Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue Man Group in Space

Avatar is an unequivocal visual triumph. The Pandoran world is truly believable; there's no sense that you're watching computer generated characters with human voice overs. The Na'vi are real, so real that when the human actors enter the picture towards the end they are the ones that seem fake. I saw Sigourney Weaver on The Daily Show and she explained that the actors were wired to track their movement but, most importantly, could see themselves in real time as the giant blue goodies on a monitor. Whatever. It works and works well, especially in 3D (IMAX was sold out).
What to make of the story? It's easy to make it a play on the Americans v. the Indians. The high schoolers I saw it with viewed it through that prism, but I think there's more to it than that. After all, if you're going to slam Manifest Destiny, it would be best not to work in Hollywood, California. It doesn't help the argument.

I saw two sides of the American experience. The Na'vi suffer a 9-11 tragedy. I won't go into details, but it's hard not to make the connection, especially when the extra-terrestrial high rise is seen in its skeletal form surrounded by smoke, eerily reminiscent of the Twin Tower remains. So what do they do when confronted with an attack on their most significant structure? Like ideal Americans, they rise to defend their culture in ways that show their strength and goodness. Just like us.

But there's that other part of us, the part represented by the human-corporate-Blackwaterish plunderers, the ones who seek to destroy the alien world for its raw materials. They'll do anything to achieve their goals, including full scale annihilation and murder of innocents, or as we like to call it "collateral damage." Try thinking of your kids in that light.

Sure, the U.S. v. the Native-Americans comparison is valid and obvious. I like my view better. It makes for a more interesting movie.

Here's where the movie bites and bites hard. In typical Cameronesque fashion, there is a high level of stupid. What is the magic mineral that the Earthlings have come to take? What could this impossibly rare rock be called? "Unobtainium." I shit you not. Ridiculous. What, was "hard-to-get-ium" deemed too simplistic? I picture a meeting that went something like this:

James Cameron presents the script. Everyone at the table is too scared of his well-deserved tyrannical reputation to speak out. As someone is about to say, "Um, Jim, that's really dumb," they think twice and shut up. It stays in the final cut.

And what is this "unobtainium" needed to be obtainiumed for? Who knows? We're told it costs $20 million a kilo, but why? And is that a lot of dough in 2154? Even a throwaway line like, "We couldn't travel this far in space without the stuff," would have sufficed.

Also, the whole green, preserve the planet spiel gets weary. There's only so much of that "we can learn from the indigenous people" stuff I can stand.

A few words about the acting. It's damn good, often a rarity in effects driven flicks. Giovanni Ribisi, who I haven't seen in a good long time, though he seems to have stayed active, is a hoot as the leader of the greedy capitalists. Sigourney is wonderful, and kinda hot in her bluish incarnation. Zoe Saldana, however, steals the show, after the technology, of course. As Neytiri, she is fierce and sexy. Her hisses of anger, cries of frustration and wails of agony are visceral. Again, it's her acting, not a voice over. She is powerful, and when Neytiri appears next to a human, you're struck with how organic her ten foot presence feels. It's remarkable.

So see it and overlook the flaws. While tickets are hard to come by, they are not unobtainium-able.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Everyone Pulled Their Socks Up, Everyone Had a Good Time

As we come to the end of the year, a few thoughts on my own 2009.

1 - This was a big year for me in reclaiming some valued past friendships. Through the miracles of Facebook and actually reading my SUNY-Binghamton Alumni mag, I have gotten in touch with several past pals. Some, like Ben, Paul, Paul and Dave, I've seen in person. I spent only two years with these guys back in college and yet it has been effortless transition back into an easy camaraderie. Much to my surprise, and delight. I realize how important these people were during a key part of my life and am more than thrilled to be back in touch. They are all quite accomplished and as interesting and enjoyable to be around as ever. I missed a lot dropping these folks from my life.

Then there are the Facebook friends, mostly from High School. I'm sure I'll see some of them, though I'm pretty anti-reunion (I could be swayed, though). Jim, who I think I knew for maybe a little over the year, but has a pivotal place in my personal history, is a recent addition. As he battles Ben (see above paragraph) over political issues that I provoke, Jim makes me smile with his approach to issues that I totally disagree with.

I learned in 2009, more than in any other year, how important it is to keep your friends close. It's a lesson I won't forget.

2 - In my mind, 2009 was going to be my breakout year as a writer, and, though it turned out I mostly ran in place, progress was made. I wrote two extensive book proposals, one which garnered serious literary agent interest until they dropped me cold. I could have been crushed by that, but instead took a decidedly positive approach and realized I had entered new territory. The L.A. Dodgers' official magazine ran a book review I wrote on Michael D'Antonio's Walter O'Malley bio Forever Blue. That was cool. I also just got the gig as music editor for an online mag called ragazine ( That starts in January.

The Maybe Baby blog (, began in January and, with new posts every other Friday, will last at least another year. I have readers across the country and around the globe. It's been very exciting to come up with an idea and execute it well enough that complete strangers feel compelled to comment on how much they love your work. Katz Komments, a more personal blog with readers that may number in the single digits, has been a fun outlet for my shallow thoughts.

As I look back, 2009 was a watershed year for my new career. I produced a hell of a lot of material and made some solid connections. Maybe 2010 will be, as Al Stewart sang, the Year of the Katz?

3 - The greatest thing that happened this year, hands down, was our son, N. graduated high school and began college. His autism provided some challenges, to be sure, but he finished up his first semester on Wednesday and, as far as I know, he's going to get B's in all his classes. Maybe C's in some. Who cares? N. earned all his credit hours. Think how many first time collegians drop out, or fail. N.'s story is a certifiable success, the #1 event in our year.

So, this may be the final post for 2009. Some busy days ahead, then off to Chicago for friends, pizza, and hot dogs. Love to you all, and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Age

There is a scene in Judd Apatow's brilliant Funny People when comedian George Simmons, an Adam Sandler-like figure played by Adam Sandler, presides over Thanksgiving dinner. Sick and alone, Simmons/Sandler poignantly tells the gathering of twenty-somethings that this holiday together is the one they'll remember the most. Simmons reflects on how much older he is than the rest, and that he no longer talks to people he was once so close to. It's an understated, emotionally rich moment.

I've been thinking a lot about time lately, and find myself even sadder than the Sandler character, who's actually four years younger than me. I'm lucky enough to have some things in common with Simmons, though I'm not super-rich, or dying. At 47, I've been fairly successful and, dare I say it, retired for about 6 years. My family is great - a wonderful wife that I dig the most, three boys growing into three solid men. So, why am I so mournful? I'm aware that no one likes to hear the whining of a guy in my position, but I continue nonetheless.

As a kid of 18, or 22, nobody would've called me "Mr. Joie de Vivre." I never had that "Hey, world, look at me" attitude, or thought that I would run the table at life. In truth, I didn't really enjoy my younger days - the driving internal competition I put myself through, the emotional roller coaster I was on, the ultra-moodiness. I didn't look at getting old as desirable, living a long life an admirable goal. I still don't. The very idea of living again as long as I already have makes me shudder.

The physical changes of aging bug me, for sure. The thinner hair, the slightly (slightly!) sagging face. I'm in pretty good shape, about the same weight as I was 25 years ago. Physically I'm not as solid as I was, can't do things as well or as easy as I used to, like getting up from a chair without shooting back pain.

Do I wish to be younger? Not really, my life has never been better. But being young, there's nothing like it and I'm not sure why I feel that way. Maybe it was those moments of discovery, about people and things, that is irreplaceable. Maybe it was those late nights of intense discussions about music and politics, every argument accompanied with absolute certainty. Maybe it's those memories that, in reflection, seem so perfect, not marred by the realities of being insecure, completely dependent on parents for money, a false sense of control.

I think what it comes down to is that I wish I was the person I am now, but back then. I would've been so much happier. And what really nags at me, what comes through more and more every day, is that I could have been that person - confident, caring, kind, generous - and I wasn't. That guy was there, lurking some where beneath, the whole time and the years I buried him were a waste. And it sucks to know that.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Petty Deluxe

Tom Petty is one of those guys who never gets automatically put towards the top of the all-time greats' list. Even among his peers- Springsteen and U2, for example - he shines a bit dimmer. That's not a reflection on his music, but on his method. Petty & The Heartbreakers are straight-forward, balls out rockers; no grand statements, no singing on the steps of The Lincoln Memorial, or confabs with the President over AIDS in Africa. As a result, he floats somewhere below the surface of fawning attention.

Think about what Tom Petty has done, as a musician and a person. For over 30 years, Petty has been a constant seller, a consistent hit maker and a creator of a relatively disaster-less canon of work (maybe The Last DJ mars that record, but I'm willing to give it another shot). He is impossible to tag. Remember when he was kinda punk, kinda New Wave? He wasn't really, though. Remember how he was a sort of Southern hard rocker? Not quite. Did his covers of "Shout" and "Needles & Pins" denote a slavish devotion to rock history? Yes, but he was, and is, so much more.
The Live Anthology, in its deluxe box form, is a wonder. The 5-CD set is an uninterrupted three decade concert, flowing seamlessly from 2002, back to 1981, then forward to 1987, and so on. This band is the equal to The E Street Band, a group that enjoys playing and can play anything, any time. Listen to their take on "Green Onions" and marvel. In the big box of Petty, there are two DVDs, including a 1978 New Year's Eve show. That's the Petty of my memory, the shows that I saw way back when. There's also a great book, a sheet of backstage passes that I resist removing, and a Blu-Ray disc of the entire 62 song set that, when cranked, will make you believe in God and rock and roll. It sounds live, I swear.

If possible, Petty the man is an even greater story. Here's a kid who challenged the music industry for their habitual abuse of hungry young artists dying for a record deal and won. A newly established superstar battling the label to keep his Hard Promises album affordable. A fan protecting the integrity of heroes like Roger McGuinn when producers tried to force the ex-Byrd into a contemporary mode. A man who, at the top of his game musically and financially went back to his first band, Mudcrutch, and brought them back for the album they deserved to make when they were kids.

In no way has Tom Petty suffered over the years. He's sold a lot of records, worked with George Harrison and Bob Dylan, been the subject of a fantastic documentary and, most of the time, been treated kindly by the critics. He didn't get lucky; he earned it. He deserves more of your attention. The Live Anthology is a good place to begin.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Just Put a Band-aid On It

Like many, I heard the news from Howard Cosell. Sometimes I think that getting word from Cosell took the emotional power out of the moment. It was impossible to fathom that, during Monday Night Football, such horrible news, news that John Lennon had been shot and killed, could be delivered in between a draw play and a square out. Howard, in his inimitable fashion, sucked all the horror out of it.
I was the Beatles guy in High School, knowing more about them than anyone (except maybe Jim M.). I graduated early, in January 1980, and there was a surprise party for me. The most memorable things about that night were the giant hamburger and the engraved plaque with all my friends' names and "Beatles Forever." I haven't seen it in awhile, but it's around here someplace. At parties I would have everyone going with the Paul is Dead stuff, pointing out images of skeletal heads in the Magical Mystery Tour booklet.

There was an outpuring of concern for me after Lennon's killing, which I found incredible. I knew where my friends and family were coming from, but, oddly, I was unfazed by it. No tears, no nothing. Maybe I was already beginning to move away from idolatry, I don't know. I do know I was turning from a John-centric to Paul-centric view of Beatle-y things, for sure part of a journey from empty idealism to practicality. After all, it was the beginning of the Reagan years, I was headed for a job of some kind in the near future, and shouting slogans didn't hold the same appeal anymore.

Double Fantasy had come out in November. I'm pretty sure my brother bought it for me, which always surprised me. One, that he bought it for me at all. Two, that I didn't rush out to get it on the first day of release. I did that for George's 1979 album, why wouldn't I do it for John's first record in 5 years? "Starting Over" was a crap song, although I liked that John put himself in a '50's context. I remember eating at the Red Jacket Quad cafeteria at SUNY-Buffalo and hearing "Woman," which I loved. Honestly, I didn't dig John's material on the whole, though I liked most. I thought Yoko's tunes had more balls. I was 18 then. Now, I'm 47 and I find that the 40-year old John's songs are more meaningful. This is particularly true of "Watching the Wheels," which I live.
Still, my next door neighbor Congo and I talked about seeing Lennon in concert if he toured and we were very excited at the prospect. All that ended on the night of December 8, 29 years ago. The ensuing martyrdom and canonization of John Lennon irked me to no end. The two guys across the hall, who had zero musical knowledge, dashed out like so many to buy Lennon solo albums and, once they heard them, complained to me how much Sometime in New York City sucked. Well, just 'cuz he's dead didn't make it a good album. And why was I responsible for their wasted money? (Oh yeah, I'm the Beatle guy). It was the start of a real anti-John period for me. I couldn't stomach the "John Lennon and The Beatles" take on the group, which lasted into the mid-'90's when a Paul resurgence began. Pays to be the last one standing, don't it.

Now, I often find myself thinking about John Lennon. In researching for the Maybe Baby blog (which you should all read this Friday), I've watched hours of Lennon material - Dick Cavett interviews, Tom Snyder interviews, etc. John was quite a complex character and so much fun to watch, even when he's a hypocritical, haranguing, pain in the ass.

As Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones and a few others have proven, rock stars can age well and produce fine material. That wasn't the case in 1980. Chuck Berry wasn't out with a new album of songs that could compare well with his masterpieces. Many icons of the 1960's have shown they still have a great deal to offer. It's in that context that I find myself missing John Lennon the most. Can you picture him as he would be today, older, wiser, more mature, and still rocking. See him? Now you miss him too, and it hurts.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Perils of Public Speaking

In the past few years, I've found myself often engaged in public speaking. When The Kansas City A's & The Wrong Half of the Yankees came out in April of 2007, radio and television interviews followed, and I found myself surprisingly calm. I knew my subject matter, and made sure to go to the bathroom ten times before the talks would begin, but, still, I was amazed at my fairly matter of fact manner. Even presentations at the Hall of Fame, or the SABR National, went smoothly. If I did get nervous, it was always in the middle of the talk, not the beginning, a phenomenon I found quite interesting.

Being an elected official also entails a great deal of public speaking, but that's OK too. It's less speech-making than public access to a work meeting. Again, I do a lot of homework and know what I'm talking about before I speak. So, no nervousness there.

Now when I speak about our autistic oldest son, N., I get emotional at the most surprising times. I might mention that he passed the History Regents and feel a lump in my throat. Recounting his first class participation in college is sure to make me falter. So when I agreed to speak before a group of health professionals on N.'s college experience, I should've known I'd be a mess. Yet, I was completely caught off guard.

The event was yesterday at the Holiday Inn-Arena in Binghamton. Whenever I'm in my old college town, I wax nostalgic and, probably the emotional stage was set simply by back being in the Carousel City. In my student days, I never had any reason to go to the Holiday Inn, but thinking back on the Talking Heads show at the Arena across the street, or, wait, I also saw Rodney Dangerfield and John Sebastien there, I plunged deep into my past. I also thought to head over to my last college house and take some pictures when I was done speaking and email them to my ex-roommate.

There were six speakers. I was to be last. Not having prepared remarks, I scribbled some highlights of N.'s life on a notepad. The first five presenters were done with their talks in a total of 23 minutes, and I was suddenly up to bat. I really thought there was one more person to go before I'd head to the podium. Perhaps that put me off my game.

I began well, making it clear that I knew nothing about funding sources, programs, etc, but I knew a lot about N. The audience laughed and, as I got into N.'s early diagnosis of hyperlexia, I saw some nodding heads. Talking about his successes, and our subsequent move to Cooperstown, I was still in control. Briefly, I touched on his first year, then mentioned his one-on-one aide who joined him in 8th grade and stayed with him until graduation. That's where I lost it and lost it good. Not a small choke-up, or a hesitation, but a real cry. I needed to stop and regain my composure.

For those who watch Baseball Hall of Fame Induction speeches, and I know you're out there, you'll remember that Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski's speech never began due to excessive blubbering. I thought about that for a split second, and then forged ahead. A good recovery, I must say. I got in N.'s line about his "Cobleskill Adventure," as he calls his college time, and got some laughs. But, uh-oh, as I went on about his good grades and professorial support, and that this kid was maybe going to graduate from college, I could feel my eyes water. I managed to get to the end of the talk, making a few quips about how ill-informed I was about the behind the scenes funding that was allowing N. to go to college and do well.

I finished and sat down. To my leftt was a young girl, maybe teenage, who lives in a support home and spoke from her notes. She'd told me before she led off the session that she was nervous. When I sat down, I leaned toward her and said, "Well, I cried!" The health worker to my right said "You had them glued." Well, maybe I let my emotions get away from me, but, you know, you gotta lay it on the line to tell a good story.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

21st Century Ray

I went through a major Kinks phase in the first half of the 1980's. Then, as now, I binged on records, but in my youth I didn't have much money, so the binge would take a while to accomplish. (Maybe that's not a binge then). Though I don't have every Kinks album, I did pretty well. I can still recall getting a double record set with the exotic British spelling called The Compleat Collection. Had to have that - it had "Sittin' On My Sofa," which The Fleshtones used to cover.

Yet, much to my amazement, then and now, I never saw The Kinks in concert. Oh, there were plenty of opportunities; they were always around. I just never got around to it. Even in the early '90's, when Ray Davies was touring around his autobiography X-Ray, I didn't go see him. Considering he played a week at The Royal George Theater in Chicago, that's more than not getting around to it. It seems a conscious effort to avoid all things Kinky.
Well, cross ol' Ray off the concert list. Me and the boys went to The Egg in Albany last Monday to see the great one. Why was he in Albany? It's hard to fathom. He's conducting a short tour with a chorus, and hitting only big cities. Albany? It must've been a mistake, but one we were glad to capitalize on.

The Kinks catalogue is rich beyond belief, and Davies dipped in for big hits and lost chestnuts. The first half of the show had Ray seated alongside guitarist Bill Shanley, and they opened with "I Need You," which I have on some cheapo compilation called Golden Hour, Vol. 2. An odd choice, to be sure. Ray asked the crowd, "Who's an individual?" Now, I know that old Steve Martin joke about The Non-Conformist's Oath, so I didn't join the masses in applauding their unique qualities while part of a mob. It was the prologue to a rousing version of "I'm Not Like Everybody Else." Soon after beginning "Where Have All the Good Times Gone," some exuberant fan belted out a line, to which Ray quipped, "He was here last night, and we weren't even playing." This kind of humorous repartee was in evidence all night long. We enjoyed him and he genuinely seemed to relish the crowd's love. At one point, he jauntily introduced "an Old English folk tune." As Ray strummed an ancient melody, to an unresponsive crowd, he wondered aloud, "Is it that bad?" With that, he segued into "A Dedicated Follower of Fashion." Oh yes he did!

The show was peppered with crowd participation. Ray loves a sing-song, and the audience happily obliged. One forgets how many hits the Kinks had. They were so overshadowed by The Beatles, The Stones and, let's face it, lots of others, yet they were huge and massively influential. "A Well-Respected Man," "Days," "Waterloo Sunset," "Come Dancing," Better Things," - monster songs that stretched over two decades. The crowd knew the words, I can assure you.

I happily sang along, and was relieved when he skipped the part in "Come Dancing" about the palais being torn down. That always makes me cry. "Come Dancing" is a remarkable example of how great a songwriter Ray Davies is. A smash hit, it is a deep take on nostalgia, lost youth and dashed dreams, disguised as a light hearted pop tune. A remarkable song if you think about it (which I did).

It's hard to fathom that Ray's solo career began only a few years ago with Other People's Lives, but it's true. That 2006 effort, followed by Working Man's Cafe, were well represented by a band that was so loud that I saw some cracks in The Egg. Davies has lost little since his heyday. The solo records are wonderfully catchy, brutally insightful, and a joy to hear.

The encore was thankfully long. Davies told us the story of sitting at the family piano in Muswell Hill, looking to write his first hit song. As he plunked out a few notes, his brother Dave came in from the kitchen and asked what he was playing. The sparse notes would grow into the legendary riff that was Dave's intro to "You Really Got Me." Ray joked about Dave all night, wearing a clear love-hate relationship with his former bandmate and brother on his sleeve. "20th Century Man" nearly blew the roof off the house, if the cockeyed oval that is The Egg has a clear roof line. I can't tell.

When Ray stood for the second half of the show, the full band set, I was shocked at how strikingly tall he was. He's also incredibly springy, leaping around the stage in an un-65 year old way. From where we sat, it was clear that the only real difference between Ray Davies today, and Ray Davies of 1980, is his receding hairline. Except for that, I felt that I'd finally caught up with one of my faves, still in his prime. I won't miss him again.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hope I Die Before I Get Old (Yeah, Right!)

I have bought fully into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame media blitz. In their 25th year, the Hall is going balls out for public exposure and money. The two-day concert event at Madison Square Garden raised millions for an endowment. Me and my fortunate sons were there to see night one, and it was spectacular. (Read the four posts on the show - If There's a Rock and Roll Heaven...).

Then, there's the new Rolling Stone, with Bono, Mick and Bruce and the cover, the entire issue dedicated to the performances and the Hall of Fame. It's self-promotion to be sure, but that's fine by me. Best yet. there's a DVD of the Induction ceremonies, the hands down best part of the institution. I ended up with the 3 disc set, although there's a 9 DVD box out there somewhere. I can only comment on Disc 1, but that took a few hours to go through.

The jams are fun, though no high level art. It's a hoot to watch little Paul Shaffer "conduct" the melee. I tell you, Springsteen is always having the most fun, whether it's singing "Oh, Pretty Woman" with his hero Roy Orbison, or harmonizing to "Green River" with his hero John Fogerty. Seeing Peter Green stand uncomfortably stage right as he joins Santana and the Green-penned "Black Magic Woman" is gripping; Green disappeared for years due to psychological and pharmaceutical issues. Prince rips the lid off "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." He is the best guitarist on the stage, but it seems like old warhorses like Tom Petty don't really appreciate him. Petty gives a condescending smirk as the former symbol wails away. only George's son Dhani Harrison revels in the fireworks.

The speeches are the best. That's when the real emotion spews forth. Jagger shows real affection for The Beatles, Fogerty shows intense hatred for the rest of Creedence. Clatpon's speech on wanting to join The Band tells a lot about the man, and was one of the springboards to the Maybe Baby blog. The bonus material on Disc 1 features full introductions. Springsteen's take on Jackson Browne as a chick magnet is hilarious. It explains Browne's greatness better than Jackson's own speech. Paul's "letter to John" is as much about Macca as about Lennon, but it is heartfelt and, when The Cute One embraces Yoko it is cathartic. A quick shot to the late Linda in the audience, weeping as she watches, is another heartbreaker.

There are some bits of real douchery. Brian Wilson's awkward reading is sad, for sure, but when Mike Love follows with a nasty speech, shitting on The Beatles, The Stones (was he drunk?), you realize what torment Brian went through working with this asshole. Jann Wenner reads The Sex Pistols' letter of refusal, to the guffaws of the tuxedoed audience. The big shots laughing at Johnny Rotten's spelling and spleen prove the nasty one is dead right. Pete Townshend's paean to his heroes The Stones is funny, sweet, uncomfortable and sincere.

How great must it have been for these guys to be young? The music, the girls, the money, the fame. Yet, growing old hasn't diminished them in the least. McCartney, The Stones, Dylan - they've invented what we think of as rock and are consistently creating what it means to be an aging rock star. They have stayed artistically vital and strong in a way that no one could have seen in the days when pop icons fizzled out by the age of 30.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

More on Failure

In all the years I was in trading, there was unavoidable competition with my friends and fellow traders. (There is a difference - not all of my fellow traders were my friends). It took years away from the scene to shake that trait and get down to how I felt about my place in life, regardless of whether some dope was making more dough than me. It hasn't gone away totally, but morphed into something slightly different.

At a Martin Short performance last month, he joked that his worst moments far exceeded the best parts of his audience's life. Funny, yes. True, I don't know. I do know that I look at some famous folks in the news lately and, yes, end up feeling much better off. That doesn't apply, though, to Jay-Z or Derek Jeter. They rule.

Take Nicolas Cage. Here's a guy who had a lot going for him and now he's on the skids. Once he was a great actor, really, and now he's a histrionic farce. But that's on the opinion side. Lately, he has made headlines because he owes the IRS $6 million in back taxes. To pay off this huge debt, the Steve Austin of tax evasion is selling off his plethora of homes, collecting the millions needed for the government. Sure, it helps to have a lot of houses, but if you gotta sell them to pay your bills, what's the point. And, now that he's divorced from Lisa Marie Presley, I bet he can't even go upstairs at Graceland anymore. Family only, you know.

Randy Quaid. Here's a guy with a fairly decent list of credits, a journeyman who has carved out a successful career as a character actor. My fave Quaid roles - Seaman Meadows in The Last Detail and Ishmael in Kingpin. So, how does he get to be an alleged felon, accused, along with his wife, of ripping off fancy hotels to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars? Strange, right? I wonder what he was thinking and how he goes forward from here. That always scares me, the very idea of having to start all over, just when it seems like everything is going well. How do you muster the strength to do it again? It must take more than being believable as an Amish bowling phenom.

I couldn't help but think long and hard on the nature of success and failure as I watched Brian Wilson last week (see previous post). A certifiable legend, but happy? I don't know. Pretty brutal upbringing with an abusive dad, inconsistent support from his band mates, who were also family, and a breakdown that lasted on and off for over 20 years. Is his a successful life? Hard to say, though I wouldn't want to switch places with him.

I used to play a game with myself (wait, that sounds wrong). I used to think about who I would rather switch places with. Paul McCartney - not bad, though the downsides are early death of mother & ridicule of press. Joe Namath - pretty good, though I'm not sure I like the burning out so fast. There were others whose lives I would inspect closely, in case of a "Freaky Friday"-like experience. I take it as a healthy sign that I don't think that anymore.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Smile? Sometimes

I've had Brian Wilson on the brain this week (and how often do I type Brian and it comes out "brain?" Almost all the time). The reasons will become apparent to some tomorrow. So, what a week to have seen him in concert.

J. and I had seen Brian's Smile tour when it stopped in Saratoga, four years ago, I think. It was amazing. Just seeing Brian Wilson is something. His troubled past is known to all in attendance and there's a lot of love and support sent his way from the crowd. He needs it, too. Not as fat as he was in the '70's, not as fit as he appeared in the late '80's, Wilson is a nervous hulk, sitting behind a tiny electric keyboard. His anxiety and awkwardness are always apparent, but were less front and center in 2005 when he and his amazing band went through the most famous lost album in rock.

Not so on Tuesday. Without the triumph of Smile, Wilson was shakier than the first time I'd seen him. He performed Beach Boy hits, as well as reaching for some lesser known album cuts. The Beach Boys were always, in my estimation, a hits-only type of group with the exception of Pet Sounds. I remember my shock when I started going through their LPs and found, to my delight, a huge catalog of great songs. When Brian and the band began playing "Salt Lake City," I was knocked out. It's an odd tribute to a square town, and a wonderfully incongruous tune. "Custom Machine," "The Little Girl I Once Knew" (which Wilson declared the best record he'd ever produced), joined the setlist, lost songs finally given their due.

The Beach Boys were an intensely competitive group. When the Mike Love-edition of the group played Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, also in 2005, Love trashed talked Justin Timberlake for some reason. Brian too dissed his rivals. "The Stones couldn't do a ballad like this," he boasted as an introduction to "Please Let Me Wonder." That song is, in my estimation, the greatest Beach Boy tune, and Brian's high, pristine tone on the original is one if the most beautiful vocals ever put to wax. It was sad to hear him now, straining for even the middle range. Yet, he is so compelling and tragic a figure that it works.

Wilson is childlike and he and The Beach Boys had a juvenile sense of humor. You can hear it on a few spoken word album tracks that made it as filler on their records. It was clear that that silliness would be on display during the show. Hell, they opened with "Monster Mash." A few jokes back and forth, with Brian and a band member referring to each other as "Pilgrim," was immediately tiresome.

While the Smile tour was a complete victory, this show was tinged with melancholy. Brian was so odd, so uncomfortable, so fragile. And, for the bulk of the concert, he and the group completely ignored Lucky Old Sun, Wilson's masterpiece from last year. Then, as the show was winding down, a troika of selections from Sun were played and they were magnificent. "Southern California," which looks back on his dream of singing with his brothers, will break your heart more than a big wave wipe out.

"At 25 I turned out the light, 'cause I couldn't handle the the glare in my tired eyes." Think about those lines from "Going Home." Brian Wilson was a kid when the pressures of writing, producing and recording got to him, resulting in a nervous collapse. What did he miss, what did we all miss, when he disappeared from the rock scene? He's back, and doing pretty well, but I couldn't help mull over the deep tragedy of the man. With the band winding down, I spotted Brian offstage, standing perfectly still, a sad figure bathed in blue light.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

No Success Like Failure...

... and failure's no success at all. I think I know what Dylan means, though every time I feel I've got it figured out, it's seems just out of reach.
What's success anyway? Me, I'm kicking back, working though not employed, and having a great time. That's something, right? But in my world, success is always accompanied by a feeling of emptiness, the short-lived high knocked down by the dread "what next" syndrome. Failure, at times can seem ennobling and enjoyable. So has been my last year of writing.

Having a go at a writing career is a bit daunting in a time when content is losing its financial value. Yet, the democratization of media is a wonderful thing, allowing musicians, writers, filmmakers, to do their thing, get it to the public, without someone having to give it the green light. But can the average Joe keep providing content for free? At some point, that's gotta change.

A best-selling author pal of mine constantly reminds me that I am in an unknown country and am doing pretty well in a field entirely new to me. In the last year, I've written two book proposals, one which made some headway with a literary agent, though, I was ultimately dropped. I've started two blogs, this one right here, and Maybe Baby. Maybe Baby has readers all over the world in only 5 months online. With 29 stories written, countless more to come and only 11 posted, Maybe Baby has seriously long legs. Plus, I had a book review published in the L.A. Dodgers official magazine.

Not bad, but not successful in the way I gauge things. Funny, we live in a world where outside approval from editors and record companies means less when, with a tap on the keyboard, you are out for all to see. Still, it'd be nice to have that approval.

I just finished reading Upton Sinclair's The Cup of Fury, an anti-alcohol polemic. Sinclair must've been a carrier of the alcoholic gene, because he had a huge amount of friends and family who were drop dead drunks. It's not a particularly great read, though it has a memorable dust cover that, unknown to ol' Upton, looks suspiciously like a serious serving of flaming shots.
What was most shocking was that Sinclair self-published! Even The Jungle was turned down by publishers until, after he put the muckraking classic out himself, it gained traction and was picked up. Had Sinclair lived today he would have been a blogger, for sure.
With that as inspiration, I'll keep plugging away. Will all the work get me anywhere? Maybe not, if you define "anywhere" in monetary terms, or as establishing some sort of career. Yet, as a great man once said, "There's no success like failure.." You know the rest.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

If There's a Rock & Roll Heaven, Then I Just Had a Near-Death Experience (Part 4)

What started as a movie about folk music quickly became a biography of Bruce Springsteen. That his pre-set flick was so personal showed how high Bruce sits above the rest. In the same way, his feature topped them all, ending with four lines from "This Land is Your Land," the first sung by Woody Guthrie, followed by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and The Boss.

"10th Avenue Freeze-out" rang in the party, a perfect New York-y tune that the faithful ate up. Bruce couldn't wait to bring out his guests, the first being Sam Moore of Sam and Dave. Starting out with "Hold On, I'm Coming," it was hard to know which group was having more fun, the one on stage, or the one in the concert hall. Bruce was in his element, playing along with a hero of his youth who, he proclaimed, taught Springsteen much about being a bandleader. The backup singers were prancing around, having a hard time containing their joy. Sam was ready for the next tune and asked Bruce, "Can I talk to your man there?"

"Not yet," said Bruce.

"Can I talk to your man over there," Moore indicating Steve van Zandt.

"We gotta finish this first," Bruce smiled.

Finally Steve got into the act with the opening riff to "Soul Man," and I swear the roof of the Garden lifted just a bit.

Moore left and Bruce introduced Tom Morello. Morello, whose guitar heroics rocketed the sound of Rage Against the Machine to the stratosphere, duetted with Bruce on "The Ghost of Tom Joad," which RATM had covered on their Renegades album. Morello was insane, waving his hand around the guitar neck as if he were playing a theremin, using one of the cable plugs to push the strings, ungodly stuff that made Jeff Beck's dynamic solo for "Superstition" seem like a tasty Les Paul lick.

In "Him," Lily Allen sings that God's favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival and, well, who could argue? I remember a Springsteen show in Rochester, late '80 or early '81, where the band played CCR during sound check. Bruce brought out John Fogerty and it was clear there's a real bond between the two, even though, as Springsteen mentioned, he'd covered Fogerty's songs when he was 18 years old.

"Fortunate Son," the most perfect rock and roll song in tempo, duration and content, led off the mini-set. "Proud Mary" had the MSGer's singing their heads off. Bruce talked about Roy Orbison's influence on his songwriting and, because he didn't have the guts to do it alone, asked Fogerty to join him on "Oh, Pretty Woman." With that done, and well done I might add, Bruce said the band would do a "song by some other guy," and a ferocious "Jungleland" ensued.

Darlene Love, darling of the Phil Spector girl groups, was ushered in and, I gotta tell you, The E Street Band can do everything. For "A Fine, Fine Boy" and "Da Doo Ron Ron," the Spector studio created Wall of Sound was reproduced live. It was something of a sonic miracle. Bruce couldn't be happier.

Love left the stage after a smooch or two, and Morello reappeared. Springsteen announced they'd do a song from one of the greatest groups to come out of England. The Beatles? The Stones? The Animals? Nope, much to his credit, it was The Clash. "London Calling" segued into "Badlands" and, after all this, it was hard to not give 'em a smile.

But that's not all folks. Looking for an excuse to keep playing, Bruce said, well, since the Yanks won, we gotta do more. But first, he addressed the crowd behind the stage. "We see you back there. How much did they charge you for those tickets? Hope they were free. Anyone from New Jersey?" When a few applauded to signify their Garden State status, Bruce quipped, "That explains it."

That wasn't all for Jersey. Professor Springsteen gave a geological lecture explaining that, though not everyone knows it, Jersey and Long Island were once connected, way before the continental drift, which is why the populaces are so similar. Tonight, on the neutral ground of Manhattan, the kings of New Jersey and Long Island would have it out and the reunion of the two land masses took rock and roll form as Billy Joel joined Bruce on stage.

I'd come full circle. My first show ever was a Billy Joel show at the Garden, and that memory came rushing over me. I never think of these two together, Joel is Springsteen-lite. "You May Be Right" gained some sack given the E Street treatment and Bruce was positively gleeful belting it out. When Billy sings, it's a faux toughness, a posture. Bruce added heft to Joel's tunes. "Only the Good Die Young" is thematically the same as "Thunder Road," but more clownish. Everyone was having a ball and, when they flubbed the ending, Bruce said "it can't end on that," and they got it right the second time around.

"New York State of Mind" sounded fine, if you like that sort of thing. "Born to Run" laid everything in the dust. Billy Joel, searching for the balls needed for the Springsteen anthem, reached for a Bruce impersonation to do the trick. You may gather that I'm not a fan of Billy Joel. That's true, but having him onstage was a great surprise and a monumental moment, regardless of what I think of his crappy songs. It was a Tri-State music fans' wet dream.

Bruce brought everyone back out for the finale, including Jackson Browne from the CSN set, and Peter Wolf of J. Geils, who, once upon a time would have warranted a real spot on the roster. They left us with Jackie Wilson's hit "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" and, after six hours, we were as high as could be, sailing over the Garden, floating on a breeze of musical history.

If There's a Rock & Roll Heaven, Then I Just Had a Near-Death Experience (Part 3)

The Garden was at a real high when Simon & Garfunkel ended their set. The best movie of the night followed, connecting the Motown years with the Civil Rights movement, ending with a picture of Obama. So obvious, yet, I have to say, I never saw it coming. Maybe because I was focused on the music to come. Stevie Wonder! The place went nutty.

Then, technical difficulties. There was no sound. We all watched as Stevie sat at the piano, tapping on the mike to no avail, getting increasingly agitated. With every silent minute, Wonder bobbed his head more and more frantically. Why didn't anyone go out to help him? It was not only uncomfortable to witness, but it sucked all the energy out of the building.

Finally, one live mike was found and, when Wonder yelled "Hello New York," the cheers were thunderous. This was, Stevie proclaimed, the 20th anniversary of his induction into the rock hall, and the 5oth anniversary of Motown Records. Were we ready to "turn this mutha out?" he wondered. Oh yeah, we were.

More sound problems followed, and after a loud "Aw shit!," Wonder sat down. OK, a little change was in order. "Can you hear this?" he asked. We could. "Is this good?" as he hit some keys. It was. Alright then. In honor of Bob Dylan, Stevie went into "Blowin' in the Wind." Great choice, great salute to rock history and a sing-songy tune to counter the sound problems.

Though the sound would continue to plague the performance for awhile, Wonder was undeterred. "Wanna hear some Little Stevie Wonder?" he asked, as if referring to another person. "Uptight," with vocals a tad muted, led it off, then Stevie stopped abruptly and soared into "I Was Made to Love Her." He had the crowd going now, and pushed them further with "For Once in My Life," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and "Boogie On Reggae Woman." The short, Vegas-y versions, not as short as a medley, not as long as a regular version, bugged me. His songs are too good for that kind of treatment. The sound was still not perfect and, though I love Stevie Wonder, I couldn't help but pray that this better be fixed in time for Bruce.

A litany of guests were scheduled to play during the set. The first was Smokey Robinson, who came on for "Tracks of My Tears." John Legend came on to do a bit of Marvin Gaye with "Mercy Mercy Me." Legend is fine, but he's no Marvin. No one is. Wonder invited his guest to sit at the piano and a remarkable thing happened next.

In tribute to Michael Jackson, Stevie began a pulsing version of "The Way You Make Me Feel." Watching on the video screen, it seemed as if Wonder was having a seizure and, with his singing suddenly halted, there was a bit of confusion. Then it became apparent that he was breaking down, weeping hard over the death of his fallen comrade. Stevie got it together and resumed the song, urging the crowd with "All hail Michael Jackson. We love Michael Jackson. Long live Michael Jackson." It was the most genuine emotional moment of the night. Wonder also paid respects to Lennon, Hendrix and Marley, but he Michael on his mind.

B.B. King slowly made his way onstage for a swing at "The Thrill is Gone." B.B. and Lucille left and Stevie performed "Living For the City." From there, he tore into "Higher Ground," Sting joining on bass. "Higher" dovetailed into "Roxanne," and the song never sounded better than with Wonder wailing on "red light." Then, back to "Higher," and out.

The last guest of the night was Jeff Beck. The connection here is that Wonder had written "Superstition" and was giving it to Beck, but then recorded it first for a hit. Some bad feeling there, but that was 35 years ago. Tonight, Beck was there to tear it open, and he did.

That's was it. Stevie stood up and said "we gotta go." The crowd gave out a big cheer for the Yankees score, a 3-1 victory over the Phillies in Game 2. Now, we all waited for Bruce.

Monday, November 2, 2009

If There's a Rock & Roll Heaven, Then I Just Had a Near-Death Experience (Part 2)

It was hard to know how the evening would unfold. Clearly, Springsteen was gonna headline, but the rest of the order was up for grabs. When CSN ended and the screen slowly dropped, the shot of the New York skyline that began the next film was all we needed to know that Paul Simon was up next.

Starting the night with "Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes," Simon made a clear connection between his mid-'80's "Graceland" period and the 1950's doo-wop sound that he loved growing up in Queens. It's a constant source of fascination that "Diamonds" and other tunes from that LP are singalong favorites. The lyrics are inscrutable, yet there were tens of thousands gleefully joining in with words that have no apparent meaning.

Not so with the next tune, "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard." The enthusiasm of the crowd led Paul to quip, "Must be a lot of people here from Corona." Then, building on the frenzy, came "You Can Call Me Al," which brought everyone to their feet for the first time of the night.

With that, Simon introduced one of his '50's heroes, "one of the great voices of New York," down from Belmont Ave. in the Bronx, Dion DiMucci. "Yo!" Dion addressed the crowd with a familiar Bronx cheer and the even more familiar "The Wanderer." Simon joined two members of his band to form a singing trio, hunched around an imaginary oil drum, flames flickering over the rim as they stood at a street corner in their minds. Paul seemed very happy. Dion was one and done, and, after he left, Simon held center stage and created the first surprise of the concert.

Paying tribute to a friend that he loved, a friend who held the first benefit ever at MSG in 1971, Simon asked David Crosby and Graham Nash to join him in a version of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun." Now, the fact that Beatle George's benefit was to help save the starving masses in flood torn Bangla Desh, and this night's benefit was on behalf of the non-profit idea of the corporate giants at Rolling Stone was lost on the crowd. The night was irony free. It doesn't bother me one bit, I'm just sayin'. As to the song itself, it was a beautiful moment, and a new CSN was born.

The next bit of irony came after C & N left, Simon proceeding with "Late in the Evening." One Trick Pony, Simon's failed film effort of 1980, is a pretty good tale of a faded 1960's star named Jonah who recoils at the idea of simply parading his old chart toppers. Instead, Jonah wants to maintain his artistic relevance. Simon has definitely succeed where Jonah couldn't. Paul's last LP Surprise was an amazing disc that found him partnered with Brian Eno. For this night, Simon was Jonah, giving the crowd what they wanted. "Late in the Evening," the hit from the movie, was what they wanted.

Paul spoke of his radio listening days as a kid, and his devotion to Alan Freed, and he introduced Little Anthony & The Imperials. The resplendent group, who first met at the Ft. Greene Projects in Brooklyn, noted that they used to sing in the 34th & Lexington Subway station, right down the street. "Two People in the World" was an a Capella knockout.

I wondered how Simon & Garfunkel would appear. It seemed unlikely that Paul would introduce Art. I'm sure Garfunkel wouldn't stand for being brought on as a guest of Paul. So, after Little Anthony, there was a small delay and, with spotlight stage left, the two walked on together, but apart.

First, "Sounds of Silence" to a crazed crowd. New Yorkers love their Simon & Garfunkel, local boys who made good. "Mrs. Robinson" became a mini-tour of rock history. The song morphed into a Bo Diddley, "Mona" infused guitar riff. Would they play that? I was intrigued. Instead, they turned that phasing guitar into "Not Fade Away," then, back to Mrs. R. "The Boxer" followed, not one of my faves, and the interminable ending "la la lies" was mercifully short. By the way, Paul always thought that bit went on too long.

Of course, the final song would have to be "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Artie's voice was a bit husky, a tad fuzzy, emphasizing his overall Jewish grandfatherly image. Paul belted the hell out of the verse he sang, totally outdoing his friend/rival/enemy/partner/nemesis.

Total standing ovation, which led to an encore of "Cecilia." Jubilation indeed. The MSG mob was delirious with joy, but not so our uneasy duo. With the music over, Artie gave Paul a hug, and a friendly tap, from which Paul recoiled. He immediately bolted and they exited as they entered, several steps apart in a tense ceasefire.

Next up, Stevie Wonder.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

If There's a Rock & Roll Heaven, Then I Just Had a Near-Death Experience (Part 1)

I'd seen the ads for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Benefit Concerts in Rolling Stone and, though floored by the list of participants, didn't plan on driving down to Madison Square Garden from Cooperstown. When a friend from the Hall asked if I was going, it dawned on me that I needed to pursue one of the two shows and, clearly, Thursday night was the one for me. Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder. That's right in my musical wheelhouse. So me and the boys went down for the show last week and, let me tell you, it was a momentous evening. As Graham Nash said early in the Crosby, Stills & Nash set, "This is Woodstock!" And it kinda was.

We detoured to Westport, CT, to pick up a few friends, and then it was on to the Garden. I hadn't been there in decades - moving to Chicago took me out of that scene. I think the last time I was there was for the Bob Dylan-Tom Petty tour of '86. It was great getting back to the Garden (there's that Woodstock motif again). Besides the site of many sports heartbreaks (you can't grow up a Knick and Ranger fan and not be continually crushed), it's also the scene of my first concert, a 1980 Billy Joel show during the Glass Houses tour.

Our seats were pretty good, though among the cheapest at $150. Above is our vantage point. That guy did sit down. The arches behind the stage were filled in with pictures of all time greats, who watched approvingly as the night unfolded. The giant screen that says "CONCE" showed films between sets and the musicians were set up on a rotating circular stage. This allowed the next act to be ready when it was time to go on. They had a similar set up at Woodstock, but this time it worked.

After a movie montage of great acceptance speeches from past Hall Inductees, Tom Hanks strode to stage right to speak to the power of rock and he did so in Hanksian style. You either like that or you don't. It was fine, a little to smart-alecky for my taste, but Tom Hanks, well, you can't deny the star power there. He introduced Jerry Lee Lewis, who sat at a white piano and played "Whole Lotta Shakin'" in a lascivious, dirty old man style. He didn't move around too much, though. No more feet on the keyboard for him any more. Still, Jerry Lee can kick ass with the best of them and, it was with some sadness that he was only allowed one tune. He made mention, forlornly, that it was only him sitting at the piano. If you've heard Jerry Lee and Springsteen do The Boss's "Pink Cadillac," then you'd know why I wished for more.

Lewis was spun away and the screen lowered to play a movie about the California rock scene. Good stuff, familiar but strong. When the lights came back on, Crosby, Stills & Nash launched into a blistering version of "Woodstock," followed by "Marrakesh Express." "Marrakesh" is a song The Hollies wouldn't let Graham record, which led him to quit the band and pursue other things. That's a key part of the CSN story. With a grin, Nash announced they would finally do a "Crosby song," and "Almost Cut My Hair" began. Crosby was in fine vocal form, but when he sang "I feel I owe it to someone," I couldn't think who that might be these days.

Crosby introduced the first guest of the evening as "my favorite singer." Bonnie Raitt came out and, along with Crosby and Nash (Stills having departed), sang "Love Has No Pride." Stills returned and he and Raitt played some dirty old slide guitar on a surprising cover of The Allmans' "Midnight Rider." An interesting choice, and well done.

The night was finely programmed, leaving some doubt as to whether there would be any of the exciting impromptu mixes that make the Rock Hall's Induction jams so special. Bonnie left, and Nash introduced Jackson Browne. Browne had been championed by CSN early in his career and Crosby and Nash sang on the original record of "The Pretender," which was the selection du jour. Stills was pitch perfect on guitar and this was my first highlight of the show. Nash was into it, already barefoot, but when Jackson sang about how his protagonist "started out so young and strong, only to surrender," I had to pause and ponder. Was this true of the men on stage, had they all given up their youthful innocence and beliefs as the music business crushed their souls? Not so much, I think. CSN and Browne have stuck to their political guns and personal opinions to the detriment of their careers. That says something about the quality of the men.

Browne left to make way for James Taylor. Again, Stills took off for a bit to allow Taylor, Crosby and Nash to wail away on "Mexico," the arena bathed in orange light. Stills rejoined and the four took a swing at "Love the One You're With," Taylor taking a few verses for himself. After JT left, Stills' Buffalo Springfield pedigree got its due with "Rock and Roll Woman." Nash thanked Rolling Stone founder and Hall creator Jann Wenner for inviting them to the show and, with Raitt, Browne and Taylor back on stage, the first big set of the night closed with "Teach your Children."

So far, so good.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Confessions of an ex-TV junkie

I admit it. I used to watch a lot of TV. When I was little. I'd tune in everything. Why did I sit through Medical Center when I was 8? Because it was on, I guess. Though I had just not laughed my way through Here's Lucy and The Doris Day Show, the television was already on WCBS Channel 2. These were the days pre-remote. Who could be bothered with switching the station, especially when your parents would yell at you not to spin the dial so fast. "You'll break it!" Once you were on a network, you were in for the long haul.

As a teen I stayed awake all night watching reruns. The Twilight Zone, The Honeymooners, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Those shows filled my summer. I would go to sleep around 4 AM, wake up at 1 or 2 in the afternoon, swim, find some friends and, by 11 PM, was back in my room for the night's programming. No regrets there, believe me.

I was still an avid viewer until the mid-'80's, but now, my TV is limited to The Simpsons and sports, almost exclusively baseball (which is why there have been so few posts this October. Playoff baseball is a full-time job).

Yet, from what I hear, we live in a golden era of quality television. I'm told I should watch Mad Men, and Californication, and Weeds, and... The list goes on. Occasionally I will get into a show, which leads me to the topic at hand, complete seasons on DVD.

I love having shows available on DVD. The very idea of sitting around, waiting each week for a new installment, seems positively barbaric. The past two weeks I've been catching up on Arrested Development. It's quite hysterical and I can easily fit in two shows a day. That should get me up to date in a month or so.

The interesting thing about condensing a whole season of shows into a week of viewing is that the strengths, and the flaws, are easilyspotted. The first DVD immersion we had was with The Sopranos. I loved the first season, its wit, violence, brutality. The second season, not so much. The third, wait a minute, didn't I just see this in the first season? Are they already rehashing characters, the same person with a different name? I was put off and that was it for me and Tony.

But Curb Your Enthusiasm, I can't get enough of that. It suffers from none of the flaws of Seinfeld. Jeff will never be greeted by wild applause, as Kramer was whenhe transformed into a neurotic version of Fonzie. It's constantly fresh and surprising, Larry and the others stay within their personalities, consistently real and vital. Bring on the new season on DVD! I'm ready.

Another facet of the TV shows on DVD phenomena that I love is the ability to own whole chapters of my youth. Just knowing I have the complete Munsters on my shelf makes me smile. I haven't gotten through them all in their present incarnation, but I've seen them all years ago. It's nice to know that they're wihtin arm's reach, just in case I have the urgent need to watch the Zombo episode.

I also have The David Steinberg Show and one season of Superman. Who knows if I'll ever get around to watching them all, but who cares? We live in this wonderful world where I can buy the complete Mr. Bean for ten bucks and let it sit on a shelf. That's what I call luxury!

But, there is one glaring absence, a void that needs to be filled. Where, oh where, are you, complete DVD set of Batman? Until that gets released, I will not rest easily.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fall Baseball, The Dodgers and Classic TV - A Look Back

Once upon a time, Hollywood fawned on the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a common occurrence for a star on the field to make his way to the screen, big or small. Here's the story of two men, the heroes of October 1959, Chuck Essegian and Wally Moon

1958 was a transitional year, their first in Los Angeles, and the Dodgers were shaky. They dropped from third place to seventh, not yet comfortable in their new surroundings. Whether it was the change from erratic East Coast weather to Southern California sun, or the move from cozy Ebbets Field to the cavernous Coliseum, deformed to fit baseball, the Dodgers were ill at ease. Only for one year though, as they came roaring back to win the World Series in 1959.

The offensive hero that year was newcomer Wally Moon. Moon captured the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1954 for the St. Louis Cardinals, beating out a couple of young kids named Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron. Moon had several years of fine play in the Midwest before he was traded to the Dodgers for Gino Cimoli in December of 1958. Moon’s swing was perfectly suited to the short porch in left field with its giant net wall at the Dodgers new home. That year, he hit 19 homers, dubbed “Moon shots,” and added 74 RBI, as well as hitting for a .302 average. For this, Moon made the All Star team and garnered support in the Most Valuable Player voting, behind a couple of proven superstars, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron. He hit one home run during the Series, a six game L.A. victory over the Chicago White Sox.

Hollywood turned his way and Moon, a perfect western hero with his dark looks and heavy eyebrows was cast in a Wagon Train entry entitled “The Larry Hannify Story," which aired in January of 1960. Moon had one other acting role. In Game 2 of the Series, Chicago outfielder Al Smith ripped a Larry Sherry pitch between Moon in left and Duke Snider replacement Don Demeter in center field. Moon didn’t have a prayer to catch the clout, but instead of heading for the outfield wall he stared heavenward, pretending he had it all the way. The fakeout was enough to prevent base runner Earl Torgeson from scoring, as Moon quickly recovered the ball and threw strongly to shortstop Maury Wills. This performance, noted critic Casey Stengel,“was the greatest bluff anybody has seen in years.”
While Moon’s abilities on the field outshone those in front of the camera, he did a respectable as Sheriff Kelleher, and he sure looked the part. A still photo shows him gripping a rifle, with a face that says, “I know how to use it.” Standard Western fare, and as result Moon took his shots and his punches as expected.

Chuck Essegian didn’t have the pedigree of Wally Moon as an everyday player. Like Moon, he was signed originally by the Cardinals, but found himself with the Philadelphia Phillies in March of 1957. He played part-time in 1958, not in a particularly distinguished way and ended up back with the Cards. He spent the first part of 1959 there, but was sent on June 15 to the Dodgers in a minor deal. Cole Porter rhapsodized “How strange the change from major to minor.” For the Dodgers, this minor trade became a major part of their October championship.

Essegian showed promise as he hit .304 during his Dodger stint. No power though- just one home run in 46 at bats. So what does this fill-in fielder do in just three plate appearances in the biggest showcase of all, the World Series? He hits two homers!

In Game 1, pinch-hitting for pitcher Johnny Podres, Essegian tied the contest at 2-2 with a solo blast. To cap off the clinching Game 6, Essegian once against pinch-hit, this time for Duke Snider in the top of the ninth inning and hit another solo shot. Thus, the legend of Chuck Essegian was created.

Naturally several TV and movie offers came the way of a genuine World Series hero, but Essegian appeared in only one show. He doesn’t recall what other ones came his way. Another Western, there were so many at the time, called Sugarfoot. In “Blackwater Swamp,” a March 1960 chapter in the series third season, Essegian played Bob Fanning, a railroad man. Looking back, Essegian says it “was pretty routine” and that he didn’t really enjoy acting.
By 1962, the journeyman outfielder had gone from L.A. to Baltimore to Kansas City to Cleveland. Playing well for the Indians, Essegian was seen as a star. Writers noted that he was the spitting image of uber-popular Vince Edwards, lead actor in the huge hospital hit, Ben Casey. Alas, Essegian’s “scowl, dark locks and steely gaze” did not result in any more acting jobs. After all, Cleveland was no Los Angeles.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Real Spinal Tap

October is the hardest month to keep up on my three movies a week schedule. Post-season baseball is a time consuming, and totally enjoyable, few weeks. This year may be the most dramatic yet. Scads of 9th inning rallies, the Red Sox swept, ARod's dominance, all great fun, even when there are four games on in a given day. Still, I managed to squeak in one movie, and what a movie it was.

In the summer, I wrote a post on Spinal Tap, the greatest rock movie this side of A Hard Day's Night. With great anticipation, I awaited the DVD release of Anvil: The Story of Anvil. From what I had read, Anvil, a heavy metal combo from the Great White North that has lingered decade after unsuccessful decade, was billed as a real life Spinal Tap. Could it live up to that praise?

Yup, absolutely. It is a movie of great humor and greater pathos, of ridiculous dream chasing and crushing disappointment. A must see, one of the best movies in years, directed by a long time Anvil fan with affection.

What's great about it are the surprises. Opening with a mid-80's performance in Japan, Anvil seemed to have had a short period of fame, although I can't recall that at all. I guess they're good; I can't tell, but a raft of metal heroes from bands like Metallica, Guns 'n' Roses and others, proclaim Anvil's influential status. Perhaps it's their lead guitarist using a dildo on the strings that put them over the top.

The two constant figures in the band, "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner, are the main characters in the film. The pair have been friends since their early teens and continue to pursue what they see as their rightful place in the rockin' world. "Lips" works a crappy job in a Canadian catering company and Reiner seems to do nothing for a living. He plays drums, he paints. Mid-movie we learn that Reiner's father was a jeweler, so maybe there's some money there.

The connection to Spinal Tap isn't just that both films have a Rob(b) Reiner in them. Anvil goes on a crappy tour of Europe, organized by a bleach blonde Slavic manager/fan who is terrible at her job. Remember the David St. Hubbins' manipulative girlfriend in Tap and you'll know what I mean. Playing horrible little clubs in Prague, getting stiffed on their fees, missing trains, all par for the course.

Kudlow and Reiner, now in their fifties, look and act the part of headbangers of the middle-aged variety. Long hair, leather clothes, the works. Lips goes off on emotional jags of fury, tears, laughter, Reiner is more stalwart. What's sneaky, and very funny to me, is that these guys are both old Jewish guys. To me, that part of the story is hysterical.

Actually, their lyrics are pretty humorous, especially one of their early works about young girls in schoolyards "stroking their beaves." Also, there's a song called "Thumb Hang," about the Spanish Inquisition, that they sing in a kosher deli. It plays exactly like the scene in Spinal Tap when Nigel and David try to recreate one of the first songs.
There's so much more - the devoted fans who know all the words to every Anvil tune, "Lips'" attempt at telemarketing, the big comeback. Anvil: The Story of Anvil - you have to watch it to believe it. Now, back to baseball.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Twins, Tigers and Why Baseball is Number 1

On back to back days, the Metrodome in Minneapolis hosted two high profile sports events. One was exciting, dramatic, memorable and not pre-fabricated. The other was Brett Favre facing off against the Packers.

You'll never convince me that Monday Night Football is something other than a pointless event that is significant only as a way to settle the weekend's football pool. Fine, Favre faced off against his old mates, the year after he spent on the Jets. He had a great game and did what, proved himself worthy to the Packers GM? Who gives a shit? Really. Favre's story is a cipher, fodder for the satire of ESPN commercials.

Yesterday, a genuine story emerged in a way that only baseball can tell. One month ago, the Detroit Tigers were in a commanding position in the AL Central Division, a full seven games ahead of the Minnesota Twins. Then, the Tigers swoon, the Twins go on a tear and, as if 162 games weren't enough, they needed one more contest to conclude the story.

Think of that. At game 162, the Twins and Tigers were deadlocked. Only in baseball. Hell, there's already a huge list of NFL teams that are out of the running already, after four weeks. That's nail biting, for sure.

The game itself was a highlight reel of home runs, exciting fielding, and mishaps. Scott Baker and Rick Porcello, young hurlers, were given the daunting task of carrying an entire year's burden on their fit shoulders and they pitched admirably. In no other sport can two youngsters, one a rookie, be in such a spot. Matt Sanchez of the Jets is being heralded for winning three games as a rookie, three regular season games. Baker and Porcello were handed the whole enchilada.

What is wonderful about baseball, and something that no other sport has, is the constant mini-dramas within the game. It's not just the elation of Orlando Cabrera's bottom of the 7th dinger, immediately trumped by Magglio Ordonez' top of the 8th clout. It's not even the bang-bang line drive double play that Cabrera pulled off in the top of the 9th.

It's this sequence. With the Tigers up 5-4 in the top of the 10th, Tiger left fielder Ryan Raburn shops for a pair of goat horns and finds a pair that fit. Instead of playing a Michael Cuddyer drive safely for a single, Raburn attempts the spectacular and, as he slides into the path of the ball, misplays it by a good foot. Cuddyer lumbers to third for a triple and Raburn, in closeup, tries desperately to vanish into thin air. The Twinkies tie things up soon after. To insure a victory, they insert the speedy Alexi Casilla in as a pinch runner. He's hugging third when Nick Punto flies to Raburn. Only one out, and a sac fly will score Casilla. Game, set, match, Twins win.

But wait! Casilla tags up as I would, tentatively, not sure where he should be when Raburn catches the ball. And so, he gets a late start. Ryan Raburn, we now know, was a closer in his school years and fires a bullet nailing Casilla at the plate. A double play, the game stays tied and, as he runs to the dugout, Raburn hands his horns to Casilla for a fitting. In one inning Raburn has gone from from Edsel to El Dorado.

Poor Casilla. He blew the game. Twins had it in the palms of their hands. Two innings later, here comes Casilla, with man on third and comes through with a single to right field. And that's that. Twins win, Casilla is the hero and will go down in Twins history as the man who won the division for them back in '09. And minutes ago, he would have been the guy who blew the division with his boneheaded baserunning.

Baseball gives you that. No other sport does. I highly advise everyone to watch the post-season, where anything can happen, and usually does. Unless, of course, you feel that Vikings-Rams game pulling at you. That game should be important. After all, it is meaningless.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Film Fest Judging

The advantage of being a dilettante is that friends know you have time to spare. When the Baseball Hall of Fame asked if I would be one of a three-person panel for their 4th Annual Baseball Film Festival, I was thrilled to be asked and happy to make a space in my day to watch 13 DVDs.

I'll focus on the three award winners

The Award for Baseball Excellence went to Signs of the Times, a story of the creation of umpires' hand signals. Though Hall of Fame ump Bill Klem claimed to invent the system of signs, the film shows that Dummy Hoy, a deaf-mute ballplayer from the turn of the last century, was instrumental in its inception. But wait! Historian Bill Deane discredits the whole Hoy tale. So, it's just another nice story, one of many in baseball lore. That's disappointing. But wait! There ARE newspaper articles from around 1900 that point to Hoy as the man behind the motions. Slyly, the makers of this movie have slipped a little mystery story into the mix, and I know I didn't see that coming. Well done.

The Award for Film Making Excellence was captured by El Play. There are scores of films on the struggles of Dominican kids seeking glory in the big dollar world of American pro baseball as their sole escape from the poverty of their country. What separates El Play is its focus on the tale of one boy, who has all it takes to sign a major league contract. This prospect even has his uncle on his side, his tio a scout/agent for the big league clubs. It's all presented optimistically, so when you get the news that the boy doesn't have any speed, uh oh, the feeling that things are going to go wrong makes you a little queasy. Then he gets cut! By his own uncle! It's really, really sad. Of course, a new hopeful emerges, and the cycle begins anew. This all takes place in 30 minutes. Excellent film, worth finding.

The Best Film Award went to a movie that may be the best baseball movie, and possibly the best documentary, I've ever seen. Lost Son of Havana tracks Luis Tiant's journey back to Cuba, the homeland he had to leave when he was a mere child of 21 and starting his pitching career in the US. When Castro forced emigres to come home or stay away forever, El Tiante made the decision to remain in the States and pursue his dream. Leaving all his family behind, Luis made it big. But he suffered.

This intensely personal story, of the plight of the people left behind and the internal struggle of Tiant balancing personal triumph on field with the pain of deserting his family for over 40 years will leave you in a puddle. The footage of early Tiant, in his debut at Yankee Stadium in 1964, and pitching for the Twins in the 1970 playoffs, is new to me, as was the coverage of Tiant's father, a great Negro League pitcher himself, throwing out a first pitch at Fenway Park with his son beaming from behind the mound, holding his pop's jacket as the old man delivers.

To be fair to the other entries, Lost Son is in another league. Produced by major Hollywood players The Farrelly Brothers, and narrated by Oscar winner Chris Cooper, it was aired on ESPN a few months back. Lost Son towers over the other films in the festival in big name talent and budget. But you know what, we've all seen major films that suck, and low budget flicks that pull at our emotions and win us over. That Lost Son is as good as The Buena Vista Social Club is a testament to its storytelling ability, not its power players. That El Play and Signs of the Times are wonderfully emotional tales made with as much passion, though less dollars, shows why they too, are holding their trophies.

El Play winners, Signs of the Times winners, fellow judge Rob Edelman, and me (on far right).

Friday, October 2, 2009

On Baseball Fans

I've been watching a bunch of baseball movies lately in my role as judge for the 3rd Annual Baseball Hall of Fame Film Festival. More on that later, as today I meet with my peers and we decide who gets the awards. One thing that have been on my mind lately.

As readers know I was in Baltimore a few weeks back for a couple of Red Sox games and had the distinct pleasure of being surrounded by BoSox rooters. One of the surprises in moving to Cooperstown was the preponderance of Boston fans. There are definitely more Red Sox backers than Mets followers up here, though it's probably a fairly equal split between Yankee and Red Sox fans.

What has been interesting to me is how Red Sox fans comport themselves. In all their years of failure and frustration, there was always a bitterness factor. They, and their team, were screwed over, whether by Harry Frazee selling Babe Ruth, or Bucky Dent growing muscles or Bill Buckner growing goat's horns. "If only that fuckin' _____ (insert culprit here) hadn't fucked up, we woulda won." They were always angry losers.

So, it's no surprise that when they finally one in 2004, the average Red Sox fan became an obnoxious, in your face, sore winner. The very idea that their one (now two) championships trumps the Yankees history of success is laughable. But, with anger, comes revenge. Red Sox fans are, in my view based on 600 or so major league games attended in every city in the country, the most aggressively annoying bunch around.

Of course, when Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens were implicated in the steroids hoo-ha, BoSoxers rejoiced. Now that Manny and Big Papi are equally nailed, the steroids issue is unimportant. Of course, only Yankee titles are tainted. The Red Sox world's championships are as pristine as ever.

Having spent 16+ years in Chicago, and many of those at Wrigley Field as a season ticket holder, I have had much experience with Cubs fans. They are quite unlike their Red Sox counterparts. Cubs fans wallow in their failure. I've never heard a Cub fan blame an outsider for their misfortune. Sure, Steve Bartman came under some heat and so did Leon Durham, but, for the most part Cubbie fans blame themselves. It's a "Why does this always happen to me?" outlook. Losing is something they have come to expect and, in their minds, deserve. Maybe they do.
I've found Cubs' fans to be so self-absorbed.

It's easy to delude yourself into believing that your players are the best. Cub fans excel at that. "Tuffy" Rhodes - can't miss. Steve Buechele - what an acquisiton. Jeff Blauser - the key to ultimate victory. Even their superstars are elevated. Having seen Ryne Sandberg day after day from 1987 until his retirement (well, both retirements) I can honestly say I never saw a high profile player who was less impressive. But for my compadres in section 106, he was a God. In his last game, a woman nearby was snapping pictures as Ryno came up to the plate. "Want to get that last shot of him flailing at a fastball?" I queried. She gave me a memorably scornful look.

When the Cubs win a World's Series, and they will, someday, I don't expect their fans to turn Red Sockian. It will be an intesely personal experience. I can see them now, reveling in a title and weeping to themselves, feeling like a burden has been lifted. No need to rub it in anyone's face, no need to lash out against the "losers." What would be the point? And how would that make the feeling any more sweet?

Maybe it's not even a Red Sox-Cubs issue. Maybe it's an East Coast v. Midwest way of conducting one's self. That could be it.

But, man, I really don't like those Red Sox fans!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Flowers for Levon?

Went to see a Levon Helm show on Saturday and a Steely Dan show broke out.

Actually, it wasn't that extreme. Levon brought his Midnight Ramble jamboree to The Stanley Theater in Utica, a beautifully renovated old playhouse in a decidedly unbeautiful city. J. and I have seen Levon a couple of times in the last few years, once at his studio in Woodstock, another at a mini-festival with Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, The Swell Season and others at SPAC. R. is a recent convert to The Band and wanted to go.

My cousin's boyfriend worked at the Ramble for years and tipped me off to the fact that Levon wasn't singing again. Several years back, Helm was down and out, a victim of bad finances and throat cancer. Miraculously, and heroically, he regained his voice and, though it was more frail than in times past, it was wonderfully emotive. A Grammy followed for Dirt Farmer and a new disc, Electric Dirt, carried the comeback further. I didn't want to tell R. and J. that Levon wouldn't warble, but I wasn't sure and it felt more prudent to wait and see.

A local DJ, looking like every other local DJ you've ever seen, pudgy, unwashed and pony tailed, came out to introduce the show. He announced Levon wouldn't sing, "but you knew that." I didn't think that was so well-known. Then he chastised any potential refund seekers. "There will be some assholes who'll want their money back." Really, that's what people are who bought tickets expecting a certain kind of show and now weren't going to get it? Look in the mirror, asswipe.

Now the big surprise to me was that Donald Fagan of Steely Dan was sitting in with the band. J. noticed it on the marquee as we entered the hall, but later I found out that it was announced a few days back. I'm not much of a Steely Dan fan, although I do love "Deacon Blues," and the presence of Fagan did nothing to neutralize the loss of Helm. Yet, there was an indisputable excitement to having another legend on the stage. It was very cool and the highlight of the show was Fagan's lead vocal on "King Harvest (Has Surely Come), with the intro sung by Amy Helm and Teresa Williams.

Teresa's husband, Larry Campbell, has emerged as the leader of these shindigs and he is a fabulous guitar/mandolin/violin player, but he doesn't have the presence to carry a show with a silent Levon. That' s not to say that the performance wasn't crowd-pleasing and electrifying. There were a ton of great musicians on that stage, including keyboardist Brian Mitchell, who should seek medication for his Dr. John fixation. Even mute, Levon stole the show, dancing a bit and clearly in charge of the group. He was clearly touched by the overwhelming support and love that emanated from the crowd. In recent years, Levon has benefited from the good will of his fans and entourage, who kept him afloat when he was down. Though I've heard that the Ramble has become more of a business than a family affair, and I've noticed that the show in Woodstock is more polished than it was 3 or 4 years ago, Levon seems pretty nice to those who've been part of his network. Except, of course, for Robbie Robertson. Levon thinks Robbie ripped him off.

The star of the show, in comic relief, was the spotlight guy. Don't know where they got this dude, but he was incapable of finding the soloist. When Campbell played a few mean choruses, spotlight guy was focused on Jim Weider. When Weider tore into a furious riff, Campbell was lit up. The best was when the spotlight would roam the stage in search of the proper musician. I think it was the same spotlight guy from the old Looney Tunes cartoons who would never hone in on Daffy.

So, will Levon get his voice back? Campbell indicated it was coming back, but who knows. My thoughts often turned to Flowers for Algernon. In that book, a retarded man becomes the beneficiary of a miracle cure and becomes a genius. Slowly, the medicine wears off and, by the end, he's back to where he started. Let's hope for a better end for Levon Helm. He's earned it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Return to the Original

Way back in 1984 I came up with a plan. With 26 Major League teams in existence, I could see every ballpark in about 10 years. I had it all laid out. Since I was living in New York, I could visit all the East Coast teams by car, then slowly fly my way out to further destinations. When we moved to Chicago in 1987, a whole new roster of stadia (or stadiums, if you prefer) were within a reasonable drive. Then, K. and I planned some efficient California trips, knocking off the 3 SoCal teams in one week, the two NoCal teams in a similar time frame.

Well, you all know about the best laid plans. Two new teams came on board and, more daunting, a wave of building ensued. Those 26 trips have grown into 45. Yes, that's right, I have been to 45 Major League ballparks, missing only Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. That burns my bottom, but when that crappy park bit the big league dust I wasn't quite sure I would cover the whole list. Bad thinking. I still have a few more to pop in on - St. Louis, San Diego, Washington and, I think, next year brings Minnesota and, after that Florida. I was actually complete once. Maybe it was after the 2000 season, before PNC and Miller Park opened. I don't remember.

Which brings me to this past weekend, when I revisited Camden Yards in Baltimore. The first of the retro parks, it has always been, to my hazy memory, the best. I saw two games during the Inaugural Season of 1992 and now, having been to so many of the other copycats, I had some basis of comparison.

It is still number one. While most new ballparks have attempted to have a city feel, Camden does it best. The warehouse, a historic building looming large on Eutaw St., seems like part of the Oriole Park, but it's not. By having this huge structure outside the yard, the stadium itself is allowed to have a smaller feel. That the corridors feel as much outside as in also permits the playing area to feel tinier. Most of the new parks give the aura of intimacy until you get there. They are all, by and large, large. Monstrously so. As to the organic feel of stadium and city, that is still a rarity. Some parks like that of the Rangers, are plopped in the middle of nowheresville. Others have had "neighborhoods" spring up around them. Camden Yards is truly part and parcel of the Inner Harbor area.

That the Red Sox hammered the Orioles was incidental, though sad. There was a time when sellouts were the norm at Camden Yards, but now that the Birds are fully and completely lousy, the stands are partially full, and worse this past weekend, crammed with obnoxious BoSox fans, as if there is any other kind.
One story. During an inning break, the scoreboard flashed the "Kiss Cam." Those on screen are supposed to smooch their significant other. You know the drill. The camera panned on a couple. The guy was deeply snoozing beneath his Red Sox cap. The girl, seeing their image on the big board, tried to wake him. No luck. In a few seconds there unfolded a story of a dysfunctional relationship. To the right of our protagonist, dreaming happily of the times when he thought the 2004 Champs were not a bunch of steroid-happy drug abusers, was a guy in an unmistakably black and orange Orioles cap. When he saw the girl was unable to arouse her partner, he stood up and spread his arms in an "I'm game" pose. Well my friends, she grabbed hold of this fellow and laid a passionate kiss on him that was laced with discomfort for the viewing audience. I guess she showed her boyfriend/husband! As to the lucky recipient of the scorned woman's spite kiss, it was a rare time when someone in an Orioles cap scored that night.