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."

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dez's Favorite 100 Rock/Pop Records, #'s 15-11

This is an eclectic batch...

15. Duran Duran – Rio, 1982
#15 defines a certain period of the 80’s…glitzy, superficial, dangerous, fun, excessive. But as with much of Duran Duran’s material, what on the surface may seem slight synthesizer pop, there is an interesting undercurrent of unease and melancholy. These guys were much better musicians than their detractors give them credit for (especially bassist John Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor), and Rio is their seminal release. It remains as glitzy and as listenable today as it was when it was released. The title track and “Hungry Like the Wolf” are both classic 80’s glam singles, accompanied by iconic music videos. But the album tracks are just as interesting, such as the brooding Roxy Music-ish “The Chauffeur” and “Lonely In Your Nightmare.” The highlight is “Save a Prayer,” which captures what is great about Duran Duran and also the essence of 80’s excess culture, it is both glamorous and wistful, and full of sweet regret. It is easy to make glamorous pop singles about the wild night on the town, but harder to write them about the morning after. DD simultaneously captures the seductive hedonism of 80’s excess and the consequences only fully understood on the day after. Even further, the song is ambiguous enough to where the listener is not sure whether Simon le Bon, even knowing the consequences, would have done anything differently.

ABOVE: Rio's iconic album cover

14. Pete Yorn – Musicforthemorningafter, 2001
Just when I thought I had discovered all the great music there was to discover, I came across this guy’s nearly perfect debut. Part Springsteen and part New Order, Yorn’s songwriting arrived almost fully formed. Infectious singles “Strange Condition” and “Life on a Chain” got lots of deserved play on college radio, but the rest of the record is just as good. There is not a bad song here. Yorn is a guitar player, but he was also a drummer, and his understanding of rhythm shows. What is great about this record is that as good as it is all the way through, he saves the most effective songs for the end with the triple shot of “On Your Side,” “Sleep Better” and “EZ”. He stumbled on his sophomore outing, but his third record was outstanding as well. Can't wait to hear more.

13. Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (aka 'I', ‘car’), 1977
Gabriel’s solo debut is bursting with the joy of freedom. He had just shocked much of the rock world by suddenly leaving Genesis just as they were peaking at the forefront of the prog rock genre. He leaves behind the sprawling 10 minute prog epics and delivers a set of relatively concise tunes in a variety of styles, things that he had been wanting to try but could not within the constraints of Genesis. It is the sound of a man who is bursting with talent and ideas finally let loose to follow any avenue he found interesting. Not all of it works (like the odd barbershop “Excuse Me”), but it is thrilling to hear him try. “Solsbury Hill” is Gabriel’s personal declaration of independence from his old band, and gives an explanation of why he had to leave. “Modern Love” and “Slowburn” are assured rockers, while the odd “Moribund the Burgermeister” and “Down the Dolce Vita” show that he has not completely turned his back on art rock. As the notes of the beautiful closer “Here Comes the Flood” fade, one is left with anticipation for what Gabriel’s solo career would deliver in the future. He didn’t disappoint.

12. Big Star - #1 Record, 1972
Critic Jason Ankeny describes Big Star as "the quintessential American power pop band and one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll.” If you think #1 Record is a rather presumptuous title for a debut, they back it up with the music. Unfortunately, nobody was listening at the time. But decades later people started to listen. Big Star is often referred to as “the best band you’ve never heard of.” If this list inspires its readers to pick up a couple of records they have never heard before, please let this be one of them. In a just universe, Big Star would be standing next to the Rolling Stones, Beatles and Who as one of the greatest bands ever. Instead, this Memphis unit was torn apart by self-doubt, fragile personalities, record label indifference, and bum circumstance. But listen to the promise on this record, the shimmering pop brilliance in Alex Chilton and Chris Bell’s songs grabs you immediately. Bell’s “Feel” and “In the Street” rock out, while Chilton’s “Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen” capture adolescence perfectly (“Tell your Dad to get off my back / Tell him what we said about ‘Paint It Black’”) They combine the best of The Kinks, Who, Byrds and Beatles in their sound, and create something all their own. In turn, even if they did not have commercial success, many notable musicians cite them as big influences, such as REM. Go get this now. In one of the best deals in music, it is available in combination with the almost as great follow-up Radio City on a single disc.

11. Uncle Tupelo – No Depression, 1990
This is ground zero for the modern resurgence of country-rock, alt-country...or whatever you want to call it. Tupelo approached it from a punk/county/folk angle, and their groundbreaking and hugely influential debut is startling in its raw energy and emotion. By successfully pulling off the unlikely marriage between punk rock and country music, they inspired an entire subgenre in their wake. This record is so influential that it inspired the name of the ‘No Depression’ alt-country periodical and lent its name as an alternate moniker for the entire musical movement. (“No Depression” the song is a cover of the A.P. Carter classic). Out of the duo of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, it is Tweedy who would later emerge in his next band Wilco as a fan and critical darling on the alt-circuit; but back then, this was Farrar’s show. His stop/start brutal everyman rockers like “Factory Belt” and “Graveyard Shift” still thrill, while new classic country dirges like “Whiskey Bottle” and “Life Worth Livin’” stand up with the best barroom-at-2 a.m.-tear-in-my-beer weepers of yore. Equal parts Minutemen and Merle Haggard, they deftly bring these disparate influences together and create this grim masterpiece of Midwestern angst that only grows in stature with each passing year.