Friday, October 28, 2016

America 2016 Part III: Watching the Wheels

I remember reading the John Lennon quote I posted below and it always stayed with me. All elections are important, especially this one.  And folks are feeling powerless and afraid. I get it.  But why all the fanaticism for leaders?  Why not just focus on improving ourselves and being better human beings?  So whether one is right, left, or center, instead of firing talking points at each other, why not just being kind as we pass each other by? Crack a joke instead. Offer a sympathetic hand on the shoulder.  We're all in this together.  

"Well, you make your own dream. That's the Beatles' story, isn't it? That's Yoko's story. That's what I'm saying now. Produce your own dream. If you want to save Peru, go save Peru. It's quite possible to do anything, but not to put it on the leaders and the parking meters. Don't expect Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself. That's what the great masters and mistresses have been saying ever since time began. They can point the way, leave signposts and little instructions in various books that are now called holy and worshiped for the cover of the book and not for what it says, but the instructions are all there for all to see, have always been and always will be. There's nothing new under the sun. All the roads lead to Rome. And people cannot provide it for you. I can't wake you up. You can wake you up. I can't cure you. You can cure you."

- John Lennon 1980

Monday, October 24, 2016

2016 World Series Preview: Cubs vs Indians

The 2016 World Series. Something's gotta give.  The Chicago Cubs are making their first appearance since 1945, going for their first World Title since 1908.  The Cleveland Indians have not won a World Series since 1948 after losses in 1954, 1995, and 1997. Their last appearance against the Florida Marlins came within two outs of a victory. 

The 2016 Cleveland Indians have youth and experience.  They steam rolled over the Boston Red Sox in the Divisional Series and easily took care of the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS.

The Cubs also cruised through the playoffs as well, overcoming a 2-1 deficit in the NLCS against the L.A. Dodgers. Their potent pitching staff of Jon Lester, Jake Arrietta, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey will be a formidable challenge for the Tribe. However, the Indians also have a strong rotation as well - and a superb bullpen.  

Odds are it will be a series dominated by pitching. 

It will be exciting to see two great baseball teams with a colorful history take the field. Despite being lovable losers for decades, the Cubs have a rich history.  I remember watching them frequently in the 1980s on WFFT Channel 55 out of Fort Wayne.  The Cubs were tough and fun to watch with Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Andrew Dawson, and Greg Maddux.

For a generation of Cleveland fans born between 1945-1975, a good season meant breaking even and not being a total embarrassment. Many, many colorful characters played at the old stadium by the lake. Highlights included hiring the first black manager Frank Robinson in 1975 and Len Barker's perfect game on May 15, 1981.  Other memories were less savory, such as 5 cent beer night on June 5, 1974 (the game ended in forfeit).

Behind manager Terry Francona, the Indians play with swagger and confidence.  A victory for the Tribe would heal the wounds of 1997 and 1954, two defeats that devastated the franchise for years.   

The eyes of the nation will be watching.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

America 2016 Part II: All He Believes Are His Eyes

I was trying to think of a Dylan song that best encapsulates the 2016 election.  I suppose you could reference "Masters of War" or "Political World" as obvious choices. But watching the debate last night, "License to Kill" suddenly played in my head.  Yeah, the lyrics pretty much get it right.  

Lyrics like "he's hell bent for destruction, he's afraid and confused" describe someone of Donald Trump's temperament.  The song keeps returning to the woman sadly observing men making a wreck of the earth could either be Hillary Clinton or perhaps all of the "nasty women" Trump's exploited over the years. 

Here's Dylan performing with The Plugz on Late Night With Letterman.  The date March 22, 1984.  After the performance Dylan attended a Celtics/Knicks game at Madison Square Garden.

License To Kill

Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please
And if things don’t change soon, he will
Oh, man has invented his doom
First step was touching the moon

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as the night grows still
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Now, they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life
And they set him on a path where he’s bound to get ill
Then they bury him with stars
Sell his body like they do used cars

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there facin’ the hill
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Now, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies

But there’s a woman on my block
Sitting there in a cold chill
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Ya may be a noisemaker, spirit maker
Heartbreaker, backbreaker
Leave no stone unturned
May be an actor in a plot
That might be all that you got
’Til your error you clearly learn

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled
Oh, man is opposed to fair play
He wants it all and he wants it his way

Now, there’s a woman on my block
She just sit there as the night grows still
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

America 2016 Part I: And This Is Not Our Fate

Twenty First Century Totalitarian Donald Trump may win the American presidency. It Can't Happen Here you say?  That ringing in your ears, that's history going on red alert. So we better stop and listen. 

Something is rotten in the Republic and we are like Hamlet returning home to find your nefarious uncle not only stole your mother but the whole goddamn kingdom (and probably swindled your father because that's what loooooooooosers deserve). Everything's fucked up. And we are all going crazy.

If the 1960s and Watergate triggered a national nervous breakdown, Trump presents a spiritual/existential crisis of the highest order. Like Father Karras in The Exorcist, we are first in denial of the demon's existence, but come to realize the fiend must be confronted.

In school I remember learning about the Second World War and the rise of Fascism and feeling a strong pride that America and its Allies defeated those who wanted to poison and destroy free thought. As I learned more of U.S history, I realized there's enough blood on the tracks to put the entire American experiment into question. And yet, even in my most cynical moments I would think to myself, at least America helped stop Hitler.

Tragically, it now looks like everything America fought for in the Second World War could go down the drain, may already be circling the drain.

In 1940 Winston Churchill warned of a new dark age to arise if the Third Reich prevailed, the best ideals of Western Civilization would dissolve into a dreamlike darkness. 

Now 75 years later democracy is becoming more of a punchline than a sacred idea. Authoritarian types are on the rise.  Give me Putin over Pussy Riot.  Give me Mussolini over Fellini.  A Henry Ford for a Lincoln. Tom Paine's been kicked to the curb by Fox News.

We have a major party candidate arrogantly preaching hate, intolerance, and ignorance. King of the Demagogues; Lord of the Fleas. He commands an unsavory group of followers known as the alt-right, the base of the base if you will. Their hobbies include holocaust denial and hipster bigotry.

Some are more traditional in their intolerance. Disagree with us and we WILL hurt you is the implicit message of Trump's rhetoric. Complexities are reduced to Orwellian slogans. Gotta Love the TRUMP because he's a BUSINESSMAN WHO GETS THINGS DONE. The cult of the CEO reigns supreme.

The moral equivalency espoused by those who see no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is even more maddening. She'll never have the hip appeal of Bernie nor the Arkansas swagger of her husband. Hillary may carry the banner of the establishment, but she's not evil.  No stoking the fires of hate from her camp, nor is she insulting or demeaning to her opponents.  Clinton's intentions and goals are in the right place. She knows her Machiavelli (apparently Trump reads the collected speeches of Hitler). If there were a short list of people MORE than qualified for the presidency - Hillary would be on that list. She would make a fine chief executive.

I'm loathe to imagine what a Trump presidency would mean for America and the world. Building a wall on the Mexican border, making torture standard operating procedure, casual use of nuclear weapons are all illogical, dangerous, insane.  Or a trade war with China. See how that goes. The man implored foreign countries to hack into his opponent's email account. There's no limit to his bat shit madness. In another life he would be a crooked carny on the dice game racket. 

So the Trump campaign is a reactionary fever dream to restore a past that never existed. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. to die, to sleep - - to sleep - - perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come . . . .    

Like many Americans I feel like Kevin McCarthy screaming at the oblivious motorists at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Has everyone fallen asleep at the wheel?  Are the pod people taking over?  Alas, Joe DiMaggio's left and gone away. O'Leary's in the grave. Superman took off for the coast.  Ain't no savior going to arise from these streets, but. . . . .. . . .. . . .. 

--------------its easy to despair, these indeed are the times that try men's souls.  

No matter what garbage spews out of Trump's mouth, America's still got soul.  We are the still the locale of Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, Curtis Mayfield, FDR, IKE, JFK, MLK, Willie Mays, Chuck Berry, Ella Fitzgerald, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie and many, many others who fought and continue to fight the good fight.

The world will little remember what was said in 2016, but it will remember what happened and what it led to. I think the stakes are much bigger than anyone can know, so listen to your heart, don't give into hate.  Let's not throw it all away, it ain't worth it.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Review: The World According to Star Wars by Cass R. Sunstein

World renowned Legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein wrote a book on a most unlikely topic for someone in his field: the Star Wars phenomenon.  Sunstein relates how over a year ago he revisited the first Star Wars film A New Hope and got hooked on the saga and became fascinated with how it captured the imagination of the entire world.  A fun read from start to finish.

While many have attempted to explain the enduring success of Star Wars, more than any other writer, Sunstein uses common sense to explain.  In a way, its a nice antidote to the legions of haters against George Lucas.  For Sunstein, Lucas created a work of genius that will endure through the ages.

Each chapter, divided up into episodes, looking at specific aspects of Star Wars ranging from the story's roots in world mythology, parent-child relationships, politics and history, freedom of choice, even constitutional law.  

Why did Star Wars catch on?  Sunstein offers three possibilities.  It just too awesome to be ignored?  Historically, there are many examples of what is now considered great art that was rejected at the time. Or was it a cascading effect, meaning when a bunch of people love a movie, it gets contagious. Then again, many box office hits do not stand the test of time. What was the top grossing film of 1987?  Three Men and a Baby, don't see anyone rushing off to see it now. Or did Star Wars come out at a time when people were ready for it?

All three factors were in play.  Star Wars was an awesome movie, it caught on like a wildfire, and yes the zeitgeist of 1977 played a role as well.  As the book points out, Bob Dylan's classic songs of the 1960s would seem out of place in another decade. Too abrasive and cynical in the 1950s, but out of touch in the 1980s.  

If Star Wars had come out in the 1960s it would've looked goofy and militaristic, while in the 90s it would be too corny.  Timing is a factor.

Sunstein argues that at its heart, Star Wars is about parents and children.  He points out how George Lucas's father ran a stationary store in Modesto, California and expected his son to follow in his footsteps.  Lucas refused after an acrimonious argument, taking a more risky path into film school.  In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke defies his father by not going to the dark side.  Yet in Return of the Jedi, Luke tries to redeem his father and at the moment of truth Darth Vader cannot bear to see his son suffer and saves his life. Even though children will challenge and defy their parents, they also know they will never abandon them.  

Written for fans and non-fans alike, a valuable edition to Star Wars literature.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Book Review: Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns

Small Town Talk tells the history of Woodstock, New York, a place famous for the Woodstock Music Festival of August 1969, although it was held 60 miles away from the actual town.  Author Barney Hoskyns documents how the town, a gathering place for artist and bohemians throughout the 20th century, usually in shaky harmony with the locals, transformed rock and roll into an epic art form during the 1960s.  

When Bob Dylan set up shop in Woodstock as a remote haven from New York  City, many other rock icons of the era followed suit including Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren, Levon Helm, and many others.

The best part of the book covers the town's heyday in the 1960s.  Albert Grossman looms large in the book, a key figure in the New York music scene who saw the commercial possibilities of folk music and brought it to the mainstream with acts like Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Later he managed Bob Dylan's career until their dramatic falling out, a conflict addressed on Dylan's John Wesley Harding album. Grossman remains complex figure who left many hard feelings over money and his derisive attitude towards artists. 

Dylan bought a farm in Woodstock and the spent the early years of his marriage there. In 1967 he recorded The Basement Tapes with the Band, music that never got an official release until 1975, but became a major influence on the future of music. According to Hoskyns Dylan rose at Six every day, took his kids to school, and recorded with the Band from Noon till six five days a week. In time Dylan felt less at peace in Woodstock when obsessed fans would congregate in his backyard, he even had a direct phone line to the police station installed in case of trouble.

Eventually Dylan moved back to the city, but many other musicians from both sides of the Atlantic came to Woodstock in search of inspiration. The Band recorded their early albums there, music partly inspired by the atmosphere of the town.  Drummer Levon Helm remained a fixture of the local scene until he passed away in 2012.

After the Woodstock music festival the town was overrun with people trying to make a quick buck by emulating their counter-cultural heroes. Todd Rundgren became the most notable musician to record his music at Woodstock in the 1970s, "a cult hero's, cult hero" to quote Hoskyns.

The genre today known as Americana, a problematic term because since it tends to simplify a wide swath of music, nevertheless originated with The Basement Tapes.  Many ingredients including folk, country, rock, bluegrass, blues coalesced into something unique in the late 1960s and remains a foundation of a certain type of American music. Hoskyns also left a useful playlist in the book's appendix.

Small Town Talk tells the story of a unique place that inspired many artists, unsparing minutia on their personal lives, and the corrosive effect of commerce on creativity.  There's many tales of romantic betrayals, hard feelings, disputes over money, and creative breakthroughs.  

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Concert Reviews: From Dayton to Toledo: A Dylan Doubleheader

Over the past week I was lucky enough to see Bob Dylan perform on back to back nights in Dayton and Toledo. Both evenings were graced with perfect weather - almost chilly at the Dayton concert.  Through his tour of America Dylan is sticking to the same setlist every night, dominated by his recent material from Tempest (2012), Shadows in the Night (2015), and Fallen Angels (2016). 

Each show opened with a pitch perfect version of "Things Have Changed", Dylan's Oscar Winning song for the 2000 film Wonder Boys. Yes: In 2016 "times are crazy and people are strange."  

On both nights Dylan alternated between taking center stage and playing piano.

Apparently many concert goers were expecting a greatest hits set list- those around me were vocal on that point. Nobody screamed JUDAS!, but when Bob went into "The Night We Called it a Day" many left for a beer.

"Pay in Blood" from Tempest rocked on both nights, with subversive lyrics like "Night after night, day after day/they strip your useless hopes away" disrupting the leisurely vibe of the crowd. 

The first set closed with a soft rock version of "Tangled Up in Blue."

The monumental "High Water (For Charley Patton)" from Love and Theft (2001) kicked off the second set. "Early Roman Kings" threw some blues into the mix and "Spirit in the Water" inspired a noble vocal performance. "Scarlet Town" is a perfect song to hear as the sun sets, a campfire story for the ages.

The material from Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels brings a new dynamic to Dylan's live shows.  It's a strange blend: the apocalyptic songs of Tempest with the romantic ballads of yesteryear. 

But it's good to see Dylan singing well and really into the songs.

For an encore Dylan and his Band played a triumphant version of "Blowin' in the Wind" and then closed on a sardonically rousing note with "Love Sick."

Mavis Staples and her band were an excellent opening act, playing soul music from the 60s along with some new material from her newest album Livin' on a High Note.

It's always a treat to see Dylan onstage and I appreciate his commitment to evolving his art and not relying on the standard material.