Sunday, July 31, 2011
Update: For some reason, it's all screwed up when you try to see it on Explorer. I guess that's another vote for Firefox or Safari.
Update II: Not sure what the problem was, but I seem to have fixed it by deleting a pic.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
In the fall of 1980, I left home for the first time, to attend college at UC Berkeley. I’ll go to my grave believing that one of the most important aspects of college is the social aspect of college life – living in the dorms with a bunch of people that you don’t know (at least, not at first), and that in many instances you don’t have anything in common with, outside of a fairly sound academic record.
My first year at Cal, I was in Deutsch Hall on Durant Avenue, a couple of blocks south of the campus. In those days, dorm life was a bit different than what you find at college campuses today. On my first night there (a few days before classes started), the official dorm event was a wine and cheese tasting. On Halloween, the official activity was a “trick or drink” event where all four dorms in our Unit were serving a different cocktail. And during the course of the school year, each floor in the dorm received an amount of money to spend however they saw fit – and yes, most floors saw fit to use the money on alcohol, and to throw a party for the entire dorm (and whoever else might show up). If you were smart, you would charge money to attend your event, providing your floor with more money…to buy more alcohol.
There are certain times of your life where your memories are burned into your brain and you can remember things as if they happened yesterday. That first quarter (late September through early December of 1980) is one of those times for me, and a lot of those memories have to do with music. In October of that year, I saw my first Bruce Springsteen concert. I also saw Talking Heads, along with the English Beat – to this day, one of the best double bills I’ve ever seen. And I was introduced to a lot of music that I’d never heard before.
One of the albums that I heard for the first time that fall was X’s “Los Angeles.” And while I had always considered myself to be fairly progressive in my semi-popular music tastes (to borrow Robert Christgau’s term) – I’d bought The Clash, I’d bought The Sex Pistols, I’d bought The Ramones, I’d bought Gang of Four – there was something about this album that seemed, even compared with those previously mentioned, to be “out there.” The band was from Los Angeles, and led by the husband and wife duo of John Doe and Exene, joined by the always grinning but never moving Billy Zoom on guitar and D.J. Bonebrake on drums. Their music was loud, it was fast, and it painted a picture of Los Angeles that was in parts exciting, scary, and a bit dangerous. To quote Greil Marcus: “the story Los Angeles has to tell takes place in a junkie pad off Santa Monica and Western, and who knows what you’ll find when you open the door?”
I was invited to an X concert by the girl on the fifth floor who introduced me to the band, but for some reason I begged off – maybe I actually had to study that night; maybe I was just scared of what might be in store. All you have to do is view the clip below of a concert from that time to find out what an X concert was like.
“Nausea” remains one of my favorite songs on the album. And what normal, red-blooded American college student couldn’t relate to these lyrics?
Today you're gonna be so sick so sick
you'll prop your forehead on the sink
say oh christ oh jesus christ
my head's gonna crack like a bank
tonight you'll fall asleep in clothes
so late like a candy bar wrapped up for lunch
that's all you get to taste
poverty and spit poverty and spit
nausea bloody red eyes go to nausea
bloody red eyes go to nausea
bloody red eyes go to sleep
Not for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure. And that’s barely scratching the surface. As Marcus also said in his original review of the album:
After a time, you may begin to listen for some sign that the story on Los Angeles is just a story, or that the story is basically artful, a sharp use of seedy Hollywood locales and bus-stop drifters. You’ll find neither. What there is to be found, behind the parade of small-time horrors implicitly mocked by L.A.’s quick fix of sun and easy money, is an insistence that those horrors have made the people who live in them and who sing about them better than those who don’t: not just tougher but morally superior, if only because they’ve seen through the moralism other people only pretend to believe in anyway.
And then you reach the album’s last song, and my favorite, “The World’s A Mess, It’s In My Kiss.” This is my favorite song on the album, it’s my favorite song by the band, and it’s one of my favorite songs, period. It contains one of my favorite moments of any song that I’ve heard – the organ solo by Ray Manzarek (of The Doors, who produced the album). At the point the solo begins, John and Exene are trading lines, and then suddenly, the organ takes center stage. All you hear is Zoom’s guitar, Doe’s bass, Bonebrake’s drums, and Manzarek’s incredible organ.
For me, it’s a supremely exciting moment. I’ve heard it hundreds if not thousands of times, and the feeling is always the same. I don’t want it to end, and I feel more alive while it is playing. At that moment, the lyrics and the themes don’t matter. All that is left is the music.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Monday, July 25, 2011
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Best to remember her this way - with what was almost certainly her greatest song:
I seem to recall Robert Christgau once bemoaning the excess of "B+ albums" that he had to listen to. Good albums, but not great albums - and in the end, somewhat interchangeable.
A lot of the 2011 releases I've bought this year have fallen into that category - they've got strong cuts on them, but none of them have jumped into that category where you wake up in the morning and you just have to listen to them. In that category, I'd put The Strokes' "Angles," R.E.M.'s "Collapse Into Now," P.J. Harvey's "Let England Shake," The Low Anthem's "Smart Flesh," Fleet Foxes' "Helplessness Blues," and Bon Iver's "Bon Iver."
The latter three - Low Anthem, Fleet Foxes, and Bon Iver - all fall into the category that I call "atmospheric albums." They rely as much on their sound as they do their songs to put their point across. And so far, none of them have hooked me quite the way their respective debuts did. That's not to say it won't happen eventually, because it took me forever to get into Bon Iver's debut.
III. Still With the Jury
Or, they sound good so far and we'll just have to see how they pan out after months of listening: Moby's "Destroyed," The Cars' "Move Like This" (which is either a great Cars album or a great joke by Ric Ocasek; I can't quite decide), and Eddie Vedder's "Ukelele Songs" (which is delightful, but we'll have to see if it stands the test of time).
IV. The Fab Four
So we're left with the four albums from the first half of 2011 that I feel comfortable calling unqualified successes:
So Beautiful or So What, Paul Simon. I don't know that it will have the staying power of "Graceland," but the fact that it can be mentioned in the same sentence without blushing is major progress. A fine return to form.
Low Country Blues, Gregg Allman. Perhaps a bit on the sleepy side, but I keep coming back to it, and enjoying it more and more.
Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss & Union Station. I don't know that it's their best album, but it's the best one of theirs that I own, and I own several.
And the award for the best album of the first half of 2011 goes to Go Go Boots, by the Drive-By Truckers. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are both at the top of their game for this one, and Shonna Tucker's contributions put it over the top. I feel no qualms calling this a great Drive-By Truckers album.
Friday, July 22, 2011
Now, Thomas Boswell has weighed in with some armchair psychoanalysis, painting a contrast between the Tiger/Steve relationship and the relationships that Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson enjoyed with Angelo Argea and Bruce Edwards, respectively. Boswell reaches this conclusion:
Argea and Edwards had relationships with their stars that showed the solid mental health and self-knowledge of the players as well as the best personal qualities in the caddie. Tiger and Stevie were the opposite.
Well, OK...but if memory serves, Jack eventually fired Angelo, and I don't really remember it being such a big deal at the time. And besides, the only caddies that people really remember are the ones on the bags of the superstars. And even then...quick, can you name the caddies on the bag for Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Gary Player? If you gave me a few minutes I could probably come up with the name of Phil's caddie, but it's not there sitting right on the top of my head.
What does all this prove? If nothing else, that Tiger Woods is still the most famous golfer in the world, by a long shot. He hasn't played a round in months, and he can still make the sports section.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
If I'd snapped this picture at any time from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, all you would have been able to see was the top of the clock tower peeking out from behind a double-decker freeway. Its eventual demolition (which, to be fair, was opposed by a lot of people, and cost Art Agnos his job as Mayor) may have been the only positive thing that came out of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Monday, July 18, 2011
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
- Greil Marcus
Monday, July 11, 2011
I’ve often wondered what happens when an artist – writer, musician, filmmaker, etc. – produces a work in mid-career that is almost universally recognized as a masterpiece. Do they ask themselves questions along the lines of “My God, how am I going to top this?” In the case of Robert Crais, I think he realized exactly what he’d done. It’s not that I know him, or have heard him interviewed on this topic. But it has to mean something that neither of the two books that immediately followed “Requiem” – “Demolition Angel” and “Hostage” – featured his long-standing characters, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.
Now, more than a decade has passed since the release of “L.A. Requiem,” and Crais has written six books featuring Cole and Pike. Three – “The Last Detective,” “The Forgotten Man,” and “Chasing Darkness” – have had Cole in the lead, and three – “The Watchman,” “The First Rule,” and “The Sentry” – have elevated Pike to the top spot. Having Pike in the lead was a new development for Crais, although there is no question that “Requiem” belonged to Pike just as much as it did Cole.
My initial reaction to the first of the post-“Requiem” books was one of mild disappointment. Yes, they were all good, but none of them were as good as “the masterpiece.” It was only on a later reading, as well as a re-reading of the some of the early Cole/Pike books, that I began to understand and appreciate what Crais was doing - something I would describe as distilling each story down to its bare essence. And now, I would go so far as to make the bold statement that these last six Cole/Pike books (and “Requiem”) are the true heirs to the kind of hard-boiled fiction that hasn’t been written since the heyday of Dashiell Hammett.
The differences in the pre- and post-“Requiem” books are subtle, but important. The humor remains, but plays less of a role than it did before. In terms of the plots, each of them directly involves Cole and/or Pike in a way that wasn’t seen before – so that there is more at stake for the two characters now than there was in the older books. The stories directly touch the lives of Elvis and Joe in a way that they didn’t quite reach before.
Which brings me to the most recent Crais books, “The First Rule” and “The Sentry.” Both are billed as “Joe Pike novels,” but Elvis Cole plays a key role in both. And having read them back-to-back, I can say with some confidence that when Crais wants to get really hard-boiled, he goes with Pike in the lead.
In each of these books, Crais takes Joe Pike to places I don’t think he’s been before. Anyone who has ever read a Crais book knows that Pike is a force of nature as much as he is a man. Enigmatic, a man of few words, and one with few friends, Pike is fiercely devoted to his own view of what constitutes justice, and uniquely qualified to instill his will upon others. In these two books, Crais shows us more of the human side of Joe than we’ve seen before – even deeper than the glimpses of his past that made “Requiem” such a special book.
In “The First Rule,” the theme is Pike as Avenger. In “The Sentry,” the theme is Pike as protector. Nothing new there, perhaps. But the motivations are critical – in the former book, Pike is seeking to avenge the death of an old comrade and that of his family, victims of a brutal killing. In the latter, he is protecting a woman with the deck stacked against her – because he sees something in her that might, just might, be able to fill a hole in his own life. Of course, with any Cole/Pike book, you know that there are going to be twists and turns, to the point where nothing may be quite as it seems. That is particularly true in “The Sentry,” as Pike (and then Cole) realize that they are up against forces that they could not have imagined at the beginning of the story. Of course, now that I think about it, that’s pretty much the case in “The First Rule” as well.
Both plots move crisply, and with precision. The relationship between Pike and Cole has depth. The villains are nasty, but not in a Snidely Whiplash kind of way. Nothing is ever quite black and white. And as previously mentioned, we get to see Pike in a way that we’ve not seen before. An excerpt from “The First Rule” makes that point – Joe Pike with, of all things, a baby.
Pike jiggled the boy.
The boy laughed, then pulled off Pike’s sunglasses. The last person who took Pike’s shades bought a three-week stay in the hospital. The boy waved them like a rattle.
Cole said, “What about the baby?”
Pike jiggled the kid again, and let the little guy punch him. Pike was fascinated by his eyes. He wondered what the boy saw, and why he took delight in those things.
“He needs someone who’ll take care of him.”
“And that’s you?”
“Not me, but someone. Everyone needs someone.”
Pike studied his friend for a moment, then gently took back his glasses. He didn’t put them on. The boy seemed to like him without them.
What each of these books makes clear is that there are plenty of new directions for Crais to take Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. I look forward to reading what they are.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
There was simply no way that the United States could win this game - down a goal, down a player and well into the stoppage minutes of extra time.
And then, a miracle. A perfect assist from Megan Rapinoe, and a perfect header into goal by Abby Wambach. PKs.
And after having a stop taken away from her earlier in the game, you just knew that that this one was going to come down to Hope Solo. And she didn't disappoint, with a save to seal the deal for a most unlikely U.S. victory.
The clips will be shown for a long as people watch and coach games. Never give up - always do your best - always play until the final horn.
Because you just never know when a miracle might fall into your lap.
Saturday, July 09, 2011
And so today, Derek Jeter became the first New York Yankees player to reach the 3,000 hit plateau. The extraordinary nature of that accomplishment – only 28 have ever done it, you know – is magnified when you think of the Yankees greats who, for one reason or another, did not get there: Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle, Jackson…the list goes on.
And throughout it all, Jeter has been just about the coolest customer that one could imagine. Congratulations to Derek Jeter, future Hall of Famer and the latest member of the 3,000 hit club.
Friday, July 08, 2011
I’ve always been a big fan, although I’ve found her last couple of albums to be remarkably unmemorable. But albums are not really what Madonna is all about. Her presence on this list is recognition of a body of work, more than recognition of a single album. And if that seems like a bending of the rules, well…they’re my rules, after all. But I don’t feel like this is cheating, because there’s no doubt in my mind that I could compile a mix-CD of her best work (which is not always her “greatest hits”) that would find its way to a spot near the Top Ten.
So – what album to pick? It boiled down to three: the 1983 eponymous debut, 1998’s “Ray of Light,” and 2000’s “Music.” I don’t hesitate to say that these are all great albums, and any of them could fit in here. But ultimately, I went with the debut, because it is the one album in her entire career that is consistently outstanding from beginning to end.
It’s not an album of high concept – it’s a dance album, plain and simple. The hits – “Lucky Star,” “Borderline,” “Think of Me,” and “Everybody” – sound as good today as they did then. And some of the rest – “Burning Up,” “Physical Attraction” – sound even better.
And perhaps more importantly, being the debut, it is the one album in Madonna’s career where one doesn’t have to ponder the calculation behind it. From this point on, every piece of work – no matter how strong – would have to be looked at through the lens of whatever Madonna was trying to accomplish at any given moment. And because of that, it all feels like a breath of fresh air.
Produced by Reggie Lucas
Lucky Star/Borderline/Burning Up/I Know It/Holiday/Think of Me/Physical Attraction/Everybody
As with all oral histories, the book is only as good as the stories that people have to tell. And for the most part, these are good stories, although after a while you find yourself trying hard to care about the latest change in power and corresponding changes in management style. That sort of thing is interesting when the subjects are people that you really care about. But does it mean anything to the average reader whether Steve Bornstein or Mark Shapiro was a better boss, and had a better vision for the company? Probably not.
What most people are going to want to read are the memories from the on-air talent, people like Chris Berman, Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, etc. And for the most part, those memories don’t disappoint. There’s fascinating stuff about the evolution of Sportscenter, there’s good stuff about the comings and goings of major sports on ESPN, and near the end, the section which discusses how ESPN blew it and lost the services of Al Michaels and John Madden is quite entertaining. And then there’s a lot of stuff that you just skim through.
Overall, I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in sports. But if that does not describe you, then you’re not going to want to read this one.
Thursday, July 07, 2011
40 years on, and it still sounds great. People may have forgotten that Carole King was already a great songwriter before she released "Tapestry." And while she hasn't released anything since that approaches the greatness of that landmark, it by itself was enough to secure her a place in the pop pantheon.
And this song was the best thing on it. "It's Too Late," Carole King, the #1 song this week in 1971.
Tuesday, July 05, 2011
My first "real movie in a real theater" experience with one of my sons took place in the summer of 1994, when I took son #1 (who will turn 21 in December) to see "The Lion King." Two memories from that day will always stick with me. One was before the movie started, when he told me sternly that we could only eat our popcorn one kernel at a time, because "it had to last the entire movie." The second was during the wildebeest scene, when he climbed up into my lap and told me, "I don't like this movie." I told him not to worry, that this scene would be over really soon, and then it was going to get really funny. Fortunately, Timon and Puumba came through for me on that day.
To young parents who worry about what things are going to be like when their kids turn into (potentially surly) teenagers and stop being those cute little things who show up in photo albums and on homemade family calendars, I always say a variation of the same thing - don't worry; one age is not better than the other, they're just different - both are difficult, for different reasons; but both also have a lot to recommend them. For me, one of the best things has been to enjoy together the kinds of TV shows and movies that we either had to tape, or miss entirely altogether, when they were wee ones.
In the past couple of years, we've seen a lot of good-to-great movies together, but I'm pretty sure that we've never tackled one quite as difficult and complicated as "The Tree of Life." To say that Terence Malick's fifth movie in four decades of film-making is ambitious is probably the understatement of the year. As a work of art, it reminds me of The Clash's Sandinista - a work where the artist in question basically says to themselves, to heck with it - damn boundaries and limits; I'm just going to take this thing as far as it takes me, and then we'll see where things end up.
The first thing that shows up on screen is a quote from The Book of Job:
"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
And that begins a journey that takes us from the beginnings of the universe, the evolution of the cosmos and life on Earth, a brief encounter between two dinosaurs, the story of a family in Waco, Texas in the 1950s, snippets of the modern-day life of a son now grown up, and a denouement which may or may not be Malick's depiction of Heaven itself.
In its scope and sprawl, "The Tree of Life" will cause many to think of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." I have to admit that I've never quite understood how "2001" came to be considered one of the landmarks of modern-day cinema, but I've never doubted the strength of its individual parts. For me, the whole of Kubrick's film was less than the sum of those parts.
With Malick's film, I think the opposite may be true - there are pieces of the film that fail to hit lofty heights, but blended together I think they result in a very moving whole. And thanks for that goes to the most important section of the film, that which tells the story of the young family growing up in Waco, Texas. The big star in this section is Brad Pitt as the father who has been disappointed by life, and is loving with his sons one moment while being barely able to conceal his frustrations and failures in another. But the performance that people will remember 50 years from now may very well be that of Hunter McCracken, who plays the oldest of three sons at an age where he is just beginning to figure out exactly how confusing life can be. How good is McCracken? Let's put it this way - I would say the gold standard for child performances in a movie is represented by Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird and River Phoenix in Stand by Me. And this performance, at first blush, seems to me to be just as good as those two.
Sean Penn plays Jack as a grown-up, and while his scenes are brilliant from a cinematic point of view, as drama they don't come close to meeting the standard of the 1950s scenes. But you have to give Penn credit, because he does lend some emotional authenticity to the character, and it had to be painfully clear to him that his scenes were really little more than a vehicle by which to examine his memories of what things were like growing up.
It's not a movie for everyone, but it's well worth seeing and thinking about.
Friday, July 01, 2011
Thus, by popular demand (well, demand of one, but she is pretty damn popular), I hereby present the 10 cocktails I would focus on, were I to discover that I had one month to live. Wine and beer deserve their own list, and that list will be forthcoming. I’ve also left off “neat” drinks – fine bourbons, scotches, and liqueurs.
10. Long Island Iced Tea. Vodka, tequila, white rum, triple-sec, gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and cola. I freely admit to a weakness for this, the specialty of T.G.I. Friday’s. Back in the early 1980s I spent a lot of time at Friday’s, and this was always my drink of choice. Not terribly manly, but very tasty.
9. Screwdriver. Vodka, orange juice. A long-time favorite of several aunts, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I remember mass hilarity ensuing on one of our Lake Tahoe trips back in the seventies when my grandma ordered a “corkscrew” at the casino instead of a “screwdriver.” Close, but no cigar. Not a drink that I would order in a restaurant or bar, but one that I enjoy every now and then at home.
8. Mai Tai. I only drink these when I’m in Hawaii, but when I’m in Hawaii, I try to have as many of them as I can. The place we stayed in Maui last summer had a killer version, featuring Bacardi 151. And the bar was by the pool…”the bar was called Heaven…”
7. Vesper. A fairly new discovery, courtesy of DeVore’s Pub in Sacramento. The coolest thing about it is that it was invented by James Bond. It made its first appearance in the 1953 novel “Casino Royale.”
"A dry martini," [Bond] said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet."
"Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?"
"Certainly, monsieur." The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
"Gosh, that's certainly a drink," said Leiter.
Bond laughed. "When I'm...er...concentrating," he explained, "I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name."
Personally, I stick to vodka and gin, in roughly equal parts. I can attest that one made with Ketel One Vodka and Hendricks Gin is outstanding. And tonight, we’re going to find out how Effen Vodka and Bombay Sapphire Gin compare.
6. Jack Daniels and Coke. I usually drink these only when I am really thirsty. This is a dangerous combination.
5. Vodka and Tonic. An absolute classic.
4. Gin and Tonic. An absolute classic redux, it gets a slight nod over its cousin… but only slight.
3. Manhattan. I prefer one of these late at night, after dinner. But I’ve been known to indulge before dinner, as well.
2. Margarita. I’ve had lots of fancy margaritas in my time, with weird, exotic flavors and really expensive ingredients, but in the end you can’t beat a blended margarita made simply with Cuervo Gold, Rose’s Lime Juice, and Triple Sec. Plus a spoonful of sugar, when blending, to help the medicine go down.
1. Vodka Martini. The drink of my father, and one that I did not fully embrace until the last decade or so. To that, all I can say is that sometimes wisdom does come with age.
So there you have it, folks. Please don’t feel as if you have to contract a serious malady in order to enjoy these refreshments.