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

Saturday, September 10, 2016

American Songs, Day 6 - "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," Lucinda Williams

I can remember the details of my grandmother’s house (mother’s side) as if I had walked through it yesterday. Located in Sutter, at the foot of the Sutter Buttes, the house was built shortly after World War II. Grandma lived there until 1973, when a break-in spooked her (and everyone else), and she moved to Sacramento to be closer to the rest of the family.

You walked in the front door, and you immediately found yourself in what passed for the “family room.” That’s where the TV was, as well as a couch and a couple of chairs (I recall a recliner that was pretty comfortable). Just off of that room was one of the bedrooms – the one that included a swamp cooler. Like Sacramento, Sutter is very hot in the summer, but unlike Sacramento, the legendary “delta breezes” that result in so many pleasant summer evenings are almost entirely absent. In the summer of 1972, my dad, brothers and I spent a memorable evening there (“memorable” for all the wrong reasons) where the low temperature was 93 degrees (the high had been 117).

Past the family room was the dining room. You walked past a china cabinet (which was painted pink, but now resides in its restored glory at my parents’ house), and as soon as you went by, the cabinet began to shake, to the point where at any moment you expected one of the plates or cups to fall out onto the floor. There was also a bedroom attached to this room.

Next was the kitchen, not large but definitely one from which a lot of delicious food originated. My grandma was a great cook, and to this day I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted better fried chicken gravy. No one would make a claim that it was good for you, but damn it was good.

And then you walked through a small corridor, to which the bathroom was attached. The less said about the bathroom, the better. The shower was so small that you could injure your elbows just washing yourself, and the plumbing system…as I said, the less said the better.

And finally, there was a small room at the back of the house that had to be an add-on. There was a bed there, but what I remember most about this room was discovering an old stack of TIME Magazines from 1960, and spending the good portion of a day reading about the 1960 Presidential election. Very cool stuff.

The room my brothers and I slept in was the middle bedroom, and given the weather conditions you almost always had to sleep with the window open. Next to that side of the house was an unpaved road, and most evenings there would be steady traffic – although I’m not sure where those cars were going. But crystal clear in my mind is the sound that you would hear as you lay in the bed, usually too warm to sleep but hoping that sleep would eventually come.

The sound of car wheels on a gravel road.

Friday, September 09, 2016

American Songs, Day 5 - "In My Room," The Beach Boys

This probably isn't the most obvious choice for a Beach Boys song, but it always resonated with me.  Gary Usher, who co-wrote the song with Brian Wilson, has been quoted as saying, "Brian was always saying that his room was his whole world."  I doubt that I'm the only kid who felt the same way when he was growing up.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

American Songs, Day 4 - "Winter in America," Gil Scott-Heron

The late Gil Scott-Heron was a tragic figure, but more importantly, a great artist who was well ahead of his time.  Listening to his early to mid-1970s work today leaves the listener almost breathless - while Scott-Heron was addressing the social issues of the day, the lessons he sought to teach can be applied just as effectively today.

"Winter in America" is by no means a happy song; it is a song about unrealized potential.  The fact that Scott-Heron points out the flaws in this country does not means that he hates this country - just that he thinks it could be much better.

It's a song of great pain, a song with numerous lyrics that could be quoted.  But I think this is my favorite verse:

The Constitution
A noble piece of paper
With free society
Struggled but it died in vain
And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner
Hoping for some rain
Looks like it's hoping
Hoping for some rain

Not a happy song.  But a great song.  And a song that gives the lie to the notion that great art can't make an effective political statement.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

American Songs, Day 3 - "Lookin' Out My Back Door"

I've got absolutely no hesitation in calling Creedence Clearwater Revival the greatest American rock 'n roll band of all time.  But what sometimes gets lost in consideration of their work is how dark much of it was.  Sure, they're tunes that will absolutely get you running out on the dance floor, but give a close listen sometime to the lyrics of "Bad Moon Rising" or "Green River."

No such worries with "Lookin' Out My Back Door."  Just John Fogerty, sitting out on the back porch, listenin' to Buck Owens, on a "dinosaur Victrola."  I can see him now...



Tuesday, September 06, 2016

American Songs, Day 2 - "Across the Border," Bruce Springsteen



For what are we
Without hope in our hearts
That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters

And eat the fruit from the vine
I know that love and fortune will be mine
Somewhere across the border

Monday, September 05, 2016

American Songs, Day 1

Including today, there are 65 days until Election Day. 65 days when we will, no doubt, be subjected to a level of venom that is enough to make even the most die-hard political junkie wish they could close their eyes and make it all go away.
So for the next 65 days, this will be my effort to provide a little bit of alternative programming (I'm "cross posting" this on my Facebook page as well as here on the blog). "American Songs" - a song each day, one that is either about American, makes a statement about America, or just evokes America. Some of them will tell a positive tale, others will not. On some songs I may comment on their meaning; on others I will let the message speak for itself. Overall, I'm confident in saying that together, these 65 songs have more wisdom to offer than this year's presidential candidates.
The project begins with Brad Paisley's "Welcome to the Future," a song that I've loved since the first time I heard it.