Monday, July 30, 2007

Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh, who died today after a long battle with leukemia, was the most important figure in the history of the San Francisco 49ers football franchise. Until the arrival of Walsh in 1979, the 49ers had never achieved anything beyond sporadic success, and were probably best known for ending up on the short end of two of the greatest NFL playoff collapses in the history of the league - against Detroit in 1957, and Dallas in 1972.

A decade later, the 49ers were the consensus choice for team of the decade, and had reached a level of consistent, sustained excellence that few teams of any era have matched.

San Francisco was lucky to get Walsh. When Paul Brown stepped down as coach of the Cincinnati Bengals following the 1976 season, his choices as successor were Walsh, who had been his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, and Bill Johnson, who had been the team's line coach. In what was the probably the worst decision he ever made, Brown went with Johnson, who lasted less than two seasons.

His treatment at the hands of the legendary Brown was a source of longtime resentment for Walsh, who once commented, "all the way through I had opportunities, and I never knew about them. And then when I left him, he called whoever he thought was necessary to keep me out of the NFL." Considering that Walsh had developed one of the most innovative offensive schemes the league had seen, it's difficult to understand what motivated Brown to work against him in this regard. There's a story there, but I have no idea what it is.

Following a season as an assistant with the San Diego Chargers and two successful seasons coaching Stanford, Walsh was tabbed by 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo as the man who would finally lead the 49ers to the promised land. At the time, DeBartolo was considered somewhat of a buffoon as an owner; Walsh was the Niners' fifth coach in a period of roughly four years. After a 2-14 inaugural season, fans couldn't be blamed for wondering if Walsh was just another flash in the pan. But DeBartolo wisely showed patience, and after a 6-10 season in 1980, Walsh's 1979 third round draft pick, Joe Montana, led the 1981 49ers to their first Super Bowl championship, in what was one of the more remarkable seasons in the league's history. The 49ers succeeded that year despite having virtually no running game. Thanks to the brilliance of Montana and the genius of Walsh's scheme, which in essence created a "horizontal" passing game that was just as, if not more effective than a solid running game, it didn't matter. It may have been a fluke, but it was a glorious fluke.

After a hiccup during the strike-shortened season of 1982, the Niners made the playoffs during every one of Walsh's remaining years, and won two more Super Bowls.

Where Walsh will fall in the NFL coaching pantheon is a subject for lively debate, but that he will end up near the top is a given. He was a true offensive innovator, and a remarkable judge of talent. It is notable that of the 49ers superstars, only Ronnie Lott from USC truly came into the league as a "sure thing." Just on the offensive side of the ball, Joe Montana was considered too small and too frail, few had heard of Dwight Clark, Roger Craig had spent his college career at Nebraska blocking, and Jerry Rice was hardly a household name. The list goes on and on.

Walsh was also expert at identifying exactly the point at which holding on to a player would result in diminishing returns; this could be painful if you were a fan of a particular player, but rarely was Walsh incorrect - the only gaffe in this regard was Lott, who went on to play outstanding football for several seasons.

Of the coaches during the time I've actively watched pro football (say, 1970 on) on, the only ones I would clearly put in the Walsh category are Tom Landry, Don Shula, Joe Gibbs, and Bill Belichick. Pretty heady territory. In any event, the stature of Walsh is secure - he will be long remembered as one of the all-time greats.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

The 50th Anniversary Music Project (Status Report)

As previously reported, I've spent much of the year compiling a collection of popular (and semi-popular) music released over the past fifty years, as a gift for my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary. It's been a ton of work, but it's also been a ton of fun - figuring out what to put on, what to leave off, searching for songs on CD that I previously owned only on vinyl, and finding songs that I've never owned, but ones that played a key role in various parts of family history.

Music has always been one of my obsessions, and my brothers and I listened to a lot of different stuff as we were growing up. Some of it was great, and some of it was dreck. The goal of the project was to create a compilation that was true to that history, but also true to the history of rock and roll itself - in other words, good stuff.

The anniversary is now less than a month away, and now I'm in the process of putting liner notes together, including my own thoughts on many of the songs, as well as classic writing about them from such critical luminaries as Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Paul Nelson, Lester Bangs, and others.

In the meantime, over the next few weeks I'll write a bit about each of the sections within the compilation. Without further ado...

I. Have You Heard The News? There’s Good Rockin’ Tonight

Jailhouse Rock, Elvis Presley
Whole Lotta ShakinGoin’ On, Jerry Lee Lewis
School Day, Chuck Berry
That’ll Be The Day, Buddy Holly
Wake Up Little Susie, The Everly Brothers
At The Hop, Danny and the Juniors
Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochran
Chantilly Lace, The Big Bopper
Peggy Sue, Buddy Holly
Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry
Great Balls of Fire, Jerry Lee Lewis
All Shook Up, Elvis Presley
Good Golly Miss Molly, Little Richard
Do Ya Wanna Dance, Bobby Freeman
Ain’t That A Shame, Fats Domino
The Girl Can’t Help It, Little Richard
I Only Have Eyes For You, The Flamingos
Rave On, Buddy Holly
Tequila, The Champs

The most difficult part of this section was keeping it to a manageable size; in an early draft it was nearly twice as long. Most of the songs here are fairly obvious choices, but obviously any collection of this type has to include the titans: Elvis, Buddy, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. The other songs are classics in their own right, with several of them appearing on the soundtrack of one of my parents' favorite movies, American Graffiti.

When looking for some of the songs to put this section together, I was lucky enough to find a 5-year collection of Billboard #1 hits covering 1957-61, and a used copy of the soundtrack from the aforementioned American Graffiti. As it was on many other occasions, the used section of Dimple Records in Elk Grove was a Godsend.

Harry Potter!

OK, so the kids are finished with the book, and now it's my turn.

On Tuesday night, I managed to make it to Page 8. Last night, I finished the first chapter. If my math is correct, at this pace I will complete the book on November 3.

This is not at all a reflection on the book itself, but definitely an indication that I've been staying up too late watching too many episodes of CSI.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Carnoustie Strikes Again

It looks so peaceful; so tranquil - the Barry Burn that winds through the 18th fairway (and elsewhere) on the Carnoustie Golf Links. After today, there can be little doubt that its status as legend in the golfing world is secure, and that the 18th hole can safely be considered among the most terrifying closing holes in major championship golf.

Unlike Jean Van de Velde in 1999, Padraig Harrington was conquered by the Burn, but lived to tell the tale. Harrington even went one step beyond Van de Velde - when a simple bogey would have meant victory, he hit into the burn twice. And it may come to be regarded as one of the greatest double-bogeys of all time, because it was just enough to get him into the 4-hole playoff against Sergio Garcia. This time, again faced with a situation where bogey would mean victory (absent a birdie from the suddenly erratic Garcia), Harrington played it as safe as a man possibly could, grabbed his 5, and walked away with the Claret Jug.

This could have been a breakthrough win for Garcia, but for now he remains the holder of the least coveted title in the sport - best player never to have won a major. Going into Sunday, this tournament was his to lose, and he lost it. It was not a "choke" in the Greg Norman/1996 Masters sense, but neither was it a round of distinction. He's only 29, with a lot of golf left in him, but in his press conference it was painfully clear that he was absolutely crushed. This one would have meant a lot, coming at the same tournament where his friend and mentor Seve Ballesteros announced that he was hanging it up for good. I still think Garcia will win multiple majors, but this loss may set him back for a while.

As for Tiger, this had to qualify as only a fair effort - 6 strokes behind, T12. When your standards are as high as his, a season without a major victory is a failure, plain and simple. Which is why it would not be wise to bet against him in three weeks at Southern Hills.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Warren Zevon: "Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money"

Burt Stein (friend, "babysitter," companion for Warren while on tour):

Joe Smith [chair of Asylum Records] came to me and said, "We think Warren needs a little break. He's talking about Hawaii. How would you like to go with him?" Warren and I were pretty close, and if anybody from the record company was going anywhere with him, it was usually me.

We settled in and our pattern was that I would go to sleep at a normal time. Warren would sit on the balcony 'til all hours of the morning reading Raymond Chandler novels, sipping Stolichnaya. I'd get up in the morning and invariably he was ready to carry on. It would be time for breakfast, and Warren would stop at the refrigerator, and he'd say, "I can't eat on an empty stomach." He'd down a little more vodka and we'd go have breakfast.

Of course, every afternoon we spent hours in the cocktail lounge - to the point where Warren got friendly with the waitress. One day he says, "A friend of the waitress has a cabin up in the mountains. She's off tomorrow and she'll take us there. We can get a little mountain experience." The three of us get in my rental car. We're going to spend the night up in the mountains and come back the next day. So, we're driving through a sugarcane field and Warren's sitting next to me. The girl is in the backseat. I ask how long before we get up there. She says, "Oh, ninety minutes." She goes on to say, "I'm sure my friend won't mind if we break in." I say, "Oh, shit. Warren, I can see it now. A telegram to Joe Smith: "Dear Joe, please send lawyers and money." And, Warren says, "Joe, send lawyers, guns and money." And then I say, "Warren, we're not going up there." He says, "You're right. Back to the bar." So, we went back to the cocktail lounge. On two cocktail napkins, he wrote "Lawyers, Guns and Money."

Lawyers, Guns and Money

Well, I went home with the waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know
She was with the Russians, too

I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this

I'm the innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between the rock and the hard place
And I'm down on my luck
And I'm down on my luck
And I'm down on my luck

Now I'm hiding in Honduras
I'm a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns and money
The shit has hit the fan

- Warren Zevon



Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ah, Those Were The Days

A most excellent addition to the "Best Game I've Ever Seen" series on SI.Com by Peter King.

For fans of the San Francisco 49ers, those were indeed the days. In his piece King makes reference to the team's incredible road record during that era. I lived and died with them back then (still do now, but it's mostly been the latter in recent years), and remember that from the point that they were 6-5 during the 1988 season to the game when the Montana era came to an end (not officially, but for all practical purposes), the January 1991 NFC Championship game against the New York Giants, the 49ers record was 39-5, with none of those losses coming on the road. One of the more impressive, if esoteric, records of the modern NFL era.

I remember exactly where I was as the 49ers-Eagles game that King writes about was taking place. My wife, parents and I were driving from Sacramento to nearby Woodland to attend a birthday party for my grandmother. We heard the entire 4th quarter on the radio, as called by Joe Starkey. For those of you not familiar with Starkey, he also handles the play-by-play for the California Golden Bears, and is the man who called one of the most famous football plays in history - Cal's five-lateral, last-play kickoff return for a touchdown through the Stanford band in 1982's Big Game ("The band is out on the field! The band is out on the field! He's going into the end zone! He's going into the end zone! Will it count?). Starkey, you could say, tends to be on the excitable side, so as you can imagine, listening to the game live was probably more fun than it would have been to watch it live.

And the icing on the cake was when we arrived at the restaurant at the same time as several other family members, who had given up and turned the radio off. Shame on them!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The English Only Series of Poker?

This is interesting (from the WSOP tournament update page):

Juan Fernadezi, currently sitting at table 6, has just been warned to follow the rules. The floor staff was called over because Fernadezi was speaking in Spanish during hands. "This is an English-only game. You have to be able to speak English in order to play here. If you can't, you can talk only when the dealer is shuffling," was the warning issued to Juan. He's been told he will receive penalties if he continues to speak in Spanish, even when the table tried to inform the floor staff that he can't speak any English. The players at the table, seemingly disappointed by the ruling, were getting along quite well before the ruling came down. The table has been playing in almost complete silence since the warning was issued. As an interesting aside, we have had two blind players play in the Main Event who were allowed assistants to sit behind them and whisper their hole cards, as well as the action around the table, into their ear.

I can't imagine what difference it makes what language someone is speaking while playing poker...and why did it take until Day 3 of the tournament for this to become an "issue?"

"Tootsie" 25 Years On

Continuing to enjoy the benefits of free movies offered by Comcast’s On Demand, we watched “Tootsie” the other night, taking a break from what seems to have become a summer-long marathon of SVU and CSI. It was the first time the kids have seen it, and after a slow start – When is it going to get funny?, asked son #2 – they really enjoyed it and laughed at all the right times.

It’s hard to believe that the movie is coming up on its 25th anniversary. It had been a long time since I’d seen it, but it’s held up really well. Dustin Hoffman is not my favorite actor – in too many of his roles, he seems to be crying out, a la Master Thespian, Look at me! I’m ACTING! – but he was great in this role, both as Dorothy Michaels and Michael Dorsey. I get the feeling that Hoffman is just like Michael Dorsey in real life, so the bits with the acting lessons and the scenes with his agent worked perfectly. Interestingly, the romance scenes with Jessica Lange are probably the weakest link in the movie. Lange was fine, but the performance didn’t strike me as anything that dozens of other actresses couldn’t have pulled off.

Other quick hits:

- Bill Murray was absolutely brilliant. I remember reading somewhere that the scenes with Michael and Jeff were written at the last moment by Elaine May; in any event, every one of them is spot on perfect.

- Great performances by the crew of reliable character actors – Charles Durning, Dabney Coleman, and George Gaynes. And I can’t believe (assuming IMDB is correct) that all three are still alive.

- Sydney Pollack as Michael’s agent? Perfect.

- How many times did Teri Garr play the thankless “faithful, weird friend who gets jilted in the end” role during this stage of her career? And…anyone remember her as the “wacky secretary” in the Star Trek episode with Gary Seven?

- The music and songs by Stephen Bishop damn near ruined the movie for me. Dreadful.

Overall, I’m surprised to see that the movie rates so low on IMBD. I’d certainly rank it in my all-time top 100.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Warren Zevon: "A Limited Instrument As A Singer"

Jackson Browne:

"...There's a vast catalog of great songs that bear the stamp of Warren's writing voice and his point of view and his personality and the depth of his character that don't have to be done the way he did them. He had a limited instrument as a singer. But if you love those songs, they're inseparable from the guy who wrote them no matter who sings them. And yet, I always bore allegiance to hearing the writer sing his songs. That kind of flies in the face of the music business."

Now That's A Bad Beat

From an AP report on poker legend Doyle Brunson being bounced from the Main Event of this year's World Series of Poker:

“It hurts of course,” said Brunson, shortly after busting out on the first day of play Friday, when his two pair of aces and queens was beaten by three queens. “It’s the prestige of these tournaments, particularly this one, that everybody’s concerned with. Everyone’s trying to win bracelets a lot more than money.”

Hmmm...five queens, eh? Sounds like something straight out of The Sting.

Only in Sacramento

From this morning's Capitol Morning Report, under Press Conferences:

Actor Jon Provost, who played Timmie on the Lassie Show; with Lassie, a "9th generation descendant of the popular and beloved canine;" oppose AB 1634 (Levine), says its spaying and neutering regulations would "eliminate service dogs like Lassie and her lineage." 2 p.m., office of Sen. George Runner, Rm. 5097.

Oh's events like this that make me miss working in and around the Legislature.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Gored by Simon

Roger L. Simon has some harsh words for the Gores, in response to the brouhaha over Gore fils:

...In this case I have plenty of sympathy for the son and absolutely none for the father and mother. They both have been lecturing us for decades - first about nasty music lyrics and now about the environment. It's all the same really, because it does not come from a place of truth. It comes from a place of pomposity. And that's what makes a lousy parent. Someone who is holier than thou but a fake. The boy in the speeding Prius was calling for help. Will his father hear him - or is he too busy saving the world?

If I were Al Gore, I'd retire from public life forthwith. But I'm not Al Gore. I do, however, know what it is like to be a father and a son. I have failed often enough at both to have a sense of how much more difficult they almost always are than being a pontificating politician. My personal reaction to Gore has always been to run the other way from his opinions. I was far more concerned about global warming before he started his crusade. The more I heard his preachings, the more I doubted him. I wonder if his son, deep down, feels the same way. Poor guy.

For my own part, I admit to a healthy skepticism about the prospect of a Gore candidacy. On the one hand, he may very well end up being the best option - neither Hilary nor Obama have provided much inspiration on the Democratic side, and I just don't know if I could bring myself to vote for either Giuliani or Romney. On the other hand, everything about Gore's crusade on global warming strikes me as the worst sort of opportunism. I haven't seen "the movie," but there was something about the entire spectacle of the 7/7/07 concerts that made my skin crawl. Which is not to say that global warming is not an important issue. But please, dear God, can't one candidate talk about a long-term view on how to approach the Middle East and the spectre of global terrorism? Yeah, those are tough issues. But the "I'll deal with that when I get elected; in the meantime, go out and buy a Prius" approach doesn't quite cut it.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

One Last Shot of Contempt From Barry Bonds

I've been a San Francisco Giants fan for most of my life, and for all of my adult life. Over the years, I have argued long and loud with my friends in defense of Barry Bonds.

Well, that ends today.

Given the chance to chip away at what is probably the worst public image in all of sports, Bonds instead has decided to spit in the face of his fans by skipping the All-Star Home Run Derby on Monday evening at AT&T Park. From an AP account:

"I'm my own man," Bonds said. I don't worry about it and what Peter [Magowan, owner of the Giants, who had expressed disappointment in Bonds' decision] says...You're not disappointing people. It's common sense. Do you know what I have to do just to get ready for this? To take B.P.?" "How many people have I disappointed in San Francisco in all the years I've been here? Come on, man."

Let's see now. What do we think will be the most enduring image in the career of Barry Bonds? Hitting a home run into McCovey Cove, perhaps? Hmm...and this is your final season, the season where you will break the all-time home run record...and here, you have a chance to get on the national stage and display some humility, participate in some good-natured competition with your peers, and show folks across the country what the fans in and around San Francisco have enjoyed for years - the "splash hits." And perhaps, take the first baby steps towards rehabilitating that awful image.

But no, screw that - I'm hurt and I'm sore, and I've still got those 5 home runs I need to break the record, so y'all can just take a hike.

As far as I'm concerned, this is incredible, and unforgivable. I'll keep rooting for the Giants and rooting for Barry, but this one act more or less validates what people have said about him over the years: contempt - for the fans, for the game, and for his teammates - is what drives Barry Bonds.

Not that he gives a rat's ass about what I think.

Friday, July 06, 2007

If You Were Looking For A Reason to Sneer at the French

Jogging is right-wing.

(Hat tip: Ann Althouse)

Warren Zevon: "Happy Together"

An overnight success Warren Zevon was not. By the time his major label debut was released in 1976, he had been around the L.A. songwriting scene for over a decade, garnering respect from his peers and colleagues for his body of work, but falling far short of fame.

The degree to which that respect manifested itself is evident in this remembrance from Howard Kaylan of The Turtles, who were on the brink of releasing "Happy Together" and knew that it was their ticket to the big time:
"When we went into the studio at the beginning of 1967, we absolutely knew it was going to be a #1 record. The owners of the record company said, 'This is going to be a #1 record, so think carefully about what you want to put on the B-side because it's all gravy money.' We were so naive, and were so decent, that we said, 'Let's use Warren's song on the B-side of this one, too.' 'What? You've already used it as a B-side' [for a
previously released single]. 'I know, but that wasn't a hit. We want to give this guy every break that we can...'"

"...Believe me, we were not always that selfless...But, in Warren's case, he was a very, very special person. We wanted him to share our good fortune. So, 'Happy Together' wound up with Warren's song 'Like the Seasons' as the B-side internationally, and of course it sold millions and millions and millions of records."

Such regard for Zevon as an artist is prevalent throughout I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, and one of the great tragedies of his life was that he was unable (or unwilling, or some combination of the two) to accept that kind of largesse with dignity and grace.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Happy Independence Day

In case I don't have time to do it tomorrow. Taken on the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, July 2006.

Reconsider Me - The Great Warren Zevon

I bought my first Warren Zevon album, Excitable Boy, shortly after it was released in the winter of 1978. Back in those days, I was a slave to the Rolling Stone records review section, a fact that really isn’t as bad as it sounds – in the seventies, under the stewardship of such critical luminaries as Greil Marcus, Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, and Paul Nelson, the RS review section was the best around and a place that you could count on to be honest about the value of a record, even if it was from one of Jann Wenner’s favorites (the pans given to the Stones’ Some Girls and Dylan’s Street-Legal being the most obvious examples).

So when I read the beginning of this review of Excitable Boy (written by the late Paul Nelson), it was a certainty that a trip to Tower Records would soon be in the offing:

Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy is the best American rock & roll album since Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (1975), Neil Young’s Zuma (1976) and Jackson Browne’s The Pretender (1976). If there’s not enough firepower in that statement, let’s cock the hammer on another. Thus far, the Seventies have introduced three major American rock & roll artists—Browne in 1972, Springsteen in 1973 and Zevon—and I have every confidence the music of all three will be even better in the future.

At the time, I agreed completely with Nelson’s assessment of the album, though with time it became clear that it was a flawed masterpiece (if there is such a thing). In fact, “flawed masterpiece” could be applied to nearly all of Zevon’s works – he never made a perfect album, though he came tantalizingly close on several occasions, and the body of his work can stand proudly alongside any that of any artist of the past 30 years.

As his career progressed, it became evident over time that Zevon was not leading a storybook existence – he was an alcoholic, a heavy drug user, and his relationships – well, let’s just say that there was mention of a new significant other in his life in just about every magazine article written about him; probably not a sign of someone capable of having stable relationships in his life. Zevon never achieved the stardom that Nelson so boldly predicted in 1978; his one major hit was the near-novelty “Werewolves of London.” He cut two excellent albums after Excitable Boy and one great live album, and then virtually dropped off the face of the earth (at least publicly) for five years, when Sentimental Hygiene (recorded with the members of R.E.M. as the backing band) represented a magnificent return to form. After that, sporadic releases for over a decade – all good, all inconsistent, all containing at least a couple of gems.

Then, in the early years of the new millennium, a wonderful renaissance, with the release of what are arguably – along with his 1976 major label debut and his finale – his two best albums: Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here (the latter recorded with Paul Shaffer’s Late Show band). He showed up more in public, including a couple of stints as Paul Shaffer’s stand-in on Letterman (who had always been a huge fan).

And then, just as it appeared he might be poised for the greatest success of his career, the Grim Reaper came calling, in the form of mesothelioma – inoperable, and inevitably fatal. Ironically, that made him more famous than ever – one night he was the sole guest on Letterman (when he uttered the immortal phrase, “enjoy every sandwich,” when Dave asked him was he was learning from the knowledge of his impending death), a VH1 documentary, and the recording of one final album (The Wind), with every A-list star in the vicinity coming out of the woodwork to lend a hand. Against all odds, the final product was wonderful, certainly the most consistent and well-produced album of his career. Less than two weeks after its release, Zevon died.

And now, nearly four years later, we have I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, an oral biography organized and written by his former wife, Crystal, at Warren’s own request. I’m a little more than halfway through it, and it is an amazing account of an amazing life – and not always in the good sense. As Warren himself said, “I got to be Jim Morrison a lot longer than he did.” The book is unflinching in its portrayal of Zevon’s follies and idiosyncrasies, but at the same time it provides remarkable insight into what made him one of the great songwriters of the rock era. The book has been controversial, and many of the comments on reflect a strong aversion to what is interpreted by many as an attempt by Crystal to “take revenge” upon Warren for the many sins he inflicted upon her during their marriage, and after.

I don’t see it that way. Unlike Exile on Main Street, Robert Greenfield’s account of the making of the Rolling Stones’ greatest album (and the debauchery which occurred during the process), Crystal’s book helps to define Warren’s work, and give it meaning. It’s not always a pretty picture, but I don’t think any less of Warren as an artist (or as a person, not that I knew him) after reading these accounts, many of which describe painful episodes and awful behavior.

In the days to come, I’ll be posting several excerpts.