Tuesday, November 30, 2010

RIP Sherill and Leslie

Sherill, 1943-2010

ABOVE: Sherill on the right with my father-in-law and my daughter

Technically speaking, Sherill was my stepmother-in-law. The subsequent wife to my wife's father. She was a remarkable woman with a strong, fighting spirit. From the first time that I met Sherill, she was welcoming, kind to me, and engaging. A woman of many talents and interests, bursting with life and energy. In fact, on our first meeting she beat my ass quite handily on the tennis court, and I was playing hard. Thinking she was an old lady, I tried to hit shots on opposite ends of the court to make her run and tire her out. But since she was one of the highest ranked senior doubles players in Texas, I didn't really have a chance. It seems that Sherill had the same strategy in mind, and her shots were much more precise than mine. By the end of our match, I was the one panting and needing to rest. From that first day on, I really liked Sherill. Kindred spirits in some ways, we both didn't like to lose. The lady had spunk.

She was a educator and school administrator for 25 years, a tax specialist, and generous volunteer for a host of local charities. She continued into the last year of her life to teach, designing and teaching continuing education courses for seniors on topics from the First Ladies of the U.S. to the Wives of Henry VIII (a course that she completed teaching only months ago as she was battling the end stages of her cancer). I can recall many an evening visiting her and my father-in-law, where we would engage in a spirited political debate, discuss some historical minutia that we found intriguing, or even pull out some cards and play poker (she was a killer card player, too). She visited all 50 states of the Union just to do it, worked as a park ranger one summer and drove to every county in the state of Texas with her husband in an RV, photographed and researched each county courthouse, and published a book on the subject.

I admired her and loved her a great deal. Sure she was my step mother-in-law, but she was also a good friend. She battled her cancer valiantly. It seems like we've been hearing that Sherill's diagnosis was "six months to live" for years, but this last Saturday it finally did catch up with her. She had an indominable spirit, and as late as Friday night she was wrestling with that f*cking disease like a fighter in the ring. Fortunately I was not there to witness it, because from what I was told by my wife it was a horrific evening, but she was fighting to the last. She had a strong faith in God which gave her the strength to battle her disease for these last years, so I have to believe that if such things exist, she is now walking peacefully in His presence. God bless you Sherill, and thank you for your years of friendship, kindness, and wonderful conversation. I always looked forward to visiting with you. I wish that my daughter could have gotten to know you better, since you seemed to really enjoy her.

Leslie Nielsen, 1926-2010

Believe it or not, I have a personal connection of sorts with Leslie Nielsen. My Dad, for several decades, looked exactly like Nielsen. So much so that he would be stopped in airports and approached at dinner by fans asking for autographs. Sometimes he would politely inform them that he was not, in fact, Frank Drebin. When he was feeling cheeky, my Dad would oblige and then sign his own name for the suddenly very confused Leslie Nielsen fan. I was not even immune to his trickery. When I was quite little, Nielsen was on TV doing some PSA. My Dad proceeded to convince me that he was on television.

ABOVE: Neilsen's earlier career consisted mainly of heroic and serious parts, such as in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet

I have always been fond of Nielsen not only due to his uncanny resemblance to my father, but also because he has provided our popular culture with some wonderful comedic moments. Nielsen spent most of his career playing the stoic leading (or often supporting) heroic man in such films as Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure. But evidently he always wanted to try comedy, being a notorious jokster on the sets of his films. It wasn't until he was almost 50 that he was able to give comedy a shot with his immortal turn as the deadpan doctor in 1980's Airplane!, and he hit it out of the park. After that he was Frank Drebin in the short lived Police Squad TV show and three Naked Gun films, continuing to explore his newfound comedic greatness.

ABOVE: Some dude on YouTube re-edited Airplane! scenes and added music to make a trailer like it was an intense thriller instead of comedy. Very creative. Some great Leslie Nielsen scenes are here, of course.

RIP Sherill and Leslie Nielsen.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dez Reviews Bruce Springsteen's The Promise, 1978/2010

Bruce Springsteen continues his vault clearing ways with this 2 disc release of Darkness on the Edge of Town-era outtakes. It is much anticipated by Springsteen fans, though. Bruce was prevented from releasing a record from 1975 (after Born To Run) until 1978 due to a bitter lawsuit with his estranged manager. He and the E Street Band were not idle during these lost years. They toured relentlessly, and also recorded about four records worth of material. What finally emerged was the bleak classic, 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town. These tunes (along with other tunes that were released on the Tracks box set) are the ones that were left behind. It wasn't a quality issue, but more that Springsteen had a particular album in mind for 1978. As he states in the liner notes to this collection, these are the "lost sessions of music that could have/should have been released after Born to Run and before the collection of songs that became Darkness on the Edge of Town...the music that got left behind was substantial." On the whole, I agree with his assessment.

Is this a lost masterpiece along the lines of Born to Run or DOTEOT? No. It does not flow as its own cohesive album as the Springsteen people seem to be advertising. It feels like what it is, a compilation of great outtakes. And while all of these 21 songs are quality and listenable, some were wisely left in the vaults. On the other hand, there are some truly great additions to the Springsteen canon here. Overall, these tunes portray an exuberance that is in stark contrast to the bleak DOTEOT tunes, so the jump between BTR and DOTEOT is much more clear with the bridge of The Promise. These songs reflect Bruce's love for big, melodic pop songs. Here he is often looking back to the Phil Spector 60's pop sound that permeated BTR. I think the choices that he made for DOTEOT were a deliberate effort to move forward and strip his sound down. Again, listening to The Promise makes the DOTEOT choices more logical and clear.

The highlights? The opening tune is by far the strongest and deserves a place in the all time Springsteen greats. It is entitled "Racing in the Street '78," and is a dramatically different take of the heartbreaking ballad that appeared on DOTEOT. Whereas the version that appeared on DOTEOT was subdued, this take is a powerful, driving epic that would have felt at home next to "Jungleland" or "Backstreets" on BTR. It is a stunner, and blows the previously released version out of the water.

The other notable songs do not quite scale those heights, but they are still quite good. "Wrong Side of the Street" is a catchy as hell rocker that could have been a hit, while "Talk To Me" is poppier than anything he released in the 70's. We finally get a definitive studio version of "Because the Night," his brilliant rocker that he gave to Patti Smith for her biggest single. We also get a steamy studio take of concert favorite "Fire" that actually outdoes the live versions out there. "Breakaway" is a gorgeous ballad, and "The Promise" is a full band version of what was originally released on 18 Tracks as a piano demo. It is a powerful and beautiful ballad that name checks Bruce characters Johnny, Billy and Terry as he sings of driving down "Thunder Road" once again. Inspiring stuff.

Overall, this is essential for Bruce fans, takes us back to a time when Bruce ruled the universe, and gives us a fuller look at what he was doing during what was arguably his most vital period. It is also a great listen to even casual fans.

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