Sunday, April 29, 2007

About That Whole Redemption Thing...

So, for the first time in my sports-loving life I actually predict success for a team that hails from Dallas, and this is how they repay me? Gee, thanks guys. I can only imagine the tantrum that will erupt from Mt. Cuban tomorrow morning.

Tonight's game against Golden State was a classic; by far, the best of the playoffs thus far. But once again, the Mavericks showed a disturbing propensity for gagging in the clutch; Golden State dominated the end of every quarter, and Dallas only hit the key threes after the game was out of reach. Once again in a critical game, the Mavericks lost it more than their opponent won it.

There's no doubt that they could come back, but it sure looks like they're doubting themselves now. And prediction notwithstanding, you can sign me up for the Warriors bandwagon - at this point, proving Chuckles the Clown Barkley wrong would more than make up for a bad prediction. It's hard to know what goes through Barkley's mind sometimes - I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he sure sounded homophobic tonight with his comments about the Bay Area. But homophobic or not, he was definitely an ass.

Go Warriors!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Karaoke Patti

Thinking of how to describe Patti Smith's new album of covers, Twelve, I thought of Tina Turner's spoken introduction to Ike & Tina's version of "Proud Mary." "We never, ever do nothing nice and easy...we do it...nice and rough." Well, Twelve is nice and easy. It's not as if Patti can't handle covers; her version of Van Morrison's "Gloria" is one of the great recordings in rock history. She handled Dylan's "Wicked Messenger" with aplomb on Gone Again, and her version of Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night" (technically not a cover, since her recording was the original) is arguably the definitive version.

Twelve is not a terrible album by any stretch of the imagination, but it's hard to fathom the reason for its existence. Based on her liner notes, some of these songs have played a huge role in Patti's life, which makes the lack of passion and urgency in her voice all the more curious. On "Gloria," you could hear Smith fighting to take the song away from Van Morrison. But with "Gimme Shelter," she seems content to nod her head and bow to Mick and Keith. Her take on Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" is intriguing and minimalist (piano, bass and drums), but it doesn't come close to the drama and excitement of Stevie's original. And next to Tears for Fears' luminous version of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," Smith's just sounds dull and passionless.
Smith is more successful with "White Rabbit," Paul Simon's "The Boy In The Bubble," and the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider." And her version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is interesting. But if you're going to cover "Smells Like Teen Spirit," you'd better make it more than interesting.
There's no question that Smith deserves the spot she was recently granted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, there's little on Twelve that would make a new listener believe that she belongs there.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Save Us From Those Who Would Save Us From Ourselves

You can count me among those who consider TV-Turn Off Week a giant crock of warm excrement. I'm all for reasonable limits set by parents on the amount of television that their children watch. But after a while, it gets really tiresome to hear about yet another organized effort to blame the ills of the world on something that, in the end, contributes very little to those ills.

Stuff like this drives me absolutely nuts:

"We have a lot of bullying, both boys and girls," said San Francisco police Officer Frances Terry, who is the school's resource officer. "There's so much violence in the community.''

Terry coordinated the effort at the middle school using a curriculum developed by Stanford University researchers called SMART -- Student Media Awareness to Reduce Television.

A controlled study of the curriculum found it reduced verbal aggression on the playground by 50 percent and physical aggression by 40 percent, said Robinson, who helped create the program.

"Kids are directly learning the behavior by watching or playing video games," Robinson said. In addition, children become numb to the violence on the screens, desensitizing them to the repercussions of aggressive behavior, he added.

"Thirdly, it really reinforces that aggression and violence is a way of solving problems," Robinson said.

Boy, those kids today - really stupid, aren't they? I have two of them, and you know what? I really do think that they can tell the difference between the violence on a television program or video game and violence in real life. And when you consider that the single most violent, destructive and despicable thing shown on TV in our lifetimes was inflicted on the country last week by NBC News, a "respectable" part of the media, it just shows you how wrong-headed and hypocritical this entire effort is. In the end, it makes people feel good about themselves, for doing absolutely nothing.

And please...people can rant and rave all they want about the violence in video games like "God of War" and "Call of Duty," but given the restricted curriculum that education accountability efforts like No Child Left Behind has left them with, where else can kids turn to develop the critical thinking skills that...hey, what do you know!...will actually help them develop the skills necessary to tell the difference between TV and real violence?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Redemption Lies Ahead

On the eve of the NBA Playoffs, a prediction seems to be in order. As you can probably tell from the title of this post, there's little doubt in my mind that the Dallas Mavericks will push the memory of last year's epic collapse out of their minds by capturing their first NBA title. By doing so, they will join the last two Super Bowl winners as teams that followed a season marked by a crushing disappointment in the playoffs with a championship.

Last year's NBA finals saw the complete public unveiling of a new superstar (Dwayne Wade, who would close out the year being selected as Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated), and a great story featuring a scrappy, out-manned underdog with a crusty old coach (OK, so Pat Riley isn't that old, but he ain't what he used to be, either) coming from off the deck to score an unexpected, somewhat miraculous victory. But the real story of last year's Final was the aforementioned epic collapse of the Mavericks, who went about as far as a team can possibly go in terms of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Much like the 1989 Oakland Athletics, who were reeling after having been upset the previous year by a team clearly inferior to them in virtually every respect, the Mavericks have bounced back this year with a vengeance, never looking back from an improbable 0-4 start to make a serious run at the Holy Grail of 70 regular season wins. They are battle-tested, they learned a critical lesson last year, and they will defeat the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Championship.

Even though, it is probably fair to say, the four best teams in the NBA are all in the Western Conference.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Ten Books I Couldn't Live Without

Originating at Kailana's Written World, the charge is to come up with the ten books that you couldn't live without. It's impossible to keep such a list to ten, but here are ten that I return to on a regular basis - "literary comfort food." Not necessarily the ten "best" books that I own, but those that I grab off the shelf first when I'm heading to bed and know that there's probably only 20 minutes of reading ahead before sleep hits.

- A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. There is something in Irving's masterpiece for every imaginable mood. If you want to laugh out loud, read the performance of A Christmas Carol. If you want to get angry, read about Randy White. If you want to marvel at the best of human nature, read about Owen's gift to John. And if you want to cry, read the ending.

- LA Requiem, by Robert Crais. Every book he's written qualifies as an excellent thriller. This one is so much better than the rest that it's scary.

- The Chill, by Ross McDonald. Hopefully, over time McDonald's role as the successor to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler won't be forgotten.

- LA Confidential, by James Ellroy. When the threads of this story begin to come together in the third act, it feels like a miracle.

- It, by Stephen King. He wrote great books before, and he's written great books since, but he will never be able to top this epic.

- Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. There's nothing to say that hasn't already been said. Sparkling on every page.

- Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. For sheer adventure, how can you top a cattle drive? And some of the most sharply written, well defined characters of any book.

- Ball Four, by Jim Bouton. The funniest, and perhaps truest, book written about baseball (or any sport, for that matter).

- The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. Pulp fiction it may be, but there is a reason the movie was so great, after all.

- I'm going to cheat in the last one, and just say anything in the Myron Bolitar series by Harlan Coben, the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly, or the Lucas Davenport series by John Sandford. You really can't go wrong with any of them.

The 50 Music Project: A Major Find

I should have known that Rasputin would come through for me. One of my favorite haunts during my two years in Berkeley, it was where I bought many albums that remain on my all-time favorite list today - including The River by Bruce Springsteen, Gold and Platinum Band by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sandinista by The Clash, and Avalon by Roxy Music.

It wasn't at the Berkeley store, but the San Francisco edition (on Powell Street, just off of Union Square) where I found "Billboard 1972 Top Rock 'n Roll Hits," which includes three songs that are key to the 50th Anniversary Music Project: Alone Again (Naturally) by Gilbert O'Sullivan, Brandy (You're A Fine Girl) by Looking Glass, and Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress) by The Hollies. Lest one think that I've lost my sanity, those three songs were major parts of the soundtrack of our first family trip to Disneyland, made in the late, great Kingswood Estate in June 1972.

The SF Rasputin is great - five stories, and to get past the second story you have to take an elevator, complete with an elevator operator who plays tunes on his iPod through an ancient boombox. I'm here in the City through Tuesday, and I suspect I'll be back - there are a lot more bins to browse through.

In the meantime, thank you Rasputin.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Man Did Design The Course, After All

"It is no criterion of a good course that the record is high. This is usually an indication of a bad course, and only too frequently means that the putting surfaces are untrue, the approaches unfair and the greens small and blind. On the contrary, if the average score is high but the records extremely low - sixty-four or sixty-five for a course under seven thousand yards - it usually means that a first class player gets full reward for accurate play."

Alister Mackenzie, co-designer of Augusta National (hat tip: Geoff Shackelford)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Not Your Father's Masters

Everyone loves a great underdog story, and Zach Johnson winning the Masters is right up there with the best of them.

That's the positive spin.

By winning the Masters, Zach Johnson joins Charles Coody and Tommy Aaron in that elite group of professional golfers whose sole contribution to the history of golf was their unlikely Masters victory.

That's the mean-spirited version.

What I feel is somewhere in between. Zach, who I will freely admit to never having heard of until this past weekend, seems to be a good kid with a good head on his shoulders. On the other hand, it's clear that the true "winner" this weekend was Augusta National, which kicked everyone's butt, and I don't necessarily see that as a good thing at all.

The "Tiger-proofing" of Augusta National now appears to be complete. However, the absurdity of calling it that becomes plain when one realizes that only through a colossal fluke did Tiger not win the tournament. Barring another miracle, it's not as if the green-jacketed brain trust has done anything other than ensure that very few players other than Tiger can ever win this thing, as long as he's in his prime. The fact that Tiger played poorly for most of the weekend and still came within two strokes of winning is significant. And one thing is for certain - Tiger's play was as joyless an exercise as I've ever seen, in any professional sport. Frankly, it was excruciating to watch - he was clearly pissed off nearly the entire time, and should probably give that some thought once he cools down a bit.

Once upon a time, each of the major golf tournaments had their own identity. Thanks to Hootie Johnson and Tom Fazio, the Masters is perilously close to losing its identity. The course is still beautiful; the music still saccharine; the announcers still reverent. But in their decade-long quest to create the "perfect test of golf," the Masters has forgotten what it was all about. The Masters was about Palmer going birdie-birdie to win by a stroke. The Masters was Gary Player shooting 64 on the final day to shock the world. The Masters was Jack Nicklaus outdueling Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller by matching them, birdie for birdie and eagle for eagle. The Masters was that same Nicklaus, shooting 30 on the back nine to complete the single most exciting day in the history of professional golf. And yes, the Masters was Tiger Woods, annihilating the field and making the whole thing look easy.

Those days appear to be gone for good. One can argue whether or not the course is "better" than it used to be. That's a matter of opinion. But it is a fact that absent a retro movement in Augusta, the Masters stands to lose its identity - and become the U.S. Open, held in the Spring, with a more exclusive field, and on a prettier course. And that is truly sad.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Glory That Was Twin Peaks

Reading this terrific piece by Jeremiah Kipp reminded me that Sunday is the 17th anniversary (to the day) of the premiere of Twin Peaks. Although I agree with the conventional wisdom that the series disintegrated somewhat after the "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" arc ended early in the second season, that never stopped me from watching - I never missed an episode, right up to the incomprehensible and deeply unsatisfying finale.

Among other memories, I remember being at a post golf-tournament party in October 1990 when a poker game broke out, and then had to be delayed because one of the players insisted that we stop to watch Twin Peaks. I didn't realize it at the time, but that player was none other than John Gulbis, who went on to become something of a mini-celebrity by being the father of professional golfer Natalie Gulbis. Mr. Gulbis, a former probation officer, was an intimidating presence - no one was about to argue with him about watching the show - and would have fit right in with the Palmers, the Hornes, and the townfolk of Twin Peaks - but that's a story for another day.

The series was strange (and as Kipp points out, influential), but the premiere was an absolute masterpiece - in my book, one of the great moments in television history. It holds up well after all of these years - the cinematography, Angelo Badalamenti's score, the writing, and the acting. An unusual combination of newbies, oldies and in-betweens, the cast obviously had a wonderful time on the show, making the most of the strange dialogue and unconventional characters. My favorite was FBI Agent Dale Cooper, the role of a lifetime for Kyle MacLachlan.

My obsession with the show was such that I named my fantasy football team after the program for two years running - "Dale Cooper All-Stars," followed by "Twin Peaks Titans." In the end, the series may not have achieved its potential, but it was certainly fun while it was around.