Friday, February 29, 2008

"The Greatest Record Ever"

Continuing to move through the 1970s Soul mix-tape on the way to work this morning, the first song up was "I Can't Stand the Rain," by Ann Peebles. The quote that serves as the title of this post comes from none other than John Lennon, and I'm not sure I would dispute it.

This is an absolutely perfect record, and an absolutely amazing performance. Peebles recorded for Hi Records, along with Al Green, and this masterpiece can stand proudly alongside anything the great Green recorded. And as Green's great hits were, Peeble's smash was produced by Willie Mitchell.

It's also the rare record that gets better and richer with repeated listens, because then you begin to appreciate everything that is going on. I sure wish I could have been present when it was recorded, because when the band locks into a groove, just as Peebles is completing the first verse, the only words that can describe it are awesome and majestic. It makes me wonder - as it was being recorded, did they know that the track they were laying down was that good? Were they able to appreciate and enjoy it as it was happening, or was it just a case of consummate professionals at work?

The entire band is great - horns Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson, the Hodges brothers (Mabon on guitar, Leroy on bass, Charlie on keyboards), but the song is absolutely driven by drummer Howard Grimes. It's one of the best drum performances I've ever heard on any record. It's not flashy - Grimes isn't pounding the skins like Charlie Watts or Mick Fleetwood - it's powerful and subtle, at the same time. And when Peebles pulls back on the word "rain" just as Grimes hits the cymbal, it's just magic.

There's a lot of records out there, but if you're gonna call one "the greatest ever," it might as well be "I Can't Stand the Rain." As a matter of fact, I think I'll go listen to it again.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Providing Some Answers for Luther Ingram

Going back into mix-tape territory for a moment...

Heading out of the house this morning, I grabbed a cassette tape, one without a label, out of the grab-bag drawer of my music collection. It turned out to be a tape I made a few years ago of 1970s soul, after I bought Rhino Records' 6-disc set of that genre (which, by the way, was one of the greatest purchases of my life). About halfway through the first side, I got to "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Wanna Be Right)" by Luther Ingram, his biggest (only?) hit from 1972. I remember when the song came out, my mom disliked it enough that she even changed the station once when it came on - which was unusual. It was on the radio a lot that summer, and you still hear it on the oldies stations. But it wasn't until today that I really listened closely enough to the lyrics to realize that the protagonist of this song is one screwed-up dude. And Mr. Ingram (who passed away last year) is not to blame for that - the song was written by Homer Banks, Carl Hampton and Raymond Jackson. Let's take a look...

If loving you is wrong I don't wanna be right
If being right means being without you
I'd rather live a wrong doing life
Your mama and daddy say it's a shame
It's a downright disgrace
Long as I got you by my side
I don't care what your people say

So far, so good - after all, who cares what mama and daddy say? Although the reference to "your people" is a bit unusual.

Your friends tell you there's no future
In loving a married man
If I can't see you when I want to
I'll see you when I can
If loving you is wrong
I don't wanna be right

Holy cow - you're married? Well, all right - make your case.

Am I wrong to fall so deeply in love with you
Knowing I got a wife and two little children
Depending on me too

Married...with children? And little children? And I'd be willing to bet that they're cute as a bug.

And am I wrong to hunger for the gentleness of your touch
knowing I got somebody else at home
who needs me just as much

Well, you're obviously not stupid, because at least you recognize they need you. So the answer is...YES! You're wrong!!

And are you wrong to fall in love
With a married man

Stupid, yes. Wrong, probably. Let's just skip to the end.

I don't wanna be right
If it means sleeping alone at night

OK, I get that you don't WANT to be right, but if you are, doesn't that mean you'd stay with your wife and kids? If so, you're probably not dumb enough to tell your wife about the affair, which means you'd be sleeping with her.

I don't wanna be right
If it means coming home at night

All right, you lost me. Frankly, it doesn't sound like you deserve either one of them.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Drollinger Throws Up Another Airball

It isn't very Christian of me to admit it, but I really hated Ralph Drollinger (#35, in the middle of the top row) when he played for the UCLA Bruins in the mid-1970s. Rightly or wrongly (I think the former, but I'm willing to be charitable about it), I blamed him for UCLA's fall from grace after the retirement of John Wooden. Of course, that was ridiculous; a new day in college basketball was dawning, and the days of UCLA-type dynasties were over. In less than two decades, Duke would be hailed as a dynasty for winning two titles in a row!

But I have to say it - Drollinger just looked terrible on the court; awkward, without grace: the perfect illustration of Chris Berman's "bumblin', stumblin', fumblin'" catch phrase. To put it mildly, he sucked.

These days, Drollinger has made a name for himself as the leader of Capitol Ministries, which includes in its portfolio a weekly bible study for legislators in the State Capitol. And this is real fire-and-brimstone stuff; you're either with Ralph, or you're basically heading south (if you know what I mean). Periodically, Drollinger gets himself into trouble with one of his statements, and this week he's done it again:

Ralph Drollinger, who played basketball at UCLA in the 1970s and now heads Capitol Ministries, criticized lawmakers who participate in a separate fellowship group that embraces people of all faiths without insisting that they accept Jesus Christ as Messiah.

"Although they are pleasant men in their personal demeanor, their group is more than disgusting to our Lord and Savior," Drollinger wrote on the Capitol Ministries' Web site.

Drollinger, who has conducted Capitol Bible sessions for more than a decade, receives no compensation from the state. He is paid $120,000 annually by the nonprofit Capitol Ministries for evangelizing to politicians nationwide, records show.

Far be it for me, heathen that I am, to criticize anyone for their religious beliefs. But I will say that I strongly believe that this sort of thing has no place in the halls of the State Capitol. Having said that, it's the perfect symbol of how things have evolved (or devolved, if you prefer) in Sacramento. We've gone from the days of the Derby Club - when legislators from all walks of life (except women, I will admit that) got together, drank heavily, sometimes behaved badly, but at the same time stayed focused on the issues facing the state, in an atmosphere of good will (for the most part) - to now, when if you're on the other side,'re in for some mighty hot days and nights.

"Post-partisanship?" I think not.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Books of 2008: "Love Is A Mix Tape"

You either make mix tapes, or you don’t. And if you do, in all likelihood you obsess about music. You don’t just try to figure out which songs are good, and which songs aren’t. You take it a step further – you try to figure out which songs sound best together. When a series of great songs strung together ends up sounding like less than the sum of its parts, you wonder why. And when a series of fair-to-middling songs strung together ends up sounding like the best album ever made, you get a few goose bumps, smile to yourself, and wonder at the miracle which is music.

Rob Sheffield makes mix tapes. In Love Is A Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song At A Time, Sheffield – a rock critic and columnist for Rolling Stone magazine – tells the story of a “shy, skinny, Irish Catholic geek from Boston” (Sheffield) who met “a real cool hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl (Renee),” fell in love, wooed the girl with a mix tape, and got married to her without any real idea of what life would hold in store.

What life held in store was a few years of bliss, followed by tragedy:

We met on September 19, 1989. We got married on July 13, 1991. We were married for five years and ten months. Renee died on May 11, 1997, very suddenly and unexpectedly, at home with me, of a pulmonary embolism. She was thirty-one. She’s buried in Pulaski County, Virginia, on the side of a hill, next to the Wal-Mart.

Reading Love Is A Mix Tape, it soon becomes clear that, even though Rob and Renee didn’t have a lot in common, their mutual love of music was more than enough to make their time together one of enduring happiness. It wasn’t perfect; as Sheffield writes, there were songs for fighting and songs for leaving the house just as there were songs for the kind of things that married couples do when they’re feeling really good about each other. And as with anyone for whom music plays such a large role in their lives, the songs they listened to became the soundtrack of their life together. Which is as it should be – everyone should have songs that remind them of the great times in their life, as well as the bad times. For me, one such song would be “Round Here” by Counting Crows. For whatever reason, that happened to be the song that was cued up on my car’s tape player when I was driving home from the hospital after the birth of my second son, and on the 30-minute drive home, I simply hit rewind and re-listened to it, rather than allowing the tape to advance to the next song on the tape. So, even though the song itself has absolutely nothing to do with childbirth, it’s the song that will always make me think of that night.

Love Is A Mix Tape is a very good book up until the point when Renee dies, at which time it becomes a great, albeit heartbreaking, one. It’s hard for me to imagine the pain of going through the death of a loved one like Sheffield did. And for someone like Sheffield – who makes a living from listening to and writing about music – having the meaning of so many songs changed overnight must have been a shock almost as enduring as the one he bore from the initial shock of losing his wife. Fortunately, music also plays a role in his recovery. But even though life may be just as good, just as enriching as it was before, it will never be quite the same. One of my favorite passages is one near the end of the book:

After Renee died, I assumed the rest of my life would be just a consolation prize. I would keep living, and keep having new experiences, but none of them would compare to the old days. I would have to settle for a lonely life I didn’t want, which would always remind me of the life I couldn’t have anymore. But it didn’t turn out that way, and there’s something strange and upsetting about that. I would have stayed in 1996 if I could have, but it wasn’t my choice, so now I have to either move forward or back – it’s up to me. Not changing isn’t an option. And even though I’ve changed in so many ways – I’m a different person with a different life – the past is still with me every minute.

Monday, February 25, 2008

American Living

One last Oscar of the commercials. I rarely venture into a JC Penney store, but have to say that whoever came up with this ad campaign is an absolute genius. Hearing Robert Plant and Alison Krauss was quite a shock to the system - one of the pleasant kind.

"When Idealism Finally Gives Way To Reality"

A friend in Indiana forwarded me this article about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, which appeared in the February 22 edition of The New York Times. As the article makes evident, even though Smith and Carlos have been appearing together, they still have some major issues with each other.

I really don't think you can minimize the importance of what Smith and Carlos did at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. For those not familiar with their story, the article tells it succinctly:

Forty years ago, Smith won a gold medal and Carlos a bronze in the 200-meter race. They mounted the victory stand, raised clenched fists, and stood with heads bowed, wearing black socks and no shoes during the raising of the flag and the playing of the national anthem. For many of us, their silent demonstration — one part human rights, one part black power — is an enduring symbol of resistance and righteous indignation. For others, the demonstration was disrespectful and even treasonous. This much is certain: no one has forgotten the image.

Much more than the flamboyance of Joe Namath or the iconoclasm of Jim Bouton, the protest by Smith and Carlos on the victory stand marked a key turning point in how America viewed its athletes. At the time, Brent Musberger, a fair representation of mainstream sports media at the time, referred to the two as "black-skinned storm troopers." In Mexico City, the only sportscaster who even took the trouble to even ask Smith and Carlos (as they were on their way out of town, having been unceremoniously booted off the team) about the motivation for their actions was Howard Cosell. Smith and Carlos paid a high price for their actions, but they also paved the way for a generation of athletes who would soon begin to realize that in some instances, it was incumbent upon them to question authority.

And yet, as the article also makes clear, the two still burn with the competitive fire of the great athletes they were, and this fire threatens to trivialize what they have come to stand for. A simple joint interview devolves into some ridiculous bantering between the two that wouldn't sound out of place in a high school locker room. Frankly, they both come across as childish and petulant in this dispute. Smith takes Carlos to task for what Smith says is an inaccurate characterization of what he wrote in his autobiography about Carlos' worthiness for the Track & Field Hall of Fame. Yet, as the article goes on to say:

In fact, he wrote: “When John Carlos was inducted, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Now what did he do to get into the Hall of Fame?’ He didn’t win a gold medal, he had the 100-meter world record for about a minute, he had that bogus world record in the 200 in Lake Tahoe with the illegal shoe which was never counted. He didn’t finish college. I know that his name is there because of the victory stand. It’s another thing he has because of being on that victory stand with me.”

But even more outrageous is Carlos's claim, made in his autobiography and again during the interview, that he "gave" Smith the gold medal. It's hard to characterize this as anything but pure delusion. And thanks to modern technology, you can watch the race for yourself. Carlos may have thought he had the race won at the top of the turn, but there's no way you can convince me that he could have kept up with Smith's incredible surge towards the finish, which to this day stands as one of the all-time great moments in Olympics history.

In the end, the whole thing is sad. As the article concludes,

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were two of the greatest sprinters of their era and authors of one of the most dramatic demonstrations in Olympic history. They have 10 months left on their 40th-anniversary tour, 10 months to show idealistic students that the essence of accomplishing a great deed is mutual respect and the pull of a shared goal. Resistance and protest were the signatures of their generation. Change and hope are the calls to arms for this one.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

It's A Wonderful Night For Oscar

...actually, no it isn't. I'm sure it must have seemed a good idea at the time, but after a few years of late winter Academy Awards, I don't think there's any question that it was a huge mistake for the Academy to move the ceremony from its traditional late March/early April date to late February. There was always something about the Oscars that heralded the beginning of spring, and it just doesn't feel the same to watch them in front of a roaring fire and with a chill in the air.

And I don't know if it was the writers strike or just a general malaise, but everything about this year's ceremony felt a little off - from the just OK performance of host Jon Stewart to the surprising parade of b-list stars as presenters (Dwayne Johnson? Cameron Diaz? Give me a break. This is the Oscars, people).

In my annual contest, defending my 2007 title, I ended up with a dismal 11/24 showing - I forgot to bring the ballots home from work, but I can't imagine that this will leave me anywhere near the top. I did well on the "major" awards (missing only the two Actress categories), but pretty much struck out on everything else.

Notes from the show:

- Jennifer Garner...just imagine, she probably paid a lot of money for that hairdo.

- You really can't go wrong with clips from old shows, especially when they feature legends like Fred Astaire and John Wayne.

- Is it just me, or has Steve Carell really worn out his welcome? And it's really bad form to plug a movie that hasn't come out yet during the Oscar ceremony.

- Katherine Heigl - now there's a hairdo.

- I get that they want to move the show along, but to cut off the winners in the middle of their speeches, even when they're barely a minute long? This is the biggest moment of their lives, folks. Let them enjoy it.

- Man...with all due respect, those songs from "Enchanted" really sucked. Even the wonderful Kristin Chenoweth couldn't save the one she sang.

- OK, I suppose I get having Owen Wilson come out, but then giving him nothing to do? Just seemed weird to me.

- Renee Zellwegger has started to look like one of those aliens from Star Trek: Insurrection that went through too many treatments on the face-stretching machine.

- Nice paint job on your head, John Travolta.

- Cameron Diaz - Son #2: "that freakin' smile creeps the freak out of me!" Why is she here? And why did she go to Jennifer Garner's hair-stylist?

- Hilary Swank and Helen Mirren - now there's glamorous.

- Gotta love the Coen brothers.

All in best, a "B," and probably closer to "C+."

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar started a blog this year, hosted by the Los Angeles Times. Not surprisingly, it's damn good. Kareem has always been among the most thoughtful of famous athletes, and his blog is just more proof that he shouldn't be categorized just as a "famous athlete." He's one of the smartest guys around, one with the ability to comment and discuss any number of subjects with style and grace.

I'd have to say that he was my all-time favorite player. Back in the days before the Kings came to Sacramento, I was a big Lakers fan, but I started rooting for Abdul-Jabbar long before that. I remember the famous UCLA-Houston game in 1968 (I was seven years old at the time), and remember my uncle (who had spent a lot of time in Texas when he was in the service) calling my dad to give him a really hard time after Houston won that game, 71-69. Of course, Abdul-Jabbar - then Lew Alcindor - was not at his best that night, having been poked in the eye (by my California Golden Bears, no less!) in his previous game. A couple of months later, with Alcindor back and the Bruins out for blood, they embarrassed Houston in the rematch, with a blowout victory.

The picture accompanying this post is one of my favorite Kareem shot. Game 6 of the 1974 NBA Finals, in the Boston Garden against the Celtics. Double-overtime, Bucks down by one, 2 seconds left - everyone in the arena and watching on TV knows the ball is going to Kareem, so the Celtics push him WAY out on the perimeter in the hopes that he'll allow someone else to take the last shot. Fat chance of that. Double-teamed, Kareem pivoted, unleashed a 21-foot sky hook (!), nothing but net. On to Game 7 (which, alas, the Celtics won).

I suppose you could argue that Jordan surpassed the accomplishments of Abdul-Jabbar on the court - I'd argue with you about that, but concede that you might win the argument. But something tells me that we're not likely to soon see the "Michael Jordan Blog."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

Books of 2008: "Bridge of Sighs"

At long last, I have finished a book in 2008! As it so happens, it’s so good that it will now be the book against which all others I read this year is judged. And though there’s a long way to go, it’s going to be difficult to dislodge this one from the top spot.

Bridge of Sighs is Richard Russo’s first novel since Empire Falls, which won a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize in 2002. The two books are similar in tone, and in setting – both take place in northeastern towns which, to put it charitably, have seen better days. Bridge of Sighs is set in Thomaston, New York, about which the book’s protagonist states,

Otherwise, as I say, you’re unlikely to have heard of Thomaston, unless you work in medical research, in which case you may remember the now-famous study done years ago to explain why our cancer statistics were off any actuarial chart. The principal culprit was, as we all suspected, the old tannery, boarded up these last forty years, which dumped its dyes and chemicals into the Cayoga Stream, which meanders through most of Thomaston before finally emptying into the Barge Canal five miles to the south.

Within that setting the story is told, mostly by Lou C. (Lucy) Lynch, now 60, who has lived in Thomaston his entire life and has rarely ventured beyond the city limits. Lucy and his wife Sarah are preparing for their first trip to Venice. There, they hope to meet up with Robert Noonan, a famous painter who left Thomaston as a high school senior, in a car driven by Lucy, and never returned. At that time Noonan was known as Bobby Marconi, and he, Lucy and Sarah were among the key figures in each other’s lives. The story of how Marconi became Noonan is one of the most important told in the novel.

Most of those stories are told in the context of a history of Thomaston that Lucy is writing. It is a history that tells less about the city than it does about Lucy and his friends, their families, and how their interactions set them upon the course of their lives. Along the way we meet Lucy’s parents, “Big Lou” and Tessa Lynch, his uncle Dec, Sarah Berg and her parents, Bobby Marconi and his family, as well as characters that are minor, in the sense of the amount of time they appear in the novel, but not for the importance that they play – people like “Three-Mock,” Nan Beverly, and Perry Kozlowski.

It’s a bittersweet novel, because none of these characters is perfect – in some cases, far from it. And because it’s clear throughout the narrative that their town is dying around them, the book has a sense of dread inevitability – you know that things aren’t going to turn out well for everyone (after all, Noonan/Marconi wasn't trying to escape just for the fun of it), and you know that – much like life itself – there won’t be a traditional “happy ending.” The closing chapters of the book take it in some completely unexpected directions - ones which are somewhat jarring, but ultimately push the story closer to a logical, if still somewhat bittersweet, resolution.

In a lesser book, there might have been a clear moral to the story - something simple like "only by leaving home can you really find your true self," or if you prefer, "only by staying true to your roots can you be true to your self." Nothing is quite that simple in Bridge of Sighs. Some people leave, and some people stay, for motives pure and otherwise. For no one is it a simple choice, and for no one does it feel as if it were, without question, the right thing to do.

As with Empire Falls, Russo’s writing is brilliant. He has a rare gift of being able to craft a narrative that leaps off of the page, using language that approaches perfection in its composition and style. This passage, which tells the story of when Lucy met Sarah for the first time, is probably my favorite in the entire book. They have both entered drawings into the school’s art contest: Lucy of Ikey’s, the store owned by his parents; and Sarah of her late brother.

Sarah’s entry was a pen-and-ink drawing of a boy who looked to be six or seven years old, and you could see why it got three bold checks in the upper-right-hand corner. True, it looked like there might be something wrong with the proportion of the boy’s features. One eye seemed slightly larger than the other, and they appeared not equidistant from his nose. But they were alive, those eyes. She wasn’t drawing how the boy’s eyes looked. It was like they were real, that he was using them to see with. They made you wonder what he was looking at. You could tell right away that it was located just off the edge of the drawing and also that it worried him. And you could tell where the light was coming from. Sarah’s name appeared in the lower-right-hand corner, printed impossibly small, as if whatever confidence she’d had went into the drawing itself, with none left over for a signature.

“My little brother,” she said. “He died of leukemia. I draw him all the time. We’ve got lots of photos, so I draw those. When I try to draw him from memory, it never looks like him.”

“I’m an only child,” I told her, feeling inadequate for having nothing to say about the dead boy.

“Me too,” she said. “Now, I mean. It’s just my dad and me.”

“What about your-”

“They’re separated. After Rudy died, she didn’t want to live here anymore. I live with her summers. My dad teaches at the high school.”

“Mr. Berg,” I said, making the connection. Even in junior high, we’d heard all about Mr. Berg. Everybody tried to stay out of his English classes. “I hear he’s strict,” I said, hoping to imply that this was why kids didn’t like him, not that he had bad breath or body odor. I waited, expecting Sarah Berg to confirm or deny her father’s strictness, since she was in a position to know. When she didn’t, I noticed that her drawing of her little brother had taken second prize, not first. Nan Beverly’s watercolor of a spaniel puppy had won first, but I noted an odd thing about the three checks in her margin. Two were identical, in black ink, whereas the third looked different, in blue ink, as if someone had added it after the fact. Had Sarah noticed this? Though I decided not to ask, that third check mark reminded me of Karen Cirillo’s unshakable conviction that our teachers had everything worked out in advance, the Borough kids catching all the breaks. Looking Sarah Berg over more closely, I was surprised to discover she was pretty, something I hadn’t noticed before. Also, that she had eyes like the boy in the drawing, one slightly larger and lower than the other. After leading me across the room, she’d dropped my hand, but I could still feel the warmth of hers and wished there was someplace else for her to lead me.

“You should’ve gotten first,” I told her. “Yours is a lot better.” I said this last quietly, even though we were alone in the room. It was the sort of statement that, if overheard, could lead to a fight in the school yard.

“Nan’s is good, too,” she said, and I could tell she liked having a reason to say her name, as if that might make them friends. Which made me like Sarah Berg even more.

I was still holding my drawing of Ikey’s, and this gave me an idea. “Maybe you could draw Ikey’s someday,” I suggested, immediately feeling foolish. Why would she want to draw that? “You could show me which parts should be white.” Dumber and dumber.

But she smiled, as if the only thing holding her back was just such an invitation, and when our eyes met I half expected Sarah’s to shift to some point off in the middle distance, like Karen Cirillo’s always did. But they didn’t. They stayed right on mine.

Which must mean, I concluded, that I was still there.


“Winning Democratic primaries is not a qualification or a sign of who can win the general election. If it were, every nominee would win because every nominee wins Democratic primaries.”

- Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn

(Hat tip: Talking Points Memo)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Tribute to GE" performed by the Pleasant Grove High School Jazz band, filmed February 16. That's son #1, with the dark glasses, playing drums.

"Across the Universe"

Roger Ebert called it “a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical.” James Berardinelli said that it “fails spectacularly,” and went so far as to liken it to the Peter Frampton/Bee Gees version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, widely viewed as the Heaven’s Gate of musicals. And it’s not just those two reviews – as a perusal of IMBD and Rotten Tomatoes makes clear, few movies have engendered such widely divergent views. No question about it - people either loved Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe or absolutely hated it – with very few opinions falling in the middle of those two extremes.

You can count me firmly in the former category. Sure, the story is basically one cliché after another: a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-finds-girl-in-the-end story set in the 1960s that manages to somehow work in such seminal events the Detroit riots, Vietnam, S.D.S., and the takeover of Columbia University into the plot. As each major character is introduced – Jude, Lucy, Sadie, JoJo, Max – you can barely believe the corniness of it all, but at the same time you smile to yourself, waiting for the obvious songs to come.

And in the end, that’s what the movie boils down to – the songs. Were they embarrassing renditions of well-loved classics, the movie would be a catastrophic failure, and worth watching only for the pleasure of making fun of the principals. But they’re not – they stand on their own, in some cases (T.V. Carpio’s melancholy rendition of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”) less a remake than an entire re-imagining of the original. Lead actors Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, and Joe Anderson can all carry a tune, and with professionals like T-Bone Burnett and Elliot Goldenthal at the helm, manage to put their own spin on several songs where many would have considered it sacrilege to even try something outside of the original arrangement. “Girl” becomes a plaintive plight; “I’ve Just Seen A Face” becomes a rockabilly stomp; the emotional impact that Wood brings to “If I Fell” simply affirms the song’s status as a classic standard.

There are also several cameo performances that are accomplished with varying degrees of success: Joe Cocker’s “Come Together” is terrific, but while it’s nice to see that Bono occasionally has a sense of humor, his versions of “I Am the Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” don’t come close to approaching the intensity and inventiveness of the originals. Eddie Izzard’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is just plain silly and doesn’t really work, even if you take the accompanying visual into account. That’s probably the fault of the song itself, which is hardly near the top of Lennon’s pantheon.

What the reviews make obvious is that this movie won’t work for everybody. But much like Moulin Rouge, I found Across the Universe to be a wonderful experience: one that enhanced, rather than damaged, the Beatles’ legacy.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

An Era Is Over

If it is true – as The Sacramento Bee is reporting today – that Mike Bibby is soon to be traded to the Atlanta Hawks, the door is about to finally close on the greatest era in the 22-year history of the Sacramento Kings franchise. It was an era of great success – 8 consecutive seasons in the playoffs, several division championships – but one that will remembered most for its heartbreaking moments.

Those years – with Bibby, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Doug Christie, and Bobby Jackson leading the way – featured a style of basketball that was absolutely exhilarating to watch. With Divac playing the role of field marshal, the offense flowed like few others before it, and turned Sacramento into a place where other players actually wanted to play.

Of course, the high-water mark for the Kings was the 2001-02 season, when they were the best team in the league, but through a combination of poor free-throw shooting, terrible officiating, and Robert Horry, were unable to close the deal in the Western Conference championship series against the Los Angeles Lakers. It was one of the greatest series in the history of the league; 6 of the 7 games easily could have gone the other way from how they finished. My dad and I, part of a Kings season ticket group since the team’s inaugural season in Sacramento, were lucky enough to have the tickets to Game 7 of that series. Even though it was a painful loss of epic proportions, it was still an incredible experience. At the time, we thought it was just a matter of time before the Kings went all the way. As it turned out, that was their best chance, and they couldn’t pull it off.

Still, it was a great run. And now, by all appearances, it is truly over.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Your Bright Baby Blues"

"No matter where I am, I can’t help thinking I’m just a day away from where I want to be..."

Without question, one of his greatest songs. And who knew those longhairs serving as his backing band would turn into such capitalists?

"Problem Is, Power Corrupts"

In the L.A. Weekly, Marc Cooper ponders the descent of Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez into the "black void" that California politics has become. An excerpt:

Almost certainly, Fabian will soon resurrect as a private-sector lobbyist, most likely with his Big Telecom friends. But as a political figure, the markers he will leave behind are 10,000 extra slot machines we never needed. The most Núñez can now expect from history is that every time someone tosses a quarter into the black void of one of those machine's bottomless bellies, he will recall how Mr. Speaker threw away his once-bright political career.

In January, I sat and watched as Núñez introduced Governor Schwarzenegger's "escort committee," the legislators who would accompany the governor as he entered the Assembly floor to deliver his State of the State address. In less than a minute, he managed to mangle the names of two of the Republican members - "Strickland" became "Strickler," and "Hollingsworth" became "Hollinsberg." At the time, it was difficult to decide whether the gaffe was the result of shameful ignorance, or just shameful arrogance. The one certain thing was that it was shameful.

Is America REALLY Ready?

Kevin Henry of The Onion has his doubts:

I concede that the United States has had a competent African-American president in the huge black guy from the The Fifth Element, who did great things for this country by keeping the evil Mr. Zorg at bay. But that is years from now. There is no denying that by 2236, when we have flying taxicabs, this country will be ready for a black president. But until then, if we want life in this great land to continue as we know it, we owe it to ourselves to make the right choice and reelect Kevin Kline.

Read the whole thing.

A Valentine's Day Tradition

...courtesy of Sheila O'Malley. If you don't laugh out loud, please ask someone to check your pulse immediately.

Monday, February 11, 2008

"Send Lawyers, Guns and Money..."

I miss him. I wish there were new Warren Zevon songs to look forward to. It may be a small consolation, but finding gems like this keep the flame alive.

Hey All - We're Going Bird Watching!

(This is not a photo of me or my family. But it gives you the general idea...)

When I was 10 years old, my dad introduced my brothers and I to bird watching. He had been introduced to the pastime himself during a fishing trip with a buddy of his, and apparently thought that, short of hunting, which my mom was highly unlikely to allow, bird watching was just the sort of outdoor activity that would result in frequent, healthy exposure to fresh air – while building character in the process.

Actually, I have no idea if that was the motivation. Maybe it was just an excuse to give my mom a little peace and quiet every now and then. But whatever the reason, bird watch we did, and darned if it wasn’t fun. And don’t let anyone ever tell you that it’s easy, either. You try sitting still, watching a hawk through binoculars, while trying to figure out whether the tail pattern is closer to that of a Red-Tailed Hawk or a Swainson’s Hawk. And I can assure you that yelling “Hey stupid! Turn the other way!” like one of my brothers did once, doesn’t work very well. And sparrows? Give me a break - for one thing, they all look alike; and for another, they never sit still.

Fortunately for posterity but perhaps unfortunately for you, the reader, I still have my Birder’s Life List and Diary, which got off to a roaring start on December 30, 1970. Essentially, it’s a book that lists every bird that can regularly be found in the continental United States, with spaces provided for:


And so soon, a new feature on this blog will begin: a little tour through Jeff’s Birder’s Life List and Diary. Along the way, we may encounter adventure, and we may encounter comedy, but we will almost certainly encounter some of the worst writing you’ve ever read from the pen of a fifth grader. But go on the journey we will.

Post Headline of the Year

Courtesy of Geoff Shackelford:

Sunday, February 10, 2008

"You're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat"

Roy Scheider died today.

He hadn't been in anything "famous" in recent years, but he'd kept on working, and was always one of my favorite actors. Never flashy, just a hard-working guy who did his job, and was good at it.

Richard Dreyfuss:

"He was a wonderful guy. He was what I call a 'knockaround actor.' A 'knockaround actor' to me is a compliment that means a professional that lives the life of a professional actor and doesn't yell and scream at the fates and does his job and does it as well as he can."

Not a bad epitaph for anyone, no matter what the line of work.
Some great tributes to Scheider (with a special hat tip to Sheila):
The scene that Ted Pigeon describes in the last tribute is one of the best in Jaws, and in addition to shining a spotlight on the greatness of Scheider, gave movie fans an early glimpse of what makes Steven Spielberg special. Sometimes Spielberg goes overboard with the schmaltz (the final scene of Saving Private Ryan comes to mind), but when it works, it really works. And it's the little moments like this one in Jaws that elevate the film from what could easily have been a trashy exploitation flick (like Jaws 2, for instance) into the masterpiece that it is.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Considering Obama

I don’t think there’s any question that the most interesting, and potentially most important, story of the 2008 presidential campaign has been the meteoric rise of Barack Obama. To date that story has been an almost entirely positive one, dominated by Obama’s unquestioned charisma and brilliant oratory. But the signs are already pointing to a shift in the story’s tone. Now that it’s entirely conceivable that an unstoppable phenomenon has taken root that will sweep Obama into the White House, the level of criticism pointed at him – some of it well-considered, some of it unfair and somewhat desperate – has sharpened. For Obama’s success to continue, he needs to begin responding to that criticism.

Even with his success thus far, my best guess is that Obama should be considered the underdog in his race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. The analogy isn’t perfect because a lot of things have changed in the past 40 years, but Obama is capturing the hearts of the electorate in much the same way that Bobby Kennedy did in the spring of 1968. But in much the same way that Hubert Humphrey had complete and total control of the party machinery that year, a stranglehold that likely would have propelled him to victory even had Kennedy not been assassinated, Hillary Clinton (and Bill; fair or not, he must be considered part of the equation) is unmatched in her skill at in-fighting, and it’s hard for me to imagine that a brokered convention would end in anything but a Clinton nomination.

An interesting discussion has begun, over what exactly it is that is so appealing about Obama. Two blogs that I link to on this site, both of which I respect and are very well written, are coming at the discussion from opposite sides.

On Conblogeration (in this post, and elsewhere) Pastor Jeff has sharply criticized what he sees as a divisive, cynical political strategy clothed in a message about hope and unity. His problems with Obama are probably best captured in this excerpt:

This is why the Clintons get so frustrated with Obama. If you try to hold him to any specifics or criticize what he stands for (besides "change"), you're accused of being angry and engaging in the same old divisive politics (which is not to say the Clintons aren't divisive). But it's a little like nailing Jell-O to a wall. It doesn't hurt that Obama is articulate, handsome, and loved by the media. Contrast his coverage to that of George Bush in 2000. Yes, Bush benefited from family connections, but he did have experience running a major business and the second-largest state. He had something more to offer than a smile and a promise.Wouldn't it be nice if politics were less ugly? Wouldn't it be wonderful to feel hopeful and optimistic? Sure; yet America in 2008 is hardly in bad shape. We're certainly better off than we were in 1936 or 1968 or 1980 or, I'd argue, even 2001. Even the political divide in America is relatively small in historical terms. Yet the media and special interests who hate Bush have been relentlessly downbeat for his entire Presidency, and have convinced people that America is facing some existential crisis. The economy is terrible! The war is lost! The Constitution is in shreds! They sky is falling! And so Obama offers himself as a vessel into which Americans can pour their hopes and dreams for a kinder, gentler nation (hmmm - that sounds familiar).I can understand his personal appeal; but what exactly is the attraction to him as President? He's a great motivational speaker. He'd be a good preacher. The only problem is that he's not applying for those jobs; he wants to be leader of the free world. And for that, you ought to offer more than a mantra of change.

On the other hand, Michael Reynolds at Sideways Mencken has made the case for why people are able to look past the lack of specificity in Obama’s campaign, and embrace the possibilities:

But setting that aside, let's talk about Obama "groupies" and what we hope for from Mr. Obama.What we hope for is an opportunity not to coalesce around a specific issue, but around the idea that we are Americans first. We hope for a chance to demonstrate that we are not merely dozens of interest groups, that we are not this color or that, this religion or that, this ideology or that.We hope, in short, for an end to the Atwater-Clinton-Rove style of politics. We don't see that as an end, but as a beginning. Do we know precisely where we hope to end up? No. We don't. But we know from where we've been forced to start for many, many decades now. We've been forced to start divided. We've been forced to start fractured, split, manipulated. And we're tired of it. We're sick to death of it.We don't know where the road will lead. But we know where we want to start. We want to start off Americans first. We want to be together before we are separated again by political differences. Is that really so hard to understand? Is it really so contemptible that we want, at least for a while, to stop being angry at each other, stop despising each other?Note that I say that, "We don't know where the road will lead." I don't say that we don't know where Mr. Obama will lead us. It's less about what Mr. Obama will do, than what he will allow us to do.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I voted for Obama in last week’s California Democratic Primary. Having said that, there are things in each of the above statements that I agree with. I would very much like for Obama to begin spelling out the particulars of his platform, particularly with respect to foreign policy and defense. At this point in my life I am probably what once would have been called a “Cold War Democrat” – I’m liberal on social issues, but frankly frightened by the naiveté and lack of realism in most of what the Democrats say about the war against terror and the war in Iraq.

But on the other hand, I would argue that there is something very real and very authentic in my desire for a change in the political atmosphere of this country – what Michael refers to as the “Atwater-Clinton-Rove” style of politics. And what troubles me most about what Pastor Jeff says is that in essence, he is saying that I’m dumb; that I’m too stupid to recognize the Obama campaign for what it is – in his view, a cyncial attempt to exploit my desires. To that I can only respond, I’m not dumb – setting modesty aside, I’m a pretty smart guy: one who is very good at his job, one who works well with other people, and one who is perfectly capable of making up his mind on his own. But though I agree with some of what he says, there’s no room for me in what Pastor Jeff has to say – for him, you’re either smart enough to get that Obama is a fraud, or there’s no hope for you and you’ve doomed the country to…well, whatever.

And when Pastor Jeff assigns the blame for the failure of the Bush Administration to the evil specter of “media and special interests,” as nearly every prominent conservative I read has done at one time or another, he loses me completely. Because over the past seven-plus years, there have been many times when I was rooting for President Bush to inspire this nation, to make the case for his foreign policy, to rally this country behind him. Time and again, he has failed. His failure to take advantage of the opportunities before him – and there were many – will likely be the lasting image of his presidency.

So, yes – I agree that the country is doing pretty well overall; that for all of our faults, we’ve got a lot to be proud of. But we can be better – and to date, it is only the campaign of Barack Obama that is built on that premise.

At some point, hopefully soon, Obama needs to begin filling in the blanks. I may not like everything I hear. But for now – and you call me stupid if you like – I’m with him.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Super Tuesday Night: Quotes of the Evening

It was fun; watching (mostly CNN) while sitting in front of the TV with my laptop on a TV tray, going back and forth among a number of blogs and sites to see how things were being spun.

I don't have a direct quote, but I greatly enjoyed CNN's John King explaining, more than once, that it's really important for the candidates to do well in counties where there are more people. The first time he said it I thought it was kinda self-evident, but he kept coming back to it, so maybe not.

Stephen Green spent the night drunk-blogging, and came up with this gem:

"North Dakota goes for Obama, where the registered Democrat also happens to be a black guy."

But the hands-down winner of the evening was Mike Huckabee, who came up with this instant "in your face, loser" classic:

"I've got to say that Mitt Romney was right about one thing — this is a two-man race. He was just wrong about who the other man in the race was. It's me, not him."

For a brief moment, I almost felt sorry for Romney. There's no question in my mind that he thought it would all be over by now. He was right - it just didn't turn out the way he'd mapped it out.

I also had a lot of fun following the comments section on Hugh Hewitt's blog, as dozens of commenters (whether trolls or regular readers, hard to say) gleefully tormented Hugh for his unwavering "Mitt's still in this thing" spin-machine. Hewitt has an interesting task ahead of him now. After spending the greater part of the last month telling Huckabee voters that they were wasting their votes, he's got to somehow keep them in the fold when McCain wraps things up. It's a fine mess Hugh's gotten himself into, and watching it unfold will be highly entertaining.

Hillary's margin in California was a surprise, but as it turns out, her advantage in delegates was fairly slim. As last night made clear, this one is going down to the wire. Right now that seems exciting, but by May I'm worried that people might be sick of both of them.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a wintry Tuesday evening.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Rats...I Just Voted For Earl Anthony By Mistake

...when I meant to vote for Dick Weber.

Deadheads for Obama! It Must Be Super Tuesday

People all over California woke up this morning with a strange feeling; one they haven't felt for decades: knowing that their vote in a Presidential Primary can actually make a difference this time around.

I have to admit, it's pretty damn exciting. And making it even more so is the fact that the predictions are all over the map. No matter who your candidate is, you can find something on the Internet today to cheer you up - "McCain poised to wrap it up;" "Romney Surging;" "Hillary Prepared to Take Commanding Lead;" "Obama-Mania!"

I am usually the first at my precinct to vote (which for the last several elections has afforded me the honor of inspecting the ballot-counting machine), but I decided to wait today, just to beat the traffic on the way to work. And so what do I find when I get here and peruse the Internet newsclips?

It's been a long, strange trip indeed...and it ain't over yet.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sunday Zen

...Courtesy of A Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny.

Just In Case You Forgot About THIS Guy

Greatest Super Bowl Ever

...and one of the greatest games ever, period.

The New England Patriots didn't lose this game; the New York Giants won it.

- Eli Manning, welcome to the big time.

- David Tyree? Anybody hear of this guy? Well, now he has the greatest catch in Super Bowl history on his resume.

- Peter King - please, please do not mention the '72 Dolphins or Tiki Barber in your column tomorrow.

- And notwithstanding King's previous protestations over Barber's charcacter - I simply do not believe he doesn't wish he could be there tonight.

I may think of more later. Whew. This is the stuff that sports fans live for. Now, on to Super Tuesday.


Oh my God.


Tom who?

Two Minute Warning

Joe Who?

Randy Moss catches the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. How unlikely a headline was that a year ago?

If this isn't the greatest Super Bowl of all time...scratch is the greatest Super Bowl of all time.


Wow. No matter what happens from here on out, it's history in the making.

BTW - just how many drinks did Jeremy Shockey have sitting in front of him?

OK, Tom Brady - let's see if all those Joe Montana comparisons stand up.

End of 3rd

This is some unbelievable stuff. It's all there for the Giants to take, but I have a feeling the Patriots defense won't allow it to happen.

Mid-Third Quarter

The Patriots have the ball for more than 7 minutes and get nothing out of it?

Eli Manning, the table is set for you to be a hero.

Halftime Thoughts

Well I AM watching the Super Bowl, and here are some thoughts at halftime:

- The Giants - especially on defense - are playing like men possessed.

- The Patriots have to figure out a way to get Wes Welker involved in the offense.

- Eli Manning is doing just fine in his first appearance on the big stage.

- Steve Smith better get his sh*t together - I just have this weird feeling that the game is going to come down to a turnover or dropped pass, with Smith being the culprit.

It's a great game...I can't remember being this tense during a Super Bowl without the 49ers playing.

The Superior Ms. Althouse

A post during the Super Bowl to announce that you're not watching the Super Bowl? How self-indulgent. How superior.

Oh, Ann... in case you were wondering, football fans agree with you about Arlen Specter's latest crusade. Contrary to popular belief, we do have other interests.

Fred Dean Heads to Canton

It was great to read this morning that Fred Dean is finally on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Though Dean’s contributions to the San Francisco 49ers’ success of the 1980s are rarely mentioned in the same breath as those of Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig, the team’s acquisition of Dean early in the 1981 season was a pivotal turning point in the transformation of the team from laughing stock to “Team of the 80s.”

The first game that Dean played for the 49ers was one of the greatest defensive performances I’ve ever seen (the only one having a greater impact on my memory was a game Derrick Thomas played against the Cleveland Browns during his rookie season). The 49ers had started the 1981 season with hopes of making the playoffs in their third year under the stewardship of Bill Walsh, but got off to a difficult start, losing 2 of their first 3 games. But then things started to turn around – two straight victories, though hardly in dominating fashion. And with a 3-2 record, the 49ers prepared to host the 4-1 Dallas Cowboys, the team most folks considered the league’s best.

And on that day, Fred Dean was an absolute force of nature. The Cowboys had no answer for Dean, who played like a man possessed, and ate Cowboys quarterback Danny White alive. On the same day, the 49ers offense finally hit high gear. It was glorious – I remember watching the game in my dorm room at Berkeley, and then trying to convince someone down the hall (who had spent the afternoon studying) that the final score really was 49ers 45, Cowboys 14. A dynasty began to take root that October day, in large part due to Fred Dean.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Hillbilly Hare

For no particular reason, except that this is probably the single funniest Bugs Bunny cartoon ever made. Not necessarily the "best," but certainly in my top five (more to come).

The first time I remember seeing this was in June 1980, and we were on one of our periodic vacations to Southern California. At the time, Bugs was still a regular on the Saturday morning cartoons, and this one made my entire family crack up.

I didn't see it again for nearly 20 years, when it popped up on the late, lamented "June Bugs" feature on Cartoon Network. We now have it on an ancient VHS tape, along with 40-50 other Bugs classics, and I just hope the tape holds up a few more years.

According to the Wikipedia page on this cartoon, it was banned on network TV in the mid-1990s, because of its negative portrayal of the "hillbilly" stereotype. That's either some kind of commentary on our day and age, or just further proof that people don't have much of a sense of humor these days. Because if you can't laugh at this, even if you ARE from the Ozarks, then you probably don't laugh at much of anything.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Lileks To The Rescue

Not surprisingly, James Lileks says it better than I ever could:

"...Went home, slammed a few cups of coffee, did the Hewitt show. We had a semi dust-up over McCain. I do not share all his opinions on the man. I do not share all his opinions about Romney – although tonight I think I finally realized why I can’t get interested in Romney beyond a general appreciation of his skill and experience. When he talks, he doesn’t move the needle. He’s like one of those radio guys who has an absolutely consistent tone and inflection and pace; the parameters of his pitch don’t change. This is coming down to a contest of personalities, as usual, and even if you don’t like McCain’s briny persona, he has more personality than Mitt, and it’s genuine. Genuinely spiky, or genuinely engaged, or genuinely egomaniacal, or genuinely whatever you wish, but it’s real. I understand the dislike of the fellow and the distrust of his positions, but some of the vitriol splashed his way is over the top, in that snagging-your-pants-on-the-crest-of-Everest sense. This is the only election I can recall where a large portion of the grass roots seems to insist that hatred of the putative nominee is the true test of ideological fealty – and a path to success down the road. I mean, imagine you’ve just joined a group, and the leader says “We have a plan to win. The first thing we need to do is lose.”

Actually, I think Walter Mondale may have used the same playbook, but that was a long time ago.

I link to Hugh Hewitt on this page, not because I always agree with him on the issues (frequently, I don't), but because he challenges me - when I don't agree with Hewitt but I can't formulate a logical response in my own mind, then I know I need to do more thinking.

But in the past week, Hewitt appears to have thrown reason out the window; it's "put Romney over the top," 24/7. Each succeeding post sounds a little more desperate than the last - to the point where he now sounds like the guy at a party who's had one too many, but still he thinks he's charming. Any post now, I expect an analysis of how the Cleveland Indians actually beat the Red Sox, and won last year's World Series.

Dr. Z's Peerless Prognostications

SI.Com has a page up today where all of their football experts predict the outcome of the Super Bowl, accompanied by a "personal guarantee" about the game. By far, the best guarantee is that of Paul Zimmerman, the irascible "Dr. Z":

My personal guarantee for the game: National anthem to be sung in 1 minute 32.24 seconds. Vocalist will hit the turn (rockets red glare) in 28.55 seconds, leading one to believe that this will be the first sub-one minute Natl. Anthem in Super Bowl history, but tragedy will befall singer as she/he heads into Heartbreak Hill (O say does tha-at star spangled ba-a-ner-err ye-et wa-ave), which will be negotiated in a depressing 47.34 seconds, with lusty booing accompanying the last two bars, which will go on for an interminable length.

As long-time readers of his know, the singing of the national anthem is somewhat of an obsession for Dr. Z.

This year, Zimmerman has gone way out on a limb, picking the Giants to win by a score of 24-20. Even though they are playing their best football of the year - peaking at just the right time - and are brimming with confidence, I just can't see it happening. Maybe the record has me starry-eyed, but after all, the Patriots did go 18-0. Sure, some of the games late in the season were close - but every team they played after mid-November got up for those games like Ohio State gets up for Michigan, and it still didn't matter. I think it will be a good, possibly great game, but I'll stick with my prediction of 34-24, Patriots.