Monday, December 29, 2008

A Moment to Remember Those Who Left Us in 2008

Don't know why, but my favorite part of the Academy Awards ceremony (which I watch religiously each year) is the montage of movie folks who died during the year. While an obituary cannot capture the meaning of a person's life, I've always enjoyed the exercise of trying to encapsulate the essence of one's existence through obituary writing. It forces you to boil down each person's real "life's work" (which is all that they accomplished during their lifetime) and comment on it in a few short paragraphs (or longer, when warrented).

I did not comment on the passing of every notable this year, that is not the purpose of GNABB. But reviewing my GNABB Cemetary, I see that the vast majority of obituaries that I chose to write were of entertainers. That makes sense because entertainers are people that we all think we get to know collectively as a society and therefore their passing gives us something in common to reflect upon. Secondly, if any of you know me even in passing, you know that I am an obsessive about music, movies, etc. Just look at what I have chosen to post about here over the last year.

While more important actors died this year (like Charlton Heston), the one that had the most direct impact on me was the subject of the second post in GNABB's history, the obituary for Roy Scheider. I watched "Jaws" probably 32,693 times as a child, so Roy Scheider has always been a favorite. Even when he was acting in material that was beneath his talents (which was often), Scheider had a class and professionalism that was unsurpassed. Plus, he always seemed like a supercool dude.

ABOVE: The underrated Roy Scheider died in February of this year

The big film notable who died this year was, of course, Paul Newman. An argument could be made that he was the greatest American film actor.

ABOVE: Paul Newman: a beautiful man in every way

I did not write an obituary on David Foster Wallace because I don't read much other than nonfiction these days, but he was obviously a titanic talent. My friend JMW wrote a great remembrance of Wallace over at ASWOBA. Check it out.

On a personal note, the most important passing for me was Toby. I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten to know him.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dez's Favorite Movies of 2008

I hope that all of you had a Happy Kwanza. Returning to my Favorites of 2008, it is time to take a look at the movies. I am usually on top of what's happening in movies, but this year I saw fewer than I had hoped to see. As a disclaimer, what follows is a brief list of films that I did not see in 2008 that I still want to see:

“Burn After Reading,” “Man on Wire,” “JCVD” (seriously, I heard this was really good. And it stars Jean Claude Van-Damme), “Cadillac Records” (about the greatest record label ever – Chess Records), “The Wrestler,” “Frost-Nixon,” “Milk,” Gran Torino” and “Valkyrie” (my dislike for Cruise can be overcome by my interest in the subject matter.)

OK. On to my favorites and least favorites of what I did see…

I hate to be so mainstream, but I’ve got to say it was a great year for the superhero. If I have to be honest, the two movies that I enjoyed the most this year were “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man.”

Iron Man has long been my favorite superhero. For many years I have maintained that a well made Iron Man flick would be an intriguing superhero movie. “Iron Man” certainly delivered, largely due to the the performance and personality of Robert Downey, Jr. He had the perfect combination of having fun with the role yet also taking it seriously and committing to the role. For a full review of the film, click here.

“The Dark Knight” arrived on a wave of hype, due to the unfortunate death of Heath Ledger and the fact that it was the next Batman movie. I feel that the film delivered wonderfully and accomplished what it was trying to accomplish with this latest, darker reinvention of the Batman character. Much has been said of Ledger’s mesmerizing performance as The Joker, all of it earned. Sure the movie was a tad long, but the faults are all easily forgiven based on everything the film did right. Kudos to director Christopher Nolan for going old school on the stunts and keeping the CGI down to a minimum. The real thing still looks better than what computers can do. For a full review, click here.

I also enjoyed “Tropic Thunder,” although it had its faults. For a full review, click here.

The superhero flick that did not deliver this year was “The Incredible Hulk.” Terrible.

The worst movie that I saw this year was “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Yes, Ford is old as dirt. But they could have dealt with that much more deftly than they did. It could have even become an asset had the script and direction been in the right hands. As good as Spielberg can be, nobody can escape badness if they are forced to collaborate with George Lucas. For a full review, click here.

Your turn. Favorite and least favorite flicks of the year?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

I'm Old. Or, Dez's Favorite Music of 2008

Looking over the list of 2008 releases that I bought and that I still enjoy, I realize that I am old. It is not that I do not seek out newer artists or that I am one of those grizzled classic rock veterans insisting that music ain't what it used to be. ain't what it used to be.

Dez's Favorite New Release of 2008:
Coldplay - Viva la Vida
If there is any band out there to take up the mantle of U2 it is probably these guys (they even have Brian Eno producing). Their fourth release is by far their best, least derivative, and most sonically diverse and interesting. Opening with the much too short, joyous intrumental "Life in Technicolor," the record immediately announces that Coldplay has awakened from their stupor. "Lost!" is one of my favorite songs I've heard all year, while the infectious title track has deservedly gotten a ton of airplay. I like that they finally let their inner Prog Rock band loose with extended tunes like "Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love" and "Yes" with its three minute coda that is probably my favorite three minutes of the entire record.

Dez's three runner-up favorites of the year:
They are all live records from veterans who show that in the live setting, they've all still got it. In fact, they have never sounded better in the live setting than on these new releases.

Jeff Beck - Performing This Week...Live at Ronnie Scott's
The Police - Certifiable
Lindsay Buckingham - Live at Bass Performance Hall

These are three artists whom I respect a great deal. Jeff Beck defies the rules of aging for classic rock guitarists, although he never really fit in that mold to begin with. The older he gets, the better and more intense his playing. I will continue to trumpet Jeff Beck as the greatest living rock guitarist to my dying breath. Here he finally has a band that really complements his skills, and this CD is probably his best showcase yet. I saw the Police reunion tour last year (and paid more money for it than I have any show I've ever attended). It was so worth the wait. I own several live Police albums, and to be honest, they were always a bit sloppy live. A much better and tighter studio band. But on this tour, they finally learned how to play together! One of the best concerts I have ever attended in my long concertgoing career, and a great live record to remember the tour. Lindsay Buckingham is one weird dude, but he is also one of the most underrated guitarists and songwriters out there. He performs several solo acoustic jawdroppers here, but also rocks out with a great band. (It's cool that he plays his fun tune "Holiday Road" from 'Nat. Lampoon's Vacation').

ABOVE: Jeff Beck - guitar god

Other 2008 Releases that I liked:
Ryan Adams - Cardinology
Big Head Todd & the Monsters - All The Love You Need
Jackson Browne - Solo Acoustic 2
Lindsay Buckingham - The Gift of Screws (it's been a busy year for Lindsay)
The Cure - 4:13 Dream
Ray Davies - Working Man's Cafe
The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
Steve Winwood - Nine Lives

Biggest Disappointment of 2008:
The Streets - Everything Is Borrowed

Mike Skinner's (aka 'The Streets') debut was one of the most exciting and interesting rap records I'd ever heard. Everything he's put out since is a disappointment after that peak. His latest is no exception.

Worst Record of 2008:
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Deja Vu Live

So much wrong here. For a group who stakes their reputation on peerless harmonies, their voices are particularly ragged these days (let's face it, Stills lost his voice in the 1980's). As celebrated as this foursome is, they are generally better when performing separately as CSN and Neil Young. Neil's presence overwhelms the others who have to defer to him just to convince him to still work with them, while Neil's maverick streak is held in check as he tries to blend with the other three. Neil doesn't really blend well with anyone. Neil Young's sloppy, hastily assembled and not very good record Living With War serves as the basis for this live show. They pointlessly reproduce most of that record here, trying to remain relevant as protest artists whining about the war in Iraq. It is a very sad record, but not for the reasons that they intended.

OK, your turn. Favorite music that you picked up in 2008? I would love some fresh suggestions, so I'm all ears...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dez's Best of 2008: TV

The end of another year and it is time to look back at the best (and worst) that 2008 had to offer. I'll start these retrospectives off with a look at the year in television. I'm no expert, but my wife and I do watch our fair share of TV.

No shocker here: cable is where it's at nowadays. And for me, Showtime is the new HBO. HBO may come back strong in '09 when Season 3 of "Big Love" starts in January, but '08 was fairly quiet on the HBO front.

My favorite shows of 2008:

"Dexter" Season 3 (Showtime)
This delicious show about a Miami police forensics expert who also happens to be a serial killer continued its strong performance in its third season. Michael C. Hall is still brilliant as the conflicted title character. While the premise of the show is certainly dark, and the show does have many dark moments, one of its saving graces is the twisted humor that permeates every episode. I usually hate voiceovers, but Hall's voiceovers are key to the show. They are less voiceover and more a window into Dexter's thoughts to himself as he goes about his day. I was initially skeptical about how good the show could be with the departure of Dexter's nemesis Det. Doakes (Erik King) (who turned swearing into an artform), but this season's addition of D.A. Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits) provided Dexter with another complex relationship. (Warning: watch this on Showtime or DVD, do not watch the watered down network version. It is pointless.)

ABOVE: Has Dexter finally met his match in Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits)?

"Californication" Season 2 (Showtime)
Season 1 of this well written guilty pleasure was near perfect in its story arc (so much so that I wondered what they could even do with a second season), but David Duchovny's loveable, melancholy lothario writer-who-never-gets-around-to-writing-his-second-great-novel Hank Moody was able to get himself into enough trouble in the second season to keep it interesting. A fellow fan and friend of mine disagrees, but I really enjoyed the addition of record producer Lew Ashby (Callum Keith Rennie) as Hank's new buddy and partner in crime. Supporting actor Evan Handler as Hank's hilariously down on his luck agent Charlie Runkle continues to steal every scene he's in. (The scene where Charlie unwittingly follows his potential client Daisy to a "film shoot" to talk business and ends up walking into a gonzo porn set is one of the funniest scenes of the year).

Alright, I can also give props to the networks...

"Chuck" Season 2 (NBC)
A silly premise is the foundation of this warm, funny show. (Loveable underachiever Chuck Bartowsky inadvertently becomes a crucial government asset due to a computer chip that is implanted in his brain. He is assigned CIA and NSA protection, and gets involved in various espionage plots). The strength lies in the writing and the great characters. While the main three characters of Chuck Bartowsky and Agents Walker and Casey (deadpan comedy must run in the Baldwin family, because Adam Baldwin is hilarious as the desperately humorless NSA agent assigned to protect Chuck), the colorful supporting cast working at the Buy More is classic, including former Missile Command champion Jeff Barnes, Call of Duty expert and Chuck's best friend Morgan Grimes, Lester, Big Mike, Harry Tiberius Tang and Anna Wu. I look forward to the subplots at the Buy More as much as I do the main espionage plots involving Chuck, Walker and Casey. One of the few shows in recent memory that makes me consistently laugh out loud.

“Friday Night Lights” Season 2 (NBC)
Technically this season started at the end of 2007, but it continued into 2008. Season 3 will be shown on NBC starting January of 2009. Network TV’s best drama got off to a shaky start in its second season after the pitch perfect first season, but it soon found it footing again and by the end of the season it was richer and as engrossing as ever. Can’t wait for Season 3.

Kudos to actor C.S. Lee, who does great work in two of Dez's favorite shows of 2008. He is Harry Tang in "Chuck" and Masuka in "Dexter."

Worst of 2008: "Heroes" Season 3 (NBC). This once engaging sci-fi drama continued its ugly fall with its convoluted Season 3. The only bright spot was Robert Forrester. Too bad he was wasted on this crap.

How about you? Favorite and least favorite shows in 2008?

Dez Lives

I am sorry for the lack of new posts in the last several weeks. Life, work, etc. all get in the way. It was so much easier to keep the new material flowing when I was unemployed. But fear not, Dez will have more fascinating articles up very soon. Meanwhile, marvel at our president's fast reflexes. Evidently much faster than his secret service detail.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"These Days"

On occasion I like to post a choice acoustic performance. On a sunny Sunday morning, nothing sounds better than a little prime Jackson Browne. This is the type of guitar playing that I really love to listen to (and play)...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dez Reviews Quantum of Solace

Longtime GNABB readers know that Dez is a Bond aficionado. For Dez’s overview of the entire Bond film series, click HERE and HERE. I am not uncritical of each individual film. To the contrary, I freely admit that there are a number of Bond films that are laughably bad. But they are all a part of the family. It is always an exciting time in a Bond fan’s life when a new actor takes up the mantle. Daniel Craig’s debut in 2006’s Casino Royale was one of the most exciting and refreshing entries in Bond history. Casino Royale ranks up there in the top three or so of all 22 official Bond films (I do not count the rogue Never Say Never Again or the slapstick spoof Casino Royale from the late 1960’s). When I heard that the follow-up, Quantum of Solace, was to pick up where Casino Royale left off (a real sequel vs. a self contained adventure, as all of the previous films had been), I was quite intrigued.

Quantum of Solace ranks somewhere in the middle in the Bond hierarchy. It is buoyed by an electric and intense performance from Daniel Craig, who thank God has signed on for at least two more Bond films. But the actor’s portrayal can be separated from the film itself. (For instance, Pierce Brosnan was generally excellent in his films, but three of the four were pretty bad and stale Bond films, with only Goldeneye being a stand-out from his era. None of that was Brosnan’s fault.)

The plot of QOS is fairly thin. Villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) follows in the tradition of the more realistic of Bond villains. (After the down to earth Le Chiffre and Greene, I am ready for a true megalomaniac like Goldfinger or Blofeld in the next one, though). Greene is a sadistic industrialist with the rather humble scheme (for Bond standards) of hording and controlling the water supply of Bolivia. But the real interest for Bond is that Greene seems to be the next link in the chain of the mysterious evil organization known as ‘Quantum,’ which we now know was behind the events in Casino Royale (it appears the producers are setting up this Quantum as the new Spectre from films and Fleming books of old. Could there be an evil mastermind a la Blofeld coming in the next film?)

Judi Dench's 'M' continues to develop into an outstanding supporting character, while the woefully underused Jeffrey Wright as Bond friend/CIA operative Felix Leiter needs to be given more time in future films. Wright's Leiter rivals Jack Lord's depiction of Leiter in Dr. No (in quality and presence, they are obviously very different approaches to the character). Giancarlo Giannini's Rene Mathis makes a welcome return as a Bond ally/father figure. They do not have this type of character very often in Bond films, but it always enhances the depth of Bond's character when he has a mentor like Mathis. (It reminds me of the wonderful Kerim Bey character from the best Bond film ever, From Russia With Love.) The Bond girls are sufficiently hot and interesting this time around. Agent Fields (Gemma Arterton) is his obligatory sexual conquest, while Olga Kurylenko plays the intriguing beauty Camille Montes bent on revenge. Interesting that Bond fails to bed her. His loss, she is very hot. If I were Craig, I would have insisted on a script rewrite rectifying that situation.

ABOVE: Bond gets to sleep with the one on the right, but fails to bed the one on the left

This entry in the Bond series is high on impressive action sequences, but a bit low on the intrigue and style that are the hallmarks of the best of the Bond films. While it is nice to see Bond somewhat haunted by the past (he is driven to avenge the death of Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale more than duty to any current mission), you can see him becoming colder and more bitter as the film progresses. Perhaps this is the direction they want to take the character (definitely preferable to the clown that was Roger Moore or even the irritating detachment that was the later Brosnan Bond), but they risk losing some key elements of the classic Bond character. Remember that while being the ultimate physical threat, Bond is also obsessed with creature comforts and pleasures. Bond style has always been as important as Bond action. That is what Connery balanced so well in the character, and what no actor since has quite been able to balance as well. Craig’s Bond shows some tantalizing hints that he is discovering a taste for the expensive pleasures in life (these two most recent films, to be fair, are supposed to be a “reboot” of the character in his early days, so they are portraying him as a bit rough around the edges on purpose). I just hope that they don’t forget that Bond needs to grow into a sophisticated obsessive in the pursuits of pleasures and excess. That is a key to the character, and what separates Bond from the Bournes of the world.

ABOVE: There is no shortage of action in the new Bond. Bond has evidently gotten top notch training in jumping from building to building, as well as vehicular chases (he engages in two car chases, a motorcycle chase, boat chase and airplane chase in Quantum of Solace)

I can appreciate the producers’ need to keep up with the Bournes and Transporters in the action department (and they have, admirably), but they should not forget that they have some advantages with this Bond character that the new and improved Daniel Craig-era Bond has yet to fully exploit. But I am somewhat nit-picking here. The fact is that this is an extremely exciting era for Bond fans. Daniel Craig is the best shot of adrenaline for Bond since the days of Connery. I would categorize Quantum of Solace as a letdown from the peaks of Casino Royale, but I am already looking forward to Bond 23 and have the utmost confidence that this current Bond team can fix the glitches that surfaced in Quantum of Solace.

Bond fans should keep watch for a wonderful little homage to Goldfinger in QOS.

*** out of *****

Friday, November 28, 2008

Chinese Democracy Is Here. Where’s My Dr. Pepper?

Recall awhile back I posted about Axl Rose’s epic struggle to complete Guns ‘n Roses’ follow-up to their most recent release (as in, the mid-1990’s). CD’s imminent release has been reported since then, with countless release dates come and gone with nothing. Also recall that Dr. Pepper haughtily offered to give every American a free Dr. Pepper (except Slash) if Axl finished and released the record this calendar year. Well, Dr. Pepper, it is time to pay up, because Axl has finally unleashed Chinese Democracy on the world.

How do you review an album like this? How do you judge “the most anticipated release. Ever.” (according to the marketing team of Best Buy, who has an exclusive distribution deal on CD. And it may be the most anticipated release, but not in a good way. Most anticipated as in ‘will Axl actually ever finish it? How long can he drag this thing out?’) How do you listen to the record without also getting caught up in the carnival of fools surrounding the recording of CD?

The only thing to do is toss the history aside, listen to the record itself and judge it on its own merits. So what has Axl given us? Undoubtedly it is a record of huge ambition. He makes no apologies for trying to create a BIG rock record with all the pretentious trimmings. This isn’t a bad thing; perhaps rock needs this kind of ambition again. The results are mixed. As with most projects that are labored over and revised long after they should have been left alone, things are overproduced and somewhat sterile. From the wall of guitars, the choirs, the strings and melodramatic keyboards to the samples and Axl’s attempts at singing in different voices…it is too much. Reading through the record’s credits, one is (sadly) not surprised to see 13 different studios listed. On the musician credits for each song, there is an average of 4-5 guitarists listed on each song. There are some absolutely killer guitar solos here, but good luck figuring out who played what. While listening, I found myself longing for the streamlined vicious attack of Appetite For Destruction or G’n R Lies.

The title track is a success, showing great pretention while also rocking really hard. Tunes like “Better,” “There Was a Time” and “I.R.S.” are top notch hard rock full of melody and hooks. Axl scores big with those tracks, while the brooding “Sorry” reveals real emotions and insight into Axl’s state of mind over the past couple of decades. But the highlights and real distinct songs end there. The rest sounds like Axl was trying to best the overblown “November Rain” from days of yore. Any bets on how long the next one will take? And where do I pick up my Dr. Pepper?

**1/2 out of *****

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's the Singer, Not the Song

Another issue, another list. Rolling Stone magazine’s latest issue features their picks of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. I usually cut RS some slack on their lists, but this one is ridiculous even to a listmaniac such as myself. Boldly announcing that they are not restricting themselves to just rock or pop music, the list supposedly represents all genres “from the rock era.” (I just read that phrase in quotes in the fine print. So my initial question of “where the f*ck is Frank Sinatra?” was answered there. I feel a little better.) 70 some odd musicians and industry types were polled about their favorite singers. (Funny side note: they showed a picture of Keith Richards' ballot in the issue, and he listed himself on his ballot, but not Mick. Needless to say, Keith's genial growl didn't make the actual list.)

The full list is HERE. First of all, what is the criteria? Obviously this is not just about technique and vocal prowess. I mean, Bob Dylan came in at #7 and Lou Reed at #62. I can accept that. A great singer, to me, is about character and unique expression. Not whether they can hit all of the high notes. So I’m cool with Dylan being so high since he has influenced so many people as a singer. (And more than just along the “if he can do it…” lines). But beyond that, what is the criteria? They don’t really specify.

The Top 10 were: 1. Aretha, 2. Ray Charles, 3. Elvis, 4. Sam Cooke, 5. Lennon, 6. Marvin Gaye, 7. Dylan, 8. Otis Redding, 9. Stevie Wonder and 10. James Brown. Not many surprises there.

ABOVE: Rolling Stone makes the bold assertion that Aretha Franklin is the greatest singer of the rock era

Additional thoughts on the list: Roy Orbison at #13 is ridiculous. He should be in the Top 10 easy. I was glad to see Jagger relatively high (#16). He is a great vocalist who can slide into many characters and styles. Underrated as a singer (vs. just a performer). Van Morrison at #24? Also ridiculous. He’s a Top 10 guy. I was especially pleased to see Howlin’ Wolf so high (#31) considering his comparative obscurity when compared to others on the list. To my ears, Wolf had the scariest, most visceral and powerful blues voice ever. As Sun Records producer Sam Phillips said of Wolf, “this is where the soul of man never dies.” Gregg Allman at #70 is way too low. Nice to see Levon Helm of The Band (#91), but bandmates Richard Manual and Rick Danko also need to be there. Nice to see Steve Winwood (#33). Go Steve Perry! (#76).

ABOVE: Rolling Stone agrees with me that Chester Burnett (aka Howlin’ Wolf) was the greatest blues singer of the rock era

So dear readers, what do you think makes a great singer? Is it purely technical skills, or something a bit more intangible? Who are some of your favorites? Thoughts on RS's list? Two of my favorite rock singers not to make this list are Peter Gabriel and Colin Hay. For whatever reason, those two voices hit me like no others do.

Where is Pavarotti? If they are covering all genres and the “rock era,” and Pavarotti was a “rock era” singer (chronologically), then shouldn't he be there? Come to think of it, Frank was still great and relevant in the rock era too. We're talkin' 50's and 60's, and Frank was still doing his stuff.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


First I'd like to congratulate my wife for completing her first Half Marathon this weekend at the San Antonio Rock and Roll Marathon. She and a little over 30,000 others ran the Half or Full Marathon through our streets. So called "Rock and Roll" because they have bands set up every mile, so you more or less have continuous tunes along your route. The big prize at the finish? A show at the Alamodome headlined by The Cult. Woo. Anyway, my wife says the bands sucked. In her words, "there was no 'Rocky' music." Note for next year: they can save money on bands if they just play "Eye of the Tiger" on a loop along the route.

What did I do on Sunday? Woke up, drove her down to the SBC Center so she could get on a shuttle to the starting line, slept in my car for an hour and a half, then boarded a shuttle to the finish line, ate two hot dogs and some chips, staked out a place near the finish line, watched an hour and a half worth of runners sputter by, and took two photos of my wife as she made it to the finish line. Who feels better today? I do. (As of today, she is convinced that was her last Half-Marathon).

There were some colorful costumes. The one guy dressed in full Santa Claus regalia? I am impressed that he ran a Half Marathon like that.

A word on the Kenyans. Near the finish where I was waiting, they had the street separated down the middle. On one side was the Marathon, on the other side there was the Half-Marathon. I got to see the Marathon finish as well, and the Kenyans, as expected, kicked ass. Kenyan, Kenyan, Kenyan...what seems like two hours...then the other people. The crowd along the route even had Kenyan signs to encourage their loved ones: 'Run like a Kenyan!', 'Today we are all Kenyans!' The Kenyans continue to dominate.

It is an interesting culture that has developed around these Half and Full Marathons. You are expected to cheer virtually every runner that passes you by if you are a spectator. All 32,000 of them. I was surrounded by hours of encouraging shouts and cheers. I gave a few "You can do it!" in my best Bela Karoly, but eventually I got tired of cheering and just watched the mass of humanity pass me by.

ABOVE: Texas governor Rick Perry runs in the San Antonio Rock and Roll (Half) Marathon

Thursday, November 13, 2008

RIP Mitch Mitchell, 1947-2008

Of all of the fortunate musicians who played with Jimi Hendrix, none were as integral to Jimi's sound as Mitchell. The last surviving member of the legendary Jimi Hendrix Experience trio died earlier this week. Mitchell was not only a member of the Experience, but he stayed with Jimi after the Experience disbanded, and was working with Hendrix on exciting new musical directions at the time of Hendrix's death.

Mitchell was a fantastic and complex drummer. Influenced by the great jazz drummers like Max Roach and Elvin Jones, Mitchell brought that complexity to the rock trio format. He was one of the first rock drummers to view the drums as more than just a keeper of beats and rhythms. Mitchell played the drums often as a "lead" instrument, playing off of and complementing Hendrix. Hendrix and Mitchell had a magical communication. Listen to the groovy interplay between Mitchell's drumming and Hendrix's rhythmic guitar playing in classic tunes like "Manic Depression," "Fire" or "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." It is no exaggeration to say that Mitchell helped to make Hendrix as great as he was.

RIP Mitch Mitchell.

ABOVE: Here's Jimi, Mitch and bassist Noel Redding tearing it up at the Monterey Pop Festival

Monday, November 10, 2008

Revisiting the Worst Show on TV

Recall one of my most entertaining posts was my link to "The Best of Horatio Cain" from "CSI: Miami" here. Watch it again. It is that funny. I must have watched this clip 10 times in a row. If you missed that post, click the link above NOW. I command you in the name of all that is funny.

My wife (an unrepentent "CSI: Miami" fan) just sent me a link to this great commentary on the odd draw that "CSI: Miami" has on its viewers. The article is appropriately titled 'CSI: Miami is Watchable, Yet Horrible.' The full article can be found here. Returning to the mesmerizingly bad David Caruso as Horatio Cain, critic Andy Dehnart says:

Caine repeats other character's names multiple times in one sentence for no reason, and always stands at bizarre angles where he's never quite looking at whoever he's talking to. He's constantly removing or putting on his sunglasses, and he makes profound-sounding declarations that are actually trite and trivial. He talks to everyone as if they're children, and although he experiences emotion, doesn't express it verbally or non-verbally. Caine also walks away in the middle of conversations, and appears just as unexpectedly. On one episode, he appeared in the middle of a street that was just shown to be empty in a wide shot, as if he was some kind of magician.

But Dehnart goes on to point out that 'CSI: Miami's biggest draw may be the visuals. He says:

What may be most notable about the series is how it places its visual aesthetic above all else...In high-definition, it's intoxicating, with bright colors that scream for attention. It's HDTV porn, and high-definition television manufacturers should require big-box electronic stores to tune their sets to A&E, which repeats the show with ridiculous frequency. Nothing looks quite like "CSI: Miami" does, nor does any other show make Miami look so stunning and flawless...

All of this may be true. But the only reason I still watch occasionally with my wife is because David Caruso has turned bad acting into a stunning artform.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Dez's Rock & Roll Cage Match, vol. 1: The Greatest Jam Band of Them All?

As you can tell, I love ranking and comparing things. For the sake of full disclosure, I got this idea from a book I saw in the book store the other day. In Rock and Roll Cage Match, different writers each take a chapter and put two rock artists or things head to head to see who comes out on top. Van Halen vs. Van Hagar, Britney vs. Christina, Smiths vs. Cure, Devo vs. Kraftwerk, the album vs. the single (in graphic novel form), etc. Fun concept, and as you might expect, the quality of the chapters vary based on the skill and take (and writing style) of each writer. So, I figured I'd throw a few of my own out there from time to time.

I've always been a big Allman Brothers Band fan, but recently (and I have no idea why), I've been listening to a shitload of the Grateful Dead. I mean, exculsively, for weeks. Entire shows from the Dick's Picks vaults, as well as their admittedly spotty studio records. Which got me thinking, who is the ultimate jam band out of the two grand daddy rock jam bands of all time?

The Grateful Dead vs. The Allman Brothers Band


1. Roots
Both bands pull from a wealth of American musical traditions for their inspiration. Jerry Garcia was an accomplished bluegrass player before The Dead even formed, while Duane Allman played guitar as a studio musician on records for Aretha Franklin and many other soul luminaries before the Brothers got together. Listening to The Grateful Dead throughout their career, they pull liberally from bluegrass, country, 50's rock, blues, psychedelia, and avante-garde noise (listen to live sets from the late 60's, especially, and you will find they were much more experimental than you might think). The Allmans pull from three main sources. Blues (and soul), country and jazz (Duane Allman stated that he listened to John Coltrane's music religiously, and it clearly influenced his guitar flights of fancy). The Dead seem to pull from a wider range of musical styles to create their musical stew.

2. Beginnings
The Dead were The Warlocks early on. The Allmans were called The Allman Joys. While I do not have any recordings of the Warlock days, I do have some Allman Joy recordings, and they kicked ass even then. Plus, love the name.

3. Studio recordings
This is tough. Both have some acknowledged classics, underrated gems, and truly terrible records. The Dead have two real masterpieces in Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, while Mars Hotel is underrated, and they have some scattered great songs throughout mediocre to bad records. The Dead made no secret about hating the studio. The Allman's first two records, Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South, are greatness. The studio half of Eat a Peach is brilliant, and Brothers and Sisters is solid to great. Everything else is spotty, with great songs scattered amongst filler.

4. Vocals
The Dead are charming with their ramshackle vocal styles. You really get used to Garcia's warm and inviting singing, while Bob Weir and Phil Lesh show every American that given the right circumstances, anyone can do this. On the Allman side of things, Dickey Betts is an excellent singer on their country-influenced material. Gregg Allman is one of the most soulful and powerful white singers we've ever had in rock. This one is easy.

5. Guitars
As with most jam bands, these two really lean on their guitarists. Whereas the Dead have clear roles of lead (Garcia) and rhythm (Weir), the Allmans have always used a double lead attack. Weir is serviceable, but Garcia was truly great and eclectic in his playing. One of the more underrated guitar heroes out there, Jerry Garcia had an identifiable style (a beautiful combination of speed, grace and fluidity), and he could throw that style comfortably in bluegrass chestnuts or 30 minute psychedelic ramblings. It was always identifiable as Garcia, yet he could be flexible enough to play many genres. As good as Garica was, Duane Allman was one of three of the greatest rock guitarists who ever lived (with Hendrix and Jeff Beck). An improviser on par with Coltrane or Miles Davis. Dickey Betts would be worshipped a lot more than he is if he did not have to play in Duane's shadow. He is brilliant as well. After Duane's death, the ABB were always careful to pair Betts with only top-notch co-lead players, like Warren Haynes and wunderkind Derek Trucks. They recently booted Betts (a ridiculous and offensive thing to do), but do have a formiddable line-up of Haynes and Trucks on guitar now. (Funny that Haynes also fills Garcia's shoes when the Dead get together for shows now).

ABOVE: Jerry Garcia is an underrated guitar great, but he's no Duane Allman.

6. The Bottom (bass)
The Dead's Phil Lesh is really underrated. Lesh is essentially a second lead improviser with Garcia on many Dead jams, and he is crucial to their jam magic. Original Allman bassist Berry Oakley was muscular and fluid, laying down a complex rhythmic bottom for Allman and Betts to stay tethered to as they soloed. After Oakley's death, the Allmans hired talented but unremarkable bassists.

7. Other musicians
Both bands use interesting two drummer set-ups. None remarkably talented, though. If I had to pick the best out of the Dead's two drummers and the Allman's two stickmen, I guess I go with The Dead's Bill Kreutzmann. On the keys, neither really hired people that blow you away. Allman's organ playing is there to basically give Gregg something to do while the others solo for 45 minutes at a time. The Dead's Pigpen, Godcheaux, Mydland...all those guys were good but not stellar.

8. Live records
This is where the jams are captured. The Dead have released a wealth of live shows for consumption. There are probably over 70 Grateful Dead live shows (from the late 60's to the late 80's) available for purchase. Naturally, they vary widely in quality. The Dead were the first band to welcome bootleggers to their shows (even reserving a special seating section for them to get the best sound recordings). The Allmans have released a decent number of live records, one of which, At the Fillmore East, may be the greatest live rock record ever released. I've got to give this to The Dead (barely) for creating such a unique live culture.

9. Fans
While the Allmans do have incredibly loyal fans, nothing in rock history compares to the subculture, extended family developed by The Deadheads. This is easy.

10. The Jams
This is what it's all really about, right? How do the actual jams compare? The Dead's quality varies widely, from sloppy or boring noodling to sublime and mesmerizing communication between the musicians. The Allmans can be boring at times, but never bad. And the mesmerizing communication is there at the best of times as well. I keep going back to what The Allmans do with Donovan's "There is a Mountain." This was a silly 3 minute pop tune, and the Allmans take the song and turn it into a 30 minute bohemoth jam with strength and intricate twists and turns ("Mountain Jam" on Eat a Peach.) So, I've got to take both bands at their peaks and compare there. The Allmans peaks are higher.

Winner: It is 5 to 5 (I did not plan it that way, I swear). The tiebreaker has to go with the Jams, since that is what this is all about. The Allman Brothers Band are the greatest jam band ever, but barely.

ABOVE: The greatest line-up of the greatest jam band ever, The Allman Brothers Band

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Si se puede

Congrats to Obama for winning the presidency. Judging from the euphoria in this country and around the world at his victory, I'd say he's got some huge expectations to live up to. (For instance, on talk radio yesterday, they were replaying over and over some interview with a lady in line to vote yesterday who said something to the effect of: "I won't have anything to worry about. I won't lose my house, I won't have to pay high gas prices. If I help him he's gonna take care of me." I'm not exaggerating that at all. That is what she said.) Suffice it to say, people will expect impossible things from our new messiah...I mean, president.

That aside, it was hard not to get swept up in the excitement. Although, I have to say I chuckled at the shot of Jesse Jackson weeping like a baby. Was it because he was so happy at this historic step forward in civil rights, or was it that he was wondering "why isn't that me up there?!" (You have to wonder considering his earlier statements that Obama was "too white.")

But hell, I voted for Obama, so I truly wish him the best. It looks like the Dems did not get the dreaded 60 seats in the Senate, which is good. Obama will be forced to work with the other side on some things. I am excited about the potential. Obama will go a long way to repair our reputation abroad. He is a thoughtful and reflective man, such a wonderful contrast to the reactionary dullard who "hates to read" we've had for the last 8 years.

A note on McCain: what a gracious speech he gave last night. A classy and heartfelt speech; McCain will still be relevant. Maybe he can go back to doing what he does best, being the real McCain again in the Senate. He was so much better than so many in his party. And, unfortunately, Palin is not going away.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Read This

I have often linked to my good friend (and frequent commentator here at GNABB) JMW's wonderful blog, A Special Way of Being Afraid. He and I have had many disagreements and debates, but I have always greatly respected his opinions (even when he is wrong). JMW is also a writer by trade, and he just posted one of the best political editorials I've ever read. The perfect food for thought on the eve of this historic election. So check it out ("A Final Word," posted today) here.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

I Voted

Recall in an earlier post, I vowed not to vote this year because: 1. I could not vote for Obama due to policy disageeements; 2. I could not vote for McCain because of Palin; and 3. I could not vote for a 3rd Party candidate because they are jokes (Barr, Nader). Well, I decided that it was my civic duty (and the fact that I teach Government to a bunch of high schoolers) to vote. So I did early voting yesterday.

I stared at the screen for what seemed like an eternity, going over the entire last year of the campaign in my head. With many, many serious reservations I voted for...Obama. As a big John McCain fan since 2000, that was extremely difficult for me to do. I gave money to McCain in 2000, the only campaign that I have ever sent money. In many respects, he is still an admirable man. But he is not (deep down) alligned with his own party. It was a marriage of convenience that McCain was picked as the Republican candidate this year. Simply put, he was the only Republican with a chance, because he was the most un-Republican of the candidates running for his party's nomination. But it has been painful to watch McCain go back on his prior positions on issue after issue in order to make the Republican base comfortable. And then there is Palin.

Obama, while I still say he is dead wrong on Iraq and I am concerned with his prior associations (yes, there is something to the fact that he associated with Ayers, Wright, crazy catholic priest guy, and the rest), is a thoughtful and reflective man. What a nice contrast to the last eight years. I am hoping that once in office, he will have to move closer to the center, as is what usually happens (except for Bush in 2000, but 9/11 changed everything). I am gravely concerned with giving Obama a majority in the Senate and House.

For repentence, I then voted straight Republican or Libertarian the rest of the way to balance it out. If Obama is elected, he needs as much opposition as possible to put the brakes on some of his more extreme Leftist tendencies.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The NBA is Back!

Basketball is the only pro sport that I follow with any real interest. Tonight the NBA tips off another season, and I'm pumped.

I had my Fantasy Basketball Draft a week ago, and so I am interested to see how my guys do. I've played in the same league with the same group of guys for four years now, and we all take it fairly seriously. But I made the biggest mistake of the draft this year. I blame Yahoo. They changed their damn draft format. I had the fourth pick of the draft this season. To make sure that I had my top 20 players in the order that I wanted them, I moved them all over from the overall list of players to the convenient "my queue" that Yahoo provided on the screen. It makes sense that when I hit the "draft" button, it would pick the highest available player in "my queue", right? So I'm getting Kobe Bryant, right? There I was, sitting pretty, ready to draft Kobe for my team. But, I inadvertantly still had the next available player in the other list of players highlighted. As in, my 21st choice vs. my 4th choice. I think our draft is the only fantasy draft out there where the first Laker drafted was...Pau Gasol!! That's right. I had the 4th overall pick in the draft, and I accidently picked my 21st choice instead of my 4th. Needless to say, for the next hour and a half of the draft I got relentlessly teased.

I quickly adjusted. I decided to be Power Forward/Center heavy after that, so I've added Oden, Okefor and Rasheed Wallace to my Big Man arsenal. Add Baron Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Martin and Mo Williams to that. Then some good sleeper prospects in Matt Barnes (who just took the starting job from Grant Hill in Phoenix), Ronnie Brewer and Francisco Garcia. I also got Richard Jefferson and Luol Deng pretty late in the draft. So, the team isn't terrible. We'll see. (As I write this, the Lakers/Portland game just started, and Oden has a block within the first minute of the game. That's what I want to see...) I rechristened my team the "Gasol All Stars" and off we go.

ABOVE: Forget Kobe. Dez picked Pau Gasol with the 4th overall pick in his fantasy draft. Think Dez will win the first place prize money this year?

Fantasy sports aside, I'm looking forward to this season. My buddy JMW is picking the Hawks as a sleeper, and I agree. I love that young team. The Hornets could possibly take it all this season, though. I think it will be Spurs or Rockets vs. Hornets in the West Finals, and the Hornets will go to the Finals. They will face Boston (who will defeat Cleveland in the East Finals), and Boston will repeat as NBA Champs. Those are Dez's predictions.

As usual, I start this season full of hope for my Rockets. We've got Artest. What could possibly go wrong?

BELOW: The Houston Rockets could go all the way with the emotionally stable Tru Warier, Ron Artest

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dez's Favorite Freakin' Rock Record of All Time!!

1. U2 – The Joshua Tree, 1987

As the years pass, I realize more and more that #1 may be as close as an album can come to perfection. Let’s start with the production. This is the best produced rock record I’ve ever heard. The soundscapes they create are as open and full of mystery and promise as the American western desert that they feature in the artwork. Once again, producers Daniel Lenois and Brian Eno are as important as the four band members.

It opens with a 1-2-3 punch of Muhammad Ali proportions: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With Or Without You.” I mean…What The F*ck??? They could have gone home right there and the record would still have made my Top 100. What do you do after that? Well, you then deliver the hardest rocker you’ve ever recorded, the blistering “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and then you close the side with a haunting, minimalist masterpiece, “Running To Stand Still.” And that’s just the first side, rock fans. Let’s break it down even more. If #1 has any imperfections at all, they all come in the second half. Side One of The Joshua Tree is absolutely, undeniably, unequivocably…perfection. Even on great records, you can nitpick small details. This song could have been a little longer, that line could have been better, the solo could have been done a little differently…whatever. On Side One of The Joshua Tree, there is NOTHING that could be improved upon.

The majestic opening of “Where the Streets Have No Name” is the culmination of Edge’s atmospheric guitar playing that he started working with in earnest on the previous The Unforgettable Fire. The song continues to be the highlight of most of their shows, the very definition of anthemic. If “Where the Streets…” is the culmination of the band musically up to this point, then “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is the culmination of Bono’s lyric writing through the 1980’s. Ever since their debut in 1980, U2 never hid the fact that they were spiritual travelers. As the frontman and source of most of their lyrics, Bono even more so than the others expressed this spiritual journey and unrest:

“I have climbed highest mountain, I have run through the fields
Only to be with You, only to be with You
I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls, these city walls
Only to be with You
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for
I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her fingertips
It burned like fire, this burning desire
I have spoke with the tongue of angels, I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night, I was cold as a stone
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for
I believe in the kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one, well yes I'm still running
You broke the bonds and You, loosed the chains, carried the cross
Of my shame, of my shame, you know I believed it
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for...”

This is a song directed straight to God, simultaneously a prayer of thanks and an admission of still feeling lost in many ways. From there we move to the secular “With Or Without You,” their biggest hit and the most perfectly paced song from a musical standpoint that I’ve ever come across. It is one long crescendo of passion, and when the band finally explodes near the end, it is a well earned release. Then we move to the political with the searing “Bullet the Blue Sky” (based on a trip to El Salvador that Bono took in the turbulent late 80’s). Here Edge dispenses with the atmospherics and makes his guitar sound like dive bombing airplanes. When recording this song, Bono is alleged to have instructed Edge to “put the war through your amplifier.” Edge did just that, creating a sonic maelstrom worthy of Hendrix. Finally, after the dust of the bombast of that song settles comes one of the most delicate and devastating tunes in their repertoire, the drug casualty song “Running To Stand Still”:

“And so she woke up, woke up from where she was lying still
Said ‘I gotta do something, about where we're going
Step on a steam train, step out of the driving rain, maybe
Run from the darkness in the night’
Singing ha, ah la la la de day…
Sweet the sin, bitter taste in my mouth
I see seven towers, but I only see one way out
You got to cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice
You know I took the poison, from the poison stream
Then I floated out of here
Singing...ha la la la de day…
She runs through the streets, with her eyes painted red
Under black belly of cloud in the rain
In through a doorway she brings me, white gold and pearls stolen from the sea
She is raging, she is raging, and the storm blows up in her eyes
She will suffer the needle chill
She's running to stand still”

ABOVE: "Running To Stand Still" (live, 1988). Warning: Bono in full earnest mode.

The album tapers off only slightly in the second half (I mean, how long can you sustain perfection?), but you’ve still got the great working class tale of “Red Hill Mining Town,” the glorious forgotten gem “In God’s Country,” the slight misstep but still catchy noble attempt at sounding like an American band with “Trip Through Your Wires,” the lovely “One Tree Hill,” the brooding “Exit” and finally the bitter jab at Pinochet’s Chile in the atmospheric closer “Mothers of the Disappeared.” If you buy the latest Super Duper Special Deluxe Edition Whatever of #1 (the one in the expensive box with two CD’s, a DVD of a 1987 concert in Paris and a book about the record), you find on that second CD evidence that even their leftovers and B-Sides from the period could have fit comfortably next to what made the cut for the record. “Luminous Times,” “Walk To the Water,” “Silver and Gold,” “Sweetest Thing,” “Wave of Sorrow,” “Desert of Our Love,” “Rise Up”…this record would still have been my #1 had any of these great songs replaced some of the songs in the second half. Imagine this mofo as a double record? It could have been with these great leftovers and B-Sides.

Bono once discussed what they were trying to accomplish with The Joshua Tree, and the always verbose Irishman is worth quoting at length here: “We weren’t interested in America the landmass or the body politic, but America the mythic idea. I always say that America is not just a country, it’s an idea, and we were looking at how that idea expressed itself in the 1980’s…We had this sense that people were parched of the idealism they’d had in the sixties…”, hence the prominent desert imagery in the album art and in some of the songs. Bono continues, “America had colonized all our imaginations, the force of its culture, its pop, its movies…was so powerful that the only way to describe this American century was to enter the belly of the beast. And that’s what we did – with our Irish point of view. Irish people always loved America, it was sort of a promised land. And if I was enraged by the sermonizing of the televangelists, I still loved the poetry of the scriptures they quoted, and I loved the poetry of the country’s geography…Two Americas, the mythic America and the real America – harsh reality alongside the dream. It was prosperous and it was parched and I began to see this era as a spiritual drought. I started thinking about the desert…So in the midst of this are all these personal songs, love songs, faith songs, songs about claustrophobia and songs about wide open spaces…And a picture emerges from these disparate pieces, a kind of mosaic of the personal and the political, with melancholy, with rage, with tenderness – and these ideas and images coalesced in a single geographic location, a single focus in that desert, the image of the Joshua Tree.”

One of those rare records that is so good it creates its own world, a record that gives you hope for the human condition. If four Irish lads are capable of creating such artistic greatness, then what else can we accomplish as a species?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Powell Endorses Obama

I've always greatly respected Colin Powell. Recall that he seriously considered a run for the White House years ago, and I often wonder what would have happened had he run and won. Politically speaking, he is almost exactly where I am. A Republican, but a moderate one. A Republican who is concerned about the rightward tack of the GOP. If I were to compare my views to some well known leaders, it would be Colin Powell and John McCain...the John McCain of 4-8 years ago. Unfortunately, not the John McCain of now. I know that all presidential candidates have to hold their noses as they court essential base groups. But it is particularly disappointing to see McCain having to do that, since he made his name as a maverick who used to stand up to the right wing of his own party. And then there is the choice of Palin. For that alone, I cannot vote for John McCain. I still am not sure I can cast a positive vote for Obama, because I have serious reservations on key positions he takes, but I do not have reservations about Obama the man.

Watch the clip below of Powell's endorsement of Obama. It is a thoughtful discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of both McCain and Obama, and then eventually a reasoned explanation of why he is now supporting Obama. What a great seven or so minutes of thoughtful, calm, fair and non-sloganeering political discussion. Way to go Gen. Powell.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dez's Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #'s 5-2 and Honorable Mentions

Here we are. The cream of the crop. The Best of the Best. But in the words of Styx, "Don't Let It End." This post will give you #'s 5 to 2, and then I want to give you a quick list (don't worry, no commentary) of the Honorable Mentions. These are (in alphabetical order) what probably would have been #'s 101-150. Or, the ones who might have slipped into one of the upper quarter slots if I had made the list on a different day. Such is the nature of lists. I figured that it was only fair to mention the ones that almost made it (or, if a band had filled out their three maximum slots, I can now list some other favorites here). My #1 Pick will get its own post next week.

5. Peter Gabriel – So, 1986

His commercial breakthrough, #5 marks a dividing line in Gabriel’s career between well regarded cult artist and huge commercial success. Some records just hit you in a way that changes your whole perspective on music. I remember buying this on cassette on a family vacation, and that was it. I sat down for hours, listening to this from start to finish, over and over again. What is so impressive here is that although this record was deservedly a smash hit, he maintains his experimental edge. He delivers his most accessible set of songs of his entire career, and hits it out of the park. (The success of the record was helped by the groundbreaking music videos that accompanied some of the singles). “Red Rain” opens with a driving intensity (helped by guest Stewart Copeland). Gabriel then slides into the mega-hit “Sledgehammer” (his stilted but infectious take on Motown). His duet with Kate Bush “Don’t Give Up” is a touching classic, as is “In Your Eyes” (in the running for greatest love song of our time and immortalized in the 80’s movie ‘Say Anything’). “Big Time” was a groovy hit. Overall, #5 has all you would expect from Gabriel as far as detailed production and intriguing sound textures, but it also delivers a set of undeniably catchy tunes.

4. The Who – Who’s Next, 1971

The Who at the peak of their classic rock bombast. This music was saved from the ashes of the failed Lifehouse project. The rest of the band talked a despondent Pete Townshend into giving up on the cumbersome concept piece he was planning and to salvage some of the better tunes from the project and just release a regular record. This was the result. Townshend is a rock genius for many reasons, but he must be acknowledged for his pioneering use of synthesizers. Remember this is the beginning of the 70’s! His use of synths and sequencing in “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, two of the greatest classic rock songs ever released, is still unmatched. “Behind Blue Eyes” is Townshend angst at its best and most effective, while John Entwhistle contributes his hilarious “My Wife” to lighten the mood (as his one or two songs per Who album often do). Keith Moon’s drumming is manically brilliant throughout, while Roger Daltrey is in full rock god mode. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is typical Townshend. Instead of writing a simple protest song that would have fit with the times, he delivers an anti-anti rant (“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”).

3. Men At Work – Business As Usual, 1982

Anyone who knows me is aware of my fierce loyalty to what, on the surface, may appear to be a lightweight 80’s pop band. And it is true they were relatively short lived, and that they copped some of the “white” reggae textures made popular by the Police at the time. But this quirky unit from Down Under created a body of work that at its best is consummate pop rock with superb and idiosyncratic musicianship, featuring a vocalist almost without parallel. Colin Hay possesses my favorite voice in all of rock, it is instantly recognizable, and he can reach up to the stratosphere or sing low and sly, he can sing straight or he can give his voice so much vibrato that it teters on disaster, all with his odd hybrid Scottish/Australian brogue. Hits like “Down Under,” “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Be Good Johnny” are amongst the catchiest of the decade, but the album tracks are just as good. Not a misstep on the entire record (well, I might be able to do without Greg Ham’s “Helpless Automation”). It was a huge smash, and held the record as the most successful debut in rock history for awhile; holding the U.S. #1 spot for an impressive 15 weeks, and at one time it was the #1 record simultaneously in the U.S., the UK and Australia. With Hay’s voice, Greg Ham’s flutes and saxes and Ron Strykert’s underrated guitar playing, they ruled the charts for a brief time in the early 80’s. The Men At Work phenomenon was so ubiquitous that McDonald’s even offered the McVegemite Sandwich for a brief time, in honor of the newly famous Australian sandwich referenced in the hit “Down Under”:

“Traveling in a fried-out combie, on a hippie trail head full of zombie
I met a strange lady, she made me nervous, she took me in and gave me breakfast
And she said, ‘Do you come from the land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder, can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder
You better run, you better take cover’
Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was 6-foot-4 and full of muscles
I said ‘do you speak my language, brother?’, he just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich…”

Are those great lyrics or what? Men At Work were one of the very first bands that I ever got into. In fact, after some Kiss records, my first three rock/pop records that I ever owned (for better or for worse) were #3, Madness by Madness, and Duran Duran’s debut. So, I have been familiar with #3 longer than almost any record here, and it still sounds fresh and gives me a thrill when I hear it. There is a purity in this band’s sound that is hard to describe.

2. Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1972

Bruce’s sophomore effort best captures the spirit of those early club days. Key to this line-up are early members of the E Street Band who soon left the ranks, like drummer Vinnie Lopez (who swung much more than Max Weinberg) and jazz pianist David Sancious. “The E Street Shuffle,” the groovy “Kitty’s Back” and “New York City Serenade” are equal parts jazz, soul, and rock and roll. But Bruce was already honing his songwriting craft, painting the detailed and lovely Jersey Shore portrait “4th of July, Asbury Park(Sandy).” “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” is one of the more remarkable tunes in his repertoire, both musically (employing a tuba, mandolin and flutes along with his acoustic guitar) and lyrically as he paints a vivid picture of life in a traveling carnival show, infused with whimsy and a hint of darkness as well:

“The machinist climbs his ferris wheel like a brave
And the fire eater's lyin' in a pool of sweat, victim of the heatwave
Behind the tent the hired hand tightens his legs on the sword swallower's blade
And circus town's on the shortwave
Well the runway lies ahead like a great false dawn
Oh fat lady, big mama, Missy Bimbo sits in her chair and yawns
And the man-beast lies in his cage sniffin' popcorn
As the midget licks his fingers and suffers Missy Bimbo's scorn
The circus town's been born
Whoa, and a press roll drummer go, ballerina to-and-fro
Cartwheelin' up on that tightrope with a cannon blast lightin' flash
Movin' fast through the tent Mars bent, he's gonna miss his fall
Oh God save the human cannonball.
And the flying Zambinis watch Margarita do her neck twist,
And the ringmaster gets the crowd to count along: "Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven"
A ragged suitcase in his hand, he steals silently away from the circus grounds
And the highway's haunted by the carnival sounds
They dance like a great greasepaint ghost on the wind
A man in baggy pants, a lonely face, a crazy grin
Runnin' home to some small Ohio town
Jesus send some good women to save all your clowns
And circus boy dances like a monkey on barbed wire
And the barker romances with a junkie, she's got a flat tire,
And now the elephants dance real funky and the band play like a jungle fire
Circus town's on the live wire
And the strong man Sampson lifts the midget little Tiny Tim way up on his shoulders, way up
And carries him on down the midway past the kids, past the sailors
To his dimly lit trailer
And the ferris wheel turns and turns like it ain't ever gonna stop
And the circus boss leans over, whispers into the little boy's ear "Hey son, you want to try the big top?"
All aboard, Nebraska's our next stop.”

Aside from the vivid lyrics, the music emphasizes the changing moods of the song, as the tuba stomps along as the “elephants dance real funky,” a drum roll accompanies the countdown, and a mandolin plays sprightly as the “circus boy dances like a monkey on barbed wire.” This is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard where the music comments on the lyrics so perfectly. But the true highlights are the epics “Incident on 57th Street” (his most dynamic song and a personal favorite) and the joyous, fan-favorite “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” Bruce has never been this loose on record.

The Honorable Mentions...

Bryan Adams – Reckless; Allman Brothers Band – Idlewild South; The Band – Music From Big Pink; The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night and Abbey Road; Beck – Sea Change; Jeff Beck – You Had It Coming; Big Head Todd & the Monsters – Riviera; Big Star – Radio City; Black Sabbath – Paranoid; David Bowie – Let’s Dance; The Byrds – Younger Than Yesterday; The Cars – Candy-O; Gene Clark – White Light; Counting Crows – Hard Candy; Creedence Clearwater Revival – Green River; David Crosby – If I Could Only Remember My Name; Derek & the Dominos – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs; Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms; The Doors – L.A. Woman; Genesis – Selling England By the Pound and Genesis; Grateful Dead – Workingman’s Dead; Guns ‘n Roses – Appetite For Destruction; Colin Hay – Peaks and Valleys; Bruce Hornsby & the Range – The Way It Is; The Kinks – Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. 1; Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II and Physical Graffiti; The Mermen – A Glorious Lethal Euphoria; Van Morrison – Moondance and Into the Music; Graham Nash – Songs For Beginners; Pink Floyd – Piper at the Gates of Dawn; The Police – Regatta de Blanc; The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street; Paul Simon – Graceland; Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town; Stephen Stills – Manassas; Sting – The Soul Cages; Traffic – Low Spark of Hi-Heeled Boys; The Tragically Hip – Up To Here; U2 – War; Velvet Underground – Loaded; The Who – Quadrophenia; Wilco – AM; Yes – Close To the Edge; Neil Young – Harvest and On the Beach; Frank Zappa – Hot Rats.

Next week...Dez's Favorite Rock Record of All Time!!

Joe the Plumber

Not that it makes that much difference, but I think that McCain had his best debate performance in this last one. I enjoyed: "I'm not George Bush. If you wanted to run against Bush, you should have run four years ago." Good line, and Obama backed off on his tired McCain-Bush comparisons.

But forget the debate. I'm interested in Joe the Plumber. Recall that Joe the Plumber was caught on camera asking Obama about tax increases for business owners while Obama was gladhanding on the campaign trail several days back. In the debate last night, McCain decided to take up the cause of Joe the Plumber, and Obama and McCain proceeded to discuss Joe's problems for what seemed to be about thirty minutes. Now Joe the Plumber is famous. And he's a political philosopher. The media has swarmed Joe's house, and Joe seems all too happy to discuss the issues of the day on camera.

Here's Joe on Social Security...

I also heard him speak at length on welfare, energy and technology.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The New Gig

I apologize that posts have not been as frequent as they once were. When I made this career change back to teaching, I thought that I would have all of this free time. At least compared to lawyering. But dammit, I'm working just as hard. They've got me teaching U.S. Government classes, a U.S. History class, and coaching the Debate team (which takes up lots of after school time and weekends for tournaments).

Don't get me wrong, I really am enjoying it. I much prefer this to sitting in an office fielding phone calls from anxious clients, arguing with difficult opposing counsel, etc. But where's my free time? Where's EZ Street?

Teaching has changed since I did it ten years ago. First of all, my circumstances were different. I only had to prepare lessons for one subject (World Geography). And that was before the state and the feds went crazy with standardized testing. I could create the curriculum as I went along, because the state had no testing or standards for Geography at that point. Spend a couple of days on Buddhist philosophy? Sure. Watch some footage of Rwandan genocide and discuss tribal conflicts? Sounds good. That was cool. But these days everything is tested and mandated, so there is not nearly as much autonomy for the teacher. I've got to coordinate with the other Government teachers and the other U.S. History teachers and make sure we are teaching the same lessons, giving the same tests, etc. We've got state standards for this, state standards for that. You spend as much time making sure lessons are aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge Standards (affectionately known as "the TEKS") as you do actually getting to the substance of what you are teaching. I can still put in a little personal touch here or there, but not nearly as much as in the old days.

But on the whole, teaching is still great. The kids are maddening at times, but also a lot of fun. And in these uncertain economic times, I'd much rather be in a secure government job vs. scrambling around in the volatile legal market.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Dez's Favorite 100 Rock/Pop Records, #'s 10-6

Here we are at the Top 10. It's been a fun journey through my favorite rock/pop albums, and I appreciate your indulgence and comments and critiques. That is what this is really all about. It's a way to talk about tunes. Next week you will get Dez's absolute favorites of all time. Alright, Pockyjack, #10 is for you...

10. The Doors – The Doors, 1967
No other record sounds quite like this, not even subsequent Doors records. It was one of the most auspicious debuts from any band of the era, which was a time of many brilliant debuts. While Jim Morrison’s prototype dark, sexy, mystic persona has been immortalized over the decades, to me the key to this band are the other three guys. John Densmore swings like a jazz drummer, Robbie Krieger incorporates everything from blues to flamenco styles in his loose guitar playing, and the amazing Ray Manzarek creates the unique character of their sound with his double duties on keyboards and bass. These strengths are best demonstrated on their biggest hit, the still thrilling “Light My Fire.” This tune has been played to death on classic rock radio, but give it a fresh listen at top volume. After Morrison steps out of the way, that extended instrumental middle is still one of the more exciting and groovy passages of music I've ever heard. One of my favorite aspects of The Doors was how, early on, even though they were influenced by blues and soul music, they played it through their own unique psychedelic and baroque prism. Take their cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man” here; instead of just regurgitating the original, Morrison and Co. turn it into something quite new and menacing. “Soul Kitchen” is a Doors original where they do something similar. Of course, #10 closes with the infamous oedipal, apocalyptic epic “The End” (a song famously used in the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ and also a song that got them fired from their residency at the Whiskey A-Go Go in L.A. after Morrison’s “father, I want to kill you / mother, I want to f*ck you” bit was too much for even the open minded late 60’s mainstream to handle.)

9. ZZ Top – Eliminator, 1983
In one of the most unlikely of reinventions, ZZ Top came roaring back from oblivion in the early 80’s on the strength of #9. Like so many other classic rock acts from the 70’s, ZZ Top didn’t seem to fit in with the New Wave dominated early 80’s. So what did they do? I will argue they pulled one of the most daring switches in rock, on par with what U2 accomplished going from The Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby. The Top managed to keep the essence of what made them a great band in the first place, but then added just the right elements from the new era and adjusted brilliantly. By keeping Billy Gibbon’s signature gritty guitar intact, they all but threw out Dusty Hill’s traditional bass guitar, and replaced it with a heavy, distorted synthesizer to stand in for most of the bass on the record, and then drummer Frank Beard (ironically, the only band member without a beard) turned his already simple drumming style into a metronome-like, mechanical precision. So, you’ve got an album that is purely hard rock, yet also very 80’s in all of the best ways. Next step, grow the beards and make a series of iconic, humorous music videos just in time for the peak of MTV. But none of this would have worked if they didn’t have the songs, and they also happened to come up with one of the best batches of songs of their career. Hits “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs,” “TV Dinners,” “Got Me Under Pressure”…they all rock hard and have a wonderful humor about them at the same time. Throw in some strong album tracks, like the funky “Thug” and the awesome updated blues-for-the-80’s “I Need You Tonight,” and you’ve got one of the best rock records of the 80’s…or any other decade for that matter.

ABOVE: Eliminator's album cover is in the running for one of the coolest ever. BELOW: Even Hot Wheels knows that the Eliminator car is a classic. The original Eliminator car now sits in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland. It is consistently one of the more popular exhibits there.

8. Yes – 90125, 1983
#8 divides Yes fans like no other record. For people of my age, it was our first introduction to the band. Only after hearing this did we then explore their glory days of yore. #8 is all about Trevor Rabin, the new guitarist and writer of most of these songs. He added a definite 80’s sheen, and streamlined (for Yes standards) the band’s former grandiose compositions. He also raised them from the dead and gave them a new lease on life as a band. Yes was nowhere in the early 80’s, about as uncool and out of step at that point as any rock dinosaur could be. Prog rock was on the outs. So this giant of prog rock comes along and delivers their biggest commercial success, including their only #1 hit single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (a song that is still heavily sampled in rap songs). Single “Leave It” was one of the more unique sounding singles of the day with its layer upon layer of harmonized vocals in an almost a capella setting; and “Changes” is a transcendently great song, with its jarring and excitingly precise changes, probably in my top 10 of favorite songs. Surround those three centerpieces with solid and varied album tracks like “Hold On,” “It Can Happen,” “City of Love,” “Cinema” and “Our Song,” and you’ve got one of the most complex records of the 80’s, yet also one of Yes’ most accessible ones.

7. The Police – Synchronicity, 1983
At least The Police went out on top. Their last studio album before their acrimonious break-up was also their most successful, one of the biggest hits of the decade. It is almost as if the previous four records were all leading up to this one. Sting is one of the few artists who could make a record loosely based on the philosophical theories of Carl Jung and other such intellectual territory palpable to pop audiences. I mean, he had a hit single with “Wrapped Around Your Finger” which included such lines as “Mephistophiles is not your name” and “Caught between the Schylla and Charibdes”! “Synchronicity II” vies for their hardest rocker, megahit “Every Breath You Take” had such a seductive hook that most people overlooked the fact that it was a song about a stalker. “O My God” is a petulant little tune, where Sting demands of his Creator that He “take the space between us and fill it up some way”, insisting:

“O my God you take the biscuit, treating me this way
Expecting me to treat you well no matter what you say
How can I turn the other cheek, it’s black and bruised and torn
I’ve been waiting since the day that I was born, fill it up! Fill it up!”

Even God can get a dressing down from the Ego of Sting. “King of Pain” is the best Police song, the perfect woe-is-Sting number. With dazzling percussive effects courtesy of Stewart Copeland, and guitar textures from Andy Summers (even a rare and good guitar solo), “King of Pain” summarizes all of their strengths as a band. Stewart’s drumming is, as usual, brilliant throughout the record.

6. Los Lobos – Kiko, 1992
If the band Los Lobos only conjurs up a successful cover of “La Bamba” when you hear them mentioned, then listen to this brilliant piece of work. I don’t know what they were smoking when they were recording this (according to them, they were on quite a few different substances), but give me whatever they were on. There are so many styles and genres crossing, often from verse to verse in a single song, it is astounding. The years go by, and I admire this album more and more. The opening salvo of “Dream in Blue” and “Wake Up Dolores” should give you an indication of things to come. Both are off kilter rockers that unfold with fascinating sonic colors. From there, it just gets stranger. “Angels With Dirty Faces” and “Saint Behind the Glass” brilliantly use the band’s Mexican heritage in a modern context. “That Train Don’t Stop Here,” “Whiskey Trail” and “Wicked Rain” reassure fans that they can still do the blues/rock thing fairly straightforwardly when warranted. I love “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” it sounds like Count Basie on acid, underwater. That is the best way I can describe it. In all this weirdness, there is a fantastic, largely acoustic middle set of songs: “Reva’s House,” “When the Circus Comes,” “Arizona Skies,” “Short Side of Nothing” and “Two Janes” that is modern Americana at its best, and sounds like really good mid-80’s Tom Petty. Then there is “Peace,” with a killer acoustic riff and perfectly building tension. Finally, they close out with “Rio de Tenampa,” which sounds like a drunken bar in Tijuana at about 3 a.m. on a Saturday night. This is one of the most impressive, eclectic and creative records I’ve ever come across. One of those rare records where all of the disparate directions and experiments work.

ABOVE: Los Lobos' Kiko is one of those rare records where every experiment or left turn works brilliantly.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


So, I watched most of the McCain / Obama debate last night. No clear knock-out either way, which is bad news for McCain. Unless he changes the dynamic in the race, I think Obama has it. McCain could have gone at Obama on the Bill Ayers connection, but he steered clear of it. Which was a good idea in that townhall format. I think the Ayers friendship (along with Wright and Father what's-his-name) is actually significant in that it shows a disturbing trend as far as the company Obama keeps.

I watched the debate on CNN, and they had the strangely mesmerizing Undecided Ohio Voter Postive/Negative Meter Thingie at the bottom of the screen the entire time. This was one of those charts that somehow tracked, second by second, how a group of undecided Ohio voters felt about what was being said. In the middle was neutral, and if they liked what was being said, the line drifted up. If they did not like what was being said, the line would go south. I couldn't keep my eyes of the line. How did the undecided Ohioans like McCain's joke? What did they think of Obama's jab at McCain?? I had to know! Generally, I think the Ohioans liked Obama a bit more. Although McCain's positives were high when he was on foreign policy.

I don't think that debate really changed much of anything.

I meant to post about the Palin/Biden debate from last week as well. Palin has convinced me that I cannot vote for John McCain. The pundits were saying she succeeded at the debate because she essentially spoke in complete sentences. Talk about low expectations. Personally, I was very disturbed by her performance. After the intensive week of preparations, she managed to memorize about ten talking points. No matter what question was asked, she got back to one of her "safe" talking points. She even said as much, when she gave the lame line about "I don't know if I will answer these questions the way you want them answered, but I want to talk straight with the American people..." In other words, 'I am going to stick to my pre-prepared 10 mini-speeches, no matter what question is asked.' In that, she was extremely successful.

I just cannot imagine her stepping into the job of president. And the way John McCain was wheezing last night in the microphone (was I the only one who noticed his troubled breathing?), I will not risk having Sarah Palin take that job. She is embarrassing. What the hell is she going to do when she sits across the table from Putin? Wink and smirk (like she did countless times into the camera during the debate)? This is from a John McCain supporter. I will not cast a vote for Obama, so I may have to sit this one out. Since I'm in Texas, my vote isn't that important anyway. This state will go McCain with or without my vote.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


Changed My Mind on the Rockhall Nominees

Recall my previous post regarding the nominees for the Class of 2009 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As a reminder: Metallica, Run-DMC, Jeff Beck, Chic, War, Bobby Womack, Wanda Jackson, The Stooges and Little Anthony & the Imperials. In January they will announce the five Inductees for 2009 out of those nine.

After much thought (and sadly, you know that I have actually spent some time pondering this issue), I have revised my lists of who I would vote for out of those nine and who I actually think will be inducted.

It is an annual ritual for me to investigate each nominee. For one, it is an excuse for me to delve into some music I may have overlooked. Secondly, I like to have informed opinions, even though I do not have an actual ballot to vote. Each year when the list of nominees is announced, I buy at least one compilation disc for each nominee. Since my collection is the grotesque size that it is, I generally already own material for a majority of the nominees. This year I had to go grab a disc each for Womack, Jackson and Little Anthony. I already owned plenty of material from the others. The pleasant surprise this year: I am now a big Bobby Womack fan. I would recommend this killer compilation (love the album cover, too)...

I've been groovin' to this album for the last couple of days. Womack is a triple threat. He's a great songwriter, performer and guitarist. "Across 110th Street" is one of the best depictions of ghetto life that I've come across. (And I know ghetto life, people, growing up on the mean streets of West Houston. "Across Briar Forest Street / Is a hell of a tester"). Anyway, Womack has an interesting mix in his discography. He's got funky, straight soul music, but he also takes interesting covers like James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," "California Dreamin'" or even Sinatra's "Fly Me To the Moon" and turns them into burning soul grooves. Very cool choices. Then he'll unleash an impressive guitar solo here or there. As a songwriter the guy is even more impressive. I didn't realize how many tunes of Womack's were covered by others. Soul legend Wilson Pickett recorded 17 of Womack's compositions, including "I'm a Midnight Mover" and "I'm in Love" (always a favorite of mine, only this week did I realize that Womack wrote it). He wrote Janis Joplin's gorgeous "Trust Me." Also The Rolling Stones' "It's All Over Now" is a Womack tune (and a killer duet version with Bill Withers is on the album suggested above). I am converted. Bobby Womack is the sh*t.

I find Little Anthony & the Imperials to be very mediocre doo wop. A ridiculous nomination. Wanda Jackson is also negligible. From what I understand, she is a favorite of Elvis Costello's, who holds a lot of sway on the nominating committee. Jeff Beck is rivaled only by Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman for rock guitar greatness. Metallica, of course (although there are others in that genre who should go in first, such as Motorhead, Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, etc.) Run-DMC were rap innovators and helped to bridge the divide between rap and rock. Absolutely. The Stooges (nominated for the 7th time) were the punk godfathers. Chic were decent disco pioneers, but I accept the nomination as legit mainly because of the contributions of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards through Chic and post-Chic as producers. War were great, but not Hall of Fame worthy.

So, here is who I would now vote for from this list of nominees: Jeff Beck, Metallica, The Stooges, Run-DMC and Bobby Womack. That actually looks like a pretty solid class of five right there.

My revised prediction? Here is how I see it going: Metallica, Run-DMC, The Stooges, Wanda Jackson and Little Anthony & the Imperials. I hope that I am wrong. But I know that there is a large group of fogies who vote that still feel that 50's/doo wop is underrepresented, and Little Anthony has nobody to split that vote with. They often try to fit a woman in each class if they can, and Wanda looks to be that token choice. Plus, evidently Costello and Little Steven Van Zandt are both lobbying heavily for her. Don't know why.

ABOVE: I'll leave you with a double shot of Bobby Womack. Solo acoustic renditions of "California Dreamin'" and "Across 110th Street."