Saturday, June 29, 2013

30 Days: The Preliminaries and Stating the Obvious

I've got 30 days that changed American history picked out. Here's how it will work:

* The basic premise is presented in the post two down from here. But in brief, I have chosen 30 days that had a huge impact in some way on our history. A background (what happened) will be given and then the impact will be discussed.

* I decided not to rank them in order of importance, that was just too difficult and too arbitrary. They are all freakin' important. So they will be listed chronologically. Also, this will allow you to criticize my choices as we go, if I pass up a date that you feel is too crucial to pass up.

* I tried to represent and address most of the broader themes throughout our history with these days, such as economic, military, cultural, racial, expansion, immigration, etc.

* You can't capture everything in 30 days. So of course some crucial things are left out. Part of the fun and discussion, I hope, will be in my dear readers pointing out days they think I should have included, or agreeing and disagreeing with my choices or analysis.

* At the end of the list, I will list the "runners-up," the ones that did not make the cut but almost did. In part so you don't think I'm an idiot and to show that, yes, I did think of that one.

* Finally, to keep it interesting, I want to avoid the very obvious. Yet, some very obvious ones are really important. So let's get those out of the way right here. So, here are days that I had on the shortlist, but that you probably already know everything you need to know about them, so why discuss them again? I will not be listing and discussing, yet I acknowledge their importance, the following...

-Thomas Paine writes Common Sense (convinced many colonists that we should be fighting for independence, not just redress of grievances);


-the Battle of Saratoga (would not have won Revolutionary War without French help, this battle convinced the French we could win);

-the Marbury vs. Madison (1803) Supreme Court decision (establishes power of judicial review, turning the Judicial Branch from the weakest to at least an equal Branch with the other two, unless the Court is facing Andrew Jackson, in which case they are still powerless);

-the Louisiana Purchase (not only doubles our size, but is the most expansive use of presidential power in our history, ironically exercised by Thomas Jefferson, who often argued for a weak Executive);

-the Missouri Compromise (1820) (postponed the Civil War by decades, and ensured a Union advantage by the postponement);

-Seneca Falls Convention (real birth of the women's rights movement);

-Battle of Antietam (prevented possible European aid to the Confederacy, allowed Lincoln to issue Emancipation Proclamation);

-Lincoln's assassination (ANCIANT already addressed this);

-the Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) Supreme Court case (establishes legal basis for segregation);


-the first 100 days of the New Deal;


-Lend Lease during WWII (allows the British to remain standing, prevents Hitler from creating Fortress Europe);

-Hitler invading the USSR (yes, that had a huge impact on us too);

-events related to the creation of the atomic bomb;

-Cuban Missile Crisis; or


All crucial, but all should be familiar to you already. I will argue that my 30 days are just as important, but perhaps less familiar. Or at least, their far reaching impact may be less obvious than those above. This should be fun.

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Special Presentation of Dez’s Record Guides: A Guide to the CSN (and Occasionally Y) Universe

This was a lot of fun to put together, and it took some detective work. After the implosion, acrimonious divorce and/or disbanding of their former groups, Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield), David Crosby (The Byrds) and Graham Nash (The Hollies) had a magical meeting where the unemployed musicians discovered that their voices made for a particularly potent harmonic blend. Since they were all musically homeless at that point, they created what is generally considered to be the first supergroup. Later they were joined by Neil Young (Stills’ former partner in Buffalo Springfield), who has continued to have an on-again, off-again relationship with them at his whim (maddeningly so in typical Neil Young style, where he will commit to tours and then back out once on the road, never show to scheduled recording sessions, etc.) Their reputation really rests on their first two phenomenal records. Agreeing from the outset that they were free to work solo and with others, their labyrinthine discographies are both rewarding and frustrating. I’ll give you the bottom line right here instead of at the end: look at the ratings for all of their configurations from 1968-1972, the three were almost unstoppable in any combination. But after about ’72, the egos, dried up inspiration and excesses (drugs in both Crosby and Stills’ cases) really took their toll. Nonetheless, there are an impressive eight Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions between these four men. NOTE: When Young is involved, I have noted it with the “(Y).”


Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969) *****
It all starts here and is never bested. Even Neil Young considers this the high point, and he wasn’t even involved. It is really a tour de force from Stephen Stills, as he plays every instrument on the record save for some drum parts and whatever rhythm guitar Crosby and Nash contribute to their own compositions. He also has the strongest songs, such as his masterpiece “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and the gorgeous “Helplessly Hoping,” which is the high point of the three’s harmony singing on any record.

Déjà vu (Y) (1970) ****
Young enters the picture to bring in some extra grit and guitar power, although his contributions are actually pretty mellow (one is a classic, “Helpless,” the others are less potent). Overall, it might match the peaks of the debut, but there is less unity and cohesion here; it sounds more like taking turns.

4 Way Street (Y) (live) (1971) ****
I listened to the acoustic half of this double live album incessantly in my youth, I think it is what really made me the fan that I am. The acoustic record is so great because it really gives each of them room to express their own personality with their tracks. Ironically, Stills comes out the weakest, whereas he normally shines in this setting. (The remaster adds four additional, strong acoustic tracks). The electric record contains some lengthy jams (“Southern Man” and “Carry On” both clock in at around 14 minutes each), and while they are spirited, they are also a bit sloppy and excessive, not qute capturing the legendary sparks between Stills and Young trading licks and solos from this period.

So Far (incl. Y) (compilation) (1974) ****
A hits collection after only two albums? Sure. What is here from the first two records is great (also, the two sided single “Ohio”/”Find the Cost of Freedom”).

CSNY '74 (incl. Y) (live box set) (1974/2014) ****1/2
Perfectly assembled live document from the ill-fated Doom Tour of '74. Whatever the backstage excess and antics, this belatedly released set shows that onstage the four of them could catch fire. Wonderfully compiled by Graham Nash, the three disc set contains a generous selection of electric and acoustic tunes, including many previously unreleased gems. Neil Young, especially, shines.

CSN (1977) ***
A breezy reunion of the three after a lengthy break. This is a record that really grows on you, it has a cohesive sound and while it is a bit on the mellow side, it is still interesting throughout, with some superlative acoustic playing from Stills.

Daylight Again (1982) ***
The last even decent record from the law firm of C, S & N. There are a few real standouts, like Stills’ wonderful kiss-off “Southern Cross,” Nash’s pop gem of regret/history of CSN “Wasted on the Way” and the gorgeous Civil War-set acoustic title track. Most of the rest is ominous in that it will characterize the faceless, bland, overproduced, lazy nature of their future work. Crosby is here in name only (the record company refused to release it as a Stills-Nash project), as he was in the depths of his drug addiction and could hardly function.

Allies (live) (1983) **
American Dream (Y) (1988) *
Live It Up (1990) *
CSN (incl. Y) (compilation box set) (1991) ****
After the Storm (1994) *
Looking Forward (Y) (1999) *
Greatest Hits (compilation) (2005) ****
Déjà vu Live (Y) (live) (2008) *
Demos (compilation of acoustic demos) (2009/1968-71) ***
CSN 2012 (live) (2012) *

Considering the talent involved, their work since ’82 is an abomination. If this crap had been recorded by a group of musicians without their reputation, it would not have been released. Neil Young clearly saves his leftover trash for the CSNY projects, yet his tunes are often highlights when sitting next to what C, S and N are shilling. What the hell, guys? The Déjà vu Live and CSN 2012 concert records are especially disheartening and near unlistenable. If I could give CSN 2012 less than one star, I would. On a happier note, the CSN box set is a model for what a box set should be. Assembled primarily by Graham Nash, it wisely tries to include solo highlights from each of the members as well, making it a comprehensive and broad overview. Nicely done.


ABOVE: Typical stage banter from Cros and Nash (paraphrased). Crosby: "While I appreciate you paying the exorbitant ticket prices to help fund my freebase habit, you the audience member needs to remember that I am the great artist. Please only applaud between numbers, and DO NOT talk while I am playing my beautiful acoustic tunes. Also, do not attempt to clap along. None of you are musicians and you cannot keep a beat. This next song is the most beautifully written piece since Shakespeare's sonnets. I wrote it." Nash: "We really appreciate you coming tonight."

Graham Nash and David Crosby (1972) ****
Another Stoney Evening (live) (1998/1972) ***
Wind on the Water (1975) ***
Whistling Down the Wire (1976) **
Crosby-Nash Live (live) (1977) ***
The Best of Crosby & Nash (compilation) (1978) ***
Crosby & Nash (2004) NR

Within CSNY, C and N have had an especially close relationship, both musically and personally. Perhaps it was that they were always seen as the junior partners to S and Y, but they released a series of very good records as a duo. When they are at the top of their games, Nash’s more upbeat, pop-oriented fare sits very nicely next to Crosby’s more adventurous and quieter songs on a record. And together, their voices blend as stunningly as Simon and Garfunkel’s do, especially minus Stills’ sometimes overbearing presence. The Best of is deceiving, since it does not include anything from their debut (due to record label changes), which is their best record. Another Stoney Evening contains the best (worst?) examples of Crosby’s notorious scolding of the audience when they are making too much noise during his quiet acoustic numbers or when they, God forbid, are not clapping in time. He stops “Teach Your Children” cold in its tracks to lecture the audience on clapping on the beat. The guy is such a jackwagon.

ABOVE: Typical stage banter from Stills (again, paraphrasing). "Thank you. You know, uh, well, uh (mumbles incoherently) ha! ha! ha! Me and Crosby are just glad to be alive, frankly. This next song is an old one, I haven't really written a good song in 20 years. ha! ha! ha! But seriously, and this is important so listen up. It's about (mutters incoherently, then looks at audience as if he just explained the meaning of life). Can someone get that go**amn spotlight out of my face!"

See also Buffalo Springfield discography
Super Session (Bloomfield, Kooper & Stills) (1968) ****
Stephen Stills (1970) ****
Stephen Stills 2 (1971) ***
Manassas (Manassas) (1972) ****
Down the Road (Manassas) (1973) **
Stephen Stills Live (live) (1975) ****
Stills (1975) ***
Illegal Stills (1976) *
Long May You Run (Y) (Stills-Young Band) (1976) *
Thoroughfare Gap (1978) *
Right By You (1984) *
Stills Alone (1991) ***
Man Alive! (2005) **
Pieces (Manasas) (compilation of unreleased material from early 70’s) (2009) **
Live at Shepherd’s Bush (live) (2009) ***
Just Roll Tape (acoustic demos) (2007/1968) ***
Carry On (compilation box set) (2013) ****

I have written at length regarding how incredibly frustrating Stephen Stills is to follow (talent vs. his output). His first couple of solo records contain some brilliant work alongside some stunningly bad songs. Most consider the Manassas record to be a high point, it is a sprawling and impressive double that deftly explores rock, blues, latin, folk, country and bluegrass with his shortlived band that included Chris Hillman of The Byrds. Super Session is an awesome set, although a bit deceiving. The first half is Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, but then when Bloomfield disappeared, Stills was called in to help on the second side. A killer record nonetheless, but mostly because of Mike Bloomfield’s guitar playing. The Carry On box set is a must, a wonderful career-spanning box (includes work with Au-Go Go Singers, Buffalo Springfield, CSN, solo) lovingly assembled by Graham Nash that puts the best light on the bumpy career of a hugely talented man.

ABOVE: Crosby's reputation for drug intake and survival is exceeded possibly only by the immortal Keith Richards. That being said, he is one of the greatest harmony singers ever, and talented man. And he knows it and will tell you so in concert. To be fair to Cros, though, he can also be very funny in concert. He has wit along with ego.

See also Byrds discography
If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971) *****
Oh Yes I Can (1989) **
Thousand Roads (1993) NR
It’s All Coming Back To Me Now (live) (1995) NR
Voyage (compilation box set) (2006) ****

Crosby’s solo debut is one of the finest records of that era, a moody, mysterious masterpiece of California dread. The rest is negligible, as his best work is usually while collaborating with others. He also released a couple of records as a member of CPR, standing for Crosby, Pevar and Raymond. The latter is Crosby's son whom he only reconnected with as an adult. They discovered a musical connection as well, and recorded some records. I haven't heard them, though. Miraculously, Crosby has kicked his drug habit, and after a liver transplant, is in relatively good shape these days.

ABOVE: Nash dated Joni Mitchell for awhile.

Songs For Beginners (1971) *****
Wild Tales (1973) ***
Earth & Sky (1980) NR
Innocent Eyes (1986) NR
Songs For Survivors (2002) NR
Reflections (compilation box set) (2009) ****

Ditto Nash. His solo debut is a tour de force of a singer-songwriter record, in my opinion besting anything by James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt or Jackson Browne. But as with Crosby, the rest of Nash’s solo discography shows that he worked best as a collaborator. Nash’s early work as a member of the Hollies is great as well. The Hollies were never big stateside, but they were huge in Britain, and for good reason. I’d recommend The Air That I Breathe: The Very Best of The Hollies (compilation) (1975) **** for a great Hollies overview (it also covers post-Nash Hollies).

See Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young discography volume I and volume II.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Next List: Days In American History

I've come up with the next thrilling GNABB list concept, but it may be a little while before it gets started because it takes some prep. There was a great History Channel documentary series put out awhile back called "10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America," and the premise is exactly what it sounds like. The series consisted of ten documentaries, each one hour and each directed by someone else so they had their own feel and style. Each documentary focused on one pivotal day. Obviously the documentaries discussed larger themes and events in American history, but the focal point was an event on a particular day. For instance, one great one that I show to my students every year is about the Homestead Strike at Carnegie's mill. The episode also covers broader history and development of industry during the Gilded Age and the growth of the labor movement, rightfully focusing on Homestead because that was a pivotal battle to determine who would be the dominant power, labor or management, during the Gilded Age and beyond.

Anyway, I thought I would expand it a bit and pick maybe 20 or 25 days throughout our history and discuss why they were so important. Haven't decided whether I want to actually rank them or just list them. Perhaps some of mine will overlap with the History Channel series, I'm not sure yet. Here are the ones used in the History Channel documentary: the massacre at Mystic during the Pequot War, Shay's Rebellion (that one has to be there), discovery of gold sparking the Gold Rush, Battle of Antietam, Homestead Strike, McKinley assassination, Scopes Trial, Einstein's letter to FDR sparking the Manhattan Project, Elvis appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show and the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. I'm not sure if they felt those were the most impotant ten days, or they just picked ten real important days that would make for interesting documentaries.

Anyway, that is my idea. More soon.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Things have been going well, all things considered, during Daughter of Dez II's (DDII) first two weeks. She's a healthy and happy baby. They don't do much at this stage other than look cute, cry, eat, pee, poop and sleep. They do all six of those things a lot, a constant cycle between them, sometimes doing several things simulaneously (for instance, you can match pee with any of the other five options). It is still way too early to definitively say this, but I think I can already tell some personality differences between DDII and older sister, Daughter of Dez I (DDI). I've heard this from friends with multiple kids, that they tend to alternate with one being more challenging and then the next being easy going. I think I've got that here.

It is hard to tell whether DDI is just hitting a tough phase or whether she will be this headstrong all her life. I both fear and hope it is the latter. It can be tough to deal with, but I also want self confident daughters who will be strong to navigate through life's temptations and travails. DDI is certainly strong-willed. DDII already seems to be easier going. She doesn't cry as much as DDI did when she was a newborn. The first bath comparison is instructive. When we gave newborn DDI her first bath, she wailed and resisted and put up a hell of a fight. We've given DDII three baths already, and she is as chilled out and relaxed as DDI was fiery and wound up. DDII seemed to enjoy getting her hair shampooed and washed especially.

ABOVE: DDII seems to be deep in thought regarding her first bathing experience at home.

DDI already has such a distinct personality with emotions that run the spectrum, very affectionate and loving (and bright), but also with a real temper and rebellious streak. I've got a hunch that DDII will be a bit calmer and more reserved, but we'll see. What I do know and what I love to see is that DDI has really taken to DDII, and loves to help take care of her. Sometimes it can be a bit much, we have to remind DDI that DDII is still fragile and can't really "play" yet.

Last night I was cutting an apple for DDI to eat before bed, and she objected to the small size of the pieces I was cutting. She told me: "stop wasting time, I want bigger pieces."

ABOVE: I shall have my hands full for many years to come. Yes, that is an ewok on DDI's shirt.

Monday, June 24, 2013

RIP Bobby "Blue" Bland, 1930-2013

There are precious few links left to that first and second generation group of pioneers in blues and soul music. Bobby Bland was rather unique in that he was able to cross some divides within the genres. His music could be equally categorized as blues or R&B, he could sing with real grit but was primarily famous for having a smoother delivery. His image was one of class and a certain level of sophistication, as he had the nickname "the Sinatra of the blues." Other than his contemporary and friend B.B. King (for whom he also served as valet and chauffeur in his early days), Bland is the most important blues singer to emerge from the Memphis scene. Bland was a giant of the genre, but not as well known as others of equal stature for some reason. I saw him live in the mid-1990's, and frankly he was not that great, he was just way past his prime. No matter, listen to his remarkable string of singles from the late 1950's and 1960's, and you know you are listening to one of the great ones. Even if he was not a household name outside of his genre, his influence in music was immense (he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992). Artists from Eric Clapton to David Bowie to Van Morrison have covered his songs. "Farther Up the Road," "I Pity the Fool," "Ain't Nothin' You Can Do," "That's The Way Love Is," "Ain't No Love In the Heart of the City"...the list goes on.

ABOVE: "Ain't No Love In the Heart of the City"

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dez's Record Guides: The Police & Sting

I'll admit it. I fundamentally love the sound of The Police. There is not a song that I dislike, because even if the song itself is not that great, I can still listen intently to what three of my favorite musicians are doing. Sting on vocals and bass, Andy Summers on guitar and Stewart Copeland on drums. The Police were a trio of a different sort. Cream, Hendrix's Experience, The Who (three instrumentalists), Led Zeppelin (ditto), Rush...most rock bands with a trio of instrumentalists have a base in power (the term Power Trio was created for these bands). The Police did not steamroll you. They hit you with rhythm, space and subtlety (all of the bands I listed were also capable of subtlety, but it was not their stock and trade). It was a trio where the guitarist rarely played a straight solo, instead using textures and effects, paving the way for The Edge and other guitarists of that school. The bass often took the lead in melody. Sting's singing speaks for itself, and he proved to be one of the most intelligent songwriters of the 80's, while also hitting it out of the park time and again with classic songs.

Stewart Copeland is my favorite drummer, he fills the space masterfully. Nobody plays the hi hat like Stew. (Check out the credits on Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain" - Copeland was brought in to play the hi hat. Not drums, just the hi hat. In fact, it is the first sound you hear on the So album, Stewart Copeland's hi hat). There was also the volatility between the personalities. This was key. Sting when he is firmly in charge has proven to be complacent, creatively. Copeland never let Sting completely take charge of The Police. Copeland always viewed The Police as his band, since he put the group together initially. These guys pushed each other to a level that none has found on their own or with others. Awhile back when I listed my five star records, JMW got on me about having almost all of the Police discography at five stars (which is a benefit to having a brief discography). I took that to heart and gave a very critical look at these records this time around. You will see that I am not so fond of Sting's solo work.

Outlandos d’Amour (1978) ****
From the album cover to some of the aggression in the music, they tried to catch the punk wave, but they were faux punks at best. Why? They were too talented musicians to pull it off. No matter, the opening salvo of “Next To You,” “So Lonely” and “Roxanne” announced a major new band on the scene. There is some filler here too, but it is all entertaining at worst, and classic rock and roll at best.

Regatta de Blanc (1979) ****
Pidgin for “white reggae,” what made RdB successful, even though they were three skinny white English dudes, was that instead of trying to go to Jamaica with their sound, they successfully brought reggae elements to their own territory of British rock. This is near perfect (“Message in a Bottle,” “Bring On the Night,” “Walking On the Moon,” title track), but they obviously came up a little short to fill out a whole album, because the last third of the record is filler. Good filler, though.

Zenyatta Mondatta (1980) *****
Andy Summers once said that ZM was the “most Police of the Police albums” (I’m paraphrasing). He was right. It is a lean, minimalist masterpiece that uses space in the rock arena as masterfully as Miles Davis used to do in jazz. They play only what is necessary, therefore every element here is purposeful, nothing is superfluous. And I love how Stewart’s drums were produced.

Ghost in the Machine (1981) *****
After the minimalism of ZM, they go in the other direction and make their most sonically dense record. The Police trio liberally add horns, synthesizers and even some steel drums to the mix. It is also Sting’s most lyrically dark set of songs, addressing topics such as Northern Ireland troubles, unfulfilled spiritual quest, political cynicism and the overarching theme of technology taking over for human warmth and emotion.

Synchronicity (1983) *****
There is something to be said for going out on top. They didn’t intend for their megahit to also be their swansong, but it turned out to be just that. Four massive singles, strong album cuts around them (even Andy’s grating yet endearing “Mother”)…it made The Police the biggest band in the world for a year or two. And that was it. Five brilliant records and out.

The Police Live! (live) (1995/1979/1983) ***
Interesting two disc set, with the first disc showcasing a ragged but energetic show from ’79 and the other disc from the Synchronicity tour. The ’79 disc is awesome, but the ’83 material is pretty disappointing, the live sound on that tour was unnecessarily cluttered and bloated with synths and back-up singers.

Certifiable: Live in Buenos Aires (live) (2008) ****
Hell froze over and The Police hit the road for a reunion tour, fulfilling one of my concert dreams that I never thought would be fulfilled. I saw the tour on its Houston stop and it was fantastic. The thing is, The Police were always a little dicey live (they rarely rehearsed, and part of Sting and Stew's disagreement comes with tempo, and they would often hash this argument out in front of audiences), but they sounded stronger on this tour than in many of the more vintage live material that I’ve heard. They really did get better with age.

Every Breath You Take: The Singles (compilation) (1986) ***
Greatest Hits (compilation) (1992) ****
Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings (compilation box set) (1993) *****
The Very Best of Sting & The Police (compilation) (1997) **
The Police (compilation) (2007) *****

EBYT is simply too short and is missing too many key tracks to be anywhere near definitive. It is notable for containing the last studio track the band ever completed, a moody remake of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” which is quite good in its own right (typical of their last days, Sting and Stew would go into the studio alternatively and record over each other's synthesizer part, over and over again). Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings is almost truth in advertising, it does contain all five records, b-sides, soundtrack cuts and some random live selections. The Police is the best regular compilation out there, while the Sting & The Police combo disc is an abomination. Not only is it insulting in its unspoken insinuation that the band was nothing more than backing for Sting, but it does neither group nor artist justice due to space restrictions, and it violates God's 11th Commandment, “thou shalt not mix The Police with solo Sting.”

Sting's Solo Work
When The Police imploded, all three embarked on successful solo careers. Andy Summers released some experimental records and recorded extensively with Robert Fripp, amongst others. Copeland worked with some jazz groups, and scored many films and TV shows. But it was Sting, of course, who had the biggest impact as a solo artist. Sting frustrates me so. His first three studio records are wonderful. But then...

The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985) ****
Bring on the Night (live) (1986) ***

This is exactly what a solo record from a member of an iconic band should be. Sting does not try to recreate Police music, instead he goes his own new and bold direction. Enlisting an impressive group of young jazz musicians for his band (Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Daryl Jones), they add class, skill and nuance to some solid new compositions that sound like Sting certainly, but also are hard to imagine as Police songs. It has a really unique feel to it. Knowing this group was a temporary thing, he wisely released a double live record from the tour to capture more of this line-up. BOTN has quite a few impressive moments (check out Kirkland’s jawdropping piano solo on The Police tune “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around”), although it could have been substantially stronger with better song selection.

…Nothing Like the Sun (1987) ****
Some critics complained at the time that this was too subdued, but that ends up being its strength, actually. It has a remarkable consistency of mood and sophistication (from the Shakespeare quoting title to the classy saxophone that Branford Marsalis provides throughout to the witty songwriting/credo of “Englishman in New York”).

ABOVE: …Nothing Like The Sun. Or Nothing Like Sting's Ego. I remember a review at the time (I think it was in Rolling Stone), complaining that Sting was so concerned with showing off his intelligence and so unwilling to share the spotlight that the record suffered. I disagree, Sting has always been at his best when trying to he the smartest kid in the class (I object, as you will see below, more when he is lazy and tries to please the masses). Go back to the Police, with him namechecking Nabokov, or this line from "Wrapped Around Your Finger": "Caught between the Scylla and Charibdes," or writing two hit songs trying capture the theories of Carl Jung...Sting's always been a pompous ass. Who else writes that sh*t in rock and gets away with it, much less has huge hits doing it? His fans embrace it. But the review was funny in pointing out that in the song “They Dance Alone,” Sting has Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler on guitars, yet on the track you cannot hear any guitar at all. And he has Ruben Blades as a guest vocalist, one of Latin America’s finest singers, and Sting gives him only a spoken interlude in the song.

The Soul Cages (1991) *****
Is this really a better record than two of the Police's records? Well, uh, not really. But here is where subjectivity comes in, I've just always loved this album and really connected with it. Like NLTS, it is somewhat subdued but with a real consistency in tone and feel. TSC is the last record where Sting sounded like he had something at stake artistically. Much of it is a reflection upon his youth, as it was written and recorded in the wake of his father's passing. TSC is the most personal Sting has ever gotten as a songwriter. It did not sell well, and you can tell that after TSC, he pulls back and coasts on his skills as a pop songwriter. His commercial fortunes improved after 1991, but he has not been as interesting since.

Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993) ***
Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984-1994 (compilation) ****
Mercury Falling (1996) **
Brand New Day (1999) **
…All This Time (live) (2001) **
Sacred Love (2003) *
Songs From the Labyrinth (with Edin Karamazov) (2006) NR
If On a Winter’s Night… (2009) NR
Symphonicities (2010) *
Live in Berlin (live) (2010) NR
25 Years (compilation box set) (2011) ***

The Last Ship (2013) *
Ten Summoner's Tales was the turning point. Sting could continue to create artistically satisfying records to dwindling commercial clout, or he could reach for the AOR charts and coast. Unfortunately, he chose the latter. Here I must acknowledge the wisdom of my friend ANCIANT. I recall when TST was released, we were discussing it and I got caught up in Sting's way with a pop song and melody and thought the record was just fantastic. ANCIANT immediately saw it for what it was, and TST has proven to be the harbinger for things to follow. This stuff, by and large, is dull, formulaic and safe (with the insipid hit "Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot" serving as the absolute nadir, it is so generic in its sentiment that I get angry when I hear it). It is not worthy of an artist of Sting's capabilities. That is not to say there are not good songs here or there ("I Hung My Head" from Mercury Falling, "Desert Rose" from Brand New Day), but they are rare. Songs From the Labyrinth features Sting and lutenist Karamazov recording songs by John Dowland, and If On a Winter's Night... is traditional holiday music (not "Jingle Bells", but more traditional English songs). Symphonicities features Sting performing his Police and solo compositions with a symphony. Could have been interesting with some daring arrangements, but alas, it is unbearably dull and predictable.

Bottom Line: The Police have the benefit of a short career, so there was not any time for a decline. All five of their studio records are more or less excellent, but pay special attention to the latter three. The Police compilation is the best one available. Sting's first three solo studio records are all worthwhile, the rest of his solo work is more or less worthless.

Friday, June 21, 2013

28 Seconds

That is how far the San Antonio Spurs were away from a fifth NBA title. Not last night. A couple of nights ago in Game 6, the "one that got away." They were up five points with 28 seconds left in the game. A quick two and then Ray Allen hits the three that saved Miami. It will "haunt" these Spurs, as Manu Ginobili said last night at the podium (that for some reason they also make the losers sit at and answer questions; did you see how devastated the usually stoic Tim Duncan was when the reporters kept throwing him the inane "what if" questions?)

All of that aside, The Spurs legacy is still secure as one of the greatest franchises in all of sports, with four championships and playoff appearances every year since 1999. The Heat had more at stake, frankly, if they had come up short of the championship I am not sure this whole experiment would have lasted. And in this truly epic seven game Finals, The Heat were the better team. Lebron proved why he is the greatest player on the planet. I congratulate the Miami Heat (except for Chris Bosh).

Thursday, June 20, 2013

RIP James Gandolfini, 1961-2013

We finally know what happened to Tony in that ambiguous final episode of 'The Sopranos.' From 1999-2007 we were privileged to watch television being taken to a new level of quality and complexity. David Chase's 'The Sopranos' on HBO raised the bar. It showed that a cable series could be a hit, that it could have the production quality of a feature film, and not shy away from exploring familiar themes but in new, thrilling and complex ways. I think that 'The Sopranos' will go down as one of the most important, and one of the best, shows in television history. And the heart, the soul, the epicenter of that show was James Gandolfini's masterful portrayal of mid-level New Jersey mob boss, Tony Soprano. The Sopranos universe all revolved around Tony, and Gandolfini was able to portray brutality, kindness, love, anger, humor, ruthlessness, pathos, boldness, crippling fear and doubt, regret, insatiable appetites, shallow pettiness and oceans of depth. The show lived or died on Gandolfini's performance, and as creator David Chase said recently on what the casting of Gandolfini in the role meant for the show, it was simply "everything." One writer said today, all of the good and potential for good that we saw in Tony, despite his brutality and way of life, that was Gandolfini showing through the character. That is why Tony was such a rich and ultimately sympathetic character.

From everything that I have read, Gandolfini himself was (thankfully) quite different from Tony. He was generous, a great conversationalist, loved to sit down with close friends and smoke a cigar. He was uncomfortable with his fame, did not enjoy publicity, and he was not one of those actors who enjoyed talking about the craft. He was known as a tough interview, not due to rudeness, but he maintained that he was just a simple Jersey guy who happened to be on TV and in movies. But just watch 'The Sopranos,' and you will see a true master of the craft, one of the most talented actors of the last decade. If Tony had to go, I guess it was fitting that he died in a swanky hotel in Rome. Also of note, the next day Gandolfini was due to travel to Taormina in Sicily as an honored guest at a film festival. That is a nice thing to be looking forward to on your last day. Taormina is a gorgeous, seaside town in Eastern Sicily with stunning views and ancient Greek ruins. I've been there, and again it seems fitting. I can easily see Gandolfini sitting by the seaside, cigar in hand, enjoying an overflowing dish of Frutti di Mare. Fitting indeed. Goodbye Tony, and thank you Mr. Gandolfini for showing us what television, at its best, can and should be.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dez Reviews The Book 'Space Race' by Deborah Cadbury (2005)

"It will take 30 hours to get to the Moon and 24 hours to clear Russian customs officials there" - Bob Hope, 1959

The Cold War era has always been a favorite historical period for me, and within that, the Space Race has always been one of my favorite topics. Deborah Cadbury's excellent book, 'Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and The Soviet Union For Dominion of Space,' takes the somewhat familiar framework of picking two key players, and through the telling and contrasting of their stories, attempts to tell the whole story of the period (at least from World War II through Apollo 11). "Space race" might be a misnomer, the book is really about the development of rocket science during this period. Fortunately for the reader, the two protagonists have fascinating life stories that at times read like spy novels. Ex-Nazi, ex-SS officer, designer of hell from the skies in the form of Hitler's V-2 rocket Werner von Braun became the unlikely and controversial (due to his past) hero for the Americans, while the mysterious and shadowy "chief designer" (as most of the world, including everyday Russians, never knew his name until his death) Sergei Korolev anchors the Soviet race for celestial domination. Both men have almost childlike enthusiasm and dreams of space travel (the description of Korolev's awe when touching and looking at the first satellite, Sputnik, is oddly quite touching), but the harsh realities of mid-20th century events intrude and make them compromise their otherwise pure motives, be it Hitler's Nazi Germany or Stalin's years of Terror. Von Braun is suave, sophisticated and has a certain darkness about him (I guess you would have to if you were SS), it is his story that draws you in at first. But by the end of the book, the real heart and soul, the real emotional connection is with the doomed chief designer, Korolev.

The first part of the book follows Von Braun during the last years of World War II. For the rest of his life, he denied supporting Nazi ideology and denied any direct link to slave and prisoner labor. Recently declassified documents, however, tell a different story. The chaos of the last days of Nazi Germany is captured wonderfully by Cadbury, as she writes about Von Braun and Hitler's V-2 team scrambling through the countryside, trying to decide whether they would rather be captured by Americans or Soviets, all the while avoiding SS death squads with orders from Hitler to kill all of his rocket scientists rather than have them fall into enemy hands. It reads like an adventure story.

My take on Von Braun: I do not think that he loved genocide. I believe him when he claimed he joined the SS not out of ideology, but as a way to get support for his groundbreaking research in rocketry. If those rockets happen to be loaded with warheads and reign death over London, then so be it. Von Braun, at the very least, had some indirect authority over the futuristic V-2 Mittelwerk facility that was hidden inside of a mountain and that used concentration camp slave labor. Tens of thousands of victims lost their lives at Mittelwerk. While he did not do any personal killing or did not oversee concentration camps, he knowingly benefited from the labor and did not raise any objections. His dreams of rocketry were too important. Too important to the Americans too. The military classified his war record in order to bring him and his team back to the States to kick start our own rocketry program. The Soviets also got some Germans to help start their rocket programs, but as my favorite quote from the film 'The Right Stuff' goes, "our Germans are smarter than their Germans." While Von Braun becomes a celebrity in the U.S. and was one of the most important early faces of the U.S. space program, while Eisenhower, Kennedy and LBJ give Von Braun the resources of Fort Knox for his development of the Redstone and later his crowning achievement, the Saturn V, his Russian counterpart Sergei Korolev has a much different experience.

ABOVE: Werner Von Braun was a hero to the American space program, the architect of our rockets through the Apollo moon landings. He had also been an SS officer and designed Hitler's devastating V-2 rockets. His links to Holocaust war crimes are still hotly debated.

Korolev, like many Russian intellectuals, got caught up in Stalin's purges and spent years in a Siberian gulag. He lost his marriage and for many years his relationship with his beloved daughter. Later he is miraculously released and allowed to lead the way for the Soviets into space. Many of us are well aware of the American side of this story, but one of the most captivating aspects of this book is the vivid telling of the Soviet space program. The "chief designer" and other players, like daredevil first man in space Yuri Gagarin, really come to life. Korolev is a man to be admired, not only winning the early battles of the space race, but doing so with less resources, dazzling McGyver-like creativity and all under the unpredictable and capricious leadership of Stalin and then Khrushchev. It is quite humorous how Khrushchev keeps demanding more dazzling "firsts" to embarrass the Americans, safety be damned. What is incredible is how Korolev (barely) pulls them off with great skill and luck, giving the Americans the impression that the Soviets were only months away from launching Death Stars, Imperial Cruisers and conquering star systems, when it was so not the case.

Take this typically haphazard re-entry story:

"In order to get to the orientation porthole, Belyayev had to lie across both seats. Leonov got out of the way, under the seat, holding on to Belyayev to keep him steady. The task completed, they scrambled back to their seats before firing the engine...reentry began. But as had happened so often before, the capsule did not separate from the instrument module. They were tied together, like a pair of old boots floundering through space. The gravitational loads on the men reached 10 g's...[they go way off course]...For four hours, there was no communication. Korolev had no idea that they were, in fact, safe but very cold, having landed in an area of thick forest in deepest Siberia, where they spent two freezing nights, the craft suspended between two trees above great drifts of snow."

Sometimes the Soviets weren't so lucky. In a launch pad disaster that Korolev played little part in, it is estimated that 150 Russian space program workers were killed. Political pressure was so intense to best the Americans, many corners were cut. The Russian general pushing the launch was sitting in a chair on the launch pad overseeing the work, and he too was burned to a crisp in the inferno. When Khrushchev questioned the designer who was in charge of that particular mission, his question was: "why aren't you dead?" This disaster was kept secret from the Soviet people for decades, yet more died than in all of the deaths combined in the American space tragedies.

ABOVE: The mysterious Soviet "chief designer," Sergei Korolev. Cadbury's book brings him to life, not only looking at his accomplishments, but following his riveting personal story. Unlike Von Braun's celebrity status in the U.S., his identity was kept secret from the Soviet people until his death. After his death, he was honored as a Soviet hero and is still revered by Russians to this day.

Overall, this book is a riveting tale of dreams, compromises, dark secrets and man's quest to break his earthly bonds. Cadbury also gives excellent and entertaining accounts of the first pioneers of space, not astronauts and cosmonauts, but the Russian dogs and American chimps who went first. The Mercury program is covered in amusing detail as well, a la 'The Right Stuff.' There is so much here, if this period interests you at all, it is a must read.

Dez Says: **** out of *****

ABOVE: Enos the space chimp. Enos was the second American space chimp, going up after the more famous Ham. Enos had a habit that was quite irritating and embarrassing to NASA. When on missions, he would masturbate in the capsule to pass the time. He also did it for delighted reporters at press conferences, earning him the nickname "Enos the...", well, you know.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Dez Record Guides: Van Morrison, Pt. II (1982-2012)

Two posts below is Part I of the Van Morrison guide.

Beautiful Vision (1982) ***
Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983) **
Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (live) (1984) ****
A Sense of Wonder (1985) **
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986) ***
Poetic Champions Compose (1987) ***
Irish Heartbeat (with The Chieftains) (1988) NR
Avalon Sunset (1989) ***

Van’s 80’s work is quite challenging. I admire it very much because it is a period where he did not take the easy route at all, instead delving deeply into his spiritual quest and his Celtic/Irish roots. The term “Celtic Soul” has often been used, and I think it is apt. But like I said, these records are not easy records. They are often very subdued and quiet, and require attentive listening otherwise they easily fade into the background. That is not to say that it is background music, though. I think you can get a sense just from the album titles, or song titles from the period like “Rave On, John Donne,” “Tore Down a la Rimbaud,” “Dweller on the Threshold,” etc. As you can see from my ratings, I do not love them, some I cannot really penetrate, but I admire immensely his efforts during these years as an artist taking risks and doing what he felt he had to do. Beautiful Vision and Avalon Sunset (the bookends, and AS was actually a minor hit record for him) probably grab me the most, and the live record represents this period extremely well and injects some added energy to some of the quieter studio versions.

The Best of Van Morrison (compilation) (1990) *****
It is strange, but this single disc collection, which does not go chronologically and covers a ridiculous span of time and amount of material (from mid-60’s Them to his recent 80’s work), somehow provides a fantastic and rather accurate overview of Van Morrison. As a single disc, it of course cannot cover nearly all of the essential bases, but that is not really its purpose. It works perfectly as a user-friendly introduction, and is a hell of a listen from start to finish.

Enlightenment (1990) **
Hymns To the Silence (1991) ***
Too Long in Exile (1993) **
The Best of Van Morrison, vol. 2 (compilation) (1993) ****
A Night in San Francisco (live) (1994) ***
Days Like This (1995) **

He still has some ambition here, but the early 90’s find Van in a slightly less serious mood. Slightly. Hymns To the Silence is an interesting double record, it would have made a fantastic single with the right editing, there are some songs there that match his peak period, but also a lot of filler. The second volume of Best of was compiled by Van himself, and he clearly favors his 80’s work. Where it should have been the perfect complement to the first Best of, it primarily serves as a sampler of the 80’s (but still also digs all the way back to Them), but without key 80’s tracks that appeared on the first one, so it is not quite definitive 80’s period either. Still a good listen, though, but only in conjunction with the first volume. Whereas his first two live records were brilliant snapshots of an artist deeply exploring his muse, his third live outing is purely for entertainment, as it comes across like a lively R&B revue. And that is what Van will be from here on out, a consummate professional, but not the daring artist that he had been.

How Long Has This Been Going On? (with Georgie Fame) (1996) NR
Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison (1996) NR
The Healing Game (1997) **
The Philosopher’s Stone (compilation of previously unreleased tracks) (1998) ***
Back On Top (1999) **
The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast 1998 (live) (with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber) (2000) NR
You Win Again (with Linda Gail Lewis) (2000) NR
Down the Road (2002) **
What’s Wrong With This Picture? (2003) **
Magic Time (2005) **
Pay the Devil (2006) **
Live at Austin City Limits Festival (live) (2006) NR
The Best of Van Morrison, vol. 3 (compilation) (2007) ***
Van Morrison at the Movies – Soundtrack Hits (compilation) (2007) ****
Still on Top – The Greatest Hits (compilation) (2007) ***
Keep It Simple (2008) **
Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (live) (2009) ****
Born To Sing: No Plan B (2012) **

From about ’96 forward, Van’s music tends to blend together. None of these records are “bad” per se, I’m not sure Van is capable of putting out something that is really bad, he is too good a singer with too good taste. On most of these records, there are a couple of tunes that may stand out, but most are a mix of his increasingly stale love for R&B and hints of his Celtic Soul from the 80’s, but without the daring. What is notable here? The Philosopher’s Stone seems like it should have been much more, a double disc emptying of the vaults from the mid-70’s through the 80’s. There are definitely some keepers there, but one would suspect there is more transcendent material still locked away. The vol. 3 of the Best of series is a sprawling and rather baffling double disc assembled by Van focusing on recent material and rarities from the 90’s forward. Nothing special. The At the Movies collection is a bit gimmicky, yet it actually serves as a really good listen (and Morrison’s duet with Roger Waters on “Comfortably Numb” is pretty cool). I reviewed the Astral Weeks Live show in depth when it was released, but it is outstanding and features Van taking risks that we haven’t heard in a long time. It seems that revisiting his most admired material sparked something in him.

Bottom Line: Van Morrison’s discography is immense, akin to trying to get a handle on Bob Dylan’s output. But as a guideline, it is hard to go wrong up through ’74, all of that is essential (well, except Hard Nose the Highway and most of Blowin’ Your Mind!) After that, you have to tread more carefully. Into the Music is almost a must. For the 80’s, Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast gives you a good taste of where he was at during that decade, as well as Beautiful Vision and Avalon Sunset. The Best of Van Morrison serves as a wonderful introduction, and Best of vol. 2 is a decent follow-up for more introduction to his 80’s work, yet it is not definitive since some of the best 80’s material was on vol. 1. I can’t say that I’d recommend anything beyond the mid-1990’s, though.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

I'll Fix All Your Problems - A Birth Story

Daughter of Dez II (DDII...I won't abbreviate it DOD as that is "department of defense," and that just doesn't set the right tone) arrived in the early morning hours over the weekend.

If you are an avid reader of GNABB, you already read the post below regarding our desire to once again have an all natural birth. That was the goal, but in the end if you get a healthy and happy baby, that is what really matters. We were concerned our goal would not be met, as she was about a week overdue and the doctor was starting to talk about inducing. Funny enough, about an hour after that appointment and while we were out to lunch, my wife started to feel somewhat consistent contractions. From about noon through the next 13 hours the contractions were maddeningly inconsistent (you are supposed to time both the length of each contraction and the time between the contractions to figure out where you are in the first stage of labor and also to give you an indication as to when you need to head to the hospital. But you see, there is an app for your smartphone to keep track of contractions now. Did people have babies before smartphones?) With DDI, we made the mistake of being too cautious and going to the hospital too early and ended up having most of the labor there. This time we wanted to do most of it in the comforts of home, and if anything, we kind of cut it too close going to the hospital this time around. It was early in the morning when the contractions started to be about four minutes apart (some three) and I decided, hmm, perhaps we should go.

Unfortunately, my wife started to hit what is generally considered the toughest and most painful part of labor, which is the beginning of second stage (called "transition"), just as we got to the hospital. For those who are not familiar: first stage of labor is the longest but also the easiest. She has contractions, but they are not consistent and generally not as intense as they later will be. This is essentially the body getting ready for the real action. Transition lets you know that the body is now ready to get this done, as the contractions get both more intense and more frequent, sometimes coming right on top of each other without a break. For those going the natural route, this is the most common point where people throw up the white flag and beg to be drugged. As a birth coach, this is where I have to be both most encouraging and firm, get her through transition, because the finish line is in sight. And to be blunt, it is too late anyway. If you wanted the painkillers and the drugs, for them to be really effective, you had to get them before transition. There is a point of no return here. After transition, there is the pushing and baby comes out.

ABOVE: At this point, I feel obligated to post a pregnancy diagram. Notice that the baby's hair is helpfully noted. It is on top of its head.

Once I got her situated in the delivery room, I had to run out to the car and get our stuff for labor and our hospital stay. You might think this is a minor part of the story. It is not. My wife never packs lightly. On top of the three suitcases and various bags of food and supplies to survive any sort of apocalypse that might occur while we are at the hospital, we have this massive birthing ball. It is basically one of those big exercise balls, but they are commonly used to sit on during contractions. In the parking garage, I had all of this stuff delicately and precariously balanced and holding it all with superhuman strength, all the while wondering whether my child was already born by this point. Anyway, the birthing ball fell off the stack of suitcases and bounced down the levels of the parking garage. I left the suitcases and chased down a large ball about half of my size bouncing and echoing through this garage at about 2:30 in the morning. Then I made a decision not to tell my wife that the ball she wanted to sit on and labor with had just rolled down several levels of a dirty, grimy concrete parking garage. (She, of course, never used the ball that I worked so hard to bring up).

I returned to the room after my parking garage adventures to find that I baby was still inside my wife. That was a relief. My wife is a bad ass. We are getting set up in the delivery room, finishing up paperwork, and getting the IV put in just as my wife is getting close to the toughest part of labor. All three nurses that we dealt with were great, especially one rather large and gregarious one. She was both very nurturing and sometimes sassy and firm when necessary, the perfect balance. You know that New Orleans lady in the Popeye's Fried Chicken commercials? Kind of like her. Anyway, she was great. (I am glad that I ran into her later in the day in the elevator in the hospital, because I was able to give her a sincere thanks, and even though she did not have a lot of experience with natural birth, she was so accomodating and willing to work with us as far as the hospital regulations would allow. The ultimate complement was that she said she would consider doing it that way herself).

Here is where the wife is so kick ass. She is going through what is the toughest part of labor, where in a natural birth especially you need complete focus and concentration. While she's going through this, the nurses are having some trouble getting the IV line in, mostly due to dehydration. Even though my wife was drinking a swimming pool's worth of water, dehydration is still a common problem. The fourth time was the charm, but it took awhile with some painful and distracting poking. Also, the nurses were not exactly quiet, often chatting it up when quiet and dark were needed for the best laboring. The doctor was almost a nonentity. He wasn't unfriendly, but he probably spoke five sentences the entire time he was there and pretty much let us do our thing and caught the baby when she popped out. My wife's normal doctor was on vacation, so we had to play doctor roulette and we got this guy.

They say that the second baby comes quicker than the first one. At least as far as the pushing stage and transition, that was true. The wife probably pushed for 45 minutes to an hour the first time, this time it was 16 minutes. That is still one of the more memorable moments, when that head comes out. It is the largest part that has to fit through the hole, and both times my wife let out a primal wail that was part pain, part determination, part excitement...right when that head has to squeeze through. Once the head is out, the rest comes out really quickly. I got to cut the cord, and the nurses got her lungs working and made sure she was alright, and then gave her to us. Here is where they were really cool, they let us keep her for about an hour before taking her back to the nursery. They normally don't do that, but again respecting our wishes they were very accomodating.

Once they did take her back to the nursery for further evaluation and a bath, I went back with her and my wife went to our room we would stay the next 24 hours. Most women after giving birth are wheeled into their rooms, but my wife got up and walked, even carrying one of her suitcases. This is right after giving birth. Our nurse was quite impressed, and I guess that is another benefit of going drug-free. You bounce back pretty quickly.

I've got to say, my favorite part of this whole experience was the next day when three year old DDI got to meet hours old DDII. Over the previous months we had been very careful to talk to her about baby sister and to make her feel like she will help take care of her. This was mainly to avoid the jealousy issues that you always hear about. The excitement on DDI's face on first seeing DDII, up until this point an abstract thing in the future, is hard to describe. She immediately ran over and stared, touched her little head, checked out her fingers and toes. Then she said some really funny things that I have no idea where they came from. My favorite was what became a little mantra for awhile: "don't worry baby sister, I'll fix all your problems." If only it were that easy. Through the next 40 years or so, I hope that I can help both of them fix whatever problems come their way.

ABOVE: DDI meets DDII. "Don't worry baby sister, I'll fix all your problems."

Thanks for reading, and I am sure I will post in the near future of the travails of raising two lovely but challenging daughters. I also have some thoughts on the rather substantial education reform (or, reform of reform) that just passed in Texas. But don't worry ANCIANT, now that this is out of the way, we can get back to the important matter of Van Morrison's latterday discography.

Monday, June 10, 2013

It Is Coming, I Promise

I wanted to get the whole birth story up ASAP, but I also want to give the drafting its proper care, and so far I have been writing it in about 27 second increments. That is the amount of time I have before needing to take care of something baby-related or otherwise each time. But it is coming along and will be up soon, I promise.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Dez Record Guides: Van Morrison, Part 1 (1967-1980)

As with the Rolling Stones Guide, I will need to break Van the Man up into two posts due to the length of his discography. This Record Guide will probably be actually helpful to many readers. Van Morrison is one of those artists whom almost everyone at least admires. But his discography is immense, and at least up through the mid-1990’s, every record contains at least a couple of great songs. He stands as one of the more uncompromising artists, one who stubbornly follows his vision. 1967-74 is nearly unassailable, some of the most exciting popular music ever produced. After that you can be more selective. But Van always follows his muse, mixing his deep love for R&B, folk music and his Celtic roots, and delivering it through that God given gift of a voice. He is a spiritual explorer through his music.

While not addressed in this Guide, I would also recommend looking into his early band out of Northern Ireland, Them. I haven’t found a satisfactory concise one disc overview, so I’d recommend the exhaustive two disc collection The Story of Them Featuring Van Morrison (compilation) (1997) ****. Van was a wild rock and roller with Them, a force of nature as an aggressive singer. A handful of their tracks are brilliant, such as Van’s garage classic “Gloria” and some of their transformative covers, like “Baby Please Don’t Go” and Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” His early days make his turn as a vocalist of subtlety and expression all the more surprising. I remember a typically strident interview he gave to Rolling Stone at some point in the 80’s, and he claimed that he had not sung rock and roll since the mid-1960’s. Seemed dismissive and egotistical at the time (and it was), but he was also largely correct. What he does is something else entirely. I apologize ahead of time for the length. As much as I try to make these guides concise but substantive, Van requires some explanation.

Blowin’ Your Mind! (1967) ***
The Bang Masters (compilation) (1991/1967) ***
Payin’ Dues (compilation) (1994/1967) ***

Van’s debut as a solo artist was also the record that he had the least artistic control over. In fact, he has largely disavowed it, which is a shame, because there are some good things there (terrible 60’s-era title imposed by record label aside). It does contain the wedding reception perennial “Brown Eyed Girl,” but mostly it is full of spirited (if a bit tamer than his Them days) R&B/folk tunes. The real gem here, though, is the harrowing, guilt-ridden epic, “T.B. Sheets.” That track points the way ahead for Van as an uncompromising artist with his own vision. If you want a fuller picture of these sessions, the Bang Masters collection does the trick. Payin’ Dues is fun, it is the Bang Masters disc, and then the second disc is full of dozens of 90 second (on average) acoustic throwaways. He was so irritated with his record label, that he fulfilled his contractual obligations by delivering a batch of completely unusable songs, by either redoing what is essentially the same song over and over again – “Twist and Shake,” “Shake and Roll,” “Stomp and Scream,” “Scream and Holler,” “Jump and Thump”…you get the idea. Or giving the finger to the label – “The Big Royalty Check,” “Ring Worm,” “You Say France and I Whistle,” “Blow in Your Nose,” “Nose in Your Blow”…those last two cheeky references to the title of his debut that was forced upon him. It is one of the funniest vitriolic tantrums against a record label you will ever hear.

Astral Weeks (1968) *****
Hyperbolic claims to the contrary, very rarely does an album do something that makes it wholly unique in the world of popular music. But AW is wholly unique in the world of popular music. After being at the mercy of the record company suits, Van swore to take total control. He disappeared for awhile and then re-emerged with a baffling song cycle full of intricate character studies and stream of consciousness observations. Grounded by his acoustic guitar, he put together a group of deft jazz musicians (most notably Connie Kay of Modern Jazz Quartet) and recorded this one of kind record. I have no clue what Van is really singing about, but I know that it is beautiful.

Moondance (1970) *****
AW could not be replicated, so Van wisely decided to not even try. Instead, he put together a record as joyous as AW was mysterious. Moondance is where Van’s competing artistic vision and commercial ambitions most seamlessly come together. In its own way, it is as impressive as AW, and much more accessible. AW and Moondance make for a remarkable one-two punch.

His Band and the Street Choir (1970) ****
This sounds like Jackie Wilson singing around the campfire at the beach. Van has never sounded so loose, mixing his love for R&B with an acoustic Gypsy vibe, he delivers a set of 12 tight, concise songs. “I’ve Been Working” is Van at his funkiest, and “I’ll Be Your Lover, Too” is Van at his most starkly romantic.

Tupelo Honey (1971) ***
Much admired by many, I’ve just never been able to get into this record of rustic domestic bliss. “Wild Night” is great, as is “Like a Cannonball.” The title track, of course, is one of the most beautiful songs ever released, it sounds like a church hymn to romantic love. But beyond those three, it doesn’t do much for me. I do see why other people really like it, though.

St. Dominic’s Preview (1972) *****
You’ve got your requisite R&B jubilance, then some catchy Celtic folk, and two extended stream of conscious epics that go deep into the mystic a la Astral Weeks, more accessible but no less captivating (“Listen To the Lion” and “Almost Independence Day.”) All of these songs are top shelf Van, and this is where to head after AW and Moondance, as it is quite eclectic and represents several sides of Van from his most vital period.

Hard Nose the Highway (1973) ***
Quite ambitious (including working with orchestras and choirs), but Van makes some missteps here that he otherwise avoids during this golden era.

It’s Too Late To Stop Now (live) (1974) *****
Van is always hit and miss live. He is either a mesmerizing and adventurous performer or he can be ornery and there only for the paycheck. For this set of shows, he is the former. The setlist dips into his recent catalogue, some Them barnstormers, and a generous set of R&B covers where Van dares to make venerable tunes by Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson all his own. The closing “Cyprus Avenue” is worth the price of admission alone, the way he works with and off the audience (“turn it up!” “it’s turned up already.”) A must for any Van fan.

Veedon Fleece (1974) ****
Some consider this a follow-up to Astral Weeks, and it is sort of that, at least in terms of similarities in sound, instrumentation and stream of consciousness lyrics. Van’s marriage had abruptly ended, and he retreated from California back to Northern Ireland to write this set of intimate songs. A moody record that closes out his most essential period.

A Period of Transition (1977) **
Wavelength (1978) ***
Into the Music (1979) ****
Common One (1980) ***

Van took an unprecedented (for him) three year break after Veedon Fleece, and tentatively came back with the appropriately titled A Period of Transition, a loose and funky outing that is quite minor. He gets more solid footing with Wavelength, which is his most straightforward rock record. The title track is killer. Into the Music is one of his few latterday almost classics. He is more open about his spiritual quest than ever before, and songs like “Bright Side of the Road” and “Full Force Gale” are truly joyous. As a friend of mine commented awhile back, ITM makes him wish that he was religious. I find Common One to be impenetrable.

The rest coming soon in Part II…

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dez Predicts the NBA Finals

This should be a fantastic NBA Finals. At the beginning of the playoffs I would not have said that, even if you told me it would be the Miami Heatles vs. the San Antonio Spurs. I have said all year that the Miami All-Stars would run away with the title. Now, I'm not so sure. The Heat have looked surprisingly vulnerable, last night's pulverization of the Pacers aside.

And The Spurs have to be the feel good story of the season. Conventional wisdom (including here in San Antonio, by the way) was that their time had passed. But they have been nearly unstoppable in these playoffs so far, losing only two games on their way to the Finals. Tony Parker is playing as good as he has ever played, Tim Duncan looks about five years younger (which is ten years in basketball years) and has played like a man possessed in pursuit of his 5th ring. This team is as deep as any of their other championship teams. Crucially, they have also had about ten days off waiting for the results of the Eastern Conference Finals. I know there is the issue of rust vs. rest, but for The Spurs rest is most important. They should be good to go. I also think Gregg Popovich is the savviest coach in the NBA.

These two teams haven't really played against eachother all year. When the Spurs went to Miami, Pop sat Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Leonard (no, he actually put them on a plane and flew them home ahead of time), The Spurs bench still almost beat Miami's starters in a very close game, and Popovich got fined. In return, when Miami came to SA, the Heat cheekily held Wade and Lebron out, Miami beat The Spurs in a very close game. Point is, these teams have not faced eachother full strength.

ABOVE: Lebron James has proven to be the best player in the NBA. On the planet. In the universe. He could go to Krypton and take on Superman one on one.

Yes, The Heat have the best player on the planet in Lebron. But Wade and Bosh are not 100% and last night aside, they have not been strong these playoffs. The Spurs have the advantage in the middle (The Heat's weakness, as The Pacers exposed). The Spurs have arguably the best point guard in the league in Parker (at least how he has played in the playoffs, and how he played in the first third of the season prior to an injury). The Spurs also have the depth advantage and coaching advantage. But then there still is Lebron.

ABOVE: One more time?

I think this thing could easily go seven and it is a toss-up, and I still hate The Heat. I like the slogan I saw on signs in Indiana, "built, not bought." The Spurs have also been carefully constructed to be one of the most successful sports franchises in history (look at winning percentage and playoff success over the last 15 years). Every time I might soften my stance on Miami, I then remember their championship celebration before Lebron, Wade and Bosh had even played a game together. The smoke, the rising platforms, the dancing. Lebron smugly guaranteeing five to six championships. Therefore, since it really is a toss-up, I guess I'll be a homer...

Dez Says: San Antonio in seven.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

D-Day and Cave Man Style Birthing

D-Day has come and gone. The birth of my second daughter was supposed to happen yesterday. But she is still cooking in the oven. Actually, if allowed to progress naturally, I think only something like 5% of babies are born on the due date. My first daughter came on her due date, though, so I guess we assumed this one would as well. We've been scrambling for months to prepare for this day, and we are now awkwardly waiting around for those contractions to kick in with some regularity.

My wife is bad ass. Like with the first one, she wants to have a natural childbirth. No drugs, no interventions, just allowing nature to take its course and go with it. We are not such hardcore natural birthers that we are doing it at home with a midwife. We will still go to the hospital and have a real doctor deliver the child. Our doctor is cool and she has an understanding and appreciation for natural childbirth. I never thought I'd be one of these people, but after reading several books on natural childbirth and attending, for the second time, a series of Bradley Method classes, I feel strongly that it is the way to go. As Dr. Bradley states in his book (more eloquently than I am paraphrasing), modern medicine tends to treat pregnancy as a condition and illness to be treated vs. a natural process that every animal species goes through. Look at how other mammals go through birth. Cat and dog mothers are not screaming in hysterics when they deliver, they have instinctive breathing techniques and generally deliver their young with a quiet determination. Humans have lost many of their instincts for this (and other) such matters, so we can read books and take classes to reconnect and relearn what other animals know naturally and instinctively.

The ridiculous C-Section rate in this country (higher here than in other civilized countries), the many unnecessary is an interesting topic of study. C-Sections are indeed necessary occasionally, as are other interventions if the health of the mother or child are at risk. But otherwise? Many of these things are done for convenience or the misguided perception that they make the process easier. Talk to mothers who go the modern route of epidural and various other procedures designed to make childbirth "easier" vs. someone who successfully does it naturally. I think you will find, anecdotally at least, that the epidural mother found it still to be painful and unpleasant. Talk to Bradley mothers (or followers of other natural methods), and you will find women who felt empowered, found the experience rewarding, and wouldn't even call it "painful," more like hard work. It is called "labor" afterall.

Also, it is a wonderful experience for the husband/coach. We are trained in this process as well, and play a vital and very active role throughout labor and delivery. It is rewarding for the husband, the wife, the child...a team effort. Look at babies the instant they come out and compare. The baby delivered naturally, assuming all is normal, is alert and immediately eager to interact with the world. The baby that comes out of a mother who has been doped up is, surprise, a bit more lethargic and less responsive immediately. The moment he/she enters the world, should a child be doped up on various medications? It is scientific fact that what goes into the mother goes to the child as well. Again, there are many cases where it is medically necessary to intervene in various ways, but in most cases it is not. As Dr. Bradley says, the doctor is important and has his place in case there are complications. But in the ideal scenario, the doctor should have very little to do in a normal birth. Monitor the progress and be there to catch the baby when it comes out and then make sure it is healthy once it does come out. That's it. Bradley talks about how in the ideal situation where a mother is trained and knows what to do and has a dedicated birth coach/partner, the doctor is primarily an observer on the sidelines.

I just think that many of these birth decisions are made for the wrong reasons, and many mothers have a misconception of the real alternatives. Look, I don't want to come across too preachy on this. I probably have. I know there are different viewpoints on childbirth, and I know that the vast majority of people in this country do not birth naturally and have wonderful and healthy children. So I'm not saying this is the only way to do it, and I'm not trying to judge people who do it differently than we did and than we hope to do again. And believe me, if anything goes wrong this time around, I will be the first one to jump aside and tell the doctor to use her expertise and all of modern medical science to do whatever is necessary. But this is interesting. In our Bradley class, one of the expectant mothers is also a nurse who helps deliver babies at one of our big hospitals in town. She is very familiar with all of the interventions and how it is somewhat policy at the hospital to encourage their use. Yet, personally and for her own child, she wants to do it this way instead.