Monday, December 12, 2011

You Go Scorsese!

Hugo is not simply the best movie I've seen this year, but it has immediately gained entrance into the Jeff Katz All-Time Greats list. It's touching (though not cloying), funny (though not buffoonish), effect laden (though not empty) and educational (though not pedantic). Hugo is as magical as the films of Melies it brings back to life.

I'm not going to recount the plot; you can look that up elsewhere.

After preview upon preview of CGI movies to come (I'm looking at you Tin Tin), it was a big adjustment to Hugo. Here was a large movie, an epic of imagination, that had a cast of humans! And big time humans like Ben Kingsley, Jude Law and Christoper Lee. It took a while for me to get used to it, like those 10-15 minutes of Shakespeare that one has to pass through to reorient their ears and get the hang of the language. That sense of semi-reality only added to the storybook experience.

Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector. Is there anybody funnier? He brings a sly and somewhat perverse characterization to the movie which gives it great depth. All the characters have something happening; there's not a useless member of the cast.

Seeing Georges Melies' films, even in clip form, on a giant screen is pure heaven. The hand tinted frames bleed gloriously and still, over a century later, you wonder "How did he do that?" My lord, it's wonderful. Scorsese manages to infuse screen history into a child's tale and, in doing so, makes the best film about the spell that movies weave. (No disrespect meant for Sullivan's Travels). In great part, Hugo is about film preservation and restoration, a cause dear to the director's heart. He makes a tragedy out of something long forgotten, and that isn't easy. The scenes of Melies' studio and the filming of the filming of the films is spectacular.

It's been said that Hugo makes the most of 3D. It does. The special effects are totally organic. There's no flash, no in-your-face moment. There's a point being made here, and that point is subtly and quite cleverly played out not once, but twice. Train Entering the Railroad Station, one of the first silents, is simply that: a train entering the depot. Much has been made of how the audience of 1898 recoiled in horror as the steaming locomotive approached, fearful that it may leap from screen to lap. Scorsese shows that two times.

Think about that. An audience of sentient adults, all clearly in three-dimensions and in color, could not separate themselves from a flat screen presentation of a black and white train. They were truly frightened that the one world would infiltrate the other. It worked, and set the table for the cheap 3D jolts to come: the thrown spear, the reaching hand, any old protuberance that would make the audience jump.

Scorsese's 3D does none of that and yet results in more genuine emotional reaction than any stunt. It does what it's supposed to, presenting depth with reality, not as a hoax. In that way, Hugo feels real and swallows you up in its world. It was a shame to leave it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Avant le déluge

My cultural world has been taken over by 1963. It wasn't planned, it simply became. My recent records, books and DVD watching have made me wish I were alive in the year before the 1960's began. Technically I was among the living, but what does a newborn know in his world of diapers, baby food and cribs. You call that living?

Kookie!, an album of almost music by Edd Byrnes, was actually released in 1959, but Byrnes' show, 77 Sunset Strip, ran until 1964. The entertainment, as it were, of a record like this, filled with anonymous studio rock 'n' roll of the period and the talk-singing of the Kookie character is pure hokum and innocence. Byrnes' street rapping hipster, whose innocence makes The Fonz seem like Tupac, splutters enough "babys," "daddy-os" and "like, wows" that I wondered how this was mistaken for edgy beatnik talk. Songs titled "Kookie's Mad Pad, "The Kookie Cha Cha Cha," and the boffo hit "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" are sweet in their faux-cool. All is not as it seems in retrospect, we all know that, but somehow the kind of world that could produce an album like this made me long for a happier time.

That hackneyed time travel sentiment is the subject of many a Twilight Zone. I'd always wanted to see Season 4, the year CBS executives forced the creators into one-hour long episodes. Having now seen all 18, I can say that the doubly long programs have been unfairly maligned over the years. Everything I've read about the January - May 1963 run has damned them as too long and unable to hold the quality of the 30-minute versions. Not so. The weaknesses of the shows are similar to those of all lesser Zones. There are several purported comedies; Rod Serling never did funny very well (though "The Bard" is a hoot, highlighted by Burt Reynolds' spot-on Brando impersonation).

I've been working my way through Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, published in '64 but set in '63. Similar to Faulkner, Kesey jumps from first-person to first-person without a heads up. That's where the similarity ends. Notion is just alright. It's not particularly difficult, or interesting, but I'm only half way through and, perhaps, there's good stuff ahead. The novel was seen by some critics as a "work of new consciousness" and, perhaps it will be by the time I close the covers. So far, I don't see it. Kesey has his counter-culture cred intact with Cuckoo's Nest and the Merry Pranksters, and with that in mind, his story of The Stamper family's generational conflicts presages what lurks right around the corner, the schism of the second half of the decade.

"Passage on the Lady Anne" is the penultimate show of Twilight Zone Season 4. It centers around a young couple, probably in their late 20's, trying to save a rocky marriage. They're a typical pair of the time, young people who look, dress and act twice their age. What was it about 25-30 year olds of the mid-60's that made them so beaten up and overly mature? Was it the Mantovanni records? The couple is headed to England by cruise ship, a decrepit vessel populated by ancients on their last voyage. You can guess where this one goes.

Would Allan and Eileen even know what was waiting for them in 1963 Swinging London? Would they even guess that a band of four boys from Liverpool was driving the Old Sod insane? How could they know that in a mere few months The Beatles would hit America and change the world? 1963 was the last year before the culture cracked. It's been fun to visit.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Scorsese's Missed Opportunity

George Harrison's eponymous 1979 album has always been a favorite of mine. It's soft, to be sure, but the tunes are all of high quality and show him in his best light: sweet, thoughtful, funny. George Harrison was also my go-to record when I wanted to fall asleep. It's a great listen AND a fine sleeping pill. That's just my personal example of the dichotomy that was George Harrison.

Martin Scorsese's much anticipated documentary on George, Living in the Material World, presented itself as the same mixed bag that was the ex-Beatle. It was sloppy and acute, focused and chaotic, touching and superficial. All like the man himself. Scorsese, or his underlings, couldn't quite grasp the man they chose to exalt. In the early segments of Part 1, the film focused on John Lennon, who is hands down more funny and clever than his younger band mate. Still, that's not why we were all watching. And to have both of George's brothers wasted in a one-off snippet that told the story of John spilling beer on a wedding guest, well that was unforgivable. What a wasted resource.

Why tell the Beatles story at all? Scorsese goes on the assumption that most viewers know the details anyway, otherwise why mention Stu's death, without noting who he was, how he may have died (or did die) and why his demise was so devastating to John? True, Dhani Harrison reading his father's letters was a solid device to show how Hari was, even at the beginning, jaded by the mania. It's unfair to judge the movie on what I think it should have been, instead of what it was, but telling the tale from the breakup onward, with flashbacks to the few pertinent Beatley moments, would have made a more effective and sharply honed narrative of George's quest for spiritual growth in a perverted world.

Part 2, the 1970 and onward period, was better, though still scattered. It bounced from All Things Must Pass, to the ill-fated Dark Horse tour of 1974, to George's creation of Handmade Films, his obsession with racing, the Traveling Wilburys and, ultimately, the outrageous attack in his home and death. The clips from what seemed to be a film made during the tour, which found George with poor voice, bad judgment in song selection (changing lyrics to Beatle songs, putting Ravi Shankar on twice), and happily, for critics, the target of venom after his "do no wrong" run from his debut album, to Concert for Bangladesh and the album which gave Scorsese's film its name, were eye-opening. George sounded horrible at first, though in fine voice a bit later on. The behind the scenes moments with a wise-cracking, throat-gargling George made we wish for a revisit to this period. not a revision, per se, because I've heard the bootlegs and the music is pretty weak, but a deep look at an interesting moment in rock history. Drummer Jim Keltner's take, that George, though struggling, was "loved" by the crowd, was an insightful look from a participant.

But even Keltner's anecdote about George putting a plug for the Jim Keltner fan club on the back cover of Living in the Material World, was missing a key fact. It wasn't a funny poke at Keltner; it was a nasty rebuke of Paul McCartney, who had a tag for a Wings Fan Club in the same spot on Red Rose Speedway. Scorsese's film had room for George as curmudgeonly, but not for George as vicious and nasty, which he could very well be.

There are powerful moments sprinkled throughout. 1976 George watching a 1964 clip of The Fabs singing "This Boy" was worth the price of admission. Tom Petty's eyes-welling account of George's call to tell of the death of Roy Orbison was touching. Eric Clapton provided thoughtful commentary throughout. And when was the last time anyone saw real emotion out of Ringo? With all his "peace and love" superficiality, Ringo has made himself a self-parodying joke, but when he tells of his last visit with George, and begins to cry, well, it was beautiful. McCartney was, as always, a tad inscrutable. His tales of his youth with George, as two young mates, came across as genuine, but at other times, when he explains his late-period dictatorial ways, it was simply another edition of the last decade's "Paul Revisionary Tour." Macca is lucky to be the last one standing who can shape the tale of The Beatles. Ringo was never in the trenches in the same way as the other three.

Olivia Harrison provided depth, the sole person who was willing to delve into her husband's foibles, however briefly. And her account of the knife wielding madman who broke into Friar Park is harrowing. A short take of George mixing a Ringo song at his home studio is made touching by a lovely hug that Dhani gives his dad. There are more wonderful bits scattered over the 3 1/2 hours but, as a friend said "vignettes do not make up a narrative."

So, what are we left with at the end? A jumbled view of an interesting man, a film that felt both too long and too short, and the empty feeling of an underwhelming effort. The hardcover companion book does a much better job of fleshing out the man. Did I like it? I have a hard time criticizing The Beatles and their projects, though I do know when the product is weak. Living in the Material World is mediocre at best, but any time I can spend with George Harrison is time well spent. I'm hoping for really good bonus features when the DVD comes out.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Beat the Rush?

When I was a kid, my Dad would take us, usually once a year, to Shea Stadium for a Mets game. It was thrilling to be at the ballpark and, regardless of what was happening on the field, it was completely joyful. Even when I got pelted by a half-grapefruit thrown from the upper deck smack into the stomach area of my new Mets’ shirt, leaving pinkish citrus ooze, I was happy (once I got back the wind that had been knocked out of me).

Except if we went to Shea on a weekday. Then, no matter the score, we would leave. “It’s a work night,” my father would pronounce. Or, “It’s a school night.” Or both. It was eminently more important to out-exit the hordes and get home at a reasonable time. My collection of scorecards is marred by games that were left voluntarily, the results of the Mets-Astros game, at 2-2 going into the ninth, suspended by our departure. I’ve never forgotten that crushing, sinking feeling of being outside the park, the halo of lights behind and above me, hearing the roar of the crowd who either didn’t work, didn’t go to school, or had the proper sense of priority to realize that the rare game they got to see was worth a little less sleep. When I got older and had season tickets at Wrigley Field, I watched each game to its conclusion, and still managed to be a productive person the next day. It was false that beating the rush was important.

I swore I’d never do that to my kids, whether it was at a sports event, a concert, whatever. Joey wanted to see The Avett Brothers on Tuesday night. It was pouring. I mean buckets, but I wasn’t going to tell him no. Even my recent back surgery was no excuse, though Joey was sweetly solicitous. I had spent Monday night undergoing my first real test - an 8-hour Board of Trustees meeting. I was physically sore at the end, but, on the whole, in fine shape. Standing at a concert would be easier, I thought, and it was, though my feet hurt during the last hour.

Nicole Atkins was the first act and she was OK. Her lead guitarist, Irina Yalkowsky, was a stellar soloist. That girl knows the proper use of dynamics! Brandi Carlile was next. I don’t know. She’s pretty popular, but left me un-won over. There was something too stagy, too false, a bit overly enthusiastic for my taste. Atkins and Carlile share a vocal trait that I dislike, the sudden switch to upper register that always strikes me as affected and out of place. Anyway, the two lead-ins didn’t bother me. I was focused on the rain that never let up.

When Joey and I saw Wilco in June, he asked if we could be up front. I told him that nothing stops determined people from getting to the stage. The Avett crowd had scores of those types, healthy young college aged folks who strongly made their way wherever they wanted. It caused an occasional scene. Early in the Avett set, there was a lot of pushing. I held my ground for my own benefit, but also was keenly aware of where Joey was and what threats surrounded him. There was fun too, with much throwing of beer cups, one which ended up landing perfectly atop an umbrella

At one point, I overheard a guy yell “Joey Katz.” It turned out to be someone Joey worked with two years ago at The Hall of Fame. I listened in, especially when the guy’s girlfriend was talking to Joey. After a while, I heard Joey say to her, “I’m 15.” To that, the girl replied, “No way dude, I thought you were 21! I’m 21!”

I turned around at that point, and she said to me, “Are you his friend?” When I told her I was his father, she was dumbfounded and then began to heap praise upon the boy. It was pretty cool. By that time the crowd had settled into position, but there were some points of fun and violence to come.

In front of me stood a 20-something man who early on struck me as a douche, egging on a guy pissed off at someone trying to cut ahead of him. When the rain stopped for about 2 minutes, he began to elaborately disrobe, taking off his jacket, then his backpack. From his bag he brought out, and began to assemble, a pipe, a very long pipe. It was ridiculous. Pipe Guy grabbed some tobacco from a metallic pouch, bits sticking to his wet hand. He lit up, began puffing away like a 19th century burgomaster, and offered it around. I couldn’t believe Joey didn’t try some, and told him so, jokingly.

“What would you have done if I did?” I told him I probably wouldn’t have cared. Having shared a passed bottle of Jack Daniels at a Rolling Stones’ show in 1981, who was I to talk.

When a cowboy-hatted scruff-beard tried to make his way through the tightly packed audience, causing strife for some, Pipe Guy couldn’t quite get the negative vibes. I told him that perhaps not everyone had achieved the serenity he gained by taking up the pipe. He liked that.

The occasional rough stuff was a good thing for Joey to see. I told him that in packed concerts one had to be very vigilant and aware of what was happening around them. Soon after, a very out of it drunk or drugged dude came barreling through. The same person who had been taunted by Pipe Guy was not happy and viciously grabbed the intruder by the neck and literally threw him backward. Angry Guy was steaming, but Fucked Up Dude was unperturbed. He was so out of it that no signal would have been recognized.

I understood Angry Guy’s reaction but not his follow-up assault. Fucked Up Dude tried to bash through again, far from Angry Guy. FUD succeeded and was well past our area, when Angry Guy went deep into the crowd after him and pulled him back. “Why are you looking for a fight?” asked Joey’s former co-worker. It was odd.

The Avetts were truly spectacular. They seem a little mentally challenged to me, with their quirks and tics and verbal outbursts. All to good effect. Joe Qwan, their cellist, looks like an evil Mongol extra from a bad Genghis Khan movie. I was happy to have seen the show. Afterwards, the parking lot was a muddy morass and, to add squelching insult to the soggy injury of the evening, we got stuck. We weren’t alone. Happily, college kids are young, strong and willing to do goofy things for fun; packs of them were gleefully pushing cars out. We took full advantage of their services. The road never felt so good.

Was it worth it? I don't know. The headliners were terrific but standing for four plus hours in a monsoon, with painful feet and a soaked 1970's Atlanta Braves cap that became as heavy as a space helmet, made it memorable and that may be the better. We hung tough in miserable weather, Joey learned how passionate crowds operate, and we had awesome sugar waffles. We’ll be talking about this one for a long time.

Monday, August 29, 2011

La tragica vita

I sat down to watch La Dolce Vita a few night's ago (or, as Nate said, "it's the classic La Dolse Vita). It'd been many years since I'd seen it, during a period where I caught up to every Fellini film (I may still need to see 1 or 2). I remembered a lot of the movie, knew I loved it, but was in no way prepared on how staggering its impact would be on me this time around. Maybe it's because I'm older; maybe I just forgot a similar reaction on last viewing. I mostly couldn't believe I didn't remember Nico was in it, but there she was talking like she sings, just as she sings like she talks.

Marcello's gossip columnist character has quickly found that the empty, glamour chasing life has gotten him nowhere. However, if you pursue your true love – in Marcello’s case literature, the arts - then you’re screwed too. A life of domestic simplicity, taking on a real job and settling down to a routine, like the father you have romanticized, or the girlfriend who romanticizes you – well, that’s a dead end as well. ("This isn’t love; it’s brutalization!" Marcello famously tells his Emma). When even a sweet angel, from heaven by way of Umbria, beckons you across the smallest of chasms to your salvation, a physically easy walk but an emotional leap as vast as the widest Alpine valley, so vast that there’s no hope of crossing, there remains no choice but to refuse. That is the saddest moment of all.

Each set piece – Hollywood-type party, aristocrats cavorting in an ancient villa, moneyed class boringly flaunting their riches - is empty, each group offering their own vacuous existence as an alternative. Nothing is as beautiful as it seems. Anita Ekberg's classic wade through Trevi Fountain, with Fellini painting her as otherworldly, magical, a statue come to life in unbelievably large proportions, turns tawdry and washed out in the light of morning. Night is where the magic happens and where, usually, one can be convinced, falsely, that there is beauty and purpose in life. All hopes fade with the sun.

Everyone is a whore in their own way, selling their soul and selling it badly, never getting what they thought they’d get when the bargain was made. The Chicken Girl, who, like Marcello, came from the sticks to Rome with a dream, will do anything, be abused in anyway, if it helps her reach her goal. Marcello is a true coward and maybe she is too. He makes her into a symbol, covering her with feathers from a ripped pillow. It's his final act of realization; he's at his most cruel when he's attacking his alter image.

The final scene, at the beach with the monstrous fish/ray who's been caught in a net and is likely to fetch a high price, hits hard. Why does the sea creature insist on looking, wide eyed? Doesn’t he know it’s all over for him?

The dead are always the last to know. Aren't we all?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

This is Spinal Surgery

Six years ago, I had a lot of back pain, the result, I assume, of two decades, give or take, of standing in trading pits. I went through a series of MRIs and found out I was a mess: stenosis, arthritis, cord compression, and a few more bits. I had surgery scheduled, but knew enough guys back in Chicago who went under the knife to cure back pain. It never worked. So I cancelled.

With much doubt, I started seeing a chiropractor, and the back pain disappeared. In its place arose a new set of symptoms: leg numbness, pain, a constant sense of having pins and needles. I have a high pain threshold, equal to that of a dairy farmer a friend said (high praise) so I bore with it, but when my knees started buckling and I suffered an occasional fall down the two steps to the computer room (invariably while holding a full cup of coffee), I knew I needed to revisit the ol' MRI machine to see what was causing my 48 year old body to pose as an 80 year old's. (I wrote about that two posts ago, I believe).

With the results in, I saw a neurosurgeon on Tuesday. He was alarmed at the progression (or is it regression?). My spine was so pinched, like an indented pool noodle, that he feared a fall would cause some serious damage. I needed surgery and this time I was up for it. This wasn't for pain, this was about functionality. Not that I love to walk, but I do like having the option. The surgeon left to call the operating room as to their schedule, and Karen and I were shocked to find upon his return that two days later, on Thursday morning, I was going to be cut.

On one hand it was a comfort to not have time to think about it. On the other hand, it would've been nice to have some time to think about it. Didn't matter though, the wheels were now in motion.

With the market behaving with the same lack of control as my legs, I thought about how much this might cost me. What could a little spinal surgery come to - $30,000, $40,000, $50,000? I had no idea and was afraid to call my insurance company, even though I assumed I wouldn't have to pay the full boat. I assumed they'd try to tell me not to have the procedure. The hospital, Bassett in Cooperstown, was very helpful, filling me in on their conversation with Allied Benefits and, it turns out I have a cap on cost. I did call Allied, but got the feeling they were just spitting back what I told them Bassett had told me. I nervously await the bill.

The surgery was moved from 11 AM to 9 AM, which was good since I couldn't eat after midnight. We checked in and, in the waiting room, which had floor-to-ceiling black and white baseball shots which I'll have to investigate further (there was a nice one of Maury Wills backhanding a grounder), Karen and I went through the paperwork.

"What's PACU?" she asked the woman at the desk.

"Oh, that's the recovery room."

It was clear Karen wasn't going to get what she wanted, which was what the acronym stood for. It became a running gag: everyone she asked told her "Oh, that's the recovery room."

I've found that having friends as doctors makes the hospital experience more relaxing. I never would have thought that in the past. Down on the operating floor, we talked to my anesthesiologist, who was the first person to give me the lowdown on some of the risks.

"You're going to be prone for five hours and, though we are very careful, you may develop pressure sores from the weight distribution. Chin, knees, hip bones. Sometimes there's pressure on the eyes that could lead to blindness, but that's never happened here."

There was more: a breathing tube, which when removed would leave me with a temporary throat problem (I have a Vito Corleone thing going on still) and a catheter, which I dreaded. I was told the tube would come out before I was awake, but the catheter would remain. It wouldn't hurt, I was assured. It would feel weird, like having an earthworm pulled from my penis.

This was scary stuff. "Could I back out now?" I asked, with no real intention of doing so.

"You wouldn't be the first."

The surgeon came in, and reiterated my problem. The spinal cord is supposed to be an oval looking downward, but mine looks like a three-cornered hat. The Tea Party strikes again! I was to undergo a laminotomy (still don't know), a discectomy (removal of a disc) and a cage fusion (either an exotic wrestling match or a newly built metal and bone support).

By this time I wasn't very nervous. Having had a colonoscopy a long time back helped. Before that delight, I was told I wouldn't remember anything. That was hard for me to intellectualize, but having undergone the experience I know it to be true.

Finally the moment came and I was wheeled into the OR. I remember the lights, and some people milling about, and then it was about 3:30, I was in PACU (Peri-operative Acute Care Unit, we eventually found out), and it was all over. Some people visited me to check me out and fit me with a new plastic brace/corset. Reports were that I was very cooperative.

The worst was over, and I wasn't even aware of how it played out, but the recovery was going to prove problematic. Not physically, I could already feel my legs were better. I had the worst roommate imaginable: a cantankerous, complaining, snoring evil Oz behind the curtain that divided the room. All night long his machines were buzzing. He couldn't figure out why, but I could here that he wasn't interested in how to fix it. The nurses told him how to avoid having his IV tangled but he insisted he had faulty equipment. Even when no staff was present, he would complain out loud. I had no problems with anyone and if they arrived a little late on my behalf I was fine with it. Cranky Neighbor bitched on my behalf. Thank God for earplugs.

The night went reasonably well despite the black cloud to my right, and I learned something important about myself. I can't pee lying down. You're given a jug to use, which was some relief accident wise, but I need to get up and that would prove a chore. Two strong guys were brought in to help me up and I made it to the bathroom, a heroic achievement. It was a struggle to get from lying down to sitting up. As the night wore on, I was able to leave bed with only a little help.

All signs pointed to a lunchtime discharge. I was feeling fine, though sore, as if someone had sliced their way through my back muscles. My wound was draining into a white hockey puck device that was connected through a tube into my back. This too, upon removal, would feel weird like the evil earthworm of the catheter.

Karen and Nate came to visit. Nate was worried, on edge a bit, but soon, with no real sense of my comfort, hopped into bed with me and started watching TV. "You're not dying, are you?" When he saw my puck, he asked, "Is your blood brown?"was very sweet and comforting.

Karen, who was as wonderful as I would expect, had put in a lot of hours the night before and came back as soon as Joey got off to work. She took Nate for pizza in the cafeteria, and it was only a matter of time before I was released, leaving my nemesis behind the veil cursing and screaming at his lazy, good for nothing wife who couldn't do anything right. At least that was his take on her; I was glad to leave.

I slept on the couch last night, finding my down to the floor and bathroom. It's truly amazing that I had back surgery two days ago, and have already improved dramatically, enough that I'm sitting at the kitchen writing this. No pain, all gain.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Leader For Our Troubled Time

As I watched the market crumble this past week, and our political leaders range from idiotically crazy (GOTeaParty) to impotently weak and purposeless (Obama and Dems), I realized that I'd also seen, with my own two eyes, a leader who we need, a leader who is willing to lead and isn't afraid to do so.

He's smart, capable of things his peers could never dream of, and he revels in his intelligence. When his homeland is threatened, he summons up great strength in its defense, though is filled with contrition when confronted with the fact that he may have crossed a line between protection and aggression.

This is a leader who understands his own, who realizes what they need to succeed and isn't afraid to fight for those beliefs. For those incapable of helping themselves, he's there for them, not in words but in deeds. His goals are achieved by the means suited for the particular situation: kindness, cleverness and, when necessary, a literal thump in the head. But it's all for the greater good and he knows it.

Even when he has nearly reached the mountaintop, has almost reached his goal, he doesn't gloat and wreak violent revenge on his defeated foes. Even among his enemies, he sees there are friends, good people who can be reached. Never, never does he rule out interaction with an entire class of people because of the mistakes of the few, even the vicious few who have mercilessly tortured his compatriots. That takes strength of character.

This is that leader:

Caesar: In Your Heart, You Know He's Right.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Havin' a MRI ol' time

Six years ago I went through a series of MRIs. I was experiencing a lot of back pain, something I was used to after nearly two decades standing in the trading pits of the Chicago Board Options’ Exchange. What I wasn’t used to was the weird tingling and soreness in my extremities, something that troubled me, and my doctor, who suspected multiple sclerosis. So I went in for an MRI.

The first one was acceptably uncomfortable. Sliding into the chamber, I was given a mirror to see outside. I could also peek out on my own to see the ceiling. I’m not claustrophobic, and it was a reasonably short test. What I wasn’t prepared for was the loud clanging of the magnets, a sci-fi metallic banging that changed its rhythm when a different scan began. It was disconcerting, to say the least. The test was inconclusive and I was scheduled for another, a bit lower than the first brain scan. It was spinal time.

Number two seemed easy, until I was shoved in to the gaping maw of the machine and found I couldn’t see anything, nothing but the glowing white innards of that seemed pressed against my face. I freaked and pressed the panic button, signaling to the operators that I needed to get the hell out of there. I was a wreck, but they guilted me into going back in. “Sir, we really don’t want to have to reschedule.” I composed myself and was conveyor belted back inside. There, I occupied my time thinking of baseball, trying to name every Mets’ manager (I forgot about Art Howe).

They ask before the exam whether you have any metal in your eye. Seems like there was a case where someone had an industrial accident of some kind and the powerful magnets contained in the Magnetic Resonance Imaging device tore the metal shards from his or her eyes. I think that was later used in a Saw movie. I realized I had my wedding ring on, which didn’t count as dangerous metal, but I didn’t know that at the time and flung it across the room. It took a while to find it. That test was also without result.

Once more into the breach and this time it would be a double whammy: 90 minutes inside the giant tube. No way. I knew couldn’t hold out that long. Then a surgeon friend suggested Valium and, though I shy away from pills, I was eager to fill that prescription. The longest test went the easiest. I slept through most of it, and when I woke up I was calm, though extra-toasty. That thing heats up.

The results were definitive - cord compression, disc compression, and arthritic conditions up and down my spine. The solution was vaguer. I had back surgery scheduled, though the two neurosurgeons that looked at me had varying opinions. Eventually I backed out. I knew enough guys from the pits who had back surgery that ended up badly. One died, though, to be fair, it was in a car accident years later. But still.

Lately I’ve been feeling lousy, though my back pain is virtually gone due to weekly chiropractic work. I have what is called “All Shook Up” disease: my legs are shaky and my knees are weak, so weak that I have the occasional knee-buckle that leads to near-falls or completed falls. My legs are a constant combination of numbness and pain, like the tingling you get when you’re coming out of pins and needles. I deal with it but, when a doctor friend commented as he watched me walk, “Dude, you’re all fucked up.” Not much of a clinical diagnosis, but enough for me to act on. With much reservation, I went back last night for both thoracic and lumbar MRIs, a double whammy redux.

I left my wedding ring at home this time, but not my pills. I had my Valium in hand, and upon arrival one hour before the test, I was fairly relaxed. At 6:30 PM I downed my little round friend and watched Modern Times in the waiting room. I felt very much at peace. I was called in to change, and, upon lying down on the tongue of my old nemesis, began to sweat. I thought I’d be near-sleep by then. Instead I was near-panic, and very much concerned I couldn’t go through with it. Dan, who would administer the test, talked me through it before he sent me into the mouth of the machine with panic button in right hand, and wouldn’t leave until I said so. He’d given me earplugs which expanded and muffled him as he spoke, so I may have missed something.

To my surprise and joy, the white plastic roof above my head seemed much further from my face than I recalled. Maybe an inch or so away, but it felt downright spacious. The incessant banging of the magnets hammered their discordant melody. To occupy my mind, I visualized my future publishing success: the call from my agent telling me my proposal had been sold, the glowing reviews, my appearance on The Daily Show, the follow-up Maybe Baby book, and so on. I even had a new idea or two. Before I knew it I heard Dan announce that the first part was finished.

He put me further into the machine, where the white became beige and gave me even more room. I worried that this might put me in more confined space, but it felt like Howe Caverns compared to what I was expecting. When I was slid back I almost lost control of my distress button, but I quickly tightened my grasp.

There’s a bit of a pause when the imaging area changes. It’s short, but, for a moment, a gap struck me as far too long. The night before we had all watched Liam Neeson’s Unknown and there’s an MRI scene where Neeson’s character is on a gurney, a bit drugged, and in danger of his life. That was on my mind during the long silence. At first, I thought it unlikely that Dan had been murdered and I was in a perilous situation, but a terrible thought crossed my mind. He could have had a heart attack and died, leaving me bound in the machine, the buzzing of my signal screaming “let me out” left unheard. I wondered if I could squirm out, whether the strap that held my head down would prevent me from escape. The Valium helped lessen the growing stress, but, though I never thought I’d think it, I was relieved to hear the pounding of the magnets start up.

By then I wanted out, though not in a wild way. I’d had enough, it was getting warm, and I was running out of things to think about. Finally, I could feel the cool air from an opened door and then Dan’s presence. I was done.

Back home, the family gathered around to watch The Concert for Bangladesh, one day after its 40th anniversary. I needed the sound of “Awaiting on You All” to wash away the clanging of the MRI and the memories of an unpleasant 90 minutes. Thanks to George Harrison, all things passed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I Ain't Gonna Stand For It

Why do people stand for God Bless America? It's a pop song for crissakes! When the Philadelphia Flyers' fans of the 1970's adopted the Kate Smith version as an anthem of sorts, back when the Broad Street Bullies fought their way to the Stanley Cup, it was a perverse claiming of a schmaltzy chestnut as statement of identity. But since 9/11, when the Yankees had Ronan Tynan sing GBA, it has taken on an air of the holy. People were already standing for the 7th-inning stretch, why sit now? God Bless has become such a quasi-anthem that the New York Police once ejected a fan for going to the bathroom during its singing. That the scofflaw was a Red Sox fan may have more to do with it than the perception of insufficient patriotism.

I rail at this, but this Paul Revere horse has left the barn. There's no getting back to the idea that God Bless America is merely an Irving Berlin ditty, written for the Hit Parade. I tried explaining this at a recent Rotary meeting and was met with dagger stares. It's getting worse. Yesterday, Rotarians, haltingly at first, stood for the singing of America, the Beautiful. First, one, then two, then, guiltily, a few more, until the tide was irresistible. We all arose and I stewed. What can you do?

What's next? Should people stand when they hear Simon & Garfunkel's America? How about James Brown's Living in America? It has "America" in the title AND was featured in Rocky IV. What a red, white and blue juggernaut! And what about the songs from the group America? I won't stand up for A Horse with No Name, I assure you.

However, I could be convinced to rise for Sister Golden Hair.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Music and Movie Thoughts

From, say, 1983-1993, I was 100% devoted to jazz. The managers of Slipped Disc Record Co-op at SUNY-Binghamton were given free records instead of a cash stipend. Some geniuses well before my time as General Manager devised a point system that maximized the amount of records we could take to gibe with the equivalent cash value of a similar campus job. After one year as GM, I had fairly well maxed out my pop and rock needs and, looking for a new musical outlet, I tried jazz, loved it, and that was that for the next decade.

The only exception I made was for new releases by old favorites: McCartney, Dylan, that sort. I knew I was missing out on bands I really liked, but choices had to be made. I find myself catching up now, buying bulk lots of instant record or CD collections on eBay. It takes a bit of patience, but I'm making my way towards fixing that hole.

The Smiths are one of those groups I liked but never bought. I had entire John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins catalogs to make my way through! There was no time, or extra money, for Meat is Murder. Yet, lately, The Smiths are all I hear in my head. If I listened to "Half a Person" once this morning, I listened to it five times. Don't get me started on "Girlfriend in a Coma," which seems to be swirling all around me the last few weeks. So, as I watch and wait, looking for all The Smiths albums in one fell swoop, I'll keep playing Louder Than Bombs and watching You Tube clips. I will end up with all their records eventually.

I've seen every Marlon Brando movie save two or three. There are lots of stinkers in his canon, but Brando is always a sight to see and one scene can make the time well spent. Crapfests like Morituri (or, Saboteur: Code Name Morituri) are made memorable by Marlon moments. Robert DeNiro had that skill for some time, but now that his acting skill has been reduced to the permanent Focker grimace and mugging that was once comedically fresh (Midnight Run) but is now annoying and pathetic, Bobby has become almost impossible to watch.

It's Edward Norton that is the real heir to the Brando throne and, paired with DeNiro in Stone, it shows. Norton's convict of the title is deep, inscrutable, and natural. DeNiro, as his parole officer, can't keep up. It' s hard to believe I could write that but it's true. The film itself is mediocre, but Norton is what makes it worth watching. There is one scene, towards the end, when DeNiro gives up on believing in Norton's character. It's old time great DeNiro and coupled with still great Norton is brilliant work.

Harry Potter. I've never read the books and when I'd hear adults tell me they read them and "they're really good," I have no doubt. But, you know, it makes me sick.

"You're an adult," I scream internally," read Crime and Punishment or something. Half Blood Prince is where you make your mark on reading? And go no further? Come on, don't be so infantile." Exhale.

The movies are OK, but each one's marginal return is less and less. I finally saw Deathly Hallows Part 1 last night and it was fine. It was the first one in the series I hadn't seen in the theater and it was good enough that I didn't regret the time spent. A little too much Lord of the Rings-y for me. Could Dobby be any more Smigel-like in concept, or the Horcrux that, when worn, makes the wearer behave badly? "Precious" anyone?

I know we're all supposed to believe in the love triangle of Harry-Hermoine-Ron, but does any sentient being over the age of 10 believe in the sexual chemistry between any of those three dweebs? Seeing Weasley with his shirt off is enough to make me call in the Death Eaters.

I have no reason to see these films other than completing the set, and I will dutifully see Part 2, but I can't say when. It'll definitely be without any enthusiasm.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Cry in the Casey Anthony

A mother, baby daughter dead under mysterious circumstances, is pilloried by the public and press. "Of course she did it, just look at her. Her story makes no sense, her emotions are off." Casey Anthony? No, I couldn't give a shit about her or her case. Thousands of injustices are perpetrated every year in our judicial system and more innocents than that are victimized. Is it because she's white trash and the salivating public can feel superior to her wanton ways? Again, I don't give a shit.

It's ironic that we sat down last night to watch A Cry in the Dark, the 1988 Meryl Streep vehicle, made timeless by Elaine Benes' "Maybe the dingo ate your baby" line in Seinfeld. Robbie wanted to catch up on courtroom classics and this was one of them, and one of the few I've never seen.

Director Fred Schepisi does wonders weaving the mass reaction to Lindy and Michael Chamberlain's possible murdering of their baby girl Azaria. This true Australian crime story came to a head just months before the movie's release. It's both gripping and off-putting, much in the way that the main characters are. As parents they are a messed up pair of religious zealots and weirdos. Streep is top-notch, Sam Neill is too, and I learned that Ozzies of both sexes were very much into tube socks in the early '80's. This, more than anything, is what I'll take away from the movie.

The DVD we got from Netflix was cracked straight across from center to edge. I assumed it wouldn't play at all, yet it did, for over an hour. Then it stopped. We were left in limbo yesterday, not knowing the truth, the courtroom scene about to begin as the film froze. Now, we'll have to wait for another copy to see how it all played out, whether the parents were guilty or not. The verdict is still out, the result of a faulty piece of media.

How's that for symbolic resonance?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Why Remake?

What's the point of a remake? A new artistic twist, a la The Killers morphed into Pulp Fiction? No argument from me. The Americanization of a foreign plot, say The Seven Samurai, converted to a more comfortable western setting (The Magnificent Seven). Again, I've got no issues. Still, you've got to say something different to make it not merely an economic cash-in or an "American audiences are just too dumb for a foreign film" re-do.

The Coen Brothers' True Grit is a fine film, but adds nothing. Jeff Bridges is as gripping as John Wayne in the Rooster Cogburn role. Matt Damon is better than Glen Campbell in a "no-shit Sherlock" kinda way. Hallie Steinfeld is very good, but Kim Darby defined the role of Maddie and, though Wayne won the Oscar, Darby stole the show. Or maybe it was the hair?

There are couple of Coen specific touches - a camera pulling back from a desolate cabin, a bit of digit related violence - but, though I very much liked it, I couldn't see the point and forgot it quickly.

Let the Right One In was one of my favorite movies of 2008. A vampire movie that was more coming of age, Swedish mood piece, the performances were superior, the atmosphere depressing yet triumphant. Quite a great film. So why Let Me In? This 2010 Hollywood version is fine. It's a nearly identical remake (though not shot by shot like Gus van Sant's Psycho, which, though a piece of shit, had an artistic point of view). It's good, but, again, why, other than it's in English.

Is it so true that Americans can't handle a superior original in subtitles? Did Let Me In do better at the box office, considering its budget, than the original would have done in wider distribution? Doubtful. The effects are horribly fake and the setting of Los Alamos is a distraction, planting thoughts of nuclear fallout and radiation that have zero to do with what's onscreen. Weird.

Do yourself a favor - see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels in glorious Swedish before you're forced to see the Tinseltown takes. Not to say H'wood will do a bad job. They just won't do a better one.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Report from the Ground at Solid Sound

After a proposed trip down to Bonnaroo fell through, I felt I owed Joey something. That something became a one-day pass to Wilco's Solid Sound Festival at Mass Moca.

We got up early Saturday. Well, I got up early; Joey got up 10 minutes before we were scheduled to leave and, in a tizzy, got himself together. It's a reasonable drive from Cooperstown to North Adams, MA. Two hours and thirty minutes later, we pulled into the parking lot, ecstatic to have made it early enough (11 AM) to avoid the remote lots which would have been soul-crushing to face when the day ended.

Mass Moca's industrial backdrop was perfectly laid out for the festival: lots of courtyards, interesting alcoves and easy access to the different sites. Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody's granddaughter, was the first act of the day. A little boring but overall pleasant. She'll become important later on in the story.

Next up, one courtyard over, were The Sic Alps. They were heavy, loud and tons of fun. Joey and I were up close, leaning on the stage. The band provides great visuals: lead guitar/vocals, drummer/guitar player and weird feedback guy in the shadows. There was a man standing next to me who leaned over and loudly proclaimed: "I love music." Profound stuff.

Next up were The Handsome Family. I'd liked what I'd heard on line but they left me flat. I was disappointed and we didn't stay long, heading over to the train-converted-into-a-cramped-house exhibit and finding the samosa seller. A festival employee told us John Hodgman was spotted buying a falafel.

Liam Finn. What can I say about this musical Zach Galifianakis? Awesome energy, killer tunes and dynamic stage presence. The double drum gimmick was powerful, hearkening back to the old Thunder and Lightning duo of Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner. Things ramped up when Glenn Kotche of Wilco got behind one of the kits.

Joey and I played everything right. On Friday (we weren't there but heard the talk), there were massive storms that created havoc. Up to this point, we were bone dry. By heading to the inside comedy performances, we remained so, missing a downpour. Eugene Mirman, Wyatt Cenac and John Hodgman, with a guest appearance by Lewis Black, provided a pleasant break from the music.

We checked in with Thurston Moore, briefly. He usually leaves me cold. Instead we made yet one more stop at Euclid Records and bought The Sic Alps CD, two Wilco 45's on clear vinyl and T. Rex's The Slider. I was looking at the T. Rex albums and noticed Joey, eyes opened wide in expectation. I deferred to him and, though we both needed and wanted the record, like a good Dad I let him buy it. Then we were off to Joe’s Field, site of the headliners. (But first a burrito).

"Think we can be in the front for Wilco?" Joey asked. I explained to him that a determined person can always get to the stage, depending on how much they didn't mind pissing off other people. We got to the railing, uneventfully, up at stage left. Once situated, we heard the announcement that a short-lived storm was coming through. We went back to Euclid but it was so hot and humid in there that we ended up outside, finding a spot under an overhang. When the rain passed, and it was in buckets, we headed to the field and got our spot back. Again, well played!

Syl Johnson, a soul-infused vision in red, rocked the crowd. Syl pushed his new box set with almost every song. "This is featured on my new box set, Complete Mythology." Over and over again. Favorite part - Johnson asking if we knew The Wu-Tang Clan, 'cuz they gave him lots of money when they sampled him on "Shame On a Nigga."

We'd seen Wilco open for Neil Young a few years back and wished there'd been more of them and less of Neil. This was our first full Wilco concert, though I'd seen Jeff Tweedy once. They were simply wonderful and provided one of the sweetest moments I've ever witnessed at a concert. As the opening strains of "Jesus, Etc." floated over the euphoric crowd, Jeff let the fans sing, by themselves, for over half the tune. It was beautiful, soft, halting, the audience not sure whether to keep going, but Tweedy kept them at it. I like Wilco a lot, but I gave up learning words to songs sometime after The River came out. I knew a few phrases, but I was an outsider, not an insider. The view from there was fine.

Liam Finn joined the band for "I’ll Fight" and Ms. Guthrie came out for the encore. There, in a "long overdue moment" according to Tweedy, Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter sang "California Stars" from Mermaid Ave, lyrics by her famous forefather. Special doesn't quite cut it.

Remembering our killer parking spot, I was not pushing to leave quickly. What was the point? We still had 2 1/2 hours to drive; what was another 15 minutes making sure Joey bought a couple of shirts, including the Syl Johnson "Is It Because I'm Black" tee (It's featured on my new box set, Complete Mythology, don't you know?).

Though I missed a few turns along the way, we arrived home at 2:30, and, tired and happy, watched Robbie graduate high school later that afternoon. But I’m still sleepy.

(photos by Joey Katz)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Another Year Not Just Another Movie

Another Year is one of those movies that I throw on my Netflix list when it hits the theaters and, by the time it comes out on DVD and gets delivered to my door, I forget why it caught my attention to begin with. That leads to a perverse feeling of dread of the "I don't want to watch this film but I got it for a reason so I'll watch it anyway but it'll suck." Invariably, the movies that fall into that rental category turn out to be wonderful. So it is with Mike Leigh's latest.

It's a remarkable film, held together less by plot than by theme and mood. Tom and Gerri (true) are a happily married couple, an older couple in their 60's. Played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, the two exude calm and contentment, but they are not shallow, they are not boring and they are real. The subtle looks that Sheen delivers, the occasional fiery outburst by Broadbent, are delicately played but played to the hilt.

The attention-grabber is Lesley Manville as Mary, the irresponsible co-worker of Gerri, who is under the delusion that she's young. Clearly in her mid-50's, Mary is the type who prays desperately that people think she's 30, when at best she could be mistaken for ten years younger. Manville grabs your eye in a way her character only hopes to, and the central scene, when her pipe dreams are blown apart, will leave you breathless.

Another Year shows that "boring" real lives are anything but and, though seen as commonplace, are as rare as can be. How we get to our current state is our own creation; some realize that late, some never at all. Leigh presents a grand movie about the simplest of concepts: people can be happy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Another Night in Cassavetes Land

I've seen most of John Cassavetes' directorial efforts. Not all, most. They swing wildly from overwrought to muted, from histrionically unreal to uncomfortably real. I like them and I don't.

Husbands (1970) has been on my must-see list forever. I finally watched it last night. Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Cassavetes himself portray three close friends who descend into a frenzy of self-searching after the death Stuart, which turns their quartet of pals into a trio. Archie, Harry and Gus are so terribly worn and old in their early 40's, years younger than I am today. I was taken aback by how beaten down a 40-year-old was 40 years ago.

They are each selfish and childish in equal, though different, measure. Not likeable characters, particularly Gazzara's Harry who, in an over the top but harrowingly raw scene, has it out with his wife and mother-in-law. Cassavetes' Gus has his moments of charm, but when he does his crazy Victor Franko turn a la The Dirty Dozen, he's tremendously off-putting and hard to believe. Falk's Archie is a schlemiel, a bit hapless and pathetic, but he's Peter Falk and that's always good enough. The acting so is wonderful that I couldn't help like them all.

The film starts in dirty New York City, another entry for my list of filthy Manhattan movies of the '70's. I do love that disgusting, gritty look. As in all Cassavetes movies, there are natural moments, and when the three boys cavort and carry on in the streets, the camera captures their antics as passersby watch on in amusement and shock. Archie and Gus have a race walk down the block and an old broad turns her head, mouth opened roundly in a stunning bit of cinema verite. Scenes, as always, go on too long, no more so than the singing around the bar table bit. It's two-thirds wonderful, but that extra one-third really sucks the energy out of it. A Cassavetes trademark.

Gazzara, now realizing his marriage is over, decides to head to London. His two buddies agree to go along for the ride and tuck him into his hotel only to return right home. In their own bout of mid-life crisis, the pair find themselves with strange women in their hotel rooms wondering what to do next. I couldn't quite understand Gus and Archie's motivations; it seemed they had happy family lives. Perhaps that's how men carried on back then. I won't say how all three come through their struggles, but a cameo by Cassavetes' kids, Nick and Alexa, are highlights of the movie.

There's something about Falk, Cassavetes and Gazzara that is mesmerizing and fun. All three are, in their own ways, incredibly undervalued as individual actors. All together in Husbands, they're not to be missed.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Not Wasted On the Young

Mentally I feel young. Not 18 young, but, say, 32 young. My interests are the same – books, music, movies – as they were when I was a teenager. Age has allowed me to read more, hear more and watch more. That’s the only difference.

I still dress the same. Jeans, shorts, T-shirts. There’s a certain immaturity to that, I know, but I simply don’t care about clothes. Never have, never will. However, I just had a moment that may change my ways.

There’s nothing more pathetic than a middle-aged person desperately trying to connect with teenagers. I don’t mean in a creepy way, but in a way that reeks of a “hey, I’m not that much older than you” vibe. I don’t go for that, but my music and movie tastes tend to bridge the generation gap. But I am older than these kids, 30 years older, and though we may share some likes, I’m finding it unhealthy to believe that, let’s face it, I’m very old in their eyes.

I’ve been thinking about who in my life was 48 when I was 18, and you know what, they were friggin’ old! Granted, they listened to Mantovani and watched Marcus Welby, MD, and that made them seem older still, but facts are facts. No matter how youthful my brain thinks it is, the rest of me isn’t.

So here’s what happened. I was wearing my T-shirt with Jeff Bridge’s giant Dude character, and my favorite quote from The Big Lebowski underneath: “Man, I hate the f***ing Eagles!” Robbie had borrowed it and worn it to school a couple of weeks ago and got into a bit of trouble over its slight offensives. I wore it last week, which was fine because, as usual, I was staying home. A call from Joey, “I forgot my French books,” precipitated a drive to school.

I didn’t think about the shirt until I got out of my car. Robbie and his classmates were hanging out for a creative writing class on the grassy circle in the parking lot. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I felt embarrassed about what I was wearing. True or not, I felt like an aging hipster; there’s nothing worse than that. When I dropped off Joey’s books at the front desk, I made sure to cover up as much of the risqué message. I got home and felt, for the first time in my life, that perhaps I should start acting my age.

I think it comes down to accepting that almost 50 is not the new 30. It’s the same old 50. Not that I want to do anything about it. The classic “middle age crisis” – divorce, young girlfriend, new car, second marriage, etc. – is completely perplexing to me, though I see it around me. All of that would only make a person feel older, right? Isn’t that the opposite of what’s being sought? And it’s not that I look back on the me of 20, 25, 30, and wish I were that guy again. Maybe no age fits me that well.

I’m not of the “hope I die before I get old” crowd; that ship has long sailed (though the thought of living close to the amount of years I’ve lived does not fill me with joy). Yet, I can say unequivocally, that even with all the good things that have come with age, getting old blows. And it’s only gonna get worse.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Some Thoughts on Bobby Dylan

I think it was Freewheelin’. Yup, I’m sure it was Freewheelin’. That was my first Dylan album. I got it at Korvette’s and, I’ll admit with shame, that I was already 15 or 16. Those were the years I began buying albums in earnest. Before then it was the occasional Beatles, McCartney or Paul Simon record; I wasn’t too serious. From that moment on, I measured time through Bob Dylan.

Some markers:

October 23, 1981. The long drive from Binghamton to Philadelphia. No GPS, no cell phone, no dough. Smashing into another car in a diner parking lot and running scared. Thought I would heave when he strode on stage, breaking into “Gotta Serve Somebody” in the echoey Spectrum. Finding a 76er’s calendar in the bathroom. The dark and deer-observed roads heading back north.

Jul 16, 1986. Now engaged, almost married. The big Dylan/Petty tour and we were there at Madison Square Garden. Karen buying me a program, a luxury I never would have bestowed on myself, but am thankful to have this very day.

Nate, around 6 years old, somewhere in 1996-97. No music lover he, but from his bedroom CD player came Blonde on Blonde for weeks. He latched onto that for reasons unknown. A few weeks ago, “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” blaring from the computer and Nate, now 20, sitting next to me saying “Hey, I know that song.”

Moving to Cooperstown in June 2003 and one year later having Bob play down the block at Doubleday Field. Sitting in the first base bleachers with little Joey, Dylan in center field. Then, two years later, helping to bring him back home for an encore.

2008? Robbie immersed in five disc Genuine Basement Tapes, getting a crash course in Dylan humor and the joys of The Band. July 2009, sitting on the front porch with college pals, listening to Joey play “Desolation Row” on guitar.

Back in Binghamton, my old school, standing by the stage with Robbie and Joey in November 2010. Me and my boys, hanging onto the railing as Bob strutted, mugged and belted ‘em out, thinking back to when I first got to college and drove to Philly, never dreaming that 30 years later I’d be right back, with sons of my own, watching the great one in action. Robbie going nutty when Bob launched into the Lebowski-rejuvenated “The Man in Me.”

I find myself quoting Dylan often, his words affixed to every occasion. Like Muhammad Ali, Dylan has gone from revolutionary to revered, from living outside the law to loved like a crusty old uncle. He’s charted a new path, a path no other rock star has carved, producing some of his best albums in his last years.

Talking about his hero, but meaning himself, from “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”:

You need something to open up a new door

To show you something you seen before

But overlooked a hundred times or more

You need something to open your eyes

Bob Dylan said that.

Thankfully he’s not dead or a-dyin’, in no need for us to see that his grave is kept clean. And on his 70th birthday, listening to his songs all day long, I’m grateful for his very existence and nervy persistence. Thanks Bob.

I said that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rabbit Hole

I can't stop thinking about Rabbit Hole.

What I love about this film is it's complete adultness. Forget the tragic event that is at the core of the story. It's indisputable that loss of Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart's son is the driving force behind the drama. But, for me, it's not what makes the movie wrenching. What makes it unforgettable is that every turn in every reaction and every argument rings true. I don't want to give away much, but a few moments shine.

Eckhart's reaction to Kidman's messing with his cellphone is remarkably real. He is pissed off at her at a childlike level, and reacts with physical revulsion. She, in turn, is shocked at how he pulls away from her. There are many times in a marriage when one member acts out, or says something, that makes the other wonder who that person really is. It happens to the best of us. Eckhart's display and Kidman's reaction are almost too real, and uncomfortably beautiful to watch. Until Rabbit Hole, my favorite realistic marital argument in cinema was Julianne Moore's pants off fight with Matthew Modine in Robert Altman's Short Cuts.

There's a scene where Eckhart puts on the ipod and tries desperately to reconnect sexually with his wife. The ensuing argument about sex, seduction and Al Green hits every note perfectly. Though it springs from the couple's grief, it has little to do with that tragedy. Every married couple will see themselves in this scene, and almost every scene. The couple are seen as individuals trying in their own ways to cope with the worst thing that can happen to a parent; the death of a child. But Rabbit Hole is about how two separate people come together, and often fall apart, in their efforts to become one. It's a story of how deep love can be and how, even with that love apparent, difficult it can be to stay together.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Musical Closure

While the world was learning about the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden, I was undergoing my own bit of closure. As the big news was breaking, I was at the Oneonta Theatre watching John Sebastian open for Roger McGuinn.

Back in 1982, Sebastian opened for Rodney Dangerfield at the Binghamton Arena. Rodney was at the height of his popularity then, post-Caddyshack. Sebastian was a relic. His most recent hit had been "Welcome Back," the theme song for Gabe Kaplan's sitcom. Granted, it was number one in the spring of 1976, but six years later no one cared, not in the midst of New Wave and MTV. It was too early to appreciate how wonderful The Lovin' Spoonful were. In the early '80's, even the greatest acts of the sixties - Dylan, McCartney, et al - were finally hitting a tough patch of readjustment. Sebastian was a has-been, a goofy groovy artifact of a discredited generation.

There couldn't have been a worse match of audience and performer. That crowd was mostly college-aged kids looking for laughs, and the caustic comedy of Dangerfield. They were not receptive to a musician past his popularity and completely unaware of it. I'm sure Sebastian did his old hits; I clearly recall "Welcome Back" introduced with the complete certainty that it would please the crowd; it didn't.

There was much taunting levelled John's way, wry sarcastic cheering, but the worst was saved for a new song that Sebastian introduced playfully, or so he thought. In an attempt to revive the successful theme of The Spoonful's smash hit "Summer in the City," Sebastian explained how urban heatwaves lead to rooftop relief. The song was called "Tar Beach," and he asked the crowd to sing along with the chorus, which meant crooning "tar beach." No one did. As much as the former folk troubadour tried, he couldn't win over that crowd.

Later in the show, during another tune since faded from my memory, the crowd began to sing "tar beach." It was a complete mocking, embarrassing for the artist and, for me, cringe producing, though my discomfort didn't prevent me from joining in. I felt terrible for Sebastian, even worse when he tried to join the joke. It was sad and humiliating. I've never forgotten that moment and my complicity in it.

With that in mind, I dreaded seeing Sebastian last night. Would he suck? He wasn't very good 30 years ago though undeserving of such harsh treatment. How would he be now, his voice somewhat ravaged by time? I'm pleased to report that he put on a good show. See, these days The Lovin' Spoonful are legitimate Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and Sebastian has achieved legendary status. Nothing like a few decades to turn a washout into an icon.

Sebastian's voice was a bit croaky, but he generated much good will with his tales of growing up in Greenwich Villae and his sense of humor won over the older crowd. Sure, his recent songs are weak, and, though he was glib and funny, he had a healthy amount of curmudgeon in him. After chastising cell phones and auto-tune, he actually walked off stage, pissed off about someone behind the curtains listening to a device sans headphones. Johnny sucked all the energy out of the show with this prima donna move, but he regained his momentum. On the whole, he delivered and we all enjoyed his time onstage.

So, I feel better. Of course, there was nothing really that important that occurred on that Binghamton night thirty years ago when a bunch of college kids tortured a former superstar well past his prime , but it bothered me and stuck in my head. Now the harshness of that memory is gone and I'm glad.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Roads Taken and Not

The profound Philip Roth, in The Plot Against America, says this: when we look in the history books, every event seems inevitable, each moment part of an unavoidable momentum. It could have been no other way. But, Roth points out, in the moment, in the past’s present, all is unknown and scary; there’s no knowledge of what happens next. (This isn’t exact, but I don’t feel like looking through the book for it).

Since moving to Cooperstown almost eight years ago, and, in doing so, abdicating a regular job, I’ve had a lot of time to think about life; perhaps too much time. That’s how I spend my days, dwelling on the turns in my life, and, as I reconnect with old friends, thinking on the choices they made that affected the course of my personal history.

Looking back, at choices made, both rewarding and regretful, would I change anything? Would you? There is the Starfleet Prime Directive: no interference, as even the smallest change would affect time’s arrow. (That’s the whole point of Maybe Baby as well). Sure, I wonder what alternate paths could have occurred. Some may have been better, some worse, but all different. (I think often about a career path not taken in early 2000. It involved setting up my own trading group, trading NASDAQ options v. the individual stock options. I took the easy way out and went to work for someone else. I would have cleaned up on my proposed idea. So be it.) The thing is I’m very happy with where I am now and, as a result, every thread in the tapestry must remain in place.

When we came to Cooperstown in June of 2003, our friends and family told us how brave we were. I didn’t see it that way at the time. I do now. Thoughts on how I would make a living, what I would do if my job plans fell through, what such a dramatic move would hold for our entire family, well, I admit I had the blind confidence that it would all work out somehow.

Initially, I did have plans to trade and some ideas on working in conjunction with other trading groups, but I knew deep down my heart wasn’t in it. Once I put trading to bed, I knew I’d never return to it. The “Jeff Katz story” is something still talked about back in the Chicago trading pits among the people who knew me. Most guys I knew wanted to leave that business; few did, and many of those came back later on, somewhat sheepish and embarrassed by their inability to make a go of it elsewhere.

I was determined not to go backward, regardless. What would One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest be if, after the Chief throws the water fountain through the window and runs to freedom, urged on by the whoops of his fellow inmates, he came back a few weeks later? A bit of a letdown, right?

Choosing writing as a possible career came somewhat out of the blue. I always enjoyed the practice, but attempting to make money at it was a ridiculous conceit. It was a challenge I placed before myself: how does one write a book? Can I do it? The Kansas City A’s & The Wrong Half of The Yankees, my only published book (so far) is an interesting, though middle of the pack baseball book. It doesn’t reach the heights of Ball Four, but it’s also much better than the countless crappy sports books that permeate that market. My publisher, Maple Street Press, got me out there and, to my surprise, I found myself on NPR, WFAN and menitoned in The New York Post. It was an important start, a crucial decision that led me to now. Where is now? I can’t say, but, just maybe, I’m on the cusp of something big. Stay tuned. And as to that first book, I sold two copies yesterday to visiting researchers at the Baseball Hall of Fame!

Those other deep thinkers, The English Beat, sang “The only limits we set/what can we get away with?” Picking up and relocating to Cooperstown has resulted in amazing things, things that were inconceivable had I remained in Chicago and worked full-time. Seeing Nate’s growth, a direct result of controlling my own time, or reveling in Robbie’s selection as a Rotary Exchange Student to Brazil, or cheering as Joey won Battle of the Bands, or watching Karen’s Quirky Works Studio jewelry take off, or spending my days translating thoughts into writing, I get the feeling I’ve gotten away with a lot.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Three New Ragazine Pieces

In the March-April Issue of Ragazine (

When Giants Ruled - a few words on then and now

Sundazed, Not Confused - new releases from Sundazed

Sweethearts of the Rodeo - Doug and Telisha Williams in Concert

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Dullest Documentary Director

What is it about Davis Guggenheim that makes his movies stultifying and soporific?

Is it the subject matter? No one choosing to watch Al Gore talk for 100 minutes should have expected a result other than the sudden desire to go eye-gouging Oedipus on themselves. And that's before the ice caps begin to melt.

An Inconvenient Truth may not have the wild action of, say, Eat Pray Love, but it contains important content and was the guilt-inducing must-see of 2006. But how did Guggenheim manage to suck the wind out of a summit meeting between Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White? That truly takes a master's skill. It Might Get Loud was a great missed opportunity as a film, though the trio shone in the bonus features, thankfully devoid of the director's touch.

What could I have possibly expected from Waiting for "Superman?" It was much heralded, to be sure, but the ailments of our public school system in the hands of Davis Guggenheim? Now where's my copy of Burlesque?

Superman is mostly a yawner, with its plodding pace and droning voiceover making it difficult to focus on the crucial problem of our failing schools. However, there are two items worthy of further comment:

1 - Geoffrey Canada, education reformer, takes the role that Buck O'Neil had in Ken Burns' Baseball. Canada is the focal point, the man who takes us through his crushed idealism as a young teacher to his persistence of purpose that led him to create the Harlem Success Academy. His desire to test his theories in the crucible of the 97 block area most conducive to failure is heroic. It is worth getting to know this man, the superhero he himself waited for as a kid.

2 - The film spends much of its time bemoaning the fact that kids sent through the public school system learn early on, in some cases between fifth and seven grades, that they will not succeed and that there is no point in trying. So what do the best schools do, the Kipp Academies, the Harlem Success Academy, the Seed program in D.C.? They take these children, first graders, second graders, babies really, and have them sit in a gym or auditorium with hundreds of other kids and their families, hoping to hear their name called after its been picked from a box. Or they

have a numerical other in billiard ball form that will slide down a track and signal that one lucky tyke has been chosen to move on to a better future.

Most don't get picked, and we get to watch them cry or grow emotionally distant when they realize they're out of luck. What kind of fucking system can be so cruel? And this is perpetrated by the shining examples of the "kids first" schools. Sure it gives Guggenheim a solid ending to an otherwise sleep-inducing film, but it completely undermines the good work of the model educators the director has put forward.

(For more on the disappointing It Might Get Loud, see my ragazine review here:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Client 9 (or, The World of Whores)

Alex Gibney's 2009 documentary on the meteoric rise and straight vertical fall of former New York State Attorney General and Governor Eliot Spitzer, Client 9, is a mesmerizing account of how the worst people on Earth go about their daily business. The scum that rose to avenge themselves for Spitzer's assault on their criminality are given the chance to relate their experiences, hypocrisy free. Spitzer is front and center, not particularly sympathetic himself, but amidst the creeps that abound, he's the Dalai Lama.
Watching former New York State Senate President and Majority Leader Joe Bruno, twice convicted on felony fraud charges, rail against Spitzer's persecution and unfair treatment of his noble self, is jaw-dropping. You know the old joke, about the kid who killed his parents. "Have mercy, your Honor, I'm an orphan." That's Joe Bruno.

But he's an altar boy compared to the Wall Street powerhouses that were felled directly by Spitzer when he was a superhero lawman, or came a-crashing down after the klieg lights were focused on their dark of night thievery. The rat-faced "Hank" Greenberg,

former CEO of AIG is Exhibit A in the case against unfettered capitalism. A down and dirty bandit, ousted by his own board when the company's accountants wouldn't certify AIG's financial statement due to Greenberg's fraudulent transactions, "Hank" has the temerity to assert that Spitzer is to blame for the 2008 economic collapse. Why? You can guess - the troubles at AIG, that led to massive government bailouts of the company would never have occurred under Greenberg's watch. Of course, it may be true, as he may have directed AIG to other types of chicanery. Greenberg's ability to ignore his crookedness that pre-dated 2008 is psychopathic. Sure, I may have molested your kid, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be principal of an elementary school!

Spitzer himself is a flawed mess. Clearly his appearance in the film was part of the massive rehabilitation movement that has resulted in his own show on CNN. Spitzer's comments on his life as hubris and Greek tragedy are a cop out, a way of taking the mundane nature of screwing hookers and elevating it to mythical status. Like the scuzzballs who surround him in the film, Spitzer has an over sized ego, one that results in the occasional third person reference. You hear that and you know you're dealing with a troubled man. His overblown sense of importance permeated his staff. One mentions that Spitzer was on a clear path to becoming the first Jewish President. What world do these people live in?
Look we all want money and we all want sex. What galls me about this motley crew of diseased minds is their unwillingness to look for these things within the confines of existing rules and realities. Was there not enough money to be made legitimately that "Hank" Greenberg had to commit crimes to pad his wealth? Is it not possible for an elected official to serve and not become a felon? Can it be that satisfaction in bed is not possible within a married life?

That's ultimately where I can't connect to these types. Spitzer's story is not about a man who didn't play by the rules he insisted others abide by, or whether his descent was a political hit. Those are interesting points, but not what I derived from Client 9. What I got was a genuine sadness that those who seem to have it all are dissatisfied with their lot and need to break free of societal constraints for more. That's sad.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Springsteen's Greatest

I got the fortunes of heaven in diamonds and gold

I got all the bonds baby that the bank could hold

I got houses 'cross the country honey end to end

And everybody buddy wants to be my friend

Well I got all the riches baby any man ever knew

But the only thing I ain't got honey I ain't got you

These are not the words of a happy man, three years removed from the album that made him a mega-star and two years into a marriage with a proto-typical ‘80’s beauty. No, these are not the words of a happy man at the top. These are the words of Bruce Springsteen, the opening words to “Ain’t Got You,” the opening track to his greatest and most personal work, 1987’s Tunnel of Love.

Did I really write that, that Tunnel of Love is The Boss’ best work? Not Born to Run? Not Darkness? Yeah, I wrote that and there’s room for argument, I know. I’m content to back off from my claim, but I won’t retreat from this: Tunnel of Love is Springsteen’s truest record, the most personal in his canon.

The huge reaction to the stadium-filling Born in the USA album and tour garnered gold for Bruce, but also produced a crisis of conscience. When the anti-Vietnam War title track, perhaps the best bit of American soul-searching since Buffalo Springfield’s "For What It’s Worth," was co-opted by the Reagan administration, Springsteen’s initial fears that the lyrical importance of the songs on USA would be, at best, ignored, and, at worst, misconstrued when bathed in ‘80’s pop production, were proven dead right. After Bruce broke through to the record buying public with 1980’s The River, he consciously followed up with the brilliant, skeletal Nebraska. Similarly, Tunnel followed Born in the USA, but it is in no way as forced, in no way a “hey, there’s more to me than what you think.” Tunnel is adult, organic, real.

Caught in the spotlight, his profile never higher, Bruce went Hollywood. He met model/actress Julianne Phillips in late 1984, and they married the following year. Phillips was not of the “you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right” variety. She was a stunner, a prime example of the Kelly LeBrock/Rebecca DeMornay 1980’s era doll.

As Jimmy Cagney might say, Springsteen was at the “top of the world,” but that was clearly not the case. How clearly is demonstrated, track after track, on Tunnel of Love. Bruce may try to push through his old coarse sentimentality that worked so well in his first decade of recording, and he does in “Tougher than the Rest,” but it won’t wash this time. The jig is up for the working man loser persona, and what’s left is a troubled and confused 38-year-old man/child, at sea in a world of crossed signals and duplicity.

The songs of falseness, particularly “Brilliant Disguise” and “Two Faces,” are unsparing, throwing both husband Bruce and wife Julianne into the same muddy suspicion. “I’m just a lonely pilgrim/ I walk this world in wealth/I want to know if it's you I don't trust/ cause I damn sure don't trust myself” – we’re talking monumental stuff here, Plastic Ono Band raw without the screaming. Springsteen’s self-flagellation is as much a songwriting turnabout as the switch from the Dylan-esque wordplay of his early work to the straightforward approach that began with Born to Run. That’s not to say his character driven pieces are absent – “Spare Parts” and “Cautious Man” are classic Springsteen points of view. But the song after song accounts of car heisters, downtrodden working men looking to let it loose out on the street when the Friday whistle blows are replaced by self-analysis and introspection.

Even a time worn Springsteen theme, the battle between father and son, is handled differently in the deft, serious and sweet “Walk Like a Man.” Now as old as his father, Bruce has a sense of understanding that stretches far beyond the lunch pail, shift working two-dimensional figure of, say, “Factory.” You can see a wistful smile on Springsteen’s face as he sings, perhaps as he begins to realize how complex growing up can actually be.

The freak show of the tile track and “One Step Up” are expositions of a man lost, treading water and sinking at the same time. By album’s end, the killer one-two punch of “When You’re Alone” and “Valentine’s Day,” all is gone, but not lost. Bruce Springsteen found out that for all the trappings of success, money can’t buy him love. Even when he thinks it’s there, it’s not, a cruel magic trick that leaves him desolate though hopeful that love is out there to be regained.

It would be recaptured in his relationship with Patti Scialfa, which would end his marriage to Phillips. The love of a good woman wasn’t the end of this difficult period, and Bruce let the E Street Band loose in 1989, one year after the Tunnel of Love Express Tour. A failed marriage, a new emotional start, and a solo career without his band, heralded the artistic tumult of the ‘90’s, a decade that found Springsteen producing his weakest work. He’d return to prime form, his band in tow, to rescue the crushed spirits of his home area after 9/11. The Rising was the first in a series of a reborn to run Bruce, that has continued on through 2009’s Working On a Dream.

Tunnel of Love was a one-off, a brief but powerful glimpse into the heart of Bruce Springsteen. There’s a good reason that the tunes from 1987 are rarely played on tour; they simply hurt too much. Bruce sang, again in “Ain’t Got You,” “been paid a king's ransom for doin' what comes naturally.” It was never more natural than in Tunnel of Love.