Saturday, December 31, 2011

The 2011 Song of the Year - "Rolling in the Deep"

Is there any other choice? Of course not. “Rolling in the Deep” dominated 2011 the way that the 1998 New York Yankees dominated baseball and the 1989 49ers dominated the NFL – destroying everything in its path, and leaving no prisoners.

This is the kind of song that will last generations – people who haven’t even been born yet will hear it for the first time, and feel an excitement that comes with only the best and most classic rock songs – songs like “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Born to Run,” "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)," and “Every Breath You Take.”

This is one angry song, as evidenced by the lyrics from the first minute or so of the song, which appear below. “Rolling in the Deep” has a lot more in common with something like PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” than it does with your typical breakup song.

And with that, I bid you adieu for 2011, and thank everyone who has landed on the blog, whether by accident or on purpose. Here’s to good times in 2012.

There's a fire starting in my heart
Reaching a fever pitch, it's bringing me out the dark
Finally I can see you crystal clear
Go ahead and sell me out and I'll lay your shit bare
See how I'll leave with every piece of you
Don't underestimate the things that I will do

There's a fire starting in my heart
Reaching a fever pitch
And it's bringing me out the dark

The scars of your love remind me of us
They keep me thinking that we almost had it all
The scars of your love, they leave me breathless
I can't help feeling
We could have had it all
(You're gonna wish you never had met me)
Rolling in the deep
(Tears are gonna fall, rolling in the deep)
You had my heart inside of your hand
(You're gonna wish you never had met me)
And you played it to the beat
(Tears are gonna fall, rolling in the deep)

Songs of the Year - #2 - "Pulaski"

When it comes to the songwriting chores for Drive-By Truckers, Mike Cooley isn't anywhere near as prolific as Patterson Hood. But when he comes up with a great one, it's really, really great.

And here is a version with the entire band:

The story is a familiar one (one that brings Elvis' "Long Black Limousine" to mind), but it's rarely been told as sharply as it is here.

Listen closely, because you'll be rewarded. Just don't expect a happy ending.

Songs of the Year - #3 - "Runaway"

And yes, before you start with me, I do know that this one was also released in 2010. But for me, it was a 2011 song, and since the album from whence it came was released last November, I'm giving myself another mulligan.

I'm not a fan of modern rap per se, but there's no question that Kanye's 2010 album "My Dark Twisted Fantasy" richly deserved to top all of the year-end polls last year, including Pazz 'n Jop in the Village Voice. Even though I wouldn't want it for a steady diet, there's really little doubt that it was the best album released last year.

And this was the best song on it:

Kanye even shows some astute self-reflection here, something that at times has been in short supply.

Songs of the Year - #4 - "Here Lies Carl Mays"

The Baseball Project started out as a lark - a group of veteran musicians, including Steve Wynn from The Dream Syndicate and Peter Buck of R.E.M., getting together in their spare time to write and play songs about baseball. Two terrific albums in (the first one is the best, but the second one is just fine), the project shows no signs of slowing down.

This is my favorite song on the second album, an elegy to Carl Mays, the man made famous in baseball history (infamous is probably the better word) for throwing the pitch that killed Roy Chapman. This tells his story, and it is a great (albeit sad) one.

Songs of the Year - #5 - "The Dance Class"

OK, so technically this song (and at least one other) in my Top 5 was released last year. But it was late in the year, and for me that means it was a 2011 song.

The Old 97s are a band that defines consistency - their work is always good. But every now and then, they come up with an album that is much better than good - as was the case with their last effort, "The Grand Theatre Vol. 1." Which, by the way, you can download right now on for $5.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Songs of the Year - "Time Spent in Los Angeles"

I still haven't quite decided if this band is the second coming of Jackson Browne or just a clever pastiche of his early to mid-1970s style, but for now a song this good makes such deliberations irrelevant - even if there are a couple of lyrics in there that are way more awkward than anything Browne would have come up with on his worst day.

But it's a great song, nonetheless.

And tomorrow...the Top 5 of 2011.

Songs of the Year - "Born This Way"

Sure, it sounds like Madonna's "Express Yourself," but I'd be willing to be at least half of the people saying that wouldn't have given Madonna the time of day in 1984, or 1994, or get the idea. A great pop song is a great pop song, and although I wouldn't consider myself a huge Gaga fan, I know a great pop song when I hear it.

Songs of the Year - "Sad Song"

What I love about this song is how, when the music starts, you first think you're going to be hearing "My Best Friend's Girl," and then you think you're hearing "Let's Go." But no, what you're hearing is "Sad Song," from The Cars first album of new music in almost 25 years.

At the time I commented that it was either a very good album or a very good joke, and after six months of listening, I think it is probably a bit of both.

Songs of the Year - "Paradise"

Coldplay seems to inspire a lot of negativity from a lot of people, but I have no problem with them. And when they come up with a song like this, why quibble?

"Paradise," as performed on Letterman.

Songs of the Year - "Hell on Heels"

This one sort of speaks for itself, don't you think?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Songs of the Year - "Ray's Automatic Weapon"

I'm surprised - very surprised - that "Go Go Boots," the 2011 effort from the Drive-By Truckers, isn't showing up on more "top of the year" lists. It's certainly their best album in a while, maybe going all the way back to 2003.

In any event, the band just keeps truckin' on, and this Patterson Hood gem is the second-best song on the album (hint, hint).

Songs of the Year - "Apothecary Love"

I posted this one once before, but it's still great - The Low Anthem, with "Apothecary Love."

Songs of the Year - "Discoverer"

R.E.M. called it quits this year, almost 30 years in. It was a magnificent career, and if you want to make an argument for them being the best American band of the past 25 years, I'll listen.

What makes this song so great is how it is instantly recognizable as R.E.M., while sounding completely fresh and new. The album from whence it came, "Collapse Into Now," was a fine farewell.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Songs of the Year - "Springsteen"

I suppose it was inevitable that I would love this song. Eric Church is trading in nostalgia here, but the strength of the song just overpowers that, and much like Bob Seger's "Night Moves" and The Blasters' "Border Radio," the song transcends the time that it was written about.

Songs of the Year - "Lonely Boy" II

I got an email from a friend and reader in Long Beach who said one could dance to this song, but he wasn't sure he was the one.

Helpful guy that I am, I thought I would post this to help him out a bit.

Songs of the Year - "Helplessness Blues"

There's still plenty of time for me to change my mind, but the sophomore effort from Fleet Foxes didn't quite click for me the way the debut did. Having said that, the album is very good, and contains some truly great songs - including the title track.

The way the song changes gears in midstream is part of its power. And in this live performance, you can see that the band is becoming much more confident in its own ability to perform songs that sound almost pristine on the records.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Songs of the Year - "Lonely Boy"

The Black Keys, one might say, are on fire right now. And "Lonely Boy" is one smoking song. Here's a performance from The Colbert Report.

Songs of the Year - "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart"

Today we move on to Fountains of Wayne, masters of the Pop-Rock hook, with "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart," off of their 2011 album "Sky Full of Holes."

Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 Songs of the Year

The Musical Advent Calendar is over, and the Christmas songs are all packed away until the day after Thanksgiving. But the party isn't over, because there's still a few days left to celebrate what were my favorite songs of 2011.

We start off with the incomparable Alison Krauss, who released an outstanding album this year ("Paper Airplane") with her longtime band, Union Station. This song, Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day, is just further proof that her voice is one of the most memorable in music.

"Dimming of the Day"

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

"Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them, for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him."

- "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 24 - "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"

And as always, we close out the Musical Advent Calendar with the greatest rock Christmas song, courtesy of the ageless and timeless Darlene Love.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day 22 - "Gee Whiz, It's Christmas"

The idea for today's selection comes from clear across the country; specifically, the Washington D.C. area.

Carla Thomas, with what must surely be her best known song - "Gee Whiz, It's Christmas."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Netflix Potpourri

I freely admit from the outset that these capsule reviews won’t do justice to any of these films. But I can’t stand the thought of not saying something about every film I’ve watched this year on Netflix.

“Biutiful” is a powerful movie driven by the great performance of Javier Bardem. Bardem plays Uxbal, a man in literal and spiritual pain – he is dying of cancer, and has spent much of his life in the midst or on the outskirts of the criminal underground in Barcelona. Even with the bad things he has done, he is essentially a good man who is trying to do right by his children. He desires to do what he can to make things right before he dies. But this is a film by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, so one knows going in that the journey will not be an entirely pleasant one. Some of what Uxbal faces (trying to reconcile his relationship with his troubled wife) is moving, and some of it (the episode with the gas heaters) is telegraphed from a mile away. But thanks to Bardem, whose pain is etched within every line on his face, it all feels real. Well worth seeking out for his performance alone.

And now for something completely different. “The Trip” is basically a two-man show, the two men being Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Coogan is about to embark on a road trip to examine some of the most chi-chi restaurants in the U.K., accompanied by his best friend, Brydon. The two of them talk, talk, and talk. And nearly all of it is laugh out loud funny. Most memorably, the two do battle over who performs the best Michael Caine impression (they’re both spot on, in my book), from each era of his long career. But that’s not the only reason to see the movie – if you want to cheer yourself up on a dank wintry day, you could do a lot worse than put this one in your queue.

“Limitless” is a thriller that, upon reflection, really makes no sense at all. It’s about these pills that give you super-human powers, both mentally and physically (sign me up for a trial!). I’m not going to delve very deeply into the plot, except to say that the more you think about it, the less sense it all makes. This is a story that has holes so huge that a Death Star could navigate through them. But having said that, I enjoyed it. It’s mindless fun, the pace never lets up, Bradley Cooper demonstrates that he can do more than act in “Hangover” movies, and even Robert DeNiro puts in a turn that isn’t embarrassing. The story may not stand up to scrutiny, but in the end the execution makes up for it.

I’m not really sure what to say about “The Conspirator,” directed by Robert Redford. It tells the story of Mary Surratt’s trial, shortly after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The production is very classy, as one would expect from a Redford enterprise, and the acting is sold – particularly Robin Wright as the doomed Surratt. But I can’t say that I was ever that engaged, and to be perfectly honest, I had a tough time staying awake at times. Recommended for history buffs, but maybe not cinephiles.

“Knocked Up.” This one stays true to what I would call the Judd Apatow formula – starts out very funny, drags a bit in the middle, and closes with more funny stuff. My favorite part of the movie was Seth Rogen’s pals, and while I recommend it, I can’t say that it displaced “The 40 Year Old Virgin” from its pedestal as my favorite Apatow movie. One of these days, he’s going to make a masterpiece. He hasn’t yet.

And with the exception of the two we watched last night, I do believe that brings me up-to-date.

Day 21 - "Sleigh Ride"

OK, let's pick up the pace a little bit...with this rockin' version of "Sleigh Ride" from Brian Setzer and Orchestra, with an assist from Brad Paisley.

Rock those holidays!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Day 20 - "Marshmallow World"

Because nothing says "Christmas" like those zany Rat Packers, right?

Dino and Frank...enjoy!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Birthday

21 years ago tonight, it started to get very cold in Sacramento.

The due date for our first child was already past, so we knew that it was going to happen at any time. That night, we shared a bottle of champagne with a friend, because as Debra said, "I can't imagine a glass of champagne is going to do any harm at this point."

Around 2:30 a.m., we drove to the hospital. We were there for quite a while; in fact, over the course of the next 12 hours we would go through all three doctors who made up the practice that was overseeing the birth of our child.

And it just kept getting colder.

In the morning, Debra's mother and grandmother came to the hospital, and my mother and father joined them soon thereafter. We were there for quite a while. On this occasion, there was plenty of time for an epidural. And by the time he was born, we had quite a crowd going.

At 5:17 on December 20, 1990 Son #1 was born. Every moment of that time is etched upon my memory; I can remember each moment as if it were yesterday.

That night, it got so cold that all the pipes in our house froze. I unfroze them the next morning with a portable hair dryer. To this day, it remains the coldest night in Sacramento of my lifetime. When we came home from the hospital two days later, my mom and dad were able to keep a stash of frozen food in their trunk, because the high temperature never got above freezing. It was a cold day outside, but it was filled with warmth inside the house.

And tomorrow, that baby boy turns 21. It hardly seems possible.

Happy birthday!

"Into the Wild"

I found Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” to be a powerful and deeply affecting movie. Based on the book by Jon Krakauer, “Into the Wild” tells the true story of Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch), a young man from a well-to-do but highly dysfunctional family who, upon graduation from college, decided to go off on his own and “live off the land.” His travels took him across the country, through the Midwest, down to Arizona, into Mexico for a brief sojourn, back up through Southern California, and finally on to his final destination – both literally and figuratively – Alaska.

McCandless’ journey is presented as one of rebellion, but what lends the movie part of its power is that he doesn’t come across as particularly sympathetic. He’s likeable and earnest, and without question he had to live through some very difficult times – some of which are told in flashbacks, filling in the back story of his parents, who are played by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt. But even with that, there are times when his motives seem suspect – as if he cares less about “the wild” than he does about hurting his parents. When the end is near, when he has finally achieved his ultimate goal only to find that it is about to kill him, I was left with the impression that he was finally learning – too late – the lessons that those he encountered on his journey were trying to teach him.

The role of McCandless would have been perfect for the young Sean Penn; alas, that person no longer exists. Hirsch is fine but not great, and in fact is outshone by nearly all of his co-stars. Hurt and Harden are wound tight as a drum as his parents; Vince Vaughan is totally believable in one of the first roles where I’ve seen him playing a character other than “Vince Vaughan;” Catherine Keener is terrific (as always) as one half of a hippie couple that interact with McCandless on two different occasions (Brian Dierker, the other half of the couple, is also quite good); and Hal Holbrook is simply heartbreaking as a man who has lived through much worse than McCandless and managed to come out the other side intact.

In their own ways, each of the characters described above realize that what McCandless is doing is foolish; that someday, given time and reflection, a healing can take place that has nothing to do with going into the wild. I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy saying something like this, but the thought processes that led McCandless on his journey were incomplete – they were immature. As Wayne Westerberg (Vaughan) says to him at one point, “you're a hell of a young guy, a hell of a young guy. But I promise you this. You're a young guy! Can't be juggling blood and fire all the time!”

Penn’s direction is solid; he allows the story to tell itself in its own time. The cinematography is wonderful, as is the score, consisting primarily of original songs written by Eddie Vedder. Overall, it’s well worth the investment of time (it’s a long movie, almost 2.5 hours long), and thought-provoking, and ultimately very, very sad.

Day 19 - "Merry Christmas Baby"

Frank Sinatra once called him "the only genius in the business." To which Ray Charles replied, "Einstein was a genius. Not me."

One might beg to differ, after watching his sizzling version of this holiday chestnut.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 18 - "Get Down Santa"

Well, on the Christmas music spectrum, I think this is about as far from yesterday's entry that you can get:

That's right - Get Down, Santa!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day 17 - A Choir Showdown

No Christmas music collection is complete without at least one record by the Kings College Choir and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I have one of each, and although I lean slightly towards Kings, both are amazing.

Here, we hear each of them tackling what is only one of the most beautiful songs ever written, "O Holy Night."

Enjoy - and cast your vote!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Day 16 - "The Christmas Song"

You can make fun of me if you want, but to this day I would argue that Andy Williams' Christmas Album (the first one, with the red cover) is one of the all-time best, superior even to the most famous holiday albums from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

This live performance is from around the time that the album was released, and it is a great performance.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day 15 - "Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy)"

The Duke - one of my favorite musical artists, period.

Wish it were a live performance, but one can't have everything.

Cars, Radios, and Boston

I’ve never had a CD player in my primary vehicle. For years, I listened to tapes that I’d made for myself, some of them close to 30 years old (including the tape that I made for our wedding reception, almost 25 years ago now). And then, a few months ago I finally discovered the joys of the “thingy” (technical term) that you can insert into your tape player that allows you to listen to the songs on your MP3 player. The very definition of awesome.

And then, just a couple of weeks ago, tragedy. The tape player died, leaving me with the sole option of listening to the radio on my drives to and from work. There are some good aspects of that; for instance, without the radio I never would have known about the accidents this morning on both of the freeways that I can take to work. But for the most part, it is strictly a hit-or-miss proposition. There are a couple of local stations that I can stomach, but I usually spend most of my drive going back and forth between two (sometimes three), annoyed either at a song I don’t much care for or the incessant droning of the advertisements.

[Believe it or not, this is leading to something].

One of the stations on my rotation is an oldies station, one that treats the musical universe as if it began in 1964 and ended in 1979. Now, don’t get me wrong – I like oldies as much as the next guy, and find myself actively enjoying a lot of what they play. For instance, in recent days they’ve been playing “More than a Feeling” by Boston quite a bit. Say what you will about the band – and what I would say is that they were a flash in the pan – but one can’t deny the greatness of that song (although the Single edit is a big cheat), or of the first album in general.

All of which reminded me that I had intended at some point to start talking about some of the albums that almost made my Top 50 list – the “honorable mentions,” if you will. And Boston’s self-titled debut album certainly makes that list. I don’t listen to it that much anymore and the sound is unquestionably dated, but I also have no problem saying that it’s one of the strongest debut albums of the past 40 or so years. Part of its appeal is that it evokes such strong memories in me – the release of the album coincided with the beginning of my junior year in high school, and the damn thing was played almost constantly on the radio through the end of my senior year. So each of the songs on it, depending on when they first hit the radio – coincide almost perfectly with some of the key milestones in my life at that time. I hear “Peace of Mind,” and it takes me right back to the early summer of 1977, listening to the song at maximum volume while prepping the grill area at McDonalds for the morning rush. I hear “Long Time,” and I think about singing the song with my buddies in the car, driving home from a basketball game. I hear “Smokin,” and I think of the jukebox at Crestview Lanes, on which I played that song every Friday after finishing our bowling league games for that week. I could go on, but you get the idea.

It is a really good album, and I’m happy to designate it as my first “honorable mention.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Day 14 - "Skating"

New age music is not exactly my cup of tea, but I've always been a fan of George Winston. I've also always been a fan of Vince Guaraldi, and a fan of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Put them all together, and you've got an irresistible brew.

"Skating," written by Vince Guaraldi and performed by George Winston.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 13 - "That's What Christmas Means to Me"

One of the classic Christmas pop songs of all time - Stevie Wonder, with "That's What Christmas Means To Me."

And with that, we are (believe it or not) more than halfway home.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Day 12 - "Deck the Halls"

Are flash mobs passe? I have no idea. If so, consider this one performance art. It's very well done, and fits in nicely with the spirit of the season.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Day 11 - "Soul Cake"

I'm not quite sure what look Sting is trying for here, but notwithstanding his choice of attire, this is my favorite song on his "On A Winter's Night" album. In fact, I included it on my annual Christmas CD this year.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Day 10 - The King

The legend.

The legendary television special.

A legendary Christmas song.

Does it get any better than that?

Friday, December 09, 2011

Day 9 - Bing and Frank Spend Christmas Together

I think I've posted this one before, but if memory serves, it was taken down from YouTube before the end of that holiday season. Here's hoping for better luck this time around.

A couple of observations:

- One would think that a couple of swingin' guys like Frank and Bing could get a date for Christmas Eve. But perhaps they, in that rarified air that only legends can breathe, just enjoyed each other's company more.

- It would appear that this night is destined for tragedy, as the dynamic duo appears to have an open Weber kettle in their apartment. I believe the instructions discourage that sort of thing.

Bing & Frank, checking in today with "White Christmas."

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Netflix Catchup: "Stones in Exile"

Before I tuned into this the other day, I read Steven Rubio's review, and since I agree with everything he said, I'll link to it here.

A little further down the road, you'll be reading what I think about the album when it shows up on my all-time Top 50 list, but for now suffice to say that I love the album, so there was no reason why I wouldn't enjoy this. In addition to what Steven wrote, it was fun to see Mick and Charlie returning to the site where the album was recorded, and trying to remember exactly where each instrument was set up. And I might add, looking none the worse for wear, especially Charlie in a really cool suit.

And Steven is right - Bobby Keys is hysterical (I had no idea he was good old southern boy), especially when he tells the story about showing Charlie how to do the drum parts on "Shake Your Hips" and then comments about how ludicrous it was for Bobby Keys to be trying to tell Charlie Watts how to play the drums.

Steven is also right about what Anita Pallenberg looked like back in the day - I'm not sure "luminous beauty" does her justice. Of course, the brief glimpse we get of what she looks like today (essentially, a female version of Keith Richards) serves to remind us that you can't live the lifestyle that she and Keith were living back in the 1970s and not have it do a lot of damage.

There's also a very telling comment from Jake Weber (who served as the Stones' "Chief Joint Roller" at age 8 during that summer), who correctly notes that what he was witnessing at the time was a descent into a darkness from which Keith almost did not emerge. It was decadent for certain, but at the time one could have been forgiven for overlooking that because it also epitomized what the outlaw world of rock and roll was all about.

And then, of course, there's the music. 40-plus years later, it's amazing to me that "Exile" was not greeted at the time as the masterpiece that it clearly is. But that's a story for another day.

Well worth seeking out, especially if one is a fan of the Stones.

Day 8 - The Great Louis Armstrong

One of the greatest voices in the history of popular music - one that cuts through the cheese like a knife.

Louis Armstrong, checking in with "White Christmas."

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

RIP, Harry Morgan

Harry Morgan, so brilliant as Colonel Potter on MASH for 8 seasons, died today at the age of 96. Though my knowledge of his acting career does not go beyond MASH and Dragnet, the two roles for which he is best known, I know from reading what others have written about him that he was the real deal.

Check out these tributes:

- From Ken Levine, head writer on MASH for several of Morgan's seasons.

- From Alan Sepinwall, TV critic extraordinaire.


Day 7 - "After The Holidays"

Well, if this isn't the most depressing Christmas song of all time, it certainly has to be in the Top Five.

I would not consider myself a huge fan of Judy Garland, but watching this gives me chills. This was about six months before her death, and when you realize that she was only 47, you get a sense of what life had done to her.

It's also an interesting historical artifact if only for seeing what passed for tasteful holiday decorations on the set of The Tonight Show in the late 1960s.

"After the Holidays," Judy Garland.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Netflix Catchup - "Before Sunset"

The best moment in “Before Sunset” takes place in the back seat of a car. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are talking, and he is telling her about what his marriage has become and how often he has thought about her over the years, since that one night they spent together in Vienna, nine years earlier (the story told in “Before Sunrise”). She is visibly moved by what he is saying, and you can see from the expression on her face that she desperately wants to reach out and touch him, caress his head, and say that things are all right. She reaches out, but pulls back at the last second, unsure of what to do. It’s perfect, because it is the perfect illustration of how the two can’t quite figure out what they have going.

It’s a credit to Hawke, Delpy and director Richard Linklater that they were able to create a sequel that approaches the magic generated by “Before Sunrise.” What the two movies have in common is that they’re essentially a 90-minute conversation between the two characters; where they differ is in the tone of the conversation and the setting (Vienna then, Paris now). Jesse is now a successful author on a book tour, and has written a book based on the night that he and Celine spent roaming the streets of Vienna. She shows up at his book signing, and for the next hour, they walk through the streets of Paris, talking about that earlier night, how their lives have changed, and why they’ve never let go of their shared memory.

When “Before Sunrise” came to an end, one could be forgiven for hoping that was the end of the story, because then each viewer could come up with their own story of what happened to these two characters. To try and recreate the magic was a risk, but in the end “Before Sunset” succeeds, because at the end you’re still left with that sense of mystery. What happens next? There is now talk of a third movie, and there’s no reason to think that the artistic team behind the first two can’t pull it off again.

Day 6 - "Winter Wonderland"

A very nice, bluegrass-tinged performance from Mark O'Connor and Jane Monheit.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Netflix Catchup - "Stranger than Fiction"

I’m finding that the older I get, the movies that interest me the most are the ones that try to do things that no one has tried before. Even if they aren’t wholly successful, at least they’re pushing the boundaries, and are original – a precious commodity in this age of sequels and “reboots.”

“Stranger than Fiction,” directed by Marc Forster and starring Will Ferrell, is just such a movie. This is a movie that you really have to pay attention to, as I discovered upon first viewing when I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open. It tells the story of Harold Crick (Ferrell), an IRS agent with OCD who one morning suddenly begins to hear a voice narrating his life. The movie also tells the story of the narrator, Kay Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson), an author who is suffering from writer’s block, and cannot quite figure out how to deal with her main character – Harold. So are we to believe that Harold lives in a fictional world? Or is Harold truly schizophrenic, as a psychiatrist suggests early on in the movie?

It is with the character of Professor Jules Hibbert (a great, understated performance from Dustin Hoffman) that the two worlds are bridged. Declining a pharmaceutical cure to his ills, Harold seeks out Dr. Hibbert to try and determine, based on the narration he is hearing in his head, who might be writing the story of his life. On Dr. Hibbert’s advice, Harold tries to figure out whether he is living out a tragedy, or a comedy. And in doing so, he becomes closer to the young woman that he is auditing, a law student turned baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhall) who, through the sheer force of her personality, begins to bring Harold out of his shell.

All of the performances – those listed above, plus other supporting roles from Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt and Queen Latifah – are spot on. But the real revelation is Will Ferrell, who here plays it straight in much the same way that Bill Murray played it straight in “Lost in Translation.” Frankly, I’ve never been a big Ferrell fan, and I didn’t think he had this performance in him. But based on the evidence of “Stranger than Fiction,” Ferrell’s real future is in the kind of understated roles that other comics like Steve Martin and Robin Williams have succeeded in.

If I had to choose on word to describe “Stranger than Fiction,” I think it would be “delightful.” Whether one world, the other, or both is a fantasy is ultimately irrelevant. The direction is crisp, the acting is sharp, and the story leaves you wanting more. And, the use of music is terrific – always a plus in my book.

Random Monday Morning Notes

Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year. Great choice by SI of Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summit as the Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year. This has been a rough month for iconic coaches, for very good reasons - and while one can get carried away very easily with the "coach as mentor/great person" meme, there seems little doubt that both coaches deserve that honor. For their excellence as human beings, as well as excellence on the court.

Tebow. No matter what you think of the guy (and everyone sports fan in the world has an opinion), the story is one of the most compelling ones in years. And now, it looks as if the Tebow Show may be coming to NBC next Sunday night, which will serve only to increase the hype and the scrutiny. My opinion? Oh yeah, I have a few. One, the guy is a winner, plain and simple. You don't do what he is doing right now if you aren't a winner. Some guys have it, and some don't. Two, I can't see him ever becoming a long-term great at the quarterback position. Three, I'm not sure that matters. Clearly, Tebow is a unique player, and if the Johns Elway and Fox can figure out a way to ride that to the playoffs (or even further), than it really doesn't matter how bad Tebow's stats or his mechanics are. Four, the constant proselytizing makes me really uncomfortable. With regard to his faith, I have no doubt that it is genuine. I have no doubt that he is doing good and great things away from the football field. It still makes me uncomfortable, and I much prefer the approach that Aaron Rodgers takes with his own faith. To read about that, head on over to Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column at You'll have to go to page 4 or 5 to get there.

The Black Keys. I could only make it through the first song because I was exhausted, but if the rest of the new album is as good as that one, song, their new album may end up at #1 on my best-of list for 2011.

BCS. No question that these are the two best teams in college football. No question that the rematch is a farce. Until the minds that matter in college football come up with a better alternative (the plus-one game makes sense to me), we're going to end up with a ridiculous controversy like this every year.

That's all for now.

Day 5 - Swingin' With Santa and Louis

I used this one for my annual Christmas collection a few years back, but until now have never been able to find it on YouTube. I would have preferred a live performance, but in this case I'll take what I can get.

And so, today we present Louis Prima, with "What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swinging)?"

Sunday, December 04, 2011

RS Greatest Guitarists

In recent years, Rolling Stone has made a cottage industry out of its “100/500 Best…” issues, which probably says more about Jann Wenner’s point of view than anything else. But I can’t really argue with the premise, because it is entertaining to hear what current artists and critics have to say about the masters of the past.

In the current issue, it’s the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” While many of these lists are great argument starters, that’s not really the case here, because everyone in the world knew that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitarist of all time well before they picked up this magazine. It’s really impossible to argue against the premise of Hendrix as greatest ever, although I suppose it would be fun to see someone try. There’s just no disputing that he did more with less than anyone who’s ever picked up the instrument. Of the albums of his that I own, my favorite is a live recording from Winterland, because it truly shows what he could do at the spur of the moment, in the heat of battle.

Since we got the Clapton cover, I should say a few words about him as well. He comes in at #2 on the list, another choice I won’t quibble with (although I would have been tempted to put Keith Richards there). For a long time I thought Clapton was overrated, because I happened to start buying his albums right around the time (late 1970s) that he was entering into his “mellow” phase. There were certainly some flashes of greatness on “The Fuse” from “Slowhand,” but outside of hearing “Layla” on the radio, I could never quite figure out what all the fuss was about.

What turned my opinion were two performances – one on the “Just One Night” album, where he laid down some incendiary solos on some old Robert Johnson songs; but more than that, a joint appearance on a late night TV show (I can’t even remember which one) with Robert Cray. Cray is an outstanding blues and rock guitarist, and his “Strong Persuader” album may be better than any single album that Clapton has recorded in his career. But that night provided a great opportunity for comparison, because both Cray and Clapton play Fender Stratocasters – so they were on a level playing field, so to speak. And on that night, Clapton just blew Cray away – getting sounds out of his Strat that Cray couldn’t even begin to approach.

As for the rest of the list, I’d say that Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Walsh and Slash seem ranked a little high, while Neil Young, Prince, Richard Thompson and Lou Reed seem way too low. But that probably says more about my taste in music than anything else. And one other quibble – I might have found room for either Gary Rossington or Allen Collins on the list. “Free Bird,” anyone?

Day 4 - Johnny and Friends

Let's try something a bit different today. This is an excerpt from the December 23, 1970 episode of the Johnny Cash Show, with Johnny and June sharing a little quality time with their friends The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and others.

But there is a Christmas song within, as Roy turns in a beautiful version of "Pretty Paper."

For me, this is some awe-inspiring stuff. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Friday, December 02, 2011

Day 2 - Vince Guaraldi Trio, with an assist

Two enduring classics - "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and "Christmas Time Is Here" by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

"Oh that we could always see such spirit through the year."

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Musical Advent Calendar is Back!

You know you've been waiting for it all year, and now it's back - the fourth (or fifth) annual Musical Advent Calendar.

Today, we kick off the festivities with a nice, jazzy version of "Carol of the Bells" by Drew Davidsen.

It's December - it's now OK to say "Merry Christmas," and you can even enjoy holiday ads without guilt.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Merry Christmas Theme

The posts this week are going to be few and far between, because I'm in San Diego for the marathon week otherwise known as the governance meetings and annual conference of the Association that I work for.

But I'm pleased to debut the holiday color theme for December, as well as provide you with a glimpse of the view out of my home for the next 6 days - the Marriott Marquis Marina in San Diego.

Not bad, eh?

Friday, November 25, 2011

"Composed," by Rosanne Cash

I have no qualms at all declaring Rosanne Cash’s “Composed” to be a great book.

The cover of “Composed” identifies the book as a memoir, and that is key to understanding what it is about. This is not an exhaustive biography. You’re not going to find a lot of specific details about various topics that people might be interested in – how Johnny’s marriage to Vivian fell apart, how Rosanne’s marriage to Rodney Crowell fell part – but that’s also the main reason why the book is so successful. This is an emotional book, a book that shares Rosanne’s point of view about many of the happenings of her [admittedly very interesting] life, and how those happenings shaped her voice as a person and as an artist.

I should confess that Rosanne has held a spot in my own personal music pantheon for a long, long time – believe it or not, even longer than her father. That being the case, it surprises me that she felt for years that her voice was inadequate, because I always thought it was incredibly strong – indeed, her greatest attribute until she fully developed as a songwriter. Reading throughout, it’s clear that she is her own harshest critic – which is probably a good thing for a musician to be.

More than anything else, this is a book of stories, stories that are told roughly in chronological order. Moving moments are sprinkled throughout, with an enormous emotional payoff near the end when she quotes extensively from the eulogies that she delivered over a period of 18 months for June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, and Vivian Liberto Distin, her mother. There are so many interesting things in the book, it’s hard to single any one out, but I especially enjoyed the section where she describes how “Black Cadillac” came about, and have to admit I was a bit pleased to see her say that John Leventhal (her husband and producer) felt that a gauntlet had been thrown with the production work performed on six of the album’s songs by Bill Bottrell and responded with his own best work. Pleased, of course, because I completely agree with that assessment.

But no matter. One of my very favorite stories, near the end of the book, is when Rosanne recounts a visit (with her daughter, Carrie ) to Falkland, Scotland, where the family name originated, and a town her father had visited years before. This is a long excerpt, but I think it illustrates perfectly the reasons “Composed” is such a wonderful book.

On our arrival in Falkland late in the morning, we were disappointed to find that the palace was closed for the holiday week. Just about everything was closed down, in fact, except for a little restaurant at the top of the hill, where we had a ploughman’s lunch of bread, cheese and pickles – a more satisfying meal than one offered by any four-star restaurant. After eating, we wandered next door to look in the window of the Old Violin Shop. Almost immediately my eye was caught by a beautiful old teapot, which was nearly identical to one I had inherited from June after her death the previous May. It was a squat, cream-colored porcelain vessel with a delicate pattern of pink and gold flowers and flourishes around its middle. I wanted it badly, but the shop, like all the others in town, was closed. I then noticed a note pinned to the door saying that if assistance was needed, to call a certain number. After several tries, I reached a very polite gentleman who said he was just finishing his lunch but promised to come shortly to let us in. Carrie and I waited in the car, as the weather was turning quite bitter. A few minutes later Bob Beveridge, the owner, appeared and invited us inside. After he carefully retrieved the teapot from that window, I began looking around at the instruments, books, china, paintings, and other collectibles. As Carrie and I began exclaiming to each other about the wondrous collection he had assembled, Bob noted our American accents and inquired if we had come to research our Scottish roots. I told him that I already knew the origin of my Scottish ancestry, and I was merely visiting the place my family name originated.

“Like Johnny Cash?” he asked, in a friendly manner, after asking my surname.

I hesitated, as I seldom told strangers who my father was, but I felt an impulse to confide in him.

“Yes, like Johnny Cash. He was my father,” I said quietly.

His eyes widened. “I have something to show you,” he said, and left the room.

He came back with a photograph of himself with my father, taken during the filming of the television special. He then began telling me the story of my father’s visit.

My father liked to sit on a small cement post in front of the palace, Bob recalled, and to gaze at the square. All the townspeople came to speak to him, and he was unfailingly gracious and kind, which drew even more of the locals to him. He remembered that, one day, my father was in his car and came upon a boy whose bicycle had broken down in the road, so he picked him up and took him home. This boy, Bob explained, was now a man in his thirties, lived around the corner, and still loved to tell the story of the day he was driven home by Johnny Cash. Bob knew about my dad’s fateful meeting with Major Crichton-Stuart on the plane to Asia, and he told me more stories of those few days, twenty-two years earlier, when Johnny Cash, along with a film crew and his special musical guest, Andy Williams, had taken over the town of Falkland, and how the people had loved him and he had loved them back.”

Wonderful stuff. “Composed,” by Rosanne Cash – highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving Eve

"The dirty little secret of the dinner is melted animal fats: in all the recipes, somewhere it says, "Melt a quarter-pound of butter.""

- Garrison Keillor

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Sixth Floor

11/22/63 will always be day of infamy for those who lived through it. That day is the earliest memory I have; when your mom cries all day, that tends to stick with you. At the time, I didn’t have any idea what was going on, but I still remember that day clearly – even though I was only 3 years old.

During my Super Bowl trip to Dallas, I had the opportunity to visit The Sixth Floor Museum, the museum housed in the former Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald (assuming, of course, that you are not a conspiracy theorist) fired the shots that killed President John F. Kennedy. Perhaps because of that first memory, I’ve always been fascinated with the presidency of Kennedy, as well as the assassination. And although the concept of housing a museum on the floor where the shots were fired (at one point during the tour, you walk past the windows where Oswald was perched, and can look down to see the view that he had on that fateful day) might be considered morbid by some, it is very well done, presenting a chronicle of Kennedy’s life and times as well as the circumstances of the assassination. It’s hard not to be moved by the experience.

These photos were taken outside, and confirmed what I remember reading once – the site of the assassination is something that you expect to be much bigger than it actually is. In fact, when you see the road where the motorcade was proceeding, it’s hard to imagine that the President of the United States was allowed to ride in an open limousine through such a small space. I suppose that times were simpler then, but on that day those times changed forever.

What is somewhat morbid is the fact that a large “X” is painted on the street at each of the points where a bullet struck the President (see above photo, at roughly the spots where people are standing). Which, of course, makes it easy to have someone take a picture of you “on the spot.” Why you would want to do such a thing is beyond me, but it was very popular on that day. And the shot where the ground is shrouded in snow? That is the infamous Grassy Knoll, also much smaller than I had pictured it in my imagination.

48 years ago. R.I.P.

The Perfect Antidote to Black Friday

One of my all-time favorite essays.

by Garrison Keillor

It is a wicked world in which the power of any individual to cause suffering is so great and the power to do good is so slight; but here we are, the week of our beloved national feast, our annual homecoming, and signs of loving Providence are everywhere around us.

I am thankful to be alive. In Minnesota the lakes are freezing over in late November, and some men who envision a leadership role for themselves take their snowmobiles out onto the thin ice and fall through and drown in the cold water--their last thought in this life: "Boy, was this dumb or what?"--and so far I have not been one of them. Caution was bred into me: I never played with guns or made a hobby of pharmaceuticals or flung myself off a cliff while clinging to a kite. I read books instead. I read books in which men hearken to wild imperatives, and that is enough for me.

I am thankful for living in a place where winter gets good and cold and you need to build a fire in a stove and wrap a blanket around you. Cold draws people closer together. Crime drops. Acts of kindness proliferate between strangers. I have been in Los Angeles on a balmy day in January and seen the glum faces of people poking at their salads in outdoor restaurants, brooding over their unproduced screenplays. People in Minnesota are much cheerier, lurching across the ice, leaning into the wind as sheets of snow swirl up in their faces. Because they feel needed and because cold weather takes the place of personal guilt. Maybe you haven't been the shining star you should have been, but now is not the time to worry about it.

I am thankful for E-mail, which allows us to keep in touch with our children, and for the ubiquity of fresh coffee, the persistence of good newspapers, the bravery of artists, the small talk of sales clerks, the general competence and good humor I encounter every day. None of us is self-sufficient, despite what some politicians claim. Every good thing, every morsel of food comes directly from God, who expects us to pay attention and be joyful, a large task for people from the Midwest, where our idea of a compliment is, "It could have been worse."

I am thankful, of course, for Thanksgiving, a joyful and simple day that never suffered commercial exploitation and so is the same day as when I was a boy and we played touch football on the frozen turf and came to the table sweaty and in high spirits and kept our eyes open for flying food. My sister had good moves; you'd look away for an instant, and she'd flip her knife and park a pat of butter on your forehead. Nobody throws food at our table now, but in the giddiness of the festive moment, I have held a spoonful of cranberry for a moment and measured the distance to Uncle Earl, his gleaming head, like El Capitan, bent over the plate.

As I grew up, Thanksgiving evolved perfectly. It used to be that men had the hard work, which is to sit in the living room and make conversation about gas mileage and lower back pain, and women got the good job, which is cooking. Women owned the franchise, and men milled around the trough mooing, and if any man dared enter the kitchen, he was watched closely lest he touch something and damage it permanently. But I bided my time, and the aunts who ran the show grew old, and young, liberated lady relatives came along who were proud of their inability to cook, and one year I revolted and took over the kitchen--and now I am It. The Big Turkey. Mr. Masher. The Pie Man.

Except for gravy and pie crust, which take patience and practice, Thanksgiving dinner is as easy to make as it is to eat. You're a right-handed batter in a park that's 150 feet down the left-field line—it doesn't take a genius to poke it out.

Years of selective breeding have produced turkeys that are nothing but cooking pouches with legs. You rub the bird's inside with lemon, stuff it with bread dressing seasoned with sage and tarragon and jazzed up withchunks of sausage and nuts and wild rice, shove it in a hot oven; meanwhile, you whomp up yams and spuds and bake your pies. The dirty little secret of the dinner is melted animal fats: in all the recipes, somewhere it says, "Melt a quarter-pound of butter."

Think of the fancy dishes you slaved over that became disasters, big dishes that were lost in the late innings. Here's roast turkey, which tastes great, and all you do is baste. You melt butter, you nip at the wine, and when the turkey is done, you seat everyone, carve the bird, sing the doxology and pass the food.

The candles are lit in the winter dusk, and we look at one another, the old faces and some new ones, and silently toast the Good Life, which is here before us. Enjoy the animal fats and to hell with apologies. No need to defend our opinions or pretend to be young and brilliant. We still have our faculties, and the food still tastes good to us.

Walt Whitman said, "I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name." Thanksgiving is one of those signed letters. Anyone can open it and see what it says.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"When Will There Be Good News?"

Kate Atkinson novels are constructed like a jigsaw puzzle. Until you get to the end, you are never quite sure how the pieces are going to fit together. The characters are the pieces of the puzzle, and the trick is in trying to figure out how, even though the pieces are far apart, they’re going to become part of a whole by the end.

“When Will There Be Good News?” continues the remarkable string of Atkinson triumphs that began with the magnificent “Case Histories” and continued with the outstanding “One Good Turn.” Like the first two books, one of the featured characters is Jackson Brodie, but here he is in a distinctly supporting (although critically important) role. Technically, you would have to call Atkinson’s books mysteries, but consider this: this is a story, at least in part, about a woman and child who are missing. And it is on Page 285 that Jackson Brodie is engaged to try and find the mother and daughter. That’s not what you would call your typical mystery.

There are two things that Atkinson does in each of her books that are just brilliant. One, she creates characters that are believable, sympathetic, and have depth. In “Good News,” there are at least four – Brodie, of course; but also Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe (who reminds one just a bit of Jane Tennyson, from “Prime Suspect”), Dr. Joanna Hunter, and perhaps most of all, 16-year old Reggie, the young woman who instinctively knows what is going on before anyone else has a clue.

The other thing that Atkinson does so brilliantly is to capture the reader from the very first chapter, in this instance with a snapshot of abject terror, as a young mother is out walking with her children. A strange man appears, and as Atkinson writes, “Everything was bad. There was no question about it.” That scene sets the stage for everything that follows, years later. And when the pieces of the puzzle finally come together at the end, the payoff is well-earned and entirely satisfying.

If you haven’t read a Kate Atkinson book, now is as good a time as any to start.

Presidents Cup

It’s pretty cool watching live golf on a fall evening from the other side of the world, especially when you’re watching some of the world’s best golfers (in the Presidents Cup) playing on one of the world’s best golf courses (Royal Melbourne, in Australia).

But watching for the last couple of nights, I think I’ve put my finger on the difference between the Ryder Cup (U.S. vs. Europe) and the Presidents Cup (U.S. vs. the world, excluding Europe). Watching the last two nights of Presidents Cup matches, I’ve enjoyed them a great deal, but I don’t feel as if I really care who wins. Yes, I want the U.S. to win, but if they don’t, whatever – it’s just an exhibition for fun, right? But when I watch the Ryder Cup, you’d better believe I care.

Maybe it’s just tradition, and maybe over time the Presidents Cup will feel the same way. Right now, it doesn’t quite feel that way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


"Got all of this stuff twirling around in my head."

- Herman Cain

I rise to Mr. Cain's defense. He was not, in fact, stumbling with a question about Libya. He was intending to promote this blog, and just got the title a bit wrong.

And Then...

...there is the Cal coffee cup. I do believe that coffee tastes better when consumed from a Cal cup, but I don't have any hard data to back that up.

Go Bears!

I've been remiss in my Big Game posts, so this will have to suffice for now.

What every self-respecting Cal fan should have in their office.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

It's Blue and Gold Week!

In honor of Big Game week, the blog is going blue and gold.

Also, expect lots of pictures like this one.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy Veterans Day

George A. Johnson was the Great Uncle of Patterson Hood, guitarist and singer for the Drive-By Truckers. He passed away in October, but his memory will always live on in the lyrics of the great song that Patterson wrote about him - "The Sands of Iwo Jima."

George A. was at the movies in December '41
They announced it in the lobby what had just gone on
He drove up from Birmingham back to the family's farm
Thought he'd get him a deferment there's was much work to be done
He was a family man, even in those days
But Uncle Sam decided he was needed anyway
In the South Pacific over half a world away
He believed in God and Country, things was just that way

Just that way…..

When I was just a kid I spent every weekend
On the farm that he grew up on so I guess so did I
And we'd stay up watching movies on the black and white TV
We watched "The Sands of Iwo Jima" starring John Wayne

Every year in June George A. goes to a reunion
Of the men that he served with and their wives and kids and grandkids
My Great Uncle used to take me and I'd watch them recollect
about some things I couldn't comprehend

And I thought about that movie, asked if it was that way
He just shook his head and smiled at me in such a loving way
As he thought about some friends he will never see again
He said "I never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima"

Most of those men are gone now but he goes still every year
And George A's still doing fine, especially for his years
He's still living on that homestead in the house that he was born in
And I sure wish I could go see him today

He never drove a new car though he could easily afford it
He'd just buy one for the family and take whatever no one wanted
He said a shiny car didn't mean much after all the things he'd seen
George A. never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima

Happy Veterans Day, everyone.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Ghosts of Manila

A very nice Bill Simmons column about "Ghosts of Manila," a great book by Mark Kram about (and this is the subtitle that appears on the cover) "the fateful blood feud between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier."

This line from Simmons says it best:

"One thing's for sure: Heading into that third fight, Joe Frazier genuinely hated Muhammad Ali. Even if Ali never intended to kill Frazier, he quickly realized there was no other recourse."

The Main Event

So I watched way more of the Final Table of the World Series of Poker than I should have last night. Let's just say it was multiple hours and leave it at that.

For the first time, the Final 3 (which became the Final 2 after only four hands) was shown "almost live" on ESPN, with just a 15-minute delay. On the down side, showing it live has the major drawback of not being able to see the players' hole cards. But on the up side, the commentary of Antonio Esfandiari was absolutely brilliant throughout. I still can't believe how often he was correct about what cards each player was holding. I guess that's why he's a professional.

While I was rooting for the Czech Republic's Martin Staszko (who proves my theory that great chess players are now going for poker instead!), I have no problem with the victory by Germany's Pius Heinz. They both seem like entirely decent guys (albeit a little short on the charisma side), unlike some (Jamie Gold) who have won the title in the last decade. When I finally gave up Staszko still had a lead, but based on the way Heinz had chipped away at it before the close of the $1/2 million blind round, I had a funny feeling he was going to catch up.

But hey, you've got to sleep sometime.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Smokin' Joe Frazier

“I heard somethin’ once. When somebody asked a marathon runner what goes through his mind in the last mile or two, he said that you ask yourself why am I doin’ this. You get so tired. It takes so much out of you mentally. It changes you. It makes you go a little insane. I was thinkin’ that at the end. Why am I doin’ this? What am I doin’ here in against this beast of a man? It’s so painful. I must be crazy. I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him.”

• Muhammad Ali, the morning after the Thrilla in Manila, October 1975

When I was a kid, Joe Frazier was my favorite boxer. At that time, I hated Muhammad Ali – I had never seen him fight, and I had absolutely no appreciation for his talent or his role in history. But hey, I was only 9 years old – what did I know?

As a fighter, Joe Frazier was indeed a “beast of a man.” To a young kid, he looked positively invulnerable as he blasted through the heavyweight division, at that time still sans Ali. Whether it was George Chuvalo, or Buster Mathis, or Jerry Quarry, or Jimmy Ellis – none of them stood a chance against the ferocity of Frazier. Bobbing and weaving, avoiding the best anyone had to offer, and then the left hook striking like a cobra, and more often than not the opponent was on his back, looking up at the lights of the arena.

But always in the shadows, there was Ali. The Ali who returned to the ring in 1970; the Ali who could recite poetry and spin a yarn in ways that Frazier could only imagine. And eventually, the Ali who would taunt Frazier mercilessly, as if he were somehow less than human. That only fueled the fury of Frazier, and led to what was justifiably called the Fight of the Century. And thus began a trilogy of terror that would cement the names of both men in the annals of sports history, but also alter their lives immeasurably through the pain that each would inflict on the other.

Frazier won that first battle, but paid dearly in the process, spending three weeks in the hospital afterward. He was never the same fighter; in early 1973, he came as close to losing his life in the ring as one possibly can, pummeled by the first incarnation of George Foreman, who some will remember was not the kind and almost cuddly character he would become later in life. That fight, the entirety of which is available on YouTube, is truly frightening to watch. From the first time Frazier hits the canvas (accompanied by the immortal call of Howard Cosell, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!) until the end, you really wonder if Frazier will exit the ring with his life. The scariest thing of all is hearing Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer who was at ringside that night, literally screaming at the top of his lungs to the referee, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! STOP IT!”

Meanwhile, Ali was miraculously returning to form (including a controversial win over Frazier in the rematch), culminating in a masterful defeat of Foreman in Zaire. That led to the inevitable rubber match, and although both fighters were clearly past their prime, it remains one of the greatest fights in the history of the sport. Ali clearly thought that Frazier was spent, and came out fast, hoping to end it quickly – within the first three rounds, if possible.

There was a moment in the third round that said a lot about both men. Near the end of the round, Ali was playing around on the ropes, trying to lull Frazier (as he did to Foreman) into the “rope a dope.” Literally nothing was happening, and then out of nowhere came a burst of punches from Ali, for a brief moment looking like the Ali of the mid-sixties. You see it today, and you wonder, “how can a man withstand such punishment?” And then, out of the blue, came a classic left hook from Frazier which caught Ali clean on the chin, and you could tell that Ali was stunned, hurt, and realizing that he was in for a long, long night.

After that night, for both men it was a story of long, and sometimes sad, decline. Ali in time would become an American hero, and I would argue that was richly deserved, but at the same time I would remind people that without Joe Frazier, he never would have reached the heights – at least in the ring – that he did.

Joe Frazier, R.I.P.

Top 50 Albums, #38 - "Siren" and "Avalon," Roxy Music

There used to be this ad (in the Fifties, I suppose) for a cigarette: You're Never Alone with a Strand! A guy alone in the street; belted raincoat, turned down hat brim; fog, drizzle, blurred neon lighting; three in the morning and he'd just left a party or come to the end of an affair or arrived off a train; down but cool (cigarette cool) and romantic, weary — a private eye at the end of a case. I always thought it was Frank Sinatra.

That was one role Bryan Ferry had figured out for himself.

Something else there used to be was two artists called Gilbert and George whose work of art was themselves. They exhibited daily in a classy gallery. Elegant, suited, disdainful, they'd stand there all day while people paid to look. Later on a little song and dance act became part of the picture.

That was something else Bryan Ferry wanted to be — a work of art.

• Simon Frith, review of “Siren,” Rolling Stone, 1975

Prepare yourself, because there may be some who consider this a bit of a cheat. But hey, it’s my list, right?

There were three distinct periods in the career of Roxy Music. The first period, which I’ll call the Brian Eno period, encompassed their first two albums, “Roxy Music” and “For Your Pleasure.” The second, which I’ll call their middle period, began after Eno was replaced on keyboards by Eddie Jobson; this “era” included three great albums – “Stranded,” “Country Life,” and “Siren.” And then the last period began when the group reformed in 1979. This time around, the band was a band in the same sense that Steely Dan was a band in the latter parts of their career – in other words, you had Bryan Ferry, Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy MacKay, plus a cast of session players (although the great drummer Paul Thompson, an original member of the band, appeared on one album). This final period featured the albums “Manifesto,” “Flesh + Blood,” and “Avalon.”

The Eno period has its proponents, but I prefer the other two. I think that if you polled most Roxy fans, they would select without hesitation the middle period as being stronger than the other two; however, I think the last two periods were equally effective, albeit very different. Again, I’ll use the Steely Dan comparison. In much the same way that the only thing Steely Dan’s “Countdown to Ecstasy” and “Pretzel Logic” had in common with “Aja” and “Gaucho” was the Steely Dan moniker, the only thing that “Country Life” and “Siren” have in common with “Flesh + Blood” and “Avalon” is that they all say “Roxy Music” on the cover.

“Siren” begins with what is possibly the greatest sound effects intro in the history of rock music. You hear a set of heels clicking, a car door opening, the car starting, and then a quick guitar chord and a deep bass line (along with MacKay’s sax, lurking in the shadows), and before you know it you’re into “Love is the Drug,” which is certainly among the best songs the band ever recorded. The song is a microcosm of everything the band was doing well at that time – Ferry’s lounge lizard lyrics, coupled with a sound that was as close to Earth Wind & Fire as it was to classic British art-pop. And the story it tells is a familiar one:

Late at night I park my car
Stake my place in the singles bar
Face to face, toe to toe
Heart to heart as we hit the floor
Lumbered up, limbo down
The locked embrace, the stumble round
I say go, she says yes
Dim the lights, you can guess the rest
Oh — catch that buzz
Love is the drug I'm thinking of.

“Dim the lights, you can guess the rest,” indeed. That is the mindset that powers “Siren” throughout, whether it’s fast songs (“Both Ends Burning,” and I bet you can figure out what that one is about), mid-tempo songs (“She Sells”) or ballads (“Just Another High”).

By the time of “Avalon,” seven years later, a lot had changed. I can understand why fans of the earlier work might think of it as being “slick.” Slick though it may be, it’s brilliantly so – put simply, it is one of the most perfect pop albums ever made. Again, the very first track, “More Than This,” is key to the album’s success – and this time, the lyrics matter less than the sound. On this album, Bryan Ferry achieved something that was as close to perfection as he’d ever get. He was the guy alone in the street, and a work of art, all at the same time.

For me, the best example of the album’s perfection is the penultimate song, “True to Life.” It is an absolutely exquisite song from start to finish, but never more so than when Phil Manzanera contributes the lightest of guitar tones – not really a solo – near the end of the second chorus. It’s a small note, but the kind of note that makes you wonder whether it was intended, or just an accident of recording. In any event, it’s beautiful, and though barely a second long, one of the greatest moments in the history of the band.

Two albums, the better part of a decade apart, with different sounds and different players – but linked by the great presence of Bryan Ferry.

Siren (1975) produced by Chris Thomas
Avalon (1982) produced by Rhett Davies and Roxy Music

Siren: Love is the Drug/End of the Line/Sentimental Fool/Whirlwind/She Sells/Could It Happen to Me?/Both Ends Burning/Nightingale/Just Another High

Avalon: More Than This/The Space Between/Avalon/India/While My Heart is Still Beating/The Main Thing/Take a Chance With Me/To Turn You On/True to Life/Tara