Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kanye and Me

“Why do you like Kanye so much?” Karen asked during another listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, this time in the Kia on the way to see Tron:Legacy.

It’s a good question. We are not kindred spirits and I don’t pretend to understand what life is like for a rich black guy, or a very famous guy, or a damn rich guy. I wouldn’t say Kanye speaks to me, but when he speaks at me, I listen.

West’s rhymes never fail to make me laugh. Best lines (from “Gold Digger”):

She was suppose to buy your shorty TYCO with your money
She went to the doctor got lypo with your money
She walking around looking like Michael with your money
Should of got that insured got GEICO for your money.
That piece of lyrical genius is, in itself, enough to make me a lifelong fan, but there’s more. Kanye is the ultimate popmeister, a master at spinning hooks that stab deeply and, coupled with brilliant wordplay, become as automatically quotable as the most memorable lines of your favorite movies and songs. When Robbie came home with a great report card last week, I burst into “Champion” (“This is the story of a champion”) when I saw his top grades. Kanye’s new songs feel old right away. That’s a good thing. With one listen, they are stuck in my brain – instant classics. The only other artist who pulls this off with regularity is Bruce Springsteen.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, after two spins, deeply ingrained. Who else would reach back for that King Crimson beauty, “21st Century Schizoid Man” and take it for a ride in “Monster.” (By the way, Nicki Minaj steals the show; she’s at least five people on this track. Now I have to get her album.) “Runaway” pushes its way onto the list of best songs of the century in its catchiness and depth. Kanye’s turn at Maoist self-criticism is scorching, but, you damn well know he’s pleased with himself for being such a righteous asshole.

Let's have a toast for the douchebags
Let's have a toast for the assholes

We’ve all been there, right, and wished the world would recognize our dickishness as a positive. Well, I’ve been there. Right on Mr. West. And making Black Sabbath’s “Ironman” his own on “Hell of a Life”? Again, who else does this so effortlessly?

Why do I like Kanye? His melodies are indelible, timeless, his patter hysterical and soul baring. And he incorporates all the good bits that came before him, from any genre that fits. Isn’t that what all the true greats have done, from Dylan and The Beatles forward?

That’s why I like Kanye so much.

Monday, December 6, 2010

In Celebration of the Plantation Owners

Back in the good ol' days, when the working scum knew their places, the great barons of industry were legend. Carnegie, Ford - they made America, not the bohunks, Micks, Sheenys and coloreds who toiled in the factory. Right? That's how it was written in all the textbooks.

Baseball was like that too. The great helmsmen in the dugout - McGraw and Mack - it was they who made the game great. Umpires like Klem WERE the game on the field, their martial manner giving the game its character. Where would the game have been without the steely leadership of Kenesaw Mountain Landis? (Integrated, for sure, since he was a racist bastard). Sure, a Ruth or a Cobb broke out of the fold, but the baseball history books were mostly about the cattlemen, not the cattle. Spalding, now there was a man!

That was before Marvin Miller. Before Miller, the authoritarian figures were more important than the players. What Miller made all of us realize is that the players own the game. The team names, the uniforms, the stadiums are the property of the moguls; the ballplayers ARE the game. Steinbrenner was a great owner? Gabe Paul was a genius team builder? Sure. Just check the Yankees between 1973-5. Add Reggie Jackson in 1977 and, voila, the Yanks are champs again. Now, who gets credit for that? Only a moron would give the kudos to King George instead of Jackson.

The Hall of Fame has voted in numerous executives, managers, umpires and owners over the years, but those men were mostly enshrined in bygone days. Yet, in recent elections, there has been a return to the glorification of the men upstairs, a bowing down to the business interests only exceeded in the halls of Congress. Bowie Kuhn? Are you kidding? Kuhn's son made a heartfelt Induction speech on behalf of his dead father, citing all the progress baseball made during the Kuhn era. Never before had baseball experienced such a growth in popularity, things like that. What was forgotten was that Kuhn FOUGHT that progress with every breath of his being. Miller paved that way.

Does Marvin Miller belong the Hall? I don't know. I really don't care. What Miller did is beyond plaque-worthy. He is the Abe Lincoln of the diamond. Honest Abe didn't need a sign on the wall patting him on the back for freeing the slaves. Every one knew what he'd done, and some hated him for it.

But Pat Gillick? Give me a break. Who's next Walt Jocketty? And this resurgence in enshrining money men and wheeler-dealers would make Larry Summers proud.

"Many years ago those who control the Hall decided to rewrite history instead of recording it," the 93-year-old Miller said today upon receiving his latest rejection from Cooperstown. "The aim was to eradicate the history of the tremendous impact of the players' union on the progress and development of the game as a competitive sport, as entertainment, and as an industry."

That is the true crime perpetrated by the voters today, the reemergence of the corporate over the men who created the memories we all love.

Get out your shackles and buggy whips folks, they're back in style.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"It's Not Personal, Sonny. It's Strictly Business"

Much has been written about the Derek Jeter situation. I was talking to my brother-in-law last week about it, and I brought up some relevant and relatively obscure illustrative points. One, that I love, is Tom Seaver's incredulity at ownership's shock that players, the most competitive people on Earth, were equally fierce at the bargaining table. I also made it clear that fans have convinced themselves, wrongly, that somehow Jeter is "different" than the rest. Pleased with my unique insight, I opened The New York Times to read some of these same points. So, forgive me if you've already heard some of what you read below.

The Yankees initial offer is, by any reasonable accounts, more than generous and by no means am I pro-management. Fifteen million dollars per year, for three years, already includes the Yankee premium that we all recognize must be there. Jeter's value to the Bombers is more than his value to any other team in baseball. Even Derek must know that. Coming off a bad year, at an advanced age - who else will pay that much?

Just look westward. The Rockies signed the best YOUNG shortstop to a 7-year, $134 million dollar deal. If Troy Tulowitzki is valued (I won't say worth) at $19 million per year, how can Jeter, ten years older, be priced at even $15 mil?

For a slob like me, and most fans, it's easy to say "$15 million is a shitload of money. How can he be pissed off about that?" For Derek, it's a 25% cut in pay and, getting back to Tom Terrific's point, for athletes already super-sensitive to all signs of "disrespect," it is a slap in the face. That both sides are upset, publicly, is regrettable. The new era Steinbrenners are most likely going to be as despicable as younger George was, before he was canonized in his dementia. Jeter's agent, Casey Close, is married to Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, so his judgment on what is "fair and balanced" is already questionable.

An idea being floated about is that if King George were alive this never would have happened. Really. How many fans recall the unceremonious dumping of Reggie Jackson after the 1981 season? Granted Jackson was no Jeter in terms of dignity or Yankee service, but Jeter is no Jackson in the realm of publicity and power. Jax' initial year with the Angels, when he led the AL in homers (and strikeouts), embarrassed the hell out of George, but letting him head to Cali was wise. Beginning in '83, Reggie began a rapid descent. He was 35 years old when the New Yorkers let him go.

Will anyone else offer Jeter more to lure him from the Bronx? No way, no how. Long gone are the days when the Yankees would sign Luis Tiant just to stick it to the Red Sox.
Even signing Johnny Damon for the same spiteful purposes seems like eons ago. The Red Sox never had the same meanness of character, or balls, to do to the Yankees as the Yanks did to them, but in these Theo Epstein times, they wouldn't do it because it makes no sense. And Jeter wouldn't keep his pristine reputation, or national endorsements, if he's the 2012 starting shortstop for the Royals.

Ever think of how much Derek Jeter and Eminem share? Both raised in Michigan, both the biggest stars of the last decade, both diddled Mariah Carey. But does Jeter have a Mathers-like recovery in store? Probably not, but whether he has a comeback from his dismal season or not, he will be in pinstripes, to the joy of Yankees fans who'll go crazy as they once again hear Bob Sheppard announce his "De-rek Jee-tuh" as he steps to the plate.

Have no doubt though, that this team's best days are behind it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Doris Troy

The single most anticipated remaster (for me anyway) in the great Apple Records remaster project was Doris Troy's self-titled 1970 LP. The soulful singer was the subject of George Harrison's admiration and The Quiet Beatle, at the beginning of the year that loudly inaugurated his new found, post-breakup stature with the release of All Things Must Pass, produced her sole Apple album.

On a joyful, spiritual record, Doris ("Mama Soul"), knocks the shit out of originals and covers. Highlight: Buffalo Springfield's "Special Care" with Stephen Stills guesting. Each tune is a heart-grabber, foot-stomper or soul-searcher. Troy, best known for her original take of "Just One Look," comes scorching out of the speakers, whether in loose jams a la "Give Me Back My Dynamite," or tight, churchy numbers like "Hurry."

I've read that the record suffers from period "heaviness." Nah. George plays with happy elan (no more so than on the bonus version of "Get Back"), Eric Clapton adds typical tasteful flourishes and Ringo pounds away quite brilliantly. It is of its time for sure - think Delaney & Bonnie or Derek and the Dominoes - but it is timeless.

Doris Troy may be my favorite album of the year. Not bad for a 30 year old record!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Killer Inside Him (Not Me)

Back in '98, I had to break into a new trading pit on the floor of The Chicago Board Options Exchange. Except for a failed one year of trading off-floor, I had been in the SPX (S & P 500) options pit since 1987. Our firm, Arbitrade, had had no success in the NDX (Nasdaq 100) crowd, but I wasn't worried about my prospects. Nearly every broker on the CBOE floor knew me, most liked me, and the traders in the pit were mostly young guys who I'd befriended when they were starting out as clerks.

The pit was tyrannically run by Susquehanna Trading, but it was with the main broker in the crowd that I needed to connect. He had a rough reputation: Vietnam vet, violent temper, and well-armed, carrying a pistol to the floor every day in his briefcase. A challenge? Maybe, but I earned his grudging respect with humor and the ability to do The New York Times' crossword as quickly as he could.

We were talking about books one day, an interest that the other traders in the pit didn't share.

"Have you ever read Jim Thompson?" he asked.

"Only The Grifters." I'd read the novel after seeing the film version and liked it very much. It was even darker and more disturbing than the John Cusack-Annette Bening-Anjelica Huston take, which was harrowing in its own right.

The next day he brought in a stack of nine paperbacks. If I'm interested in a recommendation, I don't like to borrow. I'm a proud possessor of books. They live on and my library is referred to daily. But I took them. Remember, he did have a gun in his briefcase.

I read them all in a few weeks. Each one was fucked up, violent, but fun, in a sick sick sick way. None was more repulsive and gripping than The Killer Inside Me. The story of psycho lawman Lou Ford left its mark on me. Here's an example why: "And I hit her in the guts as hard as I could. My fist went back against her spine." Those two sentences really turned my stomach and, oddly, I've repeated that scene often. Think about it. Those are two remarkably evocative lines of prose. Hard to shake.

So, when I sat down to watch this year's movie version starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, I was scared. If the filmmakers backed off the brutality and kinkiness of the novel, then it would suck. If they didn't, it might make me puke.

They didn't. It was brutal, vile, hard to take. And I knew what was coming! Extremely true to Thompson, The Killer Inside Me is difficult to watch. Affleck captures the schizophrenia of Ford quite well. Casey's voice is always odd, but his robotic, quivering and insane tone is perfect here. Alba transcends her to be expected sultriness a turns in some fine acting as Joyce the whore (no heart of gold, but she'll make you cry for her). Kate Hudson, who has made a career based on terrible role choices, is excellent as Amy, Casey's supposedly "nice" girl. Hudson's been on a bit of a streak for me; she stole the boring and dreadful Nine, putting much needed life in that corpse.

Should you see The Killer Inside Me? Hmm, I don't know. Read the book. If you don't find yourself hating humanity after that, give the movie a whirl. You may regret both experiences, but you won't forget them.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beat Beat Beat with The Rolling Stones

Keith Richards' grinning Shar-Pei face smirks out from the cover of the new issue of Rolling Stone. Keef's long-anticipated memoir, Life, is soon to be sprung on the world. Richards the writer? The literary giant is even scheduled for a reading at The New York Public Library on October 29. The featured excerpts were a bit flat, though that didn't stop me from devouring every word.

I never fancied myself a huge Stones fan, which doesn't explain why I have 35 of their albums. It's the early years of the Fugly Five that do send me. No one would dispute that the early Stones were the best white blues band around. (Only ex-schoolmate Eric Schaefer would. He believed with all his heart that The Who were better at it than Mick and Keith, but Eric thought The Who were better at everything than anyone else. Paul Lukas and I recoiled in horror!).

It's Keith's reflections on the beginnings of the band that were the most interesting and sincere. The struggles of Mick, Keith and Brian, starving and cold as they pursued the Holy Grail of Chicago blues reads true. It's not an image; it's pre-"Bad Boys of Rock" bullshit that permeates the other bits. The travails of druggie Brian, the love triangle between Jones, Richards and Anita Pallenberg lack passion. Keith says it all in the origins piece; girls came way last for the band. Though the Stones' persona is wrapped around chicks, they never seemed to really care. Anita giving Keith a blow job in the back of his Bentley is delivered with the disinterest one would have in flicking away a fly. Keith tells it as if he's watching as an outsider. There no love on those pages. Hey, no one really believes the Stones love anyone, do they? Think of "We Love You" from Satanic Majesties. Totally false.

When Keith talks of music, now there's a love story, and it brings me back to the start of the Stones. From 1963-66, they were the best at what they did, but who really listens to that period anymore? Compare that to how much we hear of the early Beatles, and how their first records till fly off the shelves. Rolling Stones Now? 12 X 5? Only die-hards buy the Stones back catalog, yet it's their shining hour, when their commitment to what they were doing was all-consuming.

Yesterday I stumbled upon a precious bootleg, Beat Beat Beat, the Stones BBC sessions from '63-'65. They are a powerhouse and loads of fun. I defy anyone who's heard their version of Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog" to not break out in a huge grin. And no one did Chuck Berry like The Stones. The radio take on "The Last Time" is a marvel and, boy, they could play. Listen to "Satisfaction." The interplay between Keith and Brian is their sound, never recaptured after Jones' death (or was it murder?).

Though there's no studio chatter that makes The Beatles BBC recordings so enjoyable (and, in fact, I'd rather hear The Fab Four talk than the Stones play), a brief interview reveals what The Rolling Stones always knew: they were never going to stop. Poor Brian, he makes that point though he wouldn't make it into the next decade. Keef always said to whoever would listen that this band would play forever. It's only their audience and the media that came late to that realization.

The Rolling Stones of 1963 would be proud that those band members who survived into 2010 were still rocking, mirroring the lives of the aging bluesmen they revered when they set out on their journey to spread the music they worshipped.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Playing Hurt and Making Mickey Proud

Wednesday night I had the chills and, every time I rolled onto my stomach, a jolt of pain shot out from my left knee. When I woke up, the knee was gigantic, a glowing, oversized ball of hurt. Against my will, I was escorted to Bassett Hospital for hours of fun, knee-draining (which was cool), multiple blood lettings and an IV bag chock full of antibiotic.

"Stay off that knee," I was warned by my doctor friends. But this weekend was the Hall of Fame Film Festival, and Friday night was a tribute to 61*. Billy Crystal (writer and director), Bob Costas (broadcaster par excellence), Thomas Jane (who played Mickey Mantle in the movie) and Ross Greenburg (head of HBO Sports) were to be in attendance at a reception to be held in the Plaque Gallery, followed by a Q and A and a film showing. Believe me, there was no chance I was going to be home, leg up and cooling under a Ziplock bag of ice cubes. I would be there, pain or not.

Single crutch under my left arm, looking like a World War 1 vet (why did those guys always seem to be single crutched?), I hobbled to the gala. Accompanied by my weekend house guest, Andy Strasberg, Roger Maris fan #1 (look it up) and technical advisor to the movie, I hoped for an introduction to the participants and even brought my book, The Kansas City A's & The Wrong Half of the Yankees, to hand out as a gift. It has Maris on the cover, totally appropriate to the occasion. Plus, I need to improve my self-promotion skills.

I didn't meet Crystal, though Joey, my little Zelig, found his way to the big star.

I didn't pursue Thomas Jane, but as he whooshed by me in his loud plaid suit, I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and I told him how much I enjoyed his cameo in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Turns out Joey had done the same thing. Jane must've thought it odd that two people mentioned this most minor role.

With Andy off to mingle, I made my own way to Costas and snapped a picture of him with Joey.

"I can see there's no family relationship here," quipped Bob. Joey is a mini-me. I handed my book over to Bob and he was truly interested. Over the course of the evening, Bob Costas would prove to be an authentically good guy.

As was Ross Greenburg. Andy introduced us and, immediately Ross focused on my condition.

"Stay off that knee," he said with great concern. "That's serious stuff." He also looked at the book with real gusto.

The Q and A was funny and lively. Afterwards, the Grandstand Theater emptied and refilled, as the two events were separately ticketed. It took me a while to make my way down to the first floor bathroom and back. As I walked in via the 3rd base side ramp of the theater, Billy was trying to get everyone settled so he could begin his remarks.

He saw me. "Come on, come on," he pleaded.

"You can start," I replied.

"Great, he's got a cane!" Oh, to be mocked by Billy Crystal: it made the injury worthwhile.

After the film, we filed out and, in front of the Hall's offices, Costas and Crystal signed autographs for a waiting group of fans. With Andy by my side, I got to talk with Bob and, again, Ross. It's rare to find public figures, and powerful ones, as genuine as these two. It made the night extra special.

Now, in return, I think I'll subscribe to HBO. It's the least I can do.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Vacation, Barbecue and Elvis: My 9/11 Memories

I like not working on my birthday. September 14th fell on a Friday in 2001 and would cap a pleasant week of laying loose. Maybe I'd stay up late and watch movies. Certainly I would head down to Evanston for a day at Vintage Vinyl and 2nd Hand Tunes shopping for used records. Karen and I would hang out, go out to lunch, and be together more than usual. We always did better the more time we spent together.

For the actual day, we had a party planned, a special one. The guest of honor: a huge amount of Corky's barbecue flown up from Memphis. We'd just taken a family trip to the Home of the Blues and had an amazing time: Graceland, Interstate Barbecue, used record stores, the Civil Rights Museum. Memphis stayed on our mind and bringing a little taste to our friends was to be our pleasure.

Monday the 1oth started the week off well. I remember the night vividly. I was watching Marat/Sade, marveling at a young Glenda Jackson, when Karen called me up from the basement.

"Jeff, Tracey's here." And he was. I'd helped Tracey, an old OEX trader, as he made the transition from floor trader to off-floor position manager. We talked all day about volatility and skew, things that now are part of an almost-forgotten past (although when I talk to traders on the CBOE it comes back like auto-pilot). Tracey was a generous guy and he was holding a large package.

"Hi, Happy Birthday and thanks for all you've done for me," he said as he handed over a gift.

It was beyond belief: a framed Elvis for Everyone album, signed by the King. That it was signed "For Sue," only made it better. Inscriptions tend to be real. A great present, and a wonderful beginning to a whole week off.

The next morning, I slept in a bit. Karen came into our room with the phone. "It's work," she said as she handed over the portable.

Norm was on the line.

"Do you know what's going on? The exchange is closed and we're all going home." I don't remember the rest. Next thing Karen and I were in front of the big screen Sony in the basement watching the smoke and the horrific chaos.

It's too trite to say we were stunned, that it was an unreal experience. I used to work in that area by the World Trade Center and it had a homey feel to it, but that means shit. I wasn't there.

Gale was. Our best friend called Karen and told her she couldn't get home. She was incommunicado and Karen filled her in as best she could. Gale said she could rent a car and drive back. "Did that make sense?" Karen told her get the car and head out. It was unknown when flights would leave New York.

My parents were living by the river in Chicago and, after less than a year there, our relationship had begun to dissolve, the path being paved for the lack of contact we have today. But in the face of the WTC attacks, and the realization that: 1) my parents used to live in the shadow of the towers and 2) that maybe all big cities were on notice, even Chicago, we had to put our negative feelings aside and get them to the suburbs. We did.

I can't remember if the traders got together the next day, but there were meetings to discuss positions and what would happen to the firm whenever the markets reopened. I remember driving into the city and looking up at the Sears Tower with dread. In Murnau's silent classic, The Last Laugh, Emil Jannings is a hotel doorman who loses his job and all the haughtiness and prestige that came with it. As he unravels, he dreams that the buildings are falling on him. That's what I saw as I drove through the canyons of the Loop.

The Friday birthday party was now both anti-climactic and troublesome. One friend lost a good pal in the attack and was in no mood to come. Others were set to be out of town but couldn't fly out.

And the Memphis barbecue? It was cancelled as the boxes of ribs and brisket couldn't fly north to Illinois. Karen luckily turned to Hecky's in Evanston who, on short notice, could fill our order.

When Friday night came, all our friends showed up. Surrounded by delicious food, the sound of blues and Chuck Berry in the air, and the comfort of good people, the birthday party morphed into hours of therapy through love and laughter. It didn't make everything all right, but it helped.

The week that started joyfully ended bittersweet, to put it mildly. And it set into motion the life changes we were to start one year later, buying a house in Cooperstown, moving full time, resetting our priorities and putting our family first. At work, I talked to a lot a guys at Cantor Fitzgerald, traders who I never met but interacted with every day. They were all dead, just like that. If I was going to go tomorrow, I wasn't going to leave this Earth after my daily commute, worried about my options position. I was going to go after a day with my wife and kids. I've lived every day with that as my goal. No regrets.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Coming of Age, Automotive Edition

When your first child is autistic, you miss out on some milestones as they roll around. Nate doesn't drive, and shouldn't drive, based on the way he plays Burnout and Need for Speed. That boy takes too much pleasure in cracking up cars.

Yesterday, I was supposed to head up to Boston for the Red Sox game, but a 60% chance of rain coupled with thunderstorms made me reconsider a 9 hour round trip for a rainout. (The weather held off and the BoSox played a double-header instead). By staying home, I got to take Robbie for his road test. Actually, four of us loaded into the Land Cruiser and took him to Oneonta.

Karen and Nate headed to a coffee shop and I waited with Rob. His early nerves had faded and he was raring to go. There was a girl ahead of us and she rode off with the test administrator for a long time. Rob and I talked and a Cooperstown friend of his pulled up. His test was soon after Rob's.

One way to lessen the tension was Rob's constant referring to my first driving test, my failed driving test. I was doing OK until I made a right turn in front of an oncoming car.

"You know you just cut that guy off," the proctor said sternly.

Of course I talked back. I was 17 and that's what I did. Bad form. I didn't understand who had the power back then.

"I didn't cut him off; I had plenty of room."

"Take it back," he ordered. Not "take back what you said," but "drive this car back because your test is over." So, all morning, Robbie kept saying at the slightest provocation, "Take it back."

When Rob went off for his test, I talked to our Cooperstown friends. It seemed like a flash that he was back. Uh oh, that was much shorter than that girl's test. And, he pulled up on the opposite side of the street. These are the signs of failure.

The woman who tested Rob got out of the car. Her face was severe, no emotion. I'd noticed that earlier. It's to be expected, getting in car after car with people who haven't yet proven they can drive. That's taking your life in your hands every workday.

She gave me a look and a thin smile. It was OK. He passed. And he really passed - not one point taken off.

Now we have a son who can drive. I'm not worried about him at all; it's all good. Now he can order at the drive-thru (and he did at Taco Bell soon after). Better yet, I can get more sleep as he carts me around.

This transition to adult children is working out very well, I must say.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Record Wars and Family Peace

Aunt Linda called from Santa Monica last week.

"Hi, I found albums and wanted to know which ones you want. I have Dylan, Firesign Theater. I already promised Robbie a Country Joe and The Fish album."

Since record hunting is now a three player sport in our household, I told Linda to send them all. Between me, Robbie and Joey, we'd pick that carcass clean.

Box one arrived yesterday. Joey was at work, so Rob and I got a sneak preview. We'd already discussed the rules that I proposed. First, everyone has to chip in to pay for postage. Three bucks each, but, as Rod Blagojevich said, you gotta pay to play. Second, we would draw lots to decide who'd pick first. Some might say that as the father, I should go last, or not at all, but, hell man, we're talking records here. Every man for himself.

I checked out the pile often, and it was on second, or third, glance, that I beheld the miracle. Blonde on Blonde was a mono copy with the rare Claudia Cardinale picture in the gatefold. Joey assumed he'd get it, since Rob and I both have copies already, but now it was up for grabs.

When Joey got home, he looked through the records and we used Scrabble pieces of Nate's initials, N, E and K, to decide who went first. The tiles were shuffled on the kitchen table. I picked the K, worth 5 points to the other letters 1. Before I chose, I informed Joey of the Dylan problem. Had he picked first I would have told him as well. Fair is fair. He was crushed, but so you have it. I also told him that inside the Are You Experienced? cover was Meet the Beatles.

It was Joey's turn. He chose John Wesley Harding. I was stunned, and when Robbie quickly snatched The Doors' first album, I had to ask.
"Hey Joey, you've been talking about that Doors album for weeks. I can't believe you didn't pick it."

Here's what happened: in pre-selection talks, Robbie had mentioned he wanted that one Dylan record. Brotherly spite clouded good judgment and Joey went for JWH. So it goes. It's finders keepers, or first come, first serve. Either way, Joey was Door-less.

I ended up getting what I wanted - Fugs, Kaleidoscope's first album, stuff the two of them wouldn't know or care about. After the session was over, Joey was downcast. The Doors mishap had him reeling.

"Hey," I said. "You came back from Chicago with about 60 new albums. Trade with Rob."

The two disappeared and a little while later I went up to Robbie's room. There, leaning against his bed, was All Things Must Pass, George Harrison triple vinyl masterpiece.
"Whoa, Joey traded you that for The Doors?"
Rob laughed.
"I kinda pressured him into it."
I'm still the father here, and, as such rule setter and commissioner. I had to make a snap judgment.

"No sir. You can't get three albums for one." Joey ended up giving Rob Squeezing Out Sparks instead.
Later, I spoke to Linda, who told me another box of records is on its way. Controversy is sure to follow.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Jack White's Other Other Band

I'm spoiled. I admit it. The concerts I go to these days are wonderfully professional: great sound, punctual start times. I love it. Gone are the days of horrible sound and bands that keep you waiting for hours, for reasons totally their own. When I saw The Rolling Stones on the first date of their 1981 American tour, they hit the stage two hours after Journey ended. As if Journey wasn't bad enough!

Joey and I headed to the Congress Theater in Chicago to check out The Dead Weather. Would I finally see Jack White live? Two years ago I had tickets for The White Stripes show, also in Chicago, that was cancelled as a result of Meg White's stress level, or sex tape, or stress level about the sex tape.

The doors opened at 7 PM, which meant the line that curved around the side street adjacent to the theater didn't move until around 7:30. Once in motion, it became a quasi-military operation, the first half of Full Metal Jacket run by greasy-haired crazy people.

"Two lines!, Don't mess up my lines!" shouted the stringy line monitor. A rough pat down was given upon entry. I was waiting for someone to call me Pvt. Pyle.

Most old theaters I've been to have been restored to their former beauty. Not so the Congress Theater. It's a dingy mess. We headed up to the balcony and sat in smooth, oily seats. Below my feet was a huge pitted concrete patch. I was not overcome with a sense of calm about my surroundings.

I was excited to see the opening band, Harlem. They didn't come out until 9, and by then, the place was a sweltering crock pot of people and weed. Below us at floor level was a crush of fans growing restless by the minute. Joey was growing impatient and the smell of pot saturated the air around him. Later, when I asked if he'd gotten a contact high, he was confused. He knew the song by Nodzzz of that name, but only now got it.

"Oh, so that's what it means," he said with surprise. Another of life's mysteries solved.

Harlem was very good, and would have been better had the sound not been a muddy morass of heavy bass. Every word spoken was unintelligible and their power pop was done a disservice by the venue.

When The Dead Weather came out, the crowd went berserk, watched closely by the giant eye atop the painted backdrop. This may be the first show I've ever seen that I didn't know one song in advance. Didn't matter though, it was exciting to see White and the group. They were excellent, though again, the sound was atrocious.

Know this: in any Dead Weather show, when Jack plays guitar it signifies the end of something. he stepped out front twice, for the last song of the set, and the final song of the encore.

A woman next to my friend said it was the 15th time she'd seen Jack White in his various incarnations - White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather. The theater was packed with similarly rabid fans, and when they sang and clapped and stomped on the floor, the structural insecurity of the balcony became apparent. I could see the headline in the next day's Tribune:

Scores Die in Concert Collapse

Thankfully, we survived and learned a valuable lesson. It's still possible to see great bands in shitty halls with miserable sound. When my iPhone has better sound than The Congress Theater, there's something wrong.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Let's Get Small

Last month, I read a story on The Huffington Post that refuses to leave my mind. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, found that $60,000 per year results in happiness. Any amount of earnings above that result in the same level of happiness. "I've rarely seen lines so flat," he said with surprise at the steadiness of response. Sure, Kahneman noted that the level of satisfaction may be higher at $600,000 per annum than at one-tenth the amount, but, emotionally, people remain constant. Below $60K, life is worse ("lack of money certainly buys you misery"), and gets progressively suckier the further from the magic number one gets.

When we moved from suburban Chicago to Cooperstown, there were several motivations: getting kids into a smaller school, regaining huge chunks of my life by not commuting to the Loop, pulling back post-9/11 and spending time with the family before everyone went their separate ways. What I've learned these last seven years is that quality of life is so much more important than quantity of stuff. Seeking happiness through material things never leads to long term contentment. Believe me, I come from a long line of people who have been consistently crushed by the deep seated belief that the next car, boat, house, whatever, would be THE ONE, the thing that would cure their emotional ills. Never worked, never will.

That's not to say I don't have a healthy enjoyment of stuff. Luckily, my tastes are the same at 47 as they were at 17 - books, records, the occasional baseball card set. Sure, those are still "things" but they're pretty cheap and the joy they bring lasts a long time.

Kahneman's study got me thinking. The future is not going to be one of consumption, so the endless pursuit of dough is something of a dead end. Going smaller, getting less, searching for happiness that isn't money-centric, that's the course for me. It sounds great.

Now if I could only stop having to pay a monstrous amount of money on health care, I'd really be in good shape.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Willpower - Do I Still Have Any?

When I was twelve years old, I had a problem. It dogged me constantly. Grades? No. Friends? A-OK. Girls? Well, that was a problem, but not a big one yet.

What troubled me was my obsessive need to buy packs of cards - baseball, football, basketball, hockey. I was insatiable. No sooner did I open up the waxy outer wrapper (after a ceremonial rubbing of the pack and wishing for a particular card), was I ready to buy more. A vicious cycle indeed and it bothered me. I had to prove to myself that I could break the habit.

I went to the trusty stationery store and bought two packs of Topps Hockey cards, 1974-75 edition. I already had the set, but still bought some packs. See? It was a problem.

Not for this pair. I wrapped them in a taped banner of torn looseleaf paper and wrote the date: January 23, 1975. My plan was to wait a week, then another, then a month. It was a test, and I passed with flying colors: those packs are still unopened today.

Did I prove anything? Sort of. But I've opened thousands of packs since then, so what was the point. I don't know, I was only twelve.

Those cards have been on my mind lately as I feel myself helpless at the altar of record albums. Those who know me aren't surprised by my addiction, but lately I feel it may be out of hand.

I swore this past weekend that I wouldn't order or buy any platters until September. Then, I remembered I may be visiting a label's warehouse and that'll lead to some buying. I have a list already. On Saturday, J., 14 and on the verge of his first stereo, found Vintage Vinyl, ten miles from a wedding we attended in Somerset, NJ. Of course we went, and of course I carted out another 11 records. Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall - I couldn't pass that up!

So, can I do it, can I go months without a new batch of discs? I don't know. I may not have the same will as the 1975 me. Yet, I'm starting to wonder if these personal tests and inner struggles are even worth the time.

Regardless, they're no match for the pure joy of finding Magic Christian Music by Badfinger. And on Apple too!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tough Times for Rock Royalty

1980 was a rough year for rock icons. The Rolling Stones produced Emotional Rescue, a weak ass album that has some of their most dreadful songs - the title track and "Indian Girl"to name two - and continues that late '70's, early' 80's sound of Charlie's overly loud drums and disco-y beat. Dylan was in the middle of his Holy Trinity of Jesus-music. Saved, his loadoff entry of the new decade, was the worst of the three. Paul Simon suffered the first flops of his unblemished career in both the film and record of One-Trick Pony. Led Zeppelin bit the dust after drummer John Bonham did first. For the ex-Beatles, the year began with Paul McCartney in a Tokyo jail and ended with the assassination of John Lennon.

The musical legends of the 1960's were still dominaning the charts for most of the 1970's. It was the following decade that proved to be ten years of transition and grappling with relevancy (except for Lennon, of course). McCartney decade was a long slog of mediocre albums (1982's Tug of War the lone exception) and the abominable Give My Regards to Broad Street, a film that made Simon's movie look like Citizen Kane. Dylan's descent into dreck ended with his Traveling Wilburys rebirth in 1988. The Stones, well, the Stones finally fell apart. Tattoo You was a monster seller in 1981, but by mid-decade Mick and Keith had fallen out and the band was no more until Steel Wheels in 1989. Richards' first solo work, Talk is Cheap, is the best album of the 1980's by the erstwhile Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World. There's no reason to get into Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's solo works. No on need be reminded of The Firm or The Honeydrippers.

Simon rebounded the quickest, with Hearts and Bones, Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints. Perhaps because Simon was the least rock starish he made the easiest switch to middle age. To be fair, rock and roll had never grown old. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, they were strictly oldies acts by the time they were 40, blasting out their hits in Vegas and at state fairs. Elvis died cold and alone on his bathroom floor. How did one grow old gracefully and maintain a creative spark? This was uncharted territory.

Lennon did have the key with Double Fantasy, his last collection of songs. He wasn't looking backward on his youthful adventures. He was 40, a father and husband and that was fine. He was comfortable with it and sang with the passion and confidence of a man his age. For the others, it was starting around 1990 that they came to grips with who they were - superb songwriters and musicians. Turning 50, fuck that!

Since then, though sales don't show it, these artists have produced some of their greatest works. Dylan's last four studio albums (not including the Christmas album romp) stand up against any four records he's ever put out. McCartney has never released a consecutive string of five strong albums since he's recorded as a solo act. The Stones' A Bigger Bang is certainly as good as their best product since Exile On Main St. Simon keeps knocking them out, 2006's Surprise an adventurous and finely crafted work.

As much as these men created the rock and roll we know today, the music that merged 1950's animal energy with lyrical sophistication and poetry, they have created the mold for a complete and fulfilling career for rock musicians. The 1980's weren't easy, but it served as a period of growth. Sure, their fans waded through a lot of crap, but it was worth it to get these legends to where they are today.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The George Burns Catalog

After 7 year old Nattie Birnbaum's dad died during the influenza epidemic of '03, he formed The Peewee Quartet with some neighborhood pals. They'd sing on street corners, basements, wherever they could. Now how could Dolly Parton have known his story when she co-penned "Nickels and Dimes?" It's that song, wistfully sung by the very grown up Nattie, that closes the 1980 album I Wish I Was Eighteen Again. By this time, Birnbaum had been calling himself George Burns for nearly 70 years.

My tendency is to binge on records. After the family watched The Sunshine Boys, I immediately realized I had to buy George Burns albums. I loved his style of mumbling lyrics at a brisk pace. Why is it appealing? I don't know. Why do people like Yes? Taste can be a very mysterious thing.
A couple of eBay deals later and there I was, staring at three Burns LPs. Let's dig in.

The Sgt. Pepper spoof that greets you belies a serious endeavor in George Burns Sings (1969). The rushing pace that I expected was nowhere to be found. Buddah Records approached Burns, who assumed they were looking for laughs. Instead, label founder Neil Bogart presented the comic legend with a series of legitimate contemporary tunes to hash out honestly, not for yuks.

That's not to say the record is devoid of jokes. Just listen to "I Kissed Her on the Back Porch." But, dare I say it, Burns straightforward renditions are reminiscent of Willie Nelson, warbling with unpredictable, yet musically dead on instincts. His voice is warm and sweet, his New Yawk accent varying in intensity. "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Mr. Bojangles" are stand out tracks. Most view Jerry Jeff Walker's "Bojangles" as tribute to a bygone era. For George, its real life. Burns starred in The Big Broadcast of 1936 with Bill Robinson, Bojangles himself! The biggest surprise, both in selection and delivery, was George's take on Harry Nilsson's "1941." It's Harry's song about his the year of his birth, when Burns was a whippersnapper of 45. Perfection.

Walter Matthau looms over Burns in the upper right hand corner, but George Burns Sings predates the great comeback of the mid-1970's. Flash forward to 1980. Burns is now the Oscar winning actor for his portrayal of Matthau's aged vaudeville partner Al Lewis in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. For Burns' sake, he also played God in Oh, God! At the start of his tenth decade on Earth, George Burns found himself the last standing symbol of an entertainment world long gone and a multi-media star - movies, TV, books and, once again, records.

That hat is never gonna touch that gray toupee and rest its brim on those fish lens glasses! George Burns in Nashville is simply another in a series of vocally challenged performers crooning in front of a crack team of Nashville session musicians. Ringo did it well on Beaucoups of Blues, Joey Bishop not so well on Joey Bishop Sings Country and Western. There's nothing wrong with this LP, a totally straight attempt. None of the songs are played as outright comedy, though some are too cute by half. He tackles "Ain't Misbehavin'" again, and, as he did on Sings, simply nails it.

Remember my Willie Nelson comment? Imagine my surprise when, on In Nashville, George sings "Willie, Won't You Sing a Song with Me." It's a great bit, Burns noting that Nelson has sung with everyone (and this was before Willie met Julio Iglesias!), and that they should get together. The offer is made and an opportunity missed. And Burns even had a television special tied in with the record. As the song fades, Burns pushes his credentials - I played God, I'm hot right now, I can help your career. Still, Willie demurred.

Also in 1980 came I Wish I Was Eighteen Again. Another piece of countrypolitan, there's a bit of vaudeville tossed in for good measure. "The Baby Song" is a ditty I'd heard Burns sing on TV, fast, funny, detouring into chatter as the punchline hit. Though slowed down and stretched out, it still works to great comic effect. Tom T. Hall's "One of the Mysteries of Life" starts with a touch of The Ink Spots in George's delivery. And Dolly's tune ends another pleasant album with a touching bit of autobiography.

I finally caught up with some Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. records that I've had on tape since college. That's the latest vinyl buying obsession. George Burns and Johnny Rotten - now there are a couple of contemporary record artists I'd love to have heard together.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Shutter Island

How do I tell you about Shutter Island without telling you about Shutter Island? It's a phenomenal film, as un-Scorsese as any Martin Scorsese film in his canon. Except Kundun, of course. It is part crime drama, part Hitchcockian fantasy, with scenes a la the Dali dream piece in Spellbound.

I tell you what's been on my mind since I watched the movie a few days ago: Leonardo DiCaprio as the new Scorsese go to guy. No more is Robert DeNiro the onscreen image of Marty's films.

When DeNiro ruled the Scorsese universe, he was, as main character, a troubled individual, hard to peg as all-good, all-evil, or all-sane. Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and Rupert Pupkin didn't see the dichotomy of their inner selves, not really. Sure, Jake pounded his fists and head against his cell wall, wondering why things turned out as they did, but it was all animal action.

Amsterdam Villon, Howard Hughes, Billy Costigan and Teddy Daniels, the DiCaprio roles, are quite aware of the split selves. If not totally aware, then at least they suspect thing are pretty fucked up. It gnaws at them, the shifting reality that they find themselves immersed in, whether by choice or not.

As he gets older, Martin Scorsese has morphed his anti-heroes into intellectual and thoughtful men who contemplate the deeply held angels and devils that live in us all. Now his characters contemplate their dual natures. Back in the day, they simply lashed out with feral ferocity. The only thing that Leo and Bobby share are an upper case "D" and a lower case vowel in their last names.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Today in Record Shopping

With K. out of town, 17 year old R. suggested we head up to Last Vestige in Albany and buy some records. Good idea. I had all good intentions to buy a few albums. I'm all caught up (look for a post on three, yes three, George Burns albums in the next few days). As Bobby Burns said, my best laid plans, once again, gang aft agley. How agley? Nineteen records worth. Some highlights:

Ever seen this?

Me neither. There are more Beatles bootlegs than I could possibly know, but this was odd. Turns out to be a 1967 issue of a 1964 unauthorized (I believe) hits album. The pic is not the copy I bought. Mine was all taped up, with a sticker from Nursery on Third Avenue. But for a buck, I had to get it.

Speaking of stickers, two albums, Free's Fire and Water and Dave Edmunds' Tracks on Wax 4 had stickers from St. Mark's Sounds on the cover. Ah, the memories of that beautiful store.

I always feel strange buying an album I should have had all along, like Edmunds above. But, life was a series of choices based on available coin back then (and still today in different denominations), so why feel bad. Therefore, I am proud, not ashamed, to announce that I finally got Public Image's First Issue and Second Edition. Too long not to have those. Also, got The Sex Pistols' The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, with a nice soundtrack sticker on the cover. I've been listening to a tape I made of the record for over a quarter century. Nice to have the vinyl.

Not having a seminal album like The Dead Boys' Young, Loud and Snotty does tick me off. Getting it today for $1 more than makes up for its long time absence. Got their We Have Come For Your Children too, also a buck. Discs are in great shape, covers are much worse for the wear.

It's rare that an album from my want list appears in the cheapie bin, so when I saw The Animals' Ark, their early '80's reunion attempt, I was floored and, obeying the signs from above, packed it in. I took a quick peek at the nicer albums in the racks, the records I was intending to spend my time and money on. They'll just have to wait for next time (I'm talking to you Don Everly solo records).

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Serious Look at A Serious Man

By starting a movie about Minnesota circa 1970 in the dark night of a Polish shtetl of the past, the Coen brothers make it abundantly clear: nothing is at it seems. No single reality created the skein of our memories. Especially our personal history.

The opening scene, a Yiddisher exploration of the supernatural, provides more questions than answers, and the subsequent sonic belt of Jefferson Airplane singing "When the truth is found to be lies" sets us up for a movie like no other. Sure, A Serious Man contains the typical Coen absurdities of smoking doctors and junior rabbis obsessed with parking lots, but those touches give comic relief to the unrelentingly tensions in the life of a normal man, Professor Larry Gopnick, suddenly in the midst of shifting realities that leave him lost and confused. "What's going on?" he shouts desperately on more than one occasion.

There's no real point in going through the plot, since what is true is up in the air. Accept the lack of ground below you as you watch. The South Korean father of one of Gopnick's students implores him to "Please accept the mystery." Good advice. As a physics professor, Gopnick deals with issues of motion through space and time; his life is a physics problem he can't solve. Like Schrodinger's cat, which he explains to his class, who knows if he is alive or dead. Maybe both.

But isn't it true of all our lives, that many things we thought for sure were one way, get turned around and become something else entirely? Larry is besieged by a world he doesn't quite get. His neighbor is literally encroaching on his world. The middle class Jewish culture that surrounds him gives no solace. Rabbi after Rabbi dispense empty words. Religion fails utterly. When anyone is close to giving Gopnick the answer, or any answer, they refuse. A brilliant scene involving the Columbia Record Club hammers home that even when we do nothing, punishment is sure to follow.

The title refers to a secondary character, a pompous cypher who is, quite the contrary, ridiculous to an extreme. Larry's brother is either an insane scribbler, a nerdy math wiz writing dense probability map of the universe in a much-leafed through notebook, or he's a genius. Or he's something much worse. Dreams become more real as the story unfolds and, at the end, it's still hard to fathom what actually has happened.

Back in the old days of the opening scene, the Polish wife challenges rational reality. Was she right? We don't know. Another famous Minnesota Jew once sang, who will give us shelter from the storm? And what if the storm is in our own mind? Or what if it doesn't exist at all?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Surprising Things in the Middle of Nowhere

Last Saturday, me and the boys took a long drive west to Homer. There was a Graham Parker concert that I was covering for Over an hour into a boring drive, something happened.

"Truxton! Truxton!" I yelled, genuinely excited by the small white on green sign announcing our entrance into yet another tiny town along State Route 13.

Joey thought, "Why is he shouting? Is there a movie reference here or something?"

Still talking to myself, but aware of Robbie and Joey, I said, "This is the birthplace of John McGraw, the legendary Giants manager. I think there's a monument in the middle of town." And there was.

I pulled over to a small spot right next to an imposing granite obelisk. The front showed McGraw's face in relief, with a bit of historical info below. (You can read it yourself if you zoom in). "A great American?" By what standards?

The back cited an exhibition game between the Jints and a local Truxton nine, held on August 8, 1938, as the funding source for this erection. Baseball as the pre-Viagra cure for ED? I'd never dreamed that nine innings could have such a solid result.

I checked back to Charles C. Alexander's definitive bio of McGraw and here's a brief summary of that day. The New Yorkers took a train to Cortland, then school-bused it over to Truxton. The semi-pro locals, also dubbed Giants, took on the big leaguers at John McGraw Field, situated on a plot of land that Muggsy himself had paid for and donated. The game was well-attended, 7,650 fans making their way from all points to place their fannies on bleachers hauled in from Cornell and Syracuse Universities.
The monument made its way skyward in October 1942, placed on the past site of Mary Goddard's hotel, where a much younger McGraw sought refuge from his violent father and skipped town for good, fame and fortune never having a prayer when confronted with his fiery and determined personality.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


After watching Hunger last week (see post of 5/9), I've been thinking about the visual aspect of film. We've all seen movies that look great and leave a permanent imprint on us, but fail to achieve what we require to say "That was a great movie." You know, things like plot, action, special effects.

Francis Ford Coppola is a true master of the moving picture. When he succeeds in combining this talent with a strong story, we get The Godfather. No debate on the merits there. When he fails to connect, we get One from the Heart, the movie that bankrupted Francis. Heart is wrong-headed from the start - no story, weak leads (Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr could never carry a feature film). But it is a treat to watch -from the grandeur of a faux Las Vegas built on a sound stage, to Nastassja Kinksi writhing in a giant martini glass. Forget the story, embrace the images.

Coppola's family drama Tetro is his best work since 1979's Apocalypse Now. For me that is not faint praise. I loved Dracula, Tucker and Godfather III (I can sense your outrage. We can discuss this later). The present day scenes are shot in deep and warm black and white; the flashbacks are in color. The dated black and white is the now, the realistic color the then. It's a jarring device that works magnificently. Shadows are played to perfection, achieving both aesthetic heights and narrative relevance. Tetro (Vincent Gallo) is filmed in a chair, the darkness he emits right of a German Expressionist textbook. A scene with Miranda (the always provocative Maribel Verdu of Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) is Bergmanesque but for the over sized phantom image of Tetro projected on the wall.

No surprise that Coppola nails the visual. The family drama, some bits surely autobiographical as it deals with a conductor father, works in so many ways. I read a biography of Francis once, but honestly don't remember very much of it. Was his own musical father Carmine like the cruel, overbearing Carlo? I don't know. As the maestro, Klaus Maria Brandauer lords over the film. I'd forgotten how great Brandauer can be; I have to admit I haven't seen him since 1990's The Russia House.

There's an awkwardness to how the main players interact. It could be bad acting, or a weak script, but I didn't see it that way. The story of one family's self-inflicted misery, and the physical and mental injuries they endure, is mirrored in their lack of connection. What do they have that brings them together as a family? Nothing. It's simply a formality of position: father, brother, son, wife. And why do these people, who by a fluke of birth are tied, have the right to violate the most privately held parts of one's soul? This discourse on the nature of family hit me hard.

It's a shame that a latter day work of genius like Tetro will be overlooked by a public who deems Coppola past his pop culture prime. How many will see this movie? Sadly, very few. But Coppola presents us with some real challenges. How do we merge our private and public selves? How do we accept the painful truths of who we are? What is the nature of family? Why must we avoid the far greater damage of trying to make the false real? These are crucial questions for us all to grapple with.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fortunate Sons

Bonds and Griffey, the Goofus and Gallant of the last twenty years of baseball. But is it clear which is which?

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I'm not sure what enthralled me about the 1981 hunger strike at Maze Prison. It may have been part of a general awakening to world affairs that began in my freshman year at SUNY-Buffalo. My arrival coincided with the rise of Solidarity in Poland, and that peaceful revolt was very exciting to watch unfold.

I had no overwhelming predilection for things Irish, other than a couple of Van Morrison albums. But when Bobby Sands began to refuse food on March 1 to protest British rule, I was entranced. Two months later he died and by that time others had joined in the strike. By the time it ended in August, ten men had willed themselves to die.

For some reason I took great pride in remembering the names of the fallen, but that information has long been squeezed out. The lingering effects of that time remain, and when I saw that Steve McQueen (not that Steve McQueen) made a film about it, I couldn't wait until the DVD release.

McQueen is an art gallery filmmaker, but Hunger is not simply an art piece. It is permeated by an aesthetic that is gripping and thought provoking, many times beautiful and always steeped in humanity. McQueen's films were exclusively black and white and silent until 1998, and the absence of dialogue marks the first and third parts of the movie. The centerpiece in a full 25 minute medium shot of Bobby Sands and his priest, sitting at a table talking. Talking, that's it (and smoking). We as viewers have developed the same sense of isolation and loneliness of the jailed and are desperate for conversation. It's a scene that would never work if all that preceded hadn't paced for it.

The director shows depth for all characters: guards, prisoners, riot squad members, parents. That's not to say I felt sympathy for many, if any, of the people presented, but I did get a sense of who they were and how they lived in the world and in themselves. Giving humanity to the seemingly inhuman is no easy task.

Beauty is found in the most unlikely places. Urine, poured from within the cells into the hall merge into an ocean. One guard, smoking outside with his back to the wall, stands immobile as snow falls, its whiteness a stark contrast as it crosses his black pants. Pre-hunger strike, the prisoners engaged in a "dirty protest," refusing to bathe and smearing their feces on cell walls. One maintenance man, charged with the unenviable task of power washing the filth, is hypnotized by the stunning patterns he must spray away. Art through shit.

I'd read about a shockingly violent scene and, I admit, I'm a bit of a baby when it comes to that. I watch few horror flicks, but when I do I fast forward when I think something bad is coming up. Getting a glimpse sans sound takes the sting out. I tried that in Hunger but missed. It is, quite literally, a jaw-dropping moment.

I've been in a bit of a slump with recent movies choices. I saw Nine last night. It was, to be fair, a visual feast, but, vapid and empty. Plus, the songs suck. Hunger is a must-see, a fascinating work of art, deep in content and meaning, unforgettable as a moving picture.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Is It In My Head? (Or, Inner Groove Distortion)

About two years ago, I upgraded my old turntable for a brand new Rega. Now I’m no audiophile, believe me, and I’d never heard of the Rega brand until ten years ago, when I finally said goodbye to the stereo I’d been using since college and stepped up a notch. It was the dawning of the new millennia. I had been fairly successful in my trading career and, maybe, just maybe, I could treat myself to some nicer equipment. Someone told me about ProMusica, a high end shop in Lincoln Park and off I went. Setting a budget of $5000, I told the audio men what I wanted: a turntable, a single CD player (no multi-CD magazine for me, I don’t listen to music that way), an amp and speakers. They turned me on to Rega, the best bang for the buck they said. I took them at their word, and their word was good. My records sounded completely new. Wait, was that piano part always there in “She’s a Woman?” Who knew?

When we moved to Cooperstown, I luckily found Rich Brkich at Signature Sound ( in Liverpool. It’s a pretty big schlep from here to there, but Rich has been my go-to guy. And when I was ready to trade up, he gave me good advice. But when I played my first platters, there was something amiss. I thought I heard my records take a turn for the aural worst as each side drew to a close. Was there a muddiness there, or was I hearing things?
It wouldn’t always be there, but different albums have different time lengths and the fat black blank space encroaches further away from the hole. (That sounds faintly pornographic). Maybe it was in my head. Then I read about inner groove distortion, and I was falling into an abyss. Oh no! Listening to records was not a pure joy anymore. No good! I finally brought my turntable in to Rich. He tested it in ways known only to men of his skill, involving test records and such. There was something wrong with the factory installed cartridge. Vindicated at last!
I was without my turntable for over a month, as I waited for word from up North. It was a lonely time, only made worse by my insatiable desire to buy records, even though I had no way to play them. I bought a small pile of early rock reissues from Norton Records. I can tell you that Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n Roll Trio album, all 180 grams of thick black vinyl surrounding a beautiful Coral label, was calling out to me from its spot on the floor by my left leg. Stop! I will play you some day. I promise. Karen found some old Jan and Dean and Frankie Avalon albums at a garage sale. And I bought limited edition National Record Store Day releases. Plus the Mancini soundtrack to Hatari! for a buck.

Always looking for little ways to improve my sound, I bought a Herbie’s mat that sat in its cardboard box, awaiting its new home. What is that, you ask? It’s a mat, made by one Herbie fellow, which is supposed to hold the record fast to the platter and do other things I’m not quite sure about. I finally got word from Rich that his distributor agreed that the cartridge was defective from the get-go and offered to replace my SuperElys 2 for free, or give me a half price Exact2, a huge improvement (according to Rich. I have no idea what any of it means). I went with the latter and, with that, my turntable was returned home.
Problem solved, records sound great. But, as is my nature, I’ve moved on to another issue. Can’t be happy for too long, right? I buy a lot of records, some new, most used. Sure, I could buy one $30 remastered classic on 180 gram virgin vinyl, but, you know what, I’d rather buy 30 albums I never heard in something less than pristine condition. Quantity beats quality on this one. Disc Doctor is my preferred solution for cleaning those finger smudges, dust and miscellaneous bleccch that adhere to many neglected discs.

Two record junkie friends of mine recommended I buy the VPI 16.5 record cleaning machine. It’s a workhorse of a machine that vacuums up the offending filth. What you do, according to the experts, is soap up the record with Disc Doctor, put it on the VPI, and let the sucking begin. Then a rinse, another suck (talk about faintly pornographic), and, voila! your soiled discs have never sounded as good.

But I’m still unsure. Do I buy this $550 machine? What do you think?