Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dez's Record Guides: Men At Work & Colin Hay

JMW recently suggested that I veer away from the obvious on some of these Album Guides, specifically suggesting that I tackle Men at Work and leader Colin Hay’s solo work. I’ve carried the torch for these guys since their heyday in the early 80’s (well, pretty much their whole career as a band was the early 80’s), so it is my pleasure to finally bring you the definitive Men At Work and Colin Hay Record Guide. Their debut record holds a special place in my heart, as it is the first rock record that I appreciated and loved as a complete album (beyond KISS records, that is. The first two non-KISS albums I owned were Duran Duran’s debut and Business as Usual). I probably know the ins and outs of Business as Usual more than any other album. It is in my DNA at this point. Their time at the top of the charts was brief, but the music has endured and aged extremely well, I think. Part of it is because they took the best of New Wave and injected their quirky sense of humor. They are somewhat guilty as charged of ripping off The Police in both bringing reggae rhythms to New Wave rock and in some of the sonics, but at the same time, you’d never mistake the two bands for each other. Men At Work also stands the test of time because underneath the goofy and endearing videos and pop hits are some very good musicians and pop/rock songwriters. Rock solid rhythm section of John Rees (bass) and Jerry Speiser (drums), underrated pop guitar work from Ron Strykert, different sonic colors from the sax/flute/keyboards and “fiddly things” of the dearly departed Greg Ham. But most importantly is the incomparable vocals and solid songwriting from Colin Hay.

Business As Usual (1982) *****
These hard working pub rockers from down under surprised everyone with the worldwide smash that was their debut (probably most of all their record label, Columbia). It stayed at the top of the U.S. charts for 15 weeks straight, and the now iconic single “Down Under” was a #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. But getting beyond the impressive stats, you have New Wave pop/rock of the finest variety, with deep album cuts as strong as the wonderful singles. Still stands as one of the best records of its era.

ABOVE: The "Down Under" video was quirky, weird and fun. It was key to making Men At Work as huge as they were in the States.

Cargo (1983) ****
They had Cargo in the can for awhile before it was released, the debut stubbornly wouldn’t leave the charts and Columbia wanted to avoid dilution as far as chart success. Cargo is more eclectic than BAU, if slightly less consistent in quality. There are only two real missteps, though, and what is great is really great, especially the two hits – “Overkill” (probably their best song) and “It’s a Mistake.” (Also check out "No Sign of Yesterday" and Hay's impressive vocal dynamics near the end.)

Two Hearts (1985) **1/2
Not as bad as its reputation, but the out of print third record is a bit of a drop in quality. It just doesn’t sound all that much like Men At Work, with the heavy 80’s production, Speiser and Rees already gone and more importantly Strykert half way out the door (he was only involved in about half of the songs), this sounds more like a solo Colin Hay effort with an assist from Greg Ham. About half is actually pretty good, but the other half is not.

Brazil (live) (1998) ****
The Men’s popularity remained strong over the years, especially internationally. Hay and Ham would tour sporadically with a band of very good sessions players, and they released a live record from a sold out show in Rio in ‘98. What is surprising is just how good this sounds. Energetic performances of all of the hits plus some choice deeper cuts, playful and even experimental in spots, Hay is in perfect voice, and they top it off with a studio version of “Longest Night,” a fantastic Ham-penned song that they had long played live but had never released in studio form.

Compilations: There have been quite a few compilations released over the years, most of the cheap budget variety. Two are the important ones, though. Contraband: The Best of Men at Work (compilation) (1996) **** and Essential Men At Work (compilation) (2003) **** both generally do the job, containing all of the hits, major and minor, plus some randomly picked album tracks. I have minor quibbles with both, but for the casual listener, either one serves its purpose.

Colin Hay: Hay has had a quietly successful and slow building solo career. He has steadily recorded and toured since the demise of MAW. What must be gratifying is that many people get into his solo music on its own terms first, and only later do they realize, “wait, that was the ‘Down Under’ guy?” (as the name ‘Colin Hay’ is hardly a household one). His solo work stands on its own, it is not merely a coda. I highly recommend catching his live show as well, as he is an engaging performer, his shows are almost half music and half amusing stories from a long and interesting career. (For instance, go to iTunes and download the 8 minute acoustic live “Down Under (The Birth of the Song)” from the Down Under 2012 EP. I couldn’t find a Youtube clip to post. It is a really funny account of the writing of the song, and is indicative of the live Colin Hay experience nowadays).

Looking For Jack (1987) **
Columbia had big plans for Hay as a solo artist. They saw no reason why he couldn’t duplicate the success of MAW. His solo debut was a pretty big flop (and choke, in my opinion), you can hear the grand statements being attempted. There are a few good tunes though, the ambition of “Circles Erratica” actually works and the charming title track (about an amusing encounter with Jack Nicholson) are keepers. Out of print.

Wayfaring Sons (with The Colin Hay Band) (1990) ***
Hay recovered some control for his second record, and I wish he had kept this new band together beyond just the one release. There was potential here. Engaging songwriting with Hay’s acoustic foundation and some excellent playing, especially from violinist Gerry Hale, who takes the place of Greg Ham as far as providing Hay with some unusual accompaniment. About half of this (you’ll find that phrase a lot with Hay’s solo work) is really good. Out of print.

Peaks & Valleys (1992) ****
My personal favorite of his solo records, it is an engaging solo acoustic outing. Hay was always a very good guitarist, and the solo acoustic setting allows his signature vocals to really shine. Additionally, he delivers a fantastic set of acoustic singer-songwriter tunes with rather interesting guitar parts (he’s not just strumming chords).

Topanga (1994) ***
Transcendental Highway (1998) ***

These two are probably his best rock records. Some very good songs and solid bands backing him.

Going Somewhere (2000) ***
Another solo acoustic outing. This is also quite good, but doesn’t reach the, uh, peaks of Peaks & Valleys.

ABOVE: I saw Colin Hay live in about 2000 in Austin. It was a small club with a sparse audience. He still gave a great show, and I got to meet him afterwards. I am always apprehensive to meet artists whom I admire, because if they are a-holes then it will forever color my enjoyment of their work. Fortunately, Colin Hay in person was as charming and friendly as you would hope. Sounds silly, but I was as happy meeting Colin Hay as I would be meeting Springsteen or Bono. That is how much his music has meant to me personally over the years.

Company of Strangers (2002) ***
Man @ Work (2003) ***
Are You Lookin’ At Me? (2007) **
American Sunshine (2009) **
Gathering Mercury (2011) **
Since ’02, Hay has hit a comfortable, if a bit mellow, singer-songwriter groove. Company of Strangers was quite ambitious, but only sporadically successful. Man @ Work is an interesting release, where he revisits five Men At Work hits (three in essential solo acoustic form, and two in pointless full band renditions), some of his own seemingly randomly selected solo songs, and a few new tunes. The three most recent records are alright, I guess. They aren’t necessarily bad, they are just kind of dull. They each only contain maybe two or three keepers for me.

Bottom Line: Most casual listeners are fine with Essential Men At Work or Contraband, but Business As Usual is essential New Wave listening from start to finish. For solo acoustic Hay, Peaks & Valleys is where to go. I’d say Transcendental Highway is his best full band solo effort.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I Am Glad That I Was Wrong

Unfortunately for me, I haven't posted enough new posts to get my Conference Finals predictions off of the page yet. But I will own up to the fact that I vastly overestimated the Memphis Grizzlies. Perhaps it is just bad memories of a couple playoffs ago. Anyway, I predicted a Grizzlies victory in seven grueling games, instead the San Antonio Spurs coasted in a sweep to await the winner of Miami-Pacers (Miami) in the Finals. Better yet, they get some much needed rest. I'll give you a full analysis and prediction when it becomes official (that is, a Spurs-Heat Final), but suffice it to say that it is fitting that in David Stern's last Finals as Commissioner his nemesis Gregg Popovich gets to coach in the series. While Stern would undoubtedly like to see a team from the West advance from a bigger market with more flash, real basketball fans couldn't ask for a better Finals this year than a fully healthy and playing at their peak Spurs and the Miami All-Stars. Congrats Spurs, and you have once again surprised everyone even though they shouldn't be surprised.

ABOVE: David Stern: "Wait, the Spurs are in another final? #@&!"

Monday, May 27, 2013

"When you put your hand into a bunch of goo..."

Happy Memorial Day. For this day that we remember those who have sacrificed so much for this country, here's one of the great movie speeches of all time. I couldn't find the actual film clip, but here is the audio at least (and that is most important anyway) of the opening scene of "Patton," where George C. Scott gives a performance for the ages. Even with just the audio, it is a riveting performance. Worth your five or six minutes.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Dez Record Guides: The Doors

In remembrance of Ray Manzarek, the latest edition of Dez’s Record Guides will be dedicated to The Doors. Longevity is laudable, but sometimes stars shine brightest when they are given a brief window. That is applicable to one of my very favorite bands, The Police. It is also true of The Doors. The incredibly long shadow cast by frontman/shaman Jim Morrison and his compadres (Ray Manzarek on keyboards, Robby Krieger on guitar, John Densmore on drums) is all the more remarkable considering that they were only together as a recording unit for about five years. Jim Morrison wasn’t the first sex symbol vocalist, but he did something different. He also had an air of risk and darkness that had not come before and has never been really replicated since. I personally find his straight poetry to be ridiculous, but as a musical frontman he was one of the greats. It is ironic that he desperately wanted to be taken seriously for the former, and dismissed his status as the latter, which was his true gift. As I mentioned in Manzarek’s obit here on GNABB, what still gets me to return to their music with some regularity is the musicianship of the other three. Manzarek often would handle both the intricate keyboard parts and the bass simultaneously on stage and in the studio. Both parts were usually complex enough to where they would have been impressive handled on their own by different people. Robby Krieger, although his stage persona was usually that of a person asleep, brought in varied influences (most notably he was a fine flamenco player) to make for a rich palette of guitar styles. He does not get enough credit for his versatile slide playing, either. John Densmore was really a jazz drummer in many respects, and he kept the beat while never sacrificing complexity. Together they made a one of a kind sound that still thrills.

The Doors (1967) *****
The Doors’ debut remains a stunner and does that rare thing: it creates a world and sound entirely its own. Even the covers (Brecht and Weill’s “Alabama Song” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Backdoor Man”) are thoroughly Doorsified. But the two epics are the tracks that stand out. The hit “Light My Fire” with its carnivalesque intro and then the wonderful solos from Manzarek and Krieger, and the notorious closer “The End” is something else entirely. It was used brilliantly in the introduction of ‘Apocalypse Now,’ which makes sense, because much of the music of The Doors is cinematic.

Strange Days (1967) ****
The first two records are almost a double album, in that the material spread over them was all part of their core setlist before either record was recorded. So yes, much of what is here was leftover after the top tier material for the debut was released, but there is still much to love. “Moonlight Drive,” “People Are Strange,” “Love Me Two Times,” and the title track are all worthy hits. Even the lesser known cuts are mostly great, like moody “You’re Lost Little Girl.” Only two rather glaring missteps: the embarrassing Morrison poetry recitation (with melodramatic sound effects) “Horse Latitudes” and the bloated closer “When the Music’s Over” (after 11 minutes, you are hoping for exactly that to happen.)

Waiting For the Sun (1968) ***
After releasing their initial burst of songwriting over their first two records, The Doors were faced with coming up with new material. About half of this is outstanding, and many fans really like this record for its eclectic sounds and moods. They had written a sidelong piece entitled “Celebration of the Lizard,” but then scrapped it, with only the ominous song “Not To Touch the Earth” from the piece appearing on the record. Somewhat deflated by their failure to get “Celebration” right, they scrambled to fill the rest of the space. “Unknown Soldier” and “Five To One” are two brilliant protest songs of the era, “Summer’s Almost Gone” is beautiful and wistful, “Spanish Caravan” is really cool, and “Hello I Love You” was a catchy hit (although they ripped off The Kinks, and were sued for it). But the rest of this is filler. And I think they knew it.

The Soft Parade (1969) **
You’ve got to admire them for trying to expand their sound. But a mixture of weak material and mostly failed experiments with string sections, horns, country music and another bloated Morrison epic to close makes this the weakest Morrison-era studio record in their catalogue by miles.

Morrison Hotel (1970) ****
After a near disaster where hardly any of their experiments worked, the Doors go back to some roots. Not necessarily the roots suggested on their first records, though. Here they surprise all by proving to be a killer, gritty blues-rock band. Gone are the misguided horn and string experiments, but also gone is the heavy organ sound from Manzarek that defined their early sound. The guitars are tougher, the keyboards more straightforward and funkier. Robby cuts loose with his bottleneck slide, they hire a real bass player, and Morrison proves himself to be an excellent blues-rock singer when he is focused.

ABOVE: The latterday Doors.

Absolutely Live (live) (1970) ***
Some love the sound of live Doors. I usually don’t. It is thinner than what they got in the studio, and the studio generally put some constraints on Morrison. He was ADD to the extreme onstage, abandoning songs midway through to follow some poetic flight of fancy, and the poor band had to adjust and follow along. Some call this brilliant improvisation, I call it lack of focus. It does feature a full workout of "Celebration of the Lizard." The opening cover of “Who Do You Love” is awesome, though, in part because at least on the covers Morrison felt some obligation to honor the original composition.

L.A. Woman (1971) *****
You couldn’t ask for a better swansong. Fulfilling the bluesy promise of Morrison Hotel, they go deep into the groove and add just enough mystery. The title track is a brilliant love letter to the seedy side of their home base of L.A., while “Riders on the Storm” fulfills all of the promise of the latterday Morrison. He sounds so weary on this record, and his death not long after confirms what you hear. These songs are lived in as much as any great classic blues. So while it might be a personal tragedy, his deteriorating condition did add to the art, because his ravaged and raspy voice that was once a strong baritone is oddly perfect for these songs. He sounds like a really old 27-year old.

Other Voices (1971) **
Full Circle (1972) **

The remaining three valiantly tried to carry on as a trio with Manzarek and Krieger splitting the vocal duties. It just wasn’t really happening.

An American Prayer (1969-70/1978) **
An interesting concept. Morrison would often drunkenly record his spoken word poetry during downtime in the studio. The surviving Doors took some of this rambling material and composed music to play over it. It is not as bad as it sounds, but it is not very good either. A few of the tracks work well.

Alive She Cried (live compilation) (1983) **
Live at the Hollywood Bowl (live) (1968/1987) **
In Concert (live compilation) (1991) ****
Bright Midnight Archives series (all live) NR

Since Morrison’s death, the vaults have been scoured for mostly live material. There is a lot of it. The Bright Midnight Archives series features about 20 or more full shows individually released, if you are interested. I’ve got a few of them. The In Concert set compiles the best material from Absolutely Live, Alive She Cried, and the Hollywood Bowl.

Essential Rarities (compilation of unreleased material) (2000) **
In 1997 The Doors put out a large box set comprised of mostly previously released material. Kindly, they released a single disc separately filled with some of the demos, live tracks and previously unreleased songs that appeared on the box set. As exciting as this might sound, there is little here of real interest. “Who Scared You,” “I Will Never Be Untrue” and “Orange County Suite” are all blues based tunes that feature their latterday sound and are the best songs here.

Doors compilations:
According to Wikipedia, there have been 22 Doors compilations. I feel like there have been more, but I’ll take that number. It is a testament to the enduring legacy of the band that there is still money to be made every couple of years out of this limited catalogue. Out of all of the ones still available, I guess Legacy: The Absolute Best (2003) ***** is, well, the absolute best of the compilations. A two disc set that covers most of the bases, and includes some worthy rarities, like uncensored versions of “Break On Through” and “The End,” as well as the scrapped full 17 minute studio version of “Celebration of the Lizard.” You can now judge for yourself whether they were wise to leave “Celebration” off of Waiting For the Sun or not. I think they were.

Bottom line: The shadow of The Doors looms large, and they were a unique sound. The Doors and L.A. Woman bookend the Morrison era and are essential, while Strange Days and Morrison Hotel are also excellent. Legacy works as a fine one stop collection.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

RIP Ray Manzarek, 1939-2013

I’ve said several times that Jim Morrison was my least favorite member of The Doors. Once I graduated from middle school, I realized that Morrison’s poetry was somewhat ridiculous, although as a frontman he remained one of the best ever. As an adult, I remained a loyal Doors fan due primarily to the musicianship of Robby Krieger, John Densmore and especially Ray Manzarek. It is that unique sound that endures and that separates them from any other 60’s-era group.

Manzarek was really the key, especially on those early albums. They did not use a bass player at all early on, so Manzarek performed double duty playing both the intricate keyboard parts and using bass pedals and his left hand for the bottom. And these bass lines weren't just root notes, they were groovy lines unto themselves. Yet this was just half of what he was doing at any one time. The carnival-like intro to “Light My Fire” may be the most identifiable keyboard part in all of rock. Manzarek could play in a variety of styles, within a few bars of a song he could be baroque and then get bluesy.

ABOVE: The Doors playing "Light My Fire" in Europe in 1968. Ignore Jim Morrison's antics and listen to the interplay between Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore. That is where the real magic of the Doors lies.

The Doors were formed in a chance meeting between Manzarek and Morrison on an L.A. beach. After Morrison’s death, The Doors carried on for a couple of records with Manzarek taking on the vocal duties as well. He then continued to play in other bands, produced some bands (most notably X)…but he primarily made a career out of carrying The Doors torch. He was always showing up in documentaries about either the band or the era and producing compilations. In essence, he was the greatest postmortem publicist Jim Morrison could have ever hoped for. Manzarek was justly proud of what The Doors were able to do in a short period of time as a recording band with Jim Morrison (five years). He was a true believer in the 60’s ethos, and a true believer in The Doors. He was also one of the finest rock musicians to walk the planet.

RIP Ray Manzarek.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Dez's NBA Conference Finals Predictions

The East: Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers or New York Knicks

Yes, I know that as of this posting Indiana and New York have not finished their series (I pick Indiana, by the way). But, does it really matter which of these teams moves on as the sacrificial lamb for the Miami Heat to slaughter? No. Indiana doesn't have the depth, and New York doesn't have the maturity.

Dez Says: Miami in 5 against either team.

The West: San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies

Now, this will be a hell of a series. Not one that David Stern particularly wanted (you know, no flashy stars or glitz, just fundamental and gritty basketball with brutal defenses). As a Spurs fan, Memphis scares me even more than Oklahoma City did at full strength. (Memphis is the only team, by the way, that I give a chance against Miami in a Finals, because their strength is Miami's only weakness). This will be a series of a dying breed, the big men in the middle. Memphis' Randolph and Gasol vs. The Spurs' Duncan and Splitter. I hope I'm wrong, but...

Dez Says: Grizzlies in 7.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Nixon Returns

I've always been a big fan of Richard Nixon. My students joke with me because I am often defending him. Partly because it is a fun challenge and drives my students crazy, but Nixon did some good things. So I am a bit pleased to see just how Nixonian the Obama administration has become.

The Justice Department asking for phone records from the AP to investigate "security leaks"? Ah, feels like the good old days of about '72 or so and CREEP. Plug those leaks. As Tricky Dick used to say, "it's national security."

Sending the IRS after your political enemies? That was a favorite of Nixon and LBJ as well. Obama and his administration are shocked. "I'm shocked. I'm shocked that there is gambling going on here." "Here's your winnings sir." "Oh thank you."

And Bengazi. Changing the story to avoid political damage? That was Nixon and LBJ throughout Vietnam.

It is sort of nice to see the Nixon legacy live on. Oh, and a healthy disdain for any attempts to investigate and search for the truth.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Dez Record Guides: U2

U2 is the most important rock band of the last 30 years. I know there are other candidates – Nirvana, Radiohead, REM. But nobody has made a bigger impact for as long since 1980. They are a classic case of turning limitations into strengths and innovating to overcome them. They are unabashedly heart on your sleeve and anthemic, and then unconvincingly try and tell you it is just a put-on and that they really are cynical and ironic (the 90’s). With no line-up changes for their entire existence, Bono, Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton have been about as consistent as they come. Having come to a creative dead-end at the close of the 80’s that would have consigned most other bands to mediocrity the rest of the way, they pulled off the most successful reinvention in rock history. I think that U2 were one of the last bands that felt important. From 1980 until about ’94, they were a band that inspired such fierce allegiance, being a U2 fan was akin to having an ideology. I don’t know that in today’s environment we could have a band that means as much as U2 used to mean to people. As albums get less important, so do big musical statements. It is sad that many of my students, who think U2 means “Beautiful Day,” have no clue what they were really all about when they really mattered. U2 has really done their fans right with their expanded, deluxe edition releases of all of their records up through 1991. Each has been remastered and features at least one extra disc of b-sides from the period, outtakes, live tracks, etc.

Boy (1980) ****
Still trying to find a signature sound and tentative in spots, yet the ambition is already undeniable. Edge’s guitar dominates here in all of its primitive, skeletal glory (before he discovered all of the effects). Unsurprisingly, this is U2 in its rawest form, yet the record sounds very cohesive, it works extremely well as a piece.

October (1981) ***
Probably the most neglected record in their catalogue. Odd to have such a crisis of confidence so early in a career; it wants to expand the boundaries of the first record, but doesn’t really know how. Noble effort, though, and there is some great moody music here, some darker tones. It does not have the cohesion (sameness?) of the debut. Supposedly they almost broke up at this point, as Bono had some serious writer’s block and a couple of the others were having a crisis of faith (can you be a good Christian and be in rock and roll? Not your average issue for a rock band. Obviously, they decided that you could). A cool destination if you’ve heard most of the rest of their catalogue to death, since you probably haven’t heard much from October.

War (1983) *****
The peak of their early arena rock period and one of the best records of the 80’s, here is where America first discovered these Irish seekers. Strident, martial, rocking and very political, they do not shy away from the issues of the day (“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Refugee,” “Surrender,” “Seconds”), yet they make it universal enough and so compelling that regardless of your views, you cannot help but be drawn in to some of the most passionate music of the decade. They became one of the few bands that, at this point, could be embraced both by the alternative crowd and the mainstream with neither side feeling that they were compromising.

Under a Blood Red Sky (live) (1984) ****
"So this is Red Rocks..." Relentless and concise live document (it is really an EP) that serves as an excellent summation of the band up to this point, especially in light of the change in direction that was about to come.

The Unforgettable Fire (1985) *****
A transitional record, yet it creates such a distinct and consistent mood. The hit was “Pride,” but the rest of the record is very much ethereal and transcendent in places. Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois become essentially the 5th and 6th members of the band, their fingerprints are all over this record. Who else does a song like “Sort of Homecoming”?

Wide Awake in America (part live EP) (1986) ****
Only four tracks (2 live, 2 b-sides), it is all you could ask from an EP. The versions of “Bad” and “Sort of Homecoming” best the studio versions. I think it was right here where Bono’s voice peaked in its power, range and expression.

The Joshua Tree (1987) *****
I’ve written at length about TJT, listing as my favorite record on my albums list. Read the original write-up if you want to know why. About as perfect a rock and roll record as you will ever find, and perfectly produced too.

Live in Paris (live) (1987/2008) ****
Great live document (available only as a download on itunes) from the Joshua Tree tour with one glaring omission (no “Where the Streets Have No Name,” which may be the ultimate concert opener).

Rattle and Hum (part live, part studio) (1988) ***
The notorious unintentionally Spinal Tap-esque documentary film aside, the accompanying album was a bit more satisfying. It does sound like what it was, though, the dead-end of their second phase. Yet there are still some wonderful moments here (like “All I Want Is You”).

The Best of 1980-1990 (compilation and b-sides) (2008/1980-1990) ****
U2’s music unfolds so logically when listened to chronologically, so I don’t know why they sequenced the compilation seemingly at random. It was valuable upon original release because for a limited time it contained a bonus disc filled with the excellent b-sides and rarities from the same period.

Achtung Baby (1991) *****
The greatest reinvention in rock history. Their American obsession culminated with the ‘Rattle and Hum’ fiasco (the film, not the record), and here they return to Europe and somehow capture the zeitgeist of the times with the Velvet Revolution, the fall of the USSR and opening up of the East (sonically, not lyrically). They embrace industrial sounds and dance rhythms, generally loosen up, and are able to evoke some Bowie Berlin magic as well, but it is more than that.

Zooropa (1993) ****
This was intended as a toss-off, but in my view, it actually succeeds more fully in trying to capture that Euro mood than its more substantial predecessor.

Original Soundtracks 1 (collaboration with Brian Eno, released as The Passengers) (1995) ***
A cool collaboration where Brian Eno is actually a full-fledged member of the band. Experimental to some extent, but it comes across as the minor side project that it was meant to be.

Pop (1997) **
The first failure. What was a breath of fresh air with Achtung Baby and Zooropa became stale here. It especially takes a nosedive in the second half. Also, they had pre-booked the tour, and so ran up against a deadline to finish the record before it was, well, really finished. Listen to the remixes of the three or four songs that appear on the Best of 1990-2000 set, and they are all stronger versions reflecting the arrangements that they worked out on the road after the record came out. They are an indication of how much better this could have been had they taken more time to finish it.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) ***
Best of 1990-2000 (compilation and remixes) (2002) ****
How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) **
U218Singles (compilation) (2006) ***
No Line on the Horizon (2009) **
Songs of Innocence (2014)***

Since 2000, U2 has settled into a comfortable neo-classicist style, reflecting their more anthemic 80’s style with only touches of the more experimental 90’s. But overall, the sound has a sameness about it that is disappointing. The lyrics have dipped noticeably too, as Bono has gotten more generic and he clearly is spending more time as globetrotting do-gooder (and he does some serious good, by the way) than working on his writing craft (although his writing was quite good on the autobiographical SOI). The rest of the band, too, seems to have settled into a comfortable cruise control. This is not necessarily all bad, about half of each of these three studio records is good pop/rock faire. But the other half is completely forgettable. HTDAAB may be their most disappointing record overall so far, though. The failures of Pop are at least interesting failures, but HTDAAB is just dull.

Bottom Line: Boy, War, Under a Blood Red Sky, Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, Zooropa…all essential records from the last 30 years bolstering my proposition that U2 are the most important band since 1980. The hits collections are nice, but U2 is an album-oriented band, so there really is no substitute for diving into the best of their records. It is worth your while.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What Is a Hero?

"Hero" is a word used way too often. People can do admirable things, people can show bravery and courage. But just in doing those things, or in doing the "right" thing, as in what would be that heroic? I get irritated at how often the word "hero" gets thrown around. Is every firefighter a hero? Is every soldier serving our country a hero? Some would say so, I guess. They are professions that require courage and skill. Webster's defines a hero, in part, as someone who is the "ideal" or a "model." The best of us all. If every soldier who serves is a hero, then that is hardly a model or ideal, because almost by definition a model or ideal should be a rare thing indeed. Even in such events as the recent Boston bombings, when the blasts went off, many people ran to assist and help the injured. Does that make a "hero," or is that just what we would expect of any good, moral, non-cowardly American? To me, a "hero" should exhibit character, courage and bravery, sure. But there should be something more. Perhaps a hero is someone who goes above and beyond what would be expected of any decent person. (One of the other reasons I am hesitant to label every firefighter or soldier a "hero" is that they are compensated for what they do. That is their chosen profession. In the military veteran situation, they also receive still generous G.I. Bill benefits). Perhaps a hero is someone who stands up for what is right or for the rights of others, even in the face of possible harm to themselves.

Christine Miller was a hero. She was born in 1918 in South Texas. She grew up a black woman in prejudiced times, working in her youth in cotton fields and losing her parents at a young age. She knew hardship. But she persevered, got a job as a clerk, and ended up in Los Angeles, working her way up to a comfortable middle class existence. So far, not exactly heroic, but admirable considering her circumstances. But she also stood up to a megalomaniac homicidal dictator/messiah figure deep in the jungle of a faraway land, called him out on his dangerous bullsh*t when it mattered most even when he had an armed militia willing to carry out his bidding. She stood up, even though she was relatively uneducated, and tried to engage him on his own terms, taking his own complicated ideology and turning it against him. She stood up and demanded that the lives of hundreds of children be spared. She was relatively alone, as a crowd of people shouted her down. Unfortunately she was unsuccessful. Those hundreds of children died on that stormy November day in 1978. So did the megalomaniac. So did his militia. So did Christine Miller. Almost 1000 people died needlessly that day. But she tried to stop the madness. It took courage for the few who did survive to take off running into the jungle. But it took a hero to stay there and try and save the innocent. That is the difference between having courage and being a hero. Christine Miller gave her life to try to save others.

Christine Miller joined Jim Jones's Peoples Temple for the same reason many others did. She wanted to help people and believed that life could be more just, more perfect. Forget the stereotype of mindless drones "drinking the Kool-Aid." These were good people, idealistic people who were trying to live a better life. Actually, there were many reasons people entered the orbit of Jim Jones. Some were very educated progressive-minded people who were attracted to Jones's message of racial harmony and socialism. But many within the flock of Peoples Temple were poor, many minorities, who had lived a hard life. Jim Jones and his church lifted the downtrodden from a life of poverty and gave them more. Jones welcomed the poor, former drug addicts...society's outcasts. You have to understand this because for a very long time, the message of Jim Jones was good. It was revolutionary and it was backed up by work and deeds. It would take another post entirely to unravel his complex ideology, how it started in the Pentecostal tradition and slowly transformed into a Marxist message of revolution. And also his spiral into madness. But Jones already gets too much ink. Let's talk about Christine.

On that morning of November 18, 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, when the madness of Jim Jones manifested itself in the implementation of his "revolutionary suicide" doctrine, Christine stepped up to challenge him. We know this because it is all recorded on tape. Jones was an obsessive about recording everything, so the beginning of the mass suicide/murder is all available to hear. Naturally, it is heartwrenching to listen to, but it is fascinating and instructive as well.

That morning, after congressman Leo Ryan and his entourage were attacked at the nearby airstrip by Jones's goons (Ryan, having finished a factfinding mission to Jonestown, is the only congressman in our history to be gunned down and killed while in office), Jones knew the gig was up and he decided to end it all for everybody. As his followers lined up for the poisoned drink (while surrounded by Jones's armed guards, so it is an open question as to how many did this willingly), Christine stands up and starts to ask questions.

Christine first asks if there is an alternative. How about going to Russia? Jones had often touted his "connections" to the Soviets to his followers, and Christine here is now calling him out on that. She says simply, "is it too late for Russia?" This takes Jones by surprise, so much so that he makes a show of getting one of his lieutenants to make "a call" to the USSR. Christine then points out that only a few dozen disgruntled followers had left with Ryan to the airstrip, and so many hundreds of others decided to stay in Jonestown. But Jones is so unhinged, the thought of even a few abandoning him is apocalyptic. (Also, he knows of the carnage at the airstrip, and even in his state, he knows that he cannot get away with gunning down a sitting U.S. congressman).

Jones is despondent and slurring his speech (as he is heavily drugged), but Christine pushes on. "As long as there is life, there is hope," she asserts. Christine then makes a bold claim, especially considering the Peoples Temple collective, that she as an individual, and all of the other individuals present, have the right to choose for themselves. At this point, she is violently shouted down by some in the crowd, and told that she has lived a full life up to this point only by the grace of Jones. She then moves on to plead with Jones to at least spare the children, the hundreds of children in Jonestown who cannot make this choice. She even smartly throws out the name of his own youngest son, a last ditch effort to personalize the carnage for him. At this point she is cut off and the grim job begins. If you want to hear it, it is easily found online and in documentaries. I won't post it here, though.

We don't really know exactly how Christine Miller met her end. Several accounts reveal that those who did object, and there were some, were forcefully injected. (Jones, the coward that he was, did not take his own poison. He was found at the foot of his "throne" with a bullet through his head. Self-inflicted? Was he murdered?) I would imagine that Christine's fate was forced on her. The strategy was to start with the babies and young children first in order to break the will of the adults. We know this because Jones and his inner circle had worked out this strategy well ahead of time. But also the dissidents were to be injected first as well, by force if necessary.

Christine Miller stands as a hero, someone who did everything in her power to stop this awful day from unfolding as it did. Who risked being ostracized and ridiculed by the only community she had, or worse even risked violent attack. She tried to protect the most innocent in Jonestown, the hundreds of children. She is not famous, she is really only known to that niche of historian like myself who have been fascinated by Jonestown and who want to know why. She spoke for those too scared or unable to speak that day.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

NBA Playoff Predictions: Round 2

I did alright predicting the winners in the first round. 6 of the 8. Also called the Chicago/Brooklyn series going seven. How things can change during a round, though. My Houston Rockets fought valiantly and did my San Antonio Spurs a tremendous favor by knocking OKC's Russell Westbrook out for the playoffs. With Westbrook out, you have to say that The Spurs are now the favorite team out of the West to lose to The Heat in the Finals. My predictions for this round...

The West

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies
The Clippers learned what most teams already know. You don't want to face Memphis. They are gritty and tough. I would not have predicted this before Westbrook went down, but now I've got to call...
Dez says: Memphis in 6.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors
This will be a fun series, as these teams have different styles in some respects. I really enjoy Golden State. But the Spurs are firing on all cylinders again at the right time.
Dez says: SA in 6.

The East

Miami Heat vs. Chicago Bulls
You've got to admire Chicago's grit in the face of their injuries and their wuss of a star, the forever recovering-even-though-he's-been-cleared-to-play-for-months Derrick Rose. Chicago will get one out of toughness.
Dez says: Miami in 5.

New York Knicks vs. Indiana Pacers
The talented Knicks showed that they still have some growing up to do in the series against Boston. But their talent should still see them through this round.
Dez says: NY in 7.