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

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Netflix Catchup - "The Kids Are All Right," "Never Let Me Go"

OK, deep breath. As usual, I’ve fallen behind with my random comments about films seen via Netflix. So here are a couple to get the catch-up started:

The Kids Are All Right. For me, this one was a mixed bag. This is my own ignorance talking, but I don’t know if this was meant to be an accurate representation of a same-sex relationship with children, or a commentary on what others perceive such a relationship to be like. As a case in point – the scene where the couple is watching male gay porno – awkward moment for the kids, or inside joke? Either way, I’m not sure the scene worked.

I found Annette Bening’s character to be almost insufferable, and am a little surprised that she got all the acting kudos over Juliette Moore. But overall, I thought the best performances by far were from the two kids, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. Or maybe it’s just that their characters felt less forced and better written. Either way, they felt like real people, while Bening and Moore rarely advanced beyond case studies.

I thought how the film handled Mark Ruffalo’s character was probably its greatest weakness. I’m not arguing that he was a guy with a ton of depth, but neither did I think that he deserved the ending that he got (I won’t say anything more about it to avoid a spoiler). The way he was used, it was obvious that he was little more than a plot device to advance the story about the two female leads, and their relationship with their kids. Which would be OK, except that the middle third of the film left the viewer with the expectation that there might be difficult choices ahead for the entire family. Instead, those choices were avoided almost entirely.

Never Let Me Go [Spoiler Alert]. In a word, haunting. Based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the movie follows three characters – played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley as young adults – who are raised in what appears to be a loving, supportive boarding school. Well, yes – but there is a catch. It turns out that the residents of the school are in fact clones, who are being raised for organ harvesting when they reach adulthood. When they eventually die, as they all do, they are said to have reached “completion.”

There are a couple of plot points that drive the narrative – one is the love triangle between the three main characters, and the other is the notion that “deferral” might be an option. In other words, if the clones are able to demonstrate that they are in love and do indeed have souls (a point driven home by the prominence of an art gallery at the boarding school – it is suggested that this is how such decisions are made), they can be allowed to live a normal life. The former story is fairly standard fare, albeit done tastefully and well; and the latter is poignant, in that we really know how things are going to end up well before the end actually comes. What lends the film its power is its premise, which is executed well and results in the adjective I mentioned earlier. I would not go so far as to call “Never Let Me Go” a classic, but it is certainly thought-provoking. And it sticks with you.

Friday Night Lights 2011

With son #2 set to graduate next May, this will be the last Pleasant Grove football season we get to enjoy as the parents of a member of the band. If you'd told me six years ago that it would be this much fun, I probably would have laughed in your face. But it's been great, although watching a winner is always fun.

Considering that PG only opened its doors in the Fall of 2005 (with just two classes), the rise of the football team to prominence in the area is pretty amazing. Consider the last five seasons:

2007 - 9-1 regular season, one victory in the playoffs

2008 - 8-2 regular season, three victories in the playoffs, lost section championship final

2009 - 7-3 regular season, two victories in the playoffs

2010 - 9-1 regular season, four victories in the playoffs, won section championship (Division I)

2011 - 9-1 regular season, top seed in Division I playoffs

This season, the Eagles have won games by the score of 77-7, 63-14, 58-7, 48-10, and 63-3. Right now it appears that the only thing that could stop them would be injuries; they've lost a lot of good players this year.

This picture was taken from the field during halftime of the game against Folsom, when the parents of the senior band members were introduced to the crowd. A fun night, and the best game of the year - a 48-34 win over our biggest rival (and a team that won a state championship just a year ago).

Go Eagles!

Thoughts on the Game of the Century

First things first - that was not a classic game. Now, don't get me wrong - I enjoy a defensive struggle as much as anyone, but to qualify for the "classic" moniker, a game has to have some classic moments - positive moments. Think of the two games that CBS used to illustrate "great games of the century" - Texas-Arkansas 1969, and Nebraska-Oklahoma 1971. Those were truly classic games, enlivened on both sides of the ball by great play. In the former, you had James Street's still amazing scramble which ended up as a touchdown, plus a play later on that they didn't show, the amazing long pass on 4th down that led to the Longhorns' winning TD. And in the latter, of course you had the amazing punt return by Johnny Rodgers, but you also had both teams picking themselves up off the canvas on numerous occasions.

Last night you had all the requisite elements for a classic, but in the end there's no escaping the fact that Alabama lost the game because of some truly horrendous field-goal kicking. I'll bet Nick Saban will think about making that a higher priority when he's looking at prospects next year. And frankly, the decision to go for the FG in overtime was a bad one. A long pass probably would have failed, but it was a certainty that a long field goal would fail.

Having said that, there's little doubt that those were the two best teams in the nation we were watching last night, although I don't think either one is invincible (well, we know one isn't, already). LSU deserves to be a heavy favorite to bring home the crystal, and Oklahoma State sure isn't gonna stop 'em, but I do think that a great game from Stanford would result in a potential classic. Ask me again after next week, when the Cardinal play that offensive machine from up north. If they win that game easily, we could end up with a true classic come January (sorry OSU fans - after what happened last night I just can't see the Cowboys as a true contender).

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Top 50 Albums, #39 - "Rocket to Russia," The Ramones

For years, I have contemplated the question: what exactly is it that puts “Rocket to Russia” head and shoulders above all other Ramones albums?

This may be a slight exaggeration to make a point (but only just), but when you bought a Ramones album, you knew exactly what you were getting. An album with 14 songs, lasting about 29 minutes, featuring guitar-based rock played at breakneck speed. There might be a “ballad” or two thrown in, but if there was, that just meant a fast song lasting three minutes.

The Ramones produced a lot of great songs over their years, but in my book they never had an album – not even the debut, though I know it has many partisans – that approached the success and the brilliance of “Rocket to Russia.”

The album is a masterpiece of minimalism, and features two songs that are among the greatest in the history of rock ‘n roll – “Rockaway Beach,” and of course, “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.” Whether you want to call it punk rock (I wouldn’t), new wave (that doesn’t really fit either), or just plain ol’ classic rock (and I don’t mean “classic rock” in the way that modern radio defines it), “Sheena” is a magnificent song, a brilliant expression of what things felt like as this new type of music, whatever you want to call it, began to hit the airwaves (in some places) and the record stores.

Well New York City really has it all
Oh yeah, oh yeah

It really doesn’t get much better than that.

Rocket to Russia (1977) Produced by Tony Bongiovi

Cretin Hop/Rockaway Beach/Here Today, Gone Tomorrow/Locket Love/I Don’t Care/Sheena Is A Punk Rocker/We’re a Happy Family/Teenage Lobotomy/Do You Wanna Dance?/I Wanna Be Well/I Can’t Give You Anything/Ramona/Surfin’ Bird/Why Is It Always This Way?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


There's a show on Bravo called "Work of Art/Next Great Artist" which is almost exactly like "Top Chef" except, instead of chefs, the contestants are artists. It's almost a full-proof format, but the show is less successful, mostly because - in my perhaps less than humble opinion - taste in art is way more subjective than taste in food. Plus, the judges are way less entertaining.

But, the show does have something going for it - one of the remaining contestants is named "Sucklord." It's hard to imagine a "Chef Sucklord," but somehow it works perfectly for an artist.

You just gotta root for a guy who calls himself "Sucklord." I'm guessing that if George Lucas ever decides to make the next Star Wars trilogy, we'll be treated to a "Darth Sucklord."