Friday, September 28, 2007

Friday Potpourri

Blogging has been light this week because that pesky paying job keeps getting in the way, not to mention the fact that we were consumed by “The War.” Having lived in and around Sacramento for our entire lives, we thought it was very cool that Sacramento was one of the four towns that Ken Burns decided to focus on for his film. Even though he essentially uses the same approach for all of his films, it works for me – I find them engrossing and captivating.

In about twenty minutes, our Executive Committee meets, which will take us to the end of the day, if not beyond. Tomorrow is an all-day Board of Directors meeting, which means no football, and more importantly, no Cal vs. Oregon. It’s just as well – I’d be too nervous watching it live.

Of course, we watched the season premiere of CSI last night, which I thought was a bit underwhelming. Of course, I’m happy that Sara survived, but as with most cliffhangers, the writers didn’t seem to know how to wrap up the second half in any kind of dramatic fashion. But maybe I’m being a bit harsh.

And as proof of my blind loyalty if nothing else, we watched the season premiere of ER. I guess it was OK, and son #2 really likes the show, but I had trouble staying awake through most of it. I like Stanley Tucci a lot, but it’s not clear he’s a permanent addition. Right now, the most interesting characters are the minor ones, in particular the surgeons (and it probably says something that I can't even remember their names) – they don’t get nearly enough screen time. As for the rest – I’d argue that it’s still a quality show, but the storylines have pretty much played out their string.

And finally…

One of the highlights of my work day yesterday was finding my collection of letters from 2nd grade students at the schools we’ve visited the past couple of years. Every year, a group from where I work takes a trip to a school to read to the 2nd graders. Afterward, they write thank you letters (illustrated, to boot) that are worth their weight in gold. Mine had adorned the door of my office, but during our office renovation this summer, I had to take them all down. Of course, I put them in a very safe place, and promptly forgot where that safe place was located. Yesterday, quite by accident, I found them. This is my favorite:

Dear Mr. Vaca,

My favorite book that you read was Stellaluna because I like bats. They are my second favorite wild animal. Thank you for reading to us. I really enjoyed having you here. I hope you can come back next year and read to us.

Your new friend,


And that, folks, is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Wrapping Up Summer Sounds: Part II

Continuing my wrap-up of summer music purchases:

Icky Thump, The White Stripes. I was really looking forward to this album. 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan was my favorite of theirs, and Jack White’s 2006 Summer Project, the Raconteurs, was also an enjoyable diversion. But try as I might, I’m having trouble getting into this one, and I think I’ve put my finger on the reason why. Too many of these songs exist less as songs than they do as vehicles for Jack to show off his guitar virtuosity. And it’s not just that, because I enjoy a great guitar solo just as much as the next guy. But with these solos, it’s almost as if Jack sat in the studio all by himself, recorded them before even sitting down to write the songs, and then just dropped ‘em in where he thought they fit best. Unfortunately, in most instances they don’t fit at all – aural non sequitirs, when looked at within the context of the song. Take a song like “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” – nice, effective little blues number, picking up steam, nice hook, and then out of nowhere – LOOK, KIDS! I’M CHANNELING THURSTON MOORE, LOU REED AND JIMMY PAGE! TOP THAT SUCKERS! Just doesn’t work for me. And “Conquest” – can’t get it out of my head, but man, what an annoying song. It’s like one of those gnats that circles your head for an entire 5-mile run.

But I’m still trying, and there is definitely some good stuff here. It’s part of my running mix on my MP3 player, so I’m not giving up. Let’s just say at this point that I doubt it will threaten their last album for the coveted title of “Jeff’s favorite White Stripes album,” which I’m sure will be a major disappointment to Jack and Meg. Highlights: the title track, “A Martyr For My Love For You,” “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn,” “Effect and Cause.”

Planet Earth, Prince. The purple one has been on a bit of a roll lately, but this is a slight step backward. Importantly, he has jettisoned the funk of 3121 for a pop sound that sounds straight out of 1985. Even Wendy and Lisa are back, though in the aural mix it’s difficult to tell exactly where and what they’ve contributed. Don’t get me wrong; this is a good album, but I just wish it were better. The ballads don’t work in most instances, and on too many of the songs, there’s just too much instrumentation. But “Guitar” is fantastic, as is “Chelsea Rodgers,” and the title track - even if Prince’s world view is a bit inscrutable.

Dinner With the Folks

This is the kind of routine press announcement that gets included in Sacramento’s daily Capitol Morning Report:

SAN FRANCISCO -- First Lady Maria Shriver eats dinner with 300 families at the Tenderloin Community School, marks Family Day - A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children, promoters say "the more often children eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs."

For some reason, this one strikes me as a bit odd. What if the family drinks, smokes, or heaven forbid, takes drugs during dinner? For instance, I have a glass of wine with dinner. By doing so, am I dooming my children to a life of squalor?

What it doesn’t strike me as is a comment that was based on any type of scientific study. But, I could be wrong.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Legendary Three Tenors of Soul

Kudos to David Mills, the estimable Undercover Black Man, for turning up what sounds like a real gem: The Legendary Three Tenors of Soul, featuring lead singers Will Hart from The Delfonics, Ted Mills of Blue Magic, and the iconic Russell Thompkins Jr., from The Stylistics.

I can’t wait to hear this, because they truly don’t make music like this any more (if they do, they do a good job hiding it). And since The Delfonics and The Stylistics both did their best work with legendary producer Thom Bell, I’ve got a beef: why is there no Thom Bell box set? The man was a genius and a veritable hit machine in the 1970s; in addition to those groups above, he also produced the best and most famous work from the Spinners. So how about it, record companies? How about a tribute to one of the great producers of all time?

Another Week, Another Win

Another high scoring victory for the Golden Bears, and yet something feels a bit off. Next week’s game at Oregon will be the next major test of the season. They passed the first one with a win over Tennessee, but right now Oregon looks like a better team than the Vols, the game is on the road, and the Bears are having problems on defense. If they keep on playing this way, I think they’re looking at another 8-4 or 9-3 season. I hope that’s just me being pessimistic – and if they win impressively against the Ducks, a BCS bowl bid isn’t out of the question.

Speaking of pessimistic – because we were heading out to dinner last night, I listened to most of the second half on radio. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more pessimistic play-by-play announcer than Joe Starkey. He was ready to give up with the Bears leading by two touchdowns in the 4th quarter, for crying out loud. I think all those years of watching lousy Cal teams get blown out every other week did something to Joe’s psyche. For his call of “The Play” alone, his place in football announcing history is secure, but even though I like him a lot, he does have his weak points. When you listen to him but put the picture on TV, it’s obvious that Starkey focuses on telling you the result of the play, but does little to describe the play while it’s developing. That makes for a lot of exciting calls, but it makes it difficult to draw a good mental picture of the action, if you’re only listening and not watching.

But you have to hand it to him. He finished the Cal game after 7 p.m. last night, and was in Pittsburgh for the 49ers game today. That’s dedication.

Wishful Thinking

I wish that Bruce Springsteen would begin releasing a CD series of his greatest live performances, a la Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Neil Young. You can’t tell me that there aren’t some great tapes out there; at the very least, the June 1978 Roxy show, the December 1978 Winterland show, and the 1988 Stockholm show come to mind. At one time, Bruce shrugged his shoulders and winked at the concept of bootlegs (famously crying out, “All you bootleggers out there in radioland…roll your tapes!” during the Roxy show, which was carried live), but got a bit more hard-line about it later. I’ve got some of those bootlegs, and while they’re fun to listen to, the sound quality is strictly second-rate. I can’t tell you how much I’d love to hear pristine versions of the 1978 intro to “Prove It All Night,” the early version of “Point Blank,” or the extended “Sad Eyes” version of “Backstreets” that he played in the late seventies.

How about it, Bruce? I’m still recovering from not being able to get tickets to your October 26 Oakland show (Ticketmaster sucks, by the way). Feel like throwing me a bone?

I wish that someone would write a book about the history of McDonalds Hamburgers, with particular emphasis on how McD’s workforce has evolved over the years. I worked at McDonalds for four years, 1976-1980, and made enough money to pay for about 2/3 of my college costs. At that time, nearly all of the employees were high school students; in fact, I don’t believe there was a single employee over the age of 24. It was hard work, and sometimes management tended to be a little strict (some might even say fascist), but the lessons I learned flipping burgers and toasting buns at McDonalds have served me well in every job I’ve had since – learning the importance of teamwork, learning how to get along with a diverse group of people, learning when and how to push the envelope when decisions came from above that just didn’t make any sense.

All you have to do now is go into any McDonalds to see that there aren’t a lot of high school students working there anymore. What happened? Was it a conscious decision on the part of the corporation? Was it simply the evolution of the workforce, and an increase in the number of adults who qualified only for relatively low-paying jobs like fast-food? An evolution in how high school kids view the concept of work? Some combination of the above? I might be the only one, but I think it would make an interesting book. I’d read it.

I really, really wish that ESPN would hand Mike Patrick his walking papers. It’s more than just the latest bit of idiocy – his out of the blue, where did that come from soliloquy on Britney Spears, during overtime of the Georgia-Alabama game – it’s the fact that he’s terrible, one of the worst play-by-play announcers in the business. ESPN’s old Sunday Night football crew that Patrick led was the worst NFL crew; absolutely awful. So when the network decided that Patrick wasn’t the man to lead their Monday Night NFL package, what did they do? Oh, just bump the best college football play-by-play man in the business, Ron Franklin, and give his spot to Patrick. He’s been bad ever since, and let’s face it – at this point in his career, he won’t be getting any better. It’s time for him to go!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Closing Out the Bonds Era

There’s no question that it’s the right move, and from a baseball standpoint it probably comes two years too late. Setting aside – if that is even possible at this point in time – all of the issues surrounding steroids and cheating, it’s clear that the Bonds era coincided with one of the most successful periods in Giants history. But even then, Giants fans will have to ask themselves – was it all worth it?

And how much of the Giants’ success during this period was due to Barry is another question worth pondering. If anything else, their overall record since 1993 points to the fact that one player alone can’t take a team to the mountaintop:

1993 – A great year, with Bonds winning an MVP award and Dusty Baker (my fellow alumnus of Del Campo High School, Fair Oaks, CA) winning Manager of the Year. Winners of 103 games, but nothing to show for it. Probably the best team ever not to make the postseason.

1994-96 – Good years for Barry Bonds, terrible years for the Giants.

1997 – A surprise division championship, but sent out of the playoffs quickly by the Florida Marlins.

1998 – Not a bad season – 89 wins, and a one-game playoff loss to Chicago – but not a great one either. By this time, Bonds was no doubt watching what McGwire and Sosa were doing, and deciding that he’d like a bit of that action.

1999 – Again, not a bad year, but not a great one – 86 wins.

2000 – A wonderful year, as the Giants christened Pac Bell Park and made the playoffs, where again they were dismissed quickly, this time by the New York Mets. Jeff Kent wins the MVP, probably fueling Bonds’ desire for the limelight.

2001 – The monster season for Bonds; Giants win 90 games and just miss the playoffs.

2002 – The year of greatness and tragedy for Giants fans: Another monster year from Bonds; a National League pennant, and one of the all-time choke jobs in Game 6 of the Series against the Angels - one that rivals the Red Sox meltdown to New York in 1986.

2003 – Another great year for Bonds and the Giants (100 wins), but another early playoff dismissal by the Florida Marlins.

Since then, the Giants have just played out the string with Bonds at the helm, essentially building the entire team around him and watching themselves sink slowly into the nether regions of the NL West standings. In return, we got to see Barry break the record. Was it worth it? Probably not – you can’t just throw three seasons away to allow someone – anyone – to break a record like that.

But overall, I can’t complain – I’m not going to lose any sleep for rooting for what has always been my favorite team during its most fruitful period (1997-2003) just because that team’s best player turned out to be one of the classic villains in the history of the sport. But at the same time, he was also one of the greatest players ever in that sport – and no matter what happens to his image as the years go by, he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

But in the end, this era needs to be over. It’s time for the San Francisco Giants to move on.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Sick, But Funny

Michele at a big victory says she's sick as a dog, but she's on fire today, with two classic posts: survey says, and this tribute to International Peace Day.

If she happens to read this, I hope she takes this the right way: if she's always this funny when she's not feeling well, I can't wait for her next illness.

Burn Notice: Modern Throwback

Aside from CSI, our other major slothful summer TV favorite was Burn Notice, on the USA Network. It was the perfect summer show, and not just because it started the day after summer began and ended on the last full day of summer. Fast-paced, witty, well-written and well-acted, it felt almost like a throwback to the 70s, when such shows as “The Rockford Files” and “Switch” were on the airwaves. The cast is first-rate: Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar, Bruce Campbell, and Sharon Gless were all great at defining their characters, and had a great chemistry between them. Donovan in particular deserves to become a breakout star on the strength of this performance. At turns funny and lethal, he turned the Michael Westen character into much more than just a smart-ass wise guy – you could always tell there was dark side just beneath the surface, both in the relationship with his family and his efforts to find out why he was left hanging out to dry by the powers that be (whoever those powers turn out to be). The show seemed to pick up steam as the season rolled along, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next summer.

Pay Me My Money Down

Before I came to work where I’m at now, I spent 13 years in the Office of Governmental Affairs for the California State University system. It was a great run, and there was never a dull moment. As former CSU Chancellor Barry Munitz once commented (borrowing from a Chinese proverb), “we are damned to live in interesting times.” It was definitely an interesting time to be working in and around the Legislature, because of the 1990 initiative which implemented term limits in California. Slowly but surely, all of the old veterans were phased out, which in some cases was a good thing – but in the majority of others, I would argue, probably not so good.

From our standpoint in Governmental Affairs, it was always a good thing when the Legislature was controlled by one party, and the governor’s office by the other. That made it easier for us to head off the crazier bills coming from the fringes of both parties, and work with the more moderate members to move a positive agenda forward. When Gray Davis was elected as Governor in 1998, the dynamic changed entirely – as we used to joke sometimes, we were getting our arses kicked on a weekly basis in the Assembly Higher Education Committee. But what really changed things was the enactment of a law – I think it was in 1999 or 2000 – which implemented agency fee for CSU faculty, meaning that faculty members were required to pay dues to the faculty union – the California Faculty Association – even if they did not desire to become a member of the union. This created a huge treasure chest which the union shrewdly and effectively used to create a campaign operation that was very successful – both in getting members elected to the Legislature, and in creating an atmosphere “in the building” (how folks who work there refer to the State Capitol) where faculty wore the white hats, and administration were the bad guys.

I have a good friend who works for the faculty union, my brother teaches at Cal State Long Beach, and I worked closely with numerous faculty during my years at CSU. However, as I have told many people over the years, there is nothing quite like working with a faculty union on employee relations legislation to make one question their most deeply-held political beliefs. CFA has been very effective on certain issues over the past decade, but I’ll go to my grave believing that as a whole, they have done more damage to the institution than good. Largely due to their efforts, everything is now looked at as being black or white, when nearly issue confronting the university is teeming with shades of grey.

Alas, it is not the faculty union I write about to criticize today, it is a decision made by the administration. It’s with a heavy heart that I do so, because I consider myself fiercely loyal to the institution, and still have friends working there. However, there’s no way around it – the CSU Trustees’ decision this week to increase executive salaries by an average of 11.8% was a very bad decision, made at the worst possible time.

Analyzed in a vacuum, the decision is defensible, even logical. For the most part, the arguments are solid (I’m not putting these in quotation marks, but they are all taken from the Trustees’ agenda item on executive compensation):

- Because the CSU needs to pay competitive salaries to recruit successfully, newer employees tend to be better compensated than existing employees. Individuals hired into the CSU executive ranks from outside the CSU, for example, arrive with higher compensation histories. This is certainly true, but importantly, it’s not unique to the executive level. In fact, it was one of the factors that contributed to my decision to leave CSU. I had the misfortune to begin working at a time when the state’s economy was in a tailspin, and worked for almost three years before receiving any kind of compensation increase. By the time I’d been there 12 years, numerous employees with less seniority and less responsibility were above me on the pay scale, simply as a function of when they were hired. I have no idea how much it would cost the system to implement a “course correction” to deal with this phenomenon, but the simple fact of the matter is that when that kind of course correction is implemented for the executive level while those below are left to stew in their own juices, so to speak, it sends a signal, whether intended or not, that the Trustees just don’t care.

- Internal compensation compaction is another sensitivity…the national market for provosts, CFOs…is highly competitive…as a result of compensation history and the cost of housing in California, some newly hired vice presidents are paid in the lower range of administrative salaries. Well, OK, but it seems to me that this illustrates a problem that is much greater than just what the CSU is dealing with, and it has to do with the use of comparison institutions to set the salaries for so many levels of university employees. I’m not going to pretend to know what an alternative model would look like, but I wonder whether the era of comparison institutions should come to an end. Because unless I’m missing something, what has resulted is a never-ending spiral upward, without any serious consideration of what the true value of these positions is, in comparison with similar positions in the private sector.

- Newly appointed executives from outside the CSU are penalized because their salary used to determine retirement contributions to CalPERS is capped by federal tax law and regulation; the IRS cap for 2007 is $225,000. The less said about this argument, the better. Let’s just say that it is not likely to generate much sympathy from the public, or in the halls of the State Capitol.

I also understand the traditional arguments for executive compensation increases – there is never a good time to do something like this (certainly true); running a university is a hard job (also true; I’m not one of those who thinks there is a faceless bureaucracy behind the walls of great universities – these are well-meaning, hard-working people); and so on. Normally, I would go along with all of this, and throw my support behind this most recent decision.

But I can’t, because in my heart of hearts my sympathy still lies primarily with the folks who will have to deal with the fallout from ground zero, and that’s the folks in the Governmental Affairs office. They are just going to get killed next year, and it is going to be very difficult for them to accomplish anything other than just getting out alive. And in the long run, it could harm the university in ways that far outstrip the benefit of this particular increase. We won’t know that for certain until the book is closed on the current legislative session, a little less than a year from now. But I’m not optimistic.

Again, this is not an issue that is unique to the CSU – it very clearly is endemic in the entire public higher education system in this country. But, also again – this particular decision was a very bad one, made at the worst possible time.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Sounds of Summer (Were So Fine)

Having spent much of the year searching for, thinking about, and listening to older music, I spent the closing weeks of summer trying to catch up on stuff that I’d missed while I was out buying things like “Billboard Top 10 Hits: 1972” and “Ultimate Disco: The Collection.” Beginning today, an overview of my initial thoughts on some of the booty:

Dylanesque, Bryan Ferry. Roxy Music holds a proud spot in my personal pantheon; Siren and Avalon are two of my all-time favorite albums. But it had been years since I’d bought a Bryan Ferry album, and I was surprised (if not stunned) to hear how his voice has changed in the last decade. If he’s not a smoker or a drinker or some combination of the two, I’ll eat my hat. He’s always had an affinity for Dylan songs, and his new voice matches up with them perfectly. Ferry doesn’t bat .1000 on Dylanesque, but I much prefer it to Patti Smith’s covers album from earlier in the year. With a couple of notable exceptions, he does better on the “lesser known” songs, with the following as highlights: “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” “Gates of Eden,” and “All Along the Watchtower.” And special kudos are deserved for his harmonica playing, which for me has always been a glaring weakness of Bob's. I’ve never been able to figure out how Dylan came to be known as a great harmonica player – for me, his playing almost ruins several of his greatest songs.

Kala, M.I.A. I bought this album strictly on the strength of Robert Christgau’s rave review in Rolling Stone. Probably to my own discredit, I wasn’t familiar with her earlier work, or with her backstory, which is interesting in and of itself. Doing this sort of thing has gotten me in trouble in the past, leading me to run out and buy stuff like My Chemical Romance, which just didn’t do anything for me, and The Flaming Lips, one of the few bands in existence that I actively dislike (my failing, perhaps, but there you have it). But what the heck, let’s try again…which led to a funny moment as I was making the purchase, one of 5 CDs I was buying that day. The cashier, a young woman who couldn’t have been nicer, was ringing up the purchase, looked at me with a quizzical look on her face, and asked in all innocence, “are these all for you?” Yep, I chuckled, thinking to myself, “boy, I really am an old guy.”

This one takes a while to sink in, and is still sinking in with me, but the best parts of it are absolutely hypnotic. I won’t even pretend to be an expert in the various genres that make up the eclectic mix here, but I hear African rhythms, I hear reggae, I hear rap/hip-hop, I hear what I swear sounds like a bunch of kids just standing around and chanting, and I hear pop – and sometimes all in the course of a single song. The best part of it is that it just sounds exciting – music that you want to tell someone about, in the hope that they’ll give it a listen, and find something that speaks to them. Highlights: “Bamboo Banga,” “Boyz,” “Hussel,” “Paper Planes,” and “Come Around.”

Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley. This album is also my introduction to this band; bought on the strength of last year’s Rabbit Fur Coat by lead singer Jenny Lewis, who was joined on that record by the Watson Twins. Perverse soul that I am, I have to admit that I’m enjoying the fact that so many long-time fans seem to be turned off by the new one, just because (based on the comments I've read on the band’s gone in a different direction. I look forward to exploring their older work, because this one is great - easily one of the best of the year. For the last couple of weeks, even the weakest of the songs have been working their way into my mind, distracting me at very inopportune times – for instance, when key work needs to be done, with key deadlines looming.

Sure, it’s a pop album, but a very hard-edged one, at least to these ears. It’s got its Fleetwood Mac homage (which is not a problem for me), and it's got some stuff that sounds like it came straight out of the mid-80’s pop boom. But there’s also some nice, tough, obsessive little songs like “The Moneymaker” (and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how the protagonist is making the money), “Close Call,” and “15.” I haven’t had this much fun enjoying an album that folks accused of being a “sell-out” since Liz Phair a few years ago.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The 50 Music Project: Final Chapter

XXV. Cut to Black, Over and Out

Don't Stop Believin', Journey

There really could be no other way to end it.

Pop or rock songs have played key parts in movies and television for years. There probably isn't anyone who doesn't have an image in their mind of a great song placed within the context of a film: whether it be the funeral cortege heading over the bridge in The Big Chill while "You Can't Always Get What You Want" plays, "Gimme Shelter" serving as the introduction to The Departed, the brilliant use of Smokey Robinson's "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage" in American Gigolo, or countless others. For a while, you hear the song, you think of the movie, and then you forget the connection, until and unless you happen to see the movie again at some point in the future.

But this one is different. For anyone who watched the final episode of The Sopranos, it will be impossible to ever again hear this song without thinking of Tony and his family sitting in that diner, waiting for a climax that never comes - a climax that David Chase brilliantly chose to leave in the imaginations of the viewers.

It truly was a great moment in television history, one that will be talked about for as long as people care about great television. Thousands and thousands of words were written about that final scene, but I'm not sure that anyone said it better than Matt Zoller Seitz:

So often on The Sopranos, when a character or characters spend a lot of screen time shooting the breeze or fixating on some mundane bit of business, the non-drama is followed by a beat-down or a bullet in the brain; your attention starts to wander and then WHAM. We expect the same dynamic this time; but Meadow successfully parks the car. She walks across the street. We think she might get hit by a car; she does not. Cut to the inside of the restaurant; Tony looks up at the sound of the bell ringing; cut to black.

The sound cuts out, too.

The credits roll.

There is no music.

What happens next?

We don't know. We'll never know.

What we do know is that "Don't Stop Believin," the song that Tony chose to play on that jukebox on what might have been the last night of his life, ceased belonging to Journey the moment that the scene ended. Like it or not, that song now belongs to Tony Soprano.

And with that, the 50th Anniversary Music Project comes to an end. 50 years, 421 songs, and if one were inclined to do such a thing, they might find that it would fill up 20 CDs. It was great fun, and while it was also a lot of work, I'm sorry it had to come to an end. I hope everyone who had a chance to read it, or at least part of it, enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it all together.

And thanks, mom and dad, for providing the inspiration.

One More on Tiger

Here's hoping that folks can stand one more post on Tiger Woods. Actually, a link to a good post by Dean Barnett over at, of all places, Hugh Hewitt's site.

I'm not sure I'm quite ready to endorse Dean's nomination of Tiger as the most dominant athlete in any sport ever, which might be a bit premature (especially with the way that Roger Federer is playing tennis right now). However, you won't hear me quibble too loudly.

However, I completely agree with Dean's assessment of Tiger's primary weakness:

IT’S TRUE THAT I’VE OCCASSIONALLY been critical of Tiger. I don’t retract any of my prior critiques. It’s said that you don’t “work” golf, that you play it. Tiger’s joyless on-course visage may ultimately overturn that old saw. I’m just about finished writing a story that I’ve spent a lot of time researching on golf course architecture. The great architects seldom go three sentences without mentioning that they want their courses and their sport to be fun. Tiger is the public face of golf to the rest of the world, and on a typical Sunday he looks like he’s having as much fun as a guy passing a kidney stone.

I absolutely agree with that assessment. After the Masters, I wrote this:

And one thing is for certain - Tiger's play was as joyless an exercise as I've ever seen, in any professional sport. Frankly, it was excruciating to watch - he was clearly pissed off nearly the entire time, and should probably give that some thought once he cools down a bit.

I suspect Tiger will take a good, long time off now and spend quality time with his family. Far be it for me to give him advice, but I will anyway - he should give some thought to this aspect of his game, because in the end it may become part of how his career is ultimately defined, just as much as it will be defined by his unmistakable greatness.

In Case Anyone Missed The News...

Tomorrow is International Talk Like A Pirate Day!

The 50 Music Project: Nearly There!

XXIV. The New Millennium

Brand New Day, Sting

This song will always remind me of New Year’s Eve 1999, when Sting sang it for a very well-heeled party of revelers ringing in the new millennium at Rockefeller Center.

I Was In The House When The House Burned Down, Warren Zevon

As Greil Marcus wrote, the song was "Excitable Boy with humor intact, but no longer a joke, because when the house burned down the singer found he had nowhere else to go."

Woke Up This Morning, A3
Get This Party Started, Pink

I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow, Soggy Bottom Boys

There are probably people who think that George Clooney really sang this song, but in fact the vocal belongs to Dan Tyminski, the great vocalist and guitarist with Union Station, Alison Krauss’ band.

Run On, Moby
You Said Something, PJ Harvey

My City of Ruins, Bruce Springsteen
Beautiful Day, U2

New Favorite, Alison Krauss & Union Station

Greil Marcus once wrote, when describing a list of his favorite songs and albums, that the works “seemed like miracles” to him. On this song, the voice of Alison Krauss is nothing less than a miracle. The song is slow, almost painfully slow, but never once deviates from the tone Krauss sets from the very first note. Yet, the tension builds throughout, and finally comes to a crescendo with the final uttering of “I know you’ve got a new favorite…” Haunting, and heartbreakingly beautiful.

A Little Less Conversation, Elvis Presley

The King is Dead. Long Live the King!

Mil Besos, Patty Griffin

“I lost my heart on the thousand kisses that I left on your lips." It sounds much better in Spanish. The first perfect album of the new millennium.

My Ride’s Here, Warren Zevon
The Rising, Bruce Springsteen
Lonesome Tears, Beck

Extreme Ways, Moby

Thanks to the savvy marketing ability of Moby, this is probably best known as Jason Bourne’s theme song.

Clocks, Coldplay
Flake, Jack Johnson
12:51, The Strokes
Hotel Yorba, The White Stripes
Hey Ya, Outkast
White Flag, Dido

Keep Me In Your Heart, Warren Zevon

Against all odds, the final album, The Wind, was wonderful, certainly the most consistent and well-produced album of his career. Less than two weeks after its release, he died. And the following year, he finally won a Grammy.

Everything Must Go, Steely Dan

Even for seasoned cynics like Becker and Fagen, this song set new standards for sardonic.

The Reason, Hoobastank

One of those perfect pop songs that comes around every now and then, seemingly out of nowhere.

Little Digger, Liz Phair
Vertigo, U2
Devils and Dust, Bruce Springsteen
Take Me Out, Franz Ferdinand

Since U Been Gone, Kelly Clarkson

Without question, the best song to come out of American Idol.

Hollaback Girl, Gwen Stefani
Summerlong, Kathleen Edwards

Hurt, Johnny Cash

The Man in Black's decade long collaboration with Rick Rubin reached its high-water mark with this amazing recording of the Trent Reznor song. The performance and the production were so soulful, so terrifying, that the song is not likely ever to be known again as belonging to Trent Reznor.

Dare, Gorillaz
Biggest Mistake, The Rolling Stones

Black Cadillac, Rosanne Cash

Within the span of 18 months, Rosanne Cash lost her father, her mother, and her stepmother. Her tribute to the three was Black Cadillac. At first blush, I compared the album to “Blonde on Blonde” and “Exile on Main Street”; only time will tell if it has the lasting impact of those two classics. The brilliance is evident early, from the use of the ‘Ring of Fire’-style horns on this song. The use of two producers can sometimes be a bad sign, but Bill Bottrell's work provided a depth to the music that sometimes had been lacking in the past, and longtime producer (and husband) John Leventhal matched it by not ‘prettying up’ the songs for once. Simple, spare arrangements and heartfelt, moving lyrics coupled with Rosanne's strongest singing ever made it her best album in a career of great ones.

Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, K.T. Tunstall
Pay Me My Money Down, Bruce Springsteen
Crazy, Gnarls Barkley
Not Ready to Make Nice, Dixie Chicks
Saving Grace, Tom Petty
Two Dogs And A Bone, Los Lobos
Someday Baby, Bob Dylan

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Tiger Transcendent

SI’s Alan Shipnuck says it best:

…We are in the midst of one of those stretches in which Woods is making history in real time, a day-after-day display of unrelenting brilliance that is as dazzling as any golf he has ever played. Enjoy it. Wallow in it. This is the kind of transcendent athlete that comes along once every quarter century, if you’re lucky…

Indeed. In retrospect, golf fans needn’t have worried about understanding the FedEx Cup point system. Was there any doubt that Tiger would end up winning it all? His lead was such, and his late-season play so sharp, that even with a week off, followed by a week where he was out-dueled by arch-nemesis Phil Mickelson, he was able to shift into another gear and win easily, coasting across the finish line, roughly the equivalent of Secretariat roaring down the stretch at Belmont Park, 31 lengths in front. One is left only to wonder whether, a la Ron Turcotte, caddie Steve Williams looked over his shoulder as Tiger walked down the 18th fairway to see where the competition had disappeared to.

Because at this point, there really is no competition.

A Little Late to the Party: CSI

We had never watched CSI in its seven years on television; not a single episode. This summer, we got hooked watching reruns on Spike TV, and I do mean hooked. Some nights, we sat there, like sloths, and watched three consecutive episodes (oh what the heck, those dishes can wait ‘til the morning!). It’s a great show – I don’t know if it’s won any Emmy Awards, but then again I’m not sure if it’s the kind of show that normally wins Emmy Awards. Sure, it’s formulaic, but so is House – in fact, there are a lot of similarities between the two shows: the somewhat strange lead character, the diverse (both in color and gender) and quirky group of underlings, the use of interesting music (both background and popular). The main difference is the two leads – Hugh Laurie is flamboyant, and William Petersen is low-key. The two are equally effective, in their own way. And over the years, CSI began to play with the formula, particularly with a couple of gruesome but hysterically funny episodes that aired this past season, and with the multi-episode “Miniature Killer” story arc that (I presume, haven't seen the season finale yet) served up the season's cliffhanger. Good stuff.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

An Important Lesson

I learned something very important today. If you want to increase your site traffic beyond anything it has achieved in the past, blog about Notre Dame football.

Outstanding! There is certain to be much fodder for future posts this fall. And I can hardly wait for the season finale between the Irish and the hated Stanford Cardinal. Can both teams lose that game? At this point in the season, anything seems possible.

I Understand Lou Holtz Is Available

Being annihilated 38-0 by a Michigan team that had just suffered, on consecutive weeks, two of the worst losses in its history.

Can it get any worse for Notre Dame?

I suspect it can. And normally, I wouldn't pile on, but it's hard to resist given the media frenzy the past two years over what a genius Charlie Weis is, and given the shameful way that Notre Dame treated Tyrone Willingham. Tyrone's Washington Huskies suffered a tough defeat today, but it's beginning to look as if UW will have a better record by year's end than the Irish, and that Willingham's 3-year record in South Bend has a shot to better the 3-year record of Weis.

It's hard to believe now, but it wasn't that long ago that I asked a USC fan who is a close friend, "are you guys ever going to beat Notre Dame again?"

Edward Hopper, American Icon

Early on, I knew that Edward Hopper was my favorite artist. For Christmas when I was in the fifth grade, one of my presents was Masterpiece, the art auction game from Parker Brothers. I still have the game, and every now and then we pull it out of mothballs and play it with the kids. It’s fun, but not a lot of strategy is involved. Essentially, depending on where you land on the game board, you bid for a painting which has been assigned a value that is hidden from the players (ranging from “Forgery” to “$1,000,000). At the end of the game, you add the value of your paintings to the amount of your cash on hand, and not surprisingly, the person with the most is the winner.

I didn’t know it at the time, but all of the paintings in the game are from the Art Institute of Chicago. Quite a few famous artists are represented, including Rembrandt, Renoir, Cassatt, Picasso, Whistler, Wood, etc. But my favorite was always “Nighthawks,” without question Hopper’s most famous painting, and most brilliant depiction of city life. It was a classic case of my not knowing how to define great art, but knowing what I liked. And years before I discovered Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the noir quality of Hopper’s work resonated with me.

And still does. The walls of my office at work are adorned with Hopper prints, and at work and at home I have a book of Hopper’s works. In 2006, I was lucky enough to see “Nighthawks” in person, while attending a conference in Chicago. I missed part of the conference that day, but it was worth it.

And now, a Hopper exhibit has just left Boston, and is opening at the National Gallery of Art. Hopper may be on the verge of becoming more famous than ever; certainly more famous than he was in life. It is recognition well deserved. If anyone deserves to be known as an American Icon, it is Edward Hopper.

The 50 Music Project: Into the Nineties

XXIII. It Was There, If You Knew Where to Look

By the nineties, I hadn't lived at home for quite a while, so putting this section together was mostly a matter of guessing which parts of my music collection my folks would enjoy. Thus, heavy on the lighter pop side of things, but not a lot of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, P.J. Harvey, etc. Even without those stalwarts, I think it turned out pretty good.

Wicked Game, Chris Isaak

The aural equivalent of a David Lynch movie. Eventually, it was featured in a David Lynch movie.

I Can’t Make You Love Me, Bonnie Raitt

To my knowledge, the greatest song ever written by an All-Pro NFL offensive lineman (Mike Reid, Cincinnati Bengals).

Losing My Religion, R.E.M.
Dance With the Tiger, Rosanne Cash

Kiko and the Lavender Moon, Los Lobos

An entire generation of kids is going to grow up, and when they hear this song wonder, “why is this band covering that song I heard Elmo sing on Sesame Street?” The song came from their incredible album Kiko, their first collaboration with producers Mitch Froom and Tchad Blake. An album of amazing depth, perfectly illustrated by the Duke Ellington-like horns which kick off this song.

Human Touch, Bruce Springsteen

The second time around, Bruce got that whole marriage thing right:

Baby, in a world without pity
Do you think what I'm askin’s too much
I just want to feel you in my arms
Share a little of that Human Touch
Feel a little of that Human Touch
Give me a little of that Human Touch

Harvest Moon, Neil Young
If Ever I Lose My Faith In You, Sting
Mr. Jones, Counting Crows
All I Wanna Do, Sheryl Crow

I’m Alive, Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne has never matched the fame and success that he reached in the late 1970s, but his 1990s albums were criminally underrated. His election to the Hall of Fame was richly deserved.

Connection, Elastica
Seasons of Love, Cast of “Rent”
Push, Matchbox 20
Hand in My Pocket, Alanis Morissette

Walt Whitman’s Niece, Billy Bragg & Wilco

Playing music to a set of Woody Guthrie lyrics that had been packed away for decades, Bragg & Wilco’s collaboration came totally out of left field, and exceeded just about everyone’s expectations. A classic case of the whole exceeding the sum of its parts.

I’ve Been Everywhere, Johnny Cash

Not Dark Yet, Bob Dylan

After nearly two decades of work that could only be classified as mediocre when judged against that which had come before, the release of Time Out of Mind in 1997 qualifies as one of the great moments in rock history. As good as anything Dylan has ever done, it was (in the words of Greil Marcus) “a bleak, blasted album,” one that proved in no uncertain terms that Dylan could still have an impact. A decade later, he is still going strong.

Ray of Light, Madonna
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams

Ghost In This House, Alison Krauss

The voice of Alison Krauss on this song is nothing less than a gift from God.

Man! I Feel Like A Woman, Shania Twain
I Try, Macy Gray
Smooth, Santana featuring Rob Thomas

Friday, September 14, 2007

Things I Can't Stand

...when two people decide to hold a conversation on a business e-mail, but continue to copy the other 29 people who were on the original e-mail.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The 50 Music Project: The 80s

XXII. The 80s

"The ‘80s were contradictory. The ‘80s were incomprehensible. The ‘80s weren’t as much fun as they should have been. " • Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Record Guide: Records of the 1980s

I think this is the biggest section in the entire project. It's probably also the section where I had to make the most painful cuts. In the end, I was pretty happy with it, although I really did want to give Madonna her own section. She deserves it. My life probably went through more changes during this decade than any other - I began it as a college student, in the middle I was a waiter spending late nights indulging in the night life more than I should have, and by the end I was married and had become a reasonable facsimile of a responsible adult.

Start Me Up, The Rolling Stones

Bette Davis Eyes, Kim Carnes

One of those glorious one-shots that comes around every once in a while. It sounded like it could have been a Joy Division outtake, but no – just a decent pop singer from L.A. with a gravelly voice.

Only the Lonely, The Motels
Jessie’s Girl, Rick Springfield

No Other Girl, The Blasters

If there were any justice in the world, The Blasters would have become huge stars, and today would be poised to celebrate their induction into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. As we know, life doesn’t work quite that way.

Kiss On My List, Daryl Hall & John Oates

Super Freak, Rick James

I’ll never hear this song quite the same way after seeing Little Miss Sunshine.

Seven Year Ache, Rosanne Cash

Tempted, Squeeze

The perfect homage to the Temptations. A great vocal from Paul Carrack. And now, a Heineken commercial.

Celebrate, Kool & The Gang

For quite a while in the early 1980s, this became the theme song for the Oakland Athletics. Every time the A’s won, you would hear this song.

Save It For Later, The English Beat
More than This, Roxy Music
Beat It, Michael Jackson
Freeze Frame, J. Geils Band

Every Breath You Take, The Police

Another one of those songs that I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard it – in this case pulling into the driveway, listening to the radio, and not wanting to turn off the car for fear I’d miss who it was.

Billie Jean, Michael Jackson

I’m really embarrassed to admit that, while in graduate school, I wrote a paper titled “The Political Importance of Michael Jackson.” Oh, well. At the time, it sort of made sense. Little did we know the horror show that was yet to come.

I Melt With You, Modern English
Burning Down the House, Talking Heads

Glory Days, Bruce Springsteen

Bruce absolutely exploded in 1984, reaching heights of popularity that he was probably never quite comfortable with. Fueling the explosion was Born in the U.S.A., perhaps one of the greatest "traditional" rock albums of all time. While it lacked the drama of Born to Run and the scope of The River, it served to remind folks that, in the words of Robert Christgau, “what teenagers loved about rock and roll wasn’t that it was catchy or even vibrant but that it just plain sounded good.” Sadly, over the years it has become a target of some who consider themselves “true Springsteen fans" as nothing more than his “pop album.” Don’t count me among those who think such a stupid thing.

Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper
Burning in the Flame of Love, The Del-Lords

Another one of the great unsung bands of its day.

Material Girl, Madonna

"If a woman wants to sell herself as a sex fantasy I’ll take a free ride – as long as the fantasy of it remains out front, so I don’t start confusing image with everyday life. But already she’s so sure of herself she’s asking men and women both to get the hots for the calculating bitch who sells the fantasy, even while she bids for the sincerity market where long-term superstars ply their trade." • Robert Christgau, review of “Like A Virgin,” Christgau’s Consumer Guide, Village Voice magazine

The Boys of Summer, Don Henley

When Doves Cry, Prince

Prince burst on the scene in the early 1980s as if he were the crazed spawn of James Brown and Little Richard. For the first few albums, sex was topics one through ten; as Christgau famously commented, “Mick Jagger can just fold up his penis and go home.” He hit his popular zenith in 1984 with Purple Rain, the biggest selling album of the year, backed by a hit movie. Nearly 25 years later, he remains a great artist, turning out excellent albums on cue, roughly every 18 months or so. He’s never again quite captured the zeitgeist like he did that year, but his spot in the Hall of Fame was richly deserved.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Tears for Fears

For my money, one of the most perfect pop songs ever produced.

Sharp Dressed Man, ZZ Top
True, Spandau Ballet

R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A., John Mellencamp

No artist in the history of rock and roll was served less by their initial burst of publicity than John Mellencamp. Dubbed by his manager as “Johnny Cougar” and dressed up like an ersatz amalgamation of “Ziggy Stardust” – era Bowie and “Born to Run” – era Springsteen, it took Mellencamp more than a decade to live that image down. For a while he was “John Cougar Mellencamp,” and then one day he quietly dropped the “Cougar.” At his best, he approaches Springsteen. Most of the time, he reaches a level that allows him to remain one of the most successful rockers of the past 20 years. I will admit, however, that I'm really tired of what I call "the truck song," played endlessly during NBC's Sunday Night Football.

West End Girls, Pet Shop Boys
Graceland, Paul Simon
Sledgehammer, Peter Gabriel
Where the Streets Have No Name, U2
I Want To Know What Love Is, Foreigner
Like A Rock, Bob Seger
Fall on Me, R.E.M.
Word Up, Cameo

ShakinShakin’ Shakes, Los Lobos

“Just another band from East L.A.,” my foot. Just one of the greatest bands that this country has produced.

Walk Like An Egyptian, The Bangles

The first fast song played at my wedding, February 1987.

Open Your Heart, Madonna

The second fast song played at my wedding, February 1987.

Detox Mansion, Warren Zevon
Brilliant Disguise, Bruce Springsteen
Fast Car, Tracy Chapman
She Drives Me Crazy, Fine Young Cannibals
Like A Prayer, Madonna
Free Falling, Tom Petty

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Question of the Day

...courtesy of son #2.

Would you rather have constant sneezes, or constant diarrhea?

"I Want To See You Game Boys"

I've been to the American Museum of Natural History, but I missed this. I find the quote incredibly moving.

An Ugly Win is Still a Win

Heck, I'll take an ugly win over a moral victory every day of the week.

No TV coverage on my cable package, so I listened to Joe Starkey and Troy Taylor's coverage of the game on KGO, which was cool - that used to be the only way to hear a Cal game in Sacramento, but now that they're good, TV comes calling just about every week.
The win helped with the Pac-10's case as being the strongest conference in the land, but not much. Based on yesterday's game alone, they may be the fifth best team in the conference! I don't expect they'll end up there, but they definitely need to step it up. Louisiana Tech will be no pushover, based on the close loss to Hawaii yesterday.

But, a win is a win.

The 50 Music Project: New Wave

XXI. Top Down Music For A Hard Top World

If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to pick one genre of music to listen to for the rest of my life, I would probably choose New Wave/Punk. What seemed like a fad when the songs first started to hit the airwaves around ’76 and ’77 turned into what Christgau termed “New Wave Hegemony” by the end of 1978. It seemed like every band in the world was pulling out their black suits and skinny ties. Many (most?) of them turned out to be poseurs of the worst kind, but the best music of the era remains vital to this day. Had I been creating this history for someone other than my parents, I would have included bands like The Sex Pistols, Gang of Four, X, Wire, Television, The Adverts, and several others.

Sheena Is A Punk Rocker, The Ramones

For my money, this remains one of the great summer songs of all time; not to mention of the great rock songs of all time. I heard it for the first time during the Summer of 1977, a summer that I spent most of time working at McDonalds and much of the rest of it listening to loud music in my room.

Thirty years on, the song has a generosity of spirit that reverberates to this day. What teenager of any generation, boy or girl, couldn't relate to the lines, But she just couldn't stay/She had to break away? Pretty much says it all.

And how about, Well New York City really has it all? Remember, at the time, the Big Apple was going through some rough times. Howard Cosell had decried fires in the Bronx during the previous year’s World Series (“the Bronx is burning!”), it was the “Summer of Sam,” and it was the Summer of the (first) great blackout. Yet, it was also the place where something great was being born, with the sounds of The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, and others.

Pump It Up, Elvis Costello & the Attractions

Listening to Elvis Costello is like walking down a dark, empty street and hearing another set of heels. His music doesn’t make you dance, it makes you jump. It doesn’t matter that he’s stalking his obsessions and not you, because nobody ought to be this sure of his obsessions. But Costello appears determined never to reach that age when, as Joan Didion once put it, “the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not.” This Year's Model, his second album in less than a year, is Costello’s attempt to make certain those wounds stay open. • Kit Rachlis, review of This Year’s Model, Rolling Stone magazine, June 1978

Take Me To the River, Talking Heads
One Way or Another , Blondie

My Best Friend’s Girl, The Cars

The phrase “top down music for a hard top world” comes from the initial advertising campaign for The Cars. Their first album was a breath of fresh air; they went on to a very successful career but never quite achieved the spark and verve that was the hallmark of the debut.

What I Like About You, The Romantics
I Wanna Be Sedated, The Ramones
Roxanne, The Police

Rock Lobster, The B-52s
Brass in Pocket, The Pretenders

Back in the days when I would do such a thing, I bought the debut albums by The B-52s and the Pretenders based on the covers alone. Looking at them, I just had the feeling that what was inside was going to be good.

Train in Vain, The Clash

The very first album I bought in the 1980s was London Calling, by The Clash. Ten years later, it was still the best album that I bought in the 1980s.

Whip It, Devo
Mirror in the Bathroom, The English Beat

Turning Japanese, The Vapors

You literally could not go a day in the Fall of 1980 in Deutsch Hall at U.C. Berkeley without hearing this song at least three or four times. It was lurking, waiting for you, around every corner.

Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads

I was lucky enough in October 1980 to catch Talking Heads in concert, in their first tour featuring the expanded band. Made famous four years later during the tour that was documented in Stop Making Sense, the concert film directed by Jonathan Demme, the band had yet to add the costumes and the staging - but the music was never less than sublime. And loud – it took my ears nearly a week to recover from the sonic assault of Adrian Belew’s guitar.

We Got the Beat, The Go Gos
Dancing With Myself, Billy Idol
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, The Police

Mexican Radio, Wall of Voodoo

Artists like Stanard Ridgway are, to my mind, some of the best reasons to obsess with popular music. Always lurking at the edges of the mainstream, probably wanting to become just as famous as those who actually are, but unwilling to alter their craft in a way that might make it more palatable for the masses. Every now and then, one will slip in and remind everyone what they’re missing. This is that song.

Rock the Casbah, The Clash

Friday, September 07, 2007

"Mohammed's Radio"

From a December 1976 appearance on "Old Grey Whistle Test," Warren looking impossibly young and innocent, joined by an equally young looking Jackson Browne and the great David Lindley on steel guitar.

This also is one of his greatest songs, though my favorite version of it is on the live "Stand in the Fire" album, with the altered lyrics "Ayatollah's got his problems too/Even Jimmy Carter's got the highway blues..."

Cal vs. Berkeley: Go Bears!

It was inevitable, I suppose: seeing the success of the Cal football team as a threat to an idealized view of life in Berkeley that exists only in their own minds, the city and some residents have chosen to take up the battle against the University's efforts to refurbish Memorial Stadium and expand the athletic facilities in that vicinity.

I don't know who authored this because the link to the full article was broken, but here's one example of the mindset, courtesy of the Berkeley Daily Planet:

"Up until this point I've tried to be polite, but now it's time to come out of the closet. I am one of the quite sizeable majority of graduates of elite universities who actively dislike all forms of professional football, including the so-called amateur teams fielded mostly by second-rate "athletic powerhouses." People like me tend to regard the whole megilla as breeding ground for the Michael Vicks of the future. We are not thrilled that our alma mater has jumped on this bandwagon with big bucks."

This is completely delusional, of course. It clings to an image of the University that hasn't existed for years; certainly not when I attended Cal in the early 1980s. In fact, it trivializes the real and important work that was done by the real political heroes on the campus in the 1960s; it makes a mockery of the legacy of folks like Mario Savio. It's sloppy thinking, and it's completely and utterly elitist.

The ironic thing? The system that is being attacked so gleefully today didn't attract a peep from these people until the team started winning. And now, people are actually looking at Cal in a different light. That's very threatening for the reactionaries who would call themselves leftists.

"Excitable Boy"

The Rolling Stone review of Excitable Boy was written by the late Paul Nelson, one of the best rock critics of that (or any) era.

Nelson loved Warren, and loved the album. It was the first Zevon album I ever bought, and I also think it's great - but I'm not sure it's quite as great as Nelson wrote at the time: "...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)." But there's no doubt that Nelson was a wonderful critic, and this review is filled with terrific nuggets:

"...[after the first album] there was some confusion whether he was just another sensitive (albeit unusually tough) singer songwriter or a Magnum-cum-laude rock & roller who ate gunpowder for breakfast..."

"...An intuitive artist, he's often both smart and crazy enough to shoot first at the most explosive subjects, then figure out the ramifications of whatever the hell he's bloodied later ("Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," "Excitable Boy," "Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns and Money"). This is a dangerous way to work—it isn't nice, and not everybody gets it—but you can claim some spectacular trophies when you're sufficiently reckless to risk safari on the dark side of the moon, where the gleam of the lion may look like the leer of the lamb..."

"...Almost without exception, Zevon's rock & roll songs command and demand your attention through the sheer strength of their creator's personality; they're not necessarily profound (though they can be), but they hit with such primary impact you don't have to think twice about them..."

Great, great stuff.

"Warren Zevon"

It’s a Zevon festival today, on the fourth anniversary of his untimely death.

This is the Rolling Stone review of his debut album (I know it wasn’t really the first, but for all intents and purposes it might as well have been), by Stephen Holden. Probably needless to say, the album got a good review, but Holden’s writing doesn’t knock my socks off. But the intro is good:

Warren Zevon’s first Asylum album is a contemporary comedy-western about Los Angeles. In images that are often mordantly funny and detailed right down to specific place-names, Zevon compiles a surrealistic vision of Hollywood that is one part Howard Hawks to three parts Nathanael West. Albums with a Hollywood-western theme aren’t new. But all the others have been made by die-hard romantics—the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell. In refreshing contrast, Zevon works almost exclusively with irony and satire. The appearance of an L.A. singer/songwriter who dares to puncture the seriousness of the romantics but who is also musically sophisticated enough to work in their idiom is long overdue. A competent pianist and guitarist and a fine composer, Zevon’s songs run the gamut from acoustic folk to hard rock. His best tunes even manage to use the romantic harmonies of Browne’s and the Eagles’ ballads to evoke pathos and humor simultaneously.

I especially like the contrast Holden draws between Zevon and the other major West Coast stars of the time. Of course, we know he got along well with Jackson, a close friend and mentor; he appears to have gotten on with the Eagles all right; but I don't think Joni Mitchell could stand him (if memory serves, there's a piece to that effect in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, but I can't remember all the details). But he definitely carved out his own niche.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Finishing Touches

Warren Zevon died four years ago on September 7, a little more than a year after learning that he had terminal mesothelioma. Upon learning the news, the great rock critic Greil Marcus commented, "From 1976, when he went public with "Desperadoes Under the Eaves" on the album "Warren Zevon," it has been more than a quarter century of gunplay and bravado, not for a moment concealing Zevon's loathing for his own betrayals and those of the world around him."

Marcus nailed it perfectly, and never did those betrayals (and anger) seem more evident than they did in this song. I think it's one of his best, and this performance from the Letterman show is a great one. He looks great, and almost sneers the key lyrics, "You tried to put...the finishing touches on me..." After having read "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," it's easy to imagine that Zevon had just broken up with someone; someone who had tried to change him. For the better, almost certainly. But he was what he was.

The 50 Music Project: Everybody Disco!

XX. Everybody Dance Now

It’s not as if dance music was something new. But Disco deserves a chapter of its own in any reasonable accounting of rock history. The genre took the country by storm in the mid-1970s and, fueled by the enormous success of Saturday Night Fever, led to an explosion and reaction that will provide study fodder for sociologists for years to come.

As with any other genre, the product in Disco ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. On the one hand, you had true innovators like Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards (the latter perhaps the most explosive bassist since the days of James Jamerson at Motown) creating visionary works like “We Are Family” and “Good Times.” On the other hand, you had absolute dreck like “Disco Duck.” And then, you had just about everything imaginable in between.

Get Down Tonight, K.C. and the Sunshine Band

Got To Give It Up (Part I), Marvin Gaye

When you’re a genius like Marvin Gaye, you can adapt to just about any trend. With this song, he conquered disco in spectacular fashion.

Staying Alive, Bee Gees
If I Can’t Have You, Yvonne Elliman
Night Fever, Bee Gees

To say that the Bee Gees dominated the airwaves in late ’77 and early ’78 doesn’t really do their accomplishment justice. Nearly 30 years later, it just seems all the more amazing.

Y.M.C.A., The Village People

There’s probably little doubt that one reason for the vehemence of the backlash against disco was that it gave every racist and/or homophobe in the country a “respectable” outlet for gay- and race-bashing. The Village People, a great joke if you got it, were probably one of the biggest targets. Their songs were little more than fast bubble-gum melodies with a dose of heavy backbeat, but if you took the whole thing as a package, it worked.

I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor
I Love the Nightlife, Alicia Bridges
Hot Stuff, Donna Summer

I probably shouldn’t admit this today, but there was a time in the seventies that I had a Donna Summer poster up on the wall in my bedroom. Fueled by the production of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer began as little more than a “disco diva” (just about anyone could have sung her early hits, and no one would have been able to tell the difference) but turned into one of the most effective female rock vocalists around. This was her finest moment.

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Michael Jackson

A young, confident Michael Jackson, acting as if he was poised to take over the world. And he was; what we didn’t know at the time was that he would lose it so spectacularly.

We Are Family, Sister Sledge
Funkytown, Lipps Inc.
Good Times, Chic

Stop the Presses!

Daily News exam finds math scores up when difficulty rating went down.

There's actually some good stuff in the article, but it's hard to get past that headline.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The 50 Music Project: Seventies Fragmentation

XIX. “We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis”

Throughout the seventies, the fragmentation of the rock audience continued, to the point where it was not just enough to dislike a certain artist, you had to publicly insult him/her as well. I remember a classmate in 1975 proclaiming that Elton John was “a disease,” and this was a guy who thought Harry Chapin was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

By the time Elvis died, punk and new wave had begin to hit the airwaves, disco was getting ready to explode, and the fans of all those genres had a unhealthy disrespect, if not hatred, for each other. All of this prompted one of the great and grand statements of the rock era, contained within Lester Bangs’ obituary of Elvis:

“If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

Tupelo Honey, Van Morrison
Rock and Roll, Led Zeppelin
That’s The Way of the World, Earth, Wind & Fire
Mamma Mia, ABBA

Sir Duke, Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder’s genius was a fact well established by 1976. But with that year’s Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder outdid even himself, creating a masterwork of such depth and diversity that it outstripped all that had come before it. This song, a tribute to the many African-American stars who had paved the way for Wonder and others, wasn’t even the best thing on it. But it brightened up the radio waves for weeks in early 1977.

Night Moves, Bob Seger

Absolute, pure brilliance. It seems like a small thing, but I’ve always loved the different ways that Seger uses the word “moves” in the song. Up until the very end, there’s no doubt what he means when he sings about “night moves.” And then, in the last, wonderful verse:

I awoke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in


Peg, Steely Dan
Rock ‘N Me, Steve Miller Band

Tangled Up In Blue, Bob Dylan

Who knew in 1975 that it would be 22 long years before Dylan would release an album as good as Blood on the Tracks?

Philadelphia Freedom, Elton John

1975 was the year of Elton John, and at the time he was my favorite artist. He scored two hit singles in the Spring, and then in May released Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the first album ever to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the Fall, he released Rock of the Westies, the second album ever to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. During all that, a triumphant tour, including a sold-out Dodger Stadium – the first time that had happened since four lads from Liverpool had done it a decade earlier.

Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Willie Nelson

The album from which this song is taken, Red Headed Stranger, turned Nelson from the semi-famous Nashville songwriter and performer that he’d been up to that point into the international superstar that he remains today. It is an amazing album; in his Rolling Stone review, Chet Flippo compared it favorably to the Bible.

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Paul Simon
Heroes, David Bowie
American Girl, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Comes A Time, Neil Young
Sultans of Swing, Dire Straits
Go Your Own Way, Fleetwood Mac
Dreams, Fleetwood Mac
Don’t Stop, Fleetwood Mac
Surrender, Cheap Trick
What A Fool Believes, The Doobie Brothers
Only the Good Die Young, Billy Joel
Lay Down Sally, Eric Clapton
Chuck E.’s In Love, Rickie Lee Jones
Move It On Over, George Thorogood
Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Pat Benatar
Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Queen

Monday, September 03, 2007

Wildlife Report

The Sunday Wildlife Report:

In the morning, our cat Scooter somehow manages to catch a frog in the backyard. Proud of his accomplishment, he brings it inside to "play." Stupid humans have much trouble catching frog; of course, now the cat couldn't be less interested.

But wait, it gets better. Lifting up the lid to the gas grill in the backyard at dinner time, what does dad find? A nice, healthy, disgusting rat. We're not talking "oh, he's so cute" mouse here. We're talking Willard. Just the thing one needs to get in the mood to grill up a couple of steaks.

Oh, the Humanity!

An absolutely hilarious reaction to the "upset of the century" on Saturday. The graphic alone is worth the price of admission.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


One of the most tiresome rituals in all of sports is the annual "kissing of the ring" that sportswriters and columnists feel compelled to bestow upon SEC football. Hey, those guys are good - I get it. They aren't that good. These things go in cycles. Even when Tennessee handed Cal a humiliating loss in last year's opener, the Bears ended up with a better record, and were ranked higher at the end of the season.

Still, tonight's victory was sweet revenge. Cal was probably overrated at #12 to start the season, but there certainly isn't anything wrong with their offense. Teams all season long will be hard pressed to match the tandem of Nate Longshore, Justin Forsett, and DeSean Jackson. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - six short seasons ago, Cal was 0-10 heading into their final game, against Rutgers, way before that team got good. Now they are a perennial contender for the Pac-10 title, and a threat to finish in the Top 10. That's good enough for me.

And as long as Jeff Tedford stays as coach, there's no reason to think that anything will change.

Roll on, you Bears!

The 50 Music Project: Broooooce!!!

XVIII. "I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen"

There was never any doubt when I began to plan this project that Bruce Springsteen would have a section of his own. He has been my favorite artist for going on 30 years now, and in my mind he is, without question, the most important rock ‘n roller of his generation. I’m sure my parents would have been disappointed if I hadn’t included him, even though they probably aren’t the biggest Springsteen fans in the world (they like him, but they’d probably never go out of their way to get any of his music). Heck, I even quoted a Springsteen song (“Tunnel of Love”) during the speech and toast that I gave at their 50th anniversary party, so he had to be a part of it.

With the exception of “Spirit in the Night,” all of these songs appeared on the remarkable trio of albums that began with the release of Born to Run in 1975. That album remains a landmark recording, one of the most important records of the rock era. As Greil Marcus put it so well in his Rolling Stone review, there was a lot at stake for Springsteen at that time with the release of the record. With the pressure on, he delivered an absolute masterpiece, one whose drama and passion has never been surpassed, by any artist.

It’s no coincidence that Born to Run was the first Springsteen album with which Jon Landau was associated. Landau, an astute critic of music, film and popular culture, wrote the legendary column that became the tagline around which Columbia Records built its entire advertising campaign for Springsteen. He went on to become his producer, manager, friend, and confidante. There’s little doubt that artistically, Landau has probably been the most important person in Springsteen’s career. I can’t pretend to know how their relationship works, but I have read much of Landau’s work for Rolling Stone (which began in the late 1960s and continued through 1976), and when you read the things that Landau writes about great artists, you can imagine him giving advice to Springsteen, telling him what he should strive for, the things he should avoid, and perhaps most importantly, helping him create the themes and images that have dominated his work. Not “helping” in the sense of writing, but simply steering Bruce in the right direction.

Their second collaboration, Darkness on the Edge of Town, is a great album in its own right. The sound is less distinguished, but the music of the best songs is deeper, more mature. If Born to Run was dominated by innocence and the desire to escape, Darkness was dominated by desperation, and the recognition by the main characters that “hey, there’s a chance I’m never going to get out of this place.”

The River, a double album of immense depth and ambition, is an album that you don’t hear much about any more. It’s one of my favorites, probably because it was in the fall of 1980 that I saw my first Springsteen concert, and he played 17 of the 20 songs on the album. To me, this is where Springsteen became an adult; many of the songs on the record depict people who have come to grips with their lives, and have begun to discover the things they can do to enrich them. But on the other hand, for those who have failed, there are terrifying songs: “Point Blank,” and “Stolen Car,” one his very best, where the protagonist lives “in fear/that in this darkness/I will disappear.”

I feel blessed to have seen Springsteen in concert 8 times, over the span of three decades. I’ve seen him in Oakland, San Diego, Mountain View, New York City, and Sacramento. This October, I’ll see him again in Oakland (don’t have tickets yet, but it will happen – trust me). I’ve seen him as a college student, I’ve seen him when I was wooing my wife-to-be, I’ve seen him with two of my very best friends in the world, and I’ve seen him as an adult (or so I like to think) with teenaged children. He’s had something to say that has enriched my life on each occasion. He is one of the best.

Spirit In The Night
Thunder Road
Born to Run
The Promised Land
The Ties That Bind
The River