cassette tape, and touches on every phase of their career (and tries to represent the diversity of their musical palette).  I may have been a little rough on the mid-seventies, but I don't feel bad at all about leaving out a couple of their late career LPs, mostly because they were so unmemorable.

The Rolling Stones

Route 66
It's All Over Now
Not Fade Away
Sittin' on a Fence
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
Paint It Black
She's a Rainbow
Jumpin' Jack Flash
Gimme Shelter
No Expectations
Dear Doctor
Love in Vain
Honky Tonk Women
Brown Sugar
Tumbling Dice
Stop Breaking Down
Miss You
Some Girls
Shattered
Start Me Up
Mixed Emotions
Biggest Mistake
Like a Rolling Stone

The great thing with a band like this?  You could do another one and it might be just as good.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Summerflix, Part 2

Continuing the capsule reviews of the summer's films on Netflix:

3 Days to Kill - In his old(er) age, Kevin Costner definitely seems to have gotten his second wind.  A few years back the notion that he was once the nation's biggest box office draw seemed almost comical, but looking at him now it doesn't seem so unreasonable.  "Grizzled," I guess you could call him.  Not taking himself too seriously.  And in the process, making it all look pretty darn easy.  "3 Days to Kill" won't go down in the annals as an all-time classic, but it's a perfectly entertaining spy flick in the usual Luc Besson (who wrote the screenplay) mode.  McG is the director, and usually that's not a positive sign, but even though the premise teeters between unrealistic and laughable, a good time was had by all.  Hailee Steinfeld does the best she can in the role of the annoying daughter, which takes some doing, so I guess that means she proves that her performance in "True Grit" wasn't a fluke.  The Amber Heard character (who made me think of the old "Black Canary" comic book character) is a little hard to figure out (teetering between realism and outright absurdity), but that's almost to be expected in a film like this.

August: Osage County - I wasn't even sure if I really wanted to see this - the trailers just looked too painful.  And while the movie has more than its share of overwrought drama and melodrama, it is definitely worth seeing.  Meryl Streep was a little too much, but I thought Julia Roberts nailed it - which I think puts me at odds with most critics.  Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper are outstanding, Ewan McGregor is pretty much a non-entity, and Benedict Cumberbatch isn't really given enough to do.  Julianne Nicholson is particularly effective.  This is the kind of movie that makes one feel better about their own family dramas, and I can see where it wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no disputing the amount of talent doing good work for the cause.

Tim's Vermeer - Fascinating documentary directed by Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) about a guy (Tim) who creates a way to replicate a Vermeer painting (or more accurately, paint a painting in the style of Vermeer).   A little slow in parts, but always interesting.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - It's OK, but if this is the best they could do for a reboot, I'm not really sure it was worth the trouble.  I guess I expected more given that Kenneth Branagh directed (and plays the villain).

The Monuments Men - When the trailers for this first came out about a year ago, the movie was slated for release in the prestigious holiday period, which usually means the studio feels that it has an Oscar contender on its hands.  Then it was moved to February, and seeing it over the summer it's easy to understand why.  The premise is great and the movie is fine and the cast is sterling, but in the end it doesn't really add up to much.  It's OK, but I think everyone was expecting more than just OK.

The Spectacular Now - Well done movies with a focus on high schools students should be cherished, because they occur so infrequently.  This one succeeds, in no small part due to the terrific and believable performances from Miles Teller (who was so good in "Rabbit Hole") and Shailene Woodley (who was so good in "The Descendants").  The story is a bit of a cliche - hard-drinking, smart aleck boy meets down-to-earth smart girl and they try to make it work - but the strength of the story and the acting pulls it through.  We root for both of them, and we care about what happens to them.  And the movie doesn't cheat by pretending that they will live happily ever after - that is just one of many different possibilities.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The NFL and Ray Rice

"This is going to be a tough one, but there's a lot at stake here.  It seems to me that the NFL needs to make a clear statement that they're encouraging their players to behave and act as responsible human beings, and not simply like brute force giants trained for combat on the field."

I wrote that last November, after the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin workplace harassment scandal.

The fact that the NFL did the right thing in that instance makes their failure to do the right thing in the Ray Rice case even more unforgivable.  And the excuse ringing down from on high at NFL headquarters - that the most recent video wasn't made available to NFL "investigators" - just makes things worse.

Ray Rice dragged his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator.  And no one should forget that what was seen in the original video was deemed to be worthy of a two-game suspension. 

So what more did Roger Goodell really need to know/see?  What could possibly have happened in that elevator which would have made what Rice did subject to such a measly penalty?

No, it was only when confronted with a video that evoked memories of Joe Frazier sending a left hook to the jaw of Muhammad Ali that Goodell did "the right thing."  Just like a couple of weeks ago when he did "the right thing" by instituting stronger penalties for domestic violence violations.

But it was already too late to do the right thing.  And just like countless scandals before it, this one will be defined by the reaction of the party in authority as much as by the transgression itself.

I don't mind admitting that I love football.  And there's little doubt in my mind that the vast majority of men who play football are decent and hard working, and in many cases much more than that.  And this just makes me more pissed at the NFL and at Roger Goodell for screwing this up.

This ain't rocket science, Mr. Commissioner.  There's a place for due process, but there's also place for humanity in the game.  And none of the talk on ESPN right now about how you and the Ravens "did the right thing" is going to change that.

Your move.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Summerflix, Part 1

I knew it had been a while since I'd written one of these, but I didn't realize it had been that long.  This goes all the way back to Memorial Day, so let's consider this the summer review.

The Company You Keep - Solid, thoughtful thriller directed by and starring Robert Redford.  You could call it the flip side of "The Big Chill" - it's about a group of adults who, like the protagonists in Chill, were together at the University of Michigan during the late sixties.  But unlike their counterparts, the characters in "The Company You Keep" were deep into Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground, and after a bank robbery they organized left a security guard dead, they scattered across the country, trying to lead their lives while keeping the past dead and buried.

Redford plays Jim Grant, who has led a relatively quiet life in Albany, New York as a public interest lawyer.  But when one of his old friends (well played by Susan Sarandon) is captured, the peeling of the onion begins, and Grant is soon on the run trying to find his old comrades for reasons that don't become entirely clear (but are reasonably easy to guess) until late in the film.  He's got a hotshot reporter (they still make those?) on his trail, but Grant is smart, and hasn't gone undiscovered for as long as he has for no reason.

Redford is good, although I was distracted by the fact that he's about 10 years too old to play the role.  The cast overall is pretty spectacular, featuring some of the best character actors of our time - Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliot, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root - all of whom are good to excellent.  Shia LaBeouf doesn't ruin the movie as the young reporter, and Anna Kendrick is thrown in as an FBI agent for no particular reason.  But best of all is Julie Christie, who is terrific as the lone former radical who remains unapologetic and defiant.

One could argue that the ending is a little pat, but at the same time I think it's one that was earned.

Almost Famous - I can't believe I've never seen this before, given my well established obsessions with rock music and Rolling Stone magazine.  Directed by Cameron Crowe, it ostensibly tells his story, about how he came to write for the legendary magazine (back in the days when it was still creating the legend) when he was 15 years old.  It's entertaining, and the depictions of RS stalwarts like Jann S. Wenner, David Felton and Ben Fong-Torres are amusing (if inaccurate, if Greil Marcus is to be believed, and since he was there at the time, I believe him).  Seeing the late Philip Seymour Hoffman portray the late Lester Bangs is both funny and sad at the same time.  The depiction of the fictional band Stillwater is fine, especially in the scene when it appears they're all going down in a small plane and Billy Crudup starts singing "Peggy Sue" - which may have been the one time during the movie that I laughed out loud.  Where Crowe misfires are the elements of the story featuring his mother, which are a waste, and the elements featuring the groupies, which I'm pretty sure are an outright lie.  If not a lie, certainly inconsistent with an RS article he wrote in the mid-seventies where he spoke of "almost" being seduced after a concert - and opting to listen to Steely Dan instead.

Kill Your Darlings - Daniel Radcliffe is the star and does just fine as Allen Ginsberg, but after seeing this, it's pretty clear that Dane DeHaan is the actor.  It's hard to put your finger on it - he's certainly not what you would call classically handsome, but in both this and "Chronicle" (haven't seen the most recent Spider Man flick yet), he's the guy that draws your attention; the guy is who absolutely riveting from start to finish.  For those who don't know, this is based on a true story, when Ginsberg was at Columbia in the 1940s at the same time as William S. Burroughs (played in amusing fashion by Ben Foster) and Lucien Carr, the character played by DeHaan.  Suffice to say, their college years weren't quite like yours and mine, and certainly not like anything you saw in "Animal House."  It may be a little hard for some to relate to, but it's never less than fascinating.

Enough Said - Wow - a romantic comedy for adults where the characters act like real people?  Yes, such a thing still exists.  "Enough Said" is terrific entertainment, a movie that allows its characters to have their warts and all, and sometimes even embrace them.  Both Julia-Louis Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini are terrific, as are supporting characters like Catherine Keener and Toni Collette.  It really makes you sad for the loss of Gandolfini, because he clearly had the ability to do a lot more than Tony Soprano.  In this movie he wants to be with someone, but at the same time, he is what he is, and he's not sure how much he wants to change in order to make that happen.  Louis-Dreyfus is the perfect match for him, even if it does take the two a while to realize that (hey, it is a romantic comedy, after all).

In a World... - "Delightful" is the word that comes to mind.  Lake Bell pulls off the hat trick here by writing, directing and starring in the film, which is "about" the movie voice-over profession but could probably be applied to just about any offbeat entertainment industry function.  Even though there is plenty in the premise that is outrageous, it's another movie that feels populated by real people, complete with flaws and all.  The main story is about the competition between Carol, the voice coach played by Bell, for the right to be the voice artist on the trailer for an upcoming blockbuster film.  Of course, she's in competition for the role against her father, a legend in the business, and his protege, who is way more smug than any one human should be.  But there are other threads going on, one featuring Demetri Martin as a studio guy with a crush on Carol, and Carol's sister and her husband, played perfectly by Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry.  It's all good, and all fun.

12 Angry Men - I'm sure it's to my discredit that I've never seen this before.  Released in 1957, it regularly appears near the top of polls ranking the top movies of all time, and it's not hard to see why.  When you watch a film like this, you're almost overwhelmed (if not intimidated) by the history that surrounds it.  The director?  Sidney Lumet, just one of the greatest American directors of our time (naming just a few of his films - The Verdict, Prince of the City, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Fail-Safe).  The star?  Henry Fonda, just one of the greatest American actors of all time.  But just look at some of the rest of this cast:

Lee J. Cobb
Martin Balsam
E.G. Marshall
Jack Klugman
John Fiedler
Edward Binns
Jack Warden
Ed Begley
Robert Webber

Amazing.    The story is simple, these men are the 12 jurors in a murder trial, and nearly the entire film takes place in the jury room as they deliberate.  The first vote taken is 11-1 for conviction, and that's when things get interesting.  And not just in the story - interesting in how each actor approaches his role, and the methods and techniques they use to put their characters across.  It's film history.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

LP of the Week - "Traveling Wilburys, Volume One" (1988)

So what happens when a group of stars, superstars, and living legends decides to get together, work on a few tracks, have some fun and record an album?

One answer, and perhaps the best one, is "Traveling Wilburys, Volume One."  From first track to last, it's an absolute delight, without pretensions or any notion that the resulting work product was intended to be anything more than a bunch of really talented guys having fun and proving that you don't always have to serve up a plate of deep meaning with your rock 'n roll meal.

For those who weren't lucky enough to be there at the time, the Wilburys consisted of Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison.  Ably assisted by old session hands Jim Keltner, Jim Horn and Ray Cooper, the old codgers came up with 10 pop songs that at the time were as good as anything any of them had recorded in quite a while.

And that's nothing to sneeze at; let's just consider Dylan for a moment.  Over the course of the 1980s he'd released a series of albums that, while they contained some good songs, threatened to tarnish the legacy of a man who had long ago established his rightful place at the very top of the pantheon.  He comes in and records a couple of playful albums with the Wilburys ("Volume Two" was very good, but not quite at the level of the original), and the next thing you know, he's on the comeback trail, first with a couple of good electric LPs, followed by a couple of classic acoustic sets, and then a series of masterpieces as good as anything the man recorded during the height of his Sixties powers.  His "Congratulations" and "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" are probably the two best songs on the record, but more importantly, they are the songs on which Dylan seems to have rediscovered his sense of humor.  Whether "Tweeter" is an homage to Bruce Springsteen or just Dylan playfully making fun of him doesn't really matter; what's important is that he once again demonstrates the wordplay that...well, made him Bob Dylan.

But those are hardly the only good songs on the album.  Both "Handle With Care" and "Heading for the Light" are top-notch Harrison tunes, Orbison's "Not Alone Any More" is better than anything he recorded for his comeback album produced by Bono, and both Petty and Lynne contribute lightweight but immediately catchy and danceable tunes that are akin to the icing on the cake.

It won't likely go down as the best thing that any of them ever recorded, but what the heck - every now and then, boys just want to have fun.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Charles M. Young

So I make a reference to Charles M. Young in a piece that I write on Sunday, and two days later I find out that he's died of a brain tumor.  Sometimes life is that way.

For those not familiar with the name, Charles M. Young wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine during a difficult era for the historic periodical.  He joined the staff in 1976, and was gone by the end of 1980.  During that time, RS moved from San Francisco to New York, and I'm sure there are those who would argue that it was never the same after that.  It engaged in a lengthy and sometimes humorous feud with The Eagles, and began the slow (well, maybe not that slow) metamorphosis from being on the cutting edge of rock criticism and coverage to becoming a part of - if not the - establishment on those matters.  During this period the logo changed, the size of the magazine changed, and with the first issue after Young departed, even the type of paper changed.  Even worse, Jann Wenner did things like castigate his own critics in print for reviews he didn't agree with, taking on the likes of Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus and Paul Nelson (you know, just three of the most notable critics in the history of rock criticism) for their views on the latest works of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.  By the time Dylan's "Slow Train Coming" (an album that I've heard exactly zero people suggest is among his best) came along, Wenner wasn't going to take any chances - he just wrote the rave review himself.

Young may not have been quite of the stature of a Marsh, Marcus or Nelson, but he was certainly consistent with the spirit of their writing.  He was less interested in the works of an established artist (although he loved many) than he was in seeking out something new - whether it be the Sex Pistols, The Police, Television, or anything in between.  It's a cliche, but he was a breath of fresh air during a time when the magazine couldn't quite figure out what it cared about.

You can read a lovely piece about Young here by one of his colleagues and friends, David Felton - another great name from the RS annals.

Or, you can just read some of the stuff he wrote for Rolling Stone: everything from Kiss and Cheap Trick to the Sex Pistols to The Who and Van Halen.

A great excerpt - the lead paragraph from his review of Led Zeppelin's "In Through the Out Door."

Hearing John Bonham play the drums is the aural equivalent of watching Clint Eastwood club eight bad guys over the head with a two-by-four while driving a derailed locomotive through their hideout. Either you are horrified by all that blood on the floor, or you wish you could do it yourself. No one's ever going to accuse Bonham of subtlety, but everyone should give him credit for consistency. Even on Led Zeppelin's worst effort (Houses of the Holy), he flails with so much exuberance that I find myself hoping that thugs from strange foreign countries will attack me on the street so I can play "Moby Dick" on their strange foreign heads.

R.I.P.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

LP of the Week - "Reggata de Blanc," The Police (1979)

The year "Reggatta de Blanc" came out, Charles M. Young included it in his list of favorite albums of the year in Rolling Stone's end of year issue.  In his notes he made a comment along the lines of it, even more than the band's debut album, demonstrating why the band had staying power and was destined to be around for a long, long time.  At the time, demonstrating that you're never quite as smart as you think you are when you're 19 years old, I strongly disagreed with that assessment, and out of pique (if nothing else) filed the album away, where it sat for many years, not unlistened to but certainly less so than the band's other four LPs.

Fast forward to 2007, when the Virgin Megastore (remember those?) in San Francisco was doing a dump of CD Box Sets for ridiculously low prices, and with a bunch of birthday cash burning a hole in my pocket I decided to pick up "Message in a Box," which includes every song from all five Police albums, plus a handful of alternate takes, unreleased songs, and live recordings.  Listening to it for a while, a couple of things became crystal clear - one, the band never got enough credit while they were still a band (perhaps because of the bleached blonde marketing campaign for their first two records), and two, not only was "Regatta de Blanc" their best and most consistent album, but it was their best by quite a margin.  So Charles M. Young, I apologize - I'm sure you've been agonizing for years over this petty disagreement.

On "Reggatta de Blanc,"the band refines and perfects the formula they established on the first album - "new wave rock tinged with the beats and rhythms of reggae," I guess you could call it, while avoiding completely the calculations and pretensions that would dog the later albums and keep them from achieving classic status.  From "Message in a Bottle" to "Walking on the Moon" to "The Bed's Too Big Without You" to "Bring on the Night" to "Does Everyone Stare" (and I could go on, but you get the point), "Reggata de Blanc" is classic song after classic song.  Frankly, I don't know what the hell I was thinking back in 1979.  But then again, for a while I thought The Knack was a great band, a notion that I will neither deny nor defend.

You really can't go wrong with any Police albums, although in the end "Synchronicity" (outside of "Every Breath You Take," their greatest song) is really overwhelmed by a sense of self-importance.  But even though it took me nearly 30 years to realize it, "Reggatta de Blanc" is their best album.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

8 Years

8 years ago, I posted the first entry on this blog.  3008 posts later, here we are.

Son #1 had just finished his freshman year in high school, and now he is a college graduate working and living away from home.

Son #2 had just finished 6th grade, and now he is about to begin his junior year at San Diego State University.

8 years ago in August, I was in a job that I loved and thought I just might retire from.  Then, stuff happened and now I'm in a job that at that time, I would never have dreamed that I'd have.  I've learned a lot since then, including that you just never know where time and life will lead you.

I wish I had more time to write here, but hopefully what I write and post here brings enjoyment to some.  Worst case scenario?  It helps keep me sane.

And who knows what the next 8 years have in store.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams

When I first heard the news that Robin Williams was dead, the immediate feeling was very close to what I felt upon hearing of Elvis Presley's death, almost 37 years ago now.  It was a punch in the gut.  It was an immediate sadness that went far beyond what one feels when a beloved public figure dies at an advanced age.  In the cases of both Williams and Presley, we're talking about someone who was beloved by so many, but also someone who was gone much too early.  Another example would be John Lennon.  It's the kind of death where you remember exactly what you were doing at the moment you heard about it, for the rest of your own life.

You can tell a death has had a major public impact when someone you barely knows wants to talk to you about it.  In August 1977, it was the young guy who washed my car windows (remember when they did that?) as I filled my tank on the way to work.  Earlier this week, it was the security guard in our building.  "Did you hear about...?"  A stunned, hurt quality to the conversation.  That's what it felt like when Elvis Presley died, and that's what it felt like when news of Robin Williams' death spread like wildfire on Monday afternoon.  

And if anything, the emotional impact has only grown over the past two days.  The confirmation that this was a death by suicide, coupled with the stories and information about the severe depression that Williams had fought for so long have added to the sense of tragedy, and made what was already sad almost unbearable.  Williams (and Presley and Lennon before him) was larger than life in a way that few outside the entertainment world can achieve, and so immensely popular that it was tempting for us to think that we knew him - that the performer we saw on Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Mork & Mindy, and his many other television appearances and films was the man. When someone achieves that level of popularity it's also tempting for many to think that he/she belongs to us, which sadly seems to lead to the type of inappropriate and thoughtless comments that we've seen from some in the media and from too many on social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.

A death such as that suffered by Robin Williams is frightening.  We think about the daily pressures and stress that are a part of our own lives, and the coping mechanisms that we employ.  We may think we have it hard, and sometimes maybe we do.  And when thinking about our own difficulties, it's hard to wrap one's head around the concept of a level of depression so deep and severe that death seems like a preferable alternative to living, to the person who is suffering.  So it is heartening that so many are using this tragedy to educate and help others who are suffering from a similar affliction.  The more we know, the more that we can help others.

Many wonderful things have been written about the career accomplishments of Robin Williams, and it would be impossible to link to them all.  I'll settle for linking to pieces written by four of my personal favorites:

R.I.P. Robin Williams, by Sheila O'Malley.  O'Malley is one of the very best writers around at getting to the core of what makes a performer successful.  Her pieces about actors and acting are always insightful, and her pieces about Elvis Presley should really be compiled in book form.  This might strike some as heresy, but the things she's written about Presley rival the work of Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh about the same subject.  She's also great on an endless number of topics.

The TV Legacy of the Late, Great Robin Williams, by Alan Sepinwall.  When I read his work for the first time, Alan Sepinwall was in college and writing weekly reviews of "NYPD Blue" on this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web.  Upon graduation he became the television critic for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and is now a TV critic for HitFix.com.  I have no idea how you objectively measure such a thing, but at least among the people I read, he is one of the country's most-read and respected TV critics.

A Constant Quality: Robin Williams, by Matt Zoller Seitz.  Reading Sepinwall led me to Matt Zoller Seitz, his partner-in-crime at the Star-Ledger.  He is now the Editor in Chief of RogerEbert.com, where he writes frequently about film and television.

My thoughts on Robin Williams, by Ken Levine.  Ken Levine (with his partner David Isaacs) has written for two of the landmark comedy series in television history, M*A*S*H and Cheers.  He was then a baseball announcer.  In other words, he's pretty much living the life that I live in my wildest dreams.  In this piece, he imagines what Robin might have liked his own funeral to look like.  The piece also includes a link to Levine's earlier piece about performing an Improv piece with Williams.  Wrap your head around that for a moment.

Not every performance by Robin Williams was perfect.  But more than enough of them were great.  And thanks to the Internet and YouTube, there is a rich history of his talk show appearances, where he was almost always beyond brilliant.  When considering his place in history, those appearances have to count for something.  My own personal favorites?  The Birdcage.  Aladdin.  "Bop Gun," an episode of  Homicide: Life on the Street.  And, Good Will Hunting.

Farewell.  May he now find the peace that eluded him in life.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Valhalla Rising

No one is ever going to mistake Valhalla for Augusta, Pinehurst No. 2 or Royal Liverpool (Hoylake), the sites of the year's first three major golf tournaments, but sooner or later people are going to have to admit that Valhalla has carved its way into the history books simply because of the dramatic events it has hosted.  First there was the 1996 PGA Championship which ended in playoff; then the 2000 PGA which featured the historic duel between Tiger Woods and Bob May; which was followed by the 2008 Ryder Cup that saw the prohibitive underdog American team pull off an unlikely victory; and following that up today with what was probably the best of them all, a dramatic 2014 PGA Championship that saw Rory McIlroy prevail under unique and historic circumstances, beating the clock against the dark and barely holding on in the end when it looked like Phil Mickelson was going to pull off one of the most miraculous shots in the history of major championship play.

It was a long and great day of golf, and kudos are due not just to the players but to those working the course who somehow managed to help it recover from a 45-minute drenching that left the bunkers looking like ponds, the greens like rivers and the fairways like lakes.  Or maybe the biggest congratulations are due to whomever designed the course's drainage system.  In any event, it certainly didn't seem likely when CBS went on the air at 11 a.m. PST that there was any chance that the tournament would end on Sunday.  But end it did, if only because the final pair was allowed to play up on their tee shots and approach shots as the penultimate pair (Mickelson and Fowler) struggled to pull of the miracle that would tie McIlroy.  It was not to be, and Rory is quite clearly the King.

Some thoughts on the season that heads to a playoff season that ultimately means nothing, because at this point we all know who the world's best golfer is - and right now, there's a huge gap between McIlroy and #2, and that will remain the case regardless of who captures the Fed Ex cup or whatever they're calling it these days.

- Tiger Woods is not finished.  His bid to pass Jack Nicklaus is probably over, but I'd be shocked if he doesn't pull at least one more major out of his hat.

- Before we anoint Rory as the next Jack-slayer, let's see how the beginning of 2015 plays out.  We got spoiled by Tiger's relentless and consistent brilliance over the course of a decade, but we've already seen that McIlroy is prone to slumps.  And winning major tournaments is hard - just ask Phil Mickelson - or better yet, Sergio Garcia.

- Kudos to Rickie Fowler, who won an award that doesn't really exist by turning in the lowest composite score in this year's majors.  A 5th at the Masters, a T-2 at the U.S. Open and the Open, and a 4th at the PGA is nothing to sneeze at.  But as Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie can attest, it's majors that separate the very good from the great.  Fowler is only 25, and is one cool, classy customer.  It would be easy to say that he's going to win several.  Just like Sergio, Colin and Luke Donald were going to.

- Get your shit together, Bubba Watson.  Maybe watch the tape of Fowler's round, or buy one of Wil Wheaton's "Don't Be a Dick" t-shirts and pin it to your ceiling.  But whatever you do, it's time to start to acting like a major winner.

- Could the U.S. team be any bigger underdogs going into the Ryder Cup than they are this year?  Which is good - they can go over there feeling like they have nothing to lose (because they don't), with Captain Tom on their side convincing them (but not in public, please) that they are the 12 best golfers in the world.  I'll still be surprised if they win, but I won't be shocked.

"Tarpaper Sky" - Rodney Crowell hits one out of the park

When Jack Gallagher invited me to be a guest on his and Tommy Dunbar's "5 Songs" podcast last year, I made the comment that "the best song ever written is still out there, somewhere."  For me, that's what has always made music so exciting - there's just so damn much of it, and you just never know where your passion might take you.  While exciting, it's also a bit scary, because at the end of the day there's just too much music - you can't ever hope but to scratch the surface.  And if you're like me (and you probably aren't, and that's probably a good thing), there's always a nagging worry at the back of your mind that you have to be missing something.

On Friday, I was perusing a Rolling Stone article that they had posted on their Facebook page, something along the lines of "the 26 best albums you probably haven't heard in 2014."  Immediately, I was thinking "oh shit, here we go again."  I got out my pen and paper, wrote down a few that sounded interesting, and a couple that screamed "oh man, how did I miss that?"  And on Saturday, I trekked down to the local record store, where I was able to find one that fell into the latter category - "Tarpaper Sky," the latest release from Rodney Crowell.  I haven't bought a lot of Crowell over the years, but it's not as if I don't know who he is, and some of the great songs he's written in the past.  And I really enjoyed his duet album last year with Emmylou Harris, and there's no denying that "When the Master Calls the Roll," the song he co-wrote with (ex-wife) Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal for her album "The River & the Thread," is a masterpiece - one of the best songs in recent memory.

But I have to admit that nothing prepared me for how good an album "Tarpaper Sky" would be. After years of having learned my lesson I've tried to shy away from making spur of the moment pronouncements, but this just might end up being my favorite album of the year - and it will almost certainly end up in the top five.  On "Tarpaper Sky" Crowell shows his prowess as both a performer and a songwriter; there isn't a song on the album that doesn't contain at least one musical or lyrical delight.  There's even a song dedicated to John Denver ("Oh What a Beautiful World") that manages to be sentimental without being corny, and gets to the essence of what made Denver such an appealing performer to so many.

Like Patty Griffin, Crowell made his name as a songwriter before he hit it big as a singer and bandleader, and his skill with the pen is evident throughout "Tarpaper Sky," as he demonstrates a way with words that rivals someone like Elvis Costello or Hal David.  Some examples:

You're every curled rosebud
Enchanting my eye
Each turned up coat collar
And your gaze slides by
There's a sanded down moon
In a tarpaper sky
God I'm missing you

"God I'm Missing You"

Has anybody seen her now?
Pray tell me what you hear
'Cause I just can't get over
How she shed me like a tear

"Somebody's Shadow"

You tore through my life like a tornado looking
for a trailer park
We met on a Monday, here it is Sunday
It happened so fast, they said it wouldn't last
Yeah, but what do they know?
Why can't they say so now?

"Frankie Please"

It's great stuff.  And here's hoping that the RS article helps a few others discover it.