Thursday, July 31, 2008

H-Town Welcomes the 'Tru Warier'

ABOVE: The Houston Rockets are (probably) the proud new employers of one Ron Artest. Here he fights with fans in Detroit (at the time, he was an Indiana Pacer).

Although not official until mid-August, it appears that The Houston Rockets will have pulled off one of the most lop-sided trades in the NBA since...well, since the Lakers got Pau Gasol. I will argue that the Rockets potentially just got a bigger difference-maker than Gasol. Maybe. That all depends on whether Ron Artest can stay out of jail or other types of trouble long enough to stay on the basketball court. But the Rockets basically gave up the janitor at the Toyota Center to get him. What were the Sacramento Kings thinking? The big question is will the NBA actually allow this trade to go through?

The details of the trade: the Rockets send Bobby Jackson (whom I like, but at best he is a reliable back-up), Donte' Greene (who has a lot of potential, but years away) and a first round pick in 2009 to the Kings in exchange for Ron Ron.

The up side for Houston? When his head is in the game, Artest is one of the best defensive players in the league. Tenacious as hell, he gives the Rockets a player who can defend the hottest player on the opposing team. The Rockets now have an instant defender to throw at Kobe, Ginobili, Paul, etc. Artest is flexible, able to play three positions. He can get hot from the three, and last season he averaged over 20 points a game, over 5 rebounds and over 3 assists. He brings a mental toughness and outlaw attitude that, frankly, the sometimes mentally soft Rockets sorely need. He can be our resident thug to mix things up on the court. The up side is huge, and immediately makes the Rockets a contender for the top spot in the West.

The down side? Well, the guy is absolutely insane. He was the main instigator of the infamous Detroit Brawl that derailed the Indiana Pacers for years and has a relatively long rap sheet. Speaking of rap, he has at times indicated that he might be more interested in pursuing his rap music career than play basketball. Fortunately his one album flopped, so that pipe dream may have died by now. But he wants to win, has something to prove, and if anyone can have success "handling" Artest, it is coach Rick Adelman.

BELOW: For some reason, Ron Artest's, excuse me, the Tru Warier's album My World failed to set the rap world on fire. He explains why everyone is against him in the track, "Haterz" ("David Stern, damn, David Stern! / I gotta teach you 'bout the ghetto / there's some things you should learn")

But with the Rockets, it all really depends on the health of Yao Ming (who seems to be as fragile as a piece of fine china) and Tracy McGrady (who's self-confidence and mental toughness is about as reliable as Yao Ming's ankles). But this is the first time that they have been able to bring in a third, complimentary NBA All-Star calliber player to help Yao and T-Mac vs. just good role players. Plus the addition of three point specialist Brent Barry...I like the Rockets' chances. If T-Mac and Yao stay healthy. I'll say that again, if T-Mac and Yao stay healthy.

In the end, I'd put a starting line-up of Yao, McGrady, Artest, Alston and Scola (with someone like Shane Battier coming off the bench) against any NBA team out there. I am ready for the season to start.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


What a month. I figured I’d take a break from the important stuff (music, movies, USA For Africa) and talk about life on a smaller scale. My wife and I both had dramatic changes in our work lives. She left her old law firm for a new one, getting a decent raise in the process. Cool.

I’ve been kind of drifting for awhile now. I am an attorney, but I’ve been on my own for almost a year doing contract work vs. working for any firm. There are many attorneys who make a decent living doing just that, but it’s not for me. Being an attorney full time is really not for me, to be honest. My wife is great at it, in part because she really enjoys doing it. I never enjoyed doing it.

So, I got a position teaching Government and Debate (that’s where the law degree comes in handy) at a great high school here in San Antonio. I couldn’t be happier. I taught high school before going off to law school, but ever since I left, I often thought back to how much I enjoyed it. So, my plan is to teach, and then continue to do a little legal work on the side for some extra cash. I much prefer doing law part time when I want to vs. doing it full time because I have to.

Toby – (see here and here for previous Toby posts) is not doing so good. He took a turn for the worse earlier this week, his little kidneys just can’t do the job, and Monday we were minutes away from putting him down. I mean, standing-in-the-vet’s-office-looking-over-papers-as-to-what-to-do-with-his-remains close. But we are trying one last ditch intensive round of treatments. And before you lecture me on putting him through unecessary pain and suffering, the type of kidney problems he is having is not painful. If he were in pain (or when he starts having pain), we're done. But right now he is just low energy and very tired. I go to the vet a couple of times a day and hang out with him. He seems appreciative. So, send out some more prayers or thoughts or good vibes or whatever his way, and let's hope that we don't have a new GNABB obituary post any time soon.

OK. We’ll get back to the politics, music, astute cultural observations, movies, true stories of the Canadian military, etc. next time! By the way, I have my original USA For Africa LP, and in it is an order form for USA For Africa T-shirts, bandanas, and other paraphernalia. The photos with the models are priceless, 80’s hairstyles and fashions to the extreme. I was thinking of sending off for a T-shirt. Think they’d still send one?


Monday, July 28, 2008

Feed the World...

I was wondering, which of the All-Star tunes written to raise money for starving Ethiopians in the mid-80's was most effective? Which tune by concerned pop stars most inspires you to give?

I think the British effort is the grooviest, but you be the judge. Below are your choices...

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" - Band Aid (Britain)

"We Are the World" - USA For Africa (USA)

"Tears Are Not Enough" - Northern Lights (Canada)

A fun game to play with each of these is to see how many singers you can name that are featured.

BONUS: This one is awesome. "We're Stars" - Hear 'n Aid (80's metal stars)

Drinks with a Canadian

Last night my wife and I went out and had drinks with her friend and her friend’s new boyfriend. The boyfriend was a Canadian. Normally if I meet someone from a different country, I am somewhat intrigued and like to ask questions and learn about their experiences and culture. But, come on. This was Canada. Aren't they just like us, just less important? He was on the liberal side, and made a few typical America-hating comments that are common for liberals to make, regardless of nationality, and I let slide something to the effect of “when was the last time Canada was relevant for anything other than giving us Bryan Adams and for having a health care system that everyone can afford but that nobody wants to use?” To my surprise his Canadian pride swelled up, and he proceeded to give me a quick primer on Canada’s contributions to the world, ending it with “that’s a typical Texan attitude.” (I especially enjoyed when he got to Canada’s military accomplishments, and he had to reach back to World War I.)

I’ve got nothing against Canada, our northern neighbor and its people are the most like us, just friendlier. I’ve enjoyed visits to Prince Edward Island and Toronto. But there is a long tradition of jesting (even among Canadians) regarding Canada’s relative insignificance in world affairs (South Park, ‘Canadian Bacon’, and so forth). Canadians are not angry people, so I had no fear of him starting a Canadian Jihad or anything. Sure enough, he quickly cooled down and he became the polite and witty Canadian that I would expect, and we had a lovely evening. I especially enjoyed our in depth conversation regarding Canadian rock bands (from The Tragically Hip to Neil Young), as my wife and her friend’s eyes glazed over. The guy was interesting, he had been a music writer and DJ in Halifax, Nova Scotia for awhile. We smoked cigars and talked all things Canada, and promised to get together soon and hang out some more, so all is good.

In honor of my new Canadian friend, I decided to investigate further, and here are some interesting Canadian facts:

• Not to be outdone by USA For Africa’s “We Are the World” and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (Britain), Canada’s music elite got together and recorded “Tears Are Not Enough” under the moniker Northern Lights to do their part to save Ethiopia in the mid-80’s. The song is tucked away on the second side of the USA For Africa album. Such Canadian music greats as Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Geddy Lee, Gordon Lightfoot and Mike Reno (of Loverboy) gave their estimable talents to the project. John Candy, Eugene Levy and Paul Shaffer were amongst the chorus singers. Below: Canada's finest entertainers gather as Northern Lights to tell us that "Tears Are Not Enough" to feed starving Ethiopians.

• It is illegal in Canada to pay for any item 26 cents or more in all pennies.
• Canadians have a life expectancy 2-3 years longer than Americans
• The games of basketball and hockey were invented in Canada, and the baseball glove was also first designed in Canada
• According to the UN, Canada has the highest quality of life in the world

So, I salute our Canadian neighbors and celebrate our longstanding friendship with them. But…

Our relations are not all peaches and cream. At times there are Canadian/U.S. tensions. What follows is an actual radio exchange between the Canadian and U.S. militaries off of Newfoundland in 1995:

Please divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.
Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.
This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln. The second largest ship in the United States Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers, and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north...
I say again...That's one-five degrees north.... or counter-measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship!
We are a lighthouse. Your call.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Dez's Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #'s 65-61

I try to avoid this, but every once in awhile I'll have the "representative pick." This is a rather strange species where a band's output may be so consistent that you could put one of several of their releases in a spot. It usually occurs where the band's sound doesn't really change from record to record, but at the same time a lot of their catalogue qualifies as greatness. In that instance, it makes more sense to pick the very best representative vs. picking two or three records that, while great, are fairly repetitious of each other in sound and feel. #62 below is one of those. It doesn't happen much, in fact, #62 is the only one that immediately comes to mind, but it is possible it happened a couple of other times.

65. The Mermen – The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show, 2000
The Mermen are San Francisco’s premiere nouveau-surf band. I know that might not sound too impressive, but there are a surprising number of surf bands that come out of the Bay Area. It is surf music meets psychedelia meets raga meets lounge cool meets…whatever. I played this disc for a friend one time, and he commented that the music is so vivid that it is like a score to a film. I couldn’t agree more. Jim Thomas and the band open things up with the appropriately titled “Unto the Resplendent”, and then move deftly through a dizzying array of styles and genres, such as “White Trash Raga” (raga), “Sway” (moody ambience), “Emmylou Rides Clarence West and Then South” (country rock), “To Be Naked and French Is Always Hard” (Ennio Morricone-like noir), “Bare White” (lounge/psychedelic hybrid), “Little Stinky Kitty” (hard surf). When you are dealing with instrumentals, you can always be a bit more creative with song titles! The highlights come at the end, though. “Heart Beatitude” is stark and gorgeous, with an interplay between acoustic and electric guitars playing repetitive yet slowly developing intertwined lines. Finally, “Burn” rocks on for 15 epic minutes. It is what I mean by this music being cinematic. As I listen to this song, I can see a story unfold of the surfer out alone in the midst of a hurricane swell, catching the ultimate wave, then falling, deeper and deeper…and then he either drowns and comes out in another dimension or makes it back to the surface (with a reprise of “Unto the Resplendent” at the end). Now, I have no idea if this story is accurate or not, after all this is all instrumental music, but the point is that the music is so vivid that you can create your own storylines and images to go along with it. Unfortunately #65 is hard to find these days in hard copy, it is out of print and the cheapest used copy on Amazon was going for over $50.00 the last I checked. Although, you can download it at their website. A close runner-up is the brutal A Glorious Lethal Euphoria.

64. Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks, 1975
Along with Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and Beck’s Sea Change, this is my favorite album that addresses relationships, and particularly their untidy end. Here Dylan turns his unmatched songwriting to matters of the heart, and he delivers a wonderful set of songs featuring his acoustic guitar on top of a solid yet loose band. He is alternatively bitter and tender throughout this set, often within the same song. Listening to these heartbreaking tunes, you are tempted to call #64 the most personal album in his entire repertoire. But Dylan being Dylan, he has always maintained that these songs are not autobiographical. But even his own son, singer Jakob Dylan, asserts that #64 is about Dylan's separation from his wife. In “Idiot Wind”, Dylan’s invective is palpable:

“Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the backroads headin’ south
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder you still know how to breathe”

But he does not save himself from the same harsh analysis:

“Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves”

On the flip side, in “If You See Her, Say Hello”, he shows regret and understanding when remembering a lost love:

“If you get close to her, kiss her once for me
I have always respected her for busting out and getting free
Oh, whatever makes her happy, I won’t stand in the way
Though the bitter taste still lingers on from the night I tried to make her stay”

A song of remarkable emotional understanding, he is heartbroken yet admits that sometimes it is worse to stay together than it is to part ways. On top of all of that, my favorite Dylan song, “Tangled Up In Blue,” opens the record.

ABOVE: Blood on the Tracks is one of Dylan's most cohesive records

63. INXS – Listen Like Thieves, 1985
#63 was their first hit in the States, although they were already a favorite in their homeland of Australia. INXS perfected dance-style rock, and although they used synthesizers, they were still primarily a guitar/bass/drums outfit. Frontman Michael Hutchense was possibly the most magnetic persona in 80’s pop/rock. This record is full of their typical mix of seductive hits, like the funky single “What You Need” and the uplifting “Shine Like It Does”. My favorite INXS tune is “Kiss the Dirt”, which epitomizes that sexy, mysterious yet accessible feel that they did so well. A superior 80’s pop/rock record, and better than the more celebrated follow-up, Kick.

62. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Cosmo’s Factory, 1970
John Fogerty and his band were ridiculously great and productive in the late 60’s. From 1968 through 1970, CCR released an astounding six (!) records, all of which are tight as hell and full of rock classics (I generously don’t discuss 1972’s dismal kiss-off Mardi Gras, aka “Fogerty’s Revenge,” which Fogerty sabotaged on purpose to spite his estranged bandmates. A great rock story in its own right.) On a different day, I might have slipped Green River, Willy and the Poor Boys or Bayou Country in this slot. Although they emerged from San Francisco at the same time as many other legendary late 60’s bands, CCR immediately stood apart from their hippie and psychedelic brethren with a focus on tight singles and an Americana vision that owed more to the bayous of Louisiana than the psychedelia of the West Coast. In many ways, Fogerty was a throwback to an earlier era. He sounds like he would be more comfortable chillin’ in Sun Studios with Elvis and Johnny Cash in the mid-50’s vs. hanging out with hippies in the Haight. Sure, they gamely tackled the occasional extended jam that was requisite for any self-respecting 60’s rock band, but you can tell that the heart of CCR is more in the perfectly crafted three and a half minute radio rock and roll single. In that arena, John Fogerty had no equal in the late 60’s. #62 opens with the blistering jam “Ramble Tamble”, then moves right into a set of tight rocking covers (“Before You Accuse Me”, “Ooby Dooby”). It also features a sprawling 11-minute jam on Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” where Fogerty flexes his guitar muscle. But it is really six tunes (three singles and their accompanying b-sides) that make the heart of #62: the boogie of the screaming “Travelin’ Band”, the blazing riffs of “Up Around the Bend”, the bayou gloom and doom of “Run Through the Jungle” (a favorite that Springsteen often covers onstage), the back porch stomp of “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, the social commentary of the pretty “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and the haunting closer “Long As I Can See the Light”. For what it’s worth, author and respected music superfan Stephen King declares that #62 is the greatest rock and roll record ever made. CCR was basically John Fogerty (as Fogerty will often tell people, trying to minimize his bandmates' contributions as much as he can), but you really can’t underestimate the grooviest rhythm section around at the time in brother guitarist Tom Fogerty, bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford.

61. The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema, 2005
A Canadian supergroup of sorts, the Pornographers are a collection of notable Canadian indie artists who come together to record and occasionally tour in various combinations. The most involved members are Carl Newman (who seems to be the chief songwriter and de facto leader), Dan Bejar and New Country chanteuse Neko Case. The sound is firmly in the genre of power pop, with sweeping melodies, catchy hooks and singalong choruses. This is not to say that the music lacks substance; the lyrics are often interesting, the musicianship is uniformly superb, the arrangements tricky, and the vocals varied and engaging (especially whenever Neko takes the mic). This is one of those records where, to paraphrase the immortal words of Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith, “every track could be a hit!” Modern power pop does not get much better than this.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

John McCain's Latest Ad

The McCain camp recently released this ad online. Funny and true, although I'm not too sure how the ad actually helps McCain. Chris Matthews is a tool. I wish Obama would admit that the surge did some good.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Spoiler Alert

If you haven't had a chance to see "The Dark Knight" yet, you may want to avoid reading the comments under the review below. Therein lies a lively debate about the film, but some plot points and plot twists have come up in the discussion. The review itself is safe to read, though.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dez Reviews: 'The Dark Knight', 2008

The hype and expectations for the follow-up to Christopher Nolan's excellent reboot of the Batman series has been huge for several reasons. It couldn't possibly meet such expectations, could it? This is one of the rare cases where it does. I cannot imagine a better superhero film. This ain't Batman for the kiddies, it is the stuff of nightmares. It also proves that violence does not sway the ratings board, because the brutality of this film is vivid and stays with you. I guess as long as you don't use foul language and don't have any sex in your film, you can still get a PG-13 rating while having your villain drive a pencil through someone's eye socket or even having your "hero" drop someone from a balcony to break their leg during interrogation. I bet Batman could get lots of vital information out of our detainees at Guantanamo. Not that it bothers me, I love film violence. I'm just saying.

ABOVE: Batman and The Joker discuss their differences (and similarities). It is telling of a smart script that one of the highlights of the film is this conversation vs. some huge action set piece

Whereas 'Batman Begins' was a classy superhero origin story, 'The Dark Knight' raises the bar on the entire genre, upping the ante again just a couple of months after the witty 'Iron Man' had seemingly done the same thing. TDK is really an ensemble piece, with about seven important characters. The great thing about the complex and thoughtful script is that each of these main characters is given room to work and adds crucial elements to the story. Aaron Eckhart's crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent is given as much screen time as our hero Bruce Wayne/Batman, but we don't mind because Eckhart is fantastic. And any fan of the Batman mythos knows about Dent's fate. Each of these actors takes the material seriously, and it shows in the quality of work. Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Aaron Eckhart, the superbly understated Gary Oldman (Lt. Jim Gordon), Michael Caine (Alfred), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Rachel Dawes) and Eric Roberts (Maroni) each give pitch perfect performances.

ABOVE: Aaron Eckhart's on the edge DA Harvey Dent is as important to the film as Batman or The Joker.

I saw this on the IMAX, since six of the action sequences were filmed especially for IMAX viewing. It was beautifully filmed and a feast for the eyes to behold. You do not have to see it on the IMAX, it would look great on a regular screen too, but I was certainly glad I was in an IMAX theater when Batman was soaring over the skyline of Hong Kong (wow). Poetry on celluloid (although, they don't really use celluloid anymore, do they?)

ABOVE: The Joker offers Assistant DA Rachel Dawes some free facial surgery

All of this is prelude to Heath Ledger's turn as The Joker. I don't need to remind most of you that this was Ledger's final full performance. The prodigiously talented young actor died in January from an overdose of prescription drugs. So much has been said of his performance (demands for an oscar nomination, and so forth). I honestly wanted to dislike it, just a little, because the praises that have been heaped on this performance for months have become a little tiresome. Again, believe the hype. With all due respect to Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson, Ledger brings this iconic villain into brand new territory. It is a testament to his talent and emersion into the role that you walk into the theater thinking about Heath Ledger, but within five minutes it is simply The Joker that true Batman fans have always wanted on the screen. Ledger's Joker is no mere dangerous clown, he is a nihilistic sadist who believes only in pure anarchy. His motives are not money or power. He is driven by chaos. It is a great scene when the wise Alfred tells a puzzled Batman, who is still looking for traditional motivations in his new nemesis, that "some men just want to watch the world burn." Ledger's Joker is one of the greatest villains I have ever seen on the big screen.

I have read most of the important Batman graphic novels since the 1990's, and this Joker is the Joker of 'The Killing Joke' (Director Nolan supposedly gave Ledger the graphic novel for research. Ledger evidently studied it well.) Ledger's Joker gleefully uses death and mayhem for sociological experimentation. He has no real past (a funny recurring "joke" is his always changing story about how he got his hideous carved smile on his face, which is wonderfully reminiscent of Conrad Veidt in 1928's 'The Man Who Laughs'. Joker creates his own back story to suit the occasion, and seems to believe it every time he tells it.) It is a tribute to this whip smart script that the well worn psychological aspects of Batman vs. Joker (the good and bad sides of the same freakish coin) comes across as fresh and thought provoking. When The Joker chillingly tells Batman "you complete me," enough has transpired in the film to where it is a sincere and wonderfully twisted moment.

The film is relentlessly dark, although there are some funny Joker quips here or there, and a great Joker cross dressing scene. If there is any complaint I have at all is that at two and a half hours, it may run a tad long. But that is a small complaint when you are watching such compelling escapism, and honestly, I enjoyed every second of it.

**** out of *****

Friday, July 18, 2008

Dez's Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #'s 70-66

Perhaps it is because I fancy myself a musician, but I generally focus on the music over the lyrics in rock songs. Let’s face it, as a general proposition, notwithstanding Bob Dylan, you are not going to find brilliant lyric writing in rock and roll. But even when you do have amazing lyrics, if the tune does not catch my attention, then I am generally not that interested (see Leonard Cohen). On the other hand, a great melody or rock and roll energy can mask the most asinine lyrics (see Dave Matthews and Kiss). Excuse the length of the entries this time around, but several of these demanded extended discussion.

70. Randy Newman – Land of Dreams, 1988
Often overlooked in his catalogue, this little gem will really get under your skin if you give it the chance. Newman puts aside his trademark quirky compositional style, and delivers a set of fairly straightforward rock songs. Part of the credit goes to co-producer and guest guitarist Mark Knopfler (best showcased on the cynical single, “It’s Money That Matters,” one of those classic Newman tunes where you are not really sure on which side of the issue he really stands). Check out the autobiographical opening trilogy of “Dixie Flyer,” “New Orleans Wins the War” and “Four Eyes”. “Dixie Flyer” is a lovely song, detailing a young boy’s arrival to the Big Easy over a smooth rolling piano line which invokes the lazy currents of the Mississippi River flowing by the French Quarter. “New Orleans Wins the War” wonderfully captures the spirit and culture unique to New Orleans, including the residents’ obliviousness to outside concerns or dangers (sometimes to their detriment, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated). It is full of vivid detail about life and attitudes in New Orleans:

“Don’t remember much about my baby days, but I been told
We used to live on Willow in the Garden District, next to the Sugar Bowl
Momma used to wheel me past an ice cream wagon
One side for White, one side for Colored
I remember trash cans floatin’ down Canal Street, it rained every day one summer
Momma used to take me to Audubon Park, show me the ways of the world
She said, ‘here comes a white boy, there goes a black one, that one’s an octoroon
This little cookie here’s a macaroon, that big thing’s a red balloon
And the paper down here’s called the Picayune
And here’s a New Orleans tune’…
Daddy said, ‘I’m gonna get this boy out of this place
Bound to sap his strength
People have fun here, and I think that they should
But nobody from here ever come to no good
They’re gonna pickle him in brandy, and tell him he’s saved
Then throw fireworks all ‘round his grave’
So he took us down to the airport, and flew us back to L.A.
That was the end of my baby days…”

Newman shows a wide range of emotion here, “Something Special” is a heartfelt love song, while the devastating “I Want You To Hurt Like I Do” is cynical and cruel Rand at his best, sung over a lovely and peaceful melody.

ABOVE: Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams is his most autobiographical record

69. David Bowie – Low, 1977
It may be hard to understand in this day and age just what a risk #69 was at the time. But make no mistake, without Low there would be no OK Computer from Radiohead or Achtung Baby from U2. For #69, Bowie teamed up with uber-producer Brian Eno, and they hunkered down and recorded this icy masterpiece. Half of it is made of jagged, intense song fragments, while the other half is cold, ambient instrumentals. It is a fascinating move for such a mainstream artist like Bowie to make. Not surprisingly, it was greeted with suspicion and confusion on release, but in hindsight many critics declare #69 a landmark release. It undoubtedly influenced many future forays by rock artists into the avant-garde fringe. Eno is as crucial to this record as Bowie, they would team up for two more records (thereby creating what is commonly called The Berlin Trilogy), but none were as arresting or shocking as this one.

68. The Allman Brothers Band – Eat a Peach, 1972
What should have been an unfocused mess from a band still reeling from the tragic death of their guiding light Duane Allman (one of the greatest guitar talents ever to grace the instrument)…The Brothers turn in one of their greatest triumphs. From the ashes of Duane’s fatal motorcycle crash they assembled the sprawling double record Eat a Peach. It is a hodgepodge of tracks; some they had recorded with Duane before his death, some were additional live tracks from the same Fillmore shows that made up their landmark live record, and then some new tracks were recorded post-Duane. The pleasant surprise here is that the new stuff not only boldly leads the record off, but is probably the best material. “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” opens with their most soulful groove yet and Gregg Allman’s signature piece “Melissa” remains the prettiest song in their entire catalogue. As far as the live material goes, “One Way Out” and “Trouble No More” are as strong as anything that was originally included on Live at the Fillmore East, and while the 34-minute “Mountain Jam” may be a bit hard to sit through unless you are devoted, it is worth it, as it shows just how great that entire band, and especially Duane, were in the live improvisational setting. The song is a monstrous and intricate half hour jam based on the three minute Donovan pop confection “There Is a Mountain”, showing that they could take any source material and explore it as deftly as Miles Davis or John Coltrane often did with the pop songs of their day. “Blue Sky” shows Dickey Betts taking more of a welcome lead with his country-influenced material. The record appropriately closes with a lovely acoustic duet between Duane and Dickey, “Little Martha”, one of the few Duane Allman-composed songs to appear on record.

ABOVE: Eat a Peach is truly victory clutched from the jaws of defeat

67. Led Zeppelin – untitled (aka 'IV', aka 'Four Symbols', aka 'Zoso', aka Kick Ass), 1971
Do I even need to go into this one? For classic rock fans the world over, this is THE record. “Black Dog” is the definition of epic guitar riffs from Jimmy Page and rock god wailing from Robert Plant, “Misty Mountain Hop” has a monstrous groove while being a humorous hippie satire, “Rock and Roll” takes a simple 1950’s rock and roll rhythm and supercharges it for the cock rock 70’s, while “The Battle of Evermore” and “Going To California” are acoustic gems. My favorite is the closer, the menacing “When the Levee Breaks”, which is one of the scariest blues songs ever recorded by a rock band. Zeppelin made their name initially as a supercharged blues-rock band, but for the first time, they move beyond mere rocking blues imitations and create something new from the form. Finally, Zeppelin makes blues its own, bringing it to their terms. John Bonham’s titanic drum beat could shift continents. It is an utterly haunting song and has never been equaled, and takes on even more power when considered with the events of Katrina in New Orleans. (Fun fact: Bonham’s drum beat in “When the Levee Breaks” is one of the most sampled beats in rap music). Am I forgetting anything? Oh, yeah, a little ditty called “Stairway to Heaven” is tucked away at the end of side 1.

66. Jeff Beck – Blow By Blow, 1975
After going through a revolving door of lead singers of various quality to sing for his Jeff Beck Group (a young Rod Stewart being the most notable), Beck finally decided to forget the distracting vocals altogether and record his first instrumental record. After #66, most of his releases would be instrumental, with an occasional guest vocalist on a tune or two. Having become bored with being a hard rock guitarist, he took a bold left turn and decided to record a jazz/rock fusion record. #66 is one of the most successful and most important releases in all of instrumental rock or fusion. With crucial help (most notably from producer George Martin, keyboard wiz and composer Max Middleton and loose drumming from Richard Bailey), Beck hits this one out of the park. “Freeway Jam” has rightfully become one of Beck’s signature tunes, but “AIR Blower”, the furious and adventurous “Scatterbrain”, the funky “Thelonious” and the gorgeous Stevie Wonder-penned “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” are just as great. #66 is especially satisfying because Beck has top notch collaborators with him, and he gives a clinic in both lead and rhythm guitar playing. A note of caution: you will have to adjust to the admittedly dated 70’s fusion sound here, but once you get past that and just listen to the playing, it is astoundingly great. Also, while none appear on this list, his most recent three releases, a trilogy of sorts (Who Else!, You Had It Coming and Jeff) are three of his most adventurous and balls-to-the-wall albums of his entire career. While contemporaries either age into AOR snoozeville or pointlessly ape the old blues masters (I’m talking to you, Clapton) or live off past glories (Jimmy Page), Jeff Beck continues to evolve and get more daring the older he gets.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Worst Actor on Television?

I should have posted this weeks ago. Thanks to Hoodlumman for providing this link. He provided the link in the lively discussion for my post, What Are You Watching? Subsequently, I have watched this about five times and showed it to friends and family. It is a compilation of the "best" of Horatio Cain's (played by the one and only David Caruso) dramatic one-liners right before the opening credits roll on "CSI: Miami". As it unfurls before you, it just builds and builds in absurdity. No, it is not a Saturday Night Live skit (it is funnier than anything on SNL for about a decade). This is the real thing. Be sure to stick with it to the end, because the final scenes are the best. Amazingly, he delivers about 80% of his dialogue throughout each episode in the same dramatic, stilted manner. And it doesn't matter how important the dialogue is in any particular scene. ("Frank...excuse me [puts on shades]...I need to the restroom"). I know this because I have watched way more "CSI: Miami" than I ever wanted to. My usually sane wife absolutely loves this show.

So, my question to you is this: is there a worse actor on television than David "Shades" Caruso? Before you answer that question, watch this clip compilation in its entirety.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

William Claxton photos

One of my favorite photographers is William Claxton. Claxton is best known for his striking (mostly) black and white photos of jazz figures (some famous, some not) and other selected celebs and artists. I figured I'd share some of my favorites...

We'll start with my very favorite of Claxton's. Below is the Stan Kenton Band on some beach. Lots of things I love about the photo. Use of shadows is brilliant. There is an exuberance about the band, and if you are familiar with Kenton's music, you know that his was one of the most bombastic of the big bands. It just captures a mood rare in photographs.

Claxton had a special relationship with Steve McQueen. I'd say at least a fourth of his famous photos are of McQueen, and Claxton has an entire book out featuring just shots of him. McQueen was famously jealous of Claxton photographing anyone else. Steve once told Claxton that he could not photograph McQueen if he took shots of anyone else remotely famous, and McQueen even tailed Claxton and his wife on one of their evenings out to spy on Claxton to make sure he wasn't meeting with other celebs. There are lots of McQueen photos to choose from, but I like this...

And this...

Other great celeb shots include Natalie Wood...

Lenny Bruce...

Frank Sinatra...

And he has a host of great jazz photos. Some are as follows.
Miles Davis (capturing his confrontational attitude perfectly)...

Duke Ellington...

Thelonious Monk...

Chet Baker...

Charlie Parker...

Cootie Williams...

There are many, many more that I love. I've got a fantastic coffee table book called "Jazz" with lots of his great jazz photos. If you want to see more, go here.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dez's Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #'s 75-71

Don’t take this list as a definitive list of my favorite bands or artists. Sure, most of my favorites will probably make the list. But there are some individual records listed that belong to bands I’m not really crazy about, overall. They just captured lightning in a bottle once or twice. Conversely, I’ve got some favorite artists who only appear once or not at all. Remember the list is about putting together great records from start to finish. No matter how great some individual songs, if other songs are filler, then it likely will not be here. Even Van Morrison’s best albums have filler, and his worst albums have some moments of sublime brilliance. That’s just the way Van the Man rolls. But make no mistake, the fact that Van Morrison will only appear once on my list takes nothing from the fact that he remains one of my favorite artists. Ditto several others.

75. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks, 1968
One of the most gorgeous but impenetrable records in rock, it is hardly a rock record at all. Van was disappointed with the pop direction of his solo debut, and due to disagreements with his original label, he went underground for awhile. Putting together small acoustic combos, he developed his dramatic new material in small clubs along the East Coast. When he finally entered the studio again, he was a very different artist from the one who had recorded the popular but inconsequential “Brown Eyed Girl” (a song he famously despises). Featuring Van on acoustic guitar surrounded by an acoustic jazz bass, flutes and Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay, the pastoral music of #75 envelops lyrics verging on stream of consciousness genius. There are no familiar hits here, it is all of a piece. Tunes like the title track and fan favorite “Cyprus Avenue” are delicate, extended masterpieces. One of my favorite songs of all time is the closer “Slim Slow Slider”. There is a certain moment in that song, when Van sings “you’re out of reach” and later when he sings “I know you’re dyin’, baby”, and the bass hits that note in the minor chord…wow. Goosebumps every time. This record took me years of repeated attempts to finally “get,” but it is worth the effort. Few artists go this deep within themselves, much less record it and then release it.

ABOVE: As one critic famously said about Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks: “I have no idea what Van Morrison is singing about, but I know it is beautiful.”

74. The Beatles – The Beatles (aka ‘The White Album’), 1968
A sprawling mess, The White Album is a band on the brink of self-destruction. The Fab Four were basically four solo artists at this point, with each member acting as a guest musician on the other’s songs. Harrison’s gem is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, with an uncredited Eric Clapton playing the solo. Given so much sonic space, Lennon and McCartney deliver a dizzying set of styles and sounds, from beautiful acoustic to electronic whimsy. Books have been written about The White Album, but I like to focus on the fact that the most celebrated rock songwriting duo defy their own stereotypes here. McCartney delivers the hardest rocking song in the entire Beatles repertoire, “Helter Skelter”; while Lennon gives us a spare, gorgeous and melodic ballad in “Julia”. McCartney shows witty wordplay with “Rocky Raccoon”; while Lennon delivers a killer multi-part suite with “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”. And "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?" is about as Lennon-like as you can get, yet that was all Paul. (In fact, years later, Lennon expressed disappointment that Paul did not include him on that track, as it was recorded only by Paul and Ringo. Paul fired back that Lennon did "Revolution 9" alone, "John is now the nice guy, and I'm the bastard.") All bets are off on The White Album, it is The Beatles at their most raw as they pulled back from the studio trickery (for the most part) and let the music flow regardless of the consequences. Most double albums should have been tighter single records, but the sprawl and lack of cohesion was kind of the point here, so the double album format just makes #74 all the more powerful.

ABOVE: The cover art for the White Album is simple, beautiful, classic. No, this is not the test pressing. It's like a white mirror, you can see yourself in both sides. There's something about this that is so white, the question is how much more white could it be? The answer is none. None more white.

73. Shawn Colvin – Steady On, 1989
Colvin’s debut is a lovely and often haunting modern folk/rock record. She writes engaging tunes, plays great acoustic guitar, and has a beautiful voice; so all of the elements are there. Producer and guitarist John Leventhal had a lot to do with the ethereal vibe of many of these songs. Highlights include “Shotgun Down the Avalanche”, “Diamond in the Rough” and “Ricochet in Time”. She went in a more mainstream adult contemporary direction on subsequent releases to much commercial success, but none of her later work has the emotional immediacy of #73. Fat City was a decent follow-up, though.

72. Zwan – Mary Star of the Sea, 2003
I’ve always viewed #72 as the best Smashing Pumpkins album. The Pumpkins were always basically Billy Corgan anyway, and this short-lived Corgan side project featured two out of four Pumpkins. Whatever name you want to assign to it, this record is Corgan at his balls out rocking and melodic songwriting best. Tune after tune has punch and killer hooks. The sad thing about Corgan is that he is making music in the wrong era. His style of huge bombastic rock would have been right at home in the 70’s. If you liked Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, then you will love this. Unfortunately Zwan only lasted this one record; they soon broke up acrimoniously, and to this day Corgan refuses to even listen to the Zwan material. Too bad, because it is some of his very best.

71. Steve Winwood – Back in the High Life, 1986
Whenever I put these lists together, I usually catch some flak for including this one. Winwood was one of the most prodigiously talented artists in the rock era, and he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Part of it is his own doing, after the 70’s his work was spotty and disappointing overall. But he got it right on #71. Generally AOR-type stuff rightfully gets dismissed by true rock fans, but every once in awhile someone comes along with such deft craft and melodic touch, that they can defy the restrictions of the genre. #71 is one of the best pure pop records of the 80’s, with Winwood dressing himself up as a purveyor of blue eyed pop and soul, using horns, pleasing synths, and overlapping percussion to create a thick musical stew. The strengths, not surprisingly, lie in the four diverse and outstanding hit singles: the joyous “Higher Love”, the contemplative title track (with great backing vocals from James Taylor), the beautiful synth ballad “The Finer Things”, and the groovy rocker “Freedom Overspill” (featuring some fantastic slide guitar from Joe Walsh). Winwood hit a long slump after #71, but his most recent albums About Time and Nine Lives are both promising returns to form (his 70’s form, not 80’s).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

'Band of Brothers' (book and mini-series)

I’ve been a fan of the HBO mini-series for years, but I just finished reading the book by Stephen Ambrose on which the series was based. The book has more detail, naturally, but the series is quite true to Ambrose’s narrative. So they can be reviewed together.

‘Band of Brothers’ follows one company of soldiers through World War II. This was no ordinary company. This was “Easy” Company. That is, E Company, 406th Regiment, 101st Airborne. Serving in Easy was anything but easy. With over a 100% casualty rate, your chances of coming home unscathed were pretty low. (100% casualty doesn’t mean that every person in the company was killed or wounded. If the company has approximately 150 men at full strength, it means that over the course of the war more than 150 men were killed or wounded. As men got wounded, got promoted, earned transfers or somehow got to go home, reinforcements came in to replace them. Say 350 or so men went through Easy’s ranks throughout the war, but over 150 of those men were either killed or wounded...that’s how the math works.) Easy was a paratrooper company, but they only made a couple of jumps during the War. Most of their time was spent as an elite ground infantry unit that was repeatedly sent on the most dangerous missions. Over a period of a little over one year, Easy landed behind enemy lines on D-Day, fought in Holland in a very dangerous operation that eventually failed, held out through the hell of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, and eventually was on the front lines for the invasion of Germany. They were also one of the first companies to arrive at Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s mountain getaway ("The Eagle's Nest"), getting first crack at Hermann Goering’s incomparable wine collection.

The depictions of battle in both the book and the series are superlative and harrowing. They stand up there with the “best” of 'Saving Private Ryan' or 'Schindler’s List' in war realism. A particularly striking scene in both formats is when Easy are approaching the drop zone in Normandy on D-Day (actually, they were dropped the night before). Easy was one of several elite paratrooper companies dropped behind German lines as the D-Day assault occurred on the beaches. Their mission was to knock out as many of the German batteries as possible in order to make the beach landings easier. What this meant was mounting raids on German encampments and engaging in fierce fire fights and often brutal hand to hand combat with battle-hardened German soldiers. This was their first taste of real battle after months and months of intense training. The shock and intensity of German anti-aircraft guns blazing at the bombers carrying the paratroopers to their drop zones is one of the more memorable experiences I have had watching anything on television. It tells you how intense it was when the paratroopers were scrambling to jump out of the planes before they reached their destination, thereby landing somewhere unknown behind enemy lines in the middle of the night, just to get away from the bombardment. If you are a war buff (like me), then you will be happy to know that scenes like this are plentiful throughout 'Band of Brothers.'

But one of the most intriguing aspects of Easy to me was how two very different men shaped the character of the company. One was Capt. Herbert Sobel, and the other was Maj. (although he was a Lieutenant when he led Easy) Dick Winters. Sobel was in many respects a disaster of a leader. He was a tyrant in boot camp, capricious and sadistic (but then some argue that is exactly what a drill sargeant in training camp is supposed to be). In the field he was incompetent, unable to read a map and constantly making basic tactical mistakes. The men of Easy were so afraid of taking orders from Sobel in real combat that all of the junior non-commissioned officers in the company risked court martial by resigning their positions en masse. The higher-ups clearly saw the writing on the wall and thankfully transferred Sobel before Normandy (to train more hapless recruits). David Schwimmer does a fantastic job in the series of playing Sobel in all of his petty glory.

Winters took over Easy after Sobel’s replacement was killed on D-Day, and he was the ultimate leader in every way. He had a gift for tactics and for improvising on the ground, and he also had a deep understanding and connection with his men. The survivors of Easy, decades later, still spoke of Winters as if he were a semi-deity. In fact, one of Winters' attacks on a German stronghold of machine gun nests was so artful, it is still studied at West Point to this day. It is clear why Winters had such an impact, but what I found fascinating was that many Easy survivors, although to a man they all despised Sobel, also credited Sobel for making them who they were. Ambrose refers to Sobel as “a petty tyrant” more than once in his book, and he chronicles Sobel’s abuses through page after entertaining page. But Ambrose also wrote: “I asked every member of Easy that I interviewed for this book if the extraordinary closeness, the outstanding unit cohesion, the remarkable staying power of the identification with Easy came because of or in spite of Sobel. Those who did not reply ‘Both,’ said it was because of Sobel. [One veteran] looked me in the eye and said flatly, ‘Herbert Sobel made E Company.’ Others said something similar. But they nearly all hated him.” Sobel, through his sadistic ways, trained and pushed Easy harder than any other unit in the U.S. Army were trained. He just would have been a horrible combat commander. ( A favorite scene: Sobel decides to give the men a break from training and orders a nice spaghetti dinner to be cooked. Right at the end of the dinner after the men have gourged themselves, Sobel bursts in and orders a 10 mile run up a mountain. You can imagine the result.)

ABOVE: The two men who made Easy Company what it was, Winters (played by Damian Lewis) and Sobel (David Schwimmer)

It is true that Ambrose views the men of Easy as heroes. If there is a flaw at all, it may be that Ambrose worships these men a bit too much. But he also points out the mistakes that were made as well, he does not paint a perfect picture. But let’s face it, this was a group of extraordinary men. I was also struck with how Ambrose eloquently describes the close bonds that are formed in battle. He says: “They found in combat the closest brotherhood they ever knew. They found selflessness. They found they could love the other guy in their foxhole more than themselves. They found that in war, men who loved life would give their lives for them.”

It is a remarkable book and a remarkable mini-series. I would recommend checking out both. But if you've only got time or interest for one or the other, check out the mini-series first. It is wonderful and engrossing filmmaking.

Finally, I’ll let the legendary Maj. Winters have the last word:

“That extra special, elite, close feeling started under the stress Capt. Sobel created at Camp Toccoa. Under that stress, the only way the men could survive was to bond together. Eventually the non-coms had to bond together in a mutiny. The stress in training was followed by the stress in Normandy of drawing the key combat mission for gaining control of Utah Beach. In combat your reward for a good job done is that you get the next tough mission. E Company kept right on getting the job done through Holland – Bastogne – Germany. The result of sharing all that stress throughout training and combat has created a bond between the men of E Company that will last forever.”

**** out of ***** (for both book and mini-series)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Keep Your Day Job, Dude

Vanderbilt’s Shan (pronounced “Shane”) Foster was recently drafted by the Dallas Mavericks. In celebration, he wrote and performed this tune. Funny enough, it kinda stays in your head after you hear it. Several of the sports talk radio guys have been playing the tune and making fun of the guy incessantly. But it's a bit touching, actually, that he is so excited and enthusiastic about his future. Of course, you know that the first opponent who slams on Foster is gonna sing “I can’t wait / to play in the NBA…” right in his grill.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Flip Floppin' Through the Summer

The predictable cries of “flip-flop” were heard last week when Obama backtracked from his (absurd) primary promises to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq on his pre-determined timeline, whatever the consequences. He used these earlier promises to draw a contrast between himself and Hillary, who did not have the luxury of claiming to have always opposed the war in Iraq. Now Obama is having to deal with the publicity fallout of his “refinement” of his timetable for troop withdrawal, convening hastily planned follow-up press conferences and then blaming the media for not understanding his nuanced positions in the first place regarding “the mission”, “tactical decisions” and so forth. In one sense it is nice to see Obama squirm a little bit, since he has generally been confronted with nothing short of a fawning press corps up to now (the Rev. Wright couple of weeks notwithstanding).

I get increasingly frustrated with the “flip-flop” charge in political campaigns. On the one side, perhaps it indicates indecisiveness and lack of knowledge or experience. That is certainly what McCain’s people will claim (and should claim, strategically speaking). On the other hand, the shrill cries of “flip-flopper” seem to deny that a candidate can develop his own views over time and rightfully change his mind as circumstances demand. Put it in the context of the business world. What would a corporate Board do to an executive who stuck to certain policies and principles no matter how the markets shifted or developed? They’d fire his ass for being inflexible and not being cognizant enough of his ever changing environment. Now, I know that this comparison is not completely valid. You do need a set of core values and principles to define yourself when dealing with domestic policy and with other nations. But with Obama here, this does not seem to be a case of changing core values. This is a case of him finally speaking to military commanders and getting the scoop on the entire situation.

McCain is right in the sense that Obama should have been seeking these military perspectives a hell of a lot earlier than now. McCain has visited Iraq multiple times to see for himself. Obama should have been doing the same. McCain can rightly counter that this has been the situation all along (at least through the primary season up to now), so a wiser statesman would have realized it sooner than last week.

ABOVE: Perhaps Obama finally understands the situation in Iraq

I will tell you this. I have been looking for excuses to support Obama. I really like him and respect him, and in many ways I feel that his election would be a positive seismic event for our country. But one of the main things that hold me back is his (now previous?) position on Iraq.

McCain’s folks will hurl accusations of “flip-flopper” at him (and I don’t blame them, they have to) and liberal bloggers and other leftists will wring their hands and cry in their lattes that he may not be the Great Left Hope that they had imagined. BUT, for that huge and crucial number of voters who hover around the great Middle (either slightly left of it or slightly right)…Obama’s “refinements” might just win him the election. Before last week there was no way I would vote for Obama. After last week, there is now a small chance that I will. I have always supported and respected John McCain, but his time was 2000. He got screwed by the Rove machine in South Carolina. And honestly I think McCain can be more effective as the “maverick” Senator than as President. No knock on McCain, he is one of the most significant American politicians of the last decade.

But I am ready for some Obama magic. The deal breaker for me is if he screws up our crucial successes in Iraq because of some asinine pre-determined withdrawal date. I’ll say it again: your views on whether Bush should have gone in to Iraq in the first place are largely irrelevant as to what should be done now. Perhaps Obama himself now sees the stupidity of his primary-era statements after finally speaking to the commanders and men and women on the ground. I believe that I have stated this before, but I’ve got a couple of good friends who have served over there. One friend, who has served two tours and will probably go back for a third, insists that our progress in Iraq is real and positive. He says that amongst the people who are on the ground, the consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of finishing the job. He says within the last year there has been an incredible change in the population’s attitudes and feelings about the future. There is an optimism in Iraq that was not present a year ago, and many of the citizens acknowledge that the U.S. forces are largely responsible. John McCain has understood that all along. Maybe Obama is starting to understand that as well. Keep “refining”, Barry. I’ll be watching intently.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Happy 4th of July

Happy birthday USA, courtesy of Jimi Hendrix. I love the interview intro with Little Richard ("hair-o-run"), and stay tuned to the end of the clip for a great interview with Hendrix about the aftermath of this performance.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dez's Favorite 100 Rock/Pop Records, #'s 80-76

GNABB Programming Note: Since this Friday falls on the 4th, I figured nobody would be checking their computers. So, You get this week's installment a little early. We will return to Fridays next week. Tomorrow you'll get a 4th of July treat.

What about those records that defy easy genre categorization? Is Stevie Ray Vaughan blues? Rock? Blues/rock? It is a judgment call, but I generally decide by the dominant style displayed on the record. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s records are really blues albums with rock and roll elements or a couple of rock songs thrown in…but they are blues records. So, SRV’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather doesn’t qualify for the list, although it is a favorite record of mine. Ditto for Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers on Gilded Palace of Sin. Sure it has some rock elements and influenced lots of rock artists, but it is really a country record.

80. Steely Dan – Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972
I know Dan fans prefer the records that came after their debut, but this is the one I go back to the most. The wry, sophisticated lyrics and gleaming studio perfection were in place from the beginning. #80 features three of their catchiest hits: the groovy samba “Do It Again”, “Dirty Work” and “Reeling in the Years”, which features some of the tastiest guitar licks of the 70’s courtesy of session great “Skunk” Baxter. Steely Dan were ostensibly a band, but they were always really just Donald Fagen and Walter Brecker and their army of ace L.A. session musicians. While many rock fans criticize the use of studio guns for hire (it somehow lacks DIY rock credibility, and I must admit, more often than not, it creates rather soulless product), Fagen/Brecker made an art out of hand picking the penultimate professionals for their Steely Dan albums and really got the best out of these studio mercenaries. Dan's jazz leanings would become more pronounced on subsequent releases, but it is still detectable here.

79. Yes – The Yes Album, 1971
It wasn’t until their third record that Yes found their sound. I know most fans would pick the next two releases as quintessential Yes (and it is hard to argue against Fragile or Close to the Edge), but I’ve always enjoyed this one from their classic period. They move into the full complexity of their prog rock glory, but are still somewhat rooted in rock and roll vs. getting into the overblown concept pieces of later years. Part of that is due to the presence of Tony Kaye on organ instead of the more celebrated and self-indulgent Rick Wakeman (who would join the line-up on the next release). Yes staples “Yours Is No Disgrace”, “Starship Trooper” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” are all here. The complexity of those first two songs is matched by a thrilling drive, surprises, shifting tempos and changing moods at every turn. I am always a bit surprised at how little recognition Chris Squire gets as a bassist and Steve Howe gets as a guitarist. Both prove to be masters of their instruments here.

78. Santana – Santana III, 1971
This is the greatest line-up of the revolving door band that is centered around the guitar playing prowess of Carlos Santana. Keyboard wizard and vocalist Gregg Rollie is still on board, but what makes this such a great record is the addition of second guitarist Neal Schon (both Rollie and Schon would soon leave Santana to form Journey). In Schon, Carlos found a worthy guitar foil, and these two titans of the axe spar and trade licks on a record that is a guitar player’s nirvana. Over half of the record is comprised of latin-propulsed instrumental jams that boil over into six string maelstroms. “Batuka”, “Toussaint L’Overture”, “Guajira”, “Jungle Strut” and “Para Los Rumberos” all burn. “No One To Depend On” is a favorite groovy hit, “Taboo” is an eerie change of mood, “Everybody’s Everything” was a surprise pop hit, and Carlos himself even takes a rare lead vocal on the catchy “Everything’s Coming Our Way”. Abraxas may get the vote from most critics, but for my money, Santana III is the peak from Santana’s most accomplished era.

77. Prince – Purple Rain, 1984
The Purple One’s pop/rock masterpiece was a seminal record of the 1980’s. #77 has tantalizing tastes of rock, R&B, dance, funk, avant-garde…but most importantly, it is flawless pop music of the highest order. It is rare these days to find a black artist who views himself primarily as a rock and roll performer, but that is what Prince was on this album. He decides to add “guitar hero” to his list of accomplishments on his ever expanding resume. People don’t often realize what a great guitarist he is. Good arguments include the killer break in “Let’s Go Crazy” or the majestic solo in the title track. “When Doves Cry” is a remarkable hit single, as it does not have a bass line in it at all! Very innovative and daring, and one critic called it the most avant-garde hit single in pop history (it reached #1). When I was a kid, I thought “Darling Nikki” was the dirtiest song in the world.

ABOVE: The peak of Prince's output

76. Rod Stewart – It Had To Be You: The Great American Songbook…JUST KIDDING, actually…

76. Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells a Story, 1971

There once was a time, a long time ago in a galaxy far away, when Rod Stewart was not a cheesy pop star or schmaltzy lazy interpreter of standards. There was a time when Rod Stewart was a gritty, hard living, rocker. This is the Rod that I try and remember. Rod’s partnership with guitarist Ron Wood produced a series of outstanding records in the early 70’s (both with the Faces and under the ‘Rod Stewart’ banner), and this one was the peak of that collaboration. The title track is a thrilling tale of jet setting and fast living, while the tender “Mandolin Rain” and “Reason To Believe” are perfect contrast. The big hit was “Maggie May” (perhaps his most famous song). He even throws in down and dirty covers of the Temptations classic “I’m Losing You” and Elvis’ “That’s Alright”. The sound of this record (and his others recorded around this time) is a perfect hybrid, they rock hard but the instrumentation is largely acoustic. #76 is one of the best and most seamless blends of rock, soul and folk I’ve come across. If you are not familiar with this Rod Stewart of yore, check it out and you will be pleasantly surprised. And then saddened at how his career subsequently developed after such promise (starting out as lead singer of the groundbreaking but short-lived Jeff Beck Group, then with the awesome Faces and his first exciting years as a solo artist…he could have been one of the greats if he had stayed on track). Stewart’s Achilles Heel has been that he is not much of a songwriter, and so he often depends on others to supply the material (although, he wrote or co-wrote the three best songs on #76).

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Toby Update

As you can see above, Toby seems to be doing much better. If you have no idea what I am talking about, check out the original Toby post here. He's not out of the woods yet, and still has some additional tests coming up to determine where he stands, but his most recent tests indicate improvement and all outward indications are that he is recovering from his many life-threatening ailments nicely. Plus, ANCIANT just put up more cute puppy pictures at his blog here, so I had to retaliate with my own arsenal of canine cuteness. Here's another volley, ANCIANT...

Dez Reviews: 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' (book) by Peter Biskind

I recently finished reading ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ by Peter Biskind, and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in moviemaking. It is a rather salacious account of Hollywood in the late 60’s and 70’s, the time of the “New Hollywood.” For many film buffs, this was a golden age of personal and daring filmmaking. The book chronicles the rises and falls, the sex, violence, excesses and genius of such figures as Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper, William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Robert Evans, Robert Altman, Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdonovich and a host of other movers and shakers in 70’s Hollywood. Not only does it tell many juicy tales, such as Dennis Hopper threatening the lives of virtually everyone involved in the making of Easy Rider, but the book also offers an in depth analysis of the effect of these films on popular culture and on Hollywood, as well as of what went right and what went horribly wrong in this period.

I was particularly interested in this theme that Biskind follows throughout, how the old Hollywood studio system was dying, so these young guns came along and started this revolution from within that thrived for about eight years, and then it was undermined from within by the likes of Lucas and Spielberg, who (perhaps unwittingly) re-established the power of the studio system. Naturally a book that celebrates the personal filmmaking of Scorsese and Hal Ashby would not look kindly on blockbusters like Jaws or Star Wars. According to Biskind, the runaway success of those two films conspired with other factors and excesses to put an end to the exciting 70’s era of filmmaking.

Biskind declares: “When all was said and done, Lucas and Spielberg returned the ‘70s audience, grown sophisticated on a diet of European and New Hollywood films, to the simplicities of the pre-60’s Golden Age of movies…They were, as [Pauline] Kael first pointed out, infantilizing the audience, reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection…We are the children of Lucas, not Coppola.”

Lucas himself has a cynical view of it all. Biskind quotes Lucas as saying “Star Wars didn’t kill the film industry…Popcorn pictures have always ruled. Why do these people go see these popcorn pictures when they’re no good? Why is the public so stupid? That’s not my fault. I just understood what people liked to go see, and Steven [Spielberg] has too, and we go for that.” Lucas then rather defensively (and unconvincingly) argues that Star Wars brought in so much money, that it caused the increase in multiplexes and screens, and those screens had to be filled with something; therefore the money from the Star Wars-type films helped to subsidize the smaller, more personal films that now had room to thrive in the multiplexes. Martin Scorsese fires back “They’re not subsidizing everything else…Star Wars was in. Spielberg was in. We were finished.” William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist and The French Connection) complains that “Star Wars was like when McDonald’s got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared. Now we’re in a period of devolution.” And Robert Altman stated a few years back that going to the movie theater these days is “one big amusement park ride. It’s the death of film.” Both sides make valid arguments. I mean, it is undeniable that Jaws and Star Wars are both great entertainment. In a certain sense, can you really get angry at filmmakers for doing nothing other than making great entertainment that the masses enjoy?

There is more than a little bit of jealousy in some of these statements; as the Biskind book makes clear, these directors all knew each other, hung out, and were fiercely competitive. They wanted to make “films” (as opposed to mere movies), yet they also wanted financial success and acclaim. In fact, Lucas first tried to make art films that were decidedly noncommercial. He was so embittered by how he was treated by the studios, that he made American Graffiti and Star Wars almost in retaliation, in part to prove to the studios that he could make a commercial movie if he felt like it. Lucas scoffs at how easy it is to make a commercial film, saying “emotionally involving the audience is easy: anybody can do it blindfolded. Get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.”

ABOVE: George Lucas (the one on the left), killer of both (symbolic) kittens and (actual) good filmmaking, oversees his Star Wars empire

The above back and forth is from about three pages in the 439 page book, so as you can imagine, it is full of fascinating discussions and arguments about the push and pull between art and commerce. And Dennis Hopper threatening to kill people. A good read.

**** out of *****