Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed

I guess it was over a year ago now that I began to watch the episodes of Elvis Costello's Showtime program "Spectacle" that are available on Netflix.  One of his first episodes featured Lou Reed, in a conversation with the host that was entirely engrossing and fascinating.  In one of the many tributes to Reed published and/or posted in the past few days, the writer noted that Reed was famous for, as much as anything else, being one of the most public assholes of our time.  And while from all accounts Reed did not suffer fools (or anyone else, for that matter) gladly, he was great in his interview with Costello, and one of the best guests to have appeared on the show.  But for all the great conversation, the highlight of the program was Reed performing, with Costello, "Set the Twilight Reeling," in a performance that can be best described as shattering.  The title of one of Reed's live albums was "Take No Prisoners," and in his performance of the song with Costello, he certainly didn't.

That Reed meant so much to so many was clearly evident from the Twitter postings in the first hour following the announcement of his death, when everyone from Ann Powers to Rob Sheffield to Wil Wheaton to Bill Simmons expressed their shock and grief over his passing.  Like I'm sure was the case with many others, my introduction to Reed came with "Walk on the Wild Side," his fluke Top 40 hit from the early 1970s.  I remember reading about "Metal Machine Music" and being amused, without having any desire to buy, or even listen to, the album.  I remember reading Tom Carson's review of "Street Hassle," and even though by that time my tastes were moving more in that direction, it still didn't move me to buy the album.  No, the first Reed album for me was "The Bells," prompted by a Lester Bangs rave that frankly didn't make a lot of sense to me upon hearing the album.

Reed didn't really come into focus for me until the '80s, with a series of what I thought were outstanding-to-great albums, including several that are visible in the above picture.  This was also around the time that the original Velvet Underground albums were re-released, as well as some VU material that had never seen the light of day.  And while it's probably fair to say that I never became as obsessed with Reed as many others did, there was little question then (and there is none now) that in many ways, Reed was the very manifestation of what Robert Christgau once referred to as "semi-popular music." 

Lou Reed, in short, was one of the giants.  The kind of guy that you think is always going to be around.  If nothing else, just to figure out some new way to confound or confuse people.  Unforunately, things never seem to work out quite that way. 


Wednesday, October 23, 2013


So I see that the NBA has finally done the logical thing and reinstated the 2-2-1-1-1 format for the Finals, after nearly 30 years of using 2-3-2.  Frankly, the shift in the Finals never made sense to me, because wouldn't any possible argument you could make for it also apply to the earlier playoff series (all of which remained 2-2-1-1-1)?

But in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, kudos to the NBA honchos for making the right decision.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


There was a time when going to the movies implied that you would experience no small amount of magic.  It's a feeling that is difficult to describe and hard to quantify - but it's the kind of feeling that I got when seeing "Jaws" in the theater for the first time, or "Star Wars," or "The Empire Strikes Back," or even a more dramatic or "serious" film like "The Godfather," "Prince of the City," or "Hannah and Her Sisters."  The feeling that, for two or more hours of your life, you were going to be treated to something special - something that would stay with you for much longer than the time you spent seated in the theater.  I see more than my fair share of movies these days, both at the theater and at home on Netflix or on demand.  But that feeling of magic has seemed to be fleeting in recent years - the last time I truly felt it was during "Inglorious Basterds" - the notion that, as a viewer, you were seeing something new, something fresh and dynamic - and doing so in the hands of a master.

Last night, we saw "Gravity," and it felt like going back to those old times.  First of all, we were lucky enough to score some free tickets at the IMAX, thanks to the local newspaper.  The movie began at 7:30 and we were planning to eat dinner at a restaurant right across the street, but when we got there we saw that a line had already formed (unlike normal procedure for this theater, there was no assigned seating), so we spent more than an hour in line, which was a real throwback to the old days.  And even though the movie has been out for a couple of weeks, few people in the theater had seen it (the hosts asked that question beforehand), so it had a bit of that "opening night" feeling.

And then, of course, there was the movie itself.

"Gravity" was, suffice to say, spectacular.  It's hard to put it into words that don't end up sounding like one of those reviews where the "critic" is more in the business of having his/her quotes included on a movie poster than actually providing cogent analysis/criticism of the movie in question.  But through its 91 minutes, it is fair to say that there is never a moment when the viewer is not on the absolute edge of their seat, coupled with a feeling that you're out there in space with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (just like you might have felt you were in the water with the young actor who played Brody's son in "Jaws" when the shark swam into the pond).

It's hard to talk about the story without providing spoilers, so let's just say that a team of astronauts is on a space shuttle mission involving the Hubble Telescope, something goes horribly wrong with another nation's attempt to bring down one of their satellites, which leads to a chain reaction that sends what amounts to hellfire careening towards the unsuspecting astronauts.  It's then a survival story with Bullock front and center - and like the unseen truck driver was the seemingly unstoppable nemesis for Dennis Weaver in "Duel," the space debris becomes the nemesis for Bullock's character, Dr. Ryan Stone (or, as others have commented, think Sigourney Weaver vs. the alien in the original "Alien").  Through a combination of guile, heart and sometimes sheer luck, Dr. Stone survives one obstacle after another in her effort to stay alive and get back home.

Visually...well, I don't know that any film, ever, has topped it.  James Cameron himself has said that this was the space film he has been waiting for all his life.  And notwithstanding the likely scientific errors that some have pointed out, this is the first time that I've ever seen a movie where I felt I was feeling what it must be like for those few humans that have had the opportunity and the privilege to venture out beyond our atmosphere.  If the film is even in the ballpark in its depiction of what it is like to be walking in space, then my admiration for what astronauts do is all the greater.

This, folks, is movie magic.  "Gravity" is what going to the movies is supposed to be about.  And when you go, you owe it to yourself to see it at the IMAX, in 3-D.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

October Baseball

There was really no way to lose with those four teams (Red Sox, Tigers, Cardinals and Dodgers) in their respective league championship series.  Four teams with a ton of history, all playing in beautiful, outdoor parks with mostly rabid fans behind them.  I'm happy the Dodgers will go yet another year without a championship, since with their payroll it seems almost inevitable that they'll capture one - it would be hard to avoid with that payroll.  They also have two of the most exciting talents in the game, both of who happen to be a little nuts - Kershaw and Puig.  But at least for now, I can keep making jokes about how many it's been since the Blue brought home a title.

We've seen the Red Sox face off against the Cardinals twice in my lifetime, but I don't have any memory of the 1967 Series - it was the following year, when St. Louis was defeated in 7 games by Detroit, that I have my first clear memories of a World Series.  But all baseball fans should remember the 2004 Series, when Boston finally broke the curse and swept the Cardinals just after completing a remarkable comeback from 3-0 down against the Yankees juggernaut.

I don't think I've rooted for St. Louis since the early 1980s, and I won't be rooting for them this year.  And I don't watch baseball closely enough anymore to make a prediction based on anything but sheer guesswork.  Based on what I've seen in the postseason it seems like a tossup, but just remember last year when Detroit went into the Series against the Giants as "overwhelming favorites" and ended up having their heads handed to them on a platter.  The Sox seem to have a "just can't lose right now" feel about them, but who knows.

And I'm glad that it's Joe Buck and Tim McCarver calling the games.  I've had my share of complaints about both of them over the years, but after being subjected to the TBS team in the past month, it's pretty clear that Buck & McCarver are the only announcers who appreciate the fact that these are playoff games, and that lending the proceedings a little excitement is the least they can do.  Ernie Johnson tried his best, but let's face it, he's not a play-by-play guy.  And coupled with Cal Ripken and Ron Darling, both with somnambulist tendencies, he was doomed to fighting a losing battle.

I almost hope it goes 7 games, because then we'll be treated to Halloween baseball.  Spooky indeed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On the bright side...

Without the shutdown, it's not likely we could have gotten a shot as good as this one. 

Or, it might just have been the rain.

Monday, October 14, 2013

This Site Is Closed

Me having fun with a sign that had blown away from where it was originally placed.

Nope, can't end any tyranny this week, because we're closed.

D.C. 2013 - The Shutdown Tour

Just my luck to book a [non-refundable] trip to Washington, D.C. for an autumn vacation, in order to show my wife all the great things I've gotten to see in previous business trips and the high school graduation tour with Son #1.  Naturally, almost our entire planned itinerary was impacted by the shutdown, which necessitated some hasty research in order to come up with interesting things to do and see.  Fortunately, there is enough to do and see to sustain a two-week trip, and that's without venturing far outside the D.C. boundaries.

This picture is my favorite from the trip - on a drizzly, misty day, walking around the National Mall and seeing what we could see.  Very few people were out, and we didn't see much in the way of barrier enforcement.  So we did what we felt was appropriate, which was to pay our Vietnam veterans respect by walking through the Memorial instead of abiding by a ridiculous, entirely avoidable shutdown and staying out.

And you know what?  The world did not come to an end.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Hey kids, I'm starring in a podcast!

In the "shameless self promotion" department:

Local legends Jack Gallagher (pictured at left) and Tommy Dunbar recently started a podcast called 5 Songs, with a very simple concept - they ask their guests to bring with them 5 songs, and be prepared to talk about the songs and the memories they evoke.

Having worked with his wife Jean for several years, Jack knew of my obsession with music, so I was very lucky to be among the first group of folks they invited to be a part the show.  Needless to say, it was really hard coming up with just five songs, but I did it, and after listening to the show the other night, think it turned out great.

Check it out: 5 Songs, starring Jack Gallagher, Tommy Dunbar...and for one week only, yours truly.

"You're the only one left"

Last Sunday, there was a great, albeit heartbreaking, moment during the FOX Sports NFL post-game show when Terry Bradshaw talked about the passing of L.C. Greenwood.  Speaking of his phone call with Joe Greene earlier in the day, Bradshaw teared and choked up when he told of saying to Greene, "Joe, you're the only one left."  The only member left of the great Steel Curtain, the seemingly invincible Pittsburgh Steelers front four of Greene, Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White. 

Back in the mid-1970s, I hated that Steelers team, mostly because of a series of memorable duels they held with the great Oakland Raiders teams of the day.  Every year from 1972 through 1976, either the Steelers or the Raiders ended the season of the other in the playoffs, with the Steelers capturing two Super Bowl titles and the Raiders one during that period.  You could hardly call those matchups "games" - they were vicious affairs, with the two teams clearly doing everything in their power to pound the other into submission.  Rarely did one of their games end without someone having to be helped off the field.

With due respect to the 1985 Bears, I'll stick to my guns with my belief that those Steel Curtain teams featured the greatest defense in the history of the NFL.  Not only did you have that fearsome front four, you also had the maniacal Jack Lambert at middle linebacker, and the amazing Mel Blount (at the time, I thought he was the best of them all, and I may have been right) prowling in the secondary, ready at any moment to punish Fred Biletikoff, Cliff Branch or Dave Casper coming across the middle for one of Ken Stabler's pinpoint passes.  That the Raiders were able to win any of those games (they took 2 of 5) is a testament to the fact that they were a pretty special team themselves.

The sadness of Greenwood's death also made me think about something Ray Lewis had said earlier in the day on ESPN, during a soliloquy on how the game "ain't what it used to be," with the now familiar refrain of "if they only let us hit today the way we used to hit..." as his theme.

Well, let's think about that for a minute - let's look at the Steel Curtain, and the warriors they faced across the line, the Hall of Fame - caliber offensive line of the Raiders:

- Greenwood, dead at 67
- Dwight White, dead at 59
- Ernie Holmes, dead at 60

- Gene Upshaw, dead at 63
- Jim Otto, alive at 75, but the veteran of 70 surgeries, hip and knee replacements, and ultimately the amputation of one leg.

Only Greene and Art Shell still among the living.

And that, Ray Lewis, is why the NFL doesn't want today's players - bigger, faster and stronger - to hit the way players used to hit.  That is why the NFL recently agreed to place almost three-quarters of a billion dollars in trust for former players, and that's just for the impact that multiple concussions have had on so many players.

Today, we are seeing the impact of the game on its former players - and keep in mind, all of those listed above were among they very best at their positions.  There's no other way to put it - they are dying before their time.  And for every Hall of Famer like Upshaw, there are dozens of lesser known players suffering from the very same things.  The NFL is doing the right thing when it cracks down on vicious, and mostly unnecessary, hits. 

In the meantime, we still have the memories.  R.I.P., L.C.

Fall Albums, Part One

Or, "let's see how all the old white guys are doing this year."

Kings of Leon, Mechanical Bull.  OK, it may be a stretch to call these guys "old," but they've been through a lot, and it's been almost a decade since "Aha Shake Heartbreak" put them on the map.  So if nothing else, they're old souls.

It may be a coincidence that there are songs on the new album titled "Comeback Story" and "Coming Back Again," but you have to wonder.  Their last LP, "Come Around Sundown," was such a desultory affair that to these ears, there was only one memorable song on the entire album.  The boys even bash it a bit in their current RS feature, which makes me wonder who I can write to in order to get my money back.

But all's well that ends well, so I'm happy to say that "Mechanical Bull" is a fine return to form, one of their strongest albums to date and perhaps even better than that.  The band doesn't cover a lot of new ground, they just go back to what they do best, and they do it very well.  Songs like "Rock City," "Don't Matter" and "Family Tree" jump right out of the speakers, with the familiar ringing guitars driving the way.  But there really isn't a weak cut on the entire album, so it's nice to welcome the Followill brothers back to the land of the living.

The Last Ship, Sting.  Caveat emptor: anyone buying this album expecting to hear something that reminds them of classic Sting or The Police needs to do a little research before plunking down the $9.99.  Better yet, I'll lay it out for you.  "The Last Ship" is a throwback to the days of the "concept album," a suite of songs intended for a yet-to-be produced musical about the heyday (and later, decline) of the shipping industry in Sting's homeland.  I wasn't sure if this was going to be my cup of tea, but I'm happy to say that as long as you accept the album for what it is, it's almost entirely successful.  Songs like "The Last Ship," "The Night the Pugilist Learned How To Dance," "What Have We Got?," "I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else," and "So To Speak" lay out the story in fairly easy-to-understand terms, and at times are surprisingly rousing and even moving.  Good show.

Elton John, The Diving Board.  Now, you have to remember that Elton was my first musical hero, to the point where "Honky Chateau" was the first album that I bought with my own money.  So, even though I've bought few of his records in the past three decades, I'm always disposed to like him, and in fact find it hard to understand how anyone could not admire what he's been able to accomplish.

Motivated by the success of "The Union," his 2010 collaboration with (and rescue of) Leon Russell, Elton is clearly trying to put himself back on the artistic map with "The Diving Board."  And the good news is that for the most part, he succeeds - while I'm not sure how much meaning this has at this late date, the new album is clearly his strongest effort in more than 35 years.  Producer T-Bone Burnett keeps things simple, and the sound is about as far from the Gus Dudgeon "throw in the kitchen sink" approach as you can possibly imagine.  At times, it almost sounds like the grandchild of "Honky Chateau," with driving, catchy tunes like "A Town Called Jubilee," "Take This Dirty Water," and "Mexican Vacation."  The ratio of ballads to rockers leans a little more to the former than I'd like, but several of the ballads, particularly the title cut, are among the strongest he's written in years.

So welcome back, Elton.  Very nice to have you back, indeed.

Wise Up Ghost, Elvis Costello and The Roots.  Elvis has certainly come a long way from that infamous night in 1979 when he got ridiculously drunk and, in an effort to be more obnoxious than members of Delaney and Bonnie's band, dropped the n-word on the world in the midst of an incredible monologue about the general worthlessness of American music.  That night impacted his artistic evolution more than one might imagine.  The first album he released following the incident, "Get Happy!," was clearly an attempt (albeit, a mostly successful one) to scream to the world, "I like American Soul Music!"  Right after that, released "Almost Blue," an entire album of country songs, just to hammer down the point that yes, he also liked other, whiter, genres of music from this side of the pond.  Given his efforts over the years, both artistic and otherwise, to support various causes and various diverse musical genres, it's hard to believe, almost 35 years later, that that night ever happened.

So why bring this up in the context of his new album with The Roots?  Because I think that, for the first time, Elvis sounds completely comfortable with the melding of genres, and can now make an album with The Roots, one with a very distinctive "American" sound, and not sound as if he's doing something to make up for past sins.  He can sit across from Questlove, as he does in a photo inside the album cover, and instead of thinking "look at that old white guy, trying to look cool," you think "Yeah, that makes sense.  Right on."

Put another way, "Wise Up Ghost" just might be the album that Elvis wanted "Get Happy!" to be.  It's an unqualified success, with some of the most memorable tunes I've heard from Elvis in many, many years - "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," "Walk Us Uptown," "Sugar Won't Work," "(She Might Be A) Grenade," and a "Pills and Soap" rewrite called  "Stick Out Your Tongue" all crackle with an intensity that reminds one of his first few classic albums.   A definite winner.

Bob Dylan, "The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait."  When the original "Self Portrait" was released, I was 10 years old, blissfully unaware of Bob Dylan, except for those handful of songs ("Lay Lady Lay" comes to mind) that a young, impressionable kid might hear on AM radio.  To this day I don't own that Dylan album, scared away (as I'm sure have been many others) by Greil Marcus' now-famous comment about it, "What is this shit?"

Listening to this two-CD set, which I'd say is yet another worthy entry in the Bootleg series, it's almost impossible to reconstruct what led to Marcus' comment, and that led an angry Jon Landau to call up Robert Christgau to suggest that the latter give the album a "D" in his monthly consumer guide (he gave it a C+).  Because all of this music, either alternate versions of songs released during that era, or unreleased songs from that era, sounds pretty damn good, and it fits in right along with all the rest of the great stuff in the bootleg series.

In a master stroke of marketing if nothing else, Columbia hired Marcus to write the liner notes for this edition of the series, and reading them you get the feeling that he recognizes this as well.  And when you think about it, you can begin to understand it.  Dylan had released a series of the greatest rock albums ever released in the mid to late 1960s, but wanted to branch out and try some new things (not unlike what he did when he went with an electric band for the first time).  But the audience, even discerning folks like Marcus and Landau, wanted nothing of it.

Cutting to the chase, if you're a Dylan fan, you should buy this album.  You won't be disappointed.