Saturday, August 23, 2014

LP of the Week - "Traveling Wilburys, Volume One" (1988)

So what happens when a group of stars, superstars, and living legends decides to get together, work on a few tracks, have some fun and record an album?

One answer, and perhaps the best one, is "Traveling Wilburys, Volume One."  From first track to last, it's an absolute delight, without pretensions or any notion that the resulting work product was intended to be anything more than a bunch of really talented guys having fun and proving that you don't always have to serve up a plate of deep meaning with your rock 'n roll meal.

For those who weren't lucky enough to be there at the time, the Wilburys consisted of Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and George Harrison.  Ably assisted by old session hands Jim Keltner, Jim Horn and Ray Cooper, the old codgers came up with 10 pop songs that at the time were as good as anything any of them had recorded in quite a while.

And that's nothing to sneeze at; let's just consider Dylan for a moment.  Over the course of the 1980s he'd released a series of albums that, while they contained some good songs, threatened to tarnish the legacy of a man who had long ago established his rightful place at the very top of the pantheon.  He comes in and records a couple of playful albums with the Wilburys ("Volume Two" was very good, but not quite at the level of the original), and the next thing you know, he's on the comeback trail, first with a couple of good electric LPs, followed by a couple of classic acoustic sets, and then a series of masterpieces as good as anything the man recorded during the height of his Sixties powers.  His "Congratulations" and "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" are probably the two best songs on the record, but more importantly, they are the songs on which Dylan seems to have rediscovered his sense of humor.  Whether "Tweeter" is an homage to Bruce Springsteen or just Dylan playfully making fun of him doesn't really matter; what's important is that he once again demonstrates the wordplay that...well, made him Bob Dylan.

But those are hardly the only good songs on the album.  Both "Handle With Care" and "Heading for the Light" are top-notch Harrison tunes, Orbison's "Not Alone Any More" is better than anything he recorded for his comeback album produced by Bono, and both Petty and Lynne contribute lightweight but immediately catchy and danceable tunes that are akin to the icing on the cake.

It won't likely go down as the best thing that any of them ever recorded, but what the heck - every now and then, boys just want to have fun.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Charles M. Young

So I make a reference to Charles M. Young in a piece that I write on Sunday, and two days later I find out that he's died of a brain tumor.  Sometimes life is that way.

For those not familiar with the name, Charles M. Young wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine during a difficult era for the historic periodical.  He joined the staff in 1976, and was gone by the end of 1980.  During that time, RS moved from San Francisco to New York, and I'm sure there are those who would argue that it was never the same after that.  It engaged in a lengthy and sometimes humorous feud with The Eagles, and began the slow (well, maybe not that slow) metamorphosis from being on the cutting edge of rock criticism and coverage to becoming a part of - if not the - establishment on those matters.  During this period the logo changed, the size of the magazine changed, and with the first issue after Young departed, even the type of paper changed.  Even worse, Jann Wenner did things like castigate his own critics in print for reviews he didn't agree with, taking on the likes of Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus and Paul Nelson (you know, just three of the most notable critics in the history of rock criticism) for their views on the latest works of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.  By the time Dylan's "Slow Train Coming" (an album that I've heard exactly zero people suggest is among his best) came along, Wenner wasn't going to take any chances - he just wrote the rave review himself.

Young may not have been quite of the stature of a Marsh, Marcus or Nelson, but he was certainly consistent with the spirit of their writing.  He was less interested in the works of an established artist (although he loved many) than he was in seeking out something new - whether it be the Sex Pistols, The Police, Television, or anything in between.  It's a cliche, but he was a breath of fresh air during a time when the magazine couldn't quite figure out what it cared about.

You can read a lovely piece about Young here by one of his colleagues and friends, David Felton - another great name from the RS annals.

Or, you can just read some of the stuff he wrote for Rolling Stone: everything from Kiss and Cheap Trick to the Sex Pistols to The Who and Van Halen.

A great excerpt - the lead paragraph from his review of Led Zeppelin's "In Through the Out Door."

Hearing John Bonham play the drums is the aural equivalent of watching Clint Eastwood club eight bad guys over the head with a two-by-four while driving a derailed locomotive through their hideout. Either you are horrified by all that blood on the floor, or you wish you could do it yourself. No one's ever going to accuse Bonham of subtlety, but everyone should give him credit for consistency. Even on Led Zeppelin's worst effort (Houses of the Holy), he flails with so much exuberance that I find myself hoping that thugs from strange foreign countries will attack me on the street so I can play "Moby Dick" on their strange foreign heads.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

LP of the Week - "Reggata de Blanc," The Police (1979)

The year "Reggatta de Blanc" came out, Charles M. Young included it in his list of favorite albums of the year in Rolling Stone's end of year issue.  In his notes he made a comment along the lines of it, even more than the band's debut album, demonstrating why the band had staying power and was destined to be around for a long, long time.  At the time, demonstrating that you're never quite as smart as you think you are when you're 19 years old, I strongly disagreed with that assessment, and out of pique (if nothing else) filed the album away, where it sat for many years, not unlistened to but certainly less so than the band's other four LPs.

Fast forward to 2007, when the Virgin Megastore (remember those?) in San Francisco was doing a dump of CD Box Sets for ridiculously low prices, and with a bunch of birthday cash burning a hole in my pocket I decided to pick up "Message in a Box," which includes every song from all five Police albums, plus a handful of alternate takes, unreleased songs, and live recordings.  Listening to it for a while, a couple of things became crystal clear - one, the band never got enough credit while they were still a band (perhaps because of the bleached blonde marketing campaign for their first two records), and two, not only was "Regatta de Blanc" their best and most consistent album, but it was their best by quite a margin.  So Charles M. Young, I apologize - I'm sure you've been agonizing for years over this petty disagreement.

On "Reggatta de Blanc,"the band refines and perfects the formula they established on the first album - "new wave rock tinged with the beats and rhythms of reggae," I guess you could call it, while avoiding completely the calculations and pretensions that would dog the later albums and keep them from achieving classic status.  From "Message in a Bottle" to "Walking on the Moon" to "The Bed's Too Big Without You" to "Bring on the Night" to "Does Everyone Stare" (and I could go on, but you get the point), "Reggata de Blanc" is classic song after classic song.  Frankly, I don't know what the hell I was thinking back in 1979.  But then again, for a while I thought The Knack was a great band, a notion that I will neither deny nor defend.

You really can't go wrong with any Police albums, although in the end "Synchronicity" (outside of "Every Breath You Take," their greatest song) is really overwhelmed by a sense of self-importance.  But even though it took me nearly 30 years to realize it, "Reggatta de Blanc" is their best album.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

8 Years

8 years ago, I posted the first entry on this blog.  3008 posts later, here we are.

Son #1 had just finished his freshman year in high school, and now he is a college graduate working and living away from home.

Son #2 had just finished 6th grade, and now he is about to begin his junior year at San Diego State University.

8 years ago in August, I was in a job that I loved and thought I just might retire from.  Then, stuff happened and now I'm in a job that at that time, I would never have dreamed that I'd have.  I've learned a lot since then, including that you just never know where time and life will lead you.

I wish I had more time to write here, but hopefully what I write and post here brings enjoyment to some.  Worst case scenario?  It helps keep me sane.

And who knows what the next 8 years have in store.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams

When I first heard the news that Robin Williams was dead, the immediate feeling was very close to what I felt upon hearing of Elvis Presley's death, almost 37 years ago now.  It was a punch in the gut.  It was an immediate sadness that went far beyond what one feels when a beloved public figure dies at an advanced age.  In the cases of both Williams and Presley, we're talking about someone who was beloved by so many, but also someone who was gone much too early.  Another example would be John Lennon.  It's the kind of death where you remember exactly what you were doing at the moment you heard about it, for the rest of your own life.

You can tell a death has had a major public impact when someone you barely knows wants to talk to you about it.  In August 1977, it was the young guy who washed my car windows (remember when they did that?) as I filled my tank on the way to work.  Earlier this week, it was the security guard in our building.  "Did you hear about...?"  A stunned, hurt quality to the conversation.  That's what it felt like when Elvis Presley died, and that's what it felt like when news of Robin Williams' death spread like wildfire on Monday afternoon.  

And if anything, the emotional impact has only grown over the past two days.  The confirmation that this was a death by suicide, coupled with the stories and information about the severe depression that Williams had fought for so long have added to the sense of tragedy, and made what was already sad almost unbearable.  Williams (and Presley and Lennon before him) was larger than life in a way that few outside the entertainment world can achieve, and so immensely popular that it was tempting for us to think that we knew him - that the performer we saw on Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Mork & Mindy, and his many other television appearances and films was the man. When someone achieves that level of popularity it's also tempting for many to think that he/she belongs to us, which sadly seems to lead to the type of inappropriate and thoughtless comments that we've seen from some in the media and from too many on social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.

A death such as that suffered by Robin Williams is frightening.  We think about the daily pressures and stress that are a part of our own lives, and the coping mechanisms that we employ.  We may think we have it hard, and sometimes maybe we do.  And when thinking about our own difficulties, it's hard to wrap one's head around the concept of a level of depression so deep and severe that death seems like a preferable alternative to living, to the person who is suffering.  So it is heartening that so many are using this tragedy to educate and help others who are suffering from a similar affliction.  The more we know, the more that we can help others.

Many wonderful things have been written about the career accomplishments of Robin Williams, and it would be impossible to link to them all.  I'll settle for linking to pieces written by four of my personal favorites:

R.I.P. Robin Williams, by Sheila O'Malley.  O'Malley is one of the very best writers around at getting to the core of what makes a performer successful.  Her pieces about actors and acting are always insightful, and her pieces about Elvis Presley should really be compiled in book form.  This might strike some as heresy, but the things she's written about Presley rival the work of Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh about the same subject.  She's also great on an endless number of topics.

The TV Legacy of the Late, Great Robin Williams, by Alan Sepinwall.  When I read his work for the first time, Alan Sepinwall was in college and writing weekly reviews of "NYPD Blue" on this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web.  Upon graduation he became the television critic for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and is now a TV critic for  I have no idea how you objectively measure such a thing, but at least among the people I read, he is one of the country's most-read and respected TV critics.

A Constant Quality: Robin Williams, by Matt Zoller Seitz.  Reading Sepinwall led me to Matt Zoller Seitz, his partner-in-crime at the Star-Ledger.  He is now the Editor in Chief of, where he writes frequently about film and television.

My thoughts on Robin Williams, by Ken Levine.  Ken Levine (with his partner David Isaacs) has written for two of the landmark comedy series in television history, M*A*S*H and Cheers.  He was then a baseball announcer.  In other words, he's pretty much living the life that I live in my wildest dreams.  In this piece, he imagines what Robin might have liked his own funeral to look like.  The piece also includes a link to Levine's earlier piece about performing an Improv piece with Williams.  Wrap your head around that for a moment.

Not every performance by Robin Williams was perfect.  But more than enough of them were great.  And thanks to the Internet and YouTube, there is a rich history of his talk show appearances, where he was almost always beyond brilliant.  When considering his place in history, those appearances have to count for something.  My own personal favorites?  The Birdcage.  Aladdin.  "Bop Gun," an episode of  Homicide: Life on the Street.  And, Good Will Hunting.

Farewell.  May he now find the peace that eluded him in life.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Valhalla Rising

No one is ever going to mistake Valhalla for Augusta, Pinehurst No. 2 or Royal Liverpool (Hoylake), the sites of the year's first three major golf tournaments, but sooner or later people are going to have to admit that Valhalla has carved its way into the history books simply because of the dramatic events it has hosted.  First there was the 1996 PGA Championship which ended in playoff; then the 2000 PGA which featured the historic duel between Tiger Woods and Bob May; which was followed by the 2008 Ryder Cup that saw the prohibitive underdog American team pull off an unlikely victory; and following that up today with what was probably the best of them all, a dramatic 2014 PGA Championship that saw Rory McIlroy prevail under unique and historic circumstances, beating the clock against the dark and barely holding on in the end when it looked like Phil Mickelson was going to pull off one of the most miraculous shots in the history of major championship play.

It was a long and great day of golf, and kudos are due not just to the players but to those working the course who somehow managed to help it recover from a 45-minute drenching that left the bunkers looking like ponds, the greens like rivers and the fairways like lakes.  Or maybe the biggest congratulations are due to whomever designed the course's drainage system.  In any event, it certainly didn't seem likely when CBS went on the air at 11 a.m. PST that there was any chance that the tournament would end on Sunday.  But end it did, if only because the final pair was allowed to play up on their tee shots and approach shots as the penultimate pair (Mickelson and Fowler) struggled to pull of the miracle that would tie McIlroy.  It was not to be, and Rory is quite clearly the King.

Some thoughts on the season that heads to a playoff season that ultimately means nothing, because at this point we all know who the world's best golfer is - and right now, there's a huge gap between McIlroy and #2, and that will remain the case regardless of who captures the Fed Ex cup or whatever they're calling it these days.

- Tiger Woods is not finished.  His bid to pass Jack Nicklaus is probably over, but I'd be shocked if he doesn't pull at least one more major out of his hat.

- Before we anoint Rory as the next Jack-slayer, let's see how the beginning of 2015 plays out.  We got spoiled by Tiger's relentless and consistent brilliance over the course of a decade, but we've already seen that McIlroy is prone to slumps.  And winning major tournaments is hard - just ask Phil Mickelson - or better yet, Sergio Garcia.

- Kudos to Rickie Fowler, who won an award that doesn't really exist by turning in the lowest composite score in this year's majors.  A 5th at the Masters, a T-2 at the U.S. Open and the Open, and a 4th at the PGA is nothing to sneeze at.  But as Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie can attest, it's majors that separate the very good from the great.  Fowler is only 25, and is one cool, classy customer.  It would be easy to say that he's going to win several.  Just like Sergio, Colin and Luke Donald were going to.

- Get your shit together, Bubba Watson.  Maybe watch the tape of Fowler's round, or buy one of Wil Wheaton's "Don't Be a Dick" t-shirts and pin it to your ceiling.  But whatever you do, it's time to start to acting like a major winner.

- Could the U.S. team be any bigger underdogs going into the Ryder Cup than they are this year?  Which is good - they can go over there feeling like they have nothing to lose (because they don't), with Captain Tom on their side convincing them (but not in public, please) that they are the 12 best golfers in the world.  I'll still be surprised if they win, but I won't be shocked.

"Tarpaper Sky" - Rodney Crowell hits one out of the park

When Jack Gallagher invited me to be a guest on his and Tommy Dunbar's "5 Songs" podcast last year, I made the comment that "the best song ever written is still out there, somewhere."  For me, that's what has always made music so exciting - there's just so damn much of it, and you just never know where your passion might take you.  While exciting, it's also a bit scary, because at the end of the day there's just too much music - you can't ever hope but to scratch the surface.  And if you're like me (and you probably aren't, and that's probably a good thing), there's always a nagging worry at the back of your mind that you have to be missing something.

On Friday, I was perusing a Rolling Stone article that they had posted on their Facebook page, something along the lines of "the 26 best albums you probably haven't heard in 2014."  Immediately, I was thinking "oh shit, here we go again."  I got out my pen and paper, wrote down a few that sounded interesting, and a couple that screamed "oh man, how did I miss that?"  And on Saturday, I trekked down to the local record store, where I was able to find one that fell into the latter category - "Tarpaper Sky," the latest release from Rodney Crowell.  I haven't bought a lot of Crowell over the years, but it's not as if I don't know who he is, and some of the great songs he's written in the past.  And I really enjoyed his duet album last year with Emmylou Harris, and there's no denying that "When the Master Calls the Roll," the song he co-wrote with (ex-wife) Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal for her album "The River & the Thread," is a masterpiece - one of the best songs in recent memory.

But I have to admit that nothing prepared me for how good an album "Tarpaper Sky" would be. After years of having learned my lesson I've tried to shy away from making spur of the moment pronouncements, but this just might end up being my favorite album of the year - and it will almost certainly end up in the top five.  On "Tarpaper Sky" Crowell shows his prowess as both a performer and a songwriter; there isn't a song on the album that doesn't contain at least one musical or lyrical delight.  There's even a song dedicated to John Denver ("Oh What a Beautiful World") that manages to be sentimental without being corny, and gets to the essence of what made Denver such an appealing performer to so many.

Like Patty Griffin, Crowell made his name as a songwriter before he hit it big as a singer and bandleader, and his skill with the pen is evident throughout "Tarpaper Sky," as he demonstrates a way with words that rivals someone like Elvis Costello or Hal David.  Some examples:

You're every curled rosebud
Enchanting my eye
Each turned up coat collar
And your gaze slides by
There's a sanded down moon
In a tarpaper sky
God I'm missing you

"God I'm Missing You"

Has anybody seen her now?
Pray tell me what you hear
'Cause I just can't get over
How she shed me like a tear

"Somebody's Shadow"

You tore through my life like a tornado looking
for a trailer park
We met on a Monday, here it is Sunday
It happened so fast, they said it wouldn't last
Yeah, but what do they know?
Why can't they say so now?

"Frankie Please"

It's great stuff.  And here's hoping that the RS article helps a few others discover it.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The End of the World As We Know It - "The Stand"

Last week, I posted the following on my Facebook page: 

"So, let's see here...war in the Middle East, check. Planes being shot down allegedly by Russia, check. Ebola outbreak, check. Flesh-eating bacteria in the ocean off the Florida coast, check. Yep, I'd say my end-of-the-world dreams are all primed to make a comeback, after taking a couple of decades off."

We certainly seem to be living through the confluence of a lot of crazy things right now, but it's also a true statement that the world has been dangerous place for a long time now.  And although I wasn't consciously thinking about it at the time, that may have been going through my mind a couple of weeks ago when I decided to pick up Stephen King's "The Stand" for what I call a "speed read" - taking my time on the sections I really enjoy, moving quickly through some parts, and skipping some parts altogether.  And not too worry - I've read the entire thing from cover to cover on several occasions, both the original version and the deluxe version where King added back a couple of hundred pages that he'd been forced to edit out at the behest of his publisher's accounting department.

I wouldn't argue that "The Stand" is King's best book (I'd say "It," followed by "The Dead Zone"), but it seems to be his most beloved, and admittedly it is the one I come back to more often than any of the others I've read.  I think there's a reason for that - even though the premise is horrifying, there's something fascinating about the notion of a civilization starting over with (more or less) a clean slate. The best parts of the novel depict journeys.  After the apocalypse you've got Stu, Glen, Frannie and Harold making their way across the country from Maine towards Nebraska; Larry's group with Nadine and Joe/Leo heading the same way; Nick and Tom Cullen making their way up from the south.  Much later on, there are the journeys of Stu/Larry/Glen/Ralph across the plains to confront their fate in the hands of Randall Flagg, and then the journey of Stu and Tom back to Colorado.  Each one of these episodes is an adventure worthy of its own book, and that's before you even begin to think about the personal journeys that these characters go through.  At the end of this book no one, whether they are living or dead, is the same person that they were when the book began.  For some it's a story of redemption, for others it's a story of descent, and for others it's a matter of discovering things within themselves that they never knew were there before.  

And as one might expect from a book that is 1152 pages long, there are plenty of what I can only call "Stephen King moments" - small stories within the larger narrative that sometimes move that narrative forward, and other times just add pieces to the puzzle or even atmosphere to the proceedings.  My favorite, and it's only a few pages long, is when Stu tells the story of a night long ago, when he encountered a famous rock star who was supposed to be dead.  It doesn't necessarily mean anything in the larger scope of the story that King is telling, but it tells us a lot about Stu, giving us some insight into the type of person he's always been.

It may sound funny to say it, but at the end of the day the most apt thing one can say about "The Stand" is that it's a great yarn.  And here's hoping that we don't have to live through it anytime soon.