Wednesday, August 31, 2011


At the behest of son #2 and thanks to the miracle that is Netflix, we’ve begun watching Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and currently have made it through to the middle of Season 2 (or 3, I’m not quite sure). It’s an amazing show, but it’s not exactly what you’d call consistent. Virtually every episode has a moment that is truly cringe-worthy, and sometimes – but not always – those moments are hysterically funny. Other times, they just make you cringe.

I have a theory – I don’t think David and his creative team have any idea, when they begin filming an episode, how funny it’s going to be. They just plow through, and if it works, great. If it doesn’t, well…there’s always another episode. For me, the best moments are those which focus on David’s relationship with his wife Cheryl, and his manager/friend Jeff (and Jeff’s hilarious wife Susie). The “special guest star” moments are hit-and-miss; it’s hard to imagine interplay between David and Ben Stiller falling flat, but in the last few episodes we watched (where the two are starring in “The Producers”), it sort of did.

But there’s no doubt that we’ll keep watching, because when the moments are good, they’re spectacularly so.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saturday Night Lights

The Pleasant Grove Eagles are on ESPN tonight, and they're leading 14-6 at halftime. Both sons have attended the school, and Son #2 is currently a senior. We'd probably be at the game tonight, but it's his 17th birthday, so I can't blame him for wanting to do something a little different.

Section champs last year, and this year they're ranked nationally. Should be another fun season - they have 17 returning starters, and it's hard to imagine they won't make a run deep into the postseason.


OK, so I know that this is about the worst cliche that anyone could imagine. Sorry, but I just can't help myself.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Profiting from Demise

I almost feel guilty, but at the same time, there's no way I could pass up 60% off for these gems. Snagged the last copy of the Chernow in the store.

American Top 40 Flashback - K.C. and the Sunshine Band

A great disco song, a great summer song...a great song, period.

"Get Down Tonight," K.C. and the Sunshine Band, the #1 this week in 1975.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Top 50 Albums, #45 - "Decoration Day," Drive-By Truckers

Even though I’ve been actively listening to them for less than two years, there was no way I could leave the Drive-By Truckers off of this list. After all, it’s not their fault that I was so stupid for so long and never found the wisdom to give them a listen until a friend and colleague practically shoved a CD of theirs in my face. If anything, I’m underrating them, but that’s OK given their relatively recent entry into my pantheon of favorites.

The difficult thing was deciding which of their albums was best. It boiled down to three candidates: “Southern Rock Opera,” their epic 2002 song cycle about what it means to have come from the South and be a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan; “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” the 2008 epic that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was indeed life after Jason Isbell; and the album I’m going to write about here.

With its 15 songs, “Decoration Day” is the perfect representation of what Drive-By Truckers do best: tell stories. The band has always been blessed to have two great songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, and have been joined in that regard over the years by Jason Isbell, who began his tenure with the band with this album, and Shonna Tucker, once married to Isbell and now the band’s bassist. Though the band’s musicianship is hard to resist, their lyrics are meant to be listened to, and evidenced by the one concert I attended (a memorable night in Chicago, and one of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen), the hardcore fans are doing a great job of that – singing along, loudly, with almost every song.

“Hell No, I Ain’t Happy”

Hood’s knack for spinning a great tale is evident from the album’s first song, “The Deeper In.” The song begins quietly, with Hood singing acapella, so you really have no choice but to listen to the story he is telling:

By the time you were born there were four other siblings
with your Mama awaiting your Daddy in jail.
Your oldest brother was away at a home
and You didn’t meet him till you was 19 years old.
Old enough to know better, old enough to know better
but you took to his jaw line and long sandy hair.
How he made you feel like none of the others
and the way he looked at you
touched you deep down in there.

Thus begins what is surely the only song on a popular music album based on incest – in fact, inspired by a magazine article about the only two people serving time in America for consensual brother/sister intercourse. But within a few short lines, Hood has managed to finely draw both characters, and create a situation where you can understand (if not necessarily condone) what happened, and even sympathize with the situation. All you’re left to wonder is how the story ends, and in the last verse you find out what you probably knew all along.

Last night you had a dream about a Lord so forgiving
He might show compassion for a heathen he damned.
You awoke in a jail cell, alone and so lonely
Seven years in Michigan.

“The Deeper In”

With “Sink Hole” and “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” you get to hear the band’s bread-and-butter, the “Skynyrd-influenced, three-pronged guitar attack grungy Patterson Hood potboiler” type of song that sounds so terrific live. But even as the three guitars make you reminisce for Rossington, Collins, King, Gaines and the whole bunch, you catch another snippet of lyric, perhaps a line or two, and what you hear – maybe “bury his body in the old sinkhole...”, or “one night in Kansas City, we thought about killing a man” – and you remember that you’d better get out the lyric sheet and find out just what these songs are about.

Patterson Hood has written dozens of great songs, but I don’t know that he’s ever come up with a set of classics that match those he wrote for “Decoration Day.” It’s really hard to single out just one. In addition to those already mentioned, he contributes a classic rocker (“Do It Yourself”), a frightening little family melodrama (“Your Daddy Hates Me”), and two of his very greatest songs. On “(Something’s Got to) Give Pretty Soon,” Hood paints a vivid picture of a relationship that is doomed to failure, a tale made all the more poignant by the fact that the man clearly recognizes the end is near:

Maybe what you need’s
for someone to send you flowers
Someone strong and mean
Who can prove has the power
to show you more than charm
and take you on your way
to where you want to be at the end of the day
and it breaks my heart in two to know it ain’t meant to be
but, it ain’t me. It ain’t me.

And on “My Sweet Annette,” he spins a short story with a twist so unexpected you might think it was written by O. Henry or Roald Dahl.

Me and my Annette, we was as fond as we could be
We was set to marry in October 33
I set my sights on courting her, as fine as she could be
I never even noticed her best friend Marilee
Took a job at the saw mill and I bought my girl a ring
Had a pre-wedding party, close friends and family
Everything was fine, eating homemade ice cream
I swear I never noticed maid of honor, Marilee
My Sweet Annette was left standing at the altar.

I wish Johnny Cash had lived long enough for Rick Rubin to find that song, because a Cash version would have been a wonderful gift.

“My Sweet Annette”

After having mentioned “Heathens”, I have to note the contributions to the album of John Neff (who in a few years would join the band as a regular member) on Pedal Steel. Particularly on “Heathens,” a song that is not meant to be particularly happy or uplifting, Neff’s evocative playing is just as important to the song as Hood’s lyrics (or his singing, which is marvelous). When, at the end of the song, he plays point/counterpoint with Scott Danborn on fiddle, it sounds like the tears of the protagonist as they flow down his face. Marvelous stuff.

And let’s not forget Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell. Cooley doesn’t write as much as Hood (overall, I’d guess the band’s output is 2/3 Hood, 1/3 Cooley); on “Decoration Day” he wrote (and sings lead on) just 4 tunes. This is a generalization, but Cooley’s songs tend to be a little more raucous than Hood’s, and in concert the band does an effective job of getting the crowd worked up with what I call the “classic Cooley rockers.” The only song on the album you could describe that way is “Marry Me,” a raucous tale starring a couple that probably shouldn’t get within ten miles of the wedding chapel. Cooley’s other songs – “Sounds Better in the Song,” “When the Pin Hits the Shell,” and “Loaded Gun in the Closet” – demonstrate that he can spin a tale just as well as Hood. And Isbell? Just two songs, but both great ones – “Outfit,” a nice little story about a would-be rocker listening to some advice from his pa, and the album’s title track.

“Marry Me”

From start to finish, the album is unbelievably strong. It may not contain the best individual songs the band has played over the course of its career (but it may), but I don’t think the band has ever maintained this incredible level of consistency.

Decoration Day (2003). Produced by David Barbe.

Track Listing:

The Deeper In/Sink Hole/Hell No, I Ain’t Happy/Marry Me/My Sweet Annette/Outfit/Heathens/Sounds Better in the Song/(Something’s Got to) Give Pretty Soon/Your Daddy Hates Me/Careless/When the Pin Hits the Shell/Do It Yourself/Decoration Day/Loaded Gun in the Closet

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We Call Them Giants

Over time, it may be that the world championship won by the San Francisco Giants in 2010 will be regarded as one of the more miraculous championships in the history of the sport. I say that as a loyal fan, one who is suffering at the moment through one of the worst slumps the Giants have endured in many a year.

If you think about it rationally, there isn't much difference between this year's team and last year's. Frankly, we should be happy we have a winning record right now, given how horrible the offense has been this season. How horrible? Well, right now Dave Fleming and Mike Krukow are covering tonight's game against San Diego, and Fleming just commented on what a positive development a 3-0 count was - because it was a "hitter's count." When you hear that kind of stuff, you know you're in trouble.

We have great pitching, and terrible hitting. But even though the cliche is that good pitching always beats good hitting, you still have to score a run every once in a while.

Hey, the season isn't over. We're only one game out. In my lifetime, a team that won 85 games in the regular season won a World Series. Miracles do happen. But right now I feel like we used up a lot of our karma last year, and that's OK. A lot of teams are out of it right now, and we're not.

Monday, August 22, 2011

R.I.P. Lieber and Ashford

Each of them was half of a great, great songwriting team - Jerry Lieber with Mike Stoller, and Nickolas Ashford with Valerie Simpson. They both died today, so it seems only fitting to pay tribute with a 7-song perfect playlist of some of their greatest hits.

"Hound Dog," Lieber and Stoller

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Ashford and Simpson

"Kansas City," Lieber and Stoller

"California Soul," Ashford and Simpson

"Love Potion No. 9," Lieber and Stoller

"Let's Go Get Stoned," Ashford and Simpson

"Stand By Me," Lieber and Stoller

I Guess He Didn't Get It, Either...

Interesting comments from Sean Penn on "The Tree of Life."

This may go some ways toward explaining why the Penn scenes were the least effective ones in the film.

I enjoyed and admired the film, but I definitely felt that the Penn scenes were the movie's weak link.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

When 1 + 1 = Much Greater Than Two

...we start with the vocal...

...then we add the instrumental backing...

...and we end up with one of the greatest songs of your lifetime, my lifetime, anyone's lifetime.

Top 50 Albums, #46 - "Actually," Pet Shop Boys

Calling Neil Tennant a bored wimp is like accusing Jackson Pollock of making a mess. Since the bored wimp is his subject and his medium, whether he actually is one matters only insofar as the music sounds bored and/or wimpy--and only insofar as that's without its rewards and revelations. From Dusty Springfield to hit Fairlight to heart beats and from insider shopping to kept icon to Bowiesque futurism, this is actual pop music with something actual to say--pure commodity, and proud of it. - Review of “Actually,” Robert Christgau (who gave it an A-)

When Pet Shop Boys first made their mark on the pop world with the magnificent single “West End Girls,” one could have been forgiven for wondering whether they were a flash in the plan, one-hit wonder kind of artist. A lot of 80s dance hits fell into that category – great songs from bands or artists you never heard from again – and yet, PSB are still going strong today, almost 30 years since their initial foray onto the charts. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, they are the most successful pop duo in UK history, and have sold more than 100 million albums.

I haven’t followed them religiously; in fact, I don’t think I’ve bought one of their new albums in over ten years. But I am quite comfortable saying that “Actually” is a masterpiece in the grand tradition of British pop. It’s not what you would call flat out rock and roll by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, I’m not sure if there is a single guitar on the entire album. But the strength of the music is such that its power has not diminished in the 24 years since the record was released, and it sounds as timely today as it did in 1987.

There are interesting lyrics sprinkled throughout the album, but I think the best way to pay tribute to it is simply let the songs speak for themselves.

“What Have I Done To Deserve This,” featuring Dusty Springfield


“I Want to Wake Up”


“King’s Cross”

I also remember a review from the 1980s, long lost now, that compared the PSB’s music to that of John Barry, the great composer of film scores. On “King’s Cross,” I think you can hear that – it’s just a gorgeous pop song.

Pet Shop Boys, Actually. (1987)

Tracks produced by Julian Mendelsohn, Stephen Hague, Pet Shop Boys and David Jacob, Pet Shop Boys and Shep Pettibone, and Andy Richards & Pet Shop Boys.

Track listing: One more chance/What have I done to deserve this?/Shopping/Rent/Hit music/It couldn’t happen here/It’s a sin/I want to wake up/Heart/King’s Cross

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"The Last Picture Show"

Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in the mornings early, when the streets were completely empty, the way they were one Saturday morning in late November. The night before Sonny had played his last game of football for Thalia High School, but it wasn’t that that made him feel so strange and alone. It was just the look of the town.

Thalia is a town in the northernmost part of Texas, one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone else and there are few secrets. It is that period of time between World War II and the Korean War, and there is a clear pecking order when it comes to the social strata. For someone getting ready to graduate from high school, there isn’t much to do in Thalia except hang out at the pool hall, the diner, or the picture show. Thalia is the setting of “The Last Picture Show,” by Larry McMurtry.

In Thalia we meet the novel’s main characters – Sonny Crawford, Duane Jackson, and Jacy Farrow, all of whom are on the cusp of graduating from high school. Sonny and Duane are best friends, and in addition to being co-captains of the football team, share a love (though “lust” may be the more appropriate word) for Jacy, the only one among the three of them who appears to have an easy road out of the town (she is planning to go to college) and into the “real world.”

“Is growin' up always miserable?” Sonny asked. “Nobody seems to enjoy it much.”

“Oh, it ain't necessarily miserable,” Sam replied. “About eighty percent of the time, I guess.”

The tone is melancholy throughout – even when Sonny and Duane are out “having fun,” the escapades have a desperate feel to them, such as the time when, on a whim, they decide to explore the pleasures that Mexico has to offer. The adults, as evidenced by Sam the Lion (who owns the town’s pool hall, diner, and picture show), don’t give the kids much to look forward to. Though some, particularly Sam, are drawn as sympathetic, they are all flawed (some deeply so), not particularly happy, and all somewhat trapped by the parameters of their own individual circumstances – whether it be an unhappy marriage, a dead-end job, or simply not being understood for what they are.

McMurtry doesn’t paint a sentimental or nostalgic picture, but that is what gives the novel its power. And just like he did in “Lonesome Dove,” he demonstrates a knack for creating female characters who are just as strong as their male counterparts. In this regard, I’m thinking less of Jacy (who is probably the least sympathetic character in the entire book) than Ruth Popper, trapped in a loveless marriage, Genvieve, trapped in a low-end job, and even Jacy’s mother Lois, trapped in a life – as comfortable as it is – that seems far removed from the dreams she once had.

This one sat on my shelves for years, but I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - "Brother Louie"

Since I'm on a total "Louie" kick these days, it makes sense to honor the show in a sort of a backhand way by featuring this #1 song by Stories, which more or less dominated the airwaves on AM Radio during the summer of 1973.

Now, to be fair, the version of the song played on his show is the Ian Lloyd version, but since it sounds exactly the same as this one, I'm not sure it makes a huge difference. And of course the song was written by Errol Brown and originally recorded by Brown's band Hot Chocolate, which finally had their American smash a couple of years later with "You Sexy Thing."

"Brother Louie," Stories, the #1 song this week in 1973.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

We're Number One!

Through some mystical quirk of fate, my long ago post quoting Lester Bangs' famous obituary for Elvis Presley has made it to the #1 slot on what appears when you Google "Lester Bangs on Elvis."

So welcome, Elvis and Lester fans. Hope you find something else you enjoy while you're here.

Not Everyone Gets To Be The King

One moment, he's goofing off, having fun with his friends.

And then, suddenly, as if turning on a switch - danger fills the air, and each note cuts like a knife.

There is a reason, after all, they called him the King.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Before it slips my mind entirely, I have to say a few words about last week's episode of "Louie." Actually, there were two episodes last week, and they were equally good, for entirely different reasons.

And if you're not watching it, then by all means get cracking. The first season is on DVD, and you can catch most of the second (current) season On Demand. And if you're not familiar with Louie C.K., the star of the show, then just head over to YouTube and do a quick search. And if you're not laughing out loud midway through the first clip, well...then "Louie" is not the show for you.

The episode the other night (and it's impossible to tell without spoilers, so consider yourself warned) was called "Eddie," and it told the story of Louie being paid a visit by an old friend, a fellow comic named Eddie, whom he hasn't seen for close to 20 years. The two were once friends, but had a falling out when Louie started to hit it big, and Eddie didn't.

From the first time you lay eyes on Eddie, you can tell why he didn't make it. The man is singularly unpleasant, and is one of those people who can't have a simple conversation without starting a fight. So, another comic's innocent remark, "you from L.A.?" nearly turns into blows. A while later, the same thing happens in a liquor store, when Eddie quickly becomes offensive and threatens to take the head off of the store's owner. All the while, you can see Louie begin to remember why he and Eddie aren't friends any more.

In sum, Eddie has been severely defeated by life. Although he can still be brilliant when the occasion demands (as he proves during an open-mic set in a seedy Brooklyn club), he has nowhere to go, and all of his bridges have been burned. After driving around for a while with Louie, he tells him that he's planning to kill himself, right after he finishes his last show, up in Maine. He just wanted Louie to know, and to say hello one last time.

And what happens next is what separates "Louie" from most of the other sitcoms that you've ever seen on TV. In the "perfect world" type of sitcom, Louie would get a stricken look on his face, proceed to talk his friend out of doing it, the two would hug, cue the sappy music...

And that is how the scene starts. But then Louie stops himself, and realizes that there's really not much he can say that is going to make a difference, one way or another. So he shakes Eddie's hand, and says something along the lines of "you know, who the hell am I to be telling you what to do with your life at this point? I knew you once, but I haven't thought much about you in 20 years. " He wishes Eddie well, shakes his hand, and tells him that he's going to take the subway back home. And he does...cue to black.

It's one of the most striking, if not remarkable, moments I can remember seeing on any television show. Brutal, yet heartbreaking, in its honesty. Brilliant in its simplicity, yet as layered as a great short story.

"Louie." Thursdays, on FX. I don't even mind plugging it.

At the Park

Brain/Body Dialogue

The last time I went running was last Monday, and predictably the brain is starting to scream at the body, "get your ass out there and run!"

To which the body replies, quite understandably, "Hey brain, you wanna STFU? Remember last Wednesday, the anesthesia, the surgery, the pain, the struggle getting up and down the stairs the past few days?"

According to the doctor, it will be at least another week. Right now I'm skeptical, which means there are lots of brain/body dialogues to look forward to.

Speaking of running, every now and then when I'm out on my path, I see this guy running without shoes. And fast...a heck of a lot faster than I've ever gone in my life. And he always seems to have this serene look on his face, like he's reached some higher plane or something.

Which is all well and good, but...running without shoes? WTF is up with that? Why would you even want to do that? Abebe Bikila in the 1960 marathon is one thing...but hey, he grew up running without shoes, in Ethiopia. Suburban Elk Grove? Not quite the same thing.

American Top 40 Flashback - Bee Gees

Strange to be doing one of these on a Sunday morning, you say? Not really - after all, that's when "American Top 40" used to play, at least in these parts.

And so today we bring you a bit of foreshadowing - a song that isn't much more than a footnote to history, but man what a footnote.

By the summer of '75, Disco was really making a dent, and starting to gain a stranglehold on the airwaves. Rolling Stone magazine ran a feature on the craze that summer, including a section featuring clay figures that showed you how to dance "The Hustle" and some of the other hot moves of the time.

So out of the blue that summer came a song by a group of old Australian white guys who were quite obviously just trying to cash in on the craze...right? This HAD to be a cynical move designed to do little more than put just a bit more cash in their pockets, and keep them on the state fair circuit...right?

Little did we know at the time that "Jive Talkin'" was just the beginning, and that in three short years these dudes would be the biggest act on the planet.

At the time, it just seemed like a lightweight, fairly innocuous dance tune. "Jive Talkin'," the Bee Gees, the #1 song this week in 1975.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Catching Up: "Super 8," "Deathly Hallows"

I’m so far behind on writing about movies that anything interesting I had to say has probably seeped out of my brain by now. But that’s never stopped me before, so…

Over the July 4 weekend, we saw J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8,” and I can’t disagree with the critical conventional wisdom that labeled it the kind of movie Steven Spielberg (a producer of Abrams’ film) used to make, back in the mid-1970s when he was on his way to becoming a legend. Ultimately it’s a monster movie, but it has the good sense to keep its monster a mystery for most the proceedings, which allows its characters (most of whom are kids making their own movie – a zombie flick – on the “Super 8” film of the title) to be fleshed out, and its story to be developed. In the reviews I read, most of the focus was on the father/son relationship between Jackson and Joe Lamb (Kyle Chandler and Joel Courtney, respectively), but I found the relationship between Joe and the pretty, somewhat mysterious Alice Dainard (a terrific Elle Fanning) to be more emotionally effective. You’ve also got some vintage 70s-era military paranoia creeping throughout the proceedings, as well as one of the best train wreck scenes you’re ever going to see in a movie. All in all, it’s everything that you would expect to find in a summer flick.

And then, of course, there was “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” As I am sure is the case with thousands of families through the country and the world, the Potter books and movies will always be a part of our family history. When the first books came out, our kids were barely old enough to read. With the release of the final movie, the youngest is about to begin his senior year in high school.

If you’ve stayed with the series this far, there’s no doubt about it – you’ll love “Part 2.” It is the culmination of one of the most notable film series of all time, made all the more special by the fact that nearly of all the series’ main actors were kept intact for all 8 films. Everyone gets the finale that they deserve, none more so than the three principal characters who have driven the story since the very beginning – Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint). It may be a cliché to say it, but they’ve grown up before our very eyes, and it’s been fun to watch, every step of the way.


I watch my fair share of golf on TV (and for me, "fair share" means a lot more than anyone you might consider normal), but I've probably seen less of this year's major championships than ever before. It was mostly a quirk of scheduling - during Masters weekend I was attending a conference, the U.S. Open is always tough because it falls on Fathers Day weekend, and the Open Championship coincided with a weekend trip to San Francisco.

Not so with the PGA Championship - convalescing from a "minor" surgical procedure (although I'm beginning to think that any time your body is sliced open, it's not "minor"), I haven't been able to do much but sit (or lay) around and watch golf on TV, so for the past couple of days it's pretty much been all PGA, all the time.

Because of its August date and accompanying weather, there's always something brutal about the PGA, especially when its held in a city like Atlanta (Johns Creek, to be precise) on a course like the Atlanta Athletic Club (the Highlands course, to be precise). The course is not without its own history, having served as the home course for the legendary Bobby Jones, but it's not what you'd call your classic "character course," at least not in comparison to places like Augusta and Royal St. George's (or next year's site, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island). It's long, it's brutal, and after two days it seems to be playing more like a U.S. Open course than this year's U.S. Open Course, Congressional, did.

Right now the leaders are two guys named Bradley (Keegan) and Dufner (Jason), and that's the other thing about the PGA - it seems like at some point during the week, you're always going to have guys like Bradley and Dufner leading the tournament. At this point, with the leaderboard bunched up the way it is, one would be crazy to try and pick a winner, but what the heck - I'll go out on a (short) limb and pick Adam Scott, fresh from his victory at Firestone and with the most famous caddie in the world on his bag.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Top 50 Albums, #47 - "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy"

For me, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” represented the zenith of Elton John-mania. Elton was my favorite artist for about five years, and even today I would argue that his string of early to mid-seventies hits: “Honky Chateau,” “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player,” Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Caribou,” “Fantastic,” and “Rock of the Westies” – can stand alongside the best string of seven consecutive albums that any artist has come up with.

In the fall of ’74, Elton embarked on what was his biggest U.S. tour to date. “Caribou” had just been released, and during the summer you couldn’t turn on AM radio without hearing one of two huge hits that were spawned from that record – “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” and “The Bitch Is Back.” And if you were going to choose two songs that defined the Elton oeuvre, you couldn’t do better than those two. The former was a beautiful demonstration of what he could do with a ballad, and the latter proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Elton could rock with the best of them.

During that tour, Elton announced that his next album had already been recorded, but that it wouldn’t be released until the following spring. He shared the album's long, unusual and somewhat whimsical title, and indicated that it would be his most personal album, telling the story of his writing partnership with Bernie Taupin, and their rise to the top of the pop world. It sounded interesting, and different than anything he’d tried before. And whether intended or not, the early announcement was a brilliant piece of marketing strategy, because long before the album hit the stores, there was an incredible buzz about it, and even though its ultimate release date was less than a year since the release of “Caribou,” you could call it “long awaited” and not get laughed out of the room. Adding to the frenzy were two #1 singles in early 1975 that didn’t appear on any album – Elton’s remake of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (which made few forget the original), and “Philadelphia Freedom” (a remarkable single, one of the best of that year or any year).

When it finally came out in late May of 1975, "Captain Fantastic" became the first album in the history of the Billboard charts to debut at #1. And while there would be no #1 singles this time around, that was just fine because this was truly an album – a collection of songs that were clearly intended to be listened to as a whole, and together were far greater than the sum of their parts (which is not to say that the single, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” is not a great song).

In a piece of rock trivia that probably few other than me will appreciate, “Captain Fantastic” was the last record review that Jon Landau wrote for Rolling Stone (although he did contribute columns for several months afterward), before deciding that being Bruce Springsteen’s manager, producer and confidante was going to be his full-time job. As were all of Landau’s reviews, it is a cogent, well written piece, and it provides a good glimpse into how Elton was viewed by the critical establishment during his peak (actually, Landau’s review is much kinder than most).

First things first. This is one of Elton John's best albums. He hasn't tried to top past successes, only to continue the good work he's been doing. And he's succeeded, even taking a few chances in the process. The record is devoid of the gimmicky rock numbers from the Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player phase. It isn't weighted down with the overarranging and overproduction that marred so much of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It sounds freer and more relaxed than Caribou. His voice sounds rough, hoarse, almost weary. But that only helps make him sound more personal and intimate than in the past.

It is by now beyond question that Elton John is a competent and classy entertainer. Few people who have achieved his popularity have succeeded in maintaining his standards for performance and professionalism. And in his relationship to his audience, Elton not only gives of himself in terms of output and energy but he does it graciously and generously. Unlike his American counterparts (many of them neither as talented nor as popular), he hasn't soured on success.

But the question remains — is Elton John something more than a great entertainer? I'm not sure. For one thing, despite his ability to sound profound, he seldom projects a tangible personality. After so many albums and tours, few people have any sense of him at all. And for all his productivity and enthusiasm, he remains a largely passive figure, the creator of music that one can get comfortable with but which is never challenging or threatening.

And that was about as good as it would get, on the critical end. If Elton had a critical champion, it was probably Robert Christgau, and even he began the piece on Elton he wrote for the first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll with “There is something wondrous about Elton John, and something monstrous…”

But let’s set all of that aside. After all, this is about what I think, not anyone else, and in my book “Captain Fantastic” is a great album, and Elton’s best.

Landau’s comment about overproduction on Elton’s records is well taken; Gus Dudgeon was definitely less than subtle when it came to making records. But from the first cut of “Captain Fantastic”, the title song, it becomes apparent that John was going for a more streamlined sound – not anything that would spawn comparisons to Rick Rubin-type minimalism, but certainly more restrained than anything one heard on previous efforts. And the title cut is one of Elton’s best songs, starting with little more than an acoustic guitar and muted electric piano, and then building to a terrific crescendo with the backing of the full band.

What sets “Captain Fantastic” apart from other Elton albums is its consistency, but my favorite songs, in addition to the title cut, are:

“Bitter Fingers” – I can still remember listening to this one over and over on the day I bought the album. This is one of the record’s most autobiographical songs, telling the tale of how he and Bernie broke into the business, writing jingles at a time when they knew they could be doing much, much better.

“Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” – Elton would later record with Thom Bell, but this is the song that really stands as a tribute to Bell’s work. Hard-rocking soul, with a string/horn arrangement that sounds unlike just about anything he’d recorded before.

“(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket” – one of Elton’s hardest rockers, and one of his best.

“Better Off Dead” – Taupin’s wordplay at its best, and Elton at his humorous best with the music and vocal.

“Curtains” – You may doubt me on this one, but just close your eyes for a moment, and imagine this song being sung by Bryan Ferry, with the backing of mid-seventies era Roxy Music. Don’t tell me that Elton couldn’t get a little adventurous, when the occasion demanded it.

And “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” A remarkable, beautiful song, and probably the best ballad he’s ever written. Dramatic, just bordering on overwrought: but never quite crossing the line. And so to close, let’s turn back to Landau:

On that one, both Elton and Bernie disprove the criticisms made here. There's no illusion of saying something, they are saying something; there's no illusion of a superb performance but a superb performance itself; no imitation of quality but rock of very high caliber.

As long as Elton John can bring forth one performance per album on the order of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," the chance remains that he will become something more than the great entertainer he already is and go on to make a lasting contribution to rock.

Lasting contribution? I’d have to say “yes.”

"Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy"/May 1975

Produced by Gus Dudgeon

Track Listing: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy/Tower of Babel/Bitter Fingers/Tell Me When the Whistle Blows/Someone Saved My Life Tonight/(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket/Better Off Dead/Writing/We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtains

Good Advice

Anyone who's had to go under general anesthesia for a medical procedure is familiar with the litany of instructions of things not to do for 24 hours:

- Drive a vehicle
- Operate heavy machinery
- Sign important legal papers

Well, I learned yesterday that a new instruction has been added:

- Avoid social networking applications

I kid you not!

Saturday, August 06, 2011

American Top 40 Flashback - Rick Springfield

One of the great one-shots in pop/rock history, and it sounds as good today as it did 30 years ago.

But don't just take my word for it; read what Greil Marcus had to say, in picking the song as his favorite single of 1981 (and as #1 on his year-ending Real Life Rock Top Ten):

"Jessie's Girl" is all surfaces - classic teenage music from a 32-year old Australian-born Angeleno who makes his rent playing Dr. Drake on General Hospital - and after well over six months on the radio the disc comes across with more punch than ever: fast, funny, anguished, sexy - and that drum sound! and that guitar solo! Still it may live in history more for these lines, as naturalistically odd as anything by Chuck Berry: "And I'm looking in the mirror all the time/Wondering what she don't see in me."

"Jessie's Girl," the #1 song in America, this week in 1981.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

TV me behind the times, but I didn't start watching "Mad Men" until this week, when it became available on Netflix streaming. son #2 and I have now watched four episodes, and my immediate reaction is that the scenes taking place in the office are absolutely brilliant, and the scenes taking place in the home setting are odd and, in some cases, deeply disturbing.

If you're not watching "Wilfred" and "Louie," all I can say is...start watching "Wilfred" and Louie." If you haven't seen "Wilfred," the premise is that Elijah Wood sees his neighbor's dog as a man in a dog suit - an incredibly misogynistic, sex-crazed and politically incorrect man - while everyone else sees him as a dog. Oh, and did I mention that the "dog" loves to smoke dope, incessantly?

And "Louie" - well, all I can say is to look up Louie CK on YouTube, and enjoy. The man is a comic genius - dark, inappropriate, self-hating, you name it - all a great combination.

So if you're not watching, well...start watching. But be prepared. Caveat Emptor. Parental Advisory, and all that crap.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

You Tell Me...

Is this a job that you would want?

Personal Attributes. The position of __________ is physically and mentally demanding and requires a ___________ who has high energy and an excellent auto immune system. Living and coping with stress is a sine qua non of this job and requires mental toughness to not only survive but to flourish in a highly competitive environment.

I wonder how one demonstrates in an interview setting that they have an excellent auto immune system. I guess it wouldn't be good to show up with a cough.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


Carl Lewis, Mike Powell and mystery. Beautiful.

Drive On

One of the songs on the new album by The Cars – their first in almost 25 years, and one that I'm sure few thought would ever see the light of day – is called "Sad Song." It begins with the immediately recognizable guitar chords from “My Best Friend’s Girl,” followed by the equally recognizable hand-claps from “Let’s Go.” The first time I heard the song, I laughed out loud, and began to wonder whether Ric Ocasek had managed to pull off one of the best practical jokes in the history of rock and roll.

There are other songs on the album that result in similar reactions – at various points, you might find yourself thinking, “oh, there’s the 2011 version of “Drive,” or "there’s the updated version of “Shake It Up”…and throughout, the sound – which was always a critical, perhaps the critical, component of The Cars’ music - is unmistakeably "Cars-like."

So…is “Move Like This” worth listening to, or is it nothing more than a great joke by Ric Ocasek?

Probably both. No doubt about it, this is the kind of album - should they deign to even review it - that Pitchfork will make fun of, just as a way to provide their bonafides. But for anyone old enough to remember that Greil Marcus liked their first album and agreed with the ad campaign that called it "top down music for a hard top world," this is certainly worth the $7.99 that one would pay to download it on It's not the best Cars album, but it's certainly far from the worst.

That may not be good enough for everyone, but as another band once sang, you can't always get what you want.