Sunday, March 29, 2009

Four Ways of Dealing with the Death of John Lennon

Soon after John Lennon was gunned down in front of the Dakota on December 8, 1980, songs dealing with the loss began to emerge. The first round were exploitative, no-talents attempting to get into the market quickly in the hopes of a fast buck. It was a morbid mirror-image of 1964 novelties like, "We Love You Beatles," lightweight fare designed to pull some dough from rabid Beatlemaniacs. Those tunes, were joyful knockoffs. Dead Lennon songs like "Dearest John," cut by a high school friend's step-brother-in-law, were the equivalent of rifling through a corpse's pockets as it sits in its casket.

It took higher quality artists time to digest this, and the songs they produced reflect their own styles as much as John Lennon's.
First out of the chute in the first half of 1981 was George Harrison's "All Those Years Ago." Hailed as the first Beatles reunion, and foreshadowing the Anthology get together 15 years later, ATYA was in the vein of George's shabbiest work. In 1973, George had written "Try Some Buy Some" for Ronnie Spector. He reclaimed the song and, rather than recut the whole thing, he erased Ronnie and dubbed his vocals in a setting unsuited for his range. Originally a knockoff for Ringo, Harrison quickly pulled the song back and reworked it to fit the Lennon subject. With references to "All You Need is Love" and "Imagine," it is closer to the lyrical vapidity of the nobodies who attempted their tributes in the immediate wake of Lennon's death. For someone so intimately involved with John for over two decades, ATYA is oddly impersonal. It is a memorable song, though not great, and the addition of Ringo on drums and Paul and Linda McCartney on backing vocals (dubbed) makes it of historical value. The bubbly happy sound of the record is jarringly off considering the topic. Maybe that's why it sticks.

Elton John had courted John Lennon through the mid-70's, becoming the spur that kicked Lennon into his only pre-death number one solo work "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night." In return, Lennon made his legendary appearance at Madison Square Garden with Elton mid-November of 1974. Elton worshipped Lennon, and his entry in the mourning song category appeared on Jump Up!. Again writing with former partner Bernie Taupin, "Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny)" matches a melodramatic Elton, the Elton of "Candle in the Wind," with a new sense of Lennon. While most writers were dealing with the obvious tragedy, Elton asks if johnny can come out to play, reminding himself and the listeners of the zany Lennon, the cut-up. The gardener imagery is a bit much though.
Paul McCartney's first reaction to John Lennon's murder was a study in shock and callousness. "It's a drag" he intoned without inflection. That wasn't how he really felt, though, and in "Here Today" Macca delves into a deeply felt and endlessly complicated relationship with his former partner. In the span of 2 1/2 minutes, the two laugh together, cry together and, at times, are so different as John mocks Paul. Such complex emotions set in one of McCartney's most beautiful and affecting melodies. After Harrison's death, McCartney played "Here Today" and "Something" (on ukulele) for his lost friends. "Here Today" still packed a wallop and if there wasn't a lump in your throat then you weren't listening.
The last giant to chime in was Paul Simon. Not close to Lennon by any means, Simon's "The Late Great Johnny Ace" is proto-typical Simon, thoughtful and thought provoking, exploring both the loss of a man like John Lennon, the influence of pop music on the young and old Paul Simon and the continuing early deaths of key figures in the pantheon of the rock era. Ranging from a nod to doo-wop to mid-60's London to the present, the song ends with a haunting Philip Glass piece that stops in its tracks, leaving the listener lost, hanging at the edge of an abyss. This, more than anything, captures the emotion of losing John Lennon, 40 years old, on the eve of the Reagan Revolution, a voice that was sorely needed and devastatingly taken.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Take the militant politics of The Clash, add Elvis Costello's melody writing and top with the musical pyrotechnics of The Who and what do you have? The Jam, of course, the hands down best band of the late '70's-early '80's. Unapologetically English, The Jam never broke through in the States like The Clash, or even Elvis. An infamous tour as opener for Blue Oyster Cult ended any real attempts at reaching out to an American audience. By the time MTV rolled along, The Jam were on their last legs, playing the soul-funk sound that leader Paul Weller would enter fully in his Style Council period. The video for "The Bitterest Pill" is fun, I'll give them that.

Weller, songwriter and guitarist, led the group with style and guts, pushing through serious workingman, anti-establishment politics with skilled playing, and the rhythm section of Bruce Foxton on bass and Rick Buckler on drums rival any trio. Yeah, I'm talking to you Zeppelin!

Pulling 1980's Sound Affects from the stacks today I was jolted back to the consistent brilliance of the band. Each song on the LP is magnificent, a difficult achievement at best. Even Sgt. Pepper had the woefully sucky "She's Leaving Home (to be fair, the mono version is far superior). Preceded by a few months by the explosive single "Going Underground," Sound Affects starts with a ripped off "Taxman" bassline but proceeds to distinguish itself on its own merits. "That's Entertainment," a signature tune for the band and Weller catches the drab and depressing Britain with slices of tawdry daily life, wrapped in an unforgettably catchy tune radiantly strummed on acoustic guitar. The evils of finance, and the resulting greed and class divisions get their due in songs like "Pretty Green" and "Man in the Corner Shop." While I did love The Style Council and there political danceability, Weller never combined message and music as well as he does on this LP.
For some of you, this is old news. For many, The Jam are a still undiscovered pleasure. Go forth and discover, now!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Good Riddance Curt Schilling

On the day that Curt Schilling says so long, a few reflections on the "character" of this great.

I willingly concede the glory of his bloody sock moment. It has everything that makes a legend - great performance, pushing through injury and a nice bit of memorabilia to prove that it happened.

It is also the pinnacle of a career that, without it, wouldn't even merit the mention of future Hall of Fame status. Even with it, no one should seriously consider Schilling Hall worthy, not with 216 wins. No way. But people love Curt and I always wondered why.

Schilling is a fantastic "me-first" guy posing as a team guy interested in the history of the game. His most memorable moments outside stained hosiery have all come at the bashing or embarrassing of teammates and colleagues.

1983 - The Phillies are improbable NL champs and make it to the World Series. Mitch Williams, the bullpen ace who was a key contributor to their run had, let's say, some difficulty with control in the Fall Classic. So there was Schilling, rooting on and supporting his fellow Phil, right? Wrong. Curt proceeds to draw all attention to himself, his nervousness, at the sight of "Wild Thing" on the mound, by hiding his head under a towel. The Phillies were pissed off at Curt for his behavior and lack of team feeling. Of course, Curt backtracked, but it was an image that remained with him. Jim Eisenreich, speaking over a decade later, still shook his head at how Schilling acted when the team needed him most.

Schilling, whose $8 million last year contract would have been impossible without the long work of the Players Association has long spoken against the union and individual players, particularly on the steroids issue. As to Bonds and McGwire, Curt, in a true anti-American way, suggested they were obviously guilty as they did not sue the Jose Canseco's of the world when charges were levelled against them. Guilty! Instead of protecting the privacy that was assured the players when they entered into drug testing, privacy which was violated when A-Rod's name was leaked, Schilling wanted all 104 names released to the public. A team player to the end. If trampling on the rights of his colleagues meant more air time for Schilling, that was a price he was willing to have them suffer.

So, see ya, Curt. You were a pretty good pitcher, with a few excellent years, and a couple of memorable moments. You made the Hall of Fame in your mind, coupling amazing pitching with stellar integrity. But the rest of us live out here, in the real world. Have a nice retirement.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Changing My Life

As readers have noticed, I have not been that motivated to write about politics lately. I did create the Jim Cramer bashing world we now live in (check the timeline), but that was more market experience-driven than politically motivated.

The weighty item on my mind lately has been why multi-record sets sometimes have Side 1 backed with, say Side 6. I just bought Leon Russell's Leon Live, a 3 record set that I snagged for two bucks and it has Side 1, Side 6, then Side 2, Side 5, ending with Side 3, Side 4. It is one of the obvious things that has not registered for my entire life. It was a continual mystery, but now I got it. Remember when you could stack your albums on a spindle that would drop the next record when the current one played out? Well, with the kind of numeration of Leon Live, you could hear sides 1, 2 and 3 and the flip the whole pile upside down to continue with 4,5 and 6. Therefore, 100 minutes of continual Russell-izing!

So those are the kinds of thoughts I have been obsessed with, and then something popped into my mind. Before we moved to Cooperstown, I was very resentful of the lives I supported. Sure, it was great to be able to allow my family to do whatever they fancied with their time, but what about me? I never had time to do the things I wanted to. So, isn't that everyone's lot in life? Probably, but I wasn't ready to accept it. Knowing that legendary White Sox and Browns owner Bill Veeck got very little sleep, I researched how to train one's self to not sleep. Pretty pathetic, I must say, but I was dead serious about it. If the somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari could make use of his nocturnal time, why couldn't I?

End result is we moved, I stopped working full time and now am on the cusp of a second book and working on other writing projects as well. My time is my own, money is put in proper perspective and all is well with the world.

And, if I want to spend 100 minutes listening to Leon Russell, I can. There's no one and no thing stopping me.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why I Listen to Terrible Celebrity Albums

Non-singers cutting records is not a new subject. There are countless books and articles that lampoon the efforts of wannabe musicians. "Golden Throats" is the preferred nomenclature for this genre. On the whole, all joking is deserved. The rare brilliance of a Zooey Deschanel as part of She & Him is startling.

But there's more to it than just the standard crappy singing. Think about it. Whether through sheer megalomania or humble faith in their abilities (OK, it's always sheer megalomania), a performer exposes himself (or herself) in a new medium in which they have no grounding. It takes balls and it has the joys and discomforts of watching your kid play the clarinet at the Middle School band concert.

I'd like to focus on one entry in the vast canon of misplaced musical meanderings.

Silverthroat: Bill Cosby Sings
By 1967, Bill Cosby had already revolutionized stand up comedy and television by 1967 when he laid down his vocals for this LP. He reaches into the Jimmy Reed catalog, and it's clear why. Reed has the cool, laid back sound of a true bluesman and his records are among my favorites. So Cos gives "Bright Lights Big City," "Hush Hush" and "Baby, What You Want Me to Do" a whack and it's not a bad fit for Cosby's muted, tentative singing. But where Reed is totally cool in his delivery, ol' Bill is timid. Same idea, different execution.
Still, it works fairly well. The band is a cracker jack rhythm group and they are worth listening to. Cosby's vocals are subdued and mixed fairly low. That's a common occurrence in celeb discs. It shows, quite audibly, the lack of confidence they, and their producers have, in the ability of the vocalist to stand alone, front and center. It's only when Cosby is deliberately funny that he bursts forth. "Little Ole Man," which is Stevie Wonder's "Uptight" with a different script, has Cosby talking to a man, presumably little and old, who gets run over by a train and trampled by elephants day after day at the same time. Why doesn't he move? Well, he just can't believe it's really happening! Impeccable logic. Side 2 closes with "A Place in the Sun," which Stevie Wonder also covered. Cosby is so hidden that he can only be faintly heard from what I imagine is at the bottom of a very deep well.

I do like this record. In listening to celebrity outings, it's important, at least to me, to hear the whole album. That's where the treasures are to be had. What I found most remarkable is that it made the Top 20 on Billboard's Pop Album chart. That, if nothing else, shows how big Bill Cosby was circa 1967.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Unpublished excerpt from "When Baseball Met Hollywood"

Two years ago I worked on a proposed book on the marriage of West Coast baseball and Hollywood. Whether this work will ever see the light of day via the regular publishing process is a mystery. But why let it sit forlornly on my computer. I will run pieces sporadically. Enjoy!

High Man on the Totem Pole

Everyone knows this most famous of plot devices. There’s a mixed group representing all classes of society who find themselves together and have to find a way to co-exist. No, not Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Not Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away. Not even Cinderella. Of course, it’s Gilligan’s Island. In this season three entry, we have two Dodger cameos that would be out of place anywhere but the deserted tropical paradise where the crew and passengers of the S. S. Minnow dwell.

The standard opening buffoonery begins when the Skipper and Gilligan, lost as usual and in a struggle with entangling vines that gives us an unpleasant glimpse of the Skipper’s bulging white midriff, find themselves face to face with a totem pole. This frightening visage sends the two clowns into a tizzy. As they scan the pole, eyes slowly glancing upward, they see, to their surprise, the splitting image of the first mate, a Gilligan-head wearing, it seems, a crown made up of a bent pan flute.

After the theme song, which despite great resistance remains catchy, the Professor helps the hapless duo clear brush. Knowing all, the Prof quickly realizes this is a totem pole of the Kupakai, a native tribe of the area’s islands. Oh, and by the way, they are a vicious tribe of headhunters. Worrying that his position at the top of the pole may be an advertisement for his own beheading, Gilligan stats to wonder if maybe he himself has headhunter heritage.

The Skipper holds a briefing for the Howells, Ginger and Mary Ann. The Howells, perhaps wondering why they took some tourist boat rather than their own yacht for a leisurely cruise, dismiss Gilligan’s idea that he has a violent native. The glamorous Ginger, played by former Bo Belinsky squeeze Tina Louise, also has her doubts, although not as many doubts as cocktail dresses that she brought on the three hour journey. Sweet Mary Ann testifies to Gilligan’s lovable nature.

A relaxing drive through the jungle in a peddle-powered bamboo taxi brings Gilligan and the Howells to the foot of the totem pole. As the Howells drive Gilligan into a frenzy with their incessant mentioning of the word “head”, Gilligan backs into the pole, where the Howells come face to face with his face. Later, as Gilligan stares transfixed by his likeness, Ginger slinks up in an attempt to distract the poor boy. It doesn’t work. Despite Ginger’s curvaceous body and sexually aggressive actions, Gilligan is undeterred from his fixation. He either is truly of headhunter descent, or gay.

The Skipper, Gilligan’s dearest friend, has another idea. If the redheaded bombshell had no affect on his Little Buddy, he knows what will. Is it two red headed bombshells? No, it’s a blonde; a blonde painted boomerang. Really. The Skipper made a yellow boomerang with red stripes and actually felt that would succeed where Ginger could not. Makes you wonder about where the Skipper is coming from. Gilligan is uninterested until he realizes that perhaps natives use them in their hunts. The headhunter manqué throws the boomerang and on its return pins the Skipper by the neck to the totem pole. Perhaps, Gilligan does have decapitation in his blood.

Hysterical reports from Mary Ann inform the Skipper and Professor that Gilligan was seen wild-eyed and wielding an axe. The two men run towards the sound of chopping, where Gilligan is found hacking his doppelganger off the pole. His first attempt at real headhunting forces the bean pole Gilligan to leave the camp, but when the Professor offers his own head to chopping block, Gilligan can’t cut it. He’s cured - case closed. Except, three real Kupakai find the dislodged wooden noggin and swear that the perpetrator of this heresy will die. Here are our Dodgers under feathery headdresses and behind war paint. After being swept by the Orioles in the 1966 World Series, the two Dodgers need to be in disguise. 1965 Rookie of the Year Jm Lefebvre plays Headhunter 1. Al “The Bull” Ferrara plays Headhunter 2. When his agent was asked if Ferrara was up to the role of #2, he said, “Only if he doesn’t have to catch anything.”

Lefebvre provides some exposition. The Gilligan head is in reality “Mashuka, great king. Greatest headhunter of all.” Ferrara, back to the camera, replies: “Also, very angry-looking.” Lefebvre replaces the Mashuka head at the top of the pole. Gilligan, and separately the Professor and Skipper, head back to the post to replace the head. On their way, they see the trio of natives furiously headed to the lagoon to do some chopping of white people heads, Lefebvre wielding a very long, very fake sword. The men split up to warn their shipmates, with Gilligan in charge of informing the girls. The girls are neck deep in a mud bath, which of course makes Gilligan think he is too late to save them. He really is a dope- even when they talk to him he’s not sure how their disembodied heads manage speech.

Meanwhile. Lefebvre and Ferrara manhandle the Howells, who try to bribe their way out of the problem. Ferrara stirs the pot for Howell soup as the millionaires, in their third outfits of the day, are tethered to a tree. Lefebvre hones his sword. Now, it’s already taken way to long for the obvious answer to the problem at hand. Gilligan, or at least his face, is clearly important in Kupakai culture. His power can be used to help the bedeviled captives. Finally the Professor pieces it together. It’s hard to know how the Professor would know that the man on the pole is a king, but he does. Adorning a spare pan flute headband, Gilligan learns the Kupakai words for free the prisoners and is sent off.

First, the Skipper stumbles into the scene to buy time. As the Dodgers, who seem a bit potbellied for professional athletes, tie the portly helmsman, Gilligan finally gets his lines right, and after checking himself out in the mirror, heads out to save the day. While he is in a narcissistic daze, the tribesmen come to take the girls and Professor. Gilligan arrives on the scene and as the Professor and Skipper wriggle their way out of the vines that attach them to the totem pole, the wooden Mashuka falls into the false Mashuka’s hands. Fumbling as he climbs in an attempt to replace the fallen cranium, Gilligan drops the great chief’s skull and accidentally becomes the living incarnation of the great king. The trio of savages kneels in prayer chanting “Simpa Mashuka.” Kinda sounds like “simply Mashugga,” but that would be a Yiddish prayer.

Gilligan attempts to speak Kupakai. The head headhunter questions him, in English, as to why he doesn’t speak real Kupakai. Menacingly the headhunters slowly move forward, but Gilligan, in a mad scramble falls to the sand and pushes the head out into plain view. The Kupakai panic, Ferrara yelling, “We killed Burda Mashuka.” Aided by sped up film, the Dodgers quickly flee, as if they couldn’t wait to get out of there. Can’t blame them.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Interminable Watchmen

When the butt of the main female character is the best part of a movie, you know you're in trouble. Watchmen is so bad, although not bad in the way Forrest Gump is bad and drives me to serious anger. It commits the worst sin of all - it is boring as hell.

I won't go through it scene by scene, God knows I don't want to relive it in my mind. I will give it one highlight. The second set piece is quite wonderful. It shows how the superhero class of the mid-40's devolves into dysfunctional set of today, if by today you mean 1985, which I do.

Some points of interest

Dr. Manhattan, the all-seeing blue superhero who is something of the centerpiece of the film, is almost always naked. For a being of such power, he is always limp. Go figure.

All the characters seem disconnected. One is really supposed to have problems relating to humanity, but they all are travelling in their own orbit. It makes for a very disjointed experience.
The plot is not. There's a bit about the aging of superheroes and their place in contemporary society, if by contemporary you mean 1985, which I do. Another bit is that somehow Richard Nixon has served four terms. Nuclear war between the USA and USSR is on the horizon. There's a trip to Mars. A mess, just a mess.
Only one character's origin is explained. That all the others seemed to come by their powers naturally is, I don't know, a given. Rorschach presents a pivotal moment in his life, but he was batshit crazy before then. That's made pretty clear.

Watchmen suffers from taking itself oh so seriously. As a result, it is leaden. I did laugh at some of the gore, that was humorous, but as far as genuine humor goes, there is none. It's almost a given that the best graphic novels turned movies have a solid dose of humor (Sin City, for example).

At one point, Silk Spectre (she of the great butt) says, "nothing ever ends." All I could think was, "yeah, like this movie."

Walking past the posters of upcoming movies, I mentioned to my kids that even Hannah Montana will be better than Watchmen. They thought I was kidding.

Speaking of watches, where can I go to get my three hours of time back?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Later that day...

Last night, The Daily Show ripped into the sham that is CNBC. Great clips of Cramer's "good calls" like being all in the market with the Dow at 12,000, and buying Bank of America. Check out the clip at:

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The High Priest of the Moronic Market

Let's get it straight - capitalism, or the semblance of it we "enjoy" in the United States, is a myth. The government has been inextricably involved in the quasi-free market for decades. The last time we came close to an unfettered laissez-faire policy was at the turn of the 20th century, when capitalism gave us unbelievable squalor in tenements and a pretty good chance that you would find an ear in your hamburger meat.

That the stock market is the true indicator of our economic health is equally bogus. As someone who traded in options pits for 20 years, I can assure you that markets are manipulated every day, from small time market makers like myself, to previously powerful firms who would, in the "best interests of their customers," force the market to move adversely to a price where the company's trading desk could take the bulk of the other side of their customer's order, and not to the client's benefit, I can assure you.

I thoroughly enjoy the Obama administration going mano a mano with media stars like Rush Limbaugh and Jim Cramer. While some commentators say it is unseemly for the President to be punching down at its critics, to me it is more like a little kid knocking over an anthill. It's hysterical to watch the ants panic and skitter around until they get their bearings. In no way does it topple the dominant position of the kid.

Cramer is ridiculous. He has come out the last few days with the idea that Obama's policies are causing the single largest destruction of wealth in this nation's history. Cramer is a figment of his own making. He pumped up this economy and market all the way from 14,000 on the Dow to 9,000. Then, at 9,000 he loudly proclaimed "disaster" and told his viewers to bail. The market went down another 1,000 points and he was hailed as a visionary. "Best call I ever made," he boasted. How about the losses piled on by the people who followed you all the way down. As I say, ridiculous.
Now, Cramer says Obama must slow down and keep his eye on market quotes on Bloomberg because the stock market must be heeded. It tells the truth. Really? The constant chasing of share value is never spoken of when causes of the market decline are proffered. CEO's pumping up their stocks based on fraudulent earnings and cooked books - remember Enron, Worldcom, etc.? - were keeping an eye on the market constantly. The market rules were the blueprints from which they built their houses of cards. Now Cramer is advising Obama to do something, or not do something, based on the daily market returns. Feeding the dumb beast that is the market is not the same as a long term strategy for economic rebuilding.

Beware the false prophets, or, at least, check their scorecard. You'll find they are consistently wrong. And when you come to that discovery, you can pay them the attention they deserve. It's that quick look you give when you see a crazy person on the street incoherently talking to himself. In this case, the street you're walking on is Wall Street.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Lady Sings - I Boo

Having an autistic son requires flexibility and creativity. You wouldn't expect a High School Senior to need to be read aloud to, but that's part of our routine. It helps his comprehension to read slowly, and take notes. There's a natural limit to which books we can read. Reading Moby Dick ten pages at a time out loud - it's not going to happen. 200 pages, that's the max. It's also important that the chosen book has been made into a movie. The visual helps him understand better.

This year one of our books had to be a biography/autobiography. Scouring my shelves, I found one that fit all the criteria - Lady Sings the Blues. Though, 18 years old, my son is in no way wise to the adult world, so Billie Holiday's searing life story of poverty, racism, rape, drugs, imprisonment and dysfunctional relationships was lost on the boy. However, whatever he gets, he gets. That's my attitude.

I had never seen the movie. There are a few seminal flicks from '72 that I've missed - LSTB, Sounder and Cabaret. I was looking forward to it. Plus, Diana Ross was nominated for Best Actress.

It's rare that the actor in a biopic resembles their subject. But in Holiday's story, her physical appearance is a crucial plot point. Billie, at 13, had the voluptuous figure of a full-grown woman. This lead to some of her problems - rape, prostitution. Nearing 30, Diana Ross has the body of a 13 year old boy.

It would be unfair to expect Ross to sound like Holiday. Billie was a singular talent and her style is impossible to match. At times, Ross reaches for an impersonation, but other times one expects her to break out into "Baby Love." As to her "best actress" kudos, Ross' over the top performance, from histrionic fits to eye rolling stupor is hard to watch.

Shining through it all and stealing every scene he's in is Richard Pryor. Totally natural, and with characteristic humor, Pryor is a joy to watch. Holiday's book is replete with real people - Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Lester young, et al. But in the movie, Pryor doesn't even get a fake name. He is "Piano Man" and nothing else. Every character refers to him as such, and after a while it is strange. Doesn't anybody know his name? SPOILER ALERT. Actually, nothing can spoil this scene of rottenness. When Pryor gets beaten to death, complete with slo-mo footage, Ross is at her worst. Her high pitched, squeaky mewling "Piano Man don't die" is laughable.

Lady Sings the Blues is a harrowing account of struggle and triumph. It's made for the movies and Holiday presents a story that is in little need of alteration. Holiday pulls no punches about her life and herself, and though she may have been destructively naive, Billie was one tough broad. That may be the most unforgivable part of Ross' portrayal. Her Billie Holiday is weak and dependent, nothing like the real item.

But as Holiday herself once sang, "Forget If You Can." I'll try. God knows, I'll try.