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!